By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE executive editor
Let’s start with the basics: Earth is not flat. However, you’d also be technically correct (the best kind of correct) in saying our planet is not round, either. A collision of natural phenomena make the exact shape of our planet tough to pin down, and that in turn affects one of the most intriguing geography questions asked around the world: How tall is Mount Everest?
One thing I learned quickly as a science journalist is that humans have a fondness for superlatives. Discoveries make headlines when they can reliably claim something is the oldest, the largest, the fastest, the strongest. The next thing I learned is that you should always be skeptical of superlatives—plenty of people are always on the hunt for the next record-breaker, and mistakes can be made in the rush to claim the crown.
In my lifetime, though, the top of Mount Everest has held on to the title of the world’s highest peak. According to the National Geographic Society, which uses survey data from 1999, the Himalaya mountain comes in at a staggering 29,035 feet above sea level. Of course, the technically correct among you will note that the tallest mountain measured from base to summit is Mauna Kea in Hawaii, and the tallest mountain measured from Earth’s core to its peak is Chimborazo in Ecuador.
But Everest will always hold a special place in the hearts of extreme climbers and geography fans, which is part of why people were stricken by the news that Everest may have gotten a wee bit shorter following a major earthquake in 2015. So, surveyors (pictured above) trekked last year to the top in frigid conditions (with one team member even losing a toe) to bring state-of-the-art instruments up the summit and, among other scientific goals, re-measure the mountain.
For now, the results are still pending, Freddie Wilkinson reports for Nat Geo. The border dividing Nepal from China-controlled Tibet runs through the mountain’s summit, and teams from Nepal and China each conducted surveys. Until both countries are ready to jointly announce their findings, the world waits with bated breath to find out whether Everest has actually shrunk.
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Today in a minute
Supremely wavy and loopy: That’s a meteorologist describing the jet stream right now. What it means is that America’s West is getting more of the dry, hot weather that helps kindle wildfires, while the Midwest and East Coast will be getting a shock of cold weather. Nat Geo’s Alejandra Borunda writes that it’s unclear whether this type of ultra-wavy jet stream, which often ends up with weather systems “stuck” in place for days or weeks, are intensifying or becoming more common as human-caused climate change reshapes the planet. So far this season, wildfires have charred an area equal to a New Jersey-sized chunk of the West.
Related: The West Coast suffered some of the poorest air quality on Earth this past month. The smoke from the wildfires, Stanford researchers estimate, may have been indirectly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people 65 and older. See the 3-D images of that bad air and its implications here. Also recommended for Western residents: a HEPA filter at home, and a flu shot for everybody.
News from Mars: It’s not just water. It’s a whole water system. That’s what new research suggests around the Martian south pole. Beneath a mile of ice, multiple small ponds appear to surround a large lake, Nat Geo’s Nadia Drake writes. Not all scientists are on board with Martian liquid assessment, partly because the region is usually 150 degrees below zero. “Patchy sludge at best, maybe?” suggests the University of Arizona’s Jack Holt, who studies Mars using similar techniques.
First were birders: Last week, mammalogists. This is Black in Microbiology Week, with the same goal that Black colleagues working in other branches of science have had: to encourage and to promote careers in a white-dominated field for African Americans. Over Zoom, this week offers an opportunity to discover and be discovered, says Michael D. L. Johnson, a microbiologist and immunologist at the University of Arizona. “This is really a chance to welcome new voices and amplify those that have not been heard,” Johnson told the New York Times.
Will we ever trust crowds again? People aren’t cringing around strangers and crowds because of pre-existing senses of fear or loathing. Instead, many people in these times of COVID-19 are simultaneously learning a new emotional experience, neuroscientists and psychologists say. It’s normal—and we might work through it once we get through the pandemic, writes Philip Kiefer. “Feeling nauseous at the thought of a dish that once brought on a bout of food poisoning is essentially the same thing as the squickiness you may now experience when someone gets too close in a crowd."
Instagram photo of the day
Life on Venus? Our neighboring planet appears bright in the morning twilight of the ALMA radio telescopes, sitting at 16,000 feet in the Chilean Andes. Groundbreaking observations, using this array of 66 dishes and the JCMT telescope in Hawaii, revealed a possible sign of life in the clouds over Venus. (More than 330,000 people liked this photograph on our Instagram page over the past two weeks.) Venus, the hottest solar system planet with a surface temperature of 900 degrees Fahrenheit, doesn't seem like a good place for life, but scientists speculated for decades that Venus’s atmosphere could be home to aerial microbes. Now, a rare molecule known as phosphine has been observed in Venus’s clouds. On Earth, it is produced by microbes in oxygen-free environments. Sample-return missions are needed to confirm the notion.
Related: Possible sign of life found on Venus
The night skies
See Venus yourself: Early risers at dawn on Friday and Saturday should look toward the eastern horizon to catch Venus and the constellation Leo’s brightest star, Regulus. Both will appear like brilliant stars side-by-side. On Friday night, look for the nearly full moon approaching brilliant Mars. The difference between the moon’s silvery hue and the ruddiness of Mars will be even more noticeable with proximity. In the next few weeks, Mars will be making its closest approach to Earth, so it will be the brightest and biggest we’ll be able to see in years. — Andrew Fazekas
The big takeaway
Colossal crater in Siberia: First off, what caused it? The gaping hole, discovered by a TV crew flying over the remote land, is likely from eruptions of methane and carbon dioxide gas trapped within mounds of dirt and ice. This process of cryovolcanism, in which eruptions take the form of frosty mud or slush rather than fiery molten rocks, is more often seen on far-flung worlds, such as the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn. But as Nat Geo’s Maya Wei-Haas reports, the powerful blasts from the frozen ground might become more common in Siberia as the climate changes. (Pictured above, the newfound crater, extending 164 feet into the frozen ground.)
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
Preserving Alaska: Decades ago, photographer Acacia Johnson’s parents set up shop in remote Alaska to help show the world more about brown bears, which gathered each summer in the Katmai National Park to graze on protein-rich sedge grass (above) or scoop up salmon from the world’s biggest salmon run. Small groups of nature-loving tourists would stay in the Johnson’s family lodge. That bear-watching environment may change if a massive mining operation and port goes through. (Below left, the coastline of Chenik, Alaska, as seen from the air; right, a curious red fox approaches through a field of wildflowers in Hallo Bay.)