Climate Point: Space hurricanes, deadly flea collars and potential life on Mars

Mark Olalde, USA TODAY
·10 min read

Welcome to Climate Point, your weekly guide to climate, energy and environment news from around the Golden State and the country. In Palm Springs, Calif., I’m Mark Olalde.

This is an exciting edition, complete with more details on Mars, straight from NASA. To get you warmed up, here's a space appetizer, courtesy of Doyle Rice over at USA Today. For the first time, scientists observed a "space hurricane." Rotating above the North Pole, this phenomenon occurred in 2014 but was just analyzed recently. The event saw a "roughly 600-mile-wide swirling mass of plasma" dropping electrons instead of water.

Here's some other important reporting....

An illustration of the space hurricane which was spotted over the North Pole in 2014.
An illustration of the space hurricane which was spotted over the North Pole in 2014.

Mission to Mars

I'll stop writing about Mars when it stop fascinating me — in other words, not this week. As you likely know by now, NASA's Perseverance rover successfully landed on the red planet in February. The rover's multi-year journey to study the planet has now begun, so I called up Katie Stack Morgan, a research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and deputy project scientist on the Mars mission, to learn more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Climate Point: Let's talk touchdown. What was it like watching that from NASA's point of view, and what does this accomplishment mean?

Katie Stack Morgan: It was terrifying for me. (laughs) I think I experienced during the cruise phase of the mission being lulled into submission knowing that Perseverance was happily on its way to Mars and doing just fine. … As soon as Perseverance touched down, I just had this huge release of emotion that honestly I didn’t even know was in me. Part of that was what’s at stake here — not just for this mission and what this mission hopes to accomplish — but as Perseverance is the first mission in a Mars sample return campaign to bring Mars samples back to Earth. All of the follow-on missions and all of the follow-on planning really stands on the shoulders of the Perseverance rover mission. That really is, at the moment, the future of Mars exploration.

CP: Ok, we've landed. What's next?

KSM: Now, our job really starts. For us, the scientists and engineers who operate the mission, this is really the beginning. We have samples to collect to feed into that Mars sample return effort, and we have geology to untangle on the surface of Mars. … We hope that will be at least the duration of the prime mission, which is one Mars year or two Earth years. But, based on previous experiences, the rover could last much longer. We had seven minutes of terror, and now we have what could be seven years, if not more, ahead of us.

CP: Long-term, what are the goals of this mission, and is there anything that particularly excites you that we might find?

KSM: There are four stated goals of the mission: to characterize the geology of the landing site and understand the habitability of the rocks the rover encounters, to seek signs of ancient life to answer some fundamental questions we have about Mars and the solar system and the potential for life beyond Earth. I mentioned the sample collection … and then we prepare for future human exploration. The aspects of this mission that excite me most are the search for signs of ancient life and the role that this mission plays in Mars sample return because so many fundamental questions we have about Mars, planetary science and life in the solar system may be answered with these samples.

CP: This is perhaps for my own curiosity — apologies for the rover pun — but what’s actually the plan to return those samples?

KSM: There’s an architecture that’s being designed with international partnerships, and it’s a multi-mission architecture. … Mars 2020 is the first step, and the mission of this rover is to collect those samples and store them in ultra-clean tubes. … The follow-on mission includes a lander as well as a fetch rover, a small rover that would be capable of picking up the samples that Perseverance has collected and bringing them back to the sample retriever lander. Part of that lander is a Mars ascent vehicle, which would take those samples into Mars orbit, which would rendezvous with a Mars orbiter that would then bring them back to Earth.

CP: With how much taxpayer money we spend on bombs and oil subsidies every year, I'm not too worried about spending money on science. But, judging by my inbox, not everyone agrees. So, what can we learn through Mars exploration that relates back to life on Earth?

KSM: The interesting thing about Earth is we have plate tectonics, which is the set of processes that plays into Earth’s habitability. But plate tectonics is also not so great at preserving ancient rocks. We are constantly recycling our ancient rock record here at our own planet. We have a pretty limited rock record of the time in our solar system’s history when life was emerging. … What’s exciting about Mars is that Mars doesn’t have plate tectonics and perhaps never did, so the rock record of early system time is pristinely preserved. … We have a chance to study solar system history when life emerged in the solar system. Everything we know about ancient Mars tells us that life could’ve emerged on Mars as well. …

Studying other planets, especially one like Mars that went from what we understand to be a habitable, perhaps even Earth-like planet, to one that is clearly not hospitable today, it’s a perfect natural laboratory for planetary evolution. … That’s very much a relevant concern for our planet as we see our planet evolve in real time.

CP: Last thing, and not to get too philosophical, but I think this rover's gotten so much attention because it's still seen as a product of research and science — something innocent. But we've got things like Space Force and former President Donald Trump wanting to mine the moon. How do we continue steering space exploration toward a positive place of learning, not of future conflicts over resources, for example?

KSM: One advantage that planetary science has is that it has support from both sides of the aisle. At the same time, we in the planetary science community and science in general can’t ignore science because it’s true that different administrations support scientific exploration to varying degrees and place different emphasis and priority on it. …

I do struggle a bit with this because we have seen on our own planet that we are not always the model citizens we want to be, and yet here we are trying to push beyond the boundaries of our planet. It’s important that we are and become good citizens of the solar system. Sometimes, that’s a hard thing and goes against some of the things that are not so great about our species like the desire to claim and conquer. Those are some things that we have to keep in check as we push the boundaries of exploring beyond our planet. ...

There's also something that's very relevant for missions like Perseverance — the planetary protection aspect. What would happen if we did encounter signs of life? Perseverance is looking for ancient life, but there's always the question of extant life and the moral and ethic implications of us discovering and potentially influencing life on other planets.

MUST-READ STORIES

Rhonda Bomwell of Somerset holds a photograph as she talks about her 9-year-old Papillon, Pierre, who died June 1 due to side effects from wearing a popular flea and tick collar for pets, at Colonial Park in Somerset, N.J., on Monday, March 1, 2021.
Rhonda Bomwell of Somerset holds a photograph as she talks about her 9-year-old Papillon, Pierre, who died June 1 due to side effects from wearing a popular flea and tick collar for pets, at Colonial Park in Somerset, N.J., on Monday, March 1, 2021.

Warning label. Back on Earth, in a new investigation that will surely hit close to home for many, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and USA Today write that your pet's flea collar may be deadly. "Seresto, one of the most popular flea and tick collars in the country, has been linked to hundreds of pet deaths, tens of thousands of injured animals and hundreds of harmed humans, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency documents show," Johnathan Hettinger writes. Developed by Bayer and sold by Elanco, the produce releases small quantities of pesticides directly onto animals. EPA maintains that the flea collar is safe enough to use, and Elanco pointed to the fact that many countries had approved it.

Inhospitable state. The water crisis in Jackson, the largest city in Mississippi, has now stretched into its third week, the Clarion Ledger reports. Water was slowly being restored to large swathes of the city, as of mid-week, but a citywide boil notice remained in effect. After winter storms hit on Feb. 14, at least 80 water mains broke, helping trigger the disaster.

Flight of the condors. Back on the West Coast, the Los Angeles Times published a story on an idea that has both my interest as well as my skepticism. Louis Sahagun reports that "federal wildlife authorities are taking the unprecedented and controversial step of helping a wind energy company breed (California condors) in captivity, so that they can replace any birds that are killed by the massive wind converters." Large developments often come with some sort of offset where habitat is protected elsewhere to make up for damage done on-location. Actually breeding animals, however, is a potentially new direction.

A California condor flies through the air at Vermilion Cliffs National Monument on Sept. 22, 2018.
A California condor flies through the air at Vermilion Cliffs National Monument on Sept. 22, 2018.

POLITICAL CLIMATE

California legislatin'. With roughly 40 million residents and one of the world's largest economies, California has the ability to set policy with national implications. In 2020, a chaotic legislative session reshaped by COVID-19 and wildfires saw some large environmental bills take a backseat. Legislators are looking to change that this time around. After a recent bill filing deadline, I'm out with a new story for The Desert Sun wrapping up some of the year's most important pieces of proposed legislation, taking on everything from cleaning up orphaned oil wells to creating a Golden State lithium industry.

The silence is deafening. Over in the Hoosier State, The Indianapolis Star reports that the House Environmental Affairs Committee hasn't met once this session, even though it was assigned 13 bills. Issues the Legislature has chosen to ignore include whether preschool and daycare facilities should test for lead in water, if toxic coal ash that pollutes groundwater should be addressed, and how to limit carcinogenic chemicals in drinking water. The politician in charge of the committee, Republican Rep. Doug Gutwein, told the newspaper that they didn't meet because "we’ve been more deliberate about hearing only legislation that is critically important to pass this year." What appears to be more important than safe drinking water is preemptively outlawing bans on the use of natural gas in homes.

Gambling on gas. Sticking with the fight to decarbonize buildings, let's turn to a collaboration from the San Antonio Report, the Texas Observer and a new publication called Floodlight. They report that the city of Austin was planning to shift away from fossil fuels, including by eliminating gas from use in new buildings by 2030 and existing buildings by 2040. When a local gas company got wind of the plan, it drafted line-by-line edits, eventually succeeding in watering down the city's efforts.

AND ANOTHER THING

Signs posted at Oak Flat campground protest the possibility of the federal government clearing the way for a copper mine on the land held sacred by the Apache and other Arizona tribes. Resolution Copper wants to extract the copper from Oak Flat, a campground that is part of the Tonto National Forest near Superior. The method of extraction that the mining company wants to use will eventually create a giant sinkhole.
Signs posted at Oak Flat campground protest the possibility of the federal government clearing the way for a copper mine on the land held sacred by the Apache and other Arizona tribes. Resolution Copper wants to extract the copper from Oak Flat, a campground that is part of the Tonto National Forest near Superior. The method of extraction that the mining company wants to use will eventually create a giant sinkhole.

New Resolution. In a closely watched move, the Biden administration has temporarily halted a controversial land swap deal that would've allowed Resolution Copper to expand an underground mine in Arizona. It was opposed by a number of Southwestern tribes because it would likely have damaged a culturally significant place known as Oak Flat. The Arizona Republic reports that the U.S. Forest Service will now head back into consultation with affected parties as it determines its next steps.

Scientists agree that to maintain a livable planet, we need to reduce the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration back to 350 ppm. We’re above that and rising dangerously. Here are the latest numbers:

Greenhouse gases continue accumulating in the atmosphere at dangerous levels.
Greenhouse gases continue accumulating in the atmosphere at dangerous levels.

That’s all for now. Don’t forget to follow along on Twitter at @MarkOlalde. You can also reach me at molalde@gannett.com. You can sign up to get Climate Point in your inbox for free here. And, if you’d like to receive a daily round-up of California news (also for free!), you can sign up for USA Today’s In California newsletter here. Regardless of what Texas says, mask up! Cheers.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Climate Point: Space hurricanes, deadly flea collars and life on Mars