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

September 5, 1997

Air Date: September 5, 1997



Sea water currents flowing around the globe travel for thousands of miles, warming some areas and cooling others. Solar energy powers these global flows, and like a pump the ocean's currents, everything needs to work just right. In a recent issue of the journal Nature, researchers at the University of Bern in Switzerland ask if global climate change could cause one of these vast pumps to shut down. Living On Earth's Daniel Grossman reports. (04:03)


By looking at whaling records, an Australian researchers has reported the dramatic finding that the once stable Antarctic seasonal sea ice shrunk twenty-five percent in the 1950's and 1960's. The report in the journal Nature lends credence to fears that sudden climate shifts are possible. Steve Curwood spoke with William K. de la Mare from Hobart, Australia. (04:51)


Thousands of commuters in cities across the U. S. ride their bicycles to work each day to avoid the hassles of auto traffic and parking. A few communities have come up with programs to make their cities more bicycle-friendly, and encourage people to get out of their cars, but, in most places, people who use bicycles for transportation do so at their own risk -- on streets designed for and ruled by the automobile. A movement known as Critical Mass is encouraging cyclists around the world to demand safe and equal rights to the roadway. Deirdre Kennedy reports from San Francisco, the city where the effort began. (08:20)


The offical end of summer is approaching. Labor Day has come and gone. For many folks, the long weekend meant a chance for one last walk along the beach. One such walk got Living On Earth's reporter John Rudolph to thinking. He sent us this reporters' notebook from the island of Martha's Vineyard. (04:15)

The Living On Earth Almanac

Facts about... BioSatellite 2. (01:15)


Local politicians favor the development of a new airport for Miami. The site they've chosen for the billion dollar project is the shuttered Homestead Air Force Base in south Dade County - - an area devestated by Hurricane Andrew five years ago and in dire need of an economic boost. There's a hitch though. The proposed site sits between two of the most environmentally sensitive national parks in the nation. And now it's up to the White House to decide the future of the project. Alexis Muellner reports. (08:30)


Next month NASA plans to launch a plutonium-laden spacecraft on a mission to Jupiter, this one carrying 72 pounds. Steve Curwood spoke with John Pike, Space Policy Director of the Federation of American Scientists about the risks involved with this flight. (05:08)


Four years ago, the Canadian government shut down the cod fisheries in the northeast Altlantic because the cod stocks had dropped to almost nothing. As the moratorium dragged on, tens of thousands of unemployed fishermen put pressure on the government to let them go back to work. This summer, the government finally relented. It's a move that will have great implications for the fishing industry around the world. And as reporter Ted Blades found out, the decision has as much to do with politics as it does science. His story begins on the waters of Placentia Bay off the south coast of Newfoundland. (10:45)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Daniel Grossman, Deirdre Kennedy, John Rudolph, Alexis Muellner, Ted Blades
GUESTS: William K. de la Mare, John Pike

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. Remarkable news from climate research: ocean flows that warm Europe are in danger of being interrupted by the use of fossil fuels. Also, a new study shows that Antarctic sea ice has undergone rapid shrinkage.

DE LA MARE: Altogether, now, there's about 18 million square kilometers of sea ice. My study shows that about 25% of that has disappeared. Let's put that into perspective: that's about three quarters of the area of the continental United States.

CURWOOD: And in San Francisco, bicyclists are taking to the street to demand more safety concessions from motor vehicles.

WOMAN: Every morning I think about it, if I want to take the bike or the bus or walk. I'm afraid to always think of the possibility of getting hit.

CURWOOD: That's this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this news.

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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The vast majority of climate researchers agree that human-induced release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will warm the Earth and alter weather patterns. But exactly how and when is still an open question. Some suggest that changes will come slowly, the way a car tire gradually wears down, leaving the world time to respond. Others fear sudden dramatic changes, more like a highway blowout, irreparably altering elements of the global climate. Two recent studies prominently reported in the journal Nature support those who say abrupt changes are likely. Living on Earth's Daniel Grossman explains the first study, which looked at the so-called Atlantic conveyor belt ocean currents.

GROSSMAN: If you look at a map, Great Britain lies as far north as the frigid Canadian province of Labrador. But the island nation and much of northern Europe is much warmer. The reason, say climate researchers, is a system of global currents they call the great ocean conveyor belt. Right now the system's working just fine. But things could change, according to 2 researchers at the University of Bern in Switzerland. Thomas Stocker and Andreas Schmittner report in the August 28th issue of Nature that carbon dioxide emissions could play havoc with the Atlantic portion of the conveyor belt, significantly lowering temperatures in Europe and the eastern United States.

To understand how this could happen, a little ocean science is needed. The great ocean conveyor belt is powered by convection, the same process that makes smoke go up. Light fluids rise and heavy ones fall. In the south Atlantic, surface water is heated, becoming more buoyant. As this warm water moves north, it heats westerly winds blowing toward Europe. This cools the flow, making the water less buoyant. So in the North Atlantic, it sinks more than a mile below the ocean's surface and flows back south. The system works like a global pump, with the force of 100 Amazon rivers, carrying as much water as the combined rainfall of the entire planet.

Another factor is involved as well: salinity. Southern waters are saltier than the more dilute northern seas, and salt water is less buoyant. Thus, salinity tends to put the breaks on the convection engine, but not enough to stop it, at least not at present. If this critical global system shut down, and the 2 Swiss researchers say it could, the effects could chill Europe and disrupt fisheries worldwide.

Climatologists say the great conveyor belt has broken down before. The last time was about 11,000 years ago, causing glaciers to advance over much of the continent. The pump needs just the right balance of temperature and salinity to work, and carbon dioxide emissions could tip the scales. The researchers predict more precipitation in the northern hemisphere will reduce the salinity of the North Atlantic, slowing the conveyor belt's convection engines. Other scientists had predicted that CO2 emissions could disrupt the current, but they didn't say what conditions were most likely to bring about the change.

Using a computer model, the Swiss scientists found that it's not the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that matters but how fast the level increases that makes the biggest difference. They predict that if the level of carbon dioxide grows at today's rate, the ocean pump will grind to a halt in about a century. Slower CO2 growth will impede but not stop the conveyor belt. Other researchers caution that such simulations are notoriously inaccurate, as the atmosphere and oceans are incredibly complex. But even skeptics admit the new research can't be ignored. As climatologist Wallace Broecker puts it, “you do what you can with the tools you have.” For Living on Earth, I'm Daniel Grossman.

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CURWOOD: Another study reported in the September 4th issue of Nature looks at a different region of the world's climate but comes up with similar disquieting results. The Antarctic has been warming as a region by as much as 4 degrees over the past few decades. But until recently, few records were made of the vast floes of sea ice that surround the frozen continent in winter. But William K. de la Mare, a researcher with Australia's Department of the Environment, came up with the ingenious idea of looking at old whaling records, since whales like to feed right at the edge of the sea ice. He joins us on the line from Hobart, Tazmania. Dr. de la Mare, what exactly did you find?

DE LA MARE: The whaling records show that the Antarctic sea ice has retreated by about 2.8 degrees of latitude, or about 300 kilometers. And rather abruptly, beginning in the mid-1950s, and the retreat was virtually over by the early 1970s.

CURWOOD: Now, how much of this sea ice is there?

DE LA MARE: Altogether, now, there's about 18 million square kilometers of sea ice. And my study shows that about 25% of that has disappeared. And to put that into perspective, that's about three quarters of the area of the continental United States.

CURWOOD: You did research on whaling records to see about the difference in sea ice in the Antarctic. Why did you pick whaling records?

DE LA MARE: Well in fact there are very few scientific observations of anything to do with the Antarctic before the mid-1950s. The whaling records are quite unique, because they stretch back to the early 1930s, and whaling was in fact the most widespread human activity in Antarctica for most of this century.

CURWOOD: Now, these records were collected by whaling ship captains for the purpose of catching whales and not for scientific research. How much stock can we put in the accuracy of these reports?

DE LA MARE: Well, basically, whaling skippers were required to record the position of each whale caught. And there's no particular reason why they would in any way misreport that information. And in fact the correlations between other direct observations on the sea ice and the whaling observations bear out that they're reasonably accurate representations of where the sea ice age was.

CURWOOD: Now, this decline occurred very quickly, just over the space of about 20 years?

DE LA MARE: That's correct, yeah.

CURWOOD: Why do you suppose it happened so fast?

DE LA MARE: The most likely explanation is that there's been some change in oceanic circulation. But of course, that leaves the question open as to what would have caused changes in oceanic circulation of that kind.

CURWOOD: Does it seem that this would be a natural variability in climate, do you think?

DE LA MARE: It could well be a natural variation. Perhaps one possibility is that it's related in some way to the El Niño phenomenon.

CURWOOD: These changes that you found in the Antarctic sea ice might just be regional changes. This is something that perhaps those of us in the northern hemisphere might not have to worry about, right?

DE LA MARE: It seems to be quite a large-scale phenomenon. And of course, all of the world's oceans are linked. You have been talking before about the Atlantic conveyors. The Antarctic is one of the major engines of world climate, so things that go on in the Antarctic are probably of global significance.

CURWOOD: So even though we're seeing regional temperature changes, regional changes in the ice, this is probably affecting the whole world.

DE LA MARE: It's certainly a possibility, sooner or later, yes.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering if your research shows that climate is less likely to change slowly, and in a fashion that will be easy for humans to respond to, and more likely to change rather abruptly.

DE LA MARE: Yes, I think there is [else?] showing that changes can be quite abrupt, and quite substantial. That shows that there are processes which go on that we don't really understand very well. And so in fact to improve our climate models and our predictions about future climate, this poses some questions for us which in the end might be very informative. It would be indeed an irony that the widespread slaughter of whales gave us some important insights into how to better predict the future climate, and therefore how better to manage our own activities. Particularly when we did such a poor job of managing our activities with regard to the whales themselves.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

DE LA MARE: No trouble at all.

CURWOOD: William K. de la Mare is with the Australian Antarctic Division of the Department of the Environment, and author of the article that appeared on September 4th in Nature magazine.

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CURWOOD: For bikes and cars on the congested streets of San Francisco, the hustle for space reaches critical mass. That story is next on Living on Earth.

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Thousands of commuters in cities across the United States ride their bikes to work every day. Communities like Missoula, Montana; Seattle, Washington; and Portland, Oregon, have come up with programs to make their cities more bicycle-friendly, and encourage people to get out of their cars. But in most places, people who use bicycles for transportation do so at their own risk on streets designed for and ruled by the automobile. A movement known as Critical Mass is encouraging cyclists around the world to demand safe and equal rights to the roadway. Deirdre Kennedy reports from San Francisco, the city where the effort began.

(A police whistle in the midst of a noisy crowd. A man's voice: "Please conduct yourself in an orderly, lawful, and safe fashion tonight. Thank you for your attention." A man shouts, "We want an escort!" Other voices shouting follow.)

KENNEDY: On a balmy Friday evening before Labor Day, nearly 2,000 cyclists pedaled through downtown San Francisco in an event that's become a regular feature of the city's life.

(Cheering, clapping crowds)

KENNEDY: The goal of the ride, known as Critical Mass, is to wake the public up to the number of cyclists who use the roadway every day. It started out about 5 years ago, when a handful of bike commuters decided to ride home together on the last Friday of each month. Many riders say that's the only day in the month they feel safe on city streets.

MAN: It's much more fun to ride in a group. It feels a lot safer. It's like in Holland or Germany, where there's a lot of designated pathways and you just feel like it's okay, you're, you know, 20 bikes riding along is much safer than 1 bike and 20 cars.

WOMAN: Very scary. Every morning I think about it, if I want to take the bike or the bus or walk. And I'm afraid, I always think of the possibility of getting hit.


KENNEDY: This past week, for example, 2 cyclists were struck and killed by delivery vans in separate incidents on busy Market Street. Each year as many as 4 cyclists die in accidents in San Francisco, and 3 dozen are seriously injured. Rallying around safety and other issues, the Critical Mass ride has grown into a major social and political event, attracting about 7,000 cyclists. And this past July, the event turned ugly.

(Sirens. Men yelling: "Shut them off, now!")

KENNEDY: Thousands of cyclists plowed through red lights and clogged up traffic, antagonizing motorists. Some of them got into altercations with drivers, and more than 100 cyclists were arrested.

(People yelling amidst motors)

KENNEDY: Animosity between cyclists and motorists has increased as the city's traffic has become denser. San Francisco has more registered automobiles per capita than any other US city. And every day, nearly half a million vehicles drive in from surrounding suburbs. Added to that, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake forced the city to tear down its seismically weak freeways, forcing thousands of those vehicles onto narrow surface streets. The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced that the Bay Area has the sixth worst smog in the country, and it's ordered local agencies to crack down on polluters. Bay Area air quality officials blame the problem on the Bay Area's 5 million cars.

(Traffic sounds; horns)

KENNEDY: During rush hour, traffic crawls down San Francisco's main artery, Market Street, like a slow IV drip. Right now crews are working on digging up streetcar tracks, so pedestrians and cyclists must navigate through a maze of commercial vehicles, buses, railroad tracks, and potholes.


KENNEDY: Accidents here are commonplace. Officer Sherman Ackerson blames many of them on cyclists who disobey traffic laws.

ACKERSON: Sometimes we have bicyclists who go into the pedestrian lanes, sidewalks, they go into crosswalks, and they strike individuals. And of course a bicyclist traveling at a good rate of speed has got a lot of energy and knocks a person down and can easily result in injury. In most cases it's usually the bicyclist at fault.

MARTIN: Saying to a bicyclist today, if you just follow all the traffic laws everything will be fine, every cyclist knows that that's just not the case.

KENNEDY: T.J. Martin is a bike messenger who spends his day trying to get through the traffic quickly.

MARTIN: The laws, the traffic laws as they are set up do not ensure the safety of a cyclist. They basically ignore the fact that bicyclists even exist.

KENNEDY: Cycling advocates would like to see parts of downtown closed off to vehicles. They also want bike racks on buses, safe places to lock up their bikes, showers in businesses, and a bicycle lane along the Bay Bridge.

(People at a gathering, milling)

MAN: Okay, people, I just want to thank you for coming to the San Francisco Bicycling Coalition Voting Party. We appreciate your help...

KENNEDY: Critical Mass has generated increased demand for information from around the world, and spawned rides in cities as far away as Sydney and London. At a recent meeting of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, volunteers folded thousands of copies of their newsletter, The Tubular Times, to send out to new subscribers. SFBC leaders David Snyder and Stephanie Altenmees say they've finally gotten the ear of City Hall.

SNYDER: I think that the politicians understand the urgency of the issue now better than they used to.

ALTENMEES: And if it takes that many people to get, to get the attention of politicians, that's maybe, maybe just getting their attention is one of the best things that it's done. It's not a convenience that just a few people are interested in; it's something that thousands of people and thousands more would want to do, that you want to get on your bike and get somewhere.

POMERANTZ: It isn't just about creating better access for bicycles.

KENNEDY: Joe Pomerantz is one of the Bike Coalition's founding members.

POMERANTZ: The part of it that has to do with the city's commitment is that we really have to start viewing it as part of a transportation issue: how to change the transportation mix so that the city's healthier and more sustainable.

KENNEDY: Bike activists have been working with city officials to push through several new city-sponsored programs. One of them is a fleet of public bicycles.

(Noises on the open street)

These bikes are for San Francisco, for all the citizens of San Francisco who are tired of waiting for a MUNI bus or can't afford a bike or left their bike at home or whatever.

(Cheers from a crowd)

KENNEDY: Cycling advocates hope riders will jump on one of the spray-painted yellow bikes and pedal to their destination, then leave the free bike for the next person. Supervisor Leslie Katz is also working with cycling advocates on a bicycle transportation enhancement plan. If approved, it would expand bike lanes, create special bike parking spaces, and pay city employees to cycle to work. She's already gotten the city to start putting in bike racks on buses and on the streets and install showers in City Hall. But more controversial changes, like closing streets to traffic, could be a long way off.

KATZ: We are working on a master plan for transportation that will be due out some time in 1998, and obviously whatever we come up with has to account for the use of the cars, access to the freeway, but also improved and enhanced public transportation. Some of the improvements may not take place until as far away as 2020.

(Street sounds)

KENNEDY: The city plans to hold an alternative transportation summit some time this fall. But so far, the situation on the street hasn't really changed. Until the next Critical Mass ride, lone cyclists will have to carefully negotiate with motorists and pedestrians for their piece of the streets of San Francisco.

(Crowds, whistles, bicycle horns and bells, and cheers)

KENNEDY: For Living on Earth, I'm Deirdre Kennedy.

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CURWOOD: The Fall Equinox is approaching. Labor Day has come and gone. And for many folks the long weekend meant a chance for one last walk along the beach--one that took a bizarre twist for Living on Earth's John Rudolph, and he sent us this reporter's notebook from the island of Martha's Vineyard.

(Gull calls)

RUDOLPH: I found something unnerving among the usual flotsam and jetsam that washes up on the shore of Martha's Vineyard: balloons. Hundreds of balloons in all shapes, sizes, and colors. One afternoon on a mile-long stretch bordering the Atlantic Ocean, I collected more than 80 balloons in the surf and sand. I thought that would be the end of it, but a few days later my daughter Maya joined me on another beach expedition. Once again, the shore was littered with balloons. We stuffed our collection into a big plastic box that had also washed up.

(Footfalls in sand)

MAYA: This one says Class of ‘97. This one is in the shape of an American Flag. Um, this ribbon says Congratulations, so I think it's from a graduation.

RUDOLPH: Here's a balloon that has an American Flag pattern on it, and --

MAYA: I remember where I found that.

RUDOLPH: You do?

MAYA: It was in the water with a whole bunch of other balloons, and I swam out. We were just leaving the beach, and I think I had my clothes on, and I swam out and got them and put them in the bag.

RUDOLPH: No one knows for sure where all these balloons came from. Probably a combination of wind and tides brought them to this particular stretch of beach. Chances are they were released at happy occasions, parties or county fairs. A balloon floating through the air is such a joyful and innocent sight. But when it's deflated and lying on the beach, well, that's another story. I showed my discovery to my friend Jonathan. He's a rabbi and good at seeing the big picture.

JONATHAN: Well you know, when you think of balloons, you think of the hot air balloon, which is a beautiful sight. But that seems to me something that's used over and over again. But a balloon just seems--someone's instant satisfaction. It's there and you see it go away, like sending a rocket up into the sky. But then it's gone and it turns into garbage. (Laughs) Just turns into garbage.

RUDOLPH: There are people who get paid to think about the impact balloons have on the environment. And not surprisingly, the experts disagree. The Center for Marine Conservation in Washington, DC, says animals like sea turtles ingest balloons, sometimes leading to starvation and death. Seven states actually have laws that prohibit or restrict balloon releases for environmental and public safety reasons. On the other hand, the Balloon Council, a group representing balloon manufacturers, says there's no evidence that balloons kill sea mammals. A spokeswoman for the group called reports of these kinds of deaths a sort of urban myth. Well, myth or not, this beach on Martha's Vineyard was strewn with balloons. And even if no animals died it reminds me that every act of man has consequences, even the innocent release of a brightly-colored gas-filled balloon. I was also forced to acknowledge that as the world becomes more crowded, the likelihood increases that my actions will affect someone else. Sort of like stepping on a stranger's toe in a packed elevator.

I try to be conscious of this as I go about my daily routine. It's not always easy. But one thing is certain. The next time I get my hands on a balloon, I'm going to make sure it's tied down securely. For Living on Earth, I'm John Rudolph.

(Music up and under)

RUDOLPH: What you got there?

MAYA: Another balloon. (Splashes in the water) Come on, let's go see sand castles!

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CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Great Lakes Protection Fund and the George Gund Foundation for Great Lakes reporting; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental ethics.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio. CURWOOD: An upcoming NASA space launch may pose a risk: contaminating the planet with plutonium. That story is coming up on Living on Earth.

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(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood

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The Living On Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Thirty years ago this week, the US launched a small capsule into orbit around the Earth. Nothing unusual about that, except for the payload: 64 wildflowers, 120 frog eggs, 560 wasps, 10,000 gnats, and more than 10 million bread mold spores--all in an attempt to determine the effects of weightlessness on living organisms. Called the BioSatellite 2, the capsule also contained 13 scientific experiments to study the effect of radiation in space. It was the first successful mission of its kind. BioSatellite 1 blasted off 9 months earlier, had rocket trouble, and was lost. Since that trip, 9 BioSatellites have been launched. Many of them have carried rhesus monkeys. The monkeys come back alive, but are then often dissected in labs by scientists who say the results have helped prepare humans for space flight. Animal rights groups have long protested the use of monkeys in space travel research. The next BioSatellite mission, number 12, is slated for 1998. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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CURWOOD: Miami International Airport is the major hub for flights to Latin America. And as trade and travel to that region have increased, so have congestion and delays. Miami, say local politicians, needs another airport. The site they've chosen for the billion-dollar project is the shuttered Homestead Air Force Base in south Dade County, an area devastated by Hurricane Andrew 5 years ago and in dire need of an economic boost. There's a hitch, though. The proposed site sits between 2 of the most environmentally sensitive national parks in the nation, and now it's up to the White House to decide the future of the project. Alexis Muellner explains.

BREMMAN: We've got a flat, calm day, which is nice because you're going to be able to see through the bank really clearly.

(A motor starts up)

MUELLNER: The midday sun blazes across the unusually calm waters of South Biscayne Bay. Park Ranger Gary Bremman guides his boat slowly through a coastal manatee protection zone. The vast bay is serenely quiet, even though the Miami skyline is visible through the haze to the north.

BREMMAN: Most national parks you go to, if you think about it, you think of mountains and trees and big holes in the ground and geysers 150 feet high, or maybe historic buildings like Independence Hall and the Statue of Liberty. You look on our horizon here and the 3 biggest landmarks are a nuclear power plant, a mountain of trash, and a city of 2 million people.

MUELLNER: Despite its proximity to Miami, Biscayne National Park is home to fragile coral reefs and diverse ecosystems. Here in the bay's south end, the water is nearly pristine. But just a few miles north, closer to downtown Miami, the bay turns murky and unhealthy. Gary Bremman checks his depth gauges, cuts the motor, and glides to a stop.

BREMMAN: Where we are right now is about 2 miles from the end of the flight path of the proposed airport. And at this point planes would probably be about 1,000 feet above the spot where we're sitting. Just a little further to the west of here, over on the mangrove shoreline, is an area that's prime for bird nesting and roosting. It's an area prime for fishing, crabbing, canoeing, recreational pursuits of all types, and of course aircraft 1,000 feet overhead are going to have some pretty significant impacts on those types of activities.

MUELLNER: What Gary Bremman is concerned about are plans to build a large airport on the site of Homestead Air Base, that was devastated by Hurricane Andrew 5 years ago. Blueprints call for new terminals, cargo facilities, a hotel, office space, and an industrial park. In the coming decade, developers say, $12 billion will be pumped into the now-stagnant local economy. The base redevelopment was supposed to begin years ago, but concerns over the project's impact on the ecosystem have delayed it. Critics of the plan say an impact study done in 1994 by the Air Force was based on a much smaller operation than is now on the table, and that in January, just before the base was expected to be turned over to Dade, President Clinton put the project on hold and asked the Air Force to reevaluate its study and determine whether it's comprehensive enough to preserve the parks. The county's mayor says it is; the developers agree. Others aren't so sure. Dick Frost is superintendent at Biscayne National Park.

FROST: If you lose water quality in the fresh water entering the bay, you lose the bay. If you lose the bay you lose the lobster, you lose the fish, you affect the reef track--everything depends on the nature of the bay and the water quality of the bay. That's the linchpin to the whole ecosystem in this park.

MUELLNER: A coalition of 40 environmental groups has slowed the process with legal actions and public outcry. Alan Farago of the Sierra Club says plans call for an airport that will grow to the size of JFK in New York, with flights coming and going every few minutes. He says he doesn't want to stop the reuse of Homestead Base, just make sure development is limited to what the local ecosystem can handle.

FARAGO: Our goal is not to stop the reuse of the Homestead Air Base. There was an air base there in the past. It was and will be a productive part of the South Dade economy. But what Dade County has planned and what the Federal Aviation Administration has virtually guaranteed is a major commercial airport.

MUELLNER: Just how big the Homestead project gets, its supporters say, will depend on how quickly Dade's economy grows. They say a huge airport is possible, but not for another 3 decades. Miguel Degrande is an attorney for Habdee, the development company that 2 years ago won a controversial lease at the base. He says the airport development can exist without harm to either Everglades or Biscayne National Parks.

DEGRANDE: There have been planes flying, and there are planes flying every day over the Everglades in its approach pattern into Miami International Airport. There have been military planes flying sorties over the Everglades for the last 50 years from Homestead Air Base. It simply is a non-issue.

(Plane engines; clanking sounds)

MUELLNER: At rush hour along Homestead's business corridor, commuters pass by a farmer turning over a sugarcane field. Agriculture is still a major source of revenue here, but it always played second fiddle to Homestead Air Base. Then Hurricane Andrew trampled through 5 years ago. At the time of the storm the base had 12,000 employees and a $178 million payroll. Today Dade County's 8% unemployment is well above the national average. Near the base, strip malls sit empty and decaying. Bill Losner's president of First National Bank of Homestead, where deposits are down 30% since the storm.

LOSNER: Frankly, we're a welfare town today. We have thousands of apartments that were rebuilt after the hurricane that military people lived in. They were rebuilt. Now we have many people that live in our community that are what we call Section 8 recipients, and they are people that are on welfare. And the whole make-up of our town has changed. The middle-income people that lived in the trailer parks that are gone and moved away. We had thousands of middle-income retirement people that lived here, and they're gone. And frankly, on a weekend in certain areas of this town we look like a Third World country. It's not the town I grew up in.

MUELLNER: Supporters say revitalizing Dade's economy is not the only reason to develop Homestead. They say a new airport is needed to take some of the strain off already-overcrowded Miami International. Alex Penelas is Dade County's mayor.

PENELAS: We're going to run out of space at Miami International Airport by the year 2012. So if it's not Homestead Air Force Base, which is within the urban development line, then where are we going to build a new airport, in the Everglades? I don't think anybody wants that.

MUELLNER: The fate of the Homestead project for now lies in the White House, and the Clinton Administration is walking a tightrope. On one hand, Everglades restoration has been a cornerstone of the President's environmental agenda. But in 1992 Mr. Clinton won Dade County by promising Homestead would be a model for base conversions. Mayor Penelas says the Administration has yet to keep its promise.

PENELAS: A model base conversion, unquote. Model base conversion. (Laughs) I haven't seen anything model about this. So, I mean, I think we've gotten to a point in this community where we just need to have an answer. And I think the South Dade community in particular needs to know whether they can depend on Homestead Air Force Base as a stimulator to their economy or not. If the answer's no, that's fine. But we need to know.

MUELLNER: For Alan Farago of the Sierra Club, the Administration's agenda at Homestead can't be reconciled with its Everglades restoration policy.

FARAGO: You cannot pit multi-billion-dollar development projects against multi-billion-dollar restoration initiatives and expect that at some point the American public won't catch on and ask what the hell is going on here?

MUELLNER: The White House is expected to decide within weeks whether to turn Homestead Air Base over to Dade County for development or order more environmental studies. Another delay by the Administration, say airport proponents, could hinder Al Gore's Presidential ambitions. Florida's 25 electoral votes are key in any election. Dade's voters make up nearly a quarter of the state electorate, and over the last 25 years no Presidential contender has won Florida without taking Dade County. For Living on Earth, I'm Alexis Muellner in Miami.

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CURWOOD: After a 3-year moratorium on taking cod, Canadian fishing boats are once again pulling them in in the North Atlantic. But some say it may be too soon to declare that the fishing grounds have been replenished. That story is just ahead right here on Living on Earth.

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Fear gripped Australia last fall when it seemed a Russian space probe bound for Mars and loaded with a half pound of deadly plutonium might crash on the island nation. In the end, the near-panic passed as the satellite probably went down in Bolivia or Chile, and so far no traces of plutonium have been found. Today there are new concerns. This fall, NASA plans to launch its own plutonium-laden spacecraft: a mission to Jupiter, and this one carrying 72 pounds. I asked John Pike, space policy director of the Federation of American Scientists, about the risks involved with this mission, and why NASA needs a nuclear generator to power it.

PIKE: Traditionally, NASA has been of the view that when they're flying missions to the outer planets, much further away from the sun than the Earth is, that solar power just isn't an option that far away from the sun. They use the plutonium on Cassini not the way you build a bomb or build a reactor here on Earth, but basically from the natural decay of the plutonium. That gives off a lot of heat. And they use thermocouples, which in turn generate the electricity that's required to power the spacecraft.

CURWOOD: The concern comes from people saying that an accident could disperse this probe's plutonium into the Earth's environment. How would that happen and how likely is that?

PIKE: Well, there are basically 2 major accident scenarios that people are concerned about. The first one is that the Titan rocket that it's being launched on could explode or otherwise break up shortly after launch with a radiological release around the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station area in Florida. The other possibility is that some time after launch, when the Cassini spacecraft loops around the sun and then comes back by the Earth in order to get a gravitational assist to get it all the way out to Saturn, there's a concern that it might be slightly off course, and rather than passing a few hundred miles above the Earth's atmosphere, re-enter the Earth's atmosphere, burn up, and the plutonium could be dispersed either over a large area or perhaps globally. The problem is that it's difficult to quantify both the probability of either of those accidents happening, or the extent to which plutonium would be released. It's fairly easy to say that the odds of the Titan rocket having a launch accident are about 1 in 20. There have been 20 Titan launches, one of them's blown up.

CURWOOD: You're saying that just in the launch phase there's a 1 in 20 chance that the rocket carrying the spacecraft, which is loaded with all this plutonium, could blow up and here the plutonium might be dispersed?

PIKE: Well certainly, there have been 20 Titan IV launches. One of them had a launch accident and its spy satellite payload wound up in the Pacific Ocean. And 1 in 20 is a typical number for expendable launch vehicles. NASA's calculations suggest that the radioactive power source on Cassini is built to withstand the sort of conditions that it would encounter in such an accident. Of course the problem is that they don't have an awful lot of experimental data on this. But I think that we're basically in a situation where, with a launch vehicle accident there's a relatively high probability that something's going to go wrong with the launch vehicle, a relatively low probability that the plutonium is dispersed. In the second scenario, the probability that the spacecraft swinging back by the Earth would accidentally re-enter the atmosphere is probably fairly low. On the other hand, NASA's studies conclude that if it did accidentally re-enter the atmosphere, the odds are pretty high that a lot of plutonium would get scattered around.

CURWOOD: And what would that mean for people's health, for wildlife, for the planet's health if that happened?

PIKE: Well, that's where the controversy comes in. NASA's assessment of the risk is that as many as a few thousand people might die as a result of Cassini re-entering the Earth's atmosphere. Other estimates place the numbers in the millions. And since we don't have very much experience with this sort of Earth fly-by, there is considerable uncertainty associated with that.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering, haven't there been some pretty substantial advances in solar technology that NASA should be able to take advantage of, compared to when they first looked at the solar option?

PIKE: Well, there have certainly been major advances in solar electric power technology over the last several decades. Particularly in the last 5 or 10 years, there have been significant improvements. Back in the 1960s, when NASA first started flying missions like this, I think the case for nuclear power was much clearer than it is today. The main thing that's driving the nuclear rather than solar option here is the well-founded fear on the part of the Cassini scientists that if they stopped their program for a few years, put solar power on it, that there's a real risk that NASA or the Congress would cancel it and it would never get to fly.

CURWOOD: John Pike is space policy director of the Federation of American Scientists. Thank you, sir.

PIKE: Thank you.

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CURWOOD: Four years ago the Canadian government shut down the cod fisheries in the northwest Atlantic because the cod stocks had dropped to almost nothing. As the moratorium dragged on, tens of thousands of unemployed fishermen and women put pressure on the government to let them go back to work. This summer, the government finally relented, and the move is being closely watched by the fishing industry around the world. As reporter Ted Blades found out, the decision has as much to do with politics as it has to do with science. His story begins in the waters off Placentia Bay off the south coast of Newfoundland.

(Radio voice interacting with crew; whistling)

BLADES: It's pitch black on the bridge of the HMS Cormorant.

(Radio voice continues, with static)

BLADES: The faces of the navy crew are barely visible in the green glow of the radar. Out there in the dark, a quarter mile ahead of us and 50 meters down, is a miniature submarine with 4 men inside.

MAN: Circuit control, SDL on the bottom, bottom type gravel and mud. Visibility two zero feet. Key ballasting.

BLADES: The navy has loaned a sub for 3 days to George Rose. He's a scientist at the marine institute in St. John’s.

ROSE: It's interesting how those cod stay together as a group like that.

BLADES: Right now, he's peering out the sub's bubble window at a handful of fish, as they circle in the beam of the sub's searchlights.

(Loud air vents in the background)

ROSE: Yeah, and look at that little bunch of red fish there, eh? Stuck under that rock. That's kinda neat.

BLADES: Rose's specialty is cod behavior. He tracks them from the surface using a type of sonar so precise, it can pick out individual fish on the bottom of the ocean. Now he's down there on the bottom to see if his instruments agree with his eyes.

(Loud air vents)

ROSE: So what what I want to do now is, as we're going down this line, if we can plot every minute, and every minute we'll do a tally of the number of fish we saw and some indication of fish size, just small or large...

BLADES: After 500 years of fishing, this is the state of scientific knowledge. George Rose, one of the leading experts on cod, says 90% of its biology and behavior remains a mystery.

ROSE: (Phone ringing in background) We know that they come from the east around Cape St. Mary's and into the bay.

BLADES: This way.

ROSE: Right. That happens some time in the fall. And then they seem to stay in this area for a couple of months. Then they leave. We have no idea where they go. The fishermen don't have any idea where they go. And this is one of the big management questions now, with the opening of the fishery and so on, is that it's not known even which population is being fished. You know, the full life cycle, if you want to look at it that way, of this particular group of fish, is not known at all.

BLADES: George Rose and his submarine find his corner of the bay almost empty of fish. But 3 miles to the north and 2 weeks later, the Johnson brothers are hauling gill nets fat with cod.

JOHNSON: I have 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11. There's 11 there in the space of 10 fathom. Fish afoot. And there's probably more there hanging in the water, another 4, 5 feet. It's unreal, it was never like this. I mean looking at this since I was a youngster, it was never like this not back 30 years ago. And that’s when there was supposed to be fish.

BLADES: Earl and Oakley Johnson aren't fishing for themselves or for profit. They're doing research for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in what's called the Sentinel Fishery, conducting their own survey on the state of the fish stocks. This cold day in December, the nets come up from 40 fathoms down full of cod, one after another, nose over tail, with little green or empty net between them. The boat's winch slips with the string.

(String squeaking; hammering sounds)

BLADES: Seventeen hundred codfish in just 3 hours, or about 5,500 pounds. To the fishermen, proof positive that the bay is blocked with fish. But to George Rose, less persuasive evidence.

ROSE: We know that the distribution of the fish is not uniform throughout the bay. That is, you know, you might have been right over top of one of the heaviest concentrations that migrated into the bay. The whole bay is not like that.

BLADES: Sentinel fishermen like the Johnson brothers find lots of cod inshore, in the relatively shallow waters of the bays. But in deep water farther offshore, out past the 12-mile mark, where the great masses of codfish once schooled, fishery scientists aren't finding much of anything. And the few codfish they do find are all about 7 years old: too small to have been caught before the moratorium. There's no sign of younger fish coming up behind them, which could mean that the cod have been growing but not reproducing. The Fisheries Resources Conservation Council is the agency that advises the government on fishing policy. It uses a single word to describe its estimate of the total cod population in the area off the south coast of Newfoundland. That word is: uncertain. Nevertheless, last fall the council recommended a limited reopening of the fishery. John Lein is a conservationist at heart and a member of the FRCC.

LEIN: There is no question that, I think, with some fear and trembling we approached this decision, and the consequences of any decision we made. There's no question, there's a contradiction or a disparity between offshore assessments and inshore measures of abundance. There also is a very real question about how well we can manage a fishery on a limited basis. We haven't necessarily managed the moratorium all that well. I think the FRCC felt the need to proceed. The status quo of simply keeping people off the water and not developing better practices in the fishery, not by that harvesting, learning more about the status of the resource, I think we thought that was kind of, that was just not enough.

(Crunching sounds)

BLADES: If the scientific evidence was murky, the politics were clear. Newfoundlanders were tired of waiting. They wanted to go back to work.

FISHERMAN: The only way that's going to work at all was to many boats, is open up a free for all and let whoever the hell can catch it, catch it. Open up and let her go. Catch it and whoever catches the most does the best.

BLADES: There were just as many licensed fishermen on the south coast, 1,400, as before the moratorium, despite the fact that the federal government had spent almost $2 billion on compensation and retraining since 1992. Last December John Crosby, the fisheries minister who imposed the moratorium in the first place, said government and industry had failed to act at a crucial point in history.

CROSBY: I certainly felt and still feel that this was the opportunity forced upon governments, of course, to do something about trying to improve the management of the fishery and the way it was run. But 3 or 4 years have gone by and there's no obvious signs at all of any fundamental change. I mean, with the fundamental failure of the fishery, you would think there would be some fundamental changes in place when the fishery comes back. But that doesn't appear to be the case. So I think it's very discouraging.

(Boat motors)

BLADES: On May 18, this year, the new fisheries minister reopened the fishery on the south coast. Every boat was on the water that day. On the wharves, huge gray plastic tubs were being shoveled full of ice.

(Shoveling, loud beeps, ambient speech)

BLADES: The government set a quota of 10,000 tons, a fraction of the old catch, and the quota was broken down even further, through 4 fishing seasons, with a few hundred tons allocated to this sector and that region or this gear type. In Placentia Bay the first gill net fishery was closed in less than 36 hours because the quota had been caught. The fishermen say optimistically that's a sign there's lots of fish out there. Others argue it is simply proof there are still too many fishermen chasing too few fish. George Rose, the research scientist, applauds the new management regime's small quotas and tight controls.

ROSE: The design was to spread it out right over the year by gear type, by area, which is good. I mean, this is, it's more like a survey, in other words, than a “let's just open it up and clean up 10,000 tons as fast as we can.” I've been out there now for, well, I was out there actually a month before the fishery opened, surveying the fish, and I was there right through the early days, and you really have to say days because the quota was caught so quickly. And it seemed to me that by and large, you know, almost to a man, almost to a boat, the fishermen were prosecuting this fishery in an exemplary fashion. I mean, they were doing everything right.

BLADES: What's going on on top of the water is one thing. But George Rose says researchers are no closer to understanding what's going on below. We still don't know how many fish are left in the sea. We can't tell from these first catches if the cod are reproducing. And there's no way to know what impact the reopening will have on the long-term health of the stock. John Lein of the Fisheries Resources Conservation Council says a carefully controlled fishery may be the best compromise possible. He says the number of fish caught isn't as important as how well Newfoundland fishermen control their practices in the future. It's a lesson people can learn wherever fish stocks are in danger.

(Sounds on deck; ringing)

FISHERMAN 1: If we haven't learned nothing now, Christ help us.

FISHERMAN 2: I mean, you know, after this, if we still didn't learn nothing, there have to be guts and leadership up on top.

FISHERMAN 1: Instead of making the fishery a scapegoat for everybody can't get a job, you got to let the fishermen go fishin' and keep numbers down the way it always was.


BLADES: Scientists, politicians, and the fishermen will be keeping an eye on the catch during the 3 more limited harvests this year. For Living on Earth, I'm Ted Blades on the waters of Placentia Bay, Newfoundland.

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production team includes George Homsy, Liz Lempert, Jesse Wegman, Julia Madeson, Peter Christianson, and Peter Shaw. Our associate editor is Kim Motylewski. Peter Thomson heads our western bureau. Chris Ballman is the senior producer. And we had help from Emma Hayes. Fond farewells to our summer interns Tom Kuo and Jill Hecht. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Jeff Martini engineered the program. Michael Aharon composed the theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; Stonyfield Farm, makers of pure all-natural organic yogurts and ice cream. 1- 800-PROCOWS for Stonyfield's Moosletter; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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