The Filtrate: Radio Silence, Eco-COVID, and Dr. Strangefish

Now that everyone has digested their Thanksgiving dinners and leftovers – hopefully from small celebrations that didn’t involve traveling – it’s time to sift through recent science news again. There’s been a ton of COVID-19 related news, of course, but most of that has already been covered thoroughly by regular news outlets. Instead, this issue of the Filtrate will focus on stories that might’ve escaped notice.

A broken dish

The biggest and saddest non-pandemic science news this week was the collapse of the iconic radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The giant dish had been deteriorating for years as a result of funding shortfalls and deferred maintenance, and in November the National Science Foundation decided to schedule a deliberate dismantling of the facility. Unfortunately, the 57-year-old structure couldn’t wait, and a huge instrument platform crashed through the main dish this week, destroying it. Other than the obligatory cleanup, there’s not much left to do for the 100-plus employees of the observatory.

Our planet needs us

You may have seen pictures and articles about how the pandemic-induced suspension of many human activities around the world has led to cleaner air and water, happier wildlife, and other environmental benefits. As usually happens with such stories, the reality is a lot more complex. An opinion piece in PNAS lays out the more nuanced version of events, including both good and bad news for biodiversity conservation. While many forms of pollution have gone down, for example, some areas have seen booms in illegal logging, and many invasive species control efforts have been paused.

Bomb fishing

Speaking of human departures, new research reported in PNAS looks at a more extreme potential case: nuclear war. In a study that seems to come straight out of the era of Duck and Cover, the scientists modeled the effects of nuclear war on … fishing. This isn’t as frivolous as it might sound. In the aftermath of any significant nuclear conflict, fisheries might be among the few reliable sources of food for awhile. The analysis found that while the sudden deaths of millions of people might cut down on fishing in the short term, leading to rebounds in some fisheries, that would probably be followed by massive overharvesting by the starving survivors. Let’s be thankful we only have a pandemic to deal with (so far).

That’s all for this time. As always, if you have a story you think will fit through our filter, please let us know directly or post a comment below.