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

June 6, 2003

Air Date: June 6, 2003


(stream/download) as an MP3 file


Ocean Distress / Ingrid Lobet

(stream / mp3)

Recent surveys and studies describe the impact of humans on the world's oceans. Some scientists, conservationists and the privately-funded Pew Oceans Commission are calling for a shift toward policy based on ocean ecosystem health. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports from Baja, California. (06:40)

U.S. Commission on Oceans

(stream / mp3)

The federal government is working on its own oceans report as mandated by Congress. Host Steve Curwood talks with Commissioner Andy Rosenberg about similarities between the government report and other marine studies released this spring. (04:30)

Environmental Health Note/Prenatal Smoke / Cynthia Graber

(stream / mp3)

Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports that pregnant women who smoke may be hurting their babies as much as if they used crack cocaine or heroin. (01:15)

Almanac/Piping Plovers

(stream / mp3)

This week, we have facts about piping plovers. This time of year these shore-dwelling birds are welcoming the next generation. (01:30)

Shareholders Unite

(stream / mp3)

Investors have been sponsoring measures to convince companies to be more open about greenhouse gas emissions and what the corporations are doing to reduce them. Doug Cogan, an analyst with the Investor Responsibility Research Center, explains the trend to host Steve Curwood. (07:00)

Gap in Nature / Tim Flannery

(stream / mp3)

As part of our occasional series “A Gap in Nature,” author Tim Flannery chronicles the rise and fall of a marsupial hunter called the thylacine. (04:00)


Gecko Tape

(stream / mp3)

Geckos are lizards with amazing stickiness, thanks to millions of tiny hairs that line their feet. Host Steve Curwood talks with Andre Geim, a scientist at the University of Manchester, who has modeled a dry adhesive tape on the gecko’s extraordinary ability. (03:00)

Emerging Science Note/Dragonfly Hide & Seek / Maggie Villiger

(stream / mp3)

Living on Earth’s Maggie Villiger reports on motion camouflage, pioneered by dragonflies to hide while they’re in flight. (01:15)

Fanning the Flames on the Forest Fire Debate / Guy Hand

(stream / mp3)

Last summer’s wildfires have triggered calls for massive forest thinning. A bill that would allow just that is now before Congress. But in speaking with fire ecologists, producer Guy Hand found few who believe large-scale thinning is either useful, or possible. (15:00)

This week's EarthEar selection
listen / download

Show Credits and Funders

This Week's Music

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Andy Rosenberg, Doug Cogan, Tim Flannery, Andre GeimREPORTERS: Ingrid Lobet, Guy HandNOTES: Cynthia Graber, Maggie Villiger


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

For years there have been warnings about the world’s declining fisheries, followed by closures and restrictions on catches. But the numbers continue to dwindle, sparking calls for new tactics.

MYERS: We have to fundamentally change the way we approach the oceans, simply to say: We are going to exploit the ocean such that we don’t drive any component extinct. And that is a very simple rule, and it’s not that hard to do.

CURWOOD: Protecting the marine ecosystem, this week on Living on Earth. Also, resolutions asking corporations to address climate change hit an all-time high at stockholder meetings.

COGAN: I think that there is growing recognition that this is a reputational issue that is developing with these companies, and to ignore it is to do so at their own peril.

CURWOOD: Those stories and more right after this.


ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and heritageafrica.com.

Back to top


Ocean Distress

CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Many people have their view of the ocean shaped by beach vacations and environmental campaigns that target individual marine species: whales, sea turtles, coral reefs. Now, a number of marine experts are looking at ocean health as a whole. A comprehensive Federal Oceans Commission report is due out this fall, and the privately funded Pew Oceans Commission has just released a report calling for a dramatic shift in the way oceans are managed. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports from Baja, California where a group of marine experts recently met to chart a course in global ocean repair.

LOBET: Many people opened newspapers recently to this news: that 90% percent of the large fish in the seemingly endless ocean are gone, fished out. Marine ecologist Ransom Myers spent three years buried in Japanese fishing records for the study, which was published in the journal Nature, but he still finds hope.

MYERS: We still have a hint of what existed in the ocean, and we have time now to save them. Where we can’t bring back the mastodons and the giant ground sloths, we have to preliminarily change the way we approach the ocean. It is simply to say: look, we are going to exploit the ocean such that we don’t drive any component extinct. And that is a very simple rule, and it is not that hard to do.

LOBET: That the ocean could be in distress may strain the imagination, yet a new report by the privately funded Pew Oceans Commission termed the seas “finite and fragile.” Vice Admiral Roger Rufe is one of the Pew Commission members and president of the Ocean Conservancy.

RUFE: The science and the evidence is clear and compelling that our oceans are in poor health.

LOBET: The Pew Commission calls for a new all-ocean federal agency that would absorb the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and be on a par with the Environmental Protection Agency.

RUFE: It would be an independent agency that operates as EPA does, and has a voice at the cabinet level and direct access to the president.

LOBET: The Pew Oceans Commission also recommends taking control over commercial fishing limits away from regional fishery councils. A new National Ocean Policy Act with conservation, not employment or profit, as its priority would guide how many fish to catch.

And there’s more. As larger fishing trawlers with pinpointing sonar and bottom-raking gear have moved deeper into the high seas, they have been free to go where the chase leads. That, too, would change.

RUFE: It is time to zone the oceans so that really destructive practices that are going on now would be forbidden in many of the areas of the ocean, unless the resource extractor could demonstrate that the activity was not going to be destructive to the ocean ecosystems.

LOBET: Besides zoning the ocean to limit fishing, oil and gas activity, Congress would make a network of marine protected areas, something akin to the national parks. But at the Baja, California meeting, the conservationists and scientists went still further, calling for a global network of no-take zones that would rope off significant reaches of ocean.

Callum Roberts is a marine biologist at England’s University of York.

ROBERTS: Scientific lines of evidence are converging on a recommendation to protect something like 30 percent of the world’s oceans from all fishing.

Martin Hall of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission shrugged off the sweeping plan to limit fishing.

HALL: The ideas that I don’t think are politically practical usually don’t scare you. I don’t see the world becoming less interested in fish protein. I don’t see that happening.

LOBET: Yet Hall believes the fishing industry does need new gear designed by young engineers with a concern for conservation.

Polls show many Americans still believe oil tanker spills are the worst hazard facing the sea, when, in fact, most ocean pollution comes from land, from fertilizer runoff, discharged sewage, and millions of gallons of leaked motor oil. But there may soon be a new public campaign about the sea from conservation groups. And its poster child may be a little-noticed map feature called sea mounts.

Undersea mountains turn out to be teeming with life that thrives nowhere else: corals, sponges, as well as less television-friendly creatures. Biologist Karen Stocks at the San Diego Supercomputer Center says more than a third of the life found on sea mounts is new to science.

STOCKS: And when you look at sea mounts separated by ridges of about a thousand kilometers, they share just four percent of their species. So not only do sea mounts as a whole support unique communities, each sea mount is potentially a pool of undiscovered species in the oceans.

LOBET: Stocks built a database of some 30,000 sea mounts worldwide. All of them have already been fished, but several conservation groups believe they could still be a good subject for a global campaign for marine protected areas on the high seas.

The world's smallest porpoise, the vaquita (Phocoena sinus),
is a critically endangered species restricted to
the upper Gulf of California. The vaquita is rarely seen.
(Photo: ©Conservation International/Alejandro Robles)


LOBET: A short distance away from where the conservationists and scientists met, a small Mexican fishing village was celebrating the Day of the Mariner, a tribute to lives spent and lives lost in the chase for marlin, swordfish and shark.


LOBET: Francisco Rosales, 63, has been fishing since he was 14 and he is one of the few here who can remember the giant gulf grouper when it was abundant. But he says you have to go really far to catch even little fish these days.


LOBET: Told about the nearby conference, he says they should have come years ago. He worries they are too late. But conservationists and some researchers are hopeful that a flood of new knowledge, and the ability to instantly map it and make it visual, gives the world a chance it has never had to grasp and perhaps protect the richness of the ocean.

For Living on Earth, I am Ingrid Lobet in southern Baja, California.

[MUSIC: Blur “There’s No Other Way” Leisure - Indent Series 1991]

Related links:
- Pew Oceans Commission
- Conservation International

Back to top


U.S. Commission on Oceans

CURWOOD: One person who is paying close attention to all these ocean studies is Andy Rosenberg. He is a member of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy that is preparing its own report, due this fall. Its mandate from the president is to make recommendations for a “coordinated and comprehensive national ocean policy.” Andy Rosenberg joins me now from KAZU in Pacific Grove, California.

Tell me, how do some of these Pew recommendations resonate with what the government’s Ocean Commission wants to do? For instance, what about establishing a federal oceans agency?

ROSENBERG: Well, we have talked about consolidation of some of the programs in federal agencies to try to actually put together what are often fragmented programs, and get not only federal agencies but also federal and state and local and tribal entities to work better together. Whether that means that you need to have an independent, separate oceans agency or whether you need to consolidate programs that are in an existing agency, I think, is still an open question for the U.S. Commission. We also have talked about a national ocean policy act in the same way that they are recommending. So again, we are covering similar ground and the input is very helpful.

CURWOOD: What about a national network of marine reserves?

ROSENBERG: The Pew Commission has focused quite intensely on marine reserves. And I actually work on marine reserves, as well, and feel that they are an extremely important part of the conservation puzzle, if you like, for the oceans.

The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy has considered marine reserves; tried to carefully define what the role of marine reserves is in conservation policy; make sure that they are science-based, that they are continually monitored; and that we make sure that we know what the goal is for establishing a particular reserve.

From my own experience, particularly in New England, I know that marine reserves or closed areas. There is sort of a continuum from marine reserves to ocean zoning that can be extremely effective tools. In fact, they have been fundamental in trying to deal with the long-term New England fisheries crisis which is showing signs of recovery now.

CURWOOD: How much sense does it make to zone the oceans? What about that idea?

ROSENBERG: Well, it is a very difficult concept politically for many people to accept, that the oceans are not sort of free and the last remaining Wild West. But we have to move in that direction. It is just not possible to say that people can do whatever they like, wherever they like. And, of course, we already have some kinds of zoning. Certainly, oil and gas leasing on the U.S. continental shelf is, in a sense, zoned. Some of the fishing activities are partially zoned. But we need to have a much more careful zoning policy. And I think that that is the way that policy will move, but it will be a very tough and, I suspect, quite a long political battle.

CURWOOD: What about, though, the Pew Commission’s call for a change in federal policy so that the people who are responsible for figuring out how many fish can be sustainably harvested, wouldn’t be the same folks who figure out who gets to catch them, and how.

ROSENBERG: In the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, our draft recommendations, we have a similar structure that we are proposing where the scientific decisions about the conservation limits are – in other words, what is the realistic limit within which policy should be set – that that is a scientific decision, and the people who take that decision are scientists, as opposed to having it debated as a political exercise.

Whereas, what you do within those limits – in other words who gets to fish, how much, and what the actual structure is – as long as you are staying within the limits, that is much more of a political decision to be decided by the various stakeholder groups, including commercial, recreational fisherman as well as public interest groups, and academics, and environmental groups, and so on.

CURWOOD: What are some of the other recommendations the Commission will make, do you think?

ROSENBERG: Well, the Commission is certainly focusing on data collection and information available from the ocean, how we fit those things together in a comprehensive way so that policymakers, scientists and the public can really have a sense of what is going on in our ocean. We don’t have such a system now; we need to create one.

We have also focused quite heavily on education and research more broadly. How are we going to produce the scientists of the future, the policymakers of the future, the businesspeople of the future that understand what is going on in the oceans?

So we have a very strong focus on the educational system, the research system, all the way from kindergarten up through university and graduate education. And that is a critical piece of making sure that we move in the direction of a better ocean policy; of viewing the oceans as a place that we care for, as opposed to a place we use.

CURWOOD: Andy Rosenberg is a former deputy director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, and is currently dean of the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture at the University of New Hampshire.

Thanks for taking this time with me today.

ROSENBERG: Thank you very much.

Related link:
U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy

Back to top


Environmental Health Note/Prenatal Smoke

CURWOOD: Coming up: global warming ignites concern among shareholders of major corporations.

First, this Environmental Health Note from Cynthia Graber.


GRABER: A new study shows that mothers who smoke during pregnancy may be hurting their newborn babies much in the same manner as mothers who use crack cocaine or heroin.

The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, tested almost 60 babies born to moms in similar socioeconomic groups. Women did not drink or use illegal drugs during pregnancy, and the babies had no medical problems. But half the mothers were smokers, and researchers found that the babies born to the smoking mothers exhibited signs of being more excitable and more tense, required more handling and care, and showed greater stress than those born to the nonsmoking mothers. The more cigarettes the women smoked per day, the stronger these symptoms in their babies.

According to researchers, these symptoms mean the babies are experiencing nicotine withdrawal, similar to babies born to drug addicts. Researchers point out that 18 percent of all pregnant women in the United States smoke, while only three to five percent use cocaine. And scientists say cocaine use by pregnant women remains a significant concern, while smoking is largely tolerated by society.

Researchers say the next step is to determine whether nicotine causes lasting neurological harm to developing infants.

That’s this week’s Health Note. I’m Cynthia Graber.

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

[MUSIC: Jimmy Smith “Theme from Joy House”The Cat - Verve (1964)]

Back to top


Almanac/Piping Plovers

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

[BEACH SOUNDS] & [MUSIC: Michael Hedges “Ragamuffin” Aerial Boundaries - Windam Hill (1984)]

A newborn piping plover chick (Photo: ©Richard Kuzminski)   

CURWOOD: Ah yes. You’re on a beach inhaling salty air and warming yourself in the spring sun. You hear peeping, but don’t see anything.


CURWOOD: Suddenly, a six-inch patch of sand darts forward, and just as suddenly, it stops. If your eyes are quick you’ll spot a piping plover. These shore birds are busy chasing after their young this time of year. Piping plovers breed on the Northern Atlantic seashores and beaches of prairie lakes. In a nest that’s no more than a depression in the sand, really, the female lays two to four eggs. Throughout a month of incubation, the parents do a changing of the guard to give each other breaks.

When the eggs finally crack, little puffballs on sticks emerge. Piping plover chicks can take care of themselves almost immediately. They’re up and running within a few hours of the hatch. Throughout their lives, camouflaging helps piping plovers blend into the sand. But because they are hard to see, the birds and their eggs are easily crushed. This, paired with habitat loss, put piping plovers on the endangered species list in 1986. Protection under the law gives this little bird a lot of clout. One nesting pair caused the relocation of Nantucket Island’s July Fourth fireworks last year.

(Photo: John Maclaine ©2002)

And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.

Related link:
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Svc. Piping Plover website

Back to top


Shareholders Unite

NAPPIER: Climate change may well be about our planet’s future, but it is also about the financial risks to corporations and the impact on the retirement savings of millions of Americans.

CURWOOD: That’s Denise Nappier, treasurer for the State of Connecticut, testifying before Congress about why global warming poses a threat to the $18 billion dollar pension fund she’s responsible for. Ms. Nappier is not alone. Investors are increasingly using shareholder resolutions at annual meetings to convince corporations to be more open about their greenhouse gas emissions and explain how they plan to reduce them. Doug Cogan is the climate change specialist with the Washington, D.C. based Investor Responsibility Research Center. He says this rise in investor interest in global warming is in part motivated by President Bush’s inaction on the issue.

COGAN: In a strange way, I think the fact that the Bush administration has decided to pull back from the Kyoto Protocol raises the question: well, what will we do then as a nation, and what will our corporations do to control emissions? And are there risks that these companies face financially as they look forward, if we are going to be charting a different path than much of the rest of the world in terms of addressing climate change? So, they would like to see more statements from management with respect to how they intend to address the issue, and fundamentally, what kind of risk shareholders have as they make efforts to control their emissions.

CURWOOD: Doug, could you please give me some examples of some of the most striking shareholder resolutions about climate change that you’ve seen this year?

COGAN: The one that stands out is at Chevron-Texaco, which had a resolution on providing more renewable energy. That resolution got 32 percent support in the annual meeting that just took place a few weeks ago. Now to give you some context for that, no-- well, I take that back-- one social issues resolution in the 32 year history of the movement has gotten a 50 percent support level. Very rarely do we see votes that break into the 30s or frankly, even the 20 percentiles. But with the case of Chevron-Texaco and the 32 percent vote, it is the second highest vote ever on an energy-related proposal, and certainly the highest vote at a company of that size.

Similarly, at Exxon-Mobil, a resolution there encouraging that company to do more with renewables got 21 percent support. There also, with respect to electric utilities, have been three very high votes. The average support level at those three companies was about 25 percent support. And really, you only need maybe eight or ten percent support on a resolution like this to get the attention of management.

CURWOOD: Now just a few years ago, the climate change resolutions got an average of what-- six, seven, eight, nine percent? Why the sudden jump?

COGAN: The number of resolutions filed in the last couple of years really grew. It doubled in 2002 to over 20 resolutions that were filed, and in the 2003 proxy season we had over 30 resolutions filed. That number of resolutions coming forward and appearing on a proxy ballot leads these institutions to say, “Gee, this is not a subject that appears to be going away. We’re voting and we’re seeing it coming at more and more companies in our portfolios. Let’s put a policy in place.”

So I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that the number of resolutions has really increased, and the filers are not just individuals anymore or small religious investors. There are some large sponsors of these resolutions, as well, including the State of Connecticut, which has $17 billion dollars in assets to back its activities.

CURWOOD: This is their pension fund?

COGAN: Yes. Teachers, firemen, state employees in Connecticut.

CURWOOD: What’s getting the attention of these pension fund managers? What’s motivating them?

COGAN: I think the concern is that the climate change issue is not going away. We’ve had in the last 15 years, 10 of those 15 years have been the warmest on record. 2002 was the second warmest on record. So the evidence of global warming is accumulating, so that’s putting the issue on the radar screen. The synergy here is between the length of time it will take to address this issue and the concerns that environmental problems that may develop over time, and the long term nature of the investment holdings of these institutions. These are really the ones that have to be looking long over the horizon to see what’s coming down the pike, and there’s very alarming trends and concerns about climate change that they feel they have a fiduciary duty to address.

CURWOOD: Now even if one of these resolutions gets the majority of shareholder votes, it doesn’t necessarily mean there will be action. These aren’t legally binding. So how do corporations react to these shareholder votes?

COGAN: Well, you raise an important point. These are, in legal terms, called precatory proposals, which means they are not binding on management, and management has every opportunity to ignore these proposals if they wish. And on a number of corporate governance issues, dealing with executive compensation or annual election of directors, a number of governance issues, those issues are now routinely getting a majority vote and are being ignored by management.

However, on the social issues side, I think that there is growing recognition that this is a reputational issue that is developing with these companies, and to ignore it is to do so at their own peril. And in response to that, I think you will see, and in fact, we have seen in some instances, companies that have been more forthcoming with disclosure information, elaborating on their climate change policy statements and environmental reports that they issue for shareholders, and there has been an ongoing dialogue that occurs between shareholders and environmental groups that may be working with the shareholders and management of these companies to help move the process forward and to develop more progressive policies on climate change.

CURWOOD: Doug Cogan is deputy director of the Social Issues Service for the Investor Responsibility Research Center in Washington. He recently testified at a Congressional hearing on President Bush’s Clear Skies proposal. Thanks for taking this time.

COGAN: It’s been a pleasure, Steve.

[MUSIC: Junior Communist Club “Ultrabollywood” Freedom of Speed Sugar Free (1999)]

Back to top


Gap in Nature

CURWOOD: These days, we don’t think of marsupials, such as kangaroos and koala bears, as predators. But hunters did once exist among the marsupials, and the largest of these animals to have survived into modern times was the Thylacine. As part of our continuing series, “A Gap in Nature,” author Tim Flannery chronicles the rise and fall of this rather strange creature from down under.

(Illustration: Peter Schouten)   

FLANNERY: About the size and shape of a German shepherd, with a tiger-striped back and hindquarters, the Thylacine is a striking animal. By the time Europeans encountered it in the nineteenth century, its line was limited to the Australian island of Tasmania-- hence its nickname, the Tasmanian tiger or Tasmanian wolf. Thylacines often built their dens among rocks, and the young stayed with their mothers until they were almost fully grown. They hunted alone, in pairs, and in family groups, pursuing wallabies and other animals by scent. They either ambushed their prey or ran them into exhaustion.

In either case, the Thylacine dispatched its victim by crushing its skull in jaws that could open remarkably wide. As for those who hunted the Thylacine, Aborigines occasionally pursued them, but seem to have held them in respect. They built a curious shelter over the Thylacines’ bones, in the belief that if they were rained upon, bad weather was certain to follow. But it was European settlers who relentlessly persecuted the Thylacine into extinction, since sheep farmers saw them as a threat. So a bounty was paid on Thylacine scalps. As live animals became increasingly rare, dead ones commanded ever higher prices.

In a move that was far too little, too late, the species was finally protected by the Australian government in 1936, the year that the last known living individual died. That animal was a large female Thylacine kept in the Tasmanian Zoo. When personnel problems developed there, the zoo animals were neglected. As one witness put it, the last Thylacine was left exposed by staying out in an open, wire-topped cage with no access to a sheltered den. In September that year, daytime temperatures soared above 100 degrees, while at night they plummeted to below freezing. On September seventh, the stress became too much for the last Thylacine, and unattended by her keepers, she closed her eyes on the world for the last time.

However, it’s possible that a few wild individuals roamed the island for a decade or two after this, for there were a few credible sightings into at least the 1940s. One old hunter said that he found a female and three cubs in an area that was later flooded to create a hydroelectric power plant. When pressed on whether he felt they killed the Thylacine, the hunter dodged the issue, but it’s thought they probably did. Now all hope is lost, for although many expensive searches have been made, no Thylacine sightings have been authenticated for many years. Some hope to recreate the Thylacine from DNA taken from museum specimens. But given our knowledge of molecular biology, this is just a pipe dream.

CURWOOD: Tim Flannery is author of “A Gap in Nature: Discovering the World’s Extinct Animals.” To see pictures of the last Thylacine and to hear other segments in our series go to our website, livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org.

Related link:
Living on Earth’s Gap in Nature series

Back to top


CURWOOD: I grew up thinking that an Impala is a kind of automobile, so perhaps you can understand my amusement when I first saw or heard of impala in the African bush. The stylized, chrome-plated leaping impala that graces the Chevy I remember can’t begin to tell the story of this shy, rather magnificent animal.

Impala can leap all right, but what’s most impressive is how an entire herd can move in unison, like a school of fish. When on the move, the impala herd ripples as one exquisitely dynamic textured body. And these animals don’t run, but rather, they seem to float above the ground. They also are somehow exciting at rest. Stock still, their eyes look like blades of large grass. So at a distance, a closely packed herd would be hard to discern from the surrounding bush. And they are small compared to the greater ungulates that populate the Savannah such as the kudu.

Usually, when Detroit marketeers take the name of an animal, they go for power or danger. The “Mustang,” the “Cobra,” the “Viper.” But the innocent impala? Well, it’s as if Mercury decided against the “Cougar” and called their car the “Kitty-Cat” instead.

You, too, can come to the African Savannah and risk becoming captivated by the impala or the other creatures that make it one of the best places in the world to see wildlife at home, if you win a trip for two on The Ultimate African Safari. Thanks to Heritage Africa, Living on Earth is offering a chance for you to have this adventure. And to find out how, go to our website: livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org for the trip of a lifetime.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from The World Media Foundation. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for coverage of Western issues. Support also comes from NPR member stations and Bob Williams and Meg Colwell, honoring NPR’s coverage of environmental and natural resource issues, and in support of the NPR President’s Council, and Paul and Marcia Ginsberg in support of excellence in public radio.

Back to top


Gecko Tape

CURWOOD: Geckos are lizards with the astounding ability to stick to any surface. They can cling to a glass ceiling with just a single toe. Now, scientists have modeled a new tape on the gecko and produced an amazingly adhesive product. André Geim heads the project at the University of Manchester. Professor Geim, what makes the gecko so sticky?

GEIM: Their toes are covered by millions and millions of very small hairs. Each hair produces a very small, minute force, but when all those forces from millions of hairs has added up, then you get a very large stickiness, a formidable force.

   Gecko upside down on a glass window (Photo: Professor Andre Geim)

CURWOOD: Tell me exactly how you recreated in your laboratory the gecko’s ability to stick to walls.

GEIM: Well, initially, after actually a few weeks, we make the sort of hairs on a rock-solid substrate, they didn’t stick at all. So we had to spend a couple of years to learn how to put the tape on a flexible substrate, so to force all billions of hairs we have on our tape to work in unison, collectively. The problem is that any surface, however you believe it’s smooth, it has bumps, it has dust on the surface. Therefore, not only hairs of geckos are flexible; also their fingers, toes are flexible to attach to the whole surface at the same time.

CURWOOD: When you think in the year ahead of the gecko tape being used, how do you fantasize it might be used?

GEIM: For the moment, all possibilities are open. You can imagine even gecko gloves for rock climbers or window cleaners. But we have to see what would be the final material, what would be its characteristics, its cost before deciding about any particular application.

CURWOOD: So if I wanted to be Spiderman, how well would your tape work for me?

GEIM: For the Spiderman, it’s probably a bad reference, because Spiderman, he’s supposedly using mechanism which is based on spiders-- tackiness. This mechanism, I believe, is not scalable. You can stick only small insects using this mechanism; while geckos use a completely different mechanism. And it’s our contribution to this area that we have shown that Geckoman is a possibility. It’s no longer science fiction, unlike the Spiderman, which probably remains forever in comics and in Hollywood.

CURWOOD: André Geim is a professor of condensed matter physics at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. Thanks for explaining your research to us.
GEIM: Okay. Thank you very much.

[MUSIC: Stevie Ray Vaughan “Voodoo Chili” Couldn’t Stand the Weather - Epic (1984)]

Back to top


Emerging Science Note/Dragonfly Hide & Seek

CURWOOD: Coming up: why forest fires, even big ones, may be for the good. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Maggie Villiger:


VILLIGER: Most animals can hide pretty well if they’re standing still. But a new study shows that dragonflies can hide even while they’re flying. Researchers found this out by setting up two cameras at places where dragonflies do battle with each other so they could reconstruct in a lab how the dragonflies interacted in three dimensions. They found that 40 percent of the interactions involved a technique called motion camouflage. Here’s how it works.

Insects are good at picking out movement in the environment when something changes its position against the background. But when a predator is using motion camouflage, he moves in a way that makes him appear to be stationary. Imagine one straight line that connects a prey dragonfly, a predator dragonfly, and a fixed object like a tree far off to their right. As long as the predator mimics the motions of the moving prey and stays in line with the tree, he appears stationary too, even though he could be moving closer and closer to his prey along that line. But dragonflies don’t need to base their motion camouflage maneuvers on real fixed objects, like the tree in this example. They seem able to calculate how a stationary object could appear to the prey. The researchers imagine adapting dragonfly motion camouflage for use in unmanned aerial vehicles. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Maggie Villiger.

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

[MUSIC: Michael Hedges “After the Gold Rush” Aerial Boundaries - Windham Hill (1984)]

Back to top


Fanning the Flames on the Forest Fire Debate

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Last summer, after flying over the Biscuit fire, Oregon’s largest wildfire in over 100 years, President Bush told the crowd that catastrophic, unnatural fires were destroying America’s forests. As huge fires burned in Colorado and Arizona, the president seemed to have a point. His solution, called the Healthy Forests Initiative, promises to thin federal forests aggressively and remove the timber that can help fires spread. But many scientists say wildfires are part of nature’s way and do not permanently scar the landscape.

As the 2003 fire season begins, producer Guy Hand, of Radio High Country News, wanders into the woods for a closer look at the nature of big fire.

INSTRUCTOR: All right, keep your hands on your head.

HAND: In the foothills near Boise, Idaho, instructors are training a new batch of smoke jumpers, those firefighters who parachute into the mountains, working to put out wildfires before they get big.

Smoke jumper trainees practice for their first jump near Boise, Idaho.
(Photo: Guy Hand)

INSTRUCTOR: What do you want to be?

TRAINEES [IN UNISON]: Smoke jumpers!

INSTRUCTOR: What do you want to be?

TRAINEES [IN UNISON]: Smoke jumpers!

INSTRUCTOR: All right!

HAND: Feet dangling from a 34-foot high training tower, Lisa Allen is suited up for her first practice jump.

INSTRUCTOR: Now, one jumper. Are you ready?

ALLEN: I’m ready.


ALLEN: I’m psyched.


HAND: The training tower looks like the inside of a jump plane. Instructors are trying to make the experience as real as possible.

INSTRUCTOR: You’ve got about 200 yards drift. Watch out for the rocks and jump spot. Jump spot elevation is 4,000 feet. We’re flying standard pattern, into the wind. Get ready.

HAND: The instructor slaps Lisa on the back and she leaps into the air, arms raised over her head, yelling out procedures as she slides down the long cable she’s hooked to.



HAND: Smoke jumpers help to make wildland firefighting incredibly efficient. Last summer crews put out 99 percent of all the wildfires in America, but it’s a costly annual effort.

ALLEN: I could not get my head down.

HAND: In the 2002 fire season, expenses shot to nearly $2 billion dollars. The Forest Service had to steal a billion dollars of that from its other programs. On the summer’s busiest single day, 28,000 people, 1,200 fire engines, 188 helicopters, 30 air tankers and an Army battalion were battling wildfires. It comes very close, in dollars and devotion, to all-out war. Smoke jumper Allen is proud to be a part of the fight.

ALLEN: I love wildlife firefighting. There’s a thrill to it. There’s a sense of accomplishment.

HAND: There’s also a sense of urgency. You can hear it in the nightly news.

PETER JENNINGS: In Colorado tonight, a growing army of firefighters remains on the lines between the state’s worst ever wildfire and the southern suburbs of Denver.

HAND: That one percent of wildfires that get away seem to be burning more acres, more intensely than ever before. Last year, over seven million acres burned on federal land, prompting President Bush to announce his Healthy Forests Initiative.

FEMALE COMMENTATOR: …the fire near Yakima, Washington. It exploded from just a few acres to thousands in a matter of hours.

HAND: The Bush administration says fires are burning far beyond the bounds of nature. It blames decades of fire suppression for unhealthy forests, forests now choked with combustible fuel. To make the woods grow again, those fuels have to be removed, not only around communities, but some say, deep into the backcountry, as well.

MALE COMMENTATOR: The moisture content is five percent or lower. That is so dry that it just reacts with fire-- it almost explodes.

HAND: President Bush says the work has to be done quickly. That’s why the Healthy Forests Initiative emphasizes cutting not only trees, but what it calls excessive environmental analysis and public involvement.


BUSH: People are beginning to get the message. And Americans who have no idea what good forest policy means are beginning to see the fires on TV-- it’s a sad way for people to learn.

HAND: But after the smoke clears and the media moves on, many scientists see a far different picture. They say these large fires are seldom catastrophic or unnatural. In the backcountry where communities aren’t threatened, big fire is often beneficial. Fire scientists worry that politicians and reporters are missing an important ecological point.

VAP: You see the pictures on TV, the flames just totally out of control, and everything being consumed.

HAND: Sue Vap is the fire director for the National Park Service.

VAP: But everything really wasn’t consumed. You do have remnants of the trees left. In a lot of cases wildlife can make good use of those. It doesn’t become a sterile landscape; it becomes a changed landscape.

HAND: Tom Zimmerman, Fire Science Ecology Program leader for the National Park Service:

ZIMMERMAN: Our view of what we’ve interpreted as being catastrophic is a little different than what the media’s been presenting as catastrophic. And I think what we see, from my standpoint, is that many of these fires may be large, but aren’t what we would term as catastrophic in the sense that they’re not causing severe damage, threatening life and property on a large scale area. They just happen to be large fires.

HAND: Places like Yellowstone, a park that some declared destroyed after the immense fires of 1988, now show remarkable recovery. Fire can restore watersheds, recycle nutrients, and more. Even the Oregon fires President Bush used as a backdrop for his speech on the Healthy Forests Initiative did not burn unnaturally, according to scientists. Here in Idaho, biologist Tim Burton found similar results while studying the effects of big fire on the state’s forest fisheries.

BURTON: When we looked at high severity, burning that is enough to actually kill the trees, we found that only a fairly small percentage of the forest actually burned at this high severity. Tended to be in very small patches.

Lowman, Idaho in the aftermath of one of the biggest ponderosa pine fires in local history. (Photo: Guy Hand)   

HAND: Burton found that most trees weren’t affected at all by big fire. A few looked devastated, their sheltering vegetation burned away, their channels choked with sediment.

BURTON: We couldn’t find fish in some of these streams anymore. They were gone. But the streams were still connected to downstream rivers, where there were colonizers that came back, and as a habitat restored itself the numbers of fish that we observed seemed to restore themselves.

HAND: Burton says his findings are mirrored by other studies. Scientists who look at birds, plants and other facets of fire-affected ecosystems are seeing that species can recover and even flourish after so-called catastrophic fire.

BURTON: After as few as five years, we saw many or even more fish in those streams than we had seen prior to the flood events.

HAND: But the beneficence of big fire is hard for Westerners to swallow. That’s why we like what science has said about the lowland Ponderosa pine forest. The theory goes that small, frequent fires once burned there. Flames quietly crawled along the forest floor, cleaning away debris like well-mannered housekeepers, leaving large trees alive, if lightly toasted. Then we came along. A century of logging and fire suppression later, Ponderosa pine habitat is a thicket of flammable fuel, turning good fire to bad. The Bush administration has seized on this theory, reasoning that American society created the era of big fire and therefore, has the power and the duty to stop it. With aggressive thinning, we can return the forest to its once peaceable affiliation with fire. We can, in other words, have our forest and fire too.

PIERCE: Well, I’ll try to keep it simple.

HAND: Yet as much as 60 percent of Western woodlands doesn’t fit the quiet fire, ponderosa pine model. Forests at higher altitude or in cooler, wetter parts of the West don’t burn nearly as often. Fuels build up over decades or centuries. When those overgrown forests light up, they explode. And, they do it naturally.

PIERCE: Okay. To someone who’s not been doing this, this may all just seem like a pile of dirt.

   Geologist Jennifer Pierce looking for evidence of ancient wildfires beneath the charred remnants of a recent one. (Photo: Guy Hand)

HAND: Jennifer Pierce has just climbed a steep slope to Ponderosa pine in the Boise National Forest, the kind of forest that policy-makers say should burn quietly. But she’s found evidence to the contrary.

PIERCE: You can see this large piece of charcoal right there. And if you follow this along, you can see that this is all the same surface.


HAND: She points to a sooty black line, a few centimeters thick, in a newly eroded gully.

PIERCE: So this is a burned buried soil surface preserved in this alluvial fan, and the age of this particular surface is 930 radiocarbon years before present.

HAND: Pierce, a third generation geologist, chips away at the cut. She believes this black line is the remains of a very large fire that burned through here some 850 years ago. She knows it was large because a thick layer of flood debris rests on top of it. Debris piled up after an intense fire because dead trees can no longer hold the soil in place. Such evidence, collected over a wide area, suggests that Ponderosa pine forests have seen big fire before.

PIERCE: Well, a lot of, basically, propaganda out there says that catastrophic fires are not natural. For example, the 1910 fires in Idaho, those were very large fires, many of those in Ponderosa pine forests. And those happened before any effective fire suppressions.

HAND: She thinks our notion of what is natural is skewed because we’ve been gathering data during a relatively cool time in forest history.

PIERCE: There are lots of reasons why we would like to think that frequent low intensity fires are the normal. I mean, those are non-threatening fires. They wouldn’t harm people or structures. And thinning the forests also provides economic resource for logging companies, etcetera.

MALE: Good morning, Idaho County.

CROWD: [Cheers.]

HAND: Idaho County was only a few forested hours north of Pierce’s research site, but here, the need for jobs trumps fire science. That’s why a crowd is gathered in the small town of Grangeville to hear U.S. Senator Larry Craig and others build support for the Healthy Forests Initiative. The bill promises timber jobs by promoting the notion of human caused catastrophic wildfires.

FRY: I’m here to support the forest industry and try to get some timber cut before it all burns up.

MAN: The only way we’re going to reduce the fire danger is by thinning the forests.

DENNIS COX: You can’t just let it lay out there and destroy itself. It’s a farm. If you farm it right, they’ll always be there.

HAND: Do you agree with that?

JANET COX: Oh, absolutely. I’ll say earth first. We’ll log the other planets later.

HAND: Grangeville, and nearby Elk City, are the kind of timber towns where the air is filled with the scent of pine, but the storefronts are half empty. Senator Craig, a staunch supporter of the timber industry, knows this territory well. In the elementary school gym, he begins his talk with the threat of big fire.

Supporters of the Healthy Forest Initiative rally in Grangeville, Idaho.
(Photo: Guy Hand)

CRAIG: Many of us have forgotten that the greatest fire ever recorded in history on public lands and U.S. Forest Service lands started near Elk city. A similar scenario is beginning to build. If the right circumstances come to pass, and if man is not allowed to intercede, we could, tragically enough, see the perfect storm of fire begin again.

HAND: Senator Craig tells the crowd that environmental laws must be streamlined to avoid this perfect storm of fire. Congressman Butch Otter adds that loggers have to get deep into the backcountry, thinning overcrowded forests. But the local forest they’re talking about is lodgepole pine, the very type given to explosive fire.

CRAIG: Last year we lost about 7.6 million acres to wildfires.

HAND: In fact, experts say that thinning forest on a large scale isn’t even possible. Much of the land is inaccessible, or so steep that roads required to bring thinning crews in would do more harm than good. In most remote areas, millions of acres would have to be pruned. That could take 100 years and billions of dollars.

MAN IN THE CROWD: Let’s log Gold Mallard this afternoon.

HAND: The seeming disconnect between fire science and fire policy frustrates Mike Peterson, one of the few environmental activists at the meeting.

PETERSON: What Larry Craig, I think, is doing is just stirring this politics of fear. He’s getting communities such as Grangeville and Elk City worried that the 1910 fire is going to repeat itself and come raging down into their town, when we know-- the scientists know -- exactly what to do to protect communities and homes. And so he’s just playing on that fear, I believe, just to get the chain saws back revving on the national forests.

HAND: Fear and wildfire have tangled together for all of human history. After all, images of hell, with its fire and brimstone aren’t unlike the images of flaming forests that flick across the nightly news. Fire burns, and for a very long time we’ve seen that as an evil come to destroy our national forests. Our public policy, our firefighting machine, were built to battle that evil, to drive it from the woods. But after 100 years and billions on billions of dollars, we’ve realized we couldn’t. And now some say we shouldn’t. Of course we have to protect homes and human lives. But in the backcountry, science tells us our view of wildfire must evolve. It says that forest health requires a little hell. Fire cleans out disease, it carves out fresh habitat, it carries new seed on hot wind. It suggests that nature itself is neither heaven nor hell, but a complex mix of both. And we better get used to it. Fire and forest are one and the same.

For Living on Earth, I’m Guy Hand in Grangeville, Idaho.

MALE: I appreciate everyone coming out, and for your interest and your support. So we hope that you’ll continue and that this won't end when you go home today but we’ll see this through till our forests are once again opened, our roads are opened, and we have healthy forests again. Thank you for coming out.

[MUSIC: Lynn Patrick “Pacific” Winnie’s Guitar - BMI (1998)]

Back to top


CURWOOD: And for this week, that’s Living on Earth. Next week, take seven scientists and seven photographers and send them to the most remote parts of the planet, and you wind up with 1,000 words for each one of the 490 exquisite photos in a new book that’s described as a coffee table technical report.

FEMALE: I just happen to think that it’s one of our most important conservation tools, because people have a very intense emotional connection to these images. If you present them only with the scientific information, you tend to bore them very quickly. But it’s very hard to ignore how beautiful and compelling the images are.

CURWOOD: It’s “Wilderness: Earth’s Last Wild Places,” next time on Living on Earth. And remember that between now and then you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to livingonearth.org. And while you’re there you can also get a chance to win a safari for two to Africa. That’s livingonearth.org.

We leave you this week with sonic variations on a bird song.

[EarthEar/Bernard Fort “Etude Sous la Pluie” Compositions Ornithologiques EarthEar]

CURWOOD: Bernard Fort recorded a lone wood thrush in the Canadian woods near Quebec and employed some studio wizardry to create this composition he calls “Etude Sous La Pluie.”

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by The World Media Foundation, in cooperation with Harvard University. You can find us at livingonearth.org. Our staff includes Jennifer Chu, Tom Simon, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson and Liz Lempert. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. And we bid a fond farewell to Maggie Villiger and Jessica Penny. Thanks for all your hard work. It just won’t be the same without you.

Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar.

CURWOOD: Al Avery is our technical director. Ingrid Lobet heads our western bureau. 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.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from The National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science, and The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth Network, Living on Earth's expanded Internet service.

Support also comes from NPR member stations and The Annenberg Foundation, and Tom's of Maine, maker of natural care products and creator of the Rivers Awareness Program to preserve the nation's waterways. Information at participating stores or tomsofmaine.com.

ANNOUNCER 2: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


This Week's Music


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

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

Newsletter [Click here]

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

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

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

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

Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.

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

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth