Russia, China taking space into dangerous territory, US says

Washington — Russia and China are edging ever closer to unleashing space-based weapons, a decision that could have far-reaching implications for America’s ability to defend itself, U.S. military and intelligence agencies warn.

Adding to the concern, they say, is what appears to be a growing willingness by both countries to set aside long-running suspicions and animosity in order to gain an edge over the United States.

“I would highlight … the increasing amount in intent to use counterspace capabilities,” said Lieutenant General Jeff Kruse, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

“Both Russia and China view the use of space early on, even ahead of conflict, as important capabilities to deter or to compel behaviors,” Kruse told the annual Aspen Security Forum on Wednesday. “We just need to be ready.”

Concerns about the safety of space surged earlier this year when House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Turner called for the declassification of “all information” related to what was described as a new Russian anti-satellite capability involving nuclear weapons.

More recently, Turner has warned that the U.S. is “sleepwalking” into a disaster, saying that Russia is on the verge of being able to detonate a nuclear weapon in space, which would impose high costs on the U.S. military and economy.

The White House has responded repeatedly that U.S. officials have been aware of the Russian plans, and that Moscow has not yet deployed a space-based nuclear capability.

It is a stance that Kruse reaffirmed Wednesday, with added caution.

“We have been tracking for almost a decade Russia’s intent to design the ability to put a nuclear weapon in space,” he said. “They have progressed down to a point where we think they’re getting close.”

The Russians “don’t intend to slow down, and until there’s repercussions, will not slow down,” he said.

Russian and Chinese officials have yet to respond to VOA’s requests for reaction to the latest U.S. accusations, but both countries have repeatedly denied U.S. criticisms of their space policies.

In May, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov dismissed U.S. concerns about Moscow trying to put nuclear weapons in space as “fake news.”

But the Chinese Embassy in Washington, while admitting there are some “difficulties” when it comes to China-U.S. relations in space, rejected any suggestion Beijing is acting belligerently in space.

“China always advocates the peaceful use of outer space, opposes weaponizing space or an arms race in space and works actively toward the vision of building a community with a shared future for mankind in space,” spokesperson Liu Pengyu told VOA in an email.

“The U.S. has been weaving a narrative about the so-called threat posed by China in outer space in an attempt to justify its own military buildup to seek space hegemony,” Liu said. “It is just another illustration of how the U.S. clings on to the Cold War mentality and deflects responsibility.”

Despite Beijing’s public posture, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Kruse suggested Wednesday that China’s rapid expansion into the space domain is just as worrisome.

“They’re in multiple orbits that they did not used to be before,” he told the audience in Aspen, Colorado, warning that Beijing has already invested heavily in directed energy weapons, electronic warfare capabilities and anti-satellite technology.

“China is the one country that more so even than the United States has a space doctrine, a space strategy, and they train and exercise the use of space and counterspace capabilities in a way that we just don’t see elsewhere,” he said.

The general in charge of U.S. Space Command described the Chinese threat in even starker terms.

“China is building a kill web, if you will, in space,” said General Stephen Whiting, speaking alongside Kruse at the Aspen conference. 

“In the last six years, they’ve tripled the number of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance satellites they have on orbit — hundreds and hundreds of satellites, again, purpose built and designed to find, fix, track target and, yes, potentially engage U.S. and allied forces across the Indo-Pacific,” he said.

Whiting also raised concerns about the lack of clear military communication with China about space.

“We want to have a way to talk to them about space safety as they put more satellites on orbit,” he said, “so that we can operate effectively and don’t have any miscommunication or unintended actions that cause a misunderstanding.”

Malawi declares end of country’s deadliest cholera outbreak  

Blantyre, Malawi     — Malawi has declared the end of the country’s worst cholera outbreak, which began in March 2022 and killed nearly 2,000 people.

In a statement Monday, the Ministry of Health said the country had registered no cases or deaths from cholera in 26 of Malawi’s 29 health districts in the past four weeks. Some health experts, however, said the outbreak could resurface if the country failed to address sanitation problems that caused it.

Malawi President Lazarus Chakwera launched a national campaign to end the cholera outbreak in February 2023. The “Tithetse Kolera” or “Let’s End Cholera” campaign came three months after he declared the disease to be a public health emergency in Malawi.

The campaign aimed to interrupt cholera transmission in all districts and reduce the fatality rate from 3.2% to below 1%, which the World Health Organization considers a controlled cholera outbreak.

Dr. Wilfred Chalamira Nkhoma,  co-chairperson for the presidential task force on COVID-19 and cholera in Malawi, told VOA the disease had now been defeated largely because of the campaign.

“By WHO definition, a country stands to end the transmission of cholera when they have gone at least four weeks without reporting a laboratory confirmed case of cholera,” he said. “So that is the case with Malawi right now. We haven’t had a confirmed case since 6th of June.”

Successful steps

Nkhoma attributed the development to several interventions Malawi conducted over the past two years. He said they involved educating people about transmission, prevention and control of cholera; increasing surveillance; and properly managing cholera cases.

“The key one — and that must remain the key one — is to increase access to safe water and also improve adequate sanitation,” he said. “The Ministry of Water and Sanitation was taking the lead in this, but they were supported very well by nongovernmental organizations that are working in the water and sanitation sector.”

Nkhoma said another measure was the oral cholera vaccination campaign, which began in December 2022.

“We were able as a country to access some doses from WHO,” he said. “We were able to administer not less than about  6 million doses of cholera vaccine focusing first and foremost in priority areas.”

The Ministry of Health said in its Monday statement that Malawi had registered 56,376 cases of cholera, with 1,772 deaths since March 2022.

Maziko Matemba, a national community health ambassador in Malawi, told VOA that Malawi seemed to have managed the cholera outbreak at the treatment and case-management levels, but added that sanitation problems remained a challenge.

“Because at the moment, if you go to villages, if you go to public places, people are not doing the sanitation issues properly,” Matemba said. “Even if you check in public toilets, even if you check how people are preparing food, you will find that we still have challenges as a country to contain disease like cholera.” 

Nkhoma said the government would continue its effort to educate people about how cholera is transmitted, prevented and controlled to try to avoid further outbreaks.

Second malaria vaccine launched in Ivory Coast marks new milestone

LONDON — The world’s second vaccine against malaria was launched on Monday as Ivory Coast began a routine vaccine program using shots developed by the University of Oxford and the Serum Institute of India. 

The introduction of the World Health Organization (WHO)-approved R21 vaccine comes six months after the first malaria vaccine, called RTS,S and developed by British drugmaker GSK, began being administered in a routine program in Cameroon. 

Some 15 African countries plan to introduce one of the two malaria vaccines this year with support from the Gavi global vaccine alliance. 

Ivory Coast has received a total of 656,600 doses of the Oxford and Serum shot, which will initially vaccinate 250,000 children aged between 0 and 23 months across the West African country. The vaccine has also been approved by Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic. 

The rollout of a second vaccine is the latest milestone in the global fight against malaria and should help address a problem that emerged well before either of the two shots was launched: demand for them is likely to far outstrip supply for several years. 

Experts say having safe and effective malaria vaccines is important to meet demand. The shot is meant to work alongside existing tools — such as bed nets — to combat malaria, which in Africa kills nearly half a million children under the age of five each year. 

The Serum Institute of India, which manufactures the vaccine, has produced 25 million doses for the initial rollout of the shot and “is committed to scaling up to 100 million doses annually,” the company said on Monday about the launch in Ivory Coast. 

Serum said it is offering the vaccine for less than $4 per dose, in keeping with its aim to deliver low-cost vaccines at scale. 

Results from a large trial in February showed the vaccine prevented around three-quarters of symptomatic malaria cases in young children the first year after they got the shots. 

Experts told Reuters at that time that comparing the two malaria vaccines head-to-head was difficult because of the many variables involved in the trials, but overall their performance was similar — a conclusion endorsed by WHO.

Scientists confirm cave on the moon that could be used to shelter future explorers

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Scientists have confirmed a cave on the moon, not far from where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed 55 years ago, and suspect there are hundreds more that could house future astronauts.

An Italian-led team reported Monday that there’s evidence for a sizable cave accessible from the deepest known pit on the moon. It’s located at the Sea of Tranquility, just 250 miles (400 kilometers) from Apollo 11’s landing site.

The pit, like the more than 200 others discovered up there, was created by the collapse of a lava tube.

Researchers analyzed radar measurements by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and compared the results with lava tubes on Earth. Their findings appeared in the journal Nature Astronomy. 

UN alarmed as childhood immunization levels stall

Geneva — Global childhood vaccination levels have stalled, leaving millions more children un- or under-vaccinated than before the pandemic, the U.N. said Monday, warning of dangerous coverage gaps enabling outbreaks of diseases like measles.

In 2023, 84% of children, or 108 million, received three doses of the vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP), with the third dose serving as a key marker for global immunization coverage, according to data published by the U.N. health and children’s agencies.

That was the same percentage as a year earlier, meaning that modest progress seen in 2022 after the steep drop during the COVID-19 crisis has “stalled,” the organizations warned. The rate was 86% in 2019 before the pandemic.

“The latest trends demonstrate that many countries continue to miss far too many children,” UNICEF chief Catherine Russell said in a joint statement.

In fact, 2.7 million additional children remained un- or under-vaccinated last year compared to the pre-pandemic levels in 2019, the organizations found.

‘Off track’

“We are off track,” World Health Organization vaccine chief Kate O’Brien told reporters. “Global immunization coverage has yet to fully recover from the historic backsliding that we saw during the course of the pandemic.”

Not only has progress stalled, but the number of so-called zero-dose children, who have not received a single jab, rose to 14.5 million last year from 13.9 million in 2022 and from 12.8 million in 2019, according to the data published Monday.

“This puts the lives of the most vulnerable children at risk,” O’Brien warned.

Even more concerning is that more than half of the world’s unvaccinated children live in 31 countries with fragile, conflict-affected settings, where they are especially vulnerable to contracting preventable diseases, due to lacking access to security, nutrition and health services.

Children in such countries are also far more likely to miss out on the necessary follow-up jabs.

A full 6.5 million children worldwide did not complete their third dose of the DTP vaccine, which is necessary to achieve disease protection in infancy and early childhood, Monday’s datasets showed. 

‘Canary in the coal mine’

The WHO and UNICEF voiced additional concern over lagging vaccination against measles — one of the world’s most infectious diseases — amid an exploding number of outbreaks around the world.

“Measles outbreaks are the canary in the coal mine, exposing and exploiting gaps in immunization and hitting the most vulnerable first,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in the statement.

In 2023, only 83% of children worldwide received their first dose of the measles vaccine through routine health services — the same level as in 2022 but down from 86% before the pandemic.

And only 74% received their second necessary dose, while 95% coverage is needed to prevent outbreaks, the organizations pointed out.

“This is still too low to prevent outbreaks and achieve elimination goals,” Ephrem Lemango, UNICEF immunization chief, told reporters.

He pointed out that more than 300,000 measles cases were confirmed in 2023 — nearly three times as many as a year earlier.

And a full 103 countries have suffered outbreaks in the past five years, with low vaccination coverage of 80% or lower seen as a major factor.

By contrast, 91 countries with strong measles vaccine coverage experienced no outbreaks.

“Alarmingly, nearly three in four infants live in places at the greatest risk of measles outbreaks,” Lemango said, pointing out that 10 crisis-wracked countries, including Sudan, Yemen and Afghanistan, account for more than half of children not vaccinated against measles.

On a more positive note, strong increases were seen in vaccination against the cervical cancer-causing HPV virus.

But that vaccine is still only reaching 56% of adolescent girls in high-income countries and 23% in lower-income countries — far below the 90% target.

Stegosaurus nicknamed Apex will be auctioned in New York

NEW YORK — The nearly complete fossilized remains of a 161-million-year-old stegosaurus discovered in Colorado in 2022 will be auctioned by Sotheby’s in New York next week, auction house officials said.

The dinosaur that Sotheby’s calls Apex stands 3.3 meters tall and measures 8.2 meters nose to tail, according to Cassandra Hatton, Sotheby’s global head of science and popular culture.

The stegosaurus, with its distinctive pointy dorsal plates, is one of the world’s most recognizable dinosaurs.

Apex, which Hatton called “a coloring book dinosaur,” was discovered in May 2022 on private land near the town of Dinosaur, Colorado. The excavation was completed in October 2023, Sotheby’s said.

Though experts believe stegosauruses used their fearsome tail spikes to fight, this specimen shows no signs of combat, Sotheby’s said. The fossil does show evidence of arthritis, suggesting that Apex lived to an advanced age.

Hatton said Apex was found “with the tail curled up underneath the body, which is a common death pose for animals.”

The dinosaur will be auctioned on July 17 as part of Sotheby’s “Geek Week” series.

Sotheby’s is estimating that it will sell for $4 million to $6 million, but that’s just an educated guess.

“This is an incredibly rare animal,” Hatton said. “A stegosaurus of this caliber has never sold at auction before, so we will find out what it is actually worth.”

DR Congo detects at least 25 mpox cases in Goma

PARIS — At least 25 cases of a dangerous new strain of mpox spreading through the Democratic Republic of Congo have been detected in the eastern city of Goma, mostly in camps housing people fleeing a surrounding conflict, health authorities said Wednesday.

Congo has seen 20,000 cases and more than 1,000 deaths from mpox, mainly among children, since the start of 2023. Over 11,000 cases, including 443 deaths, have been reported so far this year.

Authorities recently approved the use of vaccines to tackle the upsurge, but none are currently available outside of clinical trials in the country.

The head of the national response team against the mpox epidemic, Cris Kacita, said in an interview that most of the new reported cases were in displaced people camps.

He said cases were infected with a new strain of the virus that is spreading in South Kivu province. Goma is the capital and largest city of the neighboring North Kivu province.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and scientists raised the alarm last month about the mpox situation in Congo, including the spread of a new strain of mpox spreading in South Kivu.

Mpox has been endemic in Congo for decades but a new variant of the clade I of the virus emerged last year. It is a viral infection that spreads through close contact, causing flu-like symptoms and pus-filled lesions. Most cases are mild, but it can kill.

A different, less severe form of mpox – clade IIb – spread globally in 2022, largely through sexual contact among men who have sex with men. This prompted the WHO to declare a public health emergency that has now ended, although there are still cases and the agency has said mpox remains a public health threat.

“The national biomedical research institute in Goma has sequenced the virus and this proves that the virus has been circulating for a long time in the city of Goma,” Kacita said.

“The risk here is the promiscuity in the camps and the speed with which the epidemic is spreading,” he warned.

Hundreds of thousands of people who fled conflict in Congo’s insurgent-hit east are staying in overcrowded camps in and around Goma.

The number of displaced has increased since a rebel group known as the M23 launched a major offensive in 2022, prompting national and regional military responses that have struggled to stem the militia’s advance. 

SpaceX rocket accident leaves Starlink satellites in wrong orbit 

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A SpaceX rocket failed for the first time in nearly a decade, leaving the company’s internet satellites in an orbit so low that they’re doomed to fall through the atmosphere and burn up. 

The Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from California on Thursday night, carrying 20 Starlink satellites. Several minutes into the flight, the upper stage engine malfunctioned. SpaceX on Friday blamed a liquid oxygen leak. 

The company said flight controllers managed to make contact with half of the satellites and attempted to boost them to a higher orbit using onboard ion thrusters. But with the low end of their orbit 135 kilometers above Earth — less than half what was intended — “our maximum available thrust is unlikely to be enough to successfully raise the satellites,” the company said via X. 

SpaceX said the satellites will reenter the atmosphere and burn up. There was no mention of when they might come down. More than 6,000 orbiting Starlinks provide internet service to customers in some of the most remote corners of the world. 

The Federal Aviation Administration said the problem must be fixed before Falcon rockets can fly again. 

It was not known if or how the accident might impact SpaceX’s upcoming crew flights. A billionaire’s spaceflight is scheduled for July 31 from Florida with plans for the first private spacewalk, followed in mid-August by an astronaut flight to the International Space Station for NASA. 

The tech entrepreneur who will lead the private flight, Jared Isaacman, said Friday that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has “an incredible track record” and as well as an emergency escape system. 

The last launch failure occurred in 2015 during a space station cargo run. Another rocket exploded the following year during testing on the ground. 

SpaceX’s Elon Musk said the high flight rate will make it easier to identify and correct the problem. 

America’s pioneering sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer dies at 96

NEW YORK — Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the diminutive sex therapist who became a pop icon, media star and best-selling author through her frank talk about once-taboo bedroom topics, has died. She was 96.

Westheimer died on Friday at her home in New York City, surrounded by her family, according to publicist and friend Pierre Lehu.

Westheimer never advocated risky sexual behavior. Instead, she encouraged an open dialogue on previously closeted issues that affected her audience of millions. Her one recurring theme was that there was nothing to be ashamed of.

“I still hold old-fashioned values, and I’m a bit of a square,” she told students at Michigan City High School in 2002. “Sex is a private art and a private matter. But still, it is a subject we must talk about.”

Westheimer’s giggly, German-accented voice, coupled with her 4-foot-7 frame, made her an unlikely looking — and sounding — outlet for “sexual literacy.” The contradiction was one of the keys to her success.

But it was her extensive knowledge and training, coupled with her humorous, nonjudgmental manner, that catapulted her local radio program, “Sexually Speaking,” into the national spotlight in the early 1980s. She had a nonjudgmental approach to what two consenting adults did in the privacy of their home.

Her radio success opened new doors, and in 1983 she wrote the first of more than 40 books: “Dr. Ruth’s Guide to Good Sex,” demystifying sex with rationality and humor. There was even a board game, Dr. Ruth’s Game of Good Sex.

She soon became a regular on the late-night television talk-show circuit, bringing her personality to the national stage. Her rise coincided with the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when frank sexual talk became a necessity.

“If we could bring about talking about sexual activity the way we talk about diet — the way we talk about food — without it having this kind of connotation that there’s something not right about it, then we would be a step further. But we have to do it with good taste,” she told Johnny Carson in 1982.

She normalized the use of words such as “penis” and “vagina” on radio and TV, aided by her Jewish grandmotherly accent, which The Wall Street Journal once said was “a cross between Henry Kissinger and Minnie Mouse.” People magazine included her in their list of “The Most Intriguing People of the Century.”

Westheimer defended abortion rights, suggested older people have sex after a good night’s sleep and was an outspoken advocate of condom use. She believed in monogamy.

In the 1980s, she stood up for gay men at the height of the AIDS epidemic and spoke out loudly for the LGBTQ community. She said she defended people deemed by some far-right Christians to be “subhuman” because of her own past.

Born Karola Ruth Siegel in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1928, she was an only child. At 10, she was sent by her parents to Switzerland to escape Kristallnacht — the Nazis’ 1938 pogrom that served as a precursor to the Holocaust. She never saw her parents again; Westheimer believed they were killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

At the age of 16, she moved to Palestine and joined the Haganah, the underground movement for Israeli independence. She was trained as a sniper, although she said she never shot at anyone.

Her legs were severely wounded when a bomb exploded in her dormitory, killing many of her friends. She said it was only through the work of a “superb” surgeon that she could walk and ski again.

She married her first husband, an Israeli soldier, in 1950, and they moved to Paris as she pursued an education. Although not a high school graduate, Westheimer was accepted into the Sorbonne to study psychology after passing an entrance exam.

The marriage ended in 1955; the next year, Westheimer went to New York with her new boyfriend, a Frenchman who became her second husband and father to her daughter, Miriam.

In 1961, after a second divorce, she finally met her life partner: Manfred Westheimer, a fellow refugee from Nazi Germany. The couple was married and had a son, Joel. They remained wed for 36 years until “Fred” — as she called him — died of heart failure in 1997.

After receiving her doctorate in education from Columbia University, she went on to teach at Lehman College in the Bronx. While there she developed a specialty — instructing professors how to teach sex education. It would eventually become the core of her curriculum.

“I soon realized that while I knew enough about education, I did not really know enough about sex,” she wrote in her 1987 autobiography. Westheimer then decided take classes with the renowned sex therapist, Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan.

It was there that she had discovered her calling. Soon, as she once said in a typically folksy comment, she was dispensing sexual advice “like good chicken soup.”

In 1984, her radio program was nationally syndicated. A year later, she debuted in her own television program, “The Dr. Ruth Show,” which went on to win an Ace Award for excellence in cable television.

She also wrote a nationally syndicated advice column and later appeared in a line of videos produced by Playboy, preaching the virtues of open sexual discourse and good sex. She even had her own board game, “Dr. Ruth’s Game of Good Sex,” and a series of calendars.

Her rise was noteworthy for the culture of the time, in which then-President Ronald Reagan’s administration was hostile to Planned Parenthood and aligned with conservative voices.

Las Vegas hits record of fifth consecutive day of 46.1 Celsius or greater

LAS VEGAS — Las Vegas baked Wednesday in its record fifth consecutive day of temperatures sizzling at 46.1 Celsius or greater amid a lengthening hot spell that is expected to broil much of the U.S. into the weekend.

The temperature climbed to 46.1 shortly after 1 p.m. at Harry Reid International Airport, breaking the old mark of four consecutive days set in July 2005. And the record could be extended, or even doubled, by the weekend.

Even by desert standards, the prolonged baking that Nevada’s largest city is experiencing is nearly unprecedented, with forecasters calling it “the most extreme heat wave” since the National Weather Service began keeping records in Las Vegas in 1937.

Already the city has broken 16 heat records since June 1, well before the official start of summer, “and we’re not even halfway through July yet,” meteorologist Morgan Stessman said Wednesday. That includes an all-time high of 48.8 C set on Sunday, which beat the previous 47.2 C record.

Alyse Sobosan said this July has felt the hottest in the 15 years she has lived in Las Vegas. She said she doesn’t step outside during the day if she can help it.

“It’s oppressively hot,” she said. “It’s like you can’t really live your life.”

It’s also dangerously hot, health officials have emphasized. There have been at least nine heat-related deaths this year in Clark County, which encompasses Las Vegas, according to the county coroner’s office. Officials say the toll is likely higher.

“Even people of average age who are seemingly healthy can suffer heat illness when it’s so hot it’s hard for your body to cool down,” said Alexis Brignola, an epidemiologist at the Southern Nevada Health District.

For homeless residents and others without access to safe environments, officials have set up emergency cooling centers at community centers across southern Nevada.

The Las Vegas area has been under an excessive heat warning on three separate occasions this summer, totaling about 12 days of dangerous heat with little relief even after the sun goes down, Stessman said.

Keith Bailey and Lee Doss met early Wednesday morning at a Las Vegas park to beat the heat and exercise their dogs, Breakie, Ollie and Stanley.

“If I don’t get out by 8:30 in the morning, then it’s not going to happen that day,” Bailey said, wearing a sunhat while the dogs played in the grass.

More than 142 million people around the U.S. were under heat alerts Wednesday, especially in Western states, where dozens of locations tied or broke heat records over the weekend and are expected to keep doing so all week.

Oregon has seen record daily high temperatures, with Portland reaching 39.4 C and Salem and Eugene hitting 40.5 C on Tuesday. The number of potentially heat-related deaths in Oregon has risen to 10, according to the state medical examiner’s office. The latest two deaths involved a 54-year-old man in Jackson County and a 27-year-old man in Klamath County.

On the other side of the nation, the National Weather Service warned of major-to-extreme heat risk over portions of the East Coast.

An excessive heat warning remained in place Wednesday for the Philadelphia area, northern Delaware and nearly all of New Jersey. Temperatures were around 32.2 C for most of the region, and forecasters warned the heat index could soar as high as 42.2 C. The warning was due to expire at 8 p.m. Wednesday, though forecasters said there may be a need to extend it.

The heat was blamed for a motorcyclist’s death over the weekend in Death Valley National Park. At Death Valley on Tuesday, tourists queued for photos in front of a giant thermometer that was reading 48.9 C.

Simon Pell and Lisa Gregory from London left their air-conditioned RV to experience a midday blast of heat that would be unthinkable back home.

“I wanted to experience what it would feel like,” Pell said. “It’s an incredible experience.”

At the Grand Canyon, the National Park Service was investigating the third hiker death in recent weeks. Temperatures on parts of some trails can reach 49 C in the shade.

An excessive heat warning continued Wednesday in many parts of southern and central Arizona. Forecasters said the high in Phoenix was expected to reach 45.5 C after it hit 46.6 C Tuesday, tying the previous record for the date set in 1958.

Authorities were investigating the death of a 2-year-old who was left alone in a hot vehicle Tuesday afternoon in Marana, near Tucson, police said. At Lake Havasu, a 4-month-old died from heat-related complications Friday, the Mohave County Sheriff’s Department said.

The U.S. heat wave came as the global temperature in June was a record warm for the 13th straight month and marked the 12th straight month that the world was 1.5 degrees Celsius  warmer than pre-industrial times, the European climate service Copernicus said. Most of this heat, trapped by human-caused climate change, is from long-term warming from greenhouse gases emitted by the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, scientists say.

Firefighters in Henderson, Nevada, last week became the first in the region to deploy what city spokesperson Madeleine Skains called “polar pods,” devices filled with water and ice to cool a person exhibiting symptoms of heat stroke or a related medical emergency.

Extreme heat in the West has also dried out vegetation that fuels wildfires.

A blaze burning in northern Oregon, about 178 kilometers east of Portland, blew up to 28 square kilometers by Wednesday afternoon due to hot temperatures, gusty wind and low humidity, according to the Oregon State Fire Marshal. The Larch Creek Fire closed Highway 197 and forced evacuations for remote homes.

In California, firefighters were battling least 19 wildfires Wednesday, including a 117-square-kilometer blaze that prompted evacuation orders for about 200 homes in the mountains of Santa Barbara County.

Astronauts confident Boeing space capsule can safely return to Earth

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida — Two astronauts who should have been back on Earth weeks ago said Wednesday that they’re confident that Boeing’s space capsule can return them safely, despite breakdowns.

NASA test pilots Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams launched aboard Boeing’s new Starliner capsule early last month, the first people to ride it. Leaks and thruster failures almost derailed their arrival at the International Space Station and have kept them there much longer than planned.

In their first news conference from orbit, they said they expect to return once thruster testing is complete on Earth. They said they’re not complaining about getting extra time in orbit and are enjoying helping the station crew.

“I have a real good feeling in my heart that the spacecraft will bring us home, no problem,” Williams told reporters.

The two rocketed into orbit on June 5 on the test flight, which was originally supposed to last eight days.

NASA ordered the Starliner and SpaceX Dragon capsules a decade ago for astronaut flights to and from the space station, paying each company billions of dollars. SpaceX’s first taxi flight with astronauts was in 2020. Boeing’s first crew flight was repeatedly delayed because of software and other issues.

Europe’s Ariane 6 rocket successfully launches for first time

Kourou, France — Europe’s new Ariane 6 rocket successfully blasted off for the first time on Tuesday, releasing satellites into orbit and restoring the continent’s independent access to space.

European space efforts have suffered a series of blows, including four years of delays on Ariane 6, that have robbed the continent of its own way to launch missions into space for the past year. 

But with the successful inaugural flight of Europe’s most powerful rocket yet, European space chiefs were keen to move on from recent setbacks. 

“It’s a historic day for Europe,” European Space Agency head Josef Aschbacher said.  

“Europe is back,” announced Philippe Baptiste, head of France’s CNES space agency. 

Surrounded by jungle on the South American coast, the rocket launched from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana at 4 p.m. local time (1900 GMT). 

The crew in the Jupiter control room, located 17 kilometers from the launch site, portrayed calm. 

Then head of operations Raymond Boyce announced, “propulsion nominal,” meaning that the launch was going as planned. 

Applause rang out in the room. 

Even louder applause came a little over an hour later, when the rocket successfully delivered microsatellites into orbit. 

NASA chief Bill Nelson on X welcomed the “giant leap forward” for the ESA. 

But Martin Sion, the CEO of the rocket’s manufacturer ArianeGroup, emphasized that “the mission is not yet complete.” 

It will only be fully completed when the reusable Vinci engine in the rocket’s upper stage has fallen back into Earth’s atmosphere. 

This is expected around three hours after liftoff. 

Since the last flight of its workhorse predecessor, Ariane 5, a year ago, Europe has had to rely on rivals such as Elon Musk’s U.S. firm SpaceX. 

Ariane 6 will be able to place satellites in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers (22,369.36 miles) above Earth, as well as satellite constellations a few hundreds of kilometers up. 

The first flight was carrying a payload of university microsatellites, various experiments and two atmospheric re-entry capsules that will be jettisoned near the end of the mission. 

The last of three ignitions of the Vinci engine will be to shoot the Vinci engine back down into the Pacific Ocean, so it does not contribute to the space debris cluttering Earth’s orbit. 

After months of analyzing the rocket’s inaugural launch, a first commercial flight is expected before the end of the year. 

The next challenge will be to “successfully ramp up” the number of flights, ESA space transportation director Toni Tolker-Nielsen said. 

Six launches are scheduled for next year, and eight for 2026. 

Purdue Pharma secures litigation freeze after US Supreme Court ruling

New York — Purdue Pharma on Tuesday received U.S. court approval for a 60-day freeze on lawsuits against its owners — members of the wealthy Sackler family — in its first court appearance since a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling upended its bankruptcy settlement.  

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Sean Lane granted an injunction at a court hearing in White Plains, New York, saying that a litigation cease-fire will give Purdue a chance to renegotiate a comprehensive settlement of lawsuits alleging that its painkiller OxyContin spurred an opioid addiction crisis in the U.S.  

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 27 that Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy settlement cannot shield the Sacklers, who did not file for bankruptcy themselves, over their role in the nation’s deadly opioid epidemic. 

The ruling sent Purdue back to the drawing board after nearly five years in bankruptcy and imperils billions of dollars in funding that the company and the Sacklers had promised to pay toward addressing the harms from the crisis. 

Lawsuits against Purdue and Sackler family members by state and local governments, as well as by individual plaintiffs, have accused them of fueling the opioid crisis through deceptive marketing of its pain medication. The company pleaded guilty to misbranding and fraud charges related to its marketing of OxyContin in 2007 and 2020.  

Purdue’s bankruptcy has stopped the opioid lawsuits from proceeding against the Stamford, Connecticut-based drugmaker since 2019, and Purdue has extended that legal protection to the Sacklers, as well. 

Purdue’s attorney, Marshall Huebner, said the company will engage in “a high-speed, high-stakes mediation” with the Sacklers, state and local governments and other stakeholders. Protecting the Sacklers during a “modest” 60-day negotiating period will give Purdue a real chance to negotiate a new bankruptcy settlement and put money toward stopping opioid overdoses and treating addiction, Huebner said. 

“Every single day of delay continues to come at a tragic, tragic cost,” Huebner said. 

Several stakeholders expressed hope for a settlement but said mediation should not be extended beyond the 60-day schedule proposed by Purdue. 

“It is essential to all parties in this case that we bring this five-year Chapter 11 case to a conclusion,” said Kenneth Eckstein, an attorney representing a coalition of state and local governments.  

During the hearing, Lane also appointed two mediators to aid settlement talks, including retired bankruptcy judge Shelley Chapman, who brokered a previous deal under which the Sacklers agreed to pay up to $6 billion to settle the opioid lawsuits. Eric Green will serve as the other mediator.  

If mediation fails, Purdue has said a court-appointed committee representing its creditors should be allowed to sue the Sacklers over claims they drained more thabn $11 billion from the company and that their conduct made Purdue liable for other lawsuits. 

The Sacklers have said the creditors’ proposed litigation is counterproductive and based on “factual errors.” Members of the family have denied wrongdoing and would fiercely oppose any litigation if the settlement talks break down, their attorneys said.  

“No one is assured of a recovery in this court or any other court,” said Gerard Uzzi, an attorney representing members of the Sackler family.  

Purdue’s previous bankruptcy settlement was supported by attorneys general from all 50 states, local governments and most of the individual opioid victims who voted on it.  

But it has also had detractors such as Carrie McGaha, who has had repeated overdoses and said Tuesday that individuals have been placed at the “bottom of the heap” throughout Purdue’s bankruptcy.  

Former US Senator Inhofe, defense hawk and climate change skeptic, dies at 89

OKLAHOMA CITY, oklahoma — Former Senator Jim Inhofe, a conservative known for his strong support of defense spending and his denial that human activity is responsible for the bulk of climate change, has died. He was 89. 

Inhofe, a powerful fixture in Oklahoma politics for more than six decades, died Tuesday morning after suffering a stroke during the July Fourth holiday, his family said in a statement. 

Inhofe, a Republican who underwent quadruple bypass heart surgery in 2013 before being elected to a fourth term, was elected to a fifth Senate term in 2020, before stepping down in early 2023. 

‘The greatest hoax’

Inhofe frequently criticized the mainstream science that human activity contributed to changes in the Earth’s climate, once calling it “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” 

In February 2015, with temperatures in the nation’s capital below freezing, Inhofe brought a snowball on to the Senate floor. He tossed it before claiming that environmentalists focus attention on global warming as it kept getting cold. 

As Oklahoma’s senior U.S. senator, Inhofe was a staunch supporter of the state’s five military installations and a vocal fan of congressional earmarks. The Army veteran and licensed pilot, who would fly himself to and from Washington, secured the federal money to fund local road and bridge projects, and criticized House Republicans who wanted a one-year moratorium on such pet projects in 2010. 

“Defeating an earmark doesn’t save a nickel,” Inhofe told the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce that August. “It merely means that within the budget process, it goes right back to the bureaucracy.” 

He was a strong backer of President Donald Trump, who praised him for his “incredible support of our #MAGA agenda” while endorsing the senator’s 2020 reelection bid. During the Trump administration, Inhofe served as chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee following the death of Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. 

Closer to home, Inhofe helped secure millions of dollars to clean up a former mining hub in northeast Oklahoma that spent decades on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund list. In a massive buyout program, the federal government purchased homes and businesses within the 104-square-kilometer region of Tar Creek, where children consistently tested for dangerous levels of lead in their blood. 

Republican U.S. Representative Frank Lucas, the senior member of the Oklahoma congressional delegation, called Inhofe a true public servant. 

“His long career in the United States House and Senate serves as a testament to his strong moral compass and innate desire to better his home state,” Lucas said in a statement 

In 2021, Inhofe defied some in his party by voting to certify Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election, saying that to do otherwise would be a violation of his oath of office to support and defend the Constitution. He voted against convicting Trump at both of his impeachment trials. 

Worked in business, public service

Born James Mountain Inhofe on Nov. 17, 1934, in Des Moines, Iowa, Inhofe grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and received a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Tulsa in 1959. He served in the Army between 1956 and 1958 and was a businessman for three decades. 

He was elected to the state House in 1966 and two years later to the state Senate, where he remained during unsuccessful runs for governor in 1974 and for the U.S. House in 1976. He then won three terms as Tulsa mayor starting in 1978. 

Inhofe went on to win two terms in the U.S. House in the 1980s, before throwing his hat into a bitter U.S. Senate race when longtime Senator David Boren resigned in 1994 to become president of the University of Oklahoma. Inhofe beat then-U.S. Representive Dave McCurdy in a special election to serve the final two years of Boren’s term and was reelected five times. 

Boren, a Democrat, said he and Inhofe worked together in a bipartisan manner when both were in the state Legislature. He later defeated Inhofe in a race for governor. 

“While we ran against each other for governor, we were opponents but never enemies and remained friends,” Boren said in a statement. “I hope we can rebuild that spirit in American politics.” 

Frequent flyer

Inhofe was a commercial-rated pilot and flight instructor with more than 50 years of flying experience. 

He made an emergency landing in Claremore in 1999, after his plane lost a propeller, an incident later blamed on an installation error. In 2006, his plane spun out of control upon landing in Tulsa; he and an aide escaped injury, though the plane was badly damaged. 

In 2010, Inhofe landed his small plane on a closed runway at a rural South Texas airport while flying himself and others to South Padre Island. Runway workers scrambled, and Inhofe agreed to complete a remedial training program rather than face possible legal action. 

He later sponsored legislation that expanded the rights of pilots when dealing with Federal Aviation Administration disciplinary proceedings. 

Inhofe is survived by his wife, Kay, three children and several grandchildren. A son, Dr. Perry Dyson Inhofe II, died in November 2013, at the age of 51, when the twin-engine aircraft he was flying crashed a few miles north of Tulsa International Airport. 

Nigeria’s bushmeat consumption comes under scrutiny

Abuja — In Nigeria, bushmeat is more than just food, it’s a culinary tradition and a trade. Despite the risk of zoonotic diseases like Ebola and Lassa fever, 45% of the country consumes bushmeat regularly, and now discussions to raise awareness are taking center stage.

Following last week’s World Zoonoses Day celebrations, Nigeria’s bush meat consumption comes under scrutiny due to the associated health risks.

Abuja-based civil servant Barnabas Bagudu among the 45% of Nigerians who consume bushmeat frequently, despite being aware of the potential risks. His personal favorites include antelope, rabbit, grasscutter, and alligator.

Bagudu emphasizes bushmeat’s unique taste and cultural significance.

“I like bushmeat so much that if I see it anywhere, I like to eat it, mostly antelope and rabbit. Since it is from bush, it’s blessed by God naturally, more than the one that we trained at home,” he said.

Bushmeat is also a thriving trade for many, like Evelyn Agbo, a seller of various types of bushmeat for over a decade.

She draws a huge patronage across Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, with antelope being her bestseller.

Agbo explains the preparation process.

“When I get the bushmeat, I dress it with salt and heat over fire with firewood until it is dried. I could do this for two days because if it’s not dry, flies will perch on it and attract diseases,” she said. 

The World Health Organization states that about 60% of all infectious diseases are zoonotic, passing from animals to humans.

Nigeria has a high prevalence of zoonotic pathogens like Ebola, tuberculosis, and Lassa fever.

Abuja-based public health expert Ejike Orij warns about bushmeat consumption amid a fragile healthcare system.

“So, if for any reason that animal is infected and then it is now killed and served to humans in bats and in restaurant, that’s how the transmission starts,” he said.

The theme of the 2024 World Zoonoses Day was awareness and prevention of zoonotic diseases.

In Nigeria, efforts to promote safer bushmeat consumption practices remain low.

Orji stresses the need to ramp up awareness.

“There has been a lot of public education and community engagement by government on the issue of bushmeat, especially when there was an epidemic of lassa fever…it’s just to spread the awareness especially to the people who prepare it,” he said.

While bushmeat is a top delicacy in Nigeria, the need for safer consumption practices is urgent.

Public health experts urge Nigerians to explore domestic protein sources like chicken and to increase public awareness to mitigate risks.

American mountaineer found mummified in Peru 22 years after vanishing

LIMA, Peru — The preserved body of an American mountaineer — who disappeared 22 years ago while scaling a snowy peak in Peru — has been found after being exposed by climate change-induced ice melt, police said Monday.

William Stampfl was reported missing in June 2002, aged 59, when an avalanche buried his climbing party on the mountain Huascaran, which stands more than 6,700 meters (22,000 feet) high. Search and rescue efforts were fruitless.

Peruvian police said his remains were finally exposed by ice melt on the Cordillera Blanca range of the Andes.

Stampfl’s body, as well as his clothes, harness and boots had been well-preserved by the cold, according to images distributed by the police.

His passport was found among his possessions in good condition, allowing police to identify the body.

The mountains of northeastern Peru, home to snowy peaks such as Huascaran and Cashan, are a favorite with mountaineers from around the world.

In May, the body of an Israeli hiker was found there nearly a month after he disappeared.

And last month, an experienced Italian mountaineer was found dead after he fell while trying to scale another Andean peak.

Park benches and grandmothers: Zimbabwe’s novel mental health therapy spreads overseas

Harare, Zimbabwe — After her son, the family’s shining light and only breadwinner, was arrested last year, Tambudzai Tembo went into meltdown. In Zimbabwe, where clinical mental health services are scarce, her chances of getting professional help were next to zero. She contemplated suicide.

“I didn’t want to live anymore. People who saw me would think everything was OK. But inside, my head was spinning,” the 57-year-old said. “I was on my own.”

A wooden bench and an empathetic grandmother saved her.

Older people are at the center of a homegrown form of mental health therapy in Zimbabwe that is now being adopted in places like the United States.

The approach involves setting up benches in quiet, discreet corners of community clinics and in some churches, poor neighborhoods and at a university. An older woman with basic training in problem-solving therapy patiently sits there, ready to listen and engage in a one-on-one conversation.

The therapy is inspired by traditional practice in Zimbabwe in which grandmothers were the go-to people for wisdom in rough times. It had been abandoned with urbanization, the breakdown of tight-knit extended families and modern technology. Now it is proving useful again as mental health needs grow.

“Grandmothers are the custodians of local culture and wisdom. They are rooted in their communities,” said Dixon Chibanda, a psychiatry professor and founder of the initiative.

“They don’t leave, and in addition, they have an amazing ability to use what we call ‘expressed empathy’… to make people feel respected and understood.”

Last year, Chibanda was named the winner of a $150,000 prize by the U.S.-based McNulty Foundation for revolutionizing mental healthcare. Chibanda said the concept has taken root in parts of Vietnam, Botswana, Malawi, Kenya and Tanzania and is in “preliminary formative work” in London.

In New York, the city’s new mental health plan launched last year says it is “drawing inspiration” from what it calls the Friendship Bench to help address risk factors such as social isolation. The orange benches are now in areas including Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

In Washington, the organization HelpAge USA is piloting the concept under the DC Grandparents for Mental Health initiative, which started in 2022 as a COVID-19 support group of people 60 and above.

So far, 20 grandmothers have been trained by a team from Friendship Bench Zimbabwe to listen, empathize and empower others to solve their problems, said Cindy Cox-Roman, the president and chief executive of HelpAge USA.

Benches will be set up at places of worship, schools and wellness centers in Washington’s low-income communities with people who “have been historically marginalized and more likely to experience mental health problems,” she said.

Cox-Roman cited fear and distrust in the medical system, lack of social support and stigma as some of the factors limiting access to treatment.

“People are hurting, and a grandmother can always make you feel better,” she said.

More than one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

“The mental health crisis is real. Where it’s a real crisis after the pandemic is that many clinicians have dropped out of the workforce,” said Dr. Jehan El-Mayoumi, who works as an expert with HelpAge USA and is a founding director of the health equity Rodham Institute at Georgetown University. She has struggled to get psychiatrists for acutely suicidal patients.

El-Mayoumi said the Zimbabwean concept provides people with “someone you can trust, open up your heart to, that you can tell your deepest secrets [and] that requires trust, so that’s what’s so wonderful about the Friendship Bench.”

The idea was born out of tragedy. Chibanda was a young psychiatrist, and one of just over 10 in Zimbabwe in 2005. One of his patients desperately wanted to see him, but she could not afford the $15 bus fare. Chibanda later learned that she had killed herself.

“I realized that I needed to have a stronger presence in the community,” Chibanda said. “I realized that actually one of the most valuable resources are these grandmothers, the custodians of local culture.”

He recruited 14 grandmothers in the neighborhood near the hospital where he worked in the capital, Harare, and trained them. In Zimbabwe, they get $25 a month to help with transport and phone bills.

The network, which now partners with the health ministry and the World Health Organization, has grown to over 2,000 grandmothers across the country. Over 200,000 Zimbabweans sat on a bench to get therapy from a trained grandmother in 2023, according to the network.

Siridzayi Dzukwa, the grandmother who talked Tembo out of suicide, made a home follow-up visit on a recent day. Using a written questionnaire, she checked on Tembo’s progress. She listened as Tembo talked about how she has found a new lease on life and now sells vegetables to make ends meet.

Dzukwa has become a recognizable figure in the area. People stop to greet and thank her for helping them. Some ask for a home visit or take down her number.

“People are no longer ashamed or afraid of openly stopping us on the streets and ask us to talk,” she said. “Mental health is no longer something to be ashamed of.”

Torrid heat bakes millions of people in large swaths of US, setting records and fanning wildfires

Las Vegas — Roughly 130 million people were under threat over the weekend and into next week from a long-running heat wave that broke or tied records with dangerously high temperatures and is expected to shatter more from East Coast to West Coast, forecasters said.

Ukiah, north of San Francisco, hit 117 degrees Fahrenheit (47 degrees Celsius) on Saturday, breaking the city’s record for the date and tying its all-time high. Livermore, east of San Francisco, hit 111 F (43.8 C), breaking the daily maximum temperature record of 109 F (42.7 C) set more than a century ago in 1905.

Las Vegas tied the record of 115 F (46 C), last reached in 2007, and Phoenix topped out at 114 F (45.5 C), just shy of the record of 116 F (46.7 C) dating to 1942.

The National Weather Service said it was extending the excessive heat warning for much of the Southwest through Friday.

“A dangerous and historic heatwave is just getting started across the area, with temperatures expected to peak during the Sunday-Wednesday timeframe,” the National Weather Service in Las Vegas said in an updated forecast.

In Las Vegas, where the mercury hit 100 F (37.7 C) by 10:30 a.m., Marko Boscovich said the best way to beat the heat is in a seat at a slot machine with a cold beer inside an air-conditioned casino.

“But you know, after it hits triple digits it’s about all the same to me,” said Boscovich, who was visiting from Sparks, Nevada to see a Dead & Company concert Saturday night at the Sphere. “Maybe they’ll play one of my favorites — ‘Cold Rain and Snow.’”

In more humid parts of the country, temperatures could spike above 100 F (about 38 C) in parts of the Pacific Northwest, the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast, said Jacob Asherman, a weather service meteorologist.

Heat records shattered across the Southwest

Meteorologists predicted that temperatures would be near daily records in the region through most, if not all, of the coming week, with lower desert highs reaching 115 to 120 degrees F (46.1 to 48.8 C).

Rare heat advisories were extended even into higher elevations including around Lake Tahoe, on the border of California and Nevada, with the National Weather Service in Reno, Nevada, warning of “major heat risk impacts, even in the mountains.”

“How hot are we talking? Well, high temperatures across (western Nevada and northeastern California) won’t get below 100 degrees (37.8 C) until next weekend,” the service posted online. “And unfortunately, there won’t be much relief overnight either.”

Indeed, Reno hit a high of 104 F (40 C) on Saturday, smashing the old record of 101 F (38.3 C).

More extreme highs are in the near forecast, including 129 F (53.8 C) for Sunday at Furnace Creek, California, in Death Valley National Park, and then around 130 F (54.4 C) through Wednesday.

The hottest temperature ever officially recorded on Earth was 134 F (56.67 C) in July 1913 in Death Valley, eastern California, though some experts dispute that measurement and say the real record was 130 F (54.4 C), recorded there in July 2021.

The worst is yet to come across the West and mid-Atlantic

Triple-digit temperatures are likely in the West, between 15 and 30 F (8 and 16 C) higher than average into next week, the National Weather Service said.

The Eastern U.S. also was bracing for more hot temperatures. Baltimore and others parts of Maryland were under an excessive heat warning as heat index values could climb to 110 F (43 C), forecasters said.

“Drink plenty of fluids, stay in an air-conditioned room, stay out of the sun, and check up on relatives and neighbors,” read a National Weather Service advisory for the Baltimore area. “Young children and pets should never be left unattended in vehicles under any circumstances.”

Deaths are starting to mount

In Arizona’s Maricopa County, which encompasses Phoenix, there have been at least 13 confirmed heat-related deaths this year, along with more than 160 other deaths suspected of being related to heat that are still under investigation, according to a recent report.

That does not include the death of a 10-year-old boy last week in Phoenix who suffered a “heat-related medical event” while hiking with family at South Mountain Park and Preserve, according to police.

California wildfires fanned by low humidity, high temperatures

Firefighters dispatched aircraft and helicopters to drop water or retardant on a series of wildfires in California.

In Santa Barbara County, northwest of Los Angeles, the Lake Fire has scorched more than 19 square miles (49 square kilometers) of grass, brush and timber. Firefighters said the blaze was displaying “extreme fire behavior” and had the “potential for large growth” with high temperatures and low humidity.

Festival revelers meet the heat with cold water and shade

At the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, Oregon, music fans coped by drinking cold water, seeking shade or freshening up under water misters. Organizers of the weekend revelries also advertised free access to air conditioning in a nearby hotel.

Angelica Quiroz, 31, kept her scarf and hat wet and applied sunscreen.

“Definitely a difference between the shade and the sun,” Quiroz said Friday. “But when you’re in the sun, it feels like you’re cooking.”

 

Oldest inhabited termite mounds have been active for 34,000 years

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Scientists in South Africa have been stunned to discover that termite mounds that are still inhabited in an arid region of the country are more than 30,000 years old, meaning they are the oldest known active termite hills.

Some of the mounds near the Buffels River in Namaqualand were estimated by radiocarbon dating to be 34,000 years old, according to the researchers from Stellenbosch University.

“We knew they were old, but not that old,” said Michele Francis, senior lecturer in the university’s department of soil science who led the study. Her paper was published in May.

Francis said the mounds existed while saber-toothed cats and woolly mammoths roamed other parts of the Earth and large swathes of Europe and Asia were covered in ice. They predate some of the earliest cave paintings in Europe.

Some fossilized termite mounds have been discovered dating back millions of years. The oldest inhabited mounds before this study were found in Brazil and are around 4,000 years old. They are visible from space.

Francis said the Namaqualand mounds are a termite version of an “apartment complex” and the evidence shows they have been consistently inhabited by termite colonies.

Termite mounds are a famous feature of the Namaqualand landscape, but no one suspected their age until samples of them were taken to experts in Hungary for radiocarbon dating.

“People don’t know that these are special, ancient landscapes that are preserved there,” Francis said.

Some of the biggest mounds — known locally as “heuweltjies,” which means little hills in the Afrikaans language — measure around 30 meters across. The termite nests are as deep as 3 meters underground.

Researchers needed to carefully excavate parts of the mounds to take samples, and the termites went into “emergency mode” and started filling in the holes, Francis said.

The team fully reconstructed the mounds to keep the termites safe from predators like aardvarks.

Francis said the project was more than just a fascinating look at ancient structures. It also offered a peek into a prehistoric climate that showed Namaqualand was a much wetter place when the mounds were formed.

The southern harvester termites are experts at capturing and storing carbon by collecting twigs and other dead wood and putting it back deep into the soil. That has benefits in offsetting climate change by reducing the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere.

It’s also good for the soil. Masses of wildflowers bloom on top of the termite mounds in a region that receives little rain.

Francis called for more research on termite mounds given the lessons they offer on climate change, sustaining ecosystems and maybe even for improving agricultural practices.

“We will do well to study what the termites have done in the mounds. They were thought to be very boring,” she said.