California’s Strangest Catastrophe

In 1905, a catastrophic accident occurred in California when a canal system failed and caused the Colorado River to overflow into the Salton Sea basin. The result was the creation of a massive lake that came to be known as the Salton Sea.

The accident occurred as a result of a series of mistakes and oversights in the construction and maintenance of the irrigation system in the area. At the turn of the century, the Imperial Valley in California was a desert wasteland, with no reliable water source for agriculture. To remedy this, engineers devised a plan to divert water from the Colorado River into the area via a series of canals and irrigation channels.

One of these canals, the Imperial Canal, was completed in 1901 and began diverting water from the Colorado River into the Imperial Valley. However, the canal was poorly constructed, and its walls were made of weak and porous materials. Over time, the walls began to erode and collapse, causing water to overflow and flood the surrounding areas.

On the morning of February 20, 1905, disaster struck. The Imperial Canal had been carrying water at full capacity for several weeks, and the walls were weakened by constant erosion. Without warning, the canal walls gave way, and a torrent of water rushed into the desert below.

Over the next several months, the Colorado River poured into the Salton Sea basin, creating a massive lake that covered more than 380 square miles. The water was brackish and contained high levels of salt and other minerals, making it unsuitable for drinking or irrigation.

The creation of the Salton Sea was both a blessing and a curse for the people of the Imperial Valley. On the one hand, the lake provided a new source of water for irrigation, and the fertile soil around its shores proved ideal for growing crops. On the other hand, the water was highly saline, and the lake became increasingly polluted over time, posing a threat to both human health and the environment.

Recently, with most flows diverted from the Salton Sea for irrigation, it has begun to dry up and is now considered a major health hazard, as toxic dust is whipped up by heavy winds in the area. The disappearance of the Salton sea has also been killing off fish species that attract migratory birds. 

The New York Times recently wrote about the struggles that farmers face as the Salton Sea disappears, and how the sea itself will likely disappear entirely at some point.

“There’s going to be collateral damage everywhere,” Frank Ruiz, a program director with California Audubon, told the Times. “Less water coming to the farmers, less water coming into the Salton Sea. That’s just the pure math.”

Several historical figures were associated with the Salton Sea disaster. One of the most notable was George Chaffey, an engineer and entrepreneur who played a key role in the development of the Imperial Valley. Chaffey was one of the primary architects of the irrigation system that caused the accident, and his company was responsible for building the Imperial Canal.

Another figure associated with the Salton Sea was Charles Rockwood, a civil engineer who was brought in to help manage the crisis. Rockwood oversaw the construction of emergency levees and channels to help divert water away from populated areas, and his efforts were instrumental in preventing further damage from the flood.

The area around the Salton Sea is located in a geologically active region, with the San Andreas Fault running through the area. The San Andreas Fault is a major plate boundary, where the Pacific Plate is moving north relative to the North American Plate. The fault is responsible for the earthquakes and other tectonic activity in the region. The Salton Sea is also located in an area of active crustal extension and subsidence, which has played a key role in the formation of the lake.

The Aliens of Mono Lake

Mono Lake. The coloration is due to bacteria that have the remarkable ability to eat arsenic

Mono Lake, located in California’s Eastern Sierra region, is one of the most unique lakes in the world due to its extremely high salinity and high levels of arsenic. What’s even more astonishing is the ecosystem of bacteria that inhabit the lake, which have adapted to use arsenic instead of oxygen for photosynthesis.

History and Location

Mono Lake was formed approximately 760,000 years ago as a result of volcanic activity in the area. The lake is situated in the Mono Basin, which is surrounded by the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west and the Great Basin Desert to the east. Mono Lake is a shallow, saltwater lake with a surface area of 65 square miles and a maximum depth of 159 feet.

The Unique Ecosystem

It is home to a diverse ecosystem of organisms that have adapted to its extreme conditions, including bacteria that can survive and even thrive on arsenic.

Arsenic is a toxic element that is typically found in low concentrations in nature. However, Mono Lake contains high levels of naturally occurring arsenic, making it an ideal environment for bacteria that have evolved to use arsenic as a source of energy.

These bacteria are part of a group called extremophiles, which are organisms that can survive in extreme environments that would be fatal to most other life forms. The bacteria in Mono Lake are specifically known as arsenic-metabolizing bacteria, which means that they are able to convert arsenic into a form that they can use for energy.

The process of arsenic metabolism is complex and involves a number of different enzymes and biochemical pathways. Essentially, the bacteria are able to use arsenic instead of oxygen to produce energy through a process called anaerobic respiration. This means that they are able to survive in environments where oxygen is limited or absent, such as the deep, oxygen-deprived waters of Mono Lake.

The ability of bacteria to metabolize arsenic is unique and has been the subject of much scientific research. It is thought that this ability may have evolved as a result of the high levels of arsenic in Mono Lake, as the bacteria that were able to use this toxic element as a source of energy had a survival advantage over those that could not.

Despite the unusual nature of arsenic metabolism, these bacteria are not the only organisms that have evolved to survive in extreme environments. Extremophiles have been found in a variety of environments, including deep-sea hydrothermal vents, Antarctic ice, and even inside nuclear reactors.

However, the ability of bacteria in Mono Lake to use arsenic as a source of energy is particularly fascinating, as it challenges our understanding of what is possible in terms of biological adaptation. It also raises important questions about the potential for life on other planets or moons, where conditions may be similarly extreme.

Controversy over the Draining of Mono Lake

In the early 20th century, the City of Los Angeles began diverting water from the streams that fed Mono Lake in order to meet the growing demand for water in the city. This led to a significant drop in the lake’s water level, which threatened the unique ecosystem that had developed in the lake.

Environmentalists and local residents formed the Mono Lake Committee in 1978 to advocate for the protection of the lake. The group filed a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles, arguing that the water diversion was causing irreparable harm to the lake’s ecosystem. The lawsuit was ultimately successful, and in 1994, the California State Water Resources Control Board ordered the City of Los Angeles to reduce the amount of water it was diverting from the Mono Basin.

However, the lake continues to face threats from development and other human activities. The protection of Mono Lake remains a critical issue for environmentalists and local residents alike.

Mono Lake’s unique ecosystem of bacteria that use arsenic instead of oxygen for photosynthesis is a remarkable example of how life can adapt to extreme environments. The lake’s history and location, as well as the controversy over the draining of the lake to provide water to Los Angeles, demonstrate the complex relationship between human activities and the natural world.

Ten Little-Known Facts About California

Giant Sequoia

California is known for its sunny beaches, bustling cities, and iconic landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Hollywood sign. However, the state is also home to a wealth of scientific discoveries and phenomena that are not as well-known. From ancient fossils to cutting-edge research, California has a lot to offer in the realm of science. In this list, we’ll explore ten of the most fascinating scientific things that you probably didn’t know about California. Get ready to be amazed by the natural wonders and innovative research that make this state such a unique and exciting place for science enthusiasts.

  1. California is home to the tallest tree in the world, a coastal redwood named Hyperion that measures 379.7 feet (115.7 meters) in height. The state is also home to the largest (by volume) tree, named General Sherman in Sequoia National Park. General Sherman is 274.9 feet high and has a diameter at its base of 36 feet, giving it a circumference of 113 feet. General Sherman’s estimated volume is around 52,508 cubic feet (1,487 cubic meters), which would correspond to an estimated weight of around 2.7 million pounds.
  2. The Salton Sea, a large inland lake in southern California, is actually an accidental body of water that was created by a flood in 1905 when Colorado River floodwater breached an irrigation canal being constructed in the Imperial Valley and flowed into the Salton Sink.
  3. The San Andreas Fault, the state’s best-known and most dangerous fault that runs through the middle of California and to the coast, moves about 2 inches (5 centimeters) per year (or, so they say, the speed that a fingernail grows).
  4. The state of California has more national parks than any other state in the US, with nine in total. Among them is one of the crown jewels of the National Park system: Yosemite National Park.
  5. California is one of the only places in the world where you can find naturally occurring asphalt, at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. 
  6. The oldest living organism on Earth, a bristlecone pine tree named Methuselah, can be found in the White Mountains of California and is over 4,800 years old.
  7. The Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California was the first aquarium to successfully keep a great white shark in captivity for more than 16 days. The first great white that the aquarium tried to display died after 11 days in 1984 because it would not eat.
  8. The Joshua Tree, a type of yucca plant (NOT a tree) found in the Mojave Desert, is named after the biblical figure Joshua because of its outstretched branches that resemble a person reaching up to the sky in prayer.
  9. The California grizzly bear, which appears on the state flag, went extinct in the early 1900s due to hunting and habitat loss. The last California grizzly was seen near Yosemite in 1924, going extinct after decades of hunting. Fossils of the California grizzly can be seen at the La Brea tar Pits.  
  10. The California Institute of Technology, also known as Caltech, is one of the world’s leading scientific research institutions and has produced 39 Nobel laureates, more than any other university in the world.

California is a dolphin paradise

A Pacific White-Sided Dolphin swims alongside a boat off Newport Beach, California

For those who are fortunate enough to live near the coast of California, Dolphin sightings are a frequent delight. Dolphins are a diverse group of marine mammals found in all of the world’s oceans, but they are especially abundant in California. The California coast is home to numerous species of dolphins, each with their own unique characteristics and behaviors. An afternoon spent at the beach will very often result in a sighting of these magnificent and majestic animals frolicking in the waves.

For those who may not know, dolphins and porpoises are toothed whales. Both porpoises and dolphins are members of the same scientific order, Cetacea, which includes all whales, including the magnificent blues, grey whales and humpbacks that also ply the California coast. 

The exact number of dolphins off the California coast is impossible to know since many species migrate and no authoritative study of their total numbers has ever been published. But one estimate of the dolphin population in Southern California suggests that well over half a million live between the frigid, rocky coastal waters of Monterey and San Diego. Scientists have documented 11 species of dolphins in California’s waters alone. We take a look at a few of those here.

One of the most common, and beautiful, dolphins found off the coast of California is the Pacific White-Sided Dolphin (Lagenorhyncus obliquidens). These dolphins are easily recognized by their distinctive markings, which include a white underbelly and gray and white stripes along the sides. White-Sided Dolphins can reach up to 400 pounds and can grow to 8 feet in length, with males typically being larger than females. They are also known for their energetic and playful behavior, often bow-riding the waves alongside boats and performing wonderful acrobatics in the air. Boaters and whale watchers can witness pods of these animals following their boat for half an hour or more, often swimming on their sides near the surface and gazing up with attentive eyes.

White-sided dolphins feed on a variety of prey, but mostly consume fish and squid. They are skilled hunters and have been known to work together in groups to corral and capture their meals.

Another species found off the California coast is the Common Dolphin (Delphinus delphis). These dolphins have a distinctive sleek, hydrodynamic shape, with a dark gray or black dorsal region and a light gray or white underbelly. Common Dolphins are also known for their high level of activity, often seen jumping and playing in the water. Common dolphins can travel 100 miles in a single day. 

This species is one of the most well-known and widely distributed marine mammals, and is often associated with playful acrobatics and a high level of intelligence. California is home to several large “super pods” or “megapods” of Common Dolphins that are often seen by boaters or whale-watching tours. As the American Cetacean Society explains, common dolphins typically travel and hunt in large herds of hundreds or even thousands. One resident megapod frequently forages between Ventura and Dana Point.

A Pacific White-Sided Dolphin

Common dolphins have been the subject of numerous studies examining their cognitive abilities. They are known to have complex social relationships and to exhibit behaviors that suggest a high level of problem-solving ability and adaptability. In addition, they are capable of using tools, such as seaweed, to herd fish and protect themselves from predators. They also have excellent memories and are able to recognize individual dolphins and remember past experiences.

The Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) is another species that can be found off the coast of California. This species is easily recognizable due to its large size and beak-like snout. Bottlenose Dolphins are known for their intelligence and playful nature, and are often (unfortunately) used in marine mammal shows and research programs.

Bottlenose dolphins have a complex mating system that involves a variety of behaviors, including courtship displays, vocalizations, and physical contact. Female Bottlenose dolphins give birth to a single calf every three to five years, and the calves are nursed by their mothers for up to a year. Male Bottlenose dolphins compete for access to females, and the strongest and most dominant males are the most successful at mating.

A lesser-known (and seen) species found in the waters of California is the Risso’s Dolphin (Grampus griseus). These dolphins are identified by their tall, curved, sickle-shaped dorsal fin located mid-way down their back. Often they also have distinctive scars and scratches, which are believed to be caused by “teeth raking” between other dolphins. They also frequently have circular markings, likely from encounters with squid or lampreys. Risso’s Dolphins are generally less active than the other species found in the area, and are often seen alone or in small groups.

Finally, the Dall’s Porpoise (Phocoenoides dalli) is another species that can be found in the waters off the California coast. These dolphins are identified by their short, stocky bodies and small triangular dorsal fins. Dall’s Porpoises are known for their speed and agility, and are often seen riding the bow waves of boats.

Few places on earth match the coast of California for the sheer number and variety of dolphins that swim in the cool, nutrient-rich waters that well up from the state’s deep canyons. So next time you’re near the coast, keep an eye out for these incredible creatures and enjoy the show!

The Rich Historical and Geological Past of the Alabama Hills

Mobius Arch in Alabama Hills. Lone Pine, California

Mobius Arch in the Alabama Hills in California

The drive from Los Angeles north along Highway 395 is one of the great road trips in all of California. The drive offers breathtaking views of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the (much older) White Mountains, and the Mojave Desert. The highway winds its way through a diverse range of geological and historical features, making it an ideal destination for road trippers, history buffs, and outdoor enthusiasts alike.

One of the highway’s more magnificent sights is observable when making a left turn up Whitney Portal Road in Lone Pine. Just a few miles up, you will find the magnificent Alabama Hills, a range of hills located in the Owens Valley near the main entrance to Mount Whitney. The hills are known for their unique geological formations, including massive rounded boulders and natural arches, and their rich history and cultural significance.

The hills are world famous not just for their scenic beauty and appeal to photographers. They have also appeared in more than 700 movie and television productions, including some of the most famous and iconic Westerns ever made. The first film made there was the silent 1920 western “The Round Up,” starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

Other films include:

  • “Gunga Din” (1939)
  • “Rio Bravo” (1959)
  • “How the West Was Won” (1962)
  • “The Lone Ranger” (1956-1957 TV series)
  • “Gunsmoke” (1955-1975 TV series)
  • “The Great Train Robbery” (1903, silent film)

A very nice explanation (with lots of visuals) of the area’s Hollywood past can be seen at the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine.

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Alabama Hills’ unique rock formations draw visitors from around the world.

Geologically, the Alabama Hills are made up of metamorphic rock, forming an otherworldly landscape and magnificent natural arches. The rounded, oddly shaped contours of the Alabama Hills form a sharp contrast to the glacially carved ridges of the Sierra Nevada. While both landforms consist of the same granitic rock, the fantastic shapes of the hills were formed by a combination of natural chemical weathering and wind erosion. The lighter colored rock, found throughout Alabama Hills in the form of spherical, egg-shape, teardrop, or even as an arch, is biotite monzogranite type of magma.

The higher formations at Mt. Whitney are subjected to radically different weathering conditions than the Alabama Hills (just ~5300 feet of elevation). There are almost 10,000 feet of vertical difference between Mount Whitney’s majestic granite peaks and the rolling boulders of the Alabama Hills.

The hills were (controversially) named after the CSS Alabama, a Confederate warship that operated during the American Civil War. The name was given to the hills by a group of Confederate sympathizers who were prospecting in the area in the 1860s. Several groups have launched campaigns to change the name to erase its connection with Southern slavery.

In addition to their geological and historical importance, the Alabama Hills are also important for their recreational opportunities. The hills offer a variety of outdoor activities such as hiking, rock climbing, and photography. The range of hills is also a popular spot for stargazers and astro-photographers, due to the relatively low light pollution in the region.

The Alabama Hills are a must-see destination for anyone interested in geology, history, or outdoor activities in California.

The Volcanic History of Owens Valley and the Long Valley Caldera.


THE Owens Valley, located in eastern California, is renowned globally for its volcanic history. It is considered one of the most active areas in the United States. Part of the valley is made up of the Long Valley Caldera, a 9 by 18-mile oval-shaped volcanic depression that formed about 760,000 years ago during a massive eruption. This eruption released a huge amount of ash and pumice, creating the caldera and shaping the landscape of the area.

Over the next several hundred thousand years, the Long Valley Caldera experienced a series of volcanic eruptions, including the formation of several domes and lava flows. The most recent eruption occurred about 600 years ago, creating the Inyo Craters, a group of small cinder cones located on the western edge of the caldera.

One of the most notable features of the Long Valley Caldera is the presence of a magma chamber beneath the caldera floor. The magma chamber is responsible for the ongoing geothermal activity in the area, including hot springs and geysers, such as the famous Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve.


Volcanism in the region is relatively recent, and it remains extremely active today. Upon entering the town of Mammoth Lakes, there is a small, but steep rise to the East. This area, called the Resurgent Dome (yellow on map), has also uplifted about 80 cm (about 2.5 feet) since 1980.

In addition to its volcanic history, Owens Valley also played an important role in the history of California. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the valley was the site of a major water rights dispute between the city of Los Angeles and local farmers and ranchers. The city ultimately won the dispute, and the water from the Owens River was used to fuel the growth of Los Angeles, leading to the displacement of many local residents.

The area is still monitored for any signs of potential activity, and its geothermal activity continues to shape the landscape. Despite the challenges faced by local residents, the valley’s resources have played a significant role in the development of California.

The Man Who Saved the Owens Pupfish

Owens pupfish

51 years ago today a man named Edwin Philip Pister rescued an entire species from extinction.

Less than 2.5 inches in length, the Owens pupfish is a silvery-blue fish in the family Cyprinodontidae. Endemic to California’s Owens Valley, 200 miles north of Los Angeles, the fish has lived on the planet since the Pleistocene, becoming a new species when its habitat was divided by changing climatic conditions, 60,000 years ago.

For thousands of years, the Owens Valley was largely filled with water, crystal-clear snowmelt that still streams off the jagged, precipitous slab faces of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Pupfish were common, with nine species populating various lakes and streams from Death Valley to an ara just south of Mammoth Lakes. The Paiute people scooped them out of the water and dried them for the winter.

In the late 19th century, Los Angeles was a rapidly growing young metropolis, still in throes of growing pains that would last decades. While considered an ugly younger sibling to the city of San Francisco, Los Angeles had the appeal of near year-round sunshine and sandy beaches whose beauty that rivaled those of the French Riviera.

William Mulholland

But by the late 1900s, the city began outgrowing its water supply. Fred Eaton, mayor of Los Angeles, and his water czar, William Mulholland, hatched a plan to build an aqueduct from Owens Valley to Los Angeles. Most Californians know the story. Through a series of shady deals, Mulholland and Eaton managed to get control of the water in the Owens Valley and, in 1913, the aqueduct was finished. It was great news for the new city, but terrible news for many of the creatures (not to mention the farmers) who depended on the water flowing into and from the Owens Lake to survive.

One of those animals is the Owens pupfish.

So named because they exhibit playful, puppy-like behavior, the Owens pupfish rapidly began to disappear. Pupfish are well-known among scientists for being able to live in extreme and isolated situations. They can tolerate high levels of salinity. Some live in water that exceeds 100° Fahrenheit, and they can even tolerate up to 113° degrees for short periods. They are also known to survive in near-freezing temperatures common in the lower desert.

But hot or cold are one thing. The disappearance of water altogether is another.

As California has developed, and as climate change has caused temperatures to rise, thus increasing evaporation, all of California’s pupfish populations have come under stress. Add to these conditions, the early 20th-century introduction by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife of exotic species like largemouth bass and rainbow trout to lakes and streams in the eastern Sierras, and you get a recipe for disaster. And disaster is exactly what happened.

The remains of the Owens River flowing through Owens Valley in California. Credit: Erik Olsen

Several species of pupfish in the state have been put on the endangered species list. Several species, including the Owens pupfish, the Death Valley Pupfish and the Devils Hole pupfish are some of the rarest species of fish on the planet. The Devils Hole pupfish recently played the lead role in a recent story about a man who accidentally killed one of the fish during a drunken spree. According to news stories, he stomped on the fish when he tried to swim in a fenced off pool in Death Valley National Park. He went to jail.

The impact on the Owens pupfish habitat was so severe that in 1948, just after it was scientifically described, it was declared extinct.

That is, until one day in 1964, when researchers discovered a remnant population of Owens pupfish in a desert marshland called Fish Slough, a few miles from Bishop, California. Wildlife officials immediately began a rescue mission to save the fish and reintroduce them into what were considered suitable habitats. Many were not, and by the late 1960s, the only remaining population of Owens pupfish, about 800 individuals, barely hung on in a “room-sized” pond near Bishop.

On August 18, 1969, a series of heavy rains caused foliage to grow and clog the inflow of water into the small pool. It happened so quickly, that when scientists learned of the problem, they realized they had just hours to save the fish from extinction.

Edwin Philip Pister
Edwin Philip Pister

Among the scientists who came to the rescue that day was a stocky, irascible 40-year old fish biologist named Phil Pister. Pister had worked for the California Department of Fish and Game (now the California Department of Fish and Wildlife) most of his career. An ardent acolyte of Aldo Leopold, regarded as one of the fathers of American conservation, Pister valued nature on par, or even above, human needs. As the Los Angeles Times put it in a 1990 obituary, “The prospect of Pister off the leash was fearsome.”

“I was born on January 15, 1929, the same day as Martin Luther King—perhaps this was a good day for rebels,” he once said.

Pister had few friends among his fellow scientists. Known for being argumentative, disagreeable, and wildly passionate about the protection of California’s abundant, but diminishing, natural resources, Pister realized that immediate action was required to prevent the permanent loss of the Owens pupfish. He rallied several of his underlings and rushed to the disappearing pool with buckets, nets, and aerators.

Within a few hours, the small team was able to capture the entire remaining population of Owens pupfish in two buckets, transporting them to a nearby wetland. However, as Pister himself recalls in an article for Natural History Magazine:

“In our haste to rescue the fish, we had unwisely placed the cages in eddies away from the influence of the main current. Reduced water velocity and accompanying low dissolved oxygen were rapidly taking their toll.”

Los Angeles Aqueduct. Credit: Erik Olsen

As noted earlier, pupfish are amazingly tolerant of extreme conditions, but like many species, they can also be fragile, and within a short amount of time, many of the pupfish Pister had rescued were dying, floating belly up in the cages. Pister realized immediate action was required, lest the species disappear from the planet forever. Working alone, he managed to net the remaining live fish into the buckets and then carefully carried them by foot across an expanse of marsh. “I realized that I literally held within my hands the existence of an entire vertebrate species,” he wrote.

Pister managed to get the fish into cool, moving water where the fish could breathe and move about. He says abouty half the the population survived, but that was enough.

Today, the Owens pupfish remains in serious danger of extinction. On several occasions over the last few decades, the Owens pupfish has suffered losses by largemouth bass that find their way into the pupfish’s refuges, likely due to illegal releases by anglers. In 2009, the US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that five populations totaling somewhere between 1,500 and 20,000 Owens pupfish live in various springs, marshes, and sloughs in the Owens Valley, where they are federally protected.

by Erik Olsen

Additional material:

Oral history video featuring Phil Pister recounting his career and that fateful day.

Read previous articles in the California Science Weekly.

The Magic, Wonder, and Science of Ocean Bioluminescence in Southern California

How and why so many of earth’s creatures make their own light.

Last week, a video went viral showing a small pod of dolphins swimming at night off the coast of Newport Beach. Seeing dolphins off Southern California is not particularly unusual, but this was a very special moment. In the video, the dolphins appear to be swimming through liquid light, their torpedo-shaped bodies generating an ethereal blue glow like a scene straight out of Avatar. The phenomenon that causes the blue glow has been known for centuries, but that in no way detracts from its wonder and beauty. The phenomenon is called bioluminescence, and it is one of nature’s most magical and interesting phenomena. 

Bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by a living organism (thanks, Wikipedia!), and it is truly one of the great magical properties of nature. At its core, bioluminescence is the way animals can visually sense the world around them. It’s all built on vision, one of the most fascinating and useful senses in the animal kingdom. Seeing is impossible without light, and so it makes sense that in the absence of sunlight, some animals created a way to make their own light. 


I have been fascinated by bioluminescence since I was a child growing up near Newport Beach when the occasional nearshore red tide bloom would illuminate the waves like we are seeing now. It’s a truly magical experience. I’ve also experienced bioluminescence in various places around the world, including Thailand, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. In fact, 13 years ago, I made the trip to Puerto Rico’s Vieques Island and its world-famous Mosquito Bay, for the sole purpose of seeing the bay in person and swimming and kayaking in its warm, glowing waters (there is a rental outfit there that does tours at night…it’s amazing. Trust me.)

The phenomenon of bioluminescence is surprisingly common in nature. Both terrestrial and sea animals do it, as do plants, insects (for example, fireflies), and fungi. Curiously, no mammals bioluminesce. That we know of. The ocean is definitely the place that animals and plants bioluminesce the most. Which makes sense because deep in the ocean, there is little or no light. Light is absorbed very quickly in the water, so while on land you might be able to see a single streetlight miles away, after about 800 feet, light largely disappears in the depths of the ocean. I know. I’ve been there

It’s estimated that as many as 90 percent of the animals living in the open ocean, in waters below 1,500 feet, make their own light. Why they do this is in part a mystery, but scientists are pretty sure they understand the basic reasons animals do it: to eat, to not be eaten, and to mate. In other words, to survive. And to communicate. 

Credit: NOAA

The angler fish dangles a lighted lure in front of its face to attract prey. Some squid expel bioluminescent liquid, rather than ink, to confuse their predators. A few shrimp do too. Worms and small crustaceans use bioluminescence to attract mates. When it is attacked, the Atolla jellyfish (Atolla wyvillei) broadcasts a vivid, circular display of bioluminescent light, which scientists believe may be a kind of alarm system. The theory is that the light will attract a larger predator to go after whatever is attacking the jellyfish. While this is still a theory, a 2019 expedition that took the very first images of the giant squid used a fake Atolla jellyfish designed by the scientist Edith Widder to lure the squid into frame. I had the fortune of interviewing Dr. Widder, one of the world’s top experts on bioluminescence, several years ago for the New York Times.   

Edith Widder holds a vial of bioluminescent plankton. Credit: Erik Olsen

Making light is clearly beneficial. That’s why, say evolutionary biologists, it appears that bioluminescence has arisen over forty separate times in evolutionary history. The process is called convergent evolution and is the same reason that bats and birds and insects all evolved to fly independently. Clearly, flying confers a major advantage. So does making light.

While the Internet is awash in images of bioluminescent creatures, very often the term is confused with fluorescence. Even reputable science organizations sometimes do this. Bioluminescence is not the same thing as fluorescence. Fluorescence is the emission of light by a substance that has absorbed light or other electromagnetic radiation. Many animals like scorpions and coral fluoresce, meaning that they appear to glow a bright otherworldly color when blue light is shone on them. The key idea here is that the animals are not generating their own light, but rather contain cells that reflect light in fluorescence.  

Fluorescent (not bioluminescent) scorpion in Baja California, Mexico. Credit: Erik Olsen

So what about the recent explosion of bioluminescence in Southern California? The light we are seeing is made by tiny organisms, type of plankton called dinoflagellates (Lingulodinium polyedra) that occasionally “bloom” off-shore. Often, this is the result of recent storms that bring tons of nutrient-laden runoff into the ocean. The tiny plankton feed on nitrogen and other nutrients that enter the ocean from rivers and streams and city streets. A lot of the nutrients come from California’s vast farms, specifically the fertilizer used to grow California’s fruits and vegetables. With all that “food” coming into the ocean system, the algae rapidly multiply, creating red tides, or vast patches of ocean that turn dark brownish red, the color of pigment in the algae that helps protect it from sunlight. Michael Latz, a scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, says that the animals use bioluminescence as a predator avoidance behavior. 

Sometimes red tides are toxic and can kill animals and make people sick who swim in the ocean. (That does not appear to be the case in California right now). At night, when they are still, the animals can’t be seen. But when the water is disturbed, which adds oxygen into the mix, a chemical reaction takes place in their bodies that causes luciferin to oxidize and becomes catalyzed to make luciferase, which emits photons or particles of light. It’s not understood exactly how or why this happens, but we do know there are many kids of luciferase. In fact, scientists know the genes that create luciferases and have implanted them into organisms like mice, silkworms, and potatoes so that they glow. They’ve made bioluminescent plants, too.

A shrimp emits a bioluminescent cloud to ward of predators. Credit: NOAA

Perhaps the most magical thing about bioluminescence is that it doesn’t create heat. Almost all the lights we are familiar with, particularly incandescent light, like that from generic light bubs, generate a tremendous amount of heat. Of course, we have learned how to make this heatless chemical light ourselves, easily experienced when you crack and shake a glow stick, mixing together several chemicals in a process similar to the one animals in the ocean use to create bioluminescent light. But the light from glow sticks is not nearly strong enough to illuminate your back yard. In the last few decades, we’ve learned how to make another kind of light that does not produce a great amount of heat: LEDs. Though the process is very different, the concept is the same: talking a molecule or a material and promoting it to an excited state. Where electricity is used, in the case of LEDs, it’s called electroluminescence, where it’s a chemical reaction it’s chemiluminescence, of which bioluminescence is one form. 

Whether you are a religious person or not (I’m not) it’s no coincidence that one of the first things God said was, “Let there be light!” Light and light energy give us plants and animals to eat, and allows us to see. It heats our world, it fuels our cars (oil is really just dead organic material compressed over time, and that organic material would not have existed without sunlight). While some animals deep in the ocean can live without light, most of us cannot. And it’s a rather astounding feat of nature than when there is no light, many of the earth’s creatures have evolved to produce it themselves. If you don’t believe me, just go down to the Southern California shore tonight, and leave your flashlight at home. You won’t need it.

The little-known California scientist who may have saved millions of lives.

Clair Patterson. Courtesy of the Archives, California Institute of Technology

At Caltech, Clair Patterson’s relentless determination to understand the health impacts of atmospheric lead changed the world for the better.

It started by asking one of the biggest questions of them all: how old is the earth?

One might think that we’ve known the answer to this question for a long time, but the truth is that a definitive age for our planet was not established until 1953, and it happened right here in California.

Some of the earliest estimates of the earth’s age were derived from the Bible. Religious scholars centuries ago did some simple math, synthesizing a number of passages of Biblical scripture and calculated that the time to their present-day from the story of Genesis was around 6,000 years. That must have seemed like a really long time to people back then.

Of course, once science got involved, the estimated age changed dramatically, but even into the 18th century, people’s sense of geologic time was still on human scales, largely incapable of comprehending an age into the billions of years. In 1779, the Comte du Buffon tried to obtain a value for the age of Earth using an experiment: He created a small globe that resembled Earth in composition and then measured its rate of cooling. His conclusion: Earth was about 75,000 years old.

But in 1907, scientists developed the technique of radiometric dating, allowing scientists to compare the amount of uranium in rock with the amount of lead, the radioactive decay byproduct of uranium. If there was more lead in a rock, then there was less uranium, and thus the rock was determined to be older. Using this technique in 1913, British geologist Arthur Holmes put the Earth’s age at about 1.6 billion years, and in 1947, he pushed the age to about 3.4 billion years. Not bad. That was the (mostly) accepted figure when geochemist Clair Patterson arrived at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena from the University of Chicago in 1952. (Radiometric dating remains today the predominant way geologists measure the age of rocks.)

The Canyon Diablo meteorite was used by Clair Patterson to determine the age of the earth. Credit: Geoffrey Notkin
Canyon Diablo meteorite. Credit: Geoffrey Notkin

By employing a much more precise methodology, and using samples from the Canyon Diablo meteorite, Patterson was able to place the creation of the solar system, and its planetary bodies such as the earth, at around 4.6 billion years. (It is assumed that the meteorite formed at the same time as the rest of the solar system, including Earth). Subsequent studies have confirmed this number and it remains the accepted age of our planet.

Patterson’s discovery and the techniques he developed to extract and measure lead isotopes led one Caltech colleague to call his efforts “one of the most remarkable achievements in the whole field of geochemistry.”

But Patterson was not done.

In the course of his work on lead isotopes, Patterson began to realize that lead was far more prevalent in the environment that people imagined. In the experiments he was doing at Caltech, lead was everywhere.

Image of Clair Patterson in his Caltech lab. Courtesy of the Archives, California Institute of Technology
Courtesy of the Archives, California Institute of Technology

“There was lead there that didn’t belong there,” Patterson recalled in a CalTech oral history. “More than there was supposed to be. Where did it come from?”

Patterson’s discovery was “one of the most remarkable achievements in the whole field of geochemistry.”

Barclay Kamb, California Institute of Technology

Patterson was flummoxed by the large amounts of environmental lead he was seeing in his experiments. It seemed to be everywhere: in the water, air and in people’s hair, skin and blood. Figuring out why this was the case took him the rest of his career.

He found it so hard to get reliable measurements for his earth’s age experiments that he built one of the first scientific “clean rooms”, now an indispensable part of many scientific disciplines, and a precursor to the ultra-clean semiconductor fabrication plants (so-called “fabs”) where microprocessor chips are made. In fact, at that time, Patterson’s lab was the cleanest laboratory in the world.

To better understand this puzzle, Patterson turned to the oceans, and what he found astonished him. He knew that if he compared the lead levels in shallow and deep water, he could determine how oceanic lead had changed over time. In his experiments, he discovered that in the ocean’s oldest columns of water, down deep, there was little lead, but towards the surface, where younger water circulates, lead values spiked by 20 times.

Then, going back millions of years, he analyzed microscopic plant and animal life from deep sediments and discovered that they contained 1/10 to 1/100th the amount of lead found at the time around the globe.

He decided to look in places far from industrial centers, ice caves in Greenland and Antarctica, where he would be able to see clearly how much lead was in the environment many years ago. He was able to show a dramatic increase in environmental lead beginning with the start of lead smelting in Greek and Roman times. Historians long ago documented the vast amounts of lead that were mined in Rome. Lead pipes connected Roman homes, filled up bathtubs and fountains and carried water from town to town. Many Romans knew of lead’s dangers, but little was done. Rome, we all know, collapsed. Jean David C. Boulakia, writing in the American Journal of Archaeology, said: “The uses of lead were so extensive that lead poisoning, plumbism, has sometimes been given as one of the causes of the degeneracy of Roman citizens. Perhaps, after contributing to the rise of the Empire, lead helped to precipitate its fall.”

In his Greenland work, Patterson’s data showed a “200- or 300-fold increase” in lead from the 1700s to the present day; and, most astonishing, the largest concentrations occurred only in the last three decades. Were we, like the Romans, perhaps on the brink of an environmental calamity that could hasten the end of our civilization? Not if Patterson could help it.

Exterior shot of the California Institute of Technology. Credit: Erik Olsen
California Institute of Technology. Credit: Erik Olsen

That may be far too grandiose and speculative, but there was no doubting that there was so much more lead in the modern world, and it seemed to have appeared only recently. But why? And how?

In a Eureka moment, Patterson realized that the time frame of atmospheric lead’s rise he was seeing in his samples seemed to correlate perfectly with the advent of the automobile, and, more specifically, with the advent of leaded gasoline.

Leaded gas became a thing in the 1920s. Previously, car engines were plagued by a loud knocking sound made when pockets of air and fuel prematurely exploded inside an internal combustion engine. The effect also dramatically reduced the engine’s efficiency. Automobile companies, seeking to get rid of the noise, discovered that by adding tetraethyl lead to gasoline, they could stop the knocking sound, and so-called Ethyl gasoline was born. “Fill her up with Ethyl,” people used to say when pulling up to the pump.

Shot of a can of Ethyl gas. Credit: Plazak
Credit: Plazak

Despite what the Romans may have known about lead, it was still an immensely popular material. It was widely used in plumbing well into the 20th century as well as in paints and various industrial products. But there was little action taken to remove lead from our daily lives. The lead in a pipe or wall paint is one thing (hey, don’t eat it!), but pervasive lead in our air and water is something different.

After World War I, every household wanted a car and the auto sales began to explode. Cars were perhaps the most practical invention of the early 20th century. They changed everything: roads, cities, work-life and travel. And no one wanted their cars to make that infernal racket. So the lead additive industry boomed, too. By the 1960s, leaded gasoline accounted for 90% of all fuel sold worldwide.

But there signs even then that something was wrong with lead.

A New York Times story going back to 1924 documented how one man was killed and another driven insane by inhaling gases released in the production of the tetraethyl lead at the Bayway plant of the Standard Oil Company at Elizabeth, N.J. Many more cases of lead poisoning were documented in ensuing years, with studies showing that it not only leads to physical illness but also to serious mental problems and lower IQs. No one, however, was drawing the connection between all the lead being pumped into the air by automobiles and the potential health impacts. Patterson saw the connection.

Ford Model T. Credit: Harry Shipler

When Patterson published his findings in 1963, he was met with both applause and derision. The billion-dollar oil and gas industry fought his ideas vigorously, trying to impugn his methods and his character. They even tried to pay him off to study something else. But it soon became apparent that Patterson was right. Patterson and other health officials realized that If nothing was done, the result could be a global health crisis that could end up causing millions of human deaths. Perhaps the decline of civilization itself.

Patterson was called before Congress to testify on his findings, and while his arguments made little traction, they caught the attention of the nascent environmental movement in America, which had largely come into being as a result of Rachel Carson’s explosive 1962 book Silent Spring, which documented the decline in bird and other wildlife as a result of the spraying of DDT for mosquito control. People were now alert to poisons in the environment, and they’d come to realize that some of the industrial giants that were the foundation of our economy were also having serious impacts on the planet’s health.

Patterson was unrelenting in making his case, but he still faced serious opposition from the Ethyl companies and from Detroit. The government took half-hearted measures to address the problem. The EPA suggested reducing lead in gasoline step by step, to 60 to 65 percent by 1977. This enraged industry, but also Patterson, who felt that wasn’t nearly enough. Industry sued and the case to the courts. Meanwhile, Patterson continued his research, collecting samples around Yosemite, which showed definitely that the large rise in atmospheric lead was new and it was coming from the cities (in this case, nearby San Francisco and Los Angeles). He analyzed human remains from Egyptian mummies and Peruvian graves and found they contained far less lead than modern bones, nearly 600 times less.

Years would pass with more hearings, more experiments, and the question of whether the EPA should regulate leaded gas more heavily went to U.S. Court of Appeals. The EPA won, 5-4. “Man’s ability to alter his environment,” the court ruled, “has developed far more rapidly than his ability to foresee with certainty the effects of his alterations.”

The Clean Air Act of 1970 initiated the development of national air-quality standards, including emission controls on cars.

Drone shot of rush-hour traffic over Los Angeles. Credit: Erik Olsen
Drone over Los Angeles. Credit: Erik Olsen

In 1976, the EPA’s new rules went into effect and the results were almost immediate: environmental lead plummeted. The numbers continued to plummet as lead was further banned as a gasoline additive and from other products like canned seafood (lead was used as a sealant). Amazingly, there was still tremendous denial within American industry.

Although the use of leaded gas declined dramatically beginning with the Clear Air Act, it wasn’t until 1986, when the EPA called for a near ban of leaded gasoline that we seemed to finally be close to ridding ourselves of the scourge of atmospheric lead. With the amendment of the Clean Air Act four years later, it became unlawful for leaded gasoline to be sold at all at service stations beginning December 31, 1995. Patterson died just three weeks earlier at the age of 73.

Clair Patterson is a name that few people know today, yet his work not only changed our understanding of the earth itself, but also likely saved millions of lives. When Patterson was finally accepted into the National Academy of Science in 1987, Barclay Kamb, a Caltech colleague, summed his career up thusly: “His thinking and imagination are so far ahead of the times that he has often gone misunderstood and unappreciated for years, until his colleagues finally caught up and realized he was right.”

Clair Patterson is one of the most unsung of the great 20th-century scientists, and his name deserves to be better known.

To learn more about Clair Patterson, read the fascinating oral history from Caltech Archives.

Why bringing back California’s kelp is so important

Sea urchins have devastated kelp forests in California.

Two centuries ago, the waters off the California coast were home to a vibrant ecosystem of plants and animals. Vast forests of kelp provided habitat for thousands of species of fish and invertebrates. Some of these kelp forests were so dense that light hardly penetrated to the seafloor. But now, along much of the coastline, the kelp is all but gone.

The tragedy here goes far beyond species loss and a troubling decline in overall biodiversity in our coastal waters. Kelp are also great at taking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and they help reduce acidification of the oceans, essentially cleaning the water and bringing balance to the entire ecosystem.

But now, that balance is has been disrupted. A recent study says that California’s bull kelp (Nereocytis luetkeana) forests (one of several species that are endemic here) have declined by 93% in just the last five years.

It’s difficult to fathom the scale of this loss, and we are only beginning to understand what it will mean for the overall health of our coastal waters. When the kelp disappears, the entire complex web of organisms that rely on it for habitat and food is disturbed. That is to say, large swaths of the near-shore California coastal ecosystem depend upon kelp.

So, what is happening? Well, first a little history.

A healthy kelp forest in Channel Islands National Park (NPS)

Two centuries ago, when kelp forests along the coast were so abundant they stretched for hundreds of miles with thick canopies that could be seen at the surface. At the time, urchins existed, but their populations were held in check by sea otters, which have been known to eat 1/4 of their body weight in urchins in a day. But unrestrained hunting by trappers (often Russian and British) in the early 1800s and into the mid-century brought sea otter populations down so low, at one point they were considered extinct in the wild. With the otters gone, urchins flourished and along certain stretches of coast, the kelp disappeared. Remember, this was 200 years ago, long before California was even a state.

Otters have come back to certain stretches of the California coast, especially near Monterey, and in some cases, the kelp has come back. And, in fact, even now, some places around the state, things aren’t nearly so bad. One-third of southern California’s kelp forests are found within Channel Islands National Park and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, where no-take marine reserves prohibit all take of living, geological, or cultural resources. In the reserve, California sheephead, spiny lobsters, and sunflower stars eat sea urchins and keep their population from exploding.

Bust most other regions are not so lucky. And things have gotten even worse. And this is where it gets more complicated.

An intense ocean warming period between 2014 and 2017 is the likely culprit in causing a mass die-off of starfish. Starfish prey on native purple urchins, keeping their numbers in check. With mass numbers of sea stars dead, the urchins proliferated, eating their way through the kelp forests. The result: disaster.

“What we’re seeing now are millions and millions of purple sea urchins, and they’re eating absolutely everything,” said Laura Rogers-Bennett, an environmental scientist with UC Davis Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center and California Department of Fish and Wildlife operating out of the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory. “They can eat through all the anemones, the sponge, all the kelp, the fleshy red algae. They’re even eating through calcified alga and sand.”

The loss of kelp forests in California should be immediately recognized as a major ecological problem to solve, and while some projects are underway to do just that, much more needs to be done.

Several organizations, most of them California-based, are trying to reduce the number of urchins in Southern California. For example, UC Davis researchers are working with Bay Area shellfish company Urchinomics to explore “ranching urchins, removing them from the seafloor and fattening them up to be sold as sushi. Urchins are highly valued by Japanese consumers and are even sold in some California sushi restaurants. One problem is that purple urchins tend to be too small to harvest for human consumption, hence the need to increase their size via aquaculture. But will this be enough to stop the urchin’s march towards environmental saturation? Probably not.

The Bay Foundation in Santa Monica launched a program to restore kelp beds around 150 acres of urchin barrens along the rocky reefs off Palos Verdes. Scientists, recreational divers, and fishermen go down and smash the urchins with small hammers. The effort has shown promise, with kelp growing back in 46 acres of restored reef. Again, this is not nearly enough.

Other strategies are outlined in the Sonoma-Mendocino Bull Kelp Recovery Plan, released last June by the Greater Farallones Association and California Department of Fish and Wildlife. It includes measures such as creating a kelp oasis to preserve seed stock and repopulate bull kelp when conditions are conducive to restoration.

This may all be too little too late. But we believe state, local and federal agencies should redouble their efforts now to mitigate the loss of kelp in California waters. The implications for further, perhaps total, loss of California’s once-flourishing kelp forests are just too dire and action is required now. As the authors of the report write “it may take decades before the complex biological communities, associates, and the ecosystem services provided by macroalgal [seaweed] forests rebound.”