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Tsunami Enabled Hundreds of Species to Raft Across Pacific

Thursday, September 28th, 2017

Biologists Detect Longest Transoceanic Rafting Voyage for Coastal Species

by Kristen Minogue

Barnacle-coated boat with Japanese characters washed up on beach

A Japanese tsunami vessel washed ashore in Oregon, coated in gooseneck barnacles. In a new study, scientists detected 289 species that rafted from Japan to the U.S. on tsunami debris, and they suspsect many more were undetected. (Credit: John Chapman)

The 2011 Japanese tsunami set the stage for something unprecedented. For the first time in recorded history, scientists have detected entire communities of coastal species crossing the ocean by floating on makeshift rafts. Nearly 300 species have appeared on the shores of Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast attached to tsunami debris, marine biologists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Williams College and other institutions reported in the journal Science on Thursday.

The tsunami formed March 11, 2011, triggered by an earthquake of 9.0 moment magnitude that struck Japan the same day. When it reached the shore, the tsunami towered 125 feet (38.38 meters) over Japan’s Tōhoku coast and swept millions of objects out to sea, from small pieces of plastic to fishing boats and docks. These kinds of objects, scientists said, helped the species attached to them complete the transoceanic journey.

“I didn’t think that most of these coastal organisms could survive at sea for long periods of time,” said Greg Ruiz, a co-author and marine biologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. “But in many ways they just haven’t had much opportunity in the past. Now, plastic can combine with tsunami and storm events to create that opportunity on a large scale.”

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Q&A Interview With Artist Tanja Geis

Friday, August 11th, 2017

by Ryan Greene

Two women stand in front of a painting on white wall.

SERC ecologist Chela Zabin (left) with artist Tanja Geis (right) at Geis’ exhibit at the Embark Gallery in San Francisco on July 17, 2017. They are standing in front of Geis’ piece “Layer Cake,” a drawing of an experimental native oyster restoration reef painted using pigment from the mud in San Francisco Bay. Credit: Ryan Greene/SERC

This summer, Oakland-based artist Tanja Geis teamed up with Smithsonian researchers for her multimedia exhibition, Lurid Ecologies: Ways of Seeing the Bay at the Embark Gallery in San Francisco. Born out of a collaboration with scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s Tiburon laboratory, Lurid Ecologies’ explores efforts to restore the Bay’s only native oyster, Ostrea lurida. Geis works at the intersection of visual art and ecology. Her exhibit at the Embark Gallery includes oneiric drawings made with pigment from the Bay’s mud, a 3-channel video installation, and assemblages of tools used to study marine life. This exhibit will be free and open to the public until August 19 at the Embark Gallery in Fort Mason’s Center for Arts & Culture.

To learn more about Geis and her exhibit, check out this interview (edited for clarity and brevity).

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When did you start making art, and why?

My mom is a fashion designer and she went to art school, and so she’s always encouraged me to make art. So, in a sense, I’ve always been making art. But I think maybe the more relevant answer is that I started taking art really seriously about five years ago. It was at that point that I realized that it was pretty much the only thing that was going to check all the boxes for me.

For the past couple months, you’ve been working alongside SERC ecologists in San Francisco Bay. Can you talk a bit about your interest in ecology and how your collaboration with SERC scientists has shaped your recent exhibit?

I’ve always been interested in the nonhuman living world ever since I’ve been a kid. I guess I’m always curious about how these little behavioral differences come together and create a functional ecology. And I’ve always had this parallel interest in biology….I’m very interested in how we conceptualize all these complex interactions that we’re calling ecology….

What surprised me most was how often things don’t go as planned. There are many dead-end experiments, and it really requires this kind of dogged will and tenacity to discover new things, new patterns, new behaviors. I think that’s something that a lot of people don’t get to see. 

We have this idea of scientists in white lab coats with shiny new equipment working under fluorescent lights constantly having these new discoveries. And that’s really not the case. Ecological research is messy, it’s muddy, it’s full of things you can’t control.

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Tidings from the Sunset Coast (4)

Tuesday, August 8th, 2017

An Ecological History of SERC-West’s California Home

By Ryan Greene

An aerial view of a cove with many buildings and a number of moored ships.

A naval net depot was one of the many institutions to occupy the site on the San Francisco Bay where the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies now operates. Photo courtesy of the Tiburon Landmarks Society and Romberg Tiburon Center. [Cropped]

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s (SERC) main West Coast outpost, SERC-West, is located in Tiburon, California, on San Francisco Bay. The entire stretch of North America separates SERC-West from SERC’s main campus on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. To bridge this distance, we’ve launched “Tidings From the Sunset Coast,” a summer series about all things SERC-West. Our last post explored SERC’s research on invasive green crabs in Seadrift Lagoon. Our next post dives into the history of the site that SERC-West calls home. This blog post is nowhere close to comprehensive. Rather, we hope it can serve as something of a “highlight reel.”

The Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies (or Romberg Center for short) sits on a 36-acre parcel of waterfront land whose history is rather kaleidoscopic. Depending on when you were here, you could have found a cod packing plant, cables destined for the Golden Gate Bridge, or multi-mile antisubmarine nets. And this is just a smattering.

The Romberg Center is a research and teaching facility run by San Francisco State University. Nearly two decades ago, in 2000, SERC ecologist Greg Ruiz stationed part of his Marine Invasions Lab here. Since then, this outpost has become the hub of SERC’s West Coast ecological research. In addition to Smithsonian and San Francisco State biologists, the Romberg Center is also home to members of NOAA’s San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Together, these institutions use the historic site as a base for exploring the Bay’s ecology. This, though, is only the most recent in a long line of land uses. And looking more closely at what people have done here in the past can provide a glimpse into a host of ecological issues still shaping San Francisco today. Click to continue »

Tidings from the Sunset Coast (3)

Thursday, August 3rd, 2017

Countin’ Crabs at Seadrift Lagoon

by Ryan Greene

Green crabs piled on top of one another.

European green crabs (Carcinus maenas) caught in Seadrift Lagoon (Stinson Beach, CA). Credit: Ryan Greene/SERC

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s (SERC) largest west coast outpost, SERC-West, sits on San Francisco Bay in Tiburon, California. SERC’s main campus is 2,000+ miles away on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. In an attempt to bridge this distance, we’ve launched Tidings From the Sunset Coast,” a summer series highlighting the work at SERC-West. Our most recent story was a spotlight of our summer interns. This post is about the invasive European green crabs in Seadrift Lagoon, just north of San Francisco. Enjoy!

How many crabs are in the lagoon? This question may sound like the middle-school carnival contest of how many jelly beans are in the jar. But for ecologists at SERC-West, it’s no guessing game—the health of an ecosystem hinges on the answer.

A view across water with houses, a mountain, and hanging mist.

Seadrift Lagoon is about 20 miles north of San Francisco Bay, and it’s said to have the highest density of European green crabs on the West Coast. Credit: Ryan Greene/SERC

Since 2009, Smithsonian scientists have partnered with the University of California, Davis, and Portland State University to tackle a two-clawed problem in Seadrift Lagoon: Carcinus maenas, the invasive European green crab. Seadrift is a small subdivision surrounding an artificial lagoon that sits smack between the Pacific Ocean and Bolinas Lagoon at the northern tip of California’s Stinson Beach. In the early 1990s, green crabs began to take up residence here, and since then they’ve done their fair share of damage.

The primary problems with green crabs in Seadrift are that they’re hungry and there are scads of them. This lagoon houses the highest density of green crabs documented on the West Coast, and they eat a whole lot. In nearby sites, like Tomales Bay and Bodega Bay, green crabs have caused native bivalve populations to plummet, and in some cases they have edged out other native crabs. In Seadrift, the sheer number of green crabs suggests that the impact on the ecosystem may be similarly drastic. That’s why in 2009, scientists at SERC-West, UC Davis, and Portland State started working with community members and citizen science volunteers to remove the crabs from the lagoon. Click to continue »

Tidings from the Sunset Coast (2)

Tuesday, July 25th, 2017

SERC-West Summer Intern Spotlights

by Ryan Greene

An intern in orange waders sprays a net hanging off the back of a boat.

Intern Elena Huynh helps clean a net during SERC’s annual zooplankton survey in San Francisco Bay. Credit: Ryan Greene/SERC

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s (SERC) main campus is on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. SERC’s largest West Coast outpost, SERC-West, sits on the San Francisco Bay in California. To highlight SERC’s work out west, we’ve started Tidings from the Sunset Coast, a summer series about the life and times of SERC-West. Our first post explored California’s wet winter. This post features the stellar interns who are spending their summer at SERC-West.

Interns at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center have the chance to work on independent projects while receiving personalized mentorship in a multidisciplinary atmosphere. Some people conduct experiments, others develop educational programs, and others (like me) write about the happenings at SERC. Simply put, SERC internships let you grow in whatever ways you want to be growing!

Check out the spotlights below to see what the interns at SERC-West are up to this summer. Click to continue »

Tidings from the Sunset Coast (1)

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

How California’s Record-Setting Rains Are Reshaping the Ecology of San Francisco Bay

By Ryan Greene

Clouds hang over the San Francisco skyline.

The San Francisco skyline as seen from San Francisco Bay. Credit: Ryan Greene/SERC

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s (SERC) largest West Coast outpost sits on San Francisco Bay in Tiburon, California. The Tiburon branch, affectionately known as SERC-West, serves as the nexus of SERC’s research activities on the western coast of North America. At a whopping 2,462 miles from SERC’s main campus on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, SERC-West can feel a bit remote. In an attempt to bridge this distance, we’re launching Tidings From the Sunset Coast,” a summer story series about all things SERC-West. The first snippet is a story about the wildly wet winter California experienced this year and what all this fresh water means for the marine life in San Francisco Bay. Enjoy!

A big band of clouds stretches from Hawaii to the western coast of North America.

Image from NASA’s VIIRS satellite show one of many “atmospheric rivers” which slammed the California coast this past winter. Credit: Jesse Allen and Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory

When it comes to rain in California, the last few years have been a feast-or-famine affair. After a bitter drought that sported some of the driest years on record, this past winter brought more precipitation than the northern parts of the state have ever documented. To put it lightly, the weather has been extreme. And while the wet winter has refilled reservoirs and beefed up the snowpack, leading Governor Jerry Brown to end the drought state of emergency in all but four counties, it has also wreaked its fair share of havoc.

Here at SERC-West, scientists have been following another part of this story: the bombardment of freshwater runoff that inundated San Francisco Bay this winter. All the fresh water from the rain drastically reduced the saltiness (a.k.a. salinity) of the Bay. For many plants and animals used to saltier water, this was simply too much to handle. The devastation has been widespread, and according to ecologist Andy Chang, who currently heads up SERC-West, in some areas, the changes to the ecosystem might be less than fleeting.

“We’re kind of expecting to see local extinctions of some species that were here before,” he says. Click to continue »