Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Accelerating infection rates? Or accelerated testing?

Accelerating infection rates? Or accelerated testing?

It appears the spread of COVID 19 is not accelerating as the media suggests. The increase in confirmed cases is a result of accelerated testing.

According to data shared by the Atlantic on March 17, only 25,000 Americans had been tested for COVID 19 resulting in 4,400 confirmed infections by March 12. That suggests a 17.6% infection rate per tested specimens. This infection rate very likely over-estimates the infection rate of the American population, as most tests are performed on people concerned about respiratory symptoms that could also be caused by the common cold or the flu. Likewise younger people who are less likely to get infected are unlikely to seek testing.

If the pandemic spread is accelerating, then infection rates per test should be increasing. But they are not according to my calculations.

The Atlantic provided access to a data base listing the number of COVID 19 tests for each state.
Not all states had reported, but as of March 23, the number of tests had accelerated to 317,240 total. Based on the current number of confirmed cases, 49,940, the number of cases per test was just 15.7%. At the very least, the smaller percentage of confirmed cases per test suggest there has been no acceleration in the spread of the disease. Journalists reporting on the spread of COVID 19 should not just report the number of confirmed cases but the number of cases per the number of tests.

Because many confirmed cases have only mild symptoms, the mortality rate is also informative. Of the currently confirmed 49,940 American cases, there have been 634 deaths. That is a mortality rate of less than 1.3% of confirmed cases. For comparison, the death rate for the closely related SARS virus was over 9%, but there were far fewer infections. The COVID19 death reate is ten times greater than influenza. However since October 2019, many more people are infected by the flu, over 38 million,  and the number of deaths is estimated between  23,000 and 59,000, far greater than COVID 19.

If COVID 19 behaves like the flu, then warming weather should cause infections to drastically decline as we progress toward summer

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Warming Improves Our Health - part 1

What’s Natural

Warming Improves Our Health - part 1

It’s deeply disturbing to hear people uncritically regurgitate media misinformation suggesting global warming threatens our health far worse than the COVID pandemic. Scientific evidence unequivocally shows colder weather is the major killer. As Figure 1 illustrates, the percentage of all deaths attributed to weather and temperature increases during the cold months. In contrast mortalities rates fall during warmer months. Researchers examining 74 million deaths across the globe from 1985-2012 found 7.3% were caused by temperatures cooler than the optimum compared to just 0.4% attributed to temperatures above the optimum.  Extreme temperature events, both hot and cold only accounted for 0.9% of all deaths.  

Likewise, a 2014 National Health Statistics reports found, “During 2006–2010, about 2,000 U.S. residents died each year from weather-related deaths. About 31% of these deaths were attributed to exposure to excessive natural heat, heat stroke, sun stroke; 63% were attributed to exposure to excessive natural cold, hypothermia, or both.”  Similarly, according to the CDC , from 1979-1999, a total of 8015 deaths in the United States were heat related while 13,970 deaths were attributed to hypothermia. So why aren’t people listening to the science?

Increasing seasonal death rate due to colder temperatures 

Global warming fear is based on speculation regards what could happen in the future if global average temperatures rose 2°F to 4°F. But scary predictions are not scientific fact until their hypotheses are tested and verified. Without time machines we cannot directly test predicted outcomes for the years 2050 or 2100.  But we can observe the effects of a similar temperature change.

In the United States people have steadily migrated away from the cold Northeast to the warmer Southwest. In the Southwest they are exposed to higher average temperatures, temperatures equal to or greater than what global warming predicts they would endure if they remained in the Northeast. The good news, scientists determined that “migration from the Northeast to the Southwest accounts for 4% to 7% of the total gains in life expectancy experienced by the U.S. population over the past thirty years.” We can infer a similar benefit from global warming. A complementary study determined people that migrated to colder climates suffered ‘greater cardiovascular mortality” than people who remained in their native country.

Because the two major U.S. government agencies that track heat and cold deaths - NOAA and the CDC - differ sharply on which is the bigger killer, the public is rightfully confused. In contrast to the CDC results, NOAA argues heat is killing twice as many people as cold, but NOAA’s researchers have also been heavily invested in catastrophic global warming claims. By statistically adjusting the data via “seasonal detrending”, they remove the greater number of winter deaths in their analyses and just focus on extreme temperature deaths. They justify their adjustments arguing factors such as increased winter deaths due to flu season are not directly due to colder temperatures. But that obscures the health effects of temperature.

Colder temperatures reduce the effectiveness of our immune systems, which promotes influenza epidemics that may kill 34,000 to 60,000 people in a year. Because influenza season ends when temperatures warm, scientists are hoping warmer weather will similarly curtail the novel COVID-19 pandemic.

NOAA’s adjusted data focuses on deaths from heat waves and cold snaps. Indeed, there is a greater spike in deaths during heat waves, but research suggests heat waves have a small long‑term effect due to a “harvesting effect”. Us elderly and health compromised people are most vulnerable to extreme weather and epidemics. The “harvesting effect” describes an event during which vulnerable people who would have likely died over the following months instead died “prematurely” during an extreme event. But mortality rates drop in the following months because the most vulnerable have already passed. Researchers have found because mortality rates fall during the months following a heat wave there is no long­‑term population effect. In contrast, cold snaps do have long-term effects as researchers found no such “harvesting effect”.

Although alarming models and media narratives suggest global warming causes more extreme heat waves, scientific data disagrees. As the EPA’s heat wave index illustrates (below), there has been no increase in heat waves as the worse heat waves happened during the 1930s.

Fortunately, heat waves are short‑lived and foreseeable. Weather forecasters detect approaching high-pressure systems that bring cloudless skies that increase solar heating. High pressure systems inhibit rising air currents that normally carry heat away. And high‑pressure systems draw warm tropical air poleward on one flank while blocking cooler air from moving south. By forecasting extreme heat waves, scientists believe we can prevent most heat wave deaths. Urban heat effects are 2°F to 10°F warmer than the countryside, thus urban dwellers should be most careful. And because elderly people who lack air conditioning are most vulnerable and less mobile, we can make sure they are moved out of harm’s way.

Jim Steele is Director emeritus of San Francisco State’s Sierra Nevada Field Campus and authored Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Dissolving Dungeness?

Published in Pacifica Tribune March 8, 2020

What’s Natural

Dissolving Dungeness?

Like New England’s lobsters, savory Dungeness crabs are San Francisco and the northwest’s iconic seafood. While fisheries around the world have declined from overexploitation, Dungeness crabs have been sustainable despite intensive harvesting over the past 40 years.  Their resilience partly relies on mature females producing 1 to 2 million eggs each year. Thus, harvesting females commercially is illegal.

Unfortunately, few eggs survive to adulthood. Besides being preyed upon, early life stages (larvae) must survive being swept out to the open ocean and then return a few months later to shallow near-shore waters. The more larvae that survive that trip, the greater their abundance. But if the winds and currents prevent the larvae’s return, populations could crash as they did in the 1950s.

The successful return of Dungeness larvae largely depends on the strength and timing of upwelling currents. When eggs hatch, larvae rise to the surface and are then blown offshore. If larvae float into the California Current, they’re carried southward and further offshore. But below the California Current is the Undercurrent, transporting warmer waters northward. Northward currents also strengthen during winter.  By migrating daily between contrasting surface and deeper waters, larvae minimize being swept too far away. Then beginning around April, a strengthening California Current creates upwelling currents that carry larvae back towards the coast while larvae remaining in the open ocean die.

Upwelling currents also promote plankton blooms by bringing essential nutrients back into sunlit surface waters. Upwelling enables the entire marine food web to flourish. Larvae that settle in regions bathed by upwelling water, benefit from 10 times more food than elsewhere. Upwelling also increases the abundance of sardines and anchovies, but that causes a problem for crab fishermen.

Humpback whales feeding on anchovies are attracted to Dungeness fishing grounds. Recovering from past exploitation, larger whale populations are more likely to encounter crab trap buoy lines and deadly whale entanglements increased. So commercial crab fishermen agreed to further restrict fishing season to minimize overlap with feeding whales. Promising technological solutions to eliminate buoy lines are a work in progress.

In 2015, beneficial upwelling also enabled a bloom in plankton species producing domoic acid. Passing up the food chain, high doses of domoic acid cause neurological damage to birds and mammals. Detecting high domoic acid levels in crabs, public health agencies shut down the 2015 Dungeness season until the danger passed.  That was economically devastating for fishermen. Hoping to recoup their losses the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations blamed climate change and sued 30 oil companies. But they are unlikely to win their lawsuit.

Outbreaks of domoic acid poisoning correlate with upwelling and natural ocean oscillations. The northward currents can bring additional domoic-acid-producing species into Dungeness habitat. Then with seasonal upwelling, their numbers explode. In 1961, a similar plankton bloom disoriented seabirds. Monterrey newspapers reported birds flying into buildings and people, inspiring Alfred Hitchcock to produce his iconic horror film “The Birds”.

Unfortunately, bad science also promotes media horror stories such as CNN’s headlines, “The Pacific Ocean is so Acidic that it's Dissolving Dungeness.” But in truth, ocean pH is far above 7.0; oceans are alkaline, not acidic.

Still NOAA’s West Coast Ocean Acidification program seeks worrisome examples of “acidification” and it was their researchers who prompted those horrific headlines. They found Dungeness larvae in off-shore waters (with a slightly higher pH) had smoother inner shells, versus larvae in near-shore waters (with a slightly lower pH) that had shells with patchy dissolution. The dissolution was invisible to the eye. Researchers had to remove the shells’ outer protective layer and examine the inner shell with scanning electron microscopes and various x-ray technologies to find microscopic “changes”. And despite a correlation with lower pH, the measured pH should not have caused any dissolution.

Dungeness larvae reaching near-shore waters are transported by the naturally low-pH upwelling currents. That upwelled water is derived from the Undercurrent, which is fed by waters originating in the deep Pacific Ocean. Those deep waters had not been exposed to our atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years. Suggesting low-pH upwelled waters are worsened by “atmospheric carbon dioxide” was a false narrative. The lower pH and high nutrients are produced by hundreds of years of decaying organic matter.

When Dungeness larvae return to near-shore waters, they settle to the ocean floor and soon molt into their first juvenile shells. Larvae absorb minerals from their old shell to recycle into their new shell. That causes patches of dissolution. The researchers’ data from one near-shore location was discarded because pre-molt dissolution had clearly started as expected. Still and oddly, researchers blamed that observed pre-molt, but slightly less dissolution, on “ocean acidification” prompting endless media horror stories. What is never told is Dungeness larvae remaining offshore do not molt into juveniles, so would not be undergoing pre-molt dissolution. And despite their smoother shells, larvae remaining in offshore waters die.

Misleading science from researchers who are blinkered by their advocacy for an “ocean acidification crisis” is problematic. We need objective science, not “dissolving Dungeness” fear mongering.

Jim Steele is director emeritus of the Sierra Nevada Field Campus, SFSU and authored Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Hijacking the Winds of Change

published in the Pacifica Tribune February 25, 2020

What’s Natural . column

Low-tech weathervanes have provided farmers with sage weather advice. If winds were coming from the north, temperatures would be colder than normal; if from the south, temperatures would be warmer. Most fascinating, if winds descended down a mountain slope, they could expect fluctuating extreme weather, with temperatures bouncing between extreme warmth and cold. Across the globe, local downslope winds cause dramatic weather changes and so are given special names such as Chinooks or Foehn winds.

In the western USA, warm dry winter winds descending from the Rocky Mountains are called Chinooks. Because chinooks can melt a foot of snow in one day, Native American Blackfeet people called chinooks “snow-eaters”. Long before it became fashionable to blame warm events on CO2 global warming, standard physics explained extreme warming events. When moist winds are forced over a mountain range, the water vapor condenses at higher elevations releasing precipitation as well as latent heat that warms the air. Then as the winds descend, the air further warms by 5.5°F for every 1000-foot drop in elevation.

For a historical perspective, read the peer-reviewed account of the “Battle of the Chinook Wind at Havre, Montana”. In December 1933 the onset of Chinook winds raised temperatures 27°F in just 5 minutes, and over the next 36 hours temperatures rose by 53°F. When the Chinooks relaxed, typical cold winter air returned, and temperatures fell 40°F in just 2 hours. Montana is a local hot spot for extreme Chinooks. The world record for the greatest warming in 24 hours happened January 1972, just 60 miles away from Havre, as temperatures jumped 103°F (−54 °F to 49 °F).

Such dramatic warming in winter seems unbelievable, but the laws of physics steadfastly state increasing pressure increases temperature without adding heat. As air moves down slope and compresses, it warms. Amazingly, tribes from Borneo to the Philippines beneficially applied the physics of warming long ago. They started fires by rapidly compressing air in a tube. Many modern backpackers carry a similar device called a “fire piston”.

When downslope winds warm and dry the air, they also drive major wildfires. In southern California these periodic wind events are called the Santa Anas, or the Diablo winds in northern California. These rapidly warming wind events dry out grasses and twigs in just a few hours making them easily ignited even in winter. Simultaneously those winds fan the flames, rapidly spreading the fire. A 1960s government report warned those winds made California vulnerable to fire all year long.

In the Swiss Alps, these downslope winds are called foehn winds. And similarly, due to foehn winds fire season in some Swiss valleys peak in the cooler months of March and April. In southeastern Australia where bushfires recently devastated the land, large fires are more likely downslope of the local “Australian Alps” due to foehn-like winds. When human ignitions and poorly managed forests coincide with foehn events, deadly conflagrations ensue.

Antarctica doesn’t experience wildfires, but foehn winds bring extreme temperatures and melt ice. Unlike most of Antarctica, the Esperanza weather station is uniquely situated between cold winds blowing from the continent that battle warm subtropical winds from the north. It is also located in a regional hot spot for foehn winds. On February 6, 2020, a foehn wind raised Esperanza’s normal 32°F summer temperatures to 64.9°F in just 6 hours. A record for the continent but much below nearby Signy Island’s 1982 record of 67.6°F, also driven by foehn winds. Twelve hours after the foehn wind relaxed, the cold winds returned dropping Esperanza’s temperatures back to its normal 32°F.  Similar foehn wind events are implicated in the collapse of that region’s Larsen B ice shelf.

Climate change requires 30+ years to detect, but the sharp spike in Antarctic warming came and went over a period of hours. But talking heads mistakenly blamed the warm event on climate change, despite the region’s 2 decade long cooling trend. MSNBC interviewed New York Times reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis, who claimed Esperanza’s extreme temperature verified that climate “models are right” so we must “rein in our greenhouse gas emissions”. But nobody ever mentioned the warming was a natural foehn event. Nor did they mention that the only way to prevent such dramatic warming from foehn events, would require leveling all the mountains of the world. Looking more ill-informed, when Kendra stated this event was “not great for the animals that live in Antarctica”, MSNBC flashed a photo of polar bears.

Instead of informing the public about the science behind these amazing wind effects, they’ve hijacked natural warm weather events to create sensational and misleading climate crisis stories. The public should demand more rigorous scientific reporting!

Jim Steele is Director emeritus of San Francisco State’s Sierra Nevada Field Campus and authored Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Monarch Abundance Roller-Coaster

Monarch caterpillar and milkweed flower

published in the Pacifica Tribune February 12, 2020

What’s Natural

The Monarch Abundance Roller-Coaster- part 2

Indeed, some Monarch populations have declined in recent decades. However, the species as a whole is not endangered.  Monarchs experience booms and busts as do many insects. So, we still need to determine if recent population declines are part of natural cycles or due to human disturbance.  Counter-intuitively, humans purposefully and unwittingly have both increased and decreased monarch populations.

Eighteen thousand years ago, most of the breeding habitat for North America’s eastern monarch populations was covered in ice sheets and permafrost. Unfortunately the monarchs main food plants, Common Milkweed and Showy Milkweed, are frost intolerant.  Today those milkweeds die back each autumn, forcing monarchs to migrate south. Habitat south of the ice sheet was covered with dense forests, which also limited the milkweed species that require warm open habitat, and disturbed ground. As the earth warmed and ice retreated, milkweed migrated northward colonizing glacially disturbed landscapes. Likewise, monarch populations expanded.

However, some scientists suggest the monarch’s awe-inspiring abundance really boomed during the past 200 years after European colonists began extensively logging America’s dense southern and eastern forests. Logging created more open fields and pastures, more farms and roadways; habitat milkweeds still favor today. More milkweeds, more monarchs.

In addition, gardeners adored showy milkweed flowers, so began planting milkweed across the globe. Again, the monarchs followed. Suddenly monarchs expanded out of North America and across the globe. Around 1850 monarchs reached Hawaii likely as stowaways on trading ships, then spread to several Pacific Islands. With optimally warm climates monarch populations boomed, feeding on introduced milkweeds and closely related native species. But monarchs often decimated their food plants causing island monarch populations to bust.

Monarch butterfly's global expansion

By the turn of the century monarchs were found in Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, the Philippines and southeast Asia. They also spread across the Atlantic to the Azores, Canary Islands, Spain, Portugal and Morocco. In many regions, monarch populations are now stable. Where warm temperatures permitted milkweeds to grow all year, monarchs no longer migrated. Having successfully colonized much of the suitable regions of the world, insect experts don’t fear monarch extinction. However, concern remains for the USA’s eastern population that winters in Mexico.

The wintering population in Mexico was first surveyed in 1993. By 1997, the population boomed, tripling its abundance. But then winter populations worrisomely declined. Paradoxically, surveys of monarchs in their midwestern breeding habitats found no evidence of declining populations. But such surveys were done in “natural” habitat, not agricultural fields. It now appears the rise and fall of milkweed in agricultural fields drove the booms and busts of 20th century monarchs.

Having successfully colonized roadway ditches and any open disturbed landscapes, milkweed species began invading the open fertilized ground between rows of crops. Monarch populations boomed, while the farmers’ crops suffered. Studies estimated milkweed competition reduced harvests of wheat and sorghum by 20% and most states declared milkweed a noxious plant. But when farmers tried to eradicate milkweed by mowing, they only stimulated its underground roots promoting a greater infestation. Likewise, for herbicides that only eliminated stems and leaves. Tilling the fields only fragmented milkweed roots, again causing milkweed to multiply.  The growing battle to eliminate milkweed started the monarch’s mid 20th century decline. With the 1970s discovery that the herbicide glyphosate killed the whole plant, the loss of milkweeds in the monarch’s human-made breeding grounds accelerated.

Still, there was room for optimism. Monarchs continue to breed throughout their traditional habitats. More efficient agriculture allowed more land to revert to “natural” states.  Furthermore, the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was successfully compensating farmers to take environmentally sensitive land out of crop production. The good news was the majority of Midwest monarch breeding habitat was found on lands enrolled in the CRP.  But fossil fuel fears reversed all that promise. The 2005 Energy Policy Act and the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act instituted subsidies and quotas that rewarded biofuel production.

As a result, U.S. corn harvests for ethanol rose from 6% in 2000 to 43% percent in 2012. The monarch’s remaining “natural” breeding habitat was increasingly eroded as corn acreage increased by 17 million acres since 2006. Lured by lucrative biofuel subsidies, farmers increasingly abandoned the CRP program. Soon thirty percent of the CRP’s sensitive lands converted back to growing corn and soybeans for biofuels.

Perhaps the loss of milkweed in agricultural lands, will only reduce monarch populations to their “natural’ levels of the 19th century, before modern agriculture opened the land for more milkweeds. Monarchs may become less common, but not endangered. For monarch lovers, our best safeguard is to halt the spread of biofuels and plant more milkweed in our gardens.