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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Netflix’s Our Planet takes on California, Talking with your brain, Banning animal dissection, California’s “King Tides”, Threats to California’s artichokes

Sign up for the California Science Weekly newsletter. Fresh California science every Friday!

Week of May 3, 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.

Marine Science

Netflix’s amazing Our Planet takes a long look at one of California’s iconic coastal ecosystems

For Californians who have not yet had the joyful opportunity to catch Netflix’s new nature show Our Planet, you should click over now and catch episode four, which features long, impossibly beautiful ruminations on California’s coastal environment.

It captures the recovery of the sea otter population around Monterey and features stunning moving images of Monterey kelp forests, one of our most iconic coastal ecosystems. Huge red and black California sheephead (a type of wrasse) gnaw and crush sea urchins, sea lions gambol in huge numbers like playful puppies, and the time-lapses of urchins creeping across the rocky strata are downright terrifying. Given the incredible array of exotic places that the show has been so far, it’s awfully nice to have California recognized as a biological hot spot worthy of such admirable high-definition filmmaking.

California’s kelp beds have been under threat for decades, with some in severe decline. The culprits are purple sea urchins, who consume kelp, preventing them from growing. Years ago, urchins were kept in check by the otter population, which was decimated for the fur trade. The Our Planet episode explains this in some detail.

Kelp is an amazing organism and is a potential ally in the fight against global warming. When free to grow in a healthy environment, kelp grow remarkably fast, up to two feet a day. Kelp absorbs carbon and provides critical habitat and food for more than 800 species of marine animals. Recent warming caused a 60-fold explosion of purple urchins California’s coast, and the kelp was devastated by these ravenous porcupines of the sea. Over the last 100 years, the Palos Verdes Peninsula has lost 75 percent of its kelp forests.

But efforts over the past decade, by organizations like the Santa Monica-based Bay Foundation, are seeking to bring the kelp back by eradicating urchins, often with divers who wield hammers and smash the urchins. So, not exactly pretty, but the efforts have been effective in restoring this incredibly important part of the ecosystem.



Talking with your brain


Scientists at the University of California San Francisco have developed a brain-computer interface to turn brain signals into computer-synthesized speech. It could be a way for people who have lost the ability to speak to communicate.

The so-called ECoG Electrode Array is made up of dozens of electrodes that are implanted on the brain and record brain activity. The computer deciphers the brain’s motor commands and then generates sentences to try to match the speaker’s natural speaking rhythms.

Brain-computer interfaces are not new, not even those that can generate speech. But previous efforts produced about eight words a minute, while this one generates about 150 words a minute, which scientists say is the pace of natural speech.

Here’s the paper in Nature.

New York Times UCSF


Banning animal dissection from biology class


A new California law might outlaw the use of animals like cats and frogs for dissections in science classes. Cats used for dissection tend to be euthanized animals acquired from shelters; frogs and other amphibians are often gathered in the wild.

Those in support of the bill say that killing the animals is cruel and unnecessary. They say kids can get the same or similar educational experience by using models and computer programs. For those who grew up dissecting animals and believe it is an important part of science education, the move is perceived as an attack on time-honored traditions of biology class. Students are allowed under current law allows to opt out of performing dissections if they have a moral objection, but this would be a state-wide ban at public schools.

SacBee Pacific Standard Magazine

Climate Change

California’s King Tides a harbinger of climate change

King tides are a natural phenomenon in California. Every year when there is an alignment of the gravitational pull between sun and moon, tides are literally pulled higher up the shore. Scientists warm, however, that when king tides take place during floods or storms, sea levels can damage the coastline and coastal property. Studies show that California will be greatly impacted by sea level rise, and so the point of the project is to help us visualize future sea level rise by observing the highest high tides of today.

The King Tide Project has a wonderful series of images from earlier this year showing the highest tides around the state.

King Tide Project

Climate Change / Agriculture

California’s artichokes may be threatened by climate change

Climate change is going to have massive impacts around the world and will impact many facets of our lives. But perhaps few other impacts are as important as how it will affect the world’s food supply. California’s economy is largely built on agriculture, and few products are more representative of our food production than the California artichoke. A 2018 report by Agronomy, a peer-reviewed, open access scientific journal, laid out a stark future for California agriculture. The classic California artichoke faces particular threats. A warming ocean and changing the marine layer, which the artichoke depends on, not to mention the spread of pests like the artichoke plume moth, could devastate the state’s artichoke crops.

Similarly, the New York Times looks at various products around the nation and what problems various states may face. As one of the top producers of agricultural products in the world, California faces particular challenges.

New York Times Capital and Main


A map of “wicked weather and deadly disasters” from the Washington Post shows California faring well against tornadoes and hurricanes, but not, alas, against wildfires.

California Sierra’s snowpack is 2.5 times larger than last year. Using Lidar and a spectrometer, this is how NASA’s JPL figures that out.

In case you missed it, the New York Times reports that California’s raisin industry is controlled by a “raisin mafia”.  

Fifty years ago, an oil spill off Santa Barbara became a galvanizing moment for the US environmental movement.

The Golden State Killer case was just the beginning. How DNA will continue to solve crimes.

How palm trees came to define Los Angeles, and why it’s all a myth.

A fantastic story in Wired about the discovery of a new earthquake fault in California.

Fifty years ago, an oil spill off Santa Barbara became a galvanizing moment for the US environmental movement.

The Golden State Killer case was just the beginning. How DNA will continue to solve crimes.

How palm trees came to define Los Angeles, and why it’s all a myth.

A fantastic story in Wired about the discovery of a new earthquake fault in 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

Sign up for the California Science Weekly newsletter. Fresh California science every Friday!

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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