DANGEROUS HEAT, UNEQUAL CONSEQUENCES
Published by the Center for Public Integrity. Also co-published by Mother Jones, The Arizona Republic and Orlando Sentinel. Co-reported with Sofia Moutinho. More on the data and analysis for this story, which was also used in additional stories, on my data page.
Mario Wilcox won’t set out in the summer without an emergency kit in his car trunk: a cooler with an ice pack and a blanket. He learned this improvised life saver from his time in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; ice and a wet cloth can cool down an overheated body. Now he finds it vital in the intensifying heat of Fort Pierce, Florida, and especially his heat-stressed neighborhood.
More than 2,000 miles away in Phoenix, Arizona, Grace Salinas monitors the street outside her window in a public housing complex when summer temperatures reach triple digits. A community leader in the area southwest of downtown, Salinas stocks cold water bottles for anyone she sees struggling with the heat, a situation growing more common each year.
Heat-related illnesses are soaring in Arizona and Florida as the planet warms and temperatures rise. Among the hottest states in the country, none saw a sharper spike in summertime temperatures over the last century than these two. Already, Arizona is considered the hottest state in the U.S., and Phoenix the hottest city, with more than 140 days over 100 degrees Fahrenheit last year alone. In Florida, the combination of heat and humidity makes it one of the nation’s most dangerous places, according to a recent study.
Poor communities are bearing the brunt of sickening heat in these states, an analysis by Columbia Journalism Investigations and the Center for Public Integrity found. Federal data capturing most emergency room visits and hospitalizations in Arizona and Florida reveal higher rates of heat-related illnesses in areas with less income. The data, never before made public at the ZIP code level, also show that the highest rates of heat-related illnesses are in neighborhoods with a history of racial segregation. Experts say racist policies of the past created conditions, never corrected, that make heat more dangerous for people there today.
CLIMATE CHANGE IS KILLING AMERICANS.
HEALTH DEPARTMENTS AREN’T EQUIPPED TO RESPOND
Full version published by the Center for Public Integrity. Condensed version co-published by The Guardian, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist and others. Co-reported with Dean Russell, Veronica Penney, Ali Raj and Bridget Hickey.
PHOENIX — Charlie Rhodes lived alone on a tree-sparse street with sunburned lawns just outside this Arizona city. At 61, the Army veteran’s main connection to the world was Facebook; often, he posted several times a day. But as a heat wave blanketed the region in June 2016 — raising temperatures among the highest ever recorded — his posts stopped. Three weeks later, a pile of unopened mail outside his door prompted a call to police.
When officers arrived, they were overcome by the odor of rotting garbage, worsened by the still-searing heat. Inside the home, they found the air conditioner broken and its thermometer reading 99 degrees. Rhodes lay dead in the bedroom, his body decomposing. The cause, his autopsy shows: “complications of environmental heat exposure.”
Yearly heat-related deaths have more than doubled in Arizona in the last decade to 283. Across the country, heat caused at least 10,000 deaths between 1999 and 2016 — more than hurricanes, tornadoes or floods in most years.
Scientists link the warming planet to a rise in dangerous heat in the United States, as well as the spread of infectious diseases and other health conditions. Federal research predicts heat stroke and similar illnesses will claim tens of thousands of American lives each year by the end of the century. Already, higher temperatures pose lethal risks: The top five warmest years nationwide have all occurred since 2006. In the last six decades, the number of annual heat waves in 50 U.S. cities has, on average, tripled. In contrast to a viral pandemic, like the one caused by the novel coronavirus, this is a quiet, insidious threat with no end point.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is charged with helping cities and states adapt to threats like extreme heat. Its climate program, created more than 10 years ago, is the federal government’s only sustained effort to bolster state and local health departments’ fight against global warming. But the program has been hampered by a decade of underfunding, limited expertise and political resistance, Columbia Journalism Investigations and the Center for Public Integrity found.
Interviews with more than 100 people and a review of hundreds of pages of government records show the Obama administration, while pushing measures to combat climate change, missed opportunities to expand the program. Under President Donald Trump, officials have tried to eliminate it. The tepid federal response has left state and local health workers ill-equipped to act, exposing communities to underappreciated threats that will only get worse. Already, the World Health Organization believes, the changing climate’s wide-ranging impacts contribute to at least 150,000 deaths around the globe every year... [more]
CLIMATE CASUALTIES RISING WITH TEMPERATURES
Full story at the Center for Public Integrity.
More Americans die from heat than from hurricanes, tornadoes or floods. Under some future scenarios, climate warming could increase heat deaths in North America fivefold. But figuring out how often climate change has already been the culprit in such deaths takes a special kind of detective work.
Columbia Journalism Investigations and the Center for Public Integrity teamed up with Robbie M. Parks, an environmental epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, to look for clues in Arizona — where heat deaths are on the rise.
Parks recently published a study examining how unusual temperatures contribute to deaths from accidents and injuries. For our analysis, Parks adapted his model to estimate how many additional deaths — from any cause — occur during warmer-than-average months. The goal: pick out the signal of climate’s role in heat-related deaths from the “noise” of other risk factors.
His model suggests that around 900 deaths in Arizona from 1980-2017 can be attributed to warmer-than-average monthly temperatures. This “climate-scale signal” of heat-related deaths includes the effect of long-term warming as well as year-to-year fluctuations in climate. The trend over those decades is on the upswing, a preview of what scientists warn is to come. More details on our methodology are available here... [more]
HOSPITALS STEEL FOR POSSIBLE VIRUS RESURGENCE,
UNSURE OF THEIR FINANCIAL FUTURE
Full story at THE CITY. Co-reported with Josefa Velasquez and Anastassia Gliadkovskaya.
Images of New Yorkers lining up around the block at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, part of the public hospitals system, became an emblem in March of a city under siege by the coronavirus.
Yet statistics recently released by the Cuomo administration show that privately run medical centers took on the vast majority of the nearly 60,000 patients treated for COVID-19 in New York City through mid June — at a price still unknown to the hospitals and those who rely on them.
Meanwhile, even amid fear of another coronavirus wave, a hospital trade group warns that cutbacks in services could be in store if non-COVID-19 patients keep staying away, avoiding elective surgery and other visits that help pay the bills.
The so-called voluntary hospitals admitted 84% of coronavirus patients in the five boroughs, the records show — slightly more than their usual share of New York City hospital beds, where they run about four out of every five.
Those that absorbed the most patients activated sprawling regional networks amassed through mergers to meet overwhelming demand and keep staff supplied with protective gear.
PRO PUBLICA - RESEARCH
I've contributed research and reporting for several ProPublica stories and databases:
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NEW MODEL HELPS IN FIGHT AGAINST DEADLY PARASITIC DISEASE
Full story at iri.columbia.edu.
Cole Porter romanticized the phrase in his 1936 song, but the probable origin of having someone — or something — under one’s skin is much less pleasant to consider. An early usage of the phrase by author Bayard Taylor in 1864 illustrates: “The idea was like a tropical sand-flea. It had got under my skin, and the attempt to dislodge it opened the germs of hundreds of others.” Today, in some water bodies, the possibility of going in for a swim and coming out with a disease-causing parasite lodged under the skin remains all too real.
One such parasite is the flatworm belonging to the genus Schistosoma, commonly known as a blood-fluke. The flatworm is responsible for schistosomiasis, a disease that occurs in areas with poor sanitation where humans can come into contact with freshwater contaminated with the parasite. Schistosomiasis causes a range of symptoms including anemia, stunted growth, malnutrition, fibrosis, kidney failure, gastrointestinal illness and lesions to the central nervous system. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that in terms of impact of parasitic diseases, schistosomiasis is second only to malaria and is the most deadly of the neglected tropical diseases. More than 700 million people, mostly Africans, live in areas where the disease is endemic. Around 240 million people are infected with schistosomiasis and more than 200,000 die from it every year.
Scientists from Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in South Africa are trying to put a dent in these numbers. They have developed a new model based on data from satellites that helps identify areas likely to contain species of freshwater snails that serve as host to Schistosoma larvae. They published the results in a recent paper in the journal Parasites and Vectors...[more]
A WALL AGAINST THE NEXT SANDY: WHERE SHOULD IT GO?
Full story at The Brooklyn Ink, and find more Brooklyn stories here.
The brackish channel at the convergence of the East River and Upper New York Bay separates Red Hook from the Financial District at the southern tip of Manhattan. Take the twenty-minute ferry between the two neighborhoods and you’ll see just about all of Red Hook’s several miles of waterfront. Hugging the coast are recreation areas, small businesses, an IKEA, a Fairway, a cruise ship terminal, warehouses, and other industrial sites.
When Hurricane Sandy ripped ashore nearly four years ago, in late October 2012, most of these sites flooded. More than half of Red Hook is below 10 feet in elevation, and it was one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in New York City during the storm. The timing of the storm—with high tide—caused even more water to surge into the streets, homes, and businesses of Red Hook.
At one point during the storm, Red Hook resident Tone Johansen, 50, went into the basement of her brick townhouse—a few hundred feet from the waterfront—to get something. “The window exploded and I barely made it out,” Johansen said. Water filled the basement, rising to a level of two to three feet on the first floor. It did the same in the adjacent building, home to Sunny’s Bar, which she and her husband founded (he, the Sunny after which the bar is named, died in March of this year). Between repairing the foundation, getting new boilers and other equipment, and other construction, it took ten months and $100,000 for the business to be up and running again...[more]
ONE SIZE FITS NONE: DROUGHT FORECASTING IN THE CARIBBEAN
Full multimedia story on Medium.
Most extreme climate and weather events involve an unwanted surplus — too much rain, too much wind or too much snow and ice. Drought is a little different: it’s the absence of something. It takes time for a drought to build, making it fundamentally different to monitor or forecast than many climate and weather events. In the Caribbean, much of the interaction between forecasters and decision makers has revolved around the wet season events— especially hurricanes and floods. These short, high impact events deserve this attention, but scientists and decision makers have also started working together to develop useful information about other kinds of climate impacts, namely drought.
In an effort to improve drought forecasts and their use by stakeholders, the first dry season Caribbean Climate Outlook Forum (CariCOF) took place in St. John’s, Antigua in December 2014. CariCOF is one of many regional COFs around the world that bring together climatologists, meteorologists, and the people who might use the information they produce (e.g. representatives from health, agriculture, water management, etc.).
Before this past December, the Caribbean only hosted such a meeting just before the wet season. But if rainfall during the wet season isn’t sufficient, drought can manifest and become further exacerbated during the dry season. Adrian Trotman of the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology (CIMH), the main organizer of the event, explains in the video below why the Caribbean needed a dry season COF. Trotman is an assiduous, energetic scientist who constantly motivates the conference attendees; he brilliantly blends the fun, laid-back Caribbean spirit with the focus needed to move climate resilience in the region forward...[more]
WHY ARE HURRICANES SO HARD TO TRACK?
Full story on The Daily Beast.
Hurricane Joaquin has been yet another example of the complexity of predicting a hurricane’s path and strength. Lives, livelihoods, and wider economic costs make such forecasting a high-stakes endeavor, but hurricanes remain harder to predict than the land-based weather systems that track across continents producing rain, snow, wind, and severe weather.
While both systems consist of spinning centers of low pressure, according to the Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, hurricanes and land-based systems “have completely different physics.” Evaporation of ocean water fuels hurricanes, while land-based low-pressure systems are driven by horizontal temperature changes over land. The strong winds and heavy rains of a hurricane cover a path that is usually 100 miles or so across, and they can change in less than a day; ordinary low-pressure systems can be thousands of miles across and only change over several days, said Emanuel.
These physical differences make accurate forecasting more difficult for hurricanes. “If a forecast of where a hurricane will be in three days is off by 100 miles, it will make the difference between a particular place receiving high winds and heavy rains, or having a nice sunny day,” said Emanuel. “If the forecast of a [land-based] low-pressure system is off by 100 miles, it may make little difference to the weather in particular places.” ... [more]
WE'RE WORSE OFF THAN EVER FOR EL NIÑO
Full story on The Daily Beast.
When you hear about El Niño, perhaps you first think of Chris Farley. Or maybe you lived in Southern California in 1997, so you remember the storms, floods, and mudslides. If you’re a scientist, you might think of that remote section of the equatorial Pacific where higher-than-normal sea surface temperatures define El Niño and influence climate and weather around the globe. Or (just maybe!) you think of my El Niño article from the spring (check it out for more background on the science of El Niño).
But you my not know of the myriad other impacts El Niño can have around the world. Some of them can actually be positive, like better growing conditions for agriculture in Uruguay. But many are negative, and some are less directly obvious. Drought and food insecurity in Cambodia. Rift valley fever in Somalia. Fishery collapse in Peru. Malaria transmission in Colombia, eastern Africa, and other areas.
So how does El Niño exert this broad influence? Some refer to El Niño as a storm, but that’s not quite accurate. The conditions of the ocean and atmosphere in the equatorial Pacific operate on a natural cycle, known as El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). When the cycle swings to one extreme or the other—i.e., sea surface temperatures being much cooler (La Niña) or warmer (El Niño) than normal—it can set in motion a series of cascading atmospheric effects. There are typical patterns of this cascade, which do tend to lead to more storms in some places (like the west coast of South America and Southern California), but also to less rainfall in other places (like Indonesia and Australia). Temperature patterns are similarly affected.
While many of the El Niño impacts may seem bleak, the silver lining is scientists’ ability to predict them, which gives time for governments and organizations to prepare. Take the malaria example, for instance. Malaria is transmitted to humans via mosquitoes of the genus Anopheles. These mosquitoes are highly “climate-sensitive”—meaning they’re evolved for well-defined temperature, rainfall, and humidity ranges. El Niño can change the ranges of these climate variables in an area, such that conditions may be more or less optimal for mosquitoes. In parts of eastern Africa, for example, the increased precipitation associated with El Niño has directly corresponded with large outbreaks of malaria. While this is not good news, the fact that we know this means actions can be taken, such as extra prevention measures...[more]
FEBRUARY CLIMATE BRIEFING: UNIQUE EL NIÑO SLOWLY WEAKENING
Full story at iri.columbia.edu.
The peak of the ongoing El Niño occurred in November 2015, but the event remains in “strong” category, and is likely to stay at moderate strength through April. The El Niño signal is still tipping the odds for certain climate impacts in some regions for the next several months (see seasonal forecasts near end of post). This El Niño has been unique from past strong El Niño events both in its climate features in the Pacific as well as in the way its impacts have manifested around the world, said Anthony Barnston, IRI’s Chief Forecaster. In the Pacific, sea-surface temperatures in the Nino3.4 region, which officially define the El Niño event, have been similar to those in the strong 1982-83 and 1997-98 events.
The temperature pattern in the surrounding waters, however, has been a little different. In the western Pacific, temperatures during an El Niño are often cooler than average, but this year they have overall been more average. Additionally, the warm surface waters in the central equatorial Pacific typically extend to the eastern side of the basin, approaching the South American coast. During this event, waters in that part of the ocean were well above average during the Northern Hemisphere fall, but have since become only somewhat above average.
Because of these differences in the temperatures outside of the Nino3.4 region, the usual gradient of temperature between cool in the western Pacific and warm in the east is not as strong as seen in previous major El Niño events. Though scientists can’t be sure exactly how this may have influenced El Niño’s climate impacts, it may have contributed to the atmospheric components of this El Niño that have also played out a little differently. The El Niño-related convection (i.e. rain storms) along the equator in the central Pacific has been occurring a little more north than is typical for El Niño, and the strongest convection hasn’t stretched as far to the east as during the 1997-98 El Niño...[more]