• picture
  • picture
PRI's Environmental News Magazine

December 27, 1996

Air Date: December 27, 1996

SEGMENTS

Vermont Homebuilding School

In today’s highly mobile society, few of us have the time or the skills to construct a shelter with our own hands. At the Yestermorrow School in Warren, Vermont, students are trained to build communities by designing and constructing their own homes. (10:00)

Great Lakes Goby Fish / Bob Carty

A newly introduced fish is rapidly reproducing in the Great Lakes. The Goby fish, originally from Russia, is thriving in all five of the Lakes. Bob Carty of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports on the proliferation of this non-native species and its impact on the food chain. (06:51)

Let's Eat Now! Let's Eat More! / Ian Shoales

The holidays are upon us, stirring up feelings of goodwill towards fellow humans and sometimes, fellow animals. But commentator Ian Shoales says there’s no reason to go overboard with this. (02:41)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about... telecommunications milestones. (01:25)

Antarctica Series Part #1: A Check-Up on the Continent / Terry FitzPatrick

Untouched by humans for millions of years, the frozen south is now an important outpost for studying human impact on the planet. In the first of a four part series, Terry FitzPatrick reports how greenhouse gases, ozone depletion, and surging tourism are affecting the fragile continent. (18:17)

Feeling SAD: Beyond the Winter Blahs

The winter blahs are a serious problem for some people in northern climates, and the condition even has a medical name — Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. Clinical psychologist Gila Lindsley discusses possible therapies, including light and medications, with host Steve Curwood. Dr. Lindsley specializes in sleep disorders and has a practice in Lexington, Massachusetts. (05:50)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Jennifer Schmidt
REPORTERS: Steve Helwig, Michael Laughton, Bob Carty, Terry FitzPatrick
GUEST: Gila Lindsley
COMMENTATOR: Ian Shoales

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

What do you want for a dream home? A colonial? A log cabin? Something with a greenhouse perhaps. Want to make it with your own hands? A Vermont school will teach you how to do it and then some.

CONNELL: By the way, as we're teaching you how to do all this, don't you think you'd rather build it this way that's going to save you money and energy than that way? Wouldn't you rather put your house here on the land that's not going to trash this habitat of this animal, and keep it around for your kids?

CURWOOD: And find out who's setting up house in the Great Lakes.

JUDE: When you look at other alien species that have come to the Great Lakes, like the alewife and the sea lamprey, it took them up to 20 years sometimes to make it al the way through all 5 of the Great Lakes. This species is doing it different.

CURWOOD: The Great Lakes ecosystem under siege. Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, but first the news.

Environmental News

SCHMIDT: From Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Schmidt. Just months after announcing a million dollar environmental conservation fund, one of the world's largest cruise lines, Royal Caribbean Cruises, now faces criminal charges for illegal ocean dumping. A Federal grand jury indicted the cruise line and 2 employees for repeatedly dumping oily wastewater overboard instead of using pollution control devices. Five ships of the Royal Caribbean fleet were named in the indictments, which were filed in US District Court in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In addition, 2 shipboard engineers and the Miami-based company also were accused of ordering crew members to lie to Coast Guard officials and the Federal Grand Jury. Royal Caribbean could be fined up to $5 million if convicted of all 10 counts.

The Weyerhaeuser timber company has unveiled a first of its kind plan that it hopes will allow for both selective logging and habitat protection on its vast acreage in Oregon. From KLCC in Oregon, Steve Helwig reports.

HELWIG: In the past, the company has treated its 400,000 acres of forest as a collection of much smaller parcels of land. That allowed Weyerhaeuser to log any particular parcel once certain environmental standards had been met. Weyerhaeuser now wants to treat all of its land as if it were one parcel. The company says this means that while species may be displaced by logging in one area, the forest as a whole will be much healthier. Weyerhaeuser spokesman Paul Barnum.

BARNUM: In some areas it might require helicopter logging. Others, maybe you can't build any roads. Still others you might not harvest at all.

HELWIG: Local environmental groups are optimistic about the plan, which they hope will become a model for other such plans nationwide. The plan still has to be approved by the Federal Government. For Living on Earth, I'm Steve Helwig in Eugene, Oregon.

SCHMIDT: An ancient underground riverbed may be an important source of water pollution in Florida Bay. For years scientists have thought phosphorous and nitrogen surface runoff from farms was chiefly responsible for algae blooms that killed huge amounts of marine life. Now, a university of Miami geologist says the greatest concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorous appear where the old riverbed meets the ocean at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. Dr. Donald McNeil says the pollution, whether naturally occurring or the result of farm runoff, may be slowly pushed through an underground channel filled with coarser, loosely packed sand to the bay. He believes a river once flowed from the mountains to the sea through the middle of Florida, but the bed now lies more than 30 feet below the surface.

The German car maker Volkswagen has produced a cradle to grave analysis of how its cars damage the environment. From Cologne, Germany, Michael Laughton has the results.

LAUGHTON: The study of the lifetime of an average Volkswagen Golf is intended to help the company decide where to put its priorities in trying to save energy, protect the ozone layer, and stop global warming. The company found the automobile does most of its environmental damage driving along the road. Eighty percent of its energy use takes place during its working life. In comparison, making the thing and getting rid of it at the end of its life are relatively harmless. That may be what you'd expect, but there are surprises in the study. Six percent of the car's lifetime energy use is spent just on getting the ingredients of the car, metals and plastic, out of the ground and into the factory; and 8% is spent on simply getting the gas it needs from the oilfield to the pump. The company says that the study has shown it how to reduce the environmental impact of the car most efficiently: reduce fuel consumption by the use of more efficient engines and lighter materials. For Living on Earth, this is Michael Laughton in Cologne.

SCHMIDT: Don't get offended if friends offer you cheap whiskey; they probably care for your health. According to Dutch researchers all whiskeys contain carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, but the more expensive the brand, the more of the chemicals it has. Scotch malts are the worst offenders because the smoky peat used to smooth the taste carries high levels of the chemicals, which are present in all smoked or burnt food. Whiskey drinkers are known to be more likely to develop bowel, mouth, and throat cancers. Scientists decided to analyze various whiskey brands to see if they could find out why. Writing in the medical journal Lancet, researchers concluded that concentrations of the carcinogens in whiskeys were low, and probably not responsible for the higher rates of cancer. A spokesman for Britain's Scotch Whiskey Association says burnt toast contains more of the carcinogens than a glass of malt whiskey.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jennifer Schmidt.

Back to top

(Theme music up and under)

Vermont Homebuilding School

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood, with an encore edition of Living on Earth. The image of pioneers building their own homes is an icon of American life. But in today's frantic and highly mobile society few of us have the time or the skills needed to construct a shelter with our own hands. Besides, a few of us stay in one place long enough to invest more than money in our homes.

CONNELL: People now relate to their homes, or have been since the second World War, as a product that you move into for a certain phase of your life, hope it appreciates, and then sell it. And with it you sell all the relationships that you have with the other people in that community. You sell your children's memories. You sell a whole section of your life down the road. And a lot of people never put their lives into their homes just because of that.

CURWOOD: John Connell is founder of the Yestermorrow School in Warren, Vermont. An architect and a builder, he started this training program in 1980 to help people build communities by teaching them how to design and construct their own homes.

(Hammering in the background)

CONNELL: We say look, you want a home? We'll help you design it, we'll help you build it, it will be more expressive of who you are. It'll cost you less. If you want to change it as your kids grow older and stuff, we'll empower you to do that. And you know, by the way, as we're teaching you how to do all this, don't you think you'd rather build it this way, as we're teaching you how to do all this, don't you think you'd rather build it this way that's going to save you money and energy than that way? Wouldn't you rather put your house here on the land that's not that's going to trash this habitat of this animal and keep it around for your kids?

(Construction sounds, hammering, a drill. Man: "The rafter needs a compound cut on the bottom." Man #2: "A compounder. Okay, it's this angle in relationship to that...")

CURWOOD: About a dozen latter-day Thoreaus surround their instructor inside a roofless structure about a 10-minute drive from the school.

(A drill sounds.)

CURWOOD: Under the watchful eye of 3 teachers, these students are building a small horse barn on which they practice basic construction skills. They learn to hammer a nail, cut a beam and shingle a roof. The students range from a California truck driver nearing retirement to a young couple from Alaska.

McDANNOLD: We're going to build a stone house, is what we're interested in. There's plenty of river stone around where we live.

CURWOOD: Dori McDannold lives with her husband outside of Palmer, Alaska.

McDANNOLD: We live in a kind of a harsh environment up in Alaska, and I think it's important just to consider where you live and what elements you have to deal with and build a building that suits that. Otherwise, you're always sort of fighting nature. I mean, you know, you do things the wrong way, you know, if you see people put huge windows on north sides of houses and then they end up having to heat like heck, you know? And so it just doesn't make sense.

CURWOOD: Lynn Preston wants to build her dream home in rural Maryland.

PRESTON: I wanted something that was designed around the way I live. I guess I wanted a greenhouse; I also want a nice big tub in there, so that I can actually sit down and have my knees covered when I sit in the tub. I wanted -- I wanted a big library. I have a bookshelf right now that's about 8 foot tall and 24 feet long and there aren't a whole bunch of houses that they feel that will accommodate a library like that.

CURWOOD: Liz Preston and the others are introduced to construction skills, but they learn there is much more to homebuilding.

(People gathering in a room; ambient conversation)

CURWOOD: In an architect's studio, students toil, often until the early hours of the morning, shaping and re-shaping their designs on paper. Then they build models to test their house plans in 3 dimensions. For now, Dori McDannold's stone home looks like a cardboard doll house.

McDANNOLD: This is going to be the roof and that will be where the sawed roof is, so you have to use your imagination and imagine that this will just look like the ground. But magically the roof comes off, and --

CURWOOD: Ms. McDannold peels off the roof and opens up the first floor of her model for viewing. She points out some problems that the model revealed and how she coped with them.

McDANNOLD: If you've got this plus the second floor laid over top here, actually approaches 2,000 square feet, 2,100.

CURWOOD: That's a big house.

McDANNOLD: Yeah, it got too big on me last night, in the wee hours. (Laughs) So I went ahead and thought okay, well if I eliminate that and just go with this and put the stairs back over there, then it dropped it back down to the 1,700 square foot, which includes the root cellar and the greenhouse.

ROOD: Unfortunately the attitude these days often is that hey, we'll just make it big. That'll make it flexible enough so that it'll work somehow.

CURWOOD: Yestermorrow instructor Mac Rood explains that controlling house size is an important environmentally sound building concept.

ROOD: You spend the time on paper, with paper and pencil and building models. You can design a space that is efficient, uses every square foot to the maximum, maybe just by moving some doors around you can reduce the traffic flow through a room and therefore be able to make the room smaller. Still as functional, still as gracious, but with less square footage, thereby saving material, saving the energy cost that's involved in heating that building for the 50, 100, 200 years that we hope this building's going to last.

CURWOOD: That's another of the key lessons taught at the Yestermorrow school. Building a sustainable home means building a structure that's going to last a long time.

ROOD: It means that the energy that's gone into creating that building, the materials and resources that have gone into that building, are going to be 2, 3 times more valuable if the building lasts 2 or 3 times as long. We've got to get away from the notion of disposable buildings.

CURWOOD: Mr. Rood and 2 other instructors go over these ideas again and again with students during marathon studio sessions. They also spend hours going over general architecture, building codes, and other basic concepts needed to plan a house. While those ideas seem simple enough, the students quickly learn that putting it all together takes time. Lots of time. Dori McDannold.

McDANNOLD: Before I came I was thinking, when we walk away from here we'll have blueprints for our house. But by the second week of this course I was like, yeah, I can let go of -- I'm not going to have blueprints. I'm not even going to be close. There are so many details and so many decisions, and I realize what a complex project it is just making all those decisions. So it might be a year, might be 2, who knows?

CURWOOD: You're going to be cold for a while.

McDANNOLD: Yeah!

CURWOOD: For those students who don't actually go on to build homes with their own 2 hands, Yestermorrow training puts them in a better position to deal with the architects and contractors who may create their home for them.

(A car door closes; people move around, ambient conversation)

CURWOOD: Every day Yestermorrow students take field trips to local homes. Most often the owners are architects or builders themselves who have created the long lasting space and energy efficient homes the school trumpets. Today, they visit the log house of instructor Joe Brent, who greets them as they pile out of the school van.

CHUCK: How's it going, Joe?

BRENT: Good, Chuck. You?

CHUCK: Good. This is neat.

CURWOOD: The log home is simple yet elegant.

McDANNOLD: Nice job, Joe!

BRENT: Thanks, Dori.

McDANNOLD: That's great. This looks like a well-done log house.

BRENT: Oh, well.

MAN: There's a crack you could get a rhino through here! (Laughter)

BRENT: I didn't have anything to do with that...

CURWOOD: A cheerful man, Joe Brent describes how he built this house himself, using a lot of local resources. The logs came from trees on his own land and were milled nearby. Pieces of his furnace were salvaged from old copy machines. Mr. Brent says it was not a conscious effort to reduce waste or save energy, it was just the cheapest, simplest course to take. As the students gather in the living room, Joe Brent uses the midsummer sun to explain how designing with nature makes it easier to keep the building comfortable.

BRENT: Now as you can see it's about 1:20 and the sun's up about as high as it's going to get, and there's just a very narrow band of sun that's hitting the porch. And very little coming in the windows. Now here it is the middle of summer, we're just not getting that solar gain that you would get if you didn't have enough overhang and some other factors. But in the winter, when the sun is much lower in the sky, the light just literally streams right in to where Rob is standing. So -- yeah, it's astounding.

CURWOOD: Mr. Brent expects that he and his family will spend the rest of their days here. Yestermorrow School founder John Connell says no matter where you live, that sense of place is the best reward from personal home building.

CONNELL: See, if you build your own home, you put a lot of effort into it. If you live there, and for a long time, it's important, all of a sudden it's important to know where the water's coming from and where the waste is going to. But if you buy your home and you're going to sell it in 5 years, or flip it as they say, then you can endure whatever kind of crime or waste or poor schools or other social ills come along with that home, because you're going to sell it. It's only when you invest in a spot and commit to a community of people that you really start to see the reason for cleaning up our streets, for saving the environment.

CURWOOD: Cleaning up the whole world is not the goal of John Connell or the Yestermorrow School. But he hopes the hundreds of prospective home builders sent out from this rural Vermont valley will try to change their own corners of it. Perhaps then their message of constructing a home to reflect the owner's values, as well as respect the environment, will catch on.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Who's gobbling up the zebra mussels in the Great Lakes? Find out just head on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Great Lakes Goby Fish

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For almost a decade, people who live around the Great Lakes have been complaining about a foreigner, a non-native species of shellfish called the zebra mussel. The zebra mussel has multiplied so rapidly that it has changed the region's ecology, and clogged the intake pipes of water systems and industrial plants all around the Great Lakes. Now, another non-native species has been found in the lakes, a fish that eats zebra mussels. Could this be an ironic writing of an ecological imbalance? Well, not really. Bob Carty explains.

(A foghorn sounds)

CARTY: On the Detroit River just a couple of miles above the canyon of Detroit's skyscrapers, Patricia and Gord cast their lines into the muddy water a couple of times a week. Pat and Gord fish for fun; that's something there seems to be less of every day. Fishermen around here have to wear heavy boots so their feet aren't cut up by the shells of millions of zebra mussels that carpet the shoreline. And if zebra mussels weren't enough, anglers like Pat and Gord now have to put up with annoying tugs on their bait.

CARTY: What are you fishing for?

PAT: Perch. Not catchin' any. (Laughs)

CARTY: What do you usually catch?

PAT: Gobys.

CARTY: Gobys?

PAT: That's new in the water. It's a small little fish that looks like it has a suction cup on its stomach and it comes from Europe.

GORD: They come out of the ships, ballast water I guess, and they dump it in the lake and that's how they got started I guess.

PAT: My brother in law thinks they're going to take over the water, because they multiply real fast.

CARTY: Real fast indeed. The goby fish was first discovered near here just 5 years ago. By this summer, the goby had spread to all 5 Great Lakes, from Lake Superior to Lake Ontario.

JUDE: When you look at other alien species that have come into the Great Lakes, like the alewife and the sea lamprey, it took them up to 20 years sometimes to make it all the way through all 5 of the Great Lakes. This species is doing it different, and we've really not had that kind of a transfer of alien species before.

CARTY: David Jude is a researcher at the University of Michigan's Center for the Great Lakes and Aquatic Sciences. He is also the owner of a Michigan license plate that reads GOBY-1. That's because in 1990, David Jude was the first person who found a goby a long, long way from home.

JUDE: Gobys are members of the second largest fish family in the world, and they include a lot of cave fishes. In other words, they can feed at night in complete darkness, and that may have also been one of the traits that allowed them to get over here in the first place because they were in the ballast water of a ship in the dark.

CARTY: Where are they from?

JUDE: They're from the Black and Caspian Seas in former Russia.

CORKUM: This is our lab freezer, and in here I have everything from frozen gobys to frozen adult insects.

CARTY: At the University of Windsor, on the Canadian side of the Detroit River, biologist Linda Corkum shows off the contents of some plastic bags in her freezer.

(Plastic bags crinkle)

CORKUM: And here's a goby. When you open the gut of a round goby you find all sorts of prey items, and in this one you can see that there are actually zebra mussels intact in the gut of the fish. It's quite amazing.

CARTY: And for a time, at least, quite promising. Here is a fish that loved to eat the little emigre from Russia. It devoured zebra mussels by the dozen. Now this was good news around the Great Lakes. After all, zebra mussels were becoming so numerous that they were sinking navigational buoys by their combined weight. Throughout the Great Lakes it has cost an estimated three quarters of a billion dollars up to now to protect water intakes from zebra mussels. So the goby was the great brown hope. But a false hope it proved. Aquatic scientist David Jude.

JUDE: There's lots more zebra mussels than there ever will be gobys. They do eat a lot of zebra mussels, but I don't think they're going to exert any big control on zebra mussels; they're certainly no silver bullet for controlling zebra mussels. But they're another factor that will help control the zebra mussel population.

CARTY: The goby's appetite for zebra mussels may in fact be a serious problem. It's a matter of the food chain according to Dr. Linda Corkum. The problem is that after eating zebra mussels, the gobys are eaten by bigger fish.

CORKUM: Zebra mussels are associated with the bottom, and accumulate contaminants: PCBs, industrial byproducts, pesticides, a whole suite of organochlorines. And gobys will be able to transfer these contaminants to predatory fish. Such as the sport fish such as small mouth bass or various species of trout.

CARTY: If this food chain concentration of toxin occurs as scientists predict, anglers might have to stop eating some of their favorite sport fish. Part of the commercial fishery might even be threatened. And that's not all. Gobys can out-compete other fish for food. They're more aggressive. They can feed in dark waters. They spawn 6 times a year. And because they can eat zebra mussels, gobys have an unlimited food supply unavailable to other fish. David Jude has already seen the impact, particularly on a once abundant native species.

JUDE: A species of benthic, which is a bottom dwelling fish, called the model sculpin, has been almost totally eliminated or displaced by the round goby. To find this is really an astounding discovery; I've heard these reports from scuba divers, and it's also been reported from the Grand Calumet River. The other interesting part of that is that the Grand Calumet River connects with the Mississippi River at Chicago, in that area. So now they have got an access into the Mississippi River, too.

CARTY: The goby is just the latest example of how disruptive non-native species can be. Earlier, the lamprey eel nearly destroyed lake trout. More recently the zebra mussel turned Lake Erie from murky to clear by eating most of the lake's algae. And now the goby is changing the balance of biodiversity. On the bright side, in the future there may be fewer cases of non-native species hitching a ride into North America. Both the US and Canada have taken measures to get ships to exchange their bilge waters at sea before entering inland waterways. But David Jude laments that short of serving up gobys on our dinner tables, like they do in Russia, there's really nothing to be done about the non-native species already here.

JUDE: Exotic species are forever. They get into these lakes and they take over and they're here for the duration, and we're just going to have to live with them.

CARTY: For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty in Detroit.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Yes, the holidays are upon us, stirring up feelings of goodwill toward our fellow humans and sometimes even our fellow animals. But as you might expect, commentator Ian Shoales says there's no reason to go overboard with this.

Let's Eat Now! Let's Eat More!

SHOALES: Let's not kid ourselves. One of the main functions of the so-called holiday season is to eat ourselves into a stupor and end up groaning on the floor with our friends and relatives trying to stay awake until the angel shows Jimmy Stewart what things would be like if he'd never lived at all. How things have changed. Jimmy Stewart's S&Ls have become Charles Keatings and the banks, forget about it, they're merging faster than the Blob. Even a miserable old coot like Lionel Barrymore would be no match for the new batch of bottom liners, he'd be out in his golden parachute before you could say have yourself a merry little Christmas or you're fired. And now it looks like the holiday feast itself may fall victim to the bottom line among animal rights activists, vegetarians, people panicking over their cholesterol levels, pesticide watchers and bacterial contamination counters; we may soon be sipping barley-flavored water as we watch our colorized Jimmy lurching through the snow screaming, "Burt! Ernie! Don't you know me?"

I'm second to none in my admiration of tofu and gluten, but forming a gelatinous mass into the shape of a large bird is a poor substitute for the actual turkey itself. Oh sure, I've read the literature. It takes 4 pounds of grain to create each pound of turkey meat. So, for a 20-pound butterball you're talking a waste of 80 pounds of grain, supposedly, to which I say who better to eat 80 pounds of grain than a bird? Were you going to eat that grain? I doubt it; you wouldn't leave room for the cranberries and mashed potatoes, much less the pumpkin pie. Besides, a turkey is nothing more than a fast vegetable anyway.

Holiday dinners are bad enough. Uncle Charlie who had one nog too many stand up and start screaming, "You people are all empty inside!" before passing out on the spuds. Cousin Bert a ditto-head, and Cousin Dell, a Clintonite will start heaving fruitcake at each other's heads; they can put an eye out with that thing. Aunt Sue will tell Aunt Bea there are special sauces, too much nutmeg just one too many times, she'll kick everybody out of the house. You'll all have to troop down to the all-night diner for the hot turkey and biscuit special.

And now we have to be environmentally conscious as well? Say, that'll really promote family harmony. Pass the candied yams to Elmo and he'll accuse you of despoiling the rainforest; before you know it you'll all be peeling sweet potatoes and blood off the ceiling. Measuring contaminants at the dinner table may become part of the etiquette of tomorrow, but it won't do wonders for our appetites.

Once upon a time in our glorious past, we'd go out and bring down a mastodon, render the hooves, make clothing and shelter from the hide, build a great big fire, cook that bad old thing, eat the meat gone, then cower in our stinking hovels in fear until the long cold winter went away. Those were the days. That's why we still have our eating holidays now; it's an atavistic throwback to the times when thinning the herd was an integral part of the hunter-gatherer economy. Nowadays the holiday feast is just another anachronism, a futile gesture against the downsizing of everything, urban indulgence in a massive whim poor old Mother Earth can no longer tolerate. She 's going to kick out all us good for nothing children pretty soon and we're all going to have to eat tofu down at the all night diner.

Until then I'll take the dark meat, thank you, and try to imagine the world as it might be if we'd never existed. Hey, don't even need an angel for that. Not in today's economy. I gotta go.

CURWOOD: A great-grandson of Ebenezer Scrooge, the semi-famous Ian Shoales lives in semi-obscurity somewhere west of the Mississippi.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's NPR's Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music and under)

ANNOUNCER: Major contributors to Living on Earth include all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt -- whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; and Patagonia: a clothing company committed to making quality outdoor clothing with the earth in mind. For a free catalogue call 1-800-336-9090.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Antarctica, the final frontier. Join us as we explore the icy continent's delicate web of life, just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: In the course of researching Living on Earth's almanac we've run across odd facts which sometimes tell a story of their own. For example, 130 years ago, the entrepreneur Cyrus Field finally succeeded, after 2 failures, in laying the first underwater telegraph cable between North America and Europe. One hundred and ten years ago Richard Sears started selling watches via telegraph, giving birth to both telemarketing and Sears Roebuck. Seventy years ago the National Broadcasting Company made its on-air debut with a radio network of 24 stations. Forty-five years ago direct dial coast to coast telephone service began. And 25 years ago there were 23 computer hosts on the Arvanet, the precursor of what we now call the Internet. Today, there are more than 12 million hosts. Now, we haven't figured out what if any environmental impact all this has had, but we do know that the World Wide Web has become an important source of information. And if you care to learn more about us, our web address is www.loe.org.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Antarctica Series Part #1: A Check-Up on the Continent

CURWOOD: It's hard to imagine life thriving on the world's coldest continent. Antarctica is covered with ice and holds the world record for the lowest temperature ever recorded: 129 degrees Fahrenheit below zero.

But untouched by humans for millions of years, parts of Antarctica are home to a fragile ecosystem. And in the past few years, it's become one of the world's most important outposts to study the far-reaching effects of human civilization. The ozone hole, global warming, even tourism, are all taking a toll on Antarctica's web of life. Living on Earth's Terry Fitzpatrick accompanied scientific expeditionists to Antarctica in January of 1996. This week we begin an encore presentation of a special series about life on the ice.

(Walking on snow, ice axes probe snow)

FITZPATRICK: Traveling to the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf is like traveling to the ends of the earth. This is the southernmost stretch of ocean in the world, so close to the frigid South Pole that much of the sea is draped by a floating blanket of ice.

(Ice probe)

ROBINSON: As far as the ice edge, don't go too close because the water comes and it wears it out underneath so it's like a ledge and it looks solid but it's probably only a couple inches thick.

FITZPATRICK: Navy pilot Greg Robinson probes for weak spots with a mountaineering ice ax... and I carefully follow his footsteps.

(Probing ice)

FITZPATRICK: We're headed to see one of Antarctica's most magnificent residents: the killer whale.

(Waves lapping against the ice edge)

ROBINSON: You just kind of make some noise. (taps ice ax) They're curious animals, they'll come over and check it out.

FITZPATRICK: The scenery here is breathtaking. Huge icebergs floating in the open water. A snow-covered volcano on the horizon--with steam rising from its summit.

In a matter of minutes, our noise-making works.

(Whale breath)

FITZPATRICK: Four killer whales. So close we can hear them breathe. One whale pokes its head above water just ten feet away.

ROBINSON: They're just out here cruising around these different slots here looking for something to eat and they hear noise. They want to see what it is.

FITZPATRICK: They're not afraid of people though?

ROBINSON: No not at all. Just about everything down here has no fear of man at all.

(Whale breath)

FITZPATRICK: Whales and seals were once close to extinction here, hunted throughout the oceans that encircle the Antarctic mainland. But international treaties have transformed the entire continent into the world's largest wildlife sanctuary. It's a unique laboratory to study how life survives in such hostile conditions.

(Scuba gear equipment rustling)

FITZPATRICK: Most of Antarctica's wildlife lives at sea, not on land. So marine biologists must sometimes dive beneath the ice.

(Air tank)

FITZPATRICK: Rikk Kvitek, from the Moss Landing Marine Laboratory in California, is preparing to videotape giant sponges and worms that thrive on the sea floor.

FITZPATRICK: Is it dark down there?

KVITEK: The light is muted because you've got--what--ten feet of ice with snow over the top of it and so not a lot of light is getting down through the ice, but your eyes adjust to it. It's sort of like--if you could imagine floating over a desert with a full moon--the sponges sticking up are kind of like cactus. And the ice overhead is sort of like clouds. And the hole is sort of like the moon. The hole is sort of a spotlight shining down on you.

(Zipping suit, squeaky gloves)

FITZPATRICK: Gearing up for an Antarctic dive is a bit like preparing for a spacewalk. A heavy rubber suit will keep Dr. Kvitek warm. It's just 28 degrees down below--the freezing point for salt water. Ropes will tether him to the surface. And a special mask will allow him to speak throughout the dive.

(Testing the mask: "okay.")

FITZPATRICK: These researchers are investigating what happens when six months of winter darkness give way to round-the-clock sunshine during summer. Kathy Conlan is with the Canadian Museum of Nature.

CONLAN: That period when it comes on to 24-hour sunlight is a huge boom time and it lasts through for a couple of months and then it goes down to a bust for the rest of the year. And that's when the animals out there are reproducing like mad. They're eating like mad, and their offspring are getting as big as possible before it goes down to bust conditions again.

(Dive-in splash, breathing in regulators)

FITZPATRICK: Two divers will spend half an hour at a depth of 100 feet.

(Bubbles)

FITZPATRICK: Through his underwater mask, Dr. Kvitek reports his progress.

KVITEK (on mask): We can see the under-ice now. Big pockets of air, some of them are big enough you can stick your head up into and breathe.

FITZPATRICK: When the divers reach bottom they'll encounter a vibrant jungle of shapes and colors.

CONLAN: There's quite an elevation difference because the large sponges can be several feet tall. And then the tunicates are bright orange and they look rather like big pumpkins with two vase openings which they will close in when you get close to them. And then there's soft corals. The large soft corals look like trees, they're orange. And then there's smaller ones that look like little snowflakes that dot the bottom.

FITZPATRICK: As Dr. Kvitek begins his underwater photography, he's joined by creatures who're attracted to the lights.

KVITEK (on mask): Bright yellow, bright white. Pink stars, purple worms. The color is really amazing down here when you put a little bit of light on it.

FITZPATRICK: The videotapes will allow Dr. Kvitek to analyze the sea-floor even after his dive is over. He'll also collect specimens to examine in the lab.

(Lab door opens, lab background noise, crowd in lab)

FITZPATRICK: This is McMurdo Station--America's research headquarters. With more than a hundred buildings and a thousand personnel, it's the largest outpost on the continent.

(Lab door slams, gurgling aquarium)

FITZPATRICK: Inside the lab, pumps bring sea water into the McMurdo aquarium.

MANAHAN: Have you put your hand in there yet? Try it out.

FITZPATRICK: No.

MANAHAN: Okay.

(Water splash)

FITZPATRICK: That's pretty cold.

MANAHAN: You betcha.

FITZPATRICK: Donal Manahan, from the University of Southern California, is studying ingenious adaptations life develops to survive and reproduce in water this cold. Fish, for example, have organic anti-freeze in their blood. Bacteria have found ways to sustain biochemical reactions at lower temperatures than normal.

MANAHAN: You put your hand in that water and you wonder how anything can live in it. It is so painful to a human hand to put it into Antarctic sea water. And yet when you look under the ice here, it is one of the most abundant environments on earth.

FITZPATRICK: However, fish and wildlife now encounter conditions the nature never intended. Global warming is causing ice sheets to crumble and lake levels to rise--which alters habitat for a wide range of species. As well, the entire continent is subjected each spring to the ozone hole.

(Lab ambience shift)

KARENZ: Okay, there they are. They're swimming around. And they look very happy. (laughs)

FITZPATRICK: Deneb Karenz from the University of San Francisco is measuring how baby sea urchins are coping with the effects of ozone depletion. The earth's ozone layer normally blocks the sun's deadly ultraviolet rays. But industrial pollution now creates a huge ozone hole each year above Antarctica. As a result, UV exposure jumps by 50 to 100 percent. Millions of plants and animals are exposed to a potentially lethal sunburn.

(Buzz of microscope, crinkling plastic bag with urchins inside)

FITZPATRICK: Beneath the microscope, you can see why baby sea urchins are vulnerable. They're nearly transparent, like jellyfish.

FITZPATRICK (In the lab): They're incredible. It's really interesting to watch life that's this new.

(Lab sounds)

FITZPATRICK: The DNA in organisms like these is poorly protected and can easily be damaged by ultraviolet radiation. Baby sea urchins aren't the only victims. Worst hit are phytoplankton, the tiny plants that comprise the base of the food chain. Scientists have detected a 15-percent drop in photosynthesis when plankton cells are hit by increased U-V light. Researchers like Dr. Karenz don't know exactly what the consequence of this may be. The ozone hole is a relatively new phenomenon, first discovered in 1985.

KARENZ: We have no baseline data. There's no UV work done here prior to the ozone hole. We come down after the ozone hole has already been around for a decade, and so what we're looking at now is already an altered system. And so it's very difficult to make any kind of an assessment.

FITZPATRICK: However, a decrease in plankton could create a food shortage that might ripple up the food chain to larger species--like penguins.

(Penguin outburst)

FITZPATRICK: The rocky beach of Cape Byrd is home to more than 50-thousand Adelie penguins. There's never a dull moment here. Chicks relentlessly chirp for a meal of regurgitated seafood.

(Chick sounds)

FITZPATRICK: Adelie penguins are characters. Kerry Barton of New Zealand's Antarctic Research Program never knows how they'll react.

(Wide ambience of colony)

BARTON: Some of them are quite aggressive and they rush up and flip and bash you around the legs. Other ones just ignore you or come up and gently wave their arms backwards and forwards at you trying to identify what you are. And other ones take off, terrified, and rush around in circles for a while and then decide you're all right and give up.

FITZPATRICK: In the past two years, penguins have been the subject of disturbing news. Australian researchers discovered the mass starvation of Adelie chicks in three separate regions of Antarctica last year. Their parents were unable to find any food within 100 miles of shore.

Now--says New Zealand researcher Brian Karl--some chicks are struggling to survive here at Cape Byrd.

KARL: This year they're not doing too well at all, seemingly. They're late, the chicks are not at the same stage as what they have been at previous years.

(Netting bird sound, rookery background sounds)

FITZPATRICK: To find out why--New Zealand researchers are netting 80 penguins for an unusual scientific procedure.

(Squalking penguin)

FITZPATRICK: They're draining the food from penguin stomachs to see exactly what the birds are eating. A plastic tube is slipped down the penguin's throat and researchers massage its belly as they turn the bird upside down.

KARL: And we wait for the bird to sick up into the bucket.

FITZPATRICK: The ordeal is disorienting for the penguin...but it's certainly better than killing the bird, which is what researchers used to do to examine stomach contents. Now the penguin is back to normal within an hour.

(Penguin released, jostling the jars with the stomach samples, rookery background sounds)

FITZPATRICK: The stomach samples suggest this colony may be suffering from inadequate nutrition.

(Jostling jars)

FITZPATRICK: Instead of feasting on krill--a shrimp-like organism that's the mainstay of the penguin diet--the birds are relying mostly on fish.

KERRY: Would you like to try some?

FITZPATRICK: I'd like to smell it. (smells) Whoof!

FITZPATRICK: The contents are heavily-digested, which indicates the penguins are swimming a long way to find dinner and are burning it up before getting home to regurgitate a meal for their chicks.

(More jostling of jars)

FITZPATRICK: Most alarming--says Kerry Barton--are specimens showing some penguins with nearly nothing inside their stomachs after a week at sea.

BARTON: And this is the entire sample the bird had in its stomach. It's probably only about two tablespoons of food. And this bird's been out doing serious fishing and that's all it's managed to come back with.

(Penguin ambience)

FITZPATRICK: The decline in penguin food supply raises serious questions. Is the ozone hole to blame? Is ultraviolet light damaging the marine food web? Or is global warming sweeping the food supply away by disrupting ocean currents? Or have fishing fleets been too greedy in the southern oceans? Scientists just don't know. Die-offs might well be part of a natural cycle. It may be decades before they're sure.

(People milling sounds)

FITZPATRICK: Researchers have identified a different threat to Antarctic wildlife, however, that people definitely can control.

KENNEDY: Okay, well welcome everyone to McMurdo station...(speech under)

FITZPATRICK: It's opening day of tourist season. One hundred passengers from a cruise ship have arrived at the US base.

KENNEDY: Today as your guides, you will have some civilian station personnel and some military personnel that will give you a tour of our station. (Speech under)

(People milling sounds)

FITZPATRICK: Tourism has exploded here in the past 15 years. Eight-thousand people now visit Antarctica's scientific bases and wildlife colonies every summer. For adventure travelers like Keri Gouge of Australia, it's a thrill they'll never forget.

GOUGE: We have seen penguins--more than you'd ever want to see in a lifetime, and seals, and some whales and obviously lots of birds as well. It's just been an amazing trip.

(People milling sounds)

KENNEDY: (on a walkie talkie) Group A, Group A, Nadine...

FITZPATRICK: Tourist groups have gotten so large that keeping them moving is like marshaling a parade.

KENNEDY: (walkie talkie) Let Group A know that we need them back down here by 10:30.

GROUP A GUIDE: Roger.

KENNEDY: It's like herding sheep (laughs).

FITZPATRICK: Nadine Kennedy is with the National Science Foundation--which runs the US. Antarctic program. She's happy to show tourists how American tax dollars are spent.

KENNEDY: We think of these people as Antarctic ambassadors. If we can just share a little bit of what we do down here, then they go back and they tell their friends about it.

(People milling sounds)

FITZPATRICK: Experts are concerned, though, that waves of tourists might overwhelm Antarctica's fragile environment. Even small groups of people can cause penguins to panic and abandon their young. And even the most careful tourist can trample delicate lichens and moss. That's why scientists fear the growing popularity of Antarctic expeditions. Colin Harris is with the International Committee for Antarctic Information and Research. He's investigating the cumulative impact of tourist visits.

HARRIS: Because there's a limited number of very suitable sites where landings can be made and there's good wildlife to be seen, the tourist ships often visit the same site as the previous one and the previous one to that. So some sites are actually getting two or three tourist ships a week.

(More milling tourist sounds)

FITZPATRICK: Tourism is responsible for the two worst disasters in Antarctic history. In 1979 a sight-seeing jet crashed, killing 257 passengers. Then, in 1989, a ship spilled 150,000 gallons of fuel when it ran aground and sank while carrying tourists in a scenic bay. Since then, tour companies have taken steps to improve safety and minimize environmental damage. Dick Walker of Adventure Network International, says tourists don't mind the restrictions.

WALKER: Most of the clients are very environmentally aware and probably wouldn't come if they thought there was going to be a huge negative impact.

(Tourist milling sound and ocean ambience)

FITZPATRICK: Tourists are now prohibited from visiting some sites in Antarctica--and rules are being developed to make tour companies liable for the costs of cleaning up any damage they cause. It's part of an international treaty that also bans mining and oil production here for the next 50 years.

(Penguins)

FITZPATRICK: Despite the threats to Antarctica's penguins and whales--and even its microscopic plankton--this is still the least-spoiled place on the planet. There are fewer people on this vast continent than you'd find on a single block in Manhattan. And it'll remain that way for the foreseeable future--because it's incredibly expensive to get here and even more costly to stay alive once you've arrived.

(Water splashes, whale breathing)

FITZPATRICK: Environmentalists point to the progress in regulating tourists and banning oil production as proof that the world recognizes the value of preserving this striking landscape. That makes Antarctica one of the world's great environmental success stories. The earth's most isolated continent will remain a place of natural wonder.

(Whale sounds)

For Living on Earth, this is Terry FitzPatrick reporting.

Back to top

CURWOOD: Tourists aren't the only visitors to have an environmental impact. For decades, scientists have polluted the land and water near research stations throughout Antarctica. Next week we continue our series with a look at the damage and the effort to clean it up. Our series is made possible by a travel grant from the National Science Foundation.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Let me ask you this: does winter make you blue? Seasonal Affective Disorder coming up next on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Feeling SAD: Beyond the Winter Blahs

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's late in the afternoon on a gray winter day. You're alone in your living room. And as you stare past the drizzle on the window to a dim landscape of leafless trees silhouetted against a steel gray sky, you're overcome by a sinking feeling. A feeling of hopelessness, hopelessness bordering on despair. You're feeling sad. You may call it the blues. Medical experts call it Seasonal Affective Disorder, and it's our body's natural reaction to days with less and less natural sunlight. Our internal biological clocks are out of synch with the natural rhythms established by the rising and setting of the sun. For some reason we may crave carbohydrates: sweets for some, alcohol for others. Whatever gets you through the twilight. Gila Lindsley knows about SAD. She's a psychologist who specializes in sleep disorders, and has been treating people with SAD for years. Dr. Lindsley says SAD can affect almost all of us, and it can range from a mild case of the winter blahs to clinical depression with severe consequences.

LINDSLEY: When I had my sleep center in a psychiatric hospital, we saw some patients who came in suicidally depressed. There was one woman who actually had made a suicide attempt. She came to me because they couldn't get her out of bed; she was sleeping all the time, they wanted to see what was wrong. When I took her history I found out that she'd had this every year since she was about 17, and this was a woman with several school-aged kids at this point. And I said, "Have you ever been hospitalized before?" and she said, "No." I said, "But this happens every year?" and she said, "Yeah," and I said, "This severely?" and she said, "Yeah." And I said, "Well, why the suicide attempt this year?" She said well, she could always hang on until February vacation, and then they'd go down to the Bahamas and it would all go away, because by the time they got back it was spring. And she said this year, February vacation came in March, and she just couldn't hang on any longer.

CURWOOD: How common is SAD?

LINDSLEY: Severe SAD of the kind we are talking about probably isn't terribly prevalent, but you just throw out a number, I'd bet it was as high as 15% of the population in the Northeast.

CURWOOD: Can't function at some times because of the Seasonal Affective Disorder.

LINDSLEY: Yeah. And in fact there have been some real interesting studies coming out of Alaska, and the prevalence rate there of severe depressions in the winter time, I don't know numbers but it's extraordinarily high. And there are some who believe it accounts for some of the high alcohol rates in that part of the world, to try to deal with a day with no sunlight.

CURWOOD: It does seem, though, that even in the North, even here in Boston or in Alaska or in Minnesota there are people that are apparently unaffected by SAD. Why do you suppose that is?

LINDSLEY: I believe the difference is probably genetic. People with blue eyes tend to get it more than people with brown eyes. It may affect how much light or darkness -- how much light they're actually able to take in. And people with SAD tend to have family members with SAD as well.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering if SAD is related to the fact that we used to follow the natural rhythms, you know, being, getting up when it's light and going to bed when it was dark. And in the winter time that would mean we would sleep longer. But in today's world, you know, there's a clock. We get up, we go to work, we're there at, you know, 8 o'clock or 9 o'clock every day, whether it's the summer when it's bright or it's the winter and it's, you know, barely getting light. Do you think that has anything to do with it?

LINDSLEY: Yeah, I do. Because of course, in the winter in the old days, when we didn't have all that pressure and pushing and electrical lights so we could extend our days, it was a time when farms were fallow, and it was probably a time where people just rested. And I think what probably happens now with SAD, I think, is really is just excessive sleepiness from the shortening of the days. But if we're trying to push against that, then we're not functioning very well and our self esteem can drop and we can feel dysfunctional, and for those who are vulnerable that may be the key to why it becomes a depression rather than just sleepiness.

CURWOOD: The best treatment for SAD?

LINDSLEY: Bright light therapy.

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

LINDSLEY: Basically what you're trying to do is to convince your body that it's really spring. You just think you see darkness outside. Now, the bright lights that are used, that are called broad spectrum bright lights, and what that means is that as opposed to these little 60- or 100-watt dealies that we have, that they're simulating broad sunlight midday during the spring time. Now these tricky lights were eventually the ones that began to be used for Seasonal Affective Disorder, and those are still the treatment of choice.

CURWOOD: Now, besides bright light therapy, are there simpler remedies to ward off SAD? I mean, should I get out of the office every day at noon if there's sun to go around the block for a walk? Or is the only solution to pack my bags for the Pond, the Caribbean or something?

LINDSLEY: I think the best solution is to pack your bags for the Caribbean, frankly. But before you start packing your bags and uprooting your life, the common sense things to do are number one, be aware it's a seasonal pattern. Number two, anticipate it in advance of the winter so that part of the depression, part of it is feeling alone and isolated, so build your life so that you're going to have a lot of contact with people during the winter months. Of course it's absolutely critical to get a lot of light, and before it even really starts, resist the impulse to stay in bed a little longer because it's not going to help you.

CURWOOD: Gila Lindsley is a clinical psychologist and sleep disorder specialist who practices in Lexington, Massachusetts. Thanks for joining us.

LINDSLEY: Thanks for having me.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: For transcripts of our programs, visit the Living on Earth web site at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our program is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. Our production team includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Constantine Von Hoffman, Susan Shepherd, Julia Madeson, and Peter Shaw. And this week we bid a fond farewell to Jan Nunley, our newscaster and development director, who is off now to minister her Episcopalian congregation full time. So long, Jan. We'll miss you. We also had help from Michael Giamusso, Kim Chainey, and Jason Kral. Chris Ballman is our senior producer; Jennifer Schmidt edited this week's program; and Liz Lempert directed. Our engineers are Frank DeAngelis and Mark Navin at WBUR, Jane Pipik at WGBH, and Jeff Martini at Harvard University. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the Great Lakes Protection Fund and the George Gund Foundation for Great Lakes reporting; the W.K. Kellogg foundation; the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and in part by Patagonia: a clothing company committed to making quality outdoor clothing with the earth in mind. For a free catalogue call 1-800-336-9090.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid transmission and distribution deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against tape.

 

Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Newsletter
Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.

Committed to healthy food, healthy people, a healthy planet, and healthy business.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live.

Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.