News this Week

Science  01 Mar 2013:
Vol. 339, Issue 6123, pp. 1018

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  1. Around the World

    1 - Beijing
    China's Environmental Ministry Acknowledges 'Cancer Villages'
    2 - Washington, D.C.
    AIDS Relief Program Gets High Marks
    3 - Canberra
    Cutting R&D Tax Breaks to Fund Innovation Networks


    China's Environmental Ministry Acknowledges 'Cancer Villages'


    For the first time, China's government has acknowledged the existence of "cancer villages": locations where exposure to environmental hazards, often water pollution, is believed to have contributed to elevated cancer rates.

    "Toxic chemicals have caused many environmental emergencies," reads a planning document released by China's environment ministry on 20 February. "There are even some serious cases of health and social problems, like the emergence of cancer villages in individual regions." The document outlines the ministry's plan to more strictly regulate the use of chemicals in, for example, petrochemical factories, steel and iron refineries, and power plants.

    Cancer is the leading cause of death in urban China, accounting for one in every four deaths (Science, 29 August 2008, p. 1155). The little-studied "cancer villages" have been rumored to exist for years; journalist Deng Fei, formerly of the Phoenix Weekly newsmagazine, raised the villages' profile in 2009 when he posted a map online showing the locations of more than 100 impacted communities.

    Washington, D.C.

    AIDS Relief Program Gets High Marks

    A 680-page report released on 20 February by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) found that the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a 10-year-old effort to help 31 "partner countries" treat their HIV-infected people, has been "a tremendously successful effort." The program disbursed $21.8 billion in aid between 2004 and 2010.

    The report noted that PEPFAR has "played a transformative role" with its contribution to the global response to HIV, providing more than 3 million people with antiretroviral drugs in fiscal year 2010 and an estimated 600,000 HIV-infected pregnant women with antiretrovirals.

    PEPFAR has funding through 2013, and some HIV/AIDS advocates worry that Congress might cut its support. But IOM committee members hope the report will help educate the new generation elected to Congress and their staff members. "[PEPFAR is] a really great example of how you can deliver development assistance," says committee member Jennifer Kates, director of Global Health & HIV Policy at The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington, D.C.


    Cutting R&D Tax Breaks to Fund Innovation Networks

    A jobs and innovation package announced by the Australian government on 17 February proposes to cut AUD $1 billion from research and development tax breaks to help pay for a new network of up to 10 "Industry Innovation Precincts." The government wants to spend AUD $500 million over 4 years to establish and support the precincts, but funding for the new networks will take a bite out of R&D tax breaks for up to 20 of the nation's biggest firms, including large mining companies such as Rio Tinto, Caltex, and Shell Australia.

    The move is intended to foster collaborations between academic, government, and industry researchers to improve Australia's track record on commercializing its research discoveries, which analysts say is relatively poor. But opponents say the cuts could make Australia less attractive to international investors.

    Two precincts, a Melbourne- and Adelaide-based center on defense manufacturing and a Melbourne-based center on food manufacturing, have already been selected. If Parliament approves the plan, the remaining precincts will be selected by a competitive process this year and established in 2014. An independent National Precincts Board will advise the government on the selection.

  2. Random Sample


    Psychologists will soon have a major prize of their own. Cognitive scientist Richard Atkinson, president emeritus of the University of California, last week gave $3.5 million to the National Academy of Sciences to establish a new $200,000 biennial prize in the psychological and cognitive sciences, beginning in 2014.

    Touch of Gray on the Red Planet


    NASA's Curiosity rover holds out a fistful of gray powder—the first sample extracted from the interior of Mars by the rover's drill. Earlier this month, the rover gave its drill gear a test run, burrowing about 6 centimeters into an outcrop on Mars known as "John Klein": a site with rocks that were once saturated with water. The drilling revealed gray sediment beneath the planet's surface layer of rust-colored rock, tinted by oxidized iron. "We're … seeing a new coloration for Mars here, and it's an exciting one to us," said Joel Hurowitz, sampling system scientist for Curiosity at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, at a press conference on 20 February. The sediment "may preserve some indication of what iron was doing in these samples without the effect of some later oxidative process."


    Join us on Thursday, 7 March, at 3 p.m. EST for a live chat on open access publishing. What does the United States's new policy mean for the scientific community?

    Thanks to Christianity, Horsemeat Went Out of Style

    On horseback.

    The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the Norman conquest of England.


    Horsemeat in hamburgers might scandalize modern Britons, but their ancestors weren't always so squeamish. A study of horse bones at early, middle, and late Anglo-Saxon sites suggests that slaughtering and eating equines went out of fashion only with the rise of Christianity.

    Horses were central to Anglo-Saxon life, a period extending from the end of Roman control around 410 C.E. to the Norman conquest of 1066. Associated with warrior gods in several pagan religions, the animals were frequently buried with humans in early Saxon graves—although they were eaten only some of the time, perhaps at ritual feasts or when food was scarce. Horse bones showing signs of butchery consistent with human consumption were found at 27% of the early Saxon sites surveyed in the new study.

    In the 8th century, the Catholic Church started harshly condemning what it saw as the pagan practice of horsemeat consumption, says archaeologist Kristopher Poole, who recently received a Ph.D. from the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. Indeed, as Christianity spread, horsemeat consumption declined, Poole notes in an upcoming issue of the Oxford Journal of Archaeology. Butchered horse bones show up at only about 13% of middle and late Saxon sites, usually at poor or remote settlements, where Christianity's influence was relatively weak.

    It's the first time an animal bones expert "has really compared the record from excavations … with the few written sources we have" to investigate the outcome of the church's crackdown on horse meat, says archaeologist Helena Hamerow of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. One lingering mystery, she says, is why this particular food taboo persists in England but has faded in other European countries such as France.

  3. Newsmakers

    Breakthrough Prize Awards Millions to Life Scientists


    de Lange


    Eleven biomedical researchers were awarded the new Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences last week. Each winner receives $3 million, courtesy of several Silicon Valley entrepreneurs including venture capitalist Yuri Milner, who also founded the Fundamental Physics Prize.

    Recipients included Cornelia I. Bargmann of Rockefeller University in New York City; David Botstein of Princeton University; Lewis C. Cantley of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City; Hans Clevers of the Hubrecht Institute in the Netherlands; Napoleone Ferrara of the University of California, San Diego; Titia de Lange of Rockefeller University; Eric S. Lander of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge; Charles L. Sawyers of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City; Bert Vogelstein of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland; Robert A. Weinberg of MIT; and 2012 Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University and the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco.

    "It's nice as a scientist to feel that these very successful businesspeople appreciate the importance of work in biology and medicine," says Bargmann, who studies how genetics and the environment influence the nervous system. The foundation plans to annually award five Breakthrough Prizes.

  4. A Call to Cyber Arms

    1. Richard Stone

    China's extensive cyber research activities and allegations over cyber espionage have put the United States on high alert.

    Twenty-first century battleground.

    The U.S. government is ramping up efforts to shore up power grids, air traffic control systems, and other critical infrastructure against cyber incursions.


    XI'AN, CHINA—The leaflet posted in the school of information engineering here at Xi'an Jiaotong University was brief but enticing, offering computer-savvy graduates a hefty stipend and the chance to serve their motherland. "I was curious," says Liu, who asked that only his surname be used in this article. It was the spring of 2007, and Liu, then 24 years old, was wrapping up a master's degree in computer algorithms. Encouraged by his supervisor, Liu called the number on the leaflet; that summer, he joined an elite corps of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) that writes code designed to cripple command-and-control systems of enemy naval vessels.

    PLA writings call the electromagnetic spectrum "the fifth domain of battle space," putting cyberspace on an equal footing with ground, air, sea, and space. Cyber conflicts "threaten national security and the very existence of the state," two scholars with the Academy of Military Sciences wrote in China Youth Daily in 2011. State media regularly tout PLA activities in cyber defense, a catchall term encompassing everything from surveillance and espionage to weapons such as electromagnetic pulse generators that disable computer networks and malware designed to take down power grids or contaminate water supplies. Augmenting PLA efforts is a legion of civilian researchers and hackers whose efforts ostensibly are directed at repelling electronic intruders. In 2011, more than 8.5 million computers in China "were attacked by rogue programs every day," a 48% increase over the previous year, says Li Yuxiao, a cyber law expert at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications.

    But evidence is accumulating that China can dish it out, too. In a report issued last week, the U.S. computer security firm Mandiant tracked one especially adept group of hackers, sometimes called the Comment Crew or Comment Group, to a neighborhood in Shanghai housing Unit 61398, a bureau of the PLA General Staff Department's Third Department. According to Mandiant, other computer security analysts, and U.S. State Department sources, hackers in China have gathered gigabytes of data on industrial secrets, military hardware, and government strategy for political negotiations.

    This is not a unilateral arms buildup. Another heavyweight in the cyber arena is Russia; hackers took down Georgian government servers in advance of Russia's invasion of that former Soviet republic in August 2008. The United States, too, has gone all-in on cyber warfare. In 2009, it established the U.S. Cyber Command in Fort Meade, Maryland, to conduct "full-spectrum military cyberspace operations." The Defense Department's operational needs "will require the integration of cyber and electronic warfare at unprecedented levels," said Regina Dugan, then-director of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, in a statement released by DARPA before the Senate took up the 2013 defense authorization. According to U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the Pentagon spends about $3 billion a year on cyber security.

    An early fruit of this massive enterprise may be the most successful cyber weapon deployed to date: Stuxnet. The computer worm came to light in 2010 after instructing centrifuges in Iran that enrich uranium to spin at damaging speeds. Computer security experts have credited the United States and Israel for Stuxnet's sophisticated code and for orchestrating its insertion into the Iranian machines. Whoever's handiwork it was, Stuxnet has "shown the world how to stage a damaging cyber attack," says James A. Lewis, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

    Now that Pandora's box is open, the United States fears that it, too, may someday be on the receiving end of an effective attack. In his State of the Union speech on 12 February, U.S. President Barack Obama declared that unidentified enemies are "seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, [and] our air traffic control systems." That day, he signed an executive order to strengthen cyber defenses and called on Congress to pass legislation that would "give our government a greater capacity to secure our networks and deter attacks." Last week, the U.S. Department of Energy announced $20 million in funding for the development of technologies to strengthen the cyber security of delivery systems for electricity, oil, and gas.

    A one-two punch featuring a cyber attack on critical infrastructure and a physical strike against U.S. targets could leave the country reeling from a "cyber Pearl Harbor," Panetta warned in a speech last October. "It would paralyze and shock the nation and create a new, profound sense of vulnerability," he said. Panetta did not call out China. But with territorial disputes between China and U.S. allies raising tensions in East Asia, Panetta, in a meeting with Chinese defense officials in Beijing last September, said that he "underscored the need to increase communication and transparency with each other so that we could avoid a misunderstanding or a miscalculation in cyberspace."

    Raising an army

    In a quiet corner of a hotel lobby here in the capital of western China's Shaanxi Province last November, Liu sips puer tea and shifts nervously in his chair as he describes how his high marks in mathematics propelled him from rural Shaanxi to Xi'an Jiaotong University. Like many other computer science students there, he says, he learned to hack in his spare time. "We felt it was a patriotic duty," he says.

    Digital hands on deck!

    In a conflict in the Pacific, the USS Blue Ridge, the U.S. Navy's command ship in the region, would be a ripe target for a cyber strike.


    In the PLA unit, which he declined to identify, Liu says he spends about half of his time working on programming teams to develop algorithms ordered by superiors. The rest of the time he reads up on computer literature or political ideology and takes part in simulations with other units in which he and his colleagues stage or repel attacks. "Our work is purely defensive," says Liu, who claims he was given permission to speak with Science in order to emphasize the defensive nature of the research. PLA and foreign ministry spokespersons last week insisted that China has not carried out cyber espionage or attacks on other nations.

    The kaleidoscopic patterns of activity in cyberspace may be hard to interpret, but the wellspring of China's strength is hundreds of computer and information departments across the country. Civilian research sits at one end, and it is largely out in the open. For example, over the past 5 years China's National Administration for the Protection of State Secrets has tapped 10 universities to host academies for training students in computer science and other disciplines for sensitive jobs in government agencies. Research in information engineering and cyber defense is also funded through standard science grant programs as well as initiatives supporting sensitive dual-use projects, including the information ministry's 242 program and the security ministry's 115 program.

    In the academic world, a leader in cyber defense research is Shanghai Jiao Tong University's School of Information Security Engineering. In the past several years, its scientists have published openly on the injection of Trojan horses into the Windows platform, for instance, and on the pros and cons of Rootkit, a program for hijacking a computer system. In Changsha, the National University of Defense Technology has a research program in electronic and information warfare. And at Dalian University of Technology in northeast China, a pair of researchers funded by the science ministry and the National Natural Science Foundation of China published a report in Safety Science in July 2011 on vulnerabilities in the western U.S. power grid.

    The real action in the cyber sphere is in the PLA's General Staff Department. As one of several bureaus in the Third Department, Unit 61398 "appears to function as the Third Department's premier entity targeting the United States and Canada, most likely focusing on political, economic, and military-related intelligence," according to a 2011 report from the Project 2049 Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia. (At least one Unit 63198 researcher has published in the open literature, as co-author with three colleagues at Shanghai Jiao Tong University of a 2009 abstract on network security alerts and attack scenarios. Mandiant's report flagged job recruitment fairs for Unit 63198 in 2004 at the Harbin Institute of Technology and Zhejiang University in Hangzhou that were advertised openly on the universities' Web sites.) The General Staff 's Fourth Department, meanwhile, "has primary responsibility for the offensive electronic-based information warfare missions in the PLA," states a report last March on China's cyber espionage capabilities, prepared by Northrop Grumman Corp. analysts for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

    In a speech last May, the head of the United Kingdom's MI5 counterintelligence agency, Jonathan Evans, decried an "astonishing" level of cyber espionage in the world, with "industrial-scale processes involving many thousands of people lying behind both state-sponsored cyber espionage and organized cyber crime." Evans did not name China, but security experts were quick to point out that no country rivals China's dedication, and prowess, in cyber espionage.

    China so far has shown only some of its cards. Chinese hackers have allegedly used computer network exploitation techniques such as spearphishing, in which malware is embedded in target computers, to harvest data from a long list of Fortune 500 companies, think tanks, and government agencies. Since 2006, the Mandiant report documents, the Shanghai-based hacking group it tracked has pilfered hundreds of terabytes of data from 141 organizations, including 115 in the United States. Information technology and aerospace firms were targeted most frequently. Mandiant said it believes the activity it observed "represents only a small fraction of the cyber espionage" committed by the Shanghai outfit. Delays and cost overruns in the U.S. F-35 fighter jet program "may be the result of cyber espionage, as could the rapid development of China's J-20 stealth fighter," Lewis testified before the U.S. Congress last April. "Cyber espionage is the most pressing threat we face," he asserted.

    On the diplomatic front, the State Department in 2011 established an Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues. "We're writing foreign policy from scratch," says a U.S. State Department official who requested anonymity. Chinese and U.S. defense officials have begun swapping views on cyber security under a Strategic Security Dialogue launched last year. The two sides have struggled to identify confidence-building measures that would reduce distrust, says the State official.

    In the meantime, the official says, "there is a debate going on" in the U.S. government about whether China's cyber espionage activities "have reached a level where they constitute a national security threat." It's only a matter of time, he says, before China crosses that Rubicon.

  5. Japan Disaster

    Cooling a Hot Zone

    1. Dennis Normile

    Two years after the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster, Japan is trying new approaches to decontamination while evacuees wait to go home.

    Filling up.

    Radioactive waste collected from across Fukushima is overwhelming temporary storage sites.


    NAMEGAWA, JAPAN—On the outskirts of this town 60 kilometers northwest of Tokyo, on the grounds of a sprawling precast concrete factory, stands a bare-bones, four-story steel structure bristling with piping and full of shiny tanks of various shapes and sizes. The tower may seem an unlikely symbol of hope. But the engineers who built this pilot plant think it may hold a key to Japan's recovery from the March 2011 nuclear disaster.

    On a late winter day, the machinery is idled for tweaks to the plant's process. When running, it consumes batches of soil and other materials seeded with nonradioactive cesium, a proxy for the cesium isotopes contaminating the land around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. In each batch, 50 kilograms of material is fed into a hopper and mixed with water. This slurry is pumped to vessels below, where the temperature and pressure are raised to the point (260°C) at which cesium breaks away from sand particles. In the next tank, the pressure is suddenly released, shattering clay crystals and allowing more cesium to escape into the water. After solids are removed, ferric ferrocyanide (Prussian blue) is added to absorb the cesium and then settled out. The cleansed water is recycled back to the initial mixing tank while the decontaminated solids are squeezed dry and ready for disposal. Less than 2.5 kilograms of cesiumbearing Prussian blue are the only waste at the end of each batch requiring burial in specialized landfills.

    This approach will be able to strip 80% to 95% of the radioactive cesium from contaminated soil and other materials, says Kenji Takeshita, a chemical engineer at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, who developed the technique in cooperation with CDM Consulting, an engineering firm, and Maeda Corp., a general contractor. He also notes that it avoids the use of chemicals that would become secondary waste and need further processing.

    Hydrothermal blasting, as the technique is called, is one of several technologies now vying to be included in Japan's efforts to clean up the radioactive material scattered over some 13,000 square kilometers of land by the Fukushima accident triggered by the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Japan's government is under intense pressure to clean up as much land as possible so that the 110,000 people still displaced by the nuclear disaster can return to their homes, farms, and businesses.

    Japan hasn't implemented a scheme—or even chosen sites—for disposal of the spent fuel routinely removed from the nation's nuclear reactors. Now, suddenly, it faces the disposal of 16 million to 41 million cubic meters of contaminated waste, according to the Ministry of the Environment. The government is trying to find a balance between cost, the volume of waste, the capabilities of decontamination technologies, and the size of disposal sites, says Yoshitake Shiratori, an official with the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), which is evaluating the experimental decontamination techniques. "Gaining the acceptance of the local people" is a key challenge, he says. Judging from local press reports, it may be the biggest one.

    The big scrape

    The meltdowns and explosions at the Fukushima reactors, though devastating, left a smaller toxic legacy than the 1986 Chernobyl accident. Fukushima spewed somewhere between 6 and 37 petabecquerels of cesium-137, according to a summary of estimates by a JAEA scientist. This compares to the 85 petabecquerels of the isotope released at Chernobyl, according to the 2005 U.N. Chernobyl Forum expert group report. And Chernobyl, unlike Fukushima, released significant amounts of other radionuclides, including plutonium isotopes with half-lives of thousands of years. Cesium-137, the major health concern in Fukushima, has a half-life of 30 years.

    By several estimates, about 80% of the Fukushima atmospheric radioactivity drifted out to sea, where it combined with water leaking from the stricken reactors. "It was very severe contamination," says Jyota Kanda, a biogeochemical oceanographer at Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology. Fisheries in the vicinity are closed; marine products from the northeast coast are being checked. However, Kanda expects the long-term effect on marine life to be negligible because the contaminants dispersed rapidly.

    But on land, leaving nature to take its course while people wait to return is not a political option. So the government is now trying to scrape clean large swaths of Fukushima Prefecture, aiming to get exposure from the contaminated environment down to 1 millisievert (mSv) per year above the background level. This is the maximum exposure recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection for the general public. Much of the evacuated area is still at levels well above that.

    The governmental reconstruction agency has split the evacuated areas into five zones based on the radiation doses residents would face (see map). The most contaminated areas, mostly within 20 kilometers of the plant where the annual radiation doses would top 50 mSv, will be off-limits for the foreseeable future. At the other end of the spectrum are areas where residents would get less than 5 mSv per year. Cleaning these would allow 22,000 residents to return home. The government hopes to allow that within an unspecified near term.

    The first cleanup step relies on the labor-intensive removal of contaminated topsoil, pavement, and leaves, and washing building surfaces. JAEA evaluated decontamination procedures and produced guidelines on such things as the depth of topsoil, typically 5 centimeters, and the amount of pavement to remove.

    This work is generating mountains of low-level radioactive waste, now piling up in more than 5000 temporary storage sites, according to the Fukushima Prefecture government. In addition, NHK, the national broadcaster, last fall reported that an estimated 260,000 45-liter garbage bags containing radioactive waste collected by citizens and municipal workers are sitting in corners of gardens, school yards, and fields. The government wants to move all this waste into interim storage sites—landfills lined with double walls and floors of concrete surrounded by bentonite, a claylike sealant, and covered by topsoil. To reduce the volume of waste needing this expensive storage, atomic energy agency officials have been evaluating a number of technology demonstration projects funded by the government.

    Construction and chemical companies, university groups, and national labs stepped forward with proposals. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, for example, tried digesting contaminated plant matter with thermophilic bacteria it had been studying for possible use in space agriculture. A Kyoto University group tried using nanobubbles to wash contamination out of concrete paving. Construction companies experimented with soil scrubbing techniques. Some removed 70% of the radioactivity and reduced the volume of waste requiring special storage. These techniques are low-cost and realizable, JAEA's Shiratori says. "But the question is whether local residents would accept that level of remaining contamination."

    At least three groups are working on technologies that break the cesium free from contaminated materials. One is the hydrothermal blasting technique developed by Takeshita and his partners. Shiratori says the technology has potential, but the agency would like to see it tested on contaminated material from Fukushima. That step is now being planned.

    A second prospect came from Taiheiyo Cement Corp. of Tokyo, which has developed a process to heat contaminated materials plus a catalyst to temperatures above 1300°C. This technique removed 99% of the cesium from contaminated waste and collected it in filters. Shiratori says the process could be scaled up. But it is expensive, and the ceramic kilns required would also become contaminated, adding to the volume of waste.

    A third idea, from Toshiba Corp. of Tokyo, relies on oxalic acid to break open the soil structure and release the cesium, which can then be captured by an absorbent. The test runs indicated that 93% of the cesium could be removed, and the volume of waste for special disposal would be reduced by 95%. Although the process is efficient, Shiratori says it could be costly to scale up. One issue with all these approaches is that the resulting bulk product may be clean, but "it's not soil anymore," Takeshita says. Stripped of organic material, it can't be used as topsoil.

    Shiratori says the government is continuing evaluations of these and other techniques. Before putting them to use, national and local governments and affected residents have to come to terms on locating storage sites and hosting decontamination plants.

  6. Astronomers Lend Know-How to Cleanup

    1. Dennis Normile

    The Fukushima radioactivity cleanup is getting an assist from an unexpected source: Japanese astronomers.

    Down to Earth.

    A gamma ray detector intended for space can see radiation hot-spots and is being commercialized (inset).


    The Fukushima radioactivity cleanup is getting an assist from an unexpected source: Japanese astronomers. They have repurposed cutting edge gamma ray detection technology intended to observe distant stars in a device to help uncover hotspots of radiation.

    Shortly after the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, engineers from plant owner Tokyo Electric Power contacted the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) asking if its x-ray observation technology, developed for a series of satellites, could help track terrestrial radiation. The x-ray astronomy group at JAXA's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), in Sagamihara near Tokyo, answered the challenge.

    The group is readying its next mission, ASTRO-H, for a 2014 launch. One of ASTRO-H's six instruments will be a Soft Gamma-ray Detector (SGD). The device analyzes the trajectories of gamma rays and the electrons they hit within the detector to determine the energy and direction of the incoming rays. ISAS physicist Tadayuki Takahashi likens this to reconstructing the force and direction of a cue ball by analyzing the scatter of the billiard balls that it hits. However, the SGD was still under development at the time of the accident. So the ISAS team modified a different ASTRO-H instrument so it could detect the gamma rays emitted by cesium using the principle of the SGD.

    Their prototype detector, which they mounted in the back of a car, superimposes color-coded radiation data on digital images so hot spots can be located in real time. Unlike existing portable devices, it does not have to be close to the source. The team successfully demonstrated its capabilities in Fukushima's heavily contaminated Iidate Village in spring 2012. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is commercializing the device and plans to have it on the market by the end of March.

    "I believed this kind of next-generation detector could be used in various fields, such as medicine," Takahashi says. But he never imagined using it to trace the effects of a nuclear accident.

  7. Environmental Science

    Pollutants Capture the High Ground in the Himalayas

    1. Jane Qiu*

    In high alpine areas once thought pristine, dust and soot appear to be accelerating glacier melting and may alter monsoon patterns.

    Reaching new heights.

    Angela Marinoni adjusts a sun photometer for measuring aerosol properties at Pyramid.


    PYRAMID OBSERVATORY, NEPAL—On the south slope of Mount Everest, mountaineers tricked out in the latest high-tech gear and Nepalese porters trundle up the Khumbu Valley. Fragments of conversation are lost in the low rumble of the Dudh Kosi River and the tinkling of yak bells from nearby slopes. For Angela Marinoni, this is a familiar route—but she is not a typical trekker. Pausing for a drink, Marinoni, a climate scientist at the Institute of Atmospheric Sciences and Climate in Bologna, Italy, watches wisps of smoke from cookstoves and forest fires drift into the highlands. Pollution from combustion, not the summit of Everest, is her main quarry.

    Since 2006, Marinoni and colleagues have been gathering climatological data at what they imagined would be a pristine site in the Himalayas. The idea was to establish a baseline against which they could measure regional pollution. What they have discovered instead, Marinoni says, was "a total surprise": dust and soot wafting high into the mountains.

    The implications are troubling. The Himalayas were long presumed to form a bulwark against airborne pollutants from the Indian subcontinent. But "the barrier is leaky," Marinoni says. Heavier pollutant loads reaching Himalayan peaks and the Tibetan Plateau beyond "could increase glacier melt, pollute streams, and change monsoon patterns," threatening the livelihoods of millions of people, warns Arnico Panday, an atmospheric scientist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu.

    Such a potent risk may have remained overlooked had scientists from the Ev-K2-CNR Committee, a nonprofit scientific association in Bergamo, Italy, and the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology not established nine outposts, including a major facility called the Nepal Climate Observatory at Pyramid, in the Khumbu Valley. The stations provide "a unique data set" of atmospheric circulation in high mountains, says Roy Rasmussen, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. The challenge, he says, is to piece together where the pollutants come from, how they are transported to the Himalayas, and how they are influencing regional climate.

    Pristine no more

    After 6 arduous days trekking up the Khumbu Valley, lush forests have given way to a treeless, rock-strewn highland dusted with fresh snow. At last, 5079 meters above sea level, a two-story stone building topped with a glass pyramid comes into sight. Khumbu Glacier extrudes from a cleft in the hills, its gravel-covered tongue reaching toward Pyramid Station. Atop an adjacent rise is a cluster of instruments, including an ozone analyzer, particle counters, and photometers for measuring light absorption and scattering by aerosols.

    Fatigued by the altitude, Marinoni clambers up the station's roof to check an air sampler; the team journeys here twice a year to calibrate instruments and install sensors. One villain they are tracking is soot, called black carbon in the scientific literature. With its atmospheric persistence measured in days to weeks, black carbon, spawned by incomplete combustion of biomass, coal, and diesel fuel, is known as a short-lived climate forcer. (Carbon dioxide molecules, by comparison, can persist in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.) South Asia is a black-carbon hotspot; more than half of the estimated 8 million tons of black carbon released into the air each year across the globe originates in the Indo-Gangetic Plain mostly from the burning of wood, dung, and crop residues.

    Six years of measurements at Pyramid have generated a wealth of data on black carbon and other pollutants. Marinoni and her colleagues have found that the southern slope of the Himalayas is particularly vulnerable to the pollutant-laden haze that gathers in the foothills below. "Khumbu Valley is like a big chimney," Marinoni says. "The valley breezes can effectively channel the pollutants to high altitudes."

    More than 30 days a year, on average, the instruments here have recorded what Marinoni calls "acute" pollution, in which black carbon concentrations shoot up fourfold and ozone increases by one-third compared with average days. "It is particularly bad during dry spells" between January and May, before the onset of the monsoon and its cleansing rains, says Paolo Bonasoni, who heads the Bologna research team. In one out of every 5 days, a thick brown cloud settles over Khumbu Valley and black carbon may exceed 5 micrograms per cubic meter—a concentration rivaling that of an averagesized Indian city.

    A looming threat

    Lab with a view.

    Data collected at Pyramid Observatory, on Mount Everest's south slope, have woken scientists to the threat that pollutants pose to the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau.


    How big a punch black carbon and other pollutants may pack in the Himalayas is open to debate. At higher altitudes, greenhouse gases and particulates play an outsized role in climate, Bonasoni says. "The air is very thin and clean," he says, "so the pollutants have a much longer lifetime and can accumulate." That, in turn, could influence climate by decreasing solar radiation reaching the surface and by interfering with cloud formation and precipitation, Marinoni says. On a few occasions, elevated pollutant levels coincided with sudden breaks in the monsoon on the Indian subcontinent that lasted up to 2 weeks. "It's difficult to say for sure whether pollution stopped the rain," she says, "but it's certainly one possibility."

    Another concern is faster glacier melting. After accounting for wind speeds and topography, Marinoni's group estimated that the amount of black carbon deposited on Himalayan slopes during the dry season reduces glacier reflectivity by as much as 5%, which increases the melting rate of a typical glacier by up to one-third. "The effects are cumulative," says Xu Baiqing, a glaciologist at the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. His studies show that soot concentrations are magnified at least 10-fold a year in a glacier's accumulation area, where snow becomes denser after repeated partial melting and refreezing. "As snow melts, water slowly percolates through ice and leaves pollutants behind," which are then trapped in the accumulation zone during refreezing, Xu says. As temperatures rise and snow lines retreat to higher altitudes, he says, the melting of decades-old accumulation zones should liberate more and more black carbon and accelerate glacial melting. "The maximal effect of black carbon may not be now, but in the coming decades," Xu says. He and colleagues have found that black carbon and organic carbon—the unburned remains of biomass burning—in glaciers in southeastern Tibet increased 30% between 1990 and 2003, coinciding with rapid industrialization on the Indian subcontinent.

    Scientists are loath to rely solely on Pyramid Station's data to gauge the regional threat. "But there are big gaps in the Himalayas where there is little observation," Panday says. As a step toward filling that lacuna, Ev-K2-CNR scientists last summer installed instruments to measure pollution at Askole in the Karakoram Mountains of Pakistan. Unlike the monsoon-dominated eastern Himalayas, the Karakoram is subjected to the westerlies, which can bring dust and pollutants all the way from Africa and the Middle East.

    In the meantime, Bonasoni's team is developing computer models to simulate climate and pollutant transport in the region at resolutions of less than 10 kilometers. The models will account for more than 200 pollutants and will be driven by real-time meteorological data, says Ev-K2-CNR's Bhupesh Adhikary, an expert on air pollution and climate simulation in Kathmandu. Studies to date have been mainly descriptive and based on limited observations, he says. "They tell us what happened, but cannot tell us why or what will happen in the future." Adhikary hopes that modeling studies will help answer those questions and inform mitigation and adaptation measures.

    Another challenge is coaxing Himalayan countries to work together to curb emissions of black carbon and other short-lived climate forcers. Last year, with $3.9 million in seed funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, ICIMOD launched an initiative to boost research capacity, assess mitigation options in mountain regions, and promote collaboration of Himalayan countries in emission reductions, says Panday, who leads the effort. "Long-term observation is the key," he says. "There is an urgent need to set up stations across the entire region."

    Reining in black carbon would pay big dividends, and fast. "Cutting short-lived climate forcers would have immediate climate effects because they are quickly removed from the atmosphere," says Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California. Turning back the pollution tide won't be easy though. Simple strategies like replacing cookstoves with cleaner burning models can be tricky in the Himalayas, as many cookstove models work poorly at high altitudes.

    At Pyramid, the winds are howling as Italian and Nepalese researchers sit down for spaghetti Bolognese and a glass of red wine. They talk over plans for an expedition to repair an automated station on the South Col, the highest camp for mountaineers attempting to summit Everest. Pema Sherpa, a Nepalese technician who helped set up South Col station in 2008, is ready to give it another shot. "Mountain people are very vulnerable to climate change," he says. "This will help us better prepare for the future."

    • * Jane Qiu is a writer in Beijing. Her trip to Pyramid Observatory was supported by a journalism fellowship from the European Geosciences Union.