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2018 in science in Japan: Climate change, space exploration and water bears

by Rowan Hooper

Contributing Writer

In casting an eye back over memorable science and environment stories from Japan in 2018, it is impossible to ignore the extreme weather that hit the country.

In late June to July, unusually heavy rainfall caused extensive flooding in southwest parts of the country. Some 8 million people were advised to evacuate, more than 200 people died and the floods caused more than ¥1 trillion in damages.

Then, later in July, Japan was baked in a debilitating heatwave. The town of Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture, racked up the highest temperature on record, reaching 41.1 degrees. Across the country, by the end of the heatwave some 125 people had died and more than 57,000 were taken to hospital.

Scientists have been wary for years about attributing specific extreme weather events to climate change. But 2018 was the year when the last doubt evaporated.

Climate models show that the increasing global temperature is making extreme events such as freak rainfall and record-breaking heatwaves more likely. The scientific wariness about drawing a line from climate change in general to a specific weather event has pretty much disappeared. The effects of climate change are being felt here and now.

While that’s a terrible thing, it is good, at least, that the increasingly horrific and real-world impacts of climate change are being seen for what they are. Some scientists are now saying the effects of climate change should be called global heating and not global warming. If we just talk about global average temperatures and expected outcomes in 2050 or 2100, it’s too easy to for- get about the problem. And “warming” is too benign a word. We can’t and should not forget about it — it’s happening now and is hurting us now.

The stress caused by the extreme weather makes me wonder whether there will be a knock-on effect on childbirths.

A study published in August this year by Misao Fukuda at M&K Health Institute in Kariya, Hyogo, looked at births in areas hit by events that caused extreme stress. They included Hyogo Prefecture, after the Kobe earthquake of 1995; Tohoku, after the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 and subsequent nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daichii power plant; and Kumamoto Prefecture, after the 2016 earthquakes. It turns out that nine months after such disasters, the proportion of male babies born in those prefectures dropped by 6 to 14 percent.

What’s going on here? Perhaps sperm carrying the Y chromosome are more vulnerable to stress, or the male embryos themselves are more vulnerable. No one knows the answer. We also don’t know why, by the way, that even under normal conditions there is an inequality in the number of babies born of each sex: on average 105 boys are born for every 100 girls.

In September, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) celebrated an extraordinary success. The Hayabusa2 spacecraft, in orbit around the asteroid Ryugu, deployed two small rovers to the surface of the asteroid. They sent back amazing footage of the surface of the space rock, which is about 1 kilometer in diameter and classed as “potentially hazardous” as its orbit means it could collide with Earth.

Next year the rovers will return rock samples to the orbiting Hayabusa2, which will bring them back to Earth in a special container, for scientific study. Ryugu, by the way, means Dragon Palace, a location in a Japanese folk story. In the story, a fisherman rides to the palace on the back of a turtle, and returns with a magical box.

Space missions are always popular, and are followed with great enthusiasm.

Hayabusa2 has a Twitter account with almost 50,000 followers. Just imagine when and if normal humans are able to go to space — by “normal” I mean people like me and you, not highly trained fighter-pilots-turned-astronauts. All Nippon Airways Co. (ANA) announced in September that it is partnering with JAXA — not to send people to space, exactly — but to send their virtual avatars. The Avatar X program will allow people on Earth to inhabit humanoid robots in space, see through their eyes and experience space travel as much as possible. Eventually ANA-JAXA plan to send the avatars to the Moon and Mars and help with construction and farming projects.

Finally, let’s remember that in 2018 a new species of one of my favourite animals was discovered in Yamagata Prefecture. Tardigrades — the eight-legged micro-animals known as water bears — are renowned among biologists for being the hardiest animals in the world. They can go into suspended animation and put life on hold for decades. They have even survived the intense hardships of space. Give them water and they return to life.

It’s always delightful when something of great value is unexpectedly discovered.

The new species of tardigrade turned up in a parking lot in Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, and while it might not be of great value to most, it shows how biological marvels can turn up in the most unexpected of places. Which is a good sentiment on which to end the year.

Rowan Hooper is managing editor of New Scientist magazine. He tweets at @rowhoop and his book, “Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Mental and Physical Ability,” is out now, published by Simon & Schuster.