Bite!!! Life in a Warmer, Wetter World

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Link suite overview: On vector-borne disease and climate change, connecting the infinitesimal and the invisible, Dopey Does DDT, the need for ecosystems thinking & bugs gone borg

Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

It is a midsummer night’s feast and we are on the menu. Nibbled and sipped by winged vampires and  blood-sucking squatters, we scratch, swat and fret. But the bugs, annoying though they may be, are merely messengers. Virus, bacteria, rickettsia, protozoans and helminths—those are the ones turning the whole predator / prey equation on its head.

From a safe distance, preferably behind screens, pants tucked sensibly into socks and doused in parfum-de-DEET, the elegance of the big picture is both undeniable and astonishing. This is the web of life at its webbiest, connecting the fates of the infinitesimal to the invisible—shifts in weather patterns, changes in climate—and everything in between.

A bird flies a little further north than usual one spring, staking out territory in what, for it, is literally new territory.  A warmer, more humid world has brought earlier thaws and later freezes to this particular neck of the woods. Which is also  good news for the bird’s passengers: the ticks on its body, mites on its wings, virus and bacteria in its blood. Occasionally even something as big as a snail manages to survive the journey, berthed in a bird’s gut, likely carrying a parasitic payload of its own.

For everything we can see changing in the landscape—tundra to forest, swamp to sea, lake to desert—there is so much more going on at the edges of detection.

A deer tick finds itself in grasslands favored by voles rather than the forest, where white-footed mice rule the leaf litter. But a blood meal is a blood meal. So the tick latches on and borrelia—the bacteria carried by the tick that causes Lyme Disease—sets up shop in a new animal host. This is the Disease Cycle as jazz, constantly riffing theme and variation. Innovation as making do.

While global trade and travel do a mighty job of mixing up the pot, speeding the spread of pathogens and invasive species, climate change alters the basic recipe. How do you restore a tundra whose permafrost has melted? Or a rainforest weakened by repeated periods of drought? How do you make plans for a world in transition to a “new normal”?

Pollution, carbon emissions, deforestation—all at least hold out the possibility of reversal: things can be done, if only we would do them.

Climate change is a dragon awakened.


“Bite!,” the new link suite-story on the TrackerNews aggregator, surveys a variety of vector-borne diseases, all on the rise due, at least in part, to climate change: Cold-blooded insects prefer a warmer, wetter world.

It is not their only stroke of luck. Tight budgets in the US have put mosquito abatement districts in the political cross-hairs as an easy target for “saving” taxpayers money, no matter the expense of taxpayer illness. Lose the public abatement districts and there would be no coordinated surveillance for West Nile virus. Or for dengue, which has recently established a foothold in Florida decades after it was eradicated. Or for the next headline horror—chikungunya?—on the horizon. The standard bureaucratic spin about”the best science available” falls flat when the “best” is barely any at all.

Bugs—and the bugs they carry—won’t disappear even if the data do.

Funding actually needs to go up. Way up, according to Peter Hotez, president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, dengue is “a bigger threat than many of the biodefense pathogens that we’re spending huge amounts of money on. Dengue and other vector-borne diseases are a true homeland security threat.”

Really, though, they are a global security threat and public health disaster. For every breakthrough…

…there are setbacks.  Babesia, a parasite carried by ticks—including the tick that transmits Lyme Disease—causing a malaria-like illness, is on the ascent. Diagnosis and treatment an be tricky. There is no vaccine. Further complicating matters, a single tick can deliver both babesia and borrelia.

Humans are hardly the only animal hosts under assault:

  • Moose are facing a similar fate from “winter ticks.” These are ticks that latch onto to moose in the fall, burrow into their coats and feed all winter. It used to be a moose might pick up 30,000 ticks, a horrifying but survivable number. But a shifting climate means snow melts earlier. Ticks fall off onto dry ground in the spring, allowing more to survive. Their breeding season is longer, too. Now “ghost moose” have been found with over 100,000 ticks. Like the baby fish, they are being bled to death.




Meanwhile, cases of  leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease carried by sand flies, are also on the rise, bedeviling everyone from soldiers in Afghanistan to the  beleaguered residents of the world’s newest country, South Sudan. Efforts in India to eradicate the disease by 2010 failed spectacularly.

Yet simply getting rid of sand flies could lead to other problems: As larvae, they eat garbage.

Single-focus wars-on-fill-in-the-blank-disease rarely work (only smallpox and the cattle scourge rinderpest have been effectively wiped out, and notably neither were vector-borne).


In the early 1940s, the Walt Disney Company produced a series of short educational films, among them, “Winged Scourge,” in which the Seven Dwarfs (yes, those seven dwarfs) take on Public Enemy Number 1: the Mosquito—”wanted dead or alive”… (HT to epidemiologist and author of the marvelous Aetiology blog Tara C. Smith)

Wrapped in gobsmacking kitsch is a matter-0f-fact portrayal of then state-of-the-art pest control: drain wetlands, coat breeding ponds with oil and waterways with Paris Green, spray copious amounts of insecticide (likely DDT, given the time frame), put up screens, seal building cracks and use bed nets. It worked, too, at least for a while,  if you don’t count the cascade of eco-disasters that followed.



Not only is there a need for an “ecosystems thinking” approach, but one that can accommodate fast-changing landscapes. What was, isn’t any more. What is, won’t be for long.

The climate dragon is awake, scattering clouds of mosquitoes, flies, fleas, mites, ticks and lice as it yawns, stretches and shakes off a millenia-long slumber.


  • Under Our Skin, documentary by Andy Abrahams Wilson chronic Lyme Disease / website

Global Gridlock: Traffic, Opportunity, Public Health, Weeds and A Road Not (Yet) Taken…

If cars and trucks could reproduce, they would surely rank as the planet’s dominant species. From the tiniest Tata Nano to the most massive of monster mega-trucks, guesstimates for the the global fleet now approach, if not exceed, one billion. By mass and weight, humans were left in the CO2-laced dust a long time ago. Nothing in the history of history, short of an asteroid, has ever had such a speedy and profound global impact. It is a car & truck world. And we have to live with it.

Or at least try to make the best of it.

Jakarta, from "The world’s 20 cities with the worst traffic jams"

Jakarta, from "The world’s 20 cities with the worst traffic jams"

  • In Jakarta, where “total traffic” (all rush hour, all the time) is expected by 2011, some have found a bit of gold in the gridlock. Passengers-for-higher called “jockeys” hustle for pick ups from drivers needing to fill seats to qualify for slightly speedier high occupancy lanes. Continue reading

The Carbon NEGATIVE Option: Why Tim Flannery & James Lovelock Love Biochar

climatefriendlysoil“Sustainable” isn’t sustainable. It isn’t even achievable, according to several researchers presenting at the annual meeting of the  American Association for the Advancement of Science. Global carbon emissions have accelerated so dramatically over the last eight years, we are “now outside the entire envelope of possibilities” reviewed by the IPCC. Sure enough, sea levels are rising and rising faster than predicted. Meanwhile, biofuels, the great green hope of so many, have only made things worse, leading to a increase in slash & burn farming in the tropics. Indeed, we could find ourselves “effectively burning rain forests in our gas tanks,” noted one scientist.

TrackerNews has been full of  stories over the last few months painting the same grim picture:

  • The Sea of Japan absorbs only half has much CO2 as it used to. Scientists suspect warmer water temperatures have changed the pattern of vertical currents known as “ventilation.” The water on top has essentially become saturated with CO2.  If it turns out this is happening in other oceans, the ramifications are immense. Oceans absorb about a quarter of human-generated CO2
  • All this CO2 is making the oceans more acidic, which is destroying coral reefs, along with anything else unfortunate enough to rely on a calcium carbonate shell. That, in turn, is making it more difficult for stressed fisheries to recover, leading to higher food prices and hunger. The circle may be even more vicious. Researchers have just discovered that fish play a key role in marine carbon sequestration. Fish excrete vast quantities of calcium carbonate as a result of drinking seawater. Scientists speculate that climate-warmed seas would speed up fish metabolism leading to increased excretions. But fewer fish means a net decrease and less calcium carbonate in the water to neutralize acidity.
  • Canadian forests are now carbon emitters. A combination of drought, logging, beetles, milder winters (warm enough to allow beetles to survive) and fire have turned 1.2 million square miles-worth of carbon sink solution into part of the problem.

Clearly, if we are going to make any headway with this disaster, we are going to have to come up with goals considerably bolder than “carbon neutral.” Optimistically, we are thisclose to an irreversible tipping point. According to yet another depressing study, global warming could trigger massive marine “dead zones” persisting for thousands of years.


Continue reading

Changing Seasons, Climates: On Hurricanes, Wildfires, Disease, NOAA’s Arctic Report Card and What’s Good for the Goose…

Mid-October and fall is in full swing here in Chicago. With the last 80 degree day behind us and first frost just ahead, it’s a speed up to a slow down. Leaves blush and blow away. Birds fly off. Even earthworms wriggle to cozy safe havens beneath the frost line. It’s migrate, hibernate or pull out the Polartec.

As perfectly seasonal as it all seems, 10,000 years ago – a blink in geologic time – my neck of woods was under a mile of ice. No leaves, or birds, and certainly no earthworms. The “seasons” were cold and colder. It took a warming world to melt the ice, which left behind the puddles of the Great Lakes and land that is still springing back from a glacial grip so many millennia later.

These sorts of changes are supposed to take thousands, or at least hundreds, of years. But according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) latest Arctic Report Card, they’re happening in Greenland at a breathtaking pace right now. In 2007, Greenland’s ice sheet “lost at least 100 cubic km (24 cubic miles) of ice, making it one of the largest single contributors to global sea level rise.” Autumn temperatures are up about 5 degrees Celsius (~9 degrees Fahrenheit). Greenland is turning…green.

“Sea Ice 2008,” NASA

Half of the six categories NOAA tracks – “Greenland,” “Sea Ice” and “Atmosphere” – are rated code red, indicating climate change plays the dominant role. The other three categories – “Biology,” “Ocean” and “Land” – are code yellow, meaning other factors, including natural seasonal variations, are also at work. Continue reading