February 17, 2012
Air Date: February 17, 2012
President Proposes 2013 Budget
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President Obama’s proposed 2013 budget boosts clean energy development and infrastructure but has been slammed by opponents of deficit spending. Elana Schor reports for Greenwire and E&E Publishing. She tells host Bruce Gellerman what’s in the budget and what’s missing. (07:10)
Dolphin Strandings Update
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Federal money devoted to saving marine mammals was slashed from the president’s 2013 budget. Katie Moore of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Marine Mammal Rescue and Research team tells host Bruce Gellerman what that means for their mission. (01:40)
Manned Space - 50 Years and Counting/ Bruce Gellerman
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On February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth. Host Bruce Gellerman marks America’s space milestone. (04:00)
Chemicals and Health
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There are tens of thousands of chemicals in everyday products. Only a fraction of these have been tested for toxicity and health effects in the U.S. Host Bruce Gellerman talks to Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, about news studies that raise troubling health questions. (09:30)
Smart Bridges/ Prachi Patel
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Dozens of bridges in the world are now studded with advanced sensors that monitor the bridges’ structure and could avert collapses. From IEEE Spectrum’s “Responding to Disasters: From Prediction to Recovery” special, Prachi Patel reports on what it will take to rig more bridges with this technology. (04:00)
Dying Yellow Cedars
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Something is killing the majestic Yellow Cedars of southeastern Alaska and parts of British Columbia. Scientists have been baffled for decades but now they have an answer. Paul Hennon, a researcher at the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station, tells host Bruce Gellerman what’s going on. (04:20)
BirdNote® Consider the Ostrich/ Michael Stein
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The ostrich is an unusual bird. It’s the fastest animal on two legs yet can’t fly. But, as Michael Stein reports, contrary to popular lore, the ostrich doesn’t stick its head in the sand. (02:05)
Sanibel Seashells/ Ari Daniel Shapiro
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The geography is just right for seashells to wash up on Sanibel Island in Florida. Reporter Ari Daniel Shapiro profiles two seashell enthusiasts – an amateur collector and a scientist – who bonded over their mutual love of seashells. (05:45)
America’s First Pets/ Ike Sriskandarajah
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Harry Truman said, “if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” President Obama heeded this advice: he has Bo. But dogs aren’t the only species that have been trusted White House aides. Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah has the tale. (07:45)
Show Credits and Funders
HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Richard Denison, Paul Hennon, Claire McLean, Katie Moore, Elana Schor, Chuck Zoeller
REPORTERS: Prachi Patel, Ari Daniel Shapiro, Ike Sriskandarajah, Michael Stein
GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman.
GELLERMAN: A trillion here, a trillion there, it starts to add up. We go beyond the numbers for environmental programs in the President's proposed 2013 budget.
SCHOR: Really the most notable part of the EPA's budget wasn't even the numbers to me. Buried within this budget was a phrase--"we need to start imposing these emissions regulations for power plants...before it's too late."
GELLERMAN: Also we mark a space milestone, three small orbits of the earth for one man, half a century ago.
And howl to the chief - Presidents and their best friends.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: Come on sing for me…
[President Johnson and Yuki howl together]
GELLERMAN: These stories and a very big bird and a lot more on Living on Earth. Stay! Stay with us!
[NEWSBREAK MUSIC: Boards Of Canada “Zoetrope” from “In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country” (Warp Records 2000).]
ANNOUNCER ONE: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
President Proposes 2013 Budget
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, it’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman.
It's hard to comprehend 3.8 trillion dollars. That's the amount President Obama is proposing in his just-released federal budget for 2013. But imagine a stack of crisp one hundred dollar bills 260 miles high and you have some idea.
Of that, less than three miles would go to pay for federal environmental programs. Elana Schor covers budget issues for Greenwire, an environment and energy daily in D.C. We talked about the president's spending proposals for the Departments of the Interior and Energy and the EPA.
SCHOR: Really the most notable part of the EPA's budget wasn't even the numbers to me, it was the degree to which in its language the budget stood by these regulations the EPA is about to put out. Buried within this budget was a phrase, “we need to start imposing these emission regulations for power plants...before it's too late.” That was the actual phrasing.
GELLERMAN: Well, here's Secretary of the EPA Lisa Jackson when she unveiled the agency's budget.
JACKSON: This budget reflects a government-wide effort to reduce spending and find cost savings, while still supporting the clean air, healthy waters and innovative safeguards that are essential to an America built to last.
SCHOR: The phrase ‘built to last’ is a phrase that you can hear a lot from the president and folks on the campaign trail. So what we're seeing is an administration that's gearing up, you know, as most or any would, to run for re-election and use all of its tools to court voters. I mean, she's speaking directly to maybe independent voters in swing states who will say, "Oh, right, well, I like what she's doing. She's protecting the air for my kids." This is, this is re-election mode.
GELLERMAN: Elana, when you say ‘built to last,’ that's a Chevy slogan, right?
SCHOR: Funny, right? Yeah, auto bailout, borrow their slogan.
GELLERMAN: But that's an expression I guess almost all of the secretaries have been using.
SCHOR: Oh, definitely. It's a talking point straight from the White House, to start using that phrase.
GELLERMAN: Well, let's move down the street to the Department of Energy. Their budget request last year was 29.5 billion dollars; their request this year is 27.2 billion dollars.
SCHOR: In the top line number, as we say in Washington, it looks flat or a little bit below, but embedded within that are some serious increases for efficiency and renewables programs. We're talking about more than half a billion dollars for the Energy Department's clean stuff that Republicans had seriously taken aim at last year, so even though the administration isn't giving new money to the DOE loan program that has sparked this whole Solyndra flap, it is sort of sticking by the clean energy that the president is selling on the trail.
GELLERMAN: Mm-hmm, yeah, solar gets a big boost. The goal there is to cut the cost of solar panels by 75 percent. And biomass got a huge boost. It went from a 200 million dollar request last year to 270 million dollars in this request.
SCHOR: Absolutely. But I think for these industries funding is important but also the tax side is hugely important. And you see Congress still wavering on whether to extend some key renewables' tax credits this week on the hill. So good news, bad news, really.
GELLERMAN: Well here's Stephen Chu, he's the Secretary of the Department of Energy, unveiling his side of the budget.
CHU: Invest in clean energy, and safely harnessing our energy resources, it supports science and innovation, and it cuts costs for U.S. manufacturers through more efficient operations.
SCHOR: Yes, certainly. But also, I think, a plea from Mr. Chu to kind of make this more about where we can target dollars that work, you know. He referenced ARPA-E, which is the advanced research arm of the Energy Department. They took some fire this week for rescinding grants to recipients and Republicans have tried to sort of make it part of the Solyndra issue, but it's actually a separate part of DOE from these loans. And Mitt Romney, fun fact, would continue ARPA-E. He says "I like the framework. I like the format."
GELLERMAN: Let's move on to the Department of the Interior. That's where Secretary Salazar does his number crunching. Let's listen to him.
SALAZAR: This budget for the fiscal year 2013 is a squeeze budget. It is a squeeze budget with tough choices and with painful cuts included in this budget.
GELLERMAN: And yet President Obama's request in this squeeze actually goes up. This year he's asking for 11 and a half billion dollars. That's up slightly from 11.4 billion dollars last year.
SCHOR: True, and yet when it comes to all of these you have to look into the individual program lines and, you know, Land and Water Conservation Fund is getting less than last year's request. A number of priorities Mr. Salazar would hold dear are below last year.
GELLERMAN: The budget proposal seeks five billion dollars for America's Great Outdoor Programs, I'm reading. That's a good chunk of change for America's Great Outdoor Programs. What are those, do you know?
SCHOR: Those are just education and incentive programs for folks to take advantage of the National Parks System. But that is one of those that is just a very easy target for Republicans, who have a politically potent case to make this year that every federal dollar needs to be kind of devoted to hard and fast concerns and not to programs like that. So I think it's very unlikely that kind of increase will become law.
GELLERMAN: So the president proposes and the house and senate dispose.
SCHOR: As they say.
GELLERMAN: I found it curious that the Department of Interior actually takes in more money than it spends. It gets money from selling off licenses for mineral and oil drilling.
SCHOR: It does. That's a fact that's not often discussed, but it does drive a really serious and important debate on the hill right now because, you know, Democrats have long pushed for before we open new off-shore areas to exploration, we should start making sure that companies are actually drilling on, exploring on, and paying royalties on the plots they already own. And a Republican would say, you know, this is, frankly, a waste of private sector resources. If I own a lease on a plot that doesn't have oil, why would I even try to do anything there? So that's a hot button.
GELLERMAN: So Elana, any surprises from the president's proposed FY 2013 budget?
SCHOR: It was interesting to see the president propose using money from winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to pay for long-term transportation and infrastructure funding. This is, you know, roads, rails, bridges, public transportation. Because the president is also making a fairly big show of backing a senate transportation bill this year that does not use this war money. So it would be the equivalent of with the left hand producing one plan and with the right hand giving a thumbs up to a very different plan. That's not to say they can't do both, but it's politically interesting.
GELLERMAN: Elana, before I let you go back to work, what about NOAA? They're the people in charge of the Weather Service. Any surprises there?
SCHOR: Well, I don't know if you'd call it a surprise, but the president did slightly cut, by I believe it was slightly less than 40 million, his request for the folks who sit and monitor extreme weather events. And the Weather Service employee union is fairly aggravated because they're seeing an uptick, we all are, frankly, in these severe weather episodes, and yet, less money to actually keep watch on them.
GELLERMAN: Elana Schor is a reporter with Greenwire, an environment and energy daily. She covers budget issues. Elana, thank you so very much.
SCHOR: Thanks for having me.
Dolphin Strandings Update
GELLERMAN: Well, one of the items that President Obama cuts entirely out of his proposed budget is for rescuing marine mammals. This year, the program got about 4 million dollars.
About a quarter of a million dollars of it went to the International Fund for Animal Welfare on Cape Cod, which has been scrambling this past month to save dolphins stranded in record numbers. We caught up with the IFAW's Katie Moore between rescues.
MOORE: Oh, good grief. Um, we did find one additional animal today so I guess we're at 178 as our total. Ones that have come in dead is at 107, but we've saved at this point about 75 percent of the animals that have come in alive.
GELLERMAN: Well, President Obama's proposed budget, obviously, is not good news for marine mammal rescue. What does it mean for your organization?
MOORE: Wow. The cut to this grant program would be a huge hit for us. Most of the stranding networks in the country run as nonprofits and we rely on private donations and foundation grants and there's just this one small parcel of money for stranding work from the federal government. We do this work fulfilling a mandate that NOAA has, and it's important that they support it.
GELLERMAN: NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration?
MOORE: Exactly. They're the federal agency that permits us to do our work but it's also their mandate to investigate these strandings.
GELLERMAN: So how much did the International Fund for Animal Welfare get this year from the federal government?
MOORE: This year, we actually have three active grants for about 280,000 dollars.
GELLERMAN: So this has been such an unusual year in terms of stranding, is this enough for this year?
MOORE: (Sigh) You know, it's hard for me to answer that question. I know that one of the tests that we're looking to run from some of the blood samples that we've taken to look at potential viruses that might be affecting the animals would cost us about 18,000 dollars. Certainly these are things we did not originally budget for.
GELLERMAN: Well, Katie, thank you very much. Good luck.
MOORE: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
GELLERMAN: Katie Moore is with the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare's webpage
[MUSIC: David Byrne/Brian Eno “I Feel My Stuff” from Everything That Happens Will Happen (Todomundo records 2008).]
Manned Space - 50 Years and Counting
GELLERMAN: Those of us old enough to remember know exactly where we were February 20th, 1962.
MAN: Five hours before he is destined to take a giant stride into history, Colonel John H. Glenn, Jr. squeezes into his space suit.
GELLERMAN: I was in grade school. Our teacher wheeled in a TV cart, fiddled with the rabbit ear antennas and we watched. And like everyone else that day 50 years ago, we held our breath.
CRONKITE: ...and now it’s T minus 35 seconds…
GELLERMAN: Countdowns were new back then. This was space stuff. After a month of delays, all systems were go. And atop the Atlas rocket, strapped into a capsule not much bigger than a phone booth, was our astronaut John Glenn.
COUNTDOWN: T minus 30 and counting...
GELLERMAN: Space shots were teachable moments and we were eager for details: Glenn woke at 2:20 in the morning, had steak and eggs, and instead of coffee - postum for breakfast.
COUTNDOWN: We're at T minus 19 seconds...
GELLERMAN: And if he actually made it into space he’d have the new instant O.J., Tang, as he orbited the earth.
MAN: Godspeed, John Glenn.
COUNTDOWN: T minus ten seconds and counting...
GELLERMAN: Everything was new, even the lingo: retro rockets, gantries, and escape towers, roger that….
COUNTDOWN: Three, two, one, zero, ignition, lift-off.
GELLERMAN: But as he blasted off, even John Glenn didn’t know how many times he’d orbit the earth that day. That decision would be made during the flight as he whipped around the globe at a gee-whiz 17 thousand 500 miles an hour.
MAN: Friendship 7 this is Cape, over. How do you read, over.
GELLERMAN: Glenn’s journey, our journey, began two years earlier, when he and six other Project Mercury astronauts were selected, and appeared at a TV press conference.
MAN: Which of these men will be the first to orbit the earth I cannot tell you. He won't know himself until the day of the flight.
GELLERMAN: All seven were military men with standard issue buzz cuts - chosen for their nerves of steel and test pilot skills.
GLENN: My wife made a remark the other day - I've been out of this world for a long time; I might as well go on out there.
GELLERMAN: Marine Aviator John Glenn wore a bow tie and had an easy smile. He came from a small town in Ohio, and had an aw-shucks style.
GLENN: I got on this project because it'd probably be the nearest to heaven that I'd ever get and I wanted to make the most of it. But, ah, my feelings are that this whole project with regard to space sort of stands with us now as, if you want to look at it one way, like the Wright brothers stood at Kitty Hawk about 50 years ago.
[TRANSMISSION FROM SPACE] Roger zero g, I feel fine. Capsule is turning around.
GELLERMAN: In orbit, Glenn didn’t blink when he was told there might be a serious problem with his heat shield. No matter that two Soviet cosmonauts had already beaten us and orbited the earth, John Glenn circled the planet three times that day 50 years ago.
GLENN: Main chute is on green, chute is out and reached condition at 10,800 feet and...beautiful chute...
GELLERMAN: The heat shield worked perfectly and Friendship 7, the name Glenn’s daughters gave the capsule, made a splash down landing right on target. John Glenn was safe, back on earth, and we were back in the race.
John Glenn is 90 years old now, and human space flight is ordinary. We don’t give much thought to rocket launches these days. But NASA’s proposed budget for next year calls for building a new space capsule to take four astronauts to Mars by 2035.
No doubt it’ll cost tens of billions of dollars, and there'll be plenty of opponents, but if it’s inspiration that’s needed, you’ll find more than enough near the old Project Mercury launch pad. Now, there’s a stainless steel monument there, and a time capsule under a concrete slab, with films, photos and memorabilia from those first U.S. manned flights, reminders to generations in the distant future of what they accomplished, those first, few men who took us into space half a century ago.
MAN: Godspeed, John Glenn...
- The Epic Ride of John Glenn by Walter Brennan
- Watch the re-entry
- Watch the CBS Walter Cronkite coverage this big moment of U.S. history.
- Watch the Press Conference Introducing 7 Mercury Astronauts 1959
[MUSIC: Bill Frisell “Across The Universe” from All We Are Saying (Savoy jazz 2011).]
GELLERMAN: Just ahead: New evidence links old chemicals to a host of problems in kids. Keep listening to Living on Earth!
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: George Clinton: “We’re just Funkers” from Plush Funk (Capitol Records 2000)]
Chemicals and Health
GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman.
It’s taken nearly a quarter of a century but the EPA has finally concluded that the chemical perchloroethylene is a likely human carcinogen. You know Perc., at least by the smell. It’s used by many dry cleaners; but now the EPA says it will largely phase out the cancer-causing solvent.
Perc. is just one of more than 62 thousand industrial chemicals that were presumed safe back in 1976. That's when the federal government first began regulating these compounds. But still today, most have never been investigated for health effects, they were grandfathered in.
Now three new studies suggest some of these chemicals, even measured in parts per billion, can have far reaching health effects, and Dr. Richard Denison of the Environmental Defense Fund says there's no avoiding them.
DENISON: The amounts are really staggering and they've grown dramatically over the last few decades. One estimate puts it at 27 trillion pounds per year in the U.S. That's the equivalent of 250 pounds per person every day.
GELLERMAN: Well, in your recent blog you write about three recent studies that raise concerns about some of these chemicals. Let's go through these studies, okay?
DENISON: Sure. They are among a group of studies that are looking directly at effects in people. Most of the data we've relied on in the past has been data derived from laboratory animal studies. But increasingly the field of epidemiology is finding that linkages directly to people can be established between chemical exposures and certain types of health effects. And these are three studies that do just that.
GELLERMAN: The first one has to do with something called PCE, or I guess some people know it as Perc. It's used as a solvent in dry cleaning, degreasing, spot removers, that kind of thing, right?
DENISON: That's right. It's also got a lot of industrial uses for cleaning metal parts and so forth.
GELLERMAN: The study that you cite was done recently by Boston University researchers.
DENISON: They looked at a large group of people, some 800 people that had reported some level of exposure to this chemical, either while they were in the womb, in other words, their mother was exposed, or in their early childhood. And this was the result of contamination of drinking water in the areas in which these 800 people lived.
GELLERMAN: So what did they find? What did the researchers find?
DENISON: Well, they compared this group of 800 people to a group of unexposed individuals and asked the question, how likely was it that these individuals who had been exposed early in life, later in life would engage in so-called "risky behaviors." So this included drug use, smoking, heavy drinking. And what they found was a much higher incidence, some 50 to 60 percent of an increase in the extent of these risky behaviors was observed in the individuals who had been exposed early in life to this solvent compared to those who had not.
GELLERMAN: Can you make the association between something that happens in the womb and behavior so much later in life?
DENISON: Well, there is a lot of additional information that suggests that solvents like PCE are able to do just that. An early life exposure leads to impairment of cognitive abilities, changes in mental disposition and behavior. And what's unique about this study is both the scale of it, the large number of people that were tracked, but also the manifestation of those mental/behavioral changes in directly measurable activities such as drinking and drug use.
GELLERMAN: Of course, there are people who abuse drugs who might never have had exposure to this chemical.
DENISON: This is one of the difficulties in doing human studies. Many effects that we look at have multiple causes, and it's very difficult to ever definitively say that a particular cause is responsible for the entire incidence of a particular outcome. So rather what we're looking for are correlations and in this case the researchers went to significant steps to control for other factors that could potentially confound the results. So it really does look in this study like the strongest correlation is between this early life exposure to a toxic solvent and tying that in this case to a much higher likelihood of developing those risky behaviors later in life.
GELLERMAN: Let's talk about the second study. It took place in New York City, at Mount Sinai. It has to do with something called phthalates. What are phthalates?
DENISON: Phthalates are a group of chemicals that are used widely in commerce today. They're used in everything from cosmetics, to certain types of cleaning products, to a variety of different plastics.
GELLERMAN: So the researchers in New York, they found that there was a relationship between this chemical and overweight kids?
DENISON: That's right. What the researchers studied was a group of about 400 black and Hispanic kids in New York City. They measured several ways in which these children were overweight and they correlated that with the concentrations of these chemicals in the bodies of these children. And they found a very strong relationship. The higher the levels of these chemicals, the more likely they were to be obese at ages six to eight years old.
GELLERMAN: What about things like poor diet, or the kids not getting enough exercise, wouldn't you look at those as variables?
DENISON: Obviously, diet and lifestyle, exercise levels, all affect this. What increasingly the science is pointing to, however, is that early life exposures to certain chemicals can predispose people to being obese later in life. These are chemicals that we know are similar to hormones that are naturally present in the body and they can interfere with the effects of those hormones even at very low doses. They can affect both early development in males and females.
GELLERMAN: The third study you write about are called perfluorinated chemicals. What are those?
This study looked in particular at a group of these chemicals in a very large group of kids that were immunized early in life for diphtheria and other diseases. So then the authors looked for a correlation between the levels of these chemicals and the levels of antibodies that were produced by vaccinations these children had received years earlier. And what they found was that the higher the levels of these chemicals in the bodies of these kids, ages five to seven years old, the lower the levels of antibodies to these two vaccines. So that means that there's at least a potential here that these chemicals are interfering with the effectiveness of those vaccines even years after the initial exposure.
GELLERMAN: Then wouldn't we expect that as they grew older, they might be more susceptible to diseases and the things the vaccines were supposed to prevent?
DENISON: That is certainly the implication. It needs, certainly, further follow-up, but it does suggest that when we are exposed to things early in our lives, that they have some profound effects on our immune system, our mental capacity, our ability to regulate our weight. These kinds of fundamental processes in the human body seem to be being affected by early life exposures.
GELLERMAN: So let me ask you, Dr. Denison. You say we have 27 trillion pounds of these, can we be, you know, effectively protected, or can these chemicals be effectively regulated?
DENISON: Unfortunately, the answer to that question is no. We have a very obsolete chemical safety law that hasn't been amended for 36 years. So we need to update this law, it's called the Toxic Substances Control Act, and it needs to reflect the most recent and best science that's available to us. I think there are, on the margins, certain things that can be done to reduce one's exposure, but I think in the long run it's both unfair and impractical to put the burden on individual consumers to try to figure out where these chemicals are and to try to avoid them. And it's probably a perfect example of where we really need a national solution that makes sure that these chemicals are fully tested before they get into the marketplace so that people, individuals, don't have to worry about themselves and their families.
GELLERMAN: Well, Dr. Denison, thanks a lot.
DENISON: Thank you, Bruce. It's a pleasure to be on your show.
GELLERMAN: Richard Denison is a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.
- Richard Denison’s blog post, “Linking Everyday Chemicals to Disease” with links to summaries of studies
- Environmental Defense Fund’s Chemicals and Nanomaterials Blog
[MUSIC: Captain Beefheart “One Red Rose That I Mean” from Lick My Decals Off Baby (Warner Bros. 1970).]
GELLERMAN: In August 2007, the I - 35 West bridge in Minneapolis collapsed into the Mississippi river. Rush hour traffic was bumper to bumper, as eight lanes of the span came crashing down. Thirteen people died - more than 140 were injured.
Sensors could have warned engineers the bridge was about to buckle but this one didn't have them, and even today, most bridges in the United States don't have them.
But that may be changing, as Prachi Patel reports. Her story is part of the IEEE Spectrum program “Responding to Disasters, from Prediction to Recovery.”
NEWSCASTER: The bridge over Interstate 35 West has absolutely collapsed. It collapsed onto….
PATEL: The 40-year old bridge in Minneapolis came down because of a faulty gusset plate. Not something a bridge inspector would have noticed, but a strain sensor at that gusset might have picked it up. Dozens of the largest and most complex bridges in the world are already studded with hundreds of sensors, like strain gauges and tilt meters.
MOON: We measure things like acceleration, and rotations or tilts, and also this kind of internal stress that the members are feeling, this kind of internal stretch that they undergo.
PATEL: Franklin Moon is a civil engineering professor at Drexel University.
MOON: What the technology does is capture the way a bridge responds, you know, whether something has changed. If something fundamentally changes in the structure, which typically is not a good thing, you can pick it up by monitoring that. I think there are a lot of parallels, it gets use and maybe over-use, but there are a lot of parallels between, you know, human health care and what we should be doing for our bridge population. Just like when you turn 40, or 50, or 60, you're kind of expected to undergo different types of tests for health reasons, etc.
PATEL: Well, the average age of an American bridge is 42. Most were designed to have a 50-year lifespan and many have exceeded that. So why aren't we installing sensing systems on more of our aging bridges? Here's Andrew Foden, an engineer at an infrastructure consulting firm.
FODEN: There's about 530,000 bridges in the United States. For standard highway bridges, which are the bridges you drive across every day and don't even notice you're going over them, sensor technology is very rarely deployed, except for in experimental conditions. Sensor technology is more widely used on signature bridges, such as, you know, the George Washington Bridge, or Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Florida, those types of structures.
PATEL: A signature bridge like those Foden mentions would typically cost hundreds of millions, or even billions, of dollars to replace, he says.
FODEN: For a typical highway bridge that would cost somewhere between 500,000 and two million dollars, it just doesn't make sense to apply 200,000 dollars worth of sensors. The sensors themselves are generally relatively low in cost. You're talking about from tens of dollars to a couple hundred dollars to even the most expensive sensors are typically just a thousand to two thousand dollars. The real cost is the labor involved in installing the sensors, and then there's another component of the cost which is analyzing the data and making some sense of it.
PATEL: Drexel's Franklin Moon agrees that cost is holding back the use of bridge monitoring technology. But there are other reasons, too.
MOON: The infrastructure is government-owned. This isn't like Boeing, where, you know, they may decide we're gonna make an investment into creating a better airplane and then eventually we'll make a profit at the end of that because of that investment. You don't have that same driver for innovation when it comes to public infrastructure.
PATEL: But Moon says that's changing with the possibility of public-private partnerships and private companies operating leased infrastructure.
MOON: So it's kind of an exciting time for infrastructure in that way.
PATEL: Not only that, sensors, and methods for analyzing the massive amounts of data they generate, are also getting better and more economical every day. Which means we should soon see many more U.S. bridges getting smarter and safer. For Living on Earth, I’m Prachi Patel.
GELLERMAN: That story is part of the IEEE Spectrum, National Science Foundation program “Responding to Disasters, from Prediction to Recovery.” For more information, go to our website - LOE dot org.
Prachi Patel’s IEEE Spectrum story on “Dumb Bridges”
[MUSIC: Various Artists/Chilla Vanilla “Ice Cubes (Tequila Sunrise Mix)” from Buddah Chillout Dreams-Superb Lounge Grooves Vol 1 (Woodbuffalo Records 2011).]
Dying Yellow Cedars
GELLERMAN: To the Native people of Southeast Alaska, yellow cedar is more than just a tree. It's deeply rooted in their culture and mythology. They use yellow cedar to fashion canoes and weave the bark into baskets, carve totem poles and make masks. But it is no myth that for the last hundred years, something has been killing vast stands of yellow cedar. And only now have scientists figured out what it is.
Paul Hennon is a scientist at the Pacific Northwest Research Station in Alaska. He's devoted his entire career to solving the mystery of the dying yellow cedars.
HENNON: Yellow cedar is a beautiful tree. It has kind of droopy, hanging, dark green foliage and dark green crowns. The bark is a beautiful silver color. The yellow cedar gets its name from the yellow heart wood that it has and it has this kind of spicy aroma to it, which gives it great decay resistance.
And, you know, there's a couple remarkable things about the cedars. One is that they can be very old. They can live for over a thousand years. They're actually not the tallest trees in the Pacific Northwest or Alaska. They might be the oldest, but not the tallest. And because of, again, that aromatic chemistry in the wood and that extreme decay resistant, we're finding that the wood properties, meaning strength properties, decay resistance, are retained long after death.
GELLERMAN: But these trees, as you say, can grow to be a thousand years old. So what's killing yellow cedars?
HENNON: Cedars are okay as long as they're protected by snow. We do know that the cedars that are dying now and the living cedars, the larger cedars, grew up in a snowier time called the Little Ice Age. So part of the problem for the cedars was that they're adapted to - not necessarily colder conditions, but snowy conditions.
Whenever snow is covering the ground, the soil temperatures equilibrate to right around freezing, which is cold, but not nearly cold enough to kill the cedar roots. The cedar roots are shallow. Cedar grows on wet soils. We've learned that these roots, the fine roots, are just not very cold hardy. So this is a freezing injury to the fine roots and it's cold weather events that kill the tree. So snow provides a blanket of protection that keeps the soil from getting too cold.
GELLERMAN: So what happened to the snow cover?
HENNON: The weather station data from 1910 on is showing a warming trend in these key months of February and March. The pattern of snow is being reduced. It's essentially turning more of the snow into rain.
GELLERMAN: That's kind of ironic, odd. You've got global warming causing these trees to freeze.
HENNON: I think it's an irony or paradox. It's probably part of the reason it took us a while to figure this out. It suggests that some of the effects of climate change will be unexpected, and probably complex, difficult to figure out.
GELLERMAN: So how many trees are we talking about here?
HENNON: Well, we're talking about extensive areas. In coastal Alaska, we've mapped 500,000 acres of dead cedar, about a half million acres. And then within these patches of dead forest about 60 to 70 percent, on average, of the cedars are dead.
GELLERMAN: Why do 30 or 40 percent live?
HENNON: That's a good question. We don't know very much about the genetic makeup of the cedar forest. There may be individual trees that are more cold hardy or slower at becoming physiologically active in the winter. But we also, our really strong suspicion is that there are microsites, small areas where the cedars are growing in patches of dead forest that have deeper soils and the roots grow more deeply.
GELLERMAN: So what, if anything, can be done to protect the remaining trees?
HENNON: Well, the key thing is we've learned what kills the cedars, so there are strategies we can use. We can move yellow cedar, or conserve it, in areas where it's growing well and doing okay. Those tend to be higher elevation areas with more snow and those are the deeper soils where the trees grow deeper roots so it's kind of avoiding this problem. You know, one of our goals is to use this knowledge to maintain and really adapt and probably increase the populations in areas where the tree seems better suited.
GELLERMAN: Well, Dr. Hennon, thank you so much.
HENNON: Okay, thank you, Bruce!
GELLERMAN: Paul Hennon is a scientist with the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station. He spoke to us from the studios of KTOO in Juneau, Alaska.
- U.S. Forest Service report on yellow cedar decline
- U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station
[MUSIC: Ultimate Spinach “Sacrifice Of The Moon” from Ultimate Spinach (Iris Music group 2006 Reissue).]
GELLERMAN: Coming up – They say in D.C., if you want a friend, get a dog. Great advice for presidents! SIT! - and stay tuned to Living on Earth!
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Donald Harrison: “Indian Blues” from Indian Blues (Candid records 1991)]
ANNOUNCER ONE: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, supporting strategic communications and collaboration in solving the world's most pressing environmental problems, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.
BirdNote® Consider the Ostrich
GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.
[BIRD NOTE® THEME]
GELLERMAN: On this week’s BirdNote®, we hear about Big Bird. But as Michael Stein reports, this one doesn’t live on Sesame Street.
STEIN: The ostrich is a bird of superlatives, the largest and tallest bird on the planet, some growing to fully eight feet tall, and weighing 250 pounds. It’s also the fastest creature on two legs, capable of running at 40 miles an hour.
[WHOOPING SOUND OF AN OSTRICH]
STEIN: Being the tallest and fastest is the secret of the ostrich’s ability to survive in the dry savannahs of Africa, where this flightless bird still lives in the wild.
[WHOOPING SOUND OF AN OSTRICH]
STEIN: The long, flexible neck allows the ostrich to feed on the ground, and raise its head high where its keen eyes scan for lions, leopards, and cheetahs.
Birds with similar features are the emu in Australia and the rhea in South America. These birds can be flightless in an environment full of predators, because they all have long necks, sharp eyes, and legs that can outrun their predators.
Contrary to popular belief, ostriches have never been observed to stick their heads in the sand. They’re more likely to run away when threatened; but if an ostrich senses danger and can’t run away, it lies down and remains still, with head and neck outstretched.
We end with a short poem for a big bird, The Ostrich, by Ogden Nash: The ostrich roams the great Sahara./ Its mouth is wide, its neck is narra./ It has such long and lofty legs,/ I'm glad it sits to lay its eggs.
[WHOOPING SOUND OF AN OSTRICH]
GELLERMAN: That’s Michael Stein of BirdNote®. To see some ostrich photos, roam over to our website, LOE dot org.
*Call of the Ostrich provided by Martyn Stewart, Naturesound Productions
Ambient sound of African savannah from Kenyan rift valley, background to elephant eating, G. F. Budney.
BirdNote®’s Consider the Ostrich was written by John Kessler
[MUSIC: Lena Lovich “Big Bird” from Stateless (Oval Music Ltd. 1979).]
GELLERMAN: She sells seashells by the seashore, but on some special beaches the shells just pile up at your feet, for free! Sanibel Island on Florida's Gulf Coast has a beach like that. And reporter Ari Daniel Shapiro took a trip to the seashore, with his mom.
SHAPIRO: I’m going to tell you about two guys who love seashells. One of them’s an enthusiast, the other’s a scientist, and they’re tied together by the thrill of discovery.
OTHS: Let’s walk down this way and see if we can find something else.
SHAPIRO: Jeff Oths is the enthusiast. He made his big discovery in his own backyard, if the beaches of Sanibel Island count as a backyard. He’s lived on the west coast of Florida for eight years. Several days a week, he’s out here, working the shoreline, scanning the sand for shells.
OTHS: When you live here, the bottom of your feet become like leather, 'cause you’re barefoot all the time.
SHAPIRO: Oths is vice president of the local shell club, and he’s got a big collection at home.
OTHS: I stay in the guest room, 'cause the master bedroom was larger and I had more space for my shells.
SHAPIRO: And when the tide’s out here, the beaches are just coated with seashells.
OTHS: Beautiful – this is a little rice shell, and you probably wouldn’t see it right away.
SHPAIRO: Yeah, it looks like a rice grain. Why is Sanibel such a good place to find shells?
OTHS: Well, it’s all about the geography 'cause the island is sort of perpendicular to the current. It’s like a big catcher’s mitt so the shells come up and down the coast with the currents, and they wash up here on the beaches.
But, uh, let’s see what else we got here…
SHAPIRO: Oths bends down to pick up what looks like a clam. Except that it’s tiny, shiny, and pink. It’s a Rosepetal Tellin.
OTHS: These are adorable, aren’t they. They’re just beautiful. Look at that color.
MOM: Oh, that’s pretty.
SHAPIRO: That’s my mom. Oths was showing me and my parents around the beach.
MOM: Do you think that since you’re looking at all these shells that tend to be pretty much the same, that you seek out the ones that are so different?
OTHS: It’s almost like a texture that you look for and you’ll see this sort of a matrix of rubble. I did have some really good fortune earlier.
SHAPIRO: He shows us two shells in his hand. They’re like mini soft-serve ice cream cones. Two tiny swirls of white shell. These Wentletraps, or Epitonium angulatum, look small to me, no bigger than a double A battery, but the other shellers on the beach, they’re impressed. Maybe even a little jealous.
WOMAN: Oh, wow! Where’d you get those? Those are gorgeous.
OTHS: Just on the driftline.
MAN: Those are huge! I’ve never found anything like that. Wow, good for you.
SHAPIRO: The amateur shellers of Sanibel are a beach-scanning army. Every day of the year, they fan across the island, looking for curious shapes and textures. And once in a while, one of them gets lucky. Like Jeff Oths, on Christmas day in 2009.
OTHS: You never know what you’re gonna find, or what to expect. So immediately I knew that it was something unusual.
SHAPIRO: In a pile of shells, he struck upon Australium phoebium, or the long spine star snail. And it turned out to be Sanibel’s 300th reported species of shell. But rather than adding it to his collection in his master bedroom, Oths gave it to another shell lover.
LEAL: I do have some of the favorites in this area.
SHAPIRO: José Leal is the scientist in this story. He’s the director and curator of Sanibel’s shell museum.
Jeff Oths’s shell now resides amongst well over 100,000 other shells, from across the world. Leal says he’s skeptical when a new shell’s found on Sanibel.
LEAL: We have to be very careful before we fully assume that it’s actually living out there.
SHAPIRO: So did you have any doubts when Jeff turned up this 300th species?
LEAL: Well, yes, and then I proceeded to ask him questions. Where did you find it? Well, I found it in the water. That’s a good sign. Another hint is that that shell is not a very collectible shell. It is a nice shell, but it is not something you can buy elsewhere.
SHAPIRO: The museum does house a number of specimens valuable to the shell trade.
[SOUND OF CABINET BEING UNLOCKED AND OPENED]
SHAPIRO: That’s why the cabinets are locked up tight. Shells also get secured if they’re important to science. Leal opens a cabinet and pulls out one such shell that came from the Florida Keys. The two halves fit together like a little orange heart. Leal named this specimen.
LEAL: I created a new genus name, which is a higher category, including a few species. When I first saw the shell, it didn’t strike me as anything that anybody knew at that time. The combination of being a predator and living its entire life glued to a rock was unheard of in mollusks.
SHAPIRO: Leal had to unravel these puzzling features of the shell’s life, which is how he came up with the genus name.
LEAL: I created the name Dilemma.
SHAPIRO: This one’s Dilemma frumarkernorum. Leal loves shells, and seeing one for the first time, he says there’s nothing like it. It’s what got him hooked as a boy growing up on the beaches of Rio.
LEAL: I still have these recollections of the water, the glimmering, the sunlight going through. And all of a sudden, you find a little clam, that special shell. I think if you collect your own shells, and you’re walking, you know, and you found five different kinds, there is always a chance that you’ll find a sixth one, a seventh one. And eventually the tenth one will be something wonderful, and beyond, you know, your imagination.
SHAPIRO: It’s this feeling that keeps both Jeff Oths and José Leal combing the Sanibel beaches. Wondering whether their next step will bring them face to face with something they’ve never seen before. A little sandy promise.
LEAL: So I think that’s the main attraction is being consumed by the unknown. You know, the surprise element in shelling.
SHAPIRO: You just have to keep your eyes open.
For Living on Earth, I’m Ari Daniel Shapiro.
GELLERMAN: Our story about Sanibel seashells comes to us from the seashores of "One Species at a Time." It's produced by Atlantic Public Media with support from the Encyclopedia of Life. For more, catch a wave to our website, LOE dot org.
- Sanibel-Captiva Shell Club
- The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum
- One Species at a Time
[MUSIC: Michael L Rogers “Sea Shells And White Sand” from Magnetica (Catapult Records 2010).]
America’s First Pets
GELLERMAN: More people own cats and dogs in the United States than voted in the last presidential election. Americans love their pets and they like their presidents pet-friendly. If you count Andrew Johnson, who fed the mice he found in his White House bedroom, 43 of our 44 chief executives owned animals of all sizes and stripes. Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah has our tale.
SRISKANDARAJAH: What’s the most powerful animal on earth? A lion, a great white or the leader of the free world’s best friend? Well, only the first dog has its own secret service detail.
McLEAN: They were always afraid it might get kidnapped or something might happen to it, so they actually had a double that would stand in for Lucky.
SRISKANDARAJAH: In 1985, Lucky was the dog with a decoy. His owners, the President and Nancy Reagan, appointed Claire McLean first groomer.
McLEAN: And I couldn’t tell anyone I was grooming the President’s dog, it was always hush hush.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Getting the secret assignment was huge.
McLEAN: Oh, it was life changing for me.
SRISKANDARAJAH: But her first cut on the first pup was a snafu.
McLEAN: Lo and behold, I cut a lot of the hair off and didn’t find out 'til later that actually Mrs. Reagan thought I cut too much off.
SRISKANDARAJAH: McLean walked out of the White House with her tail between her legs and too much puppy coat in her arms.
McLEAN: But little did she know that that hair that I picked up and put in a brown paper bag and took home with me would become the foundation piece for the Presidential Pet Museum.
SRISKANDARAJAH: For the past decade, McLean, now retired, has been mining this neglected corner of American presidential history. Her Presidential Pet Museum is mostly in storage, boxes full of photos, clippings and memorabilia. But McLean keeps a few artifacts on hand.
McLEAN: Now we do have the authentic cow bell that hung around Pauline Wayne’s neck. She was a Holstein cow that Howard Taft was very fond of. They called the cow his favorite pet. Would you like me to ring it for you?
SRISKANDARAJAH: Yeah, that’d be great.
McLEAN: Alright, hang on a minute.
SRISKANDARAJAH: McClean’s pet project offers a new way of understanding the White House, through the eyes of animals that lived there.
Take Pauline Wayne. She provided milk to the Taft family from 1910 to 1913 and was the last cow to graze at the White House. Which illustrates two historical points: one, America’s more rural, agrarian past, and two, President Taft’s appetite for dairy.
The White House has been a habitat for 400 creatures. Chuck Zoeller learned their stories while researching the book “First Pet,” published by the Associated Press.
ZOELLER: In contemporary times it’s mostly been dogs and the occasional cat but in earlier years there were definitely some off-beat animals.
[MUSIC: (Early American, jaunty)]
SRISKANDARAJAH: President Thomas Jefferson oversaw the early exploration of the West and some of that wild made its way back to the White House in 1807.
ZOELLER: Jefferson received two grizzly bear cubs from Zebulon Pike, who was an explorer and brought them back from the West.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Zebulon Pike told Jefferson that the native Americans of the West considered the bears “the most ferocious animals on the continent.” Awed by the creatures but concerned for his home’s safety, Jefferson scrambled to relocate the grizzly cubs. In the meantime they stayed with him, in cages on the lawn. Jefferson’s political opponents started joking that the White House had become a ‘bear garden.’
Bears were brought back as White House guests under President Teddy ‘Bear’ Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge.
ZOELLER: One of my favorites is the Coolidge administration had a small menagerie at the White House.
SRISKANDARAJAH: A bobcat, wallaby, antelope, two lions, pygmy hippos, exotic birds and domesticated raccoons.
ZOELLER: It’s not uncommon to see photo ops from the Coolidge White House that include the raccoons in the photos.
SRISKANDARAJAH: The Zoo at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue exemplified the era of the roaring twenties, even though the famously quiet President Coolidge did not. But he warmed around animals.
ZOELLER: I think that’s been the case for a number of presidents, that the pets associated with them make them seem a little more human and down to earth.
SRISKANDARAJAH: In early American history, exotic, wild animals showed the strength of Presidency and reach of its influence. But in recent times, the White House animals prove their political worth by showing their owners’ softer side.
In 1952, then vice-presidential candidate Nixon faced allegations of illegally using 18,000 dollars in campaign donations. On a national broadcast he denied the accusations.
NIXON: One other thing I probably should tell you because if I don’t, they’ll probably be saying this about me too…
SRISKANDARAJAH: With a hangdog expression, he confessed. He had taken one donation. A cocker-spaniel puppy.
NIXON: Black and white, spotted. And our little girl, Trisha, the six year-old, named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog. And I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re going to keep it.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Checkers shielded Nixon from blame and kept him on the Eisenhower ticket that took him to the White House.
It wasn’t the first time a candidate had unleashed a dog to swing an election. On the campaign trail in 1944, FDR got dragged into the mud by rumors about his beloved Scottish terrier, Fala. Opponents said FDR had left his dog on an Aleutian island and had ordered a Navy destroyer to retrieve Fala at considerable tax payer cost.
ROOSEVELT: Well of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family don’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent attacks.
SRISKANDARAJAH: The political attack playbook hasn’t changed much through history. And the page on pets is dog-eared. Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney can’t seem to shake the story of him strapping his Irish Setter, Seamus, into a crate on the roof of his car, for a 12 hour drive to Canada. Even though the incident happened nearly 30 years ago, dog advocates still have a bone to pick.
The howls of animal cruelty have reached the highest office before. In 1964, LBJ was photographed lifting his hound by its long ears. He cleared up his reputation with a recording.
JOHNSON: C’mon Yuki, sit down, come here. You want to go ride, you want to see the cattle, you wanna go see ‘um, do you?
SRISKANDARAJAH: The duet is called “Dogs have always been my friends.” LBJ on lead vocals, Yuki follows.
JOHNSON: Come on sing for me.
SRISKANDARAJAH: In the tightly choreographed world of presidential politics, the only ones who aren’t on script are the animals. And sometimes they can tell us more than the politicians they belong to. For Living on Earth, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.
JOHNSON: Come on, sing for me….
[DUET HOWL, LAUGHING]
- The White House Historical Association recently had an exhibit on White House Pets
- The Presidential Press Museum
- First Pet is a collection of Associated Press photos of White House pets
[MUSIC: George “Dr. Funkenstein” Clinton “Atomic Dog” from Greatest Funkin Hits (Capitol records 1996).]
GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Jessica Ilyse Kurn, Ingrid Lobet, and Helen Palmer, with help from Sarah Calkins, Gabriela Romanow, and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Mary Bates and Sophie Golden. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org – and while you're online, check out our sister program, Planet Harmony. Planet Harmony welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at myplanetharmony dot com. And don’t forget to check out the Living on Earth facebook page. It’s PRI’s Living on Earth. And you can follow us on Twitter - @livingonearth, that's just one word. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!
ANNOUNCER ONE: 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 dot 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 dot com. Pax World for Tomorrow.
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