Massive Earthquake Knocks Out Puerto Rico’s Electric Grid Again

Puerto Rico is facing an island-wide blackout again, this time due to an earthquake, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said Tuesday. The agency reported that an earthquake of 6.4 magnitude struck the island between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., and that it comes on the coattails of a 5.8-magnitude earthquake that already hit the island Monday and caused power outages to all of the island’s southern areas.

“The magnitude 6.4 earthquake was widely felt,” states a USGS press release, which adds that “strong to very strong shaking occurred across parts of Southern Puerto Rico closest to the event and moderate shaking occurred across the rest of the island.”

More aftershocks may continue in days to come, the agency warned.

This power outage took place two years after Hurricane Maria, which caused months of power outages across the island. Some areas continue to cope with damage caused by this hurricane.

Eight homes in the municipality of Yauco were destroyed, and the town of Guanica suffered mild damage. Several power plants across the island also incurred damage, but the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority said that it plans to have power restored by this afternoon.

Puerto Rico is at risk of earthquakes as it is squeezed between two large tectonic plates–the North America and Caribbean plates–according to USGS. The agency reported that hundreds of small earthquakes had taken place within the region, leading up to the major Tuesday earthquake.

The island has not had an earthquake with a magnitude topping 6 in more than 40 years, however, since a 6.1-magnitude earthquake that hit the island in 1970. This earthquake is also the second-worst in the island’s history: The record goes to a 7.7 quake in 1943.


The Amazon is starting to ‘self-destruct,’ scientists warn

Only a major reforestation will save the Amazon rain forest from a complete ecosystem death, warns the leading scientific journal Science Advances. In an editorial, researchers Thomas Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre wrote that forest fires and deforestation are rapidly depleting the ecosystem’s ability to sustain itself, to the point where massive human intervention will be needed to save it.

“Although 2019 was not the worst year for fire or deforestation in the Amazon, it was the year when the extent of fires and deforestation in the region garnered full global attention,” the authors wrote. “The precious Amazon is teetering on the edge of functional destruction and, with it, so are we.”

The authors noted that the Amazon is a vital link to the global water cycle and provides crucial storage of enormous amounts of carbon dioxide. As the rain forest disappears, much of its stored water and carbon dioxide are released to the atmosphere. The carbon release further exacerbates climate change worldwide, and every country in South America except Chile would lose substantial amounts of freshwater, the authors said.

Deforestation now affects around 17% of the Amazon basin. The basin has historically been able to produce its own rainfall, due to the dense tree and foliage cover. But widespread forest depletion within the eastern and southern Amazon, in particular, hamper rainfall production for the entire basin, according to the authors. The added that human-caused global warming is already reducing rainfall throughout the region.

The basin is responding by changing in fundamental ways, they wrote: lengthier and hotter dry seasons, and the trees increasingly being replaced by tree species that favor drier climates.


Rocket attack in Iraq kills U.S. defense contractor

A U.S. defense contractor died Friday in northern Iraq from a rocket attack that also injured several U.S. troops and Iraqi personnel, the Pentagon said. The statement did not specify how many were injured or how serious the injuries were, but it said that the attack occurred on an Iraqi military base in Kirkuk.

Up to 30 rockets were fired at the facility, which hosts both U.S. and coalition troops. The U.S. personnel are among the approximately 5,000 U.S. troops that are still stationed in Iraq.

A statement from Operation Inherent Resolve, the name of the U.S.-led mission against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, said that Iraqi security forces are leading the response and investigation. According to Reuters, security forces have found a launchpad for Katyusha rockets inside an abandoned vehicle near the base.

The U.S. military does not reveal the names of contractors killed in Iraq.

Iraq has witnessed increased violence since October, when mass protests broke out against government corruption, unemployment, and inadequate public services. Many civilian protesters died in subsequent clashes with government forces.

A series of attacks against Iraqi military bases occurred earlier this month, as well. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed these attacks on Iranian proxies and warned against any further violence against U.S. or coalition forces.

“We must also use this opportunity to remind Iran’s leaders that any attacks by them, or their proxies of any identity, that harm Americans, our allies, or our interests will be answered with a decisive U.S. response,” Pompeo said on Dec. 13.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the Kirkuk attack.



Scientists try to revive coral reefs with fish-enticing audio

Loudspeakers that play sounds intended to attract fish are helping to bring dead coral reefs back to life, according to a paper published recently in Nature Communications. The paper’s authors said that they hope that their findings could lead to efforts undo much of the mass destruction of coral that has been taking place throughout the world’s oceans in recent decades.

In the paper, the researchers described placing underwater loudspeakers at locations in a zone of ocean water north of Australia. Each site was within a formerly vibrant coral reef that had largely died out.

The speakers played sounds associated with healthy, vibrant reefs; the researchers intended for fish to hear these recordings and flock to the sites to breed. Their plan worked: The sites that had the speakers saw 50% increases in both the numbers of fish and numbers of fish species.

New fish populations won’t directly create more coral, but they can encourage new coral growth as the fish clean reef surfaces and create more spaces for corals to grow, the researchers said. Andy Radford, a paper coauthor from the University of Bristol, said that efforts such as this one to boost fish populations can be important parts of larger initiatives to bring lost coral ecoysystems back to life.

“If combined with habitat restoration and other conservation measures, rebuilding fish communities in this manner might accelerate ecosystem recovery,” said Radford.

Ocean researchers have been concerned about coral health throughout the world’s oceans in the last few decades, due to widespread deaths of coral in many locales. The main driving force behind coral death is climate change: Ocean water becoming incresaingly acidic as it absorbs larger amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, according to researchers.


Opioid alternatives increase risk of suicide

As doctors increasingly prescribe fewer opioids and instead give their patients non-opioid alternatives for chronic pain, research suggests that the non-opioids have deadly side effects of their own. A study concludes that non-opioids Gabapentin and Baclofen are fueling rising rates of suicides.

The study, published in the journal Clinical Toxicology, examined data from the U.S. Poison Centers for the National Poison Data System, focusing on cases involving Gabapentin between 2014 and 2017 and cases involving Baclofen between 2013 and 2017. In these time periods, according to the researchers, suicide attempts rose 80.5% among patients taking Gabapentin and 43% among patients taking Baclofen.

Around 50 million adults–roughly 20% of the U.S. population–suffers from chronic pain. Opioid drugs can relieve pain, but doctors have been steering away from them in the face of surging rates of opioid overdose deaths in recent years. Gabapentin, an anti-epileptic drug that also treats nerve pain; and Baclofen, a muscle relaxant and antispasmodic drug that relieves muscle spasms, pain, and stiffness, have gone into increased use as alternatives.

Suicide rates in general have risen nationwide by 30% between 1999 and 2016, the study authors noted. They also pointed out that both drugs list sucidal thoughts as a potential side effect. The authors noted rising prescription rates for both drugs in recent years and cautioned doctors to weigh the potential dangers of these drugs, as well.

“Building a better understanding of the risks carried by these non-opioid medications is necessary so that providers and patients can make better-informed decisions about their role in pain management—and could also lead to the introduction of new public health measures,” said Kimberly Reynolds, a University of Pittsburgh researcher who led the study.


Car crashes are rising fast in states where marijuana is legal

Car accidents have spiked in the first three states to legalize recreational marijuana, as law enforcement and state lawmakers grapple with how to define marijuana-impaired driving and test drivers for marijuana. It is much more complex than enforcing laws against driving drunk, analysts said.

Colorado, Washington, and Oregon saw a combined 5.2% increase in the rate of police-reported car crashes after marijuana legalization, compared with neighboring states where marijuana is still illegal, according to researchers from the Highway Loss Data Institute, who compiled and analyzed data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The researchers also found that auto-insurance collision claims increased a combined 6% across all three states since legalization, compared with neighboring states.

Other organizations are voicing worry over the issue. The Washington Traffic Safety Commission said that the number of drivers involved in fatal crashes in the state who tested positive for THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana, more than doubled since 2013. Recreational sales of marijuana first occurred legally in Washington in 2014.

Helen Witty, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said that “Drunk driving is still the No. 1 killer on our roads. … But drugged driving, as it’s legalized across this country, is a huge, emerging issue.”

Researchers said that policing against marijuana-impaired driving is difficult as there is no official legal definition of it, nor is there any recognized breathalyzer-like system for reliably detecting marijuana in a driver’s breath or blood. The presence of marijuana in blood also does not necessarily indicate impairment, and THC can disappear from the bloodstream in as little as a half-hour, making it difficult to capture incriminating evidence from even a driver who has consumed marijuana, said Staci Hoff, research director at the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.


Majority of Italians says racist violence is ‘justifiable’

Acts of racially inspired violence are at least sometimes justifiable, a majority of Italian respondents said in a recent poll. The results follow a slew of highly publicized racist and antisemitic crimes across the country and mark the first time in a decade in which more than half of respondents did not condemn racism outright.

The polling firm SWG conducted the survey, which obtained responses from 1,500 people. A total of 45% of respondents said that racists acts are acceptable depending on the situation, while another 10% said that such acts are “always” justifiable.

The polling firm has conducted this survey every year for more than a decade, but only this year has it found a majority of respondents defending racist acts. Enzo Risso, scientific director at SWG, placed some blame on increases in hate speech online and the general public “becoming more used to” this rhetoric.

“What this means is that there has been a relaxation in attitudes towards racism—not necessarily that people have become racist, more that they are becoming more accepting of racist acts and do not consider them so scandalous,” said Risso.

Anger and vitriol against immigrants from Africa and the Middle East has flared in many parts of Europe, due partly to native Europeans associating the immigrants with increased crime and other social problems. Anti-immigrant political organizations and parties have gained members and seen their poll numbers grow in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and other nations.

But anti-Jewish activity has also increased in recent years. Italian authorities assigned Liliana Segre, a Holocaust survivor, a polic escort last week after she received a barrage of online threats–including death threats–from far-right extremists.

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Walgreens, CVS stock tumbles as Amazon opens pharmacy service

Amazon’s announced foray into the pharmacy business sent Walgreens’ shares plummeting by $6 billion Thursday and made smaller dents in Rite Aid and CVS’ stock values. Analysts attributed all three established chains’ stock losses to Amazon’s recent $1 billion purchase of PillPack, an online pharmacy that delivers medications in already-sorted doses.

Walgreen’s shares tumbled 9.9% by the end of Thursday, adding up to more than $6 billion in lost value. Pharmacy shareholders fear that Amazon will use PillPack to outsell and undercut the established pharmacies, who won’t be able to compete with its signature business model, said Lisa Bielmowicz, president of consulting firm Gist Healthcare.

“This provides an avenue for Amazon to disrupt major pharmacy chains the way that they’ve disrupted booksellers, pet supplies, clothing and other big-box retailers,” said Lisa Bielamowicz, president of consultancy Gist Healthcare.

Not all analysts see any immediate threat to traditional pharmacies, however. Vishnu Lekraj, a Morningstar senior analyst, called the Thursday plummet in Walgreens stock a “huge overreaction” and said that investors and reporters are hyping Amazon’s PillPack purchase into “a bigger deal than what it actually is.”

Lekraj said that mail-order pharmacy sales in general have been fairly flat over the last several years. Also, PillPack itself is a small company that may not be able to offer pharmacy benefit managers or insurers the kinds of medication discounts they would like, he said. He concluded that PillPack will have to overcome many current obstacles before it can take on the likes of Walgreens and other major industry players.

Walgreens executives told reporters that they are working hard to “change the level of our services to the customers” but that they are confident that brick-and-mortar pharmacies will continue to thrive.


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Rising sea levels could sink Internet access for millions of users

Millions of Internet users could lose Internet access within the next 15 years due to rising sea levels, warns a new study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin and University of Oregon. The study noted that thousands of miles of fiber-optic cables are located along the world’s coastlines and are at risk of being engulfed by seawater by 2033 if current forecasts of sea-level rise brought on by global warming come true.

“Climate change-related sea level incursions could have a devastating impact on Internet communication infrastructure even in the relatively short term,” the report states.

The report combines sea-level rise projects by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with data of physical Internet infrastructures across the globe from the Internet Atlas. It finds that water levels could engulf around 4,067 miles of fiber conduit and 1,101 data centers and connection points over the next 15 years, wrecking Internet operability across coastlines and throughout such densely populated coastal cities as Miami, New York City, and Seattle.

Fiber-optic cables can withstand some heavy rainfall and adverse weather, but they are not waterproof. Study authors Paul Barford, Carol Barford, and Ramakrishnan Durairaian wrote that these cable networks are “not designed to be under water permanently.”

Even more cable damage could arise from severe storms, the authors added. They noted that major network disruptions occurred during recent mega-storms such as hurricanes Katrina and Sandy—and researchers expect more storms like these as climate change unfolds.

Internet users further inland wouldn’t be safe, either. The report warns that damage to these cables would compromise Internet access potentially all across the globe.



Being overweight may alter teens’ heart structures

Excess body weight can damage teenagers’ hearts and elevate their risk of heart disease, says a new UK study. The study authors said that examinations of thousands of overweight teenagers revealed heart-tissue alterations that doctors usually only see in older adults.

The researchers, led by epidemiology research associate Kaitlin Wade of the University of Bristol Medical School, analyzed data from nearly 14,000 Bristol healthy youths ages 17 to 21. The youths were participants in the Children of the 90s study, which has been monitoring their health since they were born.

Teens whose Body Mass Index (BMI) surpassed healthy levels tended to show higher blood pressure, thickening of blood-vessel walls, and enlargement of the heart’s main chamber, the left ventricle. Doctors consider thickened blood-vessel walls an early warning sign of cardiovascular problems in adults.

All of the physiological changes that the overweight youths showed can lead to greater likelihood of heart disease, however, according to Wade. She added that the study’s findings “support efforts to reduce BMI to within a normal, healthy range from a young age” to minimize the risks.

Wade and fellow researchers next want to assess adults in their 70s and see if they exhibit the same relationship between body weight and heart health. The researchers also want to look for possible correlations between higher BMI and other factors, such as the diversity of microbes in the gut.

Other studies have suggested that excess body weight can affect the heart and other organs at a young age. Researchers in Cincinnati, for example, published a study last year describing signs of organ damage in teens with high blood pressure.

“It can be a common misconception that heart related issues only affect an older demographic, which we know isn’t the case,” said Ashleigh Doggett, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation.