Photograph by Jeff William, NASA
Photograph by Jeff William, NASA
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What kind of future will this planet have in store?

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By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor

It’s not easy being an optimist during a crisis. As I sit hunkered down in my house, a pandemic raging around the globe, I’m thinking about whether my parents are safe and if my elderly cat will be OK without his next vet appointment, rather than imagining a bright future for humankind.

Luckily, Emma Marris is the optimist we need right now, at least when it comes to the ongoing crisis of climate change. On the eve of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Marris looks out on today’s landscape of environmental issues and sees how much better things have actually gotten since 1970, as well as the possible improvements on the horizon for the next 50 years. Writing for next month’s issue of National Geographic, Marris points out the incredible groundswell in public consciousness and the technological advances that together might bring some balance back to the planet.

The counterpoint to this rosy view is whether technology will replace nature rather than allow it to blossom. In her more pessimistic vision, Elizabeth Kolbert makes the case that we’ve already pushed the planet to a tipping point, and many of the solutions on offer “mean we could continue indefinitely along on our current path—altering the atmosphere, draining wetlands, emptying the oceans, and clearing the skies of life.” It’s a scary prospect, she says, to rely on solutions that don’t really address the underlying problems.

Today’s coronavirus situation includes a microcosm of this ideological divide. Early reports based on satellite data show significant drops in emissions from cities that have gone into lockdown and scaled back on manufacturing, such as Beijing and Los Angeles. It’s a fascinating glimpse at how much pollution comes from our “normal” daily operations, and some optimists think it could spur action to keep that output low in the long run. But the pessimists are quick to note that emissions will more likely surge again when the pandemic passes and industry kicks back into gear to make up for lost time.

I find myself wishing for a word in between “optimist” and “pessimist”—something that encapsulates the need to take global problems seriously while focusing on solutions over gloom or panic. Maybe I’ll simply call myself a cheerful realist, and I’ll be grateful when people like Marris and Kolbert (their full essays are available to subscribers below) eloquently remind us how far we’ve come, and what we stand to lose if we don’t act with urgency.

Subscriber exclusives:
Why we'll succeed in saving the planet from climate change
Why we won’t avoid a climate catastrophe
Your actions alone can't save the planet–but these habits can help
Behind the concept of this month's issue

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Your Instagram photo of the day

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Fighting world-class stress: Nurses from across the University of Washington system in Seattle pause for a brief yoga and stretching session during drive-thru testing for COVID-19. Here's Aaron Huey's video, which has been viewed 6.2 million times in the past four days.

Related: Six leading physicians explain what we know about treating COVID-19 in the ER and at home

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Today in a minute

Striped bass, now contaminated: That’s the case on North Carolina’s Cape Fear River, Nat Geo’s Sarah Gibbens reports. The contaminant: PFAS, a family of long-lasting chemicals found in many consumer products and fire-fighting foams. A new study shows the North Carolina stripers have the highest rates of PFAS documented in North American fish.

Herd immunity: Britain’s initial plan to fight COVID-19 involved trying to suppress it gradually, rather than trying to stamp it out entirely. The U.K. chose not to shut down large gatherings or introduce stringent social distancing measures. When it became evident that herd immunity would overwhelm hospitals in the virus’s first wave, Britain changed tactics. But, as Cathleen O'Grady writes for Nat Geo, herd immunity may yet have a role in defusing the coronavirus in the long run.

Pulsing in Yellowstone: Right in the center of the U.S. national park, Steamboat Geyser, the world’s tallest active geyser, has been erupting at a record-breaking pace since March 2018. It is part of an area larger than Chicago that has been inflating and deflating by several inches in erratic bursts. It’s not like the supervolcano it is sitting on is going to blow—it hasn’t done that for 640,000 years, and this pulsing has gone on for two decades—but a new study offers clues to this weirdness, Robin George Andrews reports for Nat Geo.

‘Bat woman’: That’s how people refer to Wuhan-based virologist Shi Zhengli, who has explored bat caves in China for years and identified dozens of deadly SARS-like viruses. “Bat-borne coronaviruses will cause more outbreaks,” she tells Jane Qiu, reporting for Scientific American. “We must find them before they find us."

This week in the night sky

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Venus and Uranus take center stage: The planet Venus has been dominating the southwestern evening sky for months, and this week it reaches its widest separation from the sun. View our sister planet through a telescope and you’ll notice that it will look like a miniature version of a half-lit moon. On Friday and Saturday nights, look for the waxing crescent moon to pose with Venus, creating a great photo opportunity. As we head into April, continue to watch Venus brighten even more as it begins to swing closer to the sun again. Just after dusk on Thursday, look for the crescent moon to guide you to the ice giant planet Uranus. The planet will be visible as a very faint green-blue star only seven degrees south of the moon. —Andrew Fazekas

The big takeaway

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An astronaut’s hope: NASA’s Chris Cassidy is about to go into quarantine, but his isolation is normal for an astronaut preparing for six months in space. “The real weird part is everybody else also being in quarantine,” Cassidy tells Nat Geo’s Michael Greshko before he joins the International Space Station for his third trip. When he returns to Earth, he hopes the world will have defeated COVID-19. “In all likelihood, I'll come back to Earth in October, and knock on wood, the pandemic will be kind of behind us, and people will start trying to get back to normal existence, much like in the months after 9/11."

In a few words

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On Thursday, Rachael Bale covers the latest in animal news. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Whitney Johnson on photography, Debra Adams Simmons on history, and George Stone on travel.

The last glimpse

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Frozen? No: A surfer catches a wave on an ice-free Lake Superior outside of Duluth, Minnesota, on the last day of 2019. Lake Superior, which depends on winter ice cover, saw only 20 percent of the lake frozen at the height of winter. Superior is the second-fastest warming lake in the world; its water is warming up more quickly than the air around it.

Read: The Great Lakes depend on winter ice cover. There’s less of it now.

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Eslah Attar. Have an idea, a link, a good book we should read during self-quarantine? We'd love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading, and have a safe and sane week ahead.