Living with Environmental Change 2016/2017

I am reaching the end of the semester teaching the module ‘Living with Environmental Change’ together with Professor Lora Fleming. (I have written four blog posts I, II, III and IV last year about the first time we ran this module.) Back then, we had to develop the module from scratch and teach it both on the Penryn campus and the St. Lukes campus in Exeter (a hundred miles east), which made it a lot more work. The experience has been a great deal more relaxed this time around. We have managed to ensnare some excellent guest speakers, ones that have taught before, such as the ECEHHs Dr. Rebecca Lovell who works on the health benefits of the natural environment, and new ones, such as Dr. Anna Harper who works on climate models. Their talks illustrate the breadth of the module: from vibrating diatomic molecules (wiggling CO2 molecules releasing energy causing the greenhouse effect) to Green Gym (taking action to improve the environment while exercising). A great feature of the module is the fact that each student gives a short Pecha Kucha style presentation on their essay topic. This greatly broadens the range of topics that students can learn about, from Aquaculture to Zika, e-Waste, Petridish burgers, heat waves, noise pollution to Blue Carbon (and 35 other topics). We also repeated the excellent tour of the local Wheal Jane mine waste remediation facilities. wgii_ar5_figspm-2I gave a lecture about human pathogens and climate change. I asked each student to do some quick research online and fill out a fact sheet on an assigned pathogen species. Asking the students what facts they found was a nice way to make the lecture a bit more interactive. I asked them not only about the symptoms and treatment of disease, but also whether climate change is expected to impact the occurence of disease. In a lot of cases, the answer is yes. There are many examples of vectorborne diseases moving northwards, eg the Asian tiger mosquito Aedes albopictus is settling in southern Europe with increasing forays into northern Europe. Small outbreaks of Dengue-, Chickungunya- and West Nile fever are already taking place.

Figure 1

Country colouring is based on evidence-based consensus, with green representing a complete consensus on absence of B. pseudomallei and red a complete consensus on presence of B. pseudomallei. Black dots represent geo-located records of melioidosis cases or presence of B. pseudomallei.

Increased water temperatures and reduced salinity (due to increased rainfall and runoff) are strongly correlated with Vibrio infections. Species such as V. parahaemolyticus and V. vulnificus can cause very nasty and sometimes deadly infections and are on the rise in the Baltic (see here). The Fal Estuary around the corner is probably a good habitat too. Burkholderia pseudomallei is another particularly dangerous opportunistic bacterial pathogen that causes a wide range of infections (opportunistic sounds like an understatement; this bug happily infects plants and humans alike). Mainly known to be problematic in South-East Asia and Northern Australia, and also called the ‘Vietnam-time bomb’ for its long incubation time, it can cause very high mortality rates (20-50% even with treatment). Not only does this bug like it warm and moist, it also likes fertilized and saline soils, so warmer weather, sea level rise and  increased agriculture are very likely to benefit this pathogen. This interesting modelling study shows that melidiosis is likely to be greatly underreported, and even endemic in dozens of countries where it has never been reported before. There were many other fascinating examples, including anthrax (Bacillus anthracis) rearing its head in Siberia after the thawing of permafrost and cases of legionaires disease (Legionella pneumophila) associated with increased rainfall. I promise to write a longer blog post next year.

Michiel

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