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UC Santa Barbara
Department of Geography
UC Santa Barbara
Department of Geography
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UC Santa Barbara Geography / News & Events / Department News

August 29, 2014 - Mystery of the Sailing Stones of Death Valley Finally Solved

Sailing stones are a geological phenomenon found in Death Valley’s Racetrack Playa. The stones slowly move across the surface of the playa, apparently without human or animal intervention, and they leave telltale tracks as they go. They have never been seen or filmed in motion—until now.

“Over the years, scientists and laypeople offered all sorts of theories to explain the sailing stones. Some said the stones were blown by strong winds or pulled by magnetic fields. Others blamed pranksters -- or even aliens. Not satisfied with those explanations, a group of researchers and volunteers in 2011 attached GPS units to 15 rocks and placed them in Racetrack Playa -- the dry lake formation where the moving rocks are found -- and sat back to see what would happen. One of the researchers, Johns Hopkins University physicist Dr. Ralph Lorenz, called the project ‘the most boring experiment ever’” (source).

Boring or not, “Two researchers now say the rocks - which can sometimes be heavy and large - are propelled along by thin, clear sheets of ice on breezy, sunny days. They call it ‘ice shove.’ ‘I'm amazed by the irony of it all,’ paleobiologist James Norris tells the LA Times. ‘In a place where rainfall averages two inches a year, rocks are being shoved around by mechanisms typically seen in arctic climes.’”

“The findings are based on a lucky accident by James Norris and his cousin Richard Norris - while they were studying the sliding rock phenomenon. They actually witnessed the boulders moving in December when they went to check their time-lapse cameras in the valley. ‘There was a pop-pop-crackle all over the place in front of us, and I said to my cousin, 'this is it,'" Richard Norris says in the science journal Nature. They watched some 60 rocks sail slowly by, leaving the well-known snaking trails in the ground. 'A baby can get going a lot faster than your average rock,’ Norris notes. The rocks also don't slide around very often - scientists estimate only a few minutes out of a million - which is why the event has not been noticed before” (BBC News From Elsewhere).

Image 1 for article titled "Mystery of the Sailing Stones of Death Valley Finally Solved"
A sailing stone in Racetrack Playa. At Racetrack Playa, these tracks have been studied since the early 1900s, yet the origins of stone movement were not confirmed and remained the subject of research for which several hypotheses existed. However, as of August 2014, timelapse video footage of rocks moving has been published, showing the rocks moving at low wind speeds within the flow of thin, melting sheets of ice. The scientists have thus identified the cause of the moving stones to be ice shove (Wikipedia: Sailing stones)
Image 2 for article titled "Mystery of the Sailing Stones of Death Valley Finally Solved"
Tracks are sometimes non-linear. Tracks are often tens to hundreds of feet long, about 3 to 12 inches (8 to 30 cm) wide, and typically much less than an inch (2.54 cm) deep. Most moving stones range from about six to 18 inches in diameter (Ibid.)

August 27, 2014 - Check UCSB Geography Out on Facebook!

On January 24, 2014, the UCSB Department of Geography got “with it” in terms of online networking and joined Facebook (check it out here). Computer Network Technologist Bryan Karaffa and undergraduate Geography major Scott Yehl set things up, and, to date, our page is getting some serious attention. Okay, we haven’t exactly gone viral, but 355 likes to date is a start (and beats not having any).

Speaking of starts, the venture into social media was long overdue and was finally precipitated by our 40th Anniversary activities and a need for a signup system. We began by posting a notice about a Gaucho GeoHunt, and that first posting reached 3,559 people, our largest number reached to date. At any rate, check out the UCSB Geography Department on Facebook and don’t be shy about giving the editor some feedback about our page and handing out lots of “likes”!

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Screenshot of our Facebook page on August 27, 2014

August 26, 2014 - Severe Drought is Causing the Western U.S. to Rise

The following UC San Diego News Center press release is by Mario Aguilera, dated August 21, 2014, and titled “Severe drought is causing the western U.S. to rise: Scientists use GPS technology to track uplift from recent massive loss of water, estimated at 63 trillion gallons”:

The severe drought gripping the western United States in recent years is changing the landscape well beyond localized effects of water restrictions and browning lawns. Scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego have now discovered that the growing, broad-scale loss of water is causing the entire western U.S. to rise up like an uncoiled spring.

Investigating ground positioning data from GPS stations throughout the west, Scripps researchers Adrian Borsa, Duncan Agnew, and Dan Cayan found that the water shortage is causing an “uplift” effect up to 15 millimeters (more than half an inch) in California’s mountains and on average four millimeters (0.15 of an inch) across the west. From the GPS data, they estimate the water deficit at nearly 240 gigatons (63 trillion gallons of water), equivalent to a four-inch layer of water spread out over the entire western U.S. Results of the study, which was supported by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), appear in the August 21 online edition of the journal Science.

While poring through various sets of data of ground positions from highly precise GPS stations within the National Science Foundation’s Plate Boundary Observatory and other networks, Borsa, a Scripps assistant research geophysicist, kept noticing the same pattern over the 2003-2014 period: All of the stations moved upwards in the most recent years, coinciding with the timing of the current drought. Agnew, a Scripps Oceanography geophysics professor who specializes in studying earthquakes and their impact on shaping the earth’s crust, says the GPS data can only be explained by rapid uplift of the tectonic plate upon which the western U.S. rests (Agnew cautions that the uplift has virtually no effect on the San Andreas fault and therefore does not increase the risk of earthquakes).

For Cayan, a research meteorologist with Scripps and USGS, the results paint a new picture of the dire hydrological state of the west. “These results quantify the amount of water mass lost in the past few years,” said Cayan. “It also represents a powerful new way to track water resources over a very large landscape. We can home in on the Sierra Nevada mountains and critical California snowpack. These results demonstrate that this technique can be used to study changes in fresh water stocks in other regions around the world, if they have a network of GPS sensors.”

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Detrended daily vertical displacements from 771 continuous GPS stations in the western USA, decimated to weekly intervals for plotting (gray lines). The thick red line is the median value of all data for each day and the light red lines indicate the standard deviation computed from the interquartile range. The uplift that began in 2013 is remarkable for the period after 2006, when the number and distribution of GPS stations greatly expanded across the region with the building of the Plate Boundary Observatory (blue line shows the number of stations used in the analysis) (from the Science article)
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Spatial distribution of displacements from the timeseries on March 1 of 2011 through 2014. Uplift is indicated by yellow-red colors and subsidence by shades of blue. Gray region is where stations were excluded in the Central Valley of California. Adrian Borsa, an assistant research geophysicist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego (Ibid.)
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Maps of estimated loads and predicted and residual displacements: (A) Loading estimate for the western USA in March 2014. Redder areas indicate negative loading (mass deficit relative to the 2003-2012 mean), bluer areas indicate positive loading (mass surplus), and white areas are unchanged. (B) Vertical displacements corresponding to loading model in left panel, at the locations of the GPS stations used in this analysis (compare to actual displacements in rightmost panel of Fig. 2) (Ibid.)

August 21, 2014 - Heat Islands Cooking U.S. Cities

Rising temperatures threaten public health and are tied to higher levels of ozone air pollution. The following is a Press Release by Climate Central:

Urbanization and climate change are teaming up, turning up the heat in cities faster than rural areas. These hotter urban temperatures raise the risk for dangerous ozone air pollution, according to a new report, "Summer in the City," from Climate Central, a research and journalism organization.

With 80 percent of Americans living in metro areas, these urban heat islands, where city temperatures are much hotter than surrounding rural areas, could cause serious health issues for millions of people. Heat is the No.1 weather-related killer in the U.S., and the hottest days, particularly days over 90°F, are associated with high levels of air pollution that can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks, and other serious health impacts.

“Climate change is warming the entire planet, rural and urban areas alike,” said Alyson Kenward, lead author of the report. “But thanks to the dual action of urbanization and climate change, cities are not just hotter, they are getting hotter faster: 45 of 60 cities we analyzed were warming at a faster rate than the surrounding rural land.”

Climate Central’s analysis of government temperature records since 1970 for 60 cities found: 1) Cities have many more searing hot days each year; since 2004, 12 cities averaged at least 20 more days a year above 90°F than nearby rural areas. 2) Single-day urban temperatures in some metro areas were as much as 27°F higher than the surrounding rural areas; on average, across all 60 cities, the maximum single-day temperature difference was 17.5°F. 3) In 50 of 51 cities with adequate data, increasing heat was statistically correlated with more ozone air pollution; higher urban temperatures caused by climate change and urban growth are undermining hard won improvements in air quality and public health.

The top 10 cities with the most intense urban heat islands, measured as the greatest difference in average temperatures between urban and rural areas over the entire summer, were: Las Vegas (7.3°F), Albuquerque (5.9°F), Denver (4.9°F), Portland (4.8°F), Louisville (4.8°F), Washington, D.C. (4.7°F), Kansas City (4.6°F), Columbus (4.4°F), Minneapolis (4.3°F), and Seattle (4.1°F). Nights are warming even faster than days, with an average 4°F urban-rural difference at night, compared with the average difference in daytime temps of 2.5°F, across all cities analyzed.

“Urban heat islands have hotter days, far hotter nights, and more extremely hot days each summer than adjacent rural areas,” Kenward said. “Without greenhouse gas reductions, cities will continue to get hotter, with potentially serious consequences.” The report contains data and rankings for all 60 cities.

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Urban heat measured by satellite in Los Angeles, CA (Climate Central article). “An urban heat island (UHI) is a metropolitan area that is significantly warmer than its surrounding rural areas due to human activities. The phenomenon was first investigated and described by Luke Howard in the 1810s, although he was not the one to name the phenomenon. The temperature difference usually is larger at night than during the day, and is most apparent when winds are weak. UHI is most noticeable during the summer and winter. The main cause of the urban heat island effect is from the modification of land surfaces, which use materials that effectively store short-wave radiation. Waste heat generated by energy usage is a secondary contributor. As a population center grows, it tends to expand its area and increase its average temperature. The less-used term heat island refers to any area, populated or not, which is consistently hotter than the surrounding area” (Wikipedia: Urban heat island)
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Correlation between higher temperatures and higher ozone levels in Los Angeles (Climate Central article)

August 20, 2014 - From Mermaids to Megalodon: Another Mockumentary by The Discovery Channel

In 2012, Animal Planet (a branch of Discovery) aired a TV show called “Mermaids: The Body Found.” It was a documentary-style show that “paints a wildly convincing picture of the existence of mermaids, what they may look like, and why they’ve stayed hidden...until now,” according to the show’s press Web page. Indeed, it says, “Mermaids: The Body Found makes a strong case for the existence of the mermaid...Though the filmmakers acknowledged that the film is science fiction, for many people it was indeed ‘wildly convincing’” (source).

The show was so convincing that the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration felt obliged to make the startling assertion on its Ocean Facts page that “no evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found.” “Why would NOAA bother to pour cold water on mermaids? After all, there are many mythical things that the government doesn’t explicitly deny exist. The United States Bureau of Mines doesn’t issue statements clarifying that no dragons or trolls have been discovered in underground caves or mines, for example” (Ibid. and see the September 12, 2012 news article, “It’s Official: NOAA Finds No Evidence of Mermaids).

The Discovery Channel pulled the same shenanigan in 2013, this time regarding monster sharks during its celebration of “shark week.” “There have been numerous eyewitness accounts of huge sharks throughout history and also various illustrations of gigantic washed up sharks, even some photographs. One photograph in particular which stirred up a lot of controversy was an image that was presented in a Discovery Channel documentary (which was fictional) showing the dorsal and caudal (tail) fins of a shark next to a submarine, spanning a whopping 64 foot. The image was fabricated. The documentary was in fact a "mockumentary," which was stated in a very small disclaimer at the end. Plus, 64 foot (almost 20 meters) is larger than the estimates of the entire body size of megalodons! This was only dorsal fin to tail! The “scientists” that appeared in this documentary, entitled “Megalodon - The Monster Shark Lives,” were also actors. Sorry” (source).

In 2014, Discovery re-aired "The Monster Shark Lives," along with a new one-hour program, "Megalodon: The New Evidence," and an additional fictionalized program entitled "Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine," resulting in further backlash from media sources and the scientific community (source; also see “Shark Week Is Lying Again: Megalodon Is Definitely Extinct”).

Will NOAA again take the bait? Stay tuned. After all, even that august body admits that less than 5% of the earth’s oceans have been explored.

Article by Bill Norrington

Image 1 for article titled "From Mermaids to Megalodon: Another Mockumentary by The Discovery Channel"
Artistic impression of a megalodon pursuing two Eobalaenoptera whales. Megalodon (from Ancient Greek, meaning "big tooth") is an extinct species of shark that lived approximately 28 to 1.5 million years ago, during the Cenozoic Era (late Oligocene to early Pleistocene). C. megalodon is regarded as one of the largest and most powerful predators in vertebrate history and likely had a profound impact on the structure of marine communities. Fossil remains suggest that this giant shark reached a maximum length of 14–18 metres (46–59 ft) and also affirm that it had a cosmopolitan distribution. Scientists suggest that C. megalodon looked like a stockier version of the great white shark, Carcharodon carcharias (Wikipedia: Megalodon)
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Photoshopped image purporting to show a giant shark swimming past German submarines. Photograph: Sharkzilla/Discovery Channel.
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Discovery's Mission Statement: "To satisfy curiosity and make a difference in people's lives by providing the highest quality content, services, and products that entertain, engage, and enlighten." Right…

August 20, 2014 - Alumnus Ralph Dubayah Heads NASA Project to Monitor Forest Carbon from ISS

The following is a University of Maryland news release, dated August 1, 2014 and titled “UMD/NASA Goddard Instrument to Fly on Space Station: Technology Enables U.S. to Monitor Forest Carbon from Space Station”:

NASA has selected a proposal developed by the University of Maryland and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) for a new instrument that will join a growing suite of technologies deployed on the International Space Station (ISS), providing key observations about the Earth's environment. The new instrument will provide unprecedented observations of the Earth's forests and their response to changes in climate and land use.

"GEDI will provide the first global data set on forest structure sufficient to accurately map forest above-ground carbon. These data can then be used to estimate the emission of CO2 into the atmosphere that occurs from forest loss, say through fire, and the sequestration of CO2 from the atmosphere as forests grow," said UMD Department of Geographical Sciences Professor Ralph Dubayah, the Principal Investigator of the project.

The Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI) Lidar will use a system of laser beams to map the three-dimensional structure of vegetation, including canopy heights, over a range of biomes including the temperature forests of North America, and tropical regions where rapid deforestation is occurring. GEDI offers scientists the means to answer key questions, including: 1) How has deforestation contributed to atmospheric CO2 concentrations? 2) How much carbon will forests absorb in the future? 3) How will habitat degradation affect global biodiversity?

"By far, the largest uncertainties in the global carbon cycle concern the net impact of forest disturbance and subsequent regrowth on atmospheric CO2. Without these data, we cannot accurately predict future global warming, nor its consequences, such as sea-level rise. Nor can we accurately project the impact of potential policy actions to mitigate warming, such as planting trees or reducing deforestation," Professor Dubayah said.

Forest loss is also driving habitat degradation and erosion of biodiversity. "We are only now beginning to understand the relationship of canopy structure, how the leaves and branches are arranged vertically, to habitat quality and biodiversity," Dubayah said. "For example, many avian species have strong preferences for certain types of forests, such as those with little understory. What happens when we disturb these forests or the climate regime changes? We have very little data on vertical canopy structure globally and therefore we are limited in our ability to answer such questions. GEDI Lidar will provide billions of canopy profiles from which we can deepen our understanding of how habitat degradation drives the loss of biodiversity, and how we may mitigate its impacts."

GEDI will be completed in 2018 for a cost of $94 million. Upon deployment on the ISS, data from GEDI will be used create a variety of products, including canopy height and structure, forest carbon and its changes. In addition, these data will be used drive global ecosystem models to assess the impacts of changes in land use on atmospheric CO2 under various future climate scenarios.

Professor Dubayah said the GEDI team is confident their investigation will have a significant impact on U.S. environmental policy both domestically and abroad. "On a national policy level, GEDI strongly informs U.S. participation in international climate frameworks and treaties such as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation [Redd+]," Dubayah said. "And for the first time, GEDI also provides the United States with a mechanism to monitor forest carbon from space that can be used to help verify potential treaty accordances, such as those which make payments to countries who preserve their forests and related resources."

The GEDI UMD/NASA team has unique technological capability and experience to make these urgently needed measurements with the required fidelity and resolution. They further have a long and extensive background in observing and modeling forest and vegetation dynamics. Dubayah is an expert in using lidar remote sensing observations to characterize forest ecosystem structure to better understand the carbon cycle, habitat quality, and biodiversity and has led numerous such investigations from sub-orbital platforms throughout his career. He is joined at UMD by Co-Investigators, including Professors Matt Hansen, George Hurtt, and Research Assistant Professor Anu Swatantran.

GSFC is the world lead in laser-based remote sensing for both Earth and planetary science and will be responsible for constructing and delivering the instrument, under the guidance of Deputy PI J. Bryan Blair and others. GSFC earth scientists will also participate in the development of the mission and analysis of the science data.

The GEDI team includes Co-Investigators from Woods Hole Research Center, Woods Hole, Massachusetts; the U.S. Forest Service, Ogden, Utah; and Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. GEDI additionally has formal collaborations in place with the German Space Agency, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Forest Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Massachusetts Boston, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the World Wildlife Fund, and Conservation International.

Editor’s note: Many thanks to Research Support staffer Pete Peterson for bringing this material to our attention.

Image 1 for article titled "Alumnus Ralph Dubayah Heads NASA Project to Monitor Forest Carbon from ISS"
Ralph Dubayah received his BA from UC Berkeley and his MA and PhD from UCSB (PhD 1991; Dozier was Chair and Frank Davis, David Simonett, and Terry Smith were on his committee). “My main areas of interest are ecosystem characterization for carbon modeling, habitat and biodiversity studies, land surface energy and water balance modeling, spatial analysis and remote sensing science. A common goal of my research is to develop and apply emerging technologies of spatial data acquisition and analysis, especially lidar remote sensing and computational methods, to address environmental issues at policy-relevant scales. I have been an investigator for numerous NASA projects, including two Interdisciplinary Science Investigations (IDS), on the use of remote sensing for hydrological and ecosystem modeling. I was the principal investigator of the Vegetation Canopy Lidar (VCL), a NASA mission to measure the three-dimensional structure of the Earth’s forests. I have served on various national and international organizations, including the Remote Sensing Committee of the American Geophysical Union, the NSF Geography and Regional Science Panel, and the Research Advisory Committee for the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS). I am an Associate Editor for the Journal of Geophysical Research (Biogeosciences), on the Editorial Boards for Remote Sensing of Environment and Remote Sensing. I currently chair the Ecosystem Structure Working Group for NASA’s Terrestrial Ecology program and co-chair the Science Study Group for NASA's DESDynI mission.
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The International Space Station on 23 May 2010 as seen from the departing Space Shuttle Atlantis during STS-132 (Wikipedia: International Space Station)

August 20, 2014 - Meet Nicole McCoy, Our New Graduate Program Assistant

I am thrilled to be in the Geography department, serving students! I came to UCSB in 2010 with a new career path in mind, along the lines of student affairs management, and everything is falling into place. I started out at the Biomolecular Science and Engineering program as the graduate program assistant (GPA), and six months later, I took on an additional position as the GPA for Molecular Cellular and Developmental Biology. I thoroughly enjoy working with graduate students and am grateful to continue in that role in Geography!

Before coming to UCSB, I was a GIS professional for almost 20 years. I received my BA in Geography with an emphasis in natural resource management from Central Washington University, WA. My first job in my field was as a GIS technician for Kittitas County Conservation District in Ellensburg, WA where I did a lot of cool things in the GIS world. In 2002, I moved to Santa Barbara with my husband, teenage son (at the time), dog, and cat (all crammed in a U-Haul) to be close to my husband’s family and to make a go of it in what I refer to as “vacation land.” I continued my career in GIS for the County of Santa Barbara at URS Corporation (Goleta), then with Dudek (environmental consulting), and, finally, with my own business, until my new career at UCSB unfolded.

I have become more involved on campus through service on the Chancellor’s Staff Advisory Council and through the Gaucho U professional development program, where my cohort is coordinating a campus-wide event called “Concerts on the Green” for staff and faculty. In my spare time, I have volunteered at the Ty Warner Sea Center as a docent since 2006. Nothing brings me more joy than sharing nature with people of all ages, especially children. For fun, I thoroughly enjoy live music; all outdoor activities; family and friend get-togethers; good food, beer, wine; and all life has to offer!

Editor’s note: It’s an honor to have someone with Nicole’s expertise, experience, and enthusiasm as our new Graduate Program Assistant / Student Programs Manager. Stop by and welcome her to the Department!

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Nicole McCoy is the new Graduate Program Assistant / Student Programs Manager for the UCSB Department of Geography
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Nicole even has her name on a coke bottle!

August 13, 2014 - Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report Cause for Concern

The following is a Media Release by the Cairns and Far North Environment Centre, dated August 13, 2014, and with the title above:

The release of the 5 year Great Barrier Reef Outlook report and the final Strategic Assessment Report indicate that we have a long way to go to address declining reef health and avoid UNESCO listing the reef as World Heritage in Danger in 2015. The outlook report sends a clear and concerning message for Australia, stating that “Even with the recent management initiatives to reduce threats and improve resilience, the overall outlook for the Great Barrier Reef is poor, has worsened since 2009, and is expected to further deteriorate.” Banning new dredging and dumping in the World Heritage area can help increase resilience to threats such as climate change.

Speaking after the release of the reports, Cairns and Far North Environment Centre (CAFNEC) Marine Programs Coordinator Josh Coates said: “These reports confirm what we already know – that our reef is in decline and we must take action to prevent further damage.” “Climate change is a key threat and we need to ensure the resilience of the reef to cope with change.”

“One key thing we can do straight away is to address poor water quality by putting a ban on new dredging and dumping for port expansions in the World Heritage Area. This is particularly true for dredging outside of identified major priority ports, such as for the proposed Cairns shipping development project.” “It is also important that we avoid repeating the mistakes that have caused reef decline, such as poorly regulated mining or badly planned agricultural developments, in the still relatively healthy northern section of the reef.”

“What is required is a serious investment in the future of the reef to protect our environment and the tourism and other industries that rely on good reef health. We need investment on the scale of what we are spending to fix up the Murray River – billions, not millions, to reduce the threats such as catchment pollution, coastal development, and poor fishing management.”

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Satellite image of part of the Great Barrier Reef adjacent to the Queensland coastal areas of Airlie Beach and Mackay. The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef system, composed of over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands stretching for over 2,300 kilometers (1,400 mi) over an area of approximately 344,400 square kilometers (133,000 sq mi). The reef is located in the Coral Sea, off the coast of Queensland, Australia. The Great Barrier Reef can be seen from outer space and is the world's biggest single structure made by living organisms. This reef structure is composed of and built by billions of tiny organisms, known as coral polyps. It supports a wide diversity of life and was selected as a World Heritage Site in 1981. CNN labeled it one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The Queensland National Trust named it a state icon of Queensland (Wikipedia: Great Barrier Reef)

August 12, 2014 - California Drought Intensifies Need to Manage Groundwater Effectively

“Between climate change, population growth, urbanization, chronic overuse of freshwater resources, and many other factors, we are heading towards one parched planet. In fact, the U.N. anticipates that 47 percent of the world's population could be living under severe water stress by 2050. Agriculture is a big piece of the puzzle. Worldwide, over 90 percent of the water humans consume each day is attributable to food production – the numbers are mind-boggling. For example, a pound of corn needs about 108 gallons of water, a pound of cheese takes about 600 gallons of water, and a pound of beef clocks in a whopping 1,800 gallons of water to produce. In the United States, agriculture accounts for around 80 percent of the water we use each year” (source).

Here in California, 2013 was the driest year on record, and Governor Jerry Brown declared an official statewide drought on January 17, 2014 and appealed to Californians to voluntarily reduce water use by 20%. Initial lack of compliance with Brown’s appeal, multiple forest fires, dwindling water reserves, and fading hopes that an El Nino will develop are turning 2014 into another record drought year for the state.

As of early August, almost 60% of California is suffering “exceptional drought,” the most severe on the U.S. Drought Monitor’s five-point scale. About 82% of the state is in “extreme drought,” while 100% is now in “severe drought.” “State and local agencies are taking a broad suite of actions to combat drought and assist areas in greatest need. Local water agencies throughout California are calling for increased water conservation, with mandatory restrictions on water use and even rationing in place in some areas. As of Aug. 7, at least 93 local water agencies have implemented some form of mandatory restrictions / conservation, while at least 130 are calling for voluntary increased conservation in response to the drought and Gov. Jerry Brown's call for all Californians to reduce water use” (source).

Parts of California did get some rain at the beginning of August, but the overall effect on the drought was inconsequential. “Reasons that California’s rain did not provide substantial drought relief included: 1) a lack of widespread coverage of the heaviest showers, 2) the fact that heavy showers mostly fell outside California’s key watershed areas in the Colorado River basin and the Sierra Nevada, and 3) the fact that the high runoff rate of the heaviest rain did not allow for significant percolation into drought-parched soils. Despite the cooler weather and showers, California’s rangeland condition remained steady (70% very poor to poor on August 3). Similarly, topsoil moisture (80% very short to short) and subsoil moisture (85% very short to short) were unchanged from the previous week. Across the northern tier of California, several wildfires—including the 30,000- to 40,000-acre Eiler and Bald fires—remained active in early August” (source).

“Agriculture consumes about 80 percent of all delivered water in the most-populous U.S. state. California’s 80,500 farms and ranches supply everything from milk, beef, and flowers to some of the nation’s largest fruit and vegetable crops, including almonds, avocados, and strawberries. The drought gripping the state that supplies half the fruits, vegetables, and nuts consumed in the U.S. has led federal and state providers to curtail the water they distribute to California’s farmers. That’s prompted districts representing growers to buy and sell for escalated prices from other parts of the state as thousands of acres go unplanted. The drought threatens to boost produce costs that are already elevated following a December frost, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. The price of fresh fruit is forecast to rise as much as 6 percent this year, the department said last month. Dairy products, of which California is the biggest producer, may rise as much as 4 percent” (source).

Lack of surface water has forced farmers to rely more on groundwater. “In what would be the most significant water law passed in California in nearly 50 years, lawmakers in Sacramento are working with Gov. Jerry Brown on a landmark measure to regulate groundwater pumping for the first time. With an Aug. 31 deadline until the end of the session and billions of dollars at stake, negotiations among farmers, environmentalists, cities, and elected officials are reaching a crescendo. Although landowners who want to divert water from reservoirs and rivers have been required to get a permit from the state since 1914, farmers and cities who tap underground aquifers — California’s largest water source — can pump as much as they want, when they want and with almost no oversight or limits. As a result, decades of intense pumping have dropped water tables dangerously low in places such as the San Joaquin Valley and Paso Robles. Scientific studies show the ground is sinking in many hard-hit areas and that aquifers are at risk of running dry” (source).

The other side of the coin, according to a UC Davis report, is that “the 2014 drought will result in a 6.6 million acre-foot reduction in surface water available to agriculture. This loss of surface water will be partially replaced by increasing groundwater pumping by 5 million acre-feet. The resulting net water shortage of 1.6 million acre-feet will cause losses of $810 million in crop revenue and $203 million in dairy and other livestock value, plus additional groundwater pumping costs of $454 million. These direct costs to agriculture total $1.5 billion. The total statewide economic cost of the 2014 drought is $2.2 billion, with a total loss of 17,100 seasonal and part-time jobs” (source).

The UC Davis report quoted above concludes that “California is surviving the drought this summer because it is using its water “bank account” — groundwater. The problem for the state is that nobody knows how big that bank account is because California is the only Western state that doesn’t measure its groundwater. About 5.5 million acre-feet of the 6.6 million acre-foot loss in surface water is made up for with groundwater pumping, which means that the state is really only feeling a water loss of about 1 million acre-feet, or enough to fill roughly 543,089 Olympic swimming pools.”

“But groundwater pumping comes at a cost to farmers — $454 million statewide — mainly because of the electricity required. It’s anybody’s guess how long that use of groundwater can go on for because the state doesn’t know how much groundwater is being used, preventing the state from managing its groundwater effectively, according to the report. The report calls on the state of California to more effectively manage groundwater and allow it to replenish in wet years. But when the next wet year will come is anybody’s guess, because there’s more than a 50 percent chance that the drought will drag on at least another year, Lund said” (source).

Image 1 for article titled "California Drought Intensifies Need to Manage Groundwater Effectively"
U.S. Drought Monitor depiction of drought conditions in California as of August 5, 2014. Created by Brad Rippey, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Image 2 for article titled "California Drought Intensifies Need to Manage Groundwater Effectively"
A comparison of the drought conditions in California one year apart, from April 2, 2013, to April 1, 2014. In 2013, only half the state was in drought conditions; by 2014 nearly all of it was. Credit: Climate Central
Image 3 for article titled "California Drought Intensifies Need to Manage Groundwater Effectively"
The chance of El Niño has decreased to about 65% during the Northern Hemisphere fall and early winter. Source: CLIMATE PREDICTION CENTER/ National Centers for Environmental Prediction/ National Weather Service and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, 7 August 2014
Image 4 for article titled "California Drought Intensifies Need to Manage Groundwater Effectively"
Figure from UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling, Water Advisory #1, February 3, 2014. Cumulative groundwater losses (cubic km and million acre-ft) in California’s Central Valley since 1962. The red line shows data from USGS calibrated groundwater model simulations from 1962-2003. The green line shows satellite-based estimates of groundwater storage losses produced by the UCCHM at UC Irvine. Background colors represent periods of drought (white), of variable to dry conditions (grey), of variable to wet conditions (light blue) and wet conditions (blue). Groundwater depletion mostly occurs during drought; and progressive droughts are lowering groundwater storage to unsustainable levels. After Figure B9 from USGS Professional Paper 1766. USGS data courtesy of Claudia Faunt. Satellite data courtesy of NASA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
Image 5 for article titled "California Drought Intensifies Need to Manage Groundwater Effectively"
Farmers in the southern San Joaquin Valley rely on groundwater during a drought. The water level in many wells there has dropped more than 3 meters (10 feet) in the last year. Cities in metropolitan Southern California also lean on groundwater in dry years. Image courtesy of California Department of Water Resources

August 07, 2014 - Rosetta Arrives At Comet Destination

The following is an article on the European Space Agency’s web site, dated August 6, 2014 and with the title above:

After a decade-long journey chasing its target, ESA’s Rosetta has today become the first spacecraft to rendezvous with a comet, opening a new chapter in Solar System exploration. Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and Rosetta now lie 405 million kilometres from Earth, about half way between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars, rushing towards the inner Solar System at nearly 55 000 kilometres per hour.

The comet is in an elliptical 6.5-year orbit that takes it from beyond Jupiter at its furthest point, to between the orbits of Mars and Earth at its closest to the Sun. Rosetta will accompany it for over a year as they swing around the Sun and back out towards Jupiter again.

Comets are considered to be primitive building blocks of the Solar System and may have helped to ‘seed’ Earth with water, perhaps even the ingredients for life. But many fundamental questions about these enigmatic objects remain, and through a comprehensive,in situstudy of the comet, Rosetta aims to unlock the secrets within.

The journey to the comet was not straightforward, however. Since its launch in 2004, Rosetta had to make three gravity-assist flybys of Earth and one of Mars to help it on course to its rendezvous with the comet. This complex course also allowed Rosetta to pass by asteroids Šteins and Lutetia, obtaining unprecedented views and scientific data on these two objects.

“After ten years, five months and four days travelling towards our destination, looping around the Sun five times and clocking up 6.4 billion kilometres, we are delighted to announce finally ‘we are here’,” says Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General. “Europe’s Rosetta is now the first spacecraft in history to rendezvous with a comet, a major highlight in exploring our origins. Discoveries can start.”

Today saw the last of a series of ten rendezvous manoeuvres that began in May to adjust Rosetta’s speed and trajectory gradually to match those of the comet. If any of these manoeuvres had failed, the mission would have been lost, and the spacecraft would simply have flown by the comet.

“Today’s achievement is a result of a huge international endeavour spanning several decades,” says Alvaro Giménez, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration. “We have come an extraordinarily long way since the mission concept was first discussed in the late 1970s and approved in 1993, and now we are ready to open a treasure chest of scientific discovery that is destined to rewrite the textbooks on comets for even more decades to come.”

The comet began to reveal its personality while Rosetta was on its approach. Images taken by the OSIRIS camera between late April and early June showed that its activity was variable. The comet’s ‘coma’ – an extended envelope of gas and dust – became rapidly brighter and then died down again over the course of those six weeks. In the same period, first measurements from the Microwave Instrument for the Rosetta Orbiter, MIRO, suggested that the comet was emitting water vapour into space at about 300 millilitres per second.

Meanwhile, the Visible and Infrared Thermal Imaging Spectrometer, VIRTIS, measured the comet’s average temperature to be about –70ºC, indicating that the surface is predominantly dark and dusty rather than clean and icy. Then, stunning images taken from a distance of about 12 000 km began to reveal that the nucleus comprises two distinct segments joined by a ‘neck’, giving it a duck-like appearance. Subsequent images showed more and more detail – the most recent, highest-resolution image was downloaded from the spacecraft earlier today and will be available this afternoon.

“Our first clear views of the comet have given us plenty to think about,” says Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist. “Is this double-lobed structure built from two separate comets that came together in the Solar System’s history, or is it one comet that has eroded dramatically and asymmetrically over time? Rosetta, by design, is in the best place to study one of these unique objects.”

Today, Rosetta is just 100 km from the comet’s surface, but it will edge closer still. Over the next six weeks, it will describe two triangular-shaped trajectories in front of the comet, first at a distance of 100 km and then at 50 km. At the same time, more of the suite of instruments will provide a detailed scientific study of the comet, scrutinising the surface for a target site for the Philae lander.

Eventually, Rosetta will attempt a close, near-circular orbit at 30 km and, depending on the activity of the comet, perhaps come even closer. “Arriving at the comet is really only just the beginning of an even bigger adventure, with greater challenges still to come as we learn how to operate in this unchartered environment, start to orbit and, eventually, land,” says Sylvain Lodiot, ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft operations manager.

As many as five possible landing sites will be identified by late August, before the primary site is identified in mid-September. The final timeline for the sequence of events for deploying Philae – currently expected for 11 November – will be confirmed by the middle of October.

“Over the next few months, in addition to characterising the comet nucleus and setting the bar for the rest of the mission, we will begin final preparations for another space history first: landing on a comet,” says Matt. “After landing, Rosetta will continue to accompany the comet until its closest approach to the Sun in August 2015 and beyond, watching its behaviour from close quarters to give us a unique insight and realtime experience of how a comet works as it hurtles around the Sun.”

Image 1 for article titled "Rosetta Arrives At Comet Destination"
Comet on 3 August 2014. Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 3 August from a distance of 285 km. The image resolution is 5.3 metres/pixel. Copyright ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Image 2 for article titled "Rosetta Arrives At Comet Destination"
Comet activity on 2 August 2014. Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko activity on 2 August 2014. The image was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS wide-angle camera from a distance of 550 km. The exposure time of the image was 330 seconds and the comet nucleus is saturated to bring out the detail of the comet activity. Note there is a ghost image to the right. The image resolution is 55 metres per pixel. Copyright ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Image 3 for article titled "Rosetta Arrives At Comet Destination"
Arriving at a comet: NavCam animation 6 August. This animation (on the esa.int page) comprises 101 images acquired by the Navigation Camera on board ESA's Rosetta spacecraft as it approached comet 67P/C-G in August 2014. The first image was taken on 1 August at 11:07 UTC (12:07 CEST), at a distance of 832 km. The last image was taken 6 August at 06:07 UTC (08:07 CEST) at a distance of 110 km. Copyright ESA/Rosetta/Navcam
Image 4 for article titled "Rosetta Arrives At Comet Destination"
Signal of Rosetta arrival at comet 67P. A drop in thruster temperature signals that the Rosetta spacecraft has arrived at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after a 10-year journey through space. Released 06/08/2014 11:37 am. ESA
Image 5 for article titled "Rosetta Arrives At Comet Destination"
Rosetta arrives at comet - Artist impression of ESA's Rosetta approaching comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The comet image was taken on 2 August 2014 by the spacecraft's navigation camera at a distance of about 500 km. The spacecraft and comet are not to scale. Copyright: Spacecraft: ESA/ATG medialab; Comet image: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM
Image 6 for article titled "Rosetta Arrives At Comet Destination"
Artist’s impression of the Philae lander, on a transparent background. Copyright ESA/ATG medialab
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