Archive for June, 2019

Super cyclone Phailin: the strongest cyclone ever in the North Indian Ocean Basin

By Norman Cheung, Kingston University

Phailin (the Thai word for sapphire) is officially the strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded to make landfall over India.

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Phailin had begun as a tropical storm with 105kph (65mph) winds, but rapidly intensified on October 10 2013 to 250kph (155mph). It was upgraded to a super cyclonic storm, which is equivalent to Category 5 in the Saffir-Simpson Scale for the North Western Atlantic Ocean (NWA) Basin.

A combination of exceptionally warm water (28C) and low wind-shear (4-8kps/2.5-5mps) over the Bay of Bengal provided the ideal conditions for cyclone Phailin to maintain its strength. Moving north-westward, it made landfall over the coastal areas between Odisha and Andhra Pradesh on Saturday October 12.

Cyclone disaster management in India

Much of India’s current approach to preparation was developed during the 1999 cyclone in Odisha. Disaster preparations mainly include cyclone warning and evacuation.

To mitigate a potential disaster from Phailin, the Indian central and state governments have shown huge improvements in disaster preparation.

The Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik sought defence forces’ help in preparing to tackle the cyclone. State disaster status was enacted, and the National Disaster Rapid Action Force (NDRAF) and Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF) were put in force. Puja holiday celebrations were cancelled and a large scale evacuation undertaken. More than 260,000 people were moved to high ground and half a million to shelter.

However there was some confusion during the process of early warning. India has no aircraft reconnaissance comparable to the “hurricane hunters” we have in the North Western Atlantic, so the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) seemed to underestimate the cyclone wind speed at 80kph (50mph) and storm surge at 1m (3ft). These were far less than the Joint Warning Typhoon Center’s (JTWC) estimation of wind speeds at 177-185kph (110-115mph), meaning also that a 1m storm surge was unlikely to be true.

This discrepancy in predictions could cause distrust of the official forecast and delay in the process of evacuation.

Will Cyclone Phailin be a natural disaster?

Phailin made landfall about 160km southwest of where the 1999 Odisha cyclone hit. The storm surge was predicted to be 11 meters high.

Though the area where Phailin made landfall is not low-lying, the convergent coastline and the shallow offshore waters around Ganjam, Khurda, Puri and Jagatsinghpur can amplify the impounding water which could cause huge flooding.

These areas are particularly vulnerable to flooding due to poor drainage and soil already saturated by the active summer monsoon. At its landfall, Phailin brings in a rainfall depth of 200-400mm along the coastal areas.

The death toll should be lower than the approximately 10,000 killed by cyclone Odisha in 1999. However, the financial losses could be huge.

With high population density, the exposure to risk is high. The low- and mid-rise buildings in rural areas were traditionally built of bricks and other primitive materials, so their roofs and walls could be completely blown away or partially collapsed under the pressure difference caused by gale force winds on the windward and leeward sides of the buildings. Modern high rise buildings in urban areas use confined masonry and stricter building code enforcement.

The insured losses due to stopping cargo operations, train cancellation and loss of lives and property could be billions.

Are cyclones in the North Indian Ocean becoming more active?

On average only 7% of world’s cyclones are formed over the Indian Ocean Basin. It is the quietest ocean basin for spawning cyclones in the world.

But Phailin is the second tropical cyclone over North Indian Ocean in 2013, and 26 of the 35 deadliest cyclones in world history have been Bay of Bengal storms.

Super-cyclone Phailin was huge in diameter (about 500km), with a central pressure of 918mb and maximum sustained wind of 258kph: it is the strongest over the North Indian Ocean basin in recorded history.

Super-typhoon Usagi, the strongest typhoon over the North Western Pacific Ocean Basin during 2013, affected 3.5 million people, and killed at least 25. It caused more than $500 million losses in China alone.

Some will ask if global warming is causing more intense tropical cyclones. Recent research showed that severe cyclones have become more frequent in the North Indian Ocean during the intense cyclone period of the year (May, October and November). The rate of intensification of tropical disturbances to severe cyclone stage has shown an upward trend.

However there is a slight decline of annual cyclone numbers. Number of cyclones is related more to El Niño phenomena (2-5 year oscillation) than to global warming. The North Western Atlantic Ocean has had a relatively quiet hurricane season, so far, in 2013. Globally we still have roughly similar annual number of tropical cyclones to average.

Norman Cheung does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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Expert warns caution over possibility of Alzheimer’s pill

By Jo Adetunji, The Conversation

It has been described as a historical “turning point” in Alzheimer’s treatment – the first time a chemical has been found that can halt the death of brain tissue in a neurodegenerative disease, and could potentially lead to a single pill treatment.

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But some warn a degree of caution is needed, and we really shouldn’t jump to conclusions just yet.

For a start, the study, carried out by scientists at a Medical Research lab at Leicester University, relates to another disorder: prion disease, a rare neurodegenerative disorder that counts Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) or “mad cow disease” among its family. But scientists have also said that a resulting medicine could treat other neurodegenerative diseases including Parkinson’s – and Alzheimer’s.

While some are keen to emphasise the similarities between these neurodegenerative brain conditions, others emphasise the difference.

“The results of the preclinical study in a mouse model of prion disease are indeed very impressive. However, the drug used may be very specific for this kind of disease, as the authors have indicated,” Christian Holscher, Professor of Neuroscience at Lancaster University, said.

“Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases are very different conditions all together. I cannot see a lot of overlap, so any claim this treatment will be successful in diseases other than prion-induced diseases will have to be substantiated by testing the drug in animal models of those diseases first.”

Why Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia (which is estimated to affect about 35.6m people worldwide). It affects how we think, remember things, act and go about our daily lives. And it’s progressive so gets worse over time.

The sheer scale of the disease dwarfs that of prion but it may not automatically follow that the prion findings will work in the same way.

Alzheimer’s happens when protein molecules in brain cells fail to fold properly, which then tangle and form clumps and insoluble protein deposits called “plaques”. Researchers at Cambridge recently mapped this pathway to show how smaller molecular fragments called oligomers in people with Alzheimer’s are also able to spread around the brain, triggering creating many more.

In many neurodegenerative diseases this process activates a defence system that shuts down new protein production. But without new proteins, brain cells start to die. It was this process that the tested compound was able to halt. And because this system is also triggered in Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, the excitement is palpable: any resulting medicine could also be used to treat them too.

Lost in translation

Another big but with any discovery like this is translating findings from animal models to human, although this is the routine start to any drug. And then there’s the long, hard process of clinical trials and development.

“We have seen a series of very promising drugs fail in clinical trials,” Holscher said. “We therefore will have to wait for such experiments to show positive results [in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s]. I am sure the authors had no intention to overstate the importance of their findings, but it is not helpful to claim a new cure for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease is just around the corner when there is very little evidence. One should be very conservative about these issues, too many promises have turned to dust in the past.”

Therein lies the rub: when can we get excited about discoveries that may lead to solving or at least keeping pace with some of our biggest health challenges?

Roger Morris, Professor of Molecular Neurobiology at King’s College London, said while it took decades for new medicines to come to fruition this was the first convincing study of its kind.

“This finding will be judged by history as a turning point in the search for medicines to control and prevent Alzheimer’s Disease for two reasons: it is the first experimental demonstration that a small molecule drug can arrest neurodegeneration in living brain … And, at least equally as important, is the manner of its demonstration.”

Two unique features in prion disease allowed the earliest stages of functional impairment and death of neurons in the brain to be identified and studied, Morris said.

“It is infectious, and once infection in the brain is initiated it proceeds like clockwork, so the earliest steps of neuronal damage can be followed on a day-by-day basis. This experimental precision allowed Professor Mallucci’s group [at Leicester] to identify the drug target, select an inhibitor, and show the inhibitor arrests neuronal degeneration. Scientifically, it shifts the focus from the role of misfolding of individual proteins in causing these diseases, to the common response of neurons to the stress caused by accumulation of misfolded protein.”

While “a cure for Alzheimer’s is not just around the corner,” Morris said, there was considerable evidence that the way neurons die in both diseases is similar. “Lessons learned in mice from prion disease have proved accurate guides to attenuate the progress of Alzheimer’s disease in patients.”

Target the brain

A potentially bigger problem lies in the defence mechanism itself, because it isn’t just triggered in the brain but is part of the body’s defence against physical and pathological stress in other tissues.

“The mechanism is found from yeast to man,” Morris said. “It is the persistent, long-term stress of neurodegenerative diseases that causes the neurons to die. To produce an effective medicine, drugs will have to be designed so their action is restricted to the brain, and allow this essential mechanism to function in the rest of the body.”

So if the compound was to work in both humans and in Alzheimer’s, it would also need to target the specific cells in the brain. The finding is a breakthrough and as Morris said, “science progresses by landmark experiments.” But it may take those decades for any mainstream drug to come to fruition.

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Release Greenpeace photographer: journos

Journalists in Saint Petersburg are demanding the release of a photographer detained on piracy charges along with the crew of a Greenpeace ship after an Arctic oil drilling protest.

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During a demonstration on Sunday in Russia’s second city, blindfolded photographers and other journalists held placards reading: “Who is next?” and “Photographer is not a pirate.”

“We would like to show that we support our colleague,” Alexander Koryakov, a photo editor with Kommersant broadsheet and one of the protest rally’s organisers, told AFP.

“Unlike in the West where society comes up in support of journalists, in our country there is no one to defend journalists.”

He put the turnout at some 60 people.

A former staff photographer for AFP and Reuters, Denis Sinyakov was covering the Greenpeace protest for a Russian online site.

Sinyakov, along with the 29 crew members of Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise icebreaker including two each from Australia and New Zealand, has been detained on piracy charges after several activists tried to scale a state oil rig last month.

The charges carry a maximum prison sentence of 15 years. The group have been placed in pre-trial detention until late November.

Investigators later added that “narcotic substances” had been found on the ship and they would be laying additional charges. Greenpeace denies this claim.

A court last week turned down the bail pleas of Sinyakov and the others.

The Kremlin’s right council, an advisory body, criticised the charges brought against Sinyakov as “pressure on the media”.

President Vladimir Putin has said the activists are “not pirates” but his spokesman later said the president had expressed his personal opinion.

A Greenpeace lawyer said their colleagues had to endure “inhuman conditions” while on remand in jails in Murmansk and Apatity nearly 2000 kilometres miles north of Moscow.

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Fearnley second in Chicago Marathon

Australian Paralympic champion Kurt Fearnley has finished second in the Chicago Marathon men’s wheelchair race less than a metre behind winner Ernst Van Dyk.

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Fearnley, credited with the same time as the South Africa and third placer American Joshua George, finished in one hour 30 minutes.

Four athletes, including world and course record holder Heinz Frei, were battling it out over the 25km, but Van Dyk and Fearnley broke away over the last 200 metres.

Van Dyk held on for the win by less than a wheel.

Despite missing out on first place, Fearnley was happy with his race

“I put everything I had into it and thought I might just get there but Ernie (Van Dyk) had that little bit extra at the end,” Fearnley said.

“I put in an extra burst up the hill with a few hundred to go to try and drop the big fella but he held on.

“Ernie is a hell of a competitor and there’s no shame in losing to him, it was a great race and a great sprint from him.”

Fearnley, Frei, Van Dyk and George broke from the main pack around the half way mark and built a lead of almost two minutes on the chasers.

As is often the case in the elite wheelchair marathon races, it came down to a sprint finish following the final bend.

“The wind made things tricky out there but we managed to build a bit of a break and hold on,” Fearnley said.

“When it comes down to the sprint anything can happen. I’ve won by less than a wheel before and lost a few times too. Unfortunately today, it was my wheel that crossed second”.

Fearnley’s attention now turns to the New York Marathon on November 3, a race he has won four times, but not since 2009.

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NSW mayor slams RFS on backburning

The mayor of Port Stephens has hit out at the NSW Rural Fire Service and environmentalists, saying fire-affected residents weren’t allowed to carry out hazard reduction burns.

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The RFS on Monday downgraded fires at Fingal Bay and Salt Ash in the Hunter region from “watch and act” to “advice” after a southerly change on Sunday night ended 24 hours of extreme conditions.

Six properties were reported damaged or destroyed between Salt Ash and Tanilba Bay after a heatwave pushed temperatures above 36 degrees in some parts of the state.

The mayor of Port Stephens, Bruce MacKenzie, blasted authorities, including the RFS, for not allowing residents to conduct hazard reductions.

“I believe several houses have been lost, which is a disaster as far as I’m concerned,” he told ABC radio on Monday.

“To me, all preventable if people were allowed to burn off. The Rural Fire Service, the politicians and the greenies have a lot to bloody answer for.”

RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said firefighters were doing more hazard reduction than ever before but there was more to be done.

The RFS had “very good mechanisms in place” to help landowners do hazard reduction, he said.

The RFS has set up an evacuation centre at the Community Hall in Nelson Bay Road, Williamtown, in response to the fires, and roads in the area remain closed.

It says firefighters are working to strengthen containment lines in the area.

Fire and Rescue NSW Commissioner Greg Mullins said he felt for the people who were affected by the fires.

But he said the losses were “quite small”, given what he described as the enormity of the task.

“I know that the mayor up there will be pretty raw today,” he told ABC radio.

“But we had dozens of crews up there assisting dozens of Rural Fire Service crews until about 1.30 this morning.”

Mr Mullins said fire breaks in some areas had made homes safer but hazard reduction alone would not stop fires.

“There’s other things you need to do, it’s not that simple,” he said.

“The sort of vegetation up there, you can burn it, it’ll burn again in about two years because it grows back very quickly.”

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