Washington, Jul 2 (AP/UNB) — The amount of ice circling Antarctica is suddenly plunging from a record high to record lows, baffling scientists.
Floating ice off the southern continent steadily increased from 1979 and hit a record high in 2014. But three years later, the annual average extent of Antarctic sea ice hit its lowest mark, wiping out three-and-a-half decades of gains — and then some, a NASA study of satellite data shows.
In recent years, "things have been crazy," said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center. In an email, he called the plummeting ice levels "a white-knuckle ride."
Serreze and other outside experts said they don't know if this is a natural blip that will go away or more long-term global warming that is finally catching up with the South Pole. Antarctica hasn't showed as much consistent warming as its northern Arctic cousin.
"But the fact that a change this big can happen in such a short time should be viewed as an indication that the Earth has the potential for significant and rapid change," University of Colorado ice scientist Waleed Abdalati said in an email.
At the polar regions, ice levels grow during the winter and shrink in the summer. Around Antarctica, sea ice averaged 4.9 million square miles (12.8 million square kilometers) in 2014. By 2017, it was a record low of 4.1 million square miles (10.7 million square kilometers, according to the study in Monday's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The difference covers an area bigger than the size of Mexico. Losing that much in just three years "is pretty incredible" and faster than anything scientists have seen before, said study author Claire Parkinson, a NASA climate scientist. Antarctic sea ice increased slightly in 2018, but still was the second lowest since 1979. Even though ice is growing this time of year in Antarctica, levels in May and June this year were the lowest on record, eclipsing 2017, according to the ice data center.
Ice melting on the ocean surface doesn't change sea level. Non-scientists who reject mainstream climate science often had pointed at increasing Antarctic sea ice to deny or downplay the loss of Arctic sea ice.
While the Arctic has shown consistent and generally steady warming and ice melt — with some slight year to year variation — Antarctica has had more ups and downs while generally trending upward. That is probably in part due to geography, Parkinson and Serreze said.
The Arctic is a floating ice cap on an ocean penned in by continents. Antarctica is just the opposite, with land surrounded by open ocean. That allows the ice to grow much farther out, Parkinson said.
When Antarctic sea ice was steadily rising, scientists pointed to shifts in wind and pressure patterns, ocean circulation changes or natural but regular climate changes like El Nino and its southern cousins. Now, some of those explanations may not quite fit, making what happens next still a mystery, Parkinson said.
Boston, Jul 2 (AP/UNB) — The baggy Virgin Atlantic sweatshirt Princess Diana wore to discourage media interest in her exercise routine is for sale.
Boston-based RR Auction says the dark blue cotton-polyester sweatshirt that was a gift from airline founder Richard Branson is expected to get more than $5,000 during the online auction.
The garment features the airline's 'flying lady' logo with the words "Fly Atlantic" in white.
It is being sold by Jenni Rivett, Diana's longtime personal trainer. Diana gave Rivett several sweatshirts months before her August 1997 death.
In a letter that comes with the shirt, Rivett writes that Diana thought there were more pressing issues in the world to worry about, so wearing the same thing to every session would be "a good way to stop the media frenzy."
New Orleans, Jul 2 (AP/UNB) — The Essence Festival, which draws thousands to New Orleans during the fourth of July week, is celebrating 25 years of bringing African American women of all ages together for thought-provoking conversation and performances from top musical acts.
Launched to mark the 25th anniversary of black-owned Essence magazine, the festival has become a yearly celebration to highlight excellence in business, fashion, entertainment, and, of course, music.
It is a destination vacation for African American women, which was showcased in the 2017 hit movie "Girls Trip." The movie —which starred Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Tiffany Haddish in a breakout role — centered on four longtime friends who reunited at Essence.
The festival is July 5-7 and has two parts: daytime activities and panel discussions mainly held at the convention center and nighttime music and concerts at the Superdome.
The Associated Press spoke to some performers and thought leaders who've made frequent appearances and to a relatively new performer who is moving up to the main stage this year about what they like about the festival and why they return.
MARY J. BLIGE
The Grammy Award-winning songstress is no stranger to the festival, having closed the show many times in the past.
She's scheduled to take the main stage Saturday at the Superdome.
This year, though, is extra special, she said. The festival marks 25 years and so does her album, "My Life." It's a milestone that "feels great."
"It's one of the most important albums of my career. It's when I started a relationship with my fans," she said. "I could tour on that album for the rest of my life and not make another song."
Blige said she never doubted the festival would reach the quarter-century mark.
"It's been nothing but huge since Day 1," she said. "People from all over the world and all walks of life flock to this big, black event. Everyone's coming to see what's going on, to come to New Orleans, to eat. The food down there is crazy good and there's a party every other night. There's lots of entrepreneurship around, there's gospel, there's everything. It's just phenomenal."
Blige received BET's Lifetime Achievement Award in June.
She and rapper Nas released a new single, "Thriving" in May. They both perform Saturday and will co-headline a tour that kicks off following the festival. Nas is also marking a 25th anniversary, for his debut record, "Illmatic."
REV. AL SHARPTON
Sharpton has attended and participated in every festival since its inception in 1994. And, as a result, he said he stays on his toes.
"Everywhere I go, people tell me 'I will see you at Essence,'" he said. "That forces me to think of a new speech every year."
Sharpton generally appears during the daytime activities at the convention center. Festivalgoers can attend any number of panel discussions or presentations on issues such as politics, economic wealth, health care and entrepreneurship. He said the festival has become the "central meeting place for black people, black women specifically."
"It's a celebration of who we are and the diversity of us in terms of our talents and our gifts. It's the perfect mix of entertainment and information," he said.
Sharpton recalled when the magazine's co-founder, Edward Lewis, started the project: "When I was on that first leadership panel at the first festival I thought, this was just a one-time thing."
But since then, the festival has grown from a few exhibitions to a destination for Fortune 500 companies, top lecturers, business minds and CEOs, Sharpton said.
"People plan their vacations and reunions around Essence. It's grown from just an event to almost a pilgrimage. It's the only place that you see the kinds of crowds ranging in age from grandmothers, to mothers to daughters to granddaughters," he said.
MAZE, FEATURING FRANKIE BEVERLY
This year the festival is paying tribute to one of its longtime stars: Maze, featuring Frankie Beverly.
For 15 years, Beverly and Maze closed the Essence Festival, often turning the Superdome floor into a sea of dancing fans. Beverly has an almost cult-like following with devoted fans who sing along with him. During a Maze performance, fans can be seen dancing in the aisles, many wearing white clothing as Beverly often does.
He says he's always amazed to see how fans react.
"They don't have to do that, but it shows they're still into us and to still be in that position to do that, I'm moved and pleased by it. To be back this year is like getting with your family again," he said.
Beverly's run at the festival ended in 2010 when a new producer decided to end the long tradition of Maze as the closer. Many fans were disappointed despite the great talent tapped to close such as Beyonce, Lionel Richie, Aretha Franklin and Earth, Wind and Fire. In 2015, Beverly returned for an appearance that coincided with the festival's recognition of the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
On this year's final night, the festival is scheduled to pay tribute to Beverly for his lifetime contribution to music. The tribute will feature a special performance by Anthony Hamilton.
"Hearing about that, that surprised me," Beverly said. "I appreciate it though. New Orleans has had a big part to play in our receiving this. They've loved us from the beginning."
The Grammy winning singer-songwriter returns to the festival this year but moves to the main stage instead of the Superlounges — smaller venues set up in the Superdome's cavernous halls.
"I'm so excited," she said. "It's just honestly crazy but dope too because last year, people were telling me I should have been on the main stage and now I am."
H.E.R., whose real name is Gabriella Wilson, said she's looking forward to being on stage the same night as icons Blige and first lady Michelle Obama. She's also eager to sample New Orleans' famous cuisine.
"Essence is one of the places you go if you want (to) see all the beautiful black people from all over the world. It's black excellence at its finest, literally. And having it in New Orleans is the best place because the food is crazy good!"
She hopes her performance is an opportunity to expose those who may not be familiar with her music.
"Expect a lot of musicality. I will be picking up a few different instruments," she said. "It will be electric. A lot of people who haven't seen me live are in for a treat. I just plan to sing my heart out and invite them into my world."
Before the thousands of festival-goers head home Sunday, many of them gather at the convention center for a gospel service to connect spiritually.
McClurkin, a pastor and singer, has performed and hosted the service multiple times and says he's looking forward to this year's event.
"It's really devoted to us as African Americans, not just women, but to the black experience," McClurkin said. "At this point, it's got to be one of most sought after tickets in the world."
The "We Fall Down" singer said he's awed by the festival's "diversity and appreciation for ethnic accomplishment" and that the event is also a platform for gospel performers.
"It exposes us to people who may not have known us before and gives us an opportunity to minister to people from all walks of life," McClurkin said. "A major part of the festival is set aside for a Sunday morning service and people make their way to it whether they're there to see a Janet Jackson or a Beyonce, they're crammed into that hall to serve God."
Srinagar, Jul 1 (AP/UNB) — Thousands of Hindu pilgrims began the arduous trek to an icy Himalayan cave in disputed Kashmir on Monday, with tens of thousands of Indian government forces guarding roads and mountain passes.
The pilgrims, many of them barefooted ascetics, chanted hymns and rang bells as they traveled through forested areas in Kashmir's Himalayas. The worshippers approach the hallowed mountain cave, the Amarnath shrine, through two routes, a traditional one via the southern hill resort of Pahalgam and a shorter one through northeastern Baltal. Some also use helicopter services to pay quick obeisance.
The Amarnath cave is covered with snow most of the year except for a short period in summer when it is open for the pilgrims. Hindus worship a stalagmite inside the cave as an incarnation of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and regeneration. The cave lies 4,115 meters (13,500 feet) above sea level.
At least 40,000 Indian police and soldiers have been deployed to guard the pilgrimage. Carrying automatic rifles and wearing flak jackets, they have set up checkpoints, barricades and temporary camps along the routes leading to the cave.
"We've made adequate and comprehensive security arrangements," said S.P. Pani, a top police officer. "We're hoping it will be an incident-free pilgrimage."
With a view of snowy peaks on their way, more than 200,000 pilgrims are expected to visit the cave during the 45-day pilgrimage. Old people and children rode ponies on Monday.
In 2017, gunmen sprayed bullets at a bus carrying Hindu pilgrims in the region, killing at least seven people, including six women, and wounding 19 others while they were returning from the cave shrine. The Indian government blamed Muslim rebels for the attack. However, separatist leaders accused Indian intelligence agencies of carrying out such attacks to sabotage their struggle for the right to self-determination.
In 2000, gunmen struck in the Pahalgam area and killed 30 people, including some local porters who carry the pilgrims' baggage on the mountain path.
The pilgrimage concludes on Aug. 15, a full-moon night that Hindus say commemorates Shiva revealing the secret of the creation of the universe.
Muslim rebels fighting for decades against Indian rule in Kashmir accuse India's Hindu majority of using the pilgrimage as a political statement to bolster its claim to the Himalayan region.
India and Pakistan claim Kashmir in its entirety and have fought two of their three wars over the competing claims over the Himalayan territory since the nuclear-armed rivals gained independence from British colonialism.
In Indian-controlled Kashmir, rebel groups have been fighting for either independence or a merger with Pakistan since 1989. Most Kashmiris support the rebel cause while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian control. Nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown.
Tokyo, Jul 1 (AP/UNB) — Japanese whalers returned to port Monday with their first catch after resuming commercial whaling for the first time in 31 years, achieving the long-cherished goal of traditionalists that is seen as largely a lost cause amid slowing demand for the meat and changing views on conservation.
A fleet of five boats left the northern Japanese port of Kushiro earlier Monday and brought back two minke whales. A crane lifted them and slowly placed them on the back of a truck to be taken to a portside factory for processing. Workers in blue plastic overalls poured sake from paper cups onto the first whale to express thanks and celebrate the first catch.
It was the first commercial hunt since 1988, when Japan switched to what it called research whaling after commercial whaling was banned by the International Whaling Commission. Japan gave six months' notice that it was withdrawing from the IWC, a move that took effect Sunday.
The Fisheries Agency said the hunts will stay within the country's exclusive economic zone, and the catch quota for the rest of this year will be 227 whales, fewer than the 637 that Japan hunted in the Antarctic and the northwestern Pacific in its research program in recent years. The announcement of the quota, originally planned for late June, was delayed until Monday in an apparent move to avoid criticism during this past weekend's Group of 20 summit in Osaka.
As the boats left port, whalers, their families and local officials in two major whaling towns, Shimonoseki in southwestern Japan and Kushiro in the north, celebrated the fresh start, hoping for their safe return and a good catch. Shimonoseki is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's electoral constituency.
"We hope commercial whaling will be on track as soon as possible, contribute to local prosperity and carry on Japan's rich whale culture to the next generation," Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura told reporters in Tokyo.
Officials said the catch of the two minke whales was a nice surprise because they were not thought to be in the area and whalers were expecting Monday's trip to be only ceremonial.
Fisheries Agency officials said the whale meat will be auctioned at a local fish market Thursday and later hit stores, mainly in the region but possibly in Tokyo. Whalers are hoping for a special price for the historic meat that is higher than the average 2,000 yen per kilogram ($18 per 2.2 pounds) that their counterparts from Antarctic research whaling used to get.
While the resumption of commercial whaling was condemned by many conservation groups, others see it as a face-saving way to let the government's embattled and expensive whaling program gradually succumb to changing times and tastes.
Despite massive attention, tax money and political support from ruling party lawmakers, whaling in Japan involved only a few hundred people and accounted for less than 0.1% of the total meat consumption in fiscal 2017, according to government data.
Whale meat was an affordable source of protein during the lean times after World War II, with annual consumption peaking at 223,000 tons in 1962. But whale was quickly replaced by other meats. The supply of whale meat fell to 6,000 tons in 1986, the year before the moratorium on commercial whaling imposed by the IWC banned the hunting of several whale species.
Under its research whaling, which was criticized as a cover for commercial hunts because the meat was sold on the market, Japan caught as many as 1,200 whales a year. It drastically cut back its catch in recent years after international protests escalated and whale meat consumption slumped at home.
Today, about 4,000-5,000 tons are supplied in Japan annually, or 30-40 grams (1-1.4 ounces) of whale meat per person a year, Fisheries Agency officials say.
The research whaling program lost money for years — 1.6 billion yen ($15 million) in the last year alone.
Japan will stick to a very strict catch quota and will continue conducting research, Hideki Moronuki, a Fisheries Agency official and the chief negotiator at the IWC, said in a recent interview. He said Japan's commercial whaling will never harm whale stocks.
The commercial whaling will be carried out by two groups. The mother factory ship Nisshin-maru and two support boats that used to go to the Antarctic will travel as far as Japan's 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone to catch minke, Bryde's and sei whales. Five other smaller ships will stay closer to the coast but also hunt minkes, in addition to 168 Baird's beaked and two other kinds of small whales they used to catch outside of IWC jurisdiction. Altogether, they are to catch 52 minkes, 150 Bryde's and 25 sei whales through Dec. 31.
Whales caught in coastal waters will be brought back for fresh local consumption at any of six local whaling hubs that are mainly in northern Japan but include Taiji, the home constituency of ruling Liberal Democratic Party heavyweight Toshihiro Nikai. The town is also known for its dolphin hunts shown in the documentary movie "The Cove."
Whale meat caught further off the coast will be frozen and distributed for wider consumption.
Moronuki says the fate of commercial whaling depends on whether whale meat is widely accepted by consumers since it won't receive as many subsidies as before.
The government, however, plans to provide as much as 5 billion yen ($46 million) for projects to help stabilize commercial whaling, including development of rich whale hunting grounds and research and development in the first few years, officials said.
Moronuki said he hopes whale meat will be reasonably priced so it will gain long-term popularity instead of being an expensive delicacy for a limited clientele. The government used to sell whale meat caught in the scientific program for school lunch programs at discounted prices, he said.
"The future of commercial whaling depends on how popular whale meat can be," he said. "Whale meat is a traditional food in Japan and I would like many people to try and develop a taste for it, especially younger people."
A 2017 survey by the Japan Whaling Association showed about 64% of respondents said they have eaten whale meat, but most said they haven't had any in five years.
Ultimately, the resumption of traditional whaling may end up saving large government subsidies and the lives of many whales, experts say.
"What we are seeing is the beginning of the end of Japanese whaling," said Patrick Ramage, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "It is a win-win solution that results in a better situation for whales, a better situation for Japan, a better situation for international marine conservation efforts and is therefore to be welcomed."
Whaling is losing support in other whaling nations including Norway and Iceland, where whalers have cut back on catches in recent years amid criticism that commercial hunts are bad for their national image and tourism.
Iceland caught only 17 whales, while Norway hunted 432 in the 2017-2018 season, way below their catch quota of 378 and 1,278 respectively, according to the IWC.
Japanese are also beginning to see ecotourism as a better option for whales than hunting them for food.
"People in coastal communities all do better when whales are seen and not hurt," Ramage said.