China is building another great wall — of trees. To hold back the desert.

As of this writing, the Gobi Desert in northern China/southern Mongolia is about half a million square miles (1.3 million km2) in area.

Yes, that's “as of this writing" — because the Gobi Desert is growing.

Due to something called “desertification," about 1,400 square miles (3,600 km2) of China's otherwise arable land is turned into desert each year, as the Gobi creeps further and further south.


To make matters worse, winds often pick up the sand, blowing it toward the densely populated areas in China, resulting in immense dust storms. (Here's a picture of a car windshield after Beijing's 2006 dust storm season.)

The desert in China is expanding — kinda rapidly, too. Image by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images.

But China is fighting back. With trees.

In 2001, the BBC reported on what has been called, colloquially, the "Great Green Wall," a not-so-subtle reference to the Great Wall of China, but this "wall" is being made of trees.

The wall is part of a decades-long afforestation project that began in 1978 but isn't expected to be completed until 2050, and it hopes to ultimately make areas currently too arid for habitation or agriculture into fertile homes to both.


A tree-planting exercise on the edge of the Gobi Desert in 2007. Image by Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images.

One of the early phases was a forced participation drive — in 1981, China passed a law that required its citizens over the age of 11 to plant three to five trees each year — but in 2003, the country turned toward government works.

The Great Green Wall plan called for the creation of a 2,800 mile-long (4,480 km) belt of trees along the Gobi's border.

As Wired reported a year later, this was no small task:

"To build the wall, the government has launched a two-pronged plan: Use aerial seeding to cover wide swaths of land where the soil is less arid and pay farmers to plant trees and shrubs in areas that require closer attention. A $1.2 billion oversight system, consisting of mapping and land-surveillance databases, will be implemented. The government has also hammered out a dust-monitoring network with Japan and Korea."


A photographer looks out over the trees at the encroaching desert. Image by Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images.

Whether it's working, though, is another question.

One Chinese news agency, citing the State Forest Administration, reported in 2007 that "more than 20 percent of the lands affected by desertification in the project areas have been harnessed and soil erosion has been put under control in over 40 percent of the areas that used to suffer soil erosion in the past."

And in 2014, the Daily Mail echoed these results, reporting that "a study says the measures are working, despite previous criticism."

However, that same year, the Economist noted that many of the trees are withering in the dry, hot conditions and concluded the opposite.

Finally, there's the middle ground, which the BBC reported in 2011: The afforestation process is working — but it'll take 300 years to reclaim the lands the Gobi has already taken.

Either way, China intends to push forward. Given its original timetable, they have 35 years left to figure it out.

Dan Lewis runs the popular daily newsletter Now I Know ("Learn Something New Every Day, By Email"). To subscribe to his daily email, click here.

When "bobcat" trended on Twitter this week, no one anticipated the unreal series of events they were about to witness. The bizarre bobcat encounter was captured on a security cam video and...well...you just have to see it. (Read the following description if you want to be prepared, or skip down to the video if you want to be surprised. I promise, it's a wild ride either way.)

In a North Carolina neighborhood that looks like a present-day Pleasantville, a man carries a cup of coffee and a plate of brownies out to his car. "Good mornin!" he calls cheerfully to a neighbor jogging by. As he sets his coffee cup on the hood of the car, he says, "I need to wash my car." Well, shucks. His wife enters the camera frame on the other side of the car.

So far, it's just about the most classic modern Americana scene imaginable. And then...

A horrifying "rrrrawwwww!" Blood-curdling screaming. Running. Panic. The man abandons the brownies, races to his wife's side of the car, then emerges with an animal in his hands. He holds the creature up like Rafiki holding up Simba, then yells in its face, "Oh my god! It's a bobcat! Oh my god!"

Then he hucks the bobcat across the yard with all his might.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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