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KQED Science News

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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

24 Ratings
Average Ratings
17
3
1
2
1

It's Great!

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

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Cover image of KQED Science News

KQED Science News

Updated 2 days ago

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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.

What Exxon Knew and When They Knew It: Climate Science in S.F. Federal Court

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It’s not a trial, nor is it quite a debate, but what’s happening Wednesday in Judge William Alsup’s federal courtroom is an unusual and possibly unprecedented proceeding. That’s because Alsup has ordered a four-hour tutorial on climate change – what scientists know about global warming, and when they knew it. And it’s because of who’s responsible for the tutorial: Bay Area cities on one side, and oil companies on the other.

The cities sued the oil companies over the impacts of sea level rise, and the tutorial is a key early step in the case, one of dozens of similar cases across the country.

Lawyers for San Francisco and Oakland claim BP, Exxon, Chevron and others created a public nuisance to the Bay Area by producing and selling oil and gas while misleading the public about known consequences. The two Bay Area cases represent one strategy among several in a growing body of law relying on tort and common-law claims to hold fossil fuel producers responsible for global warming.

Complicating these arguments are the other human activities that also contribute to global warming – and the fact that fossil fuel burning is global, which means companies and countries in the oil and gas industry outside of California are responsible.

“And that’s why probably there’s going to be a big focus on the fraud part: who was overtly and aggressively denying the science, who knew internally,” says Stanford University historian of science Robert N. Proctor. “There’s a lot of evidence that some of these fossil fuel makers really did know quite a while ago that there was going to be this threat but they covered it up.”

Proctor says the cases resemble efforts to hold major tobacco producers responsible for smoking-related lung cancer.

“Both of these industries– tobacco and big carbon – have been kind of embracing science and a sense of open inquiry,” he says, “with the idea being that as long as we leave the inquiry open we can maximize uncertainty and say that we don’t really know the truth.”

Alsup has issued a list of questions he wants answered in the presentations. They include the cause of the ice ages, the origins of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and even whether billions of peoples’ breathing is warming up the planet.

“These questions are great questions, they’re interesting questions, but they’re not the questions that you would want to say, ‘What’s the state of knowledge?’” says Katherine Mach, a Stanford researcher whose work focuses on assessing climate science. Mach and other scientists characterized the questions as simple, and straightforward.

They’re also pretty easy to answer for scientists. “Turns out answers to those questions are actually pretty well known,” wrote Andrew Dressler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M. Dressler has sketched out his responses on Twitter.

https://twitter.com/AndrewDessler/status/971818482915532800

At the website Real Climate, scientists are compiling and updating crowdsourced responses.

The semi-adversarial nature of the tutorial has reminded some observers of an idea circulated last year, by NYU professor Steven Koonin and then by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, that climate science should be the subject of an intellectual “red team-blue team” exercise, that name taken from military simulations in which one side attacks another. But Wednesday’s briefing is fundamentally different, for at least a few reasons: the judge has wide latitude in using the information presented there, and these days, it’s more likely that the science presented by cities and oil companies will overlap or even agree.

Fossil fuel companies now characterize themselves as active but risk-adverse participants in the global discussion about climate science – and these companies have acknowledged risks posed by climate change in public statements.

ExxonMobil, for example, states on its website that it “unequivocally reject[s] allegations that [it] suppressed climate change research contained in media reports that are inaccurate distortions of [the company’s] nearly 40-year history of climate research.”

But each side has its own time to present the best climate science, and its own version of history. Experts say that format means key differences may emerge in questions around certainty, both past and present.

Cities, for their part, are likely to emphasize growing certainty in climate research.

“What we’ve seen over the last 5-10 years is an incredible amount of research into the science of detection and attribution,” says Aaron Strong, an associate professor of ocean science at the University of Maine. “There are a lot of uncertainties in terms of of future projection of sea level rise, but there’s not a lot of uncertainty in the fact that it’s rising at all.”

Mar 19 2018

4mins

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40 Years With the Voyager Spacecraft: Earth’s Most Distant Explorers Are Still Calling Home

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When NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft  left Earth in 1977, they had a mission that was possible only at that very moment in human history. The spacecraft were headed toward two of the outer planets of our solar system, and would use the gravity of one planet to swing themselves toward the next.

It’s the alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune that make this gravity swing dance possible. This alignment happens only once every 176 years, and it happened just at the time when human space technology was ready to meet the challenge.

‘None of us knew how long they would last. At the time the space age was only 20 years old.’Ed Stone, NASA

When it comes to the Voyager mission, the numbers themselves are cosmic. Voyager 1 is 13 billion miles away from Earth, and counting. Voyager 1 and 2 discovered “The Great Dark Spot” on Neptune and the first active volcanoes on another planet — on Jupiter’s moon, Io. In 2012, Voyager 1 passed across the far end of our solar system to give humanity its first taste of interstellar space.

These were not among the outcomes Ed Stone could have imagined when he and his colleagues at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory prepped the two Voyagers for launch in 1977. Their mission was a four-year sortie to Jupiter and Saturn — which at the time seemed plenty ambitious. The moon landing was still a fresh memory.

Now in his 80s, Professor Stone, a physicist and National Medal of Science recipient, continues to serve as chief scientist for the program he helped launch. He is also a full-time professor and researcher at Caltech. He spoke with KQED News host Devin Katayama on the occasion of Voyager’s 40th anniversary.

Katayama: Professor Stone, you were in your early forties when Voyager 1 and 2 launched into space. What was the original goal of that mission?

[contextly_sidebar id=”yXuyMK6hQ5u1hDrzZYCw6oNaNoQkfCrz”]Stone: The original goal was a four-year mission to Jupiter and Saturn and Titan, a moon of Saturn. And we had two spacecraft to give us a higher probability of having at least one making it on that four-year journey to Saturn.

Katayama: So did you ever think the Voyager spacecrafts would last this long?

Stone: None of us knew how long they would last. At the time the space age was only 20 years old.

Katayama: So, 40 years later, what are some of the most important planetary discoveries to date, thanks to the Voyager mission?

Stone: Well, we discovered that nature is much more diverse than we could have imagined. For instance, before Voyager, the only known active volcanoes were here on Earth. And then we found a moon of Jupiter called Io, about the size of our moon, which has ten times more volcanic activity than Earth. So time after time, we’ve discovered that our ‘terracentric’ view of planets and magnetic fields and moons and rings was much too limited.

Katayama: People working in the field might not be surprised to discover how expansive space could be, but has it changed our understanding of the universe?

Stone: We now understand that when bodies form, there are processes by which they can maintain a very active geological life, just as the Earth does. And the way that happens depends on the exact circumstances. So each moon seems to be quite distinct in character.

Katayama: NASA put a message on Voyager for other civilizations in outer space that might one day find it — The Golden Record. What was the thinking behind that?

Stone: It was a form of outreach. It was a declaration that we as a society here on Earth could actually send such a message, which would leave the sun, the solar system, and orbit the center of the Milky Way galaxy for billions of years, long after Earth itself may have ceased to exist.

The Golden Record is carried on board the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts. (NASA)

Katayama: Can you share with us what that message was?

Stone: There were several messages: greetings from different languages on Earth, messages from different cultures, images of various aspects of Earth. The whole idea was to make this a time capsule, or what I call a calling card: the ambassadors Earth has sent to the Milky Way galaxy.

Katayama: I’m curious whether you had any say in what that messaging was.

Stone: The messaging was really determined by Carl Sagan and a small group that he put together. They did this basically over a 6-month period before launch, and it was done independently of what we were all doing, getting ready for launch.

Katayama: I’m curious whether there are any questions you were hoping would be answered by Voyager that have not been answered.

Stone: I think what Voyager has done is inform us well enough to know what interesting questions to ask now. For instance, before Voyager, the only known liquid water was here on Earth, in the ocean. Then we flew by Europa, another moon of Jupiter, which has an icy crust on it which is cracked — very much like ice on an ocean. In fact, that’s what a subsequent mission, Galileo, has shown.

Katayama: The Voyager spacecraft are steadily losing power, and I saw a prediction that NASA will have to turn off all the equipment by 2030. What do you think should come next in terms of probing interstellar space?

Stone: The next step is exploring the heliosphere itself, which is the huge bubble that Voyager left in August 2012. That is going to be done by a mission here on Earth which looks at neutral atoms coming from the outer edges of the heliosphere and from the interstellar medium beyond. That mission is now being launched in 2024. It would be the next stage in understanding the heliospheric bubble that protects all the planets in the solar system, and its interaction with the winds of the other stars as it occurs in interstellar space.

Katayama: What are the biggest questions about the heliosphere that we need to understand?

Stone: We need to understand the size of the heliosphere, because it breathes in and out with the 11-year solar cycle. But it will also change size as the material outside in interstellar space changes over a much longer time scale. So it’s understanding how our solar bubble, which envelops the Earth, interacts and changes as what’s in interstellar space also changes.

Katayama: What does communication between us here on Earth and the Voyager spacecraft look like?

Stone: We listen 24 hours a day; the spacecraft each have a 21-watt transmitter. We get a very slow data rate — it’s 160 bits per second, which is the best we can get from 13 billion miles away.

Katayama: What’s it been like having a hand in such an important mission, and having spent most of your career with Voyager?

Stone: It’s been a remarkable journey. Science is about learning about nature — why it’s there, why it is the way it is. And Voyager has been an overwhelming success in terms of scientific endeavor. But even more than that, the thing that’s wonderful about Voyager is it’s remarkably inspiring to many people, and that’s of great value as well. It turned out to be a very effective way of involving the greater public in the journey, which is a scientific journey of discovery.

Want more Voyager action? Check out ‘The Farthest,’ a new full-length film from PBS. You can live-stream it here.

Aug 29 2017

4mins

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The Contentious Future of Point Reyes — Here’s What You Need to Know

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On a rocky peninsula with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean, an hour north of San Francisco, cows, tule elk, and people have shared the land for several hundred years — but lately, with growing conflict. That’s why the National Park Service is rethinking how to manage the rangelands in the Point Reyes National Seashore.  

‘Everything is on the table.’Melanie Gunn
Point Reyes National Seashore

President John F. Kennedy established the national park at Point Reyes in 1962, but the government only owned some of the land. The rest had been cattle and dairy land for 100 years. So federal authorities paid out $50 million in the 1960s and 70s to buy the land from the cattle and dairy ranchers. Ranchers were able to stay under long-term leases, and some two million people visit annually, from all over the world.

After an effort to restore tule elk, the herds now roam over the park’s wildlands, as they did before human development nearly drove them to extinction. But they’ve also spread to the ranchlands, becoming a little too free-range for the liking of ranchers, who make their livelihood on public lands. And a bacteria common to dairy and cattle has sickened some of the elk.

These conditions brewed a sour fight among conservationists, the park service, and ranchers, culminating in litigation four years ago.

Cattle belonging to Marin Sun Farms, Inc. graze the land on Point Reyes National Seashore. (Lauren Hanussak/KQED)

As a result, the park service now is modifying its General Management Plan, a kind of road map to the next twenty years on rangelands at Point Reyes. In doing that, the park service must consider cutting ranching out of the national seashore altogether. Other ideas for the future include expanding farming and eliminating some of the elk.

“The question we need to resolve through this planning process is whether or not we can have elk and cattle coexisting and what it takes to make it work,” says Dave Press, a National Park Service wildlife ecologist.

Melanie Gunn, a spokeswoman for the seashore, says it’s a public process, “so everything is on the table.” Even the alternatives the public has seen so far aren’t set in stone. “We’re in listening mode,” she says.  

The park service has now released thousands of comments about the park’s future, but the actual planning is only just beginning. Here’s what you need to know to make sense of, or participate in, the process.

Point Reyes is the only national park where tule elk are visible. Tule elk disappeared from the peninsula in the mid-nineteenth century; they didn’t move back until 1978, after the seashore was established. Today the Tomales Point Elk Preserve holds around 450 of them, behind a tall fence on the north side of the seashore.

Tule elk are native to California, and were reintroduced to Point Reyes National Seashore beginning 40 years ago. (Lauren Hanussak/KQED)

Elk have spread along the seashore. The fenced preserve was so successful, wildlife managers added a free-range herd in 1998. That second herd has split, with more than a hundred elk hanging out down by Drake’s Estero, and Limantour Road, and a smaller number further north, by Drake’s Beach. Our map shows the range for both free-range herds, based on NPS data.

Cattle fences don’t work on elk. Tule elk are the smallest elk species (of three) in California, but they’re still 600 pounds, and nimble. They can jump a cattle fence easily, to graze the organic grasses ranchers maintain for their grass-fed beef and organic cheese. Ranch fences keep cattle away from some sensitive waterways and wilderness at the seashore. But the only fencing at Point Reyes that controls elk is at the elk preserve, where a three-mile long, ten-foot high, wood-and-wire fence confines the original herd.

A pasture of fresh grass belonging to Marin Sun Farms, Inc. is ready for grazing. (Lauren Hanussak/KQED)

A wasting disease has struck elk and cattle out on the Point Reyes peninsula. A bacteria found at Tomales Point decades ago, probably connected to a defunct ranching operation, has caused outbreaks of Johne’s Disease over the years – a contagious, chronic, common, and often fatal sickness in dairy operations. Its symptoms include weight loss and diarrhea for affected animals.

[contextly_sidebar id=”dtU0Yc0WDKONGgcKXeia50w0azAM1epd”]We haven’t fully sleuthed out the disease – in part because no testing is required for it. The park service tests and quarantines elk from the free-range herd, but the last tests for elk in the fenced reserve were a decade ago. The park service says there’s no money for genetic tests for the bacterium that causes the disease, and the test itself can be hard to interpret. Finally, cattle and dairy operations may or may not test for Johne’s in their herds. All that means it’s hard to say with certainty which animals have passed the disease to each other, and when.

Everyone agrees the federal government paid fair market value for land bought from ranchers, but grazing fees may be a different story. Between 1963-1978, the government paid ranching families nearly $50 million for their lands, then allowed them to run dairy and cattle operations on public land under successive 20- and 30-year leases.

David Evans and his wife Claire Herminjard of Marin Sun Farms say they rotate their cattle and take care to protect habitats for endangered species. (Lauren Hanussak/KQED)

Ranchers pay $7 a cow a month to graze on public land. That’s higher than other federal lands, and park management says those fees cover the cost of administering the lands, still, conservationists point out that grazing costs are as much as double on other Marin lands. 

Want to see row crops at Point Reyes? Ranchers do. The word artichoke appears 92 times in the public comments file, and for a reason: the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association is pushing for something called “agricultural diversification.” It would permit pigs, sheep and row crops within park boundaries; interested West Marin residents have weighed in for and against the idea.

And ranchers argue cattle grazing can be beneficial to grassland. David Evans and Claire Herminjard, who manage Marin Sun Farms and Mindful Meats on park service land, say they control the timing and severity of grazing to manage the land.  “Our central love and goal is to make sure that we are doing the best possible job we can, in taking care of the land, the pastures, and all of the layers of ecosystem that are out here, in tandem with our livestock,” Herminjard says, “and our livestock do the best job at being able to keep grasslands viable.”

Tule Elk graze on grass in a field at Point Reyes National Seashore Elk Preserve. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Environmental groups who sued the National Park Service in 2014 remain skeptical about federal rangeland management at Point Reyes. “From impacts to endangered species, to water pollution, invasive species, soil erosion and conflicts with native wildlife – there’s enough negative impacts from grazing that the park service has to look at them,” says the Center for Biological Diversity’s Jeff Miller. Grazing is a privilege, not a right, say environmental advocates, and the government should take it away if ranching doesn’t meet high standards. “We feel that the general management plan should prioritize the protection of wildlife and habitat, and also it being a resource for visitors,” says Deb Moskowitz, with the Resource Renewal Institute of Mill Valley, “and then see how ranching could possibly fit into that.”

Climate change may mean that the national seashore looks different in 20 years. “We know that we’re going to have sea level rise, average temperature changes, rainfall total changes, distribution of native and non native invasive species, are also going to change,” says Morgan Patton, a fourth-generation Marin resident who runs the Environmental Action Center of West Marin. “We would like to see some discussion about how climate change is going to impact the park’s resources.” NPS ecologist Dave Press says that discussion will happen.

A Marin Sun Farms, Inc. calf chewing on foliage at Point Reyes National Seashore. (Lauren Hanussak/KQED)

Thirty national parks (out of 417) permit some sort of grazing — and at least one permits agriculture. When the law was passed to create the national park service a hundred years ago, then-Interior Secretary Franklin K. Lane announced that grazing would be permitted in park areas away from visitors, where it wouldn’t interfere with natural resources. During World War I and II, grazing expanded; in western states, operations remain particularly active. And in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, sustainable row-crop agriculture is managed by a collective.

What happens in Point Reyes will help shape an evolving and communal understanding of what our national parkland is for.

Mar 05 2018

7mins

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The Lowly Seagrass That Could Save Your Oysters From Climate Change

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The impacts of climate change aren’t a distant threat for the Pacific shellfish industry. Acidifying seawater is already causing problems for oyster farms along the West Coast and it’s only expected to get worse.

That has one Bay Area oyster farm looking for ways to adapt by teaming up with scientists, who are studying how the local ecosystem could lend a helping hand.

“We need help,” says Terry Sawyer of Hog Island Oyster Company. “That ‘canary in a coalmine’ analogy drives me crazy, but that’s what we are.”

‘We’ve got to move on this and we need help.’Terry Sawyer, Hog Island Oyster Co.

By that, he means that oysters are an “indicator species” on the frying edge of a changing climate.

Sawyer’s own natural habitat is on the mudflats of Tomales Bay, about 50 miles north of San Francisco, where his oyster operation is located. But a few years ago, he started going to climate change conferences, sitting next to scientists and policymakers.

“Carbon chemistry is incredibly sophisticated, complicated science,” he says. “I am definitely out of my element — out of my comfort zone. I’d rather be in shorts and no shoes.”

For Sawyer, these wonky affairs are a necessity. Like a lot of oyster farmers, he buys baby oysters from hatcheries in Oregon and Washington. But starting a decade ago, the hatcheries began having mysterious die-offs.

“The orders that we were getting – if we were getting them at all, they wouldn’t necessarily happen at the time or the size that we could take them,” he says.

Terry Sawyer of Hog Island Oyster Company examines a bag of fresh oysters. He sells to both restaurants and individual retail customers. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)

Scientists eventually identified the main culprit: increasingly acidic seawater.

The Carbon Sponge

At least a quarter of the carbon humans put into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels is absorbed by the ocean. It acts like a carbon sponge, but adding carbon to seawater makes it more acidic. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the oceans have become about 30 percent more acidic.

It’s harmful for animals that build shells, like oysters, and spells big trouble for the Pacific shellfish industry, worth more than $100 million.

“You don’t want to curl up in a fetal position,” says Sawyer. “You do want to say, ‘We’ve got to move on this and we need help.’”

Sawyer found some help by opening up his oyster farm to a team of scientists. Equipment monitors the water’s acidity in real time, part of a network run by UC Davis’s Bodega Marine Lab.

“That was a significant move: knowing what’s going on day-to-day, minute-by-minute,” he says. “And it’s also been proving the point. We have numbers you can’t argue with.”

Scientists like Kristy Kroeker (left) from UC Santa Cruz are looking to seagrass as a natural acidification remedy. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)

Hog Island is opening its own oyster hatchery in Humboldt Bay, 200 miles to the north, to improve the reliability of the supply chain.

The oyster farm is also assisting with cutting-edge scientific research, focused on how oysters could get a boost from native plants in Tomales Bay.

The Acid Test

On a sunny morning, a team of scientists is scuba-diving in a shallow part of the bay, surrounded by thick, green seagrass, waving in the current.

“When you’re down in it, it really feels like you’re in a forest of seagrass,” says Kristy Kroeke, a marine biologist at UC Santa Cruz.  “It’s quite long.”

This seagrass is a glimmer of hope for oyster farmers. Plants, whether it’s a forest or lawn, take up carbon dioxide and use it for photosynthesis.

“The plants under the water are doing the exact same thing,” Kroeker says.

Seagrasses from Tomales Bay. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)

The seagrass pulls the carbon out of the water, which makes it slightly less acidic.

“Essentially, they’re creating this little bubble of seawater around them that’s more friendly for animals that might be threatened by ocean acidification,” she says.

Kroeker is testing whether seagrasses could act as a buffer, protecting the oysters nearby.

She plants mesh bags of baby oysters in the seagrass bed, which she’ll be watching in the months to come. So far, the results look promising, but not necessarily the whole answer.

Seagrass can reduce acidification around it, but possibly only in certain locations or at certain times of year. More research will be needed, Kroeker says, but against a global problem, local approaches have a lot of potential.

“Can we use parts of nature that we already know are important,” she wonders, “seagrasses – to actually benefit people and protect them from some of these impacts?”

The approach is being studied around the world in different ecosystems, including near coral reefs, and using bigger marine plants, like kelp.

Eventually, it’ll be up to oyster farmers like Terry Sawyer to make the research work on the ground – or, in the water. He’s hopeful.

“From an aquaculture point of view, you bet I’m hopeful,” Sawyer says. “Maybe I’m being idealistic here, but we’re learning so much. We’re just at the tip of the iceberg on that.”

Jan 29 2018

4mins

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The Water in Your Jeans: How Two Consumer Products Giants Are Cutting Back on Water Use

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Here’s a sobering thought:

“Studies have shown that as we look out to 2030, global demand for water is expected to outstrip supply by 40 percent.”

So says Brooke Barton with CERES, a Boston-based non-profit that helps businesses build sustainability into their work, including water conservation.

Right now, that’s a challenge that’s just not on the radar of a lot of companies.

“It’s surprising how many companies and manufacturing facilities around the world aren’t even measuring how much water they use,” Barton says.

CERES is trying to change that, by tracking food companies’ progress using less water, and by appealing to their self-interest; tracking and cutting water use can save corporations a lot of money.

‘Especially in some areas where we produce, water is a challenge. Water is a premium.’
Bart Sights, Levi Strauss

Barton says that message is getting through.

“What we’re seeing is a growing cadre of companies who are shifting direction and elevating this as a priority in their business,” says Barton, who highlighted Levi’s and PepsiCo as two examples of corporate leaders in water conservation.

PepsiCo produces many types of beverages – including Gatorade – as well as many types of chips like Cheetos, Ruffles, and Tostitos. At a massive Gatorade facility just outside of Phoenix, in the city of Tolleson, Arizona, bottling lines fill 600 containers per minute.

“We’re doing grape, we’re doing fruit punch, we’re doing lemon lime,” says Tim Carey, who directs sustainability programs for PepsiCo Beverages in North America.

Carey says the company started investing in water efficiency four years ago in water-scarce Arizona. Since then, they’ve seen a 24 percent reduction in water use.

PepsiCo is now saving $1.5 million annually at its Gatorade processing facility in Tolleson, AZ and using 24 percent less water. (Jason Margolis)

“That’s about a hundred million gallons of water that were used in 2013 every year that we do not use this year,” says Carey.

That translates into $1.5 million of annual cost savings, music to the ears of Carey’s corporate bosses.

So, how’d Pepsi do it? It starts with cleaning all those empty bottles. Water is out; air is in. Pulses of air remove dust particles from sterilized bottles.

Another water-saving step: more efficient filtering of the water used in Gatorade.

“Originally we would just do a single pass-through, reverse osmosis. We’d use the clean water in our operation and the rest would go to drain,” says Carey.

That water is now re-captured and cleaned again. Previously, Pepsi recovered 80 percent of the water used here; now they recover 87 percent.

Water and Power

Pepsi’s next trick can be found on the rooftop. Carey opens a hatch and emerges into the bright Arizona sun. “On top of this roof we have a field of solar panels that covers about 700,000 square feet,” says Carey.

That’s like 12 football fields.

But just what do solar panels have to do with saving water? It goes back to the local utility. Most power plants use tremendous amounts of water to generate electricity, boiling water to create steam or using water as a coolant. The less power Pepsi draws from the grid, the less water is used at the power plant.

“And because we’re all in the same watershed, we’re saving water in Arizona in the watershed that supplies us,” says Carey.

[contextly_sidebar id=”dXijkgRA7cTCewDbD8hiOv3rz12YXaBH”]That, in turn, helps maintain the long-term viability of Pepsi’s operations in Tolleson. Pepsi is also working with The Nature Conservancy in Arizona and elsewhere, experimenting with ways to replenish local watersheds.

Beyond Arizona, Pepsi has set a goal to reduce its water use an additional 25 percent by 2025 (compared to 2015) at all its food and beverage facilities worldwide. By that same year, the company plans to replenish 100 percent of the water it uses in manufacturing operations in high-risk water areas.

Pepsi may be leading the way, but what it’s doing isn’t exactly splitting the atom. So why are corporations like PepsiCo just making these changes now? Why weren’t these things done 25 years ago?

Carey says water has long been cheap and CEO’s just didn’t think about sustainability as a business advantage.

“People didn’t say, ‘Oh what can I do to save water?’ she says. “Second thing is they probably did what I call ‘the gross stuff.’ They did the big water savings projects, which were fairly obvious. We’re at the precision scale now where we say: How can we tune our operations? How can we buy equipment and make it operate just perfectly?”

The challenges will be different for just about every plant, in just about every industry, but more companies are at least asking the questions.

Wet Jeans

Consider Levi’s, where, strange as it might seem, water is a main ingredient for blue jeans.

“This team is charged with coming up with new techniques every day,” says Bart Sights, who runs Levi Strauss & Co.’s “Eureka” lab near downtown San Francisco. “It’s time, temperature, pressure, mixture…”

The lab is a miniature factory at the forefront of denim technology. Hundreds of pairs of prototypes are stacked along the walls.

Jeans hanging in the Levi Strauss “reference library.” Many colors and patterns are created with water. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)

“Each jean has a recipe,” he says. “It’s very similar to cooking.”

Jeans all start out with the same basic ingredient: dark denim fabric.

“Up until forty years or so ago, jeans were sold like this,” Sights says. “They were stiff and scratchy.”

Today, consumers choose from a huge variety: light, dark, faded, pre-shrunk, stone-washed. And those variations are created with water.

The lab has several rows of washing machines, but at a full-scale Levi’s factory, each machine washes 300 pairs of jeans at a time. To get the right color and texture, some jeans are washed over and over, which uses a lot of water.

So a few years ago, the company developed machines that use ozone gas instead.

“It reduces the color from something dark to something light without using very much water at all,” he says.

Levi Strauss has developed about a dozen other waterless techniques with the goal to use them in 80 percent of its products by 2020. That means rolling them out to factories around the world, from Egypt to Mexico.

The company hasn’t quantified how much water it plans to save but so far, it reports having saved more than 200 million gallons.

“To use less water is usually less expensive,” Sights says. “Especially in some areas where we produce, [where] water is a challenge. Water is a premium.”

Thirsty Crop

Of course, most of the water in your jeans comes from growing the cotton itself, a notoriously thirsty crop. Levi’s doesn’t grow it, but is working on ways to reduce that water demand too, including sourcing fabric from the Better Cotton Initiative, which works with farmers to reduce water use.

Then there’s all the water that jeans use after we buy them, which makes up about a quarter of their total water footprint. Levi’s has found that Americans use more water to wash our jeans than consumers in Europe or China.

Among hard-core lovers of 501s, there is a movement to never wash their jeans, to develop a personalized patina.

“[For] true connoisseurs and aficionados, it’s the ultimate form of self-expression for people,” Sights says. “I never wash my jeans. Ever.”

But for everyone else, Sights has an easier option.

“If we could just convince people in America to wash their jeans only every five times they wear them, that would move the needle.”

Jan 13 2018

7mins

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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

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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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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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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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Self-Driving Cars Will Compel Changes on California Roads and Highways

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We are moving rapidly down the road toward the age of self-driving cars. But as the cars change, the roads will have to change with them, and it will likely mean some adjustments, such as different signage and narrower lanes.

‘It’s been very difficult for us to fill all our potholes, and now we’re talking about spending money and making investments on new technology.’Malcolm Dougherty, Caltrans

Five years ago, when Governor Jerry Brown appointed Malcolm Dougherty to head Caltrans, autonomous cars seemed a lot farther off than they do now. With ridesharing and even car rental companies getting into the game — and more than a dozen regulatory bills before Congress — things are accelerating. As the car technology races toward him, Dougherty is keeping his eyes on the road.

KQED Science Editor Craig Miller spoke with the top man at Caltrans about the future of California’s highways.

Miller: What are the challenges you face to adapt California’s roads for self-driving cars?

Dougherty: Well, some of the challenges are: Where do we start and when do we jump? To date, it’s been very difficult for us to fill all our potholes, and now we’re talking about spending money and making investments on new technology.

There’s going to be different technologies and technology is turning over at a very rapid pace. Who goes first? If you’re talking about communications between infrastructure and vehicles, do I put the communication devices out there, first, before the vehicles have them? Do the vehicles start to install the communication devices before I put them out there? Who goes first? And whatever investment I make today is going to be passed up by greater levels of technology in three years, or four years.

Caltrans director Malcolm Dougherty is on Twitter @MalcolmXdough. (Twitter)

So we certainly want to jump into the new technology and be innovative, but we also have to be smart with taxpayers’ dollars, and deploy things that are going to be utilized and not get turned over by technology very shortly.

Miller:  What sort of changes are we looking at?

Dougherty: Well, there’s a lot of opportunities. One thing that we do know is those autonomous vehicles are going to be looking very closely at the infrastructure, because there will be GPS in those vehicles, but they will still need to see their immediate surroundings. Whether or not it’s lane lines, stop bars, different signs, and those types of things, they’re going to have be very visual to a computer or an autonomous vehicle as well as a human-driven car.

Can lanes start to get narrower because of autonomous vehicles? It depends. There’s some reasons why lanes could be narrower now with human-driven cars, but depending on your setting, we have to thoughtful about the fact that there’s going to be human-driven cars and autonomous vehicles before we start making the lanes a lot narrower.

We have already taken the steps to update the standard that we use for lane delineation as we call it. But that’s a two-fold purpose: one, to increase the visibility for the human driver, but at the same time, we were looking to the future, knowing that we were going to have autonomous technology emerging and taking that into consideration as we update our standards.

Miller: And this has already begun?

Dougherty: The one significant thing we’re going to be doing is increasing the width of those lane lines from four inches to six inches, making them highly visible.

Miller: These changes will obviously come at a cost and you’ve already said that keeping the potholes filled is a challenge. Do you see this technology leading to more privatization of roads?

[contextly_sidebar id=”SXfnDbzlsFsOub5cQ7OACTsEiRDYGKtf”]Dougherty: I don’t know about the privatization of the roadways, but there definitely is an opportunity to partner with companies to be able to deploy new technologies. There’s a lot of companies out there that are providing traveler information through private vendors and private apps, right? So there’s a partnership synergy there between us as an owner-operator, and some of those private companies, who are both trying to improve mobility for the end user.

We collect a lot of data, we don’t package that data and necessarily market it to the end consumer, but we provide that data to those companies that are doing that. Those companies also have data that they’re sharing with us, so we’re sharing data again for the ultimate benefit of the end user.

Miller: Some of the ideas being kicked around involve embedding technology into the roadways — like wireless charging of moving cars, or piezoelectric roads, that generate electricity from the pressure of traffic moving over them. Implementing any of these would involve huge sums of money. Where might that come from?

Dougherty: In some of these experimental ideas that you just talked about, we would be looking to partner with some of those vendors. If you want to show us the value or you want pilot some of that new technology, show us that it works before we can scale it up.

‘Getting into your car and having it take you to school to drop your child off and then take you to the supermarket and take you to work without paying attention to the driving — we’re a long ways from that.’Malcolm Dougherty, Caltrans

We may talk about solar roads, and putting down a surface that’s actually collecting electricity — is that going to stand up to the wear and tear that we put on roads here in California with all the truck traffic? I don’t know, but we’ll pilot that in a very isolated area to see what its durability is before we put it on any kind of an interstate like I-80 or I-5. And specifically we’ll be testing that in a roadside rest area, where if it doesn’t perform and it fails, it’s not a high consequence for the state of California or taxpayers.

Miller: Meanwhile, how fast is the clock ticking, here, for Caltrans?

Dougherty: Let’s say one-two-three-four-five, years from now, we start to see some version and some level of that technology hitting the street — a vast majority of the other cars are still going to be human-driven cars. You fast forward out to 10-15-20 years, you’re still going to have a mix. So before we start talking about making some significant geometric changes to the highway, we have to take into consideration that there’s still going to be human-driven cars out there.

I think in some respects, the autonomous technology is going to be sooner than a lot of people think. But getting into your car and having it take you to school to drop your child off and then take you to the supermarket and take you to work without paying attention to the driving — we’re a long ways from that.

Aug 07 2017

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How Much Drinking Water Has California Lost to Oil Industry Waste? No One Knows

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California survived its historic drought, in large part by using groundwater. It was a lifeline in the Central Valley, where it was the only source of water for many farmers.

California regulators are charged with protecting that groundwater, but for years they failed to do so. Through a series of mistakes and miscommunication, they allowed oil companies to put wastewater into drinking water aquifers that were supposed to be safeguarded.

Now, a KQED investigation reveals that regulators still know little about the actual impact on the state’s groundwater reserves.

One of those errors was discovered by an unlikely person: Bill Samarin, a farmer in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Oil and agriculture are the big employers in Tulare County, where Samarin lives. Among the citrus and almond orchards, you see steel pumpjacks bobbing above the treetops. So criticizing either of those industries doesn’t make you popular.

“That doesn’t set well with people around here,” Samarin said. “You’re some kind of environmentalist, which isn’t a very accepted thing to be if you’re a farmer out in this area.”

Samarin is not an environmentalist. He describes himself as a “pretty conservative guy.” So what he discovered about the oil industry put him in unfamiliar territory, straining relationships in this tight-knit community.

The Biggest Issue

It started with the oil field not far from his orchard.

‘Is this even possible that they could be taking wastewater and injecting it into drinking water?’Bill Samarin, farmer

“From our house, we could look across and it’s probably about three-quarters of a mile,” he said.

County officials had received an application to expand that oil field and allow more drilling. Given how close it was to his property, Samarin started doing some homework.

“When I looked into it further, I found out actually that the biggest issue out here isn’t the things you see on top of the ground,” he said. “The biggest issue out here is the wastewater and how they’re getting rid of it.”

Oil companies in California produce tons of wastewater. On average, for every barrel of oil, a California oil well produces 19 barrels of water, often laden with salts, trace metals and chemicals like benzene.

“They have to get rid of it somehow and in this area here, they pump it into the ground,” he said.

It’s the standard way in which oil companies dispose of wastewater in California: using injection wells, which are not much more than a pipe going into the ground with a gauge to monitor water pressure.

Generally, the wastewater is deposited pretty deep, below the usable groundwater, into aquifers that are already too salty to be drinkable.

Samarin decided to look up all the wells near his orchard, to see where the wastewater was going. He couldn’t believe what he found.

“I was just stunned, stunned by how close it was to groundwater,” Samarin said. He uses groundwater on his crops, along with a lot of other farmers in the area.

“I just drilled a well here,” he said. “We drilled down to 740 feet. The injection wells in this area are injecting at similar depths.”

Alarmed, Samarin went to the local water regulators, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. They told him how a water law, known as the Safe Drinking Water Act, works. Groundwater that’s potentially drinkable is automatically off limits for oil companies for wastewater disposal.

But if groundwater quality is already tainted by oil or salts, then companies can get permission from state agencies and the federal Environmental Protection Agency to put wastewater there.

The regulators gave Samarin a map of the land around his orchard that had been approved for wastewater disposal, as well as the areas that were protected.

Most people probably would have stopped there, but not Samarin. He wanted to know how close those injection wells were to his protected aquifer.

Digging Through the Maps

Samarin didn’t have to turn very far for help. His son, Alex, works with maps for a living.

“I think we’re both curious people,” said the younger Samarin. “Once the question is asked, we want to see what the answer is.”

He plotted coordinates for all the wastewater wells on top of the land approved for wastewater.

“Six out of the seven did fall within the allowable aquifer,” he said. “One was completely outside of it.”

That meant an oil company was putting its wastewater into a protected aquifer that was supposed to be off-limits.

“We were just stunned,” recalls Bill. “It was like: is this even possible that they could be taking wastewater and injecting it into drinking water? Can you imagine that that actually occurs in California in this day and age?”

A wastewater injection well in San Joaquin County. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)

He decided to take it to county officials.

In 2014, Tulare County held hearings about whether to allow the oil operation near Samarin’s orchard to expand, and he filed an appeal against it.

He wanted the county to know about the mistake: that regulators with the state’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources had permitted a wastewater well that it shouldn’t have. Over a decade, it had pumped 80 million gallons of wastewater into the aquifer.

At the hearing, Samarin presented his report, going over everything he and his son had found.

“Produced water associated with oil production can contain many constituents that may endanger the environment or the public health,” he testified.

When the meeting was opened for comments, Burton Ellison, a recently-retired regulator with DOGGR, challenged Samarin’s findings, calling them untrue. “Every one of those wells went through a rigorous review,” Ellison told the hearing. “As a matter of fact, I reviewed some of them back in 2008.”

In the end, county supervisors denied Samarin’s appeal, stating that regulating wastewater was the state’s job, not theirs.

Samarin let it drop for the time being. “I left it to other contacts,” he said. “The state water board knew about it.”

‘It looks like a completely broken system.’Briana Mordick, Natural Resources Defense Council

Six months later, those state water regulators reviewing wastewater wells discovered that Samarin had been right.

They ordered the errant injection well that Samarin had found be shut down. The oil company, Modus, Inc., responded that its wastewater didn’t contaminate the aquifer because it had the same salt level as the aquifer it was going into.

What Samarin didn’t know was that his wasn’t an isolated case. It was happening all over California.

“Broken System”

“There are thousands of wells spread all across the state that are potentially impacting clean drinking water,” says Briana Mordick of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

State oil regulators grant permits for wastewater injection wells, so knowing the boundaries between protected and unprotected aquifers is crucial. But for decades, Mordick says, state regulators confused those boundaries.

“It’s just a pretty shocking state of affairs,” says Mordick. “Just poor communication, poor record-keeping. It looks like a completely broken system.”

“Our records weren’t solid,” admits Teresa Schilling, a spokesperson for the division of oil and gas. “They were missing in many cases and it’s essential that we have accurate records.”


In some cases, the aquifer maps were decades old with fuzzy boundaries. In other cases, the records regulators used to make decisions were mixed up 30 years ago. The Environmental Protection Agency had a complete list of the protected aquifers, but for unknown reasons, California oil regulators were working from an incomplete list that didn’t include 11 protected aquifers.

“We understand that the public has concern about what’s at stake with their drinking water,” says Schilling. “We all know we have a right to clean drinking water and we have a right to expect that our government will take care of that for us.”

What regulators are doing now, Schilling says, is reviewing records for thousands of wastewater injection wells, looking for mistakes. So far, about 175 wells have been shut down.

But six years after the problems emerged, there are still hundreds of wastewater wells operating in protected aquifers, mostly in Kern and Tulare counties. Schilling says these aquifers aren’t drinking-water quality and the state is going through the process of approving them for wastewater disposal. That was supposed to happen by February, but the process is still unfinished.

[contextly_sidebar id=”15pcTtN87lI8MC5yd6uoTZdzBsD7cLTU”]“It’s very hard as a government entity to move fast but this has been a top priority at the Department of Conservation,” she says.

Minimal Testing

Still not fully understood is what impact all this has had on the quality of California’s drinking-water aquifers.

“The testing that has been performed has been minimal, I would say,” says John Borkovich of the State Water Resources Control Board.

The agency has tested some of the drinking water wells within a mile of the wastewater wells that were wrongly permitted. The tests looked at the quality of the drinking water.

Borkovich says officials have found no correlation between wastewater injection and “anything we’re finding in the water supply wells.” So far.

“Just because we haven’t seen anything, doesn’t mean there isn’t an issue out there,” he said.

The next, bigger challenge is determining what the long-term impact of wastewater has been on the larger aquifers. Some wastewater wells have been operating for decades.

KQED asked oil regulators for records showing contamination levels of the wastewater that oil companies put into the cleanest aquifers. Officials say they can’t produce those records for KQED, because the information is in stacks of paperwork, spread across several regional offices. They also say the division of oil and gas isn’t looking at that question.

Given how far back the permitting problems go, it could be a challenge for the state to reconstruct what’s happened underground.

“We don’t necessarily have good records of what the quality of that water would have been 20 years ago when they started doing this,” said NRDC’s Mordick. “So trying to figure out whether their actions have impacted the water is really difficult at this point.”

Mordick adds that the state may be overlooking certain chemicals in their testing.

“One of the complicating things is that the state doesn’t require disclosure of most of the stuff that oil and gas operators use,” Mordick says. “Things like drilling fluids, or maintenance fluids, enhanced oil recovery operations, so really, we wouldn’t know what to test for.”

The aquifers in question may not contain groundwater that California needs right now, but future droughts are inevitable.

“Those resources are becoming more and more valuable over time,” says Mordick. “Protecting our groundwater is really important. They need to follow the rules and California needs to step up and take this seriously because they haven’t been for a long time.”

State water regulators say they hope to figure out what the larger impacts have been in the years ahead, but have no set timeline. The risk is that they’ve allowed oil companies to contaminate drinking water aquifers to such an extent that Californians may have permanently lost those sources of fresh water.

Aug 03 2017

6mins

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4 Things You Should Know About California’s Biggest Reservoir

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1. It’s Probably Not the One You’re Thinking Of

Nope, not Shasta Lake. That’s California’s largest surface reservoir, which is currently bulging with more than 4 million acre-feet of water (Californians use about 40 million acre-feet in a year).

You’re not likely to find the biggest “reservoir” on a map—but you might be standing on it. It’s underground, in the vast aquifers that lie beneath sections of the state, the Central Valley in particular.

“I don’t think anybody’s tried to calculate the complete volume,” says Claudia Faunt, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in San Diego.

But we know it’s big.

‘It’s huge. But that doesn’t mean that we can extract everything that’s down there.’Thomas Harter, UC Davis

People sometimes refer to the Sierra snowpack as the state’s largest reservoir. Even though it supplies about a third of the water that Californians use annually, it’s a “drop in the bucket” compared to the state’s mother lode of groundwater. If you imagine a single bucket of water representing all the water contained in Sierra snowpack in a typical year (granted, this year is hardly typical), you would need 60-to-70 buckets to visualize all the water beneath our feet, contained in various groundwater basins.

2. It’s Big, But There’s a Catch

“It’s huge,” says Thomas Harter, a hydrologist and groundwater specialist at UC Davis. “But that doesn’t mean that we can extract everything that’s down there.”

Nor would that be an especially fruitful exercise, since much of the water that’s down there is not fit for drinking or even irrigation of crops in some cases. And the deeper the aquifer, the more expensive it is to pump it—hundreds or even thousands of feet—to the surface.

“Part of it is so deep that it just gets more and more expensive to extract the water,” says Faunt.

California’s Stressed Aquifers
Zoom in and click on individual wells to see how far the water table has receded in that area between Fall 2011 to Fall 2016.
SOURCE: CA Dept. of Water Resources

3. It’s in Trouble

A team of researchers at UCLA recently estimated that during the recent five-year drought, groundwater was pumped out of the Central Valley at twice the rate of the previous drought (2007-09), eventually taking out enough to fill Lake Mead, the nation’s largest man-made reservoir.

[contextly_sidebar id=”lOkDoHOujmmm1YDvj3RAh3PRMADuecpc”]But even in “normal” years, scientists say many farmers and water agencies around the state have been pumping groundwater at an unsustainable rate.

“Basically we’re taxing the system beyond what it can take,” warns Faunt. “We’ve been using water at a rate much higher than water’s being recharged to these areas, so you’ve got a loss of storage.”

Over the course of the drought, at least 3,500 wells went dry and Harter reckons that most of those remain dry, despite the record-setting precipitation over the winter. According to state regulators, there are still communities receiving emergency supplies of bottled water after local wells dried up.

4. It’s Not a Lost Cause

Scientists and water planners think the state’s aquifers can be made sustainable, but it will take time and commitment.

New strategies are taking hold to recharge groundwater basins. Since we reported on one of the earliest pilot projects in 2013, farm recharge programs have gained substantial momentum, flooding fields with some of the high river flows in years like this, and using those fields as recharge basins, allowing the water to sink in and replenish aquifers below. In Orange County, water managers recycle urban water to recharge local aquifers.

In 2014, state legislators passed the landmark Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which will, for the first time, require users of groundwater to track and report how much they’re using, and devise plans to do so in a way that doesn’t further deplete supplies. Prior to SGMA, it was essentially open season on groundwater.

As NASA scientist Jay Famiglietti has put it, “It’s not unlike your having several straws in a glass and everyone drinking at the same time and no one really watching the level.”

The first management plans are due in 2020, and full implementation of the law — which could ultimately place some restrictions on pumping — won’t happen for another decade at least.

But as the law’s sponsor, Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis) told Water Deeply, “When you’re digging yourself into a hole, the first solution is to stop digging.”

Jun 13 2017

4mins

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Eclipse Scientists Probe the Mysteries of the Sun’s Atmosphere

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The wait between total solar eclipses, if you’re planning to stay in one particular location, is a very long time. On average, around 400 years.

But, if you’re willing to go anywhere on the planet, the wait is around 18 months. And if you’re a scientist studying the sun, chances are you’re happy to travel just about anywhere.

“Asking what we’re doing seeing another eclipse is like asking a cardiologist who looked at somebody’s heart for two minutes, a year and a half ago, does he want to look at another patient,” says Jay Pasachoff, chair of the International Astronomical Union’s working group on solar eclipses.

During a total eclipse, the moon gets between us and the sun, like an umbrella. Blue sky turns dark, revealing a sight that is normally hidden. In that darkened sky is the sun’s atmosphere, the corona—a silvery, waving halo of hot, constantly changing gas.

“Every time we look [at the corona] there’s something different,” says Pasachoff.

Big storms in the corona—which are like burps of fiery plasma from the sun—can damage satellites, harm astronauts and disrupt power grids. The more scientists know about the corona, the better they can predict these big storms.

And the only time researchers can see all of the corona really well is during a total eclipse.

“It’s amazing that the moon at this moment in our history is exactly the same size of the sun, apparently,” says Alan Gould, former planetarium director (and current volunteer) at the Lawrence Berkeley Hall of Science. “And so it exactly blocks the disc of the sun.”

Total solar eclipse as seen over Svalbard, Norway in March 2015. The international Solar Wind Sherpas team, led by Shadia Habbal of the University of Hawaii at Manoa Institute for Astronomy, braved the arctic weather in order to study the sun’s atmosphere. (Miloslav Druckmüller)

Leaving the brilliant corona visible around the black circle of the moon.

The sun is 400 times larger than the moon, but it’s 400 times farther away from us, so it looks the same size in the sky. Millions of years ago, the moon was closer and covered up more of the sun. In the distant future it’ll be farther away, and appear too small to see total eclipses.

“We are living in such a fortunate time in that regard” says Gould, “so we get to see the entire corona in its glory.”

That’s why astronomers are traveling from all over the world to see the eclipse on August 21st. And some of them will be studying one of the biggest mysteries about the sun; it has to do with temperature.

“So the sun is about 10 million degrees (Celsius) at the center,” Gould says. “Really, that’s where all the action is. All the nuclear fusion is happening there.”

The surface is a lot cooler: about 5,538 degrees Celsius. It would make sense for the corona streaming off the surface to be cooler still. But it’s not.  It’s a lot hotter.

[contextly_sidebar id=”VsaP0D5KdOmzSVVxWKmtz5qSkaUq9Sof”]”In fact, it gets up to a million degrees” says Gould. “There are theories about why that is, but it’s really not known.”

It’s not for lack of trying.

“I like to joke that the problem has been solved,” Pasachoff says. “It’s been solved by twelve different people in twelve different ways. In other words, we don’t have a solution.”

One of the people working toward a solution on the day of the eclipse will be University of Hawaii astronomer Shadia Habbal. She leads an international team of scientists known as the “Solar Wind Sherpas” who travel the world in pursuit of solar science.

This is a very special eclipse for her.

“Usually most eclipse paths cover a lot of ocean, or they go over islands, ” she says. “This one is like 3,000 miles of solid land.”

On the day of the eclipse Habbal will be overseeing five different observation sites within the “path of totality“—the band running across the U.S. where the sun will be entirely blocked out.

By spreading out the equipment, Habbal’s team will get the chance to see the corona’s behavior over several hours.

And if you want to be part of scientific history too, you can. The Eclipse Megamovie Project is a collaboration between Google and UC Berkeley to compile photographs from the public into a film. Scientists will be able to use the images for years to study dynamics of the corona. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5xOcjC5-oo

Other researchers will be use the eclipse to learn more about the Earth itself.

“Having this dark shadow of the eclipse is really kind of a shocker to the atmosphere,” says Angela Des Jardin, director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium.

She’s overseeing a project to launch high-altitude balloons that will live-stream the eclipse as well as collect weather data.

During a test flight, Montana State University students Carter McIver, left, Katherine Lee, Darci Collins, and Keaton Harmon inflate high-altitude balloons. These balloons, launched from sites across the nation, will live-stream the eclipse on August 21. (Kelly Gorham/Montana State University)

“So this is unprecedented opportunity for us to actually be able to collect all this data about how the atmosphere changes,” Des Jardin says.

In fact, August 21st could possibly become the single greatest scientific-data-collecting day in American history. You can be part of it by joining one of the many citizen science projects.

Read more KQED eclipse coverage:

You Know About This Summer’s Spectacular Solar Eclipse, Right?
Don’t Be in the Dark: Answers To Your Burning Questions About the August Eclipse
Help Make History: Eclipse Projects for Citizen Scientists
Americans Prepare for First Coast-to-Coast Total Solar Eclipse in Century (KQED Forum)

Aug 14 2017

7mins

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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

5mins

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Want to Cut Your Carbon Footprint? Get Liquefied When You’re Dead

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You may not equate death with climate change, but disposing of human remains leaves a fairly hefty carbon footprint.

Supporters of a California bill allowing dead bodies to be dissolved in a hot chemical bath are hoping to overcome the ‘ick factor.’

“Cremation is really what people hold Read More …

Jul 24 2017

4mins

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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

7mins

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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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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

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On the Fourth of July 20 Years Ago, NASA Landed the First Rover on Mars

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On July 4th, 1997 as Americans were stoking their barbecues, a NASA spacecraft touched down on Mars and bounced like a beach ball. The Pathfinder mission was an unlikely and stunning success that marked the beginning of a roaming robotic presence on the red planet.

The successful feat surprised everyone—including the team behind the mission, a mission that didn’t have the best reputation in the beginning.

Jennifer Trosper applied to work at NASA in the nineties. “And I got a phone call,” Trosper says. “He [the recruiter] said, ‘Well, we got this project out here. Nobody really wants to work on it, because nobody thinks it’s going to work.’”

NASA was trying something new: space travel for a bargain price. Pathfinder’s mantra was cheaper, faster, better. The goal was to cut down on red tape and dream of solutions no one had else had thought of.

“Be crazy and bold and innovative,” says Pathfinder’s chief engineer Rob Manning.

‘Cheaper, Faster, Better’

When Trosper arrived in Los Angeles, she joined a team of scrappy aerospace engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) willing to work on a lean budget and try something revolutionary.

“We didn’t follow all the rules. We had some good leadership, but it was a very small team,” Trosper says, “And we were landing on the surface of Mars with air bags!”

The airbags were designed to cushion Pathfinder’s landing. Touching down on Mars can be tricky because the atmosphere is so thin. That’s one reason no other country had had a successful landing for twenty years. NASA’s last success was the Viking 1 and Viking 2 orbiter-lander in 1975.

Low Budget Inspires Innovation

Manning says the team settled on a parachute to slow the spacecraft down as it hurtled through the Martian atmosphere. The engineers also wrapped the machine in a cocoon to protect it when it touched down on the rocky landscape—kind of like a beach ball.

[contextly_sidebar id=”ydG3BtuLQBhWZAiZ4ojhjUkOgqckWcSE”]Manning says the idea was that the ball “would bounce and roll on the surface. And finally open up like a flower and have a little rover drive off.”

If successful, the tiny rover—about the size of a microwave—would become the first wheeled vehicle to explore the surface of another planet. NASA named it Sojourner.

Seven months after the launch, NASA engineers monitored the spacecraft’s status as it neared its icy destination. A nervous tension filled the control room at JPL. And then at the exact moment Pathfinder was expected to bounce down, a faint signal sounded, back on Earth. The room erupted with loud applause and cheering.

“By late afternoon for us we were getting our first picture,” Manning says, smiling.

Miraculously, Pathfinder had traveled millions of miles and landed upright on the red planet.

The Sojourner Rover at the Yogi rock on Mars. (Mars Pathfinder Project )

NASA uploaded the images to a new realm known as the World Wide Web. Jon Brooks, a science editor at KQED, remembers the moment vividly.

“You could see a little more, a little more, a little more,” Brooks says, “and the anticipation was truly great because you were going to catch a glimpse of Mars for the first time. You actually saw the barren landscape and the red color.”

The Most Important Question

Sojourner was expected to take pictures for one week before its batteries died. Instead, the little spacecraft weathered the frigid climate for nearly three months. Pathfinder beamed thousands of pictures back to Earth, says Manning, to help his team answer one central question:

“Was Mars at some point in its past a place with lakes and an atmosphere and places where presumably life could actually get started?”

The quest to find an answer has inspired three more NASA rovers after Pathfinder. The latest, Curiosity, is the size of an SUV and has been driving around Mars for nearly five years looking for clues about how and when the red planet went from warm and wet to cold and dry.

Astronomers are still searching for signs of life, but they have confirmed the presence of water. Observations suggest that habitable lakes and streams likely existed in the ancient past.

“Doesn’t say anything about whether there was life there,” Manning says. “But it does say this planet is much more interesting than we ever dreamed.”

Mars is the only planet inhabited solely by robots (as far as we know). Next year the U.S. will send the InSight lander to Mars, and the Mars 2020 will follow. NASA hopes to land a human on the red planet within the next twenty years.

Jul 03 2017

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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

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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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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

6mins

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So, It’s New Year’s Eve … Can You Prevent That Hangover?

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Adam Rogers is a deputy editor for Wired magazine 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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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

7mins

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Investigation Finds Home Can Be the Most Dangerous Place in a Heat Wave

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Floyd Ware has survived a widow-maker heart attack, layoffs in the tech industry and living a few doors down from the Grateful Dead. But now he worries that heat—in San Francisco, of all places—is going to kill him.

“I don’t want to exaggerate, but at times it seems all-encompassing, you can’t get away from it,” he says.

‘I really do think that government potentially has a role in making sure buildings are safe. We make sure they’re not too cold. We ought to make sure they’re not too hot, too.’Cyndy Comerford,
City of San Jose

Ware, 67, is a wiry man and, for the record, he doesn’t exaggerate. Even during a foggy August, his room at Bayanihan House, south of Market Street, is consistently hotter than outside. When it was 63 degrees at San Francisco’s weather station, it was 81 degrees in his spotless, small space.

Last Labor Day, San Francisco’s record-high temperatures drove him and other residents out onto the street and into the basement of Ware’s single room occupancy building, where large fans blow hot air around rather than cool it. Only leaving his room prevents him from falling seriously ill, he says.

This summer, we put small heat sensors in 31 homes in four counties: Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The homes had no air conditioning, and the sensors took temperature readings for three weeks in July, August, or September. In every home, heat was stubborn. It stuck around even as the sun dropped.

[contextly_sidebar id=”7Y5eRukY0fJ3RtoWZaUsxcPM1AIvSm0K”]And at night, when people’s bodies need to be able to cool off, all the homes we measured let go of heat slowly, staying hotter inside than it was outside—as much as 15 or 20 degrees hotter.

Heat is one of the top public health threats from climate change, according to the state of California. The illnesses and deaths that result from it are preventable. But where people spend the majority of their time, at home, no right to cooling is guaranteed. Public officials around the Bay Area are still figuring out how to warn people and how to respond to heat—both as an extreme event, and as an emerging health threat.

Until they do, a divide is deepening between the cool haves and the hot have-nots.

It’s About Where You Live

Housing is a huge expense that influences people’s health. In a heat wave, the most dangerous places can be inside of homes and apartments.

In San Francisco, health officials have concluded that heat builds up significantly in some glassy high-rises and many older residential hotels. Our sensor measurements found that the single room occupancy buildings that once served gold prospectors and seamen stood out as consistently hotter than the weather outside.

Inside these buildings, climate-driven heat already threatens the health and finances of people most vulnerable to it: people like Floyd Ware. After three years in his one-room rental, Ware says his health has gotten worse. He keeps a plastic tub full of medications for his chronic lung disease on a shelf.

“The thing with emphysema is, you can’t get the air out. If you can’t get the air all the way out, you can’t get the air in,” Ware says. “And the problem with the heat is, it restricts the lungs. So it has an appreciable effect.”

Ware’s doctors advised him not to wait when a sudden emphysema attack comes. Three times in two years, he’s placed an emergency call for an ambulance to Zuckerberg San Francisco General hospital.

Medicare pays most of it, but each time, Ware owes out-of-pocket costs. His social security income pays for his stay in the residential hotel; what’s left over pays for his food and medicine. As a result, Ware says, he has racked up $2,000 in debt.

“I don’t know how I’m going to pay ‘em,” he says.

https://www.kqed.org/.stream/anon/radio/science/2018/10/PetersonHeatSolutions.mp3

There Is No Legal Right to Cooling

In-home cooling can reduce the risk of heat illness, according to Linda Rudolph, an expert on health and climate change with the Oakland-based Public Health Institute (PHI). But just one out of every ten Bay Area homes has central air conditioning. Tenants we talked to said they either couldn’t afford to buy a portable AC or couldn’t afford to turn it on.

“Poor people are less likely to have air conditioning,” Rudolph says.  “Or they may not have the money to get their air conditioner fixed, or they may live in a rental apartment where the landlord doesn’t want to get it fixed.”

Or it may be that window units only do so much.

At 5:30 p.m. one August evening, it’s still over 90 degrees in Mario Rodriguez’s San Jose apartment—the first floor of a complex with few trees and a scrabbly lawn, along busy North Main street.

Rodriguez has low blood pressure and is on constant oxygen, for lung trouble.

Mario Rodriguez’ San Jose was 10 degrees hotter than outdoors, even when he turned on his window air conditioner. (Molly Peterson/KQED)

“When it gets hot I get kind of dizzy,” he says. “I get tired and I have to sit down for a few minutes. Or I start sweating and then I start fainting out.”

Rodriguez bought a window air conditioner from a friend for $75, even though he knew it would raise his electric bill. The unit cost him an additional $75 when his rental manager required him to install it with plexiglass around it, rather than plywood.

He added the air conditioner during the period when we were measuring heat in his apartment. But even on days when he ran the it, indoor temperatures peaked at 10 degrees hotter than outdoors.

Habitability, under federal and California law, requires only that water run freely, and that heating be available. New York and some Canadian cities have considered making in-home cooling a right. But in Sacramento, the idea of a tenant’s right to cooling has died a quick death.

Cyndy Comerford used to work for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, where she analyzed housing and heat. Now, she directs climate programs for the city of San Jose.

“I really do think that government potentially has a role in making sure buildings are safe,” Comerford says. “We do that structurally. We make sure they’re not too cold. We ought to make sure they’re not too hot, too.”

And keeping buildings cool isn’t only about air conditioning, as researchers and urban designers have concluded.

How To Cool an Old Building

Well-designed neighborhoods once took the landscape into account, says Stephanie Pincetl, a sustainability researcher at UCLA. They had less concrete, and were cooled by breezes and natural shade, including from trees.

California has amnesia about how to combat heat in cities, Pincetl says, having forgotten resilient city design when development boomed and ushered in cheap housing.

“Older buildings are less well insulated,” she says. “Really, what we need to do is have much better buildings.”

Pincetl argues the state could adopt building codes that promote passive cooling, and provide incentives for owners to harden buildings against heat. Landlords could improve insulation, add vegetation, and plant climbing vines to cool off old apartments.

Public health officials, epidemiologists and researchers like PHI’s Rudolph argue that health systems and environmental conditions are connected. They say California should plan not just for acute heat disaster, but for lasting change.

That means planting trees, promoting cool rooftops, and even investing in street surfaces that reflect heat away from the ground, Rudolph says, in order to reduce the maximum temperatures in neighborhoods.

“Because otherwise,” she says, “we essentially won’t be able to respond and adapt adequately.”

Any of those ideas demand coordination among multiple county and local departments. Few laws require this work, and little funding supports it.

“These climate-related health problems—really no one else is going to pay attention to them,” says Rudolph. “But the local health departments frankly need help.”

‘A Double Whammy’

Rose Basulto lives on a treeless street, a block from state Route 4. Almost every day during three weeks when we measured the temperature in her home, it was hotter inside than out. In her living room, the temperature peaked over 100 degrees, eight times in three weeks.

For the 37-year old Basulto, heat made it hard to think – and move. At night, when it could be almost 80 degrees inside, she found it nearly impossible to sleep.

“If it’s like that again, I don’t think I can make it through another summer.”

Heat made her asthma worse. It exacerbates cardiovascular, respiratory and renal conditions, and places stress on people with diabetes and obesity.

“When the nighttime temperatures don’t go down, which is what’s increasingly happening with climate change,” says Rudolph, “it’s harder for them to get that kind of physiological rest period.”

Basulto and other renters we talked with around the Bay Area say they’ve found few simple solutions to living in warm homes—other than to leave them. At least half a dozen people who described housing conditions they linked to health problems decided not to allow us to document heat in their homes, even anonymously, for fear of angering a landlord, or destabilizing a precarious housing situation.

Arizona heat scientist David Hondula has noticed the same thing in his research.

“There’s this undercurrent of a sense of being stuck with the conditions the way they are,” he says.

In a couple of years, PG&E will implement “time-of-use” pricing, charging for electricity based on when demand peaks—which is late afternoon, as people return home from work and school.

And according to our measurements inside homes, it’s exactly when indoor heat rises, soaring past outdoor temperatures.

Time-of-use pricing will make cooling older homes cost more for people who already can’t afford it, according to Pincetl.

“And so they’re going to get the double whammy,” she says.

Warning People Is the First Step

Across the Bay Area, and across the state, the time and manner in which counties choose to warn people and respond to heat varies. Contra Costa County is working on an emergency response plan for heat. In 2015, its public health department concluded that excessive heat means temperatures above 85 degrees along the western bay side of the county, and above 96 on the east side. Last Labor Day, when heat killed 14 people around the bay, San Francisco declared a heat emergency; San Mateo County did not.

San Francisco has studied its risk from warmer temperatures, and adopted an aggressive policy to send warning notices at 85 degrees. And the city is going even further, with hyperlocal training to help neighborhoods be ready for natural disasters. In a heat wave, the Neighborhood Empowerment Network would connect residents to each other, to prevent bad health outcomes.

The network’s director, Daniel Homsey, drives among the nook and cranny communities on the south and east side of the city, parking us in Dolores Heights, a patch on the eastern slope of Twin Peaks that gets plenty of sunshine.

San Francisco waives permit and street closure fees for 280 block parties, called Neighborfests, each year. Every Neighborfest spread, just like every city block of a city, has its own personality: in Dolores Heights, Beyonce and Madonna blare from speakers at one end of a block. At the other, kids play cornhole.

Fran Link was holding a garage sale one recent day when Daniel Homsey drove by, looking for emergency supplies. Homsey helps San Francisco neighborhoods organize to be resilient in disasters such as heat waves. (Molly Peterson/KQED)

On tables next to several grills, an array of salads – Greek, quinoa, green, and fruit – stands sentinel alongside burgers and hot dogs. Homsey points out a barbecue buffet isn’t too different from how a neighborhood might set up a feeding station in a disaster.

The city’s secret mission with Neighborfest, isn’t just to get neighbors to swap salads; it’s to get people used to coming out of their homes to help each other. Neighborfest volunteers lead conversations that establish communal inventories—who’s got a cool basement or air conditioning, propane tanks or water supplies.

And neighbors themselves are building phone trees as a means to look out for each other, says Maria José González-Salido, a Dolores Heights block captain.

“Like, I know they have children, I know someone else has an elderly person, they know I have my mom,” she says, nodding at different homes. “It’s a good community thing to have these parties and get to know everybody, right?”

Making his way to another Neighborfest, Homsey pulls over to poke around a garage sale; he’s always on the lookout for disaster supplies, like coolers and chili pots, to donate to communities.

“I’m a hoarder in recovery,” he says, half-laughing, “and I’m using disaster preparedness to focus my investments better.”

In the 19th century, the nickname for this hilly patch of land on the southeastern side of San Francisco was Little Switzerland: it was a vacation spot, with plenty of cows, and little fog.

‘It’s about building on the traditional ethos of being a good neighbor, and caring for those around you.’Daniel Homsey,
City of San Francisco

Now it’s Glen Park, and its homeowners, including Fran Link, suffered last year for days in a row from heat.

“We’re not used to that,” she says.

Homsey asks Link if her home gets hot. Yes, Link answers; the turreted house faces south, and west, with big bay windows and no air conditioning.

Homsey tells her his aunt didn’t have AC, either. She lived nearby, and died in her home twenty years ago, during a heat event. Homsey’s father found his sister, several days later, on her bed.

“Rather than make a decision that was rational, which is, ‘It’s really hot at my house, I’m going to downstairs where it’s cooler,'” Homsey says, “she’s like, ‘I’m really tired, I’m going to go lie in my bedroom.’ She lay down and she never got up.”

Homsey often thinks of his aunt as he does this work. He says San Francisco’s program is helping strangers become neighbors. After Link talks to him at her garage sale, she heads over to the block party to hear a live band; later in the month, she goes to a neighborhood training about how to respond in a bleeding emergency. Meanwhile, Homsey is spreading the gospel of grilling and readiness by working with Santa Rosa and Oakland. They want Neighborfests too.

That’s resilience, he says. “It’s about building on the traditional ethos of being a good neighbor, and caring for those around you, even if you don’t have an immediate relationship with them.”

Every heat death is preventable; it’s a core belief for Homsey and for public health experts.

But right now, few systems, laws, or policies require centralized preparedness against heat. Illness related to extreme high temperatures is poorly tracked and underreported. Cooling hot homes, and hot neighborhoods, isn’t easy. And little public funding helps pay for responding to climate-related health issues.

As the danger of heat grows, Californians are still pretty much on their own.

Editor’s Note: Amel Ahmed contributed to this story. Miguel Hernandez and Osvaldo Pedroza dropped off and picked up sensors for houses in southern California, and provided language translation in the field.

This reporting is supported by a grant from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism Impact Fund.

Oct 22 2018

7mins

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Even in San Francisco, Heat Is Turning Deadly. That’s Not Something Colleen Loughman Expected

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Reporter Molly Peterson conducted a 5-month investigation into heat in California, in partnership with KQED Science. In a series of stories, we will examine who’s vulnerable and why, and what it will take to protect people who are vulnerable to heat illness and death at home or on the job.

Last year, as a Labor Day heat wave descended, Claudia Hernandez was trying to pry open the windows of a house in San Francisco, from 400 miles away.

That weekend, San Francisco hit 106 degrees, an all-time record. After two straight days topping 100, Hernandez, who lives in Orange County, pleaded with her godmother, Colleen Loughman, to open her windows and let a breeze through.

Like most in the city, Loughman’s home lacked air conditioning. “A fan, an old school fan, that’s all she had,” Hernandez said. “And her windows were like maybe one-eighth open.”

[contextly_sidebar id=”dW99X91eyUsWligsBKqfM4oEePyfJVkA”]Talking with her 82-year-old godmother, Hernandez felt something was off.

“You could hear that she was, I don’t know, like, drained,” she says.

Colleen Loughman died the next day, in the house her parents had built. She was at risk because her aging body couldn’t acclimatize to intense, fast-arriving heat. She was vulnerable in her home, without a way to cool down. And though she was loved, she was isolated.

In June and September of 2017, two heat waves killed at least 14 people in the Bay Area, and sent hundreds more to the hospital.

San Francisco was caught off guard, says the city’s deputy director of public health, Naveena Bobba.

“What we were seeing is really a huge health emergency,” she says.

The past five summers have been California’s hottest on record.

Even in cool, coastal parts of the state, heat, a sneaky and growing threat, is now one of the state’s top climate-related public health risks.

Why Older People Are At Risk

Last September, Loughman wanted her windows closed because she had been having lung trouble, and she feared smog and smoke would make it hard to breathe. She had heard air quality alerts on the news, issued by regional regulators.

Spiking heat worsens asthma and lung conditions and raises risks for older people in particular.

Older people have to work harder to stay cool, says Dr. David Eisenman, who directs the Center for Public Health and Disasters at UCLA.

“When your body normally gets hot, it cools down by transferring heat inside its core out to the skin.”

Heat affects everyone differently. The National Weather Service offers this seven-day forecast to help you assess your risk.

For most people, sweat cools the body well, but not for older ones. “They have a less effective ability to sweat,” he says.

Older bodies hold less water than younger ones, putting older people more at risk in a heat wave. And older people are less sensitive to becoming hot and thirsty.

Over several hot days, all of that means physiological heat can build up without relief.

And Colleen Loughman wasn’t prepared for that in her foggy Parkside neighborhood.

https://www.kqed.org/.stream/anon/radio/science/2018/10/PetersonHeatPart2.mp3

Isolated in Her Own Neighborhood

St. Cecilia Church planted a Catholic community a century ago in a neighborhood set among sand dunes and eucalyptus trees: Parkside. Loughman grew up on 14th Avenue, and in Catholic schools: elementary at St. Cecilia’s, high school at St. Rose Academy, a masters degree in music at Holy Names University, across the bay.

But she never roamed too far from Parkside, where people were close knit, says her lifelong neighbor, Bob Schumann.

‘It takes almost two weeks for your body to acclimate to the heat.’Naveena Bobba,
San Francisco Department of Public Health

“I used to go to the house for birthday parties, and they were always playing the piano or something like that,” he says.

Hernandez noticed, and wondered whether her godmother needed more care and companionship.Her parents died; then a few years ago, her sister. Some of the old guard moved out, replaced by young, new transplants. Parkside was changing.

But a strong-willed Loughman wanted to stay put. “I’m okay,” Hernandez says her godmother told her, “I’m okay by myself.”

Heat Builds Up

Daily calls kept close a relationship that began 30 years ago between Loughman and Hernandez, as an accident of fate.

At the time, Hernandez was just 3 years old, arriving at a new foster home, belonging to Barbara McGovern in San Diego. Visiting McGovern was a longtime friend and former piano teacher of McGovern’s, Loughman.

“Colleen was so thrilled just to be around that child,” McGovern remembers. “She stayed for about two weeks.”

This social media post by Claudia Hernandez shows her with her two children, Ezekial and Natalie, and godmother, Colleen Loughman. (Claudia Hernandez)

Loughman remained a San Franciscan, born and bred; Hernandez grew up, got married, had kids and settled in Orange County. She and her kids Ezekiel, now 15, and Natalie, 12, visited San Francisco every summer.

The daily call was usually newsy, an hour-long update: how’s your day going, how’s work, Ezekiel’s baseball, Natalie’s softball.

But when they quarreled about open windows that Saturday, heat soured the conversation.

Don’t call me, Loughman said. I don’t want to talk. Loughman was stubborn, and Hernandez got the point: “She didn’t want to talk.”

But she called back the next day, Sunday afternoon, all the same.

No answer.

By 7:30, Hernandez was calling every 15 minutes.

Then every 10 minutes.

She finally reached a woman who ran Loughman’s errands. Please go over there, she said. Around the same time, Hernandez asked her husband, Jose. to call the San Francisco Police Department.

Jose told the dispatcher Loughman had not picked up her phone. “All right,” Police Dispatcher 236 told him, promising a welfare check. “We’ll get an officer out there as soon as possible.”

Last Sept. 3, Hernandez listened over the phone in agony as Loughman’s helper found her. She was unconscious. The helper tried to rouse Loughman: Colleen, Colleen.

That’s when paramedics arrived to help.

In a recorded emergency call, responders say that someone on scene is trying resuscitation. But Loughman was pronounced dead on scene, at 9:34 p.m.

‘Actually, Everybody Is At Risk.’

Dangerous overheating isn’t something that happens only to elderly people.

In the temperate Bay Area, heat is a surprise we don’t quickly adjust to.

“It takes almost two weeks for your body to acclimate to the heat,” says SFDPH’s Bobba. “And given that heat kind of comes really quickly and leaves fairly quickly in San Francisco, our bodies don’t acclimate.

People in the Bay Area are particularly vulnerable to heat illness even at lower temperatures, according to Rupa Basu, chief of the air and climate epidemiology section at the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. She points out that when heat spikes in the bay, the health effects are similar to what happens in hotter cities with hotter heat waves.

San Francisco’s 2017 Labor Day heat wave made headlines for two consecutive 100-degree daytime records. It was also warm at night – over 80 degrees near midnight both Friday and Saturday. During hours people would normally recover from daytime heat, it was hotter than days often are.

Scientists say overnight heat doesn’t only happen during spiking temperatures; a changing climate is pushing up nighttime temperatures overall. That sneaky kind of a heat wave is becoming more common in California, observes UCLA climatologist Daniel Swain.

“The magnitude and frequency of heat waves that we’re observing today would have been vanishingly unlikely in a climate without human influence,” he says.

Preventable Deaths

As climate changes heat risk, public health officials say warning systems are changing too.

But Bay Area conditions are complex: Counties here can experience wildly varying weather conditions at the same time; all decide slightly differently when to issue heat alerts.

[contextly_sidebar id=”PGXOy6NqJyUVhG5msTkUf8CEpgj1HHpy”]Santa Clara County, which recorded five heat-related deaths last year, explicitly relies on the weather service in its heat emergency planning. So does San Francisco. After last Labor Day, the city has become more aggressive, according to SFDPH’s Bobba, initiating warnings when forecasts indicate daytime temperatures of 85 degrees or above.

Other counties are developing emergency response plans for heat. Contra Costa considers 96 degrees to be an extremely hot day in the eastern part of the county.

Excessive heat kills more Americans than any other disaster. But even in changing climate, heat-related deaths are preventable. Around the bay, public health officials and doctors, counties, cities and neighborhood groups are allied in rethinking how to find, warn and check on vulnerable people.

Colleen Loughman’s goddaughter is still haunted by her last words.

“She just said, ‘This heat is killing me. I can’t talk right now. I don’t want to talk.’” And that was it.

Last fall, after the heat broke, Claudia Hernandez learned she was pregnant. Her new daughter’s middle name is Coco, her nickname for Colleen. And she lets her own air conditioning bills get higher: Hernandez says she’s now determined not to let anyone she loves suffer in heat again.

Editor’s Note: Amel Ahmed was a contributing reporter on this story. This reporting is supported by a grant from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism Impact Fund.

Oct 15 2018

7mins

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Should Californians Be Rebuilding Homes in a Fire Zone?

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A year ago, on a warm, windy night, Paul Lowenthal got the call; he was needed at work.

The Tubbs Fire, on its way to becoming the most destructive blaze in California history, was spreading into Santa Rosa, and Lowenthal, the city’s assistant fire marshal, needed to get people out.

“It was exploding at a rate that I would have never imagined,” he says. “I left in my work truck and uniform and thought: worst case scenario, I’ll be back tomorrow morning.”

‘In a disaster, there’s such a strong emotional pull to get what you lost back.’
Julie Combs, Santa Rosa City Council

Later that night, he drove past his own neighborhood.

“You couldn’t actually make out individual homes in here,” he says. “It just looked like an entire wall of fire. And then realized right away my house is gone.”

He worked the next five days on just a few hours of sleep, until finally, he stopped to take stock.

“And then realized I have nothing,” he says. “Literally had nothing.”

Picking Up the Pieces

Fueled by extreme winds, Sonoma County’s Tubbs fire killed 22 people and destroyed more than 5,000 homes and buildings.

Since then, the community has banded together to pick up the pieces. But it’s also been grappling with a tough question — one that faces fire-ravaged communities around the state.

Wildfire is a normal part of the California landscape. So, how — and where — should residents rebuild to protect themselves?

Nearly a year after the Tubbs Fire, Paul Lowenthal’s Larkfield rebuild was finally nearing completion — this time with more fire-resistant materials. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)

Hundreds of Sonoma residents have opted to stay put, both financially and emotionally tied to their land.

Lowenthal is one of them.

“Do I think those areas will burn again?” he says. “Absolutely. It’s done it before.”

It happened 54 years ago, when the Hanly Fire burned almost exactly same area. But since then, Santa Rosa’s population has grown by nearly six times, and Lowenthal was keenly aware of this latest fire’s effect on an already-tight housing market.

“I made a decision that it made more sense to rebuild here,” he says. His daughter was also a big part of that decision.

“Could I have convinced her that we could live in a really cool place somewhere else?” he says. “Maybe. But this was our home.”

In the hills above Santa Rosa, wooden frames of houses are rising among the blackened trees. Many of the rebuilt homes will include new fire-resistant building materials, something few had when the fire swept through.

Still, because of California’s decade-old zoning rules, almost 2,000 of the destroyed structures will not be required to meet building standards for wildfire-prone areas. Some homeowners are taking it on themselves to meet them anyway, dipping into their insurance payouts to cover the cost. Others are not.

At the same time, given the region’s severe housing shortage even before last year’s firestorm, city and county governments are under pressure to build new housing in areas at risk for wildfire.

As people are trying to heal and recover, local leaders have been faced with balancing those delicate issues. With climate change making California’s fires more extreme, their decisions will affect lives for decades to come.

The Tubbs Fire swept away about 5 percent of Santa Rosa’s housing stock. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)

Wildland Building Codes

A year after the fires, Lowenthal’s Larkfield home is finally taking shape, still a few weeks away from final inspection. This time, he says it will be better prepared to withstand fire, built with cement-fiber siding and other fire-resistant materials.

“Between the roof, the siding, things of that nature, it was definitely a step that I wanted to take,” he says.

But Lowenthal isn’t legally obligated to do any of that, as his home was outside the area subject to California’s “Wildland-Urban Interface Codes.” They include a broad range of standards for siding, roofs, decks, and windows, as well as requirements for gutters and attic vents that are meant to prevent embers blown ahead of a wildfire from igniting a home.

The zones are established by a set of 2008 Cal Fire maps that outline wildfire risk by considering vegetation, fire history and slope. Sonoma County’s zones are based exactly on those maps, while the city of Santa Rosa had extended the stricter requirements somewhat beyond what was on the state maps.

Almost 2,000 buildings destroyed in the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County weren’t mapped in those zones and won’t be required to use fire-resistant materials.

“We don’t have an extra set of rules or requirements that we put on people to rebuild,” says David Guhin, Santa Rosa’s director of planning and economic development.

Guhin says Santa Rosa would be on shaky legal ground if it imposed new wildfire building codes on structures that weren’t required to meet them when they were destroyed. But since most of the homes were built decades ago, before most modern building codes, he says even the basic code upgrades they’ll undergo will help.

Fire maps based on 2007 assessment.

“The housing stock that’s going in is much more resilient than the previous house stock,” he says.

Still, many believe Cal Fire’s maps are outdated, since they don’t reflect the extreme nature of today’s fires. The maps assumed fairly benign weather conditions, just 12 mph for “mid-flame” wind speed, the height that affects fire behavior. During the Tubbs Fire, gusts hit almost 80 mph.

Cal Fire is in the process of updating the fire hazard maps using more realistic data, including localized information and historic fire conditions. A draft of the maps is expected sometime next year. The new maps could put many homes into a fire hazard zone that aren’t in one today.

But several North Bay officials say the community can’t wait for that to be sorted out.

“I take solace in that the existing code is significantly better than what was there before,” Tennis Wick, who heads Sonoma County’s Permit and Resource Management Department. “I’m not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This community needs to rebuild.”

Wick says many homeowners are choosing fire-resistant materials anyway, such as cement-laden siding and metal roofs.

Giving Home Owners Choices

Some fire victims have opted to pull up stakes after living through the fire’s emotional trauma or due to steep rebuilding costs. In the hilly Fountaingrove neighborhood of Santa Rosa, for-sale signs sprout from  empty lots among the construction sites.

Other homeowners are tied to their property, either restricted by insurance policies that prescribe where they can rebuild, or simply priced out of other Bay Area homes. And that concerns Santa Rosa City Council member Julie Combs.

“I know I’ve heard stories about flooding along the Mississippi and thought, ‘Why did they keep rebuilding there?’” notes Combs.

“I’m all for having property owners have choice,” she adds. “And right now, we aren’t really giving them a choice to not build on the land they’re tied to in a high-fire-hazard area.”

[contextly_sidebar id=”6J0nVgqZyLvs7R2iqgz1ZfZkLrWF3g14”]Combs says she’s interested in programs like those that already exist for flooded homes, where governments or neighbors can buy out inundated properties so they won’t be re-developed.

She’s not confident that today’s wildfire building codes are enough to protect people. The codes are meant to reduce risk, but don’t eliminate it.

Within the Tubbs fire footprint in Santa Rosa, 22 homes were built with the most recent wildfire codes before the fire. Twenty-one of them burned anyway.

“That doesn’t strike me as particularly good odds,” says Combs.

Struggle Over New Housing

Homeowners considering not rebuilding face another hurdle: there are few other places to go.

In Santa Rosa, the Tubbs fire obliterated five percent of the city’s housing stock, exacerbating an already brutal housing market.

Before the fire, the city estimated it needed 5,000 more housing units. The fire added 3,000 more to that number.

“We need to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Guhin says. “We’re going to rebuild our community as fast and quickly and as efficiently as we possibly can, but we also have to build new homes as fast as we can.”

The 237-unit Round Barn Hill Project is proposed for an area burned in the Tubbs fire. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)

Santa Rosa is pushing for more “in-fill development,” putting housing downtown and closer to public transit.

“We made that a priority this year,” he says. “We put a number of polices in place such as expedited permit processing, reducing the impact fees substantially for housing in the downtown core.”

But there has long been pressure to build in the surrounding hills, where the wildfire risk is highest.

“Development of single-family homes on the outskirts of town will happen on its own,” Guhin says. “There is a market for that.”

In February, the Santa Rosa City Council faced down that question.

San Francisco-based City Ventures asked for a zoning change to allow its Round Barn Village project to go forward. The 237-unit townhome development is proposed for a hillside that burned in the Tubbs fire.

City Ventures made the case that the homes would be built using wildfire standards and would provide much needed affordable housing.

“We absolutely need the housing,” said council member John Sawyer at the meeting. “And lots of mistakes were made in the past with saying no.”

But doubts hounded at least one council member.

“We are setting a precedent to build more new housing in a fire hazard area when we vote today,” warned Combs at the meeting. “I just think we need to not put more sleeping people in a fire hazard area.”

The rezoning passed 6-1.

“I was really sorry to be a lone vote,” says Combs. “It becomes very difficult to explain why we would approve that and not approve more. And I have real concerns that more is coming. We don’t need sprawl. We need to be building up.”

Sonoma County is also facing pressure to build.

“I met with a resort that burned twice, once in the Hanley fire and a second time in the Tubbs,” Wick says. “New people came to see me about building a third one. And I told them I just could not support the project. There’s an enormous pressure on us to be approving resorts in remote areas.”

In communities still in shock from the fires, these fraught decisions won’t come easily.

“I think that in a disaster, there’s such a strong emotional pull to get what you lost back,” says Combs. “I think that’s a powerful pull.”

Oct 08 2018

7mins

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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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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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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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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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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

7mins

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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

7mins

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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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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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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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Proposition 68: Money for Parks, Beaches and Water Projects

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Proposition 68 is a $4.1 billion bond measure that will clean up dilapidated parks, improve water projects, upgrade flood protection  and protect scenic open spaces.

What You Need to Know About Proposition 68

  • About two-thirds of the money would be dedicated to parks and wildlife, and one-third would be allocated to water and flood control projects.
  • Payments on the bond will cost taxpayers about $200 million annually over 40 years.
  • The Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) estimates the infrastructure investments will likely save communities tens of millions of dollars annually.
  • Here’s how the allocations break down:
    • Parks and Recreation: $1.283 billion for neighborhood parks in low-income communities, plus city and county park facilities
    • Natural Resources: $1.547 billion for conservation projects and climate change preparedness
    • Water: $1.27 billion for drinking water treatment, groundwater clean-up and flood protection

How did Proposition 68 Get on the Ballot?

Proposition 68 was written by state Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, and was placed on the ballot by a two-thirds vote of state lawmakers last year.

“I grew up in a neighborhood in San Diego that was all asphalt, that was concrete and cement,” de León says. “No green parks. No open space. No trees for shade. This is an intentional way of democratizing our benefits so that every child regardless of their zip code has access to Mother Nature.”

Why Do People Support It?

Prop. 68 provides funding for disaster prevention, clean drinking water and safe parks for children and future generations.

Fellow “fairy lanterns” bloom at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. This year they are especially abundant following the recent wildfire. (Danielle Venton/KQED)

Voters have not approved a statewide ballot measure to fund parks, beaches, wildlife and forests in 12 years. Environmentalists say the measure is necessary to protect the state from droughts, floods, sea level rise and wildfires that are likely to increase in intensity under climate change.

“It’s never a mistake to invest in people and nature,” said Louis Blumberg, of The Nature Conservancy. “We look back and we always say we are glad we did.”

Other proponents include the American Lung Association in California, California Chamber of Commerce and The Nature Conservancy.

Why Do People Oppose It?

There is no organized campaign against the measure. But some critics do not support more state debt.

“We can’t borrow more,” said Sen. John Moorlach, R-Orange County. “We should pay as we go. We actually have extra money because the state has a budget surplus.”

The state’s budget surplus is $9 billion, but Governor Jerry Brown argues that money should remain in a rainy day fund. Moorlach disagrees because a bond like Proposition 68 will end up costing a lot more than it’s initial price.

“When you borrow money you have to pay double for the infrastructure because of the interest costs,” said Moorlach.

The interest on Prop. 68 will cost about 200 million dollars annually for 40 years. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office that’s about about one-fifth of one percent of the state’s current General Fund budget.

May 25 2018

3mins

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