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

January 27, 2012

Air Date: January 27, 2012



The Environment in the State of the Union

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President Obama says the United States is going to develop all forms of domestic energy, focusing on natural gas and clean renewables. But what he didn’t talk about in his State of the Union speech is equally interesting. Host Bruce Gellerman talks to New York Times blogger Andy Revkin and Reason Magazine science writer Ron Bailey about the president’s address. (08:30)

Ode to Ogallala / Julene Bair

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Many environmentalists applauded when President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline plans. But Kansas writer Julene Bair wants to know why it took a major pipeline to draw attention to the crucial Ogallalla aquifer. She asks whether that attention will last, or dry up as quickly as it materialized. (03:20)

Mozambican Farmers Get Help to Weather Extreme Weather Events / Rowan Moore Gerety

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Mozambique is among the African countries most vulnerable to extreme weather events. Cyclones, droughts, and floods have destroyed homes and crops. The organization Save the Children has partnered with the government to promote programs aimed at making the local economy less contingent on the weather. Rowan Moore Gerety reports from Caia, Mozambique. (08:10)

Emerging Science Note: Hybrid Sharks / Mary Bates

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Scientists have discovered the first known examples of hybrid sharks, the result of interbreeding between Australian blacktip and common blacktip sharks. As Living on Earth’s Mary Bates reports, the hybrids appear to be thriving in Australian waters and span multiple generations. (01:50)

H5N1 Research Moratorium

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Scientists studying H5N1, or the bird flu, recently discovered something big: a strain of the virus that can spread through the air between animals. Dr. Michael Olsterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, tells host Bruce Gellerman why his concerns for biosafety and security led him to recommend limiting the publication of this new research. (05:10)

BirdNote® Kittiwake, Kittiwake, Kittiwake! / Michael Stein

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The black-legged kittiwake is know for its rhythmic calls. The gull is abundant in the Bering Sea, and, in winter, can also be found along the east and west coasts of North America. Michael Stein has this BirdNote®. (01:50)

Green Cement

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Concrete is one of the most widely used materials in the world. It also accounts for five percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. But researchers at Drexel University are trying to change that with a cool new cement that doesn’t need heating, just mixing. Drexel engineering professor Alex Moseson sat down with host Bruce Gellerman to tell us more about the process. (06:20)


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Biofuel production could be a boon for the environment, but there’s still a lot of waste plant material, called lignin, remaining from the process. Now, an enterprising student has found a new use for some of that waste – paving unpaved roads. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks with Wilson Smith of Kansas State. (05:15)

Overheating Musk Oxen / Ari Daniel Shapiro

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Musk oxen are hearty creatures, capable of enduring the long, dark winter. But as Ari Daniel Shapiro reports, when temperatures rise, that heartiness can wane. (05:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Andy Revkin, Ronald Bailey, Michael Osterholm, Alex Moseson,
Wilson Smith
REPORTERS: Julene Bair, Rowan Moore Gerety, Ari Daniel Shapiro
NOTES: Mary Bates, Michael Stein


GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. The State of the Union and the fate of the earth - temperatures are rising.

OBAMA: The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change. But there’s no reason why Congress shouldn’t at least set a clean energy standard that creates a market for innovation.

GELLERMAN: President Obama’s energy plan is a gas - natural gas, it's first among equals. And hardy muskoxen thrive in the cold of Norway, but suddenly they're dying:

BRETTEN: We saw – we had a small herd of five here, I saw everyday for three days. And the third day, there were just four. One of them had died. I saw her the day before, and she didn’t look ill at all. Next day she was just dead.

GELLERMAN: What's killing the muskoxen - these stories and a lot more this week, on Living on Earth. Stick around!


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

The Environment in the State of the Union

President Obama delivers his State of the Union address. (The White House)

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Massachusetts, it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Energy wasn’t at the front, but it certainly was at the center of President Obama’s third State of the Union Address:

OBAMA: I’m directing my Administration to allow the development of clean energy on enough public land to power three million homes. And I’m proud to announce the Department of Defense working with us, the world’s largest consumer of energy, will make one of the largest commitments to clean energy in history, with the navy purchasing enough capacity to power a quarter of a million homes a year.

GELLERMAN: To discuss what the President said about energy and the environment in his address to Congress, and what he didn’t say, we turn to Andy Revkin and Ronald Bailey. Ron is science correspondent for the Libertarian monthly: Reason Magazine. Andy writes the dot earth blog for the New York Times and joined us by phone.

REVKIN: It was a very, I think a powerful speech. He was very aggressive on the political front in staking out a position that puts him in a contrast to the Republican field. Focusing on the sustainability bundle: things like energy and the environment. He said, pretty aggressively also, pushed backed against, the sort of critiques of the EPA by Republicans, and said that we do need regulation, and we do need to control pollution.

Andrew Revkin (Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies)

But he then pushed back against the liberal base and said we also need a lot more energy, so he was doing the classic kind of centrist approach to the environmental issues and really saying some pretty true things.


BAILEY: Well, I think the problem here is that we’re all in favor of smart regulation; the problem is he didn’t define what that would be. And there are a lot of people who would argue that some of the regulations that he’s promoting are not very smart when you get right down to it, especially with the regard to the production of energy in the United States. But it was a powerful speech, as far as these things go. But frankly, most State of the Union speeches are quite forgettable, and I suspect with the fulnesss of time this one will be too.

GELLERMAN: Well, he did speak about energy for quite a bit of time, I counted it, seven minutes of his speech went to just talking about energy and he really emphasized fossil fuels:

OBAMA: Over the last three years, we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration, and tonight I’m directing my administration to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources.


GELLERMAN: Ron? Andy? What was he talking about there? Which 75 percent of our potential oil and gas resources is he hoping to open up?

REVKIN: Well, presumably, that’s areas along the East Coast that he had already talked about.

Ronald Bailey (Reason Magazine)

BAILEY: Yeah, I think that’s right, he probably will be opening up more on the Atlantic coast. I actually live in a state, Virginia, which has asked the federal government quite vociferously to open up oil exploration off its coast and lets hope that’s the direction we’re going to be moving.

REVKIN: And I’m sure, you know, the idea is that you will see more drilling in the Gulf as well. The Gulf spill, which was so epic in the way it was portrayed in the media, was transitory. Those ecosystems are robust and, while it was epically disruptive socioeconomically in some parts of the country, it wasn’t epically disruptive to the economy itself, nor is there that kind of lasting memory.

BAILEY: Unfortunately in the aftermath of the oil spill, one of the problems is that the Obama Administration essentially did shut down production in the Gulf for awhile and about half the oil rigs that would have otherwise been there have now moved to other countries, so it’s going to take a while to build that back up. But I’m glad to see he’s moving in this direction.

GELLERMAN: The President did note that American oil production is the highest it has been in eight years and that last year we relied less on foreign oil, than in the past 16 years. I also read that the United States, for the first time in 62 years, became a fossil fuel net exporter.

REVKIN: Yeah, we’re exporting refined, you know, the refined fuels. And you’re going to see more and more of that, including the gas rush has created kind of an over-abundance of gas momentarily. So there’s quite a bit of talk of starting to export natural gas.

GELLERMAN: Well, we still need to import fossil fuels. This is what the President had to say:

OBAMA: We’re only two percent of the world’s oil reserves. Oil isn’t enough. This country needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy.


GELLERMAN: So, nothing off of the table, but, you know, I noticed he didn’t mention nuclear power. Um…

BAILEY: (Chuckles.)

GELLERMAN: He did say that we have a hundred years of gas supply, which I find kind of dubious because just recently the federal government came out with revised figures for the Marcellus gas play in the east coast and they reduced that by 66 percent!

BAILEY: Looking nationally what you find is, is that perhaps we don’t have a hundred-year energy supply of natural gas, but we have a 50-year supply, which is not inconsiderable. The President may have been exaggerating as politicians do in these moments, but a 50-year supply of natural gas is what is being projected now by our Department of Energy.

GELLERMAN: Andy Revkin?

REVKIN: Oh, yeah - not only the United States but in China - China even more so, which was energy poor when it comes to things other than coal, until recently. Now it has, I think, twice the estimated natural gas available in these shale rocks. It can play an important role in de-carbonizing; it’s a fossil fuel, but it’s got a lot fewer carbon atoms per molecule - basically it’s CH4, it’s one carbon and a bunch of hydrogens, so when you burn it’s a much better bet than coal, for example.

GELLERMAN: He did strike a familiar theme when he said we don't have to choose between the environment and the economy, but he didn't mention Solyndra, which was the solar company that went belly up in California that received federal funds. And he didn't mention Keystone pipeline, but he did defend federal funding for research:

OBAMA: Our experience with shale gas, our experience with natural gas, shows us that the payoffs on these public investments don’t always come right away. Some technologies don’t pan out. Some companies fail. But I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy.

BAILEY: Well, the problem is, basically, what you’re doing is investing in companies like Solyndra, for example. If you’re trying to do research on improving solar cells, perhaps there’s a role for the federal government to do that. But, it’s certainly not the role of the government to start picking winners and losers among technologies and essentially functioning as venture investment for companies, I would argue.

One of the examples is, that the President used himself, was the basic technology that he claims that helped get the hydrofracturing going for the gas industry, right - the government didn't invest in Chesapeake Energy to do that, didn’t invest in any of the oil companies to do that, they just invested among the scientists to figure out how to do this stuff.

GELLERMAN: Well, what wasn’t mentioned was a comprehensive energy policy. Back in his first State of the Union, the President called for a carbon tax and a comprehensive energy and climate bill. It seems this time he’s accepting the political realities:

OBAMA: The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change. But there’s no reason why Congress shouldn’t at least set a clean energy standard that creates a market for innovation. So far, you haven’t acted. Well, tonight, I will.

REVKIN: His only reference to climate change was in the negative, saying here’s an issue Congress that can’t figure out and then kind of saying: 'well let’s just see what we can do that’s climate-smart as opposed to climate-centric.' And so that, at least he got a mention in! I had written a piece a year ago saying where is the C-word in, it’s hard to mention the C-word in Washington these days, the ‘climate’ word.

And at least he got it in, but he hasn’t really stated a new post-pollution approach moving toward energy choices that come with fewer emissions and greenhouse gasses but doing it in a way that doesn’t threaten to upend the economy at the same time.

BAILEY: That’s really the problem, is that right now there is a trade off between the economy and the environment. If climate change is a problem, what they have to do is to make fossil fuels more expensive. And nobody wants to have to tell people that they’re going to have to increase their gasoline prices or pay more for electricity. And that’s the big fear on the part of the politicians and the President is just simply participating in that.

Watch the State of the Union

GELLERMAN: Well, I want to thank you both. Andy Revkin and Ron Bailey, thank you very much.

REVKIN: You’re welcome, it was great to be here.

BAILEY: Delighted to be with you.

GELLERMAN: Andy Revkin writes the dot earth blog for the New York Times, he’s senior fellow at Pace Academy for Environmental Studies. Ronald Bailey is science correspondent for Reason Magazine, it’s a Libertarian public policy publication.

Related link:
Andy Revkin on the State of the Union

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Ode to Ogallala

USGS map shows depletion of the Ogallalla or High Plains aquifer (United States Geological Survey)

GELLERMAN: As I mentioned, missing from the President's speech was his recent decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. It’s still likely TransCanada will revise the route and resubmit a plan to carry tar sand crude from Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast - avoiding the sensitive sand hills of Nebraska and the vast Ogallala aquifer. But author Julene Bair says oil and water aren’t the only things that don’t mix.

BAIR: Seldom does a geologic formation make headlines. Yet that’s exactly what happened last year when the Ogallala Aquifer, the groundwater formation that underlies much of the Great Plains, got the nation’s attention. Nebraska landowners and environmentalists protested the shipment of oil from Canada’s tar sands to the Texas coast, saying that a leak in the proposed Keystone XL pipeline might damage the aquifer. They won when the State Department announced it would reconsider the pipeline’s route. Now President Obama has confirmed their win.

Why, I wonder, haven’t environmentalists been fighting all along to protect the aquifer, which is being drained and polluted by industrial agriculture? I know because I watched the Kansas farm I grew up on morph from a dry-land crop, grass, and livestock operation into one of those soybean and corn factories that cause consternation among airplane passengers. “Why are all the fields round?” my seatmates invariably ask.

The center-pivot irrigation systems that have turned the ground all the way from South Dakota to Texas into a giant mesh of green, gold, and brown circles spray Ogallala water twenty-four hours per day throughout much of the summer. Each year, Plains farmers pump six trillion gallons. That’s 1.5 trillion more than the Colorado River carries to the Southwestern United States. Unlike the Colorado River, Ogallala water is not self-renewing. Geologists call it fossil water because it took thousands of years to collect underground.

Farmers and big ag-industrial companies argue that the water is put to good use. Without it, many people would go hungry. But in just 70 years, irrigators have run out of water in many places. They will run out in most other areas well before the end of this century.

Declines would not be nearly as rapid were it not for federal policies, which encourage one of the thirstiest crops grown in the region – corn. An ethanol mandate still in place ensures that, by 2015, over one-third of the nation’s corn will become fuel. Most of the rest becomes corn syrup or is fed to cattle and turned into fatty beef. Neither of these foods is good for us, as the nation’s heart disease and diabetes epidemics testify. And what about the residual chemicals in these foods? We know from United States Geological Survey studies that ag chemicals are showing up in the water.

The federal Farm Program is helping to destroy the Ogallala aquifer and to sicken the nation by giving support payments to corn farmers. It does this regardless of how many chemicals or how much water they use. The farm bill comes up for review this year. This time around, let us insist that Washington help only sensible agriculture.

[MUSIC: Peter Kater “If Men Were At Peace” from Honorable Sky (Silver Wave Records 1994).]

GELLERMAN: Julene Bair is author of the prize-winning collection of essays “One Degree West: Reflections of a Plains Daughter,” and she’s finishing a new book: “The Unfarmed Sky,” about the Ogallala, her family, and their Kansas land.

Just ahead: farmers in Mozambique learn how to survive extreme weather.
Keep listening to Living on Earth!

Related links:
- USGS Doc on the Declining Ogallalla
- Julene Bair’s Op-Ed in NYT
- Texas Tribune on the Ogallalla
- An Artist's Rendering of the Ogallalla

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[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Herbie Hancock: “Cantaloupe Island” from Then And Now: The Definitive Herbie Hancock (Verve Records 2008).]

Mozambican Farmers Get Help to Weather Extreme Weather Events

Joao Novage in front of his goat hutch. Thanks to a grant, he and some of his neighbors raise goats. (Photo: Rowan Moore Gerety)

GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Over the past two decades, Mozambique has suffered more than its fair share of weather disasters. The east African nation has seen more devastating cyclones, droughts, and floods than any country on the continent. Farmers in Mozambique have been particularly hard hit. This year alone, torrential rains in the mountains sent flood waters onto fields below, submerging tens of thousands of acres of crops.

Figueredo de Araujo works at the National Institute for Disaster Management in Caia, Mozambique. (Photo: Rowan Moore Gerety)

Some aid organizations have responded to the extreme weather effects by supplementing their traditional disaster relief efforts with disaster management. Rowan Moore Gerety has our report.


MOORE GERETY: The rainy season in Caia, in central Mozambique, begins in December. This is the time of year when officials at Mozambique’s National Institute for Disaster Management begin to prepare for the worst—rescue missions during floods. Figueredo de Araujo is the information officer at their center for emergency operations here. He points out the tools of their trade.


VOICEOVER: Welcome to the National Emergency Operations Center for the center region. To my left we have search and rescue boats for flood victims. There on the other side are warehouses with various goods for humanitarian assistance: maize flour, tents, tarps, boots, rain coats.

The government’s Emergency Operations Center has search and rescue boats to use during floods. (Photo: Rowan Moore Gerety)

MOORE GERETY: Caia is a truck-stop of a town where Mozambique’s main highway crosses the Zambezi river. It sits in the middle of a vast, flat, floodplain that is home to nearly a million people. In 2000, Caia and neighboring districts on either side of the river were hit by the worst floods in recent memory. The floods killed 700 people, displaced 100,000, and cost Mozambique a 1.5 percent loss in GDP through destruction of crops. Yet the impact of extreme weather in Africa is sometimes disguised, because the greatest losses are often indirect, through persistent food scarcity and illness. To Belem Monteiro, the emergency center's director, much of Mozambique’s misfortune is a matter of geography.


VOICEOVER: The fact that we have a problem is not news to us: given its location, Mozambique could only be vulnerable to these changes in climate.

MOORE GERETY: Nearly 80 percent of Mozambican families are subsistence farmers, relying on rain-fed agriculture to produce their food. Following the floods in 2000, farmers near the Zambezi continued to lose their houses and their crops in what became a nearly annual calamity. Monteiro says the changing weather has forced his agency to change its mission:


VOICEOVER: In the past, it happened every five years, now we have annual emergencies, which shows that the situation has changed. This institution was created in order to intervene in emergencies, but today, with climate change, we have to adapt and create development programs that reflect this reality.


MOORE GERETY: Some 30 miles away from Caia lies a resettlement zone called Tchetcha Um. It’s home to some of the 5000 families in the district who have moved to higher ground over the last decade, just a mile from their villages by the river. The organization Save the Children has partnered with the government in a program promoting livelihood resilience, aimed at making the local economy less contingent on the weather.

The idea is to help people living on the floodplain diversify their sources of income, and hedge the risks from flood and drought. Clemente Lourenço is a project officer in Save's Floodplain Management program. He’s on a site visit today and stops to greet farmer Rui Alberto Campira.


Rui Alberto Campira hoes the soil. He’s part of a group of farmers who received a grant from Save the Children to grow cash crops. (Photo: Rowan Moore Gerety)

MOORE GERETY: Campira is part of a group of 11 farmers who received a small business grant from Save the Children in 2009. The grant was meant to help the farmers grow food not only for themselves, but also for market. Save provided the capital, and the provincial department of agriculture provided the expertise: they brought in tractors and graded a five-acre plot, and installed an elevated tank and a small pump for irrigation. Near the tank, which sits on a concrete platform, Campira opens a spigot in the middle of his field.


MOORE GERETY: He says the dark, sandy soil here is great for cash crops:


VOICEOVER: It's good. Especially for tomatoes. Tomatoes, onions, cabbage, collard greens. That's what we usually plant here. There we only plant maize. Maize and sweet potatoes.

MOORE GERETY: The fertile soil of the flats is a major reason that people have always lived so close to the river, despite seasonal flooding. Campira says when the river floods, the water could now reach his waist, much higher than it got when he was a child. But the irrigation here now allows him to grow cash crops during the dry season, when the temperature is right but the rainfall is too low for market vegetables.


MOORE GERETY: During the rainy season, he grows corn, sweet potatoes, and cassava, to feed his family. If a flood comes, he'll have some money to fall back on from the sale of tomatoes and onions, as well as a second field for household consumption on higher ground. Clemente Lourenço says that unlike many development projects, the beneficiaries of Save the Children’s program chose both their partners and their line of business:


Clemente Lourenco is the project officer in Save the Children’s Floodplain Management program. In the background are water tanks used for irrigation. (Photo: Rowan Moore Gerety)

VOICEOVER: The methodology we use to let the groups get together themselves—either by virtue of being neighbors, or out of trust, or because, as it was with many of them, they all knew that particular kind of work.


MOORE GERETY: Fifty-five associations like Campira's have formed in Caia district, not just growing cash crops, but trading in fish, beans, and clothing, and using animal traction to plow fields. Save's program, called Galamuka, or “Awakening,” supports a total of 4500 households across three provinces along the river. Joao Novage is raising seven goats. He received a grant in April 2010 through an association he formed with nine neighbors.

Two of Joao Novage’s goats. (Photo: Rowan Moore Gerety)


VOICEOVER: When it floods here, people do very badly. It's very difficult to buy enough maize. During droughts, a man can't say a thing. The only way you can fight it is if you have a goat, when a trader comes from Caia or Sena, you can sell it for twenty dollars (five or six hundred meticais) and buy a bushel or two of corn to sustain your family.

MOORE GERETY: Novage says the group's original 40 goats have already borne 20 more. The emphasis of Save's current two-year program has been to improve quality of life for the association’s members. Over the long term, they hope to recoup the initial grants through payments without interest and use them as loans to create more associations throughout the region. Novage says he hopes to repay the initial grant once the association's herd reaches 110 or 120, but first he has other plans:


VOICEOVER: When I see that I have 12 or 13 goats, I’ll take four and sell them to buy school supplies and clothes for my children. Children are our wealth. They’ll bring a better future for us.

MOORE GERETY: The association's experience has attracted more of Novage’s neighbors, prompting Save to give a second grant for four goats each to eight more households in the area. Clemente Lourenço says that roughly half of the associations in Caia have expanded in this way to meet local demand:


VOICEOVER: Save had a target to reach, to form X number of groups in the two year project, and it was reached. Only, it's clear that there is a lot of demand, there are many people who need to participate in projects like this.


MOORE GERETY: As heavy rains and flooding continue, João Novage may have to sell a goat sooner than he planned. But that's exactly what the Galamuka program was designed for: he is one of thousands of Mozambicans who now have a chance at a stable livelihood in spite of a changing climate. Still, the need is great.

Though the government has replicated some of Save's model outside this project, Belem Monteiro, the regional director for disaster management, admits these programs still serve an "insignificant proportion of the population.” And further north on the African coast, in Somalia, the worst drought in 60 years has shown that the need for programs to help people cope with extreme weather is growing around the world. For Living on Earth, I'm Rowan Moore Gerety in Caia, Mozambique.

Related links:
- Save the Children’s Livelihood Resilience Program, Mozambique
- National Institute for Disaster Management, Mozambique

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[MUSIC: African Virtuosos “Hafia” from The Classic Guinean Guitar Group (Sterns Africa 2007).]

Emerging Science Note: Hybrid Sharks

This hybrid shark has both Australian blacktip and common blacktip DNA. (Pascal Geraghty (NSW DPI))

GELLERMAN: Just ahead – the development of a contagious virus in the lab threatens the spread of scientific information. But first this Note on Emerging Science from Mary Bates.


BATES: Two shark species are doing something totally new to science – interbreeding and producing hybrid offspring. For the first time ever, scientists have discovered widespread hybridization in the wild between two shark species. In a census of Australian marine life, a team led by scientists from the University of Queensland and James Cook University found 57 hybrid sharks, spanning multiple generations.

The hybrids are a mix between the Australian blacktip shark and the common blacktip shark. Genetic analyses revealed that the hybrids are mating with both other hybrids and purebred members of the original species. The scientists say wild hybrids are usually hard to find. They discovered the sharks’ true identities using genetic testing and body measurements. Australian blacktips and common blacktips look very similar, but they grow to different maximum sizes and are genetically distinct.

And while this is the first time scientists have seen interbreeding between two shark species, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening elsewhere in the ocean. Other closely related shark species around the world may be mating and producing hybrid offspring. Scientists just haven’t caught them in the act yet.

Meanwhile, back in Australia, scientists are planning to investigate where Australian blacktips and common blacktips meet and mate. They also want to measure the fitness of the hybrids and figure out how they might differ from their parent species. Scientists are hoping the private lives of these sharks won’t remain private much longer. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Mary Bates.

Related link:
Article in Conservation Genetics

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H5N1 Research Moratorium

A colorized image shows H5N1 avian flu strain viruses (gold) grown in dog kidney cells (green). (Photo: Flickr Creative Commons, UAF Center for Distance Education)

GELLERMAN: Last year’s medical thriller – the movie: Contagion -- imagined a deadly flu pandemic and the social breakdown that followed:

[CLIP FROM CONTAGION MOVIE: “Is there any way someone could weaponize the bird flu, is that what we’re looking at here?”/ “Someone doesn’t have to weaponize the bird flu….the birds are doing that.”]

GELLERMAN: The hard-to-control, easily transmitted flu in the movie was the stuff of fiction but teams of scientists in Wisconsin and the Netherlands have come close to making the scenario a distinct possibility.

Michael Osterholm. (Photo: CIDRAP)

The researchers recently announced they had manipulated the genes in the deadly strain of bird flu known as H5 N1 so the virus could spread in the air from lab ferret to lab ferret. As news of their discovery spread, so did fears that terrorists could use the knowledge to make airborne, human transmission possible.

The concerns led the National Science Advisory Board for Bio-Security to recommend that researchers limit the publication of their new results and stop their work until there is an international agreement on how to proceed. Dr. Michael Osterholm is a member of the Bio-Security Board and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

OSTERHOLM: What we are strongly urging is that the critical information in terms of methods and results that could make it possible for someone else to easily do this work, should not be published. I think that the overall results, the implications for those results, and where we go from here are very critical pieces of information that should be made public.

In addition, we have discussed the idea that there will clearly be those that will have a need to know this information. Various types of researchers that are going to specifically be working on vaccines or looking at the effectiveness of antivirals, they too should have the work. What we’re really objecting to is just the widespread, uncontrolled, unfettered release of this information.

GELLERMAN: How dangerous is the possibility of having a bird flu virus that can be transmitted from person to person?

OSTERHOLM: Again, we have to emphasize we don't know that any of the viruses created in this research setting are highly dangerous. But there sure is that possibility. And when we think about that, we have to act in a way that says we cannot afford to make a mistake at all - do no harm.

If this virus does readily transmit between humans, just as it’s now doing between ferrets, which, to date have been the best animal model we have for predicting its performance or behavior in humans, and if in fact, this virus is as lethal in humans as it is in the ferrets, this would be as serious an infectious disease encounter that the human population has ever known. You can take all other areas of influenza, you can take small pox, you take SARS, you can take the plague back to the Medieval Ages, and this one could really be a very, very serious challenge. So we cannot afford to be even a little bit wrong here.

GELLERMAN: Isn’t science based on the open and free flow of knowledge? Doesn’t this change all that?

OSTERHOLM: Science is in fact based on information being shared. In this case, what we have to do is weigh the risks and the benefits. We looked at what are the benefits of this information basically being released unfettered in a way that anyone and everyone could have access to it, versus what are the downsides of that happening. And we considered that very carefully in making our recommendation.

Remember that the Board has historically had a very strong position in favor of the free-flowing information of science. So for us to hit a threshold, where we believe that that was exceeded in terms of this work, that’s a strong statement about how significant we think this work is!

GELLERMAN: So, is there some knowledge that is so deadly that it must be kept secret?

OSTERHOLM: Well, I think in this case, absolutely! I mean, there’s a whole world of classified information that is not information about censorship meaning that no one should ever know it, but it’s about how do you share information in a way that those who have a need to know, know about it.

GELLERMAN: But how do you share scientific information and also keep it secret at the same time. I’m reminded of that old saying, you know, two people can keep a secret as long as one of them is dead.

OSTERHOLM: Well, in fact, we do have a model for that now. From the world of bio-terrorism and classified information, we do a lot of research involving biologic agents where there is information shared among those who have a need to know. So we do have models for this. Do we think that it’s perfect? No. Do we think that, in fact, it will be quite easy? No. But, do we think that the implications of this kind of information in the hands of someone who may use it for nefarious purposes is real and significant? Yes.

GELLERMAN: The researchers have agreed to a 60-day moratorium on their work.

OSTERHOLM: That is correct.

GELLERMAN: Is that going to help things?

OSTERHOLM: Well, I think at this point, it is a positive step forward. In other words, calling for a pause in this kind of work gives us some time to begin developing an international framework. We recognize the fact that how you share information with who and what kind of safeguards you put around that, also in addition, how you work with this agent safely in the laboratory - those are all huge questions and we believe we should be measuring twice, cutting once here. Meaning that we can’t make mistakes. You can’t un-ring a bell. If we make a mistake, this virus either gets out accidentally or it is, in fact, developed by someone who has a nefarious purpose in mind, obviously we haven’t done our job.

GELLERMAN: Well, Dr. Osterholm, thank you so very much.

OSTERHOLM: Sure, thank you!

GELLERMAN: Dr. Michael Osterholm is director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

Related link:
University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy

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BirdNote® Kittiwake, Kittiwake, Kittiwake!

A black-legged kittiwake and a chick on the nest. (Photo: Brian Anderson, USFWS)

GELLERMAN: Well, from fear of bird flu to the delights of bird flight…


A colony of black-legged kittiwakes. (Photo: Julie St. Louis, USFWS)

GELLERMAN: You may think a gull is a gull is a gull. But in this BirdNote®, Michael Stein finds one species of gull that’s different.


STEIN: The cry of the kittiwake rings out across the northern ocean:


STEIN: Kittiwakes were well known to even the earliest northern seafarers. Named for its rhythmic calls, the black-legged kittiwake, as it’s known in North America, is a dapper, oceanic gull. The tips of its pale gray wings look as though they've been dipped in black ink.


STEIN: Unlike many gulls, kittiwakes spend most of the year at sea and are seldom seen inland. Vast numbers live on the Bering Sea, where they are by far the most abundant gull. Ornithologist Arthur Bent wrote of nesting kittiwakes: “This species is always associated in my mind in its summer home, with the dark, frowning cliffs of the frozen north, which tower for hundreds of feet above the stormy ice-bound seas until lost to sight in shrouds of mist and fog, a safe retreat in which to raise their hardy offspring.”

(Photo: Steve Hillebrand, USFWS)

In winter, black-legged kittiwakes can be found along the West Coast from southern Alaska to Baja California, and along the East Coast from Labrador to Florida.


GELLERMAN: That’s Michael Stein of BirdNote®. To see some photos of black-legged kittiwakes, wing on over to our website LOE dot org.

Related links:
- Call of the Black-legged Kittiwake provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Recorded by J. Piatt. Highlight Black-legged Kittiwake call recorded by K. Colver.
- BirdNote® Kittiwake, Kittiwake, Kittiwake! was written by Bob Sundstrom.

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[MUSIC: Antonio Carlos Jobim “Surfboard” from Composer (Rhino Records 2005).]

GELLERMAN: Coming up: a green recipe for making concrete - it’s like baking bread without the oven. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!

ANNOUNCER ONE: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, supporting strategic communications and collaboration in solving the world's most pressing environmental problems, 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: Antonio Carlos Jobim : “Tema Jazz” from Tide (A&M Records 1974).]

Green Cement

New research suggests the pyramids may have been made out of a concrete similar to green cement. (Wikipedia Commons)

GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.


GELLERMAN: Okay class, it’s pop quiz time. Keep your eyes on your own paper. Multiple choice, one question. Here we go. Water is the most widely used material in the world. What is the second most widely used material? Is it, A) Plastic, B) Steel, or C) Concrete? Alex Moseson, you're the smartest kid in the room, you teach Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics at Drexel University, what’s the answer?

MOSESON: It is concrete, produced on the order of about two tons per person per year.

GELELRMAN: Oh! That’s a lot of concrete!

MOSESON: It is indeed. Actually when you take a look at it, it doesn’t look like all that much, that’s on the order of a couple of slabs of sidewalk.

GELLERMAN: But it makes lots of tons of carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas!

MOSESON: It does. It produces up to about five percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions in total from the CO2 released from making, not just the concrete, but really just from the cement that is used as the glue, the binder, that makes concrete possible.


Professor Alex Moseson (Courtesy of Alex Moseson)

GELLERMAN: So, how does that happen? Where does this CO2 come from in making the cement for the concrete?

MOSESON: Materials are typically mined in grand operations and brought to a giant kiln and then these rocks are essentially melted at 1500 degrees C. You can imagine it will take a lot of energy to melt rocks and you’re burning fuel, so that creates CO2 and other emissions. The rest of it comes from the chemical process that turns limestone into lime, which we need for cement.

GELLERMAN: And typically we call that Portland cement.

MOSESON: Right. So that stuff that goes through the kiln to come out the other end, have a couple of little things added to it and then we call that Portland.

GELLERMAN: So that’s where you and your research come in. You’ve developed something called Green Cement.

MOSESON: Indeed. So, we work on alkali-activated cement, and the beauty of it is we can take things that don’t need to go through a kiln in order to make them cement. So one of our investors had said: "Hey, it sounds like you figured out how to bake bread without an oven." Which is right!

GELLERMAN: So, you make Coolcrete.

MOSESON: You could say that.

GELLERMAN: Well, I just did! (Laughs.)

MOSESON: (Laughs.)

GELLERMAN: So, I don’t understand. What’s the stuff, what’s the magic sauce in making the cement without the heat and the CO2?

MOSESON: Any cement - you’re taking rocks, you’re turning it into a powder, and then you’re turning it back into rocks, and that’s an interesting process. In order to convince the chemicals involved to do that, you need something that is very caustic. Another way to do that is with an alkali chemical, something like soda ash, which happens to be very similar to baking soda, and it is widely available.

The idea is: we have a pinch of that alkali, and then we need something to activate. What we’re using are generally industrial byproducts, the leftovers from making iron out of iron ore, or the ashes left over from making power from coal.

GELLERMAN: So, by using fly ash or this slag, you can bake bread, make concrete, without the oven!

MOSESON: That’s right, and of course the next logical question is - well is it any good? Well, it’s not only just as good, it’s better in some ways.


MOSESON: In some ways. We’re looking at important metrics that everyone is familiar with such as strength and durability and things like that. There are some things that matter more to construction people, resistance to things like acid attack, resistance to the salt attack if you’re in a marine environment. There’s also interesting features that it’s better at containing waste, even things all the way up to nuclear waste, better than Portland.

GELLERMAN: What about cost, Professor? Is it competitive cost-wise, do you think?

MOSESON: Absolutely. If you’re going to say Product A, Portland cement, needs to be burned in a giant kiln which requires I don’t know how many millions of dollars to build and then millions more dollars of fuel to run, all you need to make ours is - mix it in a bucket.

GELLERMAN: Wow! So you built a better mix of cement, or concrete. Has the world beaten a path to your door?

MOSESON: Well, even though we have mega-scale recycling, we’re competitive in cost and strength, it has a longer life, it’s more durable, it’s more versatile, it is going to be certified, it’s even whiter, which is a big premium, (takes a deep breath) no. And that’s for three reasons. And I’ll tell you what the three reasons are.


MOSESON: The first reason is the variation in the feedstock materials. When we’re telling someone that we want to do something with your trash it’s hard to say: ‘Hey, person making iron, could you please tweak this so that your trash comes out better?’ And the second issue is, like with any product, we need all of its features to be working at the same time.

For example, getting it to set slowly enough and also having a high enough early strength. And when we pass those, we’ll be able to pass the standards required to overcome step three - and that is regulatory acceptance. So, we’re looking at making sure the cement is safe to use and that it does last as long as we think it’s going to. And this is a real issue to overcome because the cement that we know and love has been used for 100 years. So, we want to introduce this into the marketplace in the right way.

GELLERMAN: Good thing that the ancient Egyptians didn’t have these issues, because I understand that they actually built the pyramids using cement similar to the stuff that you’ve whipped up.

MOSESON: Indeed. And that is the excellent work of my colleague, Professor Barsoum, in Materials Science. He did some research into the origins of the pyramids and originally laughed at the idea that the pyramids could be re-constituted blocks. That they were carrying piles of rubble and making a rudimentary cement out of the ubiquitous limestone that they had there. We’ve done some tests ourselves and I can certainly say that it is at least as plausible as the other idea out there, except for ones that involve aliens, as the way they came to be.

GELLERMAN: So, what happens now, Professor?

MOSESON: We are trying to overcome the technical hurdles and we have a number of interested parties looking to help us take this into the real world.

Professor Alex Moseson’s video on Green Cement

GELLERMAN: Well, good luck!

MOSESON: Thank you very much!

GELLERMAN: Alex Moseson is an assistant teaching professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. And by the way, the good professor says his process for whipping up green-crete reduces the emission of CO2 by 95 percent. And that is a hard

Related link:
Website of Professor Alex Moseson

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The chemical structure of lignin (Wikimedia Commons)

GELLERMAN: Well, for another inventor, the road to riches could also be paved with a novel building product: agricultural waste.

The waste product is lignin - it’s the stuff that makes the walls of plant cells strong - and it's usually tossed out because it’s so tough and hard to break down. But Wilson Smith a grad student in Civil Engineering at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas has come up with a way to turn lignin into, if not a yellow brick road, than a green one.

SMITH: Lignin, I mean, it’s a component of biomass in plant matter. It’s what’s found in the cell walls of plants, it’s also what bonds together the wood fibers in trees. And what it does is it protects the carbohydrates in plants, like the two carbohydrates: cellulose and hemicellulose, it protects them from disease and from pests and it bonds with them. It’s just part of its nature to have that sticky quality, it almost smells like tree sap. And if you were to touch it, it would stick to your hands.

GELLERMAN: So, what are you going to do with all that lignin?

SMITH: Well, what I’m going to do is I’m going to test it in dry sand, mix in water and see how well the cohesion increases at different lignin contents and at different compaction levels. What I’m hoping is that as they dry, they’ll increase in cohesion. Dry sand by itself has no natural cohesion, and then when I add this lignin to it, and water, it gives cohesion to the soil. And as it cures, the lignin paste starts to become like a cement, and that increases the cohesion of the soil.

GELLERMAN: So, basically, it holds the soil together.

SMITH: Yes, exactly, like a glue.

GELLERMAN: How tough does it get?

SMITH: Well, I mean, I can’t say exactly in numerical terms, I have three different curing times that I’m doing. I made some samples and let them dry for two hours and I made some more that dried for seven hours and then some more that dried for 24 hours. Now for the samples that I made for two hours, I was able to break those apart with my own hands. The ones that were drying for seven hours, I had to use a screwdriver to chop it up, and then the ones that were drying for 24 hours, I had to actually just take the samples and smash them on the ground in order to break them up.

GELLERMAN: So, once you cure it, you’re good to go!

SMITH: Yes, exactly.

GELLERMAN: So you take water, lignin and soil, mix it up, it gets hard, and then you could use it for what?

SMITH: Well I mean, it’s not hard when you first mix it, I mean, it’s still very plastic and squishy, and then you let it dry and then it becomes hard. There’s been some testing, some very preliminary testing of different soil stabilizers in the field. In particularly in this wildlife refuge called Buenos Aires in Arizona.

They took a water truck which had nozzles attached to it, and they sprayed a water/lignin solution onto the soil. And then they took a roller truck to roll the soil flat again, so it would be flush for an unpaved road. And then over a two-year period of time, what they did was, every six months they went back to the site to do testing over the structural integrity of the roads. And it was found that, lignin performed above average for the two-year span of time.

GELLERMAN: You can roll it out and make an unpaved road, essentially paved, right?

SMITH: It’s very workable in that sense. You can mold it into almost any shape you want.

GELLERMAN: So you’ve got water, you’ve got soil, you’ve got your lignin, but what happens if it rains?

SMITH: Yes, that’s the tricky part and there needs to be further testing on the lignin and soil to know its long-term effects of water because lignin's very sensitive to water. At this wildlife refuge, Buenos Aires, even though it’s in the desert, they still get monsoon rains in the late summer time, and it was shown that the lignin was able to still work at an acceptable, adequate level even after those monsoon rains. Still, there needs to be testing done on its exposure to water.

GELLERMAN: Why don’t you make it into bricks?

SMITH: Oh, that’s a really good idea. You could also use it as some type of drywall material.

GELLERMAN: As long as it stays dry.

SMITH: Yes, exactly, it would have to be well insulated.

GELLERMAN: How soon before lignin roads might hit the streets?

SMITH: Oh, that depends on the investment and notoriety of lignin. Hopefully more people will catch interest in it and people will want to invest more and do more studies and research in it and it will speed up the time. But I would say it would be few years before you would see any mass-producing of lignin for road stabilization.

GELLERMAN: The road to riches may be paved with lignin in the future.

SMITH: (Laughs.) Now that’s one way of looking at it.

GELLERMAN: Well, Wilson Smith, thank you so very much.

SMITH: Oh thank you.

GELLERMAN: Wilson Smith is a grad student in civil engineering at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.

Related link:
Kansas State Press Release

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[MUSIC: Booker T Jones “regulation Time” from The Road From Memphis (Anti Records 2011).]

Overheating Musk Oxen

Ovibos moschatus aka the musk ox. (© Kjetil and Selina Våge)

GELLERMAN: If you’re going to live in Norway you have to be a hardy creature, capable of enduring long, dark winters. But adaptation to the cold climate can sometimes be deadly if things warm up. Reporter Ari Daniel Shapiro has our story.

BRETTEN: Looking for something that’s dark, brown and hairy.

SHAPIRO: That’s Tord Bretten, a park ranger in Dovrefjell, a mountain range in south central Norway. And he’s looking for muskoxen, or ovibos moschatus. He walks across spongy lichens until finally he stops, and scans the landscape.

The Dovrefjell mountain range in south central Norway. (© Kjetil and Selina Våge)


SHAPIRO: Did you spot one, Tord?

BRETTEN: Yes, we have one male between the small stream and the biggest snow patch. That black spot.

SHAPIRO: Oh, that black spot. Can I look through your binoculars?


SHAPIRO: This male weighs close to half a ton. Two horns curl out of his shaggy head. He’s healthy and robust, like the other 300 or so animals in the herd. But back in 2006, Bretten had a mystery on his hands. Dead muskoxen were turning up everywhere.

BRETTEN: I was out everyday and we found muskoxes all the time.


BRETTEN: Yes, and some of them we saw – we had a small herd of five here, I saw everyday for three days. And the third day, there were just four. One of them had died, and she was, I saw her, it was a fully-grown cow. I saw her the day before, and she didn’t look ill at all. Next day she was just dead.

SHAPIRO: Twenty-five dead animals were found that season. Another 60 went missing from the herd, and they were presumed dead.

BRETTEN: Oh, I was a bit worried that the population could get extinguished. I grew up down here and I’m used to them, I like them. I’ve seen them almost all my life. It would be a pity if they disappear.

Evidence of a musk ox. Their Inuit name Oomingmak, means 'the animal with skin like a beard'. (© Kjetil and Selina Våge)

SHAPIRO: There was no obvious cause of death. So Bretten invited Bjørnar Ytrehus to come visit. He’s a vet with the Norwegian Veterinary Institute, and he was just as puzzled. The animals had plenty of fat reserves. Their bellies were full of food. It looked like they’d just dropped in place. But then he looked at their lungs.

YTREHUS: The lower part of the lungs was dark, firm and with a lot of liquid inside, a bloody, watery, cut surface. These were signs of pneumonia.

SHAPIRO: A pneumonia caused by Pasteurella bacteria. Ytrehus had seen this kind of thing in sheep and reindeer before, and he knew that it’s usually related to some kind of stress. As for what had stressed the muskoxen:

YTREHUS: The temperature in this period had reached an all-time high.

Looking for musk ox. (© Kjetil and Selina Våge)

SHAPIRO: It was the fall, and so the muskoxen had already grown in their warm winter wool. They were overheating.

YTREHUS: When they experience heat, they have to pant to get rid of the heat. (Demonstrates musk ox panting). And this will accumulate bacteria that normally are found in the throat into the lungs.

SHAPIRO: Which is what led to the pneumonia. Usually, the cooler, drier mountains of Dovrefjell are an ideal place for the musk oxen. In fact, since the 2006 die-off when a third of the animals were lost, the temperatures have cooled and the herd’s recovered. But Ytrehus worries that it could happen again.

YTREHUS: As the climate changes, the climate on the mountain will also change in a warmer and wetter direction.

SHAPIRO: It’s worth pointing out that muskoxen disappeared from Norway after the last ice age once it got too warm here. So the muskoxen in Dovrefjell today were not originally from Norway. They were brought over from Greenland back in the 40s. And they were deposited in Dovrefjell – one of the few places in Norway today where the climate’s right for them. Bjørnar Ytrehus’ great-uncle was partly responsible for the transport of these animals. He was working in Greenland in the 40s and 50s.

Ovibos moschatus aka the musk ox. (© Kjetil and Selina Våge)

YTREHUS: He was lending his sled dogs to the people who wanted to catch calves. He regarded that as one of the worst things he had done in his life.


YTREHUS: Oh, because they killed the adult muskoxen to capture the calves. And the calves were crying for their mothers. And they brought the calves onboard the ship and took it back to Norway. I think he regard that as a terrible thing to do now that he’s an old man, but I’m sort of comforting him in that it is great that we have muskoxen on Dovre. And that they may have some use for us now.

SHAPIRO: Ytrehus sees these musk oxen as environmental sentinels, warning us about what could happen to animals in a world that’s getting warmer and wetter. The muskoxen were transplanted here to recall Norway’s past. But they may have more to say about the future. For Living on Earth, I’m Ari Daniel Shapiro.

GELLERMAN: Our muskoxen story comes to us from the series One Species at a Time.
It's produced by Atlantic Public Media with support from the Encyclopedia of Life. For more, follow the herd to our website LOE dot org.

Related link:
One Species at a Time

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[MUSIC: Marco Benevento “Ila Frost” from Between The Needles And Nightfall (Royal Potato Family 2010).]

GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Jessica Ilyse Kurn, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer and Ike Sriskandarajah, with help from Sarah Calkins, Mark Fabian, Max Geller, Eben Pendleton, Gabriela Romanow, and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Mary Bates and Sophie Golden. 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. And you can follow us on Twitter - @livingonearth, that's one word. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!

ANNOUNCER ONE: 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 paxworld dot com. Pax World for Tomorrow.

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