Tuesday News: Ghost Forests

SALTWATER INTRUSION FROM RISING SEA LEVELS IS DESTROYING COASTAL HABITATS: The cascading consequences of saltwater intrusion were starkly revealed in interviews with more than 100 researchers, planners and coastal residents, along with soil testing, drone footage and analyses of well-sample data conducted by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism. “Ghost forests” of dead and dying trees are spreading along coastlines from New Jersey to the Gulf of Mexico as saltwater pummels from above and seeps in from beneath. In North Carolina along the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula, roughly 15% of a 65-square-mile area has changed recently from healthy forest into ghost forest, according to newly published research by Lindsey Smart, a research associate at North Carolina State’s Center for Geospatial Analytics.

FEDERAL GRANT FUNDING RURAL BROADBAND IN NC SET TO EXPIRE DEC 30: North Carolina has $30 million of federal money to spend on expanding broadband internet to the state’s rural areas, but there’s a chance it might not be spent. The General Assembly included rural broadband expansion grants in a COVID-19 relief package that spent federal CARES Act money. The grants supplement the Growing Rural Economies through Access to Technology (GREAT) grant program and was part of a nearly $1 billion relief bill the legislature passed in September and Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law. Cooper said his administration wants to fund the GREAT grants program, but U.S. Treasury Department regulations on how to invest CARES Act money is “continuing to evolve and change.” “This money was halted for the time being because the interpretation was it violated Treasury [regulations],” Cooper said. “We’re working closely with legislators, members of Congress, the U.S. Treasury — we want to get funding to rural broadband areas and I’m going to keep fighting for that, it’s absolutely critical.”

LOW INCOME FAMILIES HAVE UNTIL DEC 7 TO APPLY FOR $335 RELIEF MONEY: "Only about 15,000 eligible low-income families learned about this program and applied to receive one of these $335 checks from the state," Doerr said Monday. "The rest – what we estimate to be tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of low-income families – were set to receive nothing, even though those are the families most in need of this kind of help." Doerr and other attorneys for the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy went to court to ask that the state reopen the program, and the judge agreed. The website, www.335forNC.com, is now accepting applications for the program, but the deadline is a tight one. Eligible parents who have not already applied need to submit their application by 2 p.m. Dec. 7. "Higher-income folks have already gotten checks for $335 dollars, but when it comes to a family needing to buy a laptop for their kids to attend remote school or pay the internet bill, these are the folks who really, really need it," Doerr said. "We can help them, but only if they learn about the program," he added. "This is all federal coronavirus relief money, and we really hope it gets out to the people in need."

TRUMP'S GSA HEAD RELENTS ON TRANSITION FUNDING, TACITLY ADMITTING BIDEN VICTORY: After 16 days teetering between her duty to President Trump and the methodically unfolding reality that Joe Biden won the election, Emily Murphy declared the Democrat the apparent victor Monday in an unusually personal letter to him. Day after day, as her boss tried to subvert the election results with fraud claims and legal challenges, the embattled head of the General Services Administration held off on making what is usually a routine call after a presidential election. The administrator declares the apparent winner, and transition resources flow. This would be different. Murphy, a by-the-book expert in federal procurement policy, consulted with her senior staff and her attorneys. The transition law dating to 1963 that was supposed to guide her in determining when a candidate has won had little to offer in the current case, with a president refusing to concede and a Republican Party standing by him. In recent days, more and more Republicans have urged Trump publicly to accept his loss. And as Michigan certified its votes Monday following the president’s legal defeat in Pennsylvania, her decision became clear, friends said. She would close one chapter in the election’s messy aftermath with a two-page letter to the next president. While Trump did not concede in response to Murphy’s action and vowed to continue fighting the results, her action was a concrete acknowledgment by the administration that the ground had shifted in Biden’s favor.

CORONAVIRUS EVOLVED A MUTATION EARLY, MAKING SPREAD AMONG HUMANS EASIER: The mutation, known as 614G, was first spotted in eastern China in January and then spread quickly throughout Europe and New York City. Within months, the variant took over much of the world, displacing other variants. For months, scientists have been fiercely debating why. Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory argued in May that the variant had probably evolved the ability to infect people more efficiently. Many were skeptical, arguing that the variant may have been simply lucky, appearing more often by chance in large epidemics, like Northern Italy’s, that seeded outbreaks elsewhere. There is no evidence that a coronavirus with the 614G mutation causes more severe symptoms, kills more people or complicates the development of vaccines. Nor do the findings change the reality that places that quickly and aggressively enacted lockdowns and encouraged measures like social distancing and masks have fared far better than the those that did not. But the subtle change in the virus’ genome appears to have had a big ripple effect, said David Engelthaler, a geneticist at the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Arizona. “When all is said and done, it could be that this mutation is what made the pandemic,” he said. The first outbreaks of the virus would have spread around the world even without the mutation, believe most researchers, including Dr. Engelthaler. The original variant spotted in Wuhan, China, in late 2019 was already highly contagious, he said. But the mutation appears to have made the pandemic spread further and faster than it would have without it.