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.

Up Next: Denial, Defunding, Downplaying — First COVID-19 Leadership Failures

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

 

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)

Hot March, Melting Sea Ice, Record High CO2, and a Weak El Nino 

Good afternoon everyone. It’s April 15 of 2019. And it’s high time I provided another update on the present global climate state.

(Indicators explained.)

Yes, I’ve been off this cart for a bit due to my personal climate action that I’m calling extreme clean. And I’ve got to say that this action is in solidarity with the tens of thousands of young people who continue to demonstrate for a more responsible political response to climate change around the world.

Action of all kinds is very important. But political action is where the rubber is really going to meet the solar and wind powered EV road of the future. It’s what’s going to help us navigate a necessarily fast clean energy transition away from the carbon spewing fuels of the present. And the fossil fueled politicians like Trump are going to have to be kicked out for that to happen.

(Human forced climate change loads the dice for stronger storms like Idai which devastated parts of Africa during March of 2019. Image source: NASA Worldview.)

At present, fossil fuel burning has really put us in a tough spot. That is the subject of today’s writing. Where we are today according to some major climate indicators — atmospheric CO2 (the primary greenhouse gas driving climate change), global surface temperature, Arctic sea ice, and the near term ENSO climate variability factor.

Atmospheric CO2 likely to hit between 413 and 415 ppm in May (monthly average)

For the first factor, atmospheric CO2 during recent days has risen to between 411 and 416 parts per million. This level is likely higher than at any time in at least the last 5 million years and is probably closer to ranges seen during the Middle Miocene around 15 million years ago. That’s pretty bad — implying about 2-3 C or more of global warming over the long term if those values aren’t somehow brought down.

(Present atmospheric CO2 levels are ranging between 411 and 416 parts per million on a daily basis at the Mauna Loa Observatory. These are the highest levels seen in at least 5 million years, possibly more. Image source: NOAA.)

Of course, due to the present pace of fossil fuel burning, atmospheric CO2 just keeps rising. Which is why a clean energy transition to get us to net zero and net negative carbon emissions is so, so important for our future.

CO2 isn’t the only greenhouse gas related to human activity. But according to agencies like NASA, it is the most important. Adding in other greenhouse gasses like Methane, NOx, and various other manufactured chemicals that trap heat, you end up with an atmospheric CO2 equivalent of approximately 497 ppm during 2019 (extrapolated from NOAA’s greenhouse gas index). This is a bit of a scary number for me as it implies that the top end indicator of all greenhouse gasses combined is about to move outside the Middle Miocene context soon.

Going back to the only slightly less scary CO2 figure, it appears likely that this primary greenhouse gas will top out at around 413 to 415 parts per million monthly average values during May of 2019. This indicator for annual peak values puts the present climate state increasingly out of the range of Pliocene past climates that many scientists are now researching as a corollary for present day climate impacts — at least on a greenhouse gas forcing basis.

March of 2019 was third hottest on record

It takes many decades and centuries for climates to balance out in response to a particular forcing. So present atmospheric warming driven by the greenhouse gasses mentioned above lag behind the initial global forcing. For this reason, on an annual basis, global temperatures are presently ranging between 1 and 1.2 degrees Celsius above 1880s averages as they continue to climb higher.

(The globe substantially heated up again during March — as seen in the above map provided by NASA. Image source: NASA GISS.)

These present departures roughly compare to temperatures during the Eemian climate epoch of about 120,000 years ago in which readings were 1 to 2 C warmer than 1880s averages. So we’re not yet in the Pliocene with regards to temperatures (2-3 C), but what we get long-term is probably the Miocene (3-4 C) if present greenhouse gas values remain stable. And we head for even more warming (4 C+) if we keep burning fossil fuels.

It’s in this rising temperature context that we are now experiencing more rapidly melting glaciers, ramping sea level rise, increasingly intense storms, wildfires and droughts, rising damage to corals, worsening heatwaves, more extinction pressure on plants and animals, and declining ocean health. It’s also worth pointing out that present temperatures are just a passing milestone on the way up if we keep burning fossil fuels and don’t learn how to pull down that excess atmospheric carbon.

(This graph of zonal temperature anomalies since 1880 is a visual representation of warming across the globe. These zones show various latitudes and their anomaly values vs mid 20th century averages over time. The long term warming trend is quite clear. Image source: NASA.)

According to NASA GISS, March of 2019 set its own benchmark as the third hottest such month on record. Temperatures for the month hit around 1.33 C above 1880s averages (1.11 C above NASA’s 20th Century baseline). This is pretty amazingly warm.

It was in this environment that the globe experienced a hyper-charged cyclone striking Africa, extensive damage due to flooding in the Central U.S., and recent very severe storms from the U.S. south through New England.

Arctic Sea Ice at Record Low for Recent Days

All this added heat has had its own impact on the Arctic where sea ice during recent days has plunged into new record low territory. According to information provided by the National Snow and Ice Data Center, Arctic sea ice yesterday measured just 13.518 million square kilometers. The lowest on record for today.

(Graph of Arctic sea ice measures for January through May of 2003 to present compared to the 1981 to 2010 average [gray line]. The orange line dipping below the pack is the measure for 2019. These are record lows for this time of year. Image source: NSIDC.)

That’s about 300,000 square kilometers below the previous record low set in 2017 and about 1.4 million square kilometers below the 1981 to 2010 average. A period in which major sea ice melt was already ongoing.

Sea ice melt doesn’t have a significant direct impact on sea level rise. You need land ice melt and ocean thermal expansion for that. But sea ice is a big ocean based heat reflector that helps to keep the Arctic environment stable and to prevent the world’s waters from sucking up an even greater amount of warming than they already do. That heat reflector is in decline and it’s one of the reasons why the Arctic is warming up at a faster rate than the rest of the globe.

(Early season sea ice melt is progressing through the Bering and Chukchi seas as overall Arctic sea ice extent hits record daily lows for this time of year. Image source: NASA Worldview.)

Major media appears to have recently had a bit of an epiphany about sea ice as recent reports from sources such as PBS note startling losses for the Bering region during 2019. It’s worth noting that individual seas tend to experience higher rates of ice variance. But the trend for the overall Arctic, which is the combination of all its incorporated seas, is one of consistent decadal sea ice decline.

Weak El Nino Means Uncertain Challenge to 2016 Record

While the world is heating up overall and experiencing many of the changes noted above, a shorter term variability feature of global temperature is the ENSO cycle. This periodic warming and cooling of Pacific Ocean surface waters relative to the globe sets down the rough markers of 3-5 year global temperature variability. During the Pacific cool phase, or La Nina, the global surface tends to cool off a bit. During the Pacific warm phase or El Nino, the global surface tends to warm.

This is not to be confused with total global heat gain — which is still occuring on a practically constant basis as oceans warm and glaciers melt in addition to atmospheric warming. It’s just a major factor in what we tend to see over the shorter term at the Earth’s surface.

(Present warmer than normal sea surface temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific indicate a weak El Nino. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

For 2019, we are again tipping into the warmer side of this natural variability based trend. And combining that with the larger influence of human-forced warming, it appears that the dice are loaded for a challenge to the new record hot surface temperatures set in 2016.

But not so fast! 2019’s El Nino — or Pacific Ocean surface warming event — is, according to NOAA, likely to be rather weak. This compares to the Super El Nino event of 2016. So the swing toward warm side will tend to be relatively weaker. As a result, it’s less certain that 2019 will beat 2016 as hottest on record. And overall, it’s more likely that 2019 will place in the top 3 as 1st, 2nd or 3rd hottest (You may want to ask Dr Gavin Schmidt over at NASA GISS to see what he thinks. He’s been putting out some pretty accurate predictions over the past few years.).

So far, according to NASA GISS, December, January and February of climate year 2019 came in as 3rd hottest. With the weak El Nino ramping up, it does appear that March, April, May could heat up as well. We shall see!

Living in a rapidly warming world

Looking at all of these shorter term indicators, it’s easy to miss the bigger context. That being — we are living in a world in which atmospheric greenhouse gasses are rapidly increasing. These gasses, in turn, are causing the world to rapidly warm resulting in surprising changes and increasing damage. And it’s in this context that climate action on the part of individuals, businesses and governments becomes all the more necessary.

June of 2017 Was Third Hottest on Record for Globe

According to NOAA, June of 2017 was the third hottest such month in the global climate record since temperature tracking began in 1880. For NASA, June was also the third hottest on record with June of 2016 settling in at 1st hottest, and 2015 and 1998 tied as second hottest. Overall, global temperatures were about 0.91 degrees Celsius warmer than late 19th Century averages in the NASA record and about 1.02 degrees Celsius warmer than the same time period in the NOAA record.

(NASA’s land-ocean temperature graphic showed most of the world blanketed in much warmer than normal conditions. Image source: NASA.)

Around the globe, various climate extremes were quite visible as a result of such considerable warmth. Arctic sea ice extent was 6th lowest on record according to NSIDC while Arctic sea ice volume was the lowest ever recorded according to PIOMAS. NSIDC also found that Antarctic sea ice extent was the second lowest on record. Combined, global sea ice area was the lowest ever recorded.

Weather disasters included severe hydrological events likely influenced by increasing atmospheric water vapor content and evaporation rates due to climate change. These comprised Bangladesh’s devastating June floods and a still ongoing African drought spurring worsening hunger and increasing instances of mass migration. Meanwhile, seven maximum temperature records were broken with the highest temperature ever recorded in Asia during June occurring at Ahwaz in Iran on June 29 and an all-time national June heat record set in the United Arab Emirates on June 16th. Notably, no new all-time cold temperature records were set across the globe during June.

If present trends continue, 2017 is now on track to be the second hottest year in the global climate record. This despite a noted lack of El Nino in the Pacific following a very weak La Nina during late 2016 and running into early 2017. Though not as warm as 2016, it appears that 2017 will range about 1.1 C above late 19th Century values in the NASA record (according to analysis by Gavin Schmidt) along the current path.

This is a very warm range that is likely to keep pushing the climate system into gradually more extreme conditions. Atmospheric CO2, which is rapidly rising due to rampant fossil fuel burning, is likely to average around 407 ppm in 2017. As a result, global atmospheric heat forcing is on the rise with the trend likely to continue upward pending a major reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Meteorologists, climate scientists, risk experts and climate journalists should therefore remain on heightened alert for dangerous trends related to global climate change.

(UPDATED)

Links:

NASA GISS

NOAA’s Center For Environmental Information

NSIDC

The Polar Science Center

Category 6

Monitor Shows Carbon Monoxide Spikes to 40,000 Parts Per Billion over California on February 26 — What the Heck is Going On?

Hint: it’s a glitch.

*****

On February 26, The Global Forecast System model recorded an (unconfirmed) intense and wide-ranging carbon monoxide (CO) spike over the US West Coast. A region stretching from British Columbia, through Washington and Oregon, and on over most of California experienced CO readings ranging from about 5,000 parts per billion over the mountains of Southwestern Canada to as high as 40,000 parts per billion over Southern California. Very high peak readings appear to have occurred from Northern California near Eureka and along a line south and eastward over much of Central California to an extreme peak zone just north and west of Los Angeles near Palmdale.

40000 ppbv

(Very large [unconfirmed] CO spike over Western North America near major geological features on February 26, 2016. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

For reference, these (unconfirmed) readings in the Nullschool Monitor were between 25 and 200 times above typical background CO levels of about 200 parts per billion and up to twelve times higher than second highest peak readings over polluted regions of China during the same period.

Major Spike Appeared in Just 3 Hours Starting February 25th

Human-based carbon monoxide sources are not generally known to produce spike readings so high and so wide-ranging over such a short interval of time. It would typically take a considerable emission many days to build up under a stagnant air mass. And, to this point, we do have a couple of dome high pressure systems which have tended to form near the California region over recent days. That said, surface winds in the region at 5-15 mph over most areas could hardly be considered stagnant. In addition, the current spike appears over an interval of three hours in the Nullschool data — going from zero coverage to covering all of California and parts of Nevada, Oregon, Washington and BC over that single short interval. It’s a very brief period for such a large and wide-ranging peak reading to appear so soon. One that would require a rather extraordinary pulse of pollution to produce the readings indicated on February 25-26.

Wildfires could produce a longer-term emissions spike under stagnant air as well. However, the wildfires now reported for California are small and isolated. They have flared, off and on, under drought conditions, for weeks without resulting in any significant large fire outbreaks or related major pollution spikes. So it appears unlikely that they are the source of the current burst. Other events related to the ongoing California drought may have had an impact (apparently, burning of desiccated trees from California’s orchards is currently quite widespread due to ongoing drought conditions remaining in place since 2012). However, such instances would have to have been very sudden and wide-ranging to produce the spike we saw on the 25th and 26th.  Canadian wildfires — of which there have been very small and low intensity hotspot events recently (noteworthy due to their anomalous appearance out of season, if not for their intensity)  — were very far from peak readings in California and did not produce even a moderate level of emissions (undetectable from the visible MODIS sensor).

The Earthquake Precursor Hypothesis

A final suspect for this preliminary observation (which has gotten much hype in social media circles over recent days) is geological. As the apparent spike in the monitor occurs over large fault lines, volcanoes, and above other active geological features along the US and Canadian West, it appears that activity within these features might have produced a brief if intense burp of this gas. Sulfur dioxide (SO2) readings — another geological gas — were also elevated in the monitor, with peak readings again appearing in Southwestern California.

It’s worth noting that no major US or Canadian geological organization has yet made any report on this particularly large CO spike. However, a piece of scientific research in Nature Asia, by K. S. Jayaraman notes that major CO and SO2 spikes may be an indication that future earthquake activity is on the way. According to Nature this kind of intense CO spike occurred prior to a 7.6 magnitude earthquake that shook Gujara in 2001 killing 20,000 people:

Singh said that CO levels were taken by an instrument onboard NASA’s Terra satellite — launched in 2009 — circling the earth in a polar orbit at a height of 705 km. The instrument measures CO concentrations at different heights and also computes the total amount of the gas in a vertical column of air above the earth surface.

Analysis of the satellite data showed a large peak in CO concentrations during January 19 and 20 — a week before the main earthquake event. On January 19, the total CO in the vertical column was also higher than usual. After the 26 January earthquake the concentration of the gas dropped.

According to the scientists, CO gas is forced out of the earth due to the build up of stress prior to the earthquake “influencing the hydrological regime around the epicentre.”

But before we tilt too far into alarmism on this particular possibility, we should consider the fact that the above paper appears to have had no confirmation or further comment in the sciences at this time. So the predictive usefulness of large CO spikes prior to earthquakes remains quite uncertain. And, as noted above, no major geological information outlet has made any warning or comment on earthquake risk.

Furthermore, there’s been no observed spike in earthquake activity along any of the major fault lines over the past week according to USGS observations. Contrary to what some irresponsible analysts have been implying, earthquake activity in the California region over the past 7 days was well within the normal range. At 161 over the past week, this small number is not indicative of any abnormal activity near the various active fault lines. Each year, Southern California alone experiences 10,000 earthquakes, most of which are so small that people don’t even feel them.

The US geological survey also maintains that:

There is no scientifically plausible way of predicting the occurrence of a particular earthquake. The USGS can and does make statements about earthquake rates, describing the places most likely to produce earthquakes in the long term. It is important to note that prediction, as people expect it, requires predicting the magnitude, timing, and location of the future earthquake, which is not currently possible.

Thus the apparent, current very large West Coast CO spike near major fault lines (and over regions suffering from what is now a very severe five-year drought) in this particular monitor remains a bit of a mystery.

Or is it all Just a Glitch?

Considering that all the wildfire and human potential sources for the CO pulse are unlikely to produce the spike in the Nullschool data, that we have no warning of potential impending geological activity from the major agencies, and that we have had no other reports from related agencies to confirm the spike, we should also consider that there may well be something wrong with the monitor. Artifacts can appear in the satellite model data and it’s not unheard of to get a spike reading due to other signals impacting how physical models interpret sensor data.

Carbon Monoxide Hourly Observations San Bernandino

(Hourly carbon monoxide observations in Central San Bernardino do not match high surface CO measures recorded by the GEOS 5 model. Similar lower atmospheric readings come from station observations throughout Southern and Central California. Image source: California AMQD.)

To this point, lack of confirmation at ground reporting stations for high CO readings appearing in the GEOS 5 monitor increase the likelihood that these high peak readings were a glitch or an artifact in the physical data. A cursory view of local warnings shows no local CO air quality alerts for the areas indicated in the Nullschool data set (You can view a list of the local monitors here). Analysis of this data also shows much lower CO readings from these stations in the range of 400 to 1200 parts per billion — quite a bit lower than what the GEOS 5 monitor is showing.

So what we have is one model showing a very high CO spike, but none of the related ground monitors picking it up. Since there are hundreds of ground stations in this region, it seems quite a bit less likely that there is something wrong with each of the readings coming from these stations than from the GEOS 5 model itself.

This begs the question — was there some kind of false positive that confused GEOS 5? Was there some other signal that tripped the model to show such a high reading? But to these points, a general lack of overall confirmation from the hundreds of ground sensors scattered across the region seems to point to the likelihood that such elevated readings in the GEOS 5 monitor were a glitch, an artifact, or a false reading for this atmospheric level.

UPDATED: Final Confirmation — It’s A Model Algorithm Error

Dr. Gavin Schmidt, head of GISS NASA, has confirmed the glitch in his twitter feed which you can read here. He notes:

The Elevated Carbon Monoxide concentrations in the GEOS 5 products since February 25 of 2016 are incorrect. They are the consequence of unrealistic CO emissions computed by our biomass burning algorithm, which is based on satellite observation of fires… GMAO is working to correct this problem.

An excellent further explanation has been given by Bryan, a blogger over at Of Tech and Learning. His explanation is as follows:

“It’s pure coincidence that at MOPITT resumed data collection over western North America while its operating temperature was still stabilizing. Had the instrument’s temperature remained unstable for a few days, it would have looked like the whole globe was erupting gas. If MOPITT has started collecting data over the south pole, open ocean, or some other obscure location, I doubt anyone would have noticed and made a big fuss. MOPITT uses light collected in the infrared part of the spectrum. Based on Terra’s system status, the CO, CO2 and SO2 data collected by MOPITT on the 25th and 26th of February should be highly suspect. On the Earth map, the CO, CO2, and SO2 levels spike sometime between 1pm and 4pm Pacific time on Feb. 25th, which is between 2100 UTC on the 25th and 0000 UTC on the 26th. This is precisely during the time window when MOPITT’s operating temperature is still unstable.”

So a glitch does appear to be the cause of the current CO spike in the Nullschool data.

Links:

Earth Nullschool

AMQD Data

Dr Gavin Schmidt’s Twitter Feed

Active Fire Maps

Canadian Fire Maps

Cascadia Subduction Zone

The San Andreas Fault Line

Carbon Monoxide May Signal Earthquake

Paradise Burning

Copernicus Monitoring System

An Explanation of Carbon Monoxide Concentrations on US West Coast

Hat tip to Mike

Hat tip to MlParrish

Hat tip to WeHappyFew

Hat tip to Coopgeek

Hat tip to Greg

Hat tip to Bryan

Hat tip to FishOutofWater

Hat tip to Jim Benison

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