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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

January 10, 1997

Air Date: January 10, 1997

SEGMENTS

National Land Swaps / Jyl Hoyt

In the past year, President Clinton has been behind some high profile land deals. While they're not Arkansas real estate developments, these land deals have nevertheless been controversial. Jyl Hoyt of member station WSBX in Boise, Idaho explains how these national land swaps work, whom they benefit, and why some people vigorously oppose them. (10:05)

Predator-Friendly Wool / Bob Reha

Ever since sheep were imported and raised in this country, ranchers have killed coyotes and wolves. Producer Bob Reha reports on a recent compromise whereby some man, lamb, and canine are living in greater harmony. (07:20)

Bitter Cold / Susan Carol Hauser

Commentator Susan Carol Hauser remarks on how long stretches of below zero temperatures get even the hardiest down. (02:25)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about... things that shorten life expectancy. (01:15)

Antarctica Series: Part 3 - Is Global Warming Affecting Polar Ice Shelves? / Terry FitzPatrick

Terry FitzPatrick reports on the latest research into what is causing large masses of ice to break off the world's frozen continent. If uncontrolled global warming is in fact the cause, predictions forecast a significantly more watery world. Encore broadcast. (09:50)

Antarctica Update

Steve Curwood talks with the reporter of the Antarctica series, Terry FitzPatrick, about his experiences there and what got left out of the 4 part series. (09:10)

Enviro School Boom / Wendy Nelson

Schools in Grand Rapids, Michigan are promoting environmental education in many innovative ways. Wendy Nelson of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium reports on this current booming green curriculum. (05:53)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright c 1997 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
NEWSCASTER: Lisa Mullins
REPORTERS: Naseem Rakha, Constantine Von Hoffman, Jyl Hoyt, Bob Reha, Terry FitzPatrick, Wendy Nelson
GUEST: Terry FitzPatrick
COMMENTATOR: Susan Carol Hauser

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

When the Federal Government moves to protect open space these days, it rarely buys the land outright. Instead it tends to swaps holdings it already has. Some think it's a good idea.

CLARK: At a time when the government is constrained for lack of money, and can't always find the cash to buy lands when they come up for sale and should be in the public hands, a land exchange may be our best possible choice.

CURWOOD: But others say land swaps set a bad precedent. Also, there's a movement in the West to raise sheep without killing coyotes that prey on them, but it makes many folks uncomfortable.

TYLER: From a personal standpoint it's pretty darn hard to see coyote in the middle of your flock of sheep and not do something about it.

CURWOOD: This week on Living on Earth, but first this news.

Environmental News

MULLINS: From Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Mullins. An oil spill from a Russian tanker may ruin one of Japan's richest marine environments. A spokesman for Japan's Fisheries Disaster Task Force says the spill will spoil the area's seaweed crops for years and hurt birds that roost in the area. Earlier this month a tanker carrying 19,000 tons of heavy fuel oil broke in 2 and started leaking oil in the Sea of Japan. So far more than 60 miles of coastline have been fouled by the spills. In 1995 more than 150,000 tons of fish, shellfish, and other marine produce were harvested in the now-threatened area.

Nearly 40 bison have been rounded up for slaughter in Yellowstone National Park. The new National Park Service plan calls for the capture of all bison encroaching on adjacent private cattle grazing land. Some of the bison carry brusellosis. In Montana officials fear the disease will spread to cattle. Brusellosis causes cattle to abort their calves and can sicken humans if left uncontrolled. Animal rights activists say there has never been a documented case of wild bison transmitting the disease to cattle.

The Interior Department has ordered an investigation of the Federal Government's wild horse and burro protection program. According to a report by the Associated Press, the program may be supplying the world market with horse meat. From Oregon, Naseen Rakha reports.

RAKHA: To protect the horses and range lands, the Bureau of Land Management adopts out thousands of animals every year for a minimal charge. But the AP found that up to 90% of the horses that the BLM captures wind up in slaughterhouses. The AP says adopted horses can be sold to slaughterhouses for up to 6 times more than the adoption fee. The investigation also found that many of the horses are adopted by Bureau employees who cannot account for the whereabouts of the animals. A spokesman for the Bureau calls the AP investigation grossly inaccurate. He says long-standing policies prohibit neglectful treatment of animals and that the Bureau monitors the condition of adopted animals for one year. The law protecting these animals was created 25 years ago at the instigation of schoolchildren who were appalled at their indiscriminate killing. For Living on Earth, this is Naseem Rakha reporting.

MULLINS: There is more evidence linking pesticides to health problems in Florida alligators. Researchers studying the declining alligator population in Florida's Lake Opapka say that residual DDT and a pesticide called dicophol are responsible for abnormalities in the alligator's reproductive system. DDT was banned in the United States for most uses more than 20 years ago. The study was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

New pesticides used to protect sheep are damaging British rivers and killing wildlife. Scientists with the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency say the pesticides, called synthetic pyro-thyroids, are so toxic that just a few drops can kill freshwater shrimp. A spokesman for the agency says farmers have become careless about disposing the chemicals used to protect the shrimp from sheep scabs, skin mites, and lice.

An experimental vaccine is showing promise in the fight against malaria, one of the world's biggest killers. Constantine von Hoffman reports.

VON HOFFMAN: Malaria kills nearly 3 million people every year and has proved to be an exceptionally difficult target for vaccines. Last September, for example, doctors were badly disappointed when another new vaccine failed during field tests. Now, scientists from Smith Kline Beecham biologicals have created a new medicine that they hope will protect people against both malaria and hepatitis-B. In lab tests at the Walter Reade Army Hospital, scientists found that the drug protected more than 80% of the people it was tested on. Researchers writing in the New England Journal of Medicine say they still need to try the vaccine on people living in malaria-infested parts of the world. The first of these tests is scheduled to begin later this year in West Africa. For Living on Earth, I'm Constantine Von Hoffman in Boston.

MULLINS: Flight patterns designed to curb noise near Denver International Airport are driving Federally-protected bald eagles from their winter roosts. The US Fish and Wildlife Agency says it will invoke the Endangered Species Act to force the Federal Aviation Administration to change the jets' flight paths. Federal biologists say the traffic patterns are disturbing a key bald eagle roosting site and driving the birds to a Superfund cleanup site at the neighboring Rocky Mountain arsenal.

And the publishers of The Joy of Cooking are in hot water over recipes featuring endangered sea turtles. Under the heading Turtles and Terrapins, the book tells readers that because handling and cooking these monsters is difficult, quote, "most of us are content to enjoy their highly-prized, highly-priced gelatinous meat ready-diced in cans." The Sea Turtle Survival League is asking Penguin Books to remove all suggestions for cooking and eating the endangered species. Penguin, which will be publishing a new edition of the popular cookbook later this year, has so far not commented on the issue.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Lisa Mullins.

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(Theme music up and under)

National Land Swaps

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. At a time of increasing development and tight Federal budgets, many say a good way to protect sensitive ecosystems is through land exchanges. During this past election season, President Bill Clinton made headlines with land swaps to protect parts of the Red Rock Wilderness in Utah, and to stop a planned gold mine just north of Yellowstone National Park. While some cheer this tactic, critics say such exchanges may still result in the loss of valuable ecosystems and public land. From member station KBSX in Boise, Idaho, Jyl Hoyt has our report.

(Woman: "You get one." Man: "One of these and, then we'll just get a copy of the quick claim." Woman: "Yeah." Man: "New landowners!")

HOYT: People celebrate a new land exchange at the Nature Conservancy office near Sun Valley, Idaho. As a result, Willow and Boulder Banks along Idaho's Big Wood River, where Ernest Hemingway once fished, are now protected from subdivision development. The deal went through after the nonprofit Nature Conservancy traded land it owned elsewhere for the private property along the river. The Nature Conservancy has been doing such land swaps all over the country since the late 1950s, but the model it developed has been taken to a whole new level.

(Applause)

CLINTON: As all of you know, today we are keeping faith with the future. I am about to sign a proclamation that will establish the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

(Cheers and applause)

HOYT: This past September, while on the campaign trail, President Bill Clinton turned 1.7 million acres of majestic natural rock sculpture in southern Utah into a national monument. Most of the canyon land was already in Federal hands, but included mineral rights owned by a mining company as well as Utah State Trust lands. In creating a monument, the President promised to compensate both the mining company and the State of Utah, by giving them other Federal lands equal to the value of the trust lands and mineral rights. But Clinton's trade doesn't sit well with Idaho Republican Senator Larry Craig, a longtime supporter of timber, grazing, and mining interests. Craig says these land swaps violate private property rights and are a public rip-off.

CRAIG: There is a huge body of coal down there worth billions of dollars. He's proposed to exchange that out. Is the Congress willing to give a private company 150, 200, 300,00 acres of public land in exchange for the value of this coal?

HOYT: While the Monument is a done deal, how much public land will be traded and where it will come from in order to compensate both the mining company and the state of Utah are still unresolved. Jack Lyman formerly worked in the Utah Governor's Office and is now director of the Idaho Mining Association.

LYMAN: If I go out and invest my capital and identify and find a mineral resource, I now have a property right. If the public, through its elected officials or through its administrative agencies, decides that's a bad place to mine, I then have to be compensated if they're going to take that property right away from me.

(Flowing water)

HOYT: There are similar issues at stake near Yellowstone National Park, where icy mountain streams run crystal clear. These streams provide water for grizzly bears, wolves, bison, and other wildlife that are gone from most of the West. Two miles north of Yellowstone and 9,000 feet up the side of a mountain, the Noranda Mining Company hoped to reopen and expand a gold mine.

Environmentalists worried it might pollute the water in one of the most popular, most visited parks in the world. In August, with the spectacular vista of Yellowstone National Park as a backdrop, President Clinton promised to stop the proposed gold mine. Undersecretary of Agriculture Jim Lyons says Clinton is willing to trade $65 million worth of public land.

LYONS: What we're attempting to do there is to avoid the development of the mine by basically exchanging assets. Noranda owns the rights to the mineral reserves, and the Administration has proposed to exchange those assets for other resources elsewhere on public land in the United States.

HOYT: The Clinton Administration has until next month to make its offer to Noranda. The mining company has the right to reject it. As the deadline approaches, Undersecretary Lyons still hasn't decided which lands to offer.

LYONS: Well, obviously, there's got to be some give and take in this regard, but hopefully we can come to some reasonable agreement about what we will exchange in return for their mineral reserves.

HOYT: But some environmentalists don't like the idea of the government giving up any of its land. Bruce McMath of the Arkansas Sierra Club says land swaps are merely trading one ecosystem for another.

McMATH: The whole assumption is the National Forest is permanent. And if you can start swapping them and moving them about, then it begins to undermine the protection.

HOYT: And opens the door to possible abuse. That's what happened in a case in Colorado. A developer there bought a private end-holding in the heart of a wilderness area. He threatened to develop it unless the Forest Service bought him out or gave him land elsewhere. When the government didn't respond, he began flying out materials to build a luxury log cabin on the site. To stop him the Forest Service traded him lands adjacent to the Telluride ski area that turned out to be far more valuable than the private property the developer gave up. Again, the Arkansas Sierra Club's Bruce McMath.

McMATH: There's this temptation to get in a position where you allow business to blackmail, even, and from the public policy standpoint you can't let that happen any more in that setting than you would in a hostage situation. Because it just, it begets more of that, so to speak.

HOYT: Despite such fears, both developers and conservationists say land exchanges are often the cheapest way to deal with the legacy of old laws.

(Railway cars)

HOYT: In the 1800s, to encourage settlement in the West, the US Government granted railroads land in exchange for building a transcontinental railroad. Congress divided this land into square mile sections, giving the railroads and their timber subsidiaries every other section. Today, from an airplane, these lands look like a checkerboard. Clear-cuts are white with snow. Un-logged square mile sections are lush with evergreens.

(Footfalls on snow)

HOYT: In the forests north of Yellowstone National Park, Michael Scott walks through an icy snowfield in the heart of this checkerboard land. Scott is with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which has worked for the past decade to consolidate property in Montana's Gallatin National Forest so that private holdings will be together in one area and public lands in another. Scott says this will make management easier for timber companies, and will provide badly needed winter feeding grounds for elk, deer, and other animals that often migrate out of Yellowstone and onto private land.

SCOTT: This time of the year in the winter, when it's 10 degrees outside as it is right now, they're not up in the tops of the mountains where the public ownership is; they're down toward the bottom of the valleys trying to survive this winter in the cold.

HOYT: Land exchanges, which are done administratively or by Congress, usually involve the public through hearings and governmental information statements and assessments. Michael Scott estimates the Gallatin exchange, one of the largest in the inter-mountain west, could take several more years to complete. While the outcome may be good, he explains, the process is arduous. For one thing, there are dozens of players.

SCOTT: You've got landowners. People who live next to public land. You've got timber companies. You have the Forest Service, which is a player. The Congressional delegation, the Governor's Office, the conservation community. All the different user groups whether they're snowmobilers...

HOYT: Still, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition's director Mike Clark who fought to stop the Noranda Mine, predicts there will be more land exchanges in the future.

CLARK: It's a clumsy way to solve problems. It takes a long time. It often puts one community in conflict with another. And it's very uncertain. At a time when the government is constrained for lack of money, a land exchange may be our best possible choice.

HOYT: As for the Clinton Administration, officials say there's still a place for outright purchase of sensitive lands. But they insist land swaps are another important tool. Especially in the west, where pressure on natural resources grows as fast as the population. Back in Idaho, those who engineered this small land exchange near Sun Valley, walk to the Big Wood River to celebrate.

(Traffic sounds)

MAN 1: There's bald eagle right there, look at that. It just went after a fish when I saw him.

MAN 2: You charge extra for the eagle?

MAN 1: No, that's why we're doing this.

HOYT: For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt in Boise, Idaho.

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(Voices continue, fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: You've heard of dolphin-safe tuna. How about coyote-safe wool? That's just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Predator-Friendly Wool

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In the west, it's not uncommon to see bumper stickers urging people to eat more lamb because the coyotes can't be wrong. And ranchers have long dealt with coyotes and other predators in the classic western style.

(A gun is shot)

CURWOOD: Most ranchers say killing predators is necessary, but the practice upset some consumers who call for a boycott of wool products. For the past 3 years, though, a small group of wool producers has been protecting their flocks with non-lethal methods. As producer Bob Reha explains, it's an attempt to lure back green consumers in an increasingly competitive market.

REHA: Four years ago Congress repealed the law that imposed tariffs on foreign wool imported to the United States, and since 1995 when the tariffs ended, US wool producers have struggled to compete against subsidized foreign producers. Meanwhile, old problems, such as coyotes and other predators, remains a constant. The situation has prompted some ranchers to take a new look at how they do business. Dude Tyler is one of the founders of Predator-Friendly Wool, a small group of ranchers that use non-lethal methods to protect their flocks.

TYLER: We have a very large segment of the American consumer telling us there is a problem in our production methods, and we'd better correct it or they're not going to come to our store.

REHA: To become a predator-friendly producer, a rancher must sign a contract promising not to use any lethal control. Dude Tyler says it can be difficult making the transition to non-lethal protection of your flock.

TYLER: I must say, from a personal standpoint it's pretty darn hard to see coyote in the middle of your flock of sheep and not do something about it.

(Fingers on a computer keyboard)

REHA: However, research by wildlife ecologist Bob Crabtree suggests that doing nothing may actually be beneficial. Mr. Crabtree has spent the last 13 years studying all aspects of coyotes' lives in Yellowstone National Park and eastern Washington. Bob Crabtree serves as Predator-Friendly's science advisor, and says ranchers who kill predators overlook an important fact of life: competition for food. Sheep, coyotes, and rodents share the same pasture. If too much of that grass is eaten, the rodents will disappear. If that happens, the predators turn to the sheep for a square meal. What's more, says Bob Crabtree, with lethal control ranchers only get a short reprieve from predation: 6 to 12 months. But if non-lethal methods are used, the relief could last from 5 to 10 years.

CRABTREE: And it sounds counter-intuitive, you know, if you kill adult coyotes that you're not alleviating the problem. But the problem is, coyotes are social, and they pass this right on to other members of the pack and often the next night there's another coyote to take its place. So there's immigration into the area, and there's immediate filling in the vacancy. So you'd think that if you kill a bunch of coyotes that there's going to be fewer and less lambs are going to be killed, but that's not the case.

REHA: What works best, says Mr. Crabtree, are guard animals. He says dogs, llamas, and donkeys make more sense biologically, although they will not eliminate the predator problem. Bob Crabtree says there is no better deterrent for a territorial coyote than another big dog that will establish his own territory and defend it from predators. But Federal animal damage control agents disagree. Larry Handegaurd is director of the Montana Office of the ADC, a Federal program that assists ranchers and farmers with control of wildlife that damage crops or prey on livestock. Larry Handegaurd says he also uses non-lethal methods as a tool. But he adds those efforts must be supplemented with lethal controls or ranchers' losses will increase.

HANDEGAURD: Sheep producers still have anywhere from probably 3 to 5% loss, some higher, but some research that was done several years ago show that their losses could be as high as 20, 30% without control, and that was a documented study. Thirty percent, I don't think many sheep producers could stay in business at 30%.

REHA: Mr. Handegaurd contends that Crabtree's research has been done only in controlled environments like Yellowstone National Park. Bob Crabtree believes the problem is that ADC has not done any research on how natural coyote populations work, or the effect of lethal control on those populations.

WEED: Although relatively new in this country, people have been using guard animals for a long time in Eastern Europe. People started using guard dogs centuries ago, and...

REHA: But while the debate continues over which approach is more effective, producers of Predator-Friendly Wool like Becky Weed of Belgrade, Montana, are seeing results. Becky Weed uses a llama to guard her flock of 150 sheep. She's quick to point out that hers is a small operation, but it's been successful. She hasn't lost a single lamb to predators since she started using the llama 2 years ago. Becky Weed is one of 6 predator-friendly producers who market their wool together. In a market where raw wool prices fluctuate from 40 cents to $1.50 a pound, the predator-friendly producers are doing well.

WEED: This year, the growers are getting $2 a pound for their raw wool, which is a lot better than what the conventional ag market price this year is. Some of the locals haven't even sold their wool yet because the market is so soft.

REHA: Predator-friendly wool is made into hats and sweaters. Each has a tag attached guaranteeing that the wool used to make the garment is predator-friendly. Becky Weed says producers in the program have been the subject of ridicule and peer pressure from within the industry. Some growers in the program have received threatening phone calls. Becky Weed believes it's because producers are frustrated and a new approach to doing business makes an easy target.

WEED: The predator control issue is an incredibly emotional issue, and sometimes it seems disproportionately emotional to the magnitude of the real issue. And it's a lot easier to fit a coyote in our rifle sights than it is to try to digest Chinese economic forces and drought in Australia and the marketing savvy of the hog and poultry and beef industries and all these other factors which have made it tough for the lamb and wool people to do well in the last few decades.

REHA: Since 1993, 16,000 sheep producers in the US have gone out of business. Members of the Predator-Friendly Wool project say as wool prices continue to fluctuate, methods that will increase profits must be considered. The time has come to question the old ways of doing business and find ways to increase profits. Predator-Friendly members don't pretend what they're doing is easy or a quick fix. But they are encouraged by the success they're having so far. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Reha in Billings, Montana.

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(Music up and under)

Bitter Cold

CURWOOD: Some people love the cold. They welcome winter as a time when they can get out on their skis or zip on skates across a frozen lake. But even for these people there is such a thing as too cold. As Susan Carol Hauser observes, when the thermometer hits the negative double digits, the chill becomes profound.

HAUSER: Surfeited with the solitude of a northern Minnesota winter, one day my husband and I called a few friends and asked them over for dinner. Everyone came, even though it was 25 below zero. As they entered the house they stomped snow off their feet, and after they peeled off layers of winter clothes they warmed their hands over the woodstove in the entryway. We spent most of the evening gathered around the small table in the kitchen, talking our way through the weather and listening to a tape of country sounds in summer, songbirds, crows, cows in a distant field. And then we went outside to proclaim our presence on the surface of this sometimes cold and sometimes unforgiving planet.

It was 30 below by then. The moon was full and just rising over the ridge pole of the house. There was no wind, not even a breeze. I brought with me a bottle of bubble soap, the kind used for blowing bubbles through a ring on the end of a wand. When it is very, very cold, the bubbles do strange things. Bravely removing our mittens, we took turns dipping and blowing, dipping and blowing. We blew bubbles into the face of the moon and they twirled there and then settled on the low roof of the porch, where they rolled down its slight slope, pulled by gravity and their own frozen weight. Eventually they found their way to the edge and then to the ground where they shattered, the way dreams do sometimes. Others, when we blew them, puffed up beyond their ability, poofed before our very eyes, and plummeted to earth where they came to rest in a ragged little heap of glycerin crystals.

We oohed and aahed until our noses were no longer warmed by the fire of our excitement. And then we returned to the kitchen, stopping by the stove to remove our wraps and clapping our hands as though in applause. Seated again around the table and reflected in the black mirror of the window, we talked our way into the night, our cheeks alive with the lingering cold. And the isolation of winter, that bitter twin of solitude, broke in our hands like glass, the fragments reflecting the warm and forgiving passion of friendship.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator Susan Carol Hauser lives in Puposky, Minnesota, which in itself makes her a cold weather expert. It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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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.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Warming temperatures seem to be melting parts of the Antarctic ice pack, and that has scientists concerned that a catastrophic rise in sea levels could follow. That story is next on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

(Theme music up and under)

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Nineteen-ninety-seven marks the centennial of the discovery of a number of organisms, mechanisms, and products that threaten humans. One hundred years ago, Dutch scientist Emile van Ermengem discovered the bacillus of Botulism. That same year, Masanori Ogata found that rat fleas were responsible for the spread of the Black Plague. Eighteen-ninety-seven was also the year that scientists first understood the role of the mosquito in transmitting malaria, and discovered the dysentery bacillus. On a slightly less organic scale, the Dum Dum Bullet Company of India unveiled a slug which expanded on impact, greatly increasing the amount of damage it does. The year also saw the introduction of the first turbine-powered warship and the precision torpedo. We should also pause for a moment to note the bicentennial of the invention of the cigarette in Cuba, and the quintcentennial of the year tobacco itself was first described to the western world. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Antarctica Series: Part 3 - Is Global Warming Affecting Polar Ice Shelves?

CURWOOD: The dramatic floods, droughts, and blizzards we've endured these past few years have focused attention on the potential effects of global warming. There's another consequence of climate change, though, that in the long run could cause even greater problems worldwide. If there's a melting of major parts of the ice cap over Antarctica, global sea level could rise dramatically, forcing millions of people from their homes. For the past 50 years sections of Antarctica have been melting, but researchers aren't sure if it's part of a natural cycle or the result of human activity. Still, the future of the ice cap is in question. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick accompanied research teams to Antarctica last year. This week, we continue our encore presentation of his series of reports with a look at polar ice.

(Winds whipping)

FITZ PATRICK: No place on Earth is as cold and forbidding as the windswept interior of Antarctica, a region one and a half times the size of the United States that is draped by glaciers up to 3 miles thick.

(Wind continues)

FITZ PATRICK: This frigid landscape makes a lasting impression on people who come here, even seasoned researchers like Kerry Peterson.

PETERSON: It's just you and the raw force of nature. There's the sky and there's the snow and that's it. And the horizon is just so broad, you can almost see the curvature of the Earth. I like it because you have the sense that you're really on a planet hurling through space.

FITZ PATRICK: A fragile planet, which Antarctica keeps livable. Think of Antarctica as a giant ice cube in a glass of water, cooling the world's oceans. As well, Antarctica's vast expanse of snow reflects sunlight back into space, cooling the Earth's surface. The snowfields and glaciers are also like a giant reservoir, locking up 70% of the world's fresh water and keeping global sea level in check.

(A clang; a motor runs)

FITZ PATRICK: Because Antarctica plays a crucial role in shaping the world's environment, researchers are eager to learn if global warming could cause the ice cap to melt. To find out, they're drilling to the very bottom of the ice to look for clues.

PETERSON: We got -- oh, yes! Yes!

MAN: That's nice.

PETERSON: All right.

FITZ PATRICK: Ms. Peterson and her colleagues from the California Institute of Technology are pulling up an ice core.

PETERSON: Oh, beautiful.

MAN: That's perfect.

FITZ PATRICK: Three feet long and 3 inches around, this core contains a unique kind of ice formed by intense pressure inside the ice cap. The core starts to crackle as air bubbles begin to escape.

(Crackling sounds, feet on snow)

PETERSON: Oh, look at the clear ice! God, it's beautiful.

ENGLEHART: This whole thing is one single crystal. Huge single crystals.

FITZ PATRICK: Researcher Erman Englehart hopes these crystals can explain why parts of the ice cap are breaking loose from Antarctica's bedrock and surging toward the ocean at the rate of 4 feet per day. Known as fast flowing streams, several of these massive rivers of ice have been discovered in western Antarctica. They have the potential to drain the entire West Antarctic ice sheet into the sea.

ENGLEHART: These ice streams can carry away large quantities of ice in a relatively short time. And if their movement changes, for instance, if they widen or they speed up, they can change the balance of the ice sheet dramatically. So we need to understand what controls the speed of these ice streams.

FITZ PATRICK: This is where global warming might be involved. It might change how rapidly the streams empty into the ocean. Right now, the streams are kept in check by floating ice shelves that line the Antarctic coast. The floating shelves act like giant dams, holding back the streams. If global warming causes the ice shelves to melt, the ice streams would be free to race unchecked into the sea. The West Antarctic ice sheet could collapse.

ENGLEHART: And that could happen in a short time span like 1,500 years, maybe 500 years. This we don't know exactly.

FITZ PATRICK: In the past 50 years, 5 minor ice shelves have disappeared, the result of a 5-degree rise in temperature along the Antarctic coast. But the most important ice shelves seem stable for now. It's unclear how warm it must get before they could be in danger of melting.

(Indoor fans running)

FITZ PATRICK: To find out if the West Antarctic ice sheet is likely to collapse in the future, researchers are trying to determine how it's responded to warming in the past.

(The fan continues, now with cellophane crackling)

FITZ PATRICK: In a refrigerated lab, Richard Alley of Penn State University examines Antarctic ice cores beneath a microscope.

(Crackling continues)

FITZ PATRICK: Just as rings in a tree reveal its age, the layers of an ice core are a window to the past.

ALLEY: And so you can say well, 10,000 years ago it snowed this much, and someone else will measure the dust and somebody will measure the composition of the gas bubbles that are trapped in the air. And we pretty soon start to draw a picture of the past climate. And so we're working very hard on reading that: what happened in the world's climate, what did that do to the ice sheets?

FITZ PATRICK: Dr. Alley says the West Antarctic ice sheet has probably collapsed before and could collapse again. If it does, the massive melting of ice would raise global sea level by 20 feet. Twenty feet might not sound like much, but it's enough to inundate several small islands in the Pacific, and low-lying coastal regions in Southeast Asia, western Africa, the Middle East, and southeastern US. More than 200 million people could be forced to move. Millions of acres of farmland would be lost. Some communities would have to build extensive sea walls to protect against hurricanes and storms. However, it's not time to sell the beach house yet.

ALLEY: I wish to emphasize that this is not a prediction, this is the worst thing that could happen. And we have not yet been able to prove that it can't happen.

FITZ PATRICK: Actually, there is one worse scenario which involves the eastern part of Antarctica melting along with the west. The east contains the bulk of Antarctica's ice, and if it goes, sea level could rise more than 200 feet. That would be a flood of Biblical proportions.

ALLEY: It would not be Water World, there would still be land sticking out. But the coastline would look enough different that you wouldn't immediately recognize it. You'd look for that finger of Florida pointing down there and it wouldn't be there.

(A helicopter chops)

FITZ PATRICK: From the air, Eastern Antarctica looks just as frozen and desolate as the west. But there are major differences, which have sparked a scientific debate about whether it's possible for this part of the continent to melt. The eastern ice sheet is firmly fixed on high ground, and it's been that way, according to some researchers, for 15 million years. If these researchers are right, the eastern ice cap has survived several periods of global warming.

(Digging sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: Other scientists, though, have uncovered evidence that East Antarctica has melted as recently as 3 million years ago.

HARWOOD: I'm trying to dig down as far as I can and see what's been accumulating here.

FITZ PATRICK: David Harwood from the University of Nebraska has discovered plankton, leaves, and twigs in the Trans-Antarctic Mountains, one of the few ice-free regions of the continent. The only way they could get here, contends Dr. Harwood, is for the eastern ice to have melted, raising sea level and turning much of inland Antarctica into a beach.

HARWOOD: And the evidence that we're debating now would suggest that once those ice sheets formed, that they didn't stay, that they came and went and came and went.

(Digging sounds continue)

FITZ PATRICK: Some researchers think Dr. Harwood is wrong. They believe the plankton and leaves were blown here by the wind. The debate has touched off a feud between rival camps of geologists over whose version of Antarctic history is correct. But the critical question is whether East Antarctica might melt in the future. On that point, Dr. Harwood isn't sure.

HARWOOD: The East Antarctic ice sheet in the past has been a key player. Whether or not future warming will, you know, bring Eastern Antarctica back into the game, I don't know.

FITZ PATRICK: This uncertainty underscores how difficult it is to predict the future of the Antarctic ice cap. Various research panels have published widely differing views about what's likely to happen here in the next 100 years. Some scientists even think global warming could cause the ice to grow, by increasing snowfall throughout the continent. However, researchers do agree on this: Antarctica is isolated from the rest of the world but it's not immune to global environmental change. And just as importantly, we're not immune from what happens at the bottom of the Earth.

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(High winds continue)

Antarctica Update

CURWOOD: Terry FitzPatrick joins us now from our Northwest Bureau in Seattle where, you know, it's usually cozy and warm but you guys have been competing with the Antarctic recently for weather.

FITZ PATRICK: Yeah, yeah, the weather, the snowfall and the flooding that we've had here is worse than some things you'll see in Antarctica.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Now, since you first produced that report there's been some news about a giant iceberg breaking free from Antarctica and drifting north. Now, is this part of the meltdown that scientists are worried about?

FITZ PATRICK: Well, the answer to that's a bit complicated because it's both yes and no. This iceberg that's on the loose is truly immense. It's about as tall as the Empire State Building and about as big as the state of Rhode Island, if you can imagine a chunk of ice that big.

CURWOOD: Wow.

FITZ PATRICK: It is so large in fact that as it drifts into warmer water it'll take a decade to fully melt. Now, as well, this is the second mammoth iceberg to break loose in just the last 3 years. Now, scientists are worried that this could be evidence that the ice cap is crumbling along its edges. However, they caution you have to keep things in perspective. About a quarter million icebergs break off the Antarctic coastline every year. That's just natural. And so, even though we're beginning to see these new mega-bergs, they're still a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of ice in Antarctica altogether.

CURWOOD: Yeah, but Terry, as these big icebergs start to melt in the ocean, will they create that dreaded effect of rising global sea level?

FITZ PATRICK: Not really. These bergs are material that's broken loose from that ring of floating ice shelves that encircles nearly all of the Antarctic coastline. And because this ice was already floating on the surface of the ocean before it broke free to form icebergs, it'll have no change on sea level when it melts. It's like ice cubes in a glass of water. When they melt, the water level stays the same inside your glass. What scientists are worried about is that huge amount of ice that's on land in Antarctica, and that it will somehow slip into the ocean. Now that would be like adding more and more ice cubes into your glass of water, which would cause the water level to rise.

CURWOOD: But now, we're still talking about the ice shelves, and they're part of this process. I mean, if they break up into giant icebergs, won't the land-based ice that's trapped behind them right now slip into the sea, and isn't that the scenario that scientists were describing to you?

FITZ PATRICK: Yes, that's the scenario, but only if the major ice shelves begin to break up. These mega-bergs we've seen in the past few years, despite their size, have actually come from minor ice shelves, and they probably won't have an impact on the big picture. The shelf that's key to that scenario of a rapid collapse of the polar ice cap is on the Ross Sea. If you start hearing stories about mega-bergs breaking off the Ross Ice Shelf, you'll know there's really something to this theory of polar meltdown.

CURWOOD: Why is that? Why is the Ross Ice Shelf so important?

FITZ PATRICK: Because many of the natural drainages in Antarctica empty into the Ross Sea. Therefore, much of the ice that's on the continent could slide through those drainages into the ocean if the frozen ice shelf that covers the Ross Sea somehow breaks up or melts.

CURWOOD: Well, Terry, isn't that likely? Won't the same forces that are melting the minor ice shelves begin to affect the Ross Ice Shelf as well?

FITZ PATRICK: Well, there's concern that the Ross Ice Shelf could deteriorate because of the increases in temperature in either the atmosphere or in the ocean. But right now there's really no consensus on whether that particular ice shelf is endangered. There is a lot of research, though, focused on this question, so there is always the possibility that someone will make a breakthrough discovery that puts the stability of the Ross Shelf in a new light. But nothing certain right now.

CURWOOD: Okay. And while we have you on the line here, I've been just dying to ask you about a different sort of breakthrough discovery. And that's about that meteorite that they found in Antarctica that may contain signs of life on Mars.

FITZ PATRICK: Yeah. Yeah, one of the guys who searches for meteorites down in Antarctica, he's like one of the true old-style explorers. You just give him a snowmobile and a tent and he heads out in the middle of nowhere looking for rocks from outer space. It's kind of like hunter-gatherer science.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) But now, why, why does he look for meteorites in Antarctica of all places?

FITZ PATRICK: This is one of the few sciences where a desolate landscape is really a big plus. Thousands of meteorites fall to Earth every year, but it turns out the ones that land in Antarctica are really the easiest ones to find. Now, that's because meteorites just can't be recovered if they fall into the ocean, and it's almost impossible to spot the ones that land in a forest or in a farm field someplace. But out in Antarctica there are these vast regions of perfectly flat windswept ice. Someone described it to me as a giant white billiard table, and you can spot things on it from miles away. So if you find a rock out on the surface of this ice, and you're hundreds of miles from the nearest mountain or river, you can be certain that it fell there from space.

CURWOOD: And so there are just meteorites from Mars just sitting out there in the open for anybody to find, huh?

FITZ PATRICK: Yeah. Yeah, something like 8,000 meteorites in Antarctica in the past 20 years. I think only about a dozen of those are rocks that were actually somehow blasted free from the surface of Mars and traveled through space to land in Antarctica. But I should note that there is a debate raging now about whether the fossil-like material that was found in that meteorite truly is evidence of life on Mars. Some researchers think that geologic forces on Mars or even forces here on Earth could have produced the chemicals or the markings that were found on that meteorite.

CURWOOD: Terry, one thing we haven't heard you talk about in your series of reports is your visit to the South Pole.

FITZ PATRICK: Yeah, I did get to spend a couple days there, and it turned out to be really one of the high points of the trip. And I didn't realize before I arrived at the Pole just how emotional a moment it could be to stand literally at the bottom of the Earth, on a spot that explorers have lost their lives trying to reach and that only a handful -- just a relative handful of people have ever been to in all of human history.

CURWOOD: Is it really that different from the other parts of Antarctica?

FITZ PATRICK: Yeah, yeah. Physically, for one, it's much more challenging. The ice there is really thick, and so even though it's this big plateau, it's physiologically like being on top of a 12,000-foot mountain at 20 degrees below zero.

CURWOOD: Wow.

FITZ PATRICK: The entrance to the geodesic dome there that houses the research station is just a gentle slope in the snow, but it's nicknamed Heart Attack Hill because even walking a few steps can leave you breathless. You're lugging around so much survival gear. Each person carries about 35 pounds of cold weather gear that you get before you go down to Antarctica, just to stay alive. Beyond the physical challenge there, the South Pole is also the closest thing that I can think of to what it must be like to live in a space station. Humans just can't exist at the Pole without a cocoon of technology. Nothing is alive there naturally. There's no bacteria, no mosses, no insects, no plants of any sort. Nothing is alive. There's no smells. There's just a muffled silence with the snow that's actually eerie. And also, everything's just a little bit off from everyday life everyplace else. One example, which was pointed out to me fairly quickly, was the refrigerator for food. It's actually heated.

CURWOOD: A heater?

FITZ PATRICK: You think about this -- yeah, a heated refrigerator. If you think about this, if you want to keep something frozen you just have to put it outside on the ice, there's no animals or anything to eat it. But if you want to keep leftovers from freezing solid, you have to put them inside the refrigerator, which is heated to keep food from freezing. So you do that with vegetables and leftovers.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Now, why is there a station at the South Pole if nothing can live there?

FITZ PATRICK: Well, the place was originally built by the US to keep the Soviets from claiming squatter's rights. Much of the history of Antarctic exploration goes like this. It involves staking claims of sovereignty, and right now science is serving as a sort of way of keeping the peace. Since 1961, all claims of sovereignty in Antarctica have been put in abeyance by an international treaty that declares the entire continent as international territory to be used for peaceful, scientific pursuits. So the stations serve a bit of a geopolitical function. But scientifically there is also a lot to be learned at the Pole. It's a great place to do astronomy in particular. During the winter there are 6 months of total darkness, which is great if you're looking out into the heavens, of course. And the Pole is also the best place to study the stratospheric ozone hole, and that's why I was there, to check on ozone research.

CURWOOD: What's the latest news on that?

FITZ PATRICK: The results continue to be discouraging. Despite the worldwide ban on ozone-depleting chemicals and the predictions we're hearing that the atmosphere may be able to heal itself somehow, in a matter of decades, maybe 50 years -- despite that, the ozone hole this year is the worst it's ever been.

CURWOOD: Hmm. Now, next week is the final report in your series. You're going to be covering what?

FITZ PATRICK: More on what it's like to live and work in such an isolated and hostile climate. Scientists have a bit of a nerdy image, at least that's the image I had before I went. But you'd be surprised at how they let loose down on the ice.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Okay, I can't wait. Thanks for joining us. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick.

FITZ PATRICK: My pleasure.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: The environment in elementary school classrooms. That story is coming up on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Enviro School Boom

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Grand Rapids, Michigan, has the largest concentration of environmental schools for youngsters in the nation. A total of 4 1-year programs are now operating as part of the public school system. One is based at a zoo, another at a nature center, another in an industrial part of the city. But they all have one thing in common: they're teaching children about the natural world around them. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Wendy Nelson has our report.

NELSON: Remember elementary school? All those orderly rows of little desks. Lining up for recess. Raising your hand to be called on. If you do, you probably weren't a student at Blanford School.

(Footfalls)

POSTHUMUS: We can talk during class, unless someone else is talking up at the front of the room. We pretty much have freedom here.

NELSON: Mike Posthumus is one of 60 students at Blanford School, a year-long environmental education program for sixth graders located on a nature center in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Chances are, when these kids think back on their elementary school days, they're more likely to remember --

(Sounds of chickens)

NELSON: -- their chickens.

BOY 1: This is Aregalian. She's one of the youngest chickens here.

BOY 2: And this is Dinner Bell. He -- or she's one of the older chickens.

BOY 1: We come here, almost every recess we hold our chicken, we pet it. We make sure everything's going fine and that sort of thing.

NELSON: The kids here run their own chicken business, learning everything from how to take care of the animals to examining and grading their eggs. The thrust of the program at the Blanford School is a hands-on experiential way of learning in which nature is often the only guide. Although the program emphasizes the natural sciences, teacher Adele Backman says core subjects, like English and social studies, aren't ignored.

BACKMAN: We don't use textbooks as a whole. We develop our own curriculum. Every day is different. Our routine is never the same. We just kind of flow with the calendar.

NELSON: This kind of environmental education isn't new to Grand Rapids. The Blanford School's been operating for 23 years. It's been so popular with students and parents that the Grand Rapids public school system started 3 similar programs to meet the demand. Toni Bal is the lead teacher at the newest of the schools. She says there's been some confusion about the program, with some people thinking it's one of the new charter schools.

BAL: Being a public school teacher for 30 years, it's very important to me that the public does know that alternatives are happening, even in the second largest district in the state. I want our public school district to have the credit for that, and not get anybody confused with any of the charters that are starting.

NELSON: Three of the environmental schools are for sixth graders. And last year, a group of parents asked the school system to extend environmental education into the middle school grades. The result is the Grass Roots Environmental Science Academy, a seventh grade program.

(Sounds of traffic)

NELSON: Students at the Grass Roots Academy can look out fourth floor windows and watch expressway traffic pass by. Twelve-year-old Sara Igleski says it's all part of the lesson.

IGLESKI: We're still learning about the environment around us, just not like the nature kind of environment. Because I think that wherever you are there's really an environment there, just sometimes it's not always nature.

NELSON: Because of the school's location, the teachers at Grass Roots Academy make sure they include the urban environment in their lessons. The students have used compasses and maps to negotiate the city streets, and in math class a recent assignment was to count the traffic flow for 5 minutes and then figure out a formula to estimate how many cars will pass by in an hour.

(Several children speaking at once)

NELSON: The Grass Roots Academy is also home to an animal lab. Susan Brillhart teaches science here, and says the rats, birds, snakes, and other animals help the students learn many of the lessons of the natural world.

BRILLHART: Children seem to think conservation means no killing of anything ever. And well, no. We have hunters in our group that say no, that's not conservation. Conservation is maintaining a population. So we've had some real good discussions come out of that, too.

NELSON: On this Friday, the students in the animal lab are cleaning cages and preparing the animals for the weekend. Lindsay Chapman is cupping a pregnant rat in her hands, petting it with one finger and talking to it softly. She says she really didn't like rats until she got to know them, and now she's looking forward to seeing their babies born. But when I asked her how she'd feel feeding the rats to the snake whose cage is right across the room, it was obvious that this was a lesson still to come.

CHAPMAN: Oh, no, we won't feed them to the snake.

STUDENT: Yeah, we will.

CHAPMAN: If they die, then we'll feed them to them.

STUDENT: We need them to feed the snake.

NELSON: Brillhart say lessons like these can be hard for the kids to understand, but they're part of the balancing act of life.

BRILLHART: Environmental science is primarily a science of weighing your options and deciding which is the least damaging and the most beneficial. And there never is a clear-cut right and wrong answer. It's always somebody's going to hurt and somebody's going to benefit.

NELSON: The teachers at Grass Roots hope the school will move to a more natural setting by next fall, and by that time they also hope to have an eighth grade program in place. For Living on Earth, I'm Wendy Nelson in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

(Ambient students)

STUDENT: I don't think we're going to feed these guys to the snake, I think we're going to feed these guys to the snake...

Back to top

(Music up and under: theme from Little Rascals)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Our production team includes Liz Lempert, Susan Shepherd, Julia Madeson, Peter Shaw, Constantine von Hoffman, Kim Motylewski, and George Homsy. Peter Thomson heads our western bureau. Chris Ballman is our senior producer. Jennifer Schmidt edited this week's program. We also had help from Michael Giammusso, Kim Chainey, Jason Kral, and KPLU in Seattle. Our program is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. Our engineers are Karen Given at WBUR and Jeff Martini at Harvard. Michael Aharon composed our theme. Travel for our reports on Antarctica was made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation. 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.

 

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