Out Standing in a Field podcast: Updates on Utah pelicans, space travel, more

Thursday , February 01, 2018 - 5:00 AM

The “Out Standing in a Field” podcasters — reporter Leia Larsen and photographer Benjamin Zack — touch base with a few more scientists for updates on their favorite episodes.

This time, they revisit inversion pollution, Gunnison Island pelicans, the NASA mission to Mars, boreal toads and more.

The transcript below includes a portion of the podcast. Listen to the whole thing below and find more “Out Standing in a Field” episodes wherever you get your podcasts — including Apple Podcasts, Google Play, SoundCloud, Stitcher and TuneIn.

Follow “Out Standing in a Field” on Facebook for photos and notes from the field. 

BENJAMIN ZACK: This is Part 2 of our recaps and reflections of episodes past, as we move into a new year and a new season of joining scientists in the field.

LEIA LARSEN: Almost exactly a year ago, our air was like it is now, cycling in and out of inversions and nasty smog.

ZACK: Some scientists with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) visited Northern Utah in a little airplane to help the Division of Air Quality here in the state get a better understanding of how that pollution formed.

LARSEN: We visited them last February and got a tour of the plane.

That little plane was loaded with instrumentation that measures air chemistry. NOAA scientist Steve Brown flew up and down the air column along the Wasatch Front and in Cache Valley to see how things changed and how things are mixing.

Despite the inversion, Utah's air is actually better than it used to be

ZACK: He’s had about a year to sift through the data and just turned over a draft report to the Utah Division of Air Quality.

LARSEN: Steve Brown is based in Colorado, so we couldn’t go visit him. Instead, we called him up to get some highlights of the research.

BROWN: Sure, we’ve learned a few things, although I also have to say a lot of what we have learned is fairly technical in nature, so I want to be sure that anything I relay to you here is accessible to your audience.

ZACK: One of the big takeaways from their work last winter is they’re able to measure the composition of the pollution here and found it’s three-fourths ammonium nitrate. That’s measured from the plane, from the ground, from the Wasatch Front, from Cache Valley. It’s really uniform, it’s regional and there’s a very common source for the pollution.

BROWN: The fact it’s ammonium nitrate also tells us it is really, very likely caused by the combination of tailpipe air pollution and most likely agricultural sources of ammonia. It’s the combination of those two things and the stagnation of air throughout the region that leads to that.

LARSEN: Is that the main takeaway?

BROWN: That’s probably the single largest takeaway. The most important component of the air pollution there is ammonium nitrate. The source of the ammonium nitrate is cars plus cows, and if you want to boil things down to a simple look at what’s going on there, that is the easiest way to say it.

LARSEN: Something that came up when we met with Steve Brown and were touring the plane and talking about the air pollution study was that they already noticed an interesting interaction with air pollution and salts in Utah.

BROWN: For sure. We have been able to show that interaction with the salt in the area is happening. It’s something we still need to do more analysis on to fully quantify. But it’s clear from the data we took that there is an interaction between emissions from tailpipes … and various other combustion sources and salts that may come from a variety of sources, including the Great Salt Lake.

LARSEN: That’s a great segue. The next episode we want to revisit was about Gunnison Island.

ZACK: To recap, Gunnison Island is a remote spot in the north arm of the Great Salt Lake.

LARSEN: You can see it from the Spiral Jetty.

ZACK: Because it’s so remote, American white pelicans like to go there to breed. There’s no food for them because the water’s way too salty, but there are also no predators or people around to disturb them.

LARSEN: With the Great Salt Lake’s long-term decline, there aren’t really any “islands” left in the Great Salt Lake, so Gunnison is not an “island” anymore, which has biologists worried about the pelican’s fate.

ZACK: Westminster College in Salt Lake City, home of the Great Salt Lake Institute, applied for a grant to put up a “PELIcam” out on the island to monitor the birds. The PELIcam transmits live images of the island to the institute’s webpage so the public can watch them.

LARSEN: Because of all the interest that generated, they also got some funding to put in wildlife cameras throughout the island. For those cameras, however, the scientists have to go back and collect the memory cards. They’re not a live feed.

ZACK: We joined them last March while they were setting cameras up, just before the pelicans started flying in to breed.

LARSEN: Jaimi Butler with the Great Salt Lake Institute gave us some background while we were there.

BUTLER: It’s all a grand experiment because the cameras are just going up. I have my fingers crossed and my teeth gritted a little bit. Eventually we’ll have hundreds of thousands of pictures we’re going to need looked at and processed. We are going to want to know if predators are on the island, or people who are not authorized to come out here. We’re going to need help analyzing hundreds of thousands of pictures. It’s a little daunting.

PELIcam brings public closer to lonely Great Salt Lake island and its birds

Not many people know we have American white pelicans that live in the middle of this salty lake. They’re charismatic. Everyone knows what a pelican is. They’re just interesting, big, cool birds.

LARSEN: Ben went back to Gunnison Island in August and met up with Jaimi and other biologists. What were they doing out there?

ZACK: All the pelicans had been arriving in late spring and at that point, had their babies. But they can’t fly away yet. The appeal for the scientists is to get out there, get some basic information on them and also attach some wing tags and ankle bands so the birds can be monitored throughout their life, maybe learn a little more about where they’re from, where they’re going and what kind of shape they’re in.

LARSEN: Great Salt Lake Institute has since collected the cameras and they’ve been sifting through all the images. We called up Jaimi to get some updates.

Harsh island a breeding ground for Utah pelicans

BUTLER: It turns out, of the 15 cameras on the island, we have around 170,000 pictures to look through. The live camera you can see at gslpeliproject.org — it took 52,778 pictures over the summer. The other wildlife cameras took somewhere in the range of 150,000 images of different parts of the island on either nests of pelicans, also great blue herons, even one on the very tip top of the island were peregrine falcons perch.

ZACK: You may have followed the PeliCam online. It’s overlooking a beautiful sweeping view of Lamborne Bay, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of detail. The 15 wildlife cameras, however, were a lot closer to the action so they got some interesting images.

BUTLER: One of them is sitting right on a nest. We get to watch all the behaviors of those parents as they’re nesting, sitting on their eggs, even as the eggs hatch.

The baby pelicans, when parents bring back food, they bring the food back in their belly. They regurgitate that yummy fish puree into their baby’s mouth.

We got some close-up photos of that. It looks like the adult pelicans are eating the head off the baby pelican.

I’m surprised at how silly the birds are. This is me anthropomorphizing these birds because they’re living out on Gunnison Island, breeding, flying back and forth and feeding on fish in the Bear River and surrounding wetlands, but some of the pictures that come out are just comical of birds landing on the beach. As they land, you can think of them almost as Mary Poppins, with wings outstretched, their big bill outstretched, landing on the beach. It almost looks like they’re doing a dance. Or some of them look like a selfie, like they sat in front of the cameras for a selfie.

LARSEN: Jaimi also said she did see some of those predators and people visiting the island. Those were some of the things she was worried about.

BUTLER: Yeah, we did see some people in early March. That’s scary for our pelicans. It’s just like having a predator on the island. I hope, I mean, Gunnison Island is protected, it’s owned by the Division of Wildlife and the State of Utah. I hope we don’t see that in the future. There are lots of reports of pelicans getting up and leaving the island or not returning the next year just based on the presence of a person.

ZACK: A bit of a sadder update, we contacted the Division of Wildlife Resource’s Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program to get an update on the pelican counts on Gunnison.

LARSEN: They told me they had a major drop off in pelican production this year. Normally, they see about 10,000 to 12,000 breeding adults at Gunnison Island. This year there were only around 5,000. So about half of what they usually see. They figure they produced around 1,500 young.

ZACK: The pelicans have since left the island, of course, for warmer weather.

LARSEN: Biologists are able to track the birds via the tags and bands they put on the juveniles each summer.

BUTLER: Yes, if people find pelicans with tags on them, we always have this information on gslpeliproject.org or you can go to the website — it’s reportband.gov. On reportband.gov, you can input when you saw the pelican, what color the tag was, what number was on the tag and any other information you have.

LARSEN: Those were the main episodes we wanted to update. Here are a few more we wanted to do quickly, starting with the snow survey. We joined some snow scientists up in Logan Canyon at the end of last winter.

ZACK: We went up there after Utah got just a wonderful snowpack. Everything looked good, there was still loads of snow even way back in March.

LARSEN: Of course, things aren’t looking so great right now.

The train wreck is coming — Utah snowpack looking dismal

The latest snow survey report, which came on Jan. 1, said a weak La Niña pattern is to blame. It hit Southern Utah super hard. The region’s snowpack is between 5 percent and 35 percent of normal. Things look a little better up north, where snowpacks range from 50 to 80 percent normal. Which is still not great.

In other news, Utah Snow Survey Supervisor Randy Julander retired after nearly three decades of being the state’s go-to expert on snowpack and water supply. He was always fun to interview and we’re sad we never got to join Randy in the field.

Utah Snow Survey supervisor retires after 3 decades

ZACK: We got to watch a rocket test at Orbital ATK out in Promontory. They were testing the “launch abort system,” which is a small component of the much bigger Orion mission — which could eventually take humans to Mars.

LARSEN: The launch abort system is designed to propel astronauts to safety if there’s an issue with the larger rocket system.

ZACK: We didn’t get to go to space for any conversations, but we did the next best thing. We got to talk to Kent Rominger, who currently works for Orbital ATK but has visited space several times as an astronaut for the space shuttle program.

How Mars lost its atmosphere, and why Earth didn't

LARSEN: He told us about how cool it was to visit space but how dangerous it is, too.

ZACK: Also, engineer Erica Sandoval explained how she helped design the launch abort system to help avoid those dangers.

LARSEN: There aren’t too many updates on rockets and tests out at Promontory. President Trump, however, signed an order in December, directing NASA to send people back to the moon.

ZACK: Orion and the launch abort system will be hugely important for that mission.

LARSEN: We haven’t been to the moon since 1972.

ZACK: It looks like NASA is shooting to launch both Orion’s space launch system, which propels the spacecraft out of Earth’s atmosphere, and the launch abort system together for the first time in 2019.

LARSEN: That test will be unmanned, but it’s the next step in sending a crewed mission to the moon and beyond.

On to our next episode recap.

ZACK: From Mars to Monte Cristo.

LARSEN: As a refresher, amphibians throughout the world are in dire straights, including species in Utah.

ZACK: We joined some biologists with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources while they tagged the elusive boreal toad in the Monte Cristo Mountains.

LARSEN: They tag the toads to get a sense of how their populations are doing and where they’re moving.

ZACK: At the time, the Eastern boreal toad was under consideration for an “endangered” listing.

LARSEN: In October 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided a listing was not warranted.

Feds reject boreal toad endangered listing; Utah to keep up conservation efforts

ZACK: The state scientists said they still plan on monitoring the toads and improving their habitat.

Sign up for e-mail news updates.