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Rank #109 in Natural Sciences category

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KQED Science News

Updated 2 months ago

Rank #109 in Natural Sciences category

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Natural Sciences
Nature
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KQED’s award-winning team of science reporters explores climate change, water, energy, toxics, biomedicine, digital health, astronomy and other topics that shape our lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. As a trusted news source, KQED Science tackles tough questions facing humanity in our time with thoughtful and engaging storytelling.

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KQED’s award-winning team of science reporters explores climate change, water, energy, toxics, biomedicine, digital health, astronomy and other topics that shape our lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. As a trusted news source, KQED Science tackles tough questions facing humanity in our time with thoughtful and engaging storytelling.

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It's Great!

By Jalieneer - Oct 07 2013
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Thank-you so much!

iTunes Ratings

28 Ratings
Average Ratings
21
3
2
1
1

It's Great!

By Jalieneer - Oct 07 2013
Read more
Thank-you so much!
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KQED Science News

Latest release on Jul 13, 2020

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KQED’s award-winning team of science reporters explores climate change, water, energy, toxics, biomedicine, digital health, astronomy and other topics that shape our lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. As a trusted news source, KQED Science tackles tough questions facing humanity in our time with thoughtful and engaging storytelling.

Rank #1: ‘Increasingly Unavailable and Unaffordable’: Home Insurance Threatened Amid Wildfire Crisis

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David Bevacqua never had trouble insuring a home in California, but he was in for a rude surprise after recently buying a house in Bass Lake, in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

“None of the insurance companies would quote me,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

Bevacqua is not alone. As more and more destructive wildfires have whipped through the state in recent years, Californians living in areas considered a high wildfire risk are seeing their insurance rates creep up  or in cases like Bevacqua’s, having insurers simply pull out of some communities altogether.

Between 2015 and 2016 alone, according to the state insurance commissioner’s office, there was a 15 percent increase in “insurer initiated non-renewals” in fire-prone areas. That means homeowners wanted to keep their insurance but the companies refused to renew their policies.

Since Bevacqua couldn’t get a policy on the “admitted” market, where rates are regulated by the state, he ended up going with an alternative known as the FAIR Plan. Created in the 1960s, it’s a very limited, expensive option-of-last resort for consumers who cannot find insurance elsewhere.

“I’m paying twice as much as I expected, and now I have to deal with three separate policies on this one house,” he said, referring to yet another policy he bought covering earthquakes.

Ah, California.

Stories like Bevacqua’s have caught the attention of policymakers in Sacramento, who have made a number of tweaks to laws governing personal property insurance in recent years, including legislation prohibiting insurers from canceling policies after a home burns down, and laws aimed at making sure people understand their policies and are not underinsured.

But more sweeping insurance reforms have died under pressure from the insurance industry, and as of yet, no one seems to be ready to completely overhaul the state’s insurance market. According to the industry, 98 percent of Californians with home insurance are still covered by the traditional, regulated market, with the other 2% using the FAIR Plan and other policies not regulated by the state.

“The reason I hesitate about rethinking the entire insurance industry is that in California — despite these fires, despite the challenges — we have a robust market,” said California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara. “We still feel comfortable that our insurance market is strong and healthy enough to be able to pay out claims.”

Mark Sektnan, of the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, agrees.

“Overall we still see the market as very competitive, very viable,” he said. “But we do understand that homeowners in certain areas may be facing challenges.”

‘Increasingly Unavailable and Unaffordable’

California actually has some of the most consumer-friendly insurance laws in the nation, thanks to a 30-year-old ballot measure that set the rules still in effect today.

Those rules require insurance companies participating in the regulated market to base insurance rates on a customer’s individual level of risk.

And while the state insurance commissioner must approve the amount insurers can charge, he can’t force them to offer insurance if they think the risk is too high.

Those restrictions make sense, Lara said, to ensure that the insurance market stays financially healthy. So while he is concerned about the cost and availability of insurance in wildfire-prone areas, he said that basing prices on the level of risk that a home poses makes sense, even if it is driving up costs for those who are the most vulnerable.

The Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery,  set up by the state Legislature and governor to study wildfire costs, agreed with Lara, warning that if California “artificially masks” expensive insurance in high-risk regions by subsidizing rates, it will incentivize risky behavior and make insurance more expensive for people in other parts of the state where wildfires are not a threat.

Still, the commission’s recent report said that while “the home insurance market is not in crisis yet,” the state is “marching toward a future where home insurance will be increasingly unavailable and/or unaffordable” for Californians in high-risk fire areas.

The commission focused on areas known as the wildland urban interface, or WUI, which refers to regions where homes are built near forests or other wildlands threatened by wildfire.

“In evaluating whether to subsidize homeowners insurance in the WUI, policymakers need to consider whether the state wants to encourage more people to move into the WUI,” the report states. “We believe doing so will lead to more deaths and injuries of both residents and first responders, destruction of property, loss of homes, more damages to be paid by utilities …  consequent costs to shareholders and utility ratepayers, and more costs for local, state and federal governments and taxpayers.”

Discounts for Clearing Brush?

Consumer advocate Amy Bach, executive director of the insurance consumer group United Policyholders, agrees that the current risk-based system should not be changed.

That’s because at its core, she says, insurance is “basically just a very kind of informed gambling.”

“When you buy insurance, you’re basically transferring your risk onto the insurance company,” she said. “The insurance company looks at you and says, ‘OK what is this person’s risk profile? How old are they? How responsible are they? What’s their history? … ‘ They’re just deciding, what is this risk worth that I’m taking on, and what am I going to charge this person?”

Lara, the insurance commissioner, said he is trying to figure out how to “incentivize more of the admitted market insurers to stay in” high-risk areas to ensure lower prices and consumer protections.

“I know that’s a lot to ask in some of these communities,” he said.

But he noted that California is the largest market in the country.

“It is a massive market for the insurance companies. I don’t think it behooves them to leave the market. But also we have to figure out how we learn to coexist and how do we ensure that the market is robust so that they can pay out the claims and we can continue with our daily lives.”

One way to do that could be requiring insurance companies to offer lower prices to individuals and communities that invest in materials and initiatives that make them less vulnerable to fire. That could include clearing the area around a home of dangerous brush that can ignite during a wildfire, or building homes with more fire-resistant materials.

Lara said his office is pushing insurance companies to consider those sorts of discounts, similar to the discounts they give good drivers, for example. He said the industry is open to the concept.

The industry is indeed exploring the idea, says Mark Sektnan, of the American Property Casualty Insurance Association. But to make it work, companies would need entire communities to participate in reducing a wildfire threat, because fires come with a uniquely unfortunate risk compared to other natural disasters.

“If you mitigate your house for a hurricane or earthquake — whatever you do for your house directly benefits you, whatever your neighbors don’t do, doesn’t negatively impact you,” Sektnan said.  “Wildfire is the one catastrophe where you may take all the correct actions, but if none of your neighbors do, the effectiveness of your own mitigations are not as good.”

Sektnan said this kind of communitywide approach is already being taken in at least one market, where the county of Boulder in Colorado is partnering with insurers to bring down everyone’s rates.

Lara agreed that collective action is key, saying the state now needs to think about how to ensure communities work together to harden themselves against wildfire.

He also wants to simplify insurance contracts so that consumers have a better idea of their coverage ahead of a disaster.

“How do we create smarter contracts so that people can clearly understand what they’re covered [for], what they’re paying?” he said.

Climate Questions Loom

Of course, personal property insurance isn’t the only insurance question looming over California, as climate change is not only making wildfires more destructive, but it’s raising broader questions about the state’s resilience.

For one, state firefighting costs have exploded in recent years, so Lara is pushing legislation that would let the state take out insurance to cover those cost overruns.

State leaders are also debating the possibility of a multibillion dollar wildfire insurance fund that would help protect the state’s utilities against financial ruin when they’re found liable for fires.

And Lara is also exploring more out-of-the-box ideas, such as taking out insurance policies on natural resource like wetlands or forests that are threatened by climate change but whose existence actually helps mitigate its effects.

Lara, a former state lawmaker, authored legislation in 2018 to create a working group to address the broader question of climate change and insurance; that group will start meeting soon.

“Where are we most vulnerable as a state? Where are we most at risk? ” he said. “We know, for example in the Bay Area, the wetlands around the bay are critical, and we have to make sure that they’re strong and they’re thriving so that we could defend against potential flooding or sea level rise.”

In other parts of the world, this is already happening. For example, a coral reef off the coast of Cancun, Mexico, was recently insured in a collaboration between the government and nongovernmental organizations.

“The world’s already starting to figure out how do we bring in the insurance industry in our united front against climate change,” Lara said.

Now, California must do the same.

Jon Brooks contributed to this post.

Jun 11 2019

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Rank #2: Why California’s Best Strategy Against Wildfire Is Hardly Ever Used

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With climate change, wildfires threaten disaster and chaos in more California communities, more often. But experts say it’s possible to avoid catastrophic harm to human and forest health by setting planned burns before human error, lightning or arson choose when fires start.

[contextly_sidebar id=”jxcGO35mXk1KJYVaQ7fcALHMXXhgpY5X”]“Putting prescribed fire back out on the landscape at a pace and scale to get real work done and to actually make a difference is a high priority,” says Cal Fire chief Ken Pimlott. “It really is, and it’s going to take a lot of effort.”

‘Unprecedented Catastrophe’

In a February report, the watchdog Little Hoover Commission concluded that the way California landowners have collectively managed forests is an “unprecedented catastrophe.” In May, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order to improve forest management, and with it, a dramatic change.

Now Pimlott says that Cal Fire intends to triple the amount of prescribed fire on lands the state controls.

“We can prevent these large catastrophic fires or at least reduce the intensity when fires do occur,” he says. “So a little bit of smoke now and a little bit of inconvenience now is well worth offsetting these large damaging fires.”

That’s a small step toward addressing a major deficit. According to the commission’s report, an area the size of Maryland—including state, private and federal land—needs maintenance or planned fire to become healthier.

‘We can prevent these large catastrophic fires or at least reduce the intensity…’Ken Pimlott, CalFire Chief

One day of prescribed burning in the Tahoe National Forest offers a glimpse of the difficulties in completing these projects.

Easier Said Than Done

U.S. Forest Service wildland firefighters hacked a line into the earth, around a patch of land on the Yuba River District near Pendola, overlooking Bullard’s Bar for one day of work. A “hot shot” crew and crew members from two engine companies gathered for the day’s work.

In May, U.S. Forest Service crews set a 23-acre prescribed burn in the Yuba River District for the Tahoe National Forest. (Jennifer Hinckley)

“This day started a few years back,” Jennifer Hinckley laughs dryly. Hinckley is a fire and fuels specialist for the Tahoe National Forest. And she does a lot of paperwork: before the first torch even can drip fire on the ground, federal law requires extensive environmental review.

Even with approval, federal wildland managers waited months for the right weather and environmental conditions here. Hinckley says those criteria range from wind speed and temperature, to how much water is in the soil. It was a very wet spring; on-and-off rains created several months of delay here.

Thick vegetation in the understory is a limiting factor, too. Hinckley says her crews often need to chop and flatten vegetation to make safe conditions for burning.

Even when all of the stars align, Hinckley says she might not have warm bodies for the job. That happened last fall, when fires up and down the state kept fire crews hamstrung.

“I didn’t have crews to perform prescribed burns,” she says, “because the wildfires take priority.”

Even when the permit is done and the weather is right and crews are available, the air might already be too polluted to add more smoke to the mix. Air regulators grant permission for burn days, and it’s hard to get: regional atmospheric conditions mean that smoke from Sierra Nevada forests funnels toward the central valley, where air pollution is consistently bad.

Balancing Forest and Human Health

Whether from wildfire or planned burn, smoke feels like pollution to vulnerable lungs.

“The consequences are the same in terms of patient response,” says Fresno-based asthma and allergy specialist Praveen Budigga. “I mean, patients are going to have the same effects of the fire.”

State and regional air boards say they’re working to balance forest and human health.

“We have to protect public health; that’s our mandate,” says Dar Mims, a meteorologist with the California Air Resources Board. “But we also recognize that we need burning in the forest, and a lot of those trade-offs have to happen in real time because the decisions have to be made—do we want to potentially impact the air basin, or do we want to burn.”

’We have to protect public health. That’s our mandate.’Dar Mims, CARB

Air regulators and fire officials say that to promote prescribed burns will require better public education about their relative hazards. Last year, a groundbreaking study concluded that wildfire smoke contains three times as much pollution as smoke from prescribed fires.

CalFire’s Ken Pimlott says that’s reason to push for more burn days.

“We want the ability to have some more flexibility to be able to burn on days [when] maybe it’s not quite as close to an air quality attainment day as one would like but it’s a perfect prescription window,” he says. “Say we have the resources available and the temperatures and humidities and wind—all of those, vegetation, are all in alignment to make a perfect burn and so we want the ability have a little flexibility.”

A flame-scarred tree trunk at Bouverie Preserve. A prescribed burn might have kept fire from burning hot and high, destroying buildings, and damaging trees. (Molly Peterson)

Bringing Fire to a Healthier Landscape

Evidence of the ecological benefits of fire are visible at the Bouverie Preserve, a wildland area in Sonoma County. Beginning in spring, a living carpet of purple lupine, white popcornflower, yellow fiddleneck unrolled across the preserve’s fields and canyons.

“It’s lush and green with wildflowers. It’s pretty beautiful,” says fire ecologist Sasha Berleman. To her, this off-the-charts growth signals a healthy landscape, where wildflowers followed the fire in short order.

But look closer at the trees, she says, pointing out how the heat of the Nuns fire blackened the ground and charred the oaks, their trunks scarred with flames up to six feet high. Berleman wonders whether the fire needed to be that severe.

“With that wind event that we had, it’s not that this fire is completely preventable but we could have probably had an impact on the behavior of the fire within the area that burned,” she reflects.

To see how, she points across the path, to a 17.5-acre plot where she lit a prescribed fire last May. Those trees remained green. Flames were only inches high. These lands will recover faster.

“They might have not burned so hot or so extreme in the oak woodlands if we had been managing them on a regular basis,” Berleman says.

Fire ecologist Sasha Berleman set a prescribed burn at the Bouverie Preserve last spring. She says it prepared the land for the October fires that tore across Sonoma County. (Molly Peterson)

She also thinks more planned burns could have saved Bouverie’s buildings. That hot and extreme fire torched all but one of them. Berleman went back to the preserve as the fire raged. She and two men were able to save that last building, David Bouverie’s own, using a bucket, a shovel and a chain.

“So now that building has a special place in my heart,” she laughs. “We spent a good 24 hours together.”

Berleman now works as a consultant, promoting the use of ecologically applied fire for private clients and the East Bay Regional Park District, among others. Paradoxically this summer, she’s deploying her “hot shot” training as a wildland firefighter, where the job is to stamp fires out.

“I felt like we’re sometimes putting out fires that were doing good work. Just because that’s what the machine does,” Berleman says. “That’s what we do, put out fires.”

Her hope is to reconcile the conflicting aims of these jobs, and the relationship between fire and California’s landscape, to get scientists and wildland managers heading in the same direction.

In Harm’s Way

Craig Thomas, conservation director for the Sierra Forest Legacy, says in the last 25 years, that’s become easier to do. But during those years, Thomas points out a different challenge has been growing: more people have moved into wildlands from cities.

“There is a, you know, thinking that a landscape is like a photograph,” he says ruefully. “You know, when you have these big beautiful trees and we want to freeze-frame them.”

Thomas argues that’s a bad idea. Fire is a natural disturbance, he says, “a process that is every bit as much of the picture of where you land as the trees are.”

For him, the forests are a movie, not a picture. Trees have a starring role, but so does fire. And it doesn’t have to be the bad guy in a summer blockbuster.

Jul 16 2018

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Rank #3: California Has Farmers Growing Weeds. Why? To Capture Carbon

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California’s climate change efforts can be spotted all over the Bay Area in the growing number of electric cars and solar panels. But now, California is enlisting people from a more conservative part of the state — even if they don’t think climate change is much of a concern.

California’s farmers are receiving millions of dollars to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, something the state says is crucial for meeting its ambitious climate goals.

The state is paying them to grow plants, which absorb carbon and help move it into the soil where it can be stored long-term. That makes California home to some of the first official “carbon farmers” in the country.

For some, like almond grower Jose Robles of Modesto, climate change was an afterthought, if that. That’s something they talk about in Sacramento, he says, not where he lives and works.

But in December, the ground under Robles’ almond trees was a carpet of green, full of mustard plant and clover. It’s not a common sight in the Central Valley. After all, most farmers hate weeds.

“Everybody wants to have the orchards nice and clean,” Robles says, laughing.

His neighbors really don’t understand it.

“I’ve heard them say, ‘We’re in the business of growing almonds, not in the business of growing weeds,’” he says, laughing.

Adapting to Drought

Robles got the idea a few years ago, during California’s severe drought, when he had to cut back on watering his trees.

“We had no water,” he says. “It made us look at things different.”

Robles knew that richer earth with more microorganisms holds moisture longer, but there wasn’t a lot of organic matter in his orchard to build the soil up. Like most farmers, he sprayed herbicides to kill weeds.

A field at Russell Ranch at UC Davis, where carbon storage techniques are studied. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)

So he decided to grow organic matter specifically to feed his soil. He planted species that most people commonly see as weeds, but when sown on purpose, are known as a “cover crop.”

Once they get a few feet tall, he mows them and lets them decompose, along with some extra compost and mulch. A $21,000 grant from California helps cover his extra costs and labor.

It can be tricky, because almonds are harvested from the ground after they’re shaken off the trees. Having mulch or weed remnants on the ground would interfere with that, so Robles has to make sure the organic matter breaks down before harvest begins.

He’s already seen a difference.

“The trees, they don’t stress as much, because they hold the moisture a lot longer,” Robles says.

Absorbing Carbon Emissions

Though climate change didn’t really factor into Robles’ decision, his grant comes from a program designed to be part of the state’s climate change strategy. California’s Healthy Soils initiative is now in its third year.

Farms and forests could absorb as much as 20 percent of California’s current level of emissions, says a state report.

“I think there’s great potential for agriculture to play a really important role,” says Kate Scow, professor of soil microbial ecology at UC Davis, of the state’s climate goals. She’s standing in a large wheat field at Russell Ranch, seven miles west of the campus, where the university plants crops to study sustainable agriculture.

“Soil is alive,” she says. “There’s farmers that know that.”

To show me, Scow starts enthusiastically digging in the dirt.

“All right, see, we’re starting to hit the mineral soil.”

This is where the carbon is stored. Plants soak up the carbon dioxide in the air to build their leaves and stems. Their roots pump carbon down into the earth. Then, when the plant dies, its organic matter gets broken down by microbes and fungi. That’s how carbon from the air gets into the soil.

“The deeper you can get it in the soil, especially below the plow layer, the more stable and secure it’s going to be,” she says.

That’s key to prevent the carbon from being released back into the air, and is how agriculture could play a part in the state’s climate effort.

“We have very ambitious climate goals, and without natural and working lands, California simply won’t get there,” says Jeanne Merrill, with the California Climate & Agriculture Network, a coalition of ag groups working on climate policy.

Before leaving office, Gov. Jerry Brown set a goal for California to be carbon neutral by 2045. That will likely mean not just reducing carbon emissions from cars and buildings, but absorbing carbon already in the air.

Merrill says California’s farmers are already on the frontlines of facing climate impacts, like more extreme weather.

“Some are willing to say that it’s climate change,” she says. “Others are unsure. But I think many know that things are changing and they need different tools.”

Farmers are interested in the climate programs, Merrill says, if only because it can help them weather extended droughts.

Hundreds have signed up. But state climate officials say the Healthy Soils program needs to be five times larger. That means the state Legislature will have to boost its $15 million budget, and Gov. Gavin Newsom has requested more money for the program. (Update May 9, 2019:  In the May revise of the state budget, Newsom has proposed $28 million for Healthy Soils, an increase of $10 million over his original proposal.)

Merrill says that would send a signal that California’s climate efforts will take the entire state, not just coastal cities.

“It’s bridging that coastal-Valley divide,” she says. “It’s saying that we need that Valley base pretty significantly.”

Apr 22 2019

4mins

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Rank #4: A Glimpse Into the Future of Northern California Plant Life

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Imagine what a Northern California garden might look like 100 years from now as temperatures keep rising. Where lush grasses, riotously bright California poppies and quaking aspens once stood, picture — what? Cracked earth, tumbleweeds, cactus and giant cockroaches, maybe?

A group of artists and scientists at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) have a different vision for the California landscape of the future, and they’re starting to prepare for it now.

Part science experiment and part art installation, “Future Garden for the Central Coast of California” aims to discover which plants are most likely to survive escalating temperatures and can help regenerate the regional ecosystem as climates shift.

The three eco-domes at the UCSC Arboretum that are the main focus of the ‘Future Garden’ project. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)

There are 16 different species of plants in each of the three restored, 1970s-era geodesic domes at the UCSC Arboretum and Botanic Garden. The plan is to accelerate the process of climate change inside the domes to find out which species are more resilient over time.

The process is going to take a while;  the recently-installed project is expected to last 50 to 75 years.

“We’re assisting the migration of species through time,” says Santa Cruz-based environmental artist Newton Harrison, who co-created the project with his late wife Helen Mayer Harrison and other science and art partners at UCSC.

The world-renowned artists, who in 2016 became the subject of a beautifully-illustrated tome published by Random House, and whose archives are housed at Stanford University, have been making environmental artworks on a global scale since 1969. The Harrisons’ work mostly takes the form of installations, writings and large-format wall maps. And it has brought them both fame and notoriety over the years. 

Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison. A collage composed of two different photos taken in the early 1990s. Helen would have been about 64 and Newton about 59 at the time these photos were taken. (Photo: Peggy Jarrell Kaplan Courtesy of The Harrison Studio)

One the one hand, they inspired a branch of the Dutch government to change its approach to urban planning as a result of their Green Heart of Holland project; on the other, they caused political uproar in England during an exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery involving the electrocution of catfish. (The controversy was later transformed into a chamber opera.) You can read and listen to a KQED profile of the Harrisons and their epic career here.  

The inspiration for this latest project at the UCSC Arboretum came more than two years ago, when the Harrisons happened to stroll past the three, then-decrepit domes and saw an opportunity to renovate and convert them into testing grounds for local plants facing the effects of climate change. “Nature is pretty opportunistic,” Harrison says. “And artists are pretty opportunistic, too.”

“Two of the domes had been completely shut off and empty and one of them was being used for a crafting group,” says Martin Quigley, executive director of the UCSC Arboretum and the Harrisons’ main collaborator on the project. “All of them were in very bad repair. So this has revitalized the whole area.”

There’s new fabric on the domes, and a fresh, stable framework, plus new landscaping all around the area.

UCSC Arboretum executive director Martin Quigley. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Each Future Garden dome houses an assortment of 16 native plants, chosen chiefly for their likely resilience in the face of sudden, drastic temperature and water fluctuations. Species on display include yarrow, fescue and coyote mint. Some of the plants are edible. Some have medicinal properties. Many have also been a staple of Native American life in the region for thousands of years.

After a year of establishing the plants, the project team members plan to start playing with the conditions inside each dome. One dome will experience heat spikes in summer months and less than normal rain during the winter, similar to a continental desert. One dome will mimic coastal temperate conditions in the Pacific northwest, with ambient temperatures and summer rainfall. The third dome will experience both heat and water spikes amid warmer than average temperatures, mimicking subtropical conditions.

Outside the domes, the same species have been planted in small walled gardens around each dome to provide a set of control experiments.

Inside one of the eco-domes. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)

“Climate change isn’t about a slow steady temperature increase,” says Quigley. “It’s about spikes and randomness that increase. And because these domes are smallish, it’s very easy to manipulate that in a strong way.”

Future Garden is part of a larger, ongoing investigation by the Harrisons into the survival of species in the face of climate change, entitled The Force Majeure. The Harrisons co-opted the legal term “force majeure” for this body of work, which means a huge power that cannot be controlled, not unlike the fast-encroaching water levels and rising temperatures we’re experiencing on the planet today.

Artist Newton Harrison today. The artist’s wife and long-term creative partner Helen Mayer Harrison recently passed away. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Another Force Majeure project, at the University of California Berkeley’s Sagehen Creek Field Station in the Eastern Sierra Nevada, is already starting to see results. For the four-year-old installation, artists collaborated with field station scientists to physically move groups of plant species to different altitude levels. The aim is to help seedlings — such as wild rose and red fir — become resilient to the warming effects of climate change.

“We found something rather astonishing, after drought and all the other problems it could possibly have,” says Harrison. “Of the 21 species we installed, about six — or 25 percent — live at all levels. That’s success.”

A ‘Future Garden’ eco-dome. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Although he has reason to be mildly optimistic, Harrison continues to worry about what our hot, dry future might look like. And though it’s a controversial idea, he believes finding a way to help a few, hardy species learn to become more adaptable to rising temperatures is ultimately more likely to succeed than trying to save many already-endangered species from dying out.

“An awful lot of the experimentation that receives grants aims to save the most endangered species, which if the temperature gets hot enough, are not inherently savable,” Harrison says. “We take exactly the opposite position. We look for the most resilient species.”

“Future Garden for the Central Coast of California” is presented by UCSC’s Institute of the Arts and Sciences.

Aug 17 2018

7mins

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Rank #5: Coronavirus: If You’re Infected, All Your Close Contacts Have to Be Tracked Down. Here’s How That Works

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As outbreaks of the new coronavirus dominate the headlines, an army of disease researchers and public health officials have mobilized to track down infections and limit the extent of the spread. To talk about the work of these disease detectives, KQED’s Brian Watt spoke with Solano County Health Officer Dr. Bela Matyas.

Matyas’ answers have been edited for length and clarity.

What happens if I feel sick and call the public health department?

That’s going to depend on what county you’re in. Counties that have not yet had a positive case, for example, can approach things in a much more aggressive manner than counties that are inundated with cases.

Live Coronavirus Updates

In counties without many cases, you would be asked a series of questions about what might have been the reason you’re sick. We would want to know what your symptoms are and see if they are consistent with COVID-19. We would want to know if you’ve had exposure to places where the disease is spreading rapidly or to people who are known cases. If the answer is yes, then we would take one path. If the answers to all of that is no, we would take a different one.

What is the yes path?

If you are in a county that has access to lots of testing ability, then we would want to test you. We would bring you in under safe circumstances to a place where we could take appropriate specimens. While we wait to get the results back, we would ask you to isolate yourself, essentially removing yourself from contact with everybody.

We would give you basic advice on how to take care of yourself, stay away from work or school, and stay safe at home until your symptoms go away.

How do epidemiologists actually track down people who might have been exposed?

We want to try to find out where you got it and who you might’ve given it to. In the case of COVID-19, we know that the time from when you’re exposed to when you get sick is potentially 2 to 14 days.

We need to search with you for your history of exposures that occurred in that two-week time period. If you’re symptomatic, we believe that you can spread the disease while you have symptoms, so we need to find out everywhere you’ve been and everyone you’ve been in contact with during the time you’ve been having symptoms.

Does this happen over the phone or do you show up at people’s door?

In the most typical situation, it’s a phone call. We make the assumption that you are the best judge of who you have had interactions with. We always ask about your close contacts, your family members, your co-workers, anybody you carpool with, your closer friends, people that you socialize with. And we create a list.

It’s typically the case that you can tell me pretty accurately who the close contacts are. That next level of contacts is a little tougher. You might say, “You know, I was at a party at this location, or I went to this wedding, or I went to this reception,” and you won’t necessarily know who everyone was that was there. But we get as much detail from you as possible about who you could have exposed to your respiratory droplets.

For example, if you go to a wedding, we’ll try to find out what table you sat at. How did you interact with the people at that table? Do you remember who you danced with? We would then have to go back to that event organizer to get the list of people you may have had that contact with.

Typically we try to accomplish as much interviewing as we can by telephone because it’s the most efficient, but sometimes we have to go out to a location. You may say, for example, “Well, I ate at this particular restaurant, and I don’t really know how close all the tables are.” And then we can go out to that restaurant and take a look at how close the tables are, and if droplets could have passed from you to the table next to you.

If the answer’s yes, then we have to go to the manager to try to identify who sat at that table that night. So there is some fieldwork that has to happen, depending on the nature of your actions in the community while you were sick.

So counties inundated with cases are not able to be as aggressive?

In Solano County we’re well beyond that; we are in a place where we couldn’t possibly keep track of all the people that could have had exposures or where they would have been exposed, because there’s just far too many people to track. We had a case of community-acquired coronavirus disease just a week ago who exposed people in two hospitals, as well as in their family and the community. And cumulatively we’ve had to follow up with over 400 people based on that one person.

Following that many people is pretty overwhelming. We focused our attention most on the hospitals, because those are critical infrastructures, and we identified multiple positive health care workers. we had to repeat this entire process for them. These circles expand very rapidly.

The last couple of weeks have been all about realizing just how large this process can potentially become, and therefore moving into a mode of mitigation rather than containment.

I think the most important lesson we’ve learned is that after the initial epidemiology allows us to understand how a disease spreads and who is at greatest risk, we can move from this sort of fear-driven, ‘Look at everybody the same way,’ approach, to a much more achievable, ‘Let’s figure out who’s at highest risk and protect them, and let’s protect our critical infrastructures.'”

Is what you’re doing now typical for an epidemiologist, or is it unique because of this new coronavirus?

The only thing that’s different is the scale and the pace. When you’ve got an emerging outbreak you have to move quicker, and you have to go after everybody that’s reasonable to try to identify. And so it often requires surging up personnel to do that. The outbreaks we would typically face are just much smaller in scale, so they permit us to be able to take this same type of approach, but with the staff we have. So it’s the scale and the urgency that makes it different.

Mar 09 2020

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Rank #6: Time’s Up on Groundwater Plans: One of the Most Important New California Water Laws in 50 Years Explained

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Much of California’s water supply is a hidden asset: Deep below the surface, rocks, gravel and sand store water like a sponge, in an underground zone called an aquifer. 

In dry years, this groundwater has been tapped to save farms, keep grass green and provide drinking water to millions of Californians. But over time, people have taken more water out than nature has put back in. Estimates vary, but according to the U.S. Geological Survey, California pumped 41 trillion gallons of water fom the ground in about 100 years, through 2013. In some parts of the Central Valley, that means land has been dropping around a foot a year

The landmark Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA, requires some of the state’s thirstiest areas form local “Groundwater Sustainability Agencies” and submit long-term plans by Jan. 31 for keeping aquifers healthy. Together, those plans will add up to a big reveal, as groundwater managers finally disclose how badly they believe their aquifers are overdrawn, and a collective picture emerges. It’s a major shift and arguably the most important new California water law in 50 years.

Here are some key things to know about the groundwater situation in California and how the law will impact the state. 

Until six years ago, California did not routinely regulate or monitor groundwater. 

The California Constitution decrees that water use has to be reasonable and beneficial, but the state has placed few limits on how water can be pumped from the ground. A 1914 law empowering the state water board to manage the resource omitted groundwater. You can blame the lack of regulation partly on 18th-century Spanish colonists who brought with them the idea that a landowner is entitled to all of the water below the surface, without any obligation to share it. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, water was still plentiful in California, and the idea of unfettered access to groundwater made sense in a state lush with wetlands. 

So for the last century, landowners continued to think of groundwater as pretty much a birthright. It’s become an essential component of California’s water portfolio: State officials say 30 million residents rely on groundwater for at least some portion of their drinking supply, and in the driest years, people keep basically sticking a straw into the earth to slake their thirst. 


Water at the surface is connected to the water hidden below. 

The water from California’s rivers and streams, along with rainwater, seeps into the ground, where it remains among the rocks, gravel and sand. Between these surface and sub-surface supplies lies the water table, which is what hydrologists call the top of the area that has been saturated underground. 

Using too much groundwater affects not only surface water supplies but also entire ecosystems. Pumping from the earth deep enough to suck water out can lower the groundwater table and dry out surface soils. 

Rivers and streams feed more than 500 aquifers around California. Less than a quarter of these account for the overwhelming majority of groundwater pumping. 

In these basins, this landmark law already has begun to transform the Central Valley. 

For decades, farmers fought the regulation and monitoring of groundwater tooth and nail. Now that it’s here, SGMA has already begun to change the region’s economy and landscape, as some farmers have sold or fallowed land in antipation of the coming changes.

The Public Policy Institute of California predicts that agricultural interests may have to let 750,000 acres of land go fallow, mostly in parts of the San Joaquin Valley where the most severe overpumping has occurred.

Farmers may also have to cycle current crops out for those requiring less water. For example, almonds are water-intensive but have been profitable in recent years; those margins would change if water becomes much  more expensive than it is now. 

Some local water managers have a lot of work to show by the end of the month. 

There are 21 “critically overdrafted” basins for which officials must submit groundwater management plans by Jan. 31. 

In each area where people have habitually pumped more than has come back in, local water managers have to figure out how much they’ve taken from underground, and how water at the surface replenishes those stores. Each region has to propose ways to monitor groundwater over multiple intervals: day-to-day, short-term, seasonal, and yearslong. Basically, they’re creating monitoring systems, in some cases from scratch, to help determine whether conditions are changing. 

The groundwater plans are built around models for how to share water in a way that’s sustainable by 2040. Each one can be a little different, but local managers and the state have to check up on every single one and meet interim deadlines every five years. 

The Department of Water Resources can accept the plans as is or ask for tweaks. DWR can also refer the plans to the state water board for intervention, meaning that local officials may have to try again if the state judges a plan unlikely to succeed. In extreme cases, the state may have to step in to settle disputes over local rights.

This isn’t just a Valley problem.

Balancing aquifers like bank accounts will cost money and effort in the Bay Area and other parts of the state. Two years from now, managers for dozens more groundwater basins with state-designated risk ratings of high or medium must submit their own plans to the State Water Resources Control Board. They include water managers in Sonoma, Napa, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. 

Even though these plans will take years to come into focus, plenty of political decisions remain.

State requirements for sustainable regional groundwater management haven’t taken away anyone’s rights; the rules have changed how localities must meet their water needs from now on. Even the plans submitted by the locally formed groundwater agencies that will meet this year’s deadline haven’t absolutely nailed down who gets to use what in the future. The coming decisions and politics about water may be tense, but the alternative is that one day, wells could run dry.

Jan 20 2020

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Rank #7: The Great Era of California Dam Building May Be Over. Here’s What’s Next

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For a century, California has harnessed its water with concrete, building dams and reservoirs on an epic scale.

Now, as the state prepares to hand out $2.7 billion for new water storage projects, it looks as though that era of dam-building might be ending.

During the height of the California’s 5-year drought, state voters approved new funding for water storage as part of Proposition 1. This week, the California Water Commission will allocate those funds to the eight projects that have qualified after a lengthy analysis.

Some projects are classic dams, but several won’t get the windfall they’d been hoping for. Instead, next-generation projects are in the running, like using the state’s vast network of natural underground aquifers for water storage.

That’s sparked a fierce debate over how California can get more water.

Era of Dam-Building

After the Depression, California’s first major dam rose on a river of federal money. At the time, Shasta Dam on the Sacramento River was the second tallest in the country.

The dam-building era stretched into the 1970s, as California’s major water projects were built. Canals and aqueducts stretched across the state. One promotional film dubbed it “one of the greatest engineering and construction achievements of the modern age,” providing “water to protect the health of generations to come.”

Mario Santoyo points to the site proposed for Temperance Flat Dam, which would essentially create an extension of Millerton Lake near Fresno. (Jeffrey Hess)

“That’s all we’re trying to do today,” says Mario Santoyo, executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Water Infrastructure Authority. “We’re trying to build these things not for us in particular, but for our children.”

New Water Projects in California

Projects competed for state funding, scored partly on the basis of ‘public benefits’ they offered. These are the eight finalists, a combination of traditional dams, groundwater banking and recycling. Source: California Water Commmission

The group is championing a new dam project known as Temperance Flat. It would sit just upriver from the 300-foot-tall wall of concrete known as Friant Dam.

That dam, built in the 1940s, helped turn the San Joaquin Valley into an agricultural powerhouse. Almost all of the country’s almonds, pistachios and raisins come from just nearby.

“This is, for all practical purposes, one of the best prime agricultural areas in the world,” says Santoyo.

Shasta Dam under construction in the 1940s. (Russel Lee, US Farm Security Administration)

Santoyo says to keep crops growing, California needs the new dam, a project that supporters have had their eye on for decades.

“It’s a V-shaped canyon area which is almost perfect for placing a dam,” he says.

Faced with a price tag for that of about $3 billion, the San Joaquin Valley Water Infrastructure Authority applied for $1 billion in Prop 1 funding.

But after the California Water Commission analyzed the project under a new scoring system, it determined that Temperance Flat wasn’t eligible for the full amount. The funding request was dropped to $171 million.

“It was a major blow for us ’cause we didn’t see it coming,” says Santoyo.

And the reason? This water bond has a dramatically different approach to funding infrastructure.

Broader Benefits

“The bond was really clear: fund the projects that could provide the most public benefits,” says Rachel Zwillinger, who works on water policy for the environmental advocacy group, Defenders of Wildlife.

In the past, many water bonds supported the building of particular projects. But the way state lawmakers wrote Prop 1, funding can only go toward the public benefits that a project provides. That includes things like flood control, recreation, or improving habitat for endangered species.

[contextly_sidebar id=”5pFi75De6xCXlL1AmyzKkkija66FNFtt”]To Zwillinger, it’s a sign that California is learning from its past.

“We didn’t really think about and perhaps understand the impact that these dams would have on the environment,” she reflects. “We’ve seen native wildlife species crashing.”

California’s major dams blocked salmon from reaching their historic spawning grounds. Today, several iconic salmon runs are endangered.

Plus, the water in most rivers is already spoken for, so even if a new dam captures water, Zwillinger says most of it already belongs to someone else.

“We’re thinking about storage in new ways in California,” she says. “And hopefully moving past the era of on-river dams to other forms of storage that are going to serve us much better as we see more climate change and longer droughts.”

Underground Reservoirs

“The wastewater industry as a whole is learning that it’s not wastewater,” says Christoph Dobson, as he walks around Regional San’s wastewater treatment plant in Sacramento. It’s the end of the line for sewage from 1.4 million Sacramento residents — but not for long.

“Right now, we’re in the middle of the EchoWater project construction area,” he says, pointing to a battalion of cranes and trucks.

The plant is getting an almost-$2 billion upgrade. When it’s done, the treated wastewater coming out of the plant will be much cleaner than it used to be.

“It is not potable, so you can’t drink it, but you can do a lot with it,” he says. “So why not reuse this water?”

Christoph Dobson looks over the construction upgrade for Sacramento’s wastewater treatment plant. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)

In a dry state like California, it’s not hard to find someone who wants it. Just a few miles away are acres of grapes, alfalfa, and almond fields. Currently, farmers there get water by pumping it out of the ground.

“The water under the ground is going down, there’s less of it,” Dobson says. “So, the idea is that we’ll take our high-quality recycled water and provide that to the farmers.”

In theory, farmers would then use the recycled water instead of over-drafting the groundwater. The $280 million in Prop 1 funding would go toward building a pipeline and distribution network to deliver the recycled water.

Raising the groundwater levels in the area could also be an ecological boon. If the water table is higher, it might improve the flow of the nearby Cosumnes River, which would benefit fish and wildlife.

Dobson admits that the project doesn’t seem to have a lot in common with a dam.

“But really it’s the same thing,” he says. “It’s just another reservoir. It’s just that reservoir is underground and you can’t see it. The scarcity of water has really made this project more possible.”

Three other projects expecting Prop 1 funding are based on groundwater storage or recycled water. The California Water Commission will make a final funding determination this week.

Jul 23 2018

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Rank #8: Coronavirus: When Will We Know if California Is Flattening the Curve?

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Flattening the curve on a graph of the number of COVID-19 cases over time is the goal of the extreme social distancing measures undertaken in California. (Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris)

Experts are telling us that staying home is the one way to “flatten the curve” of the number of COVID-19 cases and prevent an overload of hospitalizations. But when will we know if this massive change to our daily lives is having enough of an impact?

KQED’s Brian Watt spoke with Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, to find out.  The following excerpts from the interview have been edited for length and clarity.

How Well Are We Doing With Social Distancing and Is It Working?

I think we’re doing pretty well.  In terms of–is it going to make a difference?–we’re going to have to wait and see. Right now really reflects what’s happened about two weeks ago. We’re going to have to wait a couple more weeks to really see how well this social distancing is working, or at least to get a preliminary idea.

How Do Scientists Predict How Many People Might Become Infected, or Die?

Modeling is done by looking at the results of testing both positive and negative tests. Also, depending upon the modeling, things like hospitalizations, people in the ICU, people dying. So it compiles a lot of this data.

But they’re only as good as the data that goes into them. We’ve been very behind the eight ball in terms of the number of people we’ve tested. It’ll go down as one of the tragedies in the United States that we so failed early in this pandemic to not test our population. If we don’t test a large number of people, it makes the data that we use more suspect.

Do We Have Any Idea How Long a Surge in Patients Could Last, Once It Starts?

Unfortunately, I think the chances of a surge not beginning are very, very small. The question is how bad is it going to be? And, I’m cautiously optimistic that the sheltering in place is going to help change the slope of that curve, so, we’re not going to see a terrible surge. If we look at China, they started to plateau, and then started to decline, and that took place over around three weeks or so. So if we’re going to experience what China has seen, we would say that the surge starts to plateau, it could be, around three weeks or so.

If We Don’t See a Surge in Numbers, Would It Mean We Did Something Right?

Absolutely. I think that the major intervention that we have done in terms of prevention has been sheltering in place. There’s every reason to think it would work, both theoretically and we saw it — although it was draconian what the Chinese did — but we saw it worked in China as well. So I think that we can, and we should, anticipate that the sheltering-in-place will work, but it’s going to take a while for it to show up.

Why Do You Think Things Have Played Out So Differently in California and New York? 

California instituted shelter in place five to seven days before New York did. And I know people are going to think, ‘Well, that’s not much.’ But in terms of how fast this virus is spreading through our population, it’s a lot of time.

New York has roughly about 28,000 people per square mile. San Francisco has about 17,000 people per square mile. The more dense the population is, the more opportunity virus has to spread. And once the virus spreads to a nonimmune person, on average, that person is going to spread it to about three more people. So you can see how quickly you get an exponential curve.

Mar 30 2020

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Rank #9: Here’s Something You CAN Do Outside: Stargazing. Our Easy Guide to the Night Sky

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If you’ve never really learned about the night sky, now is a great time do it. Parents can teach their children about the stars, and anyone can get out of the house and stargaze, keeping plenty of appropriate physical distance.

So, on a clear evening, stop streaming movies, step outside, and look up! Here’s your guide to how and what to see.

Keep it Simple

The early spring has one of year’s most magnificent evening displays of bright stars.  So, even if you live in the city, where stars compete with urban light pollution, you can still see a lot.

A layer of low fog over the East Bay highlights the problem of urban light pollution, the light from cities that sets the atmosphere above aglow and makes stargazing a challenge. (Carter Roberts)

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the number of stars up there. The best advice for beginners is this: pick one specific region of the sky, and get to know what’s there. Don’t worry about learning the names of all the stars and the constellations. That can come later.

A Sampler Pack of the Evening Spring Sky

To begin, here’s a way to choose a small patch of the night sky.

Over the next few weeks, after the evening twilight has faded, around 8 or 9 p.m., find a safe location nearby, one with a clear view of the sky. Get comfortable, and look to the southwest — to the left of where the sun set.

Venus

The first thing you will notice is an extremely bright object shining almost directly west, a couple of hand-spans above the horizon. It is intense, and, unlike the stars around it, shines steadily without twinkling. It’s not a star; it’s the planet Venus. Fun fact: Planets don’t twinkle.

The southwestern portion of the sky in late March, around 9:00 p.m. Image created using the free desktop planetarium software, Stellarium. (Stellarium)

Venus is currently playing its role as the “Evening Star,” and will remain in the early western sky for several weeks to come. As the weeks pass, though, Venus will start sinking into the twilight. And by mid-May, the planet will disappear in the glow of dusk.

Venus is the brightest of the planets, and the third brightest object in the sky, outshined only by the moon and sun.  Here’s why: first, Venus is very close to Earth — so close that the light entering your eyes bounced off Venus only minutes ago! Second, it’s a big planet, about as big as Earth. And, third, Venus is completely covered in cloud and reflects much of the sunlight shining on it.

 Sirius, the Dog Star

In addition to Venus, you will find several very bright stars across this patch of sky.

Far to the left, almost directly to the south and about the same distance above the horizon as Venus, is the brilliant star Sirius, also called the “Dog Star,” because it belongs to the constellation Canis Major, the “Greater Dog.”

Sirius appears bluish-white, but you might see glints and flashes of prismatic colors in its light as it twinkles: red, green, yellow. This is caused by the refraction of Sirius’ light in Earth’s atmosphere, the same phenomenon that produces rainbows from water droplets and the spectrum of colors split by a prism.

Sirius is bright enough to stimulate the color-sensitive “cone” cells in your retinas, not just the black-and-white “rod” cells. In general, stars are not bright enough for your eyes to detect any color, though there are exceptions.

Betelgeuse

One of those exceptions can be found near Sirius. Look up and to the right of Sirius and you will find the bright orange-red star, Betelgeuse. Betelgeuse is located at the “shoulder” of the constellation Orion, the Hunter.

Betelgeuse’s color isn’t caused by refraction in Earth’s atmosphere. It comes from the star itself. Betelgeuse is a “red giant” star, an older star that has blown up to an enormous size, over 800 times larger than the sun—which accounts for its brightness.

The Winter Triangle

Sirius and Betelgeuse are two members of a pattern of stars called the Winter Triangle, a large equilateral triangle. The third star of the Triangle is found above Sirius and to the left of Betelgeuse. It’s called Procyon, and it belongs to the constellation Canis Minor, or the Lesser Dog. In Greek mythology, Orion the hunter has two dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor, marked by Sirius and Procyon.

The Winter Triangle is not a constellation, but a simpler and unofficial pattern of stars called an “asterism.” Like the often more complicated and storied constellations, asterisms help identify different parts of the night sky, like signposts. The sky is full of asterisms, and as you learn more about the skies in different seasons, you’ll learn to recognize them, along with the constellations.

Orion’s Belt

In fact, there’s another asterism not far away from the Winter Triangle. Located below Betelgeuse is a row of three stars that are equally bright, and equally spaced apart. This is Orion’s Belt, one of the easiest star patterns to find and recognize.

Meteor Shower Treat: The Lyrids 

With this beginner’s crash course in sky exploration under your belt, you’re in for a treat! There’s an upcoming meteor shower.

Timed exposure image of meteor trails produced by the Leonids meteor shower. (Carter Roberts)

After midnight on April 21st, and throughout the early morning hours of April 22nd, the Lyrids meteor shower will reach its peak of activity for the year, producing as many as 20 meteors per hour.  All you must do is stay up past midnight, or set your alarm clock for 2 or 3 a.m., and gaze into the eastern sky until you see one.

Websites for Beginners

There are plenty of online resources to help you explore the night sky and its constellations and asterisms. They can also alert you to upcoming celestial events like meteor showers and eclipses. Here are a few for starters:

There are also several good phone apps, for iOS and Android, that will help you find your way around the sky.

As you gaze casually at the twinkling patterns of stars in your sky, you may find your curiosity teasing you to explore deeper questions about the universe we exist in. How far away are the stars? What are they made of? How big and hot are they really? Do any of them have planets, and what might those worlds be like? The good news is, there are answers to these questions!

Here’s another teaser to get you thinking: Look down at your hand. Every atom of carbon, oxygen, iron, and many other elements that make up your body comes from inside the cores of stars that lived and died before the sun and Earth even existed. Curious? Explore!

Mar 27 2020

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Rank #10: Something Else Adding Fuel to California’s Fire Season: Warmer Nights

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It will most likely be weeks before the County Fire west of Sacramento is completely extinguished. By Friday it had consumed nearly 140 square miles — an area larger than Las Vegas.

Firefighters say it was a vicious cycle of weather conditions, terrain and vegetation that made it one of the fastest-growing fires in recent memory. But there was something else at work: a relatively new challenge confronting fire crews.

Scientists have noted that nighttime temperatures — overnight lows, in particular — are rising at a faster rate than daytime highs.

‘We know this has been going on and impacting firefighting operations.’Tim Brown, Western Regional Climate Ctr.

“It is a significant difference,” says Tim Brown, who directs the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno. “Both temperatures are rising, but the minimum temperatures are rising even more.”

Brown says the difference in rates first started showing up in the data around 1980, and that overnight lows are now running about 2 degrees F above the 1981-2010 period that climate scientists use as a benchmark.

“We can see both the trends in the daily high temperatures,” he notes, “but an even stronger trend in the daily night time temperature.”

Graph shows the recent spike in Northern California’s overnight low temperatures, compared to 1981-2010 period. (Western Regional Climate Center)

And it’s not good news for firefighters, who have complained in recent years that wildfires have not been “laying down” at night as they had in the past.

Brown says the trend has been particularly apparent at this time of year, and in the part of the state where the season’s first two major fires erupted.

“This rise has been occurring all over the state,” says Brown. “But where the current fires are — the County Fire, the Pawnee Fire — yes, over the last six years, we can see from these observations that the nighttime temperatures have been particularly warmer than usual during the spring months and into summer.”

It could’ve been a contributing factor when the County Fire started devouring landscape at the rate of 1,000 acres an hour, growing fourfold in size on its first night. The higher nighttime temperatures were just part of a witch’s brew of heat, low humidity, erratic winds, and terrain that made for a difficult fire fight.

“We know this has been going on and impacting firefighting operations,” says Brown.

California’s fire season is off to an early start. By early July, Cal Fire had responded to about 260 more fires than by the same time last year.

Brown says that since nights have warmed and humidity dropped, there isn’t as much moisture for “cured” or dead vegetation to absorb from the air. And, he says, if fire crews can’t make as much headway at night as they used to, it means there is also more smoke to contend with.

“There’s a substantial increase in the potential for public health impacts that we can link to this increase in nighttime temperature,” says Brown.

Jul 09 2018

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Rank #11: Shasta Dam Project Sets Up Another Trump-California Showdown

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Update May 14: A little more than three months after this story first appeared, the State of California and more than a half-dozen fishing and conservation groups sued to stop Westlands Water District from working to advance the Shasta Dam expansion project.

Original post:

The Trump administration is laying the groundwork to enlarge California’s biggest reservoir, the iconic Shasta Dam, north of Redding, by raising its height.

It’s a saga that has dragged on for decades, along with the controversy surrounding it. But the latest chapter is likely to set the stage for another showdown between California and the Trump administration.

‘We’re not talking. We’re explaining what we’re losing. And they’re not listening.’Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk

Last fall, crews already had drilling rigs in place, taking core samples from the earthen banks around the 600-foot dam. That process was part of testing to see if its World War II-era foundation can support additional bulking up of the dam.

Taller Dam Means a Bigger Reservoir

This is what the federal Bureau of Reclamation calls “preliminary construction” work. For now, that’s all they have funding for, but the Trump administration is keen to press on with a $1.3 billion project to add more than 18 feet to the top of the dam, which is already taller than the Washington Monument. That would increase the size of the reservoir, Shasta Lake, by 14 percent.

“We’re extremely confident that there’s a lot of momentum behind this right now,” says Don Bader, area manager for the reclamation bureau, which operates the dam.

But that momentum is coming from Washington, not Sacramento.

“The new administration came in and they’re looking to add storage in California,” Bader explains, “and this was the one project that was ready to go, so that’s why it’s got most of the attention right now.”

Wild & Scenic

The project has also caught the attention of California officials, who say it violates the state’s Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, which protects one of the three major rivers that flow into Shasta Reservoir.

“The California Legislature protected the McCloud River from any construction that would expand the reservoir,” says Ron Stork, of  the advocacy group Friends of the River. “It’s been illegal to expand this reservoir since 1989.”

The McCloud River is a legendary trout-fishing stream and sacred grounds for the Winnemem Wintu tribe. It’s protected under state law. (Craig Miller/KQED)

Environmentalists say that the $1.3 billion dollars could be better spent on more creative ways to conserve water, such as recycling, stormwater capture, and storing more water in underground aquifers. But President Trump is on the record promising Central Valley farmers more water.

“Any bean-counter would say this is crazy,” says Stork. “But this is a political dam.”

The additional 630, 000 acre-feet of capacity would be like taking Hetch Hetchy Reservoir — the Sierra lake that supplies San Francisco — and dumping it into Shasta … twice.

But nature is not likely to fill that order every year. Stork says the project would likely yield only about 50,000 acre-feet of water on average, annually. That’s a drop in the bucket relative to California’s water budget.

Sacred Grounds

In December, Stork joined about 200 others at an “open house” in Redding, designed to inform stakeholders about the project. One of them was Caleen Sisk, chief of the Winnemem Wintu tribe, whose sacred grounds run along the McCloud River.

At a public meeting in Redding, Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk appeals to stakeholders to oppose the expansion of Lake Shasta. (Craig Miller/KQED)

She says the tribe already lost many of its sacred sites when the original reservoir was filled, back in the 1940s. The expansion would raise the lake level by about another 20 feet, pushing it farther up the McCloud River.

“For us, we have to be connected to those sacred places,” says Sisk. “And we’ve already lost 26 miles in the building of Shasta Dam — 26 miles have been given up.”

Sisk’s people still use numerous sites along the lower river for rituals, including rites of passage for young Wintu coming of age.

Sisk says nearly all of the tribe’s remaining sites would be put permanently underwater with the reservoir’s expansion. Reclamation says it’s “talking” with the Winnemem Wintu, but Sisk has a different take.

“We’re not talking,” she says, “we’re explaining what we’re losing. And they’re not listening.”

Powerful Player

Sisk was distressed to see the meeting in Redding being run by Westlands Water District, a politically powerful irrigation district  based more than 300 miles away, in Fresno, which could be the chief beneficiary of any additional water from the project.  It has also raised eyebrows that David Bernhardt, Trump’s acting head of the Interior Department, which includes Reclamation, is a former lobbyist for Westlands.

Westlands was hosting the Redding meeting because it’s preparing an environmental impact report for the project. Reclamation needs an investment “partner” to close the deal, and though there’s been no formal announcement, many assume that Westlands will put up hundreds of millions of dollars toward the project, in exchange for rights to the water it yields.

“That they would have the sheer boldness to do an EIR for an illegal project is still — it’s stunning to me,” says Stork.

State officials have reacted with similar dismay. This month, the state’s Water Resources Control Board sent Westlands a letter confirming that what they’re proposing is illegal under state law, and that as a state agency, Westlands “participation is prohibited.”

A consulting firm conducted the meeting on Westlands’ behalf, and while there was one Westlands official in attendance, consultants said he was “not authorized to talk to the media.” Several subsequent calls and emails to Westlands for this story went unanswered.

Still, the Bureau of Reclamation has made it clear that it intends to press on.

“We’re proceeding along the federal route here,” says Bader. “If California does not participate in this process, we’ll move along forward by getting the federal approval.”

Some might interpret that as saying they’re going through with this regardless of what California thinks.

“That’s one way to say it,” says Bader.

From Bader’s standpoint, there’s a lot at stake. Shasta’s the keystone in the giant Central Valley Project, which sends water to farms and cities in 29 California counties. But dams have consequences.

Insult to Injury

“Every time you put up a dam on the Sacramento River, it’s going to be bad for wildlife.”

John McManus heads the Golden Gate Salmon Association, an advocate for protecting the threatened fish … and the industries they support.

“And right now,” he says, “what they’re talking about is adding more insult to injury by raising that dam, impounding more water behind it, and further impairing salmon runs downstream.”

Federal dam operators say that a deeper reservoir would allow them to send more cold water downstream, to support salmon in the Sacramento River. (Craig Miller/KQED)

Reclamation says a deeper water pool behind the dam will allow them to put more cold water downstream to support the fish. In its project description, the bureau claims it will:

“…improve water supply reliability for agricultural, municipal and industrial, and environmental uses; reduce flood damage; and improve water temperatures and water quality in the Sacramento River below the dam for anadromous fish survival.”

But in 2014, the federal government’s own Fish & Wildlife Service recommended against the project, concluding that it would fail to protect endangered salmon in the Sacramento River and its tributaries. That report was later “rescinded” for further review, and has not resurfaced officially.

Reclamation officials hope to award a construction contract by the end of next year, and complete the project by 2024.

McManus thinks the courts will ultimately rule against the project — if it gets that far. With Democrats now in control of the House, congressional funding to elevate Shasta Dam might be another stream that gets cut off.

“My view is they will ultimately be stopped,” offers McManus, “but I could be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.”

Jan 28 2019

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Rank #12: Pluto’s Got a Heart! Sure, It’s an Icy Plain of Nitrogen, But Still …

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One of the most stunning discoveries of the 2015 New Horizons flyby mission to Pluto was a big, heart-shaped region full of canyons, plains and mountain chains.

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s you may remember, Pluto lost its status as a planet a few years ago. Now, astronomers call it a “dwarf” planet. Despite that rejection, this planet has heart — a big heart-shaped region known as Tombaugh Regio. One of the most stunning discoveries of the 2015 New Horizons flyby mission.

“You have to imagine that everybody expected a flat ball covered with ice,” said Tanguy Bertrand, a postdoctoral research fellow at NASA Ames.

The left “lobe” of Pluto’s heart-shaped region is an icy plain of nitrogen known as Sputnik Planitia. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Instead, astronomers saw a beautiful, diverse landscape that includes canyons, plains and mountain chains. Tombaugh Regio in particular got a lot of attention because it was so visually striking.

Bertrand is lead author on a new paper that examines how the west lobe of the heart, an area known as Sputnik Planitia, controls the dwarf planet’s winds. While the eastern half of the lobe is scraggly mountains and the western half is a frozen plane of nitrogen. And not just any nitrogen. This pulses with a kind of beat that makes the winds flow westward.

During the day, with the heat of the sun, the nitrogen ice warms and turns into vapor, creating a pressure that flows toward a darker, cooler region, where it condenses and re-forms as ice. This creates a flow from north to south and back. The planet is also spinning eastward. This rotation (because of the Coriolis effect) deflects the winds and they flow in a westward direction.

A similar process generates winds on Earth, but it’s slightly more complicated. Air rises in the equatorial zones, flows toward cooler polar regions, drops down and returns toward the equator in what scientists call “Hadley cells.” This circulation creates the trade winds, tropical rain-belts and hurricanes, subtropical deserts and the jet streams. On our planet, though, winds don’t flow in any one given direction.

Interesting fact: NASA researchers found this effect on Pluto by applying weather forecast models made for Earth.

“[This] gives us some perspective and gives us a natural laboratory to improve our knowledge,” Bertrand said. “It gives us a chance to test theories, learn more about fluid dynamics, and climate.”

Ultimately what they learn can improve how those weather models work for Earth and, possibly, for habitable exo-planets.

Feb 14 2020

2mins

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Rank #13: Spring Forward, Fall Back, or Neither: Why Changing Our Clocks Might Fade Into History

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On November 6, Californians will weigh in on whether they want to continue changing their clocks twice a year. Proposition 7 on the statewide ballot would lay the groundwork for year-round Daylight Saving Time in the state.

Lots of people hate switching between Standard and Daylight time, especially in March when we “spring forward” and lose an hour of sleep. Studies show this chronological hiccup is linked to increased rates of heart attacks, strokes and traffic accidents. This is due to the disruption in our daily biological cycles, known as circadian rhythms.

Read the KQED Voters Guide on Proposition 7

And in case you’re wondering, the clock switch no longer means significant energy savings and has no real benefit for farmers.

Yet the measure does have its detractors. Some state politicians and editorial writers point to the last time the U.S. had year-round DST: in 1974 during the OPEC oil embargo – and people hated it.

“Public opinion polls showed that everybody liked Daylight Saving Time from March to October,” notes David Prerau, author of “Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time, “but nobody liked it in the middle of winter.”

President Nixon had ordered the measure for two years. But it meant the winter mornings were dark and cold – especially in the northern latitudes. There were some reports of increased accidents in the morning, as kids traveled to school in the dark.

Getting on the Ballot

Pedestrian safety is always a high concern, says Assemblyman Kansen Chu, but Prop 7 is a totally separate issue.

Chu is a Democrat representing the South and East Bay and sponsor of the measure. Chu became interested in the issue after his dentist showed him medical studies linking a lost hour of sleep in the spring, to increased heart attacks, stroke and traffic accidents.

A study from the University of Colorado at Boulder found a 17 percent increase in traffic accidents on the Monday following the springtime switch.

To find out why this might be, I visited the Kriegsfeld Lab at UC Berkeley, where scientists study circadian rhythms. Post-doctoral researcher Benjamin Smarr tells me that every part of our body runs on a daily cycle.

“Pretty much anything you can name,” he says. “So because we have circadian clocks in every cell in our body, every organ in our body is made up of cells trying to keep time.”

When we throw our timing out of whack, from missing sleep, doing shift work or being jet lagged, it misaligns systems like our attention and perception, digestion, emotions, blood pressure and more.

“One thing falling apart looks scary,” notes Smarr, “when you realize that all these other things around it have also fallen apart and that they’re also sort of fighting with each other for saying, ‘It’s time to sleep,’ ‘No, it’s time to digest,’ ‘No, it’s time to be active’. It makes sense that jet lag feels bad, makes us [feel] sick.”

The practice of switching back and forth between Standard and Daylight Time has been under fire for a while, each spring the internet bubbles over with segments and articles such as:

– Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Daylight Saving Time – How Is This Still A Thing?
Bustle.com: 7 Legitimately Scary Facts About Daylight Saving Time, Which Just So Happens To Fall On Halloween This Year
– The Boston Globe: Proof Daylight Saving Time Is Dumb, Dangerous, and Costly

How did we get here in the first place?

The History of Daylight Saving Time, Abridged

The idea dates back centuries, at least to 1784 when Benjamin Franklin was the American ambassador to France. He was in the habit of staying up late to write by candlelight and then sleeping until noon. In a satirical essay written for the “Journal de Paris” he describes waking one morning, due to a loud noise, at 6 a.m. and being shocked to see the sun was already up.

Your readers, who with me have never seen any sign of sunshine before noon, […], will be as much astonished as I was, when they hear of his rising so early; and especially when I assure them, that he gives light as soon as he rises. […] This event has given rise in my mind to several serious and important reflections. I considered that, if I had not been awakened so early in the morning, I should have slept six hours longer by the light of the sun, and in exchange have lived six hours the following night by candle-light; and, the latter being a much more expensive light than the former, my love of economy induced me to muster up what little arithmetic I was master of, and to make some calculations.

Benjamin Franklin is credited with being the first to propose (in jest) that humans shift their schedules to match sunlight hours. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Franklin even estimated Parisians could save 64 million pounds of candle wax a year by getting up with the sun. This is the essence of Daylight Saving Time in a nutshell: making the best use of the hours of sunlight.

The idea was kicked around again in the late 19th century, notably by a New Zealand entomologist who wanted more daylight in the evening for bug collecting, and British businessmen and politicians. But the first country to do anything about it was Germany during World War I, to save energy for the war effort. By shifting the clocks so that sunlight lasted later into the evening, people did not need to use electric lights as much.  Most countries involved in the war then followed suit. The U.S. adopted it in 1918.

After the war it was repealed and local areas could decide for themselves whether to keep it. Then came World War II.

“Within a month of Pearl Harbor, we put in Daylight Saving Time again,” says Prerau. “And when WWII ended it became voluntary and several parts of the country had it and several parts didn’t.

Unwinding History

California voters chose, by Proposition, to enact Daylight Saving Time in 1949 — that’s why it has to go before voters again if the current system is going to change. It wouldn’t change automatically, however. Proposition 7 would just be the first of a three-step process. If it passes, the state legislature and Congress also would need to give the OK.

One reason this time-switching scheme is falling out of favor: the energy savings are not what they used to be. Most recent studies show the effects of DST offer a one-half to 1.5 percent saving, or sometimes a loss.

“To my eye these are basically a wash,” says Dan Kammen, who runs an energy lab at UC Berkeley. “They’re not an argument for or against Daylight Savings Time.”

(And for the astute reader, yes it is “saving,” not “savings time.”)

Oct 22 2018

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Rank #14: Smoke-Chasers Help Predict Wildfire Behavior

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One thing that stands out in this already-staggering fire season is the repeated accounts of bizarre fire behavior that seem to defy conventional wisdom.

Now, scientists are looking for new clues to that behavior. It turns out that the smoke plume from a wildfire tells its own complex story that contains some of those clues, and in California, there’s a new breed of “smoke chaser” looking to decode them.

Scientists are probing smoke plumes from the Carr Fire and other wildfires to better predict fire behavior. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

When I arrive at the Carr Fire’s incident command post in Anderson, just south of Redding, Craig Clements had just come out of a briefing with the incident meteorologist. Every big fire has one.

“They’re having issues with the smoke and they want to know how deep it is,” explains Clements. “We’re gonna map the smoke layer.”

Clements runs the Fire Weather Research Lab at San Jose State State University — and he’s taken it on the road. The lab’s mobile unit is a white, heavy-duty pickup, outfitted with a cluster of weather instruments and a LIDAR unit. LIDAR is kind of like radar, but instead of using radio waves, shoots a beam of light skyward, in this case to make a vertical map of the smoke column.

SJSU’s mobile fire weather unit is the only one of its kind operated by a U.S. university. (Craig Miller/KQED)

“We can track the smoke,” says Clements, “but we can also measure the wind circulation patterns in the smoke plume.”

Meteorology student Jackson Yip pulls the rig off of Highway 299 onto an open field, about 5 miles from the fire line, and gets to work inflating a small weather balloon — about four feet across. It carries a transmitter the size of an eyeglass case, called a radiosonde, that will send data back to the truck. He lets it go and it shoots into the air.

“That’s a good sight. Come on, keep goin’, keep goin’!,” urges Clements.

It will keep going, sampling and transmitting data back once every second, until it reaches 40,000 feet or more above the earth. The fire lab crew will transmit their data to the meteorologist on duty at the command post, where it can help form a better picture of conditions aloft.

[contextly_sidebar id=”DtKkbwvPmAseBAsYXj8h5MqEwXQxwCdC”]Launch sites for weather balloons are “few and far between,” according to Clements, so the team’s ability to launch on site was a boon to the “i-met,” the incident meteorologist who asked them to do so.

“Wow–look at that,” Clements exclaims, as the information starts to form a picture. The first thing they notice is a strong inversion: a layer of air about 9,000 feet up that’s warmer than the air below.

“The air’s really, really warm above,” he observes.

That warm air acts as a lid on the lower atmosphere, which helps explain why the entire Sacramento Valley seems to be enshrouded in a yellow, smokey haze. But what the team is really looking for, are signs that the fire’s behavior might be changing.

A yellow pall of smoke haze hangs over Interstate 5 south of Redding, during the Carr Fire. (Craig Miller/KQED)

“If you have a very convective day, let’s say, in the atmosphere, where a lot of vertical motion is occurring,” Clements explains, “that can impact the fire behavior.”

One thing they can spot is something called a “velocity couplet,” where winds above the fire are moving in opposite directions, just meters apart. That indicates rotation, and the possible formation of fire “tornadoes,” like the one that added to the devastation near Redding.

They’re not seeing that on this day — but as the information comes in, it reveals something else that’s potentially dangerous.

“The air is really, really dry aloft,” notes Clements, “so if that really dry air mixes down to the surface, it could really impact fire behavior, because it’ll dry out the fuels.”

For now, it’s something to keep an eye on — no need to sound an alarm.

“As air descends, it’ll only warm more and get drier,” explains grad student Matthew Brewer. “If the sun’s able to warm the surface, and you start to get surface mixing, and we get convection, and get these big circulations going, and that could bring down some of the dry air; as air comes up, air has to come back down.”

Currently, San Jose State has the only mobile fire weather lab in the nation, and the immediate goal is research. But Clements hopes they can make the case for units like this to become a staple of wildfire management — especially when current fires seem to be breaking all the conventional rules of fire behavior.

“There are general rules of thumb,” Clements says, “but it doesn’t always happen. And so the more observations we can get on a wildfire in terms of meteorology, fire behavior, and fuels conditions, the better for predicting the fire.”

But maybe the bottom line of why they’re out here was best expressed by the undergrad student in the crew, 23-year-old Jackson Yip.

“Well, the papers that will be coming out of these observations and the knowledge we gain from it will ultimately save property and save lives,” he says.

This fall, the lab is adding a Ka-band mobile Doppler radar unit to its arsenal. Clements says that will give them unprecedented range and power to demystify the forces inside a fire’s smoke plume.

Aug 01 2018

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Rank #15: Breathing Fire: California’s Central Valley Bears the Brunt of Harmful Wildfire Smoke

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Worsening wildfires linked to the weather, climate change and forest management policies are causing unprecedented smoke pollution across the West and beyond, creating public health risks and undermining decades of air quality gains.

After 30 minutes of gardening, Donna Fisher’s eyes are burning. One is swollen shut. Since retiring to the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range 20 years ago, the 74-year-old has cultivated a garden large enough to feed her and her husband well into the winter. For the past two years, smoke from wildfires has reduced the time she can spend tending to her vegetables before her asthma and bronchitis are triggered.

“It’s like somebody choking you, or putting a band around your chest and pulling it tight,” she said. Wildfire seasons in the Western U.S. are 105 days longer than they were five decades ago, billowing smoke that contains tiny chemical particles that threaten public health. “It used to be a few days, maybe a week at worse. Now it’s longer than it’s ever been.”

Retired nurse Donna Fisher wears a hat and sunglasses to protect from the sun while she picks squash from her garden. Fisher says smoke that has settled in near her home in the Sierra Nevada foothills has affected her health. (Alex Hall/KQED)

Smoke from wildfires is undermining decades of gains made in reducing air pollution from exhaust pipes and power plants. The number of days each year that wildfires foul the air is increasing in parts of the West, with worse expected as temperatures continue to rise.

‘You might not automatically have a heart attack or get asthma, but health effects can last for a year or more.’Loretta Mickley, Harvard chemist

Wildfires are projected to continue increasing in size and frequency, leading to more ‘smoke waves’ — days-long bouts of dangerous pollution. For asthmatics like Fisher, that means more days of lung-pinching pain and confinement indoors. For those who aren’t retired, it can mean missed work.

Someone exposed to smoke for a few weeks can feel health impacts long afterward, says Loretta Mickley, an atmospheric chemist at Harvard University who studies the relationship between smoke particles and health. In the longer term, exposure to the pollution is associated with earlier deaths.

“You might not automatically have a heart attack or get asthma,” Mickley said. “But health effects can last for a year or more.”

[contextly_sidebar id=”HWK9Tdsapvxh9XUBThIRFS0pCQet5a2x”]Fisher’s home is surrounded by forests that are naturally prone to burn, putting her at the front lines of smoke waves. Forty miles downhill, smoke from fires burning around California funnels into the Central Valley — a farming region where 6.5 million residents, many of them poor and working outdoors, endure some of the country’s most polluted air.

Since 2010, residents of the San Joaquin Valley, one of the two valleys that comprise the Central Valley, experienced at least 40 days each year when air quality was dangerous according to EPA standards.

“We have the biggest challenge that any air district has in the nation,” said Jon Klassen, a program manager at the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

Amid advances in reducing pollution from farms and the trucks that haul away their produce, longer and larger wildfires burning throughout California are ushering more smoke waves into this hard-hit region. Rising temperatures, a build-up of fuel on forest floors and the growth of neighborhoods in fire-prone areas are amplifying hazards. With these wildfires, comes more smoke.

Residents of the Central Valley endure greater risks than others in the U.S. of developing asthma, suffering heart attacks and strokes, and experiencing related mental health problems. Health care costs follow. The smoke affects day-to-day activities, putting classes and sports practices on hold and keeping the sick and elderly indoors.

Detailer Danny Espinoza wipes the windows of a client’s car in Fresno. Espinoza, who works outside, says the smoke and sun bother him, but his job requires it and he’s gotten used to it. (Alex Hall/KQED)

Dan Jaffe, a chemistry professor at the University of Washington, Bothell who studies air quality, analyzed data from air monitors. He found that since 1970, air quality on the most polluted days each year improved on average across much of the continental U.S. But it worsened across swaths of the West, including the northern half of California and other areas affected by smoke waves.

“There really has been a statistically robust increase in wildfires in the Western U.S., and that’s directly impacting air pollution,” Jaffe said.

Breathing Fire

Regina Sorondo was born and raised in Fresno, a San Joaquin Valley city home to 500,000 people. Now, she’s raising her daughter and son here. Like one in four children living in Fresno County, both have been diagnosed with asthma.

“Last season to this season has been really bad,” said Sorondo, a call center employee, of the smoke from record-breaking fire seasons. “It’s really dangerous — it’s really scary.”

The tiny particles in the smoke, released when fire burns through fuel, is what Sorondo worries about most. Small enough to sneak through defense systems in the eyes, nose and mouth, the particulate matter, called PM2.5, can pierce through the lungs and travel through the bloodstream to organs including the heart.

“Particulate matter does affect how our central nervous system works,” said Wayne Cascio, a cardiologist and lab director at the federal EPA who studies the topic. “It also has an effect on inflammation, which we now know is an important role in driving cardiovascular outcomes.”

Staying indoors for prolonged periods, which is one of the few ways of guarding against particulate matter, can affect mental health. The Oregon Health Authority is working to help people in the southern half of the state, where wildfire smoke from California has led to sustained exposure, find psychologists and therapists.

The veil of pollution clouding much of the West this summer comes with fatal consequences. A study published in GeoHealth this summer concluded that early deaths related to wildfire smoke could double this century, even as deaths from breathing fossil fuel pollution decline amid a transition to cleaner energy.

“You see more patients coming in with typical symptoms of shortness of breath, wheezing, chronic cough,“ said Praveen Buddiga, an asthma doctor who has been treating patients in Fresno for 13 years.

These particles don’t just affect people living close to burning wildfires. In the weeks after the Carr Fire broke out nearly 350 miles north of Fresno, Buddiga said there was an uptick in patients visiting his clinic — particularly children. Smoke from Western wildfires in early August reached far as Louisiana and New York.

“What’s been dramatic is how the smoke is traveling eastward,” said the EPA’s Cascio. “It’s not just a local phenomena, it’s a national one.”

Reversing Decades of Air Quality Gains

Since the 1990s, when monitors began tracking PM2.5 and the EPA began fining states for breaching its standards, air quality nationwide has been improving. The number of people exposed to particulate matter has halved, and related deaths have fallen by about a third, according to a study by the National Institutes of Health.

With wildfires increasing in size and intensity, those gains are being undermined.

Climate Central researchers examined the number of days each year when PM2.5 levels exceeded federal standards. In both of the valleys that comprise California’s Central Valley, the number of these days decreased overall since 2000, but the proportion of those days occurring during the wildfire season increased.

‘Fire responds exponentially to warming. For every degree of warming there is in the Western U.S., the impact is a lot more.’Park Williams, Columbia Univ.

Health risks depend on age, health conditions and wealth. Poorer residents may not be able to miss work, and may live in drafty homes that allow smoke to permeate indoors.

Sheryl Magzamen, an epidemiologist at Colorado State University, has been tracking asthma-related hospital admissions in Western counties. At the beginning of August, as the Mendocino Complex Fire burned in northern California, she said she found that the likelihood of being hospitalized with asthma-related issues more than doubled along counties on the Oregon-California border.

“We breathe every minute of every day multiple times and it’s not something that we can stop doing,” said Magzamen. “That’s why this is concerning — this impacts everyone, it’s widespread and we’re seeing real impacts.”

The Role of Humans

Climate change, the whims of the weather and a century of firefighting practices have all been contributing to the destructiveness of the West’s recent wildfire seasons. Even as scientists and California firefighters point to the role of warming temperatures in fueling blazes, the Trump administration has been downplaying or falsely denying the links.

Rising temperatures in California caused in part by the heat-trapping effects of fossil fuel pollution are sucking moisture from Western landscapes and hastening the annual melting of snowpacks, drying fuel for wildfires.

“Fire responds exponentially to warming,” said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University. “For every degree of warming there is in the Western U.S., the impact is a lot more.”

Meanwhile, new residents continue to move into areas that are prone to burn, increasing risks to themselves, and accidentally or deliberately starting fires.

A century of aggressive firefighting to protect residents and property has also contributed to the devastation, leaving fuel on forest floors that would once have burned naturally during low-level fires kindled by lightning strikes.

Since a series of forest fires burned three million acres of Montana, Idaho and Washington in 1910, strategies for managing fires have generally favored extinguishing them as quickly as possible.

“We shouldn’t suppress all fires, they are part of our ecosystem and are necessary,” said Colleen Reid, a geographer at the University of Colorado-Boulder who is investigating how controlled burns and wildfires affect public health. “The challenge is having that perspective but also caring about the health of populations.”

In recent years, the federal government has been working with local and state agencies to boost prescribed burns, where officials set and manage low-level fires that consume shrubs, small trees and leaf litter. The efforts have been be limited by funding shortfalls. And nearby residents and local agencies sometimes oppose prescribed burns, worried about smoke pollution and risks that the fires will get out of control.

As the Trump administration eliminates climate protections and falsely denies climate change’s role in wildfires, it has proposed reduced spending to agencies researching and managing wildfires.

“When you’re spending $2.5 billion fighting forest fires, there’s not a lot left in the budget to do forest management,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a radio interview Sunday with KCRA 3 in Sacramento. (During the interview, he incorrectly said this year’s wildfires have “nothing to do with climate change.”)

As federal government leaders reject basic science and move to shrink programs that could reduce risks, the air district that regulates air pollution in the San Joaquin Valley is becoming more flexible in allowing for prescribed burns — even when the air is already dirty.

A satellite image of smoke from the Ranch Fire, August 11, 2018. Smoke from fires across Northern California tends to get drawn into the Central Valley. (Planet Labs)

“We’ve had to go further than any region has before,” said Klassen, of the San Joaquin Valley’s air district. It has implemented hundreds of rules in an effort to reduce pollution, including allowing more prescribed burns in the region.

Still, AJ Rassamni, who manages a car wash in Fresno, wants to see more comprehensive forest management. With fewer people leaving their homes amid recent smoke waves, fewer customers have been coming through his car wash. He provides masks to protect staff, but they can make breathing difficult.

Worried about effects from climate change, Rassamni bought an electric car and had solar panels installed at home to reduce his climate pollution. Without aggressive steps from governments to systematically reduce pollution and boost prescribed burns, though, his efforts alone will do little to protect Central Valley residents.

“Is it good for us?” he said. “No. But you have a life, and you’re going to live with the weather you have.”

This story was produced and published in partnership with Climate Central, a non-advocacy group that researches and reports on the changing climate.

Aug 15 2018

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Rank #16: Outlook Grim But Not Hopeless as Climate Summit Convenes in San Francisco

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This week corporate and civic leaders from around the world will gather in San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit.

The effort was spearheaded by Gov. Jerry Brown to move the fight against global warming beyond the national commitments made in Paris nearly three years ago.

‘Thirty years ago we predicted it in the models — and now I’m feeling it. I’m experiencing it.’Inez Fung, UC Berkeley

“Look, it’s up to you and it’s up to me and tens of millions of other people to get it together to roll back the forces of carbonization,” says Brown in a promotional video for the summit.

It is likely to be Brown’s last big climate event before he leaves office next year, and it comes at a time when many scientists agree that time is running out for a major counteroffensive against global warming, which Brown has repeatedly called an “existential threat.”

“We are not prepared,” says Inez Fung, an atmospheric scientist at UC Berkeley, who can see the accelerated effects of a warming planet all around her, from raging wildfires in the western U.S. to death-dealing floods in India.

“Thirty years ago we predicted it in the models,” she says, “and now I’m feeling it. I’m experiencing it.”

‘None of the students in my classes have grown up in a normal climate. None of them.’Bill Collins, UC Berkeley

Across the U.S., the average temperature has risen almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the start of the 20th Century. In California, the heat has been turned up unevenly, with portions of the state warming over the same period by anywhere from one, to nearly three degrees. (The South Coast of California has experienced the biggest rise.)

And because the global oven was first fired up with the burning of fossil fuels more than 200 years ago, scientists say a certain amount of future warming is already “baked in.”

“We released enough carbon dioxide to continue warming the climate for several centuries to come,” observes Bill Collins, who directs climate and ecological science at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

“If we were to stop emissions entirely of all greenhouse gases right this minute,” he reckons, “we’d see roughly another half a degree centigrade … by the end of the 21st Century.”

That’s almost a full degree (Fahrenheit) already in the pipeline. So even if we shut down all emissions — which is not happening — we might still get to the 3.5 F threshold where scientists say the worst effects of climate change would kick in. (This is normally expressed by scientists as 2 degrees Celsius, which is the same as 3.5 F).

But Wait, There’s More!

“We’re seeing years now that basically blow the roof off of records that have been maintained by the National Climate Data Service back to the late 19th century,” notes Collins — and then a remarkable thought occurs to him:

“None of the students in my classes have grown up in a normal climate,” he adds. “None of them.”

Think about that. On the flipside, if you’re over, say 30 years old and can actually recall “normal,” well, that’s over.

“I have to say that all the projections that were made 30 years ago are still valid,” says Fung. “The only thing we had not anticipated … is that the CO2 increases much faster than we ever thought that it would.”

Despite the pledges made in Paris by nearly every nation in the world (the U.S. is alone among signatories in backing out of the climate accord, under the Trump administration), emissions are still rising. And even those historic commitments — if they’re all kept — won’t be sufficient to turn things around.

“No, we’re already beyond that,” says Fung. “The commitments, I think, are very good start, but they’re just not adequate.”

Don’t Give Up the Ship

All this grim talk might lead one to ask what point there is in trying to reverse the climate train. But recently refined climate models suggest that aggressively cutting emissions could improve future life on Earth in significant ways — or at least blunt the impact of continued warming. It could, for example, reduce periods of extreme heat in Sacramento from two weeks a year to as little as two days. The Sierra snowpack might shrink by “just” 20 percent, rather than 75 percent. That’s the optimistic scenario.

This week’s climate summit will pull together mayors, state and provincial governors, scientists and corporate leaders to keep momentum going with “subnational” actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They’ll be joined by major players such as former Vice President Al Gore and former Secretary of State John Kerry, who signed the Paris accord on behalf of the U.S. with his tiny granddaughter perched on his lap.

One of the themes attendees will discuss is, “key building blocks required to peak global emissions by 2020,” a goal that seems wildly optimistic given current trajectories and with most of 2018 already behind us.

Transportation is the single largest source of climate emissions in California. After leveling off briefly, emissions from cars and trucks have been rising again. (Craig Miller)

“First thing we have to do as a global community is reverse course rather sharply,” says Collins. “We think it is technically feasible.”

Technically feasible, perhaps — but not easy. California, for instance, has the nation’s most aggressive efforts to cut greenhouse gases and overall, it’s working: total emissions are down 13 percent since 2004. And still, climate emissions from cars and trucks have been on the rise in recent years.

“Our cars are literally our time machines,” says Collins.

But unlike Doc Brown’s Delorean in the 1983 film, Back to the Future, Collins says most cars are driving us backwards.

“They’re taking the atmosphere to a chemical state that it has not been in for millions of years.” he says. “Currently, we have as much carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere as we did five million years ago.”

The world 5 millions years ago was not “our” world. There were early ancestors of humans and the first tree sloths, but mammoths had yet to appear.

“Our steam engines, our factories, our cars, in the space of a little over 230 years since the start of industrialization, since the first steam engine,” notes Collins. “In 230 years they’ve taken us back five million years.”

And Collins says we have about 25 years — roughly one generation — to reverse course.

He and Fung both have their glimmers of optimism that technology and the boom in solar, wind and other forms of clean energy could quickly reduce climate emissions. Fung points to the young college students passing by us on campus as her best hope.

“I think I am optimistic about the young people. I’m optimistic that they are taking — they’re very proactive about the future.”

But Fung and Collins agree that time is what’s running out.

Sep 10 2018

7mins

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Rank #17: So, It’s New Year’s Eve … Can You Prevent That Hangover?

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Adam Rogers is a Senior Correspondent for Wired and the author of “Proof: The Science of Booze.” He recently sat down with KQED’s Danielle Venton to talk about the science of hangovers. And yes, they were at a bar. These questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s get right to it: Can you take anything before you drink to prevent a hangover?

There’s nothing anyone has discovered that you can eat before you go out that you can drink as much as you want and not get a hangover. There’s one molecule derived from a plant called Hovenia, the oriental raisin, that seems to actually work in people to lessen the effects of alcohol and to lessen the effects of a hangover. Nobody’s really done the kind of tests in people to figure out how best to administer it and how it works. There have been other compounds that have shown smaller effects; prickly pear is one.

But still, if you have enough alcohol, you’re getting a hangover no matter what.

Yeah, that’s a true thing.

Can you prevent a hangover by drinking one type of alcohol over another? 

Mostly it does not matter what you drink, because it really seems to be a matter of quantity. There is some research that says some alcohols like brown liquors will give you a worse hangover or at least a hangover of a different character than a clear alcohol like gin, or especially vodka, will.

Pure vodka is only ethanol and water, with none of the moleclues called congeners that give different liquors various colors, smells and tastes. Some research has shown congeners can make a hangover worse, but nobody knows which congeners or what the mechanism is.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKwNHpPSzP0

But wait. What is a hangover, anyway? Do we know what alcohol does to the body to make you feel like you have the flu?

The flu’s the right parallel to draw, because the best science that’s there now — and there’s not that much of it — says that a hangover is an inflammatory response. Why it does that, nobody is sure. One of the things people are reasonably sure of is that you start to show signs of a hangover when your blood alcohol level goes back down to zero.

It is true that the kind of damage that alcohol inflicts on the liver if you drink a lot over time is inflammatory damage — when you’re on the way to cirrhosis.

There’s a hypothesis, though it’s not well worked out, that a hangover is related to the toxicity of methanol. The alcohol we drink is ethanol, but in some alcoholic drinks there’s still a tiny bit of methanol. Methanol messes up the body’s ability to metabolize oxygen; when they talk about cheap alcohol making you go blind, they’re talking about methanol.


But it’s a real bummer that there’s actually very little scientists understand confidently about what causes hangovers. Of all the psychoactive chemicals that people consume recreationally, alcohol is one of the least understood. People understand marijuana way better than they understand booze.

The effects of alcoholism are terrible on society. And it is no fun to have a hangover, but being out with friends, drinking — we have whiskey in front of us right now — it’s really fun. Why are humans so drawn to alcohol?

There aren’t a lot of ways that people have to chemically modulate their own feelings. When we find one, we tend to glom onto it. People have been consuming alcohol for at least 10,000 years. It might be the reason we started farming, is to have grains so we can make beer as well as bread.

So we’re talking about the founding of civilization.

We are talking about the founding of civilization. There’s a Faulkner quote, “Civilization is distillation.” And I think he meant it as a metaphor, but I actually like it as more literal-minded. Once you learn how to distill, that’s one of the first examples of scientists having a real impact on the universe around us, literally how we feel and how we see things.

Any last advice for drinkers on New Year’s Eve? 

To the extent that I would give advice, here it is: Try to remember to drink a glass of water or seltzer in between each drink. You’re going to drink, okay, but you want that experience to slow down, because alcohol will screw with your sense of time. Also, the reason you’re out having those drinks is for the theater of it, to experience the feelings that the alcohol gives you, and to meet with your friends. You don’t want to rush that.

Dec 31 2018

4mins

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Rank #18: Oakland Zoo Makes Room for Big Predators. But Is it Enough?

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On a sunny, crisp day in April, LeRoy Little Bear and a dozen other tribal members from the Blackfeet Nation sang and danced a traditional rite to honor fourteen American bison they brought from Montana to the Oakland Zoo.

“Today is a very historic day because we’ve brought down buffalo that were almost extinct,” announced Little Bear from an overlook above the grazing herd.

These bison are rare, he said, because they haven’t been bred with cattle, unlike most bison seen today.

“You’re getting full-blood buffalo from the way they used to be,” Little Bear proclaimed with visible pride.

Tribal members from the Blackfeet Nation sing together to honor and welcome fourteen bison they brought from Montana to their new home at Oakland Zoo. (Sarah Craig)

The bison are one of eight species at California Trail, the Zoo’s new exhibit hosting animals native — or once native to California. It’s  scheduled to open to the public in July 12.

Amy Gotliffe, the zoo’s conservation director, says the exhibit is a way to, “show people from the Bay Area what beautiful biodiverse wildlife we live with now, lived with before and could live with again.”

The bison, she says, are an example of how the zoo is trying to support animals in the wild. They will breed the bison and send the offspring back to the tribe to repopulate the wild herd.

[contextly_sidebar id=”aTk151tBzHueIylie0dSc9QmqJtX4Gam”]The zoo is also supporting a range of conservation efforts for each of their new animals, which include mountain lions, wolves, jaguars, California condors, bald eagles, black bears — even the long-extirpated grizzly bear.

For example, the four black bears at the zoo — a mother and her three cubs — were rescued from Pine Mountain Club in Kern County.

“There was a possibility of them all being put down because they were considered a nuisance,” said Gotliffe.

The zoo is partnering with the Bear League in Tahoe that helps to deter black bears from wandering into human areas.

Jaklyn Mistaken Chief, 12, and Dallis Mistaken Chief, 9, from the Blood Tribe, offer the “Fancy Shawl” dance during a ceremony to welcome fourteen bison brought from the Blackfeet Nation in Montana. (Sarah Craig)

The zoo also rescued four grizzly cubs from Alaska, and three mountain lion cubs, one from El Dorado County and two from Orange County. (The original California Grizzly is considered extinct, hunted out nearly a century ago.)

“The mountain lions are another story,” said Gotliffe, “They were all found abandoned [as cubs] on the side of the road.”

The zoo is working with the Mountain Lion Foundation and the Bay Area Puma Project and has created a task force called the Bay Area Cougar Action Team.

There’s also a plan to help California condors and bald eagles recover from lead bullet poisoning and then release them back into the wild.

In order to support all these partnerships, the zoo contributes 50 cents of its admission price ($22 for adults) as well as a portion of future Zoo membership fees, to conservation funds. Managers expect to raise at least a quarter of a million dollars this fiscal year for conservation.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or AZA, recommends that zoos under its accreditation — like the Oakland Zoo — spend at least three percent of their revenue for conservation.

Gotliffe says they aren’t there yet, but they “have that goal in mind.”

She says with the opening of California Trail, which cost $80 million dollars and more than doubled the size of the zoo, they “will definitely be there.”

Fourteen bison graze on native grasslands in their new exhibit at Oakland Zoo, in what was once part of Knowland Park. (Sarah Craig)

Ironically, to achieve these conservation goals, the zoo expanded into 57 acres of Knowland Park, cutting into habitat for the threatened Alameda striped racer — also known as the Alameda whipsnake — and the California red-legged frog.

This angered park advocates who formed an organization called Friends of Knowland Park. In 2011, they waged a losing legal battle against the zoo and the City of Oakland, arguing that the city didn’t fully mitigate for impacts to the Alameda striped racer, native grasslands and sensitive plant species, like the Oakland star tulip and bristly leptosiphon.

[contextly_sidebar id=”Zzzpoj8QtT25UzxkQDqfkHX9iaAUm5po”]Under the existing requirements, the zoo must set aside 13 acres for native grasslands and 53 acres for the striped racer.

“We don’t know if the snake is going to go into an animal enclosure and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing,” said Shawn Smallwood, an independent biologist from UC Davis hired by Friends of Knowland Park to review the zoo’s plan.

But, he added, when you are dealing with an endangered species you must err on the side of caution.

“It’s just been so political,” says Karen Swain, the biologist hired by the zoo to monitor the frog and the snake during construction. She’s tasked with making sure construction workers don’t harm the snake.

“I’ve had to walk this honest line for what the biology is.”

In a way, the zoo is walking its own line: even making adequate space for its own animals remains controversial.

Heather Paddock and her fellow zookeeper rake old hay away from the feeding areas for the zoo’s fourteen American bison. (Sarah Craig/KQED)

“We are trying to provide these guys with as varied of an environment as possible, to help them not be sitting around all day bored,” says Heather Paddock, one of the zookeepers in charge of the black bears.

The bears have more than an acre, dotted with dens, oak trees — even a swimming pool. The zoo says the bears exhibit, as well as all of their new exhibits, exceed the industry’s best standards.

But Mark Bekoff, an Emeritus Professor of Ecology who studies animal behavior at the University of Colorado, says zoos shouldn’t keep large predators because of their need to roam vast distances and hunt prey.

One of the black bear cubs wanders over to the glass of his enclosure, which is over an acre and features three dens, oak trees and a swimming pool. (Sarah Craig/KQED)

“Wide-ranging carnivores are among the animals who suffer the most when they are put into a cage,” he said, referencing a 2014 study published in Nature.

While Bekoff agrees that zoos should take in animals who have nowhere else to go, like these bears, he wants them to have more choice and control over their lives.

Zookeeper Paddock said she is trying to compensate for this with training and enrichment activities.

“We are providing them enrichment every single day, whether that’s a new food item or a new device, a toy, a new scent,” she said as she fed the black bears a mixture of bird seed, mealworms, romaine lettuce and oranges.

But Bekoff maintains that animals need privacy, too.

“Because let’s face it,” he says, “zoos bring animals in as money makers and so many animals in zoos suffer from boredom or stress from being unable to get out of the public’s eye.”

Heather Paddock, a zookeeper for the Oakland Zoo’s new exhibit, prepares a food enrichment activity for the zoo’s four black bears. She pours bird seed and mealworms into large round containers and tapes off the holes to make it harder for the bears to get the food. (Sarah Craig)

But Paddock says the public needs to connect with these animals so they care about saving them in the wild.

“You know the wild isn’t butterflies and rainbows for a lot of these animals,” she says. “They’re getting pushed further and further to the fringe of wild spaces.”

Ultimately, that fringe habitat could be the last refuge — for both snakes and bears — because there just isn’t enough wild space left.

A major new expansion doubling the size of the Oakland Zoo, called California Trails, opens July 12, and features eight species native or once native to California, a gondola and hilltop restaurant. Source: The Oakland Zoo

Jul 02 2018

4mins

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Rank #19: Let’s Talk Thor’s Hammer and Wakanda … Sciencewise

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The season of summer blockbusters is in full swing. From the rollicking space adventure of “Solo,” to the universe-spanning “Avengers: Infinity War,” characters are dodging blasters, collecting stones of power, and falling in love as their world hangs in peril.

‘We’re not trying to be the accuracy police. For us, it’s a lot more about inspiration.’Rick Loverd,
Science & Entertainment Exchange

It’s a lot of popcorn, and whole lot of fun. It’s also a chance to lose yourself in new imaginary worlds. Sometimes what you see on screen can become inspiration for real life.

“The number of present-day scientists who might point to a character like Spock as a point of inspiration that got them interested in science is many,” says Rick Loverd, program director of the Science & Entertainment Exchange, a project of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It’s our job here at the Exchange to try to facilitate as many of those moments as possible for the next generation of kids.”

The service is free and works best, Loverd says, when a researcher connects with a storyteller early on, while the project is still being envisioned.

“While we’re happy to help at anytime,” Loverd says, “we’re most excited by those projects where a screenwriter calls us up and says, ‘Hey, I just had an idea. It involves time travel and I’d love to talk to a scientist.'”

Loverd helped “Black Panther” movie makers conceive the city of Wakanda, for example, finding architects, city planners and anthropologists to contribute to a document the crew used as a reference for the history, culture and layout of Wakanda.

Lovered recently spoke with KQED Science editor Danielle Venton about what science can offer to Hollywood.

Black Panther toys are displayed to attendees at the Hasbro showroom during the annual New York Toy Fair, on February 20, 2018, in New York. (EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

DANIELLE VENTON: I wanted to know, is this really about getting the science right?

RICK LOVERD: For us, we’re not trying to be the accuracy police and the least interesting consults for us, though we’re happy to do them, are the ones where we’re just fact checking. For us it’s a lot more about inspiration and about giving storytellers ideas.

DV: What’s an example or two of a Hollywood movie that really got the science right?

RL: I’d like to say that it’s not always important to get the science right. You know, especially in the narrative summer popcorn movie. Some of the more exciting science moments for me have come in Marvel films, not necessarily because they have deadly accuracy in them, but because they’re seen by so many people. And a character like Shuri from “Black Panther,” has an opportunity to inspire a lot of kids into science and engineering.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2LqzF5WauAw

Also another example that I like is “Interstellar.” Because the visualization of the black hole actually was based on a Nobel Laureate’s work. We hear about black holes our whole lives and we kind of have this image of the absence of light. But when you see it in “Interstellar,” it’s actually quite vibrant and bright. I think that moment of wonder when you see the unexpected and then you later find out that there’s some truth to it, those are really the moments that the Science & Entertainment Exchange tries to facilitate.

DV: I gotta say though as someone who has a science degree, when I’m watching a movie and there is something just obviously inaccurate it completely pulls me out of the story. I might be a curmudgeon but I can’t suspend my belief if I’m like, ‘Oh, that definitely couldn’t happen.’

[contextly_sidebar id=”uK4SZByLMh3UzYH99lxqWsSmDzKpBgWc”]RL: I can tell you that that is something that no filmmaker wants. But I don’t think that these mistakes usually are intentionally done, and when they are intentionally done I actually have no problem with the idea of a storyteller knowing what the facts are, and then saying, ‘You know what? It’s going to serve my story better to not be completely accurate in this situation.’

DV: Some of my colleagues who are extreme movie fans had a couple of extra questions for you, if you’re game.

RL: Okay, alright.

DV: Alright, if you had unlimited resources, which company would you hire to build a real Iron Man suit?

RL: There are places like the Media lab at MIT where there’s just such a trove of brilliant minds that I would definitely feel comfortable that they’d be able to make something pretty spectacular, given unlimited resources.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ue80QwXMRHg

DV: To the best of your knowledge what is Thor’s hammer composed of?

RL: Well it was forged in a dying star, so it’s gotta be made of some exotic materials that are super dense. Actually, there are materials that exist, I understand, in dying stars in our universe that are extraordinarily dense that could be targets for something like Thor’s hammer. I don’t know exactly, other than the magic of the character and the mystique of Thor, why one person would be able to lift it and another person would not, though.

DV: That’s a mystery that will have to stand.

Jun 11 2018

5mins

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Rank #20: What You Need to Know About the Food Dye in Holiday Treats

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Unlike most kids, Alex Bevans scrutinizes the ingredient list before he eats anything. In the candy aisle of a grocery store in Carson City, Nevada, the 14-year-old scowls as he reads the label on a bag of lollipops,

“Get this,” Alex said. “It has Red 40, Red 3, Yellow 5, Blue 1, Blue 2, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6.”

His mom, Rebecca, reached for the bag then gave her assessment: “Yeah, that’s completely toxic.”

Each pigment affects Alex differently, Rebecca said.

“So red … he can’t pay attention and he’s impulsive. Green makes him manic. Blue makes him grumpy and tired. Yellow is the worst. He’s explosive and it leads to suicidal ideation.”

Alex is not alone in these types of reactions, says Lisa Lefferts, a senior scientist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“We’ve been contacted by over 2,000 families reporting their experiences with food dyes,” she said. “The parents say that when their child is off of dyes they’re just lovely children. On dyes they’re like a completely different person.”

Surprising foods containing chemical food coloring like microwave popcorn, cough medicine, peanut butter and beef jerky. (Lindsey Moore/KQED)

European Protections

Lefferts is lobbying the Food and Drug Administration to follow Europe’s example on dyes: The E.U. requires manufacturers to add a warning label to foods with artificial coloring that says they “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”

Most European companies avoid the label by switching to natural dyes like beet juice and Spirulina extract. A few American companies have followed suit. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese now uses turmeric and paprika to turn its noodles bright yellow. But substitutions like these aren’t widespread in the U.S, because natural dyes are more expensive and less stable.

The FDA has approved nine colors for use in processed food and other products like sunscreen, cough syrup and pills. The synthetic additives are made from petroleum and are contained in at least 90% of candies, fruit-flavored snacks, and drink mixes marketed to kids. It’s also in 40% of all food products designed for children. The agency has determined there’s not enough evidence to support adding a warning label to these products, and in 2011, after reviewing 35 years of research, it declined to impose any new regulations on manufacturers.

The FDA website currently says, “The totality of scientific evidence indicates that most children have no adverse effects when consuming foods containing color additives, but some evidence suggests that certain children may be sensitive to them.”

Shaky or Sound Science?

Joel Nigg, psychologist and researcher at Oregon Health and Science University, followed up on the FDA probe with a comprehensive review, published in 2015, of all the human clinical trials related to synthetic color additives. The article concluded that restricting the chemicals for some kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder does have a notable effect, but he agrees that the evidence is on the weak side because it relies on dated, often small studies.

“One can question whether [the underlying studies] are convincing,” Nigg said. “But they do show a causal effect if taken at face value.”

A 2007 human clinical trial known as the Southampton study is often highlighted in the debate. British researchers gave kids beverages with synthetic food coloring in opaque containers. Afterwards, observers noted an increase in child hyperactivity. This replicated a prior similar study.  But skeptics have noted that not all the dyes were FDA approved. Plus the behavioral changes were not as noticeable for teachers and independent people as for parents.

Nigg and colleagues estimate that 5-10% of kids with ADHD may be sensitive to synthetic food coloring. That’s tens of thousands of children who could be exposed to a preventable influence on their ADHD. 

Worst-Case Scenario

But for Rebecca, all the evidence she needed was right there in her son. She remembered the moment she began connecting Alex’s diet to strange behavior. He was in second grade and complained he couldn’t focus because his brain was buzzing.

“It’s like if you played a decibel machine and you just kept turning the tone and the sound up,” Alex said. “It just got really ear-piercing.”

Then there were the meltdowns. Several times or more a day, small frustrations resulted in crying fits. “It was like I was trapped by myself and I couldn’t escape the feelings,” Alex said.

Rebecca shuddered as she recounted an episode when Alex was seven. He was shredding his clothes and scratching himself on his bed. “He looked at me and said, ‘Please get me a knife. I want to kill myself. I don’t want to live like this anymore.’”

The family doctor had no clear answers for her, so Rebecca turned to the internet. She began cutting things out of Alex’s diet like dairy, gluten, eggs, sugar, corn syrup and preservatives. The family tried behavioral then cognitive behavioral therapy. Nothing worked. Finally, one night Rebecca stumbled across a teenager’s blog post about an extreme reaction to red food coloring. Rebecca wondered if that was why Alex struggled with erratic mood swings. She decided to cut dyes out of Alex’s diet.

At first, Alex crashed like a detoxing addict. He could hardly get out of bed, and his body was sore to the touch. But within days, both the suicidal thoughts and the tantrums disappeared.

“It completely changed who I was,” he said. “I could finally focus.”

The dramatic change inspired Rebecca to share her family’s story in a TEDX talk.

The Bevans hoped Alex would grow out of his sensitivity, but seven years later he continues to experience negative reactions every time he accidentally eats something with chemical food coloring.

Back on the Table

The American Academy of Pediatrics said in a 2018 policy statement that “artificial food colors may be associated with exacerbation of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms.”

 “The AAP has concerns about the limited safety testing available on chemicals intentionally and unintentionally added to foods, including food dyes,” said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, who co-wrote the statement. “There are safe and simple steps families can take to limit children’s exposure to these chemicals.”

Nigg says even though more robust research is needed, it’s clear that synthetic food coloring is not benign. The good news, he says, is that the behavioral shifts triggered by the chemicals appear to usually last less than a week.

“I think we’ll be surprised in the future that we were so laissez-faire about adding so many synthetic chemicals and thinking they wouldn’t do anything to children’s brains,” said Nigg.

The issue is back on the table at the federal and state levels, too. Scientists at the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment are conducting a risk assessment to determine if artificial colors impact neurobehavioral or neurological processes. The agency  expects a conclusive report next summer. And, the FDA recently asked its science board to assess whether new studies warrant another literature review.

Dec 02 2019

5mins

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Ten Simple Rules for Building an Anti-Racist Research Lab

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Black, Latino and indigenous people are severely under-represented as learners and teachers of science, technology, engineering and math in academia. The lack of diversity has been documented for decades with little or no improvement. Minority youths experience bias, discrimination and harassment, contributing to persistent power imbalances.

As the societal reckoning over systemic racism reaches into the halls of universities, two researchers, who are heads of ecology and Earth science labs, wrote a paper with recommendations for how professors can take steps to protect their students and create a more welcoming environment.

The paper, “Ten simple rules for building an anti-racist lab,” is currently in review with PLOS Computational Biology. The authors, V. Bala Chaudhary and Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, emphasise that the list is a simple starting point and not meant to be comprehensive. KQED spoke with Berhe, who heads a research group studying soils and climate at UC Merced.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What motivated you to write this paper?

Bala Chaudhary, the co-author, and I, have both been very active on Twitter around these issues for a long time. In the last few weeks, what happened with George Floyd and with Amy Cooper in New York started a lot of discussion within the academic community on Twitter and in general about what we do — how do we move forward? Society as a whole is having a reckoning with these issues.

Ten Simple Rules for Building an Anti-Racist Lab

Rule 1: Lead informed discussions about anti-racism in your lab regularly
Rule 2: Address racism in your lab and field safety guidelines
Rule 3: Publish papers and write grants with BIPOC colleagues
Rule 4: Evaluate your lab’s mentoring practices
Rule 5: Amplify voices of BIPOC scientists in your field
Rule 6: Support POC in their efforts to organize
Rule 7: Intentionally recruit BIPOC students and staff
Rule 8: Adopt a dynamic research agenda
Rule 9: Advocate for racially diverse leadership in science
Rule 10: Hold the powerful accountable and don’t expect gratitude

But let’s be real, our academic institutions also face very, very similar concerns. I think the issue in New York hit a chord with Earth and environmental scientists because working outside is what we do. It’s what we’re supposed to be doing. But it’s a concern that a lot of Black, indigenous, and people of color have pointed out — how dangerous it can be for us to be out doing fieldwork. By design, the areas that we spend a lot of time in doing fieldwork don’t really have a high population. And we encounter all sorts of people that don’t have, let’s just say, the best intentions, especially when they see somebody that looks like me. They don’t even take me seriously as a scientist.

Many people that I know have come very close to danger in these kinds of encounters. This issue didn’t get the kind of attention it should until there was something so egregious it was undeniable. I think Amy Cooper pointing out the fact that he’s African American multiple times as a threat hit a chord with a lot of people. I think the message finally got across that this is real.

Bala had worked on a similar [10 simple rules] article with a group in Germany about lab management and she had this great idea. A whole lot of people seem to be willing to listen right now, but they don’t know where to start.

So — ‘10 Simple Rules’?

With the complete acknowledgement that nothing having to do with addressing racism is really simple, right? These are hard questions, hard conversations. But this 10 simple rules format is a pretty popular format for PLOS Computational Biology. And it’s also a way to get a message across for beginners.

I should say here that in academic institutions we’ve done a better job in addressing sexism and issues of women. But we have been very, very hesitant to address issues around race. There’s a lot of reluctance in acknowledging that racism even happens.

We’re geoscientists and ecologists this is not even our expertise but we’ve been forced to study this literature because it’s something we deal with all the time, to try and understand what’s happening to us, what’s happening to other people who look like us. We wanted to make sure we didn’t come across, as it were, saying we’re experts in this, but rather point people to the well-established scholarship in these areas and ideas that we all can embrace in making the situation better.

What’s the reception been?

This has been getting a lot of attention. As you know, there’s a lot of talk in academic institutions right now about how to address issues of racism, and Blackness, in the academy. I mean, the National Academies have come up with tons of reports on these topics over the years. Right? So we wanted to cut across all of that. Right now, with the people that you’re mentoring, in labs that you’re managing, you can do some things differently and improve the working conditions for people you have influence over.

And I’m pleasantly surprised with the kind of attention that it’s been getting and the number of people who’ve reached out to say this was in our lab group discussion, first thing. We moved everything away to go over this together with our groups and make sure that our mentees know we have their back. And yeah, that’s kind of what was the whole point.

If you had a magic wand and could choose just three rules that all labs would implement, which would they be?

The first one I’d point out was recently brought to light on Twitter by a geophysicist who was doing fieldwork and came into contact with neo-Nazis and was terrified for his life. It’s our Rule 2 — ‘Address racism in your lab and field safety guidelines.’ I’ve been a long proponent of people saying if you’re going to send people of color out into nature, into uninhabited areas, you need to figure out a way to at least make sure they have a partner. And that they have communications, a way to reach help with radio, phone or satellite phone.

https://twitter.com/blckthghtz/status/1274882680233103360

I’d also select Rule 3 ‘Publish papers and write grants with BIPOC colleagues.’ A lot of scientists would tell you that they are adopting great broader impact statements. They are mentoring and recruiting people to work in their labs to expose them to science. But in reality, they are doing little tasks, never really becoming part of the big intellectual endeavors, never given an opportunity to basically make intellectual contributions, which are the things that matter. It’s the only currency we respect in the academy. So when you bring in an underrepresented scholar student to work in your lab, make sure that they actually get a chance to be part of the big papers and grants that you write, not just a paper published in the student journal somewhere in the back.

And the third one, now that I have tenured job security, I will say, is Rule No. 10 ‘Hold the powerful accountable.’ Many, many academic institutions talk a big game about diversity and equity and inclusion. And they have a chief diversity officer or the vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion in this and that. And they have many, many, many initiatives that are great and work well if they are adopted by departments and faculty. But they are goodwill efforts. There’s no enforcement mechanism. The only people who actually carry out the recommendations are the already converted.

Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, second from left, and students doing fieldwork. Having a safety plan when working in remote regions is one of the “10 simple rules” for building an anti-racist lab. (Berhe lab, used with permission.)

This means we’re left with pockets of resistance in academic institutions that for too long don’t do anything. In fact, they end up becoming pretty toxic places, a terrible workplace climate for a very, very long time. We need to push our institutions to do better, not just with coming up with great ideas, but actually enforcing them.

So academics are pretty notorious for how we judge people who mishandle data or engage in plagiarism. We are very, very quick to kick people out of this exclusive club if they try anything like that. But think about how hesitant we are to take to task people who mistreat individuals who actually produce that data and text. One of the arguments we’ve been pushing is, if data fabrication and plagiarism constitute scientific misconduct or scholarly misconduct, there is no reason why harassment and discrimination should not rise to that level. The people who produced this data and knowledge in the text should be as valuable as the data and text. Mistreating people is also scholarly misconduct.

Do you see a willingness to change?

I feel like this veil has finally been lifted and it’s kind of hard to put it back. There are still plenty of pockets of resistance, but I think overall there is a broader desire for change. I do feel like things are changing for the better.

What do you expect the peer review process to be like?

It’s a little hard to judge because, you know, an anti-racist agenda is not necessarily something that PLOS Computational Biology deals with. So I’m expecting that it would be either really smooth because most people don’t really see anything negative with what we’re up to here. Or this could turn into a discussion about what this whole field of race theory is all about.

I thought it was interesting to read about how more diverse research groups lead to better science.

That’s been documented for decades.

It makes sense. Newsrooms are better when they are more diverse.

It’s exactly the same idea. You come up with more novel ideas, more novel ways of presenting the work. And it tends to lead more citations and more influential work.

And it’s also just the right thing to do, right?

Right. Any of us who work in public institutions of higher learning, we’re not doing anybody any favors when we actually make sure that we represent the population of the state or the country with equitable workplaces and inclusive practices. The public taxpayers that are made up of a diverse population are paying to let us do this job that we like. So I don’t want anybody to see this as a favor they’re doing to the brown and Black people or something like that. Those people pay you to be here. It’s literally your job [as a public institution] to represent the public.

Jul 13 2020

4mins

Play

When Picky Eating Becomes a Dangerous Disorder

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At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Margo Henderson ordered a lot of takeout pizza and quesadillas. But she worried that the greasy comfort foods she indulged in at the pandemic’s outset had nudged her down a slippery slope.

For most of her 29 years, Henderson has grappled with an eating disorder that caused a deep aversion, even disgust, for most foods.

“I grew up pretty much on an all-beige diet,” she said, perched on the edge of her weathered leather couch in a sparsely furnished San Francisco apartment. “Absolutely nothing green. No fruits or vegetables. I pretty much had the palate of a 4-year-old until I was 25.”

When she was a child, her mother tried bribing her with treats. Sometimes her mom refused to let her leave the table if she didn’t eat something other than bread and pasta. When those tactics failed, her mother dragged her to pediatricians, dieticians and even a hypnotist. The specialists shrugged off her intolerant palate as age-related.

But fussy eating was more than a phase. Even into adulthood, Henderson preferred the kids menu. She cringed at the sight and smell of certain foods, especially cold and crunchy items like salads or pickles. Her stomach lurched when she neared the produce section of a grocery story. While a lot of people will opt for the fries instead of the salad, just the sight of lettuce next to a burger nauseated Henderson. Her worst nightmare was a boxed lunch.

“Like, God forbid someone gave me a turkey sandwich with soggy lettuce and tomato that’s been all touching,” said Henderson. “Even if you were sitting next to me eating a carrot stick or a celery stick, I’d gag.”

As the years passed, her limited diet led to greater isolation. She always had a menu of excuses at the ready in case of invitations: Let’s just do drinks. I’m not hungry. I don’t want dinner.

“Food was such an anxious thing in my life,” she said. “I definitely tried to steer away from it. I had such a strong physical reaction to being around food, let alone eating it.”

Though Henderson was never diagnosed with any medical complications stemming from her restricted eating habits, she frequently felt sluggish.

“It definitely affected my energy level,” she said. “My skin was really gray-looking.”

She knew something was wrong, but what? She didn’t have a name for it, let alone a solution.

A New Diagnosis

Then one night while surfing the web, Henderson stumbled across a link on avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, or ARFID. She was stunned. For the first time in her life, she read about other people who were repulsed by certain flavors, aromas and textures.

Doctors are still studying what causes the illness. Unlike other eating disorders, it’s not related to body image. Early research suggests that people who have ARFID are not just extreme versions of a choosy young eater, but potentially “supertasters.”

“Meaning that their palates are much more sensitive and they taste things in a really intense way,” said Erin Accurso, clinical director of the UCSF Eating Disorders Program.

A traumatic event like a choking incident or a bad case of food poisoning can trigger the disorder, Accurso says. Over time, someone’s initially small roster of disliked foods tends to lengthen, until their eating selection has become uncommonly narrow.

Common behaviors include food avoidance, loss of appetite, abdominal pain and fear of vomiting. Eventually, ARFID can lead to nutritional deficiencies, weight loss and depression. One British teenager who ate only chips, sausages, processed ham and white bread lost his sight permanently after malnutrition led to optic nerve damage.

Henderson and her doctors speculate her sensitivities stemmed from a childhood illness called sensory processing disorder.

“I think my brain incorrectly processed sensory information like the textures and smells of foods,” said Henderson. “Instead of recognizing some foods as healthy, my brain would try to protect me. That’s how I developed a gag reflex.”

Doctors Treating More Cases

ARFID is a recent addition to the psychiatric bible, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, or DSM-5.

Accurso says preliminary studies suggest about 1 in 20 kids may have the illness. Nancy Zucker, director of the Duke Center for Eating Disorders, says about 30% of calls to the center were related to ARFID between November and January last year.

“It’s an illness that we are really hearing more about in our field,” said Claire Mysko, the chief executive officer of the National Eating Disorders Association.

Research suggests the disorder can occur in individuals of all ages, although it usually presents before age 12 and is more common in males. Experts theorize that doctors routinely misdiagnose ARFID for anorexia.

Clinicians are experimenting with treatments. Henderson’s doctors helped her dissect her reflexive aversions to foods like kale and cucumber juice.

“Oh, it’s green, and the thought is like, green is bad, vegetables are bad,” Henderson said. “And it’s kind of funny when you really sit there to break down your thoughts, you’re like, these are kind of ridiculous statements.”

Over time, counselors encouraged her to try foods she despised. Then they would role-play social eating situations to help relieve anxiety around meals. Just as the coronavirus was starting to spread, Henderson was enjoying eating out with friends for the first time in her life. Now, she is using the forced time at home to sharpen her cooking skills; she eats healthier when she’s the chef.

“I think it has something to do with control,” she said, smiling.

Jun 24 2020

4mins

Play

And Now … Fire Season. This Year, It’s Especially Important to Prepare. Here’s How

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Wildfire season is not going to wait for the COVID-19 pandemic to subside. After a winter of lackluster rainfall, Northern California is facing a worse-than-average outlook.

Preparing for these inevitable fires is extra important right now. First responders and emergency managers this year will not only have to cope with the already difficult task of addressing wildfires that have burned increasingly out of control in the age of climate change, but also do it in the midst of a public health emergency the nation has not seen the likes of in 100 years

In a sign of the increasing difficulty that fire protection now poses, Cal Fire is asking people to self-certify their compliance with defensible space requirements. “With COVID-19 restrictions limiting Cal Fire’s ability to conduct annual defensible space inspections this year, property owners are urged to conduct a Defensible Space Self-Assessment,” the agency said in a press release.

Anthony Gossner, chief of the Santa Rosa Fire Department, during a virtual town hall stressed the importance of self-sufficiency. He said that during emergencies residents should not assume local governments can handle all their needs, “because there’s just not enough of us to do it. So we really rely on … folks to be in a position to help their neighbors and help themselves.”

Fire preparedness is multifaceted. Here are some guidelines and advice to get you ready.

Prepare the Outside of Your Home

If you live in a fire-prone area, sometimes called the “wildland urban interface,” creating what’s called “defensible space” is an important way to slow the spread of fires, increasing the chance of your home’s survival. Think of defensible space as a buffer zone, free of anything likely to catch fire.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uawt5fTLU6Q&feature=youtu.be

Cal Fire asks homeowners to think about two zones of defensible space. The first extends 30 feet from homes, outbuildings and decks:

  • Remove overhanging and dead branches. All branches should be a minimum of 10 feet away from your chimney and other trees.
  • All dead vegetation should be removed.
  • Clear dry leaves and pine needles from the yard, roof and rain gutters.
  • Move wood piles to Zone 2.

Zone 2 extends from the end of Zone 1 to 100 feet out from your home, structures and deck:

  • Here, mow annual grasses down to 4 inches or less, and create horizontal and vertical spaces between vegetation.
  • Don’t let fallen leaves, needles, twigs, bark, cones and small branches accumulate more than 3 inches high.

Find detailed instructions at Readyforwildfire.org

One thing people don’t think about a lot is to make sure their home address is clearly visible. You should; that way, if you call for emergency help, responders can find you.

‘Harden’ Your Home Against Wildfire

Many homes that burn in a wildfire are never in the path of flames, but ignite from flying embers and firebrands that can accumulate in eaves or drift into vents. Hardening homes against fire can be as inexpensive as installing screens over vents and as pricey as installing new windows, roofing or siding.

Find detailed information here, including a low-cost retrofit list.

Proposed legislation from Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, aims to provide financial assistance for home hardening by establishing a $1 billion fund to distribute rebates and low-cost loans to Californians for home retrofits. But Gov. Gavin Newsom has not committed to the measure.

The Listos (Spanish for “ready”) California Emergency Preparedness Campaign works with community organizations to encourage state residents to prepare for disasters. (Listoscalifornia.org)

Have a Go Bag Ready

There are three reasons people tend to put off preparing for a disaster, says Karen Baker, co-chair of the Listos California Emergency Preparedness Campaign. “They either find it scary, expensive,  and/or time-consuming,” she said.

Listos tries to overcome those qualms with a simple readiness guide, available in English and Spanish.

The organization recommends packing up some items in advance so you can get out of the house quickly if you need to. If cost is a concern, you can assemble the kits over time.

Recommended items to pack beforehand:

  • Documents: copies of insurance, identification, and other important papers and photos
  • Cash: $1 and $5 bills are best
  • Map: with different routes out of your neighborhood marked
  • Medications list: Include all prescriptions and other important medical information.
  • Portable radio
  • Flashlight

To grab on your way out the door:

  • Wallet, purse, keys
  • Phone and charger
  • Medicine
  • Portable computer
  • First aid supplies, N95 masks, hand sanitizer, wipes
  • Change of clothes
  • Anything else needed by people or animals in your household

Create a plan for your household in the event of a wildfire emergency. (See Cal Fire’s wildfire action plan checklist.)  And be sure you’re signed up to receive emergency alerts for your area. You can sign up here.

Expect Smoky Days

How to Protect Yourself From Wildfire Smoke

With fire comes smoke. That’s a special concern this year as air pollution has been associated with an increased risk of death from COVID-19.

You can get smoke advisories, forecasts and current fire conditions through the federal government’s AirNow website.

How to protect yourself from wildfire smoke: 

  • Keep windows and doors closed.
  • Use fans and air conditioners to stay cool.
  • Know how the ventilation system in your home works and close the outdoor air damper, if there is one.
  • Avoid making indoor air pollution any worse by smoking cigarettes, spraying aerosols, frying food or burning  candles or incense.
  • Buy an air cleaner (also called an air purifier) that doesn’t produce ozone and has a  HEPA filter. Designate a “clean-air room” in your home for  smoky days. (The Environmental Protection Agency has a guide for air cleaners in the home.)

These devices can be a few hundred dollars and hard to obtain during bad fires, so think about buying one in advance of fire season. In California, few resources exist to help low-income people afford these devices, other than an asthma intervention program in Fresno, which provides enrollees with air cleaners for a year. In years past, some counties have set up “clean air shelters” during smoky days, and this year those have to take into account social distancing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance for clean air shelters with the prevention of COVID-19 transmission in mind, but you’ll probably find it easiest if you can shelter at home.

People Power

One theme running through the advice of fire and emergency officials this year: Your social network is one of your most important safety tools. “Really, when it comes down to a ‘no-notice’ event, like a fast-running wildland fire through your neighborhood, it really is neighbor helping neighbor,“ said Santa Rosa Fire Chief Gossner.

Emergency Resource Websites

211CA.org
Dial 211 for evacuation routes, shelters.

CalAlerts.org
Sign up to get your County’s alerts.

Earthquake.ca.gov
Get MyShake earthquake warning app.

Response.ca.gov
Real-time wildfire & shelter news.

Ready.gov
Resources to prepare for any disaster.

That means it’s time to think about who in your neighborhood might need help getting ready for fire season. Maybe they’re elderly and could use some help trimming vegetation. During an evacuation order, who will you check on and who will check on you? Write down their names and contact information, pack the list in your go bag, and share it with others for back up. At least one person on your list should live outside your area to ensure you’re not relying on someone who also might be affected by the fire.

Even if this feels overwhelming or scary, the time to do it is now. Every step you can take  toward preparedness makes you, your family, and your community a little bit safer.

Jun 08 2020

4mins

Play

Big Push: Probing Virus Genomes for Clues to Contain COVID-19 Outbreaks

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As California cities and counties begin a gradual loosening of restrictions on daily life, researchers around the state and nation are ramping up efforts to track the coronavirus’ evolution. Monitoring changes in its genetic code will help contain the virus on two fronts: pointing toward areas for therapeutic drugs or vaccines to target and aiding the work of disease tracers, as they work to prevent the spread of new outbreaks.

At the beginning of this month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the formation of a consortium to expand sequencing of the COVID-19 virus. In California, one federal lab, five campuses in the UC system, along with several biotech companies and nonprofit laboratories are participating in the effort.

Expanding Early Efforts

The first readout of the genome was released on Jan. 10 by scientists in China, just one month after the first report of pneumonia caused by an unknown virus. In the following weeks dozens — and in the following months thousands — of additional genome sequences were added. Online public repositories, such as GISAID, illustrate the virus’ spread around the globe (if messily).

As viruses spread from person to person, they randomly accumulate mutations. Some scientists informally call these “typos,” as they reflect letters that change in the RNA sequence. Usually it starts with a single typo, but as these are passed on during viral transmission, and new typos accumulate, the virus branches into lineages.

Genomic sequences suggest that the virus was introduced in the United States via multiple routes. Both Washington and California had early outbreaks. But some early California cases do not share the distinctive mutations of those in Washington, and likely arrived in the U.S. separately from China. In New York City, one of the nation’s worst-hit regions, the majority of cases are most similar to viruses circulating in Europe.

Tracking Outbreaks

As people relax their distancing, new outbreaks are all but assured. This nationwide sequencing effort, participants hope, will help with tracking and point toward undetected pockets of infection.

“A lockdown can never be perfect and there will be some pocket somewhere,” warns Peter Forster, a geneticist at University of Cambridge, who has published an analysis looking at genomes of the coronavirus in Europe and around the world.

As an example of how this tracing could work, imagine feeling sick and testing positive for the COVID-19 virus. You, or the public health department, alert all of your closest contacts. But to have the best chance of quashing the outbreak, health officials need to know where you got the infection. Here is where genomic sequencing can help.

Is your virus most similar to those circulating in New York? If so, perhaps you should tell your cousin who visited from Brooklyn that they should also quarantine for two weeks. Or does your virus have mutations most similar to those seen in Washington state? If so, it may be a different acquaintance, friend, co-worker or family member who should isolate themselves.

Spotting New Mutations, Guiding New Treatments

Stacia Wyman is a scientist participating in the CDC consortium at the Innovative Genomics Institute on the UC Berkeley campus, where they are analyzing patient samples for results. For every positive result the lab will try to sequence the genome of the virus in that patient. (In some cases, where the viral load is especially low, the genome cannot be accurately sequenced.) The information will illustrate which areas of the virus mutate quickly and which are slower to change. The slow-changing areas are ripe for attack.

“It is typical that in viruses or in genomes in general, even in humans, locations that have a very important function tend to evolve very slowly,” Wyman said.

In those certain locations, she says, if a mutation occurs it tends to cause disease or disrupt the function of the organism. (Viruses don’t quite qualify as organisms, but they do have genetic material and if they mutate in the wrong spot, they may not be able to replicate.) Those slow-changing areas are useful for scientists to identify, as they search for effective drugs or vaccines.

Drugs operate by taking aim at specific proteins and either interrupt the job they were going to do or mimic their effect. Proteins are the workhorses of the cell, carrying out the tasks of construction, destruction and replication. A gene codes for (in effect, writes the recipe for) a protein. If the gene sequence changes through a mutation, the shape of the resulting protein may also change. A drug targeting that protein may no longer work.

“And so when you have a therapy, it’s going to target a specific protein or region of a protein that’s going to target a specific locus [on the genome],” said Wyman. “And you want that to be very steady so that when you are coming up with a therapeutic, it is going to be effective for all individuals.”

Despite the steady accumulation of mutations in the genomes of the COVID-19 virus, initial signs are that the virus does not mutate too quickly to be addressed by a vaccine or therapeutic drug.

That’s good news for all of us.

May 12 2020

2mins

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Warning: That Coronavirus News You’re Reading Could Be All Wrong

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From the start of this pandemic, science news has unfolded at a dizzying pace and crushing volume. Scientific research, which usually creeps along in the background until publication day and then pops up to say something worthy, is suddenly making breathtaking international news every few days.

The speed of science research has gone into overdrive and the media horde is hungry for answers. Science is meant to be a slow process of asking questions, then submitting the answers to the kind of vigorous probing ordinary people devote considerable energy to avoiding. After that is when the media report the answers—vetted! peer reviewed! confident!—usually with caveats attached: Areas where questions yet unasked are lingering to be sought after.

But now, studies on COVID-19 therapies and possible therapies and could-be-someday-down-the-road-if-it-proves-out-in-mice-first-therapies make screaming headlines before the studies are vetted to assess their merits or limitations. As a result, the public has heard some contradictory and confusing results, and some claims that are flat-out wrong.

KQED’s Tara Siler spoke with science reporter Danielle Venton about this problem and how to understand the science being reported these days. (Edited for length and clarity.)

Why are people hearing so much science that’s not ready for prime-time?

Danielle Venton: We’re at a time where there’s this brand new problem, a brand new virus. There are so many unanswered questions. There’s a huge need for research and a real desire to get it out quickly. Now, what is also true is that science can be a messy process and things aren’t always correct. Science has a way of correcting itself, but unfortunately, right now, that process is happening in public.

What do you mean by messy process?

So many of the normal safeguards have been glossed over in this desire to get findings out quickly. Dr. Irving Steinberg is a professor of clinical pharmacy and pediatrics at USC. He’s been talking and writing about this issue a lot, and he uses the analogy of working in a sausage factory where production suddenly had to be doubled because people were so hungry:

“You can imagine that there might be some problems that would arise in the back room where science is adjudicated—whether it’s in the lab or whether it’s in the editorial processes—where the sausage is made.

What the public is seeing is some of the spilled sausage out of the casing. You’ve got this sort of spillage of raw sausage. You know it’s a food product, but you don’t know what to do with it at that point. It’s on the floor. It’s dirty. I can’t really put it on the grill. Maybe I can put it into a cast iron pan? We’ve left to the public too many things to figure out.”

What could happen here is that the public may begin to doubt the results. And the danger here is that the public may begin to doubt science. Right now, we are in need of good science and for the public to trust it.

What are some of the big failures in this pandemic, the so-called sausage spillage?

Early in March, some researchers raised concerns in a letter—not a reviewed study—that ibuprofen could worsen COVID-19 symptoms. It wasn’t based on experimental data, it was a theoretical concern based on how ibuprofen works in cells. Three days later, the French health minister tweeted a message saying to avoid ibuprofen. The World Health Organization did the same thing and then reversed itself a day later. More scientists weighed in, and now it’s thought that it’s fine to take ibuprofen. The original worries were based on an incomplete understanding.

A famous example is hydroxychloroquine, which was touted in public as a possible treatment for COVID-19 in an early study. The study was poorly designed and later retracted, but we saw some politicians, notably the president, seize on this and just shoot from the hip.

Demand surged for the drug, so that some patients who need it for conditions like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis couldn’t fill their prescriptions. But it can have toxic side effects—some people abusing it were poisoned. That’s not how science is supposed to work.

Steinberg summed these problems up by saying, “We’re seeing knowledge that is being rushed to the public without being assessed. We’re seeing misapplied wisdom and we’re seeing no perspective.”

Is there basically a tradeoff between speed and accuracy? Is this inevitable during a pandemic?

Moving more quickly always makes it harder to be careful. But we can improve this flow of information without entirely sacrificing speed. You can think of an expert chef, who can still chop quickly and safely at the same time. Training really helps. Experience helps.

There are layers of responsibility. It starts with scientists and researchers, then moves on to scientific journals that publish their work. It also includes policymakers who are trying to interpret results and issue advice to the public. And the press is very important in all this as well. Everyone has different incentives along the way. I would say in our field, competition to be first is a big challenge, but the public loses out when there are shortcuts along the way.

Bad science generally is corrected in the end, but I do worry about the loss of public trust. So more care, more training, learning from mistakes—these can all help avoid some of the missteps we’ve seen.

How can readers of science news be more careful? Are there some tips out there?

There are a couple of questions everyone can keep in the back of their mind when reading science news. Try to maintain some perspective and look for context. Here’s a series of questions to consider:

  • Is a finding preliminary?
  • Is it from a study or is it just a question scientists are posing?
  • If it’s a study, was it peer reviewed?
  • What do neutral experts, people who are not involved in the research, say about it?
  • If someone is pushing a claim, do they stand to make any money from it?
  • Is this the first time you’re hearing about something? Or is there a body of work that supports it? Is the finding in cells, in animals or in humans? If it’s in humans, it’s a lot more relevant than if it’s in cells or even mice.

And here’s a great tip sheet on how to evaluate news reports on scientific studies, from the website Health News Review.

May 04 2020

3mins

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How Can California Fight Wildfires in the Middle of a Pandemic? In a Few Months, We’ll Likely Find Out

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No one knows exactly how this coming fire season will shake out, but experts and fire officials agree the COVID-19 pandemic will make an already hard job much tougher.

Fire agencies and emergency managers are now planning how they’ll fight wildfires, issue evacuation orders, set up shelters and handle power shutoffs in the face of the massive challenge of simultaneously coping with a highly infectious disease.

“We’ve never fought fire in a pandemic,” said Jim Whittington, an expert in wildland fire response. “We don’t have any sort of lessons from [the flu pandemic of] 1918. So this is going to be a learning experience, and we’re going to have to err on the side of firefighter and public safety. And we recognize that there’s probably going to be some Catch-22s in our future.”

One of the biggest impacts could be a strain on the mutual aid system. In normal times, agencies provide support to each other during disasters. But when the crisis is so widespread, that system could become strained.

If first responders or their families become sick, or if they are tied up in emergency medical services, then agencies will struggle to maintain peak staffing, and they will be less able to share resources. If a paramedic assigned to a fire engine has to help with the COVID-19 response, for example, “Well, then the engine can’t go to the fire,” said Christopher Godley, director of emergency management for Sonoma County. “Jurisdictions simply may not have the resources to share with each other like they have in years past. And that was the great success story of our Kincade fire response last year.”

The Kincade Fire ignited in a remote region of Sonoma County on Oct. 23, 2019, threatened the town of Windsor, and prompted the largest evacuation orders in the history of the county.

“There was an army of firefighters and law enforcement that came into the county to address that fire,” Godley said. “That may be a real challenge this season.”

Forecast for an Uncertain Year

The most recent predictive report for wildfire conditions, issued April 1 by the National Interagency Fire Center, forecasts normal Northern California wildfire potential in May and June, but above normal in July. The northern part of the state has seen only about half its average rainfall, and the Sierra Nevada snowpack sits at about 60 percent of normal.

(Southern California has gotten 100 percent of normal rainfall and has a forecast of below average fire potential.)

But historically, California’s most destructive fires have come in the late summer and fall, too far out to forecast.

What the response to the inevitable conflagrations to come will look like depends on what phase of the pandemic California is experiencing. That depends upon a host of factors that are currently unknown. Transmissions may die down in the summer, as seasonal colds do. Perhaps more testing and therapies will be available. Or, coronavirus cases could surge. In that case, emergency managers would have to decide how best to balance the health and safety of the public and fire responders amid competing disasters.

What’s already known is that the business of firefighting creates a lot of opportunities for sickness to spread.

“The thing about fire suppression is it’s an activity where you’re frankly just right on top of people,” said Scott Stephens, a fire science researcher at UC Berkeley. “You know, you work as a crew. The crew trains together. The crew actually lives together, generally in a bunkhouse.”

Groups within the National Interagency Fire Center are drafting plans for how federal agencies, like the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, will fight fires. The plan for the Eastern region of the U.S.,which has an earlier fire season than the West, has already been released.

https://twitter.com/JimWhittington/status/1248671869957320705

Key points include treating different crews, or “modules,” as units that would not eat, sleep or mix with their counterparts. Firefighters might stay in their own tents, rather than in a bunkhouse, and eat military-style M.R.E.s with their own group, rather than mixing with other crews. The planners also expect to rely more heavily this year on aircraft and local resources, and less on interstate assistance.

These plans should be considered “living documents” that will be updated “as we collectively learn more about our new operating environment with COVID-19,” states an April 9 memo from the group coordinating wildfire-fighting strategy among Interior Department agencies, “We are entering into uncharted territory.”

The plan for the Western region is due to be released by the end of April.

The U.S. Forest Service says it will seek to minimize travel to other geographic areas, and that it will emphasize social distancing by unit. Large fire camps, with hundreds or thousands of firefighters living together, “will not be the norm any longer,” said a spokesperson in an email.

https://twitter.com/CALFIRE_PIO/status/1250478099138932737

How to Keep Firefighters Safe?

The state fire agency, CalFire, is in the process of bringing on its seasonal workforce of about 2,600. Trainings and recertifications are continuing, with some added distance between participants. Some trainings have moved online.

“We used to bring them into large classrooms and do it that way. Of course, we cannot do that anymore,” said Scott McLean, CalFire’s deputy communications chief. Firefighters are learning in smaller groups, in larger spaces outdoors, or online, he said. “So you’ll see more classes, less people in them.”

How will fire season be different this year for the agency? Will CalFire use large base camps when incidents erupt?

“We’re not naive to the situation by any means,” said McClean. “Every incident is going to be different on how and what the needs are going to be, especially for the logistical support of the firefighters.”

Safety officers, McLean says, will ensure that CDC guidelines for distancing and disinfection will be met.

“A common phrase in our department, or in departments working on a wildland fire, is ‘Keep your dime.’ That means stay 10 feet apart,” said McLean. “That refers to the safety aspect of using tools” like chainsaws, he said. Those practices “are already ingrained into our way of doing business.”

Still, fire camps are notoriously locations where firefighters get sick. “Camp crud” is the insider name for a respiratory illness with cough, usually attributed to a combination of infectious agents and lung irritation from smoke and dust. The worry that smoke exposure will put firefighters at extra risk if they contract the coronavirus may lead incident commanders to request fewer crews on the ground.

While an increased focus on initial attack and using air resources may help slow a fire or reduce its intensity, says Stephens, “they all have to be put out by ground crews. You just don’t dump water on something and say you’re done.”

Even if the number of firefighters assigned to a fire can be reduced, “there’s very few, I would say, great options, because of just the nature of firefighting. […] I’m afraid the virus will have an impact on firefighting people.”

Evacuation and Power Shutoffs in the Time of COVID-19

Firefighting is most effective when neighborhoods are evacuated early. But what would evacuations look like during a pandemic?

It’s not clear how evacuation orders will intersect with requirements to isolate at home, should those directives still be in effect.

“We’ve not fleshed it out fully,” said Sonoma County’s Godley “but the thought is…you should not be going to stay with your [extended] family or friends because you may be putting them at risk. or they may be putting you at risk.”

Already the Red Cross is planning to make more shelters available so that evacuees have a greater amount of space. Upon entering, people would be screened for the virus, ideally with a rapid test instead of a simple assessment of possible symptoms. Separate areas will be set up for those requiring isolation.

Last fire season, PG&E shut off power multiple times to millions of Californians during periods of high wildfire-risk. Last week, a large group of counties, cities and other organizations filed a motion before the state public utilities commission asking it to direct utilities to be more deliberate in the frequency and scope of the shutoffs, and to analyze their effect on hospitals with COVID-19 patients. Godley said the utilities should “make sure they’re doing everything they can” to keep the power running at medical facilities and to provide alternate power sources, if possible, for places caring for vulnerable populations.

Managing Expectations

Jim Whittington, the wildland fire response expert, is concerned that some fire agencies aren’t preparing people for the complexity of fighting fires during this pandemic.

“I think one of the big things that is going to be tough for the agencies to do is to go out and have conversations with stakeholders, elected officials and the public,” he said, “and start changing some expectations about what fire season is going to look like.”

Whatever it looks like, it’s a safe bet it won’t be what Californians have come to expect.

Whittington envisions tensions arising if fire managers do not deploy as many ground resources as they normally would or allow forested land to burn that in other years might have been saved.

“I think one of the issues might be that we get into a tough fire situation and people, say their expectations are one thing, but the fire incident commander and the hierarchy is going to react in a different way.

“I think there’s some folks that are working on that. But I’m not sure that these things have been pushed out to the public yet.”

A statement issued April 1 from the Western Fire Chiefs Association counsels fire managers to begin communicating that we face a difficult season ahead.

“Yes, it will be lonely at the top, because we may be going way from the standard firefighting performance norms,” it said. “The first step in addressing response is to prepare the policy makers, public and our troops. All parties need to be made aware that their historical response performance expectations may not occur during the near future and the sooner they hear this, the better.”

Apr 20 2020

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Thousands of Bay Area Patients Wait for Surgery as Hospitals Hold Beds for Coronavirus Surge

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Sassy Outwater-Wright has battled cancer her entire life. She lost her sight to the disease. (Miriam Cooper)

When COVID-19 started rapidly spreading, hospitals throughout the country canceled elective surgeries to free up hospital beds and conserve protective equipment like masks and gowns. Surgery departments canceled everything from cosmetic procedures like tummy tucks and gastric bypasses to brain surgeries and organ transplants. In the Bay Area, all in-person care is delayed for all but the most worrisome cases.

“We shut down the O.R. almost lock, stock and barrel,” said Dr. Philip Theodosopoulos, a UCSF neurosurgeon.

In mid-March, he says, nearly 2,000 procedures at UCSF medical center were canceled in order to prepare for a surge of COVID patients.

“These include cancer, aneurysms; include things that cause ischemia to the brain and to the body. This is not just brain surgery. This is all surgery.”

Seriously Ill Patients Weigh the Risks

Sassy Outwater-Wright is one patient who has had to wait. A rare cancer, called retinoblastoma, attacked her eyesight when she was a baby, causing her to lose her vision. Today the Berkeley resident runs an advocacy organization for the blind and visually impaired. She goes to the doctor a lot.

“We’ve kind of been playing whack-a-mole with tumors for the past 12 years,” said Outwater-Wright, a tall, 37-year-old redhead.  “They get one; the other one starts growing. The other one needs attention; they get that one.”

There’s another tumor in her head right now. She was scheduled to have it removed, until her doctors determined it wasn’t safe to open her skull during a pandemic. Outwater-Wright was told the infection risk was too high.

The procedure is on hold. Her tumor isn’t. She lies awake at night, weighing the risks.

“The threat to my life from a tumor that’s sitting in my head versus the threat from a virus that’s loose in a hospital,” she said. “And nobody can weigh those odds.”

Outwater-Wright is one of many critically ill patients sidelined but not sickened by COVID-19. Rosemary Pathy-McKinney is also waiting for brain surgery. She started feeling a lot of pressure in her head around New Year’s. Then the right side of her face started to occasionally feel numb and tingle. Her glasses were no longer strong enough.

In February, Pathy-McKinney visited an urgent care clinic in San Jose, where doctors discovered two brain tumors. Suddenly the second-grade school teacher and mother of two was fighting a grave illness at the same time COVID was spreading around her.

The first available slot for brain surgery was a month later, in mid- March. Pathy-McKinney stayed cloistered in her home while she counted down the days to her operation because she couldn’t afford to become infected.  

“I’m compromised medically, right with what’s going on with me,” she said. “It worries me.”

The day before her surgery, Pathy-McKinney drove to San Francisco for a preoperative MRI at UCSF medical center. Doctors shaved her head and marked future incisions in blue. She lay perfectly still while a radiologist peered inside her skull to determine where to cut. She breathed a huge sigh of relief an hour later when they slid her out of the cramped enclosure.

But just as she was walking out to the waiting room, she learned that her surgery the next day was canceled until further notice.

“Can she wait more than a month?” questions Dr. Theodosopoulos, Pathy-McKinney’s neurosurgeon. “I would say, well, not without a deficit. Probably not.” 

Still Waiting on the Surge

As Pathy-McKinney waited frantically at home, her head throbbed and her vision worsened. Meanwhile, the UCSF Medical Center never filled up with COVID-19 patients.

Rosemary Pathy-McKinney was diagnosed with two brain tumors in February just as the coronavirus was starting to spread in the Bay Area. (Rick McKinney)

“We’re pretty much at a standstill, truly,” said Dr. Theodosopoulos.

Two hundred hospital beds sit empty at UCSF, and that has raised an ethical question.

“There are a lot of diagnoses that we don’t really know how long we can wait,” Theodosopoulos said. 

That’s why just this week UCSF rescheduled a few surgeries for the most urgent cases. Fortunately Pathy-McKinney was one of them.  A nurse sent her husband a text after the procedure, saying all went well. The hospital is not allowing any visitors right now. 

Sassy Outwater-Wright also received encouraging news this week from her medical team. She has an appointment on Friday to determine whether it’s safe to operate. 

Others will have to wait, as large medical facilities like Stanford Health and Kaiser Permanente have yet to start rescheduling elective surgical procedures. 

Dr. Theodosopoulos of UCSF estimates it will take about six months for the surgery department to catch up on all the procedures that were put on hold. That’s assuming another wave of COVID-19 cases don’t emerge and create a further backlog. 

Apr 16 2020

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Coronavirus: When Will We Know if California Is Flattening the Curve?

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Flattening the curve on a graph of the number of COVID-19 cases over time is the goal of the extreme social distancing measures undertaken in California. (Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris)

Experts are telling us that staying home is the one way to “flatten the curve” of the number of COVID-19 cases and prevent an overload of hospitalizations. But when will we know if this massive change to our daily lives is having enough of an impact?

KQED’s Brian Watt spoke with Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, to find out.  The following excerpts from the interview have been edited for length and clarity.

How Well Are We Doing With Social Distancing and Is It Working?

I think we’re doing pretty well.  In terms of–is it going to make a difference?–we’re going to have to wait and see. Right now really reflects what’s happened about two weeks ago. We’re going to have to wait a couple more weeks to really see how well this social distancing is working, or at least to get a preliminary idea.

How Do Scientists Predict How Many People Might Become Infected, or Die?

Modeling is done by looking at the results of testing both positive and negative tests. Also, depending upon the modeling, things like hospitalizations, people in the ICU, people dying. So it compiles a lot of this data.

But they’re only as good as the data that goes into them. We’ve been very behind the eight ball in terms of the number of people we’ve tested. It’ll go down as one of the tragedies in the United States that we so failed early in this pandemic to not test our population. If we don’t test a large number of people, it makes the data that we use more suspect.

Do We Have Any Idea How Long a Surge in Patients Could Last, Once It Starts?

Unfortunately, I think the chances of a surge not beginning are very, very small. The question is how bad is it going to be? And, I’m cautiously optimistic that the sheltering in place is going to help change the slope of that curve, so, we’re not going to see a terrible surge. If we look at China, they started to plateau, and then started to decline, and that took place over around three weeks or so. So if we’re going to experience what China has seen, we would say that the surge starts to plateau, it could be, around three weeks or so.

If We Don’t See a Surge in Numbers, Would It Mean We Did Something Right?

Absolutely. I think that the major intervention that we have done in terms of prevention has been sheltering in place. There’s every reason to think it would work, both theoretically and we saw it — although it was draconian what the Chinese did — but we saw it worked in China as well. So I think that we can, and we should, anticipate that the sheltering-in-place will work, but it’s going to take a while for it to show up.

Why Do You Think Things Have Played Out So Differently in California and New York? 

California instituted shelter in place five to seven days before New York did. And I know people are going to think, ‘Well, that’s not much.’ But in terms of how fast this virus is spreading through our population, it’s a lot of time.

New York has roughly about 28,000 people per square mile. San Francisco has about 17,000 people per square mile. The more dense the population is, the more opportunity virus has to spread. And once the virus spreads to a nonimmune person, on average, that person is going to spread it to about three more people. So you can see how quickly you get an exponential curve.

Mar 30 2020

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Here’s Something You CAN Do Outside: Stargazing. Our Easy Guide to the Night Sky

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If you’ve never really learned about the night sky, now is a great time do it. Parents can teach their children about the stars, and anyone can get out of the house and stargaze, keeping plenty of appropriate physical distance.

So, on a clear evening, stop streaming movies, step outside, and look up! Here’s your guide to how and what to see.

Keep it Simple

The early spring has one of year’s most magnificent evening displays of bright stars.  So, even if you live in the city, where stars compete with urban light pollution, you can still see a lot.

A layer of low fog over the East Bay highlights the problem of urban light pollution, the light from cities that sets the atmosphere above aglow and makes stargazing a challenge. (Carter Roberts)

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the number of stars up there. The best advice for beginners is this: pick one specific region of the sky, and get to know what’s there. Don’t worry about learning the names of all the stars and the constellations. That can come later.

A Sampler Pack of the Evening Spring Sky

To begin, here’s a way to choose a small patch of the night sky.

Over the next few weeks, after the evening twilight has faded, around 8 or 9 p.m., find a safe location nearby, one with a clear view of the sky. Get comfortable, and look to the southwest — to the left of where the sun set.

Venus

The first thing you will notice is an extremely bright object shining almost directly west, a couple of hand-spans above the horizon. It is intense, and, unlike the stars around it, shines steadily without twinkling. It’s not a star; it’s the planet Venus. Fun fact: Planets don’t twinkle.

The southwestern portion of the sky in late March, around 9:00 p.m. Image created using the free desktop planetarium software, Stellarium. (Stellarium)

Venus is currently playing its role as the “Evening Star,” and will remain in the early western sky for several weeks to come. As the weeks pass, though, Venus will start sinking into the twilight. And by mid-May, the planet will disappear in the glow of dusk.

Venus is the brightest of the planets, and the third brightest object in the sky, outshined only by the moon and sun.  Here’s why: first, Venus is very close to Earth — so close that the light entering your eyes bounced off Venus only minutes ago! Second, it’s a big planet, about as big as Earth. And, third, Venus is completely covered in cloud and reflects much of the sunlight shining on it.

 Sirius, the Dog Star

In addition to Venus, you will find several very bright stars across this patch of sky.

Far to the left, almost directly to the south and about the same distance above the horizon as Venus, is the brilliant star Sirius, also called the “Dog Star,” because it belongs to the constellation Canis Major, the “Greater Dog.”

Sirius appears bluish-white, but you might see glints and flashes of prismatic colors in its light as it twinkles: red, green, yellow. This is caused by the refraction of Sirius’ light in Earth’s atmosphere, the same phenomenon that produces rainbows from water droplets and the spectrum of colors split by a prism.

Sirius is bright enough to stimulate the color-sensitive “cone” cells in your retinas, not just the black-and-white “rod” cells. In general, stars are not bright enough for your eyes to detect any color, though there are exceptions.

Betelgeuse

One of those exceptions can be found near Sirius. Look up and to the right of Sirius and you will find the bright orange-red star, Betelgeuse. Betelgeuse is located at the “shoulder” of the constellation Orion, the Hunter.

Betelgeuse’s color isn’t caused by refraction in Earth’s atmosphere. It comes from the star itself. Betelgeuse is a “red giant” star, an older star that has blown up to an enormous size, over 800 times larger than the sun—which accounts for its brightness.

The Winter Triangle

Sirius and Betelgeuse are two members of a pattern of stars called the Winter Triangle, a large equilateral triangle. The third star of the Triangle is found above Sirius and to the left of Betelgeuse. It’s called Procyon, and it belongs to the constellation Canis Minor, or the Lesser Dog. In Greek mythology, Orion the hunter has two dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor, marked by Sirius and Procyon.

The Winter Triangle is not a constellation, but a simpler and unofficial pattern of stars called an “asterism.” Like the often more complicated and storied constellations, asterisms help identify different parts of the night sky, like signposts. The sky is full of asterisms, and as you learn more about the skies in different seasons, you’ll learn to recognize them, along with the constellations.

Orion’s Belt

In fact, there’s another asterism not far away from the Winter Triangle. Located below Betelgeuse is a row of three stars that are equally bright, and equally spaced apart. This is Orion’s Belt, one of the easiest star patterns to find and recognize.

Meteor Shower Treat: The Lyrids 

With this beginner’s crash course in sky exploration under your belt, you’re in for a treat! There’s an upcoming meteor shower.

Timed exposure image of meteor trails produced by the Leonids meteor shower. (Carter Roberts)

After midnight on April 21st, and throughout the early morning hours of April 22nd, the Lyrids meteor shower will reach its peak of activity for the year, producing as many as 20 meteors per hour.  All you must do is stay up past midnight, or set your alarm clock for 2 or 3 a.m., and gaze into the eastern sky until you see one.

Websites for Beginners

There are plenty of online resources to help you explore the night sky and its constellations and asterisms. They can also alert you to upcoming celestial events like meteor showers and eclipses. Here are a few for starters:

There are also several good phone apps, for iOS and Android, that will help you find your way around the sky.

As you gaze casually at the twinkling patterns of stars in your sky, you may find your curiosity teasing you to explore deeper questions about the universe we exist in. How far away are the stars? What are they made of? How big and hot are they really? Do any of them have planets, and what might those worlds be like? The good news is, there are answers to these questions!

Here’s another teaser to get you thinking: Look down at your hand. Every atom of carbon, oxygen, iron, and many other elements that make up your body comes from inside the cores of stars that lived and died before the sun and Earth even existed. Curious? Explore!

Mar 27 2020

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Coronavirus: If You’re Infected, All Your Close Contacts Have to Be Tracked Down. Here’s How That Works

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As outbreaks of the new coronavirus dominate the headlines, an army of disease researchers and public health officials have mobilized to track down infections and limit the extent of the spread. To talk about the work of these disease detectives, KQED’s Brian Watt spoke with Solano County Health Officer Dr. Bela Matyas.

Matyas’ answers have been edited for length and clarity.

What happens if I feel sick and call the public health department?

That’s going to depend on what county you’re in. Counties that have not yet had a positive case, for example, can approach things in a much more aggressive manner than counties that are inundated with cases.

Live Coronavirus Updates

In counties without many cases, you would be asked a series of questions about what might have been the reason you’re sick. We would want to know what your symptoms are and see if they are consistent with COVID-19. We would want to know if you’ve had exposure to places where the disease is spreading rapidly or to people who are known cases. If the answer is yes, then we would take one path. If the answers to all of that is no, we would take a different one.

What is the yes path?

If you are in a county that has access to lots of testing ability, then we would want to test you. We would bring you in under safe circumstances to a place where we could take appropriate specimens. While we wait to get the results back, we would ask you to isolate yourself, essentially removing yourself from contact with everybody.

We would give you basic advice on how to take care of yourself, stay away from work or school, and stay safe at home until your symptoms go away.

How do epidemiologists actually track down people who might have been exposed?

We want to try to find out where you got it and who you might’ve given it to. In the case of COVID-19, we know that the time from when you’re exposed to when you get sick is potentially 2 to 14 days.

We need to search with you for your history of exposures that occurred in that two-week time period. If you’re symptomatic, we believe that you can spread the disease while you have symptoms, so we need to find out everywhere you’ve been and everyone you’ve been in contact with during the time you’ve been having symptoms.

Does this happen over the phone or do you show up at people’s door?

In the most typical situation, it’s a phone call. We make the assumption that you are the best judge of who you have had interactions with. We always ask about your close contacts, your family members, your co-workers, anybody you carpool with, your closer friends, people that you socialize with. And we create a list.

It’s typically the case that you can tell me pretty accurately who the close contacts are. That next level of contacts is a little tougher. You might say, “You know, I was at a party at this location, or I went to this wedding, or I went to this reception,” and you won’t necessarily know who everyone was that was there. But we get as much detail from you as possible about who you could have exposed to your respiratory droplets.

For example, if you go to a wedding, we’ll try to find out what table you sat at. How did you interact with the people at that table? Do you remember who you danced with? We would then have to go back to that event organizer to get the list of people you may have had that contact with.

Typically we try to accomplish as much interviewing as we can by telephone because it’s the most efficient, but sometimes we have to go out to a location. You may say, for example, “Well, I ate at this particular restaurant, and I don’t really know how close all the tables are.” And then we can go out to that restaurant and take a look at how close the tables are, and if droplets could have passed from you to the table next to you.

If the answer’s yes, then we have to go to the manager to try to identify who sat at that table that night. So there is some fieldwork that has to happen, depending on the nature of your actions in the community while you were sick.

So counties inundated with cases are not able to be as aggressive?

In Solano County we’re well beyond that; we are in a place where we couldn’t possibly keep track of all the people that could have had exposures or where they would have been exposed, because there’s just far too many people to track. We had a case of community-acquired coronavirus disease just a week ago who exposed people in two hospitals, as well as in their family and the community. And cumulatively we’ve had to follow up with over 400 people based on that one person.

Following that many people is pretty overwhelming. We focused our attention most on the hospitals, because those are critical infrastructures, and we identified multiple positive health care workers. we had to repeat this entire process for them. These circles expand very rapidly.

The last couple of weeks have been all about realizing just how large this process can potentially become, and therefore moving into a mode of mitigation rather than containment.

I think the most important lesson we’ve learned is that after the initial epidemiology allows us to understand how a disease spreads and who is at greatest risk, we can move from this sort of fear-driven, ‘Look at everybody the same way,’ approach, to a much more achievable, ‘Let’s figure out who’s at highest risk and protect them, and let’s protect our critical infrastructures.'”

Is what you’re doing now typical for an epidemiologist, or is it unique because of this new coronavirus?

The only thing that’s different is the scale and the pace. When you’ve got an emerging outbreak you have to move quicker, and you have to go after everybody that’s reasonable to try to identify. And so it often requires surging up personnel to do that. The outbreaks we would typically face are just much smaller in scale, so they permit us to be able to take this same type of approach, but with the staff we have. So it’s the scale and the urgency that makes it different.

Mar 09 2020

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Pluto’s Got a Heart! Sure, It’s an Icy Plain of Nitrogen, But Still …

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One of the most stunning discoveries of the 2015 New Horizons flyby mission to Pluto was a big, heart-shaped region full of canyons, plains and mountain chains.

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s you may remember, Pluto lost its status as a planet a few years ago. Now, astronomers call it a “dwarf” planet. Despite that rejection, this planet has heart — a big heart-shaped region known as Tombaugh Regio. One of the most stunning discoveries of the 2015 New Horizons flyby mission.

“You have to imagine that everybody expected a flat ball covered with ice,” said Tanguy Bertrand, a postdoctoral research fellow at NASA Ames.

The left “lobe” of Pluto’s heart-shaped region is an icy plain of nitrogen known as Sputnik Planitia. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Instead, astronomers saw a beautiful, diverse landscape that includes canyons, plains and mountain chains. Tombaugh Regio in particular got a lot of attention because it was so visually striking.

Bertrand is lead author on a new paper that examines how the west lobe of the heart, an area known as Sputnik Planitia, controls the dwarf planet’s winds. While the eastern half of the lobe is scraggly mountains and the western half is a frozen plane of nitrogen. And not just any nitrogen. This pulses with a kind of beat that makes the winds flow westward.

During the day, with the heat of the sun, the nitrogen ice warms and turns into vapor, creating a pressure that flows toward a darker, cooler region, where it condenses and re-forms as ice. This creates a flow from north to south and back. The planet is also spinning eastward. This rotation (because of the Coriolis effect) deflects the winds and they flow in a westward direction.

A similar process generates winds on Earth, but it’s slightly more complicated. Air rises in the equatorial zones, flows toward cooler polar regions, drops down and returns toward the equator in what scientists call “Hadley cells.” This circulation creates the trade winds, tropical rain-belts and hurricanes, subtropical deserts and the jet streams. On our planet, though, winds don’t flow in any one given direction.

Interesting fact: NASA researchers found this effect on Pluto by applying weather forecast models made for Earth.

“[This] gives us some perspective and gives us a natural laboratory to improve our knowledge,” Bertrand said. “It gives us a chance to test theories, learn more about fluid dynamics, and climate.”

Ultimately what they learn can improve how those weather models work for Earth and, possibly, for habitable exo-planets.

Feb 14 2020

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Psychedelic Therapy Available to More People During Clinical Trials

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When Army Sergeant Jonathan Lubecky returned to the U.S. from Iraq more than a decade ago, simple activities, like family trips to theme parks or the county fair, overwhelmed him.

He recalls “panic attacks, intrusive thoughts. I’d get auditory and olfactory flashbacks.” Along with an “intense fear that bad things were about to happen.”

He’d spent some of his deployment at a base in Iraq that caught mortar fire thousands of times, he says. One mortar even landed next to a porta-potty while he was inside.

After his return home, doctors diagnosed him with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Lubecky could not find mental and emotional relief. He tried all kinds of treatment: talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and multiple medications. None of them worked. Suicidal thoughts plagued him for eight years. He says he tried to kill himself five times.

Out of options, he enrolled in a clinical trial that used psychedelic-assisted therapy. The drug was MDMA ⁠— also known as Ecstasy or Molly. Lubecky says it worked.

“I literally went from being in a VA facility inpatient [program] to being Senator Rand Paul’s national veterans director in his presidential campaign in two years because of this therapy,” he says.

Jonathan Lubecky and stepson Joey Monteleone in Washington, D.C. before visiting the White House in 2019. (Courtesy of Jonathan Lubecky)

Until recently, only participants in clinical trials could qualify for MDMA-assisted therapy. Now the federal Food and Drug Administration has granted researchers what it calls “expanded access.” That means people who can’t find relief other ways — who are “treatment-resistant” — can get this therapy before the FDA approves it.

Rick Doblin established and runs the Multidisciplinary Associations for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the nonprofit conducting the MDMA-assisted therapy trials in the U.S., Canada, and Israel.

Doblin said the FDA’s move is “a sign that we’re getting over ‘the psychedelic 60s’ — that the FDA is really more science over politics now.

“The FDA is recognizing that there’s a humanitarian crisis with many, many millions of people that have treatment-resistant PTSD,” Doblin says. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 8 million adults have PTSD.

That disorder results from combat, Doblin says, but also from sexual assault and other trauma.

For those treated with MDMA, 54% no longer had PTSD symptoms after therapy. Researchers found that number increased to 68% a year after treatment.

The federal Controlled Substances Act classifies MDMA  as an illegal Schedule 1 drug. While the FDA is expanding access to just 50 people beyond the clinical trial, Doblin and his team hope to increase that number, and to see the FDA approve the treatment by 2022.

Lubecky, the Army veteran, now works for MAPS as its Veterans and Governmental Affairs Liaison. He says making this treatment available to even a small number of people could mean the difference between life and death.

“The MDMA-assisted therapy,” he says, “is the reason that my stepson Joey has a father instead of a folded flag.”

Feb 10 2020

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Time’s Up on Groundwater Plans: One of the Most Important New California Water Laws in 50 Years Explained

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Much of California’s water supply is a hidden asset: Deep below the surface, rocks, gravel and sand store water like a sponge, in an underground zone called an aquifer. 

In dry years, this groundwater has been tapped to save farms, keep grass green and provide drinking water to millions of Californians. But over time, people have taken more water out than nature has put back in. Estimates vary, but according to the U.S. Geological Survey, California pumped 41 trillion gallons of water fom the ground in about 100 years, through 2013. In some parts of the Central Valley, that means land has been dropping around a foot a year

The landmark Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA, requires some of the state’s thirstiest areas form local “Groundwater Sustainability Agencies” and submit long-term plans by Jan. 31 for keeping aquifers healthy. Together, those plans will add up to a big reveal, as groundwater managers finally disclose how badly they believe their aquifers are overdrawn, and a collective picture emerges. It’s a major shift and arguably the most important new California water law in 50 years.

Here are some key things to know about the groundwater situation in California and how the law will impact the state. 

Until six years ago, California did not routinely regulate or monitor groundwater. 

The California Constitution decrees that water use has to be reasonable and beneficial, but the state has placed few limits on how water can be pumped from the ground. A 1914 law empowering the state water board to manage the resource omitted groundwater. You can blame the lack of regulation partly on 18th-century Spanish colonists who brought with them the idea that a landowner is entitled to all of the water below the surface, without any obligation to share it. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, water was still plentiful in California, and the idea of unfettered access to groundwater made sense in a state lush with wetlands. 

So for the last century, landowners continued to think of groundwater as pretty much a birthright. It’s become an essential component of California’s water portfolio: State officials say 30 million residents rely on groundwater for at least some portion of their drinking supply, and in the driest years, people keep basically sticking a straw into the earth to slake their thirst. 


Water at the surface is connected to the water hidden below. 

The water from California’s rivers and streams, along with rainwater, seeps into the ground, where it remains among the rocks, gravel and sand. Between these surface and sub-surface supplies lies the water table, which is what hydrologists call the top of the area that has been saturated underground. 

Using too much groundwater affects not only surface water supplies but also entire ecosystems. Pumping from the earth deep enough to suck water out can lower the groundwater table and dry out surface soils. 

Rivers and streams feed more than 500 aquifers around California. Less than a quarter of these account for the overwhelming majority of groundwater pumping. 

In these basins, this landmark law already has begun to transform the Central Valley. 

For decades, farmers fought the regulation and monitoring of groundwater tooth and nail. Now that it’s here, SGMA has already begun to change the region’s economy and landscape, as some farmers have sold or fallowed land in antipation of the coming changes.

The Public Policy Institute of California predicts that agricultural interests may have to let 750,000 acres of land go fallow, mostly in parts of the San Joaquin Valley where the most severe overpumping has occurred.

Farmers may also have to cycle current crops out for those requiring less water. For example, almonds are water-intensive but have been profitable in recent years; those margins would change if water becomes much  more expensive than it is now. 

Some local water managers have a lot of work to show by the end of the month. 

There are 21 “critically overdrafted” basins for which officials must submit groundwater management plans by Jan. 31. 

In each area where people have habitually pumped more than has come back in, local water managers have to figure out how much they’ve taken from underground, and how water at the surface replenishes those stores. Each region has to propose ways to monitor groundwater over multiple intervals: day-to-day, short-term, seasonal, and yearslong. Basically, they’re creating monitoring systems, in some cases from scratch, to help determine whether conditions are changing. 

The groundwater plans are built around models for how to share water in a way that’s sustainable by 2040. Each one can be a little different, but local managers and the state have to check up on every single one and meet interim deadlines every five years. 

The Department of Water Resources can accept the plans as is or ask for tweaks. DWR can also refer the plans to the state water board for intervention, meaning that local officials may have to try again if the state judges a plan unlikely to succeed. In extreme cases, the state may have to step in to settle disputes over local rights.

This isn’t just a Valley problem.

Balancing aquifers like bank accounts will cost money and effort in the Bay Area and other parts of the state. Two years from now, managers for dozens more groundwater basins with state-designated risk ratings of high or medium must submit their own plans to the State Water Resources Control Board. They include water managers in Sonoma, Napa, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. 

Even though these plans will take years to come into focus, plenty of political decisions remain.

State requirements for sustainable regional groundwater management haven’t taken away anyone’s rights; the rules have changed how localities must meet their water needs from now on. Even the plans submitted by the locally formed groundwater agencies that will meet this year’s deadline haven’t absolutely nailed down who gets to use what in the future. The coming decisions and politics about water may be tense, but the alternative is that one day, wells could run dry.

Jan 20 2020

4mins

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The Never-ending Battle Over Martins Beach Explained

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The California Coastal Commission and the State Lands Commission continue their battle with Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla over public access to Martins Beach on the San Mateo County coast. For 100 years, Bay Area families have been going to this beach, seven miles south of Half Moon Bay, to fish, swim and picnic. The only way onto this scenic beach is a single road through private property.  

After Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, bought the land surrounding Martins Beach in 2008, he restricted access to that road by displaying “No Trespassing” signs, charging parking fees, and locking its access gate. This newest lawsuit continues a 10-year conflict that could affect land-access rights throughout California. 

Paul Rogers, managing editor of KQED Science, has been covering the story for the Mercury News, where he writes about the environment. He and KQED’s Brian Watt spoke about the latest developments and long history surrounding Martins Beach. 

What’s at the center of this newest lawsuit?

Under a legal doctrine in California called implied dedication, public use of a road for five years or more without restrictions establishes a permanent legal right to the road. Khosla argues that people never had that right because, for years before he bought the land surrounding the beach, its former owners charged a parking fee. 

Last year in a separate lawsuit, a state appeals court agreed with Khosla. But the Coastal Commission is now arguing that the court didn’t consider all the evidence. For this new lawsuit, to demonstrate that people routinely used the access road without paying, the Coastal Commission has collected a century of photographs, journal entries, letters and the like from 230 families.

This is just one beach. Why is this case such a big deal?

Environmental groups and beachgoers say that what happens at Martins Beach could set a precedent that would allow very wealthy people in other parts of California — Malibu for example — to block access to public lands. Khosla has argued that he’s sticking up for his private property rights. Just as people have no right to walk through a landowner’s backyard without permission, he contends that they have no right to use the road through his property. This case represents a big clash between two rights: private property and free access to California’s coastline. 

Didn’t Khosla already lose a case that went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court?

Two years ago, the nation’s highest court refused to hear an appeal of a case that Khosla lost in three lower courts in California. The landowner had argued that he did not need a permit to close the gate to the access road running through his property to the beach. But California’s coastal law is pretty clear. Property owners need permits from the Coastal Commission not only when they build houses near the beach, but also if they change public access to the beach. So Khosla lost that case. Since then, he has opened the gate most days and he allows people who pay a $10 parking fee to drive to the beach.

How will the result of this latest lawsuit affect the fight over this beach?

It’s a really big juncture in this long-running battle because a win for Khosla would establish that there is no legal public right to use that road. Such a decision would make it easier for him to get a permit to close the gate from the Coastal Commission. 

If the state wins, there’s almost no way that the Coastal Commission is going to grant that Khosla permit. Commissioners would argue that the public right to that road existed for decades. Additionally, the commission would probably prevent Khosla from charging the $10 parking fee. Potentially, it could fine him $20 million or more. 

Even if California loses this case, the State Lands Commission could try to seize the road or access to it by eminent domain.

Jan 13 2020

4mins

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You’re Cooler Than You Think: 98.6 Temperature No Longer the Norm

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A new study published in the journal eLife reports the average body temperature of Americans has declined by 1.1 degree Fahrenheit since the Civil War. The authors say the 98.6 degrees standard set in 1851 by a German physician is no longer the average in the United States.

“We shouldn’t be stuck on 98.6 as being some magical number that if you’re above it, you’re febrile,” said Dr. Julie Parsonnet, who teaches medicine as well as health research and policy at Stanford. “And if you’re below it, you’re not.”

The researchers hypothesize that better public health and consistent indoor temperatures may be reasons for the steady decline.

Thermometers Aren’t the Problem

This isn’t the first time scientists have noted body temperatures are falling. A 2002 research review indicated the 98.6 degrees standard was too high. And a 2017 study concluded 97.9 degrees is the current average in Britain. Scientists, however, thought the discrepancy had to do with false readings from the thermometers of the past — in other words, that we weren’t really 98.6 in the first place.

But now, after reviewing three additional datasets, the Stanford researchers conclude that over the past 150 years a steady cooling trend in American body temperatures has, indeed, occurred. The researchers analyzed Civil War veterans’ records, 1970s data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, and recent medical records from patients who visited Stanford Health Care. 

“Without changing our genetic makeup, we are changing physiologically over time,” Parsonnet said. “We’ve seen that people have grown taller, they’ve grown fatter, and their body temperature is declining … .”

The researchers did not offer an updated average for all Americans because body temperatures change throughout our day as well as  lifetime. Age and sex influence our internal thermostats; and factors like activity level, food consumption and what time it is affect how hot we run daily.

Modern Life Influences Evolution

The researchers surmise body temperature might be steadily declining because Americans suffer less inflammation due to improved water quality, sanitation, antibiotics, vaccines and dental hygiene.

“The standard of 98.6 was set back in the mid 19th century when people were suffering all of the time from infectious diseases,” said Parsonnet. “It wouldn’t surprise me if their temperature was a little bit higher because they were fighting tuberculosis, malaria and dysentery all the time.”

Because we live and work in more consistent  environments than previous generations, she says, our bodies expend less energy. Two hundred years ago, homes did not have central heating and air conditioning, for instance.

Why It Matters

Whether or not our temperature is dropping is not merely an interesting tidbit. Body temperature affects our basal metabolic rate, which is linked to longevity and body size. A high metabolism can shorten one’s lifespan; a low metabolism can lead to weight gain.

Parsonnet says researchers’ next step is to analyze temperature variability around the globe. For example, conditions in a resource-poor country may preclude a decline because chronic infections are still common. Or, perhaps people who live in harsher climates like the one in the Arctic may run hotter because their bodies must work harder to stay comfortable.

Jan 09 2020

1min

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How Ridiculous Ideas Gain Traction. We’re Looking at You, Flat Earth

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The spherical shape of Earth is what we like to call around here “settled science.” But nowadays, pit even a 2,500-year-old truism against the evangelism of Internet algorithms, and you got yourself an actual “debate,” no matter how inane.

The Apollo 17 crew caught this breathtaking view of Earth as they were traveling to the moon on Dec. 7, 1972. It’s the first time astronauts were able to photograph the South polar ice cap. Nearly the entire coastline of Africa is clearly visible, along with the Arabian Peninsula. (NASA)

We’re speaking of what appears to be the disturbing trend of people thinking the surface of the world is flat.

No, really — this is a thing. For example, last month the third annual Flat Earth International Conference convened in Dallas; the rapper B.o.B once started a GoFundMe campaign as part of a quest to gather ungatherable evidence for the idea; and basketball star Kyrie Irving has found himself having to apologize for publicizing the view on Twitter. A 2018 YouGov survey found that 16% of 8,215 American adults queried had various levels of doubt about the true shape of the Earth.

At this point, it’s probably fair to ask: When is American society going to hit epistemological bottom?

Perhaps the first step in answering that question is understanding why a belief like flat Earth can flourish, at least among certain groups of willing adherents. To that end, we talked to Asheley Landrum, assistant professor of science communication at Texas Tech University, who has been studying the movement, if you want to call it that. We asked her, well,  just what in the round world is going on here? 

Here are some of the key points from Landrum’s answers, edited for length and clarity. 

YouTube as Flat Earth Gateway

One of the things we found is that many people with this belief discovered flat Earth through YouTube.   

One of our research participants told us he started off by watching videos that were suggested to him on YouTube because of his interest in conspiracy theories. He started looking into conspiracy theories about the Illuminati and Sandy Hook, and the whole time he was watching he kept being suggested flat Earth videos by the algorithm.

He said he was going to watch one of the videos with the intention of discrediting it, but by the end he accepted that Earth is not round.

This was very true for many of the people we talked to; they start by watching a series of conspiracy videos and then they’re introduced to this idea of a flat Earth. They choose not to watch it, but the more it’s suggested, the more compelled they are. By the time they view it, they’re ready to kind of accept that information.

Loving the Science, Not the Scientists

Artist’s conception of Earth with a flat surface. (David Roberts/iStock)

Many of the people we interviewed do love science. They talk about how much they respect the process of science; they just don’t trust scientists. Scientists are seen as elite authorities who just make fun of them when they have legitimate questions to ask.

One person posed a question about motion that I think many individuals would not know the answer to: “If I can feel motion when I’m in a moving car, how come I wouldn’t be able to feel motion if I’m on a planet that’s hurtling through space?” To that person, that is evidence the planet is motionless. A physicist would be able to explain it, but if all that the scientist or media personality or opinion leader does is dismiss them for asking “stupid questions,” then of course they’re going to further distrust scientists.

Religious Belief Doesn’t Predict Flat Earth Stance

We recently wrote a paper on who is susceptible to flat Earth videos on YouTube. The number one characteristic that makes people more susceptible is their conspiracy ideation; how much they see conspiracies and accept that conspiracies are true. 

Many of the flat-earthers we spoke to at the conference told us that one of the reasons they believe in a flat Earth is that they think the Bible should be interpreted literally, and they would quote passages they said were explaining how Earth is actually flat. But in our research study, the intensity with which someone holds religious beliefs or the importance of religion in their daily lives was actually not predictive of being open to flat Earth views. 

Scientific Knowledge Protects Against Distorted Thinking

Among people who had stronger conspiracy beliefs, the more science knowledge they had, the less likely they were to believe that Earth was flat or to believe that these videos were presenting good arguments. So scientific knowledge was protective in the conspiracy community against accepting these flat Earth beliefs.

One of the things I thought was so compelling about the flat Earth documentary last year was that the flat earthers designed really fantastic experiments, and of course, they found that the experiments didn’t support the flat Earth worldview. They were upset because they felt like they did something wrong.

Trump and Flat Earth

We definitely have heard from the flat-earthers that they like Donald Trump, but many of them said that they don’t even bother voting. In some cases, they’ll express very liberal views, and in others, very conservative, so it really is a phenomenon that is across the political spectrum.

They like Donald Trump because, to them, he represents somebody who is not part of the political elite coming into that political office. They see Donald Trump as a disruptor as opposed to just another establishment Republican.

How Widespread Is This?

Well, there aren’t, at least as far as we can tell, a very large percentage of people who currently believe Earth is flat, but it is very difficult for us to know. Most of what we know about how many people in the U.S. or abroad believe in flat Earth is based on survey data, but many people who hold conspiracy beliefs and are suspicious of universities and government officials aren’t going to respond to phone surveys. 

When Trust Erodes

What belief in flat Earth tells us is how bad it can be when we start to truly distrust other people. We do live in a society that relies on a division of cognitive labor. We talk about this concept of elite, but it’s not that there are people who are elite and people who aren’t, it’s that each of us has our own domain that we are the expert in. I have to take my car to mechanics to have them tell me what’s wrong with it because I have no idea how to do that. My area of expertise is in something completely different.

Everybody has their own area of expertise and their own part to play in society. If we don’t rely on each other, we have this large burden of knowledge that we have to carry around with us, and it’s just not possible for us to be able to do everything. So that’s really the danger that Flat Earth represents: It’s what happens when we stop trusting each other and doubt those areas of expertise.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fYQCIphJhAk&feature=youtu.be

Dec 09 2019

4mins

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For Those With Eating Disorders, Holiday Meals Can Trigger Panic

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At the dinner table, Madeleine Dean, surrounded by noisy, Irish relatives, used to feel very alone.  

“Holiday meals had become a really stressful experience and nobody knew that,” she says.

Dean, now a filmmaker, kept her eating disorder a secret for years. From a very young age she struggled with anorexia nervosa. Anticipating holiday meals, she starved herself all morning before the festivities to ensure her overall caloric intake stayed low. When everyone sat down, she compared her plate with theirs. 

“Am I eating more than somebody else? Am I eating something that’s unhealthy and somebody else seems to only be eating something healthy? Are they going to judge me for what I’m eating?”

Instead of savoring mashed potatoes and gravy, she nervously pushed them around her plate. If someone commented, she was quick to respond. 

“I’d say, ‘Oh, I don’t like this food. I’m not interested in having this right now. I’m not that hungry.’”

As soon as she could, she’d excuse herself from the table and escape to her room.

Gorge Then Guilt

The holidays also create a lot of angst for Ryan Sheldon. But instead of starving himself, he’d gorge.

“I would use the holidays as an excuse for me to binge and for it to be accepted,” he says.

Sheldon is a big-and-tall model who’s recovering from a binge eating disorder. For him, the affliction meant consuming huge quantities of food with a giant chaser of guilt.  

“Family is really, really, really stressful and that would trigger me to binge,” Sheldon says. “It became like this really dark time. I began to dread the holidays.”

He remembers tortured flights from the East Coast home to Los Angeles after celebrating Hanukkah with his relatives; he ruminated over and over on offhand comments from family members about his size or eating habits.

“I couldn’t shake the sense of feeling worthless,” Sheldon remembers. “The sense of feeling lonely. The sense of feeling like I don’t deserve anything.”

Often the moment the plane touched down he’d start a new fad diet  like Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers or SlimFast to shed holiday pounds.

“I would obsess over the diet,” Sheldon says. “I would get very meticulous. Then it would go one of two ways. I would either go off the diet immediately or I would go severe on the diet. It was sick.”

Prepare Beforehand

Lauren Muhlheim, a psychologist in Los Angeles who specializes in eating disorders, says experiences like Dean’s and Sheldon’s are typical this time of year. 

“When people eat, in contexts that they don’t eat … on a daily basis, they face a higher level of difficulty,” she says.

Muhlheim advises her clients to prepare before a festive gathering by asking:

  • How are you going to go through the buffet?
  • How are you going to make decisions about what to eat?
  • Who is your support person during the meal?
  • Who can help you afterward?

If the holidays trigger a relapse, that’s okay, Muhlheim says. “The goal is to not beat oneself up when there is a lapse but to learn from it and figure out how you can get stronger in your recovery skills.”

She hopes friends and family can add extra helpings of compassion for anyone with eating disorders during the holidays. 

If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, you may call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.

Dec 05 2019

3mins

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What You Need to Know About the Food Dye in Holiday Treats

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Unlike most kids, Alex Bevans scrutinizes the ingredient list before he eats anything. In the candy aisle of a grocery store in Carson City, Nevada, the 14-year-old scowls as he reads the label on a bag of lollipops,

“Get this,” Alex said. “It has Red 40, Red 3, Yellow 5, Blue 1, Blue 2, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6.”

His mom, Rebecca, reached for the bag then gave her assessment: “Yeah, that’s completely toxic.”

Each pigment affects Alex differently, Rebecca said.

“So red … he can’t pay attention and he’s impulsive. Green makes him manic. Blue makes him grumpy and tired. Yellow is the worst. He’s explosive and it leads to suicidal ideation.”

Alex is not alone in these types of reactions, says Lisa Lefferts, a senior scientist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“We’ve been contacted by over 2,000 families reporting their experiences with food dyes,” she said. “The parents say that when their child is off of dyes they’re just lovely children. On dyes they’re like a completely different person.”

Surprising foods containing chemical food coloring like microwave popcorn, cough medicine, peanut butter and beef jerky. (Lindsey Moore/KQED)

European Protections

Lefferts is lobbying the Food and Drug Administration to follow Europe’s example on dyes: The E.U. requires manufacturers to add a warning label to foods with artificial coloring that says they “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”

Most European companies avoid the label by switching to natural dyes like beet juice and Spirulina extract. A few American companies have followed suit. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese now uses turmeric and paprika to turn its noodles bright yellow. But substitutions like these aren’t widespread in the U.S, because natural dyes are more expensive and less stable.

The FDA has approved nine colors for use in processed food and other products like sunscreen, cough syrup and pills. The synthetic additives are made from petroleum and are contained in at least 90% of candies, fruit-flavored snacks, and drink mixes marketed to kids. It’s also in 40% of all food products designed for children. The agency has determined there’s not enough evidence to support adding a warning label to these products, and in 2011, after reviewing 35 years of research, it declined to impose any new regulations on manufacturers.

The FDA website currently says, “The totality of scientific evidence indicates that most children have no adverse effects when consuming foods containing color additives, but some evidence suggests that certain children may be sensitive to them.”

Shaky or Sound Science?

Joel Nigg, psychologist and researcher at Oregon Health and Science University, followed up on the FDA probe with a comprehensive review, published in 2015, of all the human clinical trials related to synthetic color additives. The article concluded that restricting the chemicals for some kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder does have a notable effect, but he agrees that the evidence is on the weak side because it relies on dated, often small studies.

“One can question whether [the underlying studies] are convincing,” Nigg said. “But they do show a causal effect if taken at face value.”

A 2007 human clinical trial known as the Southampton study is often highlighted in the debate. British researchers gave kids beverages with synthetic food coloring in opaque containers. Afterwards, observers noted an increase in child hyperactivity. This replicated a prior similar study.  But skeptics have noted that not all the dyes were FDA approved. Plus the behavioral changes were not as noticeable for teachers and independent people as for parents.

Nigg and colleagues estimate that 5-10% of kids with ADHD may be sensitive to synthetic food coloring. That’s tens of thousands of children who could be exposed to a preventable influence on their ADHD. 

Worst-Case Scenario

But for Rebecca, all the evidence she needed was right there in her son. She remembered the moment she began connecting Alex’s diet to strange behavior. He was in second grade and complained he couldn’t focus because his brain was buzzing.

“It’s like if you played a decibel machine and you just kept turning the tone and the sound up,” Alex said. “It just got really ear-piercing.”

Then there were the meltdowns. Several times or more a day, small frustrations resulted in crying fits. “It was like I was trapped by myself and I couldn’t escape the feelings,” Alex said.

Rebecca shuddered as she recounted an episode when Alex was seven. He was shredding his clothes and scratching himself on his bed. “He looked at me and said, ‘Please get me a knife. I want to kill myself. I don’t want to live like this anymore.’”

The family doctor had no clear answers for her, so Rebecca turned to the internet. She began cutting things out of Alex’s diet like dairy, gluten, eggs, sugar, corn syrup and preservatives. The family tried behavioral then cognitive behavioral therapy. Nothing worked. Finally, one night Rebecca stumbled across a teenager’s blog post about an extreme reaction to red food coloring. Rebecca wondered if that was why Alex struggled with erratic mood swings. She decided to cut dyes out of Alex’s diet.

At first, Alex crashed like a detoxing addict. He could hardly get out of bed, and his body was sore to the touch. But within days, both the suicidal thoughts and the tantrums disappeared.

“It completely changed who I was,” he said. “I could finally focus.”

The dramatic change inspired Rebecca to share her family’s story in a TEDX talk.

The Bevans hoped Alex would grow out of his sensitivity, but seven years later he continues to experience negative reactions every time he accidentally eats something with chemical food coloring.

Back on the Table

The American Academy of Pediatrics said in a 2018 policy statement that “artificial food colors may be associated with exacerbation of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms.”

 “The AAP has concerns about the limited safety testing available on chemicals intentionally and unintentionally added to foods, including food dyes,” said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, who co-wrote the statement. “There are safe and simple steps families can take to limit children’s exposure to these chemicals.”

Nigg says even though more robust research is needed, it’s clear that synthetic food coloring is not benign. The good news, he says, is that the behavioral shifts triggered by the chemicals appear to usually last less than a week.

“I think we’ll be surprised in the future that we were so laissez-faire about adding so many synthetic chemicals and thinking they wouldn’t do anything to children’s brains,” said Nigg.

The issue is back on the table at the federal and state levels, too. Scientists at the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment are conducting a risk assessment to determine if artificial colors impact neurobehavioral or neurological processes. The agency  expects a conclusive report next summer. And, the FDA recently asked its science board to assess whether new studies warrant another literature review.

Dec 02 2019

5mins

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‘Increasingly Unavailable and Unaffordable’: Home Insurance Threatened Amid Wildfire Crisis

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David Bevacqua never had trouble insuring a home in California, but he was in for a rude surprise after recently buying a house in Bass Lake, in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

“None of the insurance companies would quote me,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

Bevacqua is not alone. As more and more destructive wildfires have whipped through the state in recent years, Californians living in areas considered a high wildfire risk are seeing their insurance rates creep up  or in cases like Bevacqua’s, having insurers simply pull out of some communities altogether.

Between 2015 and 2016 alone, according to the state insurance commissioner’s office, there was a 15 percent increase in “insurer initiated non-renewals” in fire-prone areas. That means homeowners wanted to keep their insurance but the companies refused to renew their policies.

Since Bevacqua couldn’t get a policy on the “admitted” market, where rates are regulated by the state, he ended up going with an alternative known as the FAIR Plan. Created in the 1960s, it’s a very limited, expensive option-of-last resort for consumers who cannot find insurance elsewhere.

“I’m paying twice as much as I expected, and now I have to deal with three separate policies on this one house,” he said, referring to yet another policy he bought covering earthquakes.

Ah, California.

Stories like Bevacqua’s have caught the attention of policymakers in Sacramento, who have made a number of tweaks to laws governing personal property insurance in recent years, including legislation prohibiting insurers from canceling policies after a home burns down, and laws aimed at making sure people understand their policies and are not underinsured.

But more sweeping insurance reforms have died under pressure from the insurance industry, and as of yet, no one seems to be ready to completely overhaul the state’s insurance market. According to the industry, 98 percent of Californians with home insurance are still covered by the traditional, regulated market, with the other 2% using the FAIR Plan and other policies not regulated by the state.

“The reason I hesitate about rethinking the entire insurance industry is that in California — despite these fires, despite the challenges — we have a robust market,” said California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara. “We still feel comfortable that our insurance market is strong and healthy enough to be able to pay out claims.”

Mark Sektnan, of the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, agrees.

“Overall we still see the market as very competitive, very viable,” he said. “But we do understand that homeowners in certain areas may be facing challenges.”

‘Increasingly Unavailable and Unaffordable’

California actually has some of the most consumer-friendly insurance laws in the nation, thanks to a 30-year-old ballot measure that set the rules still in effect today.

Those rules require insurance companies participating in the regulated market to base insurance rates on a customer’s individual level of risk.

And while the state insurance commissioner must approve the amount insurers can charge, he can’t force them to offer insurance if they think the risk is too high.

Those restrictions make sense, Lara said, to ensure that the insurance market stays financially healthy. So while he is concerned about the cost and availability of insurance in wildfire-prone areas, he said that basing prices on the level of risk that a home poses makes sense, even if it is driving up costs for those who are the most vulnerable.

The Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery,  set up by the state Legislature and governor to study wildfire costs, agreed with Lara, warning that if California “artificially masks” expensive insurance in high-risk regions by subsidizing rates, it will incentivize risky behavior and make insurance more expensive for people in other parts of the state where wildfires are not a threat.

Still, the commission’s recent report said that while “the home insurance market is not in crisis yet,” the state is “marching toward a future where home insurance will be increasingly unavailable and/or unaffordable” for Californians in high-risk fire areas.

The commission focused on areas known as the wildland urban interface, or WUI, which refers to regions where homes are built near forests or other wildlands threatened by wildfire.

“In evaluating whether to subsidize homeowners insurance in the WUI, policymakers need to consider whether the state wants to encourage more people to move into the WUI,” the report states. “We believe doing so will lead to more deaths and injuries of both residents and first responders, destruction of property, loss of homes, more damages to be paid by utilities …  consequent costs to shareholders and utility ratepayers, and more costs for local, state and federal governments and taxpayers.”

Discounts for Clearing Brush?

Consumer advocate Amy Bach, executive director of the insurance consumer group United Policyholders, agrees that the current risk-based system should not be changed.

That’s because at its core, she says, insurance is “basically just a very kind of informed gambling.”

“When you buy insurance, you’re basically transferring your risk onto the insurance company,” she said. “The insurance company looks at you and says, ‘OK what is this person’s risk profile? How old are they? How responsible are they? What’s their history? … ‘ They’re just deciding, what is this risk worth that I’m taking on, and what am I going to charge this person?”

Lara, the insurance commissioner, said he is trying to figure out how to “incentivize more of the admitted market insurers to stay in” high-risk areas to ensure lower prices and consumer protections.

“I know that’s a lot to ask in some of these communities,” he said.

But he noted that California is the largest market in the country.

“It is a massive market for the insurance companies. I don’t think it behooves them to leave the market. But also we have to figure out how we learn to coexist and how do we ensure that the market is robust so that they can pay out the claims and we can continue with our daily lives.”

One way to do that could be requiring insurance companies to offer lower prices to individuals and communities that invest in materials and initiatives that make them less vulnerable to fire. That could include clearing the area around a home of dangerous brush that can ignite during a wildfire, or building homes with more fire-resistant materials.

Lara said his office is pushing insurance companies to consider those sorts of discounts, similar to the discounts they give good drivers, for example. He said the industry is open to the concept.

The industry is indeed exploring the idea, says Mark Sektnan, of the American Property Casualty Insurance Association. But to make it work, companies would need entire communities to participate in reducing a wildfire threat, because fires come with a uniquely unfortunate risk compared to other natural disasters.

“If you mitigate your house for a hurricane or earthquake — whatever you do for your house directly benefits you, whatever your neighbors don’t do, doesn’t negatively impact you,” Sektnan said.  “Wildfire is the one catastrophe where you may take all the correct actions, but if none of your neighbors do, the effectiveness of your own mitigations are not as good.”

Sektnan said this kind of communitywide approach is already being taken in at least one market, where the county of Boulder in Colorado is partnering with insurers to bring down everyone’s rates.

Lara agreed that collective action is key, saying the state now needs to think about how to ensure communities work together to harden themselves against wildfire.

He also wants to simplify insurance contracts so that consumers have a better idea of their coverage ahead of a disaster.

“How do we create smarter contracts so that people can clearly understand what they’re covered [for], what they’re paying?” he said.

Climate Questions Loom

Of course, personal property insurance isn’t the only insurance question looming over California, as climate change is not only making wildfires more destructive, but it’s raising broader questions about the state’s resilience.

For one, state firefighting costs have exploded in recent years, so Lara is pushing legislation that would let the state take out insurance to cover those cost overruns.

State leaders are also debating the possibility of a multibillion dollar wildfire insurance fund that would help protect the state’s utilities against financial ruin when they’re found liable for fires.

And Lara is also exploring more out-of-the-box ideas, such as taking out insurance policies on natural resource like wetlands or forests that are threatened by climate change but whose existence actually helps mitigate its effects.

Lara, a former state lawmaker, authored legislation in 2018 to create a working group to address the broader question of climate change and insurance; that group will start meeting soon.

“Where are we most vulnerable as a state? Where are we most at risk? ” he said. “We know, for example in the Bay Area, the wetlands around the bay are critical, and we have to make sure that they’re strong and they’re thriving so that we could defend against potential flooding or sea level rise.”

In other parts of the world, this is already happening. For example, a coral reef off the coast of Cancun, Mexico, was recently insured in a collaboration between the government and nongovernmental organizations.

“The world’s already starting to figure out how do we bring in the insurance industry in our united front against climate change,” Lara said.

Now, California must do the same.

Jon Brooks contributed to this post.

Jun 11 2019

7mins

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California Has Farmers Growing Weeds. Why? To Capture Carbon

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California’s climate change efforts can be spotted all over the Bay Area in the growing number of electric cars and solar panels. But now, California is enlisting people from a more conservative part of the state — even if they don’t think climate change is much of a concern.

California’s farmers are receiving millions of dollars to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, something the state says is crucial for meeting its ambitious climate goals.

The state is paying them to grow plants, which absorb carbon and help move it into the soil where it can be stored long-term. That makes California home to some of the first official “carbon farmers” in the country.

For some, like almond grower Jose Robles of Modesto, climate change was an afterthought, if that. That’s something they talk about in Sacramento, he says, not where he lives and works.

But in December, the ground under Robles’ almond trees was a carpet of green, full of mustard plant and clover. It’s not a common sight in the Central Valley. After all, most farmers hate weeds.

“Everybody wants to have the orchards nice and clean,” Robles says, laughing.

His neighbors really don’t understand it.

“I’ve heard them say, ‘We’re in the business of growing almonds, not in the business of growing weeds,’” he says, laughing.

Adapting to Drought

Robles got the idea a few years ago, during California’s severe drought, when he had to cut back on watering his trees.

“We had no water,” he says. “It made us look at things different.”

Robles knew that richer earth with more microorganisms holds moisture longer, but there wasn’t a lot of organic matter in his orchard to build the soil up. Like most farmers, he sprayed herbicides to kill weeds.

A field at Russell Ranch at UC Davis, where carbon storage techniques are studied. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)

So he decided to grow organic matter specifically to feed his soil. He planted species that most people commonly see as weeds, but when sown on purpose, are known as a “cover crop.”

Once they get a few feet tall, he mows them and lets them decompose, along with some extra compost and mulch. A $21,000 grant from California helps cover his extra costs and labor.

It can be tricky, because almonds are harvested from the ground after they’re shaken off the trees. Having mulch or weed remnants on the ground would interfere with that, so Robles has to make sure the organic matter breaks down before harvest begins.

He’s already seen a difference.

“The trees, they don’t stress as much, because they hold the moisture a lot longer,” Robles says.

Absorbing Carbon Emissions

Though climate change didn’t really factor into Robles’ decision, his grant comes from a program designed to be part of the state’s climate change strategy. California’s Healthy Soils initiative is now in its third year.

Farms and forests could absorb as much as 20 percent of California’s current level of emissions, says a state report.

“I think there’s great potential for agriculture to play a really important role,” says Kate Scow, professor of soil microbial ecology at UC Davis, of the state’s climate goals. She’s standing in a large wheat field at Russell Ranch, seven miles west of the campus, where the university plants crops to study sustainable agriculture.

“Soil is alive,” she says. “There’s farmers that know that.”

To show me, Scow starts enthusiastically digging in the dirt.

“All right, see, we’re starting to hit the mineral soil.”

This is where the carbon is stored. Plants soak up the carbon dioxide in the air to build their leaves and stems. Their roots pump carbon down into the earth. Then, when the plant dies, its organic matter gets broken down by microbes and fungi. That’s how carbon from the air gets into the soil.

“The deeper you can get it in the soil, especially below the plow layer, the more stable and secure it’s going to be,” she says.

That’s key to prevent the carbon from being released back into the air, and is how agriculture could play a part in the state’s climate effort.

“We have very ambitious climate goals, and without natural and working lands, California simply won’t get there,” says Jeanne Merrill, with the California Climate & Agriculture Network, a coalition of ag groups working on climate policy.

Before leaving office, Gov. Jerry Brown set a goal for California to be carbon neutral by 2045. That will likely mean not just reducing carbon emissions from cars and buildings, but absorbing carbon already in the air.

Merrill says California’s farmers are already on the frontlines of facing climate impacts, like more extreme weather.

“Some are willing to say that it’s climate change,” she says. “Others are unsure. But I think many know that things are changing and they need different tools.”

Farmers are interested in the climate programs, Merrill says, if only because it can help them weather extended droughts.

Hundreds have signed up. But state climate officials say the Healthy Soils program needs to be five times larger. That means the state Legislature will have to boost its $15 million budget, and Gov. Gavin Newsom has requested more money for the program. (Update May 9, 2019:  In the May revise of the state budget, Newsom has proposed $28 million for Healthy Soils, an increase of $10 million over his original proposal.)

Merrill says that would send a signal that California’s climate efforts will take the entire state, not just coastal cities.

“It’s bridging that coastal-Valley divide,” she says. “It’s saying that we need that Valley base pretty significantly.”

Apr 22 2019

4mins

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It's Great!

By Jalieneer - Oct 07 2013
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Thank-you so much!