News this Week

Science  23 Apr 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5977, pp. 410
  1. Volcanology

    Iceland Eruptions Fuel Interest in Volcanic Gas Monitoring

    1. Lucas Laursen*
    Cloudy future.

    Eyjafjallajökull's ash cloud grounded Europe's air traffic.

    CREDIT: OLAFUR EGGERTSSON/REUTERS/LANDOV

    REYKJAVIK—As a brown cloud of ash drifts down from the slopes of Eyjafjallajökull toward their truck, Hanna Kaasalainen warns a colleague that their gas masks won't be much good against carbon dioxide. The masks filter out poisonous gases released by magma such as sulfur dioxide, but carbon dioxide can simply displace oxygen in the air, asphyxiating the researchers as they take ash samples alongside a haze-enshrouded, deserted road. “We shouldn't stay very long,” the University of Iceland geochemistry graduate student advises, before strapping on a bright yellow mask and opening the door.

    The samples Kaasalainen promptly begins collecting are just one of several streams of data that Icelandic researchers and civil protection officials are continually analyzing to make educated guesses about the duration and size of the eruption on Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that on Wednesday, 14 April, turned from a modest tourist attraction into a nightmare for airlines and passengers across Europe. Everyone wants to know if the volcano's ash cloud, harmful to jet engines, is going away or will remain a threat. At a briefing here called on 19 April to share the latest observations, University of Iceland geophysicist Páll Einarsson summed up the frustrating conclusion: Despite all the data, “we are still looking for an answer.”

    Thanks to Eyjafjallajökull, scores of volcanologists, geologists, and other scientists are now focusing their attention on the southern coast of Iceland. Some are analyzing GPS measurements, seismic readings, and satellite images. Others, like geochemist Michael Burton of the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia in Catania, Italy, are measuring gas emissions that give hints about volcanic behavior. Burton, part of a team monitoring the Mount Etna and Stromboli volcanoes in Italy, flew here shortly after Eyjafjallajökull's initial eruption on the night of 20 March. His hope is that combining information on gas emissions with traditional volcanology data will better explain the behavior of volcanoes before and during eruptions.

    In the early days of its latest eruption, however, Eyjafjallajökull remained unpredictable. And some scientists wonder whether the volcano's recent bursts are a practice run for potentially more disruptive eruptions in Iceland. The last blasts from Eyjafjallajökull, in 1612 and 1821, each preceded larger eruptions from Katla, to the east. And the tragic story of Laki, the volcano just under 100 kilometers from Eyjafjallajökull, looms in the back of Icelanders' minds. Its eruptions from 1783 to 1785 released a cloud of hydrogen fluoride that coated fields and infiltrated groundwater in Iceland and generated an ash cloud that cast its shadow across Europe. According to some researchers, the resulting poisoning of livestock in Iceland and the cooling effect of the ash may have hurt Europe's agricultural productivity enough to cause thousands of deaths; the fluoride may have even directly poisoned people (Science, 19 November 2004, p. 1278).

    Eyjafjallajökull's so-far-unpredictable behavior offers a perfect example of the challenge facing volcanologists. Before this spring's first eruption, geophysicists at the University of Iceland and their counterparts at the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) noticed GPS stations on the volcano had wandered several centimeters in May of 2009 and again in December, signs that rising magma was stretching the skin of the volcano in advance of an eruption. In mid-February, Sigrún Hreinsdóttir, a geophysicist at the University of Iceland, placed an additional GPS station on the mountainside. By then, Steinunn Jakobsdóttir, a geophysicist at IMO, was tracking automatic seismic reports that revealed tremors about 5 kilometers below Eyjafjallajökull's surface. In March, civil authorities alerted nearby residents that they were at risk of floods called jökullhlaups, literally “running glaciers,” if the ice-covered volcano erupted.

    But officials didn't order evacuations because the seismic hints weren't that dire. “Usually when an eruption starts, a low-frequency [seismic signal] is rising when the magma is coming to the surface,” says Jakobsdóttir. Although seismic tracking placed magma closer to the surface on 19 March, this low-frequency signal was absent, so civil authorities kept the alert level at its lowest setting. But the next night, southern Icelanders reported a dark cloud glowing red above the mountain: The volcano had experienced a small eruption, one that led authorities to evacuate farmers living in its floodplains. “We missed [any] short-term warning,” says Jakobsdóttir ruefully.

    Scary smells.

    The March eruption of Eyjafjallajökull brought scientists to measure volcanic gases.

    PHOTO CREDIT: COURTESY MICHAEL BURTON/ISTITUTO NAZIONALE DI GEOFISICA E VULCANOLOGIA (INGV)

    That's why Burton and Icelandic researchers plan to pay closer attention to the smells of the volcanoes here. A few days after they arrived last month, Burton and colleagues drove a candy-red Land Cruiser with over-sized tires onto the black gravel where the March eruption took place. On that mountain pass, they measured sulfur dioxide using a UV-sensitive digital camera and spectroscopes. Combined with seismic readings and knowledge of the magma's composition prior to the eruption, such gas emission data can help researchers estimate the volume of magma rising beneath the surface. “Seismic tremors tell you where things are happening, and it tells you in a way the intensity with which things are happening,” notes Burton, “but it doesn't tell you volume; … that's what makes these two systems extremely complementary.”

    Analyzing gas emissions from dormant and active volcanoes is a growing trend. “Not all eruptions start with a bang,” notes IMO geophysicist Kristin Vogfjörd, who is pushing to add volcanic gas detectors to Iceland's seismic, GPS, and strain monitoring systems. Indeed, the promise of integrating gas emission studies with other volcano monitoring systems has attracted European funding for a pair of networks that have monitored nearly two dozen volcanoes from Central America to Iceland over the last 5 years. As a result, researchers armed with increasingly portable and affordable instruments are deciphering the gas signatures of distinct kinds of magma, much as a beer brewer might recognize stages of fermentation and different beers with a mere wrinkle of the nose.

    Magma-released volcanic gases proved their predictive power in 1998. Although seismic signals from magma had tapered off, volcanologists heeded gas signals that Montserrat was not done erupting and thus avoided a potential disaster when the volcano began erupting again in 1999 (Science, 28 March 2003, p. 2027).

    Since then, interest in gas geochemistry has steadily risen among volcanologists, according to Michael Poland of the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) in Hawaii National Park, who himself stuck to monitoring land deformation until he had an eruptive epiphany. In early 2008, HVO staff met to discuss unusually high amounts of sulfur dioxide venting from the Hawaiian volcano Kilauea. Poland thought a summit eruption “was out of the question, since there was no deformation or seismicity indicating magma ascent,” but a gas geochemist argued that one was imminent. Poland laid a wager: If the volcano erupted, the geophysicist would become a gas geochemist or quit his job.

    Kilaeua erupted explosively three times within a month.

    Poland has been true to his word. He now says that incorporating gas geochemistry is “absolutely essential for really good monitoring of volcano activity.” Last year, in the 27 August 2009 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, he and USGS colleague A. Jeff Sutton, a gas geochemist, reported that another instance of Kilauea volcanic activity preceded by sulfurous fumes in 2007 could be explained if the magma that left the summit chamber for a side vent lowered local pressure enough to release gases, including sulfur dioxide, that had been in solution in the magma.

    Fire and ice.

    Iceland's southern coast is home to volcanoes big and small.

    Burton and his Italian collaborators have also had success relating volcanic gas activity to eruptive activity. “Only about 10% of magma which is degassing ever comes out,” he says, so researchers need to establish detailed relationships between physical signals such as deformation and degassing to predict accurately when magma will emerge (Science, 3 August 2001, p. 774). Burton uses a webcam in his Pisa, Italy, office to guide the latest gas spectroscopy instruments on Stromboli. The team has also used portable infrared spectroscopes there to analyze gases exploding from the volcano's crater and to compare them with gases emerging when the volcano is quiet. The ratio of chemicals in the gases helped the team estimate the temperatures through which the exploding gases passed and depth at which they separated from the magma—a new kind of measurement (Science, 13 July 2007, p. 227).

    Setting up a gas monitoring network good enough to predict anything isn't easy. The UV spectroscopes, for example, rely on a clear line of sight—they need a light source, such as the sun, behind a gas plume. Iceland is particularly tricky for gas detection. Glaciers cover volcanic vents, and frost, wind, and rain would bedevil stationary gas monitoring equipment. “We don't really know … where to put these gas monitors,” says Magnús Tumi Guðmundsson of the University of Iceland.

    Getting close enough to a vent to detect gases can also be lethal, as a 1993 accident that killed six scientists on the Galeras volcano in Colombia demonstrated (Science, 16 April 1993, p. 289). Such difficulties are why seismometers, not gas monitors, remain the frontline tool on most closely monitored volcanoes. “Seismicity sees in all weather,” Jakobsdóttir notes.

    Still, satellites can complement ground-based measurements of volcanic gas emissions: NASA's EOS satellites carry UV spectrometers, and several research groups use these readings to assess volcanoes across the globe on an ongoing basis, though they lack the continuous coverage ground-based monitoring systems offer.

    Vogfjörd believes such local gas monitoring is needed if Iceland is to better predict its explosive future. While the world's eyes are now on Eyjafjallajökull, and its even more dangerous neighbor Katla, she's making plans to install gas monitoring equipment on Hekla, which erupted in 1970, 1980, 1991, and most recently in 2000. “Multidisciplinary monitoring is the way to go because no one thing is going to show you what you need to know,” she says.

    • * Lucas Laursen is a freelance writer based in Madrid.

  2. Paleoanthropology

    Human Ancestor Caught in the Midst of a Makeover

    1. Ann Gibbons

    ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO—Renowned paleoartist John Gurche prides himself on his accurate reconstructions of early humans. But last week, the famed human ancestor Homo erectus was giving him trouble. Gurche immortalized a female H. erectus in bronze for an exhibit that opened this month at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, so he watched with some trepidation as the species got a new look at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists here. Several talks and posters reported how new discoveries and analytical methods are altering views of this species, from the way it looked to how it grew up and gave birth. “This gives you a good idea how much our view of H. erectus is in flux,” said Gurche.

    By the time researchers were done, some early members of H. erectus had morphed from tall, slender-hipped individuals that looked a lot like us into shorter, broader hominins. “Homo erectus continues to evolve,” says paleoanthropologist Scott Simpson of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

    One individual—the rare partial skeleton of the Nariokotome Boy—has dominated views of H. erectus for nearly 2 decades. This adolescent died 1.6 million years ago near Lake Turkana in Kenya where he was discovered in 1984. Researchers thought this boy grew at the same rate as modern humans and initially calculated that he was about 11 to 12 years old when he died. If he had undergone an adolescent growth spurt, as we do, he would have reached a strapping 188 centimeters and 68 kilograms as an adult. Because there were no other complete pelvises of early Homo, researchers also used modern human proportions to put together the boy's pelvis. So it came out quite narrow, like ours, says paleoanthropologist Christopher Ruff of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who helped do the reconstructions.

    This view of a lanky youth who looked modern from the neck down—there's no doubt that H. erectus's brain was much smaller than ours—spurred many interpretations of the species's biology. For example, researchers suggested that its height was an adaptation to stay cool and to run efficiently in the hot tropical climate. The slender hips also gave the boy's female brethren a narrow birth canal, implying that newborns had small brains and were helpless at birth.

    H. erectus has been brought down to size lately, though, as researchers have found several smaller individuals, including some outside Africa (Science, 21 September 2007, p. 1664); many suspect the species may have had more sexual dimorphism than had been thought, because H. erectus now appears in both short and tall sizes, based on long bones. New dental methods also predict that H. erectus grew faster than we do, at a rate closer to a chimpanzee's than to ours. Using intermediate growth rates, graduate student Ronda Graves of Stony Brook University in New York state calculated that Nariokotome Boy would have had less time than originally predicted to reach his adult height when he died. She estimated at the meeting that he would have reached 163 cm in height and 56 kg in weight as an adult—“shorter and wider” than previously thought.

    Just how much wider was illustrated in another team's reconstructions of the boy's pelvis, also unveiled at the meeting. Simpson and Linda Spurlock of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History realigned the pieces of Nariokotome Boy's pelvis, guided by a female H. erectus pelvis from Gona, Ethiopia, that Simpson reported 2 years ago (Science, 14 November 2008, p. 1089). They found that the widest measure from side to side on the boy's pelvis is 255 to 260 millimeters rather than 225 to 230 mm. This would give the boy an adult hip breadth of 295 to 301 mm rather than the 266 mm originally proposed, and would match those of the short, wide-hipped female from Gona, whose pelvic breadth was 288 mm. “H. erectus was not simply a small-brained modern human,” says Simpson.

    How tall?

    Reconstructions of H. erectus, like this female in bronze, are based in part on the Nariokotome Boy skeleton (inset).

    CREDITS: (SCULPTURE) © 2010, JOHN GURCHE; (PHOTO) CHIP CLARK/SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION; (INSET) PHOTO BOB CAMPBELL, © NATIONAL MUSEUMS OF KENYA

    Ruff agrees that the boy's height and pelvis need to be revised, but he thinks Graves and Simpson may have gone too far. Graves's numbers rely on “unrealistic” growth trajectories: Even if the boy grew as fast as a chimpanzee, he would have reached 175 cm and 75 kg as an adult, he says. Ruff also thinks Simpson relied too heavily on the Gona pelvis. That specimen was not found with other identifying bones, and it is so small-bodied that Ruff thinks it may have belonged to an australopithecine—a proposal that Simpson vigorously challenged in the question-and-answer period after Ruff's talk.

    If H. erectus was broad-beamed, the wider birth canals of females would allow their babies to be born in a more straightforward way than those of H. sapiens, which must rotate during birth so their heads can fit through a narrow birth canal, says paleoanthropologist Karen Rosenberg of the University of Delaware, Newark. That's “more reasonable,” she says, and fits better with other extinct hominins.

    The diverse meeting reports are just the most recent revisions to H. erectus, says Gurche, who could be found taking careful notes at every H. erectus talk. About 16 months ago, he was finishing up an H. erectus model when the wide-hipped Gona pelvis was published. So Gurche remodeled his statue to make the hips a centimeter wider. Four months later, he was putting the final touches on the cast when newly discovered footprints in Kenya suggested that H. erectus had shorter toes. “I had to chisel the toes,” says Gurche. “We should lock these guys in a room together until they work H. erectus out.”

  3. Ecology

    Along With Power, Questions Flow at Laos's New Dam

    1. Richard Stone
    Easing the impact.

    Water released from the NT2 dam passes through a novel aeration weir (above) before it enters the Xe Bang Fai River.

    CREDITS: PHOTOS BY VINCENT GAUTIER/NTPC

    The start-up of one of Southeast Asia's biggest hydropower dams has launched a new round of debate over how much damage the megaproject might inflict on the environment.

    Backers led by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) say that the $1.5 billion Nam Theun 2 (NT2) dam in central Laos has already taken its most severe toll on the environment: Filling the reservoir in 2008 involved resettling 6200 people and inundating 450 square kilometers of the Nakai Plateau. But critics say that the ecological harm has only just begun. “NT2 will lead to very serious impacts” for more than 100,000 people living downstream, says a U.S. expert on water issues in Laos who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of offending the Lao government. “World Bank and ADB will, I expect, regret ever getting involved in this project.” Not so, says a World Bank official. “A thorough analysis of probable downstream impacts, as well as a credible and comprehensive mitigation and compensation program, was critical to getting the World Bank to support NT2,” he says. Both sides agree that a major experiment in hydrology and ecology is now under way.

    The project, run by the Nam Theun 2 Power Company (NTPC), diverts water from the Nam Theun River, a tributary of the Mekong River, into Nakai Reservoir, from which water is released via a 27-kilometer channel to another Mekong tributary, the Xe Bang Fai. The Lao government will plow its $2 billion share of revenue from electricity sales in the next 2 decades into a national fund for alleviating poverty. Other aspects of NT2 have gotten a thumbs-up from some experts, who stress the good it will do for the impoverished Nakai Plateau. The resettlement plan is “state of the art,” says Thayer Scudder, an anthropologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena who, with two colleagues, has served as an NT2 expert panel since 1997. Still, Scudder cautions, “implementation is the name of the game, not planning.”

    Tensions over NT2's environmental legacy have simmered for years. “Diverting a large amount of water from one river basin to another, via a large reservoir with deoxygenated and eutrophic water in it, will greatly change the hydrology and water quality of the Xe Bang Fai,” says the U.S. expert, who predicts that erosion will also be a major problem. Mitigation measures, he insists, are insufficient.

    When the dam began generating electricity and water flow changed last month, critics pounced. In a 26 March letter to the World Bank and ADB, the advocacy groups International Rivers and Mekong Watch asserted that water quality on the upper Xe Bang Fai deteriorated when river levels rose 3.6 meters. The groups claimed that the rapid rise had washed away gardens on the river's banks and that fish had “disappeared from the river.” They also charged that NTPC has failed to provide adequate alternative drinking water supplies. “The project is violating people's human rights by preventing access to clean water and by destroying critical food sources without providing compensation,” contends Ikuko Matsumoto, Lao program director for International Rivers. The letter called on the World Bank and ADB to suspend dam operation and strengthen downstream mitigation measures.

    Such criticism is unwarranted, NT2 backers say. In an 8 April letter to International Rivers and Mekong Watch, the World Bank and ADB asserted that “considerable progress” has been made with the downstream mitigation and compensation program and that “effective erosion, water quality, fish catch, and socioeconomic monitoring systems” are in place. The letter notes that some 500 boreholes and pumps have been installed to provide drinking water, for example. Thanks in part to structures such as an aeration weir, “initial results show that water quality in the Xe Bang Fai is not significantly different to how it was prior to the project,” says NTPC spokesperson Aiden Glendinning. “These results were shared with [International Rivers] before they made their claims of pollution and fish loss, for which no evidence has been found anywhere along the river,” he says.

    Work on NT2 has yielded one welcome surprise: a find of 38 large-antlered muntjacs, a rare deer, on the Nakai Plateau (Science, 4 September 2009, p. 1192). But with the electrical spigot now open, the question is whether NT2 will improve or worsen the welfare of communities downstream. On that count, the verdict on NT2 is not yet in.

  4. Internationalization

    Max Planck Tests the Korean Waters

    1. Dennis Normile,
    2. Gretchen Vogel

    In another sign of the Max Planck Society's desire to extend its reach beyond Germany, it is negotiating with Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) to establish two joint research centers there. The South Korean side would like to see the centers evolve into a full-fledged Max Planck Institute. But because of some hard-learned lessons, Max Planck is being cautious about its commitment, and officials warn that the deal is not finalized. “We need to make sure that when Max Planck is on the label outside, that it's really on the inside, too,” says Berthold Neizert, head of the Max Planck Society's (MPG's) international division.

    The matchmaker behind the growing ties between MPG and South Korea is theoretical physicist Peter Fulde, a former director of the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems in Dresden. In 2007, Fulde became a POSTECH professor and president of the Asia Pacific Center for Theoretical Physics (APCTP), housed on the POSTECH campus. At APCTP, Fulde helped establish an independent program for junior research groups co-sponsored by Max Planck. As visits increased between MPG and POSTECH, the parties agreed in January 2009 to study setting up the centers.

    If cleared by MPG's scientific evaluation, which is expected to be completed in the next month, one of the centers would focus on attosecond spectroscopy, which uses lasers to study the dynamics of electrons. The other would add two new beamlines to a current $100 million upgrade to the Pohang Light Source to characterize and analyze new materials. POSTECH and MPG researchers are already cooperating in these areas, and “with the centers, there will be more of an impact,” says Fulde.

    Both sides see advantages. “What we like is the tremendous drive [in Korea]. There is so much potential there,” says Neizert. “Korea is now trying to focus on creative research excellence, and this will be a very good opportunity for Korean groups to work hand in hand with top groups from Max Planck,” says Kim Seunghwan, a POSTECH physicist involved in setting up the centers.

    Kim says they expect that the two centers will eventually have 100 Ph.D.-level researchers, including up to 30 newly recruited junior scientists, and $30 million in funding over 5 years. Details have not been finalized. Neizert says budget questions are still under discussion, but funding would come from both partners.

    POSTECH had hoped to create a full MPG institute, but MPG held back. Fulde says that although South Korean and German scientists cooperate very effectively in the lab, the two countries have different approaches to managing research. In South Korea, “funding is in little boxes, so to speak, and [authorities] look into each box,” Fulde says. “In Germany, there is much more flexibility in the financing system.”

    Such differences have tripped up some of Max Planck's previous international endeavors, such as the Partner Institute for Computational Biology in Shanghai, a joint venture with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Science, 9 November 2007, p. 902). After a rocky start, most of the management issues have now been smoothed out. “Shanghai is running really well, and the science is absolutely tops,” says Neizert. “But at the same time, we had to invest so much time and energy to make sure [the Max Planck] label fit.”

    New views.

    The Pohang Light Source may play host to a joint research center being discussed by the Max Planck Society and Pohang University of Science and Technology.

    CREDIT: POHANG ACCELERATOR LABORATORY

    Neizert says that label means that no matter where in the world a Max Planck institute is located, “the governance needs to be like it is in Germany, with the scientific directors having full independence and long-term financial security.” Max Planck and POSTECH did discuss the idea of an institute. “But we felt it was simply premature,” Neizert says. Kim says they have agreed to evaluate results of this Max Planck Korea Initiative in 5 years.

    Korea is the latest example of MPG's push for international cooperation. The Max Planck Florida Institute in Jupiter opened in 2009, and a Max Planck Center focused on computer science was inaugurated in India in February. “Internationalization has been a central issue for [Max Planck president] Peter Gruss,” Neizert says. The society is in talks about similar collaborations with institutes and universities in at least three other countries.

  5. ScienceInsider

    From the Science Policy Blog

    The U.S. Department of the Interior, which sells the oil and gas leases on the outer continental shelf, announced that the U.S. Geological Survey would carry out a scientific review of drilling in the Chukchi Sea by 1 October.

    The Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom has been cleared of charges of scientific “impropriety” by an independent review headed by former geologist Ronald Oxburgh. The review, which looked at the behavior of scientists in the context of so-called Climategate, said that the scientists should improve their statistical methods.

    WiCell, a nonprofit at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has asked the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to add four key lines to a registry of stem cell lines eligible for federal funding. NIH must first ensure that the lines comply with ethical guidelines.

    A U.S. House of Representatives panel has defined high-risk research and specified that the National Science Foundation should spend at least 5% of its research funds on such work. The definition is part of a planned reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act, which covers programs at several science agencies.

    Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has announced $1.3 billion in fresh funding for new universities, research grants, and infrastructure. The focus, he said, is on applied work that would impact Russia's “real economy,” worrying scientists who say that fundamental research has been neglected.

    Controversial AIDS scientist Peter Duesberg is being investigated for fraud by his university, the University of California, Berkeley. The charges stem from a paper he and four colleagues published last year in Medical Hypotheses that was later withdrawn by Elsevier.

    For the full posts and more, visit news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider.

  6. U.S. Geological Survey

    Pioneering Geophysicist Tackles Newest Challenge

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    Marcia McNutt oversees what she likes to call “the nation's only integrated natural science agency.” Whether it's estimating how much natural gas awaits discovery in the eastern Mediterranean, figuring out why mixed-gender fish are showing up in the Potomac River, or calculating the odds of a sleeping Cascades volcano spouting off, the 4400 biologists, geologists, hydrologists, and mappers who work at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have a hand in it. Its supporters say that, for just over $1 billion a year, USGS may also be the nation's biggest scientific bargain.

    The survey's “science capacity is just too small,” says Craig Schiffries of the Washington, D.C., office of the Geological Society of America. “Marcia McNutt has the capability to elevate the profile of the Geological Survey within the Department of the Interior (DOI) and beyond. She's not one to sit on the sideline.”

    More ink?

    Marcia McNutt wants to increase the visibility of the venerable U.S. Geological Survey.

    CREDIT: U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY

    Indeed, McNutt, 58, has been a pioneer throughout her career: The first female physics major at Colorado College, first female lifeguard for the city of Minneapolis, and the first woman to train in underwater demolition with Navy SEALs. In 2005, the geophysicist was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Last fall, after 12 years as president and CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in northern California, she became the first woman to lead the 131-year-old survey. She's also the first director to be science adviser to her boss, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

    The survey's profile has been so low, says former acting director P. Patrick Leahy, now executive director of the American Geologic Institute in Alexandria, Virginia, that people around DOI would often ask, “What does [it] do?” One answer, McNutt says, is finding “defensible solutions” to problems encountered on the 20% of U.S. land area that DOI manages through its agencies, which include the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management. But the survey's role extends beyond public lands across the range of its expertise, from assessing U.S. water resources to the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake.

    Despite its crucial roles, “the USGS as an agency had been barely treading water for many decades in terms of its budget,” McNutt told Science in a 29 March interview. “There's this discrepancy between the science agencies, like NASA and NSF, that are independent, versus the ones inside of Cabinet-level departments [like USGS] in terms of their freedom to raise their own profiles. I'm not sure past [DOI] secretaries have even noticed there was a USGS,” McNutt says.

    That's no longer the case, she asserts. “We do have a secretary who thinks of science first in terms of decision-making, who really wants the USGS to prosper,” she says. “We have an obligation and an opportunity to take advantage of that to try to raise the visibility of the USGS.”

    Being science adviser, a position that she suggested Salazar create for her, is one such opportunity. “Sitting around the table at DOI,” she says, “I will be the only scientist with a number of lawyers. So my job is to interpret science to a group of people who really care about using science but [who] may not be professional scientists.”

    McNutt feels that her status, combined with management experience she gained at the 200-employee MBARI, will help her garner attention well beyond DOI. “When Secretary Salazar goes to other agencies about science advice from the Geological Survey and he mentions my name, it gets respect” from heads of other science agencies who know her, she says. “Most of my job is really focused on satisfying what is almost an insatiable demand for scientific information.”

    At the same time, McNutt recognizes that a trillion-dollar federal budget deficit may thwart any plans for short-term, rapid growth of the survey's own budget. So she's looking to expand partnerships with other federal agencies and other groups. One very preliminary idea would use the survey's seismometers to provide an early-warning component in an ocean-observatories network that the National Science Foundation is building on the sea floor on the Pacific Northwest coast. More partnerships might also broaden the survey's base of support, guesses former survey director Charles Groat, now at the University of Texas, Austin. “The survey doesn't give out a lot of money,” he notes, which limits the constituencies that will defend its budget.

    Internally, McNutt has discussed the idea of reorganizing the survey to reflect the six “science directions” in its 10-year strategic plan.* Such a reorganization would create divisions for hot-topic areas such as climate variability, the role of the environment and wildlife in human health, and a water census. They would replace current disciplinary compartments such as biology, geography, and geology.

    The subject of reorganization was taken off the table for this interview, but it's already created a buzz within the survey. “That would certainly be a shock to people in the Geological Survey,” Groat says. “I'm not sure I'd try it, [but] Marcia's gutsy.”

  7. Regulatory Policy

    Congress Moves Toward Strengthening EPA's Hand on Chemical Safety

    1. Erik Stokstad

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for regulating more than 80,000 industrial chemicals, but for more than 30 years it's been hamstrung in its ability to demand lab tests and safety data from companies. Now two bills in Congress would change that.

    If passed, the bills would require chemical companies to provide much more safety data to EPA. The proposed legislation also expands EPA's role in determining safety, which some say could drive advances in toxicological research. “This is a monumental sea change,” says Richard Denison of the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C.

    Many important details remain to be worked out. But with support in principle from both environmentalists and chemical industry trade groups, the effort to reform chemical-safety analysis appears to have considerable momentum.

    Industrial chemicals in the United States are regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act, which has not been updated since it was passed in 1976. Under the existing system, for example, EPA must prove that chemicals pose an unreasonable risk before it can demand additional data from companies.

    Last week, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D–NJ) introduced a bill that would require companies to provide EPA with a minimum set of data on existing and new chemicals so that EPA can assess the safety of all industrial chemicals within 15 years. That's a huge task, experts say. Risk assessments are expensive and often take years. “I have no clue how the agency is going to do safety standards on tens of thousands of chemicals in 15 years,” says Joel Tickner of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

    Shedding light.

    Chemical manufacturers would have to submit more safety data to EPA.

    CREDIT: PHOTOS.COM

    Because of the size of the challenge, the bill directs EPA to prioritize and create a running list of the 300 potentially riskiest chemicals, such as those that bioaccumulate. When a chemical is added to the list, companies would have 18 months to provide data. If warranted, EPA would retain the authority to ban or restrict a chemical.

    The bill sets the standard of safety as a “negligible risk of any adverse effect,” but exactly what that means is open to interpretation. EPA would be required to calculate the aggregate exposure to a chemical from all routes, such as from eating food and breathing dust. That's going to be complicated for industrial chemicals, which can be used in thousands of products.

    An even larger challenge would be the mandate to gauge the cumulative effect of various chemicals. EPA has spent years figuring out how to analyze the combined risk from exposure to pesticides, lumping them by mode of action. Industrial chemicals pose a much harder problem because less is known about how they might affect organisms. “It's almost technically impossible,” says toxicologist Richard Becker of the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Virginia.

    Another crucial question is what kind of “adverse effect” should be used as a sign of a health hazard. Typically, EPA considers endpoints such as cancer in a lab animal, but the bill would give EPA the authority to expand its definitions to include biochemical changes, such as those detected in highly automated cellular tests. “You're ramping the law up to modern 21st century toxicology,” says Paul Locke of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. But Becker says that few such biochemical markers are ready for application; often it's not clear what these subtle changes mean for human health.

    Representative Henry Waxman (D–CA), who heads the House Energy and Commerce Committee, released a similar draft bill last week and intends to hold hearings in June or July. But with fewer than 90 working days left for Congress, the bills may not pass this session. That's not necessarily a bad thing, say Tickner and others, as it may allow time for important questions to be resolved.

  8. ScienceNOW.org

    From Science's Online Daily News Site

    Good Dogs Live Longer Small dogs generally live longer than big dogs—so that yappy Yorkshire terrier next door could be around for a long time. But body size isn't the only factor that determines how long dogs survive. Personality influences life span, too, according to a new study that might help explain how animal dispositions evolve.

    CREDIT: NASA/JPL-CALTECH

    Mystery of the Zodiacal Light Solved Zodiacal light—the faint white glow that stretches across the darkest skies, tracing the same path the sun takes—has mystified scientists for centuries. They've known that it is sunlight reflected from a disk of dust spanning the inner solar system from Mercury to Jupiter. They just didn't know where the dust came from—until now.

    Frostbite? Not for these Microbes With a splash of a particular chemical solution, microbes can survive in large numbers at temperatures as low as −80°C, researchers report. Because similar chemical cocktails exist on the cold surfaces of Mars, the moon, and Europa, the findings may increase the chances of finding life on other worlds.

    Quantum Cryptography Hits the Fast Lane Whether for online bills or military secrets, encryption schemes help keep digital communication secure. In recent years, physicists and engineers have been developing methods that transmit uncrackable encoded messages in individual particles of light, or photons. Now, one team has taken such quantum cryptography a long step forward by demonstrating a system that's fast enough to encrypt a video transmission.

    Read the full postings, comments, and more at news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow.

  9. A Groundbreaking Observatory to Monitor the Environment

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    A decade in the making, the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) hopes to set a new standard for tracking long-term ecological change across the United States.

    The wild side.

    Niwot Ridge is one of 20 “wildlands” spots slated to be part of NEON.

    CREDIT: E. PENNISI/SCIENCE

    BOULDER, COLORADO—Plowing a path through 43 centimeters of freshly fallen snow in late March, the snowcat rumbles past the last spruces and climbs up above the tree line of Niwot Ridge, elevation 3300 meters. Its driver, hydrologist Mark Williams of the University of Colorado, Boulder, is accompanying the area's climatologist on his semiweekly trek to check instruments and change out equipment for experiments, some of which have been running for decades.

    A field site since 1951 for what is now the university's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, Niwot Ridge has provided researchers with a unique opportunity to witness the interaction of climate—snow, rain, wind—with the local soil, flora, and fauna. Among other advances, the work has helped explain the role that snowbound microbes play in the nitrogen cycle. The equipment is not much to look at: a few rows of snow poles, a couple of antennas with instruments mounted on their booms, and an odd-looking, two-bucket setup for collecting rain and snow. And the mode of research is time-tested: Individual researchers design and set up their experiments, often on a shoestring budget, and then visit them periodically to collect data that are shared with the community and that inform the next set of experiments.

    But that small-scale, incremental approach to science is about to change. A 20-meter-square patch of land here is slated to be one of 20 sites in a $434 million project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will usher in a new era of large-scale environmental science. The project, called the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), represents the most ambitious U.S. attempt to assess environmental change on a continental scale.

    Next month, NSF's oversight body, the National Science Board, is expected to give its final approval to NEON, and NSF has requested $20 million in its 2011 budget to begin construction. Within 5 years, if all goes well, an 8-meter steel tower will dominate this landscape, bearing instruments that will make it possible to compare this environment with 19 other ecosystems across the country. “This is an entirely new resource for ecology,” says Michael Keller, chief of science at NEON Inc., the nonprofit consortium that runs NEON. Christopher Field, an ecologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California, expects NEON “to produce some fundamentally transformational results.”

    For NEON to do that, however, ecologists will need to change how they do science. Instead of being free agents deciding what data they will collect, how, and from where, the researchers will need to become part of a collective, tapping into a database whose parameters have already been determined in a top-down approach. They will need to practice “ecoinformatics”: the use of computers and software tools to integrate different types of information from many locations. They will need to think about trends across a whole country instead of a single ecosystem. The success of NEON will depend in large part on whether they embrace or reject that new model.

    Not everyone is pleased with how the project is set up. Some, like ecologist David Tilman of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, lament the excision of an experiment to test the effects of global change. They say such an experiment, deemed too expensive, is essential to obtaining timely answers about climate change. Others complain that NEON won't be investing enough in the field sites that will host its instruments. There's also some concern that ecologists, untrained in the approach NEON is taking, won't use NEON's data. “Everybody still has some questions because it's a new thing,” says John Porter, an ecologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville who is not part of NEON.

    LTER on steroids

    Monitoring a patch of land over time isn't a new idea for NSF. In 1980, it set up five U.S. sites, including one at Niwot Ridge, under the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network that has grown to 26 sites, including two in Antarctica and one off the Fiji Islands in the South Pacific. The $30-million-a-year program is widely considered a success, with findings on the effect of global warming on plant diversity, how forests could be overloaded by anthropogenic nitrogen, and the greater stability of diverse ecosystems.

    But by the late 1990s, says Williams, “we realized there were limits to the LTER model.” Each LTER was designed to answer questions posed by an individual investigator or a small team. Core activities, such as measuring primary productivity, were not a high priority, Williams acknowledges. “It was hard to integrate data [from different sites] and to do synthesis,” he adds, because investigators followed different timetables and used different instruments.

    At about the same time, Williams says, the community began to ask itself, “How do we grow ecology, and how do we tap additional resources?” For NSF program managers, the goal was to fund construction of a large-scale biology project without devouring their annual budgets, which nurture thousands of individual investigators (Science, 20 June 2003, p. 1869). Their models were the astronomy and geosciences communities, which have managed for decades to build costly instruments such as telescopes and ships without bankrupting their bread-and-butter programs. NSF already had a mechanism: Its budget included a special facilities account to finance construction of half a dozen projects at a time, with the understanding that NSF's research directorates would pay for operations and maintenance of those facilities from their annual budgets.

    A series of workshops yielded a vision of NEON hailed by then-newly arrived NSF Director Rita Colwell, who inserted the project into NSF's 2001 budget request to Congress. But the larger ecological community had reservations. Congress also balked, wondering what particular scientific question NEON would be addressing.

    In response to that resistance, NSF asked the American Institute of Biological Sciences to hold three town meetings in 2002 and 2003. The resulting white paper called for a network of 17 sites in different biomes that, in turn, would be linked to other research sites nearby. Each site was projected to cost $20 million to set up and $3 million a year to operate.

    Again, however, the community was divided. Although some people were excited, others wondered if ecologists, known for being independent, would take full advantage of NEON. To many, the program looked like “LTER on steroids,” says Williams. “It was not a good-enough plan.”

    The united domains of America.

    Scientists divided the United States into 20 ecological domains. Three sites within each domain will be instrumented.

    SOURCE: NEON

    Next up was an evaluation by the U.S. National Academies. The resulting National Research Council (NRC) report endorsed NEON in principle but urged that the program be reoriented around six specific research questions, including biodiversity and land use. Each question would be the focus of one observatory (Science, 26 September 2003, p. 1828). “It forced us to look at large-scale ecological processes and large-scale drivers of change,” says NSF's Elizabeth Blood. Nonetheless, Congress chose not to give NSF money in 2004 to begin construction, the third time in 4 years it had passed on funding NEON.

    A plan takes shape

    For NSF, the flaw in the NRC proposal was that the observatories were too independent to be considered a single entity. That feature would preclude NEON from being funded by the agency's major research equipment account. For NEON's supporters, the solution was obvious. NEON “must be built as one giant Earth-facing telescope,” says David Schimel, CEO of NEON Inc. Although there would be multiple sites, together they would cover the entire nation in a statistically valid way. “It really is taking a different approach to doing national-level science,” says Porter.

    The first step was to refine the six research questions as science goals that could be tackled on a continental scale. Next came deciding what measurements would address these goals. NEON “needed to come up with those things that can be measured in the same way in every place,” Porter recalls. Only with uniform, standardized data would researchers be able to “statistically integrate the information to look at processes at a bigger scale,” explains Blood.

    Coming up with what biology to monitor, for example, was a challenge because each site has a distinct assortment of plants and animals. NEON's designers settled on a few key groups. Bypassing ants and frogs, they chose beetles, mosquitoes, birds, deer mice, and microbes. The last will be characterized by DNA sequencing. The team also had to develop a plant-sampling procedure that could work in grasslands as well as in a forest.

    Every site will have a tower that reaches about 10 meters above the existing vegetation. Each tower will host instruments for measuring climate variables such as temperature and wind speed as well as the exchange of carbon dioxide between the atmosphere and the land and vegetation in the immediate vicinity. NEON also plans to measure soil carbon dioxide and other soil characteristics, and will use fiber optic video cameras, called minirhizotrons, to monitor root growth. “What is unique and revolutionary is the fact that [these instruments] are being deployed all over the country,” says Field.

    Three airplanes will be equipped with a spectrometer that detects “greenness” of the vegetation by picking up the chemical fingerprints of the area they fly over. Those data can be matched with satellite observations to look for changes in vegetation and land use. The planes will also carry cameras and lidar to measure forest canopy heights and biomass.

    Test bed.

    All NEON sites will have a tower like this prototype, which is used for evaluating sensors, communications, and data-collection devices.

    CREDIT: NEON

    Initial plans for a giant climate change experiment that would manipulate carbon dioxide and temperature locally were dropped after the approach proved to be too expensive and unwieldy. However, a smaller manipulation survived as part of an effort to build predictive models of how streams adapt to stress. The Stream Observatory Network Experiment will boost nitrogen and phosphorus levels in 10 streams and monitor the impact for at least a decade. Upstream traps will also remove fish and other organisms at the top of the food chain, mimicking one of the big threats to aquatic ecosystems worldwide.

    All together, NEON's instruments and people will monitor 550 variables, and the data will be released to the public after being checked for quality. In many cases, NEON will also provide analyses that incorporate spatial and temporal information, and use models that predict parameters, such as net productivity, that couldn't be measured directly.

    While some scientists were debating what to monitor, others began figuring out how to divide up the country. “We wanted to maximize the amount of environmental variety in North America,” says Schimel. William Hargrove, now with the U.S. Forest Service in Asheville, North Carolina, created a matrix for each square kilometer of the United States with data on nine variables, such as days below freezing, amount of precipitation in the growing season, and vegetation growth. Using a supercomputer, he grouped like squares to come up with specific regions, called domains, characterized by particular ecological characteristics: tundra, prairie, alpine, and southeastern forest domains, for example. After settling on 20 domains, Hargrove and his colleagues then determined which locations in each domain best represented the range of environmental conditions of that domain.

    Each domain will have one permanent “wildlands” site and two temporary sites that will host instruments for 3 to 5 years. Some 800 permanent sites were proposed; under the rules, a potential site needed to be available for 30 years, offer year-round access, and permit flyovers by remote-sensing aircraft. To reduce the cost of visits, the sites within a domain also needed to be as close together as possible.

    Full speed ahead?

    The site selection was completed in 2007, and in November 2009, NSF signed off on NEON's final design. If approved by the science board, NEON expects to start work this summer at an agricultural field in eastern Colorado, followed in summer 2011 by the core site of that region in the Central Plains Experimental Range, 241 kilometers away. It hopes to build sites at two domains in the first and final years of construction, and four a year over the middle 4 years. NSF is asking Congress for $20 million in FY 2011 in a budget that ramps up to about $100 million annually in 2013 and 2014; work on all 20 domains should be completed in 6 years. Niwot Ridge will be one of the last sites built. NEON's annual operating budget is expected to be $80 million.

    But will this be money well spent? Not everyone thinks so. “I don't believe we will move environmental science along at the maximum speed with NEON,” says William Schlesinger, a biogeochemist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York. “I think if you took the same amount of money and used it to enhance the competitive grants for young people, we'd get [better] science for the money.”

    Tilman, the chair of the NRC committee that reviewed NEON in 2003, also has some reservations. “The current NEON in my mind takes too literally the word ‘observatory,’” he says. He disagrees with NEON's decision to drop the climate change experiment his panel recommended. “You need observations of natural systems and observations of experimentally manipulated systems” to begin to determine cause and effects and then to check those findings against what is happening in nature, he says. Those experiments would also motivate young researchers to invest their careers in NEON, he adds.

    Indeed, there's an undercurrent of nervousness about whether the community will use the information that NEON generates. “People are a little wary about what we'll get out of it,” says Eugene Kelly, a soil scientist at Colorado State University, Fort Collins. He thinks his generation of senior researchers might not benefit much from NEON because it has a different mindset, and many may not want to wait a decade or longer for the trends from the data being collected to become evident.

    In addition, he and Williams are upset because NEON's investment in infrastructure at its sites, including places like Niwot Ridge, won't enhance existing facilities. “The sites get nothing” to augment their budgets, says Williams. “It's a major bone of contention.” Williams worries that NEON will not be well integrated with the operations of his LTER once construction begins and that the two teams won't work together in a scientifically productive way.

    But Schimel says NEON will pay its way at these sites and will work with local managers. And NSF is hoping to attract researchers with a new $20 million grant program announced this month. Macrosystems Biology: Research on Biological Systems at Regional to Continental Scales will fund proposals from scientists seeking to use data from NEON. Williams is already planning to apply for funds to incorporate early Niwot Ridge data into the NEON data stream.

    “When they did the first [telescope] observatory, I bet it wasn't the very best there is,” Porter explains. “But you will never get to that second observatory until you've had the first. We'll learn a lot from NEON.”

  10. Newsmaker Interview

    Imponderables Complicate Hunt For Intelligent Life Beyond Earth

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    Those looking for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations should cast a bigger net, says Paul Davies, head of a group figuring out what to do if the search succeeds.

    The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) leaped from fantasy to science 50 years ago this month when astronomer Frank Drake pointed the 26-meter telescope at the U.S. National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, at a star 11 light-years away. Since then, astronomers have searched a few thousand stars in the hope of detecting radio messages from alien civilizations that might be living on planets orbiting them. Yet all the searches can attest to so far is the limitless optimism of SETI researchers.

    In his new book The Eerie Silence, physicist Paul Davies argues for widening the search from radio messages beamed at Earth to beacons sweeping the galaxy, alien probes traveling through the solar system, and signs that viral DNA dispatched by a faraway civilization may have since become incorporated into the DNA of organisms on our planet. A professor at Arizona State University, Tempe, who serves as chair of the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup, Davies spoke to Science recently about the past and future of SETI. His remarks have been edited for brevity.

    Q:Why is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence any different from the search for goblins or unicorns?

    P.D.:Good point. Well, when it started out 50 years ago, it was considered a very quixotic enterprise. The pendulum has swung during my career. I often ask around why it is now okay to talk about ET when it wasn't 40 years ago. And people will often cite irrelevant factors like—oh, we've discovered all these planets, and we've discovered that life can exist in a wide array of conditions. But the truth is that we still don't have an acceptable theory of life's origins, we really have no idea whether it was a stupendous fluke that happened only once or whether it pops up all over the place. It's now fashionable to say that the universe is teeming with life, but there is not a shred of evidence.

    Q:The premise of “it's there but we haven't found it” sounds a bit like the claim of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. To borrow from Donald Rumsfeld, the former U.S. defense secretary, doesn't ET belong in the category of “unknown unknowns”?

    P.D.:It certainly does. To quote Jill Tarter [director of the Center for SETI Research in Mountain View, California], it's a hypothesis to be tested, and the way to test it is to go look. It's clearly not a logical absurdity that there exist other intelligent beings in the universe. But we really don't know what to look for; we only have the vaguest idea how to look.

    Q:What's the problem with the traditional approach to SETI: looking for radio messages targeted at us from a faraway source?

    P.D.:It's just a speed-of-light issue. If you take Frank Drake's estimate of 10,000 civilizations in the galaxy, that places the nearest one 1000 light-years away. So they see us as we were 1000 years ago, [yet] it would make no sense for them to start transmitting until they knew we had radio technology. So the search in radio is fine, but expecting a message crafted for mankind deliberately directed at Earth beamed at us by an altruistic civilization that has no idea whether we'd pick up the message makes no sense. That's why I think we should shift the emphasis to searching for beacons, which are not directed at anybody in particular.

    Don't wait up.

    Davies's new book says ET probably won't phone us.

    CREDIT: WIKIPEDIA

    Q:How do you propose to widen the search?

    P.D.:What we're really looking for is technology and its footprint. If we go with the hypothesis that in the distant past, some sort of alien expedition passed through the solar system, would anything at all remain of their presence? There are a few things: nuclear waste, genomes, major quarrying, or mining exercises—we might see traces of that. We need to think creatively how messages might be left for posterity, how technology might impact its environment either deliberately or inadvertently.

    Q:Is it limiting to assume an ET that is interested in making contact with us?

    P.D.:It is indeed. It also carries the hidden assumption of altruism: that they would do the heavy lifting [to signal to us]. We should shift the emphasis away from their deliberately getting our attention to—well, they're going about their business, how might we be able to detect that business?

    Q:Would SETI have been worth it even if the conclusion is that we are alone in the universe?

    P.D.:Well, absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence, so I don't think we'll ever know for certain. But if we did, then we might be much more inclined to take better care of our planet, to ensure the longevity of humanity, because if this alone is the spark of reason on this one pale blue dot, then we have an awesome responsibility to make sure it's not snuffed out. But personally I feel a lot more comfortable with the opposite conclusion: that the universe is intrinsically bio-friendly and that we are but one representative of a deep life principle that is built into the scheme of things. But that's just the romantic Paul Davies talking.

    Q:You devote a chapter in the book to how governments, the media, and societies need to handle news of the detection of extraterrestrial intelligence, if and when that happens. What are the outlines of the plan?

    P.D.:If there's a signal, the scientists should be allowed to evaluate it before there's a hullabaloo. In practice, that will be very hard to achieve without a cloak of secrecy, which I am usually against. But there's one thing on which we are all agreed, which is that we should not disclose the coordinates in the sky of a transmitting source. Because otherwise, any self-appointed spokesperson of humanity could get hold of a radio telescope and start beaming crackpot messages, and present themselves as a spokesperson for mankind, when it is not at all clear whether we should respond.

  11. Public Health

    A Sense of Crisis as China Confronts Ailments of Affluence

    1. Dennis Normile

    As rates of behavior-related diseases rise, China's medical community looks for ways to change attitudes and advance preventive care.

    Up in smoke.

    China's tobacco use, increasing among women, causes a million deaths a year.

    CREDIT: REUTERS

    China is a land of superlatives: It consumes the most concrete and steel, emits the most greenhouse gases, and now, to the chagrin of health specialists, it has more people with type 2 diabetes than any other country in the world. By testing more than 46,000 people, Yang Wenying, a diabetes specialist at the China-Japan Friendship Hospital in Beijing, and colleagues extrapolate that 92.4 million Chinese—nearly 10% of the adult population—have type 2 (formerly “adult-onset”) diabetes and another 148.2 million have prediabetes, or abnormally high blood sugar levels believed to presage the disease. Diabetes “has reached epidemic proportions,” they concluded in a report last month in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

    China's growing affluence is driving sharp increases in what were once considered scourges of the Western world: lung and breast cancer, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cerebro- and cardiovascular diseases. A rapidly changing lifestyle appears to be to blame, as Chinese are smoking more; consuming more fat, sugar, salt, and refined grains; and leading increasingly sedentary lives, particularly in cities and booming coastal regions. Somehow, most Chinese have not grasped that “as lifestyles change, diseases change,” says Hao Xishan, president of Tianjin Medical University and chair of the Chinese Anti-Cancer Association. Ignorance and a health care system focused on infectious diseases have left China “facing a huge pending burden” from behavior-driven illnesses that are likely to take “a larger toll in the years to come,” says Jeffrey Koplan, an epidemiologist at Emory University in Atlanta who works with Chinese colleagues on chronic-disease mitigation.

    Fledgling efforts to retrain doctors to handle lifestyle diseases early and to raise awareness about disease prevention “need to be massively accelerated” for China to stave off a crisis, says Lincoln Chen, a public health scientist at China Medical Board, a foundation based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The whole of society should be mobilized to control noncommunicable diseases,” says Yang Gonghuan, a deputy director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Beijing. A health reform plan adopted in April 2009 calls for attention to a number of noncommunicable diseases, but it doesn't go far enough, Yang says.

    What's your brand?

    For decades, China sought to vanquish diseases of deprivation, not excess. From 1973 to 2005, rates of infectious diseases and maternal and infant mortality dropped from 27.8% of all deaths to 5.2%, Yang and colleagues reported in the 8 November 2008 issue of The Lancet. Over the same period, noncommunicable diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and stroke rose from 41.7% to 74.1% all deaths (see chart).

    To Hao and others, the most frustrating aspect of China's noncommunicable disease problem is the country's stubborn tobacco habit. China manufactures an astounding 2.2 trillion cigarettes each year, making it by far the world's largest producer and consumer of cigarettes, according to Tobacco Atlas. Nearly 60% of Chinese men and 4% of women smoke regularly, reports the Chinese CDC. The World Health Organization estimates that smoking causes 1 million deaths a year in China.

    Clever marketing of hundreds of brands selling at prices ranging from 14 cents to $33 per pack has made a person's choice of cigarette a sign of economic status, says Xiao Shuiyuan, a psychiatrist at Central South University in Changsha. “When men interact today, strong pressure exists for each to flaunt his preferred brand and ‘courteously’ exchange cigarettes, creating cycles of reciprocity that fuel nicotine addiction and impede quitting,” Xiao and Matthew Kohrman of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, wrote in the 8 November 2008 issue of The Lancet.

    Cultural taboos have limited smoking among Chinese women, Xiao says, but attitudes are changing. In a small but telling survey at their university, psychologist Qi Yulong and epidemiologist Mei Cuizhu of Bengbu Medical College found that although only 4.9% of female students smoked, smoking was more prevalent among women from urban areas. City girls “were significantly more likely to think that a young woman who smoked was cool, mature, and charming,” they reported last July in the Journal of Nanjing Medical University. A separate survey found that roughly one-fifth of female students aged 14 to 24 years had tried smoking. It is “an ominous harbinger” of future disease in a previously unaffected population, Thomas Novotny, a medical epidemiologist at San Diego State University in California, and colleagues asserted in a 2009 online article in Tobacco Control.

    Tobacco companies target young women with slim, fashionably packaged cigarettes. Novotny and his group report that women believe these “feminine” cigarettes to be less harmful than regular brands. And the Bengbu study found that fewer than 45% of those medical university students were fully aware of the health effects of smoking.

    One glimmer of hope, Xiao says, is that some municipalities have banned smoking in public places. Most notable is Beijing's pledge to make the 2008 Summer Olympics smoke-free. The city forbade smoking in taxis, sports arenas, museums, government buildings, and parks. These and other restrictions have remained in effect, says Xiao. Shanghai is now following suit by crafting an antismoking effort around the 2010 World Expo, which opens 1 May. Such restrictions have won broad support among educated professionals in China's eastern cities, Xiao says. “The culture is slowly changing, and this is really the best hope for controlling tobacco use in China,” he says.

    Ebb and flow.

    China has brought infectious diseases to heel only to find that smoking, poor diets, and a lack of exercise are taking an increasing toll.

    CREDIT: (SOURCE) YANG GONGHUAN ET AL., THE LANCET, 372, ISSUE 9650 (8 NOVEMBER 2008)

    That enlightenment hasn't penetrated far into China's heartland. In Changsha, the capital of south-central Hunan Province where Xiao lives, “everybody still smokes,” he says. And nationwide, cigarette sales are increasing. Hao believes the government should slap heavy taxes on cigarettes and funnel the proceeds to health research, but he doesn't see that happening any time soon.

    Although some Chinese cities may be turning the corner on smoking, another deadly threat is gathering momentum. Breast cancer has become the most commonly diagnosed cancer among women in Beijing, Shanghai, and several other major urban areas, says Hao. Overall, breast cancer incidence in China is about one-third the incidence in the United States, he says. But that masks a startling discrepancy between rural areas, where the disease is still rare, and big cities—perhaps because of differing diets, Hao says. Shanghai, for example, in 2004 had 71 cases of breast cancer per 100,000 women. (The incidence among white U.S. women is about 128 per 100,000.) Mortality rates for breast cancer in China's cities rose 39% between 1991 and 2000, the biggest increase of any type of cancer, Hao says.

    To reduce this toll through early detection, the Chinese Anti-Cancer Association in 2008 launched an effort to screen 530,000 women for breast cancer by the end of this year. The project includes training for at least 400 doctors. The health ministry is also funding a cervical cancer–screening program. The goal, Hao says, is to make screening a routine part of medical care. He would also like to see more basic cancer research. One mystery, Hao says, is that breast cancer is more common among women in their mid-40s in China than among same-aged women in developed countries; it's not clear why.

    Off the scales

    Fat busters.

    Schools are turning to physical education to counter rising rates of childhood obesity.

    CREDIT: NEWSCOM

    China's rapid economic ascent is embodied in richer diets and less physical activity. Yang Gonghuan and colleagues reported in their 2008 paper in The Lancet that people are eating less cereal grains and much more fat than they were 20 years ago. Salt consumption, presumed to increase the risk of hypertension, has risen to twice the level recommended by Chinese dietary guidelines. At the same time, city dwellers are driving more and bicycling less. As a result, urban Chinese are growing flabbier. According to Chinese body-mass indices, Yang Gonghuan reports that 22.8% of Chinese adults were overweight in 2002 and 7.1% were obese—double the rate reported in 1992.

    Overeating begins in childhood. In Shanghai and Beijing, 29% of boys and 15% of girls aged 7 to 12 were overweight or obese in 2000, up from about 6% and 4% in 1985, C. M. Chen of the Chinese CDC reported online on 28 February 2008 in Obesity Reviews. Even infants are getting heavier. Lin Xu, a nutritionist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute for Nutritional Sciences in Shanghai, says there's been an increase in newborns weighing more than 4 kilograms, which is very heavy for Asian populations and can cause complications at birth and later in life. “Even medical professionals don't think of a big baby as a problem,” Lin says. Some clinics are now trying to clue in caregivers and expectant mothers to the importance of a moderate weight gain during pregnancy, Lin says.

    Poor diets, putting on pounds, and lack of physical activity are behind the rise in cerebro- and cardiovascular diseases and deaths, says Yang Gonghuan. These factors are also driving the diabetes increase. It's largely a silent epidemic: In the NEJM study, Yang Wenying says, 60% of Chinese with diabetes were unaware of their condition. Her group found that better educated people were more likely to know they have diabetes and take steps to control it. Particularly in rural areas, Yang says, “we need to educate people about [the benefits] of keeping a healthy lifestyle.” They are planning a pilot program targeting 7000 adults with prediabetes, hoping to head off disease progression and complications that can include heart problems, limb amputations, and renal failure. And they are screening DNA samples collected from their 46,000 subjects to see if Chinese have a genetic susceptibility to diabetes.

    The droves of undiagnosed diabetes cases point to a fundamental weakness in China's health care system. Clinics and hospitals “are not set up to identify people with the precursors to diabetes. They don't routinely test people, even people who might have a history of diabetes in the family,” says Brian Oldenburg, a public health specialist who heads the Initiative for Global Health Improvement at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. Oldenburg, who is advising Beijing health officials on how to reduce the diabetes burden, says it will be critical to identify people at risk and get them into programs to modify their behavior. The challenge, he says, is to “reorient a health system focused on child and maternal health and infectious diseases to help people manage a chronic disease like diabetes.”

    Improving disease prevention will take new regulations, awareness campaigns, and leadership by health care professionals, says Lincoln Chen. The China Medical Board has a program to urge doctors to stop smoking and adopt and enforce no-smoking rules in hospitals and clinics. Yang Gonghuan wants the food industry to cut back on salt as part of a broader effort to rein in hypertension. And to battle diabetes, Chen Yan, who heads the Institute for Nutritional Sciences, says he and others are lobbying the government and industry to fortify milk products with vitamin D. Recent studies have found that more than 90% of middle-aged and older people in Beijing and Shanghai suffer vitamin D deficiency, which exacerbates diabetes and prediabetes.

    The central government is tuning in to the shifting disease burden. In spring 2009, the State Council adopted sweeping health care reforms that aim primarily to broaden coverage and improve delivery. The plan also calls for hepatitis B vaccinations to stave off liver cancer and breast and cervical cancer screening. “It's a start,” says Yang Gonghuan, who argues that greater emphasis should be placed on tobacco control and tackling stroke and heart disease.

    China was caught off-guard by an “onslaught of chronic and noncommunicable diseases,” says Lincoln Chen. “I have no doubt that the Chinese will respond as recognition mounts and as health care costs mount, but how quickly and how effectively they can respond is not known,” he says. The key may be teaching a lesson that many Westerners are only beginning to fathom: The “good life,” without moderation, can be bad for one's health.

  12. Archaeology

    Unprecedented Excavation Brings Maritime Silk Road to Life

    1. Li Jiao*

    Raising the medieval Nanhai 1 wreck was a technical tour de force; now archaeologists are preparing to take the vessel apart plank by plank.

    Westward bound.

    Now moored in mud in a museum, Nanhai 1 is one of two major wrecks from the Maritime Silk Road.

    CREDIT: ZHANG WANXING

    HAILING ISLAND, CHINA—In 1987, treasure hunters searching for a 16th century shipwreck off the coast of southern China stumbled instead upon relics from a much older merchant vessel. The serendipitous find “confirmed the existence of an ancient maritime trade route linking China and the West,” says Zhang Wanxing, vice director of Guangdong Maritime Silk Road Museum here. In an unprecedented feat 20 years later, the 30-meter-long, 10-meter-wide ship, called Nanhai 1, or South China Sea 1, was scooped up along with a thick blanket of silt that entombs and preserves it, and hauled en masse to the museum. Now, at long last, archaeologists are about to embark on the next stage of Nanhai 1's journey: a plank-by-plank excavation that will recover upward of 80,000 artifacts nestled inside.

    A preliminary excavation last autumn lifted the veil on medieval Chinese shipbuilding, whetting appetites for more. The next phase will be “the first systematic and comprehensive study of a maritime silk route ship and its cargo,” says archaeologist Bill Jeffery of James Cook University in Queensland, Australia. “Nothing like it has ever been done before anywhere in the world.”

    Chinese merchant vessels plied the Maritime Silk Road. from about the 2nd century B.C.E. to the 18th century C.E., starting out from ports along China's southeast coast and making for lands as far away as India and the Middle East. A handful of wrecks from the period had yielded precious few artifacts—until Nanhai 1, which promises to shed light on everything from navigation and shipbuilding to porcelain making and metalwork, says Wei Jun, vice director of Guangdong Cultural Relics Bureau. And as Science went to press, salvage archaeologists were about to commence recovery of relics from another Silk Road–era wreck, Nan'ao 1, off the coast of Guangdong.

    Nanhai 1's serendipitous recovery began in the summer of 1987, when Guangzhou Salvage Bureau of the Chinese Ministry of Communications and Maritime Exploration and Recovery Ltd. were searching for the Yhrhynsburg, an East India Company vessel known to have sunk near the Chuanshan Archipelago in the South China Sea, off the coast of Guangdong Province. Scouring the seabed, the treasure hunters made an intriguing discovery: green porcelain bowls and other relics that were at least 800 years old. Chinese officials immediately halted the operation and called in archaeologists. The relics pegged the wreck to the Song Dynasty, which lasted from 960 C.E. to 1279 C.E. Archaeologists were especially astonished by a 1.7-meter-long golden belt that was like nothing they had seen before. “The ornamentation was totally different” from anything else made in China at the time, says Zhang Wanxing. “Everybody was shocked and excited,” adds Cui Yong, vice director of the Underwater Archeology Research Center of the Guangdong Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology.

    CREDIT: (MAP SOURCE) SUI YI

    The first formal underwater excavation began in 1989. Zhang Wei, director of the National Underwater Team and vice director of the National Museum of China, found a wooden block—perhaps part of a mast—and a second diver found a fragment of porcelain. Those were the only two items recovered by divers until 2001, when an excavation sponsored by the Hong Kong China Underwater Archaeology Research and Exploration Association netted more than 6000 objects, including ceramics, coins, and metalwork. From 2002 to 2004, a $5.9 million program undertaken by the National Museum of China used radar soundings to map out Nanhai 1 and confirmed the excellent condition it appeared to be in.

    A huge decision confronted the experts: whether to excavate Nanhai 1 where it lay or haul it ashore first. One other wreck had been raised intact successfully: the Vasa, a 17th century Swedish warship that was lifted from the bottom of Stockholm harbor in 1961 (Science, 12 September 2003, p. 1459). But Vasa was a special case: The harbor's frigid, less saline waters had shielded its hull from marine worms that devour wood. Nanhai 1 was saved by silt that had quickly engulfed it.

    On a visit to China in 2004, George Bass of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) in College Station, Texas, widely considered the father of marine archaeology, recommended that Nanhai 1 be excavated like almost all other wrecks have been: by disassembling it on the seabed. Zhang Wei agreed, envisioning a 2-year-long in situ excavation. But in 2005 an expert panel organized by the National Heritage Board of China opted instead for a more ambitious plan proposed by the Guangdong government.

    Nanhai 1 treasures.

    Porcelain (left) and a golden belt.

    CREDIT: (INSET) COURTESY OF ZHANG WANXING; NATIONAL MUSEUM OF CHINA

    The $13 million salvage operation, using a 530-ton steel container specially designed for Nanhai 1, was “dangerous and difficult,” says Zhang Wanxing. Engineers slid 36 steel beams, each weighing 5.3 tons, through 15 meters of mud—with an allowance for error of less than 10 centimeters in the murky water. They succeeded, and once Nanhai 1 was cradled in its container, a floating crane that bobbed precariously on the swells raised it to the surface.

    The success put Chinese underwater archaeology on the map—and left Bass, for one, “awed.” “We carried out an excavation that no other country had dared to try,” says Zhang Wanxing. Jeffrey, too, is impressed. “It is something you dream about: sealing the ship and all its cargo and fittings inside a large container, raising it, and bringing it ashore so you can excavate it in sheltered, cleaner, and warmer waters,” he says.

    The groundbreaking operation spawned a new concern, however: how long Nanhai 1 can hold up in its present environment. “Leaving it in water would be highly unusual, as this will eventually degrade the wood,” says INA archaeologist Shelley Wachsmann. Although Nanhai 1 is still submerged in seawater, says Zhang Wei, “it's uncertain how to maintain the chemical and physical environment … and whether the boat can be protected.” Simulations done at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou have provided some guidance on ideal conditions for Nanhai 1. But “it is not so easy” to put theory into practice, says Zhang Wanxing.

    Zhang Wei and others also had nagging doubts about whether Nanhai 1 survived the move to Hailing, about 75 kilometers from the salvage site. A preliminary analysis organized last summer by Guangdong provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology was reassuring: Nanhai 1, they found, is intact. “That set my mind at rest,” says Zhang Wanxing. The team also excavated portions of the hull and recovered more than 200 artifacts, mostly porcelain. Protecting the ship's integrity is now the top priority.

    Once archaeologists are satisfied Nanhai 1 can withstand further scrutiny, they will begin a methodical disassembly. The excavation will be carried out in full view in the $22 million museum, which opened last December. “It's really a good opportunity for the public to learn about underwater archaeology,” says Zhao Jiabin, director of the Underwater Archaeology Research Center of the National Museum of China. The museum already has loads of artifacts on display and in its storerooms that will help scholars fathom the maritime Silk Road, says Zhang Wanxing. And more secrets are waiting to be revealed.

    • * Li Jiao is a writer in Beijing.

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