Sullivan wins re-election in Alaska, giving Republicans 50 seats in Senate: Edison Research

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Republican Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska won re-election, Edison Research projected on Wednesday, leaving control of the Senate to be determined in January by two runoff elections in Georgia.

Sullivan, 55, defeated Al Gross, an independent who ran as a Democrat in an election that some political analysts had seen as a potential opportunity for Democrats to capture a Republican seat.

Coming a day after Republican Senator Thom Tillis won re-election in North Carolina, Sullivan’s victory confirms that Democratic hopes of winning a majority of seats, and with it the power to support Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s agenda, will come down to two Georgia elections scheduled for Jan. 5.

With Biden’s White House victory, Democrats need to pick up three Republican Senate seats to hold 50 Senate seats, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris wielding the tie-breaking vote.

Biden has surpassed the 270 Electoral College votes needed to defeat Republican incumbent President Donald Trump.

Democrats won Republican seats in Arizona and Colorado in last week’s election. But they lost a seat in Alabama, reducing their gain to a single seat.

In Georgia, Republican Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler face challenges from Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, respectively.

(Reporting by Mohammad Zargham and Susan Heavey; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Wide-bodied 747 crowned Alaska’s fattest bear

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE (Reuters) – In Alaska’s annual battle of heavyweights, a salmon-chomping bruin named 747 – like the jetliner – has emerged as the most fabulously fat.

The bear, one of more than 2,200 brown bears roaming Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve, was victorious on Tuesday after a week of frenzied online voting in what has become an international sensation: Fat Bear Week.

Winner 747 was a worthy champion, the park said in a statement. “This year he really packed on the pounds, looking like he was fat enough to hibernate in July and yet continuing to eat until his belly seemed to drag along the ground by late September,” the park said.

Fat Bear Week pits 12 bears against each other in playoff-style brackets. Bear fans compared photos and voted online for their favorites from last Wednesday to Tuesday night.

For humans, Fat Bear Week is a fun way to learn, from a distance, about nature and Alaska.

Katmai’s bears can grow to well over 1,000 pounds (453 kg) from summer feasting. They can also lose a third of their body weight during hibernation. That makes Fat Bear Week about “survival of the fattest,” as the Park Service puts it.

Katmai, a 4 million-acre park sprawling over mountains, lakes, streams and coastline, is famous for having the world’s densest population of brown bears, the coastal version of grizzlies.

Within Katmai, the Brooks River is a prime place for brown bears to feast. There, bears congregate in summer and fall to snatch salmon swimming upstream to spawning grounds, with much of the action captured by a webcam operated by explore.org, one of the Fat Bear Week partners.

This year, the river was more of a bear paradise than usual, thanks to a record salmon run, said Naomi Doak, a media ranger at Katmai.

What was scarce along the Brooks River was people. Peak summer normally sees about 500 visitors a day but with the coronavirus pandemic, that was down to 50 to 100, she said.

“The combination of the big salmon run and fewer people, this has really handed the river to the bears,” she said.

(Reporting by Yereth Rosen; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Robert Birsel)

Trump says he will approve permit for Canada to Alaska railway to free landlocked oil

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter over the weekend he would issue a permit for a railway project from Canada’s oil sands to ports in Alaska, a project that has many regulatory hurdles but could help spur shipments of the landlocked crude to foreign markets and U.S. refiners.

“It is my honor to inform you that I will be issuing a Presidential Permit for the A2A Cross-Border rail,” Trump wrote on Twitter. He said his decision was based on the recommendation of fellow Republicans Dan Sullivan, a U.S. senator, and Don Young, a U.S. representative. Projects that cross the U.S. border require presidential permits.

The $17 billion Alaska-Alberta Railway Development Corporation (A2A Rail) project, first proposed in 2015 by Canadian infrastructure financier Sean McCoshen, would move crude from the Alberta oil sands 1,600 miles (2,570 km) to the Alaskan coast, as well as freight in the other direction.

Much of the case for the project has been often-congested pipelines responsible for moving Alberta crude to U.S refineries. However, new pipelines are under construction, reducing the urgency for another transportation option, and European producer BP Plc recently questioned whether global oil demand has already peaked.

Once a permit is issued, A2A would require numerous regulatory clearances in the United States and Canada that would likely take years. The company could not immediately be reached.

Shipping oil by rail has caused several high-profile accidents in both Canada and the United States in recent years, leading to criticism about the practice by some environmental groups.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how soon Trump would issue the permit.

The office of Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Canadian energy companies have complained that Canada’s regulatory system is too sluggish, and proposed oil pipelines have run into opposition from environmental and indigenous groups in both Canada and the United States.

Trump issued a permit and an executive order in attempts to speed TC Energy Corp’s Keystone XL pipeline project to bring oil sands crude to U.S. refiners, but it has been mired in delays.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner in Washington and Rod Nickel in Winnipeg; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Mercury released by permafrost thaw puts Yukon River fish at risk: study

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE (Reuters) – If carbon emissions continue at current rates, so much mercury will leach from thawing permafrost that fish in the Yukon River could become dangerous to eat within a few decades, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature Communications.

Current emissions rates threaten to trigger enough thaw release to drive mercury levels in Yukon River fish above federal safety guidelines by 2050, according to the study.

Mercury concentration in the Yukon is expected to double by the end of the century if carbon emissions continue at present rates, according to the study.

But if emissions are reduced in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement, mercury concentrations will increase by only 14% by the end of the century, keeping levels in fish at or below safety guidelines, according to the study.

“A lot will depend on what we do in terms of response to climate change,” said Kevin Schaefer of the Colorado-based National Snow and Ice Data Center, the study’s lead author.

The study has implications beyond the indigenous communities in Alaska and Canada that depend on Yukon River fish for their income, diets and culture, Schaefer said.

The nearly 2,000-mile river is “a bellwether or a canary-in-the-coal mine kind of thing, an indicator of what might happen over the whole Arctic,” he said. Thaw-released mercury will work its way from the land to the river and ultimately, into the oceans, and thaw-released mercury in gaseous form will encircle the world, he said.

“What happens in the Yukon is going to affect the entire globe, not just the people who live on or around the Yukon River,” he said.

A 2018 study co-authored by Schaefer, in collaboration with partners from the U.S. Geological Survey and other institutions, estimated that Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost soils hold nearly twice as much stored mercury as is in all the rest of the world’s soils, the oceans and the atmosphere combined.

(Reporting by Yereth Rosen; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Christopher Cushing)

Alaska’s salmon are shrinking, and climate change may be to blame

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) – Alaska’s highly prized salmon – a favorite of seafood lovers the world over – are getting smaller, and climate change is a suspected culprit, a new study reported, documenting a trend that may pose a risk to a valuable fishery, indigenous people and wildlife.

The study, led by University of Alaska at Fairbanks (UAF) scientists, found that four of Alaska’s five wild salmon species have shrunk in average fish size over the past six decades, with stunted growth becoming more pronounced since 2010.

Hardest hit is Alaska’s official state fish, the Chinook salmon, also known as king salmon.

Chinooks on average are 8 percent smaller than they were before 1990, according to the study, published on Wednesday in the journal Nature Communications. Also shrinking are Alaska’s sockeye, coho and chum salmon, the report said. The findings are based on data from 12.5 million samples collected over six decades.

The study confirms first-hand anecdotal accounts from Alaskans with generations of salmon tradition, said co-author Peter Westley of UAF’s College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences

“People are walking into their smokehouses and not having to duck anymore,” he said. “The fish are just smaller. ”

Warmer seas attributed to climate change and increased competition among all species of salmon are the likeliest factors behind the fish shrinkage, he said.

Salmon are maturing in the ocean at earlier ages and returning to fresh water younger and smaller than in the past, the study found.

In waterways like the Yukon River, famous for its Chinooks, the “really big whoppers” that spend seven or eight years in the ocean are no longer seen, Westley said. Instead, many returning Chinooks are only four years old, he said.

Alaska produces nearly all of the nation’s wild salmon. Last year, commercial fishermen harvested over 206 million salmon and sold them for $657.6 million, according to state officials. Salmon are also a dietary staple for some indigenous people of Alaska and Canada’s Yukon Territory.

The red-fleshed fish are also eaten by Alaska’s bears and other wildlife. Smaller fish mean fewer nutrients for those animals – and fewer salmon eggs, which can have long-term consequences for wildlife that feed on them, said UAF’s Krista Oke, the study’s lead author.

“It is impacting things that eat eggs, but it also impacts the salmon population itself,” Oke said.

The findings show the need to manage salmon not just for the size of their runs but for the size of individual fish, Westley said. “If you lose the diversity of fish and only have small fish, then you’re in troubled waters,” he said.

(Reporting by Yereth Rosen in Anchorage, Alaska; Editing by Steve Gorman and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Major quake strikes off Alaska, briefly sounding tsunami warning

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) – A magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck near the Alaskan peninsula late Tuesday, shaking buildings, but there were no immediate reports of injuries and the U.S. National Tsunami Warning Center canceled an earlier warning of potentially hazardous waves.

In Kodiak, the largest community in the earthquake area on an island south of Anchorage, some residents posted video on social media of people walking up to the high school, which was serving as a shelter, and of sirens sounding alarms.

The quake struck off the coast, 65 miles (105 km) south-south east of Perryville, Alaska, at a depth of 17.4 miles (28 km), according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

The Tsunami Warning Center issued a warning for the coastal areas of south Alaska, the Alaskan Peninsula and Aleutian Islands, but about two hours later, just after midnight, it canceled the warning.

Early evidence suggests that the quake, which was felt 500 miles (805 km) away in Anchorage, the state’s largest city, struck the “Shumagin Gap” between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates, state seismologist Mike West said. Because the area was previously unruptured, it is in theory overdue for a very big earthquake, he said in a statement.

Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said emergency officials were trying to contact people in all the affected communities.

The closest is Sand Point, a town of about 1,000 on another island off the tip of the Alaskan Peninsula. Sand Point has been evacuated and sounded its emergency sirens, Zidek said.

“I believe that there’s some damage from the shaking, but they have not been able to confirm that,” he said, adding that he had heard no reports of serious injuries.

Other towns had sounded their alarms and started evacuations, he said. It was unclear what damage may have occurred.

In Homer, a Kenai Peninsula town of about 5,800 people, residents in low-lying areas were told to use the city’s high school as a shelter, according to local public radio there.

(Reporting by Rama Venkat and Radhika Anilumar in Bengaluru and Yereth Rosen in Alaska; Editing by Alex Richardson and Leslie Adler)

Ten more states added to New York quarantine order: Cuomo

(Reuters) – Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday ordered those arriving in New York from an additional 10 states to quarantine for 14 days to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus as cases flare up across the country.

Alaska, Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Virginia, Washington were added to the travel order which was first issued in June. Minnesota was removed.

Travelers arriving in New York from a total of 31 U.S. states are now required to quarantine upon arrival in New York, according to the travel advisory.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

U.S. states from Minnesota to Mississippi to reopen despite health warnings

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. states from Minnesota to Mississippi this week prepared to join other states that have eased coronavirus restrictions to try to revive their battered economies, although some business owners voiced reluctance in the face of health warnings.

Colorado, Montana and Tennessee were also set to allow some businesses deemed nonessential to reopen after being shut for weeks even as health experts advocated for more diagnostic testing to ensure safety.

Georgia, Oklahoma, Alaska and South Carolina previously restarted their economies following weeks of mandatory lockdowns that have thrown millions of American workers out of their jobs.

The number of known U.S. infections kept climbing on Monday, topping 970,000 as the number of lives lost to COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory illness caused by the virus, surpassed 54,800.

Public health authorities warn that increasing human interactions and economic activity may spark a new surge of infections just as social-distancing measures appear to be bringing coronavirus outbreaks under control.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said in a Twitter message late on Sunday that he would announce a roadmap for “responsibly reopening” the state at a Noon ET (1600 GMT) news conference on Monday.

Although unprecedented stay-at-home orders have put many businesses in jeopardy, many owners have expressed ambivalence about returning to work without more safeguards.

‘I WOULD STAY HOME’

“I would stay home if the government encouraged that, but they’re not. They’re saying, ‘Hey, the best thing to do is go back to work, even though it might be risky,’” Royal Rose, 39, owner of a tattoo studio in Greeley, Colorado, told Reuters.

The state’s Democratic governor, Jared Polis, has given the green light for retail curbside pickup to begin on Monday. Hair salons, barber shops and tattoo parlors may open on Friday, with retail stores, restaurants and movie theaters to follow.

Business shutdowns have led to a record 26.5 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits since mid-March and the White House has forecast a staggering jump in the nation’s monthly jobless rate.

President Donald Trump’s economic adviser Kevin Hassett told reporters on Sunday the jobless rate would likely hit 16% or more in April, and that “the next couple of months are going to look terrible.”

On Monday, White House adviser Peter Navarro said the Trump administration is focusing on protocols to keep U.S. factories open as the country grapples with the coronavirus outbreak, including screening workers for potential cases.

“You’re going to have to reconfigure factories,” Navarro told Fox News. “You’re going to have to use things like thermoscanners to check fever as they come in.”

Trump was scheduled to hold a video call with the country’s governors on Monday afternoon before the White House coronavirus task force’s daily briefing.

The rise in the number of U.S. cases has been attributed in part to increased diagnostic screening. But health authorities also warn that testing and contact tracing must be vastly expanded before shuttered businesses can safely reopen widely.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Nicholas Brown and Brendan O’Brien; Writing by Maria Caspani; Editing by Howard Goller)

 

Alaska volcano spews thick ash cloud, triggering aviation warning

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) – An Alaska volcano that has been rumbling since midsummer shot ash about 5 miles (8 km) into the sky on Sunday, triggering a warning to aviators and dusting one small fishing village, officials reported.

Shishaldin Volcano, one of the most active in Alaska, kicked out a plume of ash that satellite imagery detected as high as 28,000 feet (8,535 m) above sea level, according to the Alaska Volcano Observatory, the joint federal-state-university office that tracks the state’s many volcanoes.

The plume stretched about 90 miles (145 km) as of midday, blowing mostly east and over the Gulf of Alaska, said the observatory.

A sprinkling of ash was reported in the tiny Aleutian village of False Pass, about 23 miles (37 km) northeast of the Shishaldin, said David Fee, the observatory’s University of Alaska Fairbanks coordinating scientist.

“Someone reported some ash on their windshield,” he said.

False Pass has a year-round population of about 40, according to state data, but draws many more people during the summer fishing season.

Also pouring out of Shishaldin’s caldera on Sunday was a stream of red-hot lava, the observatory reported.

Shishaldin has been in an on-and-off eruptive phase since July, occasionally dribbling lava down its snowy flanks and puffing ash and steam.

Most of the ash production has been relatively minor, but Sunday’s event was serious enough to warrant a “code red” warning for air traffic to avoid the area, the second such warning in the volcano’s current eruptive phase, Fee said.

“It’s a higher plume. It’s sustained. And it’s a higher concentration,” he said.

Shishaldin, about 680 miles (1,095 km) southwest of Anchorage, is the tallest mountain in the Aleutian chain, rising to 9,373 feet (2,857 m) in elevation. The upper two-thirds of the spherical peak are usually cloaked year-round in snow and ice, according to the observatory.

It is in a cluster of frequently erupting volcanoes in the eastern Aleutians. “This is the most active region in Alaska for volcanic activity,” Fee said.

(Reporting by Yereth Rosen; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Rumbling Alaska volcano sends ash plume 5 miles into the air

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) – One of Alaska’s most active volcanoes, a towering ice-covered cone in the Aleutian Islands, shot a cloud of ash more than 5 miles high on Friday, triggering a warning to aviators and putting on a show that was captured in satellite imagery.

The ash burst from Shishaldin Volcano, about 670 miles southwest of Anchorage, was part of an on-and-off, mostly low-level series of eruptions that began in July with a stream of lava from the crater at the peak of the 9,373-foot-tall mountain.

The ash plume was spotted by a pilot and was visible in satellite images captured from space. It drifted over the sea at least 75 miles southeast of the volcano, the Alaska Volcano Observatory reported.

No communities were affected by ashfall or were otherwise in danger as of Friday morning, said David Fee of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, a coordinating scientist with the observatory.

“This is a remote volcano,” he said.

The National Weather Service issued an alert, and air traffic was advised to steer clear of Shishaldin, though aviators were already avoiding the volcano well before Friday because of earlier activity, Fee said.

While Friday’s cloud, the largest yet of the series, was considered moderate, conditions at Shishaldin could worsen quickly.

“Shishaldin remains at a heightened level of unrest, and explosions may occur with little warning,” the observatory warned in a public statement. Friday’s explosion lasted about an hour to 90 minutes, U.S. Geological Survey scientist Matt Haney said.

(Reporting by Yereth Rosen in Anchorage; Editing by Steve Gorman & Kim Coghill)