Author Archives: Kristine L Ming

Dracula ticks in amber tell ancient blood-sucking tale

Amber fossilsImage copyright
NAture Communications/E Penalver

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The tick is stuck on to a dinosaur feather

Feathered dinosaurs were covered in ticks just like modern animals, fossil evidence shows.

Parasites similar to modern ticks have been found inside pieces of amber from Myanmar dating back 99 million years.

One is entangled with a dinosaur feather, another is swollen with blood, and two were in a dinosaur nest.

Scientists say the discovery, which has echoes of Jurassic Park, is the first direct fossil evidence that ticks fed on the blood of dinosaurs.

The research is published in the journal, Nature Communications.

”Ticks parasitised feathered dinosaurs; now we have direct evidence of it,” co-researcher Dr Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History told BBC News.

”This paper represents a very good example of the kind of detailed information that can be extracted from amber fossils.”

Dracula’s tick

Amber is fossilised tree resin. The sticky substance can trap skin, scales, fur, feathers or even whole creatures, such as ticks.

In this case, the researchers found a type of tick, now extinct, that is new to science. They named it, Deinocroton draculi or “Dracula’s terrible tick”.

Image copyright
E Penalver

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A modern-day tick from Spain

“Ticks are infamous blood-sucking, parasitic organisms, having a tremendous impact on the health of humans, livestock, pets, and even wildlife, but until now clear evidence of their role in deep time has been lacking,” said Enrique Peñalver from the Spanish Geological Survey (IGME), the lead researcher on the study.

The fossils in amber may echo the fictional world of Jurassic Park, but they will not give up the secrets of dinosaur DNA.

All attempts to extract DNA from amber specimens have failed since the complex molecule is too fragile to be preserved.

However, the fossils do give a snapshot of the lives of the feathered dinosaurs, some of which evolved into modern-day birds.

Image copyright
E Penalver et al

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The fossils hail from Myanmar

“The fossil record tells us that feathers like the one we have studied were already present on a wide range of theropod dinosaurs, a group which included ground-running forms without flying ability, as well as bird-like dinosaurs capable of powered flight,” said Dr Pérez-de la Fuente.

“So although we can’t be sure what kind of dinosaur the tick was feeding on, the mid-Cretaceous age of the Burmese amber confirms that the feather certainly did not belong to a modern bird, as these appeared much later in theropod evolution according to current fossil and molecular evidence.”

Extraordinary find

The researchers found further evidence of ticks riling dinosaurs. Hair-like structures from skin beetles found attached to two of the ticks suggest they lived in the nests of feathered dinosaurs, along with the beetles.

“The simultaneous entrapment of two external parasites – the ticks – is extraordinary, and can be best explained if they had a nest-inhabiting ecology as some modern ticks do, living in the host’s nest or in their own nest nearby,” said Dr David Grimaldi of the American Museum of Natural History, who worked on the study.

Together, these findings suggest that ticks have been sucking the blood of dinosaurs for almost 100 million years.

After dinosaurs died out in the mass extinction 66 million years ago, ticks clung on and continued to thrive.

Ticks are closely related to spiders, scorpions and mites. They feed on animals and can pass diseases on to people, pets, wildlife and livestock.

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Putin, on surprise visit, orders Russian forces to start leaving Syria

MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin flew into Syria and ordered “a significant part” of Moscow’s military contingent there to start withdrawing on Monday, declaring their work largely done.

Putin, who polls show will be re-elected comfortably in March, made the announcement during a surprise visit to Russia’s Hmeymim air base in Syria – his first since Russia intervened in the conflict. He held talks with President Bashar Assad and addressed Russian forces.

The first leg in a three-country one-day whirlwind diplomatic visit which sees Putin also meeting his Egyptian and Turkish counterparts, Putin is keen to leverage the heightened Middle East influence that Syria has given him to cast himself as a leader who can do diplomacy as well as military force.

The Kremlin first launched air strikes in Syria in September 2015 in its biggest Middle East intervention in decades, turning the tide of the conflict in Assad’s favor. Now that it regards that mission complete, Putin wants to help broker a peace deal.

“In just over two years, Russia’s armed forces and the Syrian army have defeated the most battle-hardened group of international terrorists,” Putin told Russian servicemen.

A “significant part” of the Russian force could now return home. “The conditions for a political solution under the auspices of the United Nations have been created,” said Putin. “The Motherland awaits you.”

Washington was skeptical about Putin’s statement.

“Russian comments about removal of their forces do not often correspond with actual troop reductions, and do not affect US priorities in Syria,” said Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon.

Putin made clear in any case that Russia would retain enough firepower to destroy any possible Islamic State comeback.

Syrian state television quoted Assad as thanking Putin for Russia’s help, saying the blood of Moscow’s “martyrs” had been mixed with the blood of the Syrian army. It also showed the two men watching what it called a victory parade with Russian troops dressed in desert uniforms marching past.

Russia’s main contribution has been air strikes, and with Iran-backed Shi’ite militias doing much of the fighting on the ground, the partial Russian withdrawal may not make a huge difference when it comes to the military situation.

Russia’s campaign, which has been extensively covered on state TV at home, has not caught the imagination of most Russians. But nor has it stirred unease of the kind the Soviet Union faced with its calamitous 1980s Afghanistan intervention.

The use of private military contractors, something which has been documented by Reuters but denied by the defense ministry, has allowed Moscow to keep the public casualty toll fairly low.

Officially, less than 50 Russian service personnel have been killed in the campaign, but the real number, including private contractors, is estimated to be much higher.


Russia’s “mission accomplished” moment in Syria may help Putin increase the turnout at the March presidential election by appealing to the patriotism of voters.

Though polls show he will easily win, they also show that some Russians are increasingly apathetic about politics, and Putin’s supporters are keen to get him re-elected on a big turnout, which in their eyes confers legitimacy.

Putin, who with the help of state TV has dominated Russia’s political landscape for the last 17 years, told Russian servicemen they would return home as victors.

Speaking in front of a row of servicemen holding Russian flags, Putin said his military had proved its might and that Moscow had succeeded in keeping Syria intact as a “sovereign independent state.”

“I congratulate you!” Putin told the servicemen.

Putin is keen to organize a special event in Russia – the Syrian Congress on National Dialogue – that Moscow hopes will bring together the Syrian government and opposition and try to hammer out a new constitution.

When asked about Putin’s announcement, Yahya Aridi, spokesman for the Syrian opposition in Geneva, said it welcomed any step that brought Syria closer to real peace.

Putin made clear however that while Russia might be drawing down much of its forces, its military presence in Syria was a permanent one and that it would retain enough firepower to destroy any Islamic State comeback.

Russia will keep its Hmeymim air base in Syria’s Latakia Province and its naval facility in the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartous “on a permanent basis,” said Putin.

Both bases are protected by sophisticated air defense missile systems.

Putin was told by the military that it had begun withdrawing 25 aircraft, a detachment of Russian military police, a detachment of Russian special forces, a military field hospital and a de-mining center.

However, Russia has announced partial force draw-downs before only to later bring in different capabilities.

“We’ve seen such announcements before, which turn about to be less significant than they might have initially appeared,” said one European diplomat who declined to be named.

“The most significant contribution Russia can make to advancing peace in Syria is to pressure the Assad regime to engage seriously in Geneva (peace talks). Absent that, the suspicion will be that this announcement may have more to do with Russian politics than the Syrian situation.”

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Iran: Trump’s Jerusalem move will hasten Israel’s destruction

BEIRUT – Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will hasten the country’s destruction, Iran’s defense minister said on Monday, while a top Revolutionary Guards commander phoned two Palestinian armed groups and pledged support for them.

Leaders of Iran, where opposition to Israel and support for the Palestinian cause has been central to foreign policy since the 1979 Islamic revolution, have denounced last week’s announcement by the US president, including a plan to move the US embassy to the city.

The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

“(Trump’s) step will hasten the destruction of the Zionist regime and will double the unity of Muslims,” Iran’s defense minister, Brigadier General Amir Hatami, said on Monday, according to state media.

The army’s chief of staff, General Mohammad Baqeri, said Trump’s “foolish move” could be seen as the beginning of a new intifada, or Palestinian uprising.

Iran has long supported a number of anti-Israeli militant groups, including the military wing of Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which the deputy commander of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, said was “stronger than the Zionist regime.”

Similarly, Qassem Soleimani, the head of the branch of the Guards that oversees operations outside of Iran’s borders pledged the Islamic Republic’s “complete support for Palestinian Islamic resistance movements” after phone calls with commanders from Islamic Jihad and the Izz al-Deen Qassam brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, on Monday according to Sepah News, the news site of the Guards.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday stepped up efforts to rally Middle Eastern countries against US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which EU foreign ministers meanwhile declined to support.

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How much money is Qatar spending on a facelift for Gaza?

On December 11th Israel announced that it had discovered and destroyed a terror tunnel stretching from east of Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip into Israel. Two kilometers west from the entrance to the tunnel, Palestinian families are enjoying their new apartments in a residential city built by Qatar. There are basketball courts and a small public park with water fountains. A mosque and administrative buildings are surrounded by 1,060 apartments. It could be a residential development in the Gulf populated by expats relaxing by the water. But it is in Gaza, thanks to a half billion dollar investment by Doha. An exclusive document obtained by The Jerusalem Post reveals the extent of Qatar’s reconstruction efforts.

In October 2014 in the aftermath of the Gaza war UNRWA estimated that more than 100,000 homes had been damaged or destroyed in the fighting, affecting 600,000 people. $5.4 billion was pledged toward reconstruction efforts at an international conference in Egypt. Two years later only 51% of the pledged money had been disbursed. According to research by Brookings, Qatar was one of the biggest spenders investing in Gaza, with $216 million sent to the strip by December 2016, part of a budget of $1.4 billion it has pledged and spent in the last five years on Palestinians.

Qatar’s support for Gaza goes back more than a decade. It has hosted Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal since 2012 and had a relationship with him since he first briefly moved there in 1999. In 2012 Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani visited the Strip, becoming the first Arab leader to got o Gaza since Hamas took power in 2007. He pledged $400 million at the time. Hamad abdicated in 2013 and his son Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani became emir. Tamim has advanced the reconstruction projects through the Gaza Reconstruction Committee (GRC), established in September 2012.

The Jerusalem Post obtained access to a February 2017 report from the GRC. According to the 56 page glossy booklet, Qatar has completed 94 projects in Gaza at the cost of $312 million and is continuing to build 12 more projects at a cost of $95 million. Its showcase project is the Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Residential City next to Khan Yunis. Laid out like a massive construction project would be in Qatar it is modeled on the Gulf style of development. The first phase included 1,060 apartments and cost $54 million. Phase II added an additional 1,264 apartments.

Israel has long suspected that the cement imported to Gaza is diverted to be used by Hamas for the building of terrorist infrastructure, including tunnels. In a May 2016 speech then-Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold said that for every 100 sacks of cement imported to the Gaza Strip “only five or six are transferred to civilians.” He said that of the 4 million tons of building materials transferred to the strip between October 2015 and May 2016, some of it had been “seized and used to build new attack tunnels.”

Qatar’s role in Gaza’s reconstruction puts it in a bind. Since June 2017 its neighbors have broken relations, accusing it of supporting terrorism. Its support for Hamas is a central dispute between Doha, and Riyadh. With Hamas also isolated by Egypt’s cutting off of tunnels stretching from Sinai, the Strip is increasingly isolated. In October Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation agreement aimed at ending that. Border posts were supposed to be transferred completely to Palestinian Authority Control and the PA was supposed to return to Gaza. That has not happened and there are concerns the agreement will breakdown like previous ones did.

To find land for these thousands of apartments which should house tens of thousands of people, the Qataris sought after open spaces in Gaza. They found land next to Khan Yunis that was previously the site of the Israeli settlements of Ganne Tal, Qatif and Netzer Hazani. Aerial photos show eighty large buildings constructed northeast of Khan Yunis. In contrast to the natural sprawl around the Palestinian city, with large family homes and fields, the Hamad suburb looks more like Israel’s Modi’in, a large planned city.

According to the brochure, the Qataris also built a hospital devoted to rehab for people with disabilities named for Hamad Bin Khalifa. They invested in reconstruction of more than 1,000 homes for a cost of $50 million. They also brought Qatari expertise at road building with 8 major road projects stretching over 36 kilometers. Some of these include new boulevards, such as the rebuilding of Salah Eldeen road. The reconstruction committee also focused on building smaller residential complexes at Beit Lahiya (80 apartments), Johar al-Deek (100), Deir al-Balah (120).

In May Mohammed al-Emadi, the Qatar envoy to Gaza, attended an opening ceremony for some of the apartments in the second phase of Hamad city and handed over the apartments to locals. He also announced the construction of a second “city” modeled on the first to be called Al-Amal City of his highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa. So far it consists of two phases with 194 apartments. El-Amadi said in July that “despite the crisis in Qatar, we will continue to support you [Gaza].” He pledged to continue with new projects and complete those in progress. These include agricultural laboratories, a rehab center in Khan Yunis, veterinary clinics in beit Lahiya and Rafah, agricultural access to “border” areas in the southern Gaza Strip, wells, storm water ponds, a stadium, a giant playground, a “Palace of justice,” and the restoration of the Al-Omari Great mosque in Gaza.

Qatar has not only embarked on an ambitious number of projects to give Gaza a facelift, but it has also paid local salaries. According to Brookings research published in August 2017, in July 2016 Qatar had spent $30 million to pay local salaries. The report said that this was a “considerable section of Gaza’s public servants.” In April Yousef al-Ghariz, the advisor to al-Emadi, spoke with Al-Monitor about the difficulties Qatar has faced to bring in materials for its projects. “Given the blockade and the repeated closure of border crossings in recent years, the committee has liaised with outside parties in order to bring in the required raw materials.” This includes coordination with Israel, which Ghariz called “purely technical.” The Qataris also work with the Palestinian Ministry of Public Works and Housing and its minister Mufid al-Hasayneh. “We don’t get involved in any internal Palestinian political disputes,” Ghariz told Al-Monitor. El-Amadi also met with the UN Special Coordinator for Middle East Peace Nikolay Mladenov in July 2017.

Israel is growing closer to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in recent years and Qatar has attempted to lobby pro-Israel groups in the United States in the last months to encourage a change in perception of the emirate. In November Malcolm Hoenlein, president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jerusalem Organizations, revealed he had been holding secret talks with Qatar over the return of two Israeli citizens held in Gaza. Qatar would like to use this leverage with Hamas to increase it influence in Gaza that it has obtained through its development projects. Otherwise its effort may become another failed endeavor.

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US flood risk ‘severely underestimated’

A shallow speedboat moves at high speed through a flooded street in Port Arthur, carrying evacueesImage copyright
Getty Images

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During Hurricane Harvey, Port Arthur in Texas experienced some the most extreme impacts of flooding

Scientists and engineers have teamed up across the Atlantic to “redraw” the flood map of the US.

Their work reveals 40 million Americans are at risk of having their homes flooded – more than three times as many people as federal flood maps show.

The UK-US team say they have filled in “vast amounts of missing information” in the way flood risk is currently measured in the country.

They presented the work at the 2017 American Geophysical Union meeting.

This mapping project includes areas across the US that are on river floodplains and those at risk of flash floods associated with heavy rainfall.

It focuses on rivers and does not include areas at risk of coastal flooding.

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Oliver Wing

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Cutting edge flood map: blue areas on the map are within the ’100 year floodplain’

One of the researchers, Oliver Wing PhD from the University of Bristol in the UK and part of the flood-mapping organisation Fathom, spoke to BBC News ahead of this international gathering of Earth and planetary scientists. He said the new maps were based on “cutting edge science”, simulating every river catchment area.

The biggest issue, Mr Wing explained, is the how incomplete the network of river gauges is in the US. So he and his colleagues created a model based on decades of analysis of the way in which river systems behave.

This model “fills in those data gaps,” he told BBC News, meaning the probability of flooding can be worked out in every river catchment area.

100-year flood

Combining those probabilities with population and land-use data, Mr Wing said, revealed that “40 million people and $5.5 trillion worth of assets” are within an area that has a 1% chance of flooding each year.

When you combine population data with government flood maps, which are created by the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), “they only have 13 million people on that floodplain”, said Mr Wing.

This area with 1% chance of flooding every year – also called the 100-year floodplain – is nationally recognised as the area of high flooding risk. FEMA charts this area on its official flood hazard map, which is used to inform a national flood insurance programme.

Flooding insurance is mandatory for the homeowners who have mortgages from federally regulated lenders. And for people whose homes were built before this law was passed, there is government support for their insurance policies.

But FEMA “simply hasn’t covered the whole of the USA” in its mapping, Mr Wing told BBC News.

“Even in areas they claim to have studied, a lot of the smaller river reach has just been ignored.”

A Department of Homeland Security report, published earlier this year, also concluded that FEMA needed to “improve its management and oversight of flood mapping”.

FEMA said it had not carried out a full study of the number of people living in what it called Special Flood Hazard Areas, so it could not confirm the figures the team quoted.

But Roy Wright, director of the National Flood Insurance Programme, said that the organisation wanted “the best answers as the science advanced”.

“We haven’t seen the details of this study,” Mr Wright told BBC News. “But we welcome what these scientists have done and, if it improves our maps, we’ll look at it.”

Modelling the strangest floods

  • Hydrologists in a Princeton-Bristol University Partnership have also been examining and modelling some of the strangest floods to have happened in the UK and US.
  • So-called “strange floods” are floods that are much larger than or that occur at unexpected times of year compared with more regular flooding in an area.
  • These researchers developed what they termed a “strangeness index” for flooding. That is worked out by dividing the volume of water recorded in the largest flood, by the volume from a more typical flooding event. “The higher that value on the strangeness index, the more likely the flood is to happen at an unexpected time of year,” explained Alexander Cox from Princeton University.
  • Prof Paul Bates from the University of Bristol says their unexpectedness makes them difficult to prepare for, meaning they often cause large amounts of damage.
  • Two of the strangest floods to have happened in the UK were on the River Darent at Hawley in Kent in September, 1968. “This was 10 times larger than the 10-year flood here,” according to Prof Bates.
  • More recently, a flood of the River Dearne at Barnsley Weir in South Yorkshire in 2007 was nine times larger than the 10-year flood in that area.
  • According to the scientists, seven out of the top 10 strangest floods happened in only two years – 1968 and 2007.
  • Alexander Co, lead researcher on the UK strange floods project, said understanding the strangest floods could add a whole new dimension to calculating flood risk.

Mr Wing added that the 100-year flood had the potential to cause $1.16tn worth of damage.

“That is if the 100-year flood happened everywhere at the same time, which is not going to happen in one period,” he said. “But this gives you a rough idea of what has been put in harm’s way.

Media captionWhich cities might flood as the ice melts?

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Irish DNA map reveals history’s imprint

Poulnabrone dolmen, County ClareImage copyright
Getty Images

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The genetic landscape of Ireland had been laid down by the Bronze Age, but it continued to be subtly influenced by later events

Scientists have unveiled a detailed genetic map of Ireland, revealing subtle DNA differences that may reflect historic events.

In their sample of the Irish population, the researchers identified 10 genetic groupings – clusters – that roughly mirror ancient boundaries.

The results also suggest the Vikings had a greater impact on the Irish gene pool than previously supposed.

The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

A team of Irish, British and American researchers analysed data from 194 Irish individuals with four generations of ancestry tied to specific regions on the island.

This allowed the scientists to work out the population structure that existed prior to the increased movement of people in recent decades.

Co-author Dr Gianpiero Cavalleri, from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, told BBC News that the differences between the different Irish groups were “really subtle”.

He told BBC News: “We’re only picking them up now because, first of all, the data sets are getting really big.” The other reason, he said, was because of “really clever analytical approaches to pick out these very slight differences that generate the clusters”.

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Scientific Reports

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Distinct genetic clusters in Ireland are identified by different-coloured symbols. A similar map for Britain – produced for an earlier study – is also shown

The study builds on a similar one for Britain, which was published in 2015.

Recent studies of DNA from ancient remains suggest that, broadly-speaking, the Irish genetic landscape was established by the Bronze Age, when migrants from mainland Europe – probably belonging to the Beaker archaeological culture – had settled on the island.

It’s possible that these Bronze Age people also spoke Celtic languages, though we cannot know this for sure.

The latest paper highlights more recent population-shaping events in Irish history. The locations of the 10 clusters identified in the Irish population seemed to reflect either the borders of the four Irish provinces – Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Connacht – or historical kingdoms.

For example, the researchers found that Munster divided into northern and southern genetic clusters. These appear to coincide with the boundaries of the Dál Cais and the Eóganacht – rival kingdoms established in medieval times.

But it might also be influenced by geography – specifically the mountains which carve up the landscape in this region.

“The likelihood is that it’s a combination of these things – a little bit of geography combined with wars or rivalry generates kinship in each distinct area. And it’s those subtle features that we’re able to extract today,” said Dr Cavalleri.

Of the 10 clusters, seven were found to be of “Gaelic” Irish origin and three of mixed Irish and British ancestry. All of the mixed clusters were located in Northern Ireland.

The geographical location of these three groupings, along with estimates of when the population mixing occurred – the 17th to 18th Centuries – led the researchers to surmise that this was related to the Ulster Plantation, when English and Scottish Protestants settled in Ireland.

The detection of Norwegian-like ancestry in Irish samples probably reflects migrations during the Viking era. While this component is relatively small (a maximum of 20%) compared to the native Irish background, the researchers were surprised to find it at higher levels in the Irish than in the Welsh and English (though at lower levels than those found in the Orkneys, with their traditional ties to Scandinavia).

However, Dr Cavalleri said it was possible the high levels of Norwegian ancestry in the Irish might be confounded if substantial amounts of Irish DNA had found its way to Norway over time: “Perhaps people the Vikings brought back,” he speculated.

This could have the effect of reducing genetic differences between the two populations and making it seem as if the amount of Viking ancestry in Ireland is greater than it is.

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Pacific ‘baby island’ is natural lab to study Mars

Media captionDr Jim Garvin: “We’re watching the island do its dance”

It is one of Earth’s newest landforms and it could just tell us where to look for evidence of life on Mars.

The tongue-twisting volcanic island of Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai exploded out of the Pacific Ocean in 2015, and its shape has been evolving ever since as it has been lashed and bashed by waves.

Scientists are watching this slow erosion very closely.

They think they see the remnants of many such water-birthed islands on the Red Planet.

If that is true, it is really intriguing. On Earth, we know that wherever you get submarine volcanic processes, you also very often get conditions that support microbial communities.

What the researchers see occurring at Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai (HTHH) therefore may be a kind of template to help them understand better the water environment on early Mars and, by extension, whether the conditions might also have been favourable for the initiation of simple life.

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NASA/JPL/U. Arizona

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Martian version? Scientists think they see fields of tuff cones on the Red Planet

“The thought was that we might be able to use recognition of these kinds of landforms to be an indication of palaeowater stories, depths and longevities on the Red Planet,” said Dr Jim Garvin, chief scientist at the US space agency’s (Nasa) Goddard Space Flight Center.

“So, we’re going to use HTHH on Earth to train us to understand Mars.” Dr Garvin and colleagues have been reporting their studies of HTHH here at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) – the world’s largest annual gathering of Earth and planetary scientists.

The island grew out of the Hunga volcano – a 1.3km-high mountain that is all but submerged in the southwest Pacific in amongst the Tonga archipelago.

Baby island in the Pacific

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The French Pleiades satellite pictured the area before and after the eruption in 2015

  • HTHH is the name used by scientists to refer to the 200-hectare landmass
  • It emerged between the existing Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha’apai islands
  • All three landforms sit atop a 1.5km-tall submarine volcano (inset depth map)
  • Erosional models suggest HTHH could last from six to perhaps 30 years

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Image caption

Satellite-derived elevations showing the island in April 2015 (L) and September 2017 (R)

The new landform came into view in what is termed a “surtseyan” eruption, named after a very similar island called Surtsey in the North Atlantic, off Iceland, in 1963-7.

In such events, hot magma coming into contact with cold seawater causes a violent blast of ash and rock fragments.

This material then collects at the ocean surface, forming a tuff cone that in HTHH’s case is more than 100m high. But scientists do not expect it to stick around forever. Storm action should eventually dismantle it.

Image copyright
NASA/©2017 DigitalGlobe

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A perspective view from September 2017. The brown overlay shows material lost to erosion

However, this could take several decades and scientists intend to use high-resolution satellite imagery to watch the process every step of the way. Indeed, this is the first such island in the modern space era to erupt like this and not immediately disappear, giving scientists an unprecedented view from orbit of HTHH’s early life and evolution.

“One of the things we’re hoping to do with HTHH is connect the pace of erosion with water at different depths,” Dr Garvin told BBC News.

“We’ll end up with time-lapse photography of this island going through its erosional cycle, and that will give us then a sequence to go look for on Mars. And if we see it there, then maybe that tells us that water on the planet in some of these places was tens to hundreds of metres deep, and present long enough certainly to do the same erosional work.”

Image copyright

Image caption

French sailors visited the island to collect rock and ash samples for scientists to analyse

Water and time are essential ingredients for life. So too are an energy source and a supply of nutrients.

On Earth, all these conditions are found at volcanic vents on the ocean floor. Microbial communities build up around the mineral-rich waters that gush from cracks in hot rock. And this is one of the reasons why scientists are tasking satellites now to look for evidence of similar, past activity on the Red Planet.

Mars is currently bone dry but it was not always that way, and if it had volcanic systems similar to HTHH or Surtsey then their remains could well be among the best places to send a rover to search for signs of preserved biology.

Dr Garvin said: “Hydrothermal systems on Mars have long been realised as being a great spot both for possibly having had life or producing minerals and landforms that could preserve it. We talk about ‘biosignature preservation potential’ – it’s one of the things the Mars 2020 rover that Nasa is flying will go look for.”

His colleague Dr Dan Slayback has been trying to work out how long exactly HTHH might be with us. The satellite imagery observed very rapid decay early on.

“If that trend had continued we would have expected perhaps a six-year lifetime, but at about the six-month mark, the rate of change decreased,” the Goddard scientist told the AGU meeting. “A simple linear fit to all of our data today gives us a 26-30-year lifetime.”

Media captionFootage from the January 2015 eruption

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Scores rally against Netanyahu visit to Brussels

BRUSSELS – Some 200 people took to the streets of Brussels on Monday to protest the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The protest was held near the European Union headquarters, where Netanyahu was meeting with the foreign ministers of the bloc’s member states.

The demonstrators carried a banner reading ”Israel War Crimes Unwelcome” and held up signs against the visiting premier. 

People protest against US President Donald  Trupm's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital in Brussels, Belgium December 11, 2017. (REUTERS/ERIC VIDAL)

On Friday, hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists demonstrated in Brussels near the US embassy over US President Trump’s recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital and promise to move the American embassy to the city. Similar demonstrations took place on Saturday in Paris, Marseille, Lyon and Lille in France.

Netanyahu’s planned meeting with EU President Jean-Claude Juncker was canceled.

Prior to the meeting with the foreign ministers,  Netanyahu said that ”it is time for the Palestinians to recognize the Jewish state and the capital Jerusalem.” Netanyahu added that he believes more countries will join the US in relocating their embassies to Jerusalem.

Moments earlier, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters as she greeted Netanyahu on the first visit to the EU by an Israeli premier in 22 years, that the bloc would continue to recognize the “international consensus” on Jerusalem.

“You know where the European Union stands,” Mogherini said to Netanyahu. “We believe that the only realistic solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine is based on two states with Jerusalem as the capital of both, the State of Israel and the State of Palestine along the 1967 lines. This is our consolidated position, and we will continue to respect the international consensus on Jerusalem until the final status of the whole city is resolved in direct negotiations between the parties.”

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Senior Saudi prince condemns Trump’s ‘opportunistic’ Jerusalem move

DUBAI – Former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal has criticized US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, in one of the sharpest reactions emanating from the US-allied kingdom.

In a letter to Trump published in a Saudi newspaper on Monday, Prince Turki, a former ambassador to Washington who now holds no government office but remains influential, called the move a domestic political ploy which would stoke violence.

“Bloodshed and mayhem will definitely follow your opportunistic attempt to make electoral gain,” Prince Turki wrote in a letter published in the Saudi newspaper al-Jazeera.

Trump reversed decades of US policy and veered from international consensus last week by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Most countries say the city’s status must be left to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

US President Donald Trump recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announces embassy to relocate

“Your action has emboldened the most extreme elements in the Israeli society … because they take your action as a license to evict the Palestinians from their lands and subject them to an apartheid state,” Prince Turki wrote.

“Your action has equally emboldened Iran and its terrorist minions to claim that they are the legitimate defenders of Palestinian rights,” he added, referring to the kingdom’s arch-foe Shi’ite Iran.

Saudi Arabia has sought better ties with Washington under Trump than it had under his predecessor Barack Obama, who alarmed Riyadh by signing a nuclear agreement with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s arch enemy.

Prince Turki is a son of King Faisal, who was assassinated in 1975. His brother, Saud al-Faisal, served as foreign minister for 40 years until 2015, and their branch of the family is seen as influential over Saudi foreign policy, even as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has solidified his authority.

Prince Saud championed a 2002 Arab peace initiative which called for normalizing relations between Arab countries and Israel in return for Israel’s withdrawal from occupied territories.

Although most foreign policy in Saudi Arabia is now overseen by Crown Prince Mohammed, a source at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies which Prince Turki chairs said he still meets King Salman every week.

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Russia’s Putin, Egypt’s Sisi discuss nuclear deal, Middle East tensions

CAIRO – Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Monday, agreeing to resume civilian flights which Moscow halted more than two years ago after militants bombed a Russian tourist jet over the Sinai.

Putin’s latest visit to Cairo reflects the deepening ties between Russia and Egypt, the second largest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel and a strategic US partner in the Middle East because of its control of the Suez Canal.

Putin, who flew on to Turkey, briefly visited a Russian base in Syria before arriving in Egypt and ordered Russian forces to start withdrawing from Syria after a two-year military campaign there.

In Cairo, Egyptian and Russian ministers signed a $21 billion deal to start work on Egypt’s Dabaa nuclear power plant and Putin said Moscow was ready to resume Russian civilian flights to Egypt.

Moscow halted civilian air traffic to Egypt in 2015 after militants detonated a bomb on a Russian Metrojet flight, downing the jet leaving from the tourist resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and killing 224 people on board.

The attack and Moscow’s decision damaged Egypt’s already struggling tourism industry. Egyptian airport inspections and talks to resume flights have been going on for months.

“The Russian security services have reported to me that, on the whole, we are ready for opening the direct air link between Moscow and Cairo,” Putin said. “This would require signing a corresponding intergovernmental protocol.”

Russia’s transport minister told reporters flights could resume in early February, and Russia was prepared to sign a protocol with Egypt this week.

Earlier, Russian state nuclear company Rosatom said the Dabaa nuclear station it will build in Egypt will have four reactors and cost up to $21 billion. Construction is expected to finish in 2028-2029.

Moscow and Cairo signed an initial agreement in 2015 for Russia to build the plant, with Russia extending a loan to Egypt to cover the cost of construction.

Sisi said the two leaders had also discussed industrial projects, trade and Russian investments in Egypt, including in the Suez Canal Economic Zone.


Sisi and Putin also discussed Syria and mutual rejection of US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a move that has triggered protests across the region and from European capitals.

“We had a detailed exchange of views on key international issues. Our approaches either coincide completely or are really quite close,” Putin said.

The high-level Russian visit comes after the US government in August decided to deny Egypt $95.7 million in aid and to delay another $195 million because of its failure to make progress on human rights and democratic norms.

Russia launched a military operation to support Syrian President Bashar Assad in September 2015, and there are signs Moscow is keen to expand its military presence in the region.

Neither leader on Monday mentioned an announcement from November when Russia’s government published a draft agreement between Russia and Egypt allowing both countries to use each other’s air space and air bases for their military planes.

But Putin has been steadily building relations with Egypt. On his first visit to Cairo in 2015, he was the first leader of a major power to meet with Sisi after the former Egyptian army commander ousted Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in 2013.

That prompted Washington to cool relations with Egypt, and the US government suspended some military aid.

Since then the two leaders have increased cooperation, reviving the historical alliance between Egypt and Soviet Union of the 1970s.

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