September 16, 2011
Air Date: September 16, 2011
Cloudy Days for American Solar
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Two solar companies, backed by the federal government for more than half a billion dollars, have folded. But that didn’t stop the Department of Energy from announcing their support for a new, ambitious solar installation program. Host Bruce Gellerman asks Greentech Media solar analyst MJ Shiao if solar is still a smart investment. Photo: President Obama points to Solyndra’s cylindrical solar panel during a visit last year. (Flickr cc/jurvetson) (06:45)
Solar Boost for Greece/ Jonathan Gifford
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Greece has been suffering from spiraling unemployment and excessive debt, but now the Mediterranean country may be have a bright spot on the horizon: solar. At a recent conference in Hamburg, Germany, the Greek energy minister announced the details of a new ambitious plan called Project Helios that would expand the nation’s solar energy and export to other nations. Deutsche Welle Radio’s Jonathan Gifford was at the conference and has the story. (05:30)
Earth, Wind and Fire in Central Texas
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Alongside a record heat wave and drought, Texas has experienced its worst fire season in history. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Tony Plohetski, a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, about the conditions that have come together to fuel these intense fires. (06:00)
Undamming the Elwha/ Ashley Ahearn
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In the second part of our series about the historic dam removal project on the Elwha River in Washington State, Earthfix’s Ashley Ahearn looks at the role hatcheries may play in bringing back salmon populations. (05:30)
Science Note/Bat Aerodynamics/ Stephanie McPherson
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Bats fly through the air with the greatest of ease and new research shows that their flight is regulated by sensitive hairs on its wings. Stephanie McPherson reports. (01:45)
NASA’s Plan for a Mega Rocket
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The new NASA rocket program, called the Space Launch System, is scheduled to take flight for the first time in 2017. The rocket will be the biggest and most powerful on the planet. Todd May, Program Manager for the NASA project, tells host Bruce Gellerman about plans to send a space crew back to the moon, to mars, and into deep space for exploration. (04:00)
Man in a Box
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British geologist Iain Stewart wants to demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between plants and people. So, he’s thinking outside the box and going in an airtight glass box for two days to live among 160 plants. He talks with host Bruce Gellerman about why he’s doing this experiment. (05:15)
Jersey Shore Birds/ Mitra Taj
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In southern New Jersey scientists struggle to protect some of the planet's greatest migrators from disappearing. Living on Earth's Mitra Taj reports on the effort from the Jersey shore. (11:00)
Earth Ear - Listen to the Nebraska Conehead.
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HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: MJ Shiao, Tony Plohetski, Larry Ward, Mike McHenry, Fred Utter, Rob
Elofson, Todd May, Iain Stewart, Charles Duncan, Larry Niles
REPORTERS: Jonathan Gifford, Ashley Ahearn, Stephanie McPherson, Mitra Taj
GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce
Gellerman. Congress tries to shed light on questionable federal loan guarantees to the
solar energy industry as the lights go out for three major U.S. producers of solar panels.
SHIAO: There are going to be many companies that do fail. So there's going to be a lot of
growing pains, and there are going to be a lot of companies, as a result, that won't make
GELLERMAN: But don’t count solar out just yet, the future actually looks bright. Also,
wildfires sear many parts of the country, but central Texas suffers its worst fire season in
its history destroying an area the size of Connecticut.
PLOHETSKI: The truth is it has been a miserable summer. I mean, here we have had an
epic drought. With high temperatures, you know, just shattering records. And so what
experts say is that this year you really have had a combination of factors that have made
this area a real tinderbox.
GELLERMAN: We’ll have those stories and more, this week on Living on Earth. Stick
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Mass, this is
Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Last year, President Obama traveled to Silicon
Valley, hoping to hitch the nation’s energy future to our nearest star -- the sun. The
president was in California to champion a startup company called "Solyndra." That, with
the help of more than half a billion dollars in federal loan guarantees, was producing a
new kind of solar panel.
OBAMA: You're demonstrating that the promise of clean energy isn't just an article of
faith, not any more. It's not some abstract possibility for science fiction movies, or the
distant future - 10 years down the road or 20 years down the road - it's happening right
GELLERMAN: That was then, but the sun has since set on Solyndra. The company went
belly up. 1,100 workers lost their jobs, and FBI agents went in like gangbusters,
searching Solyndra for evidence of wrongdoing. Now, Congress is investigating whether
the federal loan guarantees to the company should have been made at all. Here’s Florida
Republican Cliff Stearns:
STEARNS: It should not take a financial restructuring, bankruptcy, an FBI raid for my
colleagues on the other side of the aisle to put politics aside and join us in our efforts.
GELLERMAN: The solar industry is under a dark cloud these days. Because, besides
Solyndra, Massachusetts based Evergreen Solar - which also received large government
support - filed bankruptcy. So did privately held SpectraWatt, financed by Intel. But
market analyst MJ Shiao of Greentech Media, says there’s a lot more to the solar story.
SHIAO: Well, certainly when you just take the three of them by themselves, it doesn't
paint a pretty picture for the US manufacturing landscape. And there’s a lot more
manufacturers in the US who are competitive right now, who are producing solar
modules, and even the raw materials for solar modules, and all of the supporting
components and hardware for solar systems that we need. So, the industry is much
greater than just these three companies.
GELLERMAN: But Solyndra was the big boy on the block, and together, I guess,
Solyndra and Evergreen produced, about what? 20 percent of the US production?
SHAIO: Most of that was actually Evergreen. That void will certainly be filled. It
might be filled by foreign manufacturers, but, it’s important to keep in mind that just
because Solyndra and Evergreen and SpectraWatt have failed, doesn’t mean that US
manufacturing is necessarily doomed.
GELLERMAN: President Obama was a great champion of solar electricity, and
specifically, this company Solyndra.
President Obama addresses the Solyndra California Solar Plant (embed):
GELLERMAN: Does he bear some of the responsibility for, you know, boosting it
and now we find out that, you know, the FBI is raiding their offices to see if there was
SHAIO: I absolutely say that his Administration, particular the DOE loan guarantee
program itself, does have some questions that need to be answered. You know, what kind
of due diligence was put in place? Why did they make this investment in the first place?
That being said, you can’t just say that: OK, this loan guarantee program has completely
failed, just because Solyndra has failed.
It is just a small part of the portfolio. It’s only about three percent of the entire solar
portfolio - this loan program - and that’s not including investments into other advanced
technologies like electric vehicles, batteries, and other technologies.
GELLERMAN: Now there’s news about another company called Solar City, and they’re
going to install more solar - I guess, they're gonna double the amount of installed solar
panels in the United States in just the next few years!
SHAIO: (LAUGHS). So they say anyway.
GELLERMAN: They have a Department of Defense contract. And they’ve got subsidy
from the Department of Energy. The Department of Energy is going to put these solar
cells on the roofs of houses on their base.
SHAIO: Yep, exactly. And, Solar City has been one of the pioneers of a very interesting
movement in the US solar industry which is where these companies are actually offering
solar leases. So, there is no up front cost to the residential homeowner, they instead,
they just simply pay a lease payment, or they pay an electricity bill to the company that
installed the solar.
GELLERMAN: So, Solar City installs it on a house on a military base. And then, they
get the electricity and they sell it back to the customer- the customer doesn’t have to pay
for the panel.
SHAIO: Exactly. So, Solar City is able to take advantage of a lot of the tax benefits,
the government subsidies, or local subsidies for solar in that area, but the residential
homeowner doesn’t have to put up any upfront costs for the system.
Solyndra specialized in cylindrical photovoltaic panels. The innovation, intended to absorb more light from more angles proved unsuccessful. (embed):
GELLERMAN: Do you ever see the day when solar can exist without subsidies?
SHAIO: So, that’s a really interesting question. So, this is actually, in the industry, we
call grid parity - when will solar reach grid parity? But suffice it to say, right now, we
don’t have to worry about that until about 2016, because that’s when the current major
solar incentives expire federally.
Another point is that other forms of energy generation receive very generous subsidies as
well. So, to say that renewables - solar, wind and other renewables - need to reach this
quote-unquote grid parity point where they’re no longer subsidized, is a bit of an unfair
GELLERMAN: Can the United States compete as a producer of solar panels? I mean,
China can produce them so much more cheaply than we can.
SHAIO: Mm hmm. I think the US can. I have to caveat with saying that, you can’t beat
China at its own game. These Chinese companies, they have access to cheap capitol,
access to cheap labor. They have better access to the supply chain for solar. So, it’s
incumbent upon US manufacturing companies to really innovate, and especially innovate
towards a low cost manufacturing.
I bring up First Solar which is one of the largest solar module producers in the world, and
it has facilities in the US that are on par with Chinese companies, because it has taken
such great lengths to innovate towards low cost manufacturing.
GELLERMAN: So, MJ Shiao as an analyst of solar markets for Green Tech Media, what
do you tell investors who just say, ‘Well, you know, I’m really interested in solar’- what
do you tell them?
SHAIO: I think the long-term picture for solar is strong. Investing in solar as a very
broad industry is going to be a winner. However, there are going to be many companies
that do fail. So there is going to be a lot of growing pains, and there are going to be a lot
of companies as a result that won’t make it.
GELLERMAN: Well, MJ Shiao, thank you so very much for coming in.
SHAIO: Alright, thank you.
GELLERMAN: MJ Shiao is an analyst for solar markets for Green Tech Media.
Well, just when things looked dim for the Greek economy, there is perhaps one bright spot on the horizon: solar. Deutsche-Welle Radio’s Jonathan Gifford attended the recent European Photovoltaic Solar conference in Hamburg, Germany and has our story.
GIFFORD: Ten gigawatts is a lot of electricity - just how big it is, is hard to imagine - it’s the size of five of the biggest coal fired power plants in the US. It’s also a little less than five times the output of the Hoover dam. And, it’s more than the annual the production of the national Greek electricity utility.
But 10 gigawatts is also the generating capacity of new solar plants the Greek government would like to install in an ambitious plan announced at one of the solar industry’s biggest tradeshows: EU PVSEC. Referring to the scheme as Project Helios, Greek energy minister George Papaconstantinou provided the first details of the plan, which, just a few weeks ago, had been little more than a rumor.
But, asking just how Athens plans to pull off the scheme, raises almost as many questions as it answers.
PSOMAS: Project Helios is just a concept at the moment. That was an idea born just a few weeks ago. There is nothing concrete yet. Actually, the presentation in Hamburg was the first ever document that we’ve seen about the project.
GIFFORD: That’s Stelios Psomas from HELAPCO, the Greek Solar Industry Association. His group met with the Greek energy ministry to discuss a plan. At this stage, the proposal is that Athens would work with the German government and solar industry to determine the investment required to install 10 gigawatts of solar energy capacity by 2050.
Of course, Greece doesn’t need all that electricity, but Germany, which aims to close down all of its nuclear reactors by 2022, could certainly put it to good use in one way or another.
PSOMAS: This is still a question: whether it will be physically exported, or how much of it will be physically exported to Germany or other European countries, and which part of it will be statistically exported, if you like, in the sense that, according to European legislation, member states can exchange green energy among them in order to reach their renewable energy titles.
GIFFORD: Psomas imagines that it will be a combination of the two. A limiting factor is the power lines - the grid - that connects Greece to the Balkans and then to central Europe. It wasn’t designed to export so much energy, and would require a serious upgrade to carry 10 gigawatts - this, of course, would require major investments - and with the liquidity crisis still gripping the Greek banking sector, funding isn’t always easy to obtain.
Aris Polychronopoulos, the general manager of Greece’s largest solar installer, BIOSAR, appears confident, however. He says that if only one industry could get a loan in Greece these days, it would probably be the solar energy sector.
POLYCHRONOPOULOS: So financing is still a problem, but through the fact that all the other aspects of Greek economy are getting worse, any money available from the banks, they are going for solar investments. So, I don’t see that there is a huge problem right now.
GIFFORD: Polychronopoulos adds that the growth in the Greek solar market is steady, which is advantageous when compared to the boom/bust cycle observed in Spain and the Czech Republic, both former darlings of the solar scene. He says that the fact that thousands of local businesses and households are installing solar panels is better than any one big energy export plan.
POLYCHRONOPOULOS: Things are going along well. And, there are megawatts per month which are being installed and connected in houses. At the same time, I think that now there are a lot of applications for rooftops commercial and industrial, so from Q4 into 2012, I think we'll see a lot of installations in rooftops in Greece.
GIFFORD: What do you think about the idea of Greece as a renewable energy exporter - whether it’s in real terms - down the wires - or this trading kind of idea within Europe?
POLYCHRONOPOULOS: You should ask our minister.
GIFFORD: While the Greek government’s concept gives some hope to the solar industry at a time when prices for photovoltaic modules are falling fast, and two major US manufacturers have declared bankruptcy, investors shouldn’t be getting too excited just yet. Everyone knows there’s plenty of sunshine in Greece, but equally there is also the knowledge of Greece’s uncertain public finances - that’s according to Karl Heinz Remmers, the founder of SolarPraxis AG, from Berlin.
REMMERS: It’s a good idea, and Greece is a brilliant place for photovoltaic, but claiming to realize such a project with money from the other European countries is absolutely impossible. Nobody will give them the money. I think Greece cannot afford to do something like this.
GIFFORD: So, while the potential - the sunlight and the political will - all seem to be in place, sorting out the nuts and bolts required to make project Helios light up Europe’s electricity grid and create jobs and business opportunities in Greece, will take a long time.
But, here in Hamburg on the last day of a solar trade fair, where most of the official discussion focused on how fast prices are falling, Greece’s 10 gigawatt dream is a ray of sunshine that’s certainly got delegates talking on the sidelines. Jonathan Gifford, Hamburg.
GELLERMAN: Deutsche Welle has a lot of illuminating stories about Europe and the environment. You can find the link at our website: loe.org.
[MUSIC: Jimi Hendrix “New Rising Sun” from West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology (Sony Music 2010).]
GELLERMAN: Just ahead - as dams in Washington State start coming down, fish face an uncertain future. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Monty Alexander: “Strawberry Hill” from Yard Movement (Island Records 1996).]
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Ferocious wildfires have
been scorching the earth around the United States. Fueled by tinder dry trees, and fanned
by gusting winds - a wildfire in the Boundary Waters Wilderness of Northern Minnesota
charred a hundred thousand acres of forest - sending clouds of choking smoke 600 miles
In California, there were mandatory evacuations as wildfires roared near Sequoia
National Park. But hardest hit has been Texas, where heat, drought and human factors
have conspired to burn more than three and a half million acres to a crisp. Ground Zero
has been central Texas. We caught up with reporter Tony Plohetski in the newsroom of
the Austin American-Statesman. Welcome to Living on Earth, Tony.
PLOHETSKI: Thanks for having me.
GELLERMAN: So, I was reading there are about 21,000 wildfires in Texas since last
November alone and half since Labor Day. How does this compare?
PLOHETSKI: You know, certainly in this part of the country, we have had wildfires
from time to time, but the truth is, this has been an unprecedented appearance with so
many homes burned: 1,500 or more in one area alone in Bastrop County. So, it really has
been an epic event for us here.
GELLERMAN: How close are have you gotten to these fires?
PLOHETSKI: You know, the nearest one to downtown Austin, which is where I am
right now, was about 30 miles away. But, I will tell you this, immediately afterwards,
you could see smoke from downtown Austin. And, in fact, the day after the fires, smoke
really hung low throughout downtown Austin, and a lot of people were actually having
some health problems associated with it.
GELLERMAN: Yeah, I imagine the smell must be terrible!
PLOHETSKI: Yeah, it was for a time.
GELLERMAN: So, the conditions in central Texas this summer sound really intense -
very, very hot. I guess you had the hottest August on record?
PLOHETSKI: The truth is, it has been a miserable summer. I mean, here we have had
an epic drought that has, you know, taken moisture from the state. We’ve also been
incredibly hot. We’ve had, you know, 70 plus days of 100 degrees or more with high
temperatures, you know, getting into the 110/112 range and shattering records.
So, at the same time, we’ve also seen massive growth. We’ve seen homes being built
along what fire officials call "the urban wildlands interface," which is sort of the tectonic
fault line for wildfire development. And so, what experts say is that this year, you really
have had a combination of factors that have contributed to the wildfire risk, and have in
fact, made this area a real tinderbox.
GELLERMAN: So you’ve got an environmental problem: the drought and the heat, and
then you’ve got this people problem: people moving into these areas that are susceptible
PLOHETSKI: Right. And, the thing about that is, you know, they’re moving into
areas that, frankly, are beautiful. In the Bastrop County fire, you know, you have these
beautiful tall pines, and you see people building at the top of hills that have majestic
views overlooking the hill country. But at the same time, you know, according to fire
experts, when you build and develop in those areas - particularly at the tops of hills -
you’re really at the top of what they call a matchbox.
GELELRMAN: Well, are there planners who say what you can and can’t put in different
PLOHETSKI: Well, that is the real interesting thing. You know, much of Texas and this
region is not in incorporated cities - they are in more rural areas, and state really does not
allow counties to regulate development. So, ultimately what it comes down to is people
have to assume responsibility for their personal property, and so, that has really been an
And, so, there have been moves in different areas to get more stringent regulation in
place, but the truth is many people, homeowners and developers alike, don’t want to do
that. They want to build as much as they can on that precious property. So that has been
an ongoing issue.
GELLERMAN: What about the firefighters and all the equipment that’s needed to fight
these? Aren’t the firefighters saying ‘Hey! We need some help here?’
PLOHETSKI: Absolutely. I do think you’re going to see departments, really across this
region, taking a harder look at how they can be more prepared to go after these fires,
should they break out, and possibly seeking grants to help buy more equipment or pay for
more firefighters, as well as getting that from their local budgets.
GELLERMAN: I know that FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency,
covers - what, 75 percent of fighting these types of fires?
PLOHETSKI: That is my understanding as well, yeah.
GELLERMAN: And, families that are affected can get up to 30,000 dollars to cover
insured risks. You know, here you’ve got Governor Rick Perry of Texas saying, "We’ve
got these fires" - he rushed back from the campaign trail to go there. And yet, the federal
government, which he’d like to cut, is picking up a big part of the tab to fight and fend
off these fires.
PLOHETSKI: But, you know, local resources have certainly been used to fight the fires,
GELLERMAN: But, if there were cuts here, they bite pretty deep!
PLOHETSKI: Yeah! I mean, I guess that’s the way the cuts work - yeah.
GELLERMAN: So, is there any push back by people? Are people now saying, ‘Hey,
maybe we need to have some better planning, or prepare better for next year?’
PLOHETSKI: Absolutely. I mean, that seems to be where the renewed focus is. But,
I’ve gotta tell you too, at the same time, people just want to get back to their property,
they want to see what’s left, and the conversation has really shifted to rebuilding, and
whether or not to rebuild. And, if to rebuild, how to do it, and where to do it? That seems
to be the focus right now.
GELLERMAN: Tony, do you think this is the new normal? I mean, you keep on having
droughts, you have these intense weather conditions, wildfires out of control, is this the
PLOHETSKI: You know, some people would certainly say that it is. And, that, you
know, next summer is going to bring even more issues. It’s definitely kind of a tender
place to be - we’re going to have to keep watching it very closely in the months, and
possibly years to come.
GELLERMAN: Well, Tony Plohetski, thank you so very much.
PLOHETSKI: Thank you, take care.
GELLERMAN: Tony Plohetski is a reporter with the Austin American-Statesman in
Read more about the Texas wildfires of late
[MUSIC: Ned Sublette “Nothing To Lose” from Cowboy Rhumba (Palm Pictures 1999).]
GELLERMAN: Wild salmon have been struggling to survive in the Elwha River ever
since the government began damming it back in 1913. Now, nearly a hundred years later,
two dams along the Elwha in Washington State are coming down.
It’s the largest dam removal project in the world. And some say the coho, steelhead
and chum salmon will need help to restore them to their past glory. But others want
nature to take its course. We have the second and final report of Ashley Ahearn’s
series “Undamming the Elwha.”
[WALKING ON GRAVEL]
AHEARN: Larry Ward stands on the banks of a gravel-lined channel two miles from
the mouth of the Elwha River. He’s the head of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s new
hatchery, which was finished last May.
WARD: This will be the point at which adults returning from the river enter into the
hatchery itself, and where fish produced and reared at the hatchery leave and first enter
into the Elwha River.
AHEARN: We walk a couple hundred yards from the river to the hatchery where long
concrete troughs hold thousands of juvenile coho salmon, their dappled bodies flickering
in the sun. There are about 600,000 fish in the hatchery – steelhead and coho salmon for
now – but Ward wants to see that number increase.
WARD: Ultimately, I think we’re looking for thousands of adults coming back to the
hatchery facility - chum salmon, coho, steelhead - and producing upwards of a million
and a half or two million fish to be released.
AHEARN: Across the way from the coho troughs, large asphalt ponds sparkle with
steelhead – about 80,000 in each pond. Ward explains that only about 150 wild steelhead
return to the Elwha each year.
WARD: So it’s a critically depressed stock, and so that’s why we’ve gone to this extra
measure to rear the population captively in the hatchery to try and increase the number of
fish that are available.
AHEARN: You might look at these captive steelhead as sort of the “freshman class”
of the new Elwha. They will be one of the first generations to have access to the waters
above the dams, when they return from the ocean in a couple years.
WARD: The hatcheries will be able to support the restoration of fish stocks by providing
fish to supplement the natural productivity in the river. So, the hatcheries are going to
help to accelerate the recovery and restoration process of fish in the river.
AHEARN: This is the largest dam removal in history, so no one really knows how long
it will take wild runs of salmon to return to this watershed. Some scientific estimates
suggest 40-60 years. And for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, whose reservation is at the
mouth of the Elwha, that’s too long to wait.
They’re hoping the hatchery will restore the salmon fishery here within a decade or so.
Mike McHenry is a fisheries biologist with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. He says
there’s been much debate over hatcheries on the Elwha.
MCHENRY: It’s probably one of the most controversial things about the whole Elwha
project - this philosophical divide between folks that want to use hatcheries to accelerate
for recovery, and those that feel like it should be a totally natural re-colonization
AHEARN: McHenry sits right on the fence on this one. He says hatcheries could be a
lifeline for the wild fish population that might suffer during a potentially massive flush
of sediment into the river during dam removal. But he and other scientists take issue with
the type of fish that will be raised in the hatchery.
One fish in particular: the Chamber’s Creek steelhead. This fish is not native to the
Elwha, but it’s become popular as a hatchery fish in the region because it grows about
twice as fast as wild steelhead and returns early.
MCHENRY: There’s concern that they might interbreed with native fish. There’s
ecological concerns. The smolts that are released are very large. They tend to be highly
predacious on other species of salmon. They tend to out compete native species of
steelhead because of the size in some cases.
AHEARN: Fred Utter is an expert on fish genetics. He worked for the National
Marine Fisheries Service for 30 years before becoming a professor at the University
of Washington. He says Chamber’s Creek steelheads are great for maintaining a sport
UTTER: And, it’s a valuable fish in that case, but it by no means should ever be used as a
fish to restore natural populations in the Elwha. I think that would be a serious mistake.
AHEARN: Rob Elofson stands on a bluff overlooking the Elwha. He’s a member of the
Lower Elwha Klallam tribe and director of the River Restoration effort. The tribe has
been without healthy salmon runs for almost 100 years, and they’re tired of waiting.
Elofson says hatchery-raised Chamber’s Creek steelhead have been a good supplement to
the depleted wild runs, but that’s not a permanent solution.
ELOFSON: The idea would be when our harvest of other salmon in the river reaches a
certain point, we could phase out the chambers creek. But, it is my job to make sure that
the tribal fishermen have a fishery.
AHEARN: And as the different runs of salmon balance themselves out, the tribe plans
to phase out the entire fish hatchery. But no one knows exactly how long that will take,
or how hatchery fish might affect the balance of salmon runs here in the long term. As
the fish, both hatchery and wild, make it into the upper reaches of the river in the coming
years, Rob Elofson’s dream is to follow them.
ELOFSON: I’m hoping that I can go up to Elkhorn and catch a salmon and cook it up
for dinner. That would be the ideal, since then I’d still be young enough to hike up to
Elkhorn. So, it’s about 27 miles upstream from the mouth of the Elwha.
AHEARN: From here on out, all eyes will be on the Elwha as this much-studied, much-
debated, and much-loved river resumes her natural course from the Olympic Mountains
to the Pacific. I’m Ashley Ahearn on the Elwha River.
GELLERMAN: Ashley Ahearn reports for EarthFix, a public media project that explores
the environment of the Pacific Northwest.
Undamming the Elwha Series
[MUSIC: Taj Mahal “Ain’t Gwine To Whistle Dixie (No Mo)” from The Real Thing
(Sony Music 1971).]
GELLERMAN: Coming up: NASA unveils its new heavy lift rocket, big and powerful
enough to launch a dozen of elephants into space. But first this Note on Emerging
Science from Stephanie McPherson.
MCPHERSON: Bats flit across the night sky in a rapid ballet of twists and turns. Now,
researchers believe the bats agility is due to the tiny hairs on their wings.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME MUSIC]
MCPHERSON: The hairs on bats’ wings bend in the breeze and trigger super-sensitive
cells that help them register the speed and direction of the wind.
Scientists from the University of Maryland measured electrical firings from the bats’
brains as they responded to the signals coming from the sensor cells. The brains were
most active when they sensed the wind coming from behind – a situation that could lead
The researchers wanted to know how the bats put those signals to use. The mammals
flew through obstacle courses - first with their hairs in tact, then again after the hairs were
removed using a topical cream.
The bats moved easily through the course during the first round. But when their wings
were hairless, the bats flew faster and took wider turns. Since the hairs weren’t there to
trigger the sensor cells, scientists believe the bats sped up to avoid dropping from the sky
– in the real world, they would’ve had trouble catching prey or avoiding predators.
Researchers are looking into how they can use this information to improve wind sensors
on airplanes. Perhaps they can prevent stalling with a wing and a hair. That’s this week’s
Note on Emerging Science, I’m Stephanie McPherson.
GELLERMAN: NASA is thinking big - really big. The American Space Agency has
just unveiled the design for a super-sized rocket. The plan is to use the new, powerful
Space Launch System to propel people and payloads far into space on voyages back to
the moon and beyond.
Todd May is Program Manager of NASA's Space Launch System. Mr. May, welcome to
Living on Earth.
MAY: Hey, Bruce, glad to be here with you here today.
GELLERMAN: So, how big is this new rocket?
MAY: The initial capability is 70 metric tons to low earth orbit, about twice the payload
capability of the previous shuttle.
GELLERMAN: So, lets see, that’s about 140,000 lbs; I'm just doing a back of the
MAY: That’s right. That’s the equivalent of maybe nine school busses or twelve
elephants - a fairly large payload capability.
GELLERMAN: So, compare that to, say, the Saturn Five, which was the biggest rocket
on the planet before - that’s the one that took us to the moon - how big is it compared to
MAY: The initial capability actually has about ten percent more thrust off of the pad
than the Saturn Five did. The evolved capability, somewhat more than that.
GELLERMAN: Well the Space Launch System - that’s the name of this new rocket,
MAY: That’s correct, sir.
GELERMAN: Not… it’s not poetic there though. I gotta tell you.
MAY: (LAUGHS). Maybe you guys can name…something…give it something a little
better. We NASA engineers can sometimes be a little geeky, you know?
GELLERMAN: (LAUGHS) - I guess so! So, why do we need something this big?
Where are we going?
MAY: Well, to the future, Bruce. We think great nations explore, and the United
States is worthy of a great rocket to explore. One of the ways to think about is, in this
administration, we think of it as a capability driven architecture where you initially
develop capability and then you add additional capability as you decide you want to go
But this heavy-lift rocket it will take a crew beyond low earth orbit to just about any
destination you want it to go - even to Mars, asteroids. It also opens up deep exploration
for science missions - say, to the outer solar system- with direct flights.
GELLERMAN: And we are gonna put people onboard this thing, huh?
MAY: You can! That’s right. You can also take people, you can take cargo.
GELLERMAN: Boosting something this big into space probably costs big bucks - what
are we talking about here?
MAY: Uh, Bruce, if you think about the total program - we are living with a budget
that’s about three billion a year including what we call the multi-purpose crew vehicle,
which is the actual capsule that carries the crew to space and back home safely. And, the
ground systems at Kennedy Space Center.
GELLERMAN: You got to get this thing off the ground with Congress- what are they
saying to you? You’re saying rocket, they’re saying jobs?
MAY: (CHUCKLES). Yeah, so, we have many stakeholders out there, and we balance
the various stakeholders. I think both Congress and the Administration are both solidly
behind this rocket as you saw in the appropriations last year and in the announcement
today from the Administrator.
GELLERMAN: So, when is the launch date going to be?
MAY: Today we are targeting by the end of 2017, actually, the month of December.
GELLERMAN: Wow, that’s not very far off, you’ve got to really do a lot of work here!
MAY: Uh, we sure do, sir. We’ll be working hard to get that core designed, developed,
tested, and ready to fly.
GELLERMAN: Boy, would you like to be aboard on one of these missions?
MAY: Oh sure! I’ve thought about that since I was a child - I’m getting a little old for
that, though, myself.
GELLERMAN: Mr. May, thank you so much - and good luck!
MAY: Thank you, Bruce.
GELLERMAN: Todd May is Program Manager of NASA's new rocket, they call the
Space Launch System, but there’s gotta be somebody out there that has a better name.
So, ignite your imagination, and land your suggestions on our Facebook page - PRI’s
Living on Earth.
NASA page on Space Launch System
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 city bound kids explore and enjoy the wild places they'll later strive to protect. Online at Sierra Club dot org slash living on earth. This is Living on Earth on PRI Public Radio International.
[MUSIC: Pink Floyd: “Us And Them” from Dark Side Of The Moon (Capitol records
GELLERMAN: In just a minute: the New Jersey Shorebirds - what’s the situation? Find
out right here at Living on Earth!
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: “Sensation Of Seeing Light” from Stay
Gold (Royal Potato Family 2010).]
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Scientists often try to think outside the box. But Professor Iain Stewart is definitely thinking inside the box. We called him up just as he was about to be sealed in a bedroom-sized container with a small forest worth of plants. Iain Stewart is a geologist and professor of geoscience communication at the University of Plymouth, England. Professor, welcome to Living on
STEWART: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
GELLERMAN: Okay, so why seal yourself inside a box for two days? I mean, the
science is well known, what are you trying to prove?
STEWART: Well, I think everyone knows generally that the oxygen that we breathe
that’s in our atmosphere comes from photosynthesis and generally from plants, but, you
know, actually how much people appreciate that just how much of that oxygen, and how
much they rely on plants - that’s the kind of thing that they take for granted everyday.
You know, that’s a little bit more interesting.
And, from a scientific point of view, just how much photosynthesis you actually need to
get plants to produce the oxygen to keep an individual alive, well, you know, we’ve just
not done that. This little experiment is a metaphor for how much we’re relying on plants -
I guess that’s the key headline message we want to get across.
GELLERMAN: So, without plants, no oxygen. No oxygen, no people.
STEWART: Absolutely. You know, if we didn’t have plants, we would have a very, very different planet. And the point is - what’s lovely about this experiment is there's a symbiotic relationship in here - I’m in a box, a really small glass box, and basically I have to walk and exercise in order to give out carbon dioxide, to the plants that are around me in order for them to photosynthesize and give me back oxygen.
So, if I don’t do my job and I don't produce enough CO2, the plants can’t do their job and
supply me with oxygen. So, it just shows that really sensitive, intimate relationship we
have with vegetation that I think most ordinary people just aren’t aware of.
GELLERMAN: So, describe the box. How big is it? What’s it made of? Is it going to be
STEWART: Well, the first thing is that I haven’t seen the box. I’ll be seeing it later this
afternoon. But I know the kind of dimensions of it and roughly. It’s going to be made
of a kind of glass, a glass perspex; it’s going to be see-through. It’s going to be airtight.
And the size - it’s, you know, a couple of meters across and tall, and about eight meters
long- stacked full of 150 or so small plants and maybe about 30 large plants - all of them
have been bred for the last few months to be efficient photosynthesizes.
There’s a huge theory here about how much these plants - how much oxygen they should
produce. But, the telling thing will be once we’re in there, and we've got the temperature
conditions, and my CO2 conditions, will be how much they actually produce. And, you
know, until we do it - over the next 48 hours - we really won’t know if that is going to
work out or not.
GELLERMAN: Well actually, it's going to be pretty cozy in there - eight meters is about
26 feet, I guess. So, you’re going to be very friendly with those plants! (LAUGHS)
STEWART: I’m going to be very friendly with those plants. And also, the center -
the Eden Center - where it's being held is it’s a tropical plant dome. It’s almost like the
Biome experiment that was running out of Arizona a few years ago - so then this place is
25 degrees Celsius.
GELLERMAN: Oooh. Very tropical.
STEWART: It’s going to be incredibly tropical, so I’m going… it’s going to be hot and
sweaty, surrounded by these plants. The other thing is, we have to keep the lights on,
constantly. So, it’s going to be daylight, essentially, for 40 hours - how the plants deal
with it, how I deal with it, is again, an uncertainty.
GELLERMAN: What about exercise, eating?
STEWART: Yeah, I mean, I’ve got an exercise bike in there, but that’s largely to do
experiment runs and know how my body’s reacting. But, also, crucially, to make sure
that I’m pumping out carbon dioxide for those plants. So I can’t just sit passively, and
you know, just kind of chill.
Um, in terms of food, I think it’s going to be salad. Because we can’t heat anything -
we can’t cook anything. So, I’m going to be surrounded by plants, and I’m going to be
eating them, which is a bit of an oddity.
GELLERMAN: What happens if you wind up having trouble breathing?
STEWART: The two potential health concerns are: the main one is how my body is
going to deal with the initial low oxygen. So, we're going to take oxygen down from
around 21 percent, which is normal, to about between 10 and 12 percent, which is
equivalent of an altitude of, you know, mountains, Andes, four and a half thousand
meters, five thousand meters.
You know, at that level, it’s very often that your body… you get dizzy, you get nauseous,
you get extreme headaches. So, it could well be that if it’s a very extreme reaction, then
we abort very early on - if I can’t handle the low oxygen.
GELLERMAN: Do you have a panic button?
STEWART: Uh, I think I can open from the inside, yeah. But, I’ll be monitored - the
idea is to monitor me - there’ll be doctors that are specialists in low oxygen there. And,
you know, the idea is to monitor me throughout. And, you know, the first and foremost
is my health and safety, so if we see it going awry, they’ll get me out of there.
GELLERMAN: Thank you very much, professor and good luck!
STEWART: Thank you very much. I’m going to enjoy it, I think!
GELLERMAN: Iain Stewart is a geologist and professor of geoscience communication
at the University of Plymouth, England.
[MUSIC: Vitamin Piano Series “Man On the Moon” from The Piano Tribute to R.E.M.:
Fragile (Vitamin Records 2005).]
GELLERMAN: The Jersey Shore is the scene for the reality TV show that made "The
Situation" a household name, but for scientists and birders, the real situation is the
survival of New Jersey shorebirds, whose migratory flight takes them all the way to
Antarctica and back.
Mitra Taj caught up with some of the birds' biggest backers to document the dramatic
effort to save them.
[BIRD SOUNDS AND WAVES]
TAJ: If you want a visual of bird species in decline, don't come to the Delaware Bay
in the summer. Here at Reeds Beach, small flocks of birds crowd the shore and swoop
through a pastel sky.
DUNCAN: I just arrived, and to get here and see thousands of birds in the air is really a
wonderful thing - a hopeful sign.
TAJ: Charles Duncan leads the effort to protect the birds for the Manomet Center for
Conservation Sciences. He used to be a chemist. That was before he became obsessed
with shorebirds, in particular red knots—the small plain-looking birds poking their beaks
into the sand… a closer look reveals the reddish chests of males strutting the beach. But
their plumage isn’t what’s attracted Duncan:
DUNCAN: You know, if you just walked up to somebody on the street and said, "do
you imagine that a bird that weighs the same as an iPhone could fly from southern South
America to New Jersey," they would tell you to stop smoking that stuff. They would look
at you like you’re crazy, but here it is, and these birds that we're looking at in front of us
have done exactly that.
TAJ: And they’re about to do a lot more. The Delaware Bay in southern New Jersey is just a rest stop for the red knot. After coming all the way from Tierra del Fuego near Antarctica, they set off for the Canadian Arctic, where they mate and lay eggs.
Oh, and by the way, the birds you hear in the background aren’t red knots. They’re local laughing gulls. Here’s the red knot, courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:
[RED KNOT FLIGHT SONG -- HIGH PITCHED CHIRP]
TAJ: That’s the bird’s flight song, a tune it gets plenty of time to practice. Red knots spend about a third of their lives flying back and forth across the planet - about 18,000 miles a year. One red knot Duncan’s been tracking could have flown to the moon by now.
DUNCAN: So they're some of the greatest migrants of any species on the planet.
TAJ: And… they’re in decline. Larry Niles works as a biologist with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey:
NILES: So when we first started our work, we had over 90,000 red knots come to the Delaware Bay. And, last year, we had just over 16,000, and this year we're not sure if there's evening going to be 10,000.
TAJ: In ten years the total red knot population has shrunk to less than a fifth of what it used to be. While other countries have listed the red knot as an endangered species in need of protection, the United States hasn’t yet. It’s waiting in the endangered species
listing backlog at the Department of Interior.
TAJ: But Duncan and Niles aren’t alone in their efforts. Every year, a small army of volunteers helps them gather intelligence on shorebirds that could help slow their decline. They meet in a Jersey beach-house to plot strategies, then scatter over the beach armed
with walkie-talkies and scope binoculars. Some crouch behind sand dunes, others watch their feathered targets from the cockpit of a Cessna.
NILES SHOUTING: Here comes the plane, Clive!
[INAUDIBLE WALKIE-TALKIE RESPONSE]
[PLANE NOISE UP AND UNDER]
TAJ: As the plane presses into the shore, the sky fills with birds, and volunteers inside the plane visually estimate how many have taken flight.
NILES: See all the birds coming up there, that's exactly what we want because you can't count the birds on the ground.
TAJ: It’s a skill that takes years to perfect.
NILES: You have to have a mental image of what a thousand birds looks like, so that you can go, 1-2-3-4-5 thousand, while you're flying by at a hundred miles an hour.
DUNCAN: People get really good at it, it’s surprising. You get a sense of how 60 looks different from 53.
TAJ: This year, after conducting counts like this every three days, the news wasn’t good. The number of red knots visiting the Delaware Bay appears to have dropped by another couple thousand.
While they still can, Duncan and Niles want to learn from the birds. How do they survive such a long voyage? What tells them which way to go?
Eight years ago, a new technology opened a window into the secret life of the red knot. Geolocators, little bands placed on the birds’ legs, record the time of sunrises and sunsets as they make their journey. Because every part of the world has unique sunrise and sunset times, they can put together a day-to-day diary of where a bird has been. Larry Niles and Charles Duncan:
NILES: The results are stunning, we're finding birds making these heroic journeys that go from wintering areas in Uruguay, flying straight across the Amazon, straight across the Atlantic to North Carolina, or Delaware Bay, all in one shot, not landing, just flying for 8 thousand kilometers in six days straight. It's, you know, this is an impressive animal, and you don’t really get the feel for that until you see the tracks of these individual birds.
[THUNDER, LAUGHING GULL SOUNDS]
DUNCAN: One of the geolocators caught not so long ago was of a bird that landed at Hudson Bay, Ontario and flew 300 miles south to James Bay and then flew 300 miles back, for whatever reason, I mean make up whatever story you want about it — true love
or go see his brother-in-law or heard a rumor that there was good food or who knows -but distance seems to mean nothing to them if they're in good shape.
TAJ: If they’re in good shape. Good shape means they should leave Delaware Bay weighing at least 180 grams. They have to double their weight in two weeks to have a good chance of survival in the Arctic. And the birds arrive here not just hungry from the long flight, Duncan says, but physiologically altered.
DUNCAN: They reduce their digestive system, they reduce their gonads to almost nothing for this migration. So when they get here, they can only eat the softest of foods. They can't eat clams and mussels that they'd normally eat.
TAJ: Delaware Bay offers up a special menu: the soft eggs of the hard horseshoe crab: a prehistoric arthropod that looks something like a WWII battle helmet.
DUNCAN: Horseshoe crabs lay eggs on the beach here, and they lay them deep - they dig them down and the next crab that comes on, when the crabs are super-abundant as they were twenty years ago - the next crab digs up the other guy’s eggs, and brings them to the surface where they are the perfect food for these birds.
TAJ: Horseshoe crabs dot the beach here. This is their breeding headquarters, but there used to be many more of them. In the 90s commercial fisherman began harvesting them for bait, and Larry Niles says the rest is history:
NILES: As the horseshoe crab population started to decline from overharvest, the percent of birds that were making that critical weight - about 180 grams - started dropping until about 2003 almost no birds were making weight, and so then we saw a rapid decrease in the number of knots.
TAJ: Today, more than 60 percent of red knots still aren’t packing on the grams fast enough. And finding food is no longer the only challenge to their survival. Climate change is throwing unpredictable weather their way. Charles Duncan:
DUNCAN: As storms get more frequent, we're certain that that will lead to increased mortality of birds flying south, and that's our best guess, at the moment, for what happened last year, where knots left in good condition apparently, probably bred in good condition, started their southbound migration, and if you remember, we had four or five really very strong Atlantic hurricanes last year, so they're flying right into the teeth of these storms.
[SOUND OF WALKING ON BEACH]
TAJ: Right now, the biggest battle in the struggle to preserve the red knot is to capture a group of them, so they can be weighed and tagged. The data strapped onto the legs of red knots wearing geolocators can be downloaded, and new journeys revealed. The team has only a few weeks to capture and release shorebirds before they head north.
NILES: So we have a net set on the beach, buried in the sand.
TAJ: A large net attached to three cannons lies hidden on the beach. On cue the scientists can fire the projectile web, which is spread by metal rods in the air:
DUNCAN: You could easily kill a person if you were sloppy with this.
TAJ: Or kill a lot of birds. If one red knot steps into the wrong place, the scientists cancel the entire operation. The red knots walking the shore have to be pushed delicately into just the right spot - a process called twinkling.
DUNCAN: Twinkling is skilled, very skilled people, walking the beach slowly in our direction as though they had no intention of scaring a bird or moving it. And the birds just very gently move ahead of the people - feeding all the time, not being interrupted, not leaving the beach and flying off, perhaps, to some other beach, and so that concentrates the birds in the area in front of the cannon net.
TAJ: On the other side of the beach from where Duncan and Niles watch the net, Ben the twinkler, looks like any other relaxed beach stroller - casual, slow - but he’s on a mission. He's the team’s last shot at capturing a group of red knots before they roost for
the day. It seems to be working. A small flock is edging ahead of him toward the net, but when a couple of beachgoers unknowingly approach the operation zone, his attention is diverted and he has to ask them to leave. Larry Niles grips his walkie-talkie, and watches
impatiently from a distance:
NILES ON: Ben we have to act fairly quickly, we only have a short amount of time. [ON
BEN: Roger that! [ON WALKIE-TALKIE]
NILES: We're running out of time quickly, but we still have… we could still make the catch now. You see, if we push them too hard they'll fly.
TAJ: So you're worried?
As I ask this, the red knots that were slowly approaching the net
take flight - scattering into a darkening sky - a flock of lost hope for the day.
LARRY: That’s what I’m worried about.
DUNCAN: Ah, they… they didn't get the battle plans that they needed to land right in front of us.
TAJ: But Charles Duncan and Larry Niles aren’t discouraged for long. They plan the next day’s work, and chat about the tags they spotted on some shorebirds — a yellow band for a bird first tagged in Canada, an orange one for Argentina. If these shorebirds have taught them anything - it’s endurance. For Living on Earth, I’m Mitra Taj.
- Click here to report sightings of shorebirds
- Learn more about the red knot here
- The Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences shorebird recovery program
- The Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey
[MUSIC: Tom Verlaine “Meteor Beach” from Around (Thrill records 2006).]
GELLERMAN: On the next Living on Earth… A boom in natural gas drilling in
America’s west is a bust for many residents there.
TRULOVE: What we went through here was just kinda like being in a war zone. It was
really like we weren’t in Colorado anymore. We couldn’t believe that no one really cared
GELLERMAN: Fracking natural gas in Colorado is enough to make some people sick.
Next time on Living on Earth.
GELLERMAN: We leave you this week with an insect instrumental. The Nebraska
conehead is part of the katydid or long-horned grasshopper family. Bet you didn’t know
that…but it’s not quite accurately named.
[SOUND OF THE NEBRASKA CONEHEAD]
GELLERMAN: Yes, they have broad coneheads, but their range extends far beyond
Nebraska - as far south as Mississippi, and east to Maryland. Coneheads can be green or
brown. They live along roadsides in weeds and brush, at the edge of fields and woods,
and can often be found hanging on a stem of grass, conehead down.
Lang Elliott recorded the Nebraska Conehead, and it’s included on his CD called “The
Song of Insects.”
[ON AND OFF BUZZING SOUNDS OF THE NEBRASKA CONEHEAD]
[INSECT SOUNDS: Lang Elliot “Nebraska Conehead” from The Songs Of Insects.]
GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew
includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse
Smith, and Ike Sriskanderajah, with help from Sarah Calkins, Gabriela Romanow and
Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Raphaella Bennin and Jack Rodolico. Jeff Turton is our
technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime
at L-O-E dot org - and be sure to check out our Facebook page, it’s PRI’s Living on
Earth. And while you’re online, 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 just eat organic dot com. Support also comes from you, our listeners. The Go Forward Fund and Pax World Mutual Exchange Traded Funds. Integrating environmental, social, and governance factors into investment analysis and decision making. On the web at Pax World dot com. Pax World for tomorrow.
ANNOUNCER 2: PRI Public Radio International.
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