US Tracks New Strain of Covid-19

A CDC sign stands at the entrance of the agency's offices in
Atlanta. (AP Photo/Ron Harris, File)
A CDC sign stands at the entrance of the agency's offices in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Ron Harris, File)
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US Tracks New Strain of Covid-19

A CDC sign stands at the entrance of the agency's offices in
Atlanta. (AP Photo/Ron Harris, File)
A CDC sign stands at the entrance of the agency's offices in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Ron Harris, File)

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Thursday that it was tracking a new, highly mutated lineage of the virus that causes COVID-19, Reuters reported.

The lineage is named BA.2.86, and has been detected in the United States, Denmark and Israel, the CDC said in a post on messaging platform X (formerly Twitter).

“As we learn more about BA.2.86, CDC’s advice on protecting yourself from COVID-19 remains the same,” the agency said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) earlier on Thursday said in a post on X that it had classified BA.2.86 as a “variant under monitoring” due to the large number of mutations it carries.



Clouds Gather over Japan’s Ambitious Osaka World Expo

This photo taken on April 2, 2024 shows construction underway at the site of the 2025 Expo on Yumeshima island, an area of reclaimed land in Osaka. (AFP)
This photo taken on April 2, 2024 shows construction underway at the site of the 2025 Expo on Yumeshima island, an area of reclaimed land in Osaka. (AFP)
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Clouds Gather over Japan’s Ambitious Osaka World Expo

This photo taken on April 2, 2024 shows construction underway at the site of the 2025 Expo on Yumeshima island, an area of reclaimed land in Osaka. (AFP)
This photo taken on April 2, 2024 shows construction underway at the site of the 2025 Expo on Yumeshima island, an area of reclaimed land in Osaka. (AFP)

One of the largest wooden structures ever built is taking shape in Osaka, but hopes that Expo 2025 will unite the world are being dogged by cost blowouts and a lack of public enthusiasm.

The imposing circular centerpiece will be crowned by a 20-metre-high (65-foot) sloping canopy, designed by top architect Sou Fujimoto, known as the "Grand Roof".

It has a circumference of a staggering two kilometers and 161 countries and territories will show off their trade opportunities and cultural attractions at pavilions within the vast latticed ring.

A crane hoisted a block of beams into place this week as organizers said construction was largely on schedule, one year before visitors will be welcomed.

Expo 2025 global PR director Sachiko Yoshimura maintained that global participants would be "united" by the event even though there are conflicts in Ukraine, Gaza and elsewhere.

Russia will not be among the participants at Expo 2025, which will run from April 13 to October 13.

"Of course, there are so many crises around the world, but we want everybody to actually get together and think about the future and sustainability," Yoshimura said.

It has also met a lukewarm response in Japan, where promotion is ramping up and the red-and-blue Expo 2025 mascot "Myaku-Myaku" -- billed by the official website as "a mysterious creature born from the unification of cells and water" -- is ever-present.

A recent Kyodo News survey found that 82 percent of Japanese companies, sponsors and others involved said "fostering domestic momentum" would be a challenge.

Ballooning budget

The construction budget has ballooned 27 percent from 2020 estimates to 235 billion yen ($1.5 billion) due to inflation and Japan's chronic worker shortage.

Some say the costs are also hard to justify when 6,300 people are still in evacuation centers and hotels after an earthquake on New Year's Day devastated parts of central Japan.

Fujimoto's "Grand Roof" alone has a price tag of 35 billion yen and has been slammed by opposition leader Kenta Izumi as "the world's most expensive parasol".

The "Grand Roof" and other structures are temporary, with no clear plan for them other than organizers saying they will be reused or recycled.

The site on an artificial island in Osaka Bay will be cleared after the Expo, with plans to build a resort there containing Japan's first casino.

Jun Takashina, deputy secretary general of the Japan Association for Osaka 2025, acknowledged budget and regulatory "struggles" among foreign participants but said organizers would help make sure the displays are ready in time.

Among the most hotly anticipated attractions are flying electric cars, which take off vertically, showcasing the event's technological and environmental aspirations.

But the vehicles -- subject to reams of regulations -- will be a "kind of experiment", Yoshimura said.

More than 1.2 million tickets have already been sold and organizers hope to attract 28.2 million visitors, including 3.5 million from abroad.

That would be four million more than the last World Fair in Dubai but pales in comparison to the 64 million people who attended the 1970 Expo in Osaka, a record until it was overtaken by Shanghai in 2010.

'Future like science fiction'

The first world fair to celebrate culture and industrial progress was held in London in 1851, with the Eiffel Tower built for the 1889 Paris World Fair.

Osaka academic Shinya Hashizume, a specialist in architecture history and town planning, said he was amazed as a 10-year-old when he saw a "future that looked like science fiction" at the 1970 Expo.

The first film in IMAX format was shown at that event and visitors could admire rocks brought back from the Moon.

"Those six months were extraordinary for Osaka. Simply put, the whole town was having a party," he said.

The advent of mass tourism and hyper-connected societies may have since lessened the attraction but some Osaka residents still think it's a good idea.

Kosuke Ito, a 36-year-old doctor, said it would "strengthen the economy".

However, Yuka Nakamura, 26, said she might be put off by adult entry fees ranging from 4,000 to 7,500 yen ($25 to $50) a day.


Red Sea Fund Launches 2nd Phase of 4th Cycle to Support Production Projects

Red Sea Fund Launches 2nd Phase of 4th Cycle to Support Production Projects
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Red Sea Fund Launches 2nd Phase of 4th Cycle to Support Production Projects

Red Sea Fund Launches 2nd Phase of 4th Cycle to Support Production Projects

The Red Sea Fund announced the launch of the second phase of its fourth cycle, dedicated to supporting projects in the production stage, which will continue until April 30.
The fund now accepts applications from directors of Arab and African origin and nationality. This includes feature-length fiction projects (minimum length of 60 minutes), documentaries, and animation projects, SPA reported.
The Red Sea Fund supports film projects that are ready for production, including feature films (no less than 60 minutes), whether fiction or animation, by Arab directors or those of Arab origin or African nationality. The fund also supports series (25-59 minutes per episode) by Arab directors or those of Arab origin or African nationality, in addition to short films (less than 60 minutes), whether fiction, documentary, or animation, by Saudi directors.
The Red Sea Fund, a leading force in the world of Arab and African film financing, operating through four cycles to support projects in the development, production, and post-production stages.


O.J. Simpson, Football Star Turned Celebrity Murder Defendant, Dead at 76

O. J. Simpson sits in Superior Court in Los Angeles on December 8, 1994 during an open court session where Judge Lance Ito denied a media attorney's request to open court transcripts from a 07 December private meeting involving prospective jurors. (AFP)
O. J. Simpson sits in Superior Court in Los Angeles on December 8, 1994 during an open court session where Judge Lance Ito denied a media attorney's request to open court transcripts from a 07 December private meeting involving prospective jurors. (AFP)
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O.J. Simpson, Football Star Turned Celebrity Murder Defendant, Dead at 76

O. J. Simpson sits in Superior Court in Los Angeles on December 8, 1994 during an open court session where Judge Lance Ito denied a media attorney's request to open court transcripts from a 07 December private meeting involving prospective jurors. (AFP)
O. J. Simpson sits in Superior Court in Los Angeles on December 8, 1994 during an open court session where Judge Lance Ito denied a media attorney's request to open court transcripts from a 07 December private meeting involving prospective jurors. (AFP)

O.J. Simpson, the American football star and actor who was sensationally acquitted in 1995 of murdering his former wife in what US media dubbed the "trial of the century", has died at the age of 76.

His family said in a social media post on Thursday that he had died on Wednesday after a battle with cancer.

Simpson was found not guilty in the 1994 stabbing deaths of former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman in Los Angeles, although he was found responsible for her death in a civil lawsuit.

Simpson later served nine years in a Nevada prison after being convicted in 2008 on 12 counts of armed robbery and kidnapping two sports memorabilia dealers at gunpoint in a Las Vegas hotel.

Nicknamed "The Juice," Simpson was one of the best and most popular athletes of the late 1960s and 1970s. He overcame childhood infirmity to become an electrifying running back at the University of Southern California and won the Heisman Trophy as college football's top player. After a record-setting career in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Simpson parlayed his football stardom into a career as a sportscaster, advertising pitchman and Hollywood actor in films including the "Naked Gun" series.

All that changed after Nicole Brown Simpson and Goldman were found fatally slashed in a bloody scene outside her Los Angeles home on June 12, 1994.

Simpson quickly emerged as a suspect. He was ordered to surrender to police but five days after the killings, he fled in his white Ford Bronco with a former teammate - carrying his passport and a disguise. A slow-speed chase through the Los Angeles area ended at Simpson's mansion and he was later charged in the murders.

What ensued was one of the most notorious trials in 20th century America and a media circus. It had everything: a rich celebrity defendant; a Black man accused of killing his white former wife out of jealousy; a woman slain after divorcing a man who had beaten her; a "dream team" of pricy and charismatic defense lawyers; and a huge gaffe by prosecutors.

Simpson, who at the outset of the case declared himself "absolutely 100 percent not guilty," waved at the jurors and mouthed the words "thank you" after the predominately Black panel of 10 women and two men acquitted him on Oct. 3, 1995.

Prosecutors argued that Simpson killed Nicole in a jealous fury, and they presented extensive blood, hair and fiber tests linking Simpson to the murders. The defense countered that the celebrity defendant was framed by racist white police.

The trial transfixed America. In the White House, President Bill Clinton left the Oval Office and watched the verdict on his secretary's TV. Many Black Americans celebrated his acquittal, seeing Simpson as the victim of bigoted police. Many white Americans were appalled by his exoneration.

Simpson's legal team included prominent criminal defense lawyers Johnnie Cochran, Alan Dershowitz and F. Lee Bailey, who often out-maneuvered the prosecution. Prosecutors committed a memorable blunder when they directed Simpson to try on a pair of blood-stained gloves found at the murder scene, confident they would fit perfectly and show he was the killer.

In a highly theatrical demonstration, Simpson struggled to put on the gloves and indicated to the jury they did not fit.

Delivering the trial's most famous words, Cochran referred to the gloves in closing arguments to jurors with a rhyme: "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit." Dershowitz later called the prosecution decision to ask Simpson to try on the gloves "the greatest legal blunder of the 20th century."

"What this verdict tells you is how fame and money can buy the best defense, can take a case of overwhelming incriminating physical evidence and transform it into a case riddled with reasonable doubt," Peter Arenella, a UCLA law professor, told the New York Times after the verdict.

"A predominantly African-American jury was more susceptible to claims of police incompetence and corruption and more willing to impose a higher burden of proof than normally required for proof beyond a reasonable doubt," Arenella said.

After his acquittal, Simpson said that "I will pursue as my primary goal in life the killer or killers who slayed Nicole and Mr. Goldman... They are out there somewhere... I would not, could not and did not kill anyone."

The Goldman and Brown families subsequently pursued a wrongful death lawsuit against Simpson in civil court. In 1997, a predominately white jury in Santa Monica, California, found Simpson liable for the two deaths and ordered him to pay $33.5 million in damages.

"We finally have justice for Ron and Nicole," Fred Goldman, Ron Goldman's father, said after the verdict.

Simpson's "dream team" did not represent him in the civil trial in which the burden of proof was lower than in a criminal trial - a "preponderance of the evidence" rather than "beyond a reasonable doubt." New evidence also hurt Simpson, including photographs of him wearing the type of shoes that had left bloody footprints at the murder scene.

After the civil case, some of Simpson's belongings, including memorabilia from his football days, were taken and auctioned off to help pay the damages he owed.

On Oct. 3, 2008, exactly 13 years after his acquittal in the murder trial, he was convicted by a Las Vegas jury on charges including kidnapping and armed robbery. These stemmed from a 2007 incident at a casino hotel in which Simpson and five men, at least two carrying guns, stole sports memorabilia worth thousands of dollars from two dealers.

Simpson said he was just trying to recover his own property but was sentenced to up to 33 years in prison.

"I didn't want to hurt anybody," Simpson, donning a blue prison jumpsuit with shackles on his legs and wrists, said at his sentencing. "I didn't know I was doing anything wrong."

Simpson was released on parole in 2017 and moved into a gated community in Las Vegas. He was granted early release from parole in 2021 due to good behavior at age 74.

His life saga was recounted in the Oscar-winning 2016 documentary "O.J.: Made in America" as well as various TV dramatizations.

Orenthal James Simpson was born in San Francisco on July 9, 1947. He contracted rickets at age 2 and was forced to wear leg braces until he was 5 but recovered so thoroughly that he became one of the most celebrated football players of all time.

During nine seasons for the Buffalo Bills and two for the San Francisco 49ers, Simpson became one of the greatest ball carriers in NFL history. In 1973, he became the first NFL player to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season. He retired in 1979.

Simpson also became an advertising pitchman, best known for years of TV commercials for Hertz rental cars. As an actor, he appeared in movies including "The Towering Inferno" (1974), "Capricorn One" (1977) and the "The Naked Gun" cop spoof films in 1988, 1991 and 1994, playing a witless police detective.

Simpson married his first wife, Marguerite, in 1967 and they had three children, including one who drowned in the family's swimming pool at age 2 in 1979, the year the couple divorced.

Simpson met future wife Nicole Brown when she was a 17-year-old waitress and he was still married to Marguerite. Simpson and Brown married in 1985 and had two children. She later called police after incidents in which he struck her. Simpson pleaded no contest to spousal abuse charges in 1989.


Horse Waits for Train at Station in Australia

The racehorse queuing for their own transport - The Racing Post
The racehorse queuing for their own transport - The Racing Post
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Horse Waits for Train at Station in Australia

The racehorse queuing for their own transport - The Racing Post
The racehorse queuing for their own transport - The Racing Post

An escaped horse was captured on security video waiting for the train at a railway station in Sydney, Australia, last week.

Photos show the horse walking along the railway platform amid a storm on Friday and standing patiently as a train pulled in, as if waiting to board.

Racing NSW chief steward Steve Railton told Racenet: "We've spoken to Annabel Neasham and she explained to us that on Friday evening an unknown person gained access to one of her stable blocks. Four horses were released by the individual – three registered racehorses and a stable pony.

Three of those horses remained nearby to the stable, while the horse depicted in video released on social media platforms went in a different direction, according to The Racing Post.

"Neasham and her staff caught the horse in the car park of the train station, and she's advised stewards she wasn't aware until she saw the footage that the horse had walked on to the platform."


Leonardo DiCaprio Voices Support for Scotland in Rewilding Efforts

Leonardo DiCaprio. (File Photo/ The AP)
Leonardo DiCaprio. (File Photo/ The AP)
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Leonardo DiCaprio Voices Support for Scotland in Rewilding Efforts

Leonardo DiCaprio. (File Photo/ The AP)
Leonardo DiCaprio. (File Photo/ The AP)

Hollywood superstar Leonardo DiCaprio has joined Scottish environmentalists in urging ministers to declare the country a rewilding nation.

He took to Instagram to share the message of the Scottish Rewilding Alliance with his 62.1 million followers.

The Oscar-winning actor wrote: "The Scottish Rewilding Alliance is urging the Scottish government to declare Scotland a rewilding nation, committing to nature recovery across 30% of the land and seas to benefit nature, climate, and people."

About 6,000 years ago, most of southern Scotland was covered by broadleaf woodland, interspersed with patches of rich scrub, heath, and bog, he noted.

"With this campaign, Scotland could be a world leader in rewilding its landscapes, ensuring clean air and water, storing carbon, reducing flooding, restoring wildlife, and improving the lives of locals."

DiCaprio - who attended COP26 in Glasgow as a UN representative on climate change - called on his followers to visit the link in on his social media page to learn more about the cause.


Moderna Puts Kenya Plant Plans on Hold as COVID Vaccine Demand Slumps

FILE PHOTO: Moderna logo is seen displayed in this illustration taken, May 3, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Moderna logo is seen displayed in this illustration taken, May 3, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo
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Moderna Puts Kenya Plant Plans on Hold as COVID Vaccine Demand Slumps

FILE PHOTO: Moderna logo is seen displayed in this illustration taken, May 3, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Moderna logo is seen displayed in this illustration taken, May 3, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

Moderna said on Thursday it had paused its plans to build a vaccine manufacturing facility in Kenya, following a post-pandemic decline in demand for COVID-19 vaccines.
The company had said in 2022 that it would invest about $500 million in the Kenyan facility and supply as many as 500 million doses of its mRNA vaccines to the continent each year.
It also had plans to start filling doses of its COVID vaccine in Africa as early as 2023.
However, demand for COVID vaccines has since then waned following the end of the pandemic and Moderna has not received any vaccine orders for Africa since 2022, the company said, according to Reuters.
The drugmaker said it had taken more than $1 billion in losses and write-downs related to the cancellation of previous orders.


Russia Launches Angara-A5 Space Rocket

FILE PHOTO: The Angara-A5 rocket is seen on its launchpad at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, April 8, 2024. Roscosmos/Handout via REUTERS
FILE PHOTO: The Angara-A5 rocket is seen on its launchpad at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, April 8, 2024. Roscosmos/Handout via REUTERS
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Russia Launches Angara-A5 Space Rocket

FILE PHOTO: The Angara-A5 rocket is seen on its launchpad at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, April 8, 2024. Roscosmos/Handout via REUTERS
FILE PHOTO: The Angara-A5 rocket is seen on its launchpad at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, April 8, 2024. Roscosmos/Handout via REUTERS

Russia test launched its Angara-A5 rocket from the Far Eastern Vostochny Cosmodrome on Thursday after technical glitches prompted officials to abort missions at the very last minute for two days in a row.

The launch of the Angara is intended to showcase Russia's post-Soviet space ambitions and the growing role played by Vostochny.

On Wednesday the test launch of the space rocket was cancelled due to a malfunction of the engine launch control system.

The first attempt on Tuesday also failed because the automatic safety system registered a flaw in the oxidizer tank pressurization system, said National space agency Roscosmos head Yuri Borisov.

Thursday’s launch was the fourth for the Angara-A5, a heavy-lift version of the new Angara family of rockets that has been developed to replace the Soviet-designed Proton rockets.

The previous three launches were carried out from the Plesetsk launchpad in northwestern Russia.

After the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia leased the Baikonur Cosmodrome from Kazakhstan and continued to use it for most of its space launches. The agreement with Kazakhstan allows Russia to keep leasing Baikonur for $115 million a year through 2050.


Japanese Astronaut to be 1st Non-American to Set Foot on Moon

MARTIN, OHIO - APRIL 08: The moon passes in front of the sun during a solar eclipse on April 08, 2024 in Martin Ohio. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images/AFP
MARTIN, OHIO - APRIL 08: The moon passes in front of the sun during a solar eclipse on April 08, 2024 in Martin Ohio. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images/AFP
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Japanese Astronaut to be 1st Non-American to Set Foot on Moon

MARTIN, OHIO - APRIL 08: The moon passes in front of the sun during a solar eclipse on April 08, 2024 in Martin Ohio. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images/AFP
MARTIN, OHIO - APRIL 08: The moon passes in front of the sun during a solar eclipse on April 08, 2024 in Martin Ohio. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images/AFP

A lucky Japanese astronaut will become the first non-American to set foot on the Moon during one of NASA's upcoming Artemis missions, US President Joe Biden announced Wednesday.

The offer to Japan -- an opportunity many nations have long dreamed of -- came as part of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's state visit, and as Washington seeks to strengthen ties with its key Asian ally.

"Two Japanese astronauts will join future American missions, and one will become the first non-American ever to land on the Moon," Biden said in a press conference with Kishida, according to Agence France Presse.

Kishida hailed the announcement as a "huge achievement" and announced that Japan would in return supply a rover for the program.

NASA's Artemis program seeks to return humans to the Moon for the first time in over 50 years, and to build a sustained lunar presence ahead of potential missions to Mars.

Between 1969 and 1972, the US Apollo program saw 12 Americans -- all white men -- walk on the Moon.

NASA previously announced that the Artemis program would see the first woman and the first person of color land on the Moon.

"America will no longer walk on the Moon alone," NASA chief Bill Nelson said in a video published on social media.

"Diplomacy is good for discovery. And discovery is good for diplomacy," he added.

The first mission to take astronauts to the lunar surface, Artemis 3, is planned for 2026. China meanwhile has said it seeks to put humans on the Moon by 2030.

Japan's space agency JAXA is "extremely happy" about the announcement, a spokesman told AFP.

"We will do our best to implement the agreement," including developing the rover for the program, he said.


Russia, Kazakhstan Battle Record Floods as Rivers Rise Further

An aerial photo taken with a drone shows the flooded residential area of the outskirts of Orenburg, Orenburg region, Russia, 10 April 2024. EPA/STRINGER
An aerial photo taken with a drone shows the flooded residential area of the outskirts of Orenburg, Orenburg region, Russia, 10 April 2024. EPA/STRINGER
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Russia, Kazakhstan Battle Record Floods as Rivers Rise Further

An aerial photo taken with a drone shows the flooded residential area of the outskirts of Orenburg, Orenburg region, Russia, 10 April 2024. EPA/STRINGER
An aerial photo taken with a drone shows the flooded residential area of the outskirts of Orenburg, Orenburg region, Russia, 10 April 2024. EPA/STRINGER

The Russian city of Orenburg battled rising water levels on Thursday after major rivers across Russia and Kazakhstan burst their banks in the worst flooding seen in the areas in nearly a century.
The deluge of meltwater has forced over 110,000 people from their homes in Russia's Ural Mountains, Siberia and Kazakhstan as major rivers such as the Ural, which flows through Kazakhstan into the Caspian, overwhelmed embankments, Reuters reported.
Residents in the city of Orenburg said the waters of the Ural rose very swiftly and to far beyond breaking point, forcing them to flee with just their children, pets and a few belongings.
"It came very quickly at night," Taisiya, 71, told Reuters in Orenburg, a city of 550,000 about 1,200 km (750 miles) east of Moscow. "By the time I got ready, I couldn't get out."
Whole areas of the city were underwater, and the Ural rose another 32 cm (13 inches) to 10.54 meters (34.6 ft), 124 cm (49 inches) above the level considered by local authorities as safe. Officials warned the river would rise further.
The flooding has struck Russia's Urals and the northern Kazakhstan worst, though waters are also rising southern parts of Western Siberia, the largest hydrocarbon basin in the world, and in some places near the Volga, Europe's biggest river.
Water levels were also rising in Siberia's Tomsk, which sits on the Tom River, a tributary of the Ob, and in Kurgan, which straddles the Tobol river.
After the Ural burst through dam embankments in Orsk, upstream from Orenburg, on Friday, some residents expressed anger over how local officials had handled the situation, demanding greater compensation and begging for help from President Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin said Putin was being updated regularly on the situation but had no current plans to visit the area while emergency services tried to deal with rising waters.
In Orenburg, some residents expressed disappointment that local officials had not done enough to prepare for the annual snow melt.
"There is a lot of excitement, indignation and strong emotions that I understand and share," Orenburg Mayor Sergei Salmin said. "The issue of receiving compensation and the procedure for processing payments is one of the main ones."
SNOW MELT
Spring flooding is a usual part of life across Russia - which has an area equal to the United States and Australia combined - as the heavy winter snows melt, swelling some of mighty rivers of Russia and Central Asia.
This year, though, a combination of factors triggered unusually severe flooding, according to emergency workers.
They said soils were waterlogged before winter and then was frozen under deep snow falls which melted very fast in rising spring temperatures and heavy rains.
Climate researchers have long warned that rising temperatures could increase the incidence of extreme weather events, and that heavily forested Russia is of major importance in the global climate equation.
In Kurgan, a region which straddles the Tobol river, water levels rose in Zverinogolovkoye beyond the critical 10 meter (33 foot) mark, said Governor Vadim Shumkov who was shown visiting evacuated families.
Kazakhstan has been badly hit.
The emergencies ministry said on Thursday morning that the number of evacuees stood at over 97,000, unchanged from Wednesday, and a state of emergency remained in effect in eight regions of the country.
Emergency workers have removed 8.8 million cubic meters (310 million cubic feet) of water from flooded areas, the ministry said. The Kazakh government also said movement was restricted on hundreds of kilometers of roads in the Aktobe, Akmola, Atyrau, Kostanai, Mangistau and North Kazakhstan regions.


Scientists Are Grasping at Straws While Trying to Protect Infant Corals from Fish

This  July 26, 2023 image provided by phade® by WinCup, Inc., shows a "Coral Fort," made of biodegradable drinking straws that researchers are using to prevent laboratory-grown coral from becoming really expensive fish food, off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.  (Chris Gug/phade® by WinCup, Inc. via AP)
This July 26, 2023 image provided by phade® by WinCup, Inc., shows a "Coral Fort," made of biodegradable drinking straws that researchers are using to prevent laboratory-grown coral from becoming really expensive fish food, off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Chris Gug/phade® by WinCup, Inc. via AP)
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Scientists Are Grasping at Straws While Trying to Protect Infant Corals from Fish

This  July 26, 2023 image provided by phade® by WinCup, Inc., shows a "Coral Fort," made of biodegradable drinking straws that researchers are using to prevent laboratory-grown coral from becoming really expensive fish food, off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.  (Chris Gug/phade® by WinCup, Inc. via AP)
This July 26, 2023 image provided by phade® by WinCup, Inc., shows a "Coral Fort," made of biodegradable drinking straws that researchers are using to prevent laboratory-grown coral from becoming really expensive fish food, off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Chris Gug/phade® by WinCup, Inc. via AP)

South Florida researchers trying to prevent predatory fish from devouring laboratory-grown coral are grasping at biodegradable straws in an effort to restore what some call the rainforest of the sea.
Scientists around the world have been working for years to address the decline of coral reef populations. Just last summer, reef rescue groups in South Florida and the Florida Keys were trying to save coral from rising ocean temperatures. Besides working to keep existing coral alive, researchers have also been growing new coral in labs and then placing them in the ocean.
But protecting the underwater ecosystem that maintains upwards of 25% of all marine species is not easy. Even more challenging is making sure that coral grown in a laboratory and placed into the ocean doesn't become expensive fish food.
Marine researcher Kyle Pisano said one problem is that predators like parrot fish attempt to bite and destroy the newly transplanted coral in areas like South Florida, leaving them with less than a 40% survival rate. With projects calling for thousands of coral to be planted over the next year and tens of thousands of coral to be planted over the next decade, the losses add up when coral pieces can cost more than $100 each.
Pisano and his partner, Kirk Dotson, have developed the Coral Fort, claiming the small biodegradable cage that's made in part with drinking straws boosts the survival rate of transplanted coral to over 90%.
"Parrot fish on the reef really, really enjoy biting a newly transplanted coral," Pisano said. “They treat it kind of like popcorn."
Fortunately the fish eventually lose interest in the coral as it matures, but scientists need to protect the coral in the meantime. Stainless steel and PVC pipe barriers have been set up around transplanted coral in the past, but those barriers needed to be cleaned of algae growth and eventually removed.
Pisano had the idea of creating a protective barrier that would eventually dissolve, eliminating the need to maintain or remove it. He began conducting offshore experiments with biodegradable coral cages as part of a master’s degree program at Nova Southeastern University. He used a substance called polyhydroxyalkanoate, a biopolymer derived from the fermentation of canola oil. PHA biodegrades in ocean, leaving only water and carbon dioxide. His findings were published last year.
The coral cage consists of a limestone disc surrounded by eight vertical phade brand drinking straws, made by Atlanta-based WinCup Inc. The device doesn't have a top, Pisano said, because the juvenile coral needs sunlight and the parrot fish don't generally want to position themselves facing downward to eat.
Dotson, a retired aerospace engineer, met Pisano through his professor at Nova Southeastern, and the two formed Reef Fortify Inc. to further develop and market the patent-pending Coral Fort. The first batch of cages were priced at $12 each, but Pisano and Dotson believe that could change as production scales up.
Early prototypes of the cage made from phade's standard drinking straws were able to protect the coral for about two months before dissolving in the ocean, but that wasn't quite long enough to outlast the interest of parrot fish. When Pisano and Dotson reached out to phade for help, the company assured them that it could make virtually any custom shape from its biodegradable PHA material.
“But it’s turning out that the boba straws, straight out of the box, work just fine,” Dotson said.
Boba straws are wider and thicker than normal drinking straws. They're used for a tea-based drink that includes tapioca balls at the bottom of the cup. For Pisano and Dotson, that extra thickness means the straws last just long enough to protect the growing coral before harmlessly disappearing.
Reef Fortify is hoping to work with reef restoration projects all over the world. The Coral Forts already already being used by researchers at Nova Southeastern and the University of Miami, as well as Hawaii's Division of Aquatic Resources.
Rich Karp, a coral researcher at the University of Miami, said they've been using the Coral Forts for about a month. He pointed out that doing any work underwater takes a great deal of time and effort, so having a protective cage that dissolves when it's no longer needed basically cuts their work in half.
"Simply caging corals and then removing the cages later, that’s two times the amount of work, two times the amount of bottom time," Karp said. "And it’s not really scalable.”
Experts say coral reefs are a significant part of the oceanic ecosystem. They occupy less than 1% of the ocean worldwide but provide food and shelter to nearly 25 percent of sea life.