Heatwave shatters Southeast Asia records in April

The effects of recent extreme weather in Southeast Asian countries are far-reaching, from school closures to drought and health advisories. While climate change is part of the problem, this year it was made worse by the cyclical weather pattern called El Nino. VOA’s Chris Casquejo explains.

Australian researchers say enzyme could help lower lower CO2

SYDNEY — Australian scientists say they have discovered how an enzyme “hidden in nature’s blueprint” could help develop climate-resilient crops able to remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

An Australian study, by researchers from Australian National University and the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, focuses on a type of bacteria researchers call “tiny carbon superheroes.” 

Cyanobacteria, a type of algae-like bacteria also called blue-green algae, are found in fresh and coastal waters, as well as oceans.  They are commonly known for their toxic blooms in lakes and rivers.  

Through the process of photosynthesis, Australian scientists say, they capture about 12% of the world’s carbon dioxide each year. 

Their study says a carbon dioxide-concentrating mechanism in cyanobacteria lets them turn atmospheric carbon dioxide into sugars for cells to eat more quickly than most standard plants and crops.

Until now, the Australian team was unaware how critical an enzyme in cyanobacteria, called carboxysomal carbonic anhydrase, was to the process. The study says the mystery of how the enzyme maximizes the cyanobacteria’s ability to extract atmospheric carbon dioxide has been solved.

Ben Long, a senior lecturer in molecular plant biology at Australia’s University of Newcastle and is the study’s lead author.

He told VOA that the aim is to engineer crops that can absorb more greenhouse gases.   

“We are actually interested in utilizing this CO2-concentrating mechanism from cyanobacteria, which we know is a remarkably efficiently system for capturing CO2 and we want to engineer that into plant cells to make plant cells able to capture CO2 far more effectively and efficiently,” Long said.

The research says that engineered plants that are more efficient at capturing carbon dioxide could increase crop yield, making global food systems that are more resilient to climate change. 

Long says the findings should be part of international efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.  

“Every technology has to be brought to bear to try to reduce CO2 emissions and reduce CO2 in the atmosphere and I think to date we have not really focused much on those potential biological applications to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Long said.

The study has been published in the journal Science Advances.

Kenya conference showcases technology to help people with disabilities

In Africa, about 15% of the population faces disability challenges despite advancements in technology. Limited infrastructure and high cost of assistive tech create barriers to digital access, leading to exclusion. A conference in Nairobi this week aims to help change that. Mohammed Yusuf reports.

Webb telescope uncovers merger of two massive black holes from early universe

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA — The Webb Space Telescope has discovered the earliest known merger of black holes.

These two gigantic black holes and their galaxies consolidated just 740 million years after the universe-forming Big Bang. It’s the most distant detection ever made of merging black holes, scientists reported Thursday.

One black hole is 50 million times more massive than our sun. The other is thought to be similar in size, but is buried in dense gas, which makes it harder to measure.

Until now, astronomers weren’t sure how supermassive black holes got so big.

The latest findings, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, suggest mergers are how black holes can grow so rapidly — “even at cosmic dawn,” said lead author Hannah Ubler of the University of Cambridge.

“Massive black holes have been shaping the evolution of galaxies from the very beginning,” Ubler said in a statement.

Launched in 2021 as the eventual successor to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, Webb is the biggest and most powerful observatory ever sent into space. A joint U.S.-European project, the infrared observatory surveys the universe from a location 1.6 million kilometers from Earth.

Fewer US overdose deaths reported last year, but experts still cautious

NEW YORK — The number of fatal overdoses in the U.S. fell last year, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data posted Wednesday.

Agency officials noted that the data is provisional and could change after more analysis, and that they still expect a drop when the final counts are in. It would be only the second annual decline since the current national drug death epidemic began more than three decades ago.

Experts reacted cautiously. One described the decline as relatively small and said it should be thought of as part of a leveling off rather than a decrease. Another noted that the last time a decline occurred — in 2018 — drug deaths shot up in the years that followed.

“Any decline is encouraging,” said Brandon Marshall, a Brown University researcher who studies overdose trends. “But I think it’s certainly premature to celebrate or to draw any large-scale conclusions about where we may be headed long term with this crisis.”

It’s also too soon to know what spurred the decline, Marshall and other experts said. Explanations could include shifts in the drug supply, expansion of overdose prevention and addiction treatment, and the grim possibility that the epidemic has killed so many that now there are basically fewer people to kill.

CDC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Debra Houry called the dip “heartening news” and praised efforts to reduce the tally, but she noted that “there are still families and friends losing their loved ones to drug overdoses at staggering numbers.”

About 107,500 people died of overdoses in the U.S. last year, including American citizens and noncitizens who were in the country at the time they died, the CDC estimated. That’s down 3% from 2022, when there were an estimated 111,000 such deaths, the agency said.

The drug overdose epidemic, which has killed more than 1 million people since 1999, has had many ripple effects. For example, a study published last week in JAMA Psychiatry estimated that more than 321,000 U.S. children lost a parent to a fatal drug overdose from 2011 to 2021.

“These children need support” and are at a higher risk of mental health and drug use disorders themselves, said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which helped lead the study. “It’s not just a loss of a person. It’s also the implications that loss has for the family left behind.”

Prescription painkillers once drove the nation’s overdose epidemic, but they were supplanted years ago by heroin and more recently by illegal fentanyl. The dangerously powerful opioid was developed to treat intense pain from ailments such as cancer but has increasingly been mixed with other drugs in the illicit drug supply.

For years, fentanyl was frequently injected, but increasingly it’s being smoked or mixed into counterfeit pills.

A study published last week found that law enforcement seizures of pills containing fentanyl are rising dramatically, jumping from 44 million in 2022 to more than 115 million last year.

It’s possible that the seizures indicate that the overall supply of fentanyl-laced pills is growing fast, not necessarily that police are whittling down the illicit drug supply, said one of the paper’s authors, Dr. Daniel Ciccarone of the University of California, San Francisco.

He noted that the decline in overdoses was not uniform. All but two of the states in the eastern half of the U.S. saw declines, but most Western states saw increases. Alaska, Washington and Oregon each saw 27% increases.

The reason? Many Eastern states have been dealing with fentanyl for about a decade, while it’s reached Western states more recently, Ciccarone said.

Nevertheless, some researchers say there are reasons to be optimistic. It’s possible that smoking fentanyl is not as lethal as injecting it, but scientists are still exploring that question.

Meanwhile, more money is becoming available to treat addiction and prevent overdoses, through government funding and legal settlements with drugmakers, wholesalers and pharmacies, Ciccarone noted.

“My hope is 2023 is the beginning of a turning point,” he said. 

New TB vaccine being tested in South Africa holds hope for millions

A groundbreaking clinical trial is underway in South Africa, marking a pivotal moment in the fight against tuberculosis. The new vaccine could become the first to help prevent pulmonary TB, the most common form of the disease, in adolescents and adults. It would be the first new TB vaccine in more than a century. Zaheer Cassim has the story.

Dazzling auroras fade from skies as sunspot turns away

Washington — The spectacular auroras that danced across the sky in many parts of the world over the weekend are fading, scientists said Monday, as the massive sunspot that caused them turns its ferocious gaze away from Earth.

Since Friday, the most powerful solar storm to strike our planet in more than two decades has lit up night skies with dazzling auroras in the United States, Tasmania, the Bahamas and other places far from the extreme latitudes where they are normally seen.

But Eric Lagadec, an astrophysicist at France’s Observatoire de la Cote d’Azur, told AFP that the “most spectacular” period of this rare event has come to an end.

The first of several coronal mass ejections (CMEs) — expulsions of plasma and magnetic fields from the Sun — came just after 1600 GMT Friday, according to the US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The event was later upgraded to an “extreme” geomagnetic storm — the first since the “Halloween Storms” of October 2003 that caused blackouts in Sweden and damaged power infrastructure in South Africa.

Excitement over the phenomenon — and otherworldly photos of pink, green and purple night skies — broke out across the world, from Austria to Australia’s island state of Tasmania.

The storm had been forecast to intensify again until 0600 GMT Monday, the NOAA said, adding that auroras could be viewable as far south as New York.

But thousands of people who came out on Sunday night in the hope of seeing the aurora borealis over the Joshua Tree National Park in California instead saw the Milky Way. AFP pictures showed stars shining clearly in the night sky.

Lagadec said that while there were further solar outbursts on Sunday, it is unlikely that more auroras will be visible to the naked eye in lower latitudes such as in France.

“Only the most experienced photographers will be able to capture them” in such areas, said Lagadec, who was moved by witnessing an aurora during the event’s peak on Friday night.

The solar storm emanated from a massive sunspot cluster that is 17 times wider than our planet.

The storm has not ended, and auroras are expected to continue in the far northern or southern regions where they are normally visible.

But “the source of the storm is a sunspot that is now on the edge of the Sun, (so) we do not expect the next coronal mass ejections to head in Earth’s direction,” Lagadec said.

Scientists had already warned that the intensity of anything seen on Sunday night would unlikely reach the level of Friday’s show.

“This is likely the last of the Earth-directed CMEs from this particular monster sunspot,” Mathew Owens, a professor of space physics at the UK’s University of Reading, told AFP.

When charged particles from solar winds are captured by Earth’s magnetic field, they accelerate towards the planet’s magnetic poles, which is why auroras are normally seen there.

But during periods of heightened solar activity, the effects extend farther toward the equator.

Unlike during 2003’s solar storms, no major disruptions to power or communications networks appear to have been reported this time around.

Elon Musk’s satellite internet operator Starlink said on X that its thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit had “weathered the geomagnetic storm and remain healthy”.

Unlike solar flares, which travel at the speed of light and reach Earth in around eight minutes, CMEs travel at a more sedate pace, with officials putting the current average at 800 kilometers (500 miles) per second.

People with eclipse glasses can still look for the sunspot cluster during the day.

Fluctuating magnetic fields associated with geomagnetic storms induce currents in long wires, including power lines, which can lead to blackouts. Long pipelines can also become electrified.

Spacecraft are at risk from high doses of radiation, although the atmosphere prevents this from reaching Earth.

NASA can ask astronauts on the International Space Station to move to better-shielded places within the outpost.

Even pigeons and other species that have internal biological compasses can be affected.

First patient to get gene-edited pig kidney transplant dies 

Washington — The first living patient to receive a genetically modified pig kidney transplant has died two months after the procedure, the US hospital that carried it out said.

“Mass General is deeply saddened at the sudden passing of Mr. Rick Slayman. We have no indication that it was the result of his recent transplant,” the Boston hospital said in a statement issued late Saturday.

In a world first, surgeons at Massachusetts General Hospital in March successfully transplanted the genetically edited pig kidney into Slayman, who was 62 years old at the time and suffering from end-stage kidney disease.

“Slayman will forever be seen as a beacon of hope to countless transplant patients worldwide and we are deeply grateful for his trust and willingness to advance the field of xenotransplantation,” the hospital statement said.

Organ shortages are a chronic problem around the world and Mass General said in March that there were more than 1,400 patients on its waiting list for a kidney transplant.

The pig kidney used for the transplant was provided by a Massachusetts biotech company called eGenesis and had been modified to remove harmful pig genes and add certain human genes, according to the hospital.

Slayman, who suffered from Type 2 diabetes and hypertension, had received a transplanted human kidney in 2018, but it began to fail five years later.

When the hospital announced the successful transplant in March, Slayman said he had agreed to the procedure “not only as a way to help (him), but a way to provide hope for the thousands of people who need a transplant to survive.”

In a statement posted on Mass General’s website, his family said while they were “deeply saddened about the sudden passing of our beloved Rick” they took “great comfort knowing he inspired so many.”

The family said they were “comforted by the optimism he provided patients desperately waiting for a transplant”.

More than 89,000 patients were on the national kidney waiting list as of March this year, according to a US health department website.

On average, 17 people die each day while waiting for an organ transplant.

Slayman’s family also thanked the doctors “who truly did everything they could to help give Rick a second chance. Their enormous efforts leading the xenotransplant gave our family seven more weeks with Rick, and our memories made during that time will remain in our minds and hearts.”

“After his transplant, Rick said that one of the reasons he underwent this procedure was to provide hope for the thousands of people who need a transplant to survive,” the family added.

“His legacy will be one that inspires patients, researchers, and health care professionals.”

The transplantation of organs from one species to another is a growing field known as xenotransplantation.

About a month after Slayman’s procedure, surgeons at NYU Langone Health in New York carried out a similar transplant on Lisa Pisano, who had suffered heart failure and end-stage kidney disease.

Pig kidneys had been transplanted previously into brain-dead patients, but Slayman was the first living person to receive one.

Genetically modified pig hearts were transplanted in 2023 into two patients at the University of Maryland, but both lived less than two months.

Mass General said Slayman’s transplant had been carried out under a policy known as “compassionate use” that allows patients with “serious or life-threatening conditions” to access experimental therapies not yet approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Dogs entering US must be 6 months old, microchipped to prevent rabies spread

New York — All dogs coming into the U.S. from other countries must be at least 6 months old and microchipped to help prevent the spread of rabies, according to new government rules published Wednesday.

The new rules require vaccination for dogs that have been in countries where rabies is common. The update applies to dogs brought in by breeders or rescue groups as well as pets traveling with their U.S. owners.

“This new regulation is going to address the current challenges that we’re facing,” said Emily Pieracci, a rabies expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who was involved in drafting the updated regulations.

The CDC posted the new rules in the federal register on Wednesday. They take effect Aug. 1 when a temporary 2021 order expires. That order suspended bringing in dogs from more than 100 countries where rabies is still a problem.

The new rules require all dogs entering the U.S. to be at least 6 months, old enough to be vaccinated if required, and for the shots to take effect; have a microchip placed under their skin with a code that can be used to verify rabies vaccination; and have completed a new CDC import form.

There may be additional restrictions and requirements based on where the dog was the previous six months, which may include blood testing from CDC-approved labs.

The CDC regulations were last updated in 1956, and a lot has changed, Pieracci said. More people travel internationally with their pets, and more rescue groups and breeders have set up overseas operations to meet the demand for pets, she said. Now, about 1 million dogs enter the U.S. each year.

Dogs were once common carriers of the rabies virus in the U.S. but the type that normally circulates in dogs was eliminated through vaccinations in the 1970s. The virus invades the central nervous system and is usually a fatal disease in animals and humans. It’s most commonly spread through a bite from an infected animal. There is no cure for it once symptoms begin.

Four rabid dogs have been identified entering the U.S. since 2015, and officials worried more might get through. CDC officials also were seeing an increase of incomplete or fraudulent rabies vaccination certificates and more puppies denied entry because they weren’t old enough to be fully vaccinated.

A draft version of the updated regulations last year drew a range of public comments.

Angela Passman, owner of a Dallas company that helps people move their pets internationally, supports the new rules. It can especially tricky for families that buy or adopt a dog while overseas and then try to bring it to the U.S., she said. The update means little change from how things have been handled in recent years, she said.

“It’s more work for the pet owner, but the end result is a good thing,” said Passman, who is a board member for the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association.

But Jennifer Skiff said some of the changes are unwarranted and too costly. She works for Animal Wellness Action, a Washington group focused on preventing animal cruelty that helps organizations import animals.

She said those groups work with diplomats and military personnel who have had trouble meeting requirements, and was a reason some owners were forced to leave their dogs behind.

US dedicates $60 million to saving water along the Rio Grande

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — The U.S. government is dedicating $60 million over the next few years to projects along the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico and West Texas to make the river more resilient in the face of climate change and growing demands.

The funding announced Friday by U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland marks the first disbursement from the Inflation Reduction Act for a basin outside of the Colorado River system. While pressures on the Colorado River have dominated headlines, Haaland and others acknowledged that other communities in the West — from Native American reservations to growing cities and agricultural strongholds — are experiencing the effects of unprecedented drought.

Water users and managers can’t afford to waste one drop, Haaland said, sharing the advice her own grandmother used to give when she and her cousins would carry buckets of water to their home at Laguna Pueblo for cooking, cleaning and bathing.

“She was teaching us how precious water is in the desert,” Haaland said, standing among the cottonwoods that make up a green belt that stretches the length of the river from the Colorado-New Mexico border south into Texas and Mexico.

Haaland noted that parts of the river have gone dry through the Albuquerque stretch in recent years. In fact, a decades-long drought has led to record low water levels throughout the Rio Grande Basin.

“When drought conditions like this strike, we know it doesn’t just impact one community, it affects all of us,” she said, pointing to the importance of investing in water projects throughout the basin.

One of the longest rivers in North America, the Rio Grande provides drinking water for millions of people and supplies thousands of farmers with water for crops. Management of the river has sparked legal battles over the decades, with the most recent case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court as New Mexico, Texas and Colorado seek approval of a settlement that will help ensure they have more flexibility in the future.

U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury, a New Mexico Democrat, said improving sustainability along the Rio Grande will help the state meets obligations under a decades-old compact to deliver water downstream to Texas and ultimately Mexico.

Irrigation districts in southern New Mexico and El Paso, Texas, will work with the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to develop projects that will benefit the river and endangered species that inhabit the basin.

The work will range from capturing more stormwater runoff to improving existing infrastructure. Officials said the savings could result in tens of thousands of acre-feet of water. An acre-foot is roughly enough to serve two to three U.S. households annually.

In all, the Inflation Reduction Act provides $4 billion for mitigating drought in 17 western states, with the priority being the Colorado River Basin. However, the legislation also carved out $500 million for water management and conservation projects in other basins that are experiencing similar levels of long-term drought.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said funding for other basins will be announced later this year, with the goal of putting the money to use over the next four years.

On the Rio Grande, prolonged drought and heavy reliance on groundwater pumping has reduced surface water supplies, resulting in decreased efficiency and lost wildlife habitat.

By capturing more stormwater and increasing storage, officials said they could recharge aquifers and reduce irrigation demands.

Some of that work already is happening in the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, which serves about 5,000 farmers in southern New Mexico. Near the farming village of Rincon, officials are working to slow down runoff and keep sediment from clogging channels that feed the river.

It’s among several projects that the irrigation district has proposed to federal officials to save water, protect communities from seasonal flooding and restore habitat.

Irrigation district manager Gary Esslinger and Samantha Barncastle, a water attorney who represents the district, traveled to Albuquerque on Friday to participate in a briefing with Haaland and other officials. They described the efforts as “re-plumbing” the West with irrigation and flood control systems that can accommodate the changing conditions.

“It’s quite a large vision,” Barncastle said, “but it’s what everyone should be doing — thinking big is the only way to resolve the climate crisis.”

Urgent needs of refugees, vulnerable people surge in flood-hit Brazil

GENEVA — As Brazil’s heavily flooded southern state of Rio Grande do Sul braces for a weekend of intense rain, the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, is calling for greater support to help tens of thousands of refugees, who are among the most vulnerable people affected by the disaster.

“Those affected include some 41,000 refugees and others in need of international protection, including many Venezuelans and Haitians who live in the affected areas — some of [whom] can only be reached by boat,” William Spindler, UNHCR spokesperson, told journalists Friday in Geneva.

According to local authorities, at least 126 people have died in the floods, 141 are missing, about 2 million people are adversely affected, and more than 400,000 are homeless.

Spindler said the UNHCR, in coordination with local authorities, is distributing relief items such as blankets and mattresses, noting that additional relief items such as emergency shelters, kitchen sets, solar lamps and hygiene kits are being sent to Brazil.

“In the coming days, UNHCR will be supporting the issuance of documentation, where it has been lost or damaged, to guarantee refugees and asylum-seekers continue to access social benefits and public services,” he said.

Spindler noted that refugees do not live in camps separated from the population, but that they live with the host communities, under the same conditions in which the local inhabitants live.

“So, it is the host communities that is the focus of our support. … We need to strengthen their capacity, so they can continue to host refugees. That means strengthening social services, access to education, to health, and so on for the local people, as well as the refugees,” he said.

The UNHCR estimates $3.21 million is needed to support the most urgent needs, including direct financial assistance to flood-affected people and the provision of essential relief items.

Brazil is a country prone to natural disasters. It has been subject to more frequent and devastating extreme weather events in recent years, including droughts in the Amazon region and severe rains in Bahia and Acre states.

A report issued this week by the World Meteorological Organization on the state of the climate in Latin America and the Caribbean highlights the vulnerability of the entire region to extreme weather and climate change impacts in 2023.

The authors of the report say it is difficult to know whether conditions this year will be worse. But WMO spokesperson Clare Nullis observes that for those affected by the disastrous floods in Brazil, “2024 is an absolutely record-breaking bad year.”

She emphasized that the flooded area is huge. “It is massive, and it really will undermine the socio-economic development in that entire area for a long time to come.”

She said El Nino, a weather phenomenon that warms ocean surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean, is playing a major role in the floods in Brazil, as it also is in the floods in Eastern Africa.

“On top of that, you have got climate change. … It is a double whammy of El Nino and climate change. And that is what we are seeing in Brazil right now. Even when El Nino fades, which it will do, the long-term effects of climate change are with us,” she said.

“Our weather is on steroids,” Nullis said, adding that every fraction of a degree of global warming means “our weather will become more extreme.”

The UNHCR’s Spindler noted severe climate events disproportionately affect refugees and other people requesting international protection. Therefore, he said it is important to work on prevention and to focus on populations that are most at risk.

“The impact of climate change affects everybody, but some individuals and communities are in a more vulnerable situation,” he said, noting that refugees and migrants are most imperiled because they are not from the country in which they are living.

“They come from other countries, and that means they do not have the same social networks, family and so on that nationals have.

“Often, they are living in areas that are more exposed to risks. So, they are impacted in a more disproportionate way by these events,” he said, underscoring that not enough funding is available to address the impact of climate change nor “to address the needs of those forcibly displaced, nor the communities hosting them.”

“Without help to prepare for, withstand and recover from climate-related shocks, they face an increased risk of further displacement,” he warned.

UN reports 300 deaths from flash floods in northern Afghanistan

ISLAMABAD — The United Nations and Taliban authorities said Saturday that the death toll from flash floods following heavy seasonal rains in Afghanistan’s northern Baghlan province had risen to a least 300.

The U.N. World Food Program said the flooding destroyed more than 1,000 houses. It said that “this has been one of many floods over the last few weeks due to unusually heavy rainfall.”

A senior Taliban official said in a social media video message that Friday’s calamity had left at least 150 people dead in a single Baghlan district called Nahreen.

Ghulam Rasool Qani said the death toll might rise and noted that military helicopters had arrived in the area to assist in local rescue efforts.

Authorities said that rescue workers are bringing aid to hardest-hit Baghlan districts. The WFP said it was distributing fortified biscuits to the survivors.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban government spokesperson, stated on social media platform X that the flooding had caused devastation in several other northern and western provinces, including Badakhshan, Ghor and Herat.

“Regrettably, hundreds of our fellow citizens have succumbed to these calamitous floods, while a substantial number have sustained injuries,” Mujahid wrote. “Moreover, the deluge has wrought extensive devastation upon residential properties, resulting in significant financial losses.”

Mujahid said the government had directed the Ministry of Disaster Management and other relevant authorities “to mobilize all available resources expeditiously” to rescue victims and bring them to safer areas, evacuate bodies, and provide timely medical treatment to those injured.

“We also urge our fellow citizens to assist the affected victims of this natural disaster to the best of their abilities and collaborate with the flood-stricken individuals,” Mujahid said.

Poverty-stricken Afghanistan also experienced heavy rains and flash floods across 32 of its 34 provinces in mid-April, resulting in the deaths of more than 100 people.

According to international aid groups, the flooding destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and about 24,000 hectares (59,800 acres) of agricultural land, along with critical infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, and electricity supplies, which could hinder the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Richard Bennett, the U.N. special rapporteur on the Afghan human rights situation, expressed his condolences to the victims’ families.

“Recent floods in Afghanistan, including Baghlan, which claimed many lives, are a stark reminder of Afghanistan’s vulnerability to the climate crisis & both immediate aid and long-term planning by the Taliban & internal actors are needed,” Bennett wrote Saturday on X.

An estimated 80% of the more than 40 million people in Afghanistan depend on agriculture to survive. The war-ravaged South Asian nation is ranked sixth among the countries most vulnerable to climate change, which experts say is responsible for the unusually heavy seasonal rains.

Aid workers had warned before Friday’s devastation that any additional flooding would be detrimental for large swathes of the Afghan population, already reeling from an economic collapse, high levels of malnutrition and conflict.

“Three years of successive drought and the harshest winter in 15 years have exacerbated Afghanistan’s hunger crisis at a time when international support is falling,” the U.S.-based International Rescue Committee, or IRC, said in its latest assessment, published last week.

The report said that an estimated 15.3 million Afghans, or 35% of the population, continue to suffer from crisis or worse levels of food insecurity. “Nearly half of the population lives in poverty and will continue to experience economic hardship,” the IRC said.

Afghanistan’s economy crashed after the Taliban militarily seized power in 2021 as the then-internationally supported government collapsed and U.S.-led international forces withdrew after 20 years of involvement in the Afghan war.

The Taliban takeover led to the termination of foreign development funding for Afghanistan, and its banking system largely remains isolated over terrorism-related concerns, as well as sanctions on Taliban leaders.

First ‘extreme’ solar storm in 20 years brings spectacular auroras

Washington — The most powerful solar storm in more than two decades struck Earth on Friday, triggering spectacular celestial light shows in skies from Tasmania to Britain — and threatening possible disruptions to satellites and power grids as it persists into the weekend.

The first of several coronal mass ejections (CMEs) — expulsions of plasma and magnetic fields from the sun — came just after 1600 GMT, according to the Space Weather Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

It was later upgraded to an “extreme” geomagnetic storm — the first since the “Halloween Storms” of October 2003 caused blackouts in Sweden and damaged power infrastructure in South Africa. More CMEs are expected to pummel the planet in the coming days.

Social media lit up with people posting pictures of auroras from northern Europe and Australasia.

“We’ve just woken the kids to go watch the Northern Lights in the back garden! Clearly visible with the naked eye,” Iain Mansfield of Hertford, Britain, told AFP.

“Absolutely biblical skies in Tasmania at 4am this morning. I’m leaving today and knew I could not pass up this opportunity,” photographer Sean O’ Riordan posted on X alongside a photo.

Authorities notified satellite operators, airlines and the power grid to take precautionary steps for potential disruptions caused by changes to Earth’s magnetic field.

Unlike solar flares, which travel at the speed of light and reach Earth in about eight minutes, CMEs travel at a more sedate pace, with officials putting the current average at 800 kilometers per second.

They emanated from a massive sunspot cluster that is 17 times wider than Earth. The sun is approaching the peak of an 11-year cycle that brings heightened activity.

‘Go outside tonight and look’

Mathew Owens, a professor of space physics at the University of Reading, told AFP that while the effects would be largely felt over the planet’s northern and southern latitudes, how far they would extend would depend on the storm’s final strength.

“Go outside tonight and look would be my advice because if you see the aurora, it’s quite a spectacular thing,” he added. If people have eclipse glasses, they can also look for the sunspot cluster during the day.

In the United States, this could include places such as Northern California and Alabama, officials said.

NOAA’s Brent Gordon encouraged the public to try to capture the night sky with phone cameras even if they can’t see auroras with their naked eyes.

“Just go out your back door and take a picture with the newer cell phones and you’d be amazed at what you see in that picture versus what you see with your eyes.”

Spacecraft and pigeons

Fluctuating magnetic fields associated with geomagnetic storms induce currents in long wires, including power lines, which can potentially lead to blackouts. Long pipelines can also become electrified, leading to engineering problems.

Spacecraft are also at risk from high doses of radiation, though the atmosphere prevents this from reaching Earth.

NASA has a dedicated team looking into astronaut safety and can ask astronauts on the International Space Station to move to places within the outpost that are better shielded.

Pigeons and other species that have internal biological compasses could also be affected. Pigeon handlers have noted a reduction in birds coming home during geomagnetic storms, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Officials said people should have the normal backup plans in place for power outages, such as having flashlights, batteries and radios at hand.

The most powerful geomagnetic storm in recorded history, known as the Carrington Event, occurred in September 1859, named after British astronomer Richard Carrington.

Excess currents on telegraph lines at that time caused electrical shocks to technicians and even set some telegraph equipment ablaze.