TIME Environment

Potentially Deadly Amoeba Found in Louisiana Water

The water system is located on the east bank of the Mississippi River, which provides drinking water for many communities near it

(BATON ROUGE, La.) — A potentially deadly brain-eating amoeba was discovered in a water system that serves more than 12,500 people, and state officials started flushing the system Thursday.

No illnesses or deaths have been attributed to the amoeba.

The flushing process will take two months, but the water is safe to drink for people in St. John the Baptist Parish, which is in southeast Louisiana, the state Department of Health and Hospitals said. Swimming or diving in freshwater lakes and rivers is the most common way to contract the amoeba, which can cause injury or death if it gets to the brain, usually through nasal passages.

The amoeba is rare. In 2011, a child died after apparently contracting the organism in St. Bernard Parish, a New Orleans suburb.

The water system is located on the east bank of the Mississippi River, which provides drinking water for many communities near it. The system was sampled as part of a state surveillance program launched earlier this month.

Water purification processes usually kill the organism before it gets into drinking water, but health officials say it can seep through pipe cracks underground after the purification process.

Normal purge treatment involves raising chlorine levels in drinking water, which produces a strong odor when water flows out taps in homes and businesses.

St. John the Baptist Parish is an industrial and farming community roughly midway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Officials said the Naegleria fowleri (nuh-GLEER’-ee-uh FOW’-lur-ee) amoeba was found in the watersystem serving for people in the Reserve, Garyville and Mount Airy communities.

TIME Environment

Solved: Mystery of Moving Stones in Death Valley

A sailing stone in Racetrack playa, Death Valley, CA.
A sailing stone in Racetrack playa, Death Valley, in California Mark Newman—Getty Images

A group of scientists say they've figured out how the "sailing stones" glide along the desert floor on their own

So-called sailing stones in California’s Death Valley National Park have perplexed tourists and scientists alike for their apparent ability to move on their own, leaving sometimes meter-long tracks in their wake.

But after years of speculation, researchers with patience, remote weather monitors, cameras, and stones that are fitted with GPS say they have discovered the force behind the phenomenon.

Wind (very strong winds) and ice (very thick ice) have long been considered as possible explanations for why the rocks, sometimes weighing hundreds of pounds, move. It’s actually a combination of a little of both, the team of researchers say in their study, published in the journal PLOS One this week.

Rainwater in what is known as the Racetrack Playa creates a shallow pond over the playa that, in cold winter temperatures, freezes over. When the ice begins to melt under the sun, it first breaks up into large panels thin enough that, with a nudge from even light winds, they shift — and push whatever rocks may lie in their path.

TIME Environment

Obama Mulls Circumventing Congress for International Climate Change Agreement

Climate Change Global Warming Asbestos Mines
Asbestos mines in Amiandos, Troodos Mountains, Cyprus, June 15, 2014. G. Nimatallah—De Agostini/Getty Images

Possible end-run around Senate ratification

The Obama Administration is working on an international agreement for countries to cut their fossil fuel emissions, a move that could set up a showdown with Congress by avoiding the need for formal treaty ratification.

The accord, meant to be signed at a United Nations summit next year, will likely bypass the usual ratification procedure, the New York Times reports. Ratification would require a two-thirds vote from the Senate, but any action on climate change faces stiff resistance from Republicans and from some moderate Democrats, and President Barack Obama has increasingly looked for ways to work around congressional opposition as his time in office winds down. The Administration is considering framing an agreement as “politically binding” instead of legally binding as a way to circumvent the need for ratification, the Times reports. Obama’s climate negotiators told the Times that the framework would help “name and shame” negligent countries.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said it’s premature to say the Administration is planning to circumvent the Senate.

“Not a word of the new climate agreement currently under discussion has been written, so it is entirely premature to say whether it will or won’t require Senate approval,” Psaki said in a statement. “Our goal is to negotiate a successful and effective global climate agreement that can help address this pressing challenge. Anything that is eventually negotiated and that should go to the Senate will go to the Senate. We will continue to consult with Congress on this important issue.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) voiced opposition to the possible maneuver, saying it’s indicative of what he called the Obama Administration’s tendency to “ignore the elected representatives of the people when they don’t agree.”

-Additional reporting by Zeke J Miller

TIME natural disaster

How 10 Seconds Could Save Lives During Earthquakes

Napa Area Businesses Continue Recovery Effort From Earthquake
A crack runs down the center of an earthquake-damaged street in Napa, Calif., on Aug. 26, 2014 Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

California eyes warning system after latest quake

Ten seconds could save your life. That’s the message from researchers developing an early-warning system in California that could eventually alert the public an earthquake is about to hit.

The research program, run by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in partnership with several California universities, is still in beta form, but was put to the test last weekend when an earthquake struck the Napa area. At the University of California, Berkeley, to the south, the system detected and sent out a warning signal to the scientists about six seconds before the tremor reached the area.

The technology behind the system uses sensors across the state that detect early waves from an earthquake before the main event strikes. While it’s not possible to issue warnings to those located right next to an earthquake epicenter, those further away could be warned seconds or even a minute in advance.

Doug Given, USGS’s early-earthquake-warning coordinator, says 10 seconds might not seem like a lot, but it could be enough for people to take cover before an earthquake hits and for public services and private industry to take precautionary steps. This might include systems that force elevators to let passengers off at the closest available floor and those that let first responders know they should open garage doors ahead of tremors so they can quickly begin search-and-rescue missions afterward. Given says other applications include letting hospitals know an earthquake is coming, so they can prepare doctors and patients. “If you’re in an MRI machine, you might want them to pull you out before it starts shaking hard,” says Given. Likewise, he says surgeons performing delicate operations — on eyes, for example — could have notice that their work is about to be interrupted.

“Imagine being a dental chair,” says Margaret Vinci, manager of the Office of Earthquake Programs for the California Institute of Technology, one of the colleges partnering with USGS. “Would you not want that dentist to pull that drill out of your mouth?”

Given and Vinci also say a statewide early-earthquake-warning system could tell rapid transit systems to slow trains to help prevent derailments. A similar alert program exists in earthquake-prone Japan, where earthquake warning alerts automatically slow bullet trains.

Japan and Mexico are two countries that already have the kind of earthquake-warning system California lacks. Devastating quakes in those countries prompted major public investments in such systems. As recently as April, residents in Mexico City had a full minute of warning before a 7.2-magnitude quake 170 miles away rocked the capital.

California’s program, though, is hobbled by lack of adequate funding, according to Given, who says the program needs an investment of $80 million over five years and about $12 million a year to maintain operations. California passed a law recently calling for a statewide early-earthquake-warning system to be set up, but did not provide funding. Given says the program currently includes about 400 sensors set up around the state, but needs at least double that figure for the warning system to be fully functional. “We hope we will be the first country that builds its system before the big earthquake rather than after,” Givens says.

Investments in the system itself wouldn’t include spending by local governments and private businesses that would need to establish response plans, and possibly automated systems, to take advantage of the USGS warnings. As for the public, earthquake warnings could be sent out via text message and through local television and radio stations, but that too requires advance planning and spending. Vinci says if the early-warning system was fully funded, it could be ready for public consumption in two years.

In the meantime, researchers involved in the project are asking public and private organization to test whether the alert system works and offer suggestions about how to improve it. Disneyland, the city of Long Beach and the Bay Area Rapid Transit system are among those serving as testers. Researchers are also studying which kinds of warning sounds and signals work best with the public. When activated, the existing system, which is called ShakeAlert and which runs on computers for those involved in the program or serving as beta testers, kicks in to tell users an earthquake is coming, how soon it will happen and how severe the shake will be. The warning includes a loud quick buzz with a speaker saying, ”Earthquake! Earthquake!”

“Right now the ShakeAlert we have now is kinda scary,” Vinci says.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 25

1. Slavery’s long shadow is inextricably linked to modern income inequality in the south.

By Stephen Mihm in the Boston Globe

2. Superdistricts in the House of Representatives could end the tyranny of incumbency in Congress.

By Katrina vanden Heuvel in the Washington Post

3. Yelp the Police: Georgia teens build an app to rate law enforcement interactions.

By Rebecca Borison in Business Insider

4. The new Egyptian government’s policies of repression and exclusion could push citizens into the arms of extremist groups.

By Michele Dunn and Scott Williamson at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

5. Transforming oil and gas rigs into artificial reefs could save the delicate ecosystems formed around the structures.

By Amber Jackson in Huffington Post

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Environment

Climate Change Could Happen Slower for the Next Decade, Study Says

California's Drought Becomes Critical
One of two major water storage lakes on the Russian River is lake Mendocino, which is nearly empty on January 24, 2014, near Ukiah, California. George Rose—Getty Images

Atmospheric temperatures are expected to rise slowly in the next decade

Temperatures have risen more slowly in the past decade than in the previous 50 years and will continue to rise at a somewhat slower rate in the next decade, according to a new study, even as climate change continues to raise temperatures to unprecedented levels worldwide.

The study, published in the journal Science, explained the temporary slowdown in rising temperatures as a potential consequence of the end of a 30-year current cycle in the Atlantic Ocean that pushes heat into the ocean.

“In the 21st century, surface warming slowed as more heat moved into deeper oceans,” the study says.

Despite this brief respite, the study says temperatures will begin to rise more quickly after the cycle is complete.

“Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850,” according to a different study published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“Trends based on short records are very sensitive to the beginning and end dates and do not in general reflect long-term climate trends,” the IPCC study said, cautioning that the slowdown in global warming does not mean the atmosphere will not continue to heat at a faster rate.

TIME Environment

Juvenile Coral and Fish Know When a Reef Has Gone Bad

World Without Corals
In this June 5, 2008 photo, fish gather on a coral reef in the Dry Tortugas National Park in Dry Tortugas, Fla. Numerous studies predict corals are headed toward extinction worldwide, some 50 percent of the Caribbean's corals are already dead, largely because of climate change, overfishing and pollution. Wilfredo Lee—ASSOCIATED PRESS

Too much seaweed and they're out of there

Baby coral and fish in the Pacific are able to detect both good and bad reefs, according to a Fiji-based study reported by the BBC. The study found that sea animals avoid reefs that do not give off the right chemical signals, because the failure to do so indicates that a reef is degraded.

According to the research, published in Science, when young coral and fish are presented with water samples taken from healthy reefs, and from reefs in overfished areas that are choked with seaweed, the sea creatures overwhelmingly choose the former.

Scientists say this could be a sign that simply designating a marine area as a protected zone may not be enough to help damaged reefs recover. The seaweed that has sprung up there may have to be removed as well.

“If you’re setting up a marine protected area to seed recruitment into a degraded habitat, that recruitment may not happen if young fish and coral are not recognizing the degraded area as habitat,” said Danielle Dixson of the Georgia Institute of Technology, the study’s prime author.

Once seaweed is removed, then damaged areas may start to see improvements, the BBC reports.

[BBC]

TIME Environment

Check Out the Freezing Cold Place Where Scientists Found Life

There are close to 4,000 organisms living in the lake, which hasn’t seen sunlight for millions of years

+ READ ARTICLE

A subglacial lake 800 meters beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet has been discovered to contain “viable microbial ecosystems,” according to the National Science Foundation, which funded the project. The findings are the result of a 2013 drilling expedition in which researchers used a sterile, hot water drill to reach and collect samples from Lake Whillans, in the west part of the continent.

Researchers for project Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) found organisms that feed off of rocks for energy and use Carbon Dioxide as a carbon source in water and sediment samples from the lake.

TIME Environment

Scientists Discover Microbes in a Subglacial Antarctic Lake

Ice floes floating on water
Ice floating in Ross Sea, Antarctica on June 15, 2014. De Agostini—Getty Images

It could help point to the possibilities of life on other planets

The frozen desert of Antarctica is challenging enough for life — never mind conditions beneath that ice-bound mass. But NBC News reports that a recent discovery by scientists reveals the water beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to be swarming with microbes.

The findings, published in Nature, reveal that a diverse microbe ecosystem of 4,000 distinct species exists in subglacial Lake Whillans, which lies beneath 800 m of ice. The chemoautotrophs — organisms that gain sustenance from minerals found in the water instead of from sunlight — could also hint to the possibility of life on other planets, National Geographic reports. Scientists say that the conditions that the microbes live in could be similar to those in frozen lakes found on Europa or Enceladus, Jupiter’s and Saturn’s moons respectively.

“The report is a landmark for the polar sciences,” Martyn Tranter, a professor at the University of Bristol (who was not involved in the study), wrote in a commentary in Nature.

Tranter added that the discovery also raised “the question of whether microbes could eat rock beneath ice sheets on extraterrestrial bodies such as Mars.”

The researchers will continue to survey Lake Whillan next winter in search of other organisms that could further point to the varying possibilities of life.

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