July 22, 2011
Air Date: July 22, 2011
Death of Carbon Capture?
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The first carbon capture and storage project at a US power plant just ended. The pilot program in West Virginia proved the process could capture 90% of a power plant’s CO2 emissions. Host Bruce Gellerman asks American Electric Power CEO Mike Morris why they pulled the plug on the success. And Steve Holton, the business director of environmental systems development at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries explains why that company is beginning its own ambitious carbon capture program. (07:15)
Lawmakers Want to Take Away Federal Water Standards-/ Mitra Taj
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A bill passed by the House of Representatives would revise the Clean Water Act to give states more authority to determine water quality standards, rather than the EPA. Living on Earth's Mitra Taj reports from the Chesapeake Bay how removing the EPA's enforcement role might affect plans to for clean up watersheds shared by different states. (05:30)
The Tropic of Chaos
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Climate change can exacerbate severe weather, and create a scarcity of resources — especially in developing nations. Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood talks with Christian Parenti, author of “Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence,” about how extreme weather and scare resources are escalating violence facing the world’s poorest citizens. (08:45)
Drought Tolerant Rice
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Higher temperatures and water stress are expected to diminish rice yields by 15% in the coming years. But scientists hope to fight back with a tiny fungus that helps increase rice harvests with less water. Host Bruce Gellerman asks University of Washington biology and forestry researcher Dr. Regina Redman about the hearty rice plant that can grow more with less water. (05:15)
BirdNote®/Common Murres’ Swimming Migration/ Michael Stein
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Most birds migrate along a flyway, but as Michael Stein of BirdNote® explains, some choose the sea-route. (Photo: © Tom Grey) (02:00)
Agony and Ivory
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Rising prosperity in China is driving a new wave of demand for ivory products. African Elephants are being killed by the thousands for their precious tusks. Alex Shoumatoff investigated this illegal trade and documented his findings in his feature story, ‘Agony and Ivory,’ published in the latest issue of Vanity Fair. He reveals some of his alarming findings to host Bruce Gellerman. (06:45)
Trees - Is Bigger Better?/ Bobby Bascomb
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Every year the non-profit American Forests updates their registry of the biggest trees of each species in the country. Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb learns how to measure champion trees. (09:30)
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A hydrophone captures the sounds of the Kangia ice fjord in Greenland. In this photo: Icebergs in the Kangia Icefjord, Greenland. (EPW, Senate.gov) ()
HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Mike Morris, Steven Holton, Christian Parenti, Regina Redman, Alex Shoumatoff.
REPORTERS: Mitra Taj, Steve Curwood, Michael Stein, Bobby Bascomb
GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Rice is nice but, add a little fungus and you've got plants that could help feed a hungry, warming world.
REDMAN: They seem to grow larger, but use less water. This is a very simple technology, doesn't require a bunch of chemicals, and really we can see the results within a growing season.
GELLERMAN: Coming up: a beautiful and beneficial new relationship between plants and fungi. Also Congress waters down the Clean Water Act. And we hit the trails and track down really big trees.
RICHARDSON: This is the Pinchot Sycamore, which is the largest tree of any kind in New England. And it's a monster. Look at the size of those branches!
GELLERMAN: And wait 'til you hear how big the trunks get! We’ll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around!
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Mass, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. More than half the electricity generated in the United States comes from burning cheap, abundant, but dirty coal. That’s why so called “clean coal” is the holy grail for utilities, and why some companies have been building demonstration plants to show carbon can be stripped from smokestacks and pumped deep underground. Two years ago we did a story about an ambitious carbon capture and storage project just getting underway at the Mountaineer plant in West Virginia. It's owned by American Electric Power - we spoke with CEO Mike Morris.
MORRIS: The whole concept of being able to duplicate this technology and install it elsewhere is part of what we’re doing. Once it’s demonstrated, others will come flying to the technology and that’s my point. It is not inexpensive. But it is doable. And society - American society – needs to decide that’s the way they want to go.
GELLERMAN: Well, that was then. Today, the 100 million dollar experimental plant is finished and operators have demonstrated it can remove 90 percent of the plant’s CO2 emissions. But this past week CEO Mike Morris announced American Electric Power isn’t going ahead with full-scale carbon capture and storage. So we called him up.
MORRIS: We're really quite satisfied with what we've done and quite honestly a bit disappointed that we've not been able to take it to scale.
GELLERMAN: Well, why not? You’ve pulled the plug on the experiment?
MORRIS: Well, as you know, we are a regulated utility. And we are not allowed to simply invest money on behalf of our customers and recover those costs from them under the regulatory contract. There is the impact of running this machine, which we were always targeting at 10 to 15 percent what’s called a parasitic impact, meaning that you lose about 10 or 15 percent of the kilowatt hours you could put on the system by running the machines that capture and store the carbon. If that power plant makes the energy at five cents, it might make it at seven cents with this technology.
GELLERMAN: So you can generate clean coal electricity, the question is at what cost?
MORRIS: I think that’s a fair statement, but as I said in our last conversation, society needed to decide whether that was the way they truly wanted to go. We were strong proponents of Waxman-Markey in the House, but we just couldn’t get it over the finish line, and I doubt that we will in a long, long while.
GELLERMAN: So you were in favor of cap and trade, it would have made this thing possible!
MORRIS: We were indeed. But it has zero opportunity of moving forward, but it still is a great concept because it sets the standard for economic creativity, engineering creativity and a means by which one could go forward and handle the carbon issue by buying credits and trading for credits. But it wasn’t the will of the elected officials of this country, and therefore, as a regulated utility, we simply are not able to go forward and scale this project up.
GELLERMAN: But even if electricity that was generated by coal, where there was carbon capture and storage, even if it was 15 percent, you’d still be cheaper than just about any other power source, right?
MORRIS: Clearly cheaper than new nuclear, clearly cheaper than sun and wind. Other than the new potentiality available shale natural gas combined cycle units, that’s true.
GELLERMAN: Mike Morris is CEO of American Electric Power. Well, their pilot plant is just one of about 20 carbon capture projects in the works worldwide. Another is at Plant Barry in Alabama. It uses technology developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Steven Holton is the company's Director of Environmental Systems Development.
HOLTON: We started up the process at the beginning of June and so we’re in the period of sort of shake down and getting the system stable. But we are doing very well, we’re capturing 90 percent of the CO2 in the flue gas which amounts to five hundred tons per day, up to about 150 thousand tons a year. We’re not currently compressing it, but we are doing a capture and release while we set up and stabilize the system.
GELLERMAN: Boy, you can capture 90 percent. So what you’re proving is that you can get the CO2 out of the flue, but then you’re just letting it go because you haven’t put it into the ground.
HOLTON: Correct. Currently, as I said, what we call catch and release - so we’re capturing the CO2 and then putting it back up the stack, releasing it to the atmosphere, while we wait for the pipeline company to finish the pipeline. I believe that the pipeline should be completed October/November time. So we’re currently testing the compression portion of our process, and then once the pipeline is completed, it will be transported for injection.
GELLERMAN: Now the process that Mitsubishi is using at the Plant Barry in Alabama is different than the one that was being used at the Mountaineer Plant in West Virginia that they just discontinued.
HOLTON: Yes it is. We use a solvent. And that differs from the chilled ammonia process, which were what Mountaineer were looking at. The solvent absorbs the CO2 from the flue gas, and then we pump that rich solvent to a stripper vessel where we use steam to separate the CO2 from the solvent, and then we take that gas and we compress it. Then it becomes sort of a semi-liquid phase, and then it goes down the pipeline, correct.
GELLERMAN: Well, the big question is: Can you do it at a low enough cost that it’s not going to drive up the price of coal?
HOLTON: Well, it will affect the price of electricity at the end of the day. It’s the energy penalty that’s tough to get below a certain point. We’re getting to the laws of physics that we can’t go any lower. But currently, we can get that energy penalty down to around 17 to 20 percent.
GELLERMAN: Which means that you pay about 17 to 20 percent more for electricity produced by burning coal?
HOLTON: Well, we’re all waiting for regulation that will drive our market. And once we have our market, and we have that competition there, the expectation is that those costs will go down.
GELLERMAN: When you say that you’re waiting for regulation, does that mean that you’re waiting for a cap on carbon so that it would be economically viable to have this process?
HOLTON: Yes. Until the government regulates the emissions of CO2, puts some either cap and trade or tax benefits or program in place, then we’re not going to see anyone capturing CO2, because it is expensive. It will have an affect to the consumer and there will be an increase on the cost of electricity. Once we’re in a commercial position and it is regulated and people are forced to do this that will drive the cost of the carbon capture down because of competition and economies of scale, etcetera.
GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. Holton, thank you very much, I do appreciate it.
HOLTON: Thank you very much, it was a pleasure to talk to you.
GELLERMAN: Steve Holton the Director of Environmental Systems Development at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
[Bill Frisell “Cold Cold Ground” from Good Dog. Happy Man (Nonesuch records 2000)]
GELLERMAN: The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to water down the federal government's role in the Clean Water Act. If the bill becomes law, it would leave states in charge of protecting water quality. Living on Earth's Mitra Taj reports from a river downstream from Capitol Hill.
TAJ: A half hour outside of Washington D.C. a summer scene plays out on the Severn River.
TAJ: Evin Remele is watching the kids swim.
REMELE: From what I've read is the water gets really dirty after the rain, so as long as there hasn't been a big rain, we feel it's safe.
[GIRLS SCREAMING JUMPING IN WATER]
TAJ: It turns out playtime is short. Soon, a summer storm rolls in, washing contaminants from motor oil, lawn chemicals, and sewage plants into the river, which in turn pours the pollution into the Chesapeake Bay, the country’s largest estuary. Beth McGee is a senior water quality scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation working to revive the enormous watershed. The Bay takes in runoff from six states and the District of Columbia. She says the Bay’s burden’s can be seen here at the edge of the Severn River.
MCGEE: You can see the water's murky, and so that's probably due to either sediments, so mud basically in the water, but also algae, you know when they bloom they change the water different colors. So certain algae may make it a mahogany color or reddish color.
TAJ: When they die, these pollution-fueled algal blooms suck the oxygen out of the water and create the dead zones that have been plaguing the watershed since the 1950s. In an oxygen-free dead zone, fish and other creatures native to the Bay can’t survive. One of the Environmental Protection Agency’s duties is to keep the nation’s waters clean and healthy, but it is not allowed to directly regulate one of the biggest single sources of Chesapeake Bay pollution: fertilizers from farms. Nitrogen and phosphates that help plants grow on land make algae bloom in the water.
MCGEE: If they had the ability to regulate agriculture they could require certain changes on agricultural lands. They are explicitly in the Clean Water prohibited from doing that. Runoff from row crop fields is not explicitly under the Clean Water Act.
TAJ: Although EPA’s authority doesn’t reach to farm runoff, a majority in the House of Representatives recently voted to severely limit the power that the EPA and the rest of the federal government do have to protect clean water. If the bill became law, each state would be in charge of its own river and bay protection. Republican supporter Rob Bishop of Utah says the Clean Water Act is long overdue for amendments to rein in the EPA. He told a story on the House floor about a constituent who lost his beet farm to federal overreach.
BISHOP: One federal bureaucrat from these agencies, driving by his property one day, seeing it flooded, declared it to be a wetland, even though the farmer said the only reason the water is there is because we have a pipe from the creek that goes over to the land. Now, this farm was his heritage, and it was his legacy for his kids. It is time to respect the idea that states care as much about their own states as the federal government would care about their states, and you can make the presumption they probably care more.
TAJ: Yet it was shortcomings in this same state-by-state approach that the Clean Water Act was intended to address in 1972. And since the early 80s, states that drain into the Chesapeake Bay have agreed several times to clean up their shared resource. Despite more than six billion dollars spent, none of their cleanup goals have been met.
SIGLIN: They just haven't done it, agreement after agreement has been broken; the states haven't done what they needed to do.
TAJ: Doug Siglin is the federal affairs director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The group sued the EPA for not enforcing an overarching cleanup plan for the shared Bay. Since then the EPA has taken the lead in developing a new pollution diet for the seven jurisdictions in the Chesapeake watershed.
SIGLIN: Using its Clean Water Act authority the EPA has now stepped in and told the states that they must achieve pollution reduction goals by 2025. Without that authority, without the EPA telling the states what to do, I’m very confident that it wouldn't happen.
TAJ: Without the EPA to lead the group and enforce the standards with consequences, any one jurisdiction could throw the negotiated plan off track again if state politics change. But Kathy Mathers with the Fertilizer Institute says the EPA shouldn’t be able to mandate specific pollution limits for each state when it isn’t clear how much each state contributes.
MATHERS: So for EPA to step in and attempt to implement a rule for individual states for an incredibly huge area, without even knowing what the sources of those nutrients are, or the actual sources of those nutrients are — for example EPA and USDA don’t even agree — we have a real problem with that.
TAJ: The bill to dramatically change the Clean Water Act moves next to the Senate, where passage will be tough. But Doug Siglin with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says with debt negotiations consuming Washington, anything could happen.
SIGLIN: If this were a normal year this legislation would not have a chance in the Senate, but this year is different, everything is going to be up in the air pending an agreement about the debt ceiling, there’s just no predicting what could happen and a bill like this could find a way to sneak through.
TAJ: For Living on Earth, I’m Mitra Taj.
[Club D’Elf “Sand” from Electric Moroccoland (Club D’Elf Music 2011)]
GELLERMAN: Just ahead –The human cost and chaos from climate change. Keep listening to Living on Earth!
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Lazlo Gardony: “Under The Sky” from Signature Time (Sunnyside Records 2011)]
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. The people that bear the brunt of the devastating effects of climate change are those who contributed the least to the problem. They live in developing nations where the use of fossil fuels is low, and poverty rampant. Christian Parenti chronicles their lives and the human impact from global warming in his new book, “Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence.” He spoke with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood.
CURWOOD: You begin your book with the death of the tribesmen in northern Kenya, why?
PARENTI: To me, that seemed like a very clear example of how climate change is causing violence. The book opens up with the death of a guy named Ekaru Loruman, who was a Turkana pastoralist in northwest Kenya in the Rift Valley. The horn of Africa is suffering one of the worst droughts in 60 years. And so, on the ground in Kenya, that means pastoralists are fighting increasingly with each other over access to water and to replenish their herds, the young men go out and raid their neighbors, and that is what happened to Ekaru Loruman. So to some extent, he was killed by a member of another tribe, but at another level, he was killed by these larger processes. Climate change has caused scarcity and that was causing young men to raid their neighbors’ cattle.
CURWOOD: Now you call your book “The Tropic of Chaos,” referring to a belt of economically and politically battered states around the mid-latitudes. What defines these regions?
PARENTI: Most of them lie between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, so I call it the Tropic of Chaos. In many ways they are the states that were created by colonialism, they are in many ways the economies that have least margin of error when it comes to extreme weather, and they were also the states that were the front lines, in many cases, of the political, ideological camps during the Cold War.
CURWOOD: So how does the war in Afghanistan serve as an example of violence driven by climate change, Christian?
PARENTI: Well, the idea of the book actually came to me in Afghanistan when I was researching the poppy economy. And poppy is the flower from which opium and heroin are produced. I would ask the farmers, ‘Why do you grow this illegal crop?’ And one part of the answer was always: ‘Well, it’s very drought resistant.’ Turns out, Afghanistan is suffering the worst drought in living memory and poppy uses only one fifth the amount of water that wheat uses. In this war, the NATO forces and the Afghan government are trying to eradicate poppy, trying to get farmers to grow alternative crops like wheat, like apricots, and the Taliban are defending the farmer’s right to grow this illegal crop. And the reality is the farmers can’t really survive if they grow apricots and wheat because the climate won’t cooperate. I’m not arguing that climate change caused this war, but that it’s a contributing factor, because when a young man in Afghanistan might choose to join the Taliban, along with whatever religious and ideological motivations he might have, there is this very real material incentive, which is that the Taliban are the side of the war that defends his family’s right to grow this illegal crop.
CURWOOD: Now an example that’s close to home here in the United States that you have in your book is Mexico, and there you relate immigration tensions we have with Mexico, and the drug war, for that matter, with climate change. Can you explain these connections?
PARENTI: Mexico is also suffering from the worst drought that they’ve had in 60 years. And so the contributing factor in the migration of people north from southern Mexico and central Mexico where the drought is quite bad, into northern Mexico and into the US is climate change. One guy I profile is a fisherman in Michoacán, and when I met him he was sitting on the south bank of the Rio Grande and looking into the US, trying to figure out how he was going to get back into the US. And his story began in the late 90s during an El Niño event when warm water helped create a toxic algae bloom and all the fish disappeared. And you think, well, you know, a fisherman should be able to survive one bad season, but in part because of the stripping away of public supports for small farmers and small fishermen that are part of trade liberalization in Mexico leading up to the North American Free Trade Act, all of the old subsidized credit had been removed. So he was left to his own devices, he couldn’t pay back his debts, the fish didn’t quite come back. He lost his gear. Then he migrated north and now, when I met him, having been deported from the US, sitting in Juarez, he was saying ‘I wonder how I’m going to get the money to get back into the US, to get a job, and you know, the only way I can really do that is if I can get involved in the drug trade here in Juarez, and I really don’t want to do that.’ So you can see how climate change, in conjunction with other issues, like what I would consider bad economic policy, forces people to migrate, and particularly with unemployed young men in these border cities where there is a booming drug trade and intense lawlessness, that migration flow can be a contributing factor in the drug violence that is marking life in northern Mexico these days.
CURWOOD: Now you say that the climate crisis is fundamentally a political problem, can you explain please?
PARENTI: The thing is, we have the technologies to start mitigating the problems, to start reducing emissions, wind power, solar power, electric vehicles, a refurbished electrical grid. We have actually plenty of capital to do this. What is missing, therefore, is the political will to put all this together. We also have lots of unemployed people who would like to go to work transforming our energy economy. So, the pieces of the solution are existent, but they are not being put together by government policy, so that’s why I say it’s a political problem. It’s not that we can’t afford it, it’s not that we don’t have the technologies, it’s that we haven’t brought all the components of the solution together to move forward on this. And I think that the US government should be taking the international negations, the UNFCCC, or the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, much more seriously than we are. Part of those negotiations involve establishing a fund to transfer capital and technology to the global south to help societies in the global south adapt and mitigate, that is to say, adapt effective climate change we’re locked in for, and shift away from fossil fuels towards clean energy. So, fundamentally, there isn’t a proper response yet.
CURWOOD: In your book, you make the charge that the US and the rich part of the world is engaged in a program of ‘arming the lifeboat.’ What do you mean by that?
PARENTI: I mean, inadvertently, this is what’s happening. I don’t think it’s a plan that the response to climate change would just be ‘arming the lifeboat.’ But the only real response so far that has much traction is the Pentagon planning for a future of increased state failure. Domestically, we see the rise of really xenophobic anti-immigrant policies in states like Arizona, all that calls for increased border militarization, so those ad-hoc responses are what I see as the emerging politics of the ‘armed lifeboat.’ They are not yet articulated as a response to climate change, but that’s what one could imagine taking off as a response to climate change if we don’t do what we have to do which is take mitigation and adaptation seriously.
CURWOOD: Haven’t there always been wars?
PARENTI: Yes, there have always been wars. And they have always had specific and distinct causes. And my argument is that, increasingly, climate change is one of the driving factors in civil wars and internal wars that we see here today. And at that first glance these wars that look religious or ethnic are rooted to some extent in the climate crisis. And so we can draw from that the fact that we must address this climate crisis or we can expect a future of increased internal warfare, state failure, banditry, and rising chaos.
CURWOOD: Boy, it sounds awfully grim!
PARENTI: You know, that’s what I’ve found in this, like, six years of traveling around to war zones and failed states – it’s a very real crisis out there and of poverty and violence and increasingly if you scratch the surface, climate change is right there as a cause.
CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time to talk with me.
PARENTI: Thank you very much.
CURWOOD: Christian Parenti’s new book is called: “The Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence.” I'm Steve Curwood.
Christain Parenti’s website
[Music - Dave Douglas “Dog Star” from Moonshine (Koch Records 2008)]
GELLERMAN: Here’s a potential recipe for feeding a planet stressed by climate change: Take some rice plants, add some potato sugar, a bit of antibiotics and – here’s the secret ingredient – a tiny fungus and voila! You get a new experimental strategy for growing food crops that can survive and thrive in a world growing warmer. It’s called symbiogenics: the study of fungi bonding with plants to create a mutually beneficial relationship. Scientists at the University of Washington, where the work is being done, are calling it: “a breakthrough”. Biologist and forests researcher Regina Redman is a member of the team.
REDMAN: The approach we're taking is actually quite a very simple one. Plants and natural ecosystems have associations with various microbes. And, the class of microbes that we’re interested in we call Class Two fungal endophytes. So it’s a microscopic fungus. It resides within the native plants that are able to, because of the presence of that fungus, thrive in very high stress habitats. And, we’re able to confer salt tolerance, temperature tolerance, drought resistance, simply by colonizing plants that are of interest.
GELLERMAN: So, you take these fungi and stick them on the rice or the plant and voila?
REDMAN: Yes. They get colonized and then you start seeing the positive benefits immediately. In rice, for instance, you get the growth response where you get roots and shoots coming out much larger and longer than the non-symbiotic counterpart.
GELLERMAN: So what is it in the fungus that is helping the rice plant survive and thrive?
REDMAN: Well, we don’t know the exact mechanism, but we do know that when plants are symbiotic, they seem to be much more metabolically efficient. That is they seem to grow larger, use less water.
GELLERMAN: How much faster can rice with fungi grow?
REDMAN: Well, in the seedling stage, within 24 hours, you’re looking at a three-fold increase in size. Applying this into a field situation would really be beneficial, because if a rice seed can put down its roots very quickly, and then it puts up a shoot, it is able to, under that paddy condition, anchor itself in the soil where it can photosynthesize and, you know, really get going and take off.
GELLERMAN: And so, does it affect the food value of the plant? Do you get rice that is as rich and nutritious?
REDMAN: Well, the unique property also of this class of endophytes is it only colonizes the vegetative tissue, so it’s not in the embryo, it’s not in the seed. So it doesn’t impact the crop.
GELLERMAN: It’s just regular rice.
REDMAN: It’s regular rice. We’ve been able to repeat the process in other agricultural plants as well - wheat, tomatoes and turf grass.
GELLERMAN: Well, the plant is benefiting, so what does the fungus get out of this relationship?
REDMAN: Well, this type of fungus is rather sensitive - it really cannot survive outside of the plant. You’ll find that the fungal endophyte is almost non-existent in the surrounding soil.
GELLERMAN: So somehow the plant is getting a benefit from the fungus, but it’s not genetic, it’s not altering the plant’s structure.
REDMAN: What’s happening if you’re really thinking about it is you’re taking two separate genomes and putting them together, doing their communication back and forth that it allows for this type of beneficial effects that we see. We know that on a molecular level, symbiotic plants turn on a lot of different genes, and turn off a lot of different genes, if it’s under stress or not, compared to the non-symbiotic counterparts.
GELLERMAN: How long has this symbiosis, this symbiotic relationship, been going on between fungus and plants?
REDMAN: Well, we think this communication is quite old. Plants have been symbiotic for around 400 million years, and may have been important for the movement of plants onto land.
GELLERMAN: Wow! You know, we’re seeing this awful, disastrous drought in East Africa; millions of people are starving. Could your research help them?
REDMAN: Yes, I think our research would do exactly that. This is a very simple technology. It doesn’t require a bunch of chemicals. There’s no GMO component of it, and really we can see the results within a growing season.
GELLERMAN: Well, how far off are we from taking this out of a greenhouse and into a field are you?
REDMAN: Well, we’re right there, we’re good to go. We worked for several years, generating the technology to be able to effectively colonize, in this case, rice, on an industrial level.
GELLERMAN: You know you have this rice plant that is going to get stressed in the future, and you’ve got this fungi that’s gotta live – it’s the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
REDMAN: (laughs) Yes, I think so too.
GELLERMAN: Well, Dr. Redman, thanks so much. Really fascinating stuff!
REDMAN: No, thank you!
GELLERMAN: University of Washington Biologist Regina Redman. There's more about her research on fungi and rice at our website, loe.org.
[BIRD NOTE THEME]
GELLERMAN: Fish gotta swim, and birds gotta…… Well it turns out some of them gotta swim too - as Michael Stein explains in this week’s BirdNote ®.
[CALLS OF COMMON MURRE CHICKS AND SOUND OF WAVES]
STEIN: When we think of avian migration, we think of birds in flight. But certain groups of seabirds called Common Murres migrate north by swimming. Some Pacific Coast Murres paddle north to the sheltered bays of the Strait of Juan de Fuca to feed on herring and other small fish.
[CALLS OF COMMON MURRE CHICKS]
STEIN: Bob Boekelheide, Director of the Dungeness River Audubon Center in Sequim, Washington, explains:
BOEKELHEIDE: It turns out that when Common Murres go to sea with their chicks, the chicks are only maybe three, three and a half weeks old. These small chicks jump off the cliffs, land in the water, they can’t fly. The adult parent that goes with the chick is the father, and at that time the father will swim with the chick. Well, there are no colonies of Common Murres in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, so they had to come from these other colonies out there on the outer coast.
Well, the interesting thing about it is that these Murres do not fly here as far as we know. At that point the chick cannot fly. They’re only a third grown for their normal adult size. And so they swim in the water from the outer coastline, certainly from the coast of Washington, and perhaps as far as Oregon and maybe even Northern California, traveling north along the coast and eventually ending up in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
[CALLS OF COMMON MURRE CHICKS]
STEIN: Heading north, they live on the sea. Imagine! A journey that spans two months and may cover hundreds of miles.
[CALLS OF COMMON MURRE CHICK AND PARENT]
GELLERMAN: Michael Stein of BirdNote®. And for some great photos – and more – paddle over to our website, loe.org.
- Sounds of Common Murres provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Call of adult and chick at sea recorded by T.G. Sander; sound of a colony by M. Fisher.
- BirdNote®/Murres’ Swimming Migration was written by Todd Peterson
[Various Artists “Man On the Moon” Vitamin Piano Plays R.E.M. (Vitamin Music 2005)]
GELLERMAN: Coming up – China’s new rich, and the new market for elephant tusks. Stay tuned – it's Living on Earth!
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; Gilman Ordway – for coverage of conservation and environmental change; and the Sierra Club, helping students, workers, entrepreneurs and families create a healthy and prosperous clean energy future. Online at sierraclub.org/livingonearth. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Herbie Mann: “Memphis Underground” from Memphis Underground (Atlantic Records 1969)]
GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. The numbers are tough to come by, but it’s estimated that in Africa a hundred elephants a day – more than 36 thousand a year – are killed by poachers for the animals’ valuable tusks. Alex Shoumatoff investigated the illegal trafficking in elephant tusks for his article “Agony and Ivory.” It appears in the latest issue of Vanity Fair magazine. Alex, welcome to Living on Earth.
SHOUMATOFF: Thank you for having me.
GELLERMAN: You traveled the world tracking down the elephant tusk trade. I’ve gotta tell you, this is a very sad story!
SHOUMATOFF: Yes it is, and it’s one that needs to be out there. And I’ve known about it for a couple of years, and this is really time to get the word out because it’s escalating. I went to nine countries on three continents over six weeks, you know, trying to trace the chain from the guy that kills the elephant to the guy that buys it in China. The really overwhelming trade now is in China.
GELLERMAN: Why the Chinese?
SHOUMATOFF: Because of this rise of the suddenly wealthy, the bafahu, the middle class in China who are buying…. you know, it’s only the elderly ones – the younger people don’t have this great, you know, desire to buy ivory. But it’s the older ones who have finally made it to a point where now they can buy some ivory.
GELLERMAN: So it’s a symbol of status?
SHOUMATOFF: Power, yeah, of having made it, having arrived, that you can make discretionary purchases. But traditionally, it’s a symbol of being of higher station. In Lusaka, the market there, people will whisper shung-ze, I think they’re called, which means elephant’s teeth in Mandarin, meaning they have some for you if you are interested.
GELLERMAN: You write in your article that some of the areas, the national parks where these African elephants can be found are vast – one’s the size of Connecticut – and has, what, 60 monitors for the elephants?
SHOUMATOFF: That’s the one in Zimbabwe. So, yeah, they hardly have enough to… that one according to the official government figures has 50 thousand elephants, but we drove around it all day covering about 300 miles, we went to all the pans or waterholes and no elephants at all. And we only saw three at dusk. What we did see was that the roads were littered with the carcasses, the bleached bones of poached elephants, and we did come across one carcass, actual carcass, so there is just massive poaching going on in there.
GELLERMAN: What’s the worst place right now for the illegal killing of elephants for their ivory tusks?
SHOUMATOFF: That is probably Gabon, which has the largest remaining population of forest elephant in their forests, about 60 thousand, and they’re being killed at the rate of thousands per year, several thousand. And Chad is down to a few hundred, Sierra Leone is down to single digits. The Central African Republic went from, I don’t know, 50 thousand to three thousand in the last 20 years. So the only large population left is in Gabon. So Gabon, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe I would say are the big ones.
GELLERMAN: Who is doing the actual poaching? Who is doing the killing?
SHOUMATOFF: Where? In Zimbabwe?
SHOUMATOFF: Well, it’s the actual…even the guards are allowed to kill wild game on Thursdays, once a week, and that’s what they live on because the government doesn’t give them any rations. And then the military, you know, they have quotas and stations all over the country. Then there are hunting lodges…
GELLERMAN: I saw one on YouTube, there’s this guy Buck McNealy, you write about him in your article – I looked up the YouTube. I want you listen to this:
[SOUNDS OF SHOTS BEING FIRED; MCNEALY (from YouTube clip): Big game hunting is one of the most exciting things there is in the world. You get your grizzly bears, you get your lions, you get your leopards, you get your buffalos, but I’m here to tell you baby, ain’t nothing like the elephant!]
SHOUMATOFF: God. He must think that his penis grows an inch for every one of the big five that he bags! You know, the matriarchs and the big bulls with the biggest tusks are being selectively shot, targeted by the poachers and that is a genetic and a social disaster unless it is stopped.
GELLERMAN: Well there is an international campaign, a video campaign, called “Shot Blocker.” I want you to listen to this; this one stars an NBA star, Yao Ming:
[YouTube clip: SOUNDS]
GELLERMAN: It’s got him leaping up and blocking a bullet from a high caliber rifle aimed at an elephant.
SHOUMATOFF: An amazing clip there, you know, where he leaps up and stops this flying bullet that’s headed in the direction of the elephant.
[YAO MING IN CHINESE]
GELLERMAN: What is he saying there?
SHOUMATOFF: Apparently he’s saying “Never buy illegal wildlife products. When the buying stops, the killing can too.”
GELLERMAN: So the idea is really to put the kibosh on the demand, people buying ivory from elephants.
GELLERMAN: Will that stop the killing?
SHOUMATOFF: No. You need to stop it at every step of the process. You know the people there, there’s so much poverty in the places where the elephants are that the people will continue to kill elephants even if they only get 50 cents a pound. You know, they’ll still do it, unless they’re provided with some other livelihood. And so the economic development is now the thrust of a lot of the national conservation movement.
GELLERMAN: Alex Shoumatoff’s article “Agony and Ivory: Investigating the killing of elephants for their tusks” appears in the current issue of Vanity Fair magazine.
[Oka “Elephant Dub” from Oka Love (Soultree United 2008)]
GELLERMAN: From the illegal hunting of big game in Africa to tracking the biggest trees in the United States. Every year the non-profit organization American Forests releases its online registry where foresters and your average tree hunter can list their biggest finds. Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb found one of the best tree hunters around in West Hartford, Connecticut.
[PARK AMBIANCE, PEOPLE MURMURING]
RICHARDSON: When I first started in this game in 1987 I knew something about trees but…..
BASCOMB: Ed Richardson’s not exactly the picture of a big game hunter but he’s bagged more big trees than anyone else in the state of Connecticut. We meet at a city park in West Hartford where he shows me his itinerary for the day.
RICHARDSON: We’re going to measure a large tree in the park here, in Elizabeth Park. And then I thought we’d stop by the Pinchot Sycamore, which is the largest tree in New England, of any kind. And it’s a monster.
BASCOMB: Ed Richardson is a retired insurance salesman. He wears hiking shoes and khaki pants with a striped shirt tucked in. He says the best place to hunt for big trees is in urban areas: old estates, cemeteries, and college campuses. Most American forests have been cut down several times over for farming.
RICHARDSON: So, you don’t really find many big trees in the woods.
BASCOMB: He leads the way down a path in the park to a wooded area. He wants to re-measure the state champion Golden Larch to be sure it’s still the biggest.
RICHARDSON: And we’re going to see how big this is.
BASCOMB: Ed walks around the tree with a tape measure.
RICHARDSON: And this is eight feet seven inches in circumference.
BASCOMB: The scoring for champion trees is a bit complicated. For every inch of circumference a tree gets one point. They get another point for every foot of height. And a quarter point for every foot of canopy spread. To measure the height Ed needs a clear view of the top of this Golden Larch.
RICHARDSON: I’m going to go down in that direction which is the only direction that I can possibly see through the canopies here.
BASCOMB: He pins the end of the tape measure to the base of the tree and measures out 100 feet down a path.
BASCOMB: He pulls out a rectangular silver case.
RICHARDSON: Ok, here’s what we do. My chlenometer is a little thing about the size of a pack of cigarettes, I guess you might say, if anyone knows what they are nowadays. But what I do is look through at the scale inside there. Come on, baby, what are you doing? Don’t tell me you’re in trouble. Boy, I don’t know.
BASCOMB: Can I help you?
RICHARDSON: I’m having trouble with it. Not with the machine. It’s my eye is the problem. Why don’t you take a try at it?
RICHARDSON: Don’t put your finger over the end because you’re looking through that little hole there. Take a look first off and see if you see a wheel in there or whatever the thing is that goes around.
RICHARDSON: Go up and down like this and see if the numbers change.
BASCOMB: They do. So, it’s like a white tape measure on a wheel kind of thing.
RICHARDSON: That’s right! Boy, that’s a good description. A white tape measure. Right. Now take a shot at the base of that tree. You’re looking at the base with your left eye and you’re looking at the crosshair there with your right eye.
BASCOMB: Ahh…so you have both eyes open.
RICHARDSON: Right, both eyes open. You gotta have to have two eyes to use this thing.
BASCOMB: (Laughs) ok. Ok, oh it goes backwards so 90 is at the top and then it goes down to 100.
RICHARDSON: That’s right.
BASCOMB: Ok, the scale is by …2,4,6….102?
RICHARDSON: Ah! That’s good! That’s good! I’m sure that’s right around what it is. It’s probably grown a hair since I measured it last.
[MEASURING TAPE WINDING UP]
BASCOMB: Ed winds his measuring tape back to the base of the tree where he picks his way through the brush to measure the width of the canopy above us.
RICHARDSON: Don’t go in here. That’s poison ivy, I see it.
BASCOMB: Ed comes up with 13 points for the canopy. Add to that 103 points for circumference and 102 points for height.
RICHARDSON: Three into five is eight….one….218 points for this tree. It remains the champion and probably always will unless it gets blown down or something.
[WOODS AMBIANCE, WALKING THEN WITH STREET SOUNDS]
BASCOMB: Next he wants to check out a large Asiatic Smoke bush. The bush is in front of a Sovereign Bank that used to be a Colonial home, built in 1780.
[ROAD SOUNDS, CAR GOES BY]
RICHARDSON: Ok, this is it. Boy, that’s a big one.
BASCOMB: Together we measure the height, circumference and canopy spread.
RICHARDSON: Would you just hold this? That’d be good. I think I can rig this around.
BASCOMB: And it earns a total of 78 points.
RICHARDSON: So, we’re going to go up to the car and we’ll look at the computer listing and see how many points the present state champion has.
BASCOMB: There are 861 native tree species listed on the national registry. But more than 200 of them have no champion right now. So the first person to nominate a Western Burningbush or a Seaside Alder, for instance, would have a national champion.
[SOUND OF CAR OPENING]
RICHARDSON: This is the master list. We’re going to look for the botanical name which is a strange one it’s: Cotinus coggygria.
RICHARDSON: There it is right there. The champion is 50, we’ve got 78. This goes way beyond it. So, we’ve got a new state champion here. Great, okay!
BASCOMB: Richardson’s found more than 150 state champion trees so this is all in a day’s work for him. But he says some people are extremely competitive.
RICHARDSON: Oh, in some states they’re just wild, people are obsessed with it.
SMITH: I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about Tennessee.
BASCOMB: Pete Smith is the national big tree coordinator for the state of Texas. The bee in his bonnet is about a pecan, the state tree of Texas. Currently Tennessee has the national champion pecan tree.
SMITH: A tree that I may need to go visit. Some disputed idea that it may be an English walnut rather than a pecan but I’m just throwing that out there.
BASCOMB: Pete Smith has been known to drive to other states to question the legitimacy of a big tree.
SMITH: One of our national champion cottonwood trees here in Texas where New Mexico had challenged it and it was going to be crowned a national champion. And I actually had our forester from El Paso drive up to Albuquerque and measure the tree to make sure it was measured the same way as our tree.
BASCOMB: And was it?
SMITH: No! Our tree ended up staying the national champ.
BASCOMB: Pete’s not alone in the Lone Star State when it comes to his enthusiasm for big trees.
SMITH: In a big game state like Texas where hunting is a big part of the culture here I think it sort of resonates with those folks to bag another trophy so to speak.
BASCOMB: Texas has enthusiasm, but California has the single largest tree in the country and the world. General Sherman is a Giant Sequoia that registers a whopping 1300 points on the American Forest Champion scale. But even California doesn’t have the most big trees on the national register. With 124 national champs that honor goes to….. Florida. Charlie Marcus is the national big tree coordinator for the state of Florida.
MARCUS: We have a number of species that don’t grow in any other states because our southern regions go down into the tropics.
BASCOMB: More than half of Florida’s champion trees live in the bottom third of the peninsula and don’t grow anywhere else in the country. So there’s not much competition. But all this talk of big trees really begs the question: Is bigger better?
MARCUS: By all means.
BASCOMB: Again, Charlie Marcus.
MARCUS 23: Those trees become micro-habitats all their own. There so old that you’ve got soil that’s actually formed there and you’ve got other plants that are growing out of the soil and you’ve got animals that are kind of dependent on those plants and those conditions for a micro-climate, so I would say a large tree takes on a life of its own and in most cases bigger probably is better.
BASCOMB: Big old trees can also tell us something about resilience. Starting in 1930, Dutch Elm disease practically eradicated North American Elm trees but some did survive. Now USDA scientists are looking at the immunity of those old living trees hoping to develop more disease resistant Elms.
BASCOMB: Back in Connecticut Ed Richardson wraps up the day with a visit to an old favorite.
RICHARDSON: This is the Pinchot Sycamore, which is the largest tree of any kind in New England. And it’s a monster.
BASCOMB: What do you think of when you look at trees that are this big and this old?
RICHARDSON: Well, it’s just a magnificent historical relic. I like their strength and their nobility. They’ve existed a long time on this earth and more are coming along, hopefully, if people will treat them right.
BASCOMB: And that’s the aim of the American Forests Competition. To create a passion for conservation so more little trees reach their full potential to grow into big trees in the future. For Living on Earth I’m Bobby Bascomb in Simsbury, Connecticut.
[Jim Hall “Concierto De Aranjuez” from Concierto (CTI Records/Sony Music 2011)]
[SOUND OF THE ICE PACK SHIFTING]
GELLERMAN: With much of the country sweltering in a heat wave, we leave you this week at Kangia Icefjord in Greenland
[SOUND:“Energy Field”, Jana Winderen, Track 2, Isolation]
GELLERMAN: The pack ice shifts and squeaks, as it floats on the frigid water. Jana Winderen used a hydrophone to record the fjord. She calls this track 'Isolation/Measurements' on her CD “Energy Field.” In her liner notes, she writes it wasn't till later that she saw a sign on the shore - “Do not enter – extreme life danger” - a warning that tipping icebergs can create tsunami waves.
[SOUNDS OF THE KANGIA ICEFJORD]
Energy Field, Jana Winderen, Touch (2010)
GELLERMAN: On the next Living on Earth – coltan, cobalt, and copper, some of the blood minerals in our mobile phones.
ANKERSCHMIDT: They use the illegal trade in minerals to finance their human rights abuses. There are mass rapes of women and children in the local villages.
GELLERMAN: The push for a fair-trade phones free of conflict minerals, next time on Living on Earth.
GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse Smith, Ike Sriskanderajah, and Jeff Young, with help from Sarah Calkins, Gabriela Romanow and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Daniel Gross, Stephanie McPherson and Anne-Marie Singh. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at loe.org - and check out our Facebook page - it’s PRI’s Living On Earth. While you're online, check out our sister program, Planet Harmony. Planet Harmony pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at myplanetharmony.com And you can follow us on Twitter - at livingonearth - that’s one word. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science. And Stonyfield Farm, organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield invites you to just eat organic for a day. Details at justeatorganic.com. Support also comes from you, our listeners, the Go Forward Fund, and Pax World Mutual and Exchange-Traded Funds, integrating environmental, social, and governance factors into investment analysis and decision making. On the web at paxworld.com. Pax World, for tomorrow.
ANNOUNCER 2: PRI - Public Radio International.
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