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

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Week of July 19, 2019


California’s unheralded role in Apollo 11

Buzz Aldrin on the moon - NASA

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

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

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

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

Here’s more of the story. 

California Science Weekly


Wildfires, climate change, and atmospheric rivers

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

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

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

Earth’s Future      Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Ocean Science

Marine reserves are working even better than we thought  


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

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


California science news roundup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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