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

January 9, 1998

Air Date: January 9, 1998


Autos in the News

The Big 3 U.S. automakers unveil a green fleet for the future with some designed hybrids getting up to 80 miles per gallon. They also promise that even sport utility vehicles will run cleaner. Some analysts say it's the start of a race to build a supercar for the new millennium. Laura Knoy spoke with Amory Lovins about these development. Mr. Lovins is the director of research at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colorado, and a leader in the field of fuel-efficient vehicles. (05:30)

Old Colony Railroad / Jeb Sharpe

The southeastern corner of Massachusetts is known as the "Old Colony." Its towns, including Plymouth, are some of the earliest settlements in the nation. The restoration of an abandoned railroad connecting the area to Boston has sparked a lively discussion about future development in this region known for its cranberry bogs, pine barrens and farmland. Environmentalists are of two minds on the rail project, seeing it as a way to offset pollution from cars, while they worry about the unwanted growth, or sprawl, the new trains could promote. Jeb Sharpe of member station WBUR in Boston has our report. (06:10)

Energy Co-generation / Daniel Grossman

For capturing waste heat to generate cheap and clean energy, one of the most promising technologies is called 'combined heat and power.' Proponents say it can triple the efficiency of power plants, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.. Living On Earth's Daniel Grossman prepared this report. (08:10)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about...the California Gold Rush and mining. (01:15)

Feedback Loop

In global warming research a lot of attention is paid to a phenomenon that is not well understood called the feedback loop. Simply put, scientists worry that a rise in the earth's temperature could set off other reactions that would cause global warming to get much worse much faster. A study reported in the journal, Science, helps provide some details to one potential feedback loop. The study shows that warmer temperatures could cause much of the carbon dioxide now trapped in the world's northern forests to escape and hasten global warming. Laura Knoy spoke with Doctor Michael Goulden who is an assistant professor of earth sciences at the University of California at Irvine. Dr. Goulden headed the research on the feedback study. (04:17)

Listener Letters

Audience response to our last couple of shows. (02:00)

Gloucester at the Crossroads Series: Part 3 - A Port Shaped by of Loss

Gloucester, Massachusetts is no stranger to loss. Even in times of bountiful harvests, thousands of families have had to endure the deaths of their men lost at sea. In another installment of our series "Gloucester at the Crossroads", producer and Gloucester resident Sandy Tolan considers how an overriding sense of loss has shaped the lives of the people in this story of letting go and longing in an American fishing port. (18:35)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Laura Knoy
REPORTERS: Jeb Sharpe, Daniel Grossman, Sandy Tolan
GUESTS: Amory Lovins, Dr. Michael Goulden

(Theme music intro)

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

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KNOY: I'm Laura Knoy.
The Big Three US automakers unveil a green fleet for the future, and promise that even sport utility vehicles will run cleaner. Analysts say it's the start of a race to build a supercar for the new millennium.

LOVINS: All the technology it takes to do that exists now. Whoever does it first is going to own the market.

KNOY: Also, how the opening of a new rail link to Boston could spark suburban sprawl in small towns southeast of the Hub.

PRIMACK: You've got volunteer boards who are going to be dealing with large developers, with lawyers, and I think that we're going to see towns just get bowled over and then 10 years from now they're going to wake up and they're going to say, "What happened?"

KNOY: Those stories and the promise of combined heat and power, this week on Living on Earth. First the news.

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(NPR News follows)

(Theme Music up and under)

Autos in the News

KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy, sitting in for Steve Curwood.
At the Detroit Auto Show, gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles were all the rage last year. But today, the Big Three U.S. automakers are making headlines with a proposed fleet of green cars. General Motors unveiled a hybrid electric car that gets up to 80 miles per gallon. The company says it will be ready for production in 2001. Chrysler displayed a diesel-electric hybrid car that it says will get 70 miles a gallon, and Ford showed off an electric truck and a lightweight midsize sedan. Meanwhile, both Ford and Chrysler say starting next year, their sport utility vehicles will match the lower emissions levels of cars. Here to speak with us about these developments is Amory Lovins. He's director of research at Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colorado, and a leader in the field of fuel-efficient vehicles. Amory, why now? Why are the US automakers coming out with all these cleaner, more efficient cars now?

LOVINS: In a word, competition. Toyota has just started marketing a double- efficiency hybrid electric car in Japan. They're threatening to bring it here. And Toyota and Honda have made it clear that they intend to do to Detroit all over again what they did in the 70s. Only this time, Detroit woke up a lot faster. Jack Smith, the head of GM, just came back from the Tokyo auto show where this vehicle was featured, saying it had made a profound impression on him. And his vice chair, Harry Pierce, just said, "Yeah, we're deadly serious about catching up and indeed staying ahead." They think they are ahead; they may be in some respects. But they do take it as a major competitive threat that if they don't come up with clean, efficient vehicles very quickly, that Toyota and Honda may take that market away from them.

KNOY: And speaking of markets, markets are worldwide now. And some have pointed out that if the US industry wants to expand worldwide it has to acknowledge the reality that gas is a lot more expensive in other countries.

LOVINS: I think the difference this time is that efficiency will not depend on how high the gasoline price is. In this country it's cheaper than bottled water, but that's no obstacle to engineering the car so it's actually a better car. And people buy it because it's better, not because it saves fuel and pollution, exactly as people buy compact discs instead of vinyl records. It's simply a better product that redefines market expectations.

KNOY: Do you think the global warming agreement recently reached in Kyoto put pressure on the automakers to increase the development of these more efficient cars?

LOVINS: It's very clear that the automakers, having initially hoped there would not be an agreement in Kyoto, now realize the trading framework that will reward people for reducing CO2 emissions changes the economics quite a lot, because it means you can make money off carbon savings. And that, I think, changes the whole tone of how the business community looks at global warming. They're starting to see it now as a major business opportunity.

KNOY: You mentioned that in this country gasoline is as cheap as mineral water. Do you think that that will hurt the potential demand for fuel-efficient vehicles?

LOVINS: I don't think the cheap gasoline in the US is going to matter at all to the efficiency of the car. I know this is heresy, because we're used to thinking there are only 2 ways to get cars efficient. Either stiff gasoline taxes or regulation. But I think we're now doing an end run around that. If we put together the best technologies that exist now, we could engineer -- although it may take a decade to do it this well -- a car that combines Lexus luxury and refinement, Mercedes stiffness and solidity, Volvo safety, Porsche acceleration, Taurus price, 100 or 200 miles a gallon, and zero or equivalent zero emissions. All the technology it takes to do that exists now. Whoever does it first is going to own the market.

KNOY: So the technology exists now. It makes me wonder why this hasn't happened in the past.

LOVINS: Hybrid cars are not a new idea. Porsche invented those in 1900, but the equipment he had, the electrical stuff and the materials to build the car out of, were only a tenth as good as we have now and he had no electronics. And what you're seeing in the Detroit Auto Show, with everyone coming out with hybrid cars, is the first of 2 shoes dropping. The other shoe, which will drop over the next few years, is making the car out of different materials, 2 or 3 times lighter than now and yet the same or better crashworthiness, because the materials are very strong. Making the car also more aerodynamic and with better tires. And these things reduce by at least half the energy it takes to make the car go, so I think, as Ford and others get into different materials, different methods of manufacturing, they'll find that actually ultralight can work better and cost less than the traditional steel car. And it's such a natural partner with hybrid drive that this combination of ultra- light slippery hybrid, which we call the hyper-car, is the next big thing. It's the next trillion-dollar industry. And it's probably going to be the end, as we know them, of the car, oil, steel, electricity, and coal industries, but it'll also be the beginning of new ones that are much more benign and much more profitable. That's not a bad nucleus for a green industrial renaissance.

KNOY: Amory Lovins directs research at Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colorado. Thanks for joining us.

LOVINS: Thank you.

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Old Colony Railroad

KNOY: The southeastern corner of Massachusetts is known as the Old Colony. Its towns, including Plymouth, are some of the earliest settlements in the nation. The restoration of an abandoned railroad connecting the area to Boston has sparked a lively discussion about future development in this region, known for its cranberry bogs, pine barrens, and farm land. Environmentalists are of 2 minds on the rail project. On the one hand they see it as a way to offset pollution from cars. On the other hand, they worry about the unwanted growth the new trains could promote. Jeb Sharpe of member station WBUR in Boston has our report.

(Train bells clanking)

WOMAN: Good morning. Thank you for riding Commuter Rail Old Colony. Good morning.

(Bells continue; ambient conversation)

SHARPE: When the Old Colony Railroad chugged to life again after more than 30 years of silence, no one was happier than commuter Dan Olbrook, who until then had driven to work.

OLBROOK: Driving into Boston's almost indescribable. (Laughs) It's totally frustrating, time-consuming, and very unpredictable. There's really, on a day to day basis you don't really know when you're gong to get to work, you know, how aggravating the commute's going to be. So this is much nicer.

(Echoes, trains moving)

SHARPE: The appeal to commuters of the gleaming new trains is undeniable. The big question is whether the region is ready to handle the growth and development they could trigger. The Old Colony region, between Boston and Cape Cod, is already among the fastest-growing areas in the northeastern United States. Planners predict even more newcomers will be attracted by the new rail line and an influx of state dollars to improve the region's roads. That growth spurt could alter the landscape forever, warns Mark Primack, director of the Wildlands Trust of Southeastern Massachusetts.

PRIMACK: If we don't take care, we will not just see suburban sprawl, but I think we will see the worst kind of suburban sprawl, because many of the towns are small, they don't have paid planners. They don't have paid conservation agents. You've got volunteer boards who are going to be dealing with large developers, with lawyers, with engineers, and their own surveyors. And I think that we're going to see towns just get bowled over and then 10 years from now they're going to wake up and they're going to say, "What happened?"

SHARPE: But according to Bob Yaro, who teaches at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, this development nightmare need not take place. He suggests the region take a lesson from the past.

YARO: We could use these commuter rail lines, for example, as the impetus for a whole new approach to development that in fact is very much like the approach to development that was the norm before World War II in this country.

SHARPE: More village-scale development with a mix of shops and offices and residences, close enough for kids to walk to schools and commuters to train stations. Bob Yaro says local officials should act now, while the majority of the region is still undeveloped.

YARO: What they need to do is to adopt new zoning and subdivision controls that essentially revert to the traditional patterns of growth in this region. And again, this is the oldest settled region in the country and the traditions are right there. So it's going back to much smaller lot sizes. It's certainly higher densities, although they don't need to be urban densities. They can still be densities that are very consistent with the patterns that used to be the norm in these places.

SHARPE: Dense development around commuter rail stations and town centers allows communities to preserve open space. But according to planner Peter Calthorpe, saving green space is only one reason to create tighter, more walkable communities. Mr. Calthorpe is an influential proponent of New Urbanism, an approach to development that advocates such clustered layouts.

CALTHORPE: People I think are quite hungry for a stronger sense of community and connectedness. I mean, the isolation of moving from one parking lot to the next is deeply frustrating to lots of people, and clearly takes a huge toll on kids and the elderly. A lot of people say that's nostalgic. I think it's terribly healthy. A longing to kind of re-establish a more diverse and more interesting sense of community than we get through our TV sets.

YANKOPOLOUS: There are urban planners who have this, "This is the way things ought to be if I were God" syndrome.

SHARPE: Gus Yankopolous is development director for the town of Wareham, one of the Old Colony region's poorer communities.

YANKOPOLOUS: And unfortunately, the grand scheme guys really don't understand how the market works. What do you do with a person who happens to be, own a lot of land in the middle of that best zone, doesn't want to sell the developers land, but someone on the outskirts of it does?

SHARPE: Planners admit there are plenty of obstacles to managing growth. City officials have trouble coordinating regional plans. They're generally more preoccupied with competing with their neighbors for precious development dollars. And developers and banks aren't used to building the kind of mixed use centers New Urbanists advocate. Harvard's Bob Yaro says southeastern Massachusetts is as good a place as any to tackle the problem.

YARO: We're facing these same development pressures, the same very damaging patterns of suburban sprawl. And this, you know, changed the landscape a little bit. And the same images could have been portrayed for suburban Phoenix or suburban Dallas or suburban Seattle, from the people who brought you Plymouth Rock and the American Revolution. Let's hope that, you know, we'll have another shot heard 'round the world here.

SHARPE: Nothing explosive is happening yet. But state officials have acknowledged the region needs serious attention. They've started with $125,000 in grant money for local planning agencies and $30 million to buy and protect open space, both in the Old Colony region and on nearby Cape Cod. Some grumble it's too little, too late. Others say there's time to save the character of the land the Pilgrims settled. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeb Sharpe in Boston.

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KNOY: Capturing waste heat to generate cheap and clean energy. The story of combined heat and power is next on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)(Music up and under)

KNOY: Capturing waste heat to generate cheap and clean energy. The story of combined heat and power is next on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Energy Co-generation

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.
Late last year representatives of the world's industrialized nations agreed to curb climate change by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide they release into the atmosphere. The Kyoto Accord didn't prescribe how to make the cuts, but energy experts agree it will mean burning less fossil fuel and squeezing the most energy out of carbon-based fuels that are used. One of the most promising technologies is called combined heat and power. Proponents say it can triple the efficiency of power plants and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Daniel Grossman prepared our report.

GROSSMAN: The Kyoto summit over, attention is shifting from the diplomacy of reaching agreement to the nuts and bolts of compliance. In a recent speech, President Clinton acknowledged that curbing climate change will not be easy. But he said it can be done without economic hardship. Cutting carbon dioxide is the most important part. In the United States, the gas comes in almost equal parts from cars and trucks, buildings and factories, and power plants. In his speech, the President singled out power production for special attention.

CLINTON: Today, two-thirds of the energy used to provide electricity is squandered in waste heat. We can do much, much better.

GROSSMAN: And the White House itself may soon showcase how.

(Trumpets play. Woman's voice-over: "In a short while you will be entering the White House. This is a unique privilege...")

GROSSMAN: The building is heated by steam produced a few blocks away at Washington's Central Heating and Refrigeration Plant.

CASTEN: That power plant heats about 110 Federal Government buildings, including 1600 Pennsylvania, which is where the President lives.

GROSSMAN: Thomas Casten heads Trigen Energy. He says the plant is unnecessary.

CASTEN: If we go south about 2 miles, along the Potomac River, there's a plant that's owned by Potomac Electric Company, which makes 400 megawatts of electricity and puts 800 megawatts of heat into the Potomac River. There's more than enough heat going into the river to heat every major building in Washington, DC.

GROSSMAN: With prodding from the President, Mr. Casten and Potomac Electric executives are making plans to sell the utility's waste heat and shut down the old heating plant. The idea of making steam heat and electricity in the same place, called combined heat and power, is not new. Some factories, like energy-intensive paper mills, have been using this fuel-saving trick for decades. After the oil embargo of 1973, Federal officials tried to promote it without much luck. Today, just as the need to cut back on carbon dioxide emitted using fossil fuels has become more urgent, technological improvements have made combined heat and power more efficient, more economical, and easier to install. Energy experts say the technology could play a much larger role wherever centralized steam systems exist, including thousands of universities and hospital complexes and about 100 US cities. But they say it makes economic sense for anyone owning a building bigger than a medium- sized high-rise. And Joseph Romm, the Energy Department's top official for energy efficiency, says the Potomac electric project could give the concept the PR boost it needs.

ROMM: This is a huge opportunity in the Capitol to show that it is possible to really transform the energy system of this country and actually lower pollution and lower people's energy bills at the same time.

GROSSMAN: More than one dozen cities including New York, Chicago, and Seattle, already get steam heat from power plants. Some get chilled water for air conditioning as well. Philadelphia is the latest city to join the club, with the plant recently renovated by Trigen Energy, one of many companies fostering this technology.

(Motors and fans, loud high-pitched sounds)

SMTTH: Now this will be real noisy up here; I'll show you what the gas engine does...

GROSSMAN: Plant manager Steven Smith shepherds me on a tour of the sprawling brick and steel complex. In one room fuel is burned in a shrieking blast of fiery gas. Steps away the inferno's flames turn water to scalding steam. Following the path of the plant's labyrinthine plumbing, Mr. Smith opens a fire door and climbs onto a steel catwalk beneath a vaulting ceiling. The throbbing heart of the complex, nestled amidst silver steam arteries.

SMITH: Yeah, what we started out coming into this room is steam at a very high temperature and a very high pressure. The steam is put through then...

GROSSMAN: The steam powers a turbine which turns a generator to make electricity. Turbines like this one need hot, high-pressure steam. Steam passing out of the turbine is still hot, but it's too spent to make more electricity. Usually such heat is dumped in cooling towers or waterways. It's hard to believe, but most US electric plants convert only one third of their fuel energy into electricity. The rest is wasted. But not here.

SMITH: And that steam, after being used to produce electricity, is then leaving the plant going through 33 miles of pipelines, which is heating some 200,000 people in their offices and homes and facilities in central Philadelphia.

GROSSMAN: This facility has made steam for decades, just like the central heating building in the Capitol, along with a tiny amount of electricity. Now, because it generates heat and power in roughly equal proportions and does so with natural gas instead of oil, the plant is among the most efficient in the nation. Trigen President Thomas Casten.

KASTEN: That plant will put out 6% of the pollutants of the plants that it replaces. And it will cut the carbon dioxide output roughly in half. The plant is more than twice as efficient as the US average.

GROSSMAN: Energy experts say equipment soon available will be 3 times as efficient as today's average. In Europe, greater population density and the tradition that both steam heat and electricity are supplied by a single utility have made combined heat and power, or CHP, common. David Green, who heads Britain's Combined Heat And Power Trade Association, says Denmark leads the pack.

GREEN: The whole of Copenhagen is heated by one very large heating infrastructure, with the heat coming from several power plants located around the city. It's become a very energy-efficient city. In the UK, we've had a lot of small-scale CHP schemes, and we have Buckingham Palace, for example, is powered by CHP, and we have 2 CHP units in the House of Commons. And Windsor Castle has just been converted to CHP as well.

GROSSMAN: Ten percent of European electricity comes from plants that reuse excess heat. In the US, only 6% does. Energy analysts say the reasons include rigid air pollution rules that don't take into account that plants like the one in Philadelphia are doing 2 jobs in 1 building. And tax rules that discourage investment in combined heat and power. The Energy Department's Joseph Romm says the most important roadblock is a regulatory system that guarantees profits to electric utility monopolies.

ROMM: Existing utilities have had no incentive whatsoever to become more efficient because the way you add to your rate base is to get a new power plant built. So you don't want to make your existing power plants more efficient.

GROSSMAN: But change is coming. Six states, including California, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, have just adopted laws to open power markets to competition. Restructuring of the electricity industry could encourage investors to build more efficient power plants, says Joseph Romm. He predicts that in the next decade or so, electricity generated by combined heat and power plants will double. If he's right, the technology could help the US make 7% of the greenhouse gas cuts it needs to meet its obligations under the Kyoto Agreement. All of which supports President Clinton's claim that the US can protect the climate and the standard of living. For Living on Earth, I'm Daniel Grossman.

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(Music up and under: "Yeah! I've got ssssssteam heat! I've got ssssssteam heat! I've got ssssssssteam heat, but I need your love to keep away the cold...")

KNOY: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm, makers of pure all-natural organic yogurts and ice cream. 1- 800-PROCOWS for Stonyfield's Moosletter; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new ways to provide energy for the world economy without harm to the environment: www.wajones.org.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

KNOY: On the climate change front, a temperature rise in the world's northern forests could speed up the warming process. The results of a new study are just ahead. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy

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The Living on Earth Almanac

KNOY: Slumgullion, Mugfuzzle Flat, and Hell's Delight are not imaginary places in a Lewis Carroll poem. They're the names of some of the first California gold mines. The California Gold Rush got underway 150 years ago this month. Sawmill worker James Marshall stepped outside one morning, bent down to shut off the water, and saw a sparkle in the gravel. The rush was on. Over the next several years homes emptied, mills were abandoned, and crops were left to rot as tens of thousands of prospectors descended upon northern California to seek their fortune. The population boom was so great that California qualified for statehood. Today, the US is second only to South Africa in gold production, mining more than 10 million ounces a year. Eighty percent of the take goes into jewelry and dentists fill our teeth with about 13 tons of the metal each year. But the cost of gold isn't measured in dollars alone. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, hard rock mining creates twice as much solid waste as all other American industries combined. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Feedback Loop

KNOY: In global warming research a lot of attention is paid to a phenomenon that is not well understood: the feedback loop. Simply put, scientists worry that a rise in the earth's temperature could set off other reactions that would cause global warming to get much worse much faster. A study reported in the journal Science helps provide some details to one potentially huge feedback loop. It shows that warmer temperatures could cause much of the carbon dioxide now trapped in the world's northern forests to escape and hasten global warming. Dr. Michael Goulden is an assistant professor of Earth sciences at the University of California at Irvine. He headed the research on feedback loops. Thanks for joining us.

GOULDEN: Thank you.

KNOY: Dr. Goulden, describe the role that the northern forests play in global warming.

GOULDEN: The northern forests, also referred to as arboreal forest or taiga, occur in a broad latitudinal band going around the Earth's surface about 1000 kilometers north to south. Through North America it sweeps in central Canada through Alaska and then a large, extensive northern forest in Siberia. When you first go to a typical northern forest or arboreal forest, it's not very impressive. The trees are maybe only 20, 30 feet tall. But the twist is that there's a tremendous amount of carbon stored in the soils of arboreal forest, and when you add together the amount of carbon stored in the soils plus that in the moss plus that in the trees, it's pretty much comparable to the amount of carbon in a tropical rainforest. And when you extrapolate this out over the entire Earth's surface, all the arboreal forest on the Earth, what you'll find is that the amount of carbon stored in northern forests is comparable to maybe two thirds of the CO2 in the atmosphere.

KNOY: In that research, you found that a warming of just a few degrees would cause the soil in the forest to give up carbon dioxide. Explain how that occurs.

GOULDEN: Well, warming in principle could have 2 effects. It could increase plant growth. It could stimulate the growth of plants and cause a net storage of carbon. Or alternatively, it could stimulate the decomposition of carbon in the soil or of litter sitting on the top of the soil. And we found in our research that it looks like the stimulation of decomposition would be much, much stronger than the stimulation of plant growth, and that would result in a large loss of CO2.

KNOY: How much carbon gas could be released?

GOULDEN: Well, that's one of the big questions that's still out there. We believe that it's a very sensitive lever that relatively small warming could cause a large increase in decomposition. But what we can't say as yet is how much of that soil carbon would ultimately decompose. If 80% of the carbon in the soils of arboreal forest were to decompose, it would have a major effect on the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. Now, there are still some uncertainties out there. For example, warming might cause deciduous forest to invade from the south, and that in principle could cause a large storage of carbon.

KNOY: Dr. Goulden, is there any evidence that this phenomenon we've talked about is happening already?

GOULDEN: Well, we have a suspicion. One of the main things that we measured during the study was the net exchange of CO2 by the site, and we actually measured that for 3 and a half years. And when we summed that up, we found that the site was actually losing a little bit of carbon. And that was a real surprise to us. Because we expected that this site should always be accumulating carbon. One possible explanation for that is that there's some evidence, though it's not conclusive, that the climate in that area has warmed over the last 20 to 30 years. In fact, the climate throughout much of the northern areas has warmed. And so, one interpretation is that we're already beginning to see an effect of climatic warming to cause this site to lose carbon. Though at this point at best it's just a correlation.

KNOY: Dr. Michael Goulden is an assistant professor of Earth sciences at the University of California at Irvine. He spoke to us from the studios of KLON in Long Beach. Thanks for joining us.

GOULDEN: Thank you very much.

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Listener Letters

KNOY: And now it's time to hear from you, our listeners. Sarah Rabkin, who hears us on KUSP in Santa Cruz, California, wrote to thank us for our story about using abandoned housing in San Francisco's Presidio for the Homeless. She writes, "An activist friend of mine had asked me to sign a postcard deploring plans to destroy the housing and I'd been reluctant to do so, without understanding more about the positions of various parties to the issue. Your show provided just what I needed, an apparently balanced, responsible airing of a variety of relevant perspectives." Sy Montgomery's commentary on the mink that ate her chickens resonated with Mary Schaffer, who hears us on WHYY in Philadelphia. Ms. Schaffer's chickens were also snatched up by predators.

SCHAFFER: I always felt silly about feeling so sad and devastated by their deaths until I heard this, and it just made me feel justified and validated and not so silly. And I appreciate that you put it on. Thank you.

KNOY: Some of you weren't so appreciative of us rebroadcasting a profile of beaver trappers in Wisconsin. Dr. Barry Taylor, a professor of environmental science in West Franklin, New Hampshire, writes, "Dear God, I had hoped it was an aberration that some misguided miscreant had slipped in this disgusting piece about torturing animals to death into an otherwise sensitive, insightful, and erudite show about the environment. Then you played the damn thing again." Dr. Taylor says until now he's required his students to listen to Living on Earth every week, but he writes, "That requirement just ended. I am disappointed, I am disgusted, I am out of here."

Whether it's your first time listening to the show or your last, we'd like to hear what you think. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG.

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KNOY: Over the centuries, thousands of men from Gloucester, Massachusetts, have fished the seas of the North Atlantic, and many have never returned. A story of loss and longing in an American fishing port is just ahead. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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Gloucester at the Crossroads Series: Part 3 - A Port Shaped by of Loss

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.
In New England, fish biologists say their recommendation to close portions of George's Bank, the battered fishing ground in the North Atlantic, has paid off. Cod stocks are slowly recovering, so now they want to impose similar restrictions to protect cod fish that thrive closer to shore. In Gloucester, Massachusetts, many fishermen say this would be the death blow for their already struggling businesses, and could mean the end of their way of life. Gloucester is no stranger to loss. Even in times of bountiful harvests, thousands of families have had to endure the deaths of their men lost at sea. In another installment of our series, "Gloucester at the Crossroads," producer and Gloucester resident Sandy Tolan considers how an overriding sense of loss has shaped the lives of the people in this fishing port north of Boston.


TOLAN: When I first moved to Gloucester, I'd jog along a path at the water's edge, past the fisherman's memorial statue. Past the old wooden houses with the rooftop widow's walks. Toward the field where the British set up the first fishing camp in the colonies. Every day I'd notice people parked along the boulevard just sitting in their cars, staring out to sea. I always wondered what they were doing.

(Crashing surf)

SANFELIPPO: My son is 26. He got his education. He did everything but his love is in the ocean. As we speak he is out on George's Bank and a storm is coming.

(Surf crashes)

TOLAN: Angela Sanfelippo, born to the seventh generation of Sicilian fisher families, came to Gloucester in 1965 when she was 15.

SANFELIPPO: I'm very, I'm very angry at him. I keep telling to him, you know, I don't have to worry about your father being out there any more, why do I have to worry about you? Why can't you give me some peace? Why can you fish in shore? Why can't you go do something else? So after a long day I can go to bed and not worry you're out there.


TOLAN: For 375 years Gloucester fisherman have been going to sea and never coming back. Ten thousand men, they say, sailing from a deep harbor out between 2 sheltering arms of land past a long finger of granite breakwater that absorbs the thunder of the North Atlantic. And then into rough waters to hunt for fish and go down.

GARLAND: They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters, these see the works of the Lord and His wonders in the deep. For He commandeth and raises the stormy wind...

TOLAN: In a house perched above the water's edge, Joe Garland reads from his book Down to the Sea. It begins with Psalm 107.

GARLAND: They reel to and fro and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit's end. Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and He bringeth them out of their distresses. He maketh the storm calm so that the waves thereof are still. Then are they glad because they be quiet, so He bringeth them unto their desired haven.

(A grandfather clock ticks in the background)

TOLAN: A frothing Atlantic lies beyond the breakwater to our left. Spires of Gloucester on our right. The path to the open sea before us. For nearly 40 years, Joe Garland has sat amidst his ticking clocks and written it down. In his 20 books, the old reporter turned historian has recorded the history here. Since 1623, when the British first set up their camp just across the harbor, perhaps 10,000 Gloucester men have gone down to the sea. That's one fisherman lost every 13 days for 375 years. It's been like war.

GARLAND: I immediately felt a kind of a kinship with the fishermen. That evokes the sort of kinship that I had had as a soldier with my buddies.

TOLAN: Joe Garland was on the winter line in Italy in '43 in a stalemate with the Germans, trench warfare up in the mountains. Under constant shell fire, young men were going down.

GARLAND: And it was nothing that I had ever encountered or seen. You know, ordinary life that was comparable to it. Until I sort of discovered what these guys had been going through in Gloucester. So I felt a strange kind of brotherhood.

TOLAN: Joe Garland has dug up old records, long-lost diaries, fishing reports, newspaper clippings. Chronicling the life here and counting up the loss. Nearly 4,000 in one 60-year stretch in the 1800s, when the schooners were built for speed, not for safety. He reads from one account in the wake of a storm 136 winters past.

GARLAND: In a single storm, on the night of February 24th, 1862, 15 Gloucester vessels and 120 men were lost, leaving 70 widows and 140 fatherless children to mourn for the loved ones who would return no more.

(The clock ticks)

GARLAND: I mean, the old sea there, there isn't a damn thing that you can do. No matter how experienced you may be, no matter how much high tech you have, no matter how many drills you've been through. When you get out there and you hit the big wave or the big storm or the big rock (the clock chimes) or you make some goddamn miscalculation and bingo, you've had it.

(Ship bells chime)

TOLAN: The core of this town, the fishing heart of it, has a kinship with the loss. I can see it carefully tended all over town, through a picture window on the third floor of Gloucester City Hall, I gaze over rooftops past the fish dealers and small boats still moored on the inner harbor. Out to the breakwater and the open sea. Above that window frame, running along either side, thousands of names are inscribed: Gloucester men who've gone down to the sea.

(Papers shuffle)

RAY: Okay, this is...

KIPPEN: Ninety-six.

RAY: Ninety-six. (A loud shuffling sound) Names of men lost in the Gloucester fisheries for the year 1896.

TOLAN: Three floors below in a basement storage vault, the names have been carefully catalogued and folded away in boxes by a squad of volunteer archivists. Mary Ray and Priscilla Kippen check their index and locate a file marked Deaths: Men Lost at Sea.

RAY: And this man's name is Sherman Williams, 30 years old, from the Fortune Gloucester off of Cape Cod. He was lost off of Cape Cod and he was born in Bona Vista, Newfoundland. Now here's another poor soul, June 16th. Anderson. He was single, lost from the schooner Henry Stanley, and back a little bit, and he was from Sweden.

(Marching drums)

RAY: It goes on and on here. And this one, 16th of March.

(Drums continue)

TOLAN: A kinship with loss. I can see it on a summer day along the boulevard. The families of the dead follow the Italian Colonial Band to the Fisherman's Memorial. It stands at the center of Gloucester, which is the edge of the sea. A man in bronze turned green with salt and time is hunched at the wheel, staring out to sea. At the base of the statue, those first words from Psalm 107.

GARLAND: They that go down to the sea in ships...

TOLAN: Today the captains, the crewmen, the fishermen's wives, the politicians can tell you the names of the boats that went down in their lifetime, and the men that were on them.

VERGA: Nineteen-forty-six, the Saint Christopher went out to sea and another father was lost. Good friend of mine, Anthony Deliacano's father was lost on that ship. Nineteen-fifty-one, the Gunrun left out of here. Nine men on board, never heard from again...

TOLAN: As a boy, Tony Verga knew these men as the fathers of his friends. As a man, State Representative Verga remembers the boys he coached in Babe Ruth baseball.

VERGA: Nineteen-sixty...

TOLAN: For these fishermen, the last view of Gloucester was the breakwater, the church spires, and the man at the wheel on the boulevard.

VERGA: This boulevard stands with its arms outstretched, bidding goodbye to those who sail out of this harbor and wishing them welcome home on their return. In the evening, my friends, these lamps will all be lit. They stand like candles. They've become vigils to those who went to sea, to those who were lost at sea. And in the evening when you pass by here, perhaps you'll say a little silent prayer for those lost at sea, for their widows and their children, and those who will continue to do business in great depths.

CURCURU: The last time we saw Nick, it was so strange because, um, this was a Gloucester boat and he had never taken out this boat before. And we drove down to the state fish pier to drop him off at this Italian Gold. And Nicholas said to me something he has never said before to me, "Mom, can we wait for the boat to go out fishing?" So I said okay, so we waited for the Italian Gold to go out the fish pier way. And then we went down the boulevard and we watched it go out the harbor. It was so strange that we had never done that before.

TOLAN: Two days later Donna Curcuru's husband Nick was missing at sea. Their daughter Carla was 20. Nicholas was 7. The Italian Gold went down in a storm off Cape Cod. There was no body, no wake. It was months before Donna could say he was gone.

CURCURU: I never expected to be a 47-year-old widow. This isn't the way my life was supposed to go. Nicky died on Labor Day 1994. And I could remember -- and believe it or not, I found it really hard even going out in public for a long time. It was terrible. Really, it was terrible. And my little boy going to school, he had just started -- Nicky died on Monday and the first day of school was like Wednesday and he was going to be a first grader. And the Coast Guard was still looking for Nick and stuff. It was like, oh my God.

TOLAN: In Gloucester it's always been this way.

(The clock ticks)

GARLAND: (Quoting) "Eighteen-seventy-nine. A cloud of sorrow hangs over our city. Fourteen of the fishing fleet with their precious lives remain unaccounted for since the gale of February 20th. Eyes are watching for the return of the absent George's men. There are sad forebodings as the hours glide by. Which only God and aching hearts will ever know of. It is terrible. The very thought of the probable loss which o'ershadows this community is well nigh overwhelming, and it is the theme on every tongue, the all- engrossing thought of our people." It's a sad thing. The American Dream has always been the joy and discovery and energy and activism and optimism are what have knit our society together and have brought it power and expansion and so on. But I reckon that in a more profound way, loss is a more enduring kind of a social cement.

(Organ music)

TOLAN: If your history and character is defined by loss, how does that shape you? What is bad about that legacy for Gloucester? What is good? What just is? I take these questions to Father Jim O'Driscoll, Catholic priest at St. Anne's church in the heart of the town.

O'DRISCOLL: There's a sharing in the facing of grief. This bond of loss is also a bond of hope, because death isn't the end.

TOLAN: For the believer, says Father O'Driscoll, faith lets you see life on Earth as the prelude to the great opera. But others, a psychologist, a poet, a social historian, all tell me they see in Gloucester a deeply traumatized community. And for some of its people the pains of loss pierce the bonds of faith.

O'DRISCOLL: Some people, the way to deal with this is not to deal with this. So people get into alcohol, into drugs, various other things. If the reality of death is just too much, then some people will try to anesthetize themselves.

TOLAN: Gloucester's rates of alcohol and drug abuse are a lot higher than the average. Heroin is a long-standing problem here. Gloucester families tend to deal with these problems on their own. The community is an island, literally, made so by early settlers who cut a channel through the isthmus. The fishing heart of the town huddles in an arc around the harbor, finding strength among its own.

O'DRISCOLL: When nature seems to turn on you, people need to cling to each other. When we're confronted with the fragility of life we can either try to run from it or face it and live through it. And plunge into life more fully, and build very, very strong family ties. I've seen in Gloucester a very intense concern of people one for the other. Facing death can do that, and I see this often in Gloucester, a great resiliency of people.

SANFELIPPO: I think it's made us strong, very strong people. And strong in both ways, good ways and bad ways.

TOLAN: It seems Angela Sanfelippo was born to be president of the Fishermen's Wives Association. At 5 years old in Sicily, she was running errands, bringing food and messages to the men on the docks. When the men would hoist a boat by rope to drydock, little Angela would slip underneath with the pieces of wood to hold it in place. Now, some 40 years later, she's just returned from India and the International Congress of the Fishing Peoples of the World. Sicilians, she says, have their own way of responding to the loss.

SANFELIPPO: It's within our culture that we are very expressive in moments of pain, in moments of loss and celebration. But the true, true feelings, the true anger, the true anguish, it's in silence. We're supposed to accept it and be strong.

TOLAN: But the loss Angela deals with every day now is of another kind. Now, the fish are lost. As the fish stocks decline and the Federal Government imposes new and tougher restrictions, men are selling their boats back to the government and signing up for computer classes.

SANFELIPPO: That is just as painful, because we are losing a way of life. We are losing who we are, our identity. So we are mourning for many things. Mourning for the people that we've lost, mourning for what we're losing, which is what we are all about. Many times, when nobody sees me, and I'm looking out that window (cries) and see the empty harbor, nobody sees the tears.

TOLAN: In the last few years, Angela tells me, the Sicilian families of Gloucester are praying a lot more, asking Jesus to multiply the fish again.

SANFELIPPO: We can only do it with a divine intervention.

(Gulls, fog horns)

TOLAN: Praying harder and then celebrating harder each year at the Fiesta of the Patron Saint, St. Peter, the fisherman who walked with Jesus. And even mourning harder, making more public the pain of loss.

MAN: My honor, to be asked to say a few words today as the son of a fisherman lost at sea. Thirty-five years ago, on the eve of my second birthday, my father's fishing vessel, the St. Stephen, exploded and sank off Cape Cod. Three men were lost at sea...

TOLAN: They revived this memorial last August after years of absence. One fisherman told me people needed this. Fishing is going down in this town now; we needed something to be recognized. And so, they are remembered as men lost at sea.

MAN: I'm sure that the men who left this port never realized the heritage that they were creating. They sacrificed their entire lives for us, and when they die in such a way, we grieve for many things. What these men also left behind were some amazing spouses. Women that led lives of both parents and went without the companion ship that most people can count on. I'd like us all to thank the widows and all the fishermen's spouses for their courage. And I'd especially want to public thank my mother (cries) for all her -- for persevering all these years and never letting us think of ourselves as victims. She gave us everything we could, and I owe everything I am to her.

MAN 2: And now all that wish to, that would like to cast flowers upon the waters, please follow Mayor Toby on behalf of the city, Joe and Carla.

(Ambient voices)

TOLAN: A 10-year-old blond-haired boy, Nicholas Curcuru, walks to the rail with his mother Donna and sister Carla. They cast their flowers upon the sea. Then an older man and his wife and another child and a young woman and on and on, tossing yellow bouquets and bunches of roses and wildflowers.

(A chorus singing)

WOMAN: Here we go, Dad, Austin W.

TOLAN: The wind is up, there is a ripple on the waves, the tide is going out, and the flowers drift out Gloucester Harbor, toward the breakwater and the open sea beyond.

(Chorus continues)

MAN: (Crying) Here you go, Daddy.

WOMAN: Here you go, Jimmy.

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Back to top

(Singing continues, fade to music up and under)

KNOY: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our program is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production team includes Jesse Wegman, Daniel Grossman, George Homsy, Liz Lempert, and Terry FitzPatrick, Peter Christianson, Roberta de Avila, Peter Shaw, and Julia Madeson. Special thanks this week to New Hampshire Public Radio and to Elizabeth Gammons for all her help on the Gloucester at the Crossroads series. Kim Motylewski is our associate editor. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer. Our technical director is Eileen Bolinsky. Michael Aharon composed the theme. And the executive producer of Living on Earth is Steve Curwood. I'm Laura Knoy. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; the Surdna Foundation; and the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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