TIME Oil Industry

Exxon Mobil to Reveal Fracking Data

The company has agreed to be more transparent about the environmental impact of its shale gas extraction practices amid shareholder pressure from New York City's pension fund, among 13 others, which holds a billion-dollar stake in Exxon

Exxon Mobil will begin releasing information about the environmental impact of hydraulic fracking in the coming months, following an agreement with the New York City Comptroller’s office and the non-profit As You Sow.

The agreement came at the behest of the city’s pension fund—which holds a $1.02 billion stake in Exxon—and 13 other co-filers, who have been pushing the company to increase transparency over the practice of fracking for five years.

Under the agreement, the company will report on what risk shale gas production operations, including fracking, have on environmental issues like wastewater, air pollution, and methane emissions. In a 2013 report, Exxon was ranked among the lowest out of 24 companies in regard to transparency on fracking operations.

“We have seen the significant risks that come from hydraulic fracturing activities,” New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer said in a statement. “Corporate transparency in this arena is truly necessary for assessing risk and ensuring that all stakeholders have the information they need to make informed decisions.

An Exxon Mobil spokesperson told Reuters Friday that they understand people have concerns about fracking because the process is so new. “People want more information and the more they know, the better,” said Alan Jeffers.

Updated, April 3: The original post has been updated to include the non-profit As You Sow’s involvement in the agreement with Exxon Mobil.


TIME animals

No, A Super Volcano Is Not About To Erupt In Yellowstone

Viral videos showing bison apparently fleeing Yellowstone National Park are not a sign that a super-volcano will be erupting soon, park officials said. "It's a natural occurrence and not the end of the world,” said a park spokesperson

Yellowstone National Park dismissed claims Friday that a super-volcano located underneath the park would erupt soon. A YouTube video showing bison running away from the park sparked rumors that the animals were attempting to avoid an eruption.

The rumors began swirling following a 4.8 magnitude earthquake, which occurred on Sunday in the northwest section of Yellowstone, Reuters reports. The quake was the largest to strike the park since 1980, which led people to believe the volcano, which has a 50 foot long and 30 mile wide mouth, could be erupting sooner than the thousands of years it had been predicted to lie dormant.

But scientists have said the possibility of the volcano erupting is slim. “The chance of that happening in our lifetimes is exceedingly insignificant,” Peter Cervelli, a scientist with the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, told Reuters.

As for the galloping bison, Yellowstone spokesperson Amy Bartlett said they were simply running deeper into the park. “It was a spring-like day and they were frisky. Contrary to online reports, it’s a natural occurrence and not the end of the world,” Bartlett said.


TIME Science

This Robot Kangaroo Can Pretty Much Hop Forever

The BionicKangaroo, revealed by Festo Thursday, can jump for long periods of time without tiring Festo

But it's no toy. The technology behind this self-charging bot can be applied to increase the endurance capacity of other machines

A German company has successfully emulated the jumping behavior of the kangaroo in robot form, the company said.

The bionic kangaroo has self-charging legs that allow it to keep jumping indefinitely without tiring, just like real kangaroos capture and re-use energy by using the tendons in their legs like springs.

It’s thought that the robot kangaroo technology could lead to advances in endurance for products such as cars and other robots.

The BionicKangaroo, which is made by the German tech company Festo, weighs 15 lb (7kg) and stands 3ft 3inches (1m) tall, and it can jump 2ft 7 inch (0.8 meters) horizontally.

TIME Drugs

The ‘Love Hormone’ Can Make You Hate: Study

Ecstasy pills.
Ecstasy pills. DEA/Reuters

A study from the Netherlands suggests that oxytocin might only make you love people in your in-group, and can contribute to conflict with outsiders

Corrected: April 5.

The oxytocin hormone is often described as the “love hormone” or “cuddling chemical,” but there might be a darker side to it. Not only does it make you feel all loved-up and happy, but also contribute to intolerance and violence, a 2011 study suggests.

In the study, professor of psychology at the University of Amsterdam Carsten de Dreu found that the loved-up feeling you get when flooded with oxytocin — which is also released by the popular party drug Molly, also known as Ecstasy or MDMA — only extends to your “in-group.”

Oxytocin, he wrote, “motivates in-group favoritism” and “derogation” of outsiders. According to the study, oxytocin had “a role in the emergence of intergroup conflict and violence.”

According to a Vice report published this week, the study’s participants — all Dutch males — were told that they had to choose five persons out of six that would gain access to a life-saving lifeboat.

The men on oxytocin were more likely to deny men with Muslim or German-sounding names access and save the men with Dutch names, while the men who were given a placebo didn’t pay attention to the origin of the names.

Correction: The original story has been updated to reflect that the study examined the effects oxytocin on behavior, not MDMA, and was published in 2011.

TIME Environment

Largest Environmental Bankruptcy Settlement Ever Announced by Anadarko Petroleum

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Bharara speaks while flanked by U.S. Deputy Attorney General Cole as they announce a settlement with Anadarko Petroleum Corp in Washington
U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara speaks while flanked by U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole as they announce a settlement with Anadarko Petroleum Corp at the Justice Department in Washington, April 3, 2014. Jonathan Ernst—Reuters

The environmental bankruptcy settlement involving Anadarko Petroleum Corp over pollution allegations is reported to be the largest ever

Global energy company Anadarko Petroleum Corp will pay $5.15 billion to those who claim that pollution from the company’s uranium deposits, wood creosote and rocket fuel processing caused cancer and other health problems. The agreement, which was announced on Thursday, ends years of litigation and is the biggest environmental bankruptcy settlement ever, Reuters reports.

The settlement still must be approved by a judge and a federal court after a 30-day public comment period.

“Beyond the unprecedented magnitude of this recovery, the timing of the settlement was critical to ensure the money is promptly available to victims overdue for relief,” John Hueston, the trustee for the plaintiffs, said in a statement.

U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole said in a news conference in Washington, D.C. that $4.4 billion of the settlement will go towards cleanup and environmental claims.

Andarko said in a statement tat it would net $550 million in tax benefits from the agreement.


TIME Air Pollution

Smoggy Sand: How Deserts Spread Air Pollution

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIME life in space

Bill Clinton Is Right: There Are Aliens in Space

The former president weighs in on the existence of ET—and he's probably right

One of the good things about being an ex-President is that you get to say the kinds of things you could never say when you were still the most powerful person in the world. Take aliens—the space kind. Last night, during an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel’s show, the 42nd prez admitted not only that when he was in the White House he ordered a review of all of the documents related to the long running rumors over aliens landing in Roswell, N.M. in 1947, but that he would not be surprised if we did eventually get a cosmic caller.

“If we were visited someday I wouldn’t be surprised,” he said, “I just hope it’s not like Independence Day,” a reference to the 1996 movie in which aliens do land—and behave very, very badly.

Has Clinton gone ’round the bend? Not a bit–depending on whether you subscribe to the life-is-easy or life-is-hard school of thought. Physicist, broadcaster and author Paul Davies of Arizona State University is one of the leading proponents of the we’re-all-alone camp, arguing in his aptly titled book The Eerie Silence that biology emerging from dead chemicals was such a cosmic longshot that it’s entirely possible it happened only once, here. But that position is becoming increasingly untenable.

First, there are about 300 billion stars in the Milky Way and our galaxy is one of at least 100 billion in the universe. So, as the overworked idiom goes, do the math. What’s more, ever since the Kepler Space Telescope was launched in 2009, close to 4,000 candidate planets have been discovered in the Milky Way and close to 1,000 have been confirmed.

Planets aren’t the same as biology—witness Earth’s lifeless brothers and sisters in our solar system—but the increasingly evident presence of water and organic chemicals in asteroids, comets and throughout the interstellar medium suggests that the ingredients for life are everywhere. If that’s so, it may take little more than that chemistry plus some energy source (light or heat) plus time to cook up something living. Clinton may have had his political critics in his eight years in the White House, but science, in this case, appears to be on his side.

TIME life in space

A Geyser Moon With a Hidden Ocean

Saturn's moon Enceladus, photographed by the Cassini spacecraft.
Saturn's moon Enceladus, photographed by the Cassini spacecraft. Stocktrek Images; Getty Images

Enceladus, one of the gems of the solar system, is home to a great, salty reservoir of water—just the place to find life

When the Cassini spacecraft got its first closeup look at Saturn’s moon Enceladus after the probe’s arrival in 2004, it was rewarded with a jaw-dropping sight: gigantic geysers of ice particles and water vapor spewing hundreds of miles into space from the icy world’s southern hemisphere. These plumes are so prolific that they continuously resurface Enceladus’ sparkling white surface with a fresh coating of ice crystals—and still have enough left over to be the main source of ice particles that make up Saturn’s E-ring.

It hasn’t been entirely clear where the geysers come from, however. Circumstantial evidence points to a subsurface ocean—the ice, as Cassini found by flying through the plumes, is laced with salts, suggesting a body of water in constant contact with a rocky bottom. It’s not crazy to imagine such an ocean, either: the constant flexing Enceladus feels from tidal forces caused by Saturn’s gravity would keep the moon’s core warm, melting what would otherwise be a solid coating of ice from below. That’s just what scientists see on Jupiter’s moon Europa—which appears to have its own, albeit less prominent, plumes of water vapor.

But a new paper in Science has turned “not crazy” to “almost certainly true.” By measuring subtle distortions in Enceladus’ gravitational pull as Cassini whips past different regions of the moon, planetary scientists have found a slight excess of gravity in the moon’s southern hemisphere—and a large underground body of water is exactly what would produce that kind of measurement. “It wasn’t a surprise to find a water reservoir,” said lead author Luciano Iess, of the Sapienza Universita di Roma, in Italy, at a press conference. But its size and extent, he said, were unknown.

Not any more: Cassini’s readings show that Enceladus’ buried sea, which lies some 30 miles (48 km) beneath the surface of the 500-mile-diamater (804 km) moon, is at least several miles deep. “It’s deepest near the south pole,” said co-author David Stevenson, a planetary scientists at Caltech, “and it appears to extend at least halfway to the equator in all directions.” It might even span the entire moon, said Iess. “Our data neither exclude nor confirm a global ocean, or whether there are other water pockets.” But at the very least, said Stevenson, “It contains as much or more water than Lake Superior.”

That’s a big deal, and not just because the idea of liquid water so far from the Sun’s warming rays would have been considered absurd a few decades ago. Scientists who speculate about life beyond Earth have long been convinced that water is a basic requirement for biology—and along with Jupiter’s moons Callisto, Europa and Ganymede, and Saturn’s Titan, this makes five places in the Solar System’s frigid regions where life could plausibly exist.

Water alone isn’t enough, of course: life as we know it is built out of complex carbon-based molecules, and without those you’re out of luck. But the same flybys that detected salts in Enceladus’ plumes also found traces of methane and carbon dioxide. These molecules are too simple to qualify as evidence for life by themselves, but, said Cornell’s Jonathan Lunine, who wasn’t involved with the research, “taken all together, the water, salts and organic molecules make the interior of Enceladus a very attractive potential place for life.”

In fact, says planetary scientist Kevin Hand, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the discovery of life here, should it ever happen, might be an even bigger deal than finding life on Mars. The reason: Mars and Earth are close enough together that asteroid impacts have blasted rocks from one planet to the other many times in the history of the Solar System. If life arose on Earth, it could have hitched a ride over to Mars inside a meteorite and infected our sister world—and it could have happened in the opposite direction as well.

That being the case, if we should find DNA-based life on Mars, it wouldn’t necessarily be clear that life arose independently. “For me,” says Hand, “finding a second origin of life is absolutely crucial. When we find a second origin in our solar system, then we can then think about exoplanets and say, ‘Okay, we know that if the conditions are right, life is likely to get started, and then it’s off to the races.’”

In order to find out for sure, we need to take a harder, closer look at these icy moons than any NASA probe has done to date. For his part, Hand has been involved in a potential mission called the Europa Clipper, while the European Space Agency is planning the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, currently slated for a 2022 launch.

Nobody’s planning a return to the Saturn system yet, but given the new, firm evidence of an ocean on Enceladus, it might be time to think about doing so. “Enceladus is a gem of the Saturnian system,” says Hand, “with many untold secrets that can only be answered by a new mission.”

The real trick, of course, will be getting Congress to pay for it.

TIME Environment

The Last Coral Reefs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disappearing Riches

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

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

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

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

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

Recording for Posterity

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Gloomy Picture

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

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

TIME weather

Satellite Photos Show How the Washington Landslide Area Changed Over Time

Over a decade of satellite imagery shows why Oso, Washington was so susceptible to a fatal landslide

The youngest victim was four-months old. The eldest was 71. Altogether at least 29 people were killed when the earth gave way above the small town of Oso in rural Washington on Mar. 22, making it one of the deadliest landslides in U.S. history. And the saddest thing of all is that the disaster was anything but unexpected. The hill that collapsed had been the site of a number of landslides in the past, most recently in 2006. In 1999, outside consultants filed a study with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers warning of “the potential for a large catastrophic failure” on the very hill that gave way in March.

As aerial photos from Snohomish County GIS and satellite photos collected by TIME from DigitalGlobe show, the recent landslide was all but impossible to have stopped. The North Fork Stillaguamish river cuts out the bottom of the hill that would eventually collapse, and the loose sediment—laid down by glaciers nearly 12,000 years ago—was inherently unstable. Landslides kill an average of 25 Americans and cause as much as $2 billion in damages each year, yet they’re too quickly forgotten. Hopefully the catastrophe in Oso will change that.

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