How global warming and mind-eating parasites are creating a global intelligence gap

For an affluent Western country, the United States has an usually high proportion of its people living in warm-to-tropical climates, which are breeding grounds for parasites.

Schistosomiasis and toxoplasmosis may sound like something you would pick up in a developing country, but the reality is that more and more so-called "third world" parasites are becoming endemic to the United States. Already, some 60 million people — that’s right 60 million — are infected with toxoplasma gondii or, as it's more fondly known as, the “cat poop parasite.”


But don’t freak out about your pet just yet — it could be worse, and by worse I mean having a tapeworm eat your brain. There have been at least 2,000 cases of neurocysticercosis in the U.S. and 5 million or more cases worldwide, which cause epileptic-like symptoms when this normally gut-eating parasite takes up residence in the cerebrum. There’s also Chagas disease, most commonly found in Latin America, which affects the cardiovascular system and can lead to heart failure. In 2007, U.S. blood banks began screening for the disease and found alarmingly high rates among poor communities in Florida and Texas.

Not only are parasites a public health concern, but also they take an untold toll on human intelligence.

So why are parasites flourishing in the U.S.? For an affluent Western country, the United States has an unusually high proportion of its people living in warm-to-tropical climates, which are breeding grounds for parasites. Moreover, as global warming continues, these parasites find more areas that are amenable to their proliferation. In addition, there is relatively low public awareness about the likelihood of contracting such parasites — malaria happens only in Africa, right?

If parasites aren’t reined in effectively, they not only threaten public health, but also could reduce human capital.

Not only are parasites a public health concern, but also they take an untold toll on human intelligence. Researchers at Johns Hopkins found ACTV-1, a chlorovirus, in two out of every five subjects. Normally found in algae, the pathogen somehow made a rapid evolutionary leap from infecting plant matter to humans and the cost was diminished cognition in those participants who were infected. According to The American Scholar, “When compared with those who did not harbor the virus, those infected were about 10 percent slower to make calculations and had a reduced attention span, suggesting that the virus compromised their ability to calculate, to focus, and to process visual information — disadvantages in the classroom, on the job, and in other familiar learning situations.”

These findings are disturbing on many levels and further reinforce the need for greater access to health care, especially for the nation’s poorest. If parasites aren’t reined in effectively, they not only threaten public health, but also could reduce human capital.

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Daphne Muller is a New York City-based writer who has written for Salon, Ms. Magazine, The Huffington Post, and reviewed books for ELLE and Publishers Weekly. Most recently, she completed a novel and screenplay. You can follow her on Instagram @daphonay and on Twitter @DaphneEMuller.

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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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