Rice feeds half the world. Climate change’s droughts and floods put it at risk

under a midday summer sun in California’s Sacramento Valley, rice farmer Peter Rystrom walks across a dusty, barren plot of land, parched soil crunching beneath each step.

In a typical year, he’d be sloshing through inches of water amid lush, green rice plants. But today the soil lies naked and baking in the 35˚ Celsius (95˚ Fahrenheit) heat during a devastating drought that has hit most of the western United States. The drought started in early 2020, and conditions have become progressively drier.

Low water levels in reservoirs and rivers have forced farmers like Rystrom, whose family has been growing rice on this land for four generations, to slash their water use.

Rystrom stops and looks around. “We’ve had to cut back between 25 and 50 percent.” He’s relatively lucky. In some parts of the Sacramento Valley, depending on water rights, he says, farmers received no water this season.

California is the second-largest U.S. producer of rice, after Arkansas, and over 95 percent of California’s rice is grown within about 160 kilometers of Sacramento. To the city’s east rise the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, which means “snowy mountains” in Spanish. Rice growers in the valley below count on the range to live up to its name each winter. In spring, melting snowpack flows into rivers and reservoirs, and then through an intricate network of canals and drainages to rice fields that farmers irrigate in a shallow inundation from April or May to September or October.

If too little snow falls in those mountains, farmers like Rystrom are forced to leave fields unplanted. On April 1 this year, the date when California’s snowpack is usually at its deepest, it held about 40 percent less water than average, according to the California Department of Water Resources. On August 4, Lake Oroville, which supplies Rystrom and other local rice farmers with irrigation water, was at its lowest level on record.
Not too long ago, the opposite — too much rain — stopped Rystrom and others from planting. “In 2017 and 2019, we were leaving ground out because of flood. We couldn’t plant,” he says. Tractors couldn’t move through the muddy, clay-rich soil to prepare the fields for seeding.

Climate change is expected to worsen the state’s extreme swings in precipitation, researchers reported in 2018 in Nature Climate Change. This “climate whiplash” looms over Rystrom and the other 2,500 or so rice producers in the Golden State. “They’re talking about less and less snowpack, and more concentrated bursts of rain,” Rystrom says. “It’s really concerning.”

Farmers in China, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Vietnam — the biggest rice-growing countries — as well as in Nigeria, Africa’s largest rice producer — also worry about the damage climate change will do to rice production. More than 3.5 billion people get 20 percent or more of their calories from the fluffy grains. And demand is increasing in Asia, Latin America and especially in Africa.

To save and even boost production, rice growers, engineers and researchers have turned to water-saving irrigation routines and rice gene banks that store hundreds of thousands of varieties ready to be distributed or bred into new, climate-resilient forms. With climate change accelerating, and researchers raising the alarm about related threats, such as arsenic contamination and bacterial diseases, the demand for innovation grows.

“If we lose our rice crop, we’re not going to be eating,” says plant geneticist Pamela Ronald of the University of California, Davis. Climate change is already threatening rice-growing regions around the world, says Ronald, who identifies genes in rice that help the plant withstand disease and floods. “This is not a future problem. This is happening now.”
Saltwater woes
Most rice plants are grown in fields, or paddies, that are typically filled with around 10 centimeters of water. This constant, shallow inundation helps stave off weeds and pests. But if water levels suddenly get too high, such as during a flash flood, the rice plants can die.

Striking the right balance between too much and too little water can be a struggle for many rice farmers, especially in Asia, where over 90 percent of the world’s rice is produced. Large river deltas in South and Southeast Asia, such as the Mekong River Delta in Vietnam, offer flat, fertile land that is ideal for farming rice. But these low-lying areas are sensitive to swings in the water cycle. And because deltas sit on the coast, drought brings another threat: salt.

Salt’s impact is glaringly apparent in the Mekong River Delta. When the river runs low, saltwater from the South China Sea encroaches upstream into the delta, where it can creep into the soils and irrigation canals of the delta’s rice fields.

“If you irrigate rice with water that’s too salty, especially at certain [growing] stages, you are at risk of losing 100 percent of the crop,” says Bjoern Sander, a climate change specialist at the International Rice Research Institute, or IRRI, who is based in Vietnam.

In a 2015 and 2016 drought, saltwater reached up to 90 kilometers inland, destroying 405,000 hectares of rice paddies. In 2019 and 2020, drought and saltwater intrusion returned, damaging 58,000 hectares of rice. With regional temperatures on the rise, these conditions in Southeast Asia are expected to intensify and become more widespread, according to a 2020 report by the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

Then comes the whiplash: Each year from around April to October, the summer monsoon turns on the faucet over swaths of South and Southeast Asia. About 80 percent of South Asia’s rainfall is dumped during this season and can cause destructive flash floods.

Bangladesh is one of the most flood-prone rice producers in the region, as it sits at the mouths of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. In June 2020, monsoon rains flooded about 37 percent of the country, damaging about 83,000 hectares of rice fields, according to Bangladesh’s Ministry of Agriculture. And the future holds little relief; South Asia’s monsoon rainfall is expected to intensify with climate change, researchers reported June 4 in Science Advances.
A hot mess
Water highs and lows aren’t the entire story. Rice generally grows best in places with hot days and cooler nights. But in many rice-growing regions, temperatures are getting too hot. Rice plants become most vulnerable to heat stress during the middle phase of their growth, before they begin building up the meat in their grains. Extreme heat, above 35˚ C, can diminish grain counts in just weeks, or even days. In April in Bangladesh, two consecutive days of 36˚ C destroyed thousands of hectares of rice.

In South and Southeast Asia, such extreme heat events are expected to become common with climate change, researchers reported in July in Earth’s Future. And there are other, less obvious, consequences for rice in a warming world.

One of the greatest threats is bacterial blight, a fatal plant disease caused by the bacterium Xanthomonas oryzae pv. oryzae. The disease, most prevalent in Southeast Asia and rising in Africa, has been reported to have cut rice yields by up to 70 percent in a single season.

“We know that with higher temperature, the disease becomes worse,” says Jan Leach, a plant pathologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Most of the genes that help rice combat bacterial blight seem to become less effective when temperatures rise, she explains.

And as the world warms, new frontiers may open for rice pathogens. An August study in Nature Climate Change suggests that as global temperatures rise, rice plants (and many other crops) at northern latitudes, such as those in China and the United States, will be at higher risk of pathogen infection.

Meanwhile, rising temperatures may bring a double-edged arsenic problem. In a 2019 study in Nature Communications, E. Marie Muehe, a biogeochemist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, who was then at Stanford University, showed that under future climate conditions, more arsenic will infiltrate rice plants. High arsenic levels boost the health risk of eating the rice and impair plant growth.
Arsenic naturally occurs in soils, though in most regions the toxic element is present at very low levels. Rice, however, is particularly susceptible to arsenic contamination, because it is grown in flooded conditions. Paddy soils lack oxygen, and the microbes that thrive in this anoxic environment liberate arsenic from the soil. Once the arsenic is in the water, rice plants can draw it in through their roots. From there, the element is distributed throughout the plants’ tissues and grains.

Muehe and her team grew a Californian variety of rice in a local low-arsenic soil inside climate-controlled greenhouses. Increasing the temperature and carbon dioxide levels to match future climate scenarios enhanced the activity of the microbes living in the rice paddy soils and increased the amount of arsenic in the grains, Muehe says. And importantly, rice yields diminished. In the low-arsenic Californian soil under future climate conditions, rice yield dropped 16 percent.

According to the researchers, models that forecast the future production of rice don’t account for the impact of arsenic on harvest yields. What that means, Muehe says, is that current projections are overestimating how much rice will be produced in the future.

Managing rice’s thirst
From atop an embankment that edges one of his fields, Rystrom watches water gush from a pipe, flooding a paddy packed with rice plants. “On a year like this, we decided to pump,” he says.

Able to tap into groundwater, Rystrom left only about 10 percent of his fields unplanted this growing season. “If everybody was pumping from the ground to farm rice every year,” he admits, it would be unsustainable.

One widely studied, drought-friendly method is “alternate wetting and drying,” or intermittent flooding, which involves flooding and draining rice paddies on one- to 10-day cycles, as opposed to maintaining a constant inundation. This practice can cut water use by up to 38 percent without sacrificing yields. It also stabilizes the soil for harvesting and lowers arsenic levels in rice by bringing more oxygen into the soils, disrupting the arsenic-releasing microbes. If tuned just right, it may even slightly improve crop yields.

But the water-saving benefits of this method are greatest when it is used on highly permeable soils, such as those in Arkansas and other parts of the U.S. South, which normally require lots of water to keep flooded, says Bruce Linquist, a rice specialist at the University of California Cooperative Extension. The Sacramento Valley’s clay-rich soils don’t drain well, so the water savings where Rystrom farms are minimal; he doesn’t use the method.

Building embankments, canal systems and reservoirs can also help farmers dampen the volatility of the water cycle. But for some, the solution to rice’s climate-related problems lies in enhancing the plant itself.
Better breeds
The world’s largest collection of rice is stored near the southern rim of Laguna de Bay in the Philippines, in the city of Los Baños. There, the International Rice Genebank, managed by IRRI, holds over 132,000 varieties of rice seeds from farms around the globe.

Upon arrival in Los Baños, those seeds are dried and processed, placed in paper bags and moved into two storage facilities — one cooled to 2˚ to 4˚ C from which seeds can be readily withdrawn, and another chilled to –20˚ C for long-term storage. To be extra safe, backup seeds are kept at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colo., and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault tucked inside a mountain in Norway.

All this is done to protect the biodiversity of rice and amass a trove of genetic material that can be used to breed future generations of rice. Farmers no longer use many of the stored varieties, instead opting for new higher-yield or sturdier breeds. Nevertheless, solutions to climate-related problems may be hidden in the DNA of those older strains. “Scientists are always looking through that collection to see if genes can be discovered that aren’t being used right now,” says Ronald, of UC Davis. “That’s how Sub1 was discovered.”
The Sub1 gene enables rice plants to endure prolonged periods completely submerged underwater. It was discovered in 1996 in a traditional variety of rice grown in the Indian state of Orissa, and through breeding has been incorporated into varieties cultivated in flood-prone regions of South and Southeast Asia. Sub1-wielding varieties, called “scuba rice,” can survive for over two weeks entirely submerged, a boon for farmers whose fields are vulnerable to flash floods.

Some researchers are looking beyond the genetic variability preserved in rice gene banks, searching instead for useful genes from other species, including plants and bacteria. But inserting genes from one species into another, or genetic modification, remains controversial. The most famous example of genetically modified rice is Golden Rice, which was intended as a partial solution to childhood malnutrition. Golden Rice grains are enriched in beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. To create the rice, researchers spliced a gene from a daffodil and another from a bacterium into an Asian variety of rice.

Three decades have passed since its initial development, and only a handful of countries have deemed Golden Rice safe for consumption. On July 23, the Philippines became the first country to approve the commercial production of Golden Rice. Abdelbagi Ismail, principal scientist at IRRI, blames the slow acceptance on public perception and commercial interests opposed to genetically modified organisms, or GMOs (SN: 2/6/16, p. 22).

Looking ahead, it will be crucial for countries to embrace GM rice, Ismail says. Developing nations, particularly those in Africa that are becoming more dependent on the crop, would benefit greatly from the technology, which could produce new varieties faster than breeding and may allow researchers to incorporate traits into rice plants that conventional breeding cannot. If Golden Rice were to gain worldwide acceptance, it could open the door for new genetically modified climate- and disease-resilient varieties, Ismail says. “It will take time,” he says. “But it will happen.”

Climate change is a many-headed beast, and each rice-growing region will face its own particular set of problems. Solving those problems will require collaboration between local farmers, government officials and the international community of researchers.

“I want my kids to be able to have a shot at this,” Rystrom says. “You have to do a lot more than just farm rice. You have to think generations ahead.”

How Hans Berger’s quest for telepathy spurred modern brain science

A brush with death led Hans Berger to invent a machine that could eavesdrop on the brain.

In 1893, when he was 19, Berger fell off his horse during maneuvers training with the German military and was nearly trampled. On that same day, his sister, far away, got a bad feeling about Hans. She talked her father into sending a telegram asking if everything was all right.

To young Berger, this eerie timing was no coincidence: It was a case of “spontaneous telepathy,” he later wrote. Hans was convinced that he had transmitted his thoughts of mortal fear to his sister — somehow.

So he decided to study psychiatry, beginning a quest to uncover how thoughts could travel between people. Chasing after a scientific basis for telepathy was a dead end, of course. But in the attempt, Berger ended up making a key contribution to modern medicine and science: He invented the electroencephalogram, or EEG, a device that could read the brain’s electrical activity.

Berger’s machine, first used successfully in 1924, produced a readout of squiggles that represented the electricity created by collections of firing nerve cells in the brain.
In the century since, the EEG has become an indispensable clinical tool. It can spot seizures, monitor sleep and even help determine brain death. It has also yielded fundamental insights into how the brain works, revealing details about the brain’s activity while at rest, or while crunching numbers or tripping on hallucinogens.

When Berger was young, the idea of paranormal psychic communication didn’t sound as wacko as it does now. “The hangover from the 19th century was this idea of trying to explain cases of telepathy,” says communications expert Caitlin Shure, who wrote her thesis at Columbia University on the concept of brain waves. At that time, scientific societies and serious research initiatives were devoted to probing these occurrences. British physician and author Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame, was a staunch believer. It was, as Shure puts it, “peak telepathy enthusiasm time.”

In a way, this makes sense. Scientific understanding of the world was deepening, along with technological advances in radio. “Why shouldn’t thoughts be able to travel through the universe just like wireless telegraphy?” Shure says.

Berger slogged away to prove how telepathy worked, trying to measure mental activity. He scrutinized blood flow and brain temperature before turning to electrical output. His breakthrough finally came on July 6, 1924, while studying a man with a skull injury called Patient K. Using a vacuum tube amplifier to enhance the electrical signals, Berger was finally able to spot a brain wave.

In 1929, Berger finally published his results, the first of a series of papers with the exact same title, numbered 1 to 14: “Über das Elektrenkephalogramm des Menschen,” or “On the Electroencephalogram of Man.”
The findings “go down like the proverbial lead balloon,” says medical historian and forensic psychiatrist Robert Kaplan of the University of Wollongong in Australia. A more prominent scientist, Nobel laureate Edgar Adrian of the University of Cambridge, was deeply skeptical of Berger’s findings, and repeated the experiments. But Adrian confirmed the results and began to publicize the method and Berger along with it.

The rest of Berger’s story takes a dark turn. In the run up to the second World War, he was ousted from his research position at the University of Jena in Germany and forced into a non-research job at a nursing home. Convinced that he had a fatal heart disease and sick with an infection and depression, Berger died by suicide in 1941 — “a terrible, sad ending to this story,” Kaplan says. The year before, Adrian had nominated Berger for the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, but no prize was awarded that year.
Berger wrote late in his life that the waves he discovered couldn’t explain the psychic transference he sought; his waves could not have traveled far enough to reach his sister. But, as Shure points out, echoes of that idea ripple into today’s world, in which we are all instantly and digitally connected. “There’s a way in which these false beliefs, or fantasies, about brain waves or telepathy or thought transference ended up creating that reality,” Shure says. Technology has already begun linking brains wirelessly.

It’s not Berger’s telepathy. But today’s technology is getting us closer to something like it. And at the very least, if you had a near-death experience this morning, your sister would soon know about it.

Research on wildfire smoke hits close to home

Emily Fischer
Atmospheric chemist
Colorado State University

Emily Fischer, featured in 2020, is in the midst of one of the most comprehensive analyses of wildfire smoke ever attempted. Since we last chatted with Fischer, her wildfire research and the way she talks about it have become more personal.

Have you started any projects since 2020?
We’re looking at the impact of smoke on the visible light range where photosynthesis occurs. There’s smoke blanketing the U.S. in summers now. Regardless of whether it’s at the ground, it’s somewhere in the atmosphere between the sun and the plants on the ground. In the Midwest, for example, over our corn and soybean belt, there’s smoke between a third to half of the days on average in July and August, during peak growing season. What does that mean for crops? How is that changing the light at the surface? If it’s boosting the diffuse fraction of radiation, and not decreasing the total radiation, that’s a boost to productivity.

Last year, you helped launch a national group called Science Moms. What is that?
We are a nonpartisan group of scientists who are also mothers. The goal of Science Moms is for us to speak directly [via a website, videos and events] on climate change to other mothers in ways that are accurate, digestible and also engaging. While roughly 60 percent of the U.S. population is worried about climate change, like 85 percent of moms are worried about climate change. But they don’t feel comfortable talking about it, or know how to talk to their representatives about it or even talk to their book club about it.

How have people responded to your outreach efforts?
I get all sorts of messages: “This is so different than any other climate communication that I’ve ever seen.” We’re trained as scientists to take the emotion out of things, but actually it’s very important for people to understand the feeling of climate change.

Last summer [2020], extreme fires impacted my own home. We had smoke here for multiple months, and my family ran from the Cameron Peak Fire.… For me, there was a shift from “These are the numbers, these are the graphs,” to “Oh, this is what my graphs feel like, this is what this trend feels like.”

Did your experience fleeing a wildfire shift your perspective around your science?
I’m the kind of person who studies what I see.… And so I should not have been surprised by that fire. I was out backpacking with my family, and it started one range over and my kids and I ran out, and we made it. So it was OK, but I was not sure it would be OK. When something like that happens to you, you have to respond to it. [Now] I think, when we calculate a change in something going forward, what does that mean? What are all the impacts that that could have?

Also, seeing the incident management teams working together to help people [during the fire] was very inspiring. I would say to my husband, “These teams are beautiful. They are functioning at such a high level under such hard conditions. If we could just harness this level of cooperation toward climate change action, or toward eliminating the pandemic, we [could] do anything.”

— Interview by Cassie Martin

Pluto’s dark side reveals clues to its atmosphere and frost cycles

Pluto’s dark side has come into dim view, thanks to the light of the dwarf planet’s moon.

When NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto in 2015, almost all the images of the dwarf planet’s unexpectedly complex surface were of the side illuminated by the sun (SN: 7/15/15). Darkness shrouded the dwarf planet’s other hemisphere. Some of it, like the area near the south pole, hadn’t seen the sun for decades.

Now, mission scientists have finally released a grainy view of the dwarf planet’s dark side. The researchers describe the process to take the photo and what it tells them about how Pluto’s nitrogen cycle affects its atmosphere October 20 in the Planetary Science Journal.

Before New Horizons passed by Pluto, the team suspected the dwarf planet’s largest moon, Charon, might reflect enough light to illuminate the distant world’s surface. So the researchers had the spacecraft turn back toward the sun to take a parting peek at Pluto.
At first, the images just showed a ring of sunlight filtering through Pluto’s hazy atmosphere (SN: 7/24/15). “It’s very hard to see anything in that glare,” says planetary scientist John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. “It’s like trying to read a street sign when you’re driving toward the setting sun and you have a dirty windshield.”

Spencer and colleagues took a few steps to make it possible to pull details of Pluto’s dark side out of the glare. First, the team had the spacecraft take 360 short snapshots of the backlit dwarf planet. Each was about 0.4 seconds long, to avoid overexposing the images. The team also took snapshots of the sun without Pluto in the frame so that the sun could be subtracted out after the fact.

Tod Lauer of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Ariz., tried to process the images when he got the data in 2016. At the time, the rest of the data from New Horizons was still fresh and took up most of his attention, so he didn’t have the time to tackle such a tricky project.

But “it was something that just sat there and ate away at me,” Lauer says. He tried again in 2019. Because the spacecraft was moving as it took the images, each image was a little bit smeared or blurred. Lauer wrote a computer code to remove that blur from each individual frame. Then he added the reflected Charon light in each of those hundreds of images together to produce a single image.
“When Tod did that painstaking analysis, we finally saw something emerging in the dark there … giving us a little bit of a glimpse of what the dark pole of Pluto looks like,” Spencer says.

That the team got anything at all is impressive, says planetary scientist Carly Howett, also of the Southwest Research Institute and who is on the New Horizons team but was not involved in this work. “This dataset is really, really hard to work with,” she says. “Kudos to this team. I wouldn’t have wanted to do this.”

The image, Howett says, can help scientists understand how Pluto’s frigid nitrogen atmosphere varies with its decades-long seasons. Pluto’s atmosphere is controlled by how much nitrogen is in a gas phase in the air and how much is frozen on the surface. The more nitrogen ice that evaporates, the thicker the atmosphere becomes. If too much nitrogen freezes to the ground, the atmosphere could collapse altogether.
When New Horizons was there, Pluto’s south pole looked darker than the north pole. That suggests there was not a lot of fresh nitrogen frost freezing out of the atmosphere there, even though it was nearing winter. “The previous summer ended decades ago, but Pluto cools off pretty slowly,” Spencer says. “Maybe it’s still so warm [that] the frost can’t condense there, and that keeps the atmosphere from collapsing.”

There was a bright spot in the middle of the image, which could be a fresh ice deposit. That’s also not surprising, Howett says. The ices may still be moving from the north pole to the south pole as Pluto moves deeper into its wintertime.

“We’ve thought this for a long time. It makes sense,” she says. “But it’s nice to see it happening.”

Here’s what the next 10 years of space science could look like

The Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey is basically a sneak preview of the next 10 years of U.S. space science. Every decade, experts assembled by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine collect input from astronomers nationwide to recommend a prioritized list of projects to policy makers and federal agencies. Past to-do lists have been topped by specific big-ticket items, such as the James Webb Space Telescope and the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (SN: 10/6/21; SN: 8/13/10). But this year, astronomers are shaking things up.

The latest decadal survey, which charts the course for U.S. astronomy and astrophysics from 2022 to 2032, recommends that NASA create a new program to develop several major space telescopes at a time. Investing early in multiple mission concepts could curb the risk of individual missions becoming too unwieldy and expensive, according to the report released November 4.

“These are super important recommendations,” says Scott Gaudi, an astronomer at the Ohio State University who wasn’t on the National Academies committee that compiled the report. “They really focus the direction of astronomy in the United States — and sort of by extension the rest of the world, because we have lots of international partnerships.”

The proposed multi-mission program would reshape how major space missions are planned. In the past, “you would pick a priority, you’d build it, you’d launch it, and then you would think about what the next priority was,” says Jonathan Fortney, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz and a member of the survey committee.
But space telescopes are getting more ambitious, complex and expensive, Fortney says. The one-at-a-time model doesn’t work so well when a single mission can take decades from blueprint to blastoff.

Having several big projects in the works offers a bit of insurance. If researchers work on one mission for a few years and realize that the technology isn’t there to make it fly on time, NASA could switch gears and send another telescope to space first, Fortney says. Developing multiple missions in parallel could also shrink the long wait time between launches.

“I’m so excited by that. It’s like the best possible outcome,” Gaudi says. This setup could boost confidence that big space missions can stay on budget and on schedule, he adds, after the large cost overruns and delays that have mired the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope. “It is a really new way of approaching things, and one that’s really needed to advance astronomy into the next few decades.”

The first mission in the new program, according to the survey report, should be a space telescope that views the universe in infrared, optical and ultraviolet wavelengths, filling a gap left by other instruments. The Hubble Space Telescope mainly looks at optical and ultraviolet light, while the James Webb telescope will primarily see the universe in infrared.
With a light-collecting area more than twice as wide as Hubble’s, this newfangled observatory could glimpse planets in other star systems that are a tenth of a billionth as bright as their stars, and could tease out the specific wavelengths of light, or spectra, given off by exoplanets. The telescope could also observe stars, galaxies and other celestial objects. With an estimated price tag of $11 billion, the telescope would be slated to launch in the early 2040s.

Five years after starting work on that first flagship mission, NASA should begin developing both a far-infrared mission and an X-ray mission, each costing an estimated $3 billion to $5 billion, the survey recommends.

A far-infrared window into the universe could help astronomers study how water behaves in forming planetary systems, Fortney says. A successor to NASA’s 22-year-old Chandra X-ray Observatory could reveal new details of galaxy evolution, supermassive black hole behavior and other energetic phenomena (SN: 7/25/19).

On the ground, astronomers’ highest priorities, according to the decadal survey, are continuing to build two major optical observatories, the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile and the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii — though the latter project has faced controversy (SN: 8/5/20).

The survey also notes that it is time to replace the Very Large Array in New Mexico and the Very Long Baseline Array of telescope dishes scattered across the United States. The proposed successor to these world-class radio observatories is the Next-Generation Very Large Array, which would be 10 times as sensitive.

Fortney is optimistic that NASA and other federal agencies will make the decadal survey’s top-ranked priorities a reality. “The record has been quite good, in terms of the most prominent recommendations being born out,” he says. “I have really high confidence that these things really will happen.”