Lithium in Death Valley, Frogs making comeback, JPL’s Climate Elvis, Science of traffic jams, Mono Lake’s gulls, Amazing scallop eyes, Cow burps, Bee thieves

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Week of May 10, 2019

Editor’s note: We’re heading to Indonesia next week on an assignment, so we’ll miss an issue of California Science Weekly. But keep an eye on our Twitter feed for posts.

A war is brewing over lithium mining near Death Valley

Lithium. It is one of the world’s most valuable elements, allowing batteries to be more powerful and longer-lasting than ever before. Right now, most lithium is mined in the high deserts of South America, but a new battle is being waged between battery companies and environmentalists over whether to mine lithium in Panamint Valley in California, right on the edge of Death Valley. There are strong arguments to be made that having a large domestic source of lithium is key to a carbon-free future, but some are saying that mining would potentially despoil one of California’s most treasured natural areas.

The LA Times has a story on how Australia-based firm Battery Mineral Resources Ltd. is seeking permission to drill four exploratory wells beneath the valley floor to see if enough lithium is there to make a mine economically viable. 

Environment / Animals

The comeback of Mark Twain’s frogs

Red-Legged Frog Release.

The California red-legged frog is said to be the species featured in Twain’s short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

They began to disappear decades ago due to disease and habitat destruction, but a recent program to reintroduce them back in Yosemite Valley is seeing some progress. The program reintroduced about 4,000 California red-legged frog eggs and tadpoles and 500 adult frogs, into Yosemite and near the Merced River. For the first time, biologists have found eggs from the reintroduced frogs. That’s great news, given the rapidly declining state of frogs around the globe. The recent IPBES UN report says that more than 40 percent of amphibian species around the world are threatened with extinction.


Space / Climate Change

Climate Elvis at JPL

Josh Willis works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, California. He’s a scientist studying the change in ocean temperatures and how they impact Greenland’s melting glaciers. He’s also an Elvis impersonator and a comedian, who hopes to make people aware of the perils we face if we don’t change our behavior towards the changing climate, but getting a laugh along the way. Laughter is, after all, the best medicine. That said, we won’t be laughing much if climate change gets as bad as many scientists say. See the UN report referenced above.  



Science of traffic jams

Credit: Erik Olsen

Traffic jams. They are the bane of California drivers. But what causes them, and is there any way to lessen their severity? Mathematicians have developed all sorts of models to better understand how traffic forms, and some of them has been helpful to improve flow. For example, extra-long freeway entry lanes (take a drive on Highway 110, the old Route 66, which has very short entry lanes, to see what I’m talking about.) An interesting story in Nautilus examines how fluid models are being used to better predict and reduce traffic jams. It’s complicated, but you will learn about the jamiton. And we’re not holding our breath that things will improve in places like LA anytime soon. 



Gulls of Mono Lake

Kristie Nelson studies seagulls at Mono Lake, home to massive colonies of gulls. Her Mono Lake Gull Project examines how gulls serve as an indicator of ecosystem health. The gulls spend most of their time at the coast, but during breeding season they make fly to saline places like Mono Lake where the population can reach up to 65,000 birds. 

A video at Science Friday looks at her work and has some great scenes of the voracious birds going after the lake’s insanely numerous Alkali Flies, moving across the bazillions of them, beaks open, like a lawnmower.

Science Friday

Marine science / Animals

Scallop eyes surprise scientists


Many people know that scallops have eyes, blue ones, in fact. But their eyes function a bit differently than our own. As light enters into the scallop eye, it goes through the pupil and then a lens. Interestingly, the scallop has two retinas, and when the light hits them it strikes a crystal mirror made of guanine at the back of the eye. 

A study in Current Biology looks at two species: the bay scallop Argopecten irradians and the sea scallop Placopecten magellanicus, and reveals that scallops have a novel way of focusing light. They have no irises like ours and so they use their pupils to dilate and contract, and this, along with changes to the curvature of the cornea, improves resolution and forms crisper images. Vision is such an amazingly complex ability, yet it has likely evolved 50 times among animals, a process called convergent evolution. There are several scallop species in California, and the next time you are diving and see one, remember that it probably sees you right back.

Current Biology Smithsonian

Climate Change

Reducing cow burps with seaweed

UC Davis

You’ve seen Harris Ranch on I5? Did you know that California is a major producer of beef and dairy. Cows produce prodigious amounts of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases. In fact, methane is 30 times worse than CO2. Meanwhile, more than half of all methane emissions in California come from the burps, farts, and exhalations of livestock. And belches are the worst, accounting for roughly 95% of the methane released into the environment. Worldwide, livestock accounts for 16% of our greenhouse gas emissions. A fascinating new approach at Scripps Institution of Oceanography proposes using seaweed as cow feed. Scripps notes that “just a small amount of Asparagopsis seaweed to cattle feed can dramatically reduce methane emissions from dairy cows by more than 50 percent”.


Bee thieves in California

National Geographic

It’s no longer cattle rustling and horse stealing. Bee thieves are threatening almond growers in California. A lucrative bee rental industry has surged.


Scientists have identified 67 marine species in California moving north from their commonly known habitat due to severe marine heatwaves from 2014-2016.

The Keeling Curve has been called one of the most important scientific works of the 20th century. Developed by Charles Keeling at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, California, it is a measurement of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from Hawaii’s Mauna Loa since 1958. Here’s why it’s so important.   

Thanks to the rains the areas where the Woolsey burned outdoor areas, scorched an Old West film set and Jewish summer camps in the Santa Monica Mountains, there is lush green and wildflowers.

Once a Gold Rush boomtown, Bodie, California, is now an isolated ghost town. Meet one of the five people who still live there in the winter.

Lovely pictures of a sunrise. On Mars.

HUGE Basking sharks are swimming around and feeding right off the coast of California.

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