Towing icebergs // California’s amazing seamounts // New surprises from Saturn’s rings // Meet Cassie, Cal Berkeley’s rollerskating robot // Flying cars coming to LA sooner than you think // Big Macs by drone // California science news roundup

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Week of June 14, 2019

Environment

That time we almost towed an iceberg from Antarctica to California

Credit: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Bloomberg has a wonderful story this week about Nicholas Sloane, a 56-year-old South African marine-salvage expert who is developing a plan to tow an iceberg from Antarctica to Cape Town, where it would be moored off-shore, hacked and “mined” for fresh water.

However, as we report, the idea is not new, and, in fact, it was proposed as a way to deal with droughts in California as far back as the 1940s. Back then, a brilliant iconoclast named John Isaacs proposed transporting a massive iceberg to San Diego to deal with a particularly bad series of dry years. Isaacs was working with the Scripps Oceanographic Institute in San Diego. The idea was to capture “an eight-billion ton iceberg, 20 miles long, 3000 feet wide, and 1000 feet deep in the Antarctic and towing it up to San Clemente Island off San Diego in a matter of 200 days.” That’s thinking outside the box. It never happened, but for a whle, many took the idea seriously. 

In fact, as recent as 1978, California’s legislature endorsed the idea of towing two icebergs to southern California for drought relief. 

California Science Weekly


Environment

California’s amazing, beautiful, biodiverse seamounts

Credit: NOAA

Seamounts are underwater mountains that dot the seafloor around the globe. Some are small hills, while others can be as large as mountains. Most of us have no idea that these underwater structures exist, but the fact is there are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of them under the sea, and several are right off the coast of California. 

British Columbia-based coastal science magazine Hakai has got a fabulous feature on California seamounts. One of them is called Bishop Rock, and it nearly reaches the surface some 11 miles off the coast of San Diego. Seamounts are popular among surfers because they cause water to lift and that makes for great waves. Fisherfolk love them too because they attract lots of sea life. Sadly, mining companies also see great bounty in the mineral riches contained within some seamount systems. 

Of course, scientists find the biodiversity that lives around seamounts an untapped treasure for discovery. Legendary ocean scientist Sylvia Earle, who has made it her mission in the twilight of her amazing life to bring attention to the wonders of the sea, has also been deeply focussed on ocean conservation. Through her organization Mission Blue, Earle has advocated for creating marine protected areas around the world. Last month, Mission Blue designated all of these seamounts as Hope Spots, places worthy of our protection, preservation and awe. 

Hakai Magazine


Space

New surprises from Saturn’s rings 

Credit: NASA

New details of Saturn’s distinctive rings were revealed in the journal Science, providing deeper insight into the mysteries of one of our most iconic planets. During the final stages of the Cassini mission, (it ended in September 2017) which was run out of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in La Canada Flintridge, the spacecraft flew between the planet and its rings, providing a new view on the ringed behemoth. Cassini observed that the rings have different textures – smooth, clumpy or streaky – depending on their composition. The spacecraft was able to get data at close range, and found complex features sculpted by the gravitational interactions between moons and ring particles. JPL says that Saturn’s rings are substantially younger than the planet itself and may have formed when a moon was torn to pieces in orbit around the planet.   

JPL   Science


Technology

Flying cars perhaps coming to LA sooner than you think

Uber

Back in 2017, ride-sharing company Uber held its second Uber Elevate Summit in Los Angeles to push the idea of flying taxis. To most Los Angelenos, the thought of soaring over traffic is almost too good to be true, a Jetsons cartoon fantasy. But it may not be as far fetched as it seems. Numerous companies are working on the idea, and the technology is getting closer and closer to reality. One of the big obstacles at the moment is battery power, since most flying cars will have to be electric and the systems will need to carry a lot of redundancy (flying cars will not be able to glide much), which adds tremendous weight. 

Another obstacle is infrastructure. Where are all these flying cars going to take off and land? Well, Uber has been thinking a lot about this subject and just released plans for various “skyports” that will be built around Los Angeles.  Uber says that both LA and Dallas will be the pilot cities for the new service it calls Uber Air. Uber also unveiled renderings of the vehicles themselves, which include four passenger seats and a small storage space for baggage. The company says we may be riding in flying taxis, perhaps starting with service from LAX to downtown, by 2023. 

UBER


Robots

Meet Cassie, Cal Berkeley’s rollerskating robot

University of California at Berkeley

Her name is Cassie, and while she is perfectly comfortable meandering about the University of California at Berkeley campus on “foot”, researchers at Cal’s Hybrid Robotics Lab, have given her a new way of getting around: removable hovershoes! That means the walking robot can walk when it needs to, but also to glide around on wheels with much greater speed when the situation calls for it. Hovershoes are basically hoverboards that have been cut in half, resulting in a pair of motorized skates. A video at the Berkeley shows how they work, and it’s pretty neat. 

Hybrid Robotics Lab


California science news roundup

Gov. Jerry Brown is leaving his (very short) retirement to become the director of a new climate change institute at the University of California at Berkeley. The new organization will help California and China collaborate on technology and research in the battle against global warming.

There are some lovely shots from California in this National Geographic’s 2019 Travel Photo Contest. We especially like the slackliners at Yosemite. This is the best 5 minutes you will spend today. 

Speaking of photos, there is a wonderful shot going around of a breaching California humpback whale behind a boat that is worth checking out. It was taken by photographer Douglas Croft near a fishing boat in Monterey, California. 

The New York Times got an exclusive interview with Glenn Kile, a former equipment operator who owns a ranch in NoCal and started California’s worst fire…by accident.

China may hold the best hand when it comes to rare earth elements, the raw ingredients used to produce high-tech products such as smartphones, wind turbines, electric vehicles and fighter jets. But don’t count out California. It turns out that the only rare earth elements mine in the United States is in Mountain Pass, California, and it could be our best hope for mining these critical elements here at home. 

Let’s get back to hamburgers. Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, and, oh, hold the meat, too. Over 100 Burger Kings in the Bay Area are now offering the Impossible Whopper, a burger made from plants by California-based Impossible Foods

If you and/or your kids have never spent time over at California-based Rion Nakaya’s The Kid Should See this video aggregation site, you should bookmark it. There’s some fabulously educational videos here; a fine alternative to most YouTube stuff.

Part of a major trend in fighting drought, desalination is expensive and polluting. Turns out the largest desalination plant in North America sits near the Pacific Ocean in San Diego. Yale360 discusses the need for desalination in our dry future, and the difficulties and drawbacks of building enough of them.

A new book called Ocean Outbreak by Cornell ecologist Drew Harvell looks at deadly ocean viruses and the environmental havoc they cause. Part of the book looks at starfish wasting disease, which has dramatically affected California coastal ecosystems. 

That’s it! Have a great week, and please send your friends an invitation to sign up for the California Science Weekly newsletter. 

Design by Luis Ramirez

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