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

March 9, 2012

Air Date: March 9, 2012



Cleaning up Fukushima

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It’s been a year since three nuclear reactors and radioactive fuel pools melted down at the Fukushima power plant in Japan. The disaster contaminated nearly ten percent of the island nation. Journalist Winifred Bird lives in Japan and tells host Bruce Gellerman about the efforts to decontaminate the vast area. (07:00)

Methane Hydrates: Fire and Ice

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After the Fukushima nuclear accident, Japan shut down most of its nuclear power plants. Now, researchers are drilling deep into the ocean in search of a new source of energy called methane hydrates. U.S. Geological Survey researcher Carolyn Ruppel tells host Bruce Gellerman that tapping the methane stored in ice could help Japan fill its nuclear energy gap, and is a huge potential source of energy for the world. (08:00)

Tsunami in a Tank / Lauren Sommer

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Massive tsunamis are rare, destructive, and nearly impossible to study in real time. At Oregon State University, researchers are learning from the next best thing: tsunamis they create in the lab. From the IEEE Spectrum special “Responding to Disasters: From Prediction to Recover,” Lauren Sommer reports. (09:45)

BirdNote® Great Horned Owl Family / Mary McCann

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Great Horned Owls are among the largest and fiercest of owls. And, as Mary McCann reports, unlike many other birds, they need a leg up in raising their young because the owlets take such a long time to grow. (02:10)

Emerging Science Note: Winds of Change / Sophie Golden

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For many species around the world climate change has meant a turn for the worse. But for the wandering albatross it’s been a boon. Living on Earth’s Sophie Golden reports. (01:55)

Urban Forests

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Forests in U.S. cities are on the decline. Pests, drought, and urban development are taking their toll on the trees. David Nowak tracks the health of the nation’s trees for the U.S. Forest Service. He tells host Bruce Gellerman about the plight of the forests. (06:15)

Seattle Food Forest

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Plans are underway to establish a seven-acre food forest in the heart of Seattle. The forest will feature a variety of food-bearing trees, shrubs, and vines, and be free and open to the public. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with permaculture expert Jenny Pell about how efforts like this one can change the landscape and culture of American cities. (06:00)

Singing with Belugas / Mark Seth Lender

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The numbers of Beluga whales are dramatically down. But at their resting place in Hudson Bay, Canada, writer Mark Seth Lender was lucky to have a close musical encounter with a group of Beluga whales, and one in particular. (03:00)

Earth Ear

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Listen to two Flufftails from Madagascar. The same family perhaps, but with different habits – one roams far and wide while the other is a homebody. ()

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Winifred Bird, Carolyn Ruppel, David Nowak, Jenny Pell
REPORTERS: Lauren Sommer, Mary McCann
NOTES: Sophie Golden


GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. The meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant contaminated a vast area of Japan. Now, a year later, cleaning up the radioactive mess gets under way.

BIRD: It's actually quite sticky. It initially is on the surface of leaves and buildings and it eventually starts to be washed down into the soil. It really sticks to the soil. And then later on it will even be absorbed into plants and the bodies of animals.

GELLERMAN: Also, with nearly all its reactors shut down Japan drills offshore, trying to tap a very unusual energy source.

RUPPEL: One reason we call it fiery ice, or fire in the ice, is that you can actually light this little chunk of icy material on fire and it will sustain the flame.

GELLERMAN: But can fiery ice sustain Japan? These stories and more this week on Living on Earth - stick around!


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

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Cleaning up Fukushima

Roughly 80% of Fukushima Prefecture is wooded and mountainous. (Photo: Adriaan Tijsseling)

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, it’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. It was a year ago on March 11th at precisely 2:46 in the afternoon…


GELLERMAN: When the most powerful earthquake ever to hit Japan shook the earth for six terrifying minutes….


GELLERMAN: Finally, it was over; the air was still - and eerily calm.


GELLERMAN: Then sirens began to wail, warning of a tsunami. Giant waves pounded Japan’s Pacific coast, submerging the emergency backup generators at the Fukushima Nuclear Power plant, leading to a meltdown of spent radioactive fuel and reactors.
Freelance American journalist Winifred Bird lives 300 miles south west of Fukushima.

BIRD: I turned on the TV which is what I always do when there's an earthquake and pretty soon these images started coming in of, you know, the little pre-tsunami waves kind of washing over the ports and it just kind of escalated and escalated. It took me maybe a few hours to realize that this wasn't your normal disaster.

GELLERMAN: More than 16 thousand people died, and a million were evacuated from a 12-mile zone around the nuclear power plant as radiation spread. Now, the Japanese government has decided to decontaminate the vast region, and Winifred Bird writes about the Herculean effort in the on-line publication: Yale Environment 360.

BIRD: The Central Government is in charge of decontaminating the evacuation area, which is about 1,000 square kilometers - about 500 square kilometers of that is very severely contaminated. However, there’s radioactive materials spread over a much larger area, so it all depends on how much people decide that they want to clean up.

GELLERMAN: So, they’ve got this vast area that’s contaminated. What do they hope to do? How do they hope to decontaminate it?

BIRD: The methods vary depending on what you’re decontaminating. It’s mostly radio-cesium that they’re trying to clean up - it’s actually quite sticky, so you know, it falls down in rain from the atmosphere, and it is initially on the surface of leaves and buildings and it eventually starts to be washed down into the soil, especially with clay soils, it really sticks to the soil.

So, say if you want to clean up a building, a concrete building, you can say spray it down or wipe it down, but if you’re talking about cleaning up a forest, now we’re getting into removing leaf litter, removing soil, you might even need to cut the branches off the trees or possibly even, in some cases, cut the whole tree down. So, 80 percent of Fukushima Prefecture is covered in forest and farms, so you can’t just ignore the forest and focus on towns only.

Fukushima Prefecture is featured in red. (Wikimedia Commons)

Another issue is that Fukushima is very mountainous, as is much of Japan, so even if you have an isolated town down in a valley and you have a forest up above it, you have the issue of contamination washing down continuously from the forest and hillside. It’s a huge problem and nobody has quite figured out what to do about it.

GELLERMAN: So, when you wash this stuff off, this sticky cesium, what do you do with the water?

BIRD: (Laughs.) Right. So that’s a big problem that the government and the contractors working on this have discovered as they begin to experiment with different methods, is, essentially if you rely on washing down the surfaces of buildings and other artificial materials, you’re just moving the contamination around in the environment. So you’re moving it from a house into a river, ultimately into the ocean. Or, you’re maybe moving it onto your neighbor’s property.

So they’ve come up with several possible solutions, one is wiping things down instead of washing. Another one is using a vacuum at the same time as a sprayer, so it’s kind of like when you go to the dentist and they have the vacuum in your mouth as they’re putting the water in…


BIRD: But, obviously, that’s really hard to do on a huge scale.

GELLERMAN: What a mess! What about the soil?

BIRD: Highly contaminated soil does need to be removed in large quantities. The Ministry of the Environment has estimated that between 15 and 31 million cubic meters of soil and debris will need to be removed from Fukushima Prefecture, and it’s quite possible that that number could rise.

GELLERMAN: That’s a lot of soil. Where do you put it?

BIRD: So, that’s the problem - nobody wants the soil in their town long term. Temporarily, you just kind of store it near where you’ve removed it, and that’s where it is right now. But the government wants to create a mid-term storage facility somewhere within the contaminated, the highly contaminated area.

GELLERMAN: This has got to be very, very expensive to clean up this contamination. Any idea, has the government said, how much it could cost?

BIRD: Well, the government has already allotted over one trillion yen, which is about 12 or 13 billion dollars, and I expect that the costs will exceed that significantly.

GELLERMAN: How does Fukushima’s fallout compare to Chernobyl’s?

BIRD: The amount of radionuclides released is quite a bit smaller. The most recent estimate was about 20 percent of what was emitted from Chernobyl. But one of the big differences is that after the Chernobyl disaster, the government permanently moved the residents from, I think it was a 19 mile radius around the damaged nuclear power plant. And aside from cleaning up roads and towns in that area, they pretty much gave up on the idea of cleaning up the farmland and forests.

A sunset in Fukushima Prefecture. (Photo: likeablerodent)

GELLERMAN: Yeah, it became an exclusionary zone.

BIRD: That’s right, and it still is today over 25 years later. In Japan, the Japanese government doesn’t want to do that. There’s not a ton of area to resettle people, so the government wants as much as possible to clean up the contamination and move people back into that area.

GELLERMAN: How are the Japanese people reacting to these efforts? Do they have confidence that the decontamination efforts are going to work?

BIRD: I think that a lot of people are extremely skeptical. A huge amount of trust in the government and in industry has been lost as a result of this disaster. Evacuees who I’ve talked to that used to live quite close to the nuclear plant have told me that they no longer want to move back no matter what the government does or says, because they don’t trust in those promises.

So I think that one of the main things the government is going to have to work on is building back some semblance of credibility with the public.

GELLERMAN: Winifred, thank you so very much.

BIRD: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.

GELLERMAN: Winifred Bird is a freelance journalist living in Japan. Well, since the disaster Japan has pulled the plug on all but two of its 53 nuclear reactors. The nation has always been energy poor, it imports 95 percent of its fuel. But for the past decade Japan has been investigating a very unconventional energy source in the sea just off the coast.

Related link:
Winifred Bird’s Work for Yale Environment 360

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Methane Hydrates: Fire and Ice

Gas hydrate deposits are found in both permafrost and deep-water regions. (Figure modified from Ruppel (2011))

GELLERMAN: And now experimental drilling, designed to commercialize what is known as methane hydrate, is picking up speed. Promising a new source of energy, not just for Japan, but the world. Carolyn Ruppel, of the U.S. Geological Survey at Woods Hole Massachusetts, studies methane hydrate, which some call fiery ice.

Methane hydrate is sometimes called “the ice that burns” because it releases enough methane to sustain a flame. (USGS Gas Hydrates Project)

RUPPEL: One reason we call it fiery ice, or fire in the ice, is that you can actually light this little chunk of icy material on fire and it will sustain the flame. If you see them in their concentrated form, they look like little chunks of ice. And, sometimes, if you put them in your hand, they will fizz because they are releasing the methane. They are not stable at normal pressures and temperatures, so it’s releasing its methane.

GELLERMAN: These crystals of ice contain and lock in a lot of methane.

RUPPEL: Right. One way to think about it is if you have one cubic meter of methane hydrate, if you were to break that down at sort of our atmospheric pressure and temperature conditions, you would get about 164 cubic meters of methane, essentially a very concentrated form of methane.

GELLERMAN: So, methane, natural gas?

RUPPEL: It’s natural gas, but it’s natural gas that is trapped within this form that concentrates it.

GELLERMAN: And there’s a lot of this methane hydrates in the world.

Electron microscope images of geodesic dome-like methane hydrate crystals. The scale at the bottom shows 10 microns; a micron is 1000th of a millimeter. (Photo: L. Stern, US Geological Survey)

RUPPEL: Right. And there’s still, even today, after many decades of study, there’s still a lot of controversy about how much there is, but it’s still very substantial.

GELLERMAN: I heard that maybe a thousand years worth of natural gas, methane, at current consumption worldwide.

RUPPEL: Some people say a hundred and some people say a thousand.

GELLERMAN: Well, how could we mine this - could we mine them?

RUPPEL: What you’d probably want to do is stimulate the formation to release the gas. So, ways to do that might be to depressurize the formation. It’s under pressure, and take the pressure off. The other method that has been actually attempted is to heat the formation up, and that way, you could produce the methane.

GELLERMAN: What are they using in Japan in these experimental wells that they hope to turn into commercial wells?

RUPPEL: What they’re doing now is they’re starting to drill the series of wells that will be necessary to get to the point of doing a long-term production test. And what a long-term production test would mean is proving that the amount of methane hydrate down there and the rate at which you could produce methane from it this would make this a viable resources.

GELLERMAN: The United States has projects on the north slope of Alaska to find out if we have these methane hydrates and find out if we can exploit them - we know we have them there, right?

RUPPEL: We know we have them and the more critical question is how and if we can exploit them. Ultimately the questions that we’re all looking at would be what are the best ways to exploit them and is it economically feasible to get to the point that gas hydrates become part of the total natural gas supply for the U.S.

GELLERMAN: I understand that one of the richest places on the planet is in the Gulf of Mexico.

RUPPEL: In terms of gas hydrate concentrations from what we’ve found so far, there are some very high saturation deposits within the Gulf of Mexico.

GELLERMAN: We should say that methane, natural gas, is a very potent greenhouse gas.

Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Dr. Carolyn Ruppel in the LOE studio. (Photo: Jessica Ilyse Kurn)

RUPPEL: It is a very potent greenhouse gas. It’s estimated to be 15-20 times more potent than CO2 in the atmosphere, but the concentration of CO2 is obviously much, much higher than methane.

GELLERMAN: If I were a drilling company in the Gulf of Mexico and I was drilling down through these methane hydrate layers…

RUPPEL: Uh huh.

GELLERMAN: And causing them to disrupt, could that cause a problem?

RUPPEL: Well, we don’t have any published evidence that there has been any kind of failure or problem related to drilling through gas hydrates. But certainly, there needs to be a lot more work done on these hazards.

GELLERMAN: Do you think a mistake in drilling could trigger climate problems?

RUPPEL: No. You know, when we’re drilling, it’s a discrete borehole that’s being made in the ground, so that’s unlikely to create a methane release so large that this would have an impact.

The other thing to remember is that, particularly with deepwater drilling, that methane when it’s released goes into this huge pool of the ocean where the ocean is very under-saturated. So mostly, it dissolves in the ocean. That may not be so good for the ocean, but it’s not usually a freight train to get that gas directly out into the atmosphere.

GELLERMAN: So, you think that we can manage the risks?

RUPPEL: I don’t think there really are large risks to worry about with the production.

GELLERMAN: I was surprised to hear you say that because I’ve been reading about this and they talk about geo-hazards from methane hydrates.

RUPPEL: Mm hmm. Right.

GELLERMAN: Let me go through a couple of them. One would be climate change - 55 million years ago - they say that there was a large scale disruption of the methane in the ocean and it caused basically mass extinction of marine life.

RUPPEL: Yes. That’s one explanation for a period for this mass extinction event and also there was a large warming event. But I think it’s important to make a distinction here between so-called geo-hazards which are hazards like climate change or submarine slope failure, which is another hazard that has sometimes been attributed to gas hydrates. It’s important to make a distinction between those kinds of hazards and the kinds of hazards that might be attributed to drilling or producing in these deposits.

How arctic methane emissions from gas hydrates could increase climate warming. (USGS Gas Hydrates Project)

GELLERMAN: What you just talked about are basically landslides in the ocean.

RUPPEL: Which occur in the oceans, sometimes, yes.

GELLERMAN: Because of the disruption of methane hydrates?

RUPPEL: Well, I think it’s very unlikely that gas hydrates themselves trigger the landslides, but they may precondition these slopes for failure if there’s an outside triggering event.

GELLERMAN: So, an earthquake, if you have an earthquake…

RUPPEL: Yes, yes.

GELLERMAN: It would disrupt the methane hydrates?

RUPPEL: Or the associated free gas, yes. And potentially, destabilize the slope, right.

GELLERMAN: Causing a tidal wave?

RUPPEL: That has also been postulated, but the problem is again, after a slide has already occurred, we have very little proof of what caused the slide.

GELLERMAN: So, Japan has a very ambitious program, right now, relative to the United States. How big is it compared to what we’re doing?

RUPPEL: Well, the total spending in the U.S., since about 1999, has probably been about 130 million dollars. In Japan, the project they’ve undertaken now, the investment is about one billion dollars, and that’s from sort of doing what we call the geotechnical wells through the production tests.

GELLERMAN: But Japan has the compelling forces of urgent necessity - they’re…

RUPPEL: Absolutely. Absolutely.

GELLERMAN: So if you were an optimistic person, I’m guessing you are, when do you think we could start mining this if it was economically feasible?

RUPPEL: Well, Japan may be there in a decade, easily. Let’s talk about the U.S. We’re probably talking 15 years before we’d start being able to add that to the natural gas stream. There is one important thing to note, which is that natural gas has the same problem in many places, which is it has to be near a way to move the natural gas.

Solid methane hydrate recovered from sediments about 20 feet below the seafloor near Canada’s Vancouver Island. (Integrated Ocean Drilling Program)

So here’s a situation where the natural gas may be sitting in deep water environments very far from the coast, or in Alaska. And you have the same problem again. Natural gas in that sense is natural gas.

GELLERMAN: Well, Dr. Ruppel, thank you so very much for coming in.

RUPPEL: It’s my pleasure.

GELLERMAN: Carolyn Ruppel is a research geophysicist with the gas hydrates project at the U.S. Geological Survey at Woods Hole Massachusetts.

Related links:
- Research Consortium for Methane Hydrate Resources in Japan
- The National Methane Hydrates R&D Program
- Gas-Hydrate Research at the U.S. Geological Survey

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[MUSIC: Robert Glasper.]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead: Studying tsunamis in a swimming pool. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Jenny Scheinman: “A Ride With Polly Jean” from Mischief And Mayhem (Jenny Scheinman Music 2012).]

Tsunami in a Tank

A crew of students puts gravel into a landslide simulation machine, which imitates how a landslide on a volcanic island creates a destructive tsunami that wraps around the island. (Photo: Lauren Sommer)

GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Tsunamis can be triggered by earthquakes, undersea landslides, even meteorites striking the ocean. Thankfully, tsunamis are rare, but when they do strike they can be deadly. In 2004 giant tsunami waves smashed into Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, killing nearly a quarter of a million people.

U.S. scientists warn the Cascade fault line under the sea along the Pacific Northwest is overdue for a massive quake and fear that could trigger a tsunami along the U.S.-Canadian coastline. To prepare, the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program provides evacuation maps, emergency training and educational materials. This is one of its videos:

[TSUNAMI VIDEO: "It can be many miles long from one to 100 feet high, traveling at 400 miles per hour. This ocean monster is known as a tsunami and it can wreak havoc on coastal populations and landscapes. Tsunamis can strike any coastline in the world and can affect locations thousands of miles away form where they’ve formed. They may be uncommon, but the devastation they cause makes them a deadly force in nature…”]

GELLERMAN: But forces within the federal budget may prove a match for the U.S. Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program. President Obama proposes cutting nearly five million dollar in its funding next year.

Yet even in the best of times, studying tsunamis is difficult. Catching the rare waves at sea is tough, so researchers at Oregon State University are creating tsunamis in special swimming pools. From IEEE Spectrum’s program: “Responding to Disasters: From Prediction to Recovery,” Lauren Sommer reports.


SOMMER: Just off campus at Oregon State University, there’s a large warehouse that’s home to what looks like an Olympic-size swimming pool.

FRITZ: So this is the tsunami wave basin here. You know, it’s a hundred sixty feet long, a hundred feet wide…

SOMMER: Hermann Fritz is an associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He’s here in Oregon with a team of students to do one thing: make tsunamis.

FRITZ: Right now there’s four feet of water in the basin.

SOMMER: Well, with four feet of water, they’re making miniature tsunamis. But that’s the whole idea. This wave basin simulates tsunamis, which, in the real world, are incredibly destructive.

FRITZ: You can see a conical island, which, ah, similar to an island in Hawaii or in the Caribbean.

SOMMER: Fritz and his team built the island in the center of the pool. They’re using it to simulate a very specific kind of tsunami, those generated by landslides.

FRITZ: So it’s a little bit like a volcano that’s collapsing and producing a tsunami wave.

SOMMER: When an eruption or earthquake occurs on the coast, it can send a massive amount of debris into the ocean, which creates a tsunami wave. These tsunamis are often much larger than normal. They’re mega-tsunamis and, as a result, much deadlier.

FRITZ: There’s of course, Krakatoa volcano in Indonesia. It’s a famous volcanic explosion and then engulfment collapse of an entire volcanic island.

SOMMER: That caused 36,000 fatalities in 1883. But landslide-generated tsunamis are relatively rare. Fritz is the first to simulate how they work.


SOMMER: The landslide in this experiment is simulated with 3,000 pounds of gravel. The team is loading it from an overhead crane into a sort of man-made landslide generator that’s sitting on the island. It’s basically a large bin that fires the gravel down the side of the island and into water when the time is right.

The tsunami-simulating pool at the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory at Oregon State University. (Photo: Lauren Sommer)

[SHOUTING: Coming down in 15 seconds!]

SOMMER: And that time is now.


SOMMER: The gravel shoots into the water, sending waves across the pool. The waves are being recorded by high-speed video cameras and by gauges that measure the height. Fritz and his students gather around computer monitors to watch the data come in.

FRTIZ6: There’s a little bit of noise at the beginning, you can see, kind of, nice waves over most of it but at the very beginning there is a little bit of a spark here …

SOMMER: On a good day, they’ll run this simulation up to eight times.

MCFALL: It’s pretty exciting to see the wave propagate around the cone and then collide on the backside.

SOMMER: Georgia Tech PhD student Brian McFall is talking about one of the stranger effects they’re studying. Say a tsunami is headed toward your island….

MCFALL: It seems like it’s so intuitive. ‘Oh the wave is coming from the north, let me get to the south side of the island.’ Not necessarily, it isn’t really the best idea, even though it seems like you want to be as far away from it as possible, you’re actually going to get hit a lot harder than if you’re on the sides.

SOMMER: That’s because once the tsunami hits the island, the waves wrap around both sides and collide at the back, combining their energy. That creates a larger wave, which runs up onto the land and makes the backside of the island one of the worst places to be.

Hermann Fritz says this kind of data can be used to update tsunami hazard maps, which, today, don’t include risk from landslide-generated tsunamis. That’s just one of the gaps tsunami researchers are trying to fill.

FRITZ: So the main problem is in tsunami research there are very few benchmark cases out there that you have with data.

SOMMER: Historically, researchers have had little data about tsunamis in action.

FRITZ: Up ‘til 2004 there were almost no even videos or photos of tsunamis. So, tsunami was kind of this almost unseen hazard that can destroy entire coastlines.

SOMMER: Fritz says their miniature tsunami experiments tell them about the basic dynamics of tsunami waves. That data can be used in sophisticated computer models, which can forecast where tsunamis might happen and what their impact will be.

Of course, tsunami researchers still try to observe real events. Fritz is often part of a research team that rushes to sites where tsunamis have hit.

FRITZ: We try to get the ephemeral information, the perishable data, the things that go away. When we go right after the event, we try to get watermarks, just to see how high the water was.

SOMMER: The data they collect helps tsunami researchers model future tsunamis more accurately. And recently, he’s been busy.

FRITZ: Well, I've been to the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, that's a very large event. And then to several smaller events in Indonesia, Java, 2006, South Pacific, Solomon Islands, 2007 and Somoa, 2009…

SOMMER: While most of these tsunamis didn’t make the headlines, the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami certainly did. Combined, the events caused more than 200,000 deaths.

FRITZ: Banda Aceh is a huge city and was essentially wiped out. And so it's a very large area of total destruction. The human scale kind of gets lost when once you have a field of destruction that's so big.

SOMMER: For the first time, the world witnessed the devastating power of a major tsunami in action through videos and photos that were shot as the wave advanced. What those images showed was a relentless wall of water. Tsunami waves are astonishingly long. And when they hit land, Fritz says it’s like car hitting a wall.

FRITZ: So the front slows down while the back is still pushing. And the wavelength is getting shorter and shorter and the wave height gets higher and higher.

SOMMER: Against that kind of power, coastal communities have two main defenses: warning and evacuation.

FRITZ: Warning systems are primarily designed for far field events, for events where for example, they have an earthquake in Alaska, and then you have four hours until the tsunami waves reaches Hawaii.

SOMMER: But for coastal communities close to an earthquake’s epicenter, a warning may not provide enough time.

FRITZ: There's very little time between when the earthquake happens and when the wave arrives. And that can be, it's typically on the order of 15-30 minutes in most places. But in some cases it can even be as short as five minutes in extreme scenarios. And then there's really no time.

SOMMER: Fritz says that’s where public education comes in. And the rule is pretty simple.

FRITZ: For local residents, the rule is typically if you feel the earthquake and it goes on for more than 30 seconds, or if you see the water surface withdraw, then you should evacuate.

SOMMER: Public education proved to be critical during the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

YEH: So we turn on the TV about five til ten and it's something going on.

SOMMER: Harry Yeh is a professor of coastal and ocean engineering at Oregon State University. On the evening of March 11, he was settling in to watch a cooking show with his wife.

YEH: I am half Japanese and I grew up in Japan, and my wife is Japanese, so we have Japanese TV.

SOMMER: As soon as Yeh saw the size of the earthquake, he braced himself for the worst.

YEH: There's no doubt. There's tsunami is coming. Significant tsunami's coming, but we do not know how big.

SOMMER: Yeh says Japan is no stranger to tsunamis and the evacuation following the quake certainly saved lives. Still, around 20,000 people died.

YEH: In the coastal community, because they are wealthy society, they build the buildings with reinforced concrete. So in Japan, people told if tsunami happen, if the higher ground is not nearby, get into this concrete buildings, climb up to the fourth stories. And that's why lots of people saved their lives, but not all.

SOMMER: That’s because in some cases, the tsunami went above the fourth floor.

YEH: That was a sad story. But that’s some lesson we should learn.

SOMMER: Japan’s past history of tsunamis has helped the country prepare for disasters, but it can also get in the way.

YEH: They built sea walls to protect the small coastal communities. But those are based upon the experience, experience of the 1933 tsunami and the 1896 tsunamis.

SOMMER: Yeh was part of a team that surveyed the damage after the tsunami. He says it’s given them an unprecedented look at how modern buildings survive in a disaster of that scale. It’s also made him rethink building codes that he’s contributed to, like the ones for tsunami evacuation centers for people who can’t reach higher ground.

YEH: I said that well if this building was built by reinforced concrete, you know, it's probably 95 percent safe. Case closed.

SOMMER: But in Japan, Yeh saw entire concrete buildings toppled over, completely on their side. He believes the earthquake could have liquefied the soil under the buildings, making their foundations fail. Also, the tsunami may have trapped air inside the buildings, making them more buoyant.

YEH: Reinforced concrete structure is always standing if you go to the site. That was not the case.

SOMMER: Yeh believes that studies in Japan will be especially relevant in Oregon and Washington, where the tsunami risk is among the highest in the country. What researchers learn will improve building codes and tsunami risk maps and, ultimately, save lives. I’m Lauren Sommer.

GELLERMAN: Our tsunami story is part of the IEEE Spectrum, National Science Foundation program “Responding to Disasters: From Prediction to Recovery.”
For more information, go to our website LOE dot org.

Related links:
- Oregon State University’s O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory
- IEEE Spectrum

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BirdNote® Great Horned Owl Family

You looking at me? (Photo: © Tom Grey)


GELLERMAN: Now, there’s a fly-by-night bird that perhaps you should give a hoot about. Mary McCann of BirdNote® has a word to the wise.


MCCANN: We often think of spring as the nesting season for birds. But great horned owls nest in winter, because young owls take a long time to grow up.

A juvenile Great Horned Owl stares out from his/her perch. (Photo: © Tom Grey)


MCCANN: This pair occupies a large stick nest in a tall cottonwood, a nest that red-tailed hawks built last year. The female great horned owl, which outweighs the male by a third…


MCCANN: Incubated her eggs for a full month, never leaving the nest. The male owl…


MCCANN: …hunted for both. When the eggs hatched, the downy owlets were the size of newborn chickens. The male remained the sole provider for another two weeks, until the young put on a second set of down feathers.

Now, the young can be left alone while both adult great horned owls resume hunting at twilight. From elevated perches, they plunge with silent wings onto prey below. They take mice, rabbits, and opossums, ducks and crows, even skunks and young raccoons.

The young owls will remain with their parents for several months. And because the cycle started in winter, the young will have an abundance of prey when they are finally on their own.


It’s a family affair, as these Great Horned Owls nest in a tree. (Photo: © Tom Grey)

MCCANN: I’m Mary McCann.

GELLERMAN: To see some photos of great horned owls, swoop on over to our website LOE dot org.

Related links:
- Sounds of the Great-Horned Owl provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Hoots of the pair (and individual adults) recorded by W.R. Fish. Screech of juvenile recorded by C. Peterson
- BirdNote® Great Horned Owl Family was written by Bob Sundstrom.

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[MUSIC: Red Cloud “Night Owls” from Traveling Circus: The Instrumentals (Syntax Records 2003).]

GELLERMAN: Coming up, urban deforestation leaves U.S. cities with fewer trees and us with a problem:

NOWAK: They clean the air; they help clean the water by intercepting water and reducing run-off, they take in carbon dioxide, and they shade buildings and reduce air temperatures in cities and have huge impacts on energy use.

GELLERMAN: But America’s hard working city trees are in trouble, that next, so 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: Dean Fraser: “Chant Down Babylon” from Dean Plays Bob Vol 2 (Sanctuary Records 1996).]

Emerging Science Note: Winds of Change

Wandering Albatross. (NOAA Photo Library)

GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Just ahead, feasting on urban forests, but first, this Note on Emerging Science from Sophie Golden.


GOLDEN: For many species around the world climate change has meant a turn for the worse, but for the wandering albatross it’s been a boon, at least, for now.

Researchers have been studying the breeding habits of a colony of wandering albatross in the Crozet Islands for over 40 years. Now scientists at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Germany are looking at the effects of climate change on the species.

The Crozet Islands are in one of windiest places in the Southern Ocean. And the changing climate has boosted the power of the westerly winds and shifted them south. And the albatross have followed. The stronger winds allow the birds to fly faster, covering ocean in less time. And shorter trips mean more time at home with the kids.

Both male and female albatross split time between foraging for food and nesting. Shorter shifts on the nest lead to fewer breeding failures, and an increase in population. And population is not the only thing that has increased. The average weight of both the male and female albatross has gone up by over two pounds in the last 20 years. Researchers believe this could be due to less time spent on the nest, or an evolutionary response to the windier conditions.

As quickly as the albatross can adapt, the winds can change, and they might bring new problems in the next gust. But for now the albatross can enjoy the benefits of a changing planet. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Sophie Golden.


Related link:
Article in Science Magazine

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Urban Forests

Only one city, Syracuse, NY, exhibited an overall increase in tree cover. However, the increase was dominated by European buckthorn, an invasive shrub. (Photo: David Nowak, US Forest Service Northern Research Station)

GELLERMAN: U.S Forest Service researcher David Nowak says, he thinks he’ll never see a harder worker than an urban tree. As Nowak tells it, not only do tree roots and leaves clean our air and water, the canopies cut energy costs, lower our fast paced, urban stress levels, and beautify our cities.

Problem is: America is losing its urban forests. According to Nowak, last year alone, our cities lost about four million trees. David Nowak joins me from his office at the US Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in Syracuse, New York. Hey David, welcome to Living on Earth!

NOWAK: Thanks Bruce, it's great to be here.

GELLERMAN: So, how do you know that we’re losing so many trees?

NOWAK: Well, we looked at historical imagery from the last five years or so over various cities and across the United States and looked at what we called paired image analysis to compare what cover was say five years ago and what cover is today. And we’re showing that most of the cities in the country are showing a decline in urban tree cover.

GELLERMAN: What’s happening to the trees?

NOWAK: It could be a whole bunch of things. We really don’t know exactly what it is. This trend of loss is both trees coming in and trees going out, so people are planting trees, trees are naturally regenerating, but we’re also losing trees to old age, to insects and disease and to development and the net change of what we’re looking at, it’s a trend of going downward.

GELLERMAN: So you looked at 20 U.S. cities.


GELLERMAN: And what’s the trend in terms of numbers?

NOWAK: It’s dropping at about, say, approximately point three percent of the city area per year on average. The big loser, obviously, which we expected, was New Orleans - because we targeted New Orleans specifically to pick imagery before the hurricane and then about five years after the hurricane. The other big losers were Huston, Albuquerque, Baltimore and Atlanta.

GELLERMAN: So, do we know why Huston, Albuquerque, Baltimore and Atlanta - why they might have lost trees?

David Nowak, Project Leader and Research Forester at the US Forest Service Northern Research Station (US Forest Service Northern Research Station)

NOWAK: It’s a combination of those natural factors, of those insects and diseases, and human factors, of development or people’s choices.

GELLERMAN: So, none of these 20 cities that you studied, none of them had an increase in the number of trees?

NOWAK: No, one city did.


NOWAK: The city of Syracuse was one city that had a one percent increase in canopy cover, and the reason that Syracuse has gone up is because of an invasive shrub, European buckthorn, has almost tripled in population in the last five to ten years. Syracuse had a Labor Day storm in 1998 that took out a lot of trees so it created more space. So, our theory partly is that some of this open space, that was created after the storm, we have this buckthorn in there that tends to be invading some of these sites.

GELERMAN: But a shrub is not a tree.

NOWAK: Well, it depends on how you classify a tree or a shrub. If you look in the literature, a lot of these plants are classified as large shrub or small tree, so by our definition is that if it has a diameter of about four and a half feet and is at least one inch across, we classify it as a tree in the woody class, which would be a large shrub or a small tree.

GELLERMAN: Well, as I said in my introduction, it seems that urban forests are the hardest working trees in the country, at least according to the chief of the U.S. Forest Service. How hard do they work? What do they do?

NOWAK: Well, they clean the air, they help clean the water by intercepting water and reducing runoff, they take in carbon dioxide, they shade buildings and reduce air temperatures in cities, it has huge impacts on energy use within urban areas. They produce wildlife habitat, they have effects on human health in terms of both by changing air quality and in terms of people just viewing vegetation and how our body responds to seeing the vegetation, we become more relaxed…

GELLERMAN: So, David Nowak, I was looking at a study about New York City going back to 2006, and it found that the value to the city was about 122 million dollars, that’s 209 dollars a tree of carbon sequestration, and flood control, that kind of thing - sound about right?

NOWAK: Sounds reasonable because there are many services that trees provide, and many we can’t even quantify. Some of the more direct ones - energy is fairly direct, pollution is more difficult, carbon and its effects on water. So there’s all these services that come from one plant or one plant system that have a whole multitude of benefits, so it sounds like a reasonable number.

GELLERMAN: Now, if you don’t have a tree, what you have then is bare ground and you can have grass, and you can have what you call ‘impervious cover,’ that would be what, like sidewalks, roads, that kind of thing?

NOWAK: Yes. It has to do with population densities and how the cities are structured in terms of where the people reside. If pack a lot of people in, you need a lot of infrastructure and you tend to increase the impervious surface.

GELLERMAN: What’s the most tree-covered city in the United States?

Aerial view of downtown Los Angeles. There's an average increase of about 550 hectares in impervious cover (such as pavement and rooftops) each year. (Google Earth)

NOWAK: Ah, that’s a good question. The…I don’t know offhand because we haven’t analyzed every city. On average the states that have the greatest amount of tree cover in urban areas tend to be Massachusetts and Connecticut, they tend to have on average over 60 percent canopy cover within their urban areas, which is fairly high. But for an individual city some of the cities down south had significant amounts of tree cover - Atlanta had 52 percent, Nashville had near 50 percent also, so those have lots of cover.

GELLERMAN: What can the average person do about the loss of trees, I mean, ok - I can plant a tree, I suppose, right?

NOWAK: You can plant a tree, you can allow natural regeneration to occur, there’s often reasons new trees don’t come in. Particularly in the east coast of the United States, we prevent trees from coming in, we mow our lawn, we put impervious surfaces down.

More importantly we can understand what our forest is and what it's doing so we can get better information about this system that we live with and this nature in our backyard. What type of species do we have in the cities, what are these services they are providing and how many trees do we actually need to plant to sustain cover into the future. We built a tool called iTree that’s out there for free to help people measure their forests and understand some of the services that it provides.


NOWAK: iTree. It helps you calculate, you can do, you can sketch an iTree design of your house and your backyard online and put a tree around there and get a quick estimate of benefit in terms of energy conservation, other benefits that it provides. With the new app that will be coming out this spring, you can actually use your smart phone and collect data in the field and then download it into the computer program.

And it takes in local weather data, local pollution data, and simulates some of these ecosystem services that we talked about. So, we believe that having data on your local area is very important to develop management plans and structures to help improve the forests through time. We’re hoping to get people to measure and engage school kids and homeowners to understand their landscape and help make decisions for a better future.

GELLERMAN: Well, David, thank you so very much.

NOWAK: Thanks Bruce, it's been great.

GELLERMAN: David Nowak is with the U.S. Forest Service in Syracuse, New York. Well, about two hundred years ago, John Chapman made a name for himself by walking the Ohio River valley preaching the gospel and planting orchards along the way. In doing so, Johnny Appleseed passed along food for thought, and created forests that frontier folk could feast on.

Related links:
- ‘Tree and Impervious Cover Change in U.S. Cities’
- David Nowak
- i-Tree, Tools for Assessing and Managing Community Forests

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Seattle Food Forest

Jenny Pell and her son Sacha. (Photo: Michael Suzerris)

GELLERMAN: And today, city dwellers in Seattle are likewise spreading the word, and preparing to plant seeds and seedlings to create an urban food forest. In the Beacon Hill neighborhood, overlooking the Seattle skyline, Jenny Pell is helping residents of the community convert a seven-acre plot of city grass into a forest Johnny Appleseed would eat up, and if things work out, so will a lot of locals. Jenny Pell is a permaculturalist, specializing in creating sustainable community landscapes, and designer of the Beacon Hill Food Forest. Welcome to Living on Earth!

PELL: Thanks, great to be here!

GELLERMAN: So, what's a food forest?

PELL: Well, a food forest is a system that we designed to mimic a natural forest ecosystem. So, we’re trying to fill in those same elements of a natural forest with things that are edible, useful… we’re looking at big overstory canopy trees, smaller trees that fit into that going down into sort of a shrub later, down to sort of a herbaceous layer and ground cover and all the way down into the rizosphere and into the root zone.

GELLERMAN: So, things like mushrooms, vines, herbs, berries, nuts, that kind of thing?

Site plan of future Beacon Food Forest in Seattle, WA. (Seattle Parks and Recreation)

PELL: Absolutely, yes. In this project, in this food forest, when we met with all the different people from the community, what they wanted actually was fruits and berries and big nut trees, that was their biggest request. So, we’re looking at paths with berry bushes on both sides, and we’re going to have mixed fruit orchards, and big nut orchards.

And one of the nut orchards that I’m designing has a very specific Asian tilt to it. So, it’s going to have big overstory sweet chestnuts, and the understory will have persimmons and mulberries and Chinese haws, and then the, going down into the lower zone will be where the familiar herbs and lower plants from the Asian palate.

GELLERMAN: How do you design, how do you mimic a forest without turning it into something that Disney would like?

PELL: (Laughs.) Well, I don’t know that it would be bad if Disney liked it!

GELLERMAN: Can you design something that’s natural?

PELL: You can. We’re really good at picking things that are going to play well together. So, we’re going to see that the overstory canopy trees are going to let in a little bit of shade which is going to allow this next thing to grow, and on the edge you’re going to have a whole lot of sun, but the larger trees are going to shade from aggressive winds and things like that. And when we step back, those things are going to grow in their own relationships, nature kind of takes over at that point.

GELLERMAN: This seems as much philosophy as farming.

PELL: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Permaculture, it’s an ethical framework with a lot of principles that give us a design methodology, really trying to get to sustainable, resilient human communities. And also embed the skills from the community - invite people back into that process, getting people back into learning skills.

GELLERMAN: In terms of the one in Seattle, what kinds of skills will these people need and who are they that are going to build this?

PELL: This area is really fascinating. It’s one of the most ethnically diverse zip codes in the United States. And so we have folks who are Latino, we have folks from many different Asian countries, we have African Americans, we have recent African immigrants, really, really different folks living there.

GELLERMAN: Can anybody walk in and feast on your forest?

PELL: For the private garden plots, those are really people’s individual vegetable gardens, and, no, we don't want anybody helping themselves to those. But for the rest of the garden, the invitation, again, it’s going to be - this garden takes work, and you are certainly welcome to help yourself to some.

And if you want to get involved in bigger harvests, come on harvesting and help out! That will be pruning the trees, mulching the trees, that will be propagating from some of the plants, so we’re hoping that some of the people will come in and for example help cut the raspberries back and then take home five or ten raspberry plants to put in their own backyard. People have been signing up by the score with comments like, put me to work - I can’t wait to get my hands dirty, let me know when I can show up with my wheelbarrow.

GELLERMAN: Now as I understand it, this is going to be the largest food forest of its kind.

PELL: That’s not entirely true. It will be the largest food forest on public lands in the United States. So, food forests are not new, there are really large food forests in other parts of the world, there is one I’ve seen a video on that's in the Middle East that’s a 2,000 years old food forest with overstory date palms and bananas and persimmons and citrus and it’s pretty amazing.

But it’s been continually managed over time for 2,000 years. So, I think what’s captured people’s imaginations so much about this project worldwide is that it’s so solutions oriented. And it’s so accessible.

GELLERMAN: So, Jenny Pell, fast forward 2,000 years, you come back to the Beacon Food Forest, is it still going to be there?

PELL: Jump forward 2,000 years? Let's jump forward 20 years first. What I’d like to see there is that this food forest - I’m going to call it one of the living genetic banks of really valuable material in the Pacific Northwest. And what I’d like to see that is kind of a seed nursery or a plant nursery that’s going to propagate and spread well beyond the borders of that food forest - that I can imagine just sort of blossoming all across the Seattle landscape.

Also, in a lot of ways this park is intended to serve the local neighborhood, but we already recognize that it’s going to become a destination for people. Other people are going to come and want to come look at it and maybe replicate it, so what pieces of this are going to inspire people to come and take it and make it their own?

GELLERMAN: Jenny, you’ve got a forest your back yard?

PELL: I’m renting a house right now, but what I do have is a young food, kind of mixed annuals and perennials, garden in the parking strip. Seattle, a couple years ago, had the year of urban agriculture. And they gave up all the parking strips - if you want to grow food in them, you can grow anything you want. So, I put in berries and fruit trees and you name it, I’ve got it growing.

GELLERMAN: I’m coming to your house! Sounds great!

PELL: Yeah, we grow a lot of food. We grow food year round in my garden here in Seattle.

GELLERMAN: Permaculture expert Jenny Pell is designer of the Beacon Food Forest in Seattle, Washington. Well Jenny Pell, thank you so much.

PELL: It's been a pleasure!

Related links:
- Beacon Food Forest Project Information
- Permaculture Now

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[MUSIC: Floratone “The Bloom Is On” from Floratone II (Savoy Jazz 2012.]

Singing with Belugas

Thar she blows! (Photo: Mark Seth Lender ©)

GELLERMAN: The Beluga is known as the white whale because of its color and the sea canary because of its high-pitched songs. The Beluga is prey for polar bears, killer whales and Arctic people. And it’s under threat from pollution and industrial development. The population down, by half, in just 15 years.

A family of Beluga whales. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender ©)

Hudson Bay in Canada is one of the last strongholds of the Beluga and it is there that writer Mark Seth Lender got up close and personal with a snow white whale.

LENDER: From the crow's nest Hudson Bay is all aglow, green as the land. Ploughed by flukes and pectoral fins the surface churns in lazy furrowed rows. The hours grow short. The day drifts. The season of sun is coming to an end. There she blows! White whale! We tack toward the spray.

Less than a fathom down, herded close in the wavy light that bathes their spouts and warms their bones; steady and slow. On the black ground of the sea, calved from snow and floating ice, these are the full-grown. Between them, all in gray, are the young and the very young who cling at the breast that is full as a world. From the low boat, I watch whales rove. Their backs rise like half-moons, and their spray rainbows.

A pod of Beluga whales, Seal River inlet, Hudson Bay. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender ©)

There she sounds! Hudson Bay opaque blue, rough as a cooper’s file. Weather crowds her now. A hard peace abounds…

In hood and dry suit I tumble in. I am patient, face buried in the coal-cellar dark of water. Only the perilous emptiness now. Not one whale… It is said if you sing to the whale, whales will come, and sing in reply. I give them opera in drowned tones. And as the notes drift down shadows play below, and at the second stanza I am surrounded. And if I stop they leave and if I sing they stay and now sing back to me. Then, with no warning, as if to mark and take my measure, a whale takes the fingers of my right hand gentle into her mouth, and lets me go.

Now the Arctic winter sets and the pack ice grows thick as rock, pressure ridged into giant loaves. And I think of that parting kiss and wonder if she dives to great depth and with that same mouth rips squid pod from limb and tears the codfish from his fins or swallows him whole? Or is she now among the eyeless carcasses I’ve seen, Belugas stripped of their fat and the meat left to rot on the bone?

GELLERMAN: Mark Seth Lender is the author of “Salt Marsh Diary – A Year on the Connecticut Coast.” There’s an underwater video of the Belugas Mark encountered at our web site: LOE dot org.

Beluga Whales are known for their singing. Less well known is what happens when you "sing" back. Watch Mark Seth Lender’s underwater encounter with the White whales who were drawn to his song.

Related links:
- Listen to the backstory of Mark’s encounter with Beluga whales.
- Mark Seth Lender’s website

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[MUSIC: Hanno Herbst “White Whale Relaxation” from Whales relaxation, Whale Songs, Soundscapes, Atmospheres (Morganrot Music 2009).]

Earth Ear

A Slender-billed flufftail (Photo: © Lucienne Wilmé)

GELLERMAN: We leave you this week on an island off the east coast of Africa.


GELLERMAN: This is the song of the Madagascar flufftail. The secretive birds, with short tails, hail from the rail family and are endemic to the island. Flufftails roam far and wide, and are not picky about their habitat; grasslands, rainforests, marshes or any old rice paddy will do.


GELLERMAN: That's the Madagascar flufftail; now, listen to the slender-billed flufftail.


GELLERMAN: The bird’s call is distinctive but the slender-billed is difficult to see. These flufftails seem to favor swamps and farm land, and they're threatened by habitat loss.

Both flufftail calls are on the British Library CD “Bird Sounds of Madagascar – an audio guide to the island’s unique birds.”


[SOUNDS: Frank Hawkins/Richard Ranft “ Madagascar Flufftail and Slender Billed Flufftail” from Bird Sounds Of Madagascar British Library Sound Archive 2007).]

Related link:
British Library cd “Bird Sounds of Madagascar – An audio guide to the island’s unique birds.”

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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, Meghan Miner, 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 - at livingonearth, that's just 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.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.com. Pax World for Tomorrow.

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