TIME Environment

The Big Business of Global Warming

Antarctic landscape Getty Images / Getty Images

Corporations are betting on climate change—and primed for a big payday when things really heat up

The pharmaceutical giant Bayer has made a remarkable—and lucrative—discovery. Allergies are on the rise. The company’s eye and nose ointment Bepanthen, already good for more than $200 million in annual sales, could soon be in even higher demand.

Bayer mentions this in its annual response to the watchdog CDP, formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project, which surveys the greenhouse gas emissions of the world’s largest corporations. The CDP celebrates companies that cut carbon, of course, but also celebrates brutal honesty, awarding prizes and A rankings to those that give a true and full accounting of how climate change could affect their bottom lines. Bayer is a winner on both counts. Though still high, its emissions are down nearly 40% from 1990 levels. And the company is transparent about what it believes a warming world will bring.

One of Bayer’s latest products is “a new generation of mosquito net,” the LifeNet. It also has two advanced bug sprays in the pipeline. These will be lucrative because mosquitoes and the disease they carry are expected to thrive in a warmer world, leaving another 40 to 60 million people at risk of malaria in Africa alone. “In light of an expected climate-change-related increase of malaria incidents in further regions of the world (e.g., Northern Europe), we expect a growing demand for Bayer mosquito nets,” the company writes.

For agriculture, the effects of climate change—”water shortages, heat, excessive rainfall”—will be devastating. But Bayer’s insecticide Confidor and its expanding line of genetically modified rice and cereal plants could profitably take out some of the sting. Even a future of superstorms could be a boon. “One example,” writes Bayer, “is the provision of high-performance polycarbonate materials for the construction of exposed buildings, leading to superior stability in the case of storms or other extreme weather events.” For existing structures, the company recommends its spray-on product Baytec, which leaves a thick coating of weatherproof polyurethane.

Bayer is not alone in seeing opportunities in a hotter planet. In Australia’s climate-stressed bread belt, the Murray-Darling basin, and its analog in the American West, the Colorado River basin, hedge funds have bought up millions of gallons worth of water rights. Other funds, convinced that commodity prices can only keep rising, are part of a new scramble for Africa in which as many as 100,000 square miles of farmland—an area larger than the United Kingdom—have been leased or purchased by foreign investors. Meanwhile, at least two of Manhattan’s most storied investment banks have played farmer in Ukraine, where milder temperatures heighten the appeal of some of the richest soil in the world.

In the Netherlands, the stock of the seawall building company Arcadis jumped by 6% the moment New York City—a potential client—was struck by Hurricane Sandy. Up in the melting Arctic, ship traffic has risen 20-fold in three years over the top of Russia on the Northern Sea Route. And receding sea ice puts an even greater prize within reach: oil. Royal Dutch Shell, which in 2008 paid a record $2.1 billion for leases in Alaska’s untapped Chukchi Sea, has told investors that the high north will someday be its number one source of crude. Even in Greenland, the Danish territory synonymous with the slow-moving disaster that is climate change, people have found something to celebrate. Petroleum and precious metal deposits made more accessible by the melting ice are so vast that native Greenlanders recently voted to leave Denmark and its subsidies behind. They will gradually drill their way to independence. The world will gain a new country even as others sink beneath rising seas.

Americans often frame climate change as a tragedy of the commons: We all pursue our selfish lives, we all emit, and together we all will someday pay. But this is a dangerous way to understand the future and our responsibilities to it. That some are planning to get rich from the warming world only underscores the reality of climate change: Its impacts, though mostly bad for most people in most places, are deeply uneven.

It happens that those largely responsible for the historic emissions that got us here—wealthy North Americans and Europeans—are the most likely to stay relatively prosperous, because we have our northerly geographies and we have enough money in our wallets for, say, high-performance polycarbonate building materials. It happens that those least responsible for historic emissions, the equatorial and the poor, are the most likely to see the worst impacts, likely to get poorer faster. This unevenness suggests that self-interest, however rational, may never be enough to jumpstart real climate action in the wealthy countries where it’s most needed. It’s hard to scare people into cutting emissions if they’re not actually all that scared.

There’s nothing wrong with selling mosquito nets, and there’s nothing wrong with buying them. But there’s something wrong if we ignore the true ethical stakes as an ever more imbalanced world keeps lurching ahead, blithely thinking, “At least we’re all in this together.”

McKenzie Funk writes for Harper’s, Outside, National Geographic, and Rolling Stone, and is the author of Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming (The Penguin Press, 2014).

TIME California

California Shuts Major Water Supply as Drought Worsens

System of reservoirs serves millions

California announced Friday that a major source of water for areas throughout the state will halt all deliveries for 2014 until further notice, an unprecedented move indicating the ongoing and historic California drought is only getting worse.

The State Water Project, a system of reservoirs and water delivery systems helping supply Northern California, the San Francisco Bay area, the San Joaquin Valley, the Central Coast, and Southern California, had already been distributing water at historically low rates due to several successive years of drought conditions. Friday’s action by the state Department of Water Resources means the 25 million residents and 750,000 acres of farmland that receive water from the system will have to rely more heavily on other sources, including other reservoirs. Many key reservoirs in the state are at levels far below average. A measurement taken Thursday in the Sierra Nevada, a major supplier of water to the state when the snowpack melts each spring, found water content in the peaks is only about 12 percent of average for this time of year.

Earlier this month, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in the state and urged Californians to reduce their water consumption by 20 percent. Some rural areas in the state that rely on wells and reservoirs currently at low levels, are in danger of running out of water in two to four months, according to state officials.

The State Water Project, which halted 2014 deliveries on Friday, has never before reduced the allocation of its water to zero in its 54-year history.


Report Raises No Major Climate Objections to Keystone Pipeline, But the Choice Is Obama’s

Keystone pipeline under construction
While one section of the Keystone pipeline is under construction, it's up to President Obama to decide if the full project will go forward Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A final environmental assessment says that the oil sands pipeline won't significantly impact carbon emissions

For all the noise over the proposed Keystone XL oil sands pipeline—which has been in limbo for years— President Barack Obama himself has been fairly clear. In a speech last June, Obama said that he would approve Keystone only if there was a “finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest, and our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” A draft environmental impact report from the State Department—which, since Keystone is an international project, is tasked with analyzing its merits—that came out in March found that the pipeline would likely not have a significant impact on the rate of extraction of the Canadian oil sands, and therefore carbon emissions, largely because State assumed that producers would find other ways to get the crude to market even if the pipeline were denied. That draft met with criticism from greens, as well as from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which suggested that carbon emissions from the oil sands crude carried by Keystone could be higher than the State Department estimated.

Now the State Department is back with its final assessment—and the results are unlikely to please environmentalists. While changes have been made in the margins, the State Department’s conclusions in a report Friday are largely the same. The Keystone XL pipeline by itself will not likely have a significant impact on the production of crude from the oil sands, therefore, greenhouse gas emissions, the report said:

The approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States.

(MORE: Pipeline Politics: Backgrounding Keystone XL)

Environmentalists were quick to denounce the report, noting that the State Department released it even as its own inspector general general is looking into allegations that the primary contractor responsible for the pipeline study has financial ties to TransCanada, the corporation looking to build Keystone. Those allegations were made by the environmental group Friends of the Earth (FOE), whose president Erica Pisa released a broadside against the State Department:

By letting the oil industry influence this process, Secretary [of State John Kerry] is undermining his long-established reputation as a leader in the fight against climate change. President Obama can end this charade; sufficient scientific data exists to justify denying the Keystone XL pipeline. It is a simple matter of having the political will, and courage, to stand up to the oil industry. This decision is a defining moment in his environmental legacy.

Still, the final decision on Keystone has yet to come—and ultimately it won’t be made by Secretary of State John Kerry. The environmental impact assessment is just one piece of the puzzle. The State Department assessment triggers a final review process to determine whether the pipeline is in the larger national interest. Other agencies—including the EPA—will have up to 90 days to weigh in. Only then will Obama, presumably, make his final decision. As Daniel Weiss, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told Bloomberg: “There is still a long part of the game left to be played.”

(MORE: Carbon Regulations and Keystone Silence: Previewing Obama’s Climate Speech)

It’s already been a long game. A lot has changed since Keystone was first proposed back in 2005. U.S. domestic oil production has soared, last year hitting the highest level in two decades—a fact that has weakened the case for the international pipeline. At the same, the rapid—and not always safe—growth of oil being shipped by rail in lieu of pipelines has shown just how creative the oil industry can be when it comes to moving their product. Given the overwhelming demand for oil, it’s quite possible that the State Department is right that whether or not the pipeline is built, it will have little impact on the carbon footprint of the oil sands—though that hasn’t stopped the Canadian government from lobbying hard for the project.

So that leaves the discretion of the president. In his State of the Union address, Obama aligned himself behind an “all of the above” energy policy, one that has embraced domestic oil and gas drilling even as it has worked to expand renewable energy and energy efficiency. With the notable exception of coal, the Obama administration has been less focused with limiting energy sources than in expanding them (he is, after all, the driller-in-chief). So it wouldn’t surprise me if, ultimately, the president does give the go-ahead to the pipeline. Still, the environmental movement has made Keystone its thin green line, and should Obama step over it, he risks permanently tarnishing his legacy with some of his most diehard supporters. Is 800,000 barrels a day of Canadian oil sands crude worth the price to him? That’s an answer you can’t get from any environmental impact assessment.

(MORE: Pipeline Politics: Keystone, Advocates and Analysts)


5 Ways to Bust California’s Drought

Lawns use a huge amount of water, but dry landscaping can make a big difference Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The rain isn't falling, but the Golden State has has the tools to beat the drought

They call drought the “creeping disaster,” for the way it comes over communities gradually—and for the way it unfolds, day by day, not with the drama of a storm or an earthquake, but with an ever-worsening dread. California just came off the driest year on record, and the nearly every corner of the state is gripped by severe drought. It’s so bad that within 100 days, 17 communities in California could simply run out of most essential commodity there is. Though northern California was blessed by a bit of rain this week, it will take far more than is forecast to end this drought.

More than most disasters, drought can create an atmosphere of fatalism. After all, what more is there to do than simply endure the days and weeks of dry weather, hoping for something to shift in the skies and bring back rain. But drought isn’t just about the weather. How Californians use water—or more importantly, don’t use it—will have an enormous impact on just how bad this drought becomes, and on whether the Golden State can prepare for a climate that is likely to be even hotter and drier. Here are five ways California could beat the drought.

Drip Irrigation: Agriculture in California uses about 80% of the state’s developed water supply, but without irrigation, fertile farmland like the Central Valley—which alone produces about 8% of the country’s farm product—would go barren. But much of that water isn’t used wisely, especially if it’s dispensed on crops via sprinklers or through flooding fields. But drip irrigation, which allows water to seep slowly into the roots of plants through a network of tubes and valves at the base of a plant, is far more efficient. First used widely in the arid farmland of Israel, drip irrigation greatly reduces the loss of water to evaporation—an increasing problem as California continues to warm—and to runoff. Drip irrigation is more expensive than the conventional alternatives, but with water in California getting scarcer and pricier, farmers may have little choice but to switch.

Xeriscaping: California is not a rainy place—which, of course, is half the reason most people live there. Even during a normal year, the state gets only about 22 inches of precipitation a year, near the bottom for the U.S. But you wouldn’t know that from the lush lawns that dot suburban homes from San Diego to Eureka. More than 50% of California’s residential water use occurs outdoors, and a typical lawn consumes an average of 57 in. of rain a year, according to the Association of California Water Agencies. But in a dry climate like California’s, a grass lawn won’t survive long without watering. The answer: ditch the grass. In xeriscaping, which means “dry landscaping,” homeowners replace thirsty grass with drought-tolerant native plants like wildflowers and succulents. Homeowners can even make money off the switch—the Santa Clara Valley Water District will pay homeowners $1 per sq. ft. to change their lawns.

Desalinization: As a coastal state, California isn’t short of water—it’s just short of fresh water. Desalinization technology—which converts seawater to drinkable water through a high pressure osmosis system that removes salt and other impurities—is already being used in water-stressed cities like Singapore. So it’s not surprising that California has explored the technology as well. More than a dozen desalinization plants have been proposed for California, including major systems in Carlsbad and Huntingdon Beach. But ocean desalinization isn’t cheap—about $2,000 per acre-foot, about twice as much as water tends to cost now—and it can come with environmental issues, as all that left over brine is pumped back into the ocean. There could be greener options—a California startup called WaterFX has developed desalinization technology that uses renewable energy, cleaning water through a solar still. But for now, desalinization doesn’t make much environmental or economic sense for California.

Water Recycling: Better than building massive plants to generate new water from the sea, Californians should try to get more out of the water they already have—by recycling it. The technology exists to clean and directly reuse wastewater, creating something close to a closed loop. Several years ago, water officials in southern California’s Orange County built the Groundwater Replenishment System (GRS), which takes in about 70 million gallons of wastewater a day, puts it through a multistep cleaning process, then discharges the treated water into the region’s aquifer. Some of the treated water forms a barrier against seawater, which has been infiltrating groundwater as the county has dried up. The rest actually goes to recharge the aquifers that supply drinking water to Orange County. Officially this method is called indirect potable use, but it’s really water recycling. Similar recycling plants have opened elsewhere in California, and while the reused water tends to be diverted towards non-drinking purposes like landscaping, the purification system makes it safe enough to drink. Given how valuable water is—especially in a dry state like California—recycling it makes perfect sense.

Conservation: The average home in California uses almost 200 gallons of water a day—but it doesn’t have to be that much. Something as simple as turning off the faucet when brushing teeth or shaving can save 10 gallons a day. Taking five-minute showers instead 10-minute ones can save as much as 25 gallons of water a day. And the savings are even greater if you switch to more efficient shower heads and toilets—the latter can use as much as a quarter of a household’s water. In California, water agencies usually offer rebates for switching out old, inefficient appliances. The good news is that Californians have been getting better at conservation and efficiency. Both agricultural and urban water demand in California have plateaued, even both the economy and population keep growing. And that’s a good thing—every indication is that California could be in for a very long dry spell. There’s not a drop to waste.

TIME space

A Look at America’s Next Space Machines

NASA is making its current push with two new machines: a crew vehicle dubbed Orion and a rocket that is better known better by its acronym—SLS

TIME space

A New Supernova Caught in the Act

The barred spiral galaxy M83 is seen in a NASA Hubble Space Telescope mosaic
NASA / Reuters

Stars don't explode on schedule; when one does, it can shed real light on some cosmic mysteries

Supernovas drive astronomers crazy: they’re rare, they’re unpredictable and when one does go off, it can happen at the most inopportune time. One of the greatest and most nearby supernovas in history happened in 1604, a frustrating five years before Galileo turned his first crude telescope on the heavens. These exploding stars, which can briefly outshine an entire galaxy, are not just awesome: they’re where most of the elements that make up Earth and everything on it come from. They’ve also proven crucial in the discovery of dark energy, a mysterious antigravity force that pervades the universe, steadily pulling it apart.

Ideally, astronomers would love to see a star explode very close to home (but not too close), and it will certainly happen sooner or later. In the meantime, though, they’re celebrating the next best thing: on January 21, an astronomy professor at the University of London spotted a supernova—right in the middle of a stargazing class, of all things—in a galaxy called Messier 82, a.k.a. the Cigar Galaxy, a mere 12 million light-years away.

That’s close enough to give scientists practically a ring-side seat to the big blast. Unlike most supernovas, moreover, this one was spotted before it reached peak brightness, allowing telescopes to keep watching as it flared, then began to dim—a process that’s still going on, and which will tell theorists much more about how the explosion actually unfolds. “I’m really excited,” says Adam Riess, of the Space Telescope Science Institute, who shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics for using supernovas in the search for dark energy.

Riess is especially excited because the explosion is a Type Ia supernova, which is exceedingly useful in cosmology research. The other kind, known as a Type II, happens when a massive star collapses, then rebounds explosively outward (it happened in the nearby Large Magellanic Cloud in 1987). But Type II’s vary significantly in brightness; if you see one in another galaxy, you can’t be sure if it’s dim mostly because it’s distant, or because it just isn’t an especially powerful event.

Type Ia’s, by contrast, happen when white dwarf stars pull in extra matter until they reach what’s known as the Chandrasekhar limit, about 1.44 times the mass of the Sun. At that point, they become unstable and blow apart in a gigantic thermonuclear explosion. They’re also less variable in brightness than Type II’s, and astronomers like Riess have learned how to calibrate for what variation does exist.

That last part is why cosmologists love them: a Type Ia’s brightness as seen from Earth is a good guide to its distance. It was the discovery that Type Ia’s in the early universe were brighter than expanding-universe calculations said they should be that helped scientists realize in 1998 that the expansion is actually accelerating, and that some mysterious, unknown force was responsible—hence the riddle of dark energy. Having such a nearby Type Ia is valuable, says Yale astronomer Meg Urry, “because the more data we can get, and the closer the supernova, the better the calibration.”

Riess is excited for another reason as well. Until the late 1990’s, astronomers knew the expansion rate of the universe, and thus its age, to only within a factor of two: the cosmos was either 10 billion years old, or 20, or somewhere in between. Imagine if you could only say that you were somewhere between 30 and 60. The problem was that astronomers measured distance in a stepwise fashion—directly to nearby stars, then by extrapolation to more distant stars, then nearby galaxies, then more distant galaxies, and so on. Errors mounted with every step.

By the early 2000’s, the Hubble Space Telescope had reduced that error to about 10%, and the microwave-sensitive WMAP satellite went on to reduce it much further, pegging the age of the cosmos almost precisely at 13.8 billion years. But astronomers would like a second, independent measurement, and Riess is part of a Hubble team aiming to do just that. Finding a 1a close by, along with new, more direct measurements to stars in galaxies like the Cigar that will come from the new Gaia satellite—launched in December by the European Space Agency with the job of developing a 3D map of the cosmos—should cut out several of the steps in the cosmic distance ladder, and thus cut some of the sources of error too. Until then, the new supernova is already shedding new light—literally—on some old mysteries.

TIME Eccocentric

The Not So Sustainable Sochi Winter Olympics

The organizers of the Sochi Games have been criticized for failing to protect the environment ANTONIN THUILLIER/AFP/Getty Images

Despite Russia's claims, the Winter Games at Sochi are unlikely to be green

Olympic officials will be watching wearily as Russia puts on the finishing touches to the Sochi Winter Olympics, set to begin on Feb. 7. Though the build-up to most mega-sporting events like the Olympics usually involves some kind of controversy, since being awarded the Games by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) back in 2007, Putin’s pet project by the Black Sea has been overshadowed by fears of terrorism, a crackdown on civil society, persecution of homosexuals and claims of environmental damage to one of Russia’s most ecologically valuable regions.

As part of its bid, Russia told IOC members it would be staging a “zero waste” Games that followed green building standards. This was a huge challenge: organizers had to build infrastructure to host 88 other competing countries, the world’s media and hundreds of thousands of spectators in an underdeveloped region that was home to a UNESCO World Heritage site and a national park. Sochi organizers pushed ahead with their green theme, working with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to review construction progress, issuing interim sustainability reports measuring their environmental impact and devising an environmental strategy that promised to deliver the Games “in harmony with nature.”

Instead, Sochi organizers have failed on all their green promises, says Suren Gazaryan, a zoologist and member of the environmental campaign group Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus (EWNC). Speaking with TIME from Estonia, where he is currently living in exile thanks to criminal charges levied against him by Russian authorities for his human rights work in 2012, Gazaryan explained that the construction process for the Games has been hugely damaging for the region. He and the ENWC have documented evidence of illegal waste dumping, construction that has blocked the migration routes of animals such as the brown bear, limited access to drinking water for locals and a generally decreased quality of life for many in the city of Sochi.

(MORE: The Rock That Clobbered Russia: Meteor Post Mortem)

“The most dangerous and important part of the damage is the biodiversity lost in the area,” says Gazaryan. “Parts of the national park have been completely destroyed. This area was the most diverse in terms of plant and animal life in Russia.” There is also the added danger of increased landslides, mudflows and building collapses as a result of poor construction and hazardous waste dumping practices, says Gazaryan. Sochi organizing officials did not respond to TIME’s request for comment on the apparent environmental damage.

Simon Lewis, who runs Team Planet, a U.K.-based consultancy on sustainability in sport, says Sochi organizers already had their work cut out for them. Hosting a Winter Games is often more challenging from an environmental perspective than hosting the Summer Games: “If you look at the environmental footprint of hosting a Games–including things like travel, construction and hospitality–doing that halfway up a mountain in what is often a delicate and pristine environmental habitat is going to be difficult,” he says. The IOC and UNEP worked with organizers to help mitigate some aspects of the construction, including relocating some sporting venues away from the borders of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite this, says Lewis, “Sochi should never have happened in that location. It was a poor decision by IOC members based on poor information.”

(MORE: Climate Change Could Melt the Winter Olympics)

Some IOC members have admitted as much. Els van Breda Vriesman, a 72-year-old Dutch former IOC member who voted for Russia’s bid in 2007, told the Dutch broadcaster NOS in January that had the votes been cast today, many members would not have chosen Sochi. She added that when it came to voting, some members didn’t see the environment as important, despite “the fact that the IOC is so committed to the environment.”

Lewis explains that the IOC has pushed hard to make the environment a key pillar of the Olympics movement, tracing its efforts back to the early 1990s and lauding its environmental achievements with the Sydney Summer Olympics in 2000. But Sochi will be seen as a blot on this record, he adds. In an email to TIME, Emmanuelle Moreau, head of media relations for the IOC, writes that the organization has been aware of the environmental complaints put forward by NGOs, but notes that Russia’s green efforts needed to be considered against its local context: “The Sochi 2014 Games are believed to be the first global sports events in Russia to have taken environmental concerns and the principles of sustainability into consideration.” Moreau also points out that Sochi will be the first Games in history to attempt to mitigate the carbon footprint of athletes, spectators and media representatives attending the event.

Gazaryan is cynical about whether the unresolved environmental concerns will receive much attention once the spectacle of Games gets underway next week, but like Lewis, he believes that the IOC needs to reconsider how it ensures sustainability standards are met in future. Given Russia’s hopes of making Sochi a global ski destination after the Games—which would open up a sensitive national park region to increased tourist traffic—it seems unlikely that its environmental legacy is one the IOC will be shouting too loudly about in the years to come.

(MORE: Where’s the Water on Mars? Everywhere!)

TIME Evolution

Did Miserably Wintry Weather Give Humans a Thirst for Milk?

Spilt Milk
Christopher T Stein / Getty Images

Geneticists find new clues in mankind's sudden and mysterious love of milk

Somewhere in the course of human evolution, our European ancestors learned to stop loathing lactose and love the udder, and a new study sheds light on our sudden and mysterious love of milk.

NPR reports that geneticists in Sweden have traced the love story back to recent history. Even though one-third of Spaniards are more than a little tolerant of lactose (Manchego is exhibit A), geneticists found lactose intolerant genes in the bones of their ancestors just 5,000 years ago.

In other words, Spaniards seem to have experienced a sudden burst of lactose love, and this finding pokes a hole in a competing theory of our evolution. It was hypothesized that lactose tolerance spread among sun — starved Europeans in the north, hungry for vitamin D. They got their fix of D from cow’s milk, and the more milk they could digest, the more they thrived. So why would the gene proliferate in sun-drenched regions of the South?

Good question, and for scientists hard on the case, the plot has just thickened.


TIME psychology

Short People are Paranoid and Suspicious, Says Science

No really. See for yourself.

The Napoleon complex has been explained.

Short people are mistrustful of others and prone to paranoia, according to a study published Wednesday by the journal Psychiatry Research. Oxford researchers sent 60 women on two simulated rides in London subways populated by both men and women, lowering their virtual vantage point by 25 centimeters in one of the rides. Participants, though often unaware that they’d just been shrunken slightly, reported markedly increased feelings of paranoia while seeing through the eyes of a shorter avatar.

“The results were very clear,” the study says. Making people shorter “led to more negative evaluations of the self compared with others and greater levels of paranoia.” Researchers say the study “provides strong demonstration of the importance of social status to the occurrence of paranoid fears.”

Though only women were included in the Oxford study about how paranoid short people are, researchers predict the results in a study on males would be even more striking, since men tend to place greater social importance on height.

You can see the shrunken virtual world study participants saw for yourself.

TIME Evolution

Hello, Neanderthal! Yes, This Means You.

Inner Neanderthal
From right: A reconstructed Neanderthal skeleton and a modern human version of a skeleton, on display at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, on Jan. 8, 2003. Frank Franklin II / AP

We're carrying around a lot more genes from our caveman cousin than we ever knew

Their lives were nasty, brutish and short—and so were they, as it turns out. But our close evolutionary cousins the Neanderthals had plenty of admirable qualities, too. They were tidy and organized, for example. They ate their vegetables. They knew how to dress for any occasion.

It’s just as well to accentuate the positive, because once scientists sequenced the Neanderthal genome, it turned out that there is a little bit of the caveman in all of us—from 1-3 percent of the average person, says University of Washington geneticist Joshua Akey, is made up of genes we got from our cruder cousins. And yes, that means your many-greats grandmother or grandfather mated with a Neanderthal before the species went extinct some 30,000 years ago.

Thanks to a new analysis by Akey and several colleagues just published in Science, however, and a parallel study published at the same time in Nature, it’s now clear that the Neanderthals are more deeply a part of us than anyone thought. “We all have a small percentage,” says Akey. “But my one percent may be different from your one percent.” When you add up all those one percents, say the scientists, a collective 20 percent of the Neanderthal genome has survived, sprinkled across the entire human species. And in fact, says Akey, “there’s probably more.”

(MORE: How Life Began. New Clues From New Worlds)

Both teams came to their conclusions through the magic of statistics. In the research presented in Science, the investigators selected the genomes of 600 modern humans from Europe and East Asia—limiting themselves to those continents since the interbreeding with Neanderthals happened only after modern humans migrated out of Africa. Then they laid the sequences side by side, looking for two types of telltale genes.

The first would be ones that have lots of different variants—genes like those that code for height or weight, for example, as opposed to those that code for number of fingers and toes. Since Neanderthals were an older lineage than we are, their genes would have had more time to differentiate into multiple varieties. Second, the researchers were looking for unusually long genetic sequences. The mixing of modern humans and Neanderthal probably happened somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 years ago. “That’s not so long ago,” says Akey. That means that the Neanderthal genes we did pick up would not have had much time to break apart and disperse—to get genetically digested, in a sense—across our species.

Akey’s team did all of their analysis without ever looking at the actual Neanderthal genome, identified promising sequences, then went back and checked against the real thing. The Nature team, led by Harvard geneticist Sriram Sankararaman, worked with 1,004 modern genomes, but they looked at the Neanderthal genome from the start and used a different statistical technique.

(MORE: The Most Important Brain in the History of Neuroscience)

Both teams, nonetheless, came up with data that supports the 20% figure. Both teams also found that Neanderthal genes aren’t distributed randomly through our own. There are long stretches, says Akey, where you find no Neanderthal DNA at all, suggesting that Neanderthal genes that could have occupied those places conferred no evolutionary advantage, and thus got weeded out. Genes that affect hair and skin, however, showed a fairly high frequency of Neanderthal influence, suggesting that the adaptations they’d made to relatively cold climates were helpful to modern humans’ survival.

This is hardly the last word on the topic; to the contrary, both groups, and many others, are delving even more deeply into the question of exactly which Neanderthal genes survive in which human populations, and why. “This may be one avenue,” says Akey, “to understanding at the genetic level what really makes us human.” It’s also a powerful reminder, he says, that our genomes have much to tell us about human prehistory. “We’re now able to make inferences about interactions with archaic humans that went extinct 30,000 years ago. I think that in the near future we’ll find ways to look for interactions with other extinct populations.”

In fact, Akey believes, there are already preliminary clues to such interactions. “If we look in a more diverse set of modern humans,” he says, “we may well find evidence of hominins,” or human-related species, “that we didn’t know existed.” The next time science discovers a new human ancestor, or a new cousin, in short, it might be a gene—not a bone—that tells the tale.

(MORE: Why It’s Good (For Someone Else) To Get Eaten By a Lion)

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