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Read the latest from our editors and photographers, get photo tips, or comment on the latest issue.

Editor's Note

Posted Apr 15,2011


A photographer as well as a photo editor, David Arnold traveled to Alaska for a story in October 1977.

Photo editors are the behind-the-scenes heroes of a photographer’s work. The editor sees every single frame and picks up on every mistake and missed opportunity. Then he or she uses everything at hand to correct, coach, and inspire.

David L. Arnold was the best of the best. He was not easy to please, but I trusted his judgment, even when his criticism was tough to hear. When he told me I’d made a memorable photograph, I trusted that too.

One of those memorable photographs was of a honeycreeper, a beautiful bird native to the forests of Hawaii. I’d spent five days on a tiny platform 30 feet off the ground waiting for that bird. I was cold and wet. The tree I sat in swayed alarmingly. The photo I finally made wasn’t good enough, David gently told me. He encouraged me to go back and do better, supporting my obsession to get it right. I repaid his support with a photograph of the bird that ran on the September 1995 cover.

David died a few months ago. He’d retired from the magazine in 1994 after 27 years of inspiring photographers. But his spirit can still be seen and felt. He was a role model for Kathy Moran, who photo edited this month’s story on the Great Barrier Reef. “I learned from David to be honest with photographers at all cost,” she says. “I learned that to edit a story you need to know the subject thoroughly. David always did his homework. He had a Ph.D. in every story he worked on.”

David pushed photographers to think about how best to tell the story. He had an unshakable belief in excellence. These are lessons I have taken to heart. I would not be Editor in Chief of this magazine if I had not worked with him.


Chris Johns





Photo: Courtesy Arnold Family

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Posted Mar 15,2011

Few things on Earth rival the searing spectacle of a volcano. It’s a force of nature most of us prefer to observe from a very long and safe distance. Not volcanologist Ken Sims. He, along with National Geographic photographer Carsten Peter, could never be satisfied with anything less than standing on the edge of an erupting volcano. In fact, even standing on the edge of an erupting volcano wasn’t enough for Sims. As part of his research, he rappelled down into the maw of Nyiragongo, a volcano in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to gather fresh lava from a molten lake boiling at 1800° Fahrenheit.

Nyiragongo is one of the most active and least understood volcanoes in the world. It’s also a threat to nearly a million residents of Goma, a city in this war-torn part of the world. Both Sims and Peter understood the nature of the geologic beast they were dealing with and were prepared to take risks. Sims wanted a sample of lava to help him predict eruptions. Peter wanted a photograph of Sims at work.

In this month’s issue Peter documents the descent into the fiery heart of Nyiragongo. It was a quest, I’m proud to say, funded in part by a National Geographic Society grant. “It was a dream come true,” Peter says of the experience. “You felt the pulse of the Earth through your body.”

Chris Johns




The Nyiragongo expedition’s cooking tent glows in the twilight on the rim of the volcano. Photograph by Carsten Peter

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Posted Feb 15,2011

In Jackson’s mind there is no such thing as a good person or a bad person. There are only people he desperately wants to meet. Jackson, I should explain, is my Jack Russell terrier. When he meets someone, his short tail wags at warp speed, sending a vibration through his piebald body right up to his floppy ears. He is exuberant, playful, affectionate—everything a dog lover could wish for. He fits the description of an animal domesticated through years of selective breeding.

In this month’s issue we explore animal domestication, which began more than 15,000 years ago with dogs. As humans bred wolves to be our hunting companions and friends, changes in appearance occurred along with changes in behavior. Traits that might otherwise have been weeded out in the wild survived because they were, well, cute. Jackson, with his piebald coloring and floppy ears, is a classic example. But I think there is more to it than that. When my family went shopping for a dog, Jackson confidently trotted over and made it clear he liked us. We immediately responded by picking him up and hugging him. I have to wonder if there is something in human genes that makes our response to a puppy so immediate and positive. Are we genetically predisposed to connect with dogs? Can a case be made that dog lovers had a better chance of survival with the help of man’s best friend—in a violent and uncertain world—to put food on the table and guard against threats? It makes sense to me, but cat lovers may not buy my theory.

Chris Johns




Photography by Rebecca Hale, NGM Staff

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Filed Under: Animals, Chris Johns, Editor's Note
Posted Jan 18,2011


Linda Norgrove was taken hostage by the Taliban in September and died during a rescue attempt. Photograph by Nick Horne.

Local intelligence is everything when it comes to traveling in difficult conditions and dangerous places. Fixers, inside sources, and guides are the unsung heroes of every coverage. They point you in the right direction. They watch your back, saying, "Careful, not that close." They tell you, "Go there," or perhaps, "Don't go there."

Covering this month's story on opium, writer Robert Draper and photographer David Guttenfelder depended on many people, including Linda Norgrove—the Scottish aid worker taken hostage by the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan and killed in a failed rescue attempt in October 2010. Norgrove, Draper reports, spent evenings advising them on which of her projects to visit around Jalalabad’s outskirts—communities that had once relied on opium for subsistence—and which areas to avoid. "More than once," he says, "Linda reminded us that certain roads were unsafe to travel. Sometimes, we had to take them anyway. Sometimes, she did too."

Draper and Guttenfelder were seldom out of danger. Kidnapping and being killed were constant threats for them and their sources. In Kabul a former government offi cial allowed himself to be interviewed, knowing that if he was found out, he and his family would be killed. "Covering this part of the world is a crucial undertaking," Draper says. "But I confess I spent the entire month with my heart in my throat."

Chris Johns

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Posted Dec 15,2010
Crowds surge during the annual Rath Yatra Hindu festival in Puri, India. Photograph by Randy Olson

The world’s population will reach seven billion this year. But you don’t need to visit Delhi, India (population 22 million), or China (home to a fifth of the world’s people) to grasp the consequences. When I return to Jackson County, Oregon, where I was born, the green fields where I used to cut hay, dig onions, and harvest pears are gone. They have been replaced by subdivisions and big-box stores. This is hardly a surprise given that the population of Jackson County has more than tripled in my lifetime. When I see the rapid development going on in my hometown, I can’t help but wonder what the future holds for the rest of the world. This month we begin exploring that future with a series of stories about population that will run throughout the year. Environment editor Robert Kunzig starts by sketching out a natural history of population. The issues associated with population growth seem endless: poverty, food and water supply, world health, climate change, deforestation, fertility rates, and more. Kunzig writes, “There may be some comfort in knowing that people have long been alarmed about population.” Some of the first papers on demography were written in the 17th century. It’s more than 300 years later, and we are still grappling with the outcome of People v. Planet. We look forward to exploring the topic with you.

Chris Johns

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Filed Under: Chris Johns, Editor's Note
Posted Nov 15,2010

Setnet fishermen on Bristol Bay trap salmon when the fish swim close to shore with the incoming tide. Photo: Michael Melford

From my vantage point in the single-engine plane above Bristol Bay, I see an epidemic of salmon fever as big as the state of Alaska. Hundreds of boats are in high gear, chasing the millions of ready-to-spawn sockeye returning to the bay, hauling in nets filled with fish. Many boats are so laden with salmon they ride precariously low in the water, dangerously close to swamping. I had heard about this fishery for years, but nothing prepared me for the enormity of it until I saw it for myself. I was also not prepared for its beauty and remoteness—no dams, development, or human footprint, just endless miles of pristine creeks, lakes, and rivers. This was the wild Alaska I had imagined. A tranquil landscape. Nature at its grandest.

Today, nearly 28 years later, photographer Michael Melford and writer Edwin Dobb see the same breathtaking landscape and find the salmon still running. But the Bristol Bay watershed is no longer tranquil. Instead, it’s filled with tension provoked by the discovery of what may be the world’s largest deposit of gold and one of the largest deposits of copper. The lode, worth hundreds of billions of dollars, has spawned ambitions for an immense mining complex with an open pit possibly two miles wide and a cavernous underground mine. It’s a face-off between salmon and gold; the battle between those who support the mine and those who oppose it has reached a critical point. The risk, the values and priorities, the balancing of potential gains and losses all present uneasy and complicated questions. In this month’s issue Melford and Dobb wade into the fight.

Chris Johns

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Posted Oct 14,2010
Migrations-455I awoke at sunrise to a day on the Serengeti Plain that scarcely resembled the peaceful night before. The landscape that had been so quiet and empty was filled with thousands of wildebeests. They had followed the rain in search of grass, but this hardly seemed like an organized migration. It was anarchy in motion; wildebeests bucked and staggered in tight circles. They are comical-looking animals. African folklore says they were made from spare parts left from the creation of other beasts, but their role in sustaining the Serengeti is serious. Their migratory patterns are critical.

Bison once played a similar role on the North American prairie. In 1806 William Clark wrote: “I assended to the high Country and from an eminance I had a view of...a greater number of buffalow than I had ever seen before at one time. I must have seen near 20,000 of those animals feeding on this plain.” When Clark journeyed west with Meriwether Lewis, tens of millions of bison lived on the grasslands, shaping vegetation, dispersing seeds, coexisting with burrowing owls and prairie dogs. By the late 1800s bison had been hunted nearly to extinction.

Fortunately, many other migratory spectacles survive. This month the world of migrations comes to life on the pages of our magazine, on the National Geographic Channel, and at nationalgeographic.com. Our photographers and writers spent two years on the project. They were astonished and inspired by the determination and grace of these animals. I am sure you will be too.


Chris Johns

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Posted Sep 15,2010

Oily wave
An oily wave breaks on the beach at Gulf Shores, Alabama. Photo: Tyrone Turner

It is 150 years, seven months, and 24 days from the day, August 27, 1859, when Edwin Drake drilled the first successful oil well near Titusville, Pennsylvania, to the blowout of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, 48 miles off the coast of Louisiana, this past spring.

Drake’s well, which struck oil at a depth of 69.5 feet, launched the modern oil industry. We have been dealing with the consequences of our petroleum-fueled lifestyle ever since. There’s been much finger-pointing and debate over who is to blame for the stain of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, but the fault can be said to lie in no small part within ourselves and our appetite for oil. It is an appetite that Drake, with his 20-barrel-a-day well, could not have imagined. The oil from that well, and others of that era, went mostly into kerosene, which was replacing whale oil for lighting. Henry Ford’s company, which would ultimately put car keys in millions of hands, was nearly half a century away. Petroleum-based polymers, plastic bottles and bags, fertilizers, jet planes, the Age of Hydrocarbon Man, as Daniel Yergin calls it in The Prize, his history of oil, had not yet arrived.

The words that follow in this month’s issue, and the photographs—an oil-soaked pelican, a tarry shoreline, the despair on fishermen’s faces—remind us that there is more to the cost of oil than the ticking numbers at the fuel pump.

Chris Johns

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Posted Jul 15,2010


Wes Skiles took this photo of veteran diver Kenny Broad as they began their descent into the hydrogen sulfide zone of a Bahamas blue hole. 

Photographer Wes Skiles descends through 30 feet of fresh water and encounters a pink, murky haze. The color indicates the presence of hydrogen sulfide gas—produced by decaying organic material in environments where oxygen is scarce—and it’s dangerous. Skiles has little time to traverse this 20-foot-thick, toxic layer. The longer he lingers in this sulfurous hell, the more the risk. His head will begin to throb. He’ll get a tingling sensation in his lips. He’ll feel nauseous from oxygen deprivation. He must reach the saltwater layer below before he collapses. Skiles, writer Andrew Todhunter, and a team led by Kenny Broad, an anthropologist and veteran cave diver, are on a National Geographic–funded expedition to explore the flooded limestone caves of the Bahamas. These blue holes, the subject of this month’s cover story, are an environment like no other. Their dangers are also like no other. Many caves produce violent whirlpools that can rip off a face mask and suddenly suck a diver down hundreds of feet. The risk is worth it. 

To study blue holes is to deepen our understanding of the Earth’s biology, chemistry, and geology. Some of the caves, Todhunter writes, are the scientific equivalent of Tut’s tomb. “It’s true exploration,” Skiles says. Explorers, like Broad’s team of scientists and divers, open doors. They lift the curtain on hidden, sometimes dangerous, worlds. That’s their nature, and our world is richer for it.

Chris Johns




Photo: Wes C. Skiles

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Posted Jun 16,2010
E-note-300 My grandfather must have been thinking ahead. As a young man in the 1920s, George C. Johns built a house in Vernonia, Oregon. The town was headquarters for the Oregon-American Lumber Company, then one of the largest lumber firms in the Pacific Northwest. There wasn’t much of an elerical grid in those days. Smaller towns (like Vernonia) near industrial centers were more likely to have electrical access than those that were more isolated. Rural folks had it even harder. Only 10 percent of American farms were electrified. Private electric companies had little interest in extending power lines to the countryside.

All that changed in 1935 when Franklin Roosevelt established the Rural Electrification Administration. The REA provided low-interest loans to farmers, who formed their own cooperative groups to bring in lines and manage the power. By the end of the 1940s some 90 percent of farms had electricity. The grid was finally in place. 

The drudgery of life before electrification is a rapidly vanishing memory, as Joel Achenbach makes clear in this month’s story about the grid. Though perhaps you can remember—for a price. The other day I saw a real estate listing for a rural Oregon property near where I grew up. The log A-frame had one bedroom, two baths, and antique furniture that conveyed with purchase. Its big selling point seemed to be a promise of luxury living off the grid. It was priced at more than a million and a half dollars. I wonder what my grandfather would have thought of that?

Chris Johns

Posters: “Light,” “Wash Day,” “Farm Work,” and “Running Water” by Lester Beall, 1937; Art © Lester Beall, Jr., Trust/Licensed By Vaga, NY ; Lester Beall Collection, Graphic Design Archives, Cary Graphic Arts Collection, Rit (“Wash Day” and “Farm Work”)
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Posted Apr 15,2010
Retired logger Ralph Killian searched in May 1981 for his son, lost after the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Photo: Chris Johns, Seattle Times

In 1981, nearly a year after the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State, I flew over a monochromatic landscape littered with the shattered trunks of old-growth firs. Before the deadly event that killed 57 people, this had been one of the most beautiful mountains in the Cascades. Afterward, it was a gaping hole breathing plumes of steam. 

A colleague from the Seattle Times and I were looking for Ralph Killian, a man on a mission. We spotted him, digging in a tangle of trees (above). He had the weathered look of someone who had spent most of his 61 years working the timberland of the Pacific Northwest. Over the past year Ralph had been searching for the remains of his son, John, and daughter-in-law, Christy, who had been camping in the area at the time of the eruption. 

“A lot of people would just try to forget about it,” he said when we landed to interview him. “We go on living. Have to. But we can’t just forget that easy. I’ve got to know what happened.” Ralph had accepted the deaths of his loved ones long ago. But he still wanted to fill in the details of that day. In a bittersweet ending, he did recover his daughter-in-law’s remains though not those of his son. 

Science helps us understand many things: We can track a hurricane and measure a tsunami’s wall of water. But some things are beyond the dissecting lens of science. An aching heart, for one.

Chris Johns

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Posted Mar 15,2010


As a chemical compound,  nothing could be simpler than water: two atoms of hydrogen joined to one of oxygen. From a human point of view, simplicity fades. Though water covers our world, more than 97 percent is salty. Two percent is fresh water locked in snow and ice, leaving less than one percent for us. This “precarious molecular edge on which we survive,” as Barbara Kingsolver says in this month’s special issue, will only grow more precarious. By 2025, 1.8 billion people will live where water is scarce.

In the pages to come, we bring to life the drama behind that statistic. And this is only the start of a larger commitment, at the magazine and throughout the National Geographic Society, to explore the world of water. To that end, the Society recently named Sandra Postel its first National Geographic Freshwater Fellow. As a researcher, lecturer, and writer, Sandra has worked in the field of sound water management for 25 years. The initiative she heads will not only educate; it will “reshape how people and communities think about, use, and manage fresh water. It will provide the tools to enable individuals, corporations, and communities to become part of the solution,” Sandra says. 

Through the National Geographic website we’ll provide information, interactive tools, and success stories. We’ll raise awareness through films, books, and presentations. Our goal is to lead a far-reaching effort to meet the challenges posed by this precious and finite resource. 

Chris Johns

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Posted Feb 16,2010

A lone male gray wolf patrols Wyoming’s Blacktail Pond area of Yellowstone National Park. Photograph by Robert Weselmann

I saw the damage on a crisp autumn morning when I checked the pasture where I was raising a dozen ewes for my Future Farmers of America project. Several lambs were down. Six were dazed and wounded, their faces chewed. I tried to save them, but two died in my arms. The others died the next day. I was sad, angry, and wanted answers. An animal control officer investigated and concluded that they had been attacked by dogs. I received compensation, but to a 16-year-old, it seemed woefully inadequate.

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Posted Jan 15,2010


The room darkens, and Stephanie Sinclair’s photographs flash on the screen. For months she has been photographing members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the FLDS. Its members are known to most of us because they believe in polygamy, but Stephanie’s photographs tell a deeper, broader story. They are able to do so because FLDS members trust her.

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Posted Dec 15,2009


Four years ago an automobile accident robbed Amanda Kitts of her arm and the ability to do things most of us take for granted, like making a sandwich. “I felt lost,” the teacher from Knoxville, Tennessee, tells writer Josh Fischman in this month’s cover story on bionics.

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Posted Nov 16,2009


Writer Matthew Teague photographed these Uygur men, advancing upon Chinese forces, moments before they were shot.

Many people carry cameras  these days. Some have uncommon courage. On page 36 of this issue, in the story “The Other Tibet,” there is a photograph taken with a cell phone. The photographer was not a professional. She was a Uygur woman who documented the shooting of a Uygur man by Chinese security forces on a street in Urumqi, capital of China’s Xinjiang region. She later gave the picture to National Geographic’s photographer Carolyn Drake.

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Filed Under: Editor's Note
Posted Oct 15,2009
It happened to Stephen Alvarez, as it does to many photographers. He looked at a few pictures from an exotic landscape, in this case Madagascar, and thought, How hard can it be to photograph that place?

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Posted Sep 18,2009


Bobby Model passed away this week.  I am incredibly sad and will miss him terribly. I kept hoping he'd recover and be back, with a shy smile, talking about photography and his next adventure. He made the lives of everyone he touched richer. 

He was a valued colleague and friend to all of us at National Geographic and will be deeply missed.  Our thoughts are with his family.

Chris Johns

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Filed Under: Chris Johns, Editor's Note, National Geographic, Photography
Posted Sep 15,2009


Lying on a soft, damp forest floor, looking up and oblivious of time, I’m in one of the most magical places on Earth, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in northern California. I can hear the panic in my mother’s voice as she searches for me—her ten-year-old who has a habit of disappearing in the woods. I should shout out to put her at ease, but not just yet. I want a few more minutes of solitude with the tallest trees I’ve ever seen. 

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Filed Under: Chris Johns, Editor's Note, National Geographic
Posted Aug 17,2009


It may seem like madness for a photographer to repeatedly risk his life in one of the most dangerous places on Earth, but that is exactly what Pascal Maitre did on five visits to Somalia. (He photographed the street scene above in Mogadishu.) Without a stable government since 1991, the country is arguably the scene of Africa’s worst humanitarian crisis. It’s one of the deadliest places a journalist can be. Pascal began photographing there in 2002 and established the relationships that made this month’s “Shattered Somalia” story possible. In 2008 he returned with writer Robert Draper.

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Posted Jul 15,2009

Sockeye salmon shoot up the rapids and flip in midair. I see their mirror-bright sides catch and scatter the sun. Propelled by instinct, they return to their birthplace to spawn. Commercial fishermen caught 90 percent of these fish’s mates even before the salmon began their odyssey up British Columbia’s Fraser River. The ones left have beaten the odds so far. But their journey isn’t over, as I found out many years ago on an early assignment for the Geographic. I watch as 13-year-old Gordon Alec (above), of the Lillooet tribe, dips his net in the rapids and pirouettes to his left with a captured fish. The ritual of netting salmon is Gordon’s ancestral legacy. Drying racks line the Fraser’s banks. Young and old camp out under the summer sky and celebrate the catch. But regret is expressed too, as elders recount how diminished the run has become in their lifetime.

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Filed Under: Chris Johns, Editor's Note
Posted Jun 15,2009


I got busted at the milk shake stand at my first state fair. My father had dropped me off along with my prize hog at the Salem fairgrounds for the Oregon State Fair’s livestock competition. He paid for a week’s food and lodging in the 4-H dorm and went to visit his parents for the day. When he returned, we went to the Dairy Bar. It came time to pay for my milk shake. I was broke. My father asked what I’d done with all the money he gave me. I confessed I’d spent it all in two hours on the bumper cars.

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Filed Under: Chris Johns, Editor's Note
Posted May 15,2009


“You have to get up early if you want to beat Otto” was the saying in Oregon’s Rogue River Valley, where I grew up. Otto was Otto Bohnert, “an awesome farmer—always experimenting,” says Dick Dunn, his nephew, also a farmer. Otto was famous for his 120-bushel-an-acre wheat crop in the late 1960s—in the midst of the green revolution, the movement to increase food yields by using new technology. His yields, thanks to superior wheat varieties, irrigation, and chemical fertilizers, were double the normal in our valley.

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Filed Under: Editor's Note, Environment, Food, National Geographic
Posted Apr 15,2009


We talk a lot about the hardware of environmentally responsible buildings, like double-pane windows, energy-efficient heat pumps, and compact fluorescent bulbs. Those are unarguably important and necessary, but it's difficult to feel uplifted by the sight of a roll of R-38 fiberglass insulation.

That's what makes this month's story on green roofs so engaging. Here is where being responsible and attuned to the environment pairs up with spiritual satisfaction. I defy you to look at the image on page 86-87 of the cottage-like garden atop a Manhattan apartment roof and not smile.

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Filed Under: Editor's Note, Environment
Posted Mar 16,2009

Samantha (at left) and Natalie Turner sweep sludge from a trough on their family’s drought-stricken farm in New South Wales, Australia.

The diesel engine clatters to life. My friend Mike is giving me a quick lesson in how to operate his father’s bulldozer. Accompanied by a cacophony of metal on metal, I maneuver pedals and levers. I lower the blade and begin knocking down trees. I’m helping build a logging road near Prospect, Oregon. Despite a lack of finesse, I’m making progress and having fun. I’m on top of the world.

When I read Robert Draper’s “Australia’s Dry Run” and look at Amy Toensing’s photographs in this month’s issue, I’m reminded of that day three decades ago when I was young and didn’t understand the potential consequences of bulldozers.

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Filed Under: Editor's Note, Environment
Posted Feb 15,2009


“There is no feast which does not come to an end,” a Chinese proverb warns, and this month’s story on Canadian oil sands is a cautionary tale about the consequences of large appetites. With the decline of conventional oil reserves and the rising price of oil extraction, sources like oil sands—layers of tarlike bitumen mixed with clay, sand, and water—are increasingly attractive as a way to satisfy the world’s craving for hydrocarbons. The catch: Extracting them is messy and costly to the environment.

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Filed Under: Editor's Note, Energy, Environment
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