The Magic, Wonder, and Science of Ocean Bioluminescence in Southern California

How and why so many of earth’s creatures make their own light.

Last week, a video went viral showing a small pod of dolphins swimming at night off the coast of Newport Beach. Seeing dolphins off Southern California is not particularly unusual, but this was a very special moment. In the video, the dolphins appear to be swimming through liquid light, their torpedo-shaped bodies generating an ethereal blue glow like a scene straight out of Avatar. The phenomenon that causes the blue glow has been known for centuries, but that in no way detracts from its wonder and beauty. The phenomenon is called bioluminescence, and it is one of nature’s most magical and interesting phenomena. 

Bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by a living organism (thanks, Wikipedia!), and it is truly one of the great magical properties of nature. At its core, bioluminescence is the way animals can visually sense the world around them. It’s all built on vision, one of the most fascinating and useful senses in the animal kingdom. Seeing is impossible without light, and so it makes sense that in the absence of sunlight, some animals created a way to make their own light. 


I have been fascinated by bioluminescence since I was a child growing up near Newport Beach when the occasional nearshore red tide bloom would illuminate the waves like we are seeing now. It’s a truly magical experience. I’ve also experienced bioluminescence in various places around the world, including Thailand, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. In fact, 13 years ago, I made the trip to Puerto Rico’s Vieques Island and its world-famous Mosquito Bay, for the sole purpose of seeing the bay in person and swimming and kayaking in its warm, glowing waters (there is a rental outfit there that does tours at night…it’s amazing. Trust me.)

The phenomenon of bioluminescence is surprisingly common in nature. Both terrestrial and sea animals do it, as do plants, insects (for example, fireflies), and fungi. Curiously, no mammals bioluminesce. That we know of. The ocean is definitely the place that animals and plants bioluminesce the most. Which makes sense because deep in the ocean, there is little or no light. Light is absorbed very quickly in the water, so while on land you might be able to see a single streetlight miles away, after about 800 feet, light largely disappears in the depths of the ocean. I know. I’ve been there

It’s estimated that as many as 90 percent of the animals living in the open ocean, in waters below 1,500 feet, make their own light. Why they do this is in part a mystery, but scientists are pretty sure they understand the basic reasons animals do it: to eat, to not be eaten, and to mate. In other words, to survive. And to communicate. 

Credit: NOAA

The angler fish dangles a lighted lure in front of its face to attract prey. Some squid expel bioluminescent liquid, rather than ink, to confuse their predators. A few shrimp do too. Worms and small crustaceans use bioluminescence to attract mates. When it is attacked, the Atolla jellyfish (Atolla wyvillei) broadcasts a vivid, circular display of bioluminescent light, which scientists believe may be a kind of alarm system. The theory is that the light will attract a larger predator to go after whatever is attacking the jellyfish. While this is still a theory, a 2019 expedition that took the very first images of the giant squid used a fake Atolla jellyfish designed by the scientist Edith Widder to lure the squid into frame. I had the fortune of interviewing Dr. Widder, one of the world’s top experts on bioluminescence, several years ago for the New York Times.   

Edith Widder holds a vial of bioluminescent plankton. Credit: Erik Olsen

Making light is clearly beneficial. That’s why, say evolutionary biologists, it appears that bioluminescence has arisen over forty separate times in evolutionary history. The process is called convergent evolution and is the same reason that bats and birds and insects all evolved to fly independently. Clearly, flying confers a major advantage. So does making light.

While the Internet is awash in images of bioluminescent creatures, very often the term is confused with fluorescence. Even reputable science organizations sometimes do this. Bioluminescence is not the same thing as fluorescence. Fluorescence is the emission of light by a substance that has absorbed light or other electromagnetic radiation. Many animals like scorpions and coral fluoresce, meaning that they appear to glow a bright otherworldly color when blue light is shone on them. The key idea here is that the animals are not generating their own light, but rather contain cells that reflect light in fluorescence.  

Fluorescent (not bioluminescent) scorpion in Baja California, Mexico. Credit: Erik Olsen

So what about the recent explosion of bioluminescence in Southern California? The light we are seeing is made by tiny organisms, type of plankton called dinoflagellates (Lingulodinium polyedra) that occasionally “bloom” off-shore. Often, this is the result of recent storms that bring tons of nutrient-laden runoff into the ocean. The tiny plankton feed on nitrogen and other nutrients that enter the ocean from rivers and streams and city streets. A lot of the nutrients come from California’s vast farms, specifically the fertilizer used to grow California’s fruits and vegetables. With all that “food” coming into the ocean system, the algae rapidly multiply, creating red tides, or vast patches of ocean that turn dark brownish red, the color of pigment in the algae that helps protect it from sunlight. Michael Latz, a scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, says that the animals use bioluminescence as a predator avoidance behavior. 

Sometimes red tides are toxic and can kill animals and make people sick who swim in the ocean. (That does not appear to be the case in California right now). At night, when they are still, the animals can’t be seen. But when the water is disturbed, which adds oxygen into the mix, a chemical reaction takes place in their bodies that causes luciferin to oxidize and becomes catalyzed to make luciferase, which emits photons or particles of light. It’s not understood exactly how or why this happens, but we do know there are many kids of luciferase. In fact, scientists know the genes that create luciferases and have implanted them into organisms like mice, silkworms, and potatoes so that they glow. They’ve made bioluminescent plants, too.

A shrimp emits a bioluminescent cloud to ward of predators. Credit: NOAA

Perhaps the most magical thing about bioluminescence is that it doesn’t create heat. Almost all the lights we are familiar with, particularly incandescent light, like that from generic light bubs, generate a tremendous amount of heat. Of course, we have learned how to make this heatless chemical light ourselves, easily experienced when you crack and shake a glow stick, mixing together several chemicals in a process similar to the one animals in the ocean use to create bioluminescent light. But the light from glow sticks is not nearly strong enough to illuminate your back yard. In the last few decades, we’ve learned how to make another kind of light that does not produce a great amount of heat: LEDs. Though the process is very different, the concept is the same: talking a molecule or a material and promoting it to an excited state. Where electricity is used, in the case of LEDs, it’s called electroluminescence, where it’s a chemical reaction it’s chemiluminescence, of which bioluminescence is one form. 

Whether you are a religious person or not (I’m not) it’s no coincidence that one of the first things God said was, “Let there be light!” Light and light energy give us plants and animals to eat, and allows us to see. It heats our world, it fuels our cars (oil is really just dead organic material compressed over time, and that organic material would not have existed without sunlight). While some animals deep in the ocean can live without light, most of us cannot. And it’s a rather astounding feat of nature than when there is no light, many of the earth’s creatures have evolved to produce it themselves. If you don’t believe me, just go down to the Southern California shore tonight, and leave your flashlight at home. You won’t need it.

The Mismeasure by Man – How We Overstate the Length of the Blue Whale, Earth’s Largest Creature

blue whale

The blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) is a truly magnificent creature. Hunted nearly to extinction in the 19th and 19th centuries, the blue whale has staged a hopeful recovery in the last five decades, since commercial whaling was outlawed by the international community in 1966 (although some Soviet whale hunting continued into the early 1970s). 

Before commercial whaling began, it is estimated that there were some 400,000 blue whales on earth. 360,000 were killed in the Antarctic alone. The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that there are probably between 10,000 and 25,000 blue whales worldwide today, divided among some five separate populations or groups. One of those groups, the largest in the world, is called the Eastern North Pacific population, consists of some 2,000 animals and makes an annual migration from the warm waters of Baja California to Alaska and back every year. Many swim so close to shore that a lucrative whale watching industry has emerged in places like Southern California, where numerous fishing vessels have been converted into whale watching ships.  

Blue whales were in the news recently with the publication of two papers by Stanford’s Jeremy Goldbogen at the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California. The first paper recorded a leviathan’s heartbeat at great depths in Monterey Bay, revealing the somewhat astonishing fact that the whales’ heart rate slows significantly the deeper they go, reaching an average minimum of about four to eight beats per minute, with a low of two beats per minute. That figure was about 30 to 50 percent lower than predicted, said the researchers. The second paper looked at the blue whale’s size, and attempted to quantify how whales got so big and, well, why they are not bigger.  

Blue whale in Sri Lanka. Photo: Erik Olsen

So let’s talk for a minute about size because there are some misconceptions out there about how big these animals can get. 

The blue whale is frequently cited as the largest animal to have ever lived. That’s true (so far as we know) if by size we mean weight. The largest dinosaur that we’ve ever found fossils for is the Argentinosaurus. The Argentinosaurus lived about 100 million to 93 million years ago during the Cretaceous period in what is now Argentina and is part of a group of dinosaurs known as titanosaurs. Titanosaurs were long-necked sauropods, four-legged, herbivorous animals that often grew to extraordinary sizes. We can only speculate about the actual size of Argentinosaurus since all that we know comes from just 13 bones. Scientists estimate that the Argentinosaurus probably weighed somewhere around 70-80 tons, maybe reaching as much as 90 tons. The Natural History Museum in London suggests the animal may have been as long as 115 feet. 

Argentinosaurus: Nobu Tamura

Another contender for the world’s largest dinosaur is Dreadnoughtus, and in this case, the fossil record is a bit more informative. The fossils for Dreadnoughtus contained 115 bones, representing roughly 70 percent of the dinosaur’s skeleton behind its head. Dreadnoughtus was said to reach lengths of about 85 feet with an estimated mass of about 65 tons

However, estimates for the top size of blue whales go up to 200 tons. And, as many articles and references about blue whales will tell you, blue whales can reach lengths of up to 100 feet long or more. The number of legitimate science books, articles, Web sites and even esteemed science journals that quote this number is in the thousands. Google it

But here’s the problem: not a single blue whale has ever been scientifically verified as being 100 feet long. That’s right. Not one. 

That said, there are two references in scientific papers of blue whales that are near 100 feet. The first is a measurement dating back to 1937. This was at an Antarctic whaling station where the animal was said to measure 98 feet. But even that figure is shrouded in some suspicion. First of all, 1937 was a long time ago, and while the size of a foot or meter has not changed, a lot of record-keeping during that time is suspect, as whales were not measured using standard zoological measurement techniques. The 98-foot specimen was recorded by Lieut. Quentin R. Walsh of the US Coast Guard, who was acting as a whaling inspector of the factory ship Ulysses. Sadly, there is scant detail available about this measurement and it remains suspect in the scientific community.

The second is from a book and a 1973 paper by the late biologist Dale W. Rice, who references a single female in Antarctica whose “authenticated” measurement was also 98 feet. The measurement was conducted by the late Japanese biologist Masaharu Nishiwaki. Nishiwaki and Rice were friends, and while both are deceased, a record of their correspondence exists in a collection of Rice’s papers held by Sally Mizroch, co-trustee of the Dale W. Rice Research Library in Seattle. Reached by email, Dr. Mizroch said that Nishiwaki, who died in 1984, was a very well-respected scientist and that the figure he cited should be treated as reliable. 

Blue whale tail fluke in Sri Lanka. Credit: Erik Olsen

According to Mizroch, who has reviewed many of the Antarctic whaling records from the whaling era, whales were often measured in pieces after they were cut up, which greatly introduces the possibility for error. That is likely not the case with the 98-foot measurement, which took place in 1947 at a whaling station in Antarctica where Nishiwaki was stationed as a scientific observer. 

Proper scientific measurements, the so-called “standard method”, are taken by using a straight line from the tip of the snout to the notch in the tail flukes. This technique was likely not used until well into the 20th century, said Mizroch. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1940s that the use of a metal tape measure became commonplace. According to Dan Bortolotti, author of Wild Blue: A Natural History of the World’s Largest Animal, many of the larger whales in the whaling records  — especially those said to be over 100 feet — were probably measured incorrectly or even deliberately exaggerated because bonus money was paid to whalers based on the size of the animal caught. 

So, according to the best records we have, the largest blue whale ever properly measured ws 98 feet long. Granted, 98 feet is close to 100 feet, but it’s not 100 feet and it’s certainly not over 100 feet, as so many otherwise reputable references state. 

So setting aside the fact that so many sources say the blue whale has reached 100 feet or more, and that there is no scientific evidence proving this, a key question to ask is how large can whales become. The second scientific paper cited above in Science looked at energetics, the study of how efficiently animals ingest prey and turn the energy it contains into body mass. 

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Most baleen whales are so-called lunge feeders. They open their mouths wide and lunge at prey like krill or copepods, drawing in hundreds of pounds of food at a time. Lunge-feeding baleen whales, it turns out, are wonderfully efficient feeders. The larger they become, the larger their gulps are, and the more food they draw in. But they also migrate vast distances, and oftentimes have to dive deep to find prey, both of which consume a large amount of energy. 

Using an ocean-going Fitbit-like tag, the scientists tracked whales’ foraging patterns, hoping to measure the animals energetic efficiency, or the total amount of energy gained from foraging, relative to the energy expended in finding and consuming prey. Using data from numerous expeditions around the globe that involved tens of thousands of hours of fieldwork at sea on living whales from pole to pole, the team concluded that there are likely ecological limits to how large a whale can become and that they are likely constrained by the amount of food available in their specific habitat.    

John Calambokidis, a Senior Research Biologist and co-founder of Cascadia Research, a non-profit research organization formed in 1979 based in Olympia, Washington, has studied blue whales up and down the West Coast for decades. He told California Science Weekly that the persistent use of the 100-foot figure can be misleading, especially when the number is used as a reference to all blue whales. 

The sizes among different blue whale groups differ significantly depending on their location around the globe. Antarctic whales tend to be much bigger, largely due to the amount of available food in cold Southern waters. The blue whales we see off the coast of California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, are part of a different group from those in the North Pacific. They differ slightly both morphologically and genetically, and they consume different types and quantities of food. North Pacific blue whales tend to be smaller, and likely have always been so. Calambokidis believes that the chances any blue whales off the West Coast of the US ever reaching anything close to 100 feet is “almost non-existent”. 

We emailed Regina Asmutis-Silvia, Executive Director North America of Whale and Dolphin Conservation, to ask about this discrepancy among so many seemingly authoritative outlets. She wrote: “While it appears biologically possible for blue whales to reach or exceed lengths of 100’, the current (and limited) photogrammetry data suggest that the larger blue whales which have been more recently sampled are under 80 feet.” (Photogrammetry is the process of using several photos of an object (like a blue whale) to extract a three-dimensional measurement. from two-dimensional data. It is widely used in biology, as well as engineering, architecture and many other disciplines.) Photogrammetry measurements are now often acquired by drones and have proven to be a more accurate means of measuring whale size at sea. 

Antarctic whaling station.

Here’s a key point: In the early part of the 20th century and before, whales were measured by whalers for the purpose of whaling, not measured by scientists for the purpose of science. Again, none of this is to say that blue whales aren’t gargantuan animals. They are massive and magnificent, but if we are striving for precision, it is not accurate to declare, as so many articles do, that blue whales reach lengths of 100 feet or more. This is not to say it’s impossible that whales grew to or above 100 feet, it’s that, according to the scientific records, none ever has. 

A relevant point from Dr. Asmutis-Silvia about the early days of Antarctic whaling: “Given that whales are long-lived and we don’t know at what age each species reaches its maximum length, it is possible that we took some very big, very old whales before we started to measure what we were taking.” 

This seems entirely reasonable, but the fact still remains that we still do not have a single verified completely reliable account of any blue whale, any animal for that matter, ever growing to 100 feet. References to the 100-foot number, which we reiterate are found everywhere, also seem to suggest that blue whales today reach that length, and this is not backed up by a shred of evidence. The largest blue whales measured using the modern photogrammetry techniques mentioned above have never surpassed 90 feet. 

In an email exchange with Jeremy Goldbogen, the scientist at Stanford who authored the two studies above, he says that measurements with drones off California “have been as high as 26 meters” or 85 feet. 

So, why does nearly every citation online and elsewhere regularly cite the 100-foot number? It probably has to do with our love of superlatives and round numbers. We have a deep visceral NEED to be able to say that such and such animal is the biggest or the heaviest or the smallest or whatever. And, when it comes down to it, 100 feet is a nice round number that rolls easily off the tongue or typing fingers. 

All said, blue whales remain incredible and incredibly large animals, and deserve our appreciation and protection. Their impressive rebound over the last half-century is to be widely celebrated, but let’s not, in the spirit of scientific inquiry, overstate their magnificence. They are magnificent enough.  

If you are interested in other organisms on the planet that are the world’s largest, check out our recent story on California Redwoods and Giant Sequoias.

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.

Why bringing back California’s kelp is so important

Two centuries ago, the waters off the California coast were home to a vibrant ecosystem of plants and animals. Vast forests of kelp provided habitat for thousands of species of fish and invertebrates. Some of these kelp forests were so dense that light hardly penetrated to the seafloor. But now, along much of the coastline, the kelp is all but gone.

The tragedy here goes far beyond species loss and a troubling decline in overall biodiversity in our coastal waters. Kelp are also great at taking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and they help reduce acidification of the oceans, essentially cleaning the water and bringing balance to the entire ecosystem.

But now, that balance is has been disrupted. A recent study says that California’s bull kelp (Nereocytis luetkeana) forests (one of several species that are endemic here) have declined by 93% in just the last five years.

It’s difficult to fathom the scale of this loss, and we are only beginning to understand what it will mean for the overall health of our coastal waters. When the kelp disappears, the entire complex web of organisms that rely on it for habitat and food is disturbed. That is to say, large swaths of the near-shore California coastal ecosystem depend upon kelp.

So, what is happening? Well, first a little history.

A healthy kelp forest in Channel Islands National Park (NPS)

Two centuries ago, when kelp forests along the coast were so abundant they stretched for hundreds of miles with thick canopies that could be seen at the surface. At the time, urchins existed, but their populations were held in check by sea otters, which have been known to eat 1/4 of their body weight in urchins in a day. But unrestrained hunting by trappers (often Russian and British) in the early 1800s and into the mid-century brought sea otter populations down so low, at one point they were considered extinct in the wild. With the otters gone, urchins flourished and along certain stretches of coast, the kelp disappeared. Remember, this was 200 years ago, long before California was even a state.

Otters have come back to certain stretches of the California coast, especially near Monterey, and in some cases, the kelp has come back. And, in fact, even now, some places around the state, things aren’t nearly so bad. One-third of southern California’s kelp forests are found within Channel Islands National Park and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, where no-take marine reserves prohibit all take of living, geological, or cultural resources. In the reserve, California sheephead, spiny lobsters, and sunflower stars eat sea urchins and keep their population from exploding.

Bust most other regions are not so lucky. And things have gotten even worse. And this is where it gets more complicated.

An intense ocean warming period between 2014 and 2017 is the likely culprit in causing a mass die-off of starfish. Starfish prey on native purple urchins, keeping their numbers in check. With mass numbers of sea stars dead, the urchins proliferated, eating their way through the kelp forests. The result: disaster.

“What we’re seeing now are millions and millions of purple sea urchins, and they’re eating absolutely everything,” said Laura Rogers-Bennett, an environmental scientist with UC Davis Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center and California Department of Fish and Wildlife operating out of the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory. “They can eat through all the anemones, the sponge, all the kelp, the fleshy red algae. They’re even eating through calcified alga and sand.”

The loss of kelp forests in California should be immediately recognized as a major ecological problem to solve, and while some projects are underway to do just that, much more needs to be done.

Several organizations, most of them California-based, are trying to reduce the number of urchins in Southern California. For example, UC Davis researchers are working with Bay Area shellfish company Urchinomics to explore “ranching urchins, removing them from the seafloor and fattening them up to be sold as sushi. Urchins are highly valued by Japanese consumers and are even sold in some California sushi restaurants. One problem is that purple urchins tend to be too small to harvest for human consumption, hence the need to increase their size via aquaculture. But will this be enough to stop the urchin’s march towards environmental saturation? Probably not.

The Bay Foundation in Santa Monica launched a program to restore kelp beds around 150 acres of urchin barrens along the rocky reefs off Palos Verdes. Scientists, recreational divers, and fishermen go down and smash the urchins with small hammers. The effort has shown promise, with kelp growing back in 46 acres of restored reef. Again, this is not nearly enough.

Other strategies are outlined in the Sonoma-Mendocino Bull Kelp Recovery Plan, released last June by the Greater Farallones Association and California Department of Fish and Wildlife. It includes measures such as creating a kelp oasis to preserve seed stock and repopulate bull kelp when conditions are conducive to restoration.

This may all be too little too late. But we believe state, local and federal agencies should redouble their efforts now to mitigate the loss of kelp in California waters. The implications for further, perhaps total, loss of California’s once-flourishing kelp forests are just too dire and action is required now. As the authors of the report write “it may take decades before the complex biological communities, associates, and the ecosystem services provided by macroalgal [seaweed] forests rebound.”

White shark sightings are up in California, but don’t panic

CSULB Shark Lab

They’re baaaack! 

Here we are in late summer and the great white shark stories keep coming. On August 22, a drone captured a white shark swimming beneath some surfers, who remained oblivious. Two days ago, a pair of kayakers off Cambria filmed a great white swimming beneath their boats. The shark circled the kayaks for a few minutes and then swam away. And in July, a large grouping of white sharks was spotted off Monterey. Of course, the list goes on. 

The fact is, great whites in California waters are not unusual. They’ve always been around. But over the last 20 years, the population has grown, so much so that scientists are calling it a remarkable comeback, which may not be the most comforting thing to hear if you spend a lot of time in the water. 

The growth in the shark population has several causes, says Chris Lowe at the Shark Lab at California State University Long Beach. First, the last 50 years have seen a dramatic improvement in water quality. That means the overall ecosystem is more healthy, allowing a richer abundance of animals on every level of the food chain. More importantly, though, is the impact of the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, which made it illegal to kill or molest marine mammals like sea lions. As a result, the sea lion population has exploded in Southern California. Sea lions are sharks’ favorite food, so it stands to reason: more sea lions, more great white sharks. 

The CSULB Shark Lab has tagged around 40 great whites that swim in Southern California waters. Most of them are juveniles and are less than 10 feet long. The lab tracks the movement of the sharks using stationary buoys placed near beaches, and they use the data to inform lifeguards and coastal municipalities about the prevalence of the animals. The lab and local lifeguards also use drones to monitor popular beaches. Using this information, they’ve developed protocols from San Diego to Santa Barbara on how to best advises the public when sharks are sighted. The Shark Lab also recently began a project called Shark Shack, an personal outreach program designed to provide people directly with shark safety tips. The mobile shack visits beaches along the California coast and talks to people about what to do if they encounter them in the water. 

That’s a lot of effort to console an easily-panicked public over a concern that many scientists say is overblown. While attacks make big headlines, they are exceedingly rare. According to the shark research committee, which has tracked shark attacks along the West Coast of the United States for decades, there have been just 13 fatal shark attacks reported in California over the past 60 years. The last fatal attack in California was in 2012 at Surf Beach, Lompoc, in Santa Barbara County. The global average of fatal attacks worldwide per year is six.

“Your chances of being bit by a shark is the same as winning the Powerball,” Lowe told Quartz. “It’s that small.” 

Sharks, he says, demand respect and should be admired, albeit from afar. The animals are an important part of the ecosystem, serving as apex predators that keep other species in check. 

So, as summer winds down, try to not let the headlines scare you. Sure, be aware of your surroundings in the water. Check with the lifeguards at your favorite beach, and try your best not to look like a sea lion. 

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.

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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)

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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. 

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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. 

Design by Luis Ramirez

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Blocking offshore drilling // Finding clear skies for stargazing in California // Amazing moon shots // Black abalone recovery // California’s Central Valley as art

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Week of June 21, 2019


House approves a measure to block offshore drilling for a year

Credit: Erik Olsen

The House passed a spending bill late Thursday that would block offshore drilling along most U.S. shores, including a ban on seismic testing used to find oil and gas reserves. Unfortunately, it only lasts a year. Many groups, particularly in California, have long sought an end to drilling, and there was immense hope that would be the case in 2016 when President Obama permanently ended oil and gas leasing in parts of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans. However, President Trump issued an executive order in April 2017 that would roll back these protections, and in January 2018, now former U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proposing opening up nearly all federal waters to oil and gas extraction. The new measure potentially restores the safeguard that protected California’s coast for more than a quarter century.  



Finding clear star-gazing skies in California

Light Pollution Map

It’s not easy to find great places to gaze up into the night sky and take in the grandeur and awe of the universe. Light pollution from cities has obscured the skies in so many places around the state, that you are often lucky, even on a clear night, to see more than a dozen or so points of light. Of course, this is a problem everywhere, not just California. In June 2016, it was estimated that one-third of the world’s population could no longer see the Milky Way. 

For California residents seeking dark spaces to escape with their telescopes or just a blanket to lie on, there is some hope. Many municipalities are installing less light polluting LEDs or passing ordinances to turn off certain lights during the night to reduce light pollution.

There are a few places where you can still go to find clear night skies. The light pollution map offers a very handy resource to find California’s best star viewing opportunities. Not surprisingly, desert areas and sections of Northern California offer some of the best locations. For example, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in southern California was made a dark park in 2018. Also, two weeks ago, the Grand Canyonwas named an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association. 

Light Pollution Map


Amazing moon shots

Speaking of dark skies, let’s talk astrophotography. Take a look at Sacramento photographer Andrew McCarthy‘s images of the moon.McCarthy has spent many hours transforming some 50,000 individual images of the night sky into one very large and detailed photo of the moon. It’s breathtakingly beautiful and exquisitely detailed. Each crater and lunar sea on the side facing us looks like it was shot up close, when actually they were taken with McCarthy’s two camera setup 239,000 miles away. His process involves shooting photos and then stacking them at different exposures. He switches between an astronomy camera and a Sony A7II with a 300mm lens. Using Photoshop and special software, he aligns and adjusts the images to create the final product. You can see his marvelous Instagram feed here. 

Andrew McCarthy

Marine Science

California black abalone making a comeback

Credit: Michael Ready

Back in 2017, ride-sharing company Uber held its second Uber Elevate Summit in Los Angeles to push the idea of flying taxis. To most Los Angelenos, the thought of soaring over traffic is almost too good to be true, a Jetsons cartoon fantasy. But it may not be as far fetched as it seems. Numerous companies are working on the idea, and the technology is getting closer and closer to reality. One of the big obstacles at the moment is battery power, since most flying cars will have to be electric and the systems will need to carry a lot of redundancy (flying cars will not be able to glide much), which adds tremendous weight. 

Another obstacle is infrastructure. Where are all these flying cars going to take off and land? Well, Uber has been thinking a lot about this subject and just released plans for various “skyports” that will be built around Los Angeles.  Uber says that both LA and Dallas will be the pilot cities for the new service it calls Uber Air. Uber also unveiled renderings of the vehicles themselves, which include four passenger seats and a small storage space for baggage. The company says we may be riding in flying taxis, perhaps starting with service from LAX to downtown, by 2023. 

Santa Barbara Independent


California’s Central Valley as art

Mitchell Rouse

Aerial Photographer Mitchell Rouse takes aerial photos of agricultural lands in the Central Valley, making works of fine art that are not only lovely, but highlight the incredible diversity of forms and patterns that only an eye in the sky can see. Interestingly, he doesn’t use drones, but rather small planes and helicopters. In particular, he favors the Bell 407 helicopter and shoots with a Shot Over F1 Gimbal housing a Phase 1 Industrial 15oMP pixel camera. His portfolio of the central valley is called Agricultural Project #1.   

Mitchell Rouse

California science news roundup

California officials and seismologists are saying the swarm of small quakes they’ve measured are probably not anything to be worried about. Probably.

California officials are investigating an Oakland-based “biohacker”, accusing him of practicing medicine without a license.  

ABC News did a nice feature on California’s Channel Islands, sometimes called “North America’s Galapagos.”   

NASA has made available a library of 140,000 high definition files filled with photos, videos, and sound clips, all free and available for download. 

Blue states are adopting aggressive climate policies. Red states, not so much.

Research oceanographer Jules Jaffe at Scripps Institute of Oceanography talks about how underwater drones (some of which his lab builds) are changing our understanding of the oceans.

Surfer Kevin Cunningham makes surfboard skags out of plastic trash. 

A new California wildfire fund would put aside $21 billion for damage claims to help those whose property was destroyed.

A Stanford team is developing a privacy-minded alternative to Alexa and Siri. They call it almond.

California based CEO Elon Musk says his company has designed a submarine car like the one from the 1977 James Bond movie, “The Spy Who Loved Me.”

Nestlé, the world’s largest bottled water company, has been accused of taking millions of gallons of free water from the San Bernardino National Forest 17 months after California regulators told them they had no right to much of what they’d taken in the past.

century-old cypress that may have inspired some of the imagery in Dr. Seuss’ Lorax story has collapsed. Geisel lived in La Jolla from 1948 until his death in 1991 and the tree lies close to his old home.

DOLA has a nice feature on the best opportunities to see exotic animals in California.

Scientists sequenced the almond genome, perhaps opening up a way for growers to cultivate varieties that lack cyanide, a potent poison.

California mental health officials are working with Mountain View-based Mindstrong to test apps for people getting care in CA’s mental health system. The idea is to create an early-warning system to flag the user when an emotional crisis seemed imminent.

Stanford Earth system science professor Kate Maher on how reactive transport modeling is used to better understand the chemical reactions in Earth’s subsurface that impact water supplies, energy waste storage, and climate change.

The heavy snows and deep snowpack have been great for skiers, and will benefit farmers who were coping with a seven-year drought. But researchers are warning that the ample rains and snows might lead to a very serious increase in wildfires. 

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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