How can we visualize the world to come?

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By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor

Earlier this year, my family celebrated the life of my paternal grandmother. She had turned 93 shortly before she passed, and at her wake, my uncle shared a scrapbook she had helped compile of family milestones, from moves to births to professional changes. Seeing this highly personal pictorial history really drove home for me how much the world can change over one remarkable human lifetime.

So, what will the world be like when I’m 93? Thanks to an incredible new interactive (and our new augmented reality magazine cover), I’ve got at least one scientifically plausible prognostication to ponder.

In visualizations made for Nat Geo’s Earth Day issue, Brian Jacobs and Alejandra Borunda guide readers through the drastic changes thousands of populated areas will face if we don’t take steps now to curb carbon emissions. The interactive draws fascinating comparisons between the conditions we experience today and the cities that will serve as climate analogs in 50 years. Even better, people can choose which cities to explore to really personalize the message.

My hometown of Washington, D.C., will feel more like Clarksdale, Mississippi, does today, the simulation shows. And Corpus Christi, Texas—the city where my grandparents settled after retirement from the Navy—will change climate zones completely, going from a temperate region to an arid steppe. In some places, people will experience heat and precipitation unlike anything seen on the planet today.

Readers of a previous newsletter may recall that I seek to exist somewhere between an optimist and a pessimist (some of your most colorful suggestions: “optipest”, “possimist”, “midimist”, “pragmatic idealist”, “nominalist”). Yes, humans are innovative and adaptable, and even under this worst-case scenario for climate change, our species will no doubt persist. But in this case, I’ll lean toward the optimistic view that we’ll use our innovation to get carbon emissions in check, and the world I’ll see at 93 will actually be a much cooler place.

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Poll: COVID-19 prompts hygiene changes

We talked about improving hygiene to deter the coronavirus last week, and now we have a few numbers to back it up. Nearly 9 in 10 Americans report upgrading their hand-washing regimen in recent weeks, and huge majorities are making strong efforts to avoid contact with sick people and to cover their sneezes and coughs, a new National Geographic and Morning Consult poll finds. Two-thirds of the 2,200 Americans polled said they are avoiding touching their eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. The poll, conducted last week, found that 26 percent of Americans say they always wear a face mask when leaving their home (32 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds). Overall, 47 percent say they are wearing a medical face mask more often amid the pandemic, with no real difference between age groups. Officials have urged wearing masks when heading outside, but note that’s only one part of protecting yourself, along with social distancing and generally staying inside.

Your Instagram photo of the day

Losing ice from Iceland: Sheets of ice can be seen from above as they move under a bridge in southwestern Iceland. The sheets floated down a river near the village of Selfoss, says photographer Matthew Borowick. This is the last step before these sheets of ice enter the sea.

Related: An epic road trip through the land of fire and ice

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Today in a minute

Not yet with the vaccine: It’s going to be at least a year before we see a useable vaccine against COVID-19. Clinical trials come with three phases, and the first stages of the current COVID-19 trials aren’t due for completion until this fall, spring 2021, or much later. Even that timeframe is optimistic, writes Nat Geo’s Nsikan Akpan. “A year to 18 months would be absolutely unprecedented,” says Peter Hotez, dean at Baylor University’s National School of Tropical Medicine. “Maybe with the new technology, maybe with throwing enough money on it, that'll happen. But we have to be really careful about those time estimates.”

Hack my dreams? That’s what MIT’s Dream Lab is hoping to do, developing novel and open source wearable devices that track and interact with dreams in various ways, OneZero reports. The hypothesis: When dreams can be hacked, augmented, and swayed, our waking lives benefit. “When you go inside, you come out different in the morning,” researcher Adam Horowitz says. “But we have not been asking questions about the experience of that transformation of information or the thoughts that guide it.”

Speaking of dreams: Are your dreams becoming uncharacteristically vivid and unusual during the pandemic? Without usual stimuli, your subconscious mind may be digging deeper into your past. At least five research groups are conducting studies, Rebecca Renner writes for Nat Geo.

Really. A potato? That may be what early Earth looked like. How? Once much closer to the planet, the newly formed moon forced Earth to spin so quickly it was stretched, according to a new model. This model describes the shapes of that early Earth as something between a double-sided frisbee and a rugby ball, or even a potato. Although the model hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed, several experts think it has plenty of merit, even though it challenges basic assumptions. “It’s a very different world than people have been imagining,” says Simon Lock, a Caltech planetary scientist and a co-author of the work.

This week in the night sky

Breaking (comet) news: With dark skies as we head toward a new moon on the 23rd, Saturday onward will be an ideal time to begin hunting down comets. Until a few days ago, the newly noticed comet Atlas was a prime viewing target, brightening more than 6,000-fold in just the last two months. However, the comet has broken up into at least four pieces in recent days, astronomers say. The dimming Atlas is still visible through large binoculars and backyard telescopes between the North Star and the bright orange star Capella, with an uncertain future as it nears the sun. Also, on Thursday, don’t forget to watch the crescent moon pair up with red-colored Mars at dawn in the eastern sky. —Andrew Fazekas

The big takeaway

Now essential workers: Farm work has always had elements of danger, but the spread of COVID-19 has brought new risks to those who pick the fruits and vegetables we eat. The workers, half of whom are undocumented and cannot get social benefits given to others, have watched as supermarket shelves emptied and prices rose. Nat Geo’s Alejandra Borunda writes that for one farmworker, “bottled water became scarce and expensive; the masks she wears to protect against dust disappeared; and the nearby hospital braced for the worst.” At one California farm, workers (pictured above) listen to new safety protocols intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But Borunda reports that at a time when the United States needs to do everything it can to preserve the food supply chain, many workers are receiving mixed or few signals from their employers about how to protect themselves.

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

Not a cigar: This weird, oblong-shaped object caused a stir when it was sighted passing through our solar system—and accelerating as it approached the sun. Now scientists have a possible origin story for the first known interstellar object, called 'Oumuamua. Its strange shape may be because it was part of a planet that was ripped to pieces by its home star, Nat Geo's Nadia Drake reports. Drake answers another question, too: 'Oumuamua, discovered by a team in Hawaii, means “a messenger from afar arriving first” in Hawaiian.

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Eslah Attar and Jen Tse. Have an idea or a link? We'd love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading, and stay safe.

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