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Our World — 29 December 2007

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on this special edition of "Our World," some of our favorite stories of 2007. Climate-change scientists are more sure than ever ... imagining the world without us ... and an emergency back-up plan for our agricultural heritage.

FOWLER: "These collections contain all the options for the future evolution and adaptation of agricultural crops on Earth."

Those stories, honoring some of America's youngest scientists, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a series of reports this year highlighting the mounting evidence of global warming and its human causes.

Among the evidence is the declining amount of ice left in the Arctic Ocean at the end of the summer melting season. This year, arctic ice was at an historic low point, with one-quarter less ice than was seen during the previous record year.

When that arctic floating ice melts, it doesn't affect sea levels. Not so with ice on land, which flows into the sea when it melts. Which is why climate scientists are carefully monitoring developments on Greenland and Antarctica.

Melting ice there, plus the effect of thermal expansion — warmer water takes up more space — could contribute to as much as a half-meter rise in sea level by the end of the century, according to the IPCC. Some experts think the IPCC may be underestimating the danger.

In any event, rising sea levels could have catastrophic consequences for those living in many coastal areas around the world. As David McAlary reported earlier this year, scientists have come up with an estimate of the extent of the threat.

McALARY: Census figures and satellite imagery tell a story of swelling populations along coastal regions that are expected to flood and experience more violent cyclones because of climate change.

Using the data, the International Institute for Environment and Development in London has released a study showing that exposed low lying coastal zones 10 meters or less above sea level contain 10 percent of all humanity — 634 million people — although they make up just two percent of the world's land area.

Demographer Deborah Balk of the City University of New York is a co-author of the study.

BALK: "The urban areas in those coastal systems are both larger, and more of the system is dedicated to urban areas than we would find in dry lands or in forests, for example.

McALARY: Balk says the 16 island nations are not the only places threatened by predicted sea-level rise. The study shows that nearly two-thirds of all cities with more than five million people are at least partly in the 10 meter coastal zone, including Shanghai, China; Mumbai (Bombay), India; and Cotonou, Benin. In fact, 75 percent of people in the zone are Asians because of the nature of the continent's geography and its large population.

Balk says the population in this coastal zone will continue to increase, especially in Asia.

BALK: "Most of the growth we will see in Asia is not going to be in rural areas, but will be in urban areas. So that will further exacerbate this issue because the cities are already located in these low elevation coastal zones."

McALARY: The study appears in the April issue of the journal "Environment and Urbanization."

The study says easing climate change is the best means to deal with the problem, but adds there is not enough time for that to be the only solution. Migration away from the lowest elevation coastal zones is part of their answer. They recognize how costly, difficult, and disruptive this would be, but point out that small population shifts to higher ground can be important.

They also recommend coastal management that avoids policies, like China's, which favor coastal development to encourage exports.

BALK: "This is a call to policymakers to be more active in thinking about settlement incentives or local planning to protect certain systems."

McALARY: David McAlary, VOA News, Washington.

Rising sea levels is one thing they had in mind when Norway began planning an underground facility to safeguard the world's agricultural heritage on an island in the Barents Sea, nearly 1,000 kilometers north of the Scandinavian mainland.

Designed to survive every imaginable catastrophe, the Svalbard International Seed Vault is intended as a permanent home to more than two billion seeds representing 4.5 million species. Some 1,400 gene banks around the world serve as a sort of living genetic library of edible crops. This vault, which is set to open in February, will be what you might consider a doomsday backup to the national and regional seed banks, with duplicated seeds kept at sub-permafrost temperatures ... just in case.

Earlier this year, my colleague Rosanne Skirble spoke with Cary Fowler, who heads the Global Crop Diversity Trust, a U.N. sponsored organization that has promoted the project and will help run the Svalbard vault. Fowler explains that the seed bank's complex design and location guarantee safe-keeping for the genetic treasure it will hold.

FOWLER: There will be about a 120-meter long corridor or tunnel leading through solid rock back to the vaults themselves. And it's really going to look quite a lot like a bank vault. There will be shelves and boxes and in each box about four or five hundred samples of seeds. And among the reasons we are building it in Svalbard is that it is remote and so remoteness gives us some safety, but one of the big reasons is that there's permafrost. And inside the mountain where the vault will be placed is currently minus 6 [degrees Celsius], and this provides great protection for long-term conservation of seeds. We'll lower the temperature even further to the absolute optimum temperature, but if the refrigeration units fail, it will take months, maybe years — who knows? — to warm up to the minus 6 level, which is just fine for storage of most seeds for even decades.

SKIRBLE: How will the vault be monitored?

FOWLER: There will be an electronic system of monitoring, a number of security devices. There will be local monitoring by human beings as well, and as some people in the media have noted the polar bears are ubiquitous in this part of Svalbard. So, anyone going up there to do something untoward toward to the seed vault will have to take that into account.

SKIRBLE: Why is it critical that this seed vault be built now?

FOWLER: Well, we don't know if it is critical right now, but I will say that in the last ten years I know that if we had had the seed vault, we would have used it several times. The seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan were both destroyed in the aftermath of wars there. And, there is sort of a daily loss of existing seed banks because of simply poor conditions. So, we simply can't afford to lose these options for the future. The crop diversity that we have right now is historic in a way. It is the result of 12,000 years of agricultural history on earth. But it is not a stamp or museum collection. The real importance is that these collections contain all the options for the future evolution and adaptation of agricultural crops on earth. So If one is concerned, for example, about climate change and how human beings are going to adapt to climate change, if you are concerned about water constraints or energy constraints, then you have to be concerned about conserving this crop diversity because without this crop diversity agriculture will not be able to adapt to climate change, will not be able to produce food to feed growing populations with water and energy supplies. It's really vital to solving every major problem on earth.

Cary Fowler is Executive Director of Global Crop Diversity Trust. He spoke with VOA's Rosanne Skirble.

A regular feature here on Our World is the Website of the Week, in which we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

We don't have time to review all the ones we featured in 2007, but I did want to highlight a few of them.

At Wessels Living History Farm in York, Nebraska, website creator Bill Ganzel says oral history interviews bring alive traditional life on an American family farm as remembered by people who were there.

GANZEL: "We have approximately 400 stories on the website right now. Each of those goes into great detail about an aspect of agriculture and agricultural history. And as I said, you know, the oral history interviews bring, I think, that history to life because history really matters when you know how big events affected everyday life. So that's why the oral history interviews are so important."

You can enjoy those interviews, and much more, at

A very different Website of the Week is an entertaining and informative blog with suggestions for making your life — especially the technology-related part of your life — more efficient.

PASH: " is a weblog that posts a lot of tips and tricks, software downloads, a lot of different recommendations of websites designed to save you time and boost your productivity."

Adam Pash is Senior Editor at

We have time for one more. There are a lot of health and medicine websites out there. But sometimes it's hard to get the right balance between being authoritative and being user-friendly. At the website of world-famous Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, they do a great job. Senior medical editor Dr. Brooks Edwards says one feature of can help you find out what your problem might be, based on your symptoms.

EDWARDS: "The symptom checker is a very popular feature on the site, and it does give the user an opportunity to work through a series of questions to try and hone down what could be the cause. Now, we don't necessarily make a diagnosis, but we, based on the answers to the questions, we give them a variety of information that could be causing their symptom."

Obviously, neither nor any other website is a substitute for a trained physician, but as Dr. Edwards said, an informed patient is a better patient.

Just a few examples to highlight the diversity of the web. We have links to these and some 180 other featured Websites of the Week on our website, which is

MUSIC: "Thanks for the Memory" — Herb Alpert

And you're listening to VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

One of the most personally satisfying science stories we ran this year was about a rather extraordinary bunch of kids.

The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the AAAS, in San Francisco back in February, included a standard feature of pretty much any science conference — the poster session. Typically, it's a room full of display panels, with researchers having perhaps three square meters to present the words and pictures that will capture the attention of passersby and succinctly explain their work.

While presenting a poster may not have the high-profile visibility of giving a talk, it's still an honor to be part of a poster session and a recognition of the quality of your work.

At the AAAS meeting there was a poster session for senior researchers and another one for university students, but to me, nothing was more impressive than the highly competitive session sponsored by the American Junior Academy of Sciences for teenage researchers.

BUZAN: "I'm Julia Buzan. I'm from Cherry Creek High School in Denver, Colorado. And my science research project has to do with estimating the quality of a violin based on common characteristics in their wood vibration."

Julia, a musician herself, set out to find an objective way of assessing the quality of a violin. She recognized that actually playing the violin would introduce too much variability to how she pulled the bow across the strings. So instead, she used a tuning fork to replicate the vibration of the strings, and she found that a $12,000 violin continued to vibrate much longer than a cheap instrument.

BUZAN: "And that makes sense if you think about the way in which really nice violins play in concert halls, how their sound is sort of piercing all the way to the back of the auditorium and how each note vibrates for a very long period of time."

Her poster explains the methodology and is full of graphs showing her results. At just 16 years old, Julia says she plans a career in medicine, and hopes to do humanitarian work in developing countries.

Nearby, two young scientists from the Midwest presented their research on the runoff of agricultural chemicals into local streams.

BURGESS: "My name is Haley Burgess. I am from Donnellson, Iowa. Central Lee High School."

HAWES: "My name is Shala Hawes and I'm also from Central Lee High School, and we did a team project together."

BURGESS: "And our project is about nitrates and phosphates in our local creeks and ponds."

With help from the University of Iowa Hygienic Lab, they designed an experiment to measure the chemical runoff in streams near farmland, and 17-year-old Haley Burgess says it was proportionate to the amount of land that drains into the stream.

BURGESS: "The largest amount of nitrates and phosphate was found in the largest creek, which also had the largest amount of watershed. So that creek had the largest amount of everything, where the smallest creek had the smallest amount of watershed, nitrates and phosphates and all that."

Haley's partner, Shala Hawes says they also learned that the traditional method used by area farmers to protect the waterways is not the most effective.

HAWES: "Most of the farmers in our area use grass buffer strips because they're the easiest to plant, but we actually found out that tree buffer strips are the most effective in filtering the nitr ous and phosphates out of the water."

Shala is 16 and aiming for a career in anthropology. But she participates in a wide range of school activities and denies she is a "science geek."

I was impressed by the work of the teen scientists at the AAAS meeting, but that's not just my opinion. Listen to John Safko, physics professor emeritus and an official of the group that oversees the Junior Academy of Sciences.

SAFKO: "We have had research faculty go through our poster display, because it isn't always so clear that it's the American Junior Academy of Science, and think that they're looking at graduate papers. Our age group: we have one 13-year-old, and everyone else is 15 through 19."

Among the most professional presentations from these high school kids came from a couple of Vietnamese-American students.

RICHIE HUYNH: "My name is Richie Huynh and I'm from Champlin Park High School, in Champlin. Minnesota, and the name of my team project is 'Alzheimer's Disease, brain atrophy and immunohistochemical detections of neurofibrillary tangles using multiple antibodies.'"

Richie's partner and identical twin brother Ryan said they came to their research topic through a chance contact at an international science fair, and he said that Alzheimer's Disease is a satisfying topic to study.

RYAN HUYNH: "Well both of us wanted to do research that would be pretty significant to society, and Alzheimer's Disease is something that's very significant and is also very emotional and it affects people on many different levels, including personal levels, and so we thought we would like to do research on Alzheimer's Disease."

Both Ryan and Richie are aiming for careers in medical research, and they seem to have made a good head start. Meanwhile, as high school students, like many of the others at February's AAAS meeting, they say a big challenge is balancing time-consuming research with the rest of their very busy lives.

Finally today: have you ever imagined that you were the last person on Earth? It's a common fantasy. But what if, suddenly, everyone really did vanish? That's what Alan Weisman wondered. He's the author of the best-selling book, "The World Without Us," published earlier this year. We began our conversation with an explanation of how all the people on earth might vanish.

WEISMAN: "Space aliens have taken us away to some zoo across the galaxy or some homo sapien-specific virus has picked us all off, left everything else. How would the world respond without our daily pressures. Do what extent could it possibly erase all our traces. How long would it take. What would the processes be."

Q: Well you mention Chernobyl as one real-world example. There was another one that I found quite captivating on the island of Cyprus. Can you describe what's happened when a little resort community on the shore has just simply been abandoned?

WEISMAN: "Well, we all know a lot about ancient ruins. We know about the ruins of Rome, for example. Cyprus gave me an opportunity to talk about modern ruins. There was a seaside resort that was built in the '70s by Greek Cypriots, and then the island, unfortunately, within a couple of years convulsed in civil war.

And after the truce that Greek Cypriot seaside resort called Varosha, which looks like any Riviera — you know, hotels lining the beach — that you've ever seen. It remained on the Turkish Cypriot side. The Turkish Cypriots put a barbed wire fence around it thinking, this would be a good bargaining chip because it was a valuable piece of real estate, you know once the island got down to talking about reunification and a truce. Well, that hasn't happened 32 years later, and the barbed wire is still there, and nobody goes in there, but you can't stop nature from invading.

And nature has been taking these modern buildings — reinforced concrete, glass, steel, the stuff that we make our cities out of these days — and trees are growing out of the rooftops, fields of flowers are in the streets. The buildings are still standing for the most part, though a lot of them are crumbling, but none of them are salvageable anymore.

Things go rather quickly when human beings are not maintaining them, and that's something that I learned throughout my research. It turns out that the oldest buildings on earth, you know, like St. Paul's Church that I mention in my book that's across from the World Trade Center [in New York], which is the oldest thing in Manhattan. It's made out of the Manhattan schist. Those things are going to last the longest because they're made out of the earth itself."

Q: Well, I was going to ask you a little bit later, but let's talk about that now. What will survive. If you take a look thousands, tens of thousands of years from now, what remnants of our civilization will be around for aliens or whoever comes after us.?

WEISMAN: "Well, even St. Paul's Church is going to go because eventually we will have another ice age again. We may have staved it off awhile with the carbon loading that we've perpetrated on the atmosphere and warmed things up a little bit, but the Earth periodically goes through a chill, and ice sheet will effectively level anything that's in its way including, I would imagine, Manhattan island.

Some stuff that will remain is some of the stuff that we've done underground. I've got a portion of this book in an underground city in Turkey. Probably that won't get scraped away and that will still be there. The Chunnel that connects France and England; it's on the same tectonic plate and it runs through a single geologic bed so there's a good chance that it'll be just buried. I talk about some of the — we oftentimes refer to them as wastes.

Plastics. Not even the plastic that's out there blowing around in landfills and finding its way to the sea where a lot of it finds its way to. But the fact is most of the plastic — virtually all the plastic except for a tiny fraction that's been incinerated, it's all still there. Microbes do not exist to biodegrade it yet. We all know that if you leave it out in the sun, some plastics are ultraviolet-sensitive and they will fragment. But all that means is, they're breaking up into little pieces. The plastic is still there, just some of the polymer bonds have broken. So plastics will be around for a long time.

Nuclear wastes, they're piling up and the depleted uranium's got a 4.6 billion year half life, so that's going to be around 'til the end of the Earth."

Alan Weisman, author of "The World Without Us."

He says that, even after our nuclear wastes have decayed, evidence of human civilization will continue, if not here on Earth, then in the two Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977 and now far beyond our Solar System, and in the faint echo of a century's worth of our television and radio transmissions — including this one.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This is our last show for 2007. We end the year with best wishes to each and every one of you for a Happy New Year and a great 2008 ahead from editor Rob Sivak, technical director Eva Nenicka and all of us here at VOA and Our World.

As usual, we welcome your comments. Email us at Or use the postal address —

Our World
Voice of America
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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 Our World.