TIME Environment

The Volunteer Army Hunting Florida’s Invasive Pythons

Finding an invasive python in the wild is difficult, which is why you need a volunteer army

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As I write in TIME’s cover story this week, Burmese pythons invaded Florida years ago, and they’ve thrived in the warm tropical climate. There may be tens of thousands of pythons slithering around south Florida, but the truth is that no one really knows. That’s because when they don’t want to be found—which is most of the time—Burmese pythons are all but impossible to locate. At a 2013 state-sponsored hunt, nearly 1,600 participants found and captured just 68 pythons. “For every one snake you’ll find, you can walk by at least 99 without seeing them,” says Michael Dorcas, a snake expert at Davidson College.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Just ask experts like Jeff Fobb, a dangerous-animal specialist with Miami Dade County Fire Rescue department. Fobb helps train volunteers for the Python Patrol, an initiative begun by the Nature Conservancy and now run by the state of Florida. Training as many people as possible improves the chances of actually capturing a python when one is found. But it’s not always easy, as this video shows.

To see the full cover story click here: Invasive Species Coming to a Habitat Near You

TIME space

United Arab Emirates Says It Will Go To Mars By 2021

Mars
Mars Digital Vision/Getty Images

A bold announcement by the United Arab Emirates is more than just an idle boast

The big news out of the Middle East this week is mostly about war and other kinds of tribulation, as it was last week and probably will for weeks to come. War and tribulation, that is, plus a mission to Mars.

According to a report by Reuters, the United Arab Emirates announced it would be creating a space agency by 2021 and sending an umanned probe to the Red Planet—something only the U.S., the USSR/Russian Federation and the European Space Agency have done with any success, while the British, Japanese and Chinese have tried and failed. The jury is still out on an Indian probe, which is currently en route.

So can they do it, or is this just some crazy stunt the UAE hopes nobody will remember when the time comes? The answer: it’s not necessarily crazy. True, the country has no aerospace industry, but a government-backed group based in the Persian Gulf country bought nearly a third of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, a private space tourism company. Moreover, says John Logsdon, a space policy expert and professor emeritus at George Washington University, “The UAE has already been active in space with communications satellites and Earth observation satellites.”

They’ve done this, he says, by purchasing both satellites and launch services from other countries, and they’d almost certainly put together a Mars probe the same way. “Most of the technical work and the launch would be contracted out,” he speculates, “but some of the components could be developed internally.” If that happened, and if UAE space agency engineers were in charge of mission control, he says, “they could appropriately claim that this mission was their own.”

Given the UAE’s deep pockets, it’s certainly possible that the country could pull off such a project, which would bring a new kind of prestige to the region. The Arab world did invent algebra and enjoyed a golden age of science for centuries leading up to the Medieval period and many Arabs dream of the return to that kind of scientific ascendancy. Recent, eye-catching projects—including the successful construction of the world’s tallest building and the world’s largest indoor ski resort—hint at inventive potential.

A Mars mission would obviously be a bit more ambitious, but in the end, it’s really just rocket science, which isn’t as complicated as we sometimes tend to think. Still, it’s one thing to say you’re going to do something like this and quite another to do it. After all, in 1969, NASA was similarly talking about our own manned mission to Mars—with astronauts aboard—in what was then the near future. It could be done, said Wernher von Braun, the rocket engineer behind that year’s successful Moon landing, by 1982.

But it never happened, and who knows if it ever will? The UAE, aided by expertise from other countries, can certainly get a probe to Mars by 2021, in theory.

Whether they’ll actually do it is whole different story.

TIME animals

Five Species That Are Quietly Dying Off While Nobody Pays Attention

Indonesian Sanctuary Helps To Save The Slow Loris From Extinction
A slow loris in its cage at a sanctuary for the endangered animals, which have been confiscated from individuals or markets that illegally sell them as pets, on February 27, 2014 in Bogor, Indonesia. Ed Wray—Getty Images

They're vanishing fast, but the world is paying scant attention

Everyone knows that rhinos or pandas are threatened with extinction. But there are plenty of species slipping away silently, without celebrity advocates or high-profile campaigns. “So many species are just not popular enough, or well-known enough to share the spotlight with the world’s threatened megafauna,” says Chris Shepherd, director of conservation group Traffic South East Asia.

The problem is that while threats facing the icons of conservation — such as the gorilla or elephant — are wholly deserving of media attention, this leaves less page space and air time for scores of other, sometimes more endangered, species. And if there’s no public attention paid to them, funds don’t materialize and the impetus for legal protection is weakened.

The plight of the following five species is two-fold: their disappearance is happening fast, and it’s happening off-radar.

1. Seahorses

Population trend: A 50%-80% global population decline in the past 20 years according to the Seahorse Trust.

All 38 species of this shy creature are, like many species, facing threats on several fronts. They live in coastal waters, leaving them vulnerable to habitat loss from human development and indiscriminate trawling. There’s also a unsustainably high demand in traditional Chinese medicine for seahorses, which are used to alleviate kidney ailments and circulatory problems. According to the Seahorse Trust, 150 million seahorses are used in Chinese medicine each year. The home aquarium trade, the trust says, is responsible for another million or so annually.

Seahorses remain on the now ten-year-old Appendix II to the internationally recognized Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) — a categorization that allows for regulated trade. But while 25 million seahorses are legally traded yearly, it’s estimated that further 125 million enter the black market. So far this year, Hong Kong customs have intercepted over 1,000 lbs of undeclared, smuggled dried seahorses, worth about $130,000. This level of capture and commercial trade is leading to a collapse in seahorse sightings. In 2011, the Centre of Marine Science at the University of Algarve, Portugal, reported a 85% reduction of long-snouted seahorses and 56% for other species that occur in the region.

“CITES listings should have all seahorse species down as highly endangered and at risk of extinction,” says Neil Garrick-Maidment, executive director of The Seahorse Trust. “There should, without a doubt, be a complete moratorium on seahorse fishing for 10 years.”

2. Sun bears

Population trend: The IUCN estimates that sun bears have decreased by 30% in the past 30 years.

Sun bears are traditionally found in much of Southeast Asia – from Bangladesh across to Yunnan, China and down to Borneo, Malaysia — but have become regionally extinct in much of the region, including Singapore and parts of China. The reason is a rapidly disappearing habitat, since vast swathes of lowland forest are being cleared – legally and not – for commercial monoculture cultivation, particularly palm oil.

In what forest remains to them, they are hunted by poachers who are after the bear’s paws and gall bladder, both of which fetch a high price on the black market – the former as a culinary delicacy, and the latter due to alleged medicinal properties when treating gall stones, inflammation, pain and liver troubles. “Numerous bears observed in bear bile farms, or on camera trap photos are missing limbs due to snares,” says Shepherd, who adds that China, South Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia are where demand is highest for bear bile.

Sun bears are listed in CITES Appendix I, which only permits regulated noncommercial trade (such as trade for scientific research, for example). But despite this degree of protection, “sun bears face tremendous pressures from illegal hunting and trade” according to Kanitha Krishnasamy, senior program officer, Traffic South East Asia. “Few people know of the threats this species faces, and fewer care,” adds Shepherd. “There are only a handful of people working to save the sun bear, all of them with inadequate amounts of funding, low levels of government support, and very little support from the public.”

3. Freshwater turtles and tortoises

Population trend: Decline in turtle and tortoise populations in Asia over the past decade has been so sharp it has a name: the Asian Turtle Crisis.

Distinct species of tortoises and freshwater turtles occur in low densities across the globe, each with characteristics adapted for specialized habitats. The Roti Island Snake-necked Turtle, for example, has a 20cm long neck and was endemic to Roti Island in Indonesia when it was discovered in the 90s. Now it’s critically endangered. Sadly, its story rings true for many of the 31 turtle and tortoise species now considered critically endangered by the IUCN, and there is one major cause – illegal trade in the creatures as pets and as food.

Although habitat loss and water pollution are a serious threat to these fascinating reptiles, it’s their meat and ornate shells that put them in real danger. As South East Asia becomes more affluent, the demand for these species has skyrocketed, On May 14, 230 Black Spotted Turtles were discovered by Thai Customs in unclaimed bags from Kolkata at Bangkok’s Suvanabhumi International Airport. Conservationists say that current levels of demand mean that many species do not have a hope of survival.

4 Slow lorises

Population trend: Four of the five subspecies – found between Bangladesh and China, down to Indonesia and the Philippines – have experienced a 30% population decline in the past 25 years. The Javan slow loris, meanwhile, has declined by 80% over the same time period, and is considered critically endangered.

The decline in the populations of these lemur-like primates has traditionally been related to rampant habitat loss as the jungles are cleared or agriculture such as commercial cashew and palm oil plantations and rice paddies. This has forced slow lorises into gardens, settlements and farmlands, where it encounters a even greater threat to its survival: its desirability as a “cute,” exotic pet.

A quick YouTube search reveals many slow loris videos, many with several million views that have been a disastrously successful marketing tool, despite all species being listed under CITES Appendix 1 in 2007. Lorises are still routinely spotted in markets in Jakarta, Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur by conservation organisations such as Small Carnivore Conservation Project in Thailand, which saw lorises in a Jakarta market as recently as mid-June.

The underground trade in lorises is harmful on many levels. Individual lorises often cannot survive the stresses of capture and transport, where they are stuffed in boxes, sacks or suitcases and shipped as far as Russia, Japan and the United States. If they are to be sold, their venomous incisors must be pulled, resulting in infection and often death. They also do not fare well in captivity, and excessive handling, forced daytime activity and poor diet lead to high mortality rates.

5. Dugongs

Population trend: In Queensland, Australia, catch rates – a major population indicator – for dugongs in 1999 were just 3% of what they were in 1962, in an area that is considered a relative safe haven for the ‘sea cows’.

Dugongs have a traditional range spanning the waters of 48 countries and 140,000km of coastline – from the East African coast and Madagascar through the Middle East and Indian coasts down to Australia and Papua New Guinea. But they are now only found in relict populations, separated by large spans of ocean. Dugongs have been declared extinct in the waters of Taiwan, Mauritius and the Maldives, and studies indicate that in former ‘strongholds’ such as the Thai Andaman sea, Philippine archipelago and Sri Lanka, colonies of less than 100 individuals struggle to get by.

Dugong survival is hugely dependent on the availability of seagrass, and the fact is the species is suffering a chronic, and worsening, food shortage. Net entanglement, vessel traffic and socio-political impediments to conservation efforts also play a part, but it’s the pollution of coastal waters and consequent seagrass loss that is the biggest problem for these sensitive beasts. Trawling, mining, dredging, coastal clearing and land reclamation lead to an increase in sedimentation, smothering the seagrass of sunlight vital for its growth. Sewage, agricultural herbicide runoff and heavy metals also lead to a degradation in seagrasses, which can take over a decade to recover.

This, when considered in combination with their slow reproductive rates, spells disaster. Females give birth to just one calf at a time, with a two-to-seven year period between pregnancies. Lack of public awareness and pressure is a key restricting factor to dugong survival, according to UNEP: “for management to be effective, the general public has to be concerned about dugong conservation,” – a point that is vitally relevant to so many quietly disappearing species.

TIME Science

This Eerie Hole Opened Up at the ‘End of the World’

Crater appeared on the Yamal peninsula in northern Russia

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Helicopters spotted this mysterious hole in northern Russia on Tuesday and scientists are on their way to investigate the scene, reports the Siberian Times.

The hole—estimated to be over 250ft wide—is located in the Yamal peninsula, a region affectionately meaning the “end of the world.” One scientist speculates that global warming in conjunction with natural gas lines may have caused the yawning cavity in the earth.

Anna Kurchatova from Siberia’s Sub-Arctic Scientific Research Centre believes the crater was a result of an explosion when a mixture of water, salt and natural gas exploded underground. Global warming, she claims, has caused the permafrost in Siberia to melt at an accelerated rate, placing stress on the natural gas reserves.

Yamal authorities are visiting the hole along with two scientists from the Centre for the Study of the Arctic and one from the Cryosphere Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

[Siberian Times]

 

TIME UAE

UAE Plans First Arab Spaceship to Mars in 7 Years

(DUBAI, United Arab Emirates) — The United Arab Emirates, already home to the world’s tallest tower, is now reaching for the stars. The energy-rich country on the eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula announced plans Wednesday to establish a space program to send the first Arab spaceship to Mars in 2021.

The ruler of the UAE’s emirate of Dubai, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, said the mission will prove the Arab world is still capable of delivering scientific contributions to humanity, despite the many conflicts across the Middle East.

“Our region is a region of civilization. Our destiny is, once again, to explore, to create, to build and to civilize,” said Al Maktoum, who is also UAE’s vice president, in a statement.

For years, the UAE has been pushing Arab League nations to create a pan-Arab space agency similar to the European Space Agency.

A UAE Cabinet statement said the unmanned space probe is also aimed at diversifying the country’s economy and building up its local talent in the technology and aerospace fields.

The government did not say how much the program is expected to cost, but said the space agency would report to the Cabinet and be financially and administratively independent otherwise.

The UAE, which is comprised of seven emirates, says that its investments in space technologies already exceed 20 billion dirham, or roughly $5.4 billion. That includes investments in satellite data, mobile satellite communications and earth mapping and observation.

The Cabinet statement said the space technologies industry is estimated to be worth around $300 billion globally, and is increasingly important to the security of nations.

For hundreds of years up until the mid-13th century, Islamic advancements in science and technology experienced a golden age, but later fell behind. The ruler of the emirate of Abu Dhabi and UAE President Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nayhan said the Mars probe “represents the Islamic world’s entry into the era of space exploration.”

Several Muslim-majority nations such as Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey Indonesia, Pakistan and Iran already have space agencies or programs.

Iran sent a monkey into space for the second time last year, returning it safely to earth, and says it aims to send an astronaut into space.

There have also been several Muslim astronauts from around the world. Saudi-born Prince Sultan bin Salman Al-Saud became the first Muslim and Arab to travel to space in 1985.

Meanwhile, Egypt became the first Arab country to launch its own communications satellite in 1998, dramatically transforming the broadcasting landscape in the region.

The Dubai ruler said his country chose the epic challenge of reaching Mars because it inspires and motivates.

“The moment we stop taking on such challenges is the moment we stop moving forward,” he said.

TIME Infectious Disease

Spacing Out Kids’ Vaccines Can Hurt Their Health, Experts Say

Girl getting immunization
Getty Images

All those shriek-inducing pokes may seem excessive but the rewards of following national vaccination guidelines far outweigh the risks, experts say

“Like any parent, I don’t like to see my child get a shot,” says Dr. Michael J. Smith, a pediatrician at the University of Louisville who has studied immunizations and developmental health outcomes among kids. “But these vaccine schedules are in place for a reason.” Smith compares skipping or postponing one of your child’s vaccinations to not buckling him or her in during a car ride. “You never know when you’re going to get hit. And if you delay or space out your child’s shots, not only are you putting your kids at risk, but you’re putting other people’s kids at risk too.”

The urgency of Smith’s warnings are borne out in the recent outbreaks of measles and pertussis, diseases that had been almost totally eradicated in the U.S. but have made a frightening comeback since the turn of the century—right around the time two now-discredited scientific papers suggested a possible link between vaccines and autism. Dozens of subsequent studies have demonstrated there are no links between vaccinations and autism. But while stats show most parents understand the importance of immunizing their kids, research from the University of Michigan indicates plenty of moms and dads—roughly 1 in 4—worry that current immunization guidelines may overburden their babies’ tiny immune systems.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently recommend that all healthy babies be vaccinated against 12 different diseases or viruses during the first two years of life. That’s compared to eight back in the early 1990s. Recently added to the list are vaccinations against potentially deadly illnesses like hepatitis and chicken pox.

But while the number of vaccines (and needle pricks) has grown during the last two decades, the amount of antigen in those shots, which is the substance that triggers a response from your child’s immune system, has plummeted, Smith explains. “The actual burden on your child’s immune system is far lower that it was 10 or 20 years ago, even though kids now receive more shots,” he says. That’s credited to advances in protein science and a better understanding of the way diseases and children’s immune systems interact.

In an effort to provide some answers for concerned parents, Smith and his colleagues looked at kids’ scores on tests related to motor skill, verbal memory, attention span, and several other neuropsychological factor to see if vaccine timing had any impact—good or bad—on a child’s brain development. His research shows kids vaccinated on time score the same or better than children who receive their vaccinations late or not at all.

Related research from Canada looked specifically at the immunization decisions made by parents of children diagnosed with autism. “Our study found that roughly 60 percent of parents who had a child with autism delayed or declined vaccinations for a later-born child,” says Dr. Jessica Brian, a developmental psychologist at the University of Toronto. According to Brian’s research, those children who did not receive their shots on time or altogether were slightly more likely to develop autism. “I don’t want to suggest that vaccines offer some protection against autism,” she says. “But our data show that there’s no increased risk of autism among kids who are vaccinated on time.”

Brian, Smith and other vaccine researchers repeatedly point to the Internet as a source of misinformation and, in some cases, unsubstantiated fear mongering when it comes to vaccines. Not uncommon are conspiracy theories involving pharmaceutical companies and the CDC. But travel overseas, and the picture changes slightly.

In Europe, where some diseases were never eradicated as thoroughly as they were in the U.S., health officials say there isn’t as much “too much, too soon” concern among parents when it comes to immunizations. Still, European moms and dads do harbor fears about potential vaccine side effects, says Niklas Danielsson, deputy head of the vaccine-preventable diseases program for the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Danielsson says the “unprecedented success” of vaccination programs has created a generation of young parents who aren’t familiar with the reality of something like a measles outbreak, so they’re focus is on a shot’s rare risks as opposed to its many proven benefits.

The lingering presence of diseases in other countries is one of the big reasons having your children vaccinated on time is so important, says Dr. Simon Hambidge, a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at the University of Colorado. “We live in a world of international travel, and people are coming into our country all the time who may be carrying these diseases,” Hambidge says. “Unfortunately, the vast majority of the new outbreaks we’re seeing involve unvaccinated children.”

Hambidge has looked closely at one possible vaccine side effect that has parents worried: seizures. The CDC recommends that all healthy infants receive their first measles vaccination between the ages of 12 and 15 months, and some research has linked the measles vaccine to higher rates of febrile seizures. Though frightening for parents, seizures of this type are relatively common and almost never cause lasting damage, Hambidge explains. “About one in 2,000 to 4,000 kids will experience one of these febrile seizures after receiving the measles vaccine,” he says. “But we found that that seizure rate rises to one in 1,000 or 2,000 if the measles vaccine is given late, or between 16 and 23 months of age.” Hambidge says this is just one example of how a slight deviation from the CDC’s vaccination schedule can put your child’s health at risk.

“The risk of measles is far, far more serious than the risk for febrile seizures,” Hambidge says. “Even if your child is unlucky enough to have a seizure after a vaccination, these seizures are short-lived and don’t lead to any long-term issues, while measles is a life-threatening disease.”

Despite the overwhelming amount of research and real-world evidence that points to the reliable safety of vaccines, experts acknowledge that parents will continue to worry about the chemicals and additives in immunization shots. To those who have doubts, Dr. Smith says, “Vaccines are one of the most rigorously tested and effective health products on the planet. Nothing involving them is done lightly.”

And when it comes to the CDC’s recommendations regarding vaccination schedules, he adds, “As a pediatrician and as a parent, if my family’s on vacation and we have to put off my daughter’s doctor visit, I get anxious each day that she goes unvaccinated. I think the timing is that important.”

TIME psychology

The Myth of the Diseased Immigrant

Border Patrol agents process a group of migrants from Honduras and Guatemala, mostly women and children, found walking near the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas, June 18.
Border Patrol agents process a group of migrants from Honduras and Guatemala, mostly women and children, found walking near the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas, June 18. Jennifer Whitney—The New York Times/Redux

The debate over the border crisis has descended to a sad—and depressingly familiar—place

Want to know how far we’ve sunk? Here’s how far: There was never any chance at all that we would handle the crisis of thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children running for their lives and arriving at our border with any maturity or grace at all. There was never a chance we’d take them in, get them fed and settled, and then consider sensibly how we can address the immigration-emigration mess on both sides of our border—and on our border—while working to send the kids safely home.

Instead we got the usual circus, the usual call to send in the troops, lock down the border, impeach the president—because, well, why not?—and under no circumstances to consider the comprehensive immigration reform bill languishing in the House. And now, at last, we have arrived at the inevitable sub-basement level of the debate. Now the nativists and xenophobes have played their nastiest—and least surprising—card: the border must be secured and the immigrants sent back because they are, of course, diseased.

That ugly cawing has been growing in the past week—and a lot of it has come from the usual sources. “Our schools cannot handle this influx, we don’t even know what all diseases they have,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX). Alan Long, the Mayor of Murrieta, Calif., where sign-waving protesters blocked buses carrying immigrants detained at the Texas border, argued, “[Y]ou don’t ship people that are ill and contagious all over the country.”

In a letter to the Centers for Disease Control, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) added his addled voice: “Many of the children who are coming across the border also lack basic vaccinations such as those to prevent chicken pox or measles. This makes Americans who are not vaccinated—and especially young children and the elderly—particularly susceptible.”

But as numerous sources, most notably The Texas Observer and the New Republic, have reported, the immigrants have more to fear from us than we do from them. The fact is, children from Guatemala, where health care is fully subsidized by the government, have a better chance of being vaccinated than kids in Texas, where one in six people is uninsured. The fact is, in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala again, the vaccination rate for measles is 93%, compared to 92% in the U.S.—and it’s much lower in some poorly vaccinated pockets like New York City, where there has been a recent measles outbreak.

The myth of the diseased immigrant is not exclusively an American phenomenon. All cultures exhibit it and none can completely avoid it. The behavior is deeply, deeply rooted in our brains—specifically in our amygdalae, where base feelings like rage and suspicion and impulsiveness lie. As I write in my upcoming book The Narcissist Next Door, this form of tribal narcissism—of elevating your group above others—was essential for our early survival. The clan that knows you best is the one that is likeliest to protect you and feed you and keep you alive. Wander too far from the campfire and you may run into the alien other—unfamiliar people who would just as soon eat you as say hello. So we’re hardwired to see them as strange and menacing and the people we know as familiar and good.

In the modern era, that simplistic truth becomes harder to sustain, so we lard it up with invented justifications: it’s not that people from the other side of the border are innately bad, it’s that they pose a particular menace. Their frail genes will weaken our hardy stock; their dark-skinned men can’t resist our light-skinned women; and, inevitably, they bring diseases that can strike us all dead.

The nativists and their raging amygdalae have always made claims like this and surely always will. The measure of a culture is not in silencing them—they will never go completely quiet—but in marginalizing them. They are free to descend to—and live in—the sub-basement of the debate. Everyone else is welcome to come up and enjoy the daylight.

TIME Iran

A Side Effect of Iranian Sanctions: Tehran’s Bad Air

An overview of Tehran, July 7.
An overview of Tehran on July 7, 2014 Kiana Hayeri for TIME

Air pollution has decreased significantly since sanctions were temporarily lifted in January. As Iran and the U.S. attempt to hammer out a comprehensive nuclear deal before the July 20 deadline, the capital city’s newly cleaner air hangs in the balance 

When the U.S., the U.N. and Europe implemented, in 2010, one of the harshest sanctions regimes ever seen globally to curb Iran’s suspected development of a nuclear-weapons program, it was widely expected that the country would soon fall to its knees. Instead, Iran absorbed the blow, and though weakened, has managed to keep its economy afloat.

The sanctions all but stopped international financial transactions, limited military purchases, reduced the import and export of petroleum products and significantly curtailed trade — but you wouldn’t know it by walking the bustling streets of Iran’s capital of Tehran. According to economist Saeed Laylaz, Iran imported $3 billion worth of European luxury cars last year, triple the number before sanctions. Grocery stores are packed with all kinds of American products: from Coca-Cola to Snickers candy bars to Duracell batteries, while electronics shops even in small towns proudly display the full range of Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Apple products — even the iPhone 5S. The sanctions didn’t hurt Iran, say Iranians; they merely amplified an economic crisis wrought by government mismanagement in the preceding years.

About the only place where the impact of sanctions is visible is in the skies above Tehran. Iran may have the fourth largest proven petroleum reserve in the world, but it refines little of its own product, depending instead on imports of fuel from Europe. Sanctions cut those commodities off, sharply reducing supplies of gasoline. In order to keep Iran’s 26.3 million cars, trucks and motorcycles on the road, government officials were forced to convert petrochemical factories into ad hoc refineries, an expensive and inefficient process that produces a low-grade fuel choked with pollutants.

The results were devastating. Already home to some of the world’s most polluted cities, Iran saw a dramatic increase in the air pollution that contribute most directly to ill health, according to a worldwide World Health Organization assessment released in 2013. It is impossible to definitively link the impact of sanctions to the rising rates of childhood asthma cases and lung disease documented by Iran’s Health Ministry over the past four years — the concurrent increase in car ownership may also play a role. But when some sanctions, including those on the import of gasoline, were lifted in January under an interim agreement that proffered relief in exchange for substantial negotiations over the scope of Iran’s nuclear program, the impact was visible.

In June 2013, the pollution in Tehran was so bad that the mountains surrounding the capital could not even be made out from the 13th floor of a hotel popular with journalists in the city center. A year later, however, the last vestiges of winter snow could be spotted high on the mountains to the north of the city. “Sanctions significantly contributed to pollution, and particularly the kinds of pollution that are damaging to health,” says Rocky Ansari, an economist and sanctions expert at Cyrus Omron International, a firm that advises international companies on investing in Iran. Even before the sanctions were lifted, he says, the government was working on improving refining capacity in the country, but the international decision to clear the way for increased imports of refined fuel was a huge boost. “Now that hardly any petrol from petrochemical factories is being used, the pollution has reduced, and already people can breathe better air.”

That may be the case, but many Iranians are still holding their breath. The interim agreement ends on July 20, and a comprehensive deal that limits Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons in exchange for a permanent lifting of sanctions is still in doubt. Iran says its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes, but a long history of subterfuge when it comes to international inspections has raised doubts about the country’s true intentions. The U.S. wants to see a sharp reduction in Iran’s ability to enrich nuclear fuel to weapons grade; Iran says it will not submit to overly onerous limits on its nuclear energy program.

The temporary agreement can be extended by up to six months, a point raised by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on the sideline of talks in Vienna on July 13. “If we can reach a deal by July 20, bravo, if it’s serious,” he told reporters, according to Reuters. “If we can’t, there are two possibilities. One, we either extend … or we will have to say that unfortunately there is no prospect for a deal.” Should the talks fail, as with several previous attempts to strike a deal, the U.S. is likely to lead the call for even tougher sanctions, risking more conflict in a region already in turmoil — and further darkening the skies above Tehran.

— With reporting by Kay Armin Serjoie / Tehran

TIME animals

Survival of the Sneakiest: Animal Smuggling Attempts at Airport Security

Airport security is perhaps the world's harshest, most competitive ecosystem, with the latest species — 67 live giant African snails — intercepted Monday at the Los Angeles International Airport. Take a look at some shocking attempts at wildlife smuggling, a dangerous and notorious practice that often results in animals dying from inhumane or improper care

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