Saving the California Condor // Seeding the oceans with iron // California science news roundup

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Week of July 26, 2019


Saving the California Condor

National Park Service

The birth of the 1000th chick as part of an extensive breeding and reintroduction program gives hope to many other species in peril.  

The California condor is North America’s largest flying bird. It also one of the ugliest birds in the world. Sorry, in the universe. The bird would, in fact, be right at home in the cantina on Mos Eisley.  But the bird’s ungainly size and ugliness are what make it special, special enough to save.

We live in the Anthropocene, the time of man. There are few species on the planet that have eluded our impact. The condor has fared poorly, though not as poorly as some. Just 37 years ago there were 22 California condors left. They were functionally extinct in the wild: all those remaining birds had been captured and put into an ambitious breeding program to try and revive the species.

Now, nearly four decades later, a consortium of government agencies and nonprofit groups announced a rather astonishing milestone: the birth of the 1,000th California condor chick since the rescue program began. The condor’s plight is far from over. The species remains critically endangered. They live mainly in California, Arizona, southern Utah, and Baja California, Mexico. The ultimate goal of the condor recovery program is a self-sustaining population, meaning the birds mate and multiply on their own in the wild.

“The radical reduction of the world’s biodiversity is something for which future generations will least forgive us.”E.O. Wilson

Condors have died over the years, mostly due to lead poisoning, scientists discovered. The birds are scavengers and dine on carrion, oftentimes animals that have been killed by shotguns with lead shot. That realization led to California’s ban on lead ammunition, which took effect on July 1, and mandates non-lead ammunition in the taking of any wildlife in California. Many hunters objected to the ban because non-lead ammo is more expensive, but it’s better to have less lead in the environment as a whole.

In many ways, California has taken the lead in endangered species protection. One of the most successful breeding and reintroduction programs in history is taking place right off the California coast, in the Channel Islands, where the Island Fox has made an impressive recovery due to extensive (and expensive) efforts to relocate golden eagles, which predated on foxes. That said, other species in the state, like the Delta Smelt, remain in peril.

It’s hard to place a value on saving a species like the California Condor. With a nearly 10-foot wingspan, they are clearly impressive birds. Their ugliness (although, I suppose beauty is in the eye of the beholder) is perhaps one of their most endearing qualities. It’s comforting to know that the bird will be around a lot longer (fingers crossed), rather than meet the fate of so many other avian species like the Dodo or the Passenger Pigeon that we know only as bones and feathers in a museum.

As the great Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson once put it: “The radical reduction of the world’s biodiversity is something for which future generations will least forgive us.”

California Science Weekly

Ocean Science

We may already be seeding the oceans with iron  

An interesting report came out this week from researchers at the University of South Florida, Cornell and the University of Southern California, related to the idea of iron fertilization. Much of the ocean’s biomass depends on quantities of iron to maintain life. Iron is necessary for photosynthesis in plants and is fundamental to phytoplankton growth. Phytoplankton are the quadrillions of tiny plant-like creatures in the ocean that make up the foundation of the ocean’s food chain. Also known as microalgae, they contain chlorophyll and require sunlight to live and grow. When iron is naturally present in the ocean, particularly around areas with a lot of deep-sea upwelling, which brings nutrients to the surface, we experience some of most robust ocean ecosystems on the planet. A lot of so-called bio-mass.

All that biomass is essentially made of carbon. And when the phytoplankton die or are eaten by bigger creatures like whales, shrimp, snails, and jellyfish, they become an integral part of the food chain. The carbon in the phytoplankton becomes carbon in the whale. When animals defecate or die, a lot of that carbon sinks to the bottom of the ocean and can be locked up or sequestered. That is how much of the carbon in the atmosphere ends up locked away beneath the waves, rather than heating the earth.

For long periods, there has been a balance, with enough carbon locked up that temperatures (and climate in general) remained in a kind of stasis. Of course, we’re changing things now by adding so much carbon to the atmosphere that the cycling of carbon can’t quite keep up. This is a problem.

Seeding the ocean with iron to induce phytoplankton blooms and sequester carbon has long been a controversial idea. The oceanographer John Martin gave a lecture at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1988 in which he stated, “Give me a half a tanker of iron and I will give you another ice age.”

A lot of research followed, but never truly at the scale needed to know if it would work or not. Of course, one of the reasons iron fertilization has not been tried on a massive scale is that we don’t know what the potential consequences would be. Could we trigger massive algae blooms that result in the death of wildlife in a vast swath of the ocean?

This all brings us to the new study in Nature that says human-emitted iron is accumulating in the ocean in much greater quantities than scientists previously estimated. That is, we may already be seeding the ocean through the growth of industry around the world.

If true, we may once again have to confront the law of unintended consequences, which rarely results in circumstances in our favor.

Scientific American

California science news roundup

New data shows that Thursday is the worst traffic day to drive in Los Angeles. We would have guess Friday. (LAist)

Is it safe to store nuclear waste at San Onofre? Southern California Edison will soon resume storing spent nuclear fuel at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. The move comes almost a year after a near-miss accident, when one of the canisters that contained the spent nuclear fuel nearly fell 18 feet.

A freak marine heatwave called “The Blob, combined with a strong El Niño, drastically affected the Pacific Ocean ecosystem killing thousands of animals and changing the distribution of species along the coast. Many species suffered in the warm water, but some—such as the market squid—saw their populations boom.

MBARI scientist Jim Barry, who studies deep ocean corals, has also tracked the changes in a famous tide pool near Monterey called Hewatt’s transect, which reflects the slow-moving, but powerful, changes that have been taking place in our coastal ocean due to global warming. “The future is not one of stasis and stability.”

This is truly fabulous. Google used California’s Ivanpah solar facility (see it on the way to Vegas from LA) and some 107,000 of its sun-reflecting mirrors to create a portrait of Apollo 11 pioneer Margaret Hamilton. It used moonlight as its medium. (YouTube)

Are we actually getting too little sun? A rise in Vitamin D deficiency causes scientists to wonder. (New Scientist)

Microsoft is investing $1 billion in OpenAI to create brain-like machines that might someday achieve artificial general intelligence. (Verge)

Eelgrass, a fundamental component of certain California marine ecosystems that almost completely disappeared in some places is making a comeback with help from conservationists and the local community. 

The New Yorker examines how wolf-lovers and ranchers clash in Northern California. (New Yorker)

520 small towns in the West are at massive, Paradise-California-like risk of a catastrophic wildfire says an investigation by the Arizona Republic. (AZ Republic)

California-based vaping colossus Juul hires a well-known expert on children’s nicotine addiction, upsetting some in the health industry. Mark Rubinstein is a pediatrician and scientist with the University of California­ San Francisco’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. (PS Mag)

A personal submarine spotted in Monterey Bay belongs to former child actor Taran Smith from the TV show Home Improvement. (SF Gate)

This is an astonishingly good video from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) about its new rock scaling robot LEMUR. (YouTube)

The U.S. has been pumping its groundwater stores faster than its aquifers can be naturally replenished and many many wells could run dry says a University of California–Santa Barbara study.

Private firms like SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace, along with a growing number of national space agencies, are eyeing a manned return to the moon, with an emphasis on settlement rather than exploration. (PS Magazine)

What caused the decline of Mexico’s once-lucrative Humboldt squid fishery?  Warmer ocean conditions and shifting weather patterns have caused an “oceanographic drought,” says a new StanfordEarth study. (Stanford Earth)

The New York Times does an amazing job illustrating the swarm of earthquakes that followed two big quakes in early July. (NY Times)

A gondola to the stars? LA officials are exploring the idea of constructing an aerial lift to locations in Griffith Park to alleviate traffic. Maybe not such a bad idea?

Loving a place to death. California’s Daffodil Hill closes “indefinitely” after becoming a victim to the dangers of over-tourism. (WAPO)

The California coast is currently teeming with great white sharks, particularly in the Monterey Bay. (CBS)

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory cosmochemists will analyze the Apollo 17 samples to study the geologic history of the site where the rocks were collected, a cold trap where water may have been able to freeze. This marks the first time such a sample will be studied in detail since the end of the Apollo program. (LLNL)

The University of California Berkeley has a museum dedicated to microscopes. (Golub Collection)

The LA Times gets deeper on California’s “moon trees”.

Another squid story: Climate change could negatively impact the California market squid, the most lucrative fishery along the California coast, says oceanographer Art Miller.

Feel-good story: a retired teacher found some seahorses off Long Beach. Then he built a secret world for them. (LA Times)

Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have developed printable magnetic liquid droplets that could lead to the development of 3D-printable magnetic liquid devices to make flexible electronics or artificial cells that could deliver targeted drug therapies to diseased cells. (Berkeley Lab)

Cellular service has a number of vulnerabilities that can cause it to falter during an emergency. California officials are seeking to bolster wireless infrastructure to improve wildfire response.

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

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