Science & Health

UN Urges Ambitious Action to Protect Oceans

World leaders must do more to protect the oceans, a major U.N. conference concluded Friday, setting its sights on a new treaty to protect the high seas. 

“Greater ambition is required at all levels to address the dire state of the ocean,” the U.N. Ocean Conference in Lisbon said in its final declaration. 

The meeting in the Portuguese capital — attended by government officials, experts and advocates from 140 countries — is not a negotiating forum. But it sets the agenda for final international negotiations in August on a treaty to protect the high seas — those international waters beyond national jurisdiction. 

“Biodiversity loss, the decline of the ocean’s health, the way the climate crisis is going … it all has one common reason, which is … human behavior, our addiction to oil and gas, and all of them have to be addressed,” Peter Thomson, U.N. special envoy for the ocean, told AFP. 

Oceans produce half the oxygen we breathe, regulate the weather and provide humanity’s single largest source of protein. 

They also absorb a quarter of CO2 pollution and 90% of excess heat from global warming, thus playing a key role in protecting life on Earth. 

But they are being pushed to the brink by human activities.  

Sea water has turned acidic, threatening aquatic food chains and the ocean’s capacity to absorb carbon. Global warming has spawned massive marine heat waves that are killing off coral reefs and expanding dead zones bereft of oxygen. 

Humans have fished some marine species to the edge of extinction and used the world’s waters as a rubbish dump.  


Patchwork of agreements

Today, a patchwork of agreements and regulatory bodies govern shipping, fishing and mineral extraction from the seabed.

Thomson said he was “very confident” national governments could agree on a “robust but operable” high seas treaty in August. 

Tiago Pitta e Cunha, head of Portuguese foundation Oceano Azul (Blue Ocean), said: “Pressure has increased a lot on less interested countries to create an effective mechanism to protect the high seas.” 

Laura Meller of Greenpeace called for more action. 

“We know that if words could save the oceans, then they wouldn’t be on the brink of collapse,” she told AFP. “So in August when governments meet at the United Nations, they really need to finalize a strong global ocean treaty.” 

Efforts to protect the oceans will then continue at two key summits later this year: U.N. climate talks in November and U.N. biodiversity negotiations in December. 

Overfishing, mining, plastic

At the heart of the draft U.N. biodiversity treaty is a plan to designate 30% of Earth’s land and oceans as protected zones by 2030.

Currently, under 8% of oceans are protected.

A number of new, protected marine areas could be declared off-limits to fishing, mining, drilling or other extractive activities that scientists say disrupt fragile seabed ecosystems. 

Making things worse is an unending torrent of pollution, including a rubbish truck’s worth of plastic every minute, the United Nations says.  

“The ocean is not a rubbish dump,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned on Monday. “It is not a source of infinite plunder. It is a fragile system on which we all depend.”

Science & Health

Researchers Forecast Volcanic Eruptions Using Satellite Data 

Scientists appear one step closer to predicting volcanic eruptions — a problem that has vexed volcanologists for decades. Research published last week in Nature Geoscience found that using satellite observations to calculate how quickly underground molten rock, or magma, accumulates beneath volcanoes could forecast certain eruptions weeks or months in advance.   


“Any kind of information we can use to get at this forecasting thing is going to be important, because the more time you have to warn people that they can take some action, the more you can decrease the impacts of eruptions,” volcanologist Michael Poland of the United States Geological Survey told VOA. “That’s all we have, really, in terms of decreasing eruption impacts — to get out of the way.”   


Most volcanoes don’t erupt without warning. They swell up, set off small earthquakes and let off gas leading up to an eruption — what volcanologists call “unrest.” But while volcanoes rarely erupt completely out of the blue, it’s also not uncommon for unrest to settle down without an eruption.    


“The challenge is to understand when these changes in these monitoring parameters will lead to eruption, and when it doesn’t,” Federico Galetto, a volcanologist at Cornell University and first author of the new study, told VOA.   


Currently, the gold standard for eruption forecasting involves highly localized observation of individual volcanoes, said Poland. But most volcanoes aren’t closely monitored on the ground. In contrast, deformation — how volcanoes bulge and distort during unrest — can be measured from space for even the most remote volcanoes.   


“The satellite deformation technique has really shown that a lot of these volcanoes inflate and deflate, and that allows us to help get to that sort of forecasting ‘Holy Grail’ in some places where there aren’t ground-based data,” said Poland.  

Unfortunately, deformation alone can’t reliably forecast eruptions. But Galetto and his colleagues thought that magma flow rate, which can be calculated using deformation data, might work better.    


To find out, they considered 45 episodes of unrest in basaltic calderas — common volcanoes that usually look like flat, broad shields of dark basalt rock, including the volcanoes of Hawaii, Iceland and the Galápagos Islands. Basaltic calderas are considered relatively easy to study thanks to relatively shallow magma chambers — pools of molten rock beneath the Earth’s surface — and frequent eruptions, and they have been observed for a long time.     


“They picked a subset where we have a lot of information and a lot of observations, these basaltic calderas,” said Poland. “These types of volcanoes, we have a lot of experience with … they tend to be great laboratories.”   


Galetto’s analysis revealed that magma flow rate reliably predicted whether unrest would end in a magma chamber rupture — which usually causes eruption — or just fizzle out.   


All volcanoes in the dataset with magma flow rates greater than one-tenth of a cubic kilometer per year — roughly 40,000 Olympic swimming pools — ruptured their magma chambers within a year. Inflow rates 10 times lower didn’t lead to a magma chamber rupture in 89% of cases, and never before more than a year of unrest. Volcanoes with middling flow rates were harder to predict, with factors like rock type and magma chamber size coming into play.   


“This is really promising,” said Galetto. “That seems to [be] working very well in these types of volcanoes.”    


Calculations by Galetto and his team suggest that low magma flow rates don’t tend to cause eruptions because slow-filling magma chambers behave a bit like viscous silly putty or molasses, oozing outward to accommodate a slow trickle of incoming magma without rupturing. Fast flow rates drive up pressure abruptly enough to crack magma chambers instead of just squeezing them.    


“That makes sense,” said Poland. “The faster you blow up the balloon, the more likely it’s going to pop.” But he also cautioned it’s going to be a challenge to use the new results to forecast specific volcanoes.    


“In volcanology, there’s always a level of local expertise for your volcano that’s needed, because every volcano is different,” he said. “But we can learn some general trends … that can help us out in guiding us in the right direction when we are looking at these specific systems we’re trying to forecast.   


Based on his results, Galetto thinks magma flow rate could help forecast eruptions weeks or months ahead for basaltic calderas. But there’s still work to be done. Fine-tuning forecast calculations with volcano-specific data as Poland described will be important for making good predictions, he said, as will collecting and analyzing better satellite deformation data.   


“My paper is just a starting point, not the ending point,” said Galetto. “We should start … to see if this relationship can be found out in other volcanoes. Because the other point is to try to extend these results not only to the group of volcanoes that I studied but also to try to extend these results to other groups of volcanoes. And it will be much more complicated.”    



Science & Health

North Korea Implies South Korean Balloons Caused COVID Outbreak

Weeks after acknowledging its first coronavirus infections, North Korea appears to be blaming the outbreak on balloons sent by defector-activists in South Korea.

North Korean officials said Friday they traced the outbreak to an inter-Korean border region, where an 18-year-old soldier and a 5-year-old child came into contact with “alien things” in early April.

The statement, published in the state-run Korean Central News Agency, did not specify what the objects were, but later warned residents to be on the lookout for balloons and other “alien things” in the area.

North Korean officials have long warned the coronavirus could enter the country through novel means, including through migratory birds, snow, air pollution or anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets sent by South Korean activists.

Earlier this week, South Korea-based defector Park Sang-hak said he launched 20 balloons with COVID-19 medical supplies, including masks, pain relievers and vitamin pills.

North Korea, an authoritarian state that prevents its citizens from accessing outside information, despises the balloon launches. In the past, it has used them as an opportunity to direct anger, and pressure, at South Korea.

Friday’s statement did not direct any anger toward South Korea. But some analysts said it could be part of an effort to keep North Koreans away from border areas.

On May 12, North Korea acknowledged for the first time that it is dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak. The admission came more than two years into a worldwide coronavirus pandemic.

Since then, North Korea has said its COVID-19 situation has vastly improved, though outside experts emphasize that even Pyongyang may not know the true extent of the outbreak.

Instead of reporting confirmed coronavirus cases, North Korea has posted daily counts of “fevered persons,” possibly because the country does not have enough COVID-19 testing supplies.

In total, North Korea has reported 4.74 million fever cases but only 73 deaths. If the fever cases were counted as confirmed COVID-19 cases, that would mean North Korea has achieved the world’s lowest COVID-19 fatality rate by far.

North Korea has an antiquated and poorly resourced medical system. It has rejected most international offers of pandemic aid, though it is thought to have recently accepted some vaccines from China.

In a statement Thursday, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry slammed U.S. and Western offers of COVID-19 aid, calling them a “clumsy farce” and insisting that its own pandemic situation is rapidly improving.

In an unusually blunt statement last month, the World Health Organization said it assumes North Korea’s COVID-19 situation “is getting worse, not better.”

Science & Health

WHO: COVID-19 Cases Rising Nearly Everywhere Around World

The number of new coronavirus cases rose by 18% in the last week, with more than 4.1 million cases reported globally, according to the World Health Organization.

The U.N. health agency said in its latest weekly report on the pandemic that the worldwide number of deaths remained similar to the week before, at about 8,500. COVID-related deaths increased in three regions: the Middle East, Southeast Asia and the Americas.

The biggest weekly rise in new COVID-19 cases was seen in the Middle East, where they increased by 47%, according to the report released late Wednesday. Infections rose by about 32% in Europe and Southeast Asia, and by about 14% in the Americas, WHO said.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said cases were on the rise in 110 countries, mostly driven by the omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5.

“This pandemic is changing, but it’s not over,” Tedros said this week during a press briefing. He said the ability to track COVID-19’s genetic evolution was “under threat” as countries relaxed surveillance and genetic sequencing efforts, warning that would make it more difficult to catch emerging and potentially dangerous new variants.

He called for countries to immunize their most vulnerable populations, including health workers and people older than 60, saying that hundreds of millions remain unvaccinated and at risk of severe disease and death.

Tedros said that while more than 1.2 billion COVID-19 vaccines have been administered globally, the average immunization rate in poor countries is about 13%.

“If rich countries are vaccinating children from as young as 6 months old and planning to do further rounds of vaccination, it is incomprehensible to suggest that lower-income countries should not vaccinate and boost their most at-risk [people],” he said.

According to figures compiled by Oxfam and the People’s Vaccine Alliance, fewer than half of the 2.1 billion vaccines promised to poorer countries by the Group of Seven large economies have been delivered.

Earlier this month, the United States authorized COVID-19 vaccines for infants and preschoolers, rolling out a national immunization plan targeting 18 million of the youngest children.

American regulators also recommended that some adults get updated boosters in the fall that match the latest coronavirus variants.

Science & Health

US Supreme Court Limits EPA in Curbing Power Plant Emissions

In a blow to the fight against climate change, the Supreme Court on Thursday limited how the nation’s main anti-air pollution law can be used to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

By a 6-3 vote, with conservatives in the majority, the court said that the Clean Air Act does not give the Environmental Protection Agency broad authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants that contribute to global warming.

The court’s ruling could complicate the administration’s plans to combat climate change. Its proposal to regulate power plant emissions is expected by the end of the year.

President Joe Biden aims to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of the decade and to have an emissions-free power sector by 2035. Power plants account for roughly 30% of carbon dioxide output.

The justices heard arguments in the case on the same day that a United Nations panel’s report warned that the effects of climate change are about to get much worse, likely making the world sicker, hungrier, poorer and more dangerous in the coming years.

The power plant case has a long and complicated history that begins with the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. That plan would have required states to reduce emissions from the generation of electricity, mainly by shifting away from coal-fired plants.

But that plan never took effect. Acting in a lawsuit filed by West Virginia and others, the Supreme Court blocked it in 2016 by a 5-4 vote, with conservatives in the majority.

With the plan on hold, the legal fight over it continued. But after President Donald Trump took office, the EPA repealed the Obama-era plan. The agency argued that its authority to reduce carbon emissions was limited and it devised a new plan that sharply reduced the federal government’s role in the issue.

New York, 21 other mainly Democratic states, the District of Columbia and some of the nation’s largest cities sued over the Trump plan. The federal appeals court in Washington ruled against both the repeal and the new plan, and its decision left nothing in effect while the new administration drafted a new policy.

Adding to the unusual nature of the high court’s involvement, the reductions sought in the Obama plan by 2030 already have been achieved through the market-driven closure of hundreds of coal plants.

Power plant operators serving 40 million people called on the court to preserve the companies’ flexibility to reduce emissions while maintaining reliable service. Prominent businesses that include Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Tesla also backed the administration.

Nineteen mostly Republican-led states and coal companies led the fight at the Supreme Court against broad EPA authority to regulate carbon output.

Economy & business/Silicon Valley & Technology

Instagram Hides Some Posts That Mention Abortion

Instagram is blocking posts that mention abortion from public view, in some cases requiring its users to confirm their age before letting them view posts that offer up information about the procedure. 

Over the last day, several Instagram accounts run by abortion rights advocacy groups have found their posts or stories hidden with a warning that described the posts as “sensitive content.” Instagram said it was working to fix the problem Tuesday, describing it as a bug. 

In one example, Instagram covered a post on a page with more than 25,000 followers that shared text reading: “Abortion in America How You Can Help.” The post went on to encourage followers to donate money to abortion organizations and to protest the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strip constitutional protections for abortion. 

The post was covered with a warning from Instagram, reading “This photo may contain graphic or violent content.” 

Instagram’s latest snafu follows an Associated Press report that Facebook and Instagram were deleting posts that offered to mail abortion pills to women living in states that now ban abortion procedures. The tech platforms said they were deleting the posts because they violated policies against selling or gifting certain products, including pharmaceuticals, drugs and firearms. 

Yet, the AP’s review found that similar posts offering to mail a gun or marijuana were not removed by Facebook. The company did not respond to questions about the discrepancy. 

Berlin photographer Zoe Noble runs the Instagram page whose post referencing abortion was blocked for viewing. The page, which celebrates women who decide not to have children, has been live for over a year. Monday was the first time a post mentioning abortion was restricted by Instagram, although Noble has mentioned it many times before. 

“I was really confused because we’ve never had this happen before, and we’ve talked about abortion before,” Noble said. “I was really shocked that the word abortion seemed to be flagged.” 

The platform offers no way for users to dispute the restriction. 

The AP identified nearly a dozen other posts that mentioned the word “abortion” and were subsequently covered up by Instagram. All of the posts were informational in nature, and none of the posts featured photos of abortions. An Instagram post by an AP reporter that asked people if they were experiencing the problem was also covered by the company on Tuesday and required users to enter their age in order to view it. 

The AP inquired about the problem on Tuesday morning. Hours later, Instagram’s communication department acknowledged the problem on Twitter, describing it as a glitch. A spokesman for Instagram-owner Meta Platforms Inc. said in an email that the company does not place age restrictions around its abortion content. 

“We’re hearing that people around the world are seeing our ‘sensitivity screens,’ on many different types of content when they shouldn’t be. We’re looking into this bug and working on a fix now,” the company tweeted. 

Tech companies like Meta can hide details about how posts or keywords have been promoted or hidden from view, said Brooke Erin Duffy, a professor at Cornell University who studies social media. 

“This can all take place behind the scenes, and it can be attributed to a glitch,” Duffy said. “We don’t know what happened. That’s what’s chilling about this.

Arts & Entertainment/Economy & business

Drag and Size-Inclusive Fashion on Display for Pride Month

June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Pride month. In the Western U.S. city of Denver, a museum exhibition features fashions from the gender-inclusive DCR Studios. VOA correspondent Scott Stearns caught up with designer Darlene Ritz at the show.
Videographers: Scott Stearns, Jodi Westrum