2019 was a big year for science books. Climate change, the anniversary of Apollo 11, the genomics revolution and a whole lot more captivated some of the best science writing minds in the world. Here’s a list of our favorite science books from 2019 along with a best of list of the best science science books from esteemed outlets around the Internet.
Here we are about to bid good-bye to another decade. It’s crazy how time flies. We still remember the Y2K scare from 1999 and how all our computer systems were supposed to crash, leading to widespread havoc and (according to some overblown accounts) the end of the world.
Here are the top five books recommended by us, California Science Weekly. Only a few of them have a direct California connection (notably Nick Neely’s wonderful Alta California: From San Diego to San Francisco, A Journey on Foot to Rediscover the Golden State, but that’s ok. We immensely enjoyed them and thought 2019 was a superb year for science writing across the board, from books to Web sites and blogs. So, in addition to our own favorites below, we also offer a Best of Best of list of the other top recommendations from venerable publications around the internets.
Five Books‘ Barbara Kiser is the Books & Arts Editor at the respected science journal Nature. She lists her favorite five books for 2019 on London-based Five Books, commenting that, while 2018 was a banner year for science books, “We are back in embarrassment-of-riches territory in 2019.”
Science Friday The ever enjoyable and informative Science Friday radio show, hosted by Ira Flatow, offers up some reader favorites along with recommendations from Flatow and respected science writer Deborah Blum and Valerie Thompson.
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.
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.
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.
Luther Burbank created some of the world’s most commercially successful fruits and vegetables, all from his Santa Rosa, California farm.
The Los Angeles Times recently ran a review of fast-food french fries that caused a stir because the writer placed fries made at California’s beloved In-N-Out burger somewhere near the bottom. This infuriated the state’s rabid fan base for what is arguably one of the best burger joints in America. But one fact that was lost in the whole debate is this: if it were not for the work of one Californian farmer, we would likely not have french fries at all, or at least not as we know them today.
That is because most french fries today are made with a particular strain of potato – the Russet Burbank – that exists largely because of one man: Luther Burbank. Burbank is a little-known Californian (part of an ongoing series) whose contributions to science, in particular botany, have had an outsized impact on much of the fresh produce we consume today.
Burbank is a towering figure in horticulture, credited with creating the science of modern plant breeding. For decades in the late 19th, early 20th centuries, his experimental farm in Santa Rosa, California, was famous throughout the world for the stunning variety of new fruit and vegetable varieties that emerged from the farm’s fertile soil.
Born in 1849 in Lancaster, Massachusetts, Burbank came to California in 1875, buying a four-acre plot of land to start a nursery and garden in order to breed edible crops. While not a trained scientist, Burbank had a preternatural knack for identifying desirable characteristics in plants, which he selected for through an arduous, time-consuming, and oftentimes brilliantly intuitive series of techniques that led to the creation of some of our most cherished strains of fruits and vegetables.
Over the course of his 55-year career, Burbank developed more than 800 new strains and varieties of plants, including flowers, grains, grasses, vegetables, cacti, and fruits. These include 113 varieties of plums, 20 of which remain commercially valuable, especially in California and South Africa. He also developed 10 commercial varieties of berries (including the oxymoronically-named white blackberry) as well as more than 50 varieties of lilies.
Amazingly, Burbank was able to achieve all this without direct knowledge of plant genetics, pioneered by the Augustinian friar Gregor Mendel in what is now the Czech Republic in the mid-1800s (and whose papers were brought to light in 1901, long after his death in 1884). Burbank’s lack of precise record-keeping and somewhat unorthodox — some would say sloppy — record-keeping, has led some modern scientists to criticize his credentials. Purdue University professor Jules Janick, wrote that “Burbank cannot be considered a scientist in the academic sense.”
That said, Burbank’s innovations in Santa Rosa were revolutionary and garnered him worldwide attention, as well as financial support from benefactors like Andrew Carnegie, who supported Burbank because he believed the work was of great potential benefit to humanity.
Burbank perfected techniques in common use today such as grafting, hybridization, and cross-breeding. At the time, his efforts resulted in large yield increases for numerous edible species in the United States in the early 20th century.
But perhaps Burbank’s most lasting achievement was the Russet Burbank potato, which first came on the scene around 1902. Burbank bred the new stain from an unusual “seedball” he found on his farm, which came from a strain called Early Rose. Burbank planted the seeds, chose the most select fruits and further hybridized those. Soon, he had a wonderfully robust and hearty potato that he could sell.
This large, brown-skinned, fleshy-white tuber is now the world’s predominant potato in food processing. The Russet Burbank is ideal for baking, mashing, and french fries. It is now grown predominantly in Idaho, the top potato-growing state in the US, where the variety makes up more than 55% of the state’s potato production.
Burbank came up with the Russet Burbank potato to help with the devastating situation in Ireland following the Irish potato famine. His aim was to help “revive the country’s leading crop” due to the fact that it is “Late blight-resistant”. Late blight disease destroyed potato crops across Europe and led to a devastating famine in Ireland because the country was so dependent on potatoes as a common foodstuff. Unfortunately, Burbank did not patent the Russet Burbank because plant tubers, of which the potato is one, were not granted patents in the United States.
But the Russet Burbank was such a hearty strain, and so nutritious and flavorful (though some disagree), that it became the potato of choice for many grocery stores and restaurants. This did not happen automatically, but took about two decades to catch on. In fact, in 1930, the Russet Burbank accounted for just 4% of potatoes in the US. But things would quickly change with the advent of frozen french fries in the 1940s and the subsequent emergence of fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s in the 1950s. The Russet Burbank was perfectly suited for french fries and remains the world’s most popular potato by a long shot.
Unfortunately, Luther Burbank had a dark side, especially by modern mores. He believed in eugenics, the idea that human beings should be selectively bred like produce. He was a member of a national eugenicist group, which promoted anti-miscegenation laws, segregation, involuntary sterilization, and other discrimination by race.
Luther Burbank died after a heart attack and gastrointestinal illness in 1926. His name is known in certain regions of California, in and around Santa Rosa, although if you asked the average person who he was, few would be able to say. The Luther Burbank Home and Gardens, in downtown Santa Rosa, are designated as a National Historic Landmark.
At Caltech, Clair Patterson’s relentless determination to understand the health impacts of atmospheric lead changed the world for the better.
It started by asking one of the biggest questions of them all: how old is the earth?
One might think that we’ve known the answer to this question for a long time, but the truth is that a definitive age for our planet was not established until 1953, and it happened right here in California.
Some of the earliest estimates of the earth’s age were derived from the Bible. Religious scholars centuries ago did some simple math, synthesizing a number of passages of Biblical scripture and calculated that the time to their present-day from the story of Genesis was around 6,000 years. That must have seemed like a really long time to people back then.
Of course, once science got involved, the estimated age changed dramatically, but even into the 18th century, people’s sense of geologic time was still on human scales, largely incapable of comprehending an age into the billions of years. In 1779, the Comte du Buffon tried to obtain a value for the age of Earth using an experiment: He created a small globe that resembled Earth in composition and then measured its rate of cooling. His conclusion: Earth was about 75,000 years old.
But in 1907, scientists developed the technique of radiometric dating, allowing scientists to compare the amount of uranium in rock with the amount of lead, the radioactive decay byproduct of uranium. If there was more lead in a rock, then there was less uranium, and thus the rock was determined to be older. Using this technique in 1913, British geologist Arthur Holmes put the Earth’s age at about 1.6 billion years, and in 1947, he pushed the age to about 3.4 billion years. Not bad. That was the (mostly) accepted figure when geochemist Clair Patterson arrived at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena from the University of Chicago in 1952. (Radiometric dating remains today the predominant way geologists measure the age of rocks.)
By employing a much more precise methodology, and using samples from the Canyon Diablo meteorite, Patterson was able to place the creation of the solar system, and its planetary bodies such as the earth, at around 4.6 billion years. (It is assumed that the meteorite formed at the same time as the rest of the solar system, including Earth). Subsequent studies have confirmed this number and it remains the accepted age of our planet.
Patterson’s discovery and the techniques he developed to extract and measure lead isotopes led one Caltech colleague to call his efforts “one of the most remarkable achievements in the whole field of geochemistry.”
But Patterson was not done.
In the course of his work on lead isotopes, Patterson began to realize that lead was far more prevalent in the environment that people imagined. In the experiments he was doing at Caltech, lead was everywhere.
“There was lead there that didn’t belong there,” Patterson recalled in a CalTech oral history. “More than there was supposed to be. Where did it come from?”
Patterson’s discovery was “one of the most remarkable achievements in the whole field of geochemistry.”
Barclay Kamb, California Institute of Technology
Patterson was flummoxed by the large amounts of environmental lead he was seeing in his experiments. It seemed to be everywhere: in the water, air and in people’s hair, skin and blood. Figuring out why this was the case took him the rest of his career.
He found it so hard to get reliable measurements for his earth’s age experiments that he built one of the first scientific “clean rooms”, now an indispensable part of many scientific disciplines, and a precursor to the ultra-clean semiconductor fabrication plants (so-called “fabs”) where microprocessor chips are made. In fact, at that time, Patterson’s lab was the cleanest laboratory in the world.
To better understand this puzzle, Patterson turned to the oceans, and what he found astonished him. He knew that if he compared the lead levels in shallow and deep water, he could determine how oceanic lead had changed over time. In his experiments, he discovered that in the ocean’s oldest columns of water, down deep, there was little lead, but towards the surface, where younger water circulates, lead values spiked by 20 times.
Then, going back millions of years, he analyzed microscopic plant and animal life from deep sediments and discovered that they contained 1/10 to 1/100th the amount of lead found at the time around the globe.
He decided to look in places far from industrial centers, ice caves in Greenland and Antarctica, where he would be able to see clearly how much lead was in the environment many years ago. He was able to show a dramatic increase in environmental lead beginning with the start of lead smelting in Greek and Roman times. Historians long ago documented the vast amounts of lead that were mined in Rome. Lead pipes connected Roman homes, filled up bathtubs and fountains and carried water from town to town. Many Romans knew of lead’s dangers, but little was done. Rome, we all know, collapsed. Jean David C. Boulakia, writing in the American Journal of Archaeology, said: “The uses of lead were so extensive that lead poisoning, plumbism, has sometimes been given as one of the causes of the degeneracy of Roman citizens. Perhaps, after contributing to the rise of the Empire, lead helped to precipitate its fall.”
In his Greenland work, Patterson’s data showed a “200- or 300-fold increase” in lead from the 1700s to the present day; and, most astonishing, the largest concentrations occurred only in the last three decades. Were we, like the Romans, perhaps on the brink of an environmental calamity that could hasten the end of our civilization? Not if Patterson could help it.
That may be far too grandiose and speculative, but there was no doubting that there was so much more lead in the modern world, and it seemed to have appeared only recently. But why? And how?
In a Eureka moment, Patterson realized that the time frame of atmospheric lead’s rise he was seeing in his samples seemed to correlate perfectly with the advent of the automobile, and, more specifically, with the advent of leaded gasoline.
Leaded gas became a thing in the 1920s. Previously, car engines were plagued by a loud knocking sound made when pockets of air and fuel prematurely exploded inside an internal combustion engine. The effect also dramatically reduced the engine’s efficiency. Automobile companies, seeking to get rid of the noise, discovered that by adding tetraethyl lead to gasoline, they could stop the knocking sound, and so-called Ethyl gasoline was born. “Fill her up with Ethyl,” people used to say when pulling up to the pump.
Despite what the Romans may have known about lead, it was still an immensely popular material. It was widely used in plumbing well into the 20th century as well as in paints and various industrial products. But there was little action taken to remove lead from our daily lives. The lead in a pipe or wall paint is one thing (hey, don’t eat it!), but pervasive lead in our air and water is something different.
After World War I, every household wanted a car and the auto sales began to explode. Cars were perhaps the most practical invention of the early 20th century. They changed everything: roads, cities, work-life and travel. And no one wanted their cars to make that infernal racket. So the lead additive industry boomed, too. By the 1960s, leaded gasoline accounted for 90% of all fuel sold worldwide.
But there signs even then that something was wrong with lead.
A New York Times story going back to 1924 documented how one man was killed and another driven insane by inhaling gases released in the production of the tetraethyl lead at the Bayway plant of the Standard Oil Company at Elizabeth, N.J. Many more cases of lead poisoning were documented in ensuing years, with studies showing that it not only leads to physical illness but also to serious mental problems and lower IQs. No one, however, was drawing the connection between all the lead being pumped into the air by automobiles and the potential health impacts. Patterson saw the connection.
When Patterson published his findings in 1963, he was met with both applause and derision. The billion-dollar oil and gas industry fought his ideas vigorously, trying to impugn his methods and his character. They even tried to pay him off to study something else. But it soon became apparent that Patterson was right. Patterson and other health officials realized that If nothing was done, the result could be a global health crisis that could end up causing millions of human deaths. Perhaps the decline of civilization itself.
Patterson was called before Congress to testify on his findings, and while his arguments made little traction, they caught the attention of the nascent environmental movement in America, which had largely come into being as a result of Rachel Carson’s explosive 1962 book Silent Spring, which documented the decline in bird and other wildlife as a result of the spraying of DDT for mosquito control. People were now alert to poisons in the environment, and they’d come to realize that some of the industrial giants that were the foundation of our economy were also having serious impacts on the planet’s health.
Patterson was unrelenting in making his case, but he still faced serious opposition from the Ethyl companies and from Detroit. The government took half-hearted measures to address the problem. The EPA suggested reducing lead in gasoline step by step, to 60 to 65 percent by 1977. This enraged industry, but also Patterson, who felt that wasn’t nearly enough. Industry sued and the case to the courts. Meanwhile, Patterson continued his research, collecting samples around Yosemite, which showed definitely that the large rise in atmospheric lead was new and it was coming from the cities (in this case, nearby San Francisco and Los Angeles). He analyzed human remains from Egyptian mummies and Peruvian graves and found they contained far less lead than modern bones, nearly 600 times less.
Years would pass with more hearings, more experiments, and the question of whether the EPA should regulate leaded gas more heavily went to U.S. Court of Appeals. The EPA won, 5-4. “Man’s ability to alter his environment,” the court ruled, “has developed far more rapidly than his ability to foresee with certainty the effects of his alterations.”
The Clean Air Act of 1970 initiated the development of national air-quality standards, including emission controls on cars.
In 1976, the EPA’s new rules went into effect and the results were almost immediate: environmental lead plummeted. The numbers continued to plummet as lead was further banned as a gasoline additive and from other products like canned seafood (lead was used as a sealant). Amazingly, there was still tremendous denial within American industry.
Although the use of leaded gas declined dramatically beginning with the Clear Air Act, it wasn’t until 1986, when the EPA called for a near ban of leaded gasoline that we seemed to finally be close to ridding ourselves of the scourge of atmospheric lead. With the amendment of the Clean Air Act four years later, it became unlawful for leaded gasoline to be sold at all at service stations beginning December 31, 1995. Patterson died just three weeks earlier at the age of 73.
Clair Patterson is a name that few people know today, yet his work not only changed our understanding of the earth itself, but also likely saved millions of lives. When Patterson was finally accepted into the National Academy of Science in 1987, Barclay Kamb, a Caltech colleague, summed his career up thusly: “His thinking and imagination are so far ahead of the times that he has often gone misunderstood and unappreciated for years, until his colleagues finally caught up and realized he was right.”
Clair Patterson is one of the most unsung of the great 20th-century scientists, and his name deserves to be better known.
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.
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.
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.”
Yesterday, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena made a major announcement: philanthropists and entrepreneurs Stewart and Lynda Resnick gave the school $750 million to develop technologies to tackle climate change. The news of the announcement was somewhat lost in the craziness of the news cycle following the whistle-blower revelations of the Trump administration, but make no bones about it, this is major news.
Thomas F. Rosenbaum, president of Caltech, told the New York Times that, “the money will be used to build a research center and to support a broad range of projects. Among them are finding ways to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and perhaps store it in the ocean; to capture and reuse rainfall; make plants more resistant to drought; and create plastics that are easier to recycle.” In other words, a key focus is going into geoengineering.
Many people believe that solving the climate crisis is a matter of reducing our use of fossil fuels. While this is unquestionably part of the equation, it is also very unlikely, if not impossible, that as a species we will muster the discipline and accept the cost of reducing our consumption of fossil fuels to levels that make a significant impact on carbon in the atmosphere. This argument was recently made by the writer Jonathan Franzen in an article in the New Yorker magazine. While Franzen was viciously pilloried for this opinion, both in rebuttal articles as well as Twitter, he is largely correct.
Currently, global temperature is on track to rise by an average of 6 °C (10.8 °F), according to the latest estimates. Some scientists say that we are already on the verge of a “global disaster” at the planet’s poles. Melting ice at the Arctic and in Greenland this year reached a record level, with Greenland shedding 12.5 billion tons of water into the sea. That’s more water than at any time since record-keeping began in the 1950s. It gets worse.
As NASA points out “Even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, global warming would continue to happen for at least several more decades, if not centuries.” Even if the United States and Europe enacted stringent, extensive measures to reduce carbon output, China, India, and many other developing countries will continue to depend on fossil fuels to foster economic growth. Asking other poorer countries to slow their progress after two centuries of our own largely uninhibited industrial development is the quintessence of hypocrisy. Yes, it is possible that some countries will develop with certain sustainable measures in place, but if we look at the technologies currently available even to wealthy countries, there is no viable or affordable technology currently available to offset the consumption of carbon-rich sources of energy. This is not to say that we should not try to implement measures to reduce carbon output. It makes sense to do this even if global warming were not a factor. Renewables are cleaner, far less environmentally destructive and simply make more sense, assuming they can be implemented at scale and reasonable cost. We should do everything we can to implement renewable energy sources.
This gets us to the $750 billion Caltech donation. It is far more likely that some form of geoengineering is going to end up solving the carbon problem. While many scientists and entrepreneurs are currently developing ways to take caarbon out of the atmosphere, at the moment, there is no scalable or viable means of doing so. But that may not be the case in the future. It is possible, if not likely, that someone will find a way to remove carbon from the air on a global scale. The question is one of investment, ingenuity and, of course, luck.
There is a historical precedent for tackling such a large problem. In the early 20th century, humankind was faced with a global food crisis. Agricultural production was slowing due to shortages of fertilizer, which largely came from the mining of guano, or bird droppings, which existed in large deposits in a select few places around the world, including Peru. The key ingredient in fertilizer is nitrogen, which plants depend on for growth and which is slowly depleted as crops are harvested and replanted. (Back before humans started agriculture, nitrogen would return to the soil when plants died, but when plants are grown for food, they are removed, depleting nitrogen from the ground.)
With the naturally occurring nitrogen found in guano, we had a reprive. But it only took a few decades for most of the key sources of guano to be exploited. And so, early in the 20th century, scientists warned that we were on the verge of perhaps the most dire environmental crisis in the history of humanity: there was not enough fertilizer to support the earth’s rapidly growing population. They were certain that, unless another source of nitrogen could be found, large-scale starvation would certainly occur.
Which brings us to the Austrian chemist Fritz Haber. Haber figured out a way to use high-pressure (in a huge machine he designed) and a catalyst to get nitrogen from the air. Air is nearly 80 percent nitrogen, but it is in a form that makes it hard to separate from air’s other components: oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide and water vapor. Haber’s process converts atmospheric nitrogen (N2) to ammonia (NH3) by a reaction with hydrogen (H2) using a metal catalyst under high temperatures and pressures.
Haber’s breakthrough enabled mass production of agricultural fertilizers and led to a massive increase in crops for human consumption. The food production for half the world’s current population involves Haber’s method for producing nitrogen fertilizers. The world’s authority on nitrogen fertilizer, Vaclav Smil, has said the industrial synthesis of ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen “has been of greater fundamental importance to the modern world than the invention of the airplane, nuclear energy, space flight, or television.” In other words, one man, armed with an idea and the resources to make it happen, largely saved humanity in its time of greatest crisis.
It is not merely wishful thinking to believe that we are in a similar moment now and that human ingenuity and perseverance will help us find a way to remove carbon from the atmosphere on a global scale. Many people are working on geoengineering solutions, from carbon sequestration to solar radiation modification to the widespread production of carbon sinks (for example, planting trees). It could take several different approaches, or perhaps just one, assuming there is another Fritz Haber out there today, which undoubtedly there is. But what’s required is funding and commitment. It will likely take several years and many billions (trillions) of dollars to find the solution, and that is why the $750 million gift to Caltech is a great start.
The questions are: Where do we invest our time and money to solve this crisis? Where do our priorities lie? Again, I’m not saying in any way that we should give up on finding and implementing ways to reduce carbon output, but resources to tackle the climate problem are finite, and most people have largely demonstrated that they are, so far, unwilling to make even the most basic sacrifices to cope with the problem. It’s hard to imagine this changing because it is part of human nature. As Franzen wrote in reference to the most basic carbon reduction targets discussed today: “Call me a pessimist or call me a humanist, but I don’t see human nature fundamentally changing anytime soon. I can run ten thousand scenarios through my model, and in not one of them do I see the two-degree target being met.”
With what resources we do have, therefore, a much larger proportion should be directed towards geoengineering solutions, developing and implementing technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere. But where should those resources go, specifically? To whom do we direct money for this kind of research and development? The Resnicks got it right. There is likely ould be no better single place to funnel funds for geoengineering solutions than the nation’s premier technological institution: Caltech. That’s why yesterday’s announcement is such big news, and far more significant than President Trump’s Ukraine problem. That said, if Trump is eventually removed from office, we do regain some sense in our own country’s climate policy, which he has largely derailed. So, we may have that, too.
In July, a football field-sized asteroid came five times closer to Earth than the distance to the moon. And we only noticed it 24 hours before. “the blast wave could have created localized devastation to an area roughly 50 miles across.” (BuzzFeed)
Using VR, AR and photogrammetry technologies, California teachers are taking children on virtual field trips to learn about geology. (Nautilus)
In the coming years, massive solar power and lithium-ion batteries in the Mojave Desert will provide six-to-seven percent of LA’s electricity, thanks to a new deal between the city and 8minute Solar Energy. (LA Times)
The study of living things is undergoing a revolution. Biologists collect petabytes of data about the biological world, but it’s impossible to make use of it manually, the way they used to. The challenge has been to find a way to use machine learning and artificial intelligence to make sense of it. Caltech Magazine has got an interesting piece on the rise of computational biology. (Caltech Magazine)
Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are managing the overall design and fabrication of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), currently under construction in northern Chile. It’s $168 million, 3,200-megapixel digital camera is more than 90 percent complete and due to be finished by early 2021. (LLNL)
California wildlife officials are restoring Paiute cutthroat trout into mountain streams in the Sierras. It’s being called a major milestone that conservationists hope will lead to a thriving population and removal of its threatened status. (AP News)
5G is going to change our lives, from faster downloads (a movie in just a few seconds) to autonomous cars, and near zero-latency VR (no, VR may not be dead)…and much more. San Diego’s Qualcomm is leading the way. This is a good read on 5G overall. (LA Times)
Scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego discovered that crabs actually communicate with their stomachs. They make so-called stridulation sounds with their gastric mill, a three-pronged structure used to grind food.
Bruce Monroe’s Field of Light at Sensorio in Paso Robles, California is comprised of an array of over 58,800 stemmed spheres lit by fiber-optics, and it’s solar-powered. (Sensorio)
Ed Green, a paleogeneticist at the University of California, Santa Cruz known in the scientific community for his work on the Neanderthal genome, has developed a technique that makes it possible to recover and sequence DNA from hair without the root. (NY Times)
A lot of other US cities are now developing “Green New Deal” strategies, but among them, Los Angeles has really taken the lead. Mayor Eric Garcetti revealed the city’s plan last April, calling it a “greenprint” for the future. (Bitterroot)
VIDEO: California banned lead ammunition for hunting wildlife anywhere in the state back on June 1. Here’s a quick video explaining why that was a good idea. (YouTube)
Go California! Seven UC campuses made Sierra magazine’s “Cool Schools” list, the nation’s most eco-friendly colleges. UC Irvine — No. 2 UC Merced — No. 6 UC Berkeley — No. 16 UC Santa Cruz — No. 21 UC Santa Barbara — No. 43 UC San Diego — No. 58 UC Riverside — No. 106
Using ROVs, scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) have observed nearly 200 individual vampire squid in their natural habitat. Probably more now, since this video was done a few years ago. Amazing animals, and right here in California! (MBARI)
We’ve noticed how much the production and story-telling quality has gone up recently at La Canada Flintridge-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Well, apparently it’s paying off. They won two Emmy’s for interactive media. Nice job, guys! (JPL)
Or so says a group of researchers from the NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California. The blob was a massive marine heatwave that caused record warming of ocean waters (up to nearly 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal) off the West Coast five years ago. It led to sprawling algae blooms and had other impacts that caused salmon numbers to crash and thousands of malnourished sea lions to wash up on California beaches.
“Already, on its own, it is one of the most significant events that we’ve seen,” says a NOAA Fisheries spokesman. Scientists are unsure of the blob is somehow related to climate change, but it’s hard to imagine the two are not connected.
Researchers are calling this year’s phenomenon “The Northeast Pacific Marine Heatwave of 2019”, and they are hopeful that the heat will dissipate and we may avert the tragic impacts of five years ago. Scientists say the blob is caused by a persistent area of low pressure in the atmosphere directly above the warm water. This leads to changes in wind patterns that limit the amount of cold water that usually rises from the ocean’s depths to the surface.
High sea surface temperatures create serious impacts on all levels of the ocean ecosystem, with particularly disastrous effects for top predators like marine mammals. Warm waters are much less nutrient-rich than the cold upwelling waters which normally sit off the Pacific Coast. The reduction in nutrients reduces phytoplankton productivity, which has an impact on the zooplankton which feed on it which then reverberates up the food chain.
That means mammals like sea lions are left without a crucial food source. The impacts trickle down to sea lion pups, who often bear the brunt of the blob’s effects.
But scientists, for now, are crossing their fingers that this year won’t be nearly as disastrous as 2014.
“Really, only time will tell if this feature will persist and if it will rival the past event in duration and impact,” Andrew Leising, a research oceanographer at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla told the Los Angeles Times.
The 26th President of the United States was a soldier, a historian, an amateur scientist, a best-selling writer, an avid outdoorsman and much much more. He has been called the “father of conservation,” because, as president, he authorized the creation of 150 national forests, 18 national monuments, 5 national parks, 4 national game preserves, and 51 federal bird reservations. We think he deserves the moniker.
But many people may be unaware that TR has a very important California connection. 116 years ago, in 1903, just two years after becoming our nation’s youngest president at the age of forty-two, following the assassination of President William McKinley, Roosevelt embarked on one of the most important Presidential trips in the history of America.
The impact of his trip to California is still being felt today.
The trip, taken by railroad, took Roosevelt across the American continent. The 14,000-mile journey began in April, took TR through twenty-five states, and lasted nine weeks. He traveled through the American West, stopped at Yellowstone National Park for a hiking and camping trip with naturalist and essayist John Burroughs. He continued on and ended touring a large swath of the state of California, including Yosemite, which had been declared a national park in 1890.
It was a tenuous time for the American environment. Millions of buffalo had been slaughtered across the plains, often for sport, their carcasses left to rot in the sun. The passenger pigeon, a bird that once filled the skies by the billions, had been exterminated. But America was also in the midst of a nature renaissance, and Roosevelt one of its pivotal figures. The impact of his trip to California is still being felt today.
Perhaps the most important moment of the journey was his meeting with John Muir on May 15th, 1903. The meeting took place on a train in the dusty town of Raymond, California, the closest station to Yosemite. From there, the men traveled 40 miles (about 8 hours) by stagecoach, which gave them the opportunity to get acquainted. They stopped in Mariposa Grove, where TR saw his first sequoia and had his picture taken driving through the “Tunnel Tree,” which no longer stands.
That first night, President Roosevelt dismissed his aides and the press, which was unusual for him because he was a publicity hound. In the wilds of Yosemite, he and Muir spent three days “roughing it,” camping beneath the stars and enjoying conversation around a campfire. It was during those conversations that Muir made the case for the preservation of forests and other natural resources. Likely, these talks created the impetus for Roosevelt’s support for the 1906 Antiquities Act, arguably one of the most important pieces of conservation law in the United States. With the power to proclaim lands as monuments in the public interest, Roosevelt in 1908 set aside some 800,000 acres as Grand Canyon National Monument. Congress later gave it a national park status.
Arguably, no other President has had such a singular impact on protecting American lands, and it’s fair to say, we think, that his visit to California had a lot to do with it.
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.