BBC 2024-02-23 10:31:39


Spain fire: Many missing as deadly fire devastates Valencia apartment blocks

Paul Kirby

Europe digital editor

Temperatures inside the apartment blocks are far too high for firefighters to enter, even though most of the fire is out.

For the moment they are busy dousing the blackened remains of the building to cool it down, but flames have been seen reigniting at the rear so it could take some time.

Firefighters did manage to rescue some of the building’s residents last night, and several were injured doing so, but Spanish media say they could not reach the top two floors in the 14-floor apartment blocks.

Drones have spent the night and this morning flying over and around the structure to help with the search.

And it’s not just firefighters who are trying to get into the wrecked buildings. Spain’s forensic police are waiting to go in with them to find out what caused Valencia’s worst fire on record, and why it spread so fast with such deadly consequences.

The military’s emergency unit is also taking part in the operation.

Witnesses recount horror of Valencia tower block fire

Witnesses recount horror of Valencia tower block fire

At least four people have died and up to 15 are missing after a massive fire ripped through two joined apartment blocks in the Spanish city of Valencia, emergency services say.

The blaze engulfed a 14-storey block in the Campanar neighbourhood and spread to an adjoining building.

Firefighters were seen rescuing people from balconies.

Experts say that highly flammable cladding on the building enabled the fire to spread rapidly.

Read more: Four dead and more missing in Spain tower block fires

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Moon landing: US firm Intuitive Machines makes historic touchdown

An American company has made history by becoming the first commercial outfit to put a spacecraft on the Moon.

Houston-based Intuitive Machines landed its Odysseus robot near the lunar south pole.

It took some minutes for controllers to establish that the craft was down, but eventually a signal was received.

“What we can confirm, without a doubt, is our equipment is on the surface of the Moon and we are transmitting,” flight director Tim Crain announced.

Staff at the company cheered and clapped at the news.

It was an important moment, not just for the commercial exploitation of space but for the US space programme in general.

Intuitive Machines has broken the United States’ half-century absence from the Moon’s surface. You have to go back to the last Apollo mission in 1972 for an occasion when American hardware nestled down gently in the lunar soil.

The US space agency Nasa had purchased room on Odysseus for six scientific instruments, and its administrator Bill Nelson was quick to add his congratulations to Intuitive Machines for a mission he described as a “triumph”.

“The US has returned to the Moon,” he said. “Today, for the first time in the history of humanity, a commercial company – an American company – launched and led the voyage up there. And today is the day that shows the power and promise of Nasa’s commercial partnerships.”

  • ‘Toy poodles’ on the Moon: Japan lander gets to work
  • Odysseus: The mission to prevent ‘spaceship sandblasting’

Controllers had to deal with an almost mission-stopping technical problem even before the descent began.

Odysseus’ ranging lasers, which were supposed to calculate the craft’s altitude and velocity, weren’t working properly.

Fortunately, there were some experimental lasers from Nasa on board, and engineers were able to patch these across to the navigation computers.

Odysseus touched down at 23:23 GMT. At first, there was no signal at all from the robot. There were plenty of nerves as the minutes ticked by, but eventually a communications link was made, albeit a faint one.

This led to some concerns about the status of the lander. Within a couple of hours, however, Intuitive Machines was reporting that Odysseus was standing upright and sending back data, including pictures.

The targeted landing site was a cratered terrain next to a 5km-high mountain complex known as Malapert. It’s the southernmost point on the Moon ever visited by a spacecraft, at 80 degrees South.

It’s on the shortlist of locations where Nasa is considering sending astronauts later this decade as part of its Artemis programme.

There are some deep craters in this region that never see any sunlight – they’re permanently in shadow – and scientists think frozen water could be inside them.

  • Apollo astronauts: The last of the Moon men
  • Americast: Houston, we have Neil deGrasse Tyson

“The ice is really important because if we can actually take advantage of that ice on the surface of the Moon, that’s less materials we have to bring with us,” explained Lori Glaze, Nasa’s director of planetary science.

“We could use that ice to convert it to water – drinkable drinking water – and we can extract oxygen and hydrogen for fuel and for breathing for the astronauts. So it really helps us in human exploration.”

Nasa’s six payloads on board Odysseus are a mix of technology demonstration and science.

A key investigation will be one looking at the behaviour of lunar dust, which the Apollo astronauts found to be a serious nuisance, scratching and clogging their equipment.

The agency’s scientists want to understand better how the dust is kicked up by landing craft to hang just above the surface before then settling back down.

The six commercial payloads on board include a student camera system from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which should have been deployed from Odysseus when it was still 30m above the lunar surface.

This system was designed to take selfie images as the robot set itself down.

American artist Jeff Koons has also attached a box to the side of the lander that contains 125 small stainless steel balls to represent the Moon’s different phases through a month.

Only a handful of other countries have successfully landed a spacecraft on the Moon’s surface – the state space programmes of the Soviet Union, China, India and Japan.

  • Why so many nations are aiming for lunar landings

Airline held liable for its chatbot’s error

When Air Canada’s chatbot gave incorrect information to a traveller, the airline argued its chatbot is “responsible for its own actions”.
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Artificial intelligence is having a growing impact on the way we travel, and a remarkable new case shows what AI-powered chatbots can get wrong – and who should pay. In 2022, Air Canada’s chatbot promised a discount that wasn’t available to passenger Jake Moffatt, who was assured that he could book a full-fare flight for his grandmother’s funeral and then apply for a bereavement fare after the fact. 

According to a civil-resolutions tribunal decision last Wednesday, when Moffatt applied for the discount, the airline said the chatbot had been wrong – the request needed to be submitted before the flight – and it wouldn’t offer the discount. Instead, the airline said the chatbot was a “separate legal entity that is responsible for its own actions”. Air Canada argued that Moffatt should have gone to the link provided by the chatbot, where he would have seen the correct policy. 

The British Columbia Civil Resolution Tribunal rejected that argument, ruling that Air Canada had to pay Moffatt $812.02 (£642.64) in damages and tribunal fees. “It should be obvious to Air Canada that it is responsible for all the information on its website,” read tribunal member Christopher Rivers’ written response. “It makes no difference whether the information comes from a static page or a chatbot.” The BBC reached out to Air Canada for additional comment and will update this article if and when we receive a response.

Gabor Lukacs, president of the Air Passenger Rights consumer advocacy group based in Nova Scotia, told BBC Travel that the case is being considered a landmark one that potentially sets a precedent for airline and travel companies that are increasingly relying on AI and chatbots for customer interactions: Yes, companies are liable for what their tech says and does. 

“It establishes a common sense principle: If you are handing over part of your business to AI, you are responsible for what it does,” Lukacs said. “What this decision confirms is that airlines cannot hide behind chatbots.”

Air Canada is hardly the only airline to dive head-first into AI – or to have a chatbot go off the rails. In 2018, a WestJet chatbot sent a passenger a link to a suicide prevention hotline, for no obvious reason. This type of mistake, in which generative AI tools present inaccurate or nonsensical information, is known as “AI hallucination“. Beyond airlines, more major travel companies have embraced AI technology, ChatGPT specifically: In 2023, Expedia launched a ChatGPT plug-in to help with trip planning.

Lukacs expects the recent tribunal ruling will have broader implications for what airlines can get away with – and highlights the risks for businesses leaning too heavily on AI. 

(Credit: Getty Images)

“What this decision confirms is that airlines cannot hide behind chatbots.” – Gabor Lukacs

How air travellers can protect themselves

In the meantime, how can passengers stand guard against potentially wrong information or “hallucinations” fed to them by AI? Should they be fact-checking everything a chatbot says? Experts say: Yes, and no.

“For passengers, the only lesson is that they cannot fully rely on the information provided by airline chatbots. But, it’s not really passengers’ responsibility to know that,” says Marisa Garcia, an aviation industry expert and senior contributor at Forbes. “Airlines will need to refine these tools further [and] make them far more reliable if they intend for them to ease the workload on human staff or ultimately replace human staff.”

Garcia expects that, over time, chatbots and their accuracy will improve, “but in the meantime airlines will need to ensure they put their customers first and make amends quickly when their chatbots get it wrong,” she says – rather than let the case get to small claims court and balloon into a PR disaster. 

Travellers may want to consider the benefits of old-fashioned human help when trip-planning or navigating fares. “AI has advanced rapidly, but a regulatory framework for guiding the technology has yet to catch up,” said Erika Richter of the American Society of Travel Advisors. “Passengers need to be aware that when it comes to AI, the travel industry is building the plane as they’re flying it. We’re still far off from chatbots replacing the level of customer service required – and expected – for the travel industry.”

Globally, protections for airline passengers are not uniform, meaning different countries have different regulations and consumer protections. Lukacs notes that Canadian passenger regulations are particularly weak, while the UK, for example, inherited the Civil Aviation Authority and regulations from the 2004 European Council Directive

“It’s important to understand that this is not simply about the airlines,” he said. Lukacs recommends passengers who fall victim to chatbot errors take their cases to small claims court. “They may not be perfect, but overall a passenger has a chance of getting a fair trial.”

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Depaving: The movement to liberate city streets

From Australia to Ontario, cities are taking up unnecessary stretches of concrete and asphalt, allowing nature to take hold in their place.
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On a hot July day, Katherine Rose picked up a sturdy metal pole and jammed it under the tempting lip of a pre-cut concrete slab. Rose, communications and engagement director at Depave, a non-profit in Portland, Oregon, was sweating in the heat – but she was going to win this fight.

The grubby, rectangular section of urban crust in front of her was about to move. Pushing down on her metal bar, applying it like a lever, she eased the concrete covering up and away. Now sunlight could fall once again on the ground below. A mess of gravel and dirt that was, to Rose, just bursting with potential.

“It feels like you’re liberating soil,” she says, recalling the summer gathering where she and around 50 volunteers removed roughly 1,670 sq m (18,000 sq ft) of concrete from the grounds of a local church. “It’s envisioning and fully realising a dream that I think we all have,” says Rose. The dream, that is, of bringing nature back into our midst.

The idea of depaving, sometimes known as desealing, is a simple one – replace as much concrete, asphalt and other forms of hard landscaping as possible with plants and soil. It’s been around since at least 2008, when the Depave group in Portland was founded. Proponents say depaving allows water to soak into the ground, which reduces flooding in times of heavy rain – aiding the “sponginess” of cities. Native plants help wildlife cling on in urban spaces, and by planting trees you can increase shade, protecting residents from heatwaves. Injecting city streets with greenery may even improve people’s mental health, too.

But if depaving is ever going to really take off, it will have to expand beyond a handful of eager environmentalists and volunteers. With the climate crisis deepening, some cities and even entire regions are beginning to adopt depaving as part of their climate adaptation strategies. It’s time, some say, to start smashing up our concrete streets in a big way – to create spaces better for nature.

Exposing more of the ground in urban spaces can help absorb rainfall and reduce flooding, as well as boost biodiversity (Credit: City of Leuven)

Whenever Rose walks through a city these days, she can’t help but notice places where you could strike out a section of asphalt and put in some plants. “I’m constantly just wanting to do more,” she confesses. “It’s hard not to see it everywhere.”

Her group says it has depaved more than 33,000 sq m (360,000 sq ft) of asphalt in Portland alone since 2008 – an area equivalent to nearly four and a half football pitches. The work is “joyous”, says Rose, because it unites enthusiastic local volunteers. They get a safety briefing and then muck in together.

Green Venture, an environmental non-profit in Ontario, Canada, has been inspired in part by the depaving projects in Portland. Giuliana Casimirri, executive director, explains how she, her colleagues, and volunteers have begun inserting miniature gardens replete with native trees in a run-down district in the town of Hamilton.

“Before, it was somewhere you would quickly try to walk through,” she says. “Now there are places you might stop or have a chat. Sit and read the paper.”

In Hamilton, flooding can cause sewage to get mixed into runoff that flows into Lake Ontario, the source of the town’s drinking water. Green Venture and other local organisations are keen to reduce the chances of that happening, says Casimirri. They view depaving as a key tactic. Certainly, studies have demonstrated that impermeable surfaces in gardens such as concrete increase flood risk in urban areas.

Rose says her group’s efforts in Portland mean that approximately 24.5 million gallons of rainwater is diverted from entering storm drains each year. In Leuven, Belgium, in 2023 alone, Baptist Vlaeminck, who leads Leuven’s Life Pact climate adaptation project, calculates that the removal of 6,800 sq metres (73,000 sq ft) of hard surfacing allowed for the infiltration of an additional 377,000 gallons (1.7 million litres) of water into the ground.

“With climate change, extreme weather rainfall events are going to increase and so [depaving is] not a nice-to-have – it’s a necessity,” Casimirri adds.

The question is whether the authorities responsible for cities, and planning, realise this. In most parts of the world, depaving can still be described as a fringe activity. “We’re going to need a scale of investment that has a lot more zeroes on it,” says Thami Croeser at RMIT University, Melbourne’s Centre for Urban Research.

Community-led and DIY efforts on driveways and on local streets with permission are fantastic, he adds, but it’s even better to think of depaving and greening as the introduction of a new kind of infrastructure in a city. It requires the same level of planning and investment as, say, a new railway.

The depave movement in Portland, Oregon has inspired a wave of cities to pull up their asphalt and concrete (Credit: Elle Hygge)

In Europe, at least, some municipalities have begun to treat depaving seriously. Residents of London in the UK are encouraged to depave their gardens, for example.

The city of Leuven in Belgium says it is embracing depaving – or “ontharden” – in a big way. The suburban district of Spaanse Kroon, home to around 550 people, is one of the latest targets of a depaving and renaturing initiative spearheaded by the city. The plans involve removing significant volumes of asphalt from the residential area and forcing cars to share the same part of the road as pedestrians and cyclists.

“We are scaling up now, we are setting up a team dedicated to depaving,” says Vlaeminck.

Such projects have to meet the needs of everyone in the city. Vlaeminck says that, to support people with impaired vision or mobility issues, unused areas of road or pavement are prioritised for depaving and sufficient space – more than a metre – is safeguarded on pavements to allow people plenty of room. Existing paving left in place is also renewed or repaired to ensure there are no bumps or unevenness. In situations where pavements are removed completely, for shared use of a roadway in low traffic neighbourhoods, Vlaeminck says depaving teams introduce measures to reduce the speed of cars.

Both Depave in Portland and Green Ventury in Ontario say they work with communities to ensure accessibility requirements are met. Casimirri refers to a recent project that replaced broken, uneven concrete with shrubbery and level walkways between.

Among the initiatives instigated by Leuven is a “tile taxi” – a small truck that officials will happily send to your home so you can throw in concrete tiles or cobblestones you have removed from your garden. The material is later reused rather than thrown away, says Vlaeminck, who adds that several million euros have been set aside by Leuven to fund depaving and renaturing projects such as this.

And there’s more. Since January 2024, developers in Leuven have had to demonstrate that any rain that falls on new or significantly renovated homes can either be capture and re-used on-site or filtrate into the property’s garden rather than pool up and cause a flood. If developers can’t prove their designs are extreme rainfall-ready, they won’t be approved, says Vlaeminck.

France, too, is making depaving official, says Gwendoline Grandin, an ecologist with the Île-de-France Regional Agency for Biodiversity. Nationally, the French government has made €500m ($540m/£430m) available for urban greening – this includes depaving but also installing green walls and roofs, for example. Part of the motivation is to make towns and cities more resilient to summer heatwaves, which have badly affected parts of France in recent years.

Some of the projects now underway are significant in size, such as a former parking area near a forest in the Paris region. An area of 45,000 sq m (480,000 sq ft) has been depaved – formerly a hodgepodge of asphalt, pathways and concrete interlaced with grass. With the hard landscaping now gone, level ground is being reshaped to introduce dips and gullies that catch water, and the whole area will soon be planted over, too.

Local schemes are often backed by residents keen to see more green in their local area (Credit: City of Leuven)

In Croeser’s own city of Melbourne, he and colleagues have studied the potential space available for renaturing, if thousands of parking spaces were depaved and converted into miniature gardens. In a 2022 study, they simulated the impact based on a series of scenarios – the most ambitious of which involved removing half of the open-air parking spaces in the city, about 11,000. Croeser argues that there is sufficient off-street parking available, for example on the ground floor of buildings, in Melbourne to ensure that people wouldn’t be left without somewhere to leave their vehicle – but those interior parking spaces would need to be made publicly accessible.

“The basic principle was no net loss of access to parking,” he says. “And we get 50-60 hectares [120-150 acres] of green space that keeps the city cool, prevents flooding.”

It might seem unlikely that small pockets of nature dotted here and there throughout a large city like Melbourne could benefit wildlife significantly, but Croeser says these fragments of habitat are crucial. They allow species to move around and cope in an environment that is, ultimately, very different to the one in which they evolved.

In their 2022 study on depaving in Melbourne, Croeser and his colleagues included modelling that suggested a modest increase in greenery could allow species such as the blue-banded bee to roam across a far greater area of urban habitat than before.

Rose agrees with Croeser that, for depaving to change the world, entire cities and even whole countries will have to embrace it fully. But she emphasises that, in order to reach that point, communities must express that this is something they want.

“It starts with people pushing their government and starting these conversations on a small, local level,” she says. “That’s how it takes hold.”

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