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Mighty oceans and humble ponds play key roles in biodiversity

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By monitoring oceans and peering into ponds, European projects seek to protect an array of animal and plant life.

By SOFIA STRODT

In January, word emerged that scientists had discovered a new colony of penguins in Antarctica using images from Europe’s flagship Copernicus satellite network. By coincidence, the same month marked the start of an initiative that will rely on the same Earth-observation system for different purposes.

The EU-funded NECCTON project is gearing up to help Europe protect endangered fish and whales. It will harness the European Copernicus Marine Service – or CMEMS – to collect more detailed data on species threatened by habitat loss, unsustainable fishing and industrial pollution.

From satellites to seabeds

‘This is going to be particularly helpful for policymakers, marine managers and fisheries,’ said Stefano Ciavatta, coordinator of the project running through 2026. ‘We want to provide better simulations and projections of the state of marine ecosystems and of their ability to support diverse fish communities.’

While earth-observation satellites including Europe’s flagship Copernicus number in the many hundreds, it’s often claimed that we know less about the ocean floor than we do about the surface of the moon.

Biodiversity protection has received fresh impetus as a result of a United Nations summit in Canada in December 2022 and a landmark UN agreement in March this year on a High Seas Treaty to protect oceans. And with 68 000 kilometres of coastline – more than the US and Russia combined –the EU is stepping up efforts to improve marine health.

CMEMS, one of six Copernicus services, provides analyses and forecasts of marine environments for all kinds of users ranging from fishing hobbyists to the navies of EU Member States. It is run by France-based Mercator Ocean International, a non-profit entity in the process of becoming an intergovernmental organisation.

The Copernicus marine service monitors all the European regional seas and the world’s oceans. Its models forecast things like sea temperatures, tides and currents, making it easier to anticipate developments such as fish migration patterns. 

NECCTON plans to provide a more complete picture of the environmental state of these waters by gathering data on fish, pollution and the seabed conditions for marine life.

‘We will develop new tools to share the modelling capabilities of the Copernicus Marine Service across the different centres in Europe, optimise scientific efforts and boost collaboration,’ said Ciavatta, an oceanographer at Mercator Ocean International. 

Clearer views

The ultimate aim is to help users of the service make better-informed decisions about the sustainable use of marine resources.

The Copernicus marine service could, for instance, deliver information on where tuna populations are located or whether marine habitats have the right conditions for dolphins.

To make sound policy decisions, scientists and authorities need projections on how changes that result from global warming, pollution and overfishing could affect the marine system as a whole. 

NECCTON plans to simulate changes in organisms within the food web using climate scenarios. This activity could, for example, enable researchers to get a clearer picture of the impact of declining fish stocks on the marine system over the coming decades. 

Pond treasures

When it comes to protecting biodiversity, it’s not just the mighty oceans that have researchers’ attention. So do humble duck ponds.

The EU-funded PONDERFUL project is examining the relationship between ponds and their surrounding environment. The initiative is focusing on the wide range of living organisms to which ponds are home.

Fish, toads, snails, dragonflies and leeches are just some of the creatures making up a vast, balanced web that, if disrupted, could result in the ecosystem’s collapse. 

‘Collectively, ponds are the richest freshwater habitats,’ said project coordinator Sandra Brucet, a biologist and researcher on aquatic ecology at the University of Vic in Spain. ‘They are more abundant than lakes, rivers and wetlands.’

Research suggests that ponds make a greater contribution to biodiversity than many larger bodies of water by supporting more plants and animals, many of which are endangered.

Nonetheless, ponds so far have been largely neglected by policymakers. For example, a major piece of EU legislation in 2000 on cleaning up water bodies excludes for the most part those smaller than 50 hectares. Also, research on ponds has long been overlooked.

‘Two decades ago, researchers mainly focused on lakes and rivers,’ said Brucet, who came up with the idea of PONDERFUL. 

Home stretch

Now things are changing as the project, which began in late 2020, enters its final two years.

With more than 80 researchers from 11 countries – Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the UK and Uruguay – the initiative is deepening knowledge about how best to manage and restore ponds in a changing climate. 

PONDERFUL is evaluating future “pondscapes” at eight demonstration sites that include a total of more than 500 ponds. Testing will help develop a guide for reducing pollution in ponds, creating new ones and helping them serve broader environmental goals such as the preservation of biodiversity. 

Runoff from agricultural fields is one of the main threats to the health of ponds. Nutrients in such runoff can cause harmful algal blooms, a lack of oxygen and dead zones as fish die off.

Key lessons

Brucet and her team have already drawn some important lessons. 

An accumulation of debris and an increase in sediment loads, which result mainly from agricultural-field erosion and are usually rich in nutrients from fertiliser runoff, can have a harmful effect on the overall state of ponds.

Sediment increases are accelerated by erosion of ponds’ edges and seasonal buildup of organic material such as dead plants and tree leaves, for instance. The nutrients in this material in turn often feed algal blooms that can produce toxins and kill fish, mammals and birds.

Dredging and removing sediments help prevent such buildup.

Separately, reshaping the edges of ponds that are artificially drained for agriculture can prevent too much water from escaping.

When efforts are made to enhance pond wildlife as a whole, the researchers found that not only do populations of endangered frogs, toads and newts increase but also flora benefits. 

‘Biodiversity of aquatic plants increases significantly after cleaning up ponds,’ Brucet said.

Healthy ponds even play a role on another important environmental front: fighting climate change. That’s because they act as “carbon sinks” that store greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide.

Brucet’s project runs through November 2024 and signals that ponds, after long being disregarded by researchers and policymakers, are finally joining oceans and seas as a focus of Europe’s green ambitions.

Research in this article was funded via the EU. The article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine. 

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Watching over water, Earth’s most precious resource

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Satellites are helping Europe protect its lakes, lagoons and rivers.

By HELEN MASSY-BERESFORD

It is early morning on the Razelm-Sinoe lagoon in Romania when a small boat sets out with instruments and probes. The researchers on board are collecting water samples and measurements to bring to the laboratory for analysis.

Located on the shores of the Black Sea, Lake Razelm is part of the most extensive wetland in Europe and of a World Heritage site: the Danube Delta.

Close up and afar

The researchers are part of an EU-funded project called CERTO tracking water quality along coasts and in places that transition between fresh and saltwater like lagoons, estuaries and large rivers. The team gets support not just from waterborne transport but also from something much more distant: a satellite network. 

‘Traditionally, people have gone out in boats and sampled,’ said Professor Steve Groom, CERTO coordinator and head of science/earth observation at Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the UK. ‘But it’s expensive and they can’t be everywhere along the coast on the same day. We’re moving towards using satellites to complement in situ monitoring.’

The Razelm-Sinoe lagoon was almost closed off from the Black Sea during the 1970s as part of a plan to create a freshwater source for agriculture.

Nowadays it only has one sea inlet. The limited water exchange with the sea, combined with mineral and nutrient run-off from nearby farms, led in the 1990s to excessive plant and algal growth and low-oxygen levels that harmed fish and wildlife in the lagoon.

The lagoon’s diversity, including varying water depths and levels of salinity, makes for a valuable study site – and the interest is not just academic. Ensuring the health of coastal waters is vital both for ecosystems and for people who make a living from activities such as fishing, farming and tourism.

The skyward help that the CERTO researchers receive is through Copernicus, the Earth observation part of the EU’s space programme. Copernicus uses satellite data to observe water quality and quantity.

‘CERTO puts the use of satellite data in the spotlight,’ said Adriana Maria Constantinescu, technical leader of a Razelm-Sinoe lagoon case study. ‘We can get good-quality data from satellite images and the work we do in situ helps improve algorithms.’

Water colours

CERTO is using on-site measurements and satellite-observation data in six places. Among them are also the world-famous lagoon in Venice, Italy and the Curonian lagoon in Lithuania.

The project, due to end this September after almost four years, is investigating ways to classify water.

‘The technical term is optical water types, but it’s really just a way of saying “this water is a bit muddy” or “this area is nice and blue,”’ said Groom.

The term categorises bodies of water based on the colour of the light they reflect.

Murky green ponds, for example, contain more organic matter such as algae than clear ponds and reflect less blue light. Murky water also indicates a surplus of nutrients that could be harmful to fish and wildlife.

In this way, using satellites to measure how much light bodies of water reflect can help determine their health without needing to go out in a boat and take samples. It also gives scientists a database to draw on when analysing waters classified as the same type.

‘The value is that you don’t necessarily have to take in situ measurements to validate your algorithms everywhere,’ said Groom. ‘We’re trying to go from lakes all the way to oceans and come up with a common set of water types for all those waters.’

User-friendly info

CERTO also wants to make it easier for scientists to use the available information on water quality and bridge existing gaps in the data.  

At present three Copernicus services, each using different approaches, provide information on water quality, making it hard for scientists to have an overview. In addition, some areas such as transitional waters aren’t covered by any service at all.

The project’s legacy will be prototype software that can be “plugged in” to existing Copernicus services as well as popular open-source software called SNAP that’s used more widely in the research community.

Constantinescu, the head of a Razelm-Sinoe study, expects the CERTO work to lead to more research at the lagoon. The filtering properties of reed beds or their role in attenuating wind waves could be some of the nature-based solutions investigated to deal with coastal erosion.

Vital groundwater 

Satellite data is also used to keep an eye on Europe’s groundwater.

The EU-funded G3P project tracked variations in vital groundwater reserves for three years through 2022.

The project used data both from Copernicus and from a joint US-Germany satellite mission known as GRACE that, since its start in 2002, has transformed scientists’ view of how water moves and is stored around the planet.

‘Groundwater is one of the major resources for humankind,’ said Professor Andreas Güntner, who coordinated G3P and works at the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam.

Groundwater accounts for almost a third of total freshwater resources worldwide. In the EU, it supplies 65% of drinking water and a quarter of water for agricultural irrigation.

Groundwater has also been declared an essential climate variable – a critical indicator of how the Earth’s climate is changing – by an international non-governmental organisation known as the Global Climate Observing System.

Copernicus doesn’t yet provide consistent, worldwide data on groundwater reserves and how they’re evolving.

Data wonders 

The G3P team built a new dataset to fill that gap.

The researchers relied on information from GRACE, which has featured twin satellites. An initial GRACE mission lasted 15 years and a follow-up one began in 2018.

The distance between the two satellites changes constantly depending on the mass distribution below them. For example, when one approaches heavy masses such as mountains, ice sheets and large groundwater reserves, it speeds up and the distance from the other satellite increases.

By tracking the gravitational push and pull on the spacecraft as they fly over different landscapes, scientists were able to map out the distribution of water on and below Earth’s surface and how it’s changing.

Knowing more about groundwater reserves, their changes and how they are affected by human activities such as farming is essential as countries seek to improve the management of water resources generally.

‘In some areas of the world, taking water from aquifers for irrigation has led to more withdrawal than replenishment – in other words unsustainable use,’ Güntner said. ‘The first global observation-based groundwater dataset is really an amazing thing.’

Still, plenty more research lies ahead to make greater use of the dataset.

‘The next step is in-depth analysis of the groundwater data we obtained to try to understand how groundwater resources have changed over the last 20 years, how those changes may be related to climate change, changing rainfall and how much is due to human interference,’ said Güntner.

Research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine. 

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With mouth-watering foods, mountain farms in Europe seek climate readiness

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Tackling threats to water supply in European highlands is crucial for producers of premium foods and drinks ranging from Spanish ham to Scotch whisky.

By HORIZON STAFF

Marian Navas is at the sharp end of a major European challenge: ensuring that small-scale farmers can cope with the impact of climate change.

For Navas, a Spanish native who makes prized Iberian ham, and other traditional agricultural producers in Europe’s mountain regions, the test boils down to water. Can they count on having enough of it as global warming triggers more frequent droughts?

High stakes

The answer to this question may determine whether mountain areas, which cover more than a third of Europe’s land surface, remain viable contributors to EU economic, social and cultural life. In the case of Navas and numerous others, family history is also on the line.

‘Pig farming is a business that has been the livelihood of many families, including my own, for decades,’ she said. ‘Any business that is undertaken comes with challenges and, for those directly linked to nature, climate change is an additional one.’

The threat to supplies of water needed by businesses in mountain zones from Spain to Scotland is a prime focus of the EU-funded MOVING project. The four-year initiative, which runs through August 2024, is assessing the vulnerabilities of highland agriculture and mapping whole supply chains for insights to inform new policies and give long-term answers.

‘After two years, it is very clear that one of the most important threats is from climate change,’ said Professor Mar Delgado, who coordinates MOVING from the University of Cordoba in Spain. ‘Higher temperatures and more droughts mean less snow and less water. People are worried.’

But people like Navas also appear determined to tackle the challenges being addressed by MOVING.

Also on the project’s radar is the production of foods including cheese such as Portugal’s Serra da Estrela, Italy’s Caciocavallo from the Alto Molise region and Switzerland’s Tête de Moine; lamb from France’s Val de Drôme area as well as the Austrian and Serbian Alps; carob powder – used in bread – from the Greek island of Crete; chestnut flour from the French isle of Corsica and northern Italy; and drinks like Alto Douro wine from Portugal and Scotch malt whisky.

Ensuring that such activities persist would respond to growing consumer calls for less intensive agriculture and would reinforce Europe’s economic, social and cultural richness.

In contrast to factory farming, this type of ancestral mountain agriculture is more respectful of nature and even embraces it. Indeed, such producers form an integral part of the European landscape.

Acorn-fed pigs

Iberian ham, or Jamón ibérico, is a prime example of the economic and environmental issues at stake. Special production features give the ham a distinctive nuttiness, sweetness and tenderness, a protected designation of origin (PDO) label and a premium price.

Spain has four protected designations of origin for Iberian ham, which comes from southern and western areas of the country. The PDO system involves regulations to guarantee the meat’s origin, production methods and particular characteristics.

MOVING covers the smallest PDO, Los Pedroches, whose ham is produced from black pigs that feed on acorns, insects and grass in pastures in the Sierra Morena mountain range of southern Spain.

The combination of diet and roaming leads to a large amount of fat in the meat. A long curing process then allows development of the qualities that make the ham a delicacy.

Yet the water requirements for growing acorns and breeding pigs are putting an increasing strain on the sector, particularly traditional producers, according to Juan Luis Ortiz, secretary general of the Los Pedroches PDO.

‘Water is now one of the great limitations of our pastures, specifically for the production of acorns,’ said Ortiz. ‘Besides, pigs drink about 10 litres of water a day. The main challenge is the collection of water and its storage and, secondly, the optimisation of its use to eliminate losses.’

Some pig farmers in Spain are placing canopies over ponds from which the animals drink to prevent evaporation – an increasingly widespread technique in European hillside agriculture, according to Delgado.

‘Small ponds covered with plastics to avoid water loss are also becoming common in other places,’ she said.

Winemaker’s soil strategy

For Luca Pedron, agronomy head at sparkling wine producer Ferrari in Italy’s northern region of Trento, water scarcity has been a growing concern since a dry summer in 2003 hampered grape production.

The alert, he said, was reinforced in 2022 when a very dry year along with unusually high temperatures hurt the quantity and quality of grapes. 

‘What we harvested was low in sugar content and poor in terms of acidity – exactly what we need to avoid to obtain a good quality wine,’ Pedron said. ‘What worries us nowadays is the reduced rainfall and snowfall with, at the same time, long periods of high temperatures.’

He said one response from wine producers is to increase the organic matter in soil so it becomes more fertile and, as a result, can store more water.

Covering the soil, deepening root penetration and using lighter machinery wherever possible are part of the overall answer, according to Pedron.

‘It is a strategy composed of several actions, all aiming at better soil fertility and more developed root systems,’ he said.

Mountain chains

MOVING has evaluated the production systems and vulnerabilities in each of the 23 regions covered by the project. With 15 months still to run, it plans to deliver a roadmap of policies needed to improve the resilience and sustainability of European mountain areas.

To stick to the example of Iberian ham, this exercise will mean assessing the steps starting with pig breeding and continuing through processing, marketing, distribution and consumption in, say, a specialised delicatessen in Berlin, Paris or New York.

‘We need consumers ready to pay the high value of this product so the caring of the pastures, the pigs and the mountain areas can be made sustainable,’ Delgado said. ‘If you want these territories to be alive, you need people working there.’

Spain has around 4 000 farms that raise Iberian pigs, which number fewer than 400 000 – a fraction of the country’s total pig population of around 34 million. The Iberian-ham business is oriented to markets abroad.

Exports last year were worth more than €500 million, according to Spanish trade agency ICEX. Around three-quarters of these shipments were to other European countries including France, Germany, Italy and Portugal, while top overseas consumers included the US, Mexico and China.

Producer pride

Mountain regions provide plenty of public goods including water, clean air and scenery that could justify government aid for highland farming, according to Delgado.

Nonetheless, she says the other underlying strength of these areas is the local and skilled workforce committed to protecting the land and keen to show that this type of agriculture can increasingly influence consumer demand.

‘They want to have a job, an income and a livelihood,’ said Delgado.

Navas is proof of the point, expressing a determination to thrive in small-scale pig farming with the help of various possible practical improvements. These include water collection and storage systems to take advantage of rainfall throughout the year and training of farm workers to ensure proper pruning of groves and soil conditions for trees.

She said that, apart from the ultimate results that will emerge, MOVING has already been beneficial by bringing together a variety of professionals from across Europe who have enriched her thinking about the way ahead.

‘This project is having a very positive impact on my perspective of the future in this sector,’ Navas said.

Research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine. 

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Drought in Europe and water conflicts on the rise

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Europe’s Drought-Riven Future Is Here, Decades Earlier Than Expected. Fights over scarce water resources in southern Spain are likely to play out elsewhere in the region as extremely hot and dry weather strikes more often, informs Bloomberg.

A network of ditches dug in the Middle Ages has allowed farmers in the hillside hamlet of Letur in southern Spain to grow olive trees, tomatoes and onions in one of Europe’s most arid regions for centuries. Now the punishing drought that’s spreading across the continent is threatening even this ancient oasis.

The intricate system has kept the village’s land moist and cool through wars, foreign invasions and natural disasters. But the 200 farmers that rely on it are starting to worry for the first time as water levels at many of Spain’s giant dams sink to unprecedented lows and canals built in the 1970s that turned the surrounding region into an agricultural powerhouse start to run dry.

If the drought goes on much longer, Luis López, a 43-year-old olive farmer, fears that industrial farms nearby that use the modern irrigation system to grow water-intensive crops such as lettuce and watermelon might start tapping into Letur’s well-preserved supply.

The water battle brewing in Letur is a harbinger of conflicts that will play out elsewhere, and whatever happens to Spain’s farming industry — a major source of groceries for its neighbors — will be felt throughout the region.

“Spain is Europe’s breadbasket and the lack of water there, the lack of agricultural production, is a matter of survival,” said Nathalie Hilmi, an environmental economist at Centre Scientifique de Monaco. “It becomes a financial problem too, because more money needs to be spent finding food.”

Multi-year droughts can be devastating because sectors such as agriculture don’t have time to recover, so impacts pile up season after season, growing exponentially. Spanish olive oil production — which accounts for 45% of the world’s supply — will likely be more than halved this season, while grains such as wheat and barley are projected to fall by as much as 60%, according to Gabriel Trenzado, director of Cooperativas Agro-alimentarias de España, a farming industry group.

Farmers across the region don’t just have to contend with drought but also less predictable weather overall. Last year, Spain experienced a heat wave similar to the one that baked the country this April, until Storm Cyril brought an unusual drop in temperatures, leading to multimillion euro losses for fruit and nut producers. “The fact that there’s drought doesn’t mean it’s not raining, it means rains sometimes come unexpectedly,” Trenzado said. “Everything is very sensitive.”

Europe’s preparations for a drier future are struggling to keep pace with the rapidly changing climate. The continent has warmed nearly twice as fast as the rest of the world over the last three decades, according to the World Meteorological Organization, and the economic impact has been significant.

Record-low river levels have caused billions in losses from snarled freight passage. It’s also hurt electricity generation from hydropower and nuclear plants, adding to an energy shortage due to the fact that Europe imposed sanctions on Russian gas and contributing to the worst cost-of-living crisis Europe has faced in generations. Drought-driven crop failures could send food prices higher still.

The diminished trickle into Europe’s lakes and seas also compounds environmental risks by raising water temperatures and harming ecosystems, according to the Copernicus Climate Change Service. And then there’s the higher probability of wildfire, which torched European landscapes three times the size of Luxembourg last year.

It’s the second year in a row of extremely dry and hot conditions for Europe’s southwest, driven by a pre-summer heat wave that’s started three months earlier than usual. Spain just experienced its warmest and driest April on record. Elsewhere, the snow that’s accumulated in the Alps, a key source of water for France and Italy, is the lowest in over a decade, exacerbating years of below-average rains and snowfall.

Further north, Germany and the UK have experienced rain anomalies as severe as Spain’s.

The changes in weather match scientific projections for less precipitation and higher temperatures in Europe on a warmer planet, said Andrea Toreti, a senior researcher at the European Commission’s Joint Research Center, an independent scientific body that advises the bloc’s officials. But this level of drought was only expected to occur regularly in 2043.

In Italy, where a lack of water is choking the country’s most productive agricultural region, the crisis has become a government priority managed by a special unit led by Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini. France, which this year suffered its longest winter rainless spell on record, has set a new target to cut water consumption 10% by the end of this decade.

“Last year’s drought was exceptional in comparison with what we had experienced, but it won’t be exceptional in comparison with what we will experience,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a speech in March. “No one is saying this situation will improve.”

The Spanish government has scrambled to find solutions. Despite spending billions to improve its water-management system, Spain’s reservoirs are still at about half their capacity. In an emergency cabinet meeting officials greenlit a €2.2 billion package that includes tax breaks and aid for farmers, adding to measures already announced that will cost €22 billion.

Most controversially, the government will limit the amount of water used to irrigate crops. The move has angered farmers and emboldened conservative politicians ahead of local elections later this month that are seen as a bellwether for Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s prospects as he seeks re-election in December.

Sánchez has acknowledged that there’s no easy answer. “The debate around drought will be at the heart of the political and territorial debate in our country for years to come,” he told lawmakers in April.

Competition for water access in Spain is already pitting various groups against each other: large agribusiness and small farmers, environmental activists and corporate lobbyists, local politicians and the central government.

In Pulpí, a town in Almería, big farms have had to reduce cultivated areas, buy water from other towns and rent land further north with enough water access to maintain production. Two years ago the Negratín dam, which supplies most of Pulpí’s water, had to stop pumping as water levels plummeted.

Food growers in Pulpí have reacted angrily to the Spanish government’s plan to limit water taken from the Tajo-Segura transfer. “Without water Almería will go back decades,” said José Caparrós, an executive at a large farm who belongs to a group that manages the town’s irrigation system. “We need options to have access to water and feed the country.”

Rather than changing their practices and adapting to drier conditions in recent years, many farmers have drilled illegal boreholes to tap groundwater instead. Greenpeace estimates there are over 1 million unsanctioned wells across Spain, used mainly to irrigate crops. Sánchez is working to prevent more from popping up, but he fears the situation will only get worse as less water becomes available.

“We are swimming against the current,” he said. “The drought will only intensify this battle for water.”

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