Tubeworms, Deadly Mushrooms, 50,000 Underwater Golf Balls, Bye-bye Botts Dots, End of Recycling

Private science goes deep

Fascinating work being done right now in the Gulf of California by Schmidt Ocean Institute. This is a private non-profit started by Eric and Wendy Schmidt, (Eric of Sun Microsystems and Google fame) and headquartered in Palo Alto, California. They are doing pioneering work in undersea exploration. Their current expedition takes them to the Gulf of California where they have been filming riftia, blood-red tubeworms that gained fame in 1977 on an expedition to the Galápagos Rift. The worms live off of a chemical symbiosis with bacteria, a process called chemosynthesis rather than by directly using sunlight (photosynthesis). The discovery of the Riftia symbiosis with bacteria is considered one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century.

Schmidt Ocean Institute

Beware the death cap mushroom

The recent deluge of rain from the atmospheric river has brought much-needed relief to the California water system, doing a lot to refill reservoirs. However, the rain has also raised concern over the rapid growth of amanita phalloides, also known as the death cap mushroom. The death cap accounts for nearly 50 percent of all deaths caused by mushrooms.

The mushrooms have been a big problem in rainy years in California. In 2017, there were 14 cases of death-cap mushroom poisonings documented in Northern California. The deadly mushrooms grow in moist earth, and while they may look delicious, they should be avoided. It is estimated that just half a mushroom contains enough poison to kill a human adult. The mushroom’s toxin attacks the liver, and those who are affected develop severe abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting. Death can come as quickly as a few days.

Interestingly, death caps are not native to the United States, but likely came from Europe, attached to the roots of other plants. So, if you like to pick and eat wild mushrooms, how do you know what to avoid? Unfortunately, the greenish-beige death cap closely resembles several edible species. We looked around and found several places that warn foragers from eating anything with gills, which harbor the toxin. PBS’s wonderful Deep Look also has a nice video on the subject.

Mercury News Deep Look

Credit: Alex Weber

Underwater toxic golf ball bonanza

Alex Weber is a student at Carmel High School in California who also happen to enjoy diving. One day while swimming in the waters near Pebble Beach golf course, site of the 2019 U.S. Open Championship, she discovered huge mounds of golf balls, hit there by duffer golfers.

The enterprising teen got in touch with scientist Matthew Savoca at the Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University who studies the effects of plastic in the ocean. Together, the two of them collected over 50,000 golf balls, some 2.5 tons worth, often diving while new golf balls plopped into the water around them. It turns out, says Savoca, that golf balls are made with materials that can be hazardous to marine life, especially once they break down over time in the ocean water. The enterprising Weber has since started a campaign to get more of the polluting dimpled spheres out of the ocean. A recent paper documents the effort and discusses the nature of pollutants left behind by golf balls.

YALE360 The Plastic Pick up Marine Pollution Bulletin

The demise of the Bot Dot

Botts dots. Credit: Caltrans

You are driving down the highway and you drift slightly to the center. Suddenly, you hear a familiar recurrent thumping sound as your tires roll over perfectly spaced tiny lumps glued to the road. What you are hearing are so-called Botts Dots, ceramic bumps invented by Caltrans engineer Elbert Dysart Botts.

The bumps are meant to alert drivers from crossing into oncoming traffic or veering off the road. Since they were first installed in 1966, they have proven tremendously effective at waking dozing drivers.

Today, California roads and highways are studded with more than 25 million Botts’ dots. However, starting two years ago, Caltrans decided to stop using Botts dots, and so they have fallen out of use and are no longer being installed, according to Caltrans.

So what’s replacing the beloved Botts dots? In some cases, they are being replaced by more reflective markers, the angular ones that are generally orange or yellow. In other cases, thermoplastic striping, a kind of raised paint, is used. But increasingly common, especially on the highway shoulder are so-called Sonic Nap Alert Patterns (SNAPs), first used in Pennsylvania, which are grooves cut into the roadside to alert drivers that their vehicles are veering out of bounds.

Sac Bee

The End of Recycling?

Credit: The Atlantic

The headline may a bit overstated, but recycling is in a serious crisis. It used to be that China would buy and ship millions of tons of our recycling to help fuel its own rapid growth. No longer.

The Atlantic takes a look at the problems plaguing the US recycling industry with a particular focus on liberal, green San Francisco, where state of the art sorting machines are struggling to separate garbage from recycling.

The AtlanticT

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