The Top Coastal Science & Conservation Stories of 2016
As this crazy, non compos, thingamajig of a year crumples to its messy denouement, it seems determined to make news even unto its last gasp. Just this week this angry octopus of a year tentacled out yet again as it teetered on the precipice of 2017 to suddenly drag Princess Leia, the Unsinkable Molly Brown, and artist Tyrus Wong with it over the rim of the abyss and into history to join the likes of Gwen Ifill, John Glenn, Frederick Frankenstein (that’s “Fronkensteen”), Hans Gruber, Harper Lee, Phife, and Prince on the roster of those we lost in 2016. Unfortunately 2016 saw fit to leave us with a whole mess of folks and situations many hoped would leave this world posthaste.
But while the news of conflict and challenge and loss may seem to have dominated the media this year, 2016 wasn’t all bad by a long shot. This year proffered revelations of beauty and discovery and progress alongside that foreboding and trepidation seemingly on everyone’s mind. Nowhere was this yin and yang more evident than in the science and resource management worlds. And while I know everyone is inundated this time of year by the annual “best of,” “top 10,” and “year in review” (or “year in rebuke” sensu the great Harry Shearer) lists, it somehow seems like a great time to offer up my very first “top stories” list. That and the fact we got rained out of our planned New Year’s Eve shindig and I seem to suddenly have a free morning and afternoon on my hands (which I would otherwise have to devote to doing actual work on my house, starting on my mountain of unread e-mails, or helping my family with post-Christmas cleaning).
Top Stories of 2016
What follows is my personal take on the Top Science and Conservation Stories of 2016 with an unapologetically clear bias towards what my Pirate Lab cares most about (coastal management) and where we tend to spend most of our time (the California coast). The stories that aren’t directly or solely about the goings on in the coastal zone have clear implications for our coasts and oceans of the planet now or in the near future.
I began brainstorming my own list of 2016’s noteworthy studies, events, and emerging consensuses a couple of weeks ago. I next asked a few of my friends and colleagues to help me sort that rambling list. A total of 24 kind souls took several minutes out of their holiday break to anonymously and independently prioritize my unordered list. The rankings that you see below are the average ranking of importance on the list, beginning with stories of lesser import or apparent significance (closer to the lowest possible ranking of 30) and proceeding to the top story (the closest to the a theoretical score of 1). While my methods are what our friends in the media would call an “unscientific poll,” I’ll simply note that all of my helpers/responders were in point of fact actual scientists or real-life resource managers. So my ordering events here is best described as prioritization via a “non-random” collection of experts. Finally, I should note that three of these stories were suggested by my colleagues during their rankings, added to my list post hoc, and so not technically ranked as were all the other stories. I used my professorial prerogative to slip them into the end of the list where I thought they fit best.
Sorting the Stories of 2016
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the following rankings is the fact there are five pretty distinct “natural” groupings. Stories ranked as numbers one and two were clearly set apart from the subsequent clusters of stories with our number one story far and away the most significant story with nearly 100% agreement that this was the number one conservation science story of 2016. We’ll go by inverse order starting with the lowest ranked story and progressing through ever more significant stories. I’ve also noted the natural groups for each set of stories and provided each story’s average rank score. Group 5 & 4 stories are listed below. Group 3 and our second most important story are presented in the part two of this three-part posting. The top story garnered its own separate post in the third and final installment of this series. Here we go…
2016’s Most Significant Coastal Science and Conservation Stories
Group 5 (Mean Story Importance Ranks >23):
Chernobyl +30 (Rank: 26.67)
Now some of you might be saying to yourself “wait, this wasn’t a coastal story.” We’ll you’d be right. But the unprecedented near-China-Syndrome, hell on earth fiasco birthed from the former USSR’s disdain for environmental protection, human rights, and even basic risk analysis that burst onto the world stage on my 16th birthday in 1986 has provided us new insights into humanity’s impact of the planet. That 16th birthday of mine was dominated by the news of the emerging worst possible case scenario of what appeared to have happened at the power plant near Pripyat, Ukraine three days before on April 26, 1986. For the benefit of my younger students: the aging and waaaaaaay obsolete reactor design failed in the middle of the night in the wake of a scheduled stress test (sound familiar pipeline companies?). The returning power surged upon restart, caused catastrophic failure with the cooling control systems, and ultimately destroyed Unit 4 of the nuclear power station in the Ukraine, then a puppet state within the former Soviet Union. The reactor failure, fire, and structural collapse that followed released massive amounts of radioactive material into the environment second only to aboveground atmospheric detonation of weapons of war. As much as 5% (5200 PBq) of the actual fissile material of the core went into the wind and ran into Poland and western Europe!
Over the ensuing days, emergency crews responded with helicopter dumps of sand and boron onto the imploding reactor vessel to douse the fire and minimize additional releases of radioactive particles into the atmosphere. It took several weeks to fully contain the mess within a temporary concrete “sarcophagus” (something that sounded both ominous and mythological to my 16 year old ears) to minimize subsequent releases of radioactive material. The newest sarcophagus was completed this April, helping to bring the 30th anniversary of the disaster to wider public attention. The Soviets would go on to quickly cut down and bury nearly 1 mi2 (259 ha) of pine forest near the plant to reduce radioactive contamination at and near the site. Chernobyl’s three other reactors were subsequently restarted but all eventually shut down for good, with the last reactor decommissioned in 1999. In the wake of the chaos of the initial accident, the Soviets closed off the area within 30 km (18 mi) of the plant with an exclusion zone. Officially only persons with gate-keeper roles with the shuttered plant or those monitoring the ecological consequences of the accident are routinely allowed in. Ultimately something like 116,000 people were initially relocated from the immediate exclusion zone in 1986 and another 220,000 people in subsequent years.
Ironically, the disaster zone has become something of tourist destination of late since the government opened the area to tourism in 2011. An amazing 30,000 people visited the site in 2015!!! This growing cadre of visitors now does everything from extreme sports to disaster tourism in the “hot zone.”
Early on, several biological studies within the Chernobyl exclusion zone indicated major radiation effects on invertebrates (Møller and Mousseau 2009) and reductions in wildlife populations (Møller and Mousseau 2013) at dose rates well below those thought to cause significant impacts (Garner-Laplace, et al. 2006). Flash forward to 2016. Three decades on the Chernobyl exclusion zone is by many metrics doing surprisingly well, at least in terms of gross population abundances and community diversity and dynamics. We now see no significant differences in small mammals inside and outside the exclusion zone. Deryabina et al. (2016) found a wide swath of wildlife populations from numerous taxa to be little harmed 30 years after the initial radiation exposure. As amazing as it may sound, three decades on, Chernobyl’s greatest impact on the surrounding ecosystems appears to be the exclusion of most humans from the region. Limiting human impacts and allowing nature to reclaim an area unencumbered by harvesting, on-going fragmentation, or other such disturbance is clearly a good thing. Camera trap researchers Wood and Beresford (2016) argued earlier in the spring that it “is clear from the images [we’ve collected] and the study of Deryabina et al. that Chernobyl is not a barren wasteland, but as scientists we face the challenge of finding ways of communicating the reality of the Chernobyl environment to the general public. Films and popular computer games continue to reinforce the impression that Chernobyl is a radioactive wasteland.” Summaries of that work and evidence can be seen here.
This growing understanding that nuclear meltdown and atmospheric release is preferable to having humans living on your landscape should give us pause. It also suggests that the impacts from Japan’s 2011 tsunami-induced Fukushima disaster will not be as bad as initially postulated. Although ongoing subsurface water movement and continual exposure of coastal waters to irradiated water and reactor-birthed isotopes could prove more deleterious (see for example the Greenpeace-authored report in early 2016), we may be following a similar course of events as unfolded at Chernobyl. Initial terrestrial and marine studies showed physiological and genetic signals from the Japanese radiation (e.g. Hermanspahn et al. 2016), but we have not seen massive initial population- or community-level ecological impacts in the region around the Daiichi plant to date even though we are far from figuring out how to treat the still-smoldering core.
Abundant Aerial Insects (Late addition & not fully ranked by panel)
I love studies that take on a common subject that everyone thinks they know and understand and then turns that expectation on its head. Perhaps the best example of that this year was the publication of an exploration of the aerial insects. Hu at al. (2016) explored the seasonal biomass of high-flying (>150 m above sea level) insects over the British Isles and found ~3.5 trillion insects (clocking in at an estimated 3,200 tons of invertebrate biomass) move over England annually!!! There was strong seasonality with the critters surfing dominant seasonal air currents although the net movements northward and southward were equal on balance over the decade of their monitoring.
I have a soft spot for aerial insect biomass. This has been one of our go-to assessments of ecosystem functioning in our wetland and grassland restoration efforts for many years now. Over the years we have found a very clear relationship with insect (and spider) abundance, diversity, and accumulated biomass (i.e. productivity) with the height above the soil or vegetation surface we are monitoring. Essentially most insects fly very close to the ground such that almost all the story is within a few tens of centimeters above the surface in question (see my figure below). This newly published work suggests that even though the lion share of our insect fauna is near to the ground, there are still staggering populations way up into the atmosphere. Jason Chapman of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation in the U.K. told Science Daily “If the densities observed over southern UK are extrapolated to the airspace above all continental landmasses, high-altitude insect migration represents the most important annual animal movement in ecosystems on land, comparable to the most significant oceanic migrations.” In other words this study serves as a reminder that The Bard was right in Act 3, Scene 2 of A Midsummer’s Night Dream and “though she be but little, she is fierce”…or at least abundant!
Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant Will Shutter (Late addition & not fully ranked by panel)
Too often coastal zone management is a contentious mess (just see several of the following entries in this year’s list below). We are used to debates tipping towards entrenched positions and then morphing into protracted “battles,” especially here in California. So it came as a wonderful surprise to many that Pacific Gas and Electric (the power utility serving most of northern California) opted to pull the plug on its efforts to extend the operating license for their Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant just north of Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo County this summer. That decision in June translates into the plant committing to begin decommissioning when its current operating permits expire in in 2024 and 2025.
This was huge on a number of levels. First and foremost it was done with minimal preliminary fanfare and greeted warmly by every major actor I know (with the possible exception of the small cadre of operators/engineers currently employed at the plant). Next it comes at a time when California is making national waves over our efforts to decarbonize our state’s energy grid even though we had lost our only other nuclear plant in the state at San Onofre as of 2013 in the wake of a disastrous and painful attempt at a retrofit in 2012. The decommissioning of that coastal plant in Orange County was initially poorly planned and chaotic given the suddenness of the shutdown and the astronomical costs that won’t be fully understood for years (but $3.3 billion is a safe opening bet). The Diablo Canyon decision also runs counter to the nuclear power industry’s post-2000 arguments that curbing carbon emissions and practically combating climate change demands expanded electrical generation via nuclear plants.
The decision to let Diablo Canyon go quietly into that good night means that we will soon have one less worry in our earthquake-prone state (a never fully dealt with risk at Diablo Canyon) and will stop adding to the backlog of nuclear waste which no-one can seem to figure out what to do with. This targeted shutdown gives us plenty of time to plan for the removal of this plant from our grid and radiation sources from our coast. All told the plant that began with the 1968 ground breaking will end up having something like a 60 year lifespan before the last materials are ultimately removed.
Hyperloop Gaining Momentum (Rank: 25.42)
Our well-intentioned but apparently fiscally and bureaucratically doomed Los Angeles to San Francisco bullet train keeps on trying to keep on, political torpedoes be damned. Most recently Governor Brown’s administration thought they might be able to catch a fiscal Hail Mary from the Federal Transportation Administration of either the outgoing Obama or incoming Clinton administrations. Yeah, that didn’t happen (leaving me to wonder if the term “Hail Mary” is valid if the quarterback doesn’t even take a snap). But 2016 was the year the conceptual inheritor of the cross-state mass public transportation idea–Elon Musk’s Hyperloop–seemed to draw closer to reality.
Mr. Musk famously unveiled and then freely released his first principles conceptual design for a high-speed people mover mixing the tech of pneumatic tube delivery and maglev trains in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Since then we have seen two distinct efforts crystalize here in California to bring the emissions-lowering idea to fruition. Momentum has built throughout 2016 via competitions to develop prototypes, practical testing, and new investors entering the scene:
- The first Hyperloop Pod Competition ran throughout 2016 with 30 of the 1000+ teams surviving to compete in the culminating phase testing their scale models of the system (delayed five months to give competitors more time to refine their designs), the winners of which will be announced at the finals in a few weeks (on January 29, 2017) at SpaceX in Hawthorne, California.
- Hyperloop One successfully tested one component of the propulsion system in the Nevada desert on May 11, 2016.
- DP World Group of Dubai announced in November they would be investing an undisclosed amount in Hyperloop One. That investment group is the third largest port operator in the world and has proposed building a 35 km-lone spur from their harbor at Jebel Ali into the landlocked ubercity of Dubai.
- The related but-can’t-tell-yet-if-it-is-a-scam-or-not ET3 endeavor quietly started selling licensing opportunities to individuals (for $100) in 2016.
- And as something of a dubious tech badge of honor the Hyperloop contenders have started suing each other in 2016. This is apparently a business tactic to help them secure more capital to fuel prototype development…I guess. Or just a bad episode of Silicon Valley.
As California’s bullet train continues to stumble, many see the proposed I5 corridor plan as perfectly teed up for could become the world’s highest profile Hyperloop System (assuming China doesn’t build one first).
Island Foxes No Longer Endangered (Late addition & not fully ranked by panel)
Island foxes (Urocyon littoralis) are a dwarf form our our mainland foxes who exist on most of our Channel Islands. While still a matter of debate, it is increasingly likely that the our first nations friends actively introduced the foxes into these island ecosystems at some point after their initial settlement of the Channel Islands around >13,000 years ago. Each island has a distinct genetic lineage of fox, currently recognized as island-specific subspecies. All was more or less well until the late 1980s when a complex symphony of ecological interactions began to impact fox populations. DDT contamination offshore of Los Angeles ended up making its way to fish-eating Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) populations on the islands, thinning their egg shells and eventually removing them from the island. Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) were only transient on the islands up to this point but stepped in to fill that raptor void. Golden Eagle populations soared, buoyed by the non-native feral pigs (Sus scrofa) and the abundant numbers of piglets. Control efforts to kill the pigs drove the Golden Eagles to switch their hunting to our foxes. By the late 1990s, foxes were perhaps 10% of their historic numbers. A mere 55 foxes were left on Santa Cruz Island which historically harbored 1,400. Only 15 were left on San Miguel Island (relative to perhaps 450 in the past) and our CSU Channel Islands’ home island of Santa Rosa held a fraction of its historic peak of 1,780 foxes. The very aggressive and very nearly too late captive breading program began in 1999. This fantastically successful program helmed by Channel Islands National Park and The Nature Conservancy began releasing bred foxes on the islands in 2003. By 2015 we had 1,200 on Santa Rosa, 700 on San Miguel, and 2,100 on Santa Cruz. On September 12, 2016 the three fox subspecies were officially declared recovered with much pomp and circumstance.
We often hear about the difficulties of brining species back from the brink of extinction. The now 1,651 organisms on the federal (only 1,157 with completed recovery plans) and 222 California state lists of threatened and endangered species are often seen as on something of a death watch list with critters rarely stepping away from the brink (to be recategorized as “only” threatened) or achieving the holiest of holies; actual delisting (e.g. Taylor et al. 2005). Delisting happens when the species in question achieves a series of species- and location-specific criteria for a given period of time. Typical delisting criteria include benchmarks such as achieving a numerical abundance target, maintaining the minimum number of breeding pairs in an area, and having established, self-sustaining populations in at least two or more spatially distinct regions. All too often the recovery target is a small fragment of a species’ historic abundance or tiny slice of their previous extent. And the stressors that drove the population to be so rare in the first place–overharvesting, habitat fragmentation, outright obliteration of their breeding sites, etc.–are often unabated. Add to that the fact several administrations and congresses have taken pains to defund the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations charged with assessing, generating recovery plans, and overseeing recovery so as to make their tasks essentially impossible and generate further public ire about the slow pace of progress. In sum, these challenges have a good portion of our society who live with nature and work the land or sea too often less than supportive of endangered species recovery.
You can see where things can get understandable dicey for rare species. As a rancher once told me as we hung out in the junkyard that doubled as his front yard round about 1994: “The Federal government owns half the land in California. Now if these little suckers [desert tortoises] can’t live on half of the land [that is public-owned] and they need our [private] land to survive, then maybe the Good Lord didn’t mean for them to be around.” His stats were off, but the point well taken.
As of this week, a grand total of 76 “species” (technically evolutionary significant units/sub-species and not “species” per se, but I digress) have been federally delisted. But a closer inspection shows that only 47 of these 76 were actually recovered. The rest were removed from the list due to taxonomic revisions (19 of them) or because they simply went extinct (10 of them). That’s a success rate of well less than 1%. Suffice it to say we are accustomed to the bar being set disappointing low and often seem resigned to be managing extinction as opposed to recovery. So when we do have successes as we have had with the likes tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes), California Condors (Gymnogyps californianus), and mountain lions (Puma councilor), it is something to celebrate. And our September the island fox recovery and delisting fanfare provided a chance to celebrate this wonderful conservation victory.
WWF Questions MSC Certification Process It Founded 20 Years Ago (Rank 24.83)
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) paired with the world’s then-largest purveyor of processed seafood Unilever Corporation in 1995 to spawn the third-party certification entity the would become the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Designed as a certification mechanism to be independent of both self-serving private interests and bureaucratic governmental structures, MSC was designed to better inform the consumers of seafood and harness the power of the marketplace to drive better, more sustainable stewardship of our fisheries across the globe. While MSC has grown over the years to now include 286 fisheries and 20,000+ products, the critiques have only grown over the years. Those critiques include very low penetration of most store shelves with our own research over the past decade here in southern California finding less than 1% of seafood items for sale are MSC-certified. Those critiques culminated most recently in the 2016 questioning of the very process by one of its partners. WWF has apparently been very detailed and very unhappy with the state of MSC. Their confidential report was leaked in November and amounted to potentially devastating criticism of everything from MSC’s supposed neutrality to the organization’s failure to inform consumers and boost the proportion of sustainable seafood actually purchased. You can read that actual leaked report here. Highlights of the critique (via OneFish) included:
- Certification of fisheries where no credible Harvest Control Rules exist;
- Changing the process language on the fly to accommodate certification of fisheries whose certification has been challenged;
- A clunky appeals/challenge process that generally falls on deaf ears; MSC admits that very few stakeholder comments (13%) have any impact on the process;
- A system of contracting third-party certifiers that do not respond to stakeholder comments;
- Conflict of interest whereby MSC profits from the royalties on the logo fees while “objectively” certifying the fisheries.
It is still too early to tell what this means for MSC, but our survey work already shows that the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide to seafood has much greater penetration than MSC (to say nothing of traditional guides to consumption). My fishermen friends who have long called MSC a joke given the high price of certification and MSC’s inability to deal with so-called data-dificient fisheries (the majority of the world’s fisheries) are wondering if this might be something of a nail in the MSC coffin. I wouldn’t go that far, but think it is fair to say that MSC will need to change something if it hopes to be force for effective seafood management in 2017 and beyond.
Santa Monica Mountains Mountain Lions Continually in Spotlight (Rank: 23.20)
Mountain lions (Puma councilor) here in the Santa Monica Mountains remain a perpetual local media darling. This year saw continued, slow progress raising money and continuing the preparatory work to craft our much-needed wildlife crossing over the deadly 101 Freeway at Libery Canyon. We saw new babies born but also more collared lions and other vertebrates killed while trying to cross our spiderweb of landscape-fragmenting roadways (the most recent of which deaths coming on December 3 and December 20). Sadly, our long-term effort to quantify road kill in coastal southern California continues to be relevant.
But the real media draw this year was the controversy sparked by the killing of livestock in the Santa Monica Mountains over the Thanksgiving weekend and the ensuing response. I headed to what I thought would be a low-key discussion of management options only to be overwhelmed by media, hundreds of angry residents, and a firestorm of anger over the permission that the state had just issued to kill one of our remaining mountain lions in the Santa Monicas. I’ve already posted about this incident, so please check out my post from early December about the amazing public outcry and the gritty details. The good news is this outcry ended up pushing the property owner to back off her efforts to kill the lion in question.
Genetic Engineering Enters The Realm of SciFi (Rank: 23.01)
While still in what we will undoubtedly look back as the early days of genetic hybridization and engineering, 2016 nevertheless marked the year where the potential power of the modern tools of genetic engineering finally became manifest in actual human hybrids. I vividly recall driving in the car with my son and hearing the fantastic piece by NPR’s Rob Stein on the human-pig chimeras that were growing in genetics labs at UC Davis that very day. It was clearly a “What the heck did we just hear?!?” moment that sparked a long discussion about morality, the ethical guidelines when manipulating nature, and the perils alluded to by our master science fiction writers of old (I bought my son some Aldous Huxley for Christmas). The unparalleled ease and accuracy to slice and dice genes from virtually any source provided by CRISPR affords the possibility of practical garage-based genetic engineering. We have not yet come fully to terms with what this power actually means, but make no mistake that it is here to stay and many fronts across the globe are actively manipulating the building blocks of life to service their desires. That includes editing living people too, as our friends in China have happily begun for us this past October despite the supposed fig leaf of limited checks and balances bioethicists and oversight groups attempt to erect. Well-publicized efforts in 2016 included all the typical blather about how this technology will help lift the human condition and aid those most suffering (such as from Malaria), blah, blah, blah. One needs only see how the GMO industry touts Golden Rice as a justification for widespread and unfettered use of generate engineering tools to allow for greater consolidation in agribusiness, expanded use of herbicides, and a mechanism to inadvertently spread resistance genes into wild populations. The reality is that this is being used cautiously for now. But it seems only a matter of time until we begin to see gene drives and the like released into our coastal zone. This will most likely that start with agricultural crops in places like the Oxnard Plain (as already begun with non-CRISPR GMOs). It is therefore clear we will soon have to deal with escaped hybrids and chimeras just as we now have to deal with “traditional” invasive species across our coasts.
Group 4 (Mean Story Importance Rank Range: 17.92 to 21.25):
Deadbeat Dam Money For Removal of Matilija Dam (Rank: 21.25)
“It’s like running a hurdle. You just have to keep jumping over these obstacles that keep presenting themselves,” head of the California Coastal Conservancy Sam Schuchat noted at the Matilija Dam tour in October. He was referencing the latest installment of the effort to remove the incredibly foolish dam in the Ventura River Watershed near Ojai, California. That damn was put in 1948 against the best council of the nation’s top dam builders. It has (surprise, surprise) subsequently needed to be notched twice to prevent the catastrophic failure of the structure, hasn’t provided any useful water in decades, remains a major reservoir for non-native animals and plants (I’m looking at you Arundo donax), is a massive barrier for now-endangered migratory steelhead salmon (Oncorhynchus mykiss), and has robbed the beaches of Ventura of a large volume of sediment entrained behind its concrete walls. It would have been great if we heeded the early warnings during construction in the 1940s which spanned a huge array of unexpected delays, cost overruns, and clay oozing from under the dam’s initial foundation that helped drive carpenters to walk off the job for fear of dying. These assaults built up to the point that the dam was eventually deemed unsafe and the engineering firm running the construction sued. Oh had that lawsuit proved successful…
The work to begin removing this damn dam officially began in 2000 with a symbolic “notching” at the very top by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. It was slow going until the U.S. Congress approved the removal plan concept in 2007. It is fair to say hunting for money (perhaps $60-80 million) in the midst of the economic downturn proved an additional challenge. Happily the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Resources Legacy Fund announced the creation of the Open Rivers Fund on November 29 which will support local efforts to remove obsolete dams and restore watersheds across the western United States. The Matilija Removal Project received one of the Open Rivers Fund’s inaugural grants for $175,000 to support early-phase project support for the removal. That was bolstered by $3.3 million in Prop 1 funding awarded by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife also announced in November. We will still need more money, but this 2016 funding is a HUGE shot in the arm for getting this long-defunct nuisance out of the Ventura River and restoring this stretch of Ventura County.
1st Seizure of an Underwater Research Robot in International Waters (Rank: 20.83)
It is no surprise that an increasingly powerful China sees the south China Sea and much of greater Asia and western Pacific as their domain. They have been destroying coral reefs to create islands and “Chinese Territory” out of whole cloth to better intimidate fishermen and anyone they see fit across the region for some time now. When islands already exist, they have been greatly widening them via dredging (see above) to support military installations (such as at Fiery Cross Reef). In March, state-run media announced commercial air travel to China’s regional South China Sea HQ Island of Woody Island (in the Parcel Island Group) would begin within a year.
This whole international chest thumping often dismisses the large amount of environmental destruction underway as part of China’s intimidation/propaganda campaign to normalize (egads…I had thought I could have avoided that word in this post) the creation of territory as an attempt to convert international waters to Chinese control. We’ve seen everything from Chinese pilots arguing a BBC airplane was a threatening military aircraft, American Military aircraft told to leave international waters (an orchestrated piece of propaganda by the U.S. military), and China conduct aircraft exercises within 145 km (90 mi) of the Taiwanese coastline. The Hague’s July ruling (that Chinese claims to Philippine territory was invalid) have failed to quell the tensions.
Into this crazy mess of an international testosterone-fest stepped two mapping robots in mid December. These non-classified, more or less off the shelf gliders were being used by contractors for the U.S. Navy to do seafloor mapping and oceanographic data collection. I normally have added the word “allegedly” here, but given this tech, there is little chance it could have been doing anything other than collecting bathymetric or water quality measurements. I suppose it could have had some kind of super spy hydrophone-type listening gear, but the fact the Chinese failed to even hint at such a thing and the location of the deployment (in Philippine coastal waters, 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay) any such nefarious purposes seem a stretch.
The U.S. Navy reported December 16th that on the previous day a civilian-operated naval oceanographic ship–the USNS Bowditch–was concluding a data collection mission with two “unclassified” ocean gliders or Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV; note that the media have taken to calling any small robot a “drone” these days and this incident was no exception). These 3 m-long units typically follow a programmed course but are capable to altering course should hazards emerge or the data collection needs justify modifying direction. Getting the robots into and out of the water with on-deck davits can take some time. Apparently while the Bowditch was in the process of recovering the first unit a Chinese naval vessel approached within “about 500 yards” and launched a small skiff which proceeded to grab the second unit before quickly rejoining the mother craft and speeding away into international waters. Typical recovery procedures for situations such as this include parking the glider at or just under the surface in a holding mode with beacon lights flashing. As there is always the possibility of damaging these units, their sensitive sensors, and the fact they cost at least $150,000 (a number likely way too low given my experience with the Navy’s penchant to overpay for such tech) cost a few million dollars, caution is usually the watchword for the day when recovering oceanic robots. That would mean the second unit would be perhaps as far off as a half a mile at times and far from a potential collision with the recovery vessel or first robot (but probably within sight of Bowditch observers). Radio demands to return the naval robot went acknowledged but unheeded.
This incident happened in the wake of the most recent elevation of tensions between China and the U.S. after President-elect Donald Trump rejected decades of diplomatic protocol by speaking directly with Taiwan’s President in the wake of his election. The day after the Pentagon’s press briefing demanding China return the glider, Mr. Trump further tossed fuel on the growing incident by tweeting:
China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters – rips it out of water and takes it to China in unprecedented act.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 17, 2016
Apparently Mr. Trump’s tweet had the desired effect as China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded with “We don’t like the word steal. That’s totally inaccurate. The Chinese navy found the device and examined it in a professional manner … It’s as if you saw something on the street and someone asked you for it, you’d have to examine if it really belongs to them.” To this Mr. Trump retorted on (yep, you guessed it) Twitter:
We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 18, 2016
Thankfully the Chinese decided to return the hardware around midday on December 20th to bring an immediate halt to the issue. I’m hoping they ran a few hundred malware detection programs on the hard drive before plugging it into their systems, but maybe I’m just paranoid.
(Man, after typing this incident up I feel like the teacher who just broke up a fight on the playground between 2nd graders!)
The real issue here is the concern that our devices for coastal and marine management are now apparently fair game for international conflict and chest thumping. While some would say they have always been the case, this event appears distinct. This is different than all the times I was stopped by Turkish “security” personnel who would question my monitoring gear for our work in eastern Turkey. And it is different from comparatively straight forward Iranian capture of a downed American military spy drones in Iran (which apparent birthed this knockoff, by the way), different from the capture of a crashed American in drone in an Iraqi warzone in 2015, etc. I say this with the experience afforded by our work in the Middle East which gave us an upfront seat showcasing the whole foil hat anything-could-be-a-dangerous-drone worldview wherein some truly screw-loose ministers and Einstein-esque government underlings have mistaken everything from migratory songbirds to raptors to vultures as active foreign robot/cyborg threats worthy of capturing/killing. But this was an oceanographic robot collecting environmental data. Real non-violent, “nobody should care” type stuff.
As we enter the new era of ever more powerful robots with increasing autonomy and capability to more completely, quickly, and holistically characterize our environment, we now need to add “bad state actors” to our already long list of threats to our research. As coastal scientists we already have to camouflage our gear so it is harder to find/steal, bolt the thing to anchors and amazingly heavy chains so jerks don’t see fit to run off with it, and slap “reward if found” signs on our equipment (don’t get me going on what happened to my recruitment experiment during my Ph.D.). Now we need to fear foreign military confiscations in the territory of other nations, to say nothing of international waters. Perhaps I’ve had too much eggnog and this story is too far down the rabbit hole of our lab’s own work (although it did get ranked higher than six other stories), but this incident has clearly moved the “acceptable” line of international behavior closer to the foil hat wearing side of the spectrum. Some of the projects in my lab at the moment include using robots to detect unpermitted fishing or other illegal activities. The seizure of this research glider tells me that if future actors see our devices they will be that less hesitant to capture or trash them. That’s bad for conservation.
We apparently now need to do a better job of hiding our robots and training them to run from unknown vessels. That and we should keep working on being civil to one another, especially when it comes to the leaders of countries…but the whole hiding our robots thing will probably be easier.
Renewable Energy Production Continues Strong Growth (Rank: 20.67)
Installation of new renewable electric-generating capacity outpaced growth in fossil-fuel generating capacity for the first time in 2015 (but owing to the lag of stats being tallied and being assessed, this wasn’t published until 2016). While fossil fuels still fire the bulk of our global electrical production, my former Stanford colleague Mark Jacobson has correctly noted that the “growth of clean, renewable energy to more than 50% of all new energy installations worldwide is part of a trend rather than an anomaly, and [that] growth is expected to increase…Ultimately, I expect that within five to 10 years, between 80 and 100% of all new annual electric power generation worldwide will be from wind, water, and solar.”
Indeed, the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) found the existing mix of market forces, government trends, and current regulations are pushing renewable energy to overtake coal to become the primary source of electricity worldwide by 2040. The good news here is that the EIA believes this will happen even if we discount President Obama’s new coal plant rules which Mr. Trump has vowed to eliminate come January 21. It would be fantastic if we could speed that up that transition to cleaner power sources, but Mr. Trump and utilities seem committed to do what they can to force us to drag our heels as long as possible. The cost of solar power continues to fall as evidenced by two reports from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab that captured widespread media attention this year, one of which explored commercial scale solar generation and the other smaller scale (less than 5 MW) generation. Taken together these reports show prices for both commercial and smaller-scale solar power are falling and that solar installations are spreading out of its traditional California and southwestern home across the country.
Beyond solar we saw the first offshore wind farm go live in the waters of Rhode Island in 2016. Deepwater Wind is just off of Block Island will eventually generate 30 MW of electricity at full capacity. Block Islanders have some of the highest electricity rates in the country and so will see reduced electrical bills event though the price of this electricity will begin at 24.4 ¢ per kW and eventually climb to time to 47.9 ¢ per kW.
Tidal energy production remains in its infancy with most installations being perhaps best classified as experimental or developmental. But the potential is clear (Uihlein and Magagna 2016), especially this year. While we had setbacks such as DeltaStream tidal energy project in Wales which ceased production after only three months, there were many more successes than failures. The MeyGen project off of the north coast of Scotland was the second project this year in Scottish waters and signaled a strong commitment to tidal energy in the U.K. Even North America got into the act (albeit from Canada). OpenHydro activated their 1,000-ton, five-story turbine in Nova Scotian waters in November and began pumping out 2MW.
In short, renewables are coming along and the much-touted notion that a heavily carbonized energy system is the only way to go is proving to be an ill-informed argument stemming from old people who stomp their feet at the reality around them or something stemming from folks who are relying on very old data.
Recreational Pot Legalized in California, Potentially Dramatically Lowering Environmental Footprint of Illegal Trade (Rank 20.08)
I got a call a couple of weeks before the November election from Discovery News’ Molly Fosco. She wanted to chat about the potential impact of the upcoming vote to legalize recreational marijuana use (you can read her resulting story here). We had a great chat about all the potential environmental benefits of legalization (which would go on to pass by the way), centering around the bringing of pot production out of the dark.
I’ve had many conversations over the years with growers and law enforcement alike, done a fair amount of reading about the ecological footprint of cultivation, and discussed potential consequences with colleagues both before and after the election. In general pot growing is energy and water intensive with legal cultivation consuming as much as 1% of the nation’s electricity (Mills 2012) due to lighting and HVAC demands and an individual plant needing for as much as six gallons of water a day.
The moderate climate of California’s coast has proven a natural draw for illegal pot growers for decades. When paired with National Parks, open space, or other protected areas overlaying these spaces, you have the makings of an epidemic of illegal grow operations that are today mostly staffed by agents of Mexican drug cartels. I’ve stumbled into several illegal operations in our coastal creeks over the years. I can still remember the very first time we stumbled upon a small in-channel operation on university property when I was a newly-minted Post Doc up at Stanford. The 50-pound bags of fertilizer left to float downstream were disgusting. Not only do illegal grow operations foster eutrophication of waterways, they also are hotspots for toxins. Second generation anticoagulant use is out of control in most illegal operations with enforcement agents telling me they sometimes walk into farms where the vertebrate death toll is staggering. The poster child for the out of control ecotoxicity at pot farms are fishers (Martes pennant). Pot farms alone were responsible for 10% of all known fisher deaths between 2007 and 2014 (Gabriel et al. 2015).
The last potential upside for legalization is the likelihood of reduced Panga smuggling traffic. Owing to the orientation of the US-Mexican boarder, Ventura and Santa Barbara are the hotspots for the growing numbers of illegal pot and human smuggling via Mexican fishing vessels known as Pangas. Most recently our San Rosa Island research station had to be shutdown on October 26 due to 3,000 pounds of pot arriving onto our Island via a Panga-based smuggling effort. My students, National Park staff, and campers had to be evacuated for a week while Homeland Security ran search parties across the island hunting the missing smugglers. It seems reasonable to assume that the ability to cultivate and use marijuana in the open will radically undercut the wave of Panga-based smuggling that has become commonplace up and down out coast in recent years. And that can only benefit our coastal management.
The only losers as far as I can tell with regards to the legalization of pot will be the smaller “mom and pop” grow operations. It is quite clear the large-scale agribusiness are going to be making a huge move into California in the very near future.
Lethal Tesla Car Crash Heralds Modern Ethical Dilemmas for Autonomous Robots (Rank: 18.25)
The car-cum-robot that would go on to win of the 1st DARPA Grand Challenge for autonomous cars by traversing the Las Vegas desert in 2005 used to park next to me in the old lot behind Stanford’s Gates Computer Science Building. My then-brand new Prius was pretty high tech. But my hydrid’s disruptive innovation was nothing compared to the Frankenstein-like creation of infrared sensors, GPS antennae, LIDAR units, actuators, and processing power mounted, bolted, and welded onto the VW Touareg (it was a diesel, but the “VW diesel” story won’t be told for a few entries yet) that typically occupied the stall next to me. That original tech would migrate directly to Google and become the heart of Google’s still-evolving self-driving car. That tech would also directly or indirectly birth many of the current dizzying array of autonomous vehicle programs across the planet including the Tesla’s “auto pilot” features.
Tesla took a different approach to autonomy. Unlike Google, Apple, and Uber, it baked the ability to autopilot into the fundamental design of their Tesla cars. After several years of sales, Tesla simply switched on the option for drivers to activate the autopilot after a routine software update. They were clear to outline this new functionality as something akin to a driver’s assist or emergency responder and took pains to not refer to it as fully autonomous guidance. But is was only a short wait before drivers started pushing the autopilot mode to more and more extremes beyond the recommended performance window Tesla suggested. This year a Florida driver was apparently watching a DVD on a portable video player rather then the road and trusting his autonomous systems to safely drive him down the freeway at high speeds. The car’s sensors were apparently confused due to an unusual contrast environment and plowed into a semi trailer, killing the driver.
As with our stealing of the underwater glider by the Chinese military (above), this story is significant for the potential implications for the future of this emerging tech. At this point it seems this crash will have little immediate impact. But it has forced us to face a host of questions such as legal responsibility when such autonomous technology leads to an accident, the amount of trust we are willing to put into self-directing technology, and spurring talk of new regulations to manage such robots (although the famously amoral Uber tried to push back on that in a big way before Christmas). This discussion also has implications for efforts to push autonomy-based taxis and public transportation and the push to electrify our vehicle fleet.
Paper Parks Shaming Apparently Works (Rank: 17.92)
Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are the “great white hope” of fishery management at the moment. They have been so for the past two decades for some good reasons, but have rarely been robustly implemented in such a way as to rigorously test their efficacy. The new millennium saw a huge flush of capital entering the international conservation movement via the dot com boom and subsequently powered the large scale “you developing nations guys should do this” carnival of the early 2000s. One the early results of this conservation push was the small island nation of the Republic of Kiribati (pronounced KEER-i-BAS) announcing their own MPA. Building on some previous collaboration with the New England Aquarium, Conservation International sparked the Kiribati collaboration that would lead to the planning for the supposed Phoenix Island Protected Area (PIPA) in 2006 and alleged official creation in 2008. This supposed MPA was claimed to be 408,250 km2 (or about 11% the the Kiribati Exclusive Economic Zone). It sped through the process to become a World Heritage Site with alacrity, achieving said designation by UNESCO in 2010. PIPA was almost instantly a conservation cause célèbre starting in 2006, frequently described as one of Big Ocean‘s (a Large Scale MPA advocacy and technical working group) Pacific jewels, and hailed as a model for the kind of marine conservation we would like to see around the globe.
The media attention allowed Kiribati’s President Anote Tong to become a darling of the international environmental NGOs and media. He would go on to use his newfound fame to collect a host on international awards from New York to Washington D.C. to the capitols of Europe. Along the way he would use these venues as a bully pulpit to ring the warning bell about climate change and sea level rise quickly robbing his country of terrestrial places to live. He lobbied the wealthy nations of the world to underwrite the relocation of his nation, blaming the impending Kiribati climate refugee status on the high CO2 emitting regions of the world. His well planned argument seemed was based on the principle of never asking for something for free. Tong would say repeatedly that his people would similarly sacrifice just as they were asking the developed nations to do by committing their funds to underwrite the mass movement of the Kiribati’s people. After all, went his pitch, his people had sacrificed by putting a huge amount of their national waters off limit for fishing and so forfeit the fees they would otherwise be collecting from international tuna fleets harvesting in their waters.
Only the “MPA” was never formally created. And fishing was progressing unchanged, with permits still being sold in 2013 to fish inside the “protected” areas. Even worse, there was reason to think that this approach of “promise you’ll do something without actually ever doing anything real” and then rake in the international funding, awards, and media attention was beginning to rub off on other small island nations across the South Pacific.
PIPA was in fact a “Paper Park,” a park in name only. PIPA quickly became a codeword for ineffectual conservation and failure to make true progress towards a conservation goal.
Flash forward to 2015. Turns out international shaming worked. PIPA finally began enforcing their long-ago promised MPA rules. So by the time Oceana published a report on fishing activity within the now-enforced PIPA boundaries this March, international NGO found clear evidence that commercial fishing was excluded from this large swath of the Pacific starting in 2015.
It might have taken a strong push, but we do now appear to have a working MPA! Here is hoping we see more paper parks convert to true parks in 2017.
PIPA Finally Enacts Their Long Ago Promised MPA
The 2016 presidential
Click here to read part two of this three-part blog post.