FEMA Predicts Above-Average Year for Hurricanes Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

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U.S. officials are predicting an “enhanced” Atlantic hurricane season that may create new challenges for Americans already struggling with the coronavirus pandemic.Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials briefed President Donald Trump on Thursday, outlining preparations for the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season.The season, which officially begins Monday, has already seen two named tropical storms, Arthur and Bertha.“The big concern this year is the Atlantic Ocean. We’re expecting an above-average year,” said Neil Jacobs, acting director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “This is above average; this does not necessarily mean they’ll make landfall.”“So you think we could have a slightly enhanced hurricane season. That’s just what we want,” Trump said. “Let’s see. Hopefully, that won’t be the case, but we’ll see.”The president and FEMA officials were quick to say that they are prepared for the abnormally active season but did acknowledge the difficulties presented by COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.“There will be unique challenges in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic,” Vice President Mike Pence said. “When people are displaced by tropical storms or hurricanes, they often know and are used to congregating at a local school or a local gymnasium. There’ll be different challenges now.”FEMA released the COVID-19 Pandemic Operational Guidance for the 2020 season to help emergency managers at every level devise new strategies to evacuate, shelter and care for people, while protecting against the spread of the coronavirus, administrator Peter Gaynor said.“We’re in a really great place when it comes to funding, personnel and supplies,” Gaynor added. FEMA was recently allocated $40 billion as part of recent coronavirus emergency legislation, bringing the agency’s disaster relief fund total to $80 billion.A typical Atlantic hurricane season, which officially starts June 1 and ends November 30, produces 12 named storms, six of which become hurricanes, with three on average becoming major hurricanes (Category 3, 4 or 5 storms). This year, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is forecasting between 13 and 19 named storms, six to 10 hurricanes, and three to six major hurricanes.There is a 60 percent chance of an above-normal season. The high probability of a season with above-average activity is because of the combination of several climate factors, including warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures and reduced vertical wind shear. The absence of an El Nino pattern to suppress hurricane activity and weakened tropical Atlantic trade winds is also expected to allow a more active season, NOAA officials said in a statement.Tropical Storm Arthur formed off the coast of Florida on May 16, becoming the first named storm of 2020, continuing a six-year-long trend that a named storm forms before the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season.

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US Astronauts Blast Into Space Aboard SpaceX Rocket

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Two American astronauts lifted off into space Saturday afternoon, for the first time on a private rocket, nearly a decade after the last launch of astronauts from American territory.Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken lifted off at 3:22 p.m. EDT, right on schedule, from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a rocket designed and built by a private company.The California-based SpaceX Aerospace Co. is owned by billionaire Elon Musk.“Let’s light this candle,” Hurley said before liftoff.The first launch attempt scheduled for last Wednesday was postponed because of stormy weather in the vicinity of the Kennedy Space Center in the southeastern state of Florida.Meet NASA Astronauts Taking America Back to Space from US Soil A SpaceX rocket will carry a Dragon capsule with astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space StationAstronauts were last launched into space from the U.S. in 2011, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, retired its space shuttle fleet, forcing the U.S. to rely on partnerships with Russia’s space agency to carry U.S. astronauts to the orbiting International Space Station.Hurley and Behnken are to orbit the Earth inside the newly designed Crew Dragon capsule for about 19 hours before trying to dock at the space station.Launch Marks New Era in US Space Travel – But With a Twist Space X is the first of several private companies in the new ‘space race’ to regularly launch passengers commercially into Earth orbitU.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence flew to Florida for the launch, the second time this week. They were joined by more than 3 million viewers online, according to NASA’s count, and more spectators in person who lined beaches and roads nearby.

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US Astronauts Set to Blast Into Space Aboard SpaceX Rocket

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The U.S. is set to resume launching astronauts into space Saturday, for the first time on a private rocket, nearly a decade after the last launch of astronauts from American territory.Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken will blast into orbit from the Kennedy Space Center on the SpaceX rocket, the first by a private company, if all goes as planned.The California-based SpaceX Aerospace Company is owned by billionaire Elon Musk.The first launch attempt scheduled for last Wednesday was postponed because of stormy weather in the vicinity of the Kennedy Space Center in the southeastern state of Florida.Meet NASA Astronauts Taking America Back to Space from US Soil A SpaceX rocket will carry a Dragon capsule with astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space StationAstronauts were last launched into space from the U.S. in 2011, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, retired its space shuttle fleet, forcing the U.S. to rely on partnerships with Russia’s space agency to carry U.S. astronauts to the orbiting International Space Station.If the launch of the 24-story-tall SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is successful, Hurley and Behnken will orbit the Earth inside the newly designed Crew Dragon capsule for about 19 hours before trying to dock at the space station.Launch Marks New Era in US Space Travel – But With a Twist Space X is the first of several private companies in the new ‘space race’ to regularly launch passengers commercially into Earth orbitSaturday’s National Weather Service forecast at the Kennedy Space Center launch complex calls for showers and thunderstorms.

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‘No Decision’ on Next Launch Attempt for SpaceX-NASA Mission

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A final decision on a launch attempt for SpaceX’s milestone mission to the International Space Station on Saturday afternoon will take place after assessing the weather that morning, NASA chief Jim Bridenstine said Friday.Fears of a lightning strike postponed the initial takeoff attempt Wednesday of what would have been the first crewed rocket launch from U.S. soil in almost a decade, and the first time a commercial company had achieved the feat.”No decision on weather right now for Saturday’s test flight of @ SpaceX’s #CrewDragon spacecraft. Will reassess in the morning,” tweeted Bridenstine.Earlier in the day, NASA said the chances of a Saturday launch at 3:22 p.m. EDT (1922 GMT) were 50 percent. A chance of afternoon and evening thunderstorms was in the forecast for the area.Next chance: SundayThe next window, which is determined by the relative positions of the launch site to the space station, would be Sunday at 3:00 pm EDT (1900 GMT). Storms were again in the forecast.NASA astronauts Robert Behnken, 49, and Douglas Hurley, 53, former military test pilots who joined the space agency in 2000, are to blast off from historic Launch Pad 39A on a two-stage SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.The same launch pad was used by Neil Armstrong and his Apollo 11 crewmates on their historic journey to the moon, as NASA seeks to revive excitement around human space exploration ahead of a planned return to Earth’s natural satellite and then Mars.The mission comes despite shutdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic, with the crew in quarantine for more than two weeks. NASA has urged crowds to stay away from Cocoa Beach, the traditional viewing spot, but that did not deter many space fans on Wednesday.President Donald Trump, who flew in for the previous launch attempt, is expected to attend again.Sorry, but your browser cannot support embedded video of this type, you can
download this video to view it offline.Download File Embed” />Copy Download AudioTriumph for SpaceXNASA has had to pay Russia for use of its Soyuz rockets to take its astronauts to space since the space shuttle program ended in 2011 and the decision was taken to shift focus to commercial partners for missions in low Earth orbit.The mission is a defining moment for SpaceX, the company founded by Elon Musk in 2002 with a goal of tearing up the rules to produce a lower-cost alternative to human spaceflight.By 2012, it had become the first private company to dock a cargo capsule at the ISS, resupplying the station regularly ever since.Two years later, NASA ordered the next step: to transport its astronauts there by adapting the Dragon capsule.$3 billion-plusThe U.S. space agency paid more than $3 billion for SpaceX to design, build, test and operate its reusable capsule for six future space round trips.The project has experienced delays, explosions and parachute problems — but even so, SpaceX has beaten its competitor,  aerospace giant Boeing, to the punch.Crew Dragon is scheduled to dock with the ISS about 19 hours after liftoff, for a duration that is yet to be finalized, but is likely to last to early August.Wednesday’s scheduled flight was scrubbed 17 minutes before blastoff because of high levels of atmospheric electricity that could have triggered a lightning strike on the rocket. 

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WHO Tells Tobacco Industry to Stop Marketing Deadly Nicotine Products to Children

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The World Health Organization accuses the tobacco industry of devious tactics to get children and young people hooked on their deadly tobacco and nicotine products.  In advance of World No Tobacco Day (May 31), the WHO is launching a campaign to alert young people to the dangers they face from the industry’s manipulative practices.More than 40 million young people aged 13 to 15 smoke and use other tobacco products. The World Health Organization says the tobacco industry tries to get children and young people hooked on tobacco early in life, knowing this will turn them into life-long smokers.
 
Unfortunately, WHO says many smokers do not live very long.  Every year, it notes millions of people have their lives cut short because of cancers, heart disease and other smoking-related illnesses.
 
Coordinator of WHO’s No Tobacco Unit, Vinayak Prasad, says the tobacco industry invests more than $9 billion a year to advertise its products.  He says much of this huge budget targets young people with attractive promotional campaigns.
 
“At the moment, they are spending a million dollars an hour, which is by the time we finish our press conference, that is a million dollars spent,” said Prasad.  “And, why are they doing it?  They are doing it to find replacements users.  Eight million premature deaths every year.  So, they need to find new replacements.”  WHO says the industry sets its sights on the next generation of users by targeting children and young people in markets where tobacco products are not regulated and they can be manipulated easily.   
 
WHO is launching a new kit for school students aged 13 to 17 to protect them from the tobacco industry’s exploitative practices.  WHO Director of Health Promotion, Ruediger Krech says the kit alerts young people to the industry’s devious tactics and teaches them to say no.
 
“The tool kit exposes tactics such as parties and concerts hosted by the tobacco and related industries, e-cigarette flavors that attract youth in like bubble-gum and candy, e-cigarette representatives presenting in schools, and product placement in popular youth streaming shows,” said Krech.
 
WHO is calling on all sectors of society to prevent the tobacco industry from preying on youth.  To reach a young audience, the agency is spreading its no tobacco message on  TikTok, Pinterest, YouTube and other social media.
 
Health officials urge schools, celebrities and influencers to reject all offers of sponsorship from the industry.  They call on TV and streaming services to stop showing tobacco or e-cigarette use on screen.   
 
They say governments should ban all forms of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship and should enact strict tobacco control laws.

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Mitch McConnell Stresses Need to Wear Face Masks in Public

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Wading into a politically charged issue, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday preached the importance of wearing masks in public as the nation’s economy reopens from the “cataclysmic” damage inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic.
During a tour of hospitals this week in his home state of Kentucky, the Republican leader has stressed wearing masks in public and following social distancing guidelines.
“There should be no stigma attached to wearing a mask,” McConnell said during an appearance in Owensboro. “And even among age groups that are least likely to either contract this disease or die from it, you could be a carrier. So I think what we all need to do is say, ‘OK, I’m going to take responsibility not only for myself but for others.'”
McConnell, who is in his late 70s and is in the midst of his own reelection campaign, has worn masks at his appearances. On Thursday, he stuffed the face covering into his coat jacket to speak. He donned it again afterward.
His mask-wearing is in stark contrast to the unwillingness of a key political ally to do so. President Donald Trump has refused to wear face coverings, and polls find that conservative Americans are more likely to forgo them. McConnell did not mention the president while touting the use of masks.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear has repeatedly stressed the use of masks as people increasingly venture out as the economy gradually gets rebooted.
“This is not a battle between political parties or ideologies,” the Democratic governor said recently. “It’s plain, basic public health guidance that’s out there from the CDC and from everywhere else. It’s the same guidance on the federal and on the state level. And it’s just smart, right?”
Even as government restrictions to combat the virus are easing, the fallout reached a flashpoint in Kentucky last weekend when armed protesters gathered at the State Capitol. Protesters swarmed outside the Governor’s Mansion and hanged Beshear in effigy near the statehouse.
The rally was billed as a defense of constitutional rights, including the right to bear arms, but turned into a protest against coronavirus restrictions and Beshear’s administration, according to media reports. Beshear condemned the rally and vowed not to back down. McConnell denounced the protesters’ actions as “completely outrageous and unacceptable.”
On Thursday, McConnell termed the pandemic as a “cataclysmic event” for the economy as businesses shuttered to try to contain the disease.
The senator listed three factors he said were key to getting back to “full normalcy” from the health crisis — testing, treatment and a vaccine. He said earlier in the week that “the ultimate solution” is getting a vaccine developed and into circulation as quickly as possible. McConnell said he was upbeat about those prospects after speaking recently with pharmaceutical executives.
“We’re going to get on top of this at warp speed compared to any other serious virus that the world has been afflicted with in the past,” he said Thursday.
McConnell, who is seeking a seventh term this year, has toured hospitals to thank health care workers for battling the virus and to tout federal virus-relief aid sent to Kentucky. The events were his first public appearances in the Bluegrass State since mid-March due to the pandemic.

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Nearly 6 Million Worldwide Infected with Coronavirus

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There are more than 5.8 million infections of COVID-19 around the world, with more than 360,000 deaths. Some countries are starting to loosen restrictions initiated to halt the spread of the devastating disease, while the number of cases is skyrocketing in other places. The Americas are the new epicenter of the outbreak.  The U.S. has more than 1.7 million coronavirus infections, followed by Brazil with more than 438,000 cases. Developing nationsUnited Nations chief Antonio Guterres has warned that the pandemic could cause “unimaginable devastation and suffering around the world,” including famine and massive unemployment, unless governments start taking preventative action now.“Developed countries have announced their own relief packages, because they can,”  Guterres told a virtual summit of nearly 50 world leaders. “But we have not yet seen enough solidarity with developing countries to provide them with the massive and urgent support they need.”Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama suggested that the price of a global post-coronavirus recovery for poorer countries would be a bargain. He said wealthy nations have already dedicated $8 trillion for their own comeback. “Even if the equivalent of one-half of 1% of this was dedicated to all the world’s small island developing states, it would provide us with the vital support we need.”Why does a virus make some people sicker than others?Sorry, but your browser cannot support embedded video of this type, you can
A worker from Bidvest Prestige wearing protective gear, sprays disinfectant in a classroom to help reduce the spread the new coronavirus ahead of the reopening of Landulwazi Comprehensive School, east of Johannesburg, South Africa, May 26, 2020.South African studentsSome South African parents of seventh and 12th grade students are reluctant to allow their children back into schools, set to reopen Monday, saying current disinfection efforts are not enough to convince them that it is safe for their children to return.Boston marathonThe Boston Marathon has been canceled for the first time in 124 years because of the coronavirus.The legendary road race had already been postponed from April, and organizers had said they hoped to be able to run it on September 14.Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said Thursday that date looked “less and less plausible.””There’s no way to hold this usual race format without bringing large numbers of people into close proximity,” Walsh said.The first Boston Marathon was held in 1897 and is the longest running such event in the world.  

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Travel Disruptions Challenge Global Transplant Deliveries

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Over the past two months, as air travel ground to a halt, Mishel Zrian has crisscrossed the Atlantic and the United States dozens of times, sleeping in empty airports and unable to return home to see his family in Israel, all in a race against time to deliver life-saving transplants.
Zrian is a courier hired by Israel’s Ezer Mizion bone marrow donor registry, which has had to perform logistical acrobatics to get its transplants to their destinations amid the travel disruptions caused by the pandemic. The nonprofit, as well as others involved in coordinating transplants around the world, has been tested by the shortage of flights and restrictions on travel, forced to find creative solutions or risk the health of patients.
“It’s been a struggle the entire time but at the back of our minds always is that the patient must receive this transplant or else he will die,” said Bracha Zisser, director of Ezer Mizion, the world’s largest Jewish bone marrow donor registry.  
With the coronavirus upending air travel and countries shutting down borders to prevent the influx of infected travelers, airlines have been forced to drastically cut services, leaving those who still rely on commercial flights scrambling for ways around the logjam.  
For those in need of a bone marrow transplant — usually cancer patients — finding the right DNA match is difficult and often requires the help of international donors.
Timing is critical. At the start of the transplant process, the patient’s own bone marrow is removed; if the transplant is not provided within 72 hours, the patient could die.
Ordinarily, delivering a bone marrow transplant to a far-flung destination is simple. But according to the World Marrow Donor Association, donor registries and transplant centers around the world have been grappling with how to navigate the new rules under coronavirus restrictions.
In one case, an Italian military plane was called up to deliver a transplant from Turkey to a 2-year-old patient in Rome. Germany, Italy and the U.S. set up special exchange points at military bases to allow couriers to drop off and pick up transplants there rather than have them enter the country by way of civilian airports.
As flights to Israel became scarce, Ezer Mizion’s transplants were sent to Europe via Belgium by cargo flights and then driven to their final destination. A daily commercial flight out of Israel to the U.S. has allowed the organization to continue its deliveries, but within the confines of the chaos wrought by the pandemic.
Zrian, the nonprofit’s main U.S.-bound courier, left Israel for what was supposed to be a brief journey in mid-March, only to be told upon his return that he would need to remain in quarantine for 14 days, according to Israeli rules on all incoming travelers.
At that point, Ezer Mizion appealed to the Israeli Health Ministry and the National Security Council, and managed to secure Zrian special entry to the country, as long as he didn’t leave the airport.
He is allowed to sleep in an airport lounge between flights and receive his deliveries without being forced to quarantine. With airport restaurants closed, Zrian subsists on fast food while in the U.S. When he returns to Israel, he gets to have more lavish meals at the airport lounge.
But he can’t go home.  
The 47-year-old hasn’t seen his two teenage sons in more than 70 days, and his wife was only granted one airport visit during that time. In the U.S., he has been given special clearance to enter on the grounds that he is an essential worker.
Zrian, who works for courier company Royale International, has flown with his precious cargo more than 50 times since mid-March, often the only passenger on the plane and landing at deserted airports. While he sometimes sleeps at his destination, his life moves to the beat of his deliveries. He recently spent six straight nights on flights. He’s been wearing the same pair of jeans for weeks, he said, washing them in hotel bathtubs when he gets the chance.
“I miss my family,” he said. “But I always carry the transplant with me and I know I am doing the right thing.”
In one delivery, destined for Oslo, Zrian boarded a cargo flight to Belgium, where another courier was set to drive the transplant 14 hours to Norway. When pilots he encountered offered him a seat on a direct flight to Oslo, which would save several crucial hours, he jumped at the chance.
But with flights from Europe to Israel nearly at a standstill, Zrian had to make a roundabout journey through Frankfurt and then New York to be able to get back to Israel.
The drop in flights has also affected the U.S., where kidneys, the most common transplant in America, are often flown across the country and need to reach patients within 30 hours. The longer a kidney is out of a body, the more its condition deteriorates. Other organs typically travel on private planes.
According to Dorry Segev, a professor of transplant surgery at Johns Hopkins University, the travel disruption is likely leading to delays, which affects the quality of the kidney and could prompt some patients to postpone the care they need.
“We don’t have our commercial flight infrastructure in the United States, which kidney transplantation rides on the back of,” he said. “It’s very chaotic.”
Rick Hasz, of the Philadelphia-based Gift of Life Donor Program, said kidneys were still reaching their destinations, although with different preservation techniques and additional planning.
Zisser, of the Israeli nonprofit, said none of the dozens of deliveries made over the past two months has missed its deadline.
“The idea of saving a life was always in our hearts,” she said, “and we were willing to do everything for that.”

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Report Warns of Dangers From Deep-Sea Mining

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Scientists and environmentalists are urging an international moratorium on deep-sea mining after releasing a report indicating its impact on the Pacific Ocean and island states would be severe, extensive and last for generations.The report also said mining for polymetallic nodules, potato-sized lumps found in the seabed that contain metals used in battery manufacturing and high-tech industries, would cause “essentially irreversible damage” to the region, including Kiribati the Cook Islands, Nauru, Tonga, Papua New Guinea and Tuvalu.Entitled “Predicting the Impacts of Mining Deep Sea Polymetallic Nodules in the Pacific Ocean,” the 52-page report represents a scientific consensus based on 250 peer-reviewed articles, and 80 NGOs are now calling for a moratorium as a result.“There’s the removal of the nodules themselves and the sediment that will be stirred up and also the waste that’s going to be discharged from the mining process,” said Helen Rosenbaum, coordinator for the Deep Sea Mining Campaign.“At this point we don’t know what’s going to be in that sediment, what kind of heavy metals might be there, how bio-available they are, that is how readily they might be taken up in the food chain.”Exploration licensesIncreased demand for the metals — cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese — has bolstered deep-sea mining for polymetallic nodules.The International Seabed Authority, an intergovernmental organization based in Kingston, Jamaica, has issued about 30 exploration licenses – 25 in the Pacific Ocean, and 18 of those in the Clarion Clipperton Zone, which stretches from Kiribati to Mexico, where DeepGreen — a Canadian mining company that plans to mine these metals with an eye toward electric vehicles — hopes to be the first to begin operations by 2024.DeepGreen Chief Executive Officer Gerard Barron was unimpressed by the report, saying deep-sea mining offers the best alternative to surface mining, which has a long history of pollution and the destruction of forests, habitats and wildlife.“I think it was a bias, narrow view, which doesn’t address any the issues, by a group of people that have their hearts set on trying to stop the progress of this industry,” he said.He added, though, that severe shortfalls in metals used in high-tech industries are emerging. Some were available under rainforests in countries such as Indonesia but extracting those metals would exact an enormous toll on the local environment, he said.“The argument should be what has the lowest impact from an environmental and a societal perspective,” he said, adding the Clarion Clipperton Zone contained “enough nickel and cobalt there to electrify a billion electric vehicles.”“We have a choice to continue to go into these biodiverse areas and destroy these biodiverse habitats.“Or we can ramp up ocean science studies and say: ‘Look if ever Mother Nature was to put a large abundant resource somewhere out of harm’s way, 4,000 meters below sea level, a thousand miles from the nearest land mass would seem to be a pretty good place.'”Unrealistic financial expectationsHowever, environmentalists remain skeptical, warning cash-strapped island states – already feeling the effects of climate change – against unrealistic financial expectations from mining and the poor track record of surface miners in the region.That includes a nine-year war fought on Bougainville which emerged from a dispute over a copper mine, extensive damage to the Fly River system in Papua New Guinea caused by the Ok Tedi open pit gold mine and long-running disputes over phosphate mining on Nauru.Last year Canadian company Nautilus Minerals went bankrupt, abandoning its deep sea mining ambitions, which cost PNG about $120 million.“We don’t know if there’s going to be other toxic substances such as processing agents in the mine-ways,” Rosenbaum added. “One thing we know is, it’s going to be constant plume of sediment and whatever the sediment is carrying for the life of the mine.”The report found sperm whales, whale sharks, Leatherback turtles and bird life could be at as much risk from nutrient enrichment and metal toxicity as commercial fish such as tuna.“Also, local communities in the Pacific are worried about their way of life being disrupted because they’re very connected to the ocean environment,” she said.Emeline Siale Ilolahia, executive director of the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Governmental Organizations, echoed her sentiments.“For me it was really like, ban the whole system from any mining until we have more scientific information available for our decision makers,” Ilolahia said.“We are now in a situation of COVID-19 and we see in our countries are struggling to have funds to support the response in-country and then you always question in your mind, thinking; where has the money coming from mining gone?” she said. 

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This Week’s Space News

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The United States almost sent two astronauts into orbit from American soil for the first time in nearly a decade.  Circumstances on the ground and in the skies changed flight plans for the public-private partnership between NASA and commercial flight company, SpaceX.  VOA’s Arash Arabasadi spoke with NASA to understand what happened and what happens next in This Week in Space.Camera: NASA/AP/REUTERS/SpaceX/SKYPEProducer: Arash Arabasadi

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