From UC San Diego (US) : “The Uncertainty of Climate Change is Hurting Us”

From UC San Diego (US)

We know sea levels; temperatures; and atmospheric CO2 levels are climbing but what’s less clear is what that’s doing to our health.

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Tarik Benmarhnia didn’t plan on ending up here, in an office overlooking the pier at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

As a young student in France, Tarik Benmarhnia started out studying environmental engineering, with an interest in soil decontamination. During his schooling, he developed an interest in environmental justice. That eventually drove him to pursue a Ph.D. in epidemiology.

Most stories about climate change focus on the environmental effects, such as flooding in Venice’s Saint Mark’s Square and extensive droughts along the West Coast. But Benmarhnia and other researchers are now learning that the changing climate is having immediate and direct effects on our health—and will continue to affect us for years to come.

“The real challenge with studying the health impact of climate change is that there’s so much uncertainty,” said Benmarhnia, now associate professor at the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science and at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. “That makes it difficult to predict what, exactly, the health effects will be—and makes it hard to convince people that this is an important issue and that actions need to be undertaken right now.”

High temperatures bring high risks.

Uncertainty is a large part of what propels Benmarhnia’s research. He is interested in understanding complex situations—which kinds of events will lead to heat waves and wildfires, what those heat waves and wildfires will mean for human health, and who ultimately is sickened or dies.

“It’s really important that we understand the small details,” said Benmarhnia. “We can’t just say ‘Heat is killing people.’ We have to figure out why and how. We need to pick apart the complexity of the relationship and understand how different groups will be affected, and what policies we need to create to address the problems.”

One example: The relationship between local humidity and heat waves. Changing weather patterns have led to increased humidity along the California coast. Humid air holds heat better than dry air, so more humidity means high temperatures along the coast overnight. High temperatures can cause a host of health problems, including dehydration and heatstroke.

Normally, our bodies can avoid heatstroke by sweating, which brings heat to the surface of the skin and lets it dissipate as the sweat dries. But when it’s humid out, the sweat can’t evaporate, and the heat can’t dissipate. And under high heat conditions—above our body’s normal temperature of 98.6˚F—sweating also becomes moot.

Heatstroke can cause confusion and seizures, and if left untreated, the body will eventually begin to shut down as essential enzymes and organs stop functioning. Everyone is at risk of heatstroke, but the risk is especially high for children, whose bodies aren’t fully adept at temperature control, and older adults who may take medications that affect heat regulation.

According to the National Climate Assessment, the number of “extreme heat” days in the U.S. will continue to rise. And the combination of extreme heat days and increased coastal humidity means that Southern California—including San Diego—will be hit especially hard.

But how do we go about coping with this problem? “One way we can help is by implementing action plans, such as early heat warning systems, to protect and care for vulnerable populations on very hot days,” said Benmarhnia. “The risks of extreme heat are especially burdensome on the elderly and in low-income communities, where people may not be able to afford air conditioning.

“If communities are educated about these risks and can respond accordingly to check on their vulnerable members, as well as implementing urban greening strategies to create more parks and gardens to help keep neighborhoods cool, that can go a long way toward preventing heat stroke deaths.”

Environmental exposures affect pregnancies.

The health effects of climate change aren’t always as obvious as heatstroke. Other scientists are studying the myriad ways a shifting environment and rising pollution levels are affecting human development.

Like Benmarhnia, Christina Chambers, is not necessarily the person you’d expect to be at the forefront of this field. In fact, research is her second career—after volunteering in the neonatal intensive care unit at UC San Diego Health on her days off, she made the jump from the business world into epidemiology.

She studies teratology, working to better understand the causes of congenital abnormalities in human development. As a professor of pediatrics at UC San Diego School of Medicine, her particular interest is in understanding how exposure to environmental compounds, such as pesticides, medications and infections, can affect embryonic development during pregnancy and childhood development via breast milk. Often, her research is longitudinal, following groups of parents and children over many years to understand the short- and long-term effects of certain exposures.

Chambers finds that her work is increasingly influenced by climate concerns. “I work with a counseling service to answer questions about possible exposures for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding,” she said. “The most difficult questions come after a natural disaster, like a hurricane or flood. Now you’re not only impacted by the devastation of losing your home, but also the downstream effects of mold exposure, infections, things you would not have had otherwise. It’s really important that people understand the risks of these kinds of exposures.”

According to Chambers, there are many ways a changing climate can lead to increased hazardous exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding. For example, it could alter the geographic distribution of disease-bearing insects, such as ticks transmitting Lyme disease or mosquitoes carrying Zika virus. If natural disasters and altered weather patterns affect agriculture, it may be difficult to access critical foods for preventing birth defects, such as folic acid-rich spinach.

One area where climate change is already directly affecting pregnancy outcomes is closely related to the work being done by Benmarhnia—specifically, a link between adverse pregnancy outcomes and increased body temperature.

“During pregnancy, you don’t want your body temperature to increase more than a couple of degrees,” Chambers said. “We know that during certain gestational windows, experiencing a high temperature, whether from a fever or even from sitting in a hot tub for too long, can lead to serious birth defects. So there’s a possibility that increasingly high air temperatures could jeopardize healthy pregnancies.”

New research by Benmarhnia and his colleagues at UC San Diego and San Diego State University demonstrates another risk of extreme heat exposure during pregnancy: increased risk of preterm birth.

In a study published in February 2020, the researchers examined data from nearly 2 million births, 2005 through 2013. The risk of preterm birth was consistently higher for people exposed to a high heat episode during their last week of pregnancy. The higher the temperature and the longer the heat wave, the greater the risk of preterm birth.

Preterm birth, defined as birth before 37 weeks of gestation, is associated with a variety of health issues. Short-term complications can include respiratory and cardiac problems, risk of brain hemorrhage, and difficulty controlling body temperature. Long term, children born preterm are at an increased risk of cerebral palsy, learning and behavioral disorders, and vision and hearing problems. These challenges can affect people throughout their lives.

Benmarhnia’s research suggests that implementing warning and alert systems targeted toward pregnant people, as well as expanded cooling zones and more exposure to green spaces, could improve birth outcomes and protect against these risks.

But even outside of preterm birth, there may be other risks associated with climate change effects. According to Benmarhnia, air pollutant exposure at high levels during pregnancy —such as those generated by the wildfires that blaze across southern California each summer and fall—is associated with increased risk of heart defects and even prenatal respiratory complications, indicating that climate change could be affecting pregnancies at all stages.

Studying climate effects in our backyard.

While it’s likely that climate change could be contributing to prenatal risks, it can be difficult to prove a direct association without long-term environmental and health data.

To that end, Chambers and her team are undertaking an enormous study in San Diego County, compiling anonymized data from every baby born in San Diego over a 20-year period.

“This study captures all of the hospital discharge data for all babies born in the county, including locations and dates,” said Chambers. “Now we are comparing that information with relevant environmental data, like water and air quality measures, traffic patterns, and police data, to see if there are relationships or patterns between health outcomes and environmental events.

“We can also access decades of banked blood spots from newborns and serum samples from expectant parents, to look for genetic markers associated with increased risk of certain problems, such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS.”

These data can also be used to examine the effects of specific kinds of environmental exposures.

“Are there changes in preterm delivery rates in regions affected by wildfires?” said Chambers. “Or in areas where it’s getting hotter over time? This longitudinal data will help us pick apart the impacts of these trends.”

Chamber’s hope is that this project will continue to expand and include more members of the community, to collect additional health data in the region.

“When it comes to having children, climate change is a big consideration for some people,” she said. “There’s been a slight drop in birth rates recently, and it could be caused by a lot of things, but I’m definitely hearing concerns about what the world will look like in the future.”

Painting a new picture of the future.

Even with data from thousands of community members, it will be difficult to pinpoint the exact causes of adverse health outcomes in pregnancy and infants, which is why Benmarhnia and others are working to make the connections between climate change and child health.

A study out of Benmarhnia’s lab, published in December 2019 in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society, found that exposure to wildfire smoke during the Lilac Fire in December of 2017 was connected to an uptick in the number of emergency room and urgent care clinics for children seeking respiratory care. More recently, the team found that airborne particles in wildfire smoke are approximately 10 times more harmful on children’s respiratory health than similarly sized particles from other sources, particularly for children under age five.

And he’s studying other angles, too. “Big, obvious problems are easy,” he said. “More pollution in the air leads to more respiratory problems. But it’s harder to see that a heatwave can exacerbate other health conditions and lead to more complications, like a stroke, or renal failure in people with diabetes.

“Extreme precipitation events can cause sewers to flood and release pathogens into the air and water. And we know that high levels of air pollution are linked to increased risk of dementia. But all of these things are very sneaky, and very hard to quantify.”

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San Diego skyline in front of smoke from wildfires, October 23, 2007. Credit: Kat Miner/Wikimedia.

Benmarhnia isn’t just trying to connect the dots between climate change and health; he’s also working with local policy makers and government officials to start developing plans to protect our health in the years to come.

“We’re developing an adaptation plan specifically focused on the health impacts of climate change and how to mitigate them,” he said. “This is important because everyone will be impacted by this. Everyone knows someone dealing with some of these conditions. And everyone is exposed.”

While that might seem dire, Benmarhnia actually finds this perspective motivating, and thinks it will help spur climate action.

“Even without the climate change focus, epidemiology is depressing,” he laughed. “But ultimately, I think that if we were able to so dramatically change the planet in only a few decades, with enough effort, we can try to do just the opposite.”

It will take time and effort to make the necessary changes, but Benmarhnia is optimistic—and despite the risks of climate change, he thinks that children are an essential part of the future.

“We need to share what we’re doing with the next generation, and make sure that they are ready to act,” he said. “Having kids is part of the solution.”

See the full article here .

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Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

Stem Education Coalition

The University of California, San Diego (US), is a public research university located in the La Jolla area of San Diego, California, in the United States. The university occupies 2,141 acres (866 ha) near the coast of the Pacific Ocean with the main campus resting on approximately 1,152 acres (466 ha). Established in 1960 near the pre-existing Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego is the seventh oldest of the 10 University of California campuses and offers over 200 undergraduate and graduate degree programs, enrolling about 22,700 undergraduate and 6,300 graduate students. UC San Diego is one of America’s Public Ivy universities, which recognizes top public research universities in the United States. UC San Diego was ranked 8th among public universities and 37th among all universities in the United States, and rated the 18th Top World University by U.S. News & World Report’s 2015 rankings.

UC San Diego is organized into seven undergraduate residential colleges (Revelle; John Muir; Thurgood Marshall; Earl Warren; Eleanor Roosevelt; Sixth; and Seventh), four academic divisions (Arts and Humanities; Biological Sciences; Physical Sciences; and Social Sciences), and seven graduate and professional schools (Jacobs School of Engineering; Rady School of Management; Scripps Institution of Oceanography; School of Global Policy and Strategy; School of Medicine; Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences; and the newly established Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science). UC San Diego Health, the region’s only academic health system, provides patient care; conducts medical research; and educates future health care professionals at the UC San Diego Medical Center, Hillcrest; Jacobs Medical Center; Moores Cancer Center; Sulpizio Cardiovascular Center; Shiley Eye Institute; Institute for Genomic Medicine; Koman Family Outpatient Pavilion and various express care and urgent care clinics throughout San Diego.

The university operates 19 organized research units (ORUs), including the Center for Energy Research; Qualcomm Institute (a branch of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology); San Diego Supercomputer Center; and the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind, as well as eight School of Medicine research units, six research centers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and two multi-campus initiatives, including the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation. UC San Diego is also closely affiliated with several regional research centers, such as the Salk Institute; the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute; the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine; and the Scripps Research Institute. It is classified among “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity”. According to the National Science Foundation(US), UC San Diego spent $1.265 billion on research and development in fiscal year 2018, ranking it 7th in the nation.

UC San Diego is considered one of the country’s Public Ivies. As of February 2021, UC San Diego faculty, researchers and alumni have won 27 Nobel Prizes and three Fields Medals, eight National Medals of Science, eight MacArthur Fellowships, and three Pulitzer Prizes. Additionally, of the current faculty, 29 have been elected to the National Academy of Engineering, 70 to the National Academy of Sciences(US), 45 to the National Academy of Medicine(US) and 110 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

History

When the Regents of the University of California originally authorized the San Diego campus in 1956, it was planned to be a graduate and research institution, providing instruction in the sciences, mathematics, and engineering. Local citizens supported the idea, voting the same year to transfer to the university 59 acres (24 ha) of mesa land on the coast near the preexisting Scripps Institution of Oceanography(US). The Regents requested an additional gift of 550 acres (220 ha) of undeveloped mesa land northeast of Scripps, as well as 500 acres (200 ha) on the former site of Camp Matthews from the federal government, but Roger Revelle, then director of Scripps Institution and main advocate for establishing the new campus, jeopardized the site selection by exposing the La Jolla community’s exclusive real estate business practices, which were antagonistic to minority racial and religious groups. This outraged local conservatives, as well as Regent Edwin W. Pauley.

UC President Clark Kerr satisfied San Diego city donors by changing the proposed name from University of California, La Jolla, to University of California, San Diego. The city voted in agreement to its part in 1958, and the UC approved construction of the new campus in 1960. Because of the clash with Pauley, Revelle was not made chancellor. Herbert York, first director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, was designated instead. York planned the main campus according to the “Oxbridge” model, relying on many of Revelle’s ideas.

According to Kerr, “San Diego always asked for the best,” though this created much friction throughout the UC system, including with Kerr himself, because UC San Diego often seemed to be “asking for too much and too fast.” Kerr attributed UC San Diego’s “special personality” to Scripps, which for over five decades had been the most isolated UC unit in every sense: geographically, financially, and institutionally. It was a great shock to the Scripps community to learn that Scripps was now expected to become the nucleus of a new UC campus and would now be the object of far more attention from both the university administration in Berkeley and the state government in Sacramento.

UC San Diego was the first general campus of the University of California to be designed “from the top down” in terms of research emphasis. Local leaders disagreed on whether the new school should be a technical research institute or a more broadly based school that included undergraduates as well. John Jay Hopkins of General Dynamics Corporation pledged one million dollars for the former while the City Council offered free land for the latter. The original authorization for the San Diego campus given by the UC Regents in 1956 approved a “graduate program in science and technology” that included undergraduate programs, a compromise that won both the support of General Dynamics and the city voters’ approval.

Nobel laureate Harold Urey, a physicist from the University of Chicago(US), and Hans Suess, who had published the first paper on the greenhouse effect with Revelle in the previous year, were early recruits to the faculty in 1958. Maria Goeppert-Mayer, later the second female Nobel laureate in physics, was appointed professor of physics in 1960. The graduate division of the school opened in 1960 with 20 faculty in residence, with instruction offered in the fields of physics, biology, chemistry, and earth science. Before the main campus completed construction, classes were held in the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

By 1963, new facilities on the mesa had been finished for the School of Science and Engineering, and new buildings were under construction for Social Sciences and Humanities. Ten additional faculty in those disciplines were hired, and the whole site was designated the First College, later renamed after Roger Revelle, of the new campus. York resigned as chancellor that year and was replaced by John Semple Galbraith. The undergraduate program accepted its first class of 181 freshman at Revelle College in 1964. Second College was founded in 1964, on the land deeded by the federal government, and named after environmentalist John Muir two years later. The School of Medicine also accepted its first students in 1966.

Political theorist Herbert Marcuse joined the faculty in 1965. A champion of the New Left, he reportedly was the first protester to occupy the administration building in a demonstration organized by his student, political activist Angela Davis. The American Legion offered to buy out the remainder of Marcuse’s contract for $20,000; the Regents censured Chancellor William J. McGill for defending Marcuse on the basis of academic freedom, but further action was averted after local leaders expressed support for Marcuse. Further student unrest was felt at the university, as the United States increased its involvement in the Vietnam War during the mid-1960s, when a student raised a Viet Minh flag over the campus. Protests escalated as the war continued and were only exacerbated after the National Guard fired on student protesters at Kent State University in 1970. Over 200 students occupied Urey Hall, with one student setting himself on fire in protest of the war.

Early research activity and faculty quality, notably in the sciences, was integral to shaping the focus and culture of the university. Even before UC San Diego had its own campus, faculty recruits had already made significant research breakthroughs, such as the Keeling Curve, a graph that plots rapidly increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and was the first significant evidence for global climate change; the Kohn–Sham equations, used to investigate particular atoms and molecules in quantum chemistry; and the Miller–Urey experiment, which gave birth to the field of prebiotic chemistry.

Engineering, particularly computer science, became an important part of the university’s academics as it matured. University researchers helped develop UCSD Pascal, an early machine-independent programming language that later heavily influenced Java; the National Science Foundation Network, a precursor to the Internet; and the Network News Transfer Protocol during the late 1970s to 1980s. In economics, the methods for analyzing economic time series with time-varying volatility (ARCH), and with common trends (cointegration) were developed. UC San Diego maintained its research intense character after its founding, racking up 25 Nobel Laureates affiliated within 50 years of history; a rate of five per decade.

Under Richard C. Atkinson’s leadership as chancellor from 1980 to 1995, the university strengthened its ties with the city of San Diego by encouraging technology transfer with developing companies, transforming San Diego into a world leader in technology-based industries. He oversaw a rapid expansion of the School of Engineering, later renamed after Qualcomm founder Irwin M. Jacobs, with the construction of the San Diego Supercomputer Center(US) and establishment of the computer science, electrical engineering, and bioengineering departments. Private donations increased from $15 million to nearly $50 million annually, faculty expanded by nearly 50%, and enrollment doubled to about 18,000 students during his administration. By the end of his chancellorship, the quality of UC San Diego graduate programs was ranked 10th in the nation by the National Research Council.

The university continued to undergo further expansion during the first decade of the new millennium with the establishment and construction of two new professional schools — the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Rady School of Management—and the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, a research institute run jointly with University of California Irvine(US). UC San Diego also reached two financial milestones during this time, becoming the first university in the western region to raise over $1 billion in its eight-year fundraising campaign in 2007 and also obtaining an additional $1 billion through research contracts and grants in a single fiscal year for the first time in 2010. Despite this, due to the California budget crisis, the university loaned $40 million against its own assets in 2009 to offset a significant reduction in state educational appropriations. The salary of Pradeep Khosla, who became chancellor in 2012, has been the subject of controversy amidst continued budget cuts and tuition increases.

On November 27, 2017, the university announced it would leave its longtime athletic home of the California Collegiate Athletic Association, an NCAA Division II league, to begin a transition to Division I in 2020. At that time, it will join the Big West Conference, already home to four other UC campuses (Davis, Irvine, Riverside, Santa Barbara). The transition period will run through the 2023–24 school year. The university prepares to transition to NCAA Division I competition on July 1, 2020.

Research

Applied Physics and Mathematics

The Nature Index lists UC San Diego as 6th in the United States for research output by article count in 2019. In 2017, UC San Diego spent $1.13 billion on research, the 7th highest expenditure among academic institutions in the U.S. The university operates several organized research units, including the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences (CASS), the Center for Drug Discovery Innovation, and the Institute for Neural Computation. UC San Diego also maintains close ties to the nearby Scripps Research Institute(US) and Salk Institute for Biological Studies(US). In 1977, UC San Diego developed and released the UCSD Pascal programming language. The university was designated as one of the original national Alzheimer’s disease research centers in 1984 by the National Institute on Aging. In 2018, UC San Diego received $10.5 million from the DOE National Nuclear Security Administration(US) to establish the Center for Matters under Extreme Pressure (CMEC).

The university founded the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) in 1985, which provides high performance computing for research in various scientific disciplines. In 2000, UC San Diego partnered with UC Irvine to create the Qualcomm Institute – UC San Diego(US), which integrates research in photonics, nanotechnology, and wireless telecommunication to develop solutions to problems in energy, health, and the environment.

UC San Diego also operates the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO)(US), one of the largest centers of research in earth science in the world, which predates the university itself. Together, SDSC and SIO, along with funding partner universities California Institute of Technology(US), San Diego State University(US), and UC Santa Barbara, manage the High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network.