TIME Environment

Florida’s Attempt to Ban This Fish Has Virtually No Chance of Working

A winged lionfish at the Beijing Aquarium on May 30, 2012.
A winged lionfish at the Beijing Aquarium on May 30, 2012. Mark Ralston—AFP/Getty Images

Why the lionfish is here to stay

If you were trying to create the perfect invasive aquatic species, a fish capable of out-eating and out-breeding anything it comes across, chances are you wouldn’t be able to improve upon the lionfish. The spiny, venomous fish can produce up to 15,000 eggs every four days, and feed voraciously on small fish, invertebrates and mollusks. They also tend to have a hostile territorial attitude to other reef fish and scuba divers alike. Introduce a lionfish into a coastal coral reef, and it can quickly clear the habitat of any competitors.

Since the lionfish—which is native to Indo-Pacific waters—was accidentally introduced off Florida in the 1980s or 1990s, that’s exactly what has happened. The lionfish has been identified as a major threat through the coastal waters of the Atlantic, from North Carolina to the Caribbean. There have been sponsored lionfish derbies, underwater hunts where divers stalk the invasive fish, and restaurants have even tried to make an industry out of harvesting the lionfish, serving them to diners. (They’re not bad, provided you remove the poisonous spikes.)

And starting on Aug.1, Florida will no longer allow the importation of invasive lionfish—though that might seem like closing the barn door after the horse has left, given that the first lionfish introduced into the Atlantic likely came from aquarium, and the population has since exploded. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will also allow lionfish to be hunted by divers equipped with a rebreather, a machine that recycles oxygen so that divers can remain below the surface for much longer. That might help divers spear a few extra lionfish, but given that a female can produce as many as 2 million eggs in a year, divers will need to be awfully busy to keep up.

The reality is, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has said, “it is unlikely that the lionfish invasion can be reversed.” Which means divers should get used to the sight of the striped-lion fish, fins open like a sail, patrolling its new territory. That’s the challenge of responding to invasive species—there is no cure. There is only prevention.

TIME Research

The High Risks of High Summer Temperatures

When the mercury rises, so do some health risks

A new CDC report out Wednesday shows that 2,000 Americans died each year from 2006 to 2010 from weather-related causes and, as TIME reported earlier, twice as many Americans died of winter cold compared to summer heat.

While the recent CDC numbers show more weather-related deaths attributed to the cold, the agency says heat-related health problems are concerning—and growing. According to the agency, a good example is Chicago. In 1995, there were 465 heat-related deaths in the city, but from 1999 to 2010, there were 7,415, which averages to 618 deaths a year. Low-income Americans without access to air conditioning—or those who have A/C but can’t afford to run it—are at a particular risk, as are children and the elderly.

This has some scientists concerned. “Previous research shows that extreme heat on average causes more deaths per year than tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes combined” says Olga Wilhelmi, a scientist who studies heat-related illness and climate at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “Heat-related deaths are a serious concern. When you look at the relationship between human health and extreme heat, it presents very complex medical, social, and environmental issues, and that’s what we’re trying to understand.”

Wilhelmi is studying what combination of factors influence heat-related health problems and death in a given place–primarily focusing on cities. The idea is that by gaining a vast knowledge of who are at the greatest risks and why, local health departments can better protect their residents.Wilhelmi has done a lot of recent work in the city of Houston, looking partly at the number of 911 calls made for heat-related health problems. One of her early findings is that the majority of Houston nights hit heat-stress levels, and that cities may need to consider issuing more alerts and interventions to protect its most vulnerable residents.

 

 

TIME Infectious Disease

Infographic: Ebola By the Numbers

West African countries are trying to contain the deadly disease

The number of Ebola cases have continued to climb this week in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and now a recent victim in Nigeria. Here’s everything you want to know about the disease.

Sources: WHO, CDC, Mayo Clinic

You can also read more here.

TIME space

NASA Discovers 101 Active Geysers On Saturn Moon

Dramatic plumes, both large and small, spray water ice and vapor from many locations along the famed "tiger stripes" near the south pole of Saturn's moon Enceladus.
Dramatic plumes, both large and small, spray water ice and vapor from many locations along the famed "tiger stripes" near the south pole of Saturn's moon Enceladus. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

It wasn’t long ago that scientists had given up on finding life in the Solar System. Venus and Mercury are too hot, Mars too dry, and everything else way too cold. But thanks to a series of space probes a couple of decades ago, that dismal verdict has been dramatically reversed. Several of the ice-covered moons of Saturn and Jupiter, it turns out, conceal subsurface seas of liquid water, an essential ingredient for life as we know it.

That doesn’t mean life is necessarily out there—but if it is, new images coming down from NASA’s Cassini space probe, described in two papers just published in the Astronomical Journal are making a powerful argument that Saturn’s moon Enceladus may be the best place to look. The latest evidence: images that show no fewer than 101 geysers of water erupting from cracks in the moon’s southern hemisphere. “I’m really excited,” says Carolyn Porco, head of the spacecraft’s imaging team.

Who can blame her? The fact that Enceladus spews water into space is no surprise: Cassini spotted plumes of the stuff rising from the moon’s icy surface as soon as it took the first close-up images when the craft arrived back in 2004. There’s so much material escaping from Enceladus, in fact, that gives substance to one of the planet’s majestic rings.

The question was: Were the plumes coming from just below the surface, or from deep inside the moon? Only the latter would be good news for life, since it would imply a reservoir of permanently liquid water where life could have arisen and gained a foothold. That hope was strongly bolstered when Cassini’s flew through a plume in 2009. It’s instruments “tasted” the water and found it salty—strong evidence that the H2O had come from deep enough that it had been in prolonged contact with minerals in Enceladus’ rocky core.

Even more evidence came along just a few months ago: by measuring subtle variations in the moon’s gravity field, Cassini showed that an ocean really does lie about 30 miles under Enceladus’s thick rind of ice, bearing enough water to fill Lake Superior.

It all fit together—and the latest images just make the case stronger. It was still possible, says Porco, that the plumes of water coming from Europa originated mostly in the top few yards of the moon’s surface, created by tidal flexing whose friction was melting the ice. If that were the case, though, the geysers should be shooting out of a relatively wide area.

But they’re not. Instead, says Porco, “we found that they’re coming from four prominent fractures in the south polar terrain.” The fractures are known informally as “tiger stripes,” and in the case of three or four of the geysers, the locations have been pinpointed as coming from hotspots just a few tens of yards across.

“That’s the big thing here,” she says. “These are clearly not a near-surface phenomenon. This tells us that the only plausible source geysers is the sea below. We’re confident now that the fractures go all the way down.”That being the case, any biological activity in the ocean might be detectable in water from the plumes—if Cassini had the right instruments to detect it. It doesn’t, and that, says Porco, “makes it imperative to mount a mission to go back.”

It’s not that Enceladus is more likely to have life than, say, Jupiter’s moon Europa, which also boasts a liquid ocean beneath a crust of ice, says Porco. But the plumes on Enceladus offer a direct window into the ocean below. “You go back, land, stick out your tongue, and you get what you paid for,” she says. “We could go to town.”

Even at a time when NASA is badly hurting for cash, that could be a tough argument to resist.

 

 

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Here’s What Soda Does to Young Rats’ Brains

Soda is on the mind. A new small study in rats found that drinking sugary beverages may result in memory issues down the line.

University of Southern California researchers looked at adult and adolescent rats, and feed them sugary beverages (meant to mimic soda) for a month. After a month, the rats completed tasks that assessed their cognitive function and memory. The adult rats had no problems, but the adolescent rats who had been drinking sugary beverages had impaired memory and trouble learning.

The findings are being presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior (SSIB), and are preliminary. The researchers plan to explore whether the soda is causing inflammation in the brain’s hippocampus, which is the region of the brain involved in memory and learning.

Though the research has not been done in humans, it’s part of a growing body of work looking at the risks of soda.

TIME polio

The Battle to Eradicate Polio in Pakistan

A Pakistani health worker vaccinates a child in Islamabad
A Pakistani health worker vaccinates a child in Islamabad Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Political unrest in Pakistan has been a gift to the poliovirus, with 99 cases reported there so far this year. But Rotary International, which has already vaccinated 2 billion children in 122 countries, is hitting back hard

Epidemiology can be all about geography—and that’s especially true when it comes to polio. If you live in the U.S., where polio was eradicated in 1979, the specter of the disease has faded almost entirely, though pockets of infections can occur among the unvaccinated. In Pakistan, however, things are moving in precisely the opposite direction, and have been for a while now.

One of only three countries in the world where polio remains endemic (the other two are Nigeria and Afghanistan), Pakistan had been close to joining the world’s polio-free nations, with only 58 infections in 2012. But thanks to bans on vaccinating—and deadly attacks on polio fieldworkers—by the Pakistani Taliban, the caseload rose to 93 in 2013. In 2014, the total reached 99 by July 18—a figure all the more alarming compared to this point last year, when there had been just 21 cases.

“It’s a scary number,” says Aziz Memon, Pakistani chairman of Rotary International’s polio eradication campaign. “Children in North Waziristan have been trapped for three and a half years without a drop of polio vaccine, and that’s what’s causing this.”

The folks at Rotary know what they’re talking about. Since launching their polio eradication effort in 1985, they have been responsible for the vaccination of 2 billion children in 122 countries. Along with the World Health Organization, UNICEF, The Gates Foundation and others, they have helped slash the global infection rate from 350,000 cases per year in 1988 to 416 in 2013.

That’s indisputably good news, but polio is an exceedingly sneaky virus, with 200 symptom-free carriers for every one case of the disease. That fact, combined with the anti-vaccine forces in Pakistan, not to mention the porous borders cause by war and unrest in the overall region, has caused the disease to leak out from the three endemic countries, with stray cases turning up in Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Cameroon, Syria, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. In a handful of other countries, the virus has been detected in sewage, but it has not led to any cases of the disease—yet.

It’s Pakistan though that’s considered ground zero, and Rotary has announced that it’s now deploying some very simple weapons in what has always been a village-to-village, door-to-door battle. To improve surveillance and tracking—a maddeningly difficult job in a country in which so many people live off the communications grid—Rotary has distributed hundreds of cell phones to midwives who circulate through communities, canvassing residents to find out who has received the vaccine and who has been overlooked. Information on the unvaccinated kids—the “missing children” in the fieldworkers argot—is entered into the phones and uploaded to a central spreadsheet, allowing later vaccinators to target their efforts more precisely.

“The midwives also track pregnant mothers,” says Memon. “And when their children are born they can continue to maintain complete health records, not just for polio but for other vaccines and basic health care as well.”

Rotary has also worked with The Coca-Cola Company to build what’s known as a reverse osmosis water plant—essentially a sophisticated filtration facility—in the town of Malin, within the city of Karachi. Polio is a disease spread almost entirely by human waste, and once it leeches into the water system it can spread nearly anywhere. The Malir plant, which was constructed near a school to give polio-age kids the first access to the newly filtered water, is a relatively modest one, with just 20,000 gal. (76,000 liters) of clean water on hand at any one moment, and cost only $40,000 to build. But as a pilot project it represents a very good start. “We can’t build a massive plant like the government can,” says Memon. “This is a small plant for a small community.”

One thing, paradoxically, that’s working in the vaccinators’ favor is the increased number of displaced people in Pakistan. A recent push by the Pakistani military to flush the Taliban from its safe havens has broken the vaccination blockade, and already 350,000 children have received at least one dose of the polio vaccine. But 1.5 million refugees are scattered around the country. Rotary has dispatched field workers to refugee camps and transit points to identify the children and few adults who need the polio vaccine and administer it on the spot.

“The government did not have any idea about what the numbers of displaced people would be,” says Memon. In the refugee camps, he adds, there are at least 40,000 pregnant women, whose babies will have to be vaccinated shortly after birth.

The diabolical thing about polio—and indeed any disease science hopes to eradicate—is that even one case is too many. As long as any wild poliovirus is out there, everyone needs to be protected. It is only when the last scrap of virus has been found and snuffed, that the protective push can stop. That has happened once before in medical history—with smallpox. In the case of polio, it’s tantalizingly close to happening again.

TIME Paleontology

What Killed The Dinosaurs? Bad Luck, Study Suggests

The asteroid was simply the straw that broke the camptosaurus's back

+ READ ARTICLE

While it’s widely accepted that dinosaurs were made extinct by a six-mile long asteroid that hit Earth, a new study posits that the asteroid was simply the last piece of bad fortune in a run of poor luck that killed the species.

According to the newly released paleontology report titled ‘The Extinction of the Dinosaurs’ – published by the journal Biological Reviews - the dinosaurs could have likely survived the asteroid, had it not been for the unfortunate environmental conditions they were already facing as a species.

Hebrivores were already decreasing in population at the time, says the report, and the loss in biodiversity created a great deal of problems for dinosaurs, most specifically less food available at the bottom of the food chain.

“If the asteroid hit a few million years earlier, when dinosaurs were more diverse, or a few million years later, when they had a chance to recover as they often had done before after diversity losses, then dinosaurs probably wouldn’t have gone extinct,” said University of Edinburgh paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Brusatte, who led the study.

TIME Environment

Delay Action on Climate Change by 10 Years and Costs Rocket 40%: Report

Inside the DTE Energy Inc. Coal-Fired Power Plant
Steam rises from a tower at DTE Energy Co.'s Monroe Power Plant in Monroe, Michigan, U.S., on Monday, June 30, 2014. Jeff Kowalsky—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The longer the U.S. holds off action to mitigate climate change, the more costly the effort will become, a new report shows

A new report estimates the cost of mitigating the effects of climate change could rise by as much as 40% if action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is delayed 10 years — immediately outweighing any potential savings of a delay.

The White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, U.S. President Barack Obama’s source for advice on economic policy, compared over 100 actions on climate change laid out in 16 studies to extract the average cost of delayed efforts. Released Tuesday, the findings suggests policymakers should immediately confront carbon emissions as a form of “climate insurance.”

“Events such as the rapid melting of ice sheets and the consequent increase of global sea levels, or temperature increases on the higher end of the range of scientific uncertainty, could pose such severe economic consequences as reasonably to be thought of as climate catastrophes,” the report reads. “Confronting the possibility of climate catastrophes means taking prudent steps now to reduce the future chances of the most severe consequences of climate change.”

The report also found that any increase in climate change amid that delayed action would gravely exacerbate the problem; a rise to 3°C above preindustrial temperatures would mean mitigation costs would increase by about 0.9% of global economic output year on year. (To put this into perspective, 0.9% of U.S. economic output is estimated at $150 billion for 2014.)

Tuesday’s report comes as the Obama Administration announces more executive actions to reduce methane emissions to “continue to make progress in modernizing the nation’s natural gas transmission and distribution systems,” according to an administration official.

The White House began renewing its commitment to climate change earlier this year with the release of the third National Climate Assessment in May, which painted a grim picture of the current and future effects of climate change on the environment. In June, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a sweeping plan to cut carbon emissions 30% by 2030. Though environmentalists have praised the plan, it has split some lawmakers and business owners who worry it could have an adverse impact on energy prices.

TIME space travel

NASA Mars Rover Breaks Driving Record

Mars Rover
An artist's rendering of NASA’s Opportunity Mars Rover NASA/AP

Opportunity Mars Rover has driven 25 miles and surpassed expectations since it reached the planet in 2004

NASA’s Opportunity Mars Rover has set a new record for the longest off-Earth driving distance, the administration announced.

Opportunity has driven 25 miles since it arrived on Mars in 2004. It crossed the milestone after a 157-foot drive on Sunday.

“This is so remarkable considering Opportunity was intended to drive about one kilometer and was never designed for distance,” John Callas, Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager, said in a statement. “But what is really important is not how many miles the rover has racked up, but how much exploration and discovery we have accomplished over that distance.”

Opportunity is traveling along the rim of the Endeavor Crater, where NASA has gathered evidence of ancient water supply that was less acidic than those studied elsewhere on the planet.

As the rover approached this milestone, the team behind it named a 20-foot-wide Mars crater after the previous record holder, the Soviet Union’s Lunokhod 2, which drove 24.2 miles on the moon in 1973.

TIME Opinion

I Don’t Love Lucy: The Bad Science in the Sci-Fi Thriller

Maybe if the screenwriters had used 20% of their brains...

You use a whole lot more than 10% of your brain—but a common fallacy that says otherwise is nonetheless the central premise of a new movie

Now there are three Lucys I have to keep straight: The 3.2 million year old Australopithecus unearthed in Ethiopia in 1974; the eponymous star of the inexplicably celebrated 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy; and, most recently, the lead character—played by Scarlett Johansson—of the new sci-fi thriller straightforwardly titled Lucy. Going by intellectual heft alone, I’ll pick the millions-year-old bones.

The premise of the movie, such as it is, is that Lucy, a drug mule living in Taiwan, is exposed to a bit of high-tech pharma that suddenly increases her brain power, giving her the ability to outwit entire police departments, travel through time and space, dematerialize at will and yada-yada-yada, cut to gunfights, special effects and a portentous message about, well, something or other.

The movie poster’s teaser line? “The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity. Imagine what she could do with 100%.”

Let’s forgive the poster its pronoun problem (the average person—as in just one of us—uses 10% of their brain capacity), because the science problem is so much more egregious. The 10% brainpower thing is part of a rich canon of widely believed and entirely untrue science dicta that include “Man is the only animal that kills its own kind” (tell that to the lion cubs that were just murdered by an alpha male trying to take over a pride) and “A goldfish can remember something for only seven seconds” (a premise that was tested…how? With a pop quiz?).

No one is entirely sure where the 10% brainpower canard got started, but it goes back at least a century and is one of the most popular entries in the equally popular book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. There is some speculation that the belief began with an idle quote by American philosopher William James who, in 1908, wrote, “We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources,” an observation vague enough to mean almost anything—or nothing—at all.

Some people attribute it to an explanation Albert Einstein offered when asked to account for his own towering intellect—except that Einstein never said such a thing and even if he had it would not make it true. Still others cite the more scientifically defensible idea that there is a measure of plasticity in the brain, so that if the region that controls, say, the right arm, is damaged by, say, a stroke, it is sometimes possible for other parts of the brain to pick up the slack—a sort of neural rewiring that restores lost motion and function.

But none of that remotely justifies the 10% silliness. The fact is, the brain is overworked as it is, 3 lbs. (1,400 gm) of tissue stuffed into a skull that can barely hold it all. There’s a reason the human brain is as wrinkled as it is and that’s because the more it grew as we developed, the more it bumped up against the limits of the cranium; the only way to increase the surface area of the neocortex sufficiently to handle the advanced data crunching we do was to add convolutions. Open up the cerebral cortex and smooth it out and it would measure 2.5 sq. ft. (2,500 sq cm). Wrinkles are a clumsy solution to a problem that never would have presented itself in the first place if 90% of our disk space were going to waste.

What’s more, our bodies simply couldn’t afford to maintain so much idle neuronal tissue since the brain is an exceedingly expensive organ to own and operate—at least in terms of energy needs. At birth, babies actually have up to 50% more neural connections among the billions of brain cells than adults do, but in the first few years of life (and, to a lesser extent, on through sexual maturity) a process of pruning takes place, with many of those synaptic links being broken and the ones that remain growing stronger. That makes the brain less diffuse and more efficient—which is exactly the way any good central processing unit should operate. It also allows it to use up fewer calories, which is critical.

“We were a nutritionally marginal species early on,” the late William Greenough, a psychologist and brain development expert at the University of Illinois, told me for my 2007 book Simplexity. “A synapse is a very costly thing to support.”

Added Ray Jackendoff, co-director of the center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, “The thing that’s really astonishing might not be that we lose so many connections, but that the brain’s plasticity and growth are able to continue for as long as they do.”

OK, so the Lucy screenwriters aren’t psychologists or directors of cognitive studies institutes. But they do have the same 100 billion neurons everybody else’s brains have. Here’s hoping they take a few billion of them out for an invigorating run before they write their next sci-fi script.

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