Climate ‘mysteries’ still puzzle scientists, despite progress

This satellite image shows an overview of wildfires from western US on July 18, 2021. Extremely dry conditions and heat waves tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight.(Maxar Technologies via AP)
This satellite image shows an overview of wildfires from western US on July 18, 2021. Extremely dry conditions and heat waves tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight.(Maxar Technologies via AP)
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Updated 23 July 2021

Climate ‘mysteries’ still puzzle scientists, despite progress

Climate ‘mysteries’ still puzzle scientists, despite progress
  • Scientists are still unsure what part clouds play “in the energy balance of the planet”
  • Climate models have come a long way, even since 2014, but there is still room for improvement to reduce uncertainties

PARIS: What worries one of the world’s leading climate scientists the most?
Heatwaves — and particularly the tendency of current models to underestimate the intensity of these bursts of deadly, searing temperature.
This is one of the “major mysteries” science still has to unravel, climatologist Robert Vautard told AFP, even as researchers are able to pinpoint with increasing accuracy exactly how human fossil fuel pollution is warming the planet and altering the climate.
“Today we have better climate projection models, and longer observations with a much clearer signal of climate change,” said Vautard, one of the authors of an upcoming assessment by the United Nations’ panel of climate experts.
“It was already clear, but it is even clearer and more indisputable today.”
The assessment, the first part of a trio of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), will be released on August 9 at the end of meetings starting Monday.
It focuses on the science underpinning our understanding of things like temperature increases, rising ocean levels and extreme weather events.
This has progressed considerably since the last assessment in 2014, but so has climate change itself, with effects being felt ever more forcefully across the planet.

'Phenomenal temperatures'
Scientists now have a greater understanding of the mechanisms behind “extreme phenomena, which now occur almost every week around the world,” said Vautard, adding that this helps better quantify how these events will play out in the future.
In almost real time, researchers can pinpoint the role of climate change in a given disaster, something they were unable to do at all until very recently.
Now, so-called “attribution” science means we can say how probable an extreme weather event would have been had the climate not been changing at all.
For example, within days of the extraordinary “heat dome” that scorched the western United States and Canada at the end of June, scientists from the World Weather Attribution calculated that the heatwave would have been “almost impossible” without warming.
Despite these advances, Vautard said “major mysteries remain.”
Scientists are still unsure what part clouds play “in the energy balance of the planet” and their influence on the climate’s sensitivity to greenhouse gases, he said.
But it is “phenomenal temperatures,” like those recorded in June in Canada or in Europe in 2019, that preoccupy the climatologist.
“What worries me the most are the heat waves” and the “thousands of deaths” they cause, said Vautard, who is director of France’s Pierre-Simon Laplace Institute, a climate research and teaching center.
With rainfall, scientists have a physical law that says water vapor increases by seven percent for every degree of warming, he said, with intense precipitation increasing by about the same amount.
But extreme heat is harder to predict.
“We know that heatwaves are more frequent, but we also know that our models underestimate the increasing intensity of these heatwaves, particularly in Europe, by a factor of two,” he said.
Climate models have come a long way, even since 2014, but there is still room for improvement to reduce these uncertainties.
“Before we had models that represented the major phenomena in the atmosphere, in the oceans,” said Vautard.
Today the models divide the planet’s surface into grids, with each square around 10 kilometers (six miles).
But even now he said the “resolution of the models is not sufficient” for very localized phenomena.
The next generation of models should be able to add even more detail, going down to an area of about a kilometer.
That would give researchers a much better understanding of “small scale” events, like tornadoes, hail or storm systems that bring intense rain like those seen in parts of the Mediterranean in 2020.

'Tipping points'
Even on a global scale, some fundamental questions remain.
Perhaps one of the most ominous climate concepts to have become better understood in recent years is that of “tipping points.”
These could be triggered for example by the melting of the ice caps or the decline of the Amazon rainforest, potentially swinging the climate system into dramatic and irreversible changes.
There are still “a lot of uncertainties and mysteries” about tipping points, Vautard said, including what level of temperature rise might set them off.
Currently, they are seen as low probability events, but he said that it is still crucial to know more about them given the “irreversible consequences on the scale of millennia” that they could cause.
Another crucial uncertainty is the state of the world’s forests and oceans, which absorb about half of the CO2 emitted by humans.
“Will this carbon sink function continue to be effective or not?” Vautard said.
If they stop absorbing carbon — as has been found in areas of the Amazon, for example — then more C02 will accumulate in the atmosphere, raising temperatures even further.
“It is a concern,” said Vautard.


CIA officer reports Havana syndrome symptoms on India trip -reports

In this April 14, 2021 file photo, CIA Director William Burns testifies during a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing about worldwide threats, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP)
In this April 14, 2021 file photo, CIA Director William Burns testifies during a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing about worldwide threats, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP)
Updated 3 min 17 sec ago

CIA officer reports Havana syndrome symptoms on India trip -reports

In this April 14, 2021 file photo, CIA Director William Burns testifies during a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing about worldwide threats, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP)
  • Last month, Vice President Kamala Harris delayed her arrival to Hanoi for three hours after the US embassy there said someone had reported a health incident consistent with Havana syndrome

WASHINGTON: A CIA officer who was traveling with agency director William Burns to India this month reported symptoms consistent with Havana syndrome, CNN and the New York Times reported on Monday.
The victim, who was not identified, had to receive medical attention, CNN reported, citing unnamed sources.
Some 200 US officials and family members have been sickened by Havana syndrome, a mysterious set of ailments that include migraines, nausea, memory lapses and dizziness. It was first reported by officials based in the US embassy in Cuba in 2016.
A CIA spokesperson said in a statement to Reuters the agency does not comment on specific incidents or officers. “We have protocols in place for when individuals report possible anomalous health incidents that include receiving appropriate medical treatment,” the spokesperson said.
Last month, Vice President Kamala Harris delayed her arrival to Hanoi for three hours after the US embassy there said someone had reported a health incident consistent with Havana syndrome.
Burns said in July he had tapped a senior officer who once led the hunt for Osama bin Laden to head a task force investigating the syndrome.
A US National Academy of Sciences panel found that the most plausible theory is that “directed, pulsed radio frequency energy” causes the syndrome.
Burns has said there is a “very strong possibility” that the syndrome is intentionally caused and that Russia could be responsible.


Coroner IDs remains, says Gabby Petito was homicide victim

Gabrielle Petito, 22, who was reported missing on Sept. 11, 2021 after traveling with her boyfriend around the country in a van and never returned home, poses for a photo with Brian Laundrie in this undated handout photo. (REUTERS)
Gabrielle Petito, 22, who was reported missing on Sept. 11, 2021 after traveling with her boyfriend around the country in a van and never returned home, poses for a photo with Brian Laundrie in this undated handout photo. (REUTERS)
Updated 22 September 2021

Coroner IDs remains, says Gabby Petito was homicide victim

Gabrielle Petito, 22, who was reported missing on Sept. 11, 2021 after traveling with her boyfriend around the country in a van and never returned home, poses for a photo with Brian Laundrie in this undated handout photo. (REUTERS)
  • Laundrie and Petito had been living with his parents at the North Port home before the road trip on which she died

NORTH PORT, Florida: Gabby Petito was killed by another person, a coroner concluded while also confirming that the human remains found recently at a Wyoming national park were those of the 22-year-old woman who disappeared months after she set out on a cross-country road trip with her boyfriend, the FBI said Tuesday.
Teton County Coroner Brent Blue determined Petito was a homicide victim, but did not disclose a cause of death pending final autopsy results, officials said. Her body was found Sunday near an undeveloped camping area in remote northern Wyoming along the border of Grand Teton National Park.
Meanwhile, authorities continued to search a swampy Florida preserve area near the home of Petito’s boyfriend. Police in North Port, Florida, said investigators returned Tuesday to the Carlton Reserve to look for Brian Laundrie, 23. Nothing of note was found, and the search was expected to continue Wednesday. Investigators began searching the 24,000-acre (9,700-hectare) Florida nature preserve over the weekend, focusing on the area after Laundrie’s parents told police he may have gone there.
Authorities are using helicopters, drones, dogs and officers in all-terrain vehicles in their search for Laundrie. About 75 percent of the search area is underwater.
On Monday, the FBI went to Laundrie’s parents’ home in North Port and removed several boxes and towed away a car neighbors said Laundrie’s mother typically used.
Laundrie and Petito had been living with his parents at the North Port home before the road trip on which she died.
The young couple had set out in July in a converted van to visit national parks in the West. They got into a fight along the way, and Laundrie was alone when he returned in the van to his parents’ home Sept. 1, police said.
Laundrie has been named a person of interest in the case, but his whereabouts in recent days were unknown.
Petito’s father, Joseph, posted on social media an image of a broken heart above a picture of his daughter, with the message: “She touched the world.”
In an interview broadcast Monday on TV’s “Dr. Phil” show, Joseph Petito said Laundrie and his daughter had dated for 2 1/2 years, and Laundrie was “always respectful.” During the interview, which was recorded before his daughter’s body was found, Petito said the couple had taken a previous road trip to California in her car and there were no problems.
Joseph Petito said the family began worrying after several days without hearing from their daughter.
“We called Brian, we called the mom, we called the dad, we called the sister, we called every number that we could find,” Joseph Petito said. “No phone calls were picked up, no text messages were returned.”
Joseph Petito said he wants Laundrie to be held accountable for whatever part he played in his daughter’s disappearance, along with his family for protecting him.
“I hope they get what’s coming, and that includes his folks,” Joseph Petito said. “Because I’ll tell you, right now, they are just as complicit, in my book.”
The FBI said investigators are seeking information from anyone who may have seen the couple around Grand Teton.
Gabby Petito and Laundrie were childhood sweethearts who met while growing up on New York’s Long Island. His parents later moved to North Port, about 35 miles (55 kilometers) south of Sarasota.
A man who saw Petito and Laundrie fighting in Moab, Utah, on Aug. 12 called 911 to report a domestic violence incident, according to a recording of the call obtained from the Grand County Sheriff’s Office. The man said he saw Laundrie slap Petito while walking through the town and proceeded to hit her before the two got in their van and drove off.
Video released by the Moab police showed that an officer pulled the couple’s van over on the same day after it was seen speeding and hitting a curb near Arches National Park. The body-camera footage showed an upset Petito.
Laundrie said on the video that the couple had gotten into a scuffle after he climbed into the van with dirty feet. He said he did not want to pursue a domestic violence charge against Petito, who officers decided was the aggressor.
Moab police separated the couple for the night, with Laundrie checking into a motel and Petito remaining with the van.
In the footage, Gabby Petito cried as she told the officer she and Laundrie had been arguing over her excessive cleaning of the van. She told the officer she has OCD — obsessive compulsive disorder.
On “Dr. Phil,” her father said that was not literally true. She just likes to keep her living area orderly and was using slang, he said.
 


Rare Australia earthquake triggers panic in Melbourne

Rare Australia earthquake triggers panic in Melbourne
Updated 22 September 2021

Rare Australia earthquake triggers panic in Melbourne

Rare Australia earthquake triggers panic in Melbourne
  • Debris littered roads in the popular shopping area around Melbourne's Chapel Street, with bricks apparently coming loose from buildings
  • Sizable earthquakes are unusual in Australia's populated southeast

MELBOURNE: A rare quake rattled southeastern Australia early Wednesday, shaking buildings, knocking down walls and sending panicked residents running into the streets of Melbourne.
The shallow quake hit east of the country's second-largest city just after 9:00am local time (2300 GMT) and was felt hundreds of kilometres (miles) away.
The US Geological Survey put the magnitude of the quake at 5.8, later revised up to 5.9, and said it struck at a depth of 10 kilometres (six miles).
Debris littered roads in the popular shopping area around Melbourne's Chapel Street, with bricks apparently coming loose from buildings.
Zume Phim, 33, owner of Melbourne's Oppen cafe, said he rushed onto the street when the temblor hit.
"The whole building was shaking. All the windows, the glass, was shaking -- like a wave of shaking," he told AFP.
"I have never experienced that before. It was a little bit scary."
Sizable earthquakes are unusual in Australia's populated southeast.
"It was quite violent but everyone was kind of in shock," Melbourne cafe worker Parker Mayo, 30, told AFP.
Bricks and rubble lay on the ground outside Betty's Burgers in Melbourne, with large sheets of metal hanging off the restaurant awning.
The restaurant said in a Facebook post that everyone was safe: "We were fortunate that nobody was in the restaurant at the time."
At around just under magnitude six this was "the biggest event in south east Australia for a long time" Mike Sandiford, a geologist at the University of Melbourne told AFP.
"We had some very big ones at magnitude six in the late 1800s, though precise magnitudes are not well known."
A quake of this size is expected every "10-20 years in south east Australia, the last was Thorpdale in 2012" he said. "This is significantly bigger."
Sandiford said Australians should expect "many hundreds of aftershocks, most below human sensitivity threshold, but probably a dozen or more that will be felt at least nearby."
The quake "would have caused many billions of dollars in damage had it been under Melbourne," he added.
Geosciences Australia said an aftershock measuring 4.0 struck shortly after the initial temblor.
The mayor of Mansfield, near the quake epicentre, said there was no damage in the small town but it had taken residents by surprise.
"I was sitting down at work at my desk and I needed to run outside. It took me a while to work out what it was," Mark Holcombe told public broadcaster ABC.
"We don't have earthquakes that I am aware of -- none of the locals I spoke to this morning had that experience with earthquakes here before -- so it is one right out of left field."
Emergency services said they had received calls for help as far away as Dubbo, about 700 kilometres from the quake epicentre, with fire and rescue crews dispatched to help.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, speaking from New York, said there were no initial reports of injuries.
"It can be a very, very disturbing event for an earthquake of this nature," he said. "They are very rare events in Australia."


Biden vows to ‘break cycle of war and destruction’ in dramatic appeal to UN

Biden vows to ‘break cycle of war and destruction’ in dramatic appeal to UN
Updated 22 September 2021

Biden vows to ‘break cycle of war and destruction’ in dramatic appeal to UN

Biden vows to ‘break cycle of war and destruction’ in dramatic appeal to UN
  • US leader’s message gets mixed response as Washington faces growing rivalry for global dominance

NEW YORK: In what could prove to be his most important moment on the world stage to date, US President Joe Biden stood before the UN General Assembly in New York to declare an end to two decades of war, and a recalibration of US resources toward issues such as climate change, technology and infrastructure development.

In his first address to the UN General Assembly as president, Biden emphasized a list of policy priorities that also included preparations for the next pandemic and greater efforts to combat global warming.

However, the US president faces serious challenges in his bid to convince world leaders that foreign policy under his helm seeks greater global partnerships.

The reception to Biden’s message has been mixed at best, with the speech overshadowed by the chaos of the Afghanistan withdrawal, which drew significant criticism from allies who believe they were not properly consulted.

Biden told the international body: “Our collective future means we must break the cycle of war and destruction. Now we must again come together to affirm the inherent humanity that unites us is more than outward disagreements. We must be prepared for the next pandemic and climate change.”

He declared that the US has “turned a page” and for the first time in 20 years is not at war. Biden declared that there would be no “new cold war” for national resources to be marshaled on and said that the nation is looking at “what’s ahead of us, not what is behind.”

Biden’s message to the world and to America’s competitors comes at a time when serious questions hang over the ability and willingness of his administration to work in tandem with traditional allies and regional partners.

The US leader sought to lay out a new paradigm for America’s place in the world, saying: “We will lead with the power of our example, not just the example of our power. We will defend ourselves, including against terror threats, and we will use force as necessary. The mission must be clear and achievable, and taken under consent of the American people and whenever possible with our allies. Using military power should be the last resort. The America of 2021 is not the country it was in the immediate wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.”

But there have been grumblings over whether the US is prepared to seriously shift focus toward “big power” competition with near-peer competitors.

The administration is facing a particularly turbulent few months of foreign policy challenges that have been viewed with concern by America’s partners across the globe. From Afghanistan to the diplomatic imbroglio with France, and pulling out key US defense systems from the Middle East, Biden’s foreign policy has raised alarm bells in key world capitals.

Complicating efforts to shift focus to a sweeping new vision for foreign affairs, Biden’s approval ratings are the lowest since the start of his presidency, with an average of 46 percent of respondents approving and 50 percent disapproving.

Many allied capitals have privately grumbled that former president Trump and his foreign policy team were, in fact, more keen to consult and coordinate with them behind the scenes compared with Biden. “America First” may have been Trump’s most recognizable campaign and governing slogan, but analysts and diplomats in Europe and elsewhere view Biden as continuing rather than repudiating his predecessor’s foreign policy approach on a number of sensitive multilateral issues.

The lofty ideals of Biden’s “build back better world” blueprint, which he attempted to rally world leaders to to collectively work toward, are likely to ultimately clash with China’s competing vision for global governance.

Prof. Brenda Shaffer, a senior adviser to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told Arab News that “If the US was really interested in limiting China’s actions, it would not have given up a base in Bagram next to Xinjian. In recent decades, every administration comes in and says it is going to focus on major powers and not engage in nation-building, and every administration in the end continues in its nation-building attempts.”

She added: “Washington is likely to focus at the UN on issues of broad international agreement that all support on the rhetorical level — climate change, energy transition, eradicating poverty, justice, etc.”

Biden’s speech emphasized that with the Afghanistan war supposedly behind it, the US must treat climate change and the pandemic as the new national priorities.

According to Shaffer, the administration’s emphasis on climate change diplomacy “puts China in an excellent position. China just needs to agree to some goal to be implemented well down the road, and in exchange for this can get a real strategic concession from Washington.”

And while Biden stressed that the US must continue to support democracy and repudiate authoritarian systems, it is unclear whether the US is ideally positioned to counter a resurgent China that seeks to make its own mark on the international stage, particularly in the developing world.

According to Matthew Kroenig, of Georgetown University, “China presents a comprehensive threat to the rules-based international system, including in international institutions. China has gained influence within institutions with the purpose of undermining these bodies’ founding mission. China vetoes UN Security Council resolutions that are contrary to its interests, prevents the WHO from conducting an adequate investigation into the pandemic’s origins, and blocks the UNHRC from taking action on the genocide in Xinjiang. I would like to see Biden articulate this challenge from Beijing and for him to call on responsible powers to come together to address the threat.”

Biden’s policy ethos has the US sharing a common responsibility with the international community to find new ways to end conflict, and “break the cycle of war and destruction.”

That may be easier said than done. Disrupting such a cycle will require a clear-eyed approach that takes into account domestic considerations as well.

Kroenig said: “The major shift in US strategy toward great power competition and away from terrorism and insurgency happened in the Trump administration, but Biden is continuing this trajectory. Whereas Trump focused heavily on competition and confrontation, Biden is attempting a more balanced approach that includes, first, strengthening the US at home, and, second, seeking engagement with China on common challenges, like climate change.”

Biden urged the international community to “get to work” on the common tasks ahead to make a better world for all. Competition with China is increasingly likely to heat up on a number of fronts, regardless of the US leader’s intent to seek dialogue rather than confrontation. Biden said that the US and the international community now stand at an “inflection point” and must decide how the world can “come together to affirm the inherent humanity that unites us.”

Looking beyond the nobility of such a goal, many of America’s traditional allies will still wonder whether Biden’s administration will live up to the grand ideals and sweeping calls for improving lives across the world, or whether his speech will become a footnote in a line of foreign policy blunders.


Biden, UK's Johnson talk trade and trains in White House meeting

Biden, UK's Johnson talk trade and trains in White House meeting
Updated 22 September 2021

Biden, UK's Johnson talk trade and trains in White House meeting

Biden, UK's Johnson talk trade and trains in White House meeting
  • Johnson took the Amtrak train from the United Nations General Assembly in New York to Washington for the meeting

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson discussed the dangers of climate change and bantered about the joys of rail travel on Tuesday during an Oval Office meeting aimed at highlighting the US-British alliance.
Biden told the visiting prime minister, who once worried his warm relationship with former President Donald Trump would hurt relations under the US Democratic leader, that he looked forward to coming to the United Kingdom for a conference on global warming later this year.
"It's fantastic to see the United States really stepping up and showing a lead, a real, real lead," Johnson said, referring to the issue of global warming. Under Biden, the United States has renewed pledges to cut greenhouse gases and promised to finance projects to combat climate change.
Johnson took the Amtrak train from the United Nations General Assembly in New York to Washington for the meeting. "They love you," Johnson said to Biden, seemingly referring to the US railway staff. Biden was a regular train commuter for over 30 years.
"We're going to talk about trade," Biden said when asked about a potential UK-US trade agreement, which would be of great significance for post-Brexit Britain.
Johnson first met Vice President Kamala Harris, who said the United States and Britain are more interconnected than ever before. Tackling the pandemic, dealing with climate change and upholding democracy around the world remained top priorities for both countries, Harris said.
Johnson praised the US military's role in the "Kabul airlift" and thanked the US government for lifting a ban last year on imports of British beef imposed after an outbreak of mad cow disease.
"I want to thank the US government, your government, for the many ways in which we are cooperating now, I think, at a higher and more intense level than at any time I can remember," Johnson said.
Johnson's team regards the visit as a triumph, demonstrating that Britain can thrive on the world stage after its divorce last year from the European Union. It comes amid a US rift with EU rival France, in which Britain played a crucial part.
A submarine deal the United States and Britain recently announced with Australia came at France's expense, prompting France to withdraw its ambassadors to the United States and Australia and cancel a defense meeting with Britain.
France continues to see Britain as the junior partner in the long-running "special relationship" between the United States and Britain, some say, years after former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was ridiculed for supporting US President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq in March 2003.