Flooding in Venice worsens off-season amid climate change

In this Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020 file photo, people wade their way through water in flooded St. Mark's Square following a high tide, in Venice, Italy. (File/AP)
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Updated 20 October 2021

Flooding in Venice worsens off-season amid climate change

  • Venice’s worse-case scenario for sea level rise by the end of the century is a startling 120 centimeters

VENICE, Italy: After Venice suffered the second-worst flood in its history in November 2019, it was inundated with four more exceptional tides within six weeks, shocking Venetians and triggering fears about the worsening impact of climate change.
The repeated invasion of brackish lagoon water into St. Mark’s Basilica this summer is a quiet reminder that the threat hasn’t receded.
“I can only say that in August, a month when this never used to happen, we had tides over a meter five times. I am talking about the month of August, when we are quiet,” St. Mark’s chief caretaker, Carlo Alberto Tesserin, told The Associated Press.
Venice’s unique topography, built on log piles among canals, has made it particularly vulnerable to climate change. Rising sea levels are increasing the frequency of high tides that inundate the 1,600-year-old Italian lagoon city, which is also gradually sinking.
It is the fate of coastal cities like Venice that will be on the minds of climate scientists and global leaders meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, at a UN climate conference that begins Oct. 31.
Venice’s worse-case scenario for sea level rise by the end of the century is a startling 120 centimeters (3 feet, 11 inches), according to a new study published by the European Geosciences Union. That is 50 percent higher than the worse-case global sea-rise average of 80 centimeters (2 feet, 7 1/2 inches) forecast by the UN science panel.
The city’s interplay of canals and architecture, of natural habitat and human ingenuity, also has earned it recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its outstanding universal value, a designation put at risk of late because of the impact of over-tourism and cruise ship traffic. It escaped the endangered list after Italy banned cruise ships from passing through St. Mark’s Basin, but alarm bells are still ringing.
Sitting at Venice’s lowest spot, St. Mark’s Basilica offers a unique position to monitor the impact of rising seas on the city. The piazza outside floods at 80 centimeters (around 30 inches), and water passes the narthex into the church at 88 centimeters (34.5 inches), which has been reinforced up from a previous 65 centimeters (25.5 inches).
“Conditions are continuing to worsen since the flooding of November 2019. We therefore have the certainty that in these months, flooding is no longer an occasional phenomenon. It is an everyday occurrence,” said Tesserin, whose honorific, First Procurator of St. Mark’s, dates back to the ninth century.
In the last two decades, there have been nearly as many inundations in Venice over 1.1 meters — the official level for “acqua alta,” or “high water,” provoked by tides, winds and lunar cycles — as during the previous 100 years: 163 vs. 166, according to city data.
Exceptional floods over 140 centimeters (4 feet, 7 inches) also are accelerating. That mark has been hit 25 times since Venice starting keeping such records in 1872. Two-thirds of those have been registered in the last 20 years, with five, or one-fifth of the total, from Nov. 12-Dec. 23, 2019.
“What is happening now is on the continuum for Venetians, who have always lived with periodic flooding,” said Jane Da Mosto, executive director of We Are Here Venice. “We are living with flooding that has become increasingly frequent, so my concern is that people haven’t really realized we are in a climate crisis. We are already living it now. It is not a question of plans to deal with it in the future. We need to have solutions ready for today.”
Venice’s defense has been entrusted to the Moses system of moveable underwater barriers, a project costing around 6 billion euros (nearly $7 billion) and which, after decades of cost overruns, delays and a bribery scandal, is still officially in the testing phase.
Following the devastation of the 2019 floods, the Rome government put the project under ministry control to speed its completion, and last year start activating the barriers when floods of 1.3 meters (4 feet, 3 inches) are imminent.
The barriers have been raised 20 times since October 2020, sparing the city a season of serious flooding but not from the lower-level tides that are becoming more frequent.
The extraordinary commissioner, Elisabetta Spitz, stands by the soundness of the undersea barriers, despite concerns by scientists and experts that their usefulness may be outstripped within decades because of climate change. The project has been delayed yet again, until 2023, with another 500 million euros ($580 million) in spending, for “improvements” that Spitz said will ensure its long-term efficiency.
“We can say that the effective life of the Moses is 100 years, taking into account the necessary maintenance and interventions that will be implemented,’’ Spitz said.
Paolo Vielmo, an engineer who has written expert reports on the project, points out that the sea level rise was projected at 22 centimeters (8 1/2 inches) when the Moses was first proposed more than 30 years ago, far below the UN scientists’ current worse-case scenario of 80 centimeters.
“That puts the Moses out of contention,” he said.
According to current plans, the Moses barriers won’t be raised for floods of 1.1 meters (3 feet, 7 inches) until the project receives final approval. That leaves St. Mark’s exposed.
Tesserin is overseeing work to protect the Basilica by installing a glass wall around its base, which eventually will protect marshy lagoon water from seeping inside, where it deposits salt that eats away at marble columns, wall cladding and stone mosaics. The project, which continues to be interrupted by high tides, was supposed to be finished by Christmas. Now Tesserin says they will be lucky to have it finished by Easter.
Regular high tides elicit a blase response from Venetians, who are accustomed to lugging around rubber boots at every flood warning, and delight from tourists, fascinated by the sight of St. Mark’s golden mosaics and domes reflected in rising waters. But businesses along St. Mark’s Square increasingly see themselves at ground zero of the climate crisis.
“We need to help this city. It was a light for the world, but now it needs the whole world to understand it,’’ said Annapaola Lavena, speaking from behind metal barriers that kept waters reaching 1.05 meters (3 feet, 5 inches) from invading her marble-floored cafe.
“The acqua alta is getting worse, and it completely blocks business. Venice lives thanks to its artisans and tourism. If there is no more tourism, Venice dies,” she explained. “We have a great responsibility in trying to save it, but we are suffering a lot.”

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Pfizer and BioNTech launch trial of omicron-targeted COVID-19 vaccine

Updated 25 January 2022

Pfizer and BioNTech launch trial of omicron-targeted COVID-19 vaccine

  • The companies plan to study the safety and tolerability of the shots in the more than 1,400 people who will be enrolled in the trial

NEW YORK: Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE said on Tuesday they started a clinical trial to test a new version of their vaccine specifically designed to target the COVID-19 omicron variant, which has eluded some of the protection provided by the original two-dose vaccine regimen.
The companies plan to test the immune response generated by the omicron-based vaccine both as a three-shot regimen in unvaccinated people and as a booster shot for people who already received two doses of their original vaccine.
They are also testing a fourth dose of the current vaccine against a fourth dose of the omicron-based vaccine in people who received their third dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine three to six months earlier.
The companies plan to study the safety and tolerability of the shots in the more than 1,400 people who will be enrolled in the trial.
“While current research and real-world data show that boosters continue to provide a high level of protection against severe disease and hospitalization with omicron, we recognize the need to be prepared in the event this protection wanes over time and to potentially help address omicron and new variants in the future,” Pfizer’s head of vaccine research and development, Kathrin Jansen, said in a statement.
Pfizer has said that a two-dose regimen of the original vaccine may not be sufficient to protect against infection from the omicron variant, and that protection against hospitalizations and deaths may be waning.
Still, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says a third dose of an mRNA vaccine like the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has provided 90 percent protection against hospitalization due to COVID-19.
Some countries have already started offering additional booster doses, but a recent study from Israel showed that while a fourth dose of an mRNA vaccine boosted antibodies, the level was not high enough to prevent infection by the omicron variant.
BioNTech Chief Executive Ugur Sahin told Reuters in November that regulators would not likely require testing of an omicron-based vaccine on humans because it and Pfizer had already created versions of their established vaccine to target the earlier Alpha and Delta variants, with clinical trials continuing.
However, the debate appears to have shifted as the European Medicines Agency (EMA) said in a statement on Friday that international regulators now preferred clinical studies to be carried out before approval of a new vaccine.
These studies should show that neutralising antibodies in the blood of participants are superior to those elicited by current vaccines. Another desired feature of an upgraded vaccine would be for it to also protect against other variants of concern, the EMA said.
The omicron variant has replaced the Delta variant as the dominant lineage in many parts of the world and omicron itself is now splitting into different subforms, one of which, BA2, is causing particular concern.


France’s Macron condemns Burkina Faso coup, says calm prevails for now

Updated 25 January 2022

France’s Macron condemns Burkina Faso coup, says calm prevails for now

  • Macron said his government was following the situation “minute by minute”

PARIS: President Emmanuel Macron condemned on Tuesday a military coup in Burkina Faso, adding that the situation in the West African country had appeared calm in the last few hours.
Macron also told reporters during a trip in central France that he had been informed Burkina Faso’s ousted President Roch Kabore was “in good health” and not being threatened.
Burkina Faso’s army said on Monday that it had ousted President Roch Kabore, suspended the constitution, dissolved the government and the national assembly, and closed the country’s borders.
Macron said his government was following the situation “minute by minute.”


London police investigating Downing Street lockdown parties

Updated 25 January 2022

London police investigating Downing Street lockdown parties

  • The gatherings are already being investigated by a senior civil servant Sue Gray
  • Boris Johnson has apologized for attending a party in the garden of his Downing Street offices in May 2020

LONDON: London police said Tuesday they were investigating Downing Street lockdown parties in 2020 to determine if UK government officials violated coronavirus restrictions, putting further pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The Metropolitan Police Service has launched an inquiry into “a number of events” at Downing Street because they met the force’s criteria for investigating the “most serious and flagrant” breaches of COVID-19 rules, Commissioner Cressida Dick told the London Assembly, the capital’s local government council.
Johnson is facing calls to resign amid revelations that he and his staff attended a series of parties during the spring and winter of 2020 when most social gatherings were banned throughout England, forcing average citizens to miss weddings, funerals and birthdays as friends and relatives died alone in hospitals. The gatherings are already being investigated by a senior civil servant Sue Gray whose report, expected this week, will be crucial in determining whether Johnson can remain in power.
Johnson has apologized for attending a party in the garden of his Downing Street offices in May 2020, but said he had considered it a work gathering that fell within the social distancing rules in place at the time.
In the latest revelation, ITV News reported late Monday that Johnson attended a birthday party in his Downing Street office and later hosted friends at his official residence upstairs in June 2020. His office denied that the gathering violated lockdown regulations, saying that the prime minister hosted a small number of family members outdoors, which was in line with rules at the time.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan welcomed the police investigation.
“The public rightly expect the police to uphold the law without fear or favor, no matter who that involves, and I have been clear that members of the public must be able to expect the highest standards from everyone, including the Prime Minister and those around him,” Khan said in a statement. “No one is above the law. There cannot be one rule for the government and another for everyone else.”
Police have previously faced criticism for suggesting that they wouldn’t investigate the “partygate” scandal because they don’t routinely investigate historical breaches of coronavirus regulations.
But Dick told the assembly that an investigation was warranted in this case because there is evidence that those involved knew or should have known that what they were doing was illegal, not investigating would “significantly undermine the legitimacy of the law,” and there seems to be no reasonable defense for the conduct.
“So in those cases, where those criteria were met, the guidelines suggested that we should potentially investigate further and end up giving people tickets,” she said.


US combat jet crashes in South China Sea exercise, 7 hurt

Updated 25 January 2022

US combat jet crashes in South China Sea exercise, 7 hurt

  • Details on the crash of the multimillion-dollar aircraft are still being verified

BANGKOK: A US Navy F35C Lightning II combat jet conducting exercises in the South China Sea crashed while trying to land on the deck of an American aircraft carrier, injuring seven sailors, the military said Tuesday.
The pilot was able to eject before the aircraft slammed into the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson on Monday and then fell into the water. The pilot was safely recovered by a helicopter, said Lt. Mark Langford, a spokesman for the US 7th Fleet.
Seven sailors, including the pilot, were injured and three were evacuated for medical treatment in Manila, Philippines, while four were treated on board the ship. The three sent to Manila were reported in stable condition on Tuesday morning, the Navy said.
Details on the crash of the multimillion-dollar aircraft were still being verified, Langford said.
“The status and recovery of the aircraft is currently under investigation,” he said.
Two American carrier strike groups with more than 14,000 sailors and marines are conducting exercises in the South China Sea, which the military says is to demonstrate the “US Indo-Pacific Command Joint Force’s ability to deliver a powerful maritime force.”
Impact to the deck of the USS Carl Vinson was “superficial,” Langford said, and both carriers have resumed routine flight operations.
As China has pressed territorial claims in the South China Sea and increased pressure on Taiwan, the US and its allies have stepped up exercises in the region, in what they call freedom of navigation operations in line with international law.
As the Carl Vinson and Abraham Lincoln strike groups began their dual carrier operations on Sunday, China flew 39 warplanes toward Taiwan in its largest such sortie of the new year, according to Taiwan’s defense ministry.
The formation of 24 Chinese J-16 and 10 J-10 fighter jets stayed out of Taiwanese air space, but the maneuver prompted Taiwan to scramble its own aircraft in response.
Chinese pilots have been flying toward Taiwan on a near-daily basis, and it was unclear if Sunday’s flights were a response to the American exercises. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to comment.
Taiwan and China split during a civil war in 1949, but China claims the island as its own territory. Beijing has used diplomatic and military means to isolate and intimidate the self-ruled island, but the US has continued to support Taiwan by selling it advanced weapons and fighter planes.


German woman in dock over joining Daesh in Syria as teenager

Updated 25 January 2022

German woman in dock over joining Daesh in Syria as teenager

  • Leonora Messing, 21, is on trial on suspicion that she and her husband enslaved a Yazidi woman
  • She joined Daesh in Syria at the age of 15

BERLIN: A German woman who traveled to Syria as a 15-year-old to join Daesh goes on trial on Tuesday accused of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity.
Leonora Messing, now aged 21, is in the dock in the eastern German city of Halle on suspicion that she and her Daesh husband enslaved a Yazidi woman in Syria in 2015.
During the course of the trial scheduled to last until at least mid-May and being held behind closed doors, Messing will also face charges of membership of a terrorist organization and weapons law violations.
The high-profile case has prompted soul searching in Germany about how a teenage girl from a small town became radicalized and joined the Islamist cause.
Messing ran away from her home for the Daesh-controlled part of Syria in March 2015.
After reaching Raqqa, then the de facto “capital” of Daesh in Syria, she became the third wife of a German national originally from that region.
Messing’s father, a baker from the German village of Breitenbach, only learned his daughter had converted to a radical brand of Islam by opening her abandoned computer and reading her journal after her disappearance.
Six days after she vanished, her father received a message informing him his daughter “chose Allah and Islam” and that she had “arrived in the caliphate.”
“She was a good student,” her father, Maik Messing, told regional broadcaster MDR in 2019.
“She used to go to a retirement home to read to the elderly. She took part in carnival as a majorette. That was when a lot of the people we know saw her for the last time.”
Messing had been living a double life and was visiting, apparently without her parents’ knowledge, a mosque in the western city of Frankfurt that was in the crosshairs of Germany’s domestic intelligence service.
She is among the more than 1,150 Islamists who left Germany from 2011 for Syria and Iraq, according to government findings.
Her case has attracted particular scrutiny due to her young age, and because her father agreed to be followed for four years by a team of reporters from public broadcaster NDR.
As part of the report, he made public thousands of messages he continued to exchange with his daughter, offering rare insights into daily life under Daesh, but also eventually her attempts to break free.
Prosecutors say Messing took part in human trafficking, after her husband “bought” and then “sold” a 33-year-old Yazidi woman.
Messing, who had given birth to two small girls, wound up detained in a Kurdish-controlled camp in northern Syria.
In December 2020, she was repatriated in one of four operations bringing 54 people, most of them children, back to Germany.
Although she was arrested upon her arrival at Frankfurt airport, Messing was later released.
Germany has repeatedly been ordered by its courts to repatriate the wives and children of Daesh recruits.
A Berlin tribunal had demanded in October 2019 that a German woman and her three children be brought back, arguing that the minors were traumatized and should not be separated from their mother.
There are an estimated 61 Germans still in camps in northern Syria, as well as around 30 people with a link to Germany, according to official estimates.
A German court in November issued the first ruling worldwide to recognize crimes against the Yazidi community as genocide, in a verdict hailed by activists as a “historic” win for the minority.
The Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking group hailing from northern Iraq, have for years been persecuted by Daesh militants who have killed hundreds of men, raped women and forcibly recruited children as fighters.