Living on Earth

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  • Hosted by Steve Curwood

Living on Earth with Steve Curwood is the weekly environmental news and information program distributed by Public Radio International. Every week Living on Earth brings news, features, interviews and commentary on a broad range of ecological issues.

In Puerto Rico, volunteers and farmers are working together to rebuild after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s small agriculture sector.

Even before Hurricane Maria roared across the island, Puerto Rico imported roughly 85 percent of its food. After the storm, that number shot up to about 95 percent imported food — if you could get it. Road closures and shuttered grocery stores left many Puerto Ricans with no choice but to skip meals and live on canned and shelf-stable food for weeks and months.

When Christine Nieves and her family emerged from their home after Hurricane Maria struck, the forest outside their house looked like a giant chainsaw had come through, cutting the tops off everything and stripping the sides off the trees.

“It was like a bomb exploded,” Nieves says. “It was like all the movies that you’ve seen of Armageddon, of destruction, of the end of days. And the fact that the communication collapsed meant that we couldn’t hear the government, but we couldn’t hear each other. All we had was the people next to us.”

Many Americans would like to believe that climate change is a problem of the future. But as ocean levels rise, coastal communities from Louisiana to Staten Island to Pensacola, Florida are contending with higher floods, stronger hurricanes and saltwater intrusion. Some are even being forced to retreat to higher ground.

Writer Elizabeth Rush set out to document some of the stories of people caught in these rising tides in her new book, "Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore."

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017, the direct hit turned a green island brown. Vast areas of forest were stripped of their leaves and branches. From mangroves to cloud forests, every ecosystem on the island was devastated by the massive storm.

A new study finds that global warming will bring with it an increase in agricultural pests, which will lead to significant crop loss across the globe.

Scientists have already raised grave concerns about the effects of climate disruption on global agriculture. Research has shown that rising temperatures can reduce nutrient quality in staple grains, and that droughts and flooding can reduce yields. The recent report adds an additional worry.

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, water utilities were shut down, making access to safe drinking water one of the most pressing issues across the island. So, a citizen science group in Rincón, Puerto Rico, rallied to help test drinking water sources.

Rincón, on the west coast of Puerto Rico, is a mecca for surfers and beachgoing tourists. The town has a quaint square with gourmet coffee shops and a farmers market.

Hampshire College, with about 1,400 students in Western Massachusetts, has become the first residential US college with 100 percent solar electricity.

Across the US, colleges and universities are among the institutions leading the fight against global warming, but Hampshire is the first residential campus in the US to go 100 percent solar.

A recent research project from Johns Hopkins University surprised Pennsylvania state experts when it found a correlation between the natural gas fracking boom and an increase in radon levels — but not everyone agrees with its conclusions.

Radon, which cannot be seen or smelled, is the second-biggest cause of lung cancer in the US. It starts out as uranium, found naturally in soil and rocks, but becomes a gas as it decays. When wells are drilled for water, oil or natural gas, the gas can be released and migrate into buildings.

At the World Health Assembly meeting in Geneva this past spring, the United States delegation shocked the assembly by opposing breastfeeding regulations that would encourage nations to limit the use of infant formulas and milk substitutes.

When it comes to feeding newborn babies, the science is settled: Breast milk has myriad health benefits that formula simply can’t rival. This became clear in the 1970s, when Nestlé began to aggressively market infant formula in developing countries and running ads implying it was just as good as breast milk.

A team at Stanford University has started using a genetic editing tool called CRISPR to identify the genes that make corals more heat-tolerant.

As the climate changes, warming oceans pose a huge threat to coral reefs. In 2016, nearly a third of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef died off. A quarter of all the fish species in the sea rely on corals for habitat, so die-offs aren’t just bad news for corals.

It was, so to speak, a perfect storm for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The agency was already stretched beyond its capacity when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last year, so much so that it did not properly attend to the damage done by the worst storms in memory. 

First, Hurricane Irma had just leveled the Virgin Islands two weeks prior. In response, all of the supplies in FEMA’s warehouse in San Juan had been moved and used there. Second, a string of massive wildfires were raging in California at the time. Hurricane Maria was the third strike.

Local NGOs repair Puerto Rico’s coral reefs in Maria’s aftermath

Aug 4, 2018

On a beach in Vega Baja on Puerto Rico’s northern coast, Ernesto Vélez Gandía stands next to a fallen loved one.

“We got a lot of love for him,” he says. “We saw him alive, very alive … so we just admire him and remember him. It’s very sentimental. I don’t know, but it’s deep in the heart.”

The deceased in this instance is a dead piece of coral, sitting in shallow, warm water at the entrance to a reef — a likely casualty from a warming ocean. This particular piece of coral was one of the oldest in the reef, he says.

Boston faces a daunting future of rising seas

Aug 4, 2018

Boston got a wake-up call earlier this year when the first of a string of nor’easter storms hit just as the tide was peaking. The ocean spilled into the subway and into homes up and down the coast.

The Union of Concerned Scientists projects that by the end of the century, Boston will see close to 7 feet of sea level rise, putting 89,000 Massachusetts coastal homes worth $63 billion at risk from tidal floods.

Drilling rigs used in fracking found along nature trail irk some hikers

Jul 29, 2018

This past June, approximately a thousand hikers joined in the 22nd running of the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge — a 35-mile all-day event that starts at 5:50 a.m. The deadline to finish was set at 8:54 p.m., or 15 hours and four minutes later.

It should be noted that this is not a race. The goal is just to finish — while taking in all of the natural splendor that the trail offers as participants wind through terrain just north of Pittsburgh and its suburbs.

A Boston hospital promotes patient health with its own rooftop farm

Jul 28, 2018

For Boston Medical Center, feeding patients is about more than making sure they get calories. Food is medicine, and that food comes from an unusual location — a farm on the hospital roof.

What was once a flat, black roof provides prime real estate for roughly 25 varieties of fruits and vegetables that feed hospital patients, visitors and employees. The farm is considered the first of its kind in New England.

What would a Justice Kavanaugh mean for the environment?

Jul 28, 2018

President Trump’s nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to replace retiring US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy is causing great concern for those who believe the US government has an obligation to protect the environment and public health.

Vermont Law School professor Pat Parenteau says Judge Kavanaugh’s conservative record could affect a range of environmental issues that will come before the Supreme Court, from endangered species protections to climate action.

Book tells story 'most famous man most of us have never heard of'

Jul 22, 2018

David Hosack’s name probably is not on most lists of famous New Yorkers. But Victoria Johnson argues that he should be.

“David Hosack was the most famous man most of us have never heard of,” Johnson says.

Partisan unity is a rare sight in Washington, DC, these days.

Yet a bipartisan coalition of congressional members has begun to pledge its solidarity to a political effort that could address one of the more hot-button topics on the Hill: climate change.

The group calls themselves Americans for Carbon Dividends. It is led by two former US senators: Sen. Trent Lott, a Republican from Mississippi, and Sen. John Breaux, a Democrat from Louisiana.

Something was not making sense.

The Montreal Protocol had been in effect for more than 30 years to rid the planet of products that emit chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons — or CFCs, as most people know them.

When it comes to the sea level rise caused by global warming, there appears to be a misnomer floating around the collective conscience of most Americans, says Gregory Dusek.

“I think a lot of people think of sea level rise as something that's not going to be impacting us for some time,” says Dusek, who serves as the chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services.

As immigration issues along the US southern border continue to roil the country, one driving force of migration from troubled Central American countries has received relatively little notice: climate change.

The 2018 farm bill stirs conflict and controversy

Jul 14, 2018

The US Congress took almost two years to negotiate the 2014 Farm Bill. The 2018 Farm Bill is shaping up to be possibly even more divisive.

The humpback whale population is recovering

Jul 14, 2018

Rapidly melting Antarctica ice poses a threat to coastal cities, but there is at least one species that is benefiting: Humpback whales are flourishing these days, due to an abundance of krill.

Nineteenth-century commercial whaling killed the vast majority of the world’s whales, so this current revival of the humpback whale should be celebrated as a conservation victory, says University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Ari Friedlaender. Nevertheless, there are questions about how long the krill boom might last.

The organic food market in the US has been growing rapidly, around twenty percent per year. Yet data from the US Department of Agriculture indicates that US farmers aren’t meeting the demand for organics, so much of the supply is imported from outside the US.

The feast-or-famine life of lobstering in Maine

Jul 8, 2018

The lobster industry has always been a rollercoaster of a profession — with lobstermen (and women) risking their lives to bring in the biggest catches.

In recent years, though, global warming has heightened the rhythm of this already delicate dance: Warmer ocean temperatures lead to a glut of lobsters flooding the market, but water that is too warm can lead to dead lobsters at the bottom of the sea.

To someone living in the Earth’s Northern Hemisphere, ice loss in Antarctica may seem like a distant area of concern.

Not true, says Andrew Shepherd.

Shepherd, a professor of Earth observation at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, recently led a group of 80 researchers stationed across the planet to collect data, observations and insights into the ice loss of the Antarctic Ice Sheet.

For many Americans, the summer months mark a time of exploration on vacations that take people down the road, across the country or even around the world. Most travelers, though, would never think of taking the time to go on a trek that Craig Childs recently took.

Childs has published more than a dozen books that explore the intersections of adventure, science and the wild outdoors, but one of his recent journeys may have been his most ambitious to date.

“Canada is back.” Justin Trudeau said those words shortly after being elected prime minister of Canada in 2015. He talked about how the country was ready to step up its efforts to become more of a player in the global marketplace, as well as a change agent for minimizing the impact of global warming. 

EPA weakens oversight of toxic chemicals

Jun 30, 2018

In 2016, Congress strengthened the Toxic Substances Control Act to give the EPA power to review thousands of chemicals for safety. Now the agency has decided to narrow that mandate —  and will begin disregarding the potential effects of exposure caused by the presence of chemicals in the air, soil and water.

Recognizing the serious threat climate change poses to public health, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recently launched C-CHANGE: Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment.

The new center’s director is former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. Speakers at a launch event included John Holdren, former science advisor to President Barack Obama; and John Kerry, former US secretary of state and a key architect of the Paris climate agreement.

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