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

November 2, 2012

Air Date: November 2, 2012



Superstorms and Climate Change

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Sandy hit the Eastern U.S. with a powerful punch. The superstorm lashed the coast, flooded whole towns, left millions without power, and dropped snow on towns from Ohio to Tennessee. Host Steve Curwood discusses how climate change contributed to the storm's power with Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. (06:20)

Insuring for Climate Change

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Scientists expect more severe storms like Sandy as a result of climate change and insurance companies are paying attention. Steve Dishart, former communications manager for reinsurer Swiss Re, tells host Steve Curwood that rates wil rise and some properties will be uninsurable as climate change brings about more fierce weather. (05:40)

Effects of Climate Change on New York City

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We revisit a Living on Earth documentary reported by John Rudolph in 2003 that examined storm surges and other potential effects of climate change on New York City. Then Klaus Jacob, senior research scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, featured in the original story, talks to host Steve Curwood from his flooded home on the Hudson River. (09:40)

Protecting Coastal Areas With….Oysters

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Oysters are a delicacy to some, but writer Paul Greenberg says they could have a more practical function. Greenberg tells host Steve Curwood that oysters once helped protect New York city from fierce storms. (07:40)


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We dip into the Living on Earth mailbag to hear from our listeners. (01:45)

Delta Risk / Lauren Sommer

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Evaluating disaster risk is a major industry and researchers in California are working to reinvent how it’s done. Lauren Sommer has the story from IEEE Spectrum Magazine National Science Foundation special "Responding to Disasters, from Prediction to Recovery." (09:10)

Authorities Tolerate Environmental Protest in China

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Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Ningbo, China recently in opposition to a petrochemical plant they feel is a danger to public health, and forced the government to back down. Ben Carlson, a journalist for the Global Post, told host Steve Curwood about the growing environmental movement in China. (05:05)

BirdNote® Oystercatcher

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The ocean battered the East Coast this past week, but for the Black Oystercatcher the seashore is a protective habitat. BirdNote’s Michael Stein reports. (02:10)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Kevin E. Trenberth, Steve Dishart, Klaus Jacob, Paul Greenberg, Ben Carlson
REPORTERS: John Rudolph, Lauren Sommer, Michael Stein


CURWOOD: From Public Radio International - this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Rethinking storms, climate and risk - in the wake of the Sandy - the deadly super-storm that lashed half the country and devastated much of the New Jersey coast and Lower Manhattan.

TRENBERTH: The way I think about it overall is that the environment in which these storms are operating has changed, that's the new normal, and the odds are that these storms are more intense, and maybe a little bigger.

CURWOOD: And we will have to adapt with barricades, seawalls, gates… or oysters?

GREENBERG: Unlike a stopper or some sort of floodgate that we'd have to build, oyster-reefs build themselves. If we get them going, they will maintain themselves, and build themselves higher and higher until they're really at the height they should be to ease the storm surge.

CURWOOD: We'll have that and more this week, on Living on Earth. Stick Around!

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ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from Stonyfield Farm.

Superstorms and Climate Change

Flooded streets in Hoboken, NJ. (US Department of Defense)

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Boston, this is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Gradually, in the wake of the hurricane that grew into a monster super-storm, people are shoveling out, cleaning up and counting the cost.

A satellite view of super storm Sandy (NASA Goddard)

In all more than a hundred died. Thousands lost their homes. Some businesses are wrecked and may never recover. Millions suffered without power - and many still do. A storm so deadly, powerful and huge seems like an unprecedented event -- but then we've seen Katrina - and Andrew - and Irene - and Ike.

Dr. Kevin E. Trenberth is a climate analyst and senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder and joins us now - welcome to the show!

TRENBERTH: Yes, g'day Steve!

CURWOOD: In the scheme of things, how unusual was hurricane Sandy?

TRENBERTH: Well, hurricane Sandy became very unusual because it was no longer a hurricane when it made landfall, but a hybrid storm, where it had merged with another storm that actually dropped snow here in Colorado late last week, and it became this astro-tropical hybrid storm that had mixed characteristics and more than double the size of a normal hurricane.

Sandy flooded this section of East 6th Street. (David Shankbone)

There were hurricane force winds over a very large area, much more extensive than it would have been had it just been a hurricane.

CURWOOD: Does the experience of Sandy mean that science needs to redefine what a hurricane is?

TRENBERTH: Well, these hybrid storms certainly occur. The elements were sort of aligned here to make this a major storm and I think most of them were very much related to weather. There probably is a small human influence on this that is important, but most of what went on, perhaps there’s more of a crap-shoot aspect to it.

CURWOOD: Talk to me about this near barometric low pressure that was part of Sandy. What does it mean and why was it so low?

TRENBERTH: Well that certainly relates to the size of the storm. It’s just a huge storm, and it does relate to the hybrid character of the storm. The low pressure means that there’s less weight on the ocean, so the ocean wells up a bit more there - there’s the astronomical factors relating to the full moon and also sea level being a little higher than it used to be because of climate change. And so all of these factors came together to produce record breaking storm surges, especially in the southern part of Manhattan.

CURWOOD: So, at the end of the day, in your analysis, how much did climate change have to do with hurricane Sandy?

TRENBERTH: Well firstly on the sea-level side, you know, sea level is going up at just over an inch every decade, a little over a foot per century is the current rate. And so it’s only a few inches, perhaps you can think of it that way, but it also means that sea level is higher than it has ever been. So that’s one factor that adds to some of the coastal damage in particular.

The other factors are that the ocean is warmer. It’s warmer by about one degree Fahrenheit, relative to before the 1970s. That provides more fuel for the storm, it means the air above the storm is a little warmer and also moister, and so this invigorates the storm, so the number I usually quote is about a five to ten percent increase in precipitation. And so this relates even to storms like hurricane Irene last year, or even Isaac, this year where there was extensive flooding in many areas in association with these tropical storms.

CURWOOD: You’ve been studying these for a long time, but science is always full of surprises. What were your surprises that you encountered with the super-storm Sandy?

TRENBERTH: Well, you know, this was certainly being predicted to be a very strong super-storm, but even so the damage was pretty appalling for me to see. And the fact that a number of the subways in southern Manhattan actually did fill with water is very dismaying. In many respects, I’m not surprised, but then when you do see what’s actually happening, it’s always a bit shocking.

CURWOOD: So, hurricane Sandy, or super-storm Sandy, or hybrid Sandy, or whatever you want to call it… this is the new normal and in our warming world, what we can expect for our future hurricane seasons?

TRENBERTH: That’s right, it is a new normal. The way that I think about it overall is that the environment in which these storms are operating has changed. That’s the new normal, and the odds are that these storms are more intense and maybe a little bigger, with the possibility of heavier rains and flooding, that risk exists.

But at the same time, these storms churn up the ocean, they take energy out of the ocean - that’s the evaporation of moisture, that’s evaporative cooling of the ocean, and as a result these storms leave a cold wake behind them. And that’s one of the reasons why hurricanes don’t track along the same path – they’re always choosing a new path across the ocean.

And so one of the effects is that the environment behind a storm is less favorable for a storm, and so we do expect that although there are bigger, more intense storms, there may be fewer storms as a whole. So, one really big storm can take the place of what might have been, say, four or five smaller storms in the past.

CURWOOD: Now, since the world as a whole isn’t making major efforts, really, to address the human part of global climate change, how then should people prepare for a climate that is shifting?

TRENBERTH: Well, firstly, yes; we ought to be working to slow down these effects, and so that relates to the burning of fossil fuels in particular, the increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and we really ought to be trying to reduce those emissions. So the second part of this then is to recognize this is happening and to plan for it.

Planning for these kinds of things is something that we’re also not doing adequately at the current time. And, of course, if you don’t plan, the result is that you suffer the consequences, and that’s been the main strategy that we’ve had so far – we just take it as it comes and then suffer the consequences.

CURWOOD: Kevin Trenberth is a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, thank you so much, sir.

TRENBERTH: You're most welcome.

Related links:
- Past interview with Kevin Trenberth on LOE – “Hurricanes and Global Warming.”
- Mark Fischetti – “Did Climate Change Cause Hurricane Sandy?” Scientific American Blog
- Article by Kevin Trenberth – “Hurricane Sandy mixes super-storm conditions with climate change.” The Conversation
- Dr. Kevin Trenberth’s profile. Climate and Global Dynamic

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Insuring for Climate Change

Sandy battered Atlantic City (Department of Defense)

CURWOOD: It'll be months before the costs of super-storm Sandy are tallied but estimates currently range to 50 or 60 billion dollars or even more. Insurance companies will pick up the tab for part of that - and they're paying attention when scientists say climate change will increase the severity of storms.

Steve Dishart used to manage Communications for Zürich-based Swiss Re, a company that's part of the large reinsurance industry. Insurance companies manage their risks by buying policies against catastrophic loss from reinsurers. We reached Dishart at his home in Westchester County, just north of New York City where, after the storm, he's got no electricity or heat.

The New Jersey coast in the aftermath of Sandy (Photo: U.S. Air Force by Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen)

DISHART: Well, I’m missing the heat but fortunately I have a wood burning stove so I’m sitting in front of my wood burner talking to you on my cell phone. This is the second time in exactly 12 months I’ve had to do exactly the same thing. Last year with the heavy snow that brought the trees down that brought the power down, and now we’re dealing with it again.

CURWOOD: Now, Steve, of course it’s too early to really know, but how big a deal is super-storm Sandy?

DISHART: The two largest losses in terms of weather have been hurricane Andrew and hurricane Katrina. I think this is going to be somewhere in between. I think that it’s hard to tell right now what the loss will be but you have to think about all the losses related to flooding in particular with homes all up and down the East Coast.

There’s also a business loss interruptions, which of course will be significant because we have one of the largest commercial regions in the country, so we’re talking very large impact and one of the most significant in our country’s history. But in the long run, I think the more important impact is on our thought process with regards to climate change.

CURWOOD: What’s the consensus in the insurance industry about climate change?

(US Department of Defense)

DISHART: I don’t want to speak for the entire industry, but I think there is a view within the reinsurance industry that climate change will continue to have an impact and continue to increase. And it’s not just about global warming, the issue is volatility and severity with regards to climate, and that is what’s changing. And that’s what we need to prepare for.

CURWOOD: Volatility - you mean that things just change rapidly?

DISHART: I mean that we have more events more often, they’re more severe, the floods are increased and the droughts are increased as well. This is a matter of climate change. This is happening and it is a reality. The fact that some people don’t want to buy into human contribution to climate change, to me, is unfortunate but irrelevant.

The climate is changing – there is a tremendous agreement among scientists that it is changing – and we’re beyond the point now where we can adjust and try to dampen the impact. In fact, sadly, we need to face the concept of adaption.

CURWOOD: Does this increase in the frequency and severity of these storms affect the ability of your industry to write policies?

DISHART: It certainly affects the pricing of policies. When you look at a situation and people want to get insurance, you have to say, well, what does that cost? Should we be subsidizing – through the government or through other means – people who desire to live out on an island or out somewhere that’s more vulnerable, or should they be paying a higher rate? Or not be insured and be able to self-insure.

CURWOOD: So, Munich Re recently put out a report just before this storm that was entitled: ‘Severe Weather in North America’, writing, and let me quote them here: “nowhere was the rising number of natural catastrophes more evident than in North America. The study shows a nearly quintupled loss events in North America, for the past three decades, compared to an increase factor of four in Asia and two in Europe.” Why do you think we’re seeing more climate-related natural catastrophes in North America than in other parts of the world?

DISHART: Well, keep in mind, particularly when it comes to hurricanes, that one of the generators of hurricanes is warm water. And we look at the Gulf of Mexico, we look at the hurricane generator, the warm water there. We also have extreme penetration of insurance in North America, which also increases the loss rates. If you took a map of North America, and you looked at migration over the last 30 to 40 years, and then you took a map and looked at the most severe events, it appears that North Americans like to move where disasters happen.

So, we’ve had all of these events, in Florida, along the Gulf, in California, and we have the most dense populations that we can moving to those areas. The unfortunate thing is, Steve, that we don’t see the tremendous losses when we look at third world countries, because tragically, the poorest areas in Nicaragua, in Dominican Republic, in Haiti, don’t have the housing, don’t have the protection that we have here. So they don’t have the insurance that we have here in the United States and in other parts of North America.

CURWOOD: You know there’s this saying that: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” What do you think the crisis that’s been brought on by super-storm Sandy - what’s the benefit that could come out of this?

DISHART: Well, the benefit is that I’ve heard Mayor Bloomberg in New York City, I’ve heard Governor Cuomo, talk about climate change in an atmosphere where people are listening. Perhaps there is a learning moment here for us here to realize that climate change is happening that we cannot protect everybody from every potential risk and that we need to prepare for what may happen in the future.

CURWOOD: Steve Dishart is a former managing director of communications for Zürich-based Swiss Re, and now teaches at Baruch College (CUNY) in New York, thank you so much, sir.

DISHART: My pleasure, Steve. Good to be with you.

Related link:
Munic Re’s Report, “Severe Weather in North America”

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[MUSIC: Captain Beefheart “Tropical Hot Dog Night” from Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Bros 1978).]

CURWOOD: Just ahead – when the ocean turns angry, should we enlist a bivalve to help protect New York City? Stay tuned to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Miles Davis: “Minnie” from The Complete On The Corner Sessions (Sony Music 2007).]

Effects of Climate Change on New York City

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (Photo: Peter Roan)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Sandy the super-storm has dominated the news, but there is an election on and the disaster helped engineer some unusual political fall-out. New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie heaped praise on President Obama for his speedy responsiveness to the catastrophe.

And Michael Bloomberg made a last minute endorsement of Obama for re-election. The independent New York Mayor cited climate change as he praised the democratic president’s actions to cut emissions, and lamented Republican Mitt Romney’s opposition to capping global warming gases.

“One sees climate change as an urgent problem that threatens our planet; one does not,” Bloomberg wrote in an opinion piece. “I want our president to place scientific evidence and risk management above electoral politics.” Risk management was a key part of a documentary, "Degrees of Concern: Climate Change and New York City's Future," that we broadcast back in 2003.

New York City taxis underwater in the wake of Sandy (US Department of Transportation)

It examined the vulnerability of the Big Apple to flooding from a major ocean storm - such as Sandy. We visited Ground Zero - where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center once stood - with Klaus Jacob, senior research scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who described how Lower Manhattan could be inundated in a storm surge. Here's part of that story from reporter John Rudolph.

RUDOLPH: Professor Klaus Jacob looks out over the World Trade Center site and sees a potential disaster in the making. It’s not the threat of more terrorism. Jacob worries that in the coming decades whatever is built on the site will be vulnerable to the combination of rising seas and more intense storms aggravated by climate change.

JACOB: The frequency of such flooding events could increase on an average three times, but in the worst case as much as 10 times. So, what is right now a 50 year storm – which is roughly an eight-foot coastal storm surge here at this place where we stand – it could happen, instead of every 50 years, it could happen every five years. And that’s not good for a city that claims to be the world financial capital to see its financial infrastructure flooded every five years, and business interrupted, and all the things that go with it.

RUDOLPH: Now, as you said, there is a range of possibilities. There’s the best-case scenario. There’s the worst-case scenario. Does it really matter in terms of which of these scenarios you choose, in terms of the increased vulnerability of Ground Zero, of the subway entrances downtown, of the tunnel entrances downtown, and so forth?

Superstorm Sandy flooded large parts of New York’s subway system. (Department of Transportation)

JACOB: We have already a storm-surge problem. The Holland Tunnel is always on the verge of flooding during Nor’easters, and the PATH tunnel already has flooded, so we know what the current risk is. What’s so bad is that it will become more frequent, and so it’s actually more cost beneficial to do it now. Because the longer we wait, the less benefit we get because we may incur some losses before we do the measures, so why not do them now when we are all building this infrastructure anyhow, you know.

RUDOLPH: What kinds of specific measures are you suggesting should be taken now to protect this infrastructure from the kinds of storm surges that you’ve been talking about?

JACOB: Well, one good thing is that we already have created, again, some buffer zones on the waterfront towards the Hudson. Much of what was formerly industrial or harbor facilities have been turned into parkland, so that’s great. That’s a good measure. That’s a step in the right direction.

What has to be done for protecting both the infrastructure, but also buildings that are going up here is, we simply have to be aware that all critical entrances have to be at a certain level that exceeds the projected flooding levels. And we can discuss the details how to achieve it, and engineers will do a, probably, a very good job in doing this but it has to be brought into the planning.

RUDOLPH: When you look at the situation out in Jamaica Bay and then you stand here in front of Ground Zero, what’s the connection between the disappearing marshes in Jamaica Bay and the threat that Ground Zero and the Holland and midtown tunnels face?

JACOB: Well, I wish we would lose a piece of Manhattan just like we do out in Jamaica Bay every year, and then we would see it better. Okay? So far, we have engineered over it cosmetically but we really haven’t addressed the fundamental issues.

CURWOOD: Professor Klaus Jacob of Columbia University with reporter John Rudolph at Ground Zero in 2003. Well, Professor Jacob would presumably be justified in looking at the extraordinary destruction of super-storm Sandy - and saying 'I told you so'. So we called him up - and reached him on his cell phone….


JACOB: Klaus Jacob

CURWOOD: Hi Klaus Jacob, Steve Curwood here at Living on Earth, how are you?

JACOB: Fine.

CURWOOD: You’re on your cellphone because you’ve lost power?

JACOB: That’s right, I’m a victim like many, many others here in New York and the New York area.

CURWOOD: How have you and your family fared in this storm?

JACOB: Well, we got hit. We had two feet of water in the house, and two cars flooded out, and no power, no gas, no electricity, no communication, except these cellphones.

CURWOOD: And what neighborhood are you in?

JACOB: We are in a small village called Piermont, New York, which is on the Hudson about five miles up from the Tappan Zee Bridge.

CURWOOD: And what’s the damage like in your neighborhood?

JACOB: A lot of boats got washed into the backyards of people - there is a marina. Many of the waterfront gardens were heavily damaged from the wave action, and the worst, I would say, about a third of the village was inundated with two feet or more of water - some up to five feet.

CURWOOD: Now, back in 2003, you said that Manhattan would need to get hit by serious flooding before officials would start to think seriously about the risks of climate change, particularly the storm surges, so do you think this year’s hurricane was enough of a wake-up call?

JACOB: Well, last year’s Irene should have been the wake-up call. And then we should have gotten into action. So this is the second wake-up call… how many wake-up calls do we need?

CURWOOD: Are you surprised by any of what you’ve seen about this? I mean, you saw this coming, but did you think it would be this bad for the city?

JACOB: Well, I mean, we had a scenario in which we went through the exercise about what a 100-year storm would do, and Sandy turned out to be pretty much that scenario that we investigated, and all of the consequences seemed to come true.

CURWOOD: We’re looking at the new reality here, Klaus Jacob?

JACOB: Well, yes, I have heard Governor Cuomo say that there’s a new reality, but that reality has been around for about ten years. What has changed is that we have incurred the losses.

CURWOOD: Now, back in 2003, you were encouraged about the development of buffer zones along the waterfront. What else should New York City do now to better prepare itself for these new realities?

JACOB: Well, first it needs to protect its infrastructure – the subways, the sewer water treatment plants, and the electric power plants and communication and many other things. Secondly, each owner near or on the waterfront or in a flood zone has to take some responsibility for his or her safety, and investment and businesses need to think about business continuity, so you can’t just leave it to the city or the state or the federal government, everybody has their task.

CURWOOD: If you had the ear of the mayor of New York right now, what would you say?

JACOB: I would say – enough of this talk, let’s get to action. First of all, you have to have good engineering plans, which hasn’t happened, we have general ideas of how we might go about. But, for instance, there are engineers within the MTA, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, that have been thinking about how to approach this issue, but they haven’t been allowed by the management, and, if you like, by the legislature and the government because no money is available for really action. And that’s what we need. So, the engineers are in the starting bolts, but there is no gun for the race to begin.

CURWOOD: Now, some will say that this is a fluke - there was a big flood back in 1821, it will be another 100, 200 years before this happens again…

JACOB: Well, it’s amazing that with these political bodies, we are still talking whether that is a new reality. When you come from a science or technical plan, or even from a common sense, sea level rise… [phone cutting out…]

CURWOOD: We’re losing you, I think I’ll have to say goodbye and let you save your battery here… Klaus Jacob, thank you so much for taking this time with us today.

JACOB: You’re welcome, bye.

CURWOOD: Klaus Jacob is senior research scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Related link:
LOE 2003 Documentary on Climate Change in New York

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Protecting Coastal Areas With….Oysters

Oysters on the half shell (Photo: Min Woo)

CURWOOD: So there are several ideas and suggestions for protecting New York from devastating storm surges in the future – barriers and gates, for example – but writer Paul Greenberg has one of his own… oysters.

That’s right, Greenberg wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that explained how centuries ago, oysters were a fundamental defense for the city. Paul Greenberg joins us by Skype now - and I gather you're at a friend's house because your home has lost power - is that right?

GREENBERG: Yeah - we're blacked out, as is all of lower Manhattan right now. We live on Broadway, right by Ground Zero at Zuccotti Park. So, we’re in an area that has power, but below 30th street it’s all blacked out.

CURWOOD: So what did it look like on your block this morning when you left?

Oyster beds add stability to coastal areas. (Photo: Jessica James)

GREENBERG: Well, the block itself was OK, I mean you see debris everywhere, but when you walk down the hill, it turns out that Broadway is a ridgeline. And when you walk downhill, past a certain point you start to see this waterline on buildings, and if you peer into the windows of bars and restaurants, it just looks like there was a huge bar fight with a lot of mud, so you see chairs and tables thrown all over the place. One place, a famous fish market restaurant called the Paris, had literally a stream of beer bottles coming out the door, and yes, people were picking them up and drinking them.

CURWOOD: Hah! What does it smell like, Paul?

GREENBERG: It smells a lot like gasoline or diesel. And, in fact, the sidewalks around the seaport area are sort of stippled with that rainbow hue of gas. It’s the sticky, gross, oily smell, with a little tinge of raw sewage along the edge.

CURWOOD: Oh my god! So how long do you think it’s going to take to clean something like this up? I mean, I don’t think New York is talking about days or even weeks to get back to normal…

GREENBERG: No… I mean, I used to work in places like Bosnia, and Georgia and other sort of war-torn places, and that’s really what it reminded me of. Yeah, we’ll probably get our subways up somewhat soon, yeah, maybe we’ll get our electricity going. But the café where I normally write, I saw them literally just like sweeping gallons of water out the door - and all these private businesses down there - I mean, this is a devastating lifetime event.

CURWOOD: Boy, that sounds pretty rough. Well, lets get back to your op-ed Paul, oysters?

GREENBERG: Yeah, so it turns out, once upon a time, New York and a lot of the east coast was literally covered in oysters. Oysters, what they do is when they are born they are little free-swimming larvae, and they set upon other oyster shells and they build shells of their own.

And if you do this enough times, time and time again over seven thousand years, which is what the time period is that we’re talking about - you end up with reefs. And so it turns out that New York City was girded by this temperate reef of oysters, just like tropical islands are girded by coral reefs.

What those do, is that they not only protect the near shore, because they stabilize it, a little bit further offshore, the reefs create undulation and contour to the harbor and actually break up the wave action before they actually hit the shore.

CURWOOD: Ah, so it minimizes erosion!

GREENBERG: It does. Unfortunately, for the last 400 years, we’ve pretty much hounded the oyster out of existence. For the first 300 years we just ate them mercilessly, and when we were done eating them, instead of tossing the shells back into the water, which would have been good because it would have been a home for more oysters, instead we burned a lot of the shell down for lime, which is used for plaster and other industrial uses. We crushed up the shell and used them for roadbeds. And, literally, just tore mile after cubic mile of these things out of the harbor and it’s almost like opening up a bleeding wound for the sea to come rushing back in.

CURWOOD: What kind of future is there in oysters as a barrier?

GREENBERG: You know, it’s going to have to be a collaboration between humans and oysters if we’d like oysters back in the harbor to help us. Oysters right now can’t form their own reefs in New York harbor. The currents are too swift, the water quality, while it’s better than it was, still, it requires some help from us.

What’s happened is though, a consortium of different organizations including Bay Keeper, Hudson River Foundation and a few others have built these test reefs – where the Army Corps of Engineers have laid down some rock – and on top of that you do what’s called spat-on shell, which is the little baby oysters that have already bonded to a little chunk of shell that is in turn connected to the reef.

The idea is that to get enough of these reefs planted throughout the harbor, they would produce a lot of larvae, they would produce a lot of shell and you could maybe get the momentum going so that you could start to reclaim some of this reef structure that we’ve lost.

CURWOOD: For a storm surge how many feet of protection do you think an oyster reef would provide?

GREENBERG: Well, I mean, you know that’s the devilish question. I mean, once upon a time these reefs were yards high – I mean, 10, 20, 30 feet high. It takes a long time to get to that point, but the thing about an oyster reef unlike a stop or flood gate that we’d have to build, oyster reefs build themselves.

If we get them going, they will build themselves higher and higher until they’re really at the height that they should be to ease the storm surge. And if you really want to kind of duck into the Gaia hypothesis that the earth protects itself, it’s kind of true of the oyster, because the oyster doesn’t like situation where it’s exposed to pounding sea. So when it creates reefs, it creates calmer water, which allows for more oysters to grow. So, in a way, if we could work out a relationship with the oyster where it’s helping itself, it’s also going to help us.

CURWOOD: OK, Paul, so imagine an oyster reef now 10, 20 feet high, how do you get a ship through there, how are you going to navigate through all of those oyster reefs?

GREENBERG: Well, you’re definitely going to have to have shipping channels. And it may be that some sort of solution to helping New York survive is going to be part oysters, part hardware that we’re going to have to plant in the harbor. There’s a very interesting landscape architect named Kate Orff, and her studio Scape Studio, she had an exhibit. She has this nice idea called “oyster-tecture.” Where you would basically build a series of structures… false floors, fuzzy rope, different things that oysters could attach to, that would create the reef structure throughout the different parts of the harbor.

And if you guided these in such a way, if you envision where you wanted to have your shipping channels, then conceivably you could start to build your reefs in such a way that they wouldn’t interfere with shipping.

CURWOOD: So, let’s just go to the bottom line here, Paul. If we had the level of oysters that were in New York harbor originally some 300 years ago, would Sandy have had the punch that she had?

GREENBERG: I think her punch would have been a blocked by a left hook, or some sort of blocking maneuver, I’m not a boxer (laughs), but it would have been softened. And keep in mind when I say an oyster reef being 10, 20 feet high, that’s sub-tidal. So, we’re not talking about a sea wall that would actually be higher than the storm surge, we’re talking about something below water that would block the energy of the incoming waves and I think would probably have done quite a bit to soften the blow.

Again, I’m not an engineer, I’m a writer, but the engineers and the scientists I’ve talked to like this idea and I don’t think that the Army Corps of Engineers would have invested their time and money into this project if they didn’t think that there was some sort of potential.

CURWOOD: A left hook, or I think in New York it’s Red Hook, isn’t it?

GREENBERG:Well, Red Hook got the left hook, unfortunately.

CURWOOD: Paul Greenberg is author of “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food.” Thank you, Paul.

GREENBERG: Thank you, Steve!

Related link:
An Oyster in the Storm - New York Times

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[MUSIC: George Duke “Love” from Feel (Verve Records Reissue 2004).]

CURWOOD: Coming up – recalibrating how we measure risk. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Gary Burton/Chick Corea: “What Game Shall We Play Today” from Crystal Silence (ECM Records 1973).]

ANNOUNCER: Funding 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. The Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet. And Gilman Ordway for coverage of conservation and environmental change.

This is PRI Public Radio International.


(Photo: Jason Dean)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: Time now - for your emails, comments - and complaints. We reported recently on state level efforts to control carbon emissions through the policy known as REDD - Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation. REDD hopes to use cash that polluters must pay under carbon trading schemes to keep tropical forests standing.

We said that California would include REDD projects in its emissions reduction program which begins auctions of carbon allowances this month. Stanley Young of the California Air Resources board hauled us over the coals, writing that REDD is not included in the forestry protocols that could generate credits in the golden state.

In fact, in 2010 California signed an agreement with states in Mexico and Brazil that committed California to bringing REDD into the state’s carbon offset system, but Mr. Young is correct to point out California has yet to implement that agreement.

Then we had this comment from Charles Ashurst who hears us on KUSU in Logan Utah.

ASHURST: We’ve had three presidential debates, a Utah gubernatorial debate and numerous other political debates without a single mention of climate change. Are you people Living on Earth or not? If so, let’s see this issue get onto the political radar screen!

CURWOOD: Well, Sandy may have had something to say about that! We always welcome anything you have to say - email comments at loe dot org – that's comments at loe dot org – or post them on our Facebook page - it's PRI's Living on Earth.

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Delta Risk

350.org organizers working to raise awareness about Sacramento’s aging levee system. (350.org)

CURWOOD: Well, whether it’s a hurricane or oilrig explosion, disasters take a huge toll. So it makes sense that evaluating disaster risk is a major industry. But as much as it might help, risk assessment can also get in the way, especially when it gives a false sense of security. Researchers at the University of California-Berkeley are working to reinvent risk assessment.

From IEEE Spectrum Magazine, National Science Foundation special "Responding to Disasters, from Prediction to Recovery" Lauren Sommer has our story. She travelled to a fragile part of California where risk is a way of life.


SOMMER: I’m driving down a bumpy road on top of a levee near the Sacramento River, about 50 miles east of San Francisco.

STORESUND: So we are at Sherman Island, which is the gateway to the Delta from the San Francisco Bay.

Low tide in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, California. (Photo: T. Pennington)

SOMMER: My guide is Rune Storesund, a researcher at UC Berkeley. He’s part of a team developing a new engineering concept called Resilient and Sustainable Infrastructures, or RESIN.

STORESUND: And I’ll pull over near the – right before the bridge, kind of right next to Three Mile Slough.


SOMMER: This is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. And if you’ve heard anything about water battles in California, chances are they were happening here. The Delta is where two major rivers meet and flow out to San Francisco Bay. At least, they used to. Today, a lot of that water is pumped elsewhere.

STORESUND: A lot of Southern California’s water comes through the Delta through the State Water Project.

SOMMER: We’re driving next to the river on one side and fields of corn on the other. Well, not exactly next to us. The corn on Sherman Island is about twenty feet below the road.

STORESUND: These channels are all tidally influenced, so you could call that sea level. So these are all below sea level, yeah.

SOMMER: Most of the islands in the Delta aren’t natural. Beginning in the late 1800s, people built levees to hold back the rivers and marshes so they could farm. But the peat soil they exposed has decayed over time, which means these islands are sinking.

STORESUND: Something that’s, you know, maybe a tenth of an inch per year over a hundred years is a lot of inches.

SOMMER: And Storesund says the levees aren’t in great condition.

STORESUND: You’ll see that there are cracks and bulges in the road. Those are signs that the levee sides are shifting and moving and slumping.

SOMMER: Water seeps underneath the levees, so these islands have pumps running night and day to keep the land dry. But seepage can also weaken levees. And you don’t have to go far to see the devastating results.

San Francisco Bay (NASA)

STORESUND: So we are now on top of the breach here at Upper Jones Tract in 2004. And then if you look to your right and the cornfields out there, all of that was pretty much wiped out when the breach occurred.

SOMMER: The levee failure flooded 12,000 acres, damaging railroad tracks, a power substation and an aqueduct that runs to the Bay Area. And it wasn’t the first time. Jones Tract also flooded in 1980.

STORESUND: This breach repair actually leaks significantly.

SOMMER: The Delta is home to a lot of major infrastructure - gas lines, transmission lines, railroad, highways – and it all depends on the levees. These levees also feed freshwater to pumps that carry it to Southern California. So, Storesund says a major disaster in the Delta would be felt across the state.

STOREUSND: It’s very significant. You know, we’re talking billions of dollars. I think if a major earthquake occurred that failed a number of levees, it would be months to years before the State Water Project were up and running again.

SOMMER: It’s mind-boggling to add up all these interconnected risks: sinking islands, weak levees, sea level rise, earthquakes… it’s difficult for any government agency to address them all.

STORESUND: And you have a lot of different organizations who have a stake in the Delta and who have an impact and an influence, with really nobody in charge.

SOMMER: But all those factors make it a very good place to study risk -- and to try to change the way it’s done.

STORESUND: A lot of the risk analyses are very difficult, complex, not transparent, and when decision-makers look at them, it doesn’t really tell them a whole lot. And so we’re trying very hard to come up with new ways of communicating not just the results of the risk analysis, but the composition of it is as well.

BEA: It took a long time to get what we call this entangled mess. That’s how I describe the California Delta.

SOMMER: Robert Bea heads up the RESIN project at UC Berkeley.

BEA: The likelihoods of failure and consequences of failure can bring to its knees, I think it’s now the eighth largest economy in the world, that economy for a period in excess of five years.

SOMMER: Bea has spent his career studying disasters. In fact, his students have a nickname for him.

BEA: Dr. Disaster. I joke with people--in many ways, my career has been one disaster after another.

SOMMER: Bea has studied oilrig explosions, hurricanes, refinery fires… But there’s one disaster that has shaped his career and his life.

BEA: Hurricane Betsy is 1965, September the 9th. We'd just bought our new home. Just had our first son.

SOMMER: Bea and his wife were living in New Orleans when the hurricane hit.

BEA: At midnight, we evacuated our home in 100 mile per hour winds. The next day, I go back into the home, and I swam back, because the water was to our roof. We lost everything.

SOMMER: A nearby levee had failed. Bea and his wife sold the property and started over. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit, Bea went back to New Orleans and visited his former neighborhood.

BEA: And in fact, the levy that failed in 1965 failed again in 2005, in the same place. So I go back, drove up to the home and the neighbors were dragging wet, oily mattresses out of the front door, just as I had done 40 years earlier. I broke down and cried. And it wasn't so much I was sad. I was just madder than hell.

SOMMER: The more Bea studied disasters, the more he realized what was missing from his risk assessment.

BEA: I’ve been working 10 percent of the problem. I’ve been working these traditional engineering things that I love so much, and ignoring the 90% called people.

SOMMER: Bea says people, or human and organizational factors as he calls them, have had a major role in all of the disasters he’s studied. But it’s not easy for engineers to take them in account.

BEA: I joke and say engineers hate uncertainties because our world is most comfortable when it's deterministic.

SOMMER: Bea and this team are trying to define these uncertainties in the Delta. Normally, risk analysis is expressed in one number – that there’s a 75% chance of failure, for example. Instead, the RESIN team is defining a best-case scenario, worst-case scenario and what is likely to happen. Bea says that provides decision makers with more information to work with. And they’re doing their analysis over a longer period.

BEA: You put yourself out in 2100, and you look back, and say, I can't use a patch and pray approach, because if I do, I’m going to fail. It's going to be horribly expensive, so you start to develop what I call the 'let's get the hell out of Dodge City,' approach, which means a strategic withdrawal over a long period of time involving an infrastructure system that we can turn over to future generations that is sustainable.

SOMMER: Bea says the big challenge in the Delta is the number of decision makers, each with their own risk analysis. Bea and his team are working with them to develop a more integrated risk assessment that includes human uncertainties.

BEA: The acceptance has been varied. It is still amazing to me to watch the push back from engineering itself. Change is hell.

SOMMER: For his part, Bea is injecting social science into the engineering curriculum at UC Berkeley. He says while it may not be easy to fit human behavior into mathematical equations, it’s crucial to more accurately portray risk -- and to prevent future disasters.

BEA: If we make big mistakes, that's not a good thing, but if we can reflect deeply on how we made them, then we have a chance in not doing it again.

SOMMER: In Berkeley, California, I’m Lauren Sommer.

[MUSIC: Donald Fagan “Weather In My Head” from Sunken Condos (Reprise Records 2012).]

CURWOOD: Lauren's story comes to us from IEEE Spectrum Magazine, National Science Foundation special "Responding to Disasters, from Prediction to Recovery”.

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Authorities Tolerate Environmental Protest in China

(Photo: Josh Chin)

CURWOOD: Chinese cities are among the most polluted on the planet, but citizens in the coastal city of Ningbo are fighting back. Thousands recently took to the streets to protest the expansion of a petrochemical plant they feel is a danger to public health. After three days of demonstrations, and clashes between protesters and the police, the government has called the project off—at least for now.

Joining us now to discuss the protests from Hong Kong is Ben Carlson, a journalist with the Global Post. Welcome to Living on Earth.

CARLSON: Thanks for having me!

CURWOOD: Ben, first describe for us these protests… how many people are we talking about here?

CARLSON: It began smaller as all protests do in China, and by the time the weekend rolled around there were several thousand people in the streets.

CURWOOD: And things got violent, I gather.

CARLSON: Yeah, there were reports of the protesters overturning cars, and the police arrested several of the demonstrators that actually became one of the causes that people were demonstrating against later on. And actually there was some spillover into this week - there were several hundred people out on Monday, and that’s the last we’ve heard of the protest, but there may still be some activity.

CURWOOD: What has got these people so fired up?

CARLSON: Well, the city of Ningbo is prosperous and ancient – it has one of the oldest histories in China – and all of that is to say that they’ve been trying to develop industries in the city, and that has led to great GDP growth, but people have actually noticed that their health is getting worse and worse. So the announcement of this plant and the plans that they were trying to push through caused people to get very upset.

CURWOOD: What’s the substance they’re concerned about for their health?

CARLSON: Perazylene is the specific chemical that many of them are worried about. And it’s actually a chemical that has been the cause of protests in other parts of China. And it’s definitely something to be worried about – it causes central nervous system damage, liver damage, and it has proven cognitive effects.

CURWOOD: So, what does this mean – the protesters… that they’ve won or is the government just trying to slow their momentum?

CARLSON: The protesters definitely won. On October 28th, the local government announced that they were no longer following through with plans to make this expansion. The problem is nobody’s sure whether it’s actually going to be carried out. About a year ago there was a similar protest with the exact same chemical and the government promised to stop production, but it’s still going on now.

CURWOOD: Now, China historically has been very tough on demonstrations, intolerant -- of course the killings related to the Tiananmen Square, the killings in 1989 come to mind – why such a measured response this time?

CARLSON: A strange thing about protests in China is that environmental protests are actually treated more lightly. It’s not as political, so there’s less sensitivity around it. Although now, since there have been a large number of environmental protests over the last year, and they have been growing year by year, we may see that change.

CURWOOD: Of course the Chinese government is preparing for its 18th National Congress, how much do you think that the government’s decision to meet these protester’s demands has to do with the upcoming transfer of power there in China?

CARLSON: It has a lot to do with it. You can only connect the dots from a distance, but it’s coming up right after the US election, and all across China there are reports that the internet is slowing down, people have to go through much greater security, and there’s a lot of pressure on local governments to make the problems disappear. They don’t want any bad news when they’re going to be transferring the power.

CURWOOD: Now, how is the country as a whole responding to this protest? How much do people hear? Is this a subject of national news?

CARLSON: Well, the news is state-run in China, so you’re not seeing broadcasts on CCTV about it, but on social media, on the equivalent of Twitter in China, it’s huge. There were thousands of people following it, re-tweeting photos, even though they were trying to crack down on it and censoring certain words related to the protests and even blocking certain people who were trying to upload photos, it became a very big cause celebre on their equivalent of Twitter.

CURWOOD: At the end of the day, where is this headed? The success of these demonstrations is inspiring, you think, an environmental movement in China?

CARLSON: Well, just this year there have been protests in Sichuan province over a massive copper plant, there was a protest last year in a northern city called Dalian over the same chemical. There have been protests over coal plants, there’s definitely going to be more of these.

There is going to be no shortage of local governments in China that are going to try to build factories just as big and just as polluting as the one in Ningbo, and I definitely think that you are seeing a disconnected local sense of environmental awareness growing, and we could be on a tipping point of a national movement, but it’s hard to say where this is going to go.

People that I’ve talked to say this is the natural consequence of a larger middle class in China - people who have education, who have property, who have higher expectations of health and of their lives and of their children’s lives. And so the way that China has been growing and growing and has been building factories that are too dangerous for other countries, is no longer acceptable to a lot of these people.

CURWOOD: Ben Carlson is a journalist for the Global Post based in Hong Kong. Thanks so much, Ben.

CARLSON: Thank you.

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BirdNote® Oystercatcher

A black oystercatcher at water’s edge. (Photo: © Tom Grey)

CURWOOD: We've recently had a lesson in the sea's power, but as BirdNote®'s Michael Stein explains - for some birds, despite the ocean's occasional destruction, the seashore is a protective habitat.


A black oystercatcher harvesting a limpet. (Photo: © Tom Grey)

STEIN: We’re crouching on a rocky shoreline on the Pacific Coast – hearing the piping call of the Black Oystercatcher, a stocky black bird with bright red eyes and a stout, orange-red bill perfectly suited for jabbing limpets and mussels. Let’s listen again.


STEIN: A strong ebb tide is flowing, creating whirlpools and tugging at the kelp. On nearby rocks, harbor seals, looking like huge, taut sausages, have hauled out to rest. If we’re lucky today, we’ll hear some snorting!


A black oystercatcher coming in for a landing. (Photo: © Tom Grey)

STEIN: The oystercatcher is completely dependent on this marine shoreline for nesting and food, even in winter, when waves hit these rocks with awesome force. Yet what seems like an inhospitable environment to us must offer some advantages to the oystercatcher.

For one, wave-splashed mussels, the bird’s chief food, open more often, making them easier to attack and eat. For another, when the monogamous Black Oystercatcher nests on ledges just off shore, its eggs and young suffer far less predation by mammals. Now that’s something to celebrate!


SETIN: P.S. Contrary to their name, oystercatchers rarely eat oysters. I’m Michael Stein.

CURWOOD: There are pictures of Black Oystercatchers over at our web-site, loe dot org.

(Call of the Black Oystercatcher [2918] provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Recorded by A.A. Allen. Waves recorded by J.R. Storm
Producer: John Kessler. Executive Producer: Chris Peterson.All rights reserved)

Related link:
More about the oystercatchers from, Bird Note®

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[MUSIC: Tosca “Oysters In May” from No Hassle (IK7 Records 2009).]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Bobby Bascomb, Emmett Fitzgerald, Helen Palmer, Annie Sneed, James Curwood, Meghan Miner, Gabriela Romanow and Sammy Sousa all help to make our show. 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!

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