Arctic Sea Ice Second Lowest on Record

Scientists with the U.S. space agency NASA say satellite data show Arctic sea ice cover this year shrank to the second-lowest level since modern record keeping began in the late 1970s.  NASA scientists and researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder’s National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) reported Monday that analysis of satellite data shows the 2020 minimum extent of ocean covered in ice, 3.74 million square kilometers, was likely reached Sept. 15. The data shows the minimum extent of Arctic sea ice in the summer has dropped markedly in the last two decades. The lowest extent on record was set in 2012. Last year’s extent was tied for second — until this year. NASA sea ice scientist Nathan Kurtz said 2020 was “a really warm year in the Arctic.” A Siberian heat wave in spring 2020 began this year’s Arctic sea ice melt season early. With Arctic temperatures being 8 to 10 degrees Celsius warmer than average, the ice extent kept declining. Kurtz said the earlier the melt starts, the more that is generally lost. In addition, NASA says a recent study showed that warmer water from the Atlantic Ocean, which is typically deep below the colder Arctic waters, is creeping closer to the bottom of the sea ice and warming it from below. NSIDC Director Mark Serreze said the amount of summer sea ice in the Arctic can impact local ecosystems, regional and global weather patterns, and ocean circulation. Warmer ocean temperatures eat away at the thicker multiyear ice, and also result in thinner ice to start the spring melt season.  Melt early in the season results in more open water, which absorbs heat from the sun and increases water temperatures. Serreze said this second-lowest extent of sea ice on record is just one of many signs of a warming climate in the north. He also noted that signs of a warming climate include the Siberian heat waves, forest fires, hotter-than-average temperatures over the Central Arctic, and the thawing permafrost that led to a Russian fuel spill earlier this year. 
 

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Beta Weakens to Tropical Depression, Moves Inland

The U.S. National Hurricane Center says the storm system known as Beta has been downgraded to a tropical depression but still threatens to dump heavy rain as it moves inland over Texas. In its latest report Tuesday, the hurricane center says Beta was centered about 177 kilometers south, southwest of the city of Houston and its winds had diminished to about 55 kilometers per hour. It was moving to the northeast at about four kilometers per hour. While tropical storm and surge warnings have been discontinued, forecasters say the system is still likely to drop 10 to 25 centimeters of rain over parts of Texas with isolated areas seeing as much as 50 centimeters. The cities of Houston and Galveston have reported flooding in streets and along coastal areas. The hurricane center says the remnants of the storm are likely to pick up speed as it moves inland over southeastern Texas through Wednesday and then over Louisiana and Mississippi from Wednesday night through Friday. Beta made landfall late Monday just north of Port O’Connor, Texas, becoming the ninth named storm that made landfall in the continental United States this year. That tied a record set in 1916.  Beta was named for the second letter in the Greek alphabet because the hurricane center had run out of conventional names for storms — the first time that has happened in 15 years, and only the second time since the 1950s. 
 

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As Rich Nations Struggle, Africa’s Virus Response Is Praised

At a lecture to peers this month, John Nkengasong showed images that once dogged Africa, with a magazine cover declaring it “The Hopeless Continent.” Then he quoted Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah: “It is clear that we must find an African solution to our problems, and that this can only be found in African unity.”
The coronavirus pandemic has fractured global relationships. But as director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nkengasong has helped to steer Africa’s 54 countries into an alliance praised as responding better than some richer countries, including the United States.
A former U.S. CDC official, he modeled Africa’s version after his ex-employer. Nkengasong is pained to see the U.S. agency struggle. In an interview with The Associated Press, he didn’t name U.S President Donald Trump but cited “factors we all know.”
While the U.S. nears 200,000 COVID-19 deaths and the world approaches 1 million, Africa’s surge  has been leveling off. Its 1.4 million confirmed cases are far from the horrors predicted. Antibody testing is expected to show many more infections, but most cases are asymptomatic. Just over 34,000 deaths are confirmed on the continent of 1.3 billion people.
“Africa is doing a lot of things right the rest of the world isn’t,” said Gayle Smith, a former administrator with the U.S. Agency for International Development. She’s watched in astonishment as Washington looks inward instead of leading the world. But Africa “is a great story and one that needs to be told.”
Nkengasong, whom the Gates Foundation honors Tuesday with its Global Goalkeeper Award as a “relentless proponent of global collaboration,” is the continent’s most visible narrator. The Cameroon-born virologist insists that Africa can stand up to COVID-19 if given a fighting chance.
Early modeling assumed “a large number of Africans would just die,” Nkengasong said. The Africa CDC decided not to issue projections. “When I looked at the data and the assumptions, I wasn’t convinced,” he said.
Health experts point to Africa’s youthful population as a factor in why COVID-19 hasn’t taken a larger toll, along with swift lockdowns and the later arrival of the virus.  
“Be patient,” Nkengasong said. “There’s a lot we still don’t know.”  
He warns against complacency, saying a single case can spark a new surge.
As Africa’s top public health official, leading an agency launched only three years ago, he plunged into the race for medical supplies and now a vaccine. At first, it was a shock.
“The collapse of global cooperation and a failure of international solidarity have shoved Africa out of the diagnostics market,” Nkengasong wrote in the journal Nature in April. “If Africa loses, the world loses.”
Supplies slowly improved, and African countries have conducted 13 million tests, enough to cover 1% of the continent’s population. But the ideal is 13 million tests per month, Nkengasong said.
He and other African leaders are haunted by the memories of 12 million Africans dying during the decade it took for affordable HIV drugs to reach the continent. That must not happen again, he said.
This week, more world leaders than ever are gathering online for the biggest global endeavor since COVID-19 appeared, the United Nations General Assembly. If Nkengasong could address them, he would say this: “We should be very careful that history doesn’t record us on the wrong side of it.”
African leaders are expected to say much the same. “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown we have no option but to depend on each other,” Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, told the gathering on Monday.
Nkengasong urges African countries not to wait for help and rejects the image of the continent holding a begging bowl. The money is there, he said.
Acting on that idea, Africa’s public and private sectors created an online purchasing platform to focus their negotiating power, launched by the African Union to buy directly from manufacturers. Governments can browse and buy rapid testing kits, N95 masks and ventilators, some now manufactured in Africa in another campaign endorsed by heads of state.
Impressed, Caribbean countries have signed on.
“It’s the only part of the world I’m aware of that actually built a supply chain,” said Smith, the former USAID chief.
When the pandemic began, just two African countries could test for the coronavirus. Now all can. Nkengasong was struck by how much information “doesn’t get translated” to member states, so the Africa CDC holds online training on everything from safely handling bodies to genomic surveillance.
“I look at Africa and I look at the U.S., and I’m more optimistic about Africa, to be honest, because of the leadership there and doing their best despite limited resources,” said Sema Sgaier, director of the Surgo Foundation, which produced a COVID-19 vulnerability index for each region. She spoke even as Africa’s cases were surging weeks ago.
With COVID-19 vaccines the next urgent issue, African countries held a conference to insist on equitable access and explore manufacturing to end their almost complete reliance on the outside world. They began securing the late-stage clinical trials that long have been held outside the continent, aiming to land 10 as soon as possible.
Nkengasong said Africa needs at least 1.5 billion vaccine doses, enough to cover 60% of the population for “herd immunity” with the two likely required doses. That will cost about $10 billion.
The World Health Organization says Africa should receive at least 220 million doses through an international effort to develop and distribute a vaccine known as COVAX.  
That’s welcome but not enough, Nkengasong said.
His next hurdle is how to deliver doses throughout the vast continent with the world’s worst infrastructure. Less than half of Africa’s countries have access to modern health care facilities, he said.
COVID-19’s effects are “devastating” for Africa, from education  to economies  to the fight against other diseases. Nkengasong plans a major conference next year to press countries to significantly increase health spending ahead of the next pandemic.
“If we do not,” he said, “something is terribly wrong with us.”

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Flu Season Mixes with Pandemic in the Northern Hemisphere

Doctors and public health experts are telling people in the Northern Hemisphere to prepare for the worst in the coming months, when both the coronavirus and the flu virus will be circulating at the same time. It’s a one-two punch that could cause even more deaths and has the potential to overwhelm health care systems. More from VOA’s Carol Pearson.PRODUCER: Jon Spier 

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California Firefighters Race to Subdue Flames Before Heat, Winds Return

Five weeks after California erupted in deadly wildfires supercharged by record heat and howling winds, crews battling flames pushed Monday to consolidate their gains before the return of the blistering, gusty weather. California has lost far more landscape to wildfires this summer than during any previous entire year, with scores of conflagrations, many sparked by catastrophic lightning storms, scorching about 3.4 million acres since mid-August. The previous record was just less than 2 million acres burned in 2018. As of Monday, more than 19,000 firefighters continued to wage war on 27 major blazes across the state, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire). FILE – A firefighter with the San Bernardino County Fire Department hoses down hot spots from the Bobcat Fire in Valyermo, Calif., Sept. 19, 2020.The fires, stoked by extreme weather conditions that scientists have pointed to as signs of climate change, have destroyed an estimated 6,100 homes and other structures and killed 26 people, three of them firefighters, CalFire reported. Another 2 million acres have gone up in flames in Oregon and Washington state during an overlapping outbreak of wildfires that started earlier this month, destroying more than 4,400 structures in all and claiming 10 lives. But a weekend of intermittently heavy showers across the western Cascade mountain range helped fire crews in the Pacific Northwest tamp down blazes in those two states. FILE – A sign advertising new homes stands in a neighborhood severely damaged by wildfire in Medford, Oregon, Sept. 20, 2020.Although California has seen little or no rain in recent days, bouts of extreme heat and gale-force winds that had produced incendiary conditions for weeks have given way to lower temperatures and lighter breezes, enabling firefighters to gain ground around most fires. “They’re going to take advantage of this cool weather while they can,” CalFire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff told Reuters. The break in the weather is not expected to last much longer. Tolmachoff said forecasts call for rising temperatures, lower humidity and a return of strong, erratic winds around midweek in Southern California and by the weekend across the state’s northern half. Bobcat Fire proves stubborn  Some fires have proved more stubborn than others. One in particular, dubbed the Bobcat Fire, grew to more than 100,000 acres Monday in the San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles, with containment levels achieved by firefighters holding steady at just 15%, CalFire said. The Bobcat last week spread perilously close to a famed astronomical observatory and complex of vital communications towers at the summit of Mount Wilson, while forcing evacuations of communities in the foothills below. FILE – Winds blow flying embers from a burning tree at the Bobcat Fire in Juniper Hills, California, Sept. 19, 2020.Several more areas, including Pasadena, a city of 140,000 people, remained under an evacuation warning, advising residents to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice. At the opposite end of the sprawling mountain range to the north, the fire was reported to have destroyed some homes and other structures in the high desert of the Antelope Valley. Across the Bobcat Fire zone and others, ground crews with axes, shovels and bulldozers clambered through rugged canyons and mountain slopes, hacking away tinder-dry brush and scrub before it could burn, creating containment lines around the perimeter of advancing flames. They were assisted by squadrons of water-dropping helicopters and airplane tankers dumping flame retardant on the blazes. Regardless of the progress they make this week, California’s record fire season remains far from over. The height of wildfire activity historically has run through October. Five of the state’s 20 largest blazes on record have occurred this year. 
 

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WHO: Since WWII, No Crisis Demonstrates Need for UN More Than COVID-19

The World Health Organization’s director-general said Monday no crisis since World War II demonstrates more clearly the need for the United Nations than the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 is the illness caused by the coronavirus.Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus acknowledged the 75th anniversary of the United Nations as well as the start of the U.N. General Assembly this week, as he opened his regular briefing from WHO headquarters in Geneva.Tedros said WHO, as “a proud member of the U.N. family,” had three key messages for the U.N. members.”First, the pandemic must motivate us to redouble our efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, not become an excuse for missing them; Second, we must prepare for the next pandemic now. And third, we must move heaven and Earth to ensure equitable access to diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines,” said WHO’s director-general.Tedros said from the very beginning, the WHO has been committed to global efforts to develop a COVID-19 vaccine and other treatments. Central to that effort, he said, was the partnership with the global vaccine alliance, GAVI, to establish the cooperative COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) facility, designed to ensure equitable access to any COVID-19 vaccine or treatments that maybe developed.According to the Johns Hopkins University, which is tracking the global coronavirus pandemic, more than 31 million people are infected, and more than 961,000 people have died. The United States leads the world with more than 6.8 million infections and close to 200,000 deaths.Meanwhile, nearly half of Americans, or 49%, said they definitely or probably would not get an inoculation if a coronavirus vaccine were available today, while 51% said they would, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted earlier this month. Those who lean toward rejecting the inoculation have cited concerns about side effects.FILE – A lab technician sorts blood samples for a COVID-19 vaccination study at the Research Centers of America in Hollywood, Florida, Aug.13, 2020.President Donald Trump said last month the U.S. will have a vaccination for the coronavirus “before the end of the year or maybe even sooner.” Experts say it can take decades to develop, test, and prove vaccines safe before they are administered to patients. Hope has been high, however, that a concerted international effort will produce an effective vaccine sometime next year.Tedros said almost 200 potential COVID-19 vaccines are currently in clinical and pre-clinical testing through the cooperative effort.”Our aim is to have 2 billion doses of vaccine available by the end of 2021,” he said.The director-general noted $3 billion has been invested so far, but $15 billion was needed immediately to maintain momentum and stay on track.He said investing in COVAX only makes sense, saying it “will help to bring the pandemic under control, save lives, accelerate the economic recovery and ensure that the race for vaccines is a collaboration, not a contest. This is not charity, it’s in every country’s best interest. We sink or we swim together.”The WHO announced Monday 64 of the world’s top economies have now joined COVAX, with 38 other major economies indicating they will be joining in the coming days.

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