Blue Marble - September 2012

Longreads: 5 Diseases You Didn't Know to Worry About

| Fri Sep. 28, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

longreadsIn 2012, none of America's top killers are contagious. You don't get cancer, diabetes, or heart disease at the swimming pool or just because someone sneezed on you. But a hundred years ago, you probably died from something you caught. While hygiene and modern medicine have thankfully eliminated the deadliest of those bugs, there's still plenty of parasites, bacteria, and viruses hoping to reproduce in the warm, cozy environment of your body. Like it or not, we and these microbes are intimately intertwined.

Climate change is expanding the geographic reach of some diseases, possibly including hantavirus, brain eating amoebas, and at least seven others. Others, once eradicated, have returned due to indiscriminate antibiotic use. And still other diseases have remained a mystery, continuing to frustrate doctors and patients. Below, we've rounded up the best long-form journalism on disease, ready for your consumption. Apologies in advance, hypochondriacs.

For more long stories from Mother Jones check out our longreads archive. And, of course, if you're not following @longreads and @motherjones on Twitter yet, get on that.
 


Sex and the Superbug (Gonorrhea) | Jerome Groopman | The New Yorker | October 2012 

Are blow jobs responsible for drug-resistant gonorrhea? Related question: Does anyone use condoms during oral sex? Our combined lax attitudes toward antibiotics use and oral sex have spawned a strain of gonorrhea resistant to every known antibiotic. Luckily, there is a cheap, easy solution—if only we'll use it.

Condoms, long dismissed as unnecessary for birth control and suboptimal for pleasure, ultimately returned as a proven way to stem the spread of H.I.V. The challenge now facing the public-health community is how to persuade people to rethink an insidious disease—and, to a great extent, a sexual practice—that has come to be viewed as trivial. As the distinction between safe sex and safer sex becomes ever less meaningful, the responsibility to be vigilant grows more personal, and more urgent.

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Video: Melting Sea Ice Has Changed Life in Greenland

| Fri Sep. 28, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

This story first appeared on the Guardian website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Sea ice in the Arctic has shrunk to its smallest extent ever recorded, smashing the previous record minimum and prompting warnings of accelerated climate change. Klaus Thyman from Project Pressure speaks to two Greenlanders about how the extreme shift is impacting their everyday lives.

The Arctic Is Way Hotter Now Than Anytime in Past 1,800 Years

| Thu Sep. 27, 2012 12:14 PM PDT

Since 1987 summers on Svalbard have been up to 4.5°F (2.5°C) hotter than they were there during the warmest parts of the Medieval Warm Period: Svalbard landscape: Wen Nag (aliasgrace) via Flicke. Viking statue: frankdouwes via Flickr. Mashup: Julia Whitty (thanks PicMonkey!)Summers on Svalbard are up to 4.5°F (2.5°C) hotter than during the warm period when Vikings colonized Greenland and Iceland: Svalbard landscape: Wen Nag (aliasgrace) via Flickr. Viking statue: frankdouwes via Flickr. Mashup: Julia Whitty (thanks PicMonkey!)

Things are so hot on the Norwegian Arctic island of Svalbard these days that if the Vikings were still around they'd flee north to get away from their own sweat. Okay, that's total conjecture. But a fascinating new paper in the science journal Geology describes how much hotter it is on Svalbard now than it was during the Medieval Warm Period when Vikings colonized Greenland and Iceland and briefly Newfoundland.

The Medieval Warm Period was driven by a natural increase in solar radiation that warmed parts of the northern hemisphere and severely dried out others (California, Nevada, Mississippi Valley). The current warming is driven by us.

Since 1987 summers on Svalbard have been 3.6° to 4.5°F (2° to 2.5°C) hotter than they were  during the warmest parts of the Medieval Warm Period.

The authors used a novel method to decipher temperatures on Svalbard for the past 1,800 years based on the fatty remains of microscopic algae left behind in Kongressvatnet lake. Turns out the algae are miniature record-keepers extraordinaire because they make more unsaturated fats in colder water and more saturated fats in warmer waters, reports the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

The researchers then dated the sediments based on grains of glass spat from volcanoes hundreds of miles away in Iceland: Snæfellsjökullin volcano in the year 170, Hekla in 1104 and Öræfajökull in 1362. How cool is that detective work?

The big difference with the new research is that most Arctic climate records come from ice cores that tell of winter snowfalls. The lake sediments record summertime temperatures. Which reveals a lot about how climate varied from winter to summer and also in places where there are no (longer) ice sheets.

Based on the new summertime story, here's some of what the authors learned:

  • The region was not particularly cold during another recent anomalous period: the Little Ice Age of the 18th and 19th centuries when Svalbard glaciers grew to their greatest extent of the past 10,000 years (and when glaciers in much of parts of Western Europe grew too).
  • This suggests that a wetter climate (more snow) rather than colder temperatures may have fed the Svalbard glaciers.
  • By 1600 Western Svalbard had begun to gradually warm as the northern arm of the Gulf Stream (the West Spitsbergen Current) brought more tropical water to the region. 
  • In 1890 the warming began to accelerate.
  • Meanwhile ice cores from Svalbard tell a different wintertime story: a slight cooling over the last 1,800 years.
  • The conflicting evidence suggests that temperatures may have fluctuated sharply between winter and summer.

From the Earth Institute at Columbia University:

Climate models suggest that by 2100 Svalbard will warm more than any other landmass on earth, due to a combination of sea-ice loss and changes in atmospheric and oceanic circulation... In a study published last year in the journal Advances in Meteorology, Norwegian researchers estimate that average winter temperature in Svalbard could rise by as much as 10 degrees C or 18 degrees Fahrenheit [by 2100].

 

 

This video from lead author Billy D'Andrea, a research professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, describes the scientific motivations behind his work.

The paper:

  • William J. D'Andrea, David A. Vaillencourt, Nicholas L. Balascio, Al Werner, Steven R. Roof, Michael Retelle and Raymond S. Bradley. Mild Little Ice Age and unprecedented recent warmth in an 1800 year lake sediment record from Svalbard. Geology (2012). DOI:10.1130/G33365.1 

     

2 out of 3 Frackers Still Keeping Chemicals a Secret

| Thu Sep. 27, 2012 11:06 AM PDT

Many states don't require companies that use fracking technology to disclose what exactly is in the fluids they inject into the ground. The fracking fluids, which combine chemicals, water, and sand, have been found to include toxic diesel-based chemicals, so there's a lot of interest in what companies are using.

Some states do require at least partial disclosure of those chemicals, as my colleague Tim McDonnell has highlighted. But as EnergyWire reported on Wednesday, even in places where companies are filing disclosures, two out of three companies are claiming exemptions for some of the ingredients as "trade secrets":

At least one chemical was kept secret in 65 percent of fracking disclosures by companies that said they needed to protect confidential business information, according to a review of PIVOT Upstream Group's D-Frac database done for EnergyWire.
Critics of drilling say the widespread use of such "trade secret" exemptions undermines the industry's assurances that drillers are being open with the communities where they are "fracking" wells and producing oil and gas.

Seeking to protect fracking fluid ingredients as proprietary information is certainly not new for the industry. Companies have previously claimed that, just like Coca-Cola, their products are safe and the special formula is top secret. Critics of the industry believe, however, that the "trade secrets" claim is used to avoid disclosing chemicals that are potentially harmful.

Pygmy Seahorse Discovered on Google Street View

| Wed Sep. 26, 2012 10:43 AM PDT

Denise's pygmy seahorse: O.J.Brett, Norway, via Wikemedia CommonsDenise's pygmy seahorse: O.J.Brett, Norway, via Wikimedia Commons

In the course of mapping the the world's reefs for Google Street View, divers found the teensy weensy Denise's pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus denise) in Australian waters for the first time, reports New Scientist (subscription). The five-eighths-inch long (1.5 cm) seahorse had previously been found living on coral reefs off Vanuatu, Palau, Malaysia, Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, and southern Japan. The mapping team found it off Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef at 302 feet (92 meters) deep.

"It's very much a critical time for reefs and we want to cover as much as we can in the next two to three years to create a global record," says project founder and director Richard Vevers.

The announcement marks today's launch of Google underwater street view. In the same way you can virtually walk around the topside world you can now virtually dive through the underwater world of a coral reef off Australia. It's stage one of a six-part underwater series. Next up, the deep and shallow coral reefs of Hawaii, the Philippines, and Bermuda.

The mappers are Catlin Seaview Survey—a partnership between the global insurance company Catlin Group Limited and the nonprofit Underwater Earth (check out the insanely beautiful images at their site). One of the two unique cameras used for the project (each capturing ≤50,000 360-degree panoramic images stitched together to create the underwater street views) was named "Sylvia," for legendary marine biologist Sylvia Earle, founder of Mission Blue.

The lucky mappers probably have the coolest job on Earth. And they've given us another unbelievably addicting way to get no work done.

 

 

Carpe Climate: House Dems Seize Extreme Summer to Attack GOP

| Wed Sep. 26, 2012 10:20 AM PDT
Markey: "Romney is an extremist on extreme weather."

In these first days of autumn, temperatures are finally starting to break after the country's third-hottest summer on record. But meanwhile, most of the country is still locked in terrible drought, rebuilding after wildfires, or drying out after Hurricane Issac. And after endless calls from scientists and signs that the public are shifting on climate change in response to extreme weather, climate-minded Democrats are seeing an opportunity to lampoon House Republicans as climate skeptics in the runup to November's general election.

Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the legislators behind Congress' first (and failed) big stab at carbon pricing legislation, yesterday released a study that lays out the case for why global warming is a predictor of more severe and frequent weather disasters. A press release for the study slammed Republicans as responding to extreme weather by taking steps to "deny science and block action," indicating that House Democrats have embraced climate change as wedge issue.

"We wanted to show that [Mitt] Romney is an extremist when it comes to extreme weather," Markey told reporters.

"We wanted to show that [Mitt] Romney is an extremist when it comes to extreme weather," Markey told reporters after addressing a Union of Concerned Scientists symposium in Washington on the need to improve public access to government research.

There's little that's groundbreaking in the study, which is built largely around pre-existing data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But after this summer's freakish weather, and with one presidential candidate for whom climate change is a punchline, Markey said he is seeking to gain an acknowledgement in Congress that the weather we now see as extreme is likely to become normal. He's tried to make this case once before, in the short-lived Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which was killed by House Republicans in 2010.

Despite the overtly political nature of the study's debut, Markey said his goal is to reprioritize science over politics in the Congressional debate about climate change.

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The Impending Global Bacon Shortage... and Climate Change

| Wed Sep. 26, 2012 8:33 AM PDT

We are all so very screwed. Here is a CBS News report to ruin your day:

Britain's National Pig Association, "the voice of the British pig industry," warned recently that a global shortage of bacon and pork "is now unavoidable" because of shrinking herds...[A]nnual pig production for Europe's main pig producers fell across the board between 2011 and 2012, a trend that "is being mirrored around the world." The group tied the decline to increased feed costs, an effect of poor harvests for corn and soybeans...

But the projected decline isn't news to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In its monthly outlook report (PDF) from August, the department linked a reduction next year in the United States to this year's drought in the Midwest.

Why Don't More American Women Use IUDs?

| Wed Sep. 26, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

Data from 2006 except for the US, which is from 2009. Source: Guttmacher Institute

It's easy to forget, amidst the current threats to restrict access to contraception, that for much of their lives, women still face the dilemma of which type of birth control to use. My friends and I are no different: More and more of us are now choosing intrauterine devices, those hormone-emitting or copper-wrapped plastic wonders that I hadn't paid much attention to until about a year or two ago, when I decided to switch to an IUD. After one albeit painful appointment to get the tiny instrument inserted, I no longer have to remember to take a pill or worry about needing to re-up my supply every month or before traveling; lucky for me, my insurance paid for the whole shebang. (My colleagues Kate Sheppard and Stephanie Mencimer both wrote about recently landing on this option, too.)

As it turns out, we're in the minority. Although long-lasting reversible contraceptive methods (LARCs) like IUDs are pretty popular in Europe (27 percent of Norwegian female contraception users have one) and China (41 percent!), only around 8.5 percent of women in the United States choose these as their birth control method, among the lowest of any developed country, according to a recent report by the Guttmacher Institute. But while at least half of my girlfriends now have IUDs, some of them have had to jump through hoops and even lie to convince their doctors to prescribe them one. Why has it been hard for young women in the United States to get their hands on this type of birth control?

Night of the Living Honeybees?

| Wed Sep. 26, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

There are so many things in this world to be afraid of: hantavirus, brain-eating amoebas, the bubonic plague. Now you can add "zombie bees" to that list.

Beekeepers in Washington state have found bees whose bodies were taken over by apocephalus borealis, a type of parasitic fly that "causes the bees to lurch around erratically before dropping dead." It's really something straight out of a horror flick. While normal bees spent the night in their hives, infected bees are out on the prowl, exhibiting "zombie-like behavior" on "a flight of the living dead," according to the website researchers have put together on the subject, ZomBee Watch. Here's how the Seattle Times described what happens, per San Francisco State University biologist John Hafernik, the guy who first discovered the infected bees:

The fly's life cycle is gruesomely reminiscent of the movie "Alien" — though they don't pose a risk to people. Adult females, smaller than a fruit fly, land on the backs of foraging honeybees and use their needle-sharp ovipositors to inject eggs into the bee's abdomen. The eggs hatch into maggots. "They basically eat the insides out of the bee," Hafernik said.
After consuming their host, the maggots pupate, forming a hard outer shell that looks like a fat, brown grain of rice. When [Washington beekeeper Mark] Hohn looked in his Ziploc bag a week later, he saw several pupae — the smoking gun evidence that his bees were infected. He's still waiting for the first adult flies to emerge from the shells, a process that takes three to four weeks.

The zombees were first documented in California in 2008. There are now confirmed instances of the afflicted bees in Washington, Oregon, and South Dakota, and sampling is taking place in five other states where cases are suspected. The project is a collaboration between San Francisco State University Department of Biology, the San Francisco State University Center for Computing for Life Sciences and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Scientists are trying to figure out if the parasitic flies may be one of the reasons for Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious condition causing massive die-offs in honeybee populations.

Gender Bias Blocks Women in Science

| Tue Sep. 25, 2012 9:20 AM PDT

We hear a lot about the gender imbalance in the sciences. Now scientists have looked at one reason women might be disinclined to join the profession: gender bias. A new study from researchers at Yale University analyzed how professors treated candidates for a lab manager position, using applications that were identical in every way except the name on the top of the form. Here's what they found:

Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant.

The study, published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), focused on professors in biology, chemistry, and physics, three hard sciences where men typically outnumber women. The researchers found that, based on these fake candidates, professors preferred those with male names—and offered them a starting salary that averaged $4,000 higher than the candidate with female names. 

But here's what's perhaps the most interesting part of the study:

It is noteworthy that female faculty members were just as likely as their male colleagues to favor the male student. The fact that faculty members’ bias was independent of their gender, scientific discipline, age, and tenure status suggests that it is likely unintentional, generated from widespread cultural stereotypes rather than a conscious intention to harm women.

This suggests that the answer isn't necessarily just getting more women into the profession—and, more specifically, into academic jobs. Instead, it suggests that more needs to be done overall to change the impression of women as less-qualified simply by virtue of being women. Certainly, getting more women into the profession would go a long way toward addressing the bias, but it might not be the only remedy necessary. 

This reminds me of an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal from 2006, in which transgender scientists described their experiences working in the field first as a woman, and then later as a man after they transitioned. Neurobiologist Ben Barres talked about how much more accepted and praised his research was when he presented it as a man, rather than as Barbara Barres. As a woman, Barres was often rejected for positions that she was just as, if not more, qualified for than male colleagues.