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How Whales Might Help Us Communicate with Extraterrestrials

January 07, 2024

What Is a Snow Drought? You Might Have Experienced One

On Sunday, January 7, it snowed in the Northeast, a welcome sight, given the region has gone several years without significant accumulation. According to Fast Company, it’s been almost 700 days since there was more than an inch of snow in New York City’s Central Park, with similar deficits occurring in Philadelphia and Washington, DC.  Following a warmer-than-usual December, New Hampshire ski resorts and businesses that rely on snow had a rough holiday week.

Snow drought has an effect on wildlife such as the lynx, which need deep fluffy snow to have a competitive advantage over other predators that cannot move as well.  |  Credit: Keith Williams/Creative Commons

It’s not just the East, however.  A "snow drought" is affecting the entire U.S., as the planet warms and precipitation patterns change.  According to Earthtalk magazine, snow droughts occur when there is below normal snow accumulation. They can be caused by cold air that holds less moisture or by warmer conditions where precipitation falls as rain rather than snow.

Snow droughts have consequences. Plant roots are unprotected from cold air by the usual insulation snow provides. Wildlife including lynx (Lynx) and hares (Lepus), which have evolved to live in snowy conditions, have difficulty finding food or shelter.  The lack of snow also leads to warmer surface temperatures because light is not reflected back into space.

On the West Coast, mountain ranges have recorded less than half their normal snowpack for this point of winter, which hit ski resorts hard during the recent holidays. At this time last year, parts of California had almost five feet of snow, but now the same places have only 7.5 inches. Across the state, the water content of the snow is just one-quarter of the annual average for the date.

In Colorado and much of the West, the Natural Resources Conservation Service snowpack map shows all river basins below average. At this time last year, snowfall set high records.

In the Midwest, the temperature in Duluth, Minnesota reached 48 degrees on Christmas Eve, and precipitation fell as rain rather than snow.  The city got less than 25 percent of its average snowfall in December. In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a dog race held every year was canceled because some trails had less than an inch of snow.

The current snow drought could change for the better later in the winter.  According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, a recovery could happen early in the season but is less likely as winter advances. The warmer weather and lack of snow prompted Jessica Hellmann, of the University of Minnesota to tell the New York Times that for people accustomed to living in a particular climate it’s a visceral feeling of what climate change looks and feels like.

The latest seasonal predictions from the federal government show temperatures in most of the northern U.S. to be above normal. Precipitation could be higher than normal in the Southwest and Southeast with pockets of below-normal amounts in the North.

A New Industrial Revolution Is On and It Has a Map

The oceans are being fished, used for shipping, and developed for energy on an increasing scale, which researchers are calling a new “industrial revolution.”  The immense size of the seas has made tracking those activities on a broad scale impractical until now, writes Jennifer Raynor of the University of Wisconsin, in The Conversation.

Yu Feng, a Taiwanese-flagged fishing vessel suspected of illegal fishing activity, moves through the water before being boarded by crewmembers from the U.S. Coast Guard and representatives from Sierra Leone's Armed Forces.  |  Credit: U.S. Coast Guard photo by Public Affairs Specialist 2nd Class Shawn Eggert

Unlike detailed maps of development on land, growth in the ocean has been mostly hidden. Now, a study published by Raynor and her colleagues last week, shows the breadth and intensity of human activity at sea. The new research maps offshore structures like wind turbines which now outnumber oil rigs. It also shows industrial fishing vessels, some of which are illegal and invading marine protected areas like the Great Barrier Reef and the Galapagos Islands. The scientists found that about 75 percent of fishing ships were not monitored. Many of these so-called “dark” vessels operate around Africa and South Asia.

The research, led by Global Fishing Watch, used artificial intelligence and satellite images to show large vessel traffic and will be able to track ships that are not required to publicly show their positions or routes.  The map will also help to estimate ocean-based greenhouse gas emissions and track damage from oil pollution. The freely available maps show that during a recent five-year period, offshore oil energy increased 16 percent and wind turbines doubled.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

El Niño Has a Sweet Tooth

The weather pattern El Niño has a sweet tooth. It “eats or takes away much of the sugar in the world.” That’s what Carlos Mera, head of agri commodities market research at the Netherlands-based Rabobank, told CNBC, because El Niño is causing drier conditions in major sugar-exporting countries like Thailand, India, and Brazil, which is leading to higher prices.

Harvesting sugarcane without burning the plant residue provides nutrients for the next crop and prevents the release of greenhouse gases  |  Credit: Jonathan Wilkins/Creative Commons

The cost of sugar globally has surged to its highest level since 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The agency says prices could increase by nearly 5.6 percent in 2024. While desserts might get more costly, it’s not just because of El Niño. Extreme heat, floods, and droughts caused by climate change are affecting crops from coffee to olive oil and causing many food prices to rise—something referred to as “climateflation.”

While shortages can mean steeper tabs at the grocery store, sugar also has a high environmental cost. Sugarcane is a water-intensive plant—plus it can affect biodiversity when land is cleared to grow the lucrative crop. In addition, sugarcane adds greenhouse gases to the atmosphere when the plant’s residues are burned, creating a feedback loop where it gets harder to grow because of warmer, drier conditions it helped to create.

How Whales Could Help Us Talk to Extraterrestrials

UFOs are in the news, or UAPs—unidentified anomalous phenomena—as they are now called. According to the news site Axios, members of the House Oversight Committee will receive a classified briefing this week on what the government knows about visitors from outer space.


Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)  |  Credit: Sylke Rohrlach/Creative Commons

If aliens do drop by, how would we be able to communicate with them? For  researchers at the SETI Institute, which searches for extraterrestrial intelligence, the solution might come from whales. The scientists recently had a 20-minute conversation with a humpback named Twain, and they think the chat could help researchers decipher messages from other life forms in the universe.

The Whale-SETI (Whale Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) research team, which includes scientists from the University of California, Davis, and the Alaska Whale Foundation, placed underwater speakers off the coast of Alaska and played a "whup" or "throp" recorded sound, which is hello in humpback language. To their astonishment, Twain approached, circled their boat, and responded with a whup of her own.

The interaction was not a random coincidence. During the exchange, Twain answered each call the researchers played and matched the intervals between signals. If, for example, the team waited 30 seconds to play a sound, Twain took her cue and waited 30 seconds to reply. Lead author Dr. Brenda McCowan of the University of California, Davis, said the communication was the first known exchange between humans and humpback whales in the humpback language.

While whales are known to sing to find a mate, research has shown they also make vocalizations for social reasons, such as to locate each other in the sea. By studying these types of non-human communications, the scientists hope to develop filters to analyze any extraterrestrial signals we might receive. The premise being that A) non-human life forms are intelligent and B) that they’re interested in chatting with us. If aliens ever do reach out to humans, we want to be ready to communicate—or face the risk that never the twain shall meet.

The study was published in the journal PeerJ.