Highlights from the Week's News

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Why Curly-Haired People Are Cooler

June 11, 2023

Ukrainian Official Calls Dam Destruction “Ecocide”

On Tuesday, June 6, a major hydroelectric dam on the Dnipro River in Ukraine was blown up, which will likely have devastating impacts not only on thousands of people and agriculture but also on ecosystems. While it remains unclear who bombed the 68-year-old Kakhovka dam, the flooding from the reservoir behind it threatened drinking water, irrigation, and hydropower.  According to Reuters, hundreds of people had to be rescued from rooftops two days after the dam breach. It was reported that 13 people were killed and 30 were missing, as of June 11.

Kherson the next day after the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam on 6 June 2023  | Credit: Дмитро Завтонов / АрміяInform

The flood waters are contaminated with sewage waste and dead animals, which can cause waterborne diseases including cholera, diarrhea, and others, according to the UN’s relief agency. The UN’s chief aid official, Martin Griffiths, told the Associated Press that 700,000 people were in need of drinking water, and the flooding of one of the world’s most important breadbaskets will inevitably lead to lower grain exports, higher global food prices, and less for millions in need.

About 150 tons of oil products from the dam’s power plant were released and could go all the way to the Black Sea, threatening soils, vegetation, and wildlife. The Ukrainian environment minister, Ruslan Strilets, told Deutsche Welle that it was a “real ecocide” and a humanitarian catastrophe, adding that about one million people will not have freshwater. Ukrainian officials are investigating the incident as a war crime and as possible “ecocide,” or criminal environmental destruction.

The Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group, an environmental NGO, said on its website that it will take a minimum of seven to ten years to restore fish stocks along the Dnipro River and the reservoir, which was habitat for more than 40 species. They also listed other possible ecosystem damage. In addition, national parks were flooded, likely causing irreparable harm to flora and fauna. The journal Nature reports that nine sites in a European-wide conservation area called the Emerald Network and also five important wetlands were flooded.  

The river is a front line of the conflict, and another threat is from mines that have been planted along the waterway and might have been swept away to other locations. It may take weeks or even years to know the full consequences from the destruction of the dam.

El Niño Has Returned and Could Heat Up the Planet

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center announced last week that El Niño is present and is likely to grow, affecting weather around the world and increasing the average global temperature. El Niño conditions bring unusually warm temperatures to the sea surface in the tropical areas of the central and eastern Pacific Ocean. And this year has scientists worried because excess warming from climate change along with El Niño could result in record heat.

Satellite sea surface temperature departure in the Pacific Ocean for the month of October 2015, where darker orange-red colors are above normal temperatures and are indicative of El Niño. | Credit: NOAA

Reuters reports that even before the conditions started, in May, the average global sea temperature on the surface was 0.1C higher than any on record, which could supercharge extreme weather.  In May, the water under the surface of those Pacific regions was the fourth warmest since 1979, portending a strong El Niño as happened when similar high temperatures occurred in 1997 and 2015.

In the U.S. during El Niño years, it’s wetter than average from Southern California to along the Gulf Coast. However, it usually brings drier weather to the Pacific Northwest and a potentially warmer winter across northern states. El Niño is usually associated with flooding in the Philippines and Indonesia, droughts in Australia, and more hurricane activity in the Atlantic Ocean.

Sea Cucumbers Could Help Avert Type 2 Diabetes

Sea cucumbers (Holothuria scabra) are worm-like creatures that live on the ocean floor and are in the same family as starfish and sea urchins. They range in size from less than an inch to several feet long—and as their name suggests—have a body shape that resembles a cucumber.

Sea cucumber (Holothuria sp.)  | Credit: Philippe Bourjon

While you wouldn’t want to pop a sea cucumber into your salad, according to an exciting new study led by the University of South Australia in collaboration with Fiji National University and the University of the Sunshine Coast, eating sea cucumbers can help stave off type 2 diabetes. Researchers found that by drying sea cucumbers and processing them with salt extracts, the resulting powder inhibited the formation of compounds called advanced glycation end products or AGEs, which form in the body when proteins and/or fats combine with sugars in the bloodstream.

Elevated AGEs can increase diabetic complications and have been linked to heart disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, kidney disease, and cancer. The finding is promising because currently there are no therapeutics to prevent AGEs from forming in the body.

Sea cucumbers were already known to have a range of health benefits, including anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, and have been employed in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries.  And while they are good for our health, they are vital for the well-being of marine ecosystems, where they recycle organic matter on the seafloor and have been found to protect coral reefs.

The study was published in the journal Institute of Food Science and Technology.

Curly Hair Helped Early Humans Survive in Hot Climates

El Niño is officially here, and we can expect hotter temperatures. But there’s some good news if you’ve got curly locks. According to a new study, you’ll be able to take the heat better than those of us with straight hair.

A graphic showing how scientists used a thermal manikin and human hair wigs to measure heat transfer from the scalp.  |  Credit: Melisa Morales Garcia

Researchers at Penn State wanted to understand the role hair texture played in regulating body temperature in early humans who lived in hot equatorial Africa, where the sun was overhead for much of the day, especially as our ancestors began walking upright and their scalps took the brunt of solar rays.

In their study, the team exposed thermal manikins (human-shaped models that allow scientists to study heat transfer between human skin and the environment) with four different hair types—bald, straight hair, moderately curly hair, or tightly curled hair—to heat lamps. They found that all hair reduced solar radiation to the scalp, but tightly curled hair provided the best heat protection while minimizing the need to sweat to stay cool, which would help conserve water and avoid dehydration.

The researchers believe tightly curled hair offers more protection because it doesn’t lie flat and provides more distance between the top of the hair and the scalp. But even more fascinating, they say that tight curls also allowed early human brains to grow to sizes comparable to ours. That’s because the larger the brain, the more heat it generates, which, if excessive, risks dangerous conditions like stroke. The authors say as humans evolved and became smarter; scalp hair likely got curlier to keep those bigger heads cool.

The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.