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Your 10 Favorite Environment Articles of 2016

2016 has not been a particularly popular year, if complaints on social media are any indication. Losing rock stars and favorite actors, enduring a seemingly endless election, and — for some — coping wth the results of that election mean that a lot of you are ready to bid 2016 farewell soon... though how 2017 will turn out is anyone's guess.

But there was some good news throughout 2016, and we brought you some of it. This list of the ten most-read stories at KCET Redefine includes some representative examples of the usual litany of upsetting news inherent in environmental reporting, but it also includes a few stories that are either entirely good news, or which reflect your joy in the natural world and interest in learning more about it.

Here they are, in increasing order of page views.

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Logging is one of the environmental threats hurting more species than climate change. There are five others. | Photo: Derek Seversonsome rights reserved

10: Climate Change is Really Dangerous. Here are 6 Environmental Issues That are Even Worse.

This coverage of an August study in Nature raised some hackles: the conventional wisdom among rank and file environmental activists is that climate change trumps every other environmental issue. But researchers went through the list of species in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's global Red List of endangered species, recorded the threats to each species, then tabulated the top 10 results, and climate change came in a (still very ominous) seventh. 

What issues pose more serious threats to the planet? The usual suspects: Overexploitation (logging, fishing, and hunting), agriculture, urban development, invasive species (including disease organisms), pollution, and large-scale modification of natural ecosystems (such as human-cuased wildfires, dam building, and other such interventions.) Climate change occupied seventh place among the big drivers ofextinction. In eighth, ninth, and tenth places, respectively, were direct human disturbance of endangered species, energy production, and transportation.

None of which means that the climate change crisis isn't urgent. It's just a reminder that we need to not make the other problems worse as we tackle the threat of climate change.

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Devils Hole pupfish | Photo: Olin Feuerbacher, USFWS


9: The Impossible Fish: Devils Hole Pupfish Puzzles Scientists

They may be the United States' most famous endangered fish, living in just one desert spring — and in fact, on just one rock shelf in that one spring. The Devils Hole pupfish (no apostrophe) has fascinated and worried wildlife biologists and others since it was discovered hanging on in this tiny bit of Habitat in Nevada's portion of Death Valley National Park. But the more scientists learn about the fish and their surroundings, the less they realize they know about them. For example, among the questions we've learned we need to answer are how the fish got to that isolated spring (never connected to a lake as far as we know), how long they've been there (though recent studies indicate the answer may be a remarkably short time, a few hundred years or so) and how precisely they survive on that rock ledge.

Our article in March by Ron Sullivan and Joe Eaton summing up the current state of our pupfish knowledge captivated a lot of you, and got a bit of a spike in readers after a group of young men that should have known better were caught on surveillance cameras mucking up the fish's habitat.

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The federally Endangered Sonoran pronghorn would be hard hit by Donald Trump's border policy | Photo: Florin Chelarusome rights reserved

8: Trump's Border Wall Would Be a Disaster for Wildlife

It looks as though the President-Elect has backed away from his campaign pledge to build a ridiculously fortified wall along the border between Mexico and the United States, as was probably inevitable given things like financial and engineering realities.

But he's still on record as wanting a massive hardening of the border, with fences and other barriers instead of the world's largest concrete structure. And that still poses a huge risk to the border's wildlife, by restricting not only the migration of individual animals across the line but by blocking genetic connectivity and interrupting daily behavioral patterns. 

And to be clear, that's a continuation of policies originated during a Democratic Presidential administration in the 1990s, and continued by an administration from each major political party since then. But that doesn't mean sealing the border further won't make things a lot worse.

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Minerva Hoyt and Joshua Tree National Park | Photo: NPS (inset), Christopher Michelsome rights reserved

7: The Woman Who Saved The California Desert

We're guessing this article was popular in part because it recounted a hopeful story of successful environmental activism. In the 1930s, seeing with horror the damage done to the California deserts by unregulated collecting of desert plants for Los Angeles gardens, socialite and gardening maven Minerva Hamilton Hoyt put her efforts toward protecting some of those landscapes.

Hoyt is justly recognized for her pivotal role in persuading Franklin Delano Roosevelt to establish Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936, but she also played a crucial part in the establishment of both Death Valley National Monument and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The California Deserts would be a whole lot less interesting these days if it wasn't for Hoyt's work.

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A flood in Garden Grove in 1971. | Photo: Orange County Archivessome rights reserved

6: Sea Level Rise Could Come Much Sooner Than You Think

For a decade or so most planners involved in preparing for climate change have used projections that the oceans will rise about a meter — three feet and change — by the end of this century. Earlier this year, a study of the rate of melting on the West Antarctic ice sheet suggested that needed to be doubled to two meters by 2100, about six and a half feet of sea level rise. That's pretty bad: In California, it means either expensive modifications to sea-level cities like San Francisco, Oakland, and Stockton or abandoning large stretches of their waterfronts, or both.

So imagine not only adding another meter of sea level rise to that, but shaving 50 years off the schedule. That was the message of this story, which quoted a remark by NOAA sea level expert Margaret Davidson when she told a conference of insurers in some informal remarks that we may see three meters of sea level rise by 2050, citing as yet unpublished data on Antarctic ice melting that she described as "kind of an OMG thing."

"Unpublished data" means "not yet having gone through peer review,"as we pointed out in the original piece, saying "the [peer review] process also helps scientists avoid making rash judgments based on seemingly alarming data that turns out not to be as bad as it appears at first glance. It may be that the "OMG" data NOAA is getting from Antarctica actually results in less, and slower, sea level rise." And good thing we did so, because climate scientists have since cocked a collective eyebrow at the coverage of Davidson's statements, saying that they hadn't been vetted — which Davidson said herself. The concern is that climate change deniers will seize on unverified statements and use them to further convince themselves that they're right. Not that they wouldn't do that anyway.

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The last known photo of the late orca J-28, with J-54 by her side | Photo: Ken Balcomb/Center for Whale Research.

5: Southern Resident Killer Whales are Dying of Starvation 

This one brought us no joy to report: a press conference in late October press event in Seattle revealed that two members of the "J-pod" of the Southern Resident orca population had starved to death in recent weeks, bringing the total population of Southern Residents down to 80 whales. 

The issue: Southern Resident orcas eat Chinook salmon, whose numbers we have decimated by building dams on their spawning streams from British Columbia to California. The J pod, which spends most of its time in the Salish Sea area, is especially threatened by four dams on the lower Snake River operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. Activists are stepping up their calls to decommission those dams, which have been slammed for their damage to salmon for decades.

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Aspens near Bishop, California | Photo: Pachecosome rights reserved

4: Five Ways to See Fall Color in California

Just as it says on the tin, you might say. Those snooty Northeasterners with their leaf-peeping tours might think they're all that, and I can say that because I was one once, but they've got it easy. We Californians have to work for our fall color, and as a result we appreciate it more, or something. Whatever. Read this for next fall and be prepared in advance.

Spoiler: not all of the five ways to see fall color involve long road trips.

The article also includes a little bit of discussion of the science of fall color, because we knew you wanted it.

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P-22 in December 2015 | Photo: NPSsome rights reserved

3: Moving The Griffith Park Puma is a Bad Idea

Redefine's Jason Goldman spent much of 2016 covering the Santa Monica Mountains puma beat, so when California's most famous mountain lion was alleged to have eaten a koala at the Los Angeles Zoo and some Angelenos advocated moving him away from Griffith Park, Goldman was ready with the facts and figures.

Not only did he make a scientifically solid case for letting P-22 stay where he wants to stay, but he also provided a compelling timeline of the big cat's adventures. Between that able service journalism and the swirling controversy — which would be repeated later in the year as another puma did in 10 unfortunate alpacas in Malibu — enough readers found their way to Goldman's piece to make it our third most popular of the year.

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Supermoon, 2014 | Photo: Carlsome rights reserved

2: 6 Things to Avoid While Looking at the Supermoon

OK, so the hype surrounding the "supermoon" in November included a fair amount of exaggeration of the actual observable difference in apparent size between a Supermoon and a Regularmoon. But it got you out looking at the night sky, right? A whole lot of you checked out our guide to the dos and don'ts of moon-viewing and stargazing, which hopefully made your appreciation of the night sky a bit safer for you, and for those around you.

You may want to bookmark this story and refer back to it next time you go out to look at night sky things.

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California scrub jay | Photo: Ingrid Taylar, some rights reserved

1: California Has Two New Bird Species. One's in Your Yard Right Now.

Our most popular story of 2016, on the splitting of the nearly ubiquitous scrub jay into two species, was a wonderful example of scientific discovery that affects people's everyday lives, or at least the lives at their bird feeders. The scoop: after extended discussion and debate, the American Ornithologists' Union removed the western scrub jay from its 2016 checklist, replacing it with two new species: the California scrub jay, which lives within a couple hundred miles of the Pacific Coast from Baja to B.C., and the Woodhouse's scrub jay, which lives in the Intermountain West and edges into California along the Nevada line.

The reason for the split? The AOU — a relatively conservative body in such matters — was persuaded that the California and Woodhouses' jays were genetically, anatomically, and behaviorally different enough to merit splitting into separate species. 

We're quite gratified that the Redefine story that attracted the most attention in 2016 wasn't about a crisis or a controversy, but about new discoveries concerning a common facet of our everyday lives in California. Here's to more of those in 2017. And fewer crises, and fewer controversies. And all our favorite musicians can stop dying quite so much, if that's okay with them.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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