Blue Marble

The Drought Is Making California Mudslides Even Worse

| Fri Oct. 16, 2015 3:49 PM EDT
Cars on Interstate 5 in Southern California grind to a halt in the mud after terrential rain hit the area.

Mudslides stranded hundreds of motorists on Southern California's main north-south highway Thursday evening after severe thunderstorms rocked the area. Cleanup crews worked through the night to plow and scoop up the mud, but meteorologists say that thanks to California's historic drought, widespread wildfires, and a potentially historic El Niño, this disaster could be just a taste of what's to come this winter.

The rain was part of a slow-moving storm system that passed through the Los Angeles area Thursday afternoon and battered the mountains to the north of the city in Kern County. The result: flash floods that sent mud and debris flowing down hillsides and onto Interstate 5, as well as onto a smaller state highway. I-5 has been cleared and is waiting for final inspection to reopen, but hundreds of cars are still stuck on the state highway.

According to National Weather Service meteorologist Robbie Munroe, it's too soon to be certain how much we can blame El Niño for the storm—El Niño tends to affect the frequency of storms more than their severity. But if it is the beginning of a wave of El Niño-linked rainstorms, Californians should start bracing for more flooding and mudslides. There are two reasons for this.

Normally, plants and trees are what hold the soil together, says Munroe. But drought and wildfires have decimated plant life in many areas of California. So when heavy rain flows down slopes, it brings mud and debris along with it.

Second, the drought has dried out and hardened the ground. This can be especially dangerous on hillsides and in canyons like the ones surrounding the highways buried by Thursday's storm. Instead of being absorbed into the soil, rainwater deflects off it and continues careening down the hill, picking up velocity and washing out whatever is in its path. 

Munroe says there is one potential upside to yesterday's storm: Rainfall early in the season could loosen the soil and rejuvenate ground cover, hopefully mitigating the destruction caused by the weather that will arrive later this winter.

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The Feds Just Got Sued for Letting Nestlé Bottle Water in California’s Drought Country

| Wed Oct. 14, 2015 3:01 PM EDT
A new lawsuit claims that Nestlé is illegally diverting water to supply its Arrowhead brand.

A group of environmental organizations sued the US Forest Service on Tuesday, claiming that it allowed Nestlé to illegally divert millions of gallons of water from California's San Bernadino National Forest to use for Arrowhead brand bottled water while the state struggles through a historic drought.

Nestlé has had rights to bottle water from the forest's Strawberry Creek for decades, but a Desert Sun investigation in March of this year found that the company's permit to use a four-mile pipeline that transports the water to the bottling plant expired in 1988. A month later, the agency announced it was investigating the permit.

The plaintiffs—the Center for Biological Diversity, the Story of Stuff Project, and the Courage Campaign Institute—are calling on the Forest Service to shut down use of the pipeline and conduct an environmental review immediately. They contend that the Forest Service is breaking its own policies by allowing the bottling operation to continue, as the siphoning of water from the already depleted water source is harming local habitats and wildlife.

"Recent reports have indicated that water levels at Strawberry Creek are at record lows," said the plaintiffs in a statement yesterday. "In exchange for allowing Nestlé to continue siphoning water from the Creek, the Forest Service receives just $524 a year, less than the average Californian's water bill." 

After a Mother Jones investigation found that Starbucks bottled Ethos brand water in Merced, California, the company announced it would move its operations out of state due to concerns about the drought. When asked if Nestlé would stop bottling California water, CEO Tim Brown replied, "Absolutely not. In fact, if I could increase it, I would."

Brown argues that his company's permit has not expired, since it it still being reviewed by the Forest Service. Furthermore, the amount of water used at the company's five California bottling plants—about 1.9 million gallons per day—is not contributing to California's drought, he wrote earlier this year: "To put that amount in perspective, this is roughly equal to the annual average watering needs of two California golf courses."

Drunken Vegetarians Are Sometimes Secret Meat Eaters

| Thu Oct. 8, 2015 8:55 AM EDT

A lot of people do things they regret when they are drunk. Maybe it's getting tanked and then incoherently divulging secret feelings for a colleague. Perhaps it's the slurred, eyes-shut karaoke rendition of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You." Or it could be that after being sucked into an alcohol-fueled gluttonous rampage, the favorite option is diving face first into a meaty meal—even if you happen to be a socially conscious vegetarian. 

According to a new study conducted by, a discount code company based in the United Kingdom, more than one-third of vegetarians have become nonvegetarians after a night of drinking. When Drunk Hungry hits, they are quick to ditch their diets—and convictions.

And, these drunken, carnivorous vegetarians aren't even honest about falling off the wagon. Close to 70 percent have kept their boozy burger-eating a secret. The next morning they go right back to pretending to be full-time vegetarians—at least until the next happy hour.

While most respondents did say they stand by their vegetarian principles even when they are crocked, George Charles, the founder of VoucherCodesPro, told the Morning Advertiser he was surprised by the results. He emphasized that people should offer more support for their drunken vegetarian buddies in times of temptation: "I think it's important," he says, "for friends of these vegetarians to support them when drunk and urge them not to eat meat, as I'm sure they regret it the next day!"

Friends don't ever let friends go on drunken meat binges they will regret.

New Dietary Guidelines Won't Include Sustainability

| Wed Oct. 7, 2015 3:36 PM EDT

When the USDA's Dietary Guidelines are released later this year, they're sure to make waves in the nation's food economy. Updated every five years, the rules—the government's official line on what Americans should eat to stay healthy—inform decisions on everything from agricultural subsidies to government food assistance programs to school lunch.

Tuesday's announcement was a "shameful abnegation of political responsibility," said Earth Institute's Jeffrey Sachs.

But there's one thing the new guidelines won't touch: the health of our environment.

In a statement posted Tuesday on the USDA website, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwel announced that the guidelines will not include recommendations about how to choose foods with the lightest impact on the planet. The dietary guidelines, they wrote, are not "the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation."

The decision came despite the fact that in its February report, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee—the team that reviews scientific and medical evidence and offers advise on what should be included—highlighted the ties between environmental impact and healthy eating. "Access to sufficient, nutritious, and safe food is an essential element of food security for the US," the report stated. "A sustainable diet ensures this access for both the current population and future generations."

As my colleague Maddie Oatman noted when the committee released its recommendations, those ideas didn't go over well with Big Ag backers. Industry groups sent letters to Secretary Vilsack arguing that environmental impact is outside the scope of the Dietary Guidelines and spent millions of dollars trying to dissuade the USDA from including sustainability in its update.

Director of the Earth Institute Jeffrey Sachs, who is a Special Advisor to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, called Tuesday's announcement a "shameful abnegation of political responsibility," after heralding the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report as a key breakthrough.

"For US government officials to suggest that this chapter should be deleted would be to argue for deleting science itself; a shameful abnegation of political responsibility in the face of lobbying pressure," he said in a press release. "Secretaries Burwell and Vilsack will be remembered for whether they stand up for science or for corporate lobbies."

Watch the Government Shoot Thousands of Moths Out of a Drone

| Tue Oct. 6, 2015 3:48 PM EDT

Pink bollworms are a species of pest (they're baby moths) that love to feast on cotton. They've been largely eliminated from the United States, but flare-ups do occur now and then, causing an expensive headache for farmers. So the US Department of Agriculture is experimenting with an innovative but also kind of weird and gross solution, which you can see in the video above.

The process starts by raising bollworms in a lab that are fed a red, oil-based dye. When the bollworms mature into moths, the coloration stays with them, so they can be distinguished from wild moths. The lab moths are blasted with radiation, which makes them sterile. Then they're released into the wild over fields with bollworm infestations. When the sterile lab moths mate with the wild ones, they're tricked into thinking they're going to reproduce, but don't. So no new moths.

Scientists have experimented with releasing sterile moths for the last few years. But now, they've enlisted a new tool: drones equipped with moth cannons. Anytime a bollworm infestation pops up, just call in a drone to deliver a few thousand irradiated moths.

School Lunches May Come With a Side of Gnarly Plastic Chemicals

| Wed Sep. 30, 2015 1:43 PM EDT

When kids dig into their cafeteria lunches, they may be getting an unwanted side dish. A new study from Stanford University's Prevention Research Center has found that meals served at schools may contain unsafe amounts of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical compound that has been linked to a laundry list of health problems, including hormone disruption, ADHD, and cancer.

"The only items not packaged in plastic were oranges, apples and bananas."

BPA is widely used in plastic food packaging and can liners, but this is the first study on the compound to focus on school lunches, which often come prepackaged.

Researcher Jennifer Hartle observed that almost all the food that her team saw in schools came in plastic or cans. "Meat came frozen, pre-packaged, pre-cooked and pre-seasoned. Salads were pre-cut and pre-bagged," she said in a statement. "Corn, peaches and green beans came in cans. The only items not packaged in plastic were oranges, apples and bananas."

Teaming up with researchers from Johns Hopkins University, Hartle interviewed food service workers and observed cafeterias in schools around California's San Francisco Bay Area. The group compared the school food to previous studies showing how much BPA ends up in various kinds of food. They found that in school lunches, BPA concentrations depended on the meal served, but that some lunches—especially the ones made with canned fruits and vegetables rather than fresh—contained more than half the amount considered toxic in animal studies.

The authors point out that there's already a large body of research that BPA is dangerous even at low levels, and that while the European Food Safety Authority only allows for 4 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight per day, the United States allows 50 micrograms.

BPA-free plastic packaging, say the authors, won't solve the problem—scientists have linked BPA alternatives to a wide-range of health risks. "The bottom line is more fresh fruits and vegetables," Hartle said in a statement. "There is a movement for more fresh veggies to be included in school meals, and I think this paper supports that."

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Here's What You Need to Know About the Big Storm Coming for the East Coast

| Wed Sep. 30, 2015 11:40 AM EDT
Hurricane Joaquin is currently passing the Bahamas and heading for the East Coast. This image is from Wednesday at noon ET.

The Northeast is in for a good soaking over the next few days from Hurricane Joaquin, which continues to gather strength as it makes a beeline for Washington, DC.

Here's the current trajectory of the storm. The blue shaded area is where scientists at the National Hurricane Center think the storm will go over the next one to three days:


There's still plenty of uncertainty about where Joaquin could wind up, according to the latest forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There's a chance it could veer out to sea and not make landfall at all; either way, it seems certain to gain strength over the next several days. As of late this morning, the NHC director was hesitant to make specific predictions about what Northeasterners should expect to face:

Still, he advised that authorities remain on high alert:

No matter which direction the storm goes, one thing is for sure: You're going to need an umbrella. And a jacket. And rubber boots.

One Good Thing to Come Out of California's Drought Is This Luminous Book

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

What if, contrary to current El Niño predictions, California never again catches a break from drought? Such is the world imagined by Mojave Desert-bred Claire Vaye Watkins in her electrifying debut novel Gold Fame Citrus. 

Watkins was born in Bishop, California, a small city in the Sierra Nevada's eastern foothills, and grew up in parched territory nearby. She first made waves with her short story collection, Battleborn, which won the Dylan Thomas prize and the New York Library Young Lions Fiction Award. Vogue called Watkins "the most captivating voice to come out of the West since Annie Proulx."

Gold Fame Citrus opens with young couple Luz and Ray eking out an existence in a vacant mansion in what was once Los Angeles, during a "drought of droughts," under the "ever-beaming, ever-heating, ever-evaporating sun." Bronzed Luz, wafer-thin and grimy, traipses around the mansion in a starlet's old robes, dodging rats and scorpions and living as "basically another woman's ghost," while Ray, usually shirtless with long, unbound curls, attempts to turn the villa into a survival bunker. 

Watkins' prose sizzles, her pen morphing sentences into glimmering new arrangements.

In this vision of the not-so-distant future, the West has run dry. Its citizens, who had once crowded California in search of "gold, fame, citrus," are now referred to as Mojavs and are all mostly banned from the more lush parts of the country. Water is rationed in paltry jugs at precise points of the day.

While attending a demented raindance festival, Luz and Ray encounter a strange girl they call "Ig," who clings to the couple and soon thrusts herself into their lives. Afraid of the vagabonds who might come looking for Ig, the improvised family flees Southern California in a search for more fertile territory, passing nomads, forest graveyards, and anthropomorphized sand dunes along the way.

Watkins' prose sizzles, her pen morphing sentences into glimmering new arrangements. While surrealist fiction is often striking for the fantastical scenery it conjures, Gold Fame Citrus haunted me with its references to objects I now take for granted. In a passage describing the only fruit still available in Luz and Ray's world, Watkins writes:

Hard sour strawberries and blackberries filled with dust. Flaccid carrots, ashen spinach, cracked olives, bruised hundred-dollar mangos, all-pith oranges, shriveled lemons, boozy tangerines, raspberries with gassed aphids curled in their hearts, an avocado whose crumbling taupe innards once made you weep.

Just as she turns a familiar landscape into a mysterious and foreboding geography, Watkins breathes new life into words we thought we knew well. Gold Fame Citrus will hypnotize you like a dream, and make you want to take a big swig of the water we have left.

NASA Scientists Just Discovered Liquid Water on Mars

| Mon Sep. 28, 2015 10:37 AM EDT

Scientists have known for several years that there is ice on the surface of Mars. But liquid surface water—which many believe would be a prerequisite for life—has remained elusive. Until now.

This morning, NASA scientists announced that satellite images have revealed traces of liquid water on Mars' surface. The water is salty, which keeps it from quickly freezing or evaporating.

From the New York Times:

The researchers were able to identify the telltale sign of a hydrated salt at four locations. In addition, the signs of the salt disappeared when the streaks faded. "It's very definitive there is some sort of liquid water," [lead scientist Lujendra] Ojha said…

Liquid water is considered one of the essential ingredients for life, and its presence raises the question of whether Mars, which appears so dry and barren, could possess niches of habitability for microbial Martians.

Here's a bit more detail from the Guardian:

Liquid water runs down canyons and crater walls over the summer months…The trickles leave long, dark stains on the Martian terrain that can reach hundreds of metres downhill in the warmer months, before they dry up in the autumn as surface temperatures drop. Images taken from the Mars orbit show cliffs, and the steep walls of valleys and craters, streaked with summertime flows that in the most active spots combine to form intricate fan-like patterns.

Scientists are unsure where the water comes from, but it may rise up from underground ice or salty aquifers, or condense out of the thin Martian atmosphere.

Look! In The Sky! It's a Bird! It's a Plane! AND THEY'RE ON FIRE! Oh Wait, It's a Blood Moon.

| Sun Sep. 27, 2015 6:45 PM EDT

The Blood Moon starts at 10:11pm ET! You can watch it live here. Or you can go outside and look at it IRL. But you won't do that because you're an internet shut-in. No judgment!


What is a Blood Moon?

It is not the end of the world.

It is, well, let this video explain: