KQED Science News KQED Science explores science and environment news, trends and events from the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond with its award-winning, multimedia reporting on television, radio and the Web.
KQED Science Audio Podcast

KQED Science News

From KQED

KQED Science explores science and environment news, trends and events from the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond with its award-winning, multimedia reporting on television, radio and the Web.More from KQED Science News »

Most Recent Episodes

Wildfires Reignite Old Trauma for Survivors of Last October's Devastation

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 had scorched 141,825 acres by this morning, and killed six 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. "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." When the body later perceives that same threat through the same senses – 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. 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. Under Samoan leadership, for example, she learned that people preferred to work in community and family groups, not individually, as is common in Western counseling. 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." Danielle Bryant's Toyota Corolla that was destroyed on Oct. 8, 2017. Courtesy of Danielle Bryant. 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 Disaster Distress Helpline 1(800)985-5990 Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative Free therapy sessions to fire survivors California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists fire survivors' page My Sonoma Strong, a self-help service Editor's Note: Marisol Medina-Cadena contributed to this report.

Wildfires Reignite Old Trauma for Survivors of Last October's Devastation

Smoke-Chasers Help Predict Wildfire Behavior

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. 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.

The Great Era of California Dam Building May Be Over. Here's What's Next

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 Clutch Plague, 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," provding "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." 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. 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.

The Great Era of California Dam Building May Be Over. Here's What's Next

'Controlled Burns' Can Help Solve California's Fire Problem — So Why Aren't There More of Them?

With climate change, wildfires threaten disaster and chaos in more California communities, more often. But experts say it's possible to avoid catastrophic harm to human and forest health by setting planned burns before human error, lightning or arson choose when fires start. "Putting prescribed fire back out on the landscape at a pace and scale to get real work done and to actually make a difference is a high priority," says Cal Fire chief Ken Pimlott. "It really is, and it's going to take a lot of effort." 'Unprecedented Catastrophe' In a February report, the watchdog Little Hoover Commission concluded that the way California landowners have collectively managed forests is an "unprecedented catastrophe." In May, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order to improve forest management, and with it, a dramatic change. Now Pimlott says that Cal Fire intends to triple the amount of prescribed fire on lands the state controls. "We can prevent these large catastrophic fires or at least reduce the intensity when fires do occur," he says. "So a little bit of smoke now and a little bit of inconvenience now is well worth offsetting these large damaging fires." That's a small step toward addressing a major deficit. According to the commission's report, an area the size of Maryland — including state, private and federal land — needs maintenance or planned fire to become healthier. 'We can prevent these large catastrophic fires or at least reduce the intensity...'Ken Pimlott, CalFire Chief One day of prescribed burning in the Tahoe National Forest offers a glimpse of the difficulties in completing these projects. Easier Said Than Done U.S. Forest Service wildland firefighters hacked a line into the earth, around a patch of land on the Yuba River District near Pendola, overlooking Bullard's Bar for one day of work. A "hot shot" crew and crew members from two engine companies gathered for the day's work. In May, U.S. Forest Service crews set a 23-acre prescribed burn in the Yuba River District for the Tahoe National Forest. (Jennifer Hinckley) "This day started a few years back," Jennifer Hinckley laughs dryly. Hinckley is a fire and fuels specialist for the Tahoe National Forest. And she does a lot of paperwork: before the first torch even can drip fire on the ground, federal law requires extensive environmental review. Even with approval, federal wildland managers waited months for the right weather and environmental conditions here. Hinckley says those criteria range from wind speed and temperature, to how much water is in the soil. It was a very wet spring; on-and-off rains created several months of delay here. Thick vegetation in the understory is a limiting factor, too. Hinckley says her crews often need to chop and flatten vegetation to make safe conditions for burning. Even when all of the stars align, Hinckley says she might not have warm bodies for the job. That happened last fall, when fires up and down the state kept fire crews hamstrung. "I didn't have crews to perform prescribed burns," she says, "because the wildfires take priority." Even when the permit is done and the weather is right and crews are available, the air might already be too polluted to add more smoke to the mix. Air regulators grant permission for burn days, and it's hard to get: regional atmospheric conditions mean that smoke from Sierra Nevada forests funnels toward the central valley, where air pollution is consistently bad. Balancing Forest and Human Health Whether from wildfire or planned burn, smoke feels like pollution to vulnerable lungs. "The consequences are the same in terms of patient response," says Fresno-based asthma and allergy specialist Praveen Budigga. "I mean, patients are going to have the same effects of the fire." State and regional air boards say they're working to balance forest and human health. "We have to protect public health; that's our mandate," says Dar Mims, a meteorologist with the California Air Resources Board. "But we also recognize that we need burning in the forest, and a lot of those trade-offs have to happen in real time because the decisions have to be made — do we want to potentially impact the air basin, or do we want to burn." 'We have to protect public health. That's our mandate.'Dar Mims, CARB Air regulators and fire officials say that to promote prescribed burns will require better public education about their relative hazards. Last year, a groundbreaking study concluded that wildfire smoke contains three times as much pollution as smoke from prescribed fires. CalFire's Ken Pimlott says that's reason to push for more burn days. "We want the ability to have some more flexibility to be able to burn on days [when] maybe it's not quite as close to an air quality attainment day as one would like but it's a perfect prescription window," he says. "Say we have the resources available and the temperatures and humidities and wind — all of those, vegetation, are all in alignment to make a perfect burn and so we want the ability have a little flexibility." A flame-scarred tree trunk at Bouverie Preserve. A prescribed burn might have kept fire from burning hot and high, destroying buildings, and damaging trees. (Molly Peterson) Bringing Fire to a Healthier Landscape Evidence of the ecological benefits of fire are visible at the Bouverie Preserve, a wildland area in Sonoma County. Beginning in spring, a living carpet of purple lupine, white popcornflower, yellow fiddleneck unrolled across the preserve's fields and canyons. "It's lush and green with wildflowers. It's pretty beautiful," says fire ecologist Sasha Berleman. To her, this off-the-charts growth signals a healthy landscape, where wildflowers followed the fire in short order. But look closer at the trees, she says, pointing out how the heat of the Nuns fire blackened the ground and charred the oaks, their trunks scarred with flames up to six feet high. Berleman wonders whether the fire needed to be that severe. "With that wind event that we had, it's not that this fire is completely preventable but we could have probably had an impact on the behavior of the fire within the area that burned," she reflects. To see how, she points across the path, to a 17.5-acre plot where she lit a prescribed fire last May. Those trees remained green. Flames were only inches high. These lands will recover faster. "They might have not burned so hot or so extreme in the oak woodlands if we had been managing them on a regular basis," Berleman says. Fire ecologist Sasha Berleman set a prescribed burn at the Bouverie Preserve last spring. She says it prepared the land for the October fires that tore across Sonoma County. (Molly Peterson) She also thinks more planned burns could have saved Bouverie's buildings. That hot and extreme fire torched all but one of them. Berleman went back to the preserve as the fire raged. She and two men were able to save that last building, David Bouverie's own, using a bucket, a shovel and a chain. "So now that building has a special place in my heart," she laughs. "We spent a good 24 hours together." Berleman now works as a consultant, promoting the use of ecologically applied fire for private clients and the East Bay Regional Park District, among others. Paradoxically this summer, she's deploying her "hot shot" training as a wildland firefighter, where the job is to stamp fires out. "I felt like we're sometimes putting out fires that were doing good work. Just because that's what the machine does," Berleman says. "That's what we do, put out fires." Her hope is to reconcile the conflicting aims of these jobs, and the relationship between fire and California's landscape, to get scientists and wildland managers heading in the same direction. In Harm's Way Craig Thomas, conservation director for the Sierra Forest Legacy, says in the last 25 years, that's become easier to do. But during those years, Thomas points out a different challenge has been growing: more people have moved into wildlands from cities. "There is a, you know, thinking that a landscape is like a photograph," he says ruefully. "You know, when you have these big beautiful trees and we want to freeze-frame them." Thomas argues that's a bad idea. Fire is a natural disturbance, he says, "a process that is every bit as much of the picture of where you land as the trees are." For him, the forests are a movie, not a picture. Trees have a starring role, but so does fire. And it doesn't have to be the bad guy in a summer blockbuster.

'Controlled Burns' Can Help Solve California's Fire Problem — So Why Aren't There More of Them?

Something Else Adding Fuel to California's Fire Season: Warmer Nights

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.

Something Else Adding Fuel to California's Fire Season: Warmer Nights

Oakland Zoo Makes Room for Big Predators. But Is it Enough?

On a sunny, crisp day in April, LeRoy Little Bear and a dozen other tribal members from the Blackfeet Nation sang and danced a traditional rite to honor fourteen American bison they brought from Montana to the Oakland Zoo. "Today is a very historic day because we've brought down buffalo that were almost extinct," announced Little Bear from an overlook above the grazing herd. These bison are rare, he said, because they haven't been bred with cattle, unlike most bison seen today. "You're getting full-blood buffalo from the way they used to be," Little Bear proclaimed with visible pride. Tribal members from the Blackfeet Nation sing together to honor and welcome fourteen bison they brought from Montana to their new home at Oakland Zoo. (Sarah Craig) The bison are one of eight species at California Trail, the Zoo's new exhibit hosting animals native — or once native to California. It's scheduled to open to the public in July 12. Amy Gotliffe, the zoo's conservation director, says the exhibit is a way to, "show people from the Bay Area what beautiful biodiverse wildlife we live with now, lived with before and could live with again." The bison, she says, are an example of how the zoo is trying to support animals in the wild. They will breed the bison and send the offspring back to the tribe to repopulate the wild herd. The zoo is also supporting a range of conservation efforts for each of their new animals, which include mountain lions, wolves, jaguars, California condors, bald eagles, black bears — even the long-extirpated grizzly bear. For example, the four black bears at the zoo — a mother and her three cubs — were rescued from Pine Mountain Club in Kern County. "There was a possibility of them all being put down because they were considered a nuisance," said Gotliffe. The zoo is partnering with the Bear League in Tahoe that helps to deter black bears from wandering into human areas. Jaklyn Mistaken Chief, 12, and Dallis Mistaken Chief, 9, from the Blood Tribe, offer the "Fancy Shawl" dance during a ceremony to welcome fourteen bison brought from the Blackfeet Nation in Montana. (Sarah Craig) The zoo also rescued four grizzly cubs from Alaska, and three mountain lion cubs, one from El Dorado County and two from Orange County. (The original California Grizzly is considered extinct, hunted out nearly a century ago.) "The mountain lions are another story," said Gotliffe, "They were all found abandoned [as cubs] on the side of the road." The zoo is working with the Mountain Lion Foundation and the Bay Area Puma Project and has created a task force called the Bay Area Cougar Action Team. There's also a plan to help California condors and bald eagles recover from lead bullet poisoning and then release them back into the wild. In order to support all these partnerships, the zoo contributes 50 cents of its admission price ($22 for adults) as well as a portion of future Zoo membership fees, to conservation funds. Managers expect to raise at least a quarter of a million dollars this fiscal year for conservation. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or AZA, recommends that zoos under its accreditation — like the Oakland Zoo — spend at least three percent of their revenue for conservation. Gotliffe says they aren't there yet, but they "have that goal in mind." She says with the opening of California Trail, which cost $80 million dollars and more than doubled the size of the zoo, they "will definitely be there." Fourteen bison graze on native grasslands in their new exhibit at Oakland Zoo, in what was once part of Knowland Park. (Sarah Craig) Ironically, to achieve these conservation goals, the zoo expanded into 57 acres of Knowland Park, cutting into habitat for the threatened Alameda striped racer — also known as the Alameda whipsnake — and the California red-legged frog. This angered park advocates who formed an organization called Friends of Knowland Park. In 2011, they waged a losing legal battle against the zoo and the City of Oakland, arguing that the city didn't fully mitigate for impacts to the Alameda striped racer, native grasslands and sensitive plant species, like the Oakland star tulip and bristly leptosiphon. Under the existing requirements, the zoo must set aside 13 acres for native grasslands and 53 acres for the striped racer. "We don't know if the snake is going to go into an animal enclosure and I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing," said Shawn Smallwood, an independent biologist from UC Davis hired by Friends of Knowland Park to review the zoo's plan. But, he added, when you are dealing with an endangered species you must err on the side of caution. "It's just been so political," says Karen Swain, the biologist hired by the zoo to monitor the frog and the snake during construction. She's tasked with making sure construction workers don't harm the snake. "I've had to walk this honest line for what the biology is." In a way, the zoo is walking its own line: even making adequate space for its own animals remains controversial. Heather Paddock and her fellow zookeeper rake old hay away from the feeding areas for the zoo's fourteen American bison. (Sarah Craig/KQED) "We are trying to provide these guys with as varied of an environment as possible, to help them not be sitting around all day bored," says Heather Paddock, one of the zookeepers in charge of the black bears. The bears have more than an acre, dotted with dens, oak trees — even a swimming pool. The zoo says the bears exhibit, as well as all of their new exhibits, exceed the industry's best standards. But Mark Bekoff, an Emeritus Professor of Ecology who studies animal behavior at the University of Colorado, says zoos shouldn't keep large predators because of their need to roam vast distances and hunt prey. One of the black bear cubs wanders over to the glass of his enclosure, which is over an acre and features three dens, oak trees and a swimming pool. (Sarah Craig/KQED) "Wide-ranging carnivores are among the animals who suffer the most when they are put into a cage," he said, referencing a 2014 study published in Nature. While Bekoff agrees that zoos should take in animals who have nowhere else to go, like these bears, he wants them to have more choice and control over their lives. Zookeeper Paddock said she is trying to compensate for this with training and enrichment activities. "We are providing them enrichment every single day, whether that's a new food item or a new device, a toy, a new scent," she said as she fed the black bears a mixture of bird seed, mealworms, romaine lettuce and oranges. But Bekoff maintains that animals need privacy, too. "Because let's face it," he says, "zoos bring animals in as money makers and so many animals in zoos suffer from boredom or stress from being unable to get out of the public's eye." Heather Paddock, a zookeeper for the Oakland Zoo's new exhibit, prepares a food enrichment activity for the zoo's four black bears. She pours bird seed and mealworms into large round containers and tapes off the holes to make it harder for the bears to get the food. (Sarah Craig) But Paddock says the public needs to connect with these animals so they care about saving them in the wild. "You know the wild isn't butterflies and rainbows for a lot of these animals," she says. "They're getting pushed further and further to the fringe of wild spaces." Ultimately, that fringe habitat could be the last refuge — for both snakes and bears — because there just isn't enough wild space left. A major new expansion doubling the size of the Oakland Zoo, called California Trails, opens July 12, and features eight species native or once native to California, a gondola and hilltop restaurant. Source: The Oakland Zoo

Let's Talk Thor's Hammer and Wakanda ... Sciencewise

The season of summer blockbusters is in full swing. From the rollicking space adventure of "Solo," to the universe-spanning "Avengers: Infinity War," characters are dodging blasters, collecting stones of power, and falling in love as their world hangs in peril. 'We're not trying to be the accuracy police. For us, it's a lot more about inspiration.'Rick Loverd, Science & Entertainment Exchange It's a lot of popcorn, and whole lot of fun. It's also a chance to lose yourself in new imaginary worlds. Sometimes what you see on screen can become inspiration for real life. "The number of present-day scientists who might point to a character like Spock as a point of inspiration that got them interested in science is many," says Rick Loverd, program director of the Science & Entertainment Exchange, a project of the National Academy of Sciences. "It's our job here at the Exchange to try to facilitate as many of those moments as possible for the next generation of kids." The service is free and works best, Loverd says, when a researcher connects with a storyteller early on, while the project is still being envisioned. "While we're happy to help at anytime," Loverd says, "we're most excited by those projects where a screenwriter calls us up and says, 'Hey, I just had an idea. It involves time travel and I'd love to talk to a scientist.'" Loverd helped "Black Panther" movie makers conceive the city of Wakanda, for example, finding architects, city planners and anthropologists to contribute to a document the crew used as a reference for the history, culture and layout of Wakanda. Lovered recently spoke with KQED Science editor Danielle Venton about what science can offer to Hollywood. Black Panther toys are displayed to attendees at the Hasbro showroom during the annual New York Toy Fair, on February 20, 2018, in New York. (EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images) DANIELLE VENTON: I wanted to know, is this really about getting the science right? RICK LOVERD: For us, we're not trying to be the accuracy police and the least interesting consults for us, though we're happy to do them, are the ones where we're just fact checking. For us it's a lot more about inspiration and about giving storytellers ideas. DV: What's an example or two of a Hollywood movie that really got the science right? RL: I'd like to say that it's not always important to get the science right. You know, especially in the narrative summer popcorn movie. Some of the more exciting science moments for me have come in Marvel films, not necessarily because they have deadly accuracy in them, but because they're seen by so many people. And a character like Shuri from "Black Panther," has an opportunity to inspire a lot of kids into science and engineering. Also another example that I like is "Interstellar." Because the visualization of the black hole actually was based on a Nobel Laureate's work. We hear about black holes our whole lives and we kind of have this image of the absence of light. But when you see it in "Interstellar," it's actually quite vibrant and bright. I think that moment of wonder when you see the unexpected and then you later find out that there's some truth to it, those are really the moments that the Science & Entertainment Exchange tries to facilitate. DV: I gotta say though as someone who has a science degree, when I'm watching a movie and there is something just obviously inaccurate it completely pulls me out of the story. I might be a curmudgeon but I can't suspend my belief if I'm like, 'Oh, that definitely couldn't happen.' RL: I can tell you that that is something that no filmmaker wants. But I don't think that these mistakes usually are intentionally done, and when they are intentionally done I actually have no problem with the idea of a storyteller knowing what the facts are, and then saying, 'You know what? It's going to serve my story better to not be completely accurate in this situation.' DV: Some of my colleagues who are extreme movie fans had a couple of extra questions for you, if you're game. RL: Okay, alright. DV: Alright, if you had unlimited resources, which company would you hire to build a real Iron Man suit? RL: There are places like the Media lab at MIT where there's just such a trove of brilliant minds that I would definitely feel comfortable that they'd be able to make something pretty spectacular, given unlimited resources. DV: To the best of your knowledge what is Thor's hammer composed of? RL: Well it was forged in a dying star, so it's gotta be made of some exotic materials that are super dense. Actually, there are materials that exist, I understand, in dying stars in our universe that are extraordinarily dense that could be targets for something like Thor's hammer. I don't know exactly, other than the magic of the character and the mystique of Thor, why one person would be able to lift it and another person would not, though. DV: That's a mystery that will have to stand.

Proposition 68: Money for Parks, Beaches and Water Projects

Proposition 68 is a $4.1 billion bond measure that will clean up dilapidated parks, improve water projects, upgrade flood protection and protect scenic open spaces. What You Need to Know About Proposition 68 About two-thirds of the money would be dedicated to parks and wildlife, and one-third would be allocated to water and flood control projects. Payments on the bond will cost taxpayers about $200 million annually over 40 years. The Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) estimates the infrastructure investments will likely save communities tens of millions of dollars annually. Here's how the allocations break down: Parks and Recreation: $1.283 billion for neighborhood parks in low-income communities, plus city and county park facilities Natural Resources: $1.547 billion for conservation projects and climate change preparedness Water: $1.27 billion for drinking water treatment, groundwater clean-up and flood protection How did Proposition 68 Get on the Ballot? Proposition 68 was written by state Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, and was placed on the ballot by a two-thirds vote of state lawmakers last year. "I grew up in a neighborhood in San Diego that was all asphalt, that was concrete and cement," de León says. "No green parks. No open space. No trees for shade. This is an intentional way of democratizing our benefits so that every child regardless of their zip code has access to Mother Nature." Why Do People Support It? Prop. 68 provides funding for disaster prevention, clean drinking water and safe parks for children and future generations. Fellow "fairy lanterns" bloom at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. This year they are especially abundant following the recent wildfire. (Danielle Venton/KQED) Voters have not approved a statewide ballot measure to fund parks, beaches, wildlife and forests in 12 years. Environmentalists say the measure is necessary to protect the state from droughts, floods, sea level rise and wildfires that are likely to increase in intensity under climate change. "It's never a mistake to invest in people and nature," said Louis Blumberg, of The Nature Conservancy. "We look back and we always say we are glad we did." Other proponents include the American Lung Association in California, California Chamber of Commerce and The Nature Conservancy. Why Do People Oppose It? There is no organized campaign against the measure. But some critics do not support more state debt. "We can't borrow more," said Sen. John Moorlach, R-Orange County. "We should pay as we go. We actually have extra money because the state has a budget surplus." The state's budget surplus is $9 billion, but Governor Jerry Brown argues that money should remain in a rainy day fund. Moorlach disagrees because a bond like Proposition 68 will end up costing a lot more than it's initial price. "When you borrow money you have to pay double for the infrastructure because of the interest costs," said Moorlach. The interest on Prop. 68 will cost about 200 million dollars annually for 40 years. According to the Legislative Analyst's Office that's about about one-fifth of one percent of the state's current General Fund budget.

Proposition 72: Rainwater Capture Tax Break Passes Handily

UPDATE: Voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 72 by a roughly 83-17 margin, in a move to promote water conservation in the state. What You Need to Know About Proposition 72 • Exempts rainwater catchment systems from property tax assessments • Applies to systems constructed on or after Jan. 1, 2019 • The rainwater system is included in the value of the home when it is sold. How did It Get on the Ballot? State lawmakers put Proposition 72 on the ballot with a unanimous vote in both houses. Why Do People Support It? Rainwater systems catch rain from the roof of a home and siphon it to a large barrel, or even larger cistern, for outdoor use. Prop 72 aims to encourage rainwater catchment by ensuring that homeowners who install a system won't have to pay property tax on the increased value of the home. Using rainwater for landscaping will preserve drinking water, lower utility bills and retain more water in streams and rivers, thereby aiding fish and wildlife. Prominent state newspapers have endorsed it. So have environmental groups like Save the Bay and Trout Unlimited. Why Do People Oppose It? Actually, there's no organized opposition to Proposition 72, and no opposition statement listed in the California Secretary of State voter guide. Who Gains — Who Loses? Homeowners gain an incentive to install rainwater catchment systems, because they won't have to pay property tax on the home improvement. The savings for homeowners can be varied. An inexpensive system might mean only a few dollars saved in property taxes. But there are also bigger, more expensive systems that can cost thousands to install and would otherwise raise property taxes a noticeable amount. The value of the catchment system would be included in the value of the home when it is sold. Local governments may bring in slightly lower property tax revenues.

Climate Scientist Won't Back Down Despite Threats, Harassment

Michael Mann, creator of 'hockey stick' curve for greenhouse gases, says we now have to double sea rise projections. Sees California as 'shining beacon' for how to take action Despite harassment, says 'You don't back off from a worthy battle when the stakes are important.' Even as negotiators wind up another round of climate talks in Germany this week, there is little evidence that leaders are reining in global greenhouse gas emissions enough to avoid warming Earth by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) — that's the threshold at which scientists say we can avoid the worst impacts of climate change. In fact, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere averaged more than 410 parts per million in April, for the first time since scientists have been tracking it. 'You don't back off from a worthy battle when the stakes are important.'Michael Mann, Penn State KQED Science Editor Craig Miller sat down recently with Michael Mann, who directs the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, to assess where things stand. Mann's major claim to fame is the hockey stick. Not the Wayne Gretzky kind, but the data plot that came to be known as the "hockey stick curve." Al Gore used it in his "Inconvenient Truth" documentary to show the sharp upward trend in temperatures since the start of the industrial age. The "hockey stick:" temperatures in blue represent the "shaft," steeply rising red part of the curve is the "blade." (Michael Mann) Four years ago, Mann wrote a piece for Scientific American warning that crossing 405 parts per million would be leaping over the "danger threshold." The following is an edited transcript. Miller: Given what we know now that maybe we didn't know or weren't as certain of even five years ago, are you more concerned or less concerned than you were then? Mann: I'm more concerned. Over the last several years, we've learned that there are processes that are now playing out that we didn't have in our models in our early projections that are causing the ice sheets to lose ice faster than we expected, earlier than we expected, that's leading to more sea level rise than we expected. 'It's like a minefield that we're walking out onto, and the farther we walk out onto that minefield, the more of those mines we're going to set off.'Michael Mann, Penn State Just within the last year, even since the last report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we've now learned that the west Antarctic ice sheet may lose twice as much ice by the end of this century as we thought previously. We now have to double the sea level rise projections. Previously, the upper end of the range that you typically heard — by the end of the century maybe three feet of sea level rise — we now think we could see more than six feet of sea level rise. And far more than that, if we don't act, ultimately, if we lose the west Antarctic ice sheet and the Greenland ice sheet, which we'll do if we burn all of the available fossil fuels. Then we're talking 80, 100 feet of sea level rise. We're not quite in "Waterworld" but headed in that direction. CM: What happens in the polar regions doesn't stay in the polar regions. MM: Absolutely. We didn't understand, five years ago, that the melting of the Arctic sea ice and the change in the pattern of warming in the poles that that causes might change the jet stream in the way that it appears to be doing. For California, it's a disastrous impact because it's causing the jet stream to sort of veer north and deny California of all of that rainfall and snowfall that it depends on for water supply in the water. Hotter summers, more evaporation. High-altitude winds known as the jet stream have taken a wavy path, diverting winter storms up and around California. (NASA) The jet stream is steering north of California, denying the state the precipitation that it needs, and then that same jet stream comes crashing down in the east, giving us very unusual, if brief, episodes of cold. We're just starting to understand the subtle physics of why it is that climate change may be causing the jet stream to behave in this wacky way, and it's not a good surprise. It's a bad surprise. CM: And the president's response to that is, "Hey, it's really cold here. We could use a little bit of global warming." How much do you think this current administration has set back the cause of awareness of climate science? MM: It's really unprecedented. What's most worrying to me isn't what Donald Trump tweets about climate change, but what his administration is doing to set back our efforts. It's dismantling protections — the Clean Power Plan that the Obama administration put in place, that helps us achieve the sorts of reductions in carbon emissions that we have committed to in the Paris agreement — backing out of the Paris agreement, and taking away incentives for renewable energy. I mean pretty much doing everything that polluting interests want him to do to ensure that we double down in fossil fuels rather than join the rest of the world, and move on toward the great revolution, the economic revolution of the next century: renewable energy. CM: At this point there is so much warming in the pipeline, so to speak, how can you be optimistic that we can make any difference with any kind of policy? MM: Well, sometimes there's a danger that when we hold a number up like 405 parts per million, or 2 degrees Celsius warming, it makes it sound like there's some cliff that we fall off and there's no going back. And the way I prefer to think of it is rather than a cliff that we go off, it's like a minefield that we're walking out onto, and the farther we walk out onto that minefield, the more of those mines we're going to set off. We don't know exactly where they are, but we know they're out there, and we know that the only safe thing is to stop marching headlong into that minefield. CM: Let me just ask you about California's efforts, bucking the trend at the federal level of doing either nothing or actually reversing progress. It's been said that California's about 1 percent of global emissions, that it can't really move the needle no matter what it does. You agree with that? MM: I don't. I do see California as a great shining beacon. It isn't just the emissions reductions that it is achieving itself. It's the message it's sending to the world, and it is the credibility that it gives policymakers when they say that this can be done. They can point to California. CM: You've paid a high personal price for all of your efforts toward communicating climate science. Can you just run down a list of some of the things that have happened to you as a result of your work? MM: I didn't realize that I would be hauled into a hostile congressional hearing, be attacked on the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, have police come to my office to investigate a white substance that I had received in the mail, dealing with death threats against me, thinly veiled threats against my family. Certainly not what you think you're signing up for when you, as I did, study science at UC Berkeley. You go into the field of science and when that science comes into conflict with certain vested interests — in this case, the science of climate change perceived by some fossil fuel interests as a threat to their bottom line — in some cases, they have decided to sort of wage this war against the science. And often it takes the form of personal attacks against the scientists themselves. CM: What made you decide not to lay low? Because that had to be a tough call. MM: It was. I think frankly, it was a matter just of personality and temperament. I wasn't a big kid when I was in elementary school but I always stood up to bullies and I always fought back, even if I was likely to get beat up, because it was the right thing to do. You don't back off from a worthy battle when the stakes are important. And in this case, what could be more important than the battle to preserve this planet for future generations?

Back To Top