Science & Health

Youngsters Help Scientists Study Nature in 16 US Cities

In 16 U.S. cities, citizen scientists, including schoolchildren, spent a few days this month documenting plant and animal species and helping scientists understand their regions’ diversity and the challenges many species face.

The City Nature Challenge, held April 14-18, is a competition that was started last year by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences. This year, it involved institutions across the United States. The challenge is to see which city can document the most species; results are to be announced Saturday, which is Earth Day.

“Last year, it was San Francisco against Los Angeles,” said Lila Higgins, manager of citizen science at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. “This year, it’s L.A. versus San Francisco and New York and Chicago and Seattle and many, many other cities.”

The young citizen scientists took photos and recorded observations on their cellphones, uploading the data through a phone app called iNaturalist.

Frank Az, 9, of Esperanza Elementary School in Los Angeles said he loves observing nature, “finding different species of birds and insects.” He was outside the museum with binoculars and a cellphone camera, along with other students.

His friend, Andrea Garcia, was excited as she described finding “two mourning doves in their nest” as well as “ants, bees and a house finch.”

The children worked with some adult scientists who monitor species in this region, including Greg Pauly, a specialist on amphibians and reptiles at the Natural History Museum. Pauly said that Los Angeles is one of the world’s 35 top biodiversity hot spots, but that the sprawling urban complex also faces “a large threat to that biodiversity.”

The children documented their sightings of insects, flowers and birds alongside their teachers. It is something they do regularly at school. Principal Brad Rumble of Esperanza Elementary said the migration of one bird species had captured the children’s interest.

“Every year, we do a contest to predict when will the yellow-rumped warbler first arrive on campus,” he said. The students vote, and those who correctly guess the date when the tiny visitor appears get a trip to the Natural History Museum.

“That little bird,” said Rumble, “brings up so many wonderings about geography and range and weather, and why does it like this tree? These questions form in students’ minds, and they’re off and running.”

The children are learning many lessons, said museum President Lori Bettison-Varga.

“We are part of this environment, and they are part of this environment — the plants, the animals, the critters that live here,” she said, “so it’s really helping us to understand how to increase the health of our environment.”

And this annual competition, she said, gets people of all ages involved in science.

Arts & Entertainment

North Dakota’s ‘Water Protectors’ Bring Their Pipeline Story to Film

They call themselves “water protectors” and describe the Dakota Access pipeline ferrying crude oil across America as “the black snake.”

In “Awake: A Dream From Standing Rock,” the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and those who flocked to windswept tribal lands in North Dakota last year to protest the pipeline, get to tell their story on their own terms.

They also hope to build on the impetus of the months-long standoff, despite the $3.8 billion project by Energy Transfer Partners LP eventually going ahead.

“The ambition of the film is really to get people to understand the issue and feel it in a way that’s emotional,” said director Josh Fox, an environmental activist and filmmaker.

The film, comprised of three parts by different directors, premieres on Saturday – Earth Day – at the Tribeca film festival. It also will be streamed online at on a pay-what-you-can basis with all proceeds going to the cause.

“It’s really about pushing the movement forward. We also want to say, you guys did something unbelievable, and this is one way of giving a debt of gratitude,” Fox said.

The 1,172-mile (1,885-km) Dakota Access line running from North Dakota to Illinois drew international attention in 2016 after the Standing Rock Native American tribe sued to block completion of the final link, saying it would desecrate a sacred burial ground.

Environmentalists also argued that potential leaks along its length would risk poisoning the water supply for some 17 million Americans.

In February, U.S. President Donald Trump gave the go-ahead to complete the project. The protest camps were demolished and oil is expected to start flowing in mid-May.

The film contrasts the water cannon, rubber bullets, helicopters and riot gear used by law enforcement officials against the protesters with idyllic scenes of sparkling water, sunsets, starry skies and communal camp life. More than 700 people were arrested during the protests.

“The film initiates as a dream, as if the last 500 years of civilization didn’t happen,” said Fox.

“It was an amazing place, and it ran on very different principles than our society – those of sharing mutual respect and non violence,” said Fox, who spent several weeks there at the suggestion of “Divergent” actress Shailene Woodley.

Although the protesters ultimately lost the battle over the pipeline, their spirits remain high.

“Our camp is gone, but our spirit is not broken,” says Sioux member Floris Bull White. “Will you wake up and join us?”

Science & Health

Last Adventure Ahead for NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft at Saturn

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft faces one last perilous adventure around Saturn.


Cassini swings past Saturn’s mega moon Titan early Saturday for a gravity-assisted, orbit-tweaking nudge.


“That last kiss goodbye,” as project manager Earl Maize calls it, will push Cassini onto a path no spacecraft has gone before — into the gap between Saturn and its rings. It’s treacherous territory. A particle from the rings — even as small as a speck of sand — could cripple Cassini, given its velocity.


Cassini will make its first pass through the relatively narrow gap Wednesday. Twenty-two crossings are planned, about one a week, until September, when Cassini goes in and never comes out, vaporizing in Saturn’s atmosphere.


Launched in 1997, Cassini reached Saturn in 2004 and has been exploring it from orbit ever since. Its European traveling companion, Huygens, landed on Titan in 2005. Cassini’s fuel tank is practically empty, so with little left to lose, NASA has opted for a risky, but science-rich grand finale.


“What a spectacular end to a spectacular mission,” said Jim Green, NASA’s planetary science division director. “I feel a little sad in many ways that Cassini’s discoveries will end. But I’m also quite optimistic that we’re going to discover some new and really exciting science as we probe the region we’ve never probed before.”


There’s no turning back once Cassini flies past Titan, Maize said. The spacecraft on Wednesday will hurtle through the 1,200-mile-wide gap (1,900 kilometers) between Saturn’s atmosphere and its rings, at a breakneck 70,000-plus mph (113,000 kph).


From a navigation standpoint, “this is an easy shot,” Maize said. The operation will be run from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The concern is whether computer models of Saturn’s rings are accurate. On a few of the crossings, Cassini is “kind of flirting with the edge of where we think it’s safe,” he noted.


For at least the first trip through the gap, Cassini’s big dish antenna will face forward to shield the science instruments from any ring particles that might be lurking there. A couple instruments will provide a quick rundown on the dust situation.


Scientists anticipate lots of lightweight impacts, since the spacecraft will be going through extremely small material, more like smoke than distinct particles. Material from the innermost D ring — which is slowly extending into Saturn — should be diffuse enough “that we should be fine,” Maize said.


If the models are wrong and Cassini is clobbered by BB-size material, it still will end up exactly where NASA is aiming for on Sept. 15 — at Saturn. The space agency wants to keep the 22-foot-high, 13-foot-wide spacecraft away from Titan and its lakes of liquid methane and from the ice-encrusted moon Enceladus and its underground ocean and spouting geysers. It doesn’t want to shower contaminating wreckage onto these worlds that might harbor life.

This last leg of Cassini’s 20-year, $3.27 billion voyage should allow scientists to measure the mass of the multiple rings — shedding light on how old they are and how they formed — and also to determine the composition of the countless ring particles. First spotted by Galileo in 1610, the rings are believed to be 99 percent ice; the remaining 1 percent is a mystery, said project scientist Linda Spilker. A cosmic dust analyzer on Cassini will scoop up ring particles and analyze them.


“Imagine the pictures we’re going to get back of Saturn’s rings,” Spilker said.


Cassini will have the best views ever of Saturn’s poles, as it skims its surface. Near mission’s end, Spilker said, “we’re actually going to dip our toe” into Saturn’s atmosphere, sending back measurements until the last possible moment.


All this is on top of a science mission that already has rewritten the textbooks on the Saturnian system.


“But the best is still yet to come — perhaps,” Maize said at a news conference in early April. “But we are certainly going to provide more excitement.”

Silicon Valley & Technology

US Undergrads Build Prosthetic Arm for 10-year-old Violinist

The pressure was on for Abdul Gouda and his classmates at George Mason University: not only did their graduation depend on the success of their project, but so did the hopes of impossibly cute 10-year-old girl.


Fifth-grader Isabella Nicola wanted to play the violin, but she was born with no left hand and a severely abbreviated forearm. Her music teacher at Island Creek Elementary in Fairfax County had built her a prosthetic allowing her to move the bow with her left arm and finger the strings with her right — the opposite of how violin is usually taught. But the prosthetic was heavy and he thought there might be a better option. He reached out to Mason, his alma mater.


As it happened, Gouda and his four teammates in the bioengineering department were in the market for a project — students are required to take on a capstone project their senior year, and their initial idea had fallen through.


Still, Gouda admitted some hesitation at the outset.


“It’s sort of a lot of pressure,” he said. “You’ve got this young girl whose counting on you and you’re expected to deliver.”


The team — Gouda, Mona Elkholy, Ella Novoselsky, Racha Salha and Yasser Alhindi — developed multiple prototypes throughout the year. There was a fair amount of literature on similar projects that helped them get a good start, but Isabella’s case is unique to her, and the project included plenty of trial and error.


Isabella communicated easily with the group and provided feedback, especially about the weight. The first came in at 13 ounces; the final version shaved an ounce or two off of that after feedback from Isabella.


The team enlisted a music professor at Mason, Elizabeth Adams, who provided feedback on what Isabella would need to play the violin with some finesse.


On Thursday, Isabella received her final prosthetic, built from a 3-D printer, and hot pink (at her request) with “Isabella’s attachment” emblazoned on the forearm.


She played some scales as she adjusted the fit, and even a few bars of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”


“Oh my gosh, that’s so much better,” Isabella said as she tried out the new prosthetic.


And the team had a surprise for her, a plug-in attachment designed to let her grip a handlebar and ride a bicycle.


“I feel very blessed that I have this amazing group of people,” Isabella said.


Isabella had her heart set on playing music when the school began offering strings lessons in fourth grade.


“I’ve never told her no. I told her we would try. There was no guarantee the school would be able to do an adaptation,” said her mother, Andrea Cabrera. “Through these little miracles, it kept going forward.”


Isabella never had any doubt it would come together.


“I felt right away that I’d be able to play,” she said. “I’ve always had perseverance.”

Economy & business

Canadian PM Responds to Trump’s Criticism of Dairy Industry

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday that he plans to be respectful and engage the United States with a fact-based approach to solving problems a day after Donald Trump called Canada a “disgrace” for policies that hurt American farmers.


Trudeau said during a news conference alongside visiting Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni on Parliament Hill that he will stand up for Canada’s interests and people.


“The way to do that is to make arguments in a respectful fashion, based on facts, and work constructively and collaboratively with our neighbors,” said the Liberal leader.


The U.S. president took aim at Canada’s dairy industry this week for creating a new lower-priced classification of milk product that he argues hurts U.S. producers. Trump said it has put farmers in Wisconsin and New York state out of business.


Canada changed its policy on pricing domestic milk to cover more dairy ingredients, leading to lower prices for Canadian products including ultra-filtered milk that compete with U.S. milk. Canada’s dairy sector is protected by high tariffs on imported products and controls on domestic production as a means of supporting prices that farmers receive.


Trump said on Thursday “what they’ve done to our dairy farm workers is a disgrace”.


The U.S. president criticized Canadian policies related to a few industries including lumber, timber and energy, adding that officials will have to get to the negotiating table with Canada very quickly.


Trump also said this week he would make “some very big changes” to the NAFTA treaty with Canada and Mexico or “we are going to get rid of NAFTA for once and for all.”


The threat to get rid of or alter NAFTA is a potential problem for Canada, whose biggest trade partner is the United States.


Gentiloni and Trudeau on the other hand were keen to display their support for free trade and open borders, including the Canada-EU free trade pact, amid growing populist opposition.


Gentiloni, who had been in Washington on Thursday, said Canada and Italy share a common, pro-trade world view and that they live in “interesting times.” He also said the anti-trade movement is bigger than one single country.


“The United States president’s opinions are perfectly legitimate,” the Italian leader said through a translator. “But we have to be aware of the fact that this push goes against free trade as a catalyst for world growth … that is why we need to work politically, culturally and economically to fight against this trend.”


Italy is to host the G7 leaders’ summit next month, which will be part of Trump’s entry into the world of multilateral summitry.

Science & Health

Medication, Money and Maps: How to Fight a Debilitating Eye Disease

In some of the world’s remotest corners, health workers armed with smartphones, digital maps and medication are making steady progress in eliminating trachoma, the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness, a leading expert said.

Better living conditions have wiped out trachoma in many countries but some 200 million people are still at risk of contracting the disease, according to the International Trachoma Initiative (ITI).

Trachoma is categorized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a neglected tropical disease (NTD), one of a group of 18 debilitating and sometimes fatal illnesses that affect 1.5 billion people, mainly in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Efforts to treat trachoma include improving access to clean water and decreasing the number of infected people by treating them with antibiotics.

ITI Director Paul Emerson said antibiotics donation programs, increased government spending, a global mapping project identifying hotspots and the use of smartphones to collect data had been gamechangers in fighting trachoma.

“We know where the disease is, we know what to do about it and where do it,” Emerson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“That may sound simple but we can only reach our goal of eliminating trachoma through a combination of joined-up efforts.”

Trachoma can be prevented in childhood by having facilities for children to wash their faces and if caught soon enough the disease is easily treatable with repeated doses of antibiotics.

Those suffering with an advance stage of the disease, in which the eyelashes turn inward and scrape the cornea, can be treated with simple surgery.

This week, governments and private donors pledged more than $800 million at a meeting in Geneva to accelerate the fight against NTDs.

The Geneva gathering came five years after a meeting in London brought a commitment by the public and private sectors to achieve WHO goals for the control and elimination of NTDs.

Fight Gathers Steam

In 2015, nearly one billion people received treatments donated by pharmaceutical companies for at least one NTD, a 36 percent increase since 2011, the WHO said this week.

The fight against trachoma has also gathered momentum as the number of people at risk dropped by 50 percent in the last six years, while those requiring treatment now stands at 182 million, down from 325 million, according to the ITI.

Emerson said thanks to the Global Trachoma Mapping Project (GTMP), an effort to document where the disease is endemic, health workers can now say for sure where treatment is needed.

Ethiopia is one of the countries that has made significant strides in fighting trachoma, said Emerson.

The government has included fighting trachoma as a target in its national health plan, provided significant domestic funding, participated in the mapping project and is training doctors to conduct surgeries to correct the effects of trachoma.

Health workers in Ethiopia use smart phones to collect data in the field that are then streamed to an analyst who can call the field team to correct errors in real time, he said.

But despite progress in fighting trachoma and other NTDs, experts agree that drug companies need to step up donations of medicines.

“The challenge now is in reaching the most neglected populations, communities in conflict and in closing the funding gaps,” said Emerson.

Economy & business

US Will Not Issue Drilling Waivers to Russia Sanctions

The U.S. government says it will not waive trade sanctions for U.S. companies seeking to drill for oil in Russia, including for U.S. oil giant ExxonMobil.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin made the announcement Friday, indicating that the United States would maintain a tough stance on sanctions against Russia.

“In consultation with President Donald J. Trump, the Treasury Department will not be issuing waivers to U.S. companies, including Exxon, authorizing drilling prohibited by current Russian sanctions,” he said in a brief statement.

Exxon has sought permission to drill in several areas that are currently off limits because of the Russian sanctions, including in the Black Sea. It sought to resume a joint venture with Rosneft, a Russian state-owned oil company.

Exxon’s former CEO Rex Tillerson, who is now secretary of state in Trump’s Cabinet, has recused himself from the administration’s decision.

Tillerson has established close ties with Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, and has previously spoken out against the sanctions.

Crimea-related sanctions

The United States and the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia in 2014 in response to Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine.

The European Union sanctions do not keep European oil companies from operating in Russia, a fact that has frustrated Exxon.

“We understand the statement today by Secretary Mnuchin in consultation with President Trump,” Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers said in statement. However, he said the company was hamstrung by the U.S. government’s position.

“Our 2015 application for a license under the provisions outlined in the U.S. sanctions was made to enable our company to meet its contractual obligations under a joint venture agreement in Russia, where competitor companies are authorized to undertake such work under European sanctions,” Jeffers said.

Exxon has said the company previously received several waivers from the sanctions during the Obama administration for limited work with Rosneft.

Friday’s announcement comes as U.S. lawmakers continue to investigate possible ties between some Trump campaign aides and Moscow. It also comes at a time when relations between the United States and Russia have become more strained following a U.S. missile strike in Syria.

Economy & business

World Bank: Remittance Flows Slow

The global flow of remittances declined in 2016 for the second year in a row, potentially reducing access to health care, education and food for millions of families in developing nations.

Friday’s report from World Bank experts says migrants sent $429 billion from wealthy nations back to their home countries during the year. That is a drop of 2.4 percent from the previous year. 

Falling oil prices in commodity exporting nations and weak economic growth in Europe took a toll on the flow of money.

India is the world’s largest receiver of remittances and saw money sent home by its overseas workers fall by nearly $63 billion, a drop of nearly 9 percent. Steep declines were also reported in Bangladesh, Nigeria and Egypt.

The report says it costs about $15 on average to send a $200 remittance home, with even higher costs for destinations in sub-Saharan Africa. World Bank officials would like to cut that fee by more than half, but the effort is complicated by new rules intended to make it harder to launder money and commit other illegal acts.

The report in the Migration and Development Brief also says the number of refugees headed for Europe increased by 273,000 to a total of 1.6 million. Globally, refugee flows rose by 1.4 million to a total of 16.5 million. 

The lead author of the brief says migration will “almost certainly” increase due to large income gaps, widespread youth unemployment, climate change, fragility and conflict. Dilip Ratha of the World Bank says migration is also being driven by aging populations in wealthy nations. As developed nations lose workers to retirement, new employees may be needed to fill those gaps.

Science & Health

As Orbit Becomes More Crowded, Risk From Space Debris Grows

Decades’ worth of man-made junk is cluttering up Earth’s orbit, posing a threat to spaceflight and the satellites we rely on for weather reports, air travel and global communications.

More than 750,000 fragments larger than a centimeter are already thought to orbit Earth, and each one could badly damage or even destroy a satellite.

Last year, a tiny piece of debris punched a gaping hole in the solar panel of Copernicus Sentinel-1A, an observation satellite operated by the European Space Agency, or ESA. A solar array brought back from the Hubble Telescope in 1993 showed hundreds of tiny holes caused by dust-sized debris.

Experts meeting in Germany this week said the problem could get worse as private companies such as SpaceX, Google and Arlington, Virginia-based OneWeb send a flurry of new satellites into space over the coming years. They said steps should be taken to reduce space debris.

Getting all national space agencies and private companies to comply with international guidelines designed to prevent further junk in orbit would be a first step. At the moment those rules — which can be costly to implement — aren’t legally binding.

ESA’s director-general, Jan Woerner, told The Associated Press on Friday that so-called mega-constellations planned by private companies should have a maximum orbital lifetime of 25 years. After that, the satellite constellations would need to move out of the way, either by going into a so-called `graveyard orbit’ or returning to Earth.

That’s because dead satellites pose a double danger: they can collide with other spacecraft or be hit by debris themselves, potentially breaking up into tiny pieces that become a hazard in their own right.

The nightmare scenario would be an ever-growing cascade of collisions resulting in what’s called a Kessler syndrome — named after the NASA scientist who first warned about it four decades ago — that could render near-Earth orbits unusable to future generations.

“Without satellites, you don’t have weather reports, live broadcasts from the other side of the planet, stock market, air travel, online shopping, sat-nav in your car,” Rolf Densing, ESA’s director of operations, said. “You might as well move into a museum if all the satellites are switched off.”

Even if future launches adhere to the guidelines, though, there’s the question of what to do with all of the debris already in orbit.

“We have to clean the vacuum, which means we need a vacuum cleaner,” Woerner said.

Just how such a device would work is still unclear. Proposals include garbage-cleaning spacecraft armed with harpoons, nets, robotic arms and even lasers to fry really small bits of debris.

Luisa Innocenti, the head of ESA’s “clean space” initiative, said a mission is already in the works to bring down a very large piece of debris.

“It’s a very complex operation because nobody wants to fail,” she said. “Nobody wants to hit the debris and create another cloud of debris.”

Science & Health

WHO: Thousands Dying from Viral Hepatitis

The United Nations’ World Health Organization says millions of lives could be saved if people infected with viral hepatitis were tested and treated for these potentially fatal diseases.

New WHO data from the just released Hepatitis 2017 report show an estimated 325 million people globally are living with chronic hepatitis B or hepatitis C virus infections.

WHO said hundreds of thousands of people infected with these diseases are dying because they lack access to life-saving testing and treatment. The agency noted that most people are untested and do not even know that they are infected.

Consequently, WHO said they remain untreated and are at risk of “a slow progression to chronic liver disease, cancer and death.”

Hepatitis B virus is transmitted between people through contact with blood or other body fluids. Hepatitis C virus is spread through direct contact with infected blood.

Latest estimates show that viral hepatitis caused 1.34 million deaths in 2015 and that some 1.75 million people were newly infected with hepatitis C, bringing the total number of people living with this disease globally to 71 million.

Comparable to TB

Gottfried Hirnschall, director of WHOs department of HIV/global hepatitis program, said that the number of deaths from viral hepatitis was comparable to that of tuberculosis.

However, he noted that hepatitis kills more people than HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and significantly more than malaria.

“What is, however, the difference between hepatitis and those three other diseases is that the trend for hepatitis is upwards. We are seeing an increase in mortality while for the other three diseases, it has been going down over the years,” Hirnschall said. “Since 2000 and 2015, we have seen a 22 percent increase from one million, as I said, to 1.34 million.”

Hirnschall said there was a range of interventions and tools, including highly effective vaccines and medicines that can prevent hepatitis from becoming a chronic and fatal disease.

WHO estimates 257 million people worldwide were living with chronic hepatitis B in 2015. However, it noted that new infections have been falling dramatically thanks to increased coverage of HBV vaccination among children.

Hepatitis B is mainly transmitted in the first years of life from mother to child and is most prevalent in the Western Pacific and African regions.

While this safe and effective vaccine has been around since 1982, nations have been slow to use it. But Ana Maria Henao Restrepo, team leader of the department of immunization, vaccines and biologicals, observed that this has changed.

She said 95 percent or 185 countries now use the hepatitis B vaccine in routine immunization programs.

“That is great and as I mentioned because of this, 85 percent of the infants worldwide are protected with three doses of hepatitis B vaccine. Where we are lagging behind is on the first dose that is given after birth. It is very important to prevent infections from the mother,” she said.

Restrepo said only 50 percent of countries were delivering this vaccine. Without this vaccine, she said “people become chronically infected and require medication and diagnosis” throughout their lifetime.

Unsafe injections

Unsafe injections in health care settings and injecting drug use are the most common modes of hepatitis C transmission. The problem is most widespread in the Eastern Mediterranean and European regions.

While using clean needles and syringes will prevent transmission of the disease, Gottfried Hirnschall said there is a highly effective drug that can cure hepatitis C within a relatively short time.

“A person needs to take a single tablet or a tablet every day for two to three months and most of the people will be cured.”

He said few people have availed themselves of this treatment for a long time because of the exorbitantly high $84,000 price tag.

“They were very high to start with. They are still very high in many countries, particularly in high-income countries,” he said.

“But, as the report also points out, the price of these treatments has come down considerably. It costs as little as $200 in some countries now, per cure for treatments, which is quite striking.”

Charles Gore, President of the World Hepatitis Alliance said WHO’s Global Hepatitis Report provides an understanding of the true impact of the disease, providing “new data and a set of very specific, global and regional targets to reach by 2030.

“For instance, global deaths from hepatitis must be brought down from 1.34 million to lower than 469,000 people per year,” he said.

Hirnschall said the new possibilities of cure for hepatitis C and the possible elimination of hepatitis B through vaccination have created some positive momentum and greater public attention on these heretofore “silent epidemics.”

“The momentum has clearly been driven by the excitement around some new opportunities we do now have,” he said.