Cosmonaut Describes Aborted Soyuz Launch

Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin says the force he felt during a Soyuz emergency landing last week was like having a concrete block on his chest.

Ovchinin and U.S. astronaut Nick Hague spoke separately Tuesday about their frightening experience when an unknown mishap caused their Russian Soyuz to abort its mission 60 kilometers (37 miles) above Kazakhstan.

The spacecraft was on its way to the International Space Station when the emergency lights flashed in the cabin just minutes into the flight.

“There was no time to be nervous because we had to work,” Ovchinin told Russian television. “We had to go through the steps that the crew has to take and prepare for emergency landing … so that the crew is still functioning after landing.”

Ovchinin recalled being violently shaken from side by side as the crew cabin separated from the rocket, followed by a force seven times stronger then gravity as the cabin plunged through the atmosphere, followed by the shock of the parachutes yanking open.

Back home in Houston, Hague told the Associated Press, “We knew that if we wanted to be successful, we needed to stay calm and we needed to execute the procedures in front of us smoothly and efficiently as we could.”

Hague said he and Ovchinin were hanging upside down when the cabin landed back on Earth. They shook hands and cracked jokes.

Neither man was hurt, and an investigation is under way to find out why the rocket failed.

Hague said he is disappointed to be back home instead of walking in space, but he’s happy to be reunited with his wife and their two young sons, and is ready to fly again as soon as NASA gives him the word.

“What can you do? Sometimes you don’t get a vote,” Hague told the Associated Press. “You just try to celebrate the little gifts that you get, like walking the boys to school this morning.”

This was the first aborted Soyuz launch in more than 30 years.

The Russian spacecraft has been the only way to send replacement crews to the International Space Station since NASA retired the space shuttle fleet in 2011.

Two private U.S. companies — Boeing and SpaceX — are working on a new generation of shuttles.


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WHO Convenes Emergency Meeting on Congo’s Ebola Outbreak

The World Health Organization says it is convening a meeting on Wednesday to determine whether Congo’s latest Ebola outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.

Aid organizations have expressed alarm as the rate of new cases has more than doubled this month and community resistance to Ebola containment efforts in some cases has turned violent.

This is Congo’s tenth Ebola outbreak but this is the first time the deadly virus has appeared in the far northeast, an area of active rebel attacks that health workers have compared to a war zone.

WHO recently said the risk of regional spread was “very high” as confirmed cases were reported close to the heavily traveled border with Uganda.

Congo’s health ministry says there are now 179 confirmed cases, including 104 deaths.


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Researchers Find Bright Sides to Some Invasive Species

Off the shores of Newfoundland, Canada, an ecosystem is unraveling at the hands (or pincers) of an invasive crab.

Some 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) to the south, the same invasive crab — the European green crab — is helping New England marshes rebuild.

Both cases are featured in a new study that shows how the impacts of these alien invaders are not always straightforward.

Around the world, invasive species are a major threat to many coastal ecosystems and the benefits they provide, from food to clean water. Attitudes among scientists are evolving, however, as more research demonstrates that they occasionally carry a hidden upside.

“It’s complicated,” said Christina Simkanin, a biologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, “which isn’t a super-satisfying answer if you want a direct, should we keep it or should we not? But it’s the reality.”

Simkanin co-authored a new study showing that on the whole, coastal ecosystems store more carbon when they are overrun by invasive species. 

Good news, crab news

Take the contradictory case of the European green crab. These invaders were first spotted in Newfoundland in 2007. Since then, they have devastated eelgrass habitats, digging up native vegetation as they burrow for shelter or dig for prey. Eelgrass is down 50 percent in places the crabs have moved into. Some sites have suffered total collapse.

That’s been devastating for fish that spend their juvenile days among the seagrass. Where the invasive crabs have moved in, the total weight of fish is down tenfold.

The loss of eelgrass also means these underwater meadows soak up less planet-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

In Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the same crab is having the opposite impact.

Off the coast of New England, fishermen have caught too many striped bass and blue crabs. These species used to keep native crab populations in check. Without predators to hold them back, native crabs are devouring the marshes.

But the invasive European green crab pushes native crabs out of their burrows. Under pressure from the invader, native crabs are eating less marsh grass. Marshes are recovering, and their carbon storage capacity is growing with them.

Carbon repositories

Simkanin and colleagues compiled these studies and more than 100 others to see whether the net impact on carbon storage has been positive or negative.

They found that the ones overtaken by invasive species held about 40 percent more carbon than intact habitats. 

They were taken by surprise, she said, because “non-native species are thought of as being negative so often. And they do have detrimental impacts. But in this case, they seem to be storing carbon quicker.”

At the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center where she works, the invasive reed Phragmites has been steadily overtaking a marsh scientists are studying.

Phragmites grows much taller, denser and with deeper roots than the native marsh grass it overruns.

But those same traits that make it a powerful invader also mean it stores more carbon than native species.

“Phragmites has been referred to as a Jekyll and Hyde species,” she said.

Not all invaded ecosystems stored more carbon. Invaded seagrass habitats generally lost carbon, and mangroves were basically unchanged. But on balance, gains from marsh invaders outweighed the others.

Not a lot of generalities

To be clear, Simkanin said the study is not suggesting it’s always better to let the invaders take over; but, it reflects an active debate among biologists about the role of invasive species in a changing world.

“One of the difficult things in the field of invasion biology is, there aren’t a lot of generalities,” said Brown University conservation biologist Dov Sax, who was not involved with the research. “There’s a lot of nuance.”

The prevailing view among biologists is that non-native species should be presumed to be destructive unless proven otherwise.

When 19 biologists wrote an article in 2011 challenging that view, titled, “Don’t judge species on their origins,” it drew a forceful rebuke from 141 other experts. 

Sax said the argument is likely to become more complicated in the future.

“In a changing world, with a rapidly changing climate, we do expect there to be lots of cases where natives will no longer be as successful in a region. And some of the non-natives might actually step in and play some of those ecosystem services roles that we might want,” he said.

“In that context, what do we do? I definitely don’t have all the answers.”


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Global Warming to Leave Us Crying in Our Costlier Beer

A new study says global warming may leave people crying in their costlier beer.

The international study says bouts of extreme heat waves and drought will cut production of barley, a key ingredient of beer.

When that happens, beer prices on average could double. In countries like Ireland, prices could triple.

Previous studies have detailed how chocolate, coffee and wine will be made scarcer and more expensive because of human-caused global warming.

Steve Davis of the University of California, Irvine, says the beer research was partly done to drive home the not-that-palatable message that climate change is messing with all sorts of aspects of our daily lives.

Results appear in Monday’s journal Nature Plants.


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Artificial Intelligence Can Help Fight Global Hunger

A world without hunger by 2030 is the theme of this year’s World Food Day, and the goal of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Events around the world on October 16th will promote awareness and action for those who suffer from hunger and for the need to ensure food security and nutritious diets for all. Advances in technology and artificial intelligence can help feed the world. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee explains.


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Women-Owned Startup Aims for Cleaner Hands and a Healthier Planet

It’s one of the easiest ways to stop the spread of disease. The U.S. Center for Disease Control says spending just 20 seconds washing hands with soap and warm water can reduce illness in more than a million kids who die each year from preventable sickness. Two young women from New Delhi who studied design in New York say they have the solution: turning a chore into playtime. They are launching a new hygiene product called SoaPen on Global Handwashing Day on October 15. Arash Arabasadi reports.


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Children in Ebola-Affected DRC Return to School

The U.N. children’s fund reports the vast majority of children living in Ebola-affected areas of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have returned to school where they are taught ways to avoid infection.

School began one month ago in Democratic Republic of Congo. The U.N. children’s fund says efforts to get children to return to school in Ebola-affected areas in conflict-ridden eastern DRC have been hugely successful.  

It says 80 percent are attending schools in Beni and Mabalako health zones.  They are the epicenters of the current Ebola outbreak, which was declared August 1 in North Kivu and Ituri Provinces. The latest World Health Organization report finds 207 cases of Ebola, including 130 deaths.

UNICEF spokesman, Christophe Boulierac, said the return of so many children to the classroom is encouraging.  He said school provides the children who are living in an area of epidemic and conflict with a sense of normalcy.  He said school offers them a protective environment.

Boulierac said children in school learn how to prevent getting Ebola and when they go home, they promote regular hand washing with their families.  He says this helps avoid further spread of the disease in the community.

UNICEF has identified more than 1,500 schools in the areas affected by the Ebola epidemic. Among them are 365 schools located in the high-risk epicenters of the outbreak. The agency has equipped these schools with hygiene and health equipment.

Boulierac said more than 3,500 teachers and school principals have received training on preventive measures for Ebola. He said more than 69,300 school children have received these Ebola prevention messages.


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Could Plants be the Last Straw for Plastic?

For 30 years, the Ocean Conservancy has conducted an ocean cleanup campaign on the world’s beaches. They’ve collected 300 million pounds of garbage, a lot of it plastic. But slowly and surely some entrepreneurs are working to reduce the amount of plastic filling up oceans and landfills. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.


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Changed Climate Blamed for Barracudas Settling in Colder Waters

Climate change is usually thought to bring hotter weather, but scientists say it can also make some places colder. Temperature changes mean some plants and animals struggle to survive, while others seek new territory. That may be the case for one species of barracuda that is living in colder waters than it normally would. A school of them have settled near an island off the coast of Croatia in the Adriatic Sea. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.


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Battles Over Safe Ebola Burials Complicate Work in DRC

A runaway hearse carrying an Ebola victim has become the latest example of sometimes violent community resistance complicating efforts to contain a Congo outbreak — and causing a worrying new rise in cases.

The deadly virus’ appearance for the first time in the far northeast has sparked fear. Suspected contacts of infected people have tried to slip away. Residents have assaulted health teams. The rate of new Ebola cases has more than doubled since the start of this month, experts say.

Safe burials are particularly sensitive as some outraged family members reject the intervention of health workers in the deeply personal moment, even as they put their own lives at risk. 

On Wednesday, a wary peace was negotiated over the body of an Ebola victim, one of 95 deaths among 172 confirmed cases so far, Congo’s health ministry said. Her family demanded that an acquaintance drive the hearse, while they agreed to wear protective gear to carry the casket. A police vehicle would follow.

On the way to the cemetery, however, the hearse peeled away “at full speed,” the ministry said. A violent confrontation followed with local youth once the hearse was found at the family’s own burial plot elsewhere. The procession eventually reached the cemetery by day’s end.

The next day, with a better understanding of what was at stake, several family members appeared voluntarily at a hospital for Ebola vaccinations, the ministry said.

“They swore no one had manipulated the corpse,” it added. Ebola spreads via bodily fluids of those infected, including the dead.

The Beni community where the confrontation occurred is at the center of Ebola containment efforts. To the alarm of the World Health Organization and others, it is also where community resistance has been the most persistent — and where many of the new cases are found.

Chronic mistrust after years of rebel attacks is part of the “toxic mix” in Beni, WHO’s emergencies chief Peter Salama said in a Twitter post.

So far, the Ebola work in Beni has been suspended twice since the outbreak was declared on Aug. 1. A “dead city” of mourning in response to a rebel attack caused the first. Wednesday’s violence caused the second. With each pause, crucial efforts to track thousands of possible Ebola contacts can slide, risking further infections.

Defending themselves, Beni residents have pointed out the shock of having one of the world’s most notorious diseases appear along with strangers in biohazard suits who tell them how to say goodbye to loved ones killed by the virus.

“Until now we didn’t know enough about Ebola and we felt marginalized when Red Cross agents came in and took the corpse and buried it without family members playing a role,” Beni resident Patrick Kyana, who said a friend lost his father to the virus, told The Associated Press. “It’s very difficult. Imagine that your son dies and someone refuses to let you assist in his burial. In Africa we respect death greatly.”

Until recently many people in Beni didn’t believe that Ebola existed, thinking it was a government plot to further delay presidential elections, Kizito Hangi, president of Beni’s civil society, told the AP.

Now the population has started to catch on and cooperate, Hangi said. “The problem was that the health workers all came from outside, but local specialists have been included to persuade and inform people in local languages.”

Jamie LeSueur, the head of emergency Ebola operations with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, acknowledged the problem. In early October, two Red Cross volunteers were severely injured in an attack during safe burials in the community of Butemo. Another volunteer was injured in September by people throwing stones.

“It raised a lot of questions for all of us. Where is the violence coming from?” he said. They have stepped up efforts to collaborate with communities and be clearer about messaging while working within cultural norms as best as possible.

“Of course there are limitations,” LeSueur said. “Some people like to view the corpse as it is buried, but with Ebola it is difficult to open up the body bag.” In the emotionally charged environment where families have lost loved ones, a misstep could quickly raise tensions.

While Congo’s government is acting to give more protection to its own safe burial teams in Beni, LeSueur noted that the “militarization” of similar efforts in the far deadlier Ebola outbreak in West Africa a few years ago led some residents to hide or not report deaths from the virus.

“I don’t think that will be the case in this event,” but everyone remembers that lesson, he said.

With its position of neutrality, the Red Cross doesn’t use armed guards in any case, LeSueur added. “Community acceptance — that’s our security.”


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