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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

July 8, 2011

Air Date: July 8, 2011

FULL SHOW

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EPA’s Good Neighbor Rule has wide Health Benefits

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The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced a tough new pollution restriction called the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule. This rule limits pollution drifting from power plants in one state to people’s lungs in states downwind. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Janice Nolen of the American Lung Association about the potential health benefits linked to this new standard. (Photo: Wknight94, Wikipedia Creative Commons) (05:45)

Environmental Triggers for Autism

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New research shows a strong relationship between the environment and autism. Dr. Martha Herbert is a neurology professor at Harvard Medical School. She tells host Bruce Gellerman that this study – which looked at twins - gives new evidence that autism may not solely be linked to genetics, a finding that could dramatically change autism research. Photo: The prevalence of autism has increase dramatically in the last decade. (Wikipedia Creative Commons) (06:10)

California State Parks Face Closure Despite Innovation / Ingrid Lobet

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California plans to close 70 of its state parks, places that provide inexpensive green respite to urbanites, many of them kids. As Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports, the closures come at a time when parks are pursuing creative solutions to climate and funding pressures. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet) (10:00)

Science Note/ Between Ocean and Sky / Stephanie McPherson

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The thin blue line between water is surprisingly hard to determine. But knowing how to make that distinction has big implications for environmental chemistry. Living on Earth’s Stephanie McPherson reports. (Photo: Ankakay) (01:50)

War's Toll on Afghanistan's Environment / Bruce Gellerman

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Behind the casualties and monetary costs of the war in Afghanistan are drastic environmental consequences. While coalition forces prepare to pull out, the nation is trying to tackle problems like pollution, water distribution, and deforestation. Host Bruce Gellerman investigates. Photo: Afghanistan's stunning mountain landscapes support vibrant cultures amidst the scars of war (Andrew Scanlon). (07:40)

ID That Tree

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Curious about that tree in your neighborhood? Take a picture of its leaves with LeafSnap on your iPhone. It’s an app that sends information about the leaves of a tree to a database and retrieves an identification. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with LeafSnap co-creator John Kress about what the app can do for nature awareness. Photo: LeafSnap uses the intricate details of the leaf to come up with a tree species identification. (Wikipedia Creative Commons) (06:10)

High Tide for Tidal Power? / Jeff Young

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Is it high tide for tidal power? Clean energy entrepreneurs are exploring ways to turn the flow of the tides into electricity in the Bay of Fundy. The bay, between Maine and Canada, has the world’s highest tides. But Living on Earth’s Jeff Young tells us the Bay’s history also shows just how hard it can be to make tidal power work. Photo: The high-tech blades of the Energy Tide 2 turbine spin in the water as tides come and go. The zero-emissions electricity has so far shown very little environmental impact. (Jeff Young) (09:35)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Janice Nolen, Martha Herbert, John Kress.
REPORTERS: Ingrid Lobet, Stephanie McPherson, Jeff Young

[THEME]

GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. New research suggests autism is largely an environmental illness:
HERBERT: What they calculated was that the risk for autism was 38 percent from genetics and 58 percent from environment that twins shared, which is really different than what everyone's been saying up until now.

GELLERMAN: Coming up: which chemicals in the environment to avoid to reduce the risk of autism. Also - turning tides into electricity. Clean energy washes ashore:

SPEED: And it’s renewable. The tides go, ebb and flood every day. You can set your watch by it. Now will we be 100 percent, will we be able to replace all our energy resources? No. But we’re part of the answer, a big part of the answer.

GELLERMAN: A rising tide lifts all boats and gives clean energy a boost…but will government support for tidal power ebb or flow? We’ll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around!

[THEME]

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

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EPA’s Good Neighbor Rule has wide Health Benefits

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says Americans can soon breathe easier - because it's making the Good Neighbor Rule tougher. And that decision is sure to make enemies out of utilities that burn coal.

The Good Neighbor Rule is shorthand for the EPA's Cross State Air Pollution Rule - which is a mouthful - designed to reduce a lungful of toxic chemicals that drift downwind from coal-fired power plants. Joining me to discuss the implications of the new rule is Janice Nolen, an Assistant Vice President of the American Lung Association. Welcome to Living on Earth!

NOLEN: Thank you!

GELLERMAN: The Cross State Air Pollution Rule - it’s been around for awhile, right?

NOLEN: One version of it was. EPA did have an earlier version of this in 2005 that got tossed out by the courts in 2008. The courts said, ‘EPA, we really have to clean up these power plants, we agree with you on this,’ and so this rule provides a better structure and a more complete approach to dealing with the pollution from coal-fired power plants that blows across state lines and contributes to pollution problems all over the eastern US.

GELLERMAN: So, how does it work?

NOLEN: The EPA figures out how much pollution in each state is coming from a state across the state line. Sometimes they’re as far away as, say, Texas is from Pennsylvania, and EPA is calculating what percentage of that pollution in Pennsylvania is coming from each of those states. And they’ve done this through some computer modeling, through some testing and investigation and have arrived at an assessment that can help people in Pennsylvania recognize that they can't deal with pollution problems coming from Texas, they have to have the help of EPA so that they can sort through their problem.

GELLERMAN: Now this does not affect all states, it’s only, what, 27 states as I understand it, in the East?


Coal fired power plant in New Hampshire. (Photo: Jim Richmond, Flickr Creative Commons)

NOLEN: Right, it’s the eastern US, the Midwest, Northeast, Southeast. Parts of places where the state lines are pretty close together, where pollution can easily blow from some of these big sources throughout the country into other parts of the country. So that’s one of the reasons it’s the good neighbor rule. It’s a rule that will actually help people to be able to breathe easier downwind for the first time, really.

GELLERMAN: So specifically, what pollutants are we talking about?

NOLEN: The main ones we’re looking at are two of the most widespread in the country: ozone, which is often called smog, and particle pollution, which is frequently known as soot. Particle pollution are tiny bits of things that are actually so small that they can pass through the body’s natural defenses. Ozone is a highly irritating gas, and when you inhale it, it can make the lungs have like a sunburn effect.

GELERMAN: And these new rules by the EPA would dramatically cut those, right?

NOLEN: Absolutely. These new rules would help reduce sulfur dioxide by 73 percent from levels that existed in 2005. For nitrogen oxide, they’re cutting that by about 54 percent. So it’s a significant amount of reduction to be able to provide healthier air for all of us.

GELLERMAN: So what are the health benefits of this new rule?

NOLEN: Well, the first one is to save lives. EPA estimates that by 2014, we will have 34,000 fewer deaths each year thanks to having this rule put in place. By that same year we’ll have about 15,000 fewer heart attacks. We’ll have 400,000 fewer asthma attacks. These are real health improvements that we will be able to see. People don’t always realize that air pollution causes people to die, that it causes heart attacks, causes asthma attacks. But we have plenty of evidence that shows that and the calculations show that this will have a terrific public health benefit.

GELLERMAN: But it’s not like there’s a death certificate that says “Killed by coal power plants,” you know? How do you really know how many deaths and illnesses are caused by them?

NOLEN: You’re right, people don’t think that when they have a heart attack that it’s related, but we’re able to do this through very large studies that are done of communities across the nation that have been tracked for a long time, that we’re able to track this down and compare it to the air quality in that community, and by eliminating the consideration for those other things like smoking or something, we’re able to see that air pollution has a real measurable impact on public health.

GELLERMAN: What about in terms of economic benefits? Has that been quantified?

NOLEN: Yes. And EPA is finding that the economic benefits of this rule far outweigh the costs associated with it. EPA expects that we’re looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 to 100 times more dollars of benefits for every dollar of costs associated with this rule. So it’s going to have a huge benefit.

GELLERMAN: Well, how much is it going to cost utilities to comply with the new EPA rule?

NOLEN: EPA is projecting that in 2014, the costs will be 800 million dollars and then roughly 1.6 billion each year in capital investments already under way as a result of what they’re doing now. And then it will result in 120-280 billion in annual benefits. So the costs, and even the upfront and even the substantial annual costs, are going to be far outweighed by the annual benefits that will come in.

GELLERMAN: Well, what is industry saying? They don’t like this at all?

NOLEN: It’s not like they haven’t known that these rules would be coming down the pike. The last time we changed the Clean Air Act was 1990, so for 21 years they’ve known that they need to be cleaning up their power plants. And now we’re finally putting things in place. They’re going to have to follow the rules!

GELLERMAN: So is this a done deal now?

NOLEN: It should be. EPA has produced this as a final rule, once it’s published. There are a few pieces of it that are going back and they’re going, ‘OK, well, we’ve changed this a little bit, so we’re having another opportunity for comment.’ And then starting in January, cleanup will be happening. EPA has this authority, and hopefully they will be allowed to exercise the authority, as the law requires.

GELLERMAN: Janice Nolen is the Assistant Vice President at the American Lung Association. Ms. Nolen, thank you so very much!

NOLEN: Thank you!

Related links:
- Learn more about the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule
- Read what the American Lung Association has to say about the cross-state rule

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[MUSIC: Open Door/Various Artists “Breathe (Pink Floyd) from Rewind (Ubiquity Records 2001).]

Environmental Triggers for Autism

The prevalence of autism has increase dramatically in the last decade. (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

GELLERMAN: There are significant and exciting new findings that fundamentally alter our understanding of what causes autism. For generations, scientists thought autism was essentially a genetic disease - but there's growing evidence environmental factors may play an even larger role. The case is made in a new study of twins in the most recent issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry. To help us understand the study's complex findings we turn to Dr. Martha Herbert - she's a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and an expert in the field of autism research. Dr. Herbert, welcome to Living on Earth.

HERBERT: Thank you.

GELLERMAN: So let's look at the methodology that the researchers used - they used, they studied twins.

HERBERT: Right.

GELLERMAN: Why?

HERBERT: Because twins are in the same family and they share at least some genes. But identical twins share all the genes and fraternal twins don’t share all the genes - they have maybe 50-50.

GELLERMAN: So if something shows up in the identical twins you’d say, ‘Ah, genetic.’ But, if something shows up in the fraternal twins, you’d say, ‘Mmm, there’s something else going on here.’

HERBERT: Yes, that’s what people have usually said.

GELLERMAN: So these researchers studied, what, about 192 pairs of twins?

HERBERT: Right.

GELLERMAN: What did they find?

HERBERT: They found that actually there was more concordance than expected in the fraternal twins, and less in the identical twins.


Repetitive behaviors like stacking can be a behavior associated with autism. (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

GELLERMAN: Concordance?

HERBERT: That means that if one is autistic, then the other is autistic. So usually it has been that 60-90 percent of the identical twins were both autistic, and 0-10 percent were both autistic if they were fraternal twins. And that led people to think that this was, by in large, very, very strongly, a genetic disorder. But to have there be so much match -concordance - in the fraternal twins, and not so much in the identical, suggests that there’s shared environment. What they calculated was that the risk for autism was 38 percent from genetics and 58 percent from environment that twins shared.

GELLERMAN: So it’s a very low number in terms of genetics and very high in terms of environmental issues.

HERBERT: Yes, which is really different from what everybody’s been saying up until now.

GELLERMAN: So what kind of environmental factors could we be talking about?

HERBERT: Well, there are lots of environmental factors that people have been talking about and trying to do research about. It ranges from chemicals to nutrition to exposures like to being living near a freeway – many, many different types of factors.

GELLERMAN: Are there any suspects that perhaps stand out from the crowd?

HERBERT: There are a number of chemicals that it’s a good idea to watch out for. Bisphenol - plasticizers that make plastics moldable. Flame retardants - flame retardants in baby pajamas and in bedding that were not tested for the baby urinating in the bed, which then makes the chemicals float around in the air that the baby then breathes in. Pesticides - be really careful about spraying your house. Find more natural ways of avoiding pest exposure. Pesticides in food - try to eat organic if possible. Don’t microwave in plastic. Look under your sink and clean out a lot of the products, which have long lists of chemicals that you can’t pronounce. There’s lots of ways of cleaning your house with simple products, with vinegar and water and baking soda, and things that are not going to cause problems, that may show up now or later.

GELLERMAN: There’s another new study that suggests that women who take anti-depressants while they’re pregnant have a higher incidence of children with autism.


Martha Herbert (Photo: Anne-Marie Singh)

HERBERT: Right, it’s about double the risk. And it reminds me of another recent study that came out where mothers who did not take prenatal vitamins were 60 percent more at risk of having children with autism. But what’s interesting about that is if the mother, who was not taking a prenatal vitamin, also had a mutation in one of two genes, that make you more vulnerable to the environment, they had up to four and a half times increased risk of having a child with autism.


Dr. Martha Herbert and Bruce Gellerman in the LOE studio. (Photo: Anne-Marie Singh)

GELLERMAN: Now the number of cases of autism is exploding. I think that the Centers for Disease Control says something like 600 percent increase over the last two decades. It’s a national health crisis!

HERBERT: Right, well the numbers are going up. The numbers that are reported in each successive study seem to be higher. The most recent study from Korea was one in 38. That’s a lot, that’s like three percent, which is a lot for something that 15 years ago was 3 in 10,000.

GELLERMAN: In terms of autism spectrum disorder - the dramatic increase - can part of that be understood in redefining it or looking for it more carefully?

HERBERT: There have been a number of studies in the last couple of years trying to figure out whether the autism increases are real, an artifact, or a combination of both. And what it’s looking like is somewhere between half to 2/3 is real, and the rest is some kind of artifact - whether we loosened up the diagnostic criteria, we’re diagnosing people younger, or we’re noticing people we never noticed before.

GELLERMAN: How does this research help us, and what happens next in autism research?

HERBERT: I think this paper is fantastic for saying: ‘Lets pull out the stops and look at everything we possibly can - environmentally.’ We have been putting our eggs so much in the basket of genetics. I have a dear friend who is a geneticist who said, ‘Why don’t you environmental people wait for awhile, we’ll work out the genes and you can sort of do the trimmings.’ Now, looking back, this is not the trimmings. This is not the icing on the cake, it’s the cake.

GELLERMAN: Well, Dr. Herbert, thank you so very much for coming in and helping us understand this very complex and very important topic.

HERBERT: Great, thank you!

GELLERMAN: Dr. Martha Herbert is a Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. Her new book, which comes out next year, is called "The Autism Revolution."

Related links:
- Read the study: Genetic Heritability and Shared Environmental Factors Among Twin Pairs with Autism
- Anti-depressants and autism
- Martha Herbert’s Website

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[MUSIC: : Perculator “Poetry of Mice And Men” from Apple Tea ? Why Not, Come In (Dbut Records 2005).]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead - finding ways to keep parks afloat when state budgets are drowning in red ink. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Ben Williams: Dawn Of A New Day” from State of Art (Concord Records 2011).]

California State Parks Face Closure Despite Innovation

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Across the nation, states are trying to balance their budgets by slashing funds to schools, mental health facilities, prisons and anti-crime efforts. California goes even further. The new budget calls for closing a quarter of the state’s parks. Seventy parks are slated to be shut saving 33 million dollars over the next 2 years. But state officials aren’t sitting still while the budget ax falls - they’re trying innovative ways to save parks financially and ecologically. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet has our report.

[MAP RUSTLING]

LOBET: In her leafy backyard Shari Boyer unfolds a map on the patio table. The map shows the beaches of the California coastline, and all the rest of the 278 state parks. Boyer and her husband run a small company, Good Solutions Group or GSG, that produces these maps, free of charge, for the Parks Department. BOYER: We never take a dime from a park, and therefore from the taxpayer of public money. All of our money comes from corporations.

LOBET: Corporations are always trying to tap new audiences. And since Boyer had worked in marketing for Proctor and Gamble, she knew the Coca Colas, Odwallas and Subarus of the world would be hungry to reach park users.

BOYER: What we see is that there is a large audience that visits parks, 740 million visits to state parks across the country a year. So a very, very, very large audience. So these are not people who are sitting on couch thinking about going outdoors - they are actually outdoors. So that makes them a very attractive target audience for a corporation.

LOBET: Boyer's company now produces maps for 15 states, but has moved beyond that. They work with Northface, giving away park passes in Oregon and 6 other states. With Juicy Juice, they built a playground in New York. The company also turns out volunteers for workdays, like one at a major Orange County surf beach in April.

BOYER: We did the largest Earth Day clean up that the California State Parks Foundation has ever done. We had over eleven hundred people out, they were community members, but also Coca Cola and Stater Brothers employees, and we cleaned up 38,000 pounds of invasive species.

LOBET: GSG keeps a slice of the total corporate contribution. And do the companies get buildings or benches named after them? Not really. Logos tend to be small, on one corner of a plaque, or map.

BOYER: I think what we have to do is just make sure that if we do bring partners in, that we do it in a very acceptable way, and it doesn’t turn into massive billboards, and renaming parks.
LOBET: Boyer's company has channeled a total of 7.7 million dollars into parks since 2003. One of the largest has been the rehabilitation of a devastated park. And they're not alone in providing new channels for funding.

[SOUNDS OF WALKING ON THE GROUND]

LOBET: Out on a wild hillside, chaparral bursts into bloom, strong from the spring rains. Nedra Martinez pulls a knife from her pocket. She kneels down before an 18-inch pine seedling and slices the orange mesh that protected it from browsing deer.

MARTINEZ: It’s impossible for me to be out here and not take these off…

LOBET: Martinez is the district superintendent for the sweeping Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in the mountains east of San Diego.

MARTINEZ: I’m very excited. You know, it’s just a miracle is what I think it is to see all the work we’ve done here come to fruition, and have these trees being so big that we have to take the Vexar off them. It’s just… it makes you smile (Laughs).

LOBET: The last eight years Martinez has worked amid a scene of devastation. In 2003 the hot burning Cedar Fire ransacked this park.

[SOUND OF CINDERS ON A CEDAR TREE]

LOBET: Only black cindery spikes now stand where once there was once a forest of Incense Cedar and pine.

WELLS: The Cedar Fire was the largest fire in California’s recorded history.

LOBET: Mike Wells is a former district superintendent and fire manager.

WELLS: It was one of the worse days of my life to see how thorough the damage had been and to note that very little natural regeneration had taken place.

LOBET: Wells is also a scientist, and he had research plots in the forest. They were all destroyed.

WELLS: Just about the time that that happened, then we had another set of fires, including the Witch Fire, which I believe is the third or fourth largest fire in California history, and by end of that, sort of, episode of fire, over 6 of the ten largest fires in California history had taken place. So, completely unprecedented in our recorded history. And during that time over half the conifer forest in San Diego County burned. So this... is a whole new world.

LOBET: Scientists believe these frequent hotter fires are a result of fire suppression and climate change. Wells' research told him the Coulter Pines that did remain after the fire should produce new seedlings. But it wasn’t happening. There weren’t enough trees, and the survivors had had their seeds blistered by the fire.

WELLS: And so, after monitoring the park for about 5 years, we realized that natural recovery in this area was going to be very slow and maybe for some species not happen at all. And so we kind of came to the conclusion that maybe trying to recreate some patches would help to shorten the recovery time for the forest.

LOBET: Now, even in good times, the state doesn’t pay to replant after a fire. The practice is to just let things grow back. Foresters at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park wanted to try a novel ecological approach, replanting small “islands” of trees and hoping these would eventually reseed the park. Facing unpredictable fire seasons and the toughest economic times in memory, they turned to a non-profit. Scott Steen works with the American Forests, which funds reforestation.

STEEN: This is a really interesting pilot project for us. In this case, nature wasn’t running its course, you weren’t seeing the regeneration you would expect. And it’s an important ecosystem and it’s also a park. And it’s a park that’s been an important part of this region for a long time. I think a lot of people grew up coming to this park.

LOBET: The timing for this idea was also fortunate. The State of California had recently pressed ConocoPhillips about one of its refineries that was set to increase CO2 emissions. The company agreed to pay $2.8 million dollars toward reforestation. Those dollars were channeled through American Forests, together with funds from Shari Boyer's Good Solutions Group to fund the replanting here, 880 acres so far.

[BIRD SOUNDS IN THE FOREST]

LOBET: But these efforts are not enough to head off the first parks closures in the history of the State of California. The Parks Department is actively looking for cities, counties and non-profits that might be willing to take over whole parks, but it expects many to close. Mike Wells says that will change lives.

WELLS: You know I’ve probably have seen tens of thousands of school kids come through state parks as part of field trips. And then they come back with their parents. And [pause] I think it’s, you know, very important to kind of create that bond so that people appreciate the natural world. And especially young people that are into their video games, and they go to school, which is a completely artificial environment. And then their parents take them to dance lessons or a soccer field, which is also an artificial environment and they never really develop that bond to the natural world. So, I think that’s probably the most important thing that state parks do.

[BIRD SOUNDS]

LOBET: Or won’t do, if tens of thousands of visitors lose access to parks near them slated to close in July 2012. For Living on Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet in Los Angeles.

GELLERMAN: Now Ingrid, stay with me for a moment, OK?

LOBET: Sure.

GELLERMAN: About closing these parks - how does California actually do that? Can the State Parks Department just lock the gates and walk away?

LOBET: Well, that’s what the parks department is looking at. For some parks they may not be able to do that, one reason would be - if they’ve received federal funds for certain parks, they may have to keep those open some minimal time. They’re looking at maybe one day a week.

GELLERMAN: What about people just hanging out or taking up residence in a State Park that’s closed?

LOBET: Yeah, that’s one interesting thing is they are actually considering leaving the parks open, since, as you say, it could be more convenient for homeless people or for criminal activity if the parks were locked. So one thing the parks department says it’s considering is, you know, many parks have a dedicated group of park supporters, they’ll often be called ‘Friends of X,Y,Z Park’- people who have been going to that park regularly for years - they could ask these groups of volunteers to keep an eye on the park and report if there is any suspicious activity, which would then become the problem of the police or the sheriff’s department.

GELLERMAN: What about maintenance, who does the maintenance or do they just stop?

LOBET: There wouldn’t be any more maintenance. That’s where a lot of the savings comes from, along with staffing. And in a few cases, these local groups might actually have the wherewithal to keep the park open and take over daily operations, but surely there won’t be groups with that kind of time and money for every park. Probably not even a majority unless people really make a leap in their commitment.

GELLERMAN: Well, thank you very much, Ingrid.

LOBET: You’re welcome!

GELLERMAN: Ingrid Lobet is Living on Earth’s West Coast Bureau Chief.

Related link:
Details of Afghanistan's 2007 Environmental Law.

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[MUSIC: Jim Hall “The Answer Is Yes” from Concierto (CTI Records/Sony Music 2011).]

Science Note/ Between Ocean and Sky

GELLERMAN: Coming up: Dethroning the lords of water and other environmental consequences of the war in Afghanistan, but first this note on emerging science from Stephanie McPherson.

[SOUND: WAVES AND SEAGULLS]

Waves rolling through the ocean look completely separate from the salty air above as they crash down and sink back into the depths. But researchers at the University of Southern California have discovered that the boundary between air and water is not so cut and dried.

[SCIENCE NOTE THEME MUSIC]

One quarter of the water molecules sloshing around at the surface are sitting across the border separating the liquid of the ocean from the gas of the atmosphere.

To test this, scientists used extremely distilled water and singled out the thinnest layer of molecules ever examined. They found that one of every four water molecules right at the air-water boundary was not all wet.

Of the two hydrogen atoms in one molecule of H2O, one hovered just over the water line, free of the usual bonds that kept its underwater partner a liquid. If the molecule were a person, said one of the researchers, it would look like a swimmer waving one arm up out of the water for help.

Many of the chemical reactions that happen at the water’s surface help to keep our atmosphere in balance. Probing the nuances of where water meets air gives environmental chemists more precise information to work with when calculating the rates of these reactions.

Next up, the team will check how salt- and particle-saturated bodies of water compare to their pure water results. That's this week's note on emerging science. I'm Stephanie McPherson.

[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]

Related links:
- Nature Article: Hydrogen Bonding at the Water Surface Revealed by Isotopic Dilution Spectroscopy
- Water’s Surface Not All Wet

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War's Toll on Afghanistan's Environment

Afghanistan's stunning mountain landscapes support vibrant cultures amidst the scars of war (Credit: Andrew Scanlon).

GELLERMAN: Last month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave a speech and
made two surprising statements

[HAMID KARZAI SPEECH IN BACKGROUND]

GELLERMAN: He confirmed for the first time that the US was talking with the Taliban. That announcement made headlines, but largely overlooked was something else the Afghan president said. Karzai condemned coalition forces for the environmental consequences war has had on his country.

[HAMID KARZAI SPEECH IN BACKGROUND]

GELLERMAN: Every time their planes fly, he said, they make smoke. When they drop bombs, they have chemical materials in them. Karzai also accused coalition forces of polluting Afghanistan with nuclear components, an apparent reference to depleted plutonium used in munitions and armor. “Our people are killed,” said Karzai, “but also our environment is damaged.” Back in 2005 Karzai established Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency, but it’s still a work in progress. Ghulam Malikyar is a senior advisor to the NEPA. The phone lines to Afghanistan are poor, so we voiced over what he said:

MALIKYAR (with voice over): The environment is not a priority for the government. It’s not even included in the national strategy. Now the Afghan Environmental Protection Agency is trying to convince the government to consider the environment a vital asset. I expect that President Karzai’s support will bring good changes for environmental protection in this country.

GELLERMAN: As the US begins pulling out of Afghanistan, it leaves behind 30 million people, devastated by 30 years of war. This vast country, landlocked, with soaring mountains, is the sixth poorest in the world - the average life expectancy - just 44 years. Andrew Scanlon with the United Nation Environmental Program says dealing with the consequences of war will take generations and require sensitivity to the country’s diverse tribal cultures.

SCANLON: It’s a complex place, and it’s a place full of local stories. So everywhere you hear one story and it may be very different in Kunduz than it would be in Helmand or in Kabul. The tendency being to take one story that you’ve heard and assume that that’s the national story. And that’s not the case a lot of the time. All the local stories do not make up a national story. They’re very unique.

GELLERMAN: We reached Andrew Scanlon in Bamyan Province, where the Taliban blew up two ancient statues of the Buddha. But it's war’s effect on Afghanistan’s ancient network of water canals called the karez system that’s of more immediate concern to Afghans. Zahid Hamdard, a senior government environmental official, says the karez system has been critical for Afghan survival for three thousand years. The tunnels are dug are just beneath the ground.

HAMDARD (with voice over): When there are movements of military vehicles or bombs dropped, these systems are completely damaged. In my recent experiences with the Ministry of Rural Development, most of the community needs are repairs to the irrigation systems, Karez maintenance.

GELLERMAN: Physical damage to the karez water system isn’t the only problem. Afghanistan actually has plenty of water, but Andrew Scanlon says 3 decades of war have disrupted the traditional method of allocating it. That’s a job usually done by the Lord of the Water.

SCANLON: You have a wonderful level of management at the village level run by a guy called the Mirab, the Lord of the Water, and this would be a guy in every village, whose role has been passed on by his father and his grandfather and his great-grandfather, going back for hundreds if not thousands of years

GELLERMAN: In the 1980’s Soviet occupiers centralized Afghanistan’s water distribution system, undermining the Lords of the Water. What’s needed today, says Scanlon, is a return to decentralized, community management - especially in farmlands that depend on irrigation. 60 percent of Afghans make their living from agriculture - it accounts for half the nation’s GDP – not including the opium crop, but war has taken its toll. For example, In Kandahar, once the Taliban capital, Zahid Hamdard says fighting has laid waste green valleys of red pomegranates.

HAMDARD (with voice over): The clearing of Kandahar district was strategically important, but it came at the cost of some of the pomegranate orchards and those have definitely contributed to the bad environmental quality. And the same has happened in Helmand, which has been one of the agricultural producers of the country. It was damaged because of the stronger presence of the insurgents or anti-government elements.

GELLERMAN: The Afghan government lacks the resources and reach to control much of the land. A powerful ‘timber mafia’ has taken over much of the valuable forest – in 30 years, 60 percent of the deciduous trees have been cut down. Half of Afghanistan’s pistachio trees, once so abundant, are gone. So too are almond and juniper trees, long term food sources sacrificed for fuel. Environmental advisor Ghulam Malikyar:

MALIKYAR (with voice over): War has brought poverty. Poverty is one of the main sources of environmental degradation because people are forced to use different sources of energy. And the same with natural resources – they use it up for energy, for livelihood.

GELLERMAN: The Pentagon spends about 200 million dollars a month to fuel the Afghan war. Zahid Hamdard says now burnt hulks of oil tankers litter mountain passes.

HAMDARD (with voice over): Wherever you travel on the highways you see these oil tankers that have been set on fire. This can cause the toxic pollution of natural habitats and wildlife from these fires by insurgents.

GELLERMAN: Afghanistan was once an important stop on the flyway for migratory birds, but deforestation, drought and 30 years of war have ruined wetlands. Today it’s estimated that the number of birds migrating over Afghanistan is down 85 percent. The fighting has also led to a mass migration of people from rural areas to cities. The population of Kabul has doubled in less than a decade. And today air pollution in the capital kills more civilians a year than combat nationwide. Again, government official Zahid Hamdard.


The signs of war are everywhere in Kabul (Credit: Andrew Scanlon).

HAMDARD (with voice over): More than 3000 people die from air pollution in Kabul - it definitely is a concern right now.

GELLERMAN: Is that because people are coming into Kabul to escape the fighting? And, therefore, they pollute the air more?

HAMDARD (with voice over): Partly that reason, but also since it is one of the main cities, it is an economic hub with lots of industrial and business activities, and also because of the strong presence of international organizations.

GELLERMAN: For the past decade, the US led coalition has tried to create a civil society in Afghanistan - and today the nation has tough environmental laws and standards. But enforcement is weak. Still, Andrew Scanlon of the UN environmental program is optimistic. For example, he says the new Green Club of Afghanistan has thousands of members.

SCANLON: There’s light at the end of the tunnel – it’s a pretty long tunnel – but I think one of the reasons I’m hopeful is because of the people that are here on the ground. They’re so strong, they’re so tough. And it’s still an incredibly beautiful, natural, mountainous, alpine, Himalayan place.

GELLERMAN: Even three decades of war can’t change that.

Back to top

[MUSIC: The Afghan Music Project “A Rose Among The Ruins” from the Afghan Music Project (Afghan Music Project 2005).]
GELLERMAN: Coming up - riding the wave of the future - electricity washes up on shore. Stay tuned, it’s Living on Earth!
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change, and the Sierra Club, helping city-bound kids explore and enjoy wild places they’ll later strive to protect. Online at sierraclub.org/livingonearth. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Bela Fleck: “Gravity Lane” from Bottle Rocket (E One Music 2011)]

ID That Tree

LeafSnap uses the intricate details of the leaf to come up with a tree species identification. (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. I think that I shall never see, an app that can I.D. a tree…. but now I can! Poems are made by fools like me but it took John Kress to develop a smart phone app to find the right tree. Kress is Chief Botanist at the Smithsonian Institution. He and some computer experts at Columbia University have created LeafSnap. Dr. Kress, welcome to Living on Earth.

KRESS: Oh it's great to be here and talking to you.

GELLERMAN: So, LeafSnap. You take a picture with your iPhone, then what happens?

KRESS: “Then what happens” took us about eight years to develop! It then generates an image of it. It segments the leaf into kind of its basic shape. Then it sends that segmentation over the net up to the server at Columbia where we’ve stored a giant library of other images of leaves. So it compares your leaf to all those images of leaves, gives you the best match and then sends back the top choice.

GELLERMAN: How big is your database?

KRESS: Right now we have about 200 species of trees, primarily from Central Park in New York City and Rock Creek Park here in Washington. That accounts for almost 10,000 different images that we have up on the server. We built a library for each species of any types of leaves that you’d find the forest because we all know nature varies and no two leaves are alike, so, we really wanted to represent each species by more than one leaf. And so, for Magnolia grandiflora, we may have 50 different leaf images in the library that your image than gets compared to.

GELLERMAN: So, our producer Stephanie went out and got some leaves and she picked them and they’re right here, and I’m going to take a picture with a borrowed iPhone. Saving the image…it’s uploading the image over our wireless network…so I’ve got results here - I’ve got a bunch of results here, actually. It’s got the picture that I took and it’s got almost like an x-ray, like a silhouette.

KRESS: That’s the segmentation of the leaf. It’s separated out its background and it’s separated out its shape there, so what you’re seeing is just the shape of that leaf - there’s no veins, there’s no color, there’s no nothing.

GELLERMAN: Well, there’s the results that says: London Plane Tree or Red Maple or Sugar Maple. Now there’s a lot of different trees there!

KRESS: Yeah, but look at the leaves, they’re all somewhat similar – they all have that serrated jagged edge with maybe five or six main lobes on it. And that’s the fascinating thing about nature. Nature has come up with the same sorts of shapes in many different ways in many different species, and our challenge was to separate those out there. And we focused on using the leaves because one, they’re two dimensional, as soon as we move into the three-dimensional realm of a flower or a fruit, the problem gets a lot harder, and two, there’s a lot of information in those leaves. If you look at, it's not only the basic shape, but it’s the lobes on the leaves, it’s the little serrations or the smooth edges - all of that helps us identify what species it.

GELLERMAN: I think I found it! It’s a Striped Maple. So I’ve got Acer Pennsylvanicum here.

KRESS: Yep. If you were standing outside next to that tree, and you came up with the identification, then you could compare the photo of the bark with the photo of the tree. And if there were any fruits hanging down you could compare the photo of the fruits, and then you can really confirm your identification that way.

GELLERMAN: So now you’ve got Central Park and Rock Creek Park in D.C. mapped out here - what’s next?

KRESS: Right as we speak we have colleagues collecting images and data on all the trees of the northeastern United States. Because we are going to expand this across the United States starting with the Northeast and then probably all the trees east of the Mississippi River and then head west. And we hope within a few years if the funding is available, we’re going to be able to have a system that will work anywhere in North America.

GELLERMAN: Now, I can see a potential snafu to LeafSnap, though, you know? You’re out there in the great outdoors and you’re hiking in the middle of nowhere and you don’t have 3G or wireless access.

KRESS: Yeah, that is a problem. But I think that’s probably going to change as time goes on. I just came back from eastern Africa, and even there, out near the Serengeti, I had access to some sort of communication.

GELLERMAN: So I don’t have an iPhone, I’ve got an Android phone. You got an app for that?

KRESS: We’re working on an Android version of LeafSnap right now. We hope, probably by the end of the summer, early fall, you’ll also be able to put this on your Android phones.

GELLERMAN: And it’s a freebee app, right?

KRESS: It’s free. We had long discussions about that too. This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation who gave us the original grant to put it together. But we felt that this application that we really hope brings people closer to nature and closer to understanding nature, would be much better to be a free app than any sort of cost to it.

GELLERMAN: You could also broaden horizons, you could turn kind of a casual person into a citizen scientist, actually.

KRESS: That’s just what we hope, Bruce, that’s just what we’re aiming for. In fact, we’ve already, since the release of LeafSnap, we’ve already had a lot of inquiries from school teachers, from high school teachers, from even college professors that really see how LeafSnap can be adapted and become part of their curriculum, whether it’s five year olds or whether it’s twenty five year olds, and that’s what we’re shooting for.

GELLERMAN: Well, Dr. Kress, that was a lot of fun. Thank you, I really enjoyed it!

KRESS: My pleasure and I hope everybody else enjoys using Leafsnap.

GELLERMAN: John Kress is chief botanist at the Smithsonian Institution and helped develop the new LeapSnap app – for more details check out our website – loe.org.

Related link:
Learn more at LeafSnap

Back to top

[MUSIC: Reverend Gary Davis “Maple Leaf Rag” from The Guitar And Banjo Of Reverend Gary Davis (Fantasy Records 1964).]

High Tide for Tidal Power?

The high-tech blades of the Energy Tide 2 turbine spin in the water as tides come and go. The zero-emissions electricity has so far shown very little environmental impact. (Photo: Jeff Young)

GELLERMAN: In the quest for clean energy scientists look to the power of the wind, the sun, the deep earth and even the moon—or more specifically, the moon’s gravitational pull on our oceans. The motion of the rise and fall of the tides carries enormous potential energy to the coasts twice a day like clockwork. However, harnessing that power has long proved problematic. Many have failed. But Living on Earth’s Jeff Young visited some energy entrepreneurs who think they can turn the tide on tidal electricity.

[SOUND OF WAVES AGAINST DOCK]

YOUNG: The barge-like craft moored to a dock in Portland, Maine, looks like some modern version of a sternwheel paddleboat. Hydraulic arms hold a massive cylinder of blades ready to go in the water. But this boat isn’t built for speed, it’s built for power — tidal power. It’s the creation of Chris Sauer and his Ocean Renewable Power Company.


Chris Sauer and his company’s Energy Tide 2, which was developed with some help from the federal government. Sauer hopes the Dept. of Energy will continue its modest support of tidal power. (Photo: Jeff Young)

SAUER: This is our baby, this is the Energy Tide 2. This is the largest ocean energy device ever deployed in U.S. waters.

YOUNG: Let’s have a look.

SAUER: Come aboard!

[SOUNDS OF WALKING ONBOARD BOAT]

YOUNG: The Energy Tide 2 is normally anchored near Eastport, in an arm of the Bay of Fundy called Cobscook Bay. Sauer towed it to Portland for a national convention on ocean energy. He shows me to the boat’s business end, the high tech composite blades curved inside a turbine generator unit, or TGU.

SAUER: When it’s fully deployed it’s directly under this axle right here. And it’s about 15 feet from the top of the water to top of the TGU, and then it’s locked into position and it just sits there. And as the tidal currents come it starts to generate electricity. And then of course the tide reverses and comes the other way and does same thing. On an average basis we’re generating about 18 to 20 hours a day.

YOUNG: A small cabin crowded with electronics and monitors converts the power and keeps track of what’s happening underwater. The unit can generate 60 kilowatts of power and that’s been going to a coast guard station, the country’s first federal facility to use tidal power. But primarily, this is a research project. Sauer says in a year of operation it’s shown virtually no impact to fish or other marine life, and it’s proved that the tides can predictably generate power that could be plugged into the grid. Now Sauer wants to scale up.

SAUER: The next step is our turbine generator unit is going to get a little bigger, instead of two turbines it’s going to have four turbines. It’s going to be about twice as long, but it’s going to put out three times the power. So instead of a design capacity of 60 kilowatts it will be 180 kilowatts. And we hope to get that in the water and connected to the grid by the end of the year. That’s our plan.

YOUNG: Sauer says the project has also proved tidal power can generate jobs. The company has provided jobs for 100 people in Maine, people like Darrell Speed who had been laid off.

SPEED: Honestly I was at the stage where I was going to have to look to go outside of Maine. I was born and raised here, want to stay here, but, you know, it was coming down to that.

YOUNG: That’s when Speed saw an ad for ocean renewable power. He had no idea what it was about.

SPEED: Well, quite frankly I didn’t care at the time. I needed a job. Like I said before, I wanted to stay in Maine. But since I’ve gotten here this company, you know, it’s a company about creating jobs but also a company about creating a sustainable energy resource for the United States. And it’s renewable. The tides go, ebb and flood every day. You can set your watch by it. Now, will we be 100 percent able to replace all our energy resources? No. But we’re part of the answer – a big part of the answer.

YOUNG: At least three other companies are trying to harness the tides in these waters using similar technology. On the Canadian side of the Bay, Mark Savory is vice president for Nova Scotia Power, the provincial utility. He hired an Irish company called Open Hydro to supply a tide turbine that looks like the front of a jet engine. The blades are inside a disc housing the magnets of the generator. Savory’s crew moored it to the bay’s floor in 2009 then pulled it up a year later, to an unpleasant surprise.

SAVORY: We lost the blades off of it. It’s like we just purely overloaded it. So other than the fact that there’s no blades on it, it looks almost like the day we put it in.

YOUNG: (Laughs) So just stripped out the blades. I imagine you reporting back to your boss and saying, ‘I’ve got some good news and some bad news here!’

SAVORY: That was exactly my story last year: I have good news and I have bad news. Bad news is, no blades. Good news is, boy there’s a lot of energy there. A lot more than we would have thought.

YOUNG Savory’s not giving up. Nova Scotia Power estimates it might be able to get two gigawatts of electricity from the tides, about 15 percent of the province’s annual power consumption. Other areas like Cook’s Inlet in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest coast have potential — even New York’s East River has a tidal power test underway. But just how much can we harness from such harsh environments? That’s what Dr. Robert Thresher is trying to figure out. Thresher is a research fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado. He’s worked with wind power since its early development in the 1970s. Now he’s researching tidal power and finds the two are really quite similar.

THRESHER: They absolutely are. A lot of the basic understanding and engineering fundamentals with which you use to design a good wind turbine, you would use exactly those same principles to design a tidal turbine. Tidal power is, if you want to think of it that way, it’s just a different fluid.

YOUNG: Wind power took about 35 years to go from prototypes to commercially viable power. But Dr. Thresher says tide power could develop much faster.

THRESHER: In my opinion, the tidal power stands on the shoulders of wind power. I predict that we’ll start to see some tidal power on grid within two or three years, and that it’ll grow over next five to 10 years to become basically a practical technology.

YOUNG: Thresher’s rough guess is that tidal power and other forms of ocean energy could eventually provide five to 10 percent of U.S. electricity demand. But that will largely depend on how much the government is willing to do to help make it happen. One reason Europe is far ahead in tidal power development is because many EU policies encourage clean energy. Will the do the same US government ? Some lessons lie in the history of the Bay of Fundy. People have been trying tidal projects here without success for nearly 80 years but they keep coming back for some reason.

WOODARD: Easy answer: it’s the world’s highest tides in the Bay of Fundy.

YOUNG: That’s Maine writer and regional historian Colin Woodard who describes the phenomenal power of Fundy’s tides, which can rise up to 50 feet.

[SOUNDS OF BAY OF FUNDY TIDAL FALLS]

WOODARD: It looks like a reversing river flowing, the entire ocean is moving rapidly before your eyes when the tides are moving. There’s the largest whirlpool in the western hemisphere forms as the tides collide, it’s large enough to pull a small boat down. It’s a very dramatic thing to look at.

[SOUND OF WATER DRAINING]

WOODARD: The amount of energy involved is absolutely enormous which of course makes it attractive to those wishing to generate electricity from tides. The original plan was cooked up by a fellow named Dexter Cooper, who was a hydroelectric engineer who had a summer place on the bay.

[OLD NEWSREEL SOUND]

YOUNG: Cooper’s plan is portrayed in this 1936 March of Time newsreel.

[NEWSREEL: Why not, reasoned Cooper, harness this tide, bottle it up and send it through a turbine to generate cheap electricity?]

WOODARD: So that’s where the idea first came from and by happenstance his next door neighbor was the future president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which facilitated, later on, the project being taken up by the federal government.

YOUNG: Roosevelt approved 10 million dollars to start a series of dams on the Passamaquoddy Bay. But critics in Congress balked at the project’s price.


President Roosevelt inspects a model of the proposed Quoddy Dam tide power project. FDR pumped 10 million into the project before Congress pulled the plug on it. (Photo: courtesy National Archives)

WOODARD: This appeared to be a gigantic boondoggle in that it was going to cost a lot of money. So that economic argument ultimately was winning the day in Washington and within a year or two it was pretty much unplugged by skeptics in Washington.

[NEWSREEL: Relics of a great boom lie scattered drearily about. For here the federal government started to spend many millions of dollars to build a gigantic power dam. Started, and then suddenly stopped.]

YOUNG: That history lends a sense of déjà vu to the current tidal power projects. In 2005 the U.S. Department of Energy started a small ocean energy program called Marine Hydrokinetics, which has put about 100 million dollars into research and matching grants to support tide and wave energy. Tidal power developer Chris Sauer says that DOE program is crucial. But the austere budget environment in Washington could put it on the chopping block.

[QUIET DOCK SOUNDS]

SAUER: This is a very minor amount of money, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what is given to the oil and gas and coal and nuclear industries, but it’s critical for us at this point. That funding is unfortunately drying up just at a time when we need it the most.

YOUNG: Support for tidal energy seems to rise and fall like, well, the tides themselves. Developers like Sauer are hoping that this time interest won’t ebb too soon. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Portland, Maine.

Back to top

[MUSIC: Soulphonic Soundsystem “Underwater Circuits” from Soulphonic Soundsystem Vol. 1 (Convincing Woodgrain records 2007).]

GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse Smith, Ike Sriskanderajah and Mitra Taj, with help from Sarah Calkins, Gabriela Romanow and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Daniel Gross, Stephanie McPherson and Anne-Marie Singh. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. And, don’t forget our sister program, Planet Harmony which pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at myplanetharmony.com. And you can follow us on twitter at livingonearth - that’s one word. Steve Curwood is our Executive Producer. I’m Bruce Gellerman. 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 and smoothies. Stonyfield invites you to just eat organic for a day. Details at justeatorganic.com. Support also comes from you, our listeners, the Go Forward Fund, and Pax World Mutual and Exchange-Traded Funds, integrating environmental, social, and governance factors into investment analysis and decision making. On the web at paxworld.com. Pax world, for tomorrow.

ANNOUNCER 2: PRI - Public Radio International.

 

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