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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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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!
Cover image of KQED Science News

KQED Science News

Updated 3 days ago

Read more

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: 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
4 mins
Play

Rank #2: 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
4 mins
Play

Rank #3: 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
7 mins
Play

Rank #4: 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
7 mins
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Rank #5: Wildfires Reignite Old Trauma for Survivors of Last October’s Blazes

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There are 18 wildfires now blazing across California, which means many of the state’s residents are waking up to the smell of smoke and hazy skies. The Carr fire near Redding has scorched at least 141,000 acres, and killed seven people. Three fires in Mendocino County are all less than an hour away from Santa Rosa — where some neighborhoods burned to the ground last year.

‘You can just feel it. There’s a sense of tension here in Santa Rosa.’Danielle Bryant, Santa Rosa resident

Confronting constant reminders of what fire can do has become a terrifying reality for people who survived last year’s flames and are still piecing their lives back together.

Psychologists, therapists and other counselors are working to assure these survivors that surges of panic, grief and agitation are healthy and normal, even as they offer tips for quenching the terror.

The view from Danielle Bryant’s bedroom window, in her new temporary apartment in Santa Rosa, is pretty unsettling these days.

“The orange-tinged sky is just enough for me, to set off my anxiety and feelings of fear,” Bryant says.

Running for Your Life

Last year on Oct. 8, an explosion jolted Bryant awake in the middle of the night. Howling winds shook her Santa Rosa house. The air was hot. Bryant and her husband jumped in their car and fled with only the clothes on their backs.

“I feared for our life,” she says. “We were running for our life.”

When they returned the next day the street was desolate. The air wreaked of burnt chemicals. Homes were charred rubble. The October flames eventually destroyed thousands of houses and killed 44 people.

“We were victims to one of the most terrible events in history,” says Bryant.

Still Haunted 10 Months Later

For the past year, Bryant has struggled with many symptoms of trauma: sleeplessness, nightmares, irritability, and loss of appetite.

Aftermath of last years fire in Santa Rosa. Courtesy of Danielle Bryant.

“Agitation — so quick to agitation,” says Bryant. “Hence the fight that I got in the other night with my husband.”

‘“The trouble is, the brain keeps rising to the occasion, even when the threat isn’t current.’Jennifer Freeman, LMFT

It was a fight about nothing. She says she blew up after watching the news about all the fires on television. She hasn’t turned on the TV since. She’s hearing similar stories from friends and neighbors.

“You can just feel it,” says Bryant. “There’s a sense of tension here in Santa Rosa.”

Bryant’s current apartment is about a mile away from her old house. She’s still working through everything that happened.

“These last 10 months,” she says, “have been one of the hardest times of my life, because what you have to do after an event like this is, you have to go on living.”

There’s Nothing Wrong With You

The emotions and physiological responses Bryant describes are common after a life-threatening event. Francis Fuchs is a psychologist and counselor in Santa Rosa who has been treating fire victims who are highly affected by all the current blazes in northern California.

[contextly_sidebar id=”IDGNibKXzC1suzCgQlBF4ihTNqdejZ0J”]”They are having more difficulty with sleeping,” Fuchs says. “They are having a heightened sense of anxiety and unease. They are having some flashbacks of their fire experience from last October. Also mood changes — more anxious or tearful.”

Many laypeople casually use the term PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder — to loosely describe a response to a terrifying experience. But psychologists say not all responses to trauma actually fit that diagnosis, which includes symptoms that must last more than a month and be severe enough to interfere with relationships or work.

Rather, the fear, anxiety, sleeplessness or shallow breathing many fire survivors are experiencing right now are healthy and transient, psychologists and therapists say — the body’s evolutionary responses to the belief that danger is again near.

“It’s preverbal, it’s precognitive,” says Padma Gordon, a spiritual counselor and mindfulness educator in San Rafael. “So what happens when we’re threatened: We grip; we contract; we stop breathing. And all this is registering in our brains and in our bodies, instantaneously. Because we’re hardwired for survival.”

Danielle Bryant’s Toyota Corolla that was destroyed on Oct. 8, 2017. Courtesy of Danielle Bryant.

When a survivor of trauma again senses signs of the previous threat – the smell of smoke, the color of the orange sky, the sound of a phone “ding” for an emergency alert — the protective survival system kicks in, even when the danger isn’t immediate this time.

“The brain is designed to alert you to threats,” says Jennifer Freeman, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Berkeley. “The trouble is, the brain keeps rising to the occasion, even when the threat isn’t current.” Freeman has worked with survivors of trauma and in the aftermath of natural disasters — including earthquakes and tsunamis — for three decades, both in the U.S. and internationally.

What You Can Do 

There are a variety of cognitive and physical techniques that can help us through periods of trauma, counselors say, and people vary in which ones they find most helpful, often depending on their own cultural traditions.

[contextly_sidebar id=”DoMftZ0opUaLlZB6oulpFZ9Z6AAuj1In”]Freeman says one of the first steps to calm the mind and body is to be kind to yourself and respect that your system is trying to help you survive.

“We can say, ‘Thank you body, thank you brain for trying to take care of me,'” Freeman says. “Which is very different than, ‘Oh, what’s wrong with me?’ and ‘I need to get rid of it.'”

Gordon recommends reminding yourself out loud that the fearful event is not happening again. It may sound silly to talk to yourself, but the body, she says, recognizes and calms with the sound of your voice.

“’I’m sitting here in a space that doesn’t smell like smoke,’” Gordon says, as an example. “’And I’m not hearing sirens, and people aren’t running, trying to escape. I’m not hearing the sound of flames.’ It’s basically ‘getting present.’ Bring yourself back into the present.”

Even setting yourself a task — counting all the green objects you can see from where you sitting, for example — shows your brain there is no threat nearby, says Wowlvenn Seward-Katzmiller, a somatic psychotherapist in Sebastopol.

Other tools for ‘coming back to the present’ can be as simple as tapping your feet, Gordon says. Or smelling something you enjoy — such as tangerine or balsam fir or cinnamon — or playing calming music. To consciously slow rapid breathing, try putting one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart.

Slowing your breath activates the parasympathetic nervous system, Freeman points out, which is the body’s calming system.  Seward-Katzmiller suggests doing long, slow exhales as if you are blowing out a candle through a long straw. And here’s a fun one: have a long (20 seconds) belly-to-belly hug with a pet or loved one.

People also can heal via their community — by helping others. Asking questions that elicit the story of how someone survived the traumatic event is an approach Freeman worked with in Samoa, after the 2009 tsunami.

“We asked, ‘What did you do during the wave, and after the wave. What did you turn to for strength?’ So we don’t elicit narratives of helplessness. They are stories of pain and hope, struggle and resilience.”

And if you’re helping someone, it’s important to ask what kinds of help they want — not to assume that each approach works with everyone, she adds. When Freeman was working in Samoa, for example, she learned from local therapists and others there that many people preferred to work via community and family groups, rather than in individual therapy.

Plus, basic situations such as an inability to pay for a temporary home or the threat of deportation can change what a person most needs in order to heal.

Grieving and Finding Hope

During especially hard times recently, Danielle Bryant has found herself driving to the empty lot in Santa Rosa where she used to live.

“It was like visiting like a gravesite,” says Bryant. “So it was a place to just come and be and to cry.”

After spending a few moments gazing at the ruins, she backs out of her parking spot, pauses, then takes a deep breath.

“Just seeing the smoke off to the east,” says Bryant, looking at the sky, “I get this sense of dread.”

As we drive down her old street in the Coffey Park neighborhood we pass the skeleton of a burnt-out car, still parked in a pile of ash.

Bryant pulls up to an empty lot overgrown with weeds, and gets out of the car. We carefully tread through some weeds and knee high bushes. “See this outline, this box? That was it. That was our home.” Bryant crouches down and puts her head in her hands.

Triggered memories can still feel overwhelming, but her neighborhood is also coming back to life. Next door, a crane drops a pile of plywood beams, and construction crews are framing new homes. All over the ground, green sprouts are pushing through the blackened decay.

The foundation that was once Danielle Bryant’s home in the Coffee

“This green is hopeful to me,” says Bryant. “This is just a sign that nature comes back — and is forgiving. And that we can, we can. We can come back.”

To help process her grief Bryant is taking a writing class. She’s finding it therapeutic to put her painful memories into words and phrases.

“Grief breathing into my bones of lead,” reads Bryant. “It stuck there in the deep. Was it all a dream? After we were refugees.”

Even as wildfires rage within an hour of Santa Rosa, Bryant is excited at the prospect of rebuilding the house in the old neighborhood, and moving back — she hopes within about year.

“It is going back to the place of trauma,” Bryant admits. “But it’s also going back to our home.”

Resources for Fire Survivors

Editor’s Note: Marisol Medina-Cadena contributed to this report.

Aug 05 2018
5 mins
Play

Rank #6: 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
7 mins
Play

Rank #7: Future of Huge California Water Project May Hang on the Next Few Weeks

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California’s biggest water project in decades appears to be in limbo after a key irrigation district voted not to help underwrite Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to build two giant tunnels that would re-engineer water transport in the state.

For the last 75 years or so, we’ve tried to figure out how to move water from north to south.

The no-vote at the Fresno-based Westlands Water District — the largest agricultural water supplier in the U.S. — puts the $17 billion project’s funding on shaky ground. Will other water districts pick up the slack? Other large water agencies considering participating in the project are set to vote soon. Another key player, Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Water District , will vote on October 10. The Santa Clara Valley Water District, based in San Jose, will weigh in a week later. But with the loss of Westland’s support, some are left wondering if the controversial project is already doomed.

[contextly_sidebar id=”eS3Wtyt0HlhjkPmIJLtpGyOyKaR91T65″]KQED’s Brian Watt spoke with Paul Rogers, managing editor for KQED’s Science unit and the environment writer for the San Jose Mercury News, about the delta tunnels project and what may lie ahead.

Brian Watt: This is a project that is touted as benefiting both the delta environment and water consumers. Remind us how these delta tunnels are supposed to work.

Paul Rogers: When you talk about water in California, the big picture is that three-quarters of all the rain and the snow falls in the northern part of the state and three-quarters of the people live in the south.

Twin tunnels, 40 feet in diameter, would shuttle water from the Sacramento River, through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, to farms and cities to the south. (KQED)

So, for the last 75 years or so, we’ve tried to figure out how to move water from north to south. Right now, in the delta we have these giant pumps near Tracy. What happens is when we pump water south, they grind up and kill fish like salmon and smelt and as those species have gotten endangered, less water at certain times of the year. So, Jerry Brown’s idea is let’s build these two tunnels, 40-feet high, costing three times what the Bay Bridge costs, to take the water from farther north in the delta and rely on these pumps less, so people can get the water more reliably.

Watt: The project has had some pretty vocal opponents.: some environmentalists, some members of the delta’s congressional delegation. But why did a huge farm irrigation district, Westlands, pull its support when its customer were supposed to benefit from it?

Rogers: It’s a great question, you know, environmentalists have been against this thing all along. They argue that if you build these giant tunnels, it’ll make it easier for big corporate interests in the Central Valley and Los Angeles to take northern California’s water.

But some of those farmers in the Westlands Water District near Fresno, their board voted recently, 7-to-1, to pull out of this plan. They were supposed to pay three billion of the 17 billion-dollar cost. They decided not to because, number one, it was a huge amount of money and it was going to raise what they paid for water. Number two, they weren’t being guaranteed by the Brown administration they were going to get any more water.

That no-vote sent shock waves across the California water world because it meant the other agencies that might want to participate were going to have to pay a lot more.

Watt: So the Metropolitan Water District in L.A. has a big vote coming up on October 10. What do you think is going to happen?

[contextly_sidebar id=”ITT6VAdYDMkzpdMDz03OHPhqpyKtDZl3″]Rogers: Some of the folks down there on that board have been raising questions about the cost. I think if I had to handicap it, I’d say that there’s probably about a 75 percent chance that they’ll vote for it. So that’ll be a big win for Governor Brown, but that doesn’t mean the project is done because there are other water agencies, like the Santa Clara Valley Water District in San Jose that still have yet to vote.

Brian Watt: So, where does this leave the project now? State water agencies and other big supporters say it’s far from dead.

Rogers: It’s just fascinating. I think there have already been more than a dozen lawsuits filed against this project and even if water agencies approve it, it’s probably going to be held up in court for years. The Santa Clara Valley Water District is sort of wobbling. I think they may want a smaller project. So, it’s still hardly a sure thing. Jerry Brown leaves office in 15 months and his successors — his likely successors — are not huge supporters of this. They’re not opponents, but they’re not embracing it the way Brown does. So, I think in the next few weeks we’re really going to see whether or not this thing has a chance of being built or whether the final stake is driven through its heart.

Watt: What does Governor Brown think of this?

Rogers: You know, it’s worth remembering that Governor Brown has two giant legacy construction projects: high speed rail and this tunnels project. His dad built a lot of big things around California when he was governor in the ’60s and this is Brown’s attempt to do that.

Oct 02 2017
4 mins
Play

Rank #8: 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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONuA9HmkF3M&feature=youtu.be

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
6 mins
Play

Rank #9: 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
5 mins
Play

Rank #10: 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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1QPxE5BQbY

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.

https://twitter.com/lindseyhoshaw/status/899714181015814144

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

https://twitter.com/KQED/status/899714442811777025

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.
https://twitter.com/channel1atlanta/status/899706355535290370

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.

https://ww2.kqed.org/science/wp-content/uploads/sites/35/2017/08/eclipse-reax-lrfs.mp3

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.

https://twitter.com/exploratorium/status/899683596268589056

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.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BYEGLGihFg5

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.

https://twitter.com/DanielleVenton/status/899671496523526144

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.

https://twitter.com/KarlTheFog/status/899669507886546944

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:

https://twitter.com/exploratorium/status/899647241291390976

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.

https://ww2.kqed.org/science/wp-content/uploads/sites/35/2017/08/2017-08-21-6-22AM-newscast.mp3

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.

https://twitter.com/CSTribune/status/899626165308207106

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

https://www.instagram.com/p/BX-7fsyj8Vu

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

https://www.instagram.com/p/BYDuknGAh3W

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWMf5rYDgpc

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.

[contextly_sidebar id=”WWfhZwP9WJYv0YjB0bt0GpJf1pPdjnkz”]

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.

HOW TO VIEW THE ECLIPSE SAFELY

  • 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
7 mins
Play

Rank #11: 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
4 mins
Play

Rank #12: 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
6 mins
Play

Rank #13: 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
4 mins
Play

Rank #14: 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
7 mins
Play

Rank #15: 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
7 mins
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