TIME Disaster

A Survivor of the Washington Mudslide Shares Her Story

Washington mudslide survivor Amanda Skorjanc, 25, talks to the media while sitting in her hospital bed on Wednesday, April 9, 2014, in Seattle. Dan Bates—The Herald / Pool / AP

Amanda Skorjanc, who was watching videos at home with her infant son when the land began to move, breaks her silence on how they were injured but rescued from the disaster that has claimed 36 lives so far

Few who witnessed the terrifying mudslide that ravaged the small Washington community of Oso on March 22 lived to tell the story, but on Wednesday, Amanda Skorjanc shared her terrifying experience, which she lived through with her infant son.

“I held onto that baby like it was the only purpose that I had,” she told the AP from Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where she is hospitalized.

Skorjanc was watching videos at home with her son when the lights started to flicker and shake. Looking outside, she saw an enormous sludge wall pummeling through the community, launching a neighbor’s chimney in her direction.

When the horrifying deluge finally ended, Skorjanc and her baby found themselves injured but alive in a pocket formed by a damaged couch and pieces of roof.

“I started to hear sirens — the most amazing sound I ever heard,” she said, adding that she kept her eyes closed as she and her son were rescued. “I was scared and in so much pain.”

Skorjanc’s husband was out on an errand when the mudslide hit, and was unscathed.

Skorjanc, however, suffered multiple fractures, crushed ankles and injuries to an eye socket, while her son fractured his skull. While he is recovering, doctors say she will need to be off her feet for another 10 weeks — and the emotional healing will take a lot longer.

The latest death toll in the disaster is 36.

[AP]

TIME Environment

Banning GMO Labeling Is a Bad Idea—For GMOs

GMO labeling laws in California
A new bill in Congress would nullify state efforts to mandate labeling of GMO foods Robyn Beck—AFP/Getty Images

A bill introduced in Congress would nullify any state effort to require labeling of genetically modified organisms. But that will make GMO acceptance even less likely, as public support for GMO labels is on the rise

Americans in two states have voted on ballot initiatives that would have required the labeling of any foods made with genetically modified ingredients (GMOs, for short). And twice, voters rejected those initiative in close ballots—thanks in part to tens of millions of dollars spent by GMO crop developers like Monsanto and industry groups like the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). You’d think then that GMO supporters in the food industry would be feeling pretty confident that they could win on genetically-modified food legislation.

Apparently you’d be wrong. Republican Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas introduced on Wednesday new legislation that would nullify any attempt by states to require GMO labeling. More than two dozen states so far are considering bills that would mandate some form of labeling, with Maine and Connecticut having so far passed labeling measures into law. According to Pompeo, that’s enough to mandate a federal response:

We’ve got a number of states that are attempting to put together a patchwork quilt of food labeling requirements with respect to genetic modification of foods. That makes it enormously difficult to operate a food system. Some of the campaigns in some of these states aren’t really to inform consumers but rather aimed at scaring them. What this bill attempts to do is set a standard.

The bill—the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act”—would prohibit any mandatory labeling of foods made with bioengineering. The bill would also make it virtually impossible for states to block any efforts by food companies to put a “natural” label on any product that does contain GMO ingredients, requiring the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to create regulations that specify the maximum level of accidental GMO presence allowed in foods that come with a non-GMO label.

Translation: it’s almost as if the bill’s drafters were trying to hit on every fear that GMO-phobes have. It’s not surprising that the Environmental Working Group (EWG)—an environmental non-profit that has been deeply skeptical of GMOs—has called the bill the “Deny Americans the Right to Know Act.” As Marni Karlin, the director of legislative and legal affairs at the Organic Trade Association, said in a statement:

Consumers, particularly the eight out of ten American families who buy organic products, want to know what is in their food. Rep. Pompeo’s bill ignores this consumer demand for information. Instead, it ties the hands of state governments, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration concerning GMO labeling. It is fatally flawed.

It’s worth noting that even though ballot initiatives to require GMO labeling have twice failed, polls indicate strong support for labeling nationally. A New York Times survey last July found that 93% of Americans believe that foods containing GMO ingredients should be labeled. But we’re still a long way from that happening. While both Connecticut and Maine have passed laws mandating labeling, the measures don’t actually kick in until other nearby states approve similar laws. It seems a little early to pass a federal law to nullify state laws that aren’t actually in power yet.

In reality, though, arguments about GMO labeling tend to be arguments about GMOs—their usefulness and their safety. Confusion is rampant over GMOs, and if you want smart, straight reporting on the subject, check out Nathanael Johnson’s great series at Grist, which is summarized here. Like Johnson, I think the hazards posed by GMOs are “negligible to non-existent.” While they have yet to really fulfill their promise, GMOs can be a useful tool as the world tries to figure out how to feed billions more people without significantly increasing farmland, something that would be far worse for the environment than any genetically modified crop.

But the fact that I think properly regulated GMOs can be an important part of global farming is also why I think this bill is a mistake. Would a patchwork of laws mandating GMO labeling in some states and not others be an enormous and costly headache? Yes. But the same surveys that show support for GMO labeling also show deep distrust of bioengineering in food. And a lot of that distrust stems from the sense that GMOs are somehow being foisted on consumers without their knowledge or their consent. As Johnson notes, that increases the sense of risk around GMOs:

In a famous paper on risk perception, published in Science in 1987, Paul Slovic pointed out that people judge voluntary, controllable actions as much less risky than those that are involuntary and out of their control. Similarly, people see the unknown as much more risky than the known. Genetically engineered foods are, for most people, both unknown and uncontrollable.

By passing a law that would preemptively ban any attempt to require labeling, GMO defenders are playing into the hands of their opponents, making bioengineering feel far more risky than it really is. GMO advocates are losing this battle—see a company as mainstream as General Mills announce that a flagship product like Cheerios would now be made without genetically modified ingredients. If the food industry was smart, it would take a leading role in establishing a national standard for GMO labels. But given the bloody way this endless debate has played out, I wouldn’t expect a truce any time soon.

 

TIME Environment

SeaWorld Will Keep Its Orcas for at Least Another Year

Baby Killer Whale Born At SeaWorld San Diego
A newborn baby killer whale swims with its mother on Dec. 21, 2004, at Shamu Stadium in SeaWorld San Diego Getty Images

Lawmakers disappointed animal-rights activists by tabling the so-called Blackfish bill for further study at a committee hearing in Sacramento. The study likely won't conclude for another 12 months

SeaWorld’s San Diego location will get to keep its 10 killer whales for the time being.

At a committee hearing in Sacramento on Tuesday, lawmakers heard impassioned arguments for and against a bill that would force SeaWorld San Diego to stop using orcas in its shows, but the issue never came to a vote. Instead, the committee recommended that the bill go through a detailed study that likely won’t conclude for another year.

The bill, introduced by Los Angeles–area state-assembly member Richard Bloom, would make it unlawful to hold any wild orca in captivity for entertainment or performance purposes, as well as breed orcas in captivity. All orcas held in captivity before the bill was passed would be returned to the wild if possible and to “sea pens” if not.

Hundreds of people flooded the hearing room in support of the bill, having arrived from all over California. Some were associated with groups like the Humane Society or local unions, while others were simply individuals who opposed keeping large mammals in captivity. “We are the voice for the voiceless,” one supporter said, a phrase that was repeated or paraphrased by many at the hearing. “You have the power to free these animals,” another said to the committee members. “Please do so.”

Representatives from SeaWorld and opponents of the bill argued that the money generated from millions of visitors to the parks helps support the much larger population of orcas in the wild and generates interest in marine life, providing close encounters between people and whales that would be unlikely otherwise.

Bloom introduced the bill after seeing the controversial film Blackfish, a 2013 documentary about the consequences of keeping killer whales in captivity, which has led to death in some cases. The team from SeaWorld has fought back against the perspective of the film and at the hearing called it “dominated by falsehoods.” The parks have 29 orcas throughout the world.

The decision to study the bill further was not the desired result for animal-rights activists, but some saw it as only a temporary setback. “The writing is on the sea wall,” PETA president Ingrid Newkirk said in a statement. “The public has learned how orcas suffer psychologically, succumb to premature deaths, and lash out in frustration and aggression in SeaWorld’s orca pits, and they’ve responded with lower attendance levels, public protests, and legislation. SeaWorld can take the year to figure out how to release the orcas into ocean sanctuaries.”

Bloom’s office would have preferred a favorable vote that would keep the bill moving through the California legislature and toward Governor Jerry Brown’s desk, but his chief of staff, Sean MacNeil, says the study period will also allow for more public hearings and discussion about the issue. “The study, in many ways, can serve as an opportunity,” he said.

TIME Environment

10 Amazing Places to Visit Before They Vanish

The world is filled with jaw-dropping sights, but rapid climate change is threatening some of the most spectacular natural wonders. Here are just a few of the world’s most majestic places that could disappear in as little as a few decades.

  • Great Barrier Reef, Australia

    Great Barrier Reef
    Ippei Naoi—Getty Images

    The largest coral reef in the world, which covers more than 133,000 sq miles (344,400 sq km), has long been an attraction Down Under. Yet increasing environmental challenges have been steadily eroding the structure for years now. From rising ocean temperatures to an influx of pollution, this natural wonder could be destroyed within the next 100 years.

  • Venice, Italy

    Venice, Italy
    Holger Leue—Getty Images

    The Italian city, long heralded as one of the most romantic in the world thanks to its charming canals, is facing ruin. The city of canals has long been sinking, but an uptick in the number of increasingly severe floods each year could leave Venice uninhabitable by this century’s end.

  • The Dead Sea

    The Dead Sea
    Reynold Mainse—Getty Images

    The ancient and salty Dead Sea is the site of both history and healing. Yet in the last 40 years, the lake has shrunk by a third and sunk 80 feet. Experts believe it could disappear in as little as 50 years, due to neighboring countries drawing water from the River Jordan (the Sea’s only water source).

  • Glacier National Park, Montana

    Avalanche Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana
    DeAgostini—Getty Images

    Once home to more than 150 glaciers, Montana’s majestic national park now has fewer than 25. Rapid climate change could see that number shrink to zero by 2030, which would not only leave the park without a glacier, but also severely disrupt its ecosystem.

  • Maldives

    An aerial view of Feydhoo Finolhu island at Male Atoll, Maldives.
    Marco Prosch—Getty Images

    As the lowest-lying country on Earth – with an average elevation of around five feet above sea level – this beautiful island nation could be completely engulfed by water within the next 100 years if sea levels continue to rise. The risk has become so great the Maldivian government has purchased land in other countries for citizens who face displacement.

  • Seychelles

    North Island, Seychelles
    Majority World—UIG/Getty Images

    The epitome of a tropical paradise, the Seychelles is a collection of around 115 islands in the Indian Ocean and home to numerous luxury resorts (not to mention a population of nearly 90,000 citizens). Yet the islands are in danger due to beach erosion, after already seeing a devastating coral die-off. Some experts believe that in 50 to 100 years, the entire archipelago could be submerged.

  • The Alps

    The Alps
    Philippe Desmazes—AFP/Getty Images

    One of the most famous skiing regions in the world, the Alps sit at a lower altitude than the Rocky Mountains, which leaves the range more susceptible to climate change. Around 3% of Alpine glacial ice is lost per year and experts believe that the glaciers could disappear entirely by 2050.

  • Magdalen Islands, Quebec, Canada

    Iles de la Madeleine, Quebec, Canada
    Ron Erwin—Getty Images

    With sandy beaches and sandstone cliffs, the Magdalen Islands are a lovely getaway spot in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Yet the archipelago is regularly pelted by heavy winds and despite a wall of sea ice blunting the worst of the weather, the island’s coast currently erodes up to 40 inches a year. Even more troubling: that protective ice is rapidly melting. If experts are correct and the ice melts completely within the next 75 years, the island’s shores will be vulnerable to the area’s destructive storms.

  • Alaska

    Little Coal Creek Trail, Denali State Park, Alaska, United States of America.
    Paul Zizka—Getty Images

    The Alaskan tundra is one of the most distinctive features of America’s northernmost state. Yet climate change has led to the thawing of the region’s permafrost, which not only damages infrastructure but also dramatically alters the current ecosystem.

  • Athabasca Glacier, Alberta, Canada

    Athabasca Glacier on the Columbia Icefields in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada
    Tim Graham—Getty Images

    The most-visited glacier in North America, Alberta’s Athabasca Glacier is a part of the Columbia Icefield spanning 2.3 square miles (6 sq km). Yet the glacier has been melting for the past 125 years, with its Southern edge retreating nearly a mile in that timeframe. Experts believe the glacier is now shrinking at its fastest rate yet and is currently losing anywhere between 6.6 to 9.8 feet a year.

TIME Environment

Renewable Energy Investment Is Down—and That’s OK

Solar and wind in Germany
Investment in renewables like solar and wind is down, but their share of global power is up Sean Gallup—Getty Images

Funding for solar, wind and other forms of clean power fell 14% in 2013, largely because it's now cheaper to adapt to the newer technologies, but that doesn't mean the shift to renewable energy has fully stopped

On the surface, the new numbers on the global renewable energy industry in 2013 do not look good for the planet. Investment in renewable energy fell 14% in 2013 to $214.4 billion, according to a new report from the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate and Sustainable Energy Finance, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Bloomberg New Energy Finance. And that comes after a year when renewable energy investment was already falling—it’s now down 23% from the record investment levels seen in 2011. Given that recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) underscore the desperate need to increase the shift from fossil fuel to low-carbon power sources like solar or nuclear, the two-year investment decline is not good news.

But looking at the numbers more closely tells a brighter story. It’s true that investment in renewable energy has been falling, but that’s chiefly due to the rapidly falling cost of solar photovoltaic systems, according to Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The average price of installing a solar panel has dropped by 60% in the U.S., which means that less money can buy more solar power. Globally, renewable energy aside from large hydro plants accounted for 43.6% of all new power capacity added last year—the same as in 2012—which translated to 81 gigawatts. That raised renewable energy’s share of total power generation from 7.8% to 8.5%.

On top of that, more clean energy companies can draw funding from public equity—a stock market index of clean tech companies was up 54% in 2013. And the biggest drop was in a form of energy—biofuels—that’s looking less green every year. Even with investment down, the shift towards a world powered by low-carbon sources hasn’t stopped. “The onward march of this sector is inevitable,” said Liebreich at a press conference Monday morning.

The biggest change on the global stage was in Europe, where investment was down 44% from the year before (U.S. investment fell by 10%). Some of that drop is due to the delayed effects of Europe’s economic slowdown, which led countries like Spain and Bulgaria to make retroactive cuts to subsidies for existing renewable energy projects, which killed off investment altogether. Renewable energy remains heavily subsidized in most of the world, which makes it extremely vulnerable to policy uncertainty. “For the last few years there has been enormous policy uncertainty, even in the heart of Europe,” says Leibreich. “We’re at a point where there will be a lot of regulatory cleanup.”

There are even some caveats to the caveats. Those 81 GW of wind, solar and other renewables added to the global grid last year is in terms of power capacity, not actual generation. Because wind and solar are intermittent—they generate power when the wind blows and the sun shines—they actually generate far less energy in practice than their listed capacity. In the U.S., the capacity factor for renewables—excluding hydro—was 33.9%, compared to 63.8% for coal and 90.3% for nuclear. Until we figure out how to balance out the renewable sources—either through cheap energy storage or through more advanced power grids—clean energy will often need to be supported by dirtier power sources.

Still, renewable energy is poised to become an ever bigger part of the global energy picture—though perhaps not as fast we need if we’re to stave off the worst effects of climate change. We’ll need not just more investment in new wind and solar plants, but also in the sort of research that will yield breakthrough technologies that can change the rules of the energy industry (More nuclear, by far the biggest source of near zero-carbon power in the U.S., would help as well). This is a power shift that is just beginning.

TIME Environment

Largest Environmental Bankruptcy Settlement Ever Announced by Anadarko Petroleum

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Bharara speaks while flanked by U.S. Deputy Attorney General Cole as they announce a settlement with Anadarko Petroleum Corp in Washington
U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara speaks while flanked by U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole as they announce a settlement with Anadarko Petroleum Corp at the Justice Department in Washington, April 3, 2014. Jonathan Ernst—Reuters

The environmental bankruptcy settlement involving Anadarko Petroleum Corp over pollution allegations is reported to be the largest ever

Global energy company Anadarko Petroleum Corp will pay $5.15 billion to those who claim that pollution from the company’s uranium deposits, wood creosote and rocket fuel processing caused cancer and other health problems. The agreement, which was announced on Thursday, ends years of litigation and is the biggest environmental bankruptcy settlement ever, Reuters reports.

The settlement still must be approved by a judge and a federal court after a 30-day public comment period.

“Beyond the unprecedented magnitude of this recovery, the timing of the settlement was critical to ensure the money is promptly available to victims overdue for relief,” John Hueston, the trustee for the plaintiffs, said in a statement.

U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole said in a news conference in Washington, D.C. that $4.4 billion of the settlement will go towards cleanup and environmental claims.

Andarko said in a statement tat it would net $550 million in tax benefits from the agreement.

[Reuters]

TIME Environment

The Last Coral Reefs

The SVII camera can take hundreds of photos of coral reefs, turning them into 360-degree panoramas
The SVII camera can take hundreds of photos of coral reefs, turning them into 360-degree panoramas Jayne Jenkins—Catlin Seaview Survey

A new survey is documenting the rain forests of the ocean—before they’re gone

There’s only one way to lower a $20,000 custom-made underwater camera from a swaying fishing boat into the open sea: very, very carefully. And that’s exactly how Manuel Gonzalez-Rivero’s colleagues handled the SVII camera as they nudged it overboard, where the coral ecologist was bobbing in the bathtub-warm waters off the Central American country of Belize. Gonzalez-Rivero is based at the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute in Australia, but he was in the Caribbean working with the Catlin Seaview Survey, a scientific expedition that is assessing threatened coral reefs around the world. Once in the water, the cumbersome SVII–a beach-ball-size camera head with three separate lenses at the end of a 7-ft. (2 m) pole–was easy for Gonzalez-Rivero to maneuver. The camera’s attached propeller sled saved the scientist the work of swimming as he covered more than a mile of Belize’s protected Glover’s Reef, part of the vast and endangered Mesoamerican Reef that stretches from southern Honduras to the eastern tip of Mexico.

Every three seconds, the lenses on the SVII–facing to the left, right and below the camera head–snapped pictures of the reef. Over the course of his 45-minute dive, Gonzalez-Rivero produced more than 900 detailed images of Glover’s Reef, each one rich with data about corals and sea life. Back on the catamaran that served as the expedition’s temporary base, those images would be processed to generate a precise three-dimensional image of the reef. Later, computers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography would analyze the pictures, giving scientists a quick diagnosis of the health of one of the most valuable marine ecosystems in the Caribbean. What’s long been possible on land, thanks to satellites scanning jungles and deserts, is now feasible beneath the waves. “Every coral reef is different,” says Gonzalez-Rivero. “This will allow us to see the reef as it really is.”

And we have to see it today, because coral reefs may not be here tomorrow. It’s a cliché to call coral reefs the rain forests of the ocean, but if anything, that understates their ecological value. They occupy less than 0.1% of the sea area, yet “between one-fourth and one-third of everything that lives in the ocean lives in a coral reef,” says Nancy Knowlton, who holds the Smithsonian Institution’s Sant Chair in Marine Science. Coral reefs support more species per square kilometer than any other marine environment, providing habitat, food and spawning grounds. And fish are not the only beneficiaries. The net economic value of coral reefs globally is almost $30 billion a year, and some 500 million people around the world depend on coral reefs for food, coastal protection and tourism.

At a time when climate concerns continue to mount–a widely watched March 31 report from a United Nations panel warned of drastic effects across the globe–coral reefs are under intense threat. Overfishing and coastal overpollution and development have left all but the most remote reefs a shadow of what they once were. By one estimate, the Caribbean has lost 80% of its coral cover over the past 50 years. And the future is even darker: the one-two punch of global warming and ocean acidification could make the seas essentially inhospitable to coral, with dire consequences for marine life. The U.N. report, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warned that coral reefs are “the most vulnerable marine ecosystem on Earth” to the effects of global warming. “If we don’t dodge this bullet, the only coral reefs that our children’s grandchildren will see will be in picture books,” says Steve Palumbi, director of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station.

That’s what makes the Catlin Seaview Survey so timely. The oceans in their full volume account for as much as 90% of the planet, but humans have seen just 5% of the underwater world with their own eyes. Ocean exploration can be expensive, difficult and time-consuming, even in the relatively shallow coastal waters where most reefs are found. But Seaview, which aims to survey every major coral reef worldwide, is able to take advantage of new advances in video and computer analysis to produce a long, sustained look at the oceans, essentially digitizing the seas. The result will be the kind of data that marine scientists have long craved. “By creating a really large global baseline of coral health, we can identify the areas that really need protecting,” says Richard Vevers, project director of the Catlin Seaview Survey. “We want to reveal the oceans of the world.”

Disappearing Riches

While I was in Belize with the Seaview team, I had the chance to view a coral reef the old-fashioned way–I dived it. Glover’s Reef, which is about 28 miles (45 km) off the Belize coast, lies at the heart of the largest reef system in the western hemisphere. As I hovered lazily near the ocean floor–while Gonzalez-Rivero and his colleagues carried out actual science above me–I could pick out boulder-size brain coral, jagged fire coral and majestic elkhorn coral. Sea fans billowed like flags in the underwater current.

Reefs look like living rocks–and in a sense, that’s what they are. Corals are tiny invertebrates that exist in symbiosis with photosynthetic single-cell algae called zooxanthellae, which live inside the coral’s tissue. (The zooxanthellae provide food to the coral by converting sunlight into energy.) Corals build up hard exoskeletons made of layers of secreted calcium carbonate, which form the reef. In a healthy reef, you can see everything from tiny gobies to predatory sharks swimming amid a network of coral as intricate as a medieval cathedral. “Coral reefs are a magic ecosystem,” says Palumbi. “If you could make the deserts bloom on land, that’s what coral reefs do for the oceans.”

Glover’s Reef, which is part of Belize’s protected Hol Chan Marine Reserve, is one of the healthier coral ecosystems in the Caribbean. But even here the reef isn’t what it once was. Coral cover dropped from 80% in 1971 to 13% in 1999, although there has been some recovery since, thanks to the recent establishment of a no-fishing zone. Most other Caribbean reefs are in far worse shape. The heavily developed waters off the coasts of countries like Jamaica are now little more than coral graveyards. Veteran coral ecologists who began by diving in the once verdant reefs of the Caribbean have witnessed the coral collapse over the course of their careers. “I’m 64, and everyone of my generation who became a conservation biologist has seen this loss happen in real time,” says Knowlton.

While Caribbean reefs have been particularly hard hit, corals around the world face the same threats. Overfishing species at the top of the food chain can cause a chain reaction, leading to the loss of smaller herbivores that play an important role in controlling the growth of seaweed, which competes with corals for living space. Pollution from coastal areas can kill corals–especially fertilizer runoff from agriculture, which can promote the growth of algae species that crowd out corals. Humans can accidentally introduce invasive species like the lionfish, a voracious eater that has plundered the Caribbean like Blackbeard the pirate. At least a quarter of the world’s corals have been lost over the past 25 years.

What really frightens coral scientists are the threats that will arise in the future. “If we push this too far, corals won’t be able to bounce back,” says Peter Mumby, a coral ecologist at the University of Queensland. “The whole system will collapse over time.” Climate change poses an existential challenge. Corals don’t like it when the water around them suddenly heats up, which can trigger what’s known as bleaching. The coral organism reacts by ejecting the zooxanthella algae living inside its tissues, which robs the coral of both its color and its source of food. While bleaching doesn’t necessarily kill the coral outright, it leaves it extremely vulnerable to other stresses. (In 1998, El Niño–led warming sparked the worst bleaching event on record, with 16% of the world’s coral lost in a year.) Even as climate change warms the seas, the additional carbon dioxide absorbed by the oceans will turn the water more acidic, which will in turn interfere with corals’ ability to form reefs. A 2013 study by researchers at the Carnegie Institution projected that if carbon emissions are not brought under control, no part of the ocean will be able to support coral reefs by 2100, and the new IPCC report predicts that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef will continue to degrade even if warming is slower than projected. “You could lose the coral reefs altogether,” says Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist at Carnegie and a co-author of the paper. Coral scientists are right to fear that they could spend the rest of their careers watching their subject die.

Recording for Posterity

When Richard Vevers switched careers from advertising to underwater photography, he became friends with the great Australian underwater filmmaker and shark expert Ron Taylor, best known for his work on movies like Jaws. Vevers would dive along the Great Barrier Reef and bring back what he thought were images of a pristine marine ecosystem, bristling with coral and sea life. But when he showed his pictures to Taylor, the veteran photographer would just shake his head. “He’d say, ‘That’s great, but you don’t know how it used to be,’” says Vevers. “I didn’t believe it at first, but it began to sink in. I realized that there’s this decline that’s been happening almost too slow for people to notice.”

There’s a term for that decline: shifting baselines. Fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly coined it to describe how overfishing has changed the oceans so rapidly over the past several decades that what we think of as normal from recent experience–the baseline–has had to shift to keep up with what is actually a diminished reality. “We transform the world, but we don’t remember it,” Pauly said in a 2010 TED talk. “We adjust our baseline to the new level, and we don’t recall what was there.”

Shifting baselines can be seen in all environmental science, but they’re a particular problem in ocean research. Marine scientists have had to rely on quick hits–grabbing data from scuba surveys, competing for a spot on a submersible. Even those research trips are growing rarer in a budget-constrained age. Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point on the planet, in 1960, but no one returned there until director James Cameron did so in 2012 in a submersible he designed and paid for himself. Our understanding of the oceans is “very data-poor,” says David Kline of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. It’s as if we were trying to comprehend a movie by seeing a few random frames rather than the full, uncut length.

The Catlin Seaview Survey is working to create that complete film. The photographs taken by the SVII camera can be digitally combined to create panoramic images that reveal the underwater world with striking depth and clarity. Seaview has partnered with Google to put many of those images online as part of Google Ocean’s efforts to take its Street View program–which shows ground-level photographs from around the world–beneath the waves. (Seaview is primarily sponsored by the Bermuda-based reinsurance company Catlin Group, which has been funding climate-change research, knowing that global warming could hit the insurance industry hard.) Underwater images from Seaview’s first extended expedition–a four-month mission in 2013 that covered more than 90 miles (145 km) of the Great Barrier Reef–have already been viewed millions of times. With the help of time-lapse technology, the images can be stitched together to engineer what seems like a digital scuba dive through one of the best-preserved coral-reef systems in the world–albeit one that has lost more than 50% of its coral cover over the past 30 years. “People can see the beauty of this world for themselves,” says Jenifer Austin Foulkes, project manager of the Google Ocean Program. “It’s a powerful tool.”

The underwater world has suffered as an environmental cause because of its inaccessibility. Scuba diving, after all, became possible only in the postwar era. Vevers hopes the beauty and accessibility of the images that Seaview records will help motivate the public to care for the seas. “Ninety-nine percent of people don’t dive and probably never will,” he says. “We need to bring the oceans to the people.” If people can dial up a view of their closest reef the way they can zero in on their childhood home on Google Earth, they might begin to care about the 70% of the planet that is covered in water.

But the lasting value of Seaview will be in the science it supports. Underwater research has always been limited by two things: air and space. Humans–in scuba gear or in submersibles–can stay underwater for only so long and can bring only so much equipment with them. The standard method of surveying coral involved researchers diving a reef and taking photographs of the area they covered, square foot by square foot, then analyzing those images on a research boat or at a station. Each of those images could require 15 to 30 minutes of work by a trained observer. Scientists had to extrapolate the whole from a small data set, not least because there was no way to survey an entire coral reef. The Great Barrier Reef, for example, covers 134,364 sq. mi. (348,000 sq km).

A Gloomy Picture

Over the next several years, Seaview expects to cover the Caribbean, the Coral Sea in Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, producing hundreds of thousands of underwater images along the way. Under the old methods, it would have taken years for scientists to analyze it all, and most of the pictures would likely have remained in a dusty hard drive somewhere in the back of a lab. But Scripps and the University of California at San Diego, employing facial-recognition technology similar to what the CIA employs to analyze crowd photos, are using a computer program to scan each image from the expedition and spit out the pictured species and extent of coral growth–all more than a hundred times faster than such work could have been done by humans alone. The accuracy of the machine is already at 90%, and as the program analyzes more images, it will become more precise, learning along the way. “What used to take us years we can now do in weeks and months,” says Scripps’ Kline. “We’ll have large-scale, quality data about the health of the reefs, and that will let managers make much more informed decisions about protection policies.” This is a Big Data solution to a very big scientific challenge.

There’s no time to waste: the picture is vanishing even as we take it. I loved diving in the aquamarine waters of Glover’s Reef, letting my fingers drift past the outstretched arms of elkhorn coral. It was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever been. Yet I could tell–or maybe just feel–that something had been lost. It seemed empty of all but the smallest species, the result of years of intense fishing that more recent protections have only begun to reverse. My guide saw a hammerhead shark circling in the blue, but I missed it. It’s easy to miss things underwater.

TIME Environment

U.N. Court Orders Japan to Stop Whale Hunt

The United Nations' International Court of Justice has ruled that Japan must stop its controversial annual whale hunt, rejecting the country's claims that it targets the sea creatures for scientific purposes

The U.N.’s International Court of Justice ruled Monday that Japan must end its annual whale hunt, despite the country’s claims that the whales are hunted for scientific purposes.

While most of the rest of the world refrains from hunting the often-endangered sea creatures, Japan justifies its annual hunt known as JARPA II with the argument that the whales are hunted for scientific research. Whale meat, however, is commonly eaten in Japan.

But the U.N. called Japan’s bluff this week. The court found that scientific research “cannot depend simply on that State’s perception” and ordered Japan to “revoke any extant authorization, permit or license to kill, take or treat whales in relation to JARPA II, and refrain from granting any further permits.”

Environmental activists have been fighting to end the whale hunt for years, some going so far as to stalk the Japanese fleets to interrupt their hunt. Australia brought the challenge to the International Court of Justice, which led to Monday’s ruling.

TIME Burma

Burma’s Logging Ban Is Great for Forests, but a Disaster for Its Working Elephants

An elephant pulls a teak log
An elephant pulls a teak log in a logging camp in Pinlebu township, Sagaing, northern Burma, in this picture taken March 6, 2014. Soe Zeya Tun—Reuters

Some 5,000 elephants are used in Burma's timber industry. When logging stops, they'll either be left to fend for themselves in the wild or else slaughtered for their hides and tusks

Modern Burmese history was built on teak, which is to say it was built on the backs of elephants. The British quickly saw teak’s potential after colonizing Burma in 1824, and realized that hitching an elephant to a two-ton log was the only way of getting timber from where it was felled to the nearest waterway, and floating it to mill and market.

It was arduous work, with malaria and anthrax decimating man and behemoth. But fortunes were made and the timber helped shape the world map by being the stuff from which the British imperial fleet was fashioned. Teak remained vital after Burma’s independence in 1948. It was the second highest source of legal foreign exchange and exports for the military dictatorship, earning the junta hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Last year, in the land that is now officially known as Myanmar, total timber exports surpassed 1.24 million cubic tons and generated more than $1 billion in revenue, of which teak alone earned $359 million. From Tuesday, however, the new quasi-democratic government is banning the export of round logs and slashing its total logging quotas. The plan is to stimulate a domestic milling and carpentry industry and protect already plundered forest, which plummeted from 58% of total land in 1990 to 47% in 2010, according to government figures.

But while applauded in many environmental quarters, this move will likely spell disaster for the more than 5,000 elephants and their oosi, or handlers, who rely on this trade. Sixty percent of Burma’s timber industry still depends on elephants — not only for their tremendous strength but for their ability to haul huge logs with minimal damage to the surrounding forest.

Currently, 2,851 of these working animals belong to the state-run Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE), while around 2,700 belong to private firms involved in logging, says Tin Win Maw, who founded Green Valley Elephant Camp in Shan State for retired timber elephants.

After some 25 years backbreaking toil, “some have health problems — cardiac problems or eye problems — and we decide they are not suitable to work any longer,” she tells TIME. The government has camps for retired elephants, but “they don’t have enough resources” and need to “give more supplementary treatments” for elephants that fall ill.

In the wake of the April 1 logging ban, and with nowhere else to go, many timber elephants may be released into the wild, but “because of deforestation there are not enough habitats for them,” the campaigner adds. Competition for land and food will likely bring them into conflict with humans; in India, parallel pressures see up to 300 people killed each year from marauding elephants.

If not set free, elephants risk being slaughtered for their precious ivory or hides. Many could also be smuggled across the border to Thailand and put to work in the tourism industry, where animal abuse is rife. Still others could used in Burma’s illegal timber trade, which in fact accounts for the great majority of the business.

According to report released last week by a green nonprofit, the Environmental Investigation Agency, nearly three-quarters of all Burmese logs were smuggled across the border through illicit export deals between 2000 and 2013. (Most of these were harvested from inferior or juvenile trees, however — the best timber is sold through legitimate dealers in Rangoon.) “Sometimes there are a thousand trucks each day going into China with teak, and years ago it was even more than that,” says Bob Steber, managing director of Singapore-based Ginnacle Import Export, who has dealt in teak for more than four decades.

The fear is that banning legal Burmese timber exports will cause this unregulated sector to grow even more. Plantation teak now exists as far afield as Indonesia, Africa and the Caribbean, but typically grows quickly due to overly wet climates, and so is comparatively soft and liable to crack. The best Burmese teak, by contrast, is richer in natural oils and dries out for around eight or nine months of the year, sometimes taking up to 20 years for one inch of growth. “For the real good teak there’s only one thing, and that’s the Burma teak,” says Steber.

While plantation teak is adequate for garden furniture, picture frames and assorted curios, natural teak is essential for luxury yachts, as the oils repel water and keeps the wood from cracking. “And teak has silica — sand — in it so you don’t slip and fall when its wet,” says Steber. “It really is amazing.”

Burma is estimated to have half of all the world’s natural teak, and is the only country where it can still be felled. Last year, nearly 400,000 cu m of teak were felled and exported — three quarters of global supply — but the proposed cut in quotas for 2014 means that just 80,000 cu m will be felled across all grades this year. “There is no doubt the prices will rise dramatically but total supply is still very much in doubt,” says Shannon Rogers, of Philadelphia timber company J. Gibson McIlvain.

So is the future of Burma’s elephants, upon which so much of the country’s wealth has been founded.

TIME Environment

White House Looks to Cut Methane Emissions

The Obama administration has directed the EPA to study the key sources of the potent greenhouse gas and develop strategies for reducing emissions. It's part of the administration's effort to sidestep Congress to fight global warming

The Obama administration on Friday announced a new initiative to cut methane emissions, as part of its efforts to go around Congress to combat climate change.

Central to the administration’s methane emissions reduction strategy are new regulations on the oil and gas industry, believed to be a significant emitter of methane, which is the primary ingredient in natural gas. The Environmental Protection Agency will study the matter this year to identify key sources of methane emissions, and later in the year will announce specific strategies for reducing those emissions, the White House said in a statement. The Bureau of Land Management later this year will also announce new standards to reduce methane emissions on BLM land.

Methane gas escapes from leaky pipes and wellheads, though exactly how much is not known. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide, though it doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere. Methane accounts for nearly nine percent of all greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activity in the U.S.

“Reducing methane emissions is a powerful way to take action on climate change; and putting methane to use can support local economies with a source of clean energy that generates revenue, spurs investment and jobs, improves safety, and leads to cleaner air,” the White House said. “When fully implemented, the policies in the methane strategy will improve public health and safety while recovering otherwise wasted energy to power our communities, farms, factories, and power plants.”

The plan also includes new regulations on landfills, coal mines—which can release fugitive methane in mines—and the dairy industry. The new emission regulations are a part of the administration’s Climate Action Plan announced last June.

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