Ocean surprises: Get out your microscope and headphones

Along with new science and technology developments around the world in ocean health and malaria prevention, in the U.S. this spring the impact of Emmett Till’s life and death was observed in the performing arts and in federal law.

1. United States

Lynching became a federal hate crime amid wider efforts to honor the legacy of Emmett Till. The Black teenager was tortured and killed by white supremacists in 1955 after a white woman accused him of whistling at her, and his death galvanized the civil rights movement. After over a century of failed efforts to pass similar legislation, President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act on March 29. The law punishes conspiracy to commit a hate crime that causes serious bodily injury or death with up to 30 years in prison. Legal experts warn that legislation alone is not enough to prevent hate crimes, but many say the law serves an important symbolic purpose.

Why We Wrote This

In our progress roundup are stories about joy following confusion and doubt. As scientists discovering new species and the recovery of a coral reef show us, serious research need not be devoid of fun.

The law comes at a time when the impact of Emmett’s death is gaining renewed attention. The Senate passed a bill in January to posthumously award Emmett and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor awarded by Congress. The legislation is awaiting approval in the House. In Chicago, where Emmett was born, Collaboraction Theatre Company presented a play called “Trial in the Delta: The Murder of Emmett Till” based on direct transcripts of the trial. And a limited TV series, “Women of the Movement,” centering around Ms. Till-Mobley’s relentless pursuit of justice for her son, is airing on ABC this year.
NPR, NBC News, Chicago Tribune, Garden & Gun

2. Tanzania

Katy Migiro/Reuters/File
Workers look for holes in mosquito netting at the A to Z Textile Mills factory in Arusha, Tanzania, in 2016.

“Mosquito grounding” bed nets lowered malaria rates among children by nearly half in a scientific trial in Tanzania. The addition of the chlorfenapyr insecticide paralyzes mosquitoes, preventing them from finding their next host. Tanzanian researchers collaborated with scientists from London and Ottawa to test the nets through a randomized trial that included 4,500 children from 72 villages in the district of Misungwi. They found that the nets lowered malaria rates by 43% in the first year and 37% in the second.

Because prevention programs have led to insecticide resistance in mosquitoes, the researchers are proceeding with caution. But in a country where malaria is one of the leading causes of death, especially among children, the results are welcome news. “By essentially ‘grounding’ the mosquito, our work ... has great potential to maintain control of malaria transmitted by resistant mosquitoes in Africa,” said Dr. Manisha Kulkarni, a scientist at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine.

3. Germany

High-altitude kites are giving wind energy an added lift. Wind turbines are becoming an increasingly affordable piece of the world’s energy puzzle, but they take up large swaths of space and can’t be installed in remote locations like deep oceans, or reach the highest heights where winds blow fastest. Based on estimates, airborne wind energy (AWE) systems could generate 4.5 times as much power as ground-level systems.

Heribert Proepper/AP/File
A SkySails kite helps tug a sea vessel to conserve fuel, near Kiel, Germany, in 2006. The company now uses high-flying kites to generate clean energy.

German company SkySails Power launched the world’s first marketed AWE system this past December, with five massive sails already sold. In Mauritius, one sail currently generates 100 kW of electricity, enough to power 50 homes. The sails are programmed to fly autonomously in a figure-eight pattern at altitudes of up to 800 meters (2,600 feet), and energy is generated by the sail’s tether and a winch on the ground. Various AWE technologies came into focus when Google’s parent company, Alphabet, supported a similar project, Makani. It ultimately folded for financial reasons in 2020, but Makani’s research and patents were made available for others to access freely. Companies like Kitepower in the Netherlands and Kitemill in Norway are also working on AWE systems.
Yale Environment 360  Greentech Media 

4. Indonesia

A coral reef destroyed by blast fishing is making a full, noisy recovery. Using visual surveys, researchers could see that the coral reef in the Spermonde Archipelago in central Indonesia was making a comeback, but they didn’t know to what extent until they began listening. They spent countless hours observing the snaps, purrs, and grunts of the underwater soundscape, excited for a break from the silence of unhealthy reefs. Computerized measurements confirmed the sounds were comparable to reefs that had never been damaged.

“We kept discovering sounds we had never heard. Some were a bit familiar but some were just like, ‘I have no idea what that is.’ It was a real sense of adventure and discovery,” said Tim Lamont, a researcher from the University of Exeter in England and co-author of a study presenting the findings. Specialists from the Mars Coral Reef Restoration project restored the reef by installing webs of sand-coated steel “reef stars” to bridge barren gaps between surviving corals, helping new corals grow quickly. But those involved say restoration shouldn’t replace harm prevention. Blast fishing, which uses explosives to stun and collect fish, is outlawed in much of the world but remains widespread across Southeast Asia and other regions.
The Guardian


Scientists discovered two new nitrogen-fixing phytoplankton species. On the surface of the ocean, nitrogen gas is plentiful – it dissolves from the air above – but not useful to most aquatic organisms. Researchers from the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa found two microscopic diatoms, Epithemia pelagica and Epithemia catenata, capable of converting nitrogen gas into ammonia, which in turn supports plant, algae, and microbial life – and the entire aquatic food chain.

The scientists later learned that these “self-fertilizing” organisms live in oceans around the world. “Both of these diatom species are remarkable because they represent previously unrecognized sources of nitrogen-fixation in the ocean, which is a critical process that helps sustain primary production in nutrient-poor environments,” said Chris Schvarcz, one of the researchers on the project.

A better understanding of how nitrogen-fixing plankton operate is crucial for predicting the impact of warming oceans on biological productivity, according to the study. Or as Grieg Steward, a co-author and professor who worked with Dr. Schvarcz, put it: “Chris’s work is an important reminder of how much one can still learn with a little patience and careful observation!”
Mongabay, University of Hawai’i News, Nature Communications

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