- RSS Channel Showcase 8759339
- RSS Channel Showcase 5642515
- RSS Channel Showcase 3548116
- RSS Channel Showcase 6764358
Articles on this Page
- 01/06/16--12:24: _Was it an H-bomb? S...
- 01/06/16--15:09: _In Flint, Michigan,...
- 01/06/16--08:16: _Islamic clerics iss...
- 01/08/16--12:11: _The quest to create...
- 12/30/15--15:33: _Why scientists are ...
- 01/12/16--08:24: _From the Internet's...
- 01/12/16--12:15: _VW's CEO is expecte...
- 01/12/16--11:31: _Scientists think GM...
- 01/13/16--06:56: _5 countries dump mo...
- 01/13/16--14:47: _The New York Librar...
- 01/14/16--09:13: _Leapfrogging with s...
- 01/14/16--12:34: _Warm ocean temps co...
- 01/14/16--12:23: _People who traveled...
- 01/18/16--11:34: _A PSA campaign got ...
- 01/18/16--13:35: _In Greenland, a cli...
- 01/15/16--14:40: _Too cold to garden?...
- 01/19/16--12:31: _Looking small for b...
- 01/15/16--07:00: _Why South American ...
- 01/19/16--13:45: _Why the crisis over...
- 01/20/16--12:38: _Flint's lead proble...
- 01/06/16--15:09: In Flint, Michigan, a crisis over lead levels in tap water
- 01/08/16--12:11: The quest to create the first dumpling emoji
- 01/12/16--08:24: From the Internet's founders, a warning
- 01/12/16--12:15: VW's CEO is expected to end his US apology tour with a proposed fix
- 01/12/16--11:31: Scientists think GMO crops may help us deal with climate change
- 01/14/16--09:13: Leapfrogging with smartphones, Myanmar joins the world
- 01/14/16--12:34: Warm ocean temps could be starving Alaskan seabirds
- 01/15/16--14:40: Too cold to garden? Not true.
- 01/19/16--12:31: Looking small for big answers in Greenland
- 01/15/16--07:00: Why South American parents are hiding their kids from the sun
- 01/20/16--12:38: Flint's lead problem extreme example of chronic global problem
The US and other countries are scrambling to find out what kind of bomb went off in North Korea on Wednesday.
The detective work could take days or weeks, as seismic waves are more closely analyzed and US and Japanese sniffer planes try to capture and test particles from an atomic plume.
“It’s a game, an intellectual game to try to separate fact from fantasy,” said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security.
The US Geological Survey registered a shock wave equilivant to a 5.1 magnitude earthquake in North Korea this week. The country’s government claims it detonated a hydrogen bomb, but international experts are skeptical.
“We know (the blast) was closer to 10 than 15 kilotons,” said David Albright, refering to the measure of an explosive force equivalent to that of 1,000 metric tons of TNT.
“That’s not a thermonuclear weapon — it’s certainly not what people think of as an H-bomb,” Albright said.
Albright said a hydrogen bomb typically produces hundreds, if not thousands, of kilotons of force. He said, however, that North Korean claims about their nuclear program often contain some grain of truth.
Albright worries that the North Koreans might have access to thermonuclear material, and ignited some during the test detonation without it adding much to the power of the explosion.
Satellite images are available from above the detonation site in North Korea, but these images typically don't reveal much about the type of bomb detonated, Albright said. But they're more helpful for monitoring signs of preparations being made for a test detonation.
“It didn’t work very well this time,” Albright said. “We all ... knew a test was going to occur at some point, but we were surprised that it happened today. ... So we need to go back in our own analysis and see if there were indications of a test that we just missed.”
The US and Japan have sent sniffer planes to analyze the atmosphere off the coast of North Korea. The goal is to intersect with the plume of radiation coming off the test site and capture particles that would provide clues about the type of bomb detonated.
This type of testing is fairly straightforward with atomic bombs, Albright said, but more difficult with H-bombs. And it’s made much more difficult in or above North Korea.
“North Korea has a history of trying to keep us from being able to learn about its tests, so they go to great lengths to try to minimize the amount of radioactive material that comes out of the test site,“ Albright said.
Albright is not optimistic that international authorities will find radioactive debris from these fly-overs.
“Over time we’ll probably learn more, but right now North Korea wants to control the information and try to convince the world that they now have H-bomb capabilities,” Albright said.
After 18 months of public outcry about toxic levels of lead in the city’s water, residents in Flint, Michigan, felt vindicated when Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency, and the federal government announced its own investigation.
The actions came on the heels of a written statement in which Snyder apologized to Flint residents who had been exposed to the contaminated water.
“I want the Flint community to know how very sorry I am that this happened,” Snyder wrote. “And I want all Michigan citizens to know that we will learn from this experience, because Flint is not the only city that has an aging infrastructure.”
The public health crisis began 18 months ago when the city switched from Lake Huron water to the Flint River water system to cut costs. The new water was not being treated with an anti-corrosive, causing the pipes to deteriorate and exposing residents to hazardous levels of lead.
Despite studies from water quality experts and considerable outcry from residents, officials did little to acknowledge or resolve the problem. One study showed that the number of children with above average levels of lead in their bloodstream had nearly doubled since the city switched to the Flint water.
Marc Edwards, an expert on municipal water quality at Virginia Tech, formed a volunteer research team to address the problems with Flint’s water. He was shocked with both the contamination that his team discovered and the fact that people at the city seemed to know about it, but refused to do anything.
At least 25 percent of homes in Flint had levels of lead that was well above the federal level, which is 15ppb. In some homes, it was 13,200ppb. And nearly every home had water that was distasteful or discolored.
“It was the injustice of it all and that the very agencies that are paid to protect these residents from lead in water, knew or should’ve known after June at the very very latest of this year, that federal law was not being followed in Flint, and that these children and residents were not being protected,” says Edwards. “And the extent to which they went to cover this up exposes a new level of arrogance and uncaring that I have never encountered.”
Melissa Mays, a Flint resident and parent, immediately noticed the difference when the switch in the water supply was made.
“My children would ask me, ‘Why does the water smell funny? Why is the water yellow?’ They would come running out of the bathroom screaming because the bath would be yellow or blue, and they’d say, ‘Mom, something’s wrong with the water again.’”
Mays says the water quality directly impacted all three of her children’s health, potentially with long-term consequences. Tests confirmed that everyone in the family has high levels of lead, copper, aluminum, tin and chromium in their bloodstream.
“My middle child is 12,” continues Mays. “He fell off his bike and he has two buckle fractures in his wrists, just from falling over. So his bones are weaker. My oldest has holes in the smooth sides of his teeth. The dentist believes it’s because of the lead. And my youngest is still struggling. We can’t get his white blood cell count above 4, when a year and a half ago, it was 10.4. So his immune system is compromised, and he’s getting sick basically whenever somebody sneezes. And they’re all now struggling in school: memory, brain fog. ... I’m terrified for my kids.”
Mays formed “Water You Fighting For,” a group that aimed to raise awareness of the problem, and to call on the government to act. But rather than anger at the dangerous levels of chemicals, she received ridicule. The authorities continued to encourage residents to drink the water, despite knowledge that it was potentially harmful. The former mayor would even go on TV and drink tap water, just to show it was safe.
“We had all these experts bringing us all of this science and evidence. They would sit there and tell us that even if it’s discolored, just run your tap for a while and it’ll be fine. ‘It’s safe. Just let your water run. No big deal. It’ll be fine. This is just a bump in the road.’ It was just a plethora of excuses and lies.”
Edwards, the water scientist from Virginia Tech, said that the situation essentially amounts to a cover-up.
“Rather than address the legitimate science questions, they mounted a public relations campaign to discredit the residents, to discredit us. I have never seen this level of arrogance and incompetence. It was mostly confined to a few key individuals, but other people are guilty of being far too trusting of those individuals, and not listening to the people who were drinking this water.”
Edwards notes that the nearly the entire problem arose from the fact that they did not include a corrosion control chemical to the water. And in a city with roughly 50 percent lead pipes, like Flint, that can be extremely dangerous.
While it probably saved money upfront, adding a corrosion control chemical to the water saves pipes, notes Edwards, saving thousands in repair costs.
“So not only is it unsafe and illegal, it’s financially irresponsible, too,” says Edwards.
The hardest hit in these types of situations are those who don’t breastfeed — the most common way for lead to be passed to children is through infant formulas — and those with an inability to buy bottled water. In both cases, it’s the poor who bear the brunt of the risk.
“It was truly the poorest people who could not afford to buy bottled water, who couldn’t buy filters, who couldn’t spend the time to breastfeed, who were hurt the most,” Edwards says.
While Mays continues to struggle with the health costs and the damage to the home that the water problems caused, she hopes that the case, and its eventual recognition by the state and federal government, might be an example for other citizens who feel as though their voice will never be heard.
“I hope that the city of Flint is a shining example of citizens standing up when they know something’s wrong, getting the right answers, and continuing to fight no matter how hard or how much they dismiss you,” Mays says. “And I want us to be an example of why cities and states should never cut corners when it comes to water. I’m hoping that other crises are averted for what happened here.”
Muslim clerics in Indonesia and Malaysia have become unlikely warriors in the battle to save endangered animals, declaring wildlife poaching a sin in the two Muslim-majority nations.
Clerics in Malaysia’s northeastern state of Terengganu recently joined clerics in Indonesia in issuing a fatwa — a religious edict — against illegal hunting. When Indonesia’s top Muslim council issued a fatwa in 2014, it was hailed by conservationists as the first of its kind.
The neighboring Southeast Asian countries are among the most biodiverse nations on Earth, home to a vast array of animals — from tigers and rhinos, to elephants, sharks and manta rays.
But the region has become a global hotspot for wildlife poaching due to growing demand for animal parts used in traditional Asian medicines, exotic pets, food and trophies, combined with weak law enforcement.
“Religion is a powerful medium,” said Gopalasamy Reuben Clements, a scientist at Universiti Malaysia Terengganu who was involved in pushing for Terengganu’s fatwa. “The whole idea is not to create a new law but to support the current civil law against poaching. We are not trying to change the culture overnight but we are hoping that the fatwa will help build peer pressure.”
The fatwas come as the threat of fines and jail terms seem to be having little effect in combating the lucrative illegal wildlife trade.
“As Muslims, we have a duty to maintain the ecological balance.” - Asrorun Niam Sholeh, Indonesian Ulema Council
The edicts are not legally binding, but are aimed at influencing the behavior of the faithful. For example, the Terengganu fatwa against poaching says Muslims who violate it will be considered “sinful.”
Clements said Islamic clerics can play a “major role” in raising public awareness of conservation issues in a Muslim heartland such as Terengganu, where more than 95 percent of the 1 million residents follow Islam.
It is hoped the fatwa, which was announced in late November, can later be extended across the whole of Malaysia, he added.
The top Islamic clerical body in Indonesia — home to the world’s largest Muslim population — said it decided to issue a nationwide fatwa against illegal hunting and the trade in endangered species as protecting animals was in line with Quranic teachings.
“Animals have a right to live and we humans should protect them and ensure that they flourish,” said Asrorun Niam Sholeh, a secretary at the Indonesian Ulema Council overseeing matters related to fatwas. “As Muslims, we have a duty to maintain the ecological balance.”
Despite the renewed push to stop poaching, authorities and conservation groups face an uphill battle.
Frequent reports in both Malaysia and Indonesia about endangered species being killed for their valuable body parts — such as elephants’ ivory tusks — and about alleged wildlife traffickers being arrested show the magnitude of the problem.
Just last month, wildlife protection officials seized 60 protected turtles and frogs in Terengganu that were allegedly to be sold to local restaurants, as well as rare birds in a separate raid.
Last year, Malaysia’s iconic Malayan tiger was placed on the “critically endangered” list by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world’s leading authority on the conservation status of species, as its population is thought to have shrunk to about 250.
In Indonesia, the most prominent recent case was the death by suspected poisoning in September of a tame Sumatran elephant named Yongki, who used to help rangers patrol threatened rainforest habitats. The killing of the critically endangered animal for his tusks sparked a surge of online anger and was featured on several newspaper front pages.
There is as yet little evidence to suggest the fatwas have had a major impact.
Nevertheless, Sholeh of the Indonesian council insisted awareness about poaching and the illegal wildlife trade had grown since last year’s fatwa, while cautioning it would be a “long-term” effort to convey the message that poaching is against Islamic teaching.
Strict law enforcement needed
There are signs that previous efforts to invoke religion to increase awareness about particular issues have been effective.
In 2009, Clements worked with Islamic figures in Terengganu to raise awareness about turtle conservation, and says that locals surveyed afterwards showed heightened interest in the issue.
Indonesian authorities also took a religious approach when trying to combat people-smuggling. Indonesia is a major transit point for asylum-seekers, including many Iranians and Afghans, en route to Australia; officials warned residents in deeply religious communities on the southern coast of Java that helping human traffickers transport migrants was a sin.
While they praise the novel religious approach, conservationists say that authorities need to focus on strictly enforcing existing laws.
Under Indonesian law, trafficking in protected animals can result in a maximum of five years in jail and 100 million rupiah ($7,176) fine. In Malaysia, illegal hunting can be punished with a fine of up to 50,000 ringgit ($11,510), two years’ imprisonment, or both.
Law enforcement has been regularly criticized as patchy in both countries, and convictions for wildlife trafficking and killing of protected animals are still rare.
“The fatwa helps put the poaching issue in the spotlight, it focuses on a community where many are involved in illegal hunting,” said Chris Shepherd, regional director in Southeast Asia for TRAFFIC, which monitors the wildlife trade, referring to the Malaysian fatwa.
“It is nice to hear voices other than enforcement and conservation groups' on this issue.”
However, governments in the region need to “make full use of national laws to protect native wildlife and work together to tackle the international illegal wildlife trade that has led to Southeast Asia being a global hotspot,” Shepherd said.
This week on the World in Words podcast it's all about emojis! (Though this blog post does not have them because emojis make our CMS angry!)
The word "emoji" comes from Japanese and these little pictures began showing up on Japanese phones in the late ‘90s. Little by little these cutesy graphics wormed their way into the hearts and phones of people around the globe. And they have become so much a part of the way that we now communicate that this year the Oxford English Dictionary declared “Face with tears of joy” as the word of the year.
Recently writer Jennifer 8 Lee was frying up some dumplings and texting with her friend Yiying Li when she realized that there was no dumpling emoji. There was taco and pizza and even sushi but there wasn’t a dumpling to be found.
Furthermore there wasn’t an emoji for chopsticks. So Lee and Li took it upon themselves to fix this glaring issue and they started a Kickstarter campaign to make the dumpling official.
Yiying Li also happens to be a designer — she’s famous for designing the Twitter Fail Whale — and she has mocked up a version of the dumpling emoji they hope to make official.
Their journey to creating an official emoji took them to a mysterious organization called the Unicode Consortium. The Unicode Consortium was founded in the late 1980s to unify the computer code for alphabets and other scripts, making it possible for computers to talk with one another and recognize every kind of text, symbol, or glyph.
It's almost like the universal code beneath every language...a lingua franca for computers you could say. And the group takes their role rather seriously.
Emojis where initially ignored by the Unicode Consortium as a passing trend. However, it soon became clear that they were not going away and there needed to be a unified way for different phones, computers, web platforms to use them. The Unicode Consortium stepped in to unify the little pictures and gradually add to the emoji alphabet.
The emojis presented the Unicode Consortium with a new problem: How do you manage a potentially endless set of characters? What deserves to be an emoji? How do you represent an object for the world?
00:40 NEH accent quiz. Find out the answer to last week’s quiz.
1:43 Kanye West’s New Year’s track, “FACTS” and Kimojis
2:56 The word emoji comes from Japanese
3:37 The Oxford English Dictionary declared “Face with tears of joy” as its word of 2015.
4:07 Dumplings may be one of the most ubiquitous foods around the world BUT there’s no dumpling emoji
4:22 Jenny 8 Lee and Yiying Li started a Kickstarter campaign to make the emoji dumpling official
5:18 What does it mean to be an “official emoji”
6:00 The Unicode Consortium: What is it? What does it do?
7:51 How did the Unicode Consortium become responsible for encoding and deciding upon new emojis?
9:49 Jenny joined the Unicode Consortium as a non-voting member for $75 and started attending meetings
10:49 Who attends the Unicode meetings?
12:00 The peach and the eggplant emojis
13:35 Emojis may seem frivolous but the Unicode Technical Committee (the group that deals with emojis) will have lengthy discussions about how to represent even the simplest things like milk or pancakes.
14:49 How to represent bean?
15:45 All the emoji talk may seem trivial but it makes Jenny think about another visual language in which she’s fluent, Chinese
16:40 The problematic female emojis
18:05 Jenny and Yiying have submitted proposals for four emojis: dumpling, chopsticks, fortune cookie and takeout box
20:26 Meet Mark Davis, a co-chair of the Emoji Subcommittee and one of the founding members of the Unicode Consortium
21:21 Skin tone
22:28 The stories behind the smiling poop and middle finger emojis
24:05 The “identity issue”
25:00 Face with the look of triumph and Sleepy Face
26:15 These aren’t really languages says Mark Davis
28:15 You can adopt an emoji
28:39 NEH accent quiz for next week
The jerboa is a rodent that looks like a mouse with crazy, springy hind legs. Some have compared it to a kangaroo crossed with a mouse or a tiny, fuzzy rodent t-rex. It’s native to Asia and Africa, and has developed strong hind legs to help it evade predators in barren desert areas with few places to hide.
Video producer Christian Baker recently spent a few hours with researchers who are studying the jerboa.
“Not only was I not able to pick one up, it was very difficult to even film them,” Baker says. “They are really quick. We had set up a little enclosure and we were trying to film them. I think I was on my belly for about 45 minutes panning the camera left and right. And we certainly have a lot of very blurry footage. It's probably similar to pictures of the Loch Ness.”
Jerboas are capable of jumping some three feet straight up in the air using their powerful hind legs, which are anatomically different than you might expect.
“They walk upright on their toes. Their legs are really kind of weird looking,” Baker says, “When you look at their legs what you think is a backwards-turned knee is actually their ankle. And then this very long bone that shoots out from that, you would think is their shin bone but that's actually their foot. And then connected to that are other toes and that's what they walk around on.”
Researchers are interested in the jerboa because they think it might help them learn more about bone growth.
“What we can learn by studying the growth rate of the bones in jerboas is how those bones grow as fast and as large as they do. And if we can understand the mechanism behind that, then we can start to understand how to manipulate that mechanism, which has applications if you were trying to treat bone growth deficiencies in people,” Baker says.
Other important information Baker learned? Well, unfortunately for pet-lovers, jerboas do not make good pets.
“They are unfortunately illegal to own as pets in the United States,” Baker says. “That was the very first thing I looked into, but it is sad to say, you cannot own one.”
David Clark’s office on the MIT campus is at the top of a tower that looks like a twisted aluminum column. The name plate next to his office door reads “Albus Dumbledore.” And, like the leader of Harry Potter’s wizarding world, Clark knows the Internet’s secrets from the beginning.
“We clearly couldn’t anticipate how big it was going to be,” Clark says. “Whenever I go back and read things that I wrote or others in the group wrote about planning for the future we consistently underestimated what was going to happen. “
Clark and Harvard professor Yochai Benkler, one of the legal experts that shaped the Internet’s development, have issued a warning in joint papers published in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ magazine, Daedalus. More than three decades after the worldwide communications network was born, Clark and Benkler say they’re deeply concerned that the Internet is headed in a dangerous direction that its founders never intended.
Looking back, Clark wonders if he and other founders should have left behind guidance on how the Internet should grow up.
“Not constraints, not rules, but guidance, advice — like, ‘don’t be stupid,’” he says.
As it is, Clark thinks the Internet has fallen in with a bad crowd, to some extent. Most people now access the Internet through one of its corporate friends — like Google, Facebook, and Apple. As gatekeepers, those companies hold the power — information about our daily lives that helps them sell us things.
Clark says people need to remember he and others built the Internet so no one would need a gatekeeper. It was supposed to be an idealistic society of equals, where every user had the same amount of power.
“One of the most exhilarating observations of the first decade or two of the public Internet was that things that were impossible, became possible,” says Benkler, who started studying the Internet in the early 1990s.
Back then, Benkler was thrilled by the way it overturned old power structures, like broadcast media. On the Internet, anyone could send an email or post a video without asking permission. At the time, Benkler was across town from Clark, studying property law as a student at Harvard.
“I was working on the homestead act of 1862,” he says. “Seriously!”
Benkler realized the Internet was like a new Louisiana Purchase — a huge amount of new property suddenly open for adventurous homesteaders to stake a claim.
So he switched tracks. Using the Homestead Act as a guide, Benkler helped create a legal framework that protected the Internet from being gobbled up and claimed by corporations.
And then, smart phones came along. And Steve Jobs created the iPhone.
“I think there’s very little doubt that Steve Jobs in particular was someone who had a vision of a more controlled experience that viewed consumers as people who needed a well-controlled, well-structured environment to thrive in,” Benkler says. “That was part of his genius, and that was part of his threat.”
Benkler was surprised by the extent to which people were willing to give up their privacy. That’s what they were doing, he says, by using cell phones with apps as gatekeepers to the Internet. Gatekeepers that collect information and use it to nudge people to do things.
“I might not chose to buy this set of things, go to this set of events, look in on this set of news media, but nonetheless that’s the direction I ended up being nudged in from these day by day interactions that I never even noticed,” Benkler says. “Look six months from now, and this is the new me. And the new me is partly me, but it’s also the me that these companies wanted for me. That I see as a real threat.”
Benkler wants people to guard against that threat by being vigilant and critical. He says they need to log in as multiple users, browse the web privately, and use free, open source software, like Firefox.
Clark suggests the public needs to fund a new group of web designers, like the group who built the Internet — but this time they’d be developing things like apps for smart phones that don’t collect data.
“The question I think is whether we want to leave the Internet to whatever the private sector chooses to make it or whether we want to take some control over it,” he says. “I think it’s important enough we need to take some control of it.”
Clark says people like him, who helped create and shape the Internet — and who remember what it had the potential to be — will only be around for so long.
“There’s a cohort of people who have sort of grown up with the Internet,” he says. “And as we retire or move away or go into other activities, and we know that we’re getting older, we have to sort of wonder what the values are of the young people who are taking over the Internet.”
Regardless of all his fears, Clark’s hopeful for the future those young people will create. The Internet is growing up, he says, and in the end, he has to let it.
Volkswagen’s new chief Matthias Mueller is scheduled to meet with the head of the Environmental Protection Agency in DC Wednesday.
Mueller is expected to propose a fix to bring the German automaker’s hundreds of thousands of tainted diesel models into compliance with US pollution standards.
The company’s proposed solution in the EU was approved by authorities weeks ago. That fix includes software changes and the installation of a simple plastic tube and mesh device meant to better aim air toward emissions sensors.
“It was a much simpler solution to the one that they will be able to use in the US, because the emission limits for diesel (nitrogen oxides) emissions in Europe are about four times higher than the US limits are,” said Greg Archer, head of the clean vehicles program at the Brussels-based non-profit Transport and Environment.
To meet US clean air standards, VW’s options include selective catalytic reduction, in which the automaker would inject a nitrogen-oxide-trapping chemical called urea into the exhaust pipe to reduce emissions. Archer said VW would be the first to retrofit that type of system in a diesel car, and it would undoubtedly be expensive.
Another option, which VW is reportedly considering, is installing a catalytic converter to trap the nitrogen oxides. Archer said that would be an easier fix but less effective at reducing emissions.
A practical challenge to either option is finding the room within the vehicle to install either a selective catalytic reduction device or a catalytic converter.
“There isn’t a great deal of space on a lot of vehicles, so physically it’s quite difficult to do,” Archer said.
The company's CEO Matthias Mueller, apologized to American consumers on Sunday ahead of the Detroit auto show for building cars that cheated on emissions tests. It is his first visit to the US since being installed as head of the company.
On Tuesday, the California Air Resources Board rejected a separate plan by VW to meet even stricter air quality regulations in that state. Regulators said the car-maker's proposed fix wasn't adequate or fast enough, but that they would continue talks with VW.
Roger Deal is trying to figure out how plants remember drought.
An assistant professor of biochemistry and genetics at Emory University, Deal says most plants have a kind of memory for stress. When experiencing water shortage, for example, plants close the holes in their leaves, called stomata, to reduce water loss from their tissues. This in turn slows photosynthesis and plant growth. If the plants recover and go through a similar situation again, their cells somehow recall what that stress was like, so they’re able to bounce back more rapidly.
Deal is focusing his attention on a close relative of alfalfa, Medicago truncatula, which seems to have a better memory than most. For some reason, Medicago is able to turn off its stress response much faster after drought eases — in a matter of hours versus days. As a result, it can recover more quickly and begin growing again as soon as better conditions arrive.
Deal wants to know more because he figures if he can pinpoint the genetic material that controls this capacity, he might be able to find a way to switch it on in similar plants where it might be present but dormant. This would allow crops to get by with less water.
Deal is not the only one with an eye to applying genetic engineering to helping crops thrive in tomorrow’s warmer climate. Around the world, researchers are working to create genetically modified crop varieties that can withstand severe drought, expected more often with climate change, or thrive on arid lands now considered unsuitable for farming.
One crop genetically engineered for drought tolerance is already on the market in the United States: a corn variety called DroughtGard, created by Monsanto. Approved by the US Department of Agriculture in 2011, DroughtGard includes a protein from the bacterium Bacillus subtilis that Monsanto says will help the corn remain productive amid water shortages. DroughtGard has also been certified for sale in several other countries, including Australia, Canada, Mexico and Japan.
The market response to DroughtGard has been slow so far: In 2014, about 500,000 acres in the US were planted with DroughtGard corn, representing about 0.5 percent of the nation’s corn crop. And results have been mixed.
Another crop at the forefront of this new arena of GMO research is soybeans. In October, Argentina approved the use of a soybean genetically modified to withstand drought. Developed by Deborah Chan, a biochemist at the National University of Litoral in Santa Fe, Argentina, the new variety contains a gene from a naturally drought-resistant sunflower.
It’s too early to know how the soybean will perform in real-world use. But if its developers’ claims that the modified soybean increases yields 14 percent under drought conditions and also withstands saline soils prove true, the potential impact could be enormous: Soybeans are the world’s fourth-largest crop by calories produced, the second-largest source of vegetable oil and the largest source of livestock protein feed.
The Argentine firm Bioceres licensed the soybean and is in a joint venture with the US company Arcadia Biosciences, based in Davis, California, to market the new soybean. It has gone through field trials in the United States and Argentina, but has not been approved for sale in the US yet. The partners are negotiating to sell the seed in China, the world’s largest importer of soybeans.
Peggy Lemaux, a cooperative extension specialist in biotechnology at the University of California, Berkeley, is lead researcher on another project aimed at engineering drought resistance into crops — in this case, sorghum. Her goal is to discover how epigenetics, the process by which environmental change triggers new genetic functions, could be altered to improve drought tolerance. If she and her colleagues can figure this out for sorghum, it could be applied to other species such as tomatoes and rice, also part of Lemaux’s research, through genetic engineering or by inducing mutations using radiation or chemicals.
At the University of Cape Town in South Africa, researchers are studying Myrothamnus flabellifolius, a so-called “resurrection” plant that can bounce back from total water deprivation. Through genetic modification, they hope to bring this quality to teff, an important native African grain that is high in protein. Scientists at Technion–Israel Institute of Technology and the University of California, Davis, accomplished something similar with tobacco, while also extending its growing season.
The modification has been adapted to rice, wheat, sugar beets and several other major crops.
At Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, staff scientist Xiaohan Yang is trying to discern the genetics behind a kind of photosynthesis that’s different from that used by most common crops. His subject? Agave, the hardy desert succulent that is the basis of tequila.
Most plants use types of photosynthesis known as C3 or C4, in which they open their stomata during the day to take in carbon dioxide. Agave uses a different kind of photosynthesis, called crassulacean acid metabolism, or CAM. The plant opens its stomata at night to absorb carbon dioxide, when temperatures are cooler, then stores the carbon in a temporary pool of malic acid, thereby losing less water to transpiration. When the sun comes up, agave releases the stored carbon to complete photosynthesis without opening its stomata.
As a result, CAM plants survive on as little as one-fifth as much water as C3 and C4 plants.
Yang intends to map out the entire genetic pathway of CAM photosynthesis, then figure out a way to genetically empower C3 plants to adopt it. Ideally, he says, this modification won’t require adding any new genes at all, but merely giving existing genes in the plant a new assignment.
“It’s ambitious, but we think it’s feasible in principle,” says Yang. “We’re not introducing a totally different thing, for example, to increase insect resistance. We’re just trying to change the opening and closing (of the stomata) to a different time period.”
Yang makes this sound simple. But his proposal is like asking the human heart and lungs to operate at different times instead of simultaneously. To ease the complications, Yang recently published an article to describe additional research needs for other scientists.
If Yang succeeds, millions of acres of desert now unsuitable for growing food could become productive farmland using crops that function like agave.
“I’ve been talking about this with my colleagues, my friends and other scientists,” Yang says. “They feel excited about this, because it’s apparent the world is facing demanding challenges.”
Many familiar concerns voiced about genetic engineering could equally apply to plants modified for drought resistance — for example, that their genetic alterations could cross with other species and upset ecosystems or that they could cause farmers to become more dependent on corporations for their seed stock.
Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist at the Center for Food Safety, worries the focus on genetic engineering takes attention and funding away from other solutions — and their ancillary benefits. A recent article in the journal Nature, for example, reported that more than 150 corn hybrids produced by conventional crossbreeding methods to tolerate drought also increased crop yield as much as 30 percent.
“Genetic engineering is being pushed at the expense of other approaches in agriculture that we know work,” Gurian-Sherman says. “That has a real cost.”
On the other hand, if successful, the application of GMO technology to boosting drought resistance could be an important addition to the toolkit humans can use to adapt to climate change, which is expected to cause longer and more frequent droughts in many of the world’s important food-growing regions.
“We don’t have to talk about future climate change,” Lemaux says. “We can talk about it right now. Being able to understand those [genetic] mechanisms and to build those mechanisms into other vegetable and crop plants, I think, is something we have to do.”
Consumers will be able to decide for themselves in a decade or so, when these research efforts are expected to bear fruit.
The planet’s seas are choking on our junk: Soda bottles, plastic bags and tons of cigarette butts. Distant spots in the ocean — called garbage gyres — have become vortexes where humanity’s trash bobs atop the water for miles on end.
Worse yet, the filth floating on the surface accounts for only 5 percent of all the plastic trash dumped into the sea. According to Ocean Conservancy, a US environmental nonprofit, the other 95 percent is submerged beneath, where it strangles underwater creatures and wrecks the aquatic ecosystem.
It turns out that five countries are the leading contributors to this crisis. And all are in Asia.
In a recent report, Ocean Conservancy claims that China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are spewing out as much as 60 percent of the plastic waste that enters the world’s seas.
More from GlobalPost: Vultures with GoPros are helping clean up Peru (VIDEO)
“At this rate, we would expect nearly one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish in our oceans by 2025 — an unthinkable number with drastic economic and environmental consequences,” says Nicholas Mallos, director of Ocean Conservancy’s marine debris program.
Westerners, namely Americans, are seen as the world’s most incorrigible consumers of stuff: Soda, gadgets, sneakers and other items that produce plenty of trash. So how did a few Asian countries, many of them comparatively poor, end up churning out much of the plastic waste that swirls through the seas?
Asia is adopting Western-style appetites for consumer junk
As Asian economies rise, people have more cash to blow on Marlboros and Sprites at 7-Eleven. But the junk these habits produce often doesn’t end up in legit landfills.
In the five Asian countries listed above, only about 40 percent of garbage is properly collected. Across Asia, trash is often piled up in communal dumps where stray bits are swept up by the wind and cast into the ocean.
Even sanctioned garbage dump sites are sometimes intentionally set up near rivers that flow into the sea. The reason, according to Ocean Conservancy: “Waste will intermittently be carried away by heavy rains or current, refreshing the capacity of the dump to receive more waste.”
Trash scavengers can’t keep up
Asia’s garbage pickers are the unsung heroes of conservation. They brave filth and disease to root through trash and extract plastic that can be sold to recyclers for a little cash. This ensures that lots of junk is recycled rather than abandoned in landfills.
But these pickers tend to focus on high-value items — like plastic bottles — in lieu of plastic bags, which fetch very little from recyclers.
According to Ocean Conservancy, a scavenger might spend 10 hours gathering plastic bags and take home a mere 50 cents. Devoting that day to picking up only plastic bottles, however, would rack up $3.70.
That means that scavengers skip over much of the waste, which can later end up in the sea.
Corporations crank out tiny portion sizes for the poor
A shopper in California or Texas buys shampoo by the bottle. But that’s often an unaffordable luxury to poor Indonesian or Filipino villagers, who instead buy cosmetics in mini plastic pouches.
In Asia’s rural hamlets, corporations sell everything from beauty products to instant noodles in tiny, cheap quantities. This helps even the most destitute laborers afford their wares. The result? Companies are churning out a lot more plastic packaging in poor Asian nations — and much of it winds up in the ocean.
Though corporations aren’t “making plastic with the intent of it ending up in the ocean,” Mallos says, they should be offering up their “world-class logistics, financing, project management and marketing capabilities” to help solve the problem.
Asia’s garbagemen often cut corners
In countries where the law is flimsy, garbage truck drivers will often save time and fuel by simply dumping trash by the roadside. These illegal dump sites are having devastating consequences for the seas.
In the Philippines, an island nation where sanitation trucks often flout the law, research suggests that up to 90 percent of the plastic dumped illegally ends up in the ocean. In the five Asian nations profiled by Ocean Conservancy, estimates suggest this practice adds nearly 1 million metric tons of plastic trash to the seas each year.
All that garbage is having devastating effects on the seas: choking marine life to death, dramatically warping ecosystems and wreaking environmental havoc that some experts liken to the climate change crisis.
More from GlobalPost: A quick and easy guide to the Paris climate deal
Searching for a 14th Century manuscript for a school report? How about an old baseball photo for your stash of sports memorabilia? You might try the New York Public Library’s Digital Collections. Recently, the library made more than 187,000 digitized, public-domain items more easily accessible in the highest resolution available.
Specifically, the library removed permissions and payment processes that encumbered access to this material, according to Ben Vershbow, director of NYPL Labs, one of the departments involved in the project. The institution, which celebrated its 120th anniversary last year, also added updates to its API and GitHub account to enable further use of its content.
Science Friday recently spoke with Vershbow about the library’s archives, its approach to digitization, and the importance of making digital collections available to the public.
Science Friday: The NYPL has been digitizing for a while, right?
Ben Vershbow: The library’s digitization story started at some scale around ’99, roughly. In 2005, we launched the predecessor [called the Digital Gallery] to the current Digital Collections website. That was really the library’s first big move at-scale, with over a quarter of a million items — in-copyright, out of copyright, a whole mix. That’s grown over the years, and will undoubtedly undergo further evolutions.
What kind of equipment do you use to digitize?
Obviously digitization that happened in the earlier days was done using somewhat different tools, and what was high-resolution then is not so high-resolution now. A lot of the early-wave digitization the library did, and many libraries and cultural heritage organizations did, involved flatbed scanners.
The digitization we do today is overhead photography in a copy-stand setup, and there are variations on that. We have a lot of what you call ‘transmissive media materials’—so, materials that are not reflective but where light moves through them, like slides and glass plate negatives—and that work requires its own kind of modification to a copy stand. There’s also book-scanning equipment, of course, which can vary widely for different kinds of books. And there are other high-volume apparati being developed. What we are making available through this public domain project represents a lot of different types of digitization, to be sure.
The library’s in-house digitization lab is in our department at NYPL Labs, in an awesome space in a non-public facility that the library runs in Queens, and it’s really very meticulous, expert work.
What can we find when we plunge into this archive of high-resolution, public-domain images?
Well, it’s incredibly diverse. You’ll see there’s a lot of maps, there’s a lot of stereographs, there’s a lot of sheet music, there’s a lot of other kinds of photography, there’s a lot of correspondence and manuscript material. I think the single biggest collection and maybe genre category is the stereoscopic views. These are 3-D images, and they were an incredibly popular form of entertainment and virtual sightseeing, in a sense, in their day in the late 19th, early 20th century.
Is there a trend among cultural institutions to digitally open their collections to the public?
There’s a whole movement for opening up collections in GLAMs [an acronym for galleries, libraries, archives, and museums]. The web has become a vibrant cultural commons, and I think that we’ve seen that—whether they’re legacy cultural institutions like libraries and museums and archives, or more Internet-native public institutions like Wikipedia, Wikimedia, and the Internet Archive—more are offering unrestricted open content into the web.
We’re trying to share data so that people can build aggregators so that you don’t have to go to each institution’s web presence to search. Wikimedia itself is fed by a lot of different institutions that are releasing content into that commons, for example. And the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is a great way to expose what’s been digitized. It points you to that local collection and web property, and then you can work through the particular use parameters of that institution [if the item still has use restrictions]. [There’s also a European forerunner to the DPLA, called europeana.]
Why has it become important to GLAM institutions to get this content out to the public?
It’s a very powerful thing. It creates a common resource base that everyone can draw on and repurpose very freely, leading to all kinds of new uses and illuminating projects. [The library created a few examples of how users might repurpose its content. Here’s one.]
When you think of the web and the Internet in general as a cultural medium, and as a place that is not just about finding your way to resources that live elsewhere, but is in fact made itself of resources—of materials that can be used in a digitally native context, even if they make their way back into physical forms and other forms of distribution—it does start to feel quite limited if your materials are mostly there as a reference that points you back to something that you either need to pay for or require permission to use.
Now, copyright and all kinds of other things that we have to work through and respect and abide by do require us to place requirements on certain materials, but the ones that don’t have those constrictions, that are out of copyright?—I think people are starting to realize, let’s just make those as freely available as possible, because then you’re really able to attain greater impact in terms of these things being used in ways that are both expected and unexpected. For all of us working in the space, it’s obvious to us that we have to do this for any material that we can. Let’s just get it out there and see what people can do.
How would you describe NYPL Labs?
NYPL Labs is a new kind of what was traditionally called a ‘digital library program.’ We’re really looking at that entire life cycle of bringing our research collections onto the Internet and even working proactively to engage new users and create context where things can be used. For example, we host hackathons that are exploring ways that we can engage local technologists and creators to work with us on projects or show us how these things can be used in new ways. We feel like we’re sketching a new kind of organ, in a way, of research libraries that supports people working in a new mode with cultural data that the libraries collected.
What other projects are you excited about?
The NYC Space/Time Directory, which is an initiative made up of a lot of different projects but with this unifying dream of opening up historical geographic data about New York City—as a resource in itself, because I think having a record of the city’s changes is very important for people who are understanding the city’s development, and it’s certainly a historical interest for a wide number of people, but also as an organizing framework for aggregating other information, such as photographs about these past places. It’s great to be able to search in our digital collection site and just find photos, but what if you could browse a map and find them geographically and also temporally? Or you might search for a place that doesn’t exist anymore. Or you might want to see what the layout of the city was at a certain time. We have coverage of the city at these different time periods.
This project is something we’re undertaking in the coming two years and just got a Knight Foundation grant [through the Knight News Challenge] to do.
Do you remember the first time you made a phone call? Pwint Htun does. She was a young girl in rural Burma, in the early ‘80s.
“Because my dad was working in Malaysia,” she says. “My mom said, ‘OK, everybody, we’re going to make a phone call,’ and we got all dressed up.’ We didn’t have a phone at home, so we had to go to where the tower was, this microwave antenna, where the operator was. We called my dad, and my grandparents, who lived 14 miles away. I just remember that first phone call was a really, really big deal.
Pwint has had quite a journey since then. She’s now a telecommunications whiz, and is helping Burma — now called Myanmar — get connected. Much has happened since her first phone call, to her, and to her country.
When Pwint was growing up, the country was called Burma. And Burma was isolated. For almost 30 years, it was run by General Ne Win. He was kind of anti-modern, paranoid superstitious. He liked to consult fortune tellers to figure out what policies to enact.
At one point, the fortune tellers told him he could face a threat from the right, so he should make a symbolic move in that direction to protect himself. He decreed that traffic, which had been driving on the left side of the road, in the British tradition — Burma had been a British colony — should switch to the right side of the road.
Another time, the fortunetellers told him that nine was a lucky number for him. A protective number. So he changed the country’s currency system, and put all units of currency in Base 9. Seriously. The first time I visited Burma, there were notes in denominations of 15, 45, 90.
And all this would be funny, except people who had the old currency lost a lot of money. Nor was there much to laugh at when Ne Win chose a date that added up to his lucky number, 9, for the final crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. It was September 18 — 1+8=9, plus the month of September was the ninth month.
More than anything, Ne Win ruled through fear, and violence. His army fought wars with more than a dozen ethnic minority insurgent groups. Hardly any new investment was coming in, so for years, Burma was kind of a living time capsule.
There were old colonial buildings in Rangoon, left by the British, that were kind of falling apart but still kind of beautiful. There were vintage cars, because, for years, newer cars weren’t allowed to be imported. Out in the countryside — even that level of modern life hadn’t penetrated. That’s where Pwint Htun grew up. That’s why the new telephone tower, when it came in the early ‘80s, was such a big deal.
And then, Pwint’s family moved to Rangoon. She was about 14 in 1988 when students and others started filling the streets in front of her family’s apartment and calling for democracy.
“The students were really integral in organizing these protests. Some were maybe four or five years older than me, at most. So I felt totally with them in spirit, and wanted to go and be part of the protest. And a few of the days, my mom allowed us to. But most of the time we were closed in behind barbed wire, because our apartment was next to City Hall. And the military tightened the security of the surrounding streets.”
The military opened fire on these students more than once, and by the time of the final crackdown by the military junta in September, hundreds, possibly thousands had been killed. An especially bloody day came early. August 8, 1988 — that’s 8-8-88 — had been chosen as a day for national demonstrations, because the fortune-tellers said all these 8s was auspicious. Well, not so much for the demonstrators who got shot.
“When the soldiers were gunning down the people, any student who had a gunshot wound or some kind of health problem, going to the hospital, there were police waiting at the hospital and throwing them in jail, any time they were coming into the hospital,” Pwint says. “So the people who were shot and bleeding, they didn’t dare to go to the hospital. ... A lot of them looked for alternative ways of getting help. So my mom and her students set up a clinic in the basement of a church."
Because that was seen as an act against the regime, the family decided to leave Burma once the junta had cleared the streets. They ended up in on the Thai-Burmese border, where Pwint faced the double challenge of trying to communicate when she didn’t know Thai, and trying to learn on her own, because her mother couldn’t afford tuition at an international school. An aid worker from Seattle offered to tutor Pwint in physics and chemistry, then sponsored her to go to college in Seattle. Pwint got a degree in engineering, and dived into telecommunications work.
“My first job, the first year I was in Seattle, was selling long-distance for Sprint. They gave employees free long-distance calls during breaks,” she says. "That was the most wonderful perk anybody could give me. I was so homesick. That’s what I was missing so much. That’s what I was missing so much, the connectivity, just being able to hear their voice.”
So she called her mom and sisters in Thailand, and her grandparents in Burma. But what she was hearing from her grandparents, about what life was like in Burma under the junta, wasn’t good.
“They constantly lived in fear,” she says. “Once, I was taking to my grandfather, and a third person was listening to our conversation and interjecting his own opinions.” She laughs at the memory, but not at what it felt like to live like that. “It was this Orwellian environment, where people were so afraid that they could be arrested at any time, because people were listening in, in all conversations. “
And that’s how it was, for Pwint’s relatives who remained in Burma, and for millions of others, for years.
Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi, who’d emerged as a pro-democracy leader in those heady 1988 demonstrations, spent many of those years under house arrest. The junta was uneasy about her popularity, and certainly about her pedigree. She was the daughter of Burma’s independence hero Aung San, kind of their George Washington. Aung San was assassinated before he could really do much as the leader of the country. Aung San Suu Kyi had her own ideas about how to move the country forward, but the military didn’t want to listen.
And then, it all started to change. Myanmar’s leaders released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in 2010. They started talking to her. Tight authoritarian rule started to loosen. A new generation of leaders had come up the ranks, and they were more pragmatic. They looked at the fact that Burma’s half century of isolation hadn’t helped it much, and felt overreliance on China —which had been the case since the ’88 crackdown — wasn’t healthy for the country’s national interests.
Myanmar started to open up. Pwint, who had in the interim worked at T-Mobile, had helped create the first Android phone, and had ideas about how to bring it home.
“I had always dreamed of bringing connectivity to Burma in one form or another,” she says. “I went back to Burma one more time, in 2012, and tried to find out why SIM cards were $500 to $1000. And I tried to meet with the incumbent state operator, this mobile network operator called MPT, which was the only one, just to figure out why it was so expensive, and what’s going on.”
The meeting was disheartening. She offered her expertise and found that the government monopoly, MPT, wasn’t interested.
“The people who were running the network at the time, there was so much graft, so much corruption. The vendors, were selling the same equipment, to Burma for a lot more than it’s worth, and giving the kickbacks to these corrupt individuals in the ministry. That was what shocked me. So I thought, with that much corruption that’s actually engrained, that’s going to be hard to change.”
Such practices may have enriched a few officials, but they were holding Myanmar back at a time when it was otherwise trying to open up to the world. Foreign investors and other visitors found that only a couple of hotels had reliable Internet connections.
Clearly, a little deregulation was in order. And eventually, it came. Prices dropped, and Burmese rushed to get their own mobile phones. According to government statistics, at least one in three Burmese now has a cell phone, and one in five has a smart phone.
“It has been a really, really exciting change to see,” Pwint says. “Myanmar has gone from having very little connectivity, to having some of the fastest growing mobile connectivity in history.”
And this has transformed lives. Not only can Burmese call, text and email friends, family and colleagues, they’ve fallen hard for Facebook and Viber (similar to WhatsApp), are sharing news, photos, videos and are dishing the dirt on corrupt and otherwise misbehaving local officials.
In rural areas, where electricity is scarce, some Burmese have been able to buy cheap Chinese-made solar panels, with just enough power to charge their phones and provide a little light in the evening. Many of the smartphones are Chinese knock-offs, too, some going for as little as $25.
Beyond the usual uses for smart phones, Burmese have also started using them to make micropayments in markets, kind of like ApplePay, but for tiny amounts — 10 cents for a bunch of scallions, 50 cents for some eggs. They’re also using a technology called M-Pesa, created in Kenya in 2007, to transfer money to each other without needing to go through a bank.
“If you’re someone who has a medical emergency come up, and you don’t have enough cash, instead of taking a huge loan out, or selling, taking your daughter dropping her out of school, just so you can manage this crisis, you can call around different family members or relatives, and ask them to transfer money to you as a loan,” Pwint says. “The loan doesn’t have to be where they’re based physically, anymore. So if they have family members in other parts of the country, they can help.” Pwint says this is especially helping rural women in Burma, who otherwise rarely qualify for bank loans.
Another way Burmese are using their new phones is taking free online classes, especially in subjects not taught in Myanmar’s underfunded and over-censored education system.
Add to all this a national election last November, in which the pro-democracy National League for Democracy won a landslide victory, and Burmese have many reasons to feel good about the future. Challenges remain — continuing tensions, and sometimes clashes, with ethnic minorities on the border, ethnic cleansing against the 1.3 million Rohingya Muslims, some of whom have roots in Myanmar going back more than a century, but whom many Burmese Buddhists see as outsiders who deserve no rights.
And the military has stepped back, but hasn’t stepped down. According to a constitution it wrote, it retains 25 percent of all legislative seats, and can attack ethnic insurgents regardless of whether the ruling party agrees. Aung San Suu Kyi is still negotiating to try to get the military to drop the clause in the constitution that bars her, as the spouse of a foreigner, from becoming president. And other negotiations continue, too, before the new government takes office in March.
"We are still kind of in the ‘wait and see’ stage, in many ways,” Pwint says. “I think I will feel a lot more relieved when the NLD party is in power."
Pwint says she hopes Myanmar’s generals can learn from places like Indonesia, which transitioned from military to civilian rule in a way that genuinely empowered the population and allowed considerable economic growth. Pakistan serves for her as a negative example — what she hopes her country never becomes.
Whatever happens, she says, the fact that Myanamar is getting more connected by the day, is something to celebrate.
“In terms of connectivity, I feel like it can only help and not hurt, the more transparency there is, the more openness there is, the more connected the citizens are, the more connected the military is to the citizens, and remove them from this isolation, of the way the rest of the country is feeling. It can only move the country toward a much more positive direction.”
An estimated 8,000 black and white seabirds, called murres, were found dead on a beach in Alaska earlier this month.
Their bodies were found floating in the surf and washed ashore in the Prince William Sound community of Whittier. Wildlife ecologist Dan Grear said this is the biggest die off of the common murre in Alaska this season, but not the first.
"Carcasses started to be noticed this fall in Alaska, and as the winter has progressed into December and early January, observers ... have started to find thousands of dead murres on specific beaches,” Grear said.
Grear works at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, which investigates animal health conditions and diseases.
"I think we've examined close to 100 of these [murres] that they’ve shipped down,” Grear said. “The consistent finding is that these murres are emaciated, they have very poor body condition."
Alaskan scientists have also observed live birds changing their flight patterns.
"They started to see murres show up farther inland on lakes and rivers, which suggests that the murres are having trouble finding appropriate food at sea,” Grear said.
Murres may be starving to death because of abnormally warm surface water temperatures in the North Pacific over the past year. The seabirds eat by diving into the water to catch fish, and have to consume the equivalent of 10 to 30 percent of their body weight every day.
Scientists believe the abnormally warm waters of the Pacific are either killing off the murres' prey, or pushing them into cooler waters.
"(The fish) could be too deep, they could be moving to areas in the ocean where the murres aren't used to finding them,” Grear said. “These are all now just hypothesis that the science folks up in Alaska are trying to figure out how to test."
As they figure out what's happening now, those scientists are also worried about what the warming Pacific waters of an expected 2016 El Nino will mean for both the murres and their aquatic prey.
One and a half tons of carbon dioxide. That’s roughly how much global warming pollution The World's environment team produced last month flying from the east coast of the US to the UN’s COP21 climate summit in Paris.
Multiply that by the at least 30,000 people who attended the conference, many traveling from much farther than we did, and virtually all traveling via some sort of fossil fuel-powered conveyance, and you’ve got a massive carbon footprint from a horde of people supposedly committed to cutting our collective carbon footprint.
We knew we wanted to try to offset the carbon impact of our air travel, and the UN knew others would too. After all, says Niclas Svenningsen, of the UN’s Sustainable United Nations program, “it would be ironic if you organize a COP and the only thing you achieve is increasing the global footprints.”
So for the first time, this year the UN set up a website and a booth for conference participants and others to offset the carbon impact of their travel. It allows people to go online and make up for their greenhouse pollution by either removing or preventing the same amount elsewhere through a small donation to something like a green energy plant or a low-emissions transportation project.
So how did this new option work out in its initial run?
Arnaud Bouissou/Flickr Ceative Commons
Based on our own experience, an informal survey of conference participants, and the UN’s own numbers — not so well.
When I went looking for the offset booth at the massive Paris conference center, I had a hard time finding it, even after it had been moved to supposedly make it easier to find. And when I did find it, it wasn’t as easy as just swiping a credit card or laying down a few euros. It ended up being more complicated than I had time for, so I bookmarked it for later.
Then when our producer Carolyn Beeler went out in the last days of the conference to conduct an informal survey, she found that I wasn’t alone. Most of the people she spoke with had not offset the carbon impact of their travel through the UN system.
And it turns out that’s pretty typical of the bigger picture when it comes to carbon offsets. In 2014, far less than one percent of global carbon emissions were mitigated through voluntary offsets.
There are a lot of reasons for that. It’s safe to say most people don’t know about offsets. Others who do know might not want to pay what’s basically a voluntary tax. And even for people who do want to pay, there’s not a lot of confidence in the system.
“Part of the problem, in the past at least, has been it’s very hard to know which carbon offsets really represent real reduction or not,” Dan Bodansky told Carolyn. Bodansky teaches international environmental law at Arizona State University, and someone like him should be able to figure this stuff out. But even he finds it complex.
“I have tried to do some research to try to figure out which ones make sense to buy, but it’s actually been difficult to get good information on this" Bodansky says.
That’s partly because there are a lot of offset programs, so it’s hard to know whether an offset is really doing what’s promised. And if it is legit, it can still be hard to know whether what you’re paying for is actually a new reduction or if a company is double-dipping — getting paid more than once for the same offset.
“If you can’t tell the difference between a good offset and bad offset, you’re almost encouraging people to figure out how to sell bad offsets into the market” Trexler says.
Trexler helped develop the very first carbon offset program in the 1980s, but he’s not such a fan anymore. He’s especially troubled by the low prices of many offsets today — maybe a couple of dollars per ton of CO2 equivalent.
“For $1 or $2 to make much of a difference in a project is pretty unlikely,” Trexler says. “So the fact that the offset market is at this $1, $2, $3 level, really has to raise a lot of suspicions about whether you’re making something new happen with that money.”
The UN says its offsets are thoroughly vetted, and guaranteed against double-dipping.
Still, whether it was a matter of confidence, convenience, awareness or willingness, our unscientific survey of conference attendees turned out to pretty much reflect the final participation numbers. The UN’s Svenningsen later told Carolyn that fewer than ten percent of attendees bought offsets during the conference.
Of course there were some stragglers. We here at The World finally paid for our offsets this week, but even in the comfort of the newsroom it was a frustrating process.
We had to choose a specific project — which as journalists we didn’t really want to do, since it could be considered something of an endorsement. And there were almost 30 projects to choose from. After selecting one more or less at random, it turned out that the project’s PayPal account wasn’t set up so our purchase was cancelled. We finally just chose the first one on the list, a project in Chile that captures greenhouse gas emissions from pig farms and turns them into biogas fuel.
In the end, offsetting the CO2 from our flights to and from Paris cost $4.80. It took a lot of time and effort to make that very small payment, which did make us wonder about the effectiveness of our offsets, despite the UN’s assurances.
And it might tell us part of the reason that so few people at the conference seem to have used the system — it barely seems worth the effort.
To be fair, a lot of people did make their Paris travel more sustainable, just in different ways. Some that Carolyn talked with took the train to Paris instead of flying. Others bought offsets from programs they’d worked with before, and knew they could trust.
Costa Rican Felipe De León bought offsets from a small coffee plantation project in his home country. “I have absolutely no doubt where my money went," De León said, "and I like that."
You could say it was the perfect offset. But De León says an offset doesn't have to be perfect to be useful. He likes the idea in general because perfect or not, buying offsets get people thinking more about climate change as a result of their day-to-day lives.
“You wouldn’t even consider chucking a bag of chips outside of your window anymore,” De León said, “and maybe your parents or their parents probably did it a million times. I think that sort of attitude has to become ingrained for climate change as well.”
All of which raises a much bigger question — whether countries should put some kind of price or tax on all carbon emissions to basically make all of us take responsibility for our climate pollution.
But that idea is still controversial in most places, so for now it’s mostly off the table.
Meanwhile though, the UN’s offsets website is an ongoing concern, so if you’re thinking of offsetting some of your carbon footprint you can check it out at climateneutralnow.org.
Wildflower season is beginning in Israel — and that’s thanks to one of the country’s most successful public campaigns.
Years ago, so many people picked wildflowers in the country that they were on the verge of extinction.
Take one typical Israeli of that generation, 77-year-old Israela Hargil.
Wildflowers meant a lot to Hargil. As a little girl in Poland, she used to go flower picking with her parents. Then World War II broke out, and she went in hiding in a Polish family’s home. Going out to pick flowers was too dangerous.
After the war ended, she moved to Israel, where she could pick as many flowers as she liked. Flower picking was symbolic for her and her family.
“You were in awe when you saw these colorful flowers,” said Tali Telem, Hargil’s daughter. “It was an emblem or a symbol of … the rebirth of the country, of the State of Israel.
“It was kind of proof that things are going well, you know?” Telem said.
She and her mother remember picking wildflowers once when Telem was very young.
“We got up quickly and went out on a hill, and we sat there quietly watching the sunrise. And then we noticed that the whole hill was covered with wildflowers,” Hargil said. “So we started, especially Tali, started picking up the flowers, and started weaving a crown.”
“And every birthday I had a crown like that,” Telem said.
“Every birthday,” her mother said.
This was not just their private ritual. In the country’s early years, picking wildflowers was a national pastime. It was a way Israelis showed their love of the land. They would uproot the flowers to feel rooted to their homeland.
Arabs in the country picked wildflowers, too, and Christian pilgrims used to buy albums of pressed wildflowers as a souvenir from the Holy Land.
“Nobody thought that, ‘Hey guys! If all of us keep on picking flowers, there might (not be) flowers for the next generation,’” said Benny First of Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection.
There were a few people who did realize there was a problem. In the 1960s, Uzi Paz helped found Israel’s Society for the Protection of Nature, and he was one of the people who helped save Israel’s wildflowers from extinction.
They realized if people kept picking Israel’s flowers at the rate they were picking them, they would simply disappear, he said.
So they launched a campaign to save Israel’s wildflowers. Step one: convince the government to make picking illegal.
The way Paz remembers that campaign sounds a lot like an episode of "House of Cards"— political wheeling and dealing to persuade key lawmakers to support the legislation.
In August 1963, wildflower picking was outlawed. But given the popularity of picking wildflowers, a law was not going to be enough.
Paz printed 30,000 colorful posters with a simple message: protect the wildflowers. People hung them everywhere: In government buildings, in health clinics, in banks and in schools.
Before long, everyone joined the party. The Israeli lottery printed lottery tickets with images of protected wildflowers, a gift manufacturer made a wildflower-themed card game and there was even a popular song about the law called “Waltz for the Protection of the Flora.”
It’s astonishing how successful this campaign was. In the decades since, there have been plenty of public service campaigns in Israel to get people to change their behavior. There are radio ads every single hour telling Israelis to drive safely, but still, many don’t.
The wildflower campaign’s success is thanks in part to its simplicity, said First, of Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection.
“You like the flowers? Great! Keep on liking them. And love them, but just do it in a different way,” he said, describing the campaign. “It's amazing. It changed the Israeli behavior and the Israeli ethics of people to their land.”
It’s been more than half-a-century since Israel outlawed wildflower picking. Today, by and large, people just don't do it.
An extended version of this story first aired on Israel Story.
The effects of climate change are starting to make themselves clear just about everywhere, but nowhere more dramatically than Greenland. The giant island holds the world's second largest ice sheet, and it's melting fast—an average of 287 billion metric tons of ice a year.
Global warming is the big culprit, but scientists aren't so sure about a lot of the details. And they need to be, to help figure what might be ahead for the rest of us as melting ice leads to sea level rise and big changes in the oceans.
Recently The World's Ari Daniel traveled to Greenland, with a group of researchers who are trying to unlock parts of the mystery.
Here’s the first of his reports.
The breakfast on the edge of Greenland’s massive ice sheet is ordinary — granola, yogurt, bread and jam. Everything else here is anything but.
“You’d pay a million bucks for a view like this,” says Gordon Hamilton, from the University of Maine by way of Scotland. “Pretty nice breakfast buffet, I guess, for sitting out here next to the ice sheet.”
Hamilton, Detective No. 1 in our Greenland mystery, is sitting on the rocky rim of a glacier. Kind of figures. After all, the man is a glaciologist. But this isn’t just any glacier. It’s the Helheim glacier, one of Greenland’s biggest, a three-mile-wide river of mottled gray, whites and stunning blue ice that flows into Sermilik fjord on the island’s southeast coast.
We’re on one side of that fjord. Across, on the other side, is what drew us here — a horizontal stripe running the length of the fjord, about 600 feet above the ice.
“Everybody who’s come here with me has said, ‘What’s that line over there?’” Hamilton says. “And I say, ‘Well, that’s where the glacier was in 2003.’ It’s kind of like the signal clue that something really big had happened.”
Hamilton calls this clue the bathtub ring. Helheim’s surface sat right around the line for decades, maybe longer. But about a decade ago, he says, in the span of just a couple of years, it dropped dramatically and thinned out.
“And what that means is that all that volume of ice, from the current surface up to the height of that bathtub ring, is now in the ocean.”
Hamilton wants to know why, and what that big drop might mean for all of us.
Because it’s not just Helheim. Most of Greenland is covered by a massive block of ice, so big it’s difficult to imagine, even right here on the edge of it. Helheim is just one of thousands of glaciers that drain that ice sheet into the sea, and right around the time the bathtub ring showed up, some of the other big glaciers also changed suddenly.
“They retreated very quickly back up their fjords,” Hamilton says. “Their flow speed doubled or tripled. And this had the effect of putting more icebergs into the ocean. And when you put icebergs into the ocean, you displace ocean water and you cause sea levels to rise.
So what happened here? To find our next clue requires going airborne, on a helicopter flying low above the fjord a few miles beyond the glacier’s terminus.
Icebergs the size of football stadiums lurk in every direction as one of Hamilton’s colleagues slides open the chopper door to one side. Roped into the chopper, he sits on the floor and shoots a thermometer trailing a spool of copper wire into the water.
As the probe drops below the surface, Hamilton watches the temperature data plot in real time on a screen. Near the surface it’s a hair colder than 0 degrees Celsius, or 32 degrees Fahrenheit, the freezing point of fresh water. But it’s not frozen, because salt water freezes at about -2 Celsius.
The water gets even colder as the probe goes deeper, but then it gets warmer again. At the bottom of the fjord, about 2,000 feet down, the temperature is 4.04 degrees Celsius, or 39 degrees Fahrenheit — downright frigid, but actually warm enough to melt glacial ice. For Hamilton, it’s another key clue in the mystery of Helheim and Greenland’s other rapidly receding glaciers.
“We think it’s this water that’s coming into contact with the edge of the ice sheet and causing the rapid melting and destabilization of the outlet glaciers,” Hamilton says.
We already know that some of Greenland’s ice is melting due to warm air overhead. But while he can’t be sure, because no one was measuring the water temperature here a decade ago, Hamilton thinks it was warming water below that probably triggered Helheim’s dramatic change.
Of course that answer just leads us smack into another question: where’s all this warm water coming from?
Sixty miles farther down the Sermilik fjord, Fiamma Straneo— Detective No. 2 — thinks she’s found the answer. Her research ship, a converted fishing trawler called the Adolf Jensen, is dodging icebergs near the mouth of the fjord, where “the glacier talks to the ocean and the ocean talks to the glacier,” as she puts it.
Straneo, a physical oceanographer originally from Italy and now at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, is using array of instruments including temperature and salinity recorders to eavesdrop on that conversation.
Straneo always knew that warm water from farther south in the Atlantic flows along the coast of Greenland. She also knew that climate change is helping make that Atlantic water even warmer than it used to be. But until a few years ago she thought that water stayed out of the fjords.
When she and her colleagues started plumbing the depths here, she says, “we had expected that we’d find some structural barriers where the fjord starts so that the waters couldn’t get in. But instead, we found these deep troughs. The fjord was wide open.”
And it was the same for others fjords in the region — nothing to keep out the warming Atlantic water.
This at least partly answers Gordon Hamilton’s question — how all that warm water is getting to the base of the glaciers.
But there are still other big questions. For instance, why did the glacier drop so suddenly a decade ago?
Hamilton says the evidence suggests there’s a kind of tipping point, that glaciers like Helheim can remain stable in near freezing water but that even a little more heat in the water can destabilize them
That doesn’t explain why Helheim seems to have re-stabilized. It also doesn’t tell us whether or when it’ll get hit with another massive melt.
But Fiamma Straneo says this fjord and its glacier are fairly typical.
She says she and her colleagues have found that “all the big fjords around Greenland are filled with these warm Atlantic waters. They’re very dynamic, meaning the potential is there for bringing a lot of heat to the edge of the glaciers.”
And she says one thing is quite clear. “What’s happening in this fjord does not stay in this fjord.” Or any other fjord up here.
There are trillions of tons of ice here in Greenland, enough to raise global sea levels 21 feet if all of it were to melt. No one can say yet how quickly that will happen. But Straneo says it’s vital to learn as much as possible, and fast.
“There’s no doubt that sea level will rise in a warming planet — we have ice that is on land that will melt,” she says. “But what is important for humanity is to understand how quickly it will rise. We need to know this so that we can plan.”
For Straneo, that means continuing to probe the waters here for subtle changes in temperature, salinity, and even rare gases that provide telltale signs of where different patches of water are coming from.
For Gordon Hamilton, it also means intently watching the glacier itself, including its surface. That’s why back on land he and a team of engineers are installing a special kind of laser on a vantage point well above the bathtub ring, to make precise measurements of the terminus over the next year.
The idea, he says, is to monitor as many parts of the complex glacier-ocean system as possible, in as much detail as possible.
Hopefully, he says, with these new high resolution views, “we can start to link these two separate systems together and figure out what is the change in one system that causes the change in the other.”
Lots of mysteries to be solved up here. But one thing is not a mystery.
Greenland matters, to all of us.
Most people tend to think to think of gardening as a summer activity. Horticulturist Gerard Lordahl, however, says winter is the perfect time to pay attention to your garden.
“In the wintertime, right now I mean, people are protecting their plants,” Lordahl says. “Soil mulching is really important, and lots of our community gardeners are composting, and these are all things that can be done now. Protecting your plants through the winter, giving as much water to them as possible on those mild days, and then mulching.”
Lordahl is the director of the Open Space Greening Project, a community garden program based in New York City. He says there are a lot of beliefs about gardening in winter that are not true. For one thing, you don’t need to wait until spring to water your plants.
“Those days when it is mild, above freezing, you can go out there and try to water as much as possible,” Lordahl says.
The other thing you should be doing? Mulching.
“The surface of the soil is freezing,” Lordahl says, “ And that freezing and thawing is what causes plant root damage. So I can't encourage your listeners enough to mulch as much as possible now that that surface is frozen. The problem is when it's not frozen, rodents can live under that layer of mulch so now that the soil's frozen it's OK.”
Elizabeth Murphy, a soil scientist and author of "Building Soil: a Down-Earth Approach: Natural Solutions of Better Gardens and Yards," says winter is also a good time to focus on your garden’s soil, whether you have an outdoor garden, or a collection of pots indoors.
For those wanting to start seeds indoors, Murphy says it’s important to get the soil recipe right.
“When we're talking about starting seeds, we really want to make a potting mix that has really good drainage,” Murphy says, “We need to use either sand or vermiculite to to get that drainage. And we want to use material that holds a lot of water and releases some nutrients.”
If you’re going to be using soil from outdoors, Lordahl says it’s important to make sure it’s been sterilized.
“The problem is there's a disease called damping off that could affect young seeds and it could kill the seeds,” Lordahl says. “So cooking your soil 200 degrees for 20 minutes is a good thing. Or use sterilized soil, so you don't get these diseases attacking your seeds.”
For those wanting to get the soil right in their outdoor gardens, Lordahl suggests getting a pH test done.
“All those different elements can have an effect on the soil. Putting down lime increases the pH range of your soil and adding sulfur decreases it,” Lordahl says. “Here in New York City, we have issues with our pH because we're surrounded by a lot of concrete. We encourage home gardeners and community gardeners to have their soil tested with simple ph test kits and then adjust it accordingly.”
But for those who just want a little bit of bloom or green in the middle of winter, there’s always the time-honored tradition of forcing daffodil, paper white and tulip bulbs indoors. Lordahl suggests using the refrigerator.
“[Bulbs] need that cool temperature, but not freezing, to develop a root system that will enable them to get through the winter,” Lordahl says. “So the refrigerator is a place where people could replicate that cold chilling temperature without freezing. If you put your daffodils that you haven't had a chance to plant in the refrigerator in a brown paper bag — dark and dry for about six weeks or so — you'll replicate that outdoor temperature. And you'll be able to force those daffodils indoors. You could then repot them. I’ve had success doing it myself.”
We all know the big story about Greenland — the world's second-largest ice cap is melting fast as the planet warms up, and pouring billions of tons of water a year into the ocean.
But to really understand the dynamics of that melting, and what it might mean for the future of the region and beyond, scientists have to look small. The World's Ari Daniel rode along with two teams of researchers who are using new approaches to examine some of the smallest details of the ice and water in and around one of Greenland's biggest glaciers. This is the second of his two reports from the edge of the ice sheet. (Read/listen to Part 1)
Nicholas Beaird has a problem. He stands aboard a ship called the Adolf Jensen in Sermilik fjord in southeast Greenland, collecting water samples in copper tubes. Or at least that’s what he’s trying to do.
“The cold welder is not sealing the tubes properly,” Beaird admits. “They keep developing little leaks.”
He tosses another tube into the discard pile, which is growing fast. And Beaird, an oceanographer thousands of miles away from his lab at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, doesn’t exactly have tons of options to salvage his project.
“There’s no running to the store to pick up something if something breaks,” he says.
This means that Beaird needs to figure out what’s going on with his copper tubes, since no other kind of container will hold what he’s looking for in the water below: the noble gases helium, neon, argon, xenon, and krypton — all trace elements from the Earth’s atmosphere.
Noble gases are here in only tiny amounts but Beaird says they could provide big clues to the future of Greenland’s massive ice sheet and the ocean that surrounds it.
This fjord is where the Helheim glacier meets the North Atlantic. And it’s actually swirling with different varieties of water. There’s salty sea water of course, along with two distinct types of fresh water — melted snow and ice from the top of the glacier, and melted ice from the botton of the glacier, deep underwater. Each of those carries different concentrations of those noble gases. Think of the water types as different colored paints that only mix together slowly. And you can tell them apart if you look closely enough.
“The noble gases let us do this,” says Fiamma Straneo, the lead researcher on this expedition. “We can distinguish whether it was water that melted on top of glacier, or whether it melted at the bottom of glacier.”
As for why anyone would bother with all this, Straneo says knowing how much of each type of water there is here, where it’s coming from, and where it’s going, can help us figure out how the ocean, the glacier and the air are all interacting as this part of the world warms up. In general, we know that the ice sheet and glaciers here are melting fast. But scientists also want to know how much of that melting is from warmer air above, how much is from warmer water below, and what that all might mean for knock-on effects in the ocean.
“There’s a whole series of feedbacks and processes that are linked [and] that really are speeding up some of the changes,” Straneo says. “So we have to understand these details so that we can put them in the [computer] models and make predictions of how the ocean circulation might respond, how the ecosystems and the fisheries might respond.
The noble gases are a relatively new way to track some of those changes. For now, though, without working copper tubes, the team is stuck.
But nearby, another team of researchers is having better luck deploying another new technology. They’re at work right above the terminus of the Helheim glacier, where it calves into the sea, bolting a state-of-the-art laser onto the canyon’s rocky margin
“What we are hoping to do with the laser is to map the glacier in very high resolution in three dimensions, multiple times per day,” says Gordon Hamilton, a glaciologist at the University of Maine. The high-res laser will be gathering these scans for an entire year. No glacier has ever been imaged like this before.
Hamilton says the new laser allows his team to monitor changes in the glacier’s thickness every few hours, and even can track how individual parts of the glacier are changing speed.
Displayed on a screen, the results of this real-time monitoring look like a pointillist image in 3D, which you can move around and zoom in on.
“We can actually measure the width of these crevasses,” say team member Pete Gadomski of the US Army Corps of Engineers' Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in New Hampshire. “We can take a look at the terminus itself, measure the size of icebergs out there as well.”
All of this is important because Helheim is one of the biggest and fastest-moving glaciers in Greenland, and scientists were caught off guard by how quickly it has been melting.
“We didn’t anticipate the changes that happened in the last 10 or 15 years,” Gordon Hamilton says. “I mean, the ice sheet has waxed and waned with time for sure, but I don’t think it’s been through such a large set of changes in such a short period of time.”
As with Fiamma Straneo in the fjord below, Hamilton says the goal is to use the new data to better predict what might be ahead by feeding it into ever-better computer simulations of the changing global climate.
“These (are) very sophisticated models of climate systems,” Hamilton says, which bring together “the ocean, the atmosphere, the big ice sheets, sea ice, clouds — all these multiple components, with the goal of trying to understand sea level rise in the next ten, 15, 100 years.”
Back aboard the Adolf Jensen in the fjord below, Fiamma Straneo’s crew has a more immediate challenge — weaving their way through all the ice that Helheim is spitting out into the fjord.
“It’s impossible here to go in a straight line, or even to zigzag around all of the ice. You just have to relax and know that you're gonna hit some of it,” she says, just as the ship hits a small iceberg.
The ship will be fine, Straneo says. What matters is the mission.
“Greenland right now accounts for approximately a quarter of global sea level rise,” says Straneo, “but the ice loss has been rapidly increasing over the last few decades. We were late in starting measurements, we’re still late now. So we’re playing catch up.”
And Nicholas Beaird, the man with the copper tubes, is still hoping the noble gas project can play a part, because the team has an idea that might solve their problem — warming the tubes in a warm water bath before trying to seal them.
Beaird fills a fresh tube with a new water sample, dunks it into the warm water, seals it, and whips it through the air to see if any water leaks out.
When he’s done, he takes a close look at the tube.
“This one seems good,” he says, to a small chorus of cheers from his colleagues.
The warm water has helped to seal the tubes.
It’s still not clear how the noble gases in the water will fare with this hack, but for now, it’s progress. And in tracking the impacts of climate change up here, even the smallest things — like a pulse of laser light, or an atom of helium, or a bath of warm water — can make a big difference.
WATCH: Ari's videos from Greenland: 4 Things No One's Telling You About the Coming Water World / See a Glacier Like Never Before /Waging Science on the High Seas
This week, levels of UV rays in the Chilean capital of Santiago are scheduled to soar to nearly 15, while in the Bolivian capital, La Paz, they're expected to surpass 18. But the worst hit may be Cuzco, the Peruvian city that was once the center of the Inca Empire and is now a tourist mecca; it is forecast to hit a troubling 19 on Friday.
The reason is partly natural and partly man-made. All three cities are in the southern tropics, where the sun blazes down almost directly for much of the day at this time of year.
Then add in altitude, with La Paz and Cuzco both around 11,000 feet above sea level, meaning there are two fewer miles of Earth’s atmosphere above them to filter out harmful rays.
But above all, the problem is that the ozone layer above this part of the planet is particularly thin.
That’s in part because the ozone layer everywhere is still recovering from ozone-killing pollution by chemicals once used in a range of products, including aerosols and fridges, until they were banned by the 1987 Montreal Protocol.
More from GlobalPost: 5 countries spew more plastic into the oceans than the rest of the world together
But it’s also just an unfortunate result of natural circumstances, including high altitude winds that prevent ozone from accumulating in this neck of the woods.
“The ozone doesn’t hang about over this part of South America. It drifts into the upper atmosphere and from there it is quickly dispersed by the currents,” Orlando Ccora, of Peru’s national meteorology agency, SENAHMI, told GlobalPost.
The result is that authorities are heeding medical advice and warning local people to stay indoors between the peak hours of around 10 am and 4 pm. In Bolivia, there is even a law requiring parents to send their kids to school with a hat.
Yet with many, in Peru and Bolivia particularly, living both directly from the land and below the poverty line, the message may not be getting through.
Paulina Mendoza, a doctor who heads the skin cancer program at the La Paz branch of the Bolivian Society of Dermatology, says she is seeing more and more skin cancer patients in their 40s, although the Andean nation lacks hard numbers about the number of cases.
Due to the dark skin of most Bolivians, however, mortality rates remain low, at around 0.2 percent of diagnosed cases.
In Peru, meanwhile, there have been reports of a rising number of skin cancer cases, even among teens.
“There is a lack of education and awareness,” Mendoza added. “We need continuous campaigns, targeted at everyone from children upwards. It is very hard. We are talking about a way of life. Telling a campesino [farmer] not to work at midday, well they are not going to listen to you.”
The sort-of good news is that even the current dangerous levels of UV radiation remain far short of the UV world record of 43— approaching levels on Mars — registered on the summit of a 19,000-foot Bolivian volcano in 2003.
The story was cross-posted by our partners at GlobalPost.
Over the weekend, President Barack Obama declared a federal state of emergency in Flint, Michigan, where residents have been dealing with the aftermath of lead-tainted water for more than a year now. It's a situation that's led to lead poisoning and brain damage in some children.
As the disaster in Flint unfolds, people across the country have been left to wonder how safe their own drinking water is. Scientists warn that the regulation of America's drinking water has lagged since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972.
A 2009 New York Times investigation found that more than 62 million Americans had been exposed to drinking water that did not meet some government health guidelines. A 2011 analysis by the Environmental Working Group found that more than 100 million people in 43 states were drinking water contaminated with trihalomethanes — a dangerous chemical that’s the byproduct of a chlorine reaction.
Jeffrey Griffiths, a professor at Tufts University and former chair of the EPA's Drinking Water Committee, Science Advisory Board, says we don’t have a strong understanding of the health impacts of low-level exposure to chemicals in water.
“I worry about the fact that we live in a kind of sea of small-level chemical contaminates,” Griffiths says. “The number of chemicals that are actually regulated within the United States are relatively small compared to the total number of chemicals that have been detected in water. And we don’t really know what happens when you’re exposed to very low levels of many hundreds of chemicals.”
When it comes to treating drinking water, the US does not require that all chemicals be removed, but rather that the number of chemicals be reduced as much as possible.
“Often there is not the assumption that you can actually remove it all,” says Griffiths. “I really worry about the large spectrum of things that we’re exposed to at low levels and we don’t understand what the effects are.”
Though there are broad methods for removing chemicals from household water, they are not often used.
“You could imagine things like running water through activated charcoal or through filters that are extremely stringent — very tight filters where all that gets through is the water molecules and not chemical compounds,” Griffiths says. “Those forms of treatment are not common in the United States because of the expense. If we were interested in removing all chemicals out of water and all heavy metals, then we would really have to change the standard treatment that most municipalities undergo.”
Since most US states only seek to meet minimum requirements on drinking water, Griffiths says it would take a scare in order for municipalities to re-evaluate water standards in a meaningful way.
“For most compounds that are out there, we don’t have the toxicology [information],” he says. “Unfortunately, there have been a number of instances where people have gotten sick and that’s really changed the equation in terms of what we know as good or bad. Just to give you an example, lead used to be thought of as bad, but the acceptable amount was much higher than what the acceptable amount is now. [That’s changed] because there is new information about damage to babies and brain development.”
Since it is very difficult to definitively prove that trace amounts of chemicals can have negative health effects, many state and local governments have shied away from buying expensive filtration equipment. Essentially, most local water sources are deemed safe — until they’re not.
“The truth is there is no such thing as a safe amount of lead in water; there’s no such thing as a safe amount of arsenic in water, but the removal of those is costly, so therefore we have standards which allow trace amounts of those,” Griffiths says.
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder spent most of his State of the State address Tuesday night talking about dangerously high lead levels in the city of Flint’s water supply.
The problem began in 2014, when officials switched the source of the city's water to save money.
That sent corrosive water from the Flint River into the city's old pipes, which caused lead to leach out, contaminating the city's tap water.
Now Flint residents in two zip codes find they have elevated lead levels in their blood. The National Guard, state and local employees and volunteers have been handing out lead tests, filters and bottled water.
“We have battled this issue globally, but not at the level that we’re seeing in Flint,” said Ruth Ann Norton, president of the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, a Baltimore-based non-profit that does lead mitigation work.
“Lead poisoning is entirely preventable,” Norton said. “These were decisions that were made by the government of Michigan that have left 100,000 or more people at risk of high lead intake.”
Lead is a neurotoxin that can permanently affect the development of the brain and nervous system and impacts children especially. It kills an estimated 143,000 people per year, and can lead to an increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage in adults. It heightens the risk for miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and low birth weights.
“There is little to be done once you have lead in your system,” Norton said. “Those impacts are irreversible and can be quite tragic and quite costly.”
Most of the chronic, lower-level lead exposure in the US comes from paint in old houses and lingering residue from leaded gasoline. But elsewhere on the globe, lead poisoning comes from more varied sources.
Lead can seep from batteries thrown into landfills and contaminate groundwater, which has been a problem in countries including Mongolia. In Central and Latin American countries, Norton said health officials battle leaded glaze in pottery.
According to the World Health Organization, exposure to lead-contaminated soil and dust in and around battery recycling and mining operations has caused mass lead poisoning and multiple deaths in young children in Senegal and Nigeria.
“The difference in Flint,” said Ruth Ann Norton, “is that they were on a clean water system, they were drinking safe water, and in a measure to try and save some money, safety and procedures and precautions were overlooked.”
“I think that has what has brought the tragedy of Flint so high.”