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

May 6, 2011

Air Date: May 6, 2011



Arctic Melting Speeds Up Rising Sea Levels

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Increasing temperatures are melting Arctic ice faster than scientists previously thought which could lead to twice as much sea level rise by the end of the century. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with climate scientist Bob Corell about how the North Pole's ice is quickly slipping into the sea. (05:30)

Floods, Tornadoes and Climate Change

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In April the Mississippi River experienced its worst flooding since 1927 and the Southeast had a record number of severe tornadoes. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with meteorologist Jeff Masters about how a changing climate factors into the recent rash of extreme weather events. (06:30)

Tornado Recovery As a Pathway to Sustainability

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In 2007 a massive tornado tore a path of destruction through the small town of Greensburg, Kansas. Four years later the town has been rebuilt using green technology and building practices. Bruce Gellerman talks with Mayor Bob Dixson about how Greenburg re-invented itself as a sustainable city. (Photo: Alec Soth, Dwell Magazine) (06:00)

Re-engineering the Mississippi River to Reduce Floods and Bring Back Big Fish

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The record floods and the levee breach designed to protect a town have “Four Fish” author Paul Greenberg thinking we might want to reconsider our engineering of the mighty Mississippi. (02:55)

GMO Hay Threatens Organic Dairy Farmers? / Jessica Ilyse Kurn

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A protracted legal battle has surrounded the release of Monsanto’s genetically engineered alfalfa for the past five years. The U.S. Department of Agricuture recently gave farmers the go-ahead to plant the seeds, which worries some organic farmers who also grow alfalfa. Living on Earth’s Jessica Ilyse Smith reports on a new lawsuit filed against the makers of the seed. (07:50)

BirdNote®: Frank Bellrose and the Wood Ducks / Mary McCann

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Sometimes all you need is the dedication of a few individuals to help protect a species and reverse its decline. As BirdNote®’s Mary McCann discovered, that was the case with a man named Frank Bellrose and the wood ducks he so loved. (Photo: Tom Grey ©) (01:45)

Science Note: Fighting Fires With Electricity / Wynn Tucker

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Researchers have found that electricity can effectively extinguish flames. Living on Earth’s Wynn Tucker reports for this week's Science Note. (01:30)

Collecting Seeds From Historical Trees

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Richard Horan set himself on an unusual mission: to travel the United States to collect seeds from trees in the yards of famous people in our nation’s history. His quest took him to find trees that gave Elvis shade at Graceland to Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home in Kentucky. Author Richard Horan talks with Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood about his new book, ““Seeds, One Man’s Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees that Inspired Famous American Writers.” (08:00)

Computer Game based on Climate Models

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The Fate of the World is a new computer game that forces players to deal with the world’s biggest problems, including over-population, rising seas and scarce resources. Users quickly learn there are no easy answers to meet our global challenges. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks with game designer Ian Roberts about how playing computer games can teach us how to solve real-life problems. (07:25)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Robert Corell, Jeff Masters, Bob Dixson, Ian Roberts, Richard Horan
REPORTERS: Paul Greenberg, Jessica Ilyse Smith, Mary McCann, Wynn Tucker, Steve Curwood

Living on Earth


GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Temperatures are rising and Arctic ice is melting far faster than anyone expected, raising fears that megatons of climate-changing methane could be released.

CORELL: The Russians say that there's at least that amount of methane in there equal to all the energy we've consumed since 1850. And we're getting close to the point where some of that methane is going to start to come out. Once it starts coming out, it's not stoppable.

GELLERMAN: Coming up - climate change on the fast track. Also, a new computer game puts the fate of the world in your hands.

ROBERTS: Our notion is that the world, knowing about climate change, has done nothing to respond. So the situation that the player begins with is hopefully worse than what will actually happen in 2020, but they’ve got a lot of work to do to try and match the problem.

GELLERMAN: These stories and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around!

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.


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Arctic Melting Speeds Up Rising Sea Levels

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Coming up - wild weather in the U.S. But first a warning about global warming from Greenland. Scientists say if you want to see the first signs of climate change, just go to Greenland. Greenland is the canary in the coalmine. As we burn coal and fossil fuels, the greenhouse gases they emit envelop the planet and trap heat in the atmosphere.

It’s in the Arctic region, especially Greenland, where the effects of global warming are greatest. The vast, frozen island is defrosting fast - much faster than scientists ever anticipated. According to a new report by the Arctic Council - a group of eight nations, including the U.S., that border the Arctic region - the past six years are the warmest ever recorded. And it’s getting warmer.
Back in 2004, Robert Corell was chairman of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. It was also produced by the Arctic Council and was the basis for this new report.

CORELL: The temperatures are rising exponentially and that's what's troublesome because we can’t do this forever - because pretty soon, we are likely to see an ice-free Arctic Ocean for some time in the summer, maybe as soon as ten or twenty years from now. And, you know, that has not been ice-free - I mean, we have facts about it…it has not been ice-free for a million years, and it’s more likely not having been ice-free for three million years. So it’s a new ballgame.

GELLERMAN: So why is the warming accelerating? What’s going on here?

CORELL: Well the Arctic is kind of a bellwether. It behaves more aggressively in terms of responding to this warming than the rest of the planet. Let me give you an example: if you melt the Arctic Ocean - ice, which of course we’ve lost over 40 percent of it now in the summertime - before, that Arctic Ocean looked like a mirror so that when the sun’s rays came in, they just bounced around and went back. But when the water is there, it looks black to the sun and sits there and absorbs that energy.

GELLERMAN: Oh, so the - yeah, so it’s like a solar cell, it kind of absorbs.

CORELL: Yeah, exactly. And so it’s sitting there, sucking all this energy and keeping it. And of course the ocean can only keep so much of it - it puts some of it back into the atmosphere. So we get this accelerating effect. And the other thing is: buried in the Arctic is a huge amount of methane.

GELLERMAN: Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas.

CORELL: And it’s about 25 times as powerful as CO2. And it’s caught up in the permafrost - the frozen ice in the landmass and under the sea. And it’s hard to estimate, but the Russians say that there’s at least that amount of methane in there equal to all the energy we’ve consumed since 1850. And we’re getting close to the point where some of that methane is going to start to come out. Once it starts coming out, it’s not stoppable. So right now it is a contributor, but it’s not a serious one. But it’s clear that if that methane starts coming out, you’re going to warm the planet in a way that will challenge the very basis upon which humanity has had 10,000 years of incredible stability.

GELLERMAN: So what’s the interaction between the melting snow and the sea ice?

CORELL: Most of the melting of the snow occurs on the landmass. When that snow melts and that land-based ice melts, guess what? That water goes into the ocean and it contributes to sea level. And we now know - and announced in this meeting - that even five years ago we thought that the amount of sea level rise might be a foot and a half or two - it’s now clear it’s around about three or four feet by the end of the century.
That’s huge because that’s the global average. But if you go in the western Pacific - small island states - they get five times as much sea level. So they’ve already seen a meter of sea level, and that’s why they’re screaming at us that, you know, ‘Our islands are going to disappear!’ Because at the end of the century, they’re going to see five or six meters. Those are big numbers.

An iceberg slips into the Alaskan Arctic. More ice turning to dark water means the planet will absorb more heat, in turn melting more ice. (Photo: Timothy K Hamilton/Flickr)

GELLERMAN: You and the Arctic Council are painting a very bleak picture, we have this warning -

CORELL: Now this is tough stuff! And the numbers I gave you are not meant to scare - they’re meant to give you the scale on which it’s happening. So I’m of the opinion that humans, as we know - remember we’re the only ones on the planet who have the ability to decide something about our future - we’ve got our hands on the knobs, the dials that will control the future of the planet.
But you know what makes me an optimist is that the resilience of the human is remarkable. And that day will come when we wake up as humans - I fear that it will not be as soon as it should be because if we warm this planet two or three degrees centigrade, which is where we’re headed, it’ll be a different planet.

GELLERMAN: Professor, thanks so much.

CORELL: My pleasure.

GELLERMAN: Professor Robert Corell is an Arctic climatologist and Principal of the Global Environment and Technology Foundation. Copies of the new Arctic Council report will be given to council ministers including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when they meet in Greenland on May the 12th.

Related links:
- Click here for the new study on Arctic melting
- SWIPA 2011 Executive Sumary
- Snow Water Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic

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[MUSIC: Marc Ribot “todo El Mundo Es Kitsch” from Ceramic Dog (Pi Records 2009).]

Floods, Tornadoes and Climate Change

GELLERMAN: Relentless rainfall - a deluge that dumped five months worth of rain in just 14 days - and a massive spring snowmelt have had a devastating effect along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, forcing the Army Corps of Engineers to take extreme measures. Demolition experts blew up levees along the Mississippi in a daring effort to protect cities and towns from record-breaking floodwaters. Meanwhile, states in the South and Southeast have been experiencing an unprecedented number of intense tornadoes.

In April, nearly 900 tornadoes tore through the region - four times as many as usual. Well when the weather gets weird and wild, we turn to meteorologist Jeff Masters. He’s co-founder of the website Weather Underground. And Jeff, welcome back!

MASTERS: Thank you Bruce.

GELLERMAN: So where’s all this water coming from that’s flowing into the Ohio and the Mississippi?
MASTERS: Well it’s springtime, and it’s very common to get some intense low-pressure systems moving across the country during the spring. And what powers those low-pressure systems is you have a supply of very warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, which is, right now, near record temperatures at the surface of the ocean there. So all that warm water evaporates off the ocean, gets pulled northwards into the center of the country, where it collides with some very cold air still coming down from Canada.

Army Corp of Engineers Blow up the Birds Point Levee in Missouri

And we had a very, very strong jet stream over the central U.S., and that really made some very intense thunderstorms that helped power these intense rainstorms that we saw. We had some exceptionally heavy rains during April, in particular during that huge outbreak of tornadoes that went across the southern U.S. That was accompanied by some really, really heavy rainfall - as much as 19 inches fell on Arkansas during that week.

GELLERMAN: The upper Midwest also got whacked this winter with snow!

MASTERS: Yeah, we had near-record heavy snowpack over the upper Mississippi watershed. North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota - we had a couple feet of snow up there on the ground up until early April, and of course when all that melted it sent this huge floodwater pulse down the Mississippi.

GELLERMAN: So we had a lot of snow and a lot of thunderstorms and rain - why? What’s driving that?
MASTERS: Well if you look at the history of precipitation over the Mississippi Valley region over the past century, it has increased ten to twenty percent. That is something we expect to see in a warmer climate - warmer air holds more water vapor, and climate models predict that by the end of this century, we’ll see another 20 percent increase in the rainfall over the Mississippi Valley. So this is all quite expected and due in part to a warmer atmosphere and climate change.

The Mississippi River flooding in Missouri (US Army Corp of Engineers)

GELLERMAN: So hold on - warm atmosphere holds more water vapor, right?

MASTERS: Yeah, you can evaporate more moisture into the air when it’s warmer.

GELLERMAN: Uh huh. So then we get these heavier downpours.

MASTERS: Yeah, and it turns out - okay well you’ve got more vapor in the atmosphere, it’s got to come down once it goes up - so how does that rain occur? Well as it turns out, the kind of average, steady rains that we get don’t change much. What does change is those heaviest downpours, those upper one percent and those upper point-one percent downpours - the really, really heavy rains that can most likely cause flooding. Those are the type of downpours that are increasing due to all this atmospheric moisture that’s increased.

GELLERMAN: So if you were to take these climate models and project them out, how bad would it get, say, in 90 years - 2100?

MASTERS: Yeah, well we’re thinking another 20 percent increase in the rainfall over the Mississippi Valley. And you’d think that would maybe cause an extra 20 percent in flooding - no. The thought is it would increase runoff by more like 50 percent. Because what happens when you start getting heavier rains is now you’ve got a saturated soil that can’t absorb rain anymore - so you tend to get more runoff.

GELLERMAN: So this is consistent with the global warming climate models, but couldn’t it be something like La Niña or El Niño?

Jeff Masters is a meteorologist and co-founder of Weather Underground.

MASTERS: Sure. There is a La Niña event going on right now in the Pacific, and that does alter the course of the jet stream, affects the storm track for storms going through the country, and in particular, some scientists have thought that maybe La Niña makes it more likely we have strong tornadoes.

GELLERMAN: So there are 800 tornadoes, I understand, that were reported in April. That’s four times the average for the month.

MASTERS: Yeah, it’s pretty ridiculous. We had two outbreaks in April that each generated more than 150 tornadoes. Two of the top four events going back to 1950 occurred last month. So we had a very unusual atmospheric situation in April that’s unprecedented.

GELLERMAN: What’s the role that water vapor and warm air play there?

MASTERS: Well they play a big role, because in order to get the parent thunderstorm that spawns a tornado, you need instability. And in order to have an unstable atmosphere, that means you need to have low-density air near the surface, high density air aloft, so that when an updraft forms and starts rising, it will continue to rise in an unstable atmosphere if it’s less dense than its surroundings. So in order to increase your instability, the best thing you can do is to have very moist and warm air near the surface, because moist air is less dense than dry air, and you need to have very cold air aloft.

GELLERMAN: So if you were a betting man, what role does climate change, do you think, play in the tornado season that we’re experiencing?

The 871 tornadoes that tore across the South left a path of devastation in their wake. (Photo: Jamiesrabbits)

MASTERS: I think it’s a flip of a coin. And that’s because with climate change, we expect it to increase instability, which is favorable for generating intense thunderstorms - okay, because now we’ve got hotter waters in the Gulf of Mexico, more unstable air helping to fuel thunderstorms.
But the flipside of that is that in order to get a tornado, you need more than just unstable air - you need something to get it spinning. And the way you get it spinning is if you have a very strong jet stream that changes direction with speed and height. But in the future, we expect the jet stream to weaken with climate change - that’s one of the things that these climate models tell us. So I think these two factors are going to offset each other to some degree, and it’ll be…some areas maybe will get more tornadoes, some areas less - it’s hard to say what’s going to happen.

GELLERMAN: Could we also get tornados where they don’t occur now? Could they move, let’s say, northward or northeast?

MASTERS: Yeah, I do expect the tornado belt to migrate northward. They’ll be more common in Canada. You’ll just get more, you know, hot, moist air, getting up further north during the year - because, you know, all the landmasses are going to warm. Kind of my motto for the coming decades is going to be: expect the unprecedented.

GELLERMAN: Well, Jeff Masters, thanks so much, I really appreciate it.

MASTERS: Alright, my pleasure.

GELLERMAN: Jeff Masters is a meteorologist and co-founder of Weather Underground.

Related link:
Weather Underground

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[MUSIC: Club D’Elf “Middle Pillar” from Electric Moroccoland/So Below (Face Pelt Records 2011).]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead - lessons from the greenest city on earth: Greensburg, Kansas, four years after a tornado destroyed it. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Mathias Eick: “Day After” from Skala (ECM Records 2011).]

Tornado Recovery As a Pathway to Sustainability

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. The recent record outbreak of devastating tornados was a grim reminder for residents of Greensburg, Kansas. Four years ago, on the night of May 4th 2007, a twister tore through the city not far from the geographic heart of America. It was the first tornado rated EF-5 using the new classification system. With winds wider than the city whipping around at 210 miles an hour, Greensburg didn’t stand a chance. It was totaled. Not a tree, not a home could withstand the tornado. Twelve people died.

In the days after, Greensburg residents dug out and vowed to rebuild. The Town Council passed a resolution that all city buildings had to be LEED Platinum certified - the highest energy efficiency standard there is. Today, Greensburg is the greenest city on Earth, and Bob Dixson is the proud mayor.

DIXSON: Right now we like to refer to us as a living laboratory. Implementing all those concepts that our ancestors knew about: how to take advantage of the wind, of solar, of passive solar, and being good stewards of our resources - and that way, we have something that will last lifetimes.

The new bank in Greensburg. (Photo: Alec Soth for Dwell)

GELLERMAN: So you do have a wind farm there, yeah?

DIXSON: Yes, we have a community wind farm. There’s ten turbines that generate twelve and a half megawatts combined, and that more than powers our city and the rest of it goes on the grid. And we have the highest concentration of geothermal wells per capita of anywhere in the world. From the school, to city hall, to business complex downtown, hospital…we even have private residences that have put in geothermal wells.

GELLERMAN: You also have solar - what do you need the solar for?

DIXSON: We have used solar on some of the buildings as more or less a test site to see what really we can capture, in combination with all the alternative energies of wind and solar and geothermal, to achieve as close as we can to a neutral carbon footprint. I just know in the residential areas - all the new homes are being built - we’re seeing cost savings and energy consumption savings of well over 50 percent, and some of them are seeing as high as 70 to 75 percent savings over what they had before.

GELLERMAN: You’re in the city hall now, right?


GELLERMAN: Boy, it’s very spiffy - it looks like something out of “The Jetsons.”

DIXSON: Well it’s a unique architectural design, but yet a lot of it is back to basics. All the brick on city hall is reclaimed from our electrical power plant that was destroyed in the tornado. A lot of the wood on the façade and inside is all reclaimed from an army depot plant. We tried to make sure that we utilized as much building materials that would reclaim and recycle those materials, instead of always coming up with new.

A reminder of the EF5 storm that wiped out most of the town. (Photo: Alec Soth for Dwell)

GELLERMAN: Now I see that you used a form of construction which I had never heard of before: insulated concrete form blocks. What’s an insulated concrete form block?

DIXSON: Well those are just like Legos - they just stack together to form the walls. They have styrofoam on the inside and the outside, and the middle is open - there’s about 8 inches there. And then you put your reinforcement bar, or rebar, in and then you just pour that full of concrete.

GELLERMAN: Why is that sustainable? Why is that green?

DIXSON: A lot of the concrete we’re using here - we’re using as high as 25 percent fly ash in that concrete. And fly ash is a byproduct of our coal-fired generators. And so by mixing that in, you can extend the concrete volume-wise and it also maintains the strength of concrete.

The new sustainably-built city hall. (Photo: Alec Soth for Dwell)

GELLERMAN: So Greensburg is literally rising out of the ashes.

DIXSON: Yes we are - and we’re rising above the rubble, and we like to say we’re building as green as we can with the green that we have available.

GELLERMAN: Was there any dissent within the town - any residents who didn’t want to go green?

DIXSON: There is always that faction in anything we do in society. I had that preconceived notion of what “green” really was, but we had to market it to our citizens and to ourselves as city council that it’s about sustainability. It’s about the ability to endure - the ability to leave that legacy for future generations. What we have done here and tried to make sure is that we transcended politics on the environmental stewardship issue and not make it about a right or a left issue, a Republican or a Democrat issue. It’s about our issue as citizens of this planet - is to do the best we can where we’re planted.

A billboard on the way into Greensburg, KS. (Photo: Alec Soth for Dwell)

GELLERMAN: Mayor, looking back on the experience of Greensburg, do you have a message for the people in the South that were devastated by the tornadoes in April?

DIXSON: Well the first thing: they need to depend on their faith, their family, and their friends - because it’s those things that are truly sustainable in life. We found out that no matter what your social-economic status was in the community, you lost everything. And so the only true sustainable thing we had left was each other.

Residents also rebuilt their houses in a green way. (Photo: Alec Soth for Dwell)

GELLERMAN: Well, Mayor Dixson, it’s been a real pleasure. Good luck to you and your city!

DIXSON: Bruce, I really thank you for the time, and I just encourage everyone to do what they can to be good environmental stewards.

GELLERMAN: Bob Dixson is the Mayor of the green, green city of Greensburg, Kansas.

Related links:
- Read a Reader’s Digest article about the rebuild
- Visit the non-profit Greensburg Greentown’s website
- Read the Dwell Magazine article and see more photos by Alec Soth.
- See more of Alec Soth's photography

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Re-engineering the Mississippi River to Reduce Floods and Bring Back Big Fish

GELLERMAN: Well from Greensburg to Greenberg - Paul Greenberg, that is. He’s the author of the New York Times best seller “Four Fish: the Future of the Last Wild Food.” He has these thoughts about the current Mississippi floods and the future of the mighty river.

GREENBERG: Back when he was a Mississippi River boat pilot, Mark Twain claims to have seen a catfish "six feet long and weighing 250 pounds.” That’s double the size of the current world sport fishing record. Last week as I motored down the Mississippi, just ahead of the massive storm surge that prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to blow a hole in the river's levees, I couldn't help but think of Twain's big catfish and the particular predicament we've gotten ourselves into with the most engineered river on the planet.

The contemporary Mississippi is very different from the river Twain chronicled. Artificially straightened by planners in the 19th century and then pinched narrow and high by levee building in the 20th, today's river rides above the floodplain it once inundated. All that inundation used to cause annual havoc for farmers who worked the adjacent land. But it also provided nutrients. The pre-colonial Mississippi floodplain was 300 miles wide, draining valuable minerals and organic matter from the Rockies and Appalachians alike, fertilizing fields across the Midwest and the deep South. And it wasn't just fields that were fertilized. During the spring floods, the river spread out wide and got warm. In the tepid, murky shallows, catfish spawned and grew, blessed by an incredible abundance of food. Some of them got very big. Maybe even 250 pounds.

Today, Old Man River's floodplain is less than a mile wide and the catfish are similarly skinny. Instead of feeding catfish and fertilizing fields, all those nutrients are shunted downriver into the Gulf of Mexico. Out at sea, they trigger massive algae blooms and, ironically, a fish-killing dead zone the size of the state of New Jersey.

Paul Greenberg.

The logical thing to do would be to give back to the river some of what we've taken. Instead of desperately hauling out explosives whenever the river reaches dangerously high levels, we ought to think about breaching levees in a planned way to get some of that good runoff into the fields where it’s needed. If we were really ambitious, we might even think about reengineering the river, pushing back the levees several miles, opening up the floodplain, lowering the river throughout its range.

Of course, in an era of global warming, where flooding grows more intense by the year, Old Man River may prove to be the ultimate engineer. If he keeps on a-rising, he will eventually burst the levees unaided, violently rolling over everything in his path, reclaiming his former domain. The Mississippi Valley will become a place where nutrients and fertility are once again spread widely throughout the floodplain. It also might just become a place where you could find a 250-pound catfish.

GELLERMAN: Paul Greenberg is the author of “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food.” It’s just out in paperback.

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[MUSIC: Steely Dan “Green Earrings” from Royal Scam (Warner/Universal 1976).]

GMO Hay Threatens Organic Dairy Farmers?

GELLERMAN: Hay is for horses - but it’s also for cows, especially dairy cows. And soon they could be munching on hay from a different seed: genetically engineered alfalfa. It’s called Roundup Ready alfalfa and its maker, Monsanto, says it’s just like any other hay seed except that it’s resistant to their herbicide, Roundup, which kills weeds in alfalfa fields.

But organic farmers and those who choose organic dairy products fear the new seed could kill the organic dairy industry. And for the past four years, they’ve been waging a legal battle all the way up to the Supreme Court to prevent the seeds from being sown. Living on Earth’s Jessica Ilyse Smith brings us up to date.

SMITH: Last year the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture should decide the fate of Roundup Ready Alfalfa. And this January, the USDA made the unexpected decision to give the go-ahead to Monsanto to sell its seeds, and for farmers to plant them without restrictions.

This blindsided many organic farmers and consumer advocates. Just a month earlier, the agency brought together organic farmers and food distributors, biotech corporations and crop exporters to talk about a coexistence plan - a plan of how Roundup Ready Alfalfa could be grown with everyone’s interests in mind. Mark McCaslin was at this meeting. His company, Forage Genetics, developed the genetically engineered alfalfa with Monsanto.

Alfalfa, or hay, is the 4th largest crop in the U.S. in both acreage and value. (Photo: Timo Newton-Syms Flickr Creative Commons)

MCCASLIN: There was quite a bit of agreement in terms of what a coexistence platform would look like.

SMITH: The stakeholders agreed it would be important for farmers to follow certain restrictions, like buffer distances to protect organic crops from contamination. But there wasn’t an agreement on how those restrictions would come about.

MCCASLIN: The area of disagreement was really the two groups generally had a different view of the role of government in imposing restrictions.

SMITH: McCaslin and others from the biotech world say that industry can self-regulate without government rules. He believes farmers can manage themselves, making a government-mandated coexistence plan redundant.

KIMBRELL: I think that’s hooey.

SMITH: George Kimbrell is an attorney with the Center for Food Safety. His organization and other opponents of genetically engineered alfalfa don’t trust the industry to self-regulate. In March, the center brought a lawsuit challenging the USDA’s decision to fast-track Roundup Ready Alfalfa in time for this year’s growing season. In effect, that sidelined the coexistence plan. Kimbrell says without government oversight, protections for non-GE farmers will fall through the cracks.

KIMBRELL: We have a number of cautionary tales from other parts of our economy in which industry has claimed that self-regulation is sufficient. You need look no further than Wall Street, or the Gulf Oil Spill, or the housing market collapse to realize that we need federal oversight - particularly when you have industry lobbying.

SMITH: Before the USDA made its decision, it reviewed Roundup Ready alfalfa’s impacts on the environment and farmers. George Kimbrell says the government ignored its own findings.

KIMBRELL: USDA’s own analysis shows that contamination will happen. They just wash their hands of it and put that entire burden on the organic or the non-GE farmer. And we think that decision was unlawful.

SMITH: Alfalfa is a staple in U.S. dairy production, and Kimbrell says the genetically modified version of the crop is a threat to the very heart of the organic industry. The USDA requires organic dairy cows be fed only organic feed. Albert Straus is an organic dairy farmer in Northern California. He doesn’t believe that the biotech industry can prevent GE seeds from spreading.

STRAUS: Alfalfa is one of the main feeds that we use on organic dairy, and if it starts getting contaminated, it’s going to have a huge impact on our business and our viability. I think our government has put my business at risk, and I’m very concerned.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. (Photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons)

SMITH: Straus and other farmers want to ensure they’ll always have an untainted supply of organic alfalfa. But bees pollinate alfalfa, and Straus is worried they’ll carry GE pollen into his field. Like many consumers, he doesn’t want genetically engineered crops in the food supply.

STRAUS: I have strong beliefs that they don’t know what effects they have on animals or people. So I have a strong personal feeling that these are not needed.

SMITH: But regardless of safety arguments, the round, blue and green USDA organic labels offer consumers assurance that they’re buying GE-free food. Miles McEvoy heads the USDA’s National Organic Program. And as to whether the program will one day allow biotech crops…

MCEVOY: Allowing them - that will never happen.

SMITH: McEvoy says that GE-free is at the heart of these standards. But he says the organic farmers are worrying too much about contamination.

MCEVOY: There have been some deregulated GE crops in production for a number of years, primarily corn and soybeans. And the organic producers have managed to live with the present. And so I would imagine that that’s going to be the same outcome for the deregulation of GE alfalfa - is, growers will have to take measures to avoid contamination and that will, for the most part, protect organic growers and consumers from the presence of GE crops.

SMITH: In addition to creating buffer zones between GE and non-GE fields, another measure to protect organic alfalfa is staggering farmers’ harvests. Most alfalfa in the U.S. is grown for hay, and plants are harvested before they produce seeds. Daniel Putnam is an alfalfa expert with the University of California, Davis. He’s more concerned that weeds will develop resistance to the Roundup herbicide, also known as glyphosate.

PUTNAM: That is, if you spray one type of herbicide that does not normally kill a particular weed, that weed will be favored in a cropping system. We’ve seen that already with our experiments with Roundup Ready alfalfa - that some weeds that aren’t really well controlled by glyphosate are favored in that system. And so that’s something that we need to watch for.

SMITH: Though the Center for Food Safety has filed a new case against the USDA for its GE crop approval, some regions of the U.S. are not waiting around for the ruling. Alfalfa is California’s largest crop by area, with a value of nearly one billion dollars. So agricultural hubs, like southern California’s Imperial Valley, are not taking chances, says Daniel Putnam from U.C. Davis.

PUTNAM: I just returned from a meeting in El Centro, California, where the growers have elected to assure that there were adequate distances that would keep the gene from the Imperial Valley. Currently, there will be no Roundup Ready grown in the Imperial Valley. And that was by agreement between the farmers and the seed companies.

SMITH: Self-imposed restrictions like this work especially well if an entire region decides together. Organic advocates and consumer protection groups say that where it could get tricky is if farmers who use the GE seeds surround an organic farmer. Miles McEvoy from the USDA says that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is committed to pleasing all parties.

MCEVOY: He recognizes the economic possibilities of the organic market and wants to support the continued growth of that, as well as the growth of biotechnology because he sees that as a very thriving part of American agriculture. So it’s certainly still part of his agenda, in terms of getting the organic, conventional, and GE communities to talk together to work out a way to how all those different sectors can thrive.

SMITH: The Center for Food Safety’s case was filed in Federal Court just as the contentious seeds were being planted in fields across the U.S. And though farmers call alfalfa "the queen of the animal forages,” since Monsanto's GE alfalfa is spending so much time in the legal system, perhaps it should be renamed "the queen of the courts.” For Living on Earth, I’m Jessica Ilyse Smith.

Related links:
- Listen to Jessica Ilyse Smith's previous alfalfa coverage.
- Read the Center for Food Safety’s complain against GE alfalfa to the U.S. district court.
- Visit the Center for Food Safety’s website
- Read the USDA’s Q+A about why they deregulated Roundup Ready Alfalfa
- Visit Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Alfalfa page

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BirdNote®: Frank Bellrose and the Wood Ducks


GELLERMAN: Never underestimate the power of a few passionate people to change the world. In today's BirdNote®, Mary McCann reports that’s how the Aix sponsa, the Wood Duck, was saved.


MCCANN: The drake Wood Duck is perhaps the most beautiful of all North American ducks. His Latin name means: dressed in finery, ready for his wedding. Yet the Wood Duck once seemed threatened with extinction.


A male wood duck afloat. (Photo: Tom Grey ©)

MCCANN: In the 1800s, they were possibly the most abundant ducks east of the Mississippi. But the draining of wetlands, the cutting of forests, and market hunting caused precipitous declines. In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act completely banned the hunting of Wood Ducks for 23 years. This protection and the concern of dedicated individuals brought the Wood Duck back.


MCCANN: Frank Bellrose was preeminent among those advocates. He became fascinated by the birds while canoeing the Illinois River as a young man in the 1930s.

A pair of wood ducks looking right at the camera. (Photo: Tom Grey ©)


MCCANN: Bellrose went on to study them for more than 50 years. His intimate knowledge of their ecology helped him invent a predator-proof nesting box that is now a mainstay of Wood Duck conservation.


GELERMAN: That's Mary McCann with BirdNote®. To see some quacking good photos, waddle over to our website, L-O-E dot org.

Related links:
- Sounds of Wood Duck provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.
- BirdNote® Frank Bellrose and The Wood Ducks was written by Todd Peterson.

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[MUSIC: Chick COrea/Gary Burton “What Game Shall We Play Today” from Crystal Silence (ECM Records 1973).]

GELLERMAN: Coming up - sowing seeds that have stood the test of time. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Marcin Wasilewski: “Night Train To You” from faithful (ECM records 2011).]

Science Note: Fighting Fires With Electricity

GELERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Just ahead - having serious fun determining the fate of the world. But first this note on emerging science from Wynn Tucker.


TUCKER: A single fire hose spews about 250 gallons of water a minute. But the next wave of fire fighting might not use any water. Researchers at Harvard University have found that shots of electric current can put out flames almost instantly. The scientists connected a wand-like device to an amplifier and zapped beams of electricity at an open flame. The fire was extinguished every time.

A flame in the process of being extinguished by an electric field (Credit: Jabulani Barber and Ludovico Cademartiri)

The technology works like this: fires produce charges, like ions, free electrons, and soot. All of these charges can be moved by electric fields. When the researchers apply certain kinds of electric fields to fire, the motion of these charges can destabilize the flame and snuff it out. The electric fields are safe for humans to pass through, and they could be used to clear an escape route for a family trapped in a burning home.

Scientists aren’t sure if this technology will work against large-scale fires, but they envision electrical devices replacing sprinklers on the ceilings of buildings and ships. Waving a wand to put out a fire may sound like magic, but it would save water and keep the contents of a home or business from being soaked beyond repair. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Wynn Tucker.


Related link:
Read the original report, which was presented at a conference of the American Chemical Society

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Collecting Seeds From Historical Trees

GELLERMAN: The world’s oldest tree on record is 9,550 years old - it's a spruce growing in the mountains of Sweden. That’s a record that runs rings around most trees. But here in the United States, we also have old growth with ancient roots - trees that have witnessed much of our history and can testify to the American experience. At least that’s the thesis of Richard Horan’s new book “Seeds: One Man’s Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees that Inspired Famous American Writers.”

Horan got the idea when he visited the home of Abraham Lincoln and picked up seeds there from a tree that stood when the President was just a boy. But the book really took root when he visited the house of The King, as Richard Horan told Living on Earth's Steve Curwood.

HORAN: Next stop was Graceland. There were these wonderful, sweet gum seeds - they’re like little Christmas ornaments hanging over the stone wall. And, in fact, it was between the jumpsuit shrine and Elvis’s gravesite on the walkway that I had my sort of epiphany. I was going to go around the country and I was going to gather the seeds of these famous, inspirational people and gather those seeds and plant them and grow a grove of my own.

(Photo: Harper Collins Publishers)

CURWOOD: You visited trees that have been important witnesses - for example, you go to Abe Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois, and you have a picture of him next to a tree that’s still there. These trees knew many of the people that you saw - did they tell you anything about them?

HORAN: They did. And that’s the id of this whole journey. When I would arrive at a place - say Rachel Carson’s house in Springdale, Pennsylvania - it’s quiet, no one’s around, you pull up and there’s this soaring tree there. And when you spend a few minutes walking around, looking, getting a sense of the place, there’s an abiding message that seems to linger there. You can feel the presence of the author. You can feel the message that was coming from the landscape and the environment around the home.

CURWOOD: Now at one point in your book, you go to a place that’s not too far from where we are here in Somerville, Massachusetts - you went out to Thoreau’s famous home in Walden Pond in Concord. What was your experience like there?

Walden Pond in Concord, MA inspired Henry David Thoreau’s famous book “Walden; Or, Life in the Woods.”

HORAN: Well that was a pilgrimage. That was an amazing experience. When I went to Walden Pond, it was a crisp, warm fall day. And when I walked into the woods, the wind began to blow, and all of a sudden, the acorns literally began to rain down on me - to such an extent that I had to stop and sit down. And I was very much overcome by that because I felt for sure that Uncle Henry David was looking down and laughing and shaking the trees and letting them know: Here we are.

CURWOOD: (Laughs). Let’s go very famous into American history - the American Presidents and their famous homes. I’m thinking of Thomas Jefferson with Monticello and Mount Vernon where George Washington lived. So what happened when you tried to collect seeds from those places? I imagine the gendarmarie would pounce on you if you took anything away.

HORAN: That was an interesting story because when I got to Mount Vernon, I spoke to the arborist there and told him what my intention was. And he said, ‘Well you realize that we do this for a living - we harvest these seeds and then we propagate them and sell them.’ So he said, ‘But you know, you might find some seeds on the ground there, up, you know, underneath the poplars.

When I went up to the tulip poplars out on the bowling green behind the house, I was amazed that I couldn’t find a single seed. But I had the good luck of underneath one of the poplars was a large shrub. And I could crawl inside there and I found just a handful of these tulip poplars. My daughters were with me and they were, you know, young - and they disowned me at that point - walked away.

Now Monticello is a different place - there’s only one tree left from Thomas Jefferson’s time. It’s a cypress, it’s very old, and there was nothing there that I could find. But I had the good fortune of coming to Monticello a year after the tulip poplar that had remained there during the time of Jefferson - it had been cut down the year before but there were still many of those seeds still left on the ground, so I was able to find some of those.

CURWOOD: So of all the places you visited, of all the seeds that you gathered, what’s your favorite?

HORAN: Well one that comes strongly to mind is my visit to Louisville. And it’s my only athlete in the book - Muhammad Ali. It took me a little while to find out where he had grown up - he grew up on Grand Avenue on the west side of Louisville. So I took a bus there and walked through a pretty tough neighborhood. And when I got to the street - it was a big long avenue - and I noticed there was only one house, halfway down on the right side, that had a tree upfront. And the closer I got, the faster my heart beat, because I realized that that was, in fact, the house where Muhammad Ali grew up.

And square in the middle of his front lawn was a Catalpa tree - a Northern Catalpa tree. And if you know anything about trees, you know that Catalpas have the largest leaves of any North American hardwood. They’re about the size of a sheet of paper and they’re in the shape of a heart. You know, they have these bean pods that hang down, again like Christmas ornaments, and they were all over the place.

And so it didn’t look like anyone was living in the house, but I knocked on the door, and this beautiful little girl answered. I told her who I was and what I was doing and then her equally beautiful mother came behind her and I told her what I was up to, and they just smiled and laughed and said, ‘Go ahead.’ And so there I was out on Muhammad Ali’s front lawn, jumping up like a maniac, trying to get all those seed pods down. But I have so many of his seeds, and for some reason, of all the trees that I grow, his seem to grow fastest and tallest and healthiest. So I have all these Muhammad Ali Catalpas growing in my living room.

Richard Horan (Photo: Richard Horan)

CURWOOD: So what are you doing with all of these trees? You’re growing them - some you’re growing in your living room - after a while, that doesn’t work too well, does it?

HORAN: No, it was the cause of a great deal of sleepless nights for about a year and a half. I had all these boxes of seeds, and my living room and all the windowsills in my house were jammed with little seedlings. But I was trying to find someone who would help me grow these seeds and grow this grove of my own. One day I stumbled upon a man named Brian Sayers, who’s the president of the New York Arborists Association, who was as equally fascinated and excited about my idea as I am. So he took the project on, and since then - this has been about a year now - he has built a greenhouse, he’s cataloged something like 20,000 seeds, and his vision is to grow these seeds on his property and to sell them in about seven years when they’re strong enough to be moved and planted.

CURWOOD: Richard Horan’s new book is called “Seeds: One Man’s Journey to Find Trees that Inspired Famous American Writers” - and other famous Americans. Thank you so much, Richard!
HORAN: Thank you, Steve!

Related link:
Richard Horan’s Website

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Computer Game based on Climate Models

GELLERMAN: In the coming decades, global leaders will deal with problems that will test our civilization: intense storms and droughts, famine, and social upheaval. Time is running out. Now the Fate of the World is in your hands.

[Music from the Game composed and performed by Richard Jacques.]

GELLERMAN: “The Fate of the World” is a new computer game that puts you in charge of the global effort to respond to the challenge of climate change. Your goal: to confront the effects of worldwide warming, save the planet, and have some serious fun in the process. Ian Roberts played a pivotal role in determining the Fate of the World - he designed the game.

VIDEO: Watch a trailer for Fate of the World:

ROBERTS: There’s no reason why you can’t make a good game about something that matters - something that, when you play the game and learn about what’s going on in it, you can take that away and have it inform your real life. Because when we play games, we get really good at beating a game. We get really good at that game and knowing it and understanding it. And if that game is based on reality, then that’s some knowledge that we can really do something with.

GELLERMAN: I heard that this game was developed on a drunken dare.

ROBERTS: (Laughs) Something of the sort. We met a climate scientist, Dr. Miles Allen, in a pub in Oxford. And he said, ‘I bet you could make a really great game about climate change.’ And ultimately we’re here thanks to that bet.

GELLERMAN: (Laughs). So the game is chock-filled with a lot of information - a lot of data. Is this real stuff?

ROBERTS: Yeah, it really is. We wanted, in a sense, to make a game that as well reflected what we could know about the world as it is. I don’t think there’s ever been a computer game that really had radiative forcing as a key concept that the players can play with: it’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to play this policy - it’s going to change my radiative forcing! So what’s that all about?’ But the players are really, really interested in finding out more about it.

You become the leader of a world, wrecked by extreme weather. (Courtesy of Red Redemption)

So the data about population, about GDP production, about resource needs - we actually put a scientifically peer reviewed climate model in the game to give our results in temperature rise. And we’ve tried to collect the best data that we could find to represent the world as we think it will be in 2020, which is when the game really starts.

GELLERMAN: Well, let’s start playing the game.


GELLERMAN: I’ve got it on my computer here. And I’ll load it up: “Fate of the World.” And what’s the concept here?

ROBERTS: The concept is that we start the player with the position that we don’t do anything really about climate change at all. So we fast-forward ten years in a world where very little has been done. And in response to climate change, the world has put together an organization to help regions manage policy and address funding for climate change projects and this is called the Global Environmental Organization. It’s something akin to the World Trade Organization, for example. And the player is put as President of this organization and gets to act as overseer to climate change policy around the world, good or bad.

GEO is a fictionalized UN that spearheads the global response to climate change. (Courtesy of Red Redemption)

GELLERMAN: Okay, so I chose my mission, which is Africa. And now it’s asking me - it says: ‘As President Gellerman, how do you wish to be addressed? Sir, Dude, Your Worship…’ I like that one. I’m going to be “Your Worship”- that’s the way I like it. So take me through it! So I’ve chosen my mission - I basically have to save Africa.

ROBERTS: That’s right. The goal of the mission is actually to improve the standard of living in Africa. The idea with the game is that the world is changing whether or not you like it or not. So you need to try and play policies that will make change in the direction that you’d like, rather
than the direction that would naturally happen.

GELLERMAN: So I’ve got some money and I can spend it on investing in clean energy or organic crops or protecting buildings against a rising sea.

ROBERTS: So what you have at the start - you have a number of big projects, which you can commit to: things like renewable energy, or nuclear; you have things like protecting forests, protecting areas from droughts. And the idea is that as you play these policies, it unlocks further options. So by opting into particular kinds of focuses, you can say, ‘In this region, I’m going to focus purely on welfare development; in this other region, I’m going to focus on improving their GDP through investment.’ I can focus on stability, for example.

So one of the advice that the tutorial gives is to open up welfare offices in Africa and also political offices - because stability issues could mean that, in the game, should a region be unstable, you could be banned from that region. And that would mean that any policies that you were trying to do may not complete. And obviously that would be detrimental to your efforts.

GELLERMAN: Then you travel five years into the future and we see how our policies turned out.


The game takes place in the near future, but offers prescient challenges. Here we have to respond to severe flooding in Japan. (Courtesy of Red Redemption)

GELLERMAN: So I’m at 2025. And now we can get debriefed.


ROBERTS: That’s right.

GELLERMAN: Well that’s tough - boy, I did awful! (Laughs).

ROBERTS: (Laughs). Well the world is not necessarily going in a particularly good direction at the start of the game. The problem is very complex - all of the issues you find are related, so policies you play will have multiple outcomes, and something may or may not be a good idea to play at this time in this place.

So it’s a real learning experience. What we find most players experience is they go: ‘Well I’m intelligent, I’ll be able to look at some options and pick something that sounds pretty good.’ They’ll go in, they’ll pick some options that they’ve read about in the news or they think just generally sounds like a good idea, and then they’ll see really what happens to the world when they choose those and find that it’s not as simple as that.

You’ll start to get an idea as to why climate change, why global resources, why global populations and economies are as complicated as they are - because everything is connected.

GELLERMAN: You don’t sugarcoat it. If I try to control population by making a one-child policy, the people resent me! And then if I switch to organic crops, the yields go down!

ROBERTS: That’s right. So - I mean you’d think, ‘well as controller of this world - as ultimate ruler of the world - I should be able to fix climate change, right? I can just tell everyone to stop doing the things that they’re doing which is bad, and it should be fine.’ But what you have to realize is that the game is about a relationship with these regions, so some of the strategies that are involved are actually doing things that may be detrimental to the environment as a whole in one region in order to develop it in a particular way so that you can actually do things later. So there’s a lot of complexity in the game, and I think it gets a good idea as to why the policy decisions that politicians need to make are really not as simple as it might seem.


GELLERMAN: Well, Ian, I had a lot of fun. Thank you very much.

ROBERTS: My pleasure, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: Um, um…Your Worship.

ROBERTS: Your worship. Of course (Laughs).

Related link:
Red Redemption is available for PC download

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[EPIC THEME MUSIC OF THE GAME: Music from the Game composed and performed by Richard Jacques.]

GELLERMAN: Ian Roberts designed the new computer game, “Fate of the World.” He's creative director of Red Redemption, the company in Oxford, England that makes it.

Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse Smith, Ike Sriskandarajah, Mitra Taj, and Jeff Young, with help from Sarah Calkins and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Sean Faulk and Wynn Tucker. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org - and while you're online, check out our sister program, Planet Harmony. Planet Harmony welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at my planet harmony dot com. And don’t forget to check out the Living on Earth Facebook page. It’s PRI’s Living on Earth. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living On Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science. And Stonyfield Farm, organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield invites you to just eat organic for a day. Details at justeatorganic dot com. Support also comes from you, our listeners, the Go Forward Fund, and Pax World Mutual and Exchange-Traded Funds, integrating environmental, social, and governance factors into investment analysis and decision making. On the web at pax world dot com. Pax world, for tomorrow.

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