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Australia Wildfires Were Far Worse Than Climate Models Predicted

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Australia Wildfires Were Far Worse Than Climate Models Predicted
A general view of fire damaged country in the The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area near the town of Blackheath on Feb. 21, 2020 in Blackheath, Australia. Brook Mitchell / Getty Images

In a post-mortem of the Australian bushfires, which raged for five months, scientists have concluded that their intensity and duration far surpassed what climate models had predicted, according to a study published yesterday in Nature Climate Change.


The bushfires were far more catastrophic than any climate crisis models out there, leading the scientists to call the devastation, "a fiery wake-up call for climate science," as the BBC reported.

The study said that the bushfires were "unprecedented" after they burned more than one-fifth of the country's forests.

"This [was] worse than anything our models simulated," said climate scientist Benjamin Sanderson to the BBC. Sanderson, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, co-wrote the article in Nature Climate Change.

In fact, the models were so far off target that not only did they say that fires of such magnitude could not happen this year, but they predicted that fires of this magnitude would not happen before the year 2100, as Wired reported.

Sanderson and his co-author wrote, "This is perhaps one of the first really big cases where we've seen the real world do something before we've been able to have the capacity to model it properly. This event was worse than anything in any of the models at any point in this century. Only one of the models toward the end of the century started producing things of this magnitude."

He warned that as the planet warms, "the more likely we are to be taken by surprise," as Yahoo News reported.

While climate models to date have been fairly accurate in predicting how much temperatures will rise as greenhouse gases are emitted, modeling fires is extremely complex. Fire threats are determined by many variables that increase risk of fire, fuel it and spread it, including rainfall, wind, land cover and population density, as the BBC reported.

"But even if you look at the few models that have fire in them," Sanderson told BBC News, "none of them simulate anything close to the scale of what happened in Australia."

Sanderson suggested that scientists need a more extensive view of what the future will possibly look like.

"Rather than running one simulation that looks as close as possible to the real world, we need to start creating thousands of different versions of the future," he said, as Yahoo News reported.

The importance of developing a full understanding of the cataclysmic effects of the climate crisis continues to grow as we head into uncharted territory, according to the BBC.

John Marsham, a climate scientist at the University of Leeds, told the BBC that climate models should start to take wildfires into account.

"We also need to consider what the full range of possible future scenarios is, rather than just focusing on the most likely one scenario," said Marsham "[This is particularly crucial] where there are risks of catastrophic consequences."

Of course, there are challenges to running more advanced climate models. Creating comprehensive models requires a tremendous amount of data. It requires supercomputers, and the time and resources to produce various models.

"It takes huge amounts of energy and computation to run a single simulation," said Sanderson, as Wired reported. "We backed ourselves into a corner with climate science where our models are so computationally expensive, we can't really afford to run them more than once."

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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