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Keeping green waste green

Surprise! Guess where much of that green waste really goes?

California mandates cutting waste streams in half through reduction and recycling, so it should be a no brainer to compost all those grass clippings and orange peels. But a third of the green waste collected statewide, or about 11 million tons per year, goes straight into the dump. That’s because local governments get recycling credit for sprinkling green waste on landfills every day to control odors.

But solving this problem creates another. Buried green waste degrades anaerobically and so emits methane, the second most common greenhouse gas of human origin. “This loophole has been terribly abused over the years — landfills are the largest source of man-made methane”, explains State Assemblyman Das Williams (Santa Barbara), who has been keen on waste reduction since working in a recycling facility at age 16… (more)

Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 2014

When Work is a Day at the Beach

Sand cores reveal the many invertebrates that are literally underfoot at the beach.

Karina Nielsen loves going to the beach as much as any Californian — and may love it even more than most. That’s because as a marine ecologist, she knows those long sandy stretches that look so empty are actually busy with life. “So many of the organisms are buried that it’s not always apparent, especially compared to tidepools,” she says.

But stand in the swash zone where surf meets sand, and you are likely to see shorebirds running back-and-forth to catch invertebrates and sand crabs digging to get away, and feel small crustaceans called isopods nipping at your toes… (more)

OceanSpaces 2014



Bay Primed for Pea Soup?

Nutrients could be the next big problem for San Francisco Bay — or make that in the Bay, because they’re already here at levels high enough to have caused trouble elsewhere. But despite its excess nitrogen and phosphorus, the Bay has been free of harmful algal blooms and oxygen-depleted dead zones for decades.

We’ve been so sure of this immunity to nutrients that most wastewater treatment plants don’t even have to remove them before discharging into the Bay. But recent chinks in the Bay’s resistance to nutrients are now alerting us to get ready in case there’s worse to come… (more)

Estuary News 2014

The Unsung Smelt

Longfin smelt are way down in the San Francisco Bay.

While not as famous as its cousin the Delta smelt, the longfin smelt is just as imperiled locally and — if the drought continues — stands to have one of its worst years ever. “The longfin smelt responds strongly to freshwater flows,” explains conservation biologist Jon Rosenfield of The Bay Institute, an environmental nonprofit. “It could really be in trouble.”

Named for its long pectoral fins, this small, silver fish was once among the most abundant in the San Francisco Estuary… (more)

Estuary News 2014

Super Patient: Chelsea Price Takes Charge of Stage III Melanoma

Chelsea on her wedding day with husband Bryan and stepson Gavin

Late in 2010, Chelsea Price’s boyfriend noticed that a mole on her upper back was scabbed and weeping. “It had always been there but he thought I should get it checked,” recalls Chelsea, who was then 23 years old. By the time her dermatology appointment rolled around, however, the mole had healed. “I almost cancelled,” she says.

Good thing she didn’t. At her follow-up appointment, her dermatologist casually said, “Hey, it’s melanoma.” Thinking he was kidding, Chelsea started laughing. When she realized he was serious, she was stunned… (more)

Cancer Commons 2014

Having our solar and tortoises too

Image of a Sonoran desert tortoise

Desert tortoises use corridors up to 70-km long between protected areas.

When herpetologist Brad Shaffer came to the University of California, Los Angeles two years ago, he was keen to jump into local conservation issues. Then he saw an article in the Los Angeles Times on the clash between desert tortoises, which are threatened, and massive solar arrays in the Mojave Desert, which is prized by the industry for its open spaces and intense sunlight. “That got me thinking”, he recalls. “It’s a conflict between two things everybody likes—renewable energy and an iconic species—and it would be great if we could do more proactive planning.”

Now, Shaffer is launching a study to help install solar in places the tortoises don’t use… (more)

Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 2014



Farming sprouts in the city

Honey bees can be a good fit even in dense cities — this beehive is on a roof top in San Francisco.

As the sustainable food movement grows, farming is taking root in California cities from San Francisco to San Diego. Urbanites are asking for — and receiving — municipal approval to plant vegetable gardens in empty lots and under power lines, and to raise backyard chickens and bees. To help the state’s urban agriculture thrive, UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) researchers are working to boost resources and programs for city growers.

People are passionate about keeping bees, growing their own food, and distributing it to the community,” says Rachel Surls, who recently became the first Sustainable Food Systems advisor in UCCE Los Angeles County.

But passion isn’t enough, and she soon learned that reliable information on city farming is lacking… (more)

California Agriculture 2013

Satellites could catch fires early

Simi Valley fire California USA

By the time firefighters arrive, many wildfires are already raging.

When Carl Pennypacker first dreamed of using satellites to spot wildfires in real time, the technology wasn’t ready yet. But he thinks it is now. “There have been huge advances”, says the University of California, Berkeley, astrophysicist. “Detectors can swallow up hundreds of miles in one image, and computing speed is terrific.”

His proposed system could find new wildfires within minutes… (more)

Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 2013



Hardship Strengthens Mutual Bonds

Ants patrol Cordia alliodora trees for caterpillars and leaf-eating insects, biting them until they leave.

Tiny sap-sucking insects that are a scourge to gardeners also have the upside of helping trees survive in seasonally dry forests in Central America. How? Scale insects use carbon they get from Cordia alliodora trees to make sugar-rich “honeydew” for Azteca pittieri ants, which in turn defend the trees against leaf-munching insects. Mutualism is often stronger when resources are scarce, but this interdependence usually involves a commodity that is traded directly between species.

Now, a new study shows that lack of a resource that is not traded—water—intensifies the bonds between C. alliodora, scale insects, and ants… (more)

PLOS Biology 2013



San Francisco Estuary Pollution: Keep It Out or Clean It Up

While it’s hard to believe today, the San Francisco Estuary was one big dumping ground for cities and industry just decades ago. “The Bay was at its most contaminated from the 1950s to the early ’80s,” says Sam Luoma, a UC Davis ecologist who has spent half his life studying the Bay. “There was an oil spill a day and a fish kill a week.” Fish regularly went belly-up due to lack of oxygen, which in turn was caused by sewage-fed algal blooms.

Adds Luoma, “Since then, we’ve fixed the most egregious problems… (more)

Estuary News 2013