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The Unintended Consequences of Suppressing Wildfires


Friday, March 29th, 2024


Today’s newsletter is: 1,009 words; 4 min.


The Unintended Consequences of Suppressing Wildfires

National Park Service

A new study by researchers at the University of Montana found fire suppression strategies ensure wildfires will burn under dangerous conditions at high severity, worsening the impacts of climate change and fuel accumulation. 

What to know: 

  • The researchers used computer simulations to reveal how attempting to suppress all wildfires leads to fires burning with greater ecological impact, finding accelerated increases in burned areas beyond what would be expected from fuel accumulation or climate change.

  • “Fire suppression has unintended consequences,” said lead author Mark Kreider. “We've known for a long time that suppressing fires leads to fuel accumulation. Here, we show a separate counter-intuitive outcome.”

Why it matters: 

  • While fire suppression indeed reduces the total area burned, it largely focuses on low- and moderate-intensity fires, creating a “suppression bias” that causes the average fire to be more intense than it would be without human intervention.

  • "By attempting to suppress all fires, we are bringing a more severe future to the present," said Kreider. 



Scientists “Cut” HIV Out of Cells, Increasing Hopes for a Future Cure

A new study by researchers at Amsterdam UMC in the Netherlands used CRISPR gene editing technology to “cut” HIV out of infected cells, presenting what the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (ESCMID) describes as a “significant breakthrough in the search for an HIV cure.” The authors will present their work at an ESCMID conference next month.

A big step: 

  • Without getting lost in the weeds, CRISPR technology acts like a set of “molecular scissors,” allowing scientists to “cut” DNA at designated locations, facilitating the deletion of unwanted genes or the introduction of new material to develop therapies. 

  • The authors emphasized their work presents a proof-of-concept and does not mean an HIV cure is on the horizon, but described the findings as a “pivotal advancement towards designing a cure strategy.”




The Biggest U.S. Corporations Are Fueling Inequality

A new report by Oxfam International found the combined net profits of the 200 largest publicly traded companies reached $1.25 trillion in 2022, up 63% from 2018, around 90% of which ($1.1 trillion) was paid out to shareholders through stock buybacks and dividend payments. At the same time, just 5% of the companies publicly support a living wage.

What to know: 

  • The report found stock buybacks by the companies reached a record high $681 billion in 2022, with tech companies in particular having developed massive buyback programs in recent years, despite laying off tens of thousands of employees in 2023.

  • Critics of buyback programs say they worsen inequality by enriching executives, whose pay is often dependent on stock market performance, at the expense of higher wages for employees.



Hasler et al.

Here’s Where Planting Trees Has the Greatest Climate Benefit and Where It Could Actually Make Warming Worse

A new study by researchers at Clark University offers a global analysis of where reforestation of tree cover would have the greatest climate-cooling effect, examining not just carbon storage but also the warming from decreased albedo (the amount of sunlight reflected by the Earth’s surface). 

Why it matters: 

  • The researchers say tree planting is an established strategy for removing carbon and reducing global warming, however, in some areas, restoring tree cover (which absorbs more sunlight) can lead to an overall increase in global warming. In other locations, albedo doesn’t outweigh carbon removal, resulting in an overall cooling effect.

  • In the map above, the regions where planting trees would reduce warming are colored blue, while the areas where it would intensify warming are colored red.


Sperm Whales Dropped “Poop Bombs” to Thwart Orca Attacks

A pod of sperm whales off the coast of Western Australia last week used a massive cloud of poop to successfully thwart an attack by a group of at least 30 orcas.

  • “It’s called defense defecation,” said Jennah Tucker, a marine biologist working on a charter boat who witnessed the incident.

Poop circle:

According to Tucker, the sperm whales huddled in a tight circle with their heads toward the center as the orcas approached, forming what she says is a defensive mechanism called a “rosette.”

  • The sperm whales then defecated and fanned their tails in unison, shooting a “cloud of diarrhea” at the oncoming orcas.

  • “It was like the orcas said, ‘No, not worth our time, everyone move out,’” said Tucker.

Rare attempt:

There have only been a few documented cases of orca attacks on sperm whales around the world, largely due to the sheer size difference between the two species.

  • “Sperm whales are considered an apex predator, and, historically, it was thought that they were pretty much immune to killer whale attacks,” said Tucker. “It's actually pretty adventurous for orcas to try to take on sperm whales. They're punching above their weight.”


  • 10,000 - The number of personnel the government should include in a proposed U.S. Cyber Force, according to a new report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The proposed independent service would be part of the Department of the Army, similar to how the Space Force sits within the Department of the Air Force.     

  • 75% - The percentage of U.S. K-12 educators who say school lesson plans should include materials specifically designed to help students understand the implications of AI, according to a new report by the AI Education Project. Around 80% of educators also say professional development for educators should include curriculum about the implications of AI.


Long Video. Learn whether Italy’s viral $1 home scheme actually worked. (14 min) 

Short Video. Here’s why the Rosetta Stone is so important. (5 min)

Fun Video. What makes IMAX films so expensive? (7 min)

Good Read. Believe it or not, Trump wouldn’t be the first candidate to campaign from a prison cell. (1,129 words; 5 min)

Neat List. In light of the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse, here are seven of the worst bridge disasters in world history.


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Written by Ryan Wittler