Thanks to Climate Change, West Nile Virus Could Be Your New Neighbor

Asian Tiger Mosquitos - West Nile Virus

Asian tiger mosquitoes are a major vector for West Nile virus.

A new study shows how climate change will contribute to the spread of the mosquito-borne West Nile virus

Invasive species aren’t just species—they can also be pathogens. Such is the case with the West Nile virus. A mosquito-borne virus identified in the West Nile subregion in Uganda in 1937—hence the name—West Nile wasn’t much of a concern to people elsewhere until it broke out of Africa in 1999. The first U.S. cases were confirmed in New York City in 1999, and it has now spread throughout much of the world. Though 80% of infections are subclinical—meaning they yield no symptoms—those who do get sick can get very sick.The virus can led to encephalitis—inflammation of the brain and nervous system—and even death, with 286 people dying from West Nile in the U.S. in 2012. There were more than 5,500 cases reported that year, and the scary thing is that as the climate warms, West Nile will continue to spread.

That’s the conclusion of a new study from a team of researchers in the U.S., Britain and Germany, including those at the Center for Tropical Research at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. In a study published in the journal Global Change Biology, the researchers took climate and species distribution data, and created models that try to project the spread of the virus as the globe warms. West Nile virus is carried by mosquitoes, and infected insects transmit the virus to human beings with a bite. But birds play a role too—if bitten by an infected mosquito, birds can generate high levels of the virus in their bloodstream, and can then transmit it to uninfected mosquitoes, which in turn can infect people. The biggest indicator of whether West Nile virus will occur is the maximum temperature of the warmest month of the year, which is why the virus has caused the most damage in hot southern states like Texas.

The UCLA model indicates that higher temperatures and lower precipitation will generally lead to more cases of West Nile, as well as the spread of the virus to northern territories that haven’t yet been affected by it. In California alone, for example, more than half of the state will see an increased probability of West Nile in the decades to come, and by 2080 the virus may well be prevalent in parts of southern Canada, and as far north as northern British Columbia, as you can see in this map:

The UCLA model looks only at climate data, and doesn’t take into account the kind of control methods that can be used to combat West Nile on the ground, including pesticide spraying and land-use changes that deny mosquitoes the pools of stagnant water they use as breeding sites. That’s important to remember: while climate change can raise the risk of typically tropical diseases like West Nile or malaria, smart control efforts can offset at least some of that dnger. (Malaria used to be common throughout much of the South—which is easily warm enough in the summer for the disease—before steps were taken to eliminate it, a process that led to the creation of the Centers for Disease Control.) But the UCLA study underscores the fact that climate change operates as a threat multiplier for tropical diseases, one that that will allow pathogens to invade new territory—and ultimately, us.

Inside the slow and dangerous clean up of the Fukushima nuclear crisis

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we take you to a place that garnered headlines around the world three years ago, but has hardly been seen since, because it’s so dangerous.

 

NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien is our guide.

MILES O’BRIEN: Three years after the meltdowns, the road to Fukushima is still a gauntlet of roadblocks and strict security checks.

And inside the exclusion zone, it remains a post-apocalyptic landscape of abandoned towns, frozen in time. We were on our way to one of the most hazardous places on Earth, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The Tokyo Electric Power Company, TEPCO, granted the NewsHour permission for a rare tour inside the plant, where three nuclear reactors melted down after the great Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11, 2011.

In the seismically isolated and radioactively protected emergency response center, we met the man in the hottest seat of all here, superintendent Akira Ono. He runs an unprecedented decommissioning project that will not be done for decades. He prefers not to call it a cleanup.

“After all, if you are just cleaning up after an accident,” he told me, “there is a lack of quality, meaning speed is the only concern. I feel that isn’t enough. We need to look ahead, 30 to 40 years.”

To see it firsthand, we had to suit up. We must also wear a full face mask and respirator for good measure, resembling astronauts on the way to a fully fueled rocket. We donned special shoes and hardhats, then boarded a bus that would get us as close to the meltdowns as the laws of physics and common sense would allow us.

Fukushima Daiichi or, number one, was a complex of six boiling water reactors designed by General Electric. They were built on sloping terrain, sandwiched between a mountain ridge and the Pacific Ocean. The nuclear cores are between 600 and 800 feet from the harbor.

Three of those cores are now melted down, still steaming hot, their steel containment structures breached. Engineers believe some of the nuclear fuel has melted right through the steel containment vessels on to a concrete basement floor, where it is exposed to groundwater.

As the ground water passes through the pump, it gets mixed in with the contaminated water that is used to cool the melted-down cores. The result is an awful lot of water that needs to be captured, or else it ends up in the ocean.

Each and every day, about 100,000 gallons of fresh groundwater seeps into the basements of the plant, where it becomes contaminated with a witch’s brew of radionuclide. TEPCO is furiously trying to keep pace with the water. They finish a new quarter-million-gallon holding tank here about every other day.

But the hastily built tanks have been leaking, prompting a switch to a welded design, buttressed by gutters, dikes, trenches and water sealants. Regardless, no one disputes the plant is steadily leaking radiation-tainted water into the sea.

“When you go out to the open ocean, there is very little contamination found,” says superintendent Ono. “Basically, the contamination is limited to the port.”

At the port, they are bolstering the last line of defense. This water-shielding wall should be complete in September. Behind it is a system that injects a chemical into the ground that turns water into a viscous gel, stemming the flow to the sea. The company is also testing an idea to bury cooling pipes near the melted reactors to freeze the ground, making impermeable ice plugs in walls that would keep the clean and contaminated water apart.

But all of this is clearly not sustainable. In about three years, they will run out of space for new water holding tanks. Then what?

Masayuki Ono, no relation to the superintendent is general manager of TEPCO’s nuclear power division.

“We can’t solve this problem by simply increasing the number of tanks,” he told me. “We need to solve the fundamental issue of underground water coming in.”

And TEPCO is also investing a lot in this sophisticated radiation water-filtering technology. In trial runs, the advanced liquid processing system, ALPS, has cleaned up 12.5 million gallons of water. ALPS removes cesium, strontium and 60 other radioactive nuclides, but not tritium. There is no practical way to factor out this isotope of hydrogen.

“It is hard to remove tritium with scientific methods,” he says. “But given its biological properties, it is a radioactive substance with a very limited risk.”

Nuclear engineer Lake Barrett worked for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission at Three Mile Island in the wake of the meltdown there in 1979. He is now a special adviser to TEPCO’s president.

LAKE BARRETT, TEPCO special advisor: When you combine all the water on the site with the tritium, the tritium levels will be so low at Fukushima that they would meet the international drinking water standards.

MILES O’BRIEN: TEPCO has no authorization from the Japanese government, local residents or fishermen to discharge any water at all, including what is leaking, from the Fukushima Daiichi site.

But a release of millions of gallons of water tainted with tritium into the ocean seems inevitable.

LAKE BARRETT: You can release it into the ocean, in a normal controlled release, which is what I personally believe they ought to do. But they have to work through the fishermen and all the governors and all the social issues that have to be addressed with that.

MILES O’BRIEN: The long-term solution here is to remove and secure the nuclear fuel. At unit four, they have begun that process. This reactor was shut down for maintenance when the tsunami hit. And so the fuel had been moved into this storage pool.

Even though the reactor wasn’t running, during the worst of the crisis, hydrogen gas accumulated in the reactor buildings, causing a series of explosions. Debris rained down into the pool, landing on top of the stored fuel assemblies. Workers have now carefully plucked away the pieces and have begun removing the 1,533 fuel assemblies stored here.

“It is assumed that some debris fell through the gaps,” engineer Takashi Hara told me. “So far, we don’t think it is anything that will cause the fuel to get stuck. However, it could be the case in the future, so we’re proceeding very slowly.”

The fuel assemblies are transported in casts that will be stored in a more seismically secure common storage pool. If all goes as planned, this process will be complete by the end of this year.

But removing the melted fuel from units one, two and three is another matter entirely. The radiation levels are simply too high for humans to ever get close enough to clean up. Even so, TEPCO is vowing to have the fuel debris removed from one of the reactors by mid 2020. But how? The only way to do that is to invent robots that can do the job. And that is precisely what they’re trying to do.

LAKE BARRETT: They’re probably the most robotic society, you know, there is on earth. Now you have to take it to another level, you know, to work in the high radiation field and to do things that they have never done before.

MILES O’BRIEN: There are many things that will have to be done here that have never been done before in order to decommission this plant.

“We will need to incorporate more and more new things,” superintendent Ono told me. “You can’t brood on the past for answers. I want to take on the various challenges with a constructive attitude.”

Before we left, they carefully scanned all of us and checked the dosimeters that we carried along the way. During our four-and-a-half-hour tour, we absorbed as much radiation as we would have in a single chest X-ray. It was dark when we rode the bus out of the exclusion zone. It was a quiet ride, as we all processed the magnitude of the mess.

Three years after the meltdowns, the crisis has not ended here. In some ways, it is still unfolding.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next Wednesday, Miles will have a report on the Fukushima meltdown’s effect on fish in the surrounding waters.

And we want to note, these stories were produced before Miles’ trip to the Philippines, where an accident led to the loss of his left arm. As we said earlier this week, we, his NewsHour colleagues, are in awe of his courage.

Influenza Claims Hundreds in California

Flu Vaccine as Hundreds die in CaliforniaThe current flu season has taken a heavy toll on those in California.  The number of patients under the age of 65 that have succumbed has been confirmed at 302.  Comparatively, at this time last year only 34 flu deaths had been reported.  The hundreds of lives that influenza has claimed this season in California is almost ten times the number of victims from last year.

The particular flu strain, H1N1, is not just causing deaths in California.  The strain is seen nationwide.  The influenza strain involved in these deaths is more widespread and severe in people between 25 and 64 years old.  Physicians believe that many older people have a greater immunity to this strain because there were similar outbreaks decades ago.

This continues to be a severe flu season and the death toll continues to rise.  The H1N1 strain first surfaced in the United States in 2009 and California had hundreds more victims claimed by that influenza outbreak.  The year 2009 has been recorded as the first global pandemic in over four decades, causing 539 deaths in California alone.  The CDC had no vaccine for this particular flu.

It has not yet been determined whether these cases are indicative of other state counts around the United States or if California simply has a higher than average mortality rate.  The data is collected according to state-by-state regulations.  States are not required to report influenza deaths to the Center for Disease Control.  While the CDC does not have hard figures to determine whether the percentages in California are similar to other states, the agency does receive information on the general causes for visits to the doctor and whether a patient is hospitalized with the flu.  Those numbers appear to indicate that the 2013-2014 flu season will continue to be hard hitting.

A release issued by the California Department of Public Health indicates that the flu season is continuing.  They are maintaining a stance that it is still not too late to get a vaccination.  The influenza vaccine continues to be available.  Typically the flu season lasts until the end of April.

Physicians state that people with the highest risk factors, such as pregnant women, people with health conditions, the elderly and infants should seek immediate medical attention when they exhibit signs of the flu.  The earlier medical attention is sought, the more effective the treatment may be.  Influenza symptoms include body aches, fatigue, headache, cough, fever, and sore throat.

The highest number of deaths has been in Los Angeles where they have a current total of 44 confirmed fatalities.  San Diego has reported 25 fatalities and has the second highest flu related death count in the state.  To compare, at this time last year there had been a total of only 34 influenza fatalities.  By the end of the 2012-2013 season, the state had a total of 106 deaths, approximately one third of the state’s current count.  Influenza has already claimed hundreds in the state of California this year and the flu season is expected to continue for about two more months.  The end result may rival the totals from the 2009 year of the pandemic.

By Dee Mueller

Night sky guide for March 2014

Comet C/2012 X1 LINEAR will reach its brightest this month and will be well placed for observation on March 4. An extremely rare event will take place on the morning of March 20 when asteroid 163 Erigone passes in front of the bright star Regulus in the constellation of Leo, causing the star to disappear. No major annual showers are active this month as seen from the northern hemisphere and only a few very weak minor showers produce activity this month, according to AMS. From the southern hemisphere, activity from the Centaurid complex begins to wane with only the weak activity visible from Norma and perhaps others areas nearby.

March 1 – New Moon – 08:00 UTC. The Moon will position itself directly between the Earth and the Sun and will not be…

It takes how much water to grow an almond?!

California, supplier of nearly half of all U.S. fruits, veggies, and nuts, is on track to experience the driest year in the past half millennium. Farms use about 80 percent of the state’s “developed water,” or water that’s moved from its natural source to other areas via pipes and aqueducts.

As the maps above show, much of California’s agriculture is concentrated in the parts of the state that the drought has hit the hardest. For example: Monterey County, which is currently enduring an “exceptional drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, grew nearly half of America’s lettuce and broccoli in 2012.

When it comes to water use, not all plants are created equal. Here’s how much water some of California’s major crops require:

Final-gallons-per-food_2.jpg

Jay Lund, a water expert at the University of California-Davis, says that water problems mean that agriculture may soon play a less important role in California’s economy, as the business of growing food moves to the South and the Midwest, where water is less expensive. Production rates for thirsty crops like alfalfa and cotton have already diminished significantly in the last few years. Between 2006 and 2010 alone, the amount of land irrigated for cotton fell by 46 percent.

In addition to farms, the drought affects municipal water supplies. There is so little water this year that some places are in danger of running out — and the little that is left could soon become undrinkable because of the high concentration of pollutants.

So how are Californians doing on water conservation? Here’s how some cities stack up:

Click to embiggen.
Click to embiggen.

This story was produced by Mother Jones as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Alex Park is an editorial fellow at Mother Jones.

Julia Lurie is an editorial fellow at Mother Jones.

The Hummingbird Pyramid discovered in La Maná, Ecuador among 17 ancient temples

A monumental discovery was recently made south of La Maná, Ecuador on November 17, 2013 while exploring low mountains along the Calope River. The megalithic ruins of an ancient temple have been partially exposed by the dynamite blasts of roadworkers and the erosive action of water, uncovering large sections of basalt foundations along two sides of a structure exceeding 70m in height.

The La Maná region has drawn attention for decades after the Head of the Ecuadorian Ministry of Mines Dr. E. Guillermo Sotomayor (1918-2009) made the surprise discovery of a cache of hundreds of ancient relics that included dozens of magnetic stone artifacts with inlaid designs that fluoresce under ultraviolet light. Sotomayor’s years of research concerning a set of 13 magnetic stone…

Hundreds protest dropped charges over Fukushima crisis

Tokyo (AFP) – Hundreds rallied in Tokyo Saturday to protest Japanese prosecutors’ decision to drop charges over the Fukushima nuclear crisis, with no one yet punished nearly three years after the “man-made” disaster.

No one is officially recorded as having died as a direct result of radiation released when a tsunami triggered by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake crashed into the Fukushima nuclear plant in March 2011, swamping cooling systems and sparking reactor meltdowns.

However, some Fukushima residents committed suicide owing to fears over radiation, while others died during evacuation. Official data released last week showed that 1,656 people have died in the prefecture from stress and other illnesses related to the disaster three years ago.

“There are many victims of the accident, but there is no (charged) assailant,” chief rally organiser Ruiko Muto, 61, told the protesters, displaying a photograph of Kawauchi village which was hit by the nuclear accident.

“We are determined to keep telling our experiences as victims to pursue the truth of the accident, and we want to avoid a repeat of the accident in the future,” she said.

Tens of thousands of people are still unable to return to their homes around the plant, with scientists warning some areas may have to be abandoned.

Fukushima: A rare look inside the nuclear plant th …Play video

Fukushima: A rare look inside the nuclear plant three …

“I used to grow organic rice… But I can’t do it anymore because of consumers’ worries over radioactive contamination,” Kazuo Nakamura, 45, a farmer from Koriyama city in Fukushima prefecture, told the rally.

“I want (Fukushima operator) TEPCO officials and bureaucrats of the central government to eat the Fukushima-made rice,” he shouted to applause.

A parliamentary report has said Fukushima was a man-made disaster caused by Japan’s culture of “reflexive obedience” and not just by the tsunami that crippled the plant.

Some 15,000 people whose homes or farms were hit by radiation from the stricken plant filed a criminal complaint in 2012 against the Japanese government and officials of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO).

However, prosecutors in September decided not to charge any of them with negligence over the nuclear disaster.

Junko Honda, who evacuated to the northern island of …
Junko Honda, who evacuated to the northern island of Hokkaido with her family, speaks at a rally in  …

– Criminal complaint –

Campaigners immediately appealed against the decision by the Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution, which has the power to order the defendants to be tried.

The committee members comprise 11 citizens who are chosen at random by lot.

But the appeal was made in Tokyo instead of Fukushima, a move campaigners say is “aimed at preventing us from filing a complaint against their decision in Fukushima, where many residents share our anger and grief”.

“We want to share with many people in Tokyo our anger and sadness over the fact that no one has taken responsibility three years after the accident,” one of the organisers, 43-year-old Miwa Chiwaki, told AFP.

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency …

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visit the the crippled Fukushima Dai-i …

“We pin our hopes on sound judgement by people in Tokyo,” Chiwaki said.

Campaigners allege that government officials and TEPCO executives failed to take necessary measures to shield the plant against the March 2011 tsunami.

They also hold them responsible for a delay in announcing data predicting how radiation would spread from the facility in the aftermath of the accident.

But prosecutors decided to exempt all of them, saying that TEPCO and government officials could not predict an earthquake and tsunami of that size, and there was nothing wrong with their post-quake response under unexpected emergency situations.

Hiroyuki Kawai, a lawyer representing the campaigners, said “there were lots of measures that officials could have taken to prevent the disaster.”

“We won’t give up indictment of the officials,” he said.

Campaigners last year filed a separate complaint to prosecutors over TEPCO’s handling of increasing waters contaminated with radiation after used for cooling the stricken reactors, accusing them of committing pollution-related crimes.

Separately, TEPCO officials and senior government officials face several civil lawsuits that were filed by thousands of plaintiffs seeking compensation for mental and financial damage, demanding full restoration of the pre-accident environment in their hometowns.

The waves created by the tsunami swept more than 18,000 people to their deaths across the country and destroyed entire communities.

SDO 2014 spring eclipse season has begun

Twice every year, around the time of the equinoxes, Earth can pass directly between the Sun and NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), producing a series of beautiful eclipses. For the next 3 weeks the Earth will pass between SDO and the Sun around 07:30 UTC each morning. These eclipses can last up to 72 minutes in the middle of an eclipse season.

SDO’s first vernal eclipse season began on February 27, producing a near-total blackout of the sun.

SDO’s AIA 193 image from first eclipse – we can see AR 1988 near the edge of the Earth, with a coronal hole just to the right. Active regions 1981-1984 are further to the right and are hardly affected by the Earth, although they soon disappear behind the Earth. (Courtesy of NASA/SDO and the AIA, EVE, and HMI…