What's behind the hurricanes and wildfires?

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By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor

This spring, early in the pandemic’s reign, I saw a lot of chatter about how people racing to understand COVID-19 might learn a few lessons from people on the climate beat. The problems are very different, but the challenges they present—and our best hopes for recovery—are shockingly similar. Listen to the science; take individual action; fight for larger systemic change. It’s an apt comparison, though some people have expressed concern that solving the pandemic has now come to overshadow efforts to address the climate crisis.

Earth, it seems, plans to make sure we can’t ignore it.

Not one but two tropical storms bore down on the Gulf of Mexico this week. While Tropical Storm Marco lashed Louisiana with heavy rain on Monday, Hurricane Laura brought damaging floods to the Caribbean and is expected to make landfall early Thursday in Louisiana or Texas as a category three tempest. (Pictured above, people being evacuated from Lake Charles, Louisiana.) Having two named storms in the Gulf so close together is very unusual, but perhaps it’s not that surprising to climate scientists, who forecast that 2020 would be an especially active year in the Atlantic, in part due to climate change making storm-forming weather conditions more extreme.

Meanwhile, California was set ablaze in part due to a “historic lightning siege,” Cynthia Gorney writes for Nat Geo. The unusual electrical storms struck during a heat wave, stoking fires that have so far burned more than 1,900 square miles and filled the sky with choking smoke. Gorney describes going outside her home in Oakland to pick up the morning papers, as ash flutters onto her arms. “The headlines and front-page stories contain phrases that read like catastrophic haiku,” she says.

Before the fires, the heat wave had triggered blackouts in California, leaving several hundred thousand homes without air conditioning or powered medical devices. Some critics suggested the blackouts were due to the state’s reliance on renewable energy, primarily solar and wind power, which can be variable. But other experts noted that the variability is predictable enough to be managed with careful planning. The bigger issue is that climate change has exacerbated the overall strain on the state’s power system—in this instance, the heat wave specifically made things worse, Alejandra Borunda reports.

Dealing with all these disasters on top of the pandemic is admittedly overwhelming. People are even taking an apologetic tone when explaining that an asteroid passing close to Earth near election day is not going to hit us, and is too small to wipe us all out if it did. But that would be the easy way out of this mess. Although she wrote these words long before anyone had uttered the phrase “doomscrolling,” I opt to take a lesson from Emma Marris and her approach to tackling our climate future, as outlined in the April issue of National Geographic: “In the midst of a swirling sea of sorrow, anxiety, fury, and love for the beautiful weirdness of life on Earth, I find an iron determination to never, ever, give up."

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Today in a minute

Plasma and COVID-19: It’s an old-school approach to fight outbreaks: transfer the liquid part of blood from recovered patients to people with the disease to help treat the worst cases of the pandemic virus. However, the data on the procedure have not yet confirmed its effectiveness for treating COVID-19, Nat Geo’s Michael Greshko reports. A fatal flaw in one test of the procedure? The trial, which has not been peer reviewed, lacks a control group—people who didn’t receive plasma—to serve as a point of comparison.

Africa declared free of wild polio: Twenty-five years ago, thousands of children in Africa were paralyzed by polio. A decade ago, Nigeria had half the world’s polio cases. Now Nigeria has been declared free of the illness, the last African country to be certified, the BBC reports. The world’s remaining cases now are limited to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

How hot can Earth get? The 130 degrees Fahrenheit registered last week in Death Valley, California represented the highest mark on Earth in nearly nine decades. That mark won’t last long with the carbon we’re pumping into the atmosphere, Madeleine Stone reports for Nat Geo. Extreme weather researchers predict that, by the end of the century, heat waves in California could top out at temperatures about 10 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit higher than they do today.

Our future: What will nature be like for our children and grandchildren? That’s the topic of the just-published The Nature of Nature: Why We Need the Wild by Nat Geo Explorer in Residence Enric Sala. At 5:30 p.m. ET Sunday, join Sala, Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin, and special guests including chef José Andrés in a virtual chat about the book (and why now is a moment to protect the planet for future generations). RSVP here.

Your Instagram photo of the day

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Raining stars? Due to Earth's rotation, stars appear to rain down on the Volcán de Fuego (fire volcano) in Guatemala. The long exposure is the result of a timelapse sequence. On this November 2019 night, photographer Babak Tafreshi recorded an average of 10 explosions an hour above the volcano's summit. The volcano has been continuously active since a catastrophic eruption on June 3, 2018, that killed hundreds of people and affected nearly two million. Avalanches of hot gas and debris called pyroclastic flows raced down the mountain, engulfing whole villages at the bottom, Tafreshi said.

Related: Studying Guatemala’s deadly volcano system

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This week in the night sky

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Planets take aim at the archer: This week, look for the moon to pose with two of the solar system’s largest planets in the constellation Sagittarius. On Friday night, the waxing gibbous moon and Jupiter will appear within the constellation as it sits above the southern horizon. Binoculars will reveal Jupiter’s four largest moons. By Saturday evening, the moon will slide over to join Saturn, and a small telescope will show off that planet’s famous rings. The dwarf planet Ceres will reach opposition Friday, too, meaning it will be at its brightest this year. Ceres, which orbits between Mars and Jupiter, has been traditionally thought of as the largest asteroid in the inner solar system, yet it is only 6 percent as wide as Earth. With binoculars, you will be able to see Ceres gliding silently through the faint stars of Aquarius, halfway between the planets Mars and Saturn. — Andrew Fazekas

The big takeaway

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Who’s your PCP? More Americans under age 60, particularly women, do not have a primary care physician. Some bypass them for specialists, who are more effective at a particular health issue. With COVID-19, access to such specialists may be delayed or limited due to pandemic-related restrictions, Kelly Glass reports for Nat Geo. Even before the crisis, impediments to primary-care access contributed to an estimated 130,000 American deaths a year, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Above, hospital workers in Connecticut help a COVID-19 patient take her first steps after being removed from a ventilator.

Related: Why walking is the ideal pandemic activity

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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Where the forests are holy: Who got the first cut of beef, the first mug of beer, the first gulp of vodka? In Estonia, the tradition goes, the trees do. Thousands follow a pre-Christian religion of forest worship called Maausk, but the forest acreage is declining these days. Lumber companies have chopped down trees to produce wood pellets for biofuel. The companies say they are replanting seedlings that would grow into commercially viable wood. “You can plant trees,” Estonian ecologist Asko Lõhmus tells Nat Geo, “but you can’t plant a forest.” Pictured above: Eda Veeroja takes a moment while collecting young branches for the sauna on her farm in southern Estonia. Below left, a singer rests amid trees in the capital, Tallinn. Below right, a smoke sauna in southern Estonia.

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Jen Tse and production help from Kimberly Pecoraro. Have an idea or a link? Send it our way at Thanks for reading, and have a good week ahead.