Growing season extension another bellwether of climate change

The first daffodils of the new year burst into flower in mid-January after a period of mild weather. The buds on some of our trees and shrubs are swelling too, waking up for spring, although they might be nipped by frost this week.

Daffodils in January

The weather swings wildly from mild to cold at this time of year in mid-Atlantic states, according to the flow coming from the warm Gulf or frigid Canada. A century of temperature records for the Williamsburg area show huge standard deviations for the interval between last frost of winter and first fall frost. The growing season here is 30 days longer than it was as recently as the 1980s, and the maximum summer temperature in the past couple of decades mirrors the new peaks in national data. A longer growing season helps farmers and gardeners, but for every gain there is a pain—more exposure to ticks and invasive plants, and shrinking habitat for beneficial birds, etc.

growing season and climate change
Extension of growing season in Williamsburg, VA

Next post: Coping with grief from climate change

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Thank Goodness for Greta

Greta has published a new book. Her first name is all you need to know who I mean … and even that’s unnecessary to recognize the teenager on the cover of the current Time. How predictable that when the magazine made her Person of the Year commentators divided like the fabled sea so the the Children of Israel to could pass. But her passage has been far from smooth or even safe. Many people admire her stoical mien and meteoric rise from a lonely caller for action on climate from the steps of Sweden’s parliamentary buildings to represent millions on the world’s stage. Shameless critics write ugly diatribes, doubtless without reading No One is Too small to Make a Difference (Penguin, 2019). But she joins an admirable tradition of ‘small’ people, like Emmeline Pankhurst and Mohandas Gandhi, harangued for unpopular messages before universal honor.

Greta Thunberg

No matter how sincere a conviction, it is empty without a foundation. Greta earned attention by sticking to science. It is ironic that most climate change deniers are not anti-science, for they embrace its fruits (weather forecasting and electronic media, electricity and air travel, and encourage children to study STEM subjects and acknowledge the benefits of science in countless other ways). Human nature can be puzzling.

Greta writes, “unite behind the science, that is our demand.” The book assumes the authority of careful independent research since humanity has not found a better way to understand the world, make our lives easier, and conquer pain. She urges greater investment in technology for low-carbon economies, wishes for more cooperation and less competition, and hopes for environmental justice and the curbing of habitat loss. None of this is fresh thinking but a young voice must be heard for her generation will live to see how hostile the planet will turn.

The devastating effects of fire I saw recently on Notre-Dame cathedral was an apt analogy for Greta’s speech to the European Parliament. There was a more rapt response and no twitter tantrums there. She said, “I want you to act as if your house is on fire. Because it is.”

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Insectageddon means we are buggered

It was one of those throw-away remarks that stick in the mind. I was at Middlebury College in June when somebody at dinner said, “Funny, I saw more deer on the journey here than insects splattered on my windshield.” He had driven 200 miles through farmlands to Vermont.

It reminded me of a 75% decline of insect populations over the past thirty years in German nature reserves. The news might be welcome if they were only the biting and stinging kinds, but the list included butterflies, wild bees, and dragonflies. The survey was more striking for being in nature reserves! Unfortunately, they are not strictly reserved for nature because pesticides drift from nearby fields, and climate is shifting everywhere. There are also reports that insects are less common in Spain and Britain, and that reminds me of struggles to keep honey bees here in Virginia.

Mountain mint

Discouraged by the loss of two colonies last year, I put my labor into growing more pollinator-friendly plants instead. Mountain mint is currently my favorite. I am happy to see this native plant gradually invade fallow areas of garden because it competes against Japanese stiltgrass that smothers the ground and is inedible to browsing rabbits and deer. The mint has a pleasing odor to attract hundreds of pollinators of many kinds, including bee visitors from an unknown apiary.

I doubt there are many homeowners in the district who are trying to attract bugs. If neighbors knew they might restock their sprays and give their chemical lawns and flower borders an extra coating of toxins to ensure they are sterile. Bugs have few friends, although we make exceptions of butterflies, bees and a few others.

On May 28 the city of Williamsburg recommended a service to residents for fogging their yards, and encouraged the battle by playing up the risk of Zika, malaria, West Nile virus, and Yellow Fever. You might imagine from the announcement we live in a tropical swamp! Meanwhile the US military conducts aerial spraying of its land, sending local beekeepers scurrying to cover their hives. Sprays are no respecters of species; they kill beneficial insects along with mosquitoes.

And yet I hear people ask why friendly insects are less common than in the past. And they wonder about fewer garden birds, bats, and frogs too. Perhaps we can’t have the good without the bad. I will tolerate some bites and stings for the sake of biodiversity, but then what are they to a beekeeper?

It matters if we are facing ‘Insectageddon’ because, at halfway down the food pyramid, many insects provide pollination services. Others eat invertebrates below and/ or provide food for animals and birds above. The environmental writer-activist at the Guardian George Monbiot believes the disappearance of insects caused by modern farming practices and the industrial vacuuming of marine life pose the two greatest existential threats to life on the planet, greater even than climate warming. An alarming warning by Harvard ecologist E.O. Wilson has gone viral: “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”

Getting public attention on bugs is an uphill struggle, except to eliminate them. Since people left farming in droves in the last century for sterile condominiums in cities there are fewer people who notice a difference in the air. And even professional ecologists are more detached from nature if they spend time nerdishly in front of screens. That’s why we need more citizen scientists in the community, those amateurs whose passion takes them outdoors to record observations like naturalists of yore.

For my part, I only have anecdotal stories as a gardener-naturalist, not the quantitative data needed to monitor historical changes in insect populations. I notice fewer fireflies and butterflies in my backyard than 17 years ago. What was then semi-rural is now semi-urban, with all that implies.

But when I took an evening drive last month along country roads in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia I had an experience I used to take for granted, and the memory came back as a jolt. It was like driving through lightly falling snow. The landscape was filled with moths. Is it a coincidence that the area is thinly populated and old farms that fell on hard times have become fallow meadows? By the time I reached home my car was splattered, and I realized it was something to celebrate instead of grumble. It suggested a new project for amateur naturalists to monitor insects from the comfort of their driving seat. The only effort required will be to wipe license plates clean of corpses after recording data in mph (moths per hour).

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Graying, Viruses and Broken Hearts

A long time ago I made a discreet survey of male manes. Perhaps it was an idle way to cure boredom on journeys, but the more I looked the more convinced I became that men who turn gray when young have vigorous crops when they are old. A premature gray head of hair is a lesser stigma than a bald one, but I wonder if it is worn at a price.

I admit there is nothing simple about this (or any) biology, and we are fools to draw a hasty conclusion from extrapolation. Hair can change color and density for many reasons, not least from diet, disease, and aging. Stress can be a factor too. After my mother narrowly survived pneumonia around the time she delivered my youngest brother her hair suddenly turned to silver from dark brown. Surely it was more than a coincidence.

We crudely judge age from hair, although it’s a dishonest guide even for those who wear it au naturel. But sometimes when I see a heavy crop of gray I wonder if it is standing up like a warning flag. I generally ignore anecdotes in medicine but sometimes they get you thinking. I have a friend about the same age with a full head of white hair I envy, but I would rather have a bald pate than his heart attack that came out of the blue (pardon the pun). We thought he had healthy decades ahead of him as someone who lived carefully.

The doctor shrugged when my friend asked, ‘Why me?’  No one had an answer, except to say, ‘It’s in his genes.’ The word genetics covers a multitude of ignorance, although there’s bound to be truth in it that science will uncover one day. Cardiovascular disease cuts a broad swath with its scythe as the biggest killer in developed countries, men ahead of women, but it sometimes runs deep in families predisposed to it at youngish ages. The character of our manes is also inherited, and so I muse whether heart and hair are linked. The oracle was in his hair.

Perhaps is the cautious answer scientists give to the curious public who want a clear-cut answer, preferably not about mice! But mice are in the vanguard of biomedicine. In a paper published this month from the University of Alabama a link was found between the innate immune response and melanocytes in mice. I must backtrack to fill a gap.

Courtesy Open Clipart

Hair follicles contain melanocyte stem cells that produce melanin pigment granules to give color to growing hair. Those cells are lost with age, which makes hair progressively grayer until it eventually turns ‘white.’ [Strictly speaking not white but semi-transparent to reflect light.]

Are melanocytes connected with heart disease? It’s not a question you often hear. There is no direct physical connectivity, of course, but a link exists with the immune system. Melanocytes do not originate in the conventional immune system but they work in many ways like immune cells defending the body against external danger. That makes sense for cells stationed at the surface of the body where they are guardians against infection as well as providing melanin to protect the more vulnerable parts of the body from solar radiation. Melanocytes deserve a lot of credit.

The researchers studied a transcription factor called MITF we can call a ‘gene switch.’ It operates in both melanocytes and immune cells. When they switched MITF off in mice the immune system was activated as if it was responding to an infection. At the same time melanocytes were depleted and the fur turned gray. But if graying is a sign of galvanized immunity how does this link with broken hearts?

Heart disease is regarded as an inflammatory response that can be caused by ‘alien invasion.’ There is firm evidence that common bacterial and viral infections can promote plaque formation in arteries by inflammation, and when plaque peels off it can block blood passing through the vessel to cause a heart attack.

What might this mean for health and disease, for hair and baldness, and for my friend? Would he have been healthier had he turned bald instead of gray? Of course, he would not have avoided his fate by dyeing or shaving his head.

If he had a viral load years ago, especially if it was chronic although not necessarily obvious, the MITF switch would be turned off in his immune cells so they could respond to the challenge. Plaque formation would be the trade-off of inflammation. At the same time the same switch would trigger graying.

This speculation doesn’t explain why men who turn gray prematurely tend not to go bald. And it leaves unanswered the bigger questions why some men turn gray early and any definite connection with heart health. My friend’s attack might have been caused by lifestyle or an infection, and aggravated by the very thing he could never avoid. His genes. We will understand some day if the MITF switch has differential effects in men with early graying from the writing in their DNA code, but for the present we have to turn to mice for provisional evidence. It’s intriguing that when the researchers examined a strain genetically prone to graying they found that when the immune system was stimulated the animals went gray at younger ages.

My theory of hair and heart won’t help my friend. But perhaps at the first signs of graying if men in their early 30s and 40s test blood markers of inflammation they might dodge the bullet by reducing other risk factors in their lives to normalize their fate. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.

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Elegy for a Significant Speck (frozen eggs and embryos)

Eggs in an icescape

Two American fertility clinics reported freezers failing last month, and had thawed to an undisclosed degree. This rare event shocked hundreds of patients who were storing embryos, eggs and ovarian tissue. Maybe it was the equipment that failed or a human error, but responsibility rests on the shoulders of clinics except for major fires or criminal intent out of their control. These freezers have electronic alarms. When Lucinda was managing Cornell’s IVF laboratory she could be called automatically on her cell phone if liquid nitrogen levels fell to critical levels. It never happened. She knew the danger because there can be no recovery for cells that thaw improperly.

A tank may contain over a thousand frozen eggs and embryos. To patients, they are prospective children waiting for the day when they will be called by their parents. Some women can repeat IVF treatment to replace their loss, but not everyone because fleeting years of female fertility soon rob them of the chance to be new mothers of their genetic children. I chose another hard case for my example, who came through a tunnel called cancer to renewed health, but she lost her next best hope from a plunge in temperature. Money from a lawsuit is no compensation to warm this kind of chilled heart.

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