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Humans may be reversing the climate clock, by 50 million years  external link

Our future on Earth may also be our past.

In a study published Monday (Dec. 10, 2018) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers show that humans are reversing a long-term cooling trend tracing back at least 50 million years. And it’s taken just two centuries.

By 2030, Earth’s climate is expected to resemble that of the mid-Pliocene, going back more than 3 million years in geologic time. Without reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions, our climates by 2150 could compare to the warm and mostly ice-free Eocene, an epoch that characterized the globe 50 million years ago.

Illustration: Early horses grazing near a body of water

Epihippus gracilis, one of the many early horses found in the Hancock Mammal Quarry in Oregon, depicted around 30 million years ago. Their ancestors would have gotten their start in the Eocene. Illustration: National Park Service

“If we think about the future in terms of the past, where we are going is uncharted territory for human society,” says the study’s lead author, Kevin Burke, a graduate student in the lab of paleoecologist John “Jack” Williams, professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “We are moving toward very dramatic changes over an extremely rapid time frame, reversing a planetary cooling trend in a matter of centuries.”

All of the species on Earth today had an ancestor that survived the Eocene and the Pliocene, but whether humans and the flora and fauna we are familiar with can adapt to these rapid changes remains to be seen. The accelerated rate of change appears to be faster than anything life on the planet has experienced before.

Illustration: Color-coded world maps

Future climate analogs for the years 2020, 2050, 2100 and 2200 according to three well-established models. If greenhouse gas emissions are not curbed, the study says, the climate will continue to warm until it begins to resemble the Eocene in 2100. Courtesy of the authors

The new study builds upon work Williams and colleagues first published in 2007, which compared future climate projections to historical climate data from the early 20th century. The new study relies on extensive data about climate conditions to probe much deeper in Earth’s geologic past and expand those comparisons.

“We can use the past as a yardstick to understand the future, which is so different from anything we have experienced in our lifetimes,” says Williams. “People have a hard time projecting what the world will be like five or 10 years from now. This is a tool for predicting that — how we head down those paths, and using deep geologic analogs from Earth’s history to think about changes in time.”

During the Eocene, Earth’s continents were packed more closely together and global temperatures averaged 13 degrees Celsius warmer than they are today. Dinosaurs had recently gone extinct and the first mammals, like ancestral whales and horses, were spreading across the globe. The Arctic was occupied by swampy forests like those found today in the southern U.S.

The Arctic was a warm, wet, swampy, forested place 50 million years ago. Video from the Canadian Museum of Nature

In the Pliocene, North and South America joined tectonically, the climate was arid, land bridges allowed animals to spread across continents and the Himalayas formed. Temperatures were between 1.8 and 3.6 degrees Celsius warmer than they are today.

For the study, Burke and Williams — along with colleagues at the University of Bristol, Columbia University, University of Leeds, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the National Center for Atmospheric Research — examined the similarities between future climate projections as set forth by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report and several periods of geologic history.

Photo: Kevin Burke

Kevin Burke

These included the Early Eocene, the mid-Pliocene, the Last Interglacial (129 to 116 thousand years ago), the mid-Holocene (6,000 years ago), the pre-industrial era (before A.D. 1850) and the early 20th century.

They used Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5 (RCP8.5), which represents a future climate scenario in which we do not mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and RCP4.5, a scenario in which we moderately reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and climate simulations using three different but well-established models: the Hadley Centre Coupled Model version 3, the Goddard Institute for Space Studies ModelE2-R and the Community Climate System Model.

While not without their flaws, each of these models represents the best available data and state-of-the-art techniques.

Under both scenarios and across each model, compared to previous eras, the Earth’s climate most closely resembled the mid-Pliocene by 2030 (under RCP8.5) or 2040 (under RCP4.5). Under the greenhouse gas stabilization scenario of RCP4.5, the climate then stabilizes at mid-Pliocene-like conditions, but under the higher greenhouse gas emissions of RCP8.5, the climate continues to warm until it begins to resemble the Eocene in 2100, achieving Eocene-like conditions more broadly by 2150.

The models showed these deep-geological climates emerging first from the center of continents and then expanding outward over time. Temperatures rise, precipitation increases, ice caps melt and climates become temperate near the Earth’s poles.

Photo: Jack Williams in Wisconsin cap and backpack standing in front of a lake

Jack Williams

“Madison (Wisconsin) warms up more than Seattle (Washington) does, even though they’re at the same latitude,” Williams explains. “When you read that the world is expected to warm by 3 degrees Celsius this century, in Madison we should expect to roughly double the global average.”

The study also showed that under RCP8.5, “novel” climates emerge across nearly 9 percent of the planet. These are conditions that do not have known geologic or historical precedent and they concentrate in eastern and southeastern Asia, northern Australia and the coastal Americas.

“Based on observational data, we are tracking on the high end of the emissions scenarios, but it’s too soon to tell,” says Burke. “We may be somewhere between RCP4.5 and RCP8.5, though if we increase our climate mitigation efforts — like switching to renewable energy — we could find ourselves closer to the low end.”

About a decade ago, Swedish scientist Johan Rockström and colleagues introduced the idea of “safe operating space,” referring to the climate conditions under which modern agricultural societies developed. By comparing to the deep past, Williams and Burke say, we are able to better understand the planetary boundaries and thresholds that delineate this space.

“The further we move from the Holocene, the greater the potential that we move out of safe operating space,” says Williams, a faculty affiliate with the UW–Madison Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research. “In the roughly 20 to 25 years I have been working in the field, we have gone from expecting climate change to happen, to detecting the effects, and now, we are seeing that it’s causing harm. People are dying, property is being damaged, we’re seeing intensified fires and intensified storms that can be attributed to climate change. There is more energy in the climate system, leading to more intense events.”

“People have a hard time projecting what the world will be like five or 10 years from now. This is a tool for predicting that …”

Jack Williams

In their paper, the researchers try to strike a balance between alarm and optimism. On the one hand, Earth is headed into the unknown in our children’s and grandchildren’s lifetimes. On the other, life has long proven to be resilient. And, Williams says, in many places we are moving away from fossil fuels toward more sustainable and carbon-free energy sources. But more needs to be done.

“We’ve seen big things happen in Earth’s history — new species evolved, life persists and species survive. But many species will be lost, and we live on this planet,” says Williams. “These are things to be concerned about, so this work points us to how we can use our history and Earth’s history to understand changes today and how we can best adapt.”

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation (DEB-1353896) and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

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Forget ‘needle in a haystack.’ Try finding an invasive species in a lake.  external link

Photo: Spiny water flea

Spiny water fleas are a type of zooplankton that travel in swarms and are pushed around by wind and currents. They are present in the greatest numbers in Lake Mendota in the fall. Jake Walsh

When the tiny and invasive spiny water flea began appearing in University of Wisconsin–Madison researchers’ nets in 2009, scientists began to wonder how Lake Mendota, one of the most-studied lakes in the world, went from flea-free to infested seemingly overnight. Subsequent studies found the invader had persisted for years at low population densities that went undetected even as the lake was routinely sampled by trained technicians.

Now a new report published in the journal Ecosphere says Lake Mendota’s story may be the rule, rather than an exception.

“Our original idea was (to ask): ‘How is this possible? In what scenario would we miss spiny water flea for 10 years, even after so much effort?’” says Jake Walsh, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at the UW–Madison Center for Limnology.

The answer is that completely missing a species “is not only possible, it’s likely,” says Walsh, noting that the study can help inform invasive species ecology and is a “way of using math and computer modeling to fill in the blanks of what we see.”

Scientists wondered how Lake Mendota, one of the most-studied lakes in the world, went from flea-free to infested seemingly overnight.

With Center for Limnology director Jake Vander Zanden and Eric Pedersen, a colleague from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Walsh developed a theory of the probability of detecting a species as its population densities change.

Their modeling shows that when species are in low abundance in a given habitat, the ability for scientists to detect them drops off precipitously.

This may explain why spiny water fleas passed undetected in Lake Mendota for a decade. Early on, researchers would have needed to dip their nets into the lake “hundreds or even thousands” of times, Walsh says. Once the invaders became more abundant, detection became much easier: “You can go out sampling three times and likely detect spiny water fleas.”

Photo: Walsh and Brosat on a boat, dipping nets into water

Jake Walsh (right), a researcher for the Center for Limnology, and undergraduate Carly Broshat use plankton nets to collect water samples from Lake Mendota in July 2012. Photo: Bryce Richter

Part of the problem is size. Even if there were one spiny water flea for every cubic meter of water in Lake Mendota, catching one in a net would be like finding a sesame seed in roughly 250 gallons of water.

One of the solutions, the study shows, may be for scientists to increase the size of the funnel-shaped plankton nets they drag through the water when looking for the small creature. Standard nets are roughly a foot in diameter, but by upgrading to a one-meter-wide net (about three feet in diameter), “your detection increases by quite a bit,” Walsh says.

Catching one spiny water flea in a net would be like finding a sesame seed in roughly 250 gallons of water.

Being more deliberate about sampling for spiny water fleas and other invasives at the right places and times may also improve scientists’ chance for detection, Walsh says. Spiny water fleas are a type of zooplankton (small, free-floating crustaceans) that travel in groups called swarms and are pushed around by wind and currents. A swarm may move at any time out of any given sampling site. And their abundances vary throughout the year.  For instance, spiny water fleas are present in the greatest numbers in Lake Mendota in the fall.

“If you were to double your effort at sampling for spinies in the fall,” Walsh says, “you get the same advantage as if you were to double your effort across the entire year.”

The study offers some “basic rules of thumb” for designing species surveillance programs of any kind — from likely invasives to rare or endangered natives, Walsh says.

“It has to do with targeting our efforts better and finding times of the year where things are more abundant or areas where they’re more abundant because that dramatically increases your detection rate,” he says. “If you take a little extra time to get to know the species you’re looking for, it can really pay off.”

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Reaching for the stars: 50 years of space astronomy  external link

Since before Galileo turned a telescope to the night sky in the early 1600s, astronomers sought to sharpen their view of the stars and the planets and of our place in the universe.

An Atlas-Centaur rocket lifts the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory-2 into orbit Dec. 7, 1968.

An Atlas-Centaur rocket lifts the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory-2 into orbit Dec. 7, 1968. Al Holm

The launch of the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory 2 on Dec. 7, 1968, into a 480-mile-high orbit marked a signature event in the history of astronomy, surmounting the obscuring blanket of the Earth’s atmosphere and giving people their first sustained view of the cosmos from space. The observatory set the stage for the Hubble Space Telescope and the constellation of space observatories that now circle our planet.

At the time, the 4,400-pound satellite was the “largest, heaviest and most complex” uncrewed American spacecraft. It contained two scientific payloads positioned at opposite ends of the satellite. These were seven telescopes from UW–Madison and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s “Celescope,” a package that blended ultraviolet telescopes and television cameras.

Expected to last less than a year, the Wisconsin side of OAO-2 operated for more than four years, delivering unexpected observations of a comet and nova, and a trove of data on the ultraviolet universe before being switched off in 1973.

Journey into space with NASA and the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory

The point of OAO-2 — the first successful observatory in a series of early orbiting telescopes funded by NASA — was to position astronomical instruments above the Earth’s atmosphere. The air and water vapor that surround our planet blurs, absorbs and scatters the starlight that is the currency of astronomy.

In particular, OAO-2 sought to open up a view of the sky in the far ultraviolet, a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that is blocked by the atmosphere but is rich in information about stars, galaxies, the dust and gas between the stars known as the interstellar medium, and phenomena such as exploding stars. “The Orbiting Astronomical Observatory 2 was the first general purpose astronomical observatory in space,” explains Jim Lattis, a historian of science who directs the UW–Madison Astronomy Department’s Space Place, noting that astronomical telescopes had previously flown on rockets and on high-flying aircraft such as the X-15.

Arthur D. Code

Arthur D. Code

The Soviets had also orbited gamma ray telescopes, but those also served to spy on American nuclear tests.
The Wisconsin side of OAO-2 was the product of a plucky, tight-knit band of Wisconsin scientists, including astronomers Robert Bless and Ted Houck, and led by space astronomy pioneer Arthur D. Code. The project would be the first in a series of space telescopes and astronomical instruments devised and built at Wisconsin that included a space shuttle-borne ultraviolet telescope known as WUPPE (Wisconsin Ultraviolet Photo-Polarimeter Experiment) and the only university-built science instrument on board the Hubble Space Telescope when it launched in 1990. The Wisconsin telescopes packed into OAO-2 were designed and built in UW–Madison’s Space Astronomy Laboratory (SAL), founded by Code and first established in a warehouse next to Schmidt’s Auto Salvage on Madison’s South Park Street. Although the setting was humble, the science and technologies that emerged from the warehouse at 35 S. Park St. set the first standards for doing astronomy from space.

“That is where the great ideas occur. Your computer revolutions occur in garages. Your space astronomy revolutions occur in warehouses or garages. You gotta start somewhere,” recalls Kenneth Sembach, a Johns Hopkins professor of astronomy who trained at UW–Madison in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Sembach now directs the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, the operational heart of NASA’s flagship astronomical observatories. “(The Wisconsin team was) really on the leading edge of things at the time.” Scientifically, OAO-2 gave astronomers their first sustained look at the sky in ultraviolet wavelengths, revealing new things, explains John “Jay” Gallagher, a UW–Madison professor emeritus of astronomy whose doctoral thesis was built on data from the nova serendipitously acquired by OAO-2. OAO-2 also helped pioneer the practice of guest observing. Especially after the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory switched off its experiment in 1970, many astronomers were given opportunities to observe using the Wisconsin telescopes. This OAO innovation became standard operating procedure for big telescopes such as Hubble, though today, time on big space telescopes is tightly regulated and doled out in parsimonious fashion.

As a young scientist in 1970, Al Holm joined Wisconsin’s OAO team and, from a cramped command center at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, helped operate and schedule the telescope, often working 12-hour shifts.

“We were responsible for choosing what OAO was going to look at,” recalls Holm, whose career trajectory took him from OAO to the International Ultraviolet Explorer, a successor to OAO, and ultimately the Hubble Space Telescope. “It was exciting. You never knew what you were going to find.” Directing the observatory, he explains, was far different in an “era of slide rules and desktop adding machines.” The computers were primitive mainframes with less computing power than a smartphone. The spacecraft itself did not have a computer, depending instead on a set of 256 preset commands to operate and point the observatory. But OAO-2 in many ways modeled the future of space astronomy.

“Operating a telescope in space is obviously vastly different from observing from the ground. People had to invent how to do that,” notes Sebastian Heinz, chair of UW–Madison’s astronomy department. “OAO-2 was the first ultraviolet telescope to study space, and it also operated in a new way that is now standard for NASA and most international space telescopes.”

The observatory certainly made scientific contributions, helping inform theories of stellar evolution and revealing hidden features of comets and exploding stars, but its enduring legacy was setting the table for a new view of the cosmos.

“It showed you could do astronomy from orbit,” says Holm. “That is its legacy.”

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Where the ocean meets the sky, chemists look for clues to our climate  external link

Thomas Sobyra, a graduate student with the Nathanson Group who works with CAICE, explains how dinitrogen pentoxide enters the vacuum chamber where it reacts with a spray of water one-third the width of a human hair. Photo by Tatum Lyles Flick

Hidden in the salt spray from waves crashing on the beach are clues to our planet’s future.

Chemists at the University of Wisconsin–Madison are turning to where the ocean meets the sky to study how our past, present and future climates are affected by a complex aerosol made up of seawater, air and bits of organic matter from the organisms that call the ocean home.

The researchers are members of the Center for Aerosol Impacts on Chemistry of the Environment, or CAICE, a National Science Foundation-funded collaborative dedicated to unravelling the impact of these aerosol particles on air quality and climate.

Sean Staudt, a graduate student who works with CAICE, adjusts the flow of dinitrogen pentoxide to a mass spectrometer used to study reactions of the atmospheric gas at atmospheric interfaces. Photo by Tatum Lyles Flick

Because oceans cover 70 percent of the planet, it’s a daunting task.

“There’s a lot of water — a lot of ocean — and a lot of wind,” says Joseph R. Gord, a postdoctoral research associate at UW–Madison, who works with CAICE.

CAICE recently received $20 million from the NSF to fund its second five years, with $3 million slated for UW–Madison. Based at the University of California, San Diego, CAICE is a collaboration between 12 universities and institutes around the country.

“To understand current climate, we need to know what happened before we were here,” says Timothy Bertram, associate director of CAICE and a professor of chemistry at UW–Madison. “We want to know what aerosol particles, central to cloud formation and the climate system, looked like in pre-industrial times.”

Joseph R. Gord, a postdoctoral research associate at UW-Madison who works with CAICE, examines frozen dinitrogen pentoxide, an atmospheric gas. He will use it to explore chemical reactions that take place at the ocean-air interface. Photo by Tatum Lyles Flick

To investigate past conditions, CAICE scientists constructed an ocean-interface model to recreate the chemical composition of sea spray in the lab. This allows the researchers to alter conditions and simulate different geologic time periods or environmental factors. Changing ocean temperatures, an increase in ocean acidity, pollution and harmful algal blooms all alter the composition of this aerosol zone and may affect weather patterns and human health.

“We want to understand how the natural process works,” Bertram says. “We also want to understand how humans impact the oceans and the role that can have on these small particles.”

The new NSF grant will focus the project on three main parts: particle production; chemical reactions at the water-air interface; and how particles affect cloud formation.

UW–Madison researchers focus on chemical reactions between aerosol particles and atmospheric gases. One class of gasses, known as reactive nitrogen compounds, can greatly affect the concentration of oxidants in the atmosphere. These oxidants, such as ozone, are critical for the accuracy of chemistry and climate models.

“By understanding the behavior of these molecules, we equip and enable people who study other climate processes in-depth to make better predictions for and models of the atmosphere,” says Gord.

Concentrations of reactive nitrogen compounds in the atmosphere also affect the amount of particulate matter, which, along with ozone, can take a toll on human health. Both ozone and particulate matter are monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“An enormous number of molecules contribute to the overall picture of climate,” says Gord. “We study some of the publicly lesser-known players to understand their behavior so people who look at the whole picture have accurate starting points for the work they do.”

The CAICE collaborators build upon a rapidly increasing collection of data and upon a shared interest and experience in chemistry and climate science.

“Our center draws not only upon chemists of all stripes, but biologists and oceanographers as well, and we connect directly with the climate modeling community,” says Gil Nathanson, a professor of chemistry at UW–Madison and senior investigator at CAICE. “It’s a massive undertaking that leads to both fundamental and tangible discoveries.”

This work was funded by the National Science Foundation Division of Chemistry through the Center for Aerosol Impacts on Chemistry of the Environment under Grant No. CHE 1801971.

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Switching identities: Revolutionary insulator-like material also conducts electricity  external link

University of Wisconsin–Madison researchers have made a material that can transition from an electricity-transmitting metal to a nonconducting insulating material without changing its atomic structure.

“This is quite an exciting discovery,” says Chang-Beom Eom, professor of materials science and engineering. “We’ve found a new method of electronic switching.”

The new material could lay the groundwork for ultrafast electronic devices, such as the cellphones and computers of the future. Eom and his international team of collaborators published details of their advance today (Nov. 29, 2018) in the journal Science.

Photo: Chang-Beom Eom, right, and Mark Rzchowski inspect a materials growth chamber.

Chang-Beom Eom, right, and Mark Rzchowski inspect a materials growth chamber. The researchers have made a new material that can be switched from electrical conductor to insulator. UW–Madison photo by Sam Million-Weaver

Metals like copper or silver conduct electricity, whereas insulators like rubber or glass do not allow current to flow. Some materials, however, can transition from insulating to conducting and back again.

This transition usually means that the arrangement of a material’s atoms and its conducting electrons must change in a coordinated way, but the atomic transition typically proceeds much more slowly than the smaller, lighter electrons that conduct electricity.

A material that can switch to conducting electricity like a metal without moving its atoms could dramatically advance switching speeds of advanced devices, says Eom.

“The metal-to-insulator transition is very important for switches and for logic devices with a one or a zero state,” he says. “We have the potential to use this concept to make very fast switches.”

Photo: Closeup of hands pointing to materials growth chamber

The new material, grown in a chamber like this, could lay the groundwork for ultrafast electronic devices, such as the cellphones and computers of the future. UW–Madison photo by Sam Million-Weaver

In their research, Eom and his collaborators answered a fundamental question that has bothered scientists for years: Can the electronic and structural transition be decoupled — essentially, can the quickly changing electrons break out on their own and leave the atoms behind?

They used a material called vanadium dioxide, which is a metal when it’s heated and an insulator when it’s at room temperature. At high temperatures, the atoms that make up vanadium dioxide are arranged in a regularly repeating pattern that scientists refer to as the rutile phase. When vanadium dioxide cools down to become an insulator, its atoms adopt a different pattern, called monoclinic.

No naturally occurring substances conduct electricity when their atoms are in the monoclinic conformation. And it takes time for the atoms to rearrange when a material reaches the insulator-to-metal transition temperature.

Crucially, vanadium dioxide transitions between a metal and an insulator at different temperatures depending upon the amount of oxygen present in the material. The researchers leveraged that fact to create two thin layers of vanadium dioxide — one with a slightly lower transition temperature than the other — sandwiched on top of each other, with a sharp interface between.

When they heated the thin vanadium dioxide sandwich, one layer made the structural switch to become a metal. Atoms in the other layer remained locked into the insulating monoclinic phase. Surprisingly, however, that part of the material conducted electricity.

The new material could lay the groundwork for ultrafast electronic devices, such as the cellphones and computers of the future.

Most importantly, the material remained stable and retained its unique characteristics.

Although other research groups have attempted to create electrically conductive insulators, those materials lost their properties almost instantly — persisting for mere femtoseconds, or a few thousandths of one trillionth of a second.

The Eom team’s material, however, is here to stay.

“We were able to stabilize it, making it useful for real devices,” says Eom.

Key to their approach was the dual-layer, sandwich structure. Each layer was so thin that the interface between the two materials dominated how the entire stack behaved. It’s a notion that Eom and colleagues plan to pursue further.

“Designing interfaces could open up new materials,” says Eom.

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation is assisting the researchers with patent filing.

This research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (DMR-1629270, DMR-1420620 and DMR-1420645), Air Force Office of Scientific Research (FA9550-15-1-0334), Office of Naval Research (N00014-13-1-0183) and Department of Energy (DE-FG02-06ER46327, DE-AC02-06CH11357 and FG02-07ER46417).

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Study calls for curbing congestion by building fewer roads  external link

Illustration: Aerial view of subdivision houses with new streets and lot boundaries

Cities typically require developers to add highway capacity for many new car trips, plus the parking those cars need. A new study says that actually might make things worse. Illustration: Pixabay

Cities clamor for new development, with its promise of new housing or economic opportunities. Then comes the unwelcome side effect: congestion.

Popular new attractions or dozens of new apartments mean more travel in the neighborhood. To cope, cities typically require developers to add highway capacity for many new car trips, plus the parking those cars need, or pay a fee so the city can make those improvements in their stead.

The catch is, all those new roads might make things worse.

“When we add capacity, we induce more driving,” says Eric Sundquist, managing director of the State Smart Transportation Initiative (SSTI), a transportation think tank housed at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “So there’s sort of a vicious cycle: We widen roads, people drive more; we widen roads, people drive more.”

Photo: Portrait of Eric Sundquist

Eric Sundquist advocates reducing the amount of driving that will be generated by new development. Photo: Transportation for America

SSTI and the UW–Madison-based Mayors Innovation Project recently released a new report arguing for a different approach that incentivizes diverse ways to travel to and from new developments. By funding public transportation, limiting parking and preserving the walkability of neighborhoods, Sundquist’s team argues, cities and states can reduce congestion better than if they only plan for cars.

The same solutions can help cities meet their policy goals, such as reduced emissions or more equitable access to services for residents.

“We look at the gap between policy goals on the one hand and the way decisions are being made that actually make things happen in the real world,” says Sundquist. “Often you have great policy goals, and then you have a bunch of rules of thumb that are still basically what was set in the ’50s during the interstate era.”

The report is designed to help cities set requirements for developers on managing the transportation impacts of their projects, using a menu of measures designed to minimize the need for driving. The goal is to promote sound development, reduce regulatory burdens, keep cities livable and avoid gridlock. SSTI calls its approach “modern mitigation.”

“The idea is, let’s first try to reduce the amount of driving that we’re going to generate in the first place before we add supply, and only add supply if we absolutely need to,” says Sundquist.

For example, adding housing as part of a new hospital development could mean fewer car trips by staff, who might choose to live close to work. Another system might subsidize bus passes for employees of a new office park, so those living along bus lines skip the car more often.

Photo: Houses under construction with street in foreground

Housing under construction at an Air Force base in Florida. The SSTI study calls for “modern mitigation” of the need for new street capacity by creating transportation alternatives. Photo: U.S. Air Force

Employers have long adopted such demand-reduction methods to ease rush hour. In recent years, some cities have begun codifying similar mitigation rules to promote fewer and shorter car trips, especially those taken by a solo driver.

The SSTI report takes as examples demand mitigation endeavors in cities like Cambridge, Massachusetts, where fewer than 40 percent of employees drive to work alone in certain areas. Cambridge promotes systems like subsidized transit passes and shuttle services.

The core of SSTI’s proposal has developers propose a set of measures to reduce the demand for solo car trips depending on the size and other characteristics of their planned project. Cities then agree to the set of measures, make sure they work as intended and, if need be, enforce any penalties for noncompliance.

Shifting from conventional mitigation to modern mitigation may not require changes to laws in many municipalities, says Sundquist, who served on the Madison Plan Commission for seven years. The guidance given by such committees to developers is often a codified set of policies, rather than laws, with considerable flexibility.

Perhaps harder, Sundquist says, is shifting the focus away from adding roads toward reducing the need for those roads. Car-centric policies have been in place for a half-century or more and have in many cases made alternative policies harder to implement. The first step, he says, is to change course.

“We’re dealing with problems set in motion decades ago. “When you’re in a hole, quit digging.

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Discovery opens new opportunities to slow or reverse MS  external link

Photo: Three cross-section images of nerve tissue from cats

Three cross-section images of nerve tissue from cats, each showing an individual oligodendrocyte cell (marked with “O”) among nerve cell axons surrounded by dark-colored sheaths of myelin. Mature myelin sheaths (around axons marked with asterisks) are thick. Thin sheaths (marked with arrows) are remyelinated by the pictured oligodendrocyte. Images from Duncan et al, PNAS, 2018

Nerve cells stripped of their insulation can no longer carry vital information, leading to the numbness, weakness and vision problems often associated with multiple sclerosis. A new study shows an overlooked source may be able to replace that lost insulation and provide a new way to treat diseases like MS.

Cells called neurons make the central nervous system work by passing electrical signals along threadlike connections called axons. Axons do their work best when wrapped in an insulating coating of a fatty substance called myelin.

“When you lose myelin, axons don’t conduct at their normal speed or don’t conduct at all,” says Ian Duncan, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s School of Veterinary Medicine. “And if enough of them are affected — such as in a big area of demyelination in MS — you develop clinical symptoms related to that part of the nervous system.”

Photo: Portrait of Ian Duncan

Ian Duncan

Myelin is made by oligodendrocytes, cells that can reach out to several nearby axons to wrap parts of them in the protective myelin sheath.

Consensus has held that once an axon is robbed of its myelin, the only way to bring it back is by starting with fresh oligodendrocytes. Only oligodendrocytes arising from precursors called oligodendrocyte progenitor cells can apply a new coat of myelin to axons, goes the dogma. Thus, MS treatments aimed at remyelination have focused on recruiting progenitor cells in demyelinated areas (called plaques), and spurring them to develop.

However, researchers led by Duncan have shown in a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that starting from progenitor cells is not the only route to remyelination. In cats and rhesus macaques experiencing a severe loss of myelin, Duncan found fully developed oligodendrocytes already in place were reaching out and beginning to coat affected axons with myelin once again.

The catch, if there is one, is that to be helpful and remyelinate damaged axons, the adult oligodendrocytes may still need to have connections to surviving myelin segments — called “internodes” — on other axons.

“If this cell is still biologically active and maintaining these internodes, it can re-extend processes out to these demyelinated segments,” says Duncan, whose work is supported by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. “Those processes can make new myelin sheaths, which end up being thinner and shorter than the previous internodes.”

But even thinner myelin will restore nerve function, as Duncan and colleagues reported in 2009.

Cats fed irradiated food for several months develop severe myelin loss throughout the nervous system. When the cats returned to a regular diet, nerve function was restored because of extensive myelin repair.

Graphic: Drawing of nerve cell extensions called axons

Nerve cell extensions called axons (green) are sheathed in protective myelin (red) provided by nearby cells called oligodendrocytes (blue). New research shows oligodendrocytes can respond to damage to myelin sections by creating a thin replacement coating of myelin. Graphic modified from Duncan et al, PNAS, 2018

The cats’ demyelination problems are unusual as a lab model of the disease.

“The de facto model to study demyelination and remyelination is in a mouse fed a toxin called cuprizone,” Duncan says. “But the toxin kills oligodendrocytes. So, studying the mouse, you naturally wouldn’t see any of the original oligodendrocytes beginning remyelination.”

In the new study, the researchers looked at the cats’ nervous tissue and found a unique myelin mosaic — axons surrounded by thick layers of myelin (formed during development when the axons themselves grew) were interspersed with other axons surrounded by thin layers of myelin.

“The most likely explanation of that mosaic appearance is surviving oligos,” Duncan says. “Thick myelin sheaths are never seen following remyelination, just thin sheaths. And surviving adult oligodendrocytes are adjacent to these sites of demyelination, making them likely candidates for myelin repair.”

Sure enough, the researchers found oligodendrocytes connected to both thick and thin myelin sheaths in the cat spinal cord.

The discovery of the mature myelin-producing cells’ capacity for repair opens new opportunities to slow or reverse the disease.

They also found this association when they reached back to a decades-old monkey model of demyelination. Neuropathologist Dimitri Agamanolis tried to make a model of another human demyelinating disease — called sub-acute combined degeneration and caused by Vitamin B12 deficiency — at Case Western Reserve University in the 1970s. Agamanolis had saved preserved blocks of sampled nervous tissue from the monkeys, and he shared them with Duncan. The monkeys’ myelin lesions resembled those in the cats.

“You see in the monkeys, too, single oligodendrocytes connected to mature myelin sheaths that also have processes extended out to and surrounding demyelinated axons,” Duncan says.

The UW–Madison researchers enlisted Grahame Kidd and the private research lab Renovo Neural in Cleveland to reconstruct stacks of electron microscope images of cat nerve cells into 3D representations that show oligodendrocytes reaching up and down the spinal cord, sustaining mature myelin and remyelinating damaged sheaths.

The process may not be playing out in human MS patients fast enough to help mitigate the progression of the disease, Duncan says. Or too many oligodendrocytes may lose so many of their internodal connections that they become inactive or die.

But the discovery of the mature myelin-producing cells’ capacity for repair opens new opportunities to slow or reverse the disease.

“Right now, the emphasis is on promoting the numbers of oligo progenitors and their differentiation, particularly into adult oligodendrocytes,” says Duncan. “What this work provides is a different target.”

That target will call for new therapeutic approaches — finding drugs, for example, that rally the oligodendrocytes to reach out with new lifelines to damaged myelin sheaths.

“In fighting complex diseases, such as MS, the more tools you have on hand, the better,” Duncan says. “If these adult cells are recruitable in some fashion, we should be looking at ways to do it.”

Duncan’s co-authors on the study include Kidd and UW–Madison neuroscience researchers Abigail Radcliff and Moones Heidari, veterinary medicine student Lauren Wierenga, and electron microscopy specialist Benjamin August.

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NOAA listening session to focus on weather research, forecasting improvements  external link

Neil Jacobs, assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will be in Madison on Monday, Nov. 26, to gather public input on the Department of Commerce’s 2018-2022 strategic plan and the Weather Research and Forecasting and Innovation Act of 2017.

The listening session will be held  at Union South Varsity Hall from 2:30 p.m. until 4 p.m. Jacobs plans to discuss NOAA’s efforts to improve the translation of weather research to operations, to develop a community-based weather model, and to advance seasonal-to-subseasonal weather forecasts.

His remarks will be followed by a period for public comments. This is an opportunity to ask questions and provide input on these and other NOAA and Department of Commerce priorities. One goal of the strategic plan is to strengthen U.S. economic and national security by reducing the effects of extreme weather through implementation of the Weather Act.

Photo of Neil Jacobs

Jacobs NOAA

“The Weather Act is, in part, focused on obtaining better observations,” says Associate Vice Chancellor Steve Ackerman, who is also director of the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological and Satellite Studies (CIMSS). “This is an area of expertise here at the UW – better observations will help us continue to improve the accuracy of forecasts and extend them beyond seven days.”

In fact, he adds, the U.S.’s newest weather satellite, GOES-17, is experiencing problems with one of its instruments, preventing scientists from using the observational data. Scientists at CIMSS are working with NOAA scientists to find a solution to the problem.

With more than 50 CIMSS-developed algorithms in use by the National Weather Service (NWS), CIMSS has a demonstrated track record of transitioning forecasting tools that incorporate improved observations from the research environment to the NWS operational environment.

Currently, CIMSS researchers are developing and testing a new forecasting model in support of the Next Generation Global Prediction System, an NWS initiative to improve forecasts and address growing service demands, another piece of the Weather Act.

There aren’t many universities running this model, says Ackerman, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences.

“It’s an honor to have NOAA leadership visiting campus,” he says. “It acknowledges our history and expertise in this area of science and recognizes that we have important contributions to make that support NOAA objectives and weather forecasting.”

Doors for the event open at 2 p.m. It is free and open to the public.

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UW–Madison retains research ranking  external link

The National Science Foundation on Nov. 20 released its 2017 Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) Survey data, showing that UW–Madison placed 6th in its rankings. In last year’s HERD survey report, capturing 2016 data, UW–Madison also ranked 6th.

Data on UW–Madison’s 2017 expenditures show the university remains a research powerhouse with more than $1.19 billion in annual expenditures for research across all fields, about half of which comes from federal awards.

Overall R&D expenditures from all sources increased by 3.1 percent from the last survey, however, this increase was unevenly spread among categories. Federal expenditures for UW–Madison saw a 0.6 percent increase from the previous fiscal year and totaled nearly $571 million in spending. UW–Madison also saw increases in the areas of business (7.3 percent), nonprofit (8.8 percent) and institutional funds (9.1 percent), and all other sources (7.4 percent).  R&D expenditures from state and local government funding was the one source of funds that decreased for UW–Madison in fiscal year 2017 (down 11.3 percent from the previous fiscal year).

“UW–Madison has seen an increase in research expenditures for two years now and that is good news,” says Norman Drinkwater, interim vice chancellor for research and graduate education. “Researchers at UW–Madison have received several large collaborative multi-investigator grants fueling that increase and we expect this upward funding trajectory to continue.”

The HERD survey is the primary source of information on research and development expenditures at American universities and colleges. Tabulating expenditures is one way to measure academic research activity. The survey collects information on R&D expenditures by field of research and source of funds and also gathers information on types of research expenses and number of R&D personnel. The survey is an annual census of institutions that expended at least $150,000 in separately budgeted R&D in the fiscal year.

In fiscal 2017, 644 universities responded to the survey.

UW–Madison had been in the top five in the nation in research spending every year since 1972, the year the survey started, until it dropped to 6th in fiscal year 2015 after experiencing a three-year decline in federal expenditures.

Funding for academic research at UW–Madison comes primarily from the federal government as well as institutional funds; additional sources include state and local government, industry, nonprofit organizations, and foundations that support the university. The two most significant private contributors of research support to UW–Madison are the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) and the UW Foundation.

While the amount of state and local support for research is relatively small, research investments by state and local government remain an important contributor to the research enterprise, augmenting and positioning key programs.

Although the HERD Survey tracks expenditures, UW–Madison also has recently received dozens of large awards that are indicators of its success in generating extramural funding.

To date, the first rounds of UW2020 projects have generated more than $25 million in extramural funding. This initiative seeks to fund research projects that have the potential to fundamentally transform a field of study. UW2020 is underwritten by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) with combined funding from other sources.

“UW2020 is accomplishing exactly what we had hoped it would, especially in terms of providing projects the runway so that they are more successful when submitted for external funding consideration,” Drinkwater explains.

Examples of recent major awards include:

  • The U.S. Department of Energy selecting the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center for an additional five years of funding to develop sustainable alternatives to transportation fuels and products currently derived from petroleum. Already the recipient of roughly $267 million in DOE funding, GLBRC represents the largest federal grant ever awarded to UW–Madison.
  • UW–Madison’s Department of Medicine has one of the premier asthma research programs in the country. Childhood Origins of ASThma (COAST) is a program project grant funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). COAST focuses on the contributions of both genetic and environmental (viral infections) factors on the origins of asthma and allergic disease in a Wisconsin birth cohort of nearly 300 children who have been followed for 10-15 years. The current grant amount is about $11.7 million for five years.
  • The IceCube Upgrade is a midscale National Science Foundation project with an estimated total award of $23 million that will be managed through a cooperative agreement with UW–Madison — home institution of the Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center, the team that led IceCube construction and currently operates the observatory.
  • The Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention has been awarded a five-year, $19 million renewal grant from the National Institutes of Health to enable in-depth study of molecular hallmarks of the disease in the brain and spinal fluid.
  • The Space Science and Engineering Center secured $8.2 million in funding from NASA — a cooperative relationship dating back to the mid-1950s — that has been crucial in developing observational systems to serve and protect the citizens of Wisconsin and around the world.
  • Engineers from UW–Madison have received an estimated $9.3 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy for advanced nuclear energy research.
  • Researchers with two UW–Madison plasma fusion experiments have received $10.7 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Fusion Energy Sciences.
  • Foxconn Technology Group plans to invest $100 million in engineering and innovation research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

“Research is a very competitive environment, but the future for R&D at UW–Madison is bright,” says Drinkwater. “That’s because our robust research culture makes it possible for us to attract the best and brightest scholars from students to staff and faculty.”

In fact, UW–Madison’s faculty recruitment efforts for 2017–18 have resulted in the largest group of new faculty hired in six years at the university, with 112 accepted offers out of 176 offers.

“It is our faculty and a dedicated staff that compete nationally for the research dollars that spur new knowledge and invention, and support our mission in unique and powerful ways,” Drinkwater says.

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Could yesterday’s Earth contain clues for making tomorrow’s medicines?  external link

Several billion years ago, as the recently formed planet Earth cooled down from a long and brutal period of heavy meteor bombardment, pools of primordial muck began to swirl with the chemical precursors to life.

Today, scientists are devising chemical reactions that mimic early Earth not only to learn about how life developed, but also to unlock new capabilities for modern medicine.

John Yin

“If you can get chemistries that encode information, then maybe you can design new drugs,” says John Yin, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

In a paper published recently in the journal Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres, Yin and colleagues described initial steps toward achieving chemistries that encode information in a variety of conditions that might mimic the environment of prehistoric Earth.

“I view this as systems chemistry,” says Yin. “How do we take store-bought chemicals and combine them in such a way that they display emergent properties like the ability to store information or copy themselves?”

The compounds the researchers combined were molecules called amino acids, which are the molecular building blocks for the proteins that perform much of the structural and chemical work inside living cells. There are 20 different amino acids that combine to form the essential proteins for life, but Yin and colleagues focused on just two: alanine and glycine, which are among the simplest examples of these molecules.

Also in the mix was an energy molecule called triphosphate, believed to be available on early earth.

The researchers “cooked” together the mixture over a range of different temperatures and variously acidic conditions. In mixtures without the energy molecule, amino acids only joined together under the most hot and harsh conditions. When triphosphate was present, however, short chains of alanine and glycine formed at more moderate temperatures.

“Triphosphate facilitates reactions in conditions where most life is found to occur,” says Yin.

Intriguingly, the alanine and glycine did not combine at random. Instead, the amino acids linked up into chains with specific sequences, depending on temperature and pH.

“What we have shown is that you are a product of your environment,” says Yin.

Key to the study was the ability to determine the composition of different amino acid chains with sophisticated analytical chemistry. For the molecular characterizations, Yin collaborated with Lingjun Li, a UW–Madison professor of pharmacy and chemistry.

“People have been cooking amino acids since 1940 or so,” says Yin. “But now we can identify what’s actually in there.”

What they identified hints at the first glimmers of information storage that arose so many billions of years ago.

The scientists speculate that, with increased “cooking” time, even greater complexity might appear. Their reactions only proceeded for 24 hours—a mere blink of an eye compared to the history of the planet. Additionally, the scientists plan to add a greater variety of molecules into the mixture.

Eventually, they hope to create mixtures where complicated molecules spontaneously come together from simpler components and create self-driving chemical reactions that interact and feed off of each other.

Those reactions could contain the keys to creating new drugs or synthesizing existing compounds more efficiently.

“We’ll figure out how to close the loop,” says Yin.

The researchers have a patent in progress with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health (grants R01DK071801, R01AI091646, U19AI0104317 and S10RR02953).

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