Tag Archives: U.S.

Mortality rates are rising among working-age Americans, but not in other countries

A new study reports that the decline in U.S. life expectancy seen since 2014 is driven by an increase in “deaths of despair” among working-age Americans, particularly in the Rust Belt states and Appalachia.

The study represents one of the most comprehensive analyses of U.S. mortality rates among the 50 states. According to the findings, working-age adults are now more likely to die before age 65 from drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, and suicides (“deaths of despair”) and a range of organ system diseases. All in all, mortality rates related to 35 different causes of death have risen between 1959-2017.

A turn for the worse

“Working-age Americans are more likely to die in the prime of their lives,” said lead author Steven Woolf, M.D., director emeritus of the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Center on Society and Health.

“For employers, this means that their workforce is dying prematurely, impacting the U.S. economy. More importantly, this trend means that children are losing their parents and our children are destined to live shorter lives than us.”

Drugs, obesity, an inability to access health care, stress, and poor economic outlooks are at the root of this phenomenon, according to the paper. The trend poses a far-reaching threat to the U.S.’s future, Woolf explains, and the paper highlights the need for a better understanding of its driving forces.

The paper used data from the U.S. Mortality Database and Centers for Disease Control Wide-ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research to analyze changes in death rates among different areas of the U.S. since 1959. U.S. life expectancy lost pace with other wealthy countries in the 1980s, the team found, stopped increasing in 2011, and has been falling steadily ever since 2014.

Since 2010, women and adults without a high school diploma have seen the largest increases in working-age mortality, according to the study. The largest overall increases in mortality have been recorded in areas that bore the brunt of the economic disruptions since the 1980s (e.g. job losses in the manufacturing sector).

The Midwest and other areas that traditionally focused on this economic sector, such as northern New England and the Ohio Valley, are particularly heavily-affected. Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania account for one-third of all excess deaths for ages 25 to 64 — the number of deaths over the average mortality rate — since 2010. Eight of the 10 states with the largest number of excess deaths were in the Rust Belt or Appalachia, Woolf adds, with the 13 Appalachian states accounting for half of excess deaths recorded by the team.

“The notion that U.S. death rates are increasing for working-age adults is particularly disturbing because it is not happening like this in other countries,” Woolf said. “This is a distinctly American phenomenon.”

The team believes socioeconomic pressures and unstable employment are possible explanations for the increases in working-age mortality. The findings tie into the team’s previous work which showed that this increase in working-age mortality was affecting all racial groups.

The paper “Life Expectancy and Mortality Rates in the United States, 1959-2017” has been published in the journal JAMA.

Northern Lights.

Solar storm expected to bring northern lights to the U.S. tonight

There’s more bad weather forecasted for today, but this is the kind that we’ll all be thankful for — a minor solar storm will hit our planet on Wednesday, March 14. The event could amp up Earth’s auroras, making them visible from the northernmost parts of the U.S.

Northern Lights.

Image credits Svetlana Nesterova.

“Northern tier” states, such as Michigan or Maine, could be in for a treat as amped-up auroras (northern lights) could dance across the sky tonight, a product of a solar storm inbound towards Earth. The same storm could also induce some fluctuations in weaker power grids, and should only have a minor effect on our satellites, according to an alert issued from the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in Boulder, Colorado.

Researchers at the SWPC predict that the storm originates from a coronal hole in the sun, a region of lower energy and with a weaker magnetic field in the Sun’s outer layer. The particular conditions in this area allow high-speed, charged particles to shoot out into space, eventually finding their way to Earth. The storm will be a G1 class — making it a relatively minor event — and should last from Wednesday to Thursday, March 15.

Light it up

Auroras (known as ‘borealis’ over the North Pole and ‘australis’ over the South Pole) form from the interaction of these particles with the Earth’s magnetic field. Because they are charged, they are directly affected by the magnetic field when trying to pass through; similarly to how a pane of glass would ‘interact’ with you, should you try to pass through it.

We don’t fully understand the mechanisms behind aurora formation, but, in broad lines, the pretty colors are the result of ionization in the upper atmosphere. This, in turn, is produced by successive collisions of high-speed charged particles with atoms in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, causing them to shed electrons and protons (to ionize). Auroras can form on other planets with an atmosphere, through a similar process.

Particularly strong solar storms can trigger geomagnetic storms. Depending on its intensity, this could mean radio blackouts, fluctuations in power grids, maybe even with satellites in orbit.

Auroras or polar lights typically form near the (magnetic) poles, where the geomagnetic field is thinnest, and these charged particles can force their way through. Events such as solar storms widen the area on which auroras form because they put out more charged particles than usual — the deluge compresses Earth’s magnetic field, so some particles can push through at lower latitudes. In 1989, for example, a similar event made auroras form all the way down to Texas.

So fingers crossed, and you might get to enjoy one superb light show later today — nature’s treat.

Historic U.S. court ruling says stable climate is a fundamental right, okays bunch of kids to sue the federal government

Children and young adults in the US are suing the government for their climate-unsustainable business practices and lack of action to address environmental problems, an unprecedented event in the American legal system. The group’s claim is supported by a recent ruling of Oregon Court Judge Ann Aiken who declared that a stable climate is a fundamental constitutional right of citizens.

Image credits Wikimedia user Daderot.

It’s been a rough week for anyone even remotely interested in environmental issues. With the nomination of Donald Trump as the future US President, efforts to contain climate change have never looked bleaker (or smoggier, I guess). Calling the issue a ‘hoax’ or the actually funny ‘a Chinese invention’, Trump makes a stark contrast to the Obama administration’s pushes for renewables, smarter energy use, and its general feistiness about environmental protection despite strong political opposition from Republicans. Word from Trump’s White House team is that the president elect is seeking an accelerated timeline for American withdrawal not only from the Paris agreement, but also from the 1992 treaty which set the groundwork for international collaboration on global warming. Here in Marrakesh, this election’s results has caused quite a stir. People are uncertain of the future, angry that one man might undo the progress of 22 international summits.

But a move in the American legal system might give a ray of hope. On Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken ruled in favor of a group of 21 children and young adults suing the federal government in a case known as Juliana v. United States. She denied the Government’s motion to dismiss the case, effectively setting the groundwork for court-mandated, science-backed action to curb emission levels in the country. The case will go to trial sometime in 2017 and is likely to become a major civil rights suit handled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society,” Judge Ann Aiken said.

The plaintiffs, aged 9 to 20, say climate change violates their constitutional right to life, liberty, and prosperity by impacting or destroying public trust assets such as air, water, or shorelines. By aiming for short-term profit, convenience, and most of all the concerns of this generation over future ones — by allowing fossil fuel development or encouraging the industry through massive subsidies for example — the overall actions of the federal government worsen this impact, they say. Even worse, they accuse the government and several companies for engaging in this behavior for more than five decades, knowing full well how damaging it could become.

Kelsey Juliana, an Oregon local and lead plaintiff, says the algae blooms we’ve seen recently harm the water she needs to drink, while drought kills the wild salmon she needs for food. Colorado local and environmental activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez claims that the increase in wildfires and extreme floods directly jeopardizes his safety. Other plaintiffs include farming families who’ve seen crops wither and fail, asthma patients, or Louisiana locals who’ve seen their homes overran by sewage in the recent floods. The suit holds that these and a host of others issues are powered in part by shifting climate patterns, and could have been prevented by a government pushing for a zero-carbon economy. By failing to act on the issue, the U.S. government has thus violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

“This is going to be the trial of our lifetimes,” said 16-year-old Martinez in a statement.

Judge Aiken’s ruling is the first legal event where climate damage has been labeled unconstitutional. She agrees with the plaintiffs’ claim that the sum of federal action and inaction on the issue has “so profoundly damaged our home planet that they threaten plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional rights to life and liberty”. And, given “deep” governmental resistance to change, Aiken considers that the courts have to step in as guardians of the public’s best interest. Drawing on the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, she wrote:

“I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society. Just as marriage is the foundation of the family, a stable climate system is quite literally the foundation of society, without which there would be neither civilization nor progress.”

“To hold otherwise would be to say that the Constitution affords no protection against a government’s knowing decision to poison the air its citizens breathe or the water its citizens drink.”

Change from the little ones

While it may be unpleasant to acknowledge, the U.S. is the country most responsible for global warming — some 25% of total emissions since the industrial revolution were released here. The country is also an economical, technological, and scientific powerhouse. It has always been a beacon by which other political players tailor their own actions. All this currently makes the U.S. the most well-equipped entity to make a difference on the issue of climate change.

However. With the recent nomination of Myron Ebell, a widely-touted climate denier, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency transition team, it’s likely that CO2 emissions in the country will remain flat or even increase under the Trump administration and possibly a few decades after due to his policies. As the biggest player changes sides mid-game, it’s unlikely that the world will stay under that the 2 degree Celsius warming limit agreed on in the Paris accord.

The suit is currently against President Barack Obama, as well as several parts of the executive branch. Donald Trump will automatically become a named defendant when he assumes the presidency on Jan. 20, Julia Olson, lead counsel for the plaintiffs and executive director of Oregon-based nonprofit Our Children’s Trust which helped bring the lawsuit, told the CNN. While Aiken’s ruling means that odds for governmental-backed climate action have greatly increased, the plaintiffs hope to reach a settlement with the Obama administration before the president elect assumes office. A showdown in the Supreme Court will likely end in the plaintiffs’ favor, Olson believes, but lawyers of the Trump administration will probably drag the process out as long as possible, blowing any chance of stabilizing the climate clean out of the water.

Considering the likely course governmental action is going to take in the future, this might be the single most significant court ruling in the history of the United States. Where the U.S. leads others will follow, and right now it has the means to lead astray, or true. Judge Aiken gave these kids a shot, even if tiny, at steadying the wheel — and for all our sakes, the people here at COP, those at home and abroad, even Trump’s, I hope they’ll make it on time.

White Nose Bat Syndrome spreads deeper into the U.S. — first case confirmed west of the Rockies

The first case of white nose syndrome, a disease that has wreaked havoc on bat populations in the eastern U.S. has been identified west of the Rockies. The disease’s spread threatens to drastically impact bat populations there, altering ecosystems throughout the country.

Hikers discovered a little brown bat with white nose syndrome on a trail east of Seattle last in mid-March this year, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Geological Survey announced on Tuesday. This marks the first incidence of the deadly fungus west of the Rockies. The ailing bat was taken to an animal shelter, where it died two days later.

Picture of a little brown bat with white nose syndrome, taken in New York state, Oct 2008.
Image credits to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters.

USGS National Wildlife Health Center’s Wildlife Disease Diagnostic Laboratories branch chief David Blehert thinks it’s “surprising and unusual” to find the fungus spread this far west — the closest the syndrome has been identified before was Nebraska, some 1,300 miles from the site.

 “We’ve been dreading this,” said senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity Mollie Matteson in an interview for The Huffington Post. “This is a drastic jump.”

“This is the first time, to our knowledge, that there has been a long-range jump of the fungus,” Blehert said.

Caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructan, white nose syndrome can wipe out entire bat colonies. It gets its name from the white fuzzy fungal growths on the noses, wings and ears of affected bats. The devastating disease spreads throughout bodily tissue, disrupting physiological processes and interrupting essential hibernation periods, causing bats to waste away.

It has already caused the deaths of more than 6 million bats in the eastern U.S, in what some describe as the steepest decline or North American wildlife of the past century.

Seven different species of cave hibernating bats in 28 U.S. states and five Canadian provinces have been affected by white nose syndrome since 2006, when the first case was recorded in upstate New York. Two of these species are native to Washington state.

“I wish I could be optimistic, but given what we have seen on the East Coast, it’s hard to,” said Sharlene E. Santana, assistant professor of biology at the University of Washington.

“We knew it was coming [to the West], but we didn’t know it would be so soon,” Matteson said.

Range of white nose syndrome.
Image credits Washington Department of FIsh and Wildlife.

Blehert’s analysis of the Washington bat revealed that the disease was at an advanced stage, suggesting it had been present in the area for quite some time. Genetic sequencing indicates that the animal is a native to the area.

“We don’t know how the fungus got there,” Blehert said.

The fungus could have been transported bat-to-bat — which would have taken an extraordinarily long time. Or, as Blehert suspects, through human travel and trade, one of the largest spreader of infectious diseases. Humans aren’t affected by the fungus but act as carriers and are believed to (unknowingly) play a central part in transporting the disease across the country. Hikers’ and spelunkers’ clothes and gear can transport the fungus, according to the researchers.

Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome in Greeley Mine, Vermont, March 26, 2009.
Image credits Marvin Moriarty/USFWS, via flirk.

Unfortunately there is no proven method to cure the disease or at least halt its spread.

“We had hope that by the time [white nose syndrome] started to spread to the West, that there were more effective treatments in place,” Matteson said.

Scientists are now looking into the genetic code of the fungus to determine its point of origin and try to set up precautions to halt its spread around the world — the fungus most likely arrived in the U.S. on a human carrier from Asia or Europe where it’s endemic. They’re also looking into creating a vaccine that could give the bats a fighting chance against white nose syndrome.

“For years, we have been saying there needs to be stricter protocol put in place to minimize the chance of a jump like this via human transmission,” Matterson added.

Authorities are now putting abandoned mines and caves under lock-down to protect resident bat colonies. Federal agencies encourage visitors to decontaminate themselves and gear before entering an area with bats, but Matteson argued decontamination should be mandatory.

“We have species that are at risk of going extinct; it’s the least that could be done.”

Bats are an integral part of an ecosystem, and scientists are concerned about the chain reaction their loss might have on plant and animal life, including humans. If the bat population declines, insects would thrive and devastate agricultural areas. Populations of disease-carrying insects would also be left unchecked.

However, there might still be hope. Because bats in the western U.S. tend not to hibernate in large groups, the disease might not spread as widely or quickly from bat to bat. But far less is known in general about how bats hibernate on the West Coast, Matterson said, which means the bats could already be dying.

“As the case in Washington indicates, the disease has already been there for a couple years, and it just got discovered this past month,” she added.

“One of the huge problems with white nose syndrome has been that the [government] response was slow to get off the ground, it was disorganized, a lack of leadership, there wasn’t any decontamination requirement for western public lands, no cave closures.”

“There will be more in the future,” she concluded. “We need to learn our lesson.”

Wildlife officials encourage people who encounter sick or dead bats to report it via an online reporting tool or telephone hotline, 1-800-606-8768.

More than 13 million Americans could be at risk from sea level rise by 2100

A new study analyzing sea level rise forecasts as well as population growth projections found that we’ve underestimated just how many people would be impacted by rising waters. Anywhere from 4.3 to 13.1 million people from the US alone will face the risk of inundation by 2100, according to their estimate.

Brackish sea water washes over the center line of a street in Charleston Oct. 1, 2015.
Image credits Stephen B. Morton/AP.

The team, with members from the University of Georgia and Stetson University in Florida used population trends and sea level rise estimates to establish a county-by-county risk assessment across the US. Their results suggest that previous research, based on current population numbers, underestimates the risk coastal states face.

An important implication of this is the estimated cost of adapting to sea level rise might be too low, since it doesn’t take population growth and the associated installation of more long-lasting, vulnerable infrastructure into account.

“There are 31 counties where more than 100,000 residents could be affected by 6 feet of sea level rise,” said study co-author Mathew E. Hauer, of the University of Georgia in a press release.

The southeastern U.S. coast is a hotspot for inundation risk related to sea level rise, the authors say. This is partly due to the high population growth that the area is experiencing. Over 10 percent of coastal populations in states such as Georgia and South Carolina will be affected by a global sea level increase of 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) by 2100. A similar rise would affect an estimated one million people in California and Louisiana each. Florida faces the most risk, with up to 6 million residents affected under the same scenario.

Densely populated counties in coastal areas, such as Broward or Miami-Dade Counties in Florida, San Mateo in California or Jefferson in Louisiana are expected to see more than 100,000 residents “potentially impacted” by a 0.9 meters (around 3 feet) rise in sea levels.

The study also identified three counties as having an “extreme exposure” to inundation: North Carolina’s Tyrrell and Hyde Counties, and Monroe County in Florida. Tyrell and Hyde Counties are home to abundant nature preserves on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, while Monroe County is located at the southwestern tip of Florida, encompassing a swath of Everglades National Park as well as the Florida Keys. People living in these areas will suffer “catastrophic impacts” by 2100 if steps aren’t taken to address the issue.

Image credits misterfarmer/pixabay

The authors also warn that the lack of protection for coastal residents could lead to a population migration on par with the “Great Migration” of southern African Americans after the first World War. They estimate that the cost of relocating all the people affected by sea rise by 2100 would exceed $14 trillion dollars.

“The impact projections are up to three times larger than current estimates, which significantly underestimate the effect of sea level rise in the United States,” Hauer added.

Compared to previous estimates, these are worrying numbers. The team’s estimates revolve around those 1.8 meters of sea rise used in their calculations. The study also doesn’t take factor in regional variations in the rate of sea level rise. But, while the consensus seems to be set around a 1 meter (3.6 feet) rise by 2100, there is growing concern around the stability of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets in today’s warmer oceans. Faster melting of these ice sheets would rise the waterline significantly, possibly way above the 1.8 meter level the team set.

Ben Strauss told Mashable that the lack of regional variations in sea level rise would affect the results out to the year 2100, and the study also “assumes that people will be moving to the shore essentially just as briskly” in the latter half of the century as in 2020, despite the evident effects of sea level rise expected by 2070.

The full paper, titled “Millions projected to be at risk from sea-level rise in the continental United States” has been published online in the journal Nature Climate Change and can be read here.