Like the ocean’s ‘gut flora’: we sailed from Antarctica to the equator to learn how bacteria affect ocean health


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Eric Jorden Raes, Dalhousie UniversityAboard an Australian research vessel, the RV Investigator, we sailed for 63 days from Antarctica’s ice edge to the warm equator in the South Pacific and collected 387 water samples.

Our goal? To determine how the genetic code of thousands of different micro-organisms can provide insights into the ocean’s functional diversity — the range of tasks performed by bacteria in the ocean.

Our research was published yesterday in Nature Communications. It showed how bacteria can help us measure shifts in energy production at the base of the food web. These results are important, as they highlight an emerging opportunity to use genetic data for large-scale ecosystem assessments in different marine environments.

In light of our rapidly changing climate, this kind of information is critical, as it will allow us to unpack the complexity of nature step by step. Ultimately, it will help us mitigate human pressures to protect and restore our precious marine ecosystems.

Why should we care about marine bacteria?

The oceans cover 71% of our planet and sustain life on Earth. In the upper 100 meters, the sunlit part of the oceans, microscopic life is abundant. In fact, it’s responsible for producing up to 50% of all the oxygen in the world.

A whale breaches the ocean
Marine bacteria provide the energy and food for the entire marine food web, from tiny crustaceans to whales.
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Much like the link recently established between human health and the human microbiome (“gut flora”), ocean health is largely controlled by its bacterial inhabitants.

But the role of bacteria go beyond oxygen production. Bacteria sustain, inject and control the fluxes of energy, nutrients and organic matter in our oceans. They provide the energy and food for the entire marine food web, from tiny crustaceans to fish larvae, whales and the fish we eat.

These micro-organisms also execute key roles in numerous biogeochemical cycles (the carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur and iron cycles, to name a few).

So, it’s important to quantify their various tasks and understand how the different bacterial species and their functions respond to environmental changes.

Fundamental questions

Global ocean research initiatives — such as GO-SHIP and GEOTRACES — have been measuring the state of oceans in expeditions like ours for decades. They survey temperature, salinity, nutrients, trace metals (iron, cobalt and more) and other essential ocean variables.

Only recently, however, have these programs begun measuring biological variables, such as bacterial gene data, in their global sampling expeditions.

The author smiles in front of a blue and white ship, with 'Investigator' written on the side.
On board the RV Investigator, we departed Hobart in 2016, beginning our 63-day journey to sample microbes in the South Pacific.
Eric Raes, Author provided

Including bacterial gene data to measure the state of the ocean means we can try to fill critical knowledge gaps about how the diversity of bacteria impacts their various tasks. One hypothesis is whether a greater diversity of bacteria leads to a better resilience in an ecosystem, allowing it to withstand the effects of climate change.

In our paper, we addressed a fundamental question in this global field of marine microbial ecology: what is the relationship between bacterial identity and function? In other words, who is doing what?

What we found

We showed it’s possible to link the genetic code of marine bacteria to the various functions and tasks they execute, and to quantify how these functions changed from Antarctica to the equator.

The functions that changed include taking in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, bacterial growth, strategies to cope with limited nutrients, and breaking down organic matter.




Read more:
Marine life is fleeing the equator to cooler waters. History tells us this could trigger a mass extinction event


Another key finding is that “oceanographic fronts” can act as boundaries within a seemingly uniform ocean, resulting in unique assemblages of bacteria with specific tasks. Oceanographic fronts are distinct water masses defined by, for instance, sharp changes in temperature and salinity. Where the waters meet and mix, there’s high turbulence.

The change we recorded in energy production across the subtropical front, which separates the colder waters from the Southern Ocean from the warmer waters in the tropics, was a clear example of how oceanographic fronts influenced bacterial functions in the ocean.

Dark blue water meets light blue water under a cloudy sky.
An oceanographic front, where it looks like two oceans meet.
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Tracking changes in our ecosystems

As a result of our research, scientists may start using the functional diversity of bacteria as an indicator to track changes in our ecosystems, like canaries in a coal mine.




Read more:
Half of global methane emissions come from aquatic ecosystems – much of this is human-made


So the functional diversity of bacteria can be used to measure how human growth and urbanisation impact coastal areas and estuaries.

For example, we can more accurately and holistically measure the environmental footprint of aquaculture pens, which are known to affect water quality by increasing concentrations of nutrients such as carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus – all favourite elements utilised by bacteria.

Likewise, we can track changes in the environmental services rendered by estuaries, such as their important role in removing excessive nitrogen that enters the waterways due to agriculture run-off and urban waste.

With 44% of the world’s population living along coastlines, the input of nitrogen to marine ecosystems, including estuaries, is predicted to increase, putting a strain on the marine life there.

Ultimately, interrogating the bacterial diversity using gene data, along with the opportunity to predict what this microscopic life is or will be doing in future, will help us better understand nature’s complex interactions that sustain life in our oceans.




Read more:
Humans are polluting the environment with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and I’m finding them everywhere


The Conversation


Eric Jorden Raes, Postdoctoral researcher Ocean Frontier Institute, Dalhousie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Spending time in nature has always been important, but now it’s an essential part of coping with the pandemic



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Catherine Knight, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

A living wall filled with plants
Time spent in green spaces has been shown to mental and physical well-being.
Shutterstock/vsop, CC BY-SA

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of green spaces and urban parks, especially during periods of lockdown.

Even a short walk, an ocean view or a picnic by a river can leave us feeling invigorated and restored. There is now a growing body of evidence establishing the link between such nature encounters and our mental and physical well-being.

In my new book, I explore these nature benefits and put out a challenge to urban planners and decision makers to include more green spaces in our towns and cities.

Nature’s fix

One of the earliest studies to draw a conclusive link between time spent in nature and well-being was published in 1991. It found a 40-minute walk in nature, compared with walking in an urban space or reading a magazine, led to significant improvements in mood, reduced anger and aggression, and better recovery from mental fatigue.

In more recent studies, exposure to nature or urban green space has been associated with lower levels of stress, reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improved cognition in children with attention deficits and individuals with depression.

Research also suggests the benefits of growing up with access to lots of green space has a lasting effect into adulthood. A Danish study in 2019 found children who grow up surrounded by green spaces are less likely to develop mental disorders as adults.




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Nature exposure has also been shown to boost immunity. Studies found that forest excursions boost the activity of natural killer cells (a type of white blood cell that plays a vital role in the body’s defence system, attacking infections and tumours) and elevate hormones that may be protective against heart disease, obesity and diabetes, at least over the short term.

No exercise required

Researchers have been careful to factor out the beneficial effects of energetic physical activity when designing their studies of nature exposure. They asked participants to sit quietly or take a gentle walk.

This is good news for those of us who prefer a stroll to strenuous exercise. What’s more, researchers have found that just 20-30 minutes in nature delivers optimal benefits. After that, they continue to accrue, but at a slower rate.

Tree overhanging an urban stream
Even a gentle stroll delivers health benefits.
Shutterstock/Ian Woolcock, CC BY-SA

There’s even better news. To provide these benefits, nature does not need to be remote or pristine. A leafy park, a stream-side walkway, or even a quiet, tree-lined avenue can provide this nature fix.

New Zealand’s lockdowns have made more people appreciate the importance of green spaces for walking, cycling or just getting some fresh, tree-filtered air. During the strictest lockdown in April 2020, citizen science apps such as iNaturalist reported an upsurge in usage, indicating people were getting out into nature in their neighbourhoods.

The nature destruction paradox

Our appreciation of nature at this time of crisis is not without irony, given the destruction of pristine forests, rapid urbanisation and population growth are all at the root of the pandemic, bringing wildlife and people into close contact and making animal-to-human transmission of new diseases increasingly likely.




Read more:
UN report says up to 850,000 animal viruses could be caught by humans, unless we protect nature


A recent World Wildlife Fund report describes COVID-19 as a clear warning signal of an environment out of balance.

The report presents strong evidence of the link between humanity’s impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity and the spread of certain diseases:

Along with maintaining our natural systems, action is needed to restore those that have been destroyed or degraded, in a way that benefits people and restores the fundamental functions that biomes such as forests provide.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, we think of ourselves as a country rich in nature, but here too we have managed to destroy large swathes of indigenous forests and ecosystems since the first Polynesian navigators and then European settlers arrived.

Road running through green spaces.
Most people live in cities, which often lack green spaces.
Shutterstock/krug, CC BY-SA

Most of our surviving forests and pristine waterways are concentrated in our mountains and hill country, preserved not as a result of careful stewardship, but rather an accident of history: it was too hard to develop and economically exploit these rugged, inaccessible places. Our lowland landscapes are largely bereft of any forests, wetlands or any nature in its original form.




Read more:
3 ways nature in the city can do you good, even in self-isolation


Yet, 86% of us live in cities and towns, which are in coastal and lowland areas. So if we are going to ensure that everyone is able to benefit from spending time in nature, we need more nature spaces in our cities.

This does not necessarily mean more parks. With the right care and investment, neglected stream corridors, weed-infested gullies, flood-prone areas unfit for development and even road verges can provide valuable green spaces for people. As an added benefit, they create a network of habitat for insects, birds and reptiles that keep our natural ecosystems functioning.

In my book, I put out a challenge to all New Zealanders, especially urban planners and our decision makers, to strive for a more nature-rich future – an Aotearoa where every New Zealander can benefit from being in nature, every day of their life.The Conversation

Catherine Knight, Senior Research Associate, Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

COVID-19 wasn’t just a disaster for humanity – new research shows nature suffered greatly too



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Marc Hockings, The University of Queensland

It’s one year since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. While the human and economic toll have been enormous, new findings show the fallout from the virus also seriously damaged nature.

Conservation is often funded by tourism dollars – particularly in developing nations. In many cases, the dramatic tourism downturn brought on by the pandemic meant funds for conservation were cut. Anti-poaching operations and endangered species programs were among those affected.

This dwindling of conservation efforts during COVID is sadly ironic. The destruction of nature is directly linked to zoonotic diseases, and avoiding habitat loss is a cost-effective way to prevent pandemics.

The research papers reveal the inextricable links between the health of humans and the health of the planet. Together, they make one thing abundantly clear: we must learn the hard lessons of COVID-19 to ensure the calamity is not repeated.

A gorilla and man wearing mask
Protected areas are a boon for nature, and can help prevent pandemics.
Jerome Starkey

A disaster for conservation

The findings are contained in a special issue of PARKS, the peer-reviewed journal of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, co-edited with Brent Mitchell and Adrian Phillips.

Researchers found between January and May 2020, 45% of global tourism destinations totally or partially closed their borders to tourists. This caused the loss of 174 million direct tourism jobs around the world, and cost the sector US$4.7 trillion.

Over-dependence on tourism to fund conservation is fraught with peril. For example in Namibia, initial estimates suggested communal wildlife conservancies could lose US$10 million in direct tourism revenues. This threatened funding for 700 game guards and 300 conservancy management employees.

It also threatened the viability of 61 joint venture tourism lodges employing 1,400 community members. This forced families to rely more heavily on natural resource extraction to survive.




Read more:
Coronavirus is a wake-up call: our war with the environment is leading to pandemics


Closed entrance to Grand Canyon national park
Around the world, the pandemic forced the closure of national parks – including the Grand Canyon, pictured here.
Lani Strange/AP

Emergency funds were raised to cover critical shortfalls. However in April 2020, rhinos were poached in a communal conservancy in Namibia – the first such event in two years. Researchers believe this may have been linked to the pandemic fallout.

More than 70% of African countries reported reduced monitoring of the illegal wildlife trade as a result of the pandemic. More than half reported impacts on the protection of endangered species, conservation education and outreach, regular field patrols and anti-poaching operations.

Rangers have also been hard hit. A global survey of nearly 1,000 rangers found more than one in four had their salaries reduced or delayed due to COVID-related budget cuts. A third of all rangers in Central and South America, Africa and Caribbean countries reported being laid off. Some 90% said vital work with local communities had reduced or ceased.

In more bad news, governments of at least 22 countries used the pandemic as a reason to weaken environmental protections for protected and conserved areas, or cut their budgets.

Many of the changes allowed large-scale infrastructure (such as roads, airports, pipelines, hydropower plants and housing) and extractive activities (such as coal, oil and gas development and industrial fishing). Brazil, India and, until recently, the United States have emerged as hotspots of COVID-era rollbacks.




Read more:
UN report says up to 850,000 animal viruses could be caught by humans, unless we protect nature


Man holds up leopard skin
When poverty strikes, vulnerable people can turn to poaching and other illegal means to survive.
James Morgan/AP/WWF-Canon

Humans and animals pushed closer

SARS-COV-2 is very similar to other viruses in bats, and may have been passed to humans via another animal species. The pandemic shows the potentially devastating outcomes when animals and humans are forced into closer contact in shrinking habitats – for example, as a result of forest destruction.

As one paper found, during the last century an average of two new viruses spilled from animals to humans each year. These include Ebola and SARS.

Clearly, investment is needed to preserve the world’s protected and conserved areas, ensuring they act as a buffer against new pandemics. One study puts the required spending at US$67 billion each year – and notes only about one-third of this is currently being spent.

While it’s undoubtedly a large sum, the International Monetary Fund estimated late last year the pandemic would cause US$28 trillion in lost economic output in 2020.

Like many zoonotic epidemics, it appears COVID-19 was caused by the trade in wildlife and wild meat consumption. But diseases caused by uncontrolled land-use change – often for agriculture and livestock production – are just as dangerous.

The greatest risk, according to one group of researchers, is in forested tropical regions where land use is changing and a rich variety of mammal species are present.




Read more:
Most laws ignore ‘human-wildlife conflict’. This makes us vulnerable to pandemics


Rangers managing forest with fire.
Investment is needed in protected areas to ensure important conservation and land management continues.
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2021: a crucial year

As the special issue’s co-editors argue, if COVID-19 is not enough to make humanity wake up to the “suicidal consequences” of misguided development, then how will future calamities be avoided?

The cost of effectively maintaining protected and conserved natural areas is a small fraction of the cost of dealing with the pandemic and getting economies moving again. Imagine, for a moment, if the effort put into the development of vaccines were applied in the same measure to addressing the root causes of zoonotic pandemics.

In 2021, a series of international meetings will be held to decide how to stabilise our climate, save biodiversity, secure human health and revive the global economy. Through these events should run a golden thread: learn the lessons of COVID-19 by protecting nature and restoring damaged ecosystems.The Conversation

Marc Hockings, Emeritus Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

COVID has reached Antarctica. Scientists are extremely concerned for its wildlife



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Michelle Power, Macquarie University and Meagan Dewar, Federation University Australia

In December, Antarctica lost its status as the last continent free of COVID-19 when 36 people at the Chilean Bernardo O’Higgins research station tested positive. The station’s isolation from other bases and fewer researchers in the continent means the outbreak is now likely contained.

However, we know all too well how unpredictable — and pervasive — the virus can be. And while there’s currently less risk for humans in Antarctica, the potential for the COVID-19 virus to jump to Antarctica’s unique and already vulnerable wildlife has scientists extremely concerned.

We’re among a global team of 15 scientists who assessed the risks of the COVID-19 virus to Antarctic wildlife, and the pathways the virus could take into the fragile ecosystem. Antarctic wildlife haven’t yet been tested for the COVID-19 virus, and if it does make its way into these charismatic animals, we don’t know how it could affect them or the continent’s ecosystem stability.

A person looking at the red research station in the distance, by the ocean
Bernardo O Higgins Station in Antarctica, where 36 people tested positive to COVID-19.
Stone Monki/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Jumping from animals to humans, and back to animals

The COVID-19 virus is one of seven coronaviruses found in people — all have animal origins (dubbed “zoonoses”), and vary in their ability to infect different hosts. The COVID-19 virus is thought to have originated in an animal and spread to people through an unknown intermediate host, while the SARS outbreak of 2002-2004 likely came from raccoon dogs or civets.

Given the general ubiquity of coronaviruses and the rapid saturation of the global environment with the COVID-19 virus, it’s paramount we explore the risk for it to spread from people to other animals, known as “reverse zoonoses”.

The World Organisation for Animal Health is monitoring cases of the COVID-19 virus in animals. To date, only a few species around the globe have been found to be susceptible, including mink, felines (such as lions, tigers and cats), dogs and a ferret.

Whether the animal gets sick and recovers depends on the species. For example, researchers found infected adolescent cats got sick but could fight off the virus, while dogs were much more resistant.




Read more:
Can your pets get coronavirus, and can you catch it from them?


Researchers and tourists

While mink, dogs or cats are not in Antarctica, more than 100 million flying seabirds, 45% of the world’s penguin species, 50% of the world’s seal populations and 17% of the world’s whale and dolphin species inhabit the continent.

A tourist sits near a penguin and takes a photo
Tourists visit penguin roosts in large numbers.
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In a 2020 study, researchers ran computer simulations and found cetaceans — whales, dolphins or porpoises — have a high susceptibility of infection from the virus, based on the makeup of their genetic receptors to the virus. Seals and birds had a lower risk of infection.

We concluded that direct contact with people poses the greatest risk for spreading the virus to wildlife, with researchers more likely vectors than tourists. Researchers have closer contact with wildlife: many Antarctic species are found near research stations, and wildlife studies often require direct handling and close proximity to animals.

Tourists, however, are still a concerning vector, as they visit penguin roosts and seal haul-out sites (where seals rest or breed) in large numbers. For instance, a staggering 73,991 tourists travelled to the continent between October 2019 and April 2020, when COVID-19 was just emerging.

Each visitor to Antarctica carries millions of microbial passengers, such as bacteria, and many of these microbes are left behind when the visitors leave. Most are likely benign and probably die off. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it takes only one powerful organism to jump hosts to cause a pandemic.

How to protect Antarctic wildlife

There are guidelines for visitors to reduce the risk of introducing infectious microbes. This includes cleaning clothes and equipment before heading to Antarctica and between animal colonies, and keeping at least five metres away from animals.

These rules are no longer enough in COVID times, and more measures must be taken.

The first and most crucial step to protect Antarctic wildlife is controlling human-to-human spread, particularly at research stations. Everyone heading to Antarctica should be tested and quarantined prior to travelling, with regular ongoing tests throughout the season. The fewer people with COVID-19 in Antarctica, the less opportunity the virus has to jump to animal hosts.

A killer whale poking its head out the water near sea ice
Cetaceans, such as orcas, are more susceptible to COVID infections than sea birds and seals.
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Second, close contact with wildlife should be restricted to essential scientific purposes only. All handling procedures should be re-evaluated, given how much we just don’t know about the virus.

We recommend all scientific personnel wear appropriate protective equipment (including masks) at all times when handling, or in close proximity to, Antarctic wildlife. Similar recommendations are in place for those working with wildlife in Australia.

Migrating animals that may have picked up COVID-19 from other parts of the world could also spread it to other wildlife in Antarctica. Skuas, for example, migrate to Antarctica from the South American coast, where there are enormous cases of COVID-19.




Read more:
Coronavirus: wastewater can tell us where the next outbreak will be


And then there’s the issue of sewage. Around 37% of bases release untreated sewage directly into the Antarctic ecosystem. Meanwhile, an estimated 57,000 to 114,000 litres of sewage per day is dumped from ships into the Southern Ocean.

Fragments of the COVID virus can be found in wastewater, but these fragments aren’t infectious, so sewage isn’t considered a transmission risk. However, there are other potentially dangerous microbes found in sewage that could be spread to animals, such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

A huge cruise ship in icy Antarctic waters
Ships dump 114,000 litres of sewage into the water, each day.
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We can curb the general risk of microbes from sewage if the Antarctic Treaty formally recognises microbes as invasive species and a threat to the Antarctic ecosystem. This would support better biosecurity practices and environmental control of waste.

Taking precautions

In these early stages of the pandemic, scientists are scrambling to understand complexity of COVID-19 and the virus’s characteristics. Meanwhile, the virus continues to evolve.

Until the true risk of cross-species transmission is known, precautions must be taken to reduce the risk of spread to all wildlife. We don’t want to see the human footprint becoming an epidemic among Antarctic wildlife, a scenario that can be mitigated by better processes and behaviours.




Read more:
Humans threaten the Antarctic Peninsula’s fragile ecosystem. A marine protected area is long overdue


The Conversation


Michelle Power, Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University and Meagan Dewar, Lecturer, Federation University Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bzzz, slap! How to treat insect bites (home remedies included)



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Cameron Webb, University of Sydney

It’s the holidays and we’re spending more time outdoors. This means we’re exposed to the more annoying and painful aspects of summer — insect bites and stings.

There are plenty of products at the local pharmacy to treat these. Some treat the initial bite or sting, others the itchy aftermath.

What about natural remedies? Few studies have actually examined them. But if they work for you, and don’t irritate already inflamed skin, there’s likely no harm in continuing.




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Buzz, buzz, slap! Why flies can be so annoying


Why do insects bite and sting?

When insects bite and sting, they are either defending themselves or need something from us (like blood).

Whatever the motivation, it can leave us with a painful or itchy reaction, sometimes a severe allergic reaction, or even a debilitating disease.

While insects sometimes get a bad rap, there are relatively few that actually pose a serious threat to our health.

Flies, mosquitoes

Many types of flies, especially mosquitoes, bite. In most instances, they need blood for nutrition or the development of eggs. The method of “biting” can vary between the different types of flies. While mosquitoes inject a needle-like tube to suck our blood, others chew or rasp away at our skin.

While researchers have studied what happens when mosquitoes bite, there is still much to learn about how to treat the bites.

So, avoiding mosquito bites is especially important given some can transmit pathogens that make us sick.




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We still have lots to learn about treating mosquito bites.
A/Prof Cameron Webb

Fleas, lice, mites and ticks

There are lots of other insects (such as bed bugs, fleas, lice) and other arthropods (such as mites, ticks) that bite.

But it is difficult to determine which insect has bitten us based on the bite reaction alone. This is generally because different people react in different ways to the saliva injected as they start to suck our blood.

Bees, wasps, ants

Then there are stinging insects, such as bees, wasps and ants. These are typically just defending themselves.

But as well as being painful, the venom they inject when they sting can cause potentially severe allergic reactions.

How do you best treat a sting or bite?

If you suffer potentially severe allergic reactions from bites or stings, immediately seek appropriate medical treatment. But for many other people, it is the initial painful reaction and itchy aftermath that require attention.

Despite how common insect bites can be, there is surprisingly little formal research into how best to treat them. Most of the research is focused on insect-borne diseases.

Even for recommended treatments, there is little evidence they actually work. Instead, recommendations are based on expert opinion and clinical experience.

For instance, heath authorities promote some general advice on treating insect bites and stings. This includes using pain relief medication (such as paracetamol or ibuprofen). They also advise applying a cold compress (such as a cold pack, ice, or damp cloth soaked in cold water) to the site of the sting or bite to help reduce the inflammation and to ease some of the discomfort.

Refreshing red drink in glass with ice cubes and lemon
Ice cubes aren’t just for summer cocktails. They can help reduce inflammation from insect bites and stings.
Shutterstock

There is also specific advice for dealing with stings and removing ticks.

However, if you do nothing, the discomfort of the bite or sting will eventually fade after a few days. The body quickly recovers, just as it would for a cut or bruise.

If you’re still in pain for more than a couple of days, or there are signs of an allergic reaction, seek medical assistance.

What about the itch?

Once the initial pain has started to fade, the itch starts. That’s because the body is reacting to the saliva injected when insects bite.

For many people, this is incredibly frustrating and it is all too easy to get trapped in a cycle of itching and scratching.

In some cases, medications, such as corticosteroid creams or antihistamines could help alleviate the itchiness. You can buy these from the pharmacy.

Then there’s calamine lotion, a mainstay in many Australian homes used to treat the itchiness caused by insect bites. But there are few studies that demonstrate it works.




Read more:
Are itchier insect bites more likely to make us sick?


Do any home remedies work?

If you’re looking for a home remedy to treat insect bites and the itchiness that comes with it, a quick internet search will keep you busy for days.

Potential home remedies include: tea bags, banana, tea tree or other essential oils, a paste of baking soda, vinegar, aloe vera, oatmeal, honey and even onion.

There is little evidence any of these work. But not many have actually been scientifically evaluated.

Tea tree oil is one of the few. While it is said to help treat skin reactions, the oil itself can cause skin reactions if not used as directed.

However, if a home remedy works for you, and it’s not causing additional irritation, there’s no harm in using it if you’re getting some relief.

With so much uncertainty about how to treat insect bites and stings, perhaps it is best if we avoid exposure in the first place. There are plenty of insect repellents available at your local pharmacy or supermarket that do this safely and effectively.The Conversation

Cameron Webb, Clinical Associate Professor and Principal Hospital Scientist, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Would you do this at home? Why we are more likely to do stupid things on holidays



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Denis Tolkach, James Cook University and Stephen Pratt, The University of the South Pacific

As the COVID pandemic took hold in March, Ohio’s Brady Sluder went to Miami for spring break, despite urgent calls for people to stay home and socially distance.

Interviewed by CBS News, Sluder’s arrogant justfication for his trip went viral.

If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying […] about two months we’ve had this trip planned.

A week later — now an international “celebrity” for all the wrong reasons — he was forced to issue a grovelling apology.

If you think Sluder’s partying was stupid, we share your feelings.

With the festive season upon us, as the pandemic continues, we can only hope covidiots listen to the rules. As many of us also head off on summer breaks, now is also a good time to reflect on stupidity in tourism.

We may be tempted to think a stupid person has certain demographic or psychological characteristics. However, anyone can behave stupidly, especially in unfamiliar environments — like holidays — where it is difficult to judge the right course of action.

The laws of human stupidity

In our recently published journal article on stupidity in tourism, we see stupidity as an action without insight or sound judgement. This results in losses or harm to the perpetrator and others. In a holiday context, it can negatively affect tourists themselves, as well as other people, animals, organisations, or destinations.

Young people partying on a beach in Florida.
When bars were shut in Florida Spring Break revellers headed to the beach.
Julio Cortez/AP/AAP

In 1976, Italian economist Carlo Cipolla published a definitive essay called The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. Although we prefer to focus on stupid behaviour rather than stupid people, we agree with his five laws:

  1. Always and inevitably, everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.

  2. The probability that a certain person (will) be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.

  3. A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular, non-stupid people constantly forget dealing with or associating with stupid people always and everywhere turns out to be a costly mistake.

  5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

Why is stupid behaviour so dangerous? Because it is irrational and so the outcome is unpredictable.

Who could have thought so many people would die when taking a selfie that you can now take out insurance on the act? Or that aeroplane passengers would throw coins into engines for good luck?

What causes stupidity?

How can we better understand our own stupid behaviour, or recognise it in others? Stupidity is generally caused by an excess of one or more of the following factors:

  • the person believing they know everything
  • the person believing they can do anything
  • the person being extremely self-centred
  • the person believing nothing will harm them
  • the person’s emotions (for example, fear or anger)
  • the person’s state (for example, exhausted or drunk).

Why stupid behaviour is more likely on holidays

Tourists can be affected by all of these factors.

Leisure tourism, by its nature, is a very self-centred and pleasure-seeking activity. People often travel to relax and enjoy themselves.




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In pursuit of trying something new or escaping their daily routine, people may go to places with very different cultures or practices than their own, or try things they wouldn’t normally do — such as adventure activities. As a result, individuals can act differently while on holidays.

There also seem to be fewer social constraints. Tourists may not follow rules and social norms while travelling, because relatives, friends, colleagues, bosses are less likely to find out. Of course, tourists may not be aware of the commonly-accepted rules of where they travelling, as well.

All of the above increases the likelihood of stupidity. And one certainly doesn’t need to travel overseas to be stupid. A case in point is a tourist who snuck into Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, which was closed-off in August due to COVID concerns in the local indigenous community. The woman injured her ankle and had to be rescued.

The importance of thinking first

So, what to do about stupid tourist behaviour?

Strict regulation, physical barriers, warning signs and other punitive measures alone may not work. This is seen in the case of a man who climbed over a zoo fence in 2017 to avoid the entry fee. He ended up being mauled to death by a tiger.

Tourists walking beyond a 'do not go beyond this point' sign.
Physical barriers alone do not prevent stupid behaviour.
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Education of tourists on how to behave during travels has some effect. But more importantly, tourists need to be self-aware. They need to consider what is likely to happen as a result of their behaviour, how likely is it that things will go wrong, and whether they would do this at home.

While stupidity is impossible to eliminate, it can be less frequent and do much less damage, if we take time to reflect on our behaviour and attitudes.

So, have fun during the holiday … but don’t be stupid!




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Australians don’t have a ‘right’ to travel. Does COVID mean our days of carefree overseas trips are over?


The Conversation


Denis Tolkach, Senior Lecturer, James Cook University and Stephen Pratt, Professor, The University of the South Pacific

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Global emissions are down by an unprecedented 7% — but don’t start celebrating just yet



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Pep Canadell, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, University of East Anglia; Glen Peters, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Matthew William Jones, University of East Anglia; Philippe Ciais, Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives (CEA); Pierre Friedlingstein, University of Exeter; Robbie Andrew, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo, and Rob Jackson, Stanford University

Global emissions are expected to decline by about 7% in 2020 (or 2.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide) compared to 2019 — an unprecedented drop due to the slowdown in economic activity associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

To put this into perspective, the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 saw a 1.5% drop in global emissions compared to 2007. This year’s emissions decline is more than four times larger.

These are the findings we show in the 15th global carbon budget, an annual report card of the Global Carbon Project on the sources and removals of carbon dioxide, the primary driver of human caused climate change.

It may sound like welcome news, but we can’t celebrate yet. A rapid bounce back of emissions to pre-COVID levels is likely, possibly by as soon as next year. A recent study found emissions in China snapped back to above last year’s levels during late spring when economic activity began to return to normal.

These findings come ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit on Saturday, where global leaders will demonstrate their commitments to climate action five years since the Paris Agreement. This huge drop in emissions should be taken as a unique opportunity to divert the historical course of emissions growth for good.

Emissions in the pandemic year

The total global fossil carbon dioxide emissions for 2020 are estimated to be 34 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Estimated emissions at the beginning of December are lower than their levels in December last year, at least in the transport sectors. However, emissions have been edging back up since the peak global daily decline of 17% in early April.




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The decline in emissions in 2020 was particularly steep in the United States (12%) and European Union (11%), where emissions were already declining before the pandemic, mainly from reductions in coal use.

Emissions from India dropped by 9%, while emissions from China, which have returned to close or above 2019 values, saw an estimated drop of only about 1.7%.

Australian greenhouse gas emissions during the peak of the pandemic lockdown (the quarter of March to June 2020) were lower by 6.2% compared to the previous quarter. The largest declines were seen in transport and fugitive emissions (emissions released during the extraction, processing and transport of fossil fuels).

A chart showing the emissions decline for China, US, India, EU, and the rest of the world.
The 2020 emission decline was particularly steep in the United States and European Union. While China’s emissions also dropped steeply, they snapped back later in the year.
Pep Canadell, Author provided

Globally, the transport sector also contributed the most to the 2020 emissions drop, particularly “surface transport” (cars, vans and trucks). At the peak of the pandemic lockdowns, the usual levels of transport emissions were halved in many countries, such as in the US and Europe.

While aviation activity collapsed by 75%, its contribution to the total decline was relatively small given the sector only accounts for about 2.8% of the total emissions on an average year. The number of global flights was still down 45% as of the first week of December.

A chart showing the emissions decline for different sectors.
The industry sector, specifically metals production, chemicals and manufacturing, was the second largest contributor in emissions declines.
Pep Canadell, Author provided

Global emissions were already slowing down pre-COVID

Overall, global emissions have increased by 61% since 1990. But the pace of this growth has varied.

In the early 1990s, the growth in emissions slowed down due to the collapse of the former Soviet Union, but then increased very quickly during the 2000s, by 3% per year on average. This was, in part, due to the rise of China as an economic power.




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Over the last decade, however, the pace of emissions began to slow again, with an increase just below 1% per year. And emissions in 2019 didn’t grow much, if at all, when compared to 2018.

Behind the global slowing trend, there are 24 countries that had carbon dioxide fossil emissions declining for at least one decade while their economy continued to grow. They include many European countries such as the Denmark, the UK and Spain, and the USA, Mexico and Japan. For the rest of the world, emissions continued to grow until 2019.

This chart shows how global fossil carbon dioxide emissions have increased.
This chart shows how global fossil carbon dioxide emissions have increased since the 1990s. Note the drops in the early 1990s, in 2008, and the huge drop in 2020.
Pep Canadell, Author provided

An opportunity to boost ambition

The pandemic, along with other recent trends such as the shift towards clean energy, have placed us at a crossroad: the choices we make today can change the course of global emissions.

In addition to the slow down in global emissions in recent years, and this year’s drop, there are now dozens of countries that have pledged to reach net zero emissions by mid century or soon after.

How the emissions of different countries have changed over time.

Importantly, the first (China), second (USA), third (European Union), sixth (Japan) and ninth (South Korea) top emitters — together responsible for over 60% of the global fossil carbon dioxide emissions — have either legally binding pledges or serious ambitions to reach net zero emissions by 2050 or soon after.




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Coal production, the largest fossil fuel source of carbon dioxide emissions, peaked in 2013. Its decline continues to this date; however, increasing natural gas and oil negate much of this decline in emissions.

How the emissions from coal, oil, gas, and cement sectors changed over time.
How the emissions from coal, oil, gas, and cement sectors changed over time.
Pep Canadell, Author provided

We are in the midst of extraordinary levels of economic investment in response to the pandemic. If economic investment is appropriately directed, it could enable the rapid expansion of technologies and services to put us on track towards net zero emissions.

Many countries have already committed to green recovery plans, such as South Korea and the EU, although investments continue to be dominated by the support of fossil-based infrastructure.

As global leaders prepare for tomorrow’s summit, they have an opportunity like never before. The choices we make now can have a disproportionate impact on the future trajectory of emissions, and keep temperature rise well and truly below 2℃.




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The Conversation


Pep Canadell, Chief research scientist, Climate Science Centre, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere; and Executive Director, Global Carbon Project, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, Royal Society Research Professor, University of East Anglia; Glen Peters, Research Director, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Matthew William Jones, Senior Research Associate, University of East Anglia; Philippe Ciais, Directeur de recherche au Laboratoire des science du climat et de l’environnement, Institut Pierre-Simon Laplace, Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives (CEA); Pierre Friedlingstein, Chair, Mathematical Modelling of Climate, University of Exeter; Robbie Andrew, Senior Researcher, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo, and Rob Jackson, Professor, Department of Earth System Science, and Chair of the Global Carbon Project, Stanford University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia needs a national approach to combat the health effects of climate change



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Stephen Duckett, Grattan Institute and Will Mackey, Grattan Institute

Australia has just recorded its hottest November on record, only months after the devastating bushfires of last summer that ruined the lives and livelihoods of thousands.

Climate change is doing its deadly work. Australia is already about 1.5℃ warmer than it was 100 years ago, and there is worse to come.

As our continent continues to warm, we will have to endure harsher heatwaves and more severe storms. The cyclones in our far north will be more intense, causing floods that will destroy homes, businesses and lives.

Health authorities need to do more. The federal health department says its vision is “better health and wellbeing for all Australians, now and for future generations”. Yet there is little mention of the greatest health risk facing our future generations: climate change.

Currently, what the World Health Organisation calls one of the world’s greatest health risks doesn’t rate a mention in Australia’s Long Term National Health Plan, or the Department of Health’s forward-looking Corporate Plan.

The department’s A$5 billion investment plan for the Medical Research Future Fund describes 20 funding initiatives for the next decade and identifies “areas of national priority”. But it doesn’t once mention climate change.




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Climate change is resulting in profound, immediate and worsening health impacts, over 120 researchers say


Why the silence?

At the national level, there is an evident unwillingness to speak about the damage climate change is already doing to Australians’ health. And things are only going to get worse.

The Grattan Institute has today released a report that identifies ways the health sector should adapt to the changing climate in Australia.

A bushfire burns.
Bushfires can have many and varied effects on human health.
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The coronavirus pandemic provides a model. Australia’s response to COVID-19 was led by a national cabinet and informed by the national and state chief medical and health officers, meeting as the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC).

Our political leaders listened to the science presented by these expert advisers. They used this evidence and advice to make unprecedented decisions in unprecedented times to protect the lives and livelihoods of millions of Australians.

They must do the same with climate change. Governments should establish a “climate change and health” subcommittee of the AHPPC, tasked with generating research and providing advice on climate change adaption and mitigation.

The new subcommittee should incorporate research that touches on climate change and is already done by existing committees such as the Communicable Diseases Network Australia, the Environmental Health Standing Committee, and the National Health Emergency Standing Committee. Officials on the climate change and health subcommittee should meet regularly, share strategies, and encourage coordinated and consistent national action where appropriate.




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Time to step up

More must be done at the national level. The Commonwealth Department of Health must add the health risks posed by climate change to its priority list. Climate change should feature prominently in its Long Term National Health Plan and in its National Preventive Health Strategy, currently in development, to ensure proper resources are made available.

All governments should ensure the health sector incorporates climate change into risk assessments and disaster planning. This could be done by mandating a new requirement in the National Safety and Quality Health Service Standards for health services to assess climate change risks.

With the world’s sixth-largest landmass spanning a wide variety of climates, Australia faces a unique combination of climate-related health challenges. Our research institutions must get more support to pursue climate-health knowledge. Between 2013 and 2020, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) awarded less than A$2 million out of A$6.3 billion to climate-and-health research topics — just 0.03% of the total.

After years of little interest, the NHMRC has just announced A$10 million in dedicated funding to “improve Australia’s preparedness and responsiveness to human health threats from changing environmental conditions and extreme weather events”, to begin in 2021. This is a step in the right direction, but Australia will need to provide much more support for climate change and health research.

The Medical Research Future Fund investment plan should have a dedicated focus on climate change and health research, so Australia’s researchers can help us all better understand our problem.

In the coming years and decades, Australia’s climate will become more dangerous and destructive. In 2020, with strong leadership and evidence-based decision-making, Australia had remarkable success in confronting the challenges of COVID-19. Now we must do it again on climate change.




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The Conversation


Stephen Duckett, Director, Health Program, Grattan Institute and Will Mackey, Senior Associate, Grattan Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate change is resulting in profound, immediate and worsening health impacts, over 120 researchers say



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Celia McMichael, University of Melbourne; Ilan Kelman, UCL; Shouro Dasgupta, Università Ca’Foscari, and Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson, United Nations University

Climate change is resulting in profound, immediate and worsening health impacts, and no country is immune, a major new report from more than 120 researchers has declared.

This year’s annual report of The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, released today, presents the latest data on health impacts from a changing climate.

Among its results, the report found there were 296,000 heat-related premature deaths in people over 65 years in 2018 (a 54% increase in the last two decades), and that global yield potential for major crops declined by 1.8–5.6% between 1981 and 2019.

We are part of the Lancet Countdown sub-working group focusing on human migration in a warming world. We estimate that, based on current population data, 145 million people face potential inundation with global mean sea-level rise of one metre. This jumps to 565 million people with a five metre sea-level rise.




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Unless urgent action is taken, the health consequences of climate change will worsen. A globally coordinated effort tackling COVID-19 and climate change in unison is vital, and will mean a triple win: better public health, a more sustainable economy and environmental protection.

Drought, fires and excessive heat

The 2020 report brings together research from a range of fields, including climate science, geography, economics and public health. It focuses on 43 global indicators, such as altered geographic spread of infectious disease, health benefits of low-carbon diets, net carbon pricing, climate migration and heat-related deaths.

The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change: 2020 report.

The five hottest years on record have occurred since 2015, and 2020 is on track to be the first or second hottest year on record.

The 2020 Lancet Countdown report found extreme heat continues to rise in every region in the world and particularly affects the elderly, especially those in Japan, northern India, eastern China and central Europe. It is also a big problem for those with pre-existing health conditions and outdoor workers in the agricultural and construction sectors.




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While attributing heat-related deaths to climate change isn’t straightforward, rising temperatures and humidity will mean we can expect heat-related deaths to increase further.

Climate change is also an important contributing factor to drought. The report found that in 2019 excess drought affected over twice the global land surface area, compared with the 1950-2005 baseline.

Drought and health are intertwined. Drought can cause dwindling drinking water supplies, reduced livestock and crop productivity, and an increased risk of bushfire.

Mental health is also at risk, as Australian research from earlier this year confirmed. This looked at the declining mental health of drought-affected farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin over 14 years.

Smoke and fire in the understory of a eucalyptus forest
More than 445 deaths were attributed to the smoke from the Black Summer bushfires.
Shutterstock

Further, the Lancet Countdown report found that between 2015 and 2019, the number of people exposed to bushfires increased in 128 countries, compared with a 2001-2004 baseline.




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Climate change worsens risk factors for more frequent and intense bushfires. We need only look to last summer’s unprecedented bushfires in Australia as a stark illustration. The number of people exposed to the bushfires was amplified by expanding settlements and inadequate risk reduction measures.

Sea level rise, human migration and health

As the world warms and the sea rises, millions of people will be exposed to coastal changes, including inundation and erosion.

Sea-level rise has direct and indirect consequences for human health. In some places, water and soil quality and supply will be compromised due to the intrusion of saltwater. Flooding and wave power will damage infrastructure, including drinking water and sanitation services. And disease vector ecology will also change, such as higher mosquito densities in coastal habitats, potentially causing greater transmission of infectious diseases like dengue or malaria.

However, people and communities may adapt by moving away. In Fiji, for example, at least four communities have relocated in response to coastal changes. The Fijian government notes planned relocation will be a last resort only when other adaptation options are exhausted.




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Relocation might also lead to health threats . This includes physical health consequences from altered diets, as fishing and subsistence agriculture may be disrupted. There are also mental health impacts from people losing their attachments and connections to their places of belonging.

But sometimes, migration responses to climate change can have health benefits. Moving from vulnerable coastlines might reduce exposure to environmental hazards such as flooding, be an impetus to seek healthier livelihoods and lifestyles, and improve access to health services.

Our estimation of the number of people facing potential inundation is based on projections of global mean sea-level rise and on current population data.

In a high emissions scenario with warming of 4.5℃, seas could rise by one metre by 2100 relative to 1986–2005. This would see 145 million people face potential inundation.

A collapse of the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet could cause five to six metres of sea level rise. Under this extreme scenario, 565 million people may be inundated.




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It is important to note, however, that uncertainties constrain our ability to forecast migration numbers due to sea-level rise. These uncertainties include future environmental and demographic factors and potential adaptation (and maladaptation) responses, such as living with water or coastal fortification.

So is there any good news?

The 2020 Lancet Countdown report notes improvements in some instances, as some sectors and countries take bold steps to respond to climate change.

We are seeing, for example, health benefits emerging from the transition to clean energy. Deaths from air pollution attributed to coal-fired power have declined from 440,000 in 2015 to 400,000 in 2018, despite overall population increases.

But more must be done: we need sustained greenhouse gas emission cuts, increased greenhouse gas absorption and proactive adaptation actions. Yet global efforts to address climate change still fall short of the commitments made in the Paris Agreement five years ago.

We cannot afford to focus attention on the COVID-19 pandemic at the expense of climate action.

If responses to the economic impacts of COVID-19 align with an effective response to climate change, we’ll see immense benefits for human health, with cleaner air, healthier diets and more liveable cities.The Conversation

Celia McMichael, Senior Lecturer in Geography, University of Melbourne; Ilan Kelman, Professor of Disasters and Health, UCL; Shouro Dasgupta, Lecturer in Environmental Economics, Università Ca’Foscari, and Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson, Senior Researcher, Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS), United Nations University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.