Environment

Twenty years ago, one of the strongest hurricanes ever to hit the U.S. changed the face of South Florida.

Hurricane Andrew wiped out communities south of Miami, killing 15 people when it struck in 1992. Dozens more died from injuries stemming from the storm and its aftermath.

Adjusted for inflation, the 1992 storm was, after Katrina, the second costliest storm in U.S. history. It also changed how we forecast and respond to hurricanes.

First of a five-part series

The history of fire in the American Southwest is buried in a catacomb of rooms under the bleachers of the football stadium at the University of Arizona.

Here rules professor Thomas Swetnam, tree ring expert. You want to read a tree ring? You go to Tom. He's a big, burly guy with a beard and a true love for trees.

The food world is buzzing today about the latest news on just how often we waste perfectly good food. And we admit, the statistics are pretty depressing.

About 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten. The average American consumer wastes 10 times as much food as someone in Southeast Asia — up 50 percent from Americans in the 1970s. Yet, 1 in 6 Americans doesn't have enough to eat, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And food waste costs us about $165 billion a year and sucks up 25 percent of our freshwater supply.

Ten years ago, a piece of ice the size of Rhode Island disintegrated and melted in the waters off Antarctica. Two other massive ice shelves along the Antarctic Peninsula had suffered similar fates a few years before. The events became poster children for the effects of global warming. But a new study finds that the story isn't quite so simple.

There's no question that unusually warm air triggered the final demise of these huge chunks of ice. But a lingering question is whether these events can be attributed to human-induced global warming.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Parts of the country have suffered from record heat and drought for several years in a row now, and this summer, it's been just brutal. In past programs, we talked with farmers about their crops. Today, we focus on difficult choices facing ranchers and dairy farmers.

In the backyard of an unassuming suburban home in Bethlehem, Pa., is a global cornucopia of botanical heritage. Almost 300 varieties of fig grow here, most of them with roots in Europe, Asia or Africa, and each one collected and propagated by Bassem Samaan, a 34-year-old Lebanese native with an unusually green thumb and an obsession with figs.

Samaan is one of a handful of eccentric gardeners around the world whose goal is to save and preserve rare or unusual fruit varieties — trees that may never have commercial value and which may barely cling to existence.

A federal court has rejected a rule that would have regulated air pollution that blows from one state to the next. The ruling puts a damper on the Obama administration's efforts to reduce asthma, heart disease and other ailments related to air pollution. States and utilities asserted that the rules overstepped the EPA's authority under the Clean Air Act.

While many cities around the country grapple with drought and excessive heat this year, city planners in Boston have something else on their minds: the prospect of rising water.

In this coastal metropolis, scientists and computer models predict that climate change could eventually lead to dramatic increases in sea level around the city. Coupled with a storm surge at high tide, parts of the city could easily end up under water.

All the dry weather means there's less water flowing through the once mighty river into the Gulf of Mexico, and low outflow means saltwater from the Gulf is creeping in.

Some Louisiana cities have already begun purchasing drinking water. Now New Orleans is at risk.

Cities may be the defining element of human civilization.

The path from hunter-gatherers in the Paleolithic era 25,000 years ago to the high-tech, high-wonder jumble we inhabit today runs straight through cities. In traveling that path, our construction of cities has always been a dance with physics. In some cases, that physics was explicitly understood; in others, its manifestation was only recognized in hindsight.

As our cities have become more complex the physics embodying their behavior and organization has also become more nuanced, subtle and profound.

From Congress to The Colbert Report, people are talking about the Midwestern drought and debating whether it makes sense to convert the country's shrinking corn supplies into ethanol to power our cars.

It's the latest installment of the long-running food vs. fuel battle.

Wind and solar get lots of attention, but another kind of renewable power actually creates more energy in our country — wood. The state of Massachusetts on Friday decided that these plants aren't green enough to get some special breaks.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A few decades ago, a hamburger was just a yummy sandwich.

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FLORA LICHTMAN, HOST:

You might take that sound for granted. I know I do. That's because most of us hear it all the time, at least in this country. Toilets are everywhere here in the U.S. But a lot of people around the world don't hear that sound every day, because two-and-a-half billion people, with the B, don't have a safe, sanitary place to go to the bathroom, according to the World Health Organization.

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FLORA LICHTMAN, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Flora Lichtman. We're in the midst of the worst drought in over 50 years. Water tables are dropping faster than they can be replenished, and at the same time an op-ed in the New York Times today says that the United States is estimated to lose about one in six gallons, one in six gallons of clean water every day due to leaky pipes in the ground.

Sometime in the next few months, David Daniel probably will have to stand by and watch as bulldozers knock down his thick forest and dig up the streams he loves.

His East Texas property is one of more than 1,000 in the path of a new pipeline, the southern stretch of what is known as the Keystone XL system.

For years, Daniel has tried to avoid this fate — or at least figure out what risks will come with it. But it has been difficult for him to get straight answers about the tar sands oil the pipeline will carry, and what happens when it spills.

Focusing On Fish In Knoxville, Tenn.

Aug 16, 2012

I work for a company called Conservation Fisheries. It's a 20-year-old nonprofit based in Knoxville that focuses on the conservation of rare freshwater fish, such as chubs, darters, madtoms and minnows.

It's been a record hot summer in many cities across the nation. Phoenix is no exception. This Sonoran Desert metropolis already records more days over 100 degrees than any other major U.S. city. Now, climate models predict Phoenix will soon get even hotter.

A hotter future may mean a more volatile environment — and along with it, natural disasters, greater pressure on infrastructure, and an increased physical toll on city residents.

After Japan's Fukushima disaster last year, Germany announced a groundbreaking energy plan: It would phase out all of its domestic nuclear power in a decade and make a transition to safer, carbon neutral energy.

The goal is to have solar, wind and other renewables account for nearly 40 percent of the energy for Europe's largest economy in a decade, and 80 percent by 2050.

Science journalist Michael Lemonick doesn't want to be a doomsday prophet, but he does want to be realistic about the threat of climate change. "Since I started writing about climate change all the way back in 1987, we've known what the cause is, we've known what the likely outcome is, and we've had time to act — and essentially we haven't acted," he tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies.

A federal investigation into two researchers who wrote a famous report on drowned polar bears is finally over, according to their lawyer.

But the scientists still haven't been allowed to see a copy of the investigation report or its conclusions, says attorney Jeff Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Critics have charged that the two-year investigation was a witch hunt into researchers whose work had political implications.

A New Species Discovered ... On Flickr

Aug 11, 2012

One day in May of 2011, Shaun Winterton was looking at pictures of bugs on the Internet when something unusual caught his eye.

It was a close shot of a green lacewing — an insect he knew well — but on its wing was an unfamiliar network of black lines and a few flecks of blue.

Winterton, a senior entomologist at the California Department of Food and Agriculture, has seen a lot of bugs. But he hadn't seen this species before.

Saplings — no more than 6 feet tall — dot the landscape in Joplin, Mo. They replace the large shade trees that were ripped out of the ground by a massive tornado that swept through town in May of 2011.

Nearly 7,000 new trees, donated by various organizations, have been planted. They include sturdy, mostly native, varieties, such as oak, sycamore and redbud — trees that can withstand strong winds when they're taller.

With temperatures above normal for the past few months and precipitation below normal, those trees have had a hard time taking root.

In the West, in Idaho's arid, high desert, the drought has a mixed effect. There's a big divide between farmers with deep wells and irrigation and those without.

Hans Hayden is a rare find: a talkative farmer. He likes to explain things. But when it comes to the wheat he planted this spring, there's not much to say. This field needed rain. It didn't get it.

"At this point in time, it kind of looks like a desert," he says.

Sharks are some of the most feared and fascinating animals on the planet. They've had their own week of awareness-raising and celebration on the Discovery Channel for the last 25 years. But some say they are also delicious — as in the Chinese delicacy — shark fin soup.

Faced with a booming population and a disappearing water supply, the city of San Antonio responded by dramatically cutting consumption, pioneering new storage techniques and investing in water recycling and desalination projects. It now boasts that it is "Water's Most Resourceful City."

There are so many programs and projects that Chuck Ahrens of Water Resources and Conservation with the San Antonio Water System can hardly keep track.

Fossils discovered in East Africa suggest that Homo erectus, the species believed to be humans' direct ancestor, may have shared Earth with two genetically distinct but similar species. Some paleontologists believe that these species may be distant relatives to modern humans, while others need more evidence.

Healing The Bay In Santa Monica, Calif.

Aug 9, 2012

Clean is a relative term, says Eveline Bravo, programs manager for Heal the Bay, a nonprofit pro-environment organization hellbent on restoring Santa Monica Bay.

"There's so much Styrofoam and plastic and it's hard to feel like you're not just making small dents."

Yet every third Saturday, Bravo — along with hundreds of other volunteers — shows up at designated beaches with buckets in hand.

Nature Comes Into Full View On Twitter

Aug 9, 2012

On Sunday, I went swimming in the Atlantic Ocean at Virginia Beach. As I swam along laterally, in the trough between two lines of waves, I daydreamed about how far those waves had traveled and which other animal species had encountered them along the way.

Second of a two-part series. Read Part 1.

Modern architecture's love affair with tall glass buildings takes a toll. Every year, millions of birds crash into glass windows in North America.

These collisions may seem like an intractable problem. But in New York City, an architect is trying to find a solution.

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