News this Week

Science  17 Aug 2012:
Vol. 337, Issue 6096, pp. 782
  1. Around the World

    1 - Pasadena, California
    Curiosity Takes a Look Around
    2 - Indiana and Ohio
    Swine Flu Virus in Midwest
    3 - Thousand Oaks, California
    Amgen Pulls Cancer Drug
    4 - Raleigh
    U.S. Public Wary of GM Mosquitoes
    5 - Washington, D.C.
    To Our Star and Beyond While Staying Within a Budget

    Pasadena, California

    Curiosity Takes a Look Around

    CREDIT: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/MSSS

    Three days after landing on Mars, Curiosity sent its first color, 360-degree look at Gale Crater (above) to scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, late in the day on 8 August. The panorama, composed of 130 thumbnail images taken with the rover's Mast Camera, shows some targets for future exploration: gray patches in the foreground, where rocket engines blasted the ground during the rover's descent, and in the distance, reddish-brown dunes cut across by a gray layer. Over the next 2 years, Curiosity will cross the rocky surface of the crater on its way to Mount Sharp, the crater's interior mountain.

    Indiana and Ohio

    Swine Flu Virus in Midwest

    CREDIT: LYA CATTEL/ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

    An unusual influenza virus spreading from pigs to children has caught the attention of public health officials. The virus, H3N2v, first surfaced in July 2011 and seasonally infects humans but has not caused severe disease. According to the 10 August issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Report, which is published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the country has had 153 cases since 12 July.

    More than 90% of the H3N2v cases occurred in children, most of whom had direct or indirect contact with pigs, and all but two were in Indiana and Ohio. Researchers are intrigued because H3N2v has an internal “M” gene that matches one found in H1N1; this M gene may play a role in the current transmissions, by giving it an advantage for circulating in pigs, says CDC virologist Michael Shaw. “And if it becomes more common in pigs, it gives more of a chance to jump into humans,” Shaw says. However, there's no evidence that this M gene alone leads to human-to-human transmission.

    Studies have shown that the current flu vaccine likely will not protect against this strain, but adults may have immunity from exposure to “wild type” strains of influenza as well as previous vaccines. http://scim.ag/swineflu2

    Thousand Oaks, California

    Amgen Pulls Cancer Drug

    The failure of a pancreatic cancer therapy, announced last week by its maker Amgen, is another sign that a once-promising class of cancer treatments that target a particular hormone isn't helping as hoped. The latest therapy to flop, called ganitumab, targets type 1 insulin-like growth factor receptor (IGF-1R). After a phase III clinical trial of the therapy, the company concluded it wouldn't help patients live longer and pulled the plug.

    IGF-1R was deemed a promising target after researchers found that higher levels in a person's blood were linked to a slightly greater risk of cancer. Overexpressing the hormone in the lab seemed to cause tumors in cells and animals that shrank when treated with an IGF-1R blocker.

    But in patients, the drugs are “a serial failure,” says Vuk Stambolic, a cancer researcher at Princess Margaret Hospital and the Ontario Cancer Institute in Toronto, Canada. One problem is that it may not be enough to go after IGF-1R alone, especially in patients with very advanced disease. The work in animals and cells also may not fully mimic real life. “I think that the model is probably only partially representative of what happens in cancer,” Stambolic says. http://scim.ag/IGF1Rpulled

    Raleigh

    U.S. Public Wary of GM Mosquitoes

    Most people oppose using genetically engineered male mosquitoes to control wild mosquito populations—when they learn the potential risks, a survey released on 8 August by researchers from North Carolina State University suggests. The mosquitoes have been released in other countries to control mosquito-borne diseases, but have not yet been used in the United States. The survey, which polled 1211 people, is the first to gauge U.S. public opinion on the technology.

    People were most receptive to the idea when the mosquitoes were described as “sterile,” rather than “genetically modified” or “transgenic,” says political scientist Michael Cobb, who supervised the survey. But using the word “sterile” in public information campaigns could be misleading, he says: When genetically engineered male mosquitoes breed with wild females, they pass on a defective gene which causes their offspring to die early.

    Approval increased when people learned more technical information, but when potential risks were explained—such as the possibility that the altered genes in any surviving female offspring might cause a new allergy, or that a more noxious animal might fill the mosquito's ecological niche—approval plummeted to 33% for “sterile” and 17% for “genetically engineered” mosquitoes.

    Washington, D.C.

    To Our Star and Beyond While Staying Within a Budget

    CREDIT: NASA/SDO/AIA

    The latest pitch for doing science in space takes a decidedly budget-wise approach. Released on 15 August, the report by the National Research Council (NRC) of the U.S. National Academies lays out a wish list from the heliophysics community. It calls for exploration in the next decade of what drives solar activity and how that activity affects the solar system, especially Earth and its inhabitants. And most of it would be done within the slowly increasing $650-million-per-year budget specified by NASA for heliophysics.

    A key to the decadal plan is a redefinition of medium-size heliophysics space missions. Three proposed missions would be conceived by the community, led by a principal investigator, and constrained to a cost of $520 million each. “This is the single best way we've found to contain costs,” says the committee's chair, Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado, Boulder.

    Not that heliophysics has no grand ambitions: A recommended billion-dollar mission later in the decade—a constellation of spacecraft to investigate how Earth's atmosphere absorbs solar wind energy—would require a budget boost if it is to be in service by the next solar maximum in 2024.

  2. Random Sample

    The Universe in 3D

    CREDIT: M. A. ARAGÓN (JHU), M. SUBBARAO (ADLER PLANETARIUM), A. SZALAY (JHU), Y. YAO (LBNL, NERSC), AND THE SDSS-III COLLABORATION

    Researchers with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey III last week released the largest three-dimensional map of black holes and massive galaxies yet produced, which pinpoints the locations and distances to more than 1 million galaxies (http://www.sdss3.org/press/dr9.php). Mapping these galaxies will enable scientists to retrace the history of the universe for the last 6 billion years, the team says, thereby allowing astronomers to make better estimates for how much of it is composed of the “dark matter” that can't be directly seen, and “dark energy,” the mysterious force that's driving the expansion of the universe. The survey, which recently completed its second year, has so far covered about 8% of the sky. By the time the 6-year project is completed, researchers will have mapped all massive galaxies outside of the dust-clogged plane of our Milky Way galaxy that are visible from the Northern Hemisphere—altogether, about one-fourth of the sky that's visible from Earth.

    Family Matters

    CREDIT: BEN LANDAU

    Look closely: Each intersection of warp and weft in this blanket represents a single point of genetic data. When taken as a whole, the blanket displays an entire genome—that of the sister of bioinformatician Manuel Corpas of the Genome Analysis Centre in Norfolk, U.K.

    On 20 June, Corpas began a crowdfunding effort, hoping to raise $20,000 to sequence his own and his family's entire genomes. The project, he says, was part of his ongoing effort to raise awareness of a coming revolution in personal genomics. “My vision is about accessibility,” he says. “Anyone in the world who would like to know about their genetic data should have the resources to learn about it.” As a part of that, he plans to develop free software that can help people interpret their own genomes.

    After raising only one-fifth of the money he hoped for, last week Corpas called off the funding campaign—but he hasn't given up his plans to raise awareness. He had already sequenced and published 1 million base pairs for each of his participating relatives through the genetic testing company 23andMe, and thanks to his crowdfunding effort, he says he's now raised enough to sequence the exomes—protein-coding sequences of DNA—of his sister and his parents.

    Textile artist Ben Landau, who created the blanket, is among those who have uploaded the Corpas family's free genetic data. In an age when parents may soon be able to alter the genes of their offspring, Landau says his blanket is meant to “highlight the sanctity” of our unique individual genomes. http://scim.ag/corpasgen

    By the Numbers

    799 meters Record depth in the Gulf of Mexico for the coral Lophelia pertusa, found on energy platforms by a team of federal and university scientists.

    £15.3 million Amount of funding, announced on 14 August, for the Royal Society and the U.K. Department for International Development's Africa Capacity Building Initiative to support research in sub-Saharan Africa.

    877 times higher The extinction rate for freshwater fish species in North America from 1900–2010, compared with the rate found in the fossil record (one species per 3 million years), according to U.S. Geological Survey scientists reporting in BioScience.

  3. Newsmakers

    Founder of Jodrell Bank Observatory Dies

    Lovell

    CREDIT: JON SUPER/AP PHOTO

    Physicist and radio astronomer Bernard Lovell, who was the founder and first director of the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, U.K., died on 6 August. He was 98.

    Lovell headed the observatory from 1957 to 1981. He conceived the idea for the observatory's 76-meter-diameter Lovell telescope in 1945; it became the world's largest telescope upon its completion in 1957, and it was also the only telescope in the West able to track the Soviet Union's Sputnik 1 satellite.

    Under Lovell, teams at the observatory made important discoveries: The telescope was the first to spy quasars, and Jodrell Bank scientists have discovered almost two-thirds of the known pulsars.

  4. Alzheimer's Research

    Stopping Alzheimer's Before It Starts

    1. Greg Miller

    Three new clinical trials expected to begin next year will attempt to prevent dementia by treating people at risk for the disease before they develop symptoms.

    Gathering storm.

    Brain scans of people with a gene mutation that causes early-onset Alzheimer's disease, taken at 5-year intervals, show evidence of amyloid accumulation (warmer colors) up to 20 years (far left) before the expected onset of symptoms (far right).

    CREDIT: T. BENZINGER AND T. BLAZEY/WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY

    Alzheimer's disease has stalked Matt Reiswig's family for generations. His grandfather developed dementia by age 42. “My grandfather had 13 brothers and sisters, and of the 14 kids, 10 developed early-onset Alzheimer's,” says Reiswig, a creative director at an interactive firm in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “It's been devastating to my family.” Reiswig's father and uncle had symptoms of dementia by age 50, and at age 38, he knows he has a 50-50 chance of developing the disease, probably in the next decade. Those are the odds that he has the gene mutation that runs in his family.

    For most people, Alzheimer's disease is a cloud on the distant horizon, a storm that may or may not materialize in old age. But roughly 500 families worldwide live with a more immediate threat: an inherited form of the disease that strikes in the prime of life. Each of these families, like Reiswig's, has a unique glitch in one of three genes. These mutations are cruelly deterministic; those who inherit them are assured of their fate. These families are now the focus of a crucial new stage of Alzheimer's research: They will be subjects in the first clinical trials aimed at preventing the disease by treating people who show no outward signs of sickness.

    These trials come on the heels of a decade of bitter disappointment for Alzheimer's researchers, who've seen one promising therapy after another fail in late-stage clinical trials. The latest blow came just last week when Pfizer and its partners announced that they were suspending development of the once-promising treatment bapineuzumab after two large trials found no benefits to mental function in people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease. Such failures have raised doubts about the field's guiding hypothesis: that the accumulation of a protein fragment called β amyloid in the brain is a key step in the disease process that ultimately kills neurons and robs people of their memories and the ability to think clearly. Another interpretation, however, is that anti-amyloid therapies have so far disappointed because patients got them too late. If these same therapies could be given years earlier, before irreversible brain damage occurs, perhaps the disease could be prevented.

    Family portrait.

    Matt Reiswig (second adult from the left) and his brother Marty (red shirt, just right of center) plan to enroll in the DIAN clinical trial. Their father, Lawrence (top), has early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

    CREDIT: COURTESY OF MATT REISWIG

    The new trials will put this idea to the test. They will be funded through a combination of support from pharmaceutical companies, the National Institutes of Health, and private philanthropies. Reiswig and his brother plan to participate in a trial affiliated with the Dominantly Inherited Alzheimer Network (DIAN), a consortium led by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis in Missouri. Another trial, the Alzheimer's Prevention Initiative (API), will focus on an extended family in Colombia. A third trial, dubbed Anti-Amyloid Treatment of Asymptomatic Alzheimer's (A4), will take a different tack, treating adults without gene mutations whose brain scans show signs of amyloid accumulation. All three trials are expected to get under way next year in what should be the sternest test yet for the amyloid hypothesis.

    Fighting la bobera

    Alzheimer's disease affects more than 35 million people worldwide. With that number projected to triple by 2050 as populations age, a preventive treatment would be an enormous boon to public health, not to mention a financial blockbuster. But testing preventive treatments in the general population isn't feasible, for practical and ethical reasons. Because any individual's risk of Alzheimer's disease is relatively low and impossible to predict, such a trial would have to enroll thousands of people and would subject many who would never have developed the disease to the unknown long-term risks of taking antiamyloid drugs. That's where families like Reiswig's come in: Their deterministic gene mutations make it clear who stands to benefit from an experimental treatment and easier to tell if it's working.

    Among the coffee plantations and rural mountain pueblos surrounding Medellin, Colombia, neurologist Francisco Lopera has worked for decades with the largest of these families, which will be the focus of the API trial. Lopera saw his first patient, a 47-year-old man with la bobera—the foolishness, as it's called locally—in 1984 as a neurology resident at the University of Antioquia Medical School in Medellin. In the 1980s and 1990s, Lopera traveled extensively through the region, braving drug cartels and guerilla fighters to piece together genealogies. In the mid-'90s, he struck up a collaboration with Kenneth Kosik, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, that ultimately led to the discovery of the cause of the disease in these families: a mutation in a gene called PSEN1. Of the nearly 5000 family members, roughly 1500 carry the mutation.

    Multimedia

    The API trial in Colombia will test the preventive powers of crenezumab, an antiamyloid antibody developed by Genentech, a biotech subsidiary of Roche. One hundred mutation carriers will receive an injection of the antibody every 2 weeks, say API co-directors Eric Reiman and Pierre Tariot of the Banner Alzheimer's Institute in Phoenix. Reiman and Tariot say API chose crenezumab because animal studies suggest it effectively mops up several different forms of β amyloid. Also, crenezumab was designed to avoid an infrequent but potentially worrisome side effect of other anti-amyloid therapies: swelling and microhemorrhages in the brain caused by leaky blood vessels. Genentech's clinical trials in mild to moderate Alzheimer's patients have so far found no evidence of this side effect, suggesting it may be possible to give higher doses safely, Reiman says.

    In Colombia, a control group of 100 mutation carriers will receive placebo injections, as will another 100 family members without the mutation. This latter group is necessary because the vast majority of participants don't want to know whether they carry the mutation, Reiman says. Including the noncarriers makes it possible to blind the trial so that neither the participants nor the doctors treating them will know their genetic status. Mutation carriers as young as age 30 can receive crenezumab if they are within 15 years of their parents' age of onset.

    The primary measure of the drug's effect will be changes on a battery of cognitive tests, but the team will also collect biomarkers, including scans that show amyloid deposition in the brain. The trial is designed to last 5 years. Lopera says the families are eager to participate. After years of studying these families and watching helplessly as people succumb to the disease, Lopera says his team has a new sense of optimism. “For the first time we will be able to offer a therapeutic option,” he says.

    A multipronged attack

    The DIAN trial that the Reiswig family plans to enroll in has a different design. It will include people with mutations in any of the three genes linked to early-onset Alzheimer's: PSEN1, PSEN2, and APP. The first stage of the trial, scheduled to last 2 years, will test three treatments, says the trial's director, Randall Bateman of Washington University. The final decision on what those compounds will be has not yet been made, Bateman says, but all will target β amyloid, either by slowing its production or clearing it from the brain.

    This first stage of the DIAN trial will rely heavily on biomarkers. Recent work by DIAN researchers has begun to provide a picture of the pathological changes in the brain that precede cognitive problems in people with inherited early-onset Alzheimer's. A study of 128 DIAN participants, reported on 12 July in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that concentrations of β amyloid in cerebrospinal fluid dip up to 25 years before the onset of Alzheimer's symptoms. This dip is thought to indicate that the amyloid is being taken out of circulation as it begins to build up in the brain. Brain scans reveal amyloid accumulation and atrophy at least 15 years prior to onset of symptoms. During the first stage of the clinical trial, researchers will monitor these and other biomarkers, as well as the participants' cognitive performance, and then choose the drug—or drugs—that look most promising for extended testing.

    All in the families.

    Neurologist Francisco Lopera (left) and his collaborator, neuroscientist Kenneth Kosik, pore over genealogies in Colombia.

    CREDIT: MARY LUZ ARCILA

    Like API, DIAN will also enroll family members without gene mutations so that participants can remain ignorant of their genetic status. But both trials will pay for genetic testing and counseling for participants who want it. Reiswig is one of the few who's decided to take them up on it. He says he's long assumed he has the mutation and he and his wife have lived accordingly, taking vacations and saving little for retirement. If he tests positive, he says the main thing he'll do is have the kind of heartfelt talks with his children that people often put off. He'll make a video, too, so they'll have a reminder of what their father was like with a healthy brain and clear mind. They never got that chance with their grandfather, Reiswig says, nor he with his.

    Scanning ahead

    Unlike API and DIAN, the A4 trial will attempt to prevent the far more common form of Alzheimer's disease that's not caused by a gene mutation. The trial will enroll people age 70 or older who test positive on a scan of amyloid accumulation in the brain, explains Reisa Sperling of Harvard University, one of the principal investigators.

    A4 will enroll 500 amyloid–positive participants and 500 amyloid–negative controls in a 3-year double-blind trial that will track changes in cognition. Another 500 people with amyloid–negative brain scans will participate in a parallel “natural history” study of aging and cognition. Sperling says the group plans to select a drug by December, by which time more details should be available from the bapineuzumab trials as well as another closely watched phase III clinical trial for solanezumab, an anti-amyloid antibody developed by Eli Lilly. Even if both drugs fail in people who've already been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, they might still work prophylactically—or at least that's the hope.

    A4 will also include an ethics arm that will examine the psychological impact of disclosing information to individuals about their risk of developing Alzheimer's disease (see sidebar). “This is a really important opportunity to study what people hear when they get this information,” Sperling says.

    High stakes

    A great deal hinges on the outcome of these trials. If they fail, it would be a major blow to the near-term prospects of a disease-altering treatment for Alzheimer's disease and perhaps even spell the beginning of the end for the amyloid hypothesis.

    Almost any degree of success, on the other hand, would be a major victory. Although the extent to which the early- and late-onset forms of Alzheimer's involve the same mechanisms is still somewhat controversial, many researchers think there are enough similarities that any therapy that prevents or mitigates the early-onset form would at least be a strong candidate for trials in a broader population. A logical step in that direction would be a trial in people with ApoE4, a generic variant that increases the risk of late-onset Alzheimer's disease.

    Whichever way these pioneering trials turn out, millions of people who aspire to a sound mind in old age have a stake.

  5. Alzheimer's Research

    How to Talk About Alzheimer's Risk

    1. Greg Miller

    Most people do not want to know if Alzheimer's disease is written in their genes, say researchers leading two trials that will try to prevent Alzheimer's in people with gene mutations that cause it.

    If Alzheimer's disease were written in your genes, would you want to know? Most people do not, say researchers leading two upcoming clinical trials that will try to prevent Alzheimer's in people with gene mutations that cause an early-onset form of the disease (see main text, p. 790). To accommodate the participants' wishes, those trials will not reveal genetic testing results. But what about less certain risks?

    Many people do want to know if they have the so-called ApoE4 genetic variant, which triples the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease in old age, says Robert Green, a medical geneticist at Harvard University and principal investigator of the Risk Evaluation and Education for Alzheimer's Disease study. Over the past decade, Green and his colleagues have looked at the impact of telling people their ApoE status. When people who are psychologically healthy find out they're ApoE4-positive, they handle the information fairly well, Green says. “Whether they can do something medically about it isn't as important as you might think,” he adds. People who find out they are positive often take other measures, such as buying long-term care insurance or joining an advocacy group, Green says.

    A third upcoming trial, the Anti-Amyloid Treatment of Asymptomatic Alzheimer's (A4), will enroll people with a different risk factor: evidence of β amyloid accumulation in the brain, widely thought to be an indicator of the disease. In contrast with genetic testing, however, the predictive value of a β amyloid–positive brain scan is not well understood, says Jason Karlawish, a professor of ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, who will lead an ethics arm of the A4 trial. To enroll in the trial, participants must agree to find out their amyloid status, and Karlawish says he and colleagues are working on how to explain the scans and convey the uncertainty. Researchers will monitor participants for mood and lifestyle changes and examine how β amyloid test results affect their perceptions of their cognitive abilities and future risks.

    With the approval earlier this year of florbetapir, a radioactive compound that binds to β amyloid in the brain and makes it visible on a positron emission tomography scan, more and more doctors will start ordering these tests, Karlawish says. He hopes his study will provide guidance for doctors on how to deliver the news, and on how patients are likely to take it.

  6. Climatology

    Mountains of Data

    1. Robert F. Service

    A famous mountaineer and Microsoft researchers are blending images, data, and computer models to document how changing climate is affecting the Himalaya.

    On the hunt.

    GlacierWorks climbers search for the exact locations where early British explorers snapped the original iconic images of mountains and glaciers in the Himalaya.

    CREDIT: GLACIERWORKS, 2009

    David Breashears has experienced triumphs and tragedy among the mountain peaks at the top of the world. Since 1978, Breashears, 56, has taken part in 45 expeditions to the Himalaya Mountains in southern Asia. He was the first American to climb Mount Everest twice, a peak he has now ascended five times. A filmmaker and photographer, Breashears has also created more than 40 films and won four Emmys. He is perhaps most famous for his 1996 IMAX movie Everest; during shooting, five members of three other climbing teams died when a fierce storm slammed into the mountain while they were near the peak.

    The find.

    Breashears (right), shown with Mingmar Dorji Sherpa, says it's a “tremendous thrill” to recreate early photos after climbs that sometimes last 20 hours a day.

    CREDIT: GLACIERWORKS, 2007

    In his images, Breashears prides himself on portraying the exquisite beauty and drama of his landscapes. But for a man who sees every detail, Breashears readily admits that for the longest time he was missing the big picture. After dozens of his Himalayan journeys, Breashears began to notice a transformation. Large numbers of the more than 35,000 glaciers that interleave this 3000-kilometer-long mountain range were in rapid retreat. “I saw tremendous changes happening, and I was shocked how bereft I was of knowledge,” he says.

    After presenting his images to researchers, Breashears found himself swept up in the conflict over whether the changes were due to natural climate variability or climate change. “We didn't know we would be squeezed from both sides the way we have,” Breashears says. “It's taken a toll on us.”

    Although reluctant to enter the fray, Breashears says he felt compelled to help others understand the changes he was witnessing. So he decided to do what he does best: combine his mountaineering, photography, and storytelling skills to let his images tell the story the way reams of scientific papers cannot.

    In 2007, Breashears formed GlacierWorks, a company that's creating an interactive Web site to allow viewers to navigate Himalayan landscapes constructed from terabytes of high-resolution images. Breashears and his GlacierWorks colleagues are now working with computer scientists and image experts at Microsoft Research (MSR) in Richland, Washington, and Bangalore, India, to augment the images with numerous other layers of scientific data and models—just as Google Earth highlights roads, borders, and other features atop a seamless tapestry of satellite images. But instead of seeing what Breashears calls “impersonal” flat, two-dimensional satellite images, viewers will be able to peruse vistas from photos taken at eye level, giving them a far better sense of what it's like to travel the Himalaya in person. Along the way, viewers will be able to click on icons superimposed over the landscapes to learn about hydrology and how glaciers accumulate, lose ice, and flow down mountainsides. They'll also be able to work with climate models, changing variables such as CO2 emissions, population, and the balance of electricity created from coal and renewables to see the effects on glacial melting and river flows in decades to come.

    Jeff Dozier, a hydrologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a veteran of a few battles of his own over climate change, calls the approach a “fantastic” way for viewers to uncover the relationships between atmospheric chemistry, snow accumulation, temperature, ice melting rates at different elevations, and the degree to which snow reflects light back into space. “If you help people figure it out for themselves, it often has a more lasting impact,” Dozier says. “We can really use something like this.” Besides, he adds, “the images are just spectacular.”

    Rivers of ice and time.

    Panoramic views of the East Rongbuk Glacier on the north side of Mount Everest taken by Major E. O. Wheeler in 1921 and David Breashears in 2011, with a close-up (left). Over 90 years, the glacier's vertical height has dropped by 100 meters.

    CREDITS (TOP TO BOTTOM): MAJOR E. O. WHEELER/ROYAL GEOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY, 1921; DAVID BREASHEARS/GLACIERWORKS, 2011 (2)

    Images are indeed the heart of the project: thousands of high-resolution photographs that Breashears and his small climbing team have made during 11 expeditions since 2007. Perhaps the most powerful are “matched” images based on hundreds of original photos taken by British expeditions from the late 19th century through the 1950s. Breashears and his team triangulated the position from which each of the early photos was taken; then they returned to capture an updated view, ideally at the same time of year. In many instances, the glaciers had receded dramatically. “The images have a certain truth to them and a certain power,” Breashears says. “They are irrefutable.”

    In another effort, Breashears and his team went airborne. They mounted seven still cameras aboard a mountain-rescue helicopter and collected 80,000 images in the area surrounding the base camps and ascent routes on Mount Everest, flying as close as possible to the ground to give the sense of being within the folds of the mountain. Now, working with image experts at MSR and other colleagues, they are stitching together 3500 of the images into a single file that will enable viewers to “fly” up the flanks of Everest near the highest point on Earth.

    Still, Breashears wanted to go beyond the images, to incorporate data such as video logs of climbers, displays of scientific studies, and computer models of future melting. No Web program could seamlessly weld such disparate data sources. In March 2011, however, Breashears spoke with Curtis Wong, an old colleague at the Public Broadcasting Service's shows Nova and Frontline, who had since moved to MSR. Wong told Breashears that MSR colleagues in India were putting together a new Web-based platform called Rich Interactive Narratives (RIN), designed to let users effortlessly move among myriad data types—a wholly new interactive computer experience.

    Wong put Breashears in touch with Padmanabhan Anandan, a computer vision expert who runs the Indian lab, and Joseph Joy, RIN's chief architect. By December 2011, Breashears and the MSR team had joined forces to make GlacierWorks fly. “I wanted to work with someone who would push us,” Joy says.

    Anandan explains that the idea of constructing a player to move between different data types isn't new. It's partly what's behind Google Earth as well as Microsoft's own WorldWide Telescope. But these are closed, one-off systems, useful only within their particular applications. Joy's idea was to create a novel computer language that allowed anyone to integrate all the different data formats—and thus weave a narrative out of any diverse assemblies of data. In addition to working with GlacierWorks, MSR researchers have teamed up with the Indian government's Science and Technology Department to use RIN to create an interactive narrative of the country's cultural history. And Joy says academics are eager to use the tool to explain science by allowing users to unite numerous studies and data types.

    For his part, Dozier says he's excited about the prospect of using GlacierWorks's interactive site to teach students about the uncertainties of climate change. “Glaciers are integrators of climate,” Dozier says. The positive side of that is that changes to the glaciers reveal that broad changes in climate are occurring. But that doesn't tell you whether their retreat is due to declining snowfall, faster melting, a combination of the two, or some other factor. So any chance to help students work through those combinations would be a welcome change, Dozier says.

    Beyond the educational aspect of the work, Breashears says he hopes the terabytes of high-resolution images he and his colleagues have taken over the past few years will give future scientists a baseline for tracking changes in the size of glaciers, snow accumulation, and melt rates throughout the Himalaya. That may not satisfy the fire-breathing warriors in the political battle over climate change. But that's just fine with Breashears, who says he wants to stand in “the irrational middle” and show people the stark beauty of the highest reaches of our planet and the stark reality of how it's changing.

  7. Biodiversity

    As Isolation Ends, Myanmar Faces New Ecological Risks

    1. Charles Schmidt*

    Concerned about the path of foreign investment, homegrown environmentalists seek to protect threatened forests and wildlife and push for sustainable development.

    Life lessons.

    Local environmental advocates have teamed up with international groups to teach villagers how to succeed as farmers.

    CREDIT: JAKE BRUNNER

    GWA, MYANMAR—Bouncing over stone-filled potholes in a four-wheel drive SUV, Myint Aung passes a cluster of huts in a glade hacked from what was once a vibrant bamboo forest. Children in threadbare clothes wave hello. “All these settlements are illegal,” says Myint Aung, a former forestry official who runs Friends of Wildlife, a homegrown nongovernmental organization (NGO) in the capital, Yangon. Here in Taung-nyo Public Protected Forest in western Myanmar, villagers subsist on hunting, illegal logging, and slash-and-burn farming that depletes topsoil. Hectare by hectare, Myint Aung says, they are laying waste to the landscape, where scrub thickets and charred hills stretch for kilometers into the distance.

    Until recently, Myint Aung and colleagues could do little more than bear witness to an unfolding ecological crisis. For decades, Myanmar's military rulers took a dim view of NGOs and outlawed them. But as part of the reforms sweeping the country, the government has cleared the way for NGOs to register legally. Friends of Wildlife is now openly courting foreign donors to support projects aimed at safeguarding biodiversity in Taung-nyo and elsewhere.

    Myanmar's environment is at a crossroads, its fate hinging on how recent reforms reshape the country. In his 17 months in office, President Thein Sein has legalized labor unions, rolled back censorship, and released hundreds of imprisoned dissidents. In April, Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to run for parliament, winning handily after spending much of the last 20 years under house arrest. Encouraged by those developments, the United States and other countries have eased sanctions on the long-isolated country, opening the floodgates to foreign investment.

    Some observers fear that will be bad news for biodiversity: The government, they contend, won't try to keep developers on a short leash. Others are optimistic that Myanmar's leaders will embrace a sustainable path. “Before the opening, the only direction for conservation in Myanmar was downwards. We didn't have the money to defend newly protected areas, and we had no ability to bring international pressure to bear on the government's environmental policy,” says biologist Alan Rabinowitz, who runs Panthera, a big cat conservancy in New York City. In 2001, he founded Hukawng Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in northern Myanmar. “I see this as a huge opportunity to stabilize Myanmar's ecology.”

    Running on empty

    After 2 decades of international sanctions for human-rights violations, Myanmar lags behind neighboring countries in building an infrastructure. As a result, it retains some of the largest intact forests in Southeast Asia. With 1100 species, the diversity of Myanmar's birdlife exceeds that of the United States and Canada combined. The country's Asiatic elephant population—ranging from 1350 to as many as 5300 individuals according to various estimates—is second only to India's. And Hukawng, a 21,833-square-kilometer swath of jungle in Kachin State, is a haven for many of the country's 85 remaining tigers. “Myanmar is biogeographically and biologically one of the most exciting places in Asia,” says Peter Leimgruber, a biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia.

    On the other hand, the sanctions exacerbated the rampant poverty that now makes it harder protect the country's ecological resources. From 2001 to 2010, the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network, or TRAFFIC, in Cambridge, U.K., documented more than 400 tiger, leopard, and Asiatic lion carcasses and body parts for sale in the eastern border towns of Mong La and Talchilek. Tigers face intense poaching threats; a single animal dried and packed in a box can net more than $30,000 for medicine and other uses in Chinese markets, according to Robert Tizard, a Yangon-based technical adviser to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in New York City. Leimgruber and Smithsonian colleagues predict that the capture of wild elephants for use as draft animals in the logging trade could extirpate Myanmar's elephant population within 30 years.

    Enforcement is a huge problem. Of the country's 36 protected areas, just 22 have forestry staff members, Tizard says. “That typically amounts to one or two rangers,” he says. “Not enough to patrol or manage these areas effectively.”

    Scant data exist on just what the rangers are supposed to be protecting. Thanks to an agreement with Myanmar's forestry department, WCS has maintained a low-key presence here since 1993. But neither WCS nor its collaborators have sufficient resources to track environmental changes nationwide. Some areas are too dangerous for fieldwork because of sporadic clashes between the army and rebel groups. A 2012 study funded by the MacArthur Foundation concluded that Sumatran and Javan rhinoceroses are “probably extinct” in Myanmar—but it couldn't be sure, because a few rhinos may have found refuge in conflict zones that haven't been surveyed for years.

    Illicit timber trades also cut heavily into the forests. In 2009, Global Witness, a London-based NGO, estimated that more than 90% of Myanmar's timber exports to China are illegal. China is Myanmar's biggest trading partner; it imports timber, minerals, and other natural resources, and invests in hydropower schemes. By boosting economic ties with the West, Myanmar may be able to wean itself off that dependency, Rabinowitz says.

    Myanmar of late has not shied from sacrificing trade with China to protect the environment. Last October, for instance, the government indefinitely postponed the Myitsone Dam, sponsored by China Power International. Opposed by Kachin rebels, conservationists, and political activists, the $3.6 billion dam would have flooded 26,000 hectares at the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River, displacing thousands of villagers and degrading habitat of fish and the critically endangered White-bellied Heron. Earlier this year, Thein Sein declared that the dam would never be built during his term in office, which ends in 2015. The government has continued with a string of ecologically favorable policies this year. Last March, it canceled a 400-megawatt, Thai-sponsored coal-fired power plant near Dawei, on the southern coast, on environmental grounds. Then it passed a comprehensive environmental law, the country's first, which requires environmental impact assessments before the approval of development projects. Mining within 100 meters of Myanmar's four largest rivers—the Irrawaddy, the Thanlwin, the Chindwinn, and the Sittaung—is now banned by a Ministry of Mines decree.

    These changes are a positive shift favoring conservation, Tizard says. But it's unclear how effective some changes will be without substantial investments for conservation and enforcement. “Top-level officials say what they want done, but they don't supply enough money to carry out their policies,” says one exforestry official. Forest rangers on minuscule wages routinely risk their lives confronting well-armed poachers, Rabinowitz adds. WCS is supplying technical and financial assistance to the forestry department to boost wildlife patrols. “What tiger, elephant, and other species in the parks need is protection,” says Than Myint, WCS country program director. “With more patrols, my personal feeling is their numbers will rebound.”

    Than Myint and his WCS colleagues have found that illegal hunting earns more than farming for villagers living in or near two protected areas: Hponkanrazi Wildlife Sanctuary on the Indian border, and Hkakaborazi National Park bordering China. Interviews they conducted point to sharp declines in commercially valuable species in these areas, including tiger, otter, musk deer, bear, and pangolin. Most wildlife products leaving Hkakaborazi—including 376 carcasses from 13 species identified during patrols and checkpoints over 8 months in 2006 to 2007 were headed to China, the team reported in Environmental Management in 2010 and 2011.

    More patrols will curtail the bush meat trade, Than Myint says. But the government, he says, must also confront the root cause of the wildlife trade: a lack of alternative income sources or land tenure for impoverished villagers. In Myanmar, the state owns all the land, so villagers have little incentive to care for it.

    Getting by.

    Some Chin families are planting sustainable crops in western Myanmar, where opportunistic hunting was the rule. Charcoal burners (right) still practice an illegal trade, burning trees for fuel.

    CREDIT: CHARLES SCHMIDT

    The government has said it intends to change that. In 2001, it pledged to hand 930,776 hectares—about 1.5% of the country's area—to communities with sustainable management plans by 2031. Degraded land now can be held for 30 years by community groups that agree to restore depleted soil. But villagers lack the resources and organizational capacity to work the land sustainably, says Saw Htun, WCS deputy country program director. For community forestry to succeed, he says, more outside support is needed.

    Now that it's a legal entity, Friends of Wildlife says it can step up efforts to help communities. It's now working with 24 Chin families whose lifestyle, until recently, was to migrate through Western Myanmar's forests in pursuit of Asian bison, or gaur. Using hunting dogs and spears, the warriors would take three or four gaur in a good week. “But they would also take anything else of value they could find,” Myint Aung says. “Cats, tortoises, whatever they could sell.”

    Thanks to Friends of Wildlife, the Chin have settled in huts surrounded by cash crops. After an 8-hour drive from Yangon, Myint Aung and two colleagues arrive in Gwa Township to check on the settlers. Myint Aung greets a shy teenage girl who has just completed the equivalent of a high school education. “She'll be the first Chin family member here to go to university,” he says.

    Myint Aung secured 80 hectares of degraded land for the Chin, who have signed onto a stewardship program. In exchange for giving up hunting and slash-and-burn farming, the Chin receive schooling and technical support from Friends of Wildlife to help them shift to sustainable agriculture. Camera traps show less human disturbance in the forest now compared to 5 or 6 years ago, says Myint Aung, who hopes that this approach can be replicated elsewhere in Myanmar.

    Rabinowitz and others say they're optimistic that Myanmar's evolving legal framework can tilt the balance in favor of conservation. Not long ago, the government was among the most secretive in the world. “Now it's like they're on C-SPAN,” Tizard says. But Leimgruber cautions that political reforms elsewhere in Southeast Asia paved the way for developers to pounce while NGOs squabbled. “To protect biodiversity in Myanmar,” he says, “everyone's going to have to work together.”

    • * Charles Schmidt is a writer in Portland, Maine.

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