TIME Environment

Satellites Show Major Southwest Groundwater Loss

A new report suggests that large swaths of groundwater in the Colorado River Basin have been depleted

(SAN FRANCISCO) — Groundwater losses from the Colorado River basin appear massive enough to challenge long-term water supplies for the seven states and parts of Mexico that it serves, according to a new study released Thursday that used NASA satellites.

Researchers from NASA and the University of California, Irvine say their study is the first to quantify how much groundwater people in the West are using during the region’s current drought.

Stephanie Castle, the study’s lead author and a water resource specialist at the University of California, Irvine, called the extent of the groundwater depletion “shocking.”

“We didn’t realize the magnitude of how much water we actually depleted” in the West, Castle said.

Since 2004, researchers said, the Colorado River basin — the largest in the Southwest — has lost 53 million acre feet, or 17 trillion gallons, of water. That’s enough to supply more than 50 million households for a year, or nearly fill Lake Mead — the nation’s largest water reservoir — twice.

Three-fourths of those losses were groundwater, the study found.

Unlike reservoirs and other above-ground water, groundwater sources can become so depleted that they may never refill, Castle said. For California and other western states, the groundwater depletion is drawing down the reserves that protect consumers, farmers and ecosystems in times of drought.

“What happens if it isn’t there?” Castle said during a phone interview. “That’s the scary part of this analysis.”

The NASA and University of California research used monthly gravity data to measure changes in water mass in the basin from December 2004 to November of last year, and used that data to track groundwater depletion.

“Combined with declining snowpack and population growth, this will likely threaten the long-term ability of the basin to meet its water-allocation commitments to the seven basin states and to Mexico, Jay Famiglietti, senior author on the study and senior water-cycle specialist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.

The Colorado River basin supplies water to about 40 million people and 4 million acres of farmland in seven states — California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming — as well as to people and farms in part of Mexico.

California, one of the nation’s largest agricultural producers, is three years into drought. While the state has curtailed use of surface water, the state lacks a statewide system for regulating — or even measuring — groundwater.

TIME space

The Search for Extraterrestrial Air Pollution

A burned-out star, called a white dwarf.
A burned-out star, called a white dwarf. Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images

Alien factories could be a sign of life outside our solar system

Astrobiologists have come up with two basic ideas for how to find life on planets outside the solar system. The first is to look for telltale gases in exoplanets’ atmospheres, such as oxygen and methane, that would suggest the presence of some rudimentary life form, like bacteria. The second involves searching for radio or laser signals from some advanced alien civilizations—a longer shot, since the signals would have to be beamed in our direction — and who knows if aliens use lasers or radio?

But now a team of Harvard astronomers has come up with a third way: look for atmospheric gases generated not by biological processes, but by alien factories.

“I was very surprised,” says Avi Loeb, chair of Harvard’s astrophysics department and a co-author of a paper describing the technique, “that nobody has thought before about searching for industrial air pollution.”

It’s probably less surprising to others: Loeb is something of a master at asking nutty-sounding questions, then demonstrating that they’re not nearly as nutty as you might think. He co-authored one paper, for example, on how to look for cities on Pluto, and another on why it makes sense to look for habitable planets orbiting dead stars.

This latest effort is no exception. “It’s not crazy, at least as far as I can tell,” says Heather Knutson, a Caltech astronomer who specializes in looking at exoplanetary atmospheres, and who wasn’t involved in this research. “Avi in particular is willing to speculate on some pretty far-out topics, but no one doubts his ability to calculate the relevant physical models correctly.”

In this case, the relevant models involve chlorofluorocarbons, or CFC’s, the chemicals used in refrigerators and air conditioners. Unlike oxygen and methane, which occur naturally, CFC’s are almost entirely artificial. If an Earth-size planet had just ten times the atmospheric concentration of CFC’s that Earth does, Loeb and his co-authors, Harvard freshman Henry Lin and Smithsonian Observatory scientist Gonzalo Gonzalez Abad found, the gases could be detected with the powerful James Webb Space Telescope, slated for launch in 2018.

There are, Loeb admits, a couple of catches. First, the Webb can only pull this off if a planet in question orbits a white dwarf star—the tiny, white-hot ember left behind when a star like the Sun dies. That’s because the CFCs’ signature would appear as a distortion of starlight passing through the planet’s atmosphere. If the star is much bigger than the planet, most of the light hitting the telescope would bypass the planet entirely, and the distortion would be lost in the glare.

Another issue is that high concentrations of CFC’s might signal a civilization that has already managed to destroy itself. Some of these gases attack and destroy a planet’s protective ozone layer, which is why, here on Earth, the worst offenders were banned in 1987.

But it’s also possible that an alien civilization would have pumped its atmosphere full of CFC’s on purpose, says Loeb. “They act as greenhouse gases,” he says, “so if a planet were at the colder edge of its habitable zone, you could imagine using CFC’s to warm things up.” As for the ozone problem, he says, “they could in principle produce extra ozone as well, or design CFC’s that were less harmful.”

As with many of Loeb’s more speculative ideas, he’s not predicting that we’ll actually find CFC-laced exoplanets—just that we could if they happen to exist, and happen to orbit white-dwarf stars.

The odds of discovery via this method are probably very long. But as physicists Philip Morrison and Giuseppe Cocconi once said of the search for alien radio signals, “The probability of success is difficult to estimate, but if we never search, the chance of success is zero.”

 

 

TIME Disasters

Fear of Flying: Don’t Be Fooled By the Scary News—Air Travel Is as Safe as Ever

If you're like most people, the temptation is to swear off air travel, at least for a while. But you've reached the wrong conclusion.

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The news from the skies couldn’t get grimmer. In just the week since Malaysian Airlines flight 17 was brought down by a missile strike in Ukraine, killing 298 people, two more planes have gone down or gone missing: On July 23, a TransAsia flight crashed off Taiwan, killing 58 people, probably due to turbulence caused by typhoon Matmo; this morning an Air Algerie plane with 116 people aboard disappeared from radar and is thought to have crashed off of Mali, another possible victim of weather. And all of this comes in the wake of the still-mysterious March 8 disappearance of Malaysian Air flight 370, with 239 people aboard.

If you’re like most people, the temptation is to swear off air travel, at least for a while. And, like most people, you’ve reached the wrong conclusion.

Human beings are very good at a lot of things, but we’re terrible when it comes to risk assessment. That’s not our fault; we’re wired that way. If the tiger comes from one patch of the forest, you avoid that patch. If snakes are in one fruit tree you never return to it. But the modern world presents a whole lot more complexity than our still slowly developing brains are equipped to handle. And few things flummox us more than airplanes.

Start with the fact that we can’t wrap our brains around how they work in the first place. Yes, there are engines and lift and flaps and who-knows what all keeping them up. But the fact is, a fully loaded 747 weighs 975,000 lbs and attains a top speed of 570 mph at altitudes exceeding 6.5 mi. That kind of machine just shouldn’t work and so we always half-assume it won’t.

There is, too, the much discussed helplessness attendant to buckling yourself into an airline seat, obeying all the rules about seat backs and tray tables and turning off electronic equipment and when you can jolly well get up to go to the bathroom. When you’re behind the wheel, you feel like you’re in control. When an anonymous pilot is at the stick, you feel like little more than cargo.

The occasional rash of disasters like the recent ones don’t help matters any. But the fact is, those are just statistical clusters — the airline equivalent of a few people in one country developing a rare form of cancer, which gets people looking for an environmental toxin or some other cause, when in fact it may just be random numbers at play. Yes, flying into a war zone or the teeth of a typhoon is going to increase the danger that something very bad is going to happen to you. But avoid those obvious no-go zones and the odds are very good you’ll be just fine.

In 2010, according to a report by the U.N.’s Civil Aviation Organization, there were a breathtaking 30,566,513 commercial departures worldwide. Yet, according to an authoritative site that tracks all departures and arrivals, there were only 12 crashes of planes carrying more than 18 people and only three of them resulted in more than 99 fatalities. Those deaths were an unspeakable tragedy for the people who lost their lives and the families they left behind, but in the cold calculus of probability, they’re less than a rounding error compared to all the people who flew aboard those 30.5 million flights.

Despite such low individual odds, one thing that scares us off of airplanes is the unavoidably uneven distribution of the crashes that do occur. So the 35 commercial accidents in 1968 and 1969, the 34 in 1972 and 1973, and the 33 in 1989, would have likely had a lot of people reaching for their car keys and hitting the roads instead. And it’s worse when one of the crashes is especially notorious — such as the Dec. 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which directly preceded 1989′s string of comparatively bad luck.

The Sept. 11 attacks, of course, are the darkest example of all. The two flights that brought down the World Trade Towers alone top the list of the world’s worst air disasters, with the 2,907 deaths easily outdistancing the two-plane runway accident that claimed 583 lives on Tenerife in the Canary Islands in 1977.

Air travel suffered badly in the wake of Sept. 11, but so, it turned out, did some of the people who avoided the planes. From October to December 2001 there were 1,000 more highway fatalities than there had been in that same period the year before — the simple result of more people being on the road. “It was called the 9/11 effect,” David Ropeik, an independent risk consultant and a former professor of the Harvard School of Public Health, told me for my 2007 book Simplexity. Nearly 3,000 people died as a direct result of the attacks and a third again as an indirect one.

Air travel, surely, is not risk free, but it’s hardly a new observation to say that nothing is. Statistical clusters do smooth out over even a relatively short period of time and what feels like a grave danger today will seem relatively benign again tomorrow. The tragedy of the lives lost on the recent crashes is a very real thing; but so is the low likelihood of any one person suffering the same sorrowful end.

TIME Germany

Poll: Only Germans Think They Are Helping to Fix Global Warming

Germany Debates Its Energy Future
Wind turbines stand behind a solar power park on October 30, 2013 near Werder, Germany. Sean Gallup—Getty Images

Germans have a pretty high opinion of themselves when it comes to environmental stewardship, according to a recent TIME poll, but their pride might be a little premature.

From among six large countries surveyed in a recent TIME poll, only Germany sees itself as more a part of the solution to global warming (60%) than part of the problem (40%). Only in Germany did the majority of poll respondents report that their country has a “mostly” or “somewhat positive” role in combating global warming.

The TIME poll surveyed 3,505 online respondents between May 10 and May 22 from the Germany, the United States, Brazil, Turkey, India and South Korea, with an equal number of respondents in each country. The margin of error in the survey is 1.8%.

Despite their environmentalist pride, Germans are not optimistic about the ability of the world as a whole to change its polluting ways—just 19% of Germans think the planet can reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, compared to 37% of respondents overall.

The Germans’ pride likely stems from Energiewende, or “energy transition,” Germany’s closely-followed effort to ramp up energy production from renewable sources. The country has indeed significantly increased solar and wind power, and the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy in April found Germany to be the most energy-efficient major economy on earth. Germany hit a new record around noon on a day in May this year, producing 74% of its electricity needs from renewable sources.

The problem is that, while solar power plants may be super-effective power producers at noon on a sunny day, without scalable energy-storage technologies they aren’t so effective producing power for other times—when it’s dark, for example. Because Energiewende has been accompanied by a rapid move away from nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster Germany has had to make up its energy deficit by increasing its reliance on coal for the first time in years. German CO2 emissions have actually been rising over past three years.

The country is continuing to perfect and expand its renewable energy portfolio and may one day succeed in cutting back again on its coal habit. For the time being though German perceptions aren’t quite in line with the reality.

TIME space

Here’s the Solar System’s Weirdest-Looking Comet

The OSIRIS instrument on the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft photographed the mission's destination comet on July 14, 2014, from about 7,500 miles away.
The OSIRIS instrument on the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft photographed the mission's destination comet on July 14, 2014, from about 7,500 miles away. ESA/Rosetta/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Comets are like movie stars—always more glamorous with their makeup on. A new spacecraft is about orbit and land on what might be the homeliest one ever

A comet has a lot to hide. To most people, it’s among the most glamorous objects in the solar system—brilliantly illuminated, racing through space with its glowing tail streaming far behind it. That, at least, is how comets look from great distances, and only when they’re close enough to the sun for the outward-flowing solar wind to light them up and produce those signature tails.

But deeper in space, without the solar floodlights? Not so much. There the comet reveals itself for what it is: a dirty snowball of ice and rock and not a whole lot more. There may be no comet for which that’s truer than the one known unlyrically as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, as this GIF made up of images taken by the fast-approaching Rosetta spacecraft reveals. The comet is a lumpy, two-lobed body, measuring about 1.8 mi by 3 mi. (3×5 km), which one astronomer compares to a rubber ducky, and most other folks would describe as just plain ugly.

But Rosetta is an anxious suitor all the same. The spacecraft, built by the European Space Agency, has been en route since its launch in 2004. Rosetta will rendezvous with the comet on August 6 and enter orbit around it shortly there after. In November, it will dispatch a small lander down to its surface—becoming the first spacecraft to master either of those maneuvers, never mind both.

The comet may never be much to look at up close, but the science it could yield—offering astronomers their closest ever look at one of the oldest artifacts of the ancient solar system—could more than make up for that. Appearance has never been everything—and in the case of a historic mission like this one, that’s truer than ever.

TIME space

So Where the Heck IS Voyager 1, Anyway?

Adios? Not so fast
Adios? Not so fast NASA/JPL

The first human built object to exit the solar system may not be gone after all

For a space probe that’s at least two decades beyond its sell-by date, Voyager 1 has a pretty impressive record of keeping itself in the news. Even more impressive is the fact that the topic is always the same. Either the aging craft, launched in 1977 to explore first Jupiter, then Saturn, has left the Solar System, en route to an eternal journey into deep space, or it hasn’t.

In 2003, for example, the reports were that Voyager had indeed left. But in 2010, it was merely getting ready to leave. Same thing in 2012. Then, last year, it definitely departed—but it didn’t leave the Solar System exactly. What it did do was depart the heliosphere, the region where the charged particles of the solar wind stream freely outward from the Sun before slamming into the particle clouds of interstellar space to form a shock wave known as the heliopause.

If you’re not confused enough already, you will be. It turns out that nobody actually knows whether Voyager really is outside the heliosphere at all, since all of the tests to date have been indirect, looking for charged particles and other clues that suggest but don’t prove anything. So now a pair of Voyager team scientists have proposed what they insist is a definitive test, in a paper accepted for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

If the spacecraft is still inside the heliosphere, they say, it should encounter something called the “current sheet,” a place where the Sun’s magnetic field flips from north to south. Even Voyager’s aging instruments could detect that event directly. “If that happens, I think if anyone still believes Voyager 1 is in the interstellar medium, they will really have something to explain,” said co-author George Gloeckler, a space scientist at the University of Michigan, in a press release.The moment of truth, Gloeckler believes, should come sometime in 2016.

Unless it doesn’t, of course. That will mean Voyager left last year after all. But even if the field reversal does happen, it could mean that the heliosphere itself is temporarily expanding, and has briefly caught up with Voyager. So Voyager left, but that, as Michael Corleone famously said in The Godfather, Part III, “Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.”

Whether Voyager is inside or outside the heliosphere, there’s no dispute about one thing: it has not left the Solar System, which is the collection of objects that orbit the Sun. The probe is currently about three times as distant as Pluto—but the orbiting Oort Cloud of proto-comets is far more distant than that. Voyager won’t cross that line for many thousands of years.

And at that point, if anyone’s still interested, you can expect a brand new flurry of “is it or isn’t it” stories.

 

TIME Outer Space

What’s Next For NASA? Asteroids!

NASA aims to continue their space exploration with their Asteroid Redirect Mission.

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NASA has not sent astronauts to the moon since 1972. While that remains a historic event, President Barack Obama’s cancellation of the Constellation Program back in 2010 ended hopes indefinitely of the United States returning to the moon any time soon.

Still, that program’s death did not mark the end of NASA’s work and planetary exploration overall. The agency is currently working on its next target: catching an asteroid, pulling it into the moon’s orbit and sending astronauts to its location in order to study it.

The purpose of the mission, according to NASA, is for planetary defense, as the Earth has had instances of asteroid interference in very recent history. Scientists claim that in changing the orbit of an asteroid and studying its composition, Earth could protect itself from another asteroid crashing into its atmosphere.

The Asteroid Redirect Mission, should it be successful, could also be used as a testing ground for a possible mission to Mars in the near future.

TIME animal behavior

Hey, Did I See You Petting Another Dog?

Who were you seeing last night? And do NOT lie to me.
Who were you seeing last night? And do NOT lie to me. Stefanie Timmermann—Vetta/Getty Images

Man's best friend takes that BFF thing seriously. Pay too much attention to a dog other than your own and you'd better be prepared to explain yourself when you get home.

If the science of animal behavior had an official curse word, it would be “anthropomorphism.” That’s just a fancy term for the sin of assigning human qualities to animals. Your dog might look happy and your cat might seem disdainful, but since you most likely think of your pet as a little person already, your judgements are automatically suspect. You see what you want to see, and that is the opposite of scientific.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re always wrong. It turns out that one rigorous scientific experiment after another has shown that some animals do have mental states that are surprisingly similar to ours. They exhibit altruism, empathy, and a sense of justice, for example. They can plan and execute deliberate deception. They may experience true grief as well.

And now, says a new report in the journal PLOS ONE, we can add jealousy to the mix too. That’s a surprising conclusion for one very big reason. Lead author Christine Harris, of the University of California, San Diego, is a psychologist who usually studies human behavior, and among humans, the conventional wisdom has been that jealousy requires a sense of self-esteem that can be damaged. That’s something animals are unlikely to have.

But it’s also possible, Harris suspected, that all jealousy, human and otherwise, is a more fundamental emotion like fear or lust. If so, it’s presumably a product of evolution, and should exist in some form in species other than our own.

She and her co-author, Caroline Prouvost, set out to test that proposition, and they had some existing data to build on. Several studies, they note, have suggested that infants as young as six months old show evidence of jealousy even though they presumably haven’t developed a sense of self-esteem. In those studies, the babies got upset when their mothers fussed over a realistic-looking doll, but not when the moms ignored them to read a book.

What’s true in barely-developed humans, they suspected, might also be true in highly social animals like dogs—so they replicated the human experiments with canines. They had 36 owners play affectionately with realistic-looking toy dogs while ignoring their own pets. They also had the owners play with Jack-o-Lantern shaped plastic pails, and, finally, had the owners ignore the dogs while reading books.

Sure enough, 78% of the dogs went into a sort of canine snit when their owners played with faux fido: they pushed and tried to squeeze in between owner and interloper, and in some cases even snapped at the phony dog. When the owners played with the pails, by contrast, jealous reactions were triggered in only 42% of the dogs (no word, by the way, on whether the animals thought their owners had lost their minds). And when the owners chose a book over their beloved pets, only 22% of the dogs got upset.

“It’s clearly not just the loss of attention that triggered aggressive behavior,” says Harris. “It’s that the owners were paying attention to another doglike object.”

The finding has impressed some of the most notable figures in the animal behavior field. “This is a landmark study,” wrote Marc Bekoff—professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the author of the new book Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed—in an e-mail to Time. “It’s not a matter of if emotions have evolved in animals, but why they evolved as they have.” That question will take a lot more study in multiple species—and Harris plans to do just that. “Horse owners claim their horses display jealousy,” she says, “and the question is open for cats as well.”

What’s more, jealousy is just the beginning of the possible range of emotions animals may experience. “This study reminded me of claims, absent data, that dogs cannot feel guilt or shame,” says Bekoff. “But there’s no reason why they cannot.”

Animal behavior’s official curse word, it turns out, may be on the way out. The more scientists look, the more “anthopomorphism” seems not to be a self-delusional fallacy, but a useful guide to understanding what’s really going on in your pet’s mind.

TIME animals

Bats Not So Blind After All, Study Suggests

A greater mouse-eared bat is pictured on
A greater mouse-eared bat is pictured on January 14, 2011 in the cellar vault of the Old Brewery in Frankfurt an der Oder, eastern Germany. Patrick Pleul—AFP/Getty Images

Some bats rely on polarized light to calibrate their internal compass

People who describe themselves as “blind as a bat” might want to find a new turn of phrase. Scientists have discovered that some bats rely on polarized light to orient themselves.

As is commonly known, bats use echolocation—locating objects by reflected sound—to “see” and navigate through the air. “But [echolocation] only works up to about 50 meters, so we knew they had to be using another of their senses for longer range navigation,” said Stefan Greif of Queen’s University, who led the new study on bats.

It turns out that the mouse-eared bat, which can be found in Europe, uses a form of light that most humans cannot see to guide its movements. It is the first mammal to calibrate with polarized light, the report published Tuesday in the journal Nature says.

As bats awake at sunset, they use the band of polarized light that appears in the sky (with one end pointing north and the other pointing south) to adjust their internal compass.

Scientists tested this hypothesis by placing 70 female mouse-eared bats in boxes to watch the sunset.Bats in some boxes could see the polarized light normally. Other bats sat in boxes that had a lens that rotated the polarization 90 degrees.

The bats were then released at night. The control group (who had seen the normal polarized light at sunset) flew the right direction home. Those in the experimental boxes flew 90 degrees in the wrong direction.

TIME space

Chandra Observatory: 15 Years of Glorious Pictures

Human eyes don't know half of what they're missing. But the Chandra Observatory, with its x-ray vision, gives us a stunning peek.

You’ll never see the universe as beautifully as the Chandra Observatory can see it. That’s because Chandra—which is celebrating its 15th anniversary in high-Earth orbit—sees in x-ray frequencies and you don’t. It’s a pity, actually that we’re blind in that bandwidth, because so much of the cosmos makes itself known there. Signals coming from planets, comets, supernovas, from the dark matter in the vast spaces between galaxies, all emit x-ray energy. The portraits they paint, with false color added to make them visible to our eyes, are more than static snapshots. They are, instead, pictures of processes: of matter spinning down the eternal drain of the black hole at the center of our galaxy; of galaxies colliding and merging; of the cool gas swirling at the center of the Andromeda galaxy.

Chandra records all of these cosmic processes—bits of history really, since at their great distances many of them played out in the remote past. In its own short life, it has crossed many boundaries in terrestrial history too. The satellite was lofted by the shuttle Columbia in 1999—a ship that was destined for catastrophe just four years later. It left Earth at a time when the World Trade Towers stood; when Barack Obama was an Illinois State Senator, one year away from losing his bid for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives; when no one had ever heard of an iPhone. That doesn’t seem like much in a universe whose chapters play out in epochs, not mere years. But for a fragile machine from a fragile planet, 15 long years of exploratory work aren’t bad—especially when the post cards it sends home are so improbably dazzling. —Jeffrey Kluger

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