Why West Coast weather will be chaotic in the future, according to a climate scientist

When I moved to San Francisco in 2013, the state of California was in a drought. As a transplant from the Midwest, I discovered that this manifested itself often at restaurants. Accustomed to water being excessively offered at a restaurant table, I remember waiters telling me that, because of the drought, they were only serving water upon request and in very small quantities. At that moment, I began to understand why Californians bring their own water bottles everywhere.

This article first appeared in Salon.

This week, water is not hard to come by in California. In fact, it's overflowing in the streets around my house as I write this very sentence, flooding my neighbors' houses and businesses. Earlier this week, my power went out because of flooding around electrical equipment; this scenario might have seemed unthinkable a decade ago.

"A typical atmospheric river actually has as much [water] as twice the Amazon River."

Indeed, California's series of "atmospheric river" storms have splashed across national headlines. From flooding, knocked out trees, power outages and closed highways, the series of storms has caused over $30 billion in damage, according to Bloomberg.

While atmospheric rivers are not a new weather phenomenon in California, the density of such storms this winter is certainly surprising. And given the ways in which climate change has upset normal weather patterns, an obvious question to ask is whether these unusually powerful and destructive west coast storms are connected to the continued emissions of greenhouse gases from human industrial civilization.

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To better understand if this is the "new normal" in California— as in weeks of heavy rain that cause damage to much of the state's infrastructure — I interviewed Christine Shields, a climate scientist at The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Can you explain to people who aren't familiar with meteorology what an atmospheric river is?

Shields: Atmospheric rivers are these weather features that transport a lot of water in the atmosphere. So if you think of a river on land, you like to think of it like the Amazon River or the Mississippi River, there's a certain amount of water that goes through these rivers, right? So this is sort of similar except it's water vapor and it's in the sky. And they can hold just as much water as the Amazon or Mississippi rivers. In fact, a typical atmospheric river actually has as much [water] as twice the Amazon River.

So these are really big ways of moving water from lower latitudes to higher latitudes. And for the Western U.S. a very common type of atmospheric river is called a Pineapple Express. And this is called the Pineapple Express because it moves water from like the Hawaiian Island region, which is where you get the word pineapple from, and you move the water from the subtropical region where Hawaii sort of lives across the Pacific Ocean and north to the west coast of North America. And California (and Southern California in particular) get a lot of these Pineapple Express atmospheric rivers.

Fascinating.

Yeah and there are two ingredients to an atmospheric river: the water is one ingredient and the wind is another ingredient and the way we measure atmospheric rivers usually takes these two components and sort of condenses it into one metric. And we can quantify how intense these atmospheric rivers are by looking at this combination of wind and water and so it's just a retrofit actually. They're also long and narrow. When you look at it from a satellite picture, you can really pick it out because you can see the clouds associated with the atmospheric river, this narrow band of clouds that are thousands of miles long and hundreds of miles wide.

What is making this specific series of atmospheric rivers really newsworthy right now?

"As the global temperature increases, the amount of water that we can evaporate into the atmosphere will also increase... guaranteeing that we'll have more water available to atmospheric rivers."

When you have one atmospheric river, it can hold a lot of water content. And even one atmospheric river can actually lift California out of a drought. But what's happening now is what we call families of atmospheric rivers, where it's one right after the other. And the overall weather pattern in the atmosphere is basically the jet stream is just bringing one storm after the other across the Pacific Ocean. We have this jet stream that's just barreling into California. This is something that happens, actually, pretty commonly, maybe not every year, but definitely, you know, there's definitely different instances of this. For example, the year that the Oroville dam collapsed in February of 2017. We're just seeing a really great example of this jet stream in the right position and these families of atmospheric rivers that are just coming one right after the other.

Why have we been hearing more about atmospheric rivers?

The term was actually coined just from an academic standpoint relatively recently, like in the 1990s. These things have always been around. But what we're calling them and how we understand them has changed.

Do you think this is the 'new normal' for California?

As I said, these things have happened in the past and we definitely expect them to happen in the future.

One of the things that I do in terms of climate change research is to try to understand what's going to happen to these types of things in the future. And so if we just separate this out into water and wind again, we know very clearly what's going to happen with atmospheric rivers in terms of the water content. As the global temperature increases, the amount of water that we can evaporate into the atmosphere will also increase. So just by the fact that we have warmer surface temperatures in the troposphere— which is the lower part of the atmosphere — is just guaranteeing that we'll have more water available to atmospheric rivers. So the atmospheric rivers will tend to be definitely wetter, with potentially more intensive rain periods.

But one of the things that is really ongoing research is whether or not the numbers of atmospheric rivers — if there will be more or if there will be less. We're seeing there's research out there, not mine, that suggests that you're going to have more of these, you're gonna have more drought and then more intense rain periods. And so we might be oscillating from more severe drought to super wet, super dry, super wet, super dry — these swings that can be potentially destructive.

How many times can you get reinfected with COVID? Here's what experts say

For many of those who have tested positive for COVID-19 this summer, this isn't their first rodeo.

This article first appeared in Salon.

In California, new data released by state officials showed that one out of every seven new cases in July was a reinfection. New York health officials have recorded 328,100 cumulative reinfections and 5.77 million infections — suggesting about 5.6 percent of cases are second-time infections. (Reinfections are not tracked at the federal level.)

Unlike summer 2020 — when researchers believed that it was unlikely someone could get the coronavirus twice — so-called re-infections are considered to be the "new normal." New subvariants of omicron are considered particularly adept at re-infecting those who've had previous infections.

But just how many times can a person get COVID-19? Particularly among those who have already had COVID at least once, knowing the answer to that question could affect their personal calculus of risk aversion.

The answer is not hopeful.

"I would say there's no limit, unfortunately," Dr. Monica Gandhi, infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California–San Francisco, told Salon. "I hope it is obvious to people that we can't eradicate it by now."

Gandhi noted that there are less dangerous coronaviruses that cause the common cold, and noted that those cold-causing coronaviruses frequently reinfect. Indeed, it is estimated that the average person will have 200 colds in their lifetime (although not all are caused by coronaviruses).

Deepta Bhattacharya, associate professor of immunobiology at the University of Arizona who previously co-authored a paper in 2020 that suggested that immunity to COVID-19 lasts "at least several months after SARS-CoV-2 infection," told Salon the answer to how many times a person can get reinfected will depend on how the virus keeps mutating.

"It really depends on how much the virus changes and how long it takes for it to change from whatever it was that you were infected with, or got vaccinated against, in the first place," Bhattacharya told Salon.

Bhattacharya said what makes the mutations difficult to predict and control is that they are likely happening in multiple ways. While viruses are technically not alive, it is their nature to mutate and evolve as they infect hosts' cells and replicate; this is how they survive. But some researchers have theorized that the coronavirus has also been mutating repeatedly inside people with compromised immune systems who can't clear the virus for an extended period of time. This scenario is what some suspect happened with the omicron variant, which had surprising mutations. Indeed, omicron's mutations have a remarkable ability to evade immunity from vaccines, previous infection, or both.

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As Bhattacharya explained, omicron and its subvariants' mutations led us to the current situation, where reinfections are a constant threat.

"The key thing that has changed — it's not so much that the immune response is fading out so quickly, it is that the virus is mutating to escape from it," Bhattacharya said. "And that's really the major driver of reinfections."

If the virus had stayed the same and not mutated, Bhattacharya said, he doesn't think we'd be dealing with infections right now. With BA.5 the new dominant strain in the U.S., researchers are even more positive that re-infections with this subvariant are likely, even if you've been infected with (previous omicron subvariant) BA.1, as noted by a study published in the journal Cell.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), studies suggest that reinfection with the same virus variant as the first infection — or, reinfection with a different variant — are both possible. Shockingly, reinfection can happen within a mere 90 days of the initial infection. A specific report that identified 10 people who got reinfected found that they occurred between 23 to 87 days after initial infection.

"If you did recover from a prior infection, even if it was the original strain, and then you got hit with omicron, there is still some protection — and your odds of getting really sick and landing in the hospital are still lower," Bhattacharya noted.

Bhattacharya told Salon he is unsure if reinfections occurring within such a short period of time after the initial COVID-19 are "the rule or the exception." Even though reinfections are likely as the virus mutates to evade immunity, that doesn't mean that you aren't building immunity through infection or vaccination.

"If you caught delta towards the end of its wave in October you could totally get infected again in January by omicron because omicron is really different from delta," Bhattacharya said. "You can see cases like that for sure. But would you get infected by delta twice within three months? That's not very likely."

Bhattacharya emphasized that if a person is infected with one strain, they will at least have some immunity to protect them from the next.

"If you did recover from a prior infection, even if it was the original strain, and then you got hit with omicron, there is still some protection — and your odds of getting really sick and landing in the hospital are still lower," Bhattacharya noted. "When you do get infected, and I think the data is pretty clear, on average, they tend to be not as bad."

Gandhi added that T cells and B cells from previous infections (or vaccinations) will prevent you from having severe disease if you are reinfected. The immune system produces both B and T cells in response to an infection; B cells produce antibodies and T cells specifically attack and kill pathogens. Following vaccinations for other infections, like measles, mumps, rubella, pertussis, and diphtheria, T cell immunity is long lasting. Research has shown that T cells can protect against COVID-19 even if antibodies wane.

"The easiest way to think about it is that mild infections are prevented by antibodies, and T and B cells are basically protecting us against severe disease," Gandhi said. SARS-CoV-2 antibodies are believed to decrease over time.

However, this is not to say there aren't any risks to getting reinfected with COVID-19. One study published in July suggested that having repeated COVID-19 infections appears to increase the chances of a person having long COVID.

As far as the effect on the immune system, Bhattacharya debunked misinformation that has surfaced suggesting reinfections take a severe toll on a person's immune system.

"It is highly unpleasant to get infected over and over again, and so to the extent you are able to prevent that from happening, I would recommend it for sure," Bhattacharya said. "The immune system is pretty resilient."

Bhattacharya said that with the help of variant-targeted vaccines, we may be approaching a future where reinfections are no longer as common.

"I do think we can eventually get to the point where we're not worrying about getting infected every few months," he said.

Girls are reaching puberty earlier and earlier. No one is sure why

The recent reversal of the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling eliminated the constitutional right to an abortion, bringing to light a very dark American phenomenon: pregnancies in pre-teens as a result of rape.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Recently, news about 10-year-old rape victim surfaced in Ohio who became pregnant and was forced to travel to Indiana for an abortion because of restrictions that prohibited her from getting one after six weeks. It is widely expected that more, similar stories will come to light as abortions bans take hold around the nation.

According to data from Kids Count, in 2020 there were 1,765 pregnancies in females under the age of 15. In 2018, the number of new mothers between the ages of 10 to 14 years in the U.S. hit a low. To many, the thought of a 10-year-old girl getting pregnant seems shocking. After all, the age of consent in a majority of U.S. states is 16. While it is uncommon, a young girl can get pregnant even before her first period, specifically when she ovulates for the first time — which is usually about 14 days before her first menstrual period. This can happen as early as eight years old — and curiously, over the last century, young girls have been hitting puberty earlier and earlier.

Yet researchers do not measure the start of puberty by a sign like menstruation, but rather when girls start to develop breasts. A recent 2020 review analyzed 30 studies, and concluded puberty is happening earlier than it was from even the 1970s. The research built off a hallmark study published In 1997 published by Marcia Herman-Giddens in the journal Pediatrics, which brought the trend to light in the medical community.

While studies have shown that puberty is certainly beginning earlier compared to previous generations, the reason why is still a little bit murky to researchers.

"There's definitely an association with obesity, but that is not the only thing — and my own opinion is that it will never be entirely figured out because there's no way to separate the endocrine disrupters, the lack of activity in today's children, the junk food, and, the increasing obesity and so many other factors," Herman-Giddens said. "The absence of fathers, for example... there have also been studies that have shown earlier puberty in households without biological fathers."

In 2010, researchers at the University of California–Berkeley's School of Public Health published a study that found that the absence of a biologically related father in the home predicted earlier breast and pubic hair development in young girls.

Endocrine disruptors — like BPA and phthalates — could also play a role. These can be found in our food, water and many other household products, and are known for disrupting human hormones.

"The age at which girls are reaching puberty has been trending downward in recent decades, but much of the attention has focused on increased body weight as the primary culprit," said study lead author Julianna Deardorf at the time. "While overweight and obesity alter the timing of girls' puberty, those factors don't explain all of the variance in pubertal timing. The results from our study suggest that familial and contextual factors — independent of body mass index — have an important effect on girls' pubertal timing."

But most researchers have rallied around the idea that there's a strong correlation between obesity and earlier periods. In one study of nearly 1,200 girls in Louisiana published in 2003, researchers found a strong link between pre-menarcheal body mass index (BMI) and a higher likelihood of early menarche. More recently, researchers argued earlier puberty is an effect of a higher BMI.

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As Herman-Giddens mentioned, endocrine disruptors — like BPA and phthalates — could also play a role. These can be found in our food, water and many other household products, and are known for disrupting human hormones as they can bind to a receptor within a cell and then prevent the correct hormone from binding. One study found that exposure to endocrine disruptors even before birth could be linked to early puberty.

"The effects of these chemicals are very complex," Dr. Luz Claudio of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City told Reuters in 2018. "Their effects on the hormonal system is different with different chemicals, they have different potencies, their effects can be modulated by other factors such as genetic predisposition, and importantly, their effects can be different depending on the timing of the exposure."

Herman-Giddens said it's hard to know the true impact of endocrine disruptors, because it's nearly impossible to find a cohort who hasn't been exposed to them.

"You cannot get a population of girls that are not affected ... endocrine disruptor chemicals are in our bodies, they're in polar bears in the North Pole, all over the world," Herman-Giddens said. "You can't find a clean population that you could compare with one that's been exposed, and you would have to follow them for years, and there's so much to control — diet activity, exercise — it's impossible."

Yet researchers have reason to keep pressing on their investigations, as there are concerns about what this means for future children.

"It's a terrible concern," Herman-Giddens said. "Because for one thing, the earlier the puberty, the earlier the body is exposed to estrogen, and that is a cancer risk. It also cuts childhood short, and the brain does not develop in sync with the physical maturity."

The curious rise of 'dog-parent shaming'

Five years ago, Jeannie Assimos adopted a mini pinscher from the Humane Society in Pasadena, California.

"He was super shy, not socialized — he had been abused, so, I kept going back and seeing him and he wasn't very friendly," Assimos explained. Still, she decided to take a chance on him. "I brought him home and he hid behind my couch, but I pulled him out and said, 'no, Buddy, we're going to be friends."

This article first appeared in Salon.

From that day forward, Jonny has never left her side. On his Instagram page, Jonny the Min Pin, it's hard to tell how much trauma Jonny endured. To his nearly 10,900 followers, Assimos shares Jonny's adventures at the beach and sometimes hanging out with his "best friend" Santo, who is a pitbull. While the Instagram feed is full of joyful photos, a small but visible number of Assimos' followers are obsessed with shaming her and her dog-parenting skills.

RELATED: Do dogs miss us when we leave?

Just as social media has provided a platform for parents to give each other their unsolicited opinions on how to parent their kids, the same curious trend is happening in the world of so-called dog parenting. Showing pictures of one's child in the online sphere is always a minefield: cultural differences mean that a swathe of people are bound to disagree with one's parenting habits. But curiously, this critical lens extends beyond the human realm, and into pet-rearing.

Assimos first noticed the trend about a year ago when she posted a video of Jonny at the beach, chewing on a stick.

The phenomenon of "mom-shaming" has been known and studied since the era when mommy blogs first emerged. "Dog parent– shaming," however, is a newer phenomenon.

"Then I got this lady DMing [direct messaging] me about how irresponsible I was as a dog mom, and that he could get splinters from this stick and that I was a horrible dog parent basically," she said. "I've had someone DM me, 'How can you let your dog hang around that pit bull?'"

Additionally, some viewers criticized Assimos for dressing her dog in clothes. "Some thought it was mean," she mused. Assimos, for her part, takes it with a grain of salt: "I think it's par for the course when you put things out there on social media, I am so detached I could care less, and know that I give my rescue dog Jonny an amazing life," Assimos said. "I have encouraged others to adopt this attitude, but some find it difficult."

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That random internet strangers would have such strong opinions about pet-rearing, and moreover would be inclined to loudly and furiously share them, suggests something deeper lurking within our collective psyches — some penchant for pedantic criticism and anger directed towards strangers that, somehow, bubbles up from the sociological ether via the catalyst of cute pet pictures and videos.

Assimos has observed other "dog influencers" shut down their account because of such hate. Indeed, such shaming behavior isn't exclusive to influencers on Instagram, but seemingly anyone who shares any tidbit about their dogs online.

As blogging evolved in the early 2000s, and parents moved away from getting information from traditional sources, many parents took to sharing their own parenting experiences via blogs and social media. But what was meant to be a space to share the more intimate and personal details about parenting turned into a place for strangers to shame each other. As Danielle Campoamor wrote in Romper in 2018, "at a time when we share so much of our personal lives — including our parenting decisions — online, more and more mothers are finding ourselves defending our decisions from, of all people, other moms." A mother of a three-year-old at the time, Campoamor said she had "experienced call-out culture via the internet more times than I care to count." One time, she was attacked for placing her son on Santa's lap.

So how and why did this type of shaming move from human parenting to the world of pet parenting?

Sarah Hodgson, a pet trainer, behavior consultant, and author of several books including "Modern Dog Parenting," told Salon that when she started her career, dogs were considered to be pets and treated like them (although there were some cultural variations). But about 15 years ago, more scientists began to research the dog's brain. For example, research conducted by Stanley Coren published in 2009 showed that dogs' mental abilities are close to a human child aged 2 to 2.5 years old. That changed the way that many perceive dogs.

"So now it's widely accepted that dogs are like little children, and they stay like toddlers forever, so all of a sudden the parenting just kind of followed that wave," Hodgson said. "And for people like me who have just been obsessed with dogs my entire life — I've always felt that but now, people write about it, science writes about it, and social media has had this explosion."

With this evolution in how we perceive dogs, Hodgson said it's no surprise that dog-parent shaming became prominent.

"It's a very divisive time in our history, everybody likes to know more and be better and be in the right, that's what we do as a species now, which is kind of ridiculous," Hodgson said, adding that dog-parents should take a page from human parents in being a "good enough" parent.

"There's good enough parenting, and there's good enough dog parenting, as long as you're not abusing your dog and you're providing for those five basic needs — eat, drink, sleep, play, bathroom— as long as you're providing for those needs and your dog feels relatively happy, it's all OK."

Scientist says interstellar travel might be possible without spaceships

While a warp drive almost certainly isn't a thing that will ever exist, there's no law of physics that says interstellar travel isn't possible. Perhaps that is one reason why the sci-fi idea isn't out of the realm of possibility, and why some scientists aren't afraid to seriously contemplate how such a thing might work.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Enter a new research article in the International Journal of Astrobiology, in which author Irina Romanovskaya, a professor of Physics and Astronomy at Houston Community College, proposes extraterrestrial civilizations could already be doing this in a peculiar way. Indeed, Romanovskaya says that interstellar travel would likely create technosignatures — such as radio waves, industrial pollution, light pollution, or anything that would suggest advanced technology is being used — when aliens engage in such travel.

Astronomers and astrophysicists have generally searched for extraterrestrial life by looking for biosignatures — such as water, oxygen or chlorophyll — on other planets. But interestingly, Romanovskaya proposes that interstellar travel might be happening via free-floating planets, not spaceships, like we see in the movies.

RELATED: Are we looking for aliens all wrong?

"Some extraterrestrial civilizations may migrate from their home planetary systems to other planetary systems," Romanovskaya writes. "They would most likely encounter serious or insurmountable technical problems when using spacecraft to transport large populations over interstellar distances."

"With little starlight reaching free-floating planets, extraterrestrials could use controlled nuclear fusion as the source of energy, and they could inhabit subsurface habitats and oceans of the free-floating planets to be protected from space radiation."

Essentially, Romanovskaya thinks that aliens could be "cosmic hitchhikers" by taking advantage of various flyby events via free-floating planets. Unlike Earth, free-floating planets are not gravitationally bound to their stars like Earth, hence making them more mobile. A study published in the journal Nature Astronomy found at least 70 nomad exoplanets in our galaxy, suggesting that they're not as rare as scientists previously thought. It's possible that these planets have liquid oceans under thick layers and some could even host simple life forms.

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"Some advanced civilizations may send their populations or technologies to other stars during flyby events, some advanced civilizations may build stellar engines and some advanced civilizations may use free-floating planets as interstellar transportation to relocate their populations to other planetary systems," Romanovskaya wrote. "Various methods of interstellar migration and interstellar colonization may contribute to propagation of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations in the Galaxy, and each method of interstellar migration can produce a set of observable technosignatures."

OK, but how exactly would alien civilizations use these planets to travel through the galaxy?

"With little starlight reaching free-floating planets, extraterrestrials could use controlled nuclear fusion as the source of energy, and they could inhabit subsurface habitats and oceans of the free-floating planets to be protected from space radiation," Romanovskaya said. "That would also prepare them for colonization of oceans in planetary systems."

Not everyone in the astrophysics world agrees that hitching a ride on lost planets is a viable method of interstellar transit. Avi Loeb, the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University, told Salon that he saw "no obvious benefit to using a free floating planet instead of a spacecraft." Loeb has previously argued that a rare interstellar object, called 'Oumuamua, bore almost all of the traits one might expect of an interstellar alien probe when it whizzed through our solar system in 2017.

"The only reason Earth is comfortable for 'life as we know it' is because it is warmed by the Sun," Loeb said. "But a free floating planet is not attached to a star, and its surface would naturally be frozen."

Moreover, Loeb said a free-floating planet's large mass would make it more difficult to navigate to a desired destination.

"It is much easier to design a small spacecraft that offers the ideal habitat, engine and navigation system," Loeb said. "It is far better to own a car than to hitchhike."

Experts: TikTok's viral 'bark at your dog' challenge may not be a good idea

Since late last year, dog owners on TikTok have been participating in what might seem like an innocent, even cute TikTok trend that involves barking at your dog.

The hashtag #barkatyourdog has over 156 million views on TikTok, and its participants run the gamut in age and popularity (many TikTok stars have dabbled in it). The video trend involves getting close to your canine's face, barking loudly and recording the dog's reaction. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most dogs look confused.

While it might seem like just another harmless social media challenge, canine behaviorists are warning against participating in it.

"I wouldn't recommend it," Cathay Madson, a lead dog trainer at Preventive Pet, told Salon. "From what I've seen, the majority of dogs just don't know what to do with that."

As Madson alluded to, while humans might find the interaction entertaining, it essentially leaves the dogs confused.

"Dogs know that we're not dogs," Madson said. "So they're probably like 'What are you doing?' But when dogs bark, barking can mean a lot of things."

"If a person barks at them, it can tell them 'you need to get away from me' — and so they run away," Madson said. "They might feel afraid because they don't know what they did wrong, but you just told me to back off."

Indeed, a happy bark, usually accompanied by a tail wag, is typically a dog's way of greeting someone. Dogs may also bark to seek attention; perhaps they want a treat, to go outside or to play.

But a dog's bark doesn't always signal happiness or excitement. It's a form of communication for dogs to let each other know that there's something going on: hence, when one dog barks and the rest of the neighborhood dogs eventually chime in. Moreover, barking can also mean "back off," or "go away."

"If a person barks at them, it can tell them 'you need to get away from me' — and so they run away," Madson said. "They might feel afraid because they don't know what they did wrong, but you just told me to back off."

Madson added that getting in a dog's face can be a bite risk.

"It's just putting us face to face with them, which for a lot of dogs is pretty confrontational and intimidating," Madson said. "If some dogs are more confident, and there happens to be a resource around, they're like 'Well I'll fight you on that,' and then they respond the same way, then you have issues with there being a bite risk."

In December 2021, dog trainer Sassafras Lowrey published a piece for the American Kennel Club warning people not to participate in this "dangerous" trend, and citing many issues with it. One of her worries was that dogs typically aren't comfortable with a human getting in their face. Another issue is making such close eye contact with the dog.

"Staring at a dog can result in that dog reacting defensively to the person staring at them," Lowrey wrote. "You never want to make and maintain eye contact with a strange dog, and even though you know your own dog well, staring is still not a good idea as it can cause dogs to feel uncomfortable."

"You can tell which dogs, in some of these videos, have a very trusting relationship with their people — but then you can see the dogs who don't."

Madson said in the videos she's seen of the trend, she's noticed a lot of dogs exhibit "whale eye." As explained by the AKC, "whale eye" is a term used to describe when you can see the whites of your dog's eye, known as the sclera. This is generally a sign that a dog is stressed or anxious.

Madson added that by tricking one's dog, it could lead to a breach of trust — especially if it's done with a new pet.

"You can tell which dogs, in some of these videos, have a very trusting relationship with their people, but then you can see the dogs who don't," Madson said. "If they get startled or scared, then they can have a reaction where they associate you staring into their face, and being right next to their face... and the next time you do that, they're thinking, 'Oh my god, are you going to do that again? And scare me?'"

Madson said it could be "damaging to that relationship" because the dog doesn't know what to expect.

#Barkatyourdog is just one of many curious dog-related TikTok trends. Another one trending involves users kissing their dogs, and observing their reaction. Madson said she wouldn't recommend that one either, because it requires a person to get in one's dog's face, which could make a dog uncomfortable, stressed or anxious.

Instead of participating in ill-advised TikTok trends with your dog, Madson has another suggestion for owners who want to bond with their pets.

"Look for better ways to have fun with your dog, like initiating play with a toy or asking them for a cute trick," Madson said. "I think we just need to encourage people to do better TikTok trends."

California is likely to become a destination for those seeking abortions

People travel to California for lots of reasons: to visit Hollywood and Fisherman's Wharf, to hike Yosemite and Muir Woods. In the event Roe v. Wade is overturned, it is likely to become a top destination for abortions, too.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Indeed, if Justice Samuel Alito's leaked majority opinion becomes the final say of the Court as expected, once-guaranteed abortion rights codified by the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 will cease to exist. It will be up to each individual state to decide whether to ban or allow abortions, and experts forecast about half of U.S. states would implement bans. This means abortion clinics for an estimated 41 percent of women of reproductive age would close, forcing women who have the resources to travel elsewhere.

"We know we can't trust the Supreme Court to protect reproductive rights, so California will build a firewall around this right in our state constitution," Governor Newsom said.

Just as many states are doubling-down on efforts to secure bans and then some in the event Roe v. Wade is overturned, many states — like California — are taking action to ensure anyone can access abortion in the state, and secure abortion rights. The Golden State's governor Gavin Newsom has long pledged that the state would become a "sanctuary" for people seeking abortion care. But news of the leaked opinion has resurfaced efforts and pledges to do so. For example, Newsom recently proposed an amendment that would "enshrine the right to choose" in California's constitution.

RELATED: How to access abortion in a post-Roe world

"We know we can't trust the Supreme Court to protect reproductive rights, so California will build a firewall around this right in our state constitution," Newsom said in a statement. "Women will remain protected here."

Come November, California voters will be asked if they support a constitutional amendment to ensure permanent abortion access in the state. But that's not all California legislators are doing to widen abortion care for all. In March, Newsom signed a law to make abortions less expensive for people on private insurance plans. California state Sen. Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) introduced a bill this year that would allow nurse practitioners to perform abortions without the oversight of a doctor. These collective efforts are taking place to support an anticipated surge in out-of-state patients seeking abortion care.

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Lisa Matsubara, Vice President of Policy and General Counsel of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, told Salon that California has been in the process of preparing for Roe v. Wade to be overturned for quite some time, since the passage of a draconian anti-abortion law in Texas in 2021. Matsubara agreed it is a little difficult to know what the impact on California would be depending on what the final Supreme Court opinion is regarding the constitutionality of a Mississippi state law that prohibits abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

"It could mean that overnight, we're going to see 26 states pretty much go dark," Matsubara said, "or it could potentially mean if the Supreme Court ends up not completely overturning Roe, which might be more of a piecemeal approach over the course of several months."

According to a Guttmacher Institute report, California could see a 2,923% increase in number of women whose nearest abortion provider would be in California.

Matsubara was circumspect about making any predictions, but said the state would be ready for an influx. "I think it's a little bit hard to tell what exactly the the number of folks that might be traveling to California or really any of the states where abortion will remain legal will look like, but a lot of the efforts that we're currently doing right now is to make sure that we can build capacity and that also have the ability to increase capacity as needed," she said.

According to a Guttmacher Institute report, California could see a 2,923% increase in number of women whose nearest abortion provider would be in California. Many who would come from Arizona, which is almost certain to ban abortion outright. While this would certainly put pressure on California's abortion-care providers — as more than 40 percent of California counties do not have clinics that provide abortions — it would be a welcome trend.

But can California clinics and providers handle it?

"I think that's the question of the hour," Flor Hunt, the executive director of Training in Early Abortion for Comprehensive Healthcare (TEACH), which provides training inn reproductive healthcare and networking for a number of Northern California Family Medicine residencies, told Salon. "I think everybody in California is trying to prepare, and there's certainly a lot that we're doing to try to increase capacity to be able to mobilize capacity in the event that Roe is overturned, but I don't think anybody really knows what that is going to mean, and how many patients we're going to be seeing."

As reported by CBS News, Southern California Planned Parenthood clinics reported that they saw an increase in patients after the Texas post-six-week abortion ban. Many advocates say that was a preview of what's to come.

"SB 8 of Texas gave us a sense of what the impact was on neighboring states," Hunt said. "There's a statistic around wait times increasing 25-fold in the neighboring states, but I think that as California is trying to mobilize and prepare, we're all a little bit in the dark about the degree to which we need to increase capacity and what that's really going to look like."

Hunt added that medication abortions and telehealth appointments have made in-person procedures a little less necessary. As part of the recommendations from the California Future of Abortion Council, which includes a list of possible legislations the state should adopt in order to prepare, one recommendation is to offer medication abortions in other states via telehealth.

Hunt said TEACH is working closely with their clinical partners to staff clinics in the event that a large increase in patients occurs.

"So we've been having conversations with the training partners that we work with about their staffing needs, and talking about how we can increase capacity, staffing their clinics with our preceptors," Hunt said. "Also that provides more training opportunities, which means that more residents are getting trained in abortion and then will be ready to graduate with the ability to provide care once they're done with residency as well."

Hunt added that they also have a training program for teaching how to prescribe medication abortions open to all clinicians, such as family practitioners, who may not be trained. Indeed, if abortion clinics like Planned Parenthood see an increase in out-of-town patients, it would be best to deal with the increase in number abortions by enabling other types of clinicians to treat such patients.

"Family planning clinics play a hugely important role in providing access to abortion care, but Californians should also be able to find access to abortion care when they go to their primary care provider," Hunt said. "We believe really strongly that abortion is essential healthcare, it should be included in primary care and we want to help clinicians who want to be able to provide that care to do so."

'Beyond our wildest dreams': Scientists find fossil from dinosaur that died the day the asteroid hit

Scientists believe they have discovered a fossilized time capsule from the exact day when Earth transformed from being a verdant, dinosaur-ridden world to a soot-covered apocalyptic hellscape. Within that time capsule was a very well-preserved dinosaur leg from a dinosaur that scientists believe died that spring day, some 66 million years ago.

The discovery, which was made at the Tanis dig site in North Dakota, will be discussed in more detail in a BBC documentary narrated by David Attenborough titled "Dinosaurs: The Final Day." A version of the documentary will be broadcast on PBS in the United States next month. While the findings have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, scientists are very excited about the discovery and the prospect of what information it might hold.

"The time resolution we can achieve at this site is beyond our wildest dreams … this really should not exist and it's absolutely gobsmackingly beautiful," Phillip Manning, a professor of natural history at the University of Manchester, told BBC Radio 4's Today according to The Guardian. "I never dreamt in all my career that I would get to look at something a) so time-constrained; and b) so beautiful, and also tells such a wonderful story."

Manning called the leg the "ultimate dinosaur drumstick."

"When Sir David looked at '[the leg], he smiled and said 'that is an impossible fossil'. And I agreed," Manning said.

Manning added that the scientists also discovered the remains of fish that had breathed in debris from the Chicxulub crater, a heavily eroded 90-mile wide impact site located on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, which is widely believed to be the origin point for whatever triggered the mass extinction event. While there is scientific consensus that something hit the Earth that fateful day, there are different theories about exactly what — most believe it was either an asteroid or a comet.

Scientists were able to date the finding due to the presence of the debris that rained down for a period of time right after the impact happened.

"We've got so many details with this site that tell us what happened moment by moment, it's almost like watching it play out in the movies," said Robert DePalma, the University of Manchester graduate student who led the Tanis dig. "You look at the rock column, you look at the fossils there, and it brings you back to that day."

Additional fossilized remains that the scientists found were the remains of a turtle, skin from a triceratops, a pterosaur embryo inside its egg, and perhaps a fragment on the impactor itself. According to the New York Times, the fragments within two of the spherules were "wildly different," DePalma said.

"They were not enriched with calcium and strontium as we would have expected," DePalma said, which could suggest that the impactor was an asteroid. However, scientists won't jump to conclusions until the samples are thoroughly analyzed and published in peer-reviewed journals.

"This is like a dinosaur C.S.I.," DePalma said. "Now, as a scientist, I'm not going to say, 'Yes, 100 percent, we do have an animal that died in the impact surge,' [but] 'Is it compatible?' Yes."

The mass extinction event caused by the Chixclub impact led to the end of the Cretaceous era — and the end of the dinosaurs — paving the way for mammals, which were then mostly small, rat-like creatures, to become one of the dominant large life forms on Earth. The extinction event killed approximately 75 percent of life on Earth, though some sea creatures and burrowing animals, including early mammals, were better-suited to wait out the brief wave of superheated air caused by the impact which fanned out across the planet.

Though the precise date is not known, it is remarkable how much scientists have been able to glean from evidence as to what happened on the day of the great extinction. At the same dig site, DePalma's team previously found fish specimens who appear to have died on the day of the impact and whose bone structure indicates that it was spring or early summer when the impact occurred.

What will COVID-19 look like in 2100? Scientists predict three possible scenarios

Imagine it's March 2100. What cars remain are electric, or flying, or both; subways and high-speed rail are the dominant forms of transit. Contemporary architecture is designed around climate change, the main crisis humanity is facing. And as public health leaders around the world gather for an annual summit, they reflect on the 80th anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just as 2008 marked the 80th anniversary of the 1918 influenza virus pandemic, March 2100 will mark the 80th anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. Where will COVID-19 be then?

Of course, nobody can predict with perfect accuracy what COVID-19 will look like eighty years hence. Yet infectious disease experts know a remarkable amount about the SARS-CoV-2 virus two years since its discovery — and they have predictions as to how COVID-19 will play out over the next century.

Those predictions are based on what we've observed about how the SARS-CoV-2 virus has behaved in the past two years. For example, experts know that the virus can mutate to become more contagious, and (to some extent) can evade vaccine-induced immunity; yet we also know that vaccines have proven to be very effective at preventing severe disease and hospitalization, even if they cannot stop breakthrough infections of certain variants. Scientists also know that COVID-19 has a long tail: among those infected with COVID-19, about 10 percent will experience symptoms that can possibly persist as long as two years after an infection.

Knowing these caveats, Salon spoke to experts and scientists about how COVID-19 might look in 10, 20, and 80 years from now. Though their responses had some variation, the main lines of future prediction were remarkably similar.

The best-case scenario

Some theorize that the lesser phase of COVID-19 is already upon us. Indeed, last week, the World Health Organization reported that new coronavirus cases around the world are declining. While deaths by COVID-19 were up slightly, the new numbers did follow a 23% drop in fatalities the week before.

"SARS-CoV-2 will likely be one of the endemic respiratory viruses that humans deal with just like the other four coronaviruses that cause common colds," Adalja said.

Thus, as COVID-19 restrictions are being lifted around the world, many have wondered if the world is finally entering an "endemic phase" — which, in epidemiology, means that the disease is present in a society, but at a baseline level rather than a widespread infection.

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Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease and critical care medicine doctor, told Salon he believes by 2100 — or "actually much sooner" — SARS-CoV-2 will be endemic.

"SARS-CoV-2 will likely be one of the endemic respiratory viruses that humans deal with just like the other four coronaviruses that cause common colds," Adalja said.

The coronaviruses belong to a class of viruses known as RNA viruses, which also includes influenza, hepatitis C and SARS. RNA viruses like SARS-CoV-2 have relatively malleable genetic codes, prone to mutation; every time they enter a host's cell and replicate, there is a chance that mutations will occur.

As Salon has reported before, this is not always a bad thing, as natural selection tends to favor viruses that are highly transmissible and not those that are necessarily deadliest. Hence, some experts hope is that SARS-CoV-2 has reached peak transmissibility — and, through immunity gained by previous infections and vaccines, the virus will stop mutating or its mutations won't cause more severe disease than we've already seen.

Dr. Monica Gandhi, infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told Salon she agrees that in the year 2100, COVID-19 will be similar to the common cold. More optimistically, she believes it might not even be as bad.

"The thing to remember about the common cold coronaviruses, rhinovirus and adenovirus and other viruses that cause common colds, is that they can cause severe illness in older people," Gandhi said. "Because even a rhinovirus in a 90-year-old who is otherwise doing well can actually be a cause of death."

"We will have medications that will bring down the viral load of COVID," Gandhi said. "So, actually, I think the outcomes for older people will be better than a common cold."

Gandhi said the difference with COVID-19 is that the world has a vaccine for it. Previously, creating a vaccine for the coronaviruses has been hard to make, partly because of how the virus infects the upper respiratory tract.

"But in this case [of COVID-19], we will have medications that will bring down the viral load of COVID," Gandhi said. "So, actually, I think the outcomes for older people will be better than a common cold."

Adalja said there may soon be a "universal coronavirus vaccine" that "covers SARS-CoV-2 plus other human coronaviruses." He speculated that might arrive by 2025.

Likewise, it is probable that all citizens will be immunized via vaccine by then, as part of a series of childhood vaccinations.

"It's unclear whether vaccination will be at birth or at age 6 months so as not to be blunted because of maternal antibodies," Adalja said, noting that only the hepatitis B vaccine is given at birth.

Medium-case Scenario

Not all infectious disease experts agree that in 80 years, COVID-19 will peter off to the point that it is more benign than a common cold. Among them is William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. When asked if COVID-19 will then be akin to the common cold today, Schaffner told Salon: "I don't think that there's enough information out there for us to be secure in any way."

"There are people who haven't received that first booster yet, and how is it that we haven't been able to communicate, motivate, persuade, comfort and reassure them that this is really the best thing for them in their families to do?" Schaffner lamented, speaking to the difficulties of gaining public trust around the vaccines. "We have major challenges ahead of us in that regard, and if it's necessary for us to do what we do with influenza, more or less to get an annual booster — you can see what a challenge that is."

"It's not as though the virus says 'well, I'd like to get from A to B' and then it designs its genetics to get there — they're random events."

Schaffner added that the way SARS-CoV-2 mutates makes it more difficult to predict the future of COVID-19 because they "occur at random."

"It's not as though the virus says 'well, I'd like to get from A to B' and then it designs its genetics to get there — they're random events," Schaffner said. "And, I suppose, having the virus modulate itself to become more like a regular common cold virus, or developing an entirely new variant that could evade the protection of our vaccine and have the whole Fandango start all over again, they're probably comparable statistically — so I don't know which way this is going to go."

A 2008 study suggested that the virus that causes cold-like symptoms today may have jumped from birds to humans as recently as 200 years ago. But not much is known about this jump, and how severe colds were at the time.

This is one reason why scientists struggle to find a proper historical analogy to draw from in terms of predicting COVID-19's future track. Indeed, on that note, Schaffner added that each group of viruses has very distinctive characteristics. For example, measles is known for its durable immunity — meaning if a person is infected with the virus (or vaccinated against it), they are immune to the virus for the rest of their lives. COVID-19 is different, in that vaccination or infection seems to merely confer transient immunity, meaning short-term immunity.

Moreover, some viruses are difficult to vaccinate against not because of issues with transient immunity, but because of their propensity to mutate. HIV is one: it has been difficult for scientists to develop an HIV vaccine over the last 40 years in part because of how rapidly it mutates.

Nonetheless, Schaffner said by the year 2100 — due to a growing human population and increased travel due to technological advances — humanity can expect to face new epidemics or pandemics as well.

"We are going to encounter a lot of the viruses that are out there in the world that circulate in the animal population, and then have the opportunities to jump species on occasion and get into humans," Schaffner said.

He noted that this situation will be somewhat balanced by an increase in scientific knowledge and advances as well.

"We will continually be making better and better vaccines against more and more of these potential viruses that are out there," he said. "If we don't use them all, we will have the potential to have them on the shelf ... and quickly manufacture vaccines."

Schaffner imagines vaccines will look differently, too.

"We will have vaccines that are delivered by patches on the skin by just taking oral capsules and swallowing them," Schaffner said. "So they will be much easier to deploy rapidly and safely."

Worst-case scenario

Schaffner warned there could be a worst-case scenario that humanity could be looking at 80 years from now.

"That would be the development of a new variant that was very contagious and was more inclined to create more severe disease," he said. "And most importantly, the third characteristic would be that it could distinctively evade the protection of our current vaccines."

Such a nightmare scenario would perpetually extend the pandemic, he warned. "If that happened, that would start basically a new pandemic with another coronavirus, and that would cause once again, an economic, social and political calamity," he fretted.

Schaffner added that in this case, the world would be able to respond more quickly with a vaccines — but noted that the world could face, once again, the issue of deployment.

QAnon and Putin: Is it a case of mass delusion or textbook cult dynamics?

While the International Criminal Court in The Hague is being called on to open an investigation into potential war crimes committed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, QAnon followers around the globe are praising him and casting him in a positive light. Though it might sound macabre, adherents of the bizarre and all-encompassing conspiracy movement believe that a major global crisis such as the current one is intrinsic to something they call the "Great Awakening," a prophecy that forms the crux of the massive conspiracy that claims top Democratic leaders will one day be arrested for running a global sex trafficking ring.

Hence, QAnon followers have taken to social media in droves to explain that what's really happening in Ukraine and how the invasion by Russian troops is actually everything "going as planned." Case in point: the Conspirituality podcast, which studies the intersection of right-wing conspiracy theories and faux wellness, shared on its Instagram account a screenshot of one user stating that the "harvesting and trafficking of humans and children….it is all being stopped for good" — because of the ongoing fighting in Ukraine. "The old central bank systems are to be switched off, humanity if being liberated from its slave masters, and true freedom, health and abundance is at our doorstep," the QAnon adherent continued, adding "nothing can stop what is coming."

As Newsweek reported, John Sabal, who previously went by the name QAnon John on Telegram, praised Putin in a series of Telegram posts positioning him as some kind of hero. "Putin is straight gangsta," he wrote. "MSM (mainstream media) is totally losing their minds right now,"

This isn't the first time a massive geopolitical event has been co-opted by QAnon's all-encompassing conspiracy theory. Previously, global events ranging from Donald Trump's presidency to the COVID-19 pandemic to Canada's anti-vaccine trucker protests have all been integrated into the QAnon narrative. Indeed, QAnon followers have an indefatigable ability to fit any news item under its umbrella conspiracy that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who just happen to mostly be Democratic leaders. And, as if it needed to be said, none of it ever manifests.

One of QAnon's biggest baseless conspiracy theories, known as #SaveTheChildren — which dates back to 2016 — claims that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta, her former campaign manager, operated a child sexual abuse ring. Years later, there is still no evidence that there is any child sex–trafficking ring, or evidence of the other misinformation the conspiracy theory has generated. Still, the false narrative has not lost steam, and is now magically tied to yet another massive global event.

So why does this keep happening with QAnon? Is it a case of mass delusional, or textbook cult dynamics?

Experts tell Salon it's a mix of both.

Matthew Remski, a co-host of the aforementioned Conspirituality podcast and a cult dynamics researcher, told Salon in an interview that QAnon's attempt to reduce the war in Ukraine to being about saving children isn't necessarily a way for the conspiracy theorists to rationalize what's happening, but instead a strategy to keep QAnon followers engaged and focused.

"Everything that the QAnon imaginarium drives toward is on display at scale, but in real world form — and that's a real problem for a community that imagined something like this needing to happen, but in some sort of different way or for a different purpose," Remski said. "We have a real war that's very complex and yet quite visible, and it's a real challenge for the person who has been building a war-like alternate reality that only they and their comrades can see, and that they've had to convince and recruit everybody else into believing it."

Joe Kelly, a cult intervention specialist, added that all QAnon has to lure its followers is this narrative of the so-called Great Awakening.

"They have some fundamental narratives that they keep pushing forward, and in various forms, depending on which conspiracy theory arises," Kelly said. "In this case, it's a geopolitical consequence dealing with Russia and Ukraine, and somehow they tie in their own justification." Hence, the need to manipulate reality and fold everything back into QAnon.

Remski and his team explained on Instagram this is another example of QAnon's playbook when a massive geopolitical event occurs. Their playbook, which is often propagated by wellness influencers who have become de facto QAnon followers, goes like this: first, communicate to one's followers that such geopolitical events aren't "real" and, rather, are part of some bigger plan, which usually has to do with child trafficking. Followers are then advised to do nothing in the face of said event, which is seen as the "enlightened" option. As part of this, followers are often advised to know which type of media to consume — another sign of "enlightenment"— and the source posting is the only person to be believed.

This strategy might be seen as a form of spiritual bypassing, a term developed by a psychotherapist in the 1980s to describe hiding behind spirituality to avoid emotional issues. Remski said in these wellness communities that are QAnon-adjacent, spiritual bypassing is a "self-soothing tactic that goes too far."

"In some of the yoga-related, Pastel Q posts that we've come across so far, that's kind of the name of the game," Remski said. "They say, 'I see this thing in the world, it appears to be terrifying, but I'm going to tell my followers that the secret truth of the circumstance is that everyone is on the verge of some kind of miraculous transformation, and we can't be sure what that is yet, but that's what we have to keep our focus on.'"

Remski added this strategy "gives people permission for their boredom to be participatory."

Daniel Shaw, a psychoanalyst who specializes in cult recovery and who wrote a book called "Traumatic Narcissism and Recovery," told Salon that QAnon followers' praise of Putin also aligns with the conspiracy theory group's ideology.

"There's a very strong leadership group here who are interested in undermining democratic institutions, for whatever their ideological reasons might be, and they've aligned with Putin because Putin is representative to them of white nationalism and anti-wokeness," Shaw said. Indeed, some QAnon supporters are conservative leaders in the U.S., like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who famously defended the movement and has made social media posts in the past that indicate that she is an adherent.

"Not all the [QAnon] followers understand what they're following," Shaw opined, noting that more people have become engaged with such frivolous conspiracy theories amid the pandemic. "Followers have been have been mainly recruited more than ever during COVID, especially during lockdown, where people are isolated, where they're dependent on what they see on their screens for interaction and they believe that they are involved in a very important movement that fights evil," he added.

Shaw said that with cults in general, which QAnon is often called, there's a strong focus on "purification."

"Purification is always at the heart of a cult," Shaw said. "The leaders believe in a certain kind of purity and they profess to know how to restore this purity."

Shaw added that in general, from a mental health perspective, people grasping on to QAnon conspiracy theories speaks to a "time of increased paranoia in this country."

"There are fears that are generated at almost every turn of the century, and that has to do with some kind of paranoid fear," Shaw said. "Psychologically, my view is that people seek out these kinds of movements, because they give meaning to their lives when they feel uncertain about what's going on in the world."

Can any animal learn to speak with buttons like Bunny the 'talking' dog does?

It's no secret that the internet has been captivated by Bunny the Talking Dog.

In case you've been on a digital detox over the last couple of years, Bunny is TikTok's beloved "talking" Sheepadoodle who uses an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device to communicate with her human parent. As Salon has reported, Bunny has stunned her followers by seemingly asking existential questions, recalling her dreams, and wondering about Uni, the cat she lived with who went missing. Indeed, it's not just Bunny anymore. There's also Billi, a 13-year-old domestic cat in Florida, who's captured the internet's attention by pressing buttons to communicate.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Both animals are enrolled in a project called TheyCanTalk, which is seeking to better understand if animals can use AAC systems to communicate with humans. The project consists of dogs, cats, a small cohort of horses, and one peahen. In the study, participants receive instructions on how to set up their AAC buttons. They usually start with easy words like "outside" and "play" linked to their buttons. Pet parents set up cameras to constantly monitor the animals when they're in front of their boards, data which is sent to the lab where researchers examine what they say.

As popularity continues to rise by way of social media and these talking animals, some might be wondering: can any animal species learn how to talk using an AAC device?

"Certainly when we got started on this, my expectation was that we would see that dogs would do surprisingly well, but I didn't expect we would see that much in the way of a great performance from non-dogs," said Leo Trottier, cognitive scientist and founder of How.TheyCanTalk Research and developer of the FluentPet's system that Bunny and Billi use. "Dogs have famously evolved with us for thousands of years. We've engaged in aggressive selective breeding with them. Their behaviors are obvious; they are very interested in us, they look into our eyes routinely when we're talking to them, they can famously recognize pointing gestures that's been shown last, so I was surprised to see how cats ended up performing."

Indeed, as Salon has previously reported, Billi speaks up to 50 words. And while there are some anecdotal differences between how cats and dogs use the buttons, the fact that a non-dog species is succeeding with them gives Trottier confidence that perhaps any animal can use them.

"We have birds which are using them. The evidence for the birds is pretty limited, but I'm not gonna write them off, but I think the evidence for cats using the buttons inherently or in a way that's contextually appropriate is stronger than for birds," Trottier said. "But it does seem like it's surprisingly the case that many non-dog species seem to be able to do this better than expected."

While Trottier admits he's not very "optimistic about reptiles," the surprising fact that a non-dog species appears to be doing better with the buttons than expected raises new questions around animals, language and communication. The reason why animals don't speak like humans is in part an issue of vocal anatomy: they might lack the tongue flexibility to speak, vocal cords or mouth musculature. According to a 2018 study published Frontiers in Neuroscience brain power puts humans at an advantage to being able to speak, too. But that doesn't mean animals don't communicate in their own ways, or have the ability to mimic human speech. A study published in 2018 found that orca whales can mimic the words such as"hello" and "bye." A 2016 showed an orangutan was able to copy the pitch and tone of sounds made by researchers.

AAC devices were created to help people who faced difficulties in expressing natural speech. If animals face difficulties, could it be possible that animals could use an AAC to express themselves, too? Indeed, this is precisely what inspired Christina Hunger, a speech-language pathologist, who famously taught her dog Stella how to use an AAC device. There have been some clues that non-canines and felines would succeed at using an AAC — like a bottleneck nose dolphin pressing a paddle to singal "yes."

Trottier said seeing cats succeed using an AAC device has "refined" the questions: "What has the impact been of co-evolution? And what are the things that get in the way of language use by non-human animals?"

The buttons, Trottier said, being similar to each other yet slightly different could be a means of being something that is "language friendly."

"Because that's kind of the way words are, words are these things that we share with each other that are both very similar, they're all just sounds, made by our lips, at each other, but they're also slightly different, right?" Trottier said. "And so it might be the case that the major impediment to language use in non-human animals is – well, obviously, there's going to be general intelligence – but it could be the case that the language ability is somewhat independent, and depends on some kind of unique set of kind of cognitive capabilities that maybe buttons enable."

A 'talking' cat is giving scientists insight into how felines think

Billi, a 13-year-old domestic cat in Florida, presses a button that voices the word "dog" — twice.

She proceeds to sit as if she's waiting for her human parent, Kendra Baker, to respond.

"Dog outside, hmm?" Baker asks Billi, via the buttons. A few minutes later, Billi presses another button for "tummy," twice.

"Accident or premeditated murder? You decide," Baker writes on the caption of the video on Instagram.

Those who follow the travails of internet-famous "talking" animals may be familiar with Bunny the Talking Dog, a TikTok- and Instagram-famous pet. Just like Bunny, Billi the cat uses an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device — essentially, a sound board made up of buttons with a different word vocally recorded on each — to "talk" to her human, Baker. Baker, like Bunny's human parent, was inspired to attempt this means of animal-human communication after she observed Christina Hunger, a speech-language pathologist, who taught her dog Stella to use an AAC device.

Of course, unlike Bunny and Stella, Billi is a cat. And while dogs, as social animals, are renowned for being able to understand human speech, cats are a different matter.

That didn't stop Baker. At the start of the pandemic, when she found herself with extra time on her hands, Baker decided to order an AAC device to see if Billi could "talk," too.

"At that point Billi was the first cat that I knew of to try it," Baker tells Salon. "I hadn't seen any cats do it."

Considering Billi's feline status, Baker was naturally a bit skeptical at first.

"I was concerned because they [the buttons] were quite large for a little tiny kitty, and I was not sure that she was actually going to be heavy enough to press them," Baker said. "So I started with a word that I'd really not recommend that you start with, which is 'food,' because it becomes very motivating for them. And Billi loves food."

Baker's concerns quickly washed away once it became clear that Billi was able to press the button "food" — which she appeared to enjoy doing perhaps a little too much.

"She was definitely heavy enough for it," Baker said. "And then I later regretted starting with food because it kind of backfired on me, but it definitely got the ball rolling."

Today, Billi has 50 words on her board, and — like Bunny — is part of the ongoing research project called TheyCanTalk, whose goal is to understand if animals can communicate with humans through AAC devices. While the study is mostly made up of dogs, about 5 percent of the animals using AAC devices are now felines. It turns out that many cats have been successful at using the device.

Leo Trottier, cognitive scientist and founder of How.They CanTalk.org and developer of the FluentPet system Billi uses, admitted to Salon he was "pessimistic" about cats using the buttons, but was pleasantly surprised when they started to see felines catch on. Now, he's intrigued by the ways in which cats appear to use the buttons differently from dogs.

"What's interesting is that they [cats] tend to not do that much in the way of multi-button presses, but there's like a lot of single-button presses," Trottier tells Salon. "With cats, you kind of have to find things they really want, and there are just fewer of those than with dogs."

Baker agreed that Billi appears to string words together less frequently than dogs. For example, Bunny is often putting together what appears to be sentences like "night talk sleep," which Bunny's human interpreted as the dog's attempt to communicate that she was having a dream. But Baker has a theory on why cats, like Billi, might be more prone to pressing one button to communicate.

"She does string words together, but it is much less frequent than what I see some of the dogs doing, and I don't know exactly why that is but I will say she's more deliberate in her button presses," Baker said. "Billi is very, very deliberate when she presses a button and knows exactly which one she's looking for, she takes her time . . . and if she is going to string a sentence together, she'll take a thinking loop and then she'll come back — very rarely does she go from one directly to another."

Could it be that in observing cats use the AAC device, humans are finding out that the stereotypical differences between cats and dogs are actually true? Perhaps, but researchers have been very cautious to jump to any conclusions about these "talking" animals yet. In fact, it's up for debate if these animals are, scientifically speaking, speaking — or if they've simply been trained to use specific buttons to conjure specific things. Whether or not their communications are spontaneous has yet to be concluded.

Still, the spectacle of an animal talking through speakers is fascinating to observe, and researchers are excited by the prospect that cats are part of the project now.

"I'm very intrigued by the cats that are using the boards, because there's really a dearth in cat cognition studies, particularly those that happen in the home," Gabriella Smith, a cognitive science researcher at CleverPet. "Cats are really kind of overlooked in the companion animal cognition world. I've been a big fan of Billi, and my animal cognition scientist brain just lights up because I see these behaviors that I know from my own cat — but now I'm able to look at it from a cognition lens."

Smith added that having cats as part of the TheyCanTalk study is a great way to study their cognition — and also, perhaps, dispel myths about cats.

"They have this reputation of just doing what they want and not really caring what the humans are doing, and I think this is a great opportunity to see that they actually are paying attention," Smith said. "Seeing that they can be engaged, that they're not just cat automatons, that aren't driven by instinct 24/7 can function a great deal positively for their role in other studies."

In some ways, including cats in the study has opened the door for other species too — like birds. Indeed, some birds are notorious for their ability to mimic and learn humans words, so their addition makes sense.

Regardless of what these studies ultimately tell us about cat cognition, Billi's owner has observed a noticeable shift in Billi's happiness since introducing the buttons to the talkative kitty.

"I really believe that the majority of house cats are bored and depressed," Baker said. "We don't give them any stimulation . . . and if this pandemic has taught us anything, it's that staying inside your house all day is terrible. So you know, anything that we can do for them that gives them a better life, I'm for it."

How deadly is the omicron variant? Here's what we know

On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the omicron variant now accounts for nearly 73 percent of new coronavirus infections in the United States. That rise is astonishing given that, in the beginning of December, the new variant only made up less than 1 percent of new infections. This means that the variant has successfully outcompeted the delta variant, ushering in a new stage of the pandemic scientists long feared would arise.

Currently, much of the country is seeing a dramatic increase in the number of COVID-19 cases thanks to omicron. In New York state, new coronavirus cases have increased more than 80 percent over the last two weeks.

"It is a predictor of what the rest of the country will see soon, and the minimum — since NYC is highly vaccinated — of what other parts of the country will experience in under-vaccinated cities and states," Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told Reuters.

While the country now has to brace for a surge in cases due to a more transmissible variant, it is likely not only unvaccinated people who will be affected. As reported by the New York Times, the country should also prepare for a rise in breakthrough infections, or infections despite vaccination. That is because, as Salon has previously reported, omicron is unique in the sense that compared to previous variants, it has the highest number of mutations reported — mutations that can partially evade vaccine-based immunity.

Indeed, out of nearly 50 mutations observed in the omicron variant compared to the original virus, 32 are in the spike protein, which implicates the virus' ability to attach and gain entry into human cells.

But that doesn't mean the vaccines don't provide some protection; rather, they are still overwhelmingly effective at preventing severe cases and death. Still, omicron's rapid rise leaves one big, open-ended question: How severe is the disease caused by omicron? And can we expect a rise in hospitalizations and deaths, or can we just expect many (albeit mild) infections?

The answer to these questions will affect how cities and states across the country respond to omicron. And the short, unsatisfying answer is scientists just don't have one. Yet new data on the horizon continues to suggest that omicron is indeed less severe — which, if continually proven true, is the best possible outcome.

"There are definitely signals that the severity level of omicron may be different than delta and other variants," Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center, tells Salon. As a caveat, Adalja noted that "much of this data is derived from South Africa," which has different herd immunity levels than the United States.

Omicron was first reported by scientists in South Africa who noticed an increase in cases in the Gauteng province. In a large study presented by the South African Medical Research Council in collaboration with Discovery Health, a large health insurance company, researchers analyzed more than 200,000 COVID-19 cases in South Africa during a delta-driven surge in September and October and the beginning of the omicron surge in November. Nearly 25 percent of cases analyzed were made up of people who had a chronic illness, which put them at a higher risk of COVID-19.

Notably, researchers in this study found that the risk of hospitalization dropped nearly 30 percent during the early days of the omicron surge compared to what they saw during the delta-driven surge.

"The hospital admissions during omicron, standing at 58 per 1,000 infections, are the lowest of the four COVID waves, and one-third of what we experienced during the delta surge," Discovery Health CEO Ryan Noach said.

According to the analysis, those who did go to the hospital were not as sick as those who were hospitalized during the delta surge. Not as many people needed oxygen or ventilation.

However, not all experts believe this data to be an accurate indicator regarding the severity of the variant in other countries. In part, that is because people in South Africa have built up strong immunity against COVID-19.

"Omicron enters a South African population with considerably more immunity than any prior SARS-CoV-2 variant," said Dr. Roby Bhattacharyya, an infectious disease specialist, and epidemiologist William Hanage in a paper published online.

However, Dr. Adalja said there is data coming from Denmark that suggests omicron is less severe when compared to delta. While COVID-19 cases are on the rise there, hospitalizations and deaths are low.

Dr. Monica Gandhi, infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California–San Francisco, told Salon she believes there is enough evidence that omicron is less severe than previous variants. Gandhi pointed to data published from the University of Hong Kong last week that stated omicron is less likely to be able to infect lung cells compared to previous variants.

"In the United Kingdom, out of the first 25,000 cases of omicron, about 85 patients had been hospitalized and in Denmark, out of the first 785 cases, 1.15% have been hospitalized, both lower rates than during the delta surges," Gandhi said. "But we do not know yet if this is because of increasing cellular immunity in the population in December 2021 versus an inherent property of the strain that makes it less virulent or both."

Indeed, time will tell — and more research needs to be done to figure out why, at the moment, hospitalizations and deaths are happening at lower rates with omicron.

On Tuesday, the U.S. confirmed the first omicron-related death in Texas. The man between the ages of 50 to 60, according to a press release from Harris County Public Health, was unvaccinated, had previously been infected with the coronavirus and had an underlying health condition. It is probable that there have been many other deaths from the omicron variant in the United States, as only a handful of patients have the virus' genome sequenced.

Dr. Adalja cautioned that while omicron is appearing to be less severe, high-risk unvaccinated people are still at risk."

"For those who are high risk and unvaccinated, it still is severe enough to cause hospitalization and death," Adalja said.

Psychologists say that America is going through what Carl Jung warned us would eventually happen -- a mass delusion

In 2020, 34 percent of Republicans and independents who lean to the right surveyed by Pew Research Center agreed that it was "probably" or "definitely true" that powerful people intentionally planned the COVID-19 outbreak. Eighteen percent of Democrats and left-leaners agreed, too. That same year, results from a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey found that approximately three-quarters of Republicans did not trust the 2020 presidential election results.

It should go without saying that these kinds of beliefs are fantasy, not rooted in any rational fact or evidence. Hence, someone observing from afar the rise in conspiratorial beliefs and pseudoscience might characterize a vast swath of the American public as delusional. From the COVID-truther movement to people believing the 2020 presidential election was rigged, it appears that the body politic is — to put it mildly — no longer on the same page.

Given the perturbed psychological state of so many Americans, it is worth asking if something is happening — psychologically speaking — that is causing many Americans to live in very different realities.

Psychologists say yes; and, moreover, that what is happening was actually predicted long ago by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. Indeed, Jung once wrote that the demise of society wouldn't be a physical threat, but instead mass delusion — a collective psychosis of sorts.

"Carl Jung noted that 'the wolf inside' man was far more a threat to human existence than external forces," Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of "Joy From Fear," told Salon. "When mental forces become so toxic as to harm our overall well-being on an individual and collective level a 'psychic epidemic' can result."

Indeed, Jung himself warned that modern society was prone to collapse due to a pandemic of "delusional ideas."

"Greater than all physical dangers are the tremendous effects of delusional ideas, which are yet denied all reality by our world-blinded consciousness," Jung wrote. "Our much vaunted reason and our boundlessly overestimated will are sometimes utterly powerless in the face of 'unreal' thoughts."

Notably, Jung believed that the United States was particularly prone to society-breaking delusions.

"Anything new should always be questioned and tested with caution, for it may very easily turn out to be only a new disease; that is why true progress is impossible without mature judgment," Jung wrote. "The man who is unconscious of the historical context and lets slip his link with the past is in constant danger of succumbing to the crazes and delusions engendered by all novelties."

Some psychologists believe that this is what the country is experiencing right now — more or less.

"Something's definitely happening, and I think COVID amplified it to a painful point, you could say," Katharine Bainbridge, a Jungian analyst, tells Salon.

But there are caveats. "It's complicated," Bainbridge said. "From the left's point of view, people that aren't being vaccinated or think the election was rigged are psychotic, right? If you're on the right, you think the left is psychotic and has lost its mind in identity politics. Both sides look at each other and say, 'you've lost your mind.'"

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the concept of a "mass psychosis" has been seized upon by conspiracy theorists as a rationale for their conspiracies. For instance, anti-vaccination influencers like Joseph Mercola employ the term to suggest that those who are getting vaccinated are the real "delusional" ones.

Bainbridge said in order to contextualize what's actually happening in America through a Jungian lens, one must consider the role of a central guiding myth.

"Jung said man cannot live without religion — so you make it up," Bainbridge said. "You can't not have a central myth to live by. He would say maybe in this time that we've lost that — we don't have a collective unifying principle."

Cultural theorists often describe the history of human civilization as one of a transition between different central guiding myths. In the Western world, Christianity undergirded everyday existence and society for over a thousand years. After the Renaissance, the central guiding myth became a belief in rationalism; then, in modernity, a belief that technology might improve the lot of all humans.

Though the phrase is often reviled, the postmodern era — which, roughly, began in the 1960s or 1970s depending on who you ask — merely means the cultural transition into an epoch into which there were no longer any fundamental guiding myths that unified human societies and drove progress. Such an era is, by its nature, more fractured socially; two humans plucked at random from a postmodern epoch might find themselves believing wildly different things about human society, progress and morality, with little in common.

Jung believed, Bainbridge explained, that people needed myths to live by — hence the importance of religion. Yet interestingly, there has been an ever-increasing number of Americans leaving organized religion. In return, many people — perhaps those who were never religious in the first place — have turned to New Age spiritual beliefs, which in some circles have curiously syncretized with the tenets of the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon.

Bainbridge noted the contrast between New Age circles and QAnon in Jungian terms.

"One is super dark and apocalyptic and the other is utopian," Bainbridge said. "The problem with New Age thinking that is it leaves out the shadow — and then QAnon is obsessed with the shadow."

"Unfortunately, many people were gravitating toward conspiracy theories prior to the pandemic," Manly observed, "yet this trend has intensified during the pandemic due to surges in online time, anxiety, and feelings of helpless."

Manly connected this to Jung's "wolf within" idea. "Individuals and groups who perpetuate conspiracy theories are often intentionally 'feeding the wolf inside' masses of people — often with substantial negative mental health effects."

But why is this happening now? As Bainbridge noted, the coronavirus pandemic appears to have amplified existing rifts. Joe Kelly, a cult intervention specialist, also told Salon that humans are often drawn to extremism when they are suffering.

"If an individual is hurting — financially, on any level, losing a job, having trouble with their mortgage, having trouble feeding themselves — then they're more likely to listen to extremist ideologies and talk about a conspiracy around them that is beyond their control," Kelly said.

Social psychologists like Jung often see the government as a stand-in for authority figures like parents. Indeed, Bainbridge said, one might analogize the draw to conspiracy theories and New Age religions as children acting out when their "parents" (meaning, the state) are not taking care of them properly.

"If the parent isn't taking care of a child, then the child acts out, right? The child is angry because it's not getting its needs met," Bainbridge said. "And there are lots of people, like left-progressives, who asked: 'How did Trump get elected?' But once you really look into it, you're like, that was obvious because there's a huge part of America that's in between New York and LA, and those people are fed up and they feel forgotten."

Bainbridge says the way out of this conundrum, from a Jungian perspective, is to embrace humanism and empathy.

"We have to find our humanity, and [ask], 'what does it mean to be a human being?'" Bainbridge said. "It means that you have to integrate your own darkness, wrestle with your own paradoxes and stop projecting out onto other people the opposite inside of you."

Bainbridge added: "There are no simple answers. But we have to hold on to our own humanity, instead of projecting out and demonizing other people. That's how we survive."

Scientists just came to a disturbing conclusion about the political divide in the United States

Politics in the United States have become an increasingly polarized affair for decades, driven largely by the right moving further to the right. Observation of political polarization is not merely anecdotal; studies repeatedly bear this out.

Now, some researchers say the partisan rift in the United States has become so extreme that the country may be at a point of no return.

According to a theoretical model's findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the pandemic failing to unite the country, despite political differences, is a signal that the U.S. is at a disconcerting tipping point.

"We see this very disturbing pattern in which a shock brings people a little bit closer initially . . . but if polarization is too extreme, eventually the effects of a shared fate are swamped by the existing divisions and people become divided even on the shock issue," said network scientist Boleslaw Szymanski, a professor of computer science and director of the Army Research Laboratory Network Science and Technology Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "If we reach that point, we cannot unite even in the face of war, climate change, pandemics, or other challenges to the survival of our society."

As I've reported before, sociologists and experts in disaster resilience studies often observe that a "therapeutic community" surfaces in the wake of a disaster — whether that's a hurricane, wildfire, or a terrorist attack. While that was the case to some extent after 9/11, the pandemic hasn't united the nation the same way. Experts have argued that any possibility of unity was doomed from the start of the pandemic, in part because of how politically divided and polarized the nation was before the novel coronavirus began spreading. This latest paper adds to this theory, and suggests that the U.S. is so divided that it is at an irreparable point at which unity is not possible.

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Szymanski and fellow researchers reached their conclusion by simulating the views of 100 theoretical legislators around 10 polarizing issues. The researchers had their theoretical legislators interact and network with theoretical neighbors and like-minded groups to see the influence these interactions had on polarization, too — akin to a "Sims"-like video game. When manipulating the group's "control parameters" — such as increased party identification, intolerance for disagreement, and extremism — the model found that polarizing behavior among politicians is one reason why the country is as politically divided as it is today.

At various points, the research team introduced an outside threat, like a pandemic, and then recorded how the group behaved. Interestingly, it appeared that when the group introduced an internal threat that failed to unite the country, that meant that the level of polarization was beyond repair.

"If the polarization is very, very deep in these 10 issues, then we are at the very dangerous stage in which it is very difficult to reverse polarization by democratic means," Szymanski told Salon. "When that tipping point is passed, there are no constitutional means that can reverse polarization."

RELATED: 9/11 brought Americans together. Why is the pandemic tearing them apart?

Indeed, graphs displaying the relationship between polarization and the control parameters showed that in many situations a high amount of polarization that couldn't be rectified by an external threat meant that a society was in a "phase transition," where measures of polarization began to increase exponentially. In some scenarios, if the polarization was dialed down the trend could be reversed. In other cases, a recovery wasn't possible.

"Although political polarization is nothing new, expanding political division is creating an unpredictable environment that threatens the capacity of government to respond rationally in a crisis," said Curt Breneman, dean of the Rensselaer School of Science. "This research is designed to enhance societal resilience by predicting when the level of political polarization within an influential group is nearing the point where a sudden threat will no longer produce collective action."

Szymanski said he hopes people take away from this study that this "theoretical model confirms intuition."

"If the external strong signal does not unite people, we are in danger of getting into this irreversible polarization," which Szymanski alarmed is bad for democracy. "In a divided society, it's of course very difficult to maintain that democracy which requires agreements of all people and the people who win elections and lose elections."

Szymanski added that the research shows the U.S. is at a "dangerous level of polarization," but perhaps electing less polarizing politicians could reverse the trend the U.S. is facing.

"It's almost the last call," Szymanski said.

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