Living on Earth

Sunday 6 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Living on Earth with Steve Curwood is the weekly environmental news and information program distributed by Public Radio International. Every week approximately 250 Public Radio stations broadcast Living on Earth's news, features, interviews and commentary on a broad range of ecological issues.

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In December 2017, for the first time ever in winter, a tanker sailed without an icebreaker through the Northern Sea Route, a shipping lane that runs along the Arctic coast of Russia.

Two things made this possible: dramatically thinning ice in the Arctic and a shipbuilding company in South Korea that constructed a new type of tanker capable of moving both forward and in reverse that can break through ice up to 2 meters thick.

The US solar market experienced a downturn in 2017 for the first time in seven years.

Though the fall in jobs coincided with Donald Trump's first year as president, the election had no effect on the 2017 numbers, says solar expert Varun Sivaram, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the book, "Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet."

Despite medical advances since 1918, when the so-called Spanish Flu sickened one-third of the global population and killed as many as 100 million people, the world is unprepared to contain the next major pandemic, according to physician and global health expert Dr. Jonathan Quick.

In his new book, "The End of Epidemics: The Looming Threat to Humanity and How to Stop It", Quick offers a road map for local, national and international actors who could prevent killer outbreaks in the future.

It's raining viruses, but don't panic

Mar 9, 2018

Billions of viruses get swept up into the atmosphere by dust clouds and water droplets, travel for thousands of miles and then eventually settle back to Earth, according to new research.

This may sound a bit frightening, but almost all of these sky-borne viruses are harmless to humans, says Curtis Suttle, a virologist at the University of British Columbia who co-authored a study based on data collected in Spain. The viruses circulating high up in the atmosphere are infecting almost exclusively other microbes, primarily bacteria.

School is supposed to be a safe environment, but a recent study in the journal Environmental Research has found that at many public schools, children are being exposed to harmful levels of air pollutants. Out of nearly 90,000 public schools studied, only 728 had the safest possible score.

The study found the five worst polluted areas included New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh, as well as Camden and Jersey City, based on air quality measurements of more than a dozen neurotoxins.

There are roughly 5 trillion pieces of plastic sloshing around in the world’s oceans and the vast majority come from the world’s poorest countries, where proper disposal or recycling is largely impossible. An organization called The Plastic Bank aims to reverse this trend, while simultaneously alleviating poverty.

In their new book, "Children & Environmental Toxins: What Everyone Needs to Know," Philip Landrigan and Mary Landrigan bring together research on the risks chemicals pose to children in the form of a guide for parents, policymakers and the public.

Solar energy gets an endurance boost from salt

Feb 26, 2018

A project in the Nevada desert offers a compelling solution to a problem that has long bedeviled the solar power industry: How to store energy from the sun for use at times when the sun doesn’t shine.

Crescent Dunes, run by a company called SolarReserves, is a 110-megawatt concentrated solar power (CSP) plant that uses molten salt to store heat captured from sunlight. The system works by using mirrors to shine blindingly bright light at a 650-foot tower.

Scandal and protests have prompted the Brazilian government to call a halt to more mega-dam construction in the Amazon.

For about the last 20 years, Brazil had “really grandiose plans” for more than 80 big dams in the Amazon basin and some of them have gone ahead, says Sue Branford, a Brazil reporter for the environmental news agency Mongabay. But problems keep arising with these projects.

More states join the fight to reduce global warming

Feb 24, 2018

While the Trump administration moves to block the Clean Power Plan, which would reduce carbon emissions from electric generators, two more states are joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a program that cuts emissions in nine Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states.

Seawater is infiltrating the Runit Dome, an atomic bomb-waste repository on a remote Marshall Island atoll in the central Pacific Ocean, posing a potential risk of radiation exposure for the small, local population. 

Humanity is now facing an ever-increasing threat of unpredictable and extreme weather, climate scientists warn.

While global warming is creating more powerful storms and record-breaking, drought-driven wildfires, it would be a mistake to view these events as the “new normal,” they say. The planet has not reached a new climate stability, so the years ahead could be quite a lot worse.

National Geographic, the National Audubon Society and other conservation groups have declared 2018 the Year of The Bird to celebrate the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

To help kick off the celebration, novelist and National Geographic writer Jonathan Franzen wrote a cover story, Why Birds Matter, for the magazine’s January issue. Franzen says a walk in New York City’s Central Park opened his eyes to the pleasures of birdwatching.

Starting preschool at age three is a predictor of success as an adult. If that experience includes plenty of structured play outside, it could also instill a lifelong awareness and appreciation of the natural environment.

Seventeen former Department of Interior officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations have written a letter protesting a new DOI ruling that exempts industry from punishment for causing negligent deaths of birds. The ruling may also violate the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty with Canada and other nations.

Bitcoin has become the world’s premier virtual currency, and although it exists only online, it runs up enormous energy costs in the real world.

Verifying bitcoin transactions is so energy intensive the currency tops 159 individual countries in energy consumption, according to data consultant Alex de Vries.

The Dust Bowl was a terrible American disaster. As settlers moved west in the 19th century, they plowed under the seemingly endless prairie to produce grain. Then, in the 1930s, the rains failed and the winds tore away the topsoil by the ton, sending it flying across the Great Plains, choking livestock and people and driving them off the land.

US natural disasters in 2017 cost $306 billion, the most expensive year since NOAA started keeping track in 1980.  

To put that figure in perspective, that's more than the interest on the US national debt and twice the federal budget for health, Medicare and education. The second most expensive disaster year was 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina. That year’s total was $215 billion.

In more than 3,800 neighborhoods throughout the US, children have blood lead levels more than double those found in Flint, Michigan, the city that in 2015 became the focus of national concern about childhood lead poisoning, according to a special report from Reuters.

The Beaufort Gyre, an immense 60-mile-diameter pool of cold freshwater and sea ice, is “stuck” in a clockwise rotation that should have ended years ago. Its eventual reversal could send massive amounts of chilly water straight toward western Europe, plunging it into brutal winters and disrupting fisheries.

A breath of fresh air can be physically healing, and a group of physicians is now putting the idea into practice by prescribing time outdoors for some patients.

Dr. Robert Zarr, a pediatrician who founded and directs the nonprofit Park Rx America, prescribes going outdoors because, he says, seeing trees and hearing birds can help treat childhood maladies such as obesity, depression and disruptive behavior.

A group of 21 youths is suing the US government for its failure to protect their future by preventing harmful global warming impacts, but the Trump administration says the case should be dismissed.

President Donald Trump has ordered the Interior Department to radically shrink two national monuments in Utah — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante — but many legal scholars argue he is overstepping his powers.

Dog owners live longer, a new study says

Dec 20, 2017
 Pedro Ribeiro Simões/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Having a dog in your household can help you feel loved and valued. Now, new research from Sweden shows that having a dog can also bring about measurable cardiovascular benefits.

Hampshire College goes 100 percent solar

Dec 16, 2017

Hundreds of US colleges and universities are taking action to combat global warming, but so far just one residential college has turned 100 percent to renewable energy: Hampshire College.

To get there, the Massachusetts college has installed a 19-acre solar farm, complete with 15,000 panels. Together, the panels will produce about 4.7 megawatts of power each year — more than Hampshire can even use, says Jonathan Lash, its president.

40 years of documenting Earth's beauty

Dec 12, 2017

After 40 years of traveling the world and capturing natural wonders, photojournalist Art Wolfe has published a stunning new book, "The Earth is My Witness."

The volume features an expansive photo collection that documents climate change and the world’s most threatened traditional cultures.

shannonpatrick17/Flickr CC BY 2.0

The long-delayed TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline project has cleared one of its final hurdles. The Nebraska Public Service Commission recently approved the pipeline in a 3-2 vote. But the commission’s approval came with a potentially significant caveat: a new route for the pipeline that bypasses environmentally sensitive areas.

Is the public ready for Meat 2.0?

Dec 11, 2017

Impossible Foods, a Silicon Valley-based company, has rolled out its new Impossible Burger, genetically engineered from plant protein to look and taste as much as possible like red meat.

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.

Environmental lawyers are claiming in court that land, rivers and other natural features have intrinsic rights and should own themselves, rather than being considered property — similar to how the law treats corporations as "persons."