Start your day here: Coral reef report; DOJ steps in on school threats; and more

Published October 5, 2021 at 7:46 AM EDT
A parent and child hold hands walking past a table with face masks headed into Schoolcraft Elementary in Schoolcraft, Mich., on Aug. 30.
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School board members and other school workers have faced increasing threats and intimidation over COVID-19 protocols in schools. Now the Justice Department wants to work with local officials to help address the issue.

Good morning,

Here are some of the top stories we're following today:

Coral reef report: The world's reefs are struggling because of climate change and rising sea temperatures, according to the largest global analysis of coral reef health ever undertaken. Read the key findings here.

Threats to school workers: The Justice Department is directing federal authorities to meet with local law enforcement to address the current spike in threats and acts of violence against school board members, teachers and other school employees.

Talladega win: Bubba Wallace won his first NASCAR Cup Series at Talladega Superspeedway, becoming only the second Black man in the history of the sport to win a series.

🎧 Also on Up First, our daily podcast, the massive leak of financial documents known as the "Pandora Papers" shows South Dakota is being used as a tax haven.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

(Dana Farrington, Rachel Treisman, Nell Clark and Chris Hopkins)

May the fattest bear win

Hide your salmon and ready your vote because it's Fat Bear Tuesday

Posted October 5, 2021 at 11:30 AM EDT

Today's the day. Unofficial internet holiday and celebration of all things ursine and corpulent: Fat Bear Tuesday has arrived once again.

For one week each year, Americans can use their Katmai National Park-given right to vote on which of the Alaska park's brown bears is crowned the year's fattest bear.

The annual event compares wild bears against one another in a March-Madness style bracket to see who has stocked up the most weight for the approaching winter.

The public decides who can advance to the final round. Last year, the week-long event garnered 640,000 votes before it crowned a winner, called "747".

This year's competition is down to two last bears: 480 versus 151. (Per park policy, the bears get numbers but not names.)

Explore.org calls the two finalists "quintessential examples of success and the supreme adaptations that bears possess to survive."

The winning bear earns not only the metaphorical hearts of many Americans, but also something possibly more valuable to a bear: the fat supply it'll need when it hibernates.

It's not all about looking at chubby bears. Fat Bear Week spotlights the resilience, adaptability and strength of the area's brown bears, the park's Amber Kraft told NPR.

"Fat bears exemplify the richness of this area, a wild region that is home to more brown bears than people and the largest, healthiest runs of sockeye salmon left on the planet," Katmai National Park and Preserve notes.

Plus, the bears are smart about putting on all the healthy weight. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, bears practice what's called "high grading," which is when they choose to eat the most calorie-dense parts of the fish — such as the brain, skin and roe — to store up more weight for the winter.

You can see the bears' comparison photos and read their bios here, and cast your vote here.Voting closes at 5pm AKDT.

Washington

A man is in custody after police close in on a suspicious vehicle in front of the U.S. Supreme Court

Posted October 5, 2021 at 11:19 AM EDT
The U.S. Supreme Court stands behind a fence bearing a sign that says "Property Of United States."
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The U.S. Supreme Court, pictured on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

Capitol Police have taken a man into custody after investigating a "suspicious vehicle" in front of the Supreme Court. Law enforcement had closed nearby roads and asked members of the public to avoid the area.

About an hour into the investigation, around 11 a.m. ET, authorities tweeted, "We are still trying to talk to the driver."

Minutes later, they said one of their teams had moved in and "extracted the man from the SUV."

"The man is in custody," they added. "Everyone is safe."

Police will hold a news conference at 11:45 a.m. ET.

The Supreme Court started its new term on Monday, resuming in-person oral arguments for the first time in well over a year.

Climate

A massive new report shows just how much climate change is killing the world's coral reefs

Posted October 5, 2021 at 10:56 AM EDT
An aerial view shows bright blue water and brown reefs, surrounded by a sandy coast and green trees.
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Aerial view of a coral reef area at Playa Blanca, in Portobelo, Colon province, Panama, on April 16.

Rising ocean temperatures killed about 14% of the world's coral reefs in just under a decade, according to a new analysis from the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network.

Put another way: The amount of coral lost between 2008 and 2019 is equivalent to more than all of the living coral in Australia.

The report — the first of its kind since 2008 — found that warming caused by climate change, overfishing, coastal development and declining water quality has placed coral reefs around the world under "relentless stress."

But it also found signs of hope, noting that many of these reefs are resilient and may be able to recover if immediate action is taken to stabilize emissions and fight future warming.

"People around the world depend on healthy coral reefs and the services they provide for food, income, recreation, and protection from storms,” said Jennifer Koss, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Conservation Program. “It is possible to turn the tide on the losses we are seeing, but doing so relies on us as a global community making more environmentally conscious decisions in our everyday lives.”

NOAA calls this the largest global analysis of coral reef health ever undertaken: "The analysis used data from nearly two million observations from more than 12,000 collection sites in 73 countries over a time span of 40 years (1978 to 2019), representing the work over over 300 scientists."

The study covers 10 coral reef-bearing regions around the world, and identifies "coral bleaching events caused by elevated sea surface temperatures" as the biggest driver of coral loss. Researchers looked at levels of both algae and live hard coral cover, a scientifically based indicator of reef health.

They also observed some recovery in 2019, with coral reefs regaining 2% of their coral cover.

"This indicates that coral reefs are still resilient and if pressures on these critical ecosystems ease, then they have the capacity to recover, potentially within a decade, to the healthy, flourishing reefs that were prevalent pre-1998," reads a GCRMN release.

On the flip side, continued warming could take an even greater toll.

Sharp declines in coral cover corresponded with increases in sea surface temperature, which experts say shows coral's vulnerability to spikes — a phenomenon they say is likely to happen more frequently as the planet continues to warm.

Read more from NPR's climate team about why coral reefs are so crucial, and exactly how much of a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is needed to preserve them.

Photos

This is what the oil spill in Southern California looks like

Posted October 5, 2021 at 9:45 AM EDT

Emergency crews are trying to clean up the coastline and environmental experts are warning of long-term damage, after more than 120,000 gallons of crude oil reached the Southern California coast this weekend.

The cause of the massive Pacific Ocean oil spill remains under investigation, though at least one local official has said it came from the oil rig Platform Elly, which Beta operates about 8.6 miles from land.

As NPR’s Joe Hernandez reports,the long term impacts to the environment — particularly on birds and marine life — could be significant even if the creatures didn’t physically come in contact with oil.

Here are some images of what the coast looks like and how clean-up crews are responding.

LAist.com, part of Southern California Public Radio, has this comprehensive guide to the oil spill and its impact, too.

Halloween 👻

What’s the deal with all the pop-up Spirit Halloween stores?

Posted October 5, 2021 at 9:30 AM EDT
A small child gazes up at a display of plastic skeletons inside a store selling Halloween items. Behind the child is a display selling makeup.
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Six-year-old Olivia Vlaicu, of Maywood, N.J., looks up at a display of skeleton decorations at a Spirit Halloween store, in Paramus, N.J. on Sept. 2, 2015. The stores offer seasonal Halloween supplies for a limited time during the season.

Spooky season has arrived, which means a few things: cooler weather, seasonal lattes and Spirit Halloween — the seasonal retailer that specializes in Halloween costumes and decorations.

Every fall, around 1,400 locations pop up in the United States and Canada. The retail chain is so ubiquitous, it’s even become a meme:

🎧 Morning Edition looked into how theretailer operates.

Rachel Quednau is the program director for Strong Towns, an urban planning think tank focused on incremental development. She writes that Spirit Halloween’s business model is based on utilizing otherwise unusable retail space.

“Today’s Spirit is pretty much a bottom-feeder business that works only at the expense of other stores," Quednau writes. "If there weren’t vacant storefronts, this business wouldn’t exist."

When massive retail stores go out of business, it’s not easy to find tenants to replace them.

The result: Those old Kmart and Toys R Us buildings can sit empty for a long time. This works in favor of Spirit Halloween, which looks for sites with anywhere from 5,000 to 50,000 square feet of space.

The company signs short term leases, sells its Halloween gear and crawls back into its coffin for next year.

Sports

Bubba Wallace just became the second Black driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series race

Posted October 5, 2021 at 9:20 AM EDT
A Black man wearing a red and yellow McDonald's racing outfit smiles with one hand raised in the air, spraying a drink can and surrounded by the hands of other people doing the same.
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Bubba Wallace celebrates in the Ruoff Mortgage victory lane after winning the rain-shortened NASCAR Cup Series YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on Monday in Talladega, Ala.

Bubba Wallace is officially the second Black driver to win at NASCAR's top level, after he was declared the victor of a rain-shortened playoff race at Alabama's Talladega Superspeedway on Monday.

The deciding moment came on lap 118 out of what was supposed to be 188. Wallace took the lead just before an accident behind him caused a multi-car crash, and a second spurt of rain put the race on pause.

NASCAR officials tried to dry the track for some 45 minutes, but because of the incessant rain and Wallace's clear lead, they ultimately called the race and declared him the winner. Here's the moment he learned of his first career Cup win:

It was a milestone both historic and personal. Wallace is the first Black driver to win a premier series race since Wendell Scott in 1963 (Scott's descendants celebrated on a phone call with Wallace and on social media).

The win also follows a period of controversy for Wallace, who had pushed NASCAR last year to ban the Confederate flag at its events (it did so several days later in June 2020, and you can learn more about the historical context here).

He spoke to NPR about that campaign, his experience in the mostly white sport and his hopes for a more diverse NASCAR. Read here.

It was on this very same track where he won on Monday that a member of Wallace's team reported finding a noose hanging in his garage last summer. The FBI later concluded that the rope had been there since the previous year, saying Wallace was not the target of a hate crime.

Wallace has faced incessant online harassment, including from then-President Donald Trump, and the Associated Press reports that he has called the incident a low point in his life.

He got through it with the support of his family and professionals who have helped him stay focused, he told a reporter after Monday's win.

"[I] appreciate everybody that's been in my camp to help me stay focused on the things that matter and eliminate the B.S. that I have to deal with on a daily basis, because it's the moments like this where I can go back and thank them and appreciate them, because we're here, we're a winner, got some credibility to my name now," Wallace said.

For more on the race and the significance of Wallace's win, read this or listen here.

Space

Lights, camera, blastoff: A Russian actress arrives in space to film a movie

Posted October 5, 2021 at 8:44 AM EDT

The set for actress Yulia Peresild's next movie has limited gravity and is constantly traveling at a speed of 5 miles per second, but it does come with some incredible views.

The Russian actress reached the International Space Station this morning eastern time, along with fellow crew members of the Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft, veteran Roscosmos cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov and film producer Klim Shipenko.

The crew is traveling to the ISS in order to film portions of a movie, called The Challenge. According to the New York Times, the film will be the first feature-length fiction movie shot in space. The movie will reportedly tell the story of a Russian doctor who rushes to save the life of a cosmonaut aboard the International Space Station.

The crew safely reached orbit after launching at 4:55 a.m. EDT from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. They completed a two-orbit, three-hour flight to reach the International Space Station, NASA reports.

You can watch the spacecraft dock to the station’s Rassvet module through NASA TV coverage on the agency’s website, or below.

Hatches between the Soyuz spaceship and the station will open around two hours after the ship docks, allowing the Soyuz crew to join the others already staying at the ISS. NASA will have live coverage available.

Peresild and Shipenko will stay on the space station for 12 days before returning to Earth, with Shkaplerov planned to stay through next March.

The film crew may not have trouble finding space to film aboard the station — at 356 feet, it's roughly the size of a football field.

According to NASA, the ISS has six sleeping quarters, two bathrooms, a gym, and a 360-degree view window.

Commercial space travel is booming; the first all-civilian crew successfully reached orbit earlier this year.

Peresild isn't the only actor to visit space this month. William Shatner will join the crewof Blue Origin's New Shepard for a spaceflight on Oct.12. Shatner played the role of Captain James T. Kirk in Star Trek and at 90, he'll become the oldest person to have flown in space, according to Blue Origin.

Hollywood may soon reach low-Earth orbit as well: Last year, then-NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine confirmed the agency is looking to work with Tom Cruise on a future movie filmed in space.


With commercial spaceflight quickly advancing, we're just wondering: Does the International Space Station have any desks aboard, and if so, are the desks tiny?👀

Coronavirus

Dr. Francis Collins is stepping down as the director of the National Institutes of Health

Posted October 5, 2021 at 8:18 AM EDT
A man with gray hair and glasses sits behind a microphone, holding pieces of paper in one hand and a round blue model with orange spikes in the other.
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Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, holds up a model of COVID-19 during a US Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on July 2, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Dr. Francis Collins has announced he will leave his post as the head of the National Institutes of Health by the end of this year.

“It has been an incredible privilege to lead this great agency for more than a decade,” he said in a statement. “I love this agency and its people so deeply that the decision to step down was a difficult one, done in close counsel with my wife, Diane Baker, and my family. I am proud of all we’ve accomplished.

"I fundamentally believe, however, that no single person should serve in the position too long, and that it’s time to bring in a new scientist to lead the NIH into the future. I’m most grateful and proud of the NIH staff and the scientific community, whose extraordinary commitment to lifesaving research delivers hope to the American people and the world every day.”

The physician-geneticist has served three U.S. presidents during his 12-year tenure, most recently helming the agency during the coronavirus pandemic.

Collins' accomplishments in the role go far beyond COVID-19 research and communications, according to an NIH statement. Among them: garnering broad Congressional support for NIH research and growing the agency's budget by 38% over more than a decade; working with different administrations to launch the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, the Cancer Moonshot Initiative and the HEAL (Helping to End Addiction Long-term) Initiative; bolstering policies to address sexual harassment and structural racism and spreading the word about NIH research findings — including through music.

Collins will continue to lead his research laboratory at the National Human Genome Research Institute, which focuses on understanding the causes and means of prevention for Type 2 diabetes.

Politics

The Justice Department will address violent threats against school officials and staff

Posted October 5, 2021 at 8:05 AM EDT
A table with a box of disposable face masks, clipboards and a bottle of hand sanitizer sits in the hallway of a school, where an open door off to the side reveals a group of people sitting in the gymnasium.
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People attend a special Board of Education Meeting on mask mandates for students and staff in Kalamazoo County Schools at the Schoolcraft High School Gymnasium on Aug. 23 in Schoolcraft, Mich.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has directed federal authorities to meet with local law enforcement over the next month to discuss strategies for addressing the increase in "harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against school board members, teachers and workers" in public schools across the country.

The one-page memorandum directs the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Offices to meet with federal, state, Tribal, territorial and local law enforcement leaders over the next 30 days in the hopes of opening up channels of communication for threat reporting, assessment and response.

"While spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution, that protection does not extend to threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views," Garland wrote, characterizing threats against public servants as both illegal and "counter to our nation's core values."

The directive comes amidst a surge in confrontations at local school board meetings over topics like masking, vaccine requirements and how race is taught in schools, and a request for federal help.

In a six-page letter to President Biden last week, the National School Boards Association detailed instances of threats and acts of violence (mostly related to mask mandates) at school board meetings in states including California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Texas and Virginia.

It says such conduct — whether at local meetings or threats sent through mail and social media — endangers students and educators and disrupts school district operations, and notes the growing threat of "extremist hate organizations showing up at school board meetings." As NPR's Anya Kamenetz has reported, these protests are increasingly being coordinated by national groups like Let Them Breathe.

"As these acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials have increased, the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes," the school boards association wrote, asking for federal help investigating and preventing them.

Garland's memorandum also says that the Justice Department will announce more efforts aimed at addressing the rise in "criminal conduct directed toward school personnel" in the days ahead. Those are expected to include:

  • The establishment of a task force to determine how federal enforcement tools can be used to prosecute crimes, and ways to assist local law enforcement in situations where threats of violence may not constitute federal crimes
  • The creation of Justice Department training and guidance for local school boards and school administrators that focuses on identifying behavior that constitutes threat, reporting such conduct to law enforcement and how to capture and preserve evidence for subsequent investigation and prosecution

"The Department takes these incidents seriously and is committed to using its authority and resources to discourage these threats, identify them when they occur, and prosecute them when appropriate," he said.
Read more about the growing politicization of school boards and its impact on members, many of whom are volunteers.

Facebook

What to know before the Facebook whistleblower's Senate testimony this morning

Posted October 5, 2021 at 7:37 AM EDT

Facebook's eventful week continues.

On Sunday night, whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed her identity and a slew of accusations against the company in a 60 Minutes interview. Yesterday, Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp were down for several hours in a major global outage.

This morning, Haugen will testify before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation's subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security.

The former Facebook data scientist — who leaked internal documents to The Wall Street Journal and the U.S. Senate revealing the harmful impact of Instagram on young users and the extent of criminal activity on both platforms — is expected to allege that the company deceived the public and its investors about its ability to deal with hate speech and misinformation on the platform.

Lawmakers want accountability

The subcommittee's chair, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called Haugen brave and courageous in an interview with Morning Edition today.

"The research shows that Facebook not only made money from causing harm to children, it continued to do it after it learned of the harm," Blumenthal said. "And it put its profit ahead of the pain it caused to people whose self-image, negative feelings about themselves, even suicidal tendencies were the result of [accounts on the platform]."

Facebook's defense

For its part, Facebook released a lengthy statement after Haugen's 60 Minutes interview, pointing to its investment in monitoring for harmful content; disputing the way its research on teenagers' mental health has been reported and rejected the claim that the social network has furthered political polarization.

"The documents that were taken by this employee and the way that they're being portrayed, it just is not an accurate representation of the work that this company does every day to ensure safety on our sites," Facebook's Vice President of Content Policy Monika Bickert told Morning Edition.

Neil Potts, Facebook vice president for trust and security, spoke to NPR's All Things Considered yesterday about the leaked internal documents and whistleblower allegations. When asked by Ari Shapiro whether he agreed that "polarization leads to engagement, which translates to money for Facebook," Potts denied the accusation and called it "a bit unfounded."

Stay tuned

Listen to the full conversationwithPotts, followed by a fact-check from NPR business correspondent Shannon Bond. Plus, read more from Bond about Haugen's upcoming testimony. And catch up on all things whistleblower with yesterday's dedicated Morning Edition live blog.

The full title of the hearing is “Protecting Kids Online: Testimony from a Facebook Whistleblower.” You can watch it online here starting at 10 a.m. ET, and follow along with NPR's digital and on-air coverage.


Editor's note: Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters