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KQED Science News

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Natural Sciences
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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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iTunes Ratings

24 Ratings
Average Ratings

It's Great!

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

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KQED Science News

Updated 7 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.

Rank #1: 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



Rank #2: 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.

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



Rank #3: 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



Rank #4: 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



Rank #5: 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.

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



Rank #6: 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



Rank #7: 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



Rank #8: 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



Rank #9: Everything That Happened Monday During the Solar Eclipse

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Just after 10 a.m. Monday morning off the coast of Oregon the temperature dropped, shadows sharpened and the morning eerily turned to night. The sky filled with stars and planets. An unusual sunset glowed from the horizon in every direction.

The total solar eclipse awed onlookers as it swept across America. People within a narrow 70-mile wide band witnessed totality, while the entire country was treated to a partial eclipse.

Clear skies in Oregon set into motion a nationwide viewing event that had millions of Americans erupting into cheers or falling into stunned silence as the moon slipped in front of the sun. Social media sites erupted with photos, videos and audio.

Traffic crept along as people parked along highways and overflowed campgrounds and festivals. The Oregon Department of Transportation estimated 1 million visitors descended on the state.

If eclipse mania stoked any newfound fans they won’t have to wait too long for the next one. A total solar eclipse will travel from Texas to Maine on April 8, 2024.

3 p.m. If you were stuck inside or blocked by clouds today don’t fret. You can watch NOVA’s Eclipse Over America, tonight at 9 p.m.  on KQED 9 and streaming online.

NOVA investigates the storied history of solar eclipse science and joins both seasoned and citizen-scientists alike as they don their eclipse glasses and tune their telescopes for the eclipse over America.

2:35 p.m. The first people to see this morning’s eclipse…
NASA astronaut Michael Barratt had his camera ready on board Alaska Airlines Flight 9671 this morning . The aircraft was destined out over the Pacific Ocean for the first glimpse of the total solar eclipse. Along with 100 other passengers, he pointed his camera out a round window as the moon slid in front of the sun. He had crafted a filter using a Chex cereal box.

KQED’s Lindsey Hoshaw was on the same flight with journalists, scientists, eclipse chasers and contest winners who cheered and even swore aloud when the sky darkened.

Totality, Hoshaw said, was magical from mid-air.

“It felt like something out of a movie,” she said.  “It was really inspiring to be around people who were so excited, who traveled all the way across the country to see something for two minutes.”


Alaska Airlines Flight 9671 flew out over the Pacific Ocean to intercept the path of the total solar eclipse. (Lindsey Hoshaw)

1:15 p.m. ‘The sky turned inside out’

Those who have chased eclipses around the world often speak of the transformative experience of totality. But KQED’s Danielle Venton says that researchers at the Lost River Field Station in Mackay, Idaho found today’s solar eclipse particularly special.

“Maybe because the sun was high in the sky and the air was pretty clear up there,” Venton said. “The corona was strongly visible.”

There were three “filaments” of solar wind visible to the scientists, who will be combing through the data they collected for months to come.

“Just with the naked eye we were able to see what looked like some coronal streamers, these long streaks of solar material coming away from the solar disk,” said Joseph Hutton, a researcher from Wales. “And maybe a few prominences, which showed up bright pink against the disk of the moon.”

Even hours after what she called an astounding experience, Venton was exhilarated.

“What was interesting was how the light changed,” she said. “It kind of felt more like moonlight. Shadows were especially vivid. There was this general feeling of euphoria, this wave of ‘Oh my god’s’ and gasps and cheering.” 

She says that when totality blanketed the Lost River Field Station, the sky turned dark where it was once blue, while the horizon glowed.

“It felt like the sky turned inside out,” she says.

12:42 p.m. KQED’s Lindsey Hoshaw captured the total solar eclipse from midair off the coast of Oregon on Alaska Airlines Flight 9671.

And then there’s this crew on Mt. Tamalpais:

11:55 a.m. The Casper Star-Tribune has a collection of the best photos from today’s total solar eclipse here. 

11:50 a.m.  And just like that, totality has left American soil. Here’s a view of the total solar eclipse from Charleston, South Carolina.

11:20 a.m. This is what totality sounds like …

Some gasp, some cheer, some sigh. And some sit silently in stunned awe. Listen to the exact moment eclipse viewers in Mackay, Idaho watched the sun disappear behind the moon and the sky go dark.

Update 10:40 a.m. This is totality. The Exploratorium just shared this capture of their telescope stream from Madras, Oregon. Up next: Casper, Wyoming.

Update 10:40 a.m. Schedule alert

11:46 a.m Peak in Charleston, South Carolina

Update 10:20 a.m. The 75 percent partial eclipse shone through wispy fog as it peaked in the Bay Area at 10:15 a.m.

Update 9:45 a.m. KQED’s Danielle Venton reports cheering and applause as the moon edges in front of the sun at the Lost River Field Station in Idaho.

Update 9:40 a.m. Bay Area social media is currently cursing @KarlTheFog as the sun peeks in and out of view in San Francisco. The skies could clear for the end of the eclipse, but the East Bay will be the best bet for the 10:15 partial solar eclipse peak.

Update 9:30 a.m. Oregon officials have warned that parking on the side of the road is illegal. This is the view of U.S. Highway 97 north of Redmond at 9:21 a.m.

Drivers pull over to the side of U.S. Highway 97 north of Redmond, Oregon on Monday morning. (Oregon Department of Transportation)

Update 9 a.m. Madras, Oregon live stream begins

San Francisco’s Exploratorium scientists are standing by, ready to begin a live telescope stream of the solar eclipse in Madras, Oregon.

The moon is about to start eclipsing the sun right now for West Coast viewers. Totality in Madras hits at 10:19 a.m. Watch it live here:

Keep an eye on the NASA live stream, as well.

Update 8:45 a.m. We’ve got you covered for last minute eclipse plans. Weather forecasts give the East Bay the best shot at clear skies for the peak of the partial eclipse. Museums and libraries around the Bay Area are offering public viewing events, and many are giving away coveted free eclipse glasses. Check out a list of local eclipse viewing events here.

Update 8 a.m. How exactly do scientists practice for a solar eclipse? KQED’s Danielle Venton has this report from a remote solar science outpost in Mackay Idaho. Also in this morning’s newscast, KQED’s Kat Snow catches up with Californians chasing the eclipse in Oregon.

Traffic update, 7:45 a.m. The Oregon Department of Transportation is reporting heavy traffic north of Redmond on U.S. Highway 97. Delays could reach two hours. In Wyoming, Interstate 25 came to a halt early this morning and officials advise travelers to use alternates routes.

Update 7:35 a.m. Eclipse chasers spent the weekend packing into fields, festivals and campgrounds, anxiously awaiting this morning’s totality.

Update 7:20 a.m.  Didn’t get glasses in time? Don’t be like this guy.

Remember, DON’T look at the sun, except during totality, which the Bay Area will not experience. Check out this video on how to make a pinhole viewer from a cereal box.

Update 7 a.m.:  Welcome to our live coverage of the total solar eclipse. Stay tuned all morning for photos, reactions, news and updates from reporters in the path of totality.

Solar eclipse chasers prepare for takeoff on an Alaska Airlines flight Monday morning. (Lindsey Hoshaw)

Morning weather update: Skies are forecast to remain clear in the path of totality in Oregon, while Idaho and Wyoming may have some patchy haze, according to the National Weather Service. Some cloud cover is gathering around the eclipse path in Nebraska, Kansas, Illinois and Iowa. In the Bay Area, low cloud cover may obscure the beginning of the partial eclipse, but skies are expected to clear mid- morning around peak viewing time.

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For the first time in 99 years, a total solar eclipse will sweep across the United States from coast to coast. More than 200 million Americans live within driving distance of the path of the total eclipse, called the path of totality.

From Oregon to South Carolina, cities and towns that lie within this narrow band are preparing for traffic jams and huge crowds, as millions gather to witness the phenomenon.

Those outside the path of totality will see a partial eclipse. The Bay Area will experience a 75 percent partial solar eclipse, peaking at 10:15 a.m.


  • DON’T look directly at the partially eclipsed or uneclipsed sun without eclipse glasses. (Sunglasses are not enough!)
  • DON’T look through camera, telescope or binocular lenses, even with eclipse glasses.
  • DON’T remove your eclipse glasses during the eclipse – that’s only safe during full totality, which California WON’T experience.
  • DO make a pinhole viewer if you don’t have eclipse glasses – or watch a high quality live stream online.

Here are the most important things you need to know this morning:

  • The entirety of the eclipse on American soil will last about two-and-a-half hours, with totality stretching from Oregon at 10:16 a.m. to Charleston, South Carolina at 11:47 a.m. PDT.  Totality lasts about two minutes at each location.
  • Solar eclipses occur when the moon passes between Earth and the sun, casting a shadow and blocking out the sun momentarily. Check out an animated view of an eclipse from outer space here.
  • Looking at the partially eclipsed or uneclipsed sun even for a moment can permanently damage your eyes. Watch a video on how to safely watch the eclipse here.
  • Solar eclipses aren’t rare in general — they happen every 18 months somewhere in the world. But if you stayed in one place, you’d wait 300 years on average to see one.
  • Keep an eye on the NASA live stream at the bottom of this page to watch the eclipse.

Aug 21 2017



Rank #10: 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



Rank #11: 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



Rank #12: 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.

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



Rank #13: A California Regulator’s Curious Crusade to Remake the Clean Air Act

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In California’s polluted San Joaquin Valley, a regulator is under fire for allying with members of Congress who want to weaken the venerable law: a joint investigation from the Center for Public Integrity and The California Report.

FRESNO — The 250-mile-long San Joaquin Valley is an economic powerhouse, producing everything Read More …

Source:: Newsfix – Science

May 22 2017



Rank #14: You Know About This Summer’s Spectacular Solar Eclipse, Right?

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Save the date: August 21st. On that Monday, across the United States, millions of people will be granted a rare chance to see a total solar eclipse. The last time a total solar eclipse crossed the contiguous U.S., Jimmy Carter was president (1979). It has been nearly a century since an eclipse swept the country from coast to coast (1918).

“It’s not often that celestial events favor our own country in such a way,” says Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute. “And this gives the opportunity to a lot of people to see something that really shouldn’t be missed.”

The eclipse will first be visible by land at Lincoln Beach, Oregon. At 8:04 a.m. the moon will begin to edge in on the sun, taking a tiny chip out of it.

Eclipses are possible thanks to a happy coincidence: The Sun is 400 times the diameter of the moon, while also being 400 times farther away from Earth. To us, both the moon and the Sun appear to be the same size allowing the moon to block light from the sun during solar eclipses.

As the 70 million million million metric tons of rock that we know as our moon slide across the solar disc, darkness will descend, sweeping in from the west. The temperature will drop. Birds may cease singing, squirrels may give up their foraging. The stars will come out.

Observers of past eclipses say life seems suspended in animation, as the shadow of the moon sweeps over them. Looking up they see a “hole in the sky” surrounded by flowing flames. Or, “a black sunflower with the most delicate of silver petals,” as Frank Close writes in Eclipse: Journeys to the Dark Side of the Moon.

These ‘petals’ are the sun’s corona. Curiously, this outer atmosphere of the sun is far, far hotter (up to 450 times hotter) than the surface of the sun. But why this is so is still a mystery.

The stage where the corona is visible to the naked eye is the moment of total eclipse, called “totality.” You will see the total eclipse only if you are inside the 50-mile wide band marked out on the map below, a path that will sweep across the country stretching from just west of Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. (Check out the Eclipse Megamovie Project, a joint project of Google and UC Berkeley. Type a  location into their simulator to see what the eclipse will look like from there.)

A word on safety: Don’t look directly at the sun. Ever.

For the first hour of the eclipse, the moon with be sliding over the disc of the sun taking, as Shostak says, “bigger and bigger cookie bites.”

Even if it is partially blocked, if you look into the sun it may be the last thing you’ll ever see. You can, however, watch with eclipse glasses, which are equipped with protective film. Or, cut a hole in a piece of paper or cardboard and project the eclipse onto a surface, such as the ground or a wall. Once the moon has completely blocked out the sun (during totality) it is okay to look up. In fact, don’t miss looking up! You can even take a peek through your binoculars or telescope.

Shostak recommends Oregon as the most practical locale for Californians to view the eclipse, if they’re willing to travel. “You might think ‘Gosh! That’s a long trip for two minutes of celestial fireworks,'” says Shostak. “But I can assure you, seeing the moon get in front of the sun is something you will always remember.”

Read more KQED eclipse coverage:

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

Jun 20 2017



Rank #15: LISTEN: 1,200 Years of Earth’s Climate, Transformed into Sound

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Climate change is difficult to talk about. The subject is complex. Denial is rampant. The scale of the problem is hard to grasp. And, while it is arguably the most important story of our time, it has a way of wearing people down. Rather than exhausting the topic, the topic exhausts us.

When you sonify data, you experience time in a way you can’t when you look at a chart.Hal Gordon, Graduate student

We know this. So, we’d like to offer a new way to understand the speed at which our planet has changed over the past few hundred years. This project was brought to us by three UC Berkeley graduate students and a sonification artist.

Chris Chafe, director of Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics composed the piece of music based on data compiled by Hal Gordon, Kate Pennington and Valeri Vasquez at Berkeley.

You’ll hear global temperatures and the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for the most recent three centuries in the graphic above. The music in our story below tracks global average temperature and CO2 from 850 A.D. to 2016.

“A large part of what motivated us to think about sonifying CO2 and temperature data over time,” says Pennington, “is that when you look at a graph of how these two things have moved together, you see very clearly that they track each other really closely. But it’s hard to understand time when you see it all at once.”

Perhaps the pace of climate change can be better communicated through sound.

“In all climate data you see it in a long chart with time that is way longer than human life time so it’s impossible to experience,” says Gordon. “But when you sonify it you actually experience time in a way that you can’t experience when you look at the chart.”

“As you hear in the piece that Chris has composed there’s really not a lot happening for a really long time and it’s kind of soothing,” says Pennington. “We have a normal state of the world, and life has evolved relative to that normal state of the world.”

The piece of sound begins with a low drone, the tone of which represents the concentration of carbon dioxide during the Middle Ages. It is accompanied by a twangy ping-pong sound: global temperature averages.

Starting in the 1700s, however, you begin to hear a change. The Industrial Revolution and widespread deforestation in Europe take hold. Carbon concentrations begin to creep up. Approaching the 1900s, the tone becomes a higher-pitched wail. The last few seconds of the piece sound like an alarm, the result of a meteoric rise in CO2 concentrations.

[contextly_sidebar id=”7ROfg5tk22E0HRPe7NwtKDIl7x2oGjPf”]”The whole concept that we’re trying to explain here is not a pleasant one, it’s actually a frightening one,” says Vasquez. “So it might be really appropriate that it ends in this kind of ambulance sound.”

We’re now living in a world that is about 1.5 degrees C above what it was before the Industrial Revolution (and about 1 degree above what it was in the first half of the 1900s).

This could seem relatively minor change, but it indicates the Earth’s balance has been disrupted.

“My body temperature’s 98.6. If I have a fever of 101, I would worry. If all the doctors tell me that my temperature’s going to go up, I would be very worried,” says Inez Fung, climate scientist at UC Berkeley. “If I have a temperature of 103, I know other organs are going to be influenced.”

This is manifesting itself in sea-level rise, extreme storms, prolonged droughts, deadly floods, wildfires and emerging diseases.

Researchers extract an ice core from a drilling machine in the French Alps, on August 25, 2016. (PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)

“The whole planet is adapted to a certain range,” says Fung. “We’re going into a range where, yes, we’ve seen higher CO2 before, but people have not been around.”

The last time the atmospheric CO2  concentration was as high at it is today was 3 million years ago. That’s about the time of Australopithecus, the pre-human hominin species that Lucy comes from.

We can study the ancient climate through a number of means. One is by analyzing ice cores. These cores hold trapped air bubbles going back thousands of years. After drilling a core, researchers can melt down sections of the ice and capture the released air to measure the concentration of carbon dioxide (among other things). Temperature data can be reconstructed in part from tree rings and mud core samples from the bottoms of lakes. 

[contextly_sidebar id=”KnekqcEwhVBH0ZmRPxuFxIEj2SNSGdqX”]What will happen in the future?

“We literally don’t know what will happen next,” says Pennington.

The aim of the Paris Climate Accord is to limit the rise in temperature to “well below” 2 degrees and, if possible, to 1.5 C, “recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”

Last year President Trump announced he was withdrawing the U.S. from participation in the Paris Accord.

However California, along with a number of states and cities around the world, have defiantly expressed commitment to the agreement.

What happens next is “really sort of a pick-your-adventure choice” says Pennington, with all of us playing some role in the outcome. We, as a society, have the chance to choose what the future will sound like.

Jan 08 2018