Author Archives: Lauren Sommer

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.

Oysters May Foreshadow Acidic Oceans’ Effects

Research on local oysters sheds light on how animals will adapt to ocean acidification

Bodega Marine Lab / UC Davis

Scientists from UC Davis are studying oysters and mussels to figure out if organisms will be able to adapt to climate change.

This week, scientists from around the world are meeting in Monterey to discuss what they call the “other” climate change problem: the oceans are becoming more acidic. It happens as oceans absorb the carbon dioxide we add to the air through burning fossil fuels. It can be bad news for oysters, mussels and the marine food web. How bad? Scientists are hoping that ocean conditions off the California coast will help them find out.

At the Hog Island Oyster Company, near Point Reyes, Terry Sawyer orders oysters from hatcheries in Oregon and Washington when they’re small. They grow up in big mesh bags that sit out in Tomales Bay, where they get plump in the cold waters of the Pacific.

But a few years ago, Sawyer started getting calls from those suppliers. They couldn’t fill his orders. Continue reading

Water Wars May Reignite Over Massive Delta Plan

Battle lines are forming as Governor Brown prepares to roll out his proposal for the Delta

Josh Cassidy/KQED

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta plays a crucial role in the state’s water supply.

On Wednesday, Governor Jerry Brown and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar are expected to announce a multi-billion dollar plan designed to fix California’s longstanding water war in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Their proposal for a 35-mile water tunnel is set to reignite the fight over how water is exported from the Delta. The announcement comes just months after federal and state wildlife agencies warned that the proposed version of the project could have dramatic impacts on Delta fish.

Political wrangling over the governor’s announcement has already begun. Continue reading

Bay Area Landscape Likely to Come Up Short on Water

Facing the difference between how much water plants need, and how much they’ll get

KQED QUEST

Scientists are looking at climatic water deficit, the water plants need but don't have.

We hear a lot about how climate change will affect rainfall in California, but climate scientists are increasingly looking at a new indicator: water deficit.

“Climatic water deficit” relates to how much water plants need to survive. “It’s the difference between what a plant would use if it had the water and what is actually available,” Alan Flint, research hydrologist with the US Geological Survey, explained on Wednesday at the North America Congress for Conservation Biology.

The value combines temperature, rainfall, the soil’s capacity to hold water and how plants use water. In agriculture, farmers irrigate their crops to make up the water deficit, but plants in the natural world aren’t so lucky. Continue reading

The Water That Fuels California’s Power Grid

How many gallons to run that microwave?

Lauren Sommer / KQED

A natural gas power plant in Long Beach that uses "once-through" cooling.

We hear a lot about how green our energy is in California. Instead of using coal, the state runs on natural gas and increasingly, renewable power.

But there’s a hidden cost to our energy supply: water use. In fact, every time you turn on a light, it’s like turning on your faucet. It’s been calculated that it takes 1.5 gallons of water to run a 100-watt light bulb for 10 hours.

The way water and power work together is a lot like a tea kettle. Steam drives the power industry.

How Power Needs Water

You can see it at the Gateway Generating Station, a natural gas power plant in the northeast Bay Area. The plant looks complicated but making power is pretty simple. Step number one: burn natural gas. That produces a lot of heat.

“You’ve got 1,700-degree exhaust energy, or waste heat,” says Steve Royall of PG&E, who is giving me a tour through the maze of pipes and compartments. The heat hits pipes that are filled with water and the water is boiled off to create steam. That’s step number two: make steam to turn a steam turbine, which is attached to a generator. It’s the water that’s making the power.

Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Illustration by Andy Warner.

Continue reading

New List Highlights California’s Birds Most Threatened by Climate Change

Shorebirds, especially, are imperiled by rising seas and habitat loss

Molly Samuel

Birds like the Black Oystercatcher that live along the shoreline are threatened by rising sea levels.

More than one hundred species of California’s birds are vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Scientists at the California Department of Fish and Game and PRBO Conservation Science examined nearly 400 species and subspecies for a study, released today. Of those, 128 are at risk.

San Francisco Bay is home to the majority of the most vulnerable birds. “That’s primarily because of sea level rise and also because there are already so many imperiled species that use that habitat in the bay,” says Tom Gardali, an ecologist is PRBO Conservation Science.

Continue reading

California Holds Lead in Clean Car Derby

Air Board adopts landmark rules to curb emissions

The California Air Resources Board has unanimously approved sweeping new rules designed to facilitate the transition from gasoline-powered to electric and hydrogen-powered cars. By 2025, automakers are now required to produce 1.4 million “zero-emission” vehicles for the California market, a number that would make clean cars 15 percent of  all new car and truck sales.

Josh Cassidy

A Nissan all-electric Leaf in San Francisco.

The rules also require automakers, by 2025, to halve greenhouse gas emissions emanating from vehicle tailpipes, compared to current levels. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is considering similar emissions rules, as well as a new fuel economy standard of 54.5 mpg by 2025.

State regulators hope the new rules will lead to the widespread adoption of zero-emission vehicles, which they say is critical for meeting California’s goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050. That goal was established by executive order by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger, and goes beyond the cuts mandated by California’s landmark  global warming law, AB 32. Continue reading

SoCal Shines Brightest in Solar Rankings

The Bay Area likes to tout its clean, green reputation, but when it comes to installing solar, Southern California shines brightest. San Diego and Los Angeles lead the state in rooftop solar installations, according to a report released today by Environment California’s Research & Policy Center.

Lisa Aliferis / KQED

Rooftop solar panels on a home in Oakland.

San Jose comes in third with more than 2,700 rooftop installations, while San Francisco comes in fourth with more than 2,400 (though it’s fifth in terms of overall capacity). San Diego leads with 4,500-plus installations producing almost 37 megawatts of electricity.

“I think the story with San Diego is that the city was an early and very consistent adopter of solar power,” says Michelle Kinman, clean energy advocate with Environment California Research & Policy Center. “San Diego also has a really well coordinated working relationship between the local elected officials, the utility, the solar industry and the advocacy community.” Continue reading

California’s Rangeland Could Take a Hit from Climate Change

Craig Miller / KQED

A bull stares down the photographer in California's Panoche Valley.

California’s ranchers could face a tougher economic future under climate change. The grasslands they depend on to feed their cattle could shrink by almost 40% by the end of the century, according to a study from Duke University and the Environmental Defense Fund.

The researchers modeled two different climate futures for California: a warmer, wetter scenario and a warmer, drier one. The study showed that by the end of the century, California’s shrublands could increase as much as 70% under the worst-case dry scenario, taking over historic grasslands and other ecosystems. Continue reading

California Hits Solar Energy Milestone

Homeowners and businesses have now installed one gigawatt of roof-top solar panels, according to a report released this week by the advocacy group Environment California.

A gigawatt – or a thousand megawatts – is enough energy for about 600,000 homes. Only five nations — let alone states — including Germany and Japan, have reached that level. “Even in a bad economy, the solar industry has been growing exponentially by 40 percent per year,” says Michelle Kinman of Environment California. Continue reading

Climate Change Could Mean Cloudy Future for Lake Tahoe

New threats to lake’s clarity are emerging just as restoration funding is drying up

Lauren Sommer

Climate change and invasive species threaten Lake Tahoe just as restoration funding dwindles.

Over the last 15 years, more than a billion dollars has been spent to protect Lake Tahoe’s clear waters from runoff and erosion. Now, new threats to lake’s clarity are emerging, just as restoration funding is drying up.

Researchers from UC Davis are hot on the trail of one of those threats. On a recent late summer morning, Katie Webb and a team from UC Davis’s Tahoe Environmental Research Center went looking for it on a boat near South Lake Tahoe.

Hear the radio version of this story Wednesday on The California Report. Continue reading