Blue Marble

Nepal Just Had a Deadly Freak Avalanche. Is Climate Change To Blame?

| Thu Oct. 16, 2014 11:32 AM EDT
Rescue workers carry the body of an avalanche victim at the Thorong La Pass in Mustang, Nepal, on October 15.

Hikers on one of Nepal's most popular mountaineering routes may have had a deadly face-off with climate change this week, when a freak storm swept in and triggered an avalanche that killed at least 27 people.

Rescue work is underway for dozens of hikers who are still missing. October is typically a time for clear skies in Nepal, and already some scientists are pointing a finger of blame at global warming for the unseasonable storm. From the Toronto Star:

The current situation in Nepal — the incessant rain, blizzard and avalanche — appears to have been triggered by the tail of Cyclone Hudhud in neighboring India. The cyclone, reports suggest, was among the strongest storms recorded off the Indian coast.

“Storms in that region are getting stronger,” said John Stone, an IPCC lead author and adjunct professor at Carleton University in Ottawa. “It is not inconsistent with what scientists have been saying.”

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, a regional agency based in Kathmandu that serves eight countries, said in a May report — just weeks after the April avalanche on Mt. Everest — that rising temperatures have shrunk Nepal’s glaciers by almost a quarter between 1977 and 2010, with an average of 38 square kilometers vanishing annually.

The report said that besides bringing more intense and frequent floods, avalanches and landslides affecting millions of people living in remote mountain areas, such changes could also hit adventure-seeking mountaineers.

As if summitting a giant Himalayan peak wasn't scary enough already.

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Survey: Four Out of Five Nurses Have Gotten No Ebola Training At All

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 2:42 AM EDT
Nurses hold signs at NNU rally

Update, October 15, 1:50 p.m. EDT: A second hospital worker who treated the Dallas Ebola patient has tested positive for the disease. Health officials have confirmed that prior to her diagnosis she boarded a flight from Cleveland to Dallas/Fort Worth on Frontier Airlines. The CDC is monitoring potential risk of exposure to 132 passengers aboard.

A new survey conducted by the National Nurses Union shows US hospitals may not be adequately prepared to handle Ebola patients, should the virus continue to spread. Out of the 2,200 nurses who responded to the union's questionnaire, 85 percent reported that their hospitals had not provided education on Ebola. 76 percent said their institution had no policy for how to admit and handle patients potentially infected with the virus. More than a third claimed their hospitals didn't have enough safety supplies, including eye protection and fluid resistant gowns.

The survey results were announced on Sunday, just after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that a health worker in Texas had tested positive for the virus. The CDC's director, Thomas Frieden cited a "breach of protocol" as the likely reason.

Now—as agency officials scramble to figure out just what that breach was—nurses are pushing back. On Monday, NNU nurses in red shirts rallied in Oakland, Calif. with signs reading, "Stop Blaming Nurses. Stop Ebola."

"We have been surveying nurses for almost two months about Ebola preparedness," Charles Idelson, an NNU spokesman, said Monday. "What these survey results clearly indicate is that hospitals are still not doing enough to be properly prepared to respond."

The CDC has announced plans to deploy an Ebola response team "within hours" at any hospital where an Ebola patient is admitted. At a press conference, Frieden said the agency is responding to calls from hospitals that are underprepared to handle the crisis.

On Monday, Frieden said the the CDC is also working with hospitals to better train health workers on Ebola precautions."We have to rethink the way we address Ebola infection control," he said. For example, he said, in some cases health workers may actually be wearing too much protective gear, making it harder to remove and dispose of the material.

The NNU survey showed that, even as the CDC called for more hands-on training, especially on how to properly put on and remove safety equipment, few hospitals have provided it for their employees. Ideslson says most are simply pointing nurses to information on their websites, or linking to CDC information. Staffing is another concern, with 63 percent of nurses reporting that hospital facilities won't adjust the number of assigned patients per nurse to reflect the additional time required to care for infectious patients.

"We are going to continue to protest the failure of so many of these hospitals to put adequate safety measures in place," Idelson said; he wouldn't rule out the potential for healthcare workers to walk out on strike, much as Liberian health care workers have.

The American Hospital Association, an organization that represents nearly 5,000 hospitals nationwide, is now calling on hospitals to bolster their training regimens, turned down my request for an interview, but sent a statement saying, "We strongly encourage all hospitals to conduct employee retraining on how to use personal protective equipment to protect themselves from Ebola and other potentially deadly communicable diseases."

Even if hospitals are prepared, however, it can be difficult to comply with both patient needs and the social blowback that comes with an Ebola diagnosis. The New York Times reported yesterday that  Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, a center that had prepared for an outbreak long before the current crisis began, struggled with the county threatening to stop sewer service, couriers refusing to transport blood samples, and pizza delivery services refusing to come to any part of the hospital. And as my colleague Tim Murphy has reported, Louisiana's attorney general has said the state, which processes a wide variety of hazardous wastes from around the nation, may take legal action to stop the incinerated belongings of deceased Ebola patient Eric Duncan from coming to one of its landfills.

In his press conference, Frieden warned that such fears are unfounded and counterproductive. "The enemy here is a virus. It's not a person, it's not a country, it's not a place, it's not a hospital—it's a virus. It's a virus that's tough to fight, but together I'm confident that we will stop it."

A Place With the Population of West Virginia Just Powered A Work Day Entirely on Clean Energy

| Tue Oct. 14, 2014 9:39 AM EDT
Wind energy is booming in South Australia.

Here's one for the naysayers who insist renewable energy can't keep the lights on and power our cities. An entire state in Australia with a population of  around 1.7 million people just used renewable energy to meet 100 percent of its electricity needs throughout an entire working day. According to industry news site Energy Business News:

Between 9.30 and 6pm on Tuesday, September 30, a day not unlike most Tuesdays, with business and homes using electricity as usual, the state received the favourable weather conditions allowing solar and wind infrastructure to work side by side to achieve the impressive achievement.

The analysis comes from Pitt & Sherry, an Australian energy consultancy. As the wind picked up, all but two of the state's coal-fired power generators, and one gas-powered unit, were shut down; the excess power was exported to other regions, according to the report. There were a few moments during the previous days—on September 27 and 28—when the state actually produced more wind power than the state's total energy demand. Normally, nearly a third of the state's energy comes from renewable sources, according to figures from 2012 to 2013.

South Australia, home to the city of Adelaide, has almost half of the country's wind capacity; 25 percent of its households have rooftop solar installations, according to the report. The state is aggressively pursuing green energy goals, upping its 2025 renewable energy commitment from 33 percent to 50 percent, having met its previous goal six years ahead of schedule.

This is despite the conservative federal government under Prime Minister Tony Abbott threatening to gut a national renewable energy target, having already defunded several government agencies responsible for the country's climate change policies. In July, Australia became the world's first developed nation to repeal a carbon tax.

All of that policy uncertainty is having an impact on the renewable energy sector in Australia. Investment has virtually frozen in a land famous for being bathed in sun. Recent data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance shows Australia is on track to record its lowest level of financing for big renewable projects since 2002, dropping the country from the 11th largest investor to 31st in Bloomberg's rankings. In the third quarter of this year, investment was down 78 percent from the same time last year.

Pentagon: We Could Soon Be Fighting Climate Wars

| Mon Oct. 13, 2014 12:45 PM EDT
The submarine USS Annapolis breaks through three feet of ice in the Arctic Ocean during an exercise in 2009. A report today from the Pentagon calls for an increased US military presence in the Arctic.

In one of its strongest statements yet on the need to prepare for climate change, the Defense Department today released a report that says global warming "poses immediate risks to US national security" and will exacerbate national security-related threats ranging "from infectious disease to terrorism."

The report, embedded below, builds on climate readiness planning at the Pentagon that stretches back to the George W. Bush administration. But today's report is the first to frame climate change as a serious near-term challenge for strategic military operations; previous reports have tended to focus on long-term threats to bases and other infrastructure.

The report "is quite an evolution of the DoD's thinking on understanding and addressing climate threats," said Francesco Femia, co-director of the Center for Climate and Security. "The Department is not looking out into the future, it's looking at what's happening now."

 

Photos: This Year's Strongest Typhoon Pounds Japan

| Mon Oct. 13, 2014 11:04 AM EDT

Typhoon Vongfong—the word means "wasp" in Cantonese—brought torrential rain and damaging winds to Japan overnight, as it continued its northward trajectory across the Japanese islands. The powerful storm arrived just a week after Japan was hit by another typhoon, Phanfone, which took the lives of three US airman off Okinawa, a southern Japanese island where the US maintains a large military base. Last week, Vongfong became the strongest cyclone system observed all year, anywhere in the world—equivalent to a category 5 hurricane. It was downgraded to a tropical storm as it hit the Japanese island of Kyushu. The Japan Times is reporting that the storm has left at least 61 people injured and one missing, with hundreds of thousands advised to evacuate. Authorities took steps to protect the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, the site of the 2011 meltdown.

Here are some photos of the storm as it moved through northeast Asia:

The storm created powerful waves in Wenling, in the coastal Chinese province of Zhejiang, on Sunday, drawing thrill-seeking crowds Whitehotpix/ZUMA
Not exactly the safest place to attempt a selfie. Whitehotpix/ZUMA
The view of the storm from the International Space Station last Thursday reveals its enormity. It was downgraded to a tropical storm as it made land fall in Japan. Alexander Gerst/NASA
A huge tree upended by Vongfong's force on the coast of Setouchi, Kagoshima, on Sunday October 12. While the storm has been downgraded, it has increased in size, and still contains a huge amount of moisture. The Yomiuri Shimbun/AP
Waves pound the coast in the city of Kochi on the Japanese island of Shikoku on Monday October 13, 2014. The storm grounded 300 flights. Kyodo/AP
This photo of the super typhoon last week showed the eye of the storm was approximately 50 miles wide. NOAA/NASA
Streets were (almost) empty and shops shuttered in Toyko as Vongfong approached last night. The storm is expected to pass over the capital on Tuesday. kodomut/Flickr

Alaska's Stranded Walruses Face a New Threat: Oil Drillers

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 11:07 AM EDT
walrus map
Yellow lines show the movement of radio-tracked walruses in 2013; the green highlighted section is where offshore drilling leases are available. USGS

Remember that jaw-dropping photo from last week that showed 35,000 walruses crammed onto a narrow strip of land because they couldn't find enough space on the disappearing Arctic sea ice? Turns out melting ice isn't the only thing the walruses have to worry about.

Last month, the energy blog Fuel Fix reported on details of Shell's newest plans to drill for oil in the Arctic. The company has a history of failure in the Arctic since it first got a federal green-light to explore there in 2012. Now they'll be heading back out next summer for another try, with up to six new wells in the Chukchi Sea.

The ocean expanse north of Alaska where Shell wants to drill is the most popular hangout for Alaskan walruses, as the map above, from a US Geological Survey study of walruses last year, shows. The yellow lines show the movements of a group of walruses over a two-week period in July 2013; red X's mark where researchers deployed radio tags on the walruses. The green outline indicates the cluster of Arctic oil drilling lease locations administered by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, including those Shell is eyeing. The wells would be upstream of Hanna Shoals, a biologically rich shallow shelf that tends to hold sea ice longer than other areas.

The Shoals are vital walrus habitat, especially as climate change diminishes sea ice throughout the Arctic, said Margaret Williams, Arctic programs director for the World Wildlife Fund. Risks to the walruses (and other marine life, for that matter) include disturbance by ship traffic and the fallout from oil spills. Spill cleanup is particularly challenging in icy waters, and the nearest Coast Guard station is across the state in Kodiak. 

"It's an amazing place that is full of life, with a very rich food chain," Willaims said. If oil and gas drilling goes forward, "you have a huge potential mess."

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This Is Your Teenager's Brain on Soda

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 9:46 AM EDT

A growing number of doctors and public health experts now see sugar as one of the main culprits behind both widening waistlines and chronic health problems like heart disease and diabetes. But scientists are only just discovering how the sweet substance affects the brain—especially the developing brain. As you might guess, sugar isn't exactly making young people sharper. In fact, researchers at the University of Southern California recently published a study showing a connection between sugar consumption and memory problems.

For the USC study, scientists gave adolescent rats sugar-sweetened drinks that contained either sugar or high-fructose corn syrup in "concentrations comparable to popular sugar-sweetened beverages." They observed the animals' ability to navigate through mazes compared to a control group of rats given plain water. The adolescent rats on sugar "were impaired in learning and remembering the task," says Scott Kanoski, the corresponding author of the study and an assistant professor of biological sciences at USC-Dornsife.

The researchers also found evidence of swelling in the part of the brain called the hippocampus. The swelling appeared in the adolescent rodents who consumed both sugary solutions, although the results were more pronounced for the rats given high-fructose corn syrup (usually the sweetener used in soda). Damage to this part of the brain is often found in people who suffer from Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

The results of a memory test conducted. "Effects of Sucrose and High Fructose Corn Syrup Consumption on Spatial Memory Function and Hippocampal Neuroinflammation in Adolescent Rats," Hsu et al.

Kanoski says they did not determine why sugar influences the brain this way, but stressed that there was a clear connection to how it could impact youth. "We know that not only with adolescents, but with all critical period of development, there seems to be a higher susceptibility to environmental influences on behavior and biological systems," he says.

The study came out of a long line of research, headed by Kanoski and others, looking at the negative effects of the Western diet. This diet is high in saturated fats and simple sugars, and rats raised on it don't turn out too well: "They gain weight, they have increased adiposity, impaired glucose tolerance," Kanoski has found. Maybe even more disturbingly, they have "impaired cognitive processes," he says. Since these animals have similar physiological and neurobiological systems as humans, they serve as a reflection of how this diet might be screwing with our health and memories, too.

More than a quarter of teens drink at least a soda a day, and close to a fifth drink two or more.

In Kanoski's study, adult rats were also fed sugary diets and had to go through the mazes, but they didn't suffer the same cognitive defects as adolescents high on sugar. Assuming the results would hold true for people, that means we're feeding the population whose brains are more vulnerable to sugar the most sugary beverages. According to a 2011 National Center for Health Statistics Data Brief, teens and young adults consume more sweetened drinks than any other age groups. A food marketing study published by the Federal Trade Commission in 2012 shows that spending on soda marketing to teens was "higher than any other food category for teen marketing." This publicity appears to be working. The Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that more than a quarter of teens drink at least a soda a day, and close to a fifth drink two or more.

There might still be hope, though. Kanoski's team is now looking into whether sugar's negative affects can be turned around. Although Kanoski says he doesn't have results on this yet, "there have been other studies showing that animals can recover from cognitive deficits." But until stronger evidence of this turnaround arrives, add soda to the list of things you only realize later in life you wish you hadn't indulged so much in as a teen.

Study: Hospitals Give Patients Antibiotics for No Reason at All

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

Some hospital patients are on antibiotics for good reason: They have an infection, or they're at high risk for getting one. But according to a new study, other patients are given antibiotics for no reason whatsoever. Researchers could find "no documented rationale" for 7 percent of surveyed participants who had been given prescriptions. 

Scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed patients in 183 hospitals across 10 states over the course of five months to capture a clearer picture of how often antibiotics are prescribed, how much is prescribed, and for how long. Of the roughly 11,000 patients surveyed close to half confirmed they had been given antibiotics. Most of this group also reported they were taking more than one form—some up to four different kinds at once.

To understand how to improve antibiotic use, researchers also sought to identify which drugs are most commonly used and why. Though there are 83 different antibiotic drugs available, four specific kinds (parenteral vancomycin, piperacilintazobactam, cefriaxone, and levofloxacin) are used most often, sometimes when they are not the best fit for the infection being treated.

More than 2 million people in the US contract dangerous antibiotic-resistant infections each year, killing more than 23,000.

"Despite the evidence supporting early, appropriate therapy, a substantial proportion of antimicrobial use in the US acute care hospitals may be inappropriate," the researchers write. "Inappropriate antimicrobial use needlessly puts patients at risk."

Antibiotics are essential to battling a variety of bad bugs, and that's why it is so important that they are used sparingly. Superbugs are developing at an alarming rate, and antibiotic resistance is a worldwide problem. A report released by the CDC last year detailed the rise in "nightmare bacteria" that stand to "pose a catastrophic threat." More than 2 million people in the US contract dangerous antibiotic-resistant infections each year, killing more than 23,000. The CDC reports that even more die from complications from those infections. And, because these infections require long hospital stays and prolonged treatment, the cost is immense. Some estimates range as high as $20 billion in healthcare costs and up to $35 billion for productivity lost.

There have been attempts to curb the demand for the drugs, and the CDC even implemented a "Hospital Antibiotic Stewardship Program," intended to improve the way doctors prescribe the drugs. But researchers involved in this study say more needs to be done. "To minimize patient harm and preserve effectiveness, it is imperative to critically examine and improve the ways in which antimicrobial drugs are used," they write. "Improving antimicrobial use in hospitals benefits individual patients and also contributes to reducing antimicrobial resistance nationally."

Walmart Is the Biggest Corporate Solar User. Why Are Its Owners Funding Groups That Oppose Solar?

| Thu Oct. 9, 2014 4:57 PM EDT
Solar panels adorn the roof of a Walmart store in Arizona.

Walmart loves solar power—as long as it's on their roof, and not yours.

That's the takeaway from a report released today by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which found that between 2010 and 2013 the Walton Family Foundation has donated just under $4.5 million to groups like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, which have worked to impede state-level policies that promote clean energy.

The list of groups that have received funding from the Walton Foundation reads like a who's who of "the groups who are leading the charge against rooftop solar," said Stacy Mitchell, who authored the report. Rob Walton, who sits on the Foundation board, is also the chair of Walmart's board; his family are majority shareholders of Walmart and some of the richest people in America.

The funny thing is that Walmart, the world's biggest company, is also the world's biggest commercial solar user. Indeed, solar power is a key aspect of its much-touted green makeover. According to data released last year from the Solar Energy Industries Association, Walmart has 89 megawatts of installed solar capacity on its retail rooftops. That's twice the capacity of second-ranked Costco and more than the total capacity of 37 individual states. Of course, those figures are less impressive when looked at in a light that better reflects the company's mind-boggling size: Less than 3 percent of the company's total power comes from renewables—including solar, wind, and biogas—according to EPA data.

Here's the list of groups receiving funding from the Walton Foundation that have taken positions against state-level clean energy policies, according to the report:

walton chart
Courtesy Institute for Local Self-Reliance

The dollar figures in the chart above come from the Walton Family Foundation's last four annual reports. All the groups listed, Mitchell said, have opposed state-level clean energy policies like renewable portfolio standards or net-metering, both of which are key tools in helping more households go solar.

Clearly the groups listed here are involved in a host of conservative and free-market issues beyond energy, so there's no direct evidence that the Waltons' foundation donated to these groups because of their opposition to policies promoting renewables. Indeed, a foundation spokesperson said that the report is misleading because it ignores the foundation's donations to environmental groups and instead "chooses to focus on a handful of grants none of which were designated for renewable energy-related issues."

But backing groups like this has a direct impact on the growth of clean energy, Mitchell said.

The upshot, she said, is "not that their vision of the future doesn't include some solar power. It's just solar power they own and control."

Walmart declined to comment on the report.

This Is What the Most Powerful Storm of the Year Looks Like From Space

| Thu Oct. 9, 2014 4:13 PM EDT

Super Typhoon Vongfang is mercifully expected to weaken before making landfall in Japan Monday, but at its peak it has reached wind speeds up to 180 mph, making it the most powerful storm of 2014 (so far).

Thursday morning, NASA astronaut Reid Weissman showed the world just what that type of storm looks like from, well, above the world.

(via Wired)