Breathing toxic smog in the world’s most polluted places is like smoking 50 cigarettes a day!

 

The New York Times  reveals that 20 million residents in New Delhi, India are wading through the worst smog the city has seen in 17 years.  Air quality reports indicate that the levels of the most dangerous pollutant, PM 2.5,  have skyrocketed to 70 times what the World Health Organization considers safe (12 to 16 times the limit that India’s own government considers safe). Experts say that the damage from exposure to PM 2.5 is the equivalent of smoking 50 cigarettes a day.  The Indian Medical Association has declared a state of medical emergency, urging residents to remain indoors. But in a city where most do not have the luxury of taking time off of work, people have no choice but to risk exposure to the pollutants.

Some in the Gurgaon area near Delhi. By Saurabh Kumar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Smog in the Gurgaon area near Delhi. By Saurabh Kumar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 wikicommons

According to Epa.gov, PM 2.5 are fine, inhalable particles whose diameters are 2.5 micrometers and smaller. When inhaled, tiny particulates can become lodged in breathing passageways, triggering asthma and other cardio-pulmonary illnesses. A recent article published by the Lancet‘s Commission on Public Health indicates that pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and death in the world today— responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths in 2015. These rates particularly affect low-income and middle-income countries where 92-percent of pollution-related deaths occur.  In 2015, an estimated 2.5 million Indian people died from exposure to air pollutants. With the annual increase in levels of air pollution, that number is only expected to rise.

History of Smog

The word smog is derived from a combination of smoke and fog (Smoke +Fog= SMOG — genius! )

During the Industrial Revolution, large cities like London provided the setting for the technological, cultural, and economic changes illustrative of the time.  In the early industrial age, British production depended almost entirely on a single fuel source: coal. Coal was used to warm homes, power steam engines, and turn the wheels of industry.  Though unregulated coal burning obscured the skies in industrial cities, it took over two centuries for Europeans to recognize the health hazards related to its atmospheric pollution. During the Great Smog of 1952, coal pollution blanketed the city of London, England in a veil of darkness that forced the closure of city streets, railways, and airports. In the span of one week, more than 4,000 people died from respiratory illnesses and policymakers were forced to act. In the weeks to follow, an estimated total of 12,000 people were victims of the polluted air.

Where does India’s pollution come from?

The Indian government faults emissions from vehicles, factories, power plants, and construction as the main contributors to this winter’s horrible smog. Since last year’s record-breaking smog, New Delhi residents have called for increased regulation and policies that would help regulate emissions, but progress has been slow. At the 2015 Paris agreement to address climate change, India promised to curb emissions by moving away from fossil fuels.  However, they face a great challenge as 30-percent of the population still does not have access to what is now considered a basic need: electricity. While the demand for inexpensive power begins to rise, areas within South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa— two regions of the globe with the least access to electricity— have become targets for renewable growth. But with renewable energy costs nowhere near as affordable as fossil fuel energy, one wonders how these lower-income areas will be able to move towards development.

Sulfer dioxide emissions. By Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17778985

Sulfer dioxide emissions. By Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17778985

Let’s get one thing straight: air pollution is not isolated to India— it is happening worldwide.  China, the US, and India are the top three emitters of greenhouse gases, and while China takes the lead— if you examine the per capita (per person) pollution rate— the US more than doubles China’s emissions rate. Climate experts say there is no room for emissions in developing countries to reach the high levels that have been typical of wealthier countries. Fossil fuel generated electricity— the largest single source of greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide— would only intensify current levels of pollution. One potential solution for this growing concern came from the 2015 Paris agreement which responds to the threat of global climate change with the goal of lowering global temperature to  pre-industrial levels. The agreement recognized that the poorest countries cannot afford to invest in renewable energy on their own and has promised extensive financial and technical help to them.  As the US pulls its support from the climate agreement, it remains to be seen how much help will be given to the developing countries from other UN nations.

Busy street in Nepal shrouded in smog. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Busy street in Nepal shrouded in smog. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

In addition to vehicular and industrial emissions, the practices of clearing green spaces and burning croplands has also contributed to the decline in air quality in New Delhi. For farmers in India and neighboring Pakistan, crop burning is the traditional way to dispose of leftovers after their late-October harvest. Fire is used to quickly clear fields of wheat, rice and sugarcane for replanting and some believe the char is ideal for re-growth. However, the smoke that often rises over Delhi is anything but ideal.  During the winter, there is little wind and the capital is most vulnerable to toxic smog.

Rice crop burning in India. https://upload.wikimedia.org/

Rice crop burning in India. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia

 

How can you help?

A fix to the greenhouse gas emission crisis that we face is not the work of one person. It will require working together on a global scale to implement changes. Here are a few things you can do in your own life to make a difference:

  1. Recycle waste, reduce consumption, REUSE! If you are going to buy something that is disposable, try to get more than one use out of it. Sew a small tear in your clothing and take your shoes, wallet, or purse to a repair shop before you decide to toss them.
  2. Participate in your local food system. Shop local farmers markets and CSA’s and help cut the estimated 13% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the production and transportation of food.
  3. Carpool when you can. Ride your bike. Walk to close destinations.
  4. Get to know the place where you live so well that you want to protect it. Attend city council meetings when an area is marked for development. Get involved and ask questions, such as how many trees will remain as green belt space to increase the   production of oxygen.
  5. Support organizations that work to better the planet.

Coral Crisis- Bleaching on the Barrier Reef

Coral Reefs

Coral reefs are in crisis, dying at an alarming rate worldwide. Since 1975, 80-90% of the reefs in the Florida Keys have lost their living coral (NOAA.org). Overall, around 25% of corals on Earth have disappeared and the speed of degradation has dangerously accelerated over the past decade. Marine biologists predict that if deterioration continues at this rate, there will be no active coral to study by the year 2050. If these estimations are correct, within our lifetime we may witness the expiration of some of the most integral members of Earth’s ecology.

Netflix’s original documentary, “Chasing Coral,” highlights the rapid decline of the world’s coral and the cause of the bleaching events leading to its demise. Jeff Orlowski, the film’s director, Richard Vevers, the founder of the Ocean Agency and a crew of passionate scientists, divers, and photographers spent over four months documenting life in and around the Great Barrier Reef to highlight the impact of climate change on coral reefs. As the film points out, prior to “Chasing Coral” much of this devastating loss has been overlooked by the media, largely because people view the ocean as out of sight, out of mind. Vevers, an ex-advertising executive, views this ignorance as an issue with the way the ocean is advertised and hopes that this documentary brings mainstream attention and interest to the travesties happening beneath the ocean’s surface.

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Coral: A Quiet Sophistication

Known as the “rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs are the greatest expression of ocean life and the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. A single reef can house over one million animal and plant species and include up to 1000 different species of corals.  Among the 1000 species of reef-building coral, one will find a multitude of varying sizes, shapes, and textures. Some coral species look like large underwater rocks, while others uphold intricate branching patterns that give them the appearance of a delicate fan.

In the film, Dr. Ruth Gates, Coral Reef Biologist at the Hawaiian Institute of Marine Biology, describes that coral is an animal made up of thousands of small structures called polyps. Each polyp is a circular mouth surrounded by tentacles. The inside of the coral is filled with microalgae (small plants) that use photosynthesis to produce food for the animal during the daytime. At night, the corals come alive and the animal extends its tentacles, catching whatever passes by it. For the intricately connected coral animal and the plants living within, symbiosis is extreme. Without the microalgae, corals are at risk of starvation.

 

Coral Bleaching

Coral bleaching is a stress response (like a fever in humans) to warming waters. As the temperature on land escalates, the ocean helps absorb some of that increase. According to recent studies, the ocean has absorbed 93% of the warming created by humans since the 1970’s (IUCN report 2016). When water temperatures spikes above normal range, corals undergo bleaching— a process in which the inside tissues of stressed corals have an impaired ability to photosynthesis and feed the animals. To preserve their polyp and skeletal structure, the animals get rid of plants that are no longer functional and leave behind naked tissues. These bright-white skeletal structures are a far cry from the brilliant corals found in a healthy reef.

During a bleaching event, large swaths of coral reef whiten over the course of a few short weeks. Bleaching itself does not kill the coral. The bright-white pigment pictured below shows the skeleton of a coral that is still alive but without nutrients.  In losing their internal food systems, corals begin to starve. As the coral dies, its surface becomes covered in fuzzy micro algae and the aquatic life surrounding the coral must find refuge elsewhere.

Both shallow (between 3 and 150 feet) and deep (up to 450 feet deep) reefs can be found in nearly every corner of the world. Presently, two-thirds of them are endangered.

 

A Shift In Thinking

Currently, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest living thing on our planet, and in 2016, 29% of it was lost. “Chasing Coral” has drawn the attention of the masses, so there’s no doubt that many will flock to the remaining reefs to catch the last glimpse of their beauty before their predicted eradication. But according to the film, losing the Great Barrier Reef has actually got to mean something. We cannot just let it die so that it becomes photos in an old textbook—it has got to be a wake-up call. After watching “Chasing Coral” and pouring through research,  I began to wonder what it would look like if humans viewed the reefs as vital parts of the Earth’s ecosystem rather than as tourist attractions that are marketed to stimulate local economies. What would it mean if each visitor was forced to study the delicate ecosystem in which they are visitors? Would a transition from voyeur to citizen scientist generate enough conversation for people to realize the detrimental ripple effect that consumption, pollution, waste, and exploitation has on our environment? One can only hope.

Odin The Brave- A Tale Of Friendship And Survival Amid The Horrors Of A Wildfire

Northern California firefighters have spent the last week battling 14 separate infernos that claimed the lives of over 40 individuals. With 88 people still missing, the death toll is expected to rise. The fires, which began on October 8th, have charred over 220,000 acres of land and displaced thousands from their homes. Warming Northern climates and unusually high wind speeds of 50mph accelerated the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa into a raging blaze that scorched mountains and destroyed nearby homes. Now, a little over a week since the fires began, the story of a heroic dog named Odin, who risked his life to protect a herd of goats, arises from the ashes of the blaze.

Deer looking for a safe place during a wildfire.

Deer looking for a safe place during a wildfire.

As the deadly flames of the Tubbs Fire tore through his property, Roland Tembo Hendel loaded his family, cats, and dogs into the car. At least, the dogs that would follow him. Odin, the family’s stubborn and fearless Great Pyrenees refused to abandon the goats that he was responsible for. Faced with the decision to leave behind his beloved dog or put his family in certain danger, Roland bid a sad farewell to Odin.

Roland described via Facebook that “even under the best of circumstances it is nearly impossible to separate Odin from the goats when he takes over the close watch from his sister Tessa after nightfall. I made a decision to leave him, and I doubt I could have made him come with us if I tried.”

Escaping with their lives and the contents of their pockets, Roland wrote on Facebook, “when we had outrun the fires I cried, sure that I had sentenced Odie to death, along with our precious family of bottle-raised goats.” But Odin—whose is named after the Norse God— proved to be the family’s “miracle”.

Preparing for the worst, Roland recounted via Facebook that as they returned to the “smoldering wasteland” and ruins of their home, they were miraculously greeted by a limping Odin and the eight goats that were left in his care. Odin survived the flames that took the life of one of Hendel’s neighbors — Lynne Powell — with burned fur, melted whiskers, and several deer who huddled around him for safety.

Odin and the Goats. Photo via Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/hucklesberries

Odin and the Goats. Photo via Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/hucklesberries

odin and goats

The remains of the Hendel Family home. Photo via Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/hucklesberries

Send in the Goats

Meanwhile, suburban hillsides across Southern California have seen an increase in goats working to chomp away at overgrown brush and dry vegetation. As population growth pushes human habitation deeper into fire-vulnerable areas, risk of structural damage, injury, and even death are on the rise.

Traditional clearing methods like the prescribed burn— a fire deliberately set to clear out the threatening dry fuel— can too easily get out of hand. While some fire-prone terrain can be too rocky for mechanical equipment or expose expensive workers to uneven poison oak infested grounds, goats are almost always up for the job.

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This past summer, the Havasi Foundation snapped a photo of goats chomping away at the grass on the hillside. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Since the story has gone viral,  Odin’s family has been showered with love and support and Odin himself enjoyed a large steak dinner. Other victims of the recent fires have not been so lucky.  Currently, wildfires continue to burn through Northern California, Portugal and Spain— claiming the lives of over 100 innocent victims unable to escape the flames.  As the climate continues to change, it is important to keep areas of dry grass manicured and educate yourselves on your local fire plans. If you hear of a wildfire burning in your area, please don’t wait—evacuate as soon as possible.


 

Cassini-The Wonder of Saturn  

At the California Science Center’s latest Lunch and Learn, Project Manager and Mars Specialist, Devin Waller, walked a group of around 25 financial contributors of the CSC from the Sun to Saturn.  The distance from Saturn (the sixth planet from the sun) and the actual sun spans approximately 891 million miles. Our stroll through a mock model of the solar system built by Science Center employees wasn’t quite as far as that. The walk itself could have been completed in no more than 5 minutes had Devin not gifted us with the engineering and scientific perspectives involved in replicating our universe. Models like the one pictured below help students and visitors of the California Science Center understand the intricacies of space.

Ken Phillips and Devin Waller Give Insight Into Our Solar System. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Ken Phillips and Devin Waller share insights into our solar system. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

 

We began at the Sun– a 4.5-billion-year old star that accounts for 99.86 percent of the mass in our solar system. Given its size, it is estimated that over one million Earths could fit inside of the sun! This giant ball of gas is composed of 70 percent hydrogen and 28 percent helium. As the two gases react, intense amounts of energy and heat are created. Without this energy,  there would be no life on Earth.

 An ultraviolet telescope onboard the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory captured this spectacular view of the prominence at 13:19 UT on June 9th.


An ultraviolet telescope onboard the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory captured this spectacular view of the prominence at 13:19 UT on June 9th.

 

Next we arrived at the smallest and innermost planet, Mercury.  Mercury orbits the sun in just 88 days, making the shortest orbit of any planet. Each complete orbit around the sun represents one “year,” while a rotation on a planet’s axis represents one “day.”  Its temperature ranges from -297 on the side opposite the sun to + 800 degrees on the side facing the sun. Because Mercury is so close to the sun, it is hard to directly observe from Earth except during the hours of dawn or twilight.

The second planet we visited was Venus, a celestial body located 67 million miles from the Sun. Known as the rocky planet, Venus has the longest rotation of the solar system family and has a scorching temperature of 896 degrees.  It takes 224 Earth days for Venus to experience one “day.” Unlike most other planets in the Solar System, which rotate on their axes in a counter-clockwise direction, Venus rotates clockwise (this is called “retrograde” rotation).  Our home, Earth, is the third planet in line from the sun. One rotation on Earth takes 24 hours with a complete orbit around the sun lasting 365 days. Our planet’s average temperature is a balmy 61 degrees. In contrast, Mars is a rocky planet 141,700,000 miles from the sun that has a temperature of -81 degrees. With its thin atmosphere and lack of liquid water, winds drive the global conditions. NASA space projects have been studying Mars since the 1960s. According to NASA, the goal of the Mars Exploration Program has been to provide a continuous flow of scientific information and discovery through a carefully-selected series of robotic orbiters, landers and mobile laboratories interconnected by a high-bandwidth Mars/Earth communications network. Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars represent the terrestrial planets: inner planets closest to the Sun that are composed primarily of silicate rocks or metals.

As our tour moved on to the outer planets, we stopped at a replica of the gas giant known as Jupiter—the largest planet in our Solar System.  Like the Sun, Jupiter is composed of hydrogen and helium yet it is a cold planet (minus 234 degrees Fahrenheit). Its massive size and distance from the sun (483,500,000 miles) makes it so that it takes 11.86 years for Jupiter to complete an orbit. It has 67 known moons and like Saturn, Jupiter has rings.  Unlike the vivid, icy rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s rings are subtle, sandy structures.

The Solar System (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune)

The Solar System (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune)

 

Our final stops on the walking tour took us to Saturn, one of the most visually stunning celestial bodies in our Solar System, and a replica of the spacecraft Cassini, which spent over a decade studying Saturn. We had the great privilege of listening as Dr. Jo Pitesky, an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who worked with Cassini from 2001 until 2017, provide details about Cassini and its twenty-year mission.  Cassini was the latest NASA spacecraft to explore Saturn, completing its journey on September 15th, 2017. Cassini launched in 1997 and arrived at Saturn seven years later. In that time, the spacecraft captured stunning photos of the planet’s weather systems (including the changing seasons in the Northern Hemisphere), magnificent rings, and it’s 62 moons while providing invaluable data on Saturn and its atmosphere.  Cassini viewed, listened, smelled, and even tasted Saturn’s moons– and what it learned about them is nothing short of remarkable. Probing Saturn’s icy moons, Cassini discovered that water is continually spewing out of jets around the southern pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. It also found liquid water on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.   These extraordinary discoveries indicate that Enceladus and Titan have all of the ingredients necessary for life and make future space exploration all the more exciting. The “Grand Finale Orbits” that carried Cassini to its end helped solve longtime mysteries such as the planet’s rate of rotation, the length of a day on Saturn, and the mass of its stunning rings. Dr. Pitesky made her commitment to the project transparent, explaining that she could spend weeks describing Cassini accomplishments.

The start of Cassini’s final voyage began on September 12th, 2017.  Cassini continued transmitting messages as long as possible until the force of Saturn’s atmosphere overpowered the spacecraft thrusters and Cassini could no longer make contact with Earth. At 3:31 am (PDT) on September 15th, 2017, Cassini’s final signal was received. As Dr. Jo Pitesky narrated the extraordinary life of Cassini and its final descent to Saturn, it was hard to find a dry eye in the room.  Showing us photos of the thousands of men and women involved in the Cassini mission– to provide information and educate the world– she likened its journey to the following quote.

“Though here at journey’s end I lie
in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
beyond all mountains steep,
above all shadows rides the Sun
and Stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the Stars farewell.

J. R. R. Tolkein

Lola West, Dr. Jo Pitesky, and Marilyn Fordney. Photo Credit: Alex havasi

Lola West, Dr. Jo Pitesky, and Marilyn Fordney. Photo Credit: Alex havasi

Urban Coyote Conflicts

Growing up in the suburbs, my friends and I spent many weekend nights powerwalking through our neighborhoods, deep in conversation. It was an excellent way to process through our angst-laden teenage years while maintaining our physique. Though a few street lamps could be seen scattered about the city’s larger streets, the blackness of night was for the most part unfettered by light. In my youth, I appreciated this obscurity and reveled in the fact that most nights we had the streets to ourselves. One night, as we walked towards an intersection lit only by the red hand of the cross walk sign, we heard the sound of movement in the nearby leaves. Realizing that we were no longer alone, I turned my head in the direction of the noise and saw two yellow eyes peering back at me. My first thought was to run. My second was to scream. Ultimately, fear kept me frozen in place and silent as a mouse. The eyes grew larger and as the body they were attached to came closer, I found myself within feet of a large coyote.  I watched in amazement as the coyote made its way through the crosswalk, keeping within the lines.

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The Urban Coyote

Coyotes (Canis latrans) are smart. In response to shrinking wild spaces, these cunning creatures have migrated from their origins in the American southwest to nearly every corner of Northern and Central America (save for Hawaii). This forced migration has encouraged new survival instincts in coyotes obliged to thrive in pastoral and suburban regions as well as densely populated urban landscapes.  A coyote’s versatility extends to its diet, which changes based on what’s available in its environment. Typically, their diet consists of rabbits, squirrels, mice, rats, insects, reptiles and wild berries. In the wild, coyotes generally keep their distance from humans. Yet, as natural predators and barriers of habitat shrink, the interface between wild and domestic begins to expand. Over the past two decades, America has seen a swelling of inner-city coyote populations. In that time, generations of coyotes who have never known undeveloped spaces have been born into metropolitan areas that lack green landscape. These native city-slickers have become adept at surviving in urban settings- foraging through dumpsters and compost bins, navigating crosswalks, and consuming small domestic pets. Weighing anywhere from 15-50 pounds, their smaller frames allow them an agility that makes hopping an eight foot fence in the suburbs nearly effortless.

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A Canine Confrontation

Every year, local police and wildlife organizations receive thousands of reports of coyotes disrupting the domestic sphere. For the most part, human encounters with a singular coyote or a small pack have not proven consistently dangerous. However, as urban coyote populations rise, reports of attacks on individuals and pets have amplified. In 2009, 19 year-old Taylor Mitchell died of blood loss after coyotes bit her while she was walking on a trail in Eastern Canada. Though not an urban attack, sensational media often draw from the experience with Mitchell to illuminate the perils of human-coyote interaction. Experts indicate that the keys to maintaining safety are to keep coyotes from getting accustomed to humans and to limit interaction. Hazing, the practice of scaring off coyotes with deterrents- shouting, clapping, blowing air horns, or spraying with water- is considered the basis of coyote management plans which seek to discourage coyotes from becoming too relaxed in their urban surroundings.  Pupping season lasts from August until January. During these months, protective mothers are more likely to act in defense of their dens. If you encounter a coyote at this time, the best thing to do is to slowly and calmly walk away without turning your back on the coyote. Stay tall and assertive as you leave the area, even if it means walking backwards.

This Way Forward

The relationship between human and coyote is extremely complex and warrants a deeper look. It is significant to note that human development continues to displace wildlife from their homes.  While property on the foothills is desirable, one should prepare themselves to encounter emigrant wildlife. The Urban Coyote Initiative is a group of photojournalists who aim to shed light on the lives and behaviors of coyotes living in close proximity to humans.  Organizations like these remove the mystery of urban coyote behavior and lay the foundation for a more harmonious inhabiting of shared space. You can see some of their work here.

Chaparral Coyote. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Chaparral Coyote. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Can Animals Predict Earthquakes?

For the second time in two weeks, an earthquake has struck Mexico, leveling sky rises, splitting freeways, and killing over 270 people.  The 7.1-magnitude quake that occurred Tuesday afternoon has overwhelmed residents and officials of Mexico City.  Located in a region known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, a 25,000-mile U-shaped ring of Pacific coastline that stretches from the Indian-Australian Plate to the South-American Plate, Mexico City is an area that is notoriously at risk for major earthquakes.  Linked to 80 percent of global quakes, the Pacific Ring is considered one of the most seismically active areas on the planet.

Dogs Aid in Search and Rescue Efforts in Many Earthquakes

Dogs Aid in Search and Rescue Efforts in Many Earthquakes. Photo By DFID (John Ball with rescue dog Darcy in Chautara, Nepal) via Wikimedia Commons

What Causes Earthquakes and Can They Be Predicted?

An earthquake occurs when massive blocks of the earth’s crust known as tectonic plates, suddenly move past each other, releasing built up pressure and energy in the form of seismic waves.  These seismic waves are responsible for making the ground shake.  Currently, seismologists have not figured out a way to predict earthquake far enough in advance to avoid the mass casualties that accompany colossal quakes. Though extensive research and scientific support has yet to approve these theories, many suggest that animals have the capacity to foreshadow earthquakes before they occur.

Animal Instinct

Since the time of ancient Greece, some historians have maintained the belief that animals have the ability to predict the arrival of earthquakes. After a devastating earthquake decimated the Greek city of Heline in 373 B.C, townsfolk reported that snakes, rats, centipedes and weasels were seen fleeing the city in the days leading up to the quake.

Similarly, Chinese officials ordered the evacuation of Haicheng, a city with over one million residents, just days before a 7.3-magnitude quake in the winter of 1975. This order came after a large number of snakes in the area interrupted their hibernation and emerged from their burrows. Normally this surfacing would not be a cause for concern, but winters in Haicheng can be brutally cold and temperatures at this time were below freezing levels. Snakes are cold-blooded reptiles who must maintain a warmer body temperature to survive. During winter months, they tunnel themselves deep within the ground and remain there until spring. As witnesses in Haicheng reported the snakes leaving their burrows and exposing themselves to the frigid cold, officials became alarmed and evacuations began.  When the earthquake arrived two days later, a small portion of the population who failed to evacuate were hurt or killed while close to 150,000 evacuees were spared.

Can Snakes Like This One Understand Earthquake Warning Signs?

Can Snakes Like This One Understand Earthquake Warning Signs?

Can Snakes Like This One Understand Earthquake Warning Signs?

Can Snakes Like This One Understand Earthquake Warning Signs?

Arguments from those who believe that animals have the ability to predict natural disasters rely on the understanding that earthquakes generate electrical fields and magnetic fluctuations.  Since many animals have the ability to hear infrasonic sounds like the low rumbling of an onrushing earthquake, it is possible that they can sense a quake before we can. Additionally, changes in the mineral and chemical composition of  groundwater have been measured before the onset of a quake. Historically, instances of entire amphibian populations (frogs and toads) abandoning their swampy homes before an earthquake have been reported. In 2010, the Journal of Zoology published a study in which a colony of toads deserted their mating site three days before an earthquake struck L’Aquila in Italy. The toads did not return back to their homes unit the last aftershock hit 10 days later. Studying a pre-quake mass exodus like the one in Italy could help scientists dechipher the connection between animal instinct and natural disaster. However, the US geological survey says there is just not enough evidence to conclusively determine that animals are accurate predictors of a quake well enough in advance.

Frogs Line the Streets Before a Big Earthquake Hits China.

Frogs Line the Streets Before a Big Earthquake Hits China.

A New Way Forward

Seismologist Joseph L. Kirschvink suggests that an animal’s instinctual fight or flight response may provide a sort of early warning system for seismic events.  Building on his theory, the German-Russian lead project, Icarus (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space) uses a satellite-based monitoring system to track the response of mass migrations of birds as they pass through the epicenter of an earthquake. Icarus researchers are counting on migrating birds to cross the path of at least one of the 100 large scale earthquakes that happen each year. If the birds sense the epicenter and re-route their traditional migratory paths away from it, positive evidence that animals have the instinctual ability to foretell the coming of an earthquake can be examined.

Migratory Birds In Flight. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Migratory Birds In Flight. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

ICARUS Satellite Used to Track Migration of Birds.

ICARUS Satellite Used to Track Migration of Birds.

Earthquakes can cause serious damage in the homes and lives of the people that you love. If you live in an earthquake zone,  you should prepare an earthquake kit and check on its contents every few years.

After the Hurricane- Wildlife Watch

All week reports from a water-logged Florida, Texas, and the Carribean have been pouring in. Torrential downpours and massive flooding have devastated communities as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma passed through.  Many in the world watched in shock as the sea stormed the barriers, rushing through the streets of Miami to climb the lower levels of high-rises and tearing a path through the Carribean. Without discrimination, the maelstrom claimed humans, homes, and history for its own, leaving piles of debris as the only reminder of what formerly stood. Emergency services were called in to rescue evacuated families and their pets as their homes became victims of the flood.

Accounts of the next storm system, Tropical Storm Jose, have made their way to headlines  and the East Coast of the US is bracing itself for its projected touchdown later this week.

Flooded Homes Near Lake Huston After Hurricane Harvey. Photo Courtesy of NBC News and Getty Images. 2017

Flooded Homes Near Lake Huston After Hurricane Harvey. Photo Courtesy of NBC News and Getty Images. 2017

 

It has been nearly three weeks since Harvey flooded 28,000 square miles of Texas, and almost a week since the Irma struck the Caribbean and Florida. As the flood waters recede, over 200 million cubic yards of debris have been revealed in Texas alone. The extent of damage from Irma, which is still rolling through the country as a smaller tropical storm, has yet to be determined. Today the death toll for Harvey and Irma stands somewhere around 125 people, and hundreds of billions of dollars in property damage has been reported thus far.

Unaccounted for in the post-storm figures are the wildlife populations that could not relocate to higher ground when flood waters were rising. Over the past three weeks, the World Animal Protection Charity has sent emergency teams to Texas and Florida to rescue and care for wildlife. Teams of professional rescuers and volunteers have spent countless hours locating and rehabilitating injured animals following the storms. While clean up efforts in affected areas are well underway, it will take months for teams of experts to understand the full scale impact on wildlife.

Chickens perch on the roof of a hennery to escape rising floodwaters after Typhoon Utor hit Maoming, Guangzhou province August 15, 2013. Photo Courtesy of Reuters. 2017

Chickens perch on the roof of a hennery to escape rising floodwaters after Typhoon Utor hit Maoming, Guangzhou province August 15, 2013. Photo Courtesy of Reuters. 2017

Pets Rescued From Flooded Homes. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

 

Hurricane Irma Leaves Manatees Stranded 

Last Sunday, Hurricane Irma was still 100 miles away from Tampa when it sucked the water out of shallow Sarasota Bay, an ideal habitat for manatees. The Florida Wildlife Commission had received several calls about stranded manatees, also known as sea cows,  when a passerby and two sheriffs noticed two manatees beached in the newly-dried bay. In a heroic effort to save the protected marine animals, the sheriffs rolled the 1000 pound manatees onto a sheet and dragged them over 100 yards to the sea.

Beached Manatee In Sarasota Bay During Irma. Photo Courtesy of @ManateeSheriff on Twitter. 2017

Beached Manatee In Sarasota Bay During Irma. Photo Courtesy of @ManateeSheriff on Twitter. 2017

 

When a Tree Falls

Trees provide a habitat for already vulnerable species. During a hurricane, high winds can uproot trees and displace the animal tenants living within. Many bird species that use trees as a convenient shelter have the ability to migrate to drier areas, and often times they are aware of a storm before it arrives. Ornithologists describe that most birds can sense even the slightest changes in barometric pressure, which makes them a kind of a living barometer. Once the message has been received that barometric pressure is low, they take flight and head for dryer areas. However, powerful winds can blow the migrating birds off of their course. At best, these birds can reroute themselves back to their homes once the storms have ended, but often they are injured or weakened and have been deprived of food so many do not survive. Both Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma intersected the beginning of the annual fall migration, which according to ornithologists, guarantees some level of bird displacement.

In certain cases, birds do not have the opportunity to migrate away from the storm. Take the red-cockaded woodpeckers in South Carolina’s Marion National Forest for an example.  When Hurricane Hugo hit the area in September 1989, approximately 60 percent of the 500 groups of birds perished when 87 percent of the trees containing cavities where they lived were destroyed. Thanks to extensive rehabilitation efforts, populations have been returned to their numbers in the years since Hugo slammed the state.

Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. Photo from Flickr. 2017

Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. Photo from Flickr. 2017

How Are Hurricanes Formed? 

As deep layers of warm ocean waters stoke an emerging thunderstorm into a mature state, a hurricane is born. Sea surface temperature is one of five factors that influence the formation of tropical cyclones, defined as rapidly rotating storm systems categorized by low-pressure centers, the presence of thunderstorms, heavy rain, strong winds, and low-level atmospheric circulation. Specifically, a hurricane is a tropical cyclone occurring in the Atlantic and northeastern Pacific Oceans.   The warm water temperatures of the Gulf of Mexico make it a notorious landing point for hurricanes. According to oceanographers, temperatures of the oceans in the Gulf of Mexico are the highest that they have ever been in recorded history and these spikes in temperature can account for some of the increase in hurricane potency. Warm water is only one of the ingredients needed to produce a full-fledged hurricane. Humidity, wind shear, and a generally unstable atmosphere are also required to help craft the “perfect storm.”

Ironically, the “perfect storm” is just that for certain plants and animals that survive its force. While hurricanes can be devastating to many wild animal populations, other animals manage to survive and thrive during and after the event. Orchids, gopher frogs, raccoons, and brown bears are among the animals that are generally positively impacted by a hurricane (so long as they survive).  Orchids use intense winds to spread their seeds, frogs breed in heavy rainfall,  raccoons scavenge for food, and bears use the fallen trees as shelter.

Sea turtles, marine life, small ground animals, livestock, and domestic pets can all fall victim to the destruction of habitats and the scarcity of food sources that are associated with hurricanes.

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Baby Sea Turtle on the Florida Beach. Reuters. 2017

Wild West Wildlife Rescuers Rehabilitate Over 200 Baby Squirrels After Harvey. Photo from Facebook. 2017

Wild West Wildlife Rescuers Rehabilitate Over 200 Baby Squirrels After Harvey. Photo from Facebook. 2017

As another Tropical Storm Jose matures in the distance, rescue efforts are still underway for the countless animal victims of the latest natural disasters. While it’s too early to fully estimate impacts of Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Irma on wildlife, it is important to recognize that recovery efforts will need to extend beyond far beyond human development. Locals in affected areas have begun reporting injured animals to their local officials and people around the world are making donations to support habitat conservation and protection efforts. You can help provide relief for human and wildlife foundations by donating to organizations that you trust.  For more information on individual organizations, click here.

Until next week, remember to appreciate your life, give to those in need,  and keep exploring your world.

Ecosystems: Kelp Forest Part 2

Last week’s adventures took us through the California Science Center Exhibit- Ecosystems. Continue the Journey with us this week as we learn about life inside wild Kelp forests. 


In the wild, the bottom level of the ocean is known as the benthic zone. All bodies of water have a benthic zone where creatures like snails, sea stars, oysters lobsters, and other crustacean reside. Organisms living in the benthic zone are called benthos and play a fundamental role in ecosystem management. Since light does not often penetrate the benthic zone, benthos feed on the dead and decaying matter found on the ocean floor, benthic algae, and young kelp.  Areas outside of the ocean’s benthic zone are either a part of the supratidal and subtidal zones (the areas found on the coastline that are impacted by high and low tide), the neritic zone (the shallow part of the ocean that extends to up to 200 meters in depth) or the pelagic zone (the area between the benthic and neritic zones). Most of the sea life that lives away from land or outside of the benthic zone is found in the pelagic zone.

Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Often miscategorized as a plant, kelp is actually a species of brown algae (Macrocystis pyrifera), that grows in dense groupings, similar to the way a wooded forest grows on land.  The strands of kelp found in the controlled environment of the California Science Center grow to an impressive height, but are significantly smaller than the wild kelp forests, which can reach up to 175 feet in length. Kelp is prolific in growth and in ideal circumstances, can gain anywhere from 10 and 12 inches in a single day.

Kelp Canopy. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Kelp Canopy. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Gas-Filled Kelp Bladders. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Giant Kelp. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Much like a buoy, the gas-filled bladders located at the base of the kelp leaf are responsible for holding up the kelp as it spreads from the bottom of the ocean floor to the surface of the water. Once the kelp has reached the surface, it forms a dense canopy that provides shelter and food for thousands of invertebrates, fish, and marine mammal species.

Gas-Filled Kelp Bladders. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Gas-Filled Kelp Bladders. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Kelp forests cross the benthic, pelagic, and neritic zones, and are home to a diverse group of marine life. In fact, the kelp forests found off of the California coast can accommodate over 1,000 species in a single forest, and are among the most diverse ecosystems found on earth!  Many organisms use the dense blades of the kelp to hide from predators and rear their young. Seals, sea lions, whales, sea otters, fish, gulls, and other sea birds are some of the many animals found in the canopy’s armor.  Rich in varied food sources, the kelp forest ecosystem offers a perfect example of the hierarchical nature of the food web. As numerous species thrive in the shelter of the kelp, predators have greater access to food.  For example, kelp is eaten by tubeworms who are then gobbled up by birds and fish. Fish are the principal food source for baleen whales and sea lions.  Sea lions become the prey of the ocean’s top carnivores including sharks and killer whales (pictured below).

Killer Whale Captures its Next Meal. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Killer Whale on the Hunt. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

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Killer Whale Captures its Next Meal (a Sea Lion). Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Like the tubeworm and other small invertebrates, the primary food source of the sea urchin is kelp.  However, urchins present a huge problem in kelp forest management because of the alarming rate in which they consume the algae matter. Sea otters and spiny lobsters are the natural predator of the sea urchin, and as such their role in the ecosystem is vital.  When an urchin population balloons, kelp forests run the risk of depletion and the animals that use the canopy as shelter become vulnerable to predation. In order to manage urchin populations and conserve the delicate ecosystem, California Science Center staff and volunteer divers have joined local forces to remove over 100,000 sea urchins from the Palos Verde Peninsula. Considered a delicacy in fine dining cultures around the world, these sea urchins are often captured and sold to the restaurant industry.

Sea Urchin Population Boom. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Sea Urchin Population Boom. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Close-Up of the Urchin's Spines. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Close-Up of the Urchin’s Spines. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Currently, the California Science center offers visitors the opportunity to pet urchins, sea slugs, eninimes, and other invertebrates. During our visit, I felt like a child who had returned to the coastal tide pools I loved so much as a kid. Using two gentle fingers (as advised), I stroked the back sides of sea slugs, explored the spines of urchins, and shook tentacles with an anemone.

Kelp Forest Ecosystems Exhibit. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Kelp Forest Ecosystems Exhibit. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Throughout history, humans have devised numerous uses for kelp.  During World War I, kelp was harvested to make potash, a manufactured salt that contains potassium in water soluble form. During the war, potash was a major component of fertilizer and gunpowder. Following a German embargo on potash in 1914, American scientists and businessmen turned to the sea to extract potash from California’s giant kelp. By the 1930s, food and pharmaceutical corporations began extracting algin, a thickening, stabilizing, and gelling agent from kelp. Currently, algin is a popular additive used in a number of processed foods.

Visiting the synthetic kelp forest at the California Science center was truly a treat. Now, it is time to put on my fins and explore the wild forests off of the California Coast. I know that not everyone will have the opportunity to dive into the ocean ecosystems, but no matter where you live, some form of wilderness is available to you. Remember to get outside, ask questions, search for answers, and explore your world!

CALIFORNIA SCIENCE CENTER POCKET CAMERA-9

To learn more about our world, visit the California Science Center Ecosystems exhibit.

Kelp Forest Exploration!

Find out what it’s like to experience the kelp forest from inside the tank and you will get a chance to talk first-hand with a diver! Don’t miss the Science Spectacular Kelp Forest Exploration dive show that happens twice daily. Divers interact with animals in the tank and also take questions from guests in the audience—like you! Visit California Science center online

Exploration times:

Monday – Friday: 11:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Saturday and Sunday: 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.

Inside the Ecosystems- Kelp Forests Part 1

The Ecosystems exhibit at the California Science Center is a permanent fixture of their wide-ranging offerings. Visitors of the museum can explore eight diverse environments and ecosystems alternating between the “Extreme Zone” and “Rot Room” to the “Forest”, “Island,” and “River” zones. On Saturday August 26th, 2017 the Havasi Wilderness Foundation was given a private tour of the Kelp Forest exhibition, which has been open to the public since 2010. Dr. William Johns, Director of Life Support Systems at the California Science Center, acted as our personal guide for the day.


Beneath the floors of the California Science Center a deep humming emanates from a complex electrical grid that powers much of the facility. Thick pipes carrying water to and from the 188,000-gallon salt water tank housing the Kelp Forest Ecosystems exhibit line the walls and ceiling of the ground level. The area is cooler, wetter, and louder than most other parts of the museum, but the constant purring of water rushing through the pipelines had a soothing effect on me.

The kelp forest at the California Science Center is home to hundreds of marine animals across dozens of species, ranging in size from a microscopic crustacean to a five-hundred-pound giant sea bass. To feed the animals, on-staff divers and volunteer divers are employed to enter the tanks. Some fish require spot feeding methods (picture a scuba diver using tongs to feed chopped pieces of fish or crustacean to other carnivorous fish) to ensure that they receive the proper nutrients. The marine life in the kelp forest ecosystem exhibit eat and excrete several times a day, generating a sizeable amount of waste. Engineers and Technologists at the California Science Center work to develop systems that manage all of the waste.

Giant Sea Bass at the California Science Center. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Giant Sea Bass at the California Science Center. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Just around the corner from the bottom floor elevator, sits an intricate filtration system comprised of giant cylinders measuring eight feet round and sixteen feet long. Dr. Johns explained that these tanks are packed with pressed gravel to filter out large and small waste matter from the water so that it can be recycled back into the kelp forest ecosystem. Unlike the Long Beach and Monterey Bay aquariums which discharge their marine exhibit waste back into the ocean, the California Science Center relies on sophisticated equipment to recycle and treat their wastewater. After the wastewater is filtered from the aquatic tanks, it starts a complex process wherein the concentrated salt byproduct from filtered saltwater must be flushed with fresh water to avoid an over-concentration of salts, maintaining the delicate salt to water ratio in treatment facilities.

Giant Filtration Tanks. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Giant Filtration Tanks. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Fifteen minutes into the tour, the elevator dings and the doors slide open, inviting us to move on. We exit and begin our exploration of the dark rooms that provide an ideal viewing space for the saltwater tanks that make up the kelp forest installation. The exhibit itself is two stories tall. At the bottom level, visitors discover the ecosystem from the perspective of the marine life inside of the kelp forest.  As we approach the glass, I see two giant sea bass weaving between the leopard sharks and bright-orange garibaldi that surround them. In the corner of the tank, a moray eel pops its head out from behind a rock and floats, one eye locked warily on visitors to its home.  Three large splashes coming from the top of the exhibit indicate that it is feeding time. The divers, who are extensively trained to distinguish between different species of fish, pull out their tongs, grab a chunk of fish meat, and get to work. When we meet with a shivering volunteer diver later that day, he explains that the challenges of spending an hour in 56-degree water include being extremely cold. “However”, he says, “I love coming to the California Science Center to learn more about the marine life that we feed, and cold or not– I would gladly give up a few of my weekends to keep doing it.”

Scuba Divers Feeding the Fish. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Scuba Divers Feeding the Fish. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Stay tuned next week as we explore the bottom level of the ocean floor and take an educational tour through the wild kelp forests.

 

CALIFORNIA SCIENCE CENTER POCKET CAMERA-9

To learn more about our world, visit the California Science Center Ecosystems exhibit.

Kelp Forest Exploration!

Find out what it’s like to experience the kelp forest from inside the tank and you will get a chance to talk first-hand with a diver! Don’t miss the Science Spectacular Kelp Forest Exploration dive show that happens twice daily. Divers interact with animals in the tank and also take questions from guests in the audience—like you! Visit California Science center online

Exploration times:

Monday – Friday: 11:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Saturday and Sunday: 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.

 

Total Eclipse– Or a Part

Predictions of animals behaving strangely during the solar eclipse have made it into the news for weeks prior to today’s event. In preparation for the eclipse, I read about spiders deconstructing their webs, chickens heading home to roost, bees returning to their hives, and goats gathering in groups during the diminished sunlight that is brought about by an eclipse.  Southern California news sources reported that the best time to view the “Great American Eclipse” was 10:15 AM Pacific Standard time. In an attempt to witness some of the odd animal behavior,  I ventured out to the Abundant Table Farm Stand in Camarillo, California during the reported height of the eclipse. Dawning a pair of paper glasses used to filter the light from the sun, I set my eyes to the sky and marveled in wonder and amazement as the moon passed in front of the sun. As the enchantment that comes from witnessing the magic of our solar system passed, I traveled towards the animal enclosure. The goats at the Abundant Table Farm were eager to munch on the weeds and carrots tops that I fed them, and though hungrier than normal, their behavior did not seem unusual in any way. The same holds true for the chicken, pigs, and sheep that I traditionally visit when there.

Chickens on the Farm

Chickens on the Farm

Since California is out of the line of vision for the total eclipse, it is likely that the animals barely noticed the dimming of sunlight. Though impossible to be sure what was happening internally, I can report that from my viewpoint, the animal’s routine did appear to be disrupted by the partial eclipse. While I am slightly disappointed to have missed the absolute eclipse,  I have truly enjoyed the influx of comical photos showing dogs enjoying the eclipse (see below).

Photo from Petslady.com

Photo from Petslady.com

Photo courtesy of Reuters

Photo courtesy of Reuters

The US has experienced several partial eclipses in recent history. However,  today’s eclipse marks the first time in nearly a century that a total eclipse has been visible from both ends of our country (the last total eclipse for the North American continent was recorded in 1918). According to Nasa.gov, the path where the moon completely covered the sun stretched from Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. Observers like myself, who were located outside of this path, were still treated to a partial obscuration of the sun. Those lucky enough to be inside the path of the total eclipse experienced two full minutes of daytime darkness.

Solar Eclipse. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Solar Eclipse. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

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Solar Eclipse. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Though the moon orbits the Earth monthly, a precise alignment is necessary for an eclipse to transpire. Nasa.gov reports that an eclipse occurs only when the sun, moon, and Earth meet at the “line of nodes,” the imaginary line that represents the intersection of the orbital planes of the moon and Earth. A total solar eclipse, where the sun is entirely covered by the moon, occurs when the moon passes directly between the sun and the Earth. During this time, spectators in the line of this phenomenon can see the brighter stars and planets briefly emerge in the sky.

Solar Eclipse. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Solar Eclipse. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Regardless of your position in the world, witnessing an eclipse in any way is a truly momentous event!  The next solar eclipse should pass through South America in July of 2019, and in the early spring of 2024. Anyone in the US who missed today’s eclipse will have another opportunity to experience this wonder.


Looking directly at the sun is incredibly damaging to the sensitive tissues and complex systems of your eyes. Please take caution when viewing an eclipse and only do so through specialized lenses. NEVER look into the sun.