More than 2K pieces of the ‘Buddha’ found in box in China

A Buddha statue is showered by a devotee during a bathing ritual in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on May 21, 2016.

f the “truth is out there,” scientists are determined to find it – so much so that they’ve spent a message into space trying to contact aliens.

But a response could take 25 years – if it comes at all.

Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) International sent an encoded message into space using radio waves known as “Sonar Calling GJ273b,” which the organization’s president and founder Doug Vakoch, believes could be received by intelligent life.

“[The message is] distinctive because it’s designed with extraterrestrial SETI scientists in mind. We sent the sort of signal we’d want to receive here on Earth,” he said in an interview with CNET.

METI’s purpose, along with the well-known Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), has a number of missions, including understanding and communicating “the societal implications and relevance of searching for life beyond Earth, even before detection of extraterrestrial life.”

It also conducts programs to “foster increased awareness of the challenges facing our civilization’s longevity” among other directives.

The San Francisco-based METI sent its message toward the red dwarf star GJ 273 (also known as Luyten’s Star), 12 light-years away from Earth. The message was sent in October from the Eiscat transmitter in Tromsø, Norway and included details such as basic math and science, as well as information on mankind’s understanding of time.

In a statement obtained by CNET, METI said it wanted to know if intelligent life understood the message and then go from there.

“In a reply message, I would first want to know that the extraterrestrials understood what we said in our first message,” METI said in the statement. “The easiest way to do this is to repeat our message, but in expanded form. We tell them that ‘1 + 1 = 2.’ They could let us know that they understand that ’10 + 10 = 20.'”

Pressing ahead despite concerns

While some luminaries, such as Stephen Hawking, have warned against trying to contact extraterrestrials, Vakoch said contact is already being endorsed by many people.

“Everyone engaged in SETI is already endorsing transmissions to extraterrestrials through their actions,” Vakoch said in an interview with Newsweek. “If we detect a signal from aliens through a SETI program, there’s no way to prevent a cacophony of responses from Earth.”

Vakoch added that once news of the initial contact has appeared, it would become almost impossible to stop anyone from trying to contact them on their own. “Once the news gets out that we’ve detected extraterrestrials, anyone with a transmitter can say whatever they want.”

When can we expect a possible response?

Any response probably would be forthcoming in at least 25 years due to the distance the message has to travel between Earth and GJ273b.

The exoplanet was chosen because of its visibility from Earth’s northern hemisphere, even if it is not the closest potentially inhabited exoplanet to Earth. That distinction belongs to Proxima b, which is just 4 light-years away.

Earlier this week, scientists discovered a new exoplanet, Ross 128 b, that is 11 light-years away from Earth. It orbits a very quiet red-dwarf star, meaning it does not have to deal with issues such as deadly ultraviolet or X-ray radiation and could also be home to life.

One light-year is approximately 5.88 trillion miles.

Sonar calling GJ273b is not the first message sent to space. The first was the Arecibo message, sent in 1974. The Arecibo message is expected to take 25,000 light-years to reach its target of the M13 star cluster.

While hopeful of receiving a response, Vakoch says we may never hear anything from another intelligent civilization.

“Practically speaking, if we get a signal from Luyten’s Star, it will mean the Milky Way is teeming with life. It’s certainly possible,” Vakoch said. “It seems more likely that we’ll need to target not just one star, but hundreds, thousands, or even millions before we get a reply back.”

They were searching for an old infirmary and found treasure instead

Treasure in situ (left) and after examination (right). (Credit: Anne Baud-Anne Flammin-Vincent Borrel)

They were searching for an old infirmary. What they uncovered was an “exceptional and extremely rare treasure”: 2,200 silver coins, 21 gold coins, a gold signet ring, gold foil, and a circular object also made of gold.

It’s a collection unlike any ever found, according to French archaeologists, who made the discovery together with students from the University of Lyon, per a release.

For the past two years, Lyon students have participated in digs at the Abbey of Cluny in Saone-et-Loire, among the largest monasteries in Western Europe in medieval times.

But the most recent class was especially lucky. Over a monthlong dig that wrapped up in late October, they uncovered what researchers say is the largest collection of French denier coins ever found.

The team had been trying to find the corner of the infirmary when coins suddenly spilled from a buried cloth bag. “I thought how I’d never again see something like it in my life as an archaeologist,” a student tells the Local.

The deniers are believed to mostly have been minted at Cluny some 900 years ago when the coins were the prevailing currency. But they were surprisingly found next to a hide bundle housing Islamic gold dinars minted in Spain and Morocco around the same time.

The ring inscribed with a religious greeting and depicting the bust of a god was also in the bundle, say researchers. An expert notes the owner of the items could’ve exchanged them for “between three and eight horses” in the Middle Ages—if they’d been retrieved.

(The first US coin may have been found.)

This article originally appeared on Newser: Searching for a Foundation, They Found Treasure Instead

Mysterious interstellar visitor gets named

The interstellar object 1I/2017 U1 (ʻOumuamua), previously known as C/2017 U1 (PANSTARRS) and A/2017 U1, was closest to the Sun on Sept. 9. Traveling at about 98,400 mph (158,360 km/h), ʻOumuamua is headed away from the Earth and sun on its way out of the solar system.

We now know what to call the mysterious object from interstellar space that zoomed past Earth last month.

The interloper — the first known interstellar body observed within our own solar system — has been named ‘Oumuamua, which means “a messenger from afar arriving first” in Hawaiian, representatives of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) announced yesterday (Nov. 14).

The IAU also approved an official scientific designation for ‘Oumuamua: 1I/2017 U1. This is a first-of-its-kind moniker; the “I” stands for “interstellar.” Previously, small objects like ‘Oumuamua have received standard comet or asteroid designations, which sport a “C” or “A,” respectively, in place of the “I.” [Solar System Explained from the Inside Out (Infographic)]

‘Oumuamua was first spotted on Oct. 19, by astronomers using the Pan-STARRS1 telescope in Hawaii. The smallish object was first classified as a comet but then regarded as an asteroid, after further observations revealed no evidence of a coma (the fuzzy cloud of gas and dust that surrounds a comet’s core)

Analysis of ‘Oumuamua’s trajectory soon revealed that it was on a hyperbolic path — that is, one that will take it out of the solar system. And the object doesn’t seem to have had any gravitational encounters with planets that could have nudged it onto such a path, which strongly suggests that ‘Oumuamua came from interstellar space, researchers have said.

Astronomers have determined that ‘Oumuamua made its closest pass by the sun on Sept. 9 and then zoomed within 15 million miles (24 million kilometers) of Earth on Oct. 14 — about 60 times the distance from our planet to the moon. The object is now barreling toward the outer solar system at about 98,400 mph (158,360 km/h) relative to the sun, researchers have said.

Though ‘Oumuamua’s composition is unknown, the object is probably more ice than rock, Matthew Holman, director of the Minor Planet Center (MPC) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told Space.com last month. That’s because bodies that form on the outskirts of solar systems — and are therefore most likely to get booted into interstellar space — tend to be icy, Holman said.

The Pan-STARRS team proposed ‘Oumuamua’s common name, and the suggestion was approved by the MPC, the organization responsible for gathering data about asteroids and comets in our solar system.

The MPC operates under the auspices of the IAU, which is the arbiter of official astronomical names. The MPC proposed creating a new formal designation scheme for interstellar objects — the one with the “I” instead of the “C” or “A” for comet or asteroid — and the IAU executive committee quickly agreed, IAU representatives said.

“Considering the growing interest in the observation and orbit determination of asteroids . . . it is expected that the discovery of 1I/2017 U1 (‘Oumuamua) will soon be joined by discoveries of more of such interlopers entering the inner solar system from interstellar space,” IAU representatives wrote in a statement yesterday. “The scheme for their designation is ready, while the procedure for assigning them a name, similar to the one in use for minor planets, will soon be decided.”

Effort to save rare ‘panda of the sea’ instead kills one

This illustration of a vaquita marina, provided by Greenpeace, shows an image of the highly endangered sea mammal swimming in the sea.

The goal was to make a move that could save a species; instead, it killed one of the last vaquitas left on the planet. With fewer than 30 of the porpoises—the world’s smallest, and also called the “panda of the sea”—estimated to exist, a team of scientists going by the name Vaquita CPR decided to take an extreme step: capture one in the Sea of Cortez in hopes of eventually breeding them in captivity.

It went bad and then worse: As ScienceDaily reports, a calf recovered last month displayed signs of stress and was put back in the sea.

Then in early November, they captured a female, and the New York Times reports it had “promising” vital signs. She was moved into a sea pen, where she started swimming too fast, then too slow.

Releasing her wasn’t enough; the creature stopped breathing and died. The group said it was “heartbroken,” but Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd tells the Times he had warned “that this was going to happen, you’re going to stress out the animals.” His group has for two years been going after the cause of the porpoises’ deaths, pulling more than 50 tons of gill nets from the waters.

Poachers use them to illegally capture totoaba fish, whose bladder can fetch up to $50,000 on the Chinese black market; vaquitas get caught in the nets and die.

(The Times explains why a ban on the totoaba nets hasn’t worked.) The Washington Post reports Vaquita CPR has given up on the capture effort, but not given up entirely: It plans to work to get a count of the creatures and photograph their dorsal fins, whose markings are specific to each porpoise.

Discovery of giant hand axes suggest a prehistoric ‘Game of Thrones’ scenario in ancient Europe

The large tools are consistent with a culture known as Acheulean. (Credit: Eduardo Mendez Quintas)

Even our earliest human ancestors made and used technology — something we can look back on thanks to the lasting nature of stone tools.

An exceptionally high density of giant hand axes dated to 200,000-300,000 years ago has been uncovered at an archaeological site in Galicia, northwest Spain.

The discovery of these hand axes suggests that alternative types of stone tool technologies were simultaneously being used by different populations in this area — supporting the idea that a prehistoric Game of Thrones scenario existed as Neanderthals emerged in Europe.

Additional evidence for this idea comes from fossil records showing that multiple human lineages lived in southwest Europe around the same time period.

STONE TOOL TECHNOLOGY

Porto Maior is near the town of As Neves (Pontevedra, Galcia) on a terrace 34m above the current level of the Miño River, which borders northern Portugal and Spain.

The archaeological site at Porto Maior preserves an ancient stone tool culture known as the Acheulean. Characterised by symmetrically knapped stones or large flakes (known as bifaces), the Acheulean is the first sophisticated handaxe technology known in the early human settlement record of Europe.

While Acheulean sites are widespread across the continent, Porto Maior represents Europe’s first extensive accumulation of large cutting tools (LCTs) in the Acheulean tradition. Until now, such high densities of LCTs had only been found in Africa. This new finding reinforces an African origin for the Acheulean in Europe, and confirms an overlap in time-frames of distinctly different stone tool cultures on the continent.

At around the same time that hand axes were being used at Porto Maior, a different stone tool tradition (the Early Middle Palaeolithic) was present in Iberia, for example at Ambrona and Cuesta de la Bajada. In central and eastern Europe — where tools were made exclusively on small flakes — the Acheulean tradition has never been found.

Porto Maior introduces further complexity to this overlapping technological pattern, and suggests that distinct early human populations of different geographical origins coexisted during the Middle Pleistocene (between 773,000 and 125,000 years ago).

ABUNDANT LARGE CUTTING TOOLS

In total, 3698 discarded artefacts were recovered from river-lain sediments at the site, with 290 of these making up the studied assemblage reported in our new paper.

The stone tool assemblage is composed of 101 LCTs in original position, and that are on average 18cm long, with a maximum length of 27cm. These handaxe dimensions are exceptionally large by European Acheulean standards (typically only 8-15cm long). The assemblage also contains large cleavers, a type of tool typically found in African sites.

Laboratory analyses indicate that the tools were used to process hard materials such wood and bone, in activities that could have included the breaking up of carcasses.

The Spanish site of Porto Maior clearly resembles extensive accumulations of very large tools previously only seen in Africa and the Near East. These similarities reinforce the idea of an African origin for the Acheulean tradition of southwest Europe.

They also raise new questions regarding the origin and mobility of prehistoric human populations — the ancestors of Neanderthals — that occupied the European continent during the Middle Pleistocene period before the arrival of our own species, Homo sapiens.

MIGRATION FROM AFRICA

The Acheulean toolmaking tradition originated in Africa about 1.7 million years ago, and disappeared on that continent by 500,000 years ago. The specific type of Acheulean tools described at Porto Maior is exclusive to southwest Europe, suggesting that the technology was brought into the region by an “intrusive” population.

The age of Porto Maior is consistent with previous findings from Iberia that suggest that the Acheulean culture experienced an expansion in the region between 400,000 to 200,000 years ago.

This latest discovery supports the increasingly complex narrative developing from ongoing studies of human fossils from Europe; namely that human groups of potentially different origins and evolutionary stages coexisted across the continent during a time when the emergence of Neanderthals was taking place.

While it is clear that more human fossil and stone tool sites need to be reliably dated across the region, a picture appears to be emerging of a turbulent Game of Thrones style scenario of hominin evolution in Eurasia during the Middle Pleistocene period.

Earthbound antimatter mystery deepens after scientists rule out pulsar source

The HAWC gamma-ray observatory detects cosmic rays from its altitude of 13,500 feet in Mexico's Pico de Orizaba National Park. The Sierra Negro volcano looms large in the background.

More antimatter particles stream toward Earth than scientists can explain — and new research from a mountaintop observatory in central Mexico deepens the mystery by crossing off one possible source.

The Earth is constantly showered by high-energy particles from a variety of cosmic sources. Physicist Victor Hess used a balloon to provide the first evidence of the extraterrestrial nature of cosmic rays in 1912. Since then, scientists have identified and accounted for a variety of different types, but the origin of some of these particles continues to elude experts.

The recent finding, detailed in the journal Science today (Nov. 17), concerns positrons, the antimatter complements of electrons. High-energy particles, usually protons, traveling across the galaxy can create pairs of positrons and electrons when they interact with dust and gas in space, study co-author Hao Zhou, at Los Alamos National Lab, told Space.com. In 2008, the space-based PAMELA detector measured unexpectedly high numbers of earthbound positrons. This was about 10 times what they were expecting to see, according to Zhou. [Supernova Face-Off May Solve 40-Year-Old Antimatter Mystery]

After years of work, camps coalesced around two distinct explanations, according to a statementby Michigan Technological University, which was involved in the new study. One hypothesis suggests the particles come from nearby pulsars, rapidly spinning cores of burnt-out stars, which can whip particles like electrons and positrons to incredible speeds. The other group posits a more exotic origin for the excess positrons, perhaps involving dark matter, an unknown yet pervasive entity that accounts for 80 percent of the universe’s mass.

Particles like positrons that carry an electric charge are difficult to detect on Earth since they can be deflected by the planet’s magnetic field. But scientists have a workaround. The particles also interact with the cosmic microwave background — an ever-present stream of low-energy photons left over from the birth of the universe. “The high-energy electron, or positron, [will] kick the low-energy photon … so this the photon becomes a high-energy gamma-ray,” Zhou said. “These gamma-rays, which have no electric charge, can pass right through the magnetic field and make it all the way to Earth’s surface.

Zhou’s team made detailed measurements of the gamma-rays coming from the direction of two nearby pulsars — Geminga and its companion PSR B0656+14 — that are the right age and distance from Earth to account for the excess positrons. To do this, the scientists used the High-Altitude Water Cherenkov (HAWC) Gamma-Ray Observatory, located about 4 hours east of Mexico City. HAWC comprises more than 300 tanks of extra-pure water. When gamma-rays plow into the atmosphere, they create a cascade of high-energy particles. As this shower of particles passes through HAWC’s tanks, it emits flashes of blue light, which scientists can use to determine the energy and origin of the original cosmic ray.

The data from HAWC revealed that particles are streaming away from the pulsars too slowly to account for the excess positrons, according to a statement by the University of Maryland, whose researchers also contributed to the work. In order to have arrived here by now, the particles would have needed to leave before the pulsars had formed, Zhou said.

Zhou’s colleagues are quick to point out an important caveat. “Our measurement doesn’t decide the question in favor of dark matter, but any new theory that attempts to explain the excess using pulsars will need to match the new data,” University of Maryland physicist Jordan Goodman, the lead investigator and U.S. spokesman for the HAWC collaboration, said in the statement from Maryland.

By observing the rotations of galaxies, scientists determined that the universe contains more mass than the objects we can observe. They call this mysterious extra mass dark matter. Aside from seeing dark matter’s gravitational influence from afar, no one has directly detected it otherwise. However, a popular model of the substance involves weakly interacting massive particles, or WIMPS, which interact with regular matter solely through gravity. If these proposed particles were to decay, or be annihilated somehow, they could conceivably generate pairs of electrons and positrons, Zhou said.

There are other astrophysical processes to consider as well. Supernova remnants and microquasars — extremely bright objects formed as matter spirals toward a black hole  — can produce positrons, Zhou said. And there’s the possibility that the initial model of particle interactions with the cosmic microwave background is inaccurate. “In order to confirm a detection of dark mater, I guess, there’s still a long way to go,” Zhou said. “We have to rule out all these astrophysical processes.”

Zhou’s team plans to take advantage of HAWC’s incredibly wide field of view to narrow down these alternatives in future studies.

Scientists have a new theory on how the Chernobyl disaster unfolded

The number four reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant is seen in this December 2, 1986 file photo, after completion of work to entomb it in concrete following the explosion at the plant. (Reuters)

A new theory on the Chernobyl disaster could shed fresh light on the world’s worst nuclear accident.

In an article published in the journal Nuclear Technology, scientists argue that the first of two explosions reported by eyewitnesses was a nuclear, not a steam explosion, as is widely thought. Instead, the researchers believe that the first explosive event noted by eyewitnesses was a jet of debris ejected to an altitude of almost 2 miles by a series of nuclear explosions within the Chernobyl reactor. Some 2.7 seconds later, they say, a steam explosion ruptured the reactor and sent yet more debris into the atmosphere at lower altitudes.

“We realized that we, based on real measurements and observations, could explain details in the Chernobyl accident scenario and the nature of the two major explosions that occurred during a few seconds that unfortunate night more than 31 years ago,” explained the report’s lead author Lars-Erik De Geer, in an email to Fox News.

The 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine sparked a widespread environmental disaster. Thirty workers died either from the explosion at the number four reactor or from acute radiation sickness within several months. The accident exposed millions in the region to dangerous levels of radiation and forced a wide-scale, permanent evacuation of hundreds of towns and villages in Ukraine and Belarus.

A helicopter dropping concrete onto the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear power after its explosion is seen in this 1986 file picture. (Reuters)

A cloud of radioactive particles from the disaster reached other parts of parts of Europe, such as Sweden.

The report cites xenon isotopes detected by the V.G. Khlopin Radium Institute in Leningrad four days after the accident. Leningrad, now known as Saint Petersburg, is about 599 miles north of Chernobyl. Xenon isotopes were also reported in Cherepovets, about 622 miles north of Chernobyl.

The result of recent nuclear fission, the isotopes were likely caused by a recent nuclear explosion, according to the experts. This is in contrast to the main Chernobyl debris that contained equilibrium xenon isotopes from the reactor’s rupture and drifted toward Scandinavia.

This new theory presented by experts from the Swedish Defence Research Agency, the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute and Stockholm University, could offer fresh insight into the disaster. The new analysis could help prevent similar incidents from occurring, experts say.

A panel with a portrait of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin and an abandoned building are seen at the 30 km (19 miles) exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the abandoned village of Orevichi, Belarus, March 12, 2016. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko SEARCH "REVOLUTION RUSSIA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. - RC13B4460000

A panel with a portrait of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin and an abandoned building are seen at the 30 km (19 miles) exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the abandoned village of Orevichi, Belarus, March 12, 2016. (REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko)

The destroyed reactor tank suggests that the first explosion caused temperatures high enough to melt a 6.6-foot bottom plate in part of the core, the researchers said, noting that this damage is consistent with a nuclear explosion. In the rest of the core, the bottom plate was relatively intact, but had dropped by nearly 13 feet. This, they say, is consistent with a steam explosion, noting that the temperature would not be sufficient to melt the plate, but could generate enough pressure to force it down.

Additionally, seismic measurements and eyewitness reports of a blue flash above the reactor a few seconds after the first explosion could also support the new theory of a nuclear explosion followed by a steam explosion.

De Geer told Fox News that the Chernobyl disaster could only happen in Soviet-era reactors built using a design known as Reaktor Bolshoy Moshchnosti Kanalnyy (RBMK), or ‘High Power Channel-Type Reactor.’ There are 11 RBMK Reactors operating in Russia, according to The World Nuclear Association.

“Our new theory deepens the understanding of the severe effects that can be the result of some original design faults in such reactors,” he said. “Much has been corrected in remaining RBMK reactors, but a better understanding of what really happened in 1986 must of course be of great value for overseeing and possibly improving the design also in the future.”

The disaster shone a spotlight on lax safety standards and government secrecy in the former Soviet Union. The explosion on April 26, 1986, was not reported by Soviet authorities for two days, and then only after winds had carried the fallout across Europe and Swedish experts had gone public with their concerns.

The final death toll from Chernobyl is subject to speculation, due to the long-term effects of radiation. Estimates range from 9,000 by the World Health Organization to one of a possible 90,000 by the environmental group Greenpeace.

The terrible environmental fallout of Chernobyl is still being felt. A wild boar with more than 10-times the safe limit of radiation, for example, was recently killed by hunters hundreds of miles away in Sweden.

Denver has bizarre law that prohibits you from declawing your cat

File photo: Two kittens lie in the ruins of the ancient Agora in Athens June 20, 2015. (REUTERS/Paul Hanna)

Declawing cats is now prohibited in Denver. A bill banning the practice passed unanimously at a Denver City Council meeting Monday, KUSA reports. The procedure, formally known as an onychectomy, surgically removes all or most of the last bone on each of a cat’s 10 front toes, severing tendons, nerves, and ligaments that are necessary for normal paw function.

Activists say it’s similar to cutting off a human’s fingers at the last knuckle, is painful, and can lead to behavioral issues. “When you declaw a cat, they’re more prone to have some of those behaviors, like urinating inappropriately [or] biting things, that will lead people to relinquish them into the shelters,” says a vet tech who fought for the new ban, which takes effect immediately.

The Denver Channel notes that declawing will still be allowed if it’s deemed medically necessary. Denver is the only city outside California, where a number of cities have banned declawing, to institute such a ban in the US, but New York and New Jersey are considering similar bills.

In Israel, the penalties for declawing are pretty massive.

Trap door revealed secret Michelangelo room that public may soon be able to see

Michelangelo's marble statue of "David", is seen in Florence's Galleria dell' Accademia in this Monday, May 24, 2004 file photo.

For two months in 1530, Michelangelo hid in a secret underground room beneath the Medici Chapels, “fill[ing] the walls with drawings” to forget his fears, as he later recalled.

He had been commissioned by the Medicis, the most powerful family in Florence, to build the chapels—a mausoleum for members of the family—but had to hide out after backing a popular revolt against their rule.

“I hid in a tiny cell, entombed like the dead Medici above,” he recalled after he was eventually pardoned by the Medicis and completed the chapels.

The room went undiscovered until 1975—and now, for the first time, the public could be able to view it, the Telegraph reports. Some of the sketches he left on the walls resemble the Renaissance master’s famous works, including parts of the Sistine Chapel, the Local reports.

Other doodles may have been left behind by workers on the Medici Chapels project. When custodians in 1975 happened upon a trap door underneath a wardrobe, which led to a narrow flight of stone stairs into the secret room, they found walls covered in mold and grime.

But even then, the outlines of Michelangelo’s charcoal and chalk sketches of human figures could be seen. The walls were cleaned, but the room was closed to protect the art.

Now, the director of the Bargello Museum, which manages the Medici Chapels says officials are “working on making the secret room of Michelangelo accessible. There’s a plan underway to make the space safe for visitors.” Due to the narrow, steep stairs, only a small number of visitors will likely be allowed at a time.

The director hopes to open the room to the public within three years. For now, those interested can take a virtual tour of the 23-foot-by-6.5-foot room online.

(Paintings of Michelangelo reveal his malady.)

Why many pregnant women aren’t screened for deadly skin cancers

Pregnant woman with melanoma may be at greater risk for complications from the disease than nonexpecting women­.

In September, Women’s Health published a troubling report about the dangerous repercussions of a nationwide shortage of dermatologists.

One in five areas of the country don’t have a single dermatologist within 50 or even 100 miles, and in these areas—which we dubbed “derm deserts”—there are more melanoma deaths. The shortage makes it impossible for nearby women to get a timely diagnosis, and when you have melanoma—the most aggressive form of skin cancer—waiting a few months, or even weeks, for an appointment can be fatal.

Now, we’re getting hit with more bad news: Pregnant women may be particularly vulnerable.

A new study published in the journal JAMA Dermatology looked at more than 7,600 North Carolina residents who had been diagnosed with melanoma. Researchers found that those with Medicaid insurance—which covers around half of all pregnant women in the U.S., or 2 million pregnancies per year—were 36 percent more likely than those on other insurance plans to experience a delay of more than six weeks for the surgical removal of their cancer.

Yet research shows that patients should be treated within two weeks for the best chance of survival. Six weeks is the recommended maximum wait time; once melanoma has spread, it’s much harder to treat. And pregnant woman with melanoma may be at greater risk for complications from the disease than nonexpecting women­.

(Though the study was done only in North Carolina, researchers say this data can be extrapolated to the entire country—where things might be more problematic: According to our investigation, North Carolina is far from the worst of the derm-desert states; in contrast, the entire state of Utah is a desert.)

WHAT’S HAPPENING WITH MEDICAID

The government-funded health insurance program is set up to help low-income people and families, pregnant women, and those with disabilities. Many states offer Medicaid to pregnant women with higher incomes than nonpregnant women (even incomes that hover around the national average for young women) because they’re considered a “needy” group by the U.S. government. So if they’re covered, why can’t they get their melanomas removed?

Experts suggest two troubling theories:

Many doctors aren’t taking Medicaid patients.

“We have a real access-to-care issue,” said Sapna Patel, M.D., a melanoma oncologist at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “Women who call the Medicaid community health center for a derm referral might have to wait months for an appointment and then also experience a delay in treatment.”

One study found that only 32 percent of U.S. dermatologists accept new Medicaid patients. This may be because Medicaid reimburses doctors only a fraction of what private insurers do and takes longer to process those payments, studies show. Women’s Health contacted Medicaid for comment, but there was no response as of press time.

Pregnant women on Medicaid have to jump through medical hoops. The JAMA researchers surmise that Medicaid patients could be waiting longer for surgery because of poor coordination of care.

Think of it this way: Fewer derms mean you might have to get a diagnosis from a PCP. At that point, you’ve got to find a dermatologic surgeon—those, too, are few and far between on Medicaid. That person has to be able to fit you in ASAP. Yet they may not, because, as one derm told us, a diagnosing dermatologist will see her own patients more quickly than new people.

All of this explains the finding of multiple studies: that when a general-care doctor or other health-care aide, versus a derm, diagnoses a melanoma, there are longer excision delays.

A SPREADING CONCERN

Almost a third of melanoma cases are diagnosed in women during their childbearing years. One explanation: The sun damage we acquire as kids usually pops up 10 to 20 years later, says Patel, putting women in their twenties and thirties at risk. Once pregnant, many women don’t prioritize skin checks. They are likely more concerned with seeing their ob-gyn than, say, having a new mole on their leg checked out and subsequently getting a prompt diagnosis, said Patel. It’s true that melanoma in pregnant women is quite uncommon, but when it happens, it can be serious.

Biologically, pregnancy itself may trigger melanoma for some women. Pregnancy decreases the efficacy of the immune system.

“This is nature’s way of preventing the body from rejecting something ‘foreign’ and protecting the fetus—but we rely on that immune system to protect the body from things like cancer and melanoma,” explained Patel. “In some cases, melanomas can emerge due to what we call ‘immune escape,’” meaning they sneak through the gates while the immune system is compromised.”

This immune suppression can also make melanoma more dangerous.

“While there’s a lot we don’t know, we see concerning patterns with melanoma being diagnosed at a more advanced state, and progressing faster in pregnancy,” said Patel.

A 2016 study, from the Cleveland Clinic and published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, found that women who were diagnosed during or shortly after their pregnancy were significantly more likely to have tumors spread to other organs and have the cancer return after treatment.

Another hypothetical reason for melanoma growth in pregnant women: estrogen.

“We’ve had a hunch that, though melanoma is not hormonally driven like breast cancer or ovarian cancer, there could be hormonal factors that contribute, especially during pregnancy, to skin changes,” said Patel.

It’s a fact that pregnancy can bring on melasma, dark spots on the face, so “we know that hormones are already doing things to the pigment itself in the body,” Patel continued. Currently, there’s no data proving that extra estrogen is causing or accelerating melanoma in pregnant women, but researchers are interested in studying this.

TWO LIVES IN JEOPARDY

When melanoma metastasizes, or spreads to other organs or lymph nodes, it requires more complex treatment options. Some of them—like immunotherapy, more effective than chemo for late-stage skin cancer—can’t be used during pregnancy because they could put the baby at risk for an autoimmune disease.

“If a patient has metastatic melanoma and is in her first or second trimester, it’s unlikely she’ll be able to deliver to term without the melanoma becoming very life-threatening,” said Patel.

Earlier this year, a 30-year-old New Jersey mom died just three days after an early delivery at six months pregnant, and three weeks after her diagnosis, from metastatic melanoma that had spread throughout her body while pregnant.

And though it’s extremely rare, melanoma is one of the few cancers that can cross over from the mother into the placenta, affecting the baby.

“It’s tragic when this happens because the baby will usually develop melanoma within the first year of life, and because the disease is advanced, it’s always fatal,” said Patel.

PROTECTING MOM AND BABY

If there is good news, it’s that if caught early—and in general, most melanomas are—cancer that’s localized to the skin doesn’t generally put a pregnant woman or her baby at an extra risk, said Justin Ko, M.D., director of medical dermatology at Stanford Health Care and clinical associate professor at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Physicians (both dermatologists and many primary-care docs) can safely perform skin biopsies with local anesthetic during pregnancy, which is why it’s key to have regular skin cancer checks (especially if you’ve had it in the past) and report suspicious moles to your M.D.

For those struggling to get an appointment, it’s crucial to be specific when calling a derm’s office. Tell the receptionist you’ve been diagnosed with melanoma and need a removal ASAP, and if you’re pregnant, make sure to mention the situation is particularly time-sensitive. If that doesn’t work, demand to speak with a doctor or nurse, and be persistent.