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

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Week of May 10, 2019

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

A war is brewing over lithium mining near Death Valley

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

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

Environment / Animals

The comeback of Mark Twain’s frogs

Red-Legged Frog Release.

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

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


Space / Climate Change

Climate Elvis at JPL

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



Science of traffic jams

Credit: Erik Olsen

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



Gulls of Mono Lake

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

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

Science Friday

Marine science / Animals

Scallop eyes surprise scientists


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

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

Current Biology Smithsonian

Climate Change

Reducing cow burps with seaweed

UC Davis

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


Bee thieves in California

National Geographic

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


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

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

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

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

Lovely pictures of a sunrise. On Mars.

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

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Design by Luis Ramirez

Strange new sea life in California, Magnificent murres, Eagle cam at Big Bear, Going to prison for killing a fish, Oral history of the Keck observatory

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Week of April 19, 2019

Here at the California Science Weekly, we are working hard to bring you the most interesting, informative and entertaining stories about science in the state of California. Every week, we pore through hundreds of articles and Web sites to find the top stories that we believe are worthy of your time. We hope you’ll stay with us and share our work with others via Twitter and Facebook. If there is anything you’d be interested in learning more about, send us a note, and let us know.


Something’s happening here. Sea life around California is changing.

Hakai Magazine

This time of year, it is normal to see whales – grays and humpbacks among them – migrating north to cooler climes and nutrient-rich waters in Alaska. But it’s not normal for them to hang around for a long time, nor is it normal to see them frolicking together in San Francisco Bay.

“This was like opening a door temporarily for southern species to move northward,” Eric Sanford, a professor of biological sciences at the University of California at Davis’s Bodega Marine Laboratory told the Washington Post.

Welcome to the new normal. The new hotter normal. As climate change brings floods, higher sea levels, drought and more severe storms, it is also leading to strange behavior in the animal world. Species that once lived much further south around Mexico are now finding their way into California waters, surprising and also concerning scientists who say that these migrations are a sign of bad things to come.

The whales are likely hanging around, say scientists, because they are hungry, meaning that something is happening to their food supplies.

But we’ve also witnessed other species on the coast that are rarely or never before seen. A yellow-bellied sea snake washed up on Newport Beach. A very rare olive Ridley sea turtle was seen near Capistrano Beach. And who can forget the huge hoodwinker sunfish that made headlines last month.

It is likely just the beginning of a massive change in our local ecosystems, and the consequences could be especially severe for the species that already live here, whose habitats are changing. Case in point, the massive die off of starfish caused by an infectious wasting disease that reduces these beautiful creatures to mush. A new report published in the journal Science Advances lays much of the blame on the changing climate. Check out the video by Hakai Magazine.

Science Advances Hakai Magazine

Animals / History of Science

Behold the magnificent murre

Creative Commons: Didier Descouens

During the California gold rush, the rocky volcanic Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco became a kind of war zone, as groups of men battled over a precious resource: birds eggs. In particular, the eggs of the common murre, a sharp-beaked black and white bird whose eggs are curiously conical. Scientists speculate the reason for the rather odd shape is that evolution designed them to roll in circles, instead of tumbling into the sea.

The marine science magazine Hakai has a great piece on the common murre and the work being done to better understand their biology and evolutionary history. One recently discovered fact is that common murre females lay eggs with different colors and reflectance, allowing the parent murres to specifically identify it as their own offspring. Wow! Johnny, that IS you!

But back to the so-called eggs wars of the late 1850s. Smithsonian magazine has a wonderful story by Paige Blankenbuehler about the conflict, which arose because so many people had come to California in search of gold, and of course they had to eat. Food production, in some cases, could not keep up with demand. Certain foods, in particular, chicken eggs, became so scarce that enterprising poachers went to the Farallones to collect the eggs for sale to hungry 49ers. The competition to collect them became so fierce that “brawls broke out constantly between rival gangs, ranging in brutality from threats and shell-throwing to stabbings and shootouts.”

Yikes. All over some colorful, conical eggs.

Smithsonian Magazine Hakai Magazine


Big Bear Lake’s adorable new Eaglets

Eagle cam Friends of Big Bear Valley

Though indigenous to California, bald eagles are not often seen around the state, at least near our big cities. It used to be common to see them, but in the early 1970s, after the bald eagle numbers declined dramatically due to impacts from insecticides, the bird was listed as an endangered species. In fact, in the 80s, there were fewer than 30 nesting pairs in the state. Today, they’ve recovered somewhat and can occasionally be seen at lakes, reservoirs, rivers, and some rangelands and coastal wetlands. 

But now, you can see two baby bald eagles that just hatched at Big Bear Lake. A live cam put up by Friends of Big Bear Valley allows you to ogle them live from the comfort of your computer screen or device.

Eagle Cam


Going to prison for killing a rare fish

Death Valley National Park

In April 2016, three drunk men broke into a fenced-in limestone cavern at Death Valley National Park, home of the endangered Devils Hole pupfish, one of the rarest fish in the world. The fish has evolved in extreme desert conditions and has been isolated for tens of thousands of years, and this is one of the only places they live. Thinking it was a nice night for a swim, one of the men plunged into the warm pool where, it so happened, the pupfish were breeding. One of the fish died.

The men were caught (an excellent tale told by High Country News), and Trenton Sargent, the guy who jumped into the pool, pleaded guilty to violating the Endangered Species Act, destruction of federal property, and possessing a firearm while a felon. He was sentenced to a year in prison.

Folks, leave endangered species alone. And don’t trespass on or destroy federal property.

High Country News

Space / History of Science

An oral history of the Keck Observatory

Credit: California Institute of Technology

One of the amazing lesser-known repositories of the history of science is the vast oral history project at the California Institute of Technology.

Since 1978, the esteemed scientific school has been collecting the stories of some of its most distinguished names, many of them Nobel Prize winners. Others, hardly known at all, have made huge contributions to human health and they deserve greater attention.

A recent oral history from the archive is actually an edited compendium of interviews that tells the story of the Keck Observatory. The Keck Observatory near the summit of Mauna Kea Hawaii consists of two telescopes peering into the heavens from 13,600 ft. above sea level. A major advance of the telescope (and some of the details of how are covered in the oral history) was the ability to operate using 36 hexagonal segments as a single, contiguous mirror. Each telescope weighs 300 tons and operates with nanometer precision. Scientists using the Keck have made major discoveries about exoplanets, star formation, and dark matter.

There’s a ton of great information about the telescope and the discoveries being made at the Keck site.

Cal Tech


Keep Fluffy indoors! Growing urban coyote populations are feasting on pets, especially in LA County.

The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s bassist is a bee keeper. Go, Flea, go!

Sand artist makes amazing art. Then it washes away.

Beautiful posters of the Most Endangered Wildlife in Every US State. California? The Point Arena Mountain Beaver.

The magnificent BLDGBLOG looks at the San Andreas Fault.

More on the Lassen County raptor poacher.

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Design by Luis Ramirez

The Big One, Einstein in LA, Soundwalls, Owls saving wine, Upside-down sea mirrors, The deadliest fungus

Week of March 29, 2019

Geology and Earthquakes

When is the Big One coming? It will, you know

Creative Commons: John Wiley

Lucy Jones is a seismologist, perhaps best known in and around California as the Earthquake Lady, or perhaps Dr. Earthquake. Jones’ 2018 book The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them) examines how humankind has dealt with various earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, hurricanes, volcanoes that have pummeled our civilization over the millennia. It’s an informative (and depressing) read.

In this essay, she takes a look at earthquake history in Southern California, essentially telling us that we are due for a “Big One” soon…although defining soon has always been a struggle for geologists. She points out, however, that its been 330 years since the southern part of the San Andreas fault (near LA) has had a sizeable earthquake, “about twice the average time between its previous earthquakes.” According to Jones, that means about twenty-six feet of relative motion has been built up in the fault, held in place by friction, and “waiting to be released in one great jolt”. Yikes.


History of Science

Einstein in LA

Albert Einstein giving a talk at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena in 1931.

The great 20th-century physicist Albert Einstein visited California in 1931 (and ’32, ’33), staying mostly in Pasadena. He spent time at Caltech and visited the Mt. Wilson observatory. He also caught the Rose Parade and visited The Huntington Library in San Marino. For part of the time, he lived at this house in Pasadena.

CalTech has been extensively involved in the Einstein papers collection, helping make them available online and on paper. The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein covers Einstein’s life and work up to his 48th birthday. There are 484 Einstein writings and 3,450 letters written by and to him. It is said to be one of the most ambitious scholarly publishing ventures undertaken in the history of science. In 2004, the LA Times did a story about the visit back that has some other interesting facts.

LA Times


The somewhat odd history of California’s freeway soundwalls

Credit: Robert Petersen for LAist

The tall, mostly beige walls that seem to stretch forever along California freeways have a name: soundwalls. We’ve always thought of them as a kind of urban horse blinder, keeping all the incredibly diverse neighborhoods of LA out of your line of sight as you make your morning commute. Turns out they were built not to prevent you from taking in the splendors of Hawaiian Gardens, but to reduce the noise of traffic. More interestingly, as Robert Peterson writes in LAist, they originated with concert-goers complaints about highway noise while watching a performance at the Hollywood Bowl. They really exploded after the passage of the Noise Control Act of 1972, which established a nationwide program to reduce freeway noise and provided federal funding to build soundwalls. There are many more interesting facts about soundwalls in the story, assuring you’ll not see them as big, dumb walls ever again.


Flora and Fauna

Barn owls to save your wine

Credit: Great Big Story

CNN’s boutique video unit Great Big Story has got a wonderful piece about how barn owls are used in Napa Valley to control the rodent population. Apparently, without the owls, the vineyards would likely be ravaged by various grapevine-loving rodents, and/or the vineyards themselves would have to employ all manner of environmentally damaging poisons. They (the owls) seem to be doing a fine job protecting precious Pinots, but they are also incredibly cute.

Great Big Story

Marine Science

Schmidt Ocean Institute on Instagram

Credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

Hats off to the amazing work being done under the sea in the Gulf of California by Schmidt Ocean Institute, an ocean-focussed science non-profit run by Eric Schmidt of Sun Microsystems and Google fame and his wife. They have been posting regularly on Instagram, showcasing some amazing images of the undersea world, including blood red Riftia worms, bizarre invertebrates and colorful (purple!) microbes…and then there’s the upside-down mirror pools, all this kind of crazy stuff 2000m deep. You can also watch some of their highlights on YouTube.

Instagram YouTube

Flora and Fauna

Amphibian killing fungus devastates, but there’s hope in California

Credit: Roland Knapp

Interesting piece in the Atlantic on the terrifying fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), that has wiped out amphibians. “Never in recorded history has a single disease burned down so much of the tree of life,” writes Ed Yong. In California, numerous species have also been affected.

For example, in some places, the mountain yellow-legged frog is nearly extinct. Yet, scientists at UCSB’s Briggs Lab show that near Yosemite, small infected populations of the yellow-legged frog are surviving. Could they hold clues to helping other species?

UCSB Briggs Lab

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Design by Luis Ramirez

Tubeworms, Deadly Mushrooms, 50,000 Underwater Golf Balls, Bye-bye Botts Dots, End of Recycling

Private science goes deep

Fascinating work being done right now in the Gulf of California by Schmidt Ocean Institute. This is a private non-profit started by Eric and Wendy Schmidt, (Eric of Sun Microsystems and Google fame) and headquartered in Palo Alto, California. They are doing pioneering work in undersea exploration. Their current expedition takes them to the Gulf of California where they have been filming riftia, blood-red tubeworms that gained fame in 1977 on an expedition to the Galápagos Rift. The worms live off of a chemical symbiosis with bacteria, a process called chemosynthesis rather than by directly using sunlight (photosynthesis). The discovery of the Riftia symbiosis with bacteria is considered one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century.

Schmidt Ocean Institute

Beware the death cap mushroom

The recent deluge of rain from the atmospheric river has brought much-needed relief to the California water system, doing a lot to refill reservoirs. However, the rain has also raised concern over the rapid growth of amanita phalloides, also known as the death cap mushroom. The death cap accounts for nearly 50 percent of all deaths caused by mushrooms.

The mushrooms have been a big problem in rainy years in California. In 2017, there were 14 cases of death-cap mushroom poisonings documented in Northern California. The deadly mushrooms grow in moist earth, and while they may look delicious, they should be avoided. It is estimated that just half a mushroom contains enough poison to kill a human adult. The mushroom’s toxin attacks the liver, and those who are affected develop severe abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting. Death can come as quickly as a few days.

Interestingly, death caps are not native to the United States, but likely came from Europe, attached to the roots of other plants. So, if you like to pick and eat wild mushrooms, how do you know what to avoid? Unfortunately, the greenish-beige death cap closely resembles several edible species. We looked around and found several places that warn foragers from eating anything with gills, which harbor the toxin. PBS’s wonderful Deep Look also has a nice video on the subject.

Mercury News Deep Look

Credit: Alex Weber

Underwater toxic golf ball bonanza

Alex Weber is a student at Carmel High School in California who also happen to enjoy diving. One day while swimming in the waters near Pebble Beach golf course, site of the 2019 U.S. Open Championship, she discovered huge mounds of golf balls, hit there by duffer golfers.

The enterprising teen got in touch with scientist Matthew Savoca at the Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University who studies the effects of plastic in the ocean. Together, the two of them collected over 50,000 golf balls, some 2.5 tons worth, often diving while new golf balls plopped into the water around them. It turns out, says Savoca, that golf balls are made with materials that can be hazardous to marine life, especially once they break down over time in the ocean water. The enterprising Weber has since started a campaign to get more of the polluting dimpled spheres out of the ocean. A recent paper documents the effort and discusses the nature of pollutants left behind by golf balls.

YALE360 The Plastic Pick up Marine Pollution Bulletin

The demise of the Bot Dot

Botts dots. Credit: Caltrans

You are driving down the highway and you drift slightly to the center. Suddenly, you hear a familiar recurrent thumping sound as your tires roll over perfectly spaced tiny lumps glued to the road. What you are hearing are so-called Botts Dots, ceramic bumps invented by Caltrans engineer Elbert Dysart Botts.

The bumps are meant to alert drivers from crossing into oncoming traffic or veering off the road. Since they were first installed in 1966, they have proven tremendously effective at waking dozing drivers.

Today, California roads and highways are studded with more than 25 million Botts’ dots. However, starting two years ago, Caltrans decided to stop using Botts dots, and so they have fallen out of use and are no longer being installed, according to Caltrans.

So what’s replacing the beloved Botts dots? In some cases, they are being replaced by more reflective markers, the angular ones that are generally orange or yellow. In other cases, thermoplastic striping, a kind of raised paint, is used. But increasingly common, especially on the highway shoulder are so-called Sonic Nap Alert Patterns (SNAPs), first used in Pennsylvania, which are grooves cut into the roadside to alert drivers that their vehicles are veering out of bounds.

Sac Bee

The End of Recycling?

Credit: The Atlantic

The headline may a bit overstated, but recycling is in a serious crisis. It used to be that China would buy and ship millions of tons of our recycling to help fuel its own rapid growth. No longer.

The Atlantic takes a look at the problems plaguing the US recycling industry with a particular focus on liberal, green San Francisco, where state of the art sorting machines are struggling to separate garbage from recycling.

The AtlanticT