Editors’ top picks for 2016

Here’s the year in review, focusing on the top 10 major stories
Dec 22, 2016 — 7:00 am EST
2016 editors’ top picks

What were our editors' top stories of 2016? Read on to find out.

E. Otwell

This year saw a redesign of Science News for Students. And along with it came a steady rise in readers. From far and wide, around half a million of you check in each month (coming from more than 100 countries). To serve you better, we have rolled out more topical stories, many of them posting on the very day they made news. We know that you’ve noticed and voted with your phone taps and mouse clicks as to which you found most interesting.

But we editors sometimes have a different idea of which are the most important stories. Some have the potential to prove game-changers in science and engineering. Others point to trends or issues that stand poised to affect us or our world. So sit back and review our top 10 hits for 2016. If you missed them earlier in the year, here’s your chance to catch up. Enjoy!

10: New insights into adolescent stress

stressed out
Stress is an annoying but natural part of life. Scientists are figuring out what primes the human body to experience stress.
Firesam!/Flickr (CC-BY ND 2.0)

Losing sleep over an upcoming tryout? Fearful about meeting your nemesis in the hallway or on the ball field? Stress is hardly new, especially in teens. But what primes the body to experience stress has remained somewhat sketchy. This year, science worked toward demystifying that.

For instance, animal data showed that binge drinking — which is common in many teens — appears capable of rewiring the brain in ways that make it more prone to stress. And a source in our story argues that “what happens in rats is suggestive of what happens in humans.” Also stressful: confronting people who strongly disagree with you. But standing up for your beliefs in these circumstances can actually counter that stress, researchers now report.

9: Young ears under assault

Subjecting your ears to loud music or other high-volume sounds puts hearing and other organs of the body at risk. In at least one study, almost one-third of all high-school students reported a nonstop ringing in their ears, known as tinnitus. The students were also abnormally sensitive to loud sounds. Both symptoms point to emerging hearing damage that could prove permanent and likely to worsen. And even a single event, such as attending a rock concert without ear protection, can cause temporary hearing loss or damage.

8: Hate incidents at schools rise after U.S. elections

At least 867 hate incidents took place in the 10 days following the November 2016 U.S. elections, a legal group reported. At least 648 of those were based on racism. And about three out of every eight cases took place at schools, sometimes even elementary schools. Our story pointed to social science studies that identify the long-term impacts of racism and how they can harm health. No one has to stand by and watch, though. We shared advice from psychologists who study racism on what students can do when they witness or are the targets of such hateful acts or taunts.

7: Microplastics cause aquatic harm

Tiny bits of plastic, called microplastics, can be found in oceans and other bodies of water worldwide.
Image by 5Gyres, courtesy of Oregon State University/Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Tiny plastic beads and lint have been washing down drains and into waterways. They may have come from cleansing products or the breakdown of synthetic fabrics as they are laundered. New studies have been showing that animals in the sea eat those plastic bits, commonly referred to as microplastics. People who eat those oysters might also down the plastics the shellfish carried. One study found that baby fish may actually prefer this plastic to their normal food, even though it won’t give them the energy to keep them alive. And one likely reason for this unhealthy behavior: Some of that plastic actually smells like true food.

6: New insights into pollution’s harm

Most everyone knows that breathing heavily polluted air can be deadly. In fact, new data show, it has become the world’s fourth leading cause of early death. Dirty air also fosters obesity. The study that determine that was in rats, although our sources noted it’s “highly likely that this is happening in humans.” Especially disturbing, a major new paper found that when it comes to the pollution released by burning coal, oil or gas — the fossil fuels — children suffer more than adults do.

One troubling source of pollution that people intentionally expose themselves to are the vapors from electronic cigarettes. In fact, e-cigs have overtaken cigarettes as the leading tobacco product used by teens. And new data show that teens who had no intention to smoke tobacco cigarettes often do after first experimenting with e-cigarettes.

But there are additional reasons why vaping may be very risky. A trio of scientists from different labs unveiled new data from tests in cells and animals. These showed e-cig vapors can impair behavior, harm the immune system, harm male sperm and threaten heart health. Through its effects on the DNA of cells in the gums and mouth, e-cig vapors can put your smile at risk. But all vapors are not alike. In fact, those vapors become more toxic the hotter an e-cigarette gets — and the more it’s used.

5: More details emerge about our solar system

Saturn’s moon Enceladus is home to a vast, salty ocean buried beneath a frozen surface.
NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Remember when Pluto was demoted from planethood? Well January 2016 saw the emergence of data suggesting our solar system may still host a ninth planet after all — one orbiting far, far beyond Pluto. The best estimates suggest it would be at least 10 times as massive as Earth and circle the sun once every 17,000 years.

Jupiter, the biggest planet, got a visitor this year. The Juno spacecraft is expected to spy on the planet for some 20 months. Yet even before Juno arrived, Earth-based studies showed that Jupiter’s stormy atmosphere sports turbulence that can stretch nearly 100 kilometers (60 miles) below the cloud tops. And while the planet is relatively cold, its Great Red Spot is so scalding hot that it could melt iron.

And Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, now appears to host a vast, salty ocean beneath its frozen surface. Not only might this moon host life, but it also appears to play an active role in the survival of its parent planet’s biggest ring.

4: Zika explodes in the Americas

Zika, a mosquito-borne disease, blazed across Brazil in 2015. But it erupted to global attention in January 2016 when thousands of babies were born with unusually small heads (and other problems). But that was just the beginning. In all, Science News for Students has run 10 stories throughout the year describing the disease and a trail of birth defects and other problems that have turned up in its wake. These include brain and joint abnormalities, eye oddities and the death of certain types of important brain cells.

3: Women in the sciences and engineering

Although women make up at least half of the adult population, they account for only a bit more than one in every four scientists and engineers. A major story in our magazine this year delved into the history of women in research (it used to be a lot worse) and the prospects for improvement. An accompanying story pointed to studies showing how adults can sabotage a student’s attempt to train for a career in science or math. But another 10 blog posts showcased more than 100 women who beat the odds to find a successful career in research of all types. You can read about them and more here in our new collection containing stories about Women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

2: Climate change impacts intensify

Earth’s climate has been changing notably in recent decades. That’s no surprise. But a spate of new studies and reports that came out this year point to the worsening impacts of those changes. These changes eventually will impact every person and nearly every ecosystem on the planet. Last year, many areas suffered from record heat, and not just in summer. That heat may turn out to be normal for the globe within a decade.

arctic polar bear
As the Arctic warms, sea ice is disappearing. Polar bears now spend less time on the ice and more time swimming in the water in search of food.
Amanda Graham/Flickr (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Another study showed that Earth’s recent warming has caused sea levels to rise faster during the 20th century than at any time during in the previous 2,800 years. This prompted people living on an island above Alaska's north coast in August to vote to abandon their island home. Sea-level rise had already washed away much of the island, turning these people into climate migrants.

Polar bears normally summer atop ice floes, diving off when it’s time to hunt. But with less ice on the sea they’re swimming more than ever in search of food. One young female’s nonstop swim lasted nine days. Things could get far worse. And soon. Arctic sea ice reached a record low in March 2016. By 2050, it could fully disappear during summer months, a new analysis reported. That would be the first time the Arctic was warm enough to be ice-free in 125,000 years.

1: Gravity waves discovered — at last!

In November 1915, Albert Einstein unveiled a new way of looking at gravity. The math to explain this came to be known as general relativity. In 1916, Einstein realized that this new theory also predicted the existence of gravitational waves — now commonly called gravity waves. Yet it would be February 2016, a whole century, before anyone confirmed that gravity waves exist. Four months later, scientists offered a second confirmation of the phenomenon. We outlined the exploration for those mystery waves. We also provided an explainer on what they are and how they differ from most other waves. As one astronomer who was not involved with either project concluded: “The era of gravitational wave astronomy is upon us.” This new field has also given rise to a whole new unit for measuring massive outpourings of energy. It’s the yottawatt!

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

aquatic     An adjective that refers to water.

Arctic     A region that falls within the Arctic Circle. The edge of that circle is defined as the northernmost point at which the sun is visible on the northern winter solstice and the southernmost point at which the midnight sun can be seen on the northern summer solstice.

Arctic sea ice     Ice that forms from seawater and that covers all or parts of the Arctic Ocean.

astronomy     The area of science that deals with celestial objects, space and the physical universe. People who work in this field are called astronomers .

atmosphere     The envelope of gases surrounding Earth or another planet.

behavior     The way a person or other organism acts towards others, or conducts itself.

binge     To do or consume something to excess — usually an unhealthy excess.

binge drinking     To consume a dangerous amount of alcohol in a short period of time. At a minimum, this would be five servings by an adult within a single day, usually within a short period of time. For teens, it could take far less alcohol to constitute binging.

blog     Short for web log, these Internet posts can take the form of news reports, topical discussions, opinionated rants, diaries or photo galleries.

cell     The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the naked eye, it consists of watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells, depending on their size. Some organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.

climate     The weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period.

climate change     Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.

cloud     (in atmospheric science) A mass of airborne water droplets and ice crystals that travel as a plume, usually high in Earth’s atmosphere. Its movement is driven by winds. (in computing) A network of computers (hardware), known as servers, that are connected to the internet. They can be used to store data and computer programs (software) that can be accessed by one or many people at once, and from anywhere in the world.

data     Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that gives them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.

DNA     (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, double-stranded and spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. It is built on a backbone of phosphorus, oxygen, and carbon atoms. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.

e-cigarette     (short for electronic cigarette) Battery-powered device that disperses nicotine and other chemicals as tiny airborne particles that users can inhale. They were originally developed as a safer alternative to cigarettes that users could use as they tried to slowly break their addiction to the nicotine in tobacco products. These devices heat up a flavored liquid until it evaporates, producing vapors. People use these devices are known as vapers.

ecosystem     A group of interacting living organisms — including microorganisms, plants and animals — and their physical environment within a particular climate. Examples include tropical reefs, rainforests, alpine meadows and polar tundra.

Enceladus     The sixth largest of Saturn’s more than 50 moons. Enceladus is bright white and covered with a thick shell of ice. Deep beneath that ice sits what appears to be a global ocean of salty liquid water. Enceladus is a round sphere, 500 kilometers (310 miles) across. It is a little less than one-third the width of Earth's moon.

engineering     The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

fabric     Any flexible material that is woven, knitted or can be fused into a sheet by heat.

field     An area of study, as in: Her field of research was biology. Also a term to describe a real-world environment in which some research is conducted, such as at sea, in a forest, on a mountaintop or on a city street. It is the opposite of an artificial setting, such as a research laboratory. (in physics) A region in space where certain physical effects operate, such as magnetism (created by a magnetic field), gravity (by a gravitational field) or mass (by a Higgs field).

fossil     Any preserved remains or traces of ancient life. There are many different types of fossils: The bones and other body parts of dinosaurs are called “body fossils.” Things like footprints are called “trace fossils.” Even specimens of dinosaur poop are fossils. The process of forming fossils is called fossilization.

fossil fuel     Any fuel — such as coal, petroleum (crude oil) or natural gas — that has developed in the Earth over millions of years from the decayed remains of bacteria, plants or animals.

fuel     Any material that will release energy during a controlled chemical or nuclear reaction. Fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and petroleum) are a common type that liberate their energy through chemical reactions that take place when heated (usually to the point of burning).

gravity     The force that attracts anything with mass, or bulk, toward any other thing with mass. The more mass that something has, the greater its gravity.

host     (in biology and medicine) The organism in which another lives. Humans may be a temporary host for food-poisoning germs or other infective agents.

immune     Able to ward off a particular infection. Alternatively, this term can mean to show no impacts from a particular poison or process. More generally, the term may signal that something cannot be hurt by a particular drug, disease or chemical.

immune system     The collection of cells and their responses that help the body fight off infections and deal with foreign substances that may provoke allergies.

impair     (n. impairment) To damage or weaken in some way.

insight     The ability to gain an accurate and deep understanding of a situation just by thinking about it, instead of working out a solution through experimentation.

iron     A metallic element which is common in minerals of the Earth’s crust and in its hot core. This metal is also found in cosmic dust, and in many meteorites that fall to Earth from space.

Jupiter     (in astronomy) The solar system’s largest planet, it has the shortest day length (10 hours). A gas giant, its low density indicates that this planet is composed of light elements, such as hydrogen and helium. This planet also releases more heat than it receives from the sun as gravity compresses its mass (and slowly shrinks the planet).

microplastic     A small piece of plastic, 5 millimeters (0.2 inch) or smaller in size. Microplastics may have been produced at that small size, or their size may be the result of the breakdown of water bottles, plastic bags or other things that started out larger .

moon     The natural satellite of any planet.

obesity     Extreme overweight. Obesity is associated with a wide range of health problems, including type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

phenomenon     Something that is surprising or unusual.

planet     A celestial object that orbits a star, is big enough for gravity to have squashed it into a roundish ball and it must have cleared other objects out of the way in its orbital neighborhood. To accomplish the third feat, it must be big enough to pull neighboring objects into the planet itself or to sling-shot them around the planet and off into outer space. Astronomers of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) created this three-part scientific definition of a planet in August 2006 to determine Pluto’s status. Based on that definition, IAU ruled that Pluto did not qualify. The solar system now includes eight planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

plastic     Any of a series of materials that are easily deformable; or synthetic materials that have been made from polymers (long strings of some building-block molecule) that tend to be lightweight, inexpensive and resistant to degradation.

Pluto     A dwarf planet that is located in the Kuiper Belt, just beyond Neptune. Pluto is the tenth largest object orbiting the sun.

population     (in biology) A group of individuals from the same species that lives in the same area.

psychologist     A scientist or mental-health professional who studies the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behavior. 

relativity     A pair of theories developed by Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein. They hold that the laws of physics should work the same way anywhere in the universe. But nothing in the universe remains static in one place. All things are moving. The theory of relativity helps people attempt to identify the place of all of these moving things in the university relative to themselves and other objects via these laws.

risk     The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.

Saturn     The sixth planet out from the sun in our solar system. One of the four gas giants, this planet takes 10.7 hours to rotate (completing a day) and 29 Earth years to complete one orbit of the sun. It has at least 53 known moons and 9 more candidates awaiting confirmation. But what most distinguishes this planet is the broad and flat plane of seven rings that orbit it.

sea     An ocean (or region that is part of an ocean). Unlike lakes and streams, seawater — or ocean water — is salty.

sea level     The overall level of the ocean over the entire globe when all tides and other short-term changes are averaged out.

smoke     Plumes of microscopic particles that float in the air. They can be comprised of anything very small. But the best known types are pollutants created by the incomplete burning of oil, wood and other carbon-based materials.

social     (adj.) Relating to gatherings of people; a term for animals (or people) that prefer to exist in groups. (noun) A gathering of people, for instance those who belong to a club or other organization, for the purpose of enjoying each other’s company.

social science     The scientific study of people and their relationships to each other.

solar system     The eight major planets and their moons in orbit around the sun, together with smaller bodies in the form of dwarf planets, asteroids, meteoroids and comets.

sperm     The reproductive cell produced by a male animal (or, in plants, produced by male organs). When one joins with an egg, the sperm cell initiates fertilization. This is the first step in creating a new organism.

STEM     An acronym (abbreviation made using the first letters of a term) for science, technology, engineering and math.

stress     (in biology) A factor, such as unusual temperatures, moisture or pollution, that affects the health of a species or ecosystem. (in psychology) A mental, physical, emotional, or behavioral reaction to an event or circumstance, or stressor, that disturbs a person or animal’s usual state of being or places increased demands on a person or animal; psychological stress can be either positive or negative. (in physics) Pressure or tension exerted on a material object.

sun     The star at the center of Earth’s solar system. It’s an average size star about 26,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Or a sunlike star.

symptom     A physical or mental indicator generally regarded to be characteristic of a disease. Sometimes a single symptom — especially a general one, such as fever or pain — can be a sign of any of many different types of injury or disease.

synthetic     An adjective that describes something that did not arise naturally, but was instead created by people. Many have been developed to stand in for natural materials, such as synthetic rubber, synthetic diamond or a synthetic hormone. Some may even have a chemical makeup and structure identical to the original.

technology     The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

theory     (in science) A description of some aspect of the natural world based on extensive observations, tests and reason. A theory can also be a way of organizing a broad body of knowledge that applies in a broad range of circumstances to explain what will happen. Unlike the common definition of theory, a theory in science is not just a hunch. Ideas or conclusions that are based on a theory — and not yet on firm data or observations — are referred to as theoretical . Scientists who use mathematics and/or existing data to project what might happen in new situations are known as theorists.

tinnitus     An uncontrolled and non-stop ringing or buzzing in the ears, usually triggered by tissue damage from exposure to loud noise. It can be short-lived, lasting hours or a day. In some instances, however, people may experience it for years or decades.

tobacco     A plant cultivated for its leaves. Dried tobacco leaves are burned in cigars, cigarettes, and pipes. Tobacco leaves are also sometimes chewed. The main constituent of tobacco leaves is nicotine.

toxic     Poisonous or able to harm or kill cells, tissues or whole organisms. The measure of risk posed by such a poison is its toxicity.

turbulence     The chaotic, swirling flow of air. Airplanes that run into turbulence high above ground can give passengers a bumpy ride.

vaping     (v. to vape) A slang term for the use of e-cigarettes because these devices emit vapor, not smoke. People who do this are referred to as vapers.

vapors     Fumes released when a liquid transforms to a gas, usually as a result of heating.

wake     An area of disturbed air or water left behind an object (such as a boat or animal) moving through the it.

wave     A disturbance or variation that travels through space and matter in a regular, oscillating fashion.

Zika     A viral disease that can be transmitted to humans via mosquitoes. About 20 percent of infected people get sick. Symptoms include a slight fever, rash and pinkeye and usually fade quickly. A growing body of evidence suggests that the virus could also cause a devastating birth defect — microcephaly. Evidence suggests it may also cause neurological conditions such as Guillain-Barré syndrome.