Near-record ‘dead zone’ forecast off U.S. Gulf coast, threatening fish

FILE PHOTO: The rising waters of the Gulf of Mexico crash at the shoreline of the Treasure Island community of West Galveston Island, Texas March 6, 2014. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – A near record-sized “dead zone” of oxygen-starved water could form in the Gulf of Mexico this summer, threatening its huge stocks of marine life, researchers said.

The area could spread over 8,700 square miles (22,500 square km), scientists at Louisiana State University said on Monday – about the size of the state of Massachusetts, and five times the average.

Experts blamed unusually high rainfall across the U.S. Midwest this Spring that washed farm fertilizers along streams and rivers through the Mississippi River Basin out into the Gulf.

The nutrients in the fertilizers feed algae that die, decompose and deplete the water of oxygen, the Louisiana scientists said.

“When the oxygen is below two parts per million, any shrimp, crabs, and fish that can swim away, will swim away,” Louisiana State University ocean ecologist Nancy Rabalais told the National Geographic magazine.

“The animals in the sediment [that can’t swim away] can be close to annihilated.”

The problem might get even worse if any more significant tropical storms wash out more farm-fed nutrients, the scientists said.

Sewage run off, caused by the spring floods, also add to the problem, National Geographic reported.

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted a slightly smaller 7,829 square-mile spread. The record was 8,776 square miles set in 2017.

“A major factor contributing to the large dead zone this year is the abnormally high amount of spring rainfall in many parts of the Mississippi River watershed,” the agency said in its annual “dead zone” forecast.

A solution would be to keep fertilizer and sewage run-off from getting into the rivers, NOAA said.

A Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force has been monitoring the problem and has set goals to reduce run-off.

(Reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Thai diver dies as rescue teams ponder how to bring out trapped boys

Rescuers carry supplies into the Tham Luang cave complex, where 12 boys and their soccer coach are trapped, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 5, 2018. Video taken July 5, 2018. Mandatory credit RUAMKATANYU FOUNDATION/Handout via Reuters TV

By Panu Wongcha-um and John Geddie

CHIANG RAI, Thailand (Reuters) – A former Thai navy diver died working to save 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped inside a flooded cave, highlighting the risks for rescue teams trying to find a safe way to bring the group out after 13 days underground.

Dwindling oxygen levels in the cave complex and weather forecasts predicting more heavy rain added to the pressure on authorities to work out a rescue plan.

Members of the media attend a news conference about the death of a Thai rescue diver after he fell unconscious during part of an operation, in front of the Tham Luang cave complex, where 12 boys and their soccer coach are trapped, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Members of the media attend a news conference about the death of a Thai rescue diver after he fell unconscious during part of an operation, in front of the Tham Luang cave complex, where 12 boys and their soccer coach are trapped, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Samarn Poonan, 38, a former member of Thailand’s elite navy SEAL unit, died on Thursday night as he worked underwater in the cave complex, laying oxygen tanks along a potential exit route, the SEAL commander said.

“We won’t let his life be in vain. We will carry on,” Admiral Arpakorn Yuukongkaew told reporters on Friday.

Samarn was working with a partner placing oxygen tanks in a section of the cave. As they returned, Samarn fell unconscious about 1.5 kms from the cave entrance.

“Once his mission was over he dove back, but in the middle of their return his buddy found Samarn unconscious in the water and tried to pump his heart, but he could not save his life,” the SEAL unit said in a statement.

The diver’s death also highlighted the risks for the boys, who have no scuba diving experience, if authorities decide they should attempt to swim out of the flooded cave.

“A navy SEAL just passed away last night. How about a 12-year-old boy that will have to pass through?” said Rafael Aroush, an Israeli living in Thailand and volunteer at the site.

“There will be rain and many things could go wrong. I don’t want to say it, but it could be a catastrophe,” he said.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha expressed his condolences over Samarn’s death but it would not deter the rescue teams, a spokesman said.

“Authorities have not lost courage because of this,” Thassada Thangkachan told reporters in Bangkok.

Officials warned on Friday that oxygen levels inside the cave have fallen and rescuers were racing to get more oxygen pipes into the cave. They have been working on a five km (three miles) “oxygen pipeline” to prepare for the group’s extraction.

Rescuers, including international teams, are pondering other ways to bring the group out before heavy rains hit the country’s north next week which could further hamper the rescue operation.

In a rare piece of good news, rescuers on Friday cleared enough water from inside the cave to be able to wade to one of the cave’s chambers located about 1.7 kms from the boys’ location without diving.

DEEP WATER

Rescue alternatives include teaching the boys to dive and then swim out, a highly risky venture, remaining in the cave for months until the wet season ends and flood waters recede, or drilling a shaft into the cave from the forest above.

The boys, aged between 11 and 16, and their assistant coach were found inside the Tham Luang cave in northern Chiang Rai province on Monday, after nine days underground. They went missing after setting out to explore the cave on June 23.

Rescuers have been slowed by logistical issues including high water levels inside the cave and narrow, flooded passages which would require the boys to dive alone.

The navy is teaching the boys the basics of diving, with a view to guiding them out through flood waters.

But getting them out won’t be easy.

The boys will have to be taught how to use scuba diving gear and how to navigate a cave that has frustrated even the most expert divers. Some of the boys cannot swim.

“Regarding the plan for the 13 to swim or dive, there is only one critical point which is risky: It is where every boy has to dive alone,” Chiang Rai Governor Narongsak Osottanakorn said on Thursday.

Rescuers are considering other options including keeping the 13 inside the cave until the flood waters recede at the end of the rainy season in about four months.

If the weather is on their side and enough water can be pumped out of the cave, the boys could get out the same way they got in, on foot, perhaps with some swimming.

Another option would be to find an alternative way into their chamber, such as drilling a shaft into the cave from the forested mountain above.

(Additional reporting by John Geddie and Patpicha Tanakasempipat in CHIANG RAI, Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Pracha Hariraksapitak and Panarat Thepgumpanat in BANGKOK; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Michael Perry and Darren Schuettler)

China tests self-sustaining space station in Beijing

A volunteer checks on plants inside a simulated space cabin in which he temporarily lives with others as a part of the scientistic Lunar Palace 365 Project, at Beihang University in Beijing, China

By Natalie Thomas

BEIJING (Reuters) – Sealed behind the steel doors of two bunkers in a Beijing suburb, university students are trying to find out how it feels to live in a space station on another planet, recycling everything from plant cuttings to urine.

They are part of a project aimed at creating a self-sustaining ecosystem that provides everything humans need to survive.

Four students from Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics entered the Lunar Palace-1 on Sunday with the aim of living self-sufficiently for 200 days.

A volunteer answers reporters' questions from inside a simulated space cabin in which she temporarily lives with others as a part of the scientistic Lunar Palace 365 Project, at Beihang University in Beijing, China

A volunteer answers reporters’ questions from inside a simulated space cabin in which she temporarily lives with others as a part of the scientistic Lunar Palace 365 Project, at Beihang University in Beijing, China July 9, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

They say they are happy to act as human guinea-pigs if it means getting closer to their dream of becoming astronauts.

“I’ll get so much out of this,” Liu Guanghui, a PhD student, who entered the bunker on Sunday, said. “It’s truly a different life experience.”

President Xi Jinping wants China to become a global power in space exploration, with plans to send the first probe to the dark side of the moon by 2018 and to put astronauts on the moon by 2036. The Lunar Palace 365 experiment may allow them to stay there for extended periods.

For Liu Hong, a professor at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the project’s principal architect, said everything needed for human survival had been carefully calculated.

“We’ve designed it so the oxygen (produced by plants at the station) is exactly enough to satisfy the humans, the animals, and the organisms that break down the waste materials,” she said.

But satisfying physical needs is only one part of the experiment, Liu said. Charting the mental impact of confinement in a small space for such a long time is equally crucial.

“They can become a bit depressed,” Liu said. “If you spend a long time in this type of environment it can create some psychological problems.”

A member of staff is seen in front of screens showing inside of a simulated space cabin in which volunteers temporarily live as a part of the scientistic Lunar Palace 365 Project, at Beihang University in Beijing, China

A member of staff is seen in front of screens showing inside of a simulated space cabin in which volunteers temporarily live as a part of the scientistic Lunar Palace 365 Project, at Beihang University in Beijing, China July 9, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Liu Hui, a student leader who participated an initial 60-day experiment at Lunar Palace-1 that finished on Sunday, said that she sometimes “felt a bit low” after a day’s work.

The project’s support team has found mapping out a specific set of daily tasks for the students is one way that helps them to remain happy.

But the 200-day group will also be tested to see how they react to living a for period of time without sunlight. The project’s team declined to elaborate.

“We did this experiment with animals… so we want to see how much impact it will have on people,” Liu, the professor, said.

 

(Reporting By Natalie Thomas. Editing by Jane Merriman)