DAILY DOSE: Maui wildfires claim more lives, growing tragedy; Russia throws hat into the crowded lunar space race.

The Maui wildfires in Hawaii have claimed 96 lives, making it the state’s worst natural disaster and marking the largest death toll from a U.S. wildfire since 1918. The blaze ravaged the historic resort town of Lahaina, with firefighters continuing to battle flare-ups and cadaver dogs searching through the charred remains for victims. Hawaii Governor Josh Green has warned that the death toll may continue to rise, as only 3% of the search area has been covered so far. The disaster has left many missing and families are frantically using social media and online databases to locate loved ones. Questions have arisen regarding the emergency response, as sirens meant to warn of natural disasters never sounded and power outages hampered other alert systems. Governor Green has vowed to investigate the response and warning systems. Survivors have sought comfort in church services, with messages of hope and resilience being emphasized. The cost to rebuild Lahaina is estimated at $5.5 billion by FEMA, with more than 2,200 structures damaged or destroyed, and over 2,100 acres burned. The disaster surpasses the previous record set by a tsunami in 1960, which killed 61 people. (Reuters)

The devastation caused by the flames in western Maui, especially in Lahaina, has raised significant concerns about the lingering health hazards of toxic byproducts from the fire. The burning of homes, cars, and other structures has created poisonous, particulate matter-filled smoke, and officials worry about the long-term effects on both the air and drinking water. About 46,000 people have left West Maui, and officials are preparing for a prolonged recovery. Residents returning home have found scenes of devastation, but in many areas, it remains too dangerous to return. Hawaii’s state toxicologist has warned that cleanup of the pollutants could take weeks or months, potentially impacting the return of the island’s tourism-driven economy. Residents have been warned not to consume running water, even after boiling, due to possible contamination. The unpredictable nature of the toxins emitted by such fires and the potential for airborne pollutants to settle in areas where the fire has been extinguished means that invisible hazards may remain, further complicating recovery efforts and posing risks to residents with sensitive health. (Associated Press)

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The closure of Hawaii’s last sugar cane plantation in Maui in 2016 marked not only the end of an era but also a shift toward the spread of highly flammable, nonnative grasses, contributing to the island’s wildfire risks. These invasive grasses now cover nearly a quarter of Hawaii’s landmass, and have been linked to the deadly wildfire that claimed at least 93 lives in Maui last week. Experts have been warning of Maui’s vulnerability, with climate change exacerbating the problem through declining rainfall, increased temperatures, and drought. Former plantation lands now overrun by these grasses pose serious risks, as seen in Lahaina, where invasive grasses contributed to the destruction. The cycle of growth and burning of these grasses, along with other nonnative trees, has intensified the fire hazard. Experts advocate for building firebreaks, using fire-resistant vegetation, and managing grasses with livestock, but controlling these invasive plants remains a complex and costly challenge. Hawaii’s unique terrain and socio-economic factors, such as housing shortages, further compound the issue. (New York Times)

A new COVID vaccine, updated to combat the Omicron variant, is set to be released next month, but experts predict it may be met with indifference despite rising hospitalizations from “Eris,” a subvariant of Omicron. While healthcare providers and pharmacies are preparing to offer the shot, demand has fallen since 2021, with fewer than 50 million people getting vaccinated in the fall of 2022. The public’s declining concern, fatigue, and skepticism about the merits of annual shots are challenges that providers will face. Major vaccine manufacturers, including Pfizer and Moderna, are adjusting expectations and financial projections, with analysts predicting lower sales compared to last year. The CDC Director has encouraged Americans to consider these vaccines as annual measures, akin to flu shots, but questions remain regarding the necessity for certain demographic groups, including children and younger adults without underlying health conditions. (Reuters)

The cost of basic food items such as cheese, butter, and bread has increased by over 30% in the last two years, severely impacting low-income households. Despite a recent slowdown, food price inflation remains high, with notable increases in products like milk (36.4%), cheese (35.2%), and bakery items (30.3%). Consumer body Which? has expressed concerns over this trend, urging supermarkets to stock cheaper products across all branches and enhance the availability of budget ranges. Debt charity StepChange and food bank network Trussell Trust have highlighted how these rising costs are forcing people into desperate choices, such as skipping meals or foregoing essential items. While Tesco announced the introduction of cheaper own-brand range items in its stores, more actions are called for to alleviate pressure on the most vulnerable consumers who are grappling with the continuous food inflation. (The Guardian)

Russia has embarked on its first lunar mission in 47 years, launching an uncrewed spacecraft, Luna 25, to the Moon’s south pole. If successful, it will be the inaugural landing in this region, possibly sparking increased multinational and commercial activities. This area of the Moon is particularly interesting due to its potential concentrations of water ice, which could be used to create drinking water, breathable air, or even rocket fuel. The mission, launched from Vostochny Cosmodrome, represents a shift from Russia’s dependence on Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome. Luna 25 is set to land on 21 August, while other planned missions from India, China, and the U.S. are also targeting the south pole. Luna 25’s main instrument, a robotic arm, will attempt to dig into the Moon’s surface to search for water ice. While some experts think finding ice in the targeted crater is unlikely, the mission will also study the interaction between the solar wind and the Moon and precisely measure the Earth-Moon distance. The success of this mission would symbolize Russia’s continued presence and ambition in space, following collaborative plans with China and potential contributions to our understanding of water in the Solar System. (Nature)

Thanks for reading. Let’s be careful out there.

WORDS: The Biology Guy.

IMAGE CREDIT: U.S. Coast Guard Hawai’i Pacific District 14.

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