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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

May 11, 2007

Air Date: May 11, 2007

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Melting Ice

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A new study from the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado shows that scientists grossly underestimated the rate of ice loss due to warming from greenhouse gas emissions. The study claims that if current trends continue, we could be facing an ice-free Arctic summer within the next 50 years. (05:15)

Riding the Tide / Beth Fertig

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Tidal currents from New York City’s East River are being used for electrical power. The energy is generated by underwater turbines as part of a demonstration project by Verdant Power. The company must show that the turbines won’t hurt migrating fish. As WNYC’s Beth Fertig reports, Verdant is one of several companies experimenting with tidal power in coastal regions of the country. (06:45)

Wind vs. Wildlife / Jeff Young

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Wind energy is clean, but is it green if windmills chop up birds and bats? The country's top science panel says government agencies should take the environmental impacts of wind power more seriously. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports that some in Congress are ready to tilt at the windmills. (07:30)

Where's My Jetpack?

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Where are the hoverboards, jetpacks, underwater cities and flying cars that Hollywood promised us decades ago? Author Daniel Wilson tells host Steve Curwood what he learned while writing his new book "Where's My Jetpack: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived." (09:45)

Pumping Up Controversy

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Living on Earth host Steve Curwood talks with Tom Philps, an editorial writer for the Sacramento Bee, about a court battle that pits environmentalists and sports fishermen against the California Department of Water Resources. The dispute is over how to save struggling smelt and Chinook salmon populations while meeting massive human demands on the drinking water from the San Joaquin River. (05:45)

Growing in a Changing Climate

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As Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum prepares for its annual Lilac Sunday, senior scientist Dr. Peter Del Tredici takes Living on Earth host Steve Curwood on a tour to demonstrate how acid rain and climate change are affecting the arboretums’s plants and trees. (10:00)

This week's EarthEar selection
listen / download

Third graders from the Berkowitz School in Chelsea, Massachusetts keep themselves occupied as they gear up for a tour of Harvard's Arnold Arboretum.

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Tom Philps, Mark Serreze, Peter Del Tredici, Daniel Wilson
REPORTER: Beth Fertig, Jeff Young

[THEME]

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

[THEME]

CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. The Arctic ice cap is melting a lot faster than anybody thought it could. And that may signal a sudden snap in the world’s climate.

SERREZE: What these records show is that the climate system can jump up and bite you very hard and very quickly and as we continue to load the atmosphere with greenhouse gases we may be setting ourselves up for one of these rapid changes.

CURWOOD: Also efforts to find clean energy solutions are popping up in some unlikely places… like the East River in New York City.

CORREN: Our team together, has built six turbines that capture the kinetic energy of the flowing water without any dams. They’re sort of like underwater windmills. And as the tide goes in and the tide goes out, they capture some of the energy and convert it directly to electricity.

CURWOOD: These stories and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around!

Back to top

[THEME]

[NPR NEWSCAST: Boards of Canada “Zoetrope” from ‘In A Beautiful Place Out in the Country’ (Warp Records – 2000)]

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

[THEME RETURN]

Melting Ice

The scientists' models were averaged into a single line (red) to provide a comparison to their observations. (Photo: National Snow and Ice Data Center)

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

Humans are disrupting the climate faster than just about anyone has been predicting. That’s the conclusion of a new study of the Arctic Polar ice cap recently published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The study finds that the ice cap over the Arctic Ocean is melting far faster than even the most pessimistic computer models have been predicting. And it follows similar findings about the rapid meltdown of the Greenland ice sheet. Mark Serreze is a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado which conducted the study. Thanks for being here, Mark.

SERREZE: Oh, it’s my pleasure.

CURWOOD: So what’s the big difference between the computer models that are cited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in their most recent assessment and the data that your team has been looking at?

SERREZE: Basically all of these climate models are saying that we should be loosing sea ice. So there’s this consensus between all of the different climate models regarding this loss. And this is very very strong evidence that we’re starting to see the impact of green house warming. But when we actually look at the data; our data records from satellites and other sources we find that the observed rate of decline is roughly almost three times that what the models are projecting. What it’s telling us is that these models are underestimating the loss. They’re not quick enough. It’s telling us that this loss of sea ice is rapid and the arctic is on this fast track of change.


Mark Serreze (Photo: National Snow and Ice Data Center)

CURWOOD: In your view what are the computer models of global warming missing?

SERREZE: Well, it’s not quite clear. It may be that the models are missing some of the key processes: feedbacks. In the arctic one of the things that is at work there is what we call the albedo feedback. Albedo is just a fancy word for the reflectivity or whiteness of that surface. The idea here is that if we have some warming that melts some of this highly reflective snow and ice surface and that starts to expose darker areas of ocean underneath. That means that those darker ocean areas now absorb more of the sun’s heat. That causes further melting, further warming and further melting and so on. So, it’s a vicious cycle if you will. Well all of these climate models are supposed to treat those sorts of processes but it may be that they’re not quite getting them right.

CURWOOD: Now of course sea ice won’t affect sea level around the world. It’s already floating on the ocean.

SERREZE: That’s correct, Archimedes Principle.

CURWOOD: But what are the possible impacts of the loss of arctic ice for the rest of the world?

SERREZE: Well, there’s one recent study suggesting that one impact could be an extended drought in the US West. Ok, in other words we have a shift in atmospheric circulation associated with this changing arctic refrigerator and one response of that was drought in the Western US. Other studies were pointing towards some rather pronounced changes in patterns of precipitation or weather in Europe. Ok, so those are just a few examples. The problem here is that getting at these particular regional impacts is still very difficult in these models. That changes will occur seems to be quite clear. Just how they will pan out, that’s what’s difficult to get at. And these are the things that concern me. It’s not so much what we know that worries me. It’s what we don’t know.


The scientists' models were averaged into a single line (red) to provide a comparison to their observations. (Photo: National Snow and Ice Data Center)

CURWOOD: In many ways nature doesn’t move in a smooth line to change. It has quantum leaps. Whether it is the flower that’s closed one day and open the next or an electron that’s in one orbital around the nucleus of an atom and then when the energy level changes it’s in another. To what extent does your research suggest that climate shift may be more of a quantum nature, may be making more of a leap than making a smooth transition?

SERREZE: Well, that’s exactly what I think we are probably seeing now. When we think of the arctic we often think of this idea of tipping point. That say if we thin that sea ice down to a fairly vulnerable state a little kick to the system can send it over the edge and send it very quickly into a new state. We see evidence for that in terms of the sea ice cover. Another example is what we’re seeing with respect to the Greenland ice sheet. We’d always thought that the Greenland ice sheet would slowly melt down and slowly contribute to sea level rise. But what we’re seeing now is that that’s not the case. For example what we’re seeing there is that there’s surface melt going on.

This melt water is trickling down to the bottom of these immense glaciers that drain the ice sheet, literally lubricating the glaciers and so now they can slide more easily into the Arctic Ocean. We didn’t think that that sort of thing would happen so quickly but it is. And we see the same analogous sort of things in the sea ice cover. What these records show is that the climate system can jump up and bite you very hard and very quickly. And there’s growing concern that as we continue to load the atmosphere with greenhouse gasses we may set ourselves up for a tipping point. We may set ourselves up for one of these rapid changes.

CURWOOD: Well thank you Dr. Serreze.

SERREZE: It’s been my pleasure.

CURWOOD: Mark Serreze is a Senior Research Scientist_ at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, and a coauthor of a new report on the melt down of Arctic ice. You can find out more on our website, LOE dot org.

Related links:
- National Snow and Ice Data Center
- NSIDC press release
- NASA Watches Arctic Ice

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[MUSIC: Max Richter “Vladimir’s Blues” from The Blue Notebooks (Fat Cat Records 2004)]

Riding the Tide

Verdant Power turbines being lowered into New York's East River as part of the Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy (RITE) Project. (Photo: Kris Unger)

CURWOOD: So, how about some good news about the challenge of climate change. Well there’s now an experiment in New York City to make electric power from a way you might not expect. It seems to be clean, and certainly has no climate changing gases, no ugly towers, or waste products. From the East River of New York City, Beth Fertig of member station WNYC has our report.

[RIVER WATER AT SHORE]

FERTIG: The East River is actually a tidal strait that flows along the East Coast of Manhattan, connecting Long Island Sound to New York Harbor. For some engineers, it’s not just a body of water but a powerful, potential source of energy.

CORREN: You have first of all a big fast river, you have to have fast currents, that’s what it’s all about, it’s embedded in civilization it’s not in the middle of arctic or something.

FERTIG: Dean Corren is Director of Technology Development for Verdant Power. We’re standing on the shore of Roosevelt Island, a residential community which sits in the river between Manhattan and Queens.


Dean Corren, Verdant Power’s Director of Technology Development, monitoring the transmission of electricity from the turbines. (Photo: Kris Unger)

MAN IN CLEAR: Hey, you guys want to put some ropes on the next one?

FERTIG: It’s off the coast of this skinny island that Corren and his engineers are preparing to operate a group of tidal turbines.

[OUTSIDE SOUNDS]

CORREN: All of us, our team together, has built six turbines to go underwater here that capture the kinetic energy of the flowing water without any dams. They’re sort of like underwater windmills. And as the tide goes in and the tide goes out, the flood and the ebb, they capture some of the energy and convert it directly to electricity.

FERTIG: Electricity that can be used to power homes and businesses. On a bright sunny morning, Corren’s team stands on the shoreline while a barge delivers equipment that can only be installed during a slack tide.

CORREN: When the tide stops we gotta go. We can only do this stuff when water’s not running.

FERTIG: As Corren climbs down a ladder to the water’s edge, a huge crane takes four white rectangular frames off the barge and gently lays them in the water.

[HONK]

FERTIG: Each frame is about 20 feet long and contains three ultrasonic devices. They were especially designed for observing fish. Verdant can’t get a permit to operate until it proves to state and federal agencies that its turbines won’t hurt migrating wildlife. But Corren predicts that shouldn’t be a problem.


(Photo: Kris Unger)

CORREN: The turbines actually turn very slowly. They’re five meters in diameter - that’s 16.4 feet - and they turn at about 34 RPM. Quite stately is my term for it. Also leading edges are very rounded and blunt. So there’s only a very small area that could actually hurt fish if they were to hit it.

FERTIG: And those tests are just beginning.

[CONTROL ROOM SOUND]

FERTIG: In a former shipping container that’s been turned into a control room, Verdant has spent several months studying the habits of East River wildlife. Analyst Hannah Abend uses her computer to look at underwater images captured by a different sonar device last year.

ABEND: So I’m going to show you an example of what a school of fish looked like before the turbine was actually in the water.

FERTIG: Verdant conducted a test run with a single turbine at the beginning of this year. Abend says she saw a few herrings, a striped bass and a cormorant. But they stayed away from the turbine – which was located about a quarter of the way out in the river.

ABEND: One of the interesting things I’ve discovered from analyzing all of this data is that generally the fish hang around the rocks; they hang around during slack tide when the turbine isn’t moving at all because the water is really quiet. They don’t like fast currents. They also don’t hang out that far they like the safety of the rocks. And so this bodes very well for having turbines in river environments like this.

FERTIG: The test turbine operated for more than a month, until engineers discovered a problem with its blade. In that time, Verdant says it generated about 8000 kilowatt hours during active tide cycles – enough to power a couple of homes for a year. The electricity was used by the Gristedes supermarket on Roosevelt Island – proving the East River could generate power. Verdant’s founders compare that to the flight of the Kitty Hawk because tidal power is still in its infancy.


Verdant Power turbines being lowered into New York's East River as part of the Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy (RITE) Project. (Photo: Kris Unger)

Alternative forms of hydropower were first explored in the 1970s. But they were abandoned when the energy crisis ended. Now that global warming has triggered a new interest in renewable, clean sources of energy, researchers in Europe and the United States are once again experimenting with tidal power. But there are some obstacles.

THRESHER: It’s a lot easier to do things on land than it is in the water.

The turbines may look like windmills. But they’re actually much more complicated, says Robert Thresher, who has studied tidal power as director of the National Wind and Technology Center in Denver, Colorado.

THRESHER: You have to get out there, you have to have boats, you have to have crews, if you’re going to put a foundation in, you can’t just dig a hole with a back hoe and pour a foundation. And then if you’re in estuary you have salt water, which is a corrosion issue that you just don’t have with wind turbines.

FERTIG: That’s not to say it isn’t possible. Thresher is a big proponent of alternative sources of energy, and he says tidal power has great potential. Unlike wind, tides are predictable because they come in cycles. It’s just going to take more research… and more money to resolve questions of environmental impact and commercial viability.

THRESHER: Cause people haven’t done it before, the permitting’s not worked out. When people are permitting they don’t know what to worry about so they worry about everything.

FERTIG: The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission says about there are about fifty applications for permits by companies experimenting with tidal power, from Washington State to Florida and Maine.

[OUTDOOR SOUNDS]

FERTIG: Verdant says it’s spending more than six million dollars on the East River project. A third of that money alone is going toward the fish monitoring, and other regulatory and permitting issues. If they can pass the initial hurdles, Hannah Abend and her coworkers envision a day when a couple of hundred turbines off the coast of Roosevelt Island could generate enough power for 5000 homes. And because they’re underwater, she says there’s little fear of neighborhood opposition.

ABEND: A neat way to look at it would be this is like the quietest electric plant ever or power plant ever because you’ll never see them and if everything is working well, you’ll just get power from the current.

FERTIG: Verdant’s new turbines are being tested just in time for bass migration. The company is also applying for permits to test in Long Island Sound. For Living on Earth I’m Beth Fertig in New York.

Related links:
- Verdant Power on the Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy (RITE) Project
- Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on tidal power

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CURWOOD: Coming up: back to the future with some of the” best” ideas from the past that never quite made it. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Clogs “I Used To Do” from ‘France Inter’s White Session’ (Brassland - 2006)]

Wind vs. Wildlife

Wind turbines in the western U.S. (Courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Regulators in Delaware recently gave preliminary approval to an offshore wind farm, another sign of the remarkable growth of wind power in the US. Electric power from wind has quadrupled in the past six years, and the business has set off a land rush for some of the best spots for wind towers. Wind power generates no pollution. But many people in communities from California to Cape Cod oppose it. They say the huge turbines not only ruin views, they can also harm birds and other wildlife. Now a panel of top scientists has weighed in on the wildlife impacts of wind power. And the report is giving momentum to the movement for more regulation of the high-flying industry.

Now here’s Living on Earth’s Jeff Young in Washington. Jeff?

YOUNG: Well Steve it’s instructive to take a quick look back at one of these wind power disputes that took place not far from Washington. Mountaineer Energy was the first project to reap the winds of West Virginia’s high ridges. And the local community was split. Some eagerly embraced a new source of energy and revenue. Others worried that migrating birds and mountain scenery would be lost. So the company scaled back the project and pledged to watch for birds. But just a few years into operation another problem popped up that no one saw coming: bats were being killed by the hundreds.

ARNETT: They found over 400 bodies and estimated between 14 hundred and four thousand bats had been killed at that site. That was orders of magnitude higher than any other facility had ever reported.

YOUNG: That’s Ed Arnett a biologist with Bat Conservation International. Arnett trained dogs to sniff out bat carcasses and tracked bats at night with thermal imaging. He thinks bats that roost in trees are attracted to the windmills, perhaps during mating or migrating seasons. Biologists then looked at other wind projects on forested ridges and found those, too, were killing lots of bats. The Mid Atlantic mountain ridges have some of the best wind in the region, and developers propose about a dozen wind farms there.
That has Arnett worried.

ARNETT: And when you think about a region or the entire North American continent with the expansion of wind and think about number of turbines and the fatalities rates, the cumulative impacts add up very quickly and become very alarming.

YOUNG: Wildlife officials have long wrestled with bird deaths at wind farms. Now they have bats to worry about too. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall says wildlife deaths are a black mark on a green industry.

HALL: Wind generated electrical energy is clean energy. However at this point we cannot say that wind energy is always green energy

YOUNG: That’s not the image the wind industry wants. Laurie Jodziewicz of the American Wind Energy Association says wind companies partnered with groups like bat conservation international, birders and state wildlife agencies to find solutions.


Wind turbines in the western U.S. (Courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory)

Jodziewicz: I think the industry is really interested in being a good environmental steward and wants to maintain and protect the green brand that we do have. And I think the steps we’re taking as a young industry we hope to set an example. But we’re still a small industry so we want to make sure we’re not doing things that unduly prohibits the industry from developing.

YOUNG: A recent congressional hearing on wind power and wildlife cast doubt on those voluntary efforts. The hearing’s title alone hinted at growing skepticism in Congress: it was called “Gone with the Wind.”

FRY: Unfortunately the collaborative efforts to address impacts of wind projects on birds have been a failure.

YOUNG: Michael Fry of the American Bird Conservancy testified about the wind industry’s reluctance to follow recommendations on where to place and how to operate windmills. The Fish and Wildlife Service is at work on a set of guidelines. Fry says they should be made mandatory.

FRY: This is the only energy sector that is unregulated. We would like green energy. But you really have to enforce some laws you have to put teeth in something or they’re not going to comply with anything.

YOUNG: The Fish and Wildlife Service’s Hall says industry compliance is sketchy.
For example, when the bat deaths came to light at the Mountaineer facility. Scientists wanted to test turning off turbines at key times. The wind company refused. That wind farm is in West Virginia Democrat Alan Mollohan’s district. Mollohan is among a small but influential group of lawmakers who want to regulate wind power by making companies follow wildlife guidelines in order to receive tax credits.

MOLLOHAN: Wind energy developers are not going to voluntarily take all the steps
That are reasonably necessary for the protection of wildlife, they just aren’t gonna do it.

YOUNG: Mollohan urged the National Academy of Sciences to study the matter. The Academy’s report is the fullest to date on wind power’s energy contribution, environmental benefits and wildlife impacts. Here are some key findings: By the year 2020 wind could produce 7% of America’s electricity. That would offset about 5% of the country’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. Wind turbines kill somewhere between 20 and 37 thousand birds a year. That’s far fewer than are killed by buildings, cars, or cell towers. Even cats kill many more.

But the Academy warns that some bird and bat populations could be threatened as wind power expands. The report urges government agencies to take environmental impacts more seriously when planning wind projects. That planning depends on data, which the Academy also found lacking. Bat biologist Ed Arnett says scientists have a lot of work to do.

ARNETT: Decisions will have to be made on the compromise, quite frankly, what are we willing to give for this renewable energy source? How much habitat loss is acceptable, how many fatalities are acceptable? We just simply do not have enough information. We’re not there yet.

YOUNG: So, the answer, dare I say it Steve, is still blowin’ in the wind.

CURWOOD: [laughs] Ok, Jeff. Thanks for your report. But uh stick around for a moment. You know some of the local fights over wind projects can get pretty nasty. What do you think this National Academy report will mean for those local disputes?

YOUNG: I think both sides will find some ammo here, but I think the report really points to a way out of these not-in-my-backyard kind of disputes.

CURWOOD: How so?

YOUNG: With government providing a better system for making these decisions. I think in a lot of these disputes what we’ve seen is some opponents overstating the wildlife impacts when their real interest was protecting their view, protecting their property values. On the flip side: some wind supporters were hyping wind as this sort of cure-all for global warming while at the same time wearing blinders when it came to dead birds and dead bats. So, I think the take-home message of the academy report is we need to stop arguing simply yes or no on wind power and instead start talking more about how can we do this more responsibly? And likely that’s going to mean some kind of regulation.

CURWOOD: But don’t states and local governments already regulate wind power?

YOUNG: They do, they just don’t do a very good job of it. This study says those agencies they’re just not well equipped to assess wildlife impacts especially the cumulative impacts of a lot of wind farms in a small area. And one of the report’s authors says he thinks the wind companies could benefit here. Avoid costly lawsuits if we had a better way to honestly assess the tradeoffs and decide where windmills should go.

CURWOOD: Jeff just briefly what else is up on Capitol Hill regarding energy? I’m reading a lot about fuel efficiency standards for cars. What kind of traction is that getting?

YOUNG: Well, there’s a bill working its way through the Senate that could boost the miles per gallon their cars and trucks get, that’s a big deal. And there’s this interesting agreement in the works with companies that make light bulbs. If that goes through it could mean the end of the old incandescent bulbs that waste so much energy.

CURWOOD: We’ll be taking a closer look at both those issues in the coming weeks. Thanks, Jeff.

YOUNG: You’re welcome

CURWOOD: Jeff Young is Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent.

Related links:
- National Academy of Sciences brief: "Environmental Impacts of Wind-Energy Projects"
- American Wind Energy Association
- U.S. House Natural Resources Committee hearing: “Gone with the Wind”
- Bat Conservation International

Back to top

[MUSIC: Louis & Bebe Barron “Forbidden Planet (Excerpt)” from ‘Forbidden Planet’ (MGM – 1956)]

Where's My Jetpack?

Where's My Jetpack bookcover (Courtesy of Bloomsbury USA)

CURWOOD: Science fiction, as a means of prediction, has long been a cultural staple. The fictional cannon of Jules Verne that shot people to the moon took less than a century to morph into the very real Saturn Five moon rocket of the Apollo program.

[ROCKET LAUNCH COUNT DOWN]

CURWOOD:And the ray gun of Buck Rogers back in the 1920’s foretold the laser.

[TALKING: Buck Rogers Radio Show “Buck Roger’s Origin Story (Excerpt)” from ‘Buck Rogers In The 25th Century Radio Serial’ (CBS/Mutual - 1932)]

CURWOOD: But what about the other fantastic stuff we heard about, especially during the high tech boom that followed world war two. You know, the time machines and x-ray vision don't seem to be anywhere in sight, not to mention flying cars and robots that do your laundry. Daniel Wilson is author of "Where's my Jetpack: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived." He says some of the technologies of yesterday's tomorrow actually were invented, including the jetpack.

WILSON: So the jetpack was invented by a guy named Wendell Moore in the early 60's and he did it on an army grant and essentially it's just a, it's really a rocket pack. There's a chemical reaction that happens between really pure hydrogen peroxide and silver and it's just an expanding reaction so when these two get put together it's sort of a controlled explosion that thrusts you into the air. Now, this controlled explosion only lasts for about 30 seconds, which is a huge drawback and it's why the army didn't renew that grant [BOTH LAUGH] and it's why there were only a few copies made.

At this point unless you want to steal one from the Smithsonian, you can actually buy one from a Mexican guy named Juan Lazano. And there are a couple of other companies that will rent these out with celebrity impersonators flying them around. The problem though, like I said, is that jetpacks are much more sexy than they are practical and that 30 second time limit is a real killer.


Daniel Wilson (Courtesy of Daniel Wilson)

CURWOOD: How many people have been killed using these jetpacks?

WILSON: None that I know of, yeah I was interested in that. It's true that Wendell Moore...

CURWOOD: So, wait, it's the safest form of transportation then?

WILSON: (Laughs) It's an experimental aircraft yeah, no one's bit it yet. Although Wendell Moore, you know, he tested this himself and ultimately he shattered one of his knees and decided never to strap one on again.

CURWOOD: So what inspired you in the first place to write this book? I mean, how did you come up with your list?

WILSON: Well, first of all I talked about things that I've always wanted. So, I grew up as a kid reading comic books and in the backs of comic books they have all these things you can buy. You can buy a real, live, hoverboard and then you get it home and you realize that this is made out of a vacuum cleaner and it's got to be plugged into the wall.

[BOTH LAUGH]

WILSON: And they conveniently forget to mention that this is going to have an electric cord. Or you know I went on several very misleading rides at Disneyland and I never really let go of that. As a kid you're really optimistic, you believe all these things are going to happen and then you reach a certain age and you say, "What happened to the future?" So I reached that age, and I wasn't doing anything else and so, I decided to go ahead and write “Where's My Jetpack?”


Where's My Jetpack bookcover (Courtesy of Bloomsbury USA)

CURWOOD: So, here's your list of things the past told us we might have in the future. Let's see, there's the jetpack of course, then the zeppelin, the moving sidewalk, a self-steering car, a flying car, dolphins as a guide, vacationing in space, food pill, ray gun, space elevator, and of course the space mirror. So, what item that you included in your book were you most shocked to discover really does exist- and it's functional?

WILSON: Well, well functional, see that's the thing. A lot of this stuff exists and in fact that's my whole point behind the book is that I'm not saying, "Oh look here's a pessimistic view on our non-future." Instead I'm going through every one of these and I'm saying, “Look this really exists or it has existed in the past and nobody wanted it. So, the technology I was surprised to find exists at all, even though it doesn't exist in the way we want it to, is teleportation and the thing that surprised me is that I'll talk to people....

CURWOOD: Wait a second you're saying "Beam me up Scotty" works?

WILSON: Right...So, you know I'll talk to people on the street or in bars and they have no idea that physicists routinely conduct teleportation experiments. You know this is real! We live in a world where you can teleport quantum particles over arbitrary distances. And the problem is that it's only quantum particles. So, things like photons, not things like people. Which is kind of good because the way teleportation actually works is a copy is made and the original is destroyed during the process. So, it's questionable whether you really want to do that to yourself.

CURWOOD: Now, one of the things that was, ah, back then that we haven't seen yet is smell-o-vision and you know, I think I'm ambivalent about that...

WILSON: Uh, you know, some of the topics I chose to talk about in the book, I chose them just because they reflected this wild optimism that was around in the 50's you know about technology and how great it would be and smell-o-vision I think is an example of that- where people run toward some goal without thinking what it would really be like. And I think that's great. [LAUGHS] I love that kind of creativity and so obviously smell-o-vision was not a big hit when It was used during one movie called" Scent of a Mystery" and the smells during the movie actually clued people in. You could figure out who the killer was based on these smells. But again, smell-o-vision is real!

CURWOOD: Well, I just can't resist asking you about something that was predicted that I'm not sure I'm disappointed that it didn't happen and that's the mind-reading device.

WILSON: Well, mind-reading devices are here. And they're here in two forms. One form is a lie detector system so these systems can figure out what you're thinking- at least figure out whether or not your lying- by using cameras that track the blood flow underneath the skin in your face and also by using slow-motion cameras to look at micro-expressions and micro-gestures that people make unconsciously.

But, where mind reading is really interesting is in a medical area where several companies and several academic institutions have brain-computer interfaces. So, in the non-invasive sense this is basically a hat that you wear that's covered with electrodes and it measures the electrical activity that's going on in your brain. In an invasive sense this is a sub-dural implant that's basically a lot of little electrodes that are poked in to the surface of your brain. So, for instance, if you're paralyzed they'll choose to put this in your motor cortex and then when you think about moving a limb that you can't move in reality, the computer can actually use machine-learning to figure out what you're trying to do- over time it learns what you're trying to do- and it then can actually move a cursor on a screen, or there's been an example where a, what, for lack of a better term is a "cyborg monkey," has been able to use it's brain to move an artificial limb in order to feed itself bananas. And before you ask no, they did not cut off the monkey's real arm. They just strapped it down.

CURWOOD: So, most of the things that you included in your book were things that were promised in movies and comic books in the 50's and 60's and 70's- they all suggested that we were going to be in this, well a Utopia of sorts in the future, where people could fly, cars just driving themselves, we live in a smart house, we would have x-ray vision, so what does that say about what we were dreaming about for ourselves and for society at that time?

WILSON: Well, I think that a lot of people thought that, you know, all of our problems would be solved by technology. And any problem they could think of pretty much there was a technological solution that was lurking in the near future. And above and beyond solving problems I think that there was this wild optimism that technology was not only going to solve our problems but that it was going to entertain us in ways that we could never imagine, so there's smell-o-vision, there are moon vacations and man exploring all the environments that we would like to explore and you know, with impunity. And I'm hoping that we continue toward that goal because I do want to have a space vacation and I still do want that hoverboard.

CURWOOD: Daniel Wilson is author of Where's My Jetpack: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived. Thank you so much sir.

WILSON: Thank you for having me.

[Buck Rogers Radio Show “Buck Roger’s Origin Story (Excerpt)” from ‘Buck Rogers In The 25th Century Radio Serial’ (CBS/Mutual - 1932)]

[MUSIC: Anonymous composer “Clock Factory” from ‘Science Fiction Sounds’ (Columbia River Entertainment – 2001)]

Related link:
Daniel Wilson's website

Back to top

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is online 24-7. If you any missed part of this program or any other recent show, you can stream it or download it at l-o-e dot ORG. And the Living on Earth mailbox is always open. Drop us a line at comments @ l-o-e dot org.
That’s comments @ l-o-e dot O-R-G. Our mailing address is 20 Holland Street, Somerville, Massachusetts, 02144. And our listener line is 800-218-9988.

Coming up one of the nation’s premier botanical gardens struggles to stay ahead of the climate curve. That’s just ahead on Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Cedar Tree Foundation and from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, celebrating the 2007 Goldman Environmental Prize winners. Learn more about each winner at www.goldmanprize.org. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

[MUSIC: Benni Hemm Hemm “GitStemm” from ‘Kitchen Motors Family Album’ (Kitchen Motors - 2007)]

Pumping Up Controversy

The San Joaquin delta in California. (Courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The San Joaquin River is the lifeblood for millions of Californians and millions of acres of farmland from the Bay Area south to Los Angeles. But the water from the San Joaquin doesn’t flow south on its own.

Massive pumps lift it out of engineered channels to get it to California farms and cities. And according to the California Sport Fishing Protection Alliance, all this pumping comes at too high a price. The water project decimates populations of endangered fish. And the group sued to protect the fish under the Endangered Species Act. A judge has now ruled in favor of the fish, and the prospect that the pumps could get shut off has sent shock waves throughout California.

To give us some insight into the conflict, we looked up Tom Philps. He’s an editorial writer for The Sacramento Bee newspaper and joins us now. Hi there.

PHILPS: How you doin’?

CURWOOD: So the say in the west, that “whisky’s for drinkin’ n’ water’s for fightin.” Do I have that right?

PHILPS: You got it right. It’s guaranteed employment for me. I write water editorials. So I got, it’s so called fish in a barrel out here. There’s more water controversies than anyone has conceivable time to write about. The delta is our biggest problem.

CURWOOD: On this controversy what’s the position of The Sacramento Bee?

PHILPS: The Sacramento Bee’s position is that our delta is one broken delta. It is the most important estuary that we have in California. It’s the most important source of drinking water. And we have yet to figure out a way to do right by the fish and to do right by using this delta as a sustainable source of water.

CURWOOD: How did this thing wind up in court? What motivated the sports fishing group to file this lawsuit?

PHILPS: They have been extremely concerned about certain species of fish that live year-round in the delta called smelt and shad etc…And their numbers have been plummeting to low numbers and they haven’t been able to do much about it. So this lawsuit was a primal scream. It was going to the courts and saying, “we don’t think all this pumping from the delta is complying with the state’s endangered species act.

CURWOOD: Now, what’s the basis of the lawsuit and the endangered species act?

PHILPS: The basis is pretty simple. Under the state endangered species act you have to have a piece of paper that allows you to essentially kill an endangered species as part of your activity. And the State of California for these pumps, the state water project does not have that piece of paper, the so-called “incidental take permit” that allows them to take fish, kill fish, as they operate the pumps.


The San Joaquin delta in California. (Courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey)

CURWOOD: So, as I understand it the trial level judge issued an order. He said, “Hey sixty days these pumps have to be shut down.” What’s happened since then?

PHILPS: A lot has happened since then. The water a community has gone into uh, their blood pressure has risen many times over. They have been scrambling to figure out what to do if the pumps were shut down. At the moment there is a lull in the action. The judge has said, “I am going to stay this decision. You the State of California have some time to figure out how you’re going to comply with the Endangered Species Act.” So at this moment that clock is not ticking. But that clock is still out there and it continues to have people pretty nervous.

CURWOOD: So you have the law on the side of the environmental activists here. These sports fishing groups that say, “hey this is not complying with the endangered species act.” And then on the other side you have what 18 or 20 million people who really depend on water out of this system. If in fact these pumps were shut down those people would be out of water. How do you get a winner in a scenario like that?

PHILPS: (laughs) You thread the needle is what you do. Compromise on a big water fight only happens when every side is uncomfortable, that the status quo does not serve anyone’s interest and that not only do we have to change, that change is the right thing. We absolutely have to change and there’s no choice. Politically there’s no choice, environmentally there’s no choice, legally there’s no choice. That’s only the time that we figure out how to do something around here.

CURWOOD: What is the correct solution? What is the advice you give your readers as the editor for The Sacramento Bee on this subject?

PHILPS: California has to think long and hard about how much water it can pull safely out of this delta and where it pulls the water from. At the moment we pull the water out of the southern part of the delta. And by pulling the water out of there it causes all kinds of rivers within the delta to move backwards. It really kind of screws up the estuary where we’re pumping it. So, we have some questions about how we manage the delta. Tough stuff.

CURWOOD: Recently, your governor declared a state of emergency on the source of the San Joaquin because the Sierra’s what, have only thirty percent of the snow that they usually have. Water is getting tighter and tighter and with the indications coming from research on climate change, it doesn’t look like things will get too easy any time soon.

PHILPS: You’re absolutely right. Our dams are designed to capture the snowmelt and then release it. Capture some more and then release it. And what happens when we don’t have as much snow? What happens when we have more rain than snow? We won’t be able to capture as much water and we will be facing some tough choices about how much agriculture we have, how efficient it is in using water. We’re just going to have to get a whole lot smarter and a whole lot more efficient and we’re going to fight over this for a long time.

CURWOOD: So, the lawyers are going to make a lot of money on this, huh?

PHILPS: If you have a child that’s interested in law I would suggest western water law would be a guaranteed source of income for the next several generations, no problem.

CURWOOD: Tom Philps is an editorial writer for The Sacramento Bee. Thank you so much sir.

PHILPS: You’re very welcome.

Related links:
- Tom Philps' blog, "Waterlog"
- To view the proposed decision of the Superior Court of the State of California in the case between the Watershed Enforcers and the California Department of Water Resources, click here.

Back to top

 

Growing in a Changing Climate

A pear tree. (Peter Del Tredici)

[BIRDS SINGING]

CURWOOD: Take a lush hillside topped with tall Hemlock trees; plant a collection of more than 15,000 varieties of other trees, shrubs and woody plants collected from all over the world. Toss in a magnificent view of the Boston skyline and you’ve got the Arnold Arboretum. Harvard University maintains the Arboretum as a public park for the city of Boston, a place that’s high on the list of school field trips when spring ignites the park with a dazzling display of fragrance and blooms.

[TRUCK DRIVING]

CURWOOD: On this spring morning some work crews are out spraying oak trees with a bacteria that kills insects. Others fan out to snip and prune in advance of the Arboretum’s biggest event of the year – Lilac Sunday.

[BIRD SOUNDS, SAWING SOUND]

CURWOOD: More than 200 different varieties of the fragrant blooms will be on display on Lilac Sunday. We’ve come to Arnold Arboretum to talk with its Senior Research Scientist Peter Del Tredici. He says in recent years the big day has become something of a moving target.

DEL TREDICI: Traditionally, at the arboretum, Lilac Sunday was around the third Sunday in May, somewhere between the you know 20th 22nd and 23rd. But about 15 years ago we realized that most of the lilacs had already gone by the time Lilac Sunday had arrived so we shifted the date up and we now celebrate Lilac Sunday here at the arboretum on Mother’s Day.

[MUSIC Sora “Spring” from ‘Kalk Seeds: A Karaoke Kalk Compilation’ (Karaoke Kalk – 2005)]

CURWOOD: So, why is that happening do you think?

DEL TREDICI: Well, all you have to do is pick up the newspaper and chances are there’s going to be some story about climate change. And the blooming of the lilacs which is really a temperature response is one of the signs that the weather has been changing, particularly here in the Boston area since the 1970s.


Arnold Arboretum Senior Scientist Peter Del Tredici. (Photo: Steve Curwood)

CURWOOD: So things are warmer earlier?

DEL TREDICI: Things are getting warmer earlier.

CURWOOD: Now what about the fact that there’s more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That’s a fertilizer for plants.

DEL TREDICI: Well that would affect how quickly things grow, how vigorous they are. It wouldn’t necessarily affect when they bloom. So in other words if you look at the amount of rag weed or poison ivy that’s proliferating along the roadsides you might be able to say that that might have something to do with carbon dioxide enrichment but in terms of blooming times I don’t think that has anything to do with CO2.

CURWOOD: But wait a second. You’re saying that the weeds are taking advantage of the more CO2. We might have more weeds as a function of this?

DEL TREDICI: Well, that is one of the predicted effects of climate change. Certain plants are more efficient at being able to turn carbon dioxide into carbohydrate. And the weeds seem to be particularly good at that.

CURWOOD: Let’s take a closer look at one of these lilacs. Now unfortunately I haven’t figured out how to get my microphone to record the smell but…

DEL TREDICI: Well, that is unfortunate. That is really sad. Well this one is [sniffs] it’s got a ways to go. You know every plant here at the arboretum, one of the things that’s really terrific, is everything is labeled here. This particular plant, Seringo vulgerous, this is President Lincoln. This is a very, an American selection from the 1800s, the late 1800s, early 1900s. This plant is from 1995 and is considered to be one of the bluest of the lilacs. A really beautiful plant, and it will be in full bloom, ah, you know if the weather stays warm, particularly at night it might even be in bloom for lilac Sunday.


Dr. Peter Del Tredici stops and smells the lilacs.(Photo: Steve Curwood)

[MUSIC Kuchen Meets Mapstation “Kmm” from ‘Kalk Seeds: A Karaoke Kalk Compilation’ (Karaoke Kalk – 2005)]

CURWOOD: What else has really changed for these plants over the last 100 years at our Arnold Arboretum?

DEL TREDICI: The other thing that’s happened, and this is intensified because we’re in the middle of a city basically, is that one of the byproducts of increasing CO2 in the atmosphere is acid precipitation. And we have the soils here at the arboretum is the ph has been dropping precipitously over the last 50 years and you know we have to put a lot of lime on the soil to counteract the negative impact of acid rain. Lilacs are a lime-loving species and so this area in order to maintain its health we have to put a lot of limestone on these plants.

CURWOOD: Are you loosing plants because of these changes?

DEL TREDICI: The acidification of the soil is sort of one of these hidden things that is clearly a byproduct of burning of fossil fuels. And what happens when you lower the soil’s pH is that certain nutrients that are available to the plant at higher pH become unavailable. And aluminum becomes toxic at lower pHs and so if you change the soil pH that really changes the whole health status of the plant. So in terms of… they become more susceptible to diseases, because they can’t get the right nutrients out of the soil. So it’s one of those factors that really contributes to the general decline of vegetation. And so bringing that pH back up to, you know, above a pH of five, five and a half, is really critical to maintaining the long-term health of any woody plant.

[MUSIC Hauschkla “ Two Stones” from ‘Kalk Seeds: A Karaoke Kalk Compilation’ (Karaoke Kalk – 2005)]

[CRUNCHING OF FOOTSTEPS]

DEL TREDICI: So this is one of our research plots here at the arboretum. We’re on Hemlock Hill, which is one part of the arboretum, which has essentially been in forest since the arboretum was founded.

CURWOOD: Now, these trees, these are some big babies. What are we looking at, 100 feet tall here?

DEL TREDICI: Or close to it, that’s for sure. These are hemlocks, uh, Canadian Hemlocks. The reason I brought you here though is if you look up into the canopy of the tree you can see how they look pretty thin. In fact most of the foliage is in the upper 20 to 25 percent of the tree and all the lower limbs have died. You can see right through them and this is the result of the, we’ve had a pest the hemlock woolly adelgid from Japan has been infesting this stand since the mid-1990s and it’s, the trees have been slowly dieing from the bottom up. Normally, when the temperatures are below minus five degrees Centigrade that will kill the hemlock woolly adelgid or at least you get 98 percent mortality. But when temperatures are above minus five degrees Centigrade you get relatively little mortality. And normally people would talk about this as this is a problem of it’s an invasive species that’s come in and devastated a native tree species- the hemlock. But it’s not as simple as that because in fact because yes, you have an invasive pest but changes in the climate have facilitated its ability to destroy its host and so this is one of the things about climate change is that it changes the way species interact with one another.


Peter Del Tredici shows Steve the damage done to the Arboretum’s hemlock trees by the wooly adelgid. (Photo: Eileen Bolinsky)

CURWOOD: Now we’re talking the world average temperature has gone up less than a degree Fahrenheit but they’re talking in Fahrenheit terms as two, three, four degrees as maybe the best we could do if we really cut emissions sharply right now. What you see here, what does that tell you we would see in the future?

DEL TREDICI: Well, remember Steve that we’re in the middle of Boston, essentially, and so in these urban areas the climate change effects are intensified because of this uh it’s called the “heat island effect” and that just refers to the fact that there’s so much pavement, and there’s so much development, that the urban areas are much warmer not only in the summer but also in the winter than the surrounding countryside so in the urban areas you get a preview of what’s likely to happen on a much larger scale because the cities are warming up much faster than the surrounding countryside.

[MUSIC Takeo Toyama “Der Meteor” from ‘Kalk Seeds: A Karaoke Kalk Compilation’ (Karaoke Kalk – 2005)]

CURWOOD: Now there’s a new gardening hardiness zone map that’s been issued by the National Arbor Day Foundation and that shows what plants can be planted where, what time of year and survive and not get hit by a frost. And it’s now showing that some parts of the country are fully one zone warmer than they used to be. And I’m just wondering what your thoughts are on this.

DEL TREDICI: Well, we like everything to be predictable. You know, we’re here in Boston we’re in zone six. We’ve always been in zone six as long as anyone who’s alive can remember. The idea that we’re moving into zone seven is just, like, earth-shattering. Nobody wants to accept it and I would caution gardeners because that’s based on long-term data. But the fact of the matter is every year is independent. In other words there’s a difference between climate and weather. We could still have a very cold winter, it’s not out of the question. We could still have a zone six or even a zone five winter. Climate change doesn’t rule that out. Climate change is really all about unpredictability. So, yes you might be able to grow camellias if you get it just cited just right, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on that right now.

[MUSIC Marz “Welt Am Draht” from ‘Kalk Seeds: A Karaoke Kalk Compilation’ (Karaoke Kalk – 2005)]

CURWOOD: Dr. Peter Del Tredici is a senior research scientist at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum in Boston. You can find a link to the Arboretum and photos of its famous lilacs at LOE dot org. Our visit with Dr. Del Tredici was produced by Living on Earth’s Eileen Bolinski.

[MUSIC Marz “Welt Am Draht” from ‘Kalk Seeds: A Karaoke Kalk Compilation’ (Karaoke Kalk – 2005)]

Related link:
Arnold Arboretum

Back to top

 

CURWOOD: Next time on Living on Earth. The iPod has revolutionized the way we get our entertainment and our information. Now it’s revolutionizing one of America’s favorite pastimes.

STRICKER: I dialed up the pre-programmed call on my iPod, broadcast the song through an external speaker, and—bada bing!—there it was, a male Chipping Sparrow, hormones pumping, singing madly from the branch in front of me. Like magic. Dial-A-Bird.
[CHIPPING SPARROW CALL]

[MUSIC Marz “Welt Am Draht” from ‘Kalk Seeds: A Karaoke Kalk Compilation’ (Karaoke Kalk – 2005)]

CURWOOD: Birding meets the iPod. Next time on Living on Earth.

[MUSIC Marz “Welt Am Draht” from ‘Kalk Seeds: A Karaoke Kalk Compilation’ (Karaoke Kalk – 2005)]

[KIDS AND TEACHER SOUNDS: “Children At Play” recorded by Eileen Bolinsky at the Arnold Arboretum Visitors’ Center in Jaimaca Plain, Massachusetts (Monday, May 7th, 2007)]

CURWOOD: We leave you this week in front of the Visitor Center at the Arnold Arboretum. Third graders from the Berkowitz School in Chelsea, Massachusetts play games as they wait to go on a field walk to learn how flowers make seeds. Living on Earth’s Eileen Bolinsky captured these sounds.

[KIDS AND TEACHER SOUNDS: “Children At Play” recorded by Eileen Bolinsky at the Arnold Arboretum Visitors’ Center in Jaimaca Plain, Massachusetts (Monday, May 7th, 2007)]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Eileen Bolinsky, Bruce Gellerman, Ian Gray, Ingrid Lobet, Jennifer Percy, Emily Taylor, Peter Thomson and Jeff Young - with help from Bobby Bascomb, and Kelley Cronin. Our interns are Paige Doughty and Meghan Vigeant.
Dennis Foley is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us at LOE dot o-r-g. I’m Steve Curwood.

From all of us here at Living on Earth, thanks for listening.

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