NYC utility probes electric flash that lit sky in eerie blue
By JENNIFER PELTZ
Saturday, December 29
NEW YORK (AP) — Electric utility Con Edison was working Friday to figure out what caused a high-voltage equipment failure that unleashed an otherworldly flash of bright blue light in the night sky over New York City.
The event Thursday caused power outages, briefly grounded flights at LaGuardia Airport and filled social media feeds with eerie photos, questions and jokes, to the point that the New York Police Department tweeted there was “no evidence of extraterrestrial activity.”
And a jocular Gov. Andrew Cuomo pulled out a space-alien mask at a news conference Friday, while assuring the public that the incident “was what it was represented to be: an electrical malfunction.”
It involved 20-foot-high (6-meter-high) equipment with cables carrying 138,000 volts, Con Ed officials said Friday. By comparison, a standard U.S. household gets 120-volt service.
“It was like a lightning bolt, essentially,” spokesman Bob McGee said.
Substations transform electricity that comes in from power plants at high voltage down to lower voltage levels, and send it on for use.
Thursday’s malfunction, at a power substation in the Astoria section of Queens, involved voltage-monitoring equipment, Con Ed Chairman John McAvoy said as he joined Cuomo at the substation.
“That piece of equipment failed in a very significant manner,” McAvoy said.
Normally, a circuit-breaker-like device intervenes and quickly cuts off power to the affected equipment if there’s an electrical fault, but that apparently didn’t happen Thursday as quickly as expected, McAvoy said. Instead, the electricity kept cycling through, causing the flash.
Across much of the nation’s most populous city, people looked up around 9:12 p.m. to see a pulsing orb of blue light that lasted a minute or more in the sky over Queens, casting the skyline into a strange silhouette.
“It was pitch black outside, and then suddenly the whole side of the eastern sky was lighting up and changing colors,” said Madeleine Frank Reeves, who saw the lights from her Upper West Side apartment.
As for why the cyan sky: When electric charges move through air, the air gets superheated and glows blue, explains Eric O’Dea, of Boston’s Museum of Science, which is known for generating indoor lightning bolts in its Theater of Electricity.
Derrick Pitts, the chief astronomer at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute Science Museum, said it’s possible the light wavelength caused by the electrical arc refracted through tiny water droplets in the clouds, yielding a blue color.
“Sort of like what happens in a rainbow,” but with a more specific color, he explained in an email.
Onlookers invoked supernatural and sci-fi screen classics — “Ghostbusters,” ”Independence Day,” ”Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and more. There were, of course, hashtags — including #alieninvasion — and a tongue-in-cheek take on a real scientific phenomenon: the “Astoria Borealis.”
The city’s 911 system got over 3,200 calls in the half-hour including the flash, compared to 500 calls in the prior half-hour, Police Commissioner James O’Neill said.
Witnesses’ video showed plumes of smoke pouring from a piece of equipment at the substation, and nearby residents reported hearing banging or roaring sounds. Those likely were caused by the electrical arc — a term for this kind of discharge of electricity — going to the ground, McGee said.
The arc subsided on its own, he said. No one was seriously injured, though an employee at the substation reported eye irritation, Con Ed said.
Meanwhile, power flickered or went out at least briefly around northern Queens. Lights flickered in parts of the massive Rikers Island jail complex before back-up generators kicked in, according to the city Correction Department.
Although LaGuardia also has backup power, the emergency system doesn’t allow for full operation of the airport, so flights were stopped for a time, Cuomo said. Normal power was restored in about an hour, he said.
Some subway service was disrupted for about a half-hour, according to Con Ed.
McGee didn’t immediately have information on whether there had been any recent problems with or repairs to the equipment that failed.
Cuomo, a Democrat, asked the state Public Service to join Con Ed in investigating what caused the problem.
Thursday wasn’t the first time a substation power problem has illuminated the city’s skies with a strange glow. Superstorm Sandy flooded a Con Ed substation in 2012, producing a great, greenish flash and plunging a swath of Manhattan into darkness.
Associated Press writers Jim Mustian and Michael R. Sisak contributed to this report.
The United States is First in War, But Trailing in Crucial Aspects of Modern Civilization
By Lawrence Wittner
Maybe those delirious crowds chanting “USA, USA” have got something. When it comes to military power, the United States reigns supreme. Newsweek reported in March 2018: “The United States has the strongest military in the world,” with more than two million military personnel and vast numbers of the most advanced nuclear missiles, military aircraft, warships, tanks, and other modern weapons of war. Furthermore, as the New York Times noted, “the United States also has a global presence unlike any other nation, with about 200,000 active duty troops deployed in more than 170 countries.” This presence includes some 800 overseas U.S. military bases.
In 2017 (the last year for which global figures are available), the U.S. government accounted for more than a third of the world’s military expenditures―more than the next seven highest-spending countries combined. Not satisfied, however, President Trump and Congress pushed through a mammoth increase in the annual U.S. military budget in August 2018, raising it to $717 billion. Maintaining the U.S. status as “No. 1” in war and war preparations comes at a very high price.
That price is not only paid in dollars—plus massive death and suffering in warfare―but in the impoverishment of other key sectors of American life. After all, this lavish outlay on the military now constitutes about two-thirds of the U.S. government’s discretionary spending. And these other sectors of American life are in big trouble.
Let’s consider education. The gold standard for evaluation seems to be the Program for International Student Assessment of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which tests 15-year-old students every few years. The last test, which occurred in 2015 and involved 540,000 students in 72 nations and regions, found that U.S. students ranked 24th in reading, 25th in science, and 41st in mathematics. When the scores in these three areas were combined, U.S. students ranked 31st―behind the students of Slovenia, Poland, Russia, and Vietnam.
The educational attainments among many other Americans are also dismal. An estimated 30 million adult Americans cannot read, write, or do basic math above a third grade level. Literacy has different definitions and, for this reason among others, estimates vary about the level of illiteracy in the United States. But one of the most favorable rankings of the United States for literacy places it in a tie with numerous other nations for 26th; the worst places it at 125th.
The U.S. healthcare system also fares poorly compared to that of other nations. A 2017 study of healthcare systems in 11 advanced industrial countries by the Commonwealth Fund found that the United States ranked at the very bottom of the list. Furthermore, numerous nations with far less “advanced” economies have superior healthcare systems to that of the United States. According to the World Health Organization, the U.S. healthcare system ranks 37th among countries―behind that of Colombia, Cyprus, and Morocco.
Not surprisingly, American health is relatively poor. The infant mortality rate in the United States is higher than in 54 other lands, including Belarus, Cuba, Greece, and French Polynesia. According to the World Cancer Research Fund, the United States has the 5th highest cancer rate of the 50 countries it studied. For the past few years, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported, U.S. life expectancy has been declining and, today, the United States reportedly ranks 53rd among 100 nations in life expectancy.
Despite the fact that the United States is the world’s richest nation, it also has an unusually high level of poverty. According to a 2017 UNICEF report, more than 29 percent of American children live in impoverished circumstances, placing the United States 35th in childhood poverty among the 41 richest nations. Indeed, the United States has a higher percentage of its people living in poverty (15.1 percent) than 41 other countries, including Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Thailand, Brazil, and Sri Lanka.
Nor does the United States rate very well among nations on environmental issues. According to the Environmental Performance Index, produced by Yale University and Columbia University in 2018, the United States placed 27th among the countries it ranked on environmental health and ecosystem vitality. The Social Progress Index, another well-respected survey that rates countries on their environmental records, ranked the United States 36th in wastewater treatment, 39th in access to at least basic drinking water, and 73rd in greenhouse gas emissions.
Actually, the findings of the Social Progress Index are roughly the same as other evaluators in a broad range of areas. Its 2018 report concluded that that the United States ranked 63rd in primary school enrollment, 61st in secondary school enrollment, 76th in access to quality education, 40th in child mortality rate, 62nd in maternity mortality rate, 36th in access to essential health services, 74th in access to quality healthcare, and 35th in life expectancy at age 60. In addition, it rated the United States as 33rd in political killings and torture, 88th in homicide rate, 47th in political rights, and 67th in discrimination and violence against minorities. All in all, there’s nothing here to cheer about.
Does the U.S. government’s priority for military spending explain, at least partially, the discrepancy between the worldwide preeminence of the U.S. armed forces and the feeble global standing of major American domestic institutions? Back in April 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower pointed to their connection. Addressing the American Society of Newspaper editors, he declared: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.” A militarized world “is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”
People infatuated with military supremacy should give that some thought.
Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. He is the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).
Some tropical frogs may be developing resistance to a deadly fungal disease – but now salamanders are at risk
By Louise Rollins-Smith
My office is filled with colorful images of frogs, toads and salamanders from around the world, some of which I have collected over 40 years as an immunologist and microbiologist, studying amphibian immunity and diseases. These jewels of nature are mostly silent working members of many aquatic ecosystems.
The exception to the silence is when male frogs and toads call to entice females to mate. These noisy creatures are often wonderful little ventriloquists. They can be calling barely inches from your nose, and yet blend so completely into the environment that they are unseen. I have seen tropical frogs in Panama and native frogs of Tennessee perform this trick, seemingly mocking my attempts to capture them.
My current research is focused on interactions between amphibians and two novel chytrid pathogens that are linked to global amphibian declines. One, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis ( abbreviated as Bd), has caused mass frog dieoffs around the world. Recently my lab group contributed to a study showing that some species of amphibians in Panama that had declined due to Bd infections are recovering. Although the pathogen has not changed, these species appear to have developed better skin defenses than members of the same species had when Bd first appeared.
This is very good news, but those who love amphibians need to remain vigilant and continue to monitor these recovering populations. A second reason for concern is the discovery of a closely related chytrid, Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal), which seems to be more harmful to salamanders and newts.
Global frog decline
More than a decade ago, an epidemic of a deadly disease called chytridiomycosis swept through amphibian populations in Panama. The infection was caused by a chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. Scientists from a number of universities, working with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, reported that chytridiomycosis was moving predictably from west to east from Costa Rica across Panama toward Colombia.
I was part of an international group of scientists, funded by the National Science Foundation, who were trying to understand the disease and whether amphibians had effective immune defenses against the fungus. Two members of my lab group traveled to Panama yearly from 2004 through 2008, and were able to look at skin secretions from multiple frog species before and after the epidemic of chytridiomycosis hit.
Many amphibians have granular glands in their skin that synthesize and sequester antimicrobial peptides (AMPs) and other defensive molecules. When the animal is alarmed or injured, the defensive molecules are released to cleanse and protect the skin.
Through mechanisms that remain a mystery, we observed that these skin defenses seemed to improve after the pathogen entered the amphibian communities. Still, many frog populations in this area suffered severe declines. A global assessment published in 2004 showed that 43 percent of amphibian species were declining and 32 percent of species were threatened.
Signs of resistance
In 2012-2013, my colleagues ventured to some of the same sites in Panama at which amphibians had disappeared. To our great delight, some of the species were partially recovering, at least enough so that they could be found and sampled again.
We wanted to know whether this was happening because the pathogen had become less virulent, or for some other reason, including the possibility that the frogs were developing more effective responses. To find out, we analyzed multiple measures of Bd‘s virulence, including its ability to infect frogs that had never been exposed to it; its rate of growth in culture; whether it had undergone genetic changes that would show loss of some possible virulence characteristics; and its ability to inhibit frogs’ immune cells.
As our group recently reported, we found that the pathogen had not changed. However, we were able to show that for some species, frog skin secretions we collected from frogs in populations that had persisted were better able to inhibit the fungus in a culture system than those from frogs that had never been exposed to the fungus.
The prospect that some frog species in some places in Panama are recovering in spite of the continuing presence of this virulent pathogen is fantastic news, but it is too soon to celebrate. The recovery process is very slow, and scientists need to continue monitoring the frogs and learn more about their immune defenses. Protecting their habitat, which is threatened by deforestation and water pollution, will also be a key factor for the long-term survival of these unique amphibian species in Panama.
Salamanders (and frogs) at risk
On a global scale, Bd is not the only threat. A second pathogenic chytrid fungus called Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (abbreviated as Bsal) was recently identified in Europe, and has decimated some salamander populations in the Netherlands and Belgium. This sister species probably was accidentally imported into Europe from Asia, and seems to be a greater threat to salamanders than to frogs or toads.
Bsal has not yet been detected in North America. I am part of a new consortium of scientists that has formed a Bsal task force to study whether it could become invasive here, and which species might be most adversely affected.
In January 2016 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed 201 salamander species as potentially injurious to wildlife because of their their potential to introduce Bsal into the United States. This step made it illegal to import or ship any of these species between the continental United States, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico or any possession of the United States.
The Bsal task force is currently developing a strategic plan that lists the most urgent research needs to prevent accidental introduction and monitor vulnerable populations. In October 2017 a group of scientists and conservation organizations urged the U.S. government to suspend all imports of frogs and salamanders to the United States.
In short, it is too early to relax. There also are many other potential stressors of amphibian populations including climate change, decreasing habitats and disease. Those of us who cherish amphibian diversity will continue to worry for some time to come.
Louise Rollins-Smith is Associate Professor of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, Vanderbilt University. She receives funding from the National Science Foundation. Research described in this article was also supported by the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the National Institutes of Health. Vanderbilt University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
Patrol reports 11 traffic deaths during the New Year holiday
Traffic crash fatalities decreased in 2018
COLUMBUS – The Ohio State Highway Patrol is reporting 11 deaths on Ohio roadways during the 2018-2019 New Year holiday according to provisional statistics. Six fatalities were the result of not wearing a seat belt when available and four were OVI-related. The five-day reporting period began at midnight Friday, December 28, 2018 and ran through 11:59 p.m. on January 1, 2019. This number is higher than the four-day reporting period last year, when six fatalities were reported.
Troopers made 6,040 traffic enforcement contacts; including 448 OVI arrests, 231 drug arrests and 952 safety belt citations. In addition, troopers made 10,807 non-enforcement contacts including 2,204 motorist assists.
In 2018, there were 1,063 confirmed fatalities on Ohio’s roads according to provisional data; a 10 percent decrease compared to 2017.
A statistical analysis of the Patrol’s enforcement activity over the holiday is available at: https://www.statepatrol.ohio.gov/doc/NewYearHoliday2019.pdf