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

August 26, 2011

Air Date: August 26, 2011



Forecasting Hurricanes

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Irene is the first hurricane in what experts expect to be an especially active storm season. MIT Professor of Atmospheric Science Kerry Emanuel tells host Bruce Gellerman that there are many things we don’t know when it comes to forecasting. But most hurricane experts agree we can expect more, bigger storms. (05:10)

The Big Uneasy

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Six years ago Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf of Mexico. The National Weather Service said that Katrina was the deadliest and costliest Hurricane in the U.S. But a new documentary, “The Big Uneasy,” argues that much of the damage could have been prevented with better planning and engineering. Bruce Gellerman speaks with actor Harry Shearer who wrote and directed the film, about major flaws in the New Orleans levee system that led to the flooding of the city. (08:55)

Human Waste in the Wild / Jason Albert

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In the country's remotest, rockiest reaches it can be tough to find a place to go to the bathroom. That's a problem in some popular parks, and in places, rangers require you pack it up and take it out. Jason Albert reports on some successes and failures, and how rangers try to bring climbers around by talking face to face. (08:00)

New Moguls of Clean Energy

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An architecture firm in Copenhagen won an international competition to design a new power plant for the Danish capital. The winning plant not only uses residents’ waste to make energy, but also serves as Denmark’s first and only ski mountain. Lead architect, Bjarke Ingels, tells host Bruce Gellerman about the artificial ski slope and why he thinks that industrial buildings should be more playful. (05:50)

Low Salt Water with Low Energy Technology / Lisa Raffensperger

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Desalination provides fresh drinking water for millions of people a day, but current technology to remove salt from seawater is extremely energy intensive. Now, a team at Yale has developed a low-energy method of desalination that could produce fresh water at half the price of existing methods, and use just one-tenth as much electricity. IEEE Spectrum and the National Science Foundation’s Lisa Raffensperger has our story. (05:30)

Creating a Thatched Roof / Host Bruce

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One of the world's oldest building materials is being used to transform a 1950's suburban ranch into an Irish country cottage. Host Bruce Gellerman meets a master thatcher at work as he turns a field of reeds into a roof. (06:30)

Trumpeting New Orleans' Rebirth / Steve Curwood

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Trumpeter and preacher Hack Bartholomew lost a church but strengthened his faith after surviving Hurricane Katrina. Living on Earth's Steve Curwood listens to his jazz gospel tunes and talks with him about New Orleans' rebirth. (06:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Host: Bruce Gellerman,
GUESTS: Kerry Emanuel, Harry Shearer, Bjarke Ingels, Keith Malcom Brown, Colin McGee,Hack Bartholomew
REPORTERS: Jason Albert, Lisa Raffensperger, Steve Curwood

GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth.

GELLERMAN: I'm Bruce Gellerman. As The East Coast hunkers down for Hurricane Irene - 6 years ago it was the Gulf Coast and Katrina. A new documentary film blames the Army Corps of Engineers and congress for a disaster in New Orleans that didn’t have to happen.
SHEARER: The corps basically is the ear mark pork machine for Congress. ///The corps is in the business of servicing 435 Congressmen and 100 Senators to have something to brag about at election time.

GELLERMAN: Comedian Harry Shearer gets serious in the film: The Big Uneasy.
Also, people power in New Orleans, post Katrina - a jazz musician says residents improvized.

BARTHOLOMEW: Everybody was like, putting their shoulders together and doing this thing, helping this city to come back.

GELLERMAN: We’ll have those stories and why we're so bad at predicting hurricanes this week on Living on Earth. Stick around!

Back to top


Forecasting Hurricanes

GELLERMAN:From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Mass, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Government scientists predicted this would be a stormy year and so far they’re right. There have been 9 named storms this season, and as we prepare this week’s show, Hurricane Irene is bearing down on the US Atlantic coast. We’re just about midway through our hurricane season, and from now to the end of November forecasters expect storms to pick up. So just how good are we at predicting hurricanes? Kerry Emanuel isprofessor of atmospheric science at MIT.

EMANUEL: This season's been a little unusual, there’s been more named storms than are normally the case for this time of year, but until Irene, none of them reached hurricane status. They remained tropical storms. So we’ve had a lot of weak systems and Irene is the first bona fide hurricane.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, we hardly heard of Arlene and Bret and Cindy and Don!

EMANUEL: Those are the good ones - the ones you don’t hear about! The whole business of forecasting change in the intensity of hurricanes is not very well developed and we don’t have very much skill at all in forecasting intensity change, by which I mean that a rational person’s guess of what the intensity will do, on average, is about as good as a professional forecaster. There’s a little bit of skill in the seasonal prediction but not very much. In other words, it’s not a whole lot better than an educated guess.


EMANUEL: Oh yes!

GELLERMAN: Because the last year they were predicting a lot of storms and I think they pretty much nailed it. They were predicting like 23 and —

EMANUEL: There were quite a few storms and none of them hit land fortunately. This is a problem with that sort of prediction. What everybody really cares about, unless you’re a ship owner, is; is a high category storm going to hit land? And yet what they forecast is not that. They forecast the total number of events in the Atlantic. So it’s a little bit like looking for keys under the lamp, it’s what we can do, but it’s not what’s societally relevant.

GELLERMAN: So when you look at something like climate change, and you say, the world is going to get warmer, the air is going to hold more humidity - can you look out 20 years and say, we’re going to have more storms, less storms - more severe, less severe?

Hurricane Irene by NASA Goddard Photo and Video (Flickr/CC)

EMANUEL: Well we’ve tried to do that, and a lot of people in the profession have put their backs into that problem.

GELLEMAN: And their reputation's on the line!

EMANUEL: And their reputation - now, the problem is, the main tool for forward projections is the climate model, the global climate model. The intensity side there is at least some theory to guide us there, and the theory that has been developed puts an upper bound on how strong a hurricane can be in a given climate. That does go up typically, and what the sort-of consensus of my field is that in general the frequency of very intense hurricane should go up - that’s actually what you care about. The reason you care about that is 80% of the damage, at least in the United States, is done by the relatively rare Cat. 3, Cat. 4, Cat. 5 storms, wheras most storms are category 1 or 2 or just tropical storms.

GELLERMAN: So in a climate-changing world, you’d expect, at least with some degree of certitude that the intensity of the very big storms would get greater.

EMANUEL: Yes. Or to put it a little bit differently; the frequency of very intense storms would become larger. And we actually see some signs in hurricane data that this is happening.

GELLERMAN: Now can tropical storms, hurricanes affect climate?

EMANUEL: Well, that’s a very interesting and controversial topic and it’s a new one for my field. The answer is; maybe?. Oceanographers have known for more than a hundred years that the large scale overturning of the ocean: cold water sinking at the poles, flowing toward the equator, coming back up, which transports a great deal of heat from the tropics to the poles. Oceanographers for more than a hundred years have looked for the source of that turbulence. There are papers all over literature. There are even papers - I kid you not - that suggests that swimming fish are the source of that turbulence. So you have this very strange idea that maybe fish caused the overturning of the ocean. Another candidate is hurricanes because they do demonstrably, violently mix the upper ocean. These are all very new ideas. There’s no real agreement about them, but there’s vigorous research going on and I would be fairly confident that in ten years we’ll know a lot more than we do now.

GELLERMAN: I’m surprised by what we don’t know about hurricanes and tropical storms. I would’ve thought we’d be better.

EMANUEL: Well yes, we should be better than we are. Fortunately a lot of young scientists have gotten interested in the problem and I think we’re getting better. You know, for many decades it was a backwater of atmospheric science. There weren’t many people studying the problem. There were a few and it's become much more popular in the 90s, almost in proportion to the ramp up of hurricane activity in the Atlantic itself.

GELLERMAN: Well Professor Kerry Emanuel, thank you so very much.

EMANUEL: You’re quite welcome.

GELLERMAN: Kerry Emanuel is professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT.

Related links:
- National Hurricane Center
- Kerry Emanuel’s home page

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[MUSIC: Duke Ellington “Stormy Weather” from The Cotton Club To Sweden (JSP Records 2007)]

The Big Uneasy

GELLERMAN: It was 6 years ago In the early morning hours of August 29th 2005, that a monster storm slammed into the Gulf coast. Hurricane Katrina whipped into New Orleans.

NEWSCAST: Worst fears realized. Under water here in New Orleans tonight after the giant storm came the rising waters—over 80% of the city is flooded.

GELLERMAN: According to the National Weather Service, Hurricane Katrina was the deadliest and costliest hurricane in US history. In terms of damage it was the nation’s first 100 billion dollar storm, and it killed at least 1800 people. But the new documentary film “The Big Uneasy” investigates why Katrina caused so much destruction, and finds the cataclysm in New Orleans wasn’t a natural catastrophe but an engineering disaster waiting to happen. Comedian, actor, and voice–over artist Harry Shearer wrote and directed "The Big Uneasy." Mr. Shearer, welcome to Living on Earth.

Harry Shearer, director of “The Big Uneasy”, in New Orleans. (Photo: The Big Uneasy)

SHEARER: Thanks very much.

GELLERMAN: You know when I think of you I think of you I think of the mockumentary, “This is Spinal Tap,” and the comedy film "A Mighty Wind," and of course "The Simpsons." "The Big Uneasy" is a big change of pace for you. Why did you make it?

SHEARER: It is indeed and it was nothing that I planned to do—I didn’t sit down one day and say, “I’m going to do a 180 on a comedy career.” I’m a New Orleans resident, have been for a while and after the flood I came back when the city was still on its knees in every way imaginable. And in the weeks and months afterwards the local media were reporting the interim findings of two independent engineering forensic investigations into what caused the flooding, because the leaders of these two investigations had come down right after it started, looked at the evidence and said to themselves, “the evidence doesn’t match the official explanation of what happened here.”

GELLERMAN: In the film you have Dr. William Freudenberg, did I pronounce that correctly?


GELLERMAN: And he’s from Santa Barbara I guess.

SHEARER: He was from U.C. Santa Barbara, but he passed away earlier this year.

GELLERMAN: Oh. But he’s there and he’s pretty damning.

SHEARER: Yes, the leaders of these investigations both agreed that what happened in New Orleans was not a natural disaster but the greatest manmade engineering catastrophe since Chernobyl.

FREUDENBERG: When Hurricane Betsy came in the 1965, when Hurricane Camille came in in 1969, those were major hurricanes; they made the river flow backwards. By some measurements both of them were bigger hurricanes, or worse hurricanes, more intense hurricanes than Katrina. But Betsy flooded 20% of the city and after we built higher, stronger floodwalls, Katrina flooded 80% of the city. Something happened in those 40 years in between.

Logo of the US Army Corps of Engineers as seen from outside their New Orleans offices, on Leake Street. (Photo: The Big Uneasy)

GELLERMAN: What changed?

SHEARER: A lot of things changed. First of all the United States Army Corps of Engineers changed. It went from being a corps of engineers to a corps of contract administrators. It was pretty much hallowed out in the 1980s. That changed the organization from the gold standard of American civil engineering to something very different. Something else changed, which is the erosion of the wetlands that surround New Orleans. especially to the south—cypress wetlands help to buffer the incoming wind and storm surge effects of hurricanes so New Orleans is now less protected than it was 40 or 50 years ago as a result of this erosion of the coastal wetlands. And a football field an hour—as we speak.

GELLERMAN: But it’s also the levees. The film features prominently a Dr. Ivor Van Heerden from the LSU Hurricane Center. He’s asked to put a team together to evaluate why the levees gave way.

SHEARER Yes, he was one of the 2 that did. And Bob Bee came from UC Berkeley and he put together a team as well. And they both came to startling similar conclusions based on the fact that the evidence that they looked at was pretty much the same.

Hurricane expert Dr. Ivor Van Heerden pointed out numerous engineering mistakes that led to the failure of the levee system in New Orleans. He was later fired from his position at the LSU Hurricane Center. (Photo: The Big Uneasy)

VAN HEERDEN: Now we know sand is about the worst material that you can utilize to build a levee. Because it’s permeable the water can move through very easily.
At London Avenue as I looked at all of those flood walls and I looked at all the sand, I questioned myself as to whether to Corps of Engineers in designing this system had taken into account that there was sand beneath the flood wall.

GELLERMAN: It wasn’t just Van Heerden who knew that something was rotten in the levees, but according to John Berry who wrote a history of the levee system, you have him in the film—the contractor who built the levees, told the Army Corps of Engineers that there design was a disaster. And then it gets worse. You’ve got these pumps—a half billion-dollar storm system—and they’re supposed to pump water out of the canals and the Corps' own tester Maria Garzino, she becomes a whistle-blower.

Maria Garzino, Contract Specialist, US Army Corps Of Engineers, blew the whistle on poor workmanship within the New Orleans hurricane protection system, and was later named Public Servant of the Year by the Federal Office Of Special Council. (Photo: The Big Uneasy)

SHEARER Yes, her job is—this is in the wake of the 2005 flood—this is moving forward now. Her job was to supervise the testing and installation of the pumps that are at the heart of the new 8 billion dollar plus system that we’ve paid for to be installed in
New Orleans built and designed by the Corps of Engineers.

GARZINO: When I was in Florida at the manufacturer's testing facility, the pumps themselves were not holding up to that testing. They were—for lack of a better term—self-destructing.

SHEARER: And she says the pumps were installed anyway, and that they will not function because of design defects in the case of a hurricane storm surge. And that’s what’s sitting “protecting” New Orleans right now.

GELLERMAN: It’s incredible, how is it that something like this gets built?

SHEARER: I can tell you this - that since 1927 when congress gave the Corps blanket immunity from liability in any work that they do that is a flood control project there has been no penalty for failure for the Army Corps of Engineers. I don’t care what organization you’re running, big or small, private or public, if you know there’s no penalty for failure, there’s going to be more failure.

GELLERMAN: What has Congress done about the Army Corps in the wake of Hurricane Katrina?

SHEARER: We have a journalist in the film who did the authoritative history of the Corps and why it is the way it is—Michael Grunwald—he was at the Washington Post and now he’s with Time Magazine. And he explains that the Corps is the way it is because Congress likes it that way. The Corps basically is the earmark pork machine for Congress. When your congressperson comes back to the district during election time and say, “see that dam, see that spillway, see that bridge, see that levee that got built, that’s because of me.” That’s the business the Corps is in. The Corps is in the business of servicing 434 congressmen and 100 senators to have something to brag about at election time.

GELLERMAN: I want to play you something from your film "The Big Uneasy." First of all his name is Robert Sinkler and he’s the commander of the Corps' Hurricane Protection Office and it’s almost like you casted this guy.

SINKLER: We value all of the constructive criticism that we get and we’ll produce a much better product and serve the American people much better when we take a hard look at all of the constructive criticism that we get from a wide variety of sources. And we do welcome that because we’ll be a better organization as a result of it and we’ll be able to serve the nation and produce a better system here when we take all of that into consideration.

GELLERMAN: Did you try to make him l look bad?

SHEARER: No, no. Nobody in the film was my puppet; I was asking questions and letting them answer them on camera.

GELLERMAN: So I’m starting to think that this was all a joke and having a comedian tell this story kind of makes some sense in a weird sense.

SHEARER: Well, look, There’s no reason in the world why this information should be coming from a guy from "Spinal Tap" and "The Simpsons." And it wouldn’t have been coming form me except that the national news media really dropped the ball on this story. They did their coverage at the time, they built their narrative on the first dusting of the facts and that narrative was: humungous storm, natural disaster, city below sea level, mainly African American victims…see you later. All of which was half-truths at best. They did not ever update that narrative. I was really driven to do this when President Obama came to New Orleans in October 2009 and at a town hall meeting referred to the flooding as a natural disaster. And I said inside my head, “Sir, you know better…and if you don’t I got to do something about it.”

GELLERMAN: well, Mr. Shearer I want to thank you so much.

SHEARER: Well, thank you. My pleasure.

Related link:
Learn more about the movie

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GELLERMAN: Harry Shearer is writer and director of "the Big Uneasy." It’s available on DVD, can be downloaded and seen at theaters around the country. For more information go to our website L O E dot O R G.

[MUSIC: Henry Butler “Orleans Inspiration from Orleans Inspiration (Henry Butler Music 1990)]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead - it’s all down hill for a garbage incinerator converted into a ski slope. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

[MUSIC: Christian McBride: Eye Of The Hurricane” from Fingerpainting: The Music Of Herbie Hancock (Verve Records 1997)

Human Waste in the Wild

GELLERMAN: It’s a recycled edition of Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.

No motors, no buildings, no trace of human endeavor. Wild. That's what designated wilderness in the United States is supposed to be. But millions of people visit wilderness sites each year, and when they gotta go they sometimes leave their waste behind. Jason Albert reports from California’s Yosemite Valley.


ALBERT: Jesse McGahey, dressed in a white haz-mat suit, hangs by a thread and looks down 3,000 feet. He’s just been lowered over the cliff edge of El Capitan, Yosemite’s iconic rock face.


ALBERT: McGahey, 32, is Yosemite Park Climbing manager. He’s about to descend into Camp Six, a high altitude rock campsite wedged like a flat table into an open book.

McGAHEY: Approaching Camp Six. There it is. Nicest bivy on The Nose. Yet, full of s***. We are going to try to change that right now.

ALBERT: This vertical climbing route is called the Nose, and McGahey is calling this mission the Nose Wipe. He and a partner are here to retrieve decade’s worth of refuse left by climbers. They fill two bags with over one hundred pounds of garbage, climbing gear, even solid human waste.


Albert: A waiting helicopter sling-loads the cargo away. And gets a warning about the contents.

[RADIO SOUNDS: McGAHEY: …It’s got some bio hazard in it, so folks should be careful handling it. PILOT: Roger that]

ALBERT: Far down below in El Capitan Meadow, Ken Yager recounts how it came to this. He first climbed The Nose more than 30 years ago. Now he organizes the Yosemite ‘facelift’ an annual park clean up.

YAGER: Back then, it was very rare to even have another party on El Capitan so you didn’t have the problems that you run into nowadays.

ALBERT: Climbing routes are vertical trails. Deviating from the path is risky. Yet the climbers in the 1970s managed to relieve themselves using an area of the wall away from the main climbing route.

YAGER: Ah 1980’s- that’s when a lot more people started going up on El Capitan and so you’d poop in a paper bag, and then they’d try to toss ’em as far off the cliff as they can. And the idea being that you’d drop to the base and pick these up after the climb.

ALBERT: As climbing use on El Capitan increased, so did waste at the wall’s base. Picking up other climbers’ food garbage was one thing; handling anonymous biological waste was another.

YAGER: It became pretty ugly for awhile.

ALBERT: The Park Service mandated climbers pack out their waste. And Yosemite climbing manager Jesse McGahey says the great majority do.

McGAHEY: There is a strong ethic from the climbing community, and they’re more self-policing than I am. They started packing out their human waste before we mandated it.

ALBERT: It’s just that in a rock environment like Camp 6, every individual can have a major impact.

McGAHEY: You couldn’t pick a more beautiful spot to spend an evening on El Cap. And unfortunately, out of the whole park for a campsite, that is the closest thing we have to a garbage dump in wilderness.

ALBERT: Part of it is, inexperienced groups come here and get exhausted. Also, no permit is required to climb on El Capitan. So rangers don’t really know who’s spending the night on the rock.


ALBERT: So it’s the daily work of Yosemite rangers like Eric Bissel to find climbers in technical terrain and get the word out.


BISSEL: We’re just going to head up today to check out for trash. And there’s a couple of parties on the route so we’ll talk to them as we’re going and make sure that they have proper waste management equipment with them.

ALBERT: A stark contrast lies about 200 miles south - Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48. Diana Pietrasanta is now a deputy district ranger on the Inyo National Forest. She began as a Mt. Whitney ranger. Back then, one of her responsibilities was maintaining the two solar toilets on the flanks of the mountain.

PIETRASANTA: I sort of went into the job with my eyes wide open knowing that there were these two toilets along the Whitney trail and it would be my responsibility to take care of them, or maintain them. But I didn’t realize that it was probably the major component of the job at the time. Out of a week, I would probably spend probably half my time dealing directly with the toilets.

ALBERT: Mt. Whitney managers used a progression of toilet designs - all with the same result. Rangers became de-facto backcountry sanitation workers. And the human footprint proved massive. A helicopter spent three days every summer season ferrying loads out of the Wilderness.

PIETRASANTA: Its kind of like if you have a campfire, you don’t have a campfire- people will cluster around the campfire. And the toilets were the campfire of the Whitney Trail. So both from a visual and sensory aspect, you know, it is not what you would normally consider a wilderness experience.

ALBERT: So in 2004, at the base of the mountaineer’s route to Whitney’s summit, the Forest Service set out a dispenser for free Wag Bags, specially designed bags for when you have to go. And people used them. Three years ago Whitney managers were able to take out the last toilets and mandate a pack-it-out policy for the zone’s 23,000 climbers and hikers.

RANGER INFO TALK:KIRK: Okay. Have you done the Whitney Trail before?
HIKER: Yes Sir.
KIRK: Day Hike?

ALBERT: Unlike at Yosemite, every climber here at Mt Whitney has to get a permit, and to get a permit, they have to have a face to face meeting with a wilderness ranger, like Dave Kirk.

KIRK: Don’t leave anything in the wilderness, don’t leave any litter, clothing, stuff like that. There’s the tags. Ah this is the permit. That’s an important document so just keep that with you…

And then human waste disposal so…wag bags. And yeah do help us out with this, um you know last year hikers individually packed out six thousand five hundred pounds off the mountain that would otherwise be under rocks up there. So just let everyone know they’re really doing their part to protect the wilderness when they use this.


ALBERT: Veteran witnesses at Mt. Whitney say it has to be this way. Doug Thompson runs the Whitney Portal store, at 8,000 feet elevation, it’s been a climber’s last chance for supplies since 1935.

THOMPSON: This is the best balance. It just seems to me the best overall solution. You can’t have the rangers handle it, you can’t expect somebody else to carry out your waste. So this puts the responsibility back on the individual. And you always have that choice, of…there’s a lot of places you don’t need a wag bag.


ALBERT: And for climbers the risks of improper disposal of human waste continues to be real. Ivan Valenta, a climber from Sydney, Australia and his wife attempted to climb The Nose.

VALENTA: She actually picked up a wall-bug because people do their business on the ledges and stuff like that. I spent the next two days holding a garbage bag under her backside till we could get off. Memorable moment for me.

ALBERT: Yet even Valenta’s closeup with dysentery didn’t cloud his enthusiasm for Yosemite climbing.

VALENTA: You don’t want it to be stopped and we’re not allowed to use it anymore because we’re trashing it. So, you know, look after what you’ve got and you’ll be able to come back many times to enjoy it.

ALBERT: So next time you head out into the remote beyond, don’t be afraid when you find a wag bag dispenser at the trailhead.

[SOUND OF CLIMBER CROSSTALK: Can I come up? No, just a minute…]

ALBERT: For Living On Earth, I’m Jason Albert in Yosemite Valley, California.

Related links:
- Watch a movie about recovering human waste in Yosemite
- Leave No Trace is a group promoting a ‘leave no trace’ ethic.
- A conference about human waste management in the backcountry
- Ken Yager organizes the Yosemite Facelift.

Back to top

GELLERMAN: For a slide show about cleaning up Yosemite hike over to our website – L-O-E dot org. And there you'll also find a special interview about the Japanese government's decision to declare the area around Fukushima off limits for decades.

New Moguls of Clean Energy

GELLERMAN: You know what to do when life hands you lemons - but what if it gives you a power plant that burns garbage? Well, if you’re architect Bjarke Ingels of Copenhagen - you turn it into a ski slope. His company, the Bjarke Ingels Group, won first prize in an international competition that challenged architects to design a new incinerator to turn waste into energy in the Danish capital. Bjarke Ingels joins me on the line from Copenhagen - welcome to Living on Earth.

INGELS: Thanks a lot!

GELLERMAN: So, as I understand it – I’ve seen your drawings and essentially you’re wrapping a ski slope around the smoke stack of this new power plant.

INGELS: Exactly like that. This building transforms all the trash of the Copenhageners into electricity and heating - it’s going to be not only the tallest, but also the biggest building in Copenhagen. We thought that since Copenhagen actually has the climate but not the topography for skiing - we could actually provide the Copenhageners with a man-made mountain that transforms the flat but cold, but snowy Copenhagen into a real alpine sort of man-made skiing resort.

GELLERMAN: How many ski trails will you have on this smoke stack mountain?

INGELS: They’re going to be able to choose between a green, a blue and a black slope. It’s also going to contain a mogul slope for the experts and a slope for the kids.

GELLERMAN: But a power plant as a ski slope? I mean, it sounds kind of environmentally contradictory.

INGELS: The interesting thing about this project is that you can say that one of the sort of main drivers of creating a sustainable city is to be able to integrate both the sort of ecological and economical infrastructure of the city into the city fabric itself.

So you somehow need to find a way of actually integrating these really big industrial facilities in the middle of the city. So, the challenge of the competition was to make a big factory beautiful. And we thought of just wrapping it in just beautiful wrapping - we would really turn the entire plant into a gift for the citizens of Copenhagen.

GELLERMAN: So people are going to take a lift or gondola to the top of the plant and then ski down?

The side of the building will be green as well. (Bjarke Ingels Group)

INGELS: It’s actually…they’re going to take traditional vertical elevators, just like…unlike normal mountains where you are forced to take ski-lifts, here you can actually take a vertical elevator all the way from the ground to the roof. And, the slope, because in this case it’s a man-made mountain, we can engineer it so all the slopes end up straight at the foot of the elevator.

But also as the power plant is going to be interested in displaying its deployment in environmental technologies in the transformation of waste into heat and energy - they’ll also be able to take like a promenade and actually sort of explore the various operations of the factory looming inside the mountain.

GELLERMAN: I was reading about the award, and I see that this stack is going to puff out smoke rings.

INGELS: We thought that it could be interesting to transform the smokestack itself into a sort of a playful element. Just like the factory becomes sort of a ski slope, the way we designed the chimney is that the mouth of the chimney is in the shape of a giant disk - the hollow space inside the thickness of this disk gradually fills up with smoke, and when it changes 200 kilos of CO2, this chamber compresses and it blows a giant smoke ring.

One of the main ideas is of course to turn the symbol of the factory, the chimney, which is also the symbol of pollution, into something playful, but I think more importantly, one of the main drivers of behavioral change is knowledge. If people don’t know they can’t act. In the future, like in 2016, when this plant has been realized, I’ll be able to tell my kids that once they’ve counted five smoke rings, we will have emitted one ton of CO2.

This sort of abstract element of a tale of smoke - that’s like ungraspable and uncountable suddenly becomes very basic just like, you know, counting the seconds after you see the lightning flash. You know, just counting the smoke rings you’ll be able to tell how much CO2 we’ve emitted.

GELLERMAN: Do you remember sitting around a table with your design team and saying - ‘you know, I’ve got a great idea.’ What did they say to you when you came up with this idea?

INGELS: I mean, they gradually realized when we started probing and digging into all the criticism and all the sort of complications, that this was like, almost like the only sensible thing to do with something as big as a giant power plant.

A view of the power plant at night. (Bjarke Ingels Group)

And it was only when we sort of came up with the notion, not only sort of training a building that has an economical and an ecological purpose, you know, it recycles waste into energy - but to give it a social purpose that actually this giant volume becomes a part of the topography of Copenhagen, and contributes to the citizens of Copenhagen and turns it into a destination.

Because if sustainable is always perceived as the question of, like, how much of our existing quality of life are we prepared to sacrifice in order to afford being sustainable - essentially the sort of moral burden that we have to bear - the sort of general understanding that it has to hurt to do good - we try to look at some different approach where sustainable cities and sustainable buildings actually increase the quality of life. We call this ‘hedonistic sustainability.’

GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. Ingels, good luck with your waste-to-energy ski slope in Copenhagen.

INGELS: Thanks a lot. And you’re very much invited to come and test it out with a pair of skis on your feet in 2015.

GELLERMAN: (Laughs). I’ll be there. That's Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, whose award-winning incinerator will produce electric power - and downhill pleasure.

Related link:
Learn more about the project at the Bjarke Ingels Group’s website

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GELLERMAN: Coming up – Building a home a hobbit could love. 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.

[MUSIC: The Bad Plus: “You Are” from Never Stop (Bad Plus LLC and eOne Music 2010]

Low Salt Water with Low Energy Technology

GELLERMAN: You're listening to a recyled edition of Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. Desalination, the process of removing salt from seawater, provides 16 billion gallons of purified water to the world every day. For some countries, including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, desalination is already the primary source of drinking water. There’s clearly enough ocean to satisfy the rising demand but a major limiting factor is the cost of energy for the process. Now engineers at Yale University have come up with a more efficient method of desalination, which produces fresh water at less than half the price. Lisa Raffensperger of the Eye-Triple-EE Spectrum, National Science Foundation program, "The Water-Energy Crunch: A Powerful Puzzle," reports.


RAFFENSPERGER: As the winds pick up over Boston Harbor, engineer Rob McGinnis stands on the dock. He sweeps his arm toward the bustling waterfront.

McGINNIS: …container ships loading up not far from here, cruise ships coming in….we have the airport right next to the water, we have power plants which use the water for cooling purposes.

RAFFENSPERGER: But for all the things this water is good for—

McGINNIS: It’s not good for drinking.

RAFFENSPERGER: As chief technology officer of the Oasys Water company, McGinnis will tell you that’s not strictly true. Desalination makes seawater drinkable for millions of people every day. But existing technologies consume energy—mostly fossil fuels—that could be used for other things.

Not so for the desalination technology McGinnis developed as a PhD student at Yale, in the lab of Professor Meny Elimelech. The revolutionary part of it is, says McGinnis, is the energy source.

Chemical Engineering Professor Meny Elimelech of Yale says if energy were free, the world could have unlimited drinking water through desalination. (Lisa Raffensperger)

McGINNIS: We can take this very, very low temperature energy, the kind of temperature that you would find in, say, a hot bath, so if you came into contact with it, it wouldn’t burn it you, it’s tolerable, say 40 degrees Celsius. This is the temperature at which power plants often will reject heat to the atmosphere. We can use that energy source to drive a desalination process.

RAFFENSPERGER: The process uses “forward” osmosis rather than reverse osmosis, which is the primary desalination technology today. Existing reverse osmosis requires energy to push water through a membrane, against its natural flow. Forward osmosis on the other hand doesn’t apply pressure. Seawater goes on one side of a membrane, and even saltier water goes on the other. The saltier side is called the “draw” solution, because it pulls water to that side.

But the salts in the draw solution perform a chemistry trick: when heated to low temperatures they bubble out as gases, leaving behind pure water. Professor Meny Elimelech:

ELIMELECH: So, the invention here was to come up with a draw solution that you can really separate relatively easy and inexpensive by means of waste heat.

RAFFENSPERGER: Waste heat, like the billows of steam you see coming from power plants. If waste heat is available, the only energy needed is for pumping. That means:

McGINNIS: That all the water we produce by this method would not require additional fuel, and this is a huge difference in terms of sustainability.

RAFFENSPERGER: The forward osmosis systems could be installed alongside power plants to use their discharged heat. Ultimately, the water produced in this way could cost half as much as water produced by reverse osmosis, and use just a tenth of the electricity.


RAFFENSPERGER: At Meny Elimelech’s lab at Yale, PhD student Laura Hoover is studying the membrane. Traditional membranes are too thick for forward osmosis. So she’s trying to make thinner membranes to allow more water through.

Yale PhD student Laura Hoover tests the forward osmosis technique in the lab. (Lisa Raffensperger)


HOOVER: So this is just a water bath to keep everything at the same temperature…

RAFFENSPERGER: The test unit is just two big jars of water, connected by tubes and pumps. On one side, seawater, on the other, the “draw” solution of the special ammonium carbonate salts. The water streams pass on either side of a tiny membrane.

HOOVER: So we have the draw solution here on mass balance so we can measure the weight that's in this container over time and so we can see how much water has moved into the draw side of the system from the feed side.

RAFFENSPERGER: We watch the numbers climb. Today’s best forward osmosis membranes can produce the same flow as the older reverse osmosis ones, and no pumping is required.


RAFFENSPERGER: Meanwhile, back in Boston, Rob McGinnis of Oasys Water is looking at the big picture. The company is close to commercializing the technology. And, there are applications besides seawater. Forward osmosis could be used to make freshwater from municipal wastewater, or from polluted water sources. But desalination is the company’s first goal. And, says McGinnis, there’s really only one question that matters.

McGINNIS: And the question is - what do we use to do that? Do we use fossil fuels or electricity that can be used for so many other things or do we find some way to use less resources to do it, and we think that's what we can do.

RAFFENSPERGER: Oasys plans to begin testing a complete desalination system soon and hopes to start selling the technology in late 2011. For Living on Earth, I’m Lisa Raffensperger in Boston.

GELLERMAN: Our story is part of the I-Triple-EE Spectrum, National Science Foundation program, "The Water-Energy Crunch: A Powerful Puzzle."

Related links:
- IEEE Spectrum’s Engineers of the New Millennium: The Water-Energy Crunch: A Power Puzzle
- Oasys Water
- Yale Professor Mey Elimelech’s biography

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(MUSIC: The Bad Plus: “You Are” from Never Stop (Bad Plus LLC and eOne Music 2010)

Creating a Thatched Roof


GELLERMAN: A gravel road leads to a glade in the forest here in Lincoln, Massachusetts, an affluent suburb just west of Boston.


GELLERMAN: It’s a storybook setting-- light filtering thru a widening break in the trees, blue sky, fluffy white clouds, and farm animals scurrying and squawking about.

BROWN: One of the benefits of the job is that we’ve been getting fresh eggs whenever we come out to do an inspection or add a drawing…

Architect Kieth Malcolm Brown transformed a suburban ranch into an Irish thatched roof cottage. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

GELLERMAN: Keith Malcolm Brown is principle owner of Period Architecture. He specializes in blending traditional styles with designs that fit modern desires. His latest commission calls for transforming this 1950s suburban ranch into a Irish country cottage- complete with thatch roof.

BROWN: This is the largest private residence that has a thatched roof in New England.


GELLERMAN: It looks like a place that the hobbit could live in.

BROWN: Well that’s kind of a nice image. It’s in a setting that’s surrounded by woods. There are chickens and ducks and geese. And, we were looking for something that would kind of epitomize a comfortable place to live.

GELLERMAN: The windows look like mushroom caps.

BROWN: Yes, called eyebrow windows. They’re kind of a traditional window on this kind of house. And, because it’s thatch, you can do curves quite easily. The challenge was learning about the material. There’s about 15 acres of reed on the roof.

GELLERMAN: This is architect Keith Malcolm Brown’s first thatch house and working with the material is a steep learning curve. Thatch is a renewable resource and has great insulating properties or R value.

BROWN: The thatch is a foot thick, so we’re up to about R80 at least. And with some sections with the roof up to R90, R92.

GELLERMAN: Literally, through the roof!

BROWN: It’s exceptionally high. I know of no other structure that would have this kind of R value. And, we’ve raised the roof to 45 degrees from about 14 and a half degrees because you need that for the pitch of the thatch. It needs to shed water- there are no gutters on thatched house, so it needs to push the water down and away from the house.


GELLERMAN: Workers toss bundles of imported Turkish Water Reed into the air. It’s like building a field on top of a house. Grasses and reeds have been used as building materials for thousands of years and thatch structures can be found on every continent except Antarctica. We have plenty of thatching material here in the United States. It’s an invasive plant called phragmites, but it’s not cut commercially.

Where do you find someone who does thatching these days?

BROWN: Ah, you go on the web like you do for everything else. And we found Colin McGhee- thatching dot come.


GELLERMAN: Can I talk to you?

I climbed a ladder, and betwixt and between roof and ground, I found master thatcher Colin McGhee….

Well, I’m Bruce!

MCGHEE: Colin, nice to meet you.

Master thatcher Colin McGhee. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

GELLERMAN: Sure footed on the steep roof Colin McGhee holds well worn tools of the thatching trade in hand: a curved metal knife and a flat wood hammer.


MCGHEE: It’s called a leggett, it’s what you put the reed on the roof with. It just catches the ends of the reed. So it looks all cut, but actually, it’s dressed in that position. I’ve been thatching since 1977, and thatching in America since 1991.


GELLERMAN: How did you become a thatcher?

MCGHEE: Well, my parents are Scottish, so we used to do this Scottish tour every year and Robert Burns’ cottage was being thatched. That was just stuck in me head when I was about seven, and I got, sort of, asked to leave school at 16, and as a joke I said I wanted to be a thatcher. And the next thing I knew, I got a list of thatchers in southeast England, wrote to several, and got a job with one. So that’ll teach me! (Laughs).

GELLERMAN: So, what’s the benefits of this stuff?

MCGHEE: Well, it’s aesthetically pleasing, it lasts a long time.

GELLERMAN: How long will this last?

MCGHEE: Uh, 50 years. It’s a great insulator, it’s a natural product, it’s quite sound. It’s just nice living under a thatched roof. You’ve got a foot thick whole lotta reeds, it’s incredible. It’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Each reed is a different shape so you want different shaped and sized bundles for a particular part of the roof. Like in a valley, you use big bushy topped stuff, on a hip like here, you want nice triangle, tapered reed. So if you get the right bundle for the right part of the roof, it makes it very easy.

GELLERMAN: What are the challenges for you thatching here, in the United States?

MCGHEE: Well, the climate is a lot different, so you’ve got to adjust your thatching techniques to suit the climate. It’s a lot more humid here and so the roofs wont’ last as long if you use the same techniques. You leave the surface of it open so it dries out quicker instead of putting it all on super tight. But mainly the reed, you use the toughest, ugliest reed you can get instead of the finest, prettiest, which you’d use back home.

GELLERMAN: Is there a growing demand for this type of material or this building style?

MCGHEE: Well, hopefully. You know, no one’s building subdivisions like they do in Holland and in Germany. You know, they build whole hundreds of houses with thatched roofs.


MCGHEE: Yeah, it’s just classed as another, it’s nothing weird, it’s just another roofing material.


GELLERMAN: How long will it take you to do this roof- finish…start to finish?

MCGHEE: It’s a two month job. And the next job is a pub up in New Hampshire- Epping so it’s not too far away…

GELLERMAN: Master roof thatcher Colin McGhee. For photos of the him, the thatched home and architect Keith Malcolm Brown head to our website: L-O-E dot O-R-G.


Related links:
- McGhee & Co. Roof Thatchers
- Visit the Boston Design Guide

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[MUSIC: Marcia Ball “The Storm” from So Many Rivers (Alligator Records 2003)]

Trumpeting New Orleans' Rebirth

GELLERMAN: Last year, on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Living on Earth's Steve Curwood went to New Orleans - to see how the city was recovering and visit some of its residents.


CURWOOD: In New Orleans a little bit of French goes a long ways—like beignet for donut. And where else to get these amazingly tasty morsels—but Café Dumonde at the edge of the French Quarter. Depending on the morning, along with your beignets you may get to hear street musician Hack Bartholomew.


CURWOOD: A trumpeter and vocalist who’s played with the greats, including the Neville Brothers, George Benson and Keith Richards, Hack Bartholomew left New York after 14 years to come back home to New Orleans and jazz gospel. Hack performs five days a week at Café DuMonde. When he’s not busy producing recordings, he’s the trumpeter for the Greater Saint Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church.

[MUSIC: “Lifting Jesus Up In New Orleans” from Lifting Jesus Up In New Orleans (Hack Bartholomew 2003)]

Hack Bartholomew (Photo: Steve Curwood)


CURWOOD: As the cicadas buzzed on a hot August afternoon, Hack Bartholomew sat down on his front porch to tell me his story of how he survived Hurricane Katrina.

BARTHOLOMEW: I would say I got a revelation from God to just get out. So my wife and I and our kids, grandchildren, we all just left, fortunately my wife had a cousin in Houston and we were able to stay over at her house. When the storm hit we was sitting in Houston we were watching everything on television and praying and hoping that everything would be alright for the city. But it was not. But fortunately where we lived up here up here in Carrolton, the Carrolton black pearl section is a pretty high point of the city. As you can see my home is just like I left it. When I got back a lot of my neighbors had wind damage. The neighbor over here, his roof blew off, the neighbor over here, door and windows blew out. Just about everybody had wind damage. Except us.

[MUSIC: “Angels Keep Watching Over Me” From Lifting Up Jesus (Hack Bartholomew 2003)]

BARTHOLOMEW: But our church in New Orleans east on Reed Road, it was totally flooded. Fourteen feet of water in the church. But our uptown location was spared. And I think we were one of the first few congregations that were back after the flood.

One of Hack Bartholomew's regular gigs is playing for tourists at Cafe Du Monde. (Photo: Steve Curwood)


BARTHOLOMEW: When we were in Houston we looked at the television. We saw the whole city underwater, just about, 80 percent of the city under water, and I said, you know what, God is baptizing New Orleans. You know when you baptize a person you submerge them down. It signifies one being buried and when you bring ‘em up, they are rising up again, to that new man who is coming up, that’s rising from the water.

…New Orleans was really going off the deep end there with all kinds of things going on, with the crime and corruption, and what have you. And it kinda made people think. It made the politicians think, it made the people of New Orleans think about doing something positive, about having integrity, about being accountable, to your brothers and sisters who you see every day. That storm, at the time it was happening, it didn’t look too good. But in the end, it was very good because we had all of the love and compassion of people, the help of the people who came down to help us, all black white, Chinese, Asians, Indians, you name it, I think they might have had some purple people here, but I aint seen ‘em though. Everybody was like, putting their shoulders together and doing this thing, helping this city to come back.

Hack performs for Living on Earth in his backyard. (Photo: Steve Curwood)

[MUSIC: “Down By The Riverside” from Lifting Jesus Up In New Orleans (Hack Bartholomew 2003)]

CURWOOD: you like play the tune down by the riverside, what is the war you’re talking about that we shouldn’t study anymore?

BARTHOLOMEW: The war that I’m talking about is not Iraq or Afghanistan or Vietnam or any of that. The war I’m talking about is the battlefield of your mind. The people that makes us want to hurt another person, take from them is that your mind, your heart, your soul.


GELLERMAN: New Orleans trumpeter Hack Bartholomew. He spoke with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood.

Related link:
Click here to learn more about Hack Bartholomew

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GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation.
Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, and Ike Sriskanderajah, with help from Sarah Calkins, Gabriela Romanow (rhymes with domino!) and Sammy Sousa. And we send our love and very best wishes to our immensely talented associate producer Jessica Ilyse Smith – she’s getting married this stormy weekend. Also, we bid a grateful farewell to our interns, Daniel Gross, Stephanie McPherson and Anne-Marie Singh. They came, they heard. - they produced some mighty good radio. We'll miss you guys. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at L-O-E dot org - and check out our facebook page - it’s PRI’s Living on Earth. 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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