Satellite Technology Helps Protect Ocean Wildlife

Scientists around the world are increasingly using satellite technology to study life on earth. Small, inexpensive transponders attached to animals track their movement and interaction with humans, helping scientists and activists protect endangered species. Oceana, an international organization dedicated to the protection and restoration of the world’s oceans, teamed with shark researchers to study the fishing industry’s impact on one shark species. VOA’s George Putic reports.


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Warming Arctic, Drier Regions, and Wildfires: Is There a Link?

Many scientists believe the Arctic, one of the fastest-changing places on the planet, could drive change in other parts of the world, including wildfire-ravaged Southern California.

In a recent NASA mission called Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG), climate scientist Josh Willis embarked on a journey to study ice in Greenland and surrounding oceans and how much oceans are eating away at the ice around the edges of the ice sheet. The data collected included the ocean’s temperature and salinity, and the shape and depth of the sea floor.

“The shape of the sea floor determines how much the warm water can reach in and touch the glaciers,” said Willis, who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles.

“Warm water is widespread across the Greenland shelf, and it is very much a major threat to the glaciers,” Willis said. “The thing we really don’t know is how fast is Greenland’s ice going to disappear.

“If it takes a thousand years or two thousand years, then we can probably adapt. But if it happens in a few hundred, we should already be evacuating cities around the world,” he added.

Impact of sea ice

A separate study from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory suggests a link between sea ice melting in the Arctic and drier conditions in California. A new simulation that only looks at sea ice in the next two decades, shows a pressure ridge pushing the winter air masses north into Alaska and Canada, which impacts California.

“We saw quite substantial drying of California so with (looking at) the sea ice alone, we saw 10 to 15 percent decrease in precipitation over a 20-year period,” said Ivana Cvijanovic, an atmospheric scientist and post-doctoral researcher at the national laboratory.

Other factors such as greenhouse gases and particulate pollution can also affect the future of rainfall in California. The modeling framework used in the study at Lawrence Livermore helps scientists understand the impact of sea ice in isolation to these other factors.

“Ice is disappearing on the Arctic Ocean. It’s disappearing from Greenland and this is reshaping climate patterns all across the planet,” Willis said.

He and other scientists predict that as Arctic regions warm, the American Southwest will feel the impact.

“We will probably see drier conditions in the long run in the second half of the [21st] century in the Southwest and that means we’re going to struggle with water needs and also fire,” Willis said.

Intersection of wildland, people

Dry conditions plus a growing population and urban sprawl equals more wildfires and costly devastation, such as the ones in Southern California.

“We are in Southern California and a lot of the fires we find that happen right where people intersect with wildland happen because of people,” said Natasha Stavros, an applied science system engineer and fire expert at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

As the weather evolves and more wildfires burn, Stavros expects other environmental changes.

“As we experience climate changes and things become hotter and dryer, fire acts kind of like an eraser. It erases the landscape and it actually allows new ecosystems to establish because they don’t have to compete with what was there,” Stavros said.

The American Southwest is not the only place where change is predicted.

“As the atmosphere heats up, it becomes a better pipe for carrying water for picking it up from one place and dumping it in another,” Willis said. “This means that dry places are more likely to get drier and wet places are likely to get wetter. It also means that bigger more torrential downpours become more likely.”


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Warming Arctic, Drier Regions and Wildfires: Is There a Link?

A new report from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory predicts a link between sea ice melting in the Arctic and drier conditions in California over the next several decades. This finding comes at a time when several wildfires are raging across Southern California. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee reports on the work of scientists as they look at the global implications of the melting of glaciers and sea ice, and other impacts a changing climate could have around the world.


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Miami Citizens Become Scientists to Study Rising Seas

Rising seas driven by climate change are threatening coastal cities around the world. The Southern U.S. city of Miami is already feeling the effects. Every autumn, when tides are at their highest, residents contend with flooded streets. Now, scientists are turning citizens into scientists to help them understand the impacts. VOA’s Steve Baragona spent time with volunteers splashing in puddles for science.


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Study to Determine if 3-D Mammograms Produce Better Results

Mammography has been a standard screening device for breast cancer since the mid-1970s. And the practice is credited with a 30 percent decline in death, thanks to early detection and treatment.

Now, many doctors are urging women to get a 3-D mammogram, which produces a more detailed view of the breast. But there has not been a large-scale study to determine if the technology actually provides a better outcome — until now.

Women older than 50 are advised to get a mammogram every year or two to screen for breast cancer, the second leading cause of cancer deaths among women.

​Comparing mammograms

A new study funded by the National Cancer Institute will compare traditional mammograms with the 3-D version to determine if the newer, often pricier choice really improves early detection of tumors.

“It’s a new technology that has been FDA approved,” said Dr. Tova Koenigsberg of Montefiore Health Systems in New York. “But we don’t actually have studies that know whether in a large population 3-D actually helps.”

Koenigsberg heads the project at Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care, one of about 100 clinics participating in the five-year study. The clinics, spread across the United States, and a few in Canada, will soon enroll healthy women ages 45 to 74 who are planning to get a routine mammogram, including Sabitri Jaipersaud.

After a doctor found what turned out to be a benign abnormality in her breast, she became diligent about annual mammograms and felt joining the study was important.

“It immediately piqued my interest because I feel that all, all of us can benefit from this and for the future,” Jaipersaud said.

The women in the study will be randomly assigned to get either the regular mammogram or the 3-D version for five years. Most will be screened annually but post-menopausal women who don’t have certain cancer risk factors will be screened every other year.

A traditional mammogram takes an X-ray of the breast from top to bottom and side-to-side.

“In a 3-D mammogram,” Koenigsberg said, “the camera actually sweeps at an angle and allows us to see the breast at different angles and projections.”

Known pros, cons

Doctors know that there are pros and cons to 3-D mammography, said Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society.

“It might find disease that we need to find that two-dimensional does not,” Brawley said. “There’re potential cons in that it has a higher cost, higher amount of radiation, given every dose, every time a person has a test, as well as it may find a higher number of false positives.”

As for what type to choose, some insurers, including Medicare, cover the 3-D version, and a small number of states mandate coverage. Other insurers may require women to pay $50 to $100 more out of pocket.

After collecting the result of every scan, biopsy and cancer at the end of the study, researchers hope to provide certainty about how often women should get mammograms, and which women would benefit most from which type.


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Condom Clothing Designer Shocks Congo Into HIV Awareness

A Congolese fashion designer is promoting safe sex with a collection of clothes made of condoms that she hopes will help combat HIV/AIDS in the central African country.

Felicite Luwungu started making her condom line, which includes strapless evening gowns and tops, after the HIV/AIDS epidemic hit close to home.

“I have lost loved ones to HIV – that’s what inspired me to do this,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from the capital, Kinshasa. “The message that I hope people will apply is to be prudent.”

The number of people living with HIV/AIDS and dying from related infections in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been falling for more than a decade, according to the United Nations.

The prevalence rate of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is about 0.7 percent, among the lowest in southern and central Africa, UNAIDS data shows.

Luwungu, 40, displays her work in runway shows and exhibitions. When she finishes the condom collection, she plans to present it at a large fashion show next year.

The designs have shocked audiences but responses have been mostly positive, Luwungu said.

“People make jokes but it doesn’t discourage me,” she said. “That only pushes me to do this more.”


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US EPA Chief Says He May Launch Public Climate Debate in January

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could launch a public debate about climate change as soon as January, administrator Scott Pruitt said on Thursday, as the agency continued to unwind Obama-era initiatives to fight global warming.

The agency had been working over the last several months to set up a “red team, blue team” debate on the science relating to manmade climate change to give the public a “real-time review of questions and answers around this issue of CO2,” Pruitt said.

“We may be able to get there as early as January next year,” he told the House energy and commerce committee during his first Congressional hearing since taking office.

Pruitt, others cast doubt

Pruitt and other senior members of President Donald Trump’s administration have repeatedly cast doubt on the scientific consensus that carbon dioxide (CO2) from human consumption of fossil fuels is driving climate change, triggering rising sea levels, droughts, and more frequent, powerful storms.

In June, Trump pulled the United States out of a global pact to fight climate change, saying the deal was too costly to the U.S. economy and would hurt the oil drilling and coal mining industries.

Pruitt is reportedly vetting a list of scientists that have expressed doubts over climate change to take part in the upcoming debates, including some that have been recommended by conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation.

An EPA official did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the selection of scientists.

Skeptics pressure Pruitt

The debate would come as the EPA proposes to rescind the Clean Power Plan, former President Barack Obama’s main climate change regulation that was aimed at reducing carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

On Thursday, Pruitt said the agency plans to propose a “replacement” for the Obama-era rule. He previously only committed to considering a replacement.

But Pruitt has also been under pressure from conservative climate change skeptics in Congress to go further and upend the scientific finding that CO2 endangers human health, which underpins all carbon regulation.

‘Breach of process’

At the hearing, Pruitt said there was a “breach of process” under the Obama administration when it wrote its 2009 “endangerment finding” on CO2, because it cited the research of the United Nations climate science body.

“They took work from the U.N. IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) … and adopted that as the core of the finding,” Pruitt said.

He did not say whether he plans to try to undo the finding, which legal experts have said would be legally complex.

Pruitt told Reuters in July the debate could be televised.


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One Woman’s Journey Through Oxycodone Addiction

Before it became the worst day of her life, Allison Norland spread a blanket on the grass outside her father-in–law’s house so her infant daughter could crawl on the soft ground. New to motherhood, her first child was a surprise. “I found out when I was six and a half months pregnant, which was unbelievable for me,” she said. “Then I went to the hospital, found out I was in labor, obviously still using.”

The daughter of an alcoholic, Allison says she has a highly addictive personality. Her drug use started with marijuana when she was 18. “I would start kind of hanging out with my sister and the older crowd and drink, and then the coke [cocaine] started. I was actually dating a man at the time who was selling weed and cocaine. So, easy access I guess,” she told us.

At 19, she met the man she would eventually marry. He introduced her to Oxycodone, a commonly prescribed, but highly addictive, semi-synthetic opioid.

“We started using when we would go out of town to visit his friends and then it kind of proceeded to [finding] some people down where we live who were selling [Oxycodone] and it kind of became more common place,” she said.

After two back-to-back car accidents while driving high, she was sent to a pain doctor for her injuries. “It was straight to 30 milligrams of Oxycodone. I was getting 90 pills a month. That doctor shut down and I went to another doctor and proceeded to 150 pills a month,” she said. “I was using every day.”

Pain medication

She says the doctors never asked her if she had a history of illegal drug use or had ever abused opioids. Estimates are six out of 10 heroin users on the street started out with pain medication prescribed by a doctor. As the opioid crisis has exploded across the country, the medical community has come under scrutiny for the way they treat pain, and addiction specialists often point a finger directly at the conduct of the medical community.

Allison developed what she described as an intense addiction. The birth of her daughter was her wake-up call. Her obvious drug use was called to the attention of child protective services in Miami-Dade County where she lived. She says they almost took her newborn from her.

“I was so guilty and so ashamed that I had let that go on as long as I did. But I had her, she was healthy, no withdrawal symptoms, no anything,” she said.

She stayed clean for seven months. Then tragedy struck. As Allison watched her daughter play on the blanket that day in the back yard, her father-in-law accidentally drove his car off the driveway, striking and killing the little girl.

After seeing her daughter in the hospital for the last time, Allison drove straight to where she knew she could get pills. She says she used every day for the next year.

“Every day I pushed the limit further and further because I didn’t know how to be anymore, and what to be anymore. To go from being a mom and loving this thing so much, so much more than I love myself, to having her gone and this absence in my heart, it was really hard,” she said.

The incident left Allison with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and depression. The years passed in a fog. After an arrest, and time at another rehabilitation facility, Allison was ordered by the court to go to The Village, in Miami Florida, one of several residential and outpatient rehab centers run by Westcare, a non-profit healthcare corporation that specializes in addiction services.

Treating addiction

At first, she was hostile toward being at The Village, a renovated old Florida motel-style complex a few blocks from Biscayne Bay in the Edgewater neighborhood north of downtown Miami. Now 28, Allison sat with us in the room she shares with two other women, the walls lined with metal bunk beds and cabinets decorated with family pictures.

“I snuck in phones [which are forbidden]. I would get caught smoking on the facility, but then again I fought a lot. I fought in here, I fought out there. I just fought. I was so angry and broken down that I couldn’t be that person anymore,” she said.

Allison was initially ordered to stay at the facility for 90 days. She has chosen to stay longer. Now in her fourth month, she has slowly begun to unravel the threads of her addiction. The problems were not socio-economic. “I didn’t grow up on the streets,” she told us. “My family was upper middle-class.”

For decades, opioid abuse predominantly affected people of color in poverty-wracked inner cities. Today’s crisis has moved into the white middle-class suburbs and spread to small towns across the country.

When we asked her what an addict loses, she said “everything.” At the core of her loss were the morals and values she grew up with.

“To learn to look people in the eye and tell the truth because that is a big part of addiction – lying. I have to learn how to look people in the eye. I have to learn how to stand up straight. I have to learn how to love myself. That is what I lost most of all,” she said.

The Village uses a combination of medication, and individual and group therapy to treat its clients.

Patients are given Suboxone, a synthetic opioid strip that dissolves under the tongue. There has been some controversy with treating opioid addiction with opioids, but The Village says it has used Suboxone with great success. Delivered in small doses, the strips can eliminate withdrawal symptoms in 15 minutes. Suboxone also eliminates the cravings for opioids with limited side effects. Clients continue on the drug for months.

“With medication, we can begin to have an effect on your cravings for drugs and keep you engaged in your recovery,” says Frank Rabbito, senior vice president for Westcare, which runs The Village. “Medication keeps you away from illegal drugs and gives you an opportunity to engage in your recovery, be monitored by us for a period of time, and move toward a greater independent lifestyle.”

Therapy sessions

Allison credits the relationship and trust she has built with her therapist for her turnaround. Like many substance abusers, she has a history of physical, mental and sexual abuse going back to her childhood.

“I would say 80 percent of substance users have trauma in their past,” said Alexandra Kirkland, a therapist who works with patients at The Village. “And it causes them to have depressive symptoms. So when they flash back and think about the trauma, it breaks into their daily functioning, and many times they use substances as an escape to deal with the trauma.”

“My therapist has been incredible and has helped me through things I have done in the dark that I never thought would come to light,” Allison told us. “There are things that happened to me that I never wanted to talk about I have talked about with her. And it is because I know she can understand.”

The sessions have helped her confront some painful realities, such as using drugs while pregnant.

“I put my daughter in harm’s way for a pill. I put my life in danger for a pill. I was risking everything for this drug. And that is it – chasing a high that was never going to be enough, “she said.

It’s hard to reconcile the darkness she describes with the person in front of us; she now carries herself with an air of happiness and confidence, and can flash a smile that lights up the room. Allison wants to stay even longer at the The Village and further her recovery.

The odds are against her. Researchers estimate a mere three percent of addicts stay clean for life.  Allison is not deterred. She now wants to become an addiction specialist.

“That is my goal,” she says, brimming with energy. “It is exciting to work toward something. That is a huge thing. I want to help people. People like me.”


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Super-size Black Hole Is Farther From Us Than Any Other

Astronomers have discovered a super-size black hole that harks back to almost the dawn of creation.

It’s farther away from Earth than any other black hole yet found.

A team led by the Carnegie Observatories’ Eduardo Banados reported in the journal Nature on Wednesday that the black hole lies in a quasar dating to 690 million years after the Big Bang. That means the light from this quasar has been traveling our way for more than 13 billion years.

Banados said the quasar provides a unique baby picture of the universe, when it was just 5 percent of its current age.

It would be like seeing photos of a 50-year-old man when he was 2½ years old, according to Banados.

“This discovery opens up an exciting new window to understand the early universe,” he said in an email from Pasadena, California.

Quasars are incredibly bright objects deep in the cosmos, powered by black holes devouring everything around them. That makes them perfect candidates for unraveling the mysteries of the earliest cosmic times. 

 

The black hole in this newest, most distant quasar is 800 million times the mass of our sun.

Much bigger black holes are out there, but none as far away — at least among those found so far. These larger black holes have had more time to grow in the hearts of galaxies since the Big Bang, compared with the young one just observed.

“The new quasar is itself one of the first galaxies, and yet it already harbors a behemoth black hole as massive as others in the present-day universe,” co-author Xiaohui Fan of the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory said in a statement.

Around the time of this newest quasar, the universe was emerging from a so-called Dark Ages. Stars and galaxies were first appearing and their radiation was ionizing the surrounding hydrogen gas to illuminate the cosmos.

Banados suspects there are more examples like this out there, between 20 and 100.

“The newfound quasar is so luminous and evolved that I would be surprised if this was the first quasar ever formed,” Banados said. “The universe is enormous, and searching for these very rare objects is like looking for the needle in the haystack.”

Only one other quasar has been found in this ultradistant category, despite extensive scanning. This newest quasar beats that previous record-holder by about 60 million years.

Still on the lookout, astronomers are uncertain how close they’ll get to the actual beginning of time, 13.8 billion years ago.

Banados and his team used Carnegie’s Magellan telescopes in Chile, supported by observatories in Hawaii, the American Southwest and the French Alps. 


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