Living on Earth

Saturdays from 7am to 7:30am; Mondays from 9-10pm
  • 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.

Melting polar ice poses a serious global risk

Nov 18, 2017

The title of a new book says it all — "A Farewell to Ice: A Report from the Arctic."

The book, by Peter Wadhams, head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group at the University of Cambridge, is the result of nearly a half-century of personal ice research, mostly in the Arctic. 

Michael Mueller/Flickr CC BY 2.0

The disappearance of bees and butterflies has concerned scientists and the public for years. Now, a new study from Germany confirms that the abundance of flying insects has dropped over 75 percent since 1989.

Study: Rising CO2 levels threaten global marine life

Nov 10, 2017

The rising acidity of ocean waters due to increased levels of atmospheric CO2 will have profound adverse effects on sea life, according to a new study.

The report, called “Exploring Ocean Change,” from the group Biological Impacts of Ocean Acidification, or BIOACID, shows rising acidity leads to habitat loss and disrupts the growth and reproduction of sea life.

 US Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Budget resolutions passed in the US House and Senate will likely lead to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s pristine coastal plain, if they’re approved in their current form.

GOES-16

This year’s deadly hurricanes, record-shattering firestorms and severe drought are linked to global warming, and the prospect of more unpleasant surprises seems likely, climate experts warn.

“What we're seeing is the veritable tip of the iceberg,” says Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth Systems Science Center at Penn State University.

Jan van der Ploeg/CIFOR, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Conventional wisdom has long held that tropical forests soak up carbon dioxide and help blunt the impact of industrial greenhouse gas emissions. But new research finds that the tropics are now adding to the problem of global warming faster than they can absorb excess carbon.

In other words, tropical forests are now a net carbon source rather than the carbon "sinks" they were previously thought to be.

Wikimedia Commons

New research suggests that declining levels of iron, zinc and protein resulting from high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are putting human health at risk, especially in the developing world.

As global carbon dioxide levels climb, plants are becoming better at photosynthesis

Oct 28, 2017
Bill Dickinson, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A recent study shows that increased carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere is leading to higher rates of photosynthesis in vegetation.

Brian Smithers

Many species of trees tend to move to higher, cooler habitats in response to a warming climate. Now, research on two pine tree species in the western US Great Basin shows some species move faster than others.

Brian Smithers, who led the research at the University of California, Davis, says when he wanted to look at how trees are responding to climate change, he realized the high-altitude tree line is a "really nice experimental spot to do that.”

Staff Sgt. Wilma Orozco Fanfan, 113th MPAD/Puerto Rico Army National Guard, Flickr CC BY 2.0

Before Hurricane Maria devastated the island, Puerto Rico relied on an outdated, centralized power grid that burned imported fossil fuels. Now, some experts say the disaster offers Puerto Rico the chance to rebuild its power system with more resilience and less carbon.

Birdsong Farms

Wide-spread droughts and heat waves are making farming increasingly unpredictable, and some farmers are having to adjust on the fly to changing conditions from year to year.

After 22 years, Pennsylvania farmer Matt Herbruck says it’s undeniable: The climate is changing and it’s getting more extreme. “It’s not unusual at all in this area to go from in the 40s one night to 90 [degrees] 36 hours later. It happens. And that’s not normal. I think the weather is crazy.”

Following a four-month review of more than two dozen national monuments, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke submitted confidential recommendations to the Trump administration in August. A leaked report reveals that Zinke proposes to shrink a number of monuments and open some of them to extractive industries like mining, grazing and fishing.

Carnegie Airborne Observatory

High-tech, remote imaging developed for the military has become a powerful tool in the hands of scientists studying the health of natural ecosystems.

The technology allows scientists to assess forests and coral reefs from satellites and from specially equipped aircraft that can get an even closer look — down to individual branches of trees.

On board these custom-built aircraft is a system of instruments called ATOMS, which stands for Airborne Taxonomic Mapping System.

Tim Davenport/Wildlife Conservation Society

The growth of data publicly available on the internet has been a boon for biological science and conservation. But it is also being used by poachers and dishonest collectors to locate rare plants and animals and sell them illegally for a hefty price.

This situation presents researchers and the public with a quandary: How to find a middle ground that preserves the spirit of scientific discovery while protecting at-risk species.

While President Donald Trump has dismissed climate change as a hoax, the Department of Defense is focused on understanding and preparing for continued climate disruption and the security threats it poses in a warming world.

When Hurricane Irma hit Florida, it blasted an estimated 3 to 10 feet of storm surge into the Everglades. Combined with the drenching rain, the storm may change the vegetation patterns of the enormous wetland and perhaps prod the people of South Florida to rethink how it lives with its water.

The hurricanes that recently smashed islands in the Caribbean set records for size, strength and endurance — records that experts predict will be broken sooner rather than later, as global warming continues to heat the oceans and intensify precipitation cycles.

Dessima Williams, former Grenada UN ambassador, says the Caribbean people remain resilient and self-reliant, but they have limited financial capacity to recover and rebuild.

At Climate Week 2017, a mix of optimism and urgency

Oct 7, 2017

When the world’s leaders gathered in New York for the annual fall meeting of the UN General Assembly, another series of meetings took place, called Climate Week NYC, where government, business and NGO leaders discussed global climate solutions. 

The mood at Climate Week this year was “a strange confluence of optimism and urgency,” says Alden Meyer, a climate diplomacy expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, who came to New York City for the meetings.

Moira Brown/The New England Aquarium, Wikimedia Commons

The discovery of 13 right whale carcasses, most of them in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence, is causing alarm among scientists.

Only about 500 right whales remain in the North Atlantic, so 13 deaths represent more than 2 percent of the population. Seeing 10 of those deaths in the Gulf of St Lawrence, an area far north of the whale’s usual summer range in the Gulf of Maine, is “completely unprecedented,” according to Erin Meyer-Gutbrod, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Richard Carson/Reuters 

In the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the US needs to rethink its flood insurance programs, experts say.

Wild Fish Conservancy

A catastrophic failure of a large aquaculture pen near Cypress Island recently freed thousands of nonnative Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound, near Seattle.

In the aftermath of this outbreak, the Wild Fish Conservancy has launched a lawsuit against Cooke Aquaculture, the international corporation responsible for the accident.

Of global warming, plastic waste and velociraptors

Aug 26, 2017
Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

What do these three things have in common: the Earth’s temperature, waste from plastic products and velociraptors?

Answer: not much. Except they were all recently in the news and all are really interesting, or disturbing, depending on your point of view.

First: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, declared the first six months of 2017 the second warmest on record, just behind 2016’s all-time record. Why is this news? Because climate scientists had expected temperatures to cool down, and they haven’t much.

Glen Beltz/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Rising temperatures, partly driven by global warming and longer drought seasons, have turned western forests into easy kindling for raging megafires that could threaten millions of people in the US.

This new, alarming situation has several causes, and a new book lays them out. It’s called "Land On Fire: The New Reality of Wildfire in the West," by nature writer Gary Ferguson.

As investigations continue into whether ExxonMobil misled investors by failing to report its own scientists’ predictions about global warming, the company and other fossil fuel titans are being challenged on another legal front.

Mark Dixon/Flickr 

Residents who live in and around Clairton, Penn., about 15 miles south of Pittsburgh, have filed a class-action suit against US Steel, claiming air pollution from the company’s Clairton Coke Works has lowered local property values.

Seven decades into the age of nuclear power, the United States has yet to solve the problem of waste. While the US argues and dawdles, however, Finland says it has found an answer — it plans to build one of the world’s first long-term nuclear waste storage facilities in a labyrinth of underground tunnels.

New research from Duke University finds that typical amounts of household dust spurred the growth of mouse fat cells in a lab dish.

While this news may have you running for the vacuum, Chris Kassotis, a postdoctoral fellow at Duke’s Nicholas School for the Environment who conducted the research, cautions against overreacting.

In a setback to the Trump administration’s push to roll back environmental regulations, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit has ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency can’t suspend rules meant to control leaks of methane and other pollutants from new oil and gas wells.

The oil and gas industry took advantage of having a friend in the Trump administration to press for a suspension of methane rules, says David Doniger, director of the Climate and Clean Air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

A new book examines 'The Book that Changed America'

Jul 24, 2017

No single book influenced US history more than Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” according to a new book by Randall Fuller, professor of English at the University of Tulsa.

Courtesy of Kathleen Maclay

A new study estimates that southern areas of the US, many of which are already poor, could face a 20 percent decline in economic activity if carbon emissions continue unabated through the 21st century.

The study was issued by economists with the Climate Impact Lab, a consortium of experts from the Universities of California, Chicago and Rutgers and the Rhodium Group.

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