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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The world’s most endangered marine mammal is a small porpoise called the vaquita — Spanish for little cow. The vaquita has been under threat for years, but now the poaching of a rare fish may be driving the tiny Mexican porpoise to extinction.

The vaquita lives only in the Gulf of California off the coast of Mexico. For years, Mexican fishermen have accidentally caught the five-foot porpoise in gillnets set for fish and shrimp. “This has driven the population from a size of about 500, 20 years ago to less than 100 today,” says Duke University professor Andy Read.

In big cities and rural towns, many communities are beginning to use a concept called “Complete Streets” to make neighborhood and commercial streets friendlier for people. The policies behind these changes are new, but the problems and complaints they are addressing are often as old as the roads they aim to fix.

“Complete streets” look different in different places, but the idea is simple: Make transportation systems about people, so there is equal access for all forms of travel.

Summer in southeast Alaska is salmon season. As the days grow long, the iconic pink fish begin to run up rivers and streams, and the fishing economy jumps to life. But this summer, fishermen are worried that new mining development could put their livelihoods at risk.

Illegal trafficking of animals for Asian medicine is a rampant problem. Despite international protections, poachers slaughter millions of elephants, tigers and rhinos a year and sell their parts as cures for ailments ranging from headaches to cancer.

Now international groups are seeking to protect a small mammal that's trafficked more than those three combined and is on the brink of extinction: the pangolin.

The Hillary Clinton campaign goes solar

Aug 16, 2015

With polling that suggests two-thirds of voters want the next president to address climate change, Hillary Clinton has laid out an ambitious renewable energy plan while campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The present front-runner for the democratic nomination declared she would take action on day one of her presidential term.

To avoid catastrophic global warming, scientists say the world must drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions — and that means slashing the use of fossil fuels. New numbers indicate that the change is already underway.

For the first time in history natural gas is now generating more electrical power than coal in America — a major milestone on the way to rebuilding the energy economy.

An ecosystem is like a giant game of Jenga — remove the wrong piece and the entire structure can collapse. The history of the black-tailed prairie dog and how its elimination altered the landscape of Mexico and the American West powerfully illustrates this principle.

Black-tailed prairie dogs once numbered in the billions across the grasslands of the Western US and Mexico, but ranchers essentially exterminated the rodent to make way for livestock. 

Why dying bees may cause a public health problem

Aug 6, 2015

A new study examines the death, disease, and health issues humans might face if a worldwide decline in animal pollinators continues. 

Fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, honey: these are all nutrition-rich foods that are produced with the help of animal pollinators, especially bees. In fact, an estimated 35 percent of the world’s food is dependent on animal pollinators.

Mosquitoes are developing resistance to insecticides

Aug 4, 2015

Humans have used everything from screens to chemical repellants to protect themselves from mosquitoes and the diseases they carry. Now, however, scientists say mosquitoes are finding ways to adapt to insecticides and other recent changes in their environments.

A new study on mosquito adaptability has big ramifications for public health workers, and for anyone out on a warm night, trying to avoid both mosquito bites, and the itchiness and disease those bites might bring.

Pacific Northwest sturgeon suffer as worldwide demand for caviar soars

Aug 3, 2015

Caviar, prized as a luxury food, can sell for as much as $200 an ounce. Most caviar comes from the Caspian Sea, but the decline of sturgeon there is driving fishermen and poachers to fish populations in the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River.

Despite active policing and catch limits on sturgeon, poachers and traffickers still manage to pull black gold from the riverbed, threatening the fish’s survival. Global demand for black market caviar is putting the whole sturgeon population at risk.

Water supply in the West isn’t only about rain, or the lack thereof. A good deal of water scarcity issues have to do with decades-old policy on water issues and entrenched infrastructure.

Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

North America is on fire. Nearly five million acres in Alaska have burned in 2015, and the wildfires are on pace to become the largest ever in Alaska’s history. More wildfires are spreading across Canada, California, Oregon and Washington. Climate change, scientists warn, will only continue to make the wildfires worse.

Nicky Sundt, a climate policy analyst at the World Wildlife Fund, used to work as a smokejumper in the 1980s. He has seen wildfires in North America get continually worse over the last three decades.

The US Supreme Court recently put a stop to federal rules that would require power plants to clean up their emissions of the toxic metal, mercury.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been trying for the past 20 years to cut toxic mercury emissions. The effort paused during the Bush administration, but began anew under President Barack Obama. Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said the agency had failed to consider the cost of the clean-up early enough in its rule making process.

BP has agreed to pay $18.7 billion to federal, state and local governments as compensation for the catastrophic 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The proposed settlement ends five years of legal battles between the oil giant and the federal government, the states of Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, and some localities. Private suits against the company will continue.

Thirty years ago, the giant kelp forests in the ocean off the coast of California were mostly wiped out by ecosystem imbalances. Now a citizen-led effort has helped to restore them.

Giant kelp is the largest type of seaweed in our oceans. But the fragile ecosystem that supports its growth began to collapse after the area’s sea otters were wiped out in the 1840s. With the sea otters gone, sea urchins flourished and were free to devour all the kelp they could eat.

The $50 billion plan to save Louisiana's wetlands

Jul 19, 2015

Louisiana is in trouble. The Mississippi River Delta is disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico at the rate of 16 square miles a year, some of the fastest land loss on the planet.

The bayou lands are crucial to the nation's fisheries, as well as regional oil and gas supplies. Perhaps ironically, activity by the energy industry is helping to destroy its own infrastructure.

How will the Pacific Northwest change when its glaciers are gone?

Jul 19, 2015

Glaciers set the Pacific Northwest apart and are essential for supplying the region’s drinking water, hydropower and for ensuring the survival of the region's iconic salmon.

But disappearing glaciers make the Northwest uniquely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Washington has more glaciers than any other state, except Alaska. Some 376 glaciers feed the Skagit River. That number alone sets the Evergreen State apart from the rest of the country, but it also makes it uniquely vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

A new study that uses blood samples collected more than 50 years ago finds that women who were exposed to the pesticide DDT in the womb have a four-fold increase in breast cancer risk today.

In the wake of record numbers of rhinos slaughtered in 2014 by poachers in South Africa — an estimated 1200 — there is a glimmer of good news: a high-tech anti-poaching technique is stopping the bad guys in their tracks.

The Air Shepherd Initiative uses military-style computer analytics to identify poaching hot spots, and then sends silent drones equipped with night vision to track down poachers.

The quest for the 'Asian unicorn'

Jul 5, 2015

Deep in the forests of Southeast Asia lives a creature called the saola. In profile, it looks like a unicorn — and it’s almost as rare as that mythical beast. Little is known about it, except that it and its habitat is quickly disappearing.

Sarah Koenigsberg is documenting the efforts of six people across the US who are working to bring the big-tailed and bucktoothed beavers back to lakes and rivers across the country.

Like beavers themselves, the human subjects of Koenigsberg's documentary, The Beaver Believers, are climate change activists.

One year ago this week, at Georgetown University, President Barack Obama gave his most expansive speech on climate change. Central to his plans are regulations that would rein in CO2 emissions from power plants.

So, one year on, how’s it going?

“I think it’s going well,” says Gina McCarthy, administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the main person in charge of implementing Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

Seven leading democratic nations have announced their goal to make the world fossil fuel free by the end of this century.

The news came at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany held earlier this month. The G7 leaders, including those from historically reluctant Japan and Canada, agreed to call for a full decarbonization of the world’s economy by 2100.

Scientists at the UN climate negotiations in Bonn warn that new data about the melting of the Earth’s permafrost, and projections of a “permafrost carbon feedback loop,” suggest that the Earth is reaching thresholds where only a new ice age could reverse the impacts of global warming.

When given an 'oven' — chimps will cook

Jun 23, 2015

It turns out that humans and chimpanzees share more than a common ancestor and a whole lot of DNA. A new study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B suggests that chimps have several of the capacities that allowed early humans to cook their food and evolve into the species we are today.

New music brings conservationist John Muir's story to life

Jun 22, 2015

Of all the figures that helped shape an early appreciation for the American landscape, John Muir is among the most iconic. Now his writing and his life are being celebrated in music and song.

The piece, created by a duo called Chance with two other performers, is called “John Muir — University of the Wilderness,” and uses the conservationist’s own words to tell his story.