Breaking news: Repeated exposure to natural disasters may harm mental health!

This is pretty groundbreaking, are you ready? Researchers have linked repeated exposure to hurricanes, to adverse psychological symptoms:

Findings, published online today in JAMA Network Open, are critical for understanding the psychological impacts of recurring natural disasters, particularly in the context of the escalating threat of climate change. Rather than individuals becoming acclimated to repeated exposure to disasters, results demonstrated that over time, responses to subsequent hurricanes become more negative.

“We show that people are not likely to habituate, or get used to, climate-related natural disasters that will increase in frequency and severity in the years to come. Our results suggest a potential mental health crisis associated with those who themselves directly experienced the storm or knew someone who did, as well as those who spent several hours engaged with media about the hurricane,” said Dana Rose Garfin, UCI assistant adjunct professor of nursing and public health, and first author of the report.

That matches with everything I’ve learned about trauma – it doesn’t “toughen” or “strengthen” us, it wounds us internally, and unless we can take the time to heal, that wound will keep getting worse. Again, it feels like this should be obvious. We’ve all had times when the hits start coming and they don’t stop coming, and it absolutely sucks. We don’t get stronger, we get closer to a complete breakdown. We start lashing out at people, or isolating ourselves, or any number of other things in a mostly subconscious effort to make the bad feelings stop. Trauma doesn’t make us more resilient against trauma any more than stab wounds make us any more resilient against knives.

The first-of-its-kind longitudinal study was conducted by Garfin and her colleagues, Roxane Cohen Silver, Distinguished Professor of psychological science, medicine and health; E. Alison Holman, professor of nursing, both from UCI and principal investigators of the research; Rebecca Thompson, Ph.D., UCI postdoctoral scholar in psychological science; and Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, Ph.D., assistant earth system science professor, and center fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University. The team assessed Florida residents in the hours before Hurricane Irma made landfall and examined those same individuals again following Hurricanes Irma and Michael to detect any mental health changes that might have occurred over time. Both were Category 5 storms that hit in succession – Hurricane Irma in September 2017 and Hurricane Michael in October 2018.

The team found that repeated exposure to the threat of catastrophic hurricanes was linked to symptoms of post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety and ongoing fear and worry. In turn, these psychological symptoms were associated with greater social- and work-related impairment, including difficulty interacting with others, and performing work tasks and other daily activities.

“Some distress is normal following traumatic and extremely stressful events,” Garfin said. “Most people will recover and display resilience over time. However, as climate-related catastrophic hurricanes and other natural disasters such as wildfires and heat waves escalate, this natural healing process may be disrupted by repeated threat exposure. Moreover, we followed people longitudinally over two hurricane seasons, and our data show that as people experience multiple occurrences over time, psychological symptoms accumulate and intensify, potentially portending a mental health crisis.”

We need time to heal. To go back to the knife analogy, it makes sense that being stabbed and surviving it would make it easier to cope with being stabbed again in the future. But if you’re stabbed on a regular basis? If you’re stabbed just after you get out of the hospital from the last stabbing?

Your brain will be focused entirely on avoiding more stabbing, because you can’t heal if you’re still getting stabbed.

We need time to heal.

Sometimes I feel like “research with entirely expected results” is its own category. When studies like this come out, I usually see reactions ranging from “yeah, no duh” to “I can’t believe somebody wasted money researching something so obvious”. It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that regular major disruptions in life aren’t great for one’s mental wellbeing, especially when those come with things like personal danger and property damage. Do we really need research to tell us something so obvious? I get it. Sometimes I feel that way too.

Then I think about what I’ve seen, and I realize that we’re in our current climate crisis because there is no end to what some people will lie about to suit their aims. They will claim that weedkiller is safe to drink. They will claim that people whose homes are being consumed by the sea can just sell them. They will claim that society’s problems are all being caused by those with the least amount of power.

Of course they will claim that nothing needs to be done about the mental health impact of climate change and the disasters it spawns. So of course we will need to have research like this to point to, for those mysterious folks among us who somehow think it’s plausible that people will just get used to hurricanes.

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This post has a cat picture!

Today was lovely, and I had to wait outside for a delivery, so I decided to bring His Holiness out with me. I chatted with neighbors and read about swamps, and he explored the village and had some salad. We live in a cul-de-sac sort of arrangement (it was literally the only flat we could get – the rental market in Dublin is not OK), which means that our singularly un-athletic cat only has two ways to get out, and has shown little interest in either of them. That means we get to let him explore a bit, and eat grass to his heart’s content.

Our recent trip the the vet confirmed that his hips became a bit deformed in his childhood on the street, and that he needs to lose a couple kilos. We’ve been regulating his food intake for a while, since it became clear early on that his fondest ambition is to become Orb. Apparently it hasn’t been enough, so we’ve scaled back a little more, and I’m trying to let him out more so he’ll get exercise. We’ve tried string, laser pointers, and all the other stuff, and he’s just too lazy to actually put in the effort.

But put him outside? The amount of tail twitching alone probably burns a calorie or two. He’s got his favorite clump of grass, but he samples all around the village. I was worried initially that he might eat something unhealthy, but he’s shown no interest at all in anything but grass. The dude just wants his salad.

He’s shown a great deal of interest in birds, but this area is filled with more athletic cats than he, so while I do monitor him, I’m not particularly worried that he’ll catch one. He’s a great companion, but a mighty hunter he is not.

The image shows a British Shorthair cat with stripey shoulders and head, white legs and neck, and a white muzzle. His white fur looks velvety soft (it is), and his white paws have a little dirt on them. He is lounging on grass dappled by sun and shade

Taking a break between circuits of the village


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Video: The U.S. Supreme Court may be about to preemptively block the E.P.A. from regulating things like carbon emissions

It may surprise you to hear this, but some things about the way the U.S. government has handled environmental regulation over the past few decades have actually been fairly sensible. That’s not to say that they’ve done their job in protecting the environment or human health. They’re unquestionably better than nothing (as we may soon discover to our sorrow), but they don’t do nearly enough, compared to what needs to be done. They do, however, operate independently from Congress. If they see a pressing need to enact a regulation, Congress has given them the authority to take action based on their expertise. This is good, because not only are our politicians unlikely to know anything at all about science, they also don’t have the time to learn everything they’d need to pass every individual regulation through Congress.

And that’s assuming they wanted to. I think we all know that most of them don’t.

So, the responsibility for environmental protection has been delegated to those who can make it their full-time job. Obviously corruption is as much of a problem in the EPA as anywhere else in the US, but the way it’s set up is downright ideal compared to what we may be facing:

The TL:DW is that Justice Fratboy decided a while back that that delegation was a bad thing. It appears that in addition to its attack on reproductive rights, the Supreme Court is also poised to implement a blanket ban on all environmental regulations, unless they’re explicitly created by Congress. Do I need to explain whose interests this would serve?

Our systems have failed us. 

Lonerbox takes a look at the history of modern “western” beauty standards

My brain is not cooperating on the blog post I wanted to have up today, so instead I’ll leave you in the capable hands of my favorite Scottish youtuber.

I am far from the first person to address this, even on this network, but I think that this look at the history of “beauty” as a concept is actually pretty important in thinking about a number of important issues in society. It’s easy to feel like the way things are is basically how they’ve always been, but the reality is that we’re a complex and chaotic species. It’s a good case study in how people can twist themselves and the concept of “citing sources” into truly impressive knots to justify how angry it makes them that reality doesn’t conform to how they think it should work. It’s also a good overview of how we got to where we are in this regard.

Methane leakage from biogas facilities underscores the importance of doing things right.

I feel like I spend a lot of time talking about what it means to “get it right” on the environment. Solar panels are great, but less so if the silicon mining destroys habitat, or the copper mines and refineries for the power cables poison the land around them. We can’t just replace fossil fuels with other power sources and change nothing else. We have to change not just how we generate and use power, but also how we extract resources, how we process them, how we transport them, and how we dispose of the waste generated in every part of that system.

Climate change isn’t the only major environmental problem we face; it’s just the most urgent one. We need to stop being so sloppy in general, but you’d think that folks involved in renewable energy production in particular would understand that. Unfortunately, it turns out that biogas facilities, while certainly more renewable than fossil sources of gas, are still leaking a lot of methane into the atmosphere.

The new Imperial study, published in One Earth journal, found that supply chains for biomethane and biogas release more than twice as much methane as the International Energy Agency (IEA)’s previous estimation. It also reveals that 62 per cent of these leaks were concentrated in a small number of facilities and pieces of equipment within the chain, which they call ‘super-emitters’, though methane was found to be released at every stage.

The researchers say urgent attention is needed to fix the methane leaks, and knowing precisely where the majority of them are happening will help production plants to do so.

Lead author of the study Dr Semra Bakkaloglu, of Imperial’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Sustainable Gas Institute, said: “Biomethane and biogas are great candidates for renewable and clean energy sources, but they can also emit methane. For them to really help mitigate the warming effects of energy use, we must act urgently to reduce their emissions.

“We want to encourage the continued use of biogas and biomethane as a renewable resource by taking the necessary actions to tackle methane emissions.”

The researchers note that compared to the oil and gas industry, the biomethane industry suffers from poorly designed and managed production facilities as well as a lack of investment for modernisation, operation, and monitoring. Because oil and natural gas supply chains have been primarily operated by large companies with huge resources for decades, they have been able to invest more in leak detection and repair.

Honestly, I’m reluctant to blame the people involved in biogas production. This seems to be yet another symptom of the broader systemic disease – people in power don’t take climate change seriously. So of course biogas doesn’t get the funding it needs. As much as I wish it were otherwise, it always comes back to politics. This is just another small part of the massive change we urgently need. The only real upside is that every small part we deal with, will both reduce the size of the task ahead, and make other aspects of that task easier.

Dr Bakkaloglu said: “To prevent biogas methane emissions negating the overall benefits of biogas use, urgent attention is needed including continuous monitoring of biogas supply chains. We believe that with the proper detection, measurement, and repair techniques, all emissions can be avoided. We need better regulations, continuous emission measurements, and close collaboration with biogas plant operators in order to address methane emissions and meet Paris Agreement targets.”

“Given the growth in biomethane due to national decarbonisation strategies, urgent efforts are needed for the biomethane supply chain to address not only methane emissions but also the sustainability of biomethane.”

Co-author Dr Jasmin Cooper, also of the Sustainable Gas Institute and Department of Chemical Engineering, said: “Addressing the fundamental design issues and investment problems within the biofuel and methane industry would be a good starting point for stopping these leaks and preventing more from arising.”

The researchers are now focusing on the super-emitters within supply chains to better understand how to reduce them using the best available technologies.

As always, it’s good that we know about this. I think I’ve been advocating for biogas as part of our new energy “portfolio” for longer than I’ve been talking about the whole “getting it right” thing. This tech means that every human population can have a reliable source of flammable gas that’s proportional to the number of people feeding into the sewage system. I hope the leak problem gets fixed soon, because I don’t think we can afford to squander useful energy, and I know we can’t afford to be letting more methane into the atmosphere.

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The health benefits of… plastic pollution?

Oh boy, that’a fun headline, isn’t it?

A couple weeks ago, I talked about the minor misery of how every bit of good news we get these days seems to be some form of, “well, it’s not as bad as we thought”. This isn’t one of those stories. From everything I can tell, plastic pollution is still a huge problem, both for the biosphere, and for ourselves. As I’ve said before, we don’t just need to deal with climate change and habitat destruction, we also have a global cleanup project ahead of us that will likely be the effort of multiple generations at least. Mine waste, landfills, electronic waste, runoff, and the list just goes on and on.

That said, another major theme of this blog is the importance of finding ways to work with nature, and to get nature to work with us. The biosphere is changing in response to everything we’ve done over the last few hundred years, with bacteria evolving to eat substances that never existed before we made them. Things like that are likely to be useful when dealing with plastics, and it turns out that evolution in response to plastic pollution might actually have some beneficial results:

Scientists estimate between 5 and 13 million metric tons of plastic pollution enter the oceans each year, ranging from large floating debris to microplastics onto which microbes can form entire ecosystems. Plastic debris is rich in biomass, and therefore could be a good candidate for antibiotic production, which tends to occur in highly competitive natural environments.

To explore the potential of the plastisphere to be a source of novel antibiotics, the researchers modified the Tiny Earth citizen science approach (developed by Dr. Jo Handelsman) to marine conditions. The researchers incubated high and low density polyethylene plastic (the type commonly seen in grocery bags) in water near Scripps Pier in La Jolla, Calif. for 90 days.

The researchers isolated 5 antibiotic producing bacteria from ocean plastic, including strains of BacillusPhaeobacter and Vibrio. They tested the bacterial isolates against a variety of Gram positive and negative targets, finding the isolates to be effective against commonly used bacteria as well as 2 antibiotic resistant strains.

“Considering the current antibiotic crisis and the rise of superbugs, it is essential to look for alternative sources of novel antibiotics,” said study lead author Andrea Price of National University. “We hope to expand this project and further characterize the microbes and the antibiotics they produce.”

This is still preliminary research, but it makes sense to use environments that never existed before to find antibiotics that nothing can resist yet. Obviously this in no way changes the urgent need for environmental cleanup, but it’s a good reminder to pay attention as we’re doing it, and learn as much as possible from the process.

We’ve inherited an absolute shit-show of a world. We live in the proverbial “interesting times”, but it’s worth remembering sometimes that can throw something good our way.

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When it comes to flooding in the U.S. mid-Atlantic region, hurricanes barely rate

When I was a kid, the most exciting weather event I encountered was Hurricane Bob. If memory serves, we went inland when it came, and I think we were staying with a family friend. I remember seeing the dramatic footage of floating cars along the Massachusetts coast. I remember intense winds, and the surreal calm of the eye passing overhead. It cemented hurricanes in my mind as Serious Business, and nothing I’ve seen since then has dissuaded me of that view.

I also remember Nor’easters, with their cutting cold and violent winds, but we never left town to avoid one of those. To me, they were exciting events, that often knocked out the power for a while, which meant we got to light everything with candles. It turns out that for all the attention paid to hurricanes, in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, almost all coastal flooding events come from non-tropical storms.

The most recent paper was published in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology and compared extreme coastal flooding events from tropical cyclones and mid-latitude weather systems in the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays from 1980-2019.

Callahan looked at the past 40 years of measurements from several National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tide gauges in the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays. This helped him to quantify the storm surge — the rising sea as the result of atmospheric pressure and winds associated with a storm — from these large weather events.

While coastal flooding from tropical weather events tend to get a lot of media attention — and actually have a higher average surge level — Callahan said that midlatitude weather events can produce flood levels just as severe and occur much more frequently in the Mid-Atlantic.

“About 85 to 90% of our coastal flooding events here in the Mid-Atlantic come from the midlatitude events; they don’t come from the tropical cyclones and the hurricanes,” said Callahan. “You can get strong nor’easters that have just as high coastal inundation levels and cause just as much — if not more — damage than tropical cyclones.”

One of the reasons that the midlatitude events can cause so much damage is that, unlike the tropical systems that commonly impact coastal areas in the southeastern United States before hitting the Mid-Atlantic, the intensity and size of midlatitude events are most difficult to forecast and can strengthen quickly without much warning. Also, while tropical systems usually peak and are well-formed storms before reaching the Mid-Atlantic, a nor’easter can strengthen quickly right on or just off-shore of the region. Additionally, mid-latitude systems are often bigger in size, move slower, and remain over our region for longer periods of time.

That makes a lot of sense to me. Hurricanes are huge, easily visible, move over the planet almost like some kind of entity. They make for great television, in part because you can spend weeks tracking them from formation – usually off the coast of western Africa – until they dissipate. The disparity in coverage and perception seems to be from a combination of the incentives of our news entities, and the nature of the storms.

Because they happen frequently in the cold season — from November to March — not much attention is paid to how nor’easters cause coastal flooding. Instead, more attention is paid to the amount of ice and snow and wind that the nor’easters bring and not as much focus is on the coast.

“Our attention is diverted between these other impacts or factors of these storms in the winter and spring, but this is where most of our coastal flooding comes into play,” said Callahan.

I also have to imagine that flooding is more dangerous. It’s possible that the colder water means fewer chemical reactions, so less of that danger, but the risk of hypothermia is astronomical in those conditions, and all that ice in the floodwater can also do direct kinetic damage to things. I’d be inclined to think the increased frequency is responsible for the higher numbers from mid-latitude storms, but the authors also point out that even if we’re just looking at the biggest disasters, hurricanes don’t even make the halfway mark.

Of the top 10 largest coastal flooding events in the Mid-Atlantic, tropical weather systems account for only 30-45% in the Delaware and upper Chesapeake Bays and 40-45% in the lower Chesapeake Bay. If you expand out further, tropical systems make up approximately 10-15% of all coastal flooding events.

The authors go on to make the shocking prediction that as sea levels rise, coastal flooding will get worse.

I think this is a valuable lesson in how to think about climate change. We’re still living in the society that created this problem, and that is trying to avoid solving it. The things we’re shown aren’t always the things at which we need to be looking. That’s true in all areas of life, of course, but I think it’s particularly true with climate change. A lot of what’s happening is invisible to us until it’s too late to do anything but fight for survival. Science lets us see that stuff, but we’re actively discouraged from looking closely. There’s a miasma of propaganda that makes it hard to tell what’s going on, and I’m worried that that’s going to lead us to overlook some pretty important things

It’s good to have this information, and I hope more people become aware of it. In terms of overlooking things, all we can really do is pay attention and, as always, organize.

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Philosophy Tube: The Social Contract

So I foolishly took on too much today, and while I did get a lot of things done, a publication-ready blog post wasn’t one of them. Now it’s a little after midnight, I’m burned out, and my neighbor’s small white dog is barking under my window. I think it’s time to cut my losses, and balance things better tomorrow.

That said, I’d feel bad leaving it at that, so I’ll share the video I’m currently watching. So far it is both entertaining and informative, and I think it touches on some important issues. Philosophy tube is generally well worth your time.

Invasive species control: Where traditional environmentalism and climate activism align

Sometimes, when I think about climate change, I feel like there’s not much point to things like species preservation. If the rising temperature is going to kill most endangered species anyway, then what’s the point? At minimum, shouldn’t we invest all that money and effort into ending fossil fuel use?

The thing is, as I’ve mentioned before, we need those species. More accurately, we need functioning ecosystems, and those are made up of a diverse array of organisms. More than that, there’s ample evidence that in dealing with climate change and chemical pollution, actively working to support struggling ecosystems may help a great deal. Just as it would be dangerous to think we’re separate from the biosphere, it’s also dangerous to think that if we solve the fossil fuel problem, everything else will fall into place. In a world where we desperately need to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels, does it really matter if the plants are “local”, as long as they’re photosynthesizing and feeding insects?

Well, as it turns out, yes. It really does matter.

It is no secret that the ecological health of the planet is under serious threat. Scientists have previously identified invasive species, drought and an altered nitrogen cycle, driven in part by the widespread use of synthetic fertilizers, as among the most serious planetary challenges, with global climate change topping the list. Many have assumed that climate change would consistently amplify the negative effects of invasives—but, until now, there was no research to test that assumption.

“The good news,” says Bethany Bradley, professor of environmental conservation at UMass Amherst and the paper’s senior author, “is that the bad news isn’t quite as bad as we thought.”

To reach this conclusion, the team, led by Bianca Lopez, who conducted the research as part of her postdoctoral training at UMass Amherst, and Jenica Allen, professor of environmental conservation at UMass Amherst, conducted a meta-analysis of 95 previously published studies. From this earlier work, the researchers found 458 cases that reported on the ecological effects of invasive species combined with drought, nitrogen or global warming.

“What we found surprised us,” says Lopez. “There were a number of cases where the interactions made everything worse at the local scale, which is what we expected to see, but only about 25% of the time. The majority of the time, invasions and environmental change together didn’t make each other worse. Instead, the combined effects weren’t all that much more than the impact of invasive species alone.”

That surprised me, too, when I first read this, but have you ever seen what it looks like when an invasive plant takes over an area? Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my dad as he studied garlic mustard. It’s a biennial plant from the UK that can be used as an herb in cooking (hence the name), and is remarkably good at generating vast amounts of durable seeds. In the US, one plant setting seed is enough for them to start taking over. They spread so densely that nothing else can grow, and if you want to kill off a population, you have to uproot and remove the flowering plants every year for something like five years before you can be sure that there aren’t any seeds that will just sprout and undo all your work.

Another one I’ve worked with is honeysuckle – a woody shrub brought to the US from Asia as a decorative plant, if memory serves. Like the garlic mustard, when it takes over, it chokes out everything else, but the effect is more extreme and obvious. I’m not certain that it’s allelopathic, but it sure seems like it is, because nothing grows under them. Part of that is also because they put out leaves not just before trees do, but before spring wildflowers do. Normally, a forest will have a variety of plants growing in the understory, for a variety of reasons. In large parts of the U.S., honeysuckle forms such a dense layer that it’s like a green fog over the landscape in the early spring, and it’s just bare soil and dead leaves underneath that fog.

So really, it shouldn’t have surprised me. Invasive species cause major changes to the landscape when they take root, and it makes sense that an ecosystem that’s missing so many plant species will operate very differently from one that has a healthy level of diversity.

“What is so important about our findings,” says Allen, “is that they highlight the critical importance of managing invasive species at the local scale.” And the local scale is precisely the scale at which effective and swift action is most likely to happen.

In fact, as Allen points out, it already is. “Organizations like the Northeast Regional Invasive Species and Climate Change (RISCC) Network, which is a consortium of scientists and natural resource managers dedicated to sharing information and best practices about dealing with invasives, are already implementing a whole range of proactive practices to deal with invasive species.” And because confronting invasive species is comparatively cost-effective and doesn’t require future technological innovation, real progress can be made right now, especially by preventing the spread of invasive plants before they take over.

“Our work shows that dealing with invasive species now will make our ecosystems more climate resilient,” says Bradley.

And as we know, resilience is key. There’s a tendency among modern left-wing climate activists of dismissing the environmentalist movement of the 20th century. To a depressingly large degree, I think that’s valid. While the movement did have some real successes, it was rotten with white supremacy, colonialism, and outright lies about indigenous people “mismanaging” the land. I say it “was” that way, but it often still is. That said, the focus on native species and the control of invasive species continues to be something that they got right.

If you’re looking for something to do about climate change, and you’re not sure where to start, you could do worse than looking into local efforts to deal with invasive species, and joining with those. I’ll just say that if you’re new to this stuff, try to get some actual training before you start uprooting plants – sometimes it’s extremely hard to be certain what kind of thing you’re dealing with (that applies to animals and fungi as well), so look for efforts that are associated with a university of a nature center.

None of this stuff will lessen the need for revolutionary systemic change, but everything we can do to buy ourselves room to maneuver is worth doing. Helping your local ecosystem means helping your region with climate change, and if you do it with a group that’s already active, then it’s a way for you to network and organize.

If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!