Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
Scientists say a "perfect storm" of events has triggered the terrifying epidemic.
Tim McDonnellJan. 28, 2016 7:00 AM
A worker in Brazil disinfects the famous Sambadrome as part of the fight against the mosquito Aedes aegypti, which spreads the Zika, dengue, and chikungunya viruses.
The outbreak of Zika virus in Latin America is "spreading explosively," the director of the World Health Organization warned at an emergency meeting in Geneva on Thursday. Last week, the epidemic took a surreal turn when health officials in El Salvador advised women there not to get pregnant for the next two years. Similar, though less extreme, warnings have been issued by Brazil, Colombia, and several other countries. The virus has infected more than 1 million people during the current epidemic, and health officials say it may be linked to a spike in microcephaly, a rare condition in which infants are born with unusually small heads.
Behind the outbreak is a complex combination of environmental and economic factors. Here's what you need to know:
What is Zika? Zika was first identified in monkeys in Uganda's Zika Forest in 1947. In the years since, the disease has slowly migrated eastward around the globe, following oceanic trade routes with the help of infected sailors and mosquitoes trapped in the holds of ships. The first serious outbreak occurred in 2007 in Micronesia, where up to 60 people were infected, followed by cases in French Polynesia and on other Pacific islands. The current outbreak, which started late last year in Brazil, is the most serious yet and the first one in the Americas.
Zika is carried by Aedes aegypti, the same species of mosquito that carries dengue fever, yellow fever, and chikungunya. Compared with those other viruses, the symptoms of Zika are very mild, most often resembling a bad cold or the flu. Deaths from the virus are rare. People can contract the virus if they are bitten by a mosquito that has previously drawn blood from another infected person; apart from mother-to-fetus transfer, there's no evidence yet of person-to-person transfer. There is no vaccine or treatment.
Why is Zika a concern for pregnant women? In pregnant women, the virus could be the cause of a rapid uptick in cases of microcephaly, which causes incomplete brain development. In Brazil, cases of microcephaly rose 30-fold between 2014 and 2015, from 147 to nearly 4,000 cases, just as the Zika outbreak was taking place. That apparent correlation led to the precautionary pregnancy advisories, but scientists have yet to definitively confirm their suspicion that Zika is directly to blame for microcephaly.
"It's really quite baffling that we're seeing this microcephaly where we haven't seen it before."
Microcephaly isn't unheard-of; in the United States, it occurs in roughly 2 to 12 babies per 10,000 births, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Heidi Brown, an epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, said the troubling thing in Latin America is the rapid rate of increase in cases.
"It's really quite baffling that we're seeing this microcephaly where we haven't seen it before," Brown said. "If [a pregnant woman] gets Zika, is she likely to have a birth with microcephaly? That seems to be yes, but there could be other factors. Trying to get to that—that it's causal—is a really daunting task. We're still very early on this."
That message was echoed by Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, in a blog post Tuesday. Collins noted that US health officials, like their counterparts in Brazil, have confirmed the presence of Zika in tissue samples from some infants born with microcephaly. But he wrote that "it is now critically important to confirm, through careful epidemiological and animal studies, whether or not a causal link exists between Zika virus infections in pregnant women and microcephaly in their newborn babies."
What's the cause of the outbreak? According to Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, the outbreak was triggered by "a perfect storm" of biological, economic, and climatic events. Aedes aegypti,the mosquito that can carry Zika, has been growing in population in Latin America since first being introduced to Brazil via trans-Pacific shipping routes in the late 1980s. Brazil is also now in the middle of a severe economic downturn, while the government is in disarray as President Dilma Rousseff faces calls for impeachment for her involvement in a corruption scandal involving Petrobras, the state oil company. That has left the country with a weakened public health system that is struggling to effectively eradicate dangerous mosquitoes. This week, Brazil's health minister admitted he was "badly losing the battle" against mosquito-borne illnesses.
But the most important factor, Garrett said, is a mosquito population boom triggered by above-average rainfall, a product of this year's exceptionally strong El Niño in the Pacific. Over the last month, flooding in Brazil, Paraguay, and elsewhere has been the worst in half a century, forcing 150,000 people to evacuate their homes. Those conditions are perfect for mosquito breeding.
"One of the hallmarks of these mosquitoes is they like very clean water," Garrett said. "So rainfall is perfect for them. If it creates puddles, or accumulates in tires or any sort of containers, that will be a breeding site."
Combine that with steamy summer temperatures and lots of bare skin, and it's easy for a mosquito-borne disease to spread quickly. Along with the Zika outbreak, Garret said, dengue is also surging.
What about climate change? For environmentalist Bill McKibben, government warnings against getting pregnant were a shocking preview of the climate change dystopia just around the corner.
"Think about that. Women should avoid the most essential and beautiful of human tasks. It is unthinkable," he wrote in an op-ed for the Guardian on Monday. "Obviously we need to face up to the fact that pushing the limits of the planet's ecology has become dangerous in novel ways."
McKibben blames the Zika outbreak on "mosquitoes whose range inexorably expands as the climate warms." But while it's certainly true that global warming could lead to increases in the spread of disease-carrying mosquitoes, in the case of Zika, the mosquitoes in question have been well established in the affected region for nearly two decades.
Moreover, Brown said, increasing global temperatures mean longer breeding seasons for mosquitoes, giving them more time to infect humans. Mosquitoes also mature more quickly in higher temperatures, meaning they can reproduce sooner. And they metabolize faster, meaning they can pass a virus onto a new host more quickly after acquiring it.
"It's a question of probability: What's the probability that I'll be bitten," Brown said. "The more [mosquitoes] that are out there, those probabilities start shifting."
With all that in mind, Brown said, it's hard to draw any sweeping conclusions about the cause of this year's outbreak or make predictions about the future with only one year of data.
"[Zika] will definitely make its way to the United States," Laurie Garrett said.
"It's not just climate or vector control or human travel, but all of these things together," she said. "Maybe we just got unlucky."
The upshot is that it's too soon to point a finger at climate change for this year's outbreak. And the ways in which climate change affects future cases of mosquito-borne diseases will be much more complex than simply where mosquitoes live.
Should Americans be worried? So far, there are no cases in which US mosquitoes have transmitted Zika to people in the country. But there have been at least six recent cases—in Arkansas, New York, Virginia, Hawaii, and California—where residents who recently returned from traveling have tested positive. The CDC has posted travel advisories for more than a dozen countries with cases of Zika.
But the National Institutes of Health blog post warned that when temperatures warm up in the spring, the virus could spread to mosquitoes across the Southeast and Midwest, putting some 200 million Americans at risk.
"It will definitely make its way to the United States," Garrett said.
Paradoxically, "the El Niño that is bolstering mosquitoes under the equator is probably protecting the [US] South now," she said. "But come spring, we could see very serious mosquito problems."
The problem is Cruz's stance on the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal mandate that requires fuels made from corn, sugarcane, and other biological sources to be mixed into the nation's gasoline supply. The most prominent of these fuels is ethanol made from corn. Cruz wants to abolish the RFS (along with all government mandates and subsidies for energy, including for fossil fuels and renewables). Last week in New Hampshire he described the RFS as yet another way in which the government is "picking winners and losers."
How the 2016 contenders will deal with climate change
That position sets him apart from the other Iowa front-runners, Republican and Democrat alike. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have both expressed support for the RFS. Trump recently said he wants to increase the mandate.
Cruz's opposition to ethanol mandates puts him in a place you'd never expect to find him: on the right side of a debate about climate change.
Cruz's position could be a major liability in Iowa, where the RFS has become one of the most important corn-related federal programs and is a major fixture in the state's politics. Iowa produces by far the most corn-based ethanol and thus arguably benefits more than any other state from the RFS. Last week, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) called for Cruz's defeat in the caucuses, specifically citing Cruz's "anti-renewable fuel stand." (Branstad's son works for the ethanol trade group America's Renewable Future, the organization in the Twitter photo above.) Last week, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley (R), a longtime proponent of the RFS, said he agreed with Branstad's criticism of Cruz. Of course, Iowa Republicans aren't all single-issue voters, and it remains to be seen how much ethanol will matter to caucus-goers.
Still, Cruz's opposition to ethanol mandates puts him in a place you would never expect to find him: on the right side of a debate about climate change. Throughout the campaign, the Texas senator has been second only to Trump in his outspoken denial of mainstream global warming science. He has repeatedly used his Senate position to espouse blatantly misleading data that purportedly shows global warming stopped two decades ago. In August, he accused climate scientists of "cooking the books" and later told Glenn Beck that at this point climate change activists resemble a "religion."
But on ethanol, Cruz is on the right track.
To understand why, let's back up a bit. At the global climate talks in Paris in December, the United States committed to reduce economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. That goal mainly hinges on slashing pollution from coal-fired power plants. But the president's plan also calls for filling the tanks of the nation's cars and trucks with ever more fuel made from plants. The same day the Paris talks got underway, the Obama administration increased the requirements of the RFS. The new rules guarantee a growing market for corn-based ethanol, as well as for cutting-edge biofuels made of everything from grass to algae.
Especially in New York and New Jersey, where snowfall could be up to one foot, major flooding is also predicted, on par with what you would expect from major hurricane landfall. Farther south, Uccellini said, Kentucky and North Carolina could face ice storms and freezing rain. Through the weekend, he said, East Coasters should expect delays affecting highways and air travel. The electric utility in DC said it has hundreds of crew members standing by to fix downed electric lines, and Port Authority workers in New Jersey are preparing to insulate underground train systems from the flooding:
As my Climate Desk friend Eric Holthaus explains at Slate, this storm is "the real deal." Uccellini said his staff are working around the clock (and sleeping in their offices) and doubling the number of weather balloons being dispatched to get the best up-to-date forecast. But even now, he said he was surprised by the unusual level of agreement across a wide range of models, satellite reports, and other data sources. In other words, chances are slim that the storm turns out to be a nothingburger.
"I would suggest people pay attention to this system," he said.
The upshot: Now's the time to buy some bottled water and batteries, and don't drive to work tomorrow if you can help it. Oh, and, uh, make sure to tweet responsibly:
2015 was almost certainly the hottest year since we began keeping records, according to data released today by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In a press release Wednesday, NASA stated that it was 94 percent confident that last year was the warmest since 1880. Here's a chart from NOAA:
"Record warmth was spread throughout the world," said Thomas Karl, director of NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information. "Ten of 12 months were records. That's the first time we've seen that."
Shattered global temperature records are becoming increasingly commonplace, thanks to climate change; with today's announcement, all five of the hottest years on record have occurred in the last decade. But the amount by which 2015 shattered the previous record, in 2014, was itself a record, scientists said. That's due in part to this year's El Niño, characterized by exceptionally high temperatures in the Pacific Ocean.
But Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said the effects of El Niño only really appeared in the last few months of the year, and that 2015 likely would have been a record year regardless.
"2015 was warm right from the beginning; it didn't start with El Niño," he said. "The reason this is such a record is because of the long-term trend, and there is no evidence that trend has slowed or paused over the last two decades."
Schmidt added that El Niño is likely to persist into 2016, which means we could be in for a record-breaking year yet again.
A couple of years ago, Steven Weissman, an energy lawyer at the University of California-Berkeley, started to shop around for solar panels for his house. It seemed like an environmental no-brainer. For zero down, leading residential provider SolarCity would install panels on his roof. The company would own the equipment, and he'd buy the power it produces for less than he had been paying his electric utility. Save money, fight climate change. Sounds like a deal.
But while reading the contract, Weissman discovered the fine print that helps make that deal possible: SolarCity would also retain ownership of his system's renewable energy credits. It's the kind of detail your average solar customer wouldn't notice or maybe care about. But to Weissman, it was an unexpected letdown.