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.

TIME Environment

Crazy Ants Are About to Invade Houston

Crazy Rasberry Ants
Crazy rasberry ants are shown Tuesday, May 13, 2008, in Deer Park, Texas. David J. Phillip—AP

One downside of spring

Houston’s KPRC and CBS Houston are warning residents that “crazy ants” are set to “invade” the area with renewed vigor this week.

Tawny Crazy Ants, nicknamed Rasberry Crazy Ants after a local exterminator Tom Rasberry who discovered them in 2002, live under rocks, lawns, and trees, tend to crawl into electrical equipment, damaging machines. Rasberry told KPRC that they are “much more powerful” than fire ants, one of the world’s worst invasive species.

“There is no way to contain them,” according to a December The New York Times magazine profile. “In the fall, when the temperature drops, the worker ants are subject to magnificent die-offs, but the queens survive, and a new, often larger crop of crazy ants pours back in the following spring.”

Originally believed to come from central South America, the crazy ants have spread throughout Texas to southern Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida because “they can take up residence in everything from a house plant, to an empty container left outside, to an RV, so they’re easily transported by us,” according to Ed LeBrun, an invasive species researcher at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Natural Sciences.

Pest specialists also told Houston news outlets that residents can help stop the spread of the crazy ants by removing mulch and extra wood in their yards.

MORE: Millipedes Blamed for Australian Train Crash

TIME Environment

This Edible Water Blob Could Replace Plastic Water Bottles

A winner of the 2014 Lexus Design Awards, it is cheap and biodegradable, the designers claim

+ READ ARTICLE

Fast Company recently profiled an edible, inexpensive packaging for water that is supposed to be a more environmentally friendly and biodegradable alternative to plastic bottles.

This blob-like container called Ooho! is made through a process called spherification, which shapes liquids into spheres. As Fast Company describes it: “A compound made from brown algae and calcium chloride creates a gel around the water…While the package is being formed, the water is frozen as ice, making it possible to create a bigger sphere and keeping the ingredients in the membrane and out of the water.” And it reportedly only costs two cents to make.

Ooho! was one of 12 winners at the second annual Lexus Design Awards 2014, developed by Skipping Rocks Lab designers Rodrigo García Gonzalez, Pierre Pasalier, and Guillaume Couche.

There are edible containers on the market. Wikipearl, sold in a few Whole Foods locations, contains yogurt and ice cream creations in packaging made from calcium ions and particles of nuts, chocolate, and seeds that is supposed to be part of the “culinary experience,” its developer and biomedical engineer David Edwards told Wired in August 2013.

TIME Environment

WHO Report: Air Pollution Killed 7 Million People in 2012

People wearing masks are seen on a hazy day at Tiananmen Square in Beijing
People wearing masks are seen on a hazy day at Tiananmen Square in Beijing February 13, 2014. Kim Kyung Hoon—REUTERS

Heart disease, stroke brought on by air pollution led to about 80% of deaths

Air pollution killed 7 million people across the globe in 2012, making it the world’s largest single environmental health risk, according to the World Health Organization.

Outdoor air pollution was linked to about 3.7 million deaths, with about 80 percent of those deaths the result of stroke and heart disease. The most air pollution-related deaths happened in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific, per AFP. Meanwhile, the effects of indoor air pollution — caused by coal, wood, and open-air fires — killed an estimated 4.3 million people, NBC News reports.

“The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes,” WHO’s Dr. Maria Neira said in a statement. “Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.”

For comparison’s sake, a 2008 WHO report estimated outdoor pollution led to about 1.3 million deaths, while about 1.9 million people were killed by indoor pollution. The jump in figures is due to a change in research methods, AFP reports.

[NBC News]

TIME Environment

Take a Tour of Alaska’s Stunning, Eerie Ice Caves With This Video Shot Using a Drone

So happy we're watching this while we're inside where there's heat

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One of the great things about drones is they can explore remote, inaccessible locations, like the gorgeous ice caves in Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier. This video, “Bigger Than Life,” bills itself as the “first documented drone flight through ice caves” and captures stunning views using a GoPro camera and a quadcopter drone. See? Drones are good for so much more than just delivering your Amazon purchases.

TIME Tourism

Forget the Alps: 100-Lift, 18,000-Acre Mega Ski Resort Planned in Utah

Denmark's Christoffer Faarup goes airborne during the downhill run of the men's alpine skiing super combined training session.
Denmark's Christoffer Faarup goes airborne during the downhill run of the men's alpine skiing super combined training session. Mike Segar—Reuters

Plans are in the works to create what would be by far North America’s biggest ski resort complex, with 100 lifts and more than 750 runs spread over some 18,000 acres—all accessible with a single lift pass.

This week, ski industry leaders in Utah unveiled plans for a project called One Wasatch. Essentially, it’s a Voltron-like mashup of seven existing ski resorts that neighbor and back up into each other in the Wasatch Range east of Salt Lake City: Alta, Brighton, Canyons, Deer Valley, Park City, Snowbird, and Solitude. The proposal calls for a few connecting lifts to be added that would make it possible to traverse from resort to resort. The result would be that a skier with one lift ticket has instant access to a staggering amount of terrain, the likes of which has never been seen in North America: a grand total of 762 runs over 18,316 skiable acres.

“With this concept coming to life, there’s not a ski area or community in this country that can beat us,” said Jenni Smith, general manager for Park City Mountain Resort, per the Salt Lake Tribune.

Among the biggest resorts in North America right now, Vail, in Colorado, features 5,289 acres of terrain, while Whistler-Blackcomb, in British Columbia, boasts a total of 8,171 acres. Skiers would have to go to Europe to experience anything on par with what’s being proposed in Utah. (France’s Les Trois Vallées is generally credited as the world’s largest lift-accessible ski area, with 183 lifts connecting eight separate resorts.)

(MORE: Why Ski Resorts Are Pushing Lift Tickets in August)

How much would such a pass in Utah cost? When might this plan become a reality? Will it actually happen? As of yet, there are no definite answers to any of these questions.

For now, One Wasatch is merely a concept. It’s an idea that’s been discussed for decades, actually, and that has picked up pace since the region was in the international spotlight while hosting the 2002 Winter Olympics. This week, however, represents the strongest, most concerted push thus far to make the vision a reality. All seven resorts—which, remember, regularly battle it out in a fierce competition to attract snowboarders and skiers—are on board. The project calls for an infusion of $30 million for new lifts and other infrastructure, “100% privately funded,” One Wasatch organizers are quick to point out.

For the most part, the larger ski community embraces the idea as well, so long as it’s handled thoughtfully and carefully. “One Wasatch would catapult Utah into the category of a true international destination,” reads a statement from Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, on the One Watch testimonials page. “It will be one of those situations where the sum of the whole is far greater than the parts…a game changer.”

Critics say that One Wasatch will absolutely destroy much of the region’s pristine beauty, while also potentially ruining key watershed areas. “The Wasatch is too amazing of a place to be lost for a marketing ploy by the ski industry,” a group called Save Our Canyons announced in response to the One Wasatch proposal, redubbed as “One Horrible Plan for the Wasatch Mountains” by the organization.

(MORE: How to Ski Like an Olympic Medalist)

Another group opposing One Wasatch, the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, released a statement reminding, “These mountains are an ecological and scenic treasure, the source of the water we drink, a place to find solitude and respite from the noise and stress of city life and to experience wild open spaces and wilderness on their own terms.” Speaking to the Salt Lake Tribune about One Wasatch, Jamie Kent, president of the group, added, “I have no confidence they can protect the backcountry.”

TIME climate change

The End of Spring in a Warming World

Climate change affects flowering
Climate change is altering the timing and duration of wildflower blooming Photo by Auscape/UIG via Getty Images

As the planet warms, wildflower blooming and other signs of spring are moving earlier and earlier—altering our idea of what the seasons mean, and creating an unpredictable ripple effect

The first day of spring is finally here, even if it doesn’t feel that way in much of the still frigid East. Of course, the official beginning of spring has less to do with the weather than it does with Earth’s orbit around the sun—the vernal equinox is the day when the tilt of the planet’s axis is inclined neither toward nor away from the sun. (This also happens during the autumnal equinox at the beginning of fall, and of course the dates are reversed for the Southern Hemisphere.) Wherever you are in the world on Mar. 20, it’s all equinox.

But while the calendar stays the same, the seasons seem to be changing. As the planet warms, spring has been springing earlier. A 2009 study in Nature estimated that spring now comes about 1.7 days earlier than it did during the first half of the 20th century. Decades of data collected around Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond and Aldo Leopold’s plot of land in Wisconsin indicates that spring flowers have been blooming earlier and earlier in the year, responding to warmer temperatures. And a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that used 39 years of data concludes that wildflowers in the Colorado Rocky Mountains are blooming weeks earlier than they once did and producing their last blooms later. The bloom season, which used to run from late May to early September, now lasts from late April to late September, some 35 days longer.

An earlier spring, a longer blooming season—are these bad things? A lot of climate change skeptics don’t think so:

I can sympathize—after the winter we’ve had in the East, an earlier and longer spring sounds ideal. But the fact that warming seems to be changing the timing of the seasons should concern us, as any phenologist could tell you. Phenology is the study of periodic animal and plant lifecycles, and looks at how the regular variations in the climate that we call seasons affect life. It’s a rich subject area because nearly every form of life runs on recurring cycles governed by the external cues of the environment. This is how Leopold, one of the foremost conservationists in American history and a keen observer of the seasons, put it:

Many of the events of the annual cycle recur year after year in a regular order. A year-to-year record of this order is a record of the rates at which solar energy flows to and through living things. They are the arteries of the land. By tracing their response to the sun, phenology may eventually shed some light on that ultimate enigma, the land’s inner workings.

Take that wildflower study I cite above. Paul CaraDonna, a graduate student at the University of Arizona in Tucson and the lead author of the study, was drawn to the research in part because of his interest in the native bees and other pollinators in the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, 9,500-ft. above sea level near Crested Butte, Colo. Bees depend on flowers for nutrition, so when the bloom season shifts, it’s going to affect the bees. Despite the longer blooming season, plants aren’t producing more flowers. With the same number of flowers blooming over a longer period of time, bees could face a situation where there are fewer in bloom at any given time. “The competition can go up between pollinators for these resources because there’s going to be lesser availability over a greater period of time,” says CaraDonna. And if bees experience repeated population loss, that can in turn impact the very plants that depend on the insects for pollination.

A earlier blooming season can also place wildflowers in danger if they’re hit by a late frost. The meadows the team studies can experience frosts as late as mid-June. “If the snow melts in mid-April, the flowers can have a month and a half before they get zapped by frost in a fragile state,” says CaraDonna. “If you rely on the flowers and they get hit that way, you’ll have no food.” That’s precisely what happened in 2012, when a frost in mid-May wiped out a huge number of flowers that had bloomed early in the season.

Change the timing of spring, and there’s no telling what can happen—although as Amy Iler, another co-author on the study, points out: “It would be very surprising if everything turns out perfectly fine.” Iler and her colleagues are only beginning to piece together how a shifting blooming season will change the environment of the Rocky Mountain meadows—and it will be even more difficult for ecologists to predict the response elsewhere, in places that lack 39 years of minutely recorded data. (The research was begun in 1974 by David Inoyue, a biologist now at the University of Maryland, and over the years Inoyue and his collaborators have counted more than 2 million separate flowers.) The land is still “an enigma,” as Leopold put it, but the X factor of climate change will only make the mystery of the natural world that much more complex. As we add more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we’re putting ourselves on the path towards an ever more uncertain future, one where even the seasons themselves become unmoored from the calendar.

But if nature’s response to the phenological changes of global warming still remain to be fully discovered, our emotional response is already being felt, as the novelist Zadie Smith wrote recently in the New York Review of Books:

There is the scientific and ideological language for what is happening to the weather, but there are hardly any intimate words. Is that surprising? People in mourning tend to use euphemism; likewise the guilty and ashamed. The most melancholy of all the euphemisms: “The new normal.” “It’s the new normal,” I think, as a beloved pear tree, half-drowned, loses its grip on the earth and falls over. The train line to Cornwall washes away—the new normal. We can’t even say the word “abnormal” to each other out loud: it reminds us of what came before. Better to forget what once was normal, the way season followed season, with a temperate charm only the poets appreciated.

Smith isn’t quite right—as spring becomes a moving target, there is no normal any longer, new or old. March 20 will remain the equinox. The rest remains to be seen.

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