TIME weather

Satellite Photos Show How the Washington Landslide Area Changed Over Time

Over a decade of satellite imagery shows why Oso, Washington was so susceptible to a fatal landslide

The youngest victim was four-months old. The eldest was 71. Altogether at least 29 people were killed when the earth gave way above the small town of Oso in rural Washington on Mar. 22, making it one of the deadliest landslides in U.S. history. And the saddest thing of all is that the disaster was anything but unexpected. The hill that collapsed had been the site of a number of landslides in the past, most recently in 2006. In 1999, outside consultants filed a study with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers warning of “the potential for a large catastrophic failure” on the very hill that gave way in March.

As aerial photos from Snohomish County GIS and satellite photos collected by TIME from DigitalGlobe show, the recent landslide was all but impossible to have stopped. The North Fork Stillaguamish river cuts out the bottom of the hill that would eventually collapse, and the loose sediment—laid down by glaciers nearly 12,000 years ago—was inherently unstable. Landslides kill an average of 25 Americans and cause as much as $2 billion in damages each year, yet they’re too quickly forgotten. Hopefully the catastrophe in Oso will change that.

TIME Internet

Your Data Is Dirty: The Carbon Price of Cloud Computing

Servers
Sean Gallup—Getty Images The computers behind the cloud are responsible for 2% of global carbon emissions

The digital cloud that holds your data may seem invisible, but the electricity that powers it comes with a major carbon price and climate impact, according to a new report from environmental advocacy group Greenpeace

The digital cloud is built on invisibility. Instead of books, DVDs, CDs, newspapers or magazines, we have pure data, traveling back and forth between our web-connected devices. Everything we want is at our fingertips, and all we need to do is push a button.

But the digital cloud has a physical substance: thousands upon thousands of computer servers, which store the data that makes up the Internet. And those servers aren’t powered by magic, they’re powered by electricity. If that electricity is produced by fossil fuel sources like coal or natural gas—which together provide nearly three-quarters of U.S. power—our magical cloud may leave a very dirty footprint.

IT-related services now account for 2% of all global carbon emissions, according to a new Greenpeace report. That’s roughly the same as the aviation sector, meaning all those Netflix movies the world is streaming and the Instagram photos they’re posting are the energy equivalent of a fleet of 747s rumbling for takeoff. Unless something is done to green the cloud, we can expect those emissions to grow rapidly—the number of people online is expected to grow by 60% over the next five years, pushed in part by the efforts of companies like Facebook to expand Internet access by any means necessary. The amount of data we’ll be using will almost certainly increase too. Analysts project that data use will triple between 2012 and 2017 to an astounding 121 exabytes, or about 121 billion gigabytes.

“If you aggregated the electricity use by data centers and the networks that connect to our devices, it would rank sixth among all countries,” says Gary Cook, Greenpeace’s international IT analyst and the lead author on its report. “It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s significant, and it will grow.”

The good news is that a number of major Internet companies have begun taking big steps to green their cloud. Greenpeace points to Apple as an industry leader, as the company has committed to powering its iCloud exclusively through renewable energy. It’s backed that up by building the country’s largest privately-owned solar farms at its North Carolina data centers and by powering its new Nevada data centers with geothermal and solar energy. Apple has also purchased wind energy for its Oregon and California data centers.

Facebook is another success story. The company came under criticism from Greenpeace and other environmental groups for depending on coal for more than half its energy, which prompted a global Unfriend Coal campaign. Those protests yielded results—Facebook now prefers renewable energy to power its growing fleet of data centers. Its newest center will be in Iowa, where it has agreed to purchase 100% wind power—a move than pushed the local energy utility to make the single largest purchase of wind turbines in the world.

Facebook’s evolution is a welcome sign that Internet companies are becoming more aware of their environmental footprint. It also underscores the fact that their decisions on how to power their data centers can influence utilities for the better. “Apple and Facebook show the power IT companies have on this stuff,” says Cook.

But there are still major laggards in the industry. Greenpeace points at Twitter, which just went public last year. Unlike Facebook or Apple, Twitter still hasn’t built any data centers of its own, instead renting server space from third party companies. Twitter has remained silent about the kind of electricity that powers its services, while providing very little information in general about its energy use or its energy goals. While some of that silence can be explained by the fact that the company doesn’t own its own data centers, the Greenpeace report points out that other companies that rent servers, like Salesforce and Box, have made commitments to 100% renewable energy.

In response to the report, a Twitter spokesperson said:

Twitter believes strongly in energy efficiency and optimization of resources for minimal environmental impact. As we build out our infrastructure, we continue to strive for even greater efficiency of operations.

As a relatively new public company, Twitter will likely come under more pressure to be transparent about its energy use and environmental goals. The fact that Twitter is so popular among journalists and activists will certainly increase that pressure over time, as happened with Facebook.

But a bigger problem for a green cloud is Amazon Web Services (AWS), Amazon’s highly popular cloud-computing platform. AWS hosts Amazon’s own cloud content, like the Amazon Prime streaming video service, but it also hosts data from countless other customers — including Netflix, which by itself accounts for nearly a third of Internet traffic in North America during peak evening hours. Amazon has been mostly silent about the environmental footprint of its cloud services, though the company claims to have very high utilization rates, which allow it use cheaper off-peak electricity—but again, there’s little open data on this. The company’s data centers in northern Virginia are by far its largest, but just a tiny sliver of the electricity there is provided by renewable sources, with the bulk coming from coal. AWS does say that its data centers in Oregon (which includes the company’s YouGov platform) are run by 100% carbon-free power, but it’s not clear how those power sources break down, and Amazon hasn’t publicly committed to using renewable energy.

When asked about Greenpeace’s report, an AWS spokesperson said the company agreed that efficiency and clean energy were important for cloud computing, but also said the report “misses the mark by using false assumptions on AWS operations and inaccurate data on AWS energy consumption. We provided this feedback to Greenpeace prior to publishing their report.” Greenpeace’s David Pomerantz, a co-author on the report, said that AWS declined to share data on energy consumption before the report was put together, unlike a number of other companies:

We did share our data with Amazon in advance of publishing the report. Amazon told us that our energy mix data for some of its AWS facilities was incorrect, but refused to offer alternative data for any of its facility other than Ireland, where it claimed a mix of 50% renewable energy and 22% coal. When asked, Amazon refused to provide data on how it is achieving that mix in Ireland, so Greenpeace has continued to use Irish national data for that facility. Using Amazon’s Ireland data would result in a company CEI [Clean Energy Index] that would be improved from 15 to 19%, still quite low.

Amazon has noted in the past that cloud computing is inherently more efficient than traditional computing, since companies are able to consolidate their data center use. And moving media and other services as data via the cloud is much more efficient than creating and shipping physical objects. But the cloud doesn’t come free. As more of our lives migrate to the digital ether, Internet companies—and their billions of customers—need to be more aware of the power behind the cloud.

TIME whaling

Japanese Whaling Ban Won’t End the Whale Wars

A photo released in 2008 shows a whale being dragged on board a Japanese ship after being harpooned in Antarctic waters.
AFP/Getty Images A photo released in 2008 shows a whale being dragged on board a Japanese ship after being harpooned in Antarctic waters

The International Court of Justice has ruled that Japan will no longer be permitted to hunt whales in the southern Pacific under the dubious pretense of scientific research. But the battle over whaling isn't over

The science in Japan’s “scientific” whaling program has always been a little, well, questionable. Commercial whaling is essentially illegal for all nations that remain part of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Norway and Iceland, two countries that continue to whale, get around the IWC’s 1986 moratorium by simply rejecting it. Japan, which is still a member of the IWC, has sidestepped the moratorium for years through subtler means, establishing a research program that allows the country to kill 3,600 minke whales since the studies began in 2005. Exactly what scientific information Japan’s whaling fleet is gathering through legal slaughter has never been clear — though what’s not in doubt is the destination of the whale meat taken in the hunt, most of which ends up in the handful of restaurants and markets in Japan that still serve whale.

If a scientific whaling program sounds like an oxymoron to you, the U.N.’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) apparently agrees. On Monday the ICJ ordered a temporary halt to Japan’s Antarctic whaling program, ruling that the country had failed to provide any scientific justification for its whaling. “The court concludes that the special permits granted Japan for the killing, taking and treating of whales … are not ‘for purposes of scientific research,'” presiding judge Peter Tomka said, reading the court’s ruling on a case originally brought in 2010 by the government of Australia. The program, he said, “cannot be justified.”

The Japanese government obviously disagrees with the decision, but Foreign Ministry spokesperson Noriyuki Shikata told reporters that Japan would “abide by the ruling of the court” — meaning that for now, at least, Japan’s annual Antarctic hunt is off. For environmentalists who have fought Japanese whaling for years in international courts, the court of public opinion and sometimes on the oceans itself — as seen in the reality-TV show Whale WarsMonday’s decision was a moment to celebrate. Former Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett, who originally launched the suit when his government was still in office, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that Antarctic waters would become a true sanctuary for whales:

I’m absolutely over the moon, for all those people who wanted to see the charade of scientific whaling cease once and for all. I think [this] means without any shadow of a doubt that we won’t see the taking of whales in the Southern Ocean in the name of science.

The court’s ruling doesn’t mean that all Japanese whaling will immediately cease. The country has a smaller scientific program in the northern Pacific that will likely now be challenged under the same grounds. The court also left the door open for Japan to resume scientific whaling if it can redesign its program, as Tokyo has claimed it needs data to monitor the impact of whales on its fishing industry. And Japan has always held out the possibility that it could simply withdraw from the IWC altogether, so that it would no longer be bound by the commission’s decisions.

Whaling has never been just about whaling in Japan. Though some coastal towns in Japan have hunted whales for centuries — I visited one such village, Oshika, back in 2005 — Japan only became a whaling power in the wake of World War II, when some of its decommissioned naval vessels were converted into whaling ships and when U.S. occupation officials encouraged the harvesting of whales as a cheap form of protein. The drive to keep whaling today has much less to do with a taste for whale meat — which has long since waned — than it does with the government’s worry that any limit on whaling could set a precedent for Japan’s far more vital commercial fishing industry. Tokyo is right to worry — bluefin tuna, which can fetch tens of thousands of dollars at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, are highly endangered as well.

There’s also the reality that hunting is just one of many threats that whales face today. Whales can be killed accidentally as bycatch, poisoned by pollution, even driven crazy by noise from ships. And like nearly every other species on the planet, whales are threatened by climate change — especially species like bowhead and beluga that live in the rapidly warming Arctic. But on a day when environmentalists are still reeling from the dire predictions in the latest U.N. climate change report, today’s ruling is a rare glimmer of good news.

TIME climate change

Warming World Threatens Us All, Warns U.N. Report

Polar Bears Struggle In Norway
Rebecca Jackrel—Barcroft Media/Getty Images A polar bear scans the area from the top of a large piece of glacial ice in Svalbard, Norway

A new U.N. report illustrates the impact that rising temperatures will have on crop yields, water supplies and sea levels

There have been thousands and thousands and thousands of studies published on climate change since 2007, when the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its fourth major assessment on global warming. It has taken hundreds and hundreds of scientists to comb through all that research. But the broad, basic message of all those studies is clear enough: climate change is real, it is happening, and unless we’re very lucky, we’re not doing anywhere near enough to adapt to it.

That’s the underlying message of chapter two in the IPCC’s fifth assessment of climate-change science, which was released on Monday morning in the Japanese city of Yokohama. Focusing on the impacts of climate change — ranging from the effects on endangered species to changes in agriculture — the new report demonstrates just how wide-ranging the effects of a warming world will be. “We have assessed impacts as they are happening in natural and human systems on all continents and oceans,” said Rajendra Pachauri, the chair of the IPCC, which was jointly established by the U.N. and the World Meteorological Organization. “No one on this planet will be untouched by climate change.”

So the report predicts with high confidence that the negative impacts of warming on crop yields will outweigh any potential positive impacts; that violent conflict will exacerbate the effects of global warming; that glaciers will continue to shrink as the climate warms, which has major impacts for downstream water supplies; that species on land and in the sea are shifting their range in response to warming and that some will face an increased risk of extinction; that health impacts will be felt from heat waves and from floods in low-lying areas; that the seas will continue to acidify, destroying coral reefs.

But it matters — greatly — exactly what those effects will be. And in this way, at least, the newest IPCC report is marked by a sense of humility, as the world’s scientists come to grips with just how difficult it is to predict precisely how the planet will respond to rising carbon emissions and rising temperatures. Unlike the 2007 IPCC report — which was marred by a handful of errors, including one predicting that Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035, centuries earlier than any such change is likely to unfold — this year the IPCC is much more conservative about what can and cannot be known about a changing climate.

That means language that might seem less precise. Gone are confident predictions that climate change will definitely make hurricanes in the Atlantic stronger and more intense, as are projections that warming will place 250 million Africans at greater risk from water insecurity. Instead, the IPCC admits that warming will increase water stress and impact crop productivity, noting that “the fraction of the global population experiencing water scarcity and the fraction affected by major river floods increase with the level of warming in the 21st century.”

The report notes there are major uncertainties about the vulnerability of the world to climate change and how both natural and human systems will respond to warming, in part because those systems are so complex. In particular the report admits that the economic effects from climate change are “difficult to estimate,” ranging from 0.2% to 2% of global income.

Does this mean we don’t have anything to worry about from global warming? Not in the least. The IPCC isn’t telling us that the danger posed by global warming has fallen in the seven years since its last assessment report. Rather, the scientific body is more realistically putting climate change in the context of the countless other risks humanity faces — which is important, because climate risks and social risks can interact and amplify each other. Take conflict: the IPCC report notes that a warming world may make violent conflict more likely, but it also makes the case that countries already struggling with conflict will be less able to respond to climate change. Global warming is likely to make poor parts of the world even poorer, but existing poverty will worsen other impacts of climate change. “Climate-related hazards constitute an additional burden to people living in poverty, acting as a threat multiplier,” the report’s authors write.

A planet with 7 billion people and change is already a place that’s on the edge — and unchecked warming could help push us over.

TIME natural disaster

Landslides May Be Inevitable, But They’re Not Yet Predictable

A massive landslide killed dozens in Washington
Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images A massive landslide near Oso, Washington killed at least 16 people, with far more still missing

There was plenty of warning before the deadly Washington landslide. Why didn't it help?

There was the rain. The tiny town of Oso in northwestern Washington state is used to wet weather—rain falls every other day on average—but the past few months have been positively biblical, with precipitation as much as 200% above normal. There was the geography: steep terrain composed of glacial sediment, which is a loose mix of sand, silt and boulders, the geological equivalent of a banana peel. And there was the history. Mudslides have hit the land around Oso numerous times over the past few decades, including as recently as 2006. There’s a reason that some residents used to call the area “Slide Hill.”

Yet when the earth gave way on the morning on the morning of Mar. 22, no one was ready for the scale of devastation. More than 15 million cu. yards (11.5 million cu. m), equivalent to three million dump truck loads, came tumbling down, burying nearly 50 homes in a hilly area 60 miles (97 km) northeast of Seattle. At least 16 people have died in the landslide, which covered more than a square mile (2.6 sq. km) and more than 170 people are listed as missing, even as hope of finding survivors dwindles. Even if the number of missing comes down, as officials have predicted, this will go down as one of the deadliest landslides in U.S. history.

There was no shortage of warnings. As the Seattle Times reported earlier this week, a study by outside consultants had been filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1999 warning of “the potential for a large catastrophic failure” on the very hill that collapsed on Mar. 22. A 2000 study by the engineer and geomorphologist Tracy Drury warned that future landslides would take an increasing toll because “human development of the floodplain in this area has steadily increased.” Yet while local officials claimed that residents knew of the landslide risks, there’s little evidence that much was done to try to mitigate those risks. A 1,300 ft. (396 m) “crib wall” of boom logs anchored by 9,000 lb. (4,082 kg) concrete blocks every 50 ft. (15 m) was built after the 2006 landslide. But it was helpless against the landslide. “The place was set up to be unstable,” says David Montgomery, a geomorphologist at the University of Washington.

But despite all that, it’s not surprising that Oso wasn’t ready when the earth collapsed. Even though they kill more than 25 Americans and cause more than $2 billion in damages each year on average, landslides are the “underappreciated natural hazard,” as Montgomery puts it. But as Andrew Freedman points out on Mashable, that’s in part because there’s no uniform, national monitoring system:

Instead, the USGS, working with the National Weather Service (NWS) and state and local agencies, has put together a “patchwork quilt” of monitoring and experimental warning programs, based upon rainfall and soil moisture and pressure measurements. One such program has been in place near Puget Sound, but did not cover the area where the March 22 landslide occurred.

This is despite the fact that landslides are the most geographically dispersed natural hazard—all 50 states face at least some mudslide risk. But the widespread nature of landslide risk is part of the reason why there is no uniform warning system, although the USGS has put together a national map that identifies high-risk zones. (Unsurprisingly, they tend to be mountainous regions like the Appalachians, the Rockies and the Pacific Coastal ranges.) While landslides as a whole are common, they occur only rarely at any given location—even places as inherently unstable as the hills above Oso can go decades between slides. And while decades of study—and a national network of radar stations—has enabled meteorologists to predict hurricanes, tornadoes and other extreme weather with increasing precision, it is still incredibly difficult to identify when a landslide-prone hill will finally crumble. Heavy rainfall obviously plays a role, allowing water to infiltrate and loosen soil, but slides can also be triggered by earthquakes or erosion. “We can identify hazard zones, the places where you can expect a high probability of failure,” says Montgomery. “But it’s hard to say this slope will go on this particular day. We just don’t have enough data about the internal plumbing of the hillside.”

And it’s not just mountain towns that are at risk of landslides. Oregon state geologists have said that as much as 30% of metro Portland is in a high-risk zone for landslides, and a 2013 study by the University of Washington found that Seattle has some 8,000 buildings are at risk of an earthquake-induced landslide. Internationally, the danger is far greater: a 2o12 study in Geology estimated that rainfall-induced landslides alone—like the one near Oso—killed more than 32,000 people between 2004 and 2010, a massive toll, even though mudslides tend to get far less attention than earthquakes, hurricanes or tornadoes. Homes with a view come with danger attached, even if it’s one most people don’t know. Changing that fact might be the best way to ensure that the next major landslide is nowhere near as deadly.

TIME energy

The Afterlife of Oil Spills

Exxon Valdez oil spill cleanup
Chris Wilkins—AFP/Getty Images Nearly 11 million gallons of oil spilled into Prince William Sound after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill

Twenty-five years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, scientists are still reckoning with the ecological cost

On a shelf at my home, I have a small jar that contains a smear of crude oil. I dug it up on the shore of a small island in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in May of 2009, on a reporting trip for a story about the legacy of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. That crude oil is more than 25 years old now, and its existence is a reminder of just how long lived the effects of a major oil accident can be. Years after the spill has been stopped, after the press has gone home, the crude oil released into a river or a sea will affect the biology of almost anything it touches—just as it continues to weigh on the people who live and work in the area fouled by crude.

That’s worth remembering as we observe the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill today. On Mar. 25, 1989, a tanker captained by Joseph Hazelwood ran aground on Alaska’s Bligh Reef, spilling nearly 11 million gallons (42 million liters) of crude oil into Alaska’s near-pristine Prince William Sound. The oil spread out to more than 1,300 miles (2,100 km) of coastline, choking bird and sea life, and permanently damaging the region’s ecology. Even now, you can still find some of that oil on remote beaches in the Sound, preserved by the cold. As of 2010, just 12 of the 32 monitored wildlife populations, habitats and resource services affected by the spill were considered fully recovered or very likely recovered. The once-prosperous Pacific herring fishery still remains closed after the population of the fish crashed in the years following the spill. While much of the Sound has rebounded, it will never be the same—even a quarter century later.

The Exxon Valdez disaster was the biggest oil spill in U.S. history—until April 2010, when BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig was destroyed in a well blowout, leading to an oil gusher that lasted 87 days and resulted in more than 200 million gallons (757 million liters) of crude flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. While much of the oil was either cleaned up in a response operation that cost billions of dollars or was broken down by bacteria in the warm Gulf waters, the ecological damage from the spill was major, and almost four yeas later, scientists are only beginning to gauge the cost to marine life.

Here’s one example: in a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and several universities assessed the impact of Deepwater Horizon oil on developing embryos of bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna and amberjack, all commercially important fish species that spawn near the site of the accident. The research team exposed embryos taken from breeding facilities to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a toxic agent released by crude oil. In each tested species, PAH exposure—at levels the researchers said was realistic for the Gulf spill—was linked to abnormalities in heart function and defects in heart development. As the paper concluded:

Losses of early life stages were therefore likely for Gulf populations of tunas, amberjack, swordfish, billfish, and other large predators that spawned in oiled surface habitats.

The PNAS study isn’t the first to blame the BP oil spill for lingering problems with Gulf marine life; a study published earlier this month linked the spill to dwindling numbers of bottlenose dolphins Louisiana’s Barataria Ba. Nor will it be the last. But that hasn’t slowed the rush to keep drilling going in the Gulf of Mexico, a rush that BP has now been allowed to rejoin after initially being barred from participation in lease sales in the region. The British company won 24 out of 31 bids entered in an Interior Department offshore drilling lease sale held last week, paying more than $41 million for the right to explore oil and gas in the region. Altogether 1.7 million acres (.69 million hectares) off the coast of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were opened up for new drilling. Despite evidence of the risks, nothing seems likely to stop operations in the Gulf.

As long as there is offshore drilling and marine transport of oil, the risks of accidents will exist. Just two days before the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill, at least 168,000 gallons (636,000 liters) of oil spilled from a barge in Galveston Bay in Texas. The spill is blocking the bustling Houston Ship Channel, one of the busiest seaways in the U.S., and threatens an environmentally sensitive bird sanctuary nearby. Given the small size of the spill, it won’t have the kind of major aftereffects seen in the Valdez and the BP dissters. But it’s one more reminder that as long as our economy remains so dependent on oil, there will always be the risk of another catastrophe that could linger on and on.

[Update: BP sent along a statement in response to the PNAS study—I’m including it below:

The paper provides no evidence to suggest a population-level impact on tuna, amberjack or other pelagic fish species in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil concentrations used in these lab experiments were rarely seen in the Gulf during or after the Deepwater Horizon accident. In addition, the authors themselves note that it is nearly impossible to determine the early life impact to these species. To overcome this challenge, it would take more information than what’s presented in this paper.

It’s worth noting that the researchers mention in the paper how difficult it is to sample live but fragile yolksac larvae of big pelagic species like the bluefin tuna in the wild, which is the embryos used in the study were collected from breeding stations on land, not the Gulf itself.]

TIME Human Body

Your Nose Can Smell at Least 1 Trillion Scents

A new study demonstrates that your sense of smell is far more sensitive than you think and the world of scents is infinitely more varied. Scientists previously thought humans could smell around 10,000 different odors

Human beings tend to think of themselves as visual first, auditory second, then touch and taste. Down at the bottom of the five senses is smell—at least when it comes to how often we’re aware of it. And while we all know how pungent a bad smell can be, and how memorable a good smell is, we probably don’t think our olfactory sense is all that sensitive, at least compared to the rest of our senses—or to the keen sense of smells exhibited in the animal world (Sharks can’t literally smell fear, but they can distinguish the smell of fish even if they make up only one part for every 10 billion parts in the water).

While scientists estimate that human beings can discriminate between several million different colors and almost half a million different sounds, they have long assumed that we can distinguish perhaps 10,000 different odors. Most of the time humans are barely aware they’re smelling anything at all.

But in reality, our noses are incredibly sensitive—and a new study published in Science provides evidence of just how amazing our sniffers are. Researchers at Rockefeller University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) tested volunteers’ sense of smell using precisely crafted mixtures of odor molecules. After extrapolating the results, the researchers estimated that the average human being can distinguish between 1 trillion different odors, if not more, which makes our noses far more sensitive than any other organ in the body.

“The message here is that we have more sensitivity in our sense of smell than for which we give ourselves credit,” said Andreas Keller, a research associate at Rockefeller’s Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior and the lead author on the Science study, in a statement. “We just don’t pay attention to it and we don’t use it in everyday life.”

The idea that human beings could only distinguish between 10,000 smells has been around since a 1927 study that posited four elementary odors that people are able to distinguish on a nine-point scale. Do the math and you get 6,651 discernible olfactory sensations, a number that was later rounded up to 10,000. Although that value was widely cited, most scientists were skeptical—after all, the human eye uses just three light receptors to see millions of colors, while the typical nose has 400 different olfactory receptors. But as Leslie Vosshall of HHMI and another study co-author noted: “For smell, nobody ever took the time to test.”

Obviously the researchers weren’t going to try to test each smell individually—that would take forever. Instead, they used 128 different odorant molecules to create smell mixtures, using 10, 20 and 30 different components. The molecules themselves evoked familiar smells like cut grass, but when combined in random mixtures of as many as 30 different types, the smells became unfamiliar. That didn’t matter—the study subjects weren’t supposed to identify the smells. Instead, the researchers would present them with three vials of scents—two that were identical, and one that was unique—and asked them to indicate which scent was different than the others. Each of the 26 subjects made 264 comparisons.

Keller and his colleagues found that their study subjects could generally tell the difference between mixtures containing as much as 51.17% of the same components. Much higher than that, and they were unable to distinguish the smells—though it’s worth noting that some subjects could distinguish between smell mixtures that were as much as 90% similar. The researchers then extrapolated the total number of mixtures possible in each of their three categories. Since the majority of their study subjects could distinguish between mixtures that were 51.17% similar or less, they estimate that the average human can discriminate more than 1 trillion separate smells.

That is a vast number of scents, and it’s almost certainly too low, because there are many more odor molecules in the real world that could be mixed in nearly uncountable ways. So it’s not just that human beings have sensitive olfactory systems—though not that sensitive, otherwise more people would be able to distinguish smells that were more than 50% similar. It’s that the world offers a near infinite variety of smells. If human beings think their sense of smell isn’t that important, it has more to do with the fact that we’ve done our best to eliminate smells through refrigeration, air filtration, and yes, daily showers. As Vosshall put it:

The world is always changing. Plants are evolving new smells. Perfume companies are making new scents. You might move to some part of the world where you’ve never encountered the fruits and vegetables and flowers that grow there. But your nose is ready. With a sensory system that is that complex, we are fully ready for anything.

The nose, as it turns out, really does know.

TIME climate change

The End of Spring in a Warming World

Climate change affects flowering
Photo by Auscape/UIG via Getty Images Climate change is altering the timing and duration of wildflower blooming

As the planet warms, wildflower blooming and other signs of spring are moving earlier and earlier—altering our idea of what the seasons mean, and creating an unpredictable ripple effect

The first day of spring is finally here, even if it doesn’t feel that way in much of the still frigid East. Of course, the official beginning of spring has less to do with the weather than it does with Earth’s orbit around the sun—the vernal equinox is the day when the tilt of the planet’s axis is inclined neither toward nor away from the sun. (This also happens during the autumnal equinox at the beginning of fall, and of course the dates are reversed for the Southern Hemisphere.) Wherever you are in the world on Mar. 20, it’s all equinox.

But while the calendar stays the same, the seasons seem to be changing. As the planet warms, spring has been springing earlier. A 2009 study in Nature estimated that spring now comes about 1.7 days earlier than it did during the first half of the 20th century. Decades of data collected around Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond and Aldo Leopold’s plot of land in Wisconsin indicates that spring flowers have been blooming earlier and earlier in the year, responding to warmer temperatures. And a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that used 39 years of data concludes that wildflowers in the Colorado Rocky Mountains are blooming weeks earlier than they once did and producing their last blooms later. The bloom season, which used to run from late May to early September, now lasts from late April to late September, some 35 days longer.

An earlier spring, a longer blooming season—are these bad things? A lot of climate change skeptics don’t think so:

I can sympathize—after the winter we’ve had in the East, an earlier and longer spring sounds ideal. But the fact that warming seems to be changing the timing of the seasons should concern us, as any phenologist could tell you. Phenology is the study of periodic animal and plant lifecycles, and looks at how the regular variations in the climate that we call seasons affect life. It’s a rich subject area because nearly every form of life runs on recurring cycles governed by the external cues of the environment. This is how Leopold, one of the foremost conservationists in American history and a keen observer of the seasons, put it:

Many of the events of the annual cycle recur year after year in a regular order. A year-to-year record of this order is a record of the rates at which solar energy flows to and through living things. They are the arteries of the land. By tracing their response to the sun, phenology may eventually shed some light on that ultimate enigma, the land’s inner workings.

Take that wildflower study I cite above. Paul CaraDonna, a graduate student at the University of Arizona in Tucson and the lead author of the study, was drawn to the research in part because of his interest in the native bees and other pollinators in the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, 9,500-ft. above sea level near Crested Butte, Colo. Bees depend on flowers for nutrition, so when the bloom season shifts, it’s going to affect the bees. Despite the longer blooming season, plants aren’t producing more flowers. With the same number of flowers blooming over a longer period of time, bees could face a situation where there are fewer in bloom at any given time. “The competition can go up between pollinators for these resources because there’s going to be lesser availability over a greater period of time,” says CaraDonna. And if bees experience repeated population loss, that can in turn impact the very plants that depend on the insects for pollination.

A earlier blooming season can also place wildflowers in danger if they’re hit by a late frost. The meadows the team studies can experience frosts as late as mid-June. “If the snow melts in mid-April, the flowers can have a month and a half before they get zapped by frost in a fragile state,” says CaraDonna. “If you rely on the flowers and they get hit that way, you’ll have no food.” That’s precisely what happened in 2012, when a frost in mid-May wiped out a huge number of flowers that had bloomed early in the season.

Change the timing of spring, and there’s no telling what can happen—although as Amy Iler, another co-author on the study, points out: “It would be very surprising if everything turns out perfectly fine.” Iler and her colleagues are only beginning to piece together how a shifting blooming season will change the environment of the Rocky Mountain meadows—and it will be even more difficult for ecologists to predict the response elsewhere, in places that lack 39 years of minutely recorded data. (The research was begun in 1974 by David Inoyue, a biologist now at the University of Maryland, and over the years Inoyue and his collaborators have counted more than 2 million separate flowers.) The land is still “an enigma,” as Leopold put it, but the X factor of climate change will only make the mystery of the natural world that much more complex. As we add more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we’re putting ourselves on the path towards an ever more uncertain future, one where even the seasons themselves become unmoored from the calendar.

But if nature’s response to the phenological changes of global warming still remain to be fully discovered, our emotional response is already being felt, as the novelist Zadie Smith wrote recently in the New York Review of Books:

There is the scientific and ideological language for what is happening to the weather, but there are hardly any intimate words. Is that surprising? People in mourning tend to use euphemism; likewise the guilty and ashamed. The most melancholy of all the euphemisms: “The new normal.” “It’s the new normal,” I think, as a beloved pear tree, half-drowned, loses its grip on the earth and falls over. The train line to Cornwall washes away—the new normal. We can’t even say the word “abnormal” to each other out loud: it reminds us of what came before. Better to forget what once was normal, the way season followed season, with a temperate charm only the poets appreciated.

Smith isn’t quite right—as spring becomes a moving target, there is no normal any longer, new or old. March 20 will remain the equinox. The rest remains to be seen.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com