April freelance writings: gun violence research, suffocating marine wildlife, and water on Mars

In case you missed them, here’s a few new pieces I’ve written and published for Undark magazine, Knowable magazine and Eos magazine over the past month. Thanks as usual to all of my excellent editors. I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so please check out the whole thing using the links below.


Bringing Science to Bear, at Last, on the Gun Control Debate

Despite the restrictions on CDC funding, research into gun violence has actually increased in recent years. How can the findings inform public policy?

Guns and parts places on a table in a shooting range (Image courtesy: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives)

February’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which resulted in 17 killed and 17 more wounded, horrified people across the country, spurring student walkouts and marches in support of stricter gun control laws, including universal, comprehensive background checks and a ban on assault weapons. But gun debates in the United States have proven to be contentious and intractable. Indeed, even as thousands rally for new legislation, opponents contend that such measures won’t prevent determined criminals from obtaining a firearm and that responsible gun ownership makes communities safer.

In charting a course forward, it is necessary to move beyond “people’s anecdotal opinions,” says David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. He and other researchers are analyzing data and conducting studies with the ultimate goal of informing public policy. It’s a tough task, in part because of a by now well-known piece of legislation called the Dickey Amendment, passed by Congress in 1996 with support of the National Rifle Association. This amendment prevented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using funds “to advocate or promote gun control.” It didn’t ban federally-funded gun research, but the legislation had a chilling effect: from 1996 to 2013, CDC funding in this area dropped by 96 percent.

Against this backdrop, it can be easy to overlook an important fact: Research into gun violence has actually increased in recent years, rising from fewer than 90 annual publications in 2010 to 150 in 2014. Universities, think tanks, private philanthropy — even the state of California — have been offering support. And last Wednesday, governors from six northeastern states and Puerto Rico announced plans to launch a research consortium to study the issue. A December 2017 policy article published in the journal Science describes a “surge” of recent scientific publications. “The scope and quality of gun-related research is growing,” write the authors, a pair of researchers from Duke and Stanford, “with clear implications for the policy debate.” This research has generated significant findings about suicide, intimate partner violence, community health, and the effect of various state-level gun laws…

[Read the entire review in Undark magazine, published on 30 April.]


Marine wildlife is starting to suffocate

Global warming and agricultural runoff have driven the loss of oxygen in oceans around the world, with looming ecological consequences.

A multitude of marine species, from bottom-dwellers to fish and octopuses, are gasping for air. In swaths of ocean the world over, creatures are being increasingly deprived of oxygen. It’s a hidden consequence of climate change, less obvious than rising seas and mass coral-bleaching events — yet no less dangerous to marine life.

Oxygen levels vary in oceans around the world, but signs of global warming–driven declines have begun to emerge beyond those natural fluctuations, and conditions in coastal areas exposed to agricultural runoff, such as the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast’s Chesapeake Bay, are worsening. The declines are wreaking ecological change that won’t be reversed for centuries, if at all, climate scientists warn.

The very existence of some species is at stake, according to research led by Lisa Levin, a biological oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, who is known for her studies of deep-sea ecosystems and oxygen-deficient ocean waters. “Climate change and warming are making naturally occurring, low-oxygen areas bigger than they were,” Levin says. “They’re exacerbating coastal nutrient-driven ‘dead zones,’ making them occur in more places, start earlier in the summer, and last longer”…

[Read the entire article on Knowable magazine, published on 12 April.]


History of Mars’s Water, Seen Through the Lens of Gale Crater

Research uncovers more of Mars’s past, when flowing water may have been transient before eventually disappearing.

The surface of Mars today is cold, dry, and inhospitable to life. But was it always so?

Past research indicates that the Red Planet may have been a very different world more than 3 billion years ago, with warmer weather, flowing rivers, lakes, and possibly even oceans of liquid water. These conditions would have been much more hospitable to nascent life-forms, if they existed. However, recent research is uncovering a different story.

“There have been two competing viewpoints about the Martian climate at this time: the traditional warm-and-wet view and the view that Mars was always cold and icy,” explained Jeffrey Andrews-Hanna…

[Read the entire article on Eos magazine, published on 5 April.]

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