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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

June 29, 2012

Air Date: June 29, 2012

FULL SHOW

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SEGMENTS

Rising Seas, Rising Faster

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A new survey of American coastal regions shows the hot spots where sea levels are rising fastest. Ben Strauss directs the program on Sea Level Rise at Climate Central, a research and news organization. He tells host Bruce Gellerman that much of the Eastern seaboard will see the most dramatic coastal flooding. (5:10)

Bye-Bye Bayou

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Two years after five million barrels of oil entered the Gulf of Mexico, the marshes off Louisiana’s coast are feeling the blow. These wetlands are changing rapidly, but there may be hope in restoration efforts. Brian Silliman, a marine biologist at the University of Florida, tells host Bruce Gellerman that America’s hardest working wetlands are going to have to work even harder to keep up with the oil spill. (5:00)

Science Note/ Bacteria: Knights in Shining Armor / Annie Sneed

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Scientists discover that bacteria’s protective sheath looks and works a lot like the chain mail used by medieval knights. (1:35)

Power Shift - Going Solar / Helen Palmer

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The sun powers the planet, yet few of us actually use sun power to heat, cool and light our houses. Living on Earth's Helen Palmer has just taken advantage of some solar power incentives in Massachusetts to put solar panels on her Cambridge home, and she's so excited, she won't stop talking about her new power source. (10:15)

The Farm Bill Food Fight

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The Farm Bill sets the law for virtually everything we eat in the United States, and it’s now up for reauthorization in Congress. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Daniel Imhoff, author of “Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill” to learn if Congress will put real reforms into the new Farm Bill. (7:25)

Cheetah on the Run / Ari Daniel Shapiro

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Cheetahs can outrun any other creature but whether they can win the biggest race – for the survival of their species – remains to be seen. Producer Ari Daniel Shapiro’s has our report that comes by way of the IEEE Spectrum Magazine special “Fastest on Earth.” (2:15)

The Place Where You Live / Emma Hastings

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Vienna, Virginia is a small, historic town. In this week’s installation of the Orion Magazine/Living on Earth feature “The Place Where You Live,” high school student Emma Hastings describes why Vienna is special. (2:45)

Plastic Free

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We live in a plastic-filled world. It’s used in almost everything, from cars to chewing gum to prescription drug bottles. Five years ago, Beth Terry decided to stop consuming plastic and she’s survived to tell the tale. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Terry about her new book, “Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too.” (7:40)

The Sea’s Speediest Swimmer / Ari Daniel Shapiro

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Fishermen and scientists alike are astounded by the sailfish. Its powerful muscles, athletic out-of-water leaps, and otherworldly beauty are not the fish’s sole unique features; the sailfish also travels at record speeds. From the IEEE Spectrum Radio special “Fastest on Earth,” Ari Daniel Shapiro reports. (2:25)

EarthEar

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Ben Strauss, Brian Silliman, Daniel Imhoff, Beth Terry
REPORTERS: Helen Palmer, Ari Daniel Shapiro, Emma Hastings

[THEME]

GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Food stamps…farm subsidies… and political philosophy. The U.S. Farm bill addresses fundamental issues.

IMHOFF: What is government's role in the food system, in how we grow and take care of the resources that our food comes from and also ensuring that everybody has enough to eat.

GELLERMAN: Winners and losers in the Senate version of the Farm Bill. Also - there's never been a better time to grab some rays:

SULLIVAN: Right now there are great incentives, certainly at the federal level there's tax credits, there are here locally in Massachusetts, the cost of installing solar has also dramatically come down.

GELLERMAN: But better hurry... before the sun sets on solar tax breaks and incentives. And - the next stop in our special series: The Place Where You Live – we visit: Vienna, Virginia. Those stories this week on Living on Earth - stick around!

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

[THEME]

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Rising Seas, Rising Faster

The last house on Holland Island, Chesapeake Bay. (Photo: Flickr/CC BaldEagleBluff)

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Massachusetts, it’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Turns out, when it comes to global warming, and rising sea levels, not all coastlines are created equal. There are coastal hot spots that will suffer significantly more flooding than other places in the future.

That‘s according to a new study by the US Geological Survey. For analysis we turned to Ben Strauss. He directs the program on Sea Level Rise at Climate Central, it's a news and science research organization.

GELLERMAN: So, I thought that when ice on the glaciers melts, that it would disperse the water globally and the water would rise equally.

STRAUSS: Yes, I think that’s the first natural assumption. But the ocean isn’t flat. There are currents moving throughout the ocean and they make its surface slightly uneven - kind of like the surface of a river or stream, it’s not exactly flat. They bulge up where the current is faster, then there are lower pools, where the water is slower.

And melting water from the Greenland ice sheet has the effect of making the ocean a little fresher, a little less salty. And that, in turn, we believe, slows down the Gulf stream. In fact, climate models have been projecting for many years that this would happen. The study that just came out was the first evidence supporting this prediction.

GELLERMAN: And the study looks back over the last 60 years and it says that the sea level rise along this coast is 3-4 times the global average.

STRAUSS: Yeah. What we have here is strong evidence that the rate of sea level rise is accelerating in this hotspot. And, ultimately, it’s fast sea level rise that can hurt us the most, because it doesn’t give us a lot of time to adjust.

GELLERMAN: But what makes the hot spot so hot? What is it about this part of the coast?

STRAUSS: Well, our sea level is a lot lower than the global average and that’s mostly because of the Gulf Stream. And the Gulf Stream normally helps to pull water away from the Northeast coast. When it slows down, it’s almost like water piles up in a traffic jam and gets higher.

GELLERMAN: So, in terms of this part of the north Atlantic coast, Water World is not something in the distant future--it’s happening now and it’s going to accelerate in the very near future.

STRAUSS: Well, that’s certainly the fear. What we’ll really notice is more and more floods, because this change in the average sea level means that coastal storm surge has a higher launch pad. If you raise the floor of a basketball court, you’re going to see a lot more dunks. And the same thing is happening with sea level rise and coastal flooding and that can make a big difference in the damage that they do.


There’s over a 1 in 6 chance that sea level rise + storm surge + tide will rise over 3ft in the San Francisco bay-area by 2020. (Climate Central)

GELLERMAN: So what do people do about this? I mean, city planners…you’ve got roads and you’ve got beaches and you’ve got subways and you’ve got tunnels - what’s somebody to do?

STRAUSS: Yeah, this hot spot… its field arises right around the most densely populated place in the United States! It’s as if someone up there has an unfortunate sense of humor. Our own research at Climate Central shows that over one million people live on land less than five feet above the high tide line in the Northeast corridor. There’s really a tremendous amount of planning that needs to take place now.

New York City, I know, is very concerned. The subway system is quite vulnerable. If the wrong storm comes and pushes water a few inches above a threshold to get into the New York City subway system - the whole system could flood within 40 minutes. So, New York is raising lips around the gratings above subways, Boston is looking at it, Philadelphia is as well…


(Climate Central)

GELLERMAN: So, what do we do? Do we build dikes, do we build barriers? You know, put buildings on stilts?

STRAUSS: Well, the first thing we can do is cut emissions of heat trapping pollution. That can slow down and reduce the amount of sea level rise. But, unfortunately, a lot is already baked in the cake. So we can try and defend ourselves and our assets by protecting beaches, dunes, marshes, and other soft defenses that are generally most defensive against storm surge.


There’s over a 1 in 6 chance that sea level rise + storm surge + tide will rise over 5 ft in the Greater-Boston area by 2020. (Climate Central)

Where that’s not possible, we can build hard defenses, like walls and dikes. Another strategy is to accommodate - basically by flood-proofing infrastructure or homes, to the extent that that’s possible. For example, elevating them or moving critical pieces of equipment out of the basement or the ground floor. And then there’s long-term planning about where we put things: not building more in harm’s way. Because, ultimately, a lot of places won’t be defensible.

GELLERMAN: Well, Ben Strauss, thanks a lot.

STRAUSS: Thank you, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: Ben Strauss directs the program on Sea Level Rise at Climate Central, To explore sea level rise in your area, visit the interactive map on our web site - LOE.ORG.

Related links:
- Climate Central’s research on Surging Seas
- Sea Level Rise Accelerating in U.S. Atlantic Coast
- California Sea Level Projected to Rise at Higher Rate Than Global Average

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[MUSIC: Derek trucks “Down In The Flood” from Roadsongs (Sony Music 20120)]

Bye-Bye Bayou

Massive amounts of oil resulted in this common marsh die-off pattern.

GELLERMAN: Even before the BP oil disaster, Louisiana’s delicate marshlands were rapidly disappearing. But now, 2 years after the largest oil spill in US history, the destruction of the marshland has accelerated at an alarming rate.

Marine biologist Brian Silliman, from the University of Florida, traveled to Louisiana’s bayou to study the erosion of the marshlands. They’re known as America’s hardest working wetlands.

SILLIMAN: Well, these salt marshes, in many ways, are the life-blood of the costal communities there in Louisiana. They’re home to the important and valuable fisheries that support the local economies.They also act as sponges and absorb any of the nutrients that come in from the land that run off from the freshwater and thereby protect the open waters from potential harmful algal blooms.

And very importantly, in the case of storms, they can protect the shoreline from incoming waves, because they baffle the waves - they act as a bit of a natural seawall - and at times, they also will decrease the amount of flooding because they absorb the water as the sea level rises during those storms.

GELLERMAN: Well, they weren’t in great shape even before the BP disaster.

SILLIMAN: Yes, these marshes are very stressed both because of what people do and also because of natural phenomenon. They’re also really starved from sediments, part of that being from the channelizations of the Mississippi River. There’s also natural subsidence - there’s sinking marshes there. And without those sediments being sprayed back and forth over the marshes over the years, the marshes tend to sink.

And that creates this unique aspect of Louisiana marshes on their edges. They’re changing and eroding, they’re not sort of gently sloped like in Georgia. And their edges look like a steep face of a small beach dune that’s been cut in half. And so the marshes there are in retreat, we’re losing a lot of those marshes every year.

GELLERMAN: So, the BP disaster pumped, you know, millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf. How did that affect the marshland - how did that destroy the marshland?

SILLIMAN: Theory in marsh ecology predicts that marsh grasses should be very resilient to oil covering them. In studies in the field, they’ve shown to grow back quickly - within one to two years. But what happened, that’s only half of what happened in this case.

The oil came into the marshes and started concentrating around the edges. The grasses in the marsh itself acted like a baffling wall, protecting the interior marshes from the oil coming in. But the oil itself concentrated on the first thirty to forty-five feet of shoreline of the marsh edge. It looked like a thick, black belt along the shoreline.

GELLERMAN: Well, you described them as sponge-like, so it’s not surprising then that it absorbed all this oil.

SILLIMAN: Right. It was almost like a catcher's mitt. And the oil covered the grasses, it covered the ground; about 80 percent of the marsh that I was walking over was covered in a pretty thick amount of oil.

GELLERMAN: So, in terms of the rate of destruction, how much has the oil from the BP disaster affected the destruction of the marshland?

SILLIMAN: Well, when the oil landed on the marsh grasses, what happened after that is the grasses started to die and decay because they were being smothered. Once the grasses above ground started to be lost, their roots started to die as well. And those roots are important because they hold onto the sediments. When they died, they lost their grip on the soil.

Consequently, the erosion rates on those unique steep edges of Louisiana marshes doubled for more than 18 months. The rate, I was astonished, that naturally occurs in this area - without oil - is about five feet of the edge is lost per year. And that is transformed from marsh to Gulf. And that doubled. So, with the oil present, and the oil killing the marsh grasses that hold on to the soil, that doubled to about 10 feet per year.

GELLERMAN: You know, it seems a bit bizarre: you’ve got all this marshland, all the soil washing into the Gulf - then you’ve got the land getting lower and the Gulf getting higher.


An eroding marsh in Bay Jimmy, Louisiana.

SILLIMAN: That’s right. I mean, if you look at the direction at which the sea level is going, and which the marsh is going - is that they’re additive effects. The marsh is sinking away at the same time the sea level is going up. So, it’s a bit of a double-whammy for these marshes to try to keep up with the stresses in the system.

GELLERMAN: Now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been working on the Mississippi River and removing silt from the channel, since they’ve been working on the Mississippi. Why don’t they just take that silt - instead of just pushing it into the Gulf-why don’t they just make new marshlands?

SILLIMAN: An interesting question. And it’s a conversation that’s now being discussed by many managers, scientists - politicians even, within the Gulf region itself. It will be a massive, massive effort; but it’s being discussed right now, and it’s encouraging that we’re all at the table discussing it.

GELLERMAN: Well, Professor, I want to thank you very much for talking with us about Louisiana’s marshlands and the BP disaster. Appreciate it.

GELLERMAN: Thank you, it’s my pleasure.

GELLERMAN: Brian Silliman is a marine biologist at the University of Florida.

Related links:
- Brian Silliman, marine biologist at the University of Florida, conducted the study.
- Silliman’s paper highlights the degradation and resilience of the marshes.

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[MUSIC: Chuck Brown “Game Seven” from Bustin Loose (Source records 1978)]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead: The world's fastest animal is in a race with extinction.

TRICORACHE: To think that your kids will never see a cheetah run in the wild… And they’re gonna ask us, “Why didn’t you do anything?” And I don’t want to have to answer that question.

GELLERMAN: Keep listening to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Manual Galban: “Lluvias De Mayo” from Blue Cha Cha (Concord Music 2012)]

Science Note/ Bacteria: Knights in Shining Armor

S layer bacteria. (Credit: ©VIB, 2012)

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. Apparently, our program’s managing producer has spent too much time in the sun - she’s turned into the most boring person in the office…we’ll have that story, but first this note on emerging science from Annie Sneed.

[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]

SNEED: Around a million bacteria can fit on the head of a pin. But their tiny size hardly makes them defenseless. Scientists have discovered that bacteria have a sturdy suit of armor.
Most bacteria are enclosed in a protective layer of protein. Until recently, researchers didn’t have the technology to get a close up look at this protein coat. But now, scientists in Belgium, using high-tech imaging, can see the individual atoms of bacteria’s body armor.
The bacteria devote up to a third of their protein to build the sheath. The proteins hook together like chain mail worn by medieval knights. This mesh shield guards bacteria from attackers, such as viruses. Chinks in the chain mail allow them to take up nutrients and get rid of waste.
Some harmful bacteria, such as anthrax and the intestinal bug, C. diff, have this type of chain mail coat. Scientists next want to understand what role the armor plays in disease, so that we may better fight pathogens. But, as researchers now know, these bacteria don’t go into battle unarmed. That’s this week’s note on Emerging Science. I’m Annie Sneed.

[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]

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Power Shift - Going Solar

Race Traver fits panels on the rear side of the roof.

GELLERMAN: Let there be light... and there is: Our sun powers the planet – providing the heat to warm the world and the energy to grow everything we eat. But turning solar energy into electricity that we can use to power our cars, houses and factories - well, that’s another matter.

So while solar promises a cheap, inexhaustible supply of wattage - in practice, plugging into photovoltaics is expensive - especially for the homeowner. Nevertheless there are those who are solar power- current converts…and one of the latest is Living on Earth’s own managing producer - Helen Palmer.


Solar engineers up on the roof.

PALMER: Solar power seems like a great idea - for Arizona - or California - or Florida, the sunshine state. For Massachusetts - hardly. But my neighbor pushed me into it.

[SOUND OF DOOR]

GRUNEBAUM: Helen…

PALMER: Hi Eric!

GRUNEBAUM: Hey. I've been meaning to talk to you about looking into solar panels for the house.

PALMER: Solar panels? It’s too expensive, isn’t it?

GRUNEBAUM: Well, I mean, I keep reading stories about the prices coming down – and maybe we should just take a look at it at least.

PALMER: Hmmm.
Eric Grunebaum, his wife and 2 kids live downstairs. A few days later, when I came home…

[SOUND OF WALKING UP STAIRS]

GRUNEBAUM: Hey, I got some more information on solar panels… I got one price already, it’s pretty good…. There’s actually income now.

PALMER: Income - they pay you for having solar power?

GRUNEBAUM: Ah… pretty much, yeah!

PALMER: Federal and local incentives have helped give solar a gigantic boost in the last two of years - in 2011 the U.S. added 1.7 gigawatts of solar - enough to power about one and a half million homes. California leads the sun-powered pack - but Massachusetts ties Hawaii for second place, in terms of incentives and strength of the market. Richard Sullivan is Massachusetts' Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs.


Half the panels up on the back of the house.

SULLIVAN: Right now there are great incentives. There's, certainly at the federal level, there's tax credits, there are here locally in Massachusetts and cost of manufacturing solar, the cost of installing solar, has also dramatically come down.

PALMER: Meantime my neighbor Eric was researching what those incentives and new efficiencies added up to in hard cash - he came upstairs… -

[KNOCKING]

PALMER: Come in! Hi Eric!

GRUNEBAUM: Hi!

PALMER: He had an armful of folders - -

GRUNEBAUM: So, I got a price from so far from one company called Sun Bug – the total price is $13,000 - but then there are these credits you get from the state and from the federal government - state credits are adding up to $3300 roughly. And federal is about $3000. Oh look, there's another state tax credit of $1000! So the cost after all the rebates is $6000. So it's actually cutting more than half off the price…

PALMER: There are dozens of tax benefits, grant programs and incentives to go energy green - 38 states have property tax breaks - 28 states have sales tax incentives - the list goes on! But this was the first time I learned about one of the biggest boondoggles of all - the cash you actually get paid.

GRUNEBAUM: Every year, for every 1000 kW you produce, you get what's called a solar renewable energy credit - which everyone calls an SREC - because it's too long to say that other thing - and it's because utilities required to buy solar power.

PALMER: Yeah there's a requirement that the state generate so much from renewables - right?

GRUNEBAUM: Yes, it's called Renewable Portfolio Standard.

PALMER: Thirty states have mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standards - in most cases the green energy requirement goes up every year - Massachusetts demands 15% by 2020. And SREC prices vary from state to state - Pennsylvania paid less than $22 in June this year - while the Massachusetts price was $545. And the tax credits may go down.The federal credit's good through 2016 - but state Energy Secretary Rick Sullivan says Massachusetts' credits will sunset.

Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary, Rick Sullivan.

SULLIVAN: These rebates and incentives, if you will, are really designed, you know, to certainly encourage the growth of the industry. But then, over a period of time, those incentives and rebates will decline and eventually go away; and we are seeing that happen. We have seen the rebate that’s offered decrease, I believe it's 4 times - again the goal is to get it to be zero and have private industry be competitive, the solar industry be competitive, with the other sources of energy.

PALMER: To date - they've done their job - prices have dropped over 40% in the last four years and in Massachusetts, at least 200 solar companies are trying to persuade businesses and homeowners to slap solar panels on the roof. And my neighbor Eric was on a roll with his research.

[SOUND OF FOOTSTEPS, DOOR, WATER RUNNING]

PALMER: I was washing the dishes when he came by - with more solar bids.

GRUNEBAUM: So I've got Sunrun, I've got Sungevity, they all have good names - SolarCity - and then I got the one I mentioned, called Independent Power Systems - that that clean-tech venture capital recommended. I mean, of course, the system is a little more expensive, but it’s covering over 100% of our electricity.

PALMER: Still, with some $7000 in incentives and rebates per household, and companies eager for your business, there are creative low-cost ways of financing roof-top solar - you can even lease it.

GRUNEBAUM: You can put zero down and have a monthly payment, just like you're leasing anything. Or you can do what they call a ‘prepaid lease’ - where you basically pay all of your lease up-front. We could buy the system outright - I think it's about $11,000 to buy it outright, and it's about $8000 - this is for each of us - to do the prepaid lease.

PALMER: Eric had spreadsheets - he had cost and efficiency comparisons, he had run all the numbers by renewable energy experts - and my uncertainty was no match for his drive and decisiveness. He knew what he thought was best for us. Soon we were getting the low-down on that system.

ROBERTSON: My name's Alan Robertson - I work for Independent Power Systems as a design engineer and project manager.

PALMER: Alan had reams of paper too - he'd created a computer image of what solar would actually look like - two identical arrays, 10 panels each, either side of the dormer on our roof.

[SOUND OF DOOR, GREETINGS: GOOD MORNING!]

PALMER: Eric came up - over tea, Alan ran through some of the details - the kind of details that make the eyes glaze over.

ROBERTSON: We've got 6", we call them lug screws, the mounting screws, those go right into your rafter….

PALMER: For me, it was a steep learning curve - not just the details of direct versus alternating current - but questions of panel efficiency…

ROBERTSON: They hover around 18 – 19 percent efficient.

PALMER: What exactly does that mean - 18 -19 percent efficient?

ROBERTSON: That is talking about the total potential the sun offers opposed to what the panel actually converts into DC power.

PALMER: After Alan left, Eric and I looked at each other - he'd convinced us both - Free power! After we'd paid over our $8000 each, of course - but with the renewable credits we'll earn, the system will be paid off within four years. And there was a $350 rebate each from the company if we signed by the end of the month!

In the event, the actual signing was - well - kind of uneventful - the contract came by email, and we e-signed. Soon a whole team set up shop on the gravel driveway where we park the cars.

[SOUND OF GRAVEL]

PALMER: They unloaded yards of black aluminum rail - that holds the panels in place. They measured, they cut…

[SOUND OF CUTTING]

PALMER: They set up anchors on the roof, they checked the plans…

SOLAR INSTALLERS: Hey those 2, those top 2 rows on the left side - are those all set? Yeah. So I can put rail there?

[SOUND OF RAIL CLANKING]

SOLAR INSTALLERS: What about the top rail on the right side? Doing that one right now…

PALMER: They drilled holes in the rail to attach the panels…

[SOUND OF DRILLING]

PALMER: And within a week, gleaming black panels stretched from gutter to roof peak on both sides of the dormer. But still no power. I went outside - and there was James the crew leader …

PALMER: Hey there!

BOUTIN: Hello - how are you?

PALMER: How's it going?


The finished solar array at the front.

BOUTIN: It's going good - we're just waiting for the inspector - he said he'd be here this morning but we're still waiting for him to show up.

PALMER: Getting all the approvals took longer than getting the panels on the roof. But, at last, it was done. And Alan Robertson was back for turn-on day.

ROBERTSON: Pop these guys on…

[BANGING SOUND]

ROBERTSON: Then we'll go in the basement.

[SOUND OF DOOR, STEPS]

PALMER: Down in the basement - time to turn on the inverter - that converts direct current from the solar panels into the alternating current we use - and the monitor to track how much power the system was generating.

ROBERTSON: I'll take your panel here - this is your inverter and I’ll pop it on for you… Testing …

PALMER: Back upstairs, Alan showed us how to track our energy production by computer with the on line dashboard.

ROBERTSON: What this is showing you is instantaneous power, that’s in kilowatts. Once that little number underneath that speedometer says 1,000, then you’ll know an SREC is close by. So, it's on its waY!

PALMER: We haven't got the cash for the SREC - the renewable energy credit - yet - but in the three months since we switched on the panels, the electricity bills have been zero - and I have a $94 credit. The panels have generated 1,377 kilowatt hours of electricity - and they've offset 408 pounds of coal.


Helen Palmer’s computer dashboard, showing real time generation and savings.

And I have become the world's most boring person - obsessively checking my real-time solar monitoring - and droning on and on about it. For Living On Earth, I'm Helen Palmer.

PALMER: Hey Bruce - did I show you my solar dashboard today…?

GELLERMAN: Yeah! Only about TEN TIMES!

Related links:
- Follow Secretary Sullivan on Twitter
- Visit the Energy Smarts blog
- Massachusetts Dept of Energy and Environmental Affairs
- Independent Power Systems
- Computer plan of two solar systems on our house, separated by the dormer.
- The "very efficient" panels installed on our roof.
- A typical sized solar proposal.
- Eric's comparison chart.

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[MUSIC: Thunderball “Solar” from Scorpio Rising (ESL Music 2001)]

The Farm Bill Food Fight

Small family farms like this one in Lafayette, Colorado, don’t get as much support as big agribusiness. (Photo: Flickr CC/Let Ideas Compete)

GELLERMAN: If you are what you eat, then you are the American Farm Bill. Because the massive bill, which comes up for re-authorization about every five years, covers virtually everything in the American diet - and then some.

The farm bill sets environmental policy on more than 900 million acres or 40 percent of the nation’s lands, it determines what your kids will eat in school lunch, and who gets food stamps. The Farm Bill recently passed in the Senate by a wide margin; now it goes to the House. Daniel Imhoff is the author of “Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill”.

IMHOFF: When you look at the farm bill it’s answering a very, very basic question: What is government’s role in the food system? And in the food system, I mean how in we grow and take care of the resources that our food comes from, and also ensuring that everybody has enough to eat.

GELLERMAN: I was trying to do my homework for this interview, and I had trouble finding out a basic fact. That is… what’s the price tag for this?

IMHOFF: The price tag is about $100 billion dollars per year. When they’re planning out what is going to happen, they’re often looking 10 years ahead. So in about 10 years, that’d be about a trillion dollars.

GELLERMAN: So, 100 billion dollars a year - that’s real money in anybody’s pocket.

IMHOFF: It’s real money. I mean the interesting thing that has happened in the last five years is that the amount of money that goes toward food stamps and nutrition assistance has really ballooned. So, 80 cents of every dollar spent right now goes to the food stamp program.

GELLERMAN: Now, it’s no longer called the food stamp program, it’s called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

IMHOFF: SNAP.

GELLERMAN: Mm hmm. As I understand it, one American in seven is on SNAP.

IMHOFF: Imagine if you’re looking around the country and you’re looking around your community or city - one out of every seven Americans is on some kind of food assistance. It’s really a testament to how deep the recession has hit the average American.


Fruits and vegetable may be part of a healthy diet, but they’re not supported. (Photo: Flickr CC/ Marj Joly)

GELLERMAN: So, if 80 percent of 100 billion dollars a year goes to what we call SNAP, or food stamps, then the other 20 percent goes to our nation’s farmers. How do they divvy that up?

IMHOFF: It basically gets divvied up by commodity crops.

GELLERMAN: And by commodities you mean things like corn, sorghum, that kind of thing?

IMHOFF: Yeah, store-able crops. Oil seed crops, feed crops for animals. This bill is primarily a feed bill, when you look at it. There is a very narrow band of crops that are really supported by government programs. Corn is the big winner. And we have soybeans, rice, wheat, cotton, milk.

What you find is that over time these subsidies that go toward agriculture and crop insurance - they mainly go to the biggest growers. So, the top 20 percent of farms get 80 percent of the subsidies. And the bigger you are, the more subsidies you get, that’s kinda how the game works.

GELLERMAN: So, Dan, why not just do away with subsidies, then? Why not just let the market dictate what happens on the farm?


IMHOFF: Because there is too much good that can come from careful investment in our farms, in our family farms and in rebuilding our food production infrastructure. The real question is – why are we so beholden to these huge agro-business interests in this process?

GELLERMAN: I know it was Senator Debbie Stabanow from Michigan, she’s a Democrat, who said, quote: ‘This farm bill is the most significant reform to farm programs in decades.’

IMHOFF: Well, with all respect to Debbie Stabanow, who I know worked really hard to actually just get a bill done this year in a timely fashion, I'm not sure that we’re going to get the significant reform that America really deserves. As a taxpayer, as a concerned citizen, the biggest thing that we get from these farm bills is conservation and protecting the soil, protecting the water, making sure that we have natural resources that we can give to the next generation.

Almost every step of the way, big agriculture fights basic conservation requirements that we could attach to payments. They also fight eligibility requirements - any type of legislation that’s trying to say: look, a family farmer who’s working, who needs help is one thing. An agro-business who’s using federal subsidies to capitalize their expansion, become more industrial, is a different thing. And I don’t see that this farm bill really addresses those two very, very fundamental issues.

GELLERMAN: The Senate Farm Bill, which actually passed 64-35, would actually cut conservation by, I guess, 10 percent.


IMHOFF: You know, conservation is always in the cross-hairs. It’s one of the three legs of the stool - the Farm Bill stool: the nutrition programs, the agricultural land-based programs, and then the conservation programs. But it’s the thinnest leg of the three, and definitely doesn't benefit from that huge lobby, you know, that the other titles do.

GELLERMAN: I was looking at two food pyramids, basically. One was the traditional food pyramid, of what we should nutritionally eat. And then I was looking at where the money for the farm bill gets apportioned, and they’re two opposite pyramids! The money that we spend on corn and supporting meat production is exactly the opposite of this suggested food pyramid.


Daniel Imhoff.

IMHOFF: We’re at a new moment in time and the Farm Bill hasn’t caught up quite yet with the realities of how food affects our health. I think what you’re seeing when you’re looking at My Plate - the guidelines that come out from the new USDA - that says that half of our plate should be covered with fruits and vegetables, a quarter with grains, and then a quarter with some kind of protein.

And when we look at the subsidy plate, we’re still having priorities that are rooted in the 1970s and the 80s. This is the policy challenge right now in America. How do we create an agricultural system that protects the soil, it’s resilient to all kinds of changes that we’re going to face - from climate change to increasing oil prices - and then also how do we tailor that food output to our nutritional needs, and the challenge that two out of every three Americans is overweight, and is not eating well? Our real challenge is: How do we get leadership to follow these very, very strong public concerns about where we want our food and farm dollars spent?

GELLERMAN: Daniel, thanks very much!

IMHOFF: Thanks a lot for having me!

GELLERMAN: We’ve been speaking to Daniel Imhoff, his book is “Food Fight, the Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill.”

Related links:
- Find books by Daniel Imhoff at Watershed Media
- Learn more about the Farm Bill on Marion Nestle’s blog
- And at the Farm Bill Primer website

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[MUSIC: Bill Frisell “Disfarmer Theme” from Disfarmer (Nonesuch Records 2009)]

Cheetah on the Run

A cheetah on the run in Namibia. Cheetahs can reach speeds of 70 miles an hour. (Photo: Patricia Tricorache)

GELLERMAN: In last week’s show we aired a story about the world’s fastest falcon: Frightful the Falcon who soared through the skies at 242 miles-an-hour. Well, this week we keep our feet firmly on the ground and clock the fastest living creature on land.
Ari Daniel Shapiro has our report - it comes to us by way of the I-Triple E Spectrum Magazine special: “Fastest on Earth”.

SHAPIRO: Step into Patricia Tricorache’s home in the Florida Keys, and it’s clear where her loyalties lie. Framed pictures of cheetahs hang on the wall. Cheetah spots freckle the pillows and curtains.


Cheetahs are in danger of extinction. (Photo: Patricia Tricorache)

[SOUND OF PURRING CHEETAH]

SHAPIRO: Even her phone has a ringtone of a cheetah purring.

[SOUND OF PURRING CHEETAH]

TRICORACHE: They’re one of the most amazing animals in the whole world. They’re like poetry when you see one.

SHAPIRO: Tricorache works for the Cheetah Conservation Fund, and she’s seen plenty of the animals on her visits to Namibia – where the non-profit’s based.

TRICORACHE: There’s nothing that beats watching a cheetah run.

SHAPIRO: What does that look like?

TRICORACHE: It’s like a flash. They’re incredibly focused. And their ears fall back, and they’re all business.

SHAPIRO: Cheetahs can reach speeds of 70 miles an hour, and they run to catch prey. But these days, that run has become a race.

TRICORACHE: A race against extinction.

SHAPIRO: In the early 1900s, there were 100,000 cheetahs in the world. Only 10,000 remain today, and they’ve got a small gene pool. Their habitat’s shrinking. Wild cheetahs could disappear within 20 years.

TRICORACHE: To think that your kids will never see a cheetah run in the wild… And they’re gonna ask us, “Why didn’t you do anything?” And I don’t want to have to answer that question.


Cheetahs have large paws which helps them run and climb. They also have semi-retractable claws. (Photo: Patricia Tricorache)

SHAPIRO: Protecting a top predator means protecting an entire ecosystem. And that’s Tricorache’s big goal – to create a wild home for her cats. And to do it before extinction wins the race. I’m Ari Daniel Shapiro.

GELLERMAN: Ari Daniel Shapiro’s story on the cheetah is from the I triple E-Spectrum Magazine special, “Fastest on Earth.” Later in the show, we’ll hear about the fastest creature in the sea.

Related links:
- Check out IEEE Spectrum Radio’s special report: Fastest on Earth
- Cheetah Conservation Fund

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[MUSIC: Kenny Burrell “Cheetah” from The Best Of The Blue Note Years (Blue Note Records 1995)]

GELLERMAN: Be sure to check out our website for a new feature we call Living on Earth Now - regular updates, new stories and features. That’s at LOE dot ORG. Coming up – plastic isn’t so fantastic – lessons from a pro in kicking the habit. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!

PRI ANNOUNCER: 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 BettyMoore Foundation, and Gilman Ordway for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth, on PRI, Public Radio International.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Bobbi Humphrey: “The Trip” from Fancy Dancer (Blue Note Records1975)]

The Place Where You Live

GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. This week: another installment in the Living on Earth/Orion Magazine series “The Place Where You Live.” For more than a decade, Orion has invited readers to put their memories of home on a map and submit essays on their website. And now, we’re giving them a voice.

[MUSIC: Edward Sharpe & The Magentic Zeroes “Home” from Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeroes (Rough Trade Records 2009)]

GELLERMAN: History doesn’t have to be something that's happened long ago or far way…sometimes it’s as close as our front door.

HASTINGS: I’m Emma Hastings and I’m from Vienna, Virginia. I’m a High School sophomore. Vienna is a great town. It’s got a lot of history, it was founded in the mid-1800s - a battle of the Civil War occurred there… it’s just a really great place to live.


Emma and her family sometimes crept through the storm drain tunnels in their town. (Photo: Emma Hastings)

And, when I think about Vienna, I think about the Freeman Store, because it sits on the main road of the street and because I had so many great experiences there. My father would love to bring us there - he actually told me that when he read this he cried in nostalgia for those times, and they were really important times in my life.

[MUSIC: Pat Metheny “Slow Hot Wind” from What’s It All About (Nonesuch Records 2012)]

On warm, pleasant days in the summer, my father would take me and my siblings down to the Freeman Store, a more than hundred year old general store that was founded by Abraham Lydecker, an outspoken supporter of remaining in the Union during the Civil War. Now the building is a museum, run by a woman whose husband was mayor of Vienna for decades.

In the refurbished, two-room wooden building, surrounded by old artifacts behind shiny cases, we would gleefully pick out different type of colorful candies from large, glass jars with ornate, metal lids—jawbreakers, tootsie rolls, gum drops, and, my personal favorite, dyed and flavored rock candy. We’d take them outside, struggling to climb far up enough the trees to pluck sour apples from their branches. My favorite thing to do - although my brother and sister both hated it - was slip down into a little, smelly, perpetually polluted stream and jump from rock to rock, trying to make it from one end to the other without letting a foot plunge into the murky water, an unfortunate incident my dad jokingly called the “soaker”.


A hundred years ago, The Freeman Store in Vienna, Virginia was a general store. Now the building is a museum that still sells candy. (Photo: Emma Hastings)

Sometimes, we’d bring flashlights and creep down into the huge storm drain tunnels, exploring a little deeper each time. I learned a lot from activities like these, and many others that could only have taken place in my unique, friendly, history-rich town, Vienna, Virginia, which has been and continues to be a huge influence on my life.


(Photo: Emma Hastings)

GELLERMAN: Emma Hastings lives in Vienna, Virginia. And we want to hear about “The Place Where You Live.” To find out how to submit your essay for the Orion Magazine -Living on Earth series, visit our website LOE dot org.

Related links:
- Vienna, Virginia Town website
- Let us know about “The Place Where You Live.” To post your essay on the Orion magazine website, click here. Living on Earth will choose entries on the Orion page for broadcast.

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[MUSIC: Pat Metheny “Slow Hot Wind” from What’s It All About (Nonesuch Records 2012)]

Plastic Free

Beth Terry collected this much plastic during the first half of 2007. (Photo: Beth Terry)

GELLERMAN: In the 1967 film classic, “The Graduate,” a young Dustin Hoffman gets a piece of advice about his future.

[CLIP FROM THE GRADUATE: “I just want to say one word to you, just one word.// Yes Sir.// Are you listening?// Yes I am.// Plastics.// Exactly how do you mean?// There’s a great future in plastics, think about it.”]

GELLERMAN: We didn’t just think about plastic…since then, we’ve turned the polymers into every part of modern life. Look around you. Today, the average American goes through 220 pounds of the stuff a year. But Beth Terry isn’t your average American - she said - enough is enough! Her new book is “Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too.”


Images of bird carcasses filled with plastic, inspired Terry to cut her use. (Photo: Beth Terry)

TERRY: Hi, thanks so much for having me!

GELLERMAN: Beth, I want you to 'fess up – five years ago, you were a plastic addict.

TERRY: I was! I was addicted to the convenience that plastic offers. I was used to taking double plastic bags at the grocery store, and I would take bottled water to the gym everyday and throw the bottle away because there wasn’t a recycling bin handy. And I pretty much didn't worry about how things were packaged. And now I don’t use any! But it took a while to develop the habit.

GELLERMAN: Well, why did you decide to kick the habit?

TERRY: Well, five years ago, almost to the day, I stumbled across an article about the plastic pollution problem in the ocean. And what completely blew my mind, and broke my heart, was this photo I saw of a dead albatross chic on Midway Island, thousands of miles from civilization - halfway between the United States and Japan. And it was just the carcass; it was full of plastic pieces. Like the plastic that I used on an everyday basis - things like bottle caps, things that didn’t come from the middle of the Pacific Ocean - they came from us. I just had to change.

GELLERMAN: So, I was looking at your first week’s collection of plastic. You used 20oz. of plastic that first week. Twenty ounces, that’s about a pound and a quarter.

TERRY: Mmm hmm.

GELLERMAN: So far this year, about six months… you’ve used less than half a pound.

TERRY: My plastic waste for last year, for 2011, fits into one regular sized plastic grocery bag. And it comes to about two pounds. And what’s in there are things that I either can’t avoid or stumble upon accidentally. Like, for example, prescription bottles, which can’t be refilled in the state of California, but they can only be recycled.

And, there are things like plastic packing tape because when I sometimes order something from a company - I will request no plastic packaging, but there's still sometimes tape on the box. But I find every year, it’s a learning process and I find more and more ways to reduce plastic, and more and more ways to get other companies to stop using so much plastic.


GELLERMAN: But plastic is so darn convenient and useful! It’s silly putty, but it’s also the same thing that vaccines come in, for saving lives.

TERRY: Yeah, you know there are great things about plastic, and there are truly problematic things about plastic. And so, whereas a plastic IV bag or a plastic blood bag, for example, might save a life in the short term - which is so important - a lot of those contain phthalates, which are endocrine-disrupting chemicals which can leach into the IV, into the blood and into the person. It’s a mixed bag. I’m talking to you using a computer and a headset.


She collected only this amount in all of 2011 (2 lbs in orange grocery bag). (Photo: Beth Terry)

GELLERMAN: Mm hmm - and you’ve got a lot of plastic at your fingertips.

TERRY: I do!

GELLERMAN: I mean, literally, your mouse is plastic, right?

TERRY: My mouse is plastic.

GELLERMAN: The keyboard is plastic…

TERRY: That’s right. However, I didn’t buy any of these things new. When I decided to stop buying any new plastics, I didn’t commit to stop using the plastic I already had, first of all, and I don’t recommend that anybody go through their house and purge the plastic and throw it away, because that’s just so wasteful, I think. But when my computer broke and it couldn’t be fixed - my first step is always to try and fix things and make them last as long as possible - but, when it couldn't be fixed, I looked on Craig’s List and I found a secondhand computer.

GELLERMAN: So, you’re following the 3 R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. But, in your book, you go one step further - you go to Reporting.

TERRY: Yeah. Because I feel that my personal actions might not seem like they’re gonna make a huge difference in the world. When you look at the scope of the plastic pollution problem in the world, it’s huge! And what can the actions of one individual, what difference can they make?


She collected only this amount in all of 2011 (2 lbs in orange grocery bag). (Photo: Beth Terry)

GELLERMAN: Yeah, it’s a drop in a plastic bucket!

TERRY: It is, it is. And for me, I had to change my behavior because I felt so connected to the rest of the planet. I just couldn’t keep doing harm when I knew - when I became aware of what I was doing. But report is important because I can share this information that I’ve discovered with other people and my personal actions can be magnified by the example I set. And I’m not out there trying to tell everybody that they should religiously reduce every single tiny bit of plastic in their lives. I want to encourage people to be mindful about their choices and to show them that they actually do have choices.

GELLERMAN: But you know, people that are so mindful sometimes become too serious. They take themselves too seriously.

TERRY: (Laughs.)

GELLERMAN: And I’m just thinking of things made out of plastic that are just fun! Like… pink flamingos! Right? There’s no substitute…

TERRY: You know, I have fun and one of my favorite things is to experiment. So doing this project has been very fun and has brought out a lot of creativity for me. Fun can be had in many different ways and the things that truly make me happy and laugh, don’t come packaged in plastic.

GELLERMAN: Beth, do you have a dog?

TERRY: I have a cat - I have two cats.


(Beth Terry)

GELLERMAN: Well, I have a dog. And plastic plays a very significant role in both of our lives when we go for a walk. What do we do if I am going to kick the plastic habit?

TERRY: There was a woman I met who actually uses old yellow pages to pick up after her dog.

GELLERMAN: Gives new meaning to… let your fingers do the walking!

TERRY: (Laughs.) Yes. And there are actually lots of things that you can use to pick up pet waste instead of taking new plastic bags from the grocery store. Think of all the bags and types of containers that you already have at home. Bread bags, chip bags, cereal bags… if you haven’t completely gotten the plastic out of your grocery shopping yet - as most people haven’t - these are all things that you can use.

GELLERMAN: So, Beth, if people want to buy your book - and it gets shipped to them - what does it wrapped in?

TERRY: It doesn’t come wrapped in anything. And in fact, my publisher - Skyhorse Publishing - when they decided to create a book about plastic-free living, they committed to making the book itself without plastic. There is no plastic coating on the cover, the jacket is just plain craft paper. It’s compostable. I believe you could compost this book at the end of its life.

GELLERMAN: Beth, you saw the movie the Graduate with Dustin Hoffman, yeah?

TERRY: Yes.

GELLERMAN: So, when you think about it now, and the advice he got… I’ve got one word for you… plastics… what do you say?

TERRY: No thanks! (Laughs.)

GELLERMAN: That’s Beth Terry, her new book is “Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too.” Beth, thanks a lot.

TERRY: It was a pleasure.

Related link:
Beth Terry’s blog, “My Plastic-free Life.”

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[MUSIC: Terry: Andrew Bird “Plasticies” from Armchair Apocrypha (Wegawam Music 2007)]

The Sea’s Speediest Swimmer

A juvenile Sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus)(Photo: George Burgess)

GELLERMAN: Catching a fish is hard enough. Catching one that swims 68 mph - well, that's a record. As part of the I-Triple E Spectrum Magazine special: “Fastest on Earth,” Ari Daniel Shapiro reports on a powerful creature that's the fastest under the sea.

SHAPIRO: Dave Kerstetter remembers the first time he saw one.

Dave Kerstetter: It was in Bermuda and the water was almost purple, it was so deep blue.

SHAPIRO: He was on a boat catching, tagging, and releasing blue marlin for research. But on this particular day in 2000, his team hooked a giant sailfish instead.

KERSTETTER: It was an electric blue; it was throwing its sail up. I was just awestruck by how pretty it was.

SHAPIRO: Sailfish are named for their dorsal fins that resemble giant sails. And if they get caught and pulled to the surface, they put on quite a show.


Scientist Dave Kerstetter of NOVA Southeastern University points to a photo of Captain Don Gurgiolo, a legendary South Florida charter captain who pioneered many of the modern fishing techniques for sailfish. (Photo: Carey McKearnan)

KERSTETTER: A fish will make short little jumps out of the water, and do these running leaps across the surface of the water. Sometimes they’ll leap up four or five feet out of the water shake their heads and their bills violently, and then duck back in the water and continue the fight.

SHAPIRO: An angler once timed a hooked sailfish pulling out his fishing line. The speed? 68 miles an hour – considered the fastest of any underwater creature.

KERSTETTER: That big large sail dorsal fin folds down, actually, within a groove alongside their back. And so they become almost bullet-like.

SHAPIRO: Kerstetter studies sailfish at NOVA Southeastern University Oceanography Center in Florida. He catches and tags them – to track their swimming and diving behavior, and to monitor their survival after being caught and released by anglers required to throw them back into the water. As for that sailfish he hooked in 2000…

KERSTETTER: It’s awfully anthropocentric to imagine a sailfish looking at you with disdain like that, but that’s definitely the sense I got.

SHAPIRO: He released the fish, and it vanished as quickly as it appeared, racing back into the dark blue depths. I’m Ari Daniel Shapiro.

GELLERMAN: Ari Daniel Shapiro’s story on the speedy sailfish comes to us from the
I-triple E-Spectrum Magazine special, “Fastest on Earth.” The publication received the 2012 National Magazine Award for general excellence.

Related links:
- Check out IEEE Spectrum Radio’s special report: Fastest on Earth
- Nova Southeaster University Oceanographic Center

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[MUSIC: Steven Bernstein’s Millennial territory Orchestra “Stand”” from MTO Plays Sly (Royal Potato Family 2011)]

GELLERMAN: On the next Living on Earth, activist Bill McKibben wants to change the world… one apple at a time.

MCKIBBEN: The apples in my market annoy me. They’re from China and New Zealand and Washington state, and I live in Vermont’s Champlain Valley, one of the world’s great apple-growing regions.

GELLERMAN: Thinking globally, eating locally - next time on Living on Earth.

EarthEar

Two Great Horned Owls at A Place Called Hope rehab center. The baby is in the foreground; the adult stands behind. (Photo: © Mark Seth Lender)

[SOUND OF GREAT HORNED OWLS]


A baby Great Horned Owl is fed a mouse for lunch. (Photo: © Mark Seth Lender)

GELLERMAN: We leave you this week with a couple of Great Horned Owls. The Great Horned Owl is the most common owl in the Americas - equally at home in suburbs, the woods and farmland. But they get special treatment at “A Place Called Hope.” It’s a rehab center for owls and raptors in Killingworth, Connecticut.

Producer Mark Seth Lender recorded a one-eyed adult Great Horned Owl and a furry baby.You can hear baby owl munch on lunch – between bites issuing a mild distress call. To see some photos, swoop over to our website LOE dot org.

[SOUND OF GREAT HORNED OWLS]


A Great Horned Owl and Christine Cummings-Secki at A Place Called Hope rehab center for owls and raptors. (Photo: © Mark Seth Lender)

Related link:
A Place Called Hope, rehab center for owls and raptors in CT

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GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Jessican Ilyse Kurn, Ingrid Lobet, Ike Sriskandarajah and Jeff Young, with help from Meghan Miner, Gabriela Romanow, and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Annabelle Ford, Christy Perera and Annie Sneed. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org – and don’t forget our Facebook page! It’s PRI’s Living on Earth - and you can follow us on Twitter - at living on earth…that’s just one word. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!

PRI 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 PaxWorld 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.

PRI ANNOUNCER 2: PRI, Public Radio International.

 

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