Category Archives: Education

Amusing Monday: Will new ‘Mythbusters’ be as amusing as the first?

The original “Mythbusters,” starring Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, included plenty of amusing water-related stunts, such as seeing if a person can learn to walk on water.

That series, one of the longest running shows on the Discovery Channel, ended its 13-year run in March of 2016. It wasn’t gone for long, however, as Discovery’s sister network, the Science Channel, ran a series of programs to identify new hosts for a revived series.

On Wednesday of this week, the new version of “Mythbusters” will air for the first time with new hosts Brian Louden, 32, and Jon Lung, 28. As always, the show will use experiments to test the truth of myths, rumors and wild ideas, including fake stories that have caught people’s attention on the Internet.

Jon is the builder/designer with skills in wood, metal, foam, plastics, fabric, paper, silicone and clay. His career includes graphic design.

Brian worked as a paramedic and received a degree in biology, teaching science at schools and science fairs.

“I can build the things that need to work,” Jon said in an interview with Parade magazine. “I can test things scientifically, and there’s also the aesthetic appeal and the creative process of thinking of insane, crazy ways to build things, or how to test things. And so Mythbusters is the perfect home for me.

“I bring more of the redneck builder with a really strong science background,” Brian said in the same interview. “Together, these things create an insightful look at the myth and the process from a different direction of the old version of the show.”

The first video on this page is a preview of the new show.

I cannot say whether the new guys will provide as much material for Amusing Monday as the old guys did, but I thought this might be a good time to revisit some of the best water-related stunts from the first series.

The second video shows what it takes to get out of a sinking car. It is a tense moment, but the tension is relieved somewhat when you know that divers are standing by to provide air and even rescue, if needed. Adam performed that stunt fairly smoothly and in the controlled confines of a swimming pool.

Adam says the most terrifying moment on the show came when he did the stunt again in a lake to see if he could survive an accident in which the car flips upside down. During the filming, the car flips over again unexpectedly, changing the air pockets inside the vehicle. Watch this video: “Turn Turtle Car.”

This second car-in-the-water show is credited with helping to save the life of a mother and her young child. Their terrifying moment occurred when their car slipped on ice and crashed into a river in Minnesota. Thanks to the show, the mom realized that she would not be able to open the car doors until enough water rushed inside to nearly equalize the pressure of the water pushing from the outside. That story was retold in a Mythbusters video segment.

The difficulty of walking on water made for some amusing moments. And I would not be doing justice to the show if I didn’t offer videos of the two guys blowing stuff up.

The final video on this page features Bremerton’s own Nathan Adrian, a five-time Olympic gold medalist whose swimming skills are tested in a strange way. Nathan participates in an experiment to determine whether it is easier to swim through water than syrup.

Although Nathan’s time was very consistent in water, the syrup appeared to mess up his swimming technique — so much that the Mythbusters could not use the times of his syrup swims. Instead, they went with Adam’s less refined swimming style and concluded that syrup, if not too thick, does not slow down an average swimmer much, if at all.

Puget Sound freshens up with a little help from winter snowpack

In the latest “Eyes Over Puget Sound” report, one little note caught my attention: “Puget Sound is fresher than it’s ever been the past 17 years.”

Jellyfish are largely missing this fall from Puget Sound. Some patches of red-brown algae, such as this one in Sinclair Inlet, have been observed.
Photo: Washington Department of Ecology

At least temporarily, something has changed in the waters of Puget Sound over the past few months. It may not last, but it appears to be a good thing.

The monthly EOPS report, compiled by a team of state environmental experts, lays out recent water-quality data for the Department of Ecology. The report also includes personal observations, aerial photographs and scientific interpretations that keep readers abreast of recent conditions while putting things in historical context.

The “fresh” conditions called out in the report refers to the salinity of Puget Sound, which is driven largely by the freshwater streams flowing into the waterway. The reference to 17 years is a recognition that the overall salinity hasn’t been this low since the current program started 17 years ago.

Dissolved oxygen, essential to animals throughout the food web, was higher this fall than we’ve seen in some time. Hood Canal, which I’ve watched closely for years, didn’t come close to the conditions that have led to massive fish kills in the past. The only problem areas for low oxygen were in South Puget Sound.

Water temperatures in the Sound, which had been warmer than normal through 2015 and 2016, returned to more average conditions in 2017. Those temperatures were related, in part, to the warm ocean conditions off the coast, often referred to as “the blob.” In South Puget Sound, waters remained warm into October.

Why is the water fresher this fall than it has been in a long time? The reason can be attributed to the massive snowpack accumulated last winter, according to oceanographer Christopher Krembs, who leads the EOPS analysis. That snowpack provided freshwater this past spring, although rivers slowed significantly during the dry summer and continued into September.

“We had a really good snowpack with much more freshwater flowing in,” Christopher told me, adding that the Fraser River in southern British Columbia was well above average in July before the flows dropped off rapidly. The Fraser River feeds a lot of freshwater into northern Puget Sound.

Freshwater, which is less dense than seawater, creates a surface layer as it comes into Puget Sound and floats on top of the older, saltier water. The freshwater input fuels the circulation by generally pushing out toward the ocean, while the heavier saltwater generally moves farther into Puget Sound.

“The big gorilla is the upwelling system,” Christopher noted, referring to the rate at which deep, nutrient-rich and low-oxygen waters are churned up along the coast and distributed into the Puget Sound via the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Lately, that system has been turned down to low as a result of larger forces in the ocean.

In an advisory issued today (PDF 803 kb), NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center says a weak La Niña is likely to continue through the winter. For the northern states across the country, that usually means below-average temperatures and above-average precipitation. (It’s just the opposite for the southern states.)

With a favorable snowpack already accumulating in the mountains, experts can’t help but wonder if we might repeat this year’s conditions in Puget Sound over the next year.

Christopher told me that during aerial flights this fall, he has observed fewer jellyfish and blooms of Noctiluca (a plankton known to turn the waters orange) than during the past two years. Most people think this is a good thing, since these organisms prevail in poor conditions. Such species also have a reputation as a “dead end” in the food web, since they are eaten by very few animals.

Christopher said he noticed a lot of “bait balls,” which are large schools of small fish that can feed salmon, birds and a variety of creatures. “I assume most of them are anchovies,” he said of the schooling fish.

I would trade a jellyfish to get an anchovy on any day of the year.

Report reveals struggles and strategies to recover Puget Sound ecosystem

Floodplains in natural condition – Click to enlarge
Source: State of the Sound, Puget Sound Partnership

As always, the biennial State of the Sound report (PDF 60.2 mb), issued this week by the Puget Sound Partnership, reveals mixed results for efforts to protect and restore Puget Sound.

It’s been 10 years since the Washington Legislature created the Partnership with an urgent mission to restore Puget Sound to a healthy condition by the year 2020.

That 2020 deadline, which was the idea of then-Governor Chris Gregoire, has always been a double-edged sword. The clear time frame has created a sense of urgency — which was Gregoire’s goal. But now, with 2020 looming just three years away, the second edge of the sword threatens to create a sense of failure.

Everyone who has followed the issue has known from the beginning that Puget Sound would not be restored to health by 2020, so I don’t intend to belabor that point. But I’ve been asking for several years how the Puget Sound Partnership plans to finesse the “failure” into an ongoing recovery effort, without which Puget Sound could become a lifeless body of water.

“Thousands of projects have been successfully completed, and more are taking place every day,” writes PSP Executive Director Sheida Sahandy in a forward to the latest State of the Sound report. “However, investment in recovery has been a fraction of that needed to reach targets, and it is clear at this point that the work of recovering Puget Sound cannot be completed by 2020.”

Click to download the new report

Sheida repeated in her statement the same thing she has told me several times: “The work of maintaining ecosystem health, much like maintaining human health, is never ‘done,’” she writes. “This is particularly true in light of increasing systemic pressures, like population growth, water acidification and temperatures changes.”

I understand that Partnership staffers are working on a transition strategy to handle the looming 2020 deadline, but I have not heard what they plan to do. One idea is a major overhaul of all the ecosystem indicators, making them better markers for ecosystem health. It’s something many of the scientists have wanted to do, given improved awareness of ecological function.

But if the original indicators were abandoned, we would lose the sense of continuity gained over the past decade. Besides, that would disrupt the latest effort to develop and effectuate “implementation strategies,” which are aimed directly at improving the existing indicators. (Check out the stories in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.)

The simplest idea would be to change the date of 2020 to one or more dates in the future, perhaps with greater thought given to the costs and practicality of meeting the deadline. The original goals were somewhat arbitrary, often referred to as “aspirational” rather than practical. Perhaps the Partnership will adopt an approach somewhere between — with some new indicators, some revised indicators and new dates for those that seem to be good indicators as they are.

While the problem with the year 2020 can be managed, the more serious matter is funding the restoration so that real progress can be made in areas where the ecosystem is in decline. Protecting areas that are still functioning well is widely accepted as the top priority, but protection strategies have been somewhat hit and miss. Improving the monitoring effort to measure the changes is more important than ever.

“We must be willing to conduct an honest, clear-eyed review of where we are and where we are headed,” states a letter from the Puget Sound Leadership Council, the governing body of the Partnership. “Course corrections must be identified and implemented soon to get Puget Sound on an acceptable recovery trajectory. The Puget Sound Partnership is ready to work with all of our partners to improve our own efforts in the recovery endeavor.”

The Leadership Council identifies four overriding problems:

  1. “We are not investing at a level necessary to achieve recovery. We simply have not prioritized Puget Sound recovery at a level that results in adequate spending on restoration and protection projects.”
  2. “Too few people understand that Puget Sound is in trouble. We must do a better job of providing credible, hard-hitting information to our citizenry, whom we are confident cares deeply about Puget Sound and will demand a recovery effort that is successful.”
  3. “While we have appropriately focused much on restoration projects, we have not focused enough on programs designed to protect what we have. We must support our local governments and state and federal agencies as they go about the extraordinarily difficult task of preventing projects and activities that will harm the Sound.”
  4. “We have to ramp up our effort to keep pace with our booming economy. It has been reported that 1,000 people a week are moving into the Puget Sound basin. That means housing, roads, and other supportive infrastructure, which all have the potential to destroy habitat, degrade water quality, reduce stream flows, and lower groundwater tables.”

As I reported this week for the Puget Sound Institute, the Leadership Council is working with Gov. Jay Inslee to instill a greater sense of urgency for the recovery of Puget Sound’s killer whales, which remain on a dangerous path to extinction. That will surely involve efforts to increase the number of chinook salmon, which are not faring well, according to the latest State of the Sound report.

The population of killer whales is one of four indicators that are going the wrong direction, getting worse instead of better. The others are:

  • The amount of forestland being converted for development in ecologically sensitive regions;
  • The quality of marine waters, as measured by dissolved oxygen and related factors; and
  • The total biomass of Pacific herring, considered an important food supply for salmon and other species.

I have to say that the Puget Sound Partnership has gotten better at presenting information about the Puget Sound ecosystem. The 2017 State of the Sound report is fairly understandable to the average reader without sacrificing the technical details necessary to understand the problems and solutions. I also like the graphics, particularly those that represent contrasting views of natural features, namely shorelines, shellfish, floodplains and stormwater runoff. I’ve copied the two floodplain graphics to the top and bottom of this page.

Funding problems are given increased attention in the latest report. Understanding what it will take to expand the protection and restoration effort is critical, especially during the era of President Trump, whose budget proposed eliminating the most important federal funding sources for Puget Sound.

The report also includes recommendations from the Puget Sound Science Panel, established by the Legislature to advise the Leadership Council on science issues. In the latest report, the Science Panel recommends moving from a focus on restoration alone to one of involving increased resilience of natural systems.

As stated by the Science Panel in the report: “The successful restoration of ecosystem functions is an important means to maintain resilience, but is not the end in itself. Resilience also relies on human capacity and ability to respond and adapt.

“Resilience focuses less on conditions as they once existed and more on managing ecosystem processes, patterns, and change to provide the ecosystem benefits we care about into the future.”

Floodplains in degraded condition – Click to enlarge
Source: State of the Sound, Puget Sound Partnership

Green crabs go wild near Sequim, but experts say control is still possible

Nearly 100 invasive European green crabs were trapped along Dungeness Spit near Sequim this past spring and summer — far more than anywhere else in Puget Sound since the dangerous invaders first showed up last year.

European green crabs started showing up in traps on Dungeness Spit in April.
Photo: Allen Pleus, WDFW

Despite the large number of crabs found in this one location, green crab experts remain undeterred in their effort to trap as many of the crabs as they can. And they still believe it is possible to keep the invasion under control.

“In a lot of ways, this program is functioning much as we had hoped,” said Emily Grason of Washington Sea Grant, who is coordinating volunteers who placed hundreds of traps in more than 50 locations throughout Puget Sound. “We look in places where we think the crabs are most detectable and try to keep the populations from getting too large, so that they are still possible to control.”

After the first green crabs were found on Dungeness Spit in April, the numbers appeared to be tapering off by June, as I described using a graph in Water Ways on June 24. The numbers stayed relatively low, with three caught in July, two in August, three in September and two in October. But they never stopped coming.

The total so far at Dungeness Spit is 96 crabs, and more can be expected when trapping resumes next spring. The good news is that all the crabs caught so far appear to be just one or two years old — suggesting that they likely arrived as free-floating larvae. That doesn’t mean the crabs aren’t mating at Dungeness Spit, but the trapping effort has reduced the population to the point that males and females are probably having a tough time finding each other.

Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has taken charge of trapping at Dungeness Spit, will need to decide whether to attempt a complete eradication of the local green crab population, according to Allen Pleus, coordinator of Washington State’s Aquatic Invasive Species Program. That would involve managing a large number of traps until no more crabs are seen. The alternative, he said, would be to manage the crab population with fewer traps and make further decisions down the line.

During one three-day stretch last year, 126 traps were deployed in areas on and near Dungeness Spit, part of the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Even with the most exhaustive trapping program, there is no guarantee that green crabs won’t be found again, Allen said. The likely source of the crab larvae is an established population of green crabs in Sooke Inlet on Vancouver Island, just across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Dungeness Spit.

Allen said he is disappointed that crabs continued to be caught on or near Dungeness Spit — mainly in one small area near the connected Graveyard Spit. “But I am very impressed with the dedication of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which continued to trap throughout the summer,” he said.

While there is no evidence so far that the invading crabs have reproduced at Dungeness Spit, it is possible that mating took place. If so, everyone involved in the green crab effort could face a whole new group of young crabs next year.

I have to admit that I was worried last spring that funding for the essential volunteer effort would run out as officials scrambled to finance the start of trapping season. But the Environmental Protection Agency agreed to fund the project through next year under the Marine and Nearshore Grant Program.

Meanwhile, Allen said he is working with Canadian officials to see what can be done about reducing the population of green crabs in Sooke Inlet, which is likely to remain a source of the invasive crabs coming into Washington state. The Canadians have their own concerns about green crabs, which can severely damage commercial shellfish operations and disrupt critical eelgrass habitats.

“Sooke Inlet is the only known population established in the Salish Sea,” Allen said. “We are working with Canada and setting up meetings this winter to continue our discussions.”

Canadian officials are monitoring for green crabs on their side of the border, but the effort is much less than in Puget Sound. It appears that only limited efforts have been made so far to control the Sooke Inlet population and reduce the amount of invasive crab larvae heading to other areas in the Salish Sea.

Researchers are still investigating the conditions that allow green crab larvae to survive long enough to grow into adult crabs. It appears that larvae move up the coast from California during warm years and particularly during El Niño periods, Emily told me. That may explain why the Puget Sound traps began catching so many crabs the past two summers.

“The signal we are seeing does point to 2015 and ‘16 as being the first arrivals,” she said. “Our working hypothesis is that warm years are spreading larvae.”

That could offer renewed hope for the immediate future, since El Niño is over and we may be going into cooler La Niña conditions next year.

No new crabs have shown up in the San Juan Islands, where Puget Sound’s first green crab was discovered last year. But two more were found about 30 miles away in Padilla Bay, where four crabs were caught last fall.

New areas with green crabs this year are Lagoon Point on Whidbey Island, where two crabs were caught, and Sequim Bay, not far from Dungeness Spit, where one crab was caught.

The latest concern over green crabs is Makah Bay on the outer coast of Washington near the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula. In August, a beach walker spotted a single green crab on the Makah Tribe’s reservation and sent a picture to the Puget Sound Crab Team, which confirmed the finding. Tribal officials launched a three-day trapping effort last month and caught 34 crabs — 22 males and 12 females — in 79 traps.

An aggressive trapping effort is being planned by tribal officials for the coming spring. Interested volunteers should contact Adrianne Akmajian, marine ecologist for the Makah Tribe, at marine.ecologist@makah.com

The Makah effort is separate from the Puget Sound Crab Team, which encourages beach goers to learn to identify green crabs by looking at photos on its website. Anyone who believes he or she has found a green crab should leave it in place but send photographs to the crab team at crabteam@uw.edu

Emily said she is most proud of all the people and organizations that have come together as partners to quickly locate the invasive crabs and advance the science around the issue. Such cooperation, she said, makes the impact of the program much greater than it would be otherwise.

Amusing Monday: Climate change is scary enough for Halloween

Samantha Bee’s Halloween show last week is making a big splash on the Internet. The underlying theme was climate change, and the program cleverly makes a connection with this particular time of year, when many people relish the experience of getting scared.

In one segment of the show, which is called “Full Frontal,” singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson wears a picture of the Earth while singing an altered version of her big hit “Be OK” (original version). The revised song, called “Not OK,” addresses the horrors of climate change.

As Michaelson sweetly sings about the dangers of an altered climate, members of the “Full Frontal” cast dance around the stage, representing hurricanes, storms, floods, burning trees and finally an angry sun, as you can see in the first video.

Michaelson sings, “I am clearly not OK, not OK, not OK. Earth is clearly not OK today. I’m getting warmer every day, every day, every day. Climate change is Fu__ing me, oy vey!”

It’s tough to combine humor with a serious message, but Michaelson’s new words on a tragic theme are made palatable by the upbeat tune and the silly dancers.

One viewer commented on Michaelson’s Facebook page that she had ruined a perfectly good song, but the vast majority of her fans were delighted that she had found an amusing way to weigh in on an important topic.

I guess something similar could be said for the entire show, which I decided to go ahead and share on this blog post. Except for the Michaelson segment, the videos are posted in the order they appeared on the show. If you’re not familiar with this show, you should be warned that the language can be coarse at times.

In another segment, more edgy than funny, Samantha Bee goes after Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who has begun to reverse direction on President Obama’s plans to move the United States away from coal and toward renewable energy. She points out that before Pruitt became the head of the EPA, he was one of the agency’s biggest enemies. As Oklahoma attorney general, he sued the EPA 14 times, largely on behalf of the oil and gas industry. While she can’t stop Pruitt’s anti-regulatory approach, she thinks she can poke him in the eye by demanding a public hearing.

In Act 3, called “(Hot as) Hell House,” Bee takes climate deniers through a Halloween-style haunted house to see if she can scare them into caring about climate change. The setting is 50 years from now, when the Earth is ruined, cockroaches are the only food supply and people cannot escape the droning recitation of Al Gore’s Ted Talk by a creepy John Hodgman. One climate skeptic said the experience had changed her mind, but her reasoning — revealed at the end — was quite amusing.

The haunted house scenes were filmed within the abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, the site of Terror Behind the Walls. It is said to be America’s largest haunted house, listed as number 1 in the country by Forbes magazine.

Amusing Monday: Calling all citizen scientists to help with online research

Just about anyone with a computer can become part of a scientific research project through Zooniverse, which focuses the intelligence of thousands of people on tasks that are not well suited for computers.

The research projects are real, and prospective citizen scientists can choose from dozens of topics in various fields, including climate, biology, medicine, history, language, literature and the arts. More than 100 published papers have come from the work.

They key is observation, and participants make judgments about images they are given, such as photographs, drawings, hand-written pages and other visuals. Together, the large number of observations help professional researchers find things that they could not easily find alone. In most cases, computers don’t have the observational capabilities of humans, although some of the projects are trying to teach computers to do a better job.

Participants become part of an exclusive research community, as each Zooniverse project includes chat forums for discussion. Citizen scientists can talk among themselves or pose questions to the researchers in charge. I’ve tried out a few of the projects, and I can see how this could become an interesting, amusing and ongoing pastime for some people.

One of the projects that I find interesting is called “Old Weather,” which involves perusing ships’ logs from the 1800s and early 1900s to see what the weather was like on particular dates in various parts of the world. The focus at the moment is on 24 whaling voyages as well as expeditions to the Arctic by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. The information is going into a database to help reveal how climate is changing.

The online work involves identifying what the log books have to say about weather, ice and sea conditions. One task involves reading through the books and marking such observations along with time and place. Another task is to transcribe the observations and link them together. Of particular interest is locating sea ice, a primary indicator of climate change.

Other projects:

The Plastic Tide involves looking at photographs of beaches taken from a drone to identify pieces of plastic in the sand and gravel. Researchers in England are using the observations to develop a computer program that can recognize bits of plastic and estimate the amount of plastic on a beach. If successful, global estimates of plastic distribution can be created with the use of unmanned aircraft. Volunteer observations are being used to “train” the computer to identify plastics.

Snapshots At Sea uses pictures of sea creatures taken by professional and amateur photographers to extract information about whales and other marine mammals. Citizen scientists are asked questions about each photograph to classify the images and determine whether a whale expert should take a look. So far, citizen scientists were able to locate an extremely rare killer whale, known as Type D. Meanwhile, they have also helped to locate and identify known and unknown humpback whales and plot their movements with unprecedented resolution off the California coast. By the way, Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia is one of the collaborators on the project.

Notes from Nature digs into the records of natural history museums throughout the world, where handwritten observations are tagged onto all sorts of plant and animal specimens. Volunteers transcribe the notes from photographs of the specimens to help to fill in gaps about biodiversity and the natural heritage of a given region. At the first level, museum staff and others are photographing what are estimated to be 10 billion specimens, including birds, bugs, butterflies and microscopic fossils. At higher levels, researchers are compiling the data to tell a story of ecological change.

Wildwatch Kenya, which started this past summer, asks volunteers to review photos taken with trail cameras placed in two nature preserves in Kenya. Information about wildlife seen in the photos is used to track animal movements, determine what they are doing and help with their conservation. In the first three months, more than 5,000 volunteers were able to retire a backlog of more than 160,000 photographs — about two years’ worth of images. For information, see the news release from the San Diego Zoo, which manages the project.

Steller sea lion ~ 100 is the “sea lion of the month” for October. // Photo: Steller Watch

Steller Watch, like Wildwatch Kenya, uses remote cameras to capture hundreds of pictures of Steller sea lions — an endangered species whose population has declined by 94 percent in the Aleutian Islands. Volunteers help classify — but not identify — animals seen in the photos so that experts can complete the identifications and track the movements of the animals. One feature is the Sea Lion of the Month, who this month is ~100, a sea lion with a somewhat unusual story.

Cyclone Center includes 300,000 images taken from infrared sensors on weather satellites. The colored images reveal temperatures, which are closely related to whether the clouds produce wind, rain and thunderstorms. Volunteers are given a pair of clouds and asked to determine which one is stronger based on the colors. The human eye is better at this job than a computer, experts say. The information is compiled with other data to form a record of storms and to help predict future events.

Shells from Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 1866

Science Gossip relies on millions of pages of printed text produced in scientific journals, notebooks and other publications from the 1400s to today. Researchers and artists, both professional and amateur, produced the documents during their investigations of science. Cataloging and describing old drawings are helping historians understand who was studying what down through the years. In my first leap into this project, I was presented with the drawing of a scale from an extinct fish. I found myself reading the associated article to learn about a dispute over how to classify the animal, and then I went to other sources to learn about the notable scientist and his work. After that, I completed the questions about the drawing. (I guess this was beyond the call of duty, but I just wanted to know more.)

The Milky Way Project endeavors to locate celestial objects of interest to astronomers by searching through tens of thousands of images from the Spitzer Space Telescope and the WISE satellite observatory. Training is provided to identify bubble nebulae, bow shocks and other notable features.

Solar Stormwatch II involves working with images of solar flares from NASA’s STEREO spacecraft. Volunteers help to classify and describe the intensity of flares by defining their outer edges with the use of a computer mouse. The original project, Solar Stormwatch, contributed to seven scientific publications. The new project will examine images from 2010 to 2016, during which time the sun went through a period of peak activity.

Toxic flame retardants gain attention of U.S. consumer commission

Ongoing studies into flame retardant chemicals have raised a serious question: Are ANY of the polybrominated or polychlorinated flame retardants safe enough to be used in household products?

It’s a question I’ve been asking for several years while writing about these chemicals, many of which are known to disrupt hormonal functions in humans and animals. Among them are the familiar polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs.

Now the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is weighing in on the question by proposing new regulations that would ban this entire class of chemicals containing bromine or chlorine — now referred to as nonpolymeric organohalogen flame retardants. If these regulations are eventually adopted, they would prohibit the use of organohalogens in four types of products:

  • Any children’s product, including toys and baby furniture, except for car seats,
  • Any type of seat cushion or upholstered furniture,
  • Any mattress or mattress pad, and
  • Any plastic case containing an electronic device, including computers and televisions.

Banning an entire class of chemicals is a fairly radical step, because each chemical in this large group of compounds has its own toxicity profile. Even the staff of the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommended against such a broad regulation. If you are up for some dense reading on the subject, check out the 535-page briefing report (PDF 78.7 mb) or just read the summary in National Law Review.

Despite the opposition by CPSC staff, three out of five commissioners were convinced of the dangers imposed by this broad class of chemicals. They voted, 3-2, to move ahead with a total ban. Convincing documents included a petition for rulemaking (PDF 63 mb) from 12 diverse groups, ranging from the American Academy of Pediatrics to the International Association of Fire Fighters to Consumers Union. The commission also heard formal testimony from these groups and many others. (Review the videos on this page.)

“It is imperative that CPSC’s regulation cover all organohalogen flame retardants as a class when used in consumer products,” states the petition. “This class of chemicals is foreign to the mammalian body and inherently toxic, due to its physical, chemical and biological properties.

“Industry has historically responded to the dangers posed by one organohalogen flame retardant by replacing it with one or more other organohalogens that are, by virtue of their chemical properties, also harmful,” the petition continues. “This exposes consumers to a series of ‘regrettable substitutions’ from one harmful flame retardant to another… The way to end this cycle of toxicity is to ban all products in the categories at issue here if they contain any organohalogen flame retardant.”

A total ban was ultimately the position taken by the commission, although formal rulemaking will take time and may not come to pass. At least two commissioners asked on several occasions if even one of these flame retardants has been proven safe. They never received an answer that satisfied them.

After the vote, Commissioner Elliott Kaye, an attorney, issued a strongly worded written statement (PDF 262 kb): to explain why he agreed to take such a strong action.

“As a policymaker and, more importantly, as a parent, I am horrified and outraged at how chemicals are addressed in this country,” he said. “It is completely irrational that we wait for children to be poisoned before the government is allowed to step in.

“Rational and thoughtful public policy in this area would involve the government and industry coming together to agree which chemicals are safe for human exposure, especially for pregnant women and children, and which ones are not. And more importantly, rational and thoughtful public policy would have these assessments occur before these chemicals are permitted to come onto the market. Waiting to assess the safety of chemicals after they are already in consumers’ homes and our children’s bloodstreams is totally irrational public policy.”

Commissioner Robert Adler, an attorney, seemed to be troubled that he went against the commission’s staff, and he wanted to explain his position.

“As a starting point, let me say that I have little serious disagreement with staff on the science aspect of the issues,” he said in a written statement (PDF 136 kb). “To the extent that there was disagreement, it was over the legal and policy issues arising from the science.

“I note that a large part of the staff’s recommendation rested on their misgivings about treating OFRs as a broad class of chemicals given OFRs’ differing levels of toxicity and exposure to which consumers are subject. I grant staff’s point about the differing levels of toxicity for these flame retardants. But what I have not heard from staff, nor from any of the witnesses at our hearings, is credible evidence demonstrating that there are any ‘safe’ organohalogen flame retardants.”

He said all the chemicals in the class seem to have common characteristics. For example, they pass into cells freely, do not metabolize easily, inhibit a cell’s defense system, bioaccumulate in the tissues and cause harm that can be linked to the chemical structure.

“There are certainly a number of OFRs where we have no studies to provide us with proof of harm, but years of experience confirm that every time we get sufficient data to evaluate the risk of harm of any specific OFR, we always find it to be so toxic that we start to remove it from our products. In other words, the more evidence that accumulates, the stronger we see the case against the use of these chemicals.”

As part of the coming regulatory process, the Consumer Product Safety Commission agreed to convene a chronic hazard advisory panel to assess the risks of flame retardants, drawing on all available information.

Meanwhile, the commission also issued a “guidance document” that calls on manufacturers, distributors and retailers to voluntary ensure that their products do not contain added flame retardants. Consumers, especially those who are pregnant or have young children, are advised to make sure products they purchase are free of such chemicals.

While the commission appears to be moving on a course of tough action, the regulatory process can be long and filled with potential delays. In fact, through normal appointments of commission members, President Trump will be able to change the direction of the commission over the next four years if he so chooses.

Commissioner Anne Marie Buerkle, whose term was extended by seven years in February when Trump named her to chair the commission, does not support the commission’s decision on flame retardants.

“My Democrat colleagues claim that there is ‘overwhelming scientific evidence’ of toxicity across the class; indeed, we heard witnesses at our hearing last week maintain that every organohalogen that has been adequately studied has been found to cause adverse effects,” Buerkle said in a statement (PDF 626 kb). “Even if that claim is accepted at face value, do all such adverse effects result from prevailing exposures? We know that substances as benign as oxygen and water — two of the most essential requirements for human existence — can cause death when too much is inhaled or imbibed. Is there something exceptional about organohalogens such that the dose becomes unimportant?”

Buerkle said she supports formation of a chronic hazard advisory panel, but she believes the results should be available to the commission before moving forward with regulations.

As for chemical manufacturers, it appears that they are not going down without a fight over flame retardants. A statement from the American Chemistry Council (PDF 86 kb), which represents the industry, says it will inform manufacturers and other businesses that the commission’s action has no binding effect.

“The value chain should feel confident that they can continue to use these chemistries in certain applications consistent with existing national and international regulations while CPSC conducts its further analysis of these substances,” says the statement.

Environmental and consumer groups say they will push retailers not to sell products with flame retardants, and “Consumer Reports” magazine offers recommendations about how people can avoid toxic flame retardants.

Meanwhile, Washington is among a growing number of states that have banned certain flame retardants. Based on findings from the state Department of Ecology, the Legislature approve a ban on the worst chemicals in 2008, followed by others last year. See Ecology’s webpage on the PBT Initiative.

For further reading, here are some stories from the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound:

Amusing Monday: celebrating the nation’s wild and scenic rivers

The value and enjoyment of rivers throughout the United States will be highlighted over the next year, as the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act approaches its 50th anniversary on Oct. 2, 2018.

Some 12,700 miles of rushing waters are protected on 208 rivers designated in 40 states plus the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. A Wild and Scenic River designation is the strongest protection for rivers in our country, safeguarding clean water, recreation, fish and wildlife, and cultural heritage, according to American Rivers, an environmental group focused on river protection. Check out the webpage “Why do we need wild rivers?”

“Free-flowing rivers create natural riparian areas that foster healthy, abundant, and diverse wildlife and are the centerpieces of rich ecological processes,” according to a news release from the National Parks Service. “Recreationally, free-flowing rivers offer unparalleled inspirational experiences from challenging whitewater to placid fishing. Through the arterial connections of rivers to communities, we all live downstream of a Wild and Scenic River.”

The first video on this page, called “Make Your Splash,” celebrates a family enjoying water recreation. It was produced by the Park Service in conjunction with three other federal agencies and several nonprofit organizations.

To call attention to the importance of wild rivers, American Rivers has launched a program called “5,000 Miles of Wild” with the goal of putting an additional 5,000 miles of wild rivers into protected status.

As part of the effort, the organization is working to collect 5,000 stories from people around the country who have a place in their hearts for special rivers, as explained in “About the campaign.” The second video, “5,000 miles of wild,” promotes the campaign.

I think you will enjoy the personal stories about rivers and the photos submitted to the page “My River Story.”

I would like to see more submissions from people in Washington state, because we have some of the most beautiful and productive rivers in the U.S., and I know there are many personal connections to these special places. Among the Washington folks submitting stories is Paul Cain of Bow, who applauds the efforts of state fish and wildlife officers in an encounter along Samish River in North Puget Sound. Also, Peggy File talks about growing up on the Skagit River, one of the rivers designated wild and scenic.

Former President Jimmy Carter offers a testimonial about taking his own life into his hands on the Chattooga River, which flows from North Carolina into Georgia. The powerful river, he said, “kind of opened my eyes to a relationship between a human being and a wild river that I had never contemplated before.”

As president, Carter said he vetoed about 16 different dam projects throughout the country, because he believed they were counterproductive to the well-being of Americans.

American Rivers has compiled a list of rivers that warrant protection on its page “What is the 5,000 Miles of Wild campaign?” In Washington, protections are proposed for 688 miles of rivers in the North Cascades, including the Nooksack River, and 454 miles of rivers in the Olympic Mountains (Wild Olympics Campaign).

Fiftieth anniversary water bottle, Cafe Press

For existing wild and scenic rivers, take a look at the U.S. map or the map of Washington state. Other information is compiled on a government website called “National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.” The website also has a page with information about the 50th anniversary celebration. One can even purchase a variety of clothing and products showing off the 50th anniversary logo from Cafe Press.

An audio project by American Rivers was composed by intern Annemarie Lewis, who worked this past summer in the Colorado River Basin. She talks about culture, history and science of rivers, as related by a variety of people closely connected to this issue. The project is called “We are rivers: Conversations about the rivers that connect us.”

Speaking of American Rivers projects, I got a kick out of a video completed in 2015 called “50 Favorite Things We Love about Rivers.” See Water Ways, Feb. 23, 2015.

Travels to the front lines of restoration throughout Puget Sound

In the Puget Sound region, the front lines in the battle for clean water, healthy species and safe seafood include experts from Washington State University Extension and University of Washington Sea Grant.

These are the folks who help property owners understand how their lives are intertwined with natural systems. These are the folks who lead armies of volunteers to monitor changes in the ecosystem and help the rest of us understand how we can improve the environment in our own way.

These folks in the Extension and Sea Grant offices seem to have a special connection with average citizens, and they are some of my favorite people.

I was pleased to see an article in Washington State Magazine about the role that WSU Extension offices play in the Puget Sound region. The article, by Rebecca Phillips, highlights the close relationship between Extension and Sea Grant, especially in Kitsap County.

With artful writing, Becky juxtaposes the beauty of Puget Sound with the ongoing perils that have disrupted the ecosystem. She describes the efforts to turn things around and save this magnificent waterway that so many people call home.

“From Puyallup to Bremerton, Port Townsend to Everett, WSU Extension and research centers are immersed in Puget Sound revitalization through a combination of investigation, stewardship and educational outreach programs,” Becky writes.

She goes on to talk about the various programs — not the least of which is the Puyallup Research and Extension Center and the associated Washington Stormwater Center, which is doing great work to figure out how to remove pollution from toxic runoff coming from roads and developed areas.

The cooperative extension system was established in 1914, linking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to land grant colleges, such as WSU. Traditionally, every county in the country had a local extension office, but in some areas county offices have been consolidated into regional centers.

The National Sea Grant College Program, established by Congress in 1963, is a network of 33 Sea Grant colleges supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The goal is to promote the conservation and responsible use of the nation’s waterways.

I have covered most of the issues mentioned in Becky’s article, often in some depth, but her story touches on the essential elements of various restoration projects taking place throughout Puget Sound. It was nice to see such a comprehensive story involving the important problems of our time, with a special emphasis on the frontline folks addressing the issues. For some people, the article may serve as an introduction to the problems of Puget Sound. For others, it is a reminder of the local efforts taking place across the landscape.

Washington State Magazine is a product of the WSU Communications Office. Full disclosure: I am a graduate of WSU and worked in that office one summer while I was a student at the university.

Washington State Magazine

Streaming Solutions: Below the glimmering waters of Puget Sound lie invisible problems

Video extras

Amusing Monday: Splendid underwater images from EV Nautilus

Exploration Vessel Nautilus has completed its journey north to the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, where the research team captured plenty of intriguing video, including a close look at the sunken submarine USS Bugara (first video below). All videos are best in full screen.

EV Nautilus, operated by Ocean Exploration Trust, conducts scientific research along the sea bottom throughout the world, specializing in biology, geology and archeology. Education is a major part of the effort, and school curricula are built around live and recorded telecasts from the ship. In addition, a select group of educators and students are invited to go on the expeditions each summer.

This year’s expedition began in May in California, where the ship took data for high-resolution maps of offshore areas never surveyed before. That was followed by an examination of the Cascadia Margin, a geologically active area off the Oregon Coast where the researchers identified bubbling seeps with multibeam sonar.

Dives using remotely operated vehicles began in June when the ship arrived off the Canadian Coast west of Vancouver Island. One dive, which went down to 2,200 meters, captured images of a hydrothermal vent, where water gets expelled after being superheated by the Earth’s magma. Watch the video saved on the Nautilus Facebook page. In another video, the temperature at one vent got so hot that the researchers found themselves cheering as the temperature at the probe kept going up.

I am easily amused, but I have to say that I was intrigued by a 9,000-year-old living reef made of glass sponges that was discovered off the coast of Galiano Island, British Columbia (second video this page).

One amusing video was created while watching a six-gill shark in the Channel Islands off California. Suddenly, a crab came into view carrying another crab (third video below). “It’s an Uber crab!” one researcher commented. “Is that lunch?” another wondered.

Another great shot from the Channel Islands showed a big ball of shimmering anchovies along with a select group of predators, including several fish, a six-gill shark and a sea lion. This video can be seen on the Nautilius Facebook page.

The examination of the submarine Bugara (first video on this page) occurred Aug. 25 off Cape Flattery in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. The event was live-streamed with commentary from scientists, archaeologists and historians, as well as veterans who served on the submarine. Bugara was built during World War II and later became the first American submarine to enter the Vietnam War after Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

After its decommissioning in California, Bugara was being towed to Washington state to serve as a target for a new weapons system. On June 1, 1971, the submarine took on water during transit and sank to the bottom, where it has rested ever since. No injuries occurred during the incident. For historical details, go to Bugara.net, which was set up for former sailors and others associated with the submarine.

A longer 1.5-hour video of the Bugara inspection by ROV can be viewed on the Nautilus Facebook page. This is basically what was viewed online in real time by observers — including a group gathered at Naval Undersea Museum at Keyport.

Another interesting video shot in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary shows a siphonophore, a colony of specialized organisms that work together to form a chain of individuals that together are capable of swimming, stinging, digesting and reproducing. Researchers working the 4-to-8-p.m. shift were able to observe more than their share of these interesting colonies, so the group became known as the “Siphono4-8” (video below).

Nautilus currently is moored in Astoria, Ore., where it is scheduled to begin the next leg of its expedition on Wednesday. The goal is to search near Oregon’s Heceta Bank for ancient coastal landscapes that may have been above sea level 21,000 to 15,000 years ago. More live sessions and archived video are planned. Follow these Nautilus links for details:

The Ocean Exploration Trust was founded in 2008 by Robert Ballard, known for his discovery of RMS Titanic’s final resting place. The 2017 Nautilus expedition, which will continue into November, marks the third year of exploring the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The expedition has been covered by these news media: