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

July 18, 2003

Air Date: July 18, 2003



L.A. Retro

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After years of progress in battling pollution, Los Angeles is experiencing its worst air quality in half a decade. Host Laura Knoy discusses this retro development with Los Angeles Times reporter Gary Polakovic. (06:00)

Fire Toads / Sandy Hausman

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Two years ago, a lightning strike set off a wildfire that swept through thousands of acres in Montana, and destroyed nearly a third of the landscape in Glacier National Park. But as Sandy Hausman reports, the fire may have helped out one little forest dweller. (05:00)

Environmental Health Note/Can You Hear Me Now? / Diane Toomey

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Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports on a study on the effects of cell phone radiation on the brain. (01:15)


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This week, we have facts about the 44th World Lumberjack Championships. More than 200 contestants converge on Hayward, Wisconsin to claim the coveted logrolling honors. (01:30)

Eco-village, Indian Style / Andrew Blackwell

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Thirty years ago, a spiritual community was created in southern India. Auroville, as the community is known, devotes itself to peace and has become a model city for sustainable living. Andrew Blackwell reports. (08:45)

Lewis & Clark Trail / Barrett Golding

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Thousands of Americans are visiting spots along the Lewis and Clark trail this summer in honor of the 200th anniversary of the exploration. Producer Barrett Golding bicycled the length of the trail, and created a series of audio postcards. (03:30)

Better Safe Than Sorry / Mark Hertsgaard

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In San Francisco, vendors and manufacturers must now show their products are environmentally safe before they sell them to the city. Commentator Mark Hertsgaard says the city's adoption of the "precautionary principle" is a big deal. (03:00)

Emerging Science Note/Herbs Under Wraps / Cynthia Graber

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Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports that basil-infused plastic wrap might help keep food fresh longer. (01:15)

Sound-off on Sonar

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Three years ago, whales and dolphins beached themselves on the coast of the Bahamas. The U.S. Navy later acknowledged that its use of a powerful sonar system damaged the mammals’ auditory systems, which may have caused the beachings. Ken Balcomb is a whale researcher and a former naval officer who’s been campaigning to end sonar testing in marine mammal habitat. Host Laura Knoy speaks with him from his oceanfront headquarters on San Juan Island. (07:00)

Inter-species Linguistics / Amy Coombs

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The search for intelligent life has extended as far as the outer fringes of the universe. And according to one extra terrestrial researcher, understanding dolphin language can help develop better inter-species communication. Producer Amy Coombs reports. (08:30)

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Show Transcript

HOST: Laura KnoyGUESTS: Ken Balcomb, Gary PolakovicREPORTERS: Sandy Hausman, Andrew Blackwell, Amy CoombsCOMMENTARY: Mark HertsgaardNOTES: Diane Toomey, Cynthia Graber


KNOY: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


KNOY: I’m Laura Knoy. Air quality in Los Angeles goes from bad to good to bad again. We’ll look at what’s fueling the latest version of the L.A. haze. Also, one man’s mission to restrict the places where the U.S. Navy conducts sonar testing. He says the signals are driving whales crazy. And dolphin talk—new evidence that these marine mammals have language skills comparable to humans.

DOYLE: Clearly, we have underestimated their intelligence. Is that enough to save dolphins - that they actually talk to each other with meaning and syntax? I’d say that’s enough to take a few steps back and reconsider the animal community and the degree of intelligence they actually have.


KNOY: When dolphins speak and more, this week on Living on Earth, right after this.


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L.A. Retro

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


KNOY: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Laura Knoy, sitting in for Steve Curwood.

It used to be that air quality in the Los Angeles area was the butt of jokes on late night talk shows, and the bane of folks with respiratory problems. But thanks to tougher state emissions controls, the skies over L.A. cleared and the air quality steadily improved. Up until now, that is. This year, Los Angelenos experienced the worst air since 1998. The mixture of heat and pollution got so bad this month that the city was under a stage one smog alert, the first in five years. Gary Polakovic has been covering this retro trend for the Los Angeles Times. He says these stage one days can hurt people spending time outdoors.

POLAKOVIC: When we have stage 1 episodes—and they have been rare until this year—it means that the ozone concentration in the air has reached a level that is considered very unhealthy for everybody. So if you’re going to do any kind of strenuous outside activity like mow the lawn, go for a jog, play tennis, something like that—you are almost guaranteed that you are going to have some kind of adverse health problem, like shortness of breath, or headaches, or nausea, something along those lines.

KNOY: Wow. You know, Gary, I thought that Los Angeles was the poster child for a city that was cleaning up its air pollution. It had dropped to second place behind Houston, and, as I understand, was even supposed to drop to third, so what happened?

POLAKOVIC: Yes, how we wish we could have those times back. Those were sort of the halcyon times, those were great. What’s happened is growth. We have ten million cars, 16 million people in this basin, and at least 30,000 businesses. We have major ports, gigantic airports, I mean, you name it, and there’s pollution sources here for it. What you have is a situation where, given all that growth, unless the regulators cut emissions at almost a sprint kind of a pace, growth can quickly snowball and overtake it. And that’s a big part of what’s been happening lately.

KNOY: What has the state and local air quality management officials been doing to deal with the problem, say in the last five years, since you said that’s when it’s been getting worse?

POLAKOVIC: The real irony here is that California has always had very stringent environmental controls. We have the cleanest cars in this state, we drive the cleanest gasoline, we’ve got many of the cleanest factories you’ll find in the country, we have some of the cleanest power plants. So there have really been very few stones left unturned in trying to reduce emissions. But the problem is many of the big bites that helped drive ozone down from the bad old days, the way it used to be, many of the technologies that came online to achieve those gains have sort of played themselves out. And yet we’re still a long way from having anything we could call healthful air.

One of the strange things about the smog situation in L.A. is how much of the emissions problem is, for the most part, largely out of the control of authorities in L.A. And by that I mean the bulk of the emissions, the overwhelming majority, are coming from vehicle tailpipes. And on top of that, we have these large sources, these so-called federal sources, that are largely under the jurisdiction of the EPA. And those things include, like, the harbors in the Los Angeles area. We have one of the busiest harbors in the world here. It’s a major pollution source. We have five major airports, including LAX, in the region. Those are all major pollution sources. And you’ve got locomotives, you’ve got interstate trucking. All of these things are very, very big polluters.

KNOY: So, what could the federal government be doing to help Los Angeles clean up its air?

POLAKOVIC: One thing that would have been really helpful, had the federal government done so, would have been to seek more stringent regulations on these giant ocean-going ships we have up and down the coast. Now, just recently, the Bush administration opted to not impose more stringent regulations on those ships. Yet, to give you some idea of the magnitude of ship emissions, in the Los Angeles harbor area, one of the busiest ports in the nation, we have seen so much growth in shipping and commerce due to globalization and free trade agreements and things like that, that just those big ship emissions now, everyday, produce almost the amount of smog-forming emissions as a million cars. There are places along the California coast, like Santa Barbara and others, that are warning that unless these ship emissions are controlled—these are clean air places—they are going to become dirty air places because there is just too much boat emissions out there. We need to see similar efforts on aircraft, and aircraft support equipment, like the little luggage carriers and trolleys and things like that at airports. You need to see things on railroads. The heavy duty diesel trucks in particular, these big smoke-belching trucks often are interstate commerce sorts of issues. They need to be addressed, in no small measure, at the federal level also.

KNOY: What’s the outlook, Gary, for smog over the next couple months? You know, it’s just July.

POLAKOVIC: It would be so great if I could sit here and tell you that we’re just having a really bad hot spell right now, and it’s going to sort of clear up, and we’re going to end the year on a pretty positive note. But I don’t know anybody who believes that. In fact, what we’ve seen historically in the Los Angeles region over many, many years, is that our worst ozone actually occurs in late August, early September. That’s when the air is really, really stagnant. The sea breezes drop off as we head toward fall. And that’s when we see ozone really, really take off. And we’ve got that bout awaiting us. So nobody is predicting that this season is going to be anywhere near a clean air year

KNOY: Gary Polokivic is a reporter with The Los Angeles Times. Gary, thanks for talking with me.

POLAKOVIC: You’re welcome.

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Fire Toads

KNOY: It started as a lightning strike near Whitefish Divide, but by the time it was finally contained a month later, a huge wildfire had destroyed more than 70,000 acres of forest land in Montana - nearly a third of it in Glacier National Park. Two years since that fire charred the landscape, the forest is showing dramatic signs of recovery. And, as Sandy Hausman reports, experts even think the blaze may have helped out one of the park's smaller residents.


The 2001 Moose Fire that burned Glacier National Park and aided the toad resurgence.
(Photo: National Park Service/US Forest Service)

HAUSMAN: Stan Star works for Glacier National Park – grading and plowing the roads. After forest fires, he has seen the thin black stalks that remain where wide tree trunks once stood. Each time, he has marveled as nature began its comeback with wildflowers, grasses and saplings crowding the forest floor. But nothing has surprised him quite so much as the revival of a rare woodland creature.

STAR: I was grading the road through the inside from Logging to Dutch Creek. And as I proceeded through this area I noticed the ground started to move and jump and hop and so I thought, “Oh, I'm hallucinating!” I've seen a lot of weird and strange things but that was one of the stranger ones.


HAUSMAN: After a closer look, Star got on his cell phone to report that thousands of tiny toads – about the size of a thumbnail – were making their way from ponds in Sullivan Meadow, across the road, into the forest where they would spend the winter under tree stumps, in root channels or rodent burrows.

CORN: There are some species of frogs in North America that actually freeze solid over the winter, but toads don't do that, so they have to find a place where they're not gonna dry out and where they're not gonna freeze.

   Boreal toad (Photo: Stephen Corn, Courtesy of USGS)

HAUSMAN: Steve Corn is a zoologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Missoula, Montana. He got three calls that day from excited park scientists who said the tiny amphibians were boreal toads. Before the fire, survey teams found this creature in less than five percent of a thousand wetlands at Glacier. They weren’t sure why the numbers were so low, but now these toads were so numerous that park officials decided to close the road.

CORN: I was quite excited about it. It was really fun to get some good news for a change. Here's a population that's doing so well that we have to close a road. That's been pretty rare in the west in the last decade or so.

HAUSMAN: After the initial excitement, Corn began to wonder where these toads had come from and why they had appeared now. He theorized that like some plants that need fire to reproduce, some animals might also benefit from a blaze.

CORN: The length of time they spend as eggs and tadpoles is hugely dependent on water temperature. The boreal toads lay their eggs in the shallowest water they can find, typically. The warmer they are, the faster they develop. And the sooner they get out, the better they are able to survive the winter, because if they can put on a little weight, they'll likely survive a little better over winter.

HAUSMAN: Corn's colleague Blake Hossack says the fire cleared the forest canopy and made way for sunlight.

Hossack: Really cleaned it out. It used to be pretty unpleasant to bushwhack through this area, and now it's very easy.

HAUSMAN: He and other scientists reason that the warmer woodland ponds are a better place for tadpoles, and they're relieved that the Park Service agreed to keep traffic away – further improving the odds for survival. Frankly, Hossack didn't expect such consideration.

Hossack: Amphibians tend not to be the highest priority species in the Northern Rockies. Popularity has gained in part, I think, due to beer commercials.

HAUSMAN: Not only have amphibians proven effective in selling Budweiser beer on TV, Corn says they play a critical role in a woodland ecosystem. In the California Sierras, for example, a decline in the toad population could explain a decrease in the number of snakes that feed on toads and, in turn, a drop in the population of hawks and owls that feed on snakes. He believes the revival of boreal toads in Montana may support the argument already advanced by many – that total suppression of fires does not serve the long-term needs of forest plants and animals.

CORN: It's more evidence that re-establishing a more natural fire regime in these forests will benefit the ecosystem as a whole.

HAUSMAN: If the canopy is burned away from time to time, he says the boreal toad could make an even more significant comeback, with a single female laying up to 20,000 eggs each year. That means Stan Star could be witnessing another moving road this summer. And when last year's crop of toadlets reaches maturity in 2005, visitors could be hearing something missing from Glacier for years.


HAUSMAN: Crowds of breeding boreal males calling softly to define and defend their turf. For Living on Earth, I’m Sandy Hausman in Glacier National Park.

[MUSIC: Rob Ickes “Dwight’s Blues” Slide City Rounder (1999)]

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Environmental Health Note/Can You Hear Me Now?

KNOY: Just ahead: a ray of light shines through years of environmental neglect at the tip of the Indian sub-continent. We visit a place called Auroville. First, this Environmental Health Note from Diane Toomey.


TOOMEY: Most research on cell phone usage has focused on a possible connection between radiation emitted by phones and cancer. And those studies have found no link. But a Swedish research team recently looked for a different effect.

They already had shown in previous studies that cell phone radiation weakens the protective layer of cells between the brain and bloodstream in rats. They also knew that the protein albumin could leak through this protective barrier. The researchers wanted to find out if this albumin leakage was damaging. So they exposed rats to radiation generated by a type of mobile phone commonly used in Europe. The rats were divided into three groups and exposed to different doses of radiation, all comparable to what a human might receive using a cell phone for two hours. Another group of rats received no radiation.

As expected, the exposed rats' brains showed signs of albumin accumulation. But these new tests also showed signs of significant damage to neurons throughout the brain. What's more, the higher the dose of radiation, the greater the neuron damage. The researchers admit this was a small study, but say it may point to long term effects from frequent exposure to cell phone radiation.

That’s this week’s Health Note. I’m Diane Toomey.

KNOY: And you're listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Underworld “Air Towel” Second Toughest in the Infants TVT (1996)]

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KNOY: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Laura Knoy.


[MUSIC: Jorma Kaukonen “Just Because” Blue Country Heart Sony (2002)]

KNOY: Yo-hooooo! Pole out! Check it down! Time in! That’s a quickwhistle. These are just some of the pithy phrases you might hear called out at the logrolling contest during the 44th annual World Lumberjack Championships to be held this coming week in Hayward, Wisconsin. More than 200 competitors, both amateur and professional, travel from places like New Zealand, Australia and Canada to compete against some of the best lumberjacks in the States.

The competition commemorates the long history of logging in the northwest and features ax-throwing, pole-climbing, boom running and logrolling. Boom running and logrolling are sports that developed from the often dangerous practice of guiding cut timber from the woods down river to the sawmills. This practice, called “river driving,” gave lumberjacks nothing but spiked shoes called caulks, and a long, metal rod called a pike pole to keep their balance and steer the logs through the treacherous waters.

Though river drivers and lumberjacks are male-dominated professions, the women’s lumberjack (or lumberjill) competition has drawn some of the biggest crowds at the World Championships. Here, women compete in single-buck sawing, the underhand block chop—and occasionally, one or two will climb the ninety-foot poles shipped in from west coast forests.

So strap on your caulks, grab your pike pole, and head out to Hayward to watch these burly men and women compete for the $50,000 grand prize and title of world-champion lumberjack.

And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.

Related link:
Auroville website

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Eco-village, Indian Style

KNOY: In India, the state of Tamil Nadu sits at the southern end of the country where the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea meet. It’s home to more than 60 million people and a thriving language and culture all its own. In the past two centuries, Tamil Nadu underwent intensive logging and overgrazing. Some lowlands along the Bay of Bengal were reduced from dense forest to virtual desert. With no forest to hold the soil, monsoon rains eroded deep gullies through the landscape, and by the mid-twentieth century, parts of Tamil Nadu were in danger of becoming uninhabitable. But despite these ecological challenges, a 30 year old spiritual community known as Auroville has thrived and become a model for sustainable living. Andrew Blackwell reports.


BLACKWELL: Rita de Souza Zachaux walks through the front yard of her thatch-roofed house. It’s not so much a yard as a thick grove of trees, carpeted with tall, dry grass. This forest is especially important to her. After all, she planted it herself.

ZACHAUX: Let me show you my pride of trees. These are older, maybe 10 years old, and these are about four years old. And all the tall, shade-giving trees are from the earlier, pioneering years.


BLACKWELL: The “pioneering years” that Rita refers to date back to the late 1960s. It was then that Auroville was founded by a French-born spiritual leader known as “The Mother,” and dedicated to the ideals of the late Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo. The Mother laid out guidelines for a model city that would foster what she called “human unity.” Auroville, she said, would be a place where people could live as citizens of the world, devoting themselves both spiritually and materially to the goals of peace and international understanding. But when the first Aurovillians arrived on their site a few miles north of the city of Pondicherry, they found a bleak expanse of baked, lifeless clay. As a matter of survival, says Rita, forestry became a way of life.

ZACHAUX: It was some neem trees and palmyra trees, and it was not possible to take any walk in the sun until five o’clock on the land. Just scorching sun. So, we dug pits and we planted seedlings, saplings, and we watered them and we watched them, and it went on every year more and more, and then, okay, trees started growing…

BLACKWELL: After 30 years of hard work, the result is almost miraculous. Over two million saplings have been planted, and the landscape is lush with trees and other vegetation. Not only do the trees provide shade, but they keep moisture in the soil and prevent erosion. Interrupted only by a network of dusty dirt roads and outcroppings of houses and community buildings, forest now blankets Auroville’s nearly 5,000 acres. Indigenous wildlife that had long since left the area has returned. And the Aurovillians have also been able to do something they would never have been able to do otherwise. They’ve been farming.


The main building at the Windarra farm in Auroville. (Photo: Anamaria Aristizabal)   

BLACKWELL: At Windarra Farm in northern Auroville, workers are harvesting rosella, a hardy local plant with a bright pink bud which they clip and collect in baskets. Friederike Duenn, originally from Germany, runs the farm. She walks among the stiff, shoulder-high bushes, inspecting the crop.

DUENN: It really spreads, so one time only I had to sow them, and now they are just wildly spreading every year. It’s very nutritious, rich of vitamin C. It’s a very good crop. Also, when they’re harvested, they can just decompose and it’s a good organic matter again for the soil.


BLACKWELL: Farming here is scrupulously organic and Aurovillians grow indigenous crops that are appropriate for local conditions. This reduces the need for irrigation and avoids degrading this land, which has been so painstakingly restored. It’s consistent with the idea of living sustainably on the land, a spiritual concept in Auroville. Again, Friederike.

DUENN: I came to Auroville because I was interested in the spiritual idea: to really be as simple as possible. To eat as simple and healthy as possible, for example. And that means, that we should also grow what we essentially need

BLACKWELL: People may come to Auroville to pursue spirituality and simplicity, but Auroville itself has grown increasingly complex. What began with a small group of people growing trees, and then planting food, is now a township of over 1700 people, The economy has become equally dependent on entrepreneurial spirit and international fundraising. Some Aurovillians subsidize their lifestyles with money saved before they came to India, or with businesses that sell incense, textiles, and other crafts through stores around the country. And life at Auroville is starting to take on distinctly urban overtones.


BLACKWELL: It’s lunchtime at the Solar Kitchen, one of a growing number of large institutional buildings in Auroville. Hundreds of people file in to the cafeteria, a wide brick building with an airy interior. The food here is simple but tasty, with lots of lentil stew and rice, or western imports such as spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce. Whatever the dish, it’s all cooked with solar power.

GIGAND: When we decided to build this canteen in which we want to food for 1,000 people, we decided to go for steam cooking. So we thought that we could use the sun to produce the steam.


BLACKWELL: Gilles Gigand, a civil engineer from France, first came to Auroville 29 years ago. Right now, he’s standing on the roof of the Solar Kitchen next to his pride and joy: a gigantic mirrored bowl, almost fifty feet across, built into the roof of the building. In the heat of the south Indian sun, the glare is almost blinding.

GIGAND: So basically, the heat of the sun gets transferred into heat transfer fluid, which is circulating in this coil, in this receiver, and then there is a heat exchanger where it is transformed into steam, and so the heat is passed on to the food.

BLACKWELL: The Solar Kitchen is just one instance of environmentally friendly technology in use at Auroville. Other examples pop up everywhere. Farmhouses use solar electricity. Windmills peep above the trees. Apartments and community buildings are built with local materials that are inexpensive and energy efficient. With all these experiments in sustainability and renewable energy, Auroville has become something more than an overgrown commune. It’s become a laboratory of sorts, and an inspiration to other Indian cities.

BABU: Water harvesting, organic farming, usage of local materials, building technologies, solar energy, these could easily be replicated without much difficulty

BLACKWELL: N. Raghu Babu is a project leader at the Indian government’s Central Pollution Control Board. He has taken municipal officials on field trips to Auroville to stimulate their imagination in dealing with environmental challenges.

BABU: This is not a replicable model in toto. But this is a place where you could learn and you could probably gain confidence. And this is a place probably people could go there to for look at the things and formulate their visions and their strategies. To this effect, Auroville is doing a wonderful work.


   Solar panels provide energy for most of the buildings in Auroville. (Photo: Anamaria Aristizabal)

BLACKWELL: For Rita, the wonderful work has less to do with eco-friendly technology or governmental vision, than with the satisfaction of taking an active part in preserving one’s ecosystem.

ZACHAUX: It’s a really deep life feeling of fulfillment. It’s payment in itself, just this. I cannot really put words to it. It’s a feeling of fulfillment, of being in tune. Nice, grounded. And it’s very nice to communicate and share. I have something to share.

BLACKWELL: Many Aurovillians, like Rita, feel a sense of responsibility and a personal connection to the environment. As much as the trees and the thickets of solar panels, these attitudes are at the core of Auroville’s achievement. For Living on Earth, this is Andrew Blackwell.


Related link:
Auroville website

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Lewis & Clark Trail


MAN: Paddle. C’mon harder. Paddle.

KNOY: We continue now with our series Lewis and Clark: 200 years later.


WOMAN: One, two, three.


KNOY: Producer Barrett Golding bicycled the trail and sent us a series of audio postcards along the way.


   (Photo: Josef Verbanac)

KNOY: Like this one of archeologist Ken Karzmiski, who collects evidence from the Captains’ campsites in central Oregon. Ken Karzmiski works at the Discovery Center, near the Dalles Dam in central Washington. Interstate 84 is on one side, a railroad is on the other, and in between lie thousands of lost historical artifacts.


KARZMISKI: We’re standing at a ledge right now, at the edge of the river, basically at the salt wall and we’re looking down about 30 feet at the river’s edge. There’s a big bend in the river here, and we’re about to enter the Columbia River Gorge. The dams – there are dams built all the way up the Columbia, and many of the Lewis and Clark campsites would be underwater here.

But even beyond the Lewis and Clark campsites, Lewis and Clark –if you look at their maps, they map village after village after village, up and down the river here. All of those villages have been flooded, as well. Any sacred place that they may have seen – and they saw burial sites – those have been flooded.

(Photo: Josef Verbanac)   

Almost everyone who is thinking about Lewis and Clark – always thinks about the aspect of trade. They could be trading knives, they could be trading beads. As they’re coming back up the Columbia River, they’re trading skins. Lewis and Clark are trading skins for beads. They’re getting beads from the Indians, which the next day they may trade for dogs, which they’ll use as food. On the Missouri, they could get firewood because of the cottonwoods alongside the Missouri River. Here, they had to buy firewood. Now that’s a shocker. I mean, you think of Lewis and Clark as guys who were out exploring the wilderness.


KARZMISKI: But along the Columbia they are with a different group of people almost every night that they are out here. When Lewis and Clark passed down this river, there were 23 native languages being used; today there are two. The challenge is: can we keep those two? And is there any way that we can recover any of those other 21 that have been lost? If, for instance, people used the Lewis and Clark bicentennial to fund the preservation of the Umatella language – and there is a preservation effort going on right now and it is one of the two languages left. By itself, that would be worth having a bicentennial. Languages that they recorded then, 200 years ago, we can’t, today, because they’ve disappeared. There’s a direct connection. They were interested in languages. We ought to be. That would be a good piece of commemoration for a bicentennial.


KNOY: Barrett Golding's portraits of the Lewis & Clark Trail: 200 Years Later are part of the Hearing Voices series, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. For more audio, images and interviews from the trail, go to our website, livingonearth.org.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living On Earth comes from the World Media Foundation. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the William and Flora Hewlett foundation, for coverage of western issues. Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving math and science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12, and Bob Williams and Meg Caldwell, honoring NPR’s coverage of environmental and natural resource issues, and in support of the NPR president's council. And Paul and Marcia Ginsburg, in support of excellence in public radio.

Related link:
Columbia Gorge Discovery Center

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Better Safe Than Sorry

KNOY: San Francisco has become the first city in the nation to let the “precautionary principle” be its guide in environmental decision-making. Commentator Mark Hertsgaard suggests the consequences could be far-reaching and controversial.

HERTSGAARD: In common language, the precautionary principle amounts to “better safe than sorry.” If there’s good reason to think a given technology harms ecosystems or human health, it’s best to avoid that technology in favor of less damaging alternatives - and not wait for irrefutable scientific proof before taking action.

For San Francisco city operations, this is now the law, and it’s a bona fide big deal.

A couple years ago, the city faced a choice: buy more diesel-fueled buses or switch to cleaner, compressed natural gas. Diesel pollution had been linked to children’s asthma, yet, in the end, half of the buses San Francisco bought were diesel. Under the new law, that shouldn’t happen. Or take global warming. The weight of scientific opinion forecasts disastrous consequences if greenhouse gasses aren’t reduced. The precautionary principle would advise shifting to renewable energy now, rather than waiting for the results of further study.

All this is already law in European Union countries. San Francisco following suit has thrilled environmentalists, but reaction from business has been negative. The website for ePublic Relations warns that the precautionary principle will “stifle innovation and progress” in businesses from biotechnology to mining to chemicals. It also asserts that the mere suspicion of harm will be enough to halt a given technology. But the truth is, innovation will simply be channeled in different directions. And San Francisco’s law requires policymakers to evaluate technological alternatives on the basis of “the best science available.”

What the precautionary principle does do—and the reason industry fears it — is shift the burden of proof. Right now, government restricts a technology only after there is definitive proof of harm. So while epidemiologists began linking asbestos to lung cancer in the 1960s, it took 30 years—and an estimated 34,000 deaths—before the government felt it had enough evidence to justify a ban on asbestos. Under the precautionary principle, industry would have to prove its product was safe first rather than letting humans and ecosystems act as guinea pigs.

San Francisco’s law is a modest beginning. It governs only the actions of city government, not businesses or citizens. Its main effect will be on government purchases: fewer toxic chemicals to clean city property, additional limits on pesticide use in parks. Its real significance is the power of example. The precautionary principle aims to stop environmental harm before it starts. If that simple, yet radical, idea comes to dominate policy making in the United States, the effect could be nothing short of revolutionary.

KNOY: Commentator Mark Hertsgaard is the author of “The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World.”

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Emerging Science Note/Herbs Under Wraps

KNOY: Coming up: How dolphins can help humans overcome the obstacles of cross-cultural communication. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Cynthia Graber.


GRABER: Basil is famous around the world for the flavor it brings to food. And now scientists have demonstrated that chemicals in the herb can help keep food fresh longer, too.

So, researchers in Israel and Australia are working to harness the power of basil to fortify plastic wrap. Disease-causing bacteria can thrive in the outer layers of meat and cheese. So scientists decided to add basil extracts to packaging to try to kill this bacteria. The plastic contains two extracts from basil in such small amounts that they don’t impart any flavor to the food. Instead, the extracts slowly leak from the plastic to attack and destroy bacteria cell walls.

Tests have shown that cheddar cheese wrapped in basil plastic remains bacteria-free for a week longer than cheddar wrapped in conventional plastic wrap. Scientists’ next challenge is to prevent the basil extracts from escaping into the atmosphere through the plastic. So they’re developing a wrap with an impermeable outer layer, and a porous inner layer that allows molecules to migrate toward the bacteria on the food. If all goes well, basil fortified plastic wrap may reach stores as early as next year.

That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Cynthia Graber.

KNOY: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Jason Falkner “I’m Only Sleeping” Bedtime with the Beatles Sony (2002)]

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Sound-off on Sonar

KNOY: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Laura Knoy.

Three years ago, the U.S. Navy's use of a powerful underwater sonar system came under scrutiny when whales and dolphins beached themselves in the Bahamas around the time of naval exercises there. Eight of the animals died and the Navy eventually conceded that its sonar caused trauma to the marine mammals' auditory systems, injuries that probably led to the beachings. By chance, whale researcher and former Naval officer Ken Balcomb observed those beachings. Since then, he's been campaigning to end sonar testing in areas frequented by marine mammals. Now, the issue has, quite literally, landed at Balcomb's doorstep on San Juan Island, off the northern coast of Washington state. That's where he runs the Center for Whale Research and from where he joins me from now.

Mr. Balcomb, take us back to May fifth of this year, when you got that phone call from the captain of a whale-watching boat. What did he say to you?

BALCOMB: Well, the captain was hearing this very strange sound and had observed the whales starting to have some strange behavior. So he held the phone up to his speaker for his hydrophone, and I listened and heard sonar signals.

KNOY: And what type of whales are we talking about?

BALCOMB: These are killer whales, the very large dolphins, black and white, beautiful animals of the Northwest.

KNOY: Animals that you’ve been studying for a long time, right?

BALCOMB: Yes, we’ve been studying these now our 28th year. We’ve kept track of every whale every year.

KNOY: So how unusual was the behavior that the captain described to you?

BALCOMB: Well, the captain’s description was rather remarkable. This was a rather sudden transition from foraging to gathering in a tight, apparently nervous group, and heading very close to the shoreline where presumably the sound field was less intense.

KNOY: And did they end up getting beached?

BALCOMB: Well, no, actually they came up the west side of San Juan Island, moving away from the military vessel. But then the vessel turned into Harrow’s Straight and came right up a few miles behind them, and tracked along in the same direction they were traveling. At that point they came very near the front of my house, and I was videotaping and listening to the hydrophone at the same time, and just couldn’t believe my ears, or my eyes, what was going on.

KNOY: We actually have a piece of that tape that we’d like to play now. Now we’re going to hear you on the phone, speaking to the whale watch captain, and we’ll also hear a high-pitched whistle whish is the sonar sound being picked up by an underwater microphone.


BALCOMB: (ON TAPE) There’s definitely something wrong with those whales’ behavior right now. This is nuts, man, this is nuts.

KNOY: Ken, that sounds pretty loud. How powerful is that sonar?

BALCOMB: It’s approximately 235 to 250 decibels at the source level, and where we were listening with our hydrophones, where the whales were located, it was above 150 decibels, which is incredibly loud noise. It would be like having a police siren right in the back seat of your automobile going wherever you were going.

KNOY: Wow. What happens, Ken, to whales and dolphins when they hear a sound like that? You know, what happens to their bodies, physically?

BALCOMB: It affects the vestibular system, the organs of balance. And it’s painful.

KNOY: Over the next couple of weeks after this incident in Washington state, ten porpoises washed up dead. Now the Navy says that until the National Marine Fisheries Service examines these animals, their deaths cannot be linked to the sonar. But Ken, I understand you were able to get somebody to get a CAT scan done on one of the porpoises. What did that exam show you?

BALCOMB: We knew that getting a CAT scan would show us evidence, if any, of hemorrhage in the brain and ear spaces. So a private laboratory generously offered to scan one of the specimens that we had in our freezer following that sonar incident. And we observed some hemorrhages in the head and ear.

KNOY: So you think sonic pressure caused that hemorrhaging?

BALCOMB: I think it’s entirely possible that we’re seeing very strong evidence again of sound pressure causing trauma in the ears and brain of these animals.

KNOY: You know, you have an interesting perspective, I think, on this issue because you’re a Navy veteran. You trained as a pilot. You actually worked with sonar while you were in the service.

BALCOMB: Well, yes, I was quite fortunate to have in my military service a background in sonar. And I very much appreciate the art and magic, as well as the science, of that sonar operation.

KNOY: Now, the Navy’s perspective on the incident that we’re talking about is that it was testing sonar that day, but that it made a search for animals in the water before it proceeded with the test. And what’s more, the Navy says it just has to test sonar to maintain national preparedness, national security. How do you feel about that, again, as a former Navy person?

BALCOMB: This is the killer whale capital of the world. It’s a sanctuary for these animals. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s virtually impossible for them to detect and mitigate at distances that these sonars are driving animals crazy, wild, and out of the water, and injuring them. To train in such areas is just irresponsible. We’re going to have to designate areas where this can be done for practice, instead of doing it in our marine sanctuaries and known areas of high density of marine mammals. Do it in low density or no density areas.

KNOY: Mr. Balcomb, the incident that we’re talking about involved what’s described as mid-range sonar. As you know, the Navy is hoping to bring online soon a more powerful, low frequency sonar system. What do you think the implications of that will be?

BALCOMB: Until we find out just what it is about the sonars that are driving these animals out of the water and killing them, I believe we have to hold up on deployment of these systems, and see if we can find an alternative.

KNOY: Ken Balcomb is senior scientist with the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island in Washington state. Well, Ken Balcomb, thank you.

BALCOMB: You’re very welcome.

Related links:
- The Center for Whale Research
- CT scan report on beached porpoise
- NOAA Press Release on Navy Protections for Marine Mammals While Using Low Frequency Sonar

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Inter-species Linguistics

KNOY: Imagine what would happen if you received a radio signal from an extraterrestrial culture…someone from an entirely different gene pool. Dr. Laurance Doyle at the Institute for the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence says the signal might be too foreign for us to decode. Or we might not even recognize it as a message in the fist place. To help humans develop better inter-species communication skills, Doyle began studying the communication patterns of dolphins. And as producer Amy Coombs reports Doyle’s most recent findings indicate that dolphins might have a language almost as complex as our own.


(Photo: South Florida Water Management District)   

COOMBS: Bottle-nosed dolphins have more than a hundred different whistle calls. They range from a high-pitched screech to a short click. Some sound like the creaky door in a haunted house, and others sound like drumming. Over the past ten years Laurance Doyle and his colleges have recorded hundreds of hours of captive dolphin whistles, analyzing the pitch and frequency with which each whistle occurs.

DOYLE: We found that the complexity of the dolphin whistles, as far as we could measure, was compatible with the complexity of human languages.

COOMBS: Here’s why. Linguists have demonstrated that all human languages follow a distinct pattern of sound distribution. They have even put a name on this, it’s called Zipf’s law.

DOYLE: Zipf’s law is a linguistic study that shows that virtually all languages from Chinese characters to Arabic characters and human words and alphabetic symbols and so on all produce this balance between diversity and repetition.

COOMBS: Simply put, Zipf’s law means that the most common sound, for instance, in English the sound made by the letter E, occurs ten percent of the time. The second most common sound, the sound made by the letter T, occurs eight percent of the time. By the time you get to the 25th most common sound, in English, that would be the letter Q, that sound occurs only once in a thousand times. Although the sounds may very from language to language, the patterns of sound distribution always remain the same. To Doyle’s surprise, this same distribution of sound seems to occur with dolphin whistles.

DOYLE: The most frequent whistle, two, is used about ten percent of the time and so on, down. So dolphins show the same linguistic distribution that is argued to be uniquely human, and it isn’t. And that’s news - because recently a lot of studies have been going on in human linguistics that show that one of the reasons human linguistics is unique is because it has this distribution.

COOMBS: By the way, here is the most frequently used dolphin vocalization… the whistle number two Doyle mentioned.


COOMBS: Doyle, a physicist by training, admits the findings don’t show that dolphins have sentences with subjects and predicates, or that dolphin whistles have the same meaning inherent in human words. But, he says, his research has demonstrated that dolphin calls follow a pattern analogous to human syntax, or sentence structure.

DOYLE: Linguists out there are having a conniption, I’m sure, because when we say “syntax,” it’s because we don’t know what else to call it. We are not implying the advanced concepts of grammar that syntax implies - but there is no term. That there’s some kind of structure, that signals depend on preceding signals, That the signals have a context… that is all we are saying at this point. And so far as we know, the dolphin repertoire is on track for being as complex as the human communication system is.

COOMBS: Because dolphin whistles follow human patterns, Doyle speculates that dolphins can transmit complicated thoughts and ideas. His theory is, however, controversial among linguists and communication scholars like Leonard Hawes at the University of Utah. Hawes doesn’t believe that sound patterns necessarily constitute content or meaning. He says that the dolphins may be communicating, but this doesn’t mean they have a complex language.

HAWES: The question isn’t can two animals or two humans emit patterns of sound that produce particular responses in others of their kind, whether it’s human or gorilla or dolphin. The answer is yes, of course they do, we see it. I suppose the answer to your question, does this demonstrate a language, obviously depends on how restrictive your definition of language is. Does it mean they have an elaborated syntax and vocabulary and grammar and—how you would ever ultimately validate that is more problematic.

COOMBS: That’s because dolphin language may be so different from our own, it might not even be translatable. After all, Hawes says, there are translation problems just going from one human language to another.

HAWES: But at least you can approximate German words for English words or French words. What we are less certain of is can we translate dolphin sounds or chimpanzee sounds or bird sounds into something that looks like human language. Can we put it into “don’t come any closer,” or “get away,”— can that be translated into words? At best only approximately, and the problem is that we can’t ask the dolphin if we got it right.

COOMBS: To make matters more complicated, there may not be a single whistle that means things like predator or food. It’s more likely that communication occurs through a complex whistle sequence. This makes it nearly impossible to identify the meaning of dolphin vocalizations. After 30 years of research scientist have only been able to conclusively identify the meaning of just a couple of whistle sequences. One of these is the thunk call, a pattern of short knocks that sounds like a person drumming on a piece of wood.


DOYLE: When the mother thunks, the baby comes right to her side.

COOMBS: Again, Laurance Doyle.

DOYLE: It means danger, or come here, or something, but we have seen baby dolphins drop everything and go immediately to the mom’s side when she produces a thunk call. Now, you have to keep in mind, they are probably talking about things that aren’t present. Consequently, trying to correlate objects with what they say hasn’t been very successful. When you are talking about a symbolic representation, trying to get at the meaning of something is much more difficult for another species…

COOMBS: Although Doyle doesn’t yet understand the meaning of the vocalizations, he cites another startling discovery that indicates the human-like sophistication of dolphin communication. Scientists recently found that dolphins learn to speak in a way very similar to human babies. Babies make 869 different sounds and tones. As they acquire language, they eventually use only the 45 sounds that make up adult language. This happens in every culture. It also happens in dolphin communities.

DOYLE: As we studied comparisons between dolphin whistles and humans we found that like human babies babble, dolphin babies also babble their whistles. They make all possible whistles and sounds and noises and stuff, all with about equal frequency.

COOMBS: Like humans, baby dolphins begin with hundreds sounds. By imitating the whistles made by their parents, the babies eventually narrow their sound repertoire to about a hundred whistles.

DOYLE: We found that at about two months they start to get very redundant and that lasts until 8 months. Now they are saying a few whistles that are good and they are being encouraged to use those whistles. So they are learning a vocabulary. And eventually, they wind up with the same distribution that human speech has.

COOMBS: Despite the difficulty of identifying meaning in dolphin whistles, Doyle believes that his research demonstrates the profound intelligence of this creature. Given that, he says we have an even greater responsibility to protect this mammal.

DOYLE: Clearly, we have underestimated their intelligence. Is that enough to save dolphins - that they actually talk to each other with meaning and syntax? I’d say, that’s enough to take a few steps back and reconsider the animal community and the degree of intelligence they actually have. And yeah, no acceptable dolphin deaths by accident. I mean, I consider it like human deaths at this point.

COOMBS: Doyle is currently partnering with scientists at the University of California at Davis to search for complexity in bird, primate and whale calls.

Doyle says he’ll continue to look for similarities between dolphin vocalizations and human language. He and his colleagues will also begin to compare dolphin calls to those of the humpback whale, the only creature Doyle suspects that might have a communication system more complex than the dolphin’s.

For Living on Earth, I’m Amy Coombs in Mountain View, California.

[MUSIC: The Orb “Oxbow Lakes” Orbus Terrarum Polygram (1995)]

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KNOY: And for this week - that's Living on Earth. Next week, presidential nominees for federal judgeships have traditionally drawn fire from civil rights, abortion and labor interests. Now, environmental groups are adding their voices in opposition to some of the Bush administration’s choices.

MAN: What we’re seeing is that the balance on a number of courts, including the federal circuit court of appeals, which is where most cases are finally decided, is tipping, and is in danger of tipping against the environment.

KNOY: Judging the judges, next time on Living on Earth. And remember that between now and then you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org.


KNOY: Before we go – grab a bucket and pull up a stool. It’s milking time at Wingstone Farm in Manaton, United Kingdom where these ladies were recorded as part of the “Sounding Dartmoor” community project to sonically document this region of the British Isles.

[EarthEar: Sounding Dartmoor “Milking Time at Winsgstone Farm, Manaton” Sounding Dartmoor i-DAT (2002)]

KNOY: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. You can find us at livingonearth.org. Our staff includes: Jennifer Chu, Andy Farnsworth, Tom Simon, Susan Shepherd, Elizabeth Kline, Carly Ferguson, Nathan Marcy and Liz Lempert.

Special thanks to Ernie Silver. Our interns are Carolyn Johnson, Julia Keller, Taylor Ferguson and Mary Beth Conway. And we had help this week from KIRO-TV in Seattle. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar.

Our technical director is Al Avery. Ingrid Lobet heads our western bureau. Diane Toomey is our science editor, Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor, Chris Ballman is the senior producer and Steve Curwood is the executive producer of Living on Earth.

I’m Laura Knoy. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science, and Stonyfield Farm—organic yogurt, cultured soy, and smoothies. Ten percent of their profits are donated to support environmental causes and family farms. Learn more at stonyfield.com. Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Annenberg Foundation. And Tom’s of Maine, maker of natural care products and creator of the rivers awareness program to preserve the nation’s waterways. Information at participating stores, or tomsofmaine.com

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