TIME Environment

Wal-Mart Could Make Organic Food Cheap—and Eventually, Plentiful

Customers enter a Wal-Mart store on Feb. 20, 2014 in San Lorenzo, Calif.
Customers enter a Wal-Mart store on Feb. 20, 2014 in San Lorenzo, Calif. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

The retail giant says it will sell some organic products at 25% below what its competitors cost. That's good for the organic market

If you still think organic food is something for hippies and vegans—and best of all, hippie vegans, though that might be redundant—it’s time to update your cultural stereotypes. This morning Wal-Mart announced that it would begin carrying products from the Wild Oats organic line—and that it would offer the goods at prices that are at least 25% cheaper than their organic competitors. Wal-Mart, the Bentonville behemoth that became the biggest retailer in the world by ruthlessly lowering prices, wants to make organic food cheap. And that could make the organic food market go supernova. “If we can make the price premium disappear, we think it will grow much, much faster,” Jack Sinclair, executive vice president of grocery at Wal-Mart U.S., told reporters.

Organic has already been growing rapidly. Though the category still accounted for just 4% of total U.S. food sales at the beginning of 2012, organic sales rose to 10.2% that year, or $29 billion. A decade earlier, organic sales were just $8 billion. And this rapid growth is occurring even as sales at traditional supermarkets have been slumping. A wide swath of customers are switching to organic food when they can, and chances are even more would make the move if they could afford it: internal research at Wal-Mart found that 91% of its customers would buy “affordable” organic products if they were available. Over at Fortune magazine—another Time Inc. title—the editors are hailing the organic star Whole Foods on the cover of their latest edition:

The Austin-based chain is one of the country’s most successful retailers — its revenue has doubled and profits have tripled since 2007 — defying dismal grocery industry trends by offering consumers a mix of organics, truly delicious prepared foods, and an expanding array of staples under its 365 house brand. Now, having conquered affluent suburbs and trendy urban areas, Whole Foods is out to win over the rest of America.

In the short term, Wal-Mart’s move—which for now will be confined to staples like olive oil and tomato paste—could actually raise prices for some organic foods. That’s because the demand for organics has been outpacing the supply —this year there’s been a shortage of organic milk in many places, and organic egg production has dropped even as demand has increased because the price of the organic feed needed for the hens that lay the eggs has skyrocketed. (The example of milk is instructive: sales of whole organic milk nationwide increased 17% from January through October 2011, compared with the same period in 2010—even as sales of conventional milk over those months fell by 2%.) Under U.S. Agricultural Department rules, it also takes at least three years for farmers to switch from conventional crops to organic ones, so there will likely be a lag.

Still Wal-Mart’s unique, um, talent for getting suppliers to do what it wants will likely ensure that organic supply will rise to meet that growing demand over time, at prices that are less than what consumers have been accustomed to paying. The cognitive dissonance is inevitable—for the hardest-core of organic shoppers, the ones who long ago turned away from conventional groceries because of health and environmental fears, Wal-Mart is up there with Monsanto as a symbol of all that is is evil in the food world. But Wal-Mart has actually been selling organic products for years with a lot of success. And just as the company’s adoption of energy efficiency and renewable energy—while not without problems—has helped push those technologies towards the mainstream, Wal-Mart’s embrace of cheap organic could have a major impact on the American diet and farming. Scale is a hell of a thing.

TIME Environment

Banning GMO Labeling Is a Bad Idea—For GMOs

GMO labeling laws in California
A new bill in Congress would nullify state efforts to mandate labeling of GMO foods Robyn Beck—AFP/Getty Images

A bill introduced in Congress would nullify any state effort to require labeling of genetically modified organisms. But that will make GMO acceptance even less likely, as public support for GMO labels is on the rise

Americans in two states have voted on ballot initiatives that would have required the labeling of any foods made with genetically modified ingredients (GMOs, for short). And twice, voters rejected those initiative in close ballots—thanks in part to tens of millions of dollars spent by GMO crop developers like Monsanto and industry groups like the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). You’d think then that GMO supporters in the food industry would be feeling pretty confident that they could win on genetically-modified food legislation.

Apparently you’d be wrong. Republican Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas introduced on Wednesday new legislation that would nullify any attempt by states to require GMO labeling. More than two dozen states so far are considering bills that would mandate some form of labeling, with Maine and Connecticut having so far passed labeling measures into law. According to Pompeo, that’s enough to mandate a federal response:

We’ve got a number of states that are attempting to put together a patchwork quilt of food labeling requirements with respect to genetic modification of foods. That makes it enormously difficult to operate a food system. Some of the campaigns in some of these states aren’t really to inform consumers but rather aimed at scaring them. What this bill attempts to do is set a standard.

The bill—the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act”—would prohibit any mandatory labeling of foods made with bioengineering. The bill would also make it virtually impossible for states to block any efforts by food companies to put a “natural” label on any product that does contain GMO ingredients, requiring the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to create regulations that specify the maximum level of accidental GMO presence allowed in foods that come with a non-GMO label.

Translation: it’s almost as if the bill’s drafters were trying to hit on every fear that GMO-phobes have. It’s not surprising that the Environmental Working Group (EWG)—an environmental non-profit that has been deeply skeptical of GMOs—has called the bill the “Deny Americans the Right to Know Act.” As Marni Karlin, the director of legislative and legal affairs at the Organic Trade Association, said in a statement:

Consumers, particularly the eight out of ten American families who buy organic products, want to know what is in their food. Rep. Pompeo’s bill ignores this consumer demand for information. Instead, it ties the hands of state governments, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration concerning GMO labeling. It is fatally flawed.

It’s worth noting that even though ballot initiatives to require GMO labeling have twice failed, polls indicate strong support for labeling nationally. A New York Times survey last July found that 93% of Americans believe that foods containing GMO ingredients should be labeled. But we’re still a long way from that happening. While both Connecticut and Maine have passed laws mandating labeling, the measures don’t actually kick in until other nearby states approve similar laws. It seems a little early to pass a federal law to nullify state laws that aren’t actually in power yet.

In reality, though, arguments about GMO labeling tend to be arguments about GMOs—their usefulness and their safety. Confusion is rampant over GMOs, and if you want smart, straight reporting on the subject, check out Nathanael Johnson’s great series at Grist, which is summarized here. Like Johnson, I think the hazards posed by GMOs are “negligible to non-existent.” While they have yet to really fulfill their promise, GMOs can be a useful tool as the world tries to figure out how to feed billions more people without significantly increasing farmland, something that would be far worse for the environment than any genetically modified crop.

But the fact that I think properly regulated GMOs can be an important part of global farming is also why I think this bill is a mistake. Would a patchwork of laws mandating GMO labeling in some states and not others be an enormous and costly headache? Yes. But the same surveys that show support for GMO labeling also show deep distrust of bioengineering in food. And a lot of that distrust stems from the sense that GMOs are somehow being foisted on consumers without their knowledge or their consent. As Johnson notes, that increases the sense of risk around GMOs:

In a famous paper on risk perception, published in Science in 1987, Paul Slovic pointed out that people judge voluntary, controllable actions as much less risky than those that are involuntary and out of their control. Similarly, people see the unknown as much more risky than the known. Genetically engineered foods are, for most people, both unknown and uncontrollable.

By passing a law that would preemptively ban any attempt to require labeling, GMO defenders are playing into the hands of their opponents, making bioengineering feel far more risky than it really is. GMO advocates are losing this battle—see a company as mainstream as General Mills announce that a flagship product like Cheerios would now be made without genetically modified ingredients. If the food industry was smart, it would take a leading role in establishing a national standard for GMO labels. But given the bloody way this endless debate has played out, I wouldn’t expect a truce any time soon.

 

TIME relationships

Drunk Voles Have A Lot To Teach Us About Relationships

A prairie vole, Microtus ochrogaster.
Joel Sartore—National Geographic Creative/Getty Images

Alcohol makes male prairie voles more restless in partnerships and likely to stray, while it makes females want to get closer to their partners. Does the same go for humans?

Science can be fun. Case in point: for a recent study, researchers from the Oregon Health and Science University and a number of other institutions gathered a group of prairie voles—small rodents found in central North America—and then, as if the scientists were frat brothers and the voles were humble pledges, proceeded to get them drunk.

No, this study was not published in The Onion. (You may be thinking of the influential “New Study Finds College Binge Drinking to be a Blast.”) It was actually published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and the work actually offers valuable data about how alcohol use can impact how couples bond.

Here’s how: the researchers took a group of prairie voles and paired them off, male and female. Unlike many animals, prairie voles tend to mate for life, which makes them a useful model for studying social interactions. The male and female pairs were then given either water or a 10% alcohol solution, which is a little less than you might get in a normal glass of wine. (Another human-like trait of voles: they love to drink when they have the opportunity, preferring the alcohol to water, and in laboratory conditions they’ve even been shown to subtly encourage their partners to drink more.) The researchers then tested whether the voles would show a preference to spend time with their partners, or with a stranger vole.

The results will not be surprising to anyone who has been in a bar on a Saturday night. The male voles who had been given water always preferred their partner, but the ones who been given alcohol often wanted to spend time with strangers. For female voles, it was the opposite—consuming alcohol strengthened their desire to spend time with their partners, compared to when they were given only water. There were also contrasting changes in the neural systems that regulate social behavior. “It’s the first time we’ve shown that alcohol drinking can directly affect social bonding and that these effects are paralleled by changes in neuropeptides,” Andrey Ryabinin, a behavioral neuroscientist at Oregon Health and Science University and the lead researcher on the paper, told National Geographic.

What’s particularly interesting is that the alcohol had no effect on the amount of mating that went on between the voles—both the drunk ones and the sober ones—which means sex wasn’t playing a role in the differences in bonding behavior. Instead the difference between the genders seemed to come down to the effect that alcohol had on anxiety. In males, alcohol use seemed to decrease anxiety, whereas in females, alcohol seemed to increase anxiety. The relaxed males were less inclined to commit, while the stressed out females were more likely to seek out their bonded partners.

Voles aren’t people—we’re taller, for one thing—but the PNAS study bears out some of the effects that alcohol can have in human relationships, as seen experimentally and in, you know, experience. As the authors write:

The enhancement of attachment in female prairie voles parallels the prosocial effects of alcohol in humans. The inhibition of bond formation in males is reminiscent of the negative effects of alcohol on long-term attachments and marital happiness, which occur for both men and women.

That last bit is important—male or female, alcohol does not tend to be the strongest building block for couple partnering over the long term. (Citation: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) But you probably don’t need a peer-reviewed study to tell you that.

TIME Environment

Renewable Energy Investment Is Down—and That’s OK

Solar and wind in Germany
Investment in renewables like solar and wind is down, but their share of global power is up Sean Gallup—Getty Images

Funding for solar, wind and other forms of clean power fell 14% in 2013, largely because it's now cheaper to adapt to the newer technologies, but that doesn't mean the shift to renewable energy has fully stopped

On the surface, the new numbers on the global renewable energy industry in 2013 do not look good for the planet. Investment in renewable energy fell 14% in 2013 to $214.4 billion, according to a new report from the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate and Sustainable Energy Finance, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Bloomberg New Energy Finance. And that comes after a year when renewable energy investment was already falling—it’s now down 23% from the record investment levels seen in 2011. Given that recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) underscore the desperate need to increase the shift from fossil fuel to low-carbon power sources like solar or nuclear, the two-year investment decline is not good news.

But looking at the numbers more closely tells a brighter story. It’s true that investment in renewable energy has been falling, but that’s chiefly due to the rapidly falling cost of solar photovoltaic systems, according to Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The average price of installing a solar panel has dropped by 60% in the U.S., which means that less money can buy more solar power. Globally, renewable energy aside from large hydro plants accounted for 43.6% of all new power capacity added last year—the same as in 2012—which translated to 81 gigawatts. That raised renewable energy’s share of total power generation from 7.8% to 8.5%.

On top of that, more clean energy companies can draw funding from public equity—a stock market index of clean tech companies was up 54% in 2013. And the biggest drop was in a form of energy—biofuels—that’s looking less green every year. Even with investment down, the shift towards a world powered by low-carbon sources hasn’t stopped. “The onward march of this sector is inevitable,” said Liebreich at a press conference Monday morning.

The biggest change on the global stage was in Europe, where investment was down 44% from the year before (U.S. investment fell by 10%). Some of that drop is due to the delayed effects of Europe’s economic slowdown, which led countries like Spain and Bulgaria to make retroactive cuts to subsidies for existing renewable energy projects, which killed off investment altogether. Renewable energy remains heavily subsidized in most of the world, which makes it extremely vulnerable to policy uncertainty. “For the last few years there has been enormous policy uncertainty, even in the heart of Europe,” says Leibreich. “We’re at a point where there will be a lot of regulatory cleanup.”

There are even some caveats to the caveats. Those 81 GW of wind, solar and other renewables added to the global grid last year is in terms of power capacity, not actual generation. Because wind and solar are intermittent—they generate power when the wind blows and the sun shines—they actually generate far less energy in practice than their listed capacity. In the U.S., the capacity factor for renewables—excluding hydro—was 33.9%, compared to 63.8% for coal and 90.3% for nuclear. Until we figure out how to balance out the renewable sources—either through cheap energy storage or through more advanced power grids—clean energy will often need to be supported by dirtier power sources.

Still, renewable energy is poised to become an ever bigger part of the global energy picture—though perhaps not as fast we need if we’re to stave off the worst effects of climate change. We’ll need not just more investment in new wind and solar plants, but also in the sort of research that will yield breakthrough technologies that can change the rules of the energy industry (More nuclear, by far the biggest source of near zero-carbon power in the U.S., would help as well). This is a power shift that is just beginning.

TIME climate change

Climate Change Is a Game of Risk

Hurricane Sandy flooding effects
Climate change could increase the risk of catastrophic events like Hurricane Sandy Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Climate change is uncertain, which is why the best way to understand how warming will change the world is through the language of risk

Every new chapter of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment is boiled down into what is known as a policymaker’s summary—a 40-page or so document that is meant to contain the essential conclusions of the panel’s work and be used to guide politicians and the business community as they respond to global warming. Or at least that’s the idea.

Though chapter 2 of the fifth assessment—which was released on Mar. 31 in Yokohama—had no shortage of dire warnings about global warming, including projections that food could become scarcer as temperatures increased, it doesn’t seem as if many policymakers read the policymaker’s summary—let alone the full report, which runs over 1,000 pages. Kate Gordon, the director of the think tank Next Generation’s energy and climate program, noted that no speaker at the Wall Street Journal‘s ECO:nomics conference—a conference devoted to the intersection between the environment and business—actually brought up the issue of global warming until well into the afternoon of the summit’s second day. “Energy prices, energy volatility, future of utilities? Yes,” she wrote. “Climate change? No.”

If climate change is going to matter as a political and economic issue, it needs to be translated into political and economic terms. Out in San Francisco the hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer is trying to make climate matter for politics, promising to spend tens of millions of dollars in 2014 on attack ads targeting politicians who oppose action on global warming. And Steyer is also involved in an effort to make climate change matter for the business community, teaming up with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson on the Risky Business initiative, a wide-ranging project that will eventually produce a major report about the likely economic impact of climate change on U.S. business. “We came to this thinking how do we get to a place and a way of talking about climate change that is comfortable for the business community,” says Gordon, who also serves as the executive director of Risky Business. “And that’s the language of risk.”

Risk—you’ll be hearing that word a lot in the context of climate change. That’s because the best way of thinking about the impact of global warming—and especially the economic impact—is as a risk factor. As the climate warms, sea level will rise, which puts coastal communities—from tens of millions of poor people in Bangladesh to ultra-wealthy Manhattanites—at greater risk of flooding. Warming may also intensify tropical weather, potentially increasing the risk of catastrophic storms like Katrina. If climate change cuts into the yield of crops like wheat or corn—as the latest IPCC report predicts—that could raise the risk of violent conflict in already impoverished countries. Climate change is a risk multiplier.

Putting climate change in the context of risk also gets around the uncertainty inherent in trying to predict the effects of something as fiendishly complex as global warming. Read the IPCC report closely, and you’ll see that there’s a lot of hedging, especially when it comes to the impact that warming temperatures will have on extreme weather. That’s not evidence that global warming doesn’t exists; rather, it’s evidence that climate scientists are honest about what they know and what they don’t know. And it doesn’t give us a free pass—it’s possible that hurricanes might not be responsive to warming, and it’s also possible that warming could supercharge storms. “The very fact of uncertainty—that’s what we mean by risk,” says Hemant Shah, the CEO of Risk Management Solutions (RMS), a catastrophe risk modeling firm that is taking part in the Risky Business initiative.

And this is what’s really important: businesses already know how to deal with risk. They’re accustomed to operating in an uncertain world, and hedging that risk appropriately, whether it’s the threat of natural disaster, war or regulation. By making CEOs see that climate change is just another form of risk—albeit one that’s potentially on a scale larger than any we’ve faced before—the Risky Business initiative will hopefully nudge them towards taking some steps to mitigate that risk. “The question is, what decisions can we make to manage that risk appropriately,” says Shah. “We think this is incredibly important work.”

RMS, which uses complex analytics to model natural catastrophe risk in real time, will provide much of the science behind Risky Business. The company’s analysts will use climate data and models to map out how rising seas, warming temperatures and changing atmospheric patterns could alter the natural disasters that already cost the global economy tens of billions of dollars each year. The result won’t be a single figure—a dollar cost that we can hang on climate change—but it will help us understand the danger we face. The question then is whether we’ll finally listen.

TIME Air Pollution

Smoggy Sand: How Deserts Spread Air Pollution

Smog levels are high in London
High levels of air pollution in London were caused in part by Sahara sand Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Sand can blow a long way—as residents in suddenly smoggy London are learning

For the last few days, the skyline of London—so often an indifferent gray—has resembled Los Angeles in the 1960s, or Beijing. A nasty bout of smog has gripped Britain’s capital and much of England, with pollution levels so high that people with health problems and the elderly have been warned to avoid strenuous activity outside.

London’s current smog is nothing compared to the air pollution the city once suffered—the city was choked in coal smoke for much of the 19th century, and the Great Smog of 1952 killed some 4,000 people. But what’s truly unusual is the cause: not just local emissions from cars and power plants, but from dust that has blown in from the Sahara Desert in northern Africa, over 2,000 miles (3,218 km) away. The dust has blown in on northern winds, where it mixes in the air with local pollutants. The dust is brought down to earth by rain, and when that water evaporates, it leaves behind a layer of visible dust.

Britain isn’t the only place that can have dust-related smog. In East Asia, sand from the Gobi Desert is blown east every spring. The so-called Asian Dust passes over parts of China, North and South Korea and Japan, sometimes so heavy that residents can feel the dust in their eyes and their teeth. The dust can even be carried thousands of miles across the Pacific to North America—a study published in Science last year found that dust in the atmosphere can actually increase rainfall in California.

But what’s worrying is that the Gobi is growing every year, as excessive farming in China and increasingly dry weather converts grassland into desert. The Chinese government has tried to create what it calls a “Green Belt” of millions of trees that it hopes will hold back the spread of desertification, but so far, many of them have died. And climate change seems likely to increase the rate of desertification, as the Gobi gets even hotter and drier. In a changing world, not even deserts can be trusted to stay in the same place—as London is learning.

TIME Environment

The Last Coral Reefs

The SVII camera can take hundreds of photos of coral reefs, turning them into 360-degree panoramas
The SVII camera can take hundreds of photos of coral reefs, turning them into 360-degree panoramas Jayne Jenkins—Catlin Seaview Survey

A new survey is documenting the rain forests of the ocean—before they’re gone

There’s only one way to lower a $20,000 custom-made underwater camera from a swaying fishing boat into the open sea: very, very carefully. And that’s exactly how Manuel Gonzalez-Rivero’s colleagues handled the SVII camera as they nudged it overboard, where the coral ecologist was bobbing in the bathtub-warm waters off the Central American country of Belize. Gonzalez-Rivero is based at the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute in Australia, but he was in the Caribbean working with the Catlin Seaview Survey, a scientific expedition that is assessing threatened coral reefs around the world. Once in the water, the cumbersome SVII–a beach-ball-size camera head with three separate lenses at the end of a 7-ft. (2 m) pole–was easy for Gonzalez-Rivero to maneuver. The camera’s attached propeller sled saved the scientist the work of swimming as he covered more than a mile of Belize’s protected Glover’s Reef, part of the vast and endangered Mesoamerican Reef that stretches from southern Honduras to the eastern tip of Mexico.

Every three seconds, the lenses on the SVII–facing to the left, right and below the camera head–snapped pictures of the reef. Over the course of his 45-minute dive, Gonzalez-Rivero produced more than 900 detailed images of Glover’s Reef, each one rich with data about corals and sea life. Back on the catamaran that served as the expedition’s temporary base, those images would be processed to generate a precise three-dimensional image of the reef. Later, computers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography would analyze the pictures, giving scientists a quick diagnosis of the health of one of the most valuable marine ecosystems in the Caribbean. What’s long been possible on land, thanks to satellites scanning jungles and deserts, is now feasible beneath the waves. “Every coral reef is different,” says Gonzalez-Rivero. “This will allow us to see the reef as it really is.”

And we have to see it today, because coral reefs may not be here tomorrow. It’s a cliché to call coral reefs the rain forests of the ocean, but if anything, that understates their ecological value. They occupy less than 0.1% of the sea area, yet “between one-fourth and one-third of everything that lives in the ocean lives in a coral reef,” says Nancy Knowlton, who holds the Smithsonian Institution’s Sant Chair in Marine Science. Coral reefs support more species per square kilometer than any other marine environment, providing habitat, food and spawning grounds. And fish are not the only beneficiaries. The net economic value of coral reefs globally is almost $30 billion a year, and some 500 million people around the world depend on coral reefs for food, coastal protection and tourism.

At a time when climate concerns continue to mount–a widely watched March 31 report from a United Nations panel warned of drastic effects across the globe–coral reefs are under intense threat. Overfishing and coastal overpollution and development have left all but the most remote reefs a shadow of what they once were. By one estimate, the Caribbean has lost 80% of its coral cover over the past 50 years. And the future is even darker: the one-two punch of global warming and ocean acidification could make the seas essentially inhospitable to coral, with dire consequences for marine life. The U.N. report, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warned that coral reefs are “the most vulnerable marine ecosystem on Earth” to the effects of global warming. “If we don’t dodge this bullet, the only coral reefs that our children’s grandchildren will see will be in picture books,” says Steve Palumbi, director of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station.

That’s what makes the Catlin Seaview Survey so timely. The oceans in their full volume account for as much as 90% of the planet, but humans have seen just 5% of the underwater world with their own eyes. Ocean exploration can be expensive, difficult and time-consuming, even in the relatively shallow coastal waters where most reefs are found. But Seaview, which aims to survey every major coral reef worldwide, is able to take advantage of new advances in video and computer analysis to produce a long, sustained look at the oceans, essentially digitizing the seas. The result will be the kind of data that marine scientists have long craved. “By creating a really large global baseline of coral health, we can identify the areas that really need protecting,” says Richard Vevers, project director of the Catlin Seaview Survey. “We want to reveal the oceans of the world.”

Disappearing Riches

While I was in Belize with the Seaview team, I had the chance to view a coral reef the old-fashioned way–I dived it. Glover’s Reef, which is about 28 miles (45 km) off the Belize coast, lies at the heart of the largest reef system in the western hemisphere. As I hovered lazily near the ocean floor–while Gonzalez-Rivero and his colleagues carried out actual science above me–I could pick out boulder-size brain coral, jagged fire coral and majestic elkhorn coral. Sea fans billowed like flags in the underwater current.

Reefs look like living rocks–and in a sense, that’s what they are. Corals are tiny invertebrates that exist in symbiosis with photosynthetic single-cell algae called zooxanthellae, which live inside the coral’s tissue. (The zooxanthellae provide food to the coral by converting sunlight into energy.) Corals build up hard exoskeletons made of layers of secreted calcium carbonate, which form the reef. In a healthy reef, you can see everything from tiny gobies to predatory sharks swimming amid a network of coral as intricate as a medieval cathedral. “Coral reefs are a magic ecosystem,” says Palumbi. “If you could make the deserts bloom on land, that’s what coral reefs do for the oceans.”

Glover’s Reef, which is part of Belize’s protected Hol Chan Marine Reserve, is one of the healthier coral ecosystems in the Caribbean. But even here the reef isn’t what it once was. Coral cover dropped from 80% in 1971 to 13% in 1999, although there has been some recovery since, thanks to the recent establishment of a no-fishing zone. Most other Caribbean reefs are in far worse shape. The heavily developed waters off the coasts of countries like Jamaica are now little more than coral graveyards. Veteran coral ecologists who began by diving in the once verdant reefs of the Caribbean have witnessed the coral collapse over the course of their careers. “I’m 64, and everyone of my generation who became a conservation biologist has seen this loss happen in real time,” says Knowlton.

While Caribbean reefs have been particularly hard hit, corals around the world face the same threats. Overfishing species at the top of the food chain can cause a chain reaction, leading to the loss of smaller herbivores that play an important role in controlling the growth of seaweed, which competes with corals for living space. Pollution from coastal areas can kill corals–especially fertilizer runoff from agriculture, which can promote the growth of algae species that crowd out corals. Humans can accidentally introduce invasive species like the lionfish, a voracious eater that has plundered the Caribbean like Blackbeard the pirate. At least a quarter of the world’s corals have been lost over the past 25 years.

What really frightens coral scientists are the threats that will arise in the future. “If we push this too far, corals won’t be able to bounce back,” says Peter Mumby, a coral ecologist at the University of Queensland. “The whole system will collapse over time.” Climate change poses an existential challenge. Corals don’t like it when the water around them suddenly heats up, which can trigger what’s known as bleaching. The coral organism reacts by ejecting the zooxanthella algae living inside its tissues, which robs the coral of both its color and its source of food. While bleaching doesn’t necessarily kill the coral outright, it leaves it extremely vulnerable to other stresses. (In 1998, El Niño–led warming sparked the worst bleaching event on record, with 16% of the world’s coral lost in a year.) Even as climate change warms the seas, the additional carbon dioxide absorbed by the oceans will turn the water more acidic, which will in turn interfere with corals’ ability to form reefs. A 2013 study by researchers at the Carnegie Institution projected that if carbon emissions are not brought under control, no part of the ocean will be able to support coral reefs by 2100, and the new IPCC report predicts that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef will continue to degrade even if warming is slower than projected. “You could lose the coral reefs altogether,” says Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist at Carnegie and a co-author of the paper. Coral scientists are right to fear that they could spend the rest of their careers watching their subject die.

Recording for Posterity

When Richard Vevers switched careers from advertising to underwater photography, he became friends with the great Australian underwater filmmaker and shark expert Ron Taylor, best known for his work on movies like Jaws. Vevers would dive along the Great Barrier Reef and bring back what he thought were images of a pristine marine ecosystem, bristling with coral and sea life. But when he showed his pictures to Taylor, the veteran photographer would just shake his head. “He’d say, ‘That’s great, but you don’t know how it used to be,'” says Vevers. “I didn’t believe it at first, but it began to sink in. I realized that there’s this decline that’s been happening almost too slow for people to notice.”

There’s a term for that decline: shifting baselines. Fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly coined it to describe how overfishing has changed the oceans so rapidly over the past several decades that what we think of as normal from recent experience–the baseline–has had to shift to keep up with what is actually a diminished reality. “We transform the world, but we don’t remember it,” Pauly said in a 2010 TED talk. “We adjust our baseline to the new level, and we don’t recall what was there.”

Shifting baselines can be seen in all environmental science, but they’re a particular problem in ocean research. Marine scientists have had to rely on quick hits–grabbing data from scuba surveys, competing for a spot on a submersible. Even those research trips are growing rarer in a budget-constrained age. Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point on the planet, in 1960, but no one returned there until director James Cameron did so in 2012 in a submersible he designed and paid for himself. Our understanding of the oceans is “very data-poor,” says David Kline of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. It’s as if we were trying to comprehend a movie by seeing a few random frames rather than the full, uncut length.

The Catlin Seaview Survey is working to create that complete film. The photographs taken by the SVII camera can be digitally combined to create panoramic images that reveal the underwater world with striking depth and clarity. Seaview has partnered with Google to put many of those images online as part of Google Ocean’s efforts to take its Street View program–which shows ground-level photographs from around the world–beneath the waves. (Seaview is primarily sponsored by the Bermuda-based reinsurance company Catlin Group, which has been funding climate-change research, knowing that global warming could hit the insurance industry hard.) Underwater images from Seaview’s first extended expedition–a four-month mission in 2013 that covered more than 90 miles (145 km) of the Great Barrier Reef–have already been viewed millions of times. With the help of time-lapse technology, the images can be stitched together to engineer what seems like a digital scuba dive through one of the best-preserved coral-reef systems in the world–albeit one that has lost more than 50% of its coral cover over the past 30 years. “People can see the beauty of this world for themselves,” says Jenifer Austin Foulkes, project manager of the Google Ocean Program. “It’s a powerful tool.”

The underwater world has suffered as an environmental cause because of its inaccessibility. Scuba diving, after all, became possible only in the postwar era. Vevers hopes the beauty and accessibility of the images that Seaview records will help motivate the public to care for the seas. “Ninety-nine percent of people don’t dive and probably never will,” he says. “We need to bring the oceans to the people.” If people can dial up a view of their closest reef the way they can zero in on their childhood home on Google Earth, they might begin to care about the 70% of the planet that is covered in water.

But the lasting value of Seaview will be in the science it supports. Underwater research has always been limited by two things: air and space. Humans–in scuba gear or in submersibles–can stay underwater for only so long and can bring only so much equipment with them. The standard method of surveying coral involved researchers diving a reef and taking photographs of the area they covered, square foot by square foot, then analyzing those images on a research boat or at a station. Each of those images could require 15 to 30 minutes of work by a trained observer. Scientists had to extrapolate the whole from a small data set, not least because there was no way to survey an entire coral reef. The Great Barrier Reef, for example, covers 134,364 sq. mi. (348,000 sq km).

A Gloomy Picture

Over the next several years, Seaview expects to cover the Caribbean, the Coral Sea in Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, producing hundreds of thousands of underwater images along the way. Under the old methods, it would have taken years for scientists to analyze it all, and most of the pictures would likely have remained in a dusty hard drive somewhere in the back of a lab. But Scripps and the University of California at San Diego, employing facial-recognition technology similar to what the CIA employs to analyze crowd photos, are using a computer program to scan each image from the expedition and spit out the pictured species and extent of coral growth–all more than a hundred times faster than such work could have been done by humans alone. The accuracy of the machine is already at 90%, and as the program analyzes more images, it will become more precise, learning along the way. “What used to take us years we can now do in weeks and months,” says Scripps’ Kline. “We’ll have large-scale, quality data about the health of the reefs, and that will let managers make much more informed decisions about protection policies.” This is a Big Data solution to a very big scientific challenge.

There’s no time to waste: the picture is vanishing even as we take it. I loved diving in the aquamarine waters of Glover’s Reef, letting my fingers drift past the outstretched arms of elkhorn coral. It was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever been. Yet I could tell–or maybe just feel–that something had been lost. It seemed empty of all but the smallest species, the result of years of intense fishing that more recent protections have only begun to reverse. My guide saw a hammerhead shark circling in the blue, but I missed it. It’s easy to miss things underwater.

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

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

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.

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