TIME sustainability

Giant Floating Duck Proposed to Bring Green Energy to Copenhagen

Energy Duck: A submission to the 2014 Land Art Generator Initiative Copenhagen design competition by artists Hareth Pochee, Adam Khan, Louis Leger and Patrick Fryer. Courtesy Land Art Generator Initiative

The unique structure could theoretically provide the environmentally conscious city with solar energy and hydropower

Here’s an idea for energy sustainability that’s not mere quackery: A team of British designers and artists have proposed a floating tourist attraction that would gather solar energy in Copenhagen Harbor as the Danish city works to become carbon-neutral by the year 2025.

The 12-story-high structure just happens to also be in the shape of a giant sea duck.

Built from lightweight steel and covered in solar panels, the “energy duck” would by day collect the sun’s rays and by night bask the harbor in LED lights that change color in rhythm with the hydro turbines inside it, according to blog designboom.

Visitors wouldn’t just be able to admire the light show from a distance, they’d be able to board the energy duck and see the inner workings for themselves.

The supersized bird was developed by artists and designers Hareth Pochee, Adam Khan, Louis Leger, and Patrick Fryer as part of a competition run by the Land Art Generator Initiative, a project that aims to integrate art with sustainable design to come up with alternative energy solutions.

It’s just a concept, of course, but let’s hope this plan doesn’t go a-fowl.

 

TIME Paleontology

Want to See a Live Dinosaur? Set Up a Bird Feeder

An exciting new study lays out in detail how our fine feathered friends evolved from the same ancestors as the T. Rex and velociraptors over the course of millions of years, and how they managed to avoid the same doomed fate as their dinosaur cousins

When the theory first arose that birds evolved directly from dinosaurs, it was enormously controversial. It was even more contentious when some paleontologists argued that birds are dinosaurs—the only branch of the family that survived a cataclysmic asteroid strike 65 million years ago.

That initial controversy has largely vanished, thanks to a series of astonishing discoveries over the past 20 years or so—for example, that many dinosaur species sported feathers, and that the bone structures of birds and dinos are similar in all sorts of ways. “We now know birds are a subgroup of dinosaurs, like humans are a subgroup of apes,” says paleontologist Michael Lee, of the South Australian Museum, in Adelaide.

Now a new report in Science by Lee and several colleagues has laid out in unprecedented detail the exact bird branch of the dinosaur tree that sprouted and evolved over some 50 million years—and how that evolution may have saved birds from extinction when the asteroid struck.

The study is based on a cross-species analysis of more than 1,500 anatomical features across 120 species of early birds and therapod dinosaurs—the branch that includes velociraptors and T. Rex, and which is most closely related to birds. Of all the evolutionary changes that reshaped the bird lineage, says Michael Benton, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol in the UK, writing in a commentary on the new paper that also appears in Science, “The key seems to be miniaturization.”

Starting about 200 million years ago, the paper shows, one group of therapods began to shrink rapidly, from an average weight of more than 350 lb. to less than two. Not only that, says Lee, but, “It turns out that birds and their direct ancestors evolved about four times faster than other dinosaurs over that time.”

It’s not unusual to see different rates of evolution in related species, he says. “Rodents are the most successful mammals by far, for example,” Lee says, “and one reason is that they have the most rapidly evolving DNA.” Rapid evolution could be one reason there are now 10,000 species of birds, but only a few dozen species of crocodiles, even though both are equally ancient.

Shrinkage isn’t the only change that transformed therapods into birds, says Benton. “There was miniaturization, but also modifications to the eyes, the elaboration of feathers, the development of wings out of the small, silly-looking forelimbs therapods have.”

These changes might have been driven by their helpfulness in letting birds adapt to living in trees—previously uninhabited ecological niche. It’s still just a hypothesis, says Benton, but “there might have been an opportunity to conquer a new habitat by getting smaller, developing the ability to climb and to glide, developing better vision so you don’t go banging into branches.”

The changes could also have given birds a huge advantage over other dinosaurs when the asteroid finally struck. “Birds obviously didn’t evolve knowing in advance that it would hit,” says Lee, “but the adaptations might have incidentally helped them survive—they could warm themselves with feathers [when dust from the asteroid cooled the Earth], fly long distances for food.”

What most people don’t realize, says Lee, is that birds didn’t show up just as the other dinosaurs were dying out. “They shared the world for 100 million years.” The quintessential proto-bird, Archaeopteryx, lived 150 million years ago, he points out. But the terrifying T. Rex wouldn’t show up until many tens of millions of years later.

 

TIME Environment

Florida’s Attempt to Ban This Fish Has Virtually No Chance of Working

A winged lionfish at the Beijing Aquarium on May 30, 2012.
A winged lionfish at the Beijing Aquarium on May 30, 2012. Mark Ralston—AFP/Getty Images

Why the lionfish is here to stay

If you were trying to create the perfect invasive aquatic species, a fish capable of out-eating and out-breeding anything it comes across, chances are you wouldn’t be able to improve upon the lionfish. The spiny, venomous fish can produce up to 15,000 eggs every four days, and feed voraciously on small fish, invertebrates and mollusks. They also tend to have a hostile territorial attitude to other reef fish and scuba divers alike. Introduce a lionfish into a coastal coral reef, and it can quickly clear the habitat of any competitors.

Since the lionfish—which is native to Indo-Pacific waters—was accidentally introduced off Florida in the 1980s or 1990s, that’s exactly what has happened. The lionfish has been identified as a major threat through the coastal waters of the Atlantic, from North Carolina to the Caribbean. There have been sponsored lionfish derbies, underwater hunts where divers stalk the invasive fish, and restaurants have even tried to make an industry out of harvesting the lionfish, serving them to diners. (They’re not bad, provided you remove the poisonous spikes.)

And starting on Aug.1, Florida will no longer allow the importation of invasive lionfish—though that might seem like closing the barn door after the horse has left, given that the first lionfish introduced into the Atlantic likely came from aquarium, and the population has since exploded. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will also allow lionfish to be hunted by divers equipped with a rebreather, a machine that recycles oxygen so that divers can remain below the surface for much longer. That might help divers spear a few extra lionfish, but given that a female can produce as many as 2 million eggs in a year, divers will need to be awfully busy to keep up.

The reality is, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has said, “it is unlikely that the lionfish invasion can be reversed.” Which means divers should get used to the sight of the striped-lion fish, fins open like a sail, patrolling its new territory. That’s the challenge of responding to invasive species—there is no cure. There is only prevention.

TIME Research

The High Risks of High Summer Temperatures

When the mercury rises, so do some health risks

A new CDC report out Wednesday shows that 2,000 Americans died each year from 2006 to 2010 from weather-related causes and, as TIME reported earlier, twice as many Americans died of winter cold compared to summer heat.

While the recent CDC numbers show more weather-related deaths attributed to the cold, the agency says heat-related health problems are concerning—and growing. According to the agency, a good example is Chicago. In 1995, there were 465 heat-related deaths in the city, but from 1999 to 2010, there were 7,415, which averages to 618 deaths a year. Low-income Americans without access to air conditioning—or those who have A/C but can’t afford to run it—are at a particular risk, as are children and the elderly.

This has some scientists concerned. “Previous research shows that extreme heat on average causes more deaths per year than tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes combined” says Olga Wilhelmi, a scientist who studies heat-related illness and climate at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “Heat-related deaths are a serious concern. When you look at the relationship between human health and extreme heat, it presents very complex medical, social, and environmental issues, and that’s what we’re trying to understand.”

Wilhelmi is studying what combination of factors influence heat-related health problems and death in a given place–primarily focusing on cities. The idea is that by gaining a vast knowledge of who are at the greatest risks and why, local health departments can better protect their residents.Wilhelmi has done a lot of recent work in the city of Houston, looking partly at the number of 911 calls made for heat-related health problems. One of her early findings is that the majority of Houston nights hit heat-stress levels, and that cities may need to consider issuing more alerts and interventions to protect its most vulnerable residents.

 

 

TIME Infectious Disease

Infographic: Ebola By the Numbers

West African countries are trying to contain the deadly disease

The number of Ebola cases have continued to climb this week in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and now a recent victim in Nigeria. Here’s everything you want to know about the disease.

Sources: WHO, CDC, Mayo Clinic

You can also read more here.

TIME space

NASA Discovers 101 Active Geysers On Saturn Moon

Dramatic plumes, both large and small, spray water ice and vapor from many locations along the famed "tiger stripes" near the south pole of Saturn's moon Enceladus.
Dramatic plumes, both large and small, spray water ice and vapor from many locations along the famed "tiger stripes" near the south pole of Saturn's moon Enceladus. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

It wasn’t long ago that scientists had given up on finding life in the Solar System. Venus and Mercury are too hot, Mars too dry, and everything else way too cold. But thanks to a series of space probes a couple of decades ago, that dismal verdict has been dramatically reversed. Several of the ice-covered moons of Saturn and Jupiter, it turns out, conceal subsurface seas of liquid water, an essential ingredient for life as we know it.

That doesn’t mean life is necessarily out there—but if it is, new images coming down from NASA’s Cassini space probe, described in two papers just published in the Astronomical Journal are making a powerful argument that Saturn’s moon Enceladus may be the best place to look. The latest evidence: images that show no fewer than 101 geysers of water erupting from cracks in the moon’s southern hemisphere. “I’m really excited,” says Carolyn Porco, head of the spacecraft’s imaging team.

Who can blame her? The fact that Enceladus spews water into space is no surprise: Cassini spotted plumes of the stuff rising from the moon’s icy surface as soon as it took the first close-up images when the craft arrived back in 2004. There’s so much material escaping from Enceladus, in fact, that gives substance to one of the planet’s majestic rings.

The question was: Were the plumes coming from just below the surface, or from deep inside the moon? Only the latter would be good news for life, since it would imply a reservoir of permanently liquid water where life could have arisen and gained a foothold. That hope was strongly bolstered when Cassini’s flew through a plume in 2009. It’s instruments “tasted” the water and found it salty—strong evidence that the H2O had come from deep enough that it had been in prolonged contact with minerals in Enceladus’ rocky core.

Even more evidence came along just a few months ago: by measuring subtle variations in the moon’s gravity field, Cassini showed that an ocean really does lie about 30 miles under Enceladus’s thick rind of ice, bearing enough water to fill Lake Superior.

It all fit together—and the latest images just make the case stronger. It was still possible, says Porco, that the plumes of water coming from Europa originated mostly in the top few yards of the moon’s surface, created by tidal flexing whose friction was melting the ice. If that were the case, though, the geysers should be shooting out of a relatively wide area.

But they’re not. Instead, says Porco, “we found that they’re coming from four prominent fractures in the south polar terrain.” The fractures are known informally as “tiger stripes,” and in the case of three or four of the geysers, the locations have been pinpointed as coming from hotspots just a few tens of yards across.

“That’s the big thing here,” she says. “These are clearly not a near-surface phenomenon. This tells us that the only plausible source geysers is the sea below. We’re confident now that the fractures go all the way down.”That being the case, any biological activity in the ocean might be detectable in water from the plumes—if Cassini had the right instruments to detect it. It doesn’t, and that, says Porco, “makes it imperative to mount a mission to go back.”

It’s not that Enceladus is more likely to have life than, say, Jupiter’s moon Europa, which also boasts a liquid ocean beneath a crust of ice, says Porco. But the plumes on Enceladus offer a direct window into the ocean below. “You go back, land, stick out your tongue, and you get what you paid for,” she says. “We could go to town.”

Even at a time when NASA is badly hurting for cash, that could be a tough argument to resist.

 

 

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Here’s What Soda Does to Young Rats’ Brains

Soda is on the mind. A new small study in rats found that drinking sugary beverages may result in memory issues down the line.

University of Southern California researchers looked at adult and adolescent rats, and feed them sugary beverages (meant to mimic soda) for a month. After a month, the rats completed tasks that assessed their cognitive function and memory. The adult rats had no problems, but the adolescent rats who had been drinking sugary beverages had impaired memory and trouble learning.

The findings are being presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior (SSIB), and are preliminary. The researchers plan to explore whether the soda is causing inflammation in the brain’s hippocampus, which is the region of the brain involved in memory and learning.

Though the research has not been done in humans, it’s part of a growing body of work looking at the risks of soda.

TIME polio

The Battle to Eradicate Polio in Pakistan

A Pakistani health worker vaccinates a child in Islamabad
A Pakistani health worker vaccinates a child in Islamabad Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Political unrest in Pakistan has been a gift to the poliovirus, with 99 cases reported there so far this year. But Rotary International, which has already vaccinated 2 billion children in 122 countries, is hitting back hard

Epidemiology can be all about geography—and that’s especially true when it comes to polio. If you live in the U.S., where polio was eradicated in 1979, the specter of the disease has faded almost entirely, though pockets of infections can occur among the unvaccinated. In Pakistan, however, things are moving in precisely the opposite direction, and have been for a while now.

One of only three countries in the world where polio remains endemic (the other two are Nigeria and Afghanistan), Pakistan had been close to joining the world’s polio-free nations, with only 58 infections in 2012. But thanks to bans on vaccinating—and deadly attacks on polio fieldworkers—by the Pakistani Taliban, the caseload rose to 93 in 2013. In 2014, the total reached 99 by July 18—a figure all the more alarming compared to this point last year, when there had been just 21 cases.

“It’s a scary number,” says Aziz Memon, Pakistani chairman of Rotary International’s polio eradication campaign. “Children in North Waziristan have been trapped for three and a half years without a drop of polio vaccine, and that’s what’s causing this.”

The folks at Rotary know what they’re talking about. Since launching their polio eradication effort in 1985, they have been responsible for the vaccination of 2 billion children in 122 countries. Along with the World Health Organization, UNICEF, The Gates Foundation and others, they have helped slash the global infection rate from 350,000 cases per year in 1988 to 416 in 2013.

That’s indisputably good news, but polio is an exceedingly sneaky virus, with 200 symptom-free carriers for every one case of the disease. That fact, combined with the anti-vaccine forces in Pakistan, not to mention the porous borders cause by war and unrest in the overall region, has caused the disease to leak out from the three endemic countries, with stray cases turning up in Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Cameroon, Syria, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. In a handful of other countries, the virus has been detected in sewage, but it has not led to any cases of the disease—yet.

It’s Pakistan though that’s considered ground zero, and Rotary has announced that it’s now deploying some very simple weapons in what has always been a village-to-village, door-to-door battle. To improve surveillance and tracking—a maddeningly difficult job in a country in which so many people live off the communications grid—Rotary has distributed hundreds of cell phones to midwives who circulate through communities, canvassing residents to find out who has received the vaccine and who has been overlooked. Information on the unvaccinated kids—the “missing children” in the fieldworkers argot—is entered into the phones and uploaded to a central spreadsheet, allowing later vaccinators to target their efforts more precisely.

“The midwives also track pregnant mothers,” says Memon. “And when their children are born they can continue to maintain complete health records, not just for polio but for other vaccines and basic health care as well.”

Rotary has also worked with The Coca-Cola Company to build what’s known as a reverse osmosis water plant—essentially a sophisticated filtration facility—in the town of Malin, within the city of Karachi. Polio is a disease spread almost entirely by human waste, and once it leeches into the water system it can spread nearly anywhere. The Malir plant, which was constructed near a school to give polio-age kids the first access to the newly filtered water, is a relatively modest one, with just 20,000 gal. (76,000 liters) of clean water on hand at any one moment, and cost only $40,000 to build. But as a pilot project it represents a very good start. “We can’t build a massive plant like the government can,” says Memon. “This is a small plant for a small community.”

One thing, paradoxically, that’s working in the vaccinators’ favor is the increased number of displaced people in Pakistan. A recent push by the Pakistani military to flush the Taliban from its safe havens has broken the vaccination blockade, and already 350,000 children have received at least one dose of the polio vaccine. But 1.5 million refugees are scattered around the country. Rotary has dispatched field workers to refugee camps and transit points to identify the children and few adults who need the polio vaccine and administer it on the spot.

“The government did not have any idea about what the numbers of displaced people would be,” says Memon. In the refugee camps, he adds, there are at least 40,000 pregnant women, whose babies will have to be vaccinated shortly after birth.

The diabolical thing about polio—and indeed any disease science hopes to eradicate—is that even one case is too many. As long as any wild poliovirus is out there, everyone needs to be protected. It is only when the last scrap of virus has been found and snuffed, that the protective push can stop. That has happened once before in medical history—with smallpox. In the case of polio, it’s tantalizingly close to happening again.

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