Accessibility links

Our World — 31 May 2008

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World": Sights and sounds from Mars, new research on old Martian water and the pollution perils facing Olympic athletes this August in Beijing:

BRENDAN RILEY: "Every athlete out there particularly as you get into the distance events, whether it is the 10,000 meter, the marathon, race walking, long distance cycling, even the swimmers to a certain extent have to be worried about this."

Vaulting environmental hurdles in Beijing, that and an excerpt from a new anthology of environmental writing. Hi! I'm Rosanne Skirble sitting in for Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Phoenix Gets Clean Bill of Health and Readies to Dig Martian Soil

The world's attention turned again this week to the surface of Mars as the U.S. space agency's Phoenix Mars Lander touched down on the Red Planet. Onboard data sent back sounds of the descent to earth. Phoenix is also sending back sharp, stereoscopic color photos. NASA expects to post a complete panorama of the Martian landscape on the website by week's end. Phoenix project manager Barry Goldstein says the lander is in perfect health. After only a brief delay because of a communications glitch, Phoenix is scheduled to begin using its robotic arm to dig in the Martian soil for signs of water — and life.

Mars' Water May Have Been Too Salty to Support Life

Research from previous missions has provided strong evidence that water once flowed through Martian canyons and filled shallow lakes on the red planet. Now a new report concludes that whatever water existed on Mars was probably too salty to support life. VOA's Jessica Berman has the details:

BERMAN: Scientists at Harvard University in Massachusetts and Stony Brook University in New York analyzed salt deposits in a four billion year old rock that was explored by the US space agency's Mars exploration rover, Opportunity, and by spacecraft orbiting the Red planet. The data confirm that water once existed on Mars. Scientists have eagerly sought evidence of water because it is necessary for life.

But in a new study published this week in the journal Science, researchers conclude that the water that existed on Mars billions of years ago was too salty for any life form to tolerate, at least in Meridiani Planum, a vast region on Mars where the rock was found.

Nicholas Tosca is the study's lead author.

TOSCA: "Meridiani Planum, this locality where the Mars rover landed, may have actually been the best place for life to have existed on early Mars. But the interesting thing is it itself was a pretty harsh place in terms of salinity because when we looked elsewhere (in) other localities where we had information about salt minerals, we found the salinity was much, much worse."

BERMAN: Tosca says the salinity of the water in Meridiani — which scientists believe was the consistency of a thick brine — doesn't completely rule out that life once existed there.

TOSCA: "If there was any opportunity for life on Mars, it happened when Mars was a very young planet — so it happened very long ago — and the window of opportunity was short. The conditions were very harsh in terms of salinity and so life needed to get its act together and grab a foothold before the climate turned quite cold and dry like it is today."

BERMAN: Tosca adds it's always possible Mars harbored ancient life forms unfamiliar to scientists on Earth. Tosca says the Phoenix mission to scoop up and analyze ice beneath the Martian surface near the planet's northern pole will provide more evidence of the planet's chemistry, helping to rule in or out the existence of life on Mars.

Mars Society Promotes Robotic and Human Exploration of Red Planet: Exploration Boosts Traffic to Mars Society Website

Not surprisingly, the Phoenix Mars mission has generated heavy traffic on the website of the Mars Society, a private worldwide organization dedicated to the robotic and human exploration of the Red Planet.

Mars Society Webmaster Alex Kirk says the Phoenix Lander's arrival on Mars has bumped traffic to more than 100,000 hits a day on the group's homepage,

KIRK: "We have all the latest news on the Society, a nice RSS feed that gives you all the latest news that we are collecting from around the web, and we've got a lot of nice things like a frequently distributed news letter that tells you what is going on with both mars and the Society."

The Mars Society has 139 affiliated chapters with members in all 50 U.S. states and 70 foreign countries. Many chapters have websites of their own linked to the site, including one in Baghdad, run by members stationed in Iraq.

In addition to space news, Kirk says the website promotes conferences and special events like the Mars Society University Rover Challenge that takes place June 6, 2008 in southern Utah. Kirk says the Challenge is inspired by the two robotic vehicles that have been exploring Mars for the past four years.

KIRK: "Where we have got nine teams from around the world, building their own Mars rovers and then testing them out against each other at our Analog [Mars Desert] Research Station in Hanksville, Utah."

The Mars Society also promotes political activism by urging website visitors to write or fax appeals directly to members of the U.S. Congress.

KIRK: "You can go encourage those folks to keep the NASA budget up or do things of that nature."

Among the new features coming online shortly is a popular Internet space forum that will make its homepage, allowing mars enthusiasts to communicate with one another more easily.

Kirk says access to the website is free, although the group does solicit fees for membership to help with its education outreach programs, conferences and annual Mars simulation missions — Earth-bound training exercises which also get support from the U.S. space agency, NASA.

KIRK: "So we are doing research into things like the kind of space suits that would be useful on mars, the interaction of a bunch of people crammed into a tiny habitat for long periods of time."

Kirk says the website, like the group itself, invites new members who share a passion for Mars.

KIRK: "Definitely go to and join us if you think that you want to make a difference in seeing human exploration of mars move forward in the next couple of decades."

Alex Kirk, Webmaster of the Mars Society at

Leading Scientists and Economists Call on U.S. for Swift Action on Climate Change

In advance of next week's debate in the U.S. Senate over legislation to combat global warming, more than 1700 leading scientists-including Nobel laureates, leading medical experts, former federal agency directors and university chairs and presidents-have issued a joint statement calling on the nation's leaders for immediate and deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change. Among those signers is Peter Frumhoff, former lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Director of Science and Policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

FRUMHOFF: "The core purpose of our letter, of our statement is to ensure that the debate in Congress, in statehouses across the nation and it government writ large, is informed by a clear, succinct statement from our top experts, both scientists and economists, on the urgency of U.S. action and on the scale and feasibility of needed reductions."

New Report Calls European Emissions-Trading Plan a Global Model: Three-year trial had few political or economic snags

As American lawmakers consider their options, they have been looking to the European Union for some help. The European plan to cut global emissions, seen by some as a potential model for U.S. policy, is evaluated in a new report from the private PEW Center on Global Climate Change and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Three years ago, the European Union launched a program that put limits on emissions of carbon dioxide, the so-called "greenhouse" gas that's been linked to global warming. Twenty-seven nations participated in the trial phase of the European Trading Scheme or ETS. Sometimes referred to as a "cap-and-trade" system, the E.U. plan allows industries that reduce their carbon output to sell their surplus allowances as pollution credits to those who failed to meet the cap.

MIT Economics professor and report co-author A. Denny Ellerman says EU member countries have done more than any other group of nations to control their carbon dioxide output. He says the 3-year ETS trial has been a political and economic success.

ELLERMAN: "First of all, there is a price on CO2 and it does affect business decisions. The most important aspect, and I think the one for the longer haul that one has to think about, is that a mechanism for the long-term control of greenhouse gas emissions over the sectors of the economy that are included, is in place. That infrastructure is up, has now been tested and is working. And there has been some abatement [reduction]."

Ellerman notes that ETS is a work in progress. As it moves forward it will expand to gases other than CO2. While there are central rules, each member state is responsible for reporting and enforcement. Ellerman says the decentralized operation reflects the political reality of the European Union.

ELLERMAN: "Every one of these member states — even the tiniest enjoys more sovereignty than any American state or the biggest, think of California and Texas, would ever dare to aspire to. That is not the same structure as in the United States. You have to always keep that in mind."

Denny Ellerman says analysis of the European program showed that a price on carbon did not harm the economy — something U.S. policymakers had feared if similar mandatory emission cuts were ordered in America.

ELLERMAN: "And I think that the explanation and the best way to think about this is that the CO2 price is just one price among many and that all of those other prices which still matter in terms of location, and production and what a firm does that counted before 2005, before the start of the program continue to count after the program is in effect. There is just one more price."

Under the ETS, some companies did experience unexpected carbon emission reductions, in part because the program pushed industries to make their factory operations more efficient. That's an outcome that U.S. companies have also achieved, says Eileen Claussen, President of the PEW Center on Global Climate Change.

CLAUSSEN: "Of the 27 or 30 companies in the U.S. who have set voluntary targets, in fact they met the targets by a series of small things, which you might not have expected. They weren't big pieces of equipment that they put on. And it turned out to be almost no additional costs to do those things. So I think once we have a price, we will see a lot of that kind of stuff."

Pew Report co-author Denny Ellerman says that while ETS continues to be refined, it can serve as a field-tested model that the U.S. and other countries can adapt to their own circumstances.

ELLERMAN: "If you were thinking of a system that would include China and India, you are actually seeing in the span of the European System an enormous, a much greater heterogeneity than we have in the United States, that's actually there."

Among the proposals considered by Congress is a bipartisan bill sponsored by Senators Joe Lieberman and John Warner. While the Lieberman/Warner Climate Security Act faces White House opposition, environment advisor for the European Commission Malachy Hargadon says the bill compares favorably with the European plan.

HARGADON: "It is more comprehensive in scope. It is setting longer time lines. It is covering more sectors than the ETS. It is covering a wider part of the economy."

Senators and presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain each favor cutting carbon emissions and are expected to weigh in on the bill. Malachy Hargadon has this advise for how the U.S. should push ahead with its own carbon cap and trade scheme.

HARGADON: "What we would suggest is that it just needs to be kept simple. Let the market work. Don't try to interfere with it by setting price caps. Let the market decide. Let the market work."

The European Union is not alone in putting a cap and trade scheme in place. New Zealand will launch a similar initiative this year. Canada and Australia hope to have their plans up and running by 2010.

Beijing's Polluted Air Worries Olympic Athletes

Reduced emissions aren't coming soon enough for Beijing's polluted air — rated among the worst in the world by the World Health Organization. There's widespread concern that pollution will harm the health of athletes competing in this summer's games. As Philip Graitcer reports, although Chinese officials say that they will have Beijing's pollution under control during the Olympic Games, athletes and trainers are preparing for the worst.

GRAITCER: At this year's Bolder Boulder, a 10-thousand meter road race in Boulder, Colorado, the Romanian women's team took first place. The team is training in the mountains of Colorado for this summer's Olympics. Romanian marathoner Constantina Tomescu-Dita, says the athletes benefit not only because Colorado's air is thinner than the air in low-lying Beijing, but because it's a lot cleaner, too.

TOMESCU-DITA: "We don't go training in the pollution because its bad before the race. We go maybe one, maybe three days before the competition."

GRAITCER: According to Brendan Riley, a manager for the Romanian team, most athletes are concerned about how Beijing's notoriously polluted air will affect their performance.

RILEY: "We've heard nothing but the worst possible reports out of Beijing. …every athlete out there particularly as you get into the distance events, whether it is the 10000 meter, the marathon, race walking, long distance cycling, even the swimmers to a certain extent have to be worried about this."

GRAITCER: In downtown Atlanta, at the Laboratory for Elite Athlete Performance, pulmonary physiologist Dr. David Martin has been examining the impact of pollution on athletes. Martin's been fielding calls from worried athletes and coaches for the past year. He says Beijing's pollution in some ways is even worse than most people realize.

MARTIN: "In Beijing you can look across the street and barely see….and people think the air is polluted and this is going to be a problem. Actually a lot of the pollutants we deal with are colorless, odorless, and tasteless, so we don't see them in the air."

GRAITCER: One of those invisible pollutants is carbon monoxide. It's found in automobile exhaust, and it affects the body's metabolism, taking the place of oxygen on the hemoglobin molecule in the blood.

MARTIN: "Everyone is affected by carbon monoxide so if you run down a busy street with fumes from cars filling the air, you are going to find after not too long a time (that) your ability to work really hard is diminished."

GRAITCER: Martin says another potentially dangerous pollutant in Beijing's air is ozone, a toxic compound created by a mix of sun and industrial emissions that could do permanent damage to athletes' lungs.

MARTIN: "Ozone develops during sunlight. The marathon starts at 7:30 in the morning so the sun's going to be up and by the time they finish …they'll be in bright sunlight."

GRAITCER: But no one really knows for sure how ozone will affect athletic performance.

Weather, too, will play a role in Beijing. In August, it is hot and humid. Martin predicts that marathon times could be 6 or 7 minutes slower than races run in cooler places like Chicago, Berlin, or London.

In spite of his concerns about pollutants, Martin believes Chinese officials will have mitigated the problem by the time the games begin.

MARTIN: "They will invest no small sum of money in the coming months to either shut down industries, prevent cars from driving on roads during the games, or whatever it takes to have clear air. So I think this will not be as big a problem as it seems right now."

GRAITCER: Still, Martin advises athletes to be ready to run under any conditions. He's helped develop a carbon-filtration facemask that will keep some of the pollutants out of Olympiads' lungs. Martin says the masks won't be used in competition, but will provide athletes with protection the rest of the time they're in Beijing.

MARTIN: "I think you may find athletes walking down the streets, on their off days… just for safety's sake. They may get some benefit by preventing the onset of cough or a sore throat from living in a polluted environment."

GRAITCER: Martin thinks a carbon filtration mask would have helped prevent the sore throat he developed on his recent business trip in Asia. He did some running in the streets — without a mask, and now his voice is hoarse.

MARTIN: "I've been in Asia for two weeks and pollution seems to be rife all over Asia. The Asian cities just cause sore throats and I guess mine is one of them."

GRAITCER: Martin worries that unless the Chinese can dramatically curtail pollution in Beijing, one group of athletes will suffer disproportionately during the Olympics — and from more than just sore throats.

MARTIN: "I think you're going to see athletes with asthma either dropping out or not finishing their race or performing rather poorly. This could be sizeable as many — 20-25% of our athletes on an Olympic team have asthma. It could be a substantial problem."

GRAITCER: But pollution or not, Romanian marathoner Lidia Simon will be ready at the start of the women's marathon on August 17 in Beijing.

SIMON: "They [The Olympic Committee] decide Beijing, we want to run there because this is life, everybody's pollution, but there is more bad and we want to run also."

Duck-billed Platypus Curious Mix of Mammal, Reptile and Bird

In other science news we turn to the Genome Center at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis where researchers have just completed a look at the DNA of one of the planet's most unusual animals, the duck-billed platypus. As Jim Dryden reports, while it is classified as a mammal, the platypus also shares traits with birds and reptiles too.

DRYDEN: Reporting in the Journal Nature, the researchers say they found lots of seemingly contradictory genes in the platypus. Washington University geneticist Wes Warren, who led the projects, says the platypus is a biological anomaly that seems to bridge biological gaps between reptiles, birds and mammals.

WARREN: "There's unique aspects to the platypus that are just not found in mammals, and the most striking one, of course, is that they lay eggs. They also have venom, very analogous to what we see in snakes."

DRYDEN: And Warren says the DNA sequence also has genes that come from all over the biological map.

WARREN: "The expectation is for, like eggs you would have egg-yolk proteins, and we actually find egg-yolk proteins. And at the same time we know that platypus animals lactate, and we see the milk-protein genes that we expect to see."

DRYDEN: Warren says the platypus genome will teach scientists a great deal about evolution and also may eventually provide strategies for using genetic traits from other animals to treat diseases in humans."

American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

Environmentalist, educator and author Bill McKibben was in VOA studios recently with his latest book, American Earth, an anthology of environmental writing. Here he reads from Alaskan writer Richard Nelson's "Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America."

MCKIBBEN: "He is describing watching the birth of a fawn on an island near his home in Alaska. It is very hard to see the birth of a fawn. Deer are shy and they are real shy when they are about to give birth, but he is down wind so she has seen him…"

MCKIBBEN READING: "Still lying on one side, she raises her uppermost hind leg off the ground arches her neck, and reaches her head back. Then, out from beneath the flared white tail slips something long and wet and shining and very dark. I want to jump and shout aloud for the joy of it, but instead I hold the binoculars to my eyes, arms aching and muscles shivering... Reaching back along her flank the doe begins vigorously licking her child, and as she pulls away the clinging membranes, the fawn thrusts her muzzle into the cold breeze, opens her mouth, and draws her first breath - taking in the same air that sustains every creature on earth, the air that surrounds this unlikely congeries of doe, fawn, dog, and human. Through newly opened eyes this tiny deer sees the island where she will live through her seasons of sunshine and rain, blizzard and frost, abundance and hardship, where she will learn the mosaic of landscape and trail, find membership in a society of deer, grow sleek and graceful and quick, present herself to courting bucks, and bring on fawns of her own. During these beginning moments of her life, she sees the prodigious wall of Kluksa Mountain that will loom above her from now until the moment of her death. The deer is born into a home more purely and absolutely than I could ever imagine."

MCKIBBEN: "That is not only a beautiful piece of natural description. In it's last sentence, with that yearning for a kind of deep home, it sums up, I think, what a lot of Americans are now looking for. That yearning for someplace to belong, to be rooted, to be connected to be in community is enormously strong. And if we can embrace it, then we have some chance out of the troubles into which we have wondered."

And, that's our program for this week. Rob Sivak is our editor. Our technical director is Eva Nenicka. I'm Rosanne Skirble. Join us online at or on your radio next week with Art Chimes at this same time as we explore the latest in science and technology on "Our World."