News this Week

Science  04 Jun 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5983, pp. 1214
  1. Gulf Oil Disaster

    Louisiana Begins Controversial Engineering to Ward Off Oil Spill

    1. Erik Stokstad

    Regardless of when BP finally manages to stop its undersea gusher from the Deepwater Horizon, a massive slick will likely remain in the Gulf of Mexico for some time. With public officials desperate for action, the magnitude of the disaster—the largest oil spill in U.S. history—has inspired an unprecedented and untested idea for combating it: an extensive sand trap. But scientists are dubious about the project's chance of success and say it could even jeopardize long-term restoration of Louisiana's wetlands, which have been disappearing for decades.

    First cut.

    Dredges like this will collect sand, which will be shipped and then dropped in front of barrier islands.

    CREDIT: CHARLIE VARLEY/SIPA PRESS/NEWSCOM

    In mid-May, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal—frustrated at what he saw as an inadequate federal response to the spill—proposed a 2-meter-tall sand berm to protect 160 kilometers of his state's coast from oil. The project would require dredging an estimated 68 million cubic meters of sand and cost at least $350 million—perhaps three times that figure. “I was stunned,” says Joseph Kelley, a coastal geophysicist at the University of Maine, Orono. “This is a big proposal and not well thought out.”

    Last week, the Army Corps of Engineers, after examining the proposal and getting input from experts at other agencies, granted Louisiana an emergency permit to build two portions of the proposed berm. But scientists at those agencies and at universities question how effective or durable the berm would be, and some say the corps' analysis was too hasty. “You're spending a couple hundred million dollars and crossing your fingers,” says Robert Young, a coastal geologist at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina.

    The rationale for the berm is fairly simple. Oil is much easier to remove from a sandy beach than from a vegetation-rich wetland, where cleaning would probably cause additional harm to the fragile ecosystem. But Louisiana's sandy barrier islands have been greatly damaged by storms in recent years. In some places, the Chandeleur Islands have eroded into shallow shoals over which oil could flow unimpeded toward sensitive wetlands. In addition to catching oil, the massive berms would shunt oily water toward tidal inlets, making it more efficient for booms and boats to collect it.

    But soon after the state applied for the emergency permit on 11 May, federal agencies and academic scientists raised objections. “My concern is if we rush into this and don't have any idea about what the impacts might be,” says Gregory Stone of Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge. The dredging might exacerbate erosion of the islands, for example, or further disturb breeding birds or nesting sea turtles that have already been affected by the oil.

    In granting the emergency permit last week, the government recognized those worries. “There are a lot of doubts whether this is a valid oil spill–response technique,” Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who heads the national response, said at a press conference. “But we're not averse to attempting this as a prototype.” The permit allows the state to build 72 kilometers of berm, less than half of its proposal. The federal government will front the bill for one section of the berm (with hopes of collecting from BP). The rest would have to be funded by the state, which could likewise try to get reimbursed by BP.

    Far out.

    Louisiana wants to build an extensive array of offshore sand berms to keep oil from reaching wetlands, but many scientists are skeptical that it will work.

    MAP SOURCES: U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS; 2010 GOOGLE AND TERRAMETRICS

    The scope of the permit may be expanded—and the federal government would consider funding more of it—if the project shows a “net environmental benefit,” according to Allen. It's not clear what that means, but it could be as simple as checking whether the berms hold up and collect oil. “If these berms are keeping the beaches behind them clean, then that's a pretty persuasive argument that they are doing something good,” Young says.

    Still, experts doubt that the berms will catch much oil. For one thing, it could take many months to construct them, given that hurricane season has begun. And the 100-meter-wide berm will likely wash away quickly. Because the berm is steeper than the natural beach, waves erode it faster than normal. Even small storms could do serious damage and likely scatter the sand about the muddy sea floor where it couldn't be retrieved. That would mean that much sand—a precious commodity needed for coastal restoration—would be lost.

    Coastal scientists are relieved that the project is starting out at half-scale and that the corps put the most plentiful and easily accessed sources of high-quality sand off-limits to dredging for now. The permit allows sand to be gathered only from Pass a Loutre, a wide channel of the Mississippi. “It's probably quite good sand and could be replenished by the river,” says Denise Reed of the University of New Orleans. In addition, the dredging and bulldozing will have to follow guidelines for avoiding harm to endangered species that live there, such as the piping plover.

    Robert Twilley of LSU is hoping that the permit can be modified to allow sand to be placed not on a berm in front of the western barrier islands but rather on top, where it would be likely to escape erosion. “If we're going to move sand, we should do that for the purpose of restoration, so we're not building an artificial landscape,” Twilley says.

  2. Gulf Oil Disaster

    No 'Smoking Gun' for Killer Oil

    1. Lauren Schenkman

    As turtle and dolphin corpses wash up on Gulf of Mexico beaches, scientists face a sleuthing challenge worthy of CSI: determining whether oil had a hand in the deaths.

    In the past month, the stranding network operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has counted more than 200 dead sea turtles and more than 20 dead dolphins. Turtles normally strand during the summer nesting season, and the number of strandings in May has averaged 47 in the past 5 years. Although that's far below the current tally, none of the dead turtles had oil on its shell or skin, only one dolphin appeared to be oiled, and the 67 turtle necropsies that had been performed when Science went to press had failed to find oil internally. However, officials are loath to either implicate or rule out oil as the culprit.

    In addition to rescuing and cleaning oiled animals, NOAA is simultaneously gathering evidence for the government's Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), the estimate of a humanmade disaster's environmental impact that ultimately goes to court. Animals that died from exposure to oil factor into that estimate, says Michael Ziccardi, a University of California, Davis, wildlife veterinarian currently advising NOAA's efforts in Houma, Louisiana.

    Victim.

    Just one of the dead dolphins found so far had oil on its body.

    CREDIT: PLAQUEMINES PARISH GOVERNMENT/AP PHOTO

    “The more environmental damage due to a spill, the higher the damage assessment is on a dollar basis,” Ziccardi says. “Animals do directly affect the amount.”

    But pinning an animal's death to oil is tricky. Clues could be as obvious as oil on an animal's skin and in its mouth, eye irritation, or, during a necropsy, a tarball in the intestinal tract and oil in unexpelled feces. But some clues show up only under a microscope.

    Oil “causes profound effects in clinical pathology,” which vary based on the dosage and length of exposure, says Gregory Bossart, a veterinary pathologist and immunologist at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta who worked with oiled birds and turtles during the massive spills of the Persian Gulf War. The most toxic components of crude oil are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), volatile molecules that irritate every system in the body. Pathologists looking at mucous membrane tissue under a microscope might see inflammation, a sign of inhaling fumes. Ingested oil causes hemorrhaging in the gastrointestinal tract and damage to the liver and kidneys.

    But even these microscopic clues aren't the final word, Ziccardi says: “The same cellular changes can be seen with diseases …y [or] starvation. That's why a lot of this is very much like CSI, trying to put together the clues.”

    On the other hand, “death tends to be a dynamic process,” Bossart says. Oil exposure can kill by making animals more vulnerable to other diseases, signs of which “could cloud the picture if you're trying to see a simple cause and effect.” After the Exxon Valdez tanker spill, for instance, sea otters that had inhaled fumes developed pneumonia, he notes. “These are very complex morbidity and mortality issues that we need to be careful in how we interpret.”

    Toxic PAHs are usually metabolized and flushed fairly quickly, and that makes them hard to use as a marker for oiling. But they can also accumulate in fatty tissue like ovaries and other reproductive tissues, says NOAA environmental scientist and ecotoxicologist Simeon Hahn, who is leading the ongoing NRDA for sea turtles and marine mammals. This could be especially useful for determining oiling in animals too decayed to necropsy. His team will send tissue samples from all found animals to a laboratory to be analyzed for PAHs and their metabolites, he says. It could take weeks or months for those results to be announced.

    Meanwhile, the unprecedented use of nearly 4 million liters of chemical dispersants has added a new wrinkle, forcing NOAA to develop protocols analogous to PAH testing to flag dispersant poisoning, something it's never had to do before, and a scientific challenge, Hahn says: “In general, there's not a good understanding of how the material accumulates in tissue.”

  3. Astronomy

    Long-Delayed Airborne Observatory Takes First Flight, Sees First Light

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee
    Plane view.

    Mounted on a Boeing 747, SOFIA will fly at an altitude of 12,000 meters.

    CREDIT: JIM ROSS/NASA PHOTO

    It was 13 years in the making: a jetliner with a 2.5-meter telescope looking out into space through an opening on the rear left side of the aircraft. Four years ago, with NASA poised to yank funding, it looked as if this airborne observatory would be grounded forever. But last week, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) glided off the runway of the Palmdale Airport in California for its first observational flight, drawing cheers from scientists who expect it to open a new window on the nearby universe.

    Designed to fly for 8 hours at a stretch some 12,000 meters above Earth, SOFIA occupies a niche between ground-based telescopes, which cannot see infrared rays well because of atmospheric moisture, and space telescopes, which cannot be upgraded or serviced. Unlike Herschel, the European space observatory that has been snapping pictures at near-infrared wavelengths since its launch a year ago, SOFIA's Faint Object Infrared Camera (FORCAST) will operate in the mid-infrared, at wavelengths between 5 and 40 micrometers. That's a range in which the warm dust and gas of interstellar clouds, planetary nebulae, and planet-forming disks around stars become visible.

    FORCAST is just the beginning, says astrophysicist Eric Becklin, chief science adviser for SOFIA. In the next few years, eight more instruments currently in the pipeline will give SOFIA unique capabilities over a wider range of infrared wavelengths. As technology advances, SOFIA's potential will be limited only “by the imaginations of instrument builders,” Becklin says, noting what SOFIA's managers describe as its key advantage over the competition.

    SOFIA's first observational run on 25 May went smoothly, but the project itself has had a long and bumpy ride. Begun in 1996 as a collaboration between NASA and the German Space Agency, the project was initially estimated to cost $250 million and to glimpse first light by 2005. But its cost quickly ballooned, in lockstep with missed deadlines, and a 2004 Government Accountability Office report cited SOFIA as an example of unrealistic baseline estimates typical of many astronomy missions. “We underestimated how technically difficult it is to put this very large hole in this very large aircraft,” says Erick Young, the observatory's science missions director.

    In 2006, NASA officials announced that the agency intended to pull the plug starting the following year. The decision sparked protests from the German collaborators and from SOFIA's supporters in the U.S. science community. “There was a large congressional effort to reverse the decision,” says Becklin. NASA changed its mind and stuck with the project, even though the final bill came to exceed $900 million.

    Cloud cover.

    Infrared image of Jupiter (above right) taken through SOFIA's telescope (left) maps heat emanating from the planet.

    CREDITS (TOP TO BOTTOM): ANTHONY WESLEY/NASA PHOTO; TOM TSCHIDA/NASA PHOTO

    The long delay in getting SOFIA up and running has frustrated some of the researchers involved in building instruments for the observatory. Reinhard Genzel, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, says his research group—which has built a far-infrared imaging spectrometer for SOFIA—will be ending its role in the observatory after handing over the instrument. “We were going to fly this instrument 4 years ago when SOFIA would have been the first observatory with this capability,” Genzel says. “Now we are spoiled with Herschel data, so SOFIA is not as attractive.” However, Genzel adds that SOFIA will have several other capabilities—such as high-resolution spectroscopy—that Herschel cannot match.

    Scientists planning to use SOFIA are looking ahead. The flight last week “was a success, showing that the vibrations of the telescope in flight are well within the predicted bounds,” says Mark Morris, an astronomer at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has been allotted time on the observatory when it begins making science flights in October. Repeated launch delays quashed his earlier plans to observe the galactic center or the Orion nebula, Morris says, but now he is confident that he'll get his chance. “It may be a good time to study some nearby star-forming regions such as Taurus,” he says.

  4. Clean Coal

    In Quest to Save Energy, China Ignores Simple Answer

    1. Hao Xin

    BEIJING—At the Strategic and Economic Dialogue here last week, China and the United States found common cause on the need to team up on clean energy research. But one low-tech measure would allow China to make huge strides on its own in energy savings and pollution reduction: All it must do is wash its coal before burning it, says Xu Xuchang, a combustion expert at Tsinghua University here. But it doesn't, and this bodes ill for China's frantic efforts to meet a looming energy-efficiency target.

    China's energy-conservation plan for 2006 to 2010 calls for a 20% reduction from 2005 levels in energy intensity—energy consumption per unit of GDP—and a 10% reduction in pollution. With time running out, China isn't close to achieving either target, and leaders are worried. In an all-hands-on-deck State Council meeting last month, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao urged local officials and executives of state enterprises to “eliminate excess production capacity with an iron fist,” according to news reports.

    That will not be easy. The last several years have been one step forward, two steps back for China's energy-savings effort. From 1980 to 2002, the country achieved a 5% average annual reduction in energy intensity. Then, fueled by explosive growth in automobile manufacturing and real estate, energy intensity rose 3.8% per year from 2002 to 2005. Over that period, the “Chinese economy drove a far greater energy demand than in any nation at any time,” says Mark Levine, founder of the China Energy Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

    Out with the old.

    China has the muscle to demolish inefficient power plants but lacks the wherewithal to wash coal.

    CREDIT: YAO JIANFENG/CHINA FEATURES/XINHUA

    As bad as things looked, China showed it could “turn the supertanker around,” Levine says, by managing for a few years to reduce energy intensity. One bright spot is the “top-1000 energy-consuming enterprises” program, which allots energy savings quotas to companies. By the end of 2008, the program had achieved its 2010 target and saved 106 million tons of coal equivalent (MTCE) in energy. A second success story is the “large substituting small” scheme, in which 7467 outdated, noxious power-generation units were replaced with more efficient ones.

    However, rising energy demand has swamped those savings. China's $586 billion stimulus package, says Levine, “particularly boosted construction and other energy-intensive activities,” which “put a major crimp” in its conservation plan. Energy intensity shot up 3.2% in the first quarter of 2010 alone.

    Hoping to squeeze more savings out of tried-and-true programs, the State Council has ordered enterprises to cut an additional 20 MTCE. But to achieve its long-term conservation goal, China must cap total energy consumption, argues Ni Weidou of the Tsinghua-BP Clean Energy Research and Education Centre. When policymakers set the target of 20% reduction of energy intensity, they assumed a total consumption of 3000 MTCE by 2020, says Ni. By 2009, consumption had reached 3100 MTCE.

    Failure to rein in consumption imperils another goal: to increase nonfossil fuels to 15% of China's energy mix by 2020. Since 2005, the mix has hovered around 70% coal, 20% crude oil, 6% hydropower, 3% natural gas, and 1% nuclear, with negligible contributions from renewable sources such as biomass, solar, and wind. For the foreseeable future, coal will remain king.

    Burning cleaner coal is critical, says Xu. Power plants and some 480,000 coal-fired boilers that generate steam for industry account for up to 85% of China's coal consumption. Because most of this coal is not washed or sifted, it is high in sulfur and ash and too powdery. The result is poor combustion that accounts for more than two-thirds of the country's sulfur dioxide emissions and the majority of particulate matter pollution. Burning cleaner coal would increase industrial boiler efficiency by roughly 15%, says Xu. However, concerned about their bottom lines, coal mines, the railroad monopoly, and the power industry all oppose regulating coal quality.

    China must solve this kind of “governance problem” on its own, says Zha Daojiong, a political scientist at Peking University. In the meantime, he says, the nascent China–U.S. clean energy collaboration could focus on tasks such as how to monitor energy consumption at the factory level. Factories currently report their own data, which the central government has no way to verify. Any energy-efficiency claim therefore will be “just a numbers game,” says Zha. And China is no closer to burning cleaner coal.

  5. ScienceInsider

    From the Science Policy Blog

    The third time was a charm for members of the U.S. House of Representatives, which last week passed a reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act that would increase spending on research, science education, and innovation.

    A top official at the National Institutes of Health told Congress that the U.S. government is moving quickly to bring synthetic biology under review. Anthony Fauci says two existing advisory panels will be broadened to encompass issues raised by synthesizing a genome.

    A report from the European University Association describes six degrees of pain being felt by public institutions in the wake of recent government spending cuts.

    The European nations with the biggest combined responsibility for an ambitious fusion reactor project are still scrambling to find a way to absorb its ballooning cost in advance of an important meeting of ITER's governing council.

    A mathematician and a neuroscientist are millionaires thanks to this year's Shaw Prize, which divided its third $1 million award among three astronomers.

    President Barack Obama's plan to reorient the U.S. space program took another drubbing on Capitol Hill last week, as lawmakers in the House of Representatives endorsed the sharp criticism from Apollo astronauts about the Administration's plan to gut Constellation and questioned whether NASA would ever receive enough money to fund the proposed new direction.

    Rules issued last year by the National Institutes of Health don't eliminate the need for guidance on stem-cell research that is off-limits to U.S. government-funded labs, says a National Academies' panel in its final report on human embryonic stem cells.

    See the full postings and more at news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider.

  6. Ethics

    Researchers to Return Blood Samples to the Yanomamö

    1. Jennifer Couzin-Frankel

    The closest Kenneth Weiss has been to the Amazon rainforest was when he passed over it in an airplane last year. But the geneticist at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, says his freezers hold hundreds of 40-year-old blood samples from the Amazon's Yanomamö Indians. Now, in an agreement being worked out by Brazil, he and others are pulling tissue samples out of storage and preparing to have them shipped back to the jungle.

    Back to the jungle.

    Blood samples collected by the late James Neel, shown here drawing a sample in 1968, and his colleagues will be returned to tribe members.

    CREDIT: © NAPOLEON A. CHAGNON

    Weiss says he accepted the vials years ago as a favor to his postdoctoral adviser James Neel, who was retiring and wanted them preserved. Along with cultural anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, Neel collected the samples from the Yanomamö in Brazil and Venezuela during fieldwork in the 1960s and early 1970s, and they've been stored since then in labs around the United States. (Neel died in 2000.) Weiss and others will be releasing parts of their collections to the Brazilian Embassy in Washington, D.C., which in turn will escort them back to Brazil and the Yanomamö tribe. Venezuela has not asked for samples taken from its Yanomamö tribes, Weiss says.

    The return marks at least the third time that an indigenous group has retrieved DNA or other tissue from scientists, suggesting a shifting landscape in genetics studies on indigenous people.

    Unlike a recent case involving the Havasupai tribe in Arizona's Grand Canyon (Science, 30 April, p. 558), those who worked with the Yanomamö have never fought the tribe's requests. The Yanomamö began seeking the samples about 10 years ago after the publication of Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. The controversial book by investigative journalist Patrick Tierney charged that Chagnon and Neel acted unethically in their dealings with the Yanomamö (Science, 19 January 2001, p. 416). The logistics of shipping the samples back has taken years to sort out.

    “We can't just put a Paddington Bear tag on there and say ‘Please deliver to Amazonia,’” says Weiss. Furthermore, there's confusion among Brazilian officials and researchers over what the Yanomamö will do with the material—in particular, some have said, whether they might ingest the samples in a ritual. Chagnon considers that unlikely; the Indians “do consume the ashes of deceased kinsmen after cremating them,” he says, but that's just ground-up bone. Still, the concern that the Yanomamö “could get sick from a new disease” is real, Chagnon agrees.

    Researchers and diplomats alike want to ensure that the samples are safe and free of contaminants. That's easier said than done. The usual approach—heating material at very high temperatures—would cause the vials to explode. A suggestion to sterilize some samples with bleach was rejected, says Karen Pitt, special assistant for biological resources at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which holds 477 vials. NCI is investigating the possibility of irradiating them. “We'd like to accelerate this,” says Pitt.

    Weiss agrees: “I'd rather have the freezer space and have these samples off my back.” He received several hundred Yanomamö vials a few weeks ago from a colleague at Binghamton University in New York state in efforts to combine them for return. Both Weiss and NCI ruled out further research on the samples when they learned that the Yanomamö wanted them back.

    Scientists are increasingly trying to accommodate demands from indigenous groups. Three years ago, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in Ottawa released new recommendations for aboriginal research requesting, among other things, that research be of benefit to the community, that researchers translate their publications into the language of the community, and that researchers get consent before transferring samples to a colleague.

    “If you have a sample in your lab, you have been loaned it, you haven't been given it,” says Laura Arbour, a medical geneticist at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in Canada who helped craft the Canadian guidelines. Arbour, who works with Canadian aboriginal populations, believes they should be treated as collaborators and shown drafts of papers prior to publication, something she routinely does in her own genetics work.

    “I don't object” to this approach in principle, says Kenneth Kidd, a population geneticist at Yale University, but it would make research “a lot more difficult.” He and his wife, Judith Kidd, have amassed 3000 samples from 57 populations over the years. It would be virtually impossible to find a nomadic tribe from whom samples were collected a decade ago and share a planned publication, he says.

    Regarding the Yanomamö, there was no question that the request to return samples would be honored, says Pitt. “When the specimens were originally collected, there wasn't anything called informed consent,” she says. “Now we're becoming a lot more sensitive to the rights of study participants to withdraw from a study.”

    As for Chagnon, he vigorously defends his work and believes that the Yanomamö are being pressured to make demands by politically motivated nongovernmental organizations. Ultimately, he says, the people of the Amazon will lose out by retrieving and presumably destroying the vials collected so long ago, which might have been useful in biomedical research. “The Yanomamö, like all populations, depend on medicines,” he says. “I think it's reasonable that they should participate in what it takes to develop medicines, instead of being just the recipients.”

  7. ScienceNOW.org

    From Science's Online Daily News Site

    CREDIT: SWIDBERT OTT/UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE

    Swarming Locusts Grow Big Brains When desert locusts (Schistocerca gregaria) become too great in number, they transform from solitary insects into swarming crop raiders. Their brains also get a lot bigger, as revealed by computer-assisted laser microscopy. Not only are the brains of gregarious locusts (right) 30% larger than those of solitary locusts (left), gregarious locusts have proportionately larger regions that deal with higher brain functions (yellow and orange), such as learning and memory, researchers report in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. This may help them survive in densely packed groups, where competition for food is so fierce that cannibalism occurs.

    Life Insurance for Ebola Scientists When a German scientist accidentally pricked herself with a needle containing the Ebola-Zaire virus last year, scientists around the world tried to determine what the best course of action would be. Eventually, she agreed to take an experimental Ebola vaccine that had been shown in animals to offer about 50% protection, even when administered after exposure to the virus. And she lived.

    But now, scientists led by virologist Thomas Geisbert of Boston University School of Medicine say they have something better for such mishaps: a new therapy based on small strands of RNA that interfere with the production of viral proteins. In lab studies, it offered complete protection to macaque monkeys when given daily for almost a week after an Ebola injection that would otherwise be fatal. The new treatment, reported in The Lancet, could also be used during Ebola virus outbreaks, the researchers say.

    OCD? Your Immune System Could Be to Blame Some people just can't help themselves. They wash their hands over and over, lock and relock doors, or obsessively rearrange the contents of their closet. Now, a study of mice suggests that the immune system, rather than the nervous system, prompts such compulsive behaviors.

    Mice with a defective version of the gene Hoxb8 overgroom themselves, tear out patches of fur, and give themselves sores—a condition akin to trichotillomania, in which humans compulsively pull out their own hair.

    But when researchers led by molecular geneticist Mario Capecchi of the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City went looking for Hoxb8-expressing cells in the brain, they didn't find neurons; they found microglia, immune cells that are often born in the bone marrow but that can migrate to the brain. What's more, transferring marrow from Hoxb8-lacking mice into healthy rodents provoked compulsive grooming, the researchers report in Cell. And when mice deficient in Hoxb8 received marrow from healthy animals, they cut back on their ablutions.

    The results, say the researchers, raise the possibility of treating obsessive-compulsive disorder by targeting the immune system rather than the brain, perhaps by developing drugs to alter microglia activity.

    CREDIT: NASA/SWIFT/NOAO/MICHAEL KOSS AND RICHARD MUSHOTZKY/UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND

    Violent Galaxy Collisions Power Mega Black Holes Among the most luminous things in the universe are active galactic nuclei (AGN): gigantic black holes that can emit as much energy as 10 billion suns. Why these objects are so much brighter than ordinary supermassive black holes has long puzzled researchers. Now, with the aid of NASA's orbiting Swift x-ray observatory, astronomers have confirmed what theorists consider the likely explanation: AGN derive their stupendous power from the merger of two galaxies. “We think we have the ‘smoking gun’ for merger-triggered AGN,” says graduate student Michael Koss of the University of Maryland, College Park, who, with colleagues, reports the finding in The Astrophysical Journal.

    Does a Country's Dirt Determine Its Destiny? Chad is dirt poor because its dirt is poor. Germany is relatively rich because its soil is rich. That's the provocative conclusion of a new study, which suggests that just two fundamental factors—soil type and climate—can largely explain why humans have prospered in some places but not in others.

    Jan Beck, an insect ecologist at the University of Basel in Switzerland, and his student Andrea Sieber selected 19 climate and soil variables that could influence how humans use land, including soil type and precipitation in the coldest and warmest seasons. Then, using computer models originally developed to predict the ecological niches best suited to certain insects, they calculated how well those variables predicted common modes of human land use in Asia, Africa, Europe, and Australia.

    The resulting maps, which appear in PLoS ONE, show that areas fertile enough for crop farming are able to support much denser and richer populations than regions more suited to ranching or hunting. Much of Europe, for example, turned out to have a relatively farming-friendly climate and landscape, perhaps explaining why it has prospered. But, Beck notes, his model failed to correctly predict present land uses up to one-third of the time, suggesting that history and culture do influence how humans use the land.

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

  8. Major Heart Disease Genes Prove Elusive

    1. Jennifer Couzin-Frankel

    So far, genome-wide association studies have not found common genes with a big impact on heart health; researchers hope that the low-effect genes they are finding will help identify pathways and drug targets.

    CREDIT: M. TWOMBLY/SCIENCE

    The excitement began 5 years ago, when a study of 146 Caucasian volunteers turned up a common gene variant among those with the eye disease macular degeneration. Researchers had used a new strategy: They scanned large stretches of the genomes of the sick and the healthy and found a single DNA base that was much more likely to be present in those whose eyes were failing.

    The finding was remarkable: Relatively few people participated in the study, yet those with two copies of the suspect gene variant had 10 times the risk of macular degeneration, a huge increase. Furthermore, the method the group used, called genome-wide association (GWA), had some big advantages: It was unbiased, testing thousands of gene-disease associations at once, not just a researcher's favorites. And it pointed to common variants, found in at least 5% of individuals studied. GWA studies offered hope of identifying people at risk for diseases, uncovering new disease mechanisms, and finding new targets for therapy.

    Almost immediately, researchers applied GWA to other conditions. But they were quickly stymied. “People did studies with 300 or 500 people and didn't find anything, then did 1000 and didn't find anything,” says Deepak Srivastava, who directs the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease at the University of California (UC), San Francisco. It quickly became clear that macular degeneration was an exception. Most GWA studies needed 10,000 or more volunteers to get a statistically significant result, because the effect of each gene was so small.

    Since the human genome was sequenced 10 years ago, technology has moved with lightning speed; many now believe that GWA methods, which cover a fraction of the genome, are becoming obsolete. Sequencing costs continue to plunge, and within a few years sequencing entire genomes of hundreds of subjects will be financially feasible.

    What has the GWA experience taught us? The results from one group of GWA studies, for heart disease, are typical, with a mixed record and an uncertain legacy. The technique has identified dozens of variants, but all have weak effects; so far, almost none has led to DNA changes that actually cause disease. Researchers have had more success finding variants that link to tightly defined conditions like high cholesterol than to heart failure, a catch-all disease.

    “At the end of the day, we have a bunch of loci and genes, but none of them” do all that much to raise the risk of heart disease, says Eric Topol, a cardiologist and director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in San Diego, California. Nor have they yet altered our understanding of how the heart falters—knowledge, Topol says, that will take time to develop.

    GWA studies still have many backers. “We have new technology that's enabled us to look at things we've never seen before,” says Bruce Psaty, a cardiovascular disease epidemiologist at the University of Washington (UW) School of Medicine in Seattle. And Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has said that the approach has provided “1000 new drug targets” (Science, 28 May, p. 1090).

    Clues missing

    The first GWA results for heart disease hit in 2007. Three studies examined coronary artery disease, in which plaque builds up in the arteries and narrows them. Together with subsequent studies, they identified 12 new genetic variants, called single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). Intriguingly, only about four had an apparent connection to known heart disease risks, like high cholesterol. “We do not have any clue why these SNPs are related to coronary artery disease,” says Jeanette Erdmann, a human geneticist at the University of Lübeck in Germany, who participated in one of the studies.

    One advantage to the GWA studies was that unlike much earlier work in common diseases, scientists could easily repeat the findings, suggesting that the results were real. But there were disappointments, too. In the macular degeneration study, two copies of the culprit SNP raised the risk by 1000%. But in the GWA heart studies, carrying two variants increased the risk of disease in older adults by, at most, 60%. This makes logical sense: Variants that dramatically boost disease risk aren't likely to be common because they would have been removed from the gene pool by evolution.

    But the results seem predictable partly because we're viewing them in retrospect. “We had no clue” before beginning this work how potent common disease DNA would be, says Psaty. “Our expectations about the effect sizes were more hopeful than they should have been.” To date, GWA findings cannot be used to predict risk any better than family history for most chronic diseases. Furthermore, they are only a very small piece of disease heritability: In coronary artery disease, the 12 variants found represent “well under 10%” of the total heritability of that condition, says Nilesh Samani, a cardiologist at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom, who helped lead one of the studies.

    Getting at biology

    While GWA data aren't very useful for calculating risk, GWA backers are hanging on to another hope: that they can elucidate disease biology. The big hurdle here is lack of precision. A new SNP “doesn't give you cause, it gives you zip code,” says Gerald Dorn, a cardiologist and director of the Center for Pharmacogenomics at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. That's because the SNPs identified in these studies aren't themselves driving disease—rather, they travel alongside genes or other variants that do.

    To find those driver genes, biologists must pounce on GWA results and use them to track down disease-causing variants. “The molecular biologists are not wild” about doing this, says André Uitterlinden, a molecular geneticist at Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands. It isn't easy. Sometimes the SNP is “in a desert,” Uitterlinden says, with no genes nearby; other times, “you hit upon a very gene-rich area” and it's hard to know where to turn.

    Undaunted, some groups are pursuing GWA variants. In coronary artery disease, a region called 9p21 is getting attention. It's among those most strongly associated with heart disease risk and has been linked to abdominal and brain aneurysms as well. In March, a group of researchers reported in Nature that when they knocked out 9p21 in mice, arterial smooth muscle cells proliferated, something also seen in atherosclerosis. The DNA behind the effect still hasn't been pinned down, says Ruth McPherson of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, one of those who pinpointed 9p21, but she's hopeful the variant will offer “new biological insight” into artery disease.

    While GWA studies in atherosclerosis or heart failure have yielded relatively few “hits,” and none that strongly increase risk, geneticists have had more luck with narrowly defined physical characteristics. “We had 23 hits in the red cell traits,” such as red blood cell count, and “only one for stroke,” says Psaty. Cholesterol levels have garnered about 80 hits. These are “closer to the biology of the genome,” says Uitterlinden. That's very different from a condition like heart failure or stroke, which he describes as “the waste bin of all your bad” traits. There are many roads to heart failure, but not so many to red cell numbers.

    Psaty and Uitterlinden are part of the Cohorts for Heart and Aging Research in Genomic Epidemiology (CHARGE) Consortium, a group in North America and Europe. It combines several massive cohort studies, including the Framingham Heart Study and the Rotterdam Study, to perform GWA studies in heart disease, aging, and related conditions. Various teams, including CHARGE, have been conducting meta-analyses on existing GWA studies; one paper soon to be submitted, researchers say, will roughly double the number of variants behind coronary artery disease. Each of the new gene regions identified by the variants will be even less of a factor in heart disease than existing ones.

    But researchers hope the low-effect genes will coalesce on new molecular pathways—and, eventually, enable them to accomplish what GWA studies haven't done so far: refine an individual's risk of disease. “It might be possible to have a SNP chip with perhaps 100 common variants that will give information” about risk of heart disease, says McPherson. But in the new, cautious language of GWA work, she adds that she doesn't “want to be too optimistic about that—but it's possible.”

    Optimism is more apparent around drug targets. Many point out that a gene variant's effect on risk doesn't necessarily correlate with what modifying it with a treatment can do for disease. “The main thing that was delivered [by GWA studies] was a treasure trove of candidates,” says Charles Langley, a population geneticist at UC Davis. “The distance of that path is somewhat depressing to people who are at the front line,” such as those who treat patients, “but it's a huge boon to basic researchers.”

    Alternative approaches

    Dissatisfaction with GWA work continues to fester, however. Skirmishes have broken out among geneticists. In April, prominent geneticist Mary-Claire King of the UW School of Medicine wrote an essay in Cell lambasting GWA studies. She and her UW colleague Jon McClellan posited that GWA studies have failed to explain most heritability of common diseases. King's paper was swiftly attacked by geneticists on various blogs, who defended GWA work and argued that it has revolutionized our understanding of disease (http://bit.ly/GWAS-Heart).

    Underlying King's and other critiques, some say, is whether precious time and money might be better spent searching for rare variants with potentially stronger effects. “GWA [work] has ruled genetics for 5 years,” and those researchers “have gotten all the money,” says Dorn, who's done some himself.

    The pendulum is now swinging in a different direction. NIH is pouring money into exome sequencing, in which all parts of the genome that code for proteins are sequenced—allowing biologists to dig even deeper into genetic variation.

    It is a bit illogical to quarrel over rare variants versus common ones, say many researchers, because both are important. The fight may fade in the coming years, as sequencing full genomes becomes financially feasible—a strategy everyone will turn to, says Dorn. And GWA studies might help in years to come thanks to the vast population databases they've built up, Srivastava notes.

    Still, we're a long way from where we want to be, he believes. “Can we find loci that would teach us about the mechanisms of disease?” Not yet. “In retrospect,” Srivastava believes, GWA “wasn't worth the expenditure—but that was hard to say prospectively.”

  9. Nonproliferation

    An Unending Mission to Contain the Stuff of Nuclear Nightmares

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    With new tools and painstaking analyses, researchers are helping to detect clandestine nuclear-weapons research and keep deadly material from going astray.

    Nuclear blues.

    Glow from fuel rods in a storage pond tells of plutonium, but not how much.

    CREDIT: © ROGER RESSMEYER/CORBIS

    LOS ALAMOS, NEW MEXICO—Just after midnight on 8 November 2007, four armed men broke into the Pelindaba Nuclear Research Center near Pretoria in South Africa, disabling a 10,000-volt electric fence guarding the perimeter. Breaching several layers of security, the intruders made their way to the emergency control room, shot an employee, and stole a computer. Closed-circuit cameras caught their images, but security personnel failed to notice. While the attack was going on, another group made an unsuccessful attempt to break into the center.

    The incident sent a chill down the spines of counterterrorism officials around the world. Even though the attackers did not appear to have planned to steal any of the weapons-grade uranium stockpile stored at the facility, the fact that they were able to spend 40 minutes inside showed how easily terrorists might strike nuclear facilities like Pelindaba.

    Fears of terrorism have added new urgency to the goal of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, which was the subject of international deliberations held in New York City last month to review the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The task at the core of nonproliferation efforts, however, remains what it has been for decades: keeping track of nuclear materials and sites to ensure that countries do not make bombs, either in secret or under the pretext of developing nuclear power. It's a daunting scientific and technological challenge.

    The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—the world's nuclear watchdog—has traditionally met that challenge by dispatching inspectors to nuclear sites to verify the designs of facilities and carry out measurements of materials at different points of the fuel cycle. But nonproliferation experts acknowledge that this system of spot checks is far from foolproof. It leaves open the possibility of covert activities between inspections, such as enriching uranium to a grade high enough for bombmaking or diverting material in quantities small enough to evade inspectors' measurements.

    That's why in recent years, IAEA has sought new safeguards that would enable the agency to monitor nuclear facilities remotely around the clock, keeping tabs on equipment and materials with greater assurance than before. These technologies include advanced laser-based surveillance systems and a variety of detectors to track nuclear materials continuously—with unprecedented precision and certainty—as they move through a facility. So far, only a handful of sites have deployed the new systems, but officials expect them to be put into wider use in the coming years as more nuclear reactors are built around the world, straining IAEA's inspections capacity. “The IAEA is very concerned about the manpower challenge it will have to face if even a fraction of the anticipated nuclear renaissance becomes a reality,” says Philip Hypes, who coordinates research projects for IAEA at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico.

    Monitoring facilities may be a central piece of the nonproliferation puzzle, but it's not the whole story. Over the past decade, IAEA has begun to search satellite images and the scientific literature for clues about covert nuclear activities. The work goes far beyond material accountancy, says Brian Boyer, a nuclear engineer who once worked as an IAEA inspector in Europe and now leads the nonproliferation team at Los Alamos. “We also want to know what countries might be doing in their research labs and elsewhere, if they might be building up a process or doing an experiment in a clandestine facility.”

    “With commercial reactors making a comeback, it's vital that we have foolproof systems in place to insure that the nuclear materials don't fall into the wrong hands.” —WILLIAM REES, LANL

    CREDIT: LOS ALAMOS NATIONAL LABORATORY

    Added to proliferation concerns are fears about terrorists acquiring nuclear materials to fashion a conventional bomb or a less-potent radiological device. To address that threat, in April the U.S. government and 46 other countries announced the intent to secure all nuclear materials in their possession within the next 4 years. Experts say that's a tall order given the weak security measures at many nuclear facilities; improved safeguards will no doubt help but are only part of the solution. “A dirty little secret is that safeguards have very little to do with safety or with guarding,” says Matthew Bunn, a nuclear policy researcher at Harvard University. “Safeguards themselves are not going to stop a gang of thieves from making off with nuclear material.” Old-fashioned security is vital, he says.

    Weak links

    On display at the Bradbury Science Museum, down the road from LANL, are replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man—the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Both were designed at Los Alamos, whose primary goal continues to be maintaining a reliable U.S. nuclear deterrent. But since the 1960s, the lab has also spearheaded the development of safeguards aimed at preventing another Hiroshima. “It is an enduring mission that has become increasingly important,” says William Rees, principal associate director for global security at LANL. “With commercial reactors making a comeback, it's vital that we have foolproof systems in place to insure that the nuclear materials don't fall into the wrong hands.”

    Some of the latest monitoring technologies developed at the lab are being tried out at a uranium-enrichment plant and a reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Japan. In May, LANL researchers delivered a new system for measuring the enrichment level and quantity of uranium in 2-meter-long steel cylinders moving through the Rokkasho enrichment facility (see photo, p. 1224).

    Currently, inspectors estimate the proportion of fissile uranium-235 in the material (usually uranium hexafluoride) inside a cylinder by using portable detectors to measure gamma rays coming from the container's outer layer of content. To determine the overall amount, they simply weigh the container on a scale. If a facility wanted to divert enriched uranium out of such containers into a secret weapons program, it could fool inspectors by replacing some of the uranium in the container with another material such as lead and lining the inner wall of the cylinder with uranium to emit gamma radiation. The container could then, in theory, give the appearance of being filled entirely with uranium.

    The new system—which consists of tubes wrapped in cadmium and filled with helium-3—counts neutrons that fluorine atoms in uranium hexafluoride emit when bombarded by alpha particles from the natural radioactive decay of uranium. Because neutrons—unlike the weak gamma rays uranium emit—can penetrate dense material, they can make it out from within the core of the container, providing a measurement of the entire content.

    Out of circulation.

    Los Alamos team picks up used radioactive material from a U.S. hospital, as part of the lab's worldwide program to track down and recover “orphan” sources.

    CREDIT: LOS ALAMOS NATIONAL LABORATORY

    Developed by Martyn Swinhoe, Karen Miller, and others at LANL and other institutions, the system is being installed in the corridor between the facility's storage area and the enrichment plant's entrance to enable the remote measurement of each cylinder entering or leaving the plant. In the past few years, Swinhoe and his colleagues have helped outfit Rokkasho with similar systems to keep track of plutonium in canisters and nuclear waste.

    Scientific techniques, however, still can't keep tabs on nuclear material throughout the entire fuel cycle. The cycle starts with the conversion of mined uranium ore into uranium hexafluoride and ends with the reprocessing of spent fuel to retrieve plutonium, one of the products of burning uranium and a bombmaking ingredient itself. One major challenge is quantifying the amount of plutonium in spent fuel assemblies—arrays of metal rods that are typically stored in cooling ponds, where they continue to generate heat for years.

    Currently, inspectors take stock of spent fuel by peering into the cooling pond through special goggles to look at Cherenkov radiation—a blue light the water gives off as it is excited by electrons spewing from the rods. The method is a crude way of confirming that the assemblies in the pond are indeed spent fuel rods. “You could fool inspectors by swapping out a few rods in an assembly with rods of depleted uranium and divert them to a covert reprocessing plant,” says Boyer.

    That's why researchers are seeking more direct approaches to measurement. In one technique, they count neutrons that the rods emit both spontaneously and through induced fission. The spontaneous emissions come mainly from curium—one of several radioactive elements that reside in the spent rods along with plutonium. Researchers first measure the neutrons the rods emit naturally. Then they bombard the rods with external neutrons to induce fission in the plutonium, which causes an additional emission of neutrons that corresponds to the amount of plutonium present.

    Other groups have been developing new surveillance technologies for nuclear sites. At the European Commission's Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy, Vitor Sequeira and his colleagues have designed a system that uses lasers to scan entire rooms within the plant to create detailed three-dimensional reference maps of the equipment. By comparing scans taken at different times, inspectors can check whether the equipment design has been modified even slightly. “Unlike traditional surveillance cameras,” Sequeira says, “the system can detect millimeter changes” such as those that would result if the piping had been subtly altered to divert small amounts of nuclear material.

    Words to the wise

    Researchers at LANL and elsewhere are helping to advance nonproliferation not just through technology development but also by sleuthing. Increasingly, they are scrutinizing scientific and technical papers for evidence of undeclared nuclear research and development that could help with secret weapons-building plans. For example, says Richard Wallace, a former IAEA analyst who now works at LANL, “you could have a country that says it is not working to reprocess spent fuel from nuclear reactors—and then you may go into the literature and find papers discussing efficiency of the methodology for separating isotopes from spent fuel.”

    Keeping tabs.

    Japan's Rokkasho reprocessing plant is testing new equipment (inset) for measuring the amount of uranium it handles.

    CREDITS (TOP TO BOTTOM): AFP/GETTY IMAGES; (INSET) LOS ALAMOS NATIONAL LABORATORY

    That kind of digging has yielded results in the past. In 2004, for instance, IAEA officials combing through the proceedings of a 1995 conference on nuclear fuel–cycle systems in Versailles, France, spotted a paper by three Egyptian researchers. The publication—Kinetic Separation of Uranium from Selected Fission Products—indicated that the Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority in Cairo might once have done work on reprocessing that it had not declared to IAEA. Similar literature-mining led researchers to discover a dozen papers between 1991 and 2004 showing that scientists at the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute in Daejeon had conducted uranium-enrichment experiments without declaring them. In both cases, IAEA ultimately found no evidence of evil-doing, but both countries were forced to explain why they had not reported the work.

    The absence of publications in a declared area of research can also be a warning sign. “If there has historically been activity on a research topic, and you see that the publication record of the country's universities in that area has been high or steady—and then it suddenly drops to nothing—you wonder about the change,” says Wallace, refusing to cite specific examples. “What could those people be doing now?”

    Scavengers and thieves

    Deception isn't the only way material can go astray. As the Pelindaba attack showed, even good safeguards can still leave nuclear sites vulnerable to pillaging. “Many research reactors actually have lower levels of security than Pelindaba,” says Harvard's Bunn. To tackle the threat of nuclear terrorism, he says, governments need to invest more on fortifying nuclear sites—in part by developing tighter security systems.

    Researchers are working on them. At the Joint Research Centre in Ispra, for example, Marco Sironi and colleagues have developed special seals for spent fuel assemblies submerged under water. Each seal consists of a set of overlapping metal discs with holes and cuts that give it a unique sonic signature detectable by a device that shoots ultrasound pulses at the seal and analyzes the reflected signal. In April, several of the seals were put in place to secure spent fuel at the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant in Pakistan—a country where growing Islamic extremism poses a high risk of nuclear terrorism.

    Terrorists could also strike with a dirty bomb made using radioactive materials collected from the garbage cans of hospitals. “Dirty bombs may not cause the same loss of life as a nuclear device, but they would cause severe disruption, and if detonated in a metropolitan area, they would cause enormous economic damage,” says LANL's Julia Whitworth, who oversees a program for the recovery of orphan radioactive sources. The program, started a decade ago, is an important part of the broader initiative to achieve nuclear security, she says. Teams of scientists and technicians travel around the United States and overseas to pick up discarded radioactive sources—surgical gamma knives from hospitals, oil-well loggers buried in backyards, and the like. Earlier this month, Whitworth's colleagues flew to Manhattan to go through all the sources at a hospital that was shutting down for good. Whitworth says the United States has recently stepped up efforts to round up radioactive material in old x-ray equipment that other countries imported from it. “We just got a big shipment from Chile,” she says.

    As the international community strives to achieve nuclear security in 4 years, scientists will play an increasingly important role in the task, says David Albright, a physicist who runs the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, D.C. In a world moving toward greater use of nuclear power, he says, the timely detection of proliferation activities “may well hinge on the clever use of scientific and technological innovations.”

  10. Ukraine

    Renewing the Post-Soviet Steppe

    1. Daniel Charles*

    Ukraine's steppe has largely disappeared, but researchers, conservationists, and farmers are devising plans to restore the vital grasslands while making money.

    Rare breed.

    Red Steppe cattle (left) may help restore grasslands and prevent shrubs from taking over, as on a steppe reserve near Luhansk (right).

    CREDIT: D. CHARLES/SCIENCE

    Ukrainian ecologist Oleksander Mykytiuk launches Google Earth on his computer and zooms in on a satellite image of the eastern corner of his country. He points to a patchwork of highlighted areas in the rolling farmland of the Luhansk province. These were once fields of wheat or barley; now weeds fill the abandoned soil. The image shows the collapse of Soviet-era collective farming, but also, he hopes, Ukraine's new ecological opportunity. It could be a chance to restore some of the vast grasslands, or steppe, that Soviet agricultural planners destroyed. These grasslands, now scarce in Ukraine, are home to hundreds of threatened species, including grasses, insects, ground-nesting birds, and small mammals such as marmots.

    Mykytiuk recently helped lead a $3 million effort, funded by the European Union, to find ways of regrowing the steppe while capturing economic benefits from it. That research has now spawned a small but ambitious commercial venture—a Dutch-Ukrainian company that plans to fatten beef cattle on thousands of hectares of restored grasslands. Yet bringing back Ukraine's steppe faces obstacles, including competing conservation interests and widespread public disinterest. “People don't understand that the steppe is important for our country,” says Tatiana Sova, director of steppe reserves in the Luhansk region.

    Grasslands once dominated the eastern half of Ukraine, Europe's second-largest country after Russia. Most of them were plowed up in favor of crops, especially during the Soviet Union's campaign to expand food production from collective farms. Only small fragments survive, mainly in areas too steep or rocky to plow—or in about 40,000 hectares of protected nature reserves, such as the ones Sova oversees.

    Ten years ago, Ukraine abolished state-run farms and divided up the land among their workers. The government ignored advice that it set aside 8 million to 10 million hectares for restoration of steppes and forests, notes Vasiliy Kostyushin of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Zoology.

    Big agribusiness companies quickly snapped up the most productive land, leasing it from groups of owners. Large swaths of less valuable land, however, amounting to perhaps 10 million hectares in Ukraine, simply lie fallow.

    This is the land that Mykytiuk and his colleagues are targeting. But bringing it back will demand more than just reseeding native flora or creating new reserves. “The problem is, the steppe isn't stable unless it is also consumed” by grass-eaters such as bison, marmots, and insects, says Vasiliy Tkachenko of the Institute of Botany in Ukraine's Academy of Sciences.

    Eyeing profits.

    Farmer Ivan Kapatsiy.

    CREDIT: D. CHARLES/SCIENCE

    Tkachenko cites as evidence the deterioration of Ukraine's officially protected steppe reserves, where grazing is strictly limited and fires have long been controlled. As a result, a layer of decomposing grass built up on the ground, suppressing some steppe plants. Shrubs and small trees proliferated. Marmots and some ground-nesting birds started to disappear. Restoring Ukraine's steppe will demand more active management, contends Mykytiuk. Even then, people will only do it on a large scale if it's profitable, he says: “We need a business approach; an economic approach.”

    This is where the new Dutch-Ukrainian venture comes in. Ivan Kapatsiy, a farmer near the town of Bilovodsk, northwest of Luhansk, and Rieks Bosch, a Dutch environmental consultant, plan to raise high-quality beef cattle on 5000 hectares of abandoned land near Luhansk. Kapatsiy has already leased the land. Some is former cropland that suffered from overuse, but a large section was once sheep pasture and was never plowed.

    The next step is acquiring the money-making animals, which has proved complicated. Cattle breeds that offer top-notch beef and can thrive in Ukraine's continental climate are rare, Bosch says. Only about 400 individuals remain of one such breed, known as Red Steppe or Red Ukrainian. They survive on Ukraine's largest steppe reserve, Askania-Nova.

    Kapatsiy wants to start with at least 100 animals, but so far the venture's lenders have provided enough money to acquire only 25. Bosch is now reworking the business plan. Down the road, he says, carbon-trading could sweeten the pot; restoring the steppe with extensive grazing would capture carbon in the soil, so farmers could sell carbon credits on European carbon markets. The Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality has approved $150,000 in research funding for a study of the farm's economic viability and its impact on the soil and wildlife.

    Bosch says that local officials in Luhansk are supporting the effort, because a revitalized steppe, with marmots standing sentry beside their holes, could become a center of recreation and local tourism. Such official enthusiasm for steppe restoration is rare. Most people, Mykytiuk says, think of the steppe as a kind of void, without the value of cropland or even forests.

    Ukraine has a State Committee on Forestry devoted to managing and promoting forests, but nothing similar exists for the steppe. The forestry agency, in fact, has competing plans, proposing to plant trees on 465,000 hectares of the country's degraded or abandoned lands. According to the National Ecological Centre of Ukraine, an environmental advocacy group, foresters have already ripped up remnants of native steppe to plant saplings. Such plans make Sova furious. “The steppe is always in danger, and this forest program could be the last straw,” she says.

    • * Daniel Charles is a writer based in Kyiv.

  11. Hydrology

    Along the Indus River, Saber Rattling Over Water Security

    1. Pallava Bagla

    Pakistan accuses India of contravening a treaty that governs Indus water; with climate change likely to make things tenser, better data sharing may forge mutual trust.

    Sacred resource.

    Prayer flags over the Indus River.

    CREDIT: PALLAVA BAGLA

    ISLAMABAD—High in the Himalayas, near the militarized zone that divides Kashmir, a dispute over water resources is shaping up as a new flashpoint in the unstable region. Last year, India began work on a $925 million effort to dam the Kishanganga River in the Indus Basin and build a long tunnel to divert water through electricity-generating turbines. But the Kishanganga is a tributary of the Jhelum River, and a 50-year-old treaty gives Pakistan the right to use all of the Jhelum's water. India insists that its “run of the river” hydropower project will not stem flows into the Jhelum. But Pakistan is not convinced—and tempers are flaring.

    “India is using water as a weapon against Pakistan,” Fateh Ullah Khan Gandapur, former chair of Pakistan's Indus River System Authority, wrote in an editorial last April in Pakistan's largest circulation daily newspaper, The Dawn. “If the country faces famine and widespread hunger, … which the loss of crops will almost certainly generate,” he argued, “the resultant situation could lead to a nuclear war at worst, and the conversion of this part of the world into a center for terror activities at best.” Pakistan is expected to raise Kishanganga in talks between the two country's foreign ministers next month in Islamabad.

    The dispute highlights growing concerns about water security in the Indus River basin, home to more than 200 million people in India and Pakistan and inhabited since the Indus Valley civilization arose 5000 years ago. The 3200-kilometer-long river supplies water to the world's longest contiguous irrigation system, which covers a 1.1-million-square-kilometer area of the Indus basin. There's hardly a drop to spare. The Indus reaches the Arabian Sea for only about 2 months during the monsoon season; the rest of the year, it dries up in its tracks.

    The 1960 Indus Water Treaty gives Pakistan 80% of the approximately 180 billion cubic meters of water per year flowing down the Indus and its tributaries, with the rest allotted to India. But the pact is under siege. India is building a slew of hydroelectric projects that Pakistan officials contend will reduce water flow. Last March, Pakistan raised water security as a concern for the first time in years at high-level talks in New Delhi when Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir accused India of causing “water scarcity” and sought a moratorium on dam building in Indian Kashmir.

    Indian officials have said little publicly about the recent water woes. In a speech last April in Karachi, Sharat Sabharwal, India's ambassador to Pakistan, said that “India has never hindered water flows to which Pakistan is entitled, … and we have no intention of doing so.” Any reduced flows were from natural shortages “and not because of any diversion of water by India,” Sabharwal said. Indian officials have vowed to press ahead with the dams and suggest that Pakistan is mismanaging its water resources.

    The situation is likely to grow tenser. For starters, India and Pakistan are locked in a disagreement over transboundary water data. “The Indian government seems to be very opposed to any data sharing, so it is difficult to develop anything but the most general impression of stream-flow regimes,” says Donald Alford, a hydrology consultant based in Billings, Montana. He and others argue that the Indus Water Treaty should be amended to account for anticipated shifts in water resources in response to climate change.

    Some experts believe that providing trusted data on water flow might ease tensions and get leaders to focus squarely on a crisis that's expected to grow worse for everyone in the Indus basin. “We need to develop positions on Indus water management that are based on data and not name-calling,” says economist Pervaiz Amir, climate change adviser to Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani. Raising the stakes, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a Pakistan-based extremist group linked to Al-Qaeda, has called for a war on India to reclaim Pakistan's “rightful water share.”

    “I see a looming train wreck on the Indus with disastrous consequences for both countries,” warns John Briscoe, a hydrologist at Harvard University.

    Sharing the basin

    In 1947, when India and Pakistan gained independence and new borders were drawn, the waters of the Indus also needed to be divided. With mediation from the World Bank, the two countries signed the land-mark Indus Water Treaty, which gives Pakistan rights in perpetuity over the waters of three west-flowing rivers: the Indus, the Jhelum, and the Chenab. India was allotted rights to the east-flowing Sutlej, Beas, and Ravi rivers. The pact has been a rare point of consensus between two countries that have waged three wars against each other. During the Kargil conflict in 1999, when dialogue broke down between India and Pakistan, expert teams from the Indus Water Commission continued to meet.

    The first major dispute mediated under the Indus treaty occurred in 2005, when Pakistan claimed that the 450-megawatt Baglihar hydroelectric project being built on the Chenab River would impede water flows into Pakistan. The treaty permits India to use waters of the west-flowing rivers on its territory in a “nonconsumptive” manner, including for hydropower. For the first time, the Indus Water Commission called in an independent expert, Raymond Lafitte, a civil engineer at École Polytechnique Fédérale at Lausanne, Switzerland, to help mediate. Lafitte ruled that India had a right to build the dam but recommended design changes that would reduce the reservoir's storage capacity—changes that India duly implemented.

    Conflict zone.

    Two Indian hydropower projects have drawn Pakistan's ire.

    CREDIT: MAP SATELLITE IMAGE, NASA'S EARTH OBSERVATORY; MAP ADAPTED FROM DAANISH MUSTAFA/KING'S COLLEGE LONDON

    But suspicion lingers, and India of late has gone on a dam-building spree, with at least 33 hydroelectric projects with a total installed capacity of about 3000 megawatts now under construction on the western rivers. “If Pakistan and India had normal, trustful relations, there would be a mutually verified monitoring process which would assure that there is no change in the flows going into Pakistan,” says Briscoe.

    This trust deficit reared in August 2008, when India began to fill the Baglihar reservoir. The timing could not have been worse—“exactly when it would impose maximum harm on farmers in downstream Pakistan,” Briscoe says. The Chenab almost dried up, and crops withered. India's reading of the Indus treaty, Sabharwal says, is that it mandates the timing of impoundment of any Chenab dam. Indeed, a clause states that “initial filling … on the Chenab can be done between June 21 and August 31.”

    Pakistan officials are now taking aim at the 330-megawatt Kishanganga project—in particular, the dam's dead storage capacity for accumulating silt that, they contend, will reduce flows to the Jhelum. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani are reported to have discussed Kishanganga at a summit in Bhutan last April; no details were released.

    Shaky forecast

    Political dialogue is not the only information held close to the vest. Pakistan officials accuse India of providing low-quality, incomplete, and often tardy data from its Indus basin water gauges. Some experts agree: “The Indian government protects [water-flow data] like a state secret,” says Daanish Mustafa, a geographer at King's College London. In a statement last March, India's Foreign Office said that data are shared with Pakistan every 3 months, as mandated by the Indus treaty.

    Calling for calm.

    Hameed Ullah Jan Afridi.

    CREDIT: PALLAVA BAGLA

    To obviate concerns about data sharing, Pakistan's treaty commissioner proposed at a recent meeting in Lahore that the two nations together deploy a satellite-based system for online water data sharing. Indian officials say the government is studying the proposal.

    But better data may not immediately solve the problems in Pakistan, where data integrity is a big concern. Squabbles have erupted between western Punjab and the downstream Sindh and Baluchistan provinces. “The three regions are fighting among themselves, as there is a shortage of water and each province doubts the veracity of the data provided by the other,” says Daniyal Hashmi, a civil engineer with the Water and Power Development Authority in Lahore. A 5-year-old, $430 million project by Pakistan's Indus River Systems Authority to post online water-flow data from all 45 canals, 19 barrages, and the two main dams on the Indus and the Jhelum has failed to ease tensions because provincial officials believe the data are regularly tampered with, Hashmi says.

    More rational water use might ease concerns. In Pakistan's western Punjab, cropping intensity—the amount of crops grown and the sequence of planting and keeping fields fallow—results in three to four times more vegetation than the Indus basin irrigation system was designed for, says Mustafa. Therefore, he declares, water use in the Indus basin is “unsustainable.” Water “overuse” in western Punjab is why the Indus dries up 10 months a year, adds Hashmi. The situation is complex, but Punjab's water consumption does reduce flow, says Jeffrey Kargel, a glaciologist at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “There has always been extreme seasonality of flow, but it is also pretty clear that due in part to the extensive use of the water [in western Punjab] and partly due to climate change, this seasonality is becoming more extreme,” he says.

    Clouding the outlook is the potential impact of global warming. Himalayan glacier runoff supplies roughly 40% of the Indus's flow. “If one of the possible worst case climate change scenarios were to happen—say, a substantial shutting down of the summer monsoon over the northern part of the subcontinent—then the glaciers would suddenly assume paramount importance. No one, however, has plans or readiness to deal with such a situation,” says Kenneth Hewitt, a glaciologist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. Most experts agree that in the short term, as glaciers melt, Indus basin flows will surge before tapering off decades from now as ice and snow fields disappear. For that reason, the treaty should be amended to cope with anticipated flow change and “climate-change uncertainty,” says John “Jack” Shroder, a geomorphologist at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.

    Pakistani officials say they are eager for a peaceful resolution. “Some prophets of doom may foresee a future filled with conflicts,” Environment Minister Hameed Ullah Jan Afridi told Science. “But history bears witness to the fact that cooperation, not conflict, is the most logical response to transboundary water management issues.” Better data-sharing may be a first step toward building trust—and time is of the essence. “If we don't do anything now,” says Umesh K. Haritashya, a geologist at the University of Dayton, Ohio, the Indus basin “can become a resource crisis of gigantic magnitude.”

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