Stories tagged Interdependence of Life


Some of you may have said to yourselves over the years, “Yeah, yeah. Climate change. Hug a tree. Save the polar bears and manatees. Whatever. I’m just SO over the sexy megafauna, appeal-to-emotion approach.” Well, have I got a story for you!

In April, the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s Jonathan Patz, who holds a medical doctorate and a masters degree in public health, gave a riveting lecture at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment on how climate change affects public health. And pretty much everybody wants to live long and prosper, so I’m guessing you care about your health just as much as I do and want to know more…

Well, basically, there is increasing scientific evidence that climate change is hazardous to your health.

The end.

Just kidding!

The logic is that basic changes in the Earth’s physical environment affect public health. Take one example, as warmer climates trigger species migration, vector-borne diseases like malaria and Lyme disease will leave traditional zones to infest new land areas. That’s good news for some people, but bad news for others.

Yuck!: Polar bears might make better poster-children for climate change afterall
Yuck!: Polar bears might make better poster-children for climate change afterallCourtesy Scott Bauer, USDA

Let’s break that idea down: global climate change suggests that some regions will experience warmer annual temperatures. Mosquitoes (that carry malaria) and ticks (bringers of Lyme disease) are cold-blooded, which means they don’t make their own heat and have to “steal” heat from their surroundings. Regions with warmer annual temperatures are attractive real estate for cold-blooded critters. As climate change increases annual temperatures, tick and mosquito habitat ranges will shift. Like many people, mosquitoes and ticks will move into warmer, better neighborhoods. Unfortunately for their new neighbors, the baggage of these insects causes fever, vomiting, and diarrhea (malaria) or rash, joint pain, and numbness (Lyme disease). Yikes!

Other symptoms of climate change (i.e. extreme weather and rising sea levels) have the potential to increase the severity of diseases like heat stress, respiratory diseases like asthma, cholera, malnutrition, diarrhea, toxic red tides, and mental illness (due to forced migration and overcrowding).

Not to be a downer, Patz pointed out that tackling global climate change might be the greatest public health improvement opportunity of our time in terms of number of lives saved, hospital admissions avoided, and ultimately health care cost decreases (which everyone needs!).

Is there any other good news?? Uh, besides less frostbite? No, seriously: on the bright side, warmer weather should increase the amount of physical activity of the average person (not many of us like to run in the dead of winter, you know), and, as Russia’s Vladimir Putin put it, "…an increase of two or three degrees wouldn't be so bad for a northern country like Russia. We could spend less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would go up.” So, yeah, there is some good news, but the real question is: does it outweigh the bad stuff?


By Our Hands: Cities are perhaps the most impressive mark humankind has left upon the face of planet Earth.
By Our Hands: Cities are perhaps the most impressive mark humankind has left upon the face of planet Earth.Courtesy anaxila

Throughout the ongoing debate about exactly how, to what extent, and the ethical implications, the indisputable fact remains that humankind has altered the planet. Back when the human population was only a few thousand strong and agriculture and cooked food were the latest inventions, it was easy for the Joneses to pick up and move camp when the water ran dry, the soil stopped producing tasty wheat, or the garbage piled too high in the backyard. The same can’t be said for the populations of world cities today.

Advances in public health, industry, and agriculture have blown the human population out of the brush. There will soon be 9 billion people on the face of planet Earth! Coupled with rising affluence, our ballooning population’s resource consumption and waste outputs are wrecking havoc on natural systems. New research (see several links below for more info) suggests that within a fixed amount of space, humankind is in danger of causing our own extinction and the only way out is to discard traditional ideas of industrialization and embrace sustainability.

No, silly...: Not THAT kind of tipping point!
No, silly...: Not THAT kind of tipping point!Courtesy Go Gratitude

The first step to bailing out humankind is to investigate how close to failure the world actually is. This was the point of a recent international collaboration: to calculate safe limits for pivotal environmental processes. The key idea here is that of “tipping points,” which can be thought of as thresholds or breaking points. Think about being pestered by your brother or sister: aren’t you able to put up with the annoyance for even a little while before you get so upset you retaliate? That’s your tipping point – the last straw that put you over the edge.

Led by Stockholm Resilience Center’s Johan Rockstrom, a group of European, Australian, and American scientists – including the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment’s director, Jonathan Foley – identified nine processes reaching their tipping points. Three (climate change, nutrient cycles, and biodiversity loss) have already been pushed past their tipping points, four (ocean acidification, ozone depletion, freshwater use, and land use) are approaching their tipping points, and two (aerosol loading and chemical pollution) do not yet have identified tipping points because they require more research. The Institute on the Environment recently released a YouTube video addressing the conclusion of this new research:

Blissfully, there are things we can do to stop hurting the planet and begin patching its wounds. According to Foley’s article, we can’t let ourselves get any closer to the tipping points and piecemeal solutions won’t cut it because of the interconnectedness of the issues. Instead, we should focus on switching to low- or no-carbon fuel sources, stopping deforestation, and rethinking our approaches to agriculture.

There's No Place Like Home: It's worth keeping healthy.
There's No Place Like Home: It's worth keeping healthy.Courtesy NASA

The conclusions of this research have been well-accepted, but there has been some criticisms for 1) attempting to establish tipping points at all, and 2) for the appropriateness of the establish tipping points. If you would like more information, including commentaries, please check out the following sources:

Article in Nature: A safe operating space for humanity

Commentaries: Planetary Boundaries

Article in Scientific American: Boundaries for a Health Planet

Article in Ecology and Society: Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity

Two questions to consider as you watch the YouTube video and take a look through the links and articles referenced above are:

1) What are the consequences of being past our tipping points?

2) How do the solutions discussed prevent us from reaching tipping points?

You are encouraged to post your thoughtful answers below!


Here's what we know...: But what happened before?
Here's what we know...: But what happened before?Courtesy JGordon
Check this story out, Buzz-gumshoes: An Australian man has been sent to the hospital after a vicious wombat attack.

Interesting. Very interesting, eh, Buzzketeers? It sounds like our kind of story.

Here are the facts… as they have been reported so far:
-Bruce Kringle, 60, of Flowerdale, Australia, was stepping out of his home when he “felt something attack his leg.”
-The attacking party was a wombat, a badger-like marsupial.
-The wombat managed to knock Mr. Kringle off of his feet, and then climbed onto his chest and proceeded to savage the man for 20 or so minutes.
-An axe was within arm’s reach, and Mr. Kringle used it to kill the wombat.
-Mr. Kringle was then admitted to hospital with puncture wounds in his arms and legs.
-Wombats are generally docile creatures. This individual’s aggression might be explained by a irritating case of the mange.

I don’t know about y’all, but when I add all that up, I only produce one answer: WTF! (That stands for “Wombat Tale: False!”)

Here are some additional questions and considerations we must account for, before this case can be closed:
-Who is “Bruce Kringle”? Could he be the same person as Branson Kringle, the Special Forces soldier who came out of retirement to rescue a group of kidnapped missionaries in Myanmar, only to disappear once again when the mission was complete?
-Wombats can be several feet long, and weigh nearly 80 pounds, and they can achieve speeds of nearly 25 miles per hour. Without knowing the creature’s rate of acceleration, I can’t determine how much force it could have struck Mr. Kringle with (force=mass x acceleration), but it seems reasonable that the marsupial could have mustered enough force to knock the man over… except
-If Mr. Kringle “felt an attack” at his leg as soon as he stepped outside. This seems to imply that he was not immediately rammed by the attacking wombat. So… what? He was bitten, and then allowed the creature to back up and charge? While he was still so near to his front door? Hmm. How did Kringle end up on his back?
-Do something for me, Buzzketeers: tap your pointer fingers against each other. Continue to tap them for one whole minute. It feels like an awfully long time, doesn’t it? Now imagine that, instead of tapping your fingers for that minute, you were being attacked by something that looks like a wolf-sized hamster. And then multiply that length of time by twenty. That’s a long time to be attacked by a wolf-sized hamster (or by a wombat.)
-At what point did the axe appear within arm’s reach?
-Wombats, it seems, are actually not known to be particularly docile, especially when defending their territory from intruders.
-Mr. Kringle was, in fact, stepping out of his “caravan,” which is Australian for “RV.” He was living in the vehicle while his home was being rebuilt (it was destroyed in last year’s Black Saturday bush fires.)

Despite being an otherwise impeccably reliable newspaper, I feel like the Telegraph is withholding information from us.

It seems that Bruce may have been forced to temporarily move his caravan into wombat territory… but what was it about that day that made the wombat finally snap? How did Bruce get knocked over? And who gave Bruce the axe… only after allowing him to be attacked for twenty finger-tapping minutes?

I think someone wanted that wombat dead, and they manipulated trained-killer Bruce (aka, Branson) Kringle into pulling the trigger for them! The only remaining question is “who?”

BAM! How’s that for journalism?


Recently, I was sitting at my desk asking myself, “With the Mississippi River flood of 2010 past-peak, now what?” I mean, if I can’t obsessively check the latest crest predictions or watch the Science Museum's flood cam, what am I supposed to do with all my free time??

Thankfully, Pat Nunnally and Joanne Richardson of the Institute on the Environment's program River Life agreed to meet with me to discuss how I can keep up on the Mississip’ all year long.

The whole purpose of River Life is to help people like me and you collaborate on issues of river sustainability. You say: “Hold up. What's ‘river sustainability’?” Good question! I asked Pat and Joanne myself and they said river sustainability is the study of how to continue urban living without harming the natural processes of rivers. Put another way, river sustainability is the study of maintaining harmony between human, aquatic, and terrestrial ecology. But don’t take my word for it, Pat speaks for himself about River Life in the Institute on the Environment’s, River Reflections:

The Mississippi RIver Watershed: The Mississippi drains almost half of the continental United States (and some of Canada)!
The Mississippi RIver Watershed: The Mississippi drains almost half of the continental United States (and some of Canada)!Courtesy National Park Service

Did you know the Mississippi River is considered among the world’s largest watersheds? Me neither! A watershed is a geographic area within which all water flows into the same stream. The Mississippi River watershed covers about 40% of the continental United States. As part of River Life, this and other fascinating river facts will compose a River Atlas. This River Atlas is a work in progress set to debut fall 2010 and will eventually contain scientific data, videos, photos, art, and people’s stories about rivers.

The River Atlas section about people's river stories is called – no surprise here! – River Stories. Pat says river stories are important because they inspire people into action. While that’s certainly true, river stories are also simply fascinating in themselves. For example, did you know the upper landing area upstream from the Science Museum was known as “Little Italy” until the flood of 1952? After that, the city used the area for a scrap yard and then a parking lot. Today, it has been developed into high-rise apartments.

River Life’s dream for the Mississippi River is that people will learn how to engage the river in a mutually meaningful way. What does that really mean? It’s all about the river sustainability principle we talked about earlier: living with the river instead of against it. Pat’s example of a mutually meaningful river engagement is Harriet Island who’s flood-resistant social space is a great city amenity that also respects the natural process of flooding.
Harriet Island: This place is a beautiful example of how a city can live alongside its river.
Harriet Island: This place is a beautiful example of how a city can live alongside its river.Courtesy St. Paul, Minnesota


Nom nom nom!
Nom nom nom!Courtesy Alaina B. (Flickr)

Cheeseburgers. Watermelon. Grilled corn-on-the-cob. As the promise of warmer weather inches increasingly closer, I’m already dreaming of my favorite summer foods. (I mean, really, aren’t you?? Bet you are now…)

The world’s population is reaching 9 BILLION people, and we all have to eat! (I know, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”) In the United States, almost everyone eats incredibly well by world standards. Globally, many families are lucky to share a bowl of rice for dinner. Meanwhile, crop yields aren’t keep up with increasing demand, so world food prices are rising everyday. The developing world already experiences a food shortage, but even in the developed West, we are not completely insulated against the effects of an escalating population on global food supply. Science confirms what our guts and pocket books are already telling us – we can’t keep biggering our population without seriously thinking about how we grow and eat our food.

So what are we going to do?? Don’t despair. Thankfully, great minds are thinking about the global food crisis and considering how to ensure food security throughout the world. Many of these ideas are published in Science magazine’s recent food security issue. Scientists play an important role in boosting crop yields by researching crops and farming methods that: 1) use little water, 2) don’t deplete the soil of nutrients, and 3) increase how much food is grown per seed. Engineers and technicians are also aiding the process: plant breeders are now using robots to streamline breeding programs, which allows researchers to introduce cool new traits that allow crops to fight fungi, weeds, and viruses that threaten to wipe out entire crops (in honor of St. Patrick’s Day 2010, remember the Irish Potato Famine?).

Fertilizer: Good or Bad?: Turns out the answer is neither all good or all bad!  Plants need some nutrients, but humans often overdose crops, causing soil quality (and agriculture production) to degrade.
Fertilizer: Good or Bad?: Turns out the answer is neither all good or all bad! Plants need some nutrients, but humans often overdose crops, causing soil quality (and agriculture production) to degrade.Courtesy

Caution! Myth-busting ahead: Fertilizer is the often-suggested solution to the global food crisis, but scientists say we only need to look as far as China to see why that’s not a solution, but rather part of the problem. China consumes 36% of the world’s manmade fertilizer, making it the world’s largest user. Nitrogen is a major component of fertilizer. Nitrogen is what scientists call a “limiting nutrient” meaning “the nutrient is rare, but plants need a minimum amount to live.” Research in China has shown that sometimes there is too much of a good thing; too much fertilizer actually causes healthy soil to get sick from a nitrogen overdose.

Ensuring the world’s food security poses cultural, economic, and psychological challenges as well as scientific ones. Solutions discussed in Science’s special issue include promoting traditional mixed crop-livestock systems, local development of relevant technologies, and eating less meat. One alternative suggested that’s going to (literally) be hard to swallow: substituting African caterpillars instead of steak and other meaty favorites. (I think that’s going to be a tough sell…)

You don’t have to go too far to find people tackling the problem of food security. Right here in Minnesota, at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, the Global Landscape Initiative (GLI) program has a focus on agriculture and food systems. By studying how people use land for farming and other practices, GLI is seeking to understand how we might make better use of land to create a brighter future for humankind and the environment. Recently they made a sweet YouTube video to pose the BIG Question: Feast or Famine? I highly recommend you check it out:


Old school way of thinking: This idea of man as the be-all, end-all of evolution- the unchanging, final edit of nature- is exactly what the Smithsonian's new exhibition hall is trying to negate.
Old school way of thinking: This idea of man as the be-all, end-all of evolution- the unchanging, final edit of nature- is exactly what the Smithsonian's new exhibition hall is trying to negate.Courtesy wikimedia
The Smithsonian Institute will open a new exhibition hall tomorrow (March 17, 2010), the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins (this opening coincides with the institute’s 100-year anniversary). The 15,000-square-foot hall will focus on what it means to be human, examining how our defining characteristics emerged over time. One cool thing about the new exhibition (in addition to…everything) is the highlight (in the form of bronze statues) of a-typical hominid species. There’s a statue of Homo heidelbergensis, Paranthropus boisei, and even Homo floresiensis (the “hobbit” species). Now, I know what you’re thinking, “What?! Where’s the Australopithecus africanus?!!” Well, it’s not in this exhibition (at least not in the form of a shiny effigy). The reason for this is to emphasize that our ancestry is not a straight line (as A. africanus might imply because it is a possible direct ancestor of Homo sapiens). Instead, our lineage is much less tidy; there’s species overlap, some species die off… the diagrams are messy. The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins is trying to get at the fact that we Homo sapiens are just another iteration in our branch-laden tree, not the pinnacle of evolutionary development. I think that’s a great point to remind people of.

Other features of the exhibition include forensically reconstructed life-sized faces of some of our ancestors, 75 skull reproductions, key events in humanity’s evolution (environmental changes, behavioral innovations, etc.), a human family tree, and virtual tours of important research sites. I haven’t had the chance to visit it yet, but the American Museum of Natural History in New York also has a relatively new human origins exhibition. I think it’s exciting that more and more museums are taking on this topic. In the past museums have shied away from it for fear of stirring up controversy. The Milwaukee Public Museum, for example has an exhibit about evolution- it’s on a tiny wall in a dark corner…but at least they have one. It’s important for museums to present scientific research, and the exciting exploration of human evolution is no exception. So if you’re in the D.C. area, be sure to check out the new Smithsonian Hall of Human Origins.


What is it?: It's... ah... you know, whatever.
What is it?: It's... ah... you know, whatever.Courtesy Reytan
Roll up your sleeves and prepare a glass of filtered water, Buzzketeers, because it’s time to learn about the Guinea worm. It’s time to learn about the Guinea worm… hard!

In case the title of this post didn’t spoil it for you already, or if your mother printed out the page but cut off the title, or in case your eyes just don’t read letters that big, the Guinea worm grows to be up to three feet long. Inside you. And even though everything that enters my body must first pass through flame, it still freaks me out.

The parasitic guinea worm, or dracunculiasis (which means “afflicted with little dragons”—you’ll see why in a second), was once found in 20 countries across Asia and Africa, but improved sanitary conditions have reduced its range to just 4 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Which is cool, because the Guinea worm is super gross and bad, but not good enough, because the Guinea worm is super gross and bad.

The worm works like this: little worm larvae swim around in puddles and ponds until they get eaten by teeny, tiny crustaceans called copepods (sort of like little shrimp). They live and grow inside the copepods until the copepods get swallowed by people drinking unfiltered water. (Just to be clear, this isn’t just any unfiltered water. If you’ve got electricity to power a computer to read this, there’s pretty much zero chance that there are any worm-carrying copepods in your water. If it came from a tap and not a puddle, you’re probably cool. And even if it came from a puddle, you’re probably still cool.) The copepods get dissolved in the drinkers’ stomach acid, but not the baby worms, which then move from the stomach to the abdominal cavity. There, the worms mate. The male worms die and get absorbed, but the female worms wriggle their way deeper into the body, and grow. And grow and grow. Until they’re about three feet long. They live inside their human host for a year, and then they form a blister somewhere on the surface of the person’s body. When the blister bursts, the female worm emerges just a little bit. The worm releases chemicals that cause the blister to have a very painful burning sensation, and when the host puts the affected area in water to cool it, the worm releases hundreds of thousands of worm larvae into the water, where the cycle can begin again.

As if that whole experience weren’t uncomfortable enough, the treatment isn’t a whole lot better. Because there’s no medicine for Guinea worm infection, the adult worm itself must be removed. The way to do that is to grab the exposed bit of the worm and wrap it around a twig or a piece of cloth, and then twisting the twig. But it has to be done slooooowly so as to not break the worm while it’s still inside your muscles—the process, which is said to be extremely painful, can take up to a month before the worm is fully removed. It’s thought that the ancient symbol for medicine, a snake wrapped around a rod may have been inspired by this procedure.

So, you know… ouch, blech, ouch.

Becoming infected once confers no protection from getting infected again, so people can get Guinea worms over and over again, and in addition to being painful, the blister the worm creates can make the sufferer vulnerable to more dangerous infections.

The good news is that preventing infection is relatively simple; infected people shouldn’t wash in water that will be used for drinking, and simple filters can keep people from ingesting the copepods that carry the worm larvae.

President Jimmy “Billy who?” Carter’s non-profit organization, The Carter Center, has been working for the last 20 years to eradicate the parasite. Despite some pretty significant barriers, it is expected that dracunculialisis will be the second disease, after smallpox, to be completely eradicated through human efforts. (Here’s a recent article on that.)

From what I’ve read (and what the Carter Center says), it looks like humans are the Guinea worm’s only host. So it seems to me that eradicating the infection would cause the extinction of the species. Think about that for a second. Usually sciencey types are pretty much completely against driving other organisms to extinction. But it seems like this one… considering how it pretty much only makes life worse for people who are already dealing with some serious challenges… should maybe… maybe… go extinct? I mean, obviously, right? But try that one on for size; I bet you haven’t often said to yourself that you’re cool with something going extinct. It’s a strange experience.

(If you just can’t deal with it, Here’s a website devoted to saving the Guinea worm. It’s satire, but subtle enough that you could probably play along. But, um, remember that sometimes the Guinea worm emerges from the eyes or genitals of its host. Just saying.)


Pssst!: I think you would look just wonderful in a tiny hat! Also, watch out for ferrrets.
Pssst!: I think you would look just wonderful in a tiny hat! Also, watch out for ferrrets.Courtesy USFWS
According to a scientist at Northern Arizona University, prairie dogs may have the most complex non-human language. That means that this prairie dog (specifically, the Gunnison’s Prairie Dog) may linguistically exceed even dolphins, whales, non-human primates, and box turtles.

But I’ve watched prairie dogs before, and it doesn’t seem like they’ve got a lot going on. What do they even have to talk about?

My assumption would be that they mostly focus on how other prairie dogs would look dressed up in tiny clothes, and what sort of clothes they might wear, and if male prairie dogs would have to wear suits and female prairie dogs would have to wear dresses, or if any prairie dog would be allowed to wear a suit or a dress.

Apparently not.

The scientist, who has been studying prairie dogs for thirty years, says that the rodents have developed their sophisticated “bark” to warn the other members of their colonies about the specific details of approaching predators. The tiny sonic variations of each bark can contain information about what sort of animal is approaching, what color it is, and from which direction it’s coming.

Prairie dogs react to different predator species in different ways. For something like a coyote, they will retreat to the mouth of their burrows and stand up to watch the approaching animal. For a badger, on the other hand, they will “lie low to avoid detection.”

To test his hypothesis about the complexity of prairie dog barks, the scientist recorded barks associated with different predators in a variety of situations, and then observed the behavior of all the members of the colony after the bark was heard. He then replayed those recordings to other prairie dogs when there were no actual predators nearby, and found that they reacted in precisely the same way as the threatened animals.

It’s like if an axe murderer burst into a crowded gymnasium. Someone might shout, “Run! There’s an axe murderer at the door!” and everyone would run away from the door and try to get behind something axe-proof. If, then, you were to shout, “Run! There’s an axe murderer at the door!” into a crowded (but murderer-less) gymnasium, people might still run away from the door to get behind something axe-proof because of the specific information in the warning. It would be a different reaction than if you were to just scream, or if you shouted that acid was raining from the ceiling, or that the world’s biggest clown had was digging up through the floor.

It’s sort of the same with prairie dogs, really.


It's smiling!: But wait until it gets bitten in half.
It's smiling!: But wait until it gets bitten in half.Courtesy Pterantula
Not much to say here other than… Holy Smokes! Check his out: a huge shark bitten in half by an even huger shark!

Shark fishermen in Queensland Australia pulled a ten-foot great white from a baited drum line to discover that the shark had been nearly bitten in half by an even bigger shark. Again, take a look. And the 10-footer was still alive when they pulled it into the boat. (Yowza.)

The think that the larger shark was also a great white, and that it might be as large as 20 feet long. A shark that size weighs about 4,400 pounds. There’s been some debate regarding the maximum size of a great white, but 20 feet is probably about as large as they can get. (In the late 19th century and early 20th century, there were reports of sharks caught that measured over 30 feet, but reexamination indicated that they were probably significantly shorter.) At any rate, the shark in Jaws (I think its name was Eustace) was supposed to be 25 feet long, so 20 feet is nothing to sneeze at. Unless huge sharks make you sneeze.

Happy shark attack Tuesday!