From Zika outbreak to ’Snowzilla,’ climate change lurks behind the headlines

mosquito on blade of grass

As climate change makes some regions hotter and wetter, it may exacerbate the spread of mosquito-borne diseases such as Zika virus. (© Ramon Portellano/Flickr Creative Commons)

A mosquito-borne virus explodes in Latin America. A study delivers bad news for countries that rely on hydroelectric power. “Snowzilla” paralyzes the East Coast of the U.S. with historic snowfall.

Seemingly unrelated, these three recent events have taken place under the shadow of climate change.

Although scientists are averse to linking any single event to climate change, a growing body of evidence is showing that a changing climate could make events like these more common — and more destructive — in the near future.

Here’s a quick peek behind the headlines.

young boy in indigenous village, Ecuadorian Amazon

Young boy in an indigenous village in the Ecuadorian Amazon. South American women may be at increased risk of having children with birth defects due to the possible association between the mosquito-borne Zika virus and the neurological condition microcephaly. (© Lucas Bustamante)

 1.     Zika virus flares in Latin America

On Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Zika virus a global health emergency, owing to the suspected link between the virus and birth defects in babies born to infected mothers. (The virus, first identified in eastern Africa in 1947, is believed to be behind a recent spike in the incidence of microcephaly, which causes infants to be born with abnormally small heads.) The virus, which is not known to be fatal, has been reported in at least 20 Latin American countries.

The climate angle: The Zika virus is borne by mosquitoes, which prefer warm, damp climates — and climate change could be a game-changer for them. From The Washington Post:

Researchers have increasingly devoted themselves to the investigation of how future climate scenarios might affect these mosquito populations. And many have concluded that a warmer world is likely to be a boon to the bugs, allowing them to reproduce faster, emerge earlier in the season, survive longer and even spread northward.

While it’s too soon to say whether Zika will gain a permanent foothold in the Americas, attention to the outbreak could lead to new insights into the spread of disease in a changing climate.

Essequibo River, Guyana

Amazonian rivers such as the Essequibo River are vital to facilitating economic development and providing clean energy to remote places in South America through hydroelectric dams. (© Pete Oxford/iLCP)

2.     A grim forecast for dams

Throughout the developing world, hydroelectric dams are a major source of energy and economic development. Brazil alone has at least 150 dams throughout the Amazon basin, harnessing the power of the country’s mighty rivers.

The climate angle: Those dams may have less water to churn in the near future. A new study published in Nature Climate Change predicts that up to three-fourths of the world’s dams will see reduced capacity due to longer and worse droughts brought about by a changing climate. From The Guardian:

Thousands of hydrodams risk being left high and dry by mid-century as global warming takes hold. That is potentially a big threat to fast-growing economies like those in South America, which relies on hydropower for more than 60% of its electricity. Much of Africa, Australia, southeast Asia, the U.S. and southern and central Europe can also expect significant declines in hydropower capacity.

The story notes that the future is uncertain, however: Climate models may vary — and in some places, too much water is likely to be the problem, not too little. In either case, this news sheds uncertainty over the long-term future of a vital source of energy.


Further reading

This baby Emperor Penguin was not the only one huddling for warmth, as residents of the East Coast of the US were recently hit with a storm that blew snow records away. (© Art Wolfe/ www.artwolfe.com)

Baby emperor penguins are not the only ones who needed to huddle for warmth this winter, as East Coast residents of the U.S. were hit recently with a record-setting snowstorm. (© Art Wolfe/ www.artwolfe.com)

3.     Historic snowstorm piles it on

The East Coast of the United States was hit last month with a storm that smashed snowfall records and brought cities from New York to Washington, D.C., to a standstill — and took some places almost a week to dig out of.

The climate angle: While climate scientists cannot point to a single storm as a symptom of climate change, the conditions are increasingly ripe for storms like this one to happen more frequently. As meteorologist Eric Holthaus wrote for Slate:

Winters are getting warmer pretty much everywhere, but at the same time, seven of the 10 heaviest snowstorms in New York City’s weather history (which dates to 1869) have now come within the past 20 years. A similar trend holds for D.C. and Baltimore. Something is clearly different recently. There are a lot of reasons for this, including a big boost from a very strong El Niño … but there is clear evidence global warming is boosting the odds of recent big Northeast snowstorms. Among the clearest is Physics 101: A warmer atmosphere is able to hold more moisture, and thus can produce heavier precipitation (whether rain or snow) in a shorter amount of time.

The upshot

Taken together, “what this means is that change is the new normal,” according to Shyla Raghav, director of climate change policy at Conservation International. “Our world, as complicated as it already is, is changing in ways that will require us to rethink and improve the way we develop globally.” (Learn more in Raghav’s interview with VICE News above.)

Part of the solution, Raghav says, is right in front of us: nature.

“Nature, particularly oceans and forests, are carbon ‘sinks’ that absorb more than 50% of global emissions,” she said. “Their continued destruction hampers their ability to help humanity to mitigate — and to adapt to — the worst effects of climate change.”

Bruno Vander Velde is CI’s editorial director. 

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