Sunday, June 9, 2013

THE GREAT DELUGE: River Danube Reaches Record Levels, 29 FEET HIGHER THAN NORMAL - Historic Capital Budapest Goes On "HIGH ALERT" For River To Burst Its Banks; Tens Of Thousands Evacuated; At Least A Dozen Killed By Floods In Central Europe!

June 09, 2013 - CENTRAL EUROPE - Budapest was on high alert yesterday as the River Danube threatened to burst its banks and flood the historic city.  The river peaked at record highs as desperate homeowners, hotel staff and military reservists piled sandbags in front of their buildings to protect the Hungarian capital.  Tens of thousands have been forced to leave their homes and at least a dozen people have been killed in floods that have hit central Europe in the past week. 

Central Europe has seen a week of torrential rain and perilous flooding.
Twenty people reportedly have died in the floods across central Europe after several days of heavy rains.
The flooded water of River Danube rolling along at Margareth Island in Budapest.
The River Danube in the centre of Budapest is nearly 29ft higher than normal.

Thousands have been put up in emergency shelters waiting for the waters to recede so they can get back to their homes.  Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic have all been affected by the worst floods in central Europe in a decade.  The Danube – Europe’s second longest river which flows through four capital cities and ten countries – started rising rapidly in Hungary last Friday.  The country announced a state of ‘extreme danger’ which is likely to last into next week as the waters are expected to recede very slowly. 

At least 1,200 people from 28 towns and villages have been forced to leave their homes and 44 roads have been closed, it was reported.  The Danube was expected to peak at 29.4 feet in Budapest last night – worryingly near the river's flood fences which are 30.5 feet tall.  The previous record high was 28 feet in the 2006 floods. In a devastating flood in 1838, the Danube killed 150 people and left more than 50,000 homeless.  

An aerial view of the swollen Danube River in Esztergom, 43 miles west of Budapest showed what
the capital had in store on Sunday.

A resident paddles his kayak in the main street in Nagymaros, 32 miles north of Budapest.
A lone tree is partially submerged outside Budapest.
A resident looks out from her window after making her house as secure as she can 19 miles from Budapest.

Yesterday, crowds gathered along the river to watch as water streamed past the bank and trickled through gaps in the wall, reaching the highest point ever recorded.  Staff from hotels on the bank of the Danube massed sandbags outside their buildings in a forlorn attempt to avoid the problem.  Men, women and children all helped to fill sandbags as the city attempted to avoid devastating floods.  More than six million have been used to shore up river defences. 

Police directed traffic away from the river banks and just a few cars remained on what were previously busy roads while the subway was closed due to flooding.  However, authorities have said that river defences designed to withstand floods would be high enough to protect the city.  The Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban said dykes had been strengthened at critical points in Budapest.  

Residents pumping back flood water through a sandbag dam in Nagymaros.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban says water levels are expected to recede only very slowly next week, leaving
many houses and villages cut off.

No roads were left visible in the partially submerged village of Nagymaros, 37 miles west of Budapest.

In Budapest the government is reportedly planning a crisis meeting with the other countries affected to see how the cost of the disaster can be shared.

He warned the next two days would be ‘decisive’ in the battle against the floods.  He added: ‘The (floods) are approaching the heart of the country now, we can say that the next two days will be decisive.  Referring to increased pressure on the sewage network from the Danube, he said: ‘In Budapest ... it is not simply the flood which is the problem ... but the complicated public works system through which all kinds of problems can arise.’  - Daily Mail.

GEOLOGICAL UPHEAVAL: Tracking Developments At The Giant Louisiana Sinkhole - Any Hope That The Sinkhole Could Be Contained Is Now GONE FOREVER After Berm Collapse! [VIDEO + PHOTOS]

June 09, 2013 - UNITED STATES - The following constitutes the latest flyover, video, images and report about the giant Louisiana sinkhole. This comes courtesy from the On Wings Of Care organization. Please support their invaluable research, by donating HERE.

Weaving our way through clouds and some feisty winds, we made a quick trip over to the Bayou Corne sinkhole again today. We were eager to see it, since learning a few days ago that the berm (built since the sinkhole started expanding significantly last August) on the west and south side of the sinkhole had collapsed.

Indeed, as our video and photos from today attest, whatever false sense of security that berm provided is now gone forever. And with it, the residents' last remaining hope that the sinkhole could be contained and they might be able to move back into their homes and their lovely way of life. Some of our favorite photos are shown below this video; and below those is a larger gallery of photos from today's flight, our eighth flyover since August of 2012.

Let's preface this with a sobering comparison of a few photos taken today with some we took last August:

WATCH: On Wings Of Care Flyover #8 - June 8, 2013.

AGE OF OBAMA: Challenging Big Brother And The Rise Of The Global Police State - Edward Snowden, The Former CIA Employee, Comes Forward As Whistleblower Of NSA Leaks!

June 09, 2013 - UNITED STATES - The 29-year-old source behind the biggest intelligence leak in the NSA's history explains his motives, his uncertain future and why he never intended on hiding in the shadows.

The individual responsible for one of the most significant leaks in US political history is Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA and current employee of the defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. Snowden has been working at the National Security Agency for the last four years as an employee of various outside contractors, including Booz Allen and Dell.

The Guardian, after several days of interviews, is revealing his identity at his request. From the moment he decided to disclose numerous top-secret documents to the public, he was determined not to opt for the protection of anonymity. "I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong," he said.

Snowden will go down in history as one of America's most consequential whistleblowers, alongside Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning. He is responsible for handing over material from one of the world's most secretive organisations – the NSA.

In a note accompanying the first set of documents he provided, he wrote: "I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions," but "I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant."

Despite his determination to be publicly unveiled, he repeatedly insisted that he wants to avoid the media spotlight. "I don't want public attention because I don't want the story to be about me. I want it to be about what the US government is doing."

He does not fear the consequences of going public, he said, only that doing so will distract attention from the issues raised by his disclosures. "I know the media likes to personalise political debates, and I know the government will demonise me."

Despite these fears, he remained hopeful his outing will not divert attention from the substance of his disclosures. "I really want the focus to be on these documents and the debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in." He added: "My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them."

He has had "a very comfortable life" that included a salary of roughly $200,000, a girlfriend with whom he shared a home in Hawaii, a stable career, and a family he loves. "I'm willing to sacrifice all of that because I can't in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building."

'I am not afraid, because this is the choice I've made'

Three weeks ago, Snowden made final preparations that resulted in last week's series of blockbuster news stories. At the NSA office in Hawaii where he was working, he copied the last set of documents he intended to disclose.

He then advised his NSA supervisor that he needed to be away from work for "a couple of weeks" in order to receive treatment for epilepsy, a condition he learned he suffers from after a series of seizures last year.

As he packed his bags, he told his girlfriend that he had to be away for a few weeks, though he said he was vague about the reason. "That is not an uncommon occurrence for someone who has spent the last decade working in the intelligence world."

On May 20, he boarded a flight to Hong Kong, where he has remained ever since. He chose the city because "they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent", and because he believed that it was one of the few places in the world that both could and would resist the dictates of the US government.

WATCH: Edward Snowden comes forward as  source of NSA leaks.

In the three weeks since he arrived, he has been ensconced in a hotel room. "I've left the room maybe a total of three times during my entire stay," he said. It is a plush hotel and, what with eating meals in his room too, he has run up big bills.

He is deeply worried about being spied on. He lines the door of his hotel room with pillows to prevent eavesdropping. He puts a large red hood over his head and laptop when entering his passwords to prevent any hidden cameras from detecting them.

Though that may sound like paranoia to some, Snowden has good reason for such fears. He worked in the US intelligence world for almost a decade. He knows that the biggest and most secretive surveillance organisation in America, the NSA, along with the most powerful government on the planet, is looking for him.

Since the disclosures began to emerge, he has watched television and monitored the internet, hearing all the threats and vows of prosecution emanating from Washington.

And he knows only too well the sophisticated technology available to them and how easy it will be for them to find him. The NSA police and other law enforcement officers have twice visited his home in Hawaii and already contacted his girlfriend, though he believes that may have been prompted by his absence from work, and not because of suspicions of any connection to the leaks.

"All my options are bad," he said. The US could begin extradition proceedings against him, a potentially problematic, lengthy and unpredictable course for Washington. Or the Chinese government might whisk him away for questioning, viewing him as a useful source of information. Or he might end up being grabbed and bundled into a plane bound for US territory.

"Yes, I could be rendered by the CIA. I could have people come after me. Or any of the third-party partners. They work closely with a number of other nations. Or they could pay off the Triads. Any of their agents or assets," he said.

"We have got a CIA station just up the road – the consulate here in Hong Kong – and I am sure they are going to be busy for the next week. And that is a concern I will live with for the rest of my life, however long that happens to be."

Having watched the Obama administration prosecute whistleblowers at a historically unprecedented rate, he fully expects the US government to attempt to use all its weight to punish him. "I am not afraid," he said calmly, "because this is the choice I've made."

He predicts the government will launch an investigation and "say I have broken the Espionage Act and helped our enemies, but that can be used against anyone who points out how massive and invasive the system has become".

The only time he became emotional during the many hours of interviews was when he pondered the impact his choices would have on his family, many of whom work for the US government. "The only thing I fear is the harmful effects on my family, who I won't be able to help any more. That's what keeps me up at night," he said, his eyes welling up with tears.

'You can't wait around for someone else to act'

Snowden did not always believe the US government posed a threat to his political values. He was brought up originally in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. His family moved later to Maryland, near the NSA headquarters in Fort Meade.

By his own admission, he was not a stellar student. In order to get the credits necessary to obtain a high school diploma, he attended a community college in Maryland, studying computing, but never completed the coursework. (He later obtained his GED.)

In 2003, he enlisted in the US army and began a training program to join the Special Forces. Invoking the same principles that he now cites to justify his leaks, he said: "I wanted to fight in the Iraq war because I felt like I had an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression".

He recounted how his beliefs about the war's purpose were quickly dispelled. "Most of the people training us seemed pumped up about killing Arabs, not helping anyone," he said. After he broke both his legs in a training accident, he was discharged.

After that, he got his first job in an NSA facility, working as a security guard for one of the agency's covert facilities at the University of Maryland. From there, he went to the CIA, where he worked on IT security. His understanding of the internet and his talent for computer programming enabled him to rise fairly quickly for someone who lacked even a high school diploma.

By 2007, the CIA stationed him with diplomatic cover in Geneva, Switzerland. His responsibility for maintaining computer network security meant he had clearance to access a wide array of classified documents.

That access, along with the almost three years he spent around CIA officers, led him to begin seriously questioning the rightness of what he saw.

He described as formative an incident in which he claimed CIA operatives were attempting to recruit a Swiss banker to obtain secret banking information. Snowden said they achieved this by purposely getting the banker drunk and encouraging him to drive home in his car. When the banker was arrested for drunk driving, the undercover agent seeking to befriend him offered to help, and a bond was formed that led to successful recruitment.

"Much of what I saw in Geneva really disillusioned me about how my government functions and what its impact is in the world," he says. "I realised that I was part of something that was doing far more harm than good."

He said it was during his CIA stint in Geneva that he thought for the first time about exposing government secrets. But, at the time, he chose not to for two reasons.

First, he said: "Most of the secrets the CIA has are about people, not machines and systems, so I didn't feel comfortable with disclosures that I thought could endanger anyone". Secondly, the election of Barack Obama in 2008 gave him hope that there would be real reforms, rendering disclosures unnecessary.

He left the CIA in 2009 in order to take his first job working for a private contractor that assigned him to a functioning NSA facility, stationed on a military base in Japan. It was then, he said, that he "watched as Obama advanced the very policies that I thought would be reined in", and as a result, "I got hardened."

The primary lesson from this experience was that "you can't wait around for someone else to act. I had been looking for leaders, but I realised that leadership is about being the first to act."

Over the next three years, he learned just how all-consuming the NSA's surveillance activities were, claiming "they are intent on making every conversation and every form of behaviour in the world known to them".

He described how he once viewed the internet as "the most important invention in all of human history". As an adolescent, he spent days at a time "speaking to people with all sorts of views that I would never have encountered on my own".

But he believed that the value of the internet, along with basic privacy, is being rapidly destroyed by ubiquitous surveillance. "I don't see myself as a hero," he said, "because what I'm doing is self-interested: I don't want to live in a world where there's no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity."

Once he reached the conclusion that the NSA's surveillance net would soon be irrevocable, he said it was just a matter of time before he chose to act. "What they're doing" poses "an existential threat to democracy", he said.

A matter of principle

As strong as those beliefs are, there still remains the question: why did he do it? Giving up his freedom and a privileged lifestyle? "There are more important things than money. If I were motivated by money, I could have sold these documents to any number of countries and gotten very rich."

For him, it is a matter of principle. "The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to. There is no public oversight. The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to," he said.

His allegiance to internet freedom is reflected in the stickers on his laptop: "I support Online Rights: Electronic Frontier Foundation," reads one. Another hails the online organisation offering anonymity, the Tor Project.

Asked by reporters to establish his authenticity to ensure he is not some fantasist, he laid bare, without hesitation, his personal details, from his social security number to his CIA ID and his expired diplomatic passport. There is no shiftiness. Ask him about anything in his personal life and he will answer.

He is quiet, smart, easy-going and self-effacing. A master on computers, he seemed happiest when talking about the technical side of surveillance, at a level of detail comprehensible probably only to fellow communication specialists. But he showed intense passion when talking about the value of privacy and how he felt it was being steadily eroded by the behaviour of the intelligence services.

His manner was calm and relaxed but he has been understandably twitchy since he went into hiding, waiting for the knock on the hotel door. A fire alarm goes off. "That has not happened before," he said, betraying anxiety wondering if was real, a test or a CIA ploy to get him out onto the street.

Strewn about the side of his bed are his suitcase, a plate with the remains of room-service breakfast, and a copy of Angler, the biography of former vice-president Dick Cheney.

Ever since last week's news stories began to appear in the Guardian, Snowden has vigilantly watched TV and read the internet to see the effects of his choices. He seemed satisfied that the debate he longed to provoke was finally taking place.

He lay, propped up against pillows, watching CNN's Wolf Blitzer ask a discussion panel about government intrusion if they had any idea who the leaker was. From 8,000 miles away, the leaker looked on impassively, not even indulging in a wry smile.

Snowden said that he admires both Ellsberg and Manning, but argues that there is one important distinction between himself and the army private, whose trial coincidentally began the week Snowden's leaks began to make news.

"I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest," he said. "There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn't turn over, because harming people isn't my goal. Transparency is."

He purposely chose, he said, to give the documents to journalists whose judgment he trusted about what should be public and what should remain concealed.

As for his future, he is vague. He hoped the publicity the leaks have generated will offer him some protection, making it "harder for them to get dirty".

He views his best hope as the possibility of asylum, with Iceland – with its reputation of a champion of internet freedom – at the top of his list. He knows that may prove a wish unfulfilled.

But after the intense political controversy he has already created with just the first week's haul of stories, "I feel satisfied that this was all worth it. I have no regrets." - Guardian.

PLANETARY TREMORS: Unusual And Shallow 5.8 Magnitude Earthquake Strikes Northern Territory, Australia!

June 09, 2013 - AUSTRALIA - The Northern Territory's southern region was rocked by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake overnight.

USGS earthquake location.

The shaking has caught the interest of seismologists, because the area had a similar quake a year ago, but, before that, it had gone decades without one being recorded.

Seismologist Spiro Spiliopoulos from Geoscience Australia said the quake hit just before midnight, about 315 kilometres southwest of Alice Springs.

He said the epicentre was only 40 kilometres from the Aboriginal community of Ernabella, which suffered an earthquake of a similar size in March last year.

"We had aftershocks following the Ernabella (earthquake), and, likewise, we'd expect to have aftershocks from this one normally but they're typically much smaller than the big one and just last for days and weeks after the earthquake," Mr Spiliopoulos said.

USGS earthquake shakemap intensity.

He said, before these two similar-sized events, it had been more than 50 years since a quake was recorded in the area.

"It's unusual to get two large earthquakes within 40 kilometres of each other within Australia," Mr Spiliopoulos said.

No damage from the quake has been reported. - ABC Australia.

GLOBAL VOLCANISM: The Global Volcano Report For June 09, 2013 - Lava Dome Overtopping Crater Rim Poses Risk Of Pyroclastic Flows At Indonesia's Ibu Volcano, And Gradually Increasing Seismic Tremor Beneath Alaska's Veniaminof Forces Officials To Raise Aviation Color Code Status!

June 09, 2013 - WORLDWIDE VOLCANOES - The following constitutes the new activity, unrest and ongoing reports of volcanoes across the globe.

Indonesia, Halmahera, Ibu volcano erupting.
Image: Martin Rietze.

Ibu volcano (Halmahera Island, Indonesia): As the Indonesian Volcanological Survey (VSI) specified in its latest bulletin, parts of the active lava dome of the volcano have recently (early June) grown higher than the northern crater rim, where it is cut by a valley extending to the northern feet of the stratovolcano. Therefore, potential continued growth of the dome poses the risk of rockfalls and pyroclastic flows reach the northern flanks, where a number of villages are located, namely Pasilulu and Talen.

In addition, VSI scientists have detected an increase of seismicity and degassing since early May. This includes volcanic tremor from growing lava dome and deeper earthquakes, possibly related to new magma rising, and the occurrence of notable sulfur smell.

Ibu's activity has been characterized by the slow building of a new lava dome inside the breached summit crater since 1999. While present growth rate is still slow, and no or little incandescence is observed at the moment, the new seismic activity could herald a phase of more vigorous activity in the near future. In that scenario, the occurrence of dangerous landslides and pyroclastic flows would be likely and the northern slopes of the volcano should be considered a high risk zone.

Veniaminof (Alaska Peninsula, USA): Over the past 2 days, AVO has detected gradually increasing seismic tremor beneath Veniaminof and therefore raised the Aviation Color Code to Yellow and the Volcano Alert Level to Advisory.

Current seismic recording from Veniaminof (VNHG station, AVO)

Clear web-camera and satellite views currently show nothing unusual at the volcano. Similar seismic activity has been associated with ash emissions at Veniaminof in the past, most recently in 2005.

Complete Earthquake list (worldwide) for June 9, 2013.

- Volcano Discovery.

PLAGUES & PESTILENCES: Mass Fish Die-Off - 500,000 Fish Destroyed Due To Disease In Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada?!

June 09, 2013 - CANADA - The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has confirmed that farmed salmon at a Gray Aqua salmon farm on Newfoundland and Labrador's (NL) south coast have tested positive for the lethal disease infectious salmon anemia (ISA).

A molecular biology technician testing for ISA virus. (Photo: Fisheries and Oceans Canada, DFO)

The Newfoundland Aquaculture Industry Association said the CFIA confirmed the test results this week after having begun the investigation of a possible case of ISA late last month. About half a million fish live in the site, The Telegram reports.

As a result, the federal agency has issued an eradication order for the company to kill all the fish at its Hermitage Bay site in order to prevent the disease from spreading beyond this farm, CBC News reports.

Cyr Couturier, the Newfoundland Aquaculture Industry Association's executive director, said the province’s south coast is the hub of NL's salmon farming, which has generated hundreds of jobs for locals and injected life back into about a dozen communities.

But the industry is also up against some new challenges.

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) recently confirmed that some salmon caught at the mouth of the Garnish River on the Burin Peninsula were farmed salmon that had escaped from an aquaculture farm and into the wild, where they were cohabiting with wild salmon populations. Opponents of salmon farms fear that type of incident could threaten wild salmon stocks.

The industry is also fighting repeated ISA outbreaks.

This outbreak is the third of its kind in Newfoundland in less than a year.

In July 2012, salmon from a Gray Aqua site in Butter Cove were killed after a case of ISA was confirmed. Clyde Collier, vice-president of Gray Aqua, said back then that the affected fish would be made into fishmeal.

And in December 2012, fish at the Cooke Aquaculture plant at Pot Harbour in Hermitage Bay also tested positive for ISA. - FIS.

WEATHER ANOMALIES: Rare Tornado Rips Through The South Of France - Shocking Residents In The French Riviera!

June 09, 2013 - FRANCE - A natural phenomenon more common for America, a tornado, has hit the South of France shocking locals and holidaymakers on the Côte d'Azur, the Mediterranean coastline.

Photo staken in Nice shows a tornado above Marina Baie des Anges on June 9, 2013.
(AFP Photo / Valery Hache)

As thousands in Central Europe are struggling to cope with devastating floods which have already claimed the lives of at least 21 people, a tornado ripped through the French Riviera on Sunday morning.

The violently rotating column of air and water formed off the coast not far from popular resort towns of Cannes and Nice.

WATCH: Tornado over France.

The phenomenon was observed from the Cagnes-sur-Mer commune in southeastern France, rising off to Villeneuve-Loubet and Antibes, reports

So far, no damage or injury has been reported.

WATCH: Another view of the tornado over France.

The incident is being widely discussed on social networking services where users – some of them freaked out others rather thrilled - share videos and photos of the “tornado.”

“OMG there was a mini tornado in my town today. In Nice!” tweeted user nicknamed Sachamallow.

“There's been a tornado in Cannes. I bet the end of the world is approaching! we're all gonna die you, will see,” noted @Amaandarine. - RT.

ANIMAL BEHAVIOR: Disaster Precursors - Residents Worry Over Invasion Of Mysterious Jelly-Like Blobs Into Bayou Little Caillou In Chauvin, Louisiana?!

June 09, 2013 - UNITED STATES - Chauvin resident Patsy Pierron and her husband Roger noticed something strange growing in the bayou behind their home Sunday afternoon.

Attached to the water lilies and sticks that lined the couple's bulkhead on Bayou Little Caillou were dozens of brownish, gelatinous blobs. Pierron, 61, said she'd never seen anything like it.

Roger Pierron retrieves a bryozoan colony out of Bayou Terrebonne Wednesday behind his home in Chauvin.
Credit: Benjamin Oliver Hicks/Staff

"They were all over my bayouside, One was as big as a basketball," she said.

Pierron said she and her husband, unable to identify the odd, gooey sacs that were multiplying in the bayou, entertained thoughts of alien cocoons and monster eggs. They worried that the blobs could be dangerous or poisonous.

"They are these hard balls with slime on them," Pierron said. "My husband said it looked like that movie, 'Cocoon.' "

One of her sons came over and urged her to get someone to identify the mysterious spheres. Pierron said she called the Terrebonne Sheriff's Office, and it directed her to the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, which was closed for the weekend.

"We were scared," she laughed. "I said to my husband, 'We got some UFOs visiting our house. Soon someone's going to come knocking on our back door.'"

On Monday, ready to find out what was in her bayou, Pierron said she brought one of the creatures, which was attached to a long stick, to the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium in Cocodrie to be identified. The trip brought answers and relief.

Though not pretty, the jelly-like blobs are actually colonies of tiny, non-threatening animals called bryozoans.

Andrew Barron, water quality expert with the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, said the creatures show up in the area somewhat regularly. Bryozoans have previously been found in other local bayous, including Bayou Black.

"They are not any danger to humans, and they're an important part of the ecosystem," Barron said.

Bryozoans are similar to coral but have more complex bodies.

Each of the bulbous masses is a house the bryozoans built. They attach these, called colonies, to whatever convenient space they can find just below the water's surface. The colonies can range from fist-size to the width of a cantaloupe or even bigger.

Sometimes clumps that break loose can be found free-floating or washed up near the shore.

Each creature has its own small water-filtering arm to collect food. There are also digestive, nervous and reproductive systems. They feed on plankton and algae. The animals secrete a compound called chitin to build a tiny compartment around themselves.

One good thing about the creatures is that they're normally indicative of good water quality, Barron said. They only bloom in still, clear water.

Pierron said LUMCON officials congratulated her for her rare find in Bayou Little Caillou. She said she wants to get the word out about the animals in case they're popping up in other parts of the bayou. Others have already reported them in other parts of Bayou Little Caillou, she said.

"It's good to know, because I was scared," she said. "I'm 61 years old, and I've never seen anything like this." - WWLTV.

HIGH STRANGENESS: Magnetic Mystery Glitter Descends Upon Indiana Neighborhood?!

June 09, 2013 - UNITED STATES - State investigators confirmed Friday the glittery substance reported in a Robertsdale neighborhood this week is different from the particle common in the steelmaking process called kish graphite.

File photo.

Investigators from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management confirmed the substance is a metallic, magnetic flake. Hammond officials initially believed the substance could be kish graphite.

IDEM spokesman Dan Goldblatt said it's unknown what exactly comprises the material, so the state can't say for sure if it's toxic or not, though there have been no reports of people becoming ill.

Additional samples of the substance were gathered Friday, and IDEM intends to release a more detailed analysis in the coming days. Goldblatt said the source of the release is unknown but is likely from industry.

The city notified IDEM earlier this week when residents near the 1500 block of Brown Avenue began reporting a black and silver glittery substance in yards and on vehicles and outdoor furniture.

Hammond forwarded the complaint to IDEM because industrial sources are under the state's control, said Ron Novak, director of the Hammond Department of Environmental Management.

In the past, Novak has seen a combination of kish graphite and metal coming from local steel mills.

"Whether or not it's metal flake, or whether or not it's graphite, I think it's coming from the same source," Novak said.

"Basically there's two major industries in that area. One is steel, and one is oil," he said. "I don't believe the oil folks are involved in this. Steel mill related would be likely the first place to go."

Novak encouraged residents to notify the Hammond department if they see the glittery substance to help pin down the source of the release. Call the department at (219) 853-6306.

From a human standpoint, the material is not a major problem because the particles are large, Novak said. However, the material can embed into a vehicle's paint and cause rust spots to form.

"It's not from the car, but this material breaking down," Novak said, "and that disturbs many individuals out there."

Novak said he hopes the complaints spur an immediate and thorough investigation by the state into the source of the particles.

"This is easily captured material," Novak said. "Usually the problem in the industry is capturing superfine particles." - NWI Times.

AGE OF OBAMA: Big Brother Now, The Rise Of The Global Police State - NSA Snoopers Suck Data "From" 50 Companies & Uses Top-Secret Tool Called "BOUNDLESS INFORMANT" To Track Global Surveillance Data!

June 09, 2013 - UNITED STATES - Analysts at the National Security Agency can now secretly access real-time user data provided by as many as 50 American companies, ranging from credit rating agencies to internet service providers, two government officials familiar with the arrangements said.

NSA Snoopers Suck Data "From" 50 Companies.

Several of the companies have provided records continuously since 2006, while others have given the agency sporadic access, these officials said. These officials disclosed the number of participating companies in order to provide context for a series of disclosures about the NSA's domestic collection policies. The officials, contacted independently, repeatedly said that "domestic collection" does not mean that the target is based in the U.S. or is a U.S. citizen; rather, it refers only to the origin of the data.

The Wall Street Journal reported today that U.S. credit card companies had also provided customer information. The officials would not disclose the names of the companies because, they said, doing so would provide U.S. enemies with a list of companies to avoid. They declined to confirm the list of participants in an internet monitoring program revealed by the Washington Post and the Guardian, but both confirmed that the program existed.

"The idea is to create a mosaic. We get a tip. We vet it. Then we mine the data for intelligence," one of the officials said.

In a statement, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that programs collect communications "pursuant to section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, " and "cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S person, or anyone within the United States."

He called the leaks "reprehensible" and said the program "is among the most important" sources of "valuable" intelligence information the government takes in.

One of the officials who spoke to me said that because data types are not standardized, the NSA needs several different collection tools, of which PRISM, disclosed today by the Guardian and the Washington Post, is one. PRISM works well because it is able to handle several different types of data streams using different basic encryption methods, the person said. It is a "front end" system, or software, that allows an NSA analyst to search through the data and pull out items of significance, which are then stored in any number of databases. PRISM works with another NSA program to encrypt and remove from the analysts' screen data that a computer or the analyst deems to be from a U.S. person who is not the subject of the investigation, the person said. A FISA order is required to continue monitoring and analyzing these datasets, although the monitoring can start before an application package is submitted to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The NSA campus in Fort Mead, Md.
Photo: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
From the different types of data, including their credit card purchases, the locations they sign in to the internet from, and even local police arrest logs, the NSA can track people it considers terrorism or espionage suspects in near-real time. An internet geo-location cell is on constant standby to help analysts determine where a subject logs in from. Most of the collection takes place on subjects outside the U.S, but a large chunk of the world's relevant communication passes through American companies with servers on American soil. So the NSA taps in locally to get at targets globally.

It is not clear how the NSA interfaces with the companies. It cannot use standard law enforcement transmission channels to do, since most use data protocols that are not compatible with that hardware. Several of the companies mentioned in the Post report deny granting access to the NSA, although it is possible that they are lying, or that the NSA's arrangements with the company are kept so tightly compartmentalized that very few people know about it. Those who do probably have security clearances and are bound by law not to reveal the arrangement.

This arrangement allows the U.S. companies to "stay out of the intelligence business," one of the officials said. That is, the government bears the responsibility for determining what's relevant, and the company can plausibly deny that it subjected any particular customer to unlawful government surveillance. Previously, Congressional authors of the FAA said that such a "get out of jail free" card was insisted by corporations after a wave of lawsuits revealed the extent of their cooperation with the government.

It is possible, but not likely, that the NSA clandestinely burrows into servers on American soil, without the knowledge of the company in question, although that would be illegal.

The 2008 FISA Amendments Act allow the NSA to analyze, with court orders, domestic communications of all types for counter-terrorism, counter-espionage, counter-narcotics and counter-proliferation purposes. If the agency believes that both ends of the communication, or the circle of those communicating, are wholly within the U.S., the FBI takes over. If one end of the conversation is outside the U.S., the NSA keeps control of the monitoring. An administration official said that such monitoring is subject to "extensive procedures," but as the Washington Post reported, however, it is often very difficult to segregate U.S. citizens and residents from incidental contact.

One official likened the NSA's collection authority to a van full of sealed boxes that are delivered to the agency. A court order, similar to the one revealed by the Guardian, permits the transfer of custody of the "boxes." But the NSA needs something else, a specific purpose or investigation, in order to open a particular box. The chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, said the standard was "a reasonable, articulatable" suspicion, but did not go into details.

Legally, the government can ask companies for some of these records under a provision of the PATRIOT Act called the "business records provision." Initially, it did so without court cognizance. Now, the FISC signs off on every request.

Armed with what amounts to a rubber stamp court order, however, the NSA can collect and store trillions of bytes of electromagnetic detritus shaken off by American citizens. In the government's eyes, the data is simply moving from one place to another. It does not become, in the government's eyes, relevant or protected in any way unless and until it is subject to analysis. Analysis requires that second order.

WATCH: Internet users targeted in massive NSA spy program.

And the government insists that the rules allowing the NSA or the FBI to analyze anything relating to U.S. persons or corporations are strict, bright-line, and are regularly scrutinized to ensure that innocents don't get caught up in the mix. The specifics, however, remain classified, as do the oversight mechanisms in place.

The wave of disclosures about the NSA programs have significantly unsettled the intelligence community.

The documents obtained by the two newspapers are marked ORCON, or originator controlled, which generally means that the agency keeps a record of every person who accesses them online and knows exactly who might have printed out or saved or accessed a copy. The NSA in particular has a good record of protecting its documents.

The scope of the least suggest to one former senior intelligence official who now works for a corporation that provides data to the NSA that several people with top-level security clearances had to be involved.

The motive, I suspect, is to punch through the brittle legal and moral foundation that modern domestic surveillance is based upon. Someone, at a very high level, or several people, may have simply found that the agency's zeal to collect information blinded it to the real-world consequences of such a large and unending program. The minimization procedures might also be well below the threshold that most Americans would expect.

Clapper said in his statement that the disclosures about the program "risk important protections for the security of Americans." - The Week.

Boundless Informant: The NSA's Secret Tool To Track Global Surveillance Data.
The color scheme ranges from green (least subjected to surveillance) through yellow and orange to red (most surveillance). Note the '2007' date in the image relates to the document from which the interactive map derives its top secret classification, not to the map itself.
The National Security Agency has developed a powerful tool for recording and analysing where its intelligence comes from, raising questions about its repeated assurances to Congress that it cannot keep track of all the surveillance it performs on American communications.

The Guardian has acquired top-secret documents about the NSA datamining tool, called Boundless Informant, that details and even maps by country the voluminous amount of information it collects from computer and telephone networks.

The focus of the internal NSA tool is on counting and categorizing the records of communications, known as metadata, rather than the content of an email or instant message.

The Boundless Informant documents show the agency collecting almost 3 billion pieces of intelligence from US computer networks over a 30-day period ending in March 2013. One document says it is designed to give NSA officials answers to questions like, "What type of coverage do we have on country X" in "near real-time by asking the SIGINT [signals intelligence] infrastructure."

An NSA factsheet about the program, acquired by the Guardian, says: "The tool allows users to select a country on a map and view the metadata volume and select details about the collections against that country."

Under the heading "Sample use cases", the factsheet also states the tool shows information including: "How many records (and what type) are collected against a particular country."

A snapshot of the Boundless Informant data, contained in a top secret NSA "global heat map" seen by the Guardian, shows that in March 2013 the agency collected 97bn pieces of intelligence from computer networks worldwide.

Iran was the country where the largest amount of intelligence was gathered, with more than 14bn reports in that period, followed by 13.5bn from Pakistan. Jordan, one of America's closest Arab allies, came third with 12.7bn, Egypt fourth with 7.6bn and India fifth with 6.3bn.

The heat map reveals how much data is being collected from around the world. Note the '2007' date in the image relates to the document from which the interactive map derives its top secret classification, not to the map itself.

The heatmap gives each nation a color code based on how extensively it is subjected to NSA surveillance. The color scheme ranges from green (least subjected to surveillance) through yellow and orange to red (most surveillance).

The disclosure of the internal Boundless Informant system comes amid a struggle between the NSA and its overseers in the Senate over whether it can track the intelligence it collects on American communications. The NSA's position is that it is not technologically feasible to do so.

At a hearing of the Senate intelligence committee In March this year, Democratic senator Ron Wyden asked James Clapper, the director of national intelligence: "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?"

"No sir," replied Clapper.

Judith Emmel, an NSA spokeswoman, told the Guardian in a response to the latest disclosures: "NSA has consistently reported – including to Congress – that we do not have the ability to determine with certainty the identity or location of all communicants within a given communication. That remains the case."

Other documents seen by the Guardian further demonstrate that the NSA does in fact break down its surveillance intercepts which could allow the agency to determine how many of them are from the US. The level of detail includes individual IP addresses.

IP address is not a perfect proxy for someone's physical location but it is rather close, said Chris Soghoian, the principal technologist with the Speech Privacy and Technology Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. "If you don't take steps to hide it, the IP address provided by your internet provider will certainly tell you what country, state and, typically, city you are in," Soghoian said.

That approximation has implications for the ongoing oversight battle between the intelligence agencies and Congress.

On Friday, in his first public response to the Guardian's disclosures this week on NSA surveillance, Barack Obama said that that congressional oversight was the American peoples' best guarantee that they were not being spied on.

"These are the folks you all vote for as your representatives in Congress and they are being fully briefed on these programs," he said. Obama also insisted that any surveillance was "very narrowly circumscribed".

Senators have expressed their frustration at the NSA's refusal to supply statistics. In a letter to NSA director General Keith Alexander in October last year, senator Wyden and his Democratic colleague on the Senate intelligence committee, Mark Udall, noted that "the intelligence community has stated repeatedly that it is not possible to provide even a rough estimate of how many American communications have been collected under the Fisa Amendments Act, and has even declined to estimate the scale of this collection."

At a congressional hearing in March last year, Alexander denied point-blank that the agency had the figures on how many Americans had their electronic communications collected or reviewed. Asked if he had the capability to get them, Alexander said: "No. No. We do not have the technical insights in the United States." He added that "nor do we do have the equipment in the United States to actually collect that kind of information".

Soon after, the NSA, through the inspector general of the overall US intelligence community, told the senators that making such a determination would jeopardize US intelligence operations – and might itself violate Americans' privacy.

"All that senator Udall and I are asking for is a ballpark estimate of how many Americans have been monitored under this law, and it is disappointing that the inspectors general cannot provide it," Wyden told Wired magazine at the time.

The documents show that the team responsible for Boundless Informant assured its bosses that the tool is on track for upgrades.

WATCH: Obama says NSA snooping prevents terrorist attacks.

The team will "accept user requests for additional functionality or enhancements," according to the FAQ acquired by the Guardian. "Users are also allowed to vote on which functionality or enhancements are most important to them (as well as add comments). The BOUNDLESSINFORMANT team will periodically review all requests and triage according to level of effort (Easy, Medium, Hard) and mission impact (High, Medium, Low)."

Emmel, the NSA spokeswoman, told the Guardian: "Current technology simply does not permit us to positively identify all of the persons or locations associated with a given communication (for example, it may be possible to say with certainty that a communication traversed a particular path within the internet. It is harder to know the ultimate source or destination, or more particularly the identity of the person represented by the TO:, FROM: or CC: field of an e-mail address or the abstraction of an IP address).

"Thus, we apply rigorous training and technological advancements to combine both our automated and manual (human) processes to characterize communications – ensuring protection of the privacy rights of the American people. This is not just our judgment, but that of the relevant inspectors general, who have also reported this."

She added: "The continued publication of these allegations about highly classified issues, and other information taken out of context, makes it impossible to conduct a reasonable discussion on the merits of these programs." - Guardian.

FIRE IN THE SKY: Major Solar System Disturbance - Asteroid 2013 LR6, The Size Of A Small Truck, Buzzes Earth Saturday; Discovered A Day Before Its Approach!

June 09, 2013 - SPACE - An asteroid the size of a small truck zoomed past Earth four times closer than the moon on Saturday, the latest in a parade of visiting celestial objects that has raised awareness of potentially hazardous impacts on the planet. 

NASA said Asteroid 2013 LR6 was discovered about a day before its closest approach to Earth, which occurred at 12:42 a.m. EDT (0442 GMT on Saturday) about 65,000 miles over the Southern Ocean, south of Tasmania, Australia. 

The 30-foot-wide (10-meter-wide) asteroid posed no threat.

A week ago, the comparatively huge 1.7-mile-wide (2.7-km-wide) asteroid QE2, complete with its own moon in tow, passed 3.6 million miles (5.8 million km) from Earth.

While on February 15, a small asteroid exploded in the atmosphere over Chelyabinsk, Russia, leaving more than 1,500 people injured by flying glass and debris.

That same day, an unrelated asteroid passed just 17,200 miles from Earth, closer than the networks of communication satellites that ring the planet.

"There is theoretically a collision possible between asteroids and planet Earth," astronomer Gianluca Masi, with the Virtual Telescope project, said during a Google+ webcast that showed live images of the approaching asteroid.

NASA says it has found about 95 percent of the large asteroids, those with diameters 0.65 miles or larger, with orbits that take them relatively close to Earth.

An object of that size hit the planet about 65 million years ago in what is now Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, triggering a global climate change that is believed to be responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs and many other forms of life on Earth.

The U.S. space agency and other research organizations, as well as private companies, are working on tracking smaller objects that fly near Earth. - NBC News.

RED DAWN: Rising Red Tide - China Encircles U.S. By Sailing Warships In American Waters, Arming Neighbors!

June 09, 2013 - CHINA - China has been quietly taking steps to encircle the United States by arming western hemisphere states, seeking closer military, economic, and diplomatic ties to U.S. neighbors, and sailing warships into U.S. maritime zones.

A Chinese paramilitary policeman stands guard on Tiananmen Square while sessions of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference are held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing Monday, March 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

The strategy is a Chinese version of what Beijing has charged is a U.S. strategy designed to encircle and “contain” China. It is also directed at countering the Obama administration’s new strategy called the pivot to Asia. The pivot calls for closer economic, diplomatic, and military ties to Asian states that are increasingly concerned about Chinese encroachment throughout that region.

“The Chinese are deftly parrying our ‘Pivot to the Pacific’ with their own elegant countermoves,” said John Tkacik, a former State Department Asia hand.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to question President Barack Obama about the U.S. pivot during the summit meeting set to begin Friday afternoon in California. Chinese state-run media have denounced the new U.S. policy as an effort to “contain” China and limit its growing power.

The Chinese strategy is highlighted by Xi’s current visit to Trinidad, Costa Rica, and Mexico where he announced major loans of hundreds of millions of dollars that analysts say is part of buying influence in the hemisphere.

U.S. officials say the visit to the region has several objectives, including seeking to bolster Chinese arms sales to the region amid efforts by Russian arms dealers to steal market share.

States including Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Mexico recently purchased Chinese arms but are said to be unhappy with the arms’ low quality. For example, Chinese YLC radar sold to Ecuador in 2009 did not work properly and sales of Chinese tanks to Peru also ran into quality problems. Both states are now looking to buy Russian weaponry, a U.S. official said.

Venezuela, a key oil-producing U.S. adversary, announced Thursday that China agreed to a $4 billion loan for oil development.

And in Mexico this week, Xi announced China is extending a $1 billion line of credit for oil development and pledged another $1 billion trade deal.

A joint Mexico-China statement said Mexico pledged not to interfere in China’s affairs on Taiwan and Tibet, a reference to the previous government of Mexican President Felipe Calderon who in 2011 invited exiled Tibetan leader the Dalia Lama, a move that angered Beijing.

U.S. officials say there are concerns that the pro-Beijing shift by the current government of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who visited China in April, will be exploited by China for such political goals, and could be used to generate support for China’s claims to Japan’s Senkaku Islands.

U.S. officials said there are growing fears that some type of military confrontation could break out between China and Japan over the disputed islands that are said to contain large underwater gas and oil reserves.

North of the U.S. border, Canada this week concluded a military cooperation agreement with China during the visit to Beijing by Canadian Defense Minister Peter G. Mackay. The agreement calls for closer cooperation between the two militaries, including bilateral military exchanges.

Chinese ambassador to Canada Zhang Junsai said China is deepening ties to Canada for infrastructure development, in Calgary last month. Chinese state-run companies have spent $30 billion for Canadian oil sands and natural gas, he said.

At a security conference in Singapore last month, the commander of U.S. military forces in the Pacific, Adm. Samuel Locklear, confirmed the earlier disclosure by a Chinese military officer that China’s military has been conducting naval incursions into the 200-mile U.S. Economic Exclusion Zone around U.S. territory.

The locations of the incursions were not given but they likely included submarine or warship visits to the western Pacific island of Guam, a key U.S. military base.

A Chinese military official initially stated at the conference that the incursions were part of a People’s Liberation Army Navy effort at “reciprocating” for frequent U.S. Navy transits through China’s 200-mile EEZs along the coasts. The zones are technically international waters and China has claimed U.S. transits are “illegal” under international law.

It is not clear why China is conducting naval operations it considers illegal for its maritime boundaries inside U.S. EEZs.

“They are, and we encourage their ability to do that,” Locklear said, without explaining why the activity was encouraged or where the Chinese vessels had transited.

Larry Wortzel, a former military intelligence official and specialist on China, said the Chinese military has sent intelligence collection ships into Guam’s economic zone and also the zone around the Hawaiian islands.

“The EEZ transits may indicate that in the future they could revise their position on the Law of the Sea and military activities,” Wortzel said.

Wortzel said he does not see China’s efforts in South and Central America as a counter to the U.S. Asia pivot.

Chinese arms sales, military exchanges, investment and developmenet has been underway for a decade, he said.

The Financial Times, which first disclosed the Chinese EEZ forays, quoted one Chinese military source as saying, “we are considering this as a practice, and we have tried it out, but we clearly don’t have the capacity to do this all the time like the U.S. does here.”

On Chinese inroads in the western hemisphere, Rick Fisher, a China military affairs analyst, said China is moving strategically on Latin America, working methodically as part of a decades-long effort to build economic and political clout there.

“It has cultivated far better military relations with the openly anti-American regimes in the region and could become a sort of political-economic godfather to ensure the survival of the Castro dictatorship system in Cuba,” said Fisher, with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.

Intelligence cooperation with Cuba is “substantial,” Fisher says, and will expand sharply in the region through the activities of its state-run telecommunications firms such as Huawei Technologies and ZTE in the region.

China currently is “promoting almost all of its non-nuclear weapons in that region,” Fisher said.

“It has promoted the Chengdu J-10 4th generation fighter in Venezuela and Argentina, and even Peru may be considering the J-10 for its future fighter program,” he said.

A State Department spokeswoman declined to comment. - Washington Times.

ANIMAL BEHAVIOR: Disaster Precursors In Florida - Mega Mosquitoes Invades In Central Florida; Gallinippers Are 20 Times The Size Of A Typical Mosquito!

June 09, 2013 - UNITED STATES - As predicted, mega mosquitoes, known as gallinippers, have arrived in Central Florida.

Entomologists predict quarter-sized gallinippers will invade Sunshine State.
© Click Orlando

Gallinippers, which are 20 times the size of a typical mosquito and pack a painful bite, have been spotted in Seminole County, according to officials.

Entomologists at the University of Florida predicted earlier this year that the mega mosquitoes, about the size of a quarter, would invade the Sunshine State in 2013, a year after being spotted in Florida following drenching rains from Tropical Storm Debbie.

Kelly Deutsch, the director of Seminole County Mosquito Control, said gallinippers, officially known as psorophora ciliate, are treated the same as any other species. Deutsch said recent rains, including the dousing from Tropical Storm Andrea earlier this week, will likely cause a spike in all mosquitoes.

Seminole County began pre-treatment spraying in area swamps several months ago.

UF entomologist Phil Kaufman said the super-sized species is "notoriously aggressive" and the best way to protect against them is to wear bug spray with DEET and cover up as best as possible.

According to Kaufman, gallinippers aren't known to carry any viruses that could be harmful to humans.

Meanwhile, in nearby Volusia County, officials have warned residents of a mosquito invasion after Andrea soaked the region. The county is spraying near storm drains and has asked homeowners to get rid of standing water in their yards to help keep the bug population under control. - Click Orlando.

PLAGUES & PESTILENCES: WHO Raises MERS Virus Death Toll To 31 - Saudi Arabia's Silence On Deadly MERS Virus Outbreak Frustrates World Health Experts!

June 09, 2013 - SAUDI ARABIA - The World Health Organisation has formally raised the global death toll from the SARS-like virus MERS to 31, after a new fatality in hard-hit Saudi Arabia.

WHO Raises MERS Virus Death Toll To 31.
The World Health Organisation has raised the global death toll from the SARS-like virus MERS to 31.

In a statement, the UN agency said that the victim was an 83-year-old man from the eastern region of Al-Ahsaa, where an outbreak began in a healthcare facility in April.

The man fell ill on May 27 and died on May 31, WHO said.

"Globally, from September 2012 to date, WHO has been informed of a total of 55 laboratory-confirmed cases of infection with MERS-CoV, including 31 deaths," it said in a statement.

Previously known as novel coronavirus, the disease was last month renamed Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, or MERS-CoV, reflecting the fact that the bulk of the cases are in that region.

There have now been 41 confirmed cases in Saudi Arabia, 26 of them fatal, according to WHO figures.

WHO records cases and deaths according to the country where the individual is thought to have caught the disease, rather than where they died, and its Saudi toll includes a person who subsequently died in Britain.

One person has died in France after catching the disease in the United Arab Emirates, just like a fatality in Germany.

There have also been two cases in Jordan, both of them fatal, as well as two in Qatar, with those patients treated in Britain and Germany

Two patients caught the disease in Britain from an individual who had been to the Middle East, one of whom died.

Tunisia has seen two non-fatal cases and Italy two - one of whom caught the virus in Jordan and gave it to a contact in Italy - while France has recorded one.

The virus is a cousin of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which sparked a global scare in 2003 after jumping to humans from animals in Asia and claiming 800 lives.

Like SARS, MERS appears to cause a lung infection, with patients suffering from a temperature, cough and breathing difficulty. But it differs in that it also causes rapid kidney failure.

Health officials have expressed concern about the high proportion of deaths relative to the number of cases, warning that MERS could spark a new global crisis if it manages to spread more easily. - News Australia.

Saudi Silence On Deadly MERS Virus Outbreak Frustrates World Health Experts.
Transmission electron micrograph of novel coronavirus. Credit: NIAID

Over the next few weeks officials at the World Health Organization (WHO) face a tough and politically charged call. The Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan, begins July 9 and could draw as many as two million people from around the globe to the holy sites of Saudi Arabia in a pilgrimage called umrah. But a new disease, called Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome, or MERS, could threaten them.

Infectious disease control at mass gatherings is always a challenge, but this year even more so. Saudi Arabia is currently waging battle with MERS, yet it has released only the barest of details that scientists or public health officials could use to try to prevent its spread within Saudi Arabia or around the globe. In early May Saudi officials startled the world by announcing 13 new cases over the course of a few days. Since the start of May there have been 38 new cases worldwide—31 of them in Saudi Arabia—and 20 of the victims have died. With virtually no clues to draw on about where the virus lives in nature and how people contract it, WHO is trying to figure out what guidance to give those pilgrims, and the countries they will return to, about how to avoid infection and the international dissemination of a devastating new illness.

MERS triggers severe pneumonia and kidney failure in some cases. It is a cousin of SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome, which broke out in mainland China in late 2002, spread from there to Hong Kong in 2003, and was then transported in the lungs of international travelers to Singapore, Hanoi, Toronto and other cities. Health officials do not want to pull out the big hammers used during the SARS outbreak, such as WHO travel advisories that urged the world’s citizens to avoid infected hubs such as Hong Kong and Toronto. On the other hand, no one wants umrah and the even larger hajj pilgrimage that will follow in October to trigger a pandemic.

The new virus was first isolated in June 2012. But its existence came to the world’s attention only weeks before last October’s hajj, when an Egyptian infectious diseases specialist who had been working in Saudi Arabia’s second largest city, Jeddah, reported that he had treated a man who died from an infection caused by a new coronavirus. Whether MERS has or can gain the capacity for sustained person-to-person spread is unknown. Kamran Khan, an infectious diseases physician who researches global flight patterns as a means of predicting disease spread, has had a worried eye on the Muslim religious calendar for some time. “We still don't have a good idea where this (virus) is coming from, so taking measures to mitigate risks are constrained,” says Khan, who works at the Saint Michael’s Hospital Keenan Research Center in Toronto.

Coronaviruses such as MERS, SARS and numerous others are named for the hallmark halo, or crown, they appear to sport in their outer shells. Many infect bats; the few that infect people cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to the severe lung devastation seen with many MERS cases, forcing patients to undergo mechanical ventilation. MERS has not yet evolved to spread as well as SARS can. And SARS, which was no wimp, killed about 11 percent of cases before it disappeared in 2004.

Last fall and in the early part of 2013 MERS infections popped up sporadically in a variety of places. Testing of samples from an April 2012 outbreak in Jordan revealed the virus had killed two nurses there. Three men in a family in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, appeared to have passed the virus to one another. Sick people from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were medivacked to the U.K. and Germany. And more recently tourists have taken the infection to the U.K., France, Tunisia and Italy.

The affected Arabian Peninsula countries have not been particularly forthcoming with information, and global health experts have yet to hit on the right strategy for persuading officials to get serious about finding the source of the infections or the scope of the illness in people. An outbreak of H7N9 bird flu virus in China at the beginning of April also distracted attention from MERS. - Scientific American.