Forecast: Worldwide Food Shocks if Dust Bowl Recurs – but Do Watch Out for That Sushi

Will epigenetics save us? What about fish? Climate change stories that should be on your radar, brought to you by Haaretz and the world media

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Dust storm approaching Stratford
Dust storm approaching Stratford, 1935Credit: NOAA George E. Marsh Album, theb1365, Historic C&GS Collection
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

A redux of the 1930s Dust Bowl-type catastrophe will cause a global food shock cascade because now we have vast global trade in foodstuffs, an international team reports in Frontiers. Thanks to climate change, weather has become increasingly unpredictable and also extreme, and we’re already seeing multiple environmental disasters in multiple breadbaskets. Nations may have to stop relying on the maxim that “the world is big and we can always buy food from somewhere.” Note that global mean temperature is expected to rise by another 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius in 30 to 40 years.

In the ’30s, unsustainable agricultural practices coupled with drought, temperature spikes, and windstorms that turned the bone-dry topsoil into clouds of dust, choked crops and animals not only in the American prairie but in Canada too – a fact people tend to overlook. Grain production in the United States and Canada dropped by as much as 50 percent. Now imagine disasters in multiple food breadbaskets at once.

On Saturday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that we have “unlimited” stocks of foodstuffs and medicines and Israelis don’t need to stampede the stores.

Sharing, sharing over the bounding main

Apropos global trade, as the ice packs and glaciers melt, blocks of ice are increasingly on the move, are moving faster (!) and are taking local muck such as microplastics and hydrocarbon goo with them.

A study in the American Geophysical Union journal Earth’s Future  predicts that by 2050, the amount of sea ice “exchanged” between Arctic countries such as Russia, Norway, Canada and the United States will more than triple, as will their exchange of pet pollutants. Maybe because of momentum, floating ice disseminates particles more than free-floating particles in the ocean. As early as 2017, the AGU noted that “sea ice velocity” has been increasing by 14 percent a decade.

Icebergs floating away at dawn near Kulusuk, GreenlandCredit: Felipe Dana/AP

Evolutionary adaptation on speed? Not so fast

Epigenetics is a poorly understood mechanism by which expression of DNA is modified. It is clear that classic evolution by mutation can’t save us or any other species other than microbes from climate change. The climate is changing faster than our ability to evolve, in most cases. But what about epigenetics – NOT mutation but alteration of the expression of DNA: Could it help slow-breeding life adapt to the new normals?

One big question is whether epigenetic change (in response, for instance, to rising temperature causing genes to “turn on” or off) is inheritable. So, studying two populations of three-spined sticklebacks of the Baltic Sea found that epigenetics can improve the response of the kids to environmental change, but to a lesser extent than initially assumed.

“The study shows that organisms will eventually reach their limits to respond to climate change, even with epigenetic modes of adaptation,” warns Melanie Heckwolf of the  GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel. So the short answer to “Can epigenetics save us from ourselves?” is: No. Stop driving an SUV in the city. 

By the way, no, Holocaust and other traumas are not epigenetically inherited along the generations.

Marine heat waves cook some fish more than others

Apropos survival of the fittest, science wondered how the intensifying marine heat waves are affecting different species of fish off the charmingly named Lizard Island, Australia. To carry out their research, the scientists sampled five species from two families of coral reef fish – damselfishes and cardinalfishes – before a predicted marine heat wave, at its start and afterwards (December 2015, February 2016 and July 2016). Why damselfish and cardinalfish? Because they’re easy to catch. Don’t ask silly questions.

And what did they find and report in Science Advances? That some fish acclimatize better than other fish. Some can swim to cooler waters. As long as there are any to swim to.

The worms crawl in, they don’t crawl out

While speaking of fish, do cook them, if eat them you must. A new study led by the University of Washington found that the incidence of a worm called anisakis in fish and squids has exploded 283-fold in the space of four decades. Ha, you probably think this is because of climate change. Could be, we don’t know for sure. “It’s interesting because it shows how risks to both humans and marine mammals are changing over time,” said co-author Chelsea Wood in Global Change Biology, completely missing the point of why we the people might find this interesting.

Yes, anisakis can take up abode in your guts and make you sick as a dog. Usually they die after a few days in your innards. Not all do. Your local fishmonger may be picking them out – they’re a couple of centimeters long. You want to count on that? Go for it. Wood says she eats sushi and suggests you cut your pieces up into small pieces to look for worms. Or half worms. Bon appétit.

Geoengineering could work! For some

While on unlikely solutions to global warming, there is the eternal hope that we don’t have to change our evil ways because of stratospheric aerosol geoengineering – the notion that spraying spectacular amounts of aerosol particles in the upper atmosphere can mitigate warming.

Leaving out all other constraints such as who would pay for it (billions of dollars per year), global agreement to actually do this and side effects, could it work? A new study in Environmental Research Letters cautiously suggests that solar geoengineering could reduce many important climate hazards in most areas. But if done (theoretically) to reduce warming entirely, it would actually exacerbate the effects of climate change in about 9 percent of land areas. Really. Get rid of your SUV.

Anisakis worm, a parasite of marine mammals, present in raw blue whiting fish. Can be dangerous for humans that eat raw fish like sushiCredit: Gonzalo Jara /