Tag Archives: California

The Salton Sea, or the story of California’s worst ecological disaster

A large, landlocked, and very salty body of water at the southern end of the U.S. state of California, the Salton Sea has been a tourist hotspot, a birdwatcher’s dream, a fishing destination, and the site of a U.S. Navy base. Today, it is best known as California’s largest body of water, a critical habitat for migratory birds, and the single greatest ecological disaster to have ever happened in the state.

Image credits Jay Mantri.

The Salton Sea is a shallow, saline lake located in the California desert. It fills the Salton Basin, which itself is a remnant of a past lake — Lake Cahuilla — that dried up around 1580. To the south, vast agricultural fields straddle the sea’s shore. The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park borders it to the west, and to its north lies Coachella Valley. It is a body of water stretching 35 miles by 15 miles, which can go up to 40 by almost 20 miles in particularly wet years.

How it started

Although its sheer size may not show it, the sea as it is today is not completely natural in origin. Geological evidence shows that this area has filled up, dried out, and been refilled several times throughout the Earth’s past as the Colorado River meandered through or around it. The rich quantities of silt this river carries would deposit around the area of the sea, effectively cutting the Colorado off from flowing into it. To the best of our knowledge, the last time such a build-up happened, and the sea dried out, was around 1580.

But silt deposits make for excellent farmland. So, around the beginning of the 20th century, farmers were moving in and breaking ground in the hot, desert climate of California’s Imperial Valley. They were, however, missing water to irrigate the crops. The California Development Company was there to help. It dug two gorges to supply the much-needed liquid from the Colorado River to the farmlands. These gorges were not equipped with floodgates; what use could such devices possibly be in a desert? Around 1904, the channels became unusable, as they were choked up with silt deposits from the river. Another gorge was dug up, again without a floodgate.

Then in the spring of 1905, due to heavy rains and snowmelt, the Colorado River flooded. The lack of protective infrastructure and the sheer volume of the flooding meant that waters broke through irrigation controls around Yuma, Arizona. They flowed into the (former) Salton Basin for two years before a line of protective levees was built by boxcars dumping boulders into the breach directly from railroads.

A lot of water had accumulated in the Salton Basin, refilling the old dry lake bed. This was the birth of the Salton Sea as we know it today.

The good days

The agricultural boom in this area during the 1920 helped maintain the Salton Sea.

Since there is no natural source of water feeding the area, the new sea would have gradually evaporated and disappeared from the map. However, croplands in the area were heavily irrigated, and water from the fields drained away into the man-made Salton Sea. Flood-irrigation — the process of dumping water on croplands through pipes or other means and letting it naturally flow over the soil — was heavily used in the area during this time, so there was a significant quantity of liquid being moved to this area, all of it draining in the sea. This counteracted the process of evaporation. Although its total volume did vary somewhat with environmental factors such as precipitation patterns, its levels were relatively constant.

The whole area prospered around, and due to, the sea. The Salton Basin lays on an important bird migratory route; the water soon grew dense with various species of fish, which these birds would eat on the way. Soon, the Salton Sea became a hotspot of birdlife, and a wildlife sanctuary was established on an area of wetlands bordering it in 1930. Birdwatchers soon followed, eager to visit this burgeoning oasis in the desert.

Aerial photograph of the Salton Sea, taken in 2016. Image via Wikimedia.

“Fish were initially brought into the lake with the water that originated from the Colorado River and included native species, such as carp, rainbow trout, striped mullet, humpback sucker, and desert pupfish,” Fishbio explains. “As early as the 1930s, native fish had begun to die off because they couldn’t tolerate the high salinity, but this didn’t deter tourists. Salt-tolerant sport fish such as corvina were introduced, luxury homes were built, a yacht club was established, and a resort destination was born.”

In 1930, a wildlife refuge was established on some wetlands along the edge of the lake that had attracted many birds. The fish flourished in the lake and provided a source of food for massive populations of migratory birds. Birdwatchers flocked to this new refuge in the middle of a desert.

Where there are people, there’s also money to be made, and the Salton Sea was no exception. Into the 1950s and 1960s, the area would become a popular resort destination. Hotels and clubs would be built along the shores of the sea, alongside homes, vacation houses, schools, shops, and other infrastructure. Sport fishing, yachting, water skiing, and golfing attracted 1.5 million visitors to the area every year during its golden age.

Where it went wrong

The going was good in this area while enough water was being pumped, one way or another, into the Salton Sea.

Arguably, however, the beginning of the end came in 1936, with the completion of the Hoover Dam. In 1938, the Imperial Dam was also completed; together, these two ended the occasional flooding of the Imperial Valley area by the Colorado River and irrigation infrastructure built in the area. This was the first meaningful reduction in water input towards the Salton Sea.

As there is no natural effluent draining into the sea, evaporation instead served to reduce its volume quite significantly, and quite fast. Further compounding this issue is that the Salton Sea is quite shallow but very widely-spread, meaning evaporation can take place very quickly here relative to most other bodies of water. As its waters evaporate, minerals in the sea such as salt become concentrated.

The Salton Sea also belongs to a class known as terminal or endorheic drainage basins, meaning water from a wider area pools into it and stays there. In other words, salts leached by waters from the whole basin gradually make their way into the Sea.

Since water flowing into the Salton Sea was used agricultural water, there was a significant quantity of salts and fertilizers being brought into it on a daily basis. Together with a lower total volume of liquid reaching the sea by this time and its endorheic nature, the end effect was that the Salton Sea was becoming saltier by the day.

Beginning with the 1970s, researchers were already warning that great problems were on the horizon for the Salton Sea due to this gradual increase in salinity.

In the mid 1970s, several powerful tropical storms caused the sea to flood over, severely damaging buildings and infrastructure of the communities that had sprung up along its shores. This dramatically reduced the area’s ability to attract and host tourists, hamstringing its economic potential. Many businesses in the area were abandoned following this event.

Soon after, the previous warnings came true. Before the 1980s rolled around, fish started to die off in droves, unable to bear the high salinity. Large algal blooms, fueled by the fertilizers making their way into the lake, consumed what little oxygen there was left (salty water can dissolve far less oxygen than freshwater), virtually wiping-out the remaining fish populations. According to recent estimations, of an initial population of 100 million fish, a staggering 97% died off by the 1990s.

Their carcasses laid in piles all along the shorelines.

Dead fish strewn about the Salton Sea shore. Image credits Eric Gorski / Flickr.

The lack of fish heavily affected bird populations which relied on the sea for food. Furthermore, the staggering levels of death in the waters led to an epidemic of botulism ravaging what little fish stocks were still present in the Salton Sea, which later spread to the birds around 1996. Over a four month-long period during that year, over 10,000 birds died at the site; incinerators were running around the clock during this time to dispose of the infected dead bodies.

After the year 2000, various policies and improvements in water use in the surrounding farmlands led to a further decrease of around 40% in the amount of water flowing into the area. This exacerbated the problems the sea was facing, leading to an even more drastic increase in the salinity of its waters and the associated environmental impact this was having on wildlife.

The repeated issuing of bad odor advisories for the Salton Sea puts into perspective just how much death local wild communities experienced here since the 1970s. In 2012, after a strong storm had agitated the waters, the foul smell of decaying organic matter could be suffered as far as the Los Angeles Basin, some 150 miles (240 km) away.

The area today is plagued by severe air quality issues, in very large part due to toxic dust raised from the large surfaces of now-exposed lakebed. While the exact composition of this dust is unclear, it is safe to assume that it consists of a combination of decaying organic matter, salts, and dried compounds accumulated over years from farming runoff.

Several reclamation and rehabilitation projects have been proposed in the area, but they routinely run into the problem of funding. The problems plaguing the area are enormous, and as thus, enormously expensive to address. The funds to do so are simply not forthcoming.

Schools serving the various communities around the Salton Sea today employ a system of colored flags to keep at-risk students (such as those suffering from asthma) safe from the fallout produced by the drying sea. On good days, signified by a green flag, they can join their friends on the playground. On bad days — red flags — they’re not even allowed to exit the school buildings.

The once-bustling area is, today, a shadow of its former self. Stranded ships, half-buried in the desert soil, litter the former coast of the Salton Sea. Abandoned mobile homes sit next to the Varner Harbor, now closed due to low water levels.

“Pulling up just before sunrise at the Salton Sea, California’s biggest lake, is an almost surreal experience. At this time of day it’s eerily quiet; just the sound of water, a few desolate cries of waking birds and the sound of our Polaroid cameras,” writes Nathalie Farigu for Our World, describing the area as it is now. “Abandoned and partially destroyed mobile homes, a chair in the water, a lone boot, a pink sink and a BBQ are just some of the things lying around.”

“It makes you wonder what happened here.”

The Salton Sea is a story of happenstance and tragedy. It’s a story of what could have been, but wasn’t, and of the missing funds to set it right. Of incredible loss of wildlife, and of the people that still struggle to live under its effects. What happened here is, in short, the single greatest environmental disaster of the state of California — one whose aftermath is still playing out.

California will soon ban new gas-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers

It’s time to leave behind gas-powered leaf blowers and lawn mowers, at least in California. Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law that will phase them out by 2024 or as soon as feasible, whichever comes first. The new regulations are meant to promote the use of zero-emissions landscaping tools, either battery-operated or plug-in. The law comes a year after Newson signed an executive order to phase out the sale of gas-powered vehicles by 2035. 

Image credit: Flickr / Dean Hochman.

For years, California has been pushing for stronger action to reduce pollution levels. It’s the only state that can regulate air quality on its own thanks to an exception in federal legislation. While they can’t pass their own air quality legislation, other states can choose to follow California’s lead instead of the ones from the US federal government, whichever of the two fits them best.

Under the new law, retailers will only be allowed to sell zero-emission gardening equipment, such as electric or battery-powered products. The bill’s author, lawmaker Marc Berman, and supporters such as the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists, claim the new regulations will help make people’s yards less polluting.  

California will assign $30 million to assist landscapers and gardeners in making the transition to zero-emission equipment. Still, this is seen as insufficient from industry representatives. A commercial riding gas-powered lawn mower costs between $7,000 and $11,000, while a zero-emissions one can cost twice as much, according to industry estimations.  

The California Air Resources Board, which is part of the state’s Environmental Protection Agency, estimates that using a gas-powered leaf blower can generate as much air pollution as driving a Toyota Camry for 1,100 miles (1,770 kilometers). With over 16 million small engines in the state, such a shift could be quite significant. 

“It’s amazing how people react when they learn how much this equipment pollutes, and how much smog-forming and climate-changing emissions that small off-road engine equipment creates,” Berman told Los Angeles Times. “This is a pretty modest approach to trying to limit the massive amounts of pollution that this equipment emits.”

A green transformation

Most leaf blowers and lawn mowers use a two-stroke engine without an independent lubrication system, so the fuel has to be mixed with oil. This can lead to harmful toxic pollutants being released into the air, such as nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide. And it’s not something minor, with very high levels of commultive pollution, as seen in previous studies.

A 2011 study found that a leaf blower can emit almost 300 times the amount of air pollutants as a pickup truck. And back in 2001, a group of researchers found that using a gas-powered lawn mower for an hour generates the same air pollution to driving a car for 100 miles (160 kilometers). That’s why finding zero-emission alternatives can be very important. 

Still, buying an electric leaf blower can be quite expensive and probably not for everyone. That’s why not removing the leaves is also a very good option, either by leaving them whole on landscape areas or moving them into a layer of mulch on the lawn. In fact, it’s one of the best things you can do for pollinators and invertebrates. 

Leaves are very beneficial for grass, cycling nutrients back to the soil, and a great addition to compost. You can pile leaves and add a handful to the compost pile, helping the whole process. Leaves also provide a safe habitat for many insects, which tuck themselves in a pile of leaves for protection or even lay eggs in fallen leaves. 

Major oil leak threatens wildlife across California

More than 120,000 gallons of oil have spilled into the Pacific Ocean following a leak at an oil pipeline off the coast of Southern California. While the leak appears to have stopped now, major removal efforts are underway by government officials and volunteers to avoid long-term impacts on the environment – especially on birds and marine life.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

The breach of the pipeline was initially reported on Saturday five miles away from Huntington Beach in Orange County, leaking the equivalent of an estimated 3,000 barrels of post-production crude, according to local officials. Amplify Energy, the company that owns the pipeline, said they are still exploring the reasons for the leak.

The Coast Guard said the spill currently covers 13 square miles, stretching from Huntington Beach to Laguna Beach, and is likely to expand south based on wind and currents. Captain Rebecca Ore described it as “isolated patches” of oil that are constantly changing. About 3,150 gallons have already been removed from the water. 

There are 14 vessels on water monitoring the situation, as well as the Coast Guard. Authorities are particularly worried about seven locally sensitive sites such as the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve and the Talbert Marsh – both in the zone of the oil spill and home to about 90 bird species. The Oiled Wildlife Care Network reported having recovered three birds from the oil spill. 

Oil spills and leaks take a massive toll on the environment. Whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals have difficulties breathing or even die after going through oil or breathing toxic fumes. Birds are also severely affected. If they get some oil on their feathers they can’t fly, clean themselves or even check their own body temperatures; for many, an oil spill equals doom. 

A long track record

California’s shores have been affected by several oil spills over the years. In 1969 a spill of as much as 4.2 million gallons of crude oil happened near Santa Barbara. Then in 1990 an oil taken ran over its anchor and pictured its hull, leaking about 417,000 gallons of crude oil. The current spill could fill up to 20% of an Olympic-sized pool. 

Government officials from California advised residents to avoid doing leisure activities on the coastline or the beach, suggesting those who may have been in touch with the spill to seek medical attention. The effects of oil on people include headache, vomiting, and eye and skin irritation, with children and older people more at risk.

Laguna Beach announced on Sunday it would close all beaches, while Newport Beach warned people to avoid contact with ocean water and areas impacted by oil. Sections of the shoreline of Huntington Beach were also closed, as Major Kim Carr described the spill as a “potential ecological disaster” and said to be doing everything they can.

The company behind the spill, Amplify Energy, has three oil platforms nine miles off the coast of California, set up between 1980 and 1984. It also manages a pipeline that transports oil from a processing platform to an onshore storage facility. AP found that the company has been cited 72 times for environmental and safety violations over the years. 

“A spill of this magnitude is a disaster whenever it occurs, but this one occurred in an especially sensitive area at critical time, as many bird species head south for the winter,” Sarah Rose, executive director of Audubon California, said in a statement. “This spill is a reminder that petroleum and water are a dangerous mix along California’s precious coast.”

Say goodbye to the office — California’s Bay Area set to enforce telecommuting

Working from home could become the post-pandemic norm in a part of California. Officials from the San Francisco Bay Area passed a plan that will require employees at large companies to work remotely for three days a week in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Credit Flickr Veit.

The decision, adopted by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, was approved 11-1 as part of a larger effort to determine what the area should look like in 30 years. It would likely have been an unthinkable decision before the pandemic sent thousands of workers home. But both companies and employees now seem to have warmed up to the idea of remote working.

“There is an opportunity to do things that could not have been done in the past,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, a member of the transportation commission who supports the proposal, said in a statement.

She described feeling “very strongly” about a telecommuting mandate being a part of the region’s future.

Some of the largest companies in the US are headquartered in the Bay Area, such as Apple, Facebook, Google, Intel, Netflix, Chevron, Levi Strauss, and Wells Fargo. While some such as Facebook have embraced remote work as a long-term strategy, many others like Apple have built campuses to have employees on-site in non-pandemic times.

The new move surprised residents, many of whom first learned of the idea from social media and then flooded an online meeting of the transportation agency to try, unsuccessfully, to talk commissioners out of the idea. Steven Buss, a Google engineer, told the commission that he didn’t want to continue with this as a lifestyle and that working from home is “terrible.”

Many of those that participated in the meeting said that the situation exacerbates inequality as only some types of work can be done from home. Others highlighted the consequences this could have on lunch spots, transit agencies, and other businesses and organizations that rely on revenue from office workers. If emissions are the problem, the commission should focus on cars, many said.

The new rule would only apply to “large, office-based employers” and require them to have at least 60% of their employees telecommute on any given workday. They could meet the requirement through flexible schedules, compressed workweeks, or other alternatives. It’s part of a broader project planning for 2050 that has been discussed for months.

Nick Josefowitz, a member of the commission who expressed concern about the new rule, tried to amend the mandate to allow for walking to work or taking transit, but opponents said any delay to the plan could cause the commission to miss a key funding deadline or fall short of targets for reducing emissions. There’s no other way to reduce emissions as fast, the commission concluded.

Therese McMillan, the commission’s executive director, said there would be time to polish the details and account for green types of commutes like walking. The plan will come back before the commission again sometime later this year, and then there would be an implementation period — which may overlap with the pandemic.

California announced last week it plans to ban gasoline-powered vehicles, phasing them out by 2035 in a move to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Although sales of new vehicles will be banned, the government will still allow vehicles to be owned and sold on the used-car market.

Climate change is driving California’s record wildfires

California is experiencing one of its worst wildfire seasons on record and climate change seems to be the main driver, according to a new study. Researchers have found an “unequivocal and pervasive” role for global warming in driving the scale and severity of the fires.

Credit Flickr Daria Devyatkina.

More than two million acres (809.000 hectares) have already been burned across the state, with residents being forced to leave their homes as firefighters try to contain blazes. President Trump has pointed the finger at poor land management practices as the main cause, while the California Governor has blamed climate change.

Now, a review of scientific research into the actual reasons for the wildfire has suggested rising temperatures are playing a major role. The same research team had already looked at the origins of Australia’s dramatic fires and found climate change was behind the increase in the frequency and severity of fire there as well.

The new review looked at more than 100 studies published since 2013. They showed that extreme fires form when natural variability in the climate syncs up with increasingly warm and dry background conditions (which are made more frequent by global warming). That’s the case now in California, and it created the worst wildfires in 18 years.

“In terms of the trends we’re seeing, in terms of the extent of wildfires, and which have increased eight to ten-fold in the past four decades, that trend is driven by climate change,” said Matthew Jones, lead-author to BBC News. “Climate change ultimately means that those forests, whatever state they’re in, are becoming warmer and drier more frequently.”

The researchers found that in the 40 years from 1979 to 2019, weather conditions that foster wildfires have increased by a total of eight days on average across the world. However, in California, the number of autumn days with extreme wildfire conditions has doubled in that period. They concluded climate change is bringing hotter and drier weather to the Western US, exposing the region to more fire risks.

The researchers also acknowledged that fire management practices in the US have also contributed to the build-up of fuel. Fire authorities normally do controlled burnings to reduce the amount of fuel available when a wildfire starts. But this has been altered due to the rising temperatures.

“When you do prescribed burns, you can only do it when the conditions aren’t too hot and dry, because you need to be able to control the fire,” said Prof Richard Betts, co-author, told BBC News. “But once you’ve passed the point where you’ve got hot, dry conditions for much of the year, you’ve lost your opportunity to do lots of prescribed burnings.”

The researchers argued that the conditions for wildfire are likely to continue to become more common in the future, and, according to Dr. Jones, the resulting fires will likely get worse. That’s why they called for further action to address climate change. The more we can do to limit temperature growth the better, as far as avoiding the further expansion of wildfires is concerned.

The study was published in the journal ScienceBrief.

California plans to ban new gas-powered cars by 2035

California is officially saying goodbye to gasoline-powered vehicles, phasing them out by 2035 in a move to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Although sales of new vehicles will be banned, the government will still allow vehicles to be owned and sold on the used-car market.

Governor Newson announces the plan. Credit State of California

Governor Gavin Newsom enforced the plan through an executive order. It’s the most aggressive clean-car policy in the United States so far. Newson also supported a ban on petroleum fracking but he will let the California Legislature decide on that instead of signing another executive order.

“This is the most impactful step our state can take to fight climate change,” the governor said in a statement. “Our cars shouldn’t make wildfires worse — and create more days filled with smoky air. Cars shouldn’t melt glaciers or raise sea levels threatening our cherished beaches and coastlines.”

California has been severely hit by wildfires and heatwaves, with Newson claiming the fight against climate change has to be accelerated. Nevertheless, the state’s efforts have clashed with the Trump administration, which has sought to revoke California’s authority to enforce a shift towards zero-emission vehicles. The issue is now in court.

While the state has successfully tackled several sources of emissions, transportation remains its biggest (and growing) problem. Former Governor Jerry Brown signed an executive order in 2018 to have 200 hydrogen fueling stations and 250,000 electric vehicle chargers installed by 2025 to support the growing numbers of clean vehicles.

The number of zero-emission electric vehicles being sold in the state has been growing in recent years. Nevertheless, they accounted for fewer than 8% of all new cars sold in California last year. By 2035, Bloomberg projects, about half of US passenger vehicle sales will be battery and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

“The Governor’s Executive Order is a meaningful step in addressing the climate crisis and protecting the health of Californians,” the California-based Coalition for Clean Air said in an email to NPR. “Electrifying transportation will also create jobs and help California move forward in its economic recovery.”

Newsom’s order, which he signed on the hood of the forthcoming electric Ford Mustang Mach-E, will probably set the tone for the whole country. California is the largest car market in the US and also one of the biggest gasoline consumers. Still, questions remain, including whether the state will allow the sale of plug-in hybrid cars.

Whether other states join or not will likely depend on the upcoming presidential election. While the Trump administration has challenged California’s efforts to reduce transportation emissions, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has advocated for the widespread adoption of electric cars and the construction of a national charging network.

California fires break new record as residents are evacuated across the state

Wildfires in California have already broken a state record with still two months to go of the wildfire season, burning more than two million acres (809.000 hectares). Residents are being forced to leave their homes as firefighters try to contain blazes across the state.

Credit US Department of Agriculture Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The previous record was set in 2018, with 1.96 million acres (793.184 hectares) burned, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) which began taking records in 1987. Lynne Tolmachoff, the spokeswoman for Cal Fire, said there were surprised over how early in the season the record was set.

“In the past 33 years we have not seen a single year go over two million acres. This is definitely record-breaking and we have not even come close to the end of fire season yet,” said Tolmachoff in a press release. “It’s a little unnerving because September and October are historically our worst months for fires.”

At least seven people have died as a result of this year’s fires and some 3,800 structures have been damaged or destroyed, according to figures provided by Cal Fire. More than 14,100 firefighters were battling 24 different wildfires as of yesterday, the fire department said on its social media.

Firefighters are struggling to enclose several dangerous blazes, with dry and hot winds expected in the next few days that could increase the fire danger to critical levels. Authorities have ordered the evacuation of more mountain communities as the largest blaze, the Creek Fire, expands in the Sierra National Forest.

The Creek Fire started on Friday in steep and rugged terrain and since then has spread to 78,790 acres (31.8 hectares), with 0% being contained, according to Cal Fire. At least a dozen dwellings were burned in the town of Big Creek, with over 200 hikers having to be airlifted after being trapped by the flames at the Mammoth Pool reservoir.

Cal Fire said a “smoke-generating pyrotechnic device, used during a gender reveal party” started The El Dorado fire in San Bernadino County. These are celebrations announcing whether expecting parents are going to have a girl or a boy. In recent years, several of them have gone wrong, even causing the death of a woman in 2019.

“Cal Fire reminds the public that with the dry conditions and critical fire weather, it doesn’t take much to start a wildfire”, a tweet by Cal Fire reads. People who cause fires “can be held financially and criminally responsible,” it added. California has seen nearly 1,000 wildfires since 15 August, often started by lightning strikes.

The fire conditions were aggravated by record temperatures registered over the three-day Labor Day weekend, stressing the already exhausted firefighters. A record 49 degrees Celsius (121 Fahrenheit) was registered on Sunday in Woodland Hills, an all-time high for Los Angeles County, the National Weather Service said.

High temperatures have led to the highest demand for power so far this year, according to California Independent System Operator, which manages the state’s power grid. The state could see power outages soon if residents don’t reduce their electricity usage, the company warned, although none has yet taken place.

Wildfires expand across Northern California amid blistering heatwave

Threatening homes and blackening the skies, a set of wildfires are raging through Northern California while firefighters are struggling to contain them in blistering heat. The fires were caused by lightning strikes and driven by strong winds over thousands of acres.

A helicopter ready to drop water on the fires. Credit Flickr RS2Photography (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The fast-moving blaze has affected rural areas, brushland, canyon country, and dense forest to the south, east, and north of San Francisco. The fires have also made their way through the wine country and the Sierra Nevada. There are about two dozen major blazes, while small fires also keep erupting through the region.

More than 300,000 acres have burned across the state so far this year, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, an increase compared to the 270,000 acres last year — the smallest surface since 2011. This has stretched the state’s firefighting resources to their limit.

A pilot on a water-dropping mission in Fresno County died yesterday when the helicopter crashed an hour away from the New Coalinga Municipal Airport. The pilot was employed by Guardian Helicopters, which was contracted by the state fire agency to provide emergency services on a call-when-needed basis.

The fires erupted at the beginning of the week and expanded rapidly. A severe heatwave and humid air caused record-high temperatures and thunderstorms in the area. Governor Gavin Newsom said yesterday that California had almost 11,000 strikes in only 72 hours, leading to the growing blazes.

Up to 8,000 residents near the Russian River were asked to evacuate due to two fires in the Solano County. Residents of Healdsburg, with a population of 12,000, were warned to be ready to evacuate soon. The air in San Francisco was filled with ash and smoke from seven fires that burned more than 100 buildings and threatened 2,500 others.

The 100,000 residents of Vacaville, located between San Francisco and Sacramento, were woken up before dawn by police and firefighters, who went door to door asking residents to evacuate their homes, according to AP.

In a statement, the California Fire Department said this was “extreme” fire behavior. “Fires are making runs in multiple directions and impacting multiple communities. A critically dry airmass is moving over the area bringing strong winds,” they said, adding four people have been injured, but not clarifying if they were fire firefighters.

The state is still in the midst of a record-breaking heatwave that began last week. Death Valley registered 130 Fahrenheit (54.4ºC), which could be the highest temperature reading on Earth in almost 90 years. Similar records were seen in Woodland Hills, Burbank, and Santa Ana.

Since the 1970s, California wildfires have increased in size eight-fold, with the annual burned area growing by nearly 500%, a study said last year, linking the increase with climate change. The researchers suggested wildfires could grow exponentially in the next 40 years as temperatures continue to rise.

California will see both more flooding and more drought by the end of the century

The entire state of California could see a 54% increase in rainfall variability by the end of the century, according to a new study, which predicts fluctuations in extremely dry and wet weather in the entire West Coast of the United States.

Floods in California in 2017. Credit Flickr

Wenyu Zhou, a postdoctoral researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and his team focused their research on the Madden-Julian oscillation (MJO) — an atmospheric phenomenon that influences rainfall in the tropics and can trigger everything from cyclones over the Indian Ocean to heatwaves, droughts, and flooding in the United States.

Researchers were surprised by the magnitude of the effect: 54% more rainfall variability by the end of the century

Although recent studies have investigated the response of the MJO to anthropogenic climate change, not much is known yet about its potential impact on teleconnections. As the Earth’s climate warms, the dynamics controlling MJO are set to expand eastward, causing a huge uptick in extreme weather in California, the study showed.

“I was surprised by the magnitude of the effect,” said Da Yang, an assistant professor with the UC Davis Department of Land, Air and Water Resources, in a press release. “A 54% increase in rainfall variability will have very significant impacts on agriculture, flood control and water management.”

The study showed that the MJO teleconnection pattern during the boreal winter will likely extend further eastward over the North Pacific. This is mainly due to an eastward shift in the exit region of the subtropical jet, to which the teleconnection pattern is anchored, and assisted by an eastward extension of the MJO itself.

The eastward-extended teleconnection enables the MJO to have a greater impact downstream on the Northeast Pacific and North American west coast, the researchers argued. Over California specifically, the study projects a 54% increase in MJO-induced precipitation variability by 2100 under a high-emissions scenario.

Yang and his team used satellite observations and computer models to study the physics of rainstorms and atmospheric circulation in a changing climate. They are now working to understand what environmental factors control the size and duration of rainstorms and how the collective effects of rainstorms, in turn, shape Earth’s climate.

About 85% of California’s population live and work in coastal counties. The sea level along California’s coasts has risen nearly 8 inches (20cm) in the past century and is projected to rise by as much as 20 to 55 inches (50 to 139cm) by the end of the century, according to government estimations.

This could put nearly half a million people at risk of flooding by 2100, and threaten $100 billion in property and infrastructure, including roadways, buildings, hazardous waste sites, power plants, and parks and tourist destinations. Coastal erosion could have a significant impact on California’s ocean-dependent economy, which is estimated to be $46 billion per year.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

Glow in the dark waves surprise surfers in California

Imagine yourself being able to surf at night with waves that aren’t only breathtaking but also have an amazing glow. Well, that’s possible every few years along the coast of southern California.

Bioluminescent plankton spotted in Tasmania in 2015.
Image credits Jonathan Esling.

Images were recently captured at beaches in California, where the night-time waters can be seen glowing bright blue. While this has happened before, locals say this year’s phenomenon is special thanks to historic rains that have hit the region and created algal blooms.

The bright blue color of the waves is created by blooming microscopic plants called phytoplankton. The organisms collect on the water’s surface during the day to give the water a reddish-brown hue, known as the red tide. By night, the algae put on a light show, dazzling most brightly in turbulent waters.

The bioluminescence is a chemical reaction on a cellular level within the algae caused by the motion of the waves, according to Scripps Institution of Oceanography Professor Peter J. Franks, who calls the phytoplankton “my favorite dinoflagellate.”

“Why favorite?” Franks wrote in an email Q&A posted on the blog Deep-Sea News. “Because it’s intensely bioluminescent. When jostled, each organism will give off a flash of blue light created by a chemical reaction within the cell. When billions and billions of cells are jostled — say, by a breaking wave — you get a seriously spectacular flash of light.”

The algae blooms have been spotted this year at several beaches in the south of California, including Newport Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Dockweiler state beach. Surfers and many others intrigued by the phenomenon have approached the beaches in the last few weeks to see the glowing waves for themselves.

California has implemented social distancing measures due to the coronavirus epidemic, but people can still visit its beaches. However, they must maintain a 1.8-meter distance between themselves and others. Swimming, surfing, kayaking, and paddleboarding are still allowed.

Dale Huntington, a 37-year-old pastor, got up at 3am after beaches reopened to surf the waves. “I’ve been surfing for 20 years now, and I’ve never seen anything like it”, he told The Guardian. “My board left a bioluminescent wake. There were a few of us out there and we were giggling, grown men shouting and splashing around like kids.”

Researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, who study the phenomenon, said the glow shows are most lively at least two hours after sunset. They don’t know exactly how long the phenomenon will last this year. Red tides have been observed since the early 1900s and can last from a few days to a couple of months.

Coronavirus lockdown in California saves taxpayers $1 billion in avoided car crashes

Image credits: Paul Hanaoka.

Social distancing and stay-at-home orders not only avert fatalities due to COVID-19 but also many others that would have otherwise occurred due to human activity. This includes work-related incidences and car accidents. In the Golden State, there have been 60% fewer motor-vehicle accidents compared to pre-lockdown year-to-year figures, resulting in $1 billion in savings.

Savings of $40 million a day

The results were recently shared by a team of researchers at the University of California Davis, who tapped into data from the California Highway Patrol. The reports on the number of motorway incidences were compared to data from the Federal Highway Administration in order to estimate savings associated with averted property damage, treatment of injuries, emergency room interventions, and lost productivity at work, among other costs.

Traffic has plummeted in California as the state is under quarantine with residents allowed to go outside solely for essential matters such as going to work or procuring food.

The data suggest that traffic volumes were down 55% for some highways compared to business as usual before the quarantine in California. Between March 21 and April 11, the average daily number of traffic collisions was down to 450, compared to 1,128 during the same period in 2019.

As a result, there have been 40% fewer vehicle crash-related injuries reported by hospitals in the Sacramento area. Pedestrians and bicyclists saw the greatest reduction in traumatic injuries with figures showing 50% less such incidences compared to 2019.

Besides savings for the state coffers, this dramatic drop in crashes around the US has allowed insurance companies to draw billions in additional profits as they had to pay fewer claims.

While the savings associated with averted costs associated with motor vehicle crashes can’t make up for the millions of lost jobs and drop in economic activity, they at least paint a positive side to the pandemic.

There has never been such a dramatic change in vehicle movement in the modern history of transportation in the United States.

California’s lockdown easing plan is the most well-laid we’ve read

California Gov. Gavin Newsom released a roadmap for gradually relaxing the coronavirus lockdown. There is no fixed timeline, but rather a set of key objectives that need to be achieved before lockdown can be eased.

Image credits: Ken Lund.

California isn’t only the most populous US state, it’s the world’s 5th largest economy on its own. Increasingly, the state of California has come in conflict with the US federal government.

When it comes to managing the coronavirus outbreak, Newsom also seems to have different ideas than those presented by Trump.

While the US president has repeatedly stated that he is eager to open the economy as soon as possible (as early as the 1st of May), Newsom believes no firm date can be decided yet, though he does say that at some point, the lockdown will have to be eased.

“While Californians have stepped up in a big way to flatten the curve and buy us time to prepare to fight the virus, at some point in the future we will need to modify our stay-at-home order,” Newsom said.

But instead of deciding a timeline, Newsom presented a set of indicators that will be used to determine when the lockdown can be eased. California will ease the lockdown when it has:

  1. “The ability to monitor and protect our communities through testing, contact tracing, isolating, and supporting those who are positive or exposed.”
  2. “The ability to prevent infection in people who are at risk for more severe COVID-19.”
  3. “The ability of the hospital and health systems to handle surges.”
  4. “The ability to develop therapeutics to meet the demand.”
  5. “The ability for businesses, schools, and child care facilities to support physical distancing.”
  6. “The ability to determine when to reinstitute certain measures, such as the stay-at-home orders, if necessary.”

This type of approach is much more in line with scientific evidence on containing the outbreak. As the US top epidemiologist Anthony Fauci said, “You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline.” It doesn’t make much sense to draw a line in the sand when so many variables are still unknown. If the lockdown is eased prematurely, the second wave of infections might be even more devastating than the first.

Even as the lockdown will be eased, it won’t be overnight and it won’t be like a flick of a button. Instead, it will be dimmed down and back up several times, Newsom cautions.

“As we contemplate reopening parts of our state, we must be guided by science and data, and we must understand that things will look different than before.”

“There is no light switch here. Think of it as a dimmer. It will toggle between less restrictive and more restrictive.”

This approach is similar to what other countries are planning. Notably, Germany’s plan for easing the lockdown also involves mass testing and tracking infection chains, which at this point seems to be the best approach given the circumstances.

Coronavirus in California — live updates, cases, and news

Coronavirus cases and fatalities in California

A regularly-updated map of confirmed COVID-19 cases, borough by borough.

The number is based on confirmed diagnostic tests. It is very likely that the true number of COVID-19 cases is higher as many cases are asymptomatic.

New COVID-19 cases and fatalities per day in California

This is a good indicator of “flattening the curve” — when there is a steady decreasing trend, it is an indicator that the spread of the disease is slowing down.

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Stay Home Except for Essential Needs FAQs – March 20, 2020

How can people protect themselves?

There is currently no vaccine to prevent COVID-19. The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus. The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet). This occurs through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. Older adults and people who have severe underlying chronic medical conditions like heart or lung disease or diabetes seem to be at higher risk for developing more serious complications from COVID-19 illness. Every person has a role to play. So much of protecting yourself and your family comes down to common sense: 

  • Washing hands with soap and water.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. If surfaces are dirty, clean them using detergent or soap and water prior to disinfection.
  • Avoiding touching eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue or your elbow.
  • Avoiding close contact with people who are sick.
  • Staying away from work, school or other people if you become sick with respiratory symptoms like fever and cough.
  • If you smoke or vape, consider quitting. Smokers who already have lung disease or reduced lung capacity could be at increased risk of serious illness
  • Following guidance from public health officials.

Please consult with your health care provider about additional steps you may be able to take to protect yourself.

Who is at Higher Risk for Serious Illness from COVID-19?

Early information out of China, where COVID-19 first started, shows that some people are at higher risk of getting very sick from this illness. This includes:

  • Older adults (65+)
  • Individuals with compromised immune systems
  • Individuals who have serious chronic medical conditions like:
    • Heart disease
    • Diabetes
    • Lung disease

Watch for symptoms

Reported illnesses have ranged from mild symptoms to severe illness and death for confirmed coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases.

These symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure (based on the incubation period of MERS-CoV viruses).

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

Why are we seeing a rise in cases?

The number of cases of COVID-19 being reported in the United States is rising due to increased laboratory testing and reporting across the country. The growing number of cases in part reflects the rapid spread of COVID-19 as many U.S. states and territories experience community spread. More detailed and accurate data will allow us to better understand and track the size and scope of the outbreak and strengthen prevention and response efforts.

CDC recommendations

Due to widespread transmission in California, CDC recommends expanded and laser focused community mitigation activities to help slow the spread of respiratory virus infections including the novel coronavirus SARS-C0V-2, the cause of the disease COVID-19.

These approaches are used to minimize morbidity and mortality of COVID-19 as well as to minimize the social and economic impacts of COVID-19. Individuals, communities, businesses, and healthcare organizations are all part of a community mitigation strategy.

The focus is on protecting the health care system with expected rise in cases by slowing the spread within the community and focused on protecting the vulnerable members of the community.

Coronavirus in California News:

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California, and the world at large, will contend with longer, hotter, drier wildfire seasons

Climate change is going to put California at risk of longer, more dangerous, and more destructive wildfire seasons reports a new study from the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences

Australian wildfire photographed in 2019.
Image credits Sippakorn Yamkasikorn.

The authors hope their work will guide authorities to implement more effective strategies for wildfire risk mitigation and land management, as well as to spur better resource allocation for the fighting of wildfires.

Wilderfires

“Many factors influence wildfire risk, but this study shows that long-term warming, coupled with decreasing autumn precipitation, is already increasing the odds of the kinds of extreme fire weather conditions that have proved so destructive in both northern and southern California in recent years,” said study senior author Noah Diffenbaugh, the Kara J Foundation professor at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

The team reports that autumn days with weather conditions conducive to extreme fires have doubled in frequency since the early 1980s in California, while rainfall during the wildfire season has dropped by about 30%. At the same time, the average temperature has risen by over 2 degrees Fahrenheit (more than 1 degree Celsius) over the same timeframe, with late summer and early autumn showing the highest increases. All in all, these factors work together to create very dry plant material in forests and grasslands that can act as tinder during the same parts of the year when dry “Diablo” and “Santa Ana” winds blow throughout northern and southern California.

This is what has been feeding the large and fast-spreading wildfires seen across the state in recent years, the team explains. And their effect has been seen over the past few years: California recorded its deadliest wildfire, its two largest wildfires, and its two most destructive wildfires so far during 2017 and 2018, the team explains, which collectively caused more than $50 billion in damage and claimed over 150 lives.

File:2017 California wildfires.png
Map of 2017 California wildfires from January 1 to October 11.
Image credits Wikimedia.

The paper analyses the November 2018 Camp Fire in the Northern Sierra Nevada foothills and the Woolsey Fire around the same time near Los Angeles. Both were fueled by strong seasonal winds and dry plant material created during the state’s hottest summer on record (in 2018). The outcomes of the fire were worsened due to the state’s limited emergency response resources, which were put under immense strain trying to contain the fires raging across different areas.

Local data, global problem

For the study, the team looked at historic temperature and rain gauge records to determine the risk of extreme wildfires throughout the year. Autumn showed an especially pronounced increase, with a doubling in conditions that foster such events over the past four decades. A suite of climate model simulations showed that human-caused climate change is at the root of this change in conditions.

“Autumn is of particular concern since warmer, drier conditions may coincide with the strong offshore wind events which tend to occur in the September to November period,” said Michael Goss, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral scholar in Diffenbaugh’s Climate and Earth System Dynamics Group.

As for solutions, the team showed that the proposed reductions in emissions under the United Nations’ Paris agreement would help to slow down the rate at which wildfire risks increase — however, even in this scenario, much of California will likely still experience a rise in extreme wildfires in the future. The findings are “yet another piece of evidence that climate change is already having a discernible influence on day-to-day life in California,” according to Daniel Swain, a research fellow at UCLA, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and The Nature Conservancy, a study coauthor.

While the study focused on California, the findings are broadly applicable to any regions that are historically fire-prone, the team explains. This further exacerbates the problem, as global firefighting resources need to be spread over a larger area, limiting their effectiveness.

Apart from curbing our emissions, the team recommends controlled burning to reduce available fuel, upgrades to emergency communications and response systems, the development and implementations of community-level protective fire breaks, and changes to zoning and building codes meant to promote fire-resistant construction.

The paper “Climate change is increasing the risk of extreme autumn wildfire conditions across California” has been published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

It’s not only health impacts. Polluted air is affecting the crops of California

More than 90% of the planet breathes unhealthy air, leading to seven million premature deaths per year and billions of dollars in extra costs for health services. But that’s not the single problem, as pollutants are also affecting the yield of food crops and their nutritional quality.

Food contributes to air pollution, releasing nitrogen compounds into the air. In turn, air pollution can impact food production. Ozone emissions react to form ground-level ozone, penetrating into the structure of the plant and affecting its ability to develop — a phenomenon seen across the globe.

California is not an exception. The state has lost up to US$1 billion in crops each year between 1980 and 2015 due to smog, according to a new study. Crops including grapes, strawberries, walnuts, peaches, nectarines, and hay lost between 2% and 22% of their yield over this period.

Having lower yields means bad news for California, which relies on agriculture as one of its main sources of income, and for the country as a whole, as the state is the largest agricultural producer, producing a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts.

Nevertheless, there might be a light at the end of the tunnel for California. The state has stepped up its game to reduce pollution over the years and if it continues doing so the efforts will likely pay off, the researchers estimate.

“The farming community can see improvements in yields related to a decrease in this ground-level ozone. If that continued, we could even see further improvements in the yields of these sensitive crops,” Steven Davis, an associate professor at the University of California Irvine and coauthor of the study.

Other studies previously looked at the effect of air pollution on staple crops such as wheat, soy, and rice. Now, Davis and the group of researchers decided to focus on different crops, known as perennials. These are more valuable than staples and have longer lifespans, meaning they could be more vulnerable to pollution.

The team analyzed pollution exposure and crop yields from 1980 to 2015, and also looked at the effects of warming on these perennial crops. They also projected crop yield changes up to 2050, expecting a decline in the that would boost wine grape production by 5% and nectarines by 8%.

“These aren’t the things that are providing the global population with its main source of calories. These are the sweet things in life – fruits, nuts and grapes for wine,” Davis said. “Also, monetarily, some of these crops are a lot more valuable than wheat or corn.”

The results of the study can be applied to other farming areas, according to the researchers, who now want to look at the trajectory of California’s energy systems and what benefits they might have for specific crops. “We can start analyzing trade-offs of water use and energy and try to inform the policymakers about the most cost-effective and beneficial ways to go,” Davis said.

The study was published in Nature Food.

California University develops 24-hour coronavirus test

The University of California Medical Center has developed its own test for coronavirus, which they say will provide results within 24 hours.

Coronavirus testing in the US has been surprisingly slow, and there is also much confusion and inefficiency deciding who can get tested and who should pay for it. Technical challenges with the first test developed by the CDC also left the nation with minimal diagnostic capacity during the crucial first weeks of the epidemic. Flawed kits put the US at increased risk, adding a degree of an uncertainty to an already challenging situation.

Even as the number of cases in the US continues to spike, the federal government has not ensured that there are enough tests to go around. To alleviate some of this pressure, doctors and researchers from the University of California have developed their own test.

According to the Sacramento Bee, in-house testing is available at labs at UC San Francisco, UCLA, and UC San Diego, with UC Davis and Irvine next in line. The test is available across 10 campuses.

“We are hoping this will aid the state in getting more people tested,” UC Health Executive Vice President Carrie Byington told lawmakers.

Thus far, no one at a UC campus has tested positive for the virus. But to be on the safe side, the campus has mostly shut down, with classes and exams being carried in an online format, to reduce the risk of transmissions. No healthcare workers on any campus have contracted the virus.

This isn’t the first university-based coronavirus test developed. Stanford previously created its own coronavirus test which also shows results after 24 hours, also motivated by testing inefficiencies.

“In the early stages, COVID-19 has spread beyond the nation’s ability to detect it,” Stanford medical researchers wrote in an op-ed.

At the moment, it is not exactly clear if the tests will become more widely available, but it’s an encouraging sign in a battle that seems to be long and tedious.

The dairy industry today is much cleaner and more efficient than 60 years ago

Producing dairy today is cleaner than it was 50 years ago, a study finds.

Image credits Ulrike Leone.

Each liter of California milk requires less land, water, and releases fewer emissions than in 1964 to produce, reports a new study from the University of California, Davis. The study takes into account inputs as producing feed for the animals, the animals themselves, as well as the machinery and transportation needed to produce milk.

California is the top dairy-producing state, and milk production is the third-largest agricultural industry in the US.

Udder progress

“We compared 1964 through 2014 and found a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gases to produce the same quantity and quality of milk,” said senior author Ermias Kebreab, professor and Sesnon Endowed Chair in the Department of Animal Science at UC Davis. “The magnitude of change is surprising.”

A life cycle environmental assessment of California cows, from the time they’re born until they leave the farm, suggests that modern agricultural advancements really do help slash emissions and the environmental footprint of our food. The study included an analysis of inputs such as the feed, machinery, and transportation required to produce milk. The figures were then compared to their equivalents from 1964.

The largest cut to methane emissions seen in the study came from a decline in enteric methane — basically, cow belches. Reductions in emissions from manure were also recorded, but they were less dramatic than enteric ones.

“Reductions in enteric methane intensity (i.e., methane emissions per gallon of milk) are primarily a result of better genetics and breeding and better nutrition for the animals,” said Kebreab.

Overall, water use in the industry overall dropped by 88% compared to 1964 levels, the team explains, primarily through more efficient water use in feed crops and the use of by-products such as almond hulls for feed. Water use in housing and milking also dropped by 55%. Land use per liter of milk has also decreased, mostly through the introduction of better crops and agricultural practices.

While per liter efficiency has definitely increased, total greenhouse gas emissions from cows in California has increased, as more animals are being reared today. The team notes, though, that a cow in the 1960s could produce about 4,850 kilograms of milk per year, while one today can produce over 10,000 kg annually.

“There is a lot of discussion about how cows have a huge environmental footprint, but no one is talking about how the dairy industry has changed,” said Kebreab. “Dairy farmers are doing a lot to help reduce the industry’s environmental footprint.”

On the one hand, I definitely find the results encouraging, and I applaud the farmers that are doing their part to clean up the industry. But at the end of the day, there’s only so much they can clean. In the context of climate change, the most effective choice is simply to not breed any more cows. But I do love cheese, and I’m quite a fan of meat, so I secretly hope that we’ll be able to still put these on the table and safeguard the health of ecosystems around the world. In a previous study, Kebreab found that feeding dairy cows a small amount of Asparagopsis armata seaweed along with their feed, reduced methane emissions by up to 60% — so maybe there is still hope.

The paper “Greenhouse gas, water, and land footprint per unit of production of the California dairy industry over 50 years” has been published in the Journal of Dairy Science.

California becomes the first US state to ban animal fur products

Starting in 2023, California will become the first US state to ban the sale and manufacture of new fur products and the third to ban most animals from circus performances, according to a set of bills recently signed by Governor Gavin Newsom.

The law will apply in 2013, as well as a ban to have animals in circus performances
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The bill applies to all new clothing, handbags, shoes and other items made with any type of fur. Those who violate the law will be subject to fines and civil penalties. Used fur and taxidermy products are exempt from the ban, along with leather, cowhide, and shearling. Fur products used for religious purposes or by Native American tribes are also exempt from the legislation.

“California is a leader when it comes to animal welfare, and today that leadership includes banning the sale of fur,” Newsom said. “But we are doing more than that. We are making a statement to the world that beautiful wild animals like bears and tigers have no place on trapeze wires or jumping through flames.”

The initiative could mark a significant blow to the fur industry that makes products from animals including mink, chinchillas, rabbits and other animals. The US retail fur industry brought in US$1.5bn in sales in 2014, the most recent data available from the Fur Information Council.

Under California law, there is a fine of up to US$1,000 for multiple violations. Fashion designers including Prada, Versace, Gucci and Giorgio Armani have stopped or have said they plan to stop using fur in the near future — but this will force them to act much sooner.

Animals in fur farms are often subject to gassing, electrocution and other inhumane actions to take their fur, according to animal rights groups. In comparison with other farm animals, species farmed for their fur have been subjected to very little attention. In addition, fur factories are also extremely harmful to soil since producing fur requires pumping waste and the toxic chemicals in to the surrounding environment.

Advocacy group Direct Action Everywhere said it was working with activists to pass similar bills in cities nationwide, including Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon, and was optimistic California’s law would spur action.

“Ordinary people want to see animals protected, not abused,” said Cassie King, an organizer with the Berkeley-based group.

On the other hand, opponents of the legislation have said it could create a black market and be a slippery slope to bans on other products. The ban is part of a “radical vegan agenda using fur as the first step to other bans on what we wear and eat”, Keith Kaplan of the Fur Information Council said in a prior statement. He claimed fake fur was not a renewable or sustainable option.

Several fashion brands have already vowed to keep fur out of the catwalk all around the world, including Prada, Chanel, Burberry, Versace, Stella McCartney, Givenchy, Calvin Klein, and Ralph Lauren.

With the new legislation, California also joins New Jersey and Hawaii in banning most animals from circus performances. The law exempts domesticated dogs, cats, and horses and does not apply to rodeos. Circuses have been declining in popularity for decades. The most well-known act, the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, closed in 2017.

State officials said at least two circuses that include live animals were scheduled to perform in California this year. At least 18 circuses do not use animals, including Cirque du Soleil. The law includes penalties of up to $25,000 per day for each violation.

The Southwest California Legislative Council opposed the law, saying it would prevent people from being able “to experience the thrill of a circus performance featuring beautiful, well-cared-for animals”.

Worm species with three sexes found in Mono Lake

Mono Lake (California) is an inhospitable place for most life forms due to its super-salty waters, only known to be tolerated by bacteria, algae, and flies. Now, researchers have found worm species that thrive in the extreme ecosystem — and one of them has three sexes

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Biologist Paul Sternberg and his colleagues at the California Institute of Technology thought that microscopic worms called nematodes might lurk in Mono Lake, partially because the wriggling creatures are considered the most abundant animals on the planet.

The team carried out a set of expeditions in 2016 and 2017 to the Mono Lake and found microscopic worms that can withstand 500 times more arsenic exposure than a human. The study was published in the journal Current Biology.

They unearthed eight nematodes that had a variety of mouth shapes. The distinct mouth on each worm may allow the creature to munch on its preferred diet. Some of the nematodes graze on microbes as cows do on grass, while others prey on animals. Other worms are parasites and leach nutrients from their chosen host.

“Previous species were isolated from rich soils and dung, which can contain high concentrations of phosphate,” the authors suggest. “Since arsenic uptake occurs adventitiously via phosphate transporters, it is conceivable that adaptation to high levels of phosphate in the environment could lead to increased arsenic resistance.”

One of the newly discovered species — for now called Auanema sp. — has not one, not two, but three different sexes, the team reported, and carry developing offspring inside their bodies. A look at the worm’s genetic code revealed a mutation in a gene called dbt-1, which helps break down the amino acids that makeup proteins.

Before this study, only two other species had been found in this lake — which is three times as salty as the ocean and has an alkaline pH greater than baking soda. Yet even so, the discovery of eight more species wasn’t all that surprising to researchers. Nematodes are the most abundant type of animal on the planet, so even in the harsh environment of Mono Lake, there’s a good chance you’ll find them.

“Our study shows we still have much to learn about how these 1,000-celled animals have mastered survival in extreme environments,” study co-author Pei-Yin Shih, a graduate student at Caltech, said in the statement

Fossils in La Brea Tar Pits redraw picture of saber-toothed cats

Usually described as fierce predators, saber-toothed cats are imagined as stalking the open savannah in pursuit of bison, horses and other grassland-dwelling prey. But a new study paints a much less fierce image of the now long-extinct animals.

Illustration depicting the hunting behavior of La Brea carnivores, including saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, and coyotes. Credit: Mauricio Antón.

A team of researchers led by Vanderbilt University’s Larisa DeSantis recovered fossils from the La Brea Tar Pits in California, which suggested that the up to 600-pound cat actually preferred hunting in the forest, were easy targets, including tapirs and deer, congregated. The work was published in the journal Current Biology.

Based on an analysis of more than 700 fossil teeth belonging to multiple prehistoric species, the findings contradict the idea that competition among carnivores drove saber-toothed cats and other megafauna to extinction some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.

“The cats, including saber-toothed cats, American lions, and cougars, hunted prey that preferred forests, while it was the dire wolves that seemed to specialize on open-country feeders like bison and horses,” DeSantis explained. “While there may have been some overlap in what the dominant predators fed on, cats and dogs largely hunted differently from one another.

The scientists’ research pinpoints a different explanation for the giant cat’s demise, positing that factors, including climate change and an uptick in nearby human populations, which precipitated the species’ eventual extinction. Smaller predators such as coyotes, on the other hand, weathered harsh conditions.

DeSantis and her colleagues arrived at their conclusions by studying microscopic patterns of wear on fossil teeth, as well as the proportions of two carbon isotopes found within tooth enamel. These isotopes, passed along from plant-eating prey to carnivorous predators, identify victims’ preferred habitat as open versus forested environments.

The La Brea Tar Pits, bubbling pools of natural asphalt that attracted predators and prey alike, have yielded more than 3.5 million specimens representing some 600 species. Most of these unlucky animals were carnivores lured in by the carcasses of horses, bison, and camels already caught in the tar; rather than escaping with an easy meal, the predators soon found themselves similarly stuck.

La Brea Tar Pits. Credit: Flickr

Previous research had focused on carbon and nitrogen isotopes found within a bone protein called collagen. These analyses concluded that prehistoric predators from saber-toothed cats to dire wolves and American lions hunted in open environments, competing for the same limited pool of prey.

“When we look at the enamel, we get a totally different picture,” DeSantis said. “We find that the saber-tooth cats, American lions, and cougars are actually doing what cats typically do, which is hunting within forested ecosystems and using cover to potentially ambush their prey.