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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

February 23, 2001

Air Date: February 23, 2001

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SEGMENTS

Melting Snow Caps

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Rhode Island Talkings

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Health Update

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Yunnan River, Part II

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Maine Butts

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Meadows Obituary

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Animal Update

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Monk Parakeets

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Trilobites

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Show Credits and Funders

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Melting Snow Caps

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The snows of Kilimanjaro are receding so fast that famous visitor Ernest Hemingway might not recognize the icy African peak he wrote about just a few decades ago. As the effects of global climate change begin to be recognized all over the planet, tropical mountain glaciers are melting at unprecedented rates. Lonnie Thompson is a geology professor at Ohio State University. He's been mapping and monitoring the Mount Kilimanjaro ice field, as well as ice caps in Peru and Tibet. He joins us now. Welcome, Professor Thompson.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Now, you've been taking measurements at Kilimanjaro for the past two decades. What specifically are you seeing?

THOMPSON: One of the things we did was to map it, to have aerial photographs flown. And an interesting part of Kilimanjaro is, it has this long history. And there are actually five maps, now, for the mountain. So we were able to compare the map we made from 2000 with that series of maps. And if you look at the first map, made in 1912, there was 12.1 square kilometers of ice on the mountain. And in our most recent map there's only 2.2 square kilometers of ice remaining. That's a loss of 82 percent of the area of ice on the mountain since that first map was made.

CURWOOD: How fast has it disappeared in recent times?

THOMPSON: In 1989 there was 3.3 square kilometers of ice. So we've lost essentially 33 percent of the ice since that last map was made in 1989.

CURWOOD: Now, you're also studying a particular glacier in the Peruvian Andes. How do you pronounce the name of that place?

THOMPSON: It's Quelccaya. It's a Quechuan Indian name.

CURWOOD: What's the situation there?

THOMPSON: In the first measurement period, which was 1963 to '78, this ice cap was retreating at 4.9 meters per year. Now, it has accelerated in its rate of retreat as we've come forward in time. And in the most recent period, 1998 to August of 2000, it has increased to 155 meters per year. That's an increase of about 32 times over the initial measurement period.

CURWOOD: What are the indications to you that what you're seeing aren't just part of the natural state of glaciers that would ordinarily wax and wane over time?

THOMPSON: This is a very important point; that's exactly correct. Glaciers do advance and recede. For a glacier like Quelccaya you find out that the retreat since the last cold period, the Little Ice Age, that that retreat has only been of the order of one to three meters per year. The most recent period, 155 meters per year is much larger than any of the previous rates of retreat that we can get a handle on.

CURWOOD: At the rate that the ice is melting on Mount Kilimanjaro, when will it be completely without any snow or ice?

THOMPSON: For Kilimanjaro, the ice will disappear by 2015. If you do the same calculations on this Quelccaya ice cap in Peru, its estimated demise, if the current rates of retreat continue, will occur some time between 2010 and 2020. So about the same period of time.

CURWOOD: Do these glaciers shrink because the air is warmer or there's less snow, or why, do you think?

THOMPSON: If we look at the twentieth century, snowfall has actually been average to above average. And yet the glacier is retreating. So the driver here has to be temperature.

CURWOOD: What are the environmental effects of these glacier melts?

THOMPSON: Well, the impacts are already being felt in these countries. For example, Kilimanjaro, when we were there in January, we were in the governor's office, and two sisters came in from a local hospital. The hospital had been working for 100 years and they had run out of water. The water comes from streams coming off of Kilimanjaro, and the stream had dried up. Glaciers are kind of like a natural dam. They store water, especially in the wet season, and then in the dry season they melt and allow water discharge into streams. So locally, they're already seeing the impact. If you go to South America, Peru has the most tropical glaciers in the world. What we observe happening on Quelccaya is actually happening to all the glaciers in the Andes in Peru. And as a consequence of this, there has been a drop in hydroelectric power production, and consequently there has been a loss of power in some of the municipalities like Lima, Peru. And to make up for this, of course, they are building fuel-burning power plants. And of course, this is likely to contribute to the problem.

CURWOOD: You know, you could almost say that history is melting away here.

THOMPSON: We believe 20 years from now, if you want to see an ice core sample from Kilimanjaro, you'll have to come to the freezers at Ohio State University, where we have an archive stored at minus 40 degrees C. But it is unfortunate that you would have to come to a freezer to see these beautiful ice fields.

CURWOOD: Lonnie Thompson is a professor in the department of geological science at Ohio State University. Professor, thanks for joining us today.

THOMPSON: Been my pleasure.

(Music up and under: Patrick O'Hearn, "Unusual Climate")

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Rhode Island Talkings

CURWOOD: "Nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation." These are the final words of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and one of the Bill of Rights. Typically, this clause on takings is invoked when highway construction puts homes under the bulldozer. But some say that environmental laws and regulations can also amount to takings of private land for common good. For example, Anthony Palazzolo of Westerly, Rhode Island, has been trying for decades to develop 18 acres of oceanfront marshland. But the state of Rhode Island has repeatedly said no. Now the case is being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports.

(Surf)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Anthony Palazzolo has lived on the edge of the sea for all his 80 years.

PALAZZOLO: We've had a lot of fun here.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: He walks me around to the back porch of his little red summer cottage. The paint is fading but the view is vibrant. Cattails give way to marsh, and further out lies Winnapaug Pond.

PALAZZOLO: What we're looking at today was not as it was when I purchased it.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Palazzolo had plans for this land. He wanted to fill in the marsh, then sell it as residential lots. But the state said no. Filling the marsh would damage Winnapaug Pond. So Palazzolo suggested what he thought was a more palatable idea, a beach club without any permanent structures.

PALAZZOLO: The idea was that we would have barbecue pits and picnic tables. Septically, we would have port-o-johns, which the state uses on all their facilities.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: But the state turned down the beach club idea, too, and Palazzolo went to court, all the way to Rhode Island's Supreme Court, where he lost.

PALAZZOLO: The state argument was that you must show a compelling reason for improving my property. And they said I didn't show them a compelling reason to do that. And the other side of their argument was they had a compelling reason to leave it as it is, so the people of Rhode Island can come down and enjoy it. And the only thing that remained is I was paying the bills, and that's where the controversy comes in.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It's also where the Pacific Legal Foundation comes in. Staff attorney Eric Grant petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Palazzolo's case. Because, he says, it raises fundamental Constitutional questions.

GRANT: We all pay our taxes and we are happy to do that as the price of a civilized society. But I think we would each be unhappy if government came to us and said, well, we like your house or we like your car, and we're just going to take them for free, and you're out of luck. But you can have a warm feeling in your heart that you're contributing to the public welfare.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Grant says the state's continued denial of Palazzolo's applications to build constitute, in effect, a taking.

GRANT: That requires the government to compensate property owners whose property is denied all economically viable use.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The state argues that Mr. Palazzolo does in fact have permission to build at least one residence on an upland portion of his property. Its estimated worth is about $200,000. But Grant says the court needs to take into account that Palazzolo's been denied development rights on more than 90 percent of his property. That, he claims, is worth over three million dollars, and Palazzolo should be compensated. If the court agrees, Grant says it would be a milestone for property owners across the country.

GRANT: We're hoping that the court will recognize takings in a wider variety of circumstances. And we hope that the message will read down to the government that it can't just go in and completely destroy the economic value of property without any consequences.

WHITEHOUSE: He's wrong because he never really had the right to develop that land in the first place.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: That's Rhode Island's attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse. He says that since Palazzolo's property lies between hard land and running water, it falls in a tricky legal niche. On the one hand it can be privately owned, but on the other it's also a public resource.

WHITEHOUSE: If you walk along Winnapaug Pond, you'll see that everybody has built along basically the same pattern, which is that they put their houses on the high, dry, buildable upland, and they have sort of a tail of wetland that goes down into the pond that essentially nobody has ever built on. And the reason that essentially nobody has ever built on it is this doctrine called the Public Trust Doctrine, which says that the public actually owns rights in that land, and that's what we're defending is the rights of the public in coastal wetlands of Rhode Island.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The state also argues that Palazzolo bought his land after Rhode Island law restricted the filling of wetlands. But Pacific Legal Foundation's Eric Grant says the timing is beside the point.

GRANT: If Mr. Palazzolo's constitutional rights were violated, it shouldn't matter when he acquired the property or when the government enacted the regulations.

KAYDEN: The lawyers for the property owner in this case are arguing a tough proposition.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Jerold Kayden teaches at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, and he's represented both sides in property rights battles. He says property owners and government regulators alike are closely watching the Rhode Island case. They're looking to see if the high court will redefine how the Constitution's takings clause is interpreted.

KAYDEN: If you take Palazzolo's argument to its extreme, then any time a property owner is restricted from developing, government must pay. And that would require a revolution in the jurisprudence that the court had articulated. And so I think that hysteria is not worthwhile.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: As for Anthony Palazzolo, he says he and the state could have settled long ago. But he says it's almost triumph in itself just see his case heard by the nation's highest justices.

PALAZZOLO: They saw it, too, that hey, wait a minute, maybe the guy's got something here. And that's why I feel good about it. Win or lose I'll know one thing, that I'll be at peace with myself. I didn't quit. And that's what it amounts to.

(Surf)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: A decision in Anthony Palazzolo's compensation case is expected this summer. For Living on Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.

CURWOOD: Coming up: Exploring a spiritual path through some of China's most moving landscapes. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this health update with Diane Toomey.

(Music up and under)

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Health Update

TOOMEY: You can eat your vegetables, get a good night's sleep, and refrain from smoking. But a healthy lifestyle doesn't guarantee you'll see your eighty-sixth birthday. When researchers analyzed death rates for a recent ten-year period in France, Japan, and the U.S., they found people living longer but the rise in life expectancy has slowed down. Even among Japanese women, the longest-lived group studied, the chance of achieving a life expectancy at birth of 90 years or more hasn't really changed over the past decade. Researchers say this isn't surprising, since life expectancy is difficult to increase once it approaches 80 years. In order for it to rise above 85, scientists must discover how to counteract the aging process itself. The authors conclude that industrialized society should start focusing on quality of life rather than length of life. That's this week's health update. I'm Diane Toomey.

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: Marvin Pontiac, "In a Big Car"

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Yunnan River, Part II

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Officials in the western Chinese province of Yunnan are trying to preserve a vast mountain wilderness while also encouraging tourism. In the second part of the latest NPR National Geographic Radio Expedition, NPR's Christopher Joyce visits the region, where experts are discovering that conservation can be a mixture of science and faith.

(A rooster crows; a cow moos)

JOYCE: In a Tibetan village you're never very far from your livestock.

(Mooing, crowing)

JOYCE: Your animals are in the front yard, guarded by a big, angry dog.

(Barking dog)

JOYCE: They're also in the back yard under the pomegranate trees.

(A cavalcade of animals)

JOYCE: And they own the first floor of the house.

(Animals, bells)

JOYCE: On every rooftop there are drying ears of corn and sheaves of barley. Sometimes a satellite dish. And a small, earthen kiln. A senior man in the household comes here daily to burn cedar branches and pray. This Buddhist ritual is called Sansat [phonetic spelling].

(A man prays amidst animal calls, sizzling)

JOYCE: Breakfast in a Tibetan home with Guo Jing [phonetic spelling]. He's a Chinese anthropologist with the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences. He says the Chinese Han people, the majority, have become fascinated with Tibetan culture. They, perhaps like us, feel they're missing something from the past.

GUO: People here think this area is holy area. I think that in the Tibetan's idea, holy mountains is just something like the center of the world.

JOYCE: Tibet symbolizes something spiritual.

(Voices, sizzling)

JOYCE: In China's Meili Snow Mountains, the breakfast table is set as it would be in Tibet. The bowl of samsa [phonetic spelling] or barley flour, dried yak meat, and yak butter tea -- that's tea, salt, and, yes, yak butter -- mashed in a long, wooden churn. Guo Jing [phonetic spelling] is part of a scientific survey team sent here by the Yunnan government and the U.S. group The Nature Conservancy.

(Bird calls)

JOYCE: They're designing a conservation plan for the region. The team's ecologist is Bob Moseley, a lean mountaineer from the Idaho Rockies.

MOSELEY: You get used to being stared at. People always want to see what you're doing, what you're pulling out of your pack, how you use chopsticks. Generally we're some of the first foreigners in here.

JOYCE: Four Asian rivers, including the Mekong and Yangtze, pass through here almost side by side. Mountains fold like an accordion with mile-deep canyons. Of the world's temperate regions, this one is perhaps the most biologically diverse. That's what led Moseley to visit here and then to move here.

MOSELEY: It's an enormous amount of life, different life forms that can be compressed in these elevational zones, from very arid subtropical scrub vegetation on the river through these moist forests, and then up into the Alpine meadows and the rhododendron scrubs and then to above treeline, right on up to the glaciers.

(Banging)

JOYCE: Moseley hikes from village to village to map this remarkable environment. Today he's climbing the mountainside above the village of Ji-La [phonetic spelling].

(Banging)

JOYCE: The villagers graze their livestock in these high pastures, cook and heat with wood. They cut trees for building and slide the logs downhill.

(Sliding; fade to local music)

JOYCE: There's lots of music here. You make your own instruments, your own entertainment. But the simple life is changing.

(TV sounds)

JOYCE: Small dams have brought intermittent electricity and television. The Yunnan government plans to send eco-tourists here. The Tibetans need that money, but they are wary. The environment is fragile. So is their way of life.

(Bells)

JOYCE: We met a young Tibetan named Norbu [phonetic spelling]. He said Tibetans have a special relationship with the land.

NORBU: [phonetic spelling] We must protect the Buddhist, the religion. This is the best way to protect the nature. The best way is you protect the culture. Local people will protect the nature.

(Footfalls)

JOYCE: In village after village the survey team finds out just what Norbu [phonetic spelling] means. There is a different way of seeing the land here.

MOSELEY: It's pretty exciting. What we found is that there is a zonation of cultural landscapes, of religious landscapes here, that fits very well with conservation planning for biodiversity also.

JOYCE: The lines on Moseley's computer maps begin to take on special meaning.

MOSELEY: There is an area right in here that the Tibetans call mani dron ying [phonetic spelling]. Basically means the natural line. Above that point up on the mountains, it's a very pure, natural place. Essentially no human activity takes place there. And that's where some of their important gods live. Below that, down to the lower village, is also a very natural landscape. They do very little cutting of the forests here, and when they do they say lots of prayers to thank the gods for these things.

(Bells, voices)

JOYCE: Moseley and his colleagues crisscross the mountains, surveying glaciers and couloirs, gullies filled with landslide debris, and streams the color of jade.

MOSELEY: In this place in particular the Meili Snow Range has a very sort of vibrant and robust culture that interacts with that natural diversity in a very intimate way. Their livelihoods and their religions are very closely tied with the land and the use of and the conservation of natural diversity. And that was surprising.

JOYCE: In August the team will deliver conservation plans to the provincial government. Bob Moseley and Guo Jing [phonetic spelling] now realize that any plan to protect an area four times the size of Yellowstone must include both the visible and the invisible.

(Bells)

GUO: [phonetic spelling] I think the first thing we should have record of intangible culture. These mountains and trees are some sacred sites, tangible culture we can see. These are important. But they're not the most important things. The most important things is people's idea about this land.

(Voices, bells, drums)

JOYCE: On our last day we pass a Buddhist monastery called Dong Du Ping [phonetic spelling]. There is a festival going on. Vendors line the narrow path to its wide gates. Inside there is a courtyard. Thousands of Tibetans sit around the edge and crowd along second-story balconies. The scene is medieval.

(Loud voices, musical instruments)

JOYCE: In shaded pavilions monks play 15-foot-long horns, drums, and cymbals. The music is felt as much as it's heard.

(Louder music)

JOYCE: Then, at the top of a grand staircase, a young monk materializes. He glides down into the courtyard, a dagger in one hand, red ribbons in the other. One by one they come until there are 20 monks at least. They balance on one foot and then the other, spinning silently with the utmost deliberation. They form a circle and the circle spins.

(Loud music continues)

JOYCE: Guo Jing [phonetic spelling] says this is a preparation for the new year. Cleansing the land of past sins. It's a window into the invisible landscape, a landscape that for these Tibetans is the center of the universe.

(Loud music continues, voices)

JOYCE: With NPR's Bill McQuay, this is Christopher Joyce for Radio Expeditions in Yunnan Province, China.

(Music and voices continue up and under)

CURWOOD: Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR News and the National Geographic Society.

(Music up and under: Choying Droma, "Om Pana Phem")

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues; the Educational Foundation of America for reporting on energy and climate change; the Oak Foundation, supporting coverage of marine issues; and the Turner Foundation.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. When we return: Turning butts into bucks. The state of Maine considers a cigarette deposit law. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: Saint-Saens, "Carnival of Animals")

SECOND HALF HOUR

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Maine Butts

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Despite a ban on smoking in workplaces, public buildings, and even restaurants, the state of Maine has one of the highest proportions of smokers in the United States. And after that last drag, too many of those cigarettes are simply flicked away. Cigarette butts account for much of the litter along Maine's beaches, parks, sidewalks, and parking lots. But that could all change soon if the nation's first-ever cigarette butt bill passes the state legislature. From the state capital Augusta, Maine Public Radio's Susan Chisholm reports.

CHISHOLM: At first some Maine lawmakers thought it was a joke, and Representative Joe Brooks has taken a lot of ribbing. But he's pushing ahead with legislation to put cigarette butts right up there with bottles and cans and make them redeemable items. Brooks says creating an incentive for smokers to properly dispose of their butts makes sense.

BROOKS: Think about the millions of people in this country who smoke and flick them out the windows. And what do they do? They cause fires.

CHISHOLM: They also turn public spaces into ashtrays. Cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, a plastic that degrades slowly in the environment. That's why Brooks, a former two-pack-a-day smoker, wants the state to pay five cents for each cigarette butt returned to bottle redemption centers for later disposal at local landfills.

BROOKS: We have limited the places where people who smoke can smoke. And in almost every case it's outside. I mean, let's clean up the environment.

CHISHOLM: Brooks calculates that if only half the state's 2.2 billion butts were returned, Maine could reap about $50 million annually from unclaimed deposits. Some business owners agree the bill makes economic sense. Peter Daigle is a partner in a chain of hotels and motels in Maine and New Hampshire. He says it costs his company about $4,000 a year to pick up cigarette butts. Daigle himself spends part of each day trolling for trash.

DAIGLE: See, I was here, I got here about two-thirty, three o'clock, and there were no butts out here today.

CHISHOLM: So now you're finding some already where you looked?

DAIGLE: Now we're finding some, right.

CHISHOLM: You don't have any qualms about picking them up and touching them?

DAIGLE: No, I've been doing it so long that if I had to go to the car and get a pair of rubber gloves, I'd be running to the car more than I'd be picking up cigarette butts. You've got to go wash your hands after you do this.

CHISHOLM: But critics of the bill warn of possible health hazards associated with handling smelly, dirty cigarette butts. The director of the Maine Bureau of Health calls them microbial havens. And some lawmakers cringe at the idea of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts scouring the beaches and streets collecting butts to boost the troop's coffers. Meanwhile, smokers like Chris Dampier question proponents' true motives.

DAMPIER: See, I'm just not all into that save the environment and all that stuff. The Earth will take care of itself. It always has and it always will, so there's just a big lobby in the state that doesn't want people to smoke. And I just, I'm against that stuff.

CHISHOLM: There's also a strong lobby opposing the bill. To pay for the redemption program, the cost of each pack of cigarettes sold in Maine would rise by a dollar. Smokers could get that dollar back if they turn in their butts. But some retailers fear the price hike will spur a black market in cheaper, out-of-state cigarettes. Lyanne Cochi represents the New England Convenience Store Association, which counts tobacco companies in its membership. At a hearing before the legislature's Business and Economic Development Committee, she told members the bill could hurt retail sales overall.

COCHI: It's a proven economic theory, generally, as the price of an item rises consumption decreases. When a customer comes in for a pack of cigarettes, they often purchase other items. These sales would be lost if the customer did not come in to purchase those original tobacco sales.

CHISHOLM: The tobacco industry opposes the bill because of its labeling requirement. Manufacturers would have to stamp each cigarette they sell in Maine with an identifying symbol, the same way bottles and cans are marked for return. Severin Belliveau, who represents a wholesale tobacco distributor in Maine, says labeling would give his client nightmares. That prompted this question from committee co-chair Kevin Shorey.

SHOREY: I'm hearing this and I'm hearing there's definitely a problem here. You know, there's a problem here in regard to the littering, et cetera. You said there are some other ways we can alleviate this. Would you share those with us?

BELLIVEAU: Well, someone is suggesting about the enforcement of the litter statutes. People think that law enforcement will deal with it. They won't deal with this. And I don't think - I don't agree that the problem exists to the extent that's been suggested.

CHISHOLM: But the bill's sponsor, Representative Joe Brooks, doubts police will be eager or able to crack down on litterbug smokers. He points out that many of the same arguments were made 20 years ago when Maine paved the way as the nation's first state to pass the highly-successful returnable bottle bill.

BROOKS: Why can't we have a returnable butt bill? Or a returnable cigarette bill just like we have a returnable bottle bill? And we, just like everybody else who is first greeted by the subject, chuckles a little bit. And we think about it, gee whiz, wouldn't it be funny if you did that, and guffaw, guffaw. But then the more you think about it and the more you put some serious thought to it, the more it becomes a logical conclusion to what do we do with all those butts out there?

CHISHOLM: A legislative committee will take up the first in the nation butt bill early next month. For Living on Earth, I'm Susan Chisholm in Augusta, Maine.

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Meadows Obituary

CURWOOD: Dartmouth College professor Donella Meadows died of bacterial meningitis on February twentieth. She usually referred to herself as Dana Meadows, and you may have known her as a co-author of the bestseller Limits to Growth, published nearly 30 years ago. Writing with her former husband, Dennis Meadows, and Jorgen Rander, it synthesized computer data about the troubling trends of environmental change, population growth, and economics into an eloquent plea for sustainability. Her genius was based on her abilities to perceive systems, that you have to consider something in the context of the whole if you want to understand it. That included her own life. She chose to live simply on an organic farm for much of her years, handing back a tenured chair at Dartmouth in favor of a part-time position that would allow her to practice her teachings. And if you asked her what she did for a living, she was apt to say, simply, "a writer and a farmer." Beyond the classroom, you'd find her expounding her views in her newspaper column, "The Global Citizen." And she was a welcome guest here on Living on Earth. During our Earth Day special last year I asked her if technology or behavioral changes would best get us out of the crisis that links climate change and energy.

MEADOWS: I just bought a 70-mile-a-gallon car. That's a wonderful technology and it's just become available to me. But it's also important that I don't drive when I don't need to drive. That's the behavioral side. And the technology side allows me, when I do have to drive, to do it much more efficiently. I'm wildly in favor of both.

CURWOOD: Donella Meadows was 59. And the untimeliness of her death leaves one to wonder what other insights she might have had for us about the limits and promises of the human condition.

(Music up and under: Seamus Egan, "When Juniper Sleeps")

CURWOOD: Just ahead: You may think parakeets live wild just in the tropics. But then you may not have been to tropical southern Connecticut lately. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this animal update with Maggie Villiger.

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Animal Update

VILLIGER: In Norway, cod is a Christmas delicacy. In the days leading up to the holiday, fishermen catch thousands of cod and put them in pens at sea until harvest. But this year, after a stretch of stormy weather, they noticed the captured cod were looking a bit disoriented. Some were even vomiting. "Could these cod actually be seasick?" they asked scientists. The answer is yes. Fish have the same structure in their ears to maintain balance that we do. Since the cod trapped in pens couldn't orient themselves to the waves, they became, well, a little green around the gills. The same thing can happen when fish are transported over land in sloshing half-filled tanks. One simple cure calls for the fish to swim freely again, and reportedly the swimming cure works for seasick people, too. That's this week's animal update. I'm Maggie Villiger.

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

You can hear our program any time on our Web site. The address is www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And while you're online, send your comments to us at letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15.

(Music up and under: Anonymous Lounge Artist, "Parakeets of Paraguay")

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Monk Parakeets

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Coming up: Some big lessons from some small fossils. But first, during winter New England bird watchers find chickadees, cardinals, and juncos at their back yard feeders. Now there's one more to add to that list: monk parakeets. These members of the parrot family are native to the mountains of Argentina and Bolivia. And now some transplants from South America have taken up year-round residence in southern New England and other parts of the U.S. From Connecticut, WNPR's Diane Orson has this report.

LIVING: The best reason to be a biologist is cool toys. A telescope, and I have binoculars in the bag, and...

ORSON: Stephen Living spends his days driving up and down Connecticut's coastline looking for lime green parrots.

(Trunk door opens)

LIVING: So you can see the trunk of a monk parakeet researcher's car, full of twigs and various other debris, which I've collected from underneath their nests.

ORSON: Living is researching Connecticut's wild monk parakeets at Southern Connecticut State University. He studies where the birds nest, the materials they build with, what they eat, and how they interact with other birds.

(Bird calls)

ORSON: In a suburban neighborhood in the town of Milford along Connecticut's shoreline, there is a dense concentration of monk parakeets nesting in four evergreen trees, just a few feet from several beachfront homes.

LIVING: I believe I counted about 25 nests at this site. And numbers, I guessed at least 100 birds in this one location.

ORSON: Monk parakeets, also known as Quaker parakeets, are native to South America. About twelve inches long, they look as if they're wearing a bright green cloak over their gray chest. The birds were imported to the U.S. in the 1960s as exotic pets. Over time, some accidentally escaped or were intentionally released from pet shops and homes. In the 1970s an entire flock flew away after a shipping crate opened at New York's Kennedy Airport. There are now monk parakeet colonies in Connecticut, New York, Florida, Texas, Illinois, and Oregon. And when the birds take roost in an area, they build a home that's uniquely their own. Again, Stephen Living.

LIVING: This nest, I've estimated that it's probably a good eight feet on its longest axis by probably four or five feet across on its shortest axis. And these nests can weigh hundreds of pounds.

ORSON: The nests are unusual in the parrot world. Huge, complex structures made from twigs and sticks, almost like enormous parrot condo complexes. Monk parakeets like to build their nests on utility poles. Transformers may help heat the nests in winter. Some birds chew on the insulation, which has on occasion crossed wires and even caused power outages. And monk parakeets live in their nests year-round. Unlike many exotics they arrived in the U.S. pre-adapted to extremely cold temperatures, since they're used to live high in the Patagonia Andes. Not only do they survive Connecticut's winters, they're flourishing.

(Bird calls)

ORSON: These birds are not the melodious type. In fact, they squawk continually from dawn to dusk. The birds' neighbors seem to either love them or passionately dislike them.

WOMAN 1: They're very loud, and I think they're very messy with the twigs from the nests.

WOMAN 2: They're cool to look at, and they come down, they feed on the yard. But they take getting used to.

WOMAN 3: I find it sort of interesting that people are coming to look at them with binoculars and saying oh, aren't they great. And then I want to say, hey, five o'clock in the morning they're not so great. (Laughs)

WOMAN 4: I don't put food out for them because I figure they are survivors, and they need to fend for themselves.

ORSON: The variety of foods they eat may turn out to be a key to their success. In their native habitat, monk parakeets are considered agricultural pests. Flocks swoop into cornfields and decimate crops. Jenny Dickson is a wildlife biologist with Connecticut's Department of Environmental Protection. She says it's unclear the monk parakeet population is doing damage in the U.S. Most states are taking a wait and see approach.

DICKSON: What we generally have viewed as our policy right now is, if the birds are causing a problem that poses a public health or safety risk, then something can be done to control them. If it's just a nuisance from noise or droppings or something like that, that probably isn't going to fit that category.

ORSON: Experts estimate that the United States is home to thousands of wild monk parakeets. DEP biologist Dickson says many states tried at some point to eradicate their monk parakeet populations.

DICKSON: Connecticut did some eradication efforts but not a lot. And a lot of that was done initially with the thought that they could keep the birds from becoming established, or their populations from expanding. Those didn't go very well, so the birds are here to stay in a lot of different states.

ORSON: The 1992 Wild Bird Conservation Act strictly regulates the importation of birds from other continents. But officials say that as global trade has increased, more and more alien species, both plants and animals, have been introduced to the United States. Ornithologist Noble Proctor is credited with sighting Connecticut's first free-flying monk parakeets in the 1970s. He says there is a big difference between alien species arriving on their own to new continents and those introduced accidentally or intentionally by humans. Procter says birds move naturally when there is an open niche.

PROCTOR: This is just a normality of expansion of range. The whole dynamics of migration. When somebody intercedes and actually physically brings it in, gets bored with it, and released, bad. Not only for birds but for plants.

ORSON: Proctor says that without a niche monk parakeets are bound to impact something. The food chain, for example. But ornithologist Mark Spreyer disagrees. He's written about monk parakeets for the Birds of North America series. Spreyer says that non-native species can create a new niche for themselves in the urban ecosystem.

SPREYER: People get very alarmed about exotics, but most exotics that come over don't survive. And those that do survive don't invade native ecosystems. Most of the birds, you know, you talk about house sparrows, starlings, monk parakeets, in the eastern United States house finches, they all show up right around suburbs and cities. And I think there is a community there where they have a role.

(Bird calls)

ORSON: Connecticut's monk parakeet population is expanding. Until recently the colonies stayed strictly along the coastline, but now are moving inland, closer to farms. Connecticut may soon need to develop new management plans, but more information about the birds is needed first. So research biologists will spend the next two years trying to discover as much as they can about the state's newest wild bird. For Living on Earth I'm Diane Orson in Milford, Connecticut.

(Bird calls up and under)

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Trilobites

CURWOOD: Think of fossils and you'll likely think of dinosaurs, unless you're a kindred spirit of Richard Fortey. Richard Fortey's passion is the trilobite. These comparatively small fossilized animals offer a more complete panorama of the prehistoric world than the mega-beasts and go back even further in time. Richard Fortey is a senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London. And in homage to the creature he's devoted his life's work to, he's written a book called Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution. Mr. Fortey says trilobites were prehistoric beetles, and compared to the beetles of today they were large.

FORTEY: Well, you'd notice something that was probably about as big as the palm of your hand, with a hard shell. And it would be divided along its length into three lobes, hence its name. And as you looked at it, it would probably be crawling along, because underneath the carapace, which is the part you usually get preserved as fossils, there are lots of little legs. And those legs are jointed like the legs of a crab or a lobster. You would look at it, and it would look back at you because rather prominently on its head there would be two eyes. And the trilobites are remarkable, because they have the first really well-preserved eyes in the fossil record. So, this was a complex animal, in spite of the fact that they go back hundreds of millions of years.

CURWOOD: Now, I have to ask you, Richard Fortey, how is it that you first became interested in these strange creatures?

FORTEY: Well, I suppose you could say it was a case of love at first sight. I was on holiday as a child in a part of west Wales, and posted on the wall in the hotel was a geological map. And on the geological map there was some writing that said trilobites can be found here. And it sounded mysterious and exciting to me, and I spent most of that holiday breaking up rock with a coal hammer. And eventually I was lucky.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering if you could read an excerpt from your book that describes when you first discovered a trilobite.

FORTEY: Yes, I'd be pleased to. (Reads) The rock simply parted around the animal like some sort of revelation. The truth is that the fossil itself had rendered the rock weaker. It was predisposed to reveal itself, almost as if it desired disclosure. I was left holding two pieces of rock. In my left hand, the positive impression of the creature itself. In my right hand, the negative mold, which had once comprised its other half. The two together snuggled up to survive the vicissitudes of millions of years of entombment. There was a brownish stain on the fossil, but to me it was no disfigurement. Surely, what I held was the textbook come alive. Drawings and photographs could not compare with the joy of actually touching a find which seemed, in the egotistical glow of boyhood, dedicated to yourself alone. This was my first discovery of the animals that would change my life. The long, thin eyes of the trilobite regarded me, and I returned the gaze. More compelling than any pair of blue eyes, there was a shiver of recognition across 500 million years.

CURWOOD: Now, why did you pick trilobites? Paleontologists get a lot of press and interest from dinosaurs and big things like that. This kind of looks like a bug, a beetle.

FORTEY: I don't know. I mean, the child's usual attraction is towards the dinosaur, isn't it? Simply because they were enormous and fierce and spectacular. But I wanted to redress the balance in a way, from the rule of the dinosaurs, to show you how real paleontologists infer things about the past, using these smaller and you might say humbler animals. But of course, when you look at them, you see that there's much more beauty and variety than you would have at first thought. You know, these were fantastically varied creatures. Some of them are as prickly as porcupines. Some of them had enormous goggly eyes. Wrapped up in that single word trilobite, there is a metaphor for the variety of life throughout geological time.

CURWOOD: Now, how did a trilobite make its living as a creature?

FORTEY: The first thing to say is, they were exclusively marine. But within the seas, they did almost everything that crustaceans -- crabs, lobsters, and their allies -- do today. I mean, some of them were ocean swimmers. They swam freely in the open ocean, rather like krill. There were others that crawled on the sea floor, more or less eating mud, about the lowliest existence you can have as a marine animal. But there were others, again, including some monsters, trilobite standard, of course, perhaps three feet long, which were predators. And then there were others that were filter feeders. So they exploited a wide variety of ecological niches. In fact, had you been around, let's say, in the Cambrian period 500 million years ago, you would have encountered trilobites everywhere from the shallow shore to the deep sea. The world would have been swarming with them.

CURWOOD: Now, I understand that the horseshoe crab is just about the closest living relative of the trilobite. You write that maybe it's a second cousin. You also wrote that you had done some informal research on this crab. What was that about?

FORTEY: Well, I was doing field work in Thailand, and at the end of the day, you know, we always retreated to a rather nice restaurant. And one evening, looking in the fish tank -- you know, where they have the live fish that can be brought to your table --

CURWOOD: Oh, yes.

FORTEY: I was astonished to see a close relative of Limulus wandering about in the bottom of the tank. So I thought to myself, this is my only chance to find out what a trilobite actually tasted like. Well, I discovered when it was brought to my table that the horseshoe crab has, at this time of year, only -- so I was very lucky -- a brood of extremely yolky eggs. And that was the edible bit of the horseshoe crab. I have to say it tasted rather like rancid fish. The curious thing is, this is an example of how imagination or luck suggests things in your scientific life, I'd been puzzled why certain trilobites had a great balloon on the front of their heads. There seemed to be no functional explanation for it. After I'd finished eating my horseshoe crab eggs, I suddenly realized that the place that the horseshoe crabs carried their yolky eggs was, well, analogous certainly and probably homologous with where these trilobite bulbs were. So, it occurred to me that maybe these were, after all, brood pouches that carried the eggs in just the same way as the horseshoe crab. It's an appealing idea.

CURWOOD: Even if it's not an appealing meal.

FORTEY: Even if it's not an appealing meal, yes.

CURWOOD: Richard Fortey, how do you do describe what you do to others?

FORTEY: With some difficulty. (Curwood laughs) I think I've only ever received one rude remark by somebody who said, and this was not from the man in the street, this was a rather well-paid barrister, who said, "And does the taxpayer subsidize this work you do?" And when I explained that he did, he said, "How tremendously arcane." But apart from that, most people seem to find it a rather thrilling way to spend your life.

CURWOOD: What's an average day in the field like for you when you go looking for trilobites?

FORTEY: Well, you have to find the right rock section to hit, first of all. Then really it is a matter of hard labor. You know, in the old days, criminals used to be, I believe, sentenced to breaking up stones. Well, that's what I have to do for a living when I'm in the field. And one of the joys of paleontology, of course, is that there is this strong element of serendipity. You never know what the next hammer blow is going to bring. So, quite often it's frustrating, you didn't find much, and then maybe suddenly you will open a page on history that has never been seen before. I can recall occasions, for example, where I found within the space of half an hour perhaps half a dozen animals previously, as they used to say, unknown to science. And that's quite a thrill.

CURWOOD: Is there something that separates the study of trilobites from the rest of paleontology?

FORTEY: No. No. The kind of things I explain in my book apply to other kinds of fossils as well. What I wanted to show was, you know, by studying something apparently arcane, you can actually open windows on things which everybody can understand is important. By studying trilobites, you can actually reconstruct the vanished geographies of ancient worlds.

CURWOOD: In your book you compare the extinction of the trilobites with Franz Joseph Haydn's "Farewell Symphony." How's that?

FORTEY: Well, you know, the symphony begins with a lot of bustle, the orchestra all playing together. And now I think it was a protest that Haydn made on the behalf of the poor pay of his orchestra.

(Music up and under: Haydn's "Farewell Symphony")

FORTEY: He got progressive members of the orchestra to pack up and leave the stage, until only, I think it was the first violin alone remained fiddling. Well, so it is with the decline of the trilobites. There was a glorious variety of them in the Ordovician Period, and indeed in the Silurian Period. And then gradually, gradually, the variety dwindled, until at the end of their history there were just a few left. And then of course the rest is silence.

(Haydn up and under)

CURWOOD: Richard Fortey is senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London and author of the book Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution. Mr. Fortey, thanks for joining us.

FORTEY: It's been my pleasure.

(Music up and under: Haydn's "Farewell Symphony")

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week: Ever since Thailand imposed a ban on logging, elephants that used to haul logs out of the forest are out of work. But some have found new jobs: playing in the band.

(An elephant calls)

MAN: I'd say for about half of the elephants playing in the orchestra, it's just a job. But several of them generally enjoy it, particularly Luuk-Op [phonetic spelling], whose English name would be Tadpole, is a wonderful percussionist, keeps perfect time. If you give him something new to bang on, he'll figure out just where to hit it to get the nicest sound.

(Chimes)

CURWOOD: The incredible Thai elephant orchestra, next week on Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Stephanie Pindyck, Maggie Villiger, Nathan Johnson, Jennifer Chu, and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, and Mylisa Muniz. We had help this week from Steven Belter and WRNI, Providence. Our interns are Merav Bushlin, Dawn Robinson, and Evie Stone. Alison Dean composed our themes. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor. Diane Toomey is our science editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

 

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