TIME Environment

A Study of Belize’s Blue Hole Finds That the Mayans Perished Due to Drought

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Mlenny—Getty Images The Blue Hole, Lighthouse Reef, Belize

Famous underwater cave offers sedimentary evidence

The ancient Mayan civilization, known for its monumental contributions to art, science, astronomy and architecture, was probably wiped off the earth by a 100-year drought.

Although drought has been previously theorized as one of the causes of the Mesoamerican civilization’s decline, a new study of underwater sediments off the coast of Belize lends further credence to that argument. The study was conducted by a team led by André Droxler, an earth scientist at Rice University in Houston, who told Live Science that he analyzed data from multiple places in the former Mayan heartland.

The researchers extracted minerals from Belize’s famous underwater cave known as the Blue Hole and the lagoons that surround it, and on analyzing them found evidence of a drought between A.D. 800 and A.D. 900 — a period that coincides with the Mayan decline.

Droxler also found that in the two centuries leading up to A.D. 1000, there were only one or two tropical cyclones every two decades as opposed to the usual five or six.

“When you have major droughts, you start to get famine and unrest,” he said.

[Live Science]

TIME Australia

Australia Hunts for Killer Great White With a Spear in Its Throat

The victim’s friend says he managed to fire a spear at the shark.

Authorities are searching for a shark that killed a 17-year-old on Monday off Cheynes Beach in Western Australia.

Jay Muscat, 17, died after he was bitten in the leg while spearfishing, the second deadly shark attack in Australia in two weeks, the Associated Press reports. A friend who was spearfishing with him says he managed to fire a spear at the shark.

“The shark turned and came for me, I pushed the speargun down its throat and fired the gun!,” he wrote on Facebook, according to the AFP. “This is something no one should ever have to see.”

A spokesman for the state fisheries department, Carlo Vittiglia, told the AP that the shark is believed to be a great white up to 16-feet long. In recent years, there have been an average of two deadly shark attacks a year in Australia.

[AP]

TIME Environment

Obama Has Taken Alaska’s Bristol Bay Off the Market for Drilling

Pebble Mine in Alaska
Anchorage Daily News—MCT via Getty Images Dillingham, Alaska, a fishing community of 2,300 is the largest town and hub of the Bristol Bay region.

The order indefinitely extends protection that was due to expire in 2017

President Barack Obama on Tuesday listed Alaska’s Bristol Bay as a no-go zone for oil and gas drilling, promising to protect the coastal area’s booming fisheries, as well as preserve a linchpin of Native American heritage.

The bay, home to a $2 billion annual fishing industry, supplies some 40 percent of America’s wild-caught seafood and supports local indigenous communities, the White House said in a press statement. Obama’s order indefinitely extends short-term protection for the area that was granted in 2010 and due to expire in 2017.

The Alaskan region is home to the biggest wild sockeye salmon run in the world, as well as numerous threatened species, including the endangered North Pacific Right Whale.

TIME Environment

This Is How Much Water California Needs to Recover From Its Drought

According to a new analysis on the impact of the three-year drought

California needs about 11 trillion gallons of water to recover from its three-year drought, according to a new NASA analysis, providing the first-ever calculation of this kind.

The figure, equivalent to about 1.5 times the maximum volume of the biggest U.S. reservoir, was determined by using NASA climate satellites to measure the water storage in the region’s river basins, which is one index for measuring drought severity, the agency said in a statement released Tuesday. The data reveals that since 2011, the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins decreased by 4 trillion gallons of water each year — more water than the state’s 38 million residents use annually.

Scientists said that while recent storms in California have helped the state replenish its water supply, a full recovery will take much longer. “It takes years to get into a drought of this severity,” said Jay Famiglietti of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “and it will likely take many more big storms, and years, to crawl out of it.”

TIME energy

New Republican Congress’ First Order of Business: Keystone Pipeline

GOP Congress Agenda
Tony Gutierrez—AP In this Oct. 4, 2012 file photo, large sections of pipe are shown in Sumner, Texas. Republicans are counting on a swift vote in early 2015 on building the Keystone XL pipeline to carry oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast now that Republicans clearly have the numbers in the Senate.

It'll set up a confrontation with President Obama.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that the first priority for the new Republican-controlled Senate next year would be to pass a bill authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline, setting up an early confrontation with an Obama Administration hesitant to ignite opposition from its green supporters.

“We’ll be starting next year with a job-creating bill that enjoys significant bipartisan support,” said McConnell.

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a top Republican on the Energy Committee, said that the bipartisan measure was important as it would “basically set the table” for the new Congress. Both McConnell and Murkowski pledged that the bill would be open for amendments and acknowledged the fear that senators could bring unrelated ones that could sink the bill. Their hope is that most senators would prefer “regular order” instead of tactics that limit rank-and-file members’ influence. Many senators, including some Democrats, grew frustrated with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for limiting the amendment process to protect vulnerable members of his party during the midterm cycle.

“When we say it’s open for amendments, it’s open for amendments,” said Murkowski. “Santa Claus is going to be keeping me awake, not worrying about what’s going to come.”

Authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline has been a dream for senators from the Great Plains to the Gulf of Mexico. In her failed reelection bid, Louisiana Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu fell one vote short of rallying enough of her fellow Democrats to pass the bill a few weeks ago.

The 1,179-mile pipeline has been blocked for years despite a State Department report concluding that it would not have a significant effect on greenhouse gas emissions. But study also found that it would create a small number of permanent jobs—around 50—and was published before a dramatic drop in oil and gas prices that could boost environmentalists’ opposition of the pipeline. The Keystone pipeline’s fate could also be taken out of Congress’ hands entirely, depending on a Nebraska court case that could alter its path down the heart of the country.

TIME Environment

Seattle Nonprofit Group Advocates for Composting of Human Remains

The process requires no toxic embalming

People may soon have a new option for how they want to be laid to rest, if one Seattle-area nonprofit gets its way.

The Urban Death Project, a nonprofit group founded in 2011 by architect Katrina Spade, proposes human composting as an alternative to human burial, which requires overcrowded, unsustainable cemeteries, Reuter reports. UDP’s plan is to build a large concrete composting facility in Seattle for human remains, peppered with places of reflection for visitors. Following a ceremony, bodies would be laid in the composting structure, and several weeks later, the remains would be enough to plant a tree or a bed of flowers.

“The idea is to fold the dead back into the city,” she told Reuters. “The options we currently have for our bodies are lacking, both from an environmental standpoint, but also, and perhaps more importantly, from a meaning standpoint.”

Composting bodies would also require no embalming, since decomposition is the goal.

But the idea hasn’t gotten off the ground—or into the ground—quite yet. In addition to getting a funeral home license, Urban Death Project faces zoning challenges that regulate composting. And recycling human remains isn’t an accepted mode of body disposal yet. For the project to work, Washington state law, which requires corpses to be buried, cremated, donated to science or transferred from the state, would have to change, Reuters reports.

“There will be some regulatory work to do, but I’m confident,” Spade told Reuters. “People want this option.”

[Reuters]

TIME climate change

The Unexpected Animal Group Dying from Climate Change

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Getty Images

It's affecting more than mammals

WSF logo small

The canary in the coal mine of climate change may actually be something a little less feathery and a lot more slimy: Amphibians. Many of these creatures have already been in decline due to disease, and climate changes appear to be accelerating the problem.

Jason Rohr, a University of South Florida biologist, says that some amphibians are already being forced to shift the timing of their breeding in response to climate change. Salamanders in the Appalachian mountains are shrinking. As climate trends continue, Rohr says we can expect to see amphibians further altering their behavior, moving to new grounds, and expect more overall declines in species.

WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL: What Will The Humans Do About Climate Change?

In the Western U.S., climate change is adding to the problems of amphibians already threatened by introduced predators. Starting in the late 1800s, wildlife officials have been stocking previously fish-free ponds and lakes across the western U.S with predatory trout. For a time, native frogs and salamanders were able to retreat to shallower ponds and waterways, but now a warming climate threatens to dry up these shelters—which are vital for both amphibian breeding and the survival of young tadpoles. To mitigate the damage, a group of researchers writing in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment recently recommended making use of hydrological models to evaluate the way climate change will affect amphibian habitats, and selectively removing fish from ponds.

“Amphibians in the West’s high-mountain areas find themselves in a vise, caught between climate-induced habitat loss and predation from introduced fish,” University of Washington researcher Maureen Ryan, a coauthor on the paper, said in a statement.

WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL: How Climate Change Is Already Dooming Some Mammals

The problem is even more dire in South America and Latin America. Frogs in the genus Atelopus have been decimated—71 out of about 113 species have gone extinct. Many of these extinctions are thought to be driven by interactions between climatic conditions and other factors, primarily the deadly chytrid fungus. Some scientists have argued that the the frogs’ tropical mountain habitats have been made more welcoming to the fungus by climate change, which has promoted the formation of clouds that lower daytime temperatures and raise nighttime temperatures, removing the extreme temperatures that may have previously kept the fungus in check.

“Disease is the bullet killing frogs, but climate change is pulling the trigger,” J. Alan Pounds, a scientist at Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, told National Geographic.

Not all scientists are convinced that the spread of chytrid fungus is hastened by climate change—one 2008 study in particular suggested there was little link between the two, and some researchers have argued that the periodic warming cycle known as El Nino is more to blame for high-profile frog extinctions, like that of the golden toad.

WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL: Your State Bird Could Be Extinct By 2080

But some of Rohr’s experiments looking directly at how frogs fight the fungus suggest that the temperature fluctuations linked to climate change shouldn’t be counted out just yet. In 2012, Rohr and colleagues found that the chytrid fungus thrives and kills more frogs in cooler environments—but that when frogs are suddenly switched from one temperature-controlled environment to the other, they fare even worse than frogs kept in a consistently hot or consistently cooler incubator. Frog extinctions are more complex than any one cause can explain.

As the climate changes in the future, the unique biology of amphibians may also make them less able to adapt to drier, hotter conditions than other groups of animals. “I think they are potentially at greater risk from desiccation than many organisms without permeable skin,” Rohr says. “Additionally, they are the most threatened vertebrate taxon on the planet, and thus they are already experiencing extremely high threats. Climate change could worsen this scenario.”

This article originally appeared on World Science Festival.

TIME europe

The E.U. Plans to Spike Key Clean-Air and Recycling Laws

Prime Minister David Cameron Tries To Take A Harder Line with Europe
Carl Court—Getty Images E.U. flags are pictured outside the European Commission building in Brussels on Oct. 24, 2014

The proposed laws are aimed at preventing tens of thousands of premature deaths and set a 70% recycling target by 2030

The E.U. is planning to scrap environmental laws aimed at averting tens of thousands of possible deaths, according to classified documents published on Thursday.

The leaked files propose the withdrawal of a plan for a clean-air law as well as a directive setting a target of 70% waste recycling by 2030, the Guardian reported.

The plan is reportedly being withdrawn because the commission in charge of it sees “no foreseeable agreement” with states that have a poor track record on recycling, and would not be able to meet the target without additional financial help.

Read more at the Guardian

TIME Environment

Environmentalists Go to Battle Over Face Wash

Vials of microbeads alongside products that use such small, plastic spheres.
Photo courtesy of 5 Gyres Vials of microbeads alongside products that use such small, plastic spheres.

Environmentalists are hoping a landmark report about how much plastic is in the world's oceans will help get bans on small plastics passed

Face washes claiming to be “blackhead erasers” or “superfruit scrubs” may seem appealing for scrubbing your way to a fresh new face, but some of them also contain an ingredient that environmental advocates and lawmakers are trying to ban. Tiny, round bits of plastic known as microbeads, no bigger than a grain of couscous, may pose hazards in the natural world.

These little orbs, introduced to replace harsher exfoliants like pumice, are so small that after they’re washed down the sink or tub, they sneak through sifters at water treatment plants and end up in the ocean and other bodies of water. Once in the ocean, researchers have found, these plastics act like sponges for toxins, and can be accidentally ingested by fish, thus ending up in the food chain.

Several states considered bills to ban microbeads last session, but only Illinois passed a law, becoming the first state to do so. Now lawmakers in at least three states are gearing up for another go in 2015.

“We were outgunned,” says Stiv Wilson, associate director at 5 Gyres, a non-profit dedicated to fighting plastic pollution. In California, the industry group Personal Care Products Council—which represents companies like Johnson & Johnson and Clinique—lobbied members to oppose a bill that would have banned the use of microbeads, saying it was “overly aggressive and unrealistic.” The bill failed by one vote. The same state assemblyman who proposed that bill, Richard Bloom, plans to try again, with what Wilson says will be a “much broader coalition” of supporters.

5 Gyres has also been working with lawmakers in Hawaii and Vermont, and hopes to find sponsors in Ohio, Florida and Maryland. The group developed model legislation that states have used as the foundation for bead-banning bills and hopes that a new report published on Dec. 10 in journal PLOS ONE will bolster their cause.

Part of the problem in getting these bills passed is that microbeads, just one type of plastic ending up in the ocean, only became de rigueur among companies about a decade ago, so there’s little hard science showing their particular effects on the environment.

The new report, based on 24 expeditions from 2007 to 2013, produced the first global estimate of just how much plastic of all sizes is in the ocean—including microplastics. According to the investigation, there are more than 5 trillion pieces afloat at sea. “There’s 20 times the amount of plastic in the North Pacific as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy,” Wilson says.

Many companies have voluntarily vowed to phase microbeads out of their products, including giants like Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal and Proctor & Gamble. But environmentalists have continued to pursue legislative bans to make sure no companies slip through the cracks and to hold companies to a firm timeline. Wilson believes that just a few states need to pass bans for companies to entirely reformulate products, to avoid cumbersome distribution challenges.

“The fundamental question is going to be: do we wait to take this material out until we prove that this microbead causes harm?” Chelsea Rochman, a marine ecologist at the University of California, Davis, who specializes in microplastics research told TIME in an interview for a previous story. She’s currently working on research to find out more about how much of a threat microplastics pose to marine life.

“This is not rocket science,” Wilson says. “We’re running out of time. These policies need to be passed.”

Read next: Know What’s In Your Face Wash: Why Illinois Banned Microbeads

TIME Environment

New Study Links California Droughts to Ocean Temperatures

Researchers look seaward for early drought detection

A spate of winter droughts across California may have emerged from the sea, according to new research that links dry spells on land to temperatures on the surface of the ocean.

Researchers sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found a pattern of ocean temperatures that appears to predict the build up of a high pressure ridge off the coast of California. Climate scientists say the ridge has effectively blocked winter rainstorms from rolling inland over the past three winters, depriving the state of rain during the wet seasons.

“It’s important to note that California’s drought, while extreme, is not an uncommon occurrence for the state,” said the report’s lead author, Richard Seager of Columbia University.

Scientists say the temperature readings might be used to predict drought seasons before they develop.

“It’s paramount that we use our collective ability to provide communities and businesses with the environmental intelligence they need to make decisions concerning water resources, which are becoming increasingly strained,” Seager said.

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