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

March 3, 1995

Air Date: March 3, 1995


Global Warming and the Shifting Seasons

In the search for signs of global warming, many scientists are looking at measurements other than temperature. One new study has found that the start of seasons is shifting significantly in many places around the world. The researcher says this dramatic shift started at about the same time humans began pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (05:30)

The Howl of the Wild / Jyl Hoyt

The wolves are back in Yellowstone. The plan to reintroduce the canines has been politically controversial, but what has it meant for the park's ecosystem? Jyl Hoyt of member station KBSU previews what impact the predators may have on the balance of nature in the park. (07:21)

When America was Young

Author William MacLeish discusses his recent book The Day Before America. It's a survey of the continent's ecology in the years before the European settlers arrived. (05:17)

Postcard from Alaska / Nancy Lord

Commentator Nancy Lord remarks on her trip to Alaska's Aleutian islands -- a place that modern America has not completely transformed. (02:57)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1994 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Jennifer Schmidt, Steve Helwig, Adam Hochberg, Jyl Hoyt
GUEST: William MacLeish

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

As global warming diplomacy continues this spring in Berlin, a startling new study claims to link the rise in greenhouse gases with shifts in the changes of the seasons.

OPPENHEIMER: The changing of the timing of the seasons could affect the way farmers deal with their crops. It could affect times of the year that previously were very pleasant, like mid-May in the eastern United States, which might now turn into being periods with unbearably hot weather.

CURWOOD: Also, 500 years after first coming to America, one author says European settlers are still at risk for survival.

MacLEISH: Indians have not been completely defeated, and it is the white man with his careless attitude toward life and the environment who is actually in danger of extinction.

CURWOOD: That and more this week on Living on Earth, right after the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. The Clinton Administration says it has no idea what to do with the 200 tons of uranium and plutonium the President has ordered eliminated from the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile. White House spokesman Steve Aoki expressed the hope that the uranium can be sold to existing commercial reactors, while the plutonium will be placed in storage indefinitely. The President's order cuts in half the amount of weapons grade material in the US and places even more pressure on the Department of Energy to solve its nuclear waste storage problem.

The Federal Government's new Pacific Northwest salmon plan reverses a decades-old policy favoring cheap hydropower over fish. From KPLU in Seattle, Jennifer Schmidt reports.

SCHMIDT: The Columbia and Snake River dams have long been operated to maximize hydropower production. But Fisheries Service Regional Director Will Stell says the new focus will be making the rivers more hospitable to salmon.

STELL: This opinion will change the way we operate the hydropower system and its storage reservoirs in order to make more water available for fish when they need it.

SCHMIDT: The Agency is requiring hydro operators to release water from behind dams and through spillways during the spring and summer, when salmon migrate out to sea. While this will keep the fish from being killed in the turbines, it will also reduce power generation. The changes are expected to cost the hydro system $160 million a year. The Clinton Administration has promised to help pick up the tab, so northwest rate payers won't see an increase in their electric bills. But tribes and environmentalists are condemning the effort as inadequate because it doesn't require drawdowns, which would mean rebuilding parts of the dams. The government's plans must still be approved by the Federal courts. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Schmidt in Seattle.

NUNLEY: A Federal District Judge has decided that the Endangered Species Act protects the habitat of threatened animals on private property. Judge Louis Beckley's landmark ruling responds to a suit charging the Pacific Lumber Company's logging plans would harm the habitat of the endangered marbled murrelet. The company denies that charge and says the decision contradicts a Federal Appeals Court ruling in the Sweet Home case, which says habitat does not have to be protected on private land. The Supreme Court is reviewing the Sweet Home decision.

The Clinton Administration's new Northwest Forest Plan faces its first legal challenge since a Federal judge approved it last year. From KLCC in Oregon, Steve Helwig reports.

HELWIG: The timber industry and the Forest Service have been hoping to salvage log the Warner Creek area since an arsonist torched the old growth forest in 1991. However, environmentalists have blocked the efforts in court. They are concerned that logging here could encourage arson in other places where endangered species and timber interests collide. Warner Creek is home to 17 pairs of spotted owls. Mary Ann Dugan, an attorney for the environmental groups, says the US Forest Service has gone back on its pledge to protect the owl's habitat.

DUGAN: The Forest Service is now saying that it never really intended to recover spotted owl habitat. That it just intended to harvest timber.

HELWIG: The Forest Service maintains that the logging is consistent with President Clinton's Forest Plan, which is aimed at balancing environmental protection and economic interests. The judge's ruling on the issue is not expected for at least a few weeks. For Living on Earth, I'm Steve Helwig in Eugene, Oregon.

NUNLEY: The owners of North Carolina's Pinehurst Golf Course are the first to join the Department of Interior's new Public Private Species Conservation Plan. From WUNC in Raleigh, Adam Hochberg reports.

HOCHBERG: The Department calls the conservation plan Safe Harbor, and it represents a new attempt to protect endangered species on privately-owned lands. Landowners have agreed to take steps to attract the endangered red cockaded woodpecker by planting the kinds of trees that woodpeckers like to nest in and removing trees that might attract predators. In exchange, the government has agreed not to subject the landowners to restrictions if they decide to develop the land or harvest the trees later. Rather, the Fish and Wildlife Service would come and capture the woodpeckers and move them elsewhere. Government leaders say the plan will temporarily halt or reverse the fragmentation of the woodpecker habitat. And even if some of the landowners in the program eventually drop out, the Interior Department is convinced that the program will result in a net gain in woodpecker nesting areas. For Living on Earth, I'm Adam Hochberg in Raleigh, North Carolina.

NUNLEY: With the help of some workers who spend their whole day on lunch break, Colorado's Newmont Mining Company has developed a way to find low-grade gold in mine waste. The technique called bio-leaching lets bacteria eat away at the sulfur and iron that encase the gold in waste piles. The bacteria also dispose of sulfites which could escape as acid, contaminating ground water. The process may also help clean up older mines where acid leakage is a problem. Newmont hopes to extract 17,000 ounces of gold per million ton pile of waste.

NUNLEY: That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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(Theme music up and under)

Global Warming and the Shifting Seasons

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The world's diplomatic community will gather in Berlin later this month to plot out the next steps to be taken under the International Convention on Climate Change, better known as the Global Warming Treaty, signed in Rio in 1992. But as the officials pack their briefcases, there's new evidence suggesting that the climate disruptions long forecast by scientists may actually be underway. Among the most startling new studies is one which links growing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to a global shift of the seasons. For years the consensus among atmospheric scientists has been that large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases dumped into the atmosphere by human activity will cause temperatures around the world to rise, perhaps by as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2070. In other words, the scientists agree, every time we ride in our gasoline cars or switch on a light powered by a coal-fired generator, or burn a forest, we're helping to heat up the earth. With this forecast have come dire predictions of surging sea levels and epidemics of drought and storms. But so far there is no consensus that human-caused global warming has actually begun. The average world temperature is up about a half a degree since we began changing the atmosphere at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. But natural factors could explain that. So many critics who aren't scientists say global warming remains just a theory. Still, others say there are signs that human-induced global warming is upon us. They point to the concentration of the century's hottest years in the last decade, increasingly extreme weather around the world, and a slow migration of species towards the higher latitudes. And research currently under review for publication may link global warming to an enhanced El Niño effect in the Pacific Ocean, which has plagued California with floods and led to an unusually mild winter in the Northeast. Now, a provocative study has emerged that doesn't come form climatologists, but rather from the phone company. Dr. David Thompson is a math researcher at AT&T's Bell Labs in New Jersey. Dr. Thompson crunched an obscure set of numbers and found that beginning in the 1920s, the normally regular ebb and flow of the seasons began suddenly going haywire. He says, for example, the starting time of winter is out of whack in many spots around the globe.

THOMPSON: England, it's changed about 5 days. Paris is about 8. Now this winter there is getting later. San Francisco is 3 weeks. A lot of the American West and Canadian Prairies, it's over a week. And so on around the world.

CURWOOD: Dr. Thompson specializes in information technology. He develops mathematical models to separate unwanted noise from valuable data, the kinds of things you need to do for long-distance communication. Out of curiosity, Dr. Thompson decided to apply his models to average monthly temperature readings from weather stations in central England, records that date back more than 300 years. Because of a wobble in the Earth's axis, there's a normal drift in the average starting dates of the seasons, about a day or so every 60 years in a cycle that takes about 22,000 years to complete. And Dr. Thompson says the English records reflected that cycle until about 50 years ago. Suddenly, the rate of seasonal advancement rapidly picked up. Checking data from other parts of the world, Dr. Thompson found a similar effect, and he correlated it closely to a sudden burst in the amount of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere in the 20th century. Dr. Thompson's research doesn't prove that later winters are a result of human-induced global warming. But it does provide strong support for those who say the climate is changing today far faster than it has in natural history. Dr. Michael McCracken is director of the US Global Climate Change research program.

McCRACKEN: It's building a rather strong circumstantial case, even though it's hard to get really direct proof that would get everyone in the legal term beyond all reasonable doubt.

CURWOOD: And climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer of the Environmental Defense Fund says Dr. Thompson's study could be a preview of what it will be like to live with global warming.

OPPENHEIMER: The changing of the timing of the seasons could affect the way farmers deal with their crops. It could affect times of the year that previously were very pleasant, like mid-May in the eastern United States, which might now turn into being periods with extremely hot, and essentially sometimes unbearably hot weather. If you come back in 50 or 75 years, a world that's had changed timing of seasons and other similar changes will feel and look a lot different, and we think a lot less pleasant than the current world that we have.

CURWOOD: The buzz about shifting seasons has many people talking. But whether Dr. Thompson's research will catch the diplomat's attention remains to be seen. So far, the Climate Change Treaty has been little more than an agreement that global warming is a threat, which countries should make an effort to avert. But there are no strict requirements to limit the emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. A New York meeting in advance of this month's Berlin conference produced little change, and observers are predicting the Berlin meeting may go the same. Some say that's because global warming seems so abstract. Perhaps this intriguing bit of research from Ma Bell will prove to be their wake-up call.

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(Music up and under)

The Howl of the Wild

CURWOOD: Fourteen wolves trapped earlier this winter in Canada will soon be released from one-acre holding pens in Yellowstone National Park to go free into the wilderness. The release caps a long and sometimes bitter political fight. Now that the moment has finally arrived, scientists are hoping to watch the natural balance of the Yellowstone ecosystem restore itself, and to gain a better understanding of how nature works. Jyl Hoyt of member station KBSU has our story from Yellowstone.

HOYT: For years there's been talk in towns around Yellowstone National Park that wolves were never part of the landscape. But park archivist Lee Whittlesley calls this bar stool mentality.

(Flipping of papers)

HOYT: He flips through pages of a new book he and a colleague wrote that documents 20 historical accounts of wolves in the Yellowstone area, from 1806 to 1881.

WHITTLESLEY: We found a very early, in 1860s, I believe it's an 1864 account of a prospector in Paradise Valley. He told us, "the wolves were like the poor in the Bible. They were always with us."

HOYT: Whittlesley says life changed quickly and dramatically in the 1870s when European hunters came to Yellowstone and the rest of the American West. First, the hunters nearly wiped out the huge herds of bison, elk, deer, and antelope. Eventually, the wolves were eradicated entirely.

WHITTLESLEY: It makes me think that somewhere, man inherently just wants to destroy things, and that's really kind of depressing to think about that. And I'd like to think maybe it's somehow different today.

HOYT: Today the vast ungulate herds are restored, and government officials say they want to make up for past sins by restoring the wolf. If they succeed, Yellowstone National Park will be the only intact pre-European ecosystem in the lower 48 states.

(Panting wolf and man: "Whoa! Down. More in front.")

HOYT: In January, Federal wildlife officials carried 14 caged animals to 1-acre pens encircled by tall, chain link fences. Scientists plan over the next 3 to 5 years to import a total of 100 wolves to the park to create a stable breeding population. once the wolves are released, biologists predict the predators will find Yellowstone's huge herds of elk, deer, antelope, and bison so enticing that they'll ignore homing instincts to return to Canada.

(Footfalls on snow)

HOYT: Wolf biologist Mike Phillips, a young Robert Redford lookalike, sprints through crusty snow on the edge of Yellowstone's Lamar Valley. He glances over to one of his favorite fishing holes on the river below, then checks for elk on the snowy face of the mountain that rises in front of him.

PHILLIPS: This is real good wolf habitat. You could see a lot of sign of elk; we've been walking on a game trail for the last few minutes to get here. Lots of elk sign.

HOYT: More elk live in Yellowstone now than at any other time in recorded history. Critics say this huge population has stressed the ecosystem by overgrazing. Scientists predict the return of the wolves will thin out the weakest 10 to 30% of these herds.

PHILLIPS: And it may well prove to be a good thing for the elk population, because perhaps it does need to be culled in a sense. And what we haven't seen that role here in Yellowstone because the major predator, the wolf, has been absent.

HOYT: The return of the wolf could set off a domino effect of interaction among other species all the way down to the soil.

(Running water)

HOYT: At Park Headquarters in Mammoth Hot Springs, scientists have long anticipated the wolves' homecoming. In the wolf's absence other predators have moved into part of the wolf's niche. With the wolf's return, they'll have to accommodate and adjust to one another. For example, Park researcher Stu Coleman predicts there will be fewer coyotes but more red fox.

COLEMAN: And that's because coyotes don't get along with red fox, and when they come across them they'll kill them. Coyotes don't get along with wolves, and if wolves come across coyotes, they will kill them. They pay very little attention to red fox, and so by the introduction of wolves we will probably see an increase of red fox.

HOYT: Yellowstone's bluegreen fir and spruce forests are home to about 15 to 18 mountain lions, says Coleman, and each spring more than 200 grizzly bears dig for glacier lilies on Yellowstone's rich green plateaus. Mountain lions, grizzly bears, and wolves tend to avoid each other. But if they meet unexpectedly at a carcass, there can be trouble.

COLEMAN: A pack of wolves is a pretty formidable opponent, and they're able to drive grizzly bears off of carcasses and mountain lions off of carcasses. That's why wolves use the strategy of hunting in packs. That they're much more efficient, and they're much more formidable in numbers.

HOYT: Coleman explains these occasional conflicts won't seriously cut into the populations of grizzlies or mountain lions, because there's so much game in the park. Still, there have been cases in northwestern Montana when wolves sought out and killed mountain lion kittens. As they forage on the frozen, windswept plateaus of Yellowstone, 4,000 bison paw their way through thick snowdrifts. Because these behemoths weigh about 1,500 pounds each, wolves will probably limit their attacks to mainly diseased and dying bison. As the wolves' numbers increase, they'll kill more animals. The carcasses they leave, says Coleman, should replenish and nourish the soil and provide food for scavengers.

COLEMAN: Everything from ravens and fox and coyotes and magpies and down to the domestured beetles will have their way with that same carcass. So there is a whole food chain predicated on these animals dying, and providing protein.

(Footfalls in snow)

HOYT: Wolf biologist Mike Phillips squints in the afternoon sun as he scrambles off the ridge.

PHILLIPS: Once the wolves are released, we'll have a system that works as it should.

HOYT: But as with most things in nature, it will take a while for things to return to a balance.

PHILLIPS: Wolf restoration is more like a marathon than it is a sprint.

HOYT: Phillips worries Congress will cut funding just as wildlife biologists begin to replenish the ecosystem. He believes that would be unfortunate.

PHILLIPS: It's a very positive pursuit; it's not a destructive process. It's a restorative process. And I think that's important for humankind.

HOYT: As the cold winter sun drops behind the mountain, an elk that's been watching Phillips resumes feeding. Life will be different now, not only for the elk, says Phillips, but for those people who say the howl of the wolf strikes a chord in their spirit. For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt in Yellowstone National Park.

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When America was Young

CURWOOD: If wolf reintroduction is successful, Yellowstone will be a tiny reminder of what America was like before the appearance of Europeans. In fact, before the idea of America even existed. What those first Europeans saw before the forests began to be cleared, before most of the wildlife and the indigenous people were extinguished, intrigued author William MacLeish. His brilliantly crafted new book is called The Day Before America: Changing the Nature of A Continent.

MacLEISH: They saw pine trees, let's say 5 or 6 foot through and a couple of hundred feet high. They caught cod up to 200 pounds. There were jaguars in Florida; there were bison and elk in New York. There were millions upon millions upon millions of passenger pigeons. And when they roosted, they roosted in such great numbers that they broke the branches off the trees, and this is unbelievable stuff.

CURWOOD: But the landscape hadn't been untouched, though, when the Europeans came.

MacLEISH: Oh, absolutely not. One of the defining characteristics of the human being is that he or she is very curious and has these extraordinary attributes of opposable thumbs, and the three pounds of meat at the top of the neck which thinks pretty well. And you get going with these folks and they're, what they're trying to do, they want to meet their needs as best they can. How do they do it? And they've been doing it for hundreds of thousands of years. They set fires. Extremely good at this. This was diminished because first of all, the large, the mega-fauna, so called, the mastodons, the mammoths and the short-faced bear, very large mammals, were all gone. So there was a depletion in diversity between 12,000 years ago and 500 years ago. And of course an enormous depletion in diversity between 500 and now.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering, Bill MacLeish, what sorts of values did the Europeans bring with them about natural resources?

MacLEISH: They brought with them at least 8,000 years of development in agriculture. Domesticated animals and the domesticated plants came together as an engine of survival, if you will, that moved into northern Europe, and the result was a remaking of the landscape of northern Europe. And another result was the creation of surpluses, storable surpluses, that would last the winter.

CURWOOD: Wealth.

MacLEISH: Wealth. Wealth meant towns, villages, kings, armies, new ways of thinking. Man the rational was coming into the idea of markets, the idea of surpluses, of a trade, and of acquisition, mostly of acquisition. And this is what came went to North America.

CURWOOD: And how would this affect what they did here?

MacLEISH: They looked and they saw the plenty here. And I think what happened to many of them is that they set about immediately turning what they saw into what they had been used to seeing in Europe. It's interesting to note, for example, that what took Europeans, let's say in northern Europe, 2005 years to accomplish in the way of transformation of landscapes, it took New Englanders, the early New Englanders, 250 years: one tenth of the time.

CURWOOD: My guest is William MacLeish; his new book is called The Day Before America: Changing the Nature of A Continent. And I want to ask you to assess, what you would see either the success or the failure of Europeans in North America.

MacLEISH: Success is a strange kind of a thing. It is no more permanent than failure. And we have set records that still remain in terms of city building and creating new forms of agriculture. All of this. And new forms of culture. And a huge economy, the most successful economy ever. And the question is, how far can you go? There are limits; there always are limits.

CURWOOD: So in Darwinian terms, in European mercantile terms -

MacLEISH: Yes -

CURWOOD: America is absolutely the biggest success story ever.

MacLEISH: No question about it.

CURWOOD: In native terms, though, not so? You have some references in your book where natives see the European exercise as a failure.

MacLEISH: Yes; this is a passage from the Native American writer Vine DeLauria, Jr., in a recent essay. Now he says, "In spite of severe oppression, almost complete displacement, and substantial loss of religion and culture, Indians have not been completely defeated. Indeed, the hallmark of today's Indian psyche is the realization that the worst has now passed, and that it is the white man, with his careless attitude toward life and the environment, who is actually in danger of extinction. From an Indian point of view, the general theme by which to understand the history of the hemisphere would be the degree to which the whites have responded to the rhythms of the land. The degree to which they have become indigenous. From that perspective, the judgment of Europeans is severe."

CURWOOD: Do you agree?

MacLEISH: I do. I think we are still living on the land; we are not living in it. Our cultures, our religions, our ethics, put us apart. And I find that a very dangerous place to be.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you very much for joining us.

MacLEISH: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Bill MacLeish's new book is called The Day Before America: Changing the Nature of A Continent.

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(Music up and under)

Postcard from Alaska

CURWOOD: There's a corner of America which the human hand and its reach for resources has touched but hasn't yet transformed. Not long ago, commentator Nancy Lord spent some time as a writer in residence in the town of Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands.

LORD: They call it the cradle of storms, this part of Alaska that sweeps westward from the mainland, this arc of islands that reaches nearly to Asia. Cold Siberian air masses knock up against warmer air carried north by the Japanese current, birthing windstorm after snowstorm after thick swirling fog. I had always wanted to visit this place of weather: rich in Aleut culture, Russian history, World War II battle scars. Now the top fishing port in the entire nation. Buried in clouds, Unalaska looks like what you'd expect to find at the edge of the world: a landscape so large and severe it might have been made only yesterday. Land meets ocean without curve or slope, but in straight plunges. These are, after all, less islands than mountain tops surrounded by water. The human effects - the ships and houses and canneries, the Russian church with its twin onion domes - are minimalist, nearly lost against the scale of mountains, ocean, sky.

I felt so exposed at first. I had to remember that the Aleut people have lived on the island with considerable success and comfort for 8,000 years. I watched flocks of emperor geese dip in the waves, then listened to a local poet read about the last snow of winter, the snow that melts the snow. A giant new grocery store held its grand opening and the whole town gathered at the salad bar. I attended an art exhibit at the fancy new hotel in the Makushian room. Makushian, previously the Russian name of a volcano, a bay, and an abandoned village on the west side of the island, now applies to thick carpet and windowless walls.

The hotel, like the new grocery store, depends on the Bering Sea. On the business of those who harvest schools of pollack, cod, and other ground fish. The Russians came to the Aleutians in pursuit of fur seals and sea otters. Later, whalers stalked the surrounding waters. In my own memory, the area's crab fishery boomed and nearly busted. Now billions of pounds of ground fish are scooped from the sea yearly. Standing on the hill that morning, my sense of the Aleutians was not as the far edge of the world, but as a center, a cradle indeed, not only of storms but of a certain civilization both ancient and modern. Which will last longer, the pollack fishery or the new grocery store? The hotel or the volcano? Perhaps more than most other places, the connections here seem clearly drawn. The new enterprises won't survive without fish, and the land and sea abide.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator Nancy Lord comes to us from Homer, Alaska, and member station KBBI.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for that's week that's Living on Earth. Our listener comment line is
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Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, and recorded at the studios of WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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