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

August 19, 2011

Air Date: August 19, 2011



The Future of Biofuels and the Weather / Lisa Raffensperger

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The call for energy independence – and a federal mandate to increase use of renewable fuels - has farmers and scientists looking to new biofuel crops like switchgrass. But these new crops need water and they also may affect the water cycle. IEEE Spectrum’s Lisa Raffensperger reports on a team at Iowa State University that is studying computer models to see how biofuels may change the agricultural landscape and the weather. (05:35)

Huge Methane Emissions from Fresh Water

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Small farm ponds and other freshwater bodies sink more carbon than all the world’s oceans. But freshwater sources also releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide and methane. John Downing, an ecology professor at Iowa State University, recently co-wrote an article on freshwater gas emissions. Host Bruce Gellerman asks him about how these small bodies of water make a big impact on our climate. (06:00)

Carrotmobs and the Power of Buycotts

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From Montgomery, Alabama to South Africa, activists have learned that they can influence change by organizing where people shop. Now, conscious consumers are using a new tool to encourage business to go green. Instead of using the stick of boycotts, they are wielding the carrot of “buycotts.” Shoppers all over the world are organizing to mob businesses that make the largest pledge towards sustainable practices. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks with Brent Schulkin, founder of the group Carrotmob. (06:00)

Menagerie on Ice / Jessica Ilyse Kurn

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At the SVF Foundation farm in Newport, Rhode Island, scientists harvest embryos from rare and heritage breeds, and freeze them in liquid nitrogen to safeguard them for the future. Living on Earth’s Jessica Ilyse Kurn visited the farm to find how and why scientists want to preserve these animals. (06:45)

Trash to Treasure

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In rural Guatemala, communities are working together to collect trash and plastic bottles to use as building materials. Former Peace Corp volunteer Laura Kutner tells host Bruce Gellerman that projects like this are a win-win: villages are cleaner and children get new schools. (05:00)

The Noisy Ocean and its Consequences / Ike Sriskandarajah

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Hearing for many sea creatures is as important as sight is to humans. Without sound they can’t tell where they are or who’s around them. And the sounds humans make in the ocean may be drowning out the regulars. Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah looks into the science of aquatic acoustics. (07:50)

The Wave

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Giant waves are both fearsome and awesome. Author Susan Casey speaks with Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood about her book, “The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean”. The book follows big wave surfers, mariners and scientists who have encountered huge waves and have lived to tell the tale. (08:55)

Earth Ear

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Terns of Falkner Island in Long Island Sound warn humans to stay away from their nesting grounds. (Photo: © Mark Seth Lender) (00:55)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Host: Bruce Gellerman,
GUESTS: John Downing, Brent Schulkin, Laura Kutner, Susan Casey
REPORTERS: Lisa Raffensperger, Jessica Ilyse Kurn, Ike Sriskandarajah, Stever Curwood

GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth.


GELLERMAN: I'm Bruce Gellerman. Using little ponds and lakes to soak up huge amounts of carbon in the air.

DOWNING: We should be paying attention to environments that are highly carbon active, even though they may be small. The little farm ponds of the world probably bury or sequester as much carbon every year as the world's oceans. I mean they are small but they're mighty.

GELLERMAN: Also - ships, sonar and off-shore drilling make the sea a noisy place. Are the sounds driving whales and dolphins deaf?

PARKS: One of the simplest ways to test this was to use recordings from the 1950s when there were fewer ships in the ocean to ones made in modern times with a higher level of background noise.
GELLERMAN: Hearing tests of whales show the din we make at sea forces the marine mammals to shout
GELLERMAN: Listen to these stories and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around!

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The Future of Biofuels and the Weather

Farmer John Sellers grows switchgrass in southern Iowa. (Photo: Lisa Raffensperger)

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Mass, this is a recycled edition of Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. For the past few decades farmers have been saying "fill 'er up - with biofuel." But while using farmland for fuel rather than food has been the focus of much debate, less attention has been paid to a more fundamental agricultural issue: water and what's called "the water cycle" which plays a pivotal role in the weather. To forecast what's ahead down on the farm, and up in the atmosphere we turn to Lisa Raffensperger. She originally produced this story for the Eye-Triple-EE Spectrum, National Science Foundation program "The Water-Energy Crunch: A Powerful Puzzle."


RAFFENSPERGER: In a tiny windowless office on the Iowa State University campus, engineer Brian Gelder pulls up a map of the U.S. on his computer screen. It’s a vision of the future.

GELDER: In the high plains, especially in parts of Oklahoma and Kansas, we’re projecting fractions of the county that may reach up to about 45% of the county will be switchgrass in 2022.

RAFFENSPERGER: Nationwide, that adds up to an area about the size of Missouri newly planted in switchgrass. Behind the change is a law that requires 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel to be blended into our gasoline by the year 2022. Switchgrass is one of the most promising of the biofuel crops.

ANEX: So if we're going to make biofuels, it's not a little marginal change in the landscape. We're going to make a big change.

RAFFENSPERGER: That’s Rob Anex, also at Iowa State. His team is creating computer models to predict what this big change may mean for the weather. How do plants affect the weather? Well, when plants breathe out oxygen, it’s saturated with water. That’s called transpiration. Switchgrass will grow larger than corn on the same amount of land, but it’ll also suck more water from the soil and transpire more water. That water will go into the atmosphere, and come down as rain somewhere else.


RAFFENSPERGER: It’s sunset in rural southern Iowa, and a spring storm is moving in. The switchgrass, dry beige stems about waist high, bends over nearly flat in the wind. This is what large swaths of Oklahoma and Kansas will soon look like if the models are correct.


RAFFENSPERGER: This field belongs to farmer John Sellers. He’s a sort of switchgrass guru.

SELLERS: That’s the beauty of these native grasses. They hide all of the nutrients in this plant in the root all winter long.

RAFFENSPERGER: Switchgrass has many beauties, actually. It’s native, not a food crop, and can grow on marginal land. It’s also highly productive. Near where Sellers lives, an average acre of land produces 4.7 tons of corn, but could produce 5 and a half tons of switchgrass, which could someday mean a lot more ethanol produced. But it’ll also mean a lot more water. Back at Iowa State University, Rob Anex explains the correlation.

ANEX: There's a nice linear relationship there, that if you want more biomass, you're going to transpire more water.

RAFFENSPERGER: For instance, that bonus growth of switchgrass in southern Iowa - each acre will transpire about 30,000 additional gallons of water into the atmosphere. To see how changing crops could affect the water cycle, the Iowa State team ran a test of their weather model. Chris Anderson is a climate scientist working on the project.

ANDERSON: We extracted one day in 1980 from it, and that day was February 26th in 1980.

RAFFENSPERGER: And on that day, they asked a simple question: what if almost all of Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Texas panhandle had been growing switchgrass? How would the summer of 1980 have turned out? Anderson points to a blotch of blue covering western Kansas and Oklahoma.

Climate scientist Chris Anderson of Iowa State uses computer models to understand how crops like switchgrass could affect the water cycle. (Photo: Lisa Raffensperger)

ANDERSON: And you can see it's drawing from this soil moisture level and reducing the amount of soil moisture down there. In this case, it reduced it by about 5 percent.

RAFFENSPERGER: And on a different map, rainfall. There’s a band of yellow and red from Iowa to Michigan.

ANDERSON: So the crop is putting more moisture in the air. It's going downwind and it's creating more storms.

RAFFENSPERGER: The team is currently running models of an alternate past - how weather would have looked over 25 years if switchgrass had covered as much land as it’s projected to in 2022. They expect to see more rainfall downwind of the switchgrass. They also expect more intense rains, the kind that cause erosion and flash flooding. So, should we be worried? When you ask Rob Anex, he pauses.

Rob Anex, an associate professor at Iowa State University, is part of a team looking at how biofuel crops may change the weather. (Photo: Lisa Raffensperger)

ANEX: It all depends on how we decide to make biofuels. And the reason that I'm hedging and saying it that way is that there's lots of different ways to grow biomass.

RAFFENSPERGER: Using agricultural waste like corn leaves and stalks won’t require more cropland or water. And some places have enough water for new crops. Anex hopes policymakers carefully consider the larger picture of biofuels and the water cycle, because it’s a complicated one.

ANEX: What we do on the landscape, how we use our land, affects the weather, but it affects the weather in other places.

RAFFENSPERGER: As homesteaders in the American West once said, ‘Rain follows the plow.’ Though now we’re learning it may follow from a longer distance than they ever realized. For Living on Earth, I’m Lisa Raffensperger.

GELLERMAN: That report came to us by way of the Eye-Triple-EE Spectrum, National Science Foundation program, "The Water-Energy Crunch: A Powerful Puzzle."

Related links:
- IEEE Spectrum’s Engineers of the New Millennium: The Water-Energy Crunch: A Power Puzzle
- Rob Anex, Assoc. Professor, Iowa State University
- Chris Anderson, Scientist, Climate Science Program, Iowa State University
- EPA’s 2011 Renewable Fuel Standards

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Huge Methane Emissions from Fresh Water

Professor John Downing still loves lakes. (Courtesy of John Downing)

GELLERMAN: Here’s something that might surprise you - it certainly surprised scientists. The world’s freshwater lakes, streams, ponds and swimming holes store and release immense amounts of climate changing greenhouse gases, especially methane, which is one of the most potent. Scientists found a lot more of it than they expected and published their findings in Science magazine. John Downing is one of the co-authors of the article. He’s a limnologist at Iowa State University in Ames - and Professor, welcome to Living on Earth!

DOWNING: Well thank you very much it’s a pleasure to talk about this.

GELLERMAN: So, what’s a limnologist?

DOWNING: Well, a limnologist is a scientist that studies inland waters, or continental waters - lakes, ponds, rivers and streams.

GELLERMAN: Well, for this study for Science, you studied a lot of them!

DOWNING: Yeah, I think it was 400, yeah 474 I think is the number we finally ended up with. A large number of systems across the world, but there are millions of lakes and ponds, and those are hopefully representative of them.

GELLERMAN: So what did you find? You were looking for what specifically?

DOWNING: So we were trying to see how much methane, a really important greenhouse gas, might be emitted by inland waters because it hadn’t been included in really any global budget.

GELLERMAN: So where does the methane in freshwater bodies come from?

DOWNING: Well basically decomposition of organic matter that flows into them, or organic matter that’s created within them.

GELLERMAN: So you found that freshwater bodies of water have a lot of methane stored in them and that they’re releasing a lot of it. How much are we talking about here?

DOWNING: Well, it’s kind of hard to wrap your head around the numbers, because they’re usually measured in things like petagrams which is an enormously immense amount of material. But it’s equivalent to about 25 percent of all of the carbon that’s taken up and sequestered by terrestrial environments worldwide.

GELLERMAN: And terrestrial environments is the land environments, of which these ponds and lakes are part of.

DOWNING: Right. Global ecologists have sort of divided the world into three big chunks, and one of them is the ocean, another is the continents and the other is the atmosphere. What we’ve been finding over the last four years or so is that when we consider the lakes - the wet part, the aquatic part of the continental mass, they are so much more active than any piece of real-estate on the planet.

GELLERMAN: So Professor, how much of the world’s surface is freshwater?

DOWNING: It looks to be about 2.8 to three percent right now. But five years ago, the estimate was about 1.5 percent of the land surface made up of lakes and ponds.

GELLERMAN: So how is it that we didn’t know where, I guess, half the world’s fresh water was? Before not too long ago?

DOWNING: A group of scientists and I, working at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, put together a lot of very exacting analyses of aerial and satellite photos, and began to find that there were many more small systems - small lakes and ponds than anyone had suspected.

GELLERMAN: So, to quote former president Bush, you’ve ‘mis-underestimated’ these lakes!

DOWNING: Well, I didn’t. I was pretty convinced that it would be there as was David Batsviken and Lars Tranvik and the other scientists who worked on this project. So what we’ve failed to do, really, was to consider a piece of that global budget.

GELLERMAN: When you’re talking about a global carbon budget, you’re talking about the amount of carbon that’s stored and released.

DOWNING: That’s right. And, it’s really important to know what all the major sources and sinks of carbon are. It’s sort of equivalent to running your own household budget, calculating all of your sources of incomes and expenses, and forgetting that the insurance company takes an amount out of your account each month that’s equal to 25 percent of your household income - kind of a big mistake, even a limnologist would know enough economics to make that work better!

GELLERMAN: So what happens now with this information? Does it help us, or does it hurt us?

DOWNING: Well, I think it points up a few things. It makes me feel as if we really need to pay more attention to these inland waters and what they are doing, because they are so active in everything they do that the fact that they may be only 3 percent of the land area of the planet is less important then their great activity.
So, paying attention to inland waters is very important. And then I’d say if we made this kind of an error here, what other pieces of this puzzle are missing - what other pieces might we need to fill in - and we should be paying attention to environments that are highly carbon active, even though they may be small.

GELLERMAN: So, good and bad things come from small packages.

DOWNING: Yeah, that’s in fact true. They are small, but they’re mighty. The little farm-ponds of the world probably bury or sequester as much carbon every year as the world’s oceans, and the lakes and sort of moderately sized water bodies of the earth, sequester four times the carbon that’s buried by the oceans in a year. So we have to look for not just big and obvious sources and sinks of carbon, but look at those that may be small and highly active.

GELLERMAN: Professor Downing, I was looking at your webpage, and you quote Thoreau.

DOWNING: Uh, yeah, I’ve got it right in front of me - it’s one of my favorites, it goes: “A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” Thoreau is a hero of mine, and of course, most ecologists.

GELLERMAN: It’s Earth’s eye, but I’m wondering now with your research, if it’s Earth’s black eye?

DOWNING: Not at all! We shouldn’t ever consider that lakes are bad. The rates that were measured by Batsviken and his crew of scientists from around the world - these rates of methane emission are natural and have been there a long time. Maybe if we have a black eye, it’s because we haven’t paid attention to some of earth’s most carbon-active environments and we need to be doing that.

GELLERMAN: Well, professor Downing, it was a real pleasure, I really appreciate it.

DOWNING: Oh, what a pleasure it is for me to talk about this work. Thanks for asking me.

GELLERMAN: John Downing is a limnologist at Iowa State University in Ames. Just ahead –How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm – after they’ve gone extinct? For an answer, stay tuned to Living on Earth!

Related links:
- Read the abstract of “Freshwater Methane Emissions Offset the Continental Carbon Sink” in January’s Science magazine. Subscription required for full text:
- In “Lakes (Formation, Diversity, Distribution),” Downing's research calculated there was twice as much freshwater as had previously been estimated.
- Learn more about importance of global limnology in John Downing’s treatise on the topic.

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Carrotmobs and the Power of Buycotts

The Carrotmob buycott spread quickly to other SF stores. (Photo: Carrotmob)


GELLERMAN: It’s a recycled edition of Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. And now for something completely different.


GELLERMAN: It’s party time at LOE.
WOMAN: I’m completely blown away by the turnout. I’ve been amazed by the number of people showing up.

GELLERMAN: Take out your glitter makeup, your acid washed denims, and don’t forget your wallet. This ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin' around. This is a Carrotmob. Carrotmob is a way for environmental activists to capitalize on capitalism. Using the power of their purse to persuade businesses to go green, for example getting a liquor store to put in energy saving light bulbs.

German consumers have been especially receptive to CarrotMobbing. (Photo: Carrotmob)

SCHULKIN: CFL’s and bourbon together at last. It’s about time, right? Somebody had to do it.

GELLERMAN: That somebody is Brent Schulkin. Founder of CarrotMob. Forget sticks and protests to get companies to do the enviromentally right thing, Shulkin says why not reward businesses with a carrot…mob.

SCHULKIN: A couple years ago I was in San Francisco, and I got on my bike and rode around to 23 different convenience stores. And at every store, I went in and I said, ‘what I’m going to do is I’m going to bring hundreds of people to one store on one day and we’re just going to spend a ton of money.’ And so what I asked was what percentage of this revenue we would bring will you set aside and reinvest in energy efficiency upgrades to your store? Finally, one store said, ‘I’ll give you 22 percent of everything you guys would spend.’ So then I turned around and went to the community, put up some fliers and spread the word on the internet and said ‘everyone come down.’ And then on the day of the CarrotMob, hundreds of people showed up at this convenience store, there was a line around the block. When it was all over - their typical daily revenue is maybe 18 hundred dollars, a little more than that one the weekend - we brought in 92 hundred dollars in just a couple hours. And in exchange, they took a big chunk of that money and did a full lighting retrofit of their store to be more energy efficient.

GELLERMAN: So, who organizes a CarrotMob?

SCHULKIN: Well, what happened after that first was this video spread like crazy. And we just started getting emails from people around the world who said, ‘hey, I saw what you did in San Francisco, can we do it, will you support us?’ So now we’ve grown to a global network of people and we’ve seen organizers in Helsinki who’ve organized a mob of a nightclub, Bubble Tea stand in Singapore, in Thailand we’ve seen a school that banned plastic bags at a grocery store, and all across the U.S. The biggest countries are actually Germany and Finland. They are just nuts for CarrotMob.

GELLERMAN: I guess you call it, not a boycott, but a buycott.

SCHULKIN: Yeah, I mean, CarrotMob is basically the opposite of a boycott. You know, in a boycott, you say, ‘alright, we’re not going to spend any money at this business until you change.’ But a
CarrotMob you say, ‘we’re going to ask all of you businesses to compete to say who is willing to do the most socially responsible thing, whatever we ask. And whoever wins, we’re all going to come and spend money- we’re going to mob you with spending.’

GELLERMAN: How do you ensure that the company or the business that says that it’s going to do something socially beneficial actually does something?

SCHULKIN: I used to worry about that. I thought it was sort of the Achilles heel of this movement. I don’t anymore. And the reason is that almost all of these businesses are in it - some are in it for the cash - but a lot of them are in it for the reputation, the long-term value of being seen as this great business in the community. And if you’re in it for the reputation, you know how harmful it would be if you then said, ‘haha, just kidding, we didn’t follow through, suckers!’ We just haven’t had any problems, and we’ve now had 112 or so campaigns and there’s never been a problem with it. So I don’t worry about it anymore.

GELLERMAN: So you’ve had over a hundred CarrotMob campaigns, any quantification of the results?

SCHULKIN: Well, yeah, most of the campaigns so far have been focused on energy efficiency. The best estimate that we have is that I think we’ve saved around 18 million kilowatt hours of electricity. But this is not our own, exact data, this is just some projections that we have, so, as we raise money we’re going to be building out some better tools for measuring our impact.

GELLERMAN: Does this work principally with small stores, or could you use it for big box stores as well?

SCHULKIN: Ah! Well, you’re barking up the right tree! So we want to make an enormous network of people. I’m not going to be satisfied with a million people, I want, you know, five, ten, twenty, fifty million people. The reason is, if you can get that many million people in this network, you could do Coke vs. Pepsi, Nike vs. Reebok, you could start retrofitting and changing policies at some of the world’s most powerful companies.

GELLERMAN: Actually I could see this being a lot of fun, you have these mobs swarming to a store and turning into, really, kind of a pleasant community activity.

SCHULKIN: Yeah, and you know, one other sort of fun idea that I have been mulling is - imagine SuperBowl 2014 comes along and all across America we’re having these big SuperBowl parties as Americans do, and what if we said - we’re all going to buy either Miller Light, Coors Light or Bud Light for our SuperBowl parties - which is going to be a whole lot of beer. Which of those companies is willing to have a wind-powered brewery?

(In 2008 Carrotmob Founder, Brent Shulkin, biked to 23 stores in San Francisco and promised a flood of customers if the owners pledged to invest a portion of their proceeds towards energy efficiency. At the convenience store that pledged the highest, Brent made it rain money.)

Or you know, maybe it’s a new maternity leave policy - we could ask for anything. That’s the type of campaign - how fun would that be? Who wouldn’t join in on that sort of campaign? And that’s, you know, I think there’s such a broad appeal to this movement, it’s so easy to get involved that I hope that we can have everyone join the network and we can grow the network to the point where those things are possible.

GELLERMAN: Well Brett, thank you very much. It’s fascinating!

SCHULKIN: Well thanks Bruce, I’m glad I was able to spread the word a little bit!

Related link:
Want to know more about Carrotmobbing your town?

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GELLERMAN: Brent Schulkin is founder of CarrotMob. To find out more visit our website, loe.org.

Menagerie on Ice

The guard llama protects the farm’s oddball menagerie. (SVF Foundation)

GELLERMAN: There’s an unusual sign at the entrance to a farm in Newport, Rhode Island - warning: “Biosecure area. Absolutely no trespassing. Please leave immediately.” But Living on Earth’s Jessica Ilyse Kurn decided to ignore the sign, got an invite, and has our report from behind closed gates.

KURN: A stately llama stands guard atop a hill. He’s protecting an unusual herd of goats and sheep from lurking coyotes. Among them are hairless faced Gulf Coast Sheep, Hog Island Sheep with curled horns, and Tennessee Fainting Goats—an apt name since when startled they stiffen and fall to the ground. These aren’t ordinary barnyard beasts; these animals are all heritage breeds. Sarah Bowley, the livestock manager for the SVF Foundation, says the organization’s mission is to protect these oddball animals from extinction.

BOWLEY: We focus on critically endangered breeds that are based in North America that were important to the founding fathers when they started the country.

Hog Island Sheep. (SVF Foundation)

KURN: It’s a sunny day, and a crisp breeze rolls in from the Atlantic Ocean, barely a mile away. Bowley takes me to visit the farm’s newborn goats.


BOWLEY: Kids, c’mon kids!


BOWLEY: Baby goats are just so much fun. You know, compared to the other species they can just be so entertaining to watch.

KURN: A bold kid named Rob comes up and sniffs my microphone.


KURN: Rob is an Arapawa goat with shaggy fur on his legs and a badger-like striped coat. Bowley explains just how extra-ordinary he is.

Arapawa Bucks. (SVF Foundation)

BOWLEY: We had these two kids born about a month ago and they’re embryo transfers that were collected and frozen last season and then this spring we thawed them out and implanted them into their two surrogate moms and they were born about a month ago.

KURN: Rob was a frozen embryo because Arapawa Goats are critically endangered. In the last census two years ago the Arapawa Goat Breeders USA found a population of just 318 individuals worldwide. Bowley says these animals are worth saving, not only for their friendly personalities, but also for their disease resistance—a trait that could come in handy in the future if illness strikes more popular goat breeds.


BOWLEY: Hi mamas!

KURN: Part of the process of saving these endangered species is using a more common breed as a surrogate mother. In this case, Rob’s mother was a common dairy goat, a Saanen.


KURN: This energetic kid is the product of a highly scientific lab procedure not unlike human in vitro fertilization. Embryos are harvested from pregnant female goats and brought to the lab to be frozen.


KURN: Bowley and I head out of the barn and go to the lab where the scientific process happens. Dr. Dorothy Roof, the lab supervisor, greets us at the door and shows us around.

ROOF: In a way, how the lab is laid out tells you the process of what we do.

KURN: The lab has three rooms. In the first room Dr. Roof places the embryos into a special freezer that steps down the temperature ½ a degree a minute until they reach minus 35 degrees Celsius. Once they’re frozen, she plunges the embryos into liquid Nitrogen to preserve them.

Scientists examine animal embryos. (SVF Foundation)

ROOF: Once they’re in liquid nitrogen, as long as they stay in liquid nitrogen, the estimates of how long they survive: hundreds of years.

KURN: This is important, as scientists predict large biodiversity losses in the next few centuries. We move into the next room where tissue biopsies and serum samples are collected from each embryo.

ROOF: The serum will contain all of the antibodies that the animal has in its blood. So in a way it’s a running readout of all of the pathogens that they’ve been exposed to during their lifetime.

KURN: In the final lab sit four massive, stainless steel tanks. Each tank is filled with about four feet of liquid nitrogen—they act as a large insulated thermoses for the embryos. Roof opens up the tanks.


KURN: And vapors billow out.

ROOF: It’s always the picture that everyone wants to take when they come here—the liquid nitrogen vapors. It is pretty spectacular.

KURN: But all you can see is the vapor. So Dr. Roof sucks it off with a hose.


A row of cryogenic tanks, where the embryos are frozen. (SVF Foundation)

KURN: Inside the tanks there are tiny red straws filled with embryos, each labeled with information about its biological parents. The whole process is closely monitored to make sure that the embryos will be viable for hundreds of years.

ROOF: It’s kind of reverse archeology. I try to think to myself what it would be like for me 100 years from now looking back at the person who made these embryos into the tank. I also think about what would happen if it were really like an archeological dig and all of the records were lost.

KURN: Right now the SVF Foundation is focusing on 25 critically endangered breeds of goats, sheep and cattle, their goal is to freeze 300 embryos of each breed.


KURN: As Sarah Bowley and I leave the lab she talks about the loss of animal diversity. Livestock breeds are going extinct at a rate of about one per month. Saving them is important, she says, because many of these animals can act as scientific models for human diseases.

The heritage Rhode Island Red chicken. (SVF Foundation)

BOWLEY: For example there’s a population of Jacob Sheep that are a perfect model for Tay-Sachs disease in people. There’s a pig breed, Ossabaw Island Hog, that is a perfect model for Type 2 Diabetes in people.

KURN: Also, Bowley says keeping these embryos around might one day solve a global problem.

BOWLEY: So, if there’s a disease outbreak or a certain texture or flavor of meat that’s desired or any other genetic combination that these animals can solve, we want to have their genetics available, even in just a frozen form, so that they can be reawakened and brought back hundreds of years from now.

KURN: For now the embryos slumber in their deep freeze, and wait until they’re called upon to resolve some crisis. And who knows, in the future the fate of the human food supply might just be resting on their horns. For Living on Earth I’m Jessica Ilyse Kurn in Newport, Rhode Island.


Related links:
- Learn more about the SVF Foundation and take a look at the different animals on the farm.
- A Bridge to the Future for Heritage Breeds

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Trash to Treasure

Students in Guatemala showing their hard work. (Photo: Hug it Forward)

GELLERMAN: There are ships IN bottles. Now, there are schools OUT of bottles. In Grenados, Guatemala, kids are learning the 3 Rs - reading, writing and recycling. They’ve learned how to turn plastic bottles into walls for their schools. Laura Kutner from Portland, Oregon helped make it happen. She served in the Peace Corps in Grenados in central Guatemala and worked on the project.

A finished bottle school looks like any other cement building. (Photo: Hug it Forward)

KUTNER: When I first arrived, I was working in the mornings with this elementary school, and there was this metal frame that was just sitting there. And the principal asked me, she said, "Can you help us find funding to finish these two classrooms? This frame was built for two extra classrooms." And I said, "Well, absolutely." And about that same time, I had heard about the work of a fellow volunteer. Basically, they turn plastic bottles and inorganic trash into building blocks. It was almost an accident - I was hanging out at recess with some of my students and I was drinking a Coca-Cola and it was in a 600mL bottle, and I realized that the bottle was the exact width of the metal frame that was sitting there. And so a little lightbulb went off in my head and I thought, well, maybe we could apply this construction technique of building out of bottles with this metal frame, and perhaps it will be, you know, a more cost-efficient way of finishing these classrooms.

GELLERMAN: Are these no-deposit, no-return bottles? Or are these bottles that you have a deposit and you get money for them?

KUTNER: Well, there’s no recycling system, unfortunately, in this part of the country. Guatemala as well as, you know, many countries around the world, has issues with waste management. There did exist the mentality of not being necessarily aware of how long it takes trash to decompose, and so a lot of times the plastic bottles and trash were just thrown on the ground – and it was just sitting there.

Locations of bottle schools in Guatemala. (Photo: Hug it Forward)

GELLERMAN: How many bottles did you have to collect?

KUTNER: We calculated that we needed to collect 6,000 bottles, but we ended up using over 8,000.

GELLERMAN: Whoo! That’s a lot of bottles!

KUTNER: Yes. Lots of bottles.

GELLERMAN: Where’d you get them from?

KUTNER: We went to all of the local schools asking for their collaboration. So essentially, every student collected and stuffed at least five bottles. And these have to be stuffed to the max. They are called eco-bricks. And we walked around with the students and we literally cleaned the entire town. We picked up so much trash we had to go to neighboring suburbs to find more trash.

GELLERMAN: How much trash does this equate to?

Bottle building construction methods. (Photo: Hug it Forward)

KUTNER: Each bottle, and it varies a lot based on what kind of inorganic trash - all of the trash has to be inorganic. We had all of the local stores donate all of their plastic trash. You can’t use any paper or cardboard because that decomposes quickly. You know, on average, a bottle weighs about a pound, so if you…8,000 pounds is for one school.

GELLERMAN: So you picked up the bottles, you picked up the trash, you stuffed the trash into the bottles and then built a wall.

KUTNER: We built four walls. It’s a very simple process. Essentially, you have your frame, and you start on one side of the frame, you have to lay out either…you know, you staple chicken wire to one side or what we did, because we used metal, was we tied with metal wire the chicken wire to one side first, and made it really, really tight. And then you start on the inside and you are stacking the bottles against the first layer of chicken wire vertically and then horizontally, and then you’re slowly closing it over with another layer of chicken wire and then tying both layers of chicken wire together. So you kind of encage the bottles. And then you put three layers of cement on both sides. After that, you can’t even tell that it was built out of bottles. It looks like it was built out of cement block.

GELLERMAN: Guatemala is a very active earthquake area - can these withstand earthquakes?

KUTNER: Absolutely. Because of the chicken wire and the way that it’s built, it’s actually a little more flexible in earthquake territory than cement block.

GELLERMAN: So what’s the potential for this kind of method in other parts of the world?

(A video of children in Guatemala building a school from bottles.)

KUTNER: This has huge potential. Since our project has been completed, I have received email inquiries and questions from all over the world - from Haiti, from the Philippines, from Africa - people that are working and want to turn trash into building blocks. But we always say that these projects, the actual structure - that’s just one aspect of it. The real long-term goal of these projects is the educational aspect to it, because this is not a long-term solution to trash management in any way, but just the educational aspect in learning how long it takes trash to decompose and what you can do with trash, and how much we produce. We produce enough trash to build buildings with it. And also, bringing communities together…it’s in every sense of the word, a win-win.

GELLERMAN: Well, Laura, thank you very much, really appreciate it.

KUTNER: Thank you for having me.

GELLERMAN: Former Peace Corps volunteer Laura Kutner talking to us from her home in Portland, Oregon.

Related link:
Click here for more information on how you can donate to bottle schools in Guatemala.

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GELLERMAN: Coming up – Waves so big they swallow ships in a single bite. Keep listening to 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.

The Noisy Ocean and its Consequences

If beached dolphins can’t hear, Mann says that releasing them back into the wild is a death sentence. (Photo: David Mann)

GELLERMAN: You’re listening to a recycled edition of Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.


GELLERMAN: For us, this is the sound of the sea. But creatures that live under the waves have a totally different soundscape - one that human activities have made increasingly noisy. And the cacophany could be disturbing sea life that depends on sound to survive. Living on Earth's Ike Sriskandarajah prepared our report.

[FRENCH: (dramatic music) Le monde de silence]

SRISKANDARAJAH: Jacques Cousteau called the ocean “The silent world,” and he gave that name to his 1956 underwater documentary.

Le Monde du Silence by Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle gave us the first color video of the deep sea. :



SRISKANDARAJAH: But while it's mostly silent to us - to its regular residents, the ocean can sound like a busy street corner. And research from two ocean scientists shows us the significance of sound in the sea.


SRISKANDARAJAH: The first study comes from David Mann, an associate professor of biological oceanography at the University of South Florida. He recorded these bottlenose dolphins around Tampa Bay.


MANN: Yeah, it’s an underwater recording - it’s in the middle of the night. Everything you hear in there is completely natural sound. There’s a dolphin whistling at high frequency, and then there are fish sounds - which most people don’t know about that are lower frequencies. The fish sounds are like…ba ba ba ba ba.


MANN: And so it’s interesting for people for a number of points. One is that, you know, there’s a lot of animals in the ocean using sound for communication.

David Mann checks for brain activity in a dolphin’s auditory cortex. The portion of a dolphin’s brain dedicated to hearing is relatively larger than a human’s, and should be very active. (photo: David Mann)

SRISKANDARAJAH: Mann says every dolphin has its own signature whistle. That’s how a baby dolphin identifies its mom through all other calls around it. Just like if we met and I’d say, ‘hi! I’m Ike!’

MANN: For example, the bottlenose dolphin’s whistle is saying like, ‘Bob, Bob, Bob, Bob,’ you know, my name.


SRISKANDARAJAH: But whistles aren’t just to identify which dolphin is Bob. They also tell them where they are and what’s around. Being able to hear is vital. For dolphins, deafness is disorienting.

MANN: In the dolphin’s world, if you even have a 40-decibel hearing loss, your range of echolocation is going to drop by a hundred fold. And that’s basically making the animal blind.

SRISKANDARAJAH: For five years, David Mann would rush to the beach whenever he heard of a stranded dolphin. And he would give the dolphin a hearing test.

David Mann and his team administer a hearing test to a rough-toothed dolphin named Sleepy. Dolphins hear through a fat pad on the lower jaw. The light blue suction cup is a “jawphone” and the other two suction cups measure brainwaves. (photo: David Mann)

MANN: Yes, and it is completely non-invasive. It’s the same exact test that they use with human infants to test for deafness. And so, the one difference is, you know, we don’t have headphones, per se, for dolphins. We use what we call a jaw-phone, which is simply a small speaker in a suction cup.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The dolphin would have a speaker on its jaw and a suction cup on the top of its head to monitor brain waves. The brain waves show up as a line on a little portable screen.

MANN: They’ll play a sound to you like ‘boop, boop, boop.’


SRISKANDARAJAH: In a healthy dolphin, the brainwaves go wild at that tone. But a lot of the time, David was staring at flat line.

MANN: You know, the first time we though our equipment wasn’t working. Because it’s basically that you’re not getting any electrical response off the brain when you play sound to it. But then we started seeing this, you know, more then one time, and we also had animals at the same location that had normal hearing, so…

SRISKANDARAJAH: Over the five years Mann and his team conducted these tests, they found that more than half of the bottlenose dolphins that beached themselves had significant hearing loss. But he thinks that just might be part of being a dolphin.

MANN: Deafness is common in humans, and so there’s no reason to suspect that dolphins are going to be any different than humans.

SRISKANDARAJAH: But there’s another possibility. Human-made sounds might be hurting their hearing in ways we don’t understand.

MANN: If you start running hundreds of thousands of ships on the same shipping channel back and forth, you know, all of the time, and you raise the background noise like 30 and 40 decibels on average continuously, now you’re affecting lots and lots of animals. And it’s happening out in the ocean so it’s a lot harder to actually figure out what the effects are.

SRISKANDARAJAH: David Mann isn’t the only scientist wrestling with that question - so is Susan Parks.

PARKS: So that’s the joy of science.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Parks is an assistant professor of acoustics at Penn State. She studies how ocean noise might affect one of the oceans largest and rarest inhabitants - the Right Whale.

PARKS: Right. So Right Whales are endangered and there are about 400 left in the north Atlantic now.

SRISKANDARAJAH: They’re so rare now because they were the ‘right’ whales to hunt. And man is still the danger.

PARKS: These whales are living in an area that’s highly influenced by human activities - similar to animals that live in the city. Most things that people might do in the ocean, either intentionally or inadvertently, produce sound as a byproduct.


PARKS: The one that we think about a lot with the species that I study are the sounds generated from commercial shipping.


PARKS: It’s only been about a hundred years that these ships have been in the ocean. And then if you look at the number of ships, the number of ships have been steadily increasing - in particular - over the past 40 or 50 years.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Parks wanted to know how that had affected Right Whales.

PARKS: One of the simplest ways to do this was to look at recordings from the 1950s when there were fewer ships in the ocean to ones made in, sort of, modern time, when there was a higher level of background noise.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Go to the tapes. The first was recorded in 1956, the same year Jacques Cousteau called the ocean 'the silent world.' The tape made by William Schevill of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, is a little scratchy.


SRISKANDARAJAH: Fifty years later, Parks made another recording of Right Whales at the bay of Fundy where Maine meets Canada.


PARKS: The main difference between the two recordings, and if you listen to it… you can hear that the sounds produced by right whales in the 1950s, there’s actually been a shift upwards of about 30 hertz for this species.

SRISKANDARAJAH: What’s that - like - an octave?

PARKS: Uh, a little less than an octave, yeah.

SRISKANDARAJAH: So, today, are Right Whales more…. falsetto?

PARKS: (Laughs). Well, still, it’s all still pretty low frequency.

SRISKANDARAJAH: So they sing higher to cut through the ship noise, and they also sing louder. As we ratchet up our volume, so do the whales. But perhaps there’s a limit.

PARKS: It’s possible that when the noise level exceeds a certain threshold, they just stop calling.


SRISKANDARAJAH: And Parks says that could make the lonesome leviathan even more solitary.

Susan Parks sends her acoustic recorders to the bottom of the Bay of Fundy to record right whale vocalizations. (photo: Susan Parks)

PARKS: Individuals don’t make a lot of calls - they’re relatively sort of a strong, silent type. In an endangered population, this is particularly of concern because there are fewer individuals out there. They’re in the same ocean and they need to find each other to mate, and to relocate their offspring.

SRISKANDARAJAH: But how these whales will actually cope with an increasingly noisy world is still an open question.

PARKS: So, you’ve sort of gotten to the heart of why I actually…why I study whale communication. We don’t know!


SRISKANDARAJAH: But we do know that the ocean never was Cousteau’s ‘Silent World.’ Life in the ocean has always been noisy. But now there are four billion more people then there were in 1956. With all of the decibels human trade and industry generate at sea, navigating through the din is the 21st century challenge for ocean creatures.


SRISKANDARAJAH: For Living on Earth, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.

Related link:
Hearing Loss in Stranded Odontocete Dolphins and Whales :

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The Wave

Read about huge waves in Susan Casey’s book published by Knopf Doubleday.

GELLERMAN: Monster waves that sink ships leaving not a trace or a survivor are the stuff of myth, legend – and Hollywood. But it turns out they're real. In fact, satellites and ocean tracking instruments show that monster waves are not that uncommon - they strike a ship about once every two weeks. Susan Casey writes about them in her book: “The Wave, in Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean”, and talked with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood.

CASEY: Those ships are hitting rogue waves in storm conditions, you know, waves that can be three and even four times bigger than the seas around them, so if you’ve got 50 foot seas, you can easily get a 100 or a 125 foot rogue wave. And scientists really had to reckon with the fact that these waves do exist.

CURWOOD: In your book, Susan Casey, you tell the story of a scientific ship in the UK that documented these giant waves. Could you tell us that story now please?

CASEY: Yes, the RRS Discovery. I read about this and I had to read the article twice to believe what I was reading- was a group of scientists from Britian and Scotland who were out in the North Atlantic and they were hit by about 48 hours worth of 60,70,80,90 and even 100 foot waves. And they were trapped out there in these waves, and almost didn’t survive them.

And what was great, not so much for them, but for everyone else, was that the ship had all kinds of state-of-the-art scientific instruments on it, so it was perfectly equipped to capture every measurement of what the ocean was doing. And what they found out and eventually published a paper about was that the models, the meteorological models and the wave models, had not predicted these waves, that they shouldn’t have been there, and that in fact, the kinds of really extreme and really freakish seas that had been sort of seen as sailors’ tall tales, really did exist. There was direct proof there.

CURWOOD: So what’s a really big wave?

CASEY: Well, in the book, I talk about a wave that happened in 1958 in a very spooky area of the Alaskan coast that was 1,740 feet tall. That’s a big wave! (laughs)

CURWOOD: Wait a second, that’s the empire state building!

CASEY: I think plus some. That is the biggest wave that has been measured accurately. And the reason they were able to know exactly how big that wave was, was geologists were later able to go in and measure where the trees stop. It’s like a razor came along and just shaved them all off. And when they were up there, looking into that, they found out that this had happened quite regularly in this bay.

CURWOOD: Now this is all related to landslides and earthquakes, that sort of thing?

CASEY: Yes, and in the book, I talk about several different types of giant waves. In that case it was kind of a localized tsunami. The most dramatic waves that we have here on Earth are caused by big landslides either on the land that then fall into the water, or below the sea and cause tsunamis. And they can be provoked by earthquakes, they can be provoked by a volcanic island collapsing, but those are the really dramatic ones. Those are the ones that re-write the maps.

CURWOOD: Now, one thing that you mention in your book is that the average height of ocean waves seems to be increasing. Why is that? And should we be worried about it?

CASEY: Well, I think that ocean has always been a very powerful and volatile place. And the increase that seems to be happening in waves has to do with a number of different effects. One of them is, are these over-arching climate patterns, and these are really very poorly understood things because we haven’t had the ability to measure, you know, long-time climate patterns because we haven’t been doing it for very long, and we haven’t even been around that long when you think of geological time. So, that, the increased wind that comes from a warmer ocean and potentially stormier environment, just caused by climate change…So, I don’t know about worried, but aware, certainly.

CURWOOD: So, lets talk about climate change and big waves. You list several things in your book that could change wave patterns. For one thing, you say that climate change could increase the frequency of earthquakes. How’s that?

CASEY: This is what happens: when glaciers melt, they tend to change distribution of weight. It’s either more or less weight on the land or on the seabed, and it’s a pretty dramatic amount, like if the sea goes up even a small bit in terms of sea level, that adds up to so much weight and that then weighs the tectonic plates and various fault lines differently. They call it isostatic rebound.

And what they suspect is that at the end of the last ice age, when the glaciers were sort of pouring into the ocean and parallels to what we’ve got now with rapidly shrinking glaciers, there was a flurry of earthquake and volcanic activity. You know, when things are moving around, when there’s sediment or earthquakes below the water, or even on land and falling into the water, that can equate to a tsunami.

CURWOOD: So how likely is it that science is going to be able to predict big waves, or should we just, you know, chalk 'em up to the unpredictable nature of nature?

CASEY: Well, I think nature is always going to defy our attempts to completely dissect it in any sort of rational, logical way, because chaos and random events are really a part of its complexity. But there are some very, very smart people trying to make better climate models and better wave models, and to better understand how we can be in harmony with these potentially destructive or, certainly incredibly powerful forces, and that work just goes on continuously.

And when you have something like the tsunami of 2004 and a tragedy like that or, the sort of amazing power that was witnessed as the storm surge came over the levees in Hurricane Katrina, I think it shows how important it is going to be for us to understand this in such a way that we can live with it.

CURWOOD: Part of your book you devote to a search for, I guess a surfing holy grail, what, to ride a hundred foot wave?


CURWOOD: Why would someone want to ride a hundred foot wave? It sounds like a death wish to me!

CASEY: I would definitely agree with you. I wanted to find out. I saw a 20-foot wave years ago and had never forgotten how terrified I was when I saw it. And somebody was riding it and I didn’t understand how he could survive it. And then, a few years later, they started tow surfing and I saw pictures of some of the characters in my book riding 60 and 70-foot waves, and I was absolutely riveted. I couldn’t understand how people didn’t die every time they went out.

CURWOOD: You need to explain tow surfing.

CASEY: Tow surfing was invented in 1995 as a means to ride bigger and bigger waves. Waves that are bigger than, say, 30 or 40 feet, are not possible for us to paddle into. They’re just moving too fast. I described it in the book as trying to catch the subway by crawling. You’re just not going to get it, it’s just going to go thundering past you. So, the biggest most interesting waves for some of the surfers were in the, what they call the un-ridden realm. And they, eventually, through a sort of painful trial and error, figured out that they could use jet skis to pull a partner onto the crest of the wave. And it could be theoretically, it could be any size wave, it could be a 100-foot wave, but they were doing it with 60 and 70-foot waves with success.

CURWOOD: This sounds absolutely nuts! A jet ski is not the easiest thing in the world to handle, now you’re going to have this 60-feet above… you know, there’s a big hole at the end of that wave!

CASEY: Well and not to mention that water is, you know, 800-times denser than air, so when it comes crashing down on your head it does some damage. And as I said, it was a very painful trial and error process.

CURWOOD: How many people get killed doing this?

CASEY: You know, every so often someone will get killed or injured very badly. I think what happens a lot more often is they get scared to the point where they never want to do it again. I asked a lot of them to describe to me what it feels like to be held down by a wave that big, and I think it’s a truly fearsome experience. And some of the best surfers that I encountered and interviewed, said, you know, they had instances where they really, as one surfer put it, saw the mandala. And they didn’t want to go back out, right back out there and do this think they loved. It took years to feel like they were in control again.

CURWOOD: In other words, they thought they were about to die. They were drowning.

CASEY: Yeah, and most of them do have that experience.

CURWOOD: And you feel fine going out to sea knowing that these waves are out there?

CASEY: I definitely would, it’s just, I think that you always have to have your wits about you and you have to know that these waves are out there. And I also think the last thing that I would want people to do is read this book and think ‘I’m more scared of the ocean.’ I mean, I feel as though part of my purpose in writing it was so we could understand more this great force that’s so much a part of the planet that we live on, and if we understand it more then maybe we can respect it a little bit more. Because, one of the things that seems so counterproductive is to treat the ocean like it’s this other thing over there and we can dump stuff into it and we don’t have to worry about understanding it. But what I’d like to do is shed more light on what’s going on in the darkest heart of the ocean.

CURWOOD: Susan Casey’s new book is called “The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean.” Thank you so much, Susan.

CASEY: Thank you!

GELLERMAN: That's Living on Earth's Steve Curwood.

Related link:
Watch a Youtube interview with Susan Casey & surfer Laird Hamilton.

Back to top


Earth Ear


GELLERMAN: We leave you this week with a phrase of terns.


Newly hatched tern and incipient sibling. (Photo: © Mark Seth Lender)

GELLERMAN: Mark Seth Lender accompanied some U.S. Fish and Wildlife scientists to Falkner Island during their annual nest count of Common Terns and the endangered Roseate Tern. Falkner is located off Guilford Connecticut in Long Island Sound. It’s one of the terns' last safe retreats, no wonder their cries sound so angry!


Related link:
Salt Marsh Diary

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GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, and Helen Palmer, with help from Sarah Calkins, Gabriela Romanow (rhymes with domino) 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 L-O-E dot org - and check out our facebook page, it’s PRI’s Living on Earth. And while you’re on line, visit myplanetharmony.com. Our sister program, Planet Harmony, welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at myplanetharmony.com. 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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