Archaeology clues us in on the dangers of letting viruses hang around.
- A University of Otago researcher investigates the spread of disease in ancient Vietnam.
- The infectious disease, yaws, has been with us for thousands of years with no known cure.
- Using archaeology to investigate disease offers clues into modern-day pandemics.
History-Changing Archaeological Finds<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ed6ad05071e93f257aa0b73f4001c805"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/gydYHHfnLhE?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>While we rightfully look toward infectious disease experts during times such as now, archaeologists also have plenty to offer. A <a href="http://journals.upress.ufl.edu/bioarchaeology/article/view/1173" target="_blank">new research article</a>, published in the journal, Bioarchaeology Journal, turns back the clock to ancient Vietnam. The findings offer important clues about why we need to eradicate COVID-19.</p><p>Lead author Melandri Vlok, a PhD student at the University of Otago in New Zealand (with support from researchers in Australia, Vietnam, Japan, and the UK), investigated a case of yaws that ran through the Neolithic archeological site of Mán Bạc in Northeast Vietnam. </p><p>Yaws remains a common infectious disease in at least 13 tropical countries, with up to a half-million infected each year. Hard skin lesions form on the victim's bodies; they can form painful ulcers. While lesions usually subside within six months, bone and joint pain and fatigue are common. Some cases last many years and result in permanent scars. On occasion, death follows a long battle. </p><p>Subsistence farmers in mainland China have long battled the environment. Finding the right soil and water sources for their crops has been a generational battle. Roughly 4,000 years ago, such farmers made their way into Mainland Southeast China (modern day Vietnam), where, as Vlok writes, "genetic admixture and social transition occurs between foragers and farmers." In 2018, Vlok traveled to Mán Bạc to study the remains of seven skeletons, which included two adults, two adolescents, and two children.</p><p>Her findings help give us perspective on today's proliferation of the coronavirus. As she <a href="https://www.otago.ac.nz/news/news/releases/otago744185.html" target="_blank">says</a>, </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"This matters, because knowing more about this disease and its evolution, it changes how we understand the relationship people have with it. It helps us understand why it's so difficult to eradicate. If it's been with us thousands of years it has probably developed to fit very well with humans." </p>
My Son Sanctuary, Quang Nam, Vietnam.
Credit: Mrkela / Shutterstock<p>Yaws is not the only disease considered in the article. Tuberculosis, brucellosis, and cancers were also discussed. The goal of the research was to identify disease spread through cultures and the chronic problems left behind, sometimes for millennia. Vlok notes how temperature fluctuations in the Mán Bạc region affected a variety of diseases. Yaws appeared to have spread easily due to an abundance of water and vegetation, combined with increased population density—children are more likely to spread this disease.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Pre-industrialized agricultural communities have also been associated with increased incidence of yaws. The coastal region is also slightly warmer and more humid than inland northern Vietnam and therefore more conducive to the spread of yaws."</p><p>The Climate Clock is <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2020/09/21/climate-change-metronome-clock-nyc/" target="_blank">ticking down</a>. We're already experiencing the ravages of this global shift, and it's not going to get any easier if interventions are not immediately legislated. While no single science will help us wrap our heads around the immediate future, Vlok suggests factoring in archaeology. Past precedent matters.</p><p>Gazing back a few hundred generations offers important clues for the future—really, the present—that we must confront. A concerted effort by the World Health Organization in the 1950s couldn't eradicate yaws. Diseases that have an opportunity to hang around will exploit every advantage it can. The blasé attitude too many Americans currently hold about the novel coronavirus's dangers is going to have a reverberating effect through the generations. As Vlok concludes, </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"This shows us what happens when we don't take action with these diseases. It's a lesson of what infectious diseases can do to a population if you let them spread widely. It highlights the need to intervene, because sometimes these diseases are so good at adapting to us, at spreading between us."</p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
The major temples seem much more interesting than what also appears on the landscape: apparently random mounds of earth.
The Bayon temple at the famous temple area of Angkor Archeological Park.
Ian Walton/Getty Images<p><span style="background-color: initial;">T</span>he generated maps reveal both areas of dense occupation with city blocks and streets, and lower-density areas with scattered community temples, sometimes marked by little more than a scatter of bricks or just a faint impression of a mound with a moat around it. These community temples probably served a somewhat similar function as churches in the agricultural communities of modern America do: not just to promote religion but also to facilitate social networking and help neighbors coordinate their activities. When growing rice, it's important to coordinate and manage water collaboratively with your neighbors. If one farm hoards all the water, neighboring farms may have to let their fields go fallow. When that happens, pests take over and devastate everyone's crops.</p><p>Our team realized that the key to cracking the code of Angkorian agriculture was to understand these community temples. The new maps showed <em>where</em> the temples were on the landscape, but we needed to figure out <em>when</em> they were built.</p>
A new study examines the under-researched area of water theft around the world.
- From 30% to 50% of the world's water is illegally or improperly taken.
- Agriculture industries are implicated in the majority of water theft.
- In some areas, it's so normal that it's barely noticed.
Marijuana, strawberries, and cotton<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzU4NjM3OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMTk3MjQ4OX0.COVxgYW1xJBtbjB3GYPDK3V4tdR_4BLrQtmyU6PO-Is/img.jpg?width=980" id="7732f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c226c5f73629c8d13bf26ec878019023" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="cannabis plant" />
Image source: Ryland zweifel/Shutterstock<p>Agriculture by far consumes most of the world's water, about 70 percent of it. To help better understand the portion of that percentage that may be associated with water theft, the study "provides a conceptual framework and modeling approach designed to improve understanding of both individual and institutional barriers to water theft." The framework is based on examinations of the water use surrounding three crops: marijuana in California, strawberries in Spain, and cotton in Australia.</p><p>The cases have some significant characteristics in common: They're all water-intensive industries in which stealing water is more profitable than adhering to local regulations. Growers in these industries also share an anxiety over future availability of water from rainfall, which may also be a key driver in water theft.</p><p>Underlying non-compliance with local regulations is that some of the growers resent laws that they view as unfairly favoring environmental protections over economic needs, and a general lack of interest in water protection among the public within the growers' region.</p><p><strong>Marijuana</strong></p><p>Lucrative growing of legalized marijuana uses large volumes of water. Some growers in Northern California steal both urban and rural water on the assumption their consumption is likely to go unnoticed by authorities. Many feel that the low odds of detection make water theft a "rational choice," according to the study.</p><p><strong>Strawberries</strong></p><p>Strawberries from the Doñana marshlands in southern Spain are grown in an area of ecological sensitivity. (The marshes are protected by international agreements due to their role as the most important site for migratory birds.) Growers operate under the expectation that even if they're caught pilfering water — and it is likely they will be caught — prosecutions and convictions tend to produce few convictions or consequences.</p><p>Water theft has become so normalized over time in this region that it has lead to violence against authorities attempting to protect the water supply.</p><p><strong>Cotton</strong></p><p>Cotton growers in central Australia's Barwon-Darling River system have been implicated in "several alleged, ongoing and proven cases of non-compliance with water laws." The study mentions one large-scale agricultural water user whose theft involved environmentally-protected water. The study cites some Australian cotton growers who consider themselves to be in competition with an "'illegitimate user," the environment.</p>
What the study recommends<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzU4NjQyMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNTYzMTE0MH0.fF1Z22DnsmvafM4WjwJRb7zh2bFkF21nrlcy3x-5dI0/img.jpg?width=980" id="da795" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5c716fc9c41f615765fba8d17d496e72" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="strawberries" />
Image source: Massimiliano Martini/Unsplash<p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>Our findings suggest that while individuals and companies may be responsible for the act of theft, the phenomenon reflects a systematic failure of arrangements (political, legal, institutional, and so on). In addition, when regulators fail to understand the value of water, inadequate prescribed penalties increase the risk of theft. — Loch, et al</em></p><p>The study asserts that a critical partner in resolving water theft must be the public and their assumption of high compliance, and the expectation of honesty on the part of all stakeholders, both in agriculture and government. Public exposure of non-compliance with water regulations can make water theft less locally acceptable. In Australia, civil-society organizations stepped in to help advocate for the environment with growers.</p><p>Obviously, there can be no substitute for an adequate water supply in the first place, a challenging issue in many places. A <a href="https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-08/ip-sif082420.php" target="_blank">recent study</a> from Virginia Tech of the U.S. water supply found that "nearly one-sixth of U.S. river basins cannot consistently meet society's water demands while also providing sufficient water for the environment. Water scarcity is expected to intensify and spread as populations increase, new water demands emerge, and climate changes."</p><p>The authors of the water-theft study look forward to a technological assist as monitoring and sensors become better able to detect water theft when it occurs. Detection, however, without more robust local enforcement is meaningless. And adequately guarding water supplies that span multiple jurisdictions will require prioritization and stronger cooperation between local governments.</p><p>Preserving local water supplies is more than an academic issue after all — we all need water. Says the study, "Ongoing water shortages occur on all continents, increasingly compounded by climate change. By addressing likely drivers of theft at an individual scale, we may prevent irreversible harm to all water users."</p>
Carbon nanotubes embedded in leaves detect chemical signals that are produced when a plant is damaged.
Researchers evaluated the best and worst ways to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere in a recent report.
- A recent report from International Institute for Applied Systems Science evaluated six land-based methods for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
- Though they concluded that every technique would be a net positive for the world, some were riskier or costlier than others.
- Among the safest, cheapest, and overall best approaches were restoring the wetlands and soil carbon sequestration.
In 2016, the Paris Climate Agreement set out the ambitious goal of limiting the rise in global temperature to below 2°C above its preindustrial levels, preferably to 1.5°C. These numbers might seem small, but the amount of energy needed to transform the entire world's average temperature is tremendous, and so too are its effects. If, for instance, the global temperature blasts past that 2°C mark and reaches 4°C, then nearly all of the U.S. will turn into an uninhabitable desert.
But focusing too much on the doom-and-gloom that climate change discussions so often revolve around can be pretty exhausting. So, let's focus instead on possible solutions. If we're to stay below 2°C, we'll need to deploy a multifaceted strategy. Part of that has to be finding ways to remove the greenhouse gases already in our atmosphere.
Recently, researchers at the International Institute for Applied Systems Science looked at the top six land-based methods for sucking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere to evaluate their costs, their benefits, and which might be our best options going forward. While some of them are more risky or higher cost than others, all of them were found to contribute in some way and to effectively remove greenhouse gases from out of atmosphere.
1. Afforestation and reforestation
Between 1990 and 2015, the world lost 290 million hectares of forest. Restoring these depleted reserves (reforestation) and planting in previously un-forested areas (afforestation) is a fairly simple, common-sense approach to fighting climate change. Trees suck CO2 out of the air and store it in their timber — not only that, but they also contribute to food production, help to regulate freshwater, offer habitats to animals, and provide jobs and recreation among other benefits.
On the other hand, afforestation and reforestation require a lot of water usage and take up land that could otherwise be used for farming. Despite this, the researchers estimated that this strategy could remove between 0.5 to 7 gigatons (that's a billion tons) of CO2 from the atmosphere. To put that into context, one estimate provided by Carbon Brief suggests that human beings have released 1,374 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. We don't have to get rid of all of this extra CO2, fortunately; just enough to keep warming within acceptable bounds.
2. Wetland restoration
Wetlands might seem like an odd candidate for being one of the most beneficial features of the planet, but they have the potential to scrub another 2.7 gigatons of CO2 from the air. In fact, although wetlands cover 9 percent of the planet, they're estimated to deliver 23 percent of the total value offered by the globe's ecosystems.
For instance, wetlands are the best regulators of water resources out there—they're even sometimes intentionally developed near sewage plants to help filter out pollutants. They also provide habitats for keystone species, can help to produce certain crops (e.g., rice or cranberries), and are extremely resilient to rising sea levels.
Although they tend to release some methane, the amount of CO2 they suck up is well worth it. Regrettably, however, half of the globe's wetlands have been lost, making their restoration a top priority. In addition to being a cheap venture, the researchers also identified virtually no downsides to restoring wetlands.
3. Soil carbon sequestration
Like wetland restoration, soil carbon sequestration — storing carbon in the soil over the long term — presents few downsides. This can take place through a variety of mechanisms, the biggest one being the photosynthesis of plants. But smart crop management, like rotating crops, planting perennial crops (those that don't need to be replanted every year), and so on, can increase how much carbon is stored in the soil. So too can optimizing fertilizer usage, tilling less intensely, improving water management, and many other techniques. Implementing these techniques could result in a reduction of between 2 and 5 gigatons of CO2.
By farming with the conscious goal of sequestering more carbon in the soil, we also gain the benefit of having more useful soil for use in building materials, pharmaceuticals, electronics, and other industrial applications. Plus, it helps to prevent erosion, preserves the landscape, and increases crop yields.
Flickr user Oregon Department of Forestry
Biochar is the result of biomass pyrolysis; simply put, it's charcoal. When biomass is burned in a low- or no-oxygen environment, it becomes carbonized, locking that carbon into the material and preventing its transference to the atmosphere. Biochar stores carbon in a long-term, durable fashion. Typically, biochar is distributed in soil, where it can help improve food production and balance the pH of acidic soil. Microorganisms in soils also emit nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas, but adding small amounts of biochar significantly reduces these emissions, along with other greenhouse gases other than CO2. Plus, producing biochar can also generate electricity.
However, biochar production has to be done carefully. If produced without following clean guidelines, biochar can actually release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But if done correctly, producing biochar could reduce greenhouse gases by up to 2 gigatons of CO2 a year.
5. Terrestrial enhanced weathering
A considerable amount of chemistry is slowly but consistently being conducted beneath our feet. In particular, weathering plays an important role in soil chemistry. As the soil's minerals break down over time, they release nutrients and form secondary minerals, like clay. We can improve this process and encourage desirable soil chemistry by adding crushed silicate rocks rich in calcium and magnesium and low in metal ions like nickel or chromium. Basalt, for instance, would be a good candidate.
Doing so could reduce soil acidity and encourage the transformation of CO2 into bicarbonate ions, or HCO3-. As an added benefit, run-off HCO3- could increase ocean alkalinity, making the ocean more resistant to pH changes. Although it would have some positive effect, the researchers noted that field-scale assessments of this technique's interactions with other approaches — like reforestation — would be necessary to determine exactly how much terrestrial enhanced weathering could contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
6. Bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS)
An engineer walks through the Bailey Bioenergy Facility in Washington, D.C.
Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images
The use of BECCS is something of a one-two punch; it provides energy, avoiding the need to use fossil fuels, and as feedstocks grow for later use as fuel, they suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. Plants like switchgrass or giant reedgrass make for excellent BECCS feedstocks.
Generally, regular bioenergy is a carbon-zero product, since the fuel sequesters CO2 as it grows and releases CO2 as it's burned for energy. But incorporating carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology in this process results in negative emissions. This beats adding CCS technology to fossil fuel processes, since burning fossil fuels starts off by adding emissions to the atmosphere — existing CCS tech can therefore only reduce fossil fuel emissions, rather than turning them negative as is the case with bioenergy.
If BECCS were implemented at a large scale by the year 2100, it could remove 15 gigatons of CO2 per year. However, doing so would be expensive, and the land taken up to grow bioenergy feedstocks could be used instead to grow food. It would also require a greater use of fertilizers and would require a good amount of water to grow.
With the exception of wetland restoration and soil carbon sequestration, all of these approaches for greenhouse gas removal present some kind of downside that we would need to mitigate. The most challenging approaches would be afforestation/reforestation, BECCS, and biochar production, primarily due to their use of land that could otherwise grow food and their water requirements.
However, the researchers found that all of these methods for greenhouse gas removal would not only reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but, on balance, they would also make our lives better, either by creating jobs, reducing pollution, contributing food, promoting ecological diversity, or other ancillary benefits. Combating climate change is often presented as a costly venture, but in reality, it's more of an investment. By assessing the costs and benefits of approaches such as these six, we can get a better picture of what our return will be.