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 News

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.

Most Recent Episodes

California Has Farmers Growing Weeds. Why? To Capture Carbon

California's climate change efforts can be spotted all over the Bay Area in the growing number of electric cars and solar panels. But now, California is enlisting people from a more conservative part of the state — even if they don't think climate change is much of a concern. California's farmers are receiving millions of dollars to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, something the state says is crucial for meeting its ambitious climate goals. The state is paying them to grow plants, which absorb carbon and help move it into the soil where it can be stored long-term. That makes California home to some of the first official "carbon farmers" in the country. For some, like almond grower Jose Robles of Modesto, climate change was an afterthought, if that. That's something they talk about in Sacramento, he says, not where he lives and works. But in December, the ground under Robles' almond trees was a carpet of green, full of mustard plant and clover. It's not a common sight in the Central Valley. After all, most farmers hate weeds. "Everybody wants to have the orchards nice and clean," Robles says, laughing. His neighbors really don't understand it. "I've heard them say, 'We're in the business of growing almonds, not in the business of growing weeds,'" he says, laughing. Adapting to Drought Robles got the idea a few years ago, during California's severe drought, when he had to cut back on watering his trees. "We had no water," he says. "It made us look at things different." Robles knew that richer earth with more microorganisms holds moisture longer, but there wasn't a lot of organic matter in his orchard to build the soil up. Like most farmers, he sprayed herbicides to kill weeds. So he decided to grow organic matter specifically to feed his soil. He planted species that most people commonly see as weeds, but when sown on purpose, are known as a "cover crop." Once they get a few feet tall, he mows them and lets them decompose, along with some extra compost and mulch. A $21,000 grant from California helps cover his extra costs and labor. It can be tricky, because almonds are harvested from the ground after they're shaken off the trees. Having mulch or weed remnants on the ground would interfere with that, so Robles has to make sure the organic matter breaks down before harvest begins. He's already seen a difference. "The trees, they don't stress as much, because they hold the moisture a lot longer," Robles says. Absorbing Carbon Emissions Though climate change didn't really factor into Robles' decision, his grant comes from a program designed to be part of the state's climate change strategy. California's Healthy Soils initiative is now in its third year. Farms and forests could absorb as much as 20 percent of California's current level of emissions, says a state report. "I think there's great potential for agriculture to play a really important role," says Kate Scow, professor of soil microbial ecology at UC Davis, of the state's climate goals. She's standing in a large wheat field at Russell Ranch, seven miles west of the campus, where the university plants crops to study sustainable agriculture. "Soil is alive," she says. "There's farmers that know that." To show me, Scow starts enthusiastically digging in the dirt. "All right, see, we're starting to hit the mineral soil." This is where the carbon is stored. Plants soak up the carbon dioxide in the air to build their leaves and stems. Their roots pump carbon down into the earth. Then, when the plant dies, its organic matter gets broken down by microbes and fungi. That's how carbon from the air gets into the soil. "The deeper you can get it in the soil, especially below the plow layer, the more stable and secure it's going to be," she says. That's key to prevent the carbon from being released back into the air, and is how agriculture could play a part in the state's climate effort. "We have very ambitious climate goals, and without natural and working lands, California simply won't get there," says Jeanne Merrill, with the California Climate & Agriculture Network, a coalition of ag groups working on climate policy. Before leaving office, Gov. Jerry Brown set a goal for California to be carbon neutral by 2045. That will likely mean not just reducing carbon emissions from cars and buildings, but absorbing carbon already in the air. Merrill says California's farmers are already on the frontlines of facing climate impacts, like more extreme weather. "Some are willing to say that it's climate change," she says. "Others are unsure. But I think many know that things are changing and they need different tools." Farmers are interested in the climate programs, Merrill says, if only because it can help them weather extended droughts. Hundreds have signed up. But state climate officials say the Healthy Soils program needs to be five times larger. That means the state Legislature will have to boost its $15 million budget, and Gov. Gavin Newsom has requested more money for the program. (Update May 9, 2019: In the May revise of the state budget, Newsom has proposed $28 million for Healthy Soils, an increase of $10 million over his original proposal.) Merrill says that would send a signal that California's climate efforts will take the entire state, not just coastal cities. "It's bridging that coastal-Valley divide," she says. "It's saying that we need that Valley base pretty significantly."

Shasta Dam Project Sets Up Another Trump-California Showdown

Update May 14: A little more than three months after this story first appeared, the State of California and more than a half-dozen fishing and conservation groups sued to stop Westlands Water District from working to advance the Shasta Dam expansion project. Original post: The Trump administration is laying the groundwork to enlarge California's biggest reservoir, the iconic Shasta Dam, north of Redding, by raising its height. It's a saga that has dragged on for decades, along with the controversy surrounding it. But the latest chapter is likely to set the stage for another showdown between California and the Trump administration. 'We're not talking. We're explaining what we're losing. And they're not listening.'Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk Last fall, crews already had drilling rigs in place, taking core samples from the earthen banks around the 600-foot dam. That process was part of testing to see if its World War II-era foundation can support additional bulking up of the dam. Taller Dam Means a Bigger Reservoir This is what the federal Bureau of Reclamation calls "preliminary construction" work. For now, that's all they have funding for, but the Trump administration is keen to press on with a $1.3 billion project to add more than 18 feet to the top of the dam, which is already taller than the Washington Monument. That would increase the size of the reservoir, Shasta Lake, by 14 percent. "We're extremely confident that there's a lot of momentum behind this right now," says Don Bader, area manager for the reclamation bureau, which operates the dam. But that momentum is coming from Washington, not Sacramento. "The new administration came in and they're looking to add storage in California," Bader explains, "and this was the one project that was ready to go, so that's why it's got most of the attention right now." Wild & Scenic The project has also caught the attention of California officials, who say it violates the state's Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, which protects one of the three major rivers that flow into Shasta Reservoir. "The California Legislature protected the McCloud River from any construction that would expand the reservoir," says Ron Stork, of the advocacy group Friends of the River. "It's been illegal to expand this reservoir since 1989." Environmentalists say that the $1.3 billion dollars could be better spent on more creative ways to conserve water, such as recycling, stormwater capture, and storing more water in underground aquifers. But President Trump is on the record promising Central Valley farmers more water. "Any bean-counter would say this is crazy," says Stork. "But this is a political dam." The additional 630, 000 acre-feet of capacity would be like taking Hetch Hetchy Reservoir — the Sierra lake that supplies San Francisco — and dumping it into Shasta ... twice. But nature is not likely to fill that order every year. Stork says the project would likely yield only about 50,000 acre-feet of water on average, annually. That's a drop in the bucket relative to California's water budget. Sacred Grounds In December, Stork joined about 200 others at an "open house" in Redding, designed to inform stakeholders about the project. One of them was Caleen Sisk, chief of the Winnemem Wintu tribe, whose sacred grounds run along the McCloud River. She says the tribe already lost many of its sacred sites when the original reservoir was filled, back in the 1940s. The expansion would raise the lake level by about another 20 feet, pushing it farther up the McCloud River. "For us, we have to be connected to those sacred places," says Sisk. "And we've already lost 26 miles in the building of Shasta Dam — 26 miles have been given up." Sisk's people still use numerous sites along the lower river for rituals, including rites of passage for young Wintu coming of age. Sisk says nearly all of the tribe's remaining sites would be put permanently underwater with the reservoir's expansion. Reclamation says it's "talking" with the Winnemem Wintu, but Sisk has a different take. "We're not talking," she says, "we're explaining what we're losing. And they're not listening." Powerful Player Sisk was distressed to see the meeting in Redding being run by Westlands Water District, a politically powerful irrigation district based more than 300 miles away, in Fresno, which could be the chief beneficiary of any additional water from the project. It has also raised eyebrows that David Bernhardt, Trump's acting head of the Interior Department, which includes Reclamation, is a former lobbyist for Westlands. Westlands was hosting the Redding meeting because it's preparing an environmental impact report for the project. Reclamation needs an investment "partner" to close the deal, and though there's been no formal announcement, many assume that Westlands will put up hundreds of millions of dollars toward the project, in exchange for rights to the water it yields. "That they would have the sheer boldness to do an EIR for an illegal project is still — it's stunning to me," says Stork. State officials have reacted with similar dismay. This month, the state's Water Resources Control Board sent Westlands a letter confirming that what they're proposing is illegal under state law, and that as a state agency, Westlands "participation is prohibited." A consulting firm conducted the meeting on Westlands' behalf, and while there was one Westlands official in attendance, consultants said he was "not authorized to talk to the media." Several subsequent calls and emails to Westlands for this story went unanswered. Still, the Bureau of Reclamation has made it clear that it intends to press on. "We're proceeding along the federal route here," says Bader. "If California does not participate in this process, we'll move along forward by getting the federal approval." Some might interpret that as saying they're going through with this regardless of what California thinks. "That's one way to say it," says Bader. From Bader's standpoint, there's a lot at stake. Shasta's the keystone in the giant Central Valley Project, which sends water to farms and cities in 29 California counties. But dams have consequences. Insult to Injury "Every time you put up a dam on the Sacramento River, it's going to be bad for wildlife." John McManus heads the Golden Gate Salmon Association, an advocate for protecting the threatened fish ... and the industries they support. "And right now," he says, "what they're talking about is adding more insult to injury by raising that dam, impounding more water behind it, and further impairing salmon runs downstream." Reclamation says a deeper water pool behind the dam will allow them to put more cold water downstream to support the fish. In its project description, the bureau claims it will: "...improve water supply reliability for agricultural, municipal and industrial, and environmental uses; reduce flood damage; and improve water temperatures and water quality in the Sacramento River below the dam for anadromous fish survival." But in 2014, the federal government's own Fish & Wildlife Service recommended against the project, concluding that it would fail to protect endangered salmon in the Sacramento River and its tributaries. That report was later "rescinded" for further review, and has not resurfaced officially. Reclamation officials hope to award a construction contract by the end of next year, and complete the project by 2024. McManus thinks the courts will ultimately rule against the project — if it gets that far. With Democrats now in control of the House, congressional funding to elevate Shasta Dam might be another stream that gets cut off. "My view is they will ultimately be stopped," offers McManus, "but I could be wrong. It wouldn't be the first time."

So, It's New Year's Eve ... Can You Prevent That Hangover?

Adam Rogers is a deputy editor for Wired magazine and the author of "Proof: The Science of Booze." He recently sat down with KQED's Danielle Venton to talk about the science of hangovers. And yes, they were at a bar. These questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity. Let's get right to it: Can you take anything before you drink to prevent a hangover? There's nothing anyone has discovered that you can eat before you go out that you can drink as much as you want and not get a hangover. There's one molecule derived from a plant called Hovenia, the oriental raisin, that seems to actually work in people to lessen the effects of alcohol and to lessen the effects of a hangover. Nobody's really done the kind of tests in people to figure out how best to administer it and how it works. There have been other compounds that have shown smaller effects; prickly pear is one. But still, if you have enough alcohol, you're getting a hangover no matter what. Yeah, that's a true thing. Can you prevent a hangover by drinking one type of alcohol over another? Mostly it does not matter what you drink, because it really seems to be a matter of quantity. There is some research that says some alcohols like brown liquors will give you a worse hangover or at least a hangover of a different character than a clear alcohol like gin, or especially vodka, will. Pure vodka is only ethanol and water, with none of the moleclues called congeners that give different liquors various colors, smells and tastes. Some research has shown congeners can make a hangover worse, but nobody knows which congeners or what the mechanism is. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKwNHpPSzP0 But wait. What is a hangover, anyway? Do we know what alcohol does to the body to make you feel like you have the flu? The flu's the right parallel to draw, because the best science that's there now — and there's not that much of it — says that a hangover is an inflammatory response. Why it does that, nobody is sure. One of the things people are reasonably sure of is that you start to show signs of a hangover when your blood alcohol level goes back down to zero. It is true that the kind of damage that alcohol inflicts on the liver if you drink a lot over time is inflammatory damage — when you're on the way to cirrhosis. There's a hypothesis, though it's not well worked out, that a hangover is related to the toxicity of methanol. The alcohol we drink is ethanol, but in some alcoholic drinks there's still a tiny bit of methanol. Methanol messes up the body's ability to metabolize oxygen; when they talk about cheap alcohol making you go blind, they're talking about methanol. But it's a real bummer that there's actually very little scientists understand confidently about what causes hangovers. Of all the psychoactive chemicals that people consume recreationally, alcohol is one of the least understood. People understand marijuana way better than they understand booze. The effects of alcoholism are terrible on society. And it is no fun to have a hangover, but being out with friends, drinking — we have whiskey in front of us right now — it's really fun. Why are humans so drawn to alcohol? There aren't a lot of ways that people have to chemically modulate their own feelings. When we find one, we tend to glom onto it. People have been consuming alcohol for at least 10,000 years. It might be the reason we started farming, is to have grains so we can make beer as well as bread. So we're talking about the founding of civilization. We are talking about the founding of civilization. There's a Faulkner quote, "Civilization is distillation." And I think he meant it as a metaphor, but I actually like it as more literal-minded. Once you learn how to distill, that's one of the first examples of scientists having a real impact on the universe around us, literally how we feel and how we see things. Any last advice for drinkers on New Year's Eve? To the extent that I would give advice, here it is: Try to remember to drink a glass of water or seltzer in between each drink. You're going to drink, okay, but you want that experience to slow down, because alcohol will screw with your sense of time. Also, the reason you're out having those drinks is for the theater of it, to experience the feelings that the alcohol gives you, and to meet with your friends. You don't want to rush that.

Spring Forward, Fall Back, or Neither: Why Changing Our Clocks Might Fade Into History

On November 6, Californians will weigh in on whether they want to continue changing their clocks twice a year. Proposition 7 on the statewide ballot would lay the groundwork for year-round Daylight Saving Time in the state. Lots of people hate switching between Standard and Daylight time, especially in March when we "spring forward" and lose an hour of sleep. Studies show this chronological hiccup is linked to increased rates of heart attacks, strokes and traffic accidents. This is due to the disruption in our daily biological cycles, known as circadian rhythms. Read the KQED Voters Guide on Proposition 7 And in case you're wondering, the clock switch no longer means significant energy savings and has no real benefit for farmers. Yet the measure does have its detractors. Some state politicians and editorial writers point to the last time the U.S. had year-round DST: in 1974 during the OPEC oil embargo – and people hated it. "Public opinion polls showed that everybody liked Daylight Saving Time from March to October," notes David Prerau, author of "Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time, "but nobody liked it in the middle of winter." President Nixon had ordered the measure for two years. But it meant the winter mornings were dark and cold – especially in the northern latitudes. There were some reports of increased accidents in the morning, as kids traveled to school in the dark. Getting on the Ballot Pedestrian safety is always a high concern, says Assemblyman Kansen Chu, but Prop 7 is a totally separate issue. Chu is a Democrat representing the South and East Bay and sponsor of the measure. Chu became interested in the issue after his dentist showed him medical studies linking a lost hour of sleep in the spring, to increased heart attacks, stroke and traffic accidents. A study from the University of Colorado at Boulder found a 17 percent increase in traffic accidents on the Monday following the springtime switch. To find out why this might be, I visited the Kriegsfeld Lab at UC Berkeley, where scientists study circadian rhythms. Post-doctoral researcher Benjamin Smarr tells me that every part of our body runs on a daily cycle. "Pretty much anything you can name," he says. "So because we have circadian clocks in every cell in our body, every organ in our body is made up of cells trying to keep time." When we throw our timing out of whack, from missing sleep, doing shift work or being jet lagged, it misaligns systems like our attention and perception, digestion, emotions, blood pressure and more. "One thing falling apart looks scary," notes Smarr, "when you realize that all these other things around it have also fallen apart and that they're also sort of fighting with each other for saying, 'It's time to sleep,' 'No, it's time to digest,' 'No, it's time to be active'. It makes sense that jet lag feels bad, makes us [feel] sick." The practice of switching back and forth between Standard and Daylight Time has been under fire for a while, each spring the internet bubbles over with segments and articles such as: – Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Daylight Saving Time – How Is This Still A Thing? – Bustle.com: 7 Legitimately Scary Facts About Daylight Saving Time, Which Just So Happens To Fall On Halloween This Year – The Boston Globe: Proof Daylight Saving Time Is Dumb, Dangerous, and Costly How did we get here in the first place? The History of Daylight Saving Time, Abridged The idea dates back centuries, at least to 1784 when Benjamin Franklin was the American ambassador to France. He was in the habit of staying up late to write by candlelight and then sleeping until noon. In a satirical essay written for the "Journal de Paris" he describes waking one morning, due to a loud noise, at 6 a.m. and being shocked to see the sun was already up. Your readers, who with me have never seen any sign of sunshine before noon, [...], will be as much astonished as I was, when they hear of his rising so early; and especially when I assure them, that he gives light as soon as he rises. [...] This event has given rise in my mind to several serious and important reflections. I considered that, if I had not been awakened so early in the morning, I should have slept six hours longer by the light of the sun, and in exchange have lived six hours the following night by candle-light; and, the latter being a much more expensive light than the former, my love of economy induced me to muster up what little arithmetic I was master of, and to make some calculations. Franklin even estimated Parisians could save 64 million pounds of candle wax a year by getting up with the sun. This is the essence of Daylight Saving Time in a nutshell: making the best use of the hours of sunlight. The idea was kicked around again in the late 19th century, notably by a New Zealand entomologist who wanted more daylight in the evening for bug collecting, and British businessmen and politicians. But the first country to do anything about it was Germany during World War I, to save energy for the war effort. By shifting the clocks so that sunlight lasted later into the evening, people did not need to use electric lights as much. Most countries involved in the war then followed suit. The U.S. adopted it in 1918. After the war it was repealed and local areas could decide for themselves whether to keep it. Then came World War II. "Within a month of Pearl Harbor, we put in Daylight Saving Time again," says Prerau. "And when WWII ended it became voluntary and several parts of the country had it and several parts didn't. Unwinding History California voters chose, by Proposition, to enact Daylight Saving Time in 1949 — that's why it has to go before voters again if the current system is going to change. It wouldn't change automatically, however. Proposition 7 would just be the first of a three-step process. If it passes, the state legislature and Congress also would need to give the OK. One reason this time-switching scheme is falling out of favor: the energy savings are not what they used to be. Most recent studies show the effects of DST offer a one-half to 1.5 percent saving, or sometimes a loss. "To my eye these are basically a wash," says Dan Kammen, who runs an energy lab at UC Berkeley. "They're not an argument for or against Daylight Savings Time." (And for the astute reader, yes it is "saving," not "savings time.")

Spring Forward, Fall Back, or Neither: Why Changing Our Clocks Might Fade Into History

Investigation Finds Home Can Be the Most Dangerous Place in a Heat Wave

Floyd Ware has survived a widow-maker heart attack, layoffs in the tech industry and living a few doors down from the Grateful Dead. But now he worries that heat—in San Francisco, of all places—is going to kill him. "I don't want to exaggerate, but at times it seems all-encompassing, you can't get away from it," he says. 'I really do think that government potentially has a role in making sure buildings are safe. We make sure they're not too cold. We ought to make sure they're not too hot, too.'Cyndy Comerford, City of San Jose Ware, 67, is a wiry man and, for the record, he doesn't exaggerate. Even during a foggy August, his room at Bayanihan House, south of Market Street, is consistently hotter than outside. When it was 63 degrees at San Francisco's weather station, it was 81 degrees in his spotless, small space. Last Labor Day, San Francisco's record-high temperatures drove him and other residents out onto the street and into the basement of Ware's single room occupancy building, where large fans blow hot air around rather than cool it. Only leaving his room prevents him from falling seriously ill, he says. This summer, we put small heat sensors in 31 homes in four counties: Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The homes had no air conditioning, and the sensors took temperature readings for three weeks in July, August, or September. In every home, heat was stubborn. It stuck around even as the sun dropped. And at night, when people's bodies need to be able to cool off, all the homes we measured let go of heat slowly, staying hotter inside than it was outside – as much as 15 or 20 degrees hotter. Heat is one of the top public health threats from climate change, according to the state of California. The illnesses and deaths that result from it are preventable. But where people spend the majority of their time, at home, no right to cooling is guaranteed. Public officials around the Bay Area are still figuring out how to warn people and how to respond to heat—both as an extreme event, and as an emerging health threat. Until they do, a divide is deepening between the cool haves and the hot have-nots. It's About Where You Live Housing is a huge expense that influences people's health. In a heat wave, the most dangerous places can be inside of homes and apartments. In San Francisco, health officials have concluded that heat builds up significantly in some glassy high-rises and many older residential hotels. Our sensor measurements found that the single room occupancy buildings that once served gold prospectors and seamen stood out as consistently hotter than the weather outside. Inside these buildings, climate-driven heat already threatens the health and finances of people most vulnerable to it: people like Floyd Ware. After three years in his one-room rental, Ware says his health has gotten worse. He keeps a plastic tub full of medications for his chronic lung disease on a shelf. "The thing with emphysema is, you can't get the air out. If you can't get the air all the way out, you can't get the air in," Ware says. "And the problem with the heat is, it restricts the lungs. So it has an appreciable effect." Ware's doctors advised him not to wait when a sudden emphysema attack comes. Three times in two years, he's placed an emergency call for an ambulance to Zuckerberg San Francisco General hospital. Medicare pays most of it, but each time, Ware owes out-of-pocket costs. His social security income pays for his stay in the residential hotel; what's left over pays for his food and medicine. As a result, Ware says, he has racked up $2,000 in debt. "I don't know how I'm going to pay 'em," he says. There Is No Legal Right to Cooling In-home cooling can reduce the risk of heat illness, according to Linda Rudolph, an expert on health and climate change with the Oakland-based Public Health Institute (PHI). But just one out of every ten Bay Area homes has central air conditioning. Tenants we talked to said they either couldn't afford to buy a portable AC or couldn't afford to turn it on. "Poor people are less likely to have air conditioning," Rudolph says. "Or they may not have the money to get their air conditioner fixed, or they may live in a rental apartment where the landlord doesn't want to get it fixed." Or it may be that window units only do so much. At 5:30 p.m. one August evening, it's still over 90 degrees in Mario Rodriguez's San Jose apartment—the first floor of a complex with few trees and a scrabbly lawn, along busy North Main street. Rodriguez has low blood pressure and is on constant oxygen, for lung trouble. "When it gets hot I get kind of dizzy," he says. "I get tired and I have to sit down for a few minutes. Or I start sweating and then I start fainting out." Rodriguez bought a window air conditioner from a friend for $75, even though he knew it would raise his electric bill. The unit cost him an additional $75 when his rental manager required him to install it with plexiglass around it, rather than plywood. He added the air conditioner during the period when we were measuring heat in his apartment. But even on days when he ran the it, indoor temperatures peaked at 10 degrees hotter than outdoors. Habitability, under federal and California law, requires only that water run freely, and that heating be available. New York and some Canadian cities have considered making in-home cooling a right. But in Sacramento, the idea of a tenant's right to cooling has died a quick death. Cyndy Comerford used to work for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, where she analyzed housing and heat. Now, she directs climate programs for the city of San Jose. "I really do think that government potentially has a role in making sure buildings are safe," Comerford says. "We do that structurally. We make sure they're not too cold. We ought to make sure they're not too hot, too." And keeping buildings cool isn't only about air conditioning, as researchers and urban designers have concluded. How To Cool an Old Building Well-designed neighborhoods once took the landscape into account, says Stephanie Pincetl, a sustainability researcher at UCLA. They had less concrete, and were cooled by breezes and natural shade, including from trees. California has amnesia about how to combat heat in cities, Pincetl says, having forgotten resilient city design when development boomed and ushered in cheap housing. "Older buildings are less well insulated," she says. "Really, what we need to do is have much better buildings." Pincetl argues the state could adopt building codes that promote passive cooling, and provide incentives for owners to harden buildings against heat. Landlords could improve insulation, add vegetation, and plant climbing vines to cool off old apartments. [ad fullwidth]Public health officials, epidemiologists and researchers like PHI's Rudolph argue that health systems and environmental conditions are connected. They say California should plan not just for acute heat disaster, but for lasting change. That means planting trees, promoting cool rooftops, and even investing in street surfaces that reflect heat away from the ground, Rudolph says, in order to reduce the maximum temperatures in neighborhoods. "Because otherwise," she says, "we essentially won't be able to respond and adapt adequately." Any of those ideas demand coordination among multiple county and local departments. Few laws require this work, and little funding supports it. "These climate-related health problems—really no one else is going to pay attention to them," says Rudolph. "But the local health departments frankly need help." 'A Double Whammy' Rose Basulto lives on a treeless street, a block from state Route 4. Almost every day during three weeks when we measured the temperature in her home, it was hotter inside than out. In her living room, the temperature peaked over 100 degrees, eight times in three weeks. For the 37-year old Basulto, heat made it hard to think – and move. At night, when it could be almost 80 degrees inside, she found it nearly impossible to sleep. "If it's like that again, I don't think I can make it through another summer." Heat made her asthma worse. It exacerbates cardiovascular, respiratory and renal conditions, and places stress on people with diabetes and obesity. "When the nighttime temperatures don't go down, which is what's increasingly happening with climate change," says Rudolph, "it's harder for them to get that kind of physiological rest period." Basulto and other renters we talked with around the Bay Area say they've found few simple solutions to living in warm homes—other than to leave them. At least half a dozen people who described housing conditions they linked to health problems decided not to allow us to document heat in their homes, even anonymously, for fear of angering a landlord, or destabilizing a precarious housing situation. Arizona heat scientist David Hondula has noticed the same thing in his research. "There's this undercurrent of a sense of being stuck with the conditions the way they are," he says. In a couple of years, PG&E will implement "time-of-use" pricing, charging for electricity based on when demand peaks—which is late afternoon, as people return home from work and school. And according to our measurements inside homes, it's exactly when indoor heat rises, soaring past outdoor temperatures. Time-of-use pricing will make cooling older homes cost more for people who already can't afford it, according to Pincetl. "And so they're going to get the double whammy," she says. Warning People Is the First Step Across the Bay Area, and across the state, the time and manner in which counties choose to warn people and respond to heat varies. Contra Costa County is working on an emergency response plan for heat. In 2015, its public health department concluded that excessive heat means temperatures above 85 degrees along the western bay side of the county, and above 96 on the east side. Last Labor Day, when heat killed 14 people around the bay, San Francisco declared a heat emergency; San Mateo County did not. San Francisco has studied its risk from warmer temperatures, and adopted an aggressive policy to send warning notices at 85 degrees. And the city is going even further, with hyperlocal training to help neighborhoods be ready for natural disasters. In a heat wave, the Neighborhood Empowerment Network would connect residents to each other, to prevent bad health outcomes. The network's director, Daniel Homsey, drives among the nook and cranny communities on the south and east side of the city, parking us in Dolores Heights, a patch on the eastern slope of Twin Peaks that gets plenty of sunshine. San Francisco waives permit and street closure fees for 280 block parties, called Neighborfests, each year. Every Neighborfest spread, just like every city block of a city, has its own personality: in Dolores Heights, Beyonce and Madonna blare from speakers at one end of a block. At the other, kids play cornhole. On tables next to several grills, an array of salads – Greek, quinoa, green, and fruit – stands sentinel alongside burgers and hot dogs. Homsey points out a barbecue buffet isn't too different from how a neighborhood might set up a feeding station in a disaster. The city's secret mission with Neighborfest, isn't just to get neighbors to swap salads; it's to get people used to coming out of their homes to help each other. Neighborfest volunteers lead conversations that establish communal inventories—who's got a cool basement or air conditioning, propane tanks or water supplies. And neighbors themselves are building phone trees as a means to look out for each other, says Maria José González-Salido, a Dolores Heights block captain. "Like, I know they have children, I know someone else has an elderly person, they know I have my mom," she says, nodding at different homes. "It's a good community thing to have these parties and get to know everybody, right?" Making his way to another Neighborfest, Homsey pulls over to poke around a garage sale; he's always on the lookout for disaster supplies, like coolers and chili pots, to donate to communities. "I'm a hoarder in recovery," he says, half-laughing, "and I'm using disaster preparedness to focus my investments better." In the 19th century, the nickname for this hilly patch of land on the southeastern side of San Francisco was Little Switzerland: it was a vacation spot, with plenty of cows, and little fog. 'It's about building on the traditional ethos of being a good neighbor, and caring for those around you.'Daniel Homsey, City of San Francisco Now it's Glen Park, and its homeowners, including Fran Link, suffered last year for days in a row from heat. "We're not used to that," she says. Homsey asks Link if her home gets hot. Yes, Link answers; the turreted house faces south, and west, with big bay windows and no air conditioning. Homsey tells her his aunt didn't have AC, either. She lived nearby, and died in her home twenty years ago, during a heat event. Homsey's father found his sister, several days later, on her bed. "Rather than make a decision that was rational, which is, 'It's really hot at my house, I'm going to downstairs where it's cooler,'" Homsey says, "she's like, 'I'm really tired, I'm going to go lie in my bedroom.' She lay down and she never got up." Homsey often thinks of his aunt as he does this work. He says San Francisco's program is helping strangers become neighbors. After Link talks to him at her garage sale, she heads over to the block party to hear a live band; later in the month, she goes to a neighborhood training about how to respond in a bleeding emergency. Meanwhile, Homsey is spreading the gospel of grilling and readiness by working with Santa Rosa and Oakland. They want Neighborfests too. That's resilience, he says. "It's about building on the traditional ethos of being a good neighbor, and caring for those around you, even if you don't have an immediate relationship with them." Every heat death is preventable; it's a core belief for Homsey and for public health experts. But right now, few systems, laws, or policies require centralized preparedness against heat. Illness related to extreme high temperatures is poorly tracked and underreported. Cooling hot homes, and hot neighborhoods, isn't easy. And little public funding helps pay for responding to climate-related health issues. As the danger of heat grows, Californians are still pretty much on their own. Editor's Note: Amel Ahmed contributed to this story. Miguel Hernandez and Osvaldo Pedroza dropped off and picked up sensors for houses in southern California, and provided language translation in the field. This reporting is supported by a grant from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism Impact Fund.

Investigation Finds Home Can Be the Most Dangerous Place in a Heat Wave

Climate Change Dishes Out Dangerous Heat, Even in the Bay Area

Last year, as a Labor Day heat wave descended, Claudia Hernandez was trying to pry open the windows of a house in San Francisco, from 400 miles away. That weekend, San Francisco hit 106 degrees, an all-time record. After two straight days topping 100, Hernandez, who lives in Orange County, pleaded with her godmother, Colleen Loughman, to open her windows and let a breeze through. 'What we were seeing is really a huge health emergency.'Naveena Bobba, San Francisco Health Department Like most in the city, Loughman's home lacked air conditioning. "A fan, an old school fan, that's all she had," Hernandez said. "And her windows were like maybe one-eighth open." Talking with her 82-year-old godmother, Hernandez felt something was off. "You could hear that she was, I don't know, like, drained," she says. Colleen Loughman died the next day, in the house her parents had built. She was at risk because her aging body couldn't acclimatize to intense, fast-arriving heat. She was vulnerable in her home, without a way to cool down. And though she was loved, she was isolated. In June and September of 2017, two heat waves killed at least 14 people in the Bay Area, and sent hundreds more to the hospital. San Francisco was caught off guard, says the city's deputy director of public health, Naveena Bobba. "What we were seeing is really a huge health emergency," she says. The past five summers have been California's hottest on record. Even in cool, coastal parts of the state, heat, a sneaky and growing threat, is now one of the state's top climate-related public health risks. Why Older People Are At Risk Last September, Loughman wanted her windows closed because she had been having lung trouble, and she feared smog and smoke would make it hard to breathe. She had heard air quality alerts on the news, issued by regional regulators. Spiking heat worsens asthma and lung conditions and raises risks for older people in particular. Older people have to work harder to stay cool, says Dr. David Eisenman, who directs the Center for Public Health and Disasters at UCLA. "When your body normally gets hot, it cools down by transferring heat inside its core out to the skin." Heat affects everyone differently. The National Weather Service offers this seven-day forecast to help you assess your risk. For most people, sweat cools the body well, but not for older ones. "They have a less effective ability to sweat," he says. Older bodies hold less water than younger ones, putting older people more at risk in a heat wave. And older people are less sensitive to becoming hot and thirsty. Over several hot days, all of that means physiological heat can build up without relief. And Colleen Loughman wasn't prepared for that in her foggy Parkside neighborhood. Isolated in Her Own Neighborhood St. Cecilia Church planted a Catholic community a century ago in a neighborhood set among sand dunes and eucalyptus trees: Parkside. Loughman grew up on 14th Avenue, and in Catholic schools: elementary at St. Cecilia's, high school at St. Rose Academy, a masters degree in music at Holy Names University, across the bay. But she never roamed too far from Parkside, where people were close knit, says her lifelong neighbor, Bob Schumann. "I used to go to the house for birthday parties, and they were always playing the piano or something like that," he says. Her parents died; then a few years ago, her sister. Some of the old guard moved out, replaced by young, new transplants. Parkside was changing. Hernandez noticed, and wondered whether her godmother needed more care and companionship. But a strong-willed Loughman wanted to stay put. "I'm okay," Hernandez says her godmother told her, "I'm okay by myself." [ad fullwidth] Heat Builds Up Daily calls kept close a relationship that began 30 years ago between Loughman and Hernandez, as an accident of fate. At the time, Hernandez was just 3 years old, arriving at a new foster home, belonging to Barbara McGovern in San Diego. Visiting McGovern was a longtime friend and former piano teacher of McGovern's, Loughman. "Colleen was so thrilled just to be around that child," McGovern remembers. "She stayed for about two weeks." Loughman remained a San Franciscan, born and bred; Hernandez grew up, got married, had kids and settled in Orange County. She and her kids Ezekiel, now 15, and Natalie, 12, visited San Francisco every summer. The daily call was usually newsy, an hour-long update: how's your day going, how's work, Ezekiel's baseball, Natalie's softball. But when they quarreled about open windows that Saturday, heat soured the conversation. Don't call me, Loughman said. I don't want to talk. Loughman was stubborn, and Hernandez got the point: "She didn't want to talk." But she called back the next day, Sunday afternoon, all the same. No answer. By 7:30, Hernandez was calling every 15 minutes. Then every 10 minutes. She finally reached a woman who ran Loughman's errands. Please go over there, she said. Around the same time, Hernandez asked her husband, Jose. to call the San Francisco Police Department. Jose told the dispatcher Loughman had not picked up her phone. "All right," Police Dispatcher 236 told him, promising a welfare check. "We'll get an officer out there as soon as possible." Last Sept. 3, Hernandez listened over the phone in agony as Loughman's helper found her. She was unconscious. The helper tried to rouse Loughman: Colleen, Colleen. That's when paramedics arrived to help. In a recorded emergency call, responders say that someone on scene is trying resuscitation. But Loughman was pronounced dead on scene, at 9:34 p.m. 'Actually, Everybody Is At Risk.' Dangerous overheating isn't something that happens only to elderly people. In the temperate Bay Area, heat is a surprise we don't quickly adjust to. "It takes almost two weeks for your body to acclimate to the heat," says SFDPH's Bobba. "And given that heat kind of comes really quickly and leaves fairly quickly in San Francisco, our bodies don't acclimate. People in the Bay Area are particularly vulnerable to heat illness even at lower temperatures, according to Rupa Basu, chief of the air and climate epidemiology section at the state's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. She points out that when heat spikes in the bay, the health effects are similar to what happens in hotter cities with hotter heat waves. San Francisco's 2017 Labor Day heat wave made headlines for two consecutive 100-degree daytime records. It was also warm at night – over 80 degrees near midnight both Friday and Saturday. During hours people would normally recover from daytime heat, it was hotter than days often are. Scientists say overnight heat doesn't only happen during spiking temperatures; a changing climate is pushing up nighttime temperatures overall. That sneaky kind of a heat wave is becoming more common in California, observes UCLA climatologist Daniel Swain. "The magnitude and frequency of heat waves that we're observing today would have been vanishingly unlikely in a climate without human influence," he says. Preventable Deaths As climate changes heat risk, public health officials say warning systems are changing too. But Bay Area conditions are complex: Counties here can experience wildly varying weather conditions at the same time; all decide slightly differently when to issue heat alerts. Santa Clara County, which recorded five heat-related deaths last year, explicitly relies on the weather service in its heat emergency planning. So does San Francisco. After last Labor Day, the city has become more aggressive, according to SFDPH's Bobba, initiating warnings when forecasts indicate daytime temperatures of 85 degrees or above. Other counties are developing emergency response plans for heat. Contra Costa considers 96 degrees to be an extremely hot day in the eastern part of the county. Excessive heat kills more Americans than any other disaster. But even in changing climate, heat-related deaths are preventable. Around the bay, public health officials and doctors, counties, cities and neighborhood groups are allied in rethinking how to find, warn and check on vulnerable people. Colleen Loughman's goddaughter is still haunted by her last words. "She just said, 'This heat is killing me. I can't talk right now. I don't want to talk.'" And that was it. Last fall, after the heat broke, Claudia Hernandez learned she was pregnant. Her new daughter's middle name is Coco, her nickname for Colleen. And she lets her own air conditioning bills get higher: Hernandez says she's now determined not to let anyone she loves suffer in heat again. Editor's Note: Amel Ahmed was a contributing reporter on this story. This reporting is supported by a grant from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism Impact Fund.

Should Californians Be Rebuilding Homes in a Fire Zone?

A year ago, on a warm, windy night, Paul Lowenthal got the call; he was needed at work. The Tubbs Fire, on its way to becoming the most destructive blaze in California history, was spreading into Santa Rosa, and Lowenthal, the city's assistant fire marshal, needed to get people out. "It was exploding at a rate that I would have never imagined," he says. "I left in my work truck and uniform and thought: worst case scenario, I'll be back tomorrow morning." 'In a disaster, there's such a strong emotional pull to get what you lost back.' Julie Combs, Santa Rosa City Council Later that night, he drove past his own neighborhood. "You couldn't actually make out individual homes in here," he says. "It just looked like an entire wall of fire. And then realized right away my house is gone." He worked the next five days on just a few hours of sleep, until finally, he stopped to take stock. "And then realized I have nothing," he says. "Literally had nothing." Picking Up the Pieces Fueled by extreme winds, Sonoma County's Tubbs fire killed 22 people and destroyed more than 5,000 homes and buildings. Since then, the community has banded together to pick up the pieces. But it's also been grappling with a tough question — one that faces fire-ravaged communities around the state. Wildfire is a normal part of the California landscape. So, how — and where — should residents rebuild to protect themselves? Hundreds of Sonoma residents have opted to stay put, both financially and emotionally tied to their land. Lowenthal is one of them. "Do I think those areas will burn again?" he says. "Absolutely. It's done it before." It happened 54 years ago, when the Hanly Fire burned almost exactly same area. But since then, Santa Rosa's population has grown by nearly six times, and Lowenthal was keenly aware of this latest fire's effect on an already-tight housing market. "I made a decision that it made more sense to rebuild here," he says. His daughter was also a big part of that decision. "Could I have convinced her that we could live in a really cool place somewhere else?" he says. "Maybe. But this was our home." In the hills above Santa Rosa, wooden frames of houses are rising among the blackened trees. Many of the rebuilt homes will include new fire-resistant building materials, something few had when the fire swept through. Still, because of California's decade-old zoning rules, almost 2,000 of the destroyed structures will not be required to meet building standards for wildfire-prone areas. Some homeowners are taking it on themselves to meet them anyway, dipping into their insurance payouts to cover the cost. Others are not. At the same time, given the region's severe housing shortage even before last year's firestorm, city and county governments are under pressure to build new housing in areas at risk for wildfire. As people are trying to heal and recover, local leaders have been faced with balancing those delicate issues. With climate change making California's fires more extreme, their decisions will affect lives for decades to come. Wildland Building Codes A year after the fires, Lowenthal's Larkfield home is finally taking shape, still a few weeks away from final inspection. This time, he says it will be better prepared to withstand fire, built with cement-fiber siding and other fire-resistant materials. "Between the roof, the siding, things of that nature, it was definitely a step that I wanted to take," he says. But Lowenthal isn't legally obligated to do any of that, as his home was outside the area subject to California's "Wildland-Urban Interface Codes." They include a broad range of standards for siding, roofs, decks, and windows, as well as requirements for gutters and attic vents that are meant to prevent embers blown ahead of a wildfire from igniting a home. The zones are established by a set of 2008 Cal Fire maps that outline wildfire risk by considering vegetation, fire history and slope. Sonoma County's zones are based exactly on those maps, while the city of Santa Rosa had extended the stricter requirements somewhat beyond what was on the state maps. Almost 2,000 buildings destroyed in the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County weren't mapped in those zones and won't be required to use fire-resistant materials. "We don't have an extra set of rules or requirements that we put on people to rebuild," says David Guhin, Santa Rosa's director of planning and economic development. Guhin says Santa Rosa would be on shaky legal ground if it imposed new wildfire building codes on structures that weren't required to meet them when they were destroyed. But since most of the homes were built decades ago, before most modern building codes, he says even the basic code upgrades they'll undergo will help. "The housing stock that's going in is much more resilient than the previous house stock," he says. Still, many believe Cal Fire's maps are outdated, since they don't reflect the extreme nature of today's fires. The maps assumed fairly benign weather conditions, just 12 mph for "mid-flame" wind speed, the height that affects fire behavior. During the Tubbs Fire, gusts hit almost 80 mph. Cal Fire is in the process of updating the fire hazard maps using more realistic data, including localized information and historic fire conditions. A draft of the maps is expected sometime next year. The new maps could put many homes into a fire hazard zone that aren't in one today. But several North Bay officials say the community can't wait for that to be sorted out. "I take solace in that the existing code is significantly better than what was there before," Tennis Wick, who heads Sonoma County's Permit and Resource Management Department. "I'm not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This community needs to rebuild." Wick says many homeowners are choosing fire-resistant materials anyway, such as cement-laden siding and metal roofs. Giving Home Owners Choices Some fire victims have opted to pull up stakes after living through the fire's emotional trauma or due to steep rebuilding costs. In the hilly Fountaingrove neighborhood of Santa Rosa, for-sale signs sprout from empty lots among the construction sites. Other homeowners are tied to their property, either restricted by insurance policies that prescribe where they can rebuild, or simply priced out of other Bay Area homes. And that concerns Santa Rosa City Council member Julie Combs. "I know I've heard stories about flooding along the Mississippi and thought, 'Why did they keep rebuilding there?'" notes Combs. "I'm all for having property owners have choice," she adds. "And right now, we aren't really giving them a choice to not build on the land they're tied to in a high-fire-hazard area." Combs says she's interested in programs like those that already exist for flooded homes, where governments or neighbors can buy out inundated properties so they won't be re-developed. She's not confident that today's wildfire building codes are enough to protect people. The codes are meant to reduce risk, but don't eliminate it. Within the Tubbs fire footprint in Santa Rosa, 22 homes were built with the most recent wildfire codes before the fire. Twenty-one of them burned anyway. "That doesn't strike me as particularly good odds," says Combs. Struggle Over New Housing Homeowners considering not rebuilding face another hurdle: there are few other places to go. In Santa Rosa, the Tubbs fire obliterated five percent of the city's housing stock, exacerbating an already brutal housing market. Before the fire, the city estimated it needed 5,000 more housing units. The fire added 3,000 more to that number. "We need to walk and chew gum at the same time," Guhin says. "We're going to rebuild our community as fast and quickly and as efficiently as we possibly can, but we also have to build new homes as fast as we can." Santa Rosa is pushing for more "in-fill development," putting housing downtown and closer to public transit. "We made that a priority this year," he says. "We put a number of polices in place such as expedited permit processing, reducing the impact fees substantially for housing in the downtown core." But there has long been pressure to build in the surrounding hills, where the wildfire risk is highest. "Development of single-family homes on the outskirts of town will happen on its own," Guhin says. "There is a market for that." In February, the Santa Rosa City Council faced down that question. San Francisco-based City Ventures asked for a zoning change to allow its Round Barn Village project to go forward. The 237-unit townhome development is proposed for a hillside that burned in the Tubbs fire. City Ventures made the case that the homes would be built using wildfire standards and would provide much needed affordable housing. "We absolutely need the housing," said council member John Sawyer at the meeting. "And lots of mistakes were made in the past with saying no." But doubts hounded at least one council member. "We are setting a precedent to build more new housing in a fire hazard area when we vote today," warned Combs at the meeting. "I just think we need to not put more sleeping people in a fire hazard area." The rezoning passed 6-1. "I was really sorry to be a lone vote," says Combs. "It becomes very difficult to explain why we would approve that and not approve more. And I have real concerns that more is coming. We don't need sprawl. We need to be building up." Sonoma County is also facing pressure to build. "I met with a resort that burned twice, once in the Hanley fire and a second time in the Tubbs," Wick says. "New people came to see me about building a third one. And I told them I just could not support the project. There's an enormous pressure on us to be approving resorts in remote areas." In communities still in shock from the fires, these fraught decisions won't come easily. "I think that in a disaster, there's such a strong emotional pull to get what you lost back," says Combs. "I think that's a powerful pull."

Outlook Grim But Not Hopeless as Climate Summit Convenes in San Francisco

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. "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.

Outlook Grim But Not Hopeless as Climate Summit Convenes in San Francisco

A Glimpse Into the Future of Northern California Plant Life

Imagine what a Northern California garden might look like 100 years from now as temperatures keep rising. Where lush grasses, riotously bright California poppies and quaking aspens once stood, picture — what? Cracked earth, tumbleweeds, cactus and giant cockroaches, maybe? A group of artists and scientists at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) have a different vision for the California landscape of the future, and they're starting to prepare for it now. Part science experiment and part art installation, "Future Garden for the Central Coast of California" aims to discover which plants are most likely to survive escalating temperatures and can help regenerate the regional ecosystem as climates shift. The three eco-domes at the UCSC Arboretum that are the main focus of the 'Future Garden' project. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED) There are 16 different species of plants in each of the three restored, 1970s-era geodesic domes at the UCSC Arboretum and Botanic Garden. The plan is to accelerate the process of climate change inside the domes to find out which species are more resilient over time. The process is going to take a while; the recently-installed project is expected to last 50 to 75 years. "We're assisting the migration of species through time," says Santa Cruz-based environmental artist Newton Harrison, who co-created the project with his late wife Helen Mayer Harrison and other science and art partners at UCSC. The world-renowned artists, who in 2016 became the subject of a beautifully-illustrated tome published by Random House, and whose archives are housed at Stanford University, have been making environmental artworks on a global scale since 1969. The Harrisons' work mostly takes the form of installations, writings and large-format wall maps. And it has brought them both fame and notoriety over the years. Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison. A collage composed of two different photos taken in the early 1990s. Helen would have been about 64 and Newton about 59 at the time these photos were taken. (Photo: Peggy Jarrell Kaplan Courtesy of The Harrison Studio) One the one hand, they inspired a branch of the Dutch government to change its approach to urban planning as a result of their Green Heart of Holland project; on the other, they caused political uproar in England during an exhibition at London's Hayward Gallery involving the electrocution of catfish. (The controversy was later transformed into a chamber opera.) You can read and listen to a KQED profile of the Harrisons and their epic career here. The inspiration for this latest project at the UCSC Arboretum came more than two years ago, when the Harrisons happened to stroll past the three, then-decrepit domes and saw an opportunity to renovate and convert them into testing grounds for local plants facing the effects of climate change. "Nature is pretty opportunistic," Harrison says. "And artists are pretty opportunistic, too." "Two of the domes had been completely shut off and empty and one of them was being used for a crafting group," says Martin Quigley, executive director of the UCSC Arboretum and the Harrisons' main collaborator on the project. "All of them were in very bad repair. So this has revitalized the whole area." There's new fabric on the domes, and a fresh, stable framework, plus new landscaping all around the area. UCSC Arboretum executive director Martin Quigley. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED) Each Future Garden dome houses an assortment of 16 native plants, chosen chiefly for their likely resilience in the face of sudden, drastic temperature and water fluctuations. Species on display include yarrow, fescue and coyote mint. Some of the plants are edible. Some have medicinal properties. Many have also been a staple of Native American life in the region for thousands of years. After a year of establishing the plants, the project team members plan to start playing with the conditions inside each dome. One dome will experience heat spikes in summer months and less than normal rain during the winter, similar to a continental desert. One dome will mimic coastal temperate conditions in the Pacific northwest, with ambient temperatures and summer rainfall. The third dome will experience both heat and water spikes amid warmer than average temperatures, mimicking subtropical conditions. Outside the domes, the same species have been planted in small walled gardens around each dome to provide a set of control experiments. Inside one of the eco-domes. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED) "Climate change isn't about a slow steady temperature increase," says Quigley. "It's about spikes and randomness that increase. And because these domes are smallish, it's very easy to manipulate that in a strong way." Future Garden is part of a larger, ongoing investigation by the Harrisons into the survival of species in the face of climate change, entitled The Force Majeure. The Harrisons co-opted the legal term "force majeure" for this body of work, which means a huge power that cannot be controlled, not unlike the fast-encroaching water levels and rising temperatures we're experiencing on the planet today. Artist Newton Harrison today. The artist's wife and long-term creative partner Helen Mayer Harrison recently passed away. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED) Another Force Majeure project, at the University of California Berkeley's Sagehen Creek Field Station in the Eastern Sierra Nevada, is already starting to see results. For the four-year-old installation, artists collaborated with field station scientists to physically move groups of plant species to different altitude levels. The aim is to help seedlings — such as wild rose and red fir — become resilient to the warming effects of climate change. "We found something rather astonishing, after drought and all the other problems it could possibly have," says Harrison. "Of the 21 species we installed, about six — or 25 percent — live at all levels. That's success." A 'Future Garden' eco-dome. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED) Although he has reason to be mildly optimistic, Harrison continues to worry about what our hot, dry future might look like. And though it's a controversial idea, he believes finding a way to help a few, hardy species learn to become more adaptable to rising temperatures is ultimately more likely to succeed than trying to save many already-endangered species from dying out. "An awful lot of the experimentation that receives grants aims to save the most endangered species, which if the temperature gets hot enough, are not inherently savable," Harrison says. "We take exactly the opposite position. We look for the most resilient species."

Breathing Fire: California's Central Valley Bears the Brunt of Harmful Wildfire Smoke

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." 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.

Breathing Fire: California's Central Valley Bears the Brunt of Harmful Wildfire Smoke

Back To Top