TIME Environment

San Diego County Looks Like Mars After Fire

The aftermath of the wildfire at the Camp Pendleton Marine Base in San Diego County, Calif., on on May 15, 2014.
The aftermath of the wildfire at the Camp Pendleton Marine Base in San Diego County, Calif., on on May 15, 2014. DigitalGlobe/Getty Images

Wildfires have transformed San Diego countryside into an otherworldly landscape

Fires ravaged San Diego County last week, charring more than 26,000 acres of drought-parched brush and dozens of homes and buildings in the process. A combination of unseasonable triple-digit temperatures, extremely low humidity and hot winds blowing in from the desert stoked the blazes, kicking off what promises to be a historically destructive wildfire season.

Botany Bay, relatively level ground on the surface of Mars between Cape York and Solander Point, taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance orbiter on July 7, 2013.
Botany Bay, relatively level ground on the surface of Mars between Cape York and Solander Point, taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance orbiter on July 7, 2013. NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

“We get extreme fire behavior every 10 years and the drought doesn’t help. This is very odd for the month of May to have these types of fires,” Cal Fire Capt. Richard Cordova told TIME on Saturday.

The fires left the countryside looking like the barren wastes of a pock-marked planet. Here, satellite imagery taken after the Camp Pendleton fire shows an otherworldly scene more like the surface of Mars than California.

 

 

 

TIME Video Games

Xbox One and PS4 Draw Huge Amounts of Power Even When You’re Not Using Them

Both the Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One use up to three times as much electricity annually as the previous generation of gaming consoles, a new report from the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) warns.

According to the report, the Xbox One uses an average of 300kWh annually (an estimated $65 in NYC; $33 in Texas) and the PlayStation 4 uses 181kWh ($39 in NYC; $20 in Texas). The relatively green Nintendo Wii U console, meanwhile, sips just 37kWh per year ($8 in NYC; $4 in Texas). Electricity estimates are based off of February 1, 2014 data pulled from Wolfram Alpha.

One of the biggest culprits here is the devices’ standby modes – times the consoles are drawing power even when you’re not using them. The Xbox One devotes 44% of its total annual energy consumption to waiting for always-on voice commands. The PlayStation 4 uses 32% of its total in standby, providing power to its USB ports even when no peripheral is connected. The report also criticizes the PS4 and Xbox One for using between 30 and 45 times as much electricity to stream a movie than an Apple TV, Google Chromecast or Amazon Fire TV device would.

You don’t have to put up with energy vampires in your home to enjoy video gaming, however. The NRDC recommends going into each console’s system settings to make sure the automatic power-down feature is enabled after an hour of inactivity. You should also connect your video game systems and home entertainment center to a reliable surge protector with its own dedicated off switch. Flipping that master switch will stop your electronics from drawing power in standby mode – a good idea for when you leave home or simply go to bed.

You can read the full NRDC video game console report on the organization’s website (PDF). For other ideas to help keep your electric bills low, check out these gadgets that help you save energy.

This article was written by Fox Van Allen and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Environment

Climate Change Could Sink Statue of Liberty, Report Warns

The Statue of Liberty is enveloped in fog on May 1, 2014.
The Statue of Liberty is enveloped in fog on May 1, 2014. Andrew Burton—Getty Images

Ellis Island, Jamestown and other U.S. landmarks' long-term future are at risk because of the consequences of climate change, a new report says

Treasured American landmarks like the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island could succumb to the consequences of climate change, according to a new report.

The report published Tuesday by the Union of Concerned Scientists said rising sea levels, wildfires and flooding threaten the longterm survival of many U.S. landmarks, including the Everglades, Cape Canaveral and California’s César Chávez National Monument. It’s just the latest in a string of recent reports raising alarm about the imminent and in some cases immediate impacts of climate change.

“You can almost trace the history of the United States through these sites,” said Adam Markham, director of climate impacts at UCS and a co-author of the report. “The imminent risks to these sites and the artifacts they contain threaten to pull apart the quilt that tells the story of the nation’s heritage and history.”

The report lists 30 sites which are at risk. It urges the U.S. to take steps to protect at-risk monuments, noting that some protective measures have already been put in place at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, among other landmarks. And the report also urges people to work in order to minimize the risks that can still be minimized by reducing carbon emissions that are causing climate change.

The report predicts that Jamestown, the first permanent settlement in the Americas, will probably be submerged by the end of the century, and Markham raised the alarm for other monuments: “Fort Monroe in Virginia, which played a crucial role in the fall of slavery, will become an island unto itself within 70 years,” he said.

TIME Environment

How I Almost Got to Decide the Next XPRIZE

XPRIZE CEO Peter Diamandis
XPRIZE CEO Peter Diamandis takes the stage at Visioneering Donald Norris for XPRIZE

Some of the smartest and most influential people gathered in outside L.A. this weekend to brainstorm the next great innovation contest

Pro-tip: if you’re trying to pitch a winning concept for an XPRIZE contest, get NY1 news anchor Pat Kiernan on your team. I’m pretty sure Kiernan’s presence — and his smooth, TV-honed baritone on stage — was the main reason why the idea designed by Pat, myself and TIME’s Siobhan O’Connor made it to the finals here at XPRIZE Visioneering. We didn’t win — in what I would describe as grand larceny, we lost out to a contest focused around developing forbidden sources of energy. But for three journalists with pretty much zero experience in the digital innovation field, I’d say we did pretty well.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I was in sunny Palos Verdes in southern California for XPRIZE Visioneering. It’s a now annual summit that brings together some of the smartest and most influential people in the world — and a few journalists like myself — to brainstorm what could become the next multi-million dollar XPRIZE concept. XPRIZE was founded in 1995 by the engineer, entrepreneur and relentlessly positive futurist Peter Diamandis, to incubate prize-driven contests meant to inspire innovation. The first XPRIZE is still the most famous — the Ansari XPRIZE, which offered $10 million to the first privately-financed team that could build and fly a three-passenger vehicle 62 miles (100 km) into space twice within two weeks.

It took 26 teams investing more than $100 million dollars for eight years before the prize was won by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, which completed their flights in the custom-built SpaceShipOne. Private space travel was a dream before Diamandis established the XPRIZE — today, the industry is worth more than $2 billion, as entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and his SpaceX company successfully put satellites in orbit without NASA’s help. “It used to be only governments and big companies that could play on a scale like this,” Diamandis has told me before. “But times have changed and accelerated in the direction where agents of change are small entrepreneurs who are enabled by new technologies to do extraordinary things.”

As you might be able to tell from the buzzwords, XPRIZE is extremely Silicon Valley. The contests the foundation has formulated unleash digitally-empowered entrepreneurs on some of the very problems where the government has failed, like ocean health and oil spills. Diamandis himself isn’t shy about the scale of his ambitions. “This is where we imagine the future and create the future,” he told the audience at the opening of the Visioneering conference. “We’re living in a world where you can solve ideas and not just complain about them.” It’s a vision where doing good also means doing well, where an intractable problem like child poverty isn’t a failure of global will, but a market failure. Those who can innovate successful solutions won’t just help the world, they’ll be helping themselves — starting with the multi-million dollar checks that come with an XPRIZE win.

But such contests actually aren’t new. Before centralized government and corporate R&D boomed in the post-WWII era, one of the best ways to encourage innovation was through a prize contest. Some group or person — the government or an individual tycoon — would set out a challenge with a cash reward. The British government did this back in 1714 with the Longitude Prize, to be awarded to the first person who could develop a way for a seagoing ship to measure longitude. The prize was won not by a navigator or ship’s captain — the class of experts who had been trying and failing to discover a solution — but by a clock maker named John Harrison. The 25-year-old Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly nonstop from New York to Paris in 1927 in order to win a contest established by a hotelier named Raymond Orteig. (It was the Orteig Prize that directly inspired the Ansari XPRIZE for space travel.) Lindbergh took home the $25,o00 winnings — and everlasting global fame — but more importantly, the prize kicked off global air travel, seeding an industry of vastly greater value. “Within 18 months of the contest, air passenger traffic had gone up 30 times,” says Chris Frangione, the vice president of prize development at XPRIZE. “This is why prizes are so powerful — they leverage resources.”

The point of the Visioneering conference was to brainstorm the next contest. No one thought small. Bill Gross, the CEO of Idealab, urged the audience to try to solve Beijing’s killer air pollution problem. Shaifali Puri, the executive director for global innovation at Nike, told us to aim for a “moon shot for girls,” to find a way to ensure that tens of millions of girls around the world received the education and protection they needed to flourish. Ratan Tata, one of India’s richest men, said we should focus on the malnutrition and housing woes that still hold back the developing world. “It’s not just tech and it’s not just start-up companies,” he said. “It’s making a difference for disadvantaged people.”

To do that, we needed ideas, and we slotted ourselves into different tracks for brainstorm sessions. I took the future of cities on the first day, where New York University’s Paul Romer, who told us that “cities are where the action is.” We were broken into groups and asked to devise, bit by bit, a new contest that could produce an innovation that would improve life in cities, for the poor and for the rich. Once we’d completed that task — a process that used a lot of Post-It notes and whiteboard space — we pitched our ideas to the larger group, and voted on which one would move to the next stage. I should have known that my group’s idea — loosely centered around finding a way to provide infinite water to urban households — might be in trouble when we began debating whether to play Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” during the pitch. (Our title: “What a Watterful World.” I know.) We did not advance.

But that experience was useful for the next day’s session, on disaster prediction and response. The seismologist Lucy Jones — whom Los Angeles residents know as the “Earthquake Lady” for her ubiquity on TV every time a temblor strikes Southern California — told us the unsettling fact that the next big quake that strikes the San Andreas Fault could essentially cut off water to L.A. for months. We were broken into groups again, and tasked with designing a contest that would help cities prepare and bounce back from the next big natural disaster.

I roped in Siobhan, who had come to Visioneering as my guest, and NY1’s Kiernan, who had also come as a guest and who had only landed in L.A. that morning. None of us were disaster experts, unless you can count living through Superstorm Sandy in New York City. But between the three of us — though sleep-deprived and inexperienced — we managed to come up with a pretty decent idea. We’d called it Web in a Box: to win our proposed contest, a team would have to design a piece of technology capable of providing backup internet service on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis in the event of a sustained blackout following a disaster. Our rationale was that the Internet is now the most important communication hub we have, as vital a resource in the aftermath of disaster as food and water — and not just because you can’t tweet about a disaster if you can’t get online.

We honed our pitch and made it through the initial stages, where the entire Visioneering conference is brought together to vote on different ideas. We were even one of the five pitches that went up against each other in the finals on Saturday night—but no fault of Pat’s, we eventually went down in defeat, as the entire conference cast their votes in what felt a bit like a high school election contested by very rich and powerful people. The winner was a contest that offered $20 million to anyone who could prove an effective, entirely new form of energy. Ambitious, but I still say we were robbed. (We also came out behind a contest that offered prize money to develop a water cleaning system capable of filtering out the microscopic amounts of prescription drugs that are now found in our drinking water. This pitch memorably featured the actress Patricia Arquette asking the audience if they’d taken Viagra that day.)

The winning Visioneering idea won’t automatically become the subject of the next contest, but it will get automatic consideration by the foundation’s board as they decide the subject of the next XPRIZE. The winners also received a trophy created by a 3D printer, which might be the most XPRIZE thing that happened all weekend. We live in a strange age where we seem beset by enormous problems that seem to have no realistic solution: climate change, global inequality, the Alzheimer’s epidemic. As a society, we seem helpless in the face of those ills, gridlocked before looming catastrophe. Sometimes it’s hard to share Diamandis’s relentless optimism. And yet, he’s not wrong: the spread of information technology and education has made it possible as never before for anyone to put forward their solutions — and to be heard. “There is no problem that can’t be solved,” Diamandis said at the close of the conference. “We are heading towards an extraordinary world.” That’s a prize we can all share.

TIME Environment

Obama Admin Allows Ivory Ban Exemption for Musicians

Musicians will be allowed to bring instruments made with ivory, as long as they can prove that the items were bought before 1976, when the elephants were put on the endangered species list

Musical instruments, museum items and “certain other items not intended for sale” that are made of African elephant ivory will be allowed to move internationally, but not sold, the Obama administration announced Thursday.

The allowance is an exemption on an existing ban that went into effect earlier this year, prohibiting the trade of material made from the endangered animal’s tusk.

Director of Fish and Wildlife Service Dan Ashe stressed the importance of strictly enforcing the trade ban and working to curb the “poaching crisis facing African elephants today,” but added in a statement that, “We have listened to the very real concerns expressed by the regulated community and have made common-sense adjustments.”

When the trade ban was announced in February, many musicians complained that their careers relied on older instruments that contained ivory, and that using these instruments did not contribute to the plight of elephant survival.

Fish and Wildlife Service revisited the policy and decided to permit musicians to travel with their instruments, as long as they can prove that the items were bought before 1976, when the elephants were put on the list of animals facing possible extinction by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. In accordance with the ban, they will not be able to sell these instruments.

The U.S. is the second-largest market for legal and illegal ivory products, after China. This ban is a key aspect of the Obama administration’s broader efforts to crack down on wildlife trafficking and poaching.

TIME Environment

Honeybee Deaths Are Down, But the Beepocalypse Continues

Honeybee Deaths Decline
Honeybees at the bee hives at Hudson Gardens in Littleton, Colo. on June 6, 2013. Seth McConnell—Denver Post/Getty Images

A new survey found that nearly a quarter of honeybee colonies died over the winter—and that's an improvement over last year.

How bad are things for the honeybee? Almost a quarter of U.S. honeybee colonies died over the past winter, according to new numbers released this morning—and that represents an improvement. The Bee Informed Partnership—a network of academics and beekeepers—along with the Apiary Inspectors of America and the U.S. Department of Agriculture surveyed 7,183 beekeepers from around the country over the past year. Those beekeepers are responsible for about a fifth of the managed colonies in the U.S., and after a year in which nearly a third of honeybee colonies died, this past winter was a reprieve of sorts. The loss rate of 23.2% was significantly lower than the 29.6% average loss beekeepers have been experiencing since the partnership began the annual survey in 2006.

(COVER STORY: The Plight of the Honeybee)

Yet even if honeybees had it comparatively easy this past winter, the numbers were still much worse than the 10-15% loss rate that beekeepers used to think of as normal—before honeybee colonies started dying off or simply disappearing thanks to colony collapse disorder, which began occurring with troubling frequency around the middle of the last decade. And there’s also the strange fact that 20% of honeybee colonies died during the spring and summer period last year, even though bees usually thrive in the warm weather. There’s no explanation for that anomaly—the survey began tracking summer losses only this year—which has researchers puzzled. “The combination of winter and summer losses was around 30%,” says Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland and one of the leaders of the bee partnership survey. “That is still troubling.”

Just as troubling: we still don’t know exactly why the honeybee has been struggling in recent years. Actually, it’s not just the honeybee—native wild bees have been dying off in even larger numbers. It’s gotten so bad that yesterday the Xerces Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the U.S. government to list one wild bee species—the rusty patched bumble bee, which is now gone from 87% of its native habitat—as endangered. Bees of all sorts provide invaluable service to farmers; the honeybee alone adds $15 billion in value to crops each year by pollinating everything from apples to zucchini. But as I wrote in a cover story for TIME last year, it’s as if there’s something about the world today—the world human beings have made—that has become toxic to one of our oldest domesticated species. “Too many bees are dying,” says Lisa Archer, the food and technology program director at the non-profit Friends of the Earth. “This is not sustainable over the long term.”

(MORE: The Mystery of Animal Grief)

Many experts put much of the blame down to infestations of the Varroa destructor mite. Varroa are microscopic vampire bugs that burrow into the brood cells and attach themselves to baby bees, sucking out the bees’ hemolymph—their blood—with a sharp, two-pronged tongue. The varroa directly weaken the bees they infest, but the bugs can also introduce bacteria and other viruses, which in turn makes the bees that much more vulnerable to any other kind of shock. Varroa infested hives often need to be replaced every one to two years, while clean hives survive for as many as five years. Back in 1987, when varroa first arrived in the U.S., beekeepers managed more than 3 million colonies. Now they’re struggling to maintain about 2.5 million, and the bad economics are driving some beekeepers away from the profession altogether, partly because the struggle seems like such a losing one. The chemical miticides that beekeepers use on the varroa can be dangerous to their own bees—and then it’s only a matter of time before the mites adapt, and the miticide becomes useless. “Varroa destructor is a modern honeybee plague,” said Jeff Pettis, the bee research leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, at a Congressional hearing on pollinator loss last month. “What beekeepers truly need are long-term solutions to varroa mites.”

The USDA and other groups are working on some of those solutions, including efforts to breed honeybees that are naturally resistant to varroa. But the mites can’t take all the blame. Honeybees are starving as open land—which has the sorts of flowers and plants that serve as a buffet for bees—is filled up with monocultures of corn and soybeans that offer little nutrition. A number of other diseases are afflicting honeybees, including the tobacco ringspot virus, a plant disease that was implicated by researchers earlier this year. What’s more, commercial honeybee colonies may be trucked thousands of miles for work, including the massive and lucrative spring almond pollination in California, which requires billions of bees. The stress of travel can’t be easy on them.

Then there are what are known as neonicotinoid pesticides, which are injected directly into the seed of a future plant. That means traces of the insecticide may always be part of the plant tissue—not at all the case when pesticides are sprayed on crops and can disspiate. A growing but still controversial body of research has implicated neonicotinoid in the death of honeybees, leading the European Union to ban three classes of the pesticides over concern about their impact on bees and other pollinators. Several members of Congress have put forward a bill that would extend that ban to the U.S. A study released last week by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health claimed to find a link between neonicotinoid exposure and low survival rates during cold winters. There’s particular concern that neonicotinoids might have sub-lethal effects on bees—not killing them, but causing enough damage to make them vulnerable to an assortment of other ills. But don’t expect a ban on neonicotinoids any time soon—an EPA review of the pesticides won’t conclude until 2018.

(MORE: America’s Pest Problem)

The chemical companies that make neonicotinoids are, unsurprisingly, skeptical that their products are behind the plight of the honeybee. “Extensive research has shown that these products do not represent a long-term threat to bee colonies,” David Fischer, the director of pollinator safety at Bayer, said in recent Congressional testimony. But the very purpose of pesticides is to kill insects, and no one would deny that such chemicals are almost certainly one of many factors hurting honeybees today. (It’s notable that a recent study found that the diversity of pollinators like bees was 50% higher on organic farms than on conventional farms.) Many independent experts, however, doubt that neonicotinoids should get all the blame. Australia still uses neonicotinoid pesticides, but honeybee populations there are not in decline—something that may be due to the fact that varroa have yet to infest the country’s hives. The recent neonicotinoid study from Harvard has been criticized for feeding honeybees levels of neonicotinoids they never would have experienced in the wild. “[The study] just confuses the issues,” says vanEngelsdorp. “It doesn’t have any bearing on what’s going on.”

Despite the ruinously high levels of losses of recent years, beekeepers have managed to keep the number of colonies in the U.S. stable—and they’ve managed to keep meeting the pollination needs of farmers. Be glad they have; honeybees are responsible for one out of every three mouthfuls of food you’ll have today. But it’s expensive and dispiriting to keep replacing dead honeybees year after year, as researchers scramble to figure out just what’s killing them. Improving trends notwithstanding, we lost a quarter of our honeybee colonies over the winter—and that shouldn’t be good news.

TIME Environment

Study: Pesticides Cause Colony Collapse Disorder in Honeybees

Humans may be the cause of the massive decline in honey bee populations.

Pesticides are the probable cause of massive colony collapse disorder (CCD), a new study from Harvard’s School of Public Health claims.

On the rise since 2006, CCD works like this: Beekeepers suddenly discover that the hives they’re tending to have very few adult bees left in a colony, but there are no bodies. Essentially, the bees disappear from the colony and then die off en masse. This is a severe issue considering that one third of all food and beverages come from crops pollinated by honeybees.

The study’s lead author Chensheng Lu say that more research needs to be conducted to figure out how exactly the pesticides are afflicting the bees.

TIME National Security

Climate Change Poses Growing National-Security Threat, Report Says

A new report published by the Center for Naval Analyses Military Advisory Board this week finds that climate change is a "catalyst for conflict" and a "threat multiplier," proving to be a growing threat not only to the environment but also U.S. national security

Climate change does not only threaten the environment but also U.S. national security, according to a new study.

Global warming presents the U.S. with several security threats and has led to conflicts over food and water because of droughts and extreme weather, says the report, which was written by a dozen retired American generals and published by the Center for Naval Analyses Military Advisory Board on Tuesday.

“Climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, and it presents significant national security challenges for the United States,” says the report, adding that problems will be felt “even in stable regions.”

The U.S. military should plan to help manage catastrophes and conflicts both domestically and internationally, it says, raising concerns regarding a wave of refugees fleeing rising sea levels.

“These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad, such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and social tensions — conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence,” the report states.

The authors of National Security and the Threat of Climate Change urge U.S. policymakers to act quickly. “The increasing risks from climate change should be addressed now because they will almost certainly get worse if we delay,” they say.

TIME weather

20,000 Homes Evacuated as Wildfires Burn Near San Diego

More than 20,000 homes in and around San Diego were evacuated after more than 700 acres were torched by wildfires, which officials say have been brought on by an extended period of drought and high temperatures

Unseasonably warm temperatures and boisterous winds triggered evacuation orders in San Diego on Tuesday, where more than 700 acres have been torched by wildfires.

Authorities called for the evacuation of more than 20,000 homes in and around San Diego earlier in the day, but officials allowed many to return to their homes on Tuesday night as temperatures dropped in the area.

“We believe we have a pretty good handle on it,” said San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainar. “We hope to do some more work through the night and into tomorrow, but I think the largest part of the emergency has passed.”

An extended period of drought in tandem with unusually high temperatures has left large swaths of the state’s landscape ripe for burning.

“Fire season last year never really ended in Southern California,” Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told the Associated Press.

California officials have responded to more than 1,350 fires since the beginning of January, which is double the average number of blazes at this time of year.

[AP]

TIME Environment

Sea Lions Are Starving to Death—and We Don’t Know Why

America's busiest marine mammal rehab facility is trying to figure out why mothers seem to be abandoning their young along the Pacific

On a sunny, windy morning in the rolling hills outside San Francisco, a pickup truck parks on what was once a missile site for the U.S. military. In the bed of the truck is a big white crate holding a little sea lion pup, an animal about half the size he should be, shaking with weakness. Pacheco—named for the road that runs by the stretch of nearby Ocean Beach where members of the public found the animal stranded—is the newest “patient” at the Marine Mammal Center. But, like nearly half of the other animals who arrive there, he might not be at the center long. “You can see his backbone,” says Shawn Johnson, director of veterinary science. “He’s not surviving.”

The Marine Mammal Center, situated in part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is the largest rehabilitation facility of its kind, and Pacheco is the latest in a record number of patients who have been delivered to their door this year. “It was like hitting a wall,” Executive Director Jeff Boehm says of the swell that started this spring. “The animals hit us fast and furious.” The influx of nearly 500 ailing sea lions, elephant seals and harbor seals is straining the resources of the non-profit Center. But it’s also providing opportunities to learn more about diseases that affect seals, sea lions—and land animals like humans.

Many of the patients currently in the care of the center’s 50 staff members and 1,100-member volunteer network are pups like Pacheco. In a normal year, the veterinarians might see 20 California sea lion pups who are malnourished and undersized. Since the beginning of this year, they’ve already treated around 100. “There’s a disturbance in the ocean right now,” says Johnson. “For some reason, they’re being abandoned by their moms.”

Each summer, such pups are born in the Channel Islands, a string off the southern coast of California, where they’re reared for nearly a year. The islands are hundreds of miles from San Francisco, which is why pups like Pacheco “shouldn’t be here,” as Johnson puts it. His best theory is that something is causing a food shortage, and so the mothers, unable to feed themselves, are deserting their offspring in search of food elsewhere. The pups then set out on their own, but they’re too inexperienced and weak to reach foraging grounds, eventually getting swept off course and washing up in places like Ocean Beach, sick and starving.

That’s just a theory for now, but the center is piloting a project that could help provide answers. The Marine Mammal Health Map will standardize data from all the marine mammal rehab facilities that care for stranded animals along America’s coasts—cataloging where the animals appear and how they’re diagnosed—and then overlay that information with oceanographic data already being collected by the government. That could allow experts to link patterns in strandings to temperature changes or ocean swells or the spread of toxins in the sea.

The Marine Mammal Center is part of a national stranding network set up by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The legislation was passed in 1972 after marine animal populations had been decimated by human hunters. Elephant seals, who fill the air at the center with their signature bleats and who can weigh more than 5,000 lbs. (2,267 kg) when fully grown, were once killed for fat that was used in perfume and candles. Sea lions, who traipse around the center’s pens on their rotating front fins, were once fed to pigs because they were high in fat and easy to catch. The center was established nearly 40 years ago by a few volunteers who first tried to rehabilitate stranded marine mammals in kiddie pools. It has since grown to inhabit a $32 million complex with high-tech water filtration systems and on-site labs; veterinarians and students from around the world come there to learn about the animals. On the day Pacheco arrived, medical staff from New Zealand and Chile helped perform a procedure on a sea lion named Coco Max, whose rear flipper had swollen to twice its normal size after a bite became infected.

Sometimes that research can lead to surprising breakthroughs for humans. One toxin Johnson and his team have identified among their current patients is domoic acid. This toxin, a naturally occurring one found in algae, causes seizures among marine animals who have eaten small fish that have eaten algae blooms. In humans, domoic acid causes amnesic shellfish poisoning. Mussels filter the contaminated water through their systems, and when people eat the shellfish, the toxin can cause brain damage and memory loss. But government officials and researchers didn’t start scouring West Coast waters for domoic acid until scientists at the Marine Mammal Center identified it as a cause of a mysterious seizure outbreak among California sea lions in the late 1990s. Their discovery “led to a huge amount of research about how [amnesic shellfish poisoning] occurs, how to protect humans, a whole new department of public health,” says Johnson.

The vast majority of the center’s animal patients can’t eat or are so young they never learned how to swallow a fish whole. Volunteers blend “fish milkshakes”—made of high-fat herring, fish oil and water—that medical staff pump into the stomachs of the animals until they can be trained in “fish school” to chase and eat herring on their own. With their pens full, the Marine Mammal Center is currently grinding through 1,000 lbs. of fish per day, at a cost of $1 per pound.

And many of the patients won’t make it. Last year, about 60% of the animals admitted to the Marine Mammal Center were eventually released back into the wild. Many of the lost had cancer, or were simply too far gone from starvation by the time they were found. Even the success stories can be colored by tragedy. A sea lion named Silent Knight was found listless on a beach in Sausalito four years ago; when he was brought to the center, the veterinarians determined that he had been shot in the head, a too common practice among fisherman frustrated by the animals interfering with their catches or simply bored shooters on the beach. Though the wounds didn’t kill Silent Knight, they did blind him, and the animal couldn’t be released back into the wild. Happily, the San Francisco Zoo made a home for him instead.

That’s the kind of salvation story that employees try to impress on the 100,000 people, many of them school children, who visit each year—and whom the center might eventually depend on for donations in busy times. Right now, staff are anticipating that they might be grappling later this year with a possible El Nino, a period of abnormally warm ocean temperatures that can affect weather around the world. That could mean more storms that separate mothers from their young and less fish for marine mammals to eat. Altogether, that means busy times in the Marin Headlands. But the staff is hoping that as their research advances, they’ll be able to figure out a way to keep sea lions and seals from becoming patients in the first place. “That’s the goal,” says wildlife veterinarian Glenna McGregor. “To put this place out of business.”

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