TIME Solar Power

A Bright Year for Solar in the U.S.—But There Are Clouds on the Horizon

The solar industry is growing in the U.S., but a trade war could change that Don Emmert—AFP/Getty Images

Energy harvested from the Sun was the second-biggest source of new electricity generation capacity in 2013, but there are clouds on the horizon as a trade war between the U.S. and China stands to throw a monkey wrench in the works

You don’t get any brighter than the reflecting mirrors at the just-opened Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, in California‘s Mojave desert. When I visited the project back in May, I was warned not to look directly at the mirrors, lest my eyeballs end up as scorched as some of the birds that have flown through the 1,000° F-plus (538° C) heat generated by the solar towers. The picture is almost as bright for solar as a whole in the U.S. According to statistics released today by the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group, demand for solar increased by 41% in 2013, with 4.75 gigawatts of photovoltaic panels installed last year. (1 GW is about enough energy to power 750,000 homes.) That made solar the second-biggest source of new generation power in the U.S. after natural gas, which is still benefiting from the shale revolution. By the end of 2013, there were more than 440,000 operating solar electric systems in the U.S., with more than 12 GW of photovoltaic (PV) and nearly 1 GW of concentrated solar power.

While big utility scale plants like Ivanpah, which harnesses the heat of the sun with concentrated solar mirrors, got most of the headlines, it was small-scale residential systems that drove much of the demand last year. Residential projects increased by 60% over 2012 as the price of installing solar fell and as customers took advantage of leasing options—offered by companies like Solarcity, which I wrote about last year—that allowed them to purchase panels with little money up front. The growth was rolling throughout 2013, with residential installations increasing 33% in the last quarter of 2013, and should continue this year. That financing market is growing: Mosaic, an Oakland-based startup launched by the climate activist Billy Parish, just began offering a home solar loan that allows consumers the chance to borrow the cost of a solar system over 20 years. “2013 offered the U.S. solar market the first real glimpse of its path toward mainstream status,” said Shayle Kann, vice president of GTM Research, which follows the clean tech market.

(MORE: The Power—and Beauty—of Solar Energy)

Bright times for solar, indeed—and that’s just in the U.S. Last year China installed at least 12 gigawatts of solar capacity, at least 50% more than any other country had ever built in a single year. But that’s where things get cloudy. The U.S. solar boom has been fueled in part by cheap solar panels from China, which have helped bring down the cost of solar power—now 15% cheaper than it was in 2012. But those same cheap Chinese panels have hurt domestic manufacturers of solar PV, even as they’ve helped installers like Solarcity. Several domestic solar manufacturers—led by SolarWorld, an American arm of a German company—have complained that the Chinese government is unfairly subsidizing national solar PV manufacturers, which allows them to undercut their American competitors.

In response, the U.S. government agreed in 2012 to impose tariffs of 24 to 36% on Chinese PV panels. But that made little difference—Chinese companies just outsourced much of their production to Taiwan. This year, however, SolarWorld brought a new suit in response, pushing the U.S. to extend those tariffs to Chinese panels made in Taiwan. Last month, the U.S. International Trade Commission said it would move forward with an investigation, and is set to issue a preliminary ruling by the end of March. If those tariffs are indeed extended, you can expect solar power in the U.S. to get more expensive, slowing down growth and hitting installers—who employ far more Americans than U.S. solar manufacturers do—very hard, especially since China has already said it would impose retaliatory tariffs. More expensive panels would likely depress demand for solar in the U.S., hurting installers.

There’s some truth to the argument that China may be intentionally driving down the price of solar panels to allow its companies to dominate the industry. But if so, the strategy hasn’t been that effective—a number of Chinese manufacturers have gone bankrupt, including Suntech, which was until recently the world’s biggest panel maker by volume. The U.S. solar industry is at a tipping point, poised to grow its way out of niche status and potentially change the way Americans think—and more importantly, pay for—energy. It’d be a shame if a 21st century industry gets tripped up by 19th century trade politics.

(MORE: Solar Powered Plane Soars Across the U.S.)

TIME Food & Drink

Our Global Diet Is Becoming Increasingly Homogenized—and That’s Risky

Bananas are increasingly popular around the world, but they're vulnerable to a new disease Ronaldo Schemidt—AFP/Getty Images

A new study confirms that worldwide, we're increasingly eating foods from the same small number of staple crops, which makes the global food supply vulnerable to new diseases and pests

All it takes is a trip to the closest Whole Foods to discover how much more varied the offerings of an American grocery store have become in recent years. Organic asparagus from Mexico, papaya from Hawaii, dry scallops from Nantucket Bay—the foodstuffs available to American consumers have never been more diverse. And on a country by country basis, that diversity is growing around the world, as people take advantage of economic growth and urbanization to move away from basic staples like rice and beans, adding meat and dairy and processed foods, while liberalized trade rules have allowed the spread of global food brands. Whether you’re in New York or Nairobi or Nagoya, chances are you have access to a greater variety of food than your parents or your grandparents once did.

But even as the offerings in each individual country become more diverse, the global diet as a whole—what people actually buy and eat—is becoming more homogenized, and that’s a dangerous thing. Those are the conclusions of a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers from around the world went through 50 years of data gathered by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization to identify trends in the global menu. They found that human diets have grown increasingly similar—by a global average of around 36%—as a few staple crops like wheat and maize (corn) and soybeans come to play a bigger and bigger part of mealtime, displacing regional crops like cassava and sorghum.

“More people are consuming more calories, protein and fat, and they rely increasingly on a short list of major food crops, like wheat, maize and soybean, along with meat and dairy products, for most of their food,” said Colin Khoury, a scientist at the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the lead author of the paper, in a statement. “These foods are critical for combating world hunger, but relying on a global diet of such limited diversity obligates us to bolster the nutritional quality of the major crops, as consumption of other nutritious grains and vegetables declines.

(MORE: Whole Food Blues: Why Organic Agriculture May Not Be So Sustainable)

The conclusion shouldn’t be surprising to any world traveler who has noticed that you can get Mexican in Malaysia, sushi in South Africa and McDonalds just about everywhere. On a country by country basis, that can mean more choice and variety—Americans would never have eaten sushi 100 years ago and Japanese weren’t chowing down on hamburgers. But on a global level is all evens out, as the diets of individual countries become more and more similar.

While cheaper wheat and soybeans—much of which is consumed in processed food or in meat by grain-fed animals—has introduced new foods to billions of poor people who used to be dependent on a very limited diet, there are obvious drawbacks. The Westernized diet that’s sweeping the world has contributed to the rise in global obesity, which has nearly doubled since 1980, and the resulting spread of metabolic diseases like diabetes. The carbon footprint of crops like maize and wheat, and especially meat and dairy, is often bigger than that of the foodstuffs they’re displacing, amplifying agriculture’s role in climate change. And just as the homogenization of global culture through Hollywood mega-blockbusters and the spread of English has led to the crowding out of regional identity and language, the homogenization of the global diet could result in the loss of unique crops and obscure delicacies.

But the bigger problem is that a global diet that overwhelmingly depends on just a few staple crops is extremely vulnerable to any new diseases, pests or climatic changes that could threaten those plants. Just look at the banana, which has become the world’s most valuable fruit, with exports that reached 16.5 million metric tons in 2012. Americans alone eat more bananas than apples and oranges put together. But a pair of diseases are ravaging existing banana crops. Black Sigatoka, a disease that blackens bananas and can cut yields in half, is showing resistance to the fungicide that has long been used to control it. Worse, Foc Tropical Race 4, a disease that attacks the ubiquitous Cavendish banana variety, is spreading through Asia and is now threatening Latin America, which produces 70% of the world’s $8.9 billion banana export crop.

The reason Cavendish bananas now make up 99% of the bananas eaten in the developed world is because they could survive an earlier version of the plant disease called Race 1. Over the first half of the 20th century, that pathogen drove what had been the world’s only export banana—the Gros Michel—to virtual extinction. (The losses caused by Race 1 were so great that they inspired the 1922 song “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” which as Homer Simpson once noted, is just so sad.) As Gwynn Guilford writes in Quartz, the damage to the global banana industry could be even worse if “banana HIV,” as some have called Race 4, spreads globally:

And at $8.9 billion, bananas grown for export are only a fraction of the $44.1 billion in annual banana and plantain production—in fact, bananas are the fourth-most valuable global crop after rice, wheat, and milk. Where are the rest of those bananas sold? Nearly nine-tenths of the world’s bananas are eaten in poor countries, where at least 400 million people rely on them for 15-27% of their daily calories. And that’s the really scary part. Since the first Panama disease outbreak, bananas have evolved from snacks into vital sustenance. And this time there’s no back-up banana variety to feed the world with instead.

That’s true for too many of the increasingly narrow number of crops that the world depends on today. A homogenized global diet isn’t just unhealthy and boring; like a stock portfolio with just a few holdings, it’s very, very vulnerable to any kind of disaster.

(MORE: Vital Farms: Raising the Ultra-Organic Egg)

TIME health

Thanks to Climate Change, West Nile Virus Could Be Your New Neighbor

Asian Tiger Mosquito
Asian tiger mosquitoes are a major vector for West Nile virus Getty Images

A new study shows how climate change will contribute to the spread of the mosquito-borne West Nile virus

Invasive species aren’t just species — they can also be pathogens. Such is the case with the West Nile virus. A mosquito-borne virus identified in the West Nile subregion in Uganda in 1937 — hence the name — West Nile wasn’t much of a concern to people elsewhere until it broke out of Africa in 1999. The first U.S. cases were confirmed in New York City in 1999, and it has now spread throughout much of the world. Though 80% of infections are subclinical — meaning they yield no symptoms — those who do get sick can get very sick. The virus can lead to encephalitis — inflammation of the brain and nervous system — and even death, with 286 people dying from West Nile in the U.S. in 2012. There were more than 5,500 cases reported that year, and the scary thing is that as the climate warms, West Nile will continue to spread.

That’s the conclusion of a new study from a team of researchers in the U.S., Britain and Germany, including those at the Center for Tropical Research at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. In a study published in the journal Global Change Biology, the researchers took climate and species-distribution data, and created models that try to project the spread of the virus as the globe warms. West Nile virus is carried by mosquitoes, and infected insects transmit the virus to human beings with a bite. But birds play a role too — if bitten by an infected mosquito, birds can generate high levels of the virus in their bloodstream, and can then transmit it to uninfected mosquitoes, which in turn can infect people. The biggest indicator of whether West Nile virus will occur is the maximum temperature of the warmest month of the year, which is why the virus has caused the most damage in hot southern states like Texas.

The UCLA model indicates that higher temperatures and lower precipitation will generally lead to more cases of West Nile, as well as the spread of the virus to northern territories that haven’t yet been affected by it. In California alone, for example, more than half of the state will see an increased probability of West Nile in the decades to come, and by 2080 the virus may well be prevalent in parts of southern Canada, and as far north as northern British Columbia, as you can see in this map:

The UCLA model looks only at climate data and doesn’t take into account the kind of control methods that can be used to combat West Nile on the ground, including pesticide spraying and land-use changes that deny mosquitoes the pools of stagnant water they use as breeding sites. That’s important to remember: while climate change can raise the risk of typically tropical diseases like West Nile or malaria, smart control efforts can offset at least some of that danger. (Malaria used to be common throughout much of the South — which is easily warm enough in the summer for the disease — before steps were taken to eliminate it, a process that led to the creation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) But the UCLA study underscores the fact that climate change operates as a threat multiplier for tropical diseases, one that will allow pathogens to invade new territory — and, ultimately, us.

TIME endangered species

Save the Polar Bear—Today Especially

One of the planet's most charismatic creatures is being driven into the sea—literally. But there are ways to save the species

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It’s International Polar Bear today, so if you live within shouting distance of the Arctic Circle, hug the closest polar bear. (Actually do not do that—an adult male polar bear is nearly half a ton of hungry predator and they are extremely dangerous.) Still, the beasts deserve a little tenderness.

The polar bear is now considered a vulnerable species, under threat from the loss of its sea ice habitat. To draw attention to their plight, Google is now offering glimpses of polar bears in their native environment, via its Street View program. Cameras in Cape Churchill and Wapusk National Park in northern Manitoba captured images of polar bears doing their polar bear thing during an annual gathering in the region in October and November. You can see pictures of polar bears sparring, and a mother nursing her cub, all against the flat white and brown background of the Arctic. The footage was taken with Google’s Street View Trekker—15 cameras mounted on a backpack—from aboard the decidedly off-road vehicles known tundra buggies

“It provides an opportunity to document what it looks like now, the potential to document what it looks like next year, five years from now, 10 years from now,” Krista Wright, executive director of the conservation group Polar Bear International, told the CBC.

Many scientists and conservationists fear that there may be far fewer polar bears in even that single-decade time frame, thanks chiefly to the effects of climate change. Polar bears use sea ice as a platform to reach their prey, chiefly seals, and summer sea ice is melting fast. Despite a rebound from a record low in 2012, the extent of Arctic sea ice is generally trending downwards, often dramatically. As the ice vanishes, polar bears are forced to swim longer and longer distances to reach those hunting platforms, which is taking a toll on the species.

Exactly how vulnerable polar bears are is not clear, partially due to the fact that they live in such a forbidding climate and are themselves not exactly friendly. That makes getting a proper count challenging. (Google is helping with this as well: researchers are using Google Earth satellite images to count polar bears from space.) Still, most experts agree that there are about 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears alive, scattered around the Arctic—a perilously small number though some subpopulations have rebounded, in part because of restrictions on hunting. There’s also evidence that polar bears are changing their dietary habits, possibly to adapt to the loss of sea ice, shifting from seals to snow geese, caribou and berries. But polar bear subpopulations are still trending downward in many areas of the Arctic, and if climate change keeps vaporizing sea ice, the pressure on the bears will only increase.

Of course, that’s true of many, many species; in fact, a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change just found that global warming dramatically increases the risk of extinction for amphibians and reptiles. Yet how many other species are so popular that Coca-Cola will change the color of its cans just to draw attention to their plight, as the company did in 2011? Last year a policy paper in Conservation Letters laid out an ambitious plan to save polar bears in the face of global warming, even going so far as to feed starving bears directly—an amazing thought, given the obvious risks. Why go to such great lengths to save the polar bear, and not, say Mexico’s critically endangered pygmy raccoon?

The truth is there’s no perfect reason, but it’s the sort of triage we’ll be doing more and more often in the future as we face down the sixth extinction. (For more on that, check out Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent new book on the subject.) Which brings us back to Google Street View and those candid shots of polar bears in their element. There is something majestic about a polar bear against the backdrop of the Arctic, something wild and worth saving. And the polar bear dearly needs saving.

TIME Food & Drink

How Uncle Sam Is Helping to Feed the Honeybees

Getty Images

A new program at the USDA will pay farmers and ranchers to plant bee-friendly crops. It's about time

When I wrote a cover story last August about the plight of the honeybees, I didn’t think I’d still be talking about it half a year later. Yet this afternoon I went down to Washington to address a meeting of the National Garden Club—and the topic, of course, was honeybees. I wish I’d had better news to offer. Scientists still don’t know exactly why rates of honeybee loss have been so high in recent years, though there has been some promising research identifying new viruses. Beekeepers are still under tremendous economic pressure to keep their hives going in the face of colony collapse disorder (CCD). And the country, as I wrote last year, is still inhospitable to honeybees, lacking the wild spaces and flowers that feed them.

But on that last bit, at least, there’s some good news. This week the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a $3 million program to provide assistance to farmers and ranchers in the Midwest interested in helping out honeybees by planting bee-friendly forage in and around their plots. That includes reseeding pastures with alfalfa, clover and other plants that are good for bees—and for livestock as well. Ranchers will also be able to draw on the money to build fences and make other changes that allow them to move their livestock from pasture to pasture, to prevent the vegetation from getting worn down. The idea is to turn the farms back into a buffet for honeybees.

The states covered will be Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and both North and South Dakota, chosen because 65% of the country’s estimated 30,000 commercial beekeepers store their hives there for at least part of the year. (Commercial beekeepers are an itinerant lot, moving their colonies from state to state as they chase pollination contracts.) Commodity crop farmers will be able to use the money to plant bee forage along the borders of their fields—vital, given that the spread of monocultures and soybeans offer very little nutrition for bees on their own. Such higher quality food will help honeybees battle the toxic mix of pesticides and parasites that have been wearing down their populations, as the USDA’s David Epstein told the AP:

You can think of it in terms of yourself. If you are studying for exams in college, and you’re not eating properly and you’re existing on coffee, then you make yourself more susceptible to disease and you get sick.

A $3 million outlay by itself won’t be enough to stop the onslaught of colony collapse disorder. But like the growth in rooftop and backyard beekeeping—even in crowded cities like Los Angeles and New York—it will help.

(MORE: Can Urban Beekeeping Stop the Beepocalypse?)

TIME Nuclear

Japan Mulls Nuclear Revival Not Even 3 Years After Fukushima

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is proposing re-opening Japan's nuclear plants less than three years after they were shuttered in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, causing outrage from some citizens afraid nuclear power will never be safe

If there was one thing that seemed certain in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown in 2011—the worst atomic accident since Chernobyl—it was that nuclear power in Japan and the rest of the world was in major trouble.

Japan, which before Fukushima had generated 30% of its electricity from nuclear, eventually took all of its 50 commercial reactors offline to pass new safety tests. Japanese citizens took to the streets against the nuclear industry in rare shows of public protest, and then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced a commitment to end nuclear power in Japan by 2040. Other countries took note, too. In the wake of Fukushima, Germany began closing nuclear plants out of safety concerns, with a plan to denuclearize the country completely by 2022.

But nearly three years after Fukushima, the impact of the meltdown seems smaller than ever, even in the country that was ground zero for the accident. Today Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe released a new Basic Energy Plan that states Japan will push to restart the dozens of reactors closed after the disaster, and potentially even build new ones in the future. And beyond outliers like Germany—where denuclearization is still proceeding—nuclear power is still expanding in much of the world, as Joshua Keating points out in Slate:

A World Energy Council report released in 2012 showed that 558 reactors were in some state of development around the world, up from 547 at the time of the disaster. Major nuclear expansions in China (which lifted a post-Fukushima nuclear moratorium in 2012) and India, along with smaller emerging markets like the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Poland, and Bangladesh, are driving most of the growth.

The developing world is driving the growth in nuclear—unsurprising, since the need for new electric capacity is greatest there—but in the U.S. new nuclear plants are being built for the first time in decades, while the conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron has pushed for new nukes in the U.K.

(MORE: Nuclear Fusion Just Got a Little Closer to Becoming a Reality)

In Japan, the nuclear reversal boils down to politics and the economy. Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan was less connected to the country’s sprawling nuclear industry, and the mounting street protests in the wake of Fukushima made it all but impossible for Kan not to move against nuclear power. Shinzo Abe, who became prime minister at the end of 2012, is a member of the more conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which has long had close ties with Japan’s nuclear industry. It didn’t help that organized political opposition to nuclear power in Japan largely fizzled out. Antinuclear candidates failed to unseat a pro-nuclear incumbent in a vital gubernatorial race in Tokyo earlier this month.

The shuttering of nuclear plants also forced Japan to increase imports of oil and natural gas to make up for the shortfall, which helped lead to a $204 billion trade deficit between March 2011 and the end of 2013. Electricity generation costs went up by more than 50%. CO2 emissions in Japan’s electricity industry have increased by 100 million metric tons as zero-carbon nuclear was displaced by fossil fuels. “If we had indicated ‘zero nuclear’ without any basis, one could not call it a responsible energy policy,” said Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan’s minister for trade and industry.

(MORE: Amid Economic and Safety Concerns, Nuclear Advocates Pin Their Hopes on New Designs)

Of course, the Japanese government was unclear about the details about any kind of nuclear revival, and with the majority of the Japanese public still opposed to nuclear power, any plans to restart plans could be undermined by local opposition. It doesn’t help that the ruined Fukushima Daiichi plant is still a total mess. This week a damaged power cable at the plant shut down a vital cooling system at Reactor No. 4, in what was only the latest of an endless series of mishaps at the cleanup.

But the long-term health impacts of the meltdown and subsequent radiation release seem limited. In a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, a team of Japanese researchers found that the mean annual radiation dose from the Fukushima event after 2011 was comparable to the background radiation that the average Japanese citizen might experience over the course of a year, and any increases in cancer rates from the meltdown may be so small at to be undetectable. That conclusion fits with earlier studies that suggest steps taken by the Japanese government to limit radiation exposure—including evacuations and food restrictions—from Fukushima seem to have been successful. On April 1, 300 people will finally be allowed to return home to a district near the plant, though that’s jut a tiny fraction of the 138,000 people from the area still living in temporary accommodations.

Nuclear power still has major obstacles to overcome, including high costs and lingering safety concerns. (The failure at Fukushima was due as much to the old, poorly built plant and corporate incompetence as it was to the earthquake and tsunami that damaged the plant.) But as the climate scientists James Hansen, Ken Caldeira and others wrote last year have written, nuclear power will need to be an option in a carbon constrained world:

While there will be no single technological silver bullet, the time has come for those who take the threat of global warming seriously to embrace the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems as one among several technologies that will be essential to any credible effort to develop an energy system that does not rely on using the atmosphere as a waste dump.

(MORE: Nuclear Energy Is Largely Safe. But Can It Be Cheap?)

TIME Water

California Is Finally Set to Get Rain, But It Won’t Quench the Drought

Parts of California could receive more rain this week than they've gotten cumulatively over the past eight months. But the state needs much more

How extreme is the drought in California? Right now the federal government says that every square mile of California is in some state of drought—and 14.62% of the state, concentrated in central California’s agricultural heartland, is in the most extreme state of exceptional drought. Rainfall in some of the most populated parts of the state have been all but nonexistent—since July 1, San Francisco has experienced just 5.85 inches of rain, about 35% of what’s normal, and Los Angeles has received just 1.2 inches of rain, less than 10% of the average over the same period of time. Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada basin—the water bank for much of California—is less than half below average. By every count, California is in the grip of a truly historic drought that will cost the state and the country billions of dollars.

But there’s no better signal of how severe this year’s drought is than the fact that even a heavy rainstorm will barely make a dent in the big dry. The National Weather Service (NWS) projects that this week a pair of Pacific storms are expected to bring as much as 2 in. of rain to the coast, and several feet of snow to the Sierra Nevadas. The second state in particular is expected drench virtually all of California for 24 hours, as Jim Bagnall, a meteorologist with the NWS, told the Associated Press:

We’re not calling it a drought-buster, but it definitely will make a difference. With these few storms, we could see about an inch total in the valley. So this could obviously have some significant impact.

Still, despite the fact that Los Angeles could receive more rain this week than it has in nearly eight months cumulatively, the drought will be far from over. Even with the storm, much of California will still be below average for precipitation this month. Since February tends to be the wettest month for California, that means that the state still has a larger and larger rainfall deficit to make up if this drought is to ever end. The good news is that chances of an El Niño event this summer—which could bring heavier rainfall—are rising. But at this point it might take divine intervention to irrigate the Golden State.

(MORE: 5 Ways to Bust California’s Drought

TIME weather

Watch the Great Lakes Freeze Over

Beautiful time lapse imagery shows Lake Superior and the rest of the Great Lakes freeze over during this year's brutally cold winter

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You can measure a winter in many ways: temperature records, snow cover, even travel delays. But to truly see how frigid this winter has been—at least for the eastern half of the U.S.—you need to go way up. Satellite imagery shows that an incredible 88% of the Great Lakes—Superior, Michigan, Huron, Ontario and Erie—are now frozen over. That’s the largest ice cover the Great Lakes have experienced since 1994, and it means that there is an astounding 82,940 sq. miles (214,814 sq. km) of ice covering the biggest collection of fresh water in the world.

How unusual is this? Since 1973, the average maximum ice cover extent for the Great Lakes has been just 50%, and in those four decades, the ice extent has surpassed 80% just five times. (In 2002, just 9.5% of the Great Lakes froze over during the winter, the lowest extent on record, while the greatest extent was 94.7% in 1979.) And no lake is as iced over as Superior, where the extent is 95.3%.

(MORE: Window on Infinity: Winter Pictures from Icy Space

The unusually large extent of ice is due to a logical factor: it’s been really, really cold around the Great Lakes. In the Midwest this January, temperatures averaged 5 to 10 F (3 to 6 C) below the 20th century average. But the endless snowfall around the Great Lakes region—Chicago, which borders Lake Michigan, experienced its third-snowiest January on record, and Detroit had its snowiest month ever—played a role as well, insulating the ice cover when temperatures would rise. If you’re wondering why Lake Ontario has such a smaller amount of its surface covered in ice, that’s because the lake is unusually deep, which gives it a tremendous heat storage capacity.

But numbers can only tell you so much. TIME editor Jonathan Woods has stitched together imagery provided by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab and taken from NASA’s TERRA and AQUA satellites, using data gathered by the MODIS system (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer). The time lapse imagery shows a truly stunning Lake Superior and the rest of the Great Lakes from September—when all five were open—to now, when ice covers the vast majority of the lakes. You’ll notice how early the freeze began, with ice reported in the bays and harbors of the Great Lakes as early as the end of November, as opposed to the usual time of mid-December. From that early build—due to cold temperatures in the fall and early winter in the Great Lakes—the ice just continued to grow.

For all that, 2014 could well be an aberration. Satellite data shows a generally downward trend in Great Lakes ice cover from 1972 to the present, thanks largely to the general increase in winter temperatures over the same time period. The winter of 2014 will go down in the record books—and there’s no clearer evidence of that than the image of the Great Lakes, sheathed in ice. But we may not see too many repeat performances in a warmer future.

(MORE: The Not So Sustainable Sochi Winter Olympics)

TIME Disasters

Oklahoma Shakes—Is Fracking to Blame?

Earthquakes have been linked to oil and gas disposal wells in states like Kansas
Earthquakes have been linked to oil and gas disposal wells in states like Kansas. Travis Heying—Wichita Eagle/MCT/Getty Images

A normally calm state is hit by a wave of minor earthquakes—causing some to point the finger at fracking. But wastewater disposal wells likely play a bigger role

It’s been a shaky week in Oklahoma. The Sooner State has experienced more than 150 earthquakes over the past week, far more than the Okies usually get. And while the vast majority of the quakes were fairly minor, one, on Feb. 16 measured 3.8 on the Richter scale, followed by a number of aftershocks. There’s been little damage reported, but the quakes jolted folks in a part of the country who aren’t accustomed to the Earth moving under their feet. “[It] felt like bombs going off,” central Oklahoma resident Nancy York told ABC News affiliate KOCO-TV. “It’s just a huge noise and then it’s like a reverb from that boom that just shakes the entire house.”

Something is clearly going on in Okalahoma—and has been for a while now. Residents have experienced more than 200 quakes with a magnitude of at least 3.0 since the beginning of 2009, and more than 2,600 tremors altogether during 2013. (A 3.0 magnitude quake is considered the threshold at which most people can feel shaking.) According to a recent analysis by EnergyWire, Oklahoma is now the second most seismically active state in the continental U.S., after California.

So what’s happened? Suspicion has turned to the energy sector. Oklahoma is the center of the country’s hydrocarbon industry, with tens of thousands of oil and gas wells dotting the state. Some of those wells have been drilled with the use of hydrofracking, in which explosives are used to generate cracks in a layer of shale rock thousands of feet below the surface. Millions of gallons of fracking fluid—most of which is water—are then pumped underground to keep the cracks open, allowing oil and natural gas that had been trapped in the shale rock to flow back to the surface. Surely it’s not too difficult to think that a process meant to break up the ground could end up triggering an earthquake.

(MORE: Your City Might Not Be Ready for the Next Big Quake)

But while a few studies have linked the act of fracking to minor earthquakes, there’s no definitive proof yet that fracking by itself can cause noticeable quakes. What’s more likely at fault are wastewater disposal wells. When an oil or gas well has been drilled, millions of gallons of wastewater—tainted with hydrocarbons and any number of other unhealthy contaminants—flow back up to the surface. That wastewater needs to be contained, so companies drill new wells, and inject the liquid underground at extremely high pressures. It’s entirely possible that the high water pressure used in these injection wells—and there are more than 10,000 of them in Oklahoma—may nudge previously dormant faults out of their locked position. A study published in Science last year linked unusual earthquakes in Ohio to the presence of nearby disposal wells, and other research in Oklahoma has raised similar concerns.

It’s not yet clear exactly how disposal wells might be causing or contributing to these unusual “swarms” of earthquakes. It’s possible there’s something more natural at work. Austin Holland, Oklahoma’s state seismologist, has raised the possibility that historically high water levels at Oklahoma’s Lake Arcadia may be playing a role, perhaps by placing additional stress on dormant faults. In any case, though, Oklahoma is not alone—other normally calm states like Kansas, Arkansas and Texas have experienced unusually heavy seismic activity in areas near oil and gas drilling and disposal wells. Kansas Governor Sam Brownback announced on Feb. 17 that he would appoint a committee to study what role oil and gas activity might be playing in a recent spate of minor quakes in the state. Given that oil and natural gas production is on the rise in the U.S.—and that there are more than 30,000 deep injection wells throughout the country—that’s a question that needs an answer.

(MORE: How Earthquakes Heal Themselves — and Why That’s Important)

TIME Water

California’s Farmers Need Water. Is Desalination the Answer?

California drought farms
California's farms have been hard hit by the drought Ken James—Bloomberg/Getty Images

As Obama visits drought-stricken California, new ways to create fresh water are getting a second look

President Obama will get to see California’s disastrous drought first hand today on a visit to the farming city of Fresno. It won’t be a pretty sight. While the conditions are arid across the state, with 91.6% of California in severe to exceptional drought, agricultural areas are suffering the worst.

The state’s Central Valley has long been the fruit and vegetable basket of the country, growing nearly half of U.S. produce. But farms in the valley exist only thanks to irrigation—the Central Valley alone takes up one-sixth of the irrigated land in the nation. And thanks to the drought, there’s been little rain, and irrigation has been virtually cut off. California officials have already said that they won’t be able to offer any water to farmers through the state’s canals, and the expectation is that federal reservoirs won’t be of any help either, leaving farmers to their own dwindling supplies of groundwater. The California Farm Water Coalition estimates that the drought could translate to a loss of $11 billion in annual state revenue from agriculture.

Obama will try to offer some help in his visit to Fresno, announcing that the federal government will make available up to $100 million in aid for California farmers who’ve lost livestock to the drought, as well as $15 million in aid to help farmers and ranchers implement water conservation policies. But while efficiency and conservation can go a long way to stretching dwindling supplies of water, the reality is that California is an arid state that consumes water—80% of which goes to agriculture—as if it were a wetland. If it wants to continue as the nation’s number one farming state—producing a record $44.7 billion in agriculture receipts last year—it’s going to need more water. And if scientists are right that the current drought is the worst California has faced in 500 years, and that the state could be on the brink of a prolonged dry period accentuated by climate change, that water is going to have to come from new sources.

(MORE: Hundred Years of Dry: How California’s Drought Could Get Much, Much Worse)

As it happens, California sits next to the biggest source of water in the world: the Pacific Ocean. The problem, of course, is that seawater is far too salty to drink or use for irrigation. Desalination plants can get around that, using large amounts of electricity to force seawater through a membrane filter, which removes the salt and other impurities, producing fresh water. There are already half a dozen desalination plants in California, and around 300 in the U.S., but the technology has been held back by cost and by environmental concerns. A $1 billion desalination plant capable of producing 50 million gallons of water a day is being built in the California town of Carlsbad, but San Diego will be buying water from the facility for about $2,000 per acre-foot, twice as much as the city generally pays for imported water, while producing enough water for 112,000 households. Desalination can have a major carbon footprint—the Carlsbad plant will use about 5,000 kilowatt hours of electricity to produce an acre-foot of water. And because desalination plants in general needs about 2 gallons of seawater to produce a gallon of fresh water, there’s a lot of highly salty brine left over, which has to be disposed of in the ocean, where it can pose a threat to marine life.

Still, while efficiency and conservation will always be lower cost and lower impacts solutions to any water crisis, it’s hard not to see desalination playing a bigger and bigger role in California’s efforts to deal with lingering drought. The process of desalination is improving—the Carlsbad plant uses reverse osmosis technology, which is more energy efficient and environmentally friendly than older methods —and it has the advantage of being completely drought-proof. In a world where water is more valuable and more valued, desalination can begin to make more sense.

“Desalination needs to be judged fairly against the other alternatives,” says Avshalom Felber, the CEO of IDE Technologies, an Israeli company that is helping to construct the Carlsbad plant.

(MORE: Can GM Crops Bust the Drought?)

If desalination could be powered by renewable energy, some of those environmental concerns would melt away. And that’s what a startup called WaterFX is trying to do in the parched Central Valley. While farmers in the valley generally depend on irrigated water brought in from hundreds of miles away, the land itself isn’t short of groundwater. But most of that water is far too salty for use in farming. WaterFX’s technology uses a solar thermal trough—curved mirrors that concentrate the power of the sun—to evaporate salty water. The condensate that’s later collected and cooled becomes freshwater, leaving salt and other impurities behind. “Solar stills are an old technology, but this has a new twist that makes it very efficient and very cost effective,” says Aaron Mandell, the CEO of WaterFX.

Because it uses solar power, WaterFX’s desalination has virtually no carbon footprint, and the company says that it has a 93% recovery rate, much higher than conventional desalination. But its biggest advantage might be its modularity—Water FX’s solar stills can be set up locally, allowing farms to recycle their own runoff, rather than having freshwater pumped in from afar. That saves energy and money. “You can create a closed loop where the water is reused over and over again,” says Mandell.

Right now the company is working on a pilot with the Panoche Water District in the Central Valley, producing almost 500 gallons of clean water a day. WaterFX has plans to expand to a commercial plant with a 2 million gallon capacity. Of course, the technology would have to be scaled up massively to even make a dent in California’s irrigation needs, given that the state sends billions and billions of gallons of water to farms each year. But if California really is on the edge of a great dry, every drop will help.

(MORE: Why the Drought Won’t Be Getting Better Anytime Soon — and Why This One Won’t Be the Last)

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