Blue Marble - August 2007

Study Confirms Human-To-Human Spread Of Avian-Flu

| Wed Aug. 29, 2007 10:38 PM EDT

Doctors on scene were mumbling about this when it happened. Now researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center confirm that the avian influenza A (H5N1) virus spread between a small number of people within a family in Indonesia in 2006. Using a computerized disease-transmission model that took into account the number of infected cases, the number of people potentially exposed, and the viral-incubation period, the researchers produced the first statistical confirmation of humans contracting the disease from each other rather than from infected birds.

The cluster contained a chain of infection involving a 10-year-old boy who probably caught the virus from his 37-year-old aunt, who had been exposed to dead poultry and chicken feces, the presumed source of infection. The boy then probably passed the virus to his father—a possibility supported by genetic sequencing. Other person-to-person transmissions in the cluster were backed up with statistical data. All but one of the flu victims died, and all had had sustained close contact with other ill family members prior to getting sick—a factor crucial for transmission of this particular flu strain.

"The containment strategy [quarantine] was implemented late in the game, so it could have been just luck that the virus burned out," said lead author Ira M. Longini Jr. "It went two generations and then just stopped, but it could have gotten out of control. The world really may have dodged a bullet with that one, and the next time we might not be so lucky."

The researchers estimate the risk of one infected person passing it to another to be 29 percent—a level of infectiousness similar to seasonal influenza A in the United States. They also assessed another large avian-flu cluster in eastern Turkey with eight infected people in 2006, four of whom died. In this case, there was no statistical evidence of human-to-human transmission—though that was most likely due to a lack of sufficient data. "There probably was person-to-person spread there as well but we couldn't get all the information we needed for the analysis," said author, Yang Yang.

After near hysteria, the media's gone Rip Van Winkle on this one. Not a good idea. The problem has not gone away. JULIA WHITTY

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Natural Disasters More Destructive Than Wars

| Tue Aug. 28, 2007 8:21 PM EDT

Natural disasters are far more destructive than wars. And the damage will only worsen unless drastic change is taken to address global climate change. This according to Jan Egeland, the United Nations head of humanitarian affairs from 2003-2006. In an interview with AFP [via Yahoo], Egeland said: "Already seven times more livelihoods are devastated by natural disasters than by war worldwide, at the moment, and this is going to be much worse, the way the climate is developing. Climate change, it's happening. It's not a threat. It's happening today and those who suffer the most are the poorest in Africa. Where there was already drought, the droughts are getting worse. Where there was already flooding the floodings are getting worse, as we speak." Egeland called for dramatic changes in lifestyles "if we are to avoid having disasters virtually every month in large parts of the world."

You mean, like: Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio, Tennessee, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Idaho, Montana, Greece, England, India, China, Mexico, Sudan, Taiwan—to name a few.

Btw, if you have time to follow only one link to recent disasters, I suggest the Christian Science Monitor piece on how the Greek fires are linked to a deadly dearth of environmental protection. It's a good example of how our hubris towards the natural world creates ugly synergistic feedback loops.

Oh, and this is what it will cost to keep natural disasters from getting a lot worse. A bargain. JULIA WHITTY

Massive Investment Needed Against Climate Change

| Tue Aug. 28, 2007 7:29 PM EDT

Hey, compared to the cost of the war in Iraq, this is fire sale. Plus, a whole lot more effective for homeland security [read why]. A new UN report presented in Vienna says that more than 200 billion dollars will be needed by 2030 just to keep greenhouse gas emissions at today's levels. According to AFP, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change estimates that between 0.3 and 0.5 percent of global gross domestic product, and between 1.1 and 1.7 percent of global investment, will need to be spent on addressing climate change. This will include investing in technology research and renewable energy. It will also require energy efficiency for transport, industry and construction, as well as supporting agroforestry, and implementing sustainable forest management. The report also states that, in the short term, energy efficiency remains the most promising means to reduce emissions. . . So, have you changed to flourescent light bulbs yet? Are you riding that bike? It's well known in the bike industry that most Americans ride their new bikes a full 18 miles before garaging them forever. Come on. Our cheapest fuel remains human fat. JULIA WHITTY

California's Healthcare Battle In A Nutshell

| Sat Aug. 25, 2007 3:37 PM EDT

Leave it to the Washington Post to give the best synopsis I've read of the battle currently underway in California between the Republican governor (Schwarzenegger) and the Democratic legislature over efforts to create a statewide healthcare plan. Though California hasn't actually led the way in this kind of initiative (look to Hawaii and, much later, Massachusetts), its decision—due in three weeks—may well set the agenda for other states and presidential candidates to follow.

The urgency here, reports the Post, is that Californians are less likely to be covered than residents of 45 other states, and those who are covered are concerned it's not going to be there for them when they need it. . . [sure is a familiar feeling in my world, read: self-employed and paying scary, ever-increasing percentage of meager earnings for dubiously useable health insurance. . .] Read here for examples of why that is.

From the WP:

Under both the governor's proposal and the Democrats', employers would have to spend a minimum amount on health care for workers or pay money into a state-run purchasing pool through which people could buy private insurance. But the employer's fee under the Democrats would be higher—7.5 percent of payroll, compared with 4 percent of payroll under Schwarzenegger's plan. Another difference: The governor would require physicians to pay 2 percent of their revenue to the state, and hospitals 4 percent, to help finance the new system. The Democrats' plan has no such charges. The governor would require everyone to have a basic level of health insurance; the Democrats have no individual mandate. Both plans would expand public programs and subsidized coverage for low-income families. Neither is cheap. Schwarzenegger's plan would cost $12 billion annually and cover an estimated 4.1 million people; the Democrats' would cost $8.3 billion and cover 3.4 million.

Let's hope they reach a tenable consensus and trigger tons o' momentum on a national agenda. Once again, Californians, have more power than they realize. . . JULIA WHITTY

Missing Icecap Begets More Melting

| Sat Aug. 25, 2007 2:57 AM EDT

This from Jeff Master's Wunderblog on the disappearance of summer Arctic sea ice. The record low was smashed (again) just last week:

With one third of the Arctic ice cap already gone, and another month of melting to go, we need to consider what effect this will have on weather, climate, and sea level rise. Well, we don't need to worry about sea level rise, since the polar sea ice is already in the ocean, and won't appreciably change sea level when it melts. However, the remarkable melting of the ice cap will likely lead to unusual weather patterns this fall and winter. The lack of sea ice will put much more heat and moisture into the polar atmosphere, affecting the path of the jet stream and the resultant storm tracks. Expect a much-delayed arrival of winter to the Northern Hemisphere again this year, which may lead to further accelerated melting of the ice cap in future years.

Here's an animation of the past, present and forecast future from UCAR. JULIA WHITTY

Weird Weather Watch: Tropical Storm in the Midwest

| Fri Aug. 24, 2007 4:37 PM EDT

Say what? That's right, the remnants of Tropical Storm Erin have plagued Ohio this week, causing the worst flood in a century, killing 25 and causing 1,000 homes to be evacuated. The crest of the flood has passed, but the rain is expected to continue. Oh yeah, in those places where it has cleared, record heat has taken its place. Take me to Ohio!

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Electric Shocks Prompt "Impulsive" and "Primitive" Side of Brain

| Fri Aug. 24, 2007 3:08 PM EDT

A recent study coming out of Britain finds that when the threat of electric shock looms near, humans shift from the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that governs rational thought—in order to engage the "fight or flight" part of the brain. In the study (published in its entirety yesterday in Science), volunteers played a game similar to Pac-Man, in which they had to evade a predator. When the computer predator caught them, they would receive a shock to the hand. Researchers found that as the predator closed in, the threat of imminent punishment moved the player's thinking from rational to impulsive and primitive.

This study makes me wonder, then, how autistic and mentally retarded students—profiled in "School of Shock," a feature from the current issue of Mother Jones—react to the constant threat of punitive electric shocks. If what the British study suggests is true and the threat of electric shock makes people less rational, I'd assume the shocks would also make it harder for autistic and developmentally disabled students to reason out why they're being punished. And if fear and the threat of electric shocks increase incidents of impulsive behavior, it seems like a vicious and terribly inefficient system to me, considering these impulsive acts are the very behaviors students are often punished for in the first place.

In addition, a pervasive environment of fear at school (described in detail in our article) would also make academics more difficult because students are using the "fight or flight" part of their brain rather than the prefrontal cortex, which rules abstract reasoning and complex decision-making.

Glacier Surfing

| Thu Aug. 23, 2007 11:49 PM EDT

New climate, new sport. Opportunity in the midst of chaos? JULIA WHITTY

Bush Okays Blowing Up Mountains for Mining Companies

| Thu Aug. 23, 2007 1:59 PM EDT

Bush is set to release a regulation tomorrow that will allow mining companies to blast the tops off mountains and dump the resulting waste in nearby streams and valleys. Currently the practice, called mountaintop mining, exists in a hazy legal status but has been used regularly for the past two decades. The new rule will loosen a 1983 law which prohibits disturbing soils within 100 feet of streams (in the past, companies have been sued under the Clean Water Act for dumping mining waste into streams), essentially giving coal companies the go-ahead.

As we reported last year, the Appalachian mountains (where the majority of mountaintop removal mining takes place) have been so degraded that the public can take tours of the mind-boggling environmental damage. But mining companies and their coal mining advocates think they are providing a great service. Proponents claim that coal reduces our reliance on foreign oil and mountaintop removal provides more flat land for big box stores like Wal-Mart. Woo-hoo!

Where Are All the Dolphins?

| Wed Aug. 22, 2007 8:09 PM EDT

Worrying news from Europe on the lack of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) in the Bay of Biscay this summer. Researchers from the wildlife conservation group Marinelife have been conducting scientific surveys of whales, dolphins and seabirds in the English Channel and Bay of Biscay every month for the last 13 years. All told they've counted more than 20 cetacean species and more than a hundred thousand animals. However, as Science Daily reports, this summer is proving alarmingly different. The three main dolphin species, Common Dolphin, Striped Dolphin and Bottlenose Dolphin, are down ~80% from last year. Seabirds — auks, shearwaters, and gannets — are also largely absent. The year is also marked by a collapse of the anchovy fishery — such that fishing bans are in place for the Spanish and French fleets. The researchers worry this reduction in fish stocks, which may be due to overfishing, may also be linked to climate change (read MoJo's The Last Days of the Ocean package for more on these issues). Furthermore, dolphins in these waters are frequent bycatch victims of the fishing fleets, with thousands dying each year in the nets, and many of them washing up dead on the beaches. . . Well, there's a lovely way to start your summer holiday, on a beach devoid of any living thing but loaded with the sad carcasses of dead dolphins. Can we get a louder SOS from the ocean?