La Niña Is Likely on the Way

A view of North America on April 29, 2016, from NASA’s DSCOVR:EPIC satellite. Image credit: NASA

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The intense El Niño we saw this winter captured the imaginations of headline writers around the world for more than a year, earning the outlandish moniker “Godzilla El Niño” to convey to an entertainment-thirsty public just how unusually strong the phenomenon had gotten. The event will soon be a memory as it’s quickly fading away, likely to be replaced by the opposite anomaly—a La Niña—in the coming months.

The U.S. Climate Prediction Center released its monthly report on May 12 signaling that El Niño’s end is nigh and La Niña won’t be far behind. Since we call this unusually warm water “the little boy” in Spanish (named in honor of the baby Jesus, as it was discovered around Christmas), we call unusually cold water in this part of the Pacific Ocean “the little girl,” or La Niña.

An El Niño is simply the presence of warmer-than-normal water in the eastern Pacific Ocean. It’s not a storm that crashes ashore or something that’s out for blood. Scientists officially classify the event an El Niño when the surface waters of the eastern Pacific Ocean around the equator grow abnormally warm for a long period of time, clocking in at 0.5°C above average for seven straight months.

Climate models show a swift transition from El Niño to a La Niña by this summer. Image credit: Climate Prediction Center

It’s hard to believe that such a tiny uptick in water temperatures can have a dramatic effect around the world, but like a fever in the human body, even that minuscule change in temperature can significantly alter weather patterns over the Pacific Ocean, creating a ripple effect that travels around the world. We’re familiar with El Niño in the United States as it has historically helped flooding rains drench places like California during the winter months, but as still-parched Californians found out this year, each event is different, and not all of them affect the weather as we would expect.

There’s always a chance that this La Niña doesn’t come to pass as predicted—long-range forecasts like this are still relatively new, so the predictions aren’t exactly foolproof. The experts note, however, that most major models show a very fast transition to a La Niña over the next couple of months, and their report this week put the odds of La Niña conditions existing by autumn at 75 percent.

The conditions used to measure a La Niña event are exactly the same as those used to measure an El Niño, just reversed: We have to measure water that’s 0.5°C colder than normal for seven consecutive months. Like its toasty counterpart, La Niña can have a big effect on global weather patterns depending on its strength and how long it lasts.

Typical weather patterns one would expect to see during a winter influenced by La Niña. Image credit: National Weather Service

While it can help bring warm and rainy conditions to parts of Australia and southeast Asia, La Niña doesn’t normally have a noticeable effect on summer weather in the United States. The most significant impact a La Niña can have on the U.S. during the summer and fall months is by way of an active hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean.

The warm waters of an El Niño create thunderstorm activity that vents large amounts of air northeast into the Atlantic, ripping apart thunderstorms that may have otherwise become tropical cyclones. When a La Niña is present, though, the cold water kills most thunderstorm activity in the eastern Pacific, spreading little to no wind shear over the Atlantic. This makes conditions more favorable for hurricanes to develop and possibly grow quite strong.

If the expected La Niña continues through the winter, past events tell us that it could bring warmer temperatures to the southern U.S. and above-average precipitation to northern sections of the country.

The Surprising Link Between Language and Depression

Skim through the poems of Sylvia Plath, the lyrics of Kurt Cobain, or posts on an internet forum dedicated to depression, and you'll probably start to see some commonalities. That's because there's a particular way that people with clinical depression communicate, whether they're speaking or writing, and psychologists believe they now understand the link between the two.

According to a recent study published in Clinical Psychological Science, there are certain "markers" in a person's parlance that may point to symptoms of clinical depression. Researchers used automated text analysis methods to comb through large quantities of posts in 63 internet forums with more than 6400 members, searching for certain words and phrases. They also noted average sentence length, grammatical patterns, and other factors.

What researchers found was that a person's use (or overuse) of first-person pronouns can provide some insight into the state of their mental health. People with clinical depression tend to use more first-person singular pronouns, such as "I" and "me," and fewer third-person pronouns, like "they," "he," or "she." As Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Reading and the head of the study, writes in a post for IFL Science:

"This pattern of pronoun use suggests people with depression are more focused on themselves, and less connected with others. Researchers have reported that pronouns are actually more reliable in identifying depression than negative emotion words."

What remains unclear, though, is whether people who are more focused on themselves tend to depression, or if depression turns a person's focus on themselves. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people with depression also use more negative descriptors, like "lonely" and "miserable."

But, Al-Mosaiwi notes, it's hardly the most important clue when using language to assess clinical depression. Far better indicators, he says, are the presence of "absolutist words" in a person's speech or writing, such as "always," "constantly," and "completely." When overused, they tend to indicate that someone has a "black-and-white view of the world," Al-Mosaiwi says. An analysis of posts on different internet forums found that absolutist words were 50 percent more prevalent on anxiety and depression forums, and 80 percent more prevalent on suicidal ideation forums.

Researchers hope these types of classifications, supported by computerized methods, will prove more and more beneficial in a clinical setting.

[h/t IFL Science]

Pop Culture
The ‘Scully Effect’ Is Real: Female X-Files Fans More Likely to Go Into STEM

FBI agent Dana Scully is more than just a role model for remaining professional when a colleague won't stop talking about his vast governmental conspiracy theories. The skeptical doctor played by Gillian Anderson on The X-Files helped inspire women to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers, according to a new report [PDF] from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which we spotted at Fast Company.

“In the world of entertainment media, where scientists are often portrayed as white men wearing white coats and working alone in labs, Scully stood out in the 1990s as the only female STEM character in a prominent, prime-time television role,” the report explains. Previously, anecdotal evidence has pointed to the existence of a “Scully effect,” in which the measured TV scientist—with her detailed note-taking, evidence-based approach, and desire to autopsy everything—inspired women to seek out their own science careers. This report provides the hard data.

The Geena Davis Institute surveyed more than 2000 women in the U.S. above the age of 25, a significant portion of whom were viewers of The X-Files (68 percent) and women who had studied for or were in STEM careers (49 percent). While the survey didn’t ask women whether watching Dana Scully on The X-Files directly influenced their decision to be a scientist, the results hint that seeing a character like her on TV regularly did affect them. Women who watched more of the show were more likely to say they were interested in STEM, more likely to have studied a STEM field in college, and more likely to have worked in a STEM field after college.

While it’s hard to draw a direct line of causation there—women who are interested in science might just be more inclined to watch a sci-fi show like The X-Files than women who grow up to be historians—viewers also tended to say Scully gave them positive impressions of women in science. More than half of respondents who were familiar with Scully’s character said she increased their confidence in succeeding in a male-dominated profession. More than 60 percent of the respondents said she increased their belief in the importance of STEM. And when asked to describe her, they were most likely to say she was “smart” and “intelligent” before any other adjective.

STEM fields are still overwhelmingly male, and governments, nonprofits, schools, activists, and some tech companies have been pushing to make the field more diverse by recruiting and retaining more female talent. While the desire to become a doctor or an engineer isn’t the only thing keeping STEM a boy’s club, women also need more role models in the fields whose success and accomplishments they can look up to. Even if some of those role models are fictional.

Now that The X-Files has returned to Fox, perhaps Dana Scully will have an opportunity to shepherd a whole new generation of women into the sciences.

[h/t Fast Company]


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