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Several cities in Peru are underwater, and the 'coastal El Niño' isn't done yet

Tue, 21 Mar 2017 16:57:10 -0400

Peru is expected to experience another two weeks of highly unusual torrential rains, which have already caused devastating floods along large swaths of its arid coast, destroying homes and crops and killing an estimated 75 people.

The precipitation has been caused by what scientists call a “coastal El Niño,” a localized version of the hemispherewide condition. Unusually warm waters just off the Andean nation’s Pacific shore — up to 50 degrees warmer than normal — have triggered the rains in the world’s second-highest mountain range.

The extreme runoff has, in turn, caused devastating problems, above all in Peru’s northern regions, particularly Piura, near the frontier with Ecuador. Downtown areas of several cities, including Piura, and Trujillo, which is Peru’s second-largest urban center, have been underwater for days now. 

Meanwhile, up to half a million people have been severely affected. They include some of Peru’s poorest, who made the fatal mistake of squatting on land beside gulches and canyons that open from the Andes onto the coastal plane.

These areas may have been bone-dry for years and even decades. In the space of a few short hours last week, they suddenly turned into raging torrents, sweeping away entire shantytowns, and, in some cases, their residents along with them.

In one memorable scene captured on a cellphone video, a woman emerged from a landslide covered in mud after being swept two miles from the field where she was working.

Evangelina Chamorro Díaz was subsequently released from the hospital with only minor physical injuries, although she was said to have been traumatized by the ordeal, during which she expected to die.

Ironically, in the capital, Lima, the problem ended up being too little water, rather than too much. SEDAPAL, the local water authority, saw its treatment plants overwhelmed by unprecedented volumes of water, heavy with sediment, debris and trash.

As a result, water supplies in this city of 10 million people were cut almost entirely, without notice, from Thursday evening to Monday afternoon. That prompted long queues in the 80-degree heat as municipal water trucks stopped at street corners to fill buckets, bottles and even plastic bathtubs for locals. There were some reports of scuffles and fights in some of the worst-affected neighborhoods.

There has also been a rush on bottled water in supermarkets while the prices of some food staples have soared, with roads into Lima and other major population centers along the coast having been cut off.

The government of President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski appears to have responded well to the crisis, with ministers promptly fanning out to the affected areas. Meanwhile, the president, widely known here as PPK, has been sending out text messages to all of the country’s cellphone users.

Those messages implore people to use water responsibly and promise that both electricity and food supplies will be unaffected. “Stay calm,” the president urged on Tuesday.

Many more affluent Peruvians have also been donating clothing, food and bottled water for those who have lost their homes. As the rains continue, Peru’s ability to respond to this national crisis will likely be tested even further. 

Residents cross a flooded street after a massive landslide and flood in Trujillo, northern Peru, on March 19, 2017. 

Douglas Juarez/Reuters 


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Russia agrees with Trump. The hacking investigation is a ‘witch hunt.’

Tue, 21 Mar 2017 15:53:57 -0400

If much of the US was transfixed by the sight on Monday of two of America’s top intelligence officials sitting in Congress, addressing allegations of Russian meddling in the US elections, the Kremlin claimed it had better things to do. “We have many concerns in the Kremlin and following that [debate] isn’t one of them,” said presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “New information we’re not hearing and doubtfully will hear,” said Peskov, who went on to compare the hearings to a “broken record” being played ad nauseum. “It’s an internal American issue,” added Peskov. “Our relationship to all this hysteria is well known.” Indeed, while a growing list of Trump administration officials have struggled to recall past contacts with Russian officials, the Kremlin has been consistent in its response to the hacking charges emanating from Washington. In a word: deny. There was Vladimir Putin in September insisting that “Russia on a state level has never practiced” cyber intrusions. (Putin also insisted that sharing the contents of hacked emails was a public service.) There was spokesman Peskov, in October, calling allegations of Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee computer infrastructure simply “nonsense.” And there was Putin, in his annual press conference in December, dismissing allegations Russian hacking tipped the election in Donald Trump’s favor, or that Russia colluded with Trump campaign officials along the way. US Democrats who accuse Russia of such things, said Putin, “are looking for someone outside to blame.” The Russian leader went on to note that Democratic candidates lost big in election contests in the Congress and Senate as well.    “Is that also our work, my work?” asked Putin. Yahoo, too Just last week, the Kremlin was at it again — denying charges by the FBI that its intelligence agents were involved in the hacking of millions of Yahoo users' email accounts.   Spokesman Peskov said Russia had only learned of the indictments of its agents and two other men through the media, and hoped US officials would soon shed light on the charges. Peskov added that Russia had never been involved in any illegal state-sponsored hacking — lest anyone need reminding.  Better days Donald Trump’s victory in the November election was heralded by many in Moscow as an opportunity: After years of deeply antagonistic relations with the Obama administration, a chance for a Trump White House to cooperate with the Kremlin on a host of issues, including Syria and the fight against global terror. Even sanctions relief over Russia’s actions in Ukraine was considered within the realm of possibility.    Already, much has changed. Under pressure from the multiple investigations into Russia’s interference during the US election, top Trump administration officials — from Vice President Mike Pence to the secretaries of state and sefense, as well as the ambassador to the United Nations — have all pulled back on suggestions of a quick pivot in relations with Russia. Moreover, FBI Director James Comey’s testimony now makes clear the administration must deal with the fallout of an open-ended investigation into the Russia election issue, including questions over possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. On Tuesday, even Kremlin spokesman Peskov acknowledged the tough road ahead.   "It's doubtful to consider [the hearings] constructive in the development of joint relations," noted Peskov, speaking to journalists in Moscow.   Time and again, Russian officials have portrayed the congressional investigations as attempts by Trump's enemies in Washington to derail at any cost the president’s calls for improved US-Russian relations. Even President Trump seemed to acknowledge the potential constraints the election scandal presented to détente with Moscow during his first official press conference last month. "Probably Putin assumes that he’s not going to be able to make a deal with me because it’s politically not popular [...]


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The pros and cons of 'gene drives'

Mon, 20 Mar 2017 15:45:28 -0400

Scientists have used genetics to alter mosquito populations for several decades, to try to eliminate diseases such as malaria and more recently Zika. But these efforts — when they've worked at all — have only partially addressed the problem.

Now, scientists want to use a powerful new technology with the potential to change or wipe out an entire species of mosquito. The key tool is something called a "gene drive." These alter genes so that, when the insects reproduce, they actually change the entire gene pool. In some cases, gene drives could successfully eliminate a species. This is one of the approaches being prepared by scientists in a small village in Burkina Faso called Bana, a place where malaria is a huge problem.

Read more: A revolutionary genetic experiment is coming to rural Burkina Faso

"What gene drive does, is, it takes advantage of the chemistry in the cell so that all of the offspring from a parent carrying that copy will inherit that gene," says Professor Gregory Lanzaro, director of the Mosquito Research Laboratory at the University of California, Davis. "So, it allows us to introduce genetic material into a wild population and have the frequency of that material approach 100 percent." 

But — releasing a gene drive into the wild has never been done before. What could go wrong with this untested approach? And what might be the domino effects of eliminating entire species, even if they're pesky insects? Those are still big, open questions.

There are environmentalists and researchers who are worried about the risks. Last year, a ban on gene drives was proposed at a United Nations biodiversity convention, but governments largely rejected the idea. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace and GeneWatch plan to continue to challenge the use of gene drives in the wild and to propose greater regulation of the technology.

Lanzaro, who does genetic experiments on mosquitos in Africa in an effort to combat malaria, says the research happening in Burkina Faso does have its risks — but he contends they are probably minimal.

"If we remove the mosquito from the environment, there could be impacts on organisms that are feeding on those and the possibility that the transgene could move into nontarget species," Lanzaro says.


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Trump budget cements pivot away from US climate leadership

Thu, 16 Mar 2017 16:14:53 -0400

President Donald Trump’s proposed budget marks a sweeping shift in domestic environmental policy and a decisive sign that US international leadership on climate change has ended. The first draft of a 2018 budget, released by the White House on Thursday, would cancel funding for climate change research and United Nations climate programs. It would also chop funds for enforcing the Clean Power Plan, a rule that would have cut emissions from the electricity sector. Both the UN funding and the Clean Power Plan — key measures from President Barack Obama's administration — are crucial to meet commitments the US made at the 2015 UN climate summit in Paris. Large cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and State Department laid out in the budget free up some of the funds for a $52 billion defense spending increase. “A budget that puts America first must make the safety of our people its number one priority — because without safety, there can be no prosperity,'' President Trump said in a message accompanying his proposed budget. Related: How big is Trump’s 10 percent defense increase? It’s three times Canada’s annual military budget, for one. The Trump proposal says cutting climate change programs alone would save American taxpayers more than $100 million compared to 2017. A section of the 2018 draft federal budget outline for the EPA.  Congress has the final say over budgets, and White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney acknowledged to reporters that passing the cuts could be an uphill struggle. He said the administration would negotiate over replacement cuts. “This is not a take-it-or-leave-it budget,” Mulvaney said. Still, the budget is important in signaling White House priorities and its message on climate change is clear. frameborder="0" height="460" scrolling="no" src="https://www.pri.org//cdn2.pri.org/embeds/2017-03/cpp/cpp-coal-460.html" width="100%"> Backing away from world climate leadership US leadership was key in winning a hard-fought 2015 international agreement in Paris to cut climate-warming greenhouse gases worldwide.     China and the European Union both said after President Trump’s election that they would step in to fill a climate leadership void during international climate negotiations. But the US backing away from the UN process may lead countries that came reluctantly to the Paris deal to question their own commitments. “There are many other countries out there where they were quite divided,” says Andrew Light, a former State Department climate change negotiator in the Obama administration. “There are folks still in those countries who think that they went too far out on a limb in joining the Paris climate agreement, and so these kinds of signals could reopen the debates in those countries about whether or not they’re still committed to this process.” The US has also committed to pay billions of dollars into a UN fund for developing countries. The president’s budget would cease those payments, as well as funding for the Global Climate Change Initiative, an umbrella plan that funds dozens of international programs to help foreign countries develop sustainably and bolster defenses against climate change. “This completely undercuts our influence,” says Light, who is now a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute and a professor at George Mason University. Climate change and national security Climate change is not just a diplomatic concern, but a national security one, as well. Drought, famine and rising seas contribute to instability that can trigger or exacerbate conflict. Unlike some in the Trump administration, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is on record stating that he believes climate change is real and a threat to international security. "Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today," Mattis reportedly wrote in testimony to senators after his January confirmation hearing. "The effects of a changin[...]


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London's pigeon problem has a simple solution: a hawk

Wed, 15 Mar 2017 15:02:05 -0400

Fifteen years ago, the center of London was densely populated — not just with people, but also with birds. Particularly pigeons. Huge flocks of them would fill the capital's parks and squares. But something has changed. The pigeons are gone. One reason for the pigeon decline can be seen in Trafalgar Square at 7 a.m. every weekday.  Not far from Big Ben, the square is the very center of the city. Even early in the day it bustles with commuters, tourists and school parties. But among all that activity there is a hunter on the loose. A silent killer. One who watches over every movement — from the National Gallery on the north side to Charing Cross Station on the south. Up close to him, you notice powerful shoulders, a penetrating gaze — and also a tendency to twist his head around to the back looking for prey. That hunter's name is Lemmy, and he is a Harris's hawk.  Hawks like Lemmy have been used to deter pigeons in London since the early 2000s. Credit: Leo Hornak Lemmy is employed by the Greater London Authority to ensure that places like Trafalgar Square remain free of pigeons, and therefore free of their waste. He works in a team: his handler, Paul Picknell, is employed by Hawkforce, one of London's leading avian security firms.  Speaking to Picknell, there is no mistaking his love for his work buddy. "He's a work colleague, he's a friend. [But he is] essentially a wild animal. Never tame. In amongst all these people — he’ll totally ignore everybody apart from me," he says. "It’s almost a telepathetic communication." Until the early 2000s, pigeons ruled Trafalgar Square and other open spaces in the center of London. You could buy food to feed them. Even Mary Poppins had a song advising Londoners to feed the birds. Things changed in 2003, when the mayor of London declared war on the birds. So many pigeons produced a lot of ... waste. And that's not hygienic. The pigeon feed stall was closed. If Mary Poppins tried to feed the birds now, she would be hit with a fine. But a humane and natural way to move the pigeons on was needed. And that's where Picknell and Lemmy come in. As Picknell is talking, Lemmy suddenly gags and vomits up a small oily lump of yellowish paste onto the sidewalk. Picknell is relieved. "Oh. That’s what we’re waiting for," he says. "That’s the cast. It’s basically beaks, the feathers, the claws of the food he had yesterday that he can’t digest."  He picks it up and rubs it carefully between his fingers for a diagnosis. It crumbles under his thumbnail. "That one’s quite normal looking. Nothing wrong with this bird. He’s ready to go now." Although Harris's hawks do hunt birds like pigeons, the idea is not for Lemmy to kill while on duty. He is fed exclusively from a small plastic box of raw chicken scraps. Picknell takes a large handful and fills his pocket with these snacks at the start of every shift. Instead, the idea is to use Lemmy's presence to deter and intimidate pigeons. "It’s a visual thing. It’s a presence," says Picknell. "The pigeons are aware there’s a bird of prey — there’s predator around, therefore they stay away." There’s an air of "The Sopranos" when Picknell describes the effect Lemmy's presence has on pigeons. "I suppose he does intimidate them," he says. "The big kid's around. Keep yourself to yourself. Stay out the way." Unlike other forms of pest control, such as poisoning or shooting, the use of hawks is environmentally friendly and ultimately humane. It is also popular: Picknell and Limmy are constantly pestered for selfies. Some hawks like the attention more than others, Picknell says. Lemmy is not too keen on having his feathers ruffled. There was some backlash at first — a renegade pro-pigeon activist group is still rumored to carry out vigilante bread distributions somewhere nearby — but the square today is much cleaner. And almost completely free of pige[...]


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Six years later, Japan is still struggling to clean up Fukushima

Tue, 14 Mar 2017 17:34:59 -0400

Six years after the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, officials are still seeking ways to deal with the huge amount of hazardous waste being generated at the nuclear power plant.

Tokyo-based journalist James Simms has been covering the Fukushima cleanup since shortly after the effort was crippled by a tsunami in March 2011.

He told The World that six years on, there has been some progress toward decommissioning the plant, “but many unforeseen issues may mean that the cleanup and dismantling and decontamination will take longer than previously expected.”

Cleanup crews have built an underground ice wall and used pumps to prevent water from seeping into the plant and becoming contaminated. Recently, Simms says that’s reduced the amount of groundwater being contaminated from about 207 tons to 140 tons a day.

In another sign of progress, the Fukushima Prefecture plans to reduce the size of the no-fishing zone surrounding the power plant.  

Still, the Tokyo Electric Power Company is pumping hundreds of tons of water a day to cool reactors and spent fuel, then treating it and storing it in huge tanks that are quickly filling up the vacant land around the power plant.  

“Obviously, there is a limit” to how many tanks can be built, Simms says.  

Officials eventually hope to release treated water containing radioactive hydrogen, or tritium, directly into the ocean instead of storing it indefinitely.

“A lot of the industry experts say that you can release that in diluted levels into the ocean,” Simms says, “but obviously, the fisheries cooperative is very wary of that because it will just sort of undermine the confidence that they’re trying to build up in the seafood in Fukushima.”

Distrust of nuclear power and the Tokyo Electric Power Company remain high in Japan, where Simms says a majority of the public opposes nuclear power.

For more on the progress of clean-up efforts at the Fukushima nuclear plant, listen to the audio above.

Antinuclear protesters gather at a rally in front of the parliament building in Tokyo, Japan, on March 11, 2017, to mark the six-year anniversary of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands and set off a nuclear crisis.

Toru Hanai/Reuters


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There’s a buzz in the air at SXSW — but it’s not just about the technology

Tue, 14 Mar 2017 16:30:37 -0400

Every March in Austin, Texas, an explosion of technology entrepreneurs show off their latest ideas and hobnob at parties, tweeting, snapping and gramming epic stories about who they met and what they saw. South by Southwest — referred to as SXSW — is known for the music and films that premiere here. But the weekend before the music is SXSW Interactive. It’s full of energy and deal-making. But, this year is a little different. Normally when you leave a panel, there is inspired banter about some innovation that just rocked your world. Now, conversations invariably shift to Donald Trump. “I’m obsessed with Trump,” one person from Australia told me. And, for the most part, it isn’t to flatter him. Entrepreneurs here are largely concerned about what immigration restrictions might mean for their technology businesses — an industry many say is reliant on immigrants. One of President Donald Trump's executive orders, issued at the end of January, temporarily restricted travel from seven Muslim-majority countries and banned refugees. It caused havoc at airports and was eventually suspended in federal court. His revised order, announced last Monday and set to go into effect on Thursday, is narrower in scope and attempts to address the constitutional challenges made in lawsuits. It honors existing visas and travel documents, but suspends the issuance of visas to refugees for 120 days and people from Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Sudan for 90 days. “You want to be able to tap into the world’s skill set,” says Bijoy Goswami, an entrepreneur based in Austin. “If you think about it from that perspective, we are in a battle for talent. Countries are in a battle for talent.” The tech world is populated by highly skilled engineers, programmers and computer scientists among other disciplines. And companies say they need flexibility to tap talent in these fields, whether they are Americans or not. Goswami grew up in India and has lived in Hong Kong and Taiwan. He moved to the US in 1991 and is now a citizen. The network Goswami founded, Bootstrapping, is a community of tech entrepreneurs who, rather than getting their funding from venture capitalists, “bootstrap” their start-ups. Bringing people together with different perspectives is key to making progress, he says. He calls it “second order innovation” — when people from different countries and with different ideas collide inside of organizations or communities. That, he says, is when breakthroughs happen. California’s Silicon Valley and other centers of concentrated tech talent seemed muted on the issue of immigration during the presidential campaign — perhaps because like many around the world, they did not expect that Trump was going to win. But now leaders in tech companies are starting to vocally raise their concerns about about Trump’s policies. Almost 100 tech companies filed an amicus brief against the first version of the immigration ban, saying the order “violates the immigration laws and the Constitution.” The new restrictions on visas only affect companies’ ability to recruit from the six affected countries. But Bloomberg reported in January that they had reviewed a draft of an executive order to overhaul the work-visa programs too. Technology companies rely on these programs, such as H-1B work visas for immigrants with specialized skills, in their recruiting efforts abroad. Even if that work-visa order is not signed, the tightening of immigration rules sends mixed signals about American values, says Goswami. “If you have a false understanding that there is not enough to go around so we have to limit [immigration], then you are going to go make a set of policies that go against your very nature,” he says. Goswami’s concerns seem to be widely shared among other SXSW attendees. At panels and during parties in the evenings around Austin, Trump comes up [...]


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Soviet-era nuclear testing is still making people sick in Kazakhstan

Thu, 23 Feb 2017 15:54:08 -0500

The place where the first Soviet atomic bomb was dropped looks like a small natural pond. The bumpy roads that lead to it course through stark, but picturesque, countryside. The river Irtysh, which flows down from China and on to Russia, divides this northeastern part of Kazakhstan into steppes to the south and forests to the north.  The beauty hides an ugly history.   The older people here grew up watching huge clouds mushroom in the sky overhead. Man-made earthquakes regularly shook the ground under their feet. Over four decades on the barren steppes of Kazakhstan, deep in Central Asia, the Soviets detonated 456 nuclear weapons. They called this place, a vast testing site the size of Belgium, the Polygon. The last nuclear explosion here was in 1989. Today, 25 years later, villagers are still suffering the consequences of heavy radiation. An 82-year-old Eliugazy Nurgaliev remembers the first tests near his village of Qaynar. I met him not far from the Polygon at his daughter’s house. Nurgaliev is one of the few people still alive who witnessed open-air tests here. And he is no ordinary witness. “It was the early 1950s. The [Soviet] military came to our village and evacuated everyone. But 43 young men were kept behind,” he tells me. After a pause, he adds: “I was among the 43 men who were chosen to stay behind in the village.” Eliugazy Nurgaliev. Credit: Kelvin Brown/BBC Unbeknownst to them, the young men were about to become guinea pigs in the Polygon’s earliest nuclear tests. “The military people took us to the middle of the steppe, gave us a tent, food and music and told us to enjoy the picnic,” Nurgaliev recalls. “Suddenly the sky turned red and a big red storm gathered above our village. We lost our minds.” They were less than 10 kilometers from the explosions. Soldiers wearing gas masks later arrived to retrieve the 43 young men, who demanded to know what had just happened. An old observation tower still stands at the Polygon nuclear test site in Kazakhstan. Kazakh artists recently painted a replica of Edvard Munch's painting “The Scream” on the tower. Credit: Kelvin Brown/BBC Nurgaliev says one of the younger officers said nothing would happen to the men immediately — but that there may be consequences 10-15 years later. A commander shouted at him to shut up, Nurgaliev remembers. Apart from that, they were offered no explanation.  Nurgaliev says all the men were taken back to their villages and families, but were under constant medical observation by doctors. Not long after the exposure, some died from unknown illnesses. Some lived for several years but then developed radiation-related illnesses. Nurgaliev says it’s a miracle that he has lived this long. But he believes radiation exposure has still caused significant damage to his family. Three of the children he fathered were stillborn or died as babies. His parents died of cancer.  The Soviets built walls, high-rise buildings, bridges and tunnels here purely to measure the impact of the explosions. The ruins still scatter the landscape alongside abandoned observation towers. The ground is dotted with huge craters filled with contaminated water. Craters formed by atomic tests at the Polygon. Credit: Kelvin Brown/BBC With the help of the Americans and the Russians, Kazakhstan buried and sealed two main underground testing sites. Now they’re in the process of clearing every inch of the Polygon of radioactive remnants. It’s slow and expensive work. Officials told us that many parts of the site are now safe. But as we walk through the area, dosimeters used to measure radiation levels jump wildly between safe and dangerous levels. We wear protective outfits during our visit, which only lasts about a half hour before we’re advised to lea[...]


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