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It will start with a flash of light brighter than any words of any human language can describe. When the bomb hits, its thermal radiation, released in just 300 hundred-millionths of a second, will heat up the air over K Street to about 18 million degrees Fahrenheit. It will be so bright that it will bleach out the photochemicals in the retinas of anyone looking at it, causing people as far away as Bethesda and Andrews Air Force Base to go instantly, if temporarily, blind. In a second, thousands of car accidents will pile up on every road and highway in a 15-mile radius around the city, making many impassable.

That’s what scientists know for sure about what would happen if Washington, DC, were hit by a nuke. But few know what the people—those who don’t die in the blast or the immediate fallout—will do. Will they riot? Flee? Panic? Chris Barrett, though, he knows.

When the computer scientist began his career at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, the Cold War was trudging into its fifth decade. It was 1987, still four years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Researchers had made projections of the blast radius and fallout blooms that would result from a 10-kiloton bomb landing in the nation’s capital, but they mostly calculated the immediate death toll. They weren’t used for much in the way of planning for rescue and recovery, because back then, the most likely scenario was mutually assured destruction.

But in the decades since, the world has changed. Nuclear threats come not from world powers but from rogue nation states and terrorist organizations. The US now has a $40 billion missile interception system; total annihilation is not presupposed.

The science of prediction has changed a lot, too. Now, researchers like Barrett, who directs the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech, have access to an unprecedented level of data from more than 40 different sources, including smartphones, satellites, remote sensors, and census surveys. They can use it to model synthetic populations of the whole city of DC—and make these unfortunate, imaginary people experience a hypothetical blast over and over again.

That knowledge isn’t simply theoretical: The Department of Defense is using Barrett’s simulations—projecting the behavior of survivors in the 36 hours post-disaster—to form emergency response strategies they hope will make the best of the worst possible situation.

You can think of Barrett’s system as a series of virtualized representation layers. On the bottom is a series of datasets that describe the physical landscape of DC—buildings, roads, the electrical grid, water lines, hospital systems. On top of that is dynamic data, like how traffic flows around the city, surges in electrical usage, and telecommunications bandwidth. Then there’s the synthetic human population. The makeup of these e-peeps is determined by census information, mobility surveys, tourism statistics, social media networks, and smartphone data, which is calibrated down to a single city block.

So say you’re a parent in a two-person working household with two kids under the age of 10 living on the corner of First and Adams Streets. The synthetic family that lives at that address inside the simulation may not travel to the actual office or school or daycare buildings that your family visits every day, but somewhere on your block a family of four will do something similar at similar times of day. “They’re not you, they’re not me, they’re people in aggregate,” Barrett says. “But it’s just like the block you live in; same family structures, same activity structures, everything.”

Fusing together the 40-plus databases to get this single snapshot requires tremendous computing power. Blowing it all up with a hypothetical nuclear bomb and watching things unfold for 36 hours takes exponentially more. When Barrett’s group at Virginia Tech simulated what would happen if the populations exhibited six different kinds of behaviors—like healthcare-seeking vs. shelter-seeking—it took more than a day to run and produced 250 terabytes of data. And that was taking advantage of the institute’s new 8,600-core cluster, recently donated by NASA. Last year, the US Threat Reduction Agency awarded them $27 million to speed up the pace of their analysis, so it could be run in something closer to real time.

The system takes advantage of existing destruction models, ones that have been well-characterized for decades. So simulating the first 10 or so minutes after impact doesn’t chew up much in the way of CPUs. By that time, successive waves of heat and radiation and compressed air and geomagnetic surge will have barreled through every building within five miles of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. These powerful pulses will have winked out the electrical grid, crippled computers, disabled phones, burned thread patterns into human flesh, imploded lungs, perforated eardrums, collapsed residences, and made shrapnel of every window in the greater metro area. Some 90,000 people will be dead; nearly everyone else will be injured. And the nuclear fallout will be just beginning.

That’s where Barrett’s simulations really start to get interesting. In addition to information about where they live and what they do, each synthetic Washingtonite is also assigned a number of characteristics following the initial blast—how healthy they are, how mobile, what time they made their last phone call, whether they can receive an emergency broadcast. And most important, what actions they’ll take.

These are based on historical studies of how humans behave in disasters. Even if people are told to shelter in place until help arrives, for example, they’ll usually only follow those orders if they can communicate with family members. They’re also more likely to go toward a disaster area than away from it—either to search for family members or help those in need. Barrett says he learned that most keenly in seeing how people responded in the hours after 9/11.

Inside the model, each artificial citizen can track family members’ health states; this knowledge is updated whenever they either successfully place a call or meet them in person. The simulation runs like an unfathomably gnarled decision tree. The model asks each agent a series of questions over and over as time moves forward: Is your household together? If so, go to the closest evacuation location. If not, call all household members. That gets paired with the likelihood that the avatar’s phone is working at that moment, that their family members are still alive, and that they haven’t accumulated so much radiation that they’re too sick to move. And on and on and on until the 36-hour clock runs out.

Then Barrett’s team can run experiments to see how different behaviors result in different mortality rates. The thing that leads to the worst outcomes? If people miss or disregard messages that tell them to delay their evacuation, they may be exposed to more of the fallout—the residual radioactive dust and ash that “falls out” of the atmosphere. About 25,000 more people die if everyone tries to be a hero, encountering lethal levels of radiation when they approach within a mile of ground zero.

Those scenarios give clues about how the government might minimize lethal behaviors and encourage other kinds. Like dropping in temporary cell phone communication networks or broadcasting them from drones. “If phones can work even marginally, then people are empowered with information to make better choices,” Barrett says. Then they'll be part of the solution rather than a problem to be managed. “Survivors can provide first-hand accounts of conditions on the ground—they can become human sensors.”

Not everyone is convinced that massive simulations are the best basis for formulating national policy. Lee Clarke, a sociologist at Rutgers who studies calamities, calls these sorts of preparedness plans "fantasy documents," designed to give the public a sense of comfort, but not much else. "They pretend that really catastrophic events can be controlled," he says, "when the truth of the matter is, we know that either we can't control it or there's no way to know."

Maybe not, but someone still has to try. For the next five years, Barrett’s team will be using its high-throughput modeling system to help the Defense Threat Reduction Agency grapple not just with nuclear bombs but with infectious disease epidemics and natural disasters too. That means they’re updating the system to respond in real time to whatever data they slot in. But when it comes to atomic attacks, they’re hoping to stick to planning.

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Do you like a planet that hasn’t yet melted? Do you like sushi? How about breathing? Then you’re secretly in love with plankton, tiny marine organisms that float around at the mercy of currents. They sequester carbon dioxide and provide two thirds of the oxygen in our atmosphere and sacrifice themselves as baby food for the young fish that eventually end up on your plate.

Yet science knows little about the complex dynamics of plankton on ocean-wide scales. So researchers are asking the machines for help, developing clever robots that use AI to examine and classify plankton, the pivotal organisms at the base of our oceanic food chain. That kind of work will be critical as Earth’s oceans continue to transform, potentially throwing ecosystems in chaos.

Take IBM’s ocean-going microscopes—which, conveniently, leverage the same technology sitting in your pocket right now. Two LEDs sit a few inches above the same kind of image sensor you'd find in a smartphone. When plankton pass over the sensor, they cast two shadows. “So by taking two pictures, one with each LED, you can get the 3-D position of all the plankton in a drop of water on the image sensor,” says Tom Zimmerman, a researcher at IBM.

So you’ve got an image of some plankton, which could be one of two types: zooplankton are animals like fish larvae, and phytoplankton are marine algae. The old way of identifying them—there are over 4,000 species of phytoplankton alone—used to be to sort through it with the eyeballs of a human expert. But now researchers have artificial intelligence: IBM is working to integrate AI into the system to automatically quantify and identify the specks. The idea is to create a floating instrument that dangles hoses of different lengths so it can sample plankton concentrates at different depths. A network of these microscopes could then alert scientists to anomalies as they unfold in real time.

Take, for example, the misadventures of a zooplankton called a copepod. It eats algae, which can contain a toxin that gets it drunk. “Now, you think that would be fun for the copepods, but it isn't, because usually copepods dart around in random directions which helps them avoid being eaten by their predators,” says Zimmerman. “But when they get drunk they go straight and fast, which makes it really easy for them to get picked off by their predators.”

So the local copepod population starts to crash, and the algae population in turn explodes, the phytoplankton poisoning themselves with all their waste products. They die and release toxins that poison other organisms, and suck all the oxygen out of the water as they decay. Now you’ve got a whole lot of dead critters on your hands. “That's a case where watching the behavior [of plankton] would indicate that there's some imbalance,” says Zimmerman. “That's the kind of stuff we have to monitor.”

The system can at the moment track plankton concentrations. But it’s not just about quantifying the amount of plankton in a given area—it’s about decoding the balance between the zooplankton that eat phytoplankton, and how the organisms are behaving individually and as part of a group. IBM eventually wants to track things like drunken copepod movements in real time; it's still building a library of plankton, but hopes to have a system of devices in the wild within five years.

Scientists have to consider shape, too. A giant single-celled organism called a stentor, for example, is normally trumpet-shaped, but will ball up when exposed to too much sugar. “So behavior, shape, these are all things that with AI we can definitely track to understand if something is going wrong,” says Simone Bianco, a researcher at IBM.

IBM isn’t the first to enlist AI in the quest to better understand plankton. The excellently named FlowCytobot sticks to piers and sucks in water, which passes through a laser. Particles like plankton scatter this light, which triggers an imager.

The system judges the images based on some 250 features, like symmetry. “Then through manual classification, where the user creates an image training set of hundreds of images at a time, the neural net learns to identify those plankton without user input,” says Ivory Engstrom, director of special projects at McLane Research Laboratories, a scientific instrument company that makes the FlowCytobot.

The FlowCytobot alerts scientists, like these studying algae blooms in Texas, to events like the outbreak of toxin, but it’s tethered in one place. Over at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, scientists are working on a more mobile platform for monitoring plankton: the Wave Glider. Think of it like a very expensive surfboard, loaded with solar-powered instruments.

MBARI researcher Thom Maughan is developing his own microscope that’ll allow the Wave Glider to sniff out plankton. This data will be made publicly available through MBARI’s Oceanographic Decision Support System. “When we show the Wave Glider in its position out there, you'll be able to hover your mouse over it and get some idea of the size distribution of the microorganisms that the microscope is seeing,” says Maughan. “Then you should be able to drill down and see what types of organisms are being identified.”

This kind of automation isn’t just about convenience—it’s about necessity. “It's getting to be a rare person that can identify the plankton,” says Maughan. “Those are the old-school traditional microbiologists. Apparently they're getting to be fewer and fewer of those folks who are really intimate with that plankton world.”

With the oceans undergoing rapid transformation, science can’t afford to lose this knowledge. Plankton are all too important, and still all too mysterious. Leave it to the machines, though, to help make sense of a confounding ocean kingdom.

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Lyft Delivers Carbon-Neutral Rides

March 20, 2019 | Story | No Comments

This story originally appeared on CityLab and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Over the years, John Zimmer, the co-founder and president of Lyft, has often pointed to a class he took as an undergraduate as the source of his ideas about environmental sustainability—and by extension, Lyft’s goals to create greener transportation options.

The class at Cornell University was called “Green Cities.” The professor, Robert Young, opened the first lecture by describing how roads and transit systems built decades ago weren’t designed to sustain the rapid growth of urban populations today, Zimmer recalled. “If we don’t fix the infrastructure problem, we’re going to have a major economic and environmental problem,” Zimmer told a roundtable of reporters in Washington, DC, in late March.

Founded in 2012, Lyft is now an $11 billion ride-hailing company, second in the industry to Uber alone. Its concept of ride-hailing has long been founded on reducing the need for personal car ownership. But today, the company made perhaps its most meaningful move yet towards reducing carbon emissions: Lyft is promising to offset the carbon emissions of every ride around the world, making all rides “carbon neutral.” From now on, Zimmer and his co-founder Logan Green wrote in a Medium post, “your decision to ride with Lyft will support the fight against climate change.”

According to the post, Lyft’s total annual investment will amount to over a million metric tons of carbon, “equivalent to planting tens of millions of trees or taking hundreds of thousands of cars off the road,” which will make Lyft one of the largest voluntary purchasers of carbon offsets in the world. Scott Coriell, a Lyft communications officer, said the company does not have a specific estimate for the cost of the investment, but that it will be in the millions of dollars. According to a 2015 report by the NGO Ecosystem Marketplace, General Motors, Barclays bank, and PG&E were the top three voluntary buyers of offsets between 2012 and 2013, respectively scooping up 4.6 million, 2.1 million, and 1.4 million carbon offsets, which are measured in metric tons, during that period.

Carbon offsets have been the subject of some scrutiny and scandal; some companies that take money promising to plant trees and capture emissions have been exposed as worthless or scams. Coriell noted that Lyft will become carbon neutral by investing in offset projects that would not have happened without their backing. These projects will all be US-based and close to Lyft’s largest markets, Corriel said, and will include investments in a manufacturing emissions reductions project in Michigan, oil recycling in Ohio, and a wind energy farm in Oklahoma. These projects are verified under the American Carbon Registry, Climate Action Reserve, or Verified Carbon Standard—all rigorous third-party standard setters of legitimacy.

The announcement is not Lyft’s first gesture towards environmental sustainability. In 2017, it signed “We Are Still In,” joining hundreds of states, cities, and corporations (including Uber) in pledging to uphold the US carbon emissions reduction goals set forth by the Paris climate accord, after President Donald Trump announced plans to withdraw the country’s commitment. At the time, Lyft also outlined plans to make the majority of its fleet autonomous and electric by 2025. “Bringing more electric vehicles onto the platform in the future will help us reduce the needs for offsets,” Coriell wrote.

As part of its own efforts to reduce car ownership, Uber has recently pivoted to become a multi-modal mobility provider, building car- and bike-sharing services into its app. It has not announced any plans to offset its carbon emissions. An Uber representative declined to comment on Lyft’s announcement.

Lyft’s commitment to carbon-neutrality is especially meaningful, because one irony of the ride-hailing industry is that, so far, it’s likely creating more vehicle miles traveled, not less. Though some studies have suggested that ride-hailing users are more likely to give up personal car ownership, more and more research shows that the convenience and relatively low cost of on-demand rides are leading travelers to take trips and generate pollution that they wouldn’t have otherwise. (Plus, all of those deadheading drivers.) As these services lure passengers off of public transit systems, it has become hard to argue that there’s anything particularly environmentally friendly about hailing an Uber or Lyft. This announcement changes that.

Lyft is hardly a perfect citizen, planet-saving-wise. Alongside Uber, it lobbies state legislators to preempt local regulations, which may limit the ability of cities from organizing road space in the most environmentally efficient way possible. And from a sustainability perspective, it would probably be better for Lyft to go carbon-neutral and invest in bike-sharing, as Uber is doing. Even renewably powered electric cars have a sizeable carbon footprint. If customers take a Lyft instead of walking or biking because they think these options are all equally green, they’re wrong.

Still, over the past year, Lyft has made genuine efforts to grow into its image as the “woke” alternative to scandal-ridden Uber, to borrow Zimmer’s term. Donations to the ACLU and free rides to anti-gun rallies have bought it credibility among progressives. Going carbon neutral is probably its most significant step in that direction: It is a lasting delivery of one of the company’s most fundamental promises. That really matters, especially as car manufacturers dial back their Obama-era eco-friendly branding efforts and push to weaken environmental regulations. Lyft seems to have real faith in the notion that there’s a market value in socially conscious transportation—that riders will choose Lyft over other apps, or their own vehicles, because they know it’s a better choice.

“We’re aggressively pursuing a set of values because one, we think it’s the right thing to do and two, it’s good for business,” Zimmer said last month. “That’s what we’re out to prove.”

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The Thomas Fire spread through the hills above Ventura, in the northern greater Los Angeles megalopolis, with the speed of a hurricane. Driven by 50 mph Santa Ana winds—bone-dry katabatic air moving at freeway speeds out of the Mojave desert—the fire transformed overnight from a 5,000-acre burn in a charming chaparral-lined canyon to an inferno the size of Orlando, Florida, that only stopped spreading because it reached the Pacific. Tens of thousands of people evacuated their homes in Ventura; 150 buildings burned and thousands more along the hillside and into downtown are threatened.

That isn’t the only part of Southern California on fire. The hills above Valencia, where Interstate 5 drops down out of the hills into the city, are burning. Same for a hillside of the San Gabriel Mountains, overlooking the San Fernando Valley. And the same, too, near the Mount Wilson Observatory, and on a hillside overlooking Interstate 405—the flames in view of the Getty Center and destroying homes in the rich-people neighborhoods of Bel-Air and Holmby Hills.

And it’s all horribly normal.

Southern California’s transverse ranges—the mostly east-west mountains that slice up and define the greater Los Angeles region—were fire-prone long before there was a Los Angeles. They’re a broken fragment of tectonic plate, squeezed up out of the ground by the Pacific Plate on one side and the North American on the other, shaped into the San Gabriels, the Santa Monica Mountains, the San Bernardino Mountains. Even the Channel Islands off Ventura’s coast are the tippy-tops of a transverse range.

Santa Anas notwithstanding, the transverse ranges usually keep cool coastal air in and arid desert out. Famously, they’re part of why the great California writer Carey McWilliams called the region “an island on the land.” The hills provided hiding places for cowboy crooks, hiking for the naturalist John Muir, and passes both hidden and mapped for natives and explorers coming from the north and east.

With the growth and spread of Los Angeles, fire became even more part of Southern California life. “It’s almost textbook. It’s the end of the summer drought, there has not been a lot of rain this year, and we’ve got Santa Ana winds blowing,” says Alexandra Syphard, an ecologist at the Conservation Biology Institute. “Every single year, we have ideal conditions for the types of wildfires we’re experiencing. What we don’t have every single year is an ignition during a wind event. And we’ve had several.”

Alexandra Syphard, Conservation Biology Institute

Before humans, wildfires happened maybe once or twice a century, long enough for fire-adapted plant species like chapparal to build up a bank of seeds that could come back after a burn. Now, with fires more frequent, native plants can’t keep up. Exotic weeds take root. “A lot of Ventura County has burned way too frequently,” says Jon Keeley, a research ecologist with the US Geological Survey at the Sequoia and Kings Canyon Field Station. “We’ve lost a lot of our natural heritage.”

Fires don’t burn like this in Northern California. That’s one of the things that makes the island on the land an island. Most wildfires in the Sierra Nevadas and northern boreal forests are slower, smaller, and more easily put out, relative to the south. (The Napa and Sonoma fires this year were more like southern fires—wind-driven, outside the forests, and near or amid buildings.) Trees buffer the wind and burn less easily than undergrowth. Keeley says northern mountains and forests are “flammability-limited ecosystems,” where fires only get big if the climate allows it—higher temperatures and dryer conditions providing more fuel. Climate change makes fires there more frequent and more severe.

Southern California, on the other hand, is an “ignition-limited ecosystem.” It’s always a tinderbox. The canyons that cut through the transverse ranges align pretty well with the direction of the Santa Ana winds; they turn into funnels. “Whether or not you get a big fire event depends on whether humans ignite a fire,” he says.

And there are just a lot more humans in Southern California these days. In 1969 Ventura County’s population was 369,811. In 2016 it was 849,738—a faster gain than the state as a whole. In 1970 Los Angeles County had 7,032,000 people; in 2015 it was 9,827,000. “If you look historically at Southern California, the frequency of fire has risen along with population growth,” Keeley says. Though even that has a saturation point. The number of fires—though not necessarily their severity—started declining in the 1980s, maybe because of better fire fighting, and maybe because with more people and more buildings and roads and concrete, there’s less to burn.

As Syphard told me back at the beginning of this year’s fire season, “The problem is not fire. The problem is people in the wrong places.”

Like most fresh-faced young actors in Southern California, the idea of dense development is a relatively recent arrival. Most of the buildings on the island on the land are low, metastasizing in a stellate wave across the landscape, over the flats, up the canyons, and along the hillsides. In 1960 Santa Paula, where the Thomas Fire in Ventura started, was a little town where Santa Paula Canyon hit the Santa Clara River. Today it’s part of greater Ventura, stretching up the canyon, reaching past farms along the river toward Saticoy.

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So the canyons are perfect places for fires. They’re at the Wildland-Urban Interface, developed but not too developed. Wall-to-wall hardscape leaves nothing to burn; no buildings at all means no people to provide an ignition source. But the hills of Ventura or Bel-Air? Firestarty.

As the transverse ranges defined Southern California before Los Angeles and during its spasmodic growth, today it’s defined by freeways. The mountains shape the roads—I-5 coming over the Grapevine through Tejon Pass in the Tehachapis, the 101 skirting the north side of the Santa Monica Mountains, and the 405 tucking through them via the Sepulveda Pass. The freeways, names spoken as a number with a "the" in front, frame time and space in SoCal. For an Angeleno like me, reports of fires closing the 101, the 210, and the 405 are code for the end of the world. Forget Carey McWilliams; that’s some Nathaniel West stuff right there—the burning of Los Angeles from Day of the Locust, the apocalypse that Hollywood always promises.

It won’t be the end end, of course. Southern California zoning and development are flirting, for now at least, with density, accommodating more people, dealing with the state’s broad crisis in housing, and incidentally minimizing the size of the wildland interface. No one can unbuild what makes the place an island on the land, but better building on the island might help stop the next fires before they can start.

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Most mornings when I step out of my San Francisco apartment, I hear the waves, the seagulls, and occasionally kids yelling out the window across the street. But over the past few weeks, the murmur of Ocean Beach has been cut with a low mechanistic rumble. Walk a few blocks and pop your head over the sand dunes and you’ll find the culprits: orange-yellow tractors piling sand into dump trucks, which caravan three miles south and spit out the sand—50,000 cubic yards, or 75,000 tons, of it in total—back on the beach.

That sandy exodus is part of San Francisco’s campaign to fight severe erosion at the southern end of the beach that faces the Pacific Ocean. During a big storm, the bluffs can lose 25 to 40 feet—which might be fine, if the city’s wastewater infrastructure didn’t run right alongside the beach. Specifically, a 14-foot-wide pipe that ferries both stormwater and sewage. If the sea steals the Earth that supports it, the thing could well snap.

The problem at Ocean Beach will only get worse, because the sea has nothing to do but rise in this era of rapid climate change. So will San Francisco spend the rest of its days shoveling sand in a quixotic battle against inevitability? Far from it—it’s all part of a plan to adapt to inevitability, which could set precedent for how this and other coastal cities fight rising seas.

Climate change modeling is complicated: It takes burly supercomputers crunching a galaxy of variables to understand, say, how a warming arctic might be mucking with weather in the United States. But sea level rise? “It's the one area in climate change that's probably more understood than others,” says Anna Roche, project manager at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which is overseeing the digging. “We actually have calculations for how much sea level rise we're anticipating, and you can start making decisions on actual numbers, versus more just pie-in-the-sky discussions.”

Which is not to say those decisions come easy at Ocean Beach. “There's the whole jurisdictional puzzle,” says Ben Grant, urban design policy director at the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association. The National Parks Service runs the beach, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department owns the road that runs along it, and it’s all under the regulatory purview of the California Coastal Commission. “There's just all these different components that need to be considered and balanced.”

What Grant and his colleagues helped craft is a plan that has all those stakeholders and the public. The idea is to replace that beachfront road’s two southbound lanes—that's the Great Highway extension—with a trail as early as this winter. This is known as managed retreat: triaging the infrastructure you’re willing to lose. “By backing up a few hundred feet, you lessen the erosive pressure on the beach and you get a more stable beach,” says Grant.

Meanwhile, engineers will continue to bring in outside sand. But now it’ll come from the Army Corps of Engineers’ regular dredging of shipping channels in the San Francisco Bay—perhaps 10 times the amount the city is currently trucking in from up the beach. This is known as sacrificial protection: dumping sand you know full well will wash away, but will in the interim act as a buffer.

“Now, after that, depending on how sea level rise occurs, we'll see,” says Grant. “We may end up having to make more difficult choices. In fact, I guarantee you we'll have to make more difficult choices all up and down the coast.”

One choice that’s definitely not on a table: doing nothing and letting the sea roll in unabated. “It would be upwards of $75 billion in just replacement costs,” says Diana Sokolove, principal planner at the San Francisco Planning Department, which helped craft the city’s Sea Level Rise Action Plan. “That doesn't even include lost tax revenue or the emotional costs of relocation or lost jobs.”

While it’s relatively easy to map where rising seas are going to inundate land (elevation, elevation, elevation), it’s harder to determine what problems those risings seas are going to cause. The northern coast of San Francisco is particularly low-lying, so its potential for unpredictable flooding—especially during storm surges—is high. And much of the San Francisco Bay Area is built on landfill that’s sinking as seas are rising, exposing some areas more rapidly than others.

“We don't want to be retreating too soon, we don't want to be building walls too soon, we don't want to be spending a ton of money when we don't know exactly what's going to happen,” says Sokolove.

What you do want is what they’re doing at Ocean Beach—keep stakeholders happy, keep the public happy, and figure out how to protect critical infrastructure. We know sea level rise will cause trouble, but it will also unfold over decades, giving engineers and city planners time to perfect what works, and abandon to the sea what doesn’t.

Hopefully the former for Ocean Beach. “This will get us out quite some distance—three, four, five decades,” says Grant. “And long before we get to the end of the lifespan of this set of interventions, we will have to be having another set of conversations based on what we learn.”

What begins with boys and girls playing in the sand with big machines, ideally ends with the salvation of Ocean Beach.

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Are superheroes real? Maybe. In this recently released video, a firefighter in Latvia catches a man falling past a window. Let me tell you something. I have a fairly reasonable understanding of physics and this catch looks close to being impossible—but it's real.

Here is the situation (as far as I can tell). A dude is hanging on a window (actually, the falling human is only rumored to be a male) and then he falls. The firefighters were setting up a proper way to catch him, but it wasn't ready. Of course the only solution is then to catch him as he falls. It seems the victim fell from one level above the firefighter. At least that's what I'm going to assume. Now for some questions and answers.

How fast was the human moving?

This is a classic physics problem (I hope my students are paying attention). An object (or human) starts from rest and then begins to fall under the influence of the gravitational force. If the gravitational force is the only significant interaction on the human then that person will fall with a constant acceleration of 9.8 m/s2. That means that for every second of free fall, the human's speed will increase by 9.8 m/s (hint: 9.8 m/s is fairly fast—about 22 mph).

If I knew the time the human was falling, I could easily determine the speed since it increases a set amount every second. However, I can only approximate the distance the person falls. Of course that is only a small stumbling block for physics. In fact there is a kinematic equation that gives the speed of an object with a constant acceleration after a certain distance (you can also easily derive this with the definition of average velocity and acceleration). But if the object starts from rest and moves a distance y, then the final speed will be:

Yes, the greater the fall, the greater the speed. In this case, I'm just going to guess the distance at about 3 meters (it's just a guess). That would put the speed of the faller (is that a real word) at about 7.7 m/s. Maybe it's a little bit shorter fall at 2 meters—that would give a window-level speed of 6.3 m/s. Either way, it's fast.

How hard would it be to catch this human?

It doesn't take a superhuman to fall but it might take superhuman strength to stop someone during a fall. The key here is the nature of forces. A net force on an object changes the motion of that object. In this case, there will be two forces acting on the falling human. First, there is the gravitational force pulling down. This force depends on the gravitational field (g = 9.8 Newtons per kilogram) and the mass of the human (which I don't actually know). The second force is that of the firefighter pushing up during the catch. The total force (sum of these two forces) must be in the upward direction so that the change in motion is also up. This means the human (during the catch) will be slowing down. That's what we want.

I can estimate the human's mass, but what about that firefighter force? There are two basic ideas that deal with force and motion. First is the momentum principle. This is a relationship between force, momentum (product of mass and velocity) and time. The second is the work energy principle. This deals with forces, energy, and displacement. So it comes down to this. Do I want to estimate the time it takes to catch the human or do I want to estimate the distance over which the human was caught? I think I'll go with distance and the work-energy principle.

Here is your super short intro to the work-energy principle. First, let's look at work. Work is a way to add or take away energy from a system. The work depends on both the magnitude of the force and the direction the object is moving. Let's say that the human travels a distance d during this catch. In that case, the gravitational force will do positive work (since it is pulling in the same direction as the displacement) and the firefighter will do negative work (pushing up in the opposite direction as the motion).

But what about the energy? For this system (of just the falling human), there is only one type of energy—kinetic energy. The kinetic energy depends on both the mass and the speed of the faller. The idea is to have the total work done on the human decrease the kinetic energy to zero (so that the human stops). Now to put it all together, it looks like this (yes, I skip a bunch of details).

I already have the estimated speed (from above) so I just need the human mass and stopping distance. Let's say this is a human that isn't super big—maybe 50 kilograms. For the stopping distance, it looks like the firefighter grabs the falling human and moves about 1.5 meters before coming to a stop. With these values, the force the firefighter needs to exert on the human would be 1,478 Newtons. For you imperials, that is about 330 pounds. It's a large force, but not impossible. Still very impressive for just one hand.

Oh, and don't forget that if the firefighter pulls on the human with almost 1,500 Newtons, the person pulls on the firefighter with the same force in the opposite direction. This means that the hero has to hold onto the window sill in order to not get pulled out of the building and fall along with the victim. Yes, there does appear to be a harness on the firefighter but it doesn't look like it has tension. Still a superhero in my mind.

I have one final comment. Since I used the work-energy principle to estimate this force it seems like this is a good time to add an important note about energy. Remember—energy isn't a real thing. It's just something that we can calculate the can be conserved in many situations. There. I said it.

This past year, 2017, was the worst fire season in American history. Over 9.5 million acres burned across North America. Firefighting efforts cost $2 billion.

This past year, 2017, was the seventh-worst Atlantic hurricane season on record and the worst since 2005. There were six major storms. Early estimates put the costs at more than $180 billion.

As the preventable disease hepatitis A spread through homeless populations in California cities in 2017, 1 million Yemenis contracted cholera amid a famine. Diphtheria killed 21 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, on the run from a genocide.

Disaster, Pestilence, War, and Famine are riding as horsemen of a particular apocalypse. In 2016, the amount of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere reached 403 parts per million, higher than it has been since at least the last ice age. By the end of 2017, the United States was on track to have the most billion-dollar weather- and climate-related disasters since the government started counting in 1980. We did that.

Transnational corporations and the most powerful militaries on Earth are already building to prepare for higher sea levels and more extreme weather. The FIRE complex—finance, insurance, and real estate—knows exactly what 2017 cost them (natural and human-made disasters: $306 billion and 11,000 lives), and can calculate more of the same in 2018. They know that the radical alteration of Earth’s climate isn’t just something that’s going to happen in 100 years if we’re not careful, or in 50 years if we don’t change our economy and moonshot the crap out of science and technology. It’s here. Now. It happened. Look behind you.

Let me rephrase: Absent any changes, by 2050 Earth will be a couple degrees hotter overall. Sea levels will be a foot higher. Now, 2050 seems as impossibly far away to me as 2017 did when I was 12 years old. I live in the future! And I like a lot of it. I like the magic glass slab in my pocket and the gene therapy and the robots. I mention this because in 2050, my oldest child will be the same age I am today, and I have given him a broken world.

I don’t want that.

So 2017 taught a lesson, at last, that scientists and futurists have been screaming about. Humanity has to reduce the amount of carbon it’s pumping into the air. Radically. Or every year will be worse from here on out.

But 2017 also made plain the shape of the overall disaster. All those fires and floods and outbreaks are symptoms of the same problem, and it’s time to start dealing with that in a clear-eyed way. It’s also time to start building differently—to start making policies that understand that the American coastline is going to be redrawn by the sea, and that people can’t keep building single-family homes anywhere they can grade a flat pad. The wildland-urban interface can’t keep spreading at will. People can’t keep pumping fresh water out of aquifers without restoring them. Infrastructure for water and power has to be hardened against more frequent, more intense storms, backed up and reinforced so hundreds of thousands of people don’t go without electricity as they are in post-hurricane Puerto Rico.

In short: Change, but also adapt. Fire season in the West is now a permanent condition; don’t build buildings that burn so easily in places that burn every year. Hurricanes and storm surges are going to continue to walk up the Caribbean and onto the Gulf Coast, or maybe along the seaboard. Don’t put houses on top of the wetlands that absorb those storms. Don’t insure the people who do. Build ways for people to get around without cars. Create a power grid that pulls everything it can from renewable sources like wind and solar. Keep funding public health research, surveillance, and ways to deal with mosquito-borne diseases that thrive in a hotter world.

And the next time someone in a city planning meeting says that new housing shouldn’t get built in a residential area because it’s not in keeping with the sense of the community and might disrupt parking, tell them what that means: that they want young people to have lesser lives, that they don’t want poor people and people of color to have the same opportunities they did, and that they’d rather the planet’s environment get crushed by letting bad buildings spread to inhospitable places than increasing density in cities.

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This apocalypse doesn't hurt everyone. Some people benefit. It’s not a coincidence that the FIRE industries also donate the most money to federal political campaigns. Rich people living behind walls they think can’t be breached by any rising tide, literal or metaphoric, made this disaster. And then they gaslighted the vulnerable into distrusting anyone raising the alarm. The people who benefit have made it seem as if this dark timeline was all perfectly fine.

It isn’t. And that’s why it’ll change.

In 1957 Charles Fritz and Harry Williams, the research associate and technical director, respectively, of the National Academy of Sciences’ Disaster Studies Committee, wrote a paper that sparked the field of disaster sociology. Their findings were counterintuitive then, and somehow remain so. People in disasters, they said, don’t loot and riot. They help each other. “The net result of most disasters is a dramatic increase in social solidarity among the affected populace during the emergency and immediate post-emergency periods,” they wrote. “The sharing of a common threat to survival and the common suffering produced by the disaster tend to produce a breakdown of pre-existing social distinctions and a great outpouring of love, generosity, and altruism.”

In a disaster, we help each other. The trick is recognizing the disaster. Through that lens, fixing the problem and protecting one another against its consequences isn’t merely inarguable. It’s human nature. We’re all in this together.

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Today, during a World Cup game between Morocco and Iran, Moroccan winger Nordin Amrabat suffered a wicked head injury when he collided with an opponent. After he went down, a team trainer tried to revive him by slapping his face—a move decried by athletes and followers online.

But despite the frequency of those kinds of injuries in soccer, you won’t see many international pros wearing gear that might prevent a concussion—reinforced headbands. Recent tests show that some brands can reduce the impact of a concussive blow by more than 70 percent. Unlike sweatbands, these headbands are made with hardened polyurethane foam, like that found inside military helmets, while still allowing players to see the action around them.

Still, soccer pros are loath to slip them on. The combination of peer pressure (“Does it make me look weak?”) and institutional inertia (some soccer officials don’t think they help) means that soccer is sort of backwards when it comes to preventing head injuries.

“It’s not normal to wear them,” says Steve Rowson, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Virginia Tech who just completed tests of 22 commercially available models. “The players that do either have a history of head injury or were just hit.” Head injuries in soccer usually result from a collision between two players, often when one or both is trying to head the ball. To mitigate the risk, padded headbands have been on the market for nearly two decades, and FIFA, the sport’s international governing organization, allowed them for play in 2004. But Rowson and colleagues wanted to find out whether the headbands really work or are just expensive bits of padding. They cost about $15 to $90, which for most players is less than a pair of primo soccer shoes.

Rowson connected sensors to the soccer headbands and slipped them on a pair of crash test dummies at Virginia Tech’s helmet lab, which has tested football helmets for pro and collegiate teams. His team slammed the two dummy heads together, with and without headgear, and the embedded sensors measured linear and rotational acceleration at three different speeds and two locations on the heads. Those values were used to calculate a score representing how much the headband reduced a player’s risk of concussion for a given impact, according to Rowson.

While direct head-to-head hits generated a force of 150 g's (150 times the accelerative force of gravity), compared to an average of 100 g's during football hits, the headbands could reduce that acceleration. The three best headband models received a five-star rating in a system devised by Rowson's team at Virginia Tech; five stars translates to a reduction in concussion risk of at least 70 percent for the impacts tested.

Superstars like England’s Wayne Rooney and USA’s Ally Krieger have worn headbands after injuries but took them off after a while. A few goalkeepers, like former Czech Republic captain Petr Čech, wear them religiously. But the push for protection isn’t trickling down from highly paid and idolized professionals, but rather from soccer parents who don’t want their kids facing a lifetime of concussion-related health problems.

The problem is especially acute for girls, who are suffering high rates of concussions from soccer. A 2017 study by Northwestern University researchers presented by the Society of Orthopaedic Surgeons showed that concussions among female soccer players occur at a higher rate than any other male athletes, and are increasing. Some researchers believe that boys suffer fewer concussions because they have stronger neck muscles than girls; others say that boys hide their symptoms, while girls are more likely to report them.

In 2014, a group of parents sued USA Soccer to force the sport’s governing body to prevent heading the ball because of the risk of head injury. That lawsuit was dismissed in 2015, but officials did agree to ban heading for both boys and girls under 12 years old.

In May, parents of two Pennsylvania players sued the US Soccer Federation and USA Youth Soccer claiming officials were negligent and failed to require headbands despite scientific evidence that they work. “We would like to protect these girls,” says Joe Murphy, a Pittsburgh attorney who filed the class action.

In a 2015 statement after the earlier lawsuit, US soccer officials stated that headbands don’t provide any protection and may increase the risk of concussions because they give players a false sense of security. But advocates of the gear say that times have changed. “The use of outdated studies and outdated ideas that have been invalidated is reckless,” Murphy says. “It’s like issuing leather football helmets.”

WIRED reached USA Soccer team physician George Chiampas by phone, but he said he was unable to answer questions about head injuries and headbands without clearance from the organization’s media department. Attempts to reach USA Soccer spokesman Neil Buethe were not successful.

As those lawsuits progress, new science will hopefully inform best practices. Tim McGuine, professor of sports medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, is wrapping up a two-year clinical trial of 3,000 male and female high school soccer players in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ohio. He distributed headbands to half the group, while the others play without them. He is still processing the data, but said an initial analysis shows that the headbands do make a difference for some groups of athletes, and there’s no indication that using them increases the risk of head injury.

Still, McGuine says many soccer coaches are stuck in the past. “It’s like football coaching culture was 30 years ago,” McGuine says about the attitude of coaches and league officials toward protective headbands. “The coaches say we don’t want to change the game, or the girls are just faking it. I thought it was just a Wisconsin phenomenon, but it's everywhere. It’s just bizarre.”

It's likely that more than one World Cup player will get a head injury during the month-long tournament that just kicked off. Some will shake it off and return to play (just like Morocco's Amrabat, who rejoined his teammates), while others will get a serious concussion that could lead to health issues down the road. But by the time the US hosts the 2026 World Cup, perhaps we'll be seeing more soccer players deciding that headbands are worth wearing before they get hit.

Kelly Brunt won’t be home for the holidays, nor will she be ringing in the New Year at a fabulous party or watching Ryan Seacrest schmooze B-list celebrities on TV. Instead, between December 21 and January 11, she’ll be leading a four-person expedition around the South Pole, sleeping in a small tent mounted on a plastic sled that is pulled by a snowcat. But that doesn't mean she won't celebrate—it'll just be a demure affair, with her crew, a cozy fleece, and a carefully prepared cup of her favorite gourmet coffee.

“We are being anal about the kind of coffee and the pour over,” says Brunt, a climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “We bring down our own filters and we will buy whole beans before we arrive.”

Brunt is making her tenth trip to Antarctica since 2000. She's celebrated Christmas and New Year’s five times there, as well as five Thanksgivings and eight birthdays. As a glaciologist, she’s worked at the US main base at McMurdo Station, camped on massive floating icebergs in the Ross Sea, and in 2009, and spent three months with the Australian Antarctic Program on the Amery Ice Shelf.

And this year, Brunt is leading the ground-based team on NASA’s ICESAT2, which is studying changes in the Antarctic ice sheet and how they contribute to global sea level changes.

The expedition will cross 500 miles of crunchy, chunky ice at the bottom of the planet. The massive ice cap that covers the South Pole is more than 10,000 feet in elevation, so the team will have to acclimate for several days at the Amundsen-Scott base before heading out into the "deep field," which is Antarctic-speak for any place beyond the comfort of a permanent station. Yes, it will be cold, ranging from -20 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit (plus wind chill), but the crew has a combination of extreme polar gear issued by the National Science Foundation, as well as personal favorites from home. For Kelly, it's a lucky brown fleece that accompanies her on every polar trip.

Over two weeks, the crew will take turns sleeping and working—taking precise measurements of the ice sheet thickness and comparing it to satellite-based measurements to make sure the two agree down to the centimeter scale. At the same time, a NASA aircraft will be flying over the ground crew, using a laser altimeter to triple check the data. Afterward, the pilots get to land at McMurdo and Amundsen-Scott South Pole base for a hot meal, while Brunt and her crew trudge on to the next ground station.

While December is the holiday season in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s a time of intense work for the 1,200 or so American scientists and support personnel on the frozen continent. That’s because December falls in the middle of the austral summer, a time when the Antarctic sun rarely sets below the horizon (it starts in November and lasts until late February). It’s also calm enough to actually move about without getting knocked down by fierce winds that howl during winter months.

Yes, it means they won't be home for the holidays. But they're used to it. On Christmas Day, Brunt and her colleagues will probably perform a modest day of work. “I don’t miss the commercialization of Christmas,” Brunt says. “I don’t know how we will celebrate, but it’s hard to do nothing on the field. We will just make an acknowledgement and celebrate where we are without being sentimental that we aren’t with family.”

Brunt and her colleagues began their journey in late November, flying from various points around the US to Christchurch, New Zealand. From there, they boarded a C-17 transport plane for a five-hour flight to McMurdo Station, a town of about 1,100 people on Ross Island, Antarctica. The next leg was a three-hour flight to the South Pole via a ski-equipped C-130.

And there, waiting for the crew at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, was their home for the next two weeks: two PistenBully snowcats pulling specially designed sleds. The sleds are made of a plastic with a density structure that significantly reduces the coefficient of friction, so 10,000 pounds will tow like 1,000. The sleds will be towing essential stuff, like fuel—but they will also carry fully set-up tents, so the researchers don't have to establish camp every day.

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The trip isn't just a laborious one; it's potentially dangerous, too. The crew will likely avoid the cracks and crevasses that are often found around the edges of the Antarctic continent—this time, their job is to measure the thickest point of the Antarctic ice sheet. It’s also less windy at the South Pole than other places, according to Forrest McCarthy, a mountaineer and safety guide assigned to the ICESAT2 team. But there are still plenty of equipment hazards. “When you think about fuels in the cold temperature, the fuel we use is at minus 40 degrees and could lead to instant frostbite," McCarthy says. "If you spill it on yourself you will be in a bad way.” Any accident will be days away from medical help or evacuation. That means he’s got to keep everyone attentive, focused on their work, and able to get along when things get tough.

“Group dynamics is really important,” says McCarthy, who works as a fishing and mountain guide in Wyoming and Alaska during the rest of the year. McCarthy is a self-described Grinch, but he clearly gets along with Brunt, who he's worked with since 2000. “When people get along, you end up being more productive. She’s got a good sense of humor and highly competent. That is one reason I signed up for the mission.”

On Christmas, McCarthy will call his wife back home on a satphone—but he doesn't miss being home. Each year, he feels the magnetic draw of the Antarctica’s stark beauty. “I love Antarctica and the culture of exploration and science,” McCarthy says. “It is one of the last great wildernesses on Earth.” Although even the globe's most remote locations can use a bit of comfort. Along with his safety gear, extra clothes and food, McCarthy packed an Italian moka express pot to make everyone a holiday latte.

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Next month, in a laboratory an hour outside of London, scientists will begin stitching bits of DNA together and inserting them into hundreds of tiny, cucumber-shaped insect eggs. It’s the first step toward engineering a new kind of mosquito—the kind that could help eradicate malaria on this side of the Prime Meridian.

The mosquito is a species called Anopheles albimanus, the primary transmitter of the deadly disease in Central America and the Caribbean. The scientists work for Oxitec, the UK-based subsidiary of global GMO giant Intrexon, whose portfolio also sports transgenic salmon and non-browning apples. Oxitec has made a name for itself in the pest-prevention business by making mosquitoes and other insects that can’t produce offspring.

Now, with a new $4.1 million investment from the Gates Foundation, Oxitec is putting its patented Friendly tech inside malaria’s main host in the Western Hemisphere. The company intends to have “self-limiting” skeeters ready for field trials by 2020.

The timing isn’t coincidental. Five years ago, health ministers from ten countries in Central America and the Caribbean got together in the capital of Costa Rica and committed to eliminating malaria in the region by 2020. It seemed reasonable at the time; cases of the deadly disease had been declining steeply since 2005. But starting in 2015, as the Zika crisis began to unfold, those numbers began to tick back up. The World Health Organization’s 2017 malaria report warned that progress in fighting the disease had stalled and was in danger of reversing.

So in January of this year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—which has become one of the leaders in the recent explosion of malaria funding—joined the fight. Along with the Inter-American Development Bank, they announced a $180 million initiative to help Central America meet its malaria elimination goals. The financing is meant to help those countries continue to invest in anti-malarial drugs, insecticide-laced bed nets, and better clinical diagnostics, even as Zika and Dengue have become the bigger public health bogeyman. But the Gates Foundation, true to its tech founder’s roots, is betting that won’t be enough.

“We’re not going to bed net our way out of malaria,” a foundation spokesperson said in an interview with WIRED. “Investments like the one with Oxitec will help bring other tools online, that in combination with existing ones will really get transmission down to zero.”

In recent years, the Gates Foundation has become one of the most prolific proponents of harnessing genetic eco-technologies to combat public health threats. It has supported experiments releasing Aedes aegypti mosquitoes infected with the Wolbachia bacterium to prevent them from spreading diseases like Zika and dengue in Brazil. And in Africa it’s bankrolling an even more ambitious project called Target Malaria, which intends to use a Crispr-based gene drive to exterminate local populations of mosquitoes.

But neither of those approaches is expected to work very well on malaria in the Americas. Wolbachia doesn’t confer sterility in Anopheles albimanus. Gene drives—with all their attendant uncertainties—would be a hard risk to sell, especially when the more urban geography of the region makes more controlled technologies like Oxitec’s operationally feasible.

Oxitec has previously worked with local governments in Brazil, Panama, and the Cayman Islands to release its first generation Aedes aegypti mosquito, developed back in 2002. But that technology—which involved inserting a gene to make the mosquitoes die unless fed a steady diet of the antibiotic tetracycline—is already old news. It required egg facility workers to painstaking sort larvae by sex so they could release only the non-biting males into the wild, where they would mate and then die, along with all their offspring. Even with mechanical sorting machines, it was still an overly burdensome process.

So Oxitec has since developed second generation insect sterility tech. Now it does all the sex-sorting with genetics. It starts with the same basic parts: a gene that vastly overproduces a protein that turns deadly in the absence of tetracycline and a fluorescent marker to allow field scientists to keep track of them in the wild. But then Oxitec scientists put those parts somewhere interesting.

Unlike humans, mosquitoes don’t have X and Y chromosomes. Instead, they have identical regions of DNA that get translated into different proteins—a regulated process called differential splicing—and those proteins determine whether the mosquito grows up to be a male or a female. Oxitec scientists piggybacked off this natural mechanism by sticking their antibiotic-or-death construct onto that region, where it also got spliced into two different forms: one that worked like it should, in females, and one that was broken, in males. Which means that only the males survive.

It also means Oxitec can release a lot fewer mosquitoes, because those male offspring go on and mate themselves, further reducing the pest population. Unlike a gene drive though, the modification is still inherited in Mendelian fashion, so it eventually disappears from the environment, about 10 generations after the last release. In May, the company launched its first open field trial of this second generation Aedes aegypti mosquito in Indaiatuba, Brazil.

That’s the tech that Oxitec plans on developing for the malaria-carrying Anopheles albimanus. But it’s not a simple interspecies plug and play. Their scientists don’t really know where the American insect keeps its sex determination machinery. Or how best to turn it to their own advantage. “The mosquito family never ceases to surprise me,” says Oxitec’s chief scientific officer, Simon Warner. “They’re very ancient animals and their diversity is huge. So we’re relying on nature to actually tell us the answer.”

Warner’s team of about 15 will start by randomly inserting their self-limiting gene construct into Anopheles albimanus embryos raised on tetracycline. Then they’ll take them off the antibiotic diet and select for the lines where only the females die. They’ll do that a few hundred times until they find ones that work. Then they’ll sequence their DNA to see where the gene inserted and run tests for multiple generations to see how the trait gets passed down. In two and a half years they hope to have a line ready to be released into the open. Then it will be up to the countries in Central America and the Caribbean to decide if they want them.