The Man Who Saved the Owens Pupfish

Owens pupfish

51 years ago today a man named Edwin Philip Pister rescued an entire species from extinction.

Less than 2.5 inches in length, the Owens pupfish is a silvery-blue fish in the family Cyprinodontidae. Endemic to California’s Owens Valley, 200 miles north of Los Angeles, the fish has lived on the planet since the Pleistocene, becoming a new species when its habitat was divided by changing climatic conditions, 60,000 years ago.

For thousands of years, the Owens Valley was largely filled with water, crystal-clear snowmelt that still streams off the jagged, precipitous slab faces of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Pupfish were common, with nine species populating various lakes and streams from Death Valley to an ara just south of Mammoth Lakes. The Paiute people scooped them out of the water and dried them for the winter.

In the late 19th century, Los Angeles was a rapidly growing young metropolis, still in throes of growing pains that would last decades. While considered an ugly younger sibling to the city of San Francisco, Los Angeles had the appeal of near year-round sunshine and sandy beaches whose beauty that rivaled those of the French Riviera.

William Mulholland

But by the late 1900s, the city began outgrowing its water supply. Fred Eaton, mayor of Los Angeles, and his water czar, William Mulholland, hatched a plan to build an aqueduct from Owens Valley to Los Angeles. Most Californians know the story. Through a series of shady deals, Mulholland and Eaton managed to get control of the water in the Owens Valley and, in 1913, the aqueduct was finished. It was great news for the new city, but terrible news for many of the creatures (not to mention the farmers) who depended on the water flowing into and from the Owens Lake to survive.

One of those animals is the Owens pupfish.

So named because they exhibit playful, puppy-like behavior, the Owens pupfish rapidly began to disappear. Pupfish are well-known among scientists for being able to live in extreme and isolated situations. They can tolerate high levels of salinity. Some live in water that exceeds 100° Fahrenheit, and they can even tolerate up to 113° degrees for short periods. They are also known to survive in near-freezing temperatures common in the lower desert.

But hot or cold are one thing. The disappearance of water altogether is another.

As California has developed, and as climate change has caused temperatures to rise, thus increasing evaporation, all of California’s pupfish populations have come under stress. Add to these conditions, the early 20th-century introduction by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife of exotic species like largemouth bass and rainbow trout to lakes and streams in the eastern Sierras, and you get a recipe for disaster. And disaster is exactly what happened.

The remains of the Owens River flowing through Owens Valley in California. Credit: Erik Olsen

Several species of pupfish in the state have been put on the endangered species list. Several species, including the Owens pupfish, the Death Valley Pupfish and the Devils Hole pupfish are some of the rarest species of fish on the planet. The Devils Hole pupfish recently played the lead role in a recent story about a man who accidentally killed one of the fish during a drunken spree. According to news stories, he stomped on the fish when he tried to swim in a fenced off pool in Death Valley National Park. He went to jail.

The impact on the Owens pupfish habitat was so severe that in 1948, just after it was scientifically described, it was declared extinct.

That is, until one day in 1964, when researchers discovered a remnant population of Owens pupfish in a desert marshland called Fish Slough, a few miles from Bishop, California. Wildlife officials immediately began a rescue mission to save the fish and reintroduce them into what were considered suitable habitats. Many were not, and by the late 1960s, the only remaining population of Owens pupfish, about 800 individuals, barely hung on in a “room-sized” pond near Bishop.

On August 18, 1969, a series of heavy rains caused foliage to grow and clog the inflow of water into the small pool. It happened so quickly, that when scientists learned of the problem, they realized they had just hours to save the fish from extinction.

Edwin Philip Pister
Edwin Philip Pister

Among the scientists who came to the rescue that day was a stocky, irascible 40-year old fish biologist named Phil Pister. Pister had worked for the California Department of Fish and Game (now the California Department of Fish and Wildlife) most of his career. An ardent acolyte of Aldo Leopold, regarded as one of the fathers of American conservation, Pister valued nature on par, or even above, human needs. As the Los Angeles Times put it in a 1990 obituary, “The prospect of Pister off the leash was fearsome.”

“I was born on January 15, 1929, the same day as Martin Luther King—perhaps this was a good day for rebels,” he once said.

Pister had few friends among his fellow scientists. Known for being argumentative, disagreeable, and wildly passionate about the protection of California’s abundant, but diminishing, natural resources, Pister realized that immediate action was required to prevent the permanent loss of the Owens pupfish. He rallied several of his underlings and rushed to the disappearing pool with buckets, nets, and aerators.

Within a few hours, the small team was able to capture the entire remaining population of Owens pupfish in two buckets, transporting them to a nearby wetland. However, as Pister himself recalls in an article for Natural History Magazine:

“In our haste to rescue the fish, we had unwisely placed the cages in eddies away from the influence of the main current. Reduced water velocity and accompanying low dissolved oxygen were rapidly taking their toll.”

Los Angeles Aqueduct. Credit: Erik Olsen

As noted earlier, pupfish are amazingly tolerant of extreme conditions, but like many species, they can also be fragile, and within a short amount of time, many of the pupfish Pister had rescued were dying, floating belly up in the cages. Pister realized immediate action was required, lest the species disappear from the planet forever. Working alone, he managed to net the remaining live fish into the buckets and then carefully carried them by foot across an expanse of marsh. “I realized that I literally held within my hands the existence of an entire vertebrate species,” he wrote.

Pister managed to get the fish into cool, moving water where the fish could breathe and move about. He says abouty half the the population survived, but that was enough.

Today, the Owens pupfish remains in serious danger of extinction. On several occasions over the last few decades, the Owens pupfish has suffered losses by largemouth bass that find their way into the pupfish’s refuges, likely due to illegal releases by anglers. In 2009, the US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that five populations totaling somewhere between 1,500 and 20,000 Owens pupfish live in various springs, marshes, and sloughs in the Owens Valley, where they are federally protected.

by Erik Olsen

Additional material:

Oral history video featuring Phil Pister recounting his career and that fateful day.

Read previous articles in the California Science Weekly.

Ancient Bristlecone Pines by Drone


Last week we had the opportunity to head up Highway 395 into Big Pine where we made a left up to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. Because of the coronavirus, the place was empty. Not a soul to be seen anywhere.

We did a feature on bristlecones a few months ago in which we marveled at the majesty and seeming immortality of these incredible organisms, probably the longest living things on the planet. We brought along a drone to get some shots of these trees, whose gnarled, swirling branches are like something out of a fantasy novel. Take a minute (literally a minute) to enjoy.

Why are California’s redwoods and sequoias so big and tall?

Photo by Spencer Backman on Unsplash

Part 2 of an ongoing series about California’s unique and remarkable trees.

California is a state of superlatives. The oldest living thing lives here. The largest animal in the history of the world swims off our shores. The hottest temperature ever recorded baked visitors at Death Valley’s Furnace Creek back in 1913. California boasts the highest point in the contiguous United States and arguably the tallest waterfall in the country.

We also have the world’s tallest and biggest trees.

California’s giant sequoias and redwoods are nature’s skyscrapers. Redwoods exist in a few narrow pockets in Northern and Central California and into Southern Oregon. Sequoias live exclusively in small groves in central and Northern California with the largest grouping of them found in Sequoia National Park. These two tree species are wonders of the biological world. They are also some of the most magnificent things to behold on the planet.

I have personally climbed the Stagg tree (see photo below), the fifth-largest sequoia in the world, and I will forever remember the experience.

Erik Olsen climbs the Stagg tree, a giant sequoia.
The author climbs the Stagg tree, the fifth-largest tree in the world. (Erik Olsen)

We are lucky to still have our big trees, what’s left of them, anyway. Just a century and a half ago, old-growth redwoods and sequoias were relatively plentiful. People marveled at them, with some early settlers in California spinning unbelievable yarns of trees that rise from the earth “like a great tower“. They also saw them as a bounteous resource, ripe for plunder.

By 1900, nearly all of California’s tall trees had been purchased by private landowners who saw in the trees not beauty, but dollar signs. By 1950, nearly all of the old-growth redwoods and sequoias had been cut down for timber and other purposes. Today, only 5 percent of the old-growth coast redwood forest remains. The largest surviving stands of ancient coast redwoods are found in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Redwood National and State Parks and Big Basin Redwoods State Park. It’s a wonder and a blessing that there are some left. And even then, they face an uncertain future thanks to climate change.

Professional tree climber Rip Thompkins at the top of the Stagg tree, a giant sequoia.

Sequoias and redwoods are closely related. The primary difference between sequoias and redwoods is their habitat. Redwoods live near the coast, while sequoias live in subalpine regions of California. Redwoods are the tallest trees in the world. Sequoias are the biggest, if measured by circumference and volume. Redwoods can grow over 350 feet (107 m). The tallest tree in the world that we know of is called the Hyperion, and it tickles the sky at 379.7 feet (115.7 m). But it is quite possible another tree out there is taller than Hyperion. Redwoods are growing taller all the time, and many of the tallest trees we know of are in hard to reach areas in Northern California. Hyperion was only discovered about a decade ago, on August 25, 2006, by naturalists Chris Atkins and Michael Taylor. The exact location of Hyperion is a secret to protect the tree from damage.

The giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) is Earth’s most massive living organism. While they do not grow as tall as redwoods – the average size of old-growth sequoias is from 125-275 feet – they can be much larger, with diameters of 20–26 feet. Applying some basic Euclidean geometry (remember C = πd?), that means that the average giant sequoia has a circumference of over 85 feet.

Many of the remaining sequoias exist on private land, and in fact, one of the largest remaining stands of Sequoias in the world – the Alder Creek Grove of giant sequoias – was just bought by the Save the Redwoods League conservation group for nearly $16 million

Sequoias grow naturally along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range at an altitude of between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. They tend to grow further inland where the dry mountain air and elevation provide a comfortable environment for their cones to open and release seeds. They consume vast amounts of runoff from Sierra Nevada snowpack, which provides groves with thousands of gallons of water every day. Many scientists are deeply concerned about how climate change might affect the grand trees, as drought conditions potentially deprive them of water to survive.

General Sherman tree
The General Sherman tree in Sequoia National Park. Wikimedia.

The world’s largest sequoia, thus the world’s largest tree, is General Sherman, in Sequoia National Park. General Sherman is 274.9 feet high and has a diameter at its base of 36 feet, giving it a circumference of 113 feet. Scientists estimate that General Sherman weighs some 642 tons, about as much as 107 elephants. The tree is thought to be 2,300 to 2,700 years old, making it one of the oldest living things on the planet. (To learn more about the oldest thing in the world, also in California, see our recent feature on Bristlecone pines.) Interesting fact: in 1978, a branch broke off General Sherman that was 150 feet long and nearly seven feet thick. Alone it would have been one of the tallest trees east of the Mississippi.

Many sequoias exist on private land. Just last month, one of the largest remaining private stands of Sequoias in the world – the Alder Creek Grove of giant sequoias – was bought by the Save the Redwoods League conservation group for nearly $16 million. The money came from 8,500 contributions from individual donors around the world. The property includes both the Stagg Tree mentioned above and the Waterfall Tree, another gargantuan specimen. The grove is considered “the Crown Jewel” of remaining giant Sequoia forests.

Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), also known as coast redwoods, generally live about 500 to 700 years, although some have been documented at more than 2,000 years old. While wood from sequoias was found to be too brittle for most kinds of construction, the redwoods were a godsend for settlers and developers who desperately needed raw material to build homes and city buildings, to lay railroads, and erect bridge trestles. The timber companies who profited from redwoods only began to cut them down in earnest a bit over a century ago. But cut them down they did, with vigor and little regard for the preservation of such an amazing organism. After World War II, California experienced an unprecedented building boom, and the demand for redwood (and Douglas fir) soared. Coastal sawmills more than tripled between 1945 and 1948. By the end of the 1950s, only about 10 percent of the original two-million-acre redwood range remained untouched.

So how did these trees get so big and tall? We don’t know for sure, but some scientists believe it has to do with the climate in which they grow. Sequoias benefit from Californa’s often prodigious snowpack, which seeps into the ground, constantly providing water to the roots of the trees. Redwoods get much of their water from the air, when dense fog rolls in from the coast and is held firm by the redwoods themselves and the steep terrain. The trees’ leaves actually consume water in fog, particularly in their uppermost shoots. According to scientists who study the trees using elaborate climbing mechanisms to reach the treetops, in summer, coast redwoods can get more than half of their moisture from fog. (In fact, fog plays a central role in sustaining several of California’s coastal ecosystems.) The reason is that fog is surprisingly dense with water. One study from scientists Daniel Fernandez of California State University, Monterey Bay, showed that a one-square-meter fog collector could harvest some 39 liters, or nearly 10 gallons, of water from fog in a single day.

Another answer to the redwood’s size may lie in the tree’s unusual, enormous genome. The ongoing Redwood Genome Project has revealed that the tree’s genome is ten times the size of the human genome (27 base pairs compared to three billion in humans), with six copies of its chromosomes (both humans and giant sequoias only have two copies) existing in a cell. It’s possible that by better understanding the redwood genome, we may uncover the precise genetic mechanism that explains how these trees have gotten so big and tall.

Yet another factor may be the trees remarkable longevity. They are survivors. The Sierra Nevadas have long experienced dramatic swings in climate, and this may be yet another of those swings that the trees will simply endure. Or maybe not. For most of the time that redwoods and sequoias have existed, they have done a remarkable job fighting off fires, swings in climate, as well as disease and bug infestations. Because their bark and heartwood are rich in compounds called polyphenols, bugs and decay-causing fungi don’t like them.

Giant sequoias in California. Erik Olsen

The thirst for fog and proximity to water sources could be the trees undoing, however. Although they have managed to survive for hundreds if not thousands of years, climate change could well be the one new variable that changes everything for the trees.

As the air heats up due to global warming, there is a rising threat to the trees’ survival. Warm air pulls moisture from leaves, and the trees often close their pores, or stomata, to maintain their water supply. When the pores close, that prevents carbon dioxide from nourishing the tree, halting photosynthesis. The climate in areas where the trees grow hasn’t yet experienced the kind of temperatures that might kill them, but we are really just at the beginning of this current era of global warming, and some scientists warn hotter temperatures could doom many trees.

That said, other studies that show the increased carbon that causes warming could actually be good for the trees. According to an ongoing study from Redwoods Climate Change Initiative, California’s coast redwood trees are now growing faster than ever. As most people know, trees consume carbon dioxide from the air, so, the scientists argue, more carbon means more growth.

We will see. The good news is that to date, no drought-induced mortality has been observed in mature coastal redwoods or giant sequoias. 

It all comes down to some kind of balance. Trees may benefit from more carbon, but if it gets too hot, trees could start to perish. That’s a bit of a conundrum, to say the least.

Photo by Nikolay Maslov on Unsplash

The prospect of losing these magnificent trees to climate change is a double whammy. Not only would a mass die-off of trees be terrible for tourism and those who simply love and study them, but trees are some of the best bulwarks we have on the planet to fight climate change. Redwoods are among the fastest-growing trees on earth; they can grow three to ten feet per year. In fact, a redwood achieves most of its vertical growth within the first 100 years of its life. Among trees that do the best job taking carbon out of the atmosphere, you could hardly do better than redwoods and sequoias.

Numerous groups are actively trying to plant more redwoods around the world in the hope that they might become a sink for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Indeed, there is some evidence that planting vast tracks of trees globally could have a major impact on climate change.

The Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, an organization out of Copemish, Michigan, has been “cloning” California’s big trees for nearly a decade. They take snippets of the trees from the top canopy and replant them, essentially creating genetically identical copies of the original tree. It’s more like propagating than cloning, but that’s what they call it. The group’s founder, David Milarch, believes fervently that planting large trees is our best bet in stopping climate change. This is the video story I produced about Milarch back in 2013. It’s worth a watch. He’s an interesting character with a lot of passion.

Preserving and protecting what’s left of these amazing organisms should be a priority in California. These trees are not only part of the state’s rich natural legacy, but they offer ample opportunities for tourism and strengthening the economies of the regions where they grow. It’s hard to visit Redwood National and State Parks or Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks and to come away with anything but awe at these magnificent organisms. California is special, and we are blessed to have these trees and the places where they grow in our state.

Other resources:

Save the Redwoods League has got a lot of interesting information about California’s redwoods, including some great YouTube videos.

Redwood National and State Parks

A lovely short film part of Nat Geo’s Short Film Showcase on redwoods.

Video by California Through My Lens: 36 Hours in Redwood National Park

The Majesty and Mystery of California’s Bristlecone Pines

Bristlecone Pine

Lying east of the Owens Valley and the jagged crags of the Sierra Nevadas, the White Mountains rise high above the valley floor, reaching over 14,000 feet, nearly as high as their far better-known relatives, the Sierra Nevadas. Highway 168 runs perpendicular to highway 395 out of Big Pine and leads up into the mountains to perhaps the most sacred place in California.

Far above sea level, where the air is thin, live some of the most amazing organisms on the planet: the ancient bristlecone pines. To the untrained eye, the bristlecone seems hardly noteworthy. Gnarled and oftentimes squat, especially when compared to the majestic coastal redwoods and giant sequoias living near the coast further west, they hardly seem like mythical beings. But to scientists, they are a trove of information, offering clues to near immortality and to the many ways that the earth’s climate has changed over the last 5,000 years. 

In the January 20 edition of the New Yorker, music writer Alex Ross writes about the trees and the scientists who are trying to unlock the secrets of the bristlecone’s unfathomable endurance. The trees, he writes, “seem sentinel-like”.

Bristlecones are the longest living organism on earth. The tree’s Latin name is Pinus longaeva, and it grows exclusively in subalpine regions of the vast area known to geologists as the Great Basin, which stretches from the eastern Sierra Nevadas to the Wasatch Range, in Utah. Bristlecones grow between 9,800 and 11,000 feet above sea level, where some people get dizzy and there are few other plants or animals that thrive. The greatest abundance of bristlecones can be found just east of the town of Bishop, California in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. There, a short walk from where you park your car, you can stroll among these antediluvian beings as they imperceptibly twist, gnarl and reach towards the heavens. 

Video of ancient bristlecone pine that I shot and put together.

While most of the bristlecones in the national Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest are mere hundreds of years old, there are many that are far older. Almost ridiculously so. Methuselah, a Great Basin bristlecone, is 4,851 years old, as measured by its rings, taken by scientists decades ago using a drilled core. Consider that for a moment: this tree, a living organism, planted its tentacle-like roots into the soil some 2000 years before the birth of Christ, around the time that the Great Pyramids of Egypt were built. By contrast, the oldest human being we know of lived just 122 years. That’s 242 human generations passing in the lifetime of a single bristlecone that still stands along a well-trodden trail in the high Sierras. 

Bristlecone and starry sky: National Park Service
National Park Service

That said, if you were to try and see Methuselah for yourself, you are out of luck. The Forest Service is so protective of its ancient celebrity that it will not even share its picture. What’s more, it’s probably the case that there are bristlecones that are even older than Methuselah. Scientists think there could be trees in the forest that are over 5,000 years old. 

How the bristlecone has managed this incredible feat of endurance is a mystery to researchers. Many other tree species are prone to insect infestations, wildfires, climate change. In fact, over the last two decades, the vast lodgepole pine forests of the Western United States and British Columbia have been ravaged by the pine beetle. Millions of acres of trees have been lost, including more than 16 million of the 55 million acres of forest in British Columbia.  

But insects don’t seem to be a problem for bristlecones. Bristlecone wood is so dense that mountain-pine beetles and other pests can rarely burrow their way into it. Further, the region where the bristlecones live tends to be sparse with vegetation, and thus far less prone to wildfire. 

Jeff Sullivan
Jeff Sullivan

So how do the trees manage to live so long? 

A recent study by scientists at the University of North Texas looked at the amazing longevity of the ginkgo tree, examining individuals in China and the US that have lived for hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand years. One thing they found is that the trees’ immune systems remain largely intact, even youthful, throughout their lives. It turns out the genes in the cambium, or the cylinder of tissue beneath the bark, contain no “program” for senescence, or death, but continue making defenses even after hundreds of years. Researchers think the same thing might be happening in the bristlecone. This is not the case in most organisms and certainly not humans. Like replicants in the movie Blade Runner, we seem to have a built-in clock in our cells that only allows us to live for so long. (I want more life, f$@$@!

Scientists at the University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research (LTRR) have built up the world’s largest collection of bristlecone cross-sections, which they carefully examine under the microscope, looking for clues about how the trees have managed to survive so long, and how they can inform us of the many ways the earth’s climate has changed over the millennia.

The LTRR houses the nation’s only dendrochronology lab (the term for the study of tree rings), and the researchers there have made several discoveries using tree cores that have changed or confirmed climate models. For example, in 1998, the climatologist Michael E. Mann published the “hockey stick graph,” that revealed a steep rise in global mean temperature from about 1850 onward (i.e. the start of the industrial revolution). There was intense debate about this graph, with many scientists and climate change skeptics saying that Mann’s projections were too extreme. But numerous subsequent studies, some using the trees’ rings new models, confirmed the hockey-stick model. 

The bristlecones will continue to help us understand the way the earth is changing and to see into the deep human past in a way few other living organisms can do. They also improve our understanding of possible future environmental scenarios and the serious consequences of allowing carbon levels in the atmosphere to continue to grow. 

In this sense, they truly are sentinels.

But setting aside the science for a moment, it should be said that the trees themselves, in their gnarled, frozen posture, are truly are beautiful. They should be protected and preserved, admired and adulated. Indeed, Federal law prohibits any attempt to damage the trees, including taking a mere splinter from the forest floor. The trees have also become an obsession for photographers, particularly those who favor astrophotography. A quick search on Instagram reveals a stunning collection of images showing the majesty and haunting beauty of these ancient trees. 

So, if you are ever headed up highway 395 into the Sierras, it is well worth the effort to make the right-hand turn out of Big Pine to visit the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. The air is thin, but the views are spectacular. And where else can you walk among the oldest living things on the planet?

Note: there is a wonderful video produced by Patagonia on the bristlecones and some of the scientists who study them. It’s well worth watching. 

Saving the White Abalone is Part of a Much Bigger Story

White Abalone - NOAA

The current effort to bring back the white abalone is one of numerous projects underway in California to revive the state’s once-thriving marine environment.

If you grew up in Southern California in the 1970s, there were a few things that defined California: surfing, skateboarding, the Eagles (preferably on the radio while driving down the Pacific Coast Highway) and abalone.

The abalone was an iconic totem of beach culture, celebrated in poetry and song, a wondrous gift from mother nature. Almost every house near the coast had upturned abalone shells on the coffee table or as decorative items in a garden, their opalescent mother-of-pearl interior shells glistening jewel-like beneath the warm California sun. They hung near front doors or in backyards by the half dozen from string or fishing line, acting as wind chimes when the cool breezes blew in from the Pacific, tousling the sunbleached hair of surfers and bringing a reassuring cooling to the bare skin, which even today seems such a unique California phenomenon. Our air, our light is different than other places.

As the Los Angeles Times put it in a recent story, “Abalone once were to California what lobster is to Maine and blue crab to Maryland, so plentiful they stacked one on top of another like colorful paving stones.” 

But then something terrible happened. The white abalone fishery went out of control. Commercial abalone fishing from 1969–1972 was so lucrative and so unrestrained that the catch went from roughly 143,000 pounds per year to just 5,000 pounds per year in less than a decade. Millions of pounds were harvested by commercial fishermen, and diving for abalone was a common and favored pastime. In 1997, state officials in California ceased all white abalone fishing because population levels had reached perilous lows. By 2001, the numbers of white abalone found along the coast were so low that they became the first marine invertebrate listed as endangered on the Endangered Species Act. But it was too late. The population had declined by almost 99 percent.

California is home to seven species of abalone (red, pink, black, green, white, pinto, and flat), none of them are plentiful any longer in California waters, but it is the white abalone, in particular, that became the most prized for its tender, flavorful flesh. We loved white abalone. And then they were gone.

White abalone. Credit: NOAA
White abalone. Credit: NOAA

Now, scientists at UC Davis’ Bodega Marine Lab in Bodega Bay are in the midst of one of the most important species restoration efforts in the history of the state. On November 18, researchers from the marine lab, in cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) carefully released thousands of baby white abalone into the waters of Southern California. Biologists measured and marked each one with a unique numbered tag affixed to their shell to distinguish them from wild white abalone (of which there are perilously few). This marked the first release of endangered white abalone into the wild in coastal waters. What’s crazy is that the white abalone that has been bred in the lab constitute the largest population of the slow-moving mollusks in the world. That’s right, there are more white abalone living in captivity than there are in the wild. Until now.

“Early on we knew that this species was really in danger of going extinct and that the only viable alternative to save it was starting a captive breeding program,” said Ian Taniguchi, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) who has been involved in white abalone restoration since 1992.

The success or failure of the reintroduction program could mean life or extinction for the iconic species, and a great deal of money and years of effort have gone into the recovery program. Over the coming years, divers will visit the sites on a weekly basis to monitor their survival and growth. Every six months, additional releases are planned, with the goal of placing tens of thousands of juvenile white abalone in the sea over the next five years. 

“Early on we knew that this species was really in danger of going extinct and that the only viable alternative to save it was starting a captive breeding program.”

Ian Taniguchi, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW)

Abalone are far more valuable than merely as a food item. They are keepers of the kelp forest. According to scientists, the abalone eat kelp, but they also clear rocks of any dominant species and thus increase kelp diversity so that multiple kelp species can flourish. When the kelp is healthy and diverse, coastal waters see an explosion of diversity in fish and other animals that depend on kelp forest habitat.  

While the success of the abalone recovery program hangs in the balance, its mere existence needs to be recognized as part of a much larger tapestry of species and ecosystem recovery projects currently underway that are aimed at restoring California’s coastal ecosystem to some semblance of what it was centuries ago.

That is, of course, impossible. The numerous written accounts by early California settlers (many of them Spanish) describe plants and animals in such unfathomable abundances, the likes of which we will never be able to return. But we can reclaim some of it. And after decades of witnessing severe declines in fish species, kelp, water quality and coastal habitat, it seems we may be finally turning a corner. Maybe.

Some of the projects underway include bringing back white sea bass, protection of sea lions, whales and dolphins under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a rise in white shark populations, kelp restoration, and, perhaps the most significant achievement of all, the creation of a vast (and enforced), network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

Alone, each of these efforts is a small step in the right direction in making our seas healthy and fruitful. Together, they represent the most significant set of achievements to reverse the impact of human settlement on the ocean environment in the history of the world. Of course, we are nowhere near done, and the growing (and terrifying) threats from climate change could render all of this moot. Warming seas, the spread of new diseases (and old ones), acidification, all these things together could unravel these accomplishments in mere decades.

There are still many challenges ahead. Recent kelp die-offs in Northern California due to the explosion in purple urchin populations are extremely worrisome. Phenomena like sea star wasting disease and the marine heatwave of 2013-2015 may have wrought permanent change to our marine ecosystem. But the fact that we are now acting so aggressively to apply science and ingenuity to solve the myriad problems we ourselves caused should give us some hope that positive change is possible.

There is no time for rest. If anything now is the time to redouble our efforts to make our oceans cleaner, to help species recover and to restore the lost balance so that future generations can experience the incredible beauty and bounty of the sea.

This is how we’re going to solve climate change

Exterior of the California Institute of Technology
Caltech. Credit: Erik Olsen

Yesterday, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena made a major announcement: philanthropists and entrepreneurs Stewart and Lynda Resnick gave the school $750 million to develop technologies to tackle climate change. The news of the announcement was somewhat lost in the craziness of the news cycle following the whistle-blower revelations of the Trump administration, but make no bones about it, this is major news.

Thomas F. Rosenbaum, president of Caltech, told the New York Times that, “the money will be used to build a research center and to support a broad range of projects. Among them are finding ways to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and perhaps store it in the ocean; to capture and reuse rainfall; make plants more resistant to drought; and create plastics that are easier to recycle.” In other words, a key focus is going into geoengineering.

Coal mine in Germany. Credit: Erik Olsen
Coal mine in Germany. Credit: Erik Olsen

Many people believe that solving the climate crisis is a matter of reducing our use of fossil fuels. While this is unquestionably part of the equation, it is also very unlikely, if not impossible, that as a species we will muster the discipline and accept the cost of reducing our consumption of fossil fuels to levels that make a significant impact on carbon in the atmosphere. This argument was recently made by the writer Jonathan Franzen in an article in the New Yorker magazine. While Franzen was viciously pilloried for this opinion, both in rebuttal articles as well as Twitter, he is largely correct.

Currently, global temperature is on track to rise by an average of 6 °C (10.8 °F), according to the latest estimates. Some scientists say that we are already on the verge of a “global disaster” at the planet’s poles. Melting ice at the Arctic and in Greenland this year reached a record level, with Greenland shedding 12.5 billion tons of water into the sea. That’s more water than at any time since record-keeping began in the 1950s. It gets worse.

As NASA points out “Even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, global warming would continue to happen for at least several more decades, if not centuries.” Even if the United States and Europe enacted stringent, extensive measures to reduce carbon output, China, India, and many other developing countries will continue to depend on fossil fuels to foster economic growth. Asking other poorer countries to slow their progress after two centuries of our own largely uninhibited industrial development is the quintessence of hypocrisy. Yes, it is possible that some countries will develop with certain sustainable measures in place, but if we look at the technologies currently available even to wealthy countries, there is no viable or affordable technology currently available to offset the consumption of carbon-rich sources of energy. This is not to say that we should not try to implement measures to reduce carbon output. It makes sense to do this even if global warming were not a factor. Renewables are cleaner, far less environmentally destructive and simply make more sense, assuming they can be implemented at scale and reasonable cost. We should do everything we can to implement renewable energy sources.

Wind turbine

This gets us to the $750 billion Caltech donation. It is far more likely that some form of geoengineering is going to end up solving the carbon problem. While many scientists and entrepreneurs are currently developing ways to take caarbon out of the atmosphere, at the moment, there is no scalable or viable means of doing so. But that may not be the case in the future. It is possible, if not likely, that someone will find a way to remove carbon from the air on a global scale. The question is one of investment, ingenuity and, of course, luck.

There is a historical precedent for tackling such a large problem. In the early 20th century, humankind was faced with a global food crisis. Agricultural production was slowing due to shortages of fertilizer, which largely came from the mining of guano, or bird droppings, which existed in large deposits in a select few places around the world, including Peru. The key ingredient in fertilizer is nitrogen, which plants depend on for growth and which is slowly depleted as crops are harvested and replanted. (Back before humans started agriculture, nitrogen would return to the soil when plants died, but when plants are grown for food, they are removed, depleting nitrogen from the ground.)

With the naturally occurring nitrogen found in guano, we had a reprive. But it only took a few decades for most of the key sources of guano to be exploited. And so, early in the 20th century, scientists warned that we were on the verge of perhaps the most dire environmental crisis in the history of humanity: there was not enough fertilizer to support the earth’s rapidly growing population. They were certain that, unless another source of nitrogen could be found, large-scale starvation would certainly occur.

Which brings us to the Austrian chemist Fritz Haber. Haber figured out a way to use high-pressure (in a huge machine he designed) and a catalyst to get nitrogen from the air. Air is nearly 80 percent nitrogen, but it is in a form that makes it hard to separate from air’s other components: oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide and water vapor. Haber’s process converts atmospheric nitrogen (N2) to ammonia (NH3) by a reaction with hydrogen (H2) using a metal catalyst under high temperatures and pressures.

Fritz Haber

Haber’s breakthrough enabled mass production of agricultural fertilizers and led to a massive increase in crops for human consumption. The food production for half the world’s current population involves Haber’s method for producing nitrogen fertilizers. The world’s authority on nitrogen fertilizer, Vaclav Smil, has said the industrial synthesis of ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen “has been of greater fundamental importance to the modern world than the invention of the airplane, nuclear energy, space flight, or television.” In other words, one man, armed with an idea and the resources to make it happen, largely saved humanity in its time of greatest crisis.

It is not merely wishful thinking to believe that we are in a similar moment now and that human ingenuity and perseverance will help us find a way to remove carbon from the atmosphere on a global scale. Many people are working on geoengineering solutions, from carbon sequestration to solar radiation modification to the widespread production of carbon sinks (for example, planting trees). It could take several different approaches, or perhaps just one, assuming there is another Fritz Haber out there today, which undoubtedly there is. But what’s required is funding and commitment. It will likely take several years and many billions (trillions) of dollars to find the solution, and that is why the $750 million gift to Caltech is a great start.

The questions are: Where do we invest our time and money to solve this crisis? Where do our priorities lie? Again, I’m not saying in any way that we should give up on finding and implementing ways to reduce carbon output, but resources to tackle the climate problem are finite, and most people have largely demonstrated that they are, so far, unwilling to make even the most basic sacrifices to cope with the problem. It’s hard to imagine this changing because it is part of human nature. As Franzen wrote in reference to the most basic carbon reduction targets discussed today: “Call me a pessimist or call me a humanist, but I don’t see human nature fundamentally changing anytime soon. I can run ten thousand scenarios through my model, and in not one of them do I see the two-degree target being met.”

With what resources we do have, therefore, a much larger proportion should be directed towards geoengineering solutions, developing and implementing technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere. But where should those resources go, specifically? To whom do we direct money for this kind of research and development? The Resnicks got it right. There is likely ould be no better single place to funnel funds for geoengineering solutions than the nation’s premier technological institution: Caltech. That’s why yesterday’s announcement is such big news, and far more significant than President Trump’s Ukraine problem. That said, if Trump is eventually removed from office, we do regain some sense in our own country’s climate policy, which he has largely derailed. So, we may have that, too.

Saving the California Condor // Seeding the oceans with iron // California science news roundup

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Week of July 26, 2019


Saving the California Condor

National Park Service

The birth of the 1000th chick as part of an extensive breeding and reintroduction program gives hope to many other species in peril.  

The California condor is North America’s largest flying bird. It also one of the ugliest birds in the world. Sorry, in the universe. The bird would, in fact, be right at home in the cantina on Mos Eisley.  But the bird’s ungainly size and ugliness are what make it special, special enough to save.

We live in the Anthropocene, the time of man. There are few species on the planet that have eluded our impact. The condor has fared poorly, though not as poorly as some. Just 37 years ago there were 22 California condors left. They were functionally extinct in the wild: all those remaining birds had been captured and put into an ambitious breeding program to try and revive the species.

Now, nearly four decades later, a consortium of government agencies and nonprofit groups announced a rather astonishing milestone: the birth of the 1,000th California condor chick since the rescue program began. The condor’s plight is far from over. The species remains critically endangered. They live mainly in California, Arizona, southern Utah, and Baja California, Mexico. The ultimate goal of the condor recovery program is a self-sustaining population, meaning the birds mate and multiply on their own in the wild.

“The radical reduction of the world’s biodiversity is something for which future generations will least forgive us.”E.O. Wilson

Condors have died over the years, mostly due to lead poisoning, scientists discovered. The birds are scavengers and dine on carrion, oftentimes animals that have been killed by shotguns with lead shot. That realization led to California’s ban on lead ammunition, which took effect on July 1, and mandates non-lead ammunition in the taking of any wildlife in California. Many hunters objected to the ban because non-lead ammo is more expensive, but it’s better to have less lead in the environment as a whole.

In many ways, California has taken the lead in endangered species protection. One of the most successful breeding and reintroduction programs in history is taking place right off the California coast, in the Channel Islands, where the Island Fox has made an impressive recovery due to extensive (and expensive) efforts to relocate golden eagles, which predated on foxes. That said, other species in the state, like the Delta Smelt, remain in peril.

It’s hard to place a value on saving a species like the California Condor. With a nearly 10-foot wingspan, they are clearly impressive birds. Their ugliness (although, I suppose beauty is in the eye of the beholder) is perhaps one of their most endearing qualities. It’s comforting to know that the bird will be around a lot longer (fingers crossed), rather than meet the fate of so many other avian species like the Dodo or the Passenger Pigeon that we know only as bones and feathers in a museum.

As the great Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson once put it: “The radical reduction of the world’s biodiversity is something for which future generations will least forgive us.”

California Science Weekly

Ocean Science

We may already be seeding the oceans with iron  

An interesting report came out this week from researchers at the University of South Florida, Cornell and the University of Southern California, related to the idea of iron fertilization. Much of the ocean’s biomass depends on quantities of iron to maintain life. Iron is necessary for photosynthesis in plants and is fundamental to phytoplankton growth. Phytoplankton are the quadrillions of tiny plant-like creatures in the ocean that make up the foundation of the ocean’s food chain. Also known as microalgae, they contain chlorophyll and require sunlight to live and grow. When iron is naturally present in the ocean, particularly around areas with a lot of deep-sea upwelling, which brings nutrients to the surface, we experience some of most robust ocean ecosystems on the planet. A lot of so-called bio-mass.

All that biomass is essentially made of carbon. And when the phytoplankton die or are eaten by bigger creatures like whales, shrimp, snails, and jellyfish, they become an integral part of the food chain. The carbon in the phytoplankton becomes carbon in the whale. When animals defecate or die, a lot of that carbon sinks to the bottom of the ocean and can be locked up or sequestered. That is how much of the carbon in the atmosphere ends up locked away beneath the waves, rather than heating the earth.

For long periods, there has been a balance, with enough carbon locked up that temperatures (and climate in general) remained in a kind of stasis. Of course, we’re changing things now by adding so much carbon to the atmosphere that the cycling of carbon can’t quite keep up. This is a problem.

Seeding the ocean with iron to induce phytoplankton blooms and sequester carbon has long been a controversial idea. The oceanographer John Martin gave a lecture at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1988 in which he stated, “Give me a half a tanker of iron and I will give you another ice age.”

A lot of research followed, but never truly at the scale needed to know if it would work or not. Of course, one of the reasons iron fertilization has not been tried on a massive scale is that we don’t know what the potential consequences would be. Could we trigger massive algae blooms that result in the death of wildlife in a vast swath of the ocean?

This all brings us to the new study in Nature that says human-emitted iron is accumulating in the ocean in much greater quantities than scientists previously estimated. That is, we may already be seeding the ocean through the growth of industry around the world.

If true, we may once again have to confront the law of unintended consequences, which rarely results in circumstances in our favor.

Scientific American

California science news roundup

New data shows that Thursday is the worst traffic day to drive in Los Angeles. We would have guess Friday. (LAist)

Is it safe to store nuclear waste at San Onofre? Southern California Edison will soon resume storing spent nuclear fuel at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. The move comes almost a year after a near-miss accident, when one of the canisters that contained the spent nuclear fuel nearly fell 18 feet.

A freak marine heatwave called “The Blob, combined with a strong El Niño, drastically affected the Pacific Ocean ecosystem killing thousands of animals and changing the distribution of species along the coast. Many species suffered in the warm water, but some—such as the market squid—saw their populations boom.

MBARI scientist Jim Barry, who studies deep ocean corals, has also tracked the changes in a famous tide pool near Monterey called Hewatt’s transect, which reflects the slow-moving, but powerful, changes that have been taking place in our coastal ocean due to global warming. “The future is not one of stasis and stability.”

This is truly fabulous. Google used California’s Ivanpah solar facility (see it on the way to Vegas from LA) and some 107,000 of its sun-reflecting mirrors to create a portrait of Apollo 11 pioneer Margaret Hamilton. It used moonlight as its medium. (YouTube)

Are we actually getting too little sun? A rise in Vitamin D deficiency causes scientists to wonder. (New Scientist)

Microsoft is investing $1 billion in OpenAI to create brain-like machines that might someday achieve artificial general intelligence. (Verge)

Eelgrass, a fundamental component of certain California marine ecosystems that almost completely disappeared in some places is making a comeback with help from conservationists and the local community. 

The New Yorker examines how wolf-lovers and ranchers clash in Northern California. (New Yorker)

520 small towns in the West are at massive, Paradise-California-like risk of a catastrophic wildfire says an investigation by the Arizona Republic. (AZ Republic)

California-based vaping colossus Juul hires a well-known expert on children’s nicotine addiction, upsetting some in the health industry. Mark Rubinstein is a pediatrician and scientist with the University of California­ San Francisco’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. (PS Mag)

A personal submarine spotted in Monterey Bay belongs to former child actor Taran Smith from the TV show Home Improvement. (SF Gate)

This is an astonishingly good video from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) about its new rock scaling robot LEMUR. (YouTube)

The U.S. has been pumping its groundwater stores faster than its aquifers can be naturally replenished and many many wells could run dry says a University of California–Santa Barbara study.

Private firms like SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace, along with a growing number of national space agencies, are eyeing a manned return to the moon, with an emphasis on settlement rather than exploration. (PS Magazine)

What caused the decline of Mexico’s once-lucrative Humboldt squid fishery?  Warmer ocean conditions and shifting weather patterns have caused an “oceanographic drought,” says a new StanfordEarth study. (Stanford Earth)

The New York Times does an amazing job illustrating the swarm of earthquakes that followed two big quakes in early July. (NY Times)

A gondola to the stars? LA officials are exploring the idea of constructing an aerial lift to locations in Griffith Park to alleviate traffic. Maybe not such a bad idea?

Loving a place to death. California’s Daffodil Hill closes “indefinitely” after becoming a victim to the dangers of over-tourism. (WAPO)

The California coast is currently teeming with great white sharks, particularly in the Monterey Bay. (CBS)

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory cosmochemists will analyze the Apollo 17 samples to study the geologic history of the site where the rocks were collected, a cold trap where water may have been able to freeze. This marks the first time such a sample will be studied in detail since the end of the Apollo program. (LLNL)

The University of California Berkeley has a museum dedicated to microscopes. (Golub Collection)

The LA Times gets deeper on California’s “moon trees”.

Another squid story: Climate change could negatively impact the California market squid, the most lucrative fishery along the California coast, says oceanographer Art Miller.

Feel-good story: a retired teacher found some seahorses off Long Beach. Then he built a secret world for them. (LA Times)

Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have developed printable magnetic liquid droplets that could lead to the development of 3D-printable magnetic liquid devices to make flexible electronics or artificial cells that could deliver targeted drug therapies to diseased cells. (Berkeley Lab)

Cellular service has a number of vulnerabilities that can cause it to falter during an emergency. California officials are seeking to bolster wireless infrastructure to improve wildfire response.

That’s it! Have a great week, and please send your friends an invitation to sign up for the California Science Weekly newsletter. 

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California’s unheralded role in Apollo 11 // Wildfires, climate change and atmospheric rivers // Marine reserves working even better than thought  // California science news roundup

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Week of July 19, 2019


California’s unheralded role in Apollo 11

Buzz Aldrin on the moon - NASA

When we think about Apollo and attempt to localize it here on earth in our minds, we typically think about Apollo Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas. Who can forget Neil Armstrong’s famous words: “Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

But there’s more to California’s role in Apollo. In La Canada Flintridge, home of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the most important experiments of the whole mission was developed, and it changed the way we look at the moon and its relationship to our planet.

The Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment consisted of a reflector that was positioned on the moon by Armstrong and Aldrin. It was aimed back at the earth, where lasers fired pulses of laser light that were then reflected and detected by special receivers here on the ground. 

The reflectors are too small to be seen from Earth, and the task of actually hitting them was a major technical challenge. Even though a laser is a highly concentrated light, by the time the light reaches the moon, the beam is roughly four miles wide. Scientists back then likened the effort to using a rifle to hit a moving dime two miles away.

Here’s more of the story. 

California Science Weekly


Wildfires, climate change, and atmospheric rivers

Let’s talk about the weather, water and climate change in California. Lots of stories this week on these subjects. First of all, a big report came out in journal Earth’s Future this week, and it says that the state’s wildfire issues are clearly being driven by climate change. It points to the fact that in the past decade, we have experienced half of the state’s 10 largest wildfires and seven of its 10 most destructive fires. That includes last year’s Camp Fire, the state’s deadliest wildfire ever. The study found that the area burned in California’s forest fires – the annual burned area – has increased in size by 500 percent. The cause, says the paper: more heat, more dryness, more fuel. All of these things can be tied to climate change, it says. 

And then there’s this, which seems a bit contradictory, but here you go: another study from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego says that we will also be seeing more of those atmospheric-river storms that deluged the state earlier this year. It looked at 16 global climate models focusing on western North America and found that most of the heavy precipitation that the West will get in the future will come from these so-called atmospheric rivers. That is to say, when we have rain, it will be more intense and more deluge-like. So, start building those arks. The point here seems to be that when it’s wet, it’s going to be really wet. And when it’s dry, it’s going to be really dry. Like the American electorate today, everything is going to the extremes. 

Ok, moving on. While this may seem contradictory, our big winter storms dumped so much snow that safety officials in the state are warning people about using the rivers that carry all that snow melt out of the mountains. The rivers are raging. This may be great for kayakers and rafters, it can also be dangerous. At least six people have died on the Kern River already this year. On a similar note, Mammoth Mountain, which is almost always closed by now, will be open until for skiing until July 28. Earlier the mountain had said August, but they changed their minds. That said, there is still 60 feet of snow at the summit. Wha?

Earth’s Future      Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Ocean Science

Marine reserves are working even better than we thought  


California has one of the largest, most robust marine protected area systems in the world, covering about 18 percent of the state’s waters. The system is vast, stretching down the entire coast from Crescent City to San Diego. It has been phased in over the years, but most of the areas are now firmly in place with severe restrictions on fishing and any kind of “taking”, like rocks shells, etc. And while many studies have been done to show that MPAs work to bring back animals life, there has long been a question whether they lead to a so-called “spillover effect”, that is, whether animals breed and multiply and then move out of the areas, enriching other zones.

Well, a new study shows that there is a spill-over effect. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Southwest Fisheries Science Center used genetics to track kelp rockfish, a species in California that tends to remain in the same location their entire adult lives. The key word here is “adult,” because the kids move around. By following counting fish and analyzing DNA, the scientists showed that juvenile kelp rockfish actually do move out of marine reserves sometimes as far as about 20 kilometers away. This suggests that there is, in fact, a spillover effect taking place in the reserves. This is very good news for ecologists, but also for fishermen, who could see more fish showing up in non-restricted areas.  


California science news roundup

The cracks left behind by the recent Southern California earthquakes have become tourist attractions. Of course they have. (SF Gate)

There are ten Apollo “moon trees” in California (NatGeo

This very cool video shows what happens when scientists from MBARI shine blue light on the deep-sea squid Histioteuthis. Its green eye glows with fluorescence like something otherworldly. Scientists are not sure why, but think it may have something to do with absorbing light. (YouTube)  

The Mount Wilson Observatory recently opened the doors to its 100-inch telescope to the public for stargazing. Get the kids and go! (Mt. Wilson)

A marine biologist who studies porpoises mating says one of the best places to observe them is…the Golden Gate Bridge. (MEL Magazine)

The U.S. Department of Transportation has selected San Diego as the location for a major drone testing program that will include high-altitude mapping of the U.S.-Mexico border, package deliveries, and first responder operations. (SDNews)

Speaking of cool video, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory released this very impressively produced piece about their new climbing robot LEMUR, designed to work in extreme terrain. It can scale rock walls. Wow, JPL, keep it up. (YouTube)

A coal plant in Utah has been L.A.’s single-largest power source for three decades. The plant is closing in 2025 and the state will move to natural gas. But that has some clean energy folks upset.  (LA Times)

Valley fever, a dangerous fungal disease, may be striking California farmworkers. Rates of new cases rose 10 percent between 2017 and 2018, according to the California Department of Public Health.

We loved this video about the recovery of the Channel Island fox by SkunkBear. (YouTube) 

Lake Tahoe, the second deepest in the U.S., is 7/10 of an inch away from it’s legally allowed capacity. It’s risen 8 feet in 3 years, all thanks to this year’s big winter storms. (NNBN) 

Elon Musk’s Neuralink made a big announcement about its brain-computer interface system, that will dramatically increase the number of electrodes that can connect to a brain. But one of the most interesting goals is that it may allow paraplegic patients to use their thoughts to type at a rate of 40 words per minute. 

California produces the vast majority of the world’s sunflower seeds, but farmers in one county are asking visitors to stop taking selfies in sunflower fields because they are causing damage. (Guardian)

A potential crisis for stem cell research: since 2004, scientists have benefited from a $3 billion state research agency called the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. But now the agency says it is no longer funding new projects. (ScienceMag)

In a new 440,000-square-foot fulfillment center in Los Angeles, robots are working furiously to get stuff to you faster. (LA Times)

Not news: People are fishing in the LA River. News: they’re eating lots of them

Remember that great story about the guy who killed the endangered fish in Death Valley? Well here’s a video of that same underwater pond called Devils Hole during the earthquake. (NPS)

That’s it! Have a great week, and please send your friends an invitation to sign up for the California Science Weekly newsletter. 

Design by Luis Ramirez

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Redwood poachers ruin majestic giants // LA’s air quality is deteriorating // Inhaled: new podcast series  // California science news roundup

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Week of July 5, 2019


Redwood poachers ruin majestic giants

Credit: National Park Service

Probably our favorite thing we read all week was this story from Bloomberg about the illegal theft of so-called Redwood burls from California’s Redwood National Park. Burls are the massive, swollen, misshapen growths that naturally occur on trees. Basically, the grain has grown from the tree in a deformed manner, a form of cellular misdirection. They look a little bit like tumors or additional appendages. But because of the strange patterns they exhibit when the fresh wood is exposed, burls are extremely valuable around the world. They are used to make tables and countertops and footstools, etc. A quick search online came up with numerous sites selling redwood burl tables for tens of thousands of dollars. Certain raw burl pieces are also extremely valuable. No wonder thieves go after them. 

The problem is that choice redwood burls are very rare. They take many years, often hundreds of years, to grow and become large and complex. And if there’s one place large, ancient redwoods grow in abundance, it’s Redwood National Park in Northern California. 

Poachers have been entering Redwood National Park in the night with saws and cutting off the burls to sell for big bucks. The trees usually survive, but they are permanently scarred. Burl removal is legal if the trees are in private hands and the owner gives the ok. But burl cutting is illegal in the national park, as you can imagine. And since we’re talking Redwoods National Park, we’re talking some of the tallest, finest, rarest, most beautiful trees on the planet, so the thought that criminals are burl poaching in these parks gets pretty infuriating. 

Luckily, as the story explains, park rangers like Branden Pero are tasked with catching the burl poachers and they’ve brought some high technology to bear (including hidden cameras) to nab Derek Alwin Hughes, a 35-year old meth user who was charged with six crimes, including Grand Theft.



LA’s air quality is deteriorating

If you lived in Los Angeles in the 70s, then you remember the days when schools closed due to poor air quality. With few Federal laws in place mandating controls on car exhaust, the city was often blanketed under a disgusting layer of brown smog. 

We’ve come a long way since then. The 1970 Clean Air Act and the EPA’s strict regulation of exhaust emissions, improved LA’s air and made it breathable again. It’s been called one of the greatest successes in US environmental history. But according to a study published this year by scientists at New York University and the American Thoracic Society, we’ve been taken several steps backward, especially where ozone is concerned. Ozone can damage lungs, trigger asthma attacks and lead to other life-threatening problems.

The problem is particularly bad in Southern California, where researchers found a 10% increase in deaths attributable to ozone pollution from 2010 to 2017. While downtown and the westside have fared somewhat better, inland regions around Riverside and San Bernadino are experiencing the most dangerous levels of pollution. California regulators have been tasked with devising a plan by the end of the year to reduce ozone, and they say it’s going to be expensive, perhaps costing as much as $14 billion.  

Los Angeles Times

Public Health

Inhaled: a new podcast series  

Let’s stick with air quality and health for a moment. A powerful new 5-part podcast series by the Chico Enterprise Record called Inhaled looks at the health impacts of last year’s wildfires, with a particular focus on the Camp Fire, the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California history. It turns out that the smoke from the Camp Fire, and numerous other fires around the state, has led to lingering health problems for many people. Smoke contains toxic particles that can lodge themselves into lungs and cause permanent health problems. Those health effects are now being felt by many people, many of whom are finding it difficult to get the health care they need. It’s an important story because we tend to think of the impact of wildfires as something immediate, with death and property damage occurring quickly, when the reality is the damage to personal health can linger for years.     


California science news roundup

An interesting update on the Mars InSight lander, which has been experiencing lingering problems with its heat probe, an autonomous hammer that’s supposed to penetrate five meters down into the Martian soil to get all sorts of never-before-made measurements.  The bad news: they haven’t fixed it. The good news: they HAVE been able to measure small Mars quakes, providing scientists with new data and clues about the planet’s interior. (Planetary Society

A look at the problem of feral horses in California. Wild mustang populations are out of control, competing with cattle and native wildlife for resources. If the federal government doesn’t rein them in, ranchers may take matters into their own hands. (Alta Magazine)

California’s illegal pot farms are killing wild fish. Run-off, water diversion, and pollution from illegal cannabis farms are polluting streams where fish like steelhead and salmon thrive, killing many. (Bitterroot Magazine)  

The tragically failed plan in Modesto to plant 5,000 trees. (Modesto Bee)

Hawthrone-based SpaceX faces challenges in launching thousands of satellites to provide space-based internet service. But the payoff could help finance the company’s bigger space ambitions. (LA Times)

Mothers in California are leading efforts to ban harmful pesticides. (Grist)

Another serial-rape suspect is nabbed (this time in Sacramento) with DNA testing technology. (SacBee)

A compelling argument that the iPhone may be reducing resource consumption rather than increasing it. Think of all the things you no longer own because smartphones have replaced them: calculator, camcorder, clock radio, mobile telephone, and tape recorder. (Wired)

Jupiter‘s moon Io is the most volcanically active body in the solar system. Caltech scientist Katherine de Kleer has been capturing the moon’s volcanic landscape in incredible detail. (New York Times)

Caltech scientists at the Owens Valley Radio Observatory have been able to pinpoint the location of so-called fast radio bursts to a distant galaxy almost 8 billion light-years away. (CalTech)

Some dude went snorkeling in Sausal Creek in Oakland. He saw some fish. Interesting, but kind of gross. (SF Gate)

There’s a new book out about how California’s longstanding role as a center for health, wellness, nutritional fads, and sunshine changed its architecture. (LA Curbed)

That’s it! Have a great week, and please send your friends an invitation to sign up for the California Science Weekly newsletter. 

Design by Luis Ramirez

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California leading in desalination plants // Using AI to stop wildfire // Two happy salmon stories // Health dangers at Aliso plant // P-75: California’s newest mountain lion // California science news roundup

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Week of June 28, 2019


California leading in desalination plants

Credit: Poseidon Water

California’s water woes seem to be improving after a very wet winter and record-setting snowpack. There’s so much water, in fact, that Lake Powell rose 16 feet in the last month and is experiencing an inflow of 128% above average. Reservoir levels across the state are all mostly at or above capacity. However, everyone knows how temporary these conditions are likely to be, and how easy it will be to return to drought conditions in the state.   

Yale360 takes a look at the state of desalination plants in Southern California, focusing on the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant north of San Diego. It is the largest effort to turn salt water into fresh in North America, processing 100 million gallons of seawater a day (and making 50 million gallons). De-sal is on the rise. California water officials approved $34.4 million in grants to eight desalination projects across the state. Another huge plant the side of the Carlsbad plant is being built in Huntington, California.

But desalination has huge downsides. It is incredibly energy-intensive, it has high carbon emissions, and the waste from the plants (after removing salt from saltwater), is put back into the ocean, threatening sea life. The intake pipes that pull water from the ocean can also be hazardous to fish. That said, numerous countries threatened by global warming and increasing drought are building plants at warp speed, including Australia and Israel. Israeli companies, in fact, are at the forefront of de-sal technology.

As significant as the downsides are, it does seem like de-sal is here to stay. The oceans simply contain so much water, and as populations rise, temperatures soar, and fresh water becomes more scarce, de-sal is the obvious solution.  



Using artificial intelligence to stop wildfires


It’s impossible to forget the damage wrought by last year’s terrible wildfire season. It seems clear that the fires are yet another sign of a warming planet and the growing unpredictability in weather conditions. California public officials are bringing many new technologies to bear to try and better predict when fires may erupt in order to put them out more quickly and to save property and lives. 

The New York Times has a story about an effort by fire departments in Southern California to use big data and artificial intelligence to improve how they respond to these disasters. The fire department is testing a program developed by the WiFire Lab at the San Diego Supercomputer Center that makes predictions about fire behavior and where fire will spread next. It’s called FireMap. Using giant government data sets and on-the-ground sensors, it assembles real-time information about the presence of flammable materials, weather conditions, and the topology of a burning area. 

New York Times


Two positive salmon stories  

Source: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

The news for California salmon over the years has not been great. Many of the species that were once abundant are either gone entirely or threatened. California Coho Salmon have been in serious decline since the mid-20th century. The California Coastal Chinook Salmon was federally listed as threatened in 1999. Some reports have suggested that many of the salmon populations in the state are unlikely to survive the century.

But according to news reports out this week, some California king salmon populations are experiencing a rebound in coastal waters off Northern California. Fishermen are reporting the biggest salmon season in a decade, and are hauling in kings by the hundreds. That’s good news for the fish and for those who plan to fire up the grill this summer. However, it does raise concerns about over-fishing the species just as it seems on the brink of a fragile recovery.  

Another hopeful salmon story over at the California Academy of Sciences amazing BioGraphic site looks at an effort to restore endangered populations of wild-spawning Chinook near Sacramento using flooded rice plains as a habitat surrogate during fallow months. The flooded rice fields essentially serve as winter nurseries for young salmon migrating from their natal streams to the ocean. A novel idea, and by no means a panacea, but a step in the right direction.  

San Francisco Chronicle          BioGraphic

Public Health

Aliso Canyon blowout could have more serious health risks than reported

The Aliso Canyon gas blowout (also called Porter Ranch gas leak) was the largest-known human-caused release of methane in U.S. history. The long-term health impacts around the blowout have yet to be determined, but researchers from UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health released a report this week showing that air quality samples collected near the natural gas storage facility during the 2015 blowout were even worse than suspected. The samples showed elevated levels of pollutants known or suspected to be associated with serious health problems. The study suggests that the health risks to people living in the nearby residential community of Porter Ranch were higher than initially stated. 
“Our findings demonstrate that uncontrolled leaks or blowout events at natural gas storage facilities can release pollutants with the potential to cause not only environmental harm, but also adverse health consequences in surrounding communities,” said study first author Diane A. Garcia-Gonzales.  

Fielding School of Public Health


California welcomes its newest mountain lion: P-75

Credit: National Park Service

A new mountain lion (AKA cougar) was discovered by California wildlife officials this week. The 50-pound female was found at a trailer park in the Pacific Palisades, and it became the newest addition to an ongoing study on mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains. They have named it P-75.  State wildlife officials and biologists tranquilized the lion and outfitted it with a GPS tracking collar. They then released it into the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. 

More than half of California is mountain lion habitat, and while they’ve been known to attack people, it is extremely rare for them to do so. (That said, one poor chap was attacked by a mountain lion in Colorado earlier this year, and he choked it to death with his bare hands).

The fact is, however, the animals are facing serious threats to their existence. Habitat loss, highway strikes and accidental poisonings have killed several lions in recent years. One study suggests the lions, the Southern California group, specifically, are actually far more threatened than previously believed. The study claims that the lions are in the midst of a so-called “extinction vortex,” and face a 25 percent chance of extinction within 50 years. But that’s the bad news. The good news is Southern California has a new addition to its mountain lion family. We welcome you P-75! 

LA Times

California science news roundup

An op-ed by scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and NOAA looks at the unusual loss of grey whales this year off the California coast. 167 North Pacific gray whales have washed ashore dead from Mexico to Alaska since January. Scientists are not sure what’s going on. (NY Times)

lovely illustration on the value of pollinators in the city by visual storyteller Ariel Aberg-Riger.  Pollinating insects are hugely important in California. An estimated 1,200–1,500 native bee species call California home, and they are critical to the state’s agricultural industry. (CityLab)

One of the largest nurseries in the world, in California’s Central Valley, is experimenting with a technique to stress agricultural plants to prepare for declining water and escalating salt in an effort to confront climate change. (Bay Nature/KQED)  

Hog Island Oyster Co. and the University of California, Davis team upto breed acidification-resistant oysters. (Christian Science Monitor)

Shipping giant Maersk is introducing driverless cargo carriers at its terminal in the Port of Los Angeles, angering dockworkers. The carriers would operate 24 hours a day, as opposed to the 16 hours of shifts manned by dockworkers now. (LA Times)

Scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California have identified a previously unknown species of damselfish called the Corazon’s Damsel. It lives in Madagascar, and its Latin name Pomacentrus vatosoa means “beautiful stone.” (Times of San Diego)

profile of Caltech chemist Kimberly See, whose lab at Caltech is inventing new batteries to help reduce CO2 emissions and slow climate change. (CalTech Magazine)

Arnold Schwarzenegger stars in a funny…no, really, it’s good…new ad touting electric cars. (YouTube)

Monterey Bay Aquarium goes crazy for cuttlefish for Cephalopod Week. The aquarium is one of the few places that raise flamboyant cuttlefish. (Monterey Bay Aquarium / SciFri)

Taking a road trip from LA to Vegas and back to test the viability of electric cars. The problem: not enough range and not enough charging stations. (NY Times)

Drone maker DJI plans to manufacture drones for the US market in Cerritos, California. 

Great deep dive on the issue of relicensing dams in the West. Some are in need of huge and expensive repairs. What’s the cost to fix them and should some be pulled down? (Stanford’s Center for the American West)

Huntington Park has a new robot cop equipped with a 360-degree high-definition camera. But it looks more like a Weeble than Robocop. 

Trump Administration hopes to dredge San Francisco Bay to help ship oil.

Saving Sunset Magazine, one of the state’s oldest publications.

For cephalopod week, we posted several short videos from our recent diving/filming expedition in Indonesia. Here’s our favorite of the amazing and beautiful flamboyant cuttlefish. 

That’s it! Have a great week, and please send your friends an invitation to sign up for the California Science Weekly newsletter. 

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