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

October 5, 2012

Air Date: October 5, 2012



Obama v. Romney

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The first round of the final series of presidential debates highlighted the differences between President Obama and former Governor Romney on energy, taxes and subsidies. (03:15)

Presidential Candidates Debate Science

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The televised presidential debate focused on the economy and domestic policy but ignored important questions about science and the environment. Shawn Otto, founder of Sciencedebate.org, helps fill in the gap. He tells host Steve Curwood about the 14 important science questions answered by each candidate for Scientific American. (06:45)

Coal Under Fire / Anne Murray

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Locals in Coal country say the Administration is attacking their jobs and livelihood. But coal's slipping popularity as a fuel is mainly due to economic pressures. Anne Murray of the Allegheny Front report. (07:00)

The Politics of Coal in the Virginia Senate Race

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Jobs and the economy are dominating the political discussions this election season, but environmental issues have become prominent in the swing state of Virginia. Mark Rozell, professor of public policy at George Mason University, joins us to discuss why it's happening in the crucial senate race between Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen. (06:45)

Bird Note-Migrating Geese / Michael Stein

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As October gets underway, so does the fall migration. Skeins of Canada Geese and their smaller cousins Cackling Geese in their characteristic V formations are now flying south, as BirdNote®'s Michael Stein explains. (02:10)

Remembering Barry Commoner / Steve Curwood

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Biologist and early environmentalist Barry Commoner has died at the age of 95. Host Steve Curwood has this appreciation. (01:30)

Marine Plants That Flee Predators

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Scientists at the University of Rhode Island have discovered an ocean algae behaving more like an animal than a plant. These common phytoplankton can swim away from predators, as oceanographer Susanne Menden-Deuer told host Steve Curwood. (06:30)

Marine Biologist Nancy Rabalais Wins MacArthur Genius Grant / Bobby Bascomb

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One of this year's MacArthur fellows is a marine ecologist whose work focuses on dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. Living on Earth's Bobby Bascomb profiles Nancy Rabalais and her work. (03:40)

Sounds in the Key of the Sea

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Peter Larsen is a biologist not a musician, but he has produced catchy musical interpretations of microbial communities and other scientific data collected from a buoy in the English Channel. He explained to host Steve Curwood how he transmuted scientific data into music. (07:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Shawn Otto, Mark Rozell, Susanne Menden-Deuer, Nancy Rabalais, Peter Larsen.
REPORTERS: Ann Murray, Michael Stein, Bobby Bascomb


CURWOOD: From Public Radio International - this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Getting a handle on what's been missing from the presidential debate:

OTTO: The candidates for President really weren't talking about any of the big science issues and we're moving into a century now when science really lies at the center of most of our big policy challenges as a country and across the world and we thought that politicians ought to be talking about 'em.

CURWOOD: Taking stock of the answers the candidates gave to the big science questions. Also - in coal country, some voters see a government plot against their livelihoods.

MULREY: The current Administration is putting coal, through the EPA, out of business. If there are no mines, guess what, there’s no jobs here in our area.

CURWOOD: We'll have those stories and…


CURWOOD: A seasonal bird note this week, on Living on Earth. Stick around!

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

Obama v. Romney

(Photo: US Embassy)

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Boston, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The first Presidential debate dealt with domestic issues - the economy, taxes, jobs… by all accounts, Governor Romney was well prepared and combative, charging the President with imposing "trickle down government" on America.

For his part, President Obama seemed more subdued, addressing the camera and the viewers, rather than his challenger. Energy was an issue addressed early - and the President saw some common ground.

OBAMA: On energy, Governor Romney and I, we both agree that we've got to boost American energy production. And oil and natural gas production are higher than they've been in years. But I also believe that we've got to look at the energy sources of the future, like wind and solar and biofuels, and make those investments.

CURWOOD: But the President's Republican opponent had a different take on why oil and gas production is booming, and where to look for more energy.

(Photo: Scout Tufankjian)

ROMNEY: Energy is critical, and the president pointed out correctly that production of oil and gas in the U.S. is up. But not due to his policies. In spite of his policies. Mr. President, all of the increase in natural gas and oil has happened on private land, not on government land. On government land, your administration has cut the number of permits and licenses in half. If I'm president, I'll double them. And also get the — the oil from offshore and Alaska. And I'll bring that pipeline in from Canada.

And by the way, I like coal. I'm going to make sure we continue to burn clean coal. People in the coal industry feel like it's getting crushed by your policies. I want to get America and North America energy independent, so we can create those jobs.

CURWOOD: Energy was also wrapped into the part of the debate about government deficits. President Obama said he could see some cuts.

OBAMA: The — the oil industry gets $4 billion a year in corporate welfare. Basically, they get deductions that those small businesses that Governor Romney refers to, they don't get. Now, does anybody think that ExxonMobil needs some extra money when they're making money every time you go to the pump? Why wouldn't we want to eliminate that?

(Photo: Scout Tufankjian)

CURWOOD: For his part, Governor Romney attacked President Obama for his investments in energy conservation and renewable energy.

ROMNEY: You put $90 billion into — into green jobs. And — and I — look, I'm all in favor of green energy. Ninety billion — that — that would have — that would have hired 2 million teachers. Ninety billion dollars. And these businesses — many of them have gone out of business. I think about half of them, of the ones have been invested in, they've gone out of business. A number of them happened to be owned by — by people who were contributors to your campaigns.

CURWOOD: Almost all the points the two candidates made are well worn talking points in stump speeches and in the barrage of campaign ads in swing states. But the debate did bring home the point whoever is at the helm in the White House for the next four years will have to chart a critical course for energy, and the economy.

Related link:
Full transcript of the October 3, 2012 debate between President Obama and former Governor Romney

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[MUSIC: Captain Beefheart “One Red Rose That I Mean” from Lick My Decals Off Baby (Warner Bros. 1970).]

Presidential Candidates Debate Science

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney (Photo: Mark Nassal)

CURWOOD: Now, noticeably missing from the first Presidential debate was an in depth conversation about science and the environment. That's where the journal Scientific American steps in. The magazine asked each of the candidates 14 questions about their policies on some important scientific topics. Shawn Otto organized the questions; he's co-founder and CEO of Science Debate dot org.

OTTO: The candidates for President really weren't talking about any of the big science issues. They were comfortable talking about the economy, even though none of them were economists. They were happy to talk about foreign policy and military intervention, even though none of them were diplomats or generals, and they even were debating faith and values even though they weren’t priests or pastors. But they weren’t talking about the big science issues that affect all voters’ lives.

And we’re moving into a century now when science really lies at the center of all of our challenges - as a country and across the world - and we thought that politicians really ought to be talking about that.

CURWOOD: Tell me a bit about the methodology here - how did you pick these questions and how did you rate them… their responses?

OTTO: Well, we crowd-sourced. We reached out to thousands of scientists, engineers and concerned citizens that have signed on to support the ScienceDebate.org website. About 43,000 of them right now. And also through our Facebook group and through other science bloggers who publicized this, and asked for questions.

We put up a facility where people could submit questions, rate the questions that others had submitted, and we built a nice online discussion there to get a good sense of what the US science community felt were the most important science questions.

CURWOOD: Well, certainly one of the most important science questions that affects policy and a lot of people are wondering about has to do with climate change. Tell me, what do each of the candidates have to say about climate disruption and how they would address it?

President Barack Obama (Photo: Whitehouse.gov)

OTTO: Well, President Obama talks about different steps that he has taken through the course of the last four years. Particularly regulatory steps - regulating greenhouse gasses - as well as doubling fuel efficiency standards… the café standards.

CURWOOD: For cars.

OTTO: Yes, for cars. On the Romney side, he makes a backtrack from his late 2011 position where he was saying: We don’t know what causes climate change. And now he admits that we do know that the climate is changing and that humans are a significant part of the cause of that. But he veers into anti-science when he says that there is no consensus. That’s simply not true - there is a consensus.

His focus, however, is on reducing regulations and bringing up private enterprise to innovate. So they both take various approaches that are kind of consistent with what you would expect of their overall philosophy from Democrats and Republicans.

CURWOOD: Now, you also asked President Obama and Senator Romney about food safety. In your question you say that the public is concerned about the use of hormones, antibiotics, pesticides in our food system. How did each of these candidates respond?

OTTO: Well, this is one area where they both talk about different approaches, actually, in safeguarding the quality of food. I think that the Romney approach there, again, is a little bit more about deregulation, and allowing industry to self-police. He basically has the philosophy of if you get government out of the way, the industry will self-regulate to ensure consumer health, whereas the Obama Administration takes more of a consumer protection point of view.

CURWOOD: Now, the issue of fresh water was also put to each of these candidates. You framed it saying that overconsumption and pollution are endangering our freshwater supply, both domestically and internationally. How would each of these candidates secure clean, fresh water?

OTTO: When we get into Obama’s answers, he talks about a Clean Water Act which he really pushed through, in the early years of his Administration, his first term, and he has some significant progress to show there. Romney doesn’t really offer a single specific step to improve water quality. He implies that the real problem with water quality is regulation, again. One of the quotes from his answers are that “communities and businesses must contend with excessively costly and inflexible approaches that impose unnecessary economic constraints in trade and trigger inevitable litigation.”

CURWOOD: I’m wondering - is he suggesting that he would relax clean water standards?

OTTO: That’s certainly what it sounds like. That he views current water quality regulations as costly and inflexible. And that we need to loosen them up.

CURWOOD: And what about the issue of energy? How did each of these candidates stack up on this?

OTTO: Well, on energy… neither one of them had great answers. Obama, as he did in many of his answers, highlighted the achievements of his first term instead of painting a vision for the future. Romney is more visionary, but a lot of times his vision doesn’t connect with what policy experts in energy view as the reality of the situation.

CURWOOD: For example?

OTTO: Well, he talks about energy independence. Even if the United States, Mexico and Canada, which is North American energy independence, which is really what he is talking about, could produce all of the energy that they consume within the North American continent, that really would have no measurable impact on the way that we buy energy because energy is bought and sold in a global marketplace.

So, it’s a meaningless concept to say that we’re going to have energy independence, because if OPEC is selling its energy to the market at a cheaper price, then our refineries are going to purchase from them just to get us the lowest unit cost of energy per BTU.

CURWOOD: So, on balance, which of these candidates do you think is friendlier to science and the needs of science exploration and discovery?

OTTO: Well, I think that they both have plusses and minuses. On the whole, however, Obama’s answers do tend to intersect with the reality of what science is telling us a little bit more directly. They tend to be a little bit more sophisticated in their understanding of what scientists are saying the real issues are.

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

OTTO: You’re very welcome. I’m happy to be here.

CURWOOD: Shawn Otto is the CEO of ScienceDebate.org, and organized the science debate questions for Scientific American.

[MUSIC: Marco Benevento “Risd” from Between The Needles And Nightfall (Royal Potato Family 2010).]

CURWOOD: So we'd like to know what you think - about the lack of campaign debate on science - and whether the environment deserves a higher profile in these challenging economic times. You can reach us at comments @ l-o-e dot org. Once again, that’s comments @ l-o-e dot O-R-G. Or post your thoughts at our Facebook page: PRI's Living on Earth. And you can call our listener line, at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-99-88.

Related link:
Scientific American’s Top 14 Questions for the Candidates

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CURWOOD: Just ahead – a burning issue playing out in this year's elections - coal and its future. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Brad Mehldau: “The Falcon Will Fly Again” from Highway Rider (Nonesuch Records 2010).]

Coal Under Fire

A sign for a "Stop The War On Coal" rally in Franklin, PA. Around 100 people attended the rally. (Photo: Ann Murray)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Concerns about the economy and jobs are driving the election in different ways around the US, and when it come to Appalachia, the environment is right in the middle of the debate, thanks to coal. Coal faces a slew of new rules from the Obama Administration.

So in coal states like Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia, there are plenty of billboards, rallies and ads as coal plants and mines shut down and new projects are stalled.

But as Ann Murray of the public radio program Allegheny Front reports from Northwestern Pennsylvania, there is much more to the change of fortune for coal than changing regulations.


MURRAY: The Rocky Grove Fire Hall in Franklin, Pennsylvania is buzzing with people on a mission. Carol Mulrey organized this evening’s political rally with six of her friends. She says President Obama is waging a war on her coal-dependent community and he has to go.

The crowd at the rally listening to a speaker. (Photo: Ann Murray.)

MULREY: The current administration is putting coal through the EPA out of business.

MURRAY: Mulrey's worried about Joy Global, one of Venango County’s biggest employers.

MULREY: They make underground mining machines and if there are no mines, guess what, there are no jobs in our area.

MURRAY: Joy Global has already laid off 200 people because of the slow economy. Mulrey thinks new EPA pollution standards unfairly target mining operations and coal-fired power plants and more jobs will be lost. Across the hall, Gary Dubois, a longtime mining engineer, is selling lawn signs that say “stop the war on coal.” He says Mr. Obama's EPA has overstepped its bounds.

DUBOIS: We have administrators, non-elected officials completely bypassing what our elected officials do and that’s to make laws so they’re completely overreaching it, yes.

MURRAY: Dubois says his brisk multi-state sale of anti-Obama signs and T-shirts, indicates the frustration in hard-hit coal communities. Alpha Natural Resources recently announced it will close mines in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia and cut more than a thousand jobs companywide. The news isn’t good.


REPORTER: It's all part of a strategy to shift business away from power plants to overseas steel mills. One official said they are making the move because of stiffer EPA regulations and a drop in the demand for coal.

MURRAY: With the demand for coal dropping, some of the biggest names in the coal industry and the GOP are financing aggressive efforts to defeat President Obama. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity has spent about 12 million dollars for pro-coal TV ads. Other groups are using the Internet.

AD: Obama has a war on coal. He’s not letting up. He is harming the economy and the American people. He’s going to bankrupt them.

MURRAY: Although the United Mine Workers of America disavows the “war on coal” language, the union, which backed Mr. Obama in 2008, remains uncommitted this year. That's according to Dan Kane, UMW's International Secretary-Treasurer.

KANE: In 2012 we have not made an endorsement. It's primarily because of the regulations and the activities of the EPA. We can't mine coal if there's no place to burn it.

MURRAY: The UMW estimates EPA's Mercury rule that will go into effect in 2015 will put a quarter of a million coal and coal related jobs at risk. That's because they say it will be too expensive to retrofit older coal burning plants. The Union also complains that EPA has made it nearly impossible to build new plants under a new greenhouse gas regulation. Dan Kane says to meet the CO2 emission standard, future coal-fired facilities would have to capture and bury their carbon.

KANE: Whether or not that can be done commercially, it can't right now and it doesn't make sense for the EPA to require technology that isn't commercially available.

MURRAY: But many US power companies have long planned to close some of their aging, inefficient coal-fired plants. The US Energy Information Administration or the EIA says one out of ten coal fired plants will shut down in the next few years. Allen Beamon, energy analyst with EIA, cautions that plant closings are complicated.

BEAMON: When you talk about retiring a plant, it's really a complex decision. You're not just looking at any single factor. There's no single straw that broke the camel's back. You're looking at coal prices, you're looking at electricity demand growth, you're looking at natural gas prices.

MURRAY: Electricity demand in many parts of the country is the lowest it's been in decades. And in the last four or five years, low natural gas prices - depressed by an abundance of shale gas, have rocked the US energy market says Beamon.

BEAMON: If you look over the last 50 or 60 years, coal power plants have accounted for nearly half or slightly more than half of the generation in this country. They were the work horses of the fleet. But the economics have changed now with gas prices as low as they are today and with the efficient gas plants that are available.

MURRAY: For the first time ever, gas and coal are neck and neck as the fuel of choice for electricity generation. The US Environmental Protection Agency says economic factors like these have changed coal's position in the energy mix - not malicious intent to target a fossil fuel. The EPA would not talk on tape but said in an email to the Allegheny Front, quote:

“Coal is still expected to generate more of America’s electricity than any other fuel source. However, market conditions in the power sector are driving business decisions that are completely independent from these long-overdue pollution standards.”

Back at the rally in Franklin, Pennsylvania, citizens want to scrap the agency.

RALLY SPEAKER: Could you tell me what you think the chances of getting rid of the EPA is?


RALLY SPEAKER: Is it possible?


RALLY SPEAKER: I think it actually…everything all relies on November 6th.

MURRAY: Republicans and 17 Democrats in the US House of Representatives aren’t taking any chances. The last thing they did before taking a break for the elections, was pass a package of bills to reduce EPA's regulatory reach. The White House has threatened to veto the bill if it makes it through Congress. For Living on Earth I'm Ann Murray with the Allegheny Front.

CURWOOD: The Allegheny Front is a Pennsylvania public radio program.

Related links:
- For information about the House Bill
- For more about the Allegheny Front Radio show

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[MUSIC: Bill Frisell “Poem For Eva” from Good Dog, Happy Man (Nonesuch Records 2000).]

The Politics of Coal in the Virginia Senate Race

Tim Kaine (Photo: Jeff Caplan)

CURWOOD: In the state of Virginia, both candidates seeking to replace the retiring Democratic US Senator James Webb are playing up their friendliness to coal. Republican George Allen, a former governor who narrowly lost the Senate seat to Webb in 2006, has consulted for mining giants Peabody Coal and Alpha Natural Resources since he left office.

His Democratic opponent, Tim Kaine, also a former governor, has a much harder record to defend when it comes to selling his support for the coal industry. That history has become a key issue of the campaign. Here's Mark Rozell - he's a political scientist at George Mason University in Virginia.

ROZELL: One of the political challenges for Kaine coming into this campaign was that he was so closely tied to the policies of the Obama Administration at the federal level. Kaine was the head of the Democratic National Committee, and therefore he was the leading voice for many of the policies coming out of the Democratic Administration, in Washington, some of which were very unpopular in Virginia. The formula for victory for Democratic candidates running statewide in Virginia in the modern era has been to run to the right of the national party wherever possible.

CURWOOD: Like the presidential election, professor, many people assume that economic issues would decide this contest in Virginia. When did the environment become such an important factor in the race?

ROZELL: Well, the environment has been an issue in the race all along, but it’s been mostly muted. There hasn’t been as much discussion about environmental concerns as there has been about jobs and the economy. But Democratic candidate Tim Kaine has been running some television ads, extolling his support for coal mining and the fact that his family has connections to the coal mining country in Virginia and that he’s supportive of the industry. And of course, this is a position that’s counter to positions taken by pro-environmental groups and the Democratic Party constituencies.

CURWOOD: We’re going to play that ad now. Let me point out that that ad has Tim Kaine looking down from a helicopter.

[AD: This state of the art coal plant in West Virginia, where my wife is from, created 2,500 new jobs. As governor, I supported its construction, I also support offshore energy, conservation, and innovative investments in wind and solar, which together employ more than 66,000 Virginians. That’s what I call unleashing our energy potential! I’m Tim Kaine and I approve this message because innovation creates jobs, energy independence and a cleaner tomorrow.]

CURWOOD: What do you think Tim Kaine was trying to accomplish with this ad?

ROZELL: First of all, Tim Kaine wants to position himself as a pro-economic growth candidate. And since jobs and the economy are the leading issues in this campaign, he wants to emphasize in economically distressed areas of Virginia that he supports various industries that are important to creating economic opportunity.

CURWOOD: How has George Allen’s campaign responded?

George Allen (Wikimedia Creative Commons)

ROZELL: The Allen campaign has argued that Tim Kaine is not authentic in presenting himself as a pro-industry type candidate. That he has taken positions that are more in-tune with the policies of the Obama Administration in environmental issues. Allen has tried to tie Kaine to opposition to the pipeline that the Obama Administration had successfully stopped, and in general Allen has portrayed himself as the more pro-jobs, pro-growth, pro-industry type candidate than Tim Kaine. Essentially he’s arguing that he’s a faker on this.

CURWOOD: I’m going to play an ad that George Allen just recently made for his own campaign:

[AD: America is at a crossroads. Will we continue to decline or begin to ascend again? I envision a greater future, where job creators are able to invest and grow free of excessive regulations and taxes. Where we use America’s energy resources to improve our quality of life.”]

CURWOOD: And then, let’s listen to some folks who, well, have their gloves a little bit more off. The Chamber of Commerce has run a counter ad agaist Kaine:

[AD: What exactly is Tim Kaine’s position on American energy exploration? Yes, if… Yes, but…? Yes, when.. and that means… no. Kaine claims he’s for American energy exploration, but wants to delay. Tim Kaine says he’s for the Keystone XL pipeline, but, just not now.We do know Kaine supported cap-and-trade which would have raised energy costs. Tim Kaine on energy… the more you know, the more it sounds like: NO. Vote no on Tim Kaine. The US Chamber is responsible for the content of this advertising.]

ROZELL: The Chamber here is trying to say this guy is not only inconsistent, but you really can’t trust what he says he’s going to do as a candidate in this campaign. Look at his record in the past and that will give you some more true insight into his actual beliefs about these issues.

CURWOOD: Now, the League of Conservation Voters has jumped into this with a lot of money for them - they’re spending almost a million dollars to send out pieces of mail to half a million households. Why do you think that the League of Conservation Voters is pouring money into the Kaine campaign despite the ambivalence they must feel?

ROZELL: I think the League of Conservation Voters feels that it’s especially important to pour extra money into this campaign, given the emphasis now on environmental issues. And even though Tim Kaine has taken a position that goes against pro-environmental groups, the League of Conservation Voters believe that Tim Kaine is far better than anything that would come from George Allen if George Allen were to go back to the Senate.

These groups understand the importance of being pragmatic and being sensible. You can’t find candidates who are 100 percent with you 100 percent of the time on all issues. You have to keep your eyes on the big picture. One Senate race can make the difference, ultimately, as to whether it’s the Democrats or the Republicans who control the Senate after this election year is over.

CURWOOD: What do polls show at this point?

ROZELL: The latest polls show that Tim Kaine has opened up a significant lead over George Allen. The Washington Post poll, I believe, has it at 8 percentage points. One thing that has been pretty consistent throughout this election is that the polls in the Virginia Senate race have tracked very closely with the top of the ticket. So that, when Barak Obama and Mitt Romney were running statistically tied, so were Tim Kaine and George Allen.

And ever since Barack Obama has opened up something of a real lead over Mitt Romney, Tim Kaine also has opened up a real lead over George Allen. So something is happening, right now in Virginia at least, that is favoring both of the Democratic candidates for both the presidential and senatorial levels.

CURWOOD: Mark Rozell is Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University in Virginia, thank you so much Professor!

ROZELL: OK - thank you!

Related links:
- For more information about Virginia US Senate candidate Democrat Tim Kaine
- For more information about Virginia US Senate candidate George Allen

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Bird Note-Migrating Geese

Cackling Goose (Photo: © Tom Grey)


CURWOOD: Once we pass the fall equinox, the days grow shorter swiftly. Here in the north, the leaves are turning color. And as BirdNote’s® Michael Stein explains, October brings another definitive sign of autumn.


STEIN: The syncopated honks of Canada Geese are among nature’s definitive heralds of autumn migration, as V-shaped flocks of geese fly south. Millions of Canada Geese migrate each year, although in recent decades, growing populations of non-migratory geese have remained in many parts of the country throughout the year.


Canada Goose (Photo: © Tom Grey)

STEIN: One reason for the change is that humans have introduced geese to these areas. Still, as October arrives, another voice tells us that some geese have not compromised their migratory ways a bit.


STEIN: You’re hearing Cackling Geese, which sound like a falsetto version of the familiar Canada Goose.

A Canada goose with cackling geese (Photo: © Tom Grey)


STEIN: Cackling Geese resemble a toy version of Canadas, with shorter necks, rounder heads, and stubbier bills. The smallest Cackling Geese measure just a shade bigger than a Mallard. The Cackler’s small voice suits perfectly its small size.


STEIN: It was once considered a diminutive form of Canada Goose, but recent genetic research has shown the Cackler to be a separate species. They breed in far northern Canada and western Alaska, and winter along both coasts and in the southern Great Plains.


STEIN: Look, and listen, for pint-sized Cackling Geese this fall at refuges, in farm fields, and at other spots where migratory geese gather.

A Canada goose and goslings (Photo: © Tom Grey)


STEIN: For BirdNote®, I’m Michael Stein.

CURWOOD: For pictures of Canada Geese and their smaller cousins, Cackling Geese, flap on over to our web-site loe.org.

Related link:

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[MUSIC: Andrei Krylov “Geese Flying Over Red Pines” from Jazz Pictures From Guitar Exhibition (Andrei Krylov Music 2008).]

Remembering Barry Commoner

Barry Commoner

CURWOOD: This week we mark the passing, at age 95, of Barry Commoner. Biologist, social and environmental activist, and presidential candidate. Because he lived so long, many people may not know about his heyday – how, for example by studying baby’s teeth he demonstrated that radioactive fallout from atomic weapons testing was getting into our food supply and endangering our health.

This discovery was instrumental in spurring President Kennedy to negotiate an atomic test ban treaty, back in the nineteen-sixties. Along with Rachel Carson, Commoner called out the dangers of DDT and dioxins, and he was active in launching the massive teach-in known as the first Earth Day. He championed solar energy and recycling, and boiled his philosophy down to four basic truths: everything is connected to everything else; everything must go somewhere; nature knows best; and there is no free lunch.

In 1980 Commoner ran for president on the Citizen’s party ticket. He got few votes but championed the idea that people should use the ballot box to demand a restructuring of our political economy. He aged, but his fire did not dim. Six years ago Barry Commoner gave some final words to the New York Times. He warned, “Regardless of anything else about the environment, if nothing is done - beginning now - to cut back strongly on the use of fossil fuels we’re headed for a disaster.”

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[MUSIC: Dave Douglas “God Be With You” from Be Still ( Greenleaf Music 2012).]

CURWOOD: Coming up – half of earth's oxygen comes from tiny marine life forms - but they have some unique and surprising skills as well. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from Breckenridge Capitol Advisors, applying a sustainable approach to fixed income investing www.breckenridge.com. 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 Bette Moore Foundation, and Gilman Ordway for coverage of conservation and environmental change.

This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Dean Frasier: “My Sax” from Retrospect (VP Music).]

Marine Plants That Flee Predators

Suzanne Menden-Deuer

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth - I'm Steve Curwood. Plants are capable of incredible things: they supply the earth with oxygen, sequester carbon dioxide, and provide us with shade on a hot sunny day. And now, scientists at the University of Rhode Island have uncovered a surprising new talent in a group of tiny ocean plants—the ability to run away. This remarkable discovery was made by Susanne Menden-Deuer, Professor of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. Welcome to Living on Earth!

MENDEN-DEUER: Hi, I’m glad to be here!

CURWOOD: So, what kind of plant is this that can swim away from its predators?

MENDEN-DEUER: This phytoplankton species is a plant-like organism and it functions a lot in the same way in that it photosynthesizes. It takes the sunlight’s energy and inorganic carbon and produces organic carbon like sugars and the oxygen that we breathe.

CURWOOD: Now, these are really tiny, they’re kind of like algae?

MENDEN-DEUER: Exactly. They’re microscopic algae and even though they’re microscopic, they’re so numerous… most of our planet is covered by water… by ocean water, and so the power of these numbers and the large area covered results in these microscopic organisms having a tremendous impact on our earth’s ecosystem. They generate about half of the oxygen that is breathable in the atmosphere. So, what I would encourage your listeners to do is to say thank you to the phytoplankton every other breath they take.

CURWOOD: (Takes breath). Thank you phytoplankton!


CURWOOD: Now, please describe the specifics of this study. How do you figure out that a plant in the ocean is running away?

MENDEN-DEUER: Well, my lab works on predator-prey interactions. We’re really interested in who eats who. We were trying to figure out if these predators can distinguish between food that is nutritionally valuable to them and food that’s less nutritionally valuable, or less good. So, can it distinguish between - say a salad and a bag of Doritos, for example.

CURWOOD: (Laughs.) And what kind of predators are these?

MENDEN-DEUER: These are all single-celled predators. They’re just about the same size as their food, they’re just about as numerous as the phytoplankton. And, in the last 20 years or so, people have discovered that they are very voracious eaters of phytoplankton.

CURWOOD: So, what did you discover in terms of the ability of the phytoplankton to get away from these guys that want to gobble them up?

MENDEN-DEUER: What we do is we use stereo-video cameras to image in three dimensions how these organisms move. And we do different kinds of incubation. Sometimes we just have the algae in the tank, sometimes we have just the predator, and sometimes we put both of them together. And by looking at the differences in behavior when they are together and when they are separate, we can tell if things like do they respond to each other.

We also do numerous control experiments where we simply take, for example, the wash water from the predators. So, they’ve left some chemical scent… maybe they pee in the water… and then we expose the algae to that. So we can say specifically, do the algae respond to just the chemical scent?

CURWOOD: And what exactly did you discover?

MENDEN-DEUER: What we discovered was that any kind of indication that a predator was present or had been present previously, induced the algae to swim away. And we structured our water column like we find structure in the ocean in that there are different salinities at different depths. In this case, the algae is very tolerant of low salinities whereas the predator is not.

In our experiment, if the algae could reach an area of low salinity, we call that the low salinity refuge, then indeed the algae could survive. If we force the predator and the prey together in one tank, we don’t allow the algae to swim away anywhere, then the predator will eat all of the prey within about one day. If we just have the algae by itself, it can double approximately every day. But if we have an algae that can effectively flee, it can double every other day in the presence of the predator. And that’s really a key finding of this study is that this fleeing behavior is very effective in increasing the survival of the algae.

CURWOOD: Is this behavior unique within the plant kingdom?

MENDEN-DEUER: As far as we know. We’ve done a thorough literature research on this and there are many examples of course of making chemical constituents that make them less palatable or toxic to predators. There are also well known examples of plants having morphological modifications such as spines and thorns that protect them predation, but we haven’t been able to find a prior example of any photosynthetic organism that has this kind of fleeing behavior.

CURWOOD: And what’s the name of this algae? I’m out of here algae, is that the name of it?

MENDEN-DEUER: Yeah, we should rename it! It’s called heterosigma akashiwo. And akashiwo, I believe, means red tide in Japanese.

CURWOOD: Ah. What do you think is the significance of these findings in the bigger picture of what happens in the oceans?

MENDEN-DEUER: As an oceanographer, when I go out to sea, I often look out at the ocean and think, “how are we going to figure this all out?” Because we have thousands of species that are interacting in a really dynamic environment. And here we can have these observations of microscopic cell-cell interactions that can really help us understand a large scale process such as how these phytoplankton live and survive. And I think that is really a highlight for me because it gives us hope that we can unravel the complexities of marine food webs.

CURWOOD: What’s next now?

MENDEN-DEUER: The next thing we would really like to do is look at other phytoplankton species. We don’t know if this is a common or an uncommon behavior. The species we were studying is at times extremely successful in the ocean at making very dense surface slicks that are visible from low-flying aircraft.

Part of what motivated our study is that we wanted to look at what makes this species so successful. So, we would like to look at other species to see, are they equally able to flee from predators, or is the success of the species that we studied partly due to the fact that it can flee from its predators?

CURWOOD: Suzanne Menden-Deuer is a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. Thanks so much for taking this time with us today.

MENDEN-DEUER: It was my pleasure, I was really glad to be here!

Related links:
- The fleeing Plant paper
- A video of Suzanne Menden-Deuer in her lab

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[MUSIC: Steely Dan “Green Earrings” from Royal Scam (UMG Music 1976).]

Marine Biologist Nancy Rabalais Wins MacArthur Genius Grant

Nancy Rabalais is a Marine Ecologist and MacArthur fellow. (MacArthur Foundation)

CURWOOD: They are popularly known as "genius grants" - and every year the MacArthur Foundation gives out some two-dozen of them. Each fellowship comes with a no-strings attached prize of $500,000. And it goes to exceptionally creative and talented people in a wide variety of disciplines.

This year’s winners include a writer, a historian, a mandolin player - and marine ecologist Nancy Rabalais. She’s executive director and professor at Louisiana University’s Marine Consortium. Here's Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb.

BASCOMB: Nancy Rabalais got a surprise phone call one day telling her she’d won a MacArthur fellowship and half a million dollars.

RABALAIS: Surprised is really not the correct word. I was flabbergasted. It’s just so rewarding to be, you know, that well respected by my colleagues.

Nancy Rabalais at work in the Gulf of Mexico. (Photo: MacArthur Foundation)

BASCOMB: Rabalais has spent the last 28 years researching dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. They’re areas of extremely low oxygen, inhospitable to most marine life.

RABALAIS: If a shrimp trawler puts the net over the side and drags it on the bottom he just won’t catch anything. No shrimp, no fish, no swimming organisms - they flee out of the area. And crabs, worms, starfish, snails, clams, they will all eventually die off if the oxygen stays low enough for long enough.

BASCOMB: The dead zone in the Gulf varies in size from year to year. In 2010 it was the size of New Jersey. It’s caused by nitrogen and phosphorus rich water flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.

RABALAIS: No matter how you slice or dice it, the overwhelming majority of nitrogen and phosphorus comes from agricultural activities. The Mississippi watershed drains about 41% of the contiguous United States and most of it is in agriculture.

BASCOMB: That includes states like Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas where farmers use massive amounts of fertilizer. Runoff from farms and pastures make their way down the Mighty Mississippi and into the Gulf.

RABALAIS: And the nitrogen and phosphorus stimulate the growth of phytoplankton which eventually sink to the bottom and the decomposition of that deletes the oxygen.

BASCOMB: Rabalais says that when she first started this work it was hard to convince the public about the source of the problem.

RABALAIS: And it took a while for people to understand that something that could happen so far away from the Gulf of Mexico could be having a difference on the ecosystem. And now many people know about it. Many people are engaged trying to make a difference and changing what they do on their land so I think we’ve made great progress.

BASCOMB: Most of that progress, Rabalais says, comes from farmers experimenting with less harmful agricultural practices.

RABALAIS: So that includes different cropping techniques, less fertilizer use, precision fertilizer use, buffer strips, sustainable agriculture, deep-rooted crops. I mean, there are so many things that can be done. It’s going to take a combination of all these activities to make a difference.

BASCOMB: For Rabalais the 500,000 dollar prize will make a difference too.

RABALAIS: I’m going to try to support things that I can’t do normally; trips to spread more of the message to work with people at the policy level; to support students who need to travel to meetings; to buy equipment that I can’t afford otherwise. So it’s going back into the research.

BASCOMB: Into research and inspiring a new generation of scientists to carry on her work.

RABALAIS: I’m not giving up right away. I’ve got a lot left in me I guess. (laughs)

BASCOMB: Nancy Rabalais, Marine Ecologist and MacArthur fellow. For Living on Earth, I’m Bobby Bascomb.

Related link:
Nancy Rabalais Home Page

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[MUSIC: Chris Thile “The Beekeeper” from How To Grow A Woman From the Ground (Sugar Hill Records 2008) (Chris is also a MacArthur winner for 2012).]

Sounds in the Key of the Sea

Cyanobacteria colonies. (Photo: Specious Reasons)

CURWOOD: From the symmetry of ferns to spiraling Nautilus shells, there are patterns in nature wherever we look. But scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory have turned to music to reveal patterns in the ocean otherwise invisible to the human eye.

Joining us now from The Argonne National Lab just outside Chicago is the biologist responsible for what he calls "Microbial Bebop," Peter Larsen. Welcome to Living on Earth!

LARSEN: Glad to be here Steve, thanks for inviting me!

CURWOOD: So where did you get this idea to represent microbial data musically?

LARSEN: First of all, my principal job is to represent complex data sets in a way that reveals patters that are intuitive to a human viewer. There have been other recent attempts to make audio versions of complex data. These have been from DNA sequences, protein sequences as well as things like earthquake data. So it was an interesting opportunity to approach a complex dataset from a novel direction.

CURWOOD: What’s the study that produced this data?

LARSEN: This particular study is a long-term environmental project at the Western English Channel. Particularly, this data comes from a single location - the L4 station.

CURWOOD: And could you describe exactly what the data is all about?

LARSEN: The L4 station is an automated buoy. It automatically collects data about the physical parameters of the ocean: temperature, salinity, chlorophyll. For the last decade or so, scientists in that area have been regularly going out and sampling the microbial diversities in that location. So we have a long-standing time course of microbial population diversity at a single location in the ocean.

CURWOOD: So, we’ve got time, we’ve got microbial presence, we’ve got temperature, we have salinity… all of those things rolled together.

LARSEN: That’s right.

CURWOOD: How did you turn this data into music?

LARSEN: One of the things that I wanted to get most out of this approach was to highlight relationships between two different kinds of data. So, in most of the pieces that we have posted, the melody is derived from a numerical measurement, such that the lowest measure is the lowest note and the highest measure is the highest note.

The other component is the chords. And the chords map to a different component of the data. A particular combination of data will sound different to a human listener if it’s played in the key of temperature, then it would if it was played in the key of phosphorous.

CURWOOD: (Laughs).The key of temperature vs. the key of phosphorous?

LARSEN: Exactly.

CURWOOD: (Laughs.) OK. Got your ears ready?

LARSEN: Absolutely.

CURWOOD: Let’s go ahead and play a few of these songs for you. First we have this microbial composition called bloom.

[MUSIC: Sounds Of The Sea : Pieces include “Bloom”, “Far & Wide”, “Blues For Elle” and “50 Degrees North”. From Microbial Bebop. Produced at the Argonne National Laboratory.]

LARSEN: So, what we’re hearing here is the measurements of microbial abundances of microbes that are typically very low abundance of population but occasionally bloom and become major players in the population. So we’re listening to 10 years of microbial data. Each measure that you hear is a single observation; 12 observations per year, seven years in the entire set. On occasion you’ll notice that the normally low melody notes will give a little spike - a high note. That maps to a bloom microbial abundance of a particular species.


CURWOOD: OK… So, let’s listen to the next one. You call this Far and Wide.


LARSEN: OK. So in this case, we are hearing the abundance of a single microbial species. This one is called Rickettsiales. Rickettsiales is the most commonly observed bacterial species in this location in the ocean. Again, every measure is a particular observation. The chords in this case are derived from day length and water temperature. We added some additional information to this one: every time you hear that symbol crash - that is an observation which Rickettsiales is the most abundant microbe at that particular observation.


CURWOOD: That’s a pretty busy microbe you mapped there with the sound, huh?

LARSEN: There’s a tremendous amount of data that’s produced by these kinds of experiments - terabytes and terabytes of data are derived by these analyses. Although the music, perhaps, is a less rigorous approach. Certainly one of the things we want to do with this data is find ways to approach very complex data and identify those underlying patterns.

CURWOOD: OK. And we’ve got one more song here from your microbes. This one you call Blues for Elle:


LARSEN: Blues for Elle. Again this is for the L4 station. So this is the L4 Blues. We’ve arranged with a slightly more provocative title in Blues for Elle. This is strictly looking at the seasonal patterns in the physical conditions of the L4 station where the chords in this case are photosynthetic reactive radiation and the melody is comprised of 8 notes per measure. Each note is a particular measure of the chemical nature of the water: nitrate, salinity, silica,concentration of silica, the concentration of chlorophyll, the concentration of nitrates. These are parameters that have a very distinct seasonal pattern.


CURWOOD: Blues? Does that affect the color of the sea?

LARSEN: (Laughs.) One of the allowances I gave myself is the occasional very bad pun, yes.

CURWOOD: So, how can the songs themselves help us understand the data?

LARSEN: Songs themselves probably are never going to actively replace, you know, the bar graph for data analysis, but I think that this kind of translation of complex data into a very accessible format is an opportunity to lead people who probably aren’t highly aware of the importance of microbial ecology in the ocean, and give them a very appealing entry into this kind of data.

CURWOOD: Why are patterns in the ocean of microbial life important in the big picture?

LARSEN: In the bigger picture, microbes are in some sense the dominant form of life on earth. Microbes are predominantly the largest collection of life on earth by biomass. Microbes drive every biogeochemical cycle on earth. In the ocean, 98 percent of the ocean’s primary productivity, the ocean’s ability to turn sunlight through primary productivity into food for the rest of the ocean, is driven by these microbial species. If we are to understand the consequences of the changing environment, we need to understand how this very very critical portion of the biogeochemical cycles are going to be affected by rising temperatures in the ocean, rising salinity, and changes pH.

CURWOOD: Peter Larson is a biologist at the US Department of Energy’s Argonne Laboratory. Thanks very much for being with us today.

[MUSIC CONTINUES: Sounds Of The Sea : “50 Degrees North”. From Microbial Bebop. Produced at the Argonne National Laboratory.]

LARSEN: Thanks very much for inviting me!

Related links:
- Songs in the Key of Sea

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CURWOOD: On the next Living on Earth the U.N.'s forest preservation and emissions reducing policy called REDD is paying off.

NEPSTAD: Even though REDD doesn't have a fully formed international mechanism we've had about one and a half billion tons of emissions reductions just from the states of the Brazilian Amazon.

CURWOOD: The controversial REDD path to a green planet - next time on Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: We leave you this week with a distinctive sound of the season, the fall field cricket. Gryllus pennsylvanicus.

[Earth Ear: Lang Elliott & Wil Hershberger “Fall Cricket” from The Songs Of Insects (Nature Sound Studios 2007).]

CURWOOD: Fall Field crickets hatch in the spring, and continue to sing till the frost kills them - as it gets colder, they often seek a warm hiding place inside houses.


CURWOOD: Lang Elliott and Will Hershberger recorded this field cricket for their CD, The Songs of Insects.


CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Bobby Bascomb, Helen Palmer, James Curwood, Meghan Miner, Gabriela Romanow and Sammy Sousa all help to make our show, and so does our intern Emmett Fitzgerald. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at L-O-E dot org - and check out our facebook page - it’s PRI’s Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening!

ANNOUNCER 1: 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 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 Worl, for tomorrow.

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