TIME Science

When Mushroom Clouds Were All the Rage

Atomic Bomb Test, Nevada
Capturing an atomic explosion at a test site in the Nevada desert in 1957. Interim Archives / Getty Images

Jan. 27, 1951: The first atomic bomb is detonated at the Nevada Test Site in Nye County, Nev.

The mushroom clouds that appeared over the Nevada desert were a spectacular tourist attraction — at least initially.

After the first nuclear device was detonated at the Nevada Test Site on this day, Jan. 27, in 1951, atomic fever swept across the nation, bringing waves of visitors to Las Vegas, an ideal vantage point from which to see the clouds rising above the test site 65 mi. away. “At week’s end the Atomic Energy Commission cautiously confirmed the fact that the first atomic explosion had taken place in its new 5,000-sq.-mi. testing ground on the remote and barren plateau northwest of Las Vegas known as Frenchman Flat,” TIME reported in the Feb. 5, 1951, issue. “It was the first atomic explosion in the U.S. since the historic test at Alamogordo in 1945.” The 12 years during which the site averaged one explosion every three weeks was a boom time for Vegas, which nicknamed itself “Atomic City” and sponsored “Miss Atom Bomb” beauty contests, adorning winners with mushroom-cloud crowns.

The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce printed calendars listing detonation times and suggestions for the best viewing locations. According to the PBS history show “American Experience,” many tourists watched the bombs go off from the Sky Room at the Desert Inn hotel and casino, but others picnicked as close to the test site as they could get.

One lucky group of newscasters was allowed to broadcast the explosion of a 31-kiloton bomb — dubbed the “Big Shot” — from the edge of Nevada’s Yucca Lake, 10 mi. from ground zero. One reporter, per PBS, narrated the experience in majestic terms: “A fantastically bright cloud is climbing upward like a huge umbrella… You brace yourself against the shock wave… Then, after what seems like hours, the man-made sunburst fades away.”

Residents of St. George, Utah, therefore, considered themselves exceptionally fortunate: they had a front-row seat for nearly every blast that rocked the desert. According to a TIME, parents in this tiny town, just downwind of the test site, regularly woke their children before dawn and brought them to a hilltop where they could watch the mushroom clouds rise with the sun.

“When a pinkish-red cloud drifted over St. George hours later, the parents were not frightened,” TIME reported. “After all, the Atomic Energy Commission had assured them that ‘there is no danger’ from radioactive fallout. Some parents even held Geiger counters on their children and exclaimed in wonder as the needles jumped.”

By the time that story was published, in 1979, an alarming number of the children who had once watched the bombs burst in St. George had died of leukemia. Others developed thyroid cancer as adults. Awe over the A-bomb’s pyrotechnical power had been replaced by a better-informed fear of its dangers, and the test site had moved its nuclear operations underground.

Read the original report on the first atomic explosion, from the Feb. 5, 1951, issue of TIME, here in the TIME Vault: “A Kinda Flash”

TIME Environment

The Senate Discovers Climate Change!

170412165
Never noticed that before: Welcome to the conversation, Senators Image Source RF/Ditto; Getty

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

A landslide vote brings Congress's upper chamber into the 21st century—a little

Correction appended, January 24

Surely by now you’ve heard the big news: On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate—The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body Except For the Fact That it Never Really Deliberates Anything—passed a landmark resolution declaring that “climate change is real and is not a hoax.” The proposal passed by a nail-bitingly close vote of 98-1. Only Mississippi’s Roger Wicker, who heads the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, voted no.

The landslide victory thrilled the green community, especially since it included such anti-science paleoliths as Oklahoma’s James Inhofe and Florida’s Marco (“I’m not a scientist, man”) Rubio. But let’s not get carried away. For one thing, voting to acknowledge a fact that virtually every other sentient human on the planet long ago accepted is a little like passing a bill that declares, “Gravity is real” or “Fire make man hurt.” Not exactly groundbreaking.

What’s more, there was only so far the newly enlightened GOP was willing to go. Votes on two other measures—one that declared “climate change is real and human activity contributes significantly to climate change,” and one that made essentially the same point but without the word “significantly”—were blocked by Republican maneuvering. What’s more, the weak tea version of the resolution that did pass—sponsored by Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse—made it through only because it was a rider to the Keystone XL pipeline legislation. At this point, Republicans would likely approve a Puppies For Lunch rider if it would get Keystone passed.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, among the greenest of the greenies, responded to the GOP’s grudging concession with something less than unalloyed enthusiasm. “From Know-Nothingism to Do-Nothingism in the U.S. Senate,” it declared in a news release. And indeed, the 98 brave men and women who stepped forward to go on record with a statement of the patently obvious have given absolutely no indication that they are actually prepared to do anything about that obvious thing.

The GOP’s big wins in November certainly don’t make them more inclined to yield on what has become a central pillar of party dogma. But if science—to say nothing of the health of the planet—can’t move them, they should at least consider the unsavory company their fringe position is increasingly causing them to keep. Writing in The New York Times, Paul Krugman addressed climate deniers, supply-siders and foes of the Affordable Care Act as one counterfactual whole—people who are fixed in their positions no matter what the objective evidence shows. That may or may not be too wide a net to cast, but Krugman is right on one score:

If you’ve gotten involved in any of these debates, you know that these people aren’t happy warriors; they’re red-faced angry, with special rage directed at know-it-alls who snootily point out that the facts don’t support their position.

Krugman offers any number of explanations for this, with which reasonable people can agree or disagree, but his larger point—of an ideological cohort animated by rage as much as anything else—certainly feels right. I see it regularly in that least scientific but most pointed place of all, my Twitter feed. I’ve crossed swords with the anti-vaccine crowd more than once, and while some of them have found a way to be savagely nasty in the 140 characters they’re allowed, most of the anger is civil. They’re fretful and, I believe, foolish to have been duped by anti-scientific rubbish, but they’re at least fit for inclusion in the public square.

Not so the climate-deniers, who hurl spluttery insults, fill their feeds with the usual swill about President Barack Obama’s suspicious birthplace and the conspiratorial doings across the border in Mexico, and link to risible idiocy about how the global warming “conspiracy” is a “ploy to make us poorer,” whose real purpose is “to redistribute wealth from the first world to the third, an explicit goal of UN climate policy.”

Yes. Of course. Because it’s harder to believe in science than it is to believe that there’s a four-decade plot afoot that virtually every country in the world has signed onto, dragging virtually every scientist in the world along with them—none of whom have ever had a crisis of conscience or spilled the beans in a bar or simply decided to sell the whole sordid story to the press—and that only a rump faction in the U.S. knows the truth. Makes perfect sense.

If the Senate, even reluctantly, has made the tiniest baby step toward rational thought, that’s undeniably a good thing. “It starts by admitting you have a problem, just like many other areas of human life,” Whitehouse told The Hill. Outside the Senate chamber, however, in the country that is second only to coal-soiled China in CO2 emissions, the ugly, vein-in-the-temple anger remains. The GOP can continue to make common cause with this nasty crowd or, if it chooses, can finally, clear-headedly rejoin the ranks of reason.

An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Natural Resources Defense Council

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Environment

Official Wants Frozen to Teach Kids About Climate Change

FROZEN
Arendelle Disney

Apparently Disney didn't go for it

The U.S. special representative to the Arctic said this week that he told a Disney executive educators should use Frozen to teach kids about climate change—but the idea didn’t go over so well.

Admiral Robert Papp told an audience at this week’s Arctic Frontiers conference that after realizing his granddaughters were obsessed with Frozen, he approached Disney executives about making PSAs about climate change starring Anna and Elsa to raise awareness about the disappearing ice. “I said you’ve taught an entire generation about the Arctic,” Papp said he told the executive. “Unfortunately the Arctic that you’ve taught them about is a fantasy kingdom in Norway where everything is nice. What we really need to do is educate the American youth about the plight of the polar bear, about the thawing tundra, about Alaskan villages that run the risk of falling into the sea because of the lack of sea ice protecting their shores.”

Papp said the executive was receptive, but skeptical. “‘Admiral you might not understand, here at Disney it’s in our culture to tell stories that project optimism and have happy endings,'” he told him.

But who knows what’s in store for the rumored Frozen sequel that may or may-not be happening.

[h/t National Journal]

TIME Environment

EPA Still Slow to Study Toxic Chemicals, Despite Obama Pledge

EPA
;MCT Graphics/Getty Images

In his first inaugural address, between promising to fix the economy and lower the cost of health care, President Barack Obama made this pledge:

“We’ll restore science to its rightful place.”

It might sound arcane as a presidential priority, but it was a big deal at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Political interference from the Bush White House had delayed or derailed dozens of the EPA’s findings on potential health risks posed by toxic chemicals.

Some of those findings applied to chemicals to which all of us are exposed. Formaldehyde is in our kitchen cabinets and carpet. Arsenic is in our drinking water and rice. EPA scientists had determined that both of these carcinogens were more deadly than previously thought. Yet, officially, the agency remains unable to say so or to do anything about it.

On her first day on the job, Lisa Jackson, the new EPA administrator, sent employees a memo echoing the president’s promise to divorce politics from science. The agency has said it needs to assess 50 chemicals a year to do its job properly. Yet in the Bush years it was averaging only five assessments a year. Jackson quickly rolled out a plan to break through the logjam.

The plan seemed easily achievable. It required no congressional approval and involved tweaking the inner workings of bureaucracy. Republicans never passed any legislation to block it.

Yet the Obama administration’s plan has been a failure. In the past three years, the EPA has assessed fewer chemicals than ever. Last year, it completed only one assessment. Today, the agency has even embraced measures sought by the chemical industry that have led to endless delays.

“Of late, the administration has displayed a disturbing tendency to retreat in the face of a blistering and self-serving industry campaign to stifle this vital program once and for all,” said Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor who closely follows the EPA’s chemical assessment program.

The story of how this happened is a lesson in how Washington works.

Delaying science

There are more than 80,000 chemicals on the market today. You might think that the government tests each chemical to assure that it’s safe. But in the United States, unlike the European Union, chemicals are assumed to pose no health risk unless the EPA proves otherwise. This task is left to a small program within the EPA called the Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS.

It may not be the sexiest job at the EPA. But the agency needs IRIS’s scientific research to regulate chemicals. Without the science, there cannot be new regulations.

During the Bush years, the chemical industry had allies within the White House. Starting in 2004, EPA scientists had to submit drafts of their scientific assessments to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget for review. There, most assessments languished or died, according to an investigation by the Government Accountability Office in 2008.

Jackson announced she was wresting control of chemical assessments from the White House. In addition, she wanted to drastically cut the time spent on each one. . The few reports that were getting published were taking an average of seven years to complete. She vowed to complete them in less than two years.

Yet, almost immediately, the chemical industry found ways to thwart Jackson’s plan with the help of Republicans in Congress. Although the GOP didn’t control either chamber in Obama’s first two years, Republican lawmakers still found ways to delay science at the EPA.

For example, the Senate has a gentleman’s agreement that a single lawmaker can stall a president’s political appointments. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana did just that in 2009. He put a “hold” on a key EPA appointee until the agency agreed to get a second opinion on its formaldehyde assessment.

Formaldehyde is commonly thought of as an embalming fluid. But it’s widely used in building materials, automobiles and even no-iron shirts. According to the National Academy of Sciences, we are all exposed to formaldehyde every day.

EPA scientists began evaluating the chemical in 1998 and determined that it was linked to nasal cancers and leukemia. They were not alone. In 2006, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, classified formaldehyde as a known carcinogen. In 2011, the National Toxicology Program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did the same.

Yet, the formaldehyde industry, with its political muscle, challenges these findings. “The scientific literature is clear that there is no increased health risk from low-level exposures normally found in home or work environments,” says a statement from the American Chemistry Council, a trade association and lobby group for the chemical industry.

One of formaldehyde’s makers, Georgia-Pacific, is owned by Koch Industries, run by billionaires Charles and David Koch, two of the largest political donors in recent years.

To unblock the appointee, who would oversee the IRIS program, the EPA agreed to have the National Academy of Sciences review its formaldehyde draft. The academy, a fraternity of leading scientists, is the nation’s premier scientific advisor.

But the panel of scientists assembled by the academy in 2011 didn’t focus on whether the EPA was right about the science. Instead, it criticized the formaldehyde draft for being confusing and made suggestions on how to make future IRIS reports clearer. The chemical industry pounced on this.

‘Really unconscionable’

When Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives in 2010, they could exert control over the EPA with spending bills. Even with gridlock in Washington, Congress has to pass such bills if it wants to keep the government open. This allows leaders of the appropriations committees to insert language anonymously for pet projects and special interests.

Last year, the Center for Public Integrity revealed that Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, inserted language to block the IRIS assessment of arsenic. Arsenic is commonly found in drinking water. EPA scientists were going to say in the assessment that for every 100,000 people who drank the allowable limit of arsenic every day, 730 would eventually get lung or bladder cancer from it.

But mining, power and pesticide companies all have a financial stake in arsenic. The EPA had an agreement with two pesticide companies to take a weed killer containing arsenic off the market because of the dangers. But the agreement was conditioned on the EPA completing its scientific assessment.

“I have to say that I’m not a lobbyist. I’m a scientist. When the EPA [reached its conclusion]… we found that there’s a lot of flawed science in it. We had to get some help,” said Michal Eldan, vice president of one of the pesticide companies, Luxembourg-Pamol. The other is Drexel Chemical Co.

The pesticide companies lobbied Simpson to stop an EPA ban of their products. In 2011, Simpson used his position on the appropriations committee to instruct the EPA to seek a new review from the National Academy. At that point, the EPA had been working on its assessment for seven years. As a result of Simpson’s delay, the EPA couldn’t enforce its ban and the herbicide remains on the market.

William Ruckelshaus, who ran the EPA for presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, said getting the National Academy to review the agency’s scientific findings is a common delay tactic used by industry. He sharply criticized it for endangering public health.

“Anytime that a scientific group or the EPA or any other agencies that has regulatory authorities over these kinds of chemicals finds something wrong it ought to be immediately published,” Ruckelshaus said. “To the extent that that’s delayed or stalled in some way it’s really unconscionable — particularly if it’s done on behalf of the industry that manufactures the chemical and they have economic benefit associated with it.”

The formaldehyde industry used the same delay tactic as the pesticide companies and at the same time. They even used the same lobbyist: former EPA official Charlie Grizzle.

Leveraging the National Academy’s criticisms about the clarity of the formaldehyde assessment, Grizzle and others got language inserted that delayed all 47 chemical assessments in progress. Here’s how they did it: They instructed the EPA to adopt the academy’s recommendations and explain to Congress how it was going to implement them for ongoing and new assessments.

In an interview, Grizzle acknowledged he was involving in lobbying for the changes. Asked whether this forced the EPA to redo all of its assessments, he said, “I don’t know.”

For each chemical, EPA scientists start by reviewing hundreds of published scientific articles. Until now, they have relied on their expert opinions to decide which studies are the most reliable. But the National Academy recommended the EPA create a system – like a scorecard – to determine how much weight to give each study. EPA scientists complain that scoring hundreds of studies can be difficult and time-consuming.

Bernard Goldstein, an EPA official during the Reagan administration and the former dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, said it’s not clear that the National Academy’s suggestions will produce better assessments. There’s little scientific dispute that some chemicals are toxic. The EPA may be spending much more time to arrive at the same conclusion as it would have before. The suggestions “could actually prolong the process and contribute to the problem that process was taking too long because you would need additional scientific analyses,” Goldstein said.

Jonathan Samet, who chaired the National Academy panel on formaldehyde, defended its suggestions, saying a scorecard approach “has really become best practices in science.”

But Samet, who also chairs the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Southern California, said, “We were quite clear that neither the formaldehyde or other assessments should be stopped or greatly delayed while changes were made to the process. There are too many important agents being evaluated and too many stakeholders awaiting results.”

Ironically, the National Academy released its own assessment of formaldehyde last year. It agreed with the EPA’s findings that formaldehyde is a known carcinogen linked to leukemia. The EPA formaldehyde assessment is still mired in delays, 17 years after work on it began.

Fans of Ken Olden

The Obama administration could have resisted political pressure from the chemical industry and House Republicans. The language instructing the EPA to seek second opinions from the National Academy was not in the spending bill itself. That language was put instead into a document attached to the bill to explain Congress’s intent.

When shown the language, Charles Fox, who served as an EPA official during the Clinton administration, said, “This is what we consider advisory language. The agency is not obligated to implement that language in the report but is, for lack of better word, strongly encouraged to do so.”

Lisa Jackson left the EPA in February 2013 and went to work for Apple. She did not respond to requests for an interview. Neither did her replacement as EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy.

In July 2012, Dr. Kenneth Olden took charge of the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, which oversees IRIS. While a director at the National Institutes of Health, Olden raised eyebrows by collaborating with the American Chemistry Council to fund scientific research. Olden has embraced the procedural changes sought by the National Academy of Sciences. In doing so, he has won praise from the chemical industry and Republicans.

Appearing before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology last July, Olden was lauded by Republican congressmen who are usually critical of the EPA.

“I had some folks who care very much about what is done here, and they actually said nice things about you, Dr. Olden,” said Rep. David Schweikert of Arizona. “You have no idea how rare it is to hear nice things about anyone around here.”

Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia has called for the elimination of the EPA. But at the hearing, he said, “Dr. Olden has been a refreshing ambassador for the IRIS program and I applaud his commitment to an open and transparent IRIS process that includes early communication and increased opportunities for meaningful stakeholder input.”

Michael Walls, a lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council, testified, “You can count me among the fans of Ken Olden.”

In a case of role reversal, it was a Democrat on the committee who challenged Olden. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon said that the EPA’s focus “on building a better relationship with industry has had the effect of crippling IRIS rather than putting the EPA on the path to streamline production of IRIS entries.”

Currying favor with Republicans may have saved IRIS from threatened budget cuts. In the most recent spending bill, Congress cut the EPA’s budget by $60 million. But it spared the IRIS program.

One of the biggest changes Olden has made is to hold public meetings every two months to get input on ongoing chemical assessments. An analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found that those meetings are dominated by speakers paid by the chemical industry. Since the meetings began, 85 percent of the speakers have been industry-funded scientists.

At the first public meeting in 2012, Richard Denison of the Environmental Defense Fund said, “It may seem strange to hear this from a representative of the public interest community, but what IRIS needs is fewer, not more, opportunities for ‘public’ input… More opportunities for input not only require more time, they also result in a process that virtually ensures the input received by EPA is imbalanced and badly skewed toward the regulated community.”

Jennifer Sass, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, regularly attends public meetings on chemicals. She said it’s not unusual for her to be the only scientist there not paid by industry.

“There’s a lot less scientists and community members that have the resources and have the interest and have the time to travel and take the time,” she said. “Whereas, the industry people are getting paid; every hour they are there, that’s a paid hour for them.”

That leads to biased meetings, Sass said.

“I have never seen the chemical industry say, ‘Oh, wow! It looks from all of these data and the public literature like we had better start being safer with this chemical.’ They, in my experience, have always defended their chemical, tried to show that it’s safer, or less toxic, than what independent studies show.”

At the most recent public meeting, Nancy Beck, a scientist at the American Chemistry Council, asked an IRIS scientist to present more information from all the studies the EPA reviewed.

“I know it’s a lot of work in the beginning,” Beck said about the scorecard approach.

IRIS scientist Catherine Gibbons replied, “I think it’s an extremely laborious process.”

Beck declined a request for an interview.

Olden himself acknowledged that the views at the meetings are not balanced. In October, he announced plans to bring in more independent scientists. Two weeks later, at a public hearing on hexavalent chromium, a chemical whose carcinogenic effects have been publicly debated since the film Erin Brockovich, every non-EPA speaker on the agenda was paid by industry.

‘Endless jawboning’

Obama did not mention scientific integrity in his second inaugural address. Nor has he spoken about it lately. On its website, the IRIS program has removed Lisa Jackson’s plan to take politics out of the process and replaced it with a new plan to address the concerns pressed by the chemical industry and House Republicans.

After months of requests for an interview, the EPA made Olden available to a Center reporter for 10 minutes by phone. He defended his emphasis on improving the quality of assessments rather than on Jackson’s promise to increase the quantity.

“You can’t hold me accountable for what happened years ago,” Olden said. “I was brought in in July 2012 to address the issues that had been raised by GAO and the NAS report, and we are addressing those as rapidly as possible.”

Olden had no explanation for why the EPA didn’t resist pressure from Congress to delay assessments, saying that wasn’t his decision.

“It more or less dealt with a policy issue in the regulatory arena that we don’t in fact deal with. That’s my position.”

When asked if that decision was made higher up within the EPA, Olden said, “I stick with my answer.”

He acknowledged that he gets pressure from the chemical industry but said, “We get pressures from lots of quarters, and to be balanced, you should point that out… But our commitment is to stick with the science. And you’ve never had any evidence that we’ve deviated from that during my tenure as director of this program, and you won’t find any evidence of that.”

Asked why IRIS isn’t producing more chemical assessments, Olden said, “We are doing as much as humanly possible. I think the agency is pleased, and I think the scientific community is pleased. I feel good about what we’ve done.

In his 2 ½ -year tenure, the EPA has published only four chemical assessments.

The University of Maryland’s Steinzor, an expert in scientific integrity, testified before Congress that the changes the EPA is making to IRIS are misguided.

“EPA’s political appointees seem to harbor the naïve idea that this process will placate its critics,” she said. “Instead, endless jawboning has left the agency vulnerable to cynical exploitation. In sum, let us not lose sight of what is really at stake, the priceless notion that the water we drink and the air we breathe ought to be clean and healthy.”

MONEY Environment

There’s $13 Million In Your Sewer Sludge. Really

Gold ingot floating in dark liquid
Mark Wragg—Getty Images

A study finds a surprisingly large amount of valuable metals in sewage. But don't go prospecting just yet.

Researchers at Arizona State University estimate that in a city of one million people, $13 million dollars worth of metals could be accumulating annually in sludge, the byproduct of treated sewage.

The study, which analyzed sludge from treatment centers in Arizona and samples from across the country stored at the U.S. National Biosolids Repository, focused on 13 minerals with the highest value, including gold, silver, copper, and platinum. If every bit of the metals is retrieved, researchers reported there could be $280 per ton of sludge.

“While we expected that the metals were present at low concentration, the fact that the small amounts represent such a significant economic value was definitely surprising,” says Pierre Herckes, associate professor at ASU and co-author of the study. Of the $13 million, $2.6 million alone comes from gold and silver.

It’s possible that the metals found in sewage — which is basically anything that is flushed down a drain or toilet — is a result of discharge from jewelry and electronics manufacturing plants, mining, electroplating, and similar industries. After sewage is treated, 60% of the remaining sludge is spread across fields, yards, and forests throughout the country as fertilizer, with the rest sent to landfills or incinerated.

The concentration of metals in sludge, however, could pose environmental risks, so finding a way to extract them would help mitigate the effects of the gold flush — err, rush.

In 2009, a waste treatment facility in central Japan managed to extract nearly 2 kilograms of gold from the ash of incinerated sludge, which was more than the amount pulled from Japan’s Hishikari Mine, one of the world’s top gold mines.

However, no U.S. plants have started sifting through the goo just yet.

“Technically, it is possible to extract these metals, although it is very challenging,” says Herckes. Currently, there is no technology we are aware of that can do it on a large scale without the use of enormous amounts of energy and harsh chemicals, he adds.

So don’t go digging out your old prospecting pan from the garage just yet. You’d have better luck scouring the streets of Manhattan’s Diamond District, where one urban prospector pulled in almost $1,000 in a week by collecting bits of gold and jewels off the ground.

TIME Know Right Now

Know Right Now: Inside the Mystery of Greenland’s Vanishing Lakes

The lakes resided under Greenland's massive ice sheet

Two lakes in Greenland holding enormous amounts of water were drained within the course of weeks, researchers say.

Watch today’s Know Right Now to find out more about these vanishing lakes.

TIME Environment

Two Massive Lakes Under the Greenland Ice Sheet Drained Away in Weeks

The discovery signals a "catastrophic" environmental shift

Two lakes underneath the ice in Greenland that previously held billions of gallons of water were rapidly drained, probably in a matter of weeks, researchers discovered recently.

Researchers from various universities involved in a comprehensive mapping effort of the Greenland Ice Sheet discovered two craters over a mile wide that used to be sub-glacial lakes, Science Daily reports.

The findings, published separately in scientific journals The Cryosphere and Nature, signal an environmental shift that Ohio State earth sciences professor Ian Howat described as “catastrophic.”

MORE These Are the Best Places to See the Northern Lights

Howat led the team that discovered the first lake, described in The Cryosphere, which previous satellite images showed had been intact for about 40 years and held 6.7 billion gallons of water. However, more recent images indicate it probably dried up sometime in 2011.

The second, even larger lake has reportedly drained and refilled twice in the last two years, indicating a sharp rise in meltwater that is affecting the glacial drainage system. The depletion and refilling of the lakes brings with it a lot of stored heat that researchers say may adversely impact the ice sheet itself.

“The fact that our lake appears to have been stable for at least several decades, and then drained in a matter of weeks — or less — after a few very hot summers, may signal a fundamental change happening in the ice sheet,” said Howat.

[Science Daily]

Read next: The Microsoft HoloLens Is Going to Let Scientists Walk Around Mars

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Environment

How the Atomic Age Left Us a Half-Century of Radioactive Waste

Plutonium Plant
The American Atomic Energy Commision's plutonium production plant at Hanford, Washington, circa 1955 Evans / ;Getty Images

Dealing with nuclear waste at a plant in Washington State has proved an intractable problem. Why?

In 1951, atomic optimism was booming—even when it came to radioactive waste. In fact, entrepreneurs believed that the waste might pay off in the same way that coal tar and other industrial by-products had proved useful for the plastics and chemical industries. TIME reported that Stanford Research Institutes estimated they could sell crude radioactive waste from the Hanford plutonium plant in eastern Washington State at prices ranging from ten cents to a dollar a curie (a measure of radioactive decay). Every kilogram of plutonium the plant produced spilled out hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive waste. If the entrepreneurs were right, Hanford was a gold mine.

They were wrong. Instead, the former Hanford plutonium plant became the largest nuclear clean-up site in the western hemisphere. It costs taxpayers a billion dollars a year.

On the other hand, maybe they were right—just not the way they intended. Corporate contractors hired to clean up Hanford have made hundreds of millions of dollars in fees and surcharges, and, since little has been accomplished, the tab promises to mount for decades. Since 1991, the US Department of Energy has missed every target for remediation of Hanford’s deadly nuclear waste. Highly radioactive fluids are seeping toward the Columbia River watershed, while in the past two years 54 clean-up workers have fallen ill from mysterious toxic vapors. Last fall, seeking to finally get some action, Washington State sued the DOE to speed up the timeline and make the project safer—but, on Dec. 5, 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice rejected the request. The express schedule was too expensive, they said, despite the fact that the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration is planning to spend a trillion dollars in 30 years to create a new generation of more accurate, deadly weapons. In fact, the DOE spends more money now in real dollars on nuclear weapons than it did at the height of the Cold War.

Unfortunately, the Justice ruling—to scrimp on radioactive waste management while the DOE spends lavishly on bombs—makes for business as usual in the history of Hanford.

It’s never been a matter of knowing the danger. In 1944, Hanford designers understood that the radioactive by-products issuing from plutonium production were deadly. Executives from DuPont, which built the Hanford plant for the Manhattan Project, called plutonium and its by-products “super poisonous” and worried about how to keep workers and surrounding populations safe.

At the same time, DuPont engineers were rushing to make plutonium for the first Trinity test in Nevada in 1945, and they did not pause to invent new solutions to store radioactive waste. Plant managers simply disposed of the high-tech, radioactive waste the way that humans had for millennia. They buried it. Millions of gallons of radioactive effluent went into trenches, ponds, holes drilled in the ground and the Columbia River. The most dangerous waste was conducted into underground single-walled tanks meant to last ten years. Knowing the tanks would corrode, as the high-level waste ate through metal, Hanford designers planned to come up with a permanent solution in the future. They were confident in their abilities. Had they not accomplished the impossible—building from scratch in less than three years a nuclear bomb?

But, as the years passed, no new answer surfaced to safely store nuclear waste. The Atomic Energy Commission, which was in charge of bomb production, left radioactive garbage to its private corporate contractors. For two decades, the AEC had no office to oversee waste management, nor any regulation. AEC officials didn’t know how much radioactive waste there was or where it was located. They also didn’t pay much fiscal attention to the problem. The AEC allocated to General Electric, which took over from DuPont in 1946, $200,000 a year for waste management, small change in nuclear-weapons accounting. In the same decade, the AEC handed over $1.5 million annually to subsidize the local school district in Richland, Wash., where plant workers lived.

Meanwhile, the temporary underground tanks remained long past their expiration date. In the early 1960s, the first tank sprang a leak. Dozens followed suit leaching into the ground a million gallons of high-level waste. From 1968 to 1986, Hanford managers built 28 new, double-walled tanks, designed to last from 20 to 50 years. What was the major design innovation after two decades of experience? An extra tank wall.

The explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986 tore the plutonium curtain of secrecy surrounding Hanford. The newly renamed Department of Energy was forced to release thousands of documents describing how plant managers had issued into the western interior millions of curies of radioactive waste as part of the daily operating order. In the early 1990s, TIME recounted stories of people living downwind who had thyroid disease and cancer, caused, they believed, by the plant’s emissions. In 1991, the DOE resolved to clean up the Hanford site.

The agency hired the same military contractors that had managed the site while it was being polluted. Their main task involved building a state-of-the-art waste-treatment plant to turn high-level waste into glass blocks for millennia of safe storage in salt caverns. But by 1999, eight years and several billion dollars later, the DOE had to admit that its contractors had accomplished little. Multiple times, the DOE set new deadlines or hired new contractors, but the goalposts were always moved. In 2015, after decades of effort, the waste treatment plant is still in the planning stages. High-level waste remains in tanks, some of which continue to leak.

What makes dealing with nuclear waste at Hanford so intractable? The Savannah River Plant in Georgia also made plutonium and has successfully built a treatment plant. So too have the Russians and French. Despite the Department of Justice’s ruling, money is not the main problem. The current contractor, Bechtel Corp, has spent billions of dollars, yet has made little progress. Speaking this week, representatives of the Washington State Department of Ecology said that they would argue their case in federal court in February, hoping to get the DOE to commit to their timeline to get the waste treatment plant up and running. Decades after the story began, it continues.

So perhaps it’s a matter of history. Since the ’40s, Hanford contractors had enjoyed a free hand to produce plutonium and pollute with little AEC/DOE oversight. And for six decades reports of radioactive discharges were denied. It is hard to fix a problem one cannot see—and that’s been, by any measure, an expensive lesson.

Kate Brown lives in Washington, DC and is Professor of History at UMBC. She is the author of several award-winning books, including Plutopia: Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford 2013). Brown’s most recent book Dispatches from Dystopia: History of Places Not Yet Forgotten will appear in April 2015 with the University of Chicago Press.

Read a 1986 report on the safety of the American nuclear industry, here in the TIME Vault: Bracing for the Fallout

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India’s Tiger Population Has Risen Significantly Since 2008, Say Officials

INDIA-ENVIRONMENT-ANIMAL-TIGER
A Royal Bengal Tiger pauses in a jungle clearing in Kaziranga National Park, some 280 km east of Guwahati, India, In this photograph taken on Dec. 21, 2014 STRDEL—AFP/Getty Images

The surge from 1,411 in 2008 to 2,226 currently comes despite widespread poaching

India’s tiger population has risen dramatically in the past seven years despite widespread poaching, smuggling and diminishing habitats, according to latest figures.

India’s Environment Ministry says that there are now 2,226 tigers nationwide compared with a historic low of 1,411 in 2008, Indian news channel NDTV reported.

Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said India is now home to about 70% of the world’s tigers.

The news of the big cats’ booming population comes amid reports of a record number of tiger deaths between 2010 and 2014.

The previous tiger census in 2010 had pegged the total number at 1,706.

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