Mount Mayon: Philippines volcano spews out lava

The Mount Mayon volcano in the Philippines has begun spewing out lava, after it began erupting at the weekend.

Thousands of people have fled their homes, as volcanologists warn a ‘hazardous explosion’ could take place within weeks or days.

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Jordan urged to end animal mistreatment at Petra site

Two donkeys at Petra, one of which Peta says has a tongue sticking out due to neurological disorderImage copyright

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Peta says the donkey on the left has a tongue sticking out due to a neurological disorder

Animal rights group Peta has launched an international campaign to try to end the mistreatment of working animals in the ancient city of Petra in Jordan.

Peta says donkeys, horses and camels are beaten and forced to carry visitors in extreme heat without shade or water.

Jordanian and international groups say they are already working with the animals’ owners to improve conditions.

They fear warning off tourists could prove counter-productive by depriving the animals’ owners of income.

Petra is one of the wonders of the world. Carved out of rock, the sudden entrance into the ancient Nabatean city through a narrow passage is breathtaking.

It is the crown jewel of the Jordanian tourist industry. But there has long been concern about the treatment of the more than 1,300 working animals there.

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Hidden high in the hills, the Monastery is one of the legendary monuments of Petra

Donkeys haul tourists up 900 steep and eroded steps to the Monastery, a monument miraculously built out of rock on the mountainside.

Horses, mules and camels carry tourists to the city and through it – some pulling carriages and carts – enduring beatings and lack of food and water as they do so.

Jordanian organisations and their international partners have tried to improve their conditions at the Unesco World Heritage site. But Peta says nowhere near enough has been done.

Last year, it amassed video and photographic evidence of cruelty to animals there, which showed deep wounds on many of the animals from chains and ropes tied around them.

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And now it is calling on the Jordanian authorities to take decisive action.

It says the animals should be replaced by mechanised transport for tourists. It is also urging tour operators and hotels to shun the site until the abuses are stopped.

But Unesco itself told the BBC that motorised vehicles would not be desirable there.

The Princess Alia Foundation in Jordan and the international animal charity, Four Paws, said they were happy to work with any group to improve animal welfare.

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Peta Asia

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Peta says donkeys are forced to climb up and down steep hills with heavy loads on their backs

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Peta Asia

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Drivers regularly beat and whip the animals to force them to move, according to Peta

But they said they had already done much to improve the conditions for horses at Petra by providing new stables and ensuring their owners have sufficient food, water and shelter – as well as lighter carriages and more animal-friendly harnesses and saddles.

They acknowledge there is more to do.

But there is a concern in Jordan that a campaign warning off tourists from Petra could be counterproductive by damaging a major income source, as well as depriving the Bedouin community that has long owned the working animals of their livelihood, which could have an even more negative impact on their welfare.

Peta though claims that only lip service has been paid to improving the lot of the animals.

For example, it says it found that a sign at Petra asking tourists to report mistreatment leads to an email address that does not reply and a website that does not work.

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Hubble scores unique close-up view of distant galaxy

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NASA/Esa/B. Salmon (StScI)

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Ancient galaxies usually appear as tiny red dots to powerful telescopes

The Hubble telescope has bagged an unprecedented close-up view of one of the Universe’s oldest known galaxies.

Astronomers were lucky when the orbiting observatory captured the image of a galaxy that existed just 500 million years after the Big Bang.

The image was stretched and amplified by the natural phenomenon of gravitational lensing, unlocking unprecedented detail.

Such objects usually appear as tiny red spots to powerful telescopes.

Distance and age are linked in astronomy; because of the time taken for light to traverse the vast expanse in-between, we see the galaxy as it was more than 13 billion years ago.

The detail evident in the image will help scientists to test theories of galaxy evolution.

“Pretty much every galaxy at that distance is an unresolved dot… it’s kind of a matter of luck to get a galaxy that’s lensed in just the right way to stretch it out and get that much detail – it’s a pretty nice find,” the study’s lead author Brett Salmon told BBC News.

Dr Salmon, from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, added: “By analysing the effects of gravitational lensing on the image of this galaxy, we can determine its actual size and shape.”

The findings were presented at the 231st American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington DC.

Natural zoom lens

Gravitational lensing describes the way light is bent as it passes around a massive object between the source and an observer. This creates a kind of cosmic zoom lens, amplifying the image of a galaxy in the background.

In this case, a huge galaxy cluster not only boosted the light from the more distant one but also smeared the image of it into an arc.

“The lens is not unlike the bottom of a wine glass, distorting that background image,” said Dr Salmon.

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Anatomy of the Milky Way, showing the location of the disc

The more ancient galaxy is relatively small, having about one-hundredth the mass of the Milky Way. It may be typical of the galaxies that emerged a relatively short time after the Big Bang.

One key question for astronomers who study galaxy evolution concerns the origins of “discs” – a key component of the large-scale structure of many galaxies, including the Milky Way. Galactic discs are flat, rotating distributions of stars, gas, and dust.

Dr Salmon commented: “We don’t really know how the first galaxies in the Universe assembled those nice rotating discs in those beautiful images we see. So when did those discs actually start to form?”

Galactic whirlpool

Another study presented here at the 231st AAS meeting described evidence for rotation in galaxies that existed about 800 million years after the Big Bang. That rotation could be indicative of the beginnings of disc formation.

Renske Smit, from the University of Cambridge, and colleagues, used the Alma array in Chile to show that the gas in these newborn galaxies swirled and rotated in a whirlpool motion, similar to the Milky Way and other, more mature, galaxies much later in the Universe’s history.

“We expected that young galaxies would be dynamically ‘messy’, due to the havoc caused by exploding young stars, but these mini-galaxies show the ability to retain order and appear well regulated,” said Dr Smit. “Despite their small size, they are already rapidly growing to become one of the ‘adult’ galaxies like we live in today.”

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The ancient galaxy is at the limits of Hubble’s capabilities

Expanding on why this was potentially important, Dr Salmon said: “Once the galaxy settles into a disc, that sets in motion the rest of the evolution of the galaxy. So finding out when that turbulent phase starts to settle down is a key initial condition.”

Computer simulations suggest that discs could be present in galaxies up to 600 million years after the Big Bang. The galaxy discovered with Hubble could be one of the first to possess one.

This object is right at the limits of Hubble’s detection capabilities, but the James Webb Space Telescope should be able to provide much more detail. Nasa’s Webb observatory is due to launch on an Ariane rocket in 2019.

“This galaxy is an exciting target for science with the Webb telescope as it offers the unique opportunity for resolving stellar populations in the very early Universe,” explained Dr Salmon.

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‘Floating on air’ after surgeons remove 19kg tumour

Watch surgeons in the operating theatre as they remove a tumour weighing 19.5kg (three stone) from Jasmine’s body.

The operation was carried out at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham.

Viewers in the UK can watch Jasmine’s story in full on Surgeons: At the Edge of Life at 21:00 on Monday 15 January on BBC Two, or on iPlayer.

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Huge oil spill left after burning tanker sinks off China

Media captionFootage said to be filmed on Sunday 14 January showed huge plumes of smoke

Chinese ships are racing to clean up a giant oil spill after an Iranian tanker sank in the East China Sea.

The 120 sq km (46 sq mile) oil slick is thought to be made up of heavy fuel that was used to power the vessel.

The Sanchi oil tanker sank on Sunday and officials say all its crew members are dead.

It was carrying 136,000 tonnes of ultra-light crude oil from Iran which generates a toxic underwater slick that would be invisible from the surface.

Both the fuel and the ultra-light oil could cause devastating damage to marine life.

The Sanchi and a cargo ship collided 260km (160 miles) off Shanghai on 6 January, with the tanker then drifting south-east towards Japan.

It caught fire after the collision and burnt for more than a week before sinking off China’s east coast.

Iranian officials now say all 32 crew members – 30 Iranians and two Bangladeshis – on the tanker were killed.

On Monday, China Central Television said a search and rescue operation had been cancelled and a clean-up operation had begun after a fire on the surface was extinguished.

They said two ships were spraying the water with chemical agents designed to dissolve the oil.

Media captionBodies were airlifted off the tanker on Saturday

The BBC’s China correspondent Robin Brant says the oil slick has more than doubled in size since Sunday.

The big concern now is for the environmental impact, he said. There could also be a very tall plume of condensate, this ultra-refined form of oil, underneath the surface.

Condensate, which creates products such as jet fuel, is very different from the black crude that is often seen in oil spills.

It is toxic, low in density and considerably more explosive than regular crude.

The cause of the collision is still not known.

Some 13 vessels and an Iranian commando unit took part in the salvage operation, amid bad weather.

On Saturday, salvage workers boarded the vessel and found the bodies of two crew members in a lifeboat.

Only one other body had been found during the week of salvage operations.

The rescue workers also retrieved the ship’s black box but had to leave quickly because of the toxic smoke and high temperatures.

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Black Death ‘spread by humans not rats’

Black rat (Rattus rattus) (c) SPLImage copyright
Science Photo Library

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The bite of rat-borne fleas infected with the bubonic plague has been blamed for disease transmission during the medieval pandemic

Rats were not to blame for the spread of plague during the Black Death, according to a study.

The rodents and their fleas were thought to have spread a series of outbreaks in 14th-19th Century Europe.

But a team from the universities of Oslo and Ferrara now says the first, the Black Death, can be “largely ascribed to human fleas and body lice”.

The study, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, uses records of its pattern and scale.

The Black Death claimed an estimated 25 million lives, more than a third of Europe’s population, between 1347 and 1351.

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Science Photo Library

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Has the black rat (Rattus rattus) been falsely blamed for spreading plague during the Black Death?

“We have good mortality data from outbreaks in nine cities in Europe,” Prof Nils Stenseth, from the University of Oslo, told BBC News.

“So we could construct models of the disease dynamics [there].”

He and his colleagues then simulated disease outbreaks in each of these cities, creating three models where the disease was spread by:

  • rats
  • airborne transmission
  • fleas and lice that live on humans and their clothes

In seven out of the nine cities studied, the “human parasite model” was a much better match for the pattern of the outbreak.

It mirrored how quickly it spread and how many people it affected.

“The conclusion was very clear,” said Prof Stenseth. “The lice model fits best.”

“It would be unlikely to spread as fast as it did if it was transmitted by rats.

“It would have to go through this extra loop of the rats, rather than being spread from person to person.”

‘Stay at home’

Prof Stenseth said the study was primarily of historical interest – using modern understanding of disease to unpick what had happened during one of the most devastating pandemics in human history.

But, he pointed out, “understanding as much as possible about what goes on during an epidemic is always good if you are to reduce mortality [in the future]“.

Plague is still endemic in some countries of Asia, Africa and the Americas, where it persists in “reservoirs” of infected rodents.

According to the World Health Organization, from 2010 to 2015 there were 3,248 cases reported worldwide, including 584 deaths.

And, in 2001, a study that decoded the plague genome used a bacterium that had come from a vet in the US who had died in 1992 after a plague-infested cat sneezed on him as he had been trying to rescue it from underneath a house.

“Our study suggests that to prevent future spread hygiene is most important,” said Prof Stenseth.

“It also suggests that if you’re ill, you shouldn’t come into contact with too many people. So if you’re sick, stay at home.”

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Baby Panda Yuan Meng makes debut in France

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Plastic bag charge: 5p levy could be extended in England

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The 5p charge for plastic bags in large shops in England could be extended to cover nearly all retailers, as part of government plans for the environment.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove told a meeting of the cabinet that he wanted to tackle our “throwaway culture”.

Shops with fewer than 250 employees are currently exempt from the charge, which since being introduced in England in October 2015 has cut plastic use.

The government is set to unveil its 25-year environment plan on Thursday.

Briefing the cabinet on Tuesday, Mr Gove said the government was “determined to tackle the throwaway culture which plastics encapsulate”.

The 5p charge on single-use plastic bags in England has contributed to a reduction of nearly 90% in their use, the government said.

Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland introduced their charges in 2011, 2014 and 2013 respectively and have also seen significant drops in usage.

The charge applies to every new plastic bag used at large stores in England – but only shops or chains with 250 or more full-time employees.

BBC political correspondent Ben Wright said there would be a consultation on extending the 5p charge in England.

Chris Noice from the Association of Convenience Stores welcomed the government’s plans as being “good for the environment and good for the retailers taking part”.

He told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme that “approval for carrier bag charging is now very high” among the association’s 33,500 members, and more than a third of the shops it represents have already adopted the idea voluntarily.

He said: “There was a bit of an adjustment period when the initial legislation came in in England. But everyone is pretty comfortable with it now.”

Plastic bags at airport shops or on board trains, planes or ships are currently not included, and neither are paper bags.

Northern Forest

More broadly, Prime Minister Theresa May said the government would take a stand against the “profligate” use of natural resources with its 25-year plan.

Last week, she said 50 million trees would be planted in a “Northern Forest” stretching along the M62 corridor between Liverpool and Hull over the coming 25 years, to boost natural habitats and give people access to more woodland.

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How flowering plants conquered the world

PlantsImage copyright
Getty Images

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Angiosperms produce flowers and fruits, which contain their seeds.

Scientists think they have the answer to a puzzle that baffled even Charles Darwin: How flowers evolved and spread to become the dominant plants on Earth.

Flowering plants, or angiosperms, make up about 90% of all living plant species, including most food crops.

In the distant past, they outpaced plants such as conifers and ferns, which predate them, but how they did this has has been a mystery.

New research suggests it is down to genome size – and small is better.

“It really comes down to a question of cell size and how you can build a small cell and still retain all the attributes that are necessary for life,” says Kevin Simonin from San Francisco State University in California, US.

‘Abominable mystery’

Hundreds of millions of years ago, the Earth was dominated by ferns and conifers. Then, about 150 million years ago, the first flowering plants appeared on the scene.

They quickly spread to all parts of the world, changing the landscape from muted green to a riot of vibrant colour.

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Getty Images

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Angiosperms are the most diverse group of land plants, with hundreds of thousands of known species

The reasons behind the incredible success and diversity of flowering plants have been debated for centuries.

Charles Darwin himself called it an “abominable mystery”, fearing this apparent sudden leap might challenge his theory of evolution.

Simonin and co-researcher Adam Roddy, of Yale University, wondered if the size of the plant’s genetic material – or genome – might be important.

The biologists analysed data held by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, on the genome size of hundreds of plants, including flowering plants, gymnosperms (a group of plants, which include conifers and Ginkgo) and ferns.

‘Strong evidence’

They then compared genome size with anatomical features such as the abundance of pores on leaves.

This provides “strong evidence”, they say, that the success and rapid spread of flowering plants around the world is down to “genome downsizing”.

By shrinking the size of the genome, which is contained within the nucleus of the cell, plants can build smaller cells.

In turn, this allows greater carbon dioxide uptake and carbon gain from photosynthesis, the process by which plants use light energy to turn carbon dioxide and water into glucose and oxygen.

Angiosperms can pack more veins and pores into their leaves, maximising their productivity.

The researchers say genome-downsizing happened only in the angiosperms, and this was ”a necessary prerequisite for rapid growth rates among land plants”.

“The flowering plants are the most important group of plants on Earth and now we finally know why they have been so successful,” they say.

The research published in the journal PLOS Biology raises more questions about plants.

For instance, why were flowering plants able to shrink their genomes more than others? And why do ferns and conifers still exist, despite their large genomes and cells?

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US offshore drilling: Florida wins exemption from Trump plan

An oil rig is seen off the Pacific Ocean coastline after the Trump administration announced plans to dramatically expand offshore drilling, at Seal Beach, California, USA, 4 January 2018Image copyright

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The plan has been junked in Florida over concerns about how it will affect the state’s delicate environment – and hence its huge tourism industry

The administration of US President Donald Trump has exempted the state of Florida from controversial plans for offshore drilling for oil and gas.

The reversal comes after vocal opposition from the state’s Republican Governor Rick Scott when the plans were announced last week.

It is set to trigger further demands for exemptions from other states.

The five-year plan was to open 90% of the nation’s offshore reserves to leasing from drilling companies.

US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said it would boost the economy and ensure US “energy dominance”, but environmentalists decried it as a “shameful giveaway” to the oil industry.

Why has Secretary Zinke made this U-turn?

“The governor,” he said simply.

In a statement posted on Twitter, he explained that he agreed with Gov Scott’s position that “Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver.

“As a result… I am removing Florida from consideration from any new oil and gas platforms.”

He said President Trump had directed him to “take into consideration the local and state voice” in deciding policy.

Gov Scott cheered the decision, saying he would “never stop fighting for Florida’s environment and our pristine coastline”.

But Florida’s Democratic Senator Bill Nelson smelled a rat.

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Gov Scott is reportedly planning to run for an open US Senate seat.

What does the decision mean?

It means some of the Gulf of Mexico on Florida’s western coast will be exempt from drilling, but not all of it.

Florida state waters extend three nautical miles from the shore on the Atlantic, and nine nautical miles on the Gulf side, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

What happens now?

“Such a quick reversal begs the question: Will the Trump administration give equal consideration to all the other coastal governors from both parties who overwhelmingly reject this radical offshore drilling plan?” asked Diane Hoskins, director of the Oceana campaign group, according to Reuters news agency.

Maryland, South Carolina and Massachusetts are among states with Republican governors also known to oppose the Draft Five Year Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Programme (2019-2024).

California’s attorney general was among several public figures who demanded similar exemptions for their states:

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What’s so controversial about the plan?

Both the scale and the nature of the plan have attracted criticism – including from a coalition of 60 environmental groups, nearly a dozen attorneys general and more than 100 US lawmakers.

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Memories are still fresh of the huge Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010

It opens up more than 90% of the national outer continental shelf (OCS) for development – making more than 98% of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil and gas resources in federal offshore areas available to private companies.

At the moment, 94% of the OCS is protected.

Industry regulation was tightened by Barack Obama in the aftermath of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 – a disaster still fresh in many minds.

Even the Department of Defense has concerns – about how drilling will interact with the military exercises held in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, reports Reuters.

However, industry groups have welcomed the plan.

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© Warren Fyfe