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Creativity offers insights into the past and future

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Viewed through the window of an airplane, the Colorado River just seems so unlikely. On a cross-country flight this New Year’s Day, I watched as the snow-covered Rockies gave way to pancaked expanses of red rock. At its headwaters in the mountain foothills, the Colorado makes sense. But as I watched it flow through the deep scars that its waters had carved into a desiccated landscape, the river felt strange.

As a native of drought-ridden Southern California, the Colorado River has always loomed large to me. It is the only game in town for much of the Southwest, irrigating farmland and flowing into city water supplies that allow tens of millions to call the desert home. Over the ages, the river has also played a central role in shaping the Southwest. Over millions of years it has cut through solid red rock to create the Grand Canyon and other spectacular landscapes. But how many millions? Just figuring out when the river began watering the Southwest has long puzzled geologists.

It turns out to be surprisingly hard to pinpoint the river’s age. Contributing correspondent Alexandra Witze reports on the latest efforts to understand the history of the mighty Colorado and its most dramatic work. Scientists are searching for ancient gravel and analyzing the chemistry of certain minerals in their efforts to paint a more complete picture of the Southwest through time.

That a mineral’s chemistry can tell us something about how long ago its residential rock was eroded shows how creative scientists need to be when searching for clues about the natural world. Science writer intern Gabriel Popkin describes another creative approach to a hard problem. Popkin writes about a scientist who has sought to bring a new kind of mathematical model to fishery management, one that relies less on any biological understanding of fish and more on finding patterns in an enormous amount of historical data. These nonlinear analyses, already used to predict short-term changes in financial markets, offer a novel way of estimating how many fish can be caught without compromising a population’s stability. That novelty has some managers hesitant to adopt the model, but at least the new approach reveals some of the shortcomings of current practice.

This type of creativity is one of science’s most potent forces. With the long-term future of many fisheries in doubt and severe drought once again hitting the Southwest, coming up with new insights into the past and future on land and sea may be crucial to protecting some of our most precious resources.

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