A number of recent forecasts point to the arrival of El Niño conditions this year, which would have wide repercussions on weather and, as climate scientist Dillon Amaya explains, on ocean life. “In the climate system, El Niño is king. When it dons its fiery crown, the entire planet takes notice, and the oceans are no exception,” he writes, providing an excellent explanation for how this key climate pattern forms.

A study published last week offers a new interpretation of ape and human evolution by recreating the environmental conditions in Africa millions of years ago and combining that information with fossil records. The researchers found that grasslands emerged earlier than previously believed and played a crucial role in development of the first known ape to move with an upright posture. “Because the timing of the assembly of Africa’s grassland habitats underlies many evolutionary hypotheses, our discovery that they existed much earlier than expected calls for a recalibration of those ideas,” they write.

One of the biggest environmental stories this year is the rain and snow that have pummeled California. Chad Hecht, meteorologist from Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at the University of California San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, explains the wide-ranging impact, including potential flooding, from this very wet year. Last week, the federal government released a proposal to allocate Colorado River water rights, which western states have not been able to resolve; another article draws from our archive to understand what’s at stake. While this Saturday is Earth Day, The Conversation is covering environmental issues like these all year round.

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Marine heat waves can reach the ocean floor as well as surface waters. Sebastian Pena Lambarri via Unsplash

El Niño is coming, and ocean temps are already at record highs – that can spell disaster for fish and corals

Dillon Amaya, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

El Niño can trigger intense and widespread periods of extreme ocean warming known as marine heat waves. They can devastate marine life.

An ape that lived 21 million years ago was used to a habitat that was both grassy and wooded. Corbin Rainbolt

Wooded grasslands flourished in Africa 21 million years ago – new research forces a rethink of ape evolution

Laura M. MacLatchy, University of Michigan; Dan Peppe, Baylor University; Kieran McNulty, University of Minnesota

Contrary to the idea that apes evolved their upright posture to reach for fruit in the forest canopy, the earliest known ape with this stature, Morotopithecus, lived in more open grassy environments.

Psilocybin and other psychedelics could help patients process the challenges of a cancer diagnosis. Kateryna Kon/Science Photo Library via Getty Images

Psychedelics may better treat depression and anxiety symptoms than prescription antidepressants for patients with advanced cancer

C. Michael White, University of Connecticut

Receiving a cancer diagnosis and undergoing cancer treatment can be a traumatizing experience. Psychedelics like LSD, psilocybin and MDMA could help alleviate symptoms from cancer-related PTSD.

Fire danger in the high mountains is intensifying: That’s bad news for humans, treacherous for the environment

Mohammad Reza Alizadeh, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Mojtaba Sadegh, Boise State University

Fires here can affect meltwater timing and water quality, worsen erosion that triggers mudslides, and much more, as two scientists explain.

Generative AI: 5 essential reads about the new era of creativity, job anxiety, misinformation, bias and plagiarism

Eric Smalley, The Conversation

Generative AI can seem like magic, which makes it both enticing and frightening. Scholars are helping society come to grips with the potential benefits and harms.

Will the Earth last forever?

Shichun Huang, University of Tennessee

The Earth isn’t permanent, but it was here for four billion years before humans arrived and should be here for several billion more.

Is the US in a space race against China?

Svetla Ben-Itzhak, Air University

China has invested massively in its space capabilities in recent years and is now a major competitor with the US. But according to a space policy expert, the US still dominates space by most measures.

Robots are everywhere – improving how they communicate with people could advance human-robot collaboration

Ramana Vinjamuri, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Robots are already carrying out tasks in clinics, classrooms and warehouses. Designing robots that are more receptive to human needs could help make them more useful in many contexts.

What are passkeys? A cybersecurity researcher explains how you can use your phone to make passwords a thing of the past

Sayonnha Mandal, University of Nebraska Omaha

Passwords are both annoying to use and vulnerable to hackers. Fortunately, big tech is moving to support stronger, easier-to-use passkeys.