Daily briefing: More heat means less ice, higher seas — and no going back

Chilling findings about the vulnerability of the Antarctic ice sheet. Plus, hard numbers show the lack of diversity in science (and what to do about it).

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Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica

Antarctica’s vast ice cap, which covers about as much of the earth as North America and is close to 5 kilometres.imageBROKER/Alamy

More heat means less ice, and no going back

Rising temperatures will radically affect how much Antarctic ice melts — and the impact is likely to be irreversible. Researchers modelled the effect of warming on the Antarctic ice sheet, which holds more than half of Earth’s fresh water, equivalent to 58 metres of global sea-level rise. They found that even if we keep global temperatures below 2 ℃ above pre-industrial levels — the goal of the Paris Agreement — we will be facing devastating sea-level rises of about 2.5 metres. The consequences grow exponentially as global temperatures rise. And feedback loops mean that ice will not re-form, even if temperatures are reversed to present-day levels. “We get enormous sea-level rise [from Antarctic melting] even if we keep to the Paris agreement, and catastrophic amounts if we don’t,” says climate scientist Anders Levermann.

The Guardian | 5 min read

Reference: Nature paper

UK could host first COVID ‘challenge trials’

People in the United Kingdom might be the first to take part in controversial COVID-19 ‘human challenge’ trials — which involve intentionally infecting healthy, young volunteers with the coronavirus to test potential vaccines. The Financial Times reports that the studies would be funded by the UK government. They could begin in January at a secure quarantine facility in London. The BBC reports that no contracts have yet been signed to commence the studies.

Financial Times | 5 min read (paywall) & BBC | 5 min read

Read more: Support grows for a controversial ‘human challenge’ vaccine study (Nature | 3 min read, from April)

Features & opinion

Let’s hear from China’s researchers

China will host an international environmental meeting next year — the UN biodiversity conference known as COP15 — and the stakes are too high to fail. A Nature editorial calls on its researchers to take the lead in sharing their decades of experience of studying how to — and how not to — balance economic development with controlling species and ecosystems loss. In turn, other nations’ researchers must be equally forthcoming with their knowledge. “All sides must put aside political differences,” argues the editorial. “The best way to preserve and revive biodiversity is to acknowledge where we’ve all failed it before, to learn from that and to try again, together.”

Nature | 6 min read

Steps to take towards diversity in science

Many institutions publicly pledged their commitment to inclusion, sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement and global protests against police violence and racism. In an infographic-packed feature, Nature takes a data-driven look at the current state of representation in academia, participation in equity initiatives and grant awards. Scientists also contribute their perspectives on how the momentum can be harnessed to break down the barriers to creating fairer and more-inclusive research environments.

Nature | 8 min read

How to embrace your scientific artistry

Illustrations can help to get your research the attention it so richly deserves. Three scientific artists offer their advice about how to get started with the right tools, find inspiration and create a creative state of mind. “One common issue at my zoological illustration and painting workshops is that scientists feel that they are not artistic enough — and artists feel that they are not scientific enough,” says illustrator Justine Hirten. “I encourage my students to accept themselves as legitimate members of both the creative and the scientific communities.”

Nature | 5 min read

What COVID vaccine trials won’t tell us

Trials of three leading coronavirus-vaccine candidates in the United States are not designed to tell us whether they work against mild or more-severe forms of the disease, write pharmaceutical researcher Peter Doshi and Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California. This is a problem because a vaccine might be deemed to work even if it mostly prevents mild cases in young, healthy people. In that case, it might not reduce the number of deaths. Doshi and Topol argue that the trial protocols released last week for vaccines from Moderna, Pfizer and the University of Oxford–AstraZeneca should be modified to focus on severe COVID-19.

The New York Times | 4 min read

Quote of the day

“People who learn quantum electrodynamics don’t often sit in advanced organic chemistry classes and vice versa — there’s a gap to be bridged.”

Computational materials scientist Prineha Narang and others are bringing chemistry and quantum physics together: they are trying to harness the power of the vacuum field to control chemical reactions. (Chemistry World | 8 min read)

‘Curly’ the robot is really good at curling. Great for when you can’t find a curling buddy. (Don’t count humans out yet: Curly can’t even hold a broom.)

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

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