Stranded Sea Lions, Warming Lakes, and Floating Schools

11:52 minutes

California sea lion Blarney McCresty was treated for domoic acid toxicity during his rehabilitation at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. Photo © The Marine Mammal Center
California sea lion Blarney McCresty was treated for domoic acid toxicity during his rehabilitation at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. Photo © The Marine Mammal Center

In just the first five months of 2015, sea lions stranded on the California coast at more than 10 times the rate of years past, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. One reason these sea lions find themselves caught on strange shores in increasing numbers is domoic acid poisoning. This neurotoxin is produced by algae, and warmer California waters have led to larger and longer-lasting algal blooms. In a new paper published in Science on December 18th, 2015, scientists assessed the effects domoic acid had on the behavior of 30 sea lions that were receiving rehabilitative care at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California. (Science Friday spoke with the head veterinarian at the Marine Mammal Center earlier this year.) The researchers found a correlation between exposure to this toxin and deficits in the sea lions’ spatial memory. Lauren Sommer, science and environment reporter for KQED Public Radio in San Francisco, discusses the state of sea lions in California and also provides a roundup of stories from this week’s American Geophysical Union 2015 Fall Meeting, which includes a look at how climate change is affecting lakes around the world.

Plus, communities around the world are adapting to hotter temperatures in some rather creative ways. Take for example, the nonprofit Shidulai Swanirvar Sangstha, which is building floating, solar-powered schools in Bangladesh to ensure that students have access to education during monsoon season floods. BuzzFeed News science editor Virginia Hughes discusses the way people are innovating in response to climate change, as well as the challenges they’re ultimately up against.

Segment Guests

Lauren Sommer

Lauren Sommer is a science and environment reporter for KQED Public Radio in San Francisco, California.

Virginia Hughes

Virginia Hughes is science editor at BuzzFeed News in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Earlier this year we told you about the plight of a sea lion pup. Our senior producer, Christopher Intagliata at home in California, came across a creature, skittering across some coastal rocks. It was a baby sea lion. Perhaps it was part of a large increase in the number of sea lions stranded on strange shores along the west coast the first five months of this year. Today, researchers published a paper in Science taking a look at a culprit– possible culprit behind these wandering sea lions.

And joining me now to discuss this new research and other selected short subjects in science is Lauren Sommer. She is science and environment reporter for KQED, Public Radio in San Francisco. Welcome back, Lauren.


IRA FLATOW: So tell us about these sea lions. What could be going wrong with the sea lions?

LAUREN SOMMER: Yeah, so we’ve had this record-breaking toxic algae bloom off the coast here for most of the summer. And it’s the reason that you can’t eat dungeness crab that’s been caught off California right now. These toxic algae are producing– you know, it’s a toxin so people can get pretty sick if they eat seafood that has it. And yeah, the question’s always been, what’s the effect on marine life? And some of these sea lions show up on the beaches very disoriented. They have seizures sometimes. And so what researchers did is they actually took some of these rescued animals and they put them through a series of tests– actually some mazes to see what the neurological effects of this toxin have been.

IRA FLATOW: And what did they discover?

LAUREN SOMMER: Yeah. So, you know, these are very smart animals. And the mazes were not too complicated, but they had some kind of fish, right, as a reward in one location. And a healthy sea lion, you know, it’s no problem for a sea lion to memorize a maze and find it over and over. But these sea lions that have been affected by the toxic algae, they had a really hard time remembering and finding where the fish are. And that’s a big concern, right. These animals in the water have to remember where food sources are.

IRA FLATOW: And what was the culprit in the algae?

LAUREN SOMMER: So the algae produce domoic acid. It’s a neurotoxin that can kind of build up in smaller organisms. And it’s these larger organisms that are kind of eating all these different sea food and it builds up in their brains unfortunately.

IRA FLATOW: You also bring us a couple of fresh stories off the presses from the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. Let’s talk about this interesting story of lake temperatures– rising lake temperatures around the world.

LAUREN SOMMER: Yeah, this was a concerning study. What the researchers did is they looked at more than 200 lakes around the world. And they found that lakes are warming faster than the land or the ocean is– at a faster rate. And this is even more pronounced for lakes at higher latitudes. And you know, it’s a concern for the same reason we were just talking about off the Pacific. Warmer waters can produce algae blooms which sometimes produce toxins, and they also kind of deplete the oxygen in a lake, which is obviously bad news for the organisms that are living in it.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So it’s lakes, big, small– we don’t hear much about them. We always think of the rising oceans. But the heating up lakes– wow, interesting.

LAUREN SOMMER: Especially– I mean, the Great Lakes were some at the top of the list, especially Lake Superior. And the reason for that is they’re losing their ice cover sooner than they normally are. And as you might imagine, the ice cover kind of acts as an insulator and prevents some of this warming from happening.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. That’s interesting. Also at the AGU, you learned that west coast fog might be clouded with mercury. That doesn’t sound healthy.

LAUREN SOMMER: Yeah, this was kind of a mystery. Yeah, it was a mystery that these researchers were trying to solve. Why does our fog here have mercury in it? And they’ve kind of worked on a theory where the mercury– it’s coming from smokestack. It’s coming from power plants and it’s getting into the ocean. But the rain here doesn’t have the same levels of mercury. And what they figured out is that the mercury from the ocean gets up into the fog, and the fog is actually kind of acidic. And so it’s taking that form of mercury and turning it into a form that’s really easily absorbed by animals, by organisms. And so that’s what they were finding. As this fog kind of comes on the coast, it’s actually getting into the food chain.

IRA FLATOW: So is it a danger? Well, you’re out in San Francisco, you’re in the fog, are you wearing–

LAUREN SOMMER: Yeah, I’m not too worried.

IRA FLATOW: –a mask, or something?

LAUREN SOMMER: If you’re in San Francisco, don’t fret, it’s not dangerous for you to stand in the fog. But what happens is kind of as it gets deposited on the land, it kind of gets absorbed in the food chain and then concentrates as bigger animals eat smaller animal.


LAUREN SOMMER: And what they were finding is they’ve tested wolf spiders. They have very high levels of mercury at certain times of year on the coast. And the same with mountain lions actually.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Of course when you add mercury to the food chain, everything’s going to get affected going up, that eats it.


IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Last up, if people thought that double rainbows are impressive, and they are if you see them, you have a story about an all-red rainbow. I don’t think I have ever seen an all– I’ve seen full circle rainbows, double rainbows, but never an all-red rainbow. Tell us about that.

LAUREN SOMMER: Yeah. Pretty unique. I’m guessing there aren’t a lot of people out there that have seen it. Yeah, this was a researcher that has completely remade the classification system for rainbows, right. Most of us, we don’t have any idea what that is. But essentially he’s made 12 categories of rainbows, because he was saying, today’s system just leaves out these really unique rainbows like this all-red rainbow.

And the reason that rainbow happens is it’s at sunrise or sunset when the sun is very, very, very low in the atmosphere. And because it has to travel through so much atmosphere, it’s really only the red wavelength that are making it, and those get bent when they go into a water droplet, right. And that’s when we see the rainbow. But yeah, the all-red rainbows, so interesting to look at.

IRA FLATOW: Could it be that the rest of the rainbow is there but it’s below the horizon, so to speak? You know? It just doesn’t– it doesn’t rise up high enough to see the rest of it. Because I think red is on top, right?

LAUREN SOMMER: Yeah. Yeah. It’s that these wavelengths are getting filtered out. But people might actually see other kinds of rainbows that have fewer colors, right. We know it’s kind of the ROY G. BIV, right. Red, orange, yellow, et cetera. But there are some rainbows that just have red, orange, and yellow. There are some that are missing other colors. You know, things that I’ve never really thought about before. But they’re changing all the time. That’s kind of the amazing thing.

IRA FLATOW: Because you do need a critical angle. It’s something like 41 degrees or something like that. That’s why the sun has to be low in the sky for you to get that angle and it bounces off the raindrops. I’ve done a lot of research on rainbows. It’s kind of one of my hobbies.


IRA FLATOW: Lauren, thank you very much for taking time to be with us today.

LAUREN SOMMER: Thanks so much.

IRA FLATOW: Lauren Sommer is science and environment reporter for KQED, Public Radio in San Francisco, California. Now it’s time to play, good thing, bad thing.

Because every story has a flip side. If, as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, then climate change is one mother of a problem. In the face of hotter temperatures and more extreme weather conditions, communities around the world are adapting to what it is, often literally sometimes, going to become a new landscape where they’re living. Here with some examples of innovation in the face of climate changes are Virginia Hughes. She’s the science editor at BuzzFeed news, based in New York. She’s with us today in our New York studio.


IRA FLATOW: I love that sweatshirt, BuzzFeed on it.


IRA FLATOW: So let’s talk about the good thing, the bad thing.

VIRGINIA HUGHES: Yeah. So as you know, it’s pretty hard to find a good story in the climate change narrative. And I think this is all in the context of, well, if you have to put an optimistic spin on this. So with that caveat, it is pretty remarkable looking at some of the dozens of cities around the world that have already experienced some pretty significant changes, mostly related to flooding, warmer temperatures, and pretty extreme weather events and have come up with some clever ways to adapt.

So just to name a few, in Bangladesh, the monsoon season is pretty bad and keeps thousands of kids out of school every year. And as the sea level rises, this is going to get worse. So a nonprofit group has built about 20 floating schools, which are these small boats that hold maybe a couple dozen kids. And they’re sitting at desks. And the boats have solar panels on them that would power computers and lights inside the boats. And this group has also made some floating health clinics and floating libraries. So that’s one way. Put all of your important infrastructure on the water.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and let it float along with you.

VIRGINIA HUGHES: Yeah, right. Another cool example comes from a village in northern India. And this area of the world historically has gotten its water from low-lying glaciers in the Himalayas. But because of increasing temperatures, those glaciers are disappearing. And so, actually starting in 1987, there was a pretty clever civil engineer who came up with a way to make artificial glaciers. So how it works is, during the winter season, engineers divert river water into these long and meandering canals. And these canals eventually empty into a big valley. So because they’re all curving and kind of meandering, it slows down the water flow enough that when the water lands in the valley it freezes. And if you repeat this, you end up with these layers of ice and an artificial glacier. And it costs– it’s pretty cheap. I think the biggest one he made was only $2,000 and could provide water for 700 people.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. People are thinking.

VIRGINIA HUGHES: Yeah. Another one, kind of a high-tech example comes from a mega-city, Rio de Janeiro. A few years ago it was struck with a huge rainstorm, triggering floods and mudslides and killing hundreds of people. And so that triggered a city-wide response to this kind of flooding, which included a $14 million operation center built by IBM. And it looks something like a war room. It’s this huge room with dozens of screens all on one wall. And the screens display real-time data from weather stations, subway stations, streets, and dozens of city agencies. And so the idea is that city engineers can track traffic problems, energy outages, flooding, disasters, and hopefully mount a coordinated response.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I guess the bad news about all of this is that you have to do all of this.


IRA FLATOW: This is going to be the new normal, right?

VIRGINIA HUGHES: Yeah, exactly. It’s kind of a shame that these adaptations had to be made. And you know, according to scientific consensus, potentially some of it was preventable if we had curbed our use of fossil fuels more than we have. As you guys reported, the historic agreement that was signed last week in Paris– nearly 200 countries have now agreed to try to keep the global temperature increase to below two degrees Celsius. But the trouble is, as actually Christie Aschwanden, a great science writer wrote this week in 538, this would have been a fantastic agreement if it had been done in 1995. But it’s 20 years later now, and beyond the time, it comes with no binding rules. So it’s really unclear whether it will ever happen, this two degree max.

IRA FLATOW: As they say we are borrowing the future–

VIRGINIA HUGHES: Yeah, absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: –from our grandchildren. Well, thank you very much. Interesting stuff.


IRA FLATOW: Virginia Hughes, she’s a science editor for BuzzFeed News based here in New York.

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About Becky Fogel

Becky Fogel is a newscast host and producer at Texas Standard, a daily news show broadcast by KUT in Austin, Texas. She was formerly Science Friday’s production assistant.