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Tue, 28 Feb 2017
The World for People who Think



Mass extinction: Vatican embraces science to battle immense threats to humanity

© Stefano Rellandini / Reuters
A general view of Saint Peter's Square, Vatican.
One in five species already face extinction on our planet, population growth projections are bewildering and climate change shows few, if any, signs of abating. Now, a group of experts are meeting to tackle the problem in the unlikeliest of venues.

Leading biologists, ecologists and economists from around the world have been invited to a conference in the Vatican this week, where the impending mass extinction event facing our planet will be addressed and possible solutions formulated.

"By the beginning of the next century we face the prospect of losing half our wildlife... The extinctions we face pose an even greater threat to civilization than climate change - for the simple reason they are irreversible," biology Professor Peter Raven, of the Missouri Botanical Garden told the Observer.

"That the symposia are being held at the Papal Academy is also symbolic. It shows that the ancient hostility between science and the church, at least on the issue of preserving Earth's services, has been quelled," said economist Sir Partha Dasgupta, of Cambridge University.

Comment: To understand what's going on, check out our book explaining how all these events are part of a natural climate shift, and why it's taking place now: Earth Changes and the Human-Cosmic Connection.


Raging New Zealand wildfires leave 1 dead, force hundreds to evacuate

© talman / Instagram
The fire is concentrated on the Port Hills area near Christchurch
One person has been killed and hundreds evacuated from their homes in Christchurch, New Zealand as firefighters battle an enormous fire burning across a 1,655 hectare area (4,090 acres) of Port Hills.

Up to 400 people have been evacuated from their homes by emergency services with many more choosing to leave. The Civil Defence initially reported that 40 homes had been destroyed but later revised that number down to two or three.

Helicopters and planes, which were helping to tackle the blaze, have been stood down for the night, but fire crews on the ground continue their efforts to bring the inferno under control.

Douglas Marshall, Principal Rural Fire Officer from the district of Selwyn, told the New Zealand Herald that the fire is no longer contained.

He said authorities are looking at a national coordination effort to bring in more firefighting resources: "We're really struggling at the moment without the helicopters - it's too dangerous at night for those, we are trying to do any structure protection we can but that's got to be balanced between lives."

Comment: In the Australian state of New South Wales firefighters are battling over 80 out of control bushfires amid a catastrophic heatwave in the region.


Australia battles out of control bushfires amid catastrophic heatwave

© New South Wales rural fire service / AFP
Some 2,500 firefighters were battling more than 80 blazes in New South Wales.
The heatwave that raised air temperatures in Australia to the highest in the history of the continent's meteorology has led to massive bushfires all across the state of New South Wales.

Australia is being scorched by a massive "heatwave from hell," as air temperature across the continent spiked to some 45 degrees Celsius, with the highest, 48.5 C, registered in the town of Tarcoola. As Sputnik reported Friday, the Australian fire service announced a nationwide fire ban and bushfire warning. They were right to do so, but they didn't prevent New South Wales from being engulfed in flame.

According to media reports, there are more than 80 out of control bushfires ravaging the state at the moment. The largest of those is some 350 km from Sydney. Firefighters are reportedly going door to door urging residents to evacuate. Thankfully, no loss of life or injury has been reported so far, but there are reports of houses, machinery and other property already lost to fire some 370 km east of Sydney.

​The Bureau of Meteorology says the fires that started in the central region and are spreading northeast, producing hot, dry winds that also carry a lot of smoke.

"This will produce widespread severe to catastrophic fire conditions in central and northern districts," the bureau said.

According to NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, the extremity of fire ratings is "simply off the old conventional scale." He said that current fire conditions are worse than the notorious Black Saturday in 2009, which claimed 173 lives and has been described as one of Australia's worst peacetime disasters.


Rare national fire advisory issued for drought-plagued Oklahoma

Oklahoma has been placed under a national fire advisory as much of the state struggles with unrelenting drought and tinder-dry vegetation capable of igniting and quickly spreading out of control, state forestry officials said Wednesday.

The rare advisory -- and the first for Oklahoma - issued by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, is in effect for two weeks and warns residents and fire departments to prepare for potentially severe wildfires.

The national center also cautioned that areas in the neighboring states of Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas could be ripe for similar extreme wildfires through February. While only two of Oklahoma's 77 counties are currently under a burn ban, Oklahoma Forestry Services officials cautioned residents Wednesday to "avoid doing anything that can cause a spark."

The ingredients for a potentially disastrous fire outbreak are already in place in the mounds of accumulated limbs, dry brush, leaves and needles from years of ice storms and tornadoes that carpet forest floors.

"The situation we're in with the state of our fuels, drought, dryness of fields, fires become more resistant to control under these conditions," said Mark Goeller, the forestry services fire management chief. "Pine needles, logs, big-diameter woody material ... the things from these natural disasters we've experienced throughout the state, all those fuels are critically dry."


Russian firefighters arrive in Chile to help combat unprecedented wildfires

© RT
A Russian Emergencies Ministry team is in Chile to help battle the worst wildfires to strike the country in five decades.

The EMERCOM firefighting team was deployed to Santiago at the request of the Chilean government on Monday.

"The Il-76 aircraft arrived in Santiago on January 30, after a transcontinental flight from Moscow, and almost immediately departed to battle the blazes," the Russian Emergencies Ministry told RIA Novosti.

The plane was filled with water shortly after arrival and promptly departed to tackle the fires, RT's Roman Kosarev reported.

The first target for the Russian firefighters is a wooded area around the town of Portezuelo. The wildfires raging around the town endanger several thousands of people and the situation is critical.

Comment: See also:


Deadly wildfire like 'Dante's Inferno' razes entire town in Chile

© Martin Bernetti—AFP/Getty Images
Santa Olga, which was destroyed by a forest fire, on Jan. 26, 2017.

One body found in smouldering ruins of Santa Olga, the worst-hit of several smaller communities, as hot, dry weather fuels fiercest fires in recent history

An entire town has been consumed by flames in Chile as unusually hot, dry weather undermined efforts to combat the worst forest fires in the country's recent history.

More than 1,000 buildings, including schools, nurseries, shops and a post office were destroyed in Santa Olga, the biggest of several communities to be reduced to ashes in the Maule region.

One body was later recovered from the ruins. Two people are missing, but most of the residents were evacuated unharmed. Few will have a home to return to.

Drone images showed entire neighbourhoods reduced to ashes. The roads are still neatly symmetrical, but the buildings in block after block lie in smouldering ruins under a hazy sky.

Even for a region that is frequently hit by earthquakes and floods, the extent of the destruction was shocking.

"Nobody can imagine what happened in Santa Olga. What we have experienced here is literally like Dante's Inferno," said the Carlos Valenzuela, the mayor of the encompassing municipality Constitución. "We were recovering after the last earthquake, but this tragedy has messed up everything."

Comment: Chile declares 'state of catastrophe' due to worst forest fires for over a decade


Chile declares 'state of catastrophe' due to worst forest fires for over a decade


The red dots represent heat at fires in Chile and Argentina detected by a satellite January 21, 2017.
Wildfires were caused by people, says the head of Chile's CONAF forestry service.

Fire fighters are battling the worst forest fires for over 10 years in central Chile as President Michelle Bachelet declares the state a "catastrophe".

Over 175,000 square miles were the site of a raging inferno in the area south of Santiago, the country's capital city. More than 200 people were evacuated as hundreds of firefighters, military and forestry workers were brought into the region to battle the blaze.

Josephina Lopez, from to the country's National Emergency Office (ONEMI), said no fatalities were reported but huge economic losses were expected.

The disaster was called "a sort of earthquake" for the area, agriculture minister Carlos Furche said on Chile's national radio, with a farming emergency declared. Crops and vineyards have been destroyed.

Comment: In neighbouring Argentina a state of disaster and an agricultural emergency were declared in the province of La Pampa, on Sunday. Wildfires have ravaged more than one million hectares across several locations, according to local authorities.

National Fire Management Plan director Guillermo Barisone said that the wildfire started during a dry storm, which saw around 500 lightning strikes in a predominately dry grass area.


Costs of Alberta's Fort McMurray wildfire almost $10 billion

In this May 7, 2016 file photo, a wildfire burns south of Fort McMurray, Alberta.
An assessment of the total financial effect of last spring's Fort McMurray wildfire is pegging the direct and indirect costs of the blaze at almost $10 billion.

The $9.9-billion figure includes the expense of replacing buildings and infrastructure, as well as lost income, profits and royalties in the oilsands and forestry industries, said MacEwan University economist Rafat Alam.

It also includes early estimates on indirect costs such as environmental damage, lost timber, and physical and mental-health treatment for residents and firefighters.

The estimate will go even higher, Alam said Tuesday.

"It's not fully done yet. More data kept coming and I'm sure it will keep coming in."

Alam said it can take up to 10 years to get a complete picture of everything that happened and what it cost.

Earlier this year, insurers estimated they'd be paying out about $3.7 billion for damage caused by the blaze, which firefighters dubbed "the beast."

Comment: Study: Wildfire seasons are more destructive and lasting longer almost everywhere on Earth


Wildfires burn 1 million hectares in Argentina over the last several weeks

Most of the fires are in the provinces of La Pampas, Rio-Negro, and Buenos Aires.

Wildfires in Argentina have burned approximately 2.47 million acres (1 million hectares) over the last several weeks. On December 22 NASA satellites started detecting heat from fires that grew to become some of the larger blazes on the east side of the country 90 miles (145 kilometers) west of the coastal city of Bahia Blanca.

Below is an excerpt from an article by NASA, and following that is a series of five more satellite photos showing the progression of the fires up through January 6:
Severe drought during the winter and spring of 2016 in northeastern Patagonia played a large role in the current fires, said Guillermo Defossé, a professor of ecology at the National University of Patagonia San Juan Bosco and researcher for the Centro de Investigación y Extensión Forestal Andino Patagónico (CIEFAP), an organization that monitors Patagonian forests.

"While historically these ecosystems were fire prone, during the last century the number of wildfires severely declined as a consequence of a great grazing pressure—grazers consumed all fine fuels that otherwise will carry the fires—and a successful policy of fire exclusion," Defossé wrote in an email.

"This masked, in part, the fact that these ecosystems are naturally highly flammable, with a fire recurrence time of about 20 - 25 years. During the last 10 years, however, a very sharp decline in wool prices and continuous drought—probably due to climate change—made several ranchers to reduce the number of sheep or directly abandon the ranching activity. This abandonment increased the availability and amount of fine fuels."

Bizarro Earth

2016 saw highest natural disaster losses in four years at $175 billion

© Rebecca Blackwell/AP
These houses in southwestern Haiti were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Matthew in October. Matthew was the most serious natural catastrophe in North America in 2016.
Hurricane Matthew. The earthquake in Japan. Flooding in the Deep South, China and Europe. Wildfires in Canada.

Last year sometimes felt like one natural catastrophe after another. Now, new figures from reinsurer Munich Re suggest that it was indeed a particularly bad year.

Natural catastrophes caused the highest losses worldwide in the last four years, at $175 billion, Munich Re said. It recorded some 750 events globally, including "earthquakes, storms, floods, droughts and heatwaves." The reinsurer added that about 30 percent of those losses were insured.

North America "experienced 160 loss events in 2016, the most since 1980," the reinsurer added.

Globally, the costliest single event was the devastating earthquake on the Japanese island of Kyushu, at $31 billion. Here's the breakdown of the five most costly disasters worldwide: