UCI biologist Tim Bradley

Saving Our Planet

Human modification of the Earth’s landscape is the most serious threat to the environment, says evolutionary biologist

How does one become involved with the largest environmental causes in recent California history? UCI biologist Tim Bradley started small. In the 1970s, he – then a young assistant professor at UCI – was studying the miniscule brine flies and brine shrimp in Mono Lake’s salt marshes as its water was increasingly being drained for distant urban use. The unfolding environmental damage led to the Save Mono Lake movement, for which Bradley helped provide the scientific evidence that was used to get a court order stopping the pumping.

Nearly 30 years later, Bradley – now a professor of ecology & evolutionary biology – is focused on averting a public health disaster at the Salton Sea. And the clock is ticking. On Jan. 1, 2018, Colorado River water diverted to the sea will instead be sent to urban water districts, an action that will shrink the sea, kill off most remaining fish, destroy a fertile bird habitat and release a plume of toxic dust over the region. To help avoid these calamities, Bradley founded UCI’s Salton Sea Initiative, which brings together multidisciplinary research, teaching and service resources to tackle the matter.

He sat down with UCI Magazine recently to talk about the Salton Sea project, the role nature should play in our lives … and his backyard.

Q: What first interested you in the Salton Sea?

Bradley: I was doing research on mosquitoes that live in the sea marshes. And as I explored the growing problem in more detail, I realized that there were environmental justice and economic issues and both engineering and biological problems. From this came our Salton Sea Initiative.

Q: What needs to happen to save the Salton Sea?

Bradley: One aspect is trying to feed the fish, which are threatened by the rapid increase in water salinity. Another is the people whose public health could be threatened by the toxic lake dust. The way to solve both is to build marshes along the shore as the sea recedes to cover the dust and produce fish habitats. And that creates habitats for the migrating birds. We can solve the public health and environmental issues simultaneously, but it does require engagement and money – and a lot of work.

Q: Are you drawing upon your Mono Lake experience in your current work with the Salton Sea?

Bradley: Absolutely. It’s incredibly parallel. In both cases, the environmental issues of shrinking and increased salinity threaten(ed) public health. And in both cases, the reason is/was water being transferred away to urban areas.

Q: You were born and raised in Oklahoma, a rural state. How did that spark your love of biology?

Bradley: Even though we lived in Oklahoma City, our home backed up to a creek and a lot of wild land. I could go out at any time and wander along the creek and look at turtles and catch fish and frogs. I was much closer to nature than the average person. That nature path resonated with me – and still does.

Q: You came of age in the late 1960s and early ’70s – the dawn of the environmental movement. How inspirational was that to you?

Bradley: It was very inspirational, because of my love of nature. I was appalled to see how much damage we were doing – and continue to do – to the Earth. Biologists in general and field biologists in particular see this as an era in which mankind has changed the planet and, in doing so, significantly damaged our biological systems. This went from being a wild planet to one managed by humans.

Q: What do you think people should know about the natural world around them?

Bradley: In the past, people had a sense of the natural world because they operated in it. But we’ve separated ourselves from that so much. I remember a bumper sticker in the ’60s that said, “Have you thanked a green plant today?” Everything that we eat and all the oxygen we breathe derives from a plant. Our lives are absolutely dependent on green plants. Now there are biology majors to whom I have to explain this.

“I remember a bumper sticker in the ’60s that said, ‘Have you thanked a green plant today?’ … Our lives are absolutely dependent on green plants. Now there are biology majors to whom I have to explain this.”

Q: One of the issues biologists face is explaining the theory of evolution to people who reject the idea. How do you address this?

Bradley: What I try to make people aware of is that evolution occurs, and it’s an absolutely essential part of biology. It doesn’t address the question of whether God exists. These are two fundamentally different ideas. I have no idea how life originated. What I’m arguing about is whether fish can evolve, bacteria can evolve and fruit flies can evolve. They do. When it becomes a societal or religious matter, that’s when it becomes very difficult.

Q: Which is more damaging to life on Earth: pollution, climate change or human domination of the planet’s resources?

Bradley: Human modification of the landscape is the most important issue globally. The fact that we have plowed all over the prairies, that we’re cutting down a huge proportion of forests, that we have harvested so much out of the sea that we’ve actually depleted entire species – these things have a more profound effect than climate change.

Q: So what’s your backyard like?

Bradley: It’s not very neat. I’m told that there are two kinds of gardeners. One of them is someone who loves design, and the other is someone who loves plants. I’m more of a plant-lover type. We have plants to support monarch butterflies and lots of pollinator flowers that support insects at the base of the food chain. We also have fruit trees – citrus, plum and apple – and tropical flowering plants, which are unique to this environment.

Q: Do you have a favorite plant?

Bradley: No. That’d be like saying you have a favorite child. I have many plants I’m very fond of, so to name just one would be unfair to all the rest.