TIME Environment

Scientists Discover Microbes in a Subglacial Antarctic Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIME Environment

Japanese Farmers Just Got a New Pesticide: The Flightless Ladybug

Ancient Silk Town Paves Way For Japans Abandoned Rice Fields
A rice farmer works in a paddy field in Yabu City, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan, on Wednesday, June 25, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Ladybugs can do the work that nasty chemicals used to

Researchers in Japan have discovered a way to selectively breed flightless ladybugs to be used as a “biopesticide” — a natural alternative to chemical pesticides.

Ladybugs have long been considered natural pest-control for gardens and crops, but their ability to fly away encouraged many agriculturalists to instead rely on chemical pesticides that are harmful to the environment. After several generations of being exposed to chemicals, many pests have also been known to develop pesticide resistance.

In an effort to create a practical biopesticide, Tomokazu Seko, a researcher from the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Fukuyama, Japan, conducted research on 400 ladybugs from the Harmonia axyridis species. After selective breeding over 30 generations, he was finally able to develop a non-flying ladybug.

A company in Ibaraki Prefecture has started selling the flightless ladybug as a biopesticide for indoor use. According to a statement from the Biopesticide Industry Alliance, the ladybug has already reduced over 90% of the pest-damage to Japanese mustard spinach.

“The best part is that you can see the ladybugs working with your own eyes,” Seko told the Japan News.

[Japan News]

TIME Environment

What We Can Learn From Australia and Turning Off the Tap

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Andrew Bain—Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images

The country's long drought taught people that they need to mimic nature

As an Australian, I have been taught from birth the value of water. In school, history lessons always included details of early explorers who died of thirst, such as Robert O’ Hara Burke and William John Wills’ disastrous expedition between the Gulf of Carpenteria and Melbourne in 1861. Today, the threat remains; it’s not uncommon for people to die from lack of water when their cars break down in the Outback.

And while we’re used to water scarcity in Australia, we do have particular periods of national drought, the latest stretching from 1997 to 2010. It has taught all of us that water is priceless, because we cannot live without it. It’s also brought a greater understanding in Australia’s towns and cities of what it is like to live in the bush. A drought so long and severe required all Australians to bear the burden.

Schools and community groups got deeply involved in Waterwatch, a national volunteer water quality monitoring and water education program. Farmers installed observation bores on their property and regularly measured water table levels and groundwater quality, to guard against salinity that can spoil water and land in droughts. If you drove into a country town during the drought, the first thing you saw was a large sign stating the level of water restrictions.

In the cities, people stopped washing cars, then stopped watering lawns, and then stopped watering gardens. Many of us had a bucket between our legs in the shower, but that was voluntary! The country has expanded water recycling, with many places aiming to recycle 100 percent of their waste water. We also invested heavily in desalination (though now, because the drought has dissipated, much of the expensive, energy-consuming equipment is no longer needed). The Australian nation has had to learn together to learn to turn the tap off and treat fresh water as a valuable resource.

Australians love water and we mostly live by the sea, but getting access to fresh water is getting more dangerous for those in the northern parts of Australia. Recently a 15-foot-long crocodile plucked a bloke out of his boat in front of his family in a national park. The croc was shot (a rare event, since crocs have been protected from shooting since 1972) and the man’s body recovered. The culprit was as much the dry conditions as the croc. Crocs always guard their piece of waterway, and they are always growing bigger. As it gets drier, the big crocs and humans have less water to use, and are drawn closer together.

As an agricultural consultant on a recent trip to Northern Queensland, which is still in drought, I was introduced to a new term: “sell’em or smell’em,” meaning that that if you do not sell your cattle livestock, you will smell them dead. There was just not enough water to keep them alive.

But droughts are not new to Australia and historically our landscapes have been able to function and flourish. The question is how a modern society can cope with the droughts, which affect everyone in our nation. Perhaps we can learn from Peter Andrews, a racehorse breeder and grazier from New South Wales, who wrote an excellent book called Back from the Brink. The book explains how the Australian landscape was distinguished by its ability to hold fresh water underground in huge floodplains. These plains released water over time, but also accommodated floodwaters by absorbing them into underground aquifers.

This natural process stored excess water and then released it in dry times, feeding streams at their highest point. Reed beds acted like biological safety values. They held water back and the water would rise. The rising floodwater and floating debris increases leverage on the top of the reeds. Then they would flatten like a protective blanket, protecting what was beneath them.

This process is no more as livestock and machinery have drained the floodplains of fresh water, removed the reed beds and in many cases allowed salt to move down into the lower parts of the landscape. The drought has again taught us that we need to mimic nature and learn to read the landscape in order to start to repair it.

For those in drought, my simple message is to remember that a drought normally ends with some form of flood, which can do more damage. As there is little vegetation to slow down the flow of water and precious topsoil is washed away, too much water ends up degrading farmland and undermining bridge foundations. You can’t erase a drought all at once. So be prepared.

Gwyn Jones is an agricultural consultant in Mudgeeraba, Queensland, Australia. This was written for Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Environment

Massive ‘Red Tide’ Threatens Florida Beaches

NBC News

“It can kill fish by the millions"

A toxic red tide, the biggest in nearly a decade, is threatening tourism and endangered manatees as it moves down the Florida coast.

The culprit is Karenia brevis, microscopic algae that explode in numbers when the conditions are right, usually in late summer or early fall.

“These kinds of blooms damage wildlife, people, tourism, everything,” Don Anderson, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told NBC News. “It can kill fish by the millions.”

The current red tide bloom is around 20 miles off the southwestern coast of Florida, too far away to bother beachgoers, at least for now…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 11

1. Increasing access to education is the best way to close the employment gap between black and white males in America.

By Rory O’Sullivan, Konrad Mugglestone and Tom Allison in Young Invicibles

2. New tools are making secure communication with journalists – and whistleblowing – possible.

By Sarah Laskow in Columbia Journalism Review

3. Disconnect: Americans have long believed stopping genocide was a core interest for our nation. They’re wrong.

By Dhruva Jaishankar in Foreign Policy

4. America should use our law protecting victims of human trafficking to manage the border crisis and grant asylum for migrant children.

By Kathy Bougher in the Denver Post

5. Gamify the Environment: Instead of a binding global treaty on climate change, let’s make it a “race to the top” competition among nations.

By Timothy Wirth and Tom Daschle in Yale Environment 360

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

TIME China

Yao Ming Wants to Wean China off Ivory and Shark Fins

US Secretary of State John Kerry talks with retired Chinese NBA basketball star Yao Ming about his efforts against international wildlife trafficking, as the two participate in an event about combating the trade of animal remains, at the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue talks at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on July 9, 2014.
US Secretary of State John Kerry talks with retired Chinese NBA basketball star Yao Ming about his efforts against international wildlife trafficking, as the two participate in an event about combating the trade of animal remains, at the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue talks at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on July 9, 2014. Jim Bourg—AFP/Getty Images

BEIJING – Former NBA all-star center Yao Ming is now dishing out assists to much wilder targets.

After retiring from the Houston Rockets in 2011, Yao returned to China and set out to end his homeland’s traditional appetite for endangered and threatened animal products.

As an ambassador for international conservation organization WildAid, Yao has campaigned to persuade his countrymen to give up the key ingredient in one of their traditional delicacies: shark–fin soup. The “I’m FINished with Fins” campaign, which also featured Jackie Chan, soccer star David Beckham and NBA player Jeremy Lin, has been credited with reducing the tens of millions of sharks killed for their fins each year in China by at least 50 percent…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Environment

Giant Waves Pose New Risk for Ships in Ice-Diminished Arctic

This map shows the extent of Arctic sea ice in July 2014. It was 3.19 million square miles (8.25 million square kilometers). The magenta lines show the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that month. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole. NBC

"These are still pretty treacherous waters"

Monster waves should be added to the list of hazards faced by ship captains as they plot a course through the waters of the Arctic Ocean, according to a new study that reports observations of house-sized swells in seas that until recently were covered in ice year-round.

“Waves always pose a risk to working at sea,” study author Jim Thomson, an oceanographer at the University of Washington in Seattle, said via email to NBC News from off the coast of northern Alaska. “The unique thing about the Arctic is that it is changing so rapidly that we cannot apply past measurements to understand future risk…”

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME cities

Cities Get Their Goats to Be Newest Employees

A goat gives birth at the Iowa State Fair on August 6, 2014 in Des Moines, Iowa.
A goat gives birth at the Iowa State Fair on August 6, 2014 in Des Moines, Iowa. Scott Olson—Getty Images

The animals are now seen as a cost-effective and eco-friendly way for towns to clear areas of unwanted vegetation

American cities big and small are turning to an unlikely new kind of employee in hopes of saving money and improving local streets and parks.

Last month, Boston became the latest city to introduce goats to its workforce as six of the cloven cud-chewers began making a meal of poison ivy and weeds, opening up the latest frontier in urban goatscaping, which has been spreading around the country like so many weeds that the goats have been hired to destroy.

“They’re eating almost everything but the ferns,” says Boston Parks and Recreation Department spokesperson Ryan Woods about Cole, Chester, Christopher, Cassandra, Dalia and Delia—Alpine and LaMancha goats hired to munch through all sorts of unwanted vegetation that have made parts of an area park virtually impassable for humans. The rate for the goat sextet is $2,800 for the eight-week project, one normally reserved for Hazmat suit-wearing humans. It’s being funded through the non-profit Southwest Boston Community Development Corporation, and the group’s executive director Mat Thall estimates that the job performed by regular workers could cost upwards of $8,000.

Goats have become an increasingly cost-effective and eco-friendly way for cities, parks and natural resources departments, and private property owners to clear areas of unwanted vegetation. Outside of Philadelphia, Haverford College has hired goats from the Maryland-based goat purveyor Eco-Goats to eat invasive vines and shrubs. A Madison, Wisconsin-based company called The Green Goats has recently rented the animals out to suburban parks around Chicago. In Victoria, Texas, goats have been unleashed to clear brush in the town’s Riverside Park. Thirty goats were dispatched in a Pittsburgh park to eat weeds and invasive vines, and more than 100 goats were recently used to consume blackberry bushes behind a mall in Lynnwood, Wash.

“If they’re managed properly, goats are a great tool to get in places that are almost impossible to get into with chemicals,” says Ray Holes, who’s been renting out goats in western U.S. towns and cities for close to two decades and is widely known as the Goat King. “And on the whole, it’s probably cheaper, too.”

Goats have a knack for eating all the vegetation humans don’t want around while leaving the good stuff, like grasses, and they can often be trained to acquire a palette for certain invasive species. Goats can eat about 4% of their body weight a day by gobbling up a number of woody plants that are anathema to humans, like nettles, poison ivy, buckthorn and wild parsnip.

While there are dozens of goat-renting companies throughout the U.S., Holes’ is the single biggest purveyor of goats in the country and is considered the Goat King for a very good reason—he owns 9,000 of them that are almost continuously on the job throughout California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana.

Holes charges anywhere from 75 cents to $3 per goat per day depending on where they work and the kind of munching they’re required to do. And he’s increasingly taken on inner city jobs throughout the the western U.S. In the Los Angeles neighborhood of Sun Valley, for example, Holes recently brought in goats to clear areas near hiking and biking trails.

But the most common job for goats is often creating fire breaks—areas made barren of any natural flammable materials. We Rent Goats, a smaller Wilder, Idaho-based business that does exactly what its name says, often works with power companies around the state in clearing those areas. Co-owner Lynda Linquist says 100 of her goats can eat through an acre a day, and they’re almost always a hit.

“Anytime we bring goats in, usually people are thrilled,” Linquist says. “Some will throw huge parties that are tented and catered.”

Linquist, along with her husband Tim, currently rent out 700 goats, mostly to cities that often need help with just a few acres at a time. (We Rent Goats charges $375 an acre.) The goats are generally kept in place by temporary electric fences. But they’re not goat-proof. In Boise, Idaho, about 500 of Linquist’s animals recently got loose.

“They’re goofy gals,” Linquist says. “They’ve busted out of fences. Sometimes they’ll push each other down and steal what the other one’s eating. Sometimes they’ll just go stand in the middle of the road. You’ve got to be thinking one step ahead of them.”

And they’re not always a welcome sight. In June, a hedge fund manager brought in 20 goats to eat through overgrown weeds on abandoned lots in Detroit, but the animals were kicked out two days later by public officials. (It’s illegal to have farm animals within Detroit’s limits.)

And there are at least a handful of landscapers upset by the growing goatscaping economy, as highlighted by The Colbert Report.

Holes, the Goat King, says about half his clients these days are public entities. And he says his business would be even bigger if it wasn’t so difficult finding managers who not only knew how to wrangle hundreds of goats but were also willing to be on the road for weeks or months at a time.

“We have people calling us constantly wanting us to bring our goats in,” Holes says. “But you have to be willing to be away from home. The goats don’t care your kids are having a birthday.”

 

TIME weather

California Is the State of Emergencies

Mudslides, drought, fires and flooding have made the most populous state in the Union a difficult place to live this year

Seven months ago, California’s historic drought prompted governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency.

As the farmland-rich Central Valley remained parched, wildfires ravaged Northern and Southern California. Elsewhere in the state, mudslides washed away homes. Then there was a water main break that wasted up to 20 million gallons of water and flooded the UCLA campus.

There’s simply no way around it: California — the most populous state in the Union — is going through some tough times.

TIME Environment

California Catastrophes: Why is the Golden State Always a Mess?

First it's droughts, then wildfires, then mudslides. But despite how it seems, the coast isn't really cursed

California is burning. In several places. Of course, this is news, especially since lives and property are at risk—but in a sense, it isn’t news at all. California burns every year at around this time. California is also sliding downhill. That isn’t really a headline either, since mudslides are annual events too, as a result of torrential rains in the non-burning part of the state. So far this year the slides have caused one death.

California’s Central Valley, meanwhile, is dangerously parched, as a drought that’s already lasted three years shows no signs of letting up. The only hope for desperate farmers is that a long-awaited El Niño weather pattern kicks in later in the year, bringing heavy rains (at which point, see above under “mudslides”). And then there’s the next major earthquake, which is sure to come sooner or later—probably sooner given California’s luck.

In fact, it almost seems as though the state is a disaster magnet. That, however, is something of an illusion. Much of the American West is more or less starved for rainfall, with the exception of the immediate Pacific Coast. It’s hardly a surprise that the region as a whole suffers from periodic droughts; all it takes is a ridge of heat and high pressure to park itself off the Pacific coast and most rainfall will veer northward into Canada before dipping bock down into the inland U.S. The dried-out forests and grasslands that result are then ready fuel for fires caused by lightning or human carelessness. When rains do start, steep hillsides that have been logged or burned or overdeveloped are prone to mudslides.

These are by no means problems unique to California. But the state is so huge, and the population so large, that natural disasters there simply affect more people than they do elsewhere in the U.S. Still, for those of us watching from the other side of the continent, it sometimes seems like you’d have to be a little bit crazy to live in California. But then you consider Mt. Whitney or Yosemite Valley or the Coast Range or the redwood forests—never mind the southern California warmth and the Pacific Ocean as your swimming pool.

So maybe it’s not entirely crazy to live in California. What is entirely crazy is the need to push the envelope—to build houses on hillsides and in forests which may be the most gorgeous locations in the nation’s most gorgeous state, but which are often the most dangerous in terms of natural hazards. If you lived on an airport runway and got hit by a plane, it would be a tragedy—but an entirely predictable and preventable one.

We’re not immune to this sort of craziness out East: we keep putting houses on beaches, for example, when we know perfectly well that they could wash away with the next storm. Once you get away from the shore, though, you’re relatively safe. On this last point, the East may have the edge: Move inland in California, and you could end up next to an active volcano.

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