The vengeful sea devouring Albania’s coast

A fisherman fishes from a shore washed with tree trunks and roots, in Kune, Lezhe on November 8, 2017. (AFP)
Updated 13 December 2017
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The vengeful sea devouring Albania’s coast

QERRET, Albanie: Asim Krasniqi watches anxiously as the Adriatic Sea creeps ever closer to his beach bar in Albania, a country faced with an alarming pace of coastal erosion.
“I’m nostalgic for how this place used to be,” the septuagenarian told AFP wistfully, remembering when this beach in Qerret, to the west of the capital Tirana, was bigger and “many more” foreign tourists came.
“Today everything is degraded,” he said.
Environmentalists say a dangerous mix of climate change and rampant, unregulated urban development are behind the rapid disappearance of the shoreline in the impoverished Balkan country.
“The sea has swallowed the coast. She is taking revenge on man, who has destroyed nature,” said Sherif LusHajj, an environmental specialist at Polis University in Tirana.
The initially “inconspicuous” phenomenon has become far more serious in recent years, LusHajj told AFP.
Further north along the coast, near the concrete constructions in the beach resort town of Shengjin, dozens of tree trunks are decaying in water, a reminder that there used to be a forest between the sea and Kune lagoon.
The lagoon is now threatened, less and less protected by a thin strip of land that is fast disappearing.
Once perched on sand dunes, nuclear bunkers built during the communist era of dictator Enver Hoxha also now barely emerge above the water. Others have been engulfed by the sea.
Of the 427 kilometers (265 miles) of Albania’s coast, “154 are affected by erosion,” Environment Minister Blendi Klosi told AFP.
Sometimes barely perceptible, the advance of the sea in other areas has reached a frightening pace of 20 meters a year, he said.
Near Shengjin, it has engulfed “some 400 meters of ground in the course of the last 15 years,” said the minister.
“This place will disappear if the state does not take necessary measures,” said Osman Demi, a fisherman in his sixties who remembers the “terrible night” of December 31, 2009, when sudden floods submerged his village.
“We fish bass, crab, mullet here. The destruction of this lagoon would be a catastrophe,” said his colleague Albert Pati, adding that in certain corners, once full of fish, “the water is already dead.”
Pelicans have disappeared from the lagoon. A census conducted a year ago found just 7,000 birds, down from 50,000 in the 1970s.
Soon, if nothing is done, the people living here will also leave. There are 2,000 whose homes are threatened by the water, according to Jak Gjini, in charge of environmental issues in the Lezhe municipality, which covers Shengjin.
“The situation is dramatic,” he said.
Everything is working in favor of the sea’s conquest. There is climate change, with increasingly violent winter storms driving the water further and further in.
Then there is Albania’s massive deforestation, the extraction of sand from the rivers and rampant urbanization along the coast.
Almost deserted in winter, Shengjin is home to 15,000 people in the summer as holidaymakers and seasonal staff take up residence in blocks of multi-story concrete buildings, constructed on the sandy soil of the lagoon.
Those who have invested here are “the bosses,” said a fisherman with an enigmatic smile. These “bosses” build without permits, which they get after the building is erected using bribery during election campaigns, or hard cash.
“People are afraid to take on the interests of the powerful. It’s the law of the strongest,” said Gjini.
“These constructions are the result of pressure exerted by individuals to build without regard for urban planning.”
In his bar in Qerret, Krasniqi points out the rocky piers perpendicular to the coast that are sinking into the sea.
They were built without authorization by the owners of villas or hotels on the coast who hoped to protect their own property from erosion — but in doing so, they simply shifted the problem onto neighboring constructions.
“They have changed the currents, aggravating the problem,” he said.
Minister Klosi promises that “all the illegal construction in the sea will be destroyed and those responsible will be punished.”
But even this unprecedented action would not be enough, according to Eglantina Bruci, climate change specialist for the United Nations Development Programme in Tirana.
“The only solution... would be the construction of rock structures parallel to the coast and dune replenishment.”
Gjini said the cost of such measures would be “extraordinary” for one of the poorest countries in Europe — but by doing nothing, Albania anyway gets poorer by the day, he warned.
“Albania’s land is shrinking.”


First space tourist flights could come in 2019

Updated 13 July 2018
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First space tourist flights could come in 2019

WASHINGTON: The two companies leading the pack in the pursuit of space tourism say they are just months away from their first out-of-this-world passenger flights — though neither has set a firm date.
Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, and Blue Origin, by Amazon creator Jeff Bezos, are racing to be the first to finish their tests — with both companies using radically different technology.
Neither Virgin nor Blue Origin’s passengers will find themselves orbiting the Earth: instead, their weightless experience will last just minutes. It’s an offering far different from the first space tourists, who paid tens of millions of dollars to travel to the International Space Station (ISS) in the 2000s.
Having paid for a much cheaper ticket — costing $250,000 with Virgin, as yet unknown with Blue Origin — the new round of space tourists will be propelled dozens of miles into the atmosphere, before coming back down to Earth. By comparison, the ISS is in orbit 250 miles (400 kilometers) from our planet.
The goal is to approach or pass through the imaginary line marking where space begins — either the Karman line, at 100 kilometers or 62 miles, or the 50-mile boundary recognized by the US Air Force.
At this altitude, the sky looks dark and the curvature of the earth can be seen clearly.
With Virgin Galactic, six passengers and two pilots are boarded onto SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, which resembles a private jet.
The VSS Unity will be attached to a carrier spacecraft — the WhiteKnightTwo — from which it will then detach at around 49,000 feet (15,000 meters.) Once released, the spaceship will fire up its rocket, and head for the sky.
Then, the passengers will float in zero-gravity for several minutes, before coming back to Earth.
The descent is slowed down by a “feathering” system that sees the spacecraft’s tail pivot, as if arching, before returning to normal and gliding to land at Virgin’s “spaceport” in the New Mexico desert.
In total, the mission lasts between 90 minutes and two hours. During a May 29 test in California’s Mojave desert, the spaceship reached an altitude of 21 miles, heading for space.
In October 2014, the Virgin spaceship broke down in flight due to a piloting error, killing one of two pilots on board. The tests later resumed with a new craft.
The company has now also reached a deal to open a second “spaceport” at Italy’s Tarente-Grottaglie airport, in the south of the country.
Branson in May told BBC Radio 4 that he hoped to himself be one of the first passengers in the next 12 months. About 650 people make up the rest of the waiting list, Virgin said.
Blue Origin, meanwhile, has developed a system closer to the traditional rocket: the New Shepard.
On this journey, six passengers take their place in a “capsule” fixed to the top of a 60-foot-long rocket. After launching, it detaches and continues its trajectory several miles toward the sky. During an April 29 test, the capsule made it 66 miles.
After a few minutes of weightlessness, during which passengers can take in the view through large windows, the capsule gradually falls back to earth with three large parachutes and retrorockets used to slow the spacecraft.
From take-off to landing, the flight took 10 minutes during the latest test.
Until now, tests have only been carried out using dummies at Blue Origin’s West Texas site.
But one of its directors, Rob Meyerson, said in June the first human tests would come “soon.”
Meanwhile, another company official, Yu Matsutomi, said during a conference Wednesday that the first tests with passengers would take place “at the end of this year,” according to Space News.
SpaceX and Boeing are developing their own capsules to transport NASA astronauts, most likely in 2020, after delays — a significant investment that the companies will likely make up for by offering private passenger flights.
“If you’re looking to go to space, you’ll have quadruple the menu of options that you ever had before,” Phil Larson, assistant dean at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, said.
Longer term, the Russian firm that manufactures Soyuz rockets is studying the possibility of taking tourists back to the ISS. And a US start-up called Orion Span announced earlier this year it hopes to place a luxury space hotel into orbit within a few years — but the project is still in its early stages.