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Volcanic Eruption Formed Atlantic, Caused Widespread Extinction

LOS ANGELES TIMES -- The largest sustained volcanic eruption in Earth’s history -- so powerful it split an ancient super-continent and created the Atlantic Ocean -- spewed millions of square miles of searing lava that extinguished much of life on ancient Earth, according to research made public Thursday.

From hundreds of basalt outcrops that rim the Atlantic coasts, scientists have pieced together evidence of the titanic eruption 200 million years ago. The eruption set the fractured land masses adrift and, by inexorably wedging them apart, gradually opened the gulf that created the Atlantic -- giving the map of the world the form it has today, researchers said.

In the space perhaps of just a few million years, half of all marine species died and almost as many species of reptiles and other land animals. This set the stage for the age of the dinosaurs and the evolution of the first mammals.

The new research, published Friday in Science, adds weight to a theory that mass extinctions, which have plagued Earth repeatedly since the dawn of time, were caused not primarily by collisions with comets or errant asteroids, but by the fierce internal volcanics of the planet itself.

Three mass extinctions now have been linked with such massive continental eruptions.

There are few things as certain in the geologic record of Earth as great, and so far unexplained, cataclysms that, with disturbing regularity, bring life on the planet to the brink of extinction again and again.

Few things, however, are as controversial in the science of Earth as the effort to identify the mechanisms responsible for these catastrophes.


U.S. To Oppose Plans to Destroy Smallpox Virus Stocks

THE WASHINGTON POST -- WASHINGTON

The United States has decided to oppose a plan to destroy the world’s remaining known stocks of the deadly smallpox virus, and will argue that destruction should be delayed so virus samples can be used for scientific research, the White House announced Thursday.

The Clinton administration’s decision to press for a delay represents a shift in position on one of the world’s longest-running and controversial public health debates. Three years ago the United States, along with most other countries, supported a World Health Organization (WHO) plan to destroy the virus stocks this June in hopes of finally ridding the globe of one of its greatest scourges.

The change reflects growing concern that smallpox virus samples may have been obtained by countries other than the United States and Russia, officials said. That increases the likelihood of an accidental or deliberate release of the virus, perhaps by bioterrorists, which could cause a catastrophic disease outbreak.

“I think it’s a conviction that the genie’s out of the box,” said a senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Smallpox, caused by the variola virus, was a major plague throughout most of history, until the disease was eradicated by a worldwide vaccination campaign lasting from 1966 until 1980. The last reported case occurred in 1978. In this century alone, smallpox killed an estimated 500 million people -- more than the century’s wars, the 1918 flu epidemic and the AIDS epidemic combined.

The remaining known stocks of virus are held in a high-security facility at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and at a laboratory run by the Russian government in Siberia.

Sprint May Be Vulnerable In Wake of Phone Merger LOS ANGELES TIMES -- The newly announced merger of two of Europe’s largest phone carriers has intensified speculation that long-distance company Sprint Corp. is vulnerable and could become the next takeover target in the rapidly consolidating industry.

Even before Thursday’s deal between Deutsche Telekom and Telecom Italia, Kansas City, Mo.-based Sprint was considered too small to survive against ever-larger telecommunications rivals around the world.

“It’s an ironic thing that a company as big as Sprint is considered small, but if we’re going to 5 or 7 global telecommunications players, they’re too small for that,” said Scott Cleland, an industry analyst with Legg Mason’s Precursor Group in Washington, D.C.

Sprint is already rumored to be in merger talks with Deutsche Telecom, which is partnered with Sprint in a key international venture and also holds a 10 percent stake in the U.S. carrier. Deutsche Telekom officials on Thursday declined to address a potential deal with Sprint, but they made it clear that expanding into the United States is a priority.

Milosevic Attack Kills ‘Simpsons’ THE BALTIMORE SUN

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia

It was bad enough that NATO attackers knocked out his television station and destroyed his offices. But did they have to destroy the new shows from America?

That was the lament of TV Pink program director Robert Nemecek Thursday after NATO missiles slammed into a 23-story high-rise that housed political and media offices associated with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s regime.

As he stood in front of the scorched and wrecked building, Nemecek ticked off the losses -- new episodes of “Chicago Hope” and “Friends” and 123 programs of “The Simpsons.”

“It is burnt,” the burly program director said in halting English. The pre-dawn aerial assault was a not-so-subtle NATO message that the war against Milosevic and his family is growing more personal.

The office building included the headquarters for Milosevic’s Socialist Party. It also housed three media outlets, including Radio and TV Kosava, which is owned by Milosevic’s daughter, Marija.

In all, four radio and four television stations were knocked off the air when up to three cruise missiles slammed into the building.