COVID-19 First Outbreak — Viral Glass-Like Nodules in Lungs

“The chances of a global pandemic are growing and we are all dangerously underprepared.” — World Health Organization in a September 18, 2019 statement mere months before the COVID-19 outbreak.

“There’s a glaring hole in President Trump’s budget proposal for 2019, global health researchers say. A U.S. program to help other countries beef up their ability to detect pathogens around the world will lose a significant portion of its funding.” — From a 2018 NPR news report

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During recent years the world has swelled with new and re-emerging infectious illnesses. Ebola, HIV, and SARS were among the worst. And many were accelerated, worsened or enabled through various harmful interactions with the living world to include deforestation, the bush meat trade and the climate crisis. But these illnesses were not the only ones. Between 2011 and 2018, the World Health Organization had tracked 1,483 epidemics worldwide including SARS and Ebola. These illnesses had forced human migration, lost jobs, increased mortality, and major disruption to the regions impacted. In total 53 billion dollars in epidemic related damages were reported.

COVID-19 Lungs

Comparison of lungs of a Wuhan patient who survived COVID-19 — image A-C — to those of a patient who suffered death from the illness — image D-F. Both image sets show the tell-tale ground glass like opacities of COVID-19 in lungs. Image source: Association of Radiologic Findings.

By late 2019, before the present pandemic, a sense of unease had appeared to settle upon the global health, threat analysis, and infectious disease response community. The Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) convened a joint World Bank and WHO meeting during September. The meeting brought with it a kind of air of dread. At the time, various climate change related crises were raging around the world and the general sense was that the human system had become far more fragile in the face of an increasingly perturbed natural world. At the conference, members spoke uneasily about past major disease outbreaks like the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed 50 million people. About how we were vulnerable to that kind of potential outbreak in the present day.

“While disease has always been part of the human experience, a combination of global trends, including insecurity and extreme weather, has heightened the risk… The world is not prepared,” GPMB members warned. “For too long, we have allowed a cycle of panic and neglect when it comes to pandemics: we ramp up efforts when there is a serious threat, then quickly forget about them when the threat subsides. It is well past time to act.”

And they had reason to be uneasy, for even as global illnesses were on the rise in the larger setting of a world wracked by rising climate crisis, reactionary political forces in key nations such as the United States had rolled back disease monitoring and response capabilities. It basically amounted to a withdrawal from the field of battle against illness at a time when those particular threats were rising and multiplying. And the responding statements of increasingly loud concern coming from health experts and scientists, ignored or even muzzled by the brutally reactionary Trump Administration, would end up being devastatingly prophetic.

Live Animal Markets Again Suspect

“We do not know the exact source of the current outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). The first infections were linked to a live animal market, but the virus is now primarily spreading from person to person.” — CDC.

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If the story of how SARS first broke out in 2002-2003 is not fully understood, then we know even less today about how the second strain of SARS (SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19) made its way into the human population. What we do know is that the disease is closely associated to a coronavirus found in bats, that the disease transferred from bats or animals ecologically associated with bats and the virus (such as pangolins or civets) to humans through some vector, and that live animal markets remain high on the suspect list.  According to recent scientific reports, an intermediate host such as a pangolin, a civet, a ferret, or some other animal like the ones sold in wet markets probably played a role. Chinese health experts also identified a seafood and wildlife market in Wuhan as the original source of the new illness in January.

Regardless of its zoonotic genesis, COVID-19 made its leap into the human population sometime during late November or early December of 2019 in Wuhan, China where it began to spread. At first the spread was relatively slow. Or it seemed slow, due to the fact that the initial source of the infection was small — possibly just one person. But viral spread operates on an exponentiation expansion function. And like its cousin SARS-CoV, COVID-19 was quite transmissible — generating about 2.2 persons infected for each additional new illness.

Wuhan Suffers First Outbreak

At the time, no-one really knew how rapidly the illness spread. Some early reports of the disease seemed to indicate that it was easy to contain. That it wasn’t very transmissible. These accounts would prove dramatically wrong in later weeks. But this early confusion  about the risk posed by COVID-19 did hint at its nasty, sneaky, back and forth nature. About how it lulled the unprepared and the overconfident into a sense of false security early on. It also would later show that slower responses to the illness in its ramp-up phase would prove devastating.

By December through mid-January, Wuhan was dealing with an uptick in pneumonia-like infections. Having experienced SARS illness before, the region was put on alert after getting days of indicators that all was not right. These response efforts have been criticized as slow. How it happened is also opaque. One reason is that China was rather close-lipped about the outbreak’s rise on its soil at first. But another reason (an arguably much greater one) for this lack of clarity is due to the fact that many U.S. disease monitors charged with providing reports about the infectious disease situation on the ground in China and various other countries were removed by the Trump Administration in the years and months leading up to the outbreak.

Despite not providing a clear early picture of the outbreak, China did start to rapidly and effectively respond during December and January. In December, researchers received samples of the disease which they identified as a new coronavirus infection — naming it SARS-CoV-2. Once samples were available, both China and the World Health Organization (WHO) swiftly and dutifully produced tests to detect the illness. As of late January of 2020, China had 5 tests for COVID-19. At the same time, WHO began deploying tests to countries and by February the global health agency had shipped easily produce-able tests to 57 countries. This early availability of testing capability provided by WHO would prove crucial to the effective infectious disease responses of many countries in the follow-on to China’s disease outbreak.

Viral Glass Like Nodules in Lungs

Back in Wuhan and in larger China, it was becoming apparent both how deadly and how transmissible the new SARS was. From mid January 23 through February 18 — over a mere 26 days — the number of reported cases rocketed from around a hundred to more than 75,000. About ten times the total cases of the first SARS outbreak in 2002-2003. This even as China shut down large regions of the country, putting the whole Wuhan region on lock-down, and setting up dedicated COVID-19 testing and treatment centers. Notably, the new SARS-CoV-2 had become not only a serious threat to China. It was now a significant threat to the globe — one unprecedented in the past 100 years. A threat on a scale that disease experts had warned of during late 2019. One that if it broke out fully was more than capable of mimicking the 1918 flu pandemic’s impact and death tally.

China COVID-19 Cases

After rapid growth in COVID-19 cases in China, a strong national response has limited the first wave of outbreak in that highly populous country to just over 80,000. Image source: WorldoMeters.

The disease, which had first been seen by some as mild and easy to contain, had taken hold to great and grim effect. It produced direct and serious damage to people’s lungs. China’s dedicated mass testing centers quickly adapted to look for the tell-tale and devastating signature of COVID-19’s progress in the human body. A kind of viral glass like set of nodules that appeared plainly in scans of victims lungs.

As devastating as the disease was to individual bodies, it hit community bodies hard as well, producing mass casualties as about 15 percent of all people infected ended up in the hospital. A large number of these hospitalized cases required intensive care support (ICU) with ventilators and intubation to assist breathing. This put healthcare workers at great risk of infection themselves — because as with SARS — COVID-19 was not containable in the hospital setting without protective gear and masks (PPE). Early indications were that the lethality rate in China was around 2-3 percent or 20 to 30 times worse than the seasonal flu. Present closed reported case mortality for China now stands at 4 percent with 3,333 souls lost.

The progress of COVID-19 in an infected person was itself rather terrifying. Its ‘milder’ expression resulting in severe flu and pneumonia like symptoms with a number of other bodily responses to include serious spikes in blood pressure along with a manic variance in symptom severity. In hospital cases, victims often struggled to breathe to the point that they required oxygen. If the disease progressed, it produced serious inflammation — filling up lungs with fluid requiring support with machines for breathing. Late stage COVID-19 also attacked the body’s organs with inflammation, resulting in a need for multi-organ support in the worst cases.

Massive Outbreak of a Terrifying Illness

It was a nasty, terrible thing. It brought China to its knees — despite what ended up being a strong overall response by the country. At present, China is still recovering, still going slow with certain sectors of its economy despite limiting new cases to less than 100 per day.

The first outbreak in China was extraordinary in number of persons infected. So large as to be extremely difficult to contain through a well managed global response. But the response from key nations like the U.S. was not well managed. So through various contacts and travel vectors within the human system, this serious illness made its way out to the rest of the world. For the diligent contacts tracing and isolation, the early detection and response by international disease experts that had contained Ebola and the first SARS outbreak had been both hobbled and overwhelmed.

The Emergence of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)

“The message we are getting is if we don’t take care of nature, it will take care of us.” — Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Acting UN Executive Secretary on the Convention on Biological Diversity.

“It boggles my mind how, when we have so many diseases that emanate out of that unusual human-animal interface, that we don’t just shut it down. I don’t know what else has to happen to get us to appreciate that.” — Dr. Anthony Fauci on live animal markets, aka wet markets, in Asia and elsewhere. 

“The term wet market is often used to signify a live animal market that slaughters animals upon customer purchase.” — X. F. Xan

“This is a serious animal welfare problem, by any measure. But it is also an extremely serious public health concern.” — Kitty Block, President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.

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As we come closer to the present time, to the present COVID-19 Climate of Pandemic, we run into illnesses that are more mysterious. HIV, for example, has been the object of intense investigation and scrutiny for many decades now. So the level of knowledge about how HIV emerged is quite rich. Less so with Ebola, but that infection is still moderately well understood.

SARS — Another Novel Illness

With the newer SARS illness — short for severe acute respiratory syndrome, the well of scientific understanding from which we can draw is far more shallow. But it is certainly relevant. For the present global pandemic which now has paralyzed our entire civilization and which threatens to take so many of our lives resulted from the second strain of human SARS to emerge in our world.

What we do know is that the SARS virus is another new zoonotic illness. The first strain of SARS broke out in a 2002 epidemic in China that then rapidly spread. It emerged from a family of coronaviruses. A set of viruses that typically cause mild respiratory infections in humans. But SARS virus is not mild. It is quite often severe — resulting in hospitalization in a high proportion of cases. It also shows a much higher lethality rate than typical illness.

SARS comes from a lineage, like HIV and Ebola, that had previously thrived in the hotter regions of the globe. It was harbored in tropical and subtropical animal reservoirs. It emerged at a time when animal sicknesses were likely amplified by direct environmental stresses caused by forest clear cutting, human encroachment, and the broader sting inflicted by the climate crisis. The novel awakening of SARS was, finally, yet another case where harmful contact with sick animals resulted in a transfer of a new illness to human beings. 

Coronaviruses in Hot-Bodied Bats in a Hot Weather Region

The first strain of human SARS illness was genetically traced back to a coronavirus ancestor in horseshoe bats — a tropical and subtropical bat species — in 2002 by Chinese researchers. Like the Ebola Virus and HIV before it, SARS-like illness circulated through various species in tropical and sub-tropical environments in a traditional reservoir long before transferring to human beings.

 

Horseshoe bat primary range

The primary range of horseshoe bats is paleo-tropical. Horseshoe bats, according to genetic research, are an animal reservoir of SARS virus. Image source: Paleo-tropical environment.

Studies note that bats are a reservoir for a great diversity of coronaviruses. The bat anatomy is a warm one in a hot weather environment — subject to constant exercise and exertion in regions where it’s not easy to cool off. Elevated body temperature is a traditional mechanism for fighting infection. So these viruses have to constantly adapt and mutate to keep hold in the bat population.

At some point, one particular strain of coronavirus jumped out of the bat population and into another animal species. A paper in the Journal of Virology suggests that the genetic split from bat cornaviruses and SARS occurred some time around 1986 or 17 years before the 2002-2003 outbreak. At that time, it is thought that this hot weather illness from hot-bodied bats had moved to another, intermediary, animal host.

SARS in the Little Tree Cats — Palm Civets

The first emergence of SARS is thought to have occurred when palm civets — a kind of Southeast Asian tree cat — consumed coronavirus inflected horseshoe bats. The civets typically dine on tree fruits. But as omnivorous creatures they also eat small mammals. In this case, civets are thought to have eaten sick bats and become sick themselves.

Himalay_Palm_Civet
The Palm Civet of Southeast Asia — hunted as bush meat for the Asian wet markets. A practice suspected for transferring SARS from bats to humans. Image source: Black Pearl, Commons.

Palm civets live throughout much Southeast Asia. Inhabiting a swath from India eastward through Thailand and Vietnam, running over to the Philippines and southward into Indonesia. A tree-dwelling creature, they prefer primary forest jungle habitats. But they are also found in secondary forests, selectively logged forests, and even parks and suburban gardens. All of which overlap the environment of horseshoe bats and their related coronavirus reservoir.

The leap from bats to civets and its development into SARS probably didn’t occur suddenly. Many civets probably consumed many sick bats over a long period of time before the coronavirus changed enough to establish itself. But at some point in the 1980s, this probably occurred.

From that point it took about 17 years for the virus to make its first leap into humans. How the virus likely made this move is eerily familiar — taking a similar route to the devastating HIV and Ebola illnesses.

Wet Markets — Butcheries For Asian Bush Meat

A major suspect for the source of this particularly harmful contact is the Chinese wet market system. A wet market is little more than a trading area that contains, among other things, live and often exotic animals for sale as food. A person entering a wet market is confronted with thousands confined live animals. They can point to a particular animal and a wet market worker will butcher the creature on the spot.

It’s literally a very bloody business. The butchering occurs in open air. Blood and body fluids can and often do splatter anywhere. As a result, the floors are typically wet from continuous drippage and, usually partial, cleaning — which is how the market derives its name.

Palm civets can often be found in wet markets as food in China. Trappers for the wet markets range the Southeast Asian jungles bringing in civets by the thousands. The civets were reservoirs for SARS virus. They were slaughtered in the messy markets. People were exposed. In 2002 and in 2019 they got sick.

Though palm civets have been identified by many avenues of research as a likely source of SARS, raccoon-dogs — whose meat was sold in wet markets — were also shown to be SARS type virus carriers. These animals have a similar diet to that of civets, share their habitat and were similarly vulnerable to infection from the bats. In addition, pangolins — a kind of scaly anteater — have been identified as a possible carrier of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. And pangolin meat is also sold for consumption in Vietnam and China.

Given our knowledge of how zoonotic illnesses move in animal populations, it’s possible that multiple species are involved in the ecology of SARS and related coronaviruses. In essence, there is a strange and ominous similarity between wet markets in Asia and the bush meat trade in Africa. They are both means of moving jungle meats from animals (who may be reservoirs for novel illnesses) in tropical regions into the human population. Often in a fashion in which the treatment and preparation of the meats to be consumed is haphazard and unregulated.

First SARS Outbreak — 2002-2003

Ultimately, the disease percolating through likely stressed natural systems found its way into the human population in late 2002. The epicenter was Guangdong Province in China where the highest proportion of early SARS cases by a significant margin (39 percent) showed up in people in the live animal food trade. In other words, people who butchered animals or worked closely with those who butchered animals.

The initial infections, which were traced back to November in China, resulted in spikes of pneumonia incidents in local hospitals. The cause — a then unknown illness that was later called SARS. SARS was another terrifying illnesses. Its symptoms could emerge rapidly or slowly over a couple of days or weeks. It could mimic flu-like symptoms before suddenly surging into a terribly lethal illness that attacked the lungs — rendering victims unable to breathe under their own power. At first, case fatality rates (the percentage of people who died as a result of SARS) ranged from 0-50 percent. The ultimate recorded fatality rate from the initial outbreak in 2002 would settle at 9.6 percent or about 100 times more lethal than seasonal flu.

SARS cases 2002 2003 outbreak

Cumulative reported SARS-CoV cases during the 2002-2003 outbreak. Note that early case reporting was incomplete. Image source: Phoenix7777 and WHO.

From the point of early infections, patients then passed on the virus to healthcare workers and others. Though SARS was not as crazy lethal as HIV and Ebola on an individual basis, it was quite infectious. Meaning it was much easier to pass on to others than either of those earlier emerging zoonotic illnesses. This higher transmission rate resulted in a greater risk that more people would fall ill from SARS over a shorter period of time — exponentially multiplying the virus’s lethal potential.

Transmission to workers in hospitals and care facilities was notable as typical sanitation procedures were not enough to limit virus spread. In hospital settings, the transmission rate for this first SARS illness (the number of people each infected person then got sick) was between 2.2 and 3.7. Outside of sanitized settings, the transmission rate ranged from 2.4 to 31.3. A particularly highly infectious patient, called a super-spreader, resulted in a mass spread of illness to workers at Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hospital in Guangzhou during January of 2003 and subsequently to other parts of China’s hospital system. Masks and protective gowns (PPE) were ultimately shown as necessary to contain SARS infection in hospitals.

China’s early failures to report on the 2002 SARS outbreak resulted in a somewhat delayed international response. But by early 2003, the World Health Organization was issuing warnings, advisories and guidance. Disease prevention agencies within countries issued their own responses including diligent contact tracing and isolation protocols. The containment response both within and outside of China was thus in full swing by early 2003. This action likely prevented a much broader pandemic. That said, a total of 8,096 cases were reported — 5,327 inside China and 2,769 in other countries. With the vast majority of cases occurring in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Canada, Singapore and Vietnam. In total, out of the 8,096 people reported infected during this first SARS outbreak, 774 or 9.6 percent, perished.

SARS-CoV-2 Tsunami on the Way

Unfortunately, infectious diseases show no mercy to fatigued and degraded infectious disease responses. They lurk. They mutate. In their own way, they probe our defenses. They are capable of breaking out to greater ranges when diligence, ability, or will to protect human life wanes among leaders. And a smattering of SARS cases reported during the 2000s following the 2002-2003 outbreak continued as a reminder of its potential. So as with HIV and Ebola, we face waves of illness with SARS. With the next outbreak resulting in a global pandemic that will likely infect millions and kill tens to hundreds of thousands during 2019-2020.

Up Next: COVID-19 First Outbreak — Viral Glass-Like Nodules in Lungs

 

Harmful Contacts with our Living Earth and Redounding Shots Across the Bow

About two-thirds of all infectious diseases in humans have their origins in animals. Scientists say the ability of a virus to mutate and adapt from animals to the human system is very rare, but the expansion of the human footprint is making that rare event much more likely. — Jeff Berardelli

Contact — the state or condition of physical touching.

Harmful or unwanted contact — an assault.

Redound (archaic) — to come back upon; rebound on.

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How do you get sick from a virus? In the most simple sense, the virus touches your skin, your eye, the inside of your mouth, your blood or some other part of your body. It makes contact. Then it gets inside to do its damage. Often, this is through some action that you take. Some voluntary, some involuntary. Breathing, moving, picking up objects, putting contaminated clothes or blankets on or venturing into environments where other carriers of the virus can touch you. Or even, in a broader sense, disturbing the virus carriers and changing their environment is such a way that makes it easier for them to literally come to your home community to roost.

Contact.

In the last chapter we briefly explored how the world houses many, many potential, new, and re-emerging illnesses. Kept away from humans in mostly safe or remote places. We also briefly looked at how those illnesses are expanding. In this chapter, we will take a deeper dive into the second part. To look at how some harmful elements and activities within of our civilization have wrecked some of those safe places, how they’ve gotten us into what amounts to a brutal embrace with the places and beings in living nature that are reservoirs to those illnesses. How in this epic and global struggle, often bad actions and behaviors have shaken some illnesses loose. How it’s all gotten many of us sick.

That’s our present and recent history. One of harmful contact. Of touching and grasping for things best left undisturbed. And how it’s getting worse. How the general disturbance is rippling outward and bounding back.

We’re living in a time of an explosion of new illness or the re-emergence of old illnesses previously thought contained onto the global scene. How this has happened first became a major part of the discussion among health and epidemic experts since around the 1980s. For at the time, we experienced one of our initial major warnings that diseases may be dedounding onto expanding global civilization. And this first warning came from a terrifying new illness. For HIV humbled a global health corps that until that point had seen a long string of victories arising from the advances in medical science during the 19th and 20th Centuries.

HIV — Major Warning Shot to the Global Health System

HIV heralded an ominous new era. One where victory against infectious illness was less certain or at least came much slower and at a much higher price than earlier medical science victories might have given us hope for. One in which disrupted, damaged, or harmfully contacted life (and its supports) appears to return a toll on humankind as various enormous and harmful activities spread — burning, deforesting, killing and eating, and polluting their way across the globe.

virus3d rendering of a virus

3D rendering of HIV. Image source: National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

Since its first outbreak as a pandemic during the early 1980s, HIV has infected over 75 million people of which around 32 million have died as a result of an illness that jumped to human beings from primates. Many deaths occurred early in the pandemic outbreak as first treatments were mostly ineffective. But even today HIV kills between 500,000 and 1,100,000 people each year (770,000 during 2018).

HIV originated in the broader African rainforests. There its progenitor reservoir existed as semian immuno deficiency virus (SIV) in the great apes and monkeys of the jungle for more than 10,000 years. All without transferring to humans until very recently. Our best present understanding is that the ultimate zoonosis occurred due to the bush meat trade in Africa which produced multiple contacts between SIV in apes and the blood of humans.

Hunting, Rubber and Bush Meat

The story of the bush meat trade is one that should be eerily familiar to those researching the climate crisis. Because it is also a story of forced displacement of human populations which then results in a harmful interaction with the natural world and subsequent damaging upshots. In the period from around the 1880s to the 1920s, sub-saharan Africans were forced from their native rural homes in droves as waves of Europeans descended on the jungles of Africa.

The Europeans wanted elephant tusks from the hunting trade to be sent home to Europe. They wanted rubber vine sap for industrial uses. They wanted to commoditize the jungle for these and other products. But often the Europeans didn’t have the manpower or local knowledge to conduct effective hunting expeditions into the jungle without the help of native populations. And they needed a local labor force for the rubber vine trade. Tribal Africans were pressed into service for the expeditions and the industrial exploitation of jungle plant products, often at the point of a gun.

This was a kind of mass invasion of the jungle in which abused and often under-nourished natives needed a new food source to survive. Rural subsistence agriculture wasn’t a possibility for a constantly mobile porter in an elephant hunting expedition. Nor was it for rubber plant harvesters or those newly impressed into factory work in burgeoning cities.

Bushmeat

“At this bushmeat market in Pointe Noire, a butchered chimpanzee is shown in the middle of the photograph, along with other smoked and fresh meat. It has been theorized that SIV moved from chimpanzees and sooty mangabeys to humans—evolving into pathogenic HIV-1 and HIV-2 respectively–through exposure to primate blood, most likely as a result of the bushmeat trade. The HIV-1 group M epidemic likely began in the region of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. Although wild chimpanzees are not found in the immediate vicinity of Kinshasa, the city is situated on the Congo River, which allowed for the easy transport of SIV-infected bushmeat and of infected humans from rural to urban areas.” Image and caption source: Physicians Research Network and the Goldray Consulting Group.

So a kind of shadow trade in bush meat arose. Porters on hunting expeditions would opportunistically kill and butcher the jungle animals they came into contact with to supplement their diets. It was an ironic and ominous outgrowth of the abuse handed down to the native Africans by the Europeans. It was almost as if they’d been corrupted by the hunting and killing they were forced to take part in such that it became a new means of survival for them.

The Monster that Lives in the Jungle and the Monster that Lives in Us

Various strains of SIV lived in the blood of apes and monkeys in Cameroon and Sierra Leone. Porters and laborers driven into the jungle killed and ate their hominid relatives to survive the European expansion into Africa and its subsequent exploitation. Hunted chimps and monkeys fought back. They bit. They flung feces. Tired porters and laborers hunting chimps after endless hours of work made mistakes. They missed when cutting chimp meat off of bones. They under-cooked bloody meat. They cut themselves with bloody knives containing the blood of their hominid fellows. The SIV living in the blood of the monkeys and apes its way into the blood of the porters and laborers. It happened many, many times.

At first, SIV was a mild virus in humans. It didn’t live well in the new host. But viruses are weird. Like life, they mutate. They change. They adapt to new environments. If there is one prime directive a virus has in its intrinsic design it is to self-replicate. At some point in all the butchering and eating and messy cutting or in the conflicts between the people hunting the apes and monkeys for food and the fighting creatures struggling for very existence, there was an SIV transmission into humans that caught fire. Changing from the mild SIV to the raging and lethal human immuno-deficiency virus that we know today.

It had to have happened multiple times. We know this, in part, because there are not one but two progenitor strains of HIV — HIV 1 which links back to apes and chimps in the Cameroon region and HIV 2 which links back to Sooty Mangabays in the Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast region. A grim bit of evidence pointing to how widespread the harmful contact was that resulted in the virus’s leap into humans. The point in time at which the consistent leap was made is thought to have occurred in the pre-World War 2 period — possibly as early as 1908.

Once the leap happened, the machine of exploitation in Africa that the colonialists had set up then served to help spin the virus out into the broader human population. Industrial centers and related communities had sprung up around the animal products and jungle harvesting trades. And in those centers prostitution of various kinds was rampant. Already established human illness such as syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea became widespread in Africa. These illnesses assisted the spread of HIV into hundreds of people by the mid 20th Century. This created a consistent viral HIV reservoir in humans from which the major pandemic later emerged.

Ebola — Novel Jungle Hemorrhagic Fever

If HIV was the first known serious illness to arise through harmful human interactions with ancient tropical and subtropical disease reservoirs, it became sadly apparent early on that it would not be the last. More human beings were coming into contact with the old animal disease reservoirs moving from previously sequestered habitats than before.

Ebola cdc

An electron microscope image of Ebola virus. Image source: CDC.

Cities were extending into the jungles, animals carrying illnesses foreign to humans were moving into those cities. Deforestation and slash and burn agriculture was displacing them, driving them. And in most new places that the animals moved there were human beings as well. A new harmful interaction, the climate crisis driven by fossil fuel burning, was also beginning to heat up the world. This served as a new pathway for expansion — increasing the habitable range for creatures used to hot weather and typically averse to cooler climes. This greatly increased and continues to increase the spatial range of tropical and semi-tropical illnesses capable of infecting people.

Of the jungle fevers that arise from the hot regions of the world, that are carried by animals that live in this heat, the viral hemorrhaigc fevers are perhaps some of the most terrifying. Like HIV, they are seriously lethal — tricking the body’s immune response in a way that enables them to multiply out of control. Directly attacking the body’s linings, they thus cause such great cell death that they effectively blow holes in tissue. This breaks down the body’s integrity causing loss of fluid and ultimately bloody hemorrhage.

From Viral Brush-fire to Conflagration

The first instances of Ebola occurred in 1976— in Sudan and then in Zaire. These initial infection outbreaks were highly lethal and terrifying to the local populations effected. Of the 284 people suffering from the Sudan strain of the virus, 151 died. In Zaire, 280 out of the 318 infected souls (88 percent) perished. For a relatively short-lasting infection, Ebola was amazingly lethal. Though later, less deadly strains emerged, many of the outbreaks to follow would continue to kill a surprising number of those afflicted. Presently, the World Health Organization estimates the lethality rate for Ebola, overall, at 50 percent. Sudan and Zaire both hosted different strains (SUDV and EBOV) of the same virus — Ebola — which was named after the river region from which it emerged.

It is still not fully known how the deadly Ebola virus first made its leap into humans from animals. But it is well known that tropical fruit bats, porcupines, and primates — yes our poor hominid relatives again — can carry the virus. As with HIV, the harmful bush meat trade is one of the key suspects. Although with Ebola, there are many other possible modes of zoonosis from animals to humans.

The virus is more transmissible than HIV, though less so than many other illnesses, such that direct contact with blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected people or animals, and with surfaces and materials (like bedding and clothing) contaminated with these fluids can result in sickness. It is thought that eating fruits partially eaten by fruit bats, food contaminated by bat or other infected animal feces, or consuming bush meat are all means of animal to human transfer of the illness.

Ebola Jungle Ecology CDC

Initially, the bush meat trade was a prime suspect for transmission of Ebola to human beings. Presently, it’s understood that other contacts with infected animals or their bodily fluids may transmit the virus. Also, at first, Ebola primarily impacted areas bordering the jungle. But in recent outbreaks, major population centers have been impacted. Image source: Ebola Virus Ecology — CDC.

Notably corpses of both humans and animals who were killed by the illness remain infectious for some time — requiring special burial. The disease typically spreads from human to human through direct contact with the blood, semen, saliva, vomit or other body fluid of infected persons. Surfaces contaminated by these fluids are also a means of infection. The virus is thankfully fragile in air, but splashing with droplets can transfer illness. And the virus is known to live in droplets on surfaces for up to 3 days.

After Ebola first burst onto the scene in 1976, there was a long hiatus of epidemic outbreaks in humans. Some thought, hopefully, that the disease had faded back into its tropical environs. But in 1995, nearly two decades after its first emergence, the virus broke out among humans in Zaire again — this time infecting 315 and killing 254. Subsequent outbreaks occurred every five years or so leaping to Uganda in 2000 (425 cases, 224 deaths), the DRC in 2003 (143 cases, 128 deaths), again in DRC in 2007 of a less lethal strain (149 cases, 37 deaths) and in 2012 in both Uganda and DRC yet again in three separate outbreaks (Uganda — 31 cases, 21 deaths; DRC — 57 cases, 29 deaths).

Thus far, outbreaks of the novel illness had been relatively small if intense viral brushfires. And, though lethal, the virus was thought be inhibited in transmission. A major outbreak spanning from 2013 through 2016 would belie that impression. Looking back, the illness had mostly been confined to small settlements bordering jungle regions in the 1976 to 2012 timeframe. But in 2013 and 2014 the virus, possibly through the enlarging span of its animal reservoirs, penetrated into more densely populated urban and city environments. From these more packed regions the virus would explode to rage out of control for years — consuming many thousands of human lives.

The West African outbreak which would hitherto dwarf all previous episodes of Ebola began in late 2013. Then, a one year old child perished from Ebola infection from an unknown source. Afterward, the disease rapidly spread through her community in Guinea, out into the local region and then on through the nearby countries of Liberia and Sierra Leone. What precipitated was a global health emergency that reached catastrophic proportions by summer of 2014 with the virus overwhelming the medical capacity of impacted countries. At this point the illness threatened to go global — with a handful of cases leaping to neighboring countries in Africa and even transferring overseas. But intense contact tracing and strict isolation both inside and outside the virus hot zone was largely responsible for preventing further spread.

By the end of the outbreak in 2016, an estimated 28,646 infections had occurred of which 11,323 were reported to have died. Ebola had risen from the ranks of a fringe if rather scary illness cropping up on the outer edges of society to an illness striking directly at the bones of global civilization. It had shown its ominous potential.

Subsequent outbreaks in 2017 and 2018 in DRC and Equateur Province mirrored previous less widespread infections. But a new outbreak that began in 2018 in the Kivu region of DRC and extends to today is considered a global health emergency by WHO. This particular outbreak as of 29 March, 2020 is reported to have infected 3453 people of which 2273 have died.

Warning Shots Across the Bow

Both Ebola and HIV served as early warning shots across the bow of global civilization. Visible signals that the risk of catastrophic emergence of new infectious illness was on the rise. That our harmful contacts with the natural world were the primary source of this rising risk. And that many, many more human souls may be at stake. These two novel illnesses were not the only major emergences to occur in this time. In fact, a plethora of new and re-emergent sicknesses have come onto the global scene over the past four decades. But they both represented the ominous character of the larger risk human beings now faced. They also foreshadowed the follow-on emergence of SARS into a major global pandemic — which we’ll be talking about in the next chapter.N

(Up Next — The Emergence of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)

From Ancient Reservoirs

“The insidious emergence of HIV/AIDS and the lack of due attention by policymakers illustrate how some outbreaks that start subtly can grow to global proportions if they are not aggressively addressed early on.” — Dr Anthony Fauci

The Infectious Diseases Society of America recognizes climate change as a global health emergency and calls for policies responding to the intrinsic links between warming temperatures and rising sea levels and epidemic and pandemic events as well as other infectious disease threats to public and individual health. — IDSA

The climate system of our world envelopes it.

It represents the state of our atmosphere, our oceans, and the frozen regions we rely on. It interacts with and influences all things living here on Earth.

The present changes we now experience due to a climate in crisis are far-reaching. Disruptive to the balance of life itself. Harmful or even demolishing to ecosystems. Driving species of all kinds into new environments after their old safe places have been changed, disrupted, or taken away.

This is a story that we have become sadly familiar with as the burning of fossil fuels keeps dumping heat-trapping carbon into our atmosphere — resulting in rising seas, melting ice, stronger storms, worsening droughts, expanding heat, and far larger and more dangerous wildfires.

Global examples of emerging infectious diseases NIH

Global examples of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. Even before COVID-19, they were growing more numerous. Back in the early 1990s, this map showed just one illness — HIV. To humans, quite a few are now rather new. Others are re-emerging. Many are influenced by the climate crisis in various ways. Image source: Three Decades of Responding to Disease Outbreaks — NIH.

But there is one aspect of our changing climate that is often nuanced and overlooked — how the climate crisis can influence the spread of disease itself. How a disrupted global climate can drive sickness up out of the ancient reservoirs that have harbored it throughout the ages. How it can help accelerate the spread of new illness, make us more susceptible to sickness, or cause the re-emergence of previously well-contained diseases. Given the present context of a global pandemic caused by an entirely new illness — COVID-19 — it’s crucial to take a look at generally how harmful interactions with the natural world, particularly through climate crisis, are increasing risks of new and re-emerging diseases.

Reservoirs as Illness Havens

For what we know of as illness is also a kind of life.

Bacteria are micro-organisms. Viruses are pseudo-life and life-altering. And parasites are living things that dwell within or upon other living things. Climate change can generate or worsen such illnesses by directly affecting their environments as well. Creating the conditions that facilitate the transfer of diseases from typical ranges — called reservoirs — to new hosts. Developing pathways for expanded or new (novel) infections.

An illness reservoir is any person, animal, plant, soil or substance in which an infectious agent normally lives and multiplies. A harbor for the bacteria, viruses, or parasites that cause disease.

Human beings are reservoirs for certain diseases. These could be living humans or the dead — long buried and held dormant in ancient frozen tundra for hundreds or even tens of thousands of years. It is possible that the devastating illness smallpox (Variola virus), which was recently considered eradicated, may still be harbored by frozen dead humans entombed in the permafrost. That permafrost is now thawing as the Arctic heats up.

Animals can also be reservoirs — rabies, for example, lives in bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes. Cholera is a bacteria that lives in water. It can also live in humans and zooplankton. And there is a link between the spread of Cholera and the loss of water security — which the climate crisis risks. Anthrax lives in herd animals like sheep and reindeer. Because it is capable of developing spores, Anthrax can survive for decades in the bodies of dead reindeer and the climate crisis produced thaw of permafrost has already resulted in new outbreaks of this illness in herd animals and, in rarer possible cases, human beings. Dengue fever is a nasty virus harbored by both humans and mosquitoes. And it is worth noting for diseases which cause illness and loss of life in human beings that mosquitoes — whose range can be greatly altered by changes in climate — weigh quite heavily.

Zoonosis — The Transfer of Illness From Animals to Humans

During recent years, human beings have unfortunately seen the emergence of numerous new or novel illnesses. Many of these illnesses have arisen as the result of mistreatment of nature. Our disruption of the natural world and harmful or abusive relationships with animals appears to have done double duty in getting us ill. For a good share of the nastier new ailments have arisen as the result of zoonosis — or the transfer of diseases that previously affected only animals to human beings — involving such harmful acts.

The harmful bushmeat trade in Africa is thought to be the origin of the novel HIV virus transferring from its original reservoir in primates as SIV before mutating into a stronger illness in humans during the 20th Century to become common from the 1980s onward. Though there is little clear and present evidence that the jump from animals to humans for HIV was directly influenced by the climate crisis, the link between harmful industry and disease transfer is a bit close for comfort here. It is also worth noting that those living with HIV are among the most vulnerable to increasing extreme weather events and related disruption of human habitat and support systems driven by the climate crisis.

SARS illnesses (of which COVID-19 is a subset) and Ebola are also novel viruses in humans. As with HIV, they are likely zoonotic illnesses. This means they originated in animal host reservoirs but, through some process of contact, transferred to human beings. These viruses are still rather mysterious in that they presently have unconfirmed reservoirs. But both are reasonably suspected to be harbored by animals — with tropical and subtropical bats relatively high on the list.

With Ebola in particular (we’ll talk about some similarities between Ebola and SARS due to suspect reservoirs in the next chapter), there is a bit of an ominous interaction with the climate crisis. New modeling produced in Nature Communications suggests that under the present pathway of global heating, Ebola epidemics in Africa could occur once every 10 years — or almost twice as often as they do at present. This is because the bats and other animals that are thought to harbor the virus are expected to be driven by warming temperatures into new areas — expanding the epidemic-prone region by 20 percent.

Expanding Heat

The heating function of the climate crisis is very well understood. And, early-on, scientific research from world health and climate agencies identified the risk that more global heat posed to expanding illness. In particular, mosquitoes which are both reservoirs and vectors (agents of disease transfer) for numerous harmful illnesses are seeing their ranges greatly expand as the world heats up.

Mosquito-borne infection is an ancient and well-known threat to humankind. But it has thankfully been relegated to warmer climates. Despite knowing little about mosquito-borne Malaria, the Roman aristocrats of antiquity did know they could avoid infection by retreating to villas in the cooler hills. Away from where mosquitoes were plentiful. Unfortunately, the climate crisis is driving heat, and the mosquitoes that come with it, both uphill and into higher latitudes.

A single populous species of mosquito — Aedes aegypti — can spread four serious illnesses. They include Dengue Fever, Zika virus, Chikunyunga and Yellow Fever. As global heating continues to be driven by fossil fuel burning, the range of this mosquito is expected to greatly expand. How much depends on how rapidly we halt fossil fuel burning and transition to clean energy (or not). But a business as usual (worst case) fossil fuel burning scenario in which the clean energy transition continues to be hobbled will bring this so-called jungle fever carrier to the Arctic by the 2080s (see image above).

There are over 3,500 species of mosquito. Most are relegated to warmer climates. In addition to the illnesses mentioned above, these insects also carry Malaria and West Nile virus among many others. And as the climate heats up, their range and their ability to transfer diseases among humans will expand.

But mosquitoes are not the only disease reservoir and disease vector species now on the move as a result of the disruption caused by climate crisis. There are many. Some which we probably don’t yet know about.

Receding Cold

If tropical heat spreading northward bringing with it flights of mosquitoes and displacing other disease carriers presents one illness expansion problem, the ongoing thaw of cold regions presents another. In particular, there is evidence that the Arctic has locked away numerous ancient illnesses that could be released in the thaw produced by climate crisis.

The Variola virus which causes Smallpox may well be sequestered in the various graves and burial mounds scattered throughout the Asian and European north. A study conducted in the 1990s detected fragments of smallpox DNA in the remains of Stone Age humans as well as people who were known to have died from smallpox during the 19th Century. Though smallpox was considered eradicated from human beings, long deceased humans frozen in the Arctic may serve as a reservoir that results in potential new infections. If such a reservoir exists, the Arctic thaw produced by the climate crisis will disturb it.

Other pathogens that may still be harbored by dead humans frozen the Arctic includes the 1918 Spanish flu (H1N1) which was found in frozen regions of Alaska. In 2007, scientists discovered Spanish flu RNA in the body of an Inuit woman who’d been buried for 75 years in the permafrost.

Anthrax is a bacteria-caused infectious disease that typically afflicts herd animals such as sheep and reindeer. But Anthrax can pass to humans that are exposed to the bacteria. In 2016, 2,000 reindeer became infected with Anthrax in the Yamal Peninsula region of Siberia. Nearby, it is thought that a reindeer killed by anthrax decades before thawed out, spreading the bacteria into the lands where the reindeer grazed. These reindeer then spread the illness to a number of human beings, including a 12 year old boy who died.

The potential for the release of both known and other as-yet unknown infectious agents from the thawing regions of our world have generated concern among top researchers. Jean-Michel Claverie a professor of microbiology at Aix-Marseilles University recently noted to BBC:

“Following our work and that of others, there is now a non-zero probability that pathogenic microbes could be revived, and infect us. How likely that is is not known, but it’s a possibility. It could be bacteria that are curable with antibiotics, or resistant bacteria, or a virus. If the pathogen hasn’t been in contact with humans for a long time, then our immune system would not be prepared. So yes, that could be dangerous.”

A Context of General Disturbance

Overall, it is likely that there are more numerous climate influences to disease transfer than mere heating and thawing. The general disturbance to the natural world generated by more extreme fires and floods, by instances of flash drought, and even by the mechanism of rising seas is likely to displace more disease reservoirs, creating previously unknown illness transmission potentials.

As far as our general scientific knowledge of illness related to or influenced by the climate crisis at this time, what we see now is likely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. And, as with all things climate crisis related, we require more research, more knowledge-sharing, more general public support of scientific discovery to pull back the veil on this particular new threat. So in conclusion of this chapter on the climate crisis relationship to human illness, we’ll depart with a statement from the World Health Organization:

Changes in infectious disease transmission patterns are a likely major consequence of climate change. We need to learn more about the underlying complex causal  relationships, and apply this information to the prediction of future impacts, using more complete, better validated, integrated, models.

Up Next — Harmful Contacts with our Living Earth and Redounding Shots Across the Bow

Introduction — Climate of Pandemic

Electron microscope image of first COVID-19 case in US. Viral particles are colored blue. Image source: CDC.

Climate change currently contributes to the global burden of disease and premature deaths (very high confidence). — IPCC

 

One disease.

Just a single nasty bug. COVID-19.

An illness resulting from the virus SARS-CoV-2.

That’s all it took to bring global civilization to a grinding, crashing, train-wreck like halt. Not a collapse. But more of a rational-fear freeze.

And now here we are, 3.38 billion souls at least, sheltering at home or under some form of confinement. Waiting in isolation as medical professionals struggle to keep a growing flood of our fellow human beings — in hospitals or triage tents — alive and breathing. For COVID-19 kills by essentially filling our lungs up with viral glass like nodules and fluid due to the body’s defensive immune response. This is the social climate of our presently distanced public life. A fearful Climate of Pandemic.

How did we get here? How do we get out? And how might the increasingly disturbed Earth system climate have influenced the spread of this particularly nasty illness? Most important of all, how can we make ourselves more aware, more alert, and more resilient to illnesses like COVID-19 in the future?  That is the scope of Climate of Pandemic. An exploration we will undertake here over the coming weeks as this particularly vicious illness ripples across our world.

Why is this important? For one, now more than ever before, we all have a civic and moral duty to listen to and understand the science in all its stripes. Not to deny science. This is not just because we live in a world under siege by the harmful influence of climate crisis. A crisis that, by its very nature, is clastic and fragmental to many structures of our world that we all rely on for life, health, and well-being. One that through various destructive processes multiplies risks to individuals and societies. It is also because we live in what Carl Sagan referred to as A Demon Haunted World. One in which scientific ignorance and superstition — denial — is actively promoted by some leaders as a false alternative to fact and reason.

Science is our candle in the darkness in a rising wind. It can give us a predictive indicator of what may be in store as a result of the climate crisis and its coordinate pandemic crisis. In that understanding, it can provide a guide to make the crisis and its related offspring and out-castings less damaging through various actions. And if we listen to science, we can act to save lives and life support systems — both human and environmental — now.

The climate crisis itself stretches to contain a very broad diversity of threats. Some of these threats it directly causes. Others, as is likely the case with COVID-19, it influences in a number of ways to make them more dangerous or potentially more likely to spread. Cause and influence are both important threat relationships of the climate crisis. But they are also important to distinguish.

This does not mean that influence should be overly diminished. For example, the climate crisis influences the strength of hurricanes. It does not cause a hurricane. But if a hurricane is influenced in such a way that in the present climate it is now a category 5 storm where it would once have been a category 2 storm, then the climate crisis influence is a seriously destructive one.

I suspect that the influence relationship between climate and disease is similarly substantial. Perhaps not with COVID-19 particularly. But maybe so. Or maybe somewhere in between. The nuanced degree a known unknown at this time. But one that the process of scientific discovery will likely unravel more for us as we look closer. In any case, the broader context given by IPCC indicates that the climate crisis already is a major contributor to the global burden of disease.

So it is important to be clear that the climate crisis did not cause COVID-19. The illness existed before, likely in bats and in civets or in pangolins and civets. But it may have provided impetus for the illness to amplify in bats or pangolins and to spread through other species ultimately to humans. And the drivers of the climate crisis such as air pollution from fossil fuel burning or its upshots such as wildfires, extreme heat, and extreme weather may have also amplified the illness’s impact once it did make the leap into humans.

All are subjects we’ll dive into more deeply later in this work.

For now, we are going to take a step back from COVID-19 itself and look more broadly at the scientific understanding of how the climate crisis impacts diseases in general and presents a higher risk of deadly illnesses making their way into the human population. Because when it comes to understanding larger threats, context is often everything.

(Up Next — From Ancient Reservoirs)

Climate of Pandemic — Announcement and Contents

Image of COVID-19, or coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) which is a sudden acute respiratory syndrome type virus, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Image source: CDC.

 

Scribbling through a Global Pandemic

The present tragedy of the COVID-19 Pandemic has impacted us all. For my own part, I am now at home under quarantine with my wife. This is a decision I have made to protect myself, my family, and my fellows here in Maryland, America, and across the world.

As many of you know, I had taken a long hiatus from climate writing to help promote clean energy as a response to the climate crisis. I did this by using the Uber rideshare platform, driving a Tesla, and sharing conversations with riders of all stripes — from business and government leaders to everyday people — as a way of raising grass roots awareness about the climate crisis and directly showing that solutions are available now to everyone.

I feel that these conversations were very effective. That I helped both raise awareness in the local community as well as among leaders and decision makers. I’ve found that it is so much easier to convey concern and caring through the medium of direct interpersonal contact vs mere words written on an electronic page or even the more adept but still far removed from the heart-to-heart media provided here on the interwebs.

But life has a way of catching up with us. Particularly at a time when our world is being shaken to its very roots by forces unwisely unleashed. We are all now isolated out of necessity. Out of safety. Out of responsibility for our fellow human beings.

Duty in Exile

So this is my task in exile — Climate of Pandemic. A combined special report and web book. A project that will explore the breadth and depth of the global coronavirus emergency. Take an in-depth look at how climate change may have helped to shake it out of an ancient viral reservoir. Reveal how the brash and brutish politics of climate change denial encapsulated the failed leadership that enabled the virus to spread like wildfire. And look at how experts are concerned that more pandemic threats may be on the way due to the great shaking up of the natural system that the climate crisis is now inflicting on our world (hopefully, I’ll be able to pick up on some other climate writing as well, but this will be my special focus for the time being).

Of course, in piercing this subject, we will likely drift into direct reporting on the emergency itself — dipping into the realms of epidemic science and disaster response. That’s OK! Because we should understand that the basic value of climate crisis response lies in both our understanding of inter-related contexts out of a sense of holistic responsibility to our world and its inhabitants.

What follows is the table of contents with links to each chapter in the new special report. At present, I have seventeen planned. But given how we are living in such uncertain and tragic times that might well expand. New links will be provided as each chapter is written. And upcoming installments will have the parenthetical (in progress) label. To quick-link this table of contents, you can click the Climate of Pandemic illustration on this blog’s side-bar and get right to catching up or reading an update.

Best to you all! Please stay safe! Please care for your loved ones! And please remember that caring for our world is also providing that much needed care and response as well.

 

Climate of Pandemic Contents:

 

  1. Introduction — Climate of Pandemic
  2. From Ancient Reservoirs
  3. Harmful Contacts with our Living Earth and Redounding Shots Across the Bow
  4. The Emergence of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)
  5. COVID-19 First Outbreak — Viral Glass-Like Nodules in Lungs
  6. Retreat and First Failures (pending)
  7. COVID-19 Goes Global (pending)

Melting Ice Everywhere — Arctic Sea Ice Extent Hit New Record Lows in Late July and Early August

If there is one word I’d use for the summer of 2019 it would be awakening. Awakening to a general public awareness of a climate crisis driven by fossil fuel burning we are now entering the throes of.

(According to NOAA, July of 2019 was the hottest July on record for the state of Alaska. This likely presages a July that will be globally the hottest July ever recorded in 2019. Much of this excess July heat was centered on the polar zones during the month — resulting in serious ice loss for both Greenland and the floating Arctic sea ice. Image source: NOAA.)

The global record hot month of June along with its related severe heatwaves, storms, and droughts have certainly served to raise the general awareness of trouble. Our new youth advocates such as Greta Thunberg and an expanding Extinction Rebellion, have certainly served to amplify the much-needed message. But vividly melting ice in tremendous volume — particularly in Antarctica, Greenland and on the ocean surface has also played its role.

The Arctic zone has seen an outrageous hotter than normal period that has extended throughout July and well into August. States and regions within or near the Arctic Circle have experienced temperatures from the upper 70s all the way into the lower 90s. Great wildfires have blanketed large sections of thawing permafrost and boreal forest — casting out smoke plumes covering as much as 4 million square kilometers at a time. Greenland saw a single day in which ice melt exceeded 11 billion tons. By volume, that’s 11 cubic kilometers — roughly equal to 11 moderate sized mountains — gone in a single 24 hour period (what does one cubic kilometer look like? See here.).

Out in the ocean waters of the Arctic, another key feature of our climate system that keeps the Earth environment stable, was getting hammered by the rising heat. For every day from July 22nd through August 9th, Arctic sea ice extent had been running in record low ranges below previous low marks set for this time of year during 2011 and 2012.

2012 in particular was a very severe Arctic melt year. Both sea ice and Greenland saw significant losses at that time. But it appears as we end the decade of the 2010s and start to enter the 2020s, Arctic summers like the one that occured in 2012 will become commonplace even as new hot outliers are more possible. For 2019 has begun to replace some of the previous worst losses seen during 2012.

(Arctic sea ice extent entered new record low ranges below the 2011 and 2012 lines during late July and into early August. By August 11, Arctic sea ice had dropped to 5.249 million square kilometers the second lowest measure for the date. Image source: NSIDC.)

As we get into August, it appears that at least some of 2012’s late season sea ice records will hold. The new August 11 measure of 5.249 million square kilometers is just above 2012’s low mark of 5.190 million square kilometers. And August 10 saw 2019 edging just above the 2012 line in the NSIDC measure.

Looking forward, the second week of August is expected to bring 1.38 C above average temperatures for the Arctic region. This is a rather significant departure for August as Arctic temperature anomalies tend to moderate during summer. And very warm ocean surface temperatures ranging well above 4 C warmer than average for large regions is likely to continue to enhance sea ice melt (see right image below).

(Greatly reduced Arctic sea ice extent [left] faces off against much warmer than normal Arctic ocean waters during August of 2019 [right]. Image sources: Uni Bremen and DMI.)

But a present lack of forecast strong weather systems that typically impact ice at this time of year such as burly high pressure ridges over the Central Arctic or major storms invading from the south may help to maintain at least some of the ice. Nonetheless, with so much heat left in the Arctic system and with sea ice perilously thin for this time of year, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that anything can happen between now and traditional melt season end in mid September.

(Related video blog above.)

(Want to help fight the climate crisis by transitioning to a clean energy vehicle? Get 1,000 free supercharger miles at this link.)

What 2019’s Hottest June Ever Recorded Says About the Climate Crisis

Hint — It’s accelerating.

*****

To be a climate scientist, to read the science, or to otherwise track today’s unfolding global disaster brought on by fossil fuel burning, is to witness a historical event beyond the scope anything encountered by human civilization.

(July 14th’s record low Arctic sea ice ringed by far northern wildfires and related smoke plumes is just one signal of a rapidly heating global climate. Image source: NASA Worldview.)

Over the past Century, heat trapping pollution has forced the world to warm by about 1.1 degrees Celsius. That’s 1/4 the difference between what humans are used to and an ice age — but on the side of hot. Seas, swollen by this heat and by thawing glaciers, have risen by an average of about 17 centimeters since 1900. Nine trillion tons of ice — the equivalent to 9,000 mountains — have melted from those glaciers into our oceans. Wildfires in the U.S. now burn twice the number of acres as they did 30 years ago. Flood events are more than twice as frequent as during the 1980s. Strong hurricanes have doubled in frequency in the North Atlantic over a similar period. The Arctic’s sea ice is in full retreat.

And if we continue burning fossil fuels, this is just the beginning.

June of 2019 was the hottest June ever recorded in the 139 year global climate record provided by NASA. It was about 1.15 C hotter than 1880s averages and exceeded the past hottest June — 2016 — by a full 0.11 C margin. In climate terms, this was a big jump upward.

(Distribution of hotter and colder than average temperatures shows most of the globe sweltering under greenhouse gas induced heating. In particular, the Arctic has been hit quite hard in the most recent round of extreme temperatures. Image source: NASA GISS.)

Perhaps more importantly to the larger trend, the first half of 2019 was the second hottest first six month period on record. Meanwhile, 2019’s heat comes in the context of the past five years. All were one of the five hottest years ever recorded. And NASA GISS head Dr. Gavin Schmidt’s projection is pointing toward a potential second hottest 2019 as well. Dr. Schmidt stated as much to the Guardian, saying:

“It is clear that 2019 is shaping up to be a top-five year – but depending on what happens it could be second, third or fourth warmest. The warmest year was 2016, which started with a big El Niño, which we didn’t have this year, so a record year is not particularly likely.”

With the global climate system so large and subject to swings (produced mainly by El Nino and La Nina), consecutive hot years are a signal of accelerating global heating. A trend born out by NASA’s global temperature record. In the 1990s, decadal temperatures averaged around 0.61 C above 1880s readings. The 2000s — 0.8 C hotter. The 2010s thus far — 1.08C hotter. In other words, the global heat gain from the 1990s to the 2000s was approximately 0.19 C while the heat gain so far from the 2000s to the 2010s is about 0.28 C. A near doubling of past 0.15 C decadal temperature increases.

(Record hot July may follow record hot June…)

This apparently accelerating global heating is driven by rising atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. Dr Michael E. Mann noted to Mashable today:

“As we have shown in recent work, the record warm streaks we’ve seen in recent years simply cannot be explained without accounting for the profound impact we are having on the planet through the burning of fossil fuels and the resulting increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.”

Carbon dioxide, which is the primary driver of heat gain, is now at around 411 parts per million37 percent higher than during any period in the last 800,000 years. This level of heat trapping gas is unprecedented in human terms — likely about as high as readings seen during the Middle Miocene 15 million years ago and at least as high as those seen during the Pliocene 3 million years ago.

Methane — another very potent greenhouse gas and the second strongest overall contributor to the climate crisis — is also continuing to rise in concentration. This rise, along with increasing CO2, has been the cause of some anxiety among scientists who monitor the global climate system.

(Rising atmospheric CO2, primarily driven by fossil fuel burning, is the main driver of the global heating crisis we are now experiencing. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

Together with other trace heat trapping gasses, the global CO2 equivalent heat forcing is around 499 ppm during 2019 (extrapolated from NOAA data). In other words, we’ll be crossing the ominous 500 ppm CO2e threshold very soon.

What all this data means is that we have now turned the ratchet of climate crisis at least once. A set of serious impacts are now locked in. Indeed, we are seeing them. But if we keep burning fossil fuels and turn the ratchet again, it gets much worse from here on out.

(Want to help fight the climate crisis by transitioning to a clean energy vehicle? Get 1,000 free supercharger miles at this link.)

NASA: April of 2019 was Second Hottest on Record

Before we get into the latest record or near record global heat news, I’d just like to make a brief announcement. Concordant with editorial guidance from The Guardian, I’ll be changing my climate communications to more fully reflect the crisis that is now ongoing. Whenever possible, I’ll be using the words — climate crisis to replace climate change, and global heating to replace global warming.

I’ve already made liberal use of the term human forced climate change — this will change to human forced climate crisis or global heating when possible. In addition, the elevation of linkages between fossil fuel burning — which is the crisis’ primary driver — to present global heating will continue.

(Global heat for April of 2019.)

In my view, this verbiage more sufficiently communicates a necessary sense of urgency. For the climate crisis is upon us now and we are now experiencing more extreme impacts. In other words, we’ve already taken one full turn of the climate crisis ratchet by allowing fossil fuels to continue to dominate our energy systems. We don’t want to experience a second or third full turn and the related terrible tightening.

*****

The climate crisis deepens further…

According to NASA GISS, global temperatures have again jumped into near record hot ranges. Readings from this key global monitor found that April of 2019 hit 0.99 degrees Celsius above mid 20th Century ranges. This is about 1.21 C above 1880s values that bound the start of the NASA monitor. In total, it’s a value that makes April of 2019 the second hottest such month in the 139 year global climate record. And the temperatures we are experiencing now are likely the hottest annual and decadal averages in the last 120,000 years.

(April of 2019 anomalies paint a picture of global heat. Image source: NASA.)

Looking at the NASA temperature anomalies map above we find the greatest departures from typical April averages centering on the higher latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. This distribution of abnormal warmth is consistent with polar amplification in which relative warming tends to center on the poles as atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations increase. The ongoing and massive burning of fossil fuels — beginning in the 18th Century and rapidly ramping through the 20th Century — has provided the majority of these gasses. They are pushing the Earth system into the severe warming spike we now see today.

The Equatorial region also showed elevated heat — consistent with an ongoing weak El Nino (which also nudges Earth into the warm side of natural variability, making regional and global all time heat records more likely). Meanwhile, very few cool pools were found. The notable region being a persistent cool zone in the North Atlantic near melting Greenland (predicted by climate models and a facilitator of unstable weather for North America, the Northern Atlantic, and Europe).

Overall temperature track for 2019 is still behind the record hot year of 2016 (see predicted range by Dr. Gavin Schmidt above). And it appears likely that 2019 will hit in the range of 5th to 1st hottest on record. This year, however, is likely to strike close to or even above 2016 values during some months as the effect of the weak El Nino combined with the larger trend of global heating by fossil fuel burning sets the stage for potential new high temperature records.

(Want to help fight the climate crisis by transitioning to a clean energy vehicle? Get 1,000 to 5,000 free supercharger miles at this link.)

 

Perturbed Earth: Why is Heat-Trapping Methane on the Rise?

Globally, atmospheric methane levels have been on the rise over recent years. And though the rate of rise is not as dramatic as seen during the late 1980s (yet), the relative rise of atmospheric methane has caused concern among scientists.

Methane is a major heat trapping gas. And it is the #2 driver of human-forced global warming behind fossil fuel burning based CO2 according to NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Lab. It also has an out-sized potential to swing global heat trapping values higher due to the fact that a single molecule of methane can trap around 86 times more heat than a single molecule of CO2 over the same period of time.

ch4_trend_all_gl

(Global trends in methane show a concerning jump in atmospheric values since leveling off in the mid-2000s. A combination of earth environment feedbacks to warming and fossil fuel related extraction, burning and transport activity are primary suspects for this increase. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

Methane is a much shorter lived gas (one molecule lasts 8 years in the atmosphere while a molecule of CO2 lasts 500 years), and atmospheric concentrations of methane are far, far lower than CO2 (measured in parts per billion, not parts per million), however. Which is one of the reasons why CO2 (primarily from fossil fuel based burning) is the gas in the driver’s seat of the majority of present warming.

Given this context, the new upward swing in methane is troubling for a number of reasons. Which begs the question — where is the excess methane coming from?

One primary suspect is that the Earth System, warmed by fossil fuel burning, is starting to produce its own feedback carbon emissions. The way this works is that warmer wetlands (a major source of methane) become more biologically active and, in turn, produce more methane. Heavier rains might provide more flooded regions in which microbes become productive. And thawing permafrost in the far north may be providing new wetland based methane sources. So the nascent methane emissions could be coming from such varied sources as tropical wetlands (as some experts point out), from thawing and expanding biologically active permafrost zones, from increasing wildfire activity, from increasing methane emissions due to drought, or any combination of the above.

Add in potentially very leaky and large-scale, fossil fuel infrastructure related to gas and legacy infrastructure related to coal and the list of suspects grows very long indeed. A hint at where the larger sources of methane show up, at least at present, is provided by the atmospheric observatories. In particular, I’m going to turn to the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring System (CAMS) for this part of today’s discussion:

Atmospheric Methane Hot spots

(Global atmospheric methane hot spots indicated by CAMS.)

What we find from looking at this map is that the highest concentrations of methane presently correspond with the densest collections of fossil fuel based industrial activity. This jibes with findings that 60 percent of the presently elevated atmospheric methane value is due to human activity — leaky gas infrastructure, leaky coal mines, and various human-based farming practices that produce methane (rice farming, cow belches etc). It also highlights the recently discovered fact that fossil fuel based leaks are 60 percent more extensive than previously indicated. Confusing this point is the recent Nature finding that though leaky gas and coal infrastructure were more leaky than expected, the large fossil fuel based infrastructure methane emission was not increasing over time.

So the visible, top-down readings in the CAMS monitor may mask a larger feedback delta, or change, in how the the Earth System itself is producing methane. In other words, the new bump in methane may be coming from a perturbed Earth.

As noted by NOAA research scientist Lori Bruhwiler in a recent Wired article:

“The most important science question we face now is the question of carbon-climate feedbacks. The question that’s really important is, what’s coming down the road?”

In other words, is the recent methane spike coming from changes to the Earth System driven by the longer term fossil fuel based warming? And if so, how much will it continue to feed back? How much more methane can we expect from tropical wetlands, fires, droughts and thawing permafrost? This is a big question with wide-ranging implications for our climate future.

(Want to help fight climate change by transitioning to a clean energy vehicle? Get 1,000 to 5,000 free supercharger miles at this link.)

Very Long Period of Severe Weather Predicted For Coming Days

One of the longest periods of severe weather in recent history may be on tap for regions of the Central U.S. over the coming week. A zone in which 44 million people live and that covers 18 states is under the gun for severe weather formation for at least the next 8 days. And there are a number of climate change related factors that are contributing to the severe storm potential.

Heavy rainfall U.S.

(NOAA’s seven day precipitation outlook shows the potential for flooding rains over large swaths of the Central and Western U.S. The risk for tornadoes and severe thunderstorms will also spike during this time period according to reports from the Storm Prediction Center. Image source: NOAA QPF.)

First, a strong storm track has established over the Pacific Ocean. This storm track is feeding unseasonable levels of moisture and stormy conditions into the U.S. West. These storm impulses are predicted to track eastward, helping to establish the predicted Central U.S. storm pattern over the coming days. Warm ocean surface temperatures in the range of 1-2 C above normal across the Pacific are helping to load this storm track up with higher levels of moisture.

To the south, a second serious of features related to climate change are feeding into the larger pattern. The Gulf of Mexico is providing its own pool of moisture from warmer than normal ocean surfaces which is predicted to ride northward into the middle part of the country — providing further fuel for storm formation. In addition, smoke from Mexico’s recent spate of more severe than normal wildfires spurred by an extended period of above average temperatures is lurking over the Gulf. This smoke will also be drawn north and may aid in potential tornado formation during the present event.

(Analysis of factors related to the predicted severe storm event.)

To the north, Arctic temperatures are ranging well above normal for this time of year. Recent scientific reports point toward a warming Arctic’s influence on persistent severe weather patterns related to long-lasting trough and ridge patterns in the Northern Hemisphere jet stream. And the predicted storms are expected to fire in an unstable region where troughs have now persisted for much of the spring season.

In combination, these factors provide a larger influence on the presently forming severe weather pattern. One that is occurring in an atmosphere that, on net, has been more heavily loaded with the moisture and heat that strong storms feed on. These are aspects of our world — warmed by fossil fuel burning. And for the millions now under the gun from potential storm threats, they face a higher risk of stronger storms because of it.

(Want to help fight climate change by transitioning to a clean energy vehicle? Get 1,000 to 5,000 free supercharger miles at this link.)

The Hot 15 Million Year Time Machine — 415 Parts Per Million CO2

The clanking, wheezing, gasping, choking engines of fossil fuel burning are propelling us backwards toward hotter and hotter geological contexts. And with new atmospheric CO2 records shattered this week, it is, once again, time to take stock.

Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability yesterday noted:

“We keep breaking records, but what makes the current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere most troubling is that we are now well into the ‘danger zone’ where large tipping points in the Earth’s climate could be crossed.”

One way we can get a sense of how far we’ve crossed into Overpeck’s ‘danger zone’ is by looking at how present atmospheric heat trapping gas levels compare to past climate ages. Taking measure, we find that over the last few days, carbon dioxide levels have spiked to over 415 parts per million. An ominous new record driven by fossil fuel burning that spells more warming and climate disruption for a planet already in crisis.

As a report in LiveScience yesterday noted — the present spike in atmospheric CO2 is unprecedented in the past 800,000 years. A span of time when we are able to directly measure historic atmospheric carbon dioxide due to air bubbles trapped in the ice of ancient glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland.

But as we can see in the above image, 415 parts per million is not only the highest atmospheric CO2 level in the last 800,000 years, it significantly exceeds all historic measures in this time period. The 2nd highest reading came in about 320,000 years ago at around 300 parts per million. 415 parts per million is nearly 40 percent higher than this peak value. It’s more than double the heat-trapping atmospheric CO2 averages seen during ice ages.

We have to go far, far back, much further back, to find a time when atmospheric CO2 values were likely similar to those experienced today. Indirect proxy readings indicate that the last time levels of this heat trapping gas were so high extend not hundreds of thousands, but millions of years.

(Atmospheric CO2 levels are now the highest since the Middle Miocene of 15 to 17 million years ago. Image source: Skeptical Science.)

In fact, we have to push into a period of time about 15 million years ago to see similar atmospheric CO2 readings. In other words, present CO2 levels are comparable to the Middle Miocene climate epoch when global temperatures were 3-4 degrees Celsius hotter than late 19th Century levels. And if we keep burning fossil fuels at present rates over the coming decade, we will keep elevating CO2 by around 3 parts per million each year. This continued activity would put us near the 450 part per million mark in just one decade further solidifying a Middle Miocene to early Ogliocene climate context.

Dr Michael Mann yesterday noted to Livescience:

“If you do the math, well, it’s pretty sobering. We’ll cross 450 ppm in just over a decade. [Such high levels of CO2] are likely to lock in dangerous and irreversible changes in our climate.”

What this means is that our continued fossil fuel burning brings with it heightening climate disruption. More heatwaves, wildfires, powerful storms, blows to ocean health, sea level rise, and harm to those living on Earth. The only way to significantly blunt that disruption is to rapidly reduce the fossil fuel based emission and transition to clean energy.

(CO2 hitting 415 ppm in the Mauna Loa Observatory puts us far out on a global warming limb.)

Present energy forecasts show a leveling off of fossil fuel burning over the ten year horizon. But clean energy substitution will have to ramp up considerably to prevent rapidly hitting new major and dangerous climate thresholds — driving not just a leveling off, but a decline in fossil fuel burning.

It is worth noting that adding in other greenhouse gasses such as methane puts us even further over the mark — at around 495 parts per million CO2 equivalent in 2019 and near 550 ppm CO2e within about 15 years if projected fossil fuel burning and extraction continue. However, since methane is a short lived gas, fossil fuel extraction reductions and changes to agriculture could tamp down a portion of the CO2e overshoot.

It’s time to get very, very serious about reducing fossil fuel burning and rapidly building out clean energy. The climate disruption that is coming won’t hold back. We need to pull out all the reasonable stops to prevent it. This is why everything from individual action to climate change focused policies like the Green New Deal are so important.

(Want to help fight climate change by transitioning to a clean energy vehicle? Get 1,000 to 5,000 free supercharger miles at this link.)

 

U.S. Just Experienced its Wettest 12 Month Period on Record

According to reports from NOAA, the U.S. just saw its wettest 12 month period since record keeping began 124 years ago. The fact that this stretch of extremely wet weather was preceded by a time of extraordinary drought during the 2010s is also notable. Because it is exactly this kind of swing from one extreme to the next that you would expect in a world being forced to warm by fossil fuel burning.

US Precipitation History

(Annual precipitation has increased by about 7 percent across the contiguous U.S. during the past Century. This jibes with our understanding of atmospheric physics in which the rate of evaporation and precipitation increase as the amount of atmospheric moisture climbs by 6-8 percent for each 1 degree C of global warming. It’s worth noting that though precipitation is increasing, it doesn’t mean that soils, in general, hold more moisture. This is due to the fact that rising temperatures also increase the rates at which soils dry. And because precipitation and drying are not spread evenly, you tend to get regions and times of preference for more intense storms or more intense drought. Image source: NOAA. Hat tip to Weather Underground.)

In this part 2 of our hydrology and climate change discussion, I’ll take a look at some of the drivers for the extreme swing from U.S. drought to deluge. The first being that overall global surface warming in the range of 1.1 C is having the effect of amping up global evaporation and precipitation rates by 6-8 percent. In the U.S. this larger climate change influence helped to spur the multi-year droughts across the U.S. west as well as severe drought years for the Central and Eastern U.S.

On the flip side of the hydrological spectrum, warmer land surfaces and oceans have helped to fuel storms through increased evaporation of water moisture — pumping more water vapor into storms and enabling convection. For the past 12 months this has manifest in the form of the powerful and moisture-rich Hurricane Florence. It has also generally loaded the dice for powerful storms and flooding rains as a persistent trough swung over the Central and Eastern U.S. during spring of 2019.

(Examining climate change’s influence on the wettest 12 months in the last 124 years.)

The recent 12 month record wet period thus fits into a regime of extremes. What these larger trends mean is that in the future the U.S. is likely to continue to experience bipolar precipitation patterns — with hard swings between deeper dry and more intense wet periods coming to dominate as the Earth heats up.

The primary mitigation for this continuing trend is tamping down human based carbon emissions. And a clean energy transition away from fossil fuel burning is central to that more optimistic prospect.

(Want to help fight climate change by switching to a clean energy vehicle? Get 1,000 to 5,000 free supercharger miles through this link.)

(UPDATED)

Wildfires Rage in Mexico — Smoke May Move into U.S., Fueling Storms

Climate change impacts the water cycle in a number of rough ways. First, at its most basic, for each 1 degree C of global temperature increase you roughly increase the rate of evaporation by 6-8 percent. This loads more moisture into the atmosphere — which can lead to more extreme rainfall events. It also causes lands to dry out more rapidly — which can drive more intense droughts and wildfires.

Wildfire outbreak southern Mexico

(Major wildfire outbreak in Mexico fills the Central American skies with smoke. Image source: NASA Worldview.)

Today we have major news of two hydrological events that were likely impacted by climate change. The first is a large wildfire outbreak in Mexico that threatens to send smoke over the U.S. this week. The second — that the past 12 months were the wettest such period for the contiguous U.S. in recorded history — is for a follow-on post.

This weekend, a state of emergency was declared for 11 counties in Mexico due to furiously raging wildfires. The wildfires have spurred hundreds of firefighters to action even as they blanketed much of Mexico in ash-filled smoke. The smoke has traveled as far north as Mexico City — where officials are urging residents to cover windows with damp rags in an effort to keep indoor air clear.

(The climate state contributing to Mexico wildfires and U.S. severe storms analyzed.)

The wildfires come following hotter than normal temperatures and a long period of drought across Southern Mexico. Persistent high pressure and a stagnant air mass has contributed to the overall heat, drought, and fire regime.

Over the coming days, a warm front moving northward from the Bay of Campeche is likely to push smoke gathering over the Gulf of Mexico into the U.S. These smoke particles could get entangled in a predicted severe storm outbreak later this week. For recent research indicates that smoke particles can contribute to major U.S. tornado outbreaks.

(Want to help fight climate change by trading in your CO2 spewing gas guzzler for a clean energy vehicle? Get 1,000 to 5,000 free supercharger miles through this link.)

Greenland Melt off to a Rather Early Start

Of the two great masses of land ice capable of dramatically raising sea levels and altering hemispheric weather patterns through global warming spurred melt, Greenland is the one closest to home for many humans living on Earth. And as fossil fuel burning keeps dumping more carbon into our atmosphere, Greenland melt continues to dump tens of billions of tons of water into the world’s oceans each year.

Greenland melt extent 2019

(Early bump in Greenland melt may be a blip — or a presage to another above average surface melt during summer. Image source: NSIDC.)

At present, Greenland contributes approximately 280 billion tons of water to global sea level rise through melt and mass loss per annum. And as the Earth warms, the potential for Greenland to spill still more into the North Atlantic is a rising concern.

So each spring through summer, we go through a ritual of anxiously monitoring the Greenland ice sheet for surface melt increases. Such monitoring is not without merit. According to recent reports in Nature, approximately 60 percent of mass loss in Greenland is driven by surface warming and melt. And during 2012, a major warming event resulted in practically all of the Greenland ice sheet experiencing surface melt during summer.

(Since surface mass loss is the primary driver of Greenland melt, the summer season is a big deal for the Northern Hemisphere’s largest cache of land ice.)

We haven’t had another melt year like 2012 in the intervening time through today. But we have seen continued net mass loss from Greenland — with the additional 40 percent coming from melt due to contact with warming oceans. In other words, we’re experiencing Greenland melt both at the surface and from below. And, sooner or later, so long as fossil fuel burning keeps dumping greenhouse gasses into Earth’s atmosphere, we’ll see another summer like 2012. Or worse.

So we watch.

For the present year, Greenland surface melt has gotten off to a relatively strong and early start. Melt extent jumped to around 7 percent in early May. A pace well beyond the top 10 percent of recorded melt years for the period in which the spike occurred. And it may presage another summer of ponding spreading across the face of Greenland. But the present mid-May bump is not a fully reliable indicator — as 2017’s melt progression featuring a strong start with a relatively moderate and late peak shows.

For further comparison, we saw some rather strong early melt spikes in March and April of 2012 prior to that record surface melt year. And during 2018, which was only a somewhat above average (1981-2010) melt year, there were practically no melt spikes during March through late May.

A primary driver for surface melt during the present years of record and rising global heat has been the formation of jet stream ridges and strong upper level high pressure systems over Greenland during spring and summer. To point, this year’s recent melt spike coincided with a strong ridge that locked into place during mid April through early May.

Over the next ten days, the atmosphere above Greenland is predicted to fluctuate as highs and lows progress. Temperatures are expected to remain somewhat above average near the surface of the ice mass. Compared to the stronger signal we saw earlier, the indicators here are somewhat mixed — at least for the next ten days. But if the ridge pattern reasserts from late May and on into June — watch out. Then, we could see another big melt spike coinciding with the onset of summer.

(Want to help fight climate change by adopting a clean energy vehicle? Get up to 5,000 free supercharger miles through this link.)

 

Coastal Arctic Temperatures hit 84.2 F Today

Fossil fuel burning is really ramping up the global heat. And for the typically cold Arctic Ocean coastal region, this means that temperatures are now able to strike into the 80s during mid-May.

Today, a very extreme wave in the Jet Stream produced an elongated ridge pattern that ran far to the north over Eastern Europe. This high amplitude wave brought with it temperatures that ranged up to 20 degrees Celsius (36 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal for this time of year. A heat surge which pushed temperatures to 29 C or 84.2 F near Archangel, Russia.

Extreme heat Arkangel

(Severe heat strikes northeastern Europe as part of an extreme jet stream wave pattern. Image source: WX Charts. Hat tip to Peter Sinclair.)

The kind of jet stream wave that spurred this extreme heat has become common over recent years. It’s an atmospheric feature that some scientists have associated with polar amplification — an aspect of human-forced climate change in which the poles warm faster than the lower latitudes.

During 2019, heat transfer into the Arctic has contributed to near record low and record low sea ice extent values in the months of March, April and May. The wavy jet stream patterns have also been associated with a number of severe weather events. Today’s extreme northern heatwave fits into a longer-term pattern of similar occurrences.

(Analysis of recent extreme jet stream pattern over Eastern Europe.)

Wavy, persistent jet streams have recently been associated with worsening weather — heat waves and wild fires in the ridge zones and severe precipitation in the trough zones. Scientists like Dr. Michael E. Mann and Dr. Jennifer Francis have warned that the associated Jet Stream waves are linked to human-forced climate change and are likely contributors to recent events.

Dr. Mann notes:

The extreme weather we’re seeing around the Northern Hemisphere, such as heat waves, floods, droughts, and wildfires, is related to an unusual, undulating pattern in the jet stream. The other part of this that’s atypical is that this undulating pattern doesn’t usually hold longer than a few days. But this one isn’t going anywhere. Our work shows that this sort of pattern, which has been associated with many of the most extreme, persistent weather events in recent years, including the 2003 European heatwave, the 2010 Moscow wildfires, the 2011 Texas and Oklahoma drought, and the 2016 Alberta wildfires to name a few, is becoming more common because of human-caused climate change, and in particular, because of amplified Arctic warming.

It looks like 2019 is no exception to the longer-term trend. And we have already seen a number of instances of middle latitude extreme weather contributed to by the jet stream features Dr. Mann mentions above this year.

(Want to help fight climate change by switching to an electric vehicle? Get 5,000 free supercharger miles through this link.)

Global Sea Ice At Record Lows For More than a Month

As a weak El Nino combines with continued rising atmospheric greenhouse gas levels to push global temperatures higher in 2019, we are seeing some pretty extreme warming impacts the world over. Just one of these impacts involves sea ice.

(An analysis of factors contributing to global sea ice loss.)

Looking north, we already observe that Arctic sea ice is pretty much tied for lowest visible extent on record in the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) measure. According to NSIDC’s Charctic Graph, sea ice extent in the Northern Hemisphere is ranging around 12.465 million square kilometers. This is just slightly above the record low for the date set in 2016 at 12.422 million square kilometers.

To the south, Antarctic sea ice extent has recently slipped into new record low ranges for this time of year. As of May 10th, NSIDC showed sea ice extent near the frozen southern continent in the range of 7.898 million square kilometers or about 200,000 square kilomters below the previous daily record low set in May of 2017. These record lows have occurred on the back of a rather warmer than normal late Southern Hemisphere Fall season.

Global Sea Ice

(Global sea ice graph provided by Wipneus. Date provided by NSIDC.)

Two hemispheres experiencing record low or near record low sea ice conditions over an extended period during April through May of 2019 have now generated a historical period for global sea ice. The result is that recent major global sea ice losses occurring during 2016-2019 are being further solidified. Yet one more aspect of the larger global warming regime enforced by continued fossil fuel burning.

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How I Used Rideshare to Afford a Tesla Model 3 (You Can Do it Too)

So I’ve got a bit of a background in the field of emerging threats — both as a former military intel analyst and as an editor at Janes Information Group back in the early 2000s. And, in my opinion, the biggest threat facing civilization today is a twofold crisis.

Climate Change and the Failure to Use Clean Energy Crisis

We could easily call this crisis climate change — because these are the effects we see around us in the form of melting glaciers, changing seasonal weather patterns, rising seas and more extreme weather. We could easily call it global warming. Because net energy gain through heat trapping gas increase in the atmosphere is causing the Earth System to warm up.

But that’s just the first side of the problem. The ‘what’s happening’ side. The other side of the problem is systemic. It’s also cultural to a certain extent. And it mainly has to do with how we presently use energy to drive a massive global economic system that supports most of the 7 billion people living on the Earth. More importantly, the driver of the vast majority of the global warming we see (in the range of 80 percent or more) is the direct carbon emission coming from fossil fuel burning and extraction. About thirteen billion tons of heat-trapping carbon comes from this primary source and enters the atmosphere each year.

You could also call the climate crisis a harmful energy crisis. But that misses a bit of the story as well. For back during the 20th Century, competing clean energy sources failed to move to the fore. We knew how to generate energy from the sun and from the wind in a carbon-free manner. And we knew how to store that energy. But, mainly due to the fact that the fossil fuel interests held more political and economic power, these clean energy sources got sidelined. Bringing us to the final way that we could characterize this crisis — the failure to use clean energy crisis.

Setting an Individual Policy for Climate Action

It’s at this point in the discussion that we come down to little ol’ me. What’s my level of responsibility? What can I do as a person to help correct this problem. To not contribute to the failure to use clean energy crisis?

IMG_2493

(Optimized for zero emissions. My clean energy Tesla [Clean KITT] recharging at a local solar garage. Planning to purchase a Tesla that’s capable of sucking energy direct from the sun? Get up to 5,000 free supercharger miles through this link.)

This has been a big issue for me for some time. I don’t make a huge amount of money. I’m a writer after all. And my wife works for a not-for-profit. Sure, we are probably better off than some. But when it comes to being able to produce the capital to access 40,000 dollar electric vehicles, or a home where I can charge it in the garage, or the 20,000 dollar plus for solar panels and the other 7,000 dollars or so for energy storage at home, all that stuff may as well have been on the moon with me waiting for an Elon Musk rocket to get me there.

Sure the costs had come down. And sure clean energy was more accessible to me than it was before. But it wasn’t accessible enough. I needed just a little extra push to start to get there.

In all honesty, I really wanted to make the push. As a climate change blogger, I’ve been harassed by anti-clean energy trolls for the better part of 7 years. And you can say what you want, but proving trolls wrong can be a powerful motivator. So I wondered what I could do personally to generate enough capital to afford a primary clean energy platform.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. So I’ll just step back and put you in my place during fall of last year. Then, I was looking at a way to individually make a difference for climate change. Sure, we all need to support climate change response policies like Paris, and the Green New Deal. And we, as societies, need to escalate those policies pretty quick if we’re gonna have a real Extinction Rebellion. But as people and individuals, there are things we can do as well to try to correct our failure to use clean energy crisis. We can set our own personal climate policies in place.

For my part, I set a goal to be carbon neutral by 2025. And as a first step, I settled on getting an electric vehicle. I figured I could cut my family carbon emissions on net by about 2 tons per year including all the typical travel my wife and I engage in. But when I started to think about how I could afford something in the range of 35,000 to 40,000 dollars, I stumbled on the notion of rideshare.

Streetfighting Against Climate Change

You see, a local buddy of mine had been Ubering — even as he worked full time as an electrician. He told me that Uber was really flexible (if you decide to rideshare for clean energy, you can help this blog by using my referral code robertf30288ue). Your work hours were entirely yours to control and there was no commute except for the walk out to your car. I decided to look into it. And after a little research, I found that the average income for an Uber driver in D.C. was just short of 20 dollars per hour.

Now you may be smirking at me through your fingers. For a lot of people, 20 bucks an hour isn’t really much at all. But you have to remember that I’m working from a blogger’s/writer’s baseline that is rather short of that. And if I could somehow combine my writing income with an extra 25-30 hours of Uber income, I could make about 2,000 to 2,500 extra each month. This would be more than enough to cover the cost of a new, long-range electric vehicle.

(Paying for a Tesla using rideshare.)

The idea to then rideshare with the EV to multiply my clean energy system usage was a natural follow-on from this notion. Elon Musk had always talked about a master plan to use vehicle autonomy to achieve this kind of clean energy access multiplication on a mass scale. But what if I could use my basic human gumption to accelerate the process by a year or two or three even as I helped to make the local public more aware of how badass clean energy vehicles had become?

By this point, I had a plan. As many of you who have attempted difficult or ambitious plans before know, the major step is not coming up with a decent idea. It’s executing it. So I set out to, for lack of a better phrase, start busting my tail. This meant that I had to temporarily let go of some of my less lucrative work. Those of you who frequent this blog will attest to the fact that I went dark for a number of months. Mia Culpa! But contrary to one of about a bazillion climate change denier memes — those of us who communicate on the issue of climate change all-too-often don’t make minimum wage back for our time.

So I went dark and worked hard. In doing so, I met a lot of people. And aside from the odd Heritage Foundation pick-up (yes we Uber drivers pick up political org folks in D.C.), I’d say 95 percent of the people I talked to about my project were both concerned about climate change and interested in clean energy advancement. In other words, they were supportive of my goal. Plus they were also pretty geeked out about the potential notion of riding Uber in a Tesla.

As I drove, I also became keenly aware of how expensive it was to operate even an efficient internal combustion engine vehicle like a Hyundai Elantra. The cost of gas alone increased for me by about 250 dollars per month. Add in the new 50 dollar monthly oil change, and I began to get an understanding of how much an electric vehicle could save me later (more on this in a future blog).

How You Can Raise Funds for a Clean Energy Vehicle Through Rideshare

Long story short, after busting my tail, I had enough funds to afford a clean energy vehicle by April. I did this by using the rideshare app Uber. And by saving a portion of the profits to invest in a Tesla Model 3. I have now driven 800 miles in this clean machine. Like so many EV converts, I am never going back.

It is here that we get to the nitty-gritty of this post. How can you make enough money to afford a Tesla Model 3 if you’re strapped for cash like I was? One way is to do what I did — use Uber or Lyft part-time and save the profits for an EV purchase a few months down the road. This works well if you can set aside an extra 10 hours or more per week. And if you have the time, then fantastic! I recommend you give it a shot if you want to gain access to the amazing piece of clean tech that is the Tesla Model 3 and help fight climate change in one go.

Uber destination trips

(Uber destination trips allow you to pick up riders and earn money through the app while driving to and from work. This is a great way to optimize time and earn money for a clean energy vehicle. Image source: Uber.)

Many of us do not have an extra 10 hours a week or more, though. So I’m going to make this additional time optimization suggestion for rideshare usage to purchase a clean energy vehicle. And this suggestion includes the nifty little Uber feature called destination trips. What the destination trips feature allows you to do as an Uber driver is to set a way-point, drive to that way-point, and take trips toward that destination as you drive.

If you’re a regular office worker type, who makes a long drive to work and back, this has huge potential benefits. What it can allow you to do is turn your regular daily commute into a money-making endeavor. Just log into Uber in the morning, set your way-point to your office, drive the usual rush hour drive, and pick up a few rides in on the way to work. You’ll make about 15-20 dollars or more in an average rush. On the ride home, repeat. Now you’ve got an extra 150-200 dollars per week in your pocket to work with. Counting in future gas saved, that’s more than enough to cover the monthly payment on a Tesla Model 3 SR+.

Full disclosure, this will probably increase the time it takes to get to and from work. So plan accordingly. However, all the time during the work commute has now become gainful employment in the service of the clean energy transition. Nice! Of course, if you have a short commute, then such a plan is less optimal. But for our long commuters, this optimization will both enable you to make money while commuting and turn the tables on typical transport energy usage to fight climate change.

Not too shabby!

Now I know that I haven’t provided every little detail in my post. So if you have any questions about how to employ rideshare to help you purchase a clean energy vehicle and get you off the fossil fuel pollution wagon, I will be regularly checking the comments section below. So feel free to ask any question that you might have.

Thanks so much for stopping in! For the next blog post, I’ll be talking about Arctic sea ice as we haven’t had an update on that subject here in a while. Kindest regards to you all! And if you want a riddle for a near future blog post/Radio Ecoshock interview topic it’s a word with a hidden meaning: Lucina.

How Climate Change is Making Storms Stronger — Evaporation, Precipitation, Instability

With Cyclones Idai and Kenneth generating record breaking, back-to-back landfalls in Mozambique, with new studies indicating an increase in U.S. tornado activity and a general movement of tornadoes eastward, and with many air travelers recently grounded, it’s a good time to revisit climate change’s overall effects on extreme weather.

Kenneth approaches Mozambique

(Kenneth was the strongest storm to strike the north coast of Mozambique in at least the last 60 years. Packing peak 10 minute sustained winds of 130 mph, roughly equivalent to a category 4 Atlantic storm, Kenneth pushed a storm surge of 10-16 feet and dumped up to 24 inches of rain. According to reports, the storm destroyed 35,000 homes and has impacted 700,000 people. Image source: NASA Worldview.)

Warming Lands and Waters

Human-caused climate change (primarily driven by fossil fuel burning) has already warmed the Earth’s land and water (ocean) surfaces by around 1.1 degrees Celsius globally. This warming is not uniform. It is focused more on the poles — tending to generate islands of high surface temperature anomaly (variance from norms) interspersed with areas of somewhat above average to near normal temperatures along with smatterings of the occasional cooler pool.

Evaporation

In general, a warmer Earth evaporates more ocean water, lake water, river water, and land moisture into the atmosphere. This has the effect of increasing drought intensity and worsening the spread of severe wildfires. But evaporation also provides convective lift and moisture to local atmospheres. Rising columns of warm, wet air are primary ingredients for storms. Such columns of high energy air are key to both the formation and intensification of hurricanes. And a thunderstorm has at its heart a core of rapidly rising moist air (see embedded video below for more info).

(Climate change as storm intensification engine.)

Precipitation

Overall, evaporation rates tend to increase by about 8 percent over the surface of the globe for each 1 degree Celsius of global temperature increase. Since what goes up must come down, you also get an overall increase in precipitation rates across the globe of about 8 percent as well. The net effect is that when it does rain in a warming world, the rainfall tends to come in more intense bursts from taller, more moisture-rich storm clouds.

Instability

Like the mottled nature of global temperature increase, evaporation and precipitation changes in a warming world do not occur in uniformity across the globe. You get hot spots. Evaporation intensifies the most where the globe is warmest and where the globe warms more compared to past periods. Precipitation tends to intensify in trough zones — or regions where the atmosphere is relatively cooler than the surrounding air. All of this unevenness — the more rapidly rising air columns in hot zones, the heavier moisture loading, and the higher deltas between hot and cool and wet and dry zones tend to increase instability. And instability is also a major driver of storms.

Increase in tornado frequency US

(Tornado frequency and intensity has generally increased in the U.S. since 1979 even as tornadoes have tended to shift eastward. Image source: Spatial Trends in United States Tornado Frequency.)

At present, these are the atmospheric dynamics set in play by human-caused climate change. And they are likely to last for some time — worsening if the Earth continues to warm for at least another degree or two. So we’ll likely see a rising frequency of the more severe forms of weather. And it’s pretty clear that the early phase of this impact has already arrived.

(Want to fight climate change and reduce your individual carbon emissions by approximately 2 tons per year by switching to an electric vehicle? Considering the all-clean-energy Tesla? Get 5,000 free supercharger miles with a purchase at this link [limited until May 28, 2019 after which it reverts to 1,000 free supercharger miles].)

Street Fighting Against Climate Change in a Tesla Model 3

So I have a big announcement to make. And you’ll have to excuse my enthusiasm because this has all been a rather heady experience. But I listened to your feedback and took delivery of a Tesla Model 3 SR+ this past Thursday. If you want to take a look at my new clean energy monster, then feast your eyes below:

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(My new Model 3 SR+ — which I’m calling Clean KITT after Knightrider from the 1980s series.)

It’s a big deal for me for a number of reasons. First, the Model 3 is the most significant vehicle purchase I’ve ever made in terms of cost. Paying 39,500 dollars for a car is something I would have never even dreamed of doing just a decade ago. But when it comes to driving a capable, long-range electric vehicle your prices are going to range from around 36,000 dollars to 40,000 dollars even for the most affordable options. I expect to recoup a decent amount of this cost, though. And I’ll be talking about how in a future blog post.

Comparing the capabilities of other EVs in this price range — such as the Leaf Long Range, the Chevy Bolt, the Hyundai Kona, and the Kia Niro — it became more and more apparent that the Tesla Model 3 was a non-pareil. Here is a vehicle that competes directly with the Mercedes C class and the BMW 3 series on luxury and muscularity. One with a similar all-electric range (240 miles from a 59.5 kW battery pack) and with a similar price, but one that features much faster charging, a far better and more expansive charging network, and integrated electronics intended to maximize its sustainability potential (more on this later as well).

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(Supercharging at the Woodbridge station in Northern Virginia this weekend.)

The disparity became even more apparent after my test-drive on Thursday at the Montgomery Mall Tesla Sales Center followed up by this weekend’s 230 mile round trip journey from Gaithersburg, MD to King George VA and back — including two Supercharger stops in which the Tesla refueled at 50-70 kW and 90-120 kW rates. The kind of fast charging that other vehicle brand EVs only dream of having widespread access to.

Second, this vehicle is really something to be proud of. It’s going to help me cut my driving-based carbon emissions by about 2/3. That’s going to drop my personal emissions by about 2 tons per year. It’s going to enable me to share about another 4 tons per year of carbon cuts through rideshare. And it’s going to let me do it in a very stylish and attractive way. In such a way that will really help me to make the clean energy transition look very, very appealing.

(Introducing Clean KITT!)

Third, my Tesla purchase will be an investment in an all-clean-energy company with an integrated plan to fight climate change. The dollars I sent to Tesla will in turn be spent building massive battery and EV factories, producing solar panels, and sending out more carbon-cutting vehicles and products all over the world. In other words, my actions at home and on the street will help to form part of a global transformation action as well (Planning to buy a Tesla? Click here for 1,000 free Supercharger miles).

In the coming week, I’m heading out on the rideshare circuit in this Tesla through Uber (I’ll be blogging more about how to earn money for a Tesla through rideshare later, but if you want to jump the gun and start now, please help this blog and use my referral code: ROBERTF30288UE).

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(Clean KITT takes on the fossil fueled dinosaurs through rideshare this week!)

So, until next time, I’m off to streetfight against climate change in Tesla Model 3. And if I’m going to go to the increasingly heat-blasted concrete to fight against the biggest challenge ever to face humankind as just little ol’ me, I’m glad that the ally in my corner is this amazing clean machine.

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