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

September 1, 2000

Air Date: September 1, 2000


Lyme Disease Surge / Diane Toomey

Lyme Disease has risen dramatically in the past few years. So the tiny creature that’s responsible for infecting people, the deer tick, has earned an infamous reputation. But the disease doesn’t really begin with a tick bite. Ecologists say the real culprit is an environment that’s friendly to both the ticks and animals they feed on. Living On Earth’s Diane Toomey reports. (08:00)

Moths / Sy Montgomery

Late summer is time for the annual explosion of moths. Commentator Sy Montgomery explains why some naturalists are drawn like moths to a flame, to the moths themselves. (03:30)

Technology Update / Cynthia Graber

Cynthia Graber reports on a new cream that is designed to prevent jellyfish stings. (00:59)

Russia and the Environment / Mark Hertzgaard

Russian environmental activists are closely watching an upcoming court ruling on whether to retry a prominent government whistleblower for espionage. As Mark Hertzgaard reports, hardline tactics by the Putin government are giving fuel to a burgeoning environmental movement in Russia. (08:30)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about the West Nile Virus. This tropical zone, mosquito-borne virus is taking up permanent residence in North America. (01:30)

Arctic Ice Hole

A tourist group aboard an icebreaker ship didn’t need to break much ice to reach the North Pole last month. Host Steve Curwood talks with Harvard University oceanographer James McCarthy, a leader of the tour, about the open water witnessed on the trip and the attention it focused on climate change in the Arctic. (05:50)

Health Update / Diane Toome

Studies have shown the amount of active ingredients in herbal medications can vary greatly. Now, research out of Cornell University may help to explain why that’s so for St. John’s Wort, the popular herb used in the treatment of depression. (00:59)

Fires Update

Tim Egan, a reporter with the New York Times, discusses some of the factors that led to the wildfires raging across the western United States and what the Clinton Administration and others are planning to prevent future blazes. (05:30)

The Great Storm / Janet Heimlich

One hundred years ago, on September 8th, a deadly hurricane struck the seaside town of Galveston, Texas. The Great Storm killed more than 6,000 people and destroyed a city that once boasted a booming seaport and was a popular tourist magnet. Janet Heimlich visited Galveston to talk to town residents and descendents of the storm survivors. She found out that, even over a century later, the storm remains on people’s minds. (11:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Diane Toomey, Mark Hertsgaard, Janet Heimlich
UPDATES: Cynthia Graber, Diane Toomey
GUESTS: James McCarthy, Tim Egan

(Theme music intro)

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
Suburban sprawl may be hazardous to your health. Sprawl eliminates the natural predators of deer and mice, leaving them to multiply. The deer and mice carry ticks, and the ticks carry and spread Lyme Disease.

DANIELS: Well we may, in fact, be creating the very types of landscapes in which Lyme Disease risk is going to be highest, inadvertently.

CURWOOD: Also, in Russia the government wants to retry Alexandr Nikitin. He's the former naval officer who drew world attention to Russia's decaying nuclear submarine fleet, and his trials and tribulations may be inspiring a new generation of environmental activism.

HAUGE: What we have shown through the Nikitin case is that if you fight, you are able to get results, even if your enemy is KGB.

CURWOOD: And creatures of the porch light. It's a matter of moths. We'll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, but first this news.

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(NPR News follows)

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Lyme Disease Surge

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's the scourge of the suburbs, the price you may pay for a walk in the woods. Lyme Disease is a tick-borne illness that can cause flu-like symptoms and fatigue. If left untreated it can lead to brain damage. The incidence of Lyme Disease is on the rise, and in the Northeast and upper Midwest, where most of the disease-spreading ticks live, long pants and full body checks are now a summer regimen. Now there is new research that takes an ecosystem approach to combating the illness. It works by preventing the disease from being spread in the first place. Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports.

DANIELS: I would like to know what a tick thinks.

TOOMEY: Fordham University ecologist Tom Daniels says researchers understand very little about the tick lifestyle. Although he has years of data looking at how tick numbers fluctuate with environmental conditions, that's just scratching the surface, he says. We do know a tick makes use of a number of different animals as hosts, a polite term to describe where it gets its blood meals.

DANIELS: This thing lives for two years and most of the time it's waiting for something to come by. And so, I would like to know what dangers it encounters. Why it chooses not to get on some hosts as opposed to feed on others, but to know why we find them in some areas of the woods and not others.

TOOMEY: For now, Daniels is making use of the tick knowledge he does have.

(Tape tears)

TOOMEY: Daniels is suiting up to go tick hunting. He wraps masking tape around the ankles of his jumpsuit so ticks can't jump in. Then he heads out into a patch of woods on private property in Westchester County, New York, an area where Lyme Disease is endemic. This tony neighborhood, just outside New York City, is a prime example of why the illness is on the rise. As more and more people move into suburbia, they move into the natural territory of deer ticks, the kind that spread Lyme Disease. What's more, suburbia, brimming with ornamental plants and full garbage cans, attracts the mice and deer that are the major hosts for deer ticks. And more hosts means even more ticks.


TOOMEY: Daniels drags a white corduroy cloth behind him. August marks peak season for larvae, the beginning stage in the troika that make up a tick's lifestyle after it hatches. Daniels wants to estimate how many larvae are on this property. A few of them have grabbed onto the drag cloth. To the untrained eye, they look like little more than specks of dirt.

DANIELS: So far we've got three. Now look, just by handling the cloth, I've got two of them on my hand. And that's just one of the bonuses of doing tick work.

(A lint roller sweeps)

TOOMEY: Daniels meticulously collects the larvae with a lint roller. This head count is part of an effort to gauge the effectiveness of a federally-funded tick reduction project. Although many people in Lyme Disease country would like to see a reduction in the exploding number of deer, Daniels' experiment is being done in the spirit of, "If you can't beat 'em, feed 'em." He stops at a large metal box with troughs on either side.

DANIELS: This reservoir here is filled with about 200 pounds of corn. Corn spills out into these side troughs. The deer are attracted to the corn, and when they come in to feed on it, they have to rub their head and neck against these treated rollers to get at the corn.

TOOMEY: The rollers apply a pesticide to the deer's neck and shoulders, where ticks are most likely to feed. There are two dozen of these feeders set up in a two square mile area here. Even if it proves effective, Daniels knows this method isn't a panacea.

DANIELS: Not everyone will want a feeder, and it does take some maintenance. But if it shows, if it proves to have some impact, and you can envision entire neighborhoods, perhaps, setting up a series of feeders, it wouldn't have to be on every property.

TOOMEY: There is a lot of Lyme Disease in Westchester, but it's a county further north than New York that wins the prize for greatest number of Lyme cases in the country. And Duchess County where ecologist Rick Ostfeld keeps track of Lyme Disease by keeping tabs on the white-footed mouse. Here's why: when a tick hatches, it doesn't have Lyme Disease. While people can blame ticks for their infection, the ticks can blame the mice.

OSTFELD: White-footed mice are the main host for the larval stage of the tick, and the main source in the environment where the tick picks up the Lyme Disease. The more mice there are, the more ticks get to feed on mice, the more of them get infected with Lyme. And then the higher the number of infected ticks there are one year later when the nymphal stage feeds, and that's the stage that infects most people.

TOOMEY: No one is sure why white-footed mice, compared to other host animals, have such a high concentration of Lyme bacterium swimming in their bloodstream. What is known is that a tick has about a 90 percent chance of getting the bacterium after it bites one of the ubiquitous white-footed mice. So Ostfeld, as part of his research, monitors mice populations.


OSTFELD: Oh, boy, here we have a flea colony. If I were a mouse, I wouldn't want to live there either.

TOOMEY: Ostfeld checks in on the wooden mouse nesting boxes he and his team have attached to some trees in this oak forest. This property belongs to the Institute for Ecosystem Studies, an almost 2000-acre independent research center that serves as Ostfeld's laboratory. By tracking the whereabouts of newborn mice, Ostfeld hopes to find out which elements of the forest influence the mouse population here. He opens up another nest box.

(Hinges creak)

OSTFELD: Nobody home. And that's going to be the way it's going to be, because we have low mouse density this year. Because last year was a year of zero acorn production, so the mice didn't have a winter food supply, and they're very low this summer.

TOOMEY: Ostfeld theorizes that acorn production can be used as a kind of leading indicator for Lyme Disease. For instance, two years ago acorn production soared. That led to lots of mice last year, and according to the theory should predict more infected ticks this year. Ostfeld opens up another nest box. This one yields a single mouse.

OSTFELD: Let's just see if we can find some ticks. It's a clean mouse. (Snips) Ah, here's a tick. Here's one on the tip of the ear. It's a little, tiny bump that you can barely see.

TOOMEY: Ostfeld says another factor that probably influences Lyme Disease risk is the level of biodiversity in a given area. Lots of different animals mean mice have to deal with predators and competitors, so their numbers drop. What's more, greater biodiversity might produce something called the dilution effect. If a tick has lots of menu choices -- birds, chipmunks, squirrels -- its chances of being infected with Lyme drop, since those animals don't transmit the bacterium as efficiently as the white-footed mouse.

TOOMEY: To test the theory, Ostfeld has sent research assistant Brian Allen out to collect ticks from different parts of Duchess County, from forested plots dozens of acres in size to small fragmented pieces of land called back yards.

ALLEN: People have cooked for me and people give me beers and sodas and everything at the end of the day.

TOOMEY: When he brings the ticks back to the lab, Allen must grind them up so they can be analyzed for the presence of the Lyme bacterium.


ALLEN: A properly ground tick should explode on contact between the grinder and the side of the vial.


TOOMEY: The data from the study haven't been analyzed yet. But if the biodiversity theory holds, we may, by creating more and more suburban landscapes, be inadvertently increasing our risk of Lyme Disease. For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Toomey.

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CURWOOD: Later this month, we'll report on chronic Lyme Disease. Some people say they suffer from a long-term debilitating form of the illness. But many doctors say there's no such sickness.

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CURWOOD: "Oho, my beauty," chortled naturalist W. J. Holland on a summer night back in 1905, "how the eyes glow like spots of fire." Now, by his words you might think Mr. Holland was in the midst of a passionate love affair, and in a way he was. As our commentator Sy Montgomery explains, he was just another naturalist drawn to the flame of a moth on a hot summer night.


MONTGOMERY: The bride is at my window. The penitent on the porch. The darling waits in my back yard keeping company with the Old Maid, the Once-Married, the Relict, or the Inconsolable. These are creatures who come alive on hot summer nights like this. They are the nocturnal passions of naturalists. They are moths. The ancients believed moths were the souls of the dead, possessing ghostly beauty and otherworldly powers. And when it comes to one particular genus of moths, the Underwings, they were right.
A friend, Dave Winter, told me about the Underwings. He used them to lure me to moth appreciation. First, he enchanted me with their names. Sad shadowy names like the Morning Underwing, the Tearful Underwing. Romantic and tragic names like The Bride, The Consort, The Sweetheart. Other Underwings are named after women famous for their lusts or talents: Delilah and Cleopatra, heroines from Shakespeare and Greek goddesses. Mostly female names, you notice, probably because most of the people who named them were men. Men who, one might suspect, were spending too much time in the dark without female companionship.
Ah, but moths provided all the beauty and romance they needed. Plus, a little magic.


MONTGOMERY: Dave told me about the Underwing's secret. At first glance, they look like a piece of tree bark, all drab browns or grays. But on a pair of jet black hind wings hidden beneath the folded Underwings, some species sport crimson bands and white fringe. Others have yellow bands or vibrant pink or dramatic black and white. The colors are a ploy, a surprise these moths unveil the moment before they're about to become a predator's meal. Studies with birds reveal this sudden burst of color literally leaves birds with beaks agape. The moth flies free.

You can find Underwings on trees, where they feed on sap, and even by a porch light. But hard-core moth enthusiasts don't leave things to chance. Dave made his own special brew for these sap-loving moths--fermenting bananas, sugar, and beer. He would smear it on tree bark, and then, with yellow tissue paper over his flashlight, he'd creep up slowly on the nightly feast. The Underwings' flash of unexpected color was worth it all. By the time I met him, Dave had been chasing moths for more than 60 years.
Last year, at about this time, I got the sad news that he had died. I still think about him, though. Especially on late summer nights like this. When moths flutter around the back porch light, when Underwings gather to sip tree sap, I wonder if Dave Winters' winged spirit is among them, reminding us, as he did in life, of nature's uncanny ability to startle and delight.

(Crickets up and under)

CURWOOD: Sy Montgomery lives in Hancock, New Hampshire, and is author of Life's Everyday Mysteries. The price and power of ecological dissent in modern Russia: that story is just ahead on Living on Earth.

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Now this environmental technology update with Cynthia Graber.

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Technology Update

GRABER: The warm end-of-summer ocean waters attract swimmers and lots of jellyfish. There are more than 300 species of jellyfish, and their burns range from mildly painful to fatal. The damage occurs when hundreds of thousands of jellyfish stinging cells come in contact with an animal. They explode and prick the intruder with poisonous barbs. Now, a company in Israel says it has a cream that can prevent jellyfish stings. The solution is based on compounds that mimic chemical reactions produced by the orange clown fish, a tiny marine creature that is able to coexist with jellyfish. It does so by secreting in its mucous a slew of chemicals that disrupt the sensing mechanism of the jellyfish's sting cells. The cells don't feel threatened, so no stinging. It took the scientists ten years to develop their formula, but now it's being bottled as a cream with hopes of protecting swimmers around the world. That's this week's technology update. I'm Cynthia Graber.

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CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

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Russia and the Environment

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. By September thirteenth, the Russian Supreme Court is expected to rule on a case that could make or break that nation's fledgling environmental movement. A high court will decide whether or not to allow the government to retry Alexandr Nikitin. Nikitin is the former submarine captain who made international headlines in 1996 by blowing the whistle on the Russian Navy's mishandling of its old nuclear subs. Nikitin was tried and acquitted by a Russian court, but now the government wants to try him again on the curious grounds that it violated his civil rights the first time around. As Living on Earth's Mark Hertsgaard reports, the government's prosecution of Nikitin may mark a turning point in the nation's environmental history.

HERTSGAARD: Alexandr Nikitin's troubles began when he revealed that the Russian Navy had been dumping old submarine reactors and spent fuel in the Barents Sea and Kola Peninsula for decades. The expose got Nikitin thrown in jail. In the first of many irregularities, he was charged with espionage on the basis of a law written months after he was imprisoned. Last December, his case finally reached the city court of St. Petersburg.

(A judge speaks)

HERTSGAARD: As the judge read the verdict, a smile spread across Nikitin's face and the courtroom erupted.


HERTSGAARD: It was an extraordinary decision. An environmentalist had defeated the federal security police, Russia's recast KGB. And when the Supreme Court upheld the ruling in April, it criticized the police for violating Nikitin's rights. Nikitin soon left for California to accept the Goldman Environmental Prize. He'd won the prize in 1997, but the Russian authorities hadn't allowed him to leave the country.

MAN: Now at last we are proud to present Alexandr Nikitin with the Goldman Environmental Prize.


HERTSGAARD: Nikitin still looks like a career military man, with close-cropped graying hair and a clipped, serious manner. But he does know how to tell a joke.

NIKITIN: [Speaks in Russian]

TRANSLATOR: I would like to apologize that I was late for the ceremony, exactly three years.

HERTSGAARD: But no one was laughing a few days later, when Russia's prosecutor general announced the government wanted to retry Nikitin. Officials at the prosecutor's office were unavailable to comment for this story. In any case, it's clear Nikitin has become a successful symbol of dissent to many Russians.

HAUGE: What we have shown through the Nikitin case is that if you fight, you are able to get results, even if your enemy is KGB.

HERTSGAARD: Frederick Hauge is the director of the Bologna Foundation, the environmental group based in Russia and Norway that published Nikitin's original expose. Hauge says Nikitin's court victories have been particularly inspiring to young Russians.

HAUGE: This gives young people a hope and also a weapon to use the legal system, which they have not been aware of before. This has ended up to be a very, very important symbol case.

HERTSGAARD: Hauge says young people are flocking to join environmental groups in Russia, often using e-mail to collaborate. And not a moment too soon. Russia is one of the most polluted countries on Earth. The outside world got its first glimpse in 1986, when the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine suffered a catastrophic meltdown.

MAN: Readings of up to 100 times normal levels have been reported locally in eastern Sweden and Finland...

HERTSGAARD: Chernobyl released 100 times as much radiation as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs combined. Today, three million youngsters still need treatment for Chernobyl-related ailments. And air and especially water pollution are severe in much of Russia, and the impoverished economy doesn't help. Last month's submarine disaster illustrates the dangers of operating military hardware without sufficient funding. Many Russian industrial facilities are running the same risk. Svet Zabelin of the Socioecological Union is a leading environmentalist.

ZABELIN: The chance is for different accident, of course, is increasing. Because we have the same equipment as 20 years before. This is some kind of dangerous stability.

HERTSGAARD: But instead of increasing federal oversight, President Vladimir Putin abolished the State Committee for Environmental Protection in May. Acting by decree, Putin transferred the committee's responsibilities to the pro-development Ministry of Natural Resources. Putin, the former head of the State Police, is also overseeing a crackdown on green activists through tax audits and harassment like Nikitin's. Zabelin charges all this marks a return to the Soviet era, when ministries rubber-stamped their own environmental behavior.

ZABELIN: During the Soviet period, each ministry had an environmental department. This is not outside control. Now we are simply coming at the same situation. It's an absolutely Soviet solution.

HERTSGAARD: But there are signs of a popular backlash. Eighty-seven percent of Russians polled by the Interfax News Agency oppose abolition of the environmental protection agency, and a large coalition of environmental groups is organizing a national referendum to overturn Putin's decree. Activists claim to have collected 400,000 signatures, a fifth of what's needed to put the referendum on the ballot. David Gordon, an activist with the group Pacific Environment in Oakland, California, recently visited Russian environmentalists.

GORDON: Organizing the referendum has truly and finally united the environmental movement in Russia. I was just in the Russian Far East, where I attended dozens of meetings of activist groups. And at each meeting they were actively discussing how to best organize the referendum and collect the necessary signatures. This has become their primary issue.

HERTSGAARD: But will the referendum pass? Activist Zabelin fears the government will use the involvement of Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund to defeat it as a foreign plot. But Hauge says such pessimism underestimates Russians' environmental fervor.

HAUGE: I have seen the different local fights around in Russia, when they are trying to move nuclear wastes from Kola peninsula down to Chelyabinsk. It has been 10,000 people out in the streets in Chelyabinsk. But I think we will see the possibilities for a referendum on this issue during the next year.

HERTSGAARD: The referendum would also block the government's controversial plan to import nuclear waste. The Atomic Energy Minister, Yevgeny Adamov, says such imports could pay for scores of new nuclear power plants for Russia, as well as clean up sites like Lake Karachay near Chelyabinsk , where the Soviet Union built its bombs during the Cold War. Lake Karachay contains 120 million curies of radioactive waste and is perhaps the most polluted spot on Earth. Still, Alexandr Nikitin opposes Adamov's nuclear import plan.

NIKITIN: [Speaks in Russian]

TRANSLATOR: This is the source where Adamov will get funds to develop the nuclear industry. But it's like a snowball, always getting bigger. The more reactors he builds, the more waste there will be, and the more problems he will encounter.

HERTSGAARD: Nikitin points out Adamov and Putin need Washington's consent on this matter. Under the old Atoms for Peace law, the United States owns the nuclear waste Russia hopes to import from Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea.

NIKITIN: [Speaks in Russian]

TRANSLATOR: I think our job is to influence not only the Russian side but also the American side, because without the concept of the Americans and the Europeans, it's impossible to import nuclear fuel or radioactive waste.

HERTSGAARD: Nikitin asked Washington lawmakers to block Russia's nuclear import plan during his visit in July. Days later, the Putin government announced its plan to retry him for espionage. Russia's Supreme Court will hear the case on September thirteenth, and the stakes are high. If the government is granted a retrial, it will distract Nikitin from the referendum fight and probably discourage ordinary Russians from joining the environmental cause themselves. A ruling in favor of Nikitin, however, would reinforce the message of earlier verdicts. In today's Russia, maybe you can fight the system and win. For Living on Earth, I'm Mark Hertsgaard.

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(Music up and under: Stravinsky's "Firebird")

CURWOOD: Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. And visit our Web page at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science and the environment; the David and Lucille Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; the Surdna Foundation; and the Ford Foundation, striving to preserve our ecological values.

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CURWOOD: You're listening to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. Coming up: putting news of shrinking Arctic ice in perspective. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: This summer marks the second consecutive outbreak of West Nile virus in North America. Health experts say the disease is probably here to stay, so here's a short primer. The virus originated near the western branch of the Nile River in Uganda. It's fairly common in tropical climes, but nobody knows for sure how it got here. It could have been transported across the Atlantic by storm-blown birds, or by a human carrier unaware of the infection. Mosquitos store the virus in their salivary glands. They don't come down with the symptoms, but can transmit the virus from birds to people. Most human infections are mild, with flu-like symptoms, and people with healthy immune systems are safe if medical attention is sought early. But as with all kinds of encephalitis, the brain can become fatally inflamed if not treated. At least four states on the East Coast are spraying to curb the spread of West Nile. They're using the chemical Malathion and BT, a natural bacterium. While these pesticides are meant to target mosquitos, other arthropods may suffer. Some scientists, for example, suspect spraying may have contributed to the sudden collapse of the lobster population in Long Island Sound. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Arctic Ice Hole

CURWOOD: The recent discovery of open water, not solid ice, at the North Pole, galvanized much talk about global warming. That specific observation isn't necessarily a reflection of climate change. After all, it's normal for as much as ten percent of the Arctic region to be ice-free during the summer months. But there is plenty of evidence that the Arctic is feeling the effects of climate change. Winter temperatures in the far north have warmed 11 degrees over the past 30 years, and on the whole Arctic ice is only about half as thick now as it was several decades ago. One of the scientists who led the tourist trip to the North Pole in August is James McCarthy, an oceanographer at Harvard University. He reports that over the course of the expedition north, they encountered an unexpected amount of open water.

McCARTHY: Well, as we began our lecturing, talking about ice, talking about icebreakers, all gave our travelers the expectation that we would be seeing serious ice. So we were day to day, the lecturers, as we looked out, telling the people to whom we were lecturing "well, not yet." We had yet to encounter really serious ice. When we arrived at the pole, I think it was fair to say that not only were the lecturers surprised, astonished, that in fact the people traveling with us had come to believe this was really unusual. And the lecturers, while we were on the bridge at the pole, thought for a moment that were we to put a small boat in the water and put all the lecturers on it, paddling around, perhaps, at the geographic North Pole, it might be a powerful image, that were our colleagues and others to see this, would register immediately as a very unusual situation.

CURWOOD: This hole in the pole was immediately picked up by the media as the latest sign of climate change. Why do you think people latched onto your observations and this water at the North Pole. Why did this become a global news event?

McCARTHY: It is more of a global news event than we thought it would be. And in part I think it is that image, the North Pole without ice. The picture in the New York Times. Had the picture not been there, I wonder if it would have become as widely known as it is. In fact, the picture led people to get a mistaken notion of the story. They saw the picture and thought that the only place we saw with open water was the North Pole. I know that from letters and e-mail that has been rolling in since, without reading the story and realizing that that was simply a dramatic punctuation of the endpoint of our journey. The interesting reaction that's come from some of the ice scientists, the people who spend their life studying the extent of sea ice and how it changes annually and interannually, they've been trying to get this story out. They've been trying to tell a story over the last couple of years in scientific publications about how the ice is thinning. How the annual extent of sea ice is shrinking. And that, for reasons that nobody could quite explain, our anecdotal observations have suddenly captured the attention of the public.

CURWOOD: What should the public understand about climate change based on your observations? What does this experience, your observations, what does it show and what doesn't it show?

McCARTHY: You cannot in any definitive way, and again I emphasize that our observations are limited to a two-week period to a narrow sector of the Arctic, you cannot in any definitive way say that this can be attributed to a larger pattern of climate change. But it's consistent with what you would expect. And forecasts have been made, extrapolating from the recent trends, which would indicate a dramatic loss of ice in the Arctic over the next few to several decades. This is consistent with that. So it may be an early sign of the processes which are known to occur, for which trends would lead us to expect this sort of change. It's perhaps happening more quickly, or in a particular region of the Arctic at this time, faster than had been expected.

CURWOOD: Some scientists point out that other factors, such as wind or waves, affect ice formation in the Arctic, along with temperature. And that what you saw, water at the North Pole, is just a function of this natural variation.

McCARTHY: Well, it could be, because all of those factors do influence not only the rate at which ice is formed, but the rate at which it might melt and the rate at which it might be swept out of the Arctic. But what we know is that there is no evidence of anything of this sort showing up earlier. Something that is not apparent from -- you take the 15 or so trips that someone like Robert Headland from Cambridge University has been onto the pole over the last decade. It's not something that has been evident in the satellite record for two decades. It is entirely conceivable that this is a very anomalous year. But certainly, if you look to the polar exploration literature, when people were attempting to cross the ice to get to the North Pole, nothing of this sort was ever encountered. It's easier to envision the time when navigation through the polar regions will be possible without the sort of vessels that we have today, the serious icebreaking ships.

CURWOOD: So the Northwest Passage can become a reality?

McCARTHY: Yes. There have been news articles in the last month which have suggested that that's a possibility, predating our observations.

CURWOOD: James McCarthy is Alexander Agassiz Professor of Oceanography and Director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. Thank you, sir.

McCARTHY: Thank you, Steve.

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CURWOOD: Coming up: Fires in the West are sparking a political debate about how to manage the nation's forests. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
Now, this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.

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Health Update

TOOMEY: St. John's Wort is a popular herbal remedy used to treat depression. Now comes word that a little stress on that plant may go a long way to relieve your anxiety. Studies have shown that the potency of St. John's Wort products can vary greatly from brand to brand and even pill to pill, and now scientists think they know why. Researchers at Cornell University have found when St. John's Wort is attacked by insects, the herb produces more of the active ingredient thought to alleviate depression. The scientists think this substance, hypericin , is part of the plant's arsenal of chemical defenses. They're also looking at how other factors, such as light, moisture, and altitude, affect hypericin levels. While much of St. John's Wort products are derived from wild-harvested plants, the herb is also grown commercially. A crop of St. John's Wort with a high level of hypericin fetches as much as $3,000 an acre. That's this week's health update. I'm Diane Toomey.

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CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth. You can hear our program any time on our Web site. The address is www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And while you're online send your comments to us as letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988.that's 800-218-9988.

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Fires Update

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For more than a month now, fires have been searing the western United States. These blazes are burning with unusually high temperatures and fast-spreading flames. The infernos follow years of suppressing fires that naturally thin the forest. Controlled burns remain a viable but controversial prevention option. Some suggest thinning small trees, and others say full-scale logging is the way to go. Next week, the Clinton Administration is expected to release its plan to restore the forests and find a way to deal with the excess of young trees crammed in among the more fire-resistant older ones. Tim Egan, who covers the northwest for the New York Times, says that there are two reasons for the existence of these overgrown and overcrowded forests.

EGAN: One is, we've taken fire out of these national forests. Fire would come through and clean them with sort of a purging effect. And since fire no longer comes through there, you have these crowded stands of trees. The other case is, and this is an interesting part of the debate, is some of the most dangerous fire-prone areas right now are areas that have been heavily logged, and then replanted with these very tight, crowded stands of commercially-viable timber. And those little trees are in there now, and they're pretty vulnerable as well.

CURWOOD: What do you think the Clinton Administration will decide to do now?

EGAN: Well, under Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt they are now proposing to follow the plan of something they did in northern Arizona, north of Flagstaff, where they've had some huge burns over the last ten years. And they're experimenting with going in and just commercially thinning, just going in and sending crews of people in there and taking out these thin trees, doing the job of fire, somewhat. And it's not really for logging, because the trees are pretty thin. There's nothing really commercially viable in there. So the Clinton Administration wants to open up this pilot program to other national forests. Under Governor Bush, he has come out, and mainly speaking for him has been Governor Roscoe of Montana, a Republican governor, who I should give all your listeners a heads-up, he's being touted as potential Interior Secretary under a Bush administration. And he wants to open up logging in more of the national forests. He says we've been remiss because under Clinton logging has been reduced 75 percent in the national forests. And Governor Roscoe, and Governor Bush to a lesser extent, have both said "look, we've got to go back a little more to the way it was. The reason these forests are all burning now is because we stopped commercially logging." So they would do, as opposed to the Clinton Administration, they wouldn't just go thin, they'd do a lot of fairly aggressive logging, return to some of the clear-cutting and some of the bigger stuff that we had until about ten years ago.

CURWOOD: Now what about the nonpartisan scientists? What do they think should be done to address this situation in the forests?

EGAN: Well, the forest managers and the fire ecologists, the people who study fire ecology, are generally nonpartisan to begin with. And when you give them a chance and ask them what they'd like to do, and you see what they put into some of the fire management reports and some of the forest management reports, there is a general consensus that you need to get this fuel load out of there, you need to get these thinner trees out of there. But after that, forest health can be returned. I mean, most people think yeah, we did screw it up, and they do say yeah, it was a mistake. But they don't also then throw their hands in despair and say we'll never make it right again. They say the good news is, we've learned that nature, if left to take its course, will generally take care of itself.

CURWOOD: Tim, from your reporting, how much do you think these fires in the western U.S. are related to the fact we've got more people living in the west?

EGAN: Yeah, that's a good question, because even with the forests in bad shape, you still need an igniter. You still need some spark to start these fires. And what's starting these fires more than ever is not necessarily lightning, although lightning is a huge culprit here, but human beings. Now, who are the human beings that are causing this? Well, more and more people live at the edge of national forests in the west, and they live in wilderness areas. And so people start fires with a spark from their lawn mower, with a barbecue, with something, a firework, a cigarette, a road -- usually it's something just as simple as a truck that scrapes against a rock and the spark starts -- that's how grass fires usually start. So, the fact that human beings live so close to our designated wilderness areas, that's leading to an increase in man causing most of the fires. And how the other part of that equation is that most of the firefighting effort now, and this has been doing on, oh, easily since the early 90s, is not about people out with shovels and Pulaskis and Fusis and all these things that these armies of firefighters use trying to protect drainages or ecosystems. There are all these people out, as one person said, trying to save folks' summer homes. If the people weren't there, most of these fire managers tell you they'd let the fire burn.

CURWOOD: Now, there are predictions that the burning continues until the snows. What areas will need help? Will need reinforcement, will need some kind of intervention to get regrowth going there, do you think?

EGAN: It really varies from state to state, but I know there are parts of Colorado, there are parts of Washington State where I'm based, there are lots of little valleys in western Montana where the fires have burned extremely hot. And what they do is, they go in and they want to reseed and get at least some grass, some foundation in there before the rains come next year. Because what can happen is, the fire burns right up to the snow, to the early winter. Then snows come. And then in the spring you have runoff. And all this water melts down the barren slope, and what it does is it takes away whatever topsoil is left. And it just rips it away. And then you have a compounded situation of all this mud going in silting up river valleys, causing an even larger problem to happen. So what they're going to do in some of these areas that are most vulnerable right now is going to try to reseed, just to put some grass down. Something that'll establish itself a little bit. But in areas where the soil has been hit by these superheated gases and they've just burned, there's basically nothing they can do. It's going to take several centuries of compost building up to build soil. They just can't do anything. It's huge.

CURWOOD: Tim Egan is a reporter with the Seattle Bureau of the New York Times. Thanks for taking this time with us, Tim.

EGAN: Well, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

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The Great Storm

CURWOOD: On September 8, 1900, a catastrophic hurricane struck Galveston, Texas. Thirty-eight thousand people lived in the Gulf Coast city when the wind and water came ashore. By the time it was over some 6,000 had died in this nation's deadliest natural disaster. To this day, many details about the hurricane remain sketchy. But as Galveston nears the one hundredth anniversary of what's called The Great Storm, descendants of survivors are sharing what they know about what happened on that day and how the city rebuilt itself. Janet Heimlich reports.

(Surf, children laughing and shouting)

CHILD: I think he's going down...

CHILD 2: Let's start digging like this!

HEIMLICH: Looking at a map, it's easy to see just how vulnerable Galveston is to storms. It's located on the eastern half of Galveston Island, a narrow 28-mile strip of land just off the Texas coast in the Gulf of Mexico. Today, as children play in the surf along one of Galveston's many beaches, a hurricane seems to be the last thing on people's minds. But that's not the case with Linda MacDonald, a fourth-generation Galvestonian. Her family survived the Great Storm of 1900.

MACDONALD: My grandfather, Clarence Lacomb, was six years old at the time of the storm, and he lived here in Galveston with his parents and his brothers and sisters. And when I was growing up, I used to hear my grandfather tell the story of the storm. And the first time he started telling me about the storm, I thought the storm had just happened the day before, because he spoke of the storm with such feeling, such emotion. And actually, the storm had been over for more than 50 years.

HEIMLICH: Prior to 1900, people here were used to bad storms. Still, hardly anyone on September eighth anticipated the tragedy that was about to unfold. After all, this was the industrial age, when people believed themselves to be invincible, even to nature. Galvestonians were a particularly proud lot. Their port was one of the busiest in the U.S. and their beautiful beaches attracted many tourists. In the 1880s, the state legislature allocated funds for Galveston to build a seawall, but the city refused. Many believed it would hurt businesses along the shore. Ms. MacDonald says that on the day of the storm, her grandfather had no idea of the force growing out in the Gulf.

MACDONALD: Around noon in September the eighth, my grandfather said that he was playing in the street. He said the streets were starting to flood, and he said it was just so much fun to be out there making little toys. He said they made boats out of sticks and they were sailing them down the streets.

HEIMLICH: Others also were unsuspecting. That morning, crowds gathered on the beach to watch the unusually large waves. But by afternoon, that fascination turned to fear as the waves began to erode the beach and tear apart nearby buildings. One man, however, had known something was amiss for some time. Early that morning, Isaac Cline, a weatherman for the National Weather Service, had noticed strange ocean activity and a huge drop in barometric pressure. In Dr. Cline's follow-up report of the storm, he wrote that as the day wore on, he and his staff were overwhelmed by panicked residents.

MAN (Reading from report): Hundreds of people who could not reach us by telephone came to the Weather Bureau office seeking advice. The public was warned, over the telephone and verbally, that the wind would go by the east to the south, and that the worst was yet to come.

HEIMLICH: Throughout the afternoon, the rain and wind intensified and the water rose higher. In the McDonald home, as the family sat huddled, the water outside was rocking the house to and fro. Ms. MacDonald says at that point, her grandfather was handed an axe by his father and told to chop through the floor.

MACDONALD: The harder he chopped, the harder he cried. He said it wasn't just that he was going to die. He said, they were all going to die insane. He said this was madness. But of course, what happened was they cut through the floor, the water came up and settled the house down. It's probably what kept it from being taken off of its foundation.

HEIMLICH: Others tried to escape the rising water by going to higher stories or climbing into trees. But these efforts often proved futile. The highest point in the city was only eight feet high, and by early evening the tidal surge had reached 15 feet. Flying debris proved especially dangerous, as slate shingles from rooftops flew at people, cutting them down. It's hard to say just how fast the winds got. The instruments used to measure wind velocity were destroyed. But meteorologists estimate they were blowing at about 140 miles per hour. Ms. McDonald says her grandfather listened in fear to the sounds of people who had been flung into the raging water.

MACDONALD: And he said he would hear those sounds off in the distance, and then they'd be very faint, and then they would get louder and louder as people floated by, and then get soft again, he said. But most often those sounds would be abruptly cut off, and then he knew someone's life had ended.

(Surf and children)

HEIMLICH: When the storm was over at about midnight, the devastation it left behind was tremendous. About 3,600 buildings were destroyed. It's believed that at least 6,000 people, nearly a sixth of Galveston's population, died. Two thousand others perished on the mainland. The storm also proved financially devastating. Galveston would never again regain its prominent economic status. But while Linda MacDonald's family talked about the hurricane, many others did not. Galvestonian Mike Doherty, whose family also survived the storm, says he wasn't told much about it when he was growing up. He has many questions about the aftermath.

DOHERTY: You know, what was it like to live here afterwards? Where did they get food? Where did they get water? The railroad bridge was gone. Many cisterns, which was a supply of water, were gone. The water from the mainland was gone. You really wonder how these people even existed.

HEIMLICH: And despite the great losses, Mike Doherty says the city has never held a public memorial. Until now. Mr. Doherty heads the 1900 Storm Commemoration Committee, which is planning a series of events over the weekend of September eighth, including a memorial where a statue will be dedicated to those who died.

DOHERTY: We wanted to have a proper memorial service for these folks that perhaps was never held, other than little small clusters, I'm sure. We also wanted to educate the public and tell the story about the great recovery of Galveston.

HEIMLICH: That recovery began with trying to figure out how to dispose of the thousands of dead bodies. There were too many to be buried, so hundreds were sent out on barges to be buried at sea. But many soon washed back up on shore, so city officials decided to burn the corpses as quickly as possible. To get residents to carry out the grim task, authorities gave them free liquor and held some at gunpoint. Joe Kirpatrick was a newspaper reporter in Galveston for 40 years. He says he was particularly taken by the account of one storm survivor named Phillip Gordie Tipp .

KIRPATRICK: There was a pond, and Tipp wrote that after the storm they gathered near that pond and they burned bodies. They piled them high and they burned them and they burned them and they burned them. And in his letter, he said that he would never forget the smell of burning bodies in Galveston.

HEIMLICH: The city also tried to protect itself from future storms. In 1904 it erected a seawall that ran for three miles along the Gulf side. Later it was lengthened to ten miles. And what officials decided to do next amazes engineers to this day. They would raise the grade of the city. Eric Larson is the author of a recent book on the hurricane, called "Isaac's Storm."

LARSON: What this entailed was this tremendous, tremendous engineering effort. You know, we're talking here about raising a cathedral using 2,000 hand jacks, and then filling underneath with fill, with sand pumped from a canal.

HEIMLICH: When the project was completed in 1910, the land sloped down from about 17 feet high at the seawall to where it meets the bay on the other side. Many Galvestonians boast that the seawall and the grade raising have saved countless lives in storms that have hit since 1900. Fletcher Harris, whose family survived the storm, points to the next major one that came along in 1915, which killed 275 Texans, including 53 on Galveston Island.

HARRIS: At that time the seawall had never been proven or tested. But in 1915 there wasn't a life lost behind the seawall. Now, the historians will argue that, but the truth of it is that they couldn't document one person. Bodies were floating in from both ends, because the seawall stopped at Thirty-Ninth Street; it didn't go all the way where it goes now.

HEIMLICH: The attachment Galvestonians have to their city and the events of the storm was especially apparent last year, when Eric Larson's book Isaac's Storm came out. The book centers around Isaac Cline, the weatherman of 1900. In the book, Mr. Larson takes issue with Dr. Cline's claim to have saved thousands of people by warning them about the approaching storm. It's a portrayal that rubs many in the Galveston area the wrong way. Lew Fincher, a hurricane preparedness consultant north of Galveston, accuses the author of trying to make Dr. Cline look bad for money.

FINCHER: I think his angle was, well, how can I sell this book?

HEIMLICH: But Mr. Larson, who says he researched Dr. Cline's work thoroughly, says he anticipated such a response when he wrote the book.

LARSON: It's always, I think, a wrenching thing when you kind of take a closer look at a legend.

HEIMLICH: But there's one point on which both men agree. Too many people in Galveston seem to have forgotten about the destruction that took place in 1900. They point out that many large homes have been built on the western end of Galveston Island, where there's no seawall. Again, Lew Fincher.

FINCHER: When we have a hurricane, next time we have one, and we will have one, but when it happens you're going to see the destruction, possibly, just like what we're talking about today about the 1900 storm.

HEIMLICH: But those who feel personally touched by The Great Storm say they'll never forget what happened on September eighth, even if it was a century ago. Fletcher Harris says he owes remembering the past to his relatives who suffered through it.

HARRIS: I inherited something from those people that went through that storm. I inherited something that has driven me to excel and to do everything that can be done for Galveston and try to make it grow and everything else. That's what I'm feeling. I've felt that all my life.

HEIMLICH: For Living on Earth, I'm Janet Heimlich in Galveston, Texas.

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week, we look at a new home mortgage program that may help curb suburban sprawl. It offers financial incentives to live in the city and use public transportation.

MAN: It is one of the few policies that makes it very clear to people what the cost is that we really pay for being such an automobile-dependent society.

CURWOOD: The Location Efficient Mortgage next time on Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Stephanie Pindyck, Maggie Villiger, Jennifer Chu, and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, and Bree Horwitz, Thanks and a fond farewell this week to intern Jenna Perry. Alison Dean composed our theme. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor. Diane Toomey is our science editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; the Ford Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

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