Blue Marbles and Ocean Microbes: A Sea Change at TEDxMonterey

20 04 2012

Erin Loury

by Erin Loury

A volunteer placed a translucent, blue marble in my hand as I walked through the door.  Everyone else in the darkened auditorium held a similar token.  Ocean-philes of one kind or another, we were gathering at the Monterey Institute of International Studies for the third TEDxMonterey.  A community-organized event modeled after the popular TED talk series, the day’s line-up of inspiring presentations revolved around the topic of “Sea Change,” and explored the connection between people and the ocean.

My blue marble from TEDxMonterey

The blue marbles were part of a project started by Wallace J. Nichols, one of the day’s speakers. The marble represents how the Earth looks from space, a blue sphere colored by its predominant feature, our ocean. It also represents a drop of seawater, teaming with life. Nichols hopes the blue marbles will pass through the hands of everyone on the planet. When you see someone doing something to help the ocean, give a blue marble to them, and tell them to pass it on, Nichols said.  He hopes the act will help inspire gratitude for the life-giving gifts of the ocean, and efforts to protect it.

James Cameron recently took his blue marble to the bottom of the Marianas Trench before giving it away, Nichols said. I read about these marbles making their rounds at the Copenhagen climate meeting in 2009; now I’m excited to have one of my own.  I will have to think of some great ocean adventure to take my marble on before I find just the right person to pass it off to.

TEDxMonterey included a number of ocean visionaries, and contained references to Shakespeare (who coined the term “sea change” in his play The Tempest), algal biofuels, education, fishing, and talk by long distance swimmer Lynne Cox that I found particular inspiring—she broke the record for swimming the English Channel at age 15, swam across the Bering Strait, and swam over a mile in Antarctic waters with just a bathing suit, cap and goggles, to name just a few of her feats!

There was a good deal of science mixed in throughout the day, and I thought one of the most engaging scientist speakers was Melissa Garren, a researcher from MIT.  Garren called for a little recognition for the ocean’s tiniest residents: its bacteria and viruses.  She gave a nod to Prochlorococcus, a species of cyanobacteria that, along with other microalgae, produce half of the oxygen on Earth. Take two breaths, Garren said. For the first, thank the trees and macroalgae, like kelp. For the second breath, thank the microbes. Though they support our very existence, scientists only discovered Prochlorococcus in 1988. We have so much to still learn about the ocean.

Thank marine microalgae like these for half the air we breathe (photo: Daniel Vaulot, CNRS, Station Biologique de Roscoff)

Garren called microbes “the invisible engineers that control the chemistry of the ocean.” They influence how the sea feels, smells, tastes and looks. Two gallons of seawater contain more bacteria than there are people on the planet, Garren said. The audience of ocean enthusiasts collectively squirmed as we recalled how many mouthfuls of seawater we had each swallowed. When we pollute the ocean with too many nutrients, which fish farms often do, the bacteria populations can sky rocket.  When the microbe population is out of whack, the ocean experiences some nasty side effects, like a person who suffers the wrath of intestinal microbes, Garren said.

Sometimes corals are the collateral damage. Corals have a protective layer of bacteria that coats their skin of symbiotic algae, but bacterial diseases also plague them.  Garren recently discovered that the bacterial pathogen behind a widespread coral disease can actively “sniff out” traces of coral mucous on a microscope slide. It was a bit mindboggling to think of tiny marine bacteria hunting down their prey. The things scientists are discovering about the ocean constantly amaze me.

TEDxMonterey was a stimulating and inspiring event. I’ll leave you with the quote from Ariel’s Song in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which made it into one of the day’s talks. I just love the words—they give me chills every time I read them.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Oh, and one shameless plug. I’m very proud of a certain photographer who was featured as a local artist at TEDxMonterey for his stunning underwater photography. Check out his work here:

Marine science graduate student and underwater photographer Scott Gabara shows off his photos and camera setup at TEDxMonterey


Keep (the) Santa Cruz (Sandhills) Weird

17 04 2012

Sarah Jane Keller

I’ve heard that Santa Cruz might be weird. I live in the redwoods above the city and maybe it’s a little strange here too. Sunset Magazine called Boulder Creek, just up the road, “absurdly rural.” In a search for the absurd, I considered visiting the nearby Bigfoot Museum to see if I could scare up a Sasquatch but turned instead to the park in my backyard, Quail Hollow Ranch County Park.

Since first visited the park, I’ve been intrigued by signs along the trail that say ” Sensitive Area Closed”. What are they hiding back there, behind the big shadowy arms of the live oaks?

Entering forbidden territory. Photo by SJK

This weekend, I found out. The Fish and Wildlife Service owns the property and there’s a good reason we can’t just go tramping around on it—and it has nothing to do with protecting Bigfoot’s habitat. Behind the signs is rare ecosystem harboring the true weirdos of Santa Cruz County: four plant species, a grasshopper, a beetle and a kangaroo rat that live nowhere else in the world.

A cage protects this federally endangered Santa Cruz Wallflower (Erysimum teretifolium), found only in the Santa Cruz sandhills and nowhere else, from hungry deer. The plants live for two or three years, but only produce flowers once. If the flowers are chomped off, the plant misses out on reproducing. Photo by SJK.

The Santa Cruz sandhills are so fragile that only 60 people are allowed to visit this particular parcel each year, 15 at a time, during Sundays in April. The perilously rare plants that grow there thrive in sandy soil free of competition from other species. And they grow right in the middle of the trail. If you walk on the trail you inevitably STEP ON A FEDERALLY ENDANGERED SPECIES. During last Sunday’s tour I was caught between the perverse thrill of having permission to accidentally trammel rare plants and the horror of doing so.

At the

beginning of the walk, our guide Shane, a systems engineer with a passion for geology and botany, pulled out some fossils to demonstrate the origins of the mountaintop beach in our backyard. He presented us with sand dollars, which are found in the 15 million-year-old silica soils only a short distance from redwood forests.

The coarse texture of the sand and the way nutrients and water slip through it fostered the evolution of the rare collection of heat, sun and drought-adapted plants a

Though naturally rare, endangered and found only in the Santa Cruz sandhills, the Santa Cruz spineflower (Chorizanthe pungens var. hartwegiana) carpets the ground where it grows. Photo by SJK.

nd animals that live there today. Since the early 1900s that sand has also been attractive for many industrial uses from making bottles, and now optics and silicon wafers. There’s an active sand quarry just across the street from Quail Hollow and six have been active in the area at different times.

The sandhills habitat has been destroyed, degraded and fragmented by mining but also by residential developments like the one I live in, vineyards, orchards and recreation. During the walk, Shane credited Jodi McGraw for assembling much of what people know about the sandhills as a UC Berkeley doctoral student. Her website about the sandhills says that there were about 6,000 acres of the naturally rare ecosystem and about 60 percent remains today. However, most of that land is not protected.

Now, when I climb a hill around my house and look out on mountains carpeted with green, I see the white sandy patches peeking through and think they are some of the most special things in my absurdly rural neighborhood (though the neon lumberjack is a close second). I came expecting to be enamored by redwoods but I also found the Santa Cruz Wallflower and the Ben Lomond Spineflower. Thank goodness for the weirdos.

In California, these Ponderosa Pines usually grow above 3000 feet in the Sierra Nevadas. In Santa Cruz county they are a low elevation oddity where they survive in the sandhills.

Purple Owl's Clover (Castilleja exserta) is a grassland flower that's not rare, but it's pretty. Photo by SJK.

Less Smoke, More Fire

28 11 2011

Sarah Jane Keller

by Sarah Jane Keller

I grew up near a fortress built during the French and Indian War and used to love historical reenacting, but I eventually quit. In the eyes of dominant reenacting culture, period-correct portrayal of a frontier woman meant that my male friends would be throwing tomahawks and shooting muzzleloaders, and I’d be mending bodices and cooking over an open fire.

The next time you inhale too much smoke while roasting marshmallows, ask yourself what it would be like to have that crud in your lungs every day. (Photo by SJK)

While I had the luxury of eschewing the cooking technology of the colonial period, almost half of world’s families still prepare their meals over open flame. And just as in early America, men are often out and about, while women and young children stay in the home where they continually inhale smoke.

This October, a Science paper from authors at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) named home pollution from open cooking fires the world’s leading cause of environmental death. Killing nearly 2 million people annually, indoor air pollution is more deadly than malaria, according to the World Health Organization. Most of the deaths come from acute lower respiratory infections in children under five and adult deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

I’ve recently become more aware of this issue because I’m writing a story about the Berkeley-based Darfur Stoves Project. Just after I started talking to people involved with the Darfur Stoves Project, I interviewed Bill Toone, the executive director of the San Diego-based ECOLIFE Foundation, about monarch butterflies. Both organizations distribute fuel-efficient cooking stoves in ways that are culturally specific, address the extreme logistical challenges of distributing a new technologies in poor countries, and attempt to create market demand for the stoves. The NIH authors list all of those things as barriers to stove adoption by families.

Monarch butteflies hang from a tree for winter warmth in Mexico. Photo by: Ernest H. Williams

These projects demonstrate how food—and its preparation—directly touch individual quality of life, but then ripple into our local environments and, in the case of carbon emissions, the global environment.

As Toone said: “This is one of those wonderful crossover spots where we can help the environment, help a family and help ourselves in the sense that these cooking practices have an impact on our climate.

Since 2004, Toone and ECOLIFE have been working with communities in and near Central Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve to distribute fuel-efficient cooking stoves. Deforestation over the decades–both by illegal logging cartels and locals, who need firewood for cooking—has fragmented the butterflies’ unique Oyamel fir habitat and put the migration at risk. ECOLIFE recognized that communities could reduce pressure on the habitat that they share with the butterfly by using less firewood to prepare their meals.

Toone’s approach to biological conservation comes from his conviction that people need to have adequate food, water and shelter before they can care for other things. “The most effective way we’re going to enact conservation on the planet, is that conservation is how we ensure our healthy survival into the future,” said Toone. “It’s really about us.”

When ECOLIFE tried to save money by removing the tile indicating that the Lorena cookstove is a friend of the butterflies, new stove users wondered what happened to the tile, and ECOLIFE restored the important symbol of the community's connection to the environment. Photo credit: ECOLIFE Foundation

The Darfur Stoves Project is another stoves group working for human and environmental health. In 2006, the U.S. Agency for International Development approached Ashok Gadgil, a

The Berkeley-Darfur Stove is manufactured in Mumbai, assembled in Darfur, and was designed in tested by Lawrence-Berkeley labs engineers with constant input from the women of Darfur. Photo credit: LBNL Cookstoves Project

physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories, to help because militiamen were raping Darfuri women as they left refugee camps to search for firewood. A fuel-efficient stove would cut down on wood-gathering trips and women’s exposure to violence.

The stove that Gadgil and his team developed is the product of a long, iterative process between engineering and culture. The stove has been successful because it incorporated many design suggestions from Darfuri women. Now that there are few trees left to gather around the refugee camps, many women buy firewood rather than collect it, and the stove saves them money and time.

Andree Sosler, the executive director of the Darfur Stoves Project, told me in an interview that will appear elsewhere, about their most recent work in marketing the stoves and providing microloans so that women may purchase them. Like the NIH paper, she emphasized the importance of developing a market for stoves because it helps make the product more consumer-driven and sustains its distribution.

Though Toone is a conservation biologist who once worked on the California condor reintroduction, and Ashok Gadgil is a physicist and engineer, I heard a similar refrain from both of them. They weren’t satisfied with just working with animals or making gadgets, they wanted to see real changes in the quality of life of individuals.

Gadgil, a master of developing technology for people who are often overlooked by traditional research and development, summed up his motivations in an interview earlier this fall: “How can we say at the end of the day we made the world a little better. Do you say: ‘I want to publish one more paper’? No!”

Plants on a Hot Green Roof

18 11 2011

Rows of native plants at the Thimann Lab greenhouse, grown for coastal prairie restoration (photo: E. Loury)

by Erin Loury

There’s a room at UC Santa Cruz filled with chocolate and vanilla, cinnamon and green tea, bananas and pineapple.  But far from ready-to-eat desserts, all are leafy and green, basking in the humid light of one of the three UCSC campus greenhouses.

A certain former UCSC student and plant aficionado in my life recently told me about the greenhouse on the roof of the Thimann Lab building.  Anyone can pop up to this greenhouse on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and I came across some students studying at tables on the plant-covered patio.   The oldest of the campus greenhouses, it’s primarily used for instruction.

Workspace in the Thimann Lab greenhouse (photo: E. Loury)

Plant lab sections can visit a room full of carnivorous plants (I should have asked if they have this one with peculiar diet preferences), and also a tropical plant collection, which boasts the disproportionate number of tasties I mentioned earlier. There’s even an outdoor classroom up here, complete with speakers and a whiteboard.  If only all students were so lucky!

Jim Velzy, UCSC greenhouse director, points out two different species of plants in a hybridization experiment - brought back memories of Punnett squares! (photo: E. Loury)

Jim Velzy, the greenhouses director, was kind enough to give me a tour of all three greenhouses, including the ones used for research atop the Sinsheimer Labs and the Interdisciplinary Sciences Building, which are not open to the public.  All the greenhouses are located within a stone’s throw of each other, which is probably a good thing since it’s just Jim, the greenhouse operation’s manager Denise Polk, and four student employees that care for all the plants.

Some of the plants grown on the Thimann lab building, Jim told me, are for a coastal prairie restoration project near the Seymour Marine Discovery Center at the campus’s Long Marine Lab.  Seeds collected from native plants sprout in dozens of plastic tubes, awaiting transportation to the field.

Two campus divisions, Physical & Biological Sciences and Social Sciences, share the funding of the greenhouses, and researchers have free access to pots, soil and space. They can reserve a greenhouse and tailor it to their specific needs, like one that is currently sealed up and pumped with elevated levels of carbon dioxide.  Jim estimates that about 25 different projects occupy his 10 growth chambers, 10 incubators and 15 greenhouses at any given time.

“This facility is unique in that the instructional facility and the research facility are the same unit,” Jim said. “That’s not the case almost anywhere you go.”

Undergraduate students benefit from access to the state-of-the-art greenhouses, and a direct connection to ongoing research.  Students can work with the greenhouses for a senior thesis or volunteer with research projects.  Researchers benefit from the extra labor counting seeds or planting plants, and the connection to the instructional greenhouse gives them some overflow space for their experiments.

“Our biology faculty generally look at populations, distribution of species, speciation,” Jim said. “Those are all our claims to fame.”

On our tour, he showed me several experiments involving the hybridization of two closely related species.  A student in Dr. Kathleen Kay’s lab is studying how two species of goldfields that are nearly identical, and often grow next each other, maintain their distinct identities.

He also showed me endangered California wallflowers native to sand hills grown by Dr. Ingrid Parker’s Lab, and an experiment investigating how invasive Scotch broom suppresses the growth of Douglas fir seedlings.

A growth chamber maintains constant conditions for a flat of woodland stars. (photo: E. Loury)

We poked our heads inside growth chambers used by Dr. John Thompson’s lab.  Jim called Thompson a “father of coevolution,” the study of how closely connected species, like plants and pollinators, change together over time.  Jim showed me Lithophragma, or woodland stars, that have coevolved with a species of moth that lays its eggs inside the flower, and also pollinates the flower.

Another greenhouse overflowed with spiral ginger plants from Costa Rica, which have coevolved with hummingbirds, as seen in their flowers with a distinctly hummingbird-tailored, sippy-cup-like extension.

Sprial ginger flowers have evolved a perfect fit for their hummingbird pollinators (phto: E. Loury)

Achieving constant, reliable conditions in incubators (which are used to germinate plants), and growth chambers (which maintain constant light and humidity) are key to producing publishable results, Jim said.

“When you publish a paper in Science, Nature, Plant Physiology, whatever you want to publish in, the better publications are going to require that you have your plants under set conditions,” Jim said. “You eliminate all variables except for one.”

He also revealed a surprising similarity between plant science and high fashion – a little brand name recognition goes a long way.  Thus, the pricey Conviron E15 growth chambers (which cost about $30,000) or Percival incubators are worth every dollar if they help a researcher establish credibility with a publication.

I felt very fortunate to get a behind-the-scenes look into the blooming world of plant science on my own campus, and felt nostalgia for my undergraduate days in an introductory biology plant class at UC Davis.  I remember a TA telling me that once you start learning plants, it gives you whole new way of looking at and appreciating your environment, even if it’s the landscaping around campus.  Now I can say I also have a whole new appreciation for the rooftops on Science Hill!

Thanks, Jim, for a great, informative tour!

Pitcher plants wait to catch a meal at the Thimann Lab greenhouse (photo: E. Loury)

Part of the Problem

31 10 2011

Sarah Jane Keller

by Sarah Jane Keller

It took me a long time to learn that I have a touch of road rage. The first time my husband watched me come slightly unhinged in gridlock, he only had one thing to say: “If you’re complaining, you’re part of the problem.”

Now that I’m spending a year as a California road warrior, it’s a mantra that slaps me with perspective whenever traffic slows to a crawl.

It’s also something that I’ve been thinking about since I fell for the United Nations’ marketing ploy surrounding today’s demographic holiday.

World population is somewhere around 7 billion: “If you’re complaining, you’re part of the problem.”

When I’m the sole person in a five-passenger car, I’m definitely part of the problem. It doesn’t take long for me to redirect my road rage inward.

My Halloween costume is the 4,796,799,300th billion person on Earth. Go to to get an estimate of your number. (Credit: BBC)

The rectangle of environmental damage

Last week, I interviewed biologist Paul Ehrlich as part of my intern duties at the Stanford News Service. Ehrlich, the author of the controversial 1968 book, The Population Bomb, described a simple way to think about the entangled issues of population growth and consumption:

How do you respond to the statement that we should focus on overconsumption, not population growth?

Ehrlich: Most of humanity’s environmental problems trace to too much total consumption, but that consumption is a product of population size and per-capita consumption. Population and consumption are no more separable in producing environmental damage than the length and width of a rectangle can be separated in producing its area – both are equally important.

The next time I find myself trapped in an argument about which one matters more, I’m going to invoke geometry.

Both population and per-capita consumption are equally important, but our contribution to population is decided for us when we’re born, and we all need food, water and shelter. But I also seem to think that I need an iPhone, a Subaru, coffee and a hot shower. Need, maybe not, but that’s what I’m choosing.

Thank you, California

In addition to all of my consumption, I just became one more body in the most populous U.S. state. Thank you California, for your fresh agricultural products and tap water, I’m enjoying your resources.

In The Population Bomb Ehrlich warned of threats to food security, the availability of and access to enough food to live a productive life free from hunger or starvation. Many of his most dire and specific predictions have not come to pass, but we’ve been innovating ways to increase food production since the book was published; yet people generally agree that the current level of hunger in the world is still unacceptable.

The Dos Amigos Pump Plant, part of the California State Water Project, 10 miles south of Los Banos on I-5. Water is pumped up 114 feet so it can flow downhill to the next station. (Photo by Sarah Jane Keller)

California is an example of how we’ve engineered more food out of the land during the past century. It also supplies the U.S. with half of its fruits, vegetables, and nuts, making it an important part of the food system in our neck of the globe.

I recently stopped along I-5 to take in some of California’s extensive plumbing that makes it all possible. The roadside attraction was the Dos Amigos Pumping Plant, part of the California State Water Project (SWP). The pump lifts water in the California Aqueduct 114 feet, so it can flow by gravity 164 miles to the next pumping plant.

The SWP delivers water to two-thirds of the state’s population, with 70 percent going to urban users and 30 percent going to agriculture, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Coincidentally, many initial phases of the project were completed in the years surrounding publication of The Population Bomb.

Having read Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner’s 1986 opus on Western U.S. water development and sustainability (or lack thereof), seeing the California Aqueduct was like spotting a celebrity. Nothing drives home how we bend natural resources to our will like watching water flow languidly through a concrete conduit, on a journey hundreds of miles through an arid landscape.

I imagined how the water in the California Aqueduct started in the Sierra Nevada, much of it as snow, and how some of it would eventually reach Southern California. To make the journey, it is pumped nearly 2000 feet over the Tehachapi Mountains that divide the San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert.

California’s water system has been described as a Rube Goldberg apparatus, which is not a cliché in this case. Before he became a cartoonist, Goldberg was a sewer engineer in San Francisco.

Water in the California Aqueduct flowing south. According to Aquafornia, "70 percent of California’s runoff occurs north of Sacramento, 75 percent of California’s urban and agricultural demands are to the south." (Photo by Sarah Jane Keller)

A paper, “Reclaiming freshwater sustainability in the Cadillac Desert”, published last year, found that “Reisner’s incisive journalism led him to the same conclusions as those rendered by copious data, modern scientific tools, and the application of a more genuine scientific method.”

Sustainability, according to the authors is defined as allocation of streamflow “to people farms and ecosystems.” They discuss issues that I have not mentioned here such as salination and impacts on biodiversity and fisheries. They mention, but do not analyze, climate change pressures on freshwater.

What would Reisner say about water in a world with 7 billion people? Sadly, we’ll never know because he was lost to cancer over a decade ago, at age 51. But an interview with Reisner, from 2000, in the now defunct magazine, California Wild, will let me give him the last word:

CW: The state’s population is projected to grow another 30 percent by 2020. If there’s enough water to fill California with people from border to border, is population growth a big problem for California?

MR: For California and the world. People ask me “What is the greatest environmental problem?” Some people think it’s water, and I say, “No. It’s population growth, by far.” It eclipses the next five most significant environmental problems combined, and in California it’s not much different.

This ending doesn’t make thinking about our roles on a planet of 7 billion any easier, but I’ll be considering how I contribute to the area of our resource sustainability rectangle, globally and in California.

If you are wondering about the source of your California tap water check out:

Not Your Average Birdhouse

24 10 2011

Researchers and conservationists are giving some seabirds an extreme home makeover on Año Nuevo Island (photo: Erin Loury)

Erin Loury

by Erin Loury

On a little island off the coast of central California, researchers, conservationists and artists are teaming up to help some threatened sea birds raise their next generation. The helping hand comes in the form of some stylish new housing.

The Rhinoceros Auklet is a small seabird that researchers call the “the penguin of the North Pacific.”   When it comes to setting up shop, these seabirds have some special needs.  They only nest on islands, safe from the predators they would encounter on the mainland, and they dig those nests in the ground, burrowing long tunnels into the topsoil.

A Rhinoceros Auklet (photo: Dick Daniels, Wikimedia Commons)

On Año Nuevo Island, soil erosion threatens some prime seabird real estate.  A combination of human use, dry summers, heavy storms, and trampling sea lions and pelicans sloughed five feet of topsoil from the island in the 1990s.  Without stable soil, the burrows can blow away or collapse and kill the chick inside.  To top it off, Rhinoceros Auklets only raise one chick a year.

That’s where a little human engineering comes in to play.

The Año Nuevo Island Restoration project, headed by California State Parks, the non-profit Oikonos and Go Native Inc., is giving the island a little TLC to make it a better bird habitat.  In addition to planting 10,000 native plants to stabilize the soil, the team found a creative way to give the birds a boost in the nesting department.

Students at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, instructed by ceramicist Nathan Lynch and Rebar designer Matthew Passmore, crafted 90 ceramic burrows that the team buried in the soil. The burrows consist of a long tube that curves at the end like the crook of a pipe.  The shape mimics the style of burrows that Rhinoceros Auklets construct for themselves, with a bendy bit serving as a place to tuck their chicks out of the light.

The burrows create a solid place for the birds to nest without fear of collapsing tunnels.  They also have a handy little lid over the nesting area that researchers can lift to check in on the birds.  Once they know a nesting pair is incubating an egg, they won’t disturb them until they estimate they egg is ready to hatch.

The birds have been warming up to their sturdy new digs.  After the first burrows were installed in 2010, a single pair used one to successfully raise a chick. This year, 33 pairs of auklets cozied up to the new burrows.   It’s no wonder the team dubs these ceramic nests things like “The Love Shack.”

You can read a great description about the project, and follow their progress online.  And just for kicks, another recent of example of crafters giving seabirds a lift: knitters make sweaters for the oil-splashed penguins of New Zealand.