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Our World — 9 February 2008

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... The science of hurricanes ... how development is challenging the Amazon ecosystem ... and promoting health in the elderly with innovative technologies...

BAKKENIST: "They detect heat and motion. And then any change in what would be considered 'normal' gets analyzed and then it is sent remotely to computer screens."

The high-tech road to independent living, free university course materials on our Website of the Week, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

The space shuttle Atlantis blasted into space on Thursday, carrying the European Space Agency's Columbus science laboratory to the International Space Station.

SHUTTLE COUNTDOWN: "Four, three, two, one, zero and liftoff of space shuttle Atlantis as Columbus sets sail on a voyage of science to the space station."

Before launch, European Space Agency official Alan Thirkettle explained that the Columbus laboratory is designed more efficiently to leave more room for experiments, by tucking life support equipment and other infrastructure in out-of-the-way places.

THIRKETTLE: "They're hidden behind all the nooks and crannies. And that way we can end up with a very compact module, and therefore a comparatively light module, which means that we launch with five integrated payload racks, which none of the other modules have been able to do. So we get a lot of bang for our buck with the launch."

Because Columbus will be launched into space with several laboratory units already installed, Thirkettle says scientists on the ground should start receiving data from their experiments within as little as seven to ten days after launch.

Atlantis is due to return to earth a week from Monday.

We've done a lot of reports here on Our World about climate change. We usually focus on warmer temperatures, melting ice, rising sea levels — that sort of thing. But climate scientists say that global warming will bring not just higher temperatures, but more severe storms.

More than two years after the devastating hurricanes that struck the area around New Orleans in the United States, scientists continue to learn new lessons from the disasters. And as we hear from VOA's Rosanne Skirble, they also drew attention to the critical role that science can play in helping to protect lives and property.

SKIRBLE: A few weeks ago, Greg Smith returned to the same streets of New Orleans where he had piloted a small boat in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Smith heads the Wetlands Research Center for the U.S. Geological Survey, based nearby. His agency helped in the search and rescue efforts. Smith recalls how researchers took the tools they normally used to survey wetlands and adapted them to locate trapped hurricane victims.

SMITH: "In the middle of the night our scientists developed a geocoding program that assigned a latitude and longitude to the street addresses given by 911 [emergency] callers. We plotted maps showing the locations of these victims. We did this 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

SKIRBLE: This helped boat operators and helicopter pilots locate and rescue 21,000 people. Smith says scientists also used their arsenal of technical tools to monitor wildlife affected by the storms.

SMITH: "We do radar ornithology, looking at bird movements on the coast, especially the great migrations, using the same radar that the weather service uses for precipitation. Well, in the immediate aftermath of the [2005] storms we saw where critical habitats for the migrating bird populations were absolutely decimated."

SKIRBLE: During hurricane Katrina scientists recorded for the first time the storm surge, or the rise in sea water level that occurs when a hurricane roars ashore. The data is important because it gives a baseline for predicting potential storm damage to low-lying coastal communities.

Before and after the 2005 storms, satellite imagery coupled with geographic information systems (GIS) were used to analyze the barrier islands and wetlands. Within hours, scientists observed that 562 square kms. of wetlands had converted into open water and barrier islands had retreated or disappeared.

USGS Oceanographer Abby Sallenger worked on the project. He says the islands were already threatened because of sea level rise and sand erosion.

SALLENGER: "Then you throw in [hurricane] Katrina on top of that and you have a recipe for a real problem."

SKIRBLE: Sallenger says scientists can now accurately measure wetland or barrier island loss within hours along hundreds of kilometers of coastland with a technology called lidar - essentially, a laser beam deployed from airplanes.

SALLENGER: "And it measures the topography, the elevations of the coastline. And if you do this before a storm and then again after the storm you can compare the two surveys to come up with the amount and patterns of change which tell us a lot [about] what happened there."

SKIRBLE: Greg Smith with USGS Wetlands Research Center adds that science offers new ways to build more resilient coastal communities, ones that are ecologically stable and that also meet human needs for energy development, flood control and commercial navigation.

SMITH: "Our science really, absolutely needs to be connected to society. We need to understand what the economic and societal drivers are and how our science can be better planned, executed and reported to meet those needs."

SKIRBLE: Greg Smith is one of 100 US Geological Survey scientists who've contributed to a new study called "Science and the Storms," available online on the USGS website at I'm Rosanne Skirble.

Seven years ago, Latin American leaders launched a development plan known by its Spanish acronym IIRSA. The plan aims to link South American nations through transportation, communication, and other projects.

The plan has worried environmentalists, who see it as a threat to the Amazon ecosystem.

In a recently-published study, Tim Killeen of the group Conservation International highlights a wide range of factors that could potentially undermine the world's largest tropical forest.

KILLEEN: "Different events — global markets, national markets, investments in infrastructure, demand for commodities, demographic phenomena, governance issues, and violence. There's all kinds of things that are going on in the Amazon, and they're all coming together at this point in time to create radical change, which I refer to as a 'perfect storm' of environmental destruction, or at least a potential for that."

In fact, Killeen calls his 98-page study, "A Perfect Storm in the Amazon Wilderness."

Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, Killeen said his report examines the threats to the Amazon posed by climate change and by roads, waterways, and other infrastructure developed under IIRSA. As once-remote areas become accessible, people move in, clear the land, and begin farming. This is known as —

KILLEEN: "The advance of the agricultural frontier, which is very much linked to IIRSA and the development of highways and transportation infrastructure, but also hydrovias and these types of things which are bulk transport systems that are being invested in so that they compete on a global scale with the farmers in Iowa or in Argentina that have lower transport costs. And of course, once they get that, then they compete more. That leads to more deforestation, so there's this kind of synergism up there, and it's all related to other phenomena as well: the logging industry and things like that."

Although many environmentalists and conservation experts are dismayed at what has happened in the Amazon over the past several decades, Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, former chief biodiversity advisor to the World Bank, says that the news isn't all bad.

LOVEJOY: "There has been an extraordinary amount of positive initiatives, adding up to something on the order of 40 percent of the Brazilian Amazon being under some form of protection — a quite remarkable achievement, something we never would have dared to dream of even 20 years ago."

Biologists often point out the vast number of unique plant and animal species in the Amazon region that live nowhere else. Gustavo Fonseca is with the Global Environment Facility, which funds conservation projects in developing countries.

FONSECA: "Forty thousand plant species are believed to occur in the Amazon, even though not all of them have been described yet [by science], but 30,000 of these should be unique to the region. These are endemic species. If they are lost from the region they're going to be lost globally. So this feature must be recognized as the foundation for development and one of the region's principal comparative advantages."

The Amazon is also a tremendous storehouse, or sink, of carbon — an estimated 76 gigatons, the equivalent of two decades' of fossil fuel use. When forest is cleared, carbon stored in plants and trees goes up in smoke, adding carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere. Put another way, it's $2 trillion worth of carbon credits. It may not be possible to monetize the value of the carbon stored in the Amazon, but Tim Killeen says that kind of calculation illustrates the economic underpinning of the stresses placed on Amazonia.

KILLEEN: "Deforestation occurs for one simple reason: it generates wealth. And until you realize that, until you realize that you have to offer people alternatives to deforestation, so that they can support their families or make a buck, then we're not going to be successful in eliminating deforestation."

Killeen says that although the South American infrastructure initiative known as IIRSA was not designed to give adequate consideration to the environment, he says there are ways to minimize the impact. These include building fewer roads and relying more on air and water transportation; selling carbon credits based on Amazon preservation; and developing manufacturing and service industries to replace commodity agriculture.

Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

American universities might be among the best in the world, and they are certainly among the most expensive. This week's featured website offers much of the material given to students taking courses at one of our most prestigious centers of higher learning, and you don't have to pay for it at all.

CARSON: "MIT OpenCourseWare is a web-based publication of the course materials from virtually all of MIT's courses. So this includes the sorts of things you would expect to be handed if you were a student sitting in class: the lecture notes, the syllabus, the exams, the quizzes, the homework assignments, and so forth."

Steve Carson is a spokesman for Massachusetts Institute of Technology OpenCourseWare program at

OpenCourseWare is not the same as taking a class at MIT. It doesn't include textbooks, and you can't ask questions. But there's still plenty of value in the material related to some 1,800 courses in science and engineering, plus business, music and literature, and special courses for high school students.

CARSON: "It's not the same thing as distance learning. It wasn't expected, initially, even to be a tool for distance learning. It was really imagined that these materials would be helpful for other faculty members around the world in creating course materials for their own classrooms."

"Around the world" is right. More than half the users of MIT OpenCourseWare are from outside North America, and many of them take advantage of the translated course material.

CARSON: "Almost as soon as we put the materials up we were contacted by a number of other organizations who were interested in bringing their own resources to bear on translating the materials into other languages. So we now have about 600 translations of our courses out there in Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, and we have some Farsi translations that are just coming on board."

Everything at MIT OpenCourseWare is free for the downloading. And if you don't find what you like at MIT, there is a link to an international consortium of universities offering similar material from some 20 other countries.

Free educational materials from MIT OpenCourseWare at, or get the link from our site,

MUSIC: Bill Justis — "College Man"

Free to all, it's VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Here in the United States, the surge in births in the years following World War II has had a tremendous cultural impact, as the "baby boomer" generation has grown up — and grown older. Many "boomers" are now caring for elderly parents and thinking about what life will be like as they age. Taking care of people who now commonly live to age 80, 90, or beyond can be pretty labor-intensive, and often children live far from their parents or are otherwise unable to help. As we hear from VOA's Susan Logue, eldercare specialists are looking to Congress for help in getting technology to pick up some of the slack.

BAKKENIST: "If technology can keep an Alzheimer's patient out of an institution for an extra year or two — and we know that it can — the savings will be tremendous, and the preservation of a preferred lifestyle at home will provide a significant benefit to all."

LOGUE: Kathy Bakkenist was one of five people who testified on Capitol Hill to promote a new organization designed to evaluate and develop technologies for the elderly and their caregivers.

Bakkenist is senior vice president of Ecumen, one of the nation's largest non-profit providers of senior housing.

BAKKENIST: "We look for technologies that we believe are user-friendly and are affordable, and that will ultimately result in an improved lifestyle with greater efficiencies."

LOGUE: For example, many Ecumen residences feature touch-screen computers for recording patient information, such as medication, blood pressure readings, and daily activities. Some apartments are equipped with a monitoring system.

BAKKENIST: "They detect heat and motion, so they establish a baseline of normal behavior. And then any change in what would be considered 'normal' gets analyzed and then it's sent remotely to computer screens."

LOGUE: Eighty-two year old Honor Hacker, a retired teacher who now lives in an Ecumen facility in Minnesota, came to Washington to tell Congress how the monitoring system, known as QuietCare, helped detect her serious nighttime breathing difficulties known as sleep apnea.

HACKER: ""I like knowing that there is that added level of safety with QuietCare, but that it doesn't jeopardize my privacy."

LOGUE: Hacker says she enjoys being an early-adapter of new technology. She especially likes Dakim [m]Power, a computer-based cognitive training program — essentially, a brain exerciser for the elderly.

HACKER: "It's made me more alive. I notice that when I don't use it for a few days, it's so good to get back to it and see what you knew, what you didn't know, how you could advance."

LOGUE: Dakim [m]Power presents challenging but entertaining exercises. This one is called "Famous People, Little Known Facts":

[M]POWER: "This is Albert Schweitzer. He was a physician and a philosopher. He was also an accomplished organist. This is James Cagney. He was ..."

LOGUE: After presenting several famous people paired with little-known facts about them, the program asks the user to respond to multiple-choice questions by touching the correct answer on the screen.

[M]POWER: "Besides being an actor, what else was James Cagney? Touch the right answer. [DING] You're sharp today. ..."

LOGUE: [m]Power is already being used in some assisted living facilities, where it reduces the need for one-on-one cognitive therapy. A home version of the program will be released soon. After all, one of the objectives of using new technologies in eldercare is to allow individuals to stay in their own homes as they age.

That's precisely the purpose of GrandCare, an Internet-based system that Gaytha Hillman says her husband developed.

HILLMAN: "We place a system in the home of a senior living independently. And they have a computer screen or a television that shows them messages from their loved ones, pictures, calendar appointments, headline news, nostalgia and trivia — all the socialization aspects. We put sensors throughout the household, too, that are unobtrusive, but the caregivers can go on line and see the recorded activity from those sensors [and] make sure that the grandmother is moving around normally, she's not leaving the house in the middle of the night."

LOGUE: Over the next 20 years, 76 million Americans will enter their senior years. Many may live to be 100 or older. Technologies like the ones showcased for lawmakers could help make those last years of life more enjoyable for them and their families. I'm Susan Logue.

Time again to dip into the Our World mailbag and answer a science question sent in by one of our listeners.

This time our question is from Yakkunisum Yohanna, who writes from Jalingo in Taraba State, Nigeria, and asks — what causes tsunamis?

You probably remember that in December 2004, a tsunami slammed into Sumatra and other areas around the Indian Ocean, killing perhaps 200,000 people or more — one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. The earthquake-prone Pacific rim, the so-called "ring of fire," may be most susceptible, but tsunamis have struck elsewhere as well.

To find out more about these powerful natural occurrences, we spoke with Barry Hirshorn, a geophysicist at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii.

He explained that tsunamis are typically the result of undersea earthquakes, which are in turn caused by the movement of tectonic plates that make up the ocean floor. They move against each other, get stuck, and then suddenly get unstuck.

HIRSHORN: "Basically the sea floor is deforming down as the plate drags it down, and it goes down and down and down. And one day the stress releases itself and the earthquake occurs and causes that piece of down-dragged ocean bottom to snap up suddenly in an earthquake. It snaps up vertically, up, almost straight up. And that straight-up motion is what rises the water also up. But you've got, you know, four kilometers of water getting suddenly raised by three or four meters, [releasing] a tremendous amount of energy that then disperses as a tsunami."

The tsunami wave can be detected by a network of sensors in the ocean, linked by satellite. But the earthquake itself is likely to be detected first by instruments called seismometers.

HIRSHORN: "These are just instruments that sense the ground motion, motion of the solid earth. And then the water level sensors record the water motion. And so we have these sensors all around the world, and they're sending us data in real time. And then, when an earthquake occurs somewhere, the waves it generates through the solid earth travel very quickly, and they reach enough seismometers to give us a location, set off our pagers, allow us to estimate the size of the earthquake way before the water ever gets very far."

But the system has to work quickly to be effective, as the tsunami races for land at the speed of a jet plane.

HIRSHORN: "In the open ocean, a tsunami travels on the order of 700 kilometers an hour."

You can't do anything really to stop a tsunami wave, says Hirshorn.

HIRSHORN: "What you can do is give advance warning, like we try to do. That's our function, to give a warning ahead of time. And the further away the endangered population is from the source, the earthquake of the tsunami, the more warning we can give."

And after the 2004 tsunami, a lot more effort has been put into improving early detection and warning systems to get the word out to people in danger if a tsunami might be heading ashore.

Thanks to Yakkunisum Yohanna for asking about tsunamis. We'll be sending a special VOA gift as our way of saying thanks. If you've got a science question, email it to us at, or listen for our postal address at the end of the show.

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That's our show for this week. If you'd like to comment on our program, or if you have a science question that we might answer on the air, email us at Or use the postal address —

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA

Rob Sivak edited the program. Eva Nenicka is the technical director. And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and technology ... in Our World.