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

August 29, 2014

Air Date: August 29, 2014



Ecology and the Deadly Ebola Epidemic

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West Africa is the middle of the worst Ebola outbreak in recent history. The outbreak has spread into major cities and is out of control, with thousands of cases and hundreds of deaths. Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases joins host Steve Curwood to discuss the lethal epidemic, the prospects of a vaccine, and environmental causes that help diseases to jump from animals to humans. (12:30)

Scottish Independence from High-Carbon Energy and the U.K.

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With its independence referendum just weeks away, Scotland’s future is in flux. Crucial to its economic success is North Sea oil and gas, but burning those fossil fuels could jeopardize Scotland's ambitious climate goals. Host Steve Curwood discussed Scotland's huge renewable energy resources and the dilemma of oil under the waves with WWF Scotland’s Director, Lang Banks. (07:30)

Scotland Launches the World's Largest Tidal Power Project

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Scotland is a world leader in tidal and wave power research and hopes to produce all of its energy from sustainable low-carbon sources by 2020. Host Steve Curwood spoke with Calum Davidson, Director of Energy and Low Carbon with Scotland’s Highlands and Islands Enterprise about the project to install the world’s first commercial tidal turbine array. (06:30)

Whither the Union Jack? / Helen Palmer

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With Scotland set to vote on independence, Living on Earth's resident English producer Helen Palmer asks what would happen to the iconic Union Jack (which includes the Scottish standard, the cross of St Andrew) if the Scots vote for independence. (04:40)

Beyond the Headlines / Peter Dykstra

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Canaries in coalmines aren’t the only birds to warn us of danger. In Beyond the Headlines this week, Peter Dykstra tells host Steve Curwood how sick birds can show signs of environmental hazards. He also discusses the return of ravens to New York City and remembers the very last known passenger pigeon. (03:55)

The Sound Ring / Emmett FitzGerald

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Maya Lin’s Sound Ring — a large, wooden sculpture installed at Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology — plays the sounds of species and habitats that are on their way to silence. Living on Earth's Emmett Fitzgerald talks to John Fitzpatrick, Director of the Lab, about the structure and the significance of these endangered soundscapes. (08:40)

Bats Seeking Water / Mark Seth Lender

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For thirsty bats in the Madera Canyon, the quest for water is everything. Writer Mark Seth Lender watches in pitch blackness as bats drink from a desert pool. (03:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Anthony Fauci, Lang Banks, Calum Davidson, John Fitzpatrick
REPORTERS: Helen Palmer, Peter Dykstra, Mark Seth Lender,


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


CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. The lethal Ebola outbreak in West Africa is out of control, spreading rapidly and killing thousands.

FAUCI: The mortality ranges from anywhere fom 45 percent up to 90 percent which makes it one of the most deadly viral diseases that we’ve ever had any experience with.

CURWOOD: And now there’s another outbreak of a different strain of Ebola, raising questions about the environmental factors at play. Also, at Cornell a new sculpture is playing sounds to evoke vanishing habitats.

FITZPATRICK: What we love to do at the Cornell Lab is encourage people to hear the sounds that are lost in the background and work with our daily lives and individual behaviors to try to keep those sounds from disappearing.

CURWOOD: A frightening disease from the African forest, and sounds of nature, and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.

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[NEWSBREAK MUSIC: Boards Of Canada “Zoetrope” from “In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country” (Warp Records 2000)]

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from United Technologies – innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable, place to live.

Ecology and the Deadly Ebola Epidemic

Health workers in Guinea suit up. (Photo: European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department)

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Boston and PRI, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. West Africa is caught in the grip of the largest outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus that the world has ever seen and the death rate is rising. As we record this, over 3,000 cases have been reported across Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria, and so far more than 1,500 people have died. And recently, an outbreak of a different strain of Ebola emerged in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which got us wondering whether environmental factors might be playing a role in the spread of this scary disease. We called up Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Welcome back to Living on Earth, Dr. Fauci.

FAUCI: Good to be with you.

CURWOOD: So first, give us a little history on this disease. What is Ebola and where did it come from?

FAUCI: Ebola is a viral disease that actually is fundamentally a disease of animals. It pops up and jumps species from animal to human intermittently. We don't know exactly how it occurs, but fruit bats, which people do eat for protein nourishment in the areas of Central Sub-Saharan Africa and even in West Africa, but also nonhuman primates and some animals get infected and people either through butchering them and eating them can get infected. It was first recognized in 1976 in the former Zaïre, currently to Democratic Republic of the Congo as well as in Sudan. Since 1976, there have been about two dozen outbreaks that range in size from just a few people to a few hundred people. As you know, right now the outbreak that's going on in West Africa is much much larger and by far the worst we've ever experienced. Generally, what we see is an outbreak that occurs and usually gets under control because of isolation and infection control practices in geographically restricted areas, because the outbreaks are usually in villages. The current outbreak now is different because it's not in a geographically restricted area, it is in three or four countries that have porous borders, that have high populations and it has gotten into the city. And that's one of the reasons why it is very much not in control. It is actually quite out-of-control.

The Guinea Red Cross Society has trained over 400 volunteers to help respond to the outbreak. (Photo: European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Departmen

CURWOOD: What do you make of recent reports of yet a different stain of Ebola developing in the Congo compared to what's going on in West Africa?

FAUCI: That's not surprising to me because, as I said, there have been about two dozen outbreaks since 1976, and what we see now is unfortunately simultaneous ongoing epidemic and outbreak predominantly in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. That's an ongoing epidemic with a particular strain of Ebola. What we've seen now simultaneously in the Congo is an outbreak of Ebola that’s a different strain. So they're not connected. It isn't as if there was transmission from the West African countries that we mentioned to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It's a different outbreak.

CURWOOD: Now, in the past we've seen these outbreaks. A few years go by, there's an outbreak and then more time goes by. Now we're having, what, this big outbreak and yet there's another different strain just a few weeks later. What could be going on here?

FAUCI: Well, you know, it's difficult to determine that. These are random outbreaks. If you look at the two dozen outbreaks that have occurred since 1976, there is no rhythm or pattern to it. They come up in an unpredictable way. So I don't think you can make much out of the fact that at the time we're in the middle of a very serious outbreak in the West African countries that we also have what looks like the beginnings of a mini outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, hopefully that second outbreak will be able to be contained more efficiently than the one that's currently going on in West Africa.

A volunteer and Guineans gather in a market in the city of Conkary (Photo: European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department)

CURWOOD: To what extent do you think environmental factors are playing a role here?

FAUCI: Well, I'm sure there are some since this is what we call a zoonotic infection, by zoonotic we meant this is predominantly an animal infection that intermittently jumps species to the humans. For example, we know that fruit bats carry this virus, and when people encroach upon this environment into some of forest, into the rainforest, into the woods, into the jungles, into those areas they come into more frequent contact with animals that are actually infected, and that kind of encroachment on the environment could possibly theoretically play a role in what appears to be perhaps a more frequent outbreak.

CURWOOD: So Ebola's a zoonotic disease...we have the bird flu, HIV, SARS. It seems like we've been a lot of these lately. What do you think is going on? Why so many diseases coming from animals in recent years?

Map of Ebola outbreaks (Photo: Antoon Kuper, Creative Commons 2.0)

FAUCI: Well, there are probably a lot of reasons that are complex, and then there are some reasons we own even fully appreciate, but some of the ones, for example, if you take influenza, it's the close proximity of chickens, waterfowl, pigs and people. If you look at the places where they generally originate, in the far east, in China, in those areas where we see many of the flus emerge, not all, but many of them. It's that kind of proximity of animals that serve as the host for these viruses and mankind, and again, it all comes under the big umbrella of the encroachment of mankind, again, upon environmental factors, including animal habitations.

CURWOOD: Let's talk about population. Sub-Saharan Africa is having one of the biggest increases on the planet. A lot of those people are in cities. Something like Ebola in the city...that Sounds like the basis of the script for a horror movie.

FAUCI: Well certainly when you get into the city it makes it much more difficult to contain, to isolate, and even to do contact tracing. One of the best tools for getting one's arms around and controlling and ultimately stamping out an outbreak is to do what we call contact tracing. Getting people who've come into contact with a sick person and may themselves be infected, and then putting them under isolation quarantine so that they will not infect others and if they do get infected you can treat them immediately as opposed to having them walk around in society. When you have a big city and you have an outbreak it becomes much more difficult to do contact tracing thaan if you have a mini outbreak in a small village in a remote area.

CURWOOD: So what are the people doing in countries like Sierra Leona and Libera to cope with this disease?

Ebola Virus (Photo: National Institutes of Health)

FAUCI: Well, it's very, very difficult. They're trying both the in-country people themselves as well as help from the outside groups like Médecins Sans Frontières, the WHO, the World Bank, and countries that have a special interest in trying to help out. I mean we are now trying to get hospital beds over there. The CDC has sent experienced medical personnel to help to do contact tracing, resources are going there, so it really needs a concerted global solidarity effort to help those West African countries control and hopefully eliminate this outbreak.

CURWOOD: A series of Liberian musicians - F.A., Soul Fresh, Den G, they recently released a song called "Ebola is real". It's sort of a public service announcement about the disease that's one most popular songs right now in the country. Let's take a listen.

[MUSIC: Various Artists “Ebola Song” (Self Produced)]

CURWOOD: Dr. Fauci, how important are songs like this in raising public awareness in countries like Liberia?

FAUCI: Well, I think anything that can effectively away, arise and fortify public awareness is important. Be it a song, be it a public service announcement, be it leadership of the country getting out, popular figures getting out and talking about it because you want to get away from the myths and the stigmas associated with it because when people get sick, they need to go to a proper healthcare facility, they need to be isolated under the proper conditions, and they need to have the protective equipment of the people to take care of them. When people are misinformed about this and they are gripped by the stigma associated with it, they will not seek the appropriate care, get taken care in their own homes, and when that happens, they spread it to their families, the people who take care of the bodies after people die can also get infected. All of that can be helped in the sense of in a positive way if messages, correct messages of what the dangers on what needs to be done. So be it a song, be it a popular rock group, be it a public service announcement. All of that can help.

Anthony Fauci, MD, Director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (Photo: Jim Wallace, Smithsonian Institution)

CURWOOD: Now, a lot is being made about doctors and community workers being treated for Ebola in the United States. Set the record straight for us. How worried should we be about Ebola coming here to the US?

FAUCI: Well, I would not be surprised if someone gets infected in a West African country, gets on a plane feeling well, and then gets here. It could be New York, Washington, Paris, London, or whatever and actually gets sick with Ebola. I don't think that's a big stretch of the imagination. What won't happen here is the kind of out-of-control outbreak that we're seeing in West Africa. You may have a person infected, and that person might infect someone else before one realizes that you're dealing with Ebola, but once you get the proper healthcare facility, the isolation, the quarantine, the contact tracing, that's what will prevent there being a major outbreak.

CURWOOD: Fill us in on the state of the vaccines and treatment for this disease?

FAUCI: Well, first of all, there is no treatment and no vaccine that is been approved to be safe and effective. There's a lot of work going on right now in trying to develop both therapies and vaccines, and in fact, here at the NIH we have a vaccine and it's one of several candidates - it's not the only one - that is shown to be effective in an animal model, a monkey model, to protecting these animals from lethal challenge with Ebola virus. This will soon go into humans in a phase one trial for safety right here at the NIH. It probably will be starting in a couple of weeks so the research is going on in an accelerated rate, but the bottom line is that this particular time we don't have a vaccine, we don't have treatment. The best way to address the Ebola outbreak is by good public health practices, namely isolation, protective equipment for people who are taking care of individuals, good infection control and quarantine where appropriate.

CURWOOD: So, at the end of the day, what do we need to get a handle on the disease. We need the resources to allow the people in the West African countries to do the proper infection control. They are in the situation now where it's a bit out of control, in fact, quite out of control. They need help, they need supplies, they need equipment, and they need personnel, and that's what hopefully the rest of the world will help them get.

CURWOOD: Dr. Anthony Fauci is an immunologist and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Thanks for taking the time today.

FAUCI: Very good to be with you.

Related links:
- Dr. Anthony Fauci is the Director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
- The World Health Organization’s factsheet on Ebola
- Graphics on the 2014 Ebola outbreak from the New York Times

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[MUSIC: Various Artists “Ebola Song” (Self Produced)]

CURWOOD: Coming up...Scotland is building the first commercial scale power plant to harness the tides. There’s more ahead on Living on Earth. Stay tuned.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Dr. John: “When You’re Smiling (The Whole World Smiles With You)” from Ske-Dat-De-Dat. The Spirit Of Satch]

Scottish Independence from High-Carbon Energy and the U.K.

Wind turbines in the characteristic moorlands of Scotland. (Photo: Linda More; Bigstockphoto)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. On September 18th, the people of Scotland head to the polls to vote on whether to leave the United Kingdom and become an independent nation, unwinding a merger with England that began some 400 years ago and became the heartland of one of the greatest empires in world history. Scotland has a lot going for it. North Sea oil off its coast has been a vital economic engine for the UK for decades, and Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde university says it will be the same for Scotland.

CURTICE: There is no doubt that whichever side of the argument you’re on, that oil will be crucial to Scotland’s future. It’s a crucial part of its economy, it’s crucial to government revenues.

CURWOOD: But tighter international agreements to cut carbon emissions in the future could make many of those many billion of barrels of oil and gas less bankable assets. To learn how Scots view this dilemma, we called up the Director of the World Wildlife Fund in Scotland, Lang Banks. He says that neither side of the debate over Scottish independence is talking about the risk that much fossil fuel may have to stay in the ground.

BANKS: To be quite honest, the two sides are exactly the same with very few exceptions. Both sides want to see maximized returns from oil and gas, so as far as we're concerned, both sides are inconsistent with our international obligations and our moral obligations to start cutting carbon.

Offshore oil rigs in the Firth of Forth in southeastern Scotland. Industry estimates put the reserves of offshore oil and gas under the North Sea at 15 to 24 billion barrels. (Photo: Linda More; Bigstockphoto)

CURWOOD: Well, what do folks say about the prospect that perhaps a global agreement on climate disruption or price on carbon could make those fuel reserves into stranded assets or carbon reserves that would not be cost effective to burn?

BANKS: I think that it's a very good point. I think it's something unfortunately that hasn't really got into the debate here. This is a big issue, but it's not the only issue. But it's certainly one that I think needs to be debated. However, irrespectful of the outcome of the referendum or the outcome it's a question that will need to be answered, and it's great for the opportunity to talk about it now.

CURWOOD: Summarize for me what the UK government's stance is on using these reserves in the North Sea?

BANKS: Well, the UK government have just recently unveiled new plans with a new regulator whose effective remit is to maximize the return from the oil and gas reserves left in the North Sea, so they are very much clear that they want to take that oil and gas out, and burn most it. I mean I think it's important to stress that, of course, not all the oil and gas there will be burned. Some of it's turned into other chemicals or medical aspects, but that's a small fraction.

CURWOOD: Well, how concerned do you think that the possible new Scottish government would be about the general ecological applications of using fossil fuels to generate income?

Lang Banks, Director of WWF Scotland (Photo: Maverick; WWF Scotland)

BANKS: Historically, Scotland has shown a good lead when comes to the issue of climate change and curbing carbon emissions. It has set itself the world's leading climate change targets, that’s to to reduce Scotland’s carbon emissions by 42% based on 1990 levels by 2020, so not far off. So the challenge for them is how to square the circle of going big on renewables, cutting climate change, yet still relying too heavily on oil. That's the conundrum. And it will still be a conundrum and a question to be answered irrespective of the outcome of the referendum.

CURWOOD: Indeed it's the question around the world, isn't it?


CURWOOD: So what do you think Scotland should be doing in terms of something different with its energy policy?

BANKS: I think the challenge for any new Scottish government would be to see whether or not it can do something different than has been going on in UK for a long time which is simply just to drill it and burn it. Scotland is blessed with having 25% of Europe’s offshore wind resource. It's got 25% of Europe's tidal power potential, and about 10% of Europe’s wave power potential, and it has ambitious targets. It has targets to generate 100% of it's electricity needs from renewables by 2020 so we have alternative resources here. We've started to tap into them. We think that's the future that Scotland should be taking, not continuing to take every last drop of oil of the North Sea.

CURWOOD: How do the Scottish people feel about this energy question? What do they want Scotland's economic energy future to look like?

BANKS: Well, I think there are mixed views as to where people want to get their energy from. Certainly when we poll people's opinion, renewables, whether it be wind, wave, solar, are very much the preferred majority option than fossil fuels and other forms of energy, so I think the public would get behind a clean energy revolution. I mean they certainly have already in Scotland to some extent. I think the challenge will be: how do we transform our economy into a low carbon one?

CURWOOD: What is the economic basis of Scotland if it does not rely on this fossil fuel?

BANKS: Well, I mean I think it's probably no different than it could be today. We would much rather see us invest in a low carbon economy and that means the tens of thousands of jobs already coming from renewables being increased. It could mean, if Scotland were to harness its full wave and tidal potential, that we become world leaders in the export of technologies for those power sources. We missed the boat unfortunately when it came to wind power, and it's the Danes and other countries which have reaped the rewards of going for that renewable first. So Scotland has the opportunity to harness other forms of clean energy. I'd prefer a transition that means we use the window of opportunity we've got to maximize the return and jobs that we can create in cleaner forms of energy.

CURWOOD: So that sounds like a massive, huge amount of investment.

BANKS: I think an interesting thing is to see what is being talked about in Norway, a country which Scotland often compares itself to. They are another oil economy. They have an oil fund, a strategic wealth fund, and there's discussions there about how they change that fund into something which is less carbon intensive because at the moment it invests in further oil and gas developments. My colleagues in Norway are looking at how to convince them to start investing that money into clean forms and renewables. So I think there are different approaches to this, and there are different ways of funding it.

CURWOOD: Now, to what extent has Scotland felt the impacts of climate disruption? Some think that at some point in the near future Scotland might be able to have vineyards, have wine.

BANKS: Well, our country is changing. It's not quite as dramatic as in some other parts of the world, but strangely enough, I was just reading the other day about someone growing grapes somewhere in Scotland so that is starting to happen already. For a Scot, often Scots will say, "Well actually isn't it great if things get a bit warmer and a bit less wetter?" But I think the totality of this will knock on in unexpected ways, impact some of our greatest exports, things such as whisky and others. I mean, interestingly enough the whisky industry is actually playing a great role in trying to address climate change themselves. I think, they have as a business, recognized a threat to their own industry and have been spending large amounts of time and money investing in ways to reduce their own impacts. One of the distilleries was investing several million pounds to convert where it gets its energy from to low carbon energy source. So they're taking a stand because they can see that the threats face them as much as anyone else.

CURWOOD: Lang Banks is Director of WWF Scotland. Thanks so much for taking the time today.

BANKS: You’re great. Thanks very much.

Related links:
- New Scientist’s take on oil and gas’s importance to an independent Scotland
- About WWF Scotland and what they do
- More about how Norway uses its petroleum revenue

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Scotland Launches the World's Largest Tidal Power Project

A tidal current turbine that will be installed in Scotland’s Inner Sound (Photo: MeyGen.com)

CURWOOD: Now, as Lang Banks noted, Scotland is rich in sources of renewable power, and it will soon install the world’s largest tidal power array in the far north, in the Pentland Firth near the Orkney Islands. The project will ultimately anchor 300 or more turbines on the seabed, creating jobs and helping Scotland reach its renewable energy goals. Calum Davidson is the Director of Energy and Low Carbon at the Highlands and Islands Enterprise, a Scottish government agency, and we called him up at his office in Inverness. Welcome to Living on Earth.

DAVIDSON: Thanks for having me.

CURWOOD: So what's the goal of this project to have tidal energy capture?

DAVIDSON: Well, Scotland's been a leader in the wave and tidal energy for about 15 years, even a bit more with some of the work at universities and pretty much most of the world's main manufacturers have been here in Scotland testing and developing their device. So we're moving to the next stage, which is to build out the world's first commercial-scale tidal offshore power station, and the focus here is very much on creating a new clean no-carbon source of electricity that we can develop both for Scotland, but also help the rest of the world.

CURWOOD: So commercial scale is starting. How soon are you going to be able to generate electricity to sell to the grid from tidal power?

A schematic for tidal current power capture with underwater turbines (Photo: Atlantis Resources Limited)

DAVIDSON: Yeah, well, a lot of the prototype devices have already been doing that at the test center because it is being grid connected and they've been testing and making money and some machines have been running three or four years. What we're planning to do now is just build out, starting in the next few months actually, putting in four 1.5 megawatt turbines, and that's the first phase of a 400 MW underwater power station to be built out over the next 10 years.

CURWOOD: So talk to me about the timetable. You have all the money for this by now, I gather?

DAVIDSON: Yes, last week the private company, which is Atlantis Resources - they're originally from Singapore now based in Scotland - they put together a 50 million pound sterling which is about $80 million, for this very first phase which will be built out during 2014 and 2015. And then there's going to be what we call a fallow year in 2016 where there's going to be a lot environmental monitoring going on to make sure there's no adverse impact on the environment. By the end of this decade in 2020, 60 turbines will have been built.

CURWOOD: And ultimately you expect...

A diagram of the tidal current turbines to be installed in Scotland’s Inner Sound (Photo: MeyGen.com)

DAVIDSON: Well, 400 megawatts. Maybe 500 megawatts. That's half a gigawatt. That's pretty much the same size as a major thermal power station, and that will be - you know - 300 turbines.

CURWOOD: So what are the environmental risks of commercial-scale tidal power?

DAVIDSON: Well, of course, for something like this, a brand new technology, there's been a huge amount of work gone into the environmental impacts and really the financial closure last week was on the back of three or four years of environmental studies. But, of course, nobody has done this before to any great extent, putting a number of turbines there, so the 2016 will be very much focused on monitoring the impact on things like marine models and the seabed and diving birds, for example, and on fisheries. But expectation is because the tidal currents are so strong in that part of Scotland, and the waters there can be moving in four to five meters per second, which is really quite enormous, the seabed actually doesn't have a huge amount going on to it, it's pretty much bare rock. And actually, the blades, they don't turn very quickly, they're going slowly, sort of womp, womp, womp as opposed to, for example, an onshore wind turbine. And some major studies have shown that the effects are quite minimal and quite acceptable.

CURWOOD: Now, how much carbon does this save going into the atmosphere?

A map of the Pentland Firth in northern Scotland, where the world’s largest tidal array will be installed (Photo: MeyGen.com)

DAVIDSON: Yeah, I mean, the carbon savings are very dramatic. If we're looking at this very first, very modest six megawatts, it's going to save 14,000 tons of CO2 a year compared to coal and once the big power station has been built, it's going to save a million tons of carbon a year.

CURWOOD: So at the end of the day, what kind of employment does this project create?

DAVIDSON: Yeah, well, Scotland currently has had very ambitious and very large renewable energy marketplace. We have a significant amount of hydro, lots and lots of onshore wind. And interestingly, in Scotland, there's currenty about 11,000 people employed directly in the renewables industry. That's actually more people employed than in the scotch whisky industry. We expect this project to create about 50 direct jobs over the next couple of years, maybe another 70 in the supply chain, and as it builds out over the next decade, we're looking at several hundred jobs being supported by this clean, no-carbon underwater power station.

Deployment of tidal current turbines (Photo: Atlantis Resources Limited)

CURWOOD: I imagine this costs a fair amount of money. At what point, does this become profitable to do?

DAVIDSON: Yeah, we're talking about very early stage technology here, and that's not cheap, but the expectation is as the supply chain grows, and as we standardize and know how to put these things in order, the cost of developing tidal power will fall significantly. And the objective is to get to the same level that offshore wind is at the moment in the next few years.

CURWOOD: Now, one concern about renewable energy is that it doesn't operate all the time. How does this tidal power source fit into that concern?

DAVIDSON: Well the great thing about tidal power is that it's completely predictable and completely reliable. You get tidal power kicking in at different stages of the day so you build that in with a different energy mix, tie that back in with onshore wind, offshore wind, and hydropower. So it's a really good source of regular, clean, no-carbon electricity.

Calum Davidson is the Director of Energy and Low Carbon for Scotland’s Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), a governmental agency. (Photo: Courtesy of HIE)

CURWOOD: How much of the day does it generate power?

DAVIDSON: Somewhere like the Pentland Firth is actually generating for pretty much 20 hours out ot a day. You know, it's a 13 hour cycle, there's only about one hour of the day when the tides, shall we say, doesn't move. When the tide is moving fastest it's in the middle of those cycles and that's when you get the most power and tailing off at either end of the tide. So the expectation is some of these things will be working at maybe 30, 40 percent efficiency?

CURWOOD: How do you feel about this going forward now?

DAVIDSON: Well, I'm really excited. There's not many people who get the chance to work at the start of new industry, and personally, I come from the part of Scotland where this is being build out, so it's kind of very very satisfying to know that the very small part of the world where you come from is right at the heart of creating a whole new global industry based upon low-carbon, no-carbon underwater tidal power.

CURWOOD: I suppose you could say you're part of a "sea change".

DAVIDSON: Absolutely. Yes.

CURWOOD: Calum Davidson is the Director of Energy and Low Carbon at the Highlands and Islands Enterprise, that's the Scottish government agency. Calum, thanks for taking the time today.

DAVIDSON: Thank you very much for asking me on. Delighted.

Related links:
- A short video on how the underwater turbines will capture tidal energy
- Learn more about Atlantis Resources Limited, the company supplying the tidal turbines for the project
- Read more about offshore renewable energy on The Scottish Government’s webpage.
- More specifics about the tidal turbine array project (MeyGen) in the Inner Sound of Scotland’s Pentland Firth
- Read a press release from the U.K. Government, which is helping to financially back the project.

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Whither the Union Jack?

Four Union Jacks (Photo: Harry_NL; Creative Commons 2.0)

CURWOOD: There’s one potential consequence of Scottish independence, and it has to do with the UK flag, the Union Jack. This red, white and blue arrangement of crosses and diagonals is engineered from the national standards of the different parts of the United Kingdom. So if Scotland does leave the UK – will it take its cross of St. Andrew with it and perhaps set off the need to recycle millions of flags? It's a question we set our own resident Englishwoman, Helen Palmer, to investigate.

PALMER: So you all know the British flag – it decorates back-packs, and T-shirts, and it flutters above Buckingham Palace and government buildings. It reflects our national history and unity and for we English seems as enduring as the white cliffs of Dover. Malcolm Farrow is President of the Flag Institute, a UK nonprofit.

FARROW: It’s made up of the cross of St George for England, the cross of St Andrew for Scotland, and the cross of St Patrick for Ireland.

The Union Flag or Jack (left) incorporates the Cross of St. Andrew from the Scottish flag ( seen on the right). (Photo: Stuart Anthony; Creative Commons 2.0)

PALMER: Some of these national standards go back a thousand years - the cross of St George, a red cross on a white ground - dates back to the Christian crusades. Legend says the cross of St Andrew - a white diagonal cross on a blue ground, dates back to the 9th century victory of the King of the Picts, Angus McFergus, over the Saxon King Athelstan. Malcolm Farrow again.

FARROW: The point of this flag is that it is the combination of two kingdoms, the Kingdom of England under St George’s cross, and the kingdom of Scotland, under St Andrew’s cross, joined together.

PALMER: Well, the Flag Institute ran a poll, asking what should happen to the Union flag if Scotland votes for independence. Over half of the people who replied thought the flag should be redesigned. They even sent in ideas for how – but it’s not obvious who should make the decision. So I called up the House of Commons Committee on Flags and Heraldry. Its chairman is the Tory MP for Romford, Andrew Rosindell – but he says he’s not in charge.

If the Union Jack were to change, that might present problems for all the other countries that have it in their flag, like New Zealand. (Photo: Nick Kean; Creative Commons 2.0)

ROSINDELL: Ultimately the person in charge of the flag of the United Kingdom and all national symbols is Her Majesty the Queen and she takes advice from the College of Arms, certainly on heraldic matters, but also on matters regarding the flag.

PALMER: Well, I wasn’t sure that the Queen would take my call – so I tried the College of Arms, founded in 1484. It’s the official UK authority on all things heraldic and designed the current Union flag. The answer was a very curt “no comment” -- they hung up! That response didn’t surprise Malcolm Farrow – for a simple reason.

British MP Andrew Rosindell (pictured right) (Photo: Pearson Teaching Awards)

FARROW: There is nobody in charge of it. There is no Government official, no minister who has the national flag in his portfolio of responsibility for governance, nobody at all.

PALMER: Andrew Rosindell and his parliamentary committee are trying to change that, but he says there’s no reason for the flag to change.

ROSINDELL: It came into being because the monarchies of Scotland and of England became one, and there’s no suggestion that, even if Scotland becomes independent, that the Queen would no longer be the Queen of Scotland.

PALMER: Now some Scots may disagree – republican sentiment runs deep north of the border, but the Flag Institute’s Malcolm Farrow says redesigning the flag – whatever the Scots decide – would be crazy. He points out that we have been here before – after the Irish War of Independence that created the Irish Republic in 1922.

Living on Earth’s resident Englishwoman and Managing Producer, Helen Palmer (Photo: Emmett FitzGerald)

FARROW: St Patrick’s Cross was there to represent Ireland, the whole of Ireland, the Kingdom of Ireland and that was no more, and that was discussed at Cabinet level, and it was eventually decided, I think by Winston Churchill himself, who said it would be completely ridiculous, the Union Flag as we know it has been one of the best known flags in the world for hundreds of years and to redesign it now would be absurd. Leave it as it is.

PALMER: Also the Union jack appears on some 204 other flags – think Australia, New Zealand, Tuvalu, Fji, Bermuda – to say nothing of dozens of provinces, states, territories and yacht clubs, and they’re hardly likely to want to change them So in the end, there probably won’t be any union jacks send out for recycling – and anyway – who cares? I mean, whatever Scotland decides, as Vera Lynn put it...


There’ll always be an England,
And England shall be free,
If England means as much to you
As England means to me!

PALMER: Well of course there’ll always be an England, but that kind of jingoism doesn’t play as well now as it did in the 1940s. And it would be a real shame to see the purveyors of whisky, salmon, Harris tweed and renewable energy walk away. But if they do – well, we’ll muddle through – just like we always do.

For Living on Earth, I’m Helen Palmer.

Related links:
- The Flag Institute
- Andrew Rosindell, MP

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[MUSIC: The Kinks “Lola (Demo/Instrumental) from Lola vs The Powerman And The Money Go-Round Pt 1 (Deluxe Edition) (Sanctuary Records 2014)]

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Count Basie: “Tally Ho Mr. Basie” from Count Basie And The Kansas City Seven (Impulse Records 1963)]

CURWOOD: Coming up...sounding the alarm for disappearing natural landscapes. That's just ahead on Living on Earth. Stay tuned.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from United Technologies, a provider to the aerospace and building systems industries worldwide. UTC Building & Industrial Systems, provides building technologies and supplies, container refrigeration systems that transport and preserve food, and medicine with brands such as Otis, Carrier, Chubb, Edwards and Kidde. This is PRI, Public Radio International.

Beyond the Headlines

Ravens are returning to Manhattan. (Photo: Doug Brown; Creative Commons BY-NC-SA Generic 2.0)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. It’s time for us to check in with Peter Dykstra, the publisher of DailyClimate.org and Environmental Health News, that’s EHN.org. He’s always checking out the world beyond the headlines and he’s on the line from Conyers, Georgia. Hi Peter, what do you have for us today?

DYKSTRA: Well, hi, Steve. I want to do a little bragging for the home folk. We’ll start beyond the headlines with some headlines of our own. Our team at Environmental Health News has put together a tremendous series on the perils faced by bird species large and small, we call it “Winged Warnings”, and we’re rolling out six weeks worth of stories on how environmental threats to birds are also threats to human health. It’s published in conjunction with National Geographic, with veteran journalists reporting on old threats like lead poisoning and DDT, they're still causing major problems, and there are newer chemicals like flame retardants and the pesticides known as neonicotinoids, they pose a threat to bees and other insects as well as to birds.

CURWOOD: So give a couple of examples.

DYKSTRA: Well, scientists studied wrens and sparrows – you know, common songbirds – near a mercury-contaminated site in Virginia and they found that the birds’ songs were being altered. Another one, lead contamination may be making some bird species dumber, altering their behavior, altering their flying patterns. We have other stories look at bacteria, climate change, and even artificial light, all have their disruptive impacts on birds.

Researchers have found mercury in Nelson’s sparrows, among other birds, at their wintering grounds in Virginia. (Photo: Dawn Beattie; Creative Commons Generic 2.0)

CURWOOD: Well, we know that lead seems to reduce IQ levels in people, so the same for birds huh? What do you have next?

DYKSTRA: Well, how about a little bit of happy bird news? Ravens have returned to New York City.

CURWOOD: I take it you’re not talking about the NFL team.

DYKSTRA: No, we’re not talking about the Baltimore Ravens, we're not talking about Edgar Allen Poe either, although Poe lived in a rural part of Manhattan Island when he wrote the poem "The Raven". Crows have always had a foothold in New York City, but ravens are being fairly regularly seen in places like the Chelsea section of Manhattan.

CURWOOD: So how can you tell the difference between a raven and a crow?

DYKSTRA: Well, here’s the simplest equation: Think of a crow as a dog, and think of a raven as a wolf. Ravens are bigger, they have bigger beaks, and lower caws. But when they’re flying and their tail feathers are spread, you’ll see that crow tails are shaped like a triangle, but ravens’ tails are more like an arrowhead.

CURWOOD: And according to Poe, the call of the raven is "Nevermore".

The last known passenger pigeon, named “Martha,” died in 1914. (Photo: Enno Meyer; Public Domain)

DYKSTRA: No, that was a crow. Try it a little lower.

CURWOOD: OK Lat me try it [IN A LOWER TONE] NEVERMORE. All right, Peter, how about something from the history vault for us.

DYKSTRA: One more bird story. A hundred years ago this week, Martha died. And there were no survivors.

CURWOOD: You mean Martha from the Cincinnati Zoo.

DYKSTRA: Yeah, Martha was a passenger pigeon, and when I say there were no survivors, I’m talking about her entire species. There were once billions of passenger pigeons in North America, and on September 1st, 1914, the last one went away, dying in the Cincinnati zoo at age 29. Passenger pigeons were bigger and faster than the pigeon species we know today, but what was their downfall? They flocked together by the thousands, and some of them were delicious. “Squab” was a hugely popular dish in the best restaurants in the eastern US; hunters bagged pigeons as fast as they could. The trade got bigger once there were railroads to ship the passenger pigeons and telegraphs to help hunters find where the huge flocks were.

CURWOOD: So just like today, poachers use night vision goggles and GPS to track down rhinos and elephants, 19th Century technology enabled pigeon-hunting, huh?

DYKSTRA: Absolutely right. Hopefully African rhinos and elephants still have a chance, but the demise of the passenger pigeon will be a lesson learned if we're able to save today's species, and hopefully not a lesson ignored.

CURWOOD: There are links to more info about Martha, Winged Warnings, and how to tell the difference between a raven and a crow, and more are at our website, LOE.org. Thanks, Peter.

DYSTRA: Thanks a lot, Steve, we'll talk to you soon.

CURWOOD: Peter Dykstra is the publisher of Environmental Health News, that’s EHN.org, and the DailyClimate.org.

Related links:
- Read the daily series, “Winged Warnings,” at Environmental Health News.
- Listen to our interview with Joel Greenburg about the extinction of the passenger pigeon: “A Feathered River Across the Sky.”
- More on how to tell the difference between corvids in our BirdNote, “Ravens and Crows.”

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The Sound Ring

An Indri lemur hoots its clarinet-like song. (Photo: Jeremy Oldenettel; Creative Commons BY-NC-SA Generic 2.0)

CURWOOD: Thirty or so years ago, ornithologists and bird lovers worried that habitat loss and human development might silence for ever the haunting call of the common loon in the Northern US. But scientists and citizens worked hard to help the bird recover, and though the loon population continues to decrease, it’s now thought to be less threatened. Still, some sounds of the natural world are at risk of disappearing forever, and that’s the focus of The Sound Ring, a new sculpture of wood and speakers created by Maya Lin. It’s installed at the visitor center of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, where John Fitzpatrick is Director of Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology. He spoke with Living on Earth’s Emmett Fitzgerald.

FITZGERALD: So, John, tell us a little bit about this project. Whose idea was it, and how did you all get started?

FITZPATRICK: The project was an inspiration of Maya Lin, and she had from the very beginning this wonderful idea of a nine-foot-high beautifully elegant walnut ring, it's actually eight speakers, and as you hear the world come to life from this, you're lost in the simplicity of what you're looking at and really what comes through are these sounds.

The Common Loon population is beginning to stabilize thanks to the help of citizens and scientists. (Photo: Eugene Beckes; Creative Commons BY-NC-SA Generic 2.0)

FITZGERALD: So, now you've chosen soundscapes from really all over the world. How did you make the decisions about which soundscapes to feature?

FITZPATRICK: Well, we chose sounds that have special meaning with respect to declining biodiversity. A lot of times people think that the endangered species story is a story about individual species, but really the species are indicative of a much broader issue in the environment.

FITZGERALD: Yeah - let's, let's listen to some of the soundscapes now, and as we play this tell us what we're hearing.


FITZPATRICK: Here we are on Round Island not far from the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. These are flying all around us, these amazing Gadfly petrels, called the Herald Petrel or Trindade petrels. These are seabirds that breed on tiny little islands around the world.


A Herald or Trindade Petrel (Photo: Pablo Caceres Contreras; Creative Commons BY-NC-ND Generic 2.0)

Many of those petrels are actually extinct already or on the verge. This particular one is a great mystery because it's actually several different kinds breeding on Round Island. Petrels are colonial breeders, and so they can actually nest in quite dense colonies, and they have burrows in the rocks. So as they're flying overhead, they're actually circling around and occasionally actually popping right inside, and then a few of them are actually calling from inside the burrow. Being on the ground in a very simple habitats, when rats or cats are introduced to those islands they go into the boroughs and eat the eggs, eat the chicks and even occasionally take the adults. So the populations of many of the world's petrels are endangered.


FITZGERALD: So that was an island habitat but there are dangers on large continents as well. Let's check out a forest. Can you walk us through this next soundscape?


An Olive Sided Flycatcher living up to its name. (Photo: Mike’s Birds, Flickr Creative Commons BY-SA Generic 2.0)

FITZPATRICK: We're in western North America here. We're in the foothills of the Eastern Sierras actually. Oh there's the "quick three beers" [song] of the Olive-sided flycatcher which is perched at the very top of the conifer trees.


The Common Nighthawk makes noise with its wings as well as its voice. (Photo: Gavin Schaefer; Creative Commons Generic 2.0)

FITZPATRICK: There's the boom of the Common Nighthawk, that who-hoo. What they're doing is they fly up pretty high and then they take a nosedive straight down towards the Earth and then at the last minute they stick their wings out and then they whoosh back up using their wings and they're making the booming sound with the primary wing feathers. They're sort of announcing themselves and advertising for mates.


A Nighthawk’s nest. (Photo: Mike Allen; Creative Commons BY-NC-SA Generic 2.0)

FITZPATRICK: In this habitat, as climate gets warmer, the whole zone moves up, and as they move up these foothills, they actually are going to disappear so besides being threatened by outright logging, there's now quite threatened in addition by climate change.

FITZGERALD: So in addition to soundscapes, you featured some specific species in this project as well. Let's listen to one.


The Indri lemur is the last of the great lemurs. (Photo: David Cook; Creative Commons BY-NC Generic 2.0)

FITZPATRICK: These are the amazing sounds, clarinet-like toots of the Indri, the last of the great lemurs. This is a big treetop lemur with no tail. Lemurs, of course, are living in the forests of Madagascar, and limited to Madagascar. And these big black and white teddybear-like animals are living in a family group, and as the dawn breaks and the misty forest begins to lighten up, the groups talk to one another, announce each other’s presence tree to tree with these amazing choruses of toots and hoots. This is one of the rarest of all lemurs. It’s limited to just a few places in eastern Madagascar rainforests where they've have been protected and where the habitat itself is in reasonably good shape. The Madagascar forests are severely threatened by logging through the last 150 years. Illegal logging is really causing trouble even where the forest is being preserved.

FITZGERALD: Let's hear another one. This next soundscape comes from the Congo.


African Forest Elephants are threatened by poaching and deforestation. (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Creative Commons BY Generic 2.0)

FITZPATRICK: These are African forest elephants and some of the sounds you can barely hear because their frequency is so low. They're literally at the bottom end of the human hearing range, and even below that. We have a little social behavior going on here among some forest elephants. In the background of course there are frogs and insects of the wet tropical forest night. The African elephant is in very serious trouble for poaching, for deforestation. The demand for ivory continues to escalate despite the worldwide bans on its trade.


FITZPATRICK: And so the poaching stories in both the Savanna elephant species and these forest elephant species are absolutely horrific. This forest elephant piece is especially moving because you can literally feel the vibrations in your body. The subwoofer is actually behind the wall. If you put your hand on the wall, you can really feel that wall pulsing in and out.

FITZGERALD: So, John, we talk a lot of endangered species on the show, but a lot of it is, we read papers and we read books. What do you think that sound and soundscapes can bring to the conservation conversation?

FITZPATRICK: Even as we live our daily lives, we populate the world with our own sounds. Those are actually beginning to drown out the sounds of nature. The systems that are endangered out there go well beyond the physical structures of those habitats and the physical beauties and behaviors of the animals. They all have acoustic habitat as well as physical habitat.

The loon’s call can be heard at dawn and dusk in the Northern U.S. (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Creative Commons BY Generic 2.0)

FITZGERALD: What you hope that someone visiting the exhibit at Cornell takes away from the experience?

FITZPATRICK: Really what we love to do at the Cornell lab is encourage people to hear the sounds that are lost in the background and work with our daily lives and our individual behaviors to keep those sounds from disappearing.

CURWOOD: John Fitzpatrick directs the Ornithology Lab at Cornell and spoke with Living on Earth’s Emmett Fitzgerald.

Related links:
- Hear more sounds from Cornell’s Macaulay Library.
- See and hear more of Maya Lin’s “What is Missing” project.
- Listen to what Purdue has been doing with soundscape ecology.
- Scientists at University of Puerto Rico are using computers to sort through sounds.
- Bernie Krause has collected endangered sounds and designed soundscapes for over forty years. Hear our story with him here.

Back to top


Bats Seeking Water

A Mexican Free-tail bat ascends from a pool of water in the Madera Canyon, thirst quenched. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

CURWOOD: Well, from the forested northeast we go to the parched west, currently suffering from a severe drought. And as Mark Seth Lender observed in southern Arizona, summer heat is making things extremely hard for some wildlife.

[Bats Seeking Water © 2013 Mark Seth Lender All Rights Reserved]

Driving down from Madera Canyon the land opens its mouth. Saw-toothed mountains in the distance are the teeth, broken and chipped, the yawning of an ancient Beast; and the hot sweet breath of him. It sucked the moisture out of here a long time ago. The jaws can no longer close. The palate of the land, exposed, is chafed and raw. A last meal clings there: lesser hills and spent volcanic cones, their rounded forms like desiccated corpses of giant and of giantess, weathering, all but worn away.

Dust blows.

It hurts to inhale.

The quest for water is everything.

At night when the air is utterly still and the birds sleep, the insects begin; desert flowers open to their song. And by that scent and sound the bats are stirred to wakefulness. They yawn… then stretch their membranous wings, hungry for the food that bloom and pollinator provide.

In Arizona, a Pallid bat searches for water. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

But it is Thirst, Thirst that rules the land. Open-mouthed the bats fly, out from their hidden perches and caves in the ground, parched and persistently seeking. Above the din of odors and the roar of edible things the vital element calls. A pool in the desert, rare and lustrous and of value second only to breathing: a narrow place, a small place and shallow in the dark and the water is sweet and waiting. Months if not years it took to find. Many intolerable nights and burning days of searching. Having found, they will visit like a shrine.

Bats emerge in the evenings when it’s cooler than an Arizona day in search for food and water. A Mexican Free-tail takes a sip. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

Dipping and sipping they come, aligned for the longest angle of glide, for the sureness of scooping and rising. Nectar bats, the length of their pink tongues extended as far as they will go. Pallid bats, tall ears cupping sound as their mouths cup water. Free-tails, the wingtips like twin oars splashing and spraying, and water dripping from their chins. A moth dives for cover preferring the risk of drowning to the risk of bats in the air. The bats ignore her. They are of one mind and one purpose only. To drink. And drink… and drink.

Nectar bats have long tongues in order to drink and eat insects and pollen. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

South and west of Madera, out in the Sonoran Desert, on the flat of the land and the flank of the hills, saguaro stand. They march on the mountain until the scree defeats them, too steep even for saguaro to root and hold. It is not their cactus thorns or their outstretched arms that makes them brave. Their very presence is a heroic thing; that any green thrives in all this emptiness of land, of fractured stones, of turbulent sand-blown sky.

A Pallid Bat glides, hovering above the water just after drinking. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

At 110 degrees they prosper, white and yellow flowers, red-ripe fruit split open in the sun; at 120 in the shade, what then?

CURWOOD: Mark Seth Lender was able to photograph bats drinking in pitch dark using Bill Forbes’s Phototrap. To see the pictures, flutter on over to our website, LOE.org.

Related link:
Mark Seth Lender captured these bat images with the help of Wildlife Guide Bill Forbes’ Phototrap

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[MUSIC: Jose Luis Monton “Son And Kete” from Solo Guitarra (ECM Records 2012)]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Naomi Arenberg, Bobby Bascomb, Emmett Fitzgerald, Helen Palmer, Adelaide Chen, James Curwood, Lauren Hinkel, Jake Lucas, Abi Nighthill, Jennifer Marquis and Olivia Powers all help to make our show. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE.org - and like us on our Facebook page - it’s PRI’s Living on Earth. And we tweet from @LivingOnEarth. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

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