Fast-Warming, Ailing Med Sea May Be a Sign of Things to Come

Egyptians on holiday walk at Cleopatra Beach, in the Mediterranean city of Marsa Matrouh, 270 miles (430 kilometers) northwest of the capital, Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022. (AP)
Egyptians on holiday walk at Cleopatra Beach, in the Mediterranean city of Marsa Matrouh, 270 miles (430 kilometers) northwest of the capital, Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022. (AP)
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Fast-Warming, Ailing Med Sea May Be a Sign of Things to Come

Egyptians on holiday walk at Cleopatra Beach, in the Mediterranean city of Marsa Matrouh, 270 miles (430 kilometers) northwest of the capital, Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022. (AP)
Egyptians on holiday walk at Cleopatra Beach, in the Mediterranean city of Marsa Matrouh, 270 miles (430 kilometers) northwest of the capital, Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022. (AP)

While vacationers might enjoy the Mediterranean Sea's summer warmth, climate scientists are warning of dire consequences for its marine life as it burns up in a series of severe heat waves.

From Barcelona to Tel Aviv, scientists say they are witnessing exceptional temperature hikes ranging from 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 Fahrenheit) to 5 degrees Celsius (9 Fahrenheit) above the norm for this time of year. Water temperatures have regularly exceeded 30 C (86 F) on some days.

Extreme heat in Europe and other countries around the Mediterranean has grabbed headlines this summer, but the rising sea temperature is largely out of sight and out of mind.

Marine heat waves are caused by ocean currents building up areas of warm water. Weather systems and heat in the atmosphere can also pile on degrees to the water's temperature. And just like their on-land counterparts, marine heat waves are longer, more frequent and more intense because of human-induced climate change.

The situation is “very worrying,” says Joaquim Garrabou, a researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences in Barcelona. “We are pushing the system too far. We have to take action on the climate issues as soon as possible.”

Garrabou is part of a team that recently published the report on heat waves in the Mediterranean Sea between 2015 and 2019. The report says these phenomena have led to “massive mortality” of marine species.

About 50 species, including corals, sponges and seaweed, were affected along thousands of kilometers of Mediterranean coasts, according to the study, which was published in the Global Change Biology journal.

The situation in the eastern Mediterranean basin is particularly dire.

The waters off Israel, Cyprus, Lebanon and Syria are “the hottest hot spot in the Mediterranean, for sure,” said Gil Rilov, a marine biologist at Israel’s Oceanographic and Limnological Research institute, and one of the paper’s co-authors. Average sea temperatures in the summer are now consistently over 31 C (88 F).

These warming seas are driving many native species to the brink, “because every summer their optimum temperature is being exceeded,” he said.

What he and his colleagues are witnessing in terms of biodiversity loss is what is projected to happen further west in the Mediterranean toward Greece, Italy and Spain in the coming years.

Garrabou points out that seas have been serving the planet by absorbing 90% of the earth’s excess heat and 30% of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere by coal, oil and gas production. This carbon-sink effect shields the planet from even harsher climate effects.

This was possible because oceans and seas were in a healthy condition, Garrabou said.

“But now we have driven the ocean to an unhealthy and dysfunctional state,” he said.

While the earth's greenhouse gas emissions will have to be drastically reduced if sea warming is to be curtailed, ocean scientists are specifically looking for authorities to guarantee that 30% of sea areas are protected from human activities such as fishing, which would give species a chance to recover and thrive.

About 8% of the Mediterranean Sea area is currently protected.

Garrabou and Rilov said that policymakers are largely unaware of the warming Mediterranean and its impact.

“It’s our job as scientists to bring this to their attention so they can think about it,” Rilov said.

Heat waves occur when especially hot weather continues over a set number of days, with no rain or little wind. Land heat waves help cause marine heat waves and the two tend to feed each other in a vicious, warming circle.

Land heat waves have become commonplace in many countries around the Mediterranean, with dramatic side effects like wildfires, droughts, crop losses and excruciatingly high temperatures.

But marine heat waves could also have serious consequences for the countries bordering the Mediterranean and the more than 500 million people who live there if it's not dealt with soon, scientists say. Fish stocks will be depleted and tourism will be adversely affected, as destructive storms could become more common on land.

Despite representing less than 1% of the global ocean surface area, the Mediterranean is one of the main reservoirs of marine biodiversity, containing between 4% and 18% of the world’s known marine species.

Some of the most affected species are key to maintaining the functioning and diversity of the sea's habitats. Species like the Posidonia oceanica seagrass meadows, which can absorb vast amounts of carbon dioxide and shelters marine life, or coral reefs, which are also home to wildlife, would be at risk.

Garrabou says the mortality impacts on species were observed between the surface and 45 meters (around 150 feet) deep, where the recorded marine heat waves were exceptional. Heat waves affected more than 90% of the Mediterranean Sea’s surface.

According to the most recent scientific papers, the sea surface temperature in the Mediterranean has increased by 0.4 C (0.72 F) each decade between 1982 and 2018. On a yearly basis, it has been rising by some 0.05 C (0.09 F) over the past decade without any sign of letting up.

Even fractions of degrees can have disastrous effects on ocean health, experts say.

The affected areas have also grown since the 1980s and now covers most of the Mediterranean, the study suggests.

“The question is not about the survival of nature, because biodiversity will find a way to survive on the planet,” Garrabou said. “The question is if we keep going in this direction maybe our society, humans, will not have a place to live.”



Old Airplanes Turned into Houses with Bedrooms, Livingroom, Showers

Grounded Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are seen parked in an aerial
photo at Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington, US July 1, 2019.
(Reuters)
Grounded Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are seen parked in an aerial photo at Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington, US July 1, 2019. (Reuters)
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Old Airplanes Turned into Houses with Bedrooms, Livingroom, Showers

Grounded Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are seen parked in an aerial
photo at Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington, US July 1, 2019.
(Reuters)
Grounded Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are seen parked in an aerial photo at Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington, US July 1, 2019. (Reuters)

After losing her house to a fire, Jo Ann Ussery had a peculiar idea: to live in an airplane.
She bought an old Boeing 727 that was destined for the scrapyard, had it shipped to a plot of land she already owned, and spent six months renovating, doing most of the work by herself.
By the end, she had a fully functional home, with over 1,500 square feet of living space, three bedrooms, two bathrooms and even a hot tub – where the cockpit used to be. All for less than $30,000, or about $60,000 in today’s money.
Ussery – a beautician from Benoit, Mississippi – had no professional connection to aviation, and was following the suggestion of her brother-in-law, an air traffic controller.
She lived in the plane from 1995 to 1999, when it was irreparably damaged after falling off the truck that was moving it to a different location.
Although she wasn’t the first person to ever live in an airplane, her flawless execution of the project had an inspirational effect, according to CNN. In the late 1990s, Bruce Campbell, an electrical engineer with a private pilot license, said: “I was driving home and listening to the radio, and they had Jo Ann’s story, and it was amazing I didn’t drive off the road because my focus turned entirely to it.”
A 727 in the woods
Campbell has lived in his own plane – also a Boeing 727 – in the woods of Hillsboro, Oregon: “I still stand on Jo Ann’s shoulder and I’m grateful for the proof of concept. I would never live in a conventional home. No chance.” His project cost $220,000 in total (about $380,000 in today’s money), of which roughly half was for the purchase of the plane.
He says the plane belonged to Olympic Airways in Greece and was even used to transport the remains of the airline’s magnate owner, Aristotle Onassis, in 1975.
“I didn’t know the plane’s history at the time. And I didn’t know that it had an old, 707-style interior. It was really, really awful compared to modern standards. It was functional but it just looked old and crude. Maybe the worst choice for a home,” he said.
Campbell had to work on the plane for a couple of years before being able to live in it. The interiors are no-frills, with a primitive shower made out of a plastic cylinder and a futon sofa for a bed. During the harshest part of winter, Campbell traditionally retreats to a small apartment he owns in the Japanese city of Miyazaki. But the pandemic has made this difficult, and for the past three years he’s been living in the 727 year-round.
Intending to set up an airplane home in Japan as well, he almost bought a second aircraft – a 747– but the deal fell out at the last minute, because the airline decided to keep the aircraft in service for longer than expected.
Campbell frequently gets visitors and even offers lodging in the aircraft free of charge, while in the summer he hosts larger public events with funfair attractions: “Artists perform on the right wing, guests dance in front or behind the wing in the forest,” he added.
One plane isn’t enough
If you think living in an airplane is extravagant enough, how about living in two? That’s the plan for Joe Axline, who owns an MD-80 and DC-9, and plans to execute his grand plan “Project Freedom”, by placing the two planes next to each other in a plot of land in Brookshire.
Axline has lived in the MD-80 for over a decade and is planning to renovate the DC-8 and equip it with recreational areas such as a movie theater and a music room. “I’ve got less than a quarter of a million dollars in the whole project,” said Axline, who has very few running expenses because he owns the land and has built his own water well and sewer system: “The only thing that I have still left is electricity,” he added.
“Living in a house, you have a lot of space. My master bedroom is 5*3 meters. I’ve got two TVs in it, plenty of space to walk around. My living room is good-sized, the dining room seats four, I can cook enough food for a whole bunch of people if they come over. I also have a shower and a toilet. The only thing that I don’t have here is windows that open,” he explains, adding that he just opens the plane’s doors to let fresh air in.
Axline too was interested in a Boeing 747 – living in the “Queen of the Skies” is the airplane homeowner’s ultimate dream – but he gave up when he was confronted with the shipping costs: “The airplane itself was about $300,000, but the shipping cost was $500,000. Half a million dollars to move it. That’s because you can’t drive it through the roads, you’d have to tear it apart, cut it up, slice it and dice it and then put it back together.”
There are other notable examples of airplanes converted to homes. One of the earliest is a Boeing 307 Stratoliner once owned by billionaire and film director Howard Hughes, who spent a fortune remodeling the interior to turn it into a “Flying Penthouse.” After being damaged by a hurricane, it was turned into an extravagant motor yacht and eventually purchased in the 1980s by Florida resident Dave Drimmer. He lived in the plane-boat hybrid for 20 years, before eventually donating it to the Florida Air Museum in 2018.
American country singer Red Lane, who had a past as a plane mechanic, lived for decades in a converted DC-8 that he saved from the scrapyard in the late 1970s. “I have never, ever woken up in this place wishing I was somewhere else,” Lane revealed in a 2006 TV interview.
Those who want to experience a night or two in an airplane home have a few options in the form of hotels; in Costa Rica, the Costa Verde hotel boasts a fully refurbished Boeing 727 – complete with two bedrooms and an ocean view terrace.
In Sweden, Jumbo Stay is a hotel built entirely inside a Boeing 747, sitting on the grounds of Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport.
And if you’re just looking to party, there’s another Boeing 747 that can be hired for events with up to 220 people, at Cotswold Airport in England, about 100 miles west of London.


Long Covid Patients at Higher Risk of Organ Failure, New Study Suggests

 A health care worker attends to a COVID-19 patient in an
intensive care unit at the General University Hospital in Prague on
Tuesday. | AP
A health care worker attends to a COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit at the General University Hospital in Prague on Tuesday. | AP
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Long Covid Patients at Higher Risk of Organ Failure, New Study Suggests

 A health care worker attends to a COVID-19 patient in an
intensive care unit at the General University Hospital in Prague on
Tuesday. | AP
A health care worker attends to a COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit at the General University Hospital in Prague on Tuesday. | AP

People living with long Covid after being admitted to hospital are more likely to show some damage to major organs, according to a new study.

MRI scans revealed patients were three times more likely to have some abnormalities in multiple organs such as the lungs, brain and kidneys.

Researchers believe there is a link with the severity of the illness.

It is hoped the UK study will help in the development of more effective treatments for long Covid.

The study, published in Lancet Respiratory Medicine, looked at 259 patients who fell so ill with the virus that they were admitted to hospital.

Five months after they were discharged, MRI scans of their major organs showed some significant differences when compared to a group of 52 people who had never had Covid.

The biggest impact was seen on the lungs, where the scans were 14 times more likely to show abnormalities.

MRI scans were also three times more likely to show some abnormalities in the brain - and twice as likely in the kidneys - among people who had had severe Covid.

There was no significant difference in the health of the heart or liver.

Dr. Betty Raman, from the University of Oxford and one of the lead investigators on the study, says it is clear that those living with long Covid symptoms are more likely to have experienced some organ damage.

"The patient's age, how severely ill they were with Covid, as well as if they had other illnesses at the same time, were all significant factors in whether or not we found damage to these important organs in the body," she added.

New treatments

The findings are part of a bigger study looking at the long-term effects of Covid on those who were hospitalized, known as the Phosp-Covid study.

The researchers found some symptoms matched up with signs of organ damage revealed by the MRI scans - for example, a tight chest and cough with abnormalities in the lungs. However, not all of the symptoms experienced by those living with long Covid could be directly linked to what was seen on the scans.

Dr. Raman says it also seems that abnormalities in more than one organ were more common among people who had been admitted to hospital and were still reporting physical and mental health problems after they had recovered from the initial infection.

"What we are seeing is that people with multi-organ pathology on MRI - that is, they had more than two organs affected - were four times more likely to report severe and very severe mental and physical impairment," she said.

"Our findings also highlight the need for longer term multidisciplinary follow-up services focused on pulmonary and extrapulmonary health (kidneys, brain and mental health), particularly for those hospitalized for Covid."

Prof. Chris Brightling, from the University of Leicester and who is leading the Phosp-Covid study, says the research is part of a wider effort to understand the group of different symptoms that make up the syndrome known as long Covid.

"This detailed study of whole-body imaging confirms that changes in multiple organs is seen months after being hospitalized for Covid," he said.

"The Phosp-Covid study is working on understanding why this happens and how we can develop tests and new treatments for long Covid," he concluded.


Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin Lit with Colors of Saudi Flag

The Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin was lit in the colors of the Saudi flag. SPA
The Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin was lit in the colors of the Saudi flag. SPA
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Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin Lit with Colors of Saudi Flag

The Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin was lit in the colors of the Saudi flag. SPA
The Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin was lit in the colors of the Saudi flag. SPA

The Irish capital celebrated Saudi Arabia's 93rd National Day by lighting the Samuel Beckett Bridge, one of the most important and oldest landmarks in Dublin, in the colors of the Saudi flag between 8 pm on Saturday and 12 am Sunday.

Saudi citizens and students at various Irish universities attended the event and expressed their pride in their homeland.


NASA's First Asteroid Sample Parachutes into Utah Desert

As the Sun rises recovery team members take off in helicopters flying into the Utah desert to participate in the asteroid sample return and recovery mission at Dugway, Utah, on September 24, 2023. (Photo by GEORGE FREY / AFP)
As the Sun rises recovery team members take off in helicopters flying into the Utah desert to participate in the asteroid sample return and recovery mission at Dugway, Utah, on September 24, 2023. (Photo by GEORGE FREY / AFP)
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NASA's First Asteroid Sample Parachutes into Utah Desert

As the Sun rises recovery team members take off in helicopters flying into the Utah desert to participate in the asteroid sample return and recovery mission at Dugway, Utah, on September 24, 2023. (Photo by GEORGE FREY / AFP)
As the Sun rises recovery team members take off in helicopters flying into the Utah desert to participate in the asteroid sample return and recovery mission at Dugway, Utah, on September 24, 2023. (Photo by GEORGE FREY / AFP)

A NASA space capsule carrying the largest soil sample ever scooped up from the surface of an asteroid streaked through Earth's atmosphere on Sunday and parachuted into the Utah desert, delivering the celestial specimen to scientists.

The gumdrop-shaped capsule, released from the robotic spacecraft OSIRIS-REx as the mothership passed within 67,000 miles of Earth hours earlier, touched down within a designated landing zone west of Salt Lake City on the US military's vast Utah Test and Training Range.

The final descent and landing, shown on a NASA livestream, capped a six-year joint mission between the US space agency and the University of Arizona. It marked only the third asteroid sample, and by far the biggest, ever returned to Earth for analysis, following two similar missions by Japan's space agency ending in 2010 and 2020.

OSIRIS-REx collected its specimen three years ago from Bennu, a small, carbon-rich asteroid discovered in 1999. The space rock is classified as a "near-Earth object" because it passes relatively close to our planet every six years, though the odds of an impact are considered remote.

Apparently made up of a loose collection of rocks, like a rubble pile, Bennu measures just 500 meters (1,600 ft) across, making it slightly wider than the Empire State Building is tall but tiny compared with the Chicxulub asteroid that struck Earth some 66 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs.

OSIRIS-REx is already chasing after the asteroid Apophis, and will reach it in 2029.

NASA’s plans to return samples from Mars are on hold after an independent review board criticized the cost and complexity. The Martian rover Perseverance has spent the past two years collecting core samples for eventual transport to Earth.


AlUla Date Auction: A Great Success!

The Royal Commission for AlUla
The Royal Commission for AlUla
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AlUla Date Auction: A Great Success!

The Royal Commission for AlUla
The Royal Commission for AlUla

Organized by Saudi Arabia’s Royal Commission for AlUla, the 4th annual AlUla Date Festival themed "Taste our pride" has seen more than 415 tons sold in the first three weeks of auction.

The commission has an electronic date tracking system, through a QR code, which enables it to track the source, history, and features of the dates supplied to the auction. The use of technology is important to ensure transparency, quality control, and accountability in the supply chain of the dates sold.

Auctioneers may also access information about the products they purchase by reading the labeled barcode on the date packages using their smartphones; data includes the place of origin and any certificates such as organic farming and the Saudi date mark.

This is bound to improve accountability, and thus ensure that the dates are safe.

The festival aims to promote AlUla dates in local, regional and international markets, in line with AlUla Vision, which is consistent with the Kingdom Vision 2030, whose goal is to consolidate the kingdom's role as the largest source of dates globally.


Fireworks Light Saudi Arabia’s Skies on 93rd National Day

Fireworks lit up the skies of Saudi Arabia on the 93rd National Day. SPA
Fireworks lit up the skies of Saudi Arabia on the 93rd National Day. SPA
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Fireworks Light Saudi Arabia’s Skies on 93rd National Day

Fireworks lit up the skies of Saudi Arabia on the 93rd National Day. SPA
Fireworks lit up the skies of Saudi Arabia on the 93rd National Day. SPA

Fireworks lit up the skies of the Kingdom on the 93rd National Day, while millions of people gathered in squares and other locations throughout the country Saturday evening to enjoy shows organized by the General Entertainment Authority (GEA).

Citizens and residents who had come together to witness the display of fireworks to mark the occasion could also enjoy a variety of other displays and events.

More than 15 locations were designated as places where people could watch these displays, including Boulevard Riyadh City in Riyadh, Art Promenade in Jeddah, King Abdullah Park in Dammam, Northern Khobar Corniche, King Abdullah Environmental Park in Al-Ahsa, and King Abdullah National Park in Buraydah.

Spectacular fireworks could also be watched in Abha from Al Sadd Park on Al Fan Street, in Madinah from King Fahd Central Park, in Hail from Al Salam Park, in Tabuk from Al Nazim Central Park, in Al Baha from Prince Hossam Park, in Sakaka from Amanat Al Jouf Park, in Jazan from the Corniche Road walkway, in Najran from the University District Housing Park, in Taif from near King Abdullah Park, and in Arar from the Water Tower.

The National Day events in Riyadh included drone shows, specifically in the Boulevard Riyadh City area where billboards featured photos of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and the Crown Prince, and the Kingdom’s flag.


Man Dies after Being Gored by Bull at Spanish Festival

A bull with its horns on fire chases a reveler during the  festive activity, in Carpesa, Valencia, Spain, late 23 September 2023 (issued 24 September 2023). EPA/Biel Aliño
A bull with its horns on fire chases a reveler during the festive activity, in Carpesa, Valencia, Spain, late 23 September 2023 (issued 24 September 2023). EPA/Biel Aliño
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Man Dies after Being Gored by Bull at Spanish Festival

A bull with its horns on fire chases a reveler during the  festive activity, in Carpesa, Valencia, Spain, late 23 September 2023 (issued 24 September 2023). EPA/Biel Aliño
A bull with its horns on fire chases a reveler during the festive activity, in Carpesa, Valencia, Spain, late 23 September 2023 (issued 24 September 2023). EPA/Biel Aliño

A man died from his injuries after he was gored by a bull at a festival in eastern Spain, authorities said.

The Spanish man, who was not named, was gored in his side by a bull called Cocinero during the bull running festival in the town of Pobla de Farnals in Valencia region on Saturday.

He was taken to hospital but died later, officials there said on Sunday.

A second Spanish man was gored in the leg by the same bull and was in a stable condition in hospital, they added.

Bulls are released into the streets and runners dash ahead of them in a tradition played out in more than 1,820 Spanish municipalities every year, according to a recent survey by animal rights groups AnimaNaturalis and CAS International.


Ice Pops Cool Down Monkeys in Brazil at a Rio Zoo during a Rare Winter Heat Wave

 A spider monkey opens its mouth as frozen fruit is served at the BioParque do Rio amid a heat wave in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. (AP)
A spider monkey opens its mouth as frozen fruit is served at the BioParque do Rio amid a heat wave in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. (AP)
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Ice Pops Cool Down Monkeys in Brazil at a Rio Zoo during a Rare Winter Heat Wave

 A spider monkey opens its mouth as frozen fruit is served at the BioParque do Rio amid a heat wave in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. (AP)
A spider monkey opens its mouth as frozen fruit is served at the BioParque do Rio amid a heat wave in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. (AP)

Upon spotting a zookeeper laden with a bucket full of fruit-flavored ice pops, black spider monkeys in Rio de Janeiro’s BioParque gracefully swung their way towards him on Friday, chattering excitedly.

While it's technically still winter in Brazil, with spring due to start on Saturday, a heat wave has engulfed the country since the beginning of the week, causing humans and animals alike to eagerly greet any chance of cooling down.

“Normally they get a break from the heat in the winter, but it’s been so hot. They have even shed their winter layer of fur,” said zookeeper Tadeu Cabral, who handed out some treats, while others were scattered around.

The ice pops are part of the monkeys’ well-being program. They provide thermal comfort, and dispersing the popsicles in different locations also stimulates their behavioral need for foraging.

For the monkeys, the ice pops are watermelon, pineapple or grape flavored. But for Simba, the zoo’s lion, the ice treat is made up of blood or minced meat.

Koala the elephant, now more than 60 years old, was rescued from a Sao Paulo circus in the 1990s. She wrapped her trunk around the block of frozen fruit, placed it under her foot and squashed the treat, before slurping it up.

To cool her down even more, a zookeeper sprayed Koala with a hose.

“Elephants love water. She also throws mud on her back to protect herself from the heat and parasites, like mosquitoes. When wet, the mud layer gets thicker and helps her even more,” said Daniel Serieiro, a biologist at the zoo.

Carlos Acuña, a tourist from Costa Rica, looked on as Koala was sprayed with water.

“It’s great that they’re showering her, that they are making her feel comfortable. The heat is so intense,” he said.

Temperatures are due to exceed 40 C (104 F) in Sao Paulo state and the central-west and north regions, according to the National Institute of Meteorology.

Abnormally high temperatures, caused by global warming, increase the risk of wildfires. On Thursday, firefighters in Brazil’s northeastern Bahia state battled flames fanned by strong winds.


Recycling Plastic Not Enough, Warns UN Environment Chief

Inger Andersen, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of the UN Environment Program, speaks during an interview at UN headquarters in New York City on September 21, 2023. Ed JONES / AFP
Inger Andersen, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of the UN Environment Program, speaks during an interview at UN headquarters in New York City on September 21, 2023. Ed JONES / AFP
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Recycling Plastic Not Enough, Warns UN Environment Chief

Inger Andersen, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of the UN Environment Program, speaks during an interview at UN headquarters in New York City on September 21, 2023. Ed JONES / AFP
Inger Andersen, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of the UN Environment Program, speaks during an interview at UN headquarters in New York City on September 21, 2023. Ed JONES / AFP

With the production of plastic on the rise worldwide and creating ever more pollution, the UN environment chief warned that humanity cannot just recycle its way out of the mess, and she called for a total rethink about the way we use plastics.

"There are different sorts of onramps to the highway to solutions. But I think everybody recognizes that the status quo is just not an option," said Inger Andersen, director of the UN Environment Program, in an interview Thursday with AFP on the sidelines of the General Assembly in New York.

Andersen was talking two weeks after the publication of the first draft of a future international treaty on plastic pollution, which is expected to be finalized by the end of 2024, reported AFP.

It reflects the wide range of ambitions of the 175 countries involved, notably the gap between those who argue for a reduction in the production of raw polymers and those who insist on reuse and recycling.

First, Andersen said the aim was to get rid of as many single-use plastics as possible, "eliminating what's frankly not necessary: that thing that is wrapped in plastic that's completely mindless, that is maybe even wrapped by nature itself," like an orange or a banana.

Then, "there is thinking about the product itself. Does the product need to be liquid? Can we rethink the product... can it be powder, can it be compressed, can it be concentrated?" she said, saying that when entering a supermarket, she goes straight to the soap aisle to see if solid versions are available.

"We also have to reduce the overall supply of new raw polymer," she said, noting that this was one option in the draft text of the treaty.

Oceans a 'collective heritage'
For sure, "we have to recycle as much as we can. But as we look at it now, plastic uses is increasing," Andersen told AFP.

"So what is clear is that we cannot recycle our way out of this mess."

Annual production of plastics has more than doubled in the past 20 years, to reach 460 million tons. It could triple by 2060 if nothing changes.

However, only nine percent is recycled. Plastic waste of all sizes is found today at the bottom of the oceans, in the stomachs of birds and on the tops of mountains, while microplastics have been detected in blood, breast milk and placentas.

"If we continue to pump into the economy all this new raw polymer, there is no way that we will stop the plastic flow into the oceans," she said.

And the health of the oceans is crucial for the future of humanity.

The future treaty on plastic pollution would complement the global arsenal to protect the oceans, including the new historic treaty to protect the high seas signed this week by some 70 countries.

"The fact that we're going to move forward and protect that piece of the ocean that is beyond national boundaries is mind-blowingly important," Andersen said.

"And something that I'm just very, very happy about. And the whole world should be because this is our common heritage."


Biologists in Slow and Steady Race to Help North America’s Largest and Rarest Tortoise Species

A US Fish and Wildlife Service employee holds Gertie, an endangered Bolson tortoise that has been a key part of the captive breeding program, at Ted Turner's Armendaris Ranch in Engle, N.M., on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. (AP)
A US Fish and Wildlife Service employee holds Gertie, an endangered Bolson tortoise that has been a key part of the captive breeding program, at Ted Turner's Armendaris Ranch in Engle, N.M., on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. (AP)
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Biologists in Slow and Steady Race to Help North America’s Largest and Rarest Tortoise Species

A US Fish and Wildlife Service employee holds Gertie, an endangered Bolson tortoise that has been a key part of the captive breeding program, at Ted Turner's Armendaris Ranch in Engle, N.M., on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. (AP)
A US Fish and Wildlife Service employee holds Gertie, an endangered Bolson tortoise that has been a key part of the captive breeding program, at Ted Turner's Armendaris Ranch in Engle, N.M., on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. (AP)

While the average lifespan of North America's largest and most rare tortoise species is unknown, biologists have said it could span upward of a century.

So saving the endangered species is a long game — one that got another nudge forward Friday as US wildlife officials finalized an agreement with Ted Turner's Endangered Species Fund that clears the way for the release of more Bolson tortoises on the media mogul's ranch in central New Mexico.

The “safe harbor agreement” will facilitate the release of captive tortoises on the Armendaris Ranch to establish a free-ranging population. US Fish and Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams said the agreement, which offers private landowners protections from regulations, can serve as a model as officials look for more innovative ways to work within the Endangered Species Act.

Dozens of people gathered for the release Friday of 20 more adult tortoises on the property, which is already home to 23 of them as well as dozens of juvenile ones. With the sun high in the sky and temperatures nearing 90 degrees (32 degrees Celsius), the release was held off until the evening to ensure their well-being.

The tortoises usually spend about 85% of the time in their earthen burrows, which in some cases can be about 21 yards (20 meters) long.

Shawn Sartorius, a field supervisor with the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the results of the breeding and restoration efforts for the slow-reproducing and long-lived animals will not be known in his lifetime.

“What we’re doing here is establishing a population here that can be handed off to the next generation,” Sartorius said.

It's a step toward one day releasing the tortoise more broadly in the Southwest as conservationists push the federal government to consider crafting a recovery plan for the species. The tortoise is just the latest example of a growing effort to find new homes for endangered species as climate change and other threats push them from their historic habitats.

Now found only in the grasslands of north-central Mexico, the tortoise once had a much larger range that included the southwestern United States. Fossil records also show it was once present in the southern Great Plains, including parts of Texas and Oklahoma.

The wild population in Mexico is thought to consist of fewer than 2,500 tortoises, and experts say threats to the animals are mounting as they are hunted for food and collected as pets. Their habitat also is shrinking as more desert grasslands are converted to farmland.

While it's been eons since the tortoises roamed wild in what is now New Mexico, Mike Phillips, director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, said it's time for biologists to reconsider what ecological reference points should matter most when talking about the recovery of an imperiled species.

Climate change is reshuffling the ecological deck and changing the importance of historical conditions in the recovery equation, Phillips said. He pointed to the case of the tortoise, noting that suitable habitat is moving north again as conditions in the Southwestern US become drier and warmer.

Absent a willingness by wildlife managers to think more broadly, he said, species like the Bolson tortoise could have a bleak future.

“It would seem in a recovery context, historical range should be considered. Prehistoric range sometimes matters too,” he said in an interview. “But most importantly, future range — because recovery is all about righting a wrong, it's about improving conditions. The future is what is of great relevance to recovery.”

Sartorius, of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, agreed, saying managers can’t look narrowly at historic range and still keep animals like the tortoise on the planet.

The question that biologists have been trying to answer is whether the Armendaris Ranch makes for a good home.

So far, the ranch, spanning more than 560 square miles (1,450 square kilometers) is proving to be an ideal spot. The landscape is similar to that where the tortoises are found in Mexico, and work done on the ranch and at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Carlsbad has resulted in more than 400 tortoises being hatched since 2006.

In all, the Turner Endangered Species Fund and its partners have been able to grow the population from 30 tortoises to about 800, said Chris Wiese, who leads the project at the Armendaris Ranch.

“The releases are the essential step to getting them back on the ground and letting them be wild tortoises,” she said. “To us, this is the pinnacle of what we do.”

The tortoises will be able to roam freely in the 16.5-acre (6.6-hectare) pen like they would in the wild. Wildlife officials will look in on them once a year.

Depending on weather conditions and forage availability, it can take a few years or more for a hatchling to reach just over 4 inches (110 millimeters) long. They can eventually grow to about 14.5 inches (370 millimeters).

The species was unknown to science until the late 1950s and has never been extensively studied.

“Each and every day we’re learning more and more about the Bolson tortoise's natural history,” Phillips said.

The goal is to build a robust captive population that can be used as a source for future releases into the wild. That work will include getting state and federal permits to release tortoises outside of the enclosures on Turner lands.

Tortoises in the pen are outfitted with transponders so they can be tracked. Those released Friday hit the ground crawling, wandering through clumps of grass and around desert scrub as the Fra Cristobal mountain range loomed in the distance.

It made for a perfect scene as one of the tortoises headed off toward the western edge of the pen, its shadow trailing behind. It was a moment that Wiese and her team have been working toward for years.

“We are not in the business of making pets,” she said. “We're in the business of making wild animals and that means you have to let them go.”