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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

August 4, 2000

Air Date: August 4, 2000


Dark Sky / Bob Carty

Correspondent Bob Carty reports from Ontario, Canada on the creation of the world's first Dark Sky Reserve. It's an area where lights and development are prohibited so that sky watchers can get a clear view. (10:25)

Technology Update / Cynthia Graber

Cynthia Graber reports on a skin patch developed by Israeli scientists that warns you when you’re getting too much sun – before you start to burn. (00:59)

Salmon Fishing Heritage / Liz Hamilton

In the Pacific Northwest, sport fishing is both big business and a family affair. We hear from Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sport Fishing Industry Association, about catching her first salmon and how it changed her life. (05:15)

Beach Sand Commentary / Sy Montgomery

Watch where you spread out your beach blanket this summer! Living On Earth commentator Sy Montgomery finds a complete cosmos of tiny life in that supposedly barren strip of sand. (02:55)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about “Champ.” Lake Champlain may have its own mysterious resident -- a brontosaurus lookalike called Champ. (01:30)

Birder's Handbook

Host Steve Curwood talks with Cornell ornithologist Stephen Kress about his book “National Audubon Society Birder’s Handbook” and about his passion for birds. (05:45)

Health Update

Diane Toomey reports on a new study that links the use of pesticides in the home and garden to a risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. (00:59)

Morocco Solar Surge / Peter Thomson

Living On Earth’s Peter Thomson reports from Morocco on a sudden surge in solar power. An innovative financing model is bringing together large corporations, solar entrepreneurs, non-governmental organizations and Moroccan residents to supply affordable power in rural areas. (14:35)

Sun Song / Barrett Golding

The sounds of charged solar particles hitting the atmosphere and the voice of the man who records them…. set to a swirly rock n’ roll beat by producer Barrett Golding. (03:20)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Bob Carty, Peter Thomson, Barrett Golding
UPDATES: Cynthia Graber, Diane Toomey
GUESTS: Stephen Kress
COMMENTATORS: Liz Hamilton, Sy Montgomery


(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, it's Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Light from human activity is filling up the night sky, so now there's a sanctuary for stargazing: a dark park.

GORING: I mean (laughs) there are so many, you just can't possibly count the number of stars. And the other thing, of course, is if there are any bright planets, they can be so bright that they can actually cast a shadow. And that's quite astonishing.

CURWOOD: Also, the joy of fishing for salmon in the Pacific Northwest.

HAMILTON: Catching that very first Spring Chinook changed me so profoundly I started fishing regularly after that. I'd put my children on the bus, wave goodbye, grab the rod, and off I'd go. (Laughs)

CURWOOD: And a peek at the amazing life on the beach under the sand. We'll have that and more this week on Living on Earth, first this news.

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(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Dark Sky

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood, with an encore edition of Living on Earth. Lying on the grass, looking at the stars. It's a perfect way to spend a warm August night. But stargazing is getting harder to do in North America. In many areas the combination of smoggy haze and bright electric lights block our view of the planets and constellations. But in the wild, one can see the heavens the way our ancestors did. And there's a spot in Ontario which has recently become home to the world's first dark sky reserve. Bob Carty has our report.

(Music up and under: "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star")

CARTY: Our family's summer reunion is sometimes held at a lakeside cottage, and this year, while the adults chatted after dinner, I wandered down to the lake, where a gaggle of nieces and nephews sat on a sandy beach under a night canopy.

CHILD 1: There's the Big Dipper.

CHILD 2: I see a triangle.

CHILD 3: Like, if you look for a while you can see, like, shooting stars, and they're really cool. And you can see satellites moving, and you can have like a little contest to see who can spot more satellites in one hour.

CHILD 4: You can see Mars. It's straight ahead. It's sort of a big ball. It's one of the brightest things in the sky. And to me it looks sort of an orange-red. I'm sure that's Mars.

CHILD 5: Looks like a big flood of stars.

CARTY: These young people are lucky. When they come here they get to see something they can never see in the city: a clear, dark night sky.

CHILD 6: I live in the city, and at night there's, like, so much pollution.

CHILD 7: You can't see a lot of the stars because of all the lights.

CHILD 8: It's like a reddish, purplish pink, because I don't know, at night, yeah, it's like purplish with pollution and clouds and gray.


DICKENSON: Astronomers call it light pollution. It's civilization. We have lots of artificial light at night. And virtually all astronomers say you switch on a light and you switch off a star.

CARTY: Terry Dickenson is the editor of Sky News Magazine, and the author of many books on astronomy. His life has paralleled the growth of large cities, and the disappearance of starry, starry nights.

DICKENSON: In the 1950s, as a youngster, I lived on the edge of a very large city. And I was able to see the Milky Way from my back yard. I know this because I kept a little notebook when I got my first telescope. Now when I go back to the very spot where I made those observations, I can see maybe five or six stars. And this is not an isolated incident. Many people, for the first time in history, have never seen the natural beauty of a pristine night sky.


CARTY: And Terry Dickenson says we're not even aware that we've lost what our ancestors took for granted. Though sometimes there is an epiphany. Like in Los Angeles, in 1994. A nighttime earthquake cut off power in most of the Los Angeles basin. People scurried outside onto the streets in fear of aftershocks. And then, they looked up.

DICKENSON: And people were standing out, and they noticed this strange cloud, what was later described as a cloud, dividing the sky in half. It looked completely bizarre and alien to so many people, that the next day and for subsequent days on radio talk shows, police and emergency services were receiving calls about this strange cloud, and the strange appearance of the night sky. Many people were suggesting that the cloud was caused by the earthquake. It was the Milky Way, of course.

(Music up and under: "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star")

CARTY: What do you do when a wonder of nature disappears? At first you drive several hours out of the city to get a clear view. But then the lights follow you, even to rural towns and back roads. That's what happened to Peter Goering. And when Peter Goering saw the stars disappearing from his night skies, he decided to do something about it.


GOERING: This is what we call the heart of cottage country, about a two-hour drive north of an area where you've got about four million people in the greater Toronto area. And actually, we're heading really towards the world's first dark sky preserve.

(A car door opens, closes)

CARTY: It is just after sunset and Peter Goering is driving me down a little-used country road, heading away from the lakes of Muskoka. Peter Goering is a retired architect. All his life he's put up buildings. But the greatest creation in his career may be something without cement and mortar. Peter Goering is the architect of the world's first dark park.

GOERING: Now, I just want to point out, as we're coming along now, we're beginning to rise a little bit. And you'll notice now that the trees are much shorter, much further apart, and you have a lot of bushes and things. So it's getting quite open.

CARTY: So this is part of the Canadian shield, pre-Cambrian shield rock.


CARTY: And very, very little soil here?

GOERING: Yeah, it's very little soil cover, and that's of course the reason that you have such sparse growth. Ah, now we've just reached the point where we turn off. There is a sign here which was erected last summer, and here it says, "The Torrance Barrens Conservation Reserve."

CARTY: There are many reasons this piece of pre-Cambrian rock is ideal for a dark sky reserve. It's within two hours of a mega-city, so it's far enough away from city lights, but close enough to be accessible. And it's on 5,000 acres of government-owned land that's largely undeveloped and unpopulated.

(Footfalls, crickets)

CARTY: A flashlight guides us down a narrow trail. We walk on pink and gray granite, through ferns and dwarf pines. But other than this trail and a single sign, there's nothing here. And that may be one of the reasons Peter Goering got his idea through the political hoops and red tape of several levels of government. Most politicians and bureaucrats were enchanted with the idea, and smitten, frankly, with the lack of a price tag.

GOERING: One of the wonderful things about it is that there's no money involved, because there will be no buildings or support structures or other things, put roads in, or anything like that. Nothing was going to be obvious. It's all going to be very quiet, and totally unstructured. And I think that's one of the wonderful things about it: no batteries required.


CARTY: A ten-minute walk brings us up to one of the viewing locations, a 60-foot slab of granite that rises above the treeline. Up here, there's almost a prairie kind of feeling. The forest is a flat plain, and the sky a huge dome.

GOERING: And directly up above, you notice three very bright stars, part of what's called the Summer Triangle. To the south there is the constellation of Scorpio, and also one constellation, which looks like a teapot. The teapot which is tilted to the right, and the steam which is coming out of the spout itself, forms the Milky Way, which then rises up overhead. I mean (laughs) there are so many, you just can't possibly count the number of stars. And the other thing, of course, is if there are any bright planets, like Venus or Jupiter, they can be so bright that they can actually cast a shadow. And that's quite astonishing to see.

(Music up and under: "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star")

CARTY: Peter Goering says the dark sky reserve is now starting to attract amateur astronomers. In the future he hopes tourists will come, and that is part of the attraction for the local government. In return, officials will prohibit development that would bring lights into the reserve. Still, supporters of the dark park will have to work with nearby towns to prevent the encroachment of new light pollution in the future. Terry Dickenson says the international dark sky movement is not against night lighting, but there's a lot that is simply not needed. It doesn't help us see in the dark, but just splashes off into space. And Dickenson says the worst offender is the common street lamp.

DICKENSON: You can see those lights when you fly over a city in an airplane. You can see the street lights. You shouldn't be able to; it's just bad design. Parking lots illuminated all night clearly are a waste, and it would be nice to see timers on those kinds of lights. It's also not necessary to illuminate billboards from the bottom up, because a lot of the light spills into the sky. That's pure waste, estimated by the International Dark Sky Association to be in the region, in North America, of one to two billion dollars a year.


CARTY: This dark sky reserve has made news around the world, and it's already encouraging others to lobby and pressure for a dark park of their own. Peter Goering hopes it will conserve something he wants his grandchildren and their children to experience. Something that is about more than just stars and science. An experience that kindles a reflection about who we are and what we are doing.

GOERING: In the most recent past, we were able to step out in our back yards and look up at the sky. And feast on what we could see up there. But that's become more and more blurred as we've developed further, as technology has begun to overpower us in many ways. So, the idea of creating a reserve, in effect, is a sign of failure, and perhaps that's why people are interested.

(Children sing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star")

CHILD 1: When you look up in the sky and you see there's so much stuff, like, it makes you feel so small, because it looks so big.

CHILD 2: Just the prospect, I think, of what's out there, there's just so many things beyond our planet. And when you look up at all the stars, you really realize that. It just makes you realize that you're not, the Earth is not, the center of the universe. It's just, there's so much more.

(Singing continues; fade to piano music up and under)

CURWOOD: Our feature on the dark park was produced by Bob Carty.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: 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, that's letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. You can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. CDs, tapes, and transcripts of the program are $15.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Hook, line, and patience. Fishing for huge salmon in the Pacific Northwest. That story is just ahead, right here on Living on Earth.

First, this environmental technology update with Cynthia Graber.

(Music up and under)

Technology Update

GRABER: It's summer time, and for many folks that means sunburn time. Scientists say incidents of sunburn and skin cancer have been on the rise as manmade chemicals thin the protective ozone layer. Until now, the only way to tell how much sun is too much is after the damage is done. But Israeli scientists have come up with a solution, a sticker that warns you before you burn. It measures ultraviolet radiation, the kind that causes burns and most skin cancers. It's a little round patch that contains chemicals that slowly turn color before your skin does, letting you know it's time to get into the shade or reapply sunscreen. The sticker works with sunscreen, absorbing it and factoring in the protective power of your sunscreen with your skin type. There are different color stickers that work with different skin types, so you can coordinate your beach wear with your sun protection. And that's this week's technology update. I'm Cynthia Graber.

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

(Music up and under)

Salmon Fishing Heritage

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Only a few generations ago, the rivers in the Pacific Northwest ran red with salmon returning from the ocean to spawn. Today, dams, development, and overfishing have wiped out many of the runs and landed others on the endangered species list. But not all salmon are in trouble, and sport fishers still flock to the best spots from Oregon to Alaska. And for many who grow up in the Northwest, their first catch of a salmon or trout becomes a cherished recollection of childhood.

(Flowing water; a reel is cast)

HAMILTON: I'd grown up fishing for trout, mostly. And as an adult, I decided to strike out on my own and try to catch salmon. And I fished and I fished and I fished almost six weeks solid. And could never manage to land one. I had several on but they always escaped. I had four or five Spring Chinook on, and they always escaped.

(Splashing; voices; a reel is cast)

HAMILTON: When they're biting, you have to be patient, and you have to let them take the bait. And you have a hold on your rod, and it's only eight-and-a-half feet long and it's very limber. And you're holding it, and you know that salmon is there, and you have to be patient. And you wait. And they take it a little more, and you're holding tight onto that rod. And they take it a little more. And they take it a little more. And finally, you can't be patient any longer, and you set the hook. And the fish will take off.

(Splashing; gulls)

HAMILTON: It's excitement. It's adrenaline. Your spool heats up from the speed of the fish pulling that line out. And your drag is set such that you can barely pull it with your hand. But that fish is peeling it off so fast, that if you put your thumb on your spool, it will burn a blister. That's how powerful they are. So there's this power and grace. And then they jump up into the air, and it's the most magnificent thing to see a 25-pound fish leap up into the air. And it's a magnificent struggle. And when they get away, you cheer. It's not a sad thing. You know, your opponent has won the day, and off they go.


HAMILTON: And finally, I was fishing with one of my girlfriends, and I hooked into a fish and fought it, and landed it. And it was a 25-pound Spring Chinook. Which is almost twice their average size. And so, that was the change of my life. Catching that very first Spring Chinook changed me so profoundly I changed careers. I changed interest. I started fishing regularly after that. I'd put my children on the bus, wave goodbye, grab the rod, and off I'd go. (Laughs)

(Casts a reel; voices in the background)

HAMILTON: And I have wonderful memories. Maybe my favorite is Mother's Day about ten years ago. I went out with both my daughters and my best girlfriend. And my five-year-old daughter caught her first Spring Chinook. And it was the only fish caught all day, with a boat of about six others. And we get on shore and it's time to take pictures. And she's five. And she's holding up a 17-pound salmon, all by herself. Smiling ear to ear, and won't let anyone else help her. That's probably the memory that sticks the most for me, is sharing that experience with my daughter.


CURWOOD: Liz Hamilton and her family live in Oregon City, Oregon, where she is executive director of the Northwest Sport Fishing Industry Association. Next week, Living on Earth begins a special series on salmon in the Pacific Northwest. We'll look at controversy over a series of dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. They provide power and make the rivers navigable. But they also block the way for migrating fish. Point of No Return: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest starts next week on Living on Earth.

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(Music up and under)

Beach Sand Commentary

CURWOOD: If you're on the beach this August, you could easily find a bunch of kids digging a deep hole, imagining themselves coming out the other side of the world. Digging to China is what a lot of us called it when we were kids. They might not make it to China, but these kids will reach entire communities of creatures, even if they barely make it a couple of feet down. As commentator Sy Montgomery explains, there are whole miniature worlds teeming with life just below our towels.

MONTGOMERY: The world of beach sand is a place of astonishing wonders. Each grain can claim a rich history, and a stretch of supposedly barren beach can support millions of hidden lives. Beach sand is no desert. The creatures who live here are masters of camouflage and concealment. Tiger beetles, sand fleas, and mole crabs hide in sandy burrows. Moon snails hunt up to a foot beneath wet sand. Piping plovers' sand-colored eggs and plumage are so perfectly matched to their surroundings that most people never realize these birds nest on bare sand on some of our busiest beaches.

And then there is a whole specialized cosmos of creatures who've adapted to living and moving in the spaces between individual sand grains. In the wet sand beneath your feet, the miniature neighborhood of individual sand grains is populated by tiny creatures collectively known as interstitial fauna. This diverse group includes the world's smallest mollusks, worms only 1/16 of an inch long, and tiny crustaceans. There are also weird creatures known as water bears, with 8-clawed legs but no heart or respiratory system.

To these animals, the sand grains are like giant stacked cannonballs on a New England town square. The spaces between them seem copious. To move between them, most of these creatures wiggle like snakes or propel themselves with beating hairs called cilia. Many interstitial animals also possess an array of sensors to tell them which way is up, a mini-version of our inner ear, and whether it's dark enough. Sunlight is usually bad news. And they also have special organs to attach themselves to individual grains, so they aren't washed away each time a wave comes by.

The sand on which we walk and lay our beach blankets is a world rich with beautiful and intricate lives we cannot even see, but which we nonetheless can care for and respect. Beach sand allows us, as William Blake wrote in his Auguries of Innocence, "To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour."

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery is author of Nature's Everyday Mysteries.

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(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science and the environment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; the Surdna Foundation; and the Ford Foundation, striving to preserve our ecological values.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. Coming up in the second half of Living on Earth: The latest on bird watching. And solar power lights up Morocco. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood

(Dramatic music up and under)

CURWOOD: On July fourth, the whole United States celebrates Independence Day. On August fifth, one tiny corner of the country celebrates Champ Day. There are no fireworks, but there are hotdogs, fried dough, and balloons, as residents of Port Henry, New York, trade stories of a monster they say inhabits the waters of Lake Champlain. Champ is the affectionate name for a creature, or creatures, that live between legend and rumor in the large lake that lies between New York and Vermont. Its full name is Champtanystropheus. And according to those who claim they've seen it, Champ is a lizard up to 20 feet long.

(Dramatic music continues)

CURWOOD: Picture a brontosaurus with fins and you'll start to get the idea. Samuel de Champlain himself said he saw it back in 1609. And before that, Indian lore spoke of monsters in the cloudy waters of Lake Champlain. Of course, the legend of Champ echoes that of its more famous Scottish cousin, the Loch Ness Monster. Like Nessie, Champ haunts a deep glacial lake. Also like Nessie, there's yet to be scientific proof of Champ's existence. But then, who needs proof when the mystery of the legend is so much fun? And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Dramatic music up and under)

Birder's Handbook

CURWOOD: Whether you have every bird book or just like to feed pigeons in the park, you're among the millions of people who are fascinated by birds. Now you can add to your knowledge or ornithology with a new book, though it's not just any book. It's the National Audubon Society's Birder's Handbook, written by Dr. Stephen Kress. He is an instructor at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. And the book's arranged with visual clues that can help even the most challenged among us to name that bird. Author Stephen Kress tells us how he first became interested in birds.

KRESS: I think my passion for birding began back in the fourth grade, when I was asked by Mrs. Reid, my fourth-grade teacher, if anybody in the class could identify a brown bird that was sitting in the grass. The bird was just poking into the grass, not too conspicuous. But then it flew up and it flashed a white rump. And I knew, right away, when I looked in the book, that that was a northern flicker. And that was the beginning of my bird identification. And I think that must have lit some little candle that has grown into my career.

CURWOOD: I'm looking at the Birder's Handbook that you've recently published. It's a beautiful book. Not only is the art in it really lovely, but it seems to operate at several levels. If you really know a lot about birding, I guess there are some things in here. And if you don't know a whole lot, it's not too intimidating.

KRESS: Well, that's it. You know, I wanted people that have the basics to also find something useful, and the chapters particularly on photography and sound recording and note-taking, counting birds, those are all techniques that really sort of go after you've identified the birds. But I wanted people to learn how to pick up binoculars and also to identify birds before we did anything else.

CURWOOD: In your book you have a rather interesting way of arranging the birds. Rather than the famous book put together by Roger Tory Peterson, Field Guide to the Birds, you have a running discussion and an evolution, kind of, of the different families of birds in here. Why did you do that?

KRESS: I encourage people, when they're learning to recognize birds, to concentrate on learning families of birds. Because when you do that, it helps you sort of, by process of elimination, come down to the actual species that you're looking at. For example, it's important to separate nuthatches from woodpeckers from creepers and other kinds of small birds. And if you learn these birds by families, then you can turn to the section in the field guide and leaf through the warblers, or the vireos, or the flycatchers. But first learn the families and then look to the species.

CURWOOD: So let's talk about nuthatches and chickadees and titmice and wrens and creepers. On first glance, they all look pretty much alike. How do you use the family system to tell them apart?

KRESS: All these small, little birds that come to back yard bird feeders, like chickadees and nuthatches, titmice, they look alike at first. But if you put them in the families, then you can begin to sort them out. Woodpeckers, of course, hang on the sides of trees, and they sort of hitch their way up the tree as they're looking for food, insects and larvals and eggs in the tree barks. Nuthatches, in contrast, are a different family of small birds, sparrow-sized birds that turn themselves upside-down frequently and work their way head-first down the tree trunk. Another family, the creepers, also work the tree trunk, but they spiral their way up the tree. And then when they get high up, they drop to the nearby tree and they start working from the base on up.

CURWOOD: In your chapter "Closing the Distance," you offer some tricks to get closer to birds. Can you tell us about some of the tricks you mention?

KRESS: Right. In that chapter I'm talking about land birds, and I am encouraging people to realize that birds will come closer if you do certain things that are attractive to them. One of the most useful tricks is to imitate the alarm call of a land bird. Because when birds see a predator, such as a snake or a fox, they will often make a particular sound that rallies other small birds close. And if you make that call, other birds are likely to come and rally around. Because together, all these different birds of different species can chase that predator away. It's a very fundamental kind of response to a predator. If you like, I could imitate it.

CURWOOD: Yeah, could you please?

KRESS: Okay. What's called the pishing sound, sounds like this. Psshhht! Psshhht! Psshhht! Psshhht!

CURWOOD: Let me try that now. See if I get this right. Psshhht! Psshhht! Psshhht! Psshhht! That it?

KRESS: Actually, you're a natural. That's fantastic.

CURWOOD: So I just head out to a good birding spot and I make that racket, and...

KRESS: Well, I've got to tell you, just so you don't get discouraged. It works best in the spring, when birds are in nesting condition. And if you happen to be going through the woods and you hear a little chip! chip! chip! that means the birds are already excited. And then if you add to that with this alarm call, you're more likely to get a response. There's a squealing, squeaking sound that also works if the pishing doesn't work, or you may to alternate with it. But there is a sound that's made by kissing the back of your hand. It sounds sort of like this. (Makes kissing sounds)

CURWOOD: And that will do it, too.

KRESS: It will work.

CURWOOD: Dr. Stephen Kress is the author of the National Audubon Society Birder's Handbook. Thank you so much for taking this time today.

KRESS: Thank you, Steve.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Coming up: The simple joy of affordable solar living comes to the dry lands of North Africa. That story is just ahead on Living on Earth.

First, this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.

(Music up and under)

Health Update

TOOMEY: Exposure to pesticides in the home and garden may increase chances of developing Parkinson's Disease. That's according to a new study from Stanford University researchers. They questioned nearly 500 Parkinson's patients about their past use of pesticides, and then compared the answers to those given by a group which didn't have the disease. The study found people exposed to pesticides were about twice as likely to develop Parkinson's, a neurological condition that affects more than half a million people in the U.S. But not all exposures produce the same risk. For instance, the use of insecticides in the home was associated with the highest likelihood of getting the disease. But in the garden, it was herbicides that presented the greatest risk. Researchers think some pesticides attack a part of the brain associated with movement, which in turn may leave people vulnerable to developing Parkinson's Disease. And that's this week's Living on Earth health update. I'm Diane Toomey.

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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, that's letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. CDs, tapes, and transcripts of the program are $15.

(Music up and under)

Morocco Solar Surge

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Flip a switch and the light goes on. Here in America we don't even think about it. Most of us take electricity for granted. But around the world two billion people have no access to reliable sources of electricity. That's a third of the entire human population. Bringing power to these people in a way that's both affordable and environmentally sound is a major challenge. In many places, solar panels, which convert sunlight directly into electricity, are the best way to go. But the economics of solar power are complex, and can be way too expensive for many people. In a few of the world's dark spaces, though, new ways of financing are starting to bring light to the less well-off. Living on Earth's Peter Thomson recently visited Morocco, which is in the midst of a solar power surge.

(Moroccan music plays)

THOMSON: It's early evening in the Place Djema el Fna, a marketplace of central Marrakech. Audiences gather in tight clusters around musicians, snake charmers, and storytellers. Throngs of people surge through the plaza stores, music shops, and food stalls, and the labyrinth of ancient streets beyond. Veiled Muslim women, traditional men in hooded robes, more modern Moroccans in jeans and jackets, and tourists in T-shirts.

WOMAN: English? (Men laugh) No? (Speaks in Arabic)

(Musicians play to applause)

THOMSON: The plaza is a cyclone of sound, color and culture. And light. Neon, fluorescent, incandescent. This is Morocco's Times Square.

(Music continues; fade to wind up and under)

THOMSON: But you don't have to leave Morocco's cities far behind to find yourself in a deep, dark place. Driving through the countryside at night, the darkness is striking. Even near many schools, houses, and mosques, there's barely a light to be seen, and rarely more than one illuminated window per house. Almost a third of Morocco's 26 million citizens have no electricity, and many of them have grown tired of waiting.


THOMSON: Under a bright February sun, a man hammers braces into the beams of a thatched roof. The braces hold a cable that runs from a darkened doorway up onto the roof, where it connects to a small blue and silver photovoltaic array.

BENALLOU: We will have electricity from the array today.

THOMSON: Abdelhanine Benallou is the president of SunLight Power Maroc. His crew is installing a 50-watt solar system at the home of Abdallah Ballouti. This household is pretty well off by local standards. The family raises cattle and grows wheat, barley, and beans on their farm on an isolated hillside east of the city of Fez. But Mr. Benallou says that in remote areas like this, even wealthier residents aren't hooked up to the power grid.

(Children's voices in the background)

BENALLOU: All this region is not economically feasible for the grid. (Hammering in the distance) Depending on the landscape, 100 meters from the grid, it starts being not economical. And also, it's not only landscape. You have to look at the dispersion of the population. It's not one cluster to which you can draw one line. If you look at this, for example, you're going to have a big line going in this direction, in that direction, etc. And you can't do that.

THOMSON: Without a connection to the grid, Mr. Ballouti's family has been spending about $30 a month on other sources of energy.

BALLOUTI: [Speaks in Arabic]

BENALLOU: So he was using exclusively for lighting butane gas, and for TV he had a TV set and he was using car batteries that he would recharge on diesel somewhere.

THOMSON: Now the family will be able to stop lugging around batteries and gas canisters. They're replacing them both with a solar electricity system for less money. An initial deposit of about $40 and a monthly fee of $20.

(Hammering, voices)

THOMSON: The SunLight Power crew has promised Mr. Ballouti that the electricity and television will be on by four o'clock.

BENALLOU: Why four o'clock? Because there is a soccer game at 4 PM. Morocco is playing, I think, Nigeria. He's waiting to watch that.

THOMSON: Inside an electrician finishes installing a switch.

BENALLOU: We have the lights already.

THOMSON: A small fluorescent bulb flickers on and casts a pale white light.

(To Benallou) This is the first electric light ever in this house.

BENALOU: Exactly. So this moment is historical. (Laughs)

(Hammering continues.)

THOMSON: The advent of electricity in the Ballouti home is part of a sudden surge of solar power in Morocco. More than 2,000 household systems have been installed here in the last two years. And the government has recently announced plans to subsidize solar installations as part of a massive program to bring electricity to rural areas. That could mean 120,000 more solar homes in the next few years, bringing electricity to more than a million people.


THOMSON: For many Moroccans, this flurry of solar activity begins in places like this: a dusty lot in a tiny village where men in robes or wool jackets dodge cars and mule carts in a hurly-burly market called a souk.

(Voices on the radio)

THOMSON: Souk customers wind their way through stalls piled high with vegetables, clothing, household goods, and cassette tapes. And some stop at a tiny van with the SunLight Power Maroc decal on its side, and a small photovoltaic array on its roof.

(Man speaks in Arabic and Berber)

THOMSON: At the back of the van there are glowing bulbs and a battery. Speaking in both Arabic and Berber, a SunLight technician explains to a small group of men how the system works. He tells them that light from the sun excites electrons in the panel's silicon crystals. The electricity lights the bulbs, and some of it stored in a battery so lights and TV can be used at night.

(Technician explains, music in the background)

THOMSON: Photovoltaic energy isn't entirely new to Morocco. Scattered businesses have sold PV systems here for years. They've long been an alluring option in a country with virtually no conventional energy resources but an average of 300 days of sun a year. Free solar fuel. PV systems are cheap to operate, but they're expensive to manufacture. And since this is a poor country, there just haven't been many buyers. Abdelhanine Benallou of SunLight Power says there's one big stumbling block.

BENALLOU: Financing.

THOMSON: In his office in Morocco's capital, Rabat, Mr. Benallou says it's been difficult to bridge the gap between the short-term cost and the long-term savings of solar electricity.

BENALLOU: The people would like to have access to the solar energy, but you would have to solve the financing problem. If you take a solar module today, it's between $500 and $1,000, but it's something that can last for 20 years. If you factor that, you're going to see that it's going to be cheaper than using candles. Cheaper than using butane gas.

THOMSON: About 80 percent of rural Moroccans regularly buy candles, butane gas or kerosene, or recharged car batteries, and they might spend $1,000 or more on these things over ten years. But they almost never have that kind of cash all at once. So, Mr. Benallou's company has adopted a new payment scheme for its solar installations. SunLight sells photovoltaic electricity based on what customers already pay every month for light and power. Essentially, they've turned the transaction from a very expensive one-time purchase into a much more affordable long-term service. Mr. Benallou says it's like signing up with your local utility. You pay for your electricity but you don't have to buy the whole power plant. He thinks this solves the problem of PV's high cost.

BENALLOU: You're going to be asking these people to pay only their electricity consumption monthly. You are not asking them to pay for the investment, and you are offering them something which is cheaper than the candle, cheaper than the kerosene, and that's it.

THOMSON: It's a seemingly simple innovation, but it doesn't eliminate the expense problem for PV systems. It merely shifts the big up-front cost from the customer to the company. So, firms like SunLight Power need a lot of capital, and they need investors who aren't afraid of the uncertainties of a new market in the developing world, and who aren't concerned about making a quick profit. That's a tall order, and solar companies have had trouble filling it. In fact, it's such a tough challenge that there's an international network of interests working to jump-start the market for solar power in the developing world. It includes the governments of countries like Morocco, The World Bank, American foundations, and venture capital companies that are trying to attract big piles of money with small strategic investments. It's become a grand experiment in sustainable development, and it may be starting to work.

VAN DE VEN: Okay, Jos van de Ven. I'm responsible for global rural electrification within Shell Solar.

THOMSON: That's Shell Solar as in the giant multinational oil company Royal Dutch Shell. In early February executive Jos van de Ven was working on a deal for Shell to make a big investment in a Moroccan solar company called Noorweb.

VAN DE VEN: We're thinking of taking a 40 percent share into the company. It's giving us a position in the rural electrification markets, and being a shareholder we will also be able to provide our modules that we are manufacturing in the Netherlands.

THOMSON: Mr. van de Ven says Shell now sees itself as more of an energy company than a petroleum company, and he sees a huge market for non-petroleum energy.

VAN DE VEN: There's two billion people who don't have electricity today. We want to take part of that market. We consider Morocco as one of the 14 countries that are on the top of our list to be active in.

THOMSON: Big companies like Shell, it's hoped, with deep pockets and the ability to provide lots of solar panels, will help take care of the supply side of the photovoltaic market. Small local companies like Noorweb and SunLight Power, meanwhile, are showing that there are millions of rural residents who can and will pay for photovoltaic systems. They're helping take care of the demand side. Executives of Noorweb, the company in discussions with Shell, say they see their forces lining up to develop a permanent market for solar power in Morocco, even after the government subsidies are gone.

BENOUNNA: When you create a market, sometimes the market stimulates additional demands.

THOMSON: Amin Benounna is Noorweb's technical director. He says that once rural Moroccans have met their initial needs for light and television, many will want more electricity for things like refrigeration, small appliances, and machinery.

BENOUNNA: Most of these people have no water in their houses. Not even a tap in their village. What about pumping? We think that between ten and 45 percent of these people may need system extensions. Basically, they will need a lot of additional stuff.

THOMSON: And Mr. Benounna, a physicist by training, has learned another important economics lesson.

BENOUNNA: I'm not an economist, but I remember that the market penetration increases when you reduce the prices.

THOMSON: Amin Benounna says he hopes that the market for solar energy is on the verge of what he calls a scale change, in which increased demand will stimulate increased production, which will eventually help bring prices down. And that in turn will create still more demand in countries like Morocco and even in the U.S. So, poor rural Moroccans buying photovoltaic panels today could eventually help lead the way to more affordable solar power for Americans.


THOMSON: Back at the Ballouti house, the last copper wire for the television hookup is being twisted and tucked into place. At 4:05 PM, the TV is plugged into the home's first electric socket and clicked on.

(Sounds issue from TV)

THOMSON: The Morocco-Nigeria soccer match is underway, and coming into Mr. Ballouti’s living room courtesy of the sun hitting his new photovoltaic panel on the roof.

(Music over the TV)

THOMSON: Mr. Ballouti invites the installation crew to stay and watch the game with him.

BENALLOU: Yeah, he invited us to sit down. He's going to bring tea.

THOMSON: We sit around a short round table on the floor. Soon there are cups and glasses, strong dark coffee, and sweet mint tea.

(Tea pours)

THOMSON: There's little conversation. All eyes and ears are on the TV. Suddenly, a clean Nigerian kick sails over the goalie's head and into the Moroccan net.

(Shouts and cheers on the TV)

BENALLOU: Morocco is losing.

THOMSON: The group gives off a quiet sigh and continues drinking their tea.


THOMSON: After a few more minutes we step outside to say goodbye. I ask Mr. Ballouti what he thinks of his new solar system.

BALLOUTI: [Speaks in Arabic]

BENALLOU: He said for the moment, so far, so good. Very good.

THOMSON: So he's not going to send it back even though Morocco's losing.

BALLOUTI: [Laughs, speaks in Arabic]

BENALLOU: Soccer is that way. That's the ball. It goes and comes back. And this time we lose. Some other time we're going to win.

THOMSON: So the ball goes this way, the ball goes that way, but hopefully the sun stays on.

BALLOUTI: [Laughs, speaks in Arabic]

BENALLOU: He says that's from God, and it's going to stay there forever.

THOMSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson outside Sefrou, Morocco.

Back to top


Sun Song

CURWOOD: Solar electricity is clean, simple, and silent. But sometimes you can hear the power of the sun if you have the right equipment. Steve McGreevy has some of that special stuff. He travels around in a van recording the sound of natural phenomena. Among the sounds he's collected is the squeal of charged solar particles hitting the Earth's magnetic fields. We can see these particles sometimes, as the sheets of light streaming down in the northern sky that we call the aurora, or Northern Lights. And here's what they sound like, as recorded by Steve McGreevy, and put to music by producer Barrett Golding.

(Crackling and whistles accompanied by guitar)

McGREEVY: There's just a whole litany of different natural radio sounds to record.

(Sounds continue)

McGREEVY: Whistlers and growlers and howlers and tweaks.

(Sounds continue)

McGREEVY: Particles from the sun are hitting Earth's magnetic field and generating these noises, probably several thousand miles out in space.

(Sounds continue)

McGREEVY: It's beautiful. It's primordial. It's Mother Earth singing.

(Sounds continue)

McGREEVY: Space weather.

(Sounds continue)

McGREEVY: And it's wild. Oh, listen to this. Oh, this is beautiful.

(Sounds continue)


(Sounds continue)

McGREEVY: It's Mother Earth singing.

(Sounds continue up and under)

CURWOOD: Sun Song was produced by Barrett Golding with natural radio recordist Steve McGreevy and the sound of the aurora borealis. Music by Jeff Arntsen and the band Racket Ship. Sun Song was made possible with a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as part of the Hearing Voices series.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's 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, and Maggie Villiger, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, and Bree Horwitz, We had help this week from Nicole Kalb, James Curwood, Jennifer Chu, and Jenna Perry. Alison Dean composed the theme. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor. Diane Toomey is science editor. And Peter Thomson is special projects editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. And thanks for listening.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; the Ford Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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