News this Week

Science  01 Aug 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6196, pp. 492
  1. This week's section

    Western U.S. using up ground water

    Arizona's Lake Mead, in July 2007 (left) and July 2014 (right).


    Over the past 14 years, drought has afflicted the Colorado River Basin. But there is also an invisible bathtub being emptied belowground: Ground water in the basin was depleted at a rate of 5.6 cubic kilometers per year from December 2004 to November 2013—six times faster than surface water, according to a study published online last week in Geophysical Research Letters. To detect groundwater depletion, James Famiglietti, a hydrologist at the University of California, Irvine, and his colleagues relied on a pair of NASA satellites called the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment. The instruments are sensitive to tiny variations in Earth's gravity; when a mass of water disappears, gravity in that area drops. The groundwater losses, which take thousands of years to be recharged naturally, point to the unsustainability of exploding population centers and water-intensive agriculture in the basin, which includes most of Arizona and parts of Colorado, California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

    “They're just buying Putin enough time to run to a pet store, get five geckos, and parade them in front of us. Well, we don't want those geckos. We want the space geckos!”

    Comedian John Oliver, dismissing Russia's claim to have regained control of a satellite carrying a gecko mating experiment.

    Grapple over the gold

    Russia and Ukraine both claim ownership over Crimean artifacts.


    Who owns this jeweled torque? That's the thorny question that an archaeological museum at the University of Amsterdam is facing. In February, the Allard Pierson Museum opened an exhibition of top archaeological treasures on loan from five Ukrainian museums—including four in Crimea, the peninsula that was annexed by Russia a month later. Now, the Crimean museums want their pieces back, a claim backed by the Russian government. But Ukraine says it's the rightful owner, because the museums were state-owned before the annexation, and wants the items sent to Kiev. Among the objects are precious jewels and gold from Chersonesus, a Greek colony in what is now Sevastopol, and from the Scythians, an ancient horse-riding people. The university is studying the legal issues and hopes to make a decision before the exhibition ends on 31 August, a spokesman says. The 17 July crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, in which 195 Dutch citizens were killed, won't play a role, he adds, even though m any believe Russia bears at least partial responsibility and Russian-Dutch relations have soured.

    Fake flowers fool Arctic insects

    Plastic Dryas flowers, equipped with glue, trap insects.


    Twenty teams of local volunteers—including some citizen scientists–are participating this summer in a coordinated experiment to study how bugs, wind, and the Arctic's iconic Dryas flower (right) interact. Volunteers from Alaska to Finland began the Global Dryas Project—organized by the University of Helsinki, which also provided materials to the teams—in May and June, using screens to cover 1-square-meter-sized plots where the small shrub is growing naturally. That will help them quantify how much insect pollinators increase the flower's seed production. Now Dryas is in flower, and the teams are moving to the next step: planting plastic “flowers” equipped with trap glue near each plot to see which insects do the pollination. The goal is to eventually predict how the pollination of Dryas, an important food for insects and small mammals, might change as the Arctic warms. “Sending people across the Arctic would be too resource-intensive,” says ecologist Tomas Roslin of the University of Helsinki. “So we take advantage of people who are already there.”

    By the numbers

    25 Years between the Voyager 2 spacecraft's crossing of Neptune's orbit on 25 August 1989 and the Pluto-bound New Horizons' transit across the orbit this August.

    2923 Liters of fuel required, on average, to land a metric ton of shrimp and lobster, according to a study in Fish and Fisheries—placing those foods among the highest gas-guzzlers.

    $650 million Amount donated by philanthropist and businessman Ted Stanley to the Cambridge, Massachusetts—based Broad Institute to study the biological basis of diseases such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

    Around the world

    Mountain View, California

    Google X to define health

    Google X, the secretive research arm of Google Inc., intends to pin down what it means to be healthy. The company revealed last week that its new “Baseline Study” will follow thousands of people and identify patterns of biochemicals, proteins, genetic mutations, and physiological measurements that determine who gets sick. The study will be led by Google X life sciences chief Andrew Conrad, collaborating with Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. After a pilot study with 175 people this summer, the project hopes to recruit 10,000 volunteers over 2 to 3 years, says Duke cardiologist Robert Califf. Volunteers will donate blood and saliva for testing and may sport wearable medical devices, such as a glucose-sensing contact lens developed by Google X.

    Oso, Washington

    Dueling analyses of landslide

    The massive Oso landslide, in April 2014.


    Two analyses are competing to explain one of the deadliest landslides in U.S. history. On 22 July, the Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance (GEER) Association released the first published analysis of the 22 March Oso slide, which killed 43. In GEER's analysis, the slope began to slide, and the combination of movement and ample water turned the ground into a fast-flowing semiliquid. Four minutes later, a second part of the mountain fell after losing support from below. But an unpublished analysis by scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Washington, based on a new way of analyzing low-speed seismic data, finds instead that just 50 seconds after the lower slope began to slide slowly, an upper part of the mountain broke loose. The violence of that impact, they suggest, could have caused the soil to rapidly liquefy and shoot across the valley, like a foot slamming into a mud puddle.

    Washington, D.C.

    Fukushima's lessons for the U.S.

    To avoid the safety complacency that led to the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan, U.S. nuclear plant operators and regulators must keep safety features upgraded, states a report written by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences and released on 24 July. The report drew on Japanese and international investigations into the disaster, precipitated by the magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami of 11 March 2011. The academy's report cites failures to protect safety equipment from flooding, despite evidence that the design for tsunamis was inadequate. “The overarching lesson learned from the Fukushima Daiichi accident is that nuclear plant licensees and their regulators must actively seek out and act on new information about hazards that have the potential to affect the safety of nuclear plants,” the report concludes.

    São Paulo, Brazil

    Brazil's big eyes on the sky

    Artist's impression of the Giant Magellan Telescope.


    Sometime in the 2020s, astronomers in Brazil may have access to two giant telescopes. The São Paulo Research Foundation is paying $40 million to participate in the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT). This U.S.-led instrument, to be built in Chile, will sport seven 8.4-meter mirrors (three have already been cast) that operate as a single 21.4-meter instrument. Meanwhile, European Southern Observatory (ESO) Director General Tim de Zeeuw expects the Brazilian government to ratify Brazil's pending ESO membership. ESO needs Brazil's €132 million entrance fee, spread over 10 years, to complete its even more powerful 39.2-meter European Extremely Large Telescope on schedule. “I'm not worried [about Brazil's GMT participation],” De Zeeuw says. “Many ESO member states are also involved in other big astronomy projects.”


    New energy targets disappoint

    To lower Europe's carbon emissions and its dependence on fuel imports, the European Commission proposed cutting energy use by 30% in 2030, up from the current 20% goal for 2020 (compared with 2007 projections). But to the dismay of environmental groups that had pushed for a higher, binding target, last week's proposal falls short of saying that the target should be binding on member states, which are expected to endorse the plan in October. “[T]he proposed 30% target is reducing the original ambition,” but it can help boost energy efficiency innovation if the right tools—including public procurement and standardization policies—are in place, says Stefano Carosio, R&D manager of engineering consulting company D'Appolonia in Genova, Italy, and a board member of the Brussels-based nonprofit Energy Efficient Buildings Association.

    Barcelona, Spain

    Spanish science needs overhaul

    More cash and profound structural changes—that is what Spain's national science and innovation system needs to become more competitive, according to a report by a peer-review panel of the European Research Area and Innovation Committee. On 24 July, the panel released a six-page document stating the Spanish government should raise its contribution to science and innovation to 0.7% from 0.61% of the gross domestic product. The report, put together at the request of the Spanish government, also argues for the creation of a national funding agency that gives out merit-based grants, more autonomy for the universities, and a major overhaul of Spain's national research centers. Above all, what is needed is a stronger culture of evaluation and accountability, even if it means increasing inequality between universities, the document says.

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