The Endangered Species Act, which turns 40 on Saturday, helped bring back iconic species such as the wolf, grizzly bear and bald eagle, after hunting, trapping and pesticides almost wiped those animals out.
But a very different kind of threat — global warming — is pushing some species like the polar bear to the brink of extinction.
One government biologist discovered the best way he could help save polar bears was to quit his job.
Thirty-four wildland firefighters died in the line of duty this year. Some of those fatalities were isolated incidents, but one event captured the nation's attention, sparking a larger conversation about the new dangers firefighters face.
That event unfolded in central Arizona the afternoon of June 30, a Sunday.
"I'm here with Granite Mountain Hot Shots. Our escape route has been cut off," says a crew boss on recently released radio traffic from the Yarnell Hill Fire. "We are preparing a deployment site, and I'll give you a call when we are under the shelters.
It's not been a good year for Florida's citrus industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that, for the second year running, the orange crop is expected to be almost 10 percent lower than the previous year.
The culprit is citrus greening, a disease that has devastated Florida's oranges and grapefruits, and has now begun to spread in Texas and California.
North Dakota and western Canada are producing crude oil faster than it can be shipped to refineries.
Rail car manufacturers can't make new tank cars fast enough, and new pipeline proposals face long delays over environmental concerns. So energy companies are looking for new ways to get the heavy crude to market.
One proposed solution is to ship the oil by barge over the Great Lakes — but it's a controversial one.
Earthquake scientists on the West Coast would like to build a system that would give people a bit of warning before they get jolted with strong shaking from a distant quake.
Seismic waves take time to travel from the epicenter, which means such a warning system could issue alerts ranging from a few seconds to a few minutes. A prototype has been developed for the region, seismologists say, but the complete network still lacks funding, and has big gaps outside cities.
Meanwhile, Japan already has something like that up and running.
The nation's capital is not exactly a beach town. But the cherry-tree-lined Tidal Basin, fed by the Potomac River, laps at the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. And, especially since Superstorm Sandy, officials in Washington have a clear idea of what would happen in a worst-case storm scenario.
"The water would go across the World War II memorial, come up 17th Street," says Tony Vidal of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "And there are actually three spots where the water would come up where we don't have ... a closure structure right now."
And in these last days of 2013 we've been having conversations about the future. Rather than grand predictions, we've been seeking a realistic assessment of what lies ahead. So far we've explored cybersecurity, we've looked at the changing electorate. When it comes to climate change, the topic for today, Andrew Steer of the World Resources Institute told my colleague Steve Inskeep that the trends don't look very good.
The California Public Utilities Commission has called on utilities and private companies to install about $5 billion worth of batteries and other forms of energy storage to help the state power grid cope with the erratic power supplied by wind and solar energy.
The need to store energy has become urgent because the state is planning to get a third of its electricity from renewable sources by the end of the decade. And the shift in strategy could open up some big opportunities for small startups, including one called Stem.
As the year winds down, we here at NPR are looking at a few key numbers that explain the big trends of 2013.
Today's number: 1.6 million.
That's 1.6 million acres — about the area of the state of Delaware.
That's how much land was removed this year from the federal Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, which pays farmers to keep land covered with native grasses or sometimes trees. Most of that land now will produce crops like corn or wheat.
A plate of Sweet Jesus oysters grown in Chesapeake Bay by Hollywood Oyster Co. in Hollywood, Md.
Credit Katy Adams / Courtesy Clyde's Restaurant Group
David Schulte, a marine biologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, developed a small reef area to provide a habitat for oysters in one of the Chesapeake Bay's tributaries. It's one of several public-private efforts aimed at restoring the bay's oysters. <a href="http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129452345">Read more</a> about that project.
Originally published on Fri December 20, 2013 12:44 pm
The history of the Chesapeake Bay oyster hasn't always been a pure one. So you could forgive a chef for being skeptical about the big bivalve comeback being staged in D.C. and the surrounding area this winter as oyster season gets underway.
But many mid-Atlantic chefs are actually cheering. That's because a major public-private effort to re-establish the oyster as a quality local food product — as well as a weapon against water pollution — seems to be working.
Crude oil from Canada's tar sands is providing a booming business for American refineries, but residents of one Chicago neighborhood complain that a byproduct of that business has become a health hazard. They want towering mounds of a dusty substance known as petroleum coke, or petcoke, moved out of the city. And as NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, Chicago is now requiring one company storing the substance to do just that.
Somali refugees lead their herds of goats home for the night outside Dadaab, Kenya. A new study shows that animals in many parts of the developing world require more food — and generate more greenhouse emissions — than animals in wealthy countries.
Originally published on Tue December 17, 2013 11:53 am
To feed all 7 billion of us, address climate change and live longer, we all need to eat less meat. From Al Gore to the Meatless Monday movement to Harvard epidemiologists, that's been the resounding advice offered to consumers lately.
California is regarded as the leading state when it comes to addressing climate change. But in 2012, according to analysts at Rhodium Group, California's carbon emissions actually increased more than 10 percent, bucking the national trend of decreases. That's in large part because California shut down one of its few remaining nuclear power plants.
That rise in carbon emissions underscores the huge impact nuclear power can have in efforts to combat climate change.
Tiny plastic beads used in some cosmetics and toothpaste are making their way into the bellies of fish in the Great Lakes, and it's raising concern among environmentalists. Dr. Sherri Mason, a chemistry professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia, has been researching the issue, and she joins Audie Cornish to explain what this means for the Great Lakes ecosystem.
Originally published on Mon December 16, 2013 10:38 am
We've long known that the fish we eat are exposed to toxic chemicals in the rivers, bays and oceans they inhabit. The substance that's gotten the most attention — because it has shown up at disturbingly high levels in some fish — is mercury.
The North America's grizzly bear is protected under the Endangered Species Act. Its population was virtually wiped out in the lower 48 states. One group of bears, though, may soon lose that protection - the Yellowstone grizzly. Some scientists say that group is thriving. Others disagree. NPR's Christopher Joyce has more on the battle over the bear.
The citrus industry is facing a crisis. It's called citrus greening — a disease that has devastated orange production in Florida since it first showed up eight years ago. Now the U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced a new effort to try to control the disease before it destroys the nation's citrus industry.
Two agricultural scientists from China have been accused of trying to steal patented seeds from a biopharmaceutical company in Kansas.
Separately, six men from China, including the CEO of a seed corn subsidiary of a Chinese conglomerate, were charged Thursday with conspiring to steal patented seed corn from two of the nation's leading seed developers, prosecutors said Thursday, according to The Associated Press.
It wasn't immediately clear if the arrests were related, but The AP wrote of the group of six charged:
Hurricane Sandy last year did more harm to coastal cities and homes than any hurricane in U.S. history, except Katrina. Most of that damage has been repaired. But there's other damage that people can't see to the underwater coastline, known as the shore face.
Apparently, Long Island's shore face did remarkably well against the storm of the 21st century.
Scientists think there are vast reserves of fresh groundwater buried under the oceans — a potentially valuable resource for coastal cities that need freshwater.
A recent report in Nature estimates the amount of fresh groundwater around the world at about 120,000 cubic miles — that's 100 times more than all the groundwater that has been pumped up from wells since the 1900s. The reserves are scattered across coastal regions around the world.
Originally published on Sun December 15, 2013 10:59 am
Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians have agreed to a water-sharing pact that would see the construction of a desalination plant on the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea and bring "a long-awaited Red Sea-Dead Sea pipeline one step closer to completion," according to Reuters.
When the U.S., Canadian, and Mexican governments were negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement back in the 1990s, environmentalists warned that it would create a race to the bottom: Countries would compete to gut environmental rules to attract businesses. But by and large, those fears were not realized. Still, the trade deal had other unforeseen environmental consequences.
Northern shrimp are shoveled into a holding chamber on a trawler in the Gulf of Maine in 2012. Stocks of the shrimp have been declining for several years, leading regulators to cancel the New England shrimping season.
Credit Robert F. Bukaty / AP
Chefs Andrew Taylor, left, and Mike Wiley, co-owners of two Portland, Maine, restaurants, say the moratorium is worth it if it helps sustain the shrimp population.
New England chefs like Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley are still coming to terms with the news: No more shrimp until further notice.
This week, regulators shut down the New England fishery for Gulf of Maine shrimp for the first time in 35 years. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission judged the stocks of the popular shrimp, also known as northern shrimp, to be dangerously low.
Ice and snow across much of the country have meant that hundreds of flights have been canceled and many more delayed this week. But what I'm about to say may sound strange - it is true - the ski industry is worried that climate change is making winters too warm. For more, we spoke with Auden Schendler, who is vice president of sustainability at the Aspen Skiing Company.
In the latest smog-related health scare in China, officials in Shanghai on Friday ordered schoolchildren to stay indoors, halted all construction and even delayed flights in and out of the city, which has been enveloped in a thick blanket of haze, reducing visibility in places to less than 150 feet.
NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Shanghai that the commercial capital's Air Quality Index soared above 500 for the first time ever, according to government sensors. He says officials described the readings as "beyond index" — in layman's terms, off-the-charts awful.