Category for Good News Friday

Amber waves of grain…in Ventura County?

A fun story I wrote for the Star about two young farmers determined to turn back agricultural time in California.

Amber waves of grain have not been seen much in Ventura County for more than a century, but this year, two young farmers in Ojai set out to turn back the clock, planting wheat, a crop once central to agriculture in the county.

The reward for those who came out to help with the harvest was dinner, so I pitched in, plucking grain heads with other volunteers. In return, the paper's photographer, a very nice guy named David Yamamoto, took a pic of me too:


Thanks, David.

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Could global warming give us late, light flu seasons?

In Ventura, the Star's first-rate health and society reporter Tom Kisken documents the lightest flu season in decades. Seriously, for some reason, it's been 29 years since the flu season took until February to get started. Usually it happens by Christmas. That's according to the official Centers for Disease Control.

Why so late?

In California and Ventura County, officials also declared influenza a late bloomer that began to emerge in late January and early February. Activity remains mostly light.

Ask why and they say the same things as the feds: No way to know.

Over at The New York Times, Charles Pierce has an idea

Scientists are still studying the complex relationship between flu and climate, and other factors, like an absence of new strains or immunity from past vaccinations, may have contributed to this season's low numbers. But there is reason to believe that the weather is an important factor. For one thing, studies have extablished that the flu virus thrives in low humidity, and therefore low temperature — there's a reason, after all, that the flu usually hits us in January, not July. Cold weather also dries out the nasal passages, making it easier to get the coughts and sneezes that transmit the flu. And it keeps us cooped up inside, passing illnesses around. 

Ironically, the same La Niña pattern that may have suppressed flu transmission this year in the U.S. among humans could in the Pacific among birds lead to the creation of new and potentially dangerous viruses, according to a study presented in December at the AGU.

"We know that pandemics arise from dramatic changes in the influenza genome. Our hypothesis is that La Niña sets the stage for these changes by reshuffling the mixing patterns of migratory birds, which are a major reservoir for influenza," says Jeffrey Shaman, PhD, Mailman School assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences and co-author of the study.

The climate giveth, and the climate taketh away. 

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Please Hear This: African song of the year

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to interview Lesley Clark, the artist and philanthropist known for her great work with nomadic tribes such as the Wodaabe and the Tuareg. 

She's having her annual "North African market" sale this Saturday at her gallery, with a presentation with the doctor who oversees the medical clinic she founded, a film, and other attractions, I am going myself; these tribespeople make some elegant things, and live, it seems, lives of a great stark beauty. 

This area of Niger, in central Saharan Africa, thousands of miles from the Horn of Africa, where a famine is gathering, but it suffered a famine of its own just five years ago, Clark said, and has been plagued by internal conflicts, along with threats of terrorism, uranium mining, and conflicts with nearby states. Ironically, as a result of the need young men feel to defend themselves, and take up arms if necessary, music has become a means of communication, and its led to a profusion of new bands. 

Anyhow! This is the best song you will hear from Arica this year. Okay? 

02 Amidinine 1

This is the band Tidawt, a Taureg group of three nomads, who really do live come from the Sahara, I understand, but since l994 have played concerts at Paris and around the world, including stints with Mickey Hart, and have toured with the Rolling Stones. 


If I'm wrong about the awesomeness of this song you must tell me, because your song will be utterly jaw-dropping, and I will want to hear it. 

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Delta earthquake risk serious, but not catastrophic: USGS

A soon-to-be-released report from the US Geological Survey finds the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta would be hit even harder by an earthquake than previously believed, but with winter rains, the Delta would also recover more quickly than was estimated in a state study just three years ago.

This excellent story by Pat McBroom in The California Spigot highlights the earthquake risk, but given that previous scenarios predicted it could take as long as eighteen months for the Delta and State Water Project to recover from a 7.0 earthquake on the Hayward fault, a projected three-to-four month recovery, with winter rains, might even count as good news. 

“It’s not true that a
major earthquake would mean the end of the delta and we’d never be able
to use it again,” said Greg Gartrell, a hydrologist with the Contra
Costa County Water District, who is familiar with the new modeling. “Yes, you get a lot of salt water coming in, but as soon as it rains,
that water can get washed out.” 

Pumps that supply California’s urban
and agricultural water would have to stop for about three to four
months, under the conditions studied, said Gartrell, and then could
become operational again.  Most urban water districts have local water
supplies to cover such a period.

Politically, this means that the underlying justification for the so-called "isolated conveyance" — a euphemism for the politically untouchable peripheral canal, defeated in a l982 vote — is taken away.

Will the water bond that was taken off the ballot this fall ever come back?

Maybe not.

Here's the delta, and, by the way, here's another excellent (if less cheering) story about it from the Contra Costa Times, called Delta: A Lake in the Making.


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A bit of good news: urban forests enough for migrating birds

With all the bad news from the Gulf of Mexico, yours truly wants a break from disaster, and was relieved to come across this item, from researchers at Ohio State. 

Even tiny patches of woods in urban areas seem to provide
adequate food and protection for some species of migrating birds as they
fly between wintering and breeding grounds, new research has found.

The story in press release-based story in PhysOrg goes on to detail the study, explaining how two researchers attached radio transmitters to a "secretive" relative of the robin called the Swainson's Thrush, and discovered that although the forest-loving birds preferred the woods, they could make do with small patches of woodland in and around Columbus Ohio. 

"These findings suggest that remnant forests within urban areas have
conservation value for Swainson's Thrushes and, potentially, other
migrant landbirds," [Professor Paul] Rodewald said.

"Obviously, larger forest patches are better, but even smaller ones
are worth saving."

Amen, say the birds…here's a picture of an antennae emerging from from a tiny radio transmitter fitted to a Swainson's thrush, taken (naturally) by the researchers. 


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Dan Bloom Breaks Through on Polar Cities

Dan Bloom, a climate blogger and reporter working out of Asia, picked up a troubling fact from the great scientist James Lovelock–that soon we will see polar cities–and has worked relentlessly over the last eleven months to make the world pay attention. He’s beginning to make headway: a Chinese blogger picked up images he posted on his site, and he’s about to get a break from some major media here in North America. This has made me wonder: Am I getting too scattershot in my efforts on climate change? I talk about culture, music, science, politics…maybe I’m losing my focus. Feel free to comment. (Or not.)

But for now — congratulations Danny! As long as we think the climate will remain more or less the same, we are not likely to change our lives. Reminding people that polar cities are in our future, unless we make drastic changes, is to force people to pay attention to what needs to be done…now.

Here’s an image he helped bring into being, of a polar city circa 2500…


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Kansas to C02 Plant: Drop Dead

Back in l935, Variety startled Hollywood with one of the greatest ever of headlines: Sticks Nix Hick Pix. At the time it was a shocker, because movie executives assumed that folks out on the farm wanted to see rural Americana pictures, not swells in black tie. Wrong. They wanted distraction.

Well, times have changed, but today the Washington Post revealed that Kansas is killing the proposed construction of an enormous coal-fired power plant which was intended to supply not just Kansas, but eastern Colorado as well. Roderick Bremy, the secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and the Environment, declared:

"It would be irresponsible to ignore emerging information about the
contribution of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to climate
change and the potential harm to our environment and health if we do

This is great news, and the cancellation comes with strong Republican support. Could this be the harbinger of other coal plant cancellations?  For the sake of the planet — yes. Please.

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Good News Friday: Return of the Cape Fear Shiner

"The Cape Fear Shiner is a yellowish minnow with black stripes, pointed fins and a hard-luck past.”

So writes Taft Wireback for the News-Record of Greensboro, North Carolina. He goes on to tell how bringing down a dam helped bring back two "relict populations" of this small fish.

It’s a wonderful lede, and an inspiring story, especially for those of us hoping to bring back the signature piscine species of Southern California, the steelback, which is widely believed to be able to rebound, if only given the opportunity.

Wireback writes:

You can think of the tiny yellow-and-black minnow as a sort of
miner’s canary that swims, a bellwether for the health and restored
vigor of the water that surrounds it.

The tiny minnow was unknown
to science until 1971, when it was identified in a very limited range
that included small reaches of the Haw and Deep rivers in just five
counties — Randolph, Chatham, Lee, Moore and Harnett.

By September 1987, it already had been placed on the federal Endangered Species List because of its dwindling habitat.

The minnows need water of decent quality riffling in shallow depths over gravel, stone and boulder bottoms.

dam that was demolished was a small, hydroelectric operation built in
1921 and shut down in June 2004. But the site, near the line between
Chatham and Lee counties, had hosted a series of dams stretching back
into the 19th century.

So biologists couldn’t be sure how long
two separate colonies of Cape Fear Shiner had been separated by one dam
or another and its 10-mile stretch of backed-up water, too deep and
slow for the minnow’s liking.

Meanwhile, on either side of the
dam, the isolated populations of Cape Fear Shiner were dwindling.
Removing the dam produced results aimed at fixing that problem faster
than anyone had been willing to hope, [Adam] Riggsbee, [environmental scientist] said.

"If you
provide the habitat, the theory is that you should get the species back
in place," he said. "That’s exactly what has happened here in less than
two years. The river responded very quickly and so did this key

(h/t: Knight Science Journalism Tracker)


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The Good News About the Day Fire

As the Zaca Fire continues to burn in the back country between Santa Barbara and Ojai, it brings up memories of last year’s epochal Day Fire, which burned for weeks, threatening our region repeatedly, costing tens of millions of dollars, and changing the landscape in hundreds of thousands of acres in the Los Padres National Forest.

But an excellent story by Ventura County writer Chuck Graham in Forest magazine, with amazing photos, reminds us that these changes aren’t all bad. Although the notion that the chaparral in Southern California is "meant" to burn is a little misleading, because it will take decades before it again blankets the land, the burn-off does have important benefits for wildlife, including endangered species.

Here’s Chuck:

It’s common to describe a charred wilderness landscape as devastated, but in this case the word isn’t accurate.

“For chaparral and grassland habitats like the Sespe,
these fires help create better habitat conditions that open up areas
that have been choked by vegetation,” says Chris Barr, refuge manager
for the condor recovery program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Sevice.

The fire, moving hot and fast, eliminated overgrown
chaparral that for decades created a canopy that stunted any new growth
beneath it. Cleared of the canopy, the area is now more hospitable to
two of the rarest creatures in the Los Padres National Forest: the
desert bighorn sheep and the critically endangered California condor.
The Sespe Wilderness, the westernmost point in the historic range of
bighorn sheep and one of the last sanctuaries of the condor, now has an
open canopy which will increase forage opportunities for both species.
It will also improve visibility for the bighorns, and thereby help them
evade mountain lions.

“Bighorns have the innate drive to go in a certain
direction when spooked,” says Maeton Freel, wildlife biologist for the
Los Padres National Forest. “Before, they didn’t know where the escape
terrain was, and mountain lions were picking them off.

And here’s a great photo he took of a California condor, while in the backcountry. Look close and you can see the radio beacon attached to the wing:


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(Potential) Good News Friday: “If the World Pays Attention…”

Over Asia, according to a new study in Nature reported in Scientific American, a high percentage of the local warming threatening Himalayan glaciers is the result of black carbon from cooking fires. It’s so prevalent it shows up in NASA images taken from space. The Times of London ledes with the bad news:

They call it the Asian Brown Cloud. Anyone who has flown over South Asia has
seen it – a vast blanket of smog that covers much of the region.

It is also what colours those sunsets at the Taj Mahal. Now a group of
scientists has carried out the first detailed study of the phenomenon and
arrived at a troubling conclusion.

They say that it is causing Himalayan glaciers to melt, with potentially
devastating consequences for more than two billion people in India, China,
Bangladesh and other downstream countries.

In a study published yesterday by Nature, the British journal, they say that
black soot particles in the cloud are absorbing the Sun’s heat and pushing
up temperatures at the same altitude as most Himalayan glaciers.

Scientists have already observed that two thirds of the 46,000 glaciers in the
Himalayas are shrinking, leading to increasingly severe floods downstream
and, eventually, to widespread drought. Greenhouse gases were previously
thought to be the main cause of the problem, which threatens the sources of
Asia’s nine main rivers – including the Indus, the Ganges and the

But the research team from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in
California says that the Asian Brown Cloud – made up of gases and
suspended particles known as aerosols – is just as much to blame. “My
one hope is that this finding will intensify the focus of Asian scientists
and policy makers on the glacier issue,” Veerabhadran Ramanathan, who led
the research, told The Times. “These glaciers are the source for major river
systems, so at least two billion people are directly involved in this.”

The cloud is an enormous plume of smoke from factories, power plants and wood
or dung fires that stretches across the Indian subcontinent, into SouthEast

But within that news, there is a potential for change. As Ramanathan told the Scientific American:

But the problem can be solved by swapping other fuels and methods
for the wood in cooking fires. "The aerosol lifetime is two weeks,"
Ramanathan says. "If the world pays attention and puts resources to it,
we will see an effect immediately. I’m talking weeks, at most a few
months, not decades or centuries."

That contrasts with solutions for CO2 emissions, which
will require much longer periods to show effects. Because the brown
cloud appears to be at least as important, eliminating it could buy
time to implement more far-reaching solutions before catastrophic
glacial melt and other climate change impacts occur, Ramanathan argues.

Ramanathan and colleagues plan to demonstrate this on a small scale
over the next few years in the Himalayas, over a 12-square-mile area in
the foothills. "We want to create a black carbon hole," he says.

Here’s the researcher with his drone aircraft, courtesy of Scripps:


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