Woman Getting Vaccine

China and The UK’s Opposing Views on Vaccinating Their Population

As new and more infectious variants of COVID-19 are identified across the world, it has become clear that 2021 will continue to be hampered by the devastating impacts of the virus. The approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccines has meant that plans to implement mass vaccinations globally are now underway, giving countries the best chance of breaking the cycle of this unforgiving virus.

The UK has embarked on an impressive schedule for vaccinations, announcing that it is going to equip gps and local drugstores, alongside creating specialist vaccination centers and enlisting the help of the British Army to administer the vaccines. Speaking at a recent press conference, Prime Minister Boris Johnston said, ‘”We are rolling out the biggest vaccination program in our history, we have vaccinated more people in the UK than in the rest of Europe combined. By the middle of February if things go well, and with a wind in our sails, we expect to have offered the first vaccine dose to everyone in the four top priority groups identified by the Joint Committee of Vaccination and Immunisation.” According to the BBC around 100 Oxford million jabs have been ordered by the Government, and it is expected that over 40 million vaccinations will have been rolled out by March.

Embed from Getty Images

The approach by the UK government is designed to ensure that the most vulnerable are vaccinated first. This includes the elderly, those with existing health issues and key workers such as medical professionals and carers. Given that these groups are most likely to suffer more severe symptoms, this move will drive up immunity in these vital groups, thereby reducing the number of infections which result in hospitalization and easing the pressure on the NHS. Whilst this won’t drive down infections in younger people, as they are statistically more likely to have either mild symptoms or be asymptomatic, it is thought that this will ensure the NHS is not overwhelmed and that every seriously unwell person is able to access the treatment and equipment they need, when they need it.

On the flipside of this approach is China, who believe that the more ‘responsible’ approach is to vaccinate the working population and those with plans to travel. Their focus for a mass vaccination program centers on those aged between 18 and 59 years across 9 key priority groups. As reported by the Daily Mail newspaper, these groups comprise ‘customs inspection and quarantine officers for imported frozen food, international and domestic transport workers, and employees of government organizations, police, fire brigades and local communities. Staff in the logistics and public utility sectors are also included. So are those who plan to study or work overseas.’

The rationale behind this approach according to Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of a Communist Party-controlled newspaper in China called The Global Times, is that very few cases of the virus have been identified in elderly people in the region. He suggests that far more cases are occurring between younger members of the population who are more socially mobile, meaning that they are at increased risk of catching and spreading the virus. And whilst the West are pressing forward with vaccinations devised by Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/Astra Zeneca, China is proceeding with it’s own homegrown vaccine, Sinopharm, which has been reported to have an efficacy of around 78% based on late stage trial results in Brazil.

Embed from Getty Images

It should be noted that a one-size fits all approach could never work on a global scale. Each country has its own population dynamics, priorities and social structures, meaning that there are many variables in play when it comes to deciding on the best approach for mass vaccination. Such a predicament has not been faced by our species in over a century, so it is unsurprising that any approaches are viewed with some skepticism by certain other groups. What is clear is that mass vaccination appears to be the only way to overcome the relentless progression and mutation of the virus so that people can start to get back to some kind of normality.

Both the UK and China are aiming to vaccinate all of their key groups by mid to late February, which is no mean feat. In China this is to ensure people can take advantage of the popular new year travel and celebrations. Chinese New Year takes place on the 12th February, celebrating the start of a new year based on the lunar calendar. In the UK, February half term takes place around the 15th and all schools are currently closed until ‘at least’ this date. There is much pressure to ensure that schools can be reopened soon after this, given that pupils were unable to return to school for the period March through July in 2020 and now will be home-schooled again from January through Mid-Feb 2021. The race is now on, but only time will tell what the outcome will be.

Galaxy

For The First Time Ever, Astronomers Were Able To Watch As A Distant Galaxy ‘Dies’ 

For the first time in history, astronomers were able to witness the previously unknown phenomenon of a galaxy’s life coming to an end. Galaxies die when the stars that live within them stop forming. 

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array of telescopes in Chile scientists were able to watch as a distant galaxy ejected half of the gas it uses to form stars. The galaxy is specifically known as ID 2299, and the light emitted from the stars within this galaxy took about nine billion years to reach Earth.

Based on this timing, astronomers determined that they’re currently witnessing cosmic events that occurred when the universe was only 4.5 billion years old; the universe is thought to be 14 billion years old for context. 

Embed from Getty Images

The galaxy is thought to be losing around 10,000 suns-worth of gas per year. This is significant because that gas is what’s needed for the galaxy to produce new stars. So far astronomers believe ID2299 has lost about 46% of its cold gas, however, the galaxy is still able to quickly form stars at rates greater than what we experience in our own Milky Way galaxy. 

Since ID2299 is still able to successfully produce stars, it’s likely that it won’t die for another few tens of millions of years. Annagrazia Puglisi, lead study researcher and postdoctoral research associate from Durham University in the UK and the Saclay Nuclear Research Center in France, spoke to the press after publishing the study in the journal of Nature Astronomy

“This is the first time we have observed a typical massive star-forming galaxy in the distant Universe about to ‘die’ because of a massive cold gas ejection.” 

Embed from Getty Images

According to Puglisi, it’s also possible that ID2299’s demise is the result of a collision with another galaxy. Astronomers observed a large stream of gas and stars that typically only forms when two galaxies come together in a collision, and normally these streams are too far and faint to be seen, however, the scientists ability to see this tail means that the galaxy was likely formed by some sort of collision. 

 If a collision is what is causing this galaxy’s demise, astronomers will need to reconsider existing theories regarding the life cycle of stars and their formation at the end of a galaxy’s “life.” Previous theories claimed that the winds created by star formations would combine with active black holes at the center of a galaxy, which would thus send out materials needed to form stars.

“Our study suggests that gas ejections can be produced by mergers and that winds and tidal tails can appear very similar. This might lead us to revise our understanding of how galaxies ‘die,’” said Emanuele Daddi, study coauthor and astronomer at the Saclay Nuclear Research Centre in France. 

Astronomers were actually working on a survey regarding cold gas in distant galaxies when they noticed the tidal tail of ID2299 and realized just what they were witnessing. Future observations of the galaxy will likely reveal more about the process of gas being ejected from galaxies and how it impacts star formation, but in the meantime, astronomers are celebrating the fact that they witnessed a cosmic event that they’ve only theorized about in the past.

Coronavirus against the UK

The UK’s Battle with Coronavirus in 2021

On Wednesday, the UK’s third national lockdown legally came into force. Following the rapid rise of cases and the subsequent harsher restrictive measures. Prior to the national lockdown, the UK was divided into tiers based on severity, the highest tier – a newly instated tier four – was in response to a new COVID-19 variant that is estimated to be up to 70% more transmissible. This new variant also meant that the government retracted its proposed lifting of Christmas restrictions, whereby it allowed three households to gather over a five day period for Christmas. Instead many people were allowed limited or no contact over the Christmas period.

According to The Lancet, ‘in September, 2020, this variant represented just one in four new diagnoses of COVID-19, whereas by mid-December, this had increased to almost two thirds of new cases in London.’ The new tier four (previously a three tier system of differing levels of restrictions) saw the closure of non-essential shops, restaurants, and gyms asking people to stay at home as much as possible. It began around London, closing down the East of England next and travelling across the country until the Prime Minister announced a nationwide lockdown.

This nationwide lockdown, imposed in early 2021 urged businesses to work from home and closed schools, alongside the usual closure of non-essential shops and so forth. A stay at home order for everything other than essential travel such as food shopping, medication, traveling to the workplace (when it could not be done from home) and to escape violence was put in place. Many have criticized the government it its failure to act quickly enough, often backtracking on decisions and reportedly not following scientific advice.

Embed from Getty Images

Other areas of the United Kingdom, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland is also now in lockdown. According to the BBC ‘and it is thought one in 50 people in private households in England had the virus last week – rising to one in 30 in London.’ On Tuesday, the 5th of January, a day after Boris Johnson announced the lockdown, the rate of daily confirmed cases in the UK reached the record number of 60,000. It is estimated that the number of patients in hospitals is up to 40% higher than it was during the first peak of the virus in 2020.

The UK’s scientific advisory board recommended that the UK should move into a ‘level five’ threat level, indicating that if severe action is not taken, the UK’s National Health Service could be overwhelmed within 21 days. Meaning that there would not be enough room in hospitals to treat patients with COVID-19 and the virus would quickly overwhelm the country beyond repair. The government announcement outlined:

‘On 4 January, there were 26,626 Covid patients in hospital in England, an increase of over 30% in one week, and the April 2020 hospital admissions peak has now been surpassed by 40%.

The case rate in England up to 29 December was 478.5 per 100k, three times higher than on 1 December when the case rate was 151.3.

On 3 Jan, 454 deaths were reported, with 4,228 over the last 7 days – a 24% increase on the previous 7 days.’

Embed from Getty Images

The UK became the first country to approve the Pfizer and BioNtech vaccination and the AstraZeneca/Oxford Vaccine. It has apparently bought enough vaccinations to cover the entirety of the UK population and is currently rolling out a vaccine program targeting the most vulnerable first and working down the list regarding priority. The UK government also recently changed its vaccination strategy, aiming to give dose one of the two-dose vaccinations to as many people as possible as a priority, perhaps lengthening the time between doses to do so. It is unclear as to whether this will be successful in achieving quick and widespread protection, and the UK is also the first country to try such a method.

Boris Johnson pledged, in his lockdown speech on January 4th, that he would have offered inoculations to all those in the top four priority groups by 15th of February 2021, which is an estimated 13.9 million people. He stated: “By the middle of February, if things go well and with a fair wind in our sails, we expect to have offered the first vaccine dose to everyone in the four top priority groups identified by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI).” On the 5th of January 2021, the government announced that approximately 1.5 million people had been vaccinated so far.

The priority groups are in the following order:
1 – Residents in a care home for older adults and their careers; 2 – Those aged 80 and over
and frontline health and social care workers; 3 – Those aged 75 and over; 4 – Those aged 70 and over and clinically extremely vulnerable individuals; 5 – Those aged 65 of age and over; 6 – All individuals aged 16 to 64 with underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk of serious disease and mortality; 7 – Those aged 60 and over; 8 – Those aged 55 years and over; 9 – Those aged 50 years of age and over.

Despite the hope of a better 2021, like many other countries, the UK is facing a difficult and uncertain period facing the coronavirus crisis, with the entirety of the country in another indefinite lockdown, and millions facing an unimaginably difficult time, hope is on the new vaccination to alleviate some of the strain and eventually restore a semblance of normality.

Vaccine Research

How Did Scientists Deliver The Vaccine So Fast?

There is no question that scientists across the world managed to achieve what seemed like the impossible: in the face of a global pandemic they delivered several effective vaccinations by 2021. According to Nature, ‘the fastest any vaccine had previously been developed, from viral sampling to approval, was four years, for mumps in the 1960s. To hope for one even by the summer of 2021 seemed highly optimistic.’ Vaccinations normally take years of research, trials and development before they are approved and rolled out, some scientists even suggested an average of 10 years. This can be concerning for many people who may be unsure as to whether the vaccine is safe. However, the vaccines have gone through the same rigorous testing processes, just eliminated the time taken ‘waiting’ in between the trials which streamlined and sped up the whole process. There have also been a number of other contributing factors that allowed scientists to develop a vaccination in record time. Here are some:

Advanced Research
The research that helped develop the COVID-19 vaccination had already been started years before, on related coronaviruses such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome).

Further the mRNA vaccine platform, which is the basis for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination, began research and development over two decades ago. Speaking in Nature, immunologist Akiko Iwasaki at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, who has worked on these types of vaccines (nucleic-acid vaccines which are based on DNA or RNA) for over twenty years said: ‘“A lot went into the mRNA platform that we have today,” … The basic research on DNA vaccines began at least 25 years ago, and RNA vaccines have benefited from 10–15 years of strong research, she says, some aimed at developing cancer vaccines. The approach has matured just at the right time; five years ago, the RNA technology would not have been ready.’

Advanced research in areas such as RNA technology and coronaviruses therefore gave teams a head start on the COVID-19 vaccination when the pandemic emerged.

Embed from Getty Images

Funding
Normally, when developing a vaccination, teams would have to apply for grant money to develop said vaccine. This would naturally take time, persuading funding agencies, advisors, company directors and so forth to invest in the product, often against other competitors. However, as the pandemic was so severe and the demand for a vaccine was of the utmost priority, funding was granted from private and public sectors almost immediately to the most promising candidates, allowing research and development to race forward. The billions that was poured into vaccination development, essentially cleared many of the roadblocks for developers, they could take financial risks and even run some tests at the same time. Companies could take risks and start manufacturing or testing processes earlier, even at the risk that the vaccine would not make it that far.

The Pandemic
Arguably, the pandemic itself also helped scientists move forward with a vaccination quickly and not only as a prompt for funding. For example, vaccination trials need to demonstrate that the vaccinations work, via efficacy trials. Meaning that a certain number of people would need to be exposed to and catch the disease for researchers to determine a vaccination’s effectiveness. It therefore helped that the vaccination was being developed at a time where the disease was so prevalent, as if it had not been, efficacy trials would have been harder to run. Massive trials were therefore able to take place easily and effectively.

Embed from Getty Images

New Technology
Via an early COVID case, Professor Yong-Zhen Zhang at Fudan University, Shanghai, and colleagues in China very quickly identified the genetic sequence of the RNA in the virus and made this information public. This allowed vaccine production to get underway very fast.

New platforms for vaccine development were able to use this genetic sequence, rather than a sample of the actual virus, to begin designing and generating a vaccination. The Guardian wrote: ‘several companies and academic institutions, notably including BioNTech, Moderna and the University of Oxford, had also been working on new technologies capable of generating vaccines from the genetic codes of infectious pathogens and cancers, and testing them for several years.’ Although these approaches are said to be revolutionizing vaccine production and are considered new, as stated above, some of these vaccine platforms such as RNA have been in development for over two decades.

The fast development of the COVID-19 vaccination may mark an acceleration for vaccine development for future threats. Speaking to Nature, Dan Barouch, director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, said: ‘“It shows how fast vaccine development can proceed when there is a true global emergency and sufficient resources,” he says. New ways of making vaccines, such as by using messenger RNA (mRNA), have been validated by the COVID-19 response, he adds. “It has shown that the development process can be accelerated substantially without compromising on safety.”

Pandemic Brain Damage

New Study Highlights The Impact of Loneliness on the Brain

Despite the need to keep people safe and protected from the dangers of COVID-19, the social distancing and strict restrictions imposed on the elderly and vulnerable this year has undoubtedly led to a surge in loneliness and isolation. As reported by The Guardian, a poll of 2,100 adults in Great Britain commissioned by the British Psychological Society (BPS) found that 41% were worried about those close to them feeling isolated in coming weeks. Many families have been apart for the best part of a year, and with the announcement of a new, more infectious strain of coronavirus now in circulation, there appears to be no end to the distancing in the near future. Loneliness, isolation and depression can impact an individual both emotionally and physically and now for the first time, scientists have been able to show exactly what loneliness ‘looks like’ in terms of brain imaging.

Details of the study were published on 21st December on Science Daily and the work was led by a team of Canadian researchers at the University of Rochester. The study involved analyzing the MRI data, genetics and psychological self-assessments of around 40,000 people who were either middle-aged or older. They assessed the results of those who said they often felt lonely against those who said they did not. The participants had authorized their data to be available via the UK Biobank, which is essentially a shared database that allows health scientists across the globe to view and analyze their information.

Embed from Getty Images

The results indicated that those who had expressed that they felt loneliness regularly appeared to have noticeable and visible differences in their brains. It appeared that their ‘grey matter’ volume in the ‘default network’ area of the brain remained well preserved as was the ‘fonix’, a bundle of nerve fibers carrying information from the hippocampus (responsible for learning and memory) to the default network. The default network is responsible for our inner thoughts and this includes thinking about old times, planning what might happen in the future, running through different scenarios and thinking about how others may react to a situation. Scientists also observed that there were differences in the way the brain’s regions communicated with each other across brain networks.

The theory behind these differences is that because lonely people have less social stimulation, they tend to rely more heavily on either recalling memories from the past, or imagining social situations taking place in the future. These actions naturally draw on the memory-based functionality of the default network leading to more activity in these regions.

Understanding the impact of loneliness on a biological level is important for several reasons. One of the most notable is that some research has indicated that older people who experience loneliness appear to have a greater chance of developing conditions such as dementia and experiencing cognitive decline. In fact, one report suggested that social isolation was associated with about a 50% percent increased risk of dementia. It is currently unknown exactly why this link is so prevalent, and further research into this correlation is needed in order to help reduce loneliness in society and curb the development of dementia in a rapidly aging population.

Embed from Getty Images

Many people who are lonely are suffering in silence as they have simply fallen off the radar. As a society, there are many things that we can do to help tackle loneliness in our communities. COVID-19 has made it difficult to simply pop in and visit people, especially the elderly and vulnerable, but there are many other ways to maintain contact. From organizing zoom video calls, to a regular old-fashioned phone call or letter, maintaining contact does not have to be complicated, long-winded or time consuming. For many people, they may well go days or weeks without any interaction with another person, so receiving something as simple as a letter in the post could make a real difference to their emotional wellbeing.

In the bustle of life, we often get caught up in the noise and forget to check on on those who aren’t shouting the loudest, posting frequently on social media or bombarding us with endless WhatsApp messages. Consider your friends, family and connections who you’ve not seen or heard from recently and make an extra special effort to reach out to them and check that they are ok. You can even reach out to people you don’t know through the work of charities such as AgeUK – which offers a telephone befriending service. Alongside their partner charity, The Silver Line offers free telephone friendship services so people can enjoy chatting with someone over the phone, all from the comfort of their own home.

It is clear that loneliness is a major challenge in our society, but thankfully there are plenty of ways in which we can help to ensure that those around us are not left to battle on alone.

Coronavirus Vaccination

4.2 Million Americans Have Been Vaccinated For Covid-19

Although more than 4 million Americans have now been vaccinated with their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, health experts are saying the country needs to start moving a lot quicker. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, spoke to the media this past Sunday regarding the current rate that America is getting its citizens vaccinated. 

“No excuses, we’re not where we want to be, but hopefully we’ll pick up some momentum and get back to where we want to be in terms of getting people vaccinated.” 

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention more than 13 million doses have already been distributed throughout the nation, however, the federal government had repeatedly promised that 20 million individuals would have received their initial dose by the end of 2020. While they may be behind with their original predictions, the rate of distribution is still increasing.

Embed from Getty Images

According to Fauci 1.5 million doses were administered within 72 hours this past week, which means the rate is continuously increasing as well. Moncef Slaoui is the chief adviser for Operation Warp Speed, who recently told the media that 17.5 million doses have now been shipped and the government is confident that this will help that rate increase even further. 

Currently vaccines are only being administered to healthcare workers and long-term care patients who are much more susceptible to getting infected with Covid-19. While America continues to wait for vaccinations to be distributed, our current administration is still battling the results of the 2020 election, meaning no further health and safety guidelines are being enforced throughout the nation, and hundreds of thousands of Americans are still being infected. 

The US has reported over 100,000 new Covid-19-related hospitalizations every day for 33 consecutive days, and a majority of the states are still relatively open in terms of businesses and public settings. With holiday travel restrictions being practically non-existent this past month, even more Americans are expected to become infected in the coming weeks. 

Embed from Getty Images

“There’s no running away from the numbers. It’s something that we have absolutely got to grasp and get our arms around and turn that inflection down by very intensive adherence to the public health measures, uniformly throughout the country, with no exceptions.”

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead for coronavirus response, recently claimed, however, that there is still hope for the US and other countries currently enduring massive surges in new cases and deaths, but only if these countries adopt federally enforced measures such as mass-testing, isolation, contact tracing, and quarantining. President-elect Joe Biden has made multiple claims in the past that it’s likely he would be placing America under another lockdown once he’s inaugurated to alleviate all the pressure currently being placed on the nation’s hospitals. 

US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams urged Americans, especially those who gathered over the holidays, to “self-quarantine, get tested, wear a mask, wash their hands and watch their distance. The projections are pretty scary, but they’re projections, and what we do now matters. I want people to understand that if we get over this current surge, then things will start to get better, but it depends on the actions that we all take right now.”

Covid-19 vaccines are expected to continue to be distributed throughout the nation to all vulnerable parties first. Fauci has claimed that it is likely most Americans will be vaccinated by the summer, however, that will also be dependent on what happens with this pandemic in the meantime in terms of new infections.

COVID Outbreak in UK

What Do We Know About The New Coronavirus Variant in the UK?

The UK government recently tightened restrictions in the United Kingdom over Christmas, in an emergency move that eliminated previous plans to lift restrictions over the holidays. This was apparently due to a new variant of the coronavirus that may be spreading at a faster rate than other mutations of the virus. According to the BBC, ‘It was first detected in September. In November around a quarter of cases in London were the new variant. This reached nearly two-thirds of cases in mid-December.’

On the new UK variant, New Scientist reported: ‘B.1.1.7, as it’s known, has 17 mutations compared with the original SARS-CoV-2 virus first discovered in Wuhan, China, including eight that may change the shape of the outer spike protein. Many of these mutations have been found before, but to have so many in a single virus is unusual. It was first sequenced in the UK on 20 September, but only caught the attention of scientists on 8 December, when they were looking for reasons for the rapid growth of cases in southeast England. On 14 December, the UK’s health minister, Matt Hancock, told parliament that a new variant that seems to spread faster had been identified.’

Embed from Getty Images

All viruses mutate over time, so the mutation of the coronavirus was expected and is being monitored. Dr Julian Tang, Clinical Virologist at the University of Leicester, told iNews, “This is quite normal for viruses – like influenza – where different viruses may infect the same person, leading to a hybrid virus emerging. This is just one of the ways that natural viral variation arises, new viruses will adapt to a new host over time – with decreasing mortality, and possibly increasing transmissibility.” The virus that was detected in Wuhan China, will not match the virus in different areas across the world. D614G mutation emerged in Europe in February and became the dominant form of the virus, A222V strain was thought to have developed from summer holidays in Spain.

Published on virological.org, an initial analysis of the B.1.1.7 strain of the virus has revealed 17 alterations to the virus that could be potentially important. This includes changes to the spike protein, which allows the virus to more easily infect our bodies cells. The report summarized that ‘The B.1.1.7 lineage accounts for an increasing proportion of cases in parts of England. The number of B.1.1.7 cases, and the number of regions reporting B.1.1.7 infections, are growing.B.1.1.7 has an unusually large number of genetic changes, particularly in the spike protein.’ Concluding that ‘the rapid growth of this lineage indicates the need for enhanced genomic and epidemiological surveillance worldwide and laboratory investigations of antigenicity and infectivity.’

Embed from Getty Images

According to the UK government, and various sources, so far there is no evidence that this variant causes more a more serious disease or leads to a higher death rate, but this is still under investigation. Further investigation is also apparently being undertaken to confirm whether the recently approved Pfizer vaccination will protect against this variant, there is currently no evidence to the contrary. Evidence has so far shown that infection rates in the areas where this variant has spread have risen faster than expected, suggesting it has a higher transmission rate but this is still to be confirmed. Some evidence has estimated that it could be 50-70% percent more transmissible, but this has yet to be confirmed. According to the BBC, the reasons why this virus strain is attracting attention are: ‘It is rapidly replacing other versions of the virus; It has mutations that affect part of the virus likely to be important; Some of those mutations have already been shown in the lab to increase the ability of the virus to infect cells.’

Other theories posit that the variant could now transmit more easily to children who were previously less susceptible. There is not yet a reason to believe that children could become more easily ill with the virus, but instead that they would act as carriers, helping to better spread the virus. This however, is again not confirmed and is under investigation.

The rapid spread and uncertainty surrounding the variant’s severity has caused the UK government to introduce a ‘fourth tier’ in the current UK ‘tiered system’ in order to reduce spread and further safeguard the public as further investigations are undertaken. The UK’s tiered approach basically applies different restrictions in correlation an area’s outbreak severity. Areas such as London and parts of South East England have been put under ‘tier four’ which means tighter restrictions, closing many businesses and issuing ‘stay at home’ messages, with some exemptions. Some countries have banned flights into the UK for a period until further investigation can be done.

Hurricane

Climate Change Record Breakers of 2020

The world may well have been distracted by the continued prevalence of COVID-19 this year but, be under no illusion, the impacts of climate change have continued to roll out across the globe albeit out of the mainstream spotlight. Here are some of the most alarming climate-related events which have taken place during 2020, bringing with them a stark reminder that we still have much to do to prevent further catastrophic changes to our planet.

Embed from Getty Images

Bushfires
Bushfires are not a new phenomenon, but they seem to have escalated in terms of intensity and sheer impact. The bushfires in southeastern Australia ignited in mid-2019 and continued through to March 2020. During this extended period of time, around 11 million hectares of land was destroyed. According to reports in Science News, experts have suggested that climate-influenced temperatures raised the wildfire risk by 30 percent. This explanation is that the prolonged heat caused by climate change had led the bushes to be exceptionally dry and ‘like tinder’. This meant that any naturally occurring fires were likely to spread much faster than previously experienced, making them even harder to control. Whilst certain measures can be taken to slow down the fire’s progression, there does reach a point where the fires become out of control and simply have to be left to burn out.

In September, The New York Times reported how ‘mega-fires’ were ripping through Oregon, California and Washington State. It revealed that in Oregon, blazes were seen reaching into areas which had previously remained untouched by fire for decades. What is perhaps most worrying about these new mega-fires is the sheer amount of smoke that they produce. These giant plumes can travel high into the atmosphere and there is concern that they could potentially trigger chemical reactions which could further damage the Earth’s ozone layer.

Thawing Permafrost
It isn’t only fires that we need to be concerned about, as the increasing temperatures are leading to thawing permafrost. Not only does this mean that sea levels are rising, but it also leads to increased levels of methane being released which are another damaging greenhouse gas. According to an article on AtoZ CleanTech around one-quarter of the ground in the northern hemisphere is permanently frozen and it is thought that there is almost twice as much carbon contained in it that is currently present in the Earth’s atmosphere.

The difficulty with thawing permafrost is that there is very little that can be done to slow it down, as the impacts are driven by generally rising temperatures across the globe. Unless we can take action to slow down the gradually increasing temperatures on the planet, the permafrosts will continue to melt and an ever accelerating rate.
This year, the temperatures around key permafrost grounds have continued to rise to record levels. As reported in Science Magazine, on 20th June in the town of Verkhoyansk, a town in Verkhoyansky District of the Sakha Republic, Russia, located on the Yana River in the Arctic Circle, temperatures reached 38 degrees Celsius. This area is known to be one of the coldest inhabited places on earth and this temperate was the hottest ever recorded in the arctic. Experts have stated that the record-breaking heat in Verkhoyansk “would have been effectively impossible without human-induced climate change.”

Embed from Getty Images

Hurricanes
Of all of the world’s natural elements, wind can be one of the most destructive in the form of hurricanes and tornadoes. We have long been aware of the regular cycle of ‘hurricane season’ which typically takes place through June through November in the Atlantic region, however this year it was expected that there would be around 18 named storms compared with the average of 12. Later on, this figure would be increased to around 25 but even this prediction fell short of the final figure. By the middle of November, there had been around 30 named storms, a number which well and truly smashed through the previous record set back in 2005.

According to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this is the fifth consecutive year with an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season, with a report 18 ‘above-normal’ seasons occurring out of the last 26. The reason behind the rising hurricane levels is the ‘warm phase’ of the Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation (AMO). This started in 1995 and has contributed to stronger, more enduring storms in recent times. Whilst hurricanes don’t have as much of a direct link to climate change as other natural phenomena, it is believed that warmer oceans are contributing to the formation of tropical cyclones, the increased intensity of the storms, the speed at which they can strengthen and their duration.

None of the occurrences which happened this year are thought to be isolated incidents, which calls into question just what we can expect for next year. What is clear is that the arguments for human-induced climate change are becoming increasingly stronger and harder to deny.

Winter Solstice

What Is The Winter Solstice?

The winter solstice for the northern hemisphere falls on the December 21st this year and although they occur at the same time around the world the local time will vary. This year it will occur at and 5:02 am ET and 10.02 GMT. Many of us understand the winter solstice to mark the shortest day of the year, and the summer solstice to mark the longest. From that point onward winter days will get longer and summer days shorter. Solstices can also be marked with celebrations and are important in some belief systems. But what exactly is a solstice?

According to The Telegraph, ‘the term ‘solstice’ derives from the Latin word ‘solstitium’, meaning ‘Sun standing still’. On this day the Sun seems to stand still at the Tropic of Capricorn and then reverses its direction as it reaches its southernmost position as seen from the Earth.’

The winter solstice occurs when the north pole is tilted the farthest away from the sun, which is approximately 23.4 degrees relative to the earth’s orbit around the sun. Similarly, the summer solstice marks the day that the earth is titled to its maximum towards the sun. When the winter solstice occurs for the northern hemisphere the summer solstice will occur at the same time for the southern hemisphere, and both the summer and winter solstices mark the longest day and longest night respectively due to this tilt. The earth’s axis rotation actually drives the seasons – during March through to September, the Northern hemisphere is tilted more towards the sun, ushering in spring and summer. From September to March, the earth is tilted away from the sun, marking autumn and winter. For the southern hemisphere the seasons are reversed.

Embed from Getty Images

The shortest day of the year lasts approximately, 8 hours, 48 minutes and 38 seconds, although sources vary slightly, this then makes way for the rest of the 24 hours to be spent as the longest night of the year.

This does not however, mean that these are the coldest and warmest days of the year however, because it takes time for the earth to heat up and cool down. Therefore, you will likely find the coldest temperatures after mid-January, a month after the winter solstice for the northern hemisphere. The same goes for the Northern Hemisphere’s hottest temperatures which are normally found in July and August after the summer solstice (which normally falls around June 21st).

The solstices have held a fascinating role throughout history and the present day, marking different traditions, representations and beliefs. Ancient structures such as Stonehenge (in the UK) are supposedly built around the solstices, and many still visit the structure to celebrate the solstices to this day. According to Stonehenge’s website, marking time was important for the lives of ancient people, and perhaps one of the reasons behind the construction of Stonehenge, which is aligned to the movement of the sun. ‘The stones were shaped and set up to frame at least two important events in the annual solar cycle – the midwinter sunset at the winter solstice and the midsummer sunrise at the summer solstice. At the summer solstice, around 21 June, the sun rises behind the Heel Stone and its first rays shine into the heart of Stonehenge. Although the tallest trilithon at the monument is no longer standing, the sun would have set between the narrow gap of these uprights during the winter solstice.’

Embed from Getty Images

National Geographic writes: ‘Many cultures have found unique ways to mark the summer solstice. The traditional Scandinavian holiday of Midsummer welcomes it with maypole dancing, drinking, and romance. During the Slavic holiday of Ivan Kupala, people wear floral wreaths and dance around bonfires, while some plucky souls jump over the fires as a way of ensuring good luck and health. In a more modern tradition, the people of Fairbanks, Alaska, swing in the summer solstice with a night-time baseball game to celebrate the fact that they can get up to 22.5 hours of daylight in the summer. The Midnight Sun Game has been played 115 times now since 1906.’

Other festivals throughout history show that the Inca Empire celebrated Inti Raymi, honouring their Sun God, Inti and ushering in the new year. The Ancient Romans celebrated the winter solstice with the seven-day celebration of Saturnalia, many traditions of which (such as gift giving) are similar to that of Christmas. Yalda is an Iranian festival celebrated on the longest and darkest night of the year – celebrating the arrival of winter, renewal of the sun and victory of light over darkness. The Feast of Juul was a Scandinavian festival, that gave us ‘Yule’. Fire was used to symbolize heat and light of the returning sun and a Juul log was burned for twelve days as a tribute to the Norse God, Thor. Today, pagan and druid communities still celebrate the solstices.

Galaxy

Scientists Discover New Galaxy That ‘Only’ Took 500 Million Years To Form 

In general, galaxies take a very long time to form, and when I say that, I mean billions of years. Galaxies typically build up very slowly and take that time to acquire the bulk of what makes them so vast and large. However, recently scientists discovered a galaxy that seems to have appeared in our universe when it was only 1.8 billion years old. 

While 1.8 billion years seems like an unfathomable amount of time to understand, just know that the Milky Way galaxy, which our planet is currently in, took around 13.6 billion years to fully form to be habitual for life. This galaxy is thought to have formed stars at rates hundreds of times greater than the Milky Way. 

In less than 500 million years, this galaxy has managed to form over 200 billion stars. Scientists are viewing this as one of the universe’s “greatest speed runs,” in terms of creating new galaxies. Galaxies start as very small nuggets of stars that take hundreds of millions, and even billions, of years to merge with one another and begin to grow. 

Embed from Getty Images

This process is called the “hierarchical model,” and is one of the main theories used in the science community to explain how galaxies grow over cosmic time. Astronomers based at the University of Arizona were using the facilities Large Binocular Telescope when they spotted the “oddball” that was previously not in other scans. 

The galaxy is currently called C1-23152, and is billions of light years away from Earth. Its light has been reportedly traveling for over 12 billion years, making it one of the youngest galaxies on the cosmic scene due to the fact that it appeared when our universe was only 1.8 billion years old. 

Scientists were able to determine that the galaxy grew from basically nothing throughout the course of 500 million years by measuring the age, metal content, and velocity of the stars that are in C1-23152.

Embed from Getty Images

At its peak of formation the galaxy was forming stars by the hundreds every year, averaging a few stars every single day. This rate of creation is pretty astounding, and often unheard of in terms of galaxy formation. For some perspective, our Milky Way Galaxy currently produces only a handful of stars every year.

C1-23152 is now known as a massive superstar galaxy after years of being a little cosmic speck in the corner of the telescope. Scientists are still trying to determine how the galaxy was able to grow at such an exponential rate. The usual hierarchical method doesn’t really apply here due to the speed of the galaxy’s formation alone. 

Astronomers at the moment believe that C1-23152’s creation was actually the result of a massive cosmic accident. They believe that two giant gas clouds located in the early universe collided and triggered a round of rapid star formation that was able to persist through hundreds of millions of years to form an entire galaxy. 

Scientists will continue to monitor C1-23152 and any other galaxy that appears to have formed at a similar rate. The hope is gather a greater understanding in general over how galaxies are formed beyond just the hierarchical method that scientists have been using for decades now.