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

June 8, 2012

Air Date: June 8, 2012



The Oil Spill’s Threat to Academic Freedom

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The impact of the oil gusher in the Gulf has just reached the shores of academia. BP recently won a subpoena for 3,000 emails between scientists who first showed up to measure and contain the spill. Host Steve Curwood asks the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Director of Research Larry Madin what effect this decision could have on academic freedom. (07:15)

To Avoid Disaster, Limit Population and Consumption

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Rich countries must reduce consumption and the world must limit population to avoid catastrophe. That’s the message of Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich. He tells host Steve Curwood that does not mean misery but more time for people and pleasure. (06:10)

Puget Sound’s Acidic Waters / Ashley Ahearn

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Carbon dioxide emissions are making the oceans more acidic. In Washington State’s Puget Sound, it’s been discovered that water acidity is significantly higher than the open ocean. Scientists and policymakers are scrambling to find out what’s contributing to the problem and how to take action. EarthFix’s Ashley Ahearn reports. (05:50)

Harvest the Wind

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Wind energy has great potential in the United States but suffers from a lack of support. Phillip Warburg, author of “Harvest the Wind: America’s Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence, and Climate Stability,” tells host Steve Curwood, wind should receive the same financial backing as fossil fuels. (09:15)

Following Sandhill Cranes / Mark Seth Lender

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Writer Mark Seth Lender watched as sandhill cranes fed and rested in their wintering grounds at the Bosque del Apache wildlife preserve in New Mexico early this year. He was in for a big surprise five months later to find the elegant birds at another spot on their migration path: up north in the Canadian Arctic. (03:20)

Missed Connection in the Rockies

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In Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, Glacier lilies and Broad-tailed hummingbirds have a long-standing spring tryst. David Inouye, professor of biology at University of Maryland and the Rocky Mountain Laboratory, tells host Steve Curwood that the changing climate is causing a missed connection. (07:20)

The Bittersweet Challenge

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Oriental bittersweet was brought to the United States from eastern Asia and, until recently, gardening magazines and nurseries were singing its praises. But the colorful plant grows quickly and strangles and kills trees that get in its way. One forester is battling the invasive bittersweet vine and inviting others to join him. Producer Laurie Sanders reports on the Bittersweet Challenge. (06:25)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Larry Madin, Paul Ehrlich, Philip Warburg, David Inouye
REPORTERS: Ashley Ahearn, Laurie Sanders
COMMENTATOR: Mark Seth Lender


CURWOOD: From Public Radio International, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. BP lawyers demand and win access to the confidential emails of scientists who tried to work out how fast the Deep water Horizon oil well blow out was gushing. Scientists cry foul!

MADIN: Scientists need to be able to have a sense that their deliberation at arriving at scientific conclusions and analyzing data and conferring with one another has some degree of protection from being misused and taken out of context for other than scientific purposes.

CURWOOD: Also, a competition to get rid of the invasive Oriental bittersweet vine:

MAN’S VOICE: This one guy who's an arborist, emailed me and said "I've been training my whole life for this competition." And another sent me an email that said "I'm quitting my job and going vine hunting."

CURWOOD: The bittersweet challenge, and much more this week on Living on Earth, so stick around!

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ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.


The Oil Spill’s Threat to Academic Freedom

Richard Camilli flies over the spill to measure the rate of oil gushing into the Gulf (Photo by Andy Bowen, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution).

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

The massive Deep Water Horizon oil spill not only devastated the ecology of the Gulf and its fishing industry, it may well have also damaged academic freedom. Scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution were among the early responders to the BP oil spill disaster, and they chatted with each by email. Here’s one of the scientists, Richard Camilli, speaking to a congressional committee back in May of 2010.

CAMILLI TAPE: On May 1, I received an email from my colleague Andy Bowen, who is Director of the National Deep Submergence Facility, describing a conversation that he had with BP representatives. He relayed that BP was anxious to receive any assistance for learning more about the internal status and workings of the failed blowout preventer. He also conveyed to the group, quote - “if any of you have ideas, no matter how wild, on how to help, please pass them to this group.”

CURWOOD: Well, now BP wants to use those emails to defend against a federal investigation that could hold them liable for billions of dollars in damages.

The oil giant has gotten a federal court order to see nearly 3000 confidential emails from Mr. Camilli and his colleagues. Larry Madin is the Director of Research for the Woods Hole Oceangraphic Institution. I asked him why the scientists think BP wanted their emails.

MADIN: We think they wanted these emails because they contained the preliminary correspondence that went on among the authors in which they were testing the ideas and arguing with one another and so forth. Potentially, they could cherry pick something out of that that they could take out of context and use to cast doubt on the eventual results.

Woods Hole scientists used deep-sea robots to determine how much of the fluid was oil, and how much natural gas. (With permission of U.S. Coast Guard and Rich Camilli, WHOI)

CURWOOD: For instance?

MADIN: Well, for example, the estimates of the flow rate changed as new information came in and the estimates became better and more refined. Yet if you took that out of context, you could say, ‘Well, they can’t seem to make up their minds about what the right answer is.”

CURWOOD: What’s on the line here for BP?

MADIN: Well, BP will be subject, eventually, to a fine under the terms of the Clean Water Act and other relevant legislation that is based on the amount of oil that was actually spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. The measurements that we were involved in making led to an estimate of how much oil that was. So they have an interest in making that estimate as low as possible.

CURWOOD: So what’s on the line here for science?

MADIN: I think there’s a couple of issues for science. One is that scientists need to be able to have a sense that their deliberation in arriving at scientific conclusions and analyzing data and conferring with one another has some degree of protection from being misused and taken out of context for other than scientific purposes.

The other issue is that if scientists do have this fear that they are not going to be protected, they’re less likely to be willing to contribute their expertise to a situation like this where it can be very valuable to the nation as a whole. I can’t speak for individual scientists, I hope that many of them will still recognize the responsibility that they have to help. I think the other outcome that we hope for is that there will be some movement toward creating a greater degree of protection so the scientists won’t have this fear.

CURWOOD: Now this isn’t the first time that emails among scientists, private email correspondence among scientists, has gotten into the limelight. I’m thinking in particular of the controversy over emails regarding climate change and efforts to undercut that research. Do you share similar concerns here?

Scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution recognized the similarity between the gushing drill pipe and volcanic hydrothermal vents. (Photo: Pat Hickey, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

MADIN: Well, I think there are similar concerns in the sense that some of the content of those emails can be, again, taken out of appropriate context and used to create false impressions about what was going on. A difference is that the emails in Climategate were hacked illegally. In our case, the emails had been surrendered under a court order. What that points out is that there’s not an adequate legal and legislative protection in place that would limit the ability of a court to make that kind of an order.

CURWOOD: I’m wondering why the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution didn’t appeal this case?

MADIN: It became apparent, on advice of our counsel, that an appeal was not likely to be successful. But while we were debating that point, the other side, BP, did appeal the case. That surprised us somewhat because from our viewpoint they had won, but in view of the fact that they did that, there’s no opportunity for us to.

CURWOOD: So you were outflanked legally by these guys?

MADIN: In a sense, although our legal team had the opportunity to object to the basis of their appeal and to reinforce our argument that there should be an appropriate level of protection for scientific deliberation.

CURWOOD: What kind of protection for science would be adequate in your view?

MADIN: Legislation or even court-created protections that would establish the principle that this type of scientific deliberation deserves a degree of protection. It’s not perhaps an absolute degree of protection because there may be countervailing arguments in certain cases, but to recognize that there’s a principle that this type of discourse intrinsically deserves protection from inappropriate use.

CURWOOD: Journalists face a similar situation sometimes when people come after records and subpoenas. Sometimes our response as journalists is to go to jail rather than to turn this material over. Did you think about that for your scientists?

MADIN: I doubt that our scientists thought about that very seriously at the time that they were volunteering their time and services to this crisis. Maybe they’re thinking about it a bit more now, it doesn’t seem as though it should be necessary for scientists who are working in the interest of determining the truth of these situations in the interest of the nation to make that kind of sacrifice.

CURWOOD: In light of this experience, how have you changed the protocols there at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution?

MADIN: Well, I think certainly that everybody is much more aware of what can happen. I think that in future situations that might lead to this type of litigation, we would be sure that any scientist interested in participating had adequate legal counseling as to what they might expect in the future and how they should be prepared for it.

CURWOOD: Government officials, for example, are exempt from this kind of “fishing,” if you will, by defendants in cases and have privilege. In the future, might you ask to be deputized by a national agency so that you will be protected?

Woods Hole Senior Scientist Christopher Reddy helped measure the size of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

MADIN: Oh, I think it would be preferable if there were established the principle that non-government academic research institutions, universities, and so forth could be afforded comparable protection. Government scientists are, of course, subject to freedom of information requests and so in some sense, they are even more vulnerable than the non-government academics.

CURWOOD: Larry Madin is the Director of Research at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Thank you so much, sir.

MADIN: You’re welcome.
CURWOOD: We contacted BP for comment. The company's US Head of communications, Geoff Morrell, sent a statement. I quote, “BP is a company of scientists and engineers, and the subpoena served on Woods Hole is in no way an attack on science. The information and documents that BP sought to be produced by Woods Hole are typical of information and documents regularly sought in civil litigation, and the Court found, among other things, that there was a demonstrated need for the materials because there was no other source for them.”

Related links:
- Court document Regarding BP’s Subpoena for Woods Hole’s Analysis Documents
- Christopher Reddy and Richard Camilli’s Boston Globe Op-Ed: “Science out of context”
- Rich Camilli’s Testimony on Acoustic Technology for Determining Oil Spill Size
- Richard Camilli Testimony to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling
- Larry Madin, WHOI Director of Research, on the Need to Protect the Scientific Deliberative Process

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[MUSIC: Various Artists/The Thurston Lava Tube “Life On Mars” from Ziggy Plays Surf Guitar (Alan Jenkins Music 2011)]

To Avoid Disaster, Limit Population and Consumption

A crowded street in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Photo: Wikimedia)

CURWOOD: The conference to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth summit is just days away, and the journal Nature is publishing a series of articles to encourage progress. One examines the massive die-off of species. Another concludes that human activities are pushing planetary systems towards a tipping point, with irreversible changes that could derail civilization.

The solution, claims a third article co-authored by Paul Ehrlich, is to rescale civilization to protect the natural environment and to narrow the gap between rich and poor. Paul Ehrlich is a professor of biology at Stanford University and author of the classic book, “The Population Bomb.”

EHRLICH: People are slowly beginning to understand what is a very fundamental issue, namely that we cannot continue growing, that basically we’ve got to rescale society to a lower level or we’re not gonna make it. And that’s why it’s very depressing when you hear the President get up and say that what we need to do is grow at three and a half percent a year more and, of course, all you have to do is know a little bit about compound interest or exponential growth to know it’s totally impossible.

CURWOOD: So, Professor Ehrlich, you say we need to rescale civilization. What do you mean by that?

EHRLICH: Well, what I mean is that we have got to do basically two really important and extremely difficult things. One is dramatically cut back wasteful consumption on the part of the rich and transfer some of that consumption to the poor who are not able to consume enough.

The other thing we need to do is already underway, and that is reduce the human birth rate to the point where it’s slightly below the human death rate, and hold it there for a long time so that we can gradually reduce the size of the human population to one that’s sustainable in the long run.

And the win-win way to at least get started and maybe accomplish it all, is to give women equal rights to men, everywhere, equal opportunities, equal pay and so on, and that probably alone could do the job. We do know that the more rights women have, the better off we all are.

CURWOOD: So now let’s talk in more detail about population. The key is equity for women—give me some examples, please.

EHRLICH: Wherever women have gotten closer to equal rights and job opportunities, and access—which is very important—to modern contraception and, where necessary—and we hope it’s not often necessary—backup abortion, birth rates have come down. And they’ve come down dramatically, for example, in the Catholic countries of Europe.

And that of course is a wonderful thing, because what you want above all, in considering that we’re concerned with both consumption and population size, is when you can shrink the size of the very rich populations that are super consumers. You’re getting a twofer.

CURWOOD: Now you talk about women in this article, not just in terms of fertility and population, but you point out that there’s a relationship between gender, gender equity, and forest protection. Can you say more about that?

Paul Ehrlich is president of the Center for Conservation Biology and professor of population studies at Stanford University. (Stanford University)

EHRLICH: That’s mostly a correlation. I can hypothesize on why it happens; I think women are very much more concerned with health, with the health of their children, with the future of their children, where their resources come from, particularly in poor countries where often the resources are drawn rather directly from the biological resources from our natural capital. And therefore where women have a say, they do more than the men often do, which is argue over how to divide up the land as the population grows.

CURWOOD: So we’re still gonna end up having more people living on this planet in the foreseeable future, so what you do to take care of the natural capital, that is, nature that takes care of us, is important. And in your article you say that to do that, we might want to follow the example in China. What’s that example?

EHRLICH: Well, China, for example, has a large portion of its country now put aside, with the government paying attention to the ecosystem services that are supplied by their natural capital. They’re using new software, actually developed at Stanford by Gretchen Daily’s group, to actually evaluate the tradeoffs in all sorts of places, between things like preserving biodiversity and yet keeping the farming productive.

CURWOOD: By the way, Gretchen Daily is one of your co-authors on this paper.

EHRLICH: Yes, she certainly is. She’s the brains, I’m the voice.

CURWOOD: Your formula is, okay, we need to take away what rich nations consume and such, that means you’re saying to your typical American, guess what—you’re gonna have less.

EHRLICH: No, that’s wrong. What you’re saying to the typical American is, you’re gonna have different. That is, we’re gonna rebuild the country over the next 70 years in the reverse of what we did in the last 70 years, and instead of designing it around automobiles, we’re gonna design it around people. So automobiles will be reserved basically for one really important function, and that is for teenagers to make love in. But you don’t have to have engines, gasoline, kinds of things.


EHRLICH: So you get rid of the whole commuting thing, and everybody has a more relaxed life, everybody has more time to drink wine, make love, enjoy the flowers, and so on. The idea that what human beings basically are is consumption tools, and that what we need to do is always get more stuff—some stuff is really important.

But, you know, what’s an important item for everybody? It’s the refrigerator. We all like cold beer, right? But you can build a refrigerator that’ll last for a hundred years, it doesn’t have to have all kinds of fancy bells and whistles and a new version every two years. There’s all kinds of things we can do that would make our lives fundamentally better.

While we have gotten more crap, we have gotten less time. We just haven’t given enough thought to what people are for, and how we can design a nation, and a world, in which people would have much, much better lives, and still not have all the huge inequity issues that I’m afraid are going backwards in many places in the world today.

CURWOOD: Paul Ehrlich is the Bing Professor of Biology at Stanford University and co-author of the article, “Securing Natural Capital and Expanding Equity to Rescale Civilization—” that’s a mouthful—in the journal Nature. Thank you so much Professor.

EHRLICH: It’s been my great pleasure.

Related link:
Paul Ehrlich’s Home Page

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[MUSIC: Steve MacLean “Space” from The Opposite Of War (RER Megagroup 2005)]

Puget Sound’s Acidic Waters

These blooms of algae eventually sink to the bottom and decompose, releasing CO2 which makes the water more acidic. (Photo: Ashley Ahearn)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. The oceans absorb a large portion of the carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere from power plants and tail pipes. When it gets there, the CO2 makes the water more acidic and less hospitable for certain creatures, especially shellfish.

Puget Sound, Washington, has become sharply more acidic than the open ocean, and some shellfish hatcheries have lost thousands of dollars. The Governor of Washington State has convened a panel of experts to address ocean acidification - it’s the first of its kind in the United States. Ashley Ahearn of the public media collaborative EarthFix reports.

AHEARN: Remember those little pieces of paper you used to measure pH back in junior high school with? You’d stick them into your can of coke or on your tongue and the color would tell you how acidic that liquid was? Well if you stuck litmus paper into the world’s oceans it would come out closer and closer to the acidic side of the pH scale.

FEELEY: The acidity of the ocean has increased by 30 percent over the last 250 years.

AHEARN: That’s Richard Feeley. He’s a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and serves on Washington Governor Chris Gregoire’s Ocean Acidification panel. Feeley says our CO2 emissions are making the world’s oceans more acidic. But if you did the litmus test on Puget Sound you’d see the effects here are even more severe.

FEELEY: In Puget Sound we see that same impact as we see in the open ocean but we also have other combined impacts that are part of the natural local processes in our region.

The local processes Feeley’s talking about starts out in the ocean with tiny organisms that live near the surface and absorb CO2 from the air. When they die they sink to the bottom and release that CO2 into the depths. But that acidic water doesn’t stay down there. Natural ocean currents push it up and towards the shore in a process called coastal upwelling. Those deep more-acidic ocean waters eventually flow into Puget Sound.

Once they get here they tend to stick around longer than they would on the outer coast. And that makes Puget Sound significantly more acidic than the open ocean. The Ocean Acidification Panel recently met to discuss the problem and what’s to be done about it. First order of business: figure out where exactly the CO2 is coming from. Scientists are starting to look closer to home.


KREMBS: Gonna just prepare everything because I’m going to be sitting here in the back seat because it has the biggest window so I can get good aerial shots.

Christopher Krembs, an oceanographer with the Washington Department of Ecology, surveys Puget Sound for algae blooms. (Photo: Ashley Ahearn)


AHEARN: Christopher Krembs is an oceanographer with the Washington Department of Ecology. Every month he flies from Seattle down to Olympia and takes photos of the waters of Puget Sound.

KREMBS: We’re going to be flying at an altitude of 2,500 feet because we get a good overview from there.


AHEARN: We take off from Lake Washington and head towards the coast. The city of Seattle sparkles below us, clustered along the lip of the dark blue waters of Puget Sound.
But when you look closer you see these waters aren’t all one color. Krembs starts gesticulating and pointing out the window. Below us massive blooms of algae tint the water in shades of light blue, green and even rust. White frothy lines mark where opposing currents and fronts move the clouds of algae around, sort of like fence lines along fields of different-colored crops.


AHEARN: When we land, Krembs says this wasn’t just an average day in the air. The blooms we saw were bigger than anything he’s photographed in Puget Sound before.

KREMBS: I’m surprised about the intensity. I have not seen that at that scale.

AHEARN: Krembs says these algae love all the nutrients that humans around Puget Sound are adding to the water. The algae thrive on the nitrates and phosphorous from our wastewater treatment plants, leaky septic tanks and runoff from fertilized lawns and agricultural lands. Krembs says over the past decade there’s been a steady and significant increase in nutrient levels in Puget Sound. And that, he explains, is making the water more acidic.

KREMBS: So if you have more nutrients then you will have more blooms, longer lasting blooms, larger blooms and that promotes basically a cycle where you have more algae sinking to the bottom, consuming more oxygen, producing more CO2, and that has also an effect on ocean acidification.

AHEARN: It’s like a never-ending cycle. More nutrients means more algae. More dead algae means more CO2 released into the water. And more CO2 means more acidic water. Scientists on the Ocean Acidification Panel believe algal blooms could be a major contributor to the increasingly acidic waters of Puget Sound, but it’s too soon to say how big. It's kind of like Puget Sound is suffering from a case of heartburn.

WARREN: It would be nice if there were a Rolaid. There might be highly localized rolaids that we can apply. There will be no broad one.

AHEARN: Brad Warren is with the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership. He’s part of Governor Gregoire’s panel on Ocean Acidification and is leading the efforts to figure out how to respond to the problem. Warren suggests first of all cracking down on the amount of nutrients and pollution we allow into our waterways.

Algae blooms in the Puget Sound, Washington. (Photo: Ashley Ahearn)

But Puget Sound already has heartburn, so how do we make the water less acidic? Some people have proposed harvesting those algal blooms to make biofuel out of them before they have a chance to decompose and turn the water more acidic. Others have suggested planting seaweeds or other grasses to suck CO2 out of the water – just like we plant trees on land to suck CO2 out of the air.

WARREN: Any of these activities that we engage in that are going to change how carbon moves through the ocean are going to matter and we need to understand how so that we can figure out how to use them and manage these activities and in fact, in some cases, probably encourage them.

AHEARN: There’s more research to be done about acidification in Puget Sound but the Ocean Acidification Panel acknowledges that action needs to be taken. They will release a report outlining their recommendations at the end of the summer.

For Living on Earth, I’m Ashley Ahearn in Seattle.

Related links:
- Earth Fix Website
- Ashley Ahearn’s second story and audio slide show on algae and acidification, click here

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CURWOOD: Our story on ocean acidification in Puget Sound comes to us from EarthFix. To see some photos, a slideshow and more, go to our website LOE.org

[MUSIC: Dean Fraser “Chant Down Babylon” from Dean Plays Bob Vol. 2 (Sanctuary Records Group 1996)]

Harvest the Wind

Vestas, a Danish wind energy company, opened a factory in China to supply local demand. (Photo: FlickrCC/EnvironmentBlog)

CURWOOD: The U.S. government is now on track to slash funding for clean energy by 75 percent from its peak in 2009, and wind power will take a direct hit. At 2.2 cents per kilowatt hour, the current federal wind production tax credit makes it competitive with natural gas power generation. But unless a number of minds change in the U.S. Congress, that subsidy will be gone with the wind by the end of this year.

That prospect will be a mistake for America, says Philip Warburg. Mr. Warburg is the former president of the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston and author of the new book, “Harvest the Wind: America's Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence and Climate Stability.” He says we can’t afford to pass up the great potential in wind.

Vestas, a Danish wind energy company, opened a factory in China to supply local demand. (Photo: FlickrCC/EnvironmentBlog)

WARBURG: I think one of the really great things about wind power is that it addresses the overarching challenge of how do we reduce our phenomenally large climate change impact. And wind power, according to the Department of Energy, could be providing a fifth of our electricity by 2030; according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chair, Jon Wellinghoff, could be providing up to half of our electricity by the year 2050. So we’re not talking about a marginal technology, we’re talking about a technology that could significantly displace fossil fuels.

CURWOOD: So you say there’s great promise, but hasn’t this been a boom and bust cycle historically?

WARBURG: Yes it has. I mean our own development of wind power goes back to the 1970s when, under Jimmy Carter, a number of incentives were moved forward to develop renewable energy, solar as well as wind. So we saw a large boom at that point in California in wind power development because there were both federal and state tax incentives available for the wind industry.

When those subsidies expired under Ronald Reagan and under Governor Deukmejian in the mid 1980s, the wind boom in California crashed. What we’ve seen more recently is the ebb and flow of wind power with the ebb and flow of what’s called the production tax credit, which is a subsidy provided per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated from wind.

New turbine parts made in Western China (photo: FlickrCC/Kaj17)

CURWOOD: But still you wind up then with, hey, you might have all these jobs one year, but then next year they’re gone.

WARBURG: Well, once you have wind turbines established and wind farms established, those wind farms need to be maintained, so you’re not going to see an evaporation of all those jobs. You are going to see a retrenchment in the manufacturing and in the development of new wind farms, and that could be a real hit to the wind industry.

But going forward, if we were to be targeting again those goals of 20 percent by 2030 and possibly 50 percent by mid century, we would see jobs well into the hundreds of thousands created by the wind industry.

CURWOOD: And by the way, Phil Warburg, we’re talking about large industrial-scale wind power, we’re not talking about what people can put in their backyards or up on their roof; these are big machines.

WARBURG: That’s correct. We are talking about wind turbines that reach about 410, 420, 430 feet into the air. A single blade is about half the length of a football field, so we’re talking about very, very large machines; certainly not something you’d want in your immediate backyard, but something that can work very well in the American working landscape, and that’s where we see wind as really thriving right now.

In researching my book, I went to many parts of the country that I’d never visited before, including Kansas, Wyoming, Indiana, Illinois, where wind power is being developed on a very large scale, placed in corn fields and soy fields and cattle pastures, and is a very good complement to those farming industries.

Smoky Hills Wind Farm in Western Kansas. (Photo: FlickrCC/ proforged)

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about Kansas and wind. In your book you point out that the word kansa means “wind.”

WARBURG: Yes it does.

CURWOOD: Or more accurately, it’s the Native American term for “people of the wind.”


CURWOOD: And you tell two stories out of Kansas, one in Flint Hill and the other in Cloud County.

WARBURG: Sure. Cloud County is a very remote county, about 140 miles north of Wichita, where there has been farming and ranching since the Kansas Pacific Railroad rolled through there in the 1870s. There hasn’t been too much else.

In 2008 the Meridian Way Wind Farm was established in Cloud County and it has brought hundreds of jobs to the area and it has brought an enormous sense of local pride, so that’s the good news side.

CURWOOD: Yeah, and now what happened in Flint Hill?

WARBURG: The Flint Hills are an area of tall grass prairie, where there is a fairly small group of very adamant ranchers who do not want wind turbines on their landscape. And it’s primarily a visual issue.

CURWOOD: In your book, I see that there is an enormous amount of capacity, in virtually every state of the union. With so much potential, why push wind power down anybody’s throat?

WARBURG: First, there is enormous wind potential in this country. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory projects that we have about ten times the current level of total electricity production available as wind power that we could be tapping. Now that doesn’t even look at our offshore wind capacity, which is another significant increment. So our wind power resources are very abundant. The question really comes down to siting, and siting is an issue that has to take into account issues such as visual impacts, noise—because wind turbines that are as large as these wind turbines do produce some noise.

CURWOOD: But the question here, Phil Warburg, is why force anybody to take wind who doesn’t want it?

WARBURG: Well, clearly you want to site wind power where the winds are most abundant. And fortunately many of those areas are quite remote. Wyoming, for example, is a very, very wind rich state. It’s also a state with a very small population.

However it’s a state that’s quite distant from the electricity markets that would be interested in buying that wind. It needs to sell that wind-generated power to places like Southern Nevada and Southern California, so you have to build transmission lines, which are an added expense.

CURWOOD: Now sometimes when people are critical of wind they say it kills birds, it’s bad for bats. Technology has changed: the machines are bigger, the blades rotate more slowly now. But still, your figures in your own book suggest that millions of birds are going to die because of wind power.

WARBURG: Today we probably are killing about 90 thousand birds a year through our current wind power fleet. We have to put those numbers, though, in perspective.

If you look at the average annual bird kill rate from household cats, it’s estimated that about a billion birds are killed per year by those cats in the United States. Collisions with buildings kill a hundred million—possibly many more—birds per year. But this is a reality, this is a factor that wind developers are reckoning with, and reckoning with responsibly.

Philip Warburg, author of Harvest the Wind.

There are ways to use radar, for example, to detect incoming flocks of birds. There’s a wind farm in Bulgaria, actually, that has been quite a success story, in that it has an onsite ornithologist. And there was recently a flock of 30 thousand white storks that were approaching the wind farm. At the ornithologist’s order, the wind farm stopped its turbines within five seconds, 37 times in a two-day period, and not a single stork was harmed.

CURWOOD: So tell me, why does China do so well with wind?

WARBURG: China’s a centrally planned economy. When it decides to do something, it does it and it does it with ruthless efficiency. So it’s the world leader right now in installed wind power capacity. Although I have to say that because a lot of the wind farms are owned by state-owned enterprises, the United States is actually generating more power from its wind farms than China is because the wind farms in America are privately owned and there’s an incentive to have them run with maximum efficiency, which does not necessarily pertain to China.

CURWOOD: So, the phone rings, Phil Warburg: it’s the White House. They say, 'We’ve just read your book, "Harvest the Wind: America’s Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence, and Climate Stability." We want you to map out what America should do now about wind power.' What’s your answer?

WARBURG: I think America first has to develop a vision. For many, many decades we have been substantially subsidizing oil, gas, coal, and nuclear. And people seem to object to the subsidies that are now being provided to the renewable energy industry even though they are a fraction of what we’ve been providing over the decades to these other technologies. Until we adopt a means of taxing carbon so that we are internalizing the true environmental costs of burning our fossil fuels, we are going to have to provide some subsidization for wind to make sure that there is parity in the marketplace.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with me today.

WARBURG: My pleasure to be here.

CURWOOD: Philip Warburg is author of “Harvest the Wind: America’s Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence, and Climate Stability.”

Related link:
Philip Warburg

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[MUSIC: Miles Davis “Maiysha” from On The Corner (Columbia Records 1974)]

CURWOOD: Be sure to check out our website - LOE dot org - for a new feature we call Living on Earth Now - with regular updates, and new stories. They include one about new research that is finding toxic fire retardant chemicals in our food.

Coming up: species out of sync and what that might mean for their future. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Grantham Foundation for the protection of the environment, supporting strategic communications and collaboration in solving the world’s most pressing environmental problems; the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; and Gilman Ordway – for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

Following Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes return to Arctic.jpg (Photo: © Mark Seth Lender)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache is the wintering ground for thousands of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese. In early spring, these birds migrate to the Canadian Arctic to breed. Mark Seth Lender traveled to Bosque del Apache to see them, and was thrilled to encounter them serendipitously months later in the far north.

Slideshow - soundslides

LENDER: At dusk, in silhouette against the pastel chalk of the clouds, the birds come, wave upon wave. Sandhill Cranes in mottled tans, their heads red capped and that citrine yellow eye; Snow Geese in white snow white with black-tipped wings. Like paper kites come sailing angled upright to the stall point; now back-peddling and at last splash down to a shallow pond landing. All night their moans and ululations echo in preparation. Soon they will leave this place nearby the Rio Grande to traverse that terrible line between winter and summer from South toward North. In the clear blue, through cloud cover thick as down, through a crown of hailstone, and lightning, and thunder, across two thousand miles of sky, if wind is fair or against them. And survive who can, anyway they can.

Five months gone…

Here I stand due west of Hudson Bay at the point of destination: North Latitude 62 degrees. Astride granite boulders, stacked like a giant’s grave mound, laid in the frozen barrens of the tundra. From this glacial tomb I watch the morning sky. The sun is a white disk and the clouds like milk and flour churned to the rhythm of a whisk. 30 knots of wind growl like a hungry bear in the hard season that passes for spring.

Last night, ice like buckshot blasting face and hands, I thought I heard Sandhill Cranes touch down. In the morning it had cleared; I climbed the giant’s barrow. It is hours past sunrise now and will be light for more than 20 hours. Perhaps it was only a trick of what the mind sometimes hears.

But look, there, black on the pencil line of horizon: a first lone pair!


Sandhill Cranes calling and crooning and their wings whispering! They pass right overhead and vanish into thin air. Others follow them now. Flight upon flight their great wings hush-shushing and the Snow Geese among them, warbling…

How would I have known if I had not heard with my own ears, seen with my own eyes? Yes! Timing is everything.


CURWOOD: To hear an interview with Mark Seth Lender about the returning Sandhill Cranes and see some of his photographs, swoop over to our website LOE dot org.


Related links:
- BACKSTORY: Listen to a short interview with Mark Lender about seeing sandhill cranes during his trip to the Arctic.
- Mark Lender’s website

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Missed Connection in the Rockies

A male Broad-tailed Hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus) at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. (Photo: David W. Inouye)

CURWOOD: Well, as Mark Seth Lender says, timing is everything. And that’s vitally important when spring comes to the Rocky Mountains as well. So says a new study in the current issue of the journal Ecology. David Inouye, Professor of Biology at the University of Maryland and the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado, joins us from the Rockies to tell us about missed connections.

Welcome Professor Inouye!

INOUYE: Hello! Glad to be with you.

CURWOOD: This is a tale of two species: a hummingbird and a flower. Could you describe them for us please, Professor?

INOUYE: The glacier lily is the second flower to come into bloom after the snow melts, hence I think the common name. It’s a yellow lily, the flowers are maybe about a foot off the ground, and a young plant will just have one flower, an old plant might have as many as nine of these beautiful yellow lily flowers.

A female Broad-tailed Hummingbird visiting flowers of tall larkspur (Delphinium barbeyi), another important nectar source for hummingbirds. (Photo: David W. Inouye)

The broad-tailed hummingbird is a very small bird, very easily fits inside the palm of your hand and only weighs about three grams or not much more than the weight of a penny. And yet these birds are long distance migrants. They’ve flown up here from Central America, from the mountains in Mexico or Guatemala to breed here in the Rocky Mountains.

CURWOOD: And if I were to look at the bird, how would I identify it from different hummingbirds?

INOUYE: Well, you can actually identify the male broadtail with your eyes closed, because you can hear the wing whistle that the male makes with his aerodynamic slot between the first two feathers of each wing. If you open your eyes and look at the bird, the males have a beautiful, ruby, iridescent gorget—the feathers at the base of the head, around its throat are an iridescent ruby color.

The females are not so brightly colored, but they’re both beautiful birds to watch at a feeder or to watch at these flowers.

CURWOOD: So you’ve done some research about the broad-tailed hummingbird and the glacier lily. How are they usually connected to each other?

INOUYE: Well, the broad-tailed hummingbirds are migrants, and when they arrive here, one of the first flowers to bloom after the snow melts and the first flower which they will visit for nectar, is this beautiful yellow flowered glacier lily.

A male Broad-tailed Hummingbird at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. (Photo: David W. Inouye)

CURWOOD: Now, Professor Inouye, how did you set up this study?

INOUYE: Well, it’s sort of coincidental that I was studying the flowers. I set that project up as a graduate student here at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in 1973, and we’ve kept that study going for about a hundred different species of wild flowers ever since then.

And then another co-author of this study, Billy Barr, has lived up here year-round at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab since about 1974, and he happened to keep track, I just found out about ten years ago, of events like when he heard the first hummingbird in the springtime. So we had this coincidental record, the two partners: his data for the hummingbirds and mine for the wildflowers. And we decided last year that we’d try and look at those data and see what sort of story we could put together.

CURWOOD: What’s changed about the relationship?

INOUYE: Just about anywhere where people have looked at the timing of seasonal events, including migration by birds and flowering by wildflowers, those events are happening earlier in response to the change in climate.

So the link here is that the hummingbirds are arriving earlier than they used to. They’re now arriving about five or six days earlier than they did back in the 1970s. But the flowers are blooming even earlier. They’re now blooming about 17 days earlier than they did in 1975.

And so our concern here is that there’s a developing mismatch between the timing of these events that used to be synchronized; that eventually there may be problems both for the flowers, because the pollinators aren’t arriving in time, and for the hummingbirds, because they’re losing out on the beginning of the availability of nectar.

A glacier lily (Erythronium grandiflorum) flower. Glacier lilies flower within days of snowmelt, and are an important nectar resource for newly-arrived migratory Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. (Photo: David W. Inouye)

CURWOOD: How possible is it for these species to move even higher up the mountain, to a colder place with the changing climate?

INOUYE: That’s an interesting question. There are good data that show that a number of plants and animals have already started to migrate either north in latitude or up in altitude.

So for instance here at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab, we now have foxes that spend year round up here which we never used to have; we have crows nesting up here which we never used to have; there’s a new species of mosquito that’s appeared up here; we’re occasionally starting to see ticks; and there’s also a species of bumblebee that used to be pretty rare at this altitude which is now very common at this altitude.

So there’s a good chance that those plants and animals may be able to move up in altitude. The question that that then raises is what happens to the plants and animals that were already at those higher altitudes?

CURWOOD: Why should people care about missed connections between species? I mean, what do we as people stand to lose if climate change unravels these relationships?

INOUYE: Well if you care about plants and pollinators, which are important both aesthetically and economically, I think there’s reason for concern. About one out of every three bites of food that you eat comes courtesy of the activity of pollinators.

And although we’re beginning to get an understanding here at this one study site of how that relationship between plants and pollinators is being affected by climate change, in general, we don’t have a very good understanding of that and it’s something for which we need a lot more research at this point.

CURWOOD: I want to play you the sound of a broad-tailed hummingbird.


CURWOOD: What’s going on here?

INOUYE: Well, you’re hearing two different sounds. One is the sound that’s made by the wings of the male broad-tailed hummingbird and when they flap their wings they make a whistle. And the other noise that you’re hearing is the chirping, the vocalization that could be made by both males and females, and so it’s those two sounds superimposed.

The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, Gothic, Colorado. (Photo: David W. Inouye)

Part of the sound that you were hearing was the male broad-tailed courting a female, and actually I’m looking outside my window right now and I see one of those males courting a female. So he’s flying little arcs back and forth about a foot over the head of the female. And then he’s going to fly up maybe about thirty feet over the female and then do a power dive down towards her and then back up again in a U-shaped dive, and that’s part of the mating behavior that they’re going through this time of year.


CURWOOD: Now of course hummingbirds like sugar—does this guy have chocolates, wine, what does he have for her?

INOUYE: [LAUGHS] Well he’s hanging out here next to a feeder on my cabin, and defending that feeder against other males. And that’s typically what they would do if they found a rich patch of flowers. They defend that patch of flowers and hope females would come by, for which they could display.

CURWOOD: David Inouye is Professor of Biology at University of Maryland and at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. Thank you so much for taking this time.

INOUYE: You’re quite welcome.

Related link:
Professor David Inouye’s faculty profile for the University of Maryland.

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[MUSIC: Lester Bowie “The Great Pretender” from The Fire This Time (In + Out Records 1992)]

The Bittersweet Challenge

Lincoln Fish poses with Allison Bell and her champion bittersweet vine. (Photo: Laurie Sanders)

CURWOOD: Oriental bittersweet is a classic case of an ornamental plant gone bad. Until recently, gardeners sang its praises: the red and orange-berried vine could grow almost anywhere. And it has – strangling, damaging and even killing trees along the way. There are few options for controlling it. But as Laurie Sanders reports, one forester is getting competitive about eradicating the vine, and trying to have some fun at the same time.

SANDERS: Since its arrival 200 years ago, oriental bittersweet has escaped from cultivation and now grows wild in 25 states, 21 of which have declared it an “invasive weed.” About ten years ago, the state of Connecticut grew so concerned, it outlawed transporting, selling, or distributing oriental bittersweet in any form.

( Photo: Laurie Sanders)

That’s right around the time that one local forester--Lincoln Fish--says he began seeing a lot of it growing in the woods. Fish helps manage thousands of acres of private and public forestland in western Massachusetts.

FISH: I started noticing that when we’d put in an access road or a new log landing or something, many of the jobs would end up having weird plants on them, like bittersweet especially. And so about ten or 15 years ago, I had to admit to myself that in order to do a really good long-term job of forest management, you have to control the exotic invasive plants or else they will take over.

SANDERS: Fish now spends about a third of his time controlling invasive plants for his clients. And bittersweet is the worst of them. When this vine snakes its way into the canopy, it usually gets there by coiling tightly around a tree trunk. The strangled tree contorts and twists in response and its lumber value is reduced to that of firewood. But that's not all it does--bittersweet overruns saplings, shades out native plants, and the weight of the vines in the canopy can take down an entire tree.

Allison Bell’s bittersweet vine measures eight inches across. So far, says forester Lincoln Fish, it’s the largest catch in the Bittersweet Challenge. (Photo: Laurie Sanders)

FISH: A couple of years ago I cut a mammoth bittersweet vine. And I saw it laying on the ground and thought, 'wow, that’d make a great picture', so I asked my co-worker if he’d pick it up and hold it while I took his picture. And he got a little sheepish and said, no, he couldn’t do that, it would be like him posing with my trophy buck. But he would take my picture with it and that’s when the idea sort of first germinated.

SANDERS: The idea: could anyone in Massachusetts find a bittersweet vine that was bigger than this one--which measures six inches across and looks more like a small tree trunk? This spring, Fish decided to take his bittersweet challenge public—sending out mass e-mails and getting on Twitter and Facebook. Right away, he started getting responses.

FISH: This one guy who’s an arborist emailed me and said, “I have been training my entire life for this competition.”


FISH: And then somebody else emailed me and said, “I’m quitting my job and going vine hunting.”

SANDERS: And the competition is why we’re here in Northampton, Massachusetts, along a dusty farm road close to Route 91, on the edge of a floodplain forest. We’re waiting for the new bittersweet queen apparent, Allison Bell, who has found a whopper near this site and claims it’s a contender for the title. But...

FISH: She has not yet submitted an official measurement photo, so that’s what we’re doing here today. We actually need to check on our contestants and make sure they’re telling the truth and not just using trick photography to try to get the glory of being the bittersweet queen or king.

A fine specimen of bittersweet. (Photo: Laurie Sanders)

SANDERS: Bell is a graphic designer, writer, and an intrepid hunter of bittersweet. Within 24 hours of hearing about the contest, she contacted Fish, letting him know she had a potential champion. [A CAR BEEPING IN THE BACKGROUND] Strapped to the hood of her car is the formidable specimen-- three feet long, 25 pounds.

FISH: That is truly an impressive figurehead on the front of your car, may I say.


BELL: Well, I can get her untied if you guys help me lift it off the car.


SANDERS: Setting it on the ground, Fish and Bell study it to find the widest surface to measure.

FISH: Alright, do we have the official measuring device?

SANDERS: Which, just to be clear, is a regular, old measuring tape. The bittersweet challenge has helped bring some humor to an otherwise depressing topic. For his part, Lincoln Fish knows it isn’t going to solve the problems this invasive vine is causing. For him, it’s more about raising awareness. And he’s offering some exciting prizes to stimulate interest.

The final winner will receive not only the title of bittersweet king or queen, but Fish will also personally clear one acre of bittersweet, wherever the winner wants. He’s already heard from people who would like to win the prize -- from private citizens to the National Park Service. Which brings us back to that giant bittersweet vine that Allison Bell cut down. Just how many inches across is that thing?

FISH: Wow.

BELL: Pretty right on eight. And then the short way is a little less than six.

Reporter Laurie Sanders’ daughter Lydia is choked up about the bittersweet vine that is choking this tree. (Photo: Laurie Sanders)

FISH: Well, that would average out to be 7 and that is certainly our new champion. So congratulations.

BELL: It’s certainly a great honor, and I don’t get to be queen of much very often. Today I’m very proud.

SANDERS: Fish snaps the official photo, and then for the grand finale—killing the rest of that 50-year old vine. [CHAINSAW] Just pulling up bittersweet or cutting it down doesn’t do it. After chain-sawing the vine close to the ground, Fish sprays the fresh stump with the herbicide triclopyr, which kills the roots and prevents the stump from resprouting, creating a whole new tangle of bittersweet here.


FISH: You could still find a bigger one.

BELL: I still could.

FISH: Absolutely. Absolutely.

BELL: Well I’m gonna keep looking.

FISH: I can tell by the gleam in your eye that you are up to the challenge.

SANDERS: The bittersweet challenge runs through August 2012. For Living on Earth, I’m Laurie Sanders.

Related link:
Find out more about Lincoln Fish’s Bittersweet Challenge

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[MUSIC: John Scofield “Simply Put” from A Moment’s Peace (Savoy Jazz 2011)]

CURWOOD: And there's a plan to expand the contest to all 21 states that classify bittersweet as "invasive." That could open the door for competitions inside and between states. To see pictures of the giant bittersweet specimen of Allison Bell, climb on over to our website LOE dot org.


CURWOOD: On the next Living on Earth, it’s gonna cost hundreds of billions to keep the wheels on the nation’s public transit system.

KANE: Investing in public transportation is investing in our city, in our society, in our state, in our people. It is by far the right thing to do. We have it here. We just need to re-invest in ourselves and realize that.

CURWOOD: But who will pay to keep public transit on track? That’s next time on Living on Earth.


Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation.Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Bruce Gellerman, Jessican Ilyse Kurn, Ingrid Lobet, and Helen Palmer, with help from Meghan Miner, Gabriela Romanow, and Sammy Sousa. And this week we're pleased to welcome some new interns - Annie Sneed and Annabelle Ford. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org – and don’t forget our facebook page - it’s PRI’s Living on Earth. And you can follow us on twitter - at living on earth - that’s just one word. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening!

ANNOUNCER: Support from 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 dot 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 pax world dot com. Pax World: for tomorrow.

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