/Environment Report: Science Is Rising to the Occasion (Surfers, Less So)

Environment Report: Science Is Rising to the Occasion (Surfers, Less So)

California State Parks closes Tamarack Beach in Carlsbad in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Good job, fellow nerds! Since we last talked, VOSD’s Will Huntsberry reported that the number of new COVID-19 cases slowed significantly and San Diego began to flatten its curve. Social distancing is working, so keep it up for a little while longer.

My previous advice still stands. The safest thing to do right now is just stay home.

As I wrote in my last newsletter, one atmospheric chemist, Kim Prather, theorizes that COVID-19 could spread farther at the beach via aerosols (fine mists of particles that are so light they float like dust), and the story spread like, well, a virus. At that point, all public parking lots were closed yet state beaches remained open to the public while city authorities kept the municipal sand clear.

President Donald Trump kicked a lot of decisions down to state governors and it seems, in turn, governors left cities to call the shots. That’s led to inconsistent guidance and a confused public, reports the Ventura County Star.

On March 26, Surfrider Foundation of San Diego posted COVID-19 guidelines on its Instagram that included “avoid popular beaches.” (So, what’s an unpopular beach in San Diego, I ask?) On March 31, the day Prather’s theory hit our homepage, the organization posted new recommendations: #StayHomeShredLater.

Some surfers are ticked off. One took to the streets in a wetsuit with spray-painted signs that read “Commies can’t surf” and “Kim Prather is a kook.”

“I’m protesting that our local governments won’t allow us to do the things we like to do,” the surfer told KUSI, through lips notably uncloaked by the recommended face covering.

Despite the whining of the lone protester, Prather’s science will be awarded almost $200,000 from the National Science Foundation this week to fast-track her investigation of the virus in coastal waters near sewage outflows. She will also take air samples near the U.S.-Mexico border where millions of gallons of raw sewage flow into the ocean via the Tijuana River.

The jury is still out on whether the virus remains infectious when passed in the feces of COVID-19 patients. The scientific journal Nature published a fast-tracked study April 1 looking at nine COVID-19 cases but didn’t apparently find the virus at a still-infectious level in stool samples.

Imperial Beach Mayor Surge Dedina urged other surfers to respect the shelter-in-place policies that protect residents vulnerable to the virus last month in an op-ed. He’s a surfer himself.

Science is moving at a neck-breaking pace in the face of this public health crisis. Some members of Congress, including Reps. Mike Levin and Susan Davis, asked for a $3 billion increase for the National Institutes of Health, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in a March 11 letter to an appropriations subcommittee

No matter where science takes us in the next weeks, months or decades, the main thing is, you can’t go to the beach or you’ll get cited.

Working From Home = Less Traffic = Less Air Pollution

Seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it? But turns out, when San Diegans aren’t commuting to and from work in their own separate cars, tracked air pollution and greenhouse gases plummet.

Working from home may be cheapest way to meet climate change goals, said Hasan Ikhrata, executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments, the regional planning agency charged with setting long-term transportation plans.

We visualized air quality data from COVID-19-ridden March and the year prior. The results are pretty interesting.

The air is cleaner, yet, as an asthmatic, it’s a cruel irony I can’t breathe better anyway due to this confounded bandana over my pie hole.

Here’s Something to Keep the Kids (and Yourself) Busy

While I personally detest the designation of specific months to causes that are worthy of our attention all year long, this is one I can get behind.

April marks the first Global Citizen Science Month, and that also means San Diego Natural History Museum is hosting its annual City Nature Challenge. The project started five years ago by the Los Angeles Natural History Museum encourages non-scientists and nature lovers to log photos of plants and wildlife they spot around their community. The result is a more accurate picture of your city’s biodiversity, which is important to maintain in terms of fending off pandemics like COVID-19.

Bee hive underneath cactus plant in Logan Heights
A beehive in Logan Heights over Easter weekend / Photo courtesy of Lauren Marino Perez of the San Diego Natural History Museum

The competition spans hundreds of cities. Last year, San Diego won first place for most participants and observations in arid climates, said Lauren Marino Perez, the San Diego museum’s community engagement manager. Take that, Los Angeles.

But this year, due to social distancing and aforementioned shelter-in-place policies, the competition will be a little different.

Instead of scrounging for the rarest flower in San Diego’s least-touched places, the museum wants you to take a closer look at your immediate surroundings.

“It’s returned us to the fact that nature is all around us, in your backyard, and even inside your houses as well,” Perez said.

See a house spider? Before you remove her, download the iNaturalist app (or use a web browser) and upload her portrait. You don’t have to identify the species. Teams of biologists, including the curators at the museum, mine and tag the thousands of posted photos.

Please don’t upload a picture of your pet Chihuahua. But if you are pulling a Joe Exotic and stowing big cats in the yard, I encourage you to upload a photo so San Diego police can promptly take you into custody.

For my fellow tinfoil hats out there, the app does geo-locate the photo, which is important for science, but may be uncomfortable for those shooting photos inside their homes. There is an option to “obscure” the location and it will show up regionally. If a researcher is really interested in learning more, they’ll contact you, Perez said.