ML 141213


Interview 9:46 - 39:22 Play 9:46 - More
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Thomas L. Sever  







Remote sensing; Archaeology  

Interview 1:24:00 - 1:40:34 Play 1:24:00 - More
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Video »
species »
Barry Chernoff  








NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
Apr 1999

  • Guatemala
  • Las Guacamayas Biological Research Station
  • 17.24667   -90.29306
    Recording TimeCode
  • 9:46 - 39:22
  • Guatemala
  • near Las Guacamayas Biological Research Station; San Pedro River
  • 17.24667   -90.29306
    Recording TimeCode
  • 1:24:00 - 1:40:34
  • Stereo
    Sampling Rate
  • 48kHz
    Bit Depth
  • 16-bit
    Equipment Note
  • Stereo=1; Split track; Decoded MS stereo

DAT: #2 Interview w/ Tom Sever

motor in back, voices in Spanish.

good: ambi of boat? Motor running.

Talking, reeling in line, 3:15 whoooa! More speaking in Spanish and motor of boat, talking 3:49 motor picks up to 5:30

5:31 motor cut off, speaking in background, moving around on boat, pulling up fish?

-what did it break?
-no got it!
-you the man!

Speaking in Spanish, motor back on. 7:35

Stop down then Split Track

talking to Tom Sever before start of int.

TS: Name¿Tom Sever¿

CJ: why does NASA need an archeologist?

TS: well we are looking at the earth using the remote sensing instrumentation¿what we are interested in is why did some of these cultures disappeared, for instance the Maya it appears that their collapse or disappearance is related to the deforestation of their environment - the question is might we be seeing that again with deforestation - can we see the same pattern in the archeological data comparing with the contemporary patterns we see today. 10:40

CJ: There¿s a bit of an irony in this bc the Mayans were apparently willing to create a dense pop in an area - fairly small area 2 million (TS: 3-4 million) people in a small area and yet for hundreds of year they were able to do that without slash and burn without cutting down the forest practices changed right and what happened?

TS: well that¿s what we `re trying to find out. They evidence is starting to come together at the time of the collapse the pollen data shows us that there are very little trees a lot of weed pollen - the question is is that deforestation related to the drought? The Maya as you indicated had successfully lived in the dense tropical forest for centuries with pop densities equivalent today to the most populated densities of Burma and chine and yet today the smaller pop threatens the landscape in two to three years while they were able to exist for centuries that¿s the type of info we would like to uncover - to understand how did they interact with their environment how were they managing their resources and they probably have laws to manage and protect their environment bc if they just did the traditional slash and burn12:15

TS: (repeats)bc if the Maya had not done something different¿

CJ: ¿do you really think that by studying the Maya¿keep it from happening again?

TS: Yes I do bc we see ethnic violence and a lot of this is bc of limited ability of the landscape to carry those populations at the time of the Maya collapse there appears to have been ethnic violence there was major warfare, cities fighting other cities and so yes I see the comparisons there and what are the factors what relates to those situations when we look at the growing pop on this planet - we have limited resources we either have to make more use of those resources or we have to reduce the population¿otherwise it will spiral to the same disaster that befell not only the Maya but many other cultures in prehistory.

So basically, take satellite images¿

walking to move to quieter place¿

TS: My name is Tom Sever¿My name is Tom Sever¿16:07

CJ: Why does NASA need a archeologist¿

TS: We¿re using the remote sensing instrumentation - the satellites and airborne sensors to locate prehistoric cultures and our purpose is to understand prehistoric environments and the interaction between people and their environments and to understand the dynamics of why some cultures succeeded and others failed - to try to apply that info from others today.

TS: we¿re trying to understand how they with pop densities comparable to the most densely populated area of China and Java how could they live in the ____ tropical forests for centuries when today a much smaller pop threatens the landscape in a few years.

Well how do you think they did it?

well that¿s what we¿re trying to understand - we think that the bajo system is one of the possibilities the bajo¿s make 40% of the land surface (a bajo is a seasonally flooded swamp) the low areas flood in the dry seasons they evaporate. With these incredible dense pop periods the bajo were used and they were used productively.

CJ: tie together what learning there and how relates to aqua wrap¿?

TS: well what we¿re trying to do with our remote sensing instrumentation is to map these species in the landscape and if you know the vegetation ..can interpret in greater detail - the hope is that you have a large regional analysis here and the small data points that are collected on the ground can be extrapolated outward to the whole region so that you get a better estimate to what¿s out there.


TS: They would be able to use this to understand where the forest is - they would be able to use this to understand the deforested areas and how these areas are encroaching upon their region of particular interest and be able to use the remote sensing data not only to understand what is there but to try to use it to prevent the encroachment into their area by being able to demonstrate visually to politicians and lawmakers what¿s happening to the landscape. 19:20

CJ: prospect for new biodiversity area?

TS: well that¿s our hope - especially in view of the new instruments that are on the horizon with better spectral and spatial resolution¿ well when we¿re talking about resolution currently we have a TM satellite overhead that has a 30 meter resolution it images the smallest thing, but there will be new instruments that will have 2-3-5 meter resolutions¿The narrower you can develop an instrument in the electromagnetic spectrum you can extrapolate greater info from that spectrum. For instance, if you have a broad spectrum three different types of trees might all be revealed in that. But if you have three narrower spectrums you might be able to discriminate more clearly esp ¿when you merge this with radar which looks at the geometry of the plant leaf.20:32


TS: no, the species it gives us a classification and then the ground trooping by botanists tells us what the species is¿so many diff species on top of each other so can¿t make long elaborate types of speculations¿

CJ: still have to muck around in the forest

TS: you always have to muck around - I the forest we have not taken remote sensing to the level that we can tell what¿s going on he ground.

CJ: so coming up this - NASA has much more ambitious program

TS: The meso-american biological corridor is the name of the project . it is an agreement between NASA and the central American commission on environment and dev¿and the idea is to map all of central America and find seven intensive sights within that large areas to do intensive studies as seen here by the wrap team. The idea is to have resulting info that will tell us where is the best place to create a corridor that will allow panthers to migrate and bird and animal species to migrate so that the narrow isthmus of central America can connect and continue to connect to north and south America to keep these species moving..

in addition other projects that we are looking at it vulnerability studies the same data can be applied to that for instance with the recent hurricane down there are a lot of landslides and the landscape is completely different and people need to be able to assess if a hurricane is coming in what do we need to do. And what types of slope do we need to main trees to so we don¿t have areas that are prone to mud sliding.

CJ: You are going to have these seven¿chosen on basis of what?

TS: recently, the NASA scientists and the central American scientists got together to discuss this very thing¿uh the first is the biological and botanical importance of the are and a limiting factor is how much remote sensing data is currently available¿and how much research has been conducted in the past that can give credit to the new info that is about to be developed so in working this kind of background collectively these seven sights were picked. For instance, one sight can be in three diff central am. Countries, so they¿ve already been picked¿topography

TS: well the radar is its own light source and its a very precise measurement that goes down¿the instrumentation has been designed and developed to give very accurate topographic readings over these areas so we can look at the top of the forest canopy and it all looks natural and fine but we can¿t see the two to three meter differences in ¿height.

TS: ¿talking about Maya causeways¿to 26:02

CJ¿See through clouds..?

TS: one of the first things we¿re going to do¿we¿re going to do a Japanese radar of entire isthmus of central America¿

CJ: what are the seven sights?

Talks about sights do not have to be contiguous¿this is a very energetic project

CJ: how long?

TS: the agreement between NASA and central America is for five years and our initial project here is for three years with the idea that at the end of three years with the idea that at the end of the three years we will have a better view of where we need to go what instrumentation is available what are the research questions and what also are the political questions?


These studies have been conducted in Brazil and in Africa¿but central America has not had anywhere near the type of intensive researches we¿re about to see here.


TS: People are impressed with pictures, I can document that because when I started¿we were able to take that picture to president Serraso able to take¿if people can see what is happening to their landscape they¿re more prone to do something about it. as we drive or hike through¿if you were to get to that area¿.remote sensing shows entire area¿in other words can be used as monitoring device.

CJ: ¿images do more than words¿

TS: this is the thing I¿ve been doing with NASA for years¿ the bottom line is that when people see pictures they tend to go wow! I didn¿t know that. And even thought they had been in an area for some time they didn¿t understand that this type of images were apparent from overhead and this is what the landscape looks from overhead.

CJ: you¿re an old Peten hand?

TS: 13 years now.

CJ: Most of that time spent walking riding in Peten¿ how would you describe it for people who have never been there?

TS:Ah, the forest is just absolutely enchanting when you walk through it it¿s just overwhelming. It¿s just gorgeous. To hear all the birds singing and the animals moving and to hear a jaguar at night to hear the howler monkeys calling. To see so many different species living harmoniously together in such a pristine beautiful environment. Aesthetic is the only word. Gorgeous . It fills me with contentment when I¿m riding through there. When I leave my office in NASA a lot of times a lot of things are going on a lot of computer analysis. And after a couple of days of working in the field you find you¿re in tune with yourself again. you understand who you are versus what you do. That¿s the part that¿s hard for people to know. The part by coming here you get in touch with yourself again.

CJ: I wonder when you¿re sitting around the cafeteria at NASA talking about building a new Space Station or new propulsion systems. What do you talk about with them?

TS: It¿s actually the same thing. Man¿s a tropical creature who¿s invaded every habit successfully and now we¿re going into the most dangerous habitat of all. We will do the colonization. We will have settlement patterns. It¿s the same types of analytical techniques archaeologists use to understand past cultures can be applied to the colonization of space. In fact a lot of anthropologists have done studies like this. One of the books that was written, for instance, was a collection of different authors, different anthropologists - called Intrastellar Migration and the Human Experience. It talks about the settling of the Pacific and Pitcairn Island and where just a few individual blossomed into rather large populations and the problems they encountered with one another and the social structures. These are the types of things I would lie to see us do at some point. Apply these as we look at the settlement of Mars and the Moon.

TS: Other things we talk about is I work with a lot of remote sensing specialists: geologists, people conduct urban studies. They¿re seeing, for instance, in different cities in the U.S. the heat island effect of the heat building up. What we have in common is that we¿re all interested in the future of the planet and the future of the human species. And the conversations we share are the statistics we use to drive better information, the types of bandwidths, the types of sensors, the technical information the computer implementation analysis. That¿s what we talk a lot about.

CJ: back on the Patan. gettin¿ bit?
Wanted to get your emotional response when you were talking about the rain forest and about the biodiversity of it and hearing the animals. You¿re one of those people who may not recognize the plants and yet all of a sudden you stumble upon a Mayan Temple or courtyard in the middle of the jungle. What¿s that like?

TS: it¿s exciting. It¿s always fascinating. And in this region it¿s somewhat expected and you wonder what happened to these people. How did such a wealthy ingenious civilization who made accomplishments in engineering and astronomy and in obviously in the management of the landscape. How it could of failed and what were those last days like. And when I walk up the steps of a structure, a temple, I think ¿once there stood here a man like man, no different. And had I been born at a different time I could of walked up these stairways and perhaps and perhaps sometime in the future where I work in the building I walk around in and perhaps they will be overgrown and someone in the future
will walk there and wonder about me. But the thing I¿m trying to understand is what happened here in this area because this area needs to be used for current inhabitants. So if we can figure out how the Mayas successfully used it we can make great applications today. We can figure out what are the best areas to protect for the botanical species and what are the best areas for humans to use for their agricultural practices.

And the type of agriculture practices that will be the least destructive?
Right, exactly.

TS: How were they rotating crops . how were they irrigating. Were they conserving water. Water is a big issue in this area, The question is were the Bajos?, always perennially swamps that someone silted in. how did they become Bajos. this is another research question that we¿re working with Nick dunning and Pat Colbert¿to try to figure out what was the environment like before the Mayans were here and what was it like as they were here and did it change quickly at first and did they change their approach in the centuries they¿re after

CJ¿may take a long time¿have enough time?

TS: oh, that¿s we¿re always in a race against time but I believe so if I didn¿t I wouldn¿t get up in the morning wouldn¿t show up early at work and what¿s wonderful about this wrap trip I¿m on here is that there¿s optimists all over the place. Around me and we¿re all optimists its rare that you have opt in one group at the same time but yes I think we have enough time and I think we have good people and the archeological info will come out and people are starting to share information and their starting to understand more about the landscape and they¿re changing some hypotheses that have existed in the past and yes I think we will soon know how the bajos may have been used and at least we ill understand better what the environment is like around here so that we¿re not accidentally making mistakes.

CJ: anything you want to add?

TS: the protection of the archeological sights is synonymous with the protection of the rainforest bc when an area is deforested the sights are destroyed. The heat pulverizes the limestone and the rains wash the sight away. The new cleared landscape allows looters to come in more easily and destroy the archeological info the info we are looking for to understand how things worked in the past. In addition to that the protection of the archeological sites are a resource that can be used for the tourism industry c you can build roads to archeological sights where a person can see monkeys swinging in the trees above them¿and still see the science and the archeology of an area and feel the temperatures and the breezes and that¿s why I think it would be important as a monetary resource the protection of the areas.


Ambi for interview (ambi. in stereo, int. in split track).

footsteps, walking towards mic

generic Guacamayas Ambi, sawing, working in camp, kitchen, someone singing, guitar, whistling, birds¿hammering¿¿generic camp activity¿
break in recording 57:17

Ambi under shelter in tent area.

under tent, lifting wind fly to get ambi w/o wind, a lot of bird sounds, motor in background.

more wind, singing and guitar very faint in background.

sound of zipper on tent, coming out of tent

Another five minutes out of tent, under shelter, birds, wind around
1:09:13 wind picks up 1:09:57, 1:10:01 ¿pops¿ also at 1:10:17;1:10:19.
1:10:58 hammering, voices in background.1:13:29 wind picks up again.

@1:18:00-1:19:00 airplane

LM: Mack¿s ¿New and improved¿ (?) windscreen, wind, moving equip. around.

LM checking mics. problem with channels

1:22:26 Spanish, walking

(BC = Barry Chernoff)

BC: this is patania for sure whether its another species or not¿color phase¿

CJ: What would cause it to have that color?

BC: well a lot of these reds come from eating crustaceans, shrimps and bugs¿and these are social species where they use coloration and their breeding behaviors and they have all sorts of ritual behaviors a¿very possible a perfect a good breeding color for a male and it is the genus patania¿it¿s a beaut! It¿s about 14-15 inches and weighs a couple of pounds¿notice how long they can swing that head out¿you can see that you can see the bones sliding up over the skull and you can see it in that flap of flesh¿the upper jaw , it¿s really huge, no this is a beauty a real beauty.

CJ well let¿s cut it up.

Speaking in Spanish

BC: he¿s saying he¿s asking me if this is not an albino

two continue to converse in Spanish.

BC: we¿ll make some photos of this and it will make a beautiful specimen and we¿ll make some dissections

--CJ: do you do that here?

--BC: yeah, yeah

--CJ: when do you start cutting?

--BC: after it sits for about a day we¿ll have to see the state of maturation

--BC: he¿s saying that he¿s never seen one this color without spots on the side of the body but sometime they express them or they don¿t depending¿

--BC: he¿s saying a xanthic¿

--we don¿t know much about this one¿

talking about blancos

BC: but you notice they have the same red to rose coloration around the throat. Um and but this does not express any of the black spots around the eyes¿

touching fish

talking about leeches¿

talking about finding camera.

Speaking in Spanish¿

taking and talking about pictures, snapping sounds

BC: have cut the patania open¿two females

CJ: how can you tell?

BC: Ovaries and these are the eggs¿these two are females and they are loaded with eggs but now let¿s see what this orange colored thing is. Our prediction was that it was a male, an alpha male, so we make a slit on the right hand side we maintain the left facing in one direction we maintain the left side of the fish to take all the characteristics to do on science on and any of the dissections we do on the right hand side of the fish so we make a section here to expose the belly and we look in here and these things here are testes, right here this big white mass are testes, so this is the hypothesis is standing that this could be an alpha male.

CJ: Is there anything else you look for?

BC: normally I look around to see if there are any types of liver flukes and parasites and I don¿t see any the only thing I¿m seeing are these leeches like here, there¿s a leech sitting here on the pectoral fin. It¿s expanding along the fin rays now¿

BC: so that¿s what we do (nvg quality fluctuating) so I¿m going to return them to the liquid now¿this is probably remember this from bio days- the bad smell, 10% formalin solution kills the bacteria and keeps the fish from self-digesting¿talking about preserving fish to 1:39:20

Back near water to catch more fish.

BC: you see all of these mollies and guppy relatives well this is one that¿s turned piecesiverous¿and look at the teeth¿and its uh we saw one swimming around with a fish about have as big as it¿this is also a male, this structure here is a modification of the anal fin modified fin raise¿put it inside the female and deliver sperm.

BC: did you ever see one of those, ever handle on of them? Talking more about specimen, throw it back¿

Speaking in Spanish mics getting bumped around.

motor startup and creaking of boat.
People conversing in Spanish

moving around on boat¿

BC: we have to go out around the trees¿oh you want to go upstream okay, downstream is easier¿

BC: This is prob. Four feet down and there are two lines¿and uh the lead line there¿s leads that¿s what you here hitting the boat¿and there are floats at the top¿mono-filament inside¿fish swim inside and get tangled up¿get different picture of what¿s living along these places where we can¿t pull these normal beach strands¿

¿yeah going across the river is a great idea but ¿other boats would cut net.

BC: okay forward, a bit forward and in.

BC Giving directions

BC: so what we have to do is go a bit upstream we don¿t want to put too much pressure on the net cause you see all these trees, they¿re sticking out and that will push the net into ¿and they¿ll break.

Motor startup

BC: so this is three¿this is the third station¿so we¿ve recorded the longitudes and latitudes and we¿ll come back¿


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