Oodles of orange and purple starfish have appeared. And that might be worth celebrating.

The Pacific Coast of the United States is just so. damn. beautiful.

Image from Jonathan.s.kt/Wikimedia Commons.


It's studded with tree-covered islands, little hidden coves, and driftwood-strewn beaches. It looks like a postcard. Heck, it looks like where two postcards would go to get married!

And one of the best things about it is the amazing animal life. There are pods of wild orca whales, magnificent sea lions, adorable sea otters, and the king-of-all-that-is-strange giant Pacific octopus. But it's not just the big animals that are awesome; the Pacific Coast's little guys are amazing too.

One of its most recognizable, and colorful, denizens is the ochre sea star.

Photo via iStock.

It's hard to miss their bright purple, pink, and orange bodies — they're like what happens if you let Lisa Frank design an invertebrate. They're a common sight in tide pools and intertidal zones.

At least, they were.

Sadly, a mystery virus has been wiping them out for the last few years.

In 2014, "sea star wasting disease" appeared in Oregon. The disease wasn't unique to ochre sea stars — it affects many different species — but they were hit especially hard. Affected animals get weak and then just sort of ... fall apart. Like they were made of wet tissue paper.

(If you want to see the kind-of-gross aftermath, you can follow this link).

Scientists quickly identified the disease as a type of virus, but that didn't help the sea stars. Since it appeared, it's proceeded to wipe out about four-fifths of the ochre sea star population. It's also spread up to Alaska and all the way down to Baja California.

Starfish help keep the coastline's ecosystem in balance, so losing them could be really bad.

While they might look like blobs of Play-Doh, sea stars are actually the tigers of the tide pool. They eat a ton of mussels; so many, in fact, that when starfish disappear, mussel populations explode to the point of crowding out other species.

This makes starfish what is known as a keystone species.

Like a bomb waiting to go off. Image from Andreas Tretpte/Wikimedia Commons.

But there's some good news! Because although we've lost a lot of adult sea stars in recent years, people are finding a TON of baby stars right now.

Photo from iStock.

Scientists from Oregon State University just published a paper announcing their discovery of the recent baby boom.

"The number of juveniles was off the charts — higher than we'd ever seen — as much as 300 times normal," said lead author Professor Bruce Menge in a press release.

Why so many babies? It didn't look like there were more born than usual. Instead, Menge believes it was because more babies survived than normal, possibly because fewer adults meant more food for the babies.

There's still a mystery though. Why did the virus strike now?

Image from D. Gordon E. Robertson/Wikimedia Commons.

The virus has probably been around for a long time. It's even been found in preserved starfish from as far back as the 1940s. And there have been smaller outbreaks in the past but nothing of this size.

So what's different now? We're not sure. Menge doesn't think it's from warmer ocean temperatures (which has been hurting other areas, like coral reefs), but there are other possibilities as well.

"Ocean acidification is one possibility, and we’re looking at that now," said Menge. "Ultimately, the cause seems likely to be multi-faceted."

Nevertheless, this is a good sign. The Earth can regenerate and heal.

It's too early to say that these new babies are safe, since the virus could strike again, but it's an awesome display of nature's ability to bounce back. Humanity hasn't always been kind to the ocean — we overfish, we dump trash, we pollute its waters — but the Earth is nothing if not resilient.

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

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This article originally appeared on 03.19.15


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