Climate Change Forecast: Rising Tide of Parasites in Warming Seas

As paleo-study reveals that Antarctic may melt faster than we realize, green investing goes institutional: It's time for the Haaretz climate change briefs

Ruth Schuster
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This image released by the Chilean Antarctic Institute shows Antarctica without snow at Base Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva on Fildes Bay, King George Island, on February 14, 2020
Antarctica without snow at Base Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva on Fildes Bay, King George Island, on February 14, 2020Credit: AFP
Ruth Schuster

Rising tide of parasites

As global warming proceeds, so does ocean warming. Now a new study published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution looks at ocean life, asking how it is responding to abrupt climate change, which this is – not “gradual” warming as the planet has experienced before. Species can adapt to gradual changes but not to sudden ones, so acute climate pulses can devastate, explains lead author Danielle Claar, a postdoc at the University of Washington.

But who thrives? Many, many parasites. It had been quite clear that the virus causing “wasting disease” in sea stars along the American west coast starting in 2013 thrived in the abnormally warm waters. Now Claar and the team warn that severe pulse warming events could result in a “tsunami” of disease, as happened to the unhappy sea stars. Want another example? Another recent UW study found that the incidence of anisakis, a parasite commonly found in raw fish, increased 283-fold in the past 40 years.

Fish sushi may also contain myxozoans, aka microscopic parasitic jellyfish. How the myxozoans are responding to climate change is being studied: a 2015 paper from Oregon State University notes that replication and mortality may both increase with temperature. But the short answer is that myxo infection and illness are likely to progress faster because the parasite reproduces faster and the host immune system is likely to be impaired.

Ice shelves, we barely knew ye

The Antarctic coastal ice shelves shrank as fast as 50 meters a day as the last Ice Age wound down, which is about 10 times faster than they’re melting now. Good news? No, no, it’s terrible news because it indicates that in our present anthropogenic warming age, their melt could enormously accelerate. Polar researchers at the University of Cambridge, reporting in Science, base their conclusion on wavelike ridges on the seafloor “caused by the ice moving up and down with the tides, squeezing the sediment into well-preserved geological patterns.” Yes, that does indicate that the sea level will rise a lot faster than the current (very wide) range of forecasts might suggest.

Latest risk to food security in East Africa: Flood

While focusing on temperature and disease, one aspect people may forget to associate with accelerating climate change is food insecurity. East Africa, and especially Kenya, shows what can happen when multiple problems coincide: in this case the coronavirus, the worst locust swarms in decades and now torrential rains. Rivers burst their banks and lakes turned into floodplains, drowning the rice crop following a period of drought. As Oxfam’s director of humanitarian systems in Kenya, Matthew Cousins, told CNBC: the extreme weather events and the locust explosion are the latest in “a decade of back-to-back crises” linked to climate change.

Residents carry their belongings inside flood water as they evacuate from their home after River Nzoia burst its banks and due to the backflow from Lake Victoria, in Nyadorera, Siaya County, Kenya May 2, 2020
Flooding in Kenya after the River Nzoia burst its banks and due to backflow from Lake Victoria, May 2, 2020Credit: THOMAS MUKOYA/REUTERS

IMF to investors: Notice climate change

It’s extraordinary how detached Wall Street is from the surreality of the times. Stocks haven’t entirely regained their coronavirus-related plunge but they’ve clawed back much ground, even though what the coronavirus is, does and where it originated are still being elucidated. Yet as some have noticed, if there’s no planet, there won’t be any corporations, and last week the International Monetary Fund seems to have reached that conclusion too. “Equity Investors Must Pay More Attention to Climate Change Physical Risk,” the IMF exhorted. Bottom line: The coronavirus showed us just how fast change can come (such as the Antarctic shelves melting) and how badly some react to it.

Which brings us to green investment in companies engaged in some aspect of renewables. It’s a thing. If your investments manager doesn’t know it’s a thing, tell them so.

Baby trees only capable of baby carbon capture

Apropos “green investment,” as climate change, loggers, disease and farmers decimate the planet’s ancient forests, one result is that globally speaking, trees are becoming shorter and younger, a team reported in Science. It’s not unlike lobster fishers reporting ever-punier crustaceans in their nets: if you’re going to kill the adults, you’re going to get left with the kiddies. Anyway, the transformation of the forests is bad because tiny trees “store” less carbon than big ones. “A future planet with fewer large, old forests will be very different than what we have grown accustomed to,” said Nate McDowell, a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Earth scientist and the study’s lead author.

If anything, the team predicts that deforestation will accelerate, notwithstanding drives to plant trees, which are nice but won’t stop climate change in its tracks.

Life on the brink

Finally, scientists reached an extraordinary conclusion that a mass extinction event 360 million years ago, decimating life on land and in the water, was actually caused by a transient breakdown of the ozone layer in the atmosphere, which blocks ultraviolet light that would otherwise damage our DNA. Life from whole forests to fish at sea and early land animals called tetrapods all died, and why? Because the global climate warmed rapidly following an intense ice age. It’s true that the Ice Age we are still in the process of exiting wasn’t that extreme, but our warming is, and scientists warn in Science Advances that the Earth today could reach comparable temperatures, possibly triggering a similar event.

Go ahead, plant a tree, why not. More crucially, think very carefully whom to vote for.

Credit: THOMAS MUKOYA/REUTERS

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