TIME

See the First Interactive Picture from the Lunar North Pole

The first American spacecraft to photograph the moon up close did its work in the last 15 minutes of its life. On the morning of July 31, 1964, the Ranger 7 spacecraft was falling toward the lunar surface at the end of a three-day trip that was always intended to culminate in a suicide plunge. At precisely 6:25 AM, when the ship was at an altitude of 1,500 miles (2,400 km), its six on-board cameras flicked on and it began beaming pictures back to Earth. In that quarter hour—before Ranger 7 annihilated itself in the moon’s Sea of Clouds—it sent home 4,316 pictures that flashed on black and white TV screens at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. In front of each screen was a 35-mm film camera. A moon portrait would appear, the cameras would snap, and the film would automatically advance—a triumph of mid-century optics and machining.

It needn’t be said that things are more sophisticated now. When the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter arrived at the moon in June 2009, it also carried along a battery of cameras, but ones that capture images with a granularity and spectral sweep that were unimaginable 45 years ago, as this stunning, interactive image of the north lunar pole shows. The picture covers an area equal to about 25% of the surface of the continental U.S.—and that’s the very least of its impressive metrics. It required 867 billion pixels to assemble the entire panorama, each pixel representing about 6.5 ft (2 m) of lunar real estate. A 300 dot-per-inch printout would call for a piece of paper larger than a football field; the digital file consumes 3.3 terabytes of memory.

But never mind that. The greatness of the picture is in the seeing of it—not just the detail it provides of the face of the moon, but the freedom it allows to sweep and pan and dive, exploring that tortured landscape from so many different altitudes. Ranger 7 once took a dive there too. The difference is, we’ll all live to tell the tale.

TIME climate science

Scientists Sound the Alarm on Global Warming, But Americans Sleep In

Climate change impacts Arctic ice
Rapid loss of Arctic sea ice is one of many risks of unchecked climate change Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A new report from the country's preeminent scientific body warns of the danger of unchecked global warming

Gallup released the results of a new poll on Americans’ opinions about climate change earlier this month. For those concerned about global warming, the data was not promising. On one hand, about two-thirds of Americans believed that global warming is happening or will happen during their lifetime—which, incidentally, happens to be the correct answer. But only about 36% of Americans said they believe that global warming will pose a “serious threat to their way of life” during their lifetimes. Climate change is also very low on the priority list for most Americans—51% of those surveyed said they worry about climate change very little or not at all. And 42% of Americans said they believe the seriousness of global warming is “generally exaggerated” in the news.

This is just one survey, and there is no shortage of methodological problems with most opinion polls. But the results make a sobering backdrop to yet another new report from a scientific organization that practically screams about the imminent dangers of global warming. This one is from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the preeminent scientific organization in the U.S., and it focuses starkly on the risks posed by unchecked climate change—both the more modest dangers that scientists are virtually certain about, and the catastrophic threats that might not materialize, but which would wreck havoc on the planet if they do:

The evidence is overwhelming: levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are rising. Temperatures are going up. Springs are arriving earlier. Ice sheets are melting. Sea level is rising. The patterns of rainfall and drought are changing. Heat waves are getting worse as is extreme precipitation. The oceans are acidifying. The science linking human activities to climate change is analogous to the science linking smoking to lung and cardiovascular diseases.

That last bit is important. It took decades to establish a firm scientific connection between smoking and cancer—and it was an effort that tobacco companies fought every inch of the way, using doubt-stoking tactics that would later be taken up by the fossil fuel industry as it tried to make the public skeptical about man-made climate change. No doctor can tell you exactly how much smoking increases your risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease. But the science is strong enough—and lung cancer is a scary enough danger—that smoking rates have fallen drastically over the past few decades, reaching an all-time low this year.

That’s what the AAAS is trying to do with this report—cement the connection between man-made climate change and environmental and social disaster, to the point where the public will support steps to reduce carbon emissions. “This project is to make clear to the public and to policymakers what we know,” said Alan Lensher, the head of the AAAS. “The earth is warming and human behavior is heavily responsible for it. We need to do something now.”

Of course, this message has been repeated over and over again in scores of similar scientific reports, all sounding the same warning notes. Later this month the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will come out with the next chapter of its latest assessment on climate science—this time focusing on the expected impacts of global warming—and you can expect a similar message. But as Justin Gillis of the New York Times writes, one difference with the AAAS report is its lead author, Mario Molina, who was part of a group of researchers in the 1970s who found a connection between chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and ozone depletion:

At a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., conference in 1972, a California scientist namedF. Sherwood Rowland learned that [CFCs] were accumulating in the air. What, he wondered, would happen to them? He eventually put a young researcher in his laboratory, Dr. Molina, onto the question.

To their own shock, the team figured out that the chemicals would break down the ozone layer, a blanket of gas high above the ground that protects the world from devastating levels of ultraviolet radiation. As the scientific evidence of a risk accumulated, the public demanded action — and eventually got it, in the form of a treaty phasing out the compounds.

That’s what climate campaigners would like to see with global warming: The science is established, it shifts public opinion, which then drives policy change to solve the problem. But climate change is a far more complex problem than ozone depletion, and carbon is far more central to the global economy that CFCs ever were. (And as Roger Pielke Jr. pointed out in this 2012 piece for the Breakthrough Institute, the story of science and the ozone layer is a little more complicated than it seems—solid technological alternatives to CFCs were developed well before talk of a global ban gained steam.) It’s hard to see one more blue-ribbon report moving public opinion on climate change, even one that carries the imprimatur of the AAAS.

Which is no reason not to try. (Although it may help to review the large body of social science around climate change inaction.) If you write about global warming day in and day out like I do, it’s easy to become immured to all the warnings, all the dire predictions. But the reality is that we are very much in the early stages of what the scientist Ken Caldeira has called “the great climate experiment,” with the planet is projected to warm faster over the next century than it has in 65 million years. Right now the CO2 concentration in the planet’s atmosphere has passed 400 ppm—it was 280 ppm before we began mass burning fossil fuels in the 19th century—and it’s likely to stay that high for the rest of the month, and eventually, forever.

It’s possible that we may get lucky and escape the most catastrophic risks posed by climate change—just as it’s possible you can smoke a pack a day and live until 90. It’s just not likely, and every day that passes without any real effort to curb carbon emissions makes disaster more certain. Sooner or later.

TIME

Scientists Build a Better, Faster Bionic Plant

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veins of a leaf Mark Mawson—Getty Images

It absorbs light 30% faster than a normal plant

A team of MIT scientists have created the world’s first bionic plant.

Popular Mechanics reports that researchers threaded carbon nanotubes through the plant’s pores. The breakthrough came when the tubes were brushed with a coating of DNA, which helped them bind to delicate membranes within the leaf. Once outfitted with a mesh of microscopic tubes, the plant could absorb light 30% faster than its naturally selected brethren.

Scientists hope the plant could be used to detect explosive chemicals or poisonous gases in the air. No mention on whether it could also star in a popular television series.

[Popular Mechanics]

TIME The Universe

You Should Care Big Time About the Big Bang News

Big Bang News: Why You Should Care
In the instant after the Big Bang, the universe expanded faster than the speed of light Getty Images

Science doesn't have to be practical—or even entirely fathomable—to be breathtaking

Exactly why do you have to give a hoot about Monday’s landmark announcement that, in a single observation, physicists have given a big boost to the Big Bang? You don’t, actually. It will not change a single thing about your life, the life of anyone you care about or the state of the world. So in some respects, we’re done here.

But in other respects there’s a lot to love.

Science has, in some ways, always been measured by its payoff. Polio vaccine? Hundreds of thousands of children per year spared paralysis or death. Eradication of smallpox? Hundreds of millions of lives saved over the arc of time. The invention of the telegraph, the telephone, the airplane, the personal computer? World-changers.

But what about the invention of the telescope? It landed Galileo—he of the heliocentric heresy—in a world of hurt, as well it would have by the thinking of the time. Yes, he found the moons of Jupiter and rings of Saturn, but by showing other worlds in all their non-Earthly complexity, he also blew up the notion of cosmic specialness that had been at the center of our species’ overweening ego for so long. Later generations of telescopes gave us more information we could make no practical use of and that only served to shrink us further, revealing that we are crazily small organisms on a crazily small world and that, on a cosmic scale, our species’ entire time on the stage amounts to little more than the trillionths of a second it took the Higgs Boson to flash out of existence after its celebrated creation in 2012.

And what about that Boson? A couple of years ago we were all aflutter about it, so quick, what did we learn from it? Um, something about mass and particles and energy and blah, blah, blah Einstein (half of these discoveries end up with blah, blah Einstein).

But there was something about the boson that got to us, too. Even if you didn’t pay much attention, you knew that it involved a huge machine creating an unfathomably tiny particle, one that somehow reached all the way back to the Big Bang and helped explain something deeply fundamental. That something had to do with why there is matter in the universe at all. But even if you never got that far, you sensed—just sensed—that this was something that made us, the whole species, better, smarter, just faintly immortal, if only by having transcended our multiple limitations to figure out something very hard.

And so it is with Monday’s announcement, that gravitational waves which, yes, Einstein again, first posited 99 years ago, actually exist—and that they send ripples out across all of spacetime. That, in turn, confirmed that in the first billionth of a trillionth of a quadrillionth of a second after the Big Bang, the universe briefly expanded faster than the speed of light—a speed that’s supposed to be impossible, but in this exceptional case wasn’t. And while it would be nice to understand even more, even that little bit has to leave you feeling gobsmacked.

It’s that way with all thrilling things that make no sense: scaling Mount Everest, breaking the four-minute mile, landing the first man on the moon. Hell, back in 1962, we fiercely defended the greatness of the failed Ranger 4 mission after it crash-landed on the lunar surface but was unable to take even a single picture. Why? Because we had finally put metal on the moon—dead metal to be sure—but we had gotten there and that was enough for the moment.

It’s fine—and vital—to do science that changes lives. But it’s great to also do science that just gets you drunk on the idea that you’re doing it at all, that refracts the universe in a different way, that shows you yourself from the other side of the mirror. You are precisely the same person you were before you had that perspective—and you’re entirely different too.

TIME Science

So What Exactly Is Cosmic Inflation Anyway?

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

In a discovery physicists are calling "extraordinary" and "spectacular," observers at the South Pole have found the first direct evidence that gravitational waves caused by the Big Bang and theorized by Einstein actually exist, fundamentally changing our view of the universe

The universe literally shook today. That’s nothing new though, since as we now know it’s been shaking for 13.8 billion years. A single observation by researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has just confirmed two of science’s most tantalizing theories: the existence of gravitational waves and the long ago, high-speed inflation of the universe.

So what exactly is cosmic inflation, and why does it matter?

Ninety-nine years ago, Einstein first explained that gravity wasn’t exactly a force, as much as it was a warping of “spacetime” which, as the name suggests, is kind of space plus time multiplied by, well, everything. Picture spacetime as a trampoline: drop a bowling ball on it and the entire mat will warp and jiggle. Those jiggles are gravitational waves.

In the 1980s, other theorists posited the inflationary universe, the idea that in the first .0000000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds after the Big Bang (and before you ask, yes, that’s a real number) the universe briefly expanded faster than the speed of light—which should be impossible but isn’t, provided it’s spacetime itself doing the expanding.

What the Harvard-Smithsonian scientists did was observe a sort of distortion in the microwave energy left over from the Big Bang. That distortion could only have come from gravitational waves, and it could only have been an event as violent as a light-speed-plus expansion that set everything jiggling. Two theories confirmed with one nifty observation.

Why should you care—apart from the fact that it’s all just deeply cool?

The same reason you may have cared about the Higgs Boson: because this stuff is head-crackingly complex, because we live in an era in which there are people around who can actually figure it out—and oh yeah, because it explains how you, the planet, and everything else that’s ever been since the dawn of measurable time came into existence. So, not bad for a day’s work at the lab.

TIME Agriculture

Climate Change Could Cause the Next Great Famine

Climate change impacts crop yields
A warmer climate could reduce the yield of staple crops like maize Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

A new study finds that as the planet warms, yields for important staple crops like wheat could decline sharply.

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, which means the 100 million or so people of Irish descent around the world get the opportunity to celebrate their heritage with song, food and increasingly controversial parades. The sheer size of the Irish diaspora is what has made St. Patrick’s Day an international event—after all, there are only 6.4 million Irish people in Ireland. But it’s also a reflection of the waves of emigration that marked Ireland’s history until recently—emigration that was fueled in part by the great famine of the 1840s. Triggered by a disease that wiped out the potato, Ireland’s staple crop, the Great Famine—an Gorta Mor in Irish—led to the death of a million people and caused another million to flee the country. Without the potato blight, that Irish diaspora—and your local St. Patrick’s Day festivities—might be significantly smaller.

The Great Famine is a reminder of the way failures in agriculture can drive lasting historical change—while leading to immense human suffering. That’s a useful backdrop of a new analysis on the impact global warming will have on crop yields, just published in Nature Climate Change. The news isn’t good: the research, based on a new set of data created by the combination of 1,700 previously published studies, found that global warming of only 2º C (3.6º F) will likely reduce yields of staple crops like rice and maize as early as the 2030s. And as the globe keeps warming, crop yields will keep shriveling unless drastic steps are taken to adapt to a changing climate. As Andy Challinor, a professor of climate impacts at the University of Leeds and the lead author of the study, put it in a statement:

Our research shows that crop yields will be negatively affected by climate change much earlier than expected…Furthermore, the impact of climate change on crops will vary both from year-to-year and from place-to-place—with the variability becoming greater as the weather becomes increasingly erratic.

The effect that warming will have on crop yields is one of the most vital areas of climate research—and one of the most vexing. Warming will have different impacts on different kinds of crops in different parts of the world. Warmer temperatures—and the higher levels of carbon dioxide that come with them—may enhance yields in the short-term, but as the climate gets hotter and hotter, crops could wilt, especially in the tropics. Changes in precipitation—both prolonged droughts and bigger storms—will hit farmers hard as well. And with a 842 million hungry people around the world—and another 2 billion or so who will need to be fed by mid-century as global population grows—accurately nailing down the impact climate change will have on crop yields could make the difference between life and death for vast numbers of people.

The last assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from 2007 found that temperate regions like Europe would be able to deal with moderate, 2º C warming without much of an impact on crop yields. But the newer research used in the Nature Climate Change study indicates that that conclusion might have been too optimistic, especially as the climate gets warmer and warmer towards the century’s end. Farmers in the tropics will have it particularly difficult—yields from maize could drop by 20% or more if temperatures increase by more than 3º C (5.4º F). And those reductions in yield could hide much bigger year-to-year swings, if the weather gets more extreme. “Climate change means a less predictable harvest, with different countries winning and losing in different years,” said Challinor. “The overall picture remains negative.”

We should have a better sense of where climate research stands on crop impacts later this month, when the IPCC comes out with the next chapter in its newest climate science assessment. And farmers—especially in developed nations—can and likely will adapt to what global warming will throw at them, whether by changing crop planting schedules, shifting to more efficient irrigation or taking advantage of biotechnology. But there’s no guarantee that poor farmers—who already produce less per acre—will be able to keep up. The Great Famine was triggered by the potato blight, but it was intensified by cruel policy on the part of Ireland’s British masters, who ensured that rich stores of grain and livestock were exported out of the country even as Irish citizens starved to death in the streets. As a warming climate makes the difficult task of keeping the world fed even tougher, we can only hope that wiser policy prevents the next famine.

TIME space

Shhhh! Don’t Disturb the Baby Stars

An infrared image of a small portion of the Monkey Head Nebula (also known as NGC 2174 and Sharpless Sh2-252) captured by the Hubble telescope, released on March 17, 2014.
An infrared image of a small portion of the Monkey Head Nebula (also known as NGC 2174 and Sharpless Sh2-252) captured by the Hubble telescope, released on March 17, 2014. The nebula is a star-forming region that hosts dusky dust clouds silhouetted against glowing gas. NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

The Hubble Space Telescope has given us a gift on the occasion of its own 24th birthday. Like nearly all of the riches Hubble has showered down on us over nearly a quarter of a century, the newest one is a picture—this time of the wonderfully named Monkey Head Nebula, 6,400 light years from Earth. The region of the nebula that’s shown is a stellar nursery, a place new stars churn into existence. As they release energy, the infant suns blow off cosmic dust (at the right of the image); the ultraviolet light they generate sculpts the remaining dust into pillars. Space, as Hubble has revealed again and again, is a place of sublime violence—and sublime beauty too.

TIME Cosmology

Cosmic Bulletins: Two Major Discoveries Rock Science

Telescope BICEP2 (in the foreground) and the South Pole Telescope (in the background) in Antarctica, on March 31, 2007.
Telescope BICEP2 (in the foreground) and the South Pole Telescope (in the background) in Antarctica, on March 31, 2007. Steffen Richter—Harvard University/EPA

Nearly a century ago, Einstein came up with the idea of gravitational waves. Now, in a discovery that physicists are calling "extraordinary" and "spectacular," observers at the South Pole have found the first direct evidence they exist

The Theory of General Relativity seemed truly bizarre when Albert Einstein first articulated it 99 years ago: gravity, the great physicist declared, was no longer to be seen as a force, but rather as the warping of “spacetime,” an amalgam of those two formerly independent concepts. The theory also predicted that violent events should trigger gravitational waves, which would set spacetime rippling, like a vat of cosmic jello. There has been some circumstantial evidence of those ripples, involving changes in orbits of binary stars, but what’s always been missing is a smoking gun, direct observational measurement of a gravitational wave.

The same is true of the Inflationary Universe theory, postulated in the 1980s: just .0000000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds (give or take) after the Big Bang, the theory said, the cosmos underwent a burst of expansion so furious that it was briefly flying apart faster than the speed of light. Exceeding light speed is supposed to be impossible, except that that law applies only to something moving through spacetime, not spacetime itself expanding. Just as with gravitational waves, there’s plenty of reason to think it really happened, but again, no proof.

Not until now, anyway. In a discovery physicists are calling “huge,” “extraordinary” and “spectacular,” a team of observers using a microwave-sensitive telescope at the South Pole has found the first direct evidence of gravitational waves—and the strongest proof of inflation to date, all in one shot. “When I got the call,” says Marc Kamionkowski, a theorist at Johns Hopkins University who wasn’t involved in the research, “I had to ask if it was real. To me, this is bigger than the Higgs boson.” If it’s confirmed by other groups, says Avi Loeb, chair of the Harvard astronomy department and also not a participant in the research, “it’s worth a Nobel.”

According to Kamionkowski, one of few physicists allowed to see the scientific paper before it was announced at a press conference today, that confirmation is likelier than not. “These are extremely careful and conservative people,” he says of the team that made the observation. “They’ve had this evidence for three years, looked at every alternative explanation for what they were seeing, and systematically ruled them out one by one.”

For a finding of this enormity, the critical bit of evidence John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and his colleagues saw seems entirely innocuous: a slight distortion in microwave radiation left over from the Big Bang. These microwaves didn’t even exist until about 400,000 years after the Big Bang happened, far later than the inflationary scenario—which occurred before the universe had aged even a billionth of a trillionth of a quadrillionth of a second—could have played out. But when the microwaves did pop into existence, the cosmos should have still been jiggling with gravitational waves set off by the violence of the inflation. Spot the jiggles and you prove both the expansionary phenomenon and the existence of the waves left over from it.

That’s what Kovac and his colleagues did, though it wasn’t literally jiggles that they saw. Instead they noticed that the background radiation was polarized, its waves of electromagnetic energy oscillating not in random directions but in just a few specific ones. (Sunlight also oscillates in random directions; polarizing sunglasses work by letting in only the rays within a narrow range of orientations.) That microwave polarization suggests that something was shaking the radiation this way or that.

The telescope the researchers used—the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization 2, or BICEP2, instrument—is tuned to see the critical kind of polarization in background radiation, but there was no guarantee it ever would. Inflation theory comes in several versions, all of which posit different intensities. “In some,” says MIT’s Alan Guth, who was one of the inflationary universe theory’s original inventors, “the waves are so weak they could never be detected. To see them turn up is beautiful.”

What made the gravitational waves—and thus the polarization they caused—so powerful has to do with why the universe inflated in the first place. Physicists like Guth had already theorized that inflation would happen as the cosmos transitioned from one energy state to another, much as water changes to ice. That transition released huge amounts of energy, which turbocharged the already-expanding universe. Also like water, which goes from vapor to liquid to solid, the post-Big Bang universe went through several such transitions, all during the first fraction of a fraction of a second of its life.

The amount of polarization—dictated by the strength of the gravitational waves—suggest that the transition that triggered the high-speed inflation occurred when the universe was at the so-called grand unified scale. That’s the point at which electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force and the strong nuclear force, all of which have vastly different strengths and effects today, were a single force. “It represents about a trillion times the energy scale produced by the Large Hadron Collider,” says Loeb, referring to the world’s biggest accelerator, where the Higgs was found.

The new results, assuming they’re verified, now rule out some of the more complicated, exotic versions of inflation, which seemed favored by cruder measurements made last year by the European Planck satellite. “Some people liked those,” says Guth, “because they got to write complicated papers about them.” But in physics, simpler ideas are usually considered more elegant.

Also ruled out by the detection of gravitational waves, according to both Guth and Loeb, is at least one of the few viable alternatives to the Big Bang. Known as the ekpyrotic universe model, it posits that the cosmic microwaves we’ve been detecting since the 60’s came from the titanic collision between two “branes”—short for membranes—which were independent universes (one of which was ours) floating around in higher-dimensional space.

The new results do have to be verified. Even though the BICEP2 team methodically checked and rechecked its work to rule out any mistakes, nobody, including Kovac and his colleagues, can be 100 percent certain until independent groups, using their own instruments, see the polarization signal too. That shouldn’t take long, given that cosmologists at Princeton, Berkeley, the University of Minnesota, the Goddard Spaceflight Center, the University of Chicago and more were already in the hunt. “Whether it’s correct or incorrect“ says Kamionkowski, who strongly favors the former, “will be known very quickly.”

Meanwhile, the BICEP2 team has already started taking data with a more powerful telescope called the Keck Array, also at the South Pole, and is hard at work building yet another, called BICEP3, which will begin flexing its muscles next summer. Extraordinary as the new results are, they’re just a taste of the science that will come out of these new instruments. “I’ve made 23 trips to the Pole in my career so far,” says Kovac, “and I’ll be making a lot more.” It’s a long, cold journey—but to understand the first moments of cosmic creation, it’s clearly worth it.

More: The Sights And Sounds Of The Solar System From NASA’s Deep Space Network

TIME energy

More People Are Using Good Old-Fashioned Firewood to Stay Warm

Burning wood for heat is up markedly in the last several years, especially in the northeast and Mid-Atlantic

The number of U.S. households that burn wood as a primary source of heat has increased sharply since 2005.

The increase in wood as a heating fuel has been particularly notable in New England and the mid-Atlantic, where all states saw at least a 50% increase from 2005 to 2012. In some states the leap was even greater. Rhode Island saw an increase of more than 150% over the period, while Delaware and Alaska both saw increases of 150%, according to data out Monday from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Despite the sizeable increase, the number of U.S. households that burn wood as a primary source of heat is still relatively small: 2.5 million, or 2.1%. Unsurprisingly, wood burning is not evenly distributed across income brackets. Relatively affluent households are more likely to burn wood as a primary or secondary source of heat—think roaring fire, cozy living room—but lower income households that burn wood tend to burn more of the stuff.

[EIA]

TIME Environment

Study Says Climate Change Accelerating Greenland’s Ice Loss

Greenland:  A Laboratory For The Symptoms Of Global Warming
Part of the glacial ice sheet that covers about 80 percent of the country is seen on July 17, 2013 on the Glacial Ice Sheet, Greenland. Joe Raedle—Getty Images

New research is upending scientists' long-held belief that Greenland's ice sheets are stable, showing instead that global climate change is melting the country's ice at a much faster rate than once believed, leading to an increase in the world's sea levels

Greenland’s ice sheet is rapidly melting in areas previously believed to be stable, leading to accelerated rises in global sea levels, according to a study published Sunday.

While scientists have been aware that climate change has caused Greenland’s ice sheet to thin for decades, melting in the sheet’s northeast region has been discovered for the first time, USA Today reports. Ice loss in the northeast region of Greenland has nearly tripled since 2003, with the ice sheet retreating 12.4 miles over the past decade and losing 10 billion tons of ice per year from April 2003 to April 2012, according to the new study

The rapid change in the northeast region “surprised everyone,” said study co-author Michael Bevis, a professor of earth sciences at Ohio State University.

The loss of Greenland’s ice sheet has been a major contributor to global sea level rise over the past 20 years, accounting for one-sixth of the annual rise. As humans emit increasing quantities of carbon into the atmosphere, the atmosphere more readily absorbs sunlight, warming the planet and causing sea levels to rise. Ice deflects most sunlight from the earth’s surface, but water absorbs heat from the sun. This causes a positive feedback loop: as temperatures rise, more ice becomes water, causing the temperature to rise further and ice sheets like the one in Greenland to melt at an increasing pace.

[USA Today]

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