For years, scientists and climatologists have expected to see climate change impact malaria's deadly reach, since the parasites that cause it (Plasmodium), and the mosquitoes (Anopheles) that spread it, grow and survive best in warm climates. Now a new study out of the University of Michigan confirms that the disease, and the bugs that bear it, are expanding into higher altitudes and previously unexposed communities.
The study, published in the journal Science, analyzed malaria records from highland regions of Ethiopia and Colombia, and then normalized them for influences such as malaria control programs or unusually high rainfall (control programs are reducing malaria rates, overall, and high rainfall boosts cases).
"We saw an upward expansion of malaria cases to higher altitudes in warmer years, which is a clear signal of a response by highland malaria to changes in climate," said the study's author, theoretical ecologist Mercedes Pascual.
The researchers examined malaria case records from the Antioquia region of western Colombia from 1990 to 2005, and from the Debre Zeit area of central Ethiopia from 1993 to 2005.
The report is especially troubling because the tropical highlands of Africa and South America contain very dense populations. The Debre Zeit region sits between roughly 5,000 and 8,000 feet above sea level and is home to 37 million people, or nearly half of Ethiopia's population. Many of these people live in rural areas where the insects could thrive.
"Because these populations lack protective immunity, they will be particularly vulnerable to severe morbidity and mortality," said co-author Menno Bouma, honorary senior clinical lecturer at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, which contributed to the study.
In an earlier study, the same researchers estimated that without new control programs, just one degree (Celsius) increase in temperature could lead to an additional 3 million malaria cases annually in Ethiopian children.
"Historically, the highlands regions of those countries were considered havens from malaria, places where people could go to get away from the disease," says University of Michigan spokesman Jim Erickson.
For travelers, this trend should not immediately impact malaria rates for those who follow the Centers for Disease Control recommendations to take antimalarial drugs when visiting areas up to 8,200 ft in Ethiopia and up to 5,577 ft in Colombia (the Antioquia region sits just under 5,000 ft).
Still, it's important to consider that warming temperatures are already changing the footprint of at least one serious (yet preventable) disease. Plus, while the CDC rates the risk of contracting malaria in Ethiopia as "moderate," it notes that the Plasmodium parasite there is resistant to the common anti-malarial drug chloroquine.
The Park Service website for Michigan's Isle Royale National Park describes it as "a rugged, isolated island where wolves... abound." Rugged and isolated, yes. Wolves abounding? Not quite. Only 8 wolves live on the 133,000-acre island today, down from 24 in 2009, according to Lake Superior Magazine's Phil Bencomo. The pack's isolation, and resulting lack of genetic diversity, is causing its decline.
But the deep freezes accompanying this winter have have brought more to the upper Great Lakes that ice caves, it has formed ice bridges between the island and the nearest mainland, around 20 miles away. This is a rare event, not seen since 2008. That time, no new wolves came to the island—in fact, two collared wolves are believed to have to used the bridge leave it. Prior to 2008, the water had remained open since 1997, when an alpha male came to the island via the frozen lake. All the island's wolves alive today descend from that animal.
Rolf Peterson, a Michigan Technological University researcher who has studied Isle Royale’s wolves and moose for more than 40 years, told Bencomo that he predicts that, by 2040, Lake Superior simply won't have significant ice cover in the winter.
This might be one of the wolf pack's last chances to stem its decline—and if temperatures continue to rise as they have this week, the window is quickly closing.
Meanwhile, a major debate is brewing around whether biologists should intercede by introducing new wolves and deepening the genetic pool. Nearly the entire island is Wilderness with a capital W, and thereby protected by the Wilderness Act, so the short answer is "that's not legal."
But here’s the thing: the reason the wolves are suffering is tied directly to the fact that cold winters are exceedingly rare. So, the only way to effectively and sustainably help the island's wolves is to, basically, reverse climate change. This makes the whole argument over the legal implications of the Wilderness Act rather inconsequential.
Writes Bencomo: "Rolf [Peterson] contends that humans have already significantly impacted Isle Royale through climate change and other influences, so wilderness preservation today requires active human assistance, not merely drawing up park boundaries and stepping away. 'The 20th century notion of ‘wilderness’ is not immutable.' He argues that intervention is essential to fulfilling the NPS mission of conservation."
I expect that we are going to see more and more instances where land managers are stuck between preserving ecosystems (by leaving them alone) and trying to somehow preserve them by helping them adapt to a changing climate.
As Isle Royale's superintendent Phyllis Green said: “When you get these really large effects that are more indirect, I mean, climate change is so huge, it’s not like a situation where people went in and trapped out a species. You have this very insidious effect that’s going to happen over time to multiple species. So trying to sort out our role in that is why this decision process is taking the time it is.”
Read more about the decades-long Isle Royale wolf and moose study on this website, and sign up for email dispatches during the winter study here.
UPDATE: An Isle Royale wolf that escaped via the ice bridge has been found dead. Nicknamed "Isabelle," the collared adult female had been injuried previously in attacks by other wolves. It's not clear what ultimately killed Isabelle. She was not shot, and cause of death was not immediately apparent.
There have been plenty of books documenting the myriad ways that climate change will take us all down. In Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming (Penguin, $28), Seattle journalist and frequent Outside contributor McKenzie Funk takes a contrarian approach, reporting on the people—and, in the case of Greenland and Canada, countries—that are poised to profit handsomely from the coming chaos. Funk tracks down Arctic oil strategists, Israeli snowmakers, arable-land grabbers, and those cunning enough to privatize public services, from water delivery to firefighting. So is it pragmatism, opportunism, or pure steely greed?
Outside: How did you figure out there were so many people trying to make a buck off global warming? Funk: In 2010, I read that there was a Canadian military mission asserting the country's claim on the Northwest Passage. My first thought was, That's absurd. Who's afraid of the Canadian military? My second was, Hey, they're looking for an opportunity. The effects of climate change are real, and there's a rush up there in the Arctic. I decided to look at how others are repositioning for the new reality. Some were predictable, like the burgeoning movement in Greenland to attain independence from Denmark, based on revenue from oil under the melting ice. Others were more surprising, like oil companies buying up water rights in the American West for oil and gas extraction.
You write, "There is something crass about profiting off disaster, certainly, but there is nothing fundamentally wrong with it." Why not? Aren't you a jerk if, like some Wall Street bankers, you buy up Ukrainian farmland from peasants in exchange for vodka? I found that example the most difficult. Wall Street has its own set of morals. I write about an American investor partnering with a feared warlord in South Sudan to buy land. As a libertarian, he believed in what he was doing beyond just making money. He thought that private investment was more stable than aid. Would I go partner with a warlord so he would burn down the city of Juba to create a libertarian peace? No. But this investor has a poodle, a wife, kids he loves. He was a nice guy. There aren't that many perfect villains in the world.
You note that the same oil companies that created the climate catastrophe will also be the ones to profit from it. That's not very satisfying. Where's the retribution narrative? Climate change is a moral failing for the rich, but it's a moral failing for the rest of us, too, because we haven't done anything about it. It takes a lot of complacency to build a seawall around New York and let the problems pile up on the other side of the world. We're going to save ourselves first. A lot of us don't have that much to worry about, and that raises the moral stakes. You're screwing someone else if you're American.
If last month’s abstract claiming Lyme disease could be sexually transmitted has you panicking—or feeling vindicated—don’t. Though there’s plenty of controversy around the disease and its treatment, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the possibility of sexual transmission and of this abstract in particular.
Published in the January issue of The Journal of Investigative Medicine, the abstract reported that vaginal secretions of all women in the study with Lyme disease tested positive for the bacterium that causes the disease, while the semen of about half of the men with Lyme disease tested positive. A married couple in the study also had identical strains of the disease in their secretions.
The authors claimed that this data suggests the disease could in fact be sexually transmitted.
But there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical about the science, according to Paul Lantos, a faculty member at Duke University Hospital in pediatric infectious diseases, and the lead author of a panel that reviewed the Infectious Diseases Society of America’s Lyme disease treatment guidelines.
“A lot of basic things we would expect to see in a sexually transmitted disease have not been observed,” he says. “Maybe it really is retrievable from semen and vaginal secretions. I don’t have a problem with that idea. The question is can you actually acquire if you come into contact with the organism in that form?”
If the disease could be transmitted sexually, Lantos says, there should be a huge occurrence among those most likely to contract STDs—adolescents and young adults. Instead, Lyme disease is most common among children and the middle aged.
The areas where the disease occurs should also have more overlap with other STDs like herpes and gonorrhea. But instead of a high occurrence in urban centers and in the South, Lyme disease is most common in the Northeast and rural areas.
STDs like HIV are also pretty easy to trace back to an infected partner. “Why don’t we see couples passing it to one another,” he says. “Why don’t we see a clear pattern where sexual partners are diagnosed with Lyme disease?”
What’s more, the abstract itself is just that—an abstract. It hasn’t been peer-reviewed, and without information about how many patients were involved, who they are, and whether they had been treated for the disease, it’s hard to take a critical look.