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Forecast podcast: Tensions rise as US shoots down Chinese spy balloon and UFOs

On the deck of a large ocean vessel there is a crate with a deflated balloon being pushed into it. Two U.S. Navy sailors are watching.

Editors Jimmy Lovaas and Joe Veyera discuss the unidentified flying objects that have recently been shot down by US fighter jets, plus more on the annual Munich Security Conference, Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Taiwan reopening travel from Hong Kong and Macau and a UN Security Council meeting on Somalia.

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This episode was produced with work from Factal editors Irence Villora, Jaime Calle Moreno, Jess Fino, Sophie Perryer, David Wyllie and Joe Veyera.  Music courtesy of Andrew Gospe

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Factal Forecast podcast transcript

This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.


Welcome to the Factal Forecast, a look at the week’s biggest stories and what they mean from the editors at Factal. I’m Jimmy Lovaas.

Today is Feb. 16.

In this week’s forecast we’ve got the annual Munich Security Conference, Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Taiwan reopening travel to Hong Kong and Macau, a UN Security Council meeting on Somalia and UFOs. No, really, UFOs. 

You can also read about these stories and more in our weekly newsletter, which you can find a link to in the show notes.

Munich Security Conference begins

Information compiled by Irene Villora

JIMMY: The 59th edition of the Munich Security Conference starts Friday in Germany.

The main topic of this year’s meeting will be the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with the first anniversary of the invasion just a few days after the conference. 

Hundreds of representatives of the private sector, civil society, NGOs and world leaders will attend the event. 

They’ll engage in high-level discussions on foreign policy and security challenges in the current context of war. 

Participants are also reportedly expected to analyze opportunities for political collaboration toward the restoration of peace following the war in Ukraine.

Now, the positions of the so-called “Global South” countries during the conference will play a significant role in the results of the meeting. 

These nations are heavily impacted by the effects of economic recession, fuel shortages, environmental disasters and skyrocketing food prices. 

Some of their representatives are expected to denounce a power imbalance and decision-making processes to tackle the effects of the war that’s heavily centered around the needs and interests of the west.

Carnival begins in Rio de Janeiro

Information compiled by Jaime Calle Moreno

JIMMY: After three years without Carnival in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro due to coronavirus measures, the famed street parades will return on Friday. 

Of course, multiple other cities across the world will celebrate their own versions of the event through different parades and traditions. 

In Rio de Janeiro alone, the city expects around 5 million people to participate in the street parades, which will finish Saturday Feb. 25. 

Now, Rio carnivals are known worldwide for their music, dance and costumes, but after such a long pause, this year’s event comes at a time when Brazil is changing politically. A change that follows the country’s coronavirus pandemic, which killed around 700,000 people

Finally, a large number of people on the streets will mean a large police presence across Rio de Janeiro, other Brazilian cities and international locations that also celebrate the festival. 

And while police will mostly be preoccupied with low-level scams and crimes, officers will still be monitoring for any further escalations or violent incidents that may happen.

Taiwan reopens travel to Hong Kong and Macau

Information compiled by Jess Fino

JIMMY: Taiwan will remove its coronavirus-related border restrictions on Hong Kong and Macau residents on Monday. 

And so, for the first time since February 2020 when the first coronavirus restrictions were introduced, residents from the two territories will be able to visit the island independently. 

Since late last year, only tour groups from Hong Kong and Macau were allowed to travel to Taiwan. 

As you may recall, Taiwan reopened to the wider world in October last year after strict quarantine guidelines during the pandemic.

Now, when announcing the travel resumption plans, officials explained mainland China would not be included in the list given the “high level of uncertainty” around its coronavirus situation. That, despite having recently removed mandatory testing from Chinese travelers

China has remained unclear about the real number of cases and deaths caused by coronavirus. 

It has also continued to impose restrictions on people coming from Taiwan for tourism purposes. 

Lastly, with its restrictions now scrapped, Taiwan aims to restore tourist arrivals to pre-pandemic levels by next year.

UN Security Council meeting on Somalia

Information compiled by Sophie Perryer

JIMMY: The UN Security Council will hold a meeting Wednesday to discuss the security situation in Somalia. The meeting comes amid ongoing instability due to al-Shabab and militia fighting in the breakaway Somaliland region.

The Somali government ramped up operations against al-Shabab in late 2022 and, in January this year, seized control of several significant towns in the Galmudug region previously controlled by the militant group. 

Al-Shabab has responded by staging attacks targeting civilians in the capital Mogadishu. 

Separately, fighting has broken out in the town of Laascaanood between breakaway Somaliland authorities and local militia groups. Those clashes have killed dozens and created instability in an otherwise peaceful portion of the country. 

Now, Somalia and neighboring Kenya continue to urge the UN to drop a 1992 arms embargo and allow Somalia to better equip itself in operations against al-Shabab. 

The Security Council is also likely to discuss the funding drive to support Somalia through the longest and most severe drought in its history. 

The UN’s country humanitarian coordinator has warned that famine is a “strong possibility” this summer.

UFOs in United States

Information compiled by David Wyllie and Joe Veyera

Interview featuring Joe Veyera

JIMMY: Our last item for this forecast is on the Chinese spy balloon and unidentified flying objects that have recently been shot down by US fighter jets. For more on that I’ve got our lead for The Americas desk, Joe Veyera.

JIMMY: Hello, Joe.

JOE: Hello. Good to be back.

JIMMY: Alright, Joe, our listeners probably don’t know, but you and I went to college together. And I mention this because if you would have told me ten years ago that we’d be on a genuine news podcast, seriously discussing UFOs being shot down, I’d have accused you of hazing, but here we are.

JOE: How far we’ve come, my friend. And how far our new alien overlords have come, for that matter, so who knows how many lightyears we’re talking here. To be clear, the White House said Monday there is “no indication” of extraterrestrial activity related to this recent spate of high-altitude objects being shot down.

JIMMY: Alright, so this isn’t an E.T. situation. It’s still highly unusual, right? I mean, can you give us a recap of the recent events? This all started with an object at high altitude over Montana?

JOE: Indeed, at the start of the month, a balloon was spotted over Montana, with officials at the time opting not to shoot it down over concerns the debris could hurt people on the ground. And since it was traveling well above the altitude for commercial air traffic, the government opted to track the balloon as it moved across the country, eventually downing it off the coast of South Carolina. US Northern Command says “significant debris” has been recovered since, including all of the priority sensor and electronics pieces, and the Pentagon remains adamant that the balloon was not for civilian purposes like meteorological data collection as China has claimed. Interestingly enough, right before we started recording on Wednesday evening, CNN reported that US intelligence officials are assessing the possibility that the balloon was not deliberately maneuvered into mainland U.S. airspace, and may have been diverted by strong winds from its intended course over Guam and Hawaii, though that still would have been for surveillance purposes.

JIMMY: And what about the other unidentified objects?

JOE: Well, the U.S. response has been relatively muted, compared to the first one, with the White House saying it has found no evidence suggesting any of the three objects shot down by fighter jets in the last week or so are connected to Chinese spying efforts, and were more likely used for scientific or weather research and had ceased to function. There was a downing over the northern portions of Alaska, another in Canada’s remote Yukon, and an extended search over the Great Lakes which led to an interception over Lake Huron last weekend. Now, the question becomes, why the sudden uptick in downings? There’s actually a simple answer here, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, as you may know them from their yearly Santa tracking efforts, adjusted its radar filters after the first balloon to catch smaller, slower-moving objects as opposed to the fighter jets they typically scan for. In the same vein, operators are paying closer attention. Hence, more objects spotted and, I use this term very loosely, neutralized.

JIMMY: Now, the US reaction to the Chinese balloon is pretty obvious – they shot it down. What’s China’s reaction been?

JOE: They’re not thrilled, as you might expect. China continues to claim it was a weather balloon, and has now accused the U.S. of flying high-altitude balloons over its airspace at least 10 times since last year. We’ve seen an escalation in the rhetoric, going from the outright denial that this was a surveillance object, to the whataboutism we’re seeing now. I do want to circle back to the new reporting here for a second here as well, because the idea that the flight path of the balloon wasn’t deliberate does have the potential to give both sides a way to ease tensions.

JIMMY: Well, besides dodging conspiracy theories and just literally watching the sky, what else should folks be keeping an eye out for?

JOE: Well, for starters, we’ll see how much longer the U.S. maintains this increased scrutiny of the skies, and if so what that means for sudden airspace restrictions that could impact travel. In the meantime, we’ll also see just how much the U.S. government is willing to share about the suspected surveillance balloon, and if it does look to establish that it wasn’t for civilian purposes and how does that impact the relationship with China? Finally, it’s worth noting that this weekend is the Munich Security Conference, and both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi will be in attendance. No meeting is scheduled at this time, but that could change. It’s also worth noting that Blinken canceled a planned trip to Beijing as this story took off.

JIMMY: Well, Joe, I guess we’ll have to wait and see how this all pans out, but I appreciate it. Appreciate your time. Any final thoughts? 

JOE: Well, you know, I don’t know if this will resonate with anyone, but do you remember those old “Star Gazer” segments that would air on PBS. The host would always say, “Keep looking up” at the end, and that’s the advice I’d give here.

JIMMY: A fine plan. Thank you.

JOE: Anytime.

JIMMY: Take care.

JIMMY: As always, thank you for listening to the Factal Forecast. We publish our forward-looking podcast and newsletter each Thursday to help you get a jump-start on the week ahead. Please subscribe and review wherever you find your podcasts. We’d love it if you’d consider telling a friend about us.  

Today’s episode was produced with work from Factal editors Irene Villora, Jaime Calle Moreno, Jess Fino, Sophie Perryer and David Wyllie. Our interview featured editor Joe Veyera and our music comes courtesy of Andrew Gospe.

Until next time, if you have any feedback, suggestions or events we’ve missed, drop us a note by emailing

This transcript may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability not guaranteed. 

Copyright © 2023 Factal. All rights reserved.

Music: ‘Factal Theme’ courtesy of Andrew Gospe

Top photo: Sailors prepare material recovered in the Atlantic Ocean from a high-altitude balloon for transfer to a base in Virginia Beach. (Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Ryan Seelbach)

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