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6 Terrifying Facts About Measles

| Wed Jan. 28, 2015 6:00 AM EST

The current outbreak of measles that began in California has sickened 86 people and landed 30 babies in home isolation. The California Department of Health has issued an official warning that "any place where large numbers of people congregate and there are a number of international visitors, like airports, shopping malls and tourist attractions, you may be more likely to find measles, which should be considered if you are not vaccinated."

Not everyone is so concerned. In a Facebook post on January 16, celebrity pediatrician Robert "Dr. Bob" Sears encouraged his followers not to "let anyone tell you you should live in fear of" measles. "Ask any Grandma or Grandpa (well, older ones anyway)," he wrote, "and they'll say 'Measles? So what? We all had it. It's like Chicken pox.'"

Well, Dr. Bob is wrong—measles is serious business. Consider these facts:

  1. Measles is one of the most contagious illnesses known to man. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it infects about 90 percent of people who come into contact with it. The virus can survive on surfaces or even in the air for up to two hours. That means that if an unvaccinated person happens to pass through a room where someone with measles was a few hours before, he or she has a very high chance of contracting the disease. 
     
  2. Some people who get measles become seriously ill. Before the advent of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, between 3 and 4 million people contracted measles each year in the United States. Of those, 48,000 were hospitalized, 4,000 developed the life-threatening brain condition encephalitis, and 400 to 500 died.
     
  3. Almost everyone needs to be vaccinated for measles in order to protect the most vulnerable people. The epidemiological concept of "herd immunity" means that enough people in a given community are immunized so that people who can't get vaccinated—infants that are too young to receive vaccines, people who can't get vaccinated because their immune systems are not strong enough, and the small number of people for whom the vaccine doesn't work—are protected. The threshold for herd immunity varies by disease; for measles, it's 92 to 94 percent.
     
  4. In some places in the United States, MMR vaccination rates among kindergartners aren't anywhere near the herd immunity threshold. In Marin County, California, only 80 percent of students are up to date on their vaccinations. In Nevada County, California, the figure is 73 percent. New York magazine reported last year that dozens of New York City private schools had immunization rates below 70 percent. (Californians can check rates at individual schools here.)
     
  5. Worldwide, measles is far from eradicated. According to the CDC, in 2013, more than 60 percent of children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia Nigeria, and Pakistan were not adequately vaccinated against measles. Seventy percent of measles deaths worldwide occurred in those countries.
     
  6. Measles could make a major comeback in the United States. It's happened in other developed nations: In the mid-1990s, UK public health officials considered measles eradicated in the country—but in 2008, because of low vaccination rates, measles once again hit endemic status. Between 2008 and 2011, France saw more than 20,000 cases of measles—after virtual elimination of the disease just a few years before.

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Something Really, Really Terrible Is About to Happen to Our Coral

| Wed Jan. 28, 2015 6:00 AM EST
Healthy coral reef, posing with happy fish

Coral reefs cover just 0.1 percent of the ocean floor, but provide habitat to 25 percent of sea-dwelling fish species. That's why coral scientist C. Mark Eakin, who coordinates the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Watch program, is surprised that the warning he has been sounding since last year (PDF)—that the globe's reefs appear to be on the verge of a mass-scale bleaching event—hasn't drawn more media attention.

During the last mass bleaching event, we lost almost a fifth of the world's coral reefs. Only some have recovered.

Bleaching happens when coral loses contact with zooxanthellae, an algae that essentially feeds them nutrients in symbiotic exchange for a stable habitat. The coral/zooxanthellae relationship thrives within a pretty tight range of ocean temperatures, and when water warms above normal levels, coral tends to expel its algal lifeline. In doing so, coral not only loses the brilliant colors zooxanthellae deliver—hence, "bleaching"—but also its main source of food. A bleached coral reef rapidly begins to decline. Coral can reunite with healthy zooxanthellae and recover, Eakin says, but even then they often become diseased and may die. That's rotten news, because bleaching outbreaks are increasingly common.

Before the 1980s, large-scale coral bleaching had never been observed before, Eakin says. After that, regionally isolated bleaching began to crop up, drawing the attention of marine scientists. Then, in 1998, an unusually strong El Niño warming phase caused ocean temperatures to rise, triggering the first known global bleaching event in Earth's history. It whitened coral off the coasts of 60 countries and island nations, spanning the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Mediterranean, and the Caribbean. We functionally "lost between 15 percent and 20 percent of the world's coral reefs" in '98, Eakin said. Only some have recovered.

Eakin is concerned about a relapse, because the oceans are relentlessly warming, driven by climate change from ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions. As heat builds in the ocean, he says, coral become more vulnerable to bleaching.

Getting hot in here: Coral reefs are sensitive to warming water. Oh-oh. NOAA

As a result, it no longer takes a classic strong El Niño to cause warming and trigger mass bleaching. This current El Niño, after starting strong last year, has essentially collapsed, in what Eakin calls a "highly unusual" pattern. Even so, the northeast Pacific is experiencing "very warm" water, he said. Overall, the oceans' waters have warmed so much in recent years that most coral areas are "right on the verge of having enough heat stress to cause bleaching and it doesn't take nearly as much to start one of these global-scale events," he said. Since 1998, there have been two major beaching events, neither driven by a strong El Niño. In 2005, the Caribbean ocean experienced its worst-ever bleaching event despite a relatively tame El Niño year, and in 2010, the second-ever globe-spanning bleaching event occurred, again during a mild El Niño. It wasn't as severe as the 1998 disaster, but unlike the earlier one, it "didn't have a strong El Niño driving it," Eakin says.

Which brings us to 2015. During our phone conversation, Eakin directed me to this page on NOAA's Coral Reef Watch site. He asked me to consider the below chart, which shows the water-temperature patterns that prevailed in spring  '98—bleaching was most severe where the color is darkest red, signifying the most severe warming.

NOAA

Then he directed me to the latest NOAA analysis, taken this month, that forecasts warming patterns four months into the future.

NOAA

He called the warning currently happening in the Indian Ocean (the one on the left in the above charts) "amazingly similar" to the situation in '98, which foretells a warming pattern that could subject coral to a '98-scale bleaching crisis. "If you look at where we were in 1998 and look at where we are now, you see that the ocean is primed to respond with a sustained high temperature during the warm season in a way that previously took a big El Niño, and now doesn't," he said.

Again, a mass bleaching doesn't translate directly to mass coral die-off, because coral can recover. But the recovery takes decades—large reefs grow about 1 centimeters per year, Eakin says—and the bleaching events are coming faster and faster, each one stalling recovery and causing new damage. The emerging pattern for large-scale events looks like this: 1998, 2005 (confined mainly to the Caribbean), 2010, and now, quite possibly, 2015.

Bleached coral within Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. NOAA

And another facet of climate change makes recovery even more difficult, Eakins added: acidification, which comes about as the oceans sponge up more and more carbon from the atmosphere. Heightened acidity makes it harder for coral to absorb the calcium carbonate it needs to build and maintain their skeletal structure.

Eakin says it will take major action to reverse climate change to save the globe's coral reefs. Currently, carbon dioxide makes up nearly 400 parts per million of the atmosphere, and for coral to thrive, we'll need to throttle that back to 350 ppm or possibly even 320 ppm, he said. Those are ambitious goals. Making coral resilient enough to survive until we can manage to do that, he added, will require taking action against "local stressors" that also harm them, like overfishing and pollution.

"People say corals are the rainforests of the sea. But coral reefs are more biodiverse than rainforests," he said. "It ought to be the other way around: Rainforests are the coral reefs of the land." And these glorious cradles of oceanic life aren't getting any stronger. "The punch that knocks a boxer out in the ninth round doesn't have to be as hard as the punch that would knock him out in round one," Eakin said.

This Map Shows Why The Midwest Is Screwed

| Tue Jan. 27, 2015 4:44 PM EST

The ongoing drought in California has been, among other things, a powerful lesson in how vulnerable America's agricultural sector is to climate change. Even if that drought wasn't specifically caused by man-made global warming, scientists have little doubt that droughts and heat waves are going to get more frequent and severe in important crop-growing regions. In California, the cost in 2014 was staggering: $2.2 billion in losses and added expenses, plus 17,000 lost jobs, according to a UC-Davis study.

California is country's hub for fruits, veggies, and nuts. But what about the commodity grains grown in the Midwest, where the US produces over half its corn and soy? That's the subject of a new report by the climate research group headed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer (who recently shut down rumors that he might run for Senate).

The report is all about climate impacts expected in the Midwest, and the big takeaway is that future generations have lots of very sweaty summers in store. One example: "The average Chicago resident is expected to experience more days over 95 degrees F by the century's end than the average Texan does today." The report also predicts that electricity prices will increase, with potential ramifications for the region's manufacturing sector, and that beloved winter sports—ice fishing, anyone?—will become harder to do.

But some of the most troublesome findings are about agriculture. Some places will fare better than others; northern Minnesota, for example, could very well find itself benefiting from global warming. But overall, the report says, extreme heat, scarcer water resources, and weed and insect invasions will drive down corn and soybean yields by 11 to 69 percent by the century's end. Note that these predictions assume no "significant adaptation," so there's an opportunity to soften the blow with solutions like better water management, switching to more heat-tolerant crops like sorghum, or the combination of genetic engineering and data technology now being pursued by Monsanto.

Here's a map from the report showing which states' farmers could benefit from climate change—and which ones will lose big time:

Risky Business

No, Saudi TV Didn't Blur Out Michelle Obama's Face When the President Met King Salman

| Tue Jan. 27, 2015 4:32 PM EST

Twitter is hopping right now about how Saudi TV allegedly blurred Michelle Obama's face, thanks to this YouTube video:

Only it's bullshit. The YouTube uploader appears to have added the blur, not some Saudi TV network.

(Here is another video the YouTuber uploaded that's blurred.)

This version shows no such blur:

 

Nothing is real on the internet.

Mormon Church Comes Out in Support of LGBT Rights

| Tue Jan. 27, 2015 2:38 PM EST

In a groundbreaking news conference on Tuesday, the Mormon Church officially announced its support for some LGBT rights, on the condition that the same legal protections are extended to all religious groups. But in doing so, the church also made clear their endorsement did not reverse the church's opposition to same-sex marriage. 

"We call on local, state, and the federal government to serve all of their people by passing legislation that protects vital religious freedoms for individuals, families, churches, and other faith groups while protecting the rights of our LGBT citizens in such areas as housing, employment, and public accommodation in hotels, restaurants, and transportation," Elder Dallin Oaks, a top official of the church, said. "[These] protections are not available in many parts of the country."

"We must all learn to live with others who do not share the same beliefs or values," church officials stated

"We must all learn to live with others who do not share the same beliefs or values."

The announcement comes as an anti-discrimination bill makes its way through Utah's state legislature that seeks to ban gender-based discrimination in the workplace and housing. In the past, the church has made overtures towards friendlier LGBT stances, but Tuesday's press conference is by far its most clear endorsement of gay rights. Mother Jones' Stephanie Mencimer has covered the church's evolution on same-sex marriage:

In the five years since the LDS church sent busloads of the faithful to California to canvass neighborhoods, and contributed more than $20 million via its members to support the initiative, it has all but dropped the rope in the public policy tug of war over marriage equality. The change stems from an even more remarkable if somewhat invisible transformation happening within the church, prompted by the ugly fight over Prop. 8 and the ensuing backlash from the flock.

Although the LDS's prophet hasn't described a holy revelation directing a revision in church doctrine on same-sex marriage or gay rights in general, the church has shown a rare capacity for introspection and humane cultural change unusual for a large conservative religious organization.

"I am proud that the LDS Church has seen fit to lead the way in non-discrimination," state senator and founder of the Utah Pride Center Jim Dabakis said in a news release following the announcement. "As a religious institution, Mormons have had a long history of being the victims of discrimination and persecution. They understand more than most the value and strength of creating a civil society that judges people by the content of their character and their ability to do a job."

Watch Tuesday's announcement below:

ISIS Fighters Lose Kobani In Win For Obama's Iraq Strategy

| Tue Jan. 27, 2015 12:33 PM EST

From the LA Times:

Kurdish fighters in the Syrian border town of Kobani appeared poised Monday to deal a decisive defeat to Islamic State militants after months of street clashes and U.S. aerial bombardment, signaling a major setback for the extremist group.

....The apparent breakthrough shows how U.S. air power, combined with a determined allied force on the ground, can successfully confront Islamic State. The military watched with surprise as Islamic State continued sending hundreds of fighters, vehicles and weapons to Kobani, which was of no critical strategic importance to the overall fight but had become something of a public relations fight.

"Essentially, they said, 'This is where we are going to make a stand' and flooded the region with fighters," said Col. Edward Sholtis, a spokesman for U.S. Air Force Central Command, in charge of air operations in the battle against the Islamic State.

My expert in all things Kurdish emailed me this comment today: "This is a big deal, and it proves the viability of Obama's strategy of working with proxies in Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIS. My prediction is we won't hear much boasting about it from Obama though. These aren't the politically chosen proxies."

I've been one of the skeptics of Obama's strategy, and I'll remain so until the Iraqi military demonstrates the same fighting ability as the Kurdish peshmerga. Kobani, after all, is more a symbolic victory than anything else, and ISIS continues to control large swathes of Iraq. Nonetheless, at a minimum this shows that ISIS is hardly unbeatable, something that Iraqi forces probably needed to see.

Bottom line: this is a proof of concept. When we can do the same thing in Mosul with Iraqi forces in the lead, then I'll be a real believer.

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Obama's Trip to India Shortened His Life by 6 Hours

| Tue Jan. 27, 2015 12:08 PM EST
President Obama met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the weekend.

Over the weekend President Barack Obama was in India for talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on nuclear power, trade, climate change, and other topics. The climate piece was, if not necessarily a letdown, certainly less exciting than Obama's wide-reaching deal with China in November. Crucially, the China deal included specific carbon emissions reduction targets; those were left out in India over Modi's (arguably justifiable) insistence that the country be able to aggressively expand its electricity infrastructure to fight poverty.

Instead, India committed to expand its solar power capacity by 33-fold within seven years, and to work closely with the United States in advance of major UN climate talks in Paris in December. (India's participation will be vital for the summit to produce a meaningful international agreement.)

As Bloomberg's Obama got a first-hand taste in the trip of how important it is for India to fuel its growth with clean energy sources. India is already the world's third-largest greenhouse gas emitter behind China and the US, and air pollution in many of its cities far exceeds even the infamous levels in Beijing and other Chinese megalopolises.

In fact, Delhi—the capital city where Obama's meetings took place—has the world's highest concentration of PM 2.5, according to the UN. These tiny airborne particulates can increase the risk of heart disease and a host of really awful respiratory ailments. The PM 2.5 levels in Delhi are so insanely bad that breathing the air for only a few hours can have irreversible health impacts…even on the leader of the free world.

From Bloomberg:

During Obama's three-day visit, PM2.5 levels in Delhi have averaged between 76 to 84 micrograms per cubic meter, according to data collected by India's Ministry of Earth Sciences…Those levels translate roughly into an estimated loss of 2 hours a day in life expectancy, said David Spiegelhalter, a statistician at the University of Cambridge, who specializes in quantifying risk in a way that is understandable to the public.

Obama was there for three days, so that's six hours off his life. That is profoundly terrifying. It also underscores how, for developing countries, the need to stem pollution from power plants is about much more than solving the long-term problem of global warming. It's about addressing an urgent pubic health crisis.

This post has been updated.

Check Out the Adorable Creatures and Gorgeous Vistas Obama Wants to Protect in Alaska

| Tue Jan. 27, 2015 6:00 AM EST
Dall sheep are one of the 250 animal species that depend on the coastal plain in ANWR.

On Sunday, President Obama announced that he will call on Congress to increase the protection of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by adding more than 12 million acres of it to the National Wilderness Preservation System—the highest level of conservation protection. If Congress signs on, which is pretty unlikely, it would be the largest wilderness designation since the Wilderness Act, signed in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The refuge covers nearly 20 million acres and contains five distinct ecological regions. It is home to at least 200 species of birds, 37 land mammal species, eight marine mammal species, and 42 species of fish. There are plenty of political reasons why Obama wants to protect it, but here are a few of the ecological ones:

ANWR
The coastal plain provides spring grazing for caribou and other mammals. Associated Press
Conservationists argue that oil and gas drilling in the coastal plain would threaten the millions of birds that nest there. USFWS
MUSKOX
The furry musk ox—the Inupiat's call it "omingmak" ("the bearded one")—lives on the coastal plain year round. USFWS
There is a unique ecosystem of animals—that includes the arctic fox—that have adapted to survive in ANWR. USFWS
Tundra swan
Tundra swans rely on the remote and undeveloped refuge to nest. USFWS
Caribou
Caribou migrate through the coastal plain. David Gustine/USGS
According to the US Department of the Interior, oil and gas development could pollute water resources in ANWR. USFWS
ANWR is an important denning area for polar bears. Alan D. Wilson
The Alaska marmot, considered highly vulnerable to changes in habitat, calls ANWR home. USFWS

To hear Obama talk about the importance of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, watch this video:

Dust From Factory Farms Carries Drugs, Poop Bacteria, and Antibiotic-Resistant Genes Far and Wide

| Tue Jan. 27, 2015 6:00 AM EST
Does what's deposited onto the feedlot floor stay in the feedlot? The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.

Ever approached a feedlot teeming with thousands of cattle? Unlike industrialized hog and chicken farms, where huge enclosed buildings trap at least some of the smell, cattle feedlots are open-air—as anyone who has driven Highway 5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco can testify. Turns out, when you inhale the aroma, you're not just getting a blast of ammonia and other noxious fumes. You're also probably breathing in tiny particles of antibiotics, bacteria from cows' "fecal matter and gut flora," and antibiotic-resistant gene sequences. That's the conclusion of a new study from Texas Tech researchers, who analyzed air samples taken just downwind of ten cattle feedlots in Texas and states to the north, each containing between 20,000 and 50,000 cows.

The team placed portable air samplers 10-20 yards upwind and downwind of feedlots in the fall and winter months, when temperatures are mild and wind is moderate, and analyzed the particulate matter. Monenisin, an antibiotic growth promoter widely used on beef and dairy feedlots, turned up in 100 percent of samples, at much higher rates downwind (mean: 1,800 parts per billion) than upwind (below the level of measurement.) Now, monenisin isn't used in human medicine, meaning that it doesn’t directly contribute to antibiotic resistance that affects us. But tetracycline antibiotics—used commonly to treat urinary tract infections and pink eye—showed up in 60 percent of the downwind samples and 30 percent of the upwind samples, again at much lower levels upwind.

Levels of antibiotics in the air outside of feedlots were similar to those typically found within large enclosed hog operations.

To put these findings in perspective, the authors note they found antibiotics in the air outside of these feedlots at levels similar to those typically found within large enclosed hog operations—meaning that finding yourself 20 yards from a giant cattle lot is a lot like being inside a hog house.  

They also found bacteria "common to fecal matter and gut flora" at significantly higher levels downwind than upwind, including several that can cause human infections, including including corynebacterium, Leptospira, Clostridia, Bacteroides, and Staphylococcus.

And they picked up gene sequences that confer resistance to tetracycline at rates ranging from 100 to more than 1,000 times higher downwind than upwind. And get this: Those tetracycline-resistant genes appeared at much higher rates than those typically found in the liquid manure lagoons that build up in beef feedlots—meaning that wind may be even more prolific than water at spreading antibiotic-resistant genes from the farm to the surrounding region.

So how is all this nasty stuff moving from the feedlot to the surrounding air? The authors offer a simple explanation: The ground in feedlots "consists primarily of urine and fecal material," the study notes. In the morning, all of that … stuff is relatively stable, held more or less in place by moisture from humidity. But after hours of sunlight, the floor material "becomes dry and brittle, thus becoming source material for fugitive dust."

So what does this all add up to? The study doesn't comment on whether the particles the researchers found are at high enough levels to directly cause human harm. But that's not the main concern—most of us don't spend much time near massive concentrated cattle operations. (Feedlot workers are another story.) The larger issue is those antibiotic genes, traces of antibiotics, and fecal microbes that are being scattered far and wide. The authors note that of the nation's 2,100 large-scale (1000 head or greater) cattle feedlots, more than three-quarters are in the region of area study, the southern Great Plains (a swath stretching from northern Texas through parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado)—the very region with the "highest frequency of dust storms in the United States." The region's semi-arid conditions—as well its its propensity for prolonged droughts—provides an ideal environment for the "wind scouring of dry soils," and "aerial transport and deposition" of feedlot particles into "surrounding soil surfaces, water surfaces, vegetation, and other living organisms."

And that's under calm weather conditions. "Fronts and other major weather patterns frequently sweep through this region, and are often associated with exceedingly high wind velocities which themselves transport significant masses of particulates into the atmosphere and across the region and continent," they add. And once in the environment, resistance genes can jump from bacteria that don't pose a threat to humans to ones that do, the authors note.

The study is yet another reminder that the massive amounts of waste generated on factory farms don't stay on factory farms. (Here's a 2011 paper from North Carolina State and Kansas State researchers showing that cockroaches and flies carry antibiotic-resistant bacteria from large hog facilities; and a 2014 one from Johns Hopkins and University of North Carolina researchers finding that resistant bacteria leave the farm in the noses of workers.)

Scott Walker Is the Winner in 2016's First Republican Campaign Cattle Call

| Mon Jan. 26, 2015 5:05 PM EST

Rep. Steve King (R–Tea Partyville) held his big annual Republican confab in Iowa this weekend, and most of the 2016 wannabe candidates for president were there. But I know you're all busy people who don't care about the details. Youjust want to know who won. Take it away, Ed Kilgore:

The consensus winner (first announced by National Review's John Fund, but echoed by many others) was Scott Walker, who did exactly what he needed to do: show he could twist and shout with the best of them despite his "boring" image, and make an electability argument based on the fruits of confrontation rather than compromise. This latter dimension of his appeal should not be underestimated: at a time when MSM types and (more subtly) Jeb Bush and Chris Christie continue to suggest Republicans must become less feral to reach beyond their base, here's Walker saying he won three elections in four years in a blue state by going medieval on unions, abortionists and Big Government. So Walker's passed his first test in the challenge of proving he's not Tim Pawlenty, and that's a big deal given his excellent positioning in the field.

Kilgore's "Tim Pawlenty" comment is a reference to Midwestern boringness, which has generally been seen as Walker's chief shortcoming. You can judge for yourself if you watch his 20-minute speech in Iowa, but I'd say he still has some work to do on this score. He wasn't terrible, but he never sounded to me like he really struck a connection with the crowd. He knew the words but not the tune—and even his words were a little too stilted and lifeless. Anytime you deliver an applause line and nothing happens, your words still need some work. And anytime you deliver an applause line, fail to wait for applause, then interrupt yourself to tell the crowd "you can clap for that, that's all right"—well, your delivery needs some work too.

I'm on record saying that I think Walker is the strongest candidate in the Republican field. He's got the right views, he's got a winning record, he's got the confrontational style tea partiers love, and he doesn't come across as a kook. But yes, he needs to work on the whole charisma thing. If he gets serious about that, I still like his chances in the 2016 primaries.