Explosive Natural Gas
(stream / mp3)
There are more than a third of a million miles of natural gas transmission pipelines in the U.S., and more to come. But sometimes they rupture, devastating homes and lives. Bruce Gellerman speaks with investigative blogger Frank Gallagher, editor of NaturalGasWatch.org, about the hazards of the vast system. (06:30)
(stream / mp3)
It seems that fraudulent honey is becoming more and more common at big name stores across the U.S. Living on Earth’s Bruce Gellerman speaks to melissopalynologist, Vaughn Bryant from Texas A&M University, who cracked the case of honey being sold sans pollen. (05:50)
Cape Wind Spin
(stream / mp3)
What started as a project to build America’s first offshore windfarm has turned into a ten-year battle, with powerful interests on both sides. One filmmaker chronicles the extreme opinions on both sides. Bruce Gellerman talks with the film’s director Robbie Gemmel about why the Cape Cod community is so passionate about this issue. (11:05)
Wave Glider/ Ashley Ahearn
(stream / mp3)
What’s self-propelled, floats, and is designed to collect ocean intelligence? Ashley Ahearn of EarthFix reports on a new technology that could help scientists learn more about the mysteries of the underwater world. (04:50)
Evolution in Action/ Ari Daniel Shapiro
(stream / mp3)
Biologists at American University are tracking evolutionary changes in the red-shouldered soapberry bug. In just 50 years, the bugs’ beaks have become shorter and they are making more babies. As Ari Daniel Shapiro reports, researchers are excited about the quick adaptations and want to know which genes make this bug diversity possible. (05:30)
Central Park-- An Urban Oasis
(stream / mp3)
Throngs of people walk through Central Park each year barely noticing the thousands of trees which give it it’s natural flavour. Ken Chaya, with his partner Ned Barnard, has spent the last two years counting and mapping 19,933 trees to publish ‘Central Park Entire: The Definitive Illustrated Folding Map’. Host Bruce Gellerman learns about the landscape’s history, design and botanical value in short stroll around the park with Ken Chaya. (10:35)
HOSTS: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Robbie Gemmel, Frank Gallagher, Vaughn Bryant, Ken Chaya
REPORTERS: Ashley Ahearn, Ari Daniel Shapiro
GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International, it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. A network of high pressure gas pipelines crisscrosses the nation - a third of a million miles, and more are on the way. But as demand for gas grows, so do the dangers.
GALLAGHER: The notion of bringing a 42 inch high pressure natural gas pipeline into downtown Manhattan boggles the mind. It’s not a question of if something happens, it's a question of when.
Also, counting every tree in Central Park takes its toll:
CHAYA: What I've discovered in the past 2 years is - this is my office. I was working in the park for 2 1/2 years. There were times when I had to convince my wife (LAUGHS) over dinner table discussions, that I was in the park all day but really I was working!
These stories, and a lot more, this week, on Living on Earth. Stick around!
PRI ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, and Stonyfield Farm.
PRI ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, and Stonyfield Farm.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is a recycled edition of Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.
Crisscrossing the nation is a huge network of pipelines carrying natural gas under high pressure. The transmission lines run about a third of a million miles over and under the United States. In addition, the boom in gas drilling and shale formations has lead to thousands more miles of new gas gathering pipelines, which are largely unregulated by federal authorities. Secretary of Transportation Ray La Hood has said, ‘improving the safety of pipelines is the first thing I think of in the morning and the last thing that keeps me up at night.’ Well, in Sept 2010, the nation got a wake up call. A pipeline exploded in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno. Eight died, 38 homes were destroyed.
TELEVISION CLIP: MALE RESIDENT: It sounded like a jet, almost like just a giant roar, and then the biggest boom I’ve ever heard in my life. WOMAN REPORTER: But it was a high-pressure natural gas line that ruptured, caused the explosion and then fueled the spectacular blaze. The local utility company, Pacific Gas and Electric, says they will be accountable if it’s determined they were at fault.
GELLERMAN: PG&E, owner of the pipeline, did accept responsibility for the disaster. But investigative blogger Frank Gallagher says it's not an isolated case. Frank, welcome to Living on Earth.
GALLAGHER: Thank you for having me.
GELLERMAN: Let's talk about the San Bruno accident. What happened?
GALLAGHER: Faulty valves, lack of shut off valves, that was the, you know, cause of the explosion. But at the end of the day, it was discovered that these pipelines had been uninspected for years. And that PG&E, in fact, didn’t have any of the records pertaining to any of the pipelines. They couldn't even tell you where they were exactly or when the last time was that they looked at them.
GELLERMAN: Reading your online blog NaturalGasWatch.org suggests very strongly that this is not an isolated case.
GALLAGHER: Oh, absolutely not. There are major pipeline incidents all over the country with astonishing regularity. I mean, following San Bruno, you had a major explosion in Philadelphia that killed one person. You had Allentown, which killed six people, I believe. Just the first week of January, you had a major explosion in Kentucky which was the fourth major explosion in ten years in Kentucky! I mean these things occur with jaw-dropping regularity.
GELLERMAN: We have something like a third of a million miles of natural gas transmission lines throughout this country. It’s a huge network.
GALLAGHER: It is and it’s expanding everyday. I mean, with the discovery of the Marcellus Shale gas play, the goal now of these companies is to get that gas to market as quickly as possible and the way to do that is to expand the transmission system. So they’re building pipelines at an incredible pace.
GELLERMAN: They want to build a pipeline that’s going to go through Jersey City, Bayonne, New Jersey, to Staten Island and then come up in Manhattan.
GALLAGHER: Under the Hudson, right into lower Manhattan. Just blocks away from where the World Trade Center was.
GELLERMAN: The mayor of Jersey City, which is the second largest city in New Jersey, says ‘No way José!’
GALLAGHER: He does, but unfortunately, you know, it’s out of his hands. At the end of the day, the decision rests with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC. They have final approval.
GELLERMAN: So, what are the concerns?
GALLAGHER: Well, the concerns are very real. The concerns are that this thing could explode. I mean if you look at Spectra Energy, their safety record has got some spots on it.
GELLERMAN: Spectra is the company that wants to build this?
GALLAGHER: Spectra Energy is the company that wants to build this. And the notion of bringing a 42-inch high-pressure natural gas pipeline into downtown Manhattan boggles the mind. It’s not a question of if something happens, it’s a question of when.
GELLERMAN: What’s the pressure of these pipelines?
GALLAGHER: Anywhere from 1,000 to 1,200 psi - pounds per square inch - which is enormous high pressure.
GELLERMAN: Spectra says this is going to be the safest pipeline in the United States. They say we’ve got these robots which can detect and fill leaks, that we’ve got these emergency valves, and…well, you’re smiling.
GALLAGHER: Yes, of course I am, because that is what the pipeline companies say every time they want to build a pipeline. And I would point you to the Millennium Pipeline in New York State, the southern tier, this thing was built a couple, two years ago to pipe shale gas directly off the Marcellus Shale play into New York City. Two years old. This pipeline was just shut down by the feds - the Pipeline Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration - because of defective welds. And these were welds that were identified as defective before they went into the ground.
One day, you know, an inspector was walking by and saw bubbles coming out of a creek, which is indicative of a leak. And the feds came in, went through all of the paperwork, looked at the leaks, and said this is an accident waiting to happen. Shut this thing down right now and come up with a plan to fix this, or we’ll shut it down for you.
GELLERMAN: The Congress recently passed new federal regulations punishing companies that violate the law of doubling the fines.
GALLAGHER: Right, for what? One hundred thousand to 200,000 dollars? You know, a 200,000 dollar fine, a million dollar fine, is not going to bankrupt these companies. The fact is there, as you said, are 350,000 miles of transmission lines throughout this country, expanding at a rapid pace, and the federal agencies that are charged with overseeing this, you know like every other federal agency, are under-funded, under-staffed, over-worked. There is absolutely no way that the couple of dozen inspectors that are assigned to these pipelines can keep up.
GELLERMAN: This bill that recently passed was considered a jobs bill and it increases the number of inspectors from 124 to 134.
GALLAGHER: Right. It adds, what, ten inspectors? So the notion that ten inspectors are going to be able to adequately police pipelines is absurd. It’s absolutely absurd!
GELLERMAN: Natural gas - we’ve got an abundance of it, it’s cheap, it burns clean, it’s considered a bridge fuel until we can get to renewable resources…
GALLAGHER: Right, right. Well, it’s cheap depending on what you consider cheap. If you’re talking strictly dollars and cents, then you can maybe make a case that it’s cheap. If you want to add in all of the other costs – the societal costs that occur and that have to be paid for getting this gas out of the ground and to market – it becomes extraordinarily expensive.
Because shale gas, over and above traditional gas, has a carbon cost of getting it from the well-head to market that puts it, if Cornell research is to be believed, makes it more carbon intensive than coal. We will put more carbon into the air extracting this natural gas than you would if you just went and burned coal because this stuff needs truck after truck after truck to get it out and to market. I mean, you have water that has to be trucked in, injected, then removed, trucked out. For example, there are days in Wyoming where, rural Wyoming--this is farm country, cows, ranchers--have worse air quality than Los Angeles.
GALLAGHER: Because of natural gas drilling.
GELLERMAN: Natural gas is methane.
GELLERMAN: Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas.
GALLAGHER: It’s, depending on who you talk to, it’s anywhere from 20 to 30 times more damaging than carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and they’re venting this stuff off freely. You know, if you consider all those costs, then suddenly natural gas becomes not so cheap.
GELLERMAN: Frank Gallagher’s investigative blog is called NaturalGasWatch.org. Frank Gallagher, thank you very much for coming in.
GALLAGHER: My pleasure.
GELLERMAN: Professor Vaughn Bryant of Texas A&M University is a crime scene investigator.
- Natural Gas Watch
- U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration
- Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
- National Transportation Safety Board
- Whitehouse Blog
[MUSIC: The Who “Won’t Get Fooled Again” from Who’s Next (Geffen Records 1971)]
GELLERMAN: When it comes to analyzing the not-so-sweet side of life, they don’t get any nittier or grittier than Professor Bryant. He’s the nation’s premier melissopalynologist. The web-based publication Food Safety News recently called upon the professor to investigate a sticky crime scene. Hello Professor!
BRYANT: Glad to be here.
GELLERMAN: What’s a melissiopalynologist?
BRYANT: It’s melissopalynology - if you want to really literally translate it: melisso - refers to sweet, palynology is a technical term for the study of pollen. Melissopalynology is somebody who looks at pollen in honey.
GELLERMAN: So, Food Safety News wanted to do a sting operation into the sale of honey in the United States, and they called upon you.
BRYANT: That’s true. They had been hearing that a lot of the honey produced in the United States had the pollen removed. And, of course, once you take the pollen out, you don’t know two things: the first thing you do not know is where the honey was produced, and the second thing you do not know is exactly what flowers the bees were utilizing in order to produce the honey.
And the reason Food Safety News was concerned about this was because China has been, for a number of years, guilty of dumping honey on the international market and particularly in the United States.
GELLERMAN: So, kind of honey laundering?
BRYANT: Yeah. (Laughs). Well, because there’s a 250-percent tariff on Chinese honey, they’ve been sending it to other countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and India and places. And then those countries were then exporting it to the United States and claiming that it was domestic honey from those countries.
And so the American Beekeeping Federation and the National Honey Board and others have consistently requested the federal government to enforce some kind of a truth-in-labeling. But the federal government has been dragging their feet for years! And most other countries in the world have truth-in-labeling. You cannot export anything to the EU, unless you certify where the honey comes from and what is in the honey, or they won't allow you to import it.
GELLERMAN: So what does the USDA say about this?
BRYANT: The USDA basically says that as long as you do not add other sugars, or as long as you do not add extra water, and as long as you take out any of the bee parts - meaning legs and wings and stuff - that you can sell it as honey. That’s the only requirement, they have no other requirements.
GELLERMAN: So if you take out the pollen from honey, what are you left with?
BRYANT: Well, if you take the pollen out, the only thing you've got is sugar. So, the pollen is really the only nutrient material in honey. I mean the pollen does in fact contain amino acids, it contains starches, it also contains fats and vitamins and various kinds of minerals. A lot of people eat honey because of the nutritional value that they’re getting from the pollen.
GELLERMAN: Well, you found, and Food Safety News reports, that 100 percent of the honey that was purchased from CVS pharmacy, Walgreens, Rite-Aid, had no pollen, and therefore, really wasn’t honey. Ditto for McDonalds. I guess three quarters of the honey purchased at Costco, Target, Sam’s Club, Walmart, didn’t have any pollen either.
BRYANT: Well, that’s true! You know, quite frankly, what I tell people is 'caveat emptor', meaning 'let the buyer beware, because most of what you buy in the store, in terms of honey, is not what the label says. One of the things that we’ve discovered, not only can we not tell where the stuff comes from, but premium honey that’s being sold like buckwheat or orange blossom or sage or thyme honey - and people were willing to pay premium prices for this very exotic types of honey - we can’t confirm that any of that stuff is actually coming from those plants, because there’s no pollen.
I’ve been telling people for years the only way to really guarantee you’re getting good honey is to buy it locally - in other words, buy it from the beekeeper or buy local honey that is being sold in grocery stores and so forth, because all of this commercial stuff isn’t honey!
GELLERMAN: So, Professor Bryant, is there any way the average honey eater can taste-test for the presence of pollen?
BRYANT: I doubt that very seriously. And I do know that there are professional honey tasters, you know, they say - oh, well, I can taste the difference between a sourwood and orange blossom and stuff like that - but quite frankly, I don’t know whether or not they could actually tell if the pollen was removed or not. I myself, I love honey - I eat all kinds of honey, but I’d be honest with you - I can’t tell the difference whether there’s pollen in it or not in most cases, but again, I’m not a professional honey taster. I am a honey tester.
GELLERMAN: So, professor, are there any crime scene honey investigations other than this one that you’ve cracked?
BRYANT: Well, I’ll tell you, in addition to looking for pollen in honey, I also do kind of CSI work. I work with law enforcement agencies looking for pollen in trying to catch criminals. And a case that I worked on a couple of years ago was in Rochester, New York where they had a teenage girl who was murdered in 1979, and it was a cold case. And they reopened the case just about a year ago, and I suggested that they send me the clothing. And after doing a thorough pollen investigation of her clothing, I determined she probably came from San Diego, California, which of course shocked the people in Rochester. The last I heard, they were investigating missing teenagers in California back in 1979.
GELLERMAN: Well, professor, thank you for talking to us.
BRYANT: My pleasure.
GELLERMAN: Vaughn Bryant is director of the Palynology Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University.
[MUSIC: The Who “Won’t Get Fooled Again” from Who’s Next (Geffen Records 1971)]
GELLERMAN: Just ahead, documenting the twists and turns of the nation’s first offshore wind project. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
GELLERMAN: You’re listening to a recycled edition of Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.
[MUSIC: If you're fond of sand dunes and salty air…: Patti Page “Old Cape Cod”]
GELLERMAN: Lobster stew…and an ocean view? Winding roads and strong winds off the water beckon you? We've got just the place…
[MUSIC: You’re sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod…that Old Cape Cod...]
GELLERMAN: Cape Cod juts out like an arm and a prize fighter’s fist into the Atlantic.
Five miles off the southern shore in Nantucket Sound beyond the sun, sand and surf, the wind blows steady and strong. For 10 years this vacation haven has been the scene of a knock-down drag-out fight over siting the nation’s first off shore wind farm. The Cape Wind Project – as it’s called – has come out the winner, having received all of the necessary state and federal approvals. And the decade-long battle is now chronicled in the new documentary: “Cape Spin: An American Power Struggle.” Robbie Gemmel is producer and director of “Cape Spin.”
GEMMEL: I actually started following this story in 2001 when I was in college. I was absolutely mesmerized that it has carried on this long and it is still thriving more than ever.
GELLERMAN: Why? What is it about this project that so divides people?
GEMMEL: I would say, the scale of it and asking a community that has many generations on the Cape and Islands to embrace such a large-scale industrial project, when, for the most part, despite all the development that has happened on the Cape, these communities have really gone out of their way to really preserve the natural beauty and also the history of the Cape and Islands.
GELLERMAN: When they were originally proposing this way back when, it was something like 170 towers and turbines, right?
GEMMEL: Correct. It was 170 and then shortly thereafter they downsized it to 130 turbines.
GELLERMAN: It still takes up a lot of water!
GEMMEL: Yeah, that’s correct, it is a fairly large footprint. The turbines themselves I think are 16 feet wide, but the entire wind farm is spread across 25 miles.
GELLERMAN: On the pro side, you’ve got the developer, Jim Gordon, who wants to build the windfarm…
[MUSIC/FROM THE MOVIE: The Cape and Islands, according the American Lung Association has the worst air quality in Massachusetts, so we thought that by developing a major [WIND SOUNDS] wind-powered project we could supply 75 percent of the Cape and Island’s electricity, with zero pollutant emissions, zero water consumption and zero waste discharge [MUSIC BEGINS AGAIN]…]
GELLERMAN: On the other side, you’ve got the Alliance to Preserve Nantucket Sound, which was first financed by Bill Koch, who’s the fossil fuel energy billionaire. I don’t think you had any access, at least, you didn’t do any interviews, with Bill Koch.
GEMMEL: Yeah, that’s correct. It’s a rather interesting scenario to have a fossil fuel billionaire as the chairman of an environmental group fighting to protect a natural resource. Bill Koch has been completely unresponsive to doing an interview or talking to us in any capacity. I must say the proponents of the wind farm really welcomed us with open arms and were eager to jump in front of our cameras. The opposition was much more challenging to navigate, but eventually, they definitely let us in and trusted that we were doing an objective documentary.
GELLERMAN: This project has really created some very strange bedfellows. You’ve got Senator Ted Kennedy, from Massachusetts, who opposes it…
KENNEDY: The interests of our state have been basically submerged for a special interest developer. We’re gonna find out that tax payers are going to pay $800 million dollars to this developer. They’ll get money that they won’t be able to count!
GELLERMAN: And Senator Ted Stevens, from Alaska, he opposes it…
GEMMEL: Senator Kennedy was clearly the preeminent Senator fighting Alaskan oil drilling, which Ted Stevens had been wanting to push through for a decade. So, for them to become buddies in this fight was quite bizarre, but it was obvious why and how they were doing it - because the Alaskan Senators were working on Coast Guard legislation, which was very convenient to try to slip riders into to kill the wind farm.
GELLERMAN: There’s a part of the film where you’ve got one of the lobbyists who’s working to support the project, and he talks about, well, NIMBY – Not in My Back Yard.
SENATOR: Not here, and not there, and certainly not in my backyard LOBBYIST: First of all it’s five and half miles out in the Atlantic Ocean, and these people who say “Not in my Backyard,” it begs the question – how big is their f•••ing backyard?
GEMMEL: (Laughs). So, that’s obviously a very popular environmental term and slogan that’s been the crux of many environmental battles. Interestingly enough, most of them have been fighting fossil fueled power plants and what people refer to as ‘dirty energy,’ so to have that applied to a renewable energy project may be a first.
GELLERMAN: Probably the most powerful scene for me in the movie is the mountaintop removal, the coalmine, where they’re blowing up the tops of these mountains in Virginia and West Virginia. Why did you include them?
GEMMEL: Well, for one, I mean, I think it’s really important for people to keep in mind where our energy comes from when we turn on the light switch, but it wasn’t even a stretch to include that because those people were coming to the hearings on the Cape, begging people to understand what they were going through and they were obviously supporting the wind farm.
[WOMAN IN MOVIE CLIP: Now, October of 2001, a giant slurry impoundment, 72-acres of toxic coal sludge failed. Everything in it died [HELICOPTER BLADES TURNING]. Three hundred and nine million gallons of toxic sludge and I bet nobody here heard about it because the folk in Appalachia are expendable. And we’re tired of bearing the burden of everybody’s energy use [CRYING].]
GEMMEL: They were holding up pictures and telling stories of rocks rolling through their homes and killing three-year-olds, and the mudslides that were filling their rivers of coal sludge, and so it’s a pretty gut-wrenching picture to understand what’s going on down there to supply our country with energy.
[WOMAN IN MOVIE CLIP: I’m sorry, I do have some sympathy for those who are concerned about their view, but come and see the view-sheds and how they have been despoiled in Appalachia… MUSIC…]
GELLERMAN: You know for something so serious, your film has a lot of funny scenes in it.
GEMMEL: This controversy has divided families in the community, and we felt that the community really needed to feel some levity out of this controversy, and both sides are incredibly brilliant, passionate, and very funny characters. And what they’ve done to fight both for and against it is just absolutely mesmerizing, hilarious at times, gut-wrenching, sad. So we kind of went out of our way to have as much fun with it as we could.
GELLERMAN: You must have had fun choosing the music - there’s a lot of music in this.
GEMMEL: Yeah, we’ve been trying to go with kind of an Americana theme. Because we do want to use this story to kind of broaden out into the bigger picture and push off of this controversy and use the lessons learned to help people navigate future energy crises.
GELLERMAN: The piece of music that I particularly like, and I don’t like this song, but I like the way you used it… is the old, I think Blood Sweat and Tears song, “Spinning Wheel.”
GEMMEL: Right, yeah, it’s obviously such a great fit for us - we used the title “Cape Spin” for the double entendre, obviously because the spin of the turbines, but also because of the political spin, the media spin, there’s so much spin. So when we came up with that song, we were pretty excited to integrate it into the film.
[MUSIC: What goes up, must come down…(This version appeared in the film Blood Sweat And Tears): “Spinning Wheel” from Blood Sweat And Tears (Columbia Records 1969).)/MIXED WITH MOVIE CLIPS.]
GELLERMAN: Did you ever count how many edits you made in this, how many fast-cuts?
GEMMEL: (Laughs.) Uh, we have over 550 hours of footage that we have been whittling down to 90 minutes for the past two and a half years, so it’s been quite a beast.
GELLERMAN: And you use it to basically, kind of, put the politics in juxtaposition, it keeps on going back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
GEMMEL: Yeah, there are just so many bizarre approaches and angles to pushing this project forward and also to killing it, and the way people have collaborated from so many different camps has been really, really fascinating to witness and understand, and enlightening, actually, in terms of understanding how politics works and how large-scale energy projects get built and get squashed.
GELLERMAN: When you were making this film, did you find yourself at one point saying, “hey yeah, I really support the project,” and then again turning around and saying, “ah, yeah, I really am against the project?”
GEMMEL: Oh, constantly. My main arc was I first learned about the project when I was a sophomore in college and then I followed it for several years and I was pitching it to many different companies, and throughout that phase I really thought that should happen. And then, I ended up being a mate on a fishing boat in Nantucket to really immerse myself in the community, and then I did start to understand why people cared so much about protecting Nantucket Sound. And in the end, I guess it’s just going to be really interesting to see what happens.
GELLERMAN: So, is it over?
GEMMEL: I definitely would not say it’s over. The proponents are not backing down. There are still a few lawsuits pending. Cape Wind and the proponents claim that none of them would be able to stop them from moving forward. I’m sure if it is built, the proponents will be going out of their way to find and highlight every single thing that’s wrong with it. So I don’t think this is going away anytime soon.
GELLERMAN: Well, the problem is are you going to go away? Are you going to continue to follow the project, or are you going to stop filming, or what?
GEMMEL: I more or less told myself a year ago that this was probably a life-long endeavor that I’m going to be involved with in some capacity.
GELLERMAN: Well, Robbie, thank you so very much.
GEMMEL: My pleasure, thank you very much!
GELLERMAN: Robbie Gemmel is producer and director of Cape Spin.
Cape Spin: An American Power Struggle
[MUSIC: Blood, Sweat & Tears “Spinning Wheel” from Blood, Sweat & Tears (Sony Music 1969)]
GELLERMAN: Oceans cover more than 70 percent of the Earth, yet scientists have barely scratched the surface in terms of plumbing the wealth of information beneath the waves. That’s where new, surf-riding robots come in. Producer Ashley Ahearn of the public media collaborative Earth Fix has our report on data-collecting, sea-going drones.
AHEARN: At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s lab in Seattle, two scientists are standing over what looks like a chubby neon-yellow surfboard.
MEINIG: So, if you look at it, it’s a very elegant device. And we can move, we can’t move very fast but, nonetheless, we can go one to two knots on this, which is fantastic for a lot of ocean research.
AHEARN: Chris Meinig is an engineer at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environment Lab. He’s looking at one of NOAA’s newest research toys - a Wave Glider.
MEINING: So what we have here is a robotic vehicle that consists of two parts. The bottom is the tractor that looks like a sideways set of Venetian blinds and it gains forward propulsion based on heave.
AHEARN: This tricked-out surfboard is powered by the rise and fall of the waves and the solar panels strapped on top. It can be remotely directed on long missions out into the open ocean. And while spending months at sea, Wave Gliders can collect loads of scientific information that gets sent back to land via satellite. Chris Sabine also works at NOAA and helped design the sensors strapped on top of their Wave Gliders.
SABINE: These data-sets are so rich that - you know, my focus is on understanding ocean acidification and CO2, but there were very interesting features that we saw in currents, that another researcher may be interested in using that information to better understand what they’re studying.
AHEARN: The sensors also collect data on water temperatures, pH, salinity and oxygen levels. Sabine says Wave Gliders will help scientists get important information directly to the people that need it.
Take the issue of ocean acidification. Every year, winds and currents cause acidic water from deep below the ocean’s surface to upwell in coastal waters. This is a natural occurrence that’s been made worse by our contribution of CO2 to the atmosphere.
And it’s bad news if you’re a shellfish farmer. Larval shellfish can’t form their shells in more acidic water and in recent years farmers have lost thousands of dollars when whole batches of baby shellfish die during acidic upwellings. Sabine says Wave Gliders could lend some predictability to the problem, by helping farmers plan when to spawn their shellfish to avoid acidic waters.
SABINE: We can say, ‘hey in two days you’re going to have this event coming into the estuary - watch out for it,’ and they’ll know ahead of time rather than seeing something happening and going ‘ooh quick! shut it all down.’
AHEARN: Scientists and shellfish farmers aren’t the only ones putting Wave Gliders to work. Bill Vass is the CEO of LiquidRobotics, the company that invented the Wave Glider.
VASS: Our biggest customers are oil and gas and defense but we’ll be branching out into fisheries, narrowing in on some wind farming opportunities and some communication and security opportunities.
AHEARN: Vass says inventing the Wave Glider was essentially like inventing and patenting the wheel of the ocean. The potential applications are endless. Oil and gas companies use them to monitor their wells and for exploration. Wave Gliders were used to assess the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf. They can be used for fisheries management to count tagged fish. They can be sent out to collect data on potential sites for offshore wind or wave power development. And they can also be rigged up with acoustic monitoring devices, which has made them an easy sell to the Navy and intelligence agencies.
VASS: We can’t really talk a lot about what the intelligence agencies use Wave Gliders for, but you can use your imagination.
AHEARN: And the price tag? A bottom-of-the-line model will run you about $200,000.
VASS: You could drop $500,000 for a really tricked-out one.
AHEARN: Can I request a color?
VASS: Yeah yeah. They come in blue, gray, white and, as scuba divers refer to it, bite-me yellow, that bright high visibility yellow they paint scuba tanks with.
AHEARN: And yes, they have had one shark attack.
VASS: It was towing a 30 meter acoustic array, that was doing a marine mammal study, and the acoustic array was wrapped around its fins which was making it swim much slower than normal. So we picked it up and it had big shark bites in its fins so the shark had obviously grabbed it and shook it and then got the array tangled around the fins.
AHEARN: The company has raised $40 million in investment money and sells close to 200 gliders a year. There are other companies designing sea-going robots, but they are mainly used for underwater work and lack the ability to network with other gliders to exchange information. I’m Ashley Ahearn in Seattle.
GELLERMAN: Our story on Wave Gliders comes to us by way of the public media collaborative: EarthFix.
[MUSIC: Anouar Brahem “Dance With Waves” from The Astounding Eyes Of Rita (ECM Records 2009)]
GELLERMAN: Coming up, speedy evolution - studying the red-shouldered Soapberry bug. Say that three times fast. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from Breckinridge Capital Advisors, applying a sustainable approach to fixed-income investing. www.breckinridge.com. The Grantham Foundation for the protection of the environment, supporting strategic communications and collaboration in solving the world’s most pressing environmental problems. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and Gilman Ordway, for conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.
GELLERMAN: It’s a recycled edition of Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. Evolution has slowly shaped life on our planet, as genetic adaptations arise in response to changes in the environment. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes you can actually watch evolution in real time. Ari Daniel Shapiro has our story.
SHAPIRO: When you keep red-shouldered Soapberry bugs--that’s Jadera haematoloma – in the lab, it’s only a matter of time before one’s on the loose.
ANGELINI: Whoop. Great.
SHAPIRO: David Angelini moves vials and flasks to the side…
ANGELINI: Come here…
SHAPIRO: …as he corners a female Soapberry bug who’s scuttling away. Angelini’s a biologist at American University.
ANGELINI: Here we go.
SHAPIRO: At last he picks up the thumbnail-sized bug and places her on what looks like a mini air hockey rink. Low levels of carbon dioxide pour out of the little holes, gradually anesthetizing the bug.
[SOUND OF MICROSCOPE ADJUSTING]
SHAPIRO: Angelini adjusts the focus of his microscope and I peer down at her. She’s beautiful. Her wings are a glittery black.
ANGELINI: Yeah, looks like asphalt after a rainstorm. It’s very nice.
SHAPIRO: And right where her wings connect to her body are two flashes of bright red. Angelini’s eager to show me her other side.
ANGELINI: We can flip her over. She won’t object.
SHAPIRO: She’s that same bright red underneath. And she’s got a lineup of little black appendages.
ANGELINI: The antennae, the legs, the genitalia, the mouthparts.
SHAPIRO: These mouthparts are called the beak, and it looks like a long straw.
ANGELINI: It looks more like an elephant trunk, honestly.
SHAPIRO: Except that it doesn’t extend out in front. The beak tucks under a Soapberry bug, pointing backwards. It works like a tiny syringe that can pierce the dark, round seeds of a plant called the Balloon vine.
ANGELINI: That’s Cardiospermum, a native vine in Florida and the U.S. Southeast.
SHAPIRO: Before the Balloon vine releases its seeds though, they grow inside these leafy capsules or pods shaped like little balloons.
ANGELINI: The pod is full of air. It’s just the covering keeping bugs away from the seeds.
SHAPIRO: But the pods don’t keep a Soapberry bug away. It perches itself on the balloon, punctures the pod with its beak, and skewers the seeds inside. The beak’s the perfect size to do the job – about 70 percent of the bug’s total length. Or at least that’s how big it was before 1950.
[DOOR NOISE AND THE SOUNDS OF WALKING ACROSS CAMPUS]
SHAPIRO: Angelini and his graduate student Stacey Baker walk me across campus towards the chemistry building.
BAKER: So right outside of that building is where the Goldenrain tree is.
SHAPIRO: The Goldenrain tree, or Koelreuteria peniculata, is originally from Taiwan. But around 1950, this tree – among others – was shipped to Florida for landscaping purposes. And the Goldenrain tree – it’s related to the Balloon vine. It has the same kind of leafy pods, except a little smaller. It’s got the same sort of dark round seeds. And it wasn’t long before the
Soapberry bugs of Florida started dining on them. In the last 60 years, Goldenrain trees have been planted throughout the U.S., as far west as California and as far north as Washington DC; in backyards, in gardens and on college campuses like American University where Angelini works.
ANGELINI: When I first started this, I had no idea how prevalent Goldenrain trees were. We started getting tips so we drove all over creation looking for them, and then we discovered this one right on our doorstep, so…
SHAPIRO: Sorry, was that one of them?
BAKER: Yes, so this is a baby.
ANGELINI: The really large tree that’s behind these hollies, that’s a Goldenrain tree.
SHAPIRO: You know, it’s funny. They don’t look out of place. They blend right in.
ANGELINI: I know, a Taiwanese tree, but here in DC you’d never know that it was anything special.
SHAPIRO: And as the trees have traveled the U.S., so have the Soapberry bugs.
ANGELINI: So this sidewalk and down by the base of that tree is where we’ve actually collected most of the bugs that we used.
SHAPIRO: Used, that is, back in his lab.
[SOUNDS OF LAB DRAWER OPENING, GLASSWARE CLINKING]
SHAPIRO: You see, Angelini studies evolution. And something remarkable has happened to the population of Soapberry bugs feeding on Goldenrain tree seeds. They’ve adapted. Fast.
ANGELINI: It was discovered that their mouthparts were now about 30 percent shorter.
SHAPIRO: That’s because the seedpods were smaller. And that’s not all.
ANGELINI: They were making more babies, the babies lived at a higher rate, and their flight muscles were also smaller. Basically all this evolutionary change had happened in about a hundred generations, so in about 50 years. And in evolutionary terms that’s remarkably fast.
BAKER: Very fast cause if you think about evolution we think millions of years, thousands of years. We can see it in a lifetime.
SHAPIRO: Baker and Angelini want to know which of the Soapberry bug’s 15 thousand genes have made these evolutionary changes possible. But it’s not just about this bug.
ANGELINI: I mean it’s easy to look around in the world and see biological diversity and that arises through evolution. And what we really want to do is we want to be able to understand at a fundamental, at a genetic level, what is producing this diversity that we see.
SHAPIRO: Darwin’s theory of evolution relied on observing species that had already diverged from one another. But the Soapberry bug is an example of evolution in action – in the wild, and inside the span of a single researcher’s career. Angelini wants to know all the genetic differences between the new population of bugs on the Goldenrain tree and those still living on the Balloon vine in Florida. That’s the big dream. But until then, he and Stacey Baker will go on corralling hundreds of Soapberry bugs.
BAKER: Got ’em.
BAKER: Oop, lost ’em.
SHAPIRO: For Living on Earth, I’m Ari Daniel Shapiro.
GELLERMAN: Ari’s story comes to us from the series “One Species at a Time,” which is produced by Atlantic Public Media with support from the Encyclopedia of Life. Learn more at our website, loe.org.
One Species at a Time
[MUSIC: Carla Bley “I Hate To Sing” from I Hate To Sing (ECM/WATT Works Records 1984]
GELLERMAN: (Sound of street traffic and car horns) It’s 7:30, Saturday morning. I woke up in the city that never sleeps, and here, at the West 72nd street entrance to New York’s Central Park, dogs tug on leashes and joggers yawn and stretch, getting ready to run.
[LIGHT BIRD CALLS AND VOICES IN THE BACKGROUND]
GELLERMAN: Take just a few steps into the park and the air quickly cools, and the city quiets. Nearby a dogwood tree and next to it a tall, lean man in khakis with a backpack and binoculars turned the wrong way around. He’s using them as a microscope to study a leaf.
CHAYA: My name is Ken Chaya, and I’m a New Yorker and I’m a graphic designer and an artist. I’m just a guy that really got interested in the Park and its wildlife and its plant life, and I’ve been walking around the park as a birder for 20 years and only in the last few years did I discover the world of trees.
GELLERMAN: And how! Ken Chaya and Ned Barnard spent the last two years surveying every square inch of Central Park’s 843 acres, counting and mapping virtually every single tree of significant size. The result: “Central Park Entire: The Definitive, Illustrated Folding Map.”
CHAYA: All 19, 933 trees on this map represent real trees in the park. It’s a work of many, many hours and miles walking through the park and identifying trees and placing them precisely where they occur.
GELLERMAN: So if I pull out your map…
[PULLS MAP OUT OF BAG AND OPENS IT UP]
GELLERMAN: I want you to find this tree.
CHAYA: Okay. We’re standing in Strawberry Fields. Strawberry Fields is this teardrop shape.
GELLERMAN: Right off 72nd street.
CHAYA: And there’s the Imagine Mosaic just across the path. And we’re here - and this is the American Elm we’re looking at, right here.
GELLERMAN: (Laughs.) That’s unbelievable - that you’ve mapped every single tree!
CHAYA: And American Elm has these lovely serpentine limbs that reach out and snake around.
GELLERMAN: It’s enormous!
CHAYA: Oh, yes it is. Here in Central Park you will find the largest stand of American Elms in the world, in the entire world, and that’s on the mall. There’s also the largest, largest line of American Elms on 5th Avenue, just outside the park, and that runs for nearly two and a half miles, from 59th Street to 110th Street.
GELLERMAN: Which is the length of the park.
CHAYA: That’s correct.
GELLERMAN: Let’s take a walk.
CHAYA: People come here and think, this is what Manhattan really looked like before the city grew up and it’s not true. This area that we call Central Park was actually a desolate swamp.
GELLERMAN: Then in 1857, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead and his partner Calvert Vaux won a design competition. And over the next 16 years, they transformed the swamp into Central Park.
CHAYA: And what I discovered, as I began to walk through the park and learned how to identify trees and learned how to appreciate them, I began to see Olmstead’s vision. I began to see how he used trees the way an artist uses color and texture, and how he created walls, corners, curtains, all sorts of textures by his use and his masterful planning of trees.
GELLERMAN: This place that looks so natural is totally contrived. He designed every nook, cranny, rock, tree, blade of grass.
CHAYA: It’s the most natural-looking unnatural place, probably, on the planet.
GELLERMAN: I was reading about Olmstead, and he would play tricks - optical illusions - with foliage and trees. He would put dark trees in the foreground and then the light-colored trees in the background, and it would give the sense of depth.
CHAYA: Yes. Frederick Law Olmstead was an illusionist - he was also a brilliant mind who people said could think and see in terms of decades. So as little saplings were being put in, he could actually envision what they would look like 10 or 20 or even 30, years later. What he wanted to do there, I believe, was take people out of the congested, concrete, sea-level city experience and give them an open, wide, pastoral experience here in Central Park.
Once this enormous masterpiece of American design and landscaping opened, I think it taught the people of New York - and then the nation - that cities could be beautiful. They didn’t need to be all buildings and tenements, and you could have a nature experience in the middle of one of the most populous cities in the world.
GELLERMAN: Okay, so - let's keep walking.
CHAYA: Over in that grove over there is at least two trees that are one-of-a-kind in the entire park. There’s an unusual tree called a Frank Linea, the only one in the park. And just beyond it, if we were to take this walk around, there’s an olive tree, a Russian Olive - the only one in the park.
[FOOT STEPS ON GRAVEL MATERIAL]
CHAYA: Over here I want to show you something because this is a real rarity. If we walk over to this little rock outcrop - and actually right here, this is good - if we stare straight through, we’re looking at three very tall trees at the end of this meadow. These trees are known as Dawn Redwoods. Now the interesting thing about Dawn Redwoods is they were believed to be extinct until 1941 when a grove of them was discovered on a high mountaintop in China. So here we are - we're looking at something that history had written off with the dinosaurs and there’s three of them at the north end of Strawberry Fields.
GELLERMAN: I have a question for you. I’m not a tree guy - I'm going to guess that this is a sycamore.
CHAYA: You are half-right. This tree is a London Plane. It’s a hybrid between an American Sycamore and an Asian Sycamore. London Planes are hardy trees that tolerate drought, compacted soil, air pollution, people on cell phones, you name it - they're tough New York trees!
GELLERMAN: (Laughs.) If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere!
CHAYA: Absolutely. And Robert Moses, who was the park’s commissioner in the 1930s, planted almost all of the London Planes we’re seeing now in the park. This probably wouldn’t have been the choice of Frederick Law Olmstead to plant that many, but this is the way the park has evolved from its earliest days to today.
GELLERMAN: This…I’m looking - you can almost not take a perspective here, a view, without seeing birds and birds and birds. Look at that.
CHAYA: Yes, we’re hearing robins, catbirds…I hear a red-eyed vireo right above us. The trees create this wonderful habitat for birds. I’ve been birding for two decades in Central Park - it is one of the world’s most famous places to bird. I’ve met people who have traveled here from Asia and Europe just to bird in Central Park. Forget about Broadway and Times Square - they come here for the birds. (LAUGHS.)
And one of the reasons we have so many birds in Central Park - well I can give you two very good ones. Central Park is located right on the Atlantic flyway, so it’s an important stop right on the migration route. But two, the variety of trees that we have here that produce food for birds in all seasons, whether you eat insects or you eat seeds or you eat fruit or you eat sap or you eat insect larvae that’s underneath the bark - there are trees here that provide all of that. It’s an abundance of food sources for birds in all four seasons, particularly during the migration in the fall and spring.
GELLERMAN: (Sniffs) It smells fantastic. It’s amazing - it's like being in a flower shop or something!
CHAYA: Well I’m so glad you mentioned that because we have wild roses here in front of us.
GELLERMAN: Oh is that - is that what that is?
CHAYA: Yes. We also have - and these are all plantings of course—we also have Linden Trees that are still in bloom that we’re getting some fragrance from. And when you realize that many of the flowers on the trees are only here for a short time - we have a very, very small window to enjoy the lovely colors and the aroma - and it only happens once a year. And maybe we have 10 days, or maybe 12 or 14 days. It makes me think deeper thoughts about time, and the environment, and decisions that I want to make about my life.
GELLERMAN: How so?
CHAYA: Well I could…I could decide to spend a good portion of my time in an office, and I’ve done that for 30 years. But what I’ve discovered in the last two years is this was my office. I was working in the park for two and a half years. There were times when I had to convince my wife over dinner table discussions that I was in the park all day, but, really, believe me - I was working!
And of course she and my son - Joan and Lucas - both would sometimes roll their eyes and say, ‘Well there goes Dad, talking about trees again and he’s been in the park all day again today.’ But now they’re seeing, with the map being out and orders coming in, and I’m grateful for that because I want to share my experience and what I’ve discovered and the appreciation I have for this wonderful place called Central Park with other people.
[MUSIC: Duke Ellington “Rhapsody In Blue” from The Reprise Studio Recordings (Rhino/Warner Bros 1999) PLAYS AMID BIRD CALLS]
GELLERMAN: Well Ken, thank you so much - that was great fun, I learned a lot, thank you.
CHAYA: Thank you, Bruce, it was my pleasure, and anytime you want to come back to Central Park and take a walk with me, just give me a call.
GELLERMAN: Birder, tree-lover and graphic artist Ken Chaya. He and Ned Barnard created “Central Park Entire: The Definitive, Illustrated Folding Map.” For photos of our trip around Central Park and a link for more information about the map, head to our website, loe.org.
GELLERMAN: On the next Living on Earth, a musician sings the praises of an island nation’s forests.
SAID: “Madagascar is known for its diversity and for its beautiful endemic species, and if we cut these trees, we’ll have no more animals living in them, we’ll have no more trees, we’ll just become a desert.”
GELLERMAN: Preserving Madagascar’s forests, next time on Living on Earth.
Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse Kurn, Ike Sriskandarajah and Jeff Young, with help from Meghan Miner, Gabriela Romanow and Sammy Souza. Our interns are Annabelle Ford, Christy Perera and Annie Sneed. Jeff Turton is our technical director, Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at Loe.org and check out our Facebook page—it’s PRI’s Living on Earth. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I’m Bruce Gellerman, thanks for listening.
PRI ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science. And Stonyfield Farm, organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield invites you to just eat organic for a day: details at justeatorganic.com. Support also comes from you, our listeners, the Go Forward Fund and PaxWorld Mutual and Exchange Traded Funds, integrating environmental, social, and governance factors into investment analysis and decision making, on the web at paxworld.com: Pax World, for tomorrow.
PRI ANNOUNCER 2: PRI, Public Radio International.
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Newsletter [Click here]
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth