Oklahoma wildfire crews helped by cooler temperatures By Steve Olafson | Reuters – 5 hrs ago OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) – Cooler temperatures gave a slight boost on Sunday to crews battling 18 wildfires across Oklahoma that have torched at least 121 structures and charred thousands of acres amid a drought.The blazes, which have charred more than 68,000 acres across the state, burned throughout the night, forcing more evacuations in small towns and rural areas in central Oklahoma, although it will be days before the full damage is tallied, officials said.One of the most devastating fires tore through the town of Luther, about 25 miles from Oklahoma City, on Saturday, razing 56 structures, although it is now under control. Authorities are investigating whether that blaze was deliberately set.A cool front that passed across the state overnight lowered temperatures by up to 25 degrees Fahrenheit and may keep the mercury from topping the 100-degree F (38 degrees Celsius) mark in areas where fire crews are working on Sunday, the National Weather Service said, although underlying drought conditions remain unchanged.”This year is a bad year, but it’s not as bad as last year — only because we got a late start,” said Michelle Finch Walker, a spokeswoman for Oklahoma Forestry Services. „This year is going to be remembered for the number of structures lost,” she added.The largest of the state’s fires has blackened a 58,000-acre (23,490 hectare) stretch between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, the state’s two largest cities, Finch said, noting that it was one of the largest blazes in the state’s history.No deaths have been reported. Oklahoma remains under a state of emergency, with a ban on outdoor burning by order of Governor Mary Fallin.Oklahoma has joined several other states including Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Arkansas and Nebraska in being struck by wildfires during the widespread drought.Nearly two-thirds of the contiguous United States was experiencing some level of drought as of July 31, according to the Drought Monitor, a weekly report compiled by U.S. climate experts. Nearly all of Oklahoma was under severe drought or worse.Below-normal rainfall, temperatures up to 113 degrees Fahrenheit (45 Celsius) and wilted vegetation have made the potential for wildfires extremely high throughout Oklahoma.(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Cynthia Osterman)
Jamaica gets rain as TS Ernesto passes to south By DAVID McFADDEN | Associated Press – 1 hr 20 mins ago PORT ROYAL, Jamaica (AP) — Tropical Storm Ernesto brushed past the Caribbean country’s southern coast Sunday, causing heavy rains but few problems as it took a course expected to carry it byHonduras and across the Yucatan Peninsula into the Gulf ofMexico.Forecasters at Jamaica’s Meteorological Service said rain had tapered off by Sunday evening although light to moderate showers from squalls were still reported across most of the island, especially eastern areas.In Jamaica’s southern capital of Kingston, Ernesto dumped some rain but left no noticeable damage.Island authorities urged people in flood-prone areas to stay on alert and urged fishermen on outlying cays and banks to remain in safe harbors on the main island.As the storm’s outer bands approached earlier, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller called on all Jamaicans to make the necessary preparations to ensure their safety.”I urge you to especially consider the children, the sick, persons with disabilities, the elderly, and the most vulnerable in the society,” she said.Daniel Edwards, a dreadlocked fisherman in Port Royal, a small fishing village at the tip of a spit of land near Kingston’s airport, said vigorous lightning lit up the sky over the sea late Saturday and early Sunday.Bailing out his small wooden fishing boat next to a dilapidated wooden dock, Edwards said he wasn’t overly concerned by the storm.”It’s not much of a muchness,” said the veteran fisherman, decked out in rain gear.Forecasters said Ernesto could begin drenching the coast of Honduras on Monday. It is then expected to strengthen, possibly becoming a weak hurricane, before moving ashore near the Belize-Mexico border Tuesday night and passing into the Gulf of Mexico.The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said Ernesto had become a bit more organized as it moved away from Jamaica and its forward movement had slowed some.A tropical storm watch was in effect for the coast of Honduras, from the border with Nicaraguawestward to Punta Castilla, and the main island of Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands.A Cayman government statement urged Grand Cayman residents to monitor the storm but said the storm was not likely to have serious effects on the British Caribbean territory.The U.S. hurricane center said Ernesto was centered about 235 miles (375 kilometers) east of Cabo Gracias a Dios on the Nicaragua-Honduras border late Sunday. It had maximum sustained winds near 50 mph (85 kph) and was moving westward at 15 mph (24 kph).Elsewhere, Tropical Storm Florence, which formed far out in the Atlantic, stopped strengthening by early Sunday and was no longer expected to gain strength, the hurricane center said.Florence’s top sustained winds had slowed further to 40 mph (65 kph) by late Sunday and it was 925 miles (1,485 kilometers) west of the Cape Verde Islands. Forecasters said a gradual weakening was expected and the storm was likely to become just a tropical depression on Monday._David McFadden on Twitter: http://twitter.com/dmcfadd
Mars rover Curiosity nears make-or-break landing attempt By Steve Gorman and Irene Klotz | Reuters – 5 mins ago PASADENA, California (Reuters) – The Mars rover Curiosity, on a quest for signs the Red Planet once hosted ingredients for life, closed in on fringe of the Martian atmosphere on Sunday for a make-or-break landing attempt that NASA calls one of the toughest feats of robotic spaceflight.Curiosity, the first full-fledged mobile science laboratory sent to a distant world, was scheduled to touch down inside a vast, ancient impact crater on Sunday at 10:31 p.m. Pacific time (1:31 a.m. EDT on Monday/0531 GMT on Monday).Mission control engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles acknowledge that delivering the one-ton, six-wheeled, nuclear-powered vehicle in one piece is a highly risky proposition, with zero margin for error.But less than an hour away from Curiosity’s rendezvous with Mars,JPL’s team said the spacecraft and its systems were functioning flawlessly, and forecasts called for favorable Martian weather over the landing zone.After a journey from Earth of more than 350 million miles (567 million km), engineers said they were hopeful the rover, the size of a small sports car, will land precisely as planned near the foot of a tall mountain rising from the floor of Gale Crater in Mars’ southern hemisphere.”We’re rationally confident, emotionally terrified,” Adam Seltzner, leader of Curiosity’s descent and landing team, told reporters at a JPL briefing early on Sunday, as the spacecraft hurtled to within 100,000 miles of its destination – less than half the distance between Earth and the moon.The vessel was sailing through space at about 8,000 miles per hour and steadily gaining speed from the tug of Martian gravity. As of 9:30 p.m. Pacific, the spacecraft was reported about a less than 9,000 miles from the planet.Flight controllers anticipated clear and calm conditions for touchdown, slated to occur in the Martian late afternoon. There may be some haze in the planet’s pink skies from ice clouds, typical for this time of year, with temperatures at about 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 12 Celsius).Facing deep cuts in its science budget and struggling to regain its footing after cancellation of the space shuttle program – NASA’s centerpiece for 30 years – the agency has much at stake in the outcome of the $2.5 billion mission.President Barack Obama’s top science adviser, John Holdren, was among the dignitaries visiting JPL on Sunday for the landing, along with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.”It’s critically important for the nation because it allows us to stay on pace for what the president asked us to, getting humans to Mars in the mid-2030s,” Bolden told Reuters.He added that success also was key to NASA’s international partners in 12 countries in maintaining public and government support abroad for their continued funding.Mars is the chief component of NASA’s long-term deep space exploration plans. Curiosity, the space agency’s first astrobiology mission since the 1970s-era Viking probes, is designed primarily to search for evidence that the planet most similar to Earth may once have harbored the necessary building blocks for microbial life to evolve.PACKED WITH GADGETS–The rover, formally called the Mars Science Lab, is equipped with an array of sophisticated chemistry and geology instruments capable of analyzing samples of soil, rocks and atmosphere on the spot and beaming results back to scientists on Earth.One is a laser gun that can zap a rock from 23 feet away to create a spark whose spectral image is analyzed by a special telescope to discern the mineral’s chemical composition.Nearing the end of its journey encased in a capsule-like shell, Curiosity was essentially flying on automatic pilot, guided by a computer packed with pre-programmed instructions.Mission control activated the craft’s backup computer on Saturday night, ensuring it will assume onboard command of the vessel should the primary computer fail during entry into the Martian atmosphere and its tricky descent to the surface. The ship also began warming up rocket engines that will be used in final descent and landing maneuvers.Controllers had little to do Sunday evening but anxiously track Curiosity’s progress as it streaked toward Mars. It was expected to pierce the planet’s upper atmosphere at 13,000 miles per hour, 17 times the speed of sound, to begin a descent and landing sequence NASA refers to as „the seven minutes of terror.””We’re all along for the ride,” Seltzner said.Curiosity’s fate will then hinge on a complex series of maneuvers that include a giant, supersonic parachute deployment and a never-before-used jet-powered „sky crane” that must descend to the right spot over the planet, lower the rover to the ground on nylon tethers, cut the cords and fly away.The sequence also involves 79 pyrotechnic detonations to release exterior ballast weights, open the parachute, separate the heat shield, detach the craft’s back shell, jettison the parachute and other functions. The failure of any of those would foil a successful landing, Seltzner said.If everything works according to plan, controllers at JPL will know within a minute or two that the Curiosity is safely on the ground, alerted by a terse radio transmission relayed to Earth from the Mars orbiter Odyssey flying overhead.A satellite relay is necessary because Earth will set beneath the Martian horizon about two minutes before the scheduled landing.If no landing signal comes, it could take hours or days for scientists to learn if radio communications with the rover were merely disrupted or that it crashed or burned up during descent.From 154 million miles (248 million kilometers) away, 1,400 scientists, engineers and guests were expected to tensely wait at JPL to learn Curiosity’s fate, among them film star Morgan Freeman, television’s „Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek, comic actor Seth Green and actress June Lockhart of „Lost in Space” fame. Another 5,000 people will be watching from the nearby California Institute of Technology, the academic home of JPL.In a good-luck tradition dating back to the 1970s, engineers in the control room at JPL plan to break out cans of roasted peanuts about an hour before landing.(Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Cynthia Osterman adn Stacey Joyce)
Dust from Asia pollutes US, Canada air: study By AFP – Dust and aerosol pollution from Asia travels across the ocean and sullies the air in the United States and Canada, possibly worsening the effects of climate change, a NASA-backed study showed Thursday.About half of the aerosol particles in North America come from foreign sources, and most are just from naturally occurring dust rather than from burning coal or other fossil fuels, said the research published in the journal Science.About 64 million tons of dust, pollution and other particles that have potential climate and human health effects survive a trans-ocean journey to arrive over North America each year, the space agency said.That rivals the 69 million tons of aerosols produced domestically from natural processes, transportation and industrial sources.”This first-of-a-kind assessment is a crucial step toward better understanding how these tiny but abundant materials move around the planet and impact climate change and air quality,” said lead author Hongbin Yu, a NASA atmospheric scientist.Since dust emissions could rise as a result of increasingly dry weather, drought and desertification brought on by climate change, efforts by North America alone to curb pollution would not be enough, the study said.Instead, all nations must work together to cut back on harmful emissions in the environment, the study urged.The imported aerosols could be harming the environment by absorbing radiation from the sun, altering cloud formation along with rain and snow patterns, and speeding snow melt in the western US mountains, said the study.Aerosols can have a cooling effect by reflecting sunlight back to space. The researchers found that imported particles account for one third of the reduction in solar radiation, or solar dimming, over North America.”Globally this can mask some of the warming we expect from greenhouse gases,” said co-authorLorraine Remer, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Maryland.The research was based on data from a US-French environment satellite called CALIPSO that allowed scientists to separate which particles were natural dust and which were pollutant based.”To mitigate aerosol impacts on regional climate change, actions by a single nation are inadequate. The world must work cooperatively and act synchronically to meet the challenges of global health on a changing planet,” said the study.It also called for more study on how dust itself may affect climate.”Dust emissions can respond to climate changes, such as changes of wind, precipitation and vegetation. It is thus essential to acquire better understanding of the interactions between dust and climate,” the study said.Researchers noted that their current focus was on foreign dust and aerosols carried into the United States and Canada, but that aerosols emitted and produced in North America certainly affect other regions in much the same way.
Planned expat fee is talk of the Cayman tax haven By DAVID McFADDEN | Associated Press – 11 hrs ago GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands (AP) — One among thousands of lawyers, accountants and other workers from around the globe,Paul Fordham is escaping cold weather and the taxman by working in a sunny British territory in the Caribbean. He and many others, however, worry they soon may be looking for another haven.The Cayman Islands have lost some of their allure by proposing what amounts to the territory’s first ever income tax. And it would fall only on expatriate workers like Fordham who have helped build the territory into one of the most famous or, for some, notorious offshore banking centers that offer tax advantages for foreign investment operations.”The discriminatory nature of the tax has stirred up so much uncertainty for people who moved here thinking they knew what they were getting into,” said Fordham, an insurance sector specialist from the London area who moved to the main island ofGrand Cayman 6½ years ago. His recent attempt to sell his house collapsed because an interested buyer was spooked by the prospect of the islands’ first direct tax.In the seaside capital of George Town, where financial experts in casually elegant clothes unwind over beer or white wine, conversations have been about little else since July 25, when Premier McKeeva Bush declared his intention to impose a 10 percent income tax on expatriate workers as part of an effort to bail the government out of a financial hole.Bush refuses to call it a tax, preferring instead to dub it a „community enhancement fee.” The 10 percent payroll levy, as things stands now, will be imposed Sept. 1 on expatriates who earn more than $36,000 a year.It’s a monumental shift for the territory of 56,000 people where zero direct taxation, friendly regulations and the global money they lured in recent decades helped transform the economy of the island chain, a dependency of Jamaica until 1959, from a reliance on seafaring, fishing and rope-making.Government data show 91,712 companies were registered as of March 2011. A total of 235 banks, including most of the world’s top 50 banks, held licenses at the end of June as did 758 insurance companies. Assets for the registered companies totaled $1.607 trillion last September, down from $1.725 trillion a year earlier.Bush says the tax is necessary to meet British government demands that the territory diversify its sources of revenue beyond the fees and duties it now relies on, that have left his administration with a budget deficit.”This is not an us-and-them story, no matter how many screaming headlines call this an expat tax,” Bush told a crowd of critics and supporters late Wednesday during a four-hour meeting in a school gym, where each side vented complaints against the other.Opponents argue that a social contract may have been broken by targeting only the roughly 5,875 expatriates who are paid more than $36,000 a year, saying it could drive some away and hurt the financial services and tourism sectors that are now the pillars of the Caymans’ economy. Government reports say a majority of the wealthiest residents are Cayman citizens.Numerous competing tax havens, from Jersey to the British Virgin Islands, impose income taxes on workers, but not on one sector of the population. Under a controversial „rollover” immigration policy, expatriates in the Cayman Islands already are required to leave the islands for a year after living and working locally for a period of seven years.Richard Murphy, director of British-based policy consultants Tax Research LLP, thinks fears are overblown that a direct tax on expatriates will cause an exodus.”The finance industry in Cayman exists to sell to foreigners, and, like it or not, many are heavily invested in Cayman structures. They’ll bear the additional price,” Murphy said in an email.But leading businessmen argue that indirect taxes such as work permit fees, stamp duty on real estate deals and duties on imported goods already make the Caymans a relatively pricey place to do business. Work permit fees are typically 5 percent to 15 percent of salary and would remain along with the income tax, raising an expat worker’s tax costs to between 20 percent and 30 percent of salary.Anthony Travers, chairman of the Cayman Islands Stock Exchange, described the tax plan as „probably the single greatest existential threat to the Cayman Islands in over 200 years.””The whole economic structure in the Cayman Islands has been based on having no direct taxation,” he said in a phone interview.Many people complain that Bush’s proposal was made without public consultation and note that it came roughly three years after a government-commissioned report said a payroll tax combined with the work permit fees would make the Caymans less competitive in the market for skilled professionals.And it’s not just finance types who are troubled. At a small beach in downtown George Town, local fishermen gutted glistening jacks and snappers debated the merits of the new tax. They agreed that overspending and excessive hiring by the government was behind the islands’ financial difficulties.”The way I see it, this tax on expats is causing a division in this society and that’s not good. It’s too much spending by the government that got us here,” said fishing boat captain Dennis Downs, sitting next to a table displaying the morning catch.Bush said he is looking for any feasible alternative for solving the government’s revenue problems and rumors are swirling that he may withdraw the tax proposal because of the heated reaction.On Saturday, he told local TV station Cayman 27 that he was open to recasting the „community enhancement fee” on expats but only „if a solution can be found that does not affect ordinary Caymanians.”Even if it is revoked, some believe damage has already been done.”It has stirred up so much uncertainty,” said Fordham. „It’s hard to say if this place could ever be the same.”_David McFadden on Twitter: http://twitter.com/dmcfadd
Workshop blast in east China kills 13: Xinhua ByAFP – 12 hrs ago An explosion ripped through a family-owned workshop in eastChina’s Zhejiang province on Sunday, killing 13 people and injuring 14, state media reported.The blast in the lock-processing workshop in Wenzhou city’s Ouhai district happened after sparks from a polishing machine ignited thick dust, local government officials said, according to the Xinhua news agency.The workshop was operating illegally, the officials said.The explosion set a fire raging across an area of two to three hundred square metres, before the flames were brought under control.Safety standards are regularly flouted in China, and workplace accidents remain common despite repeated pledges by the government to improve regulations and oversight.Nearly 50,000 people died in work-related accidents in the first nine months of 2011, according to the State Administration of Work Safety.
The state of Brazil’s Amazon In the 19 months since Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff took office, longstanding rules that curtail deforestation and protect millions of square kilometers of watershed have been rolled back.
Agents from Brazil’s environmental protection agency IBAMA destroy clandestine ovens used to make charcoal from wood cut illegally from the Amazon rainforest, along the PA 150 highway in Goianesia, Para State May 26, 2012.