Linking Climate Change, Air Pollution and Public Health

We often view climate change and air pollution as two separate entities. But, the two issues are united by one common driving factor: human emissions. Nicholas School of the Environment Earth Sciences Professor Drew Shindell reminds us how interconnected these issues truly are, and how we must begin viewing them as such to create change.

Shindell argues that climate change and air pollution are often misrepresented. Air pollution is a problem that seems elusive to the individual, and yet it is the

Dr. Shindell with Marcelo Mena (far left), Vice Minister of the Environment of Chile, and Governor Jerry Brown (CA) at the COP21 in Paris.

number one cause of premature death. The problem is often polarized from us, and we forget that we are largely at fault for its increasing effect. We place the blame on the emissions of large corporations, when our own car emissions are just as detrimental. Shindell argues that it is the “othering” of these issues that makes it hard for us feel a need to create change.

But, by clearly linking climate change and air pollution together, and linking those two to human health, Shindell believes we will develop a greater sense of responsibility for our environment. He gives the example of Pakistan, where increased ozone levels due to human emissions have severely decreased the air quality. As a result, there has been a 36% decline wheat and rice production. This dent in Pakistan’s agricultural systems poses a great threat on food security for the entire nation, and could potentially create a wave of health issues.

But policy often blurs the line between air pollution, climate change and human health. Shindell says he doesn’t know of a single jurisdiction that explicitly mentions the scope of negative effects air pollution and climate change can have on our health (stroke, lung cancer, new disease vectors, to name a few). He suggests expanding our metrics and developing a broader-based impact analysis so that humans are well-informed of the interconnectedness of these issues.

Is it easier to blame a big factory for pollution than to look at your own travel habits?

If we included public health in our impact estimates for methane emissions, for example, the cost would be much larger than anticipated. But, Shindell highlights that to bring these emissions down requires a change that is not easy to ask of our energy-dependent, consumer-driven world. Decreasing our meat consumption by 48%, for example, would save us billions of dollars, but to trigger such a change would demand a desire from the public to alter their behavior, which time and time again has proven to be challenging.

At the end of the day, this scientific issue is a largely psychological one. We assume our contributions make a negligible difference, when in reality it is our consumer behavior that will drive the change we wish to see in our environment. But, how are we expected to feel the burden of air pollution on our health, when policy isn’t directly linking the two together? How can we see climate change as an issue that threatens the security of global agricultural systems when legislation fails to draw the two together explicitly? It is here where we must see a change.

Post by Lola Sanchez-Carrion

 

Rooftop Observatory Tracks Hurricane Rain and Winter Snow

Jonathan Holt replaces the protective cover over the rain gauge.

Jonathan Holt replaces the protective cover over the rain gauge.

On Friday night, while most of North Carolina braced against the biting sleet and snow with hot cocoa and Netflix, a suite of research instruments stood tall above Duke’s campus, quietly gathering data on the the storm.

The instruments are part of a new miniature cloud and precipitation-monitoring laboratory installed on the roof of Fitzpatrick CIEMAS by graduate student Jonathan Holt and fellow climate researchers in Ana Barros’s lab.

The team got the instruments up and running in early October, just in time for their rain gauge to register a whooping six inches of rain in six hours at the height of Hurricane Matthew — an accumulation rate comparable to that of Hurricane Katrina when it made landfall in Mississippi. Last weekend, they collected similar data on the winter storm, their Micro Rain Radar tracking the rate of snowfall throughout the night.

The rooftop is just the latest location where the Barros group is gathering precipitation data, joining sites in the Great Smokies, the Central Andes of Peru, and Southern Africa. These three instruments, with a fourth added in early January, are designed to continuously track the precipitation rate, the size and shape of raindrops or snow flakes – which climatologists collectively dub hydrometeors — and the formation and height of clouds in the air above Duke.

Ana Barros, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke, says that her team uses these field observations, combined with atmospheric data from institutions like NOAA and NASA, to study how microscopic particles of dust, smoke, or other materials in the air called aerosols interact with water vapor to form clouds and precipitation. Understanding these interactions is a key prerequisite to building accurate weather and climate models.

“What we are trying to do here is to actually follow the lifecycle of water droplets in the air, and understand how that varies depending on weather systems, on conditions, on the climatic region and the location on the landscape,” Barros said.

A distrometer on the roof of Fitzpatrick CIEMAS.

A laser beam passing between the two heads of the distrometer detects the numbers and sizes of passing raindrops or snowflakes.

Besides tracking dramatic events like Matthew, Barros says they are also interested in gathering data on light rainfall, defined as precipitation at a rate of less than 3 mm of an hour, throughout the year. Light rainfall is a significant source of water in the region, comprising about 35 percent of the annual rainfall. Studies have shown that it is particularly prone to climate change because even modest bumps in temperature can cause these small water droplets to evaporate back to gas.

Eliminating this water source, “is not a dramatic change,” Barros said. “But it is one of those very important changes that has implications for how we manage water, how we use water, how we design infrastructure, how we have to actually plan for the future.”

Barros says she is unaware of any similar instrument suites in North Carolina, putting their rooftop site in position to provide unique insights about the region’s climate. And unlike their mountainous field sites, instruments on the roof are less prone to being co-opted by itchy bears.

“When we can gather long term rain gauge data like this, that puts our research group in a really unique position to come up with results that no one else has, and to draw conclusions about climate change that no one else can,” Holt said. “It is fun to have a truly unique perspective into the meteorology, hydrology and weather in this place.”

Micro Rain Radar data from Hurricane Matthew and the snowstorm on Jan. 6th.

The Micro Rain Radar (MRR) shoots radio waves into the sky where they reflect off water droplets or snowflakes, revealing the size and height of clouds or precipitation. The team collected continuous MRR data during Hurricane Matthew (top) and last Friday’s snow storm (bottom), creating these colorful plots that illustrate precipitation rates during the storms.

Kara J. Manke, PhD

Post by Kara Manke

Seeing Nano

Take pictures at more than 300,000 times magnification with electron microscopes at Duke

Sewer gnat head

An image of a sewer gnat’s head taken through a scanning electron microscope. Courtesy of Fred Nijhout.

The sewer gnat is a common nuisance around kitchen and bathroom drains that’s no bigger than a pea. But magnified thousands of times, its compound eyes and bushy antennae resemble a first place winner in a Movember mustache contest.

Sewer gnats’ larger cousins, horseflies are known for their painful bite. Zoom in and it’s easy to see how they hold onto their furry livestock prey:  the tiny hooked hairs on their feet look like Velcro.

Students in professor Fred Nijhout’s entomology class photograph these and other specimens at more than 300,000 times magnification at Duke’s Shared Material & Instrumentation Facility (SMIF).

There the insects are dried, coated in gold and palladium, and then bombarded with a beam of electrons from a scanning electron microscope, which can resolve structures tens of thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair.

From a ladybug’s leg to a weevil’s suit of armor, the bristly, bumpy, pitted surfaces of insects are surprisingly beautiful when viewed up close.

“The students have come to treat travels across the surface of an insect as the exploration of a different planet,” Nijhout said.

Horsefly foot

The foot of a horsefly is equipped with menacing claws and Velcro-like hairs that help them hang onto fur. Photo by Valerie Tornini.

Weevil

The hard outer skeleton of a weevil looks smooth and shiny from afar, but up close it’s covered with scales and bristles. Courtesy of Fred Nijhout.

fruit fly wing

Magnified 500 times, the rippled edges of this fruit fly wing are the result of changes in the insect’s genetic code. Courtesy of Eric Spana.

You, too, can gaze at alien worlds too small to see with the naked eye. Students and instructors across campus can use the SMIF’s high-powered microscopes and other state of the art research equipment at no charge with support from the Class-Based Explorations Program.

Biologist Eric Spana’s experimental genetics class uses the microscopes to study fruit flies that carry genetic mutations that alter the shape of their wings.

Students in professor Hadley Cocks’ mechanical engineering 415L class take lessons from objects that break. A scanning electron micrograph of a cracked cymbal once used by the Duke pep band reveals grooves and ridges consistent with the wear and tear from repeated banging.

cracked cymbal

Magnified 3000 times, the surface of this broken cymbal once used by the Duke Pep Band reveals signs of fatigue cracking. Courtesy of Hadley Cocks.

These students are among more than 200 undergraduates in eight classes who benefitted from the program last year, thanks to a grant from the Donald Alstadt Foundation.

You don’t have to be a scientist, either. Historians and art conservators have used scanning electron microscopes to study the surfaces of Bronze Age pottery, the composition of ancient paints and even dust from Egyptian mummies and the Shroud of Turin.

Instructors and undergraduates are invited to find out how they could use the microscopes and other nanotech equipement in the SMIF in their teaching and research. Queries should be directed to Dr. Mark Walters, Director of SMIF, via email at mark.walters@duke.edu.

Located on Duke’s West Campus in the Fitzpatrick Building, the SMIF is a shared use facility available to Duke researchers and educators as well as external users from other universities, government laboratories or industry through a partnership called the Research Triangle Nanotechnology Network. For more info visit http://smif.pratt.duke.edu/.

Scanning electron microscope

This scanning electron microscope could easily be mistaken for equipment from a dentist’s office.

s200_robin.smith

Post by Robin Smith

Nature vs. Nurture: Predicting Our Futures

Sitting in The Connection at the Social Science Research Institute in Gross Hall was intimidating. I was surrounded by distinguished people: professors, visiting professors from distinguished universities, researchers, and postdocs, all of whom had gathered together to view a showing of the documentary, Predict My Future: The Science of Us.

moffit_temi_people

Dr. Terrie Moffitt, a Duke professor. Image courtesy of Moffitt and Caspi.

avshalom_caspi3_comp_sm

Dr. Avshalom Caspi, a Duke professor. Image Courtesy of Moffitt and Caspi.

Predict My Future documents the work of Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi, two Duke professors who study people in Dunedin, New Zealand. They have followed the lives of all the children born within a year in Dunedin for the last 40 years to measure genetics, personal habits, environment, jobs, physical attributes, and etc.  The Dunedin Longitudinal Study is the largest study of its kind and offers deep insights into how children become adults.

The episode, “The Early Years,” first posed the questions, “Why do some people become successful and others become outcasts? Why are we the way that we are?” By tracking all of these personal factors and some  behaviors, including risky sexual activities, criminal activities, and drinking and smoking habits, the Dunedin Longitudinal Study can answer these questions. The researchers can tell which children are likely to become “problem children,” “geniuses,” and so on, based on the child’s personality type.

30437237750_f6bf4f577f_o

Q&A Session After the Viewing of the Documentary. Image Courtesy of Duke SSRI and Taken By Shelbi Fanning.

The study first identified five different personality types in young children, and researchers discovered that the children’s’ personality types did not change in adulthood. The three personality types that are typically associated with doing well in life, having better health, having friends, and being more successful are: “well-adjusted,” “reserved,” and “confident.” The two personality types associated with having poorer quality of life in adulthood are “inhibited” and “undercontrolled.”

Then, the study identified other factors that lead to serious consequences later in life or simply predict futures. Children who experienced delays in walking and in talking were likely to have issues with brain development. Boys with these traits typically disliked school, did poorly in school, and were more likely to be involved in criminal activity.

30621009122_7a1db6d4e5_o

The full house watching the documentary. Image Courtesy of Duke SSRI and Taken by Shelbi Fanning.

The amount of sleep children received between the ages of five and eleven would determine obesity in adulthood. Adults who received the least amount of sleep as children tended to be obese by age 32.

Schizophrenia, researchers discovered, starts developing in young children, not just adults as had previously been thought. About half of the 11-year-olds in the study who said they had seen or heard things that weren’t there had developed schizophrenia two decades later.

Watching more TV was associated with a higher likelihood of smoking and having anxiety. Regardless of IQ or environment, children who watched more TV were more likely to leave school without qualifications.

The important lesson the documentary emphasized was that having a good childhood is important. Warm, sensitive, stimulating, family-feeling invoking environments are great protective factors to risk factors.

Overall, this was a brilliant, stimulating, easy-to-understand documentary.

meg_shieh_100hedPost by Meg Shieh

An Expert’s Perspective on Mental Health

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Week and Depression Awareness Month, I interviewed Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell,  an associate research professor of Global Health in the Duke Global Health Institute whose research focuses on positive mental health, clergy health, and the integration of care within health systems.

In 2007, Proeschold-Bell founded the Clergy Health Initiative, a program developed to improve health outcomes among the clergy of North Carolina. In their first study, they performed a longitudinal survey of nine Methodist churches in North Carolina to determine the clergy’s health status. It was found that the clergy had a far higher obesity rate (41%) than the rest of North Carolina (29%). High rates of chronic disease associated with overweight/obese individuals were also present. The most interesting find, though, was that depression rates were double that of the regional average. Why?

rae_jean_proeschold-bell_002

Proeschold-Bell has conducted research in Kenya, Tanzania, Peru, India, and the U.S.

“Being the leader of an organization is difficult, says Proeschold-Bell. Churches are extremely underfunded and are constantly pressed for time. Pastors are expected to do all of the spiritual work that being a pastor entails, and also act as business managers for the church. But, thanks to donations from the Duke Endowment, Proeschold-Bell was able to develop three interventions to improve clergy health. Since then, she’s retrieved ten years of data that has allowed for further improvements in holistic health for the clergy of North Carolina.

When asked about depression specifically, Proeschold-Bell said that “the current model in place to treat depression does not work.” We focus strictly on treating the issue by mitigating its symptoms through an antidepressant, instead of pulling at the issue from multiple roots.

She says our efforts should be focused on increasing positive mental health. Positive mental health refers to the presence of positive emotions and good functioning (in both individual and social environments). Work being done by Corey Keyes at Emory has shown that individuals with high positive mental health are less likely to develop depression and chronic disease. By focusing our efforts towards improving one’s overall mental wellbeing, we can get individuals “ahead of the curve” and prevent them from even being depressed in the first place, says Proeschold-Bell.

Further research focusing on positive emotions has been conducted by Barbara Fredrickson at UNC, who suggests that positive emotions have been scientifically proven to increase people’s open-mindedness. Those with more positive emotions have been more willing to try new things and open up to other people, says Proeschold-Bell. These positive emotions connect greatly to one’s ability to be resilient, and there is research to be done in the overlap between possessing these emotions and being able to recover from situations of trauma and conflict that can be mentally straining.

To tackle mental health issues, we must look at them holistically and extensively. Not only do these issues need to be covered from all angles, but interventions need to be culturally competent and context-specific. Keeping these values in mind, will help improve global mental health outcomes.

lola_sanchez_carrion_100hed

Post by: Lola Sanchez-Carrion

How to Get a Lemur to Notice You

Duke evolutionary anthropology professor Brian Hare studies what goes on in the minds of animals.

Duke evolutionary anthropology professor Brian Hare studies what goes on in the minds of animals.

Duke professor Brian Hare remembers his first flopped experiment. While an undergraduate at Emory in the late 1990s, he spent a week at the Duke Lemur Center waving bananas at lemurs. He was trying to see if they, like other primates, possess an important social skill. If a lemur spots a piece of food, or a predator, can other lemurs follow his gaze to spot it too?

First he needed the lemurs to notice him. If he could get one lemur to look at him, he could figure out if other lemurs then turn around and look too. In similar experiments with monkeys and chimps, oranges had done the trick.

“But I couldn’t get their attention,” Hare said. “It failed miserably.”

Hare was among more than 200 people from 25 states and multiple countries who converged in Durham this week for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Duke Lemur Center, Sept. 21-23, 2016.

Humans look to subtle movements in faces and eyes for clues to what others are thinking, Hare told a crowd assembled at a two-day research symposium held in conjunction with the event.

If someone quickly glances down at your name tag, for example, you can guess just from that eye movement that they can’t recall your name.

We develop this skill as infants. Most kids start to follow the gaze of others by the age of two. A lack of interest in gaze-following is considered an early sign of autism.

Arizona State University graduate student Joel Bray got hooked on lemurs while working as an undergraduate research assistant in the Hare lab.

Arizona State University graduate student Joel Bray got hooked on lemurs while working as an undergraduate research assistant in the Hare lab.

“Gaze-following suggests that kids are starting to think about the thoughts of others,” Hare said. “And using where others look to try to understand what they want or what they know.”

In 1998 Hare and researchers Michael Tomasello and Josep Call published a study showing that chimpanzees and multiple species of monkeys are able to look where others are looking. But at the time not much was known about cognition in lemurs.

“When you study dogs you just say, ‘sit, stay,’ and they’re happy to play along,” Hare said. Working at the Duke Lemur Center, eventually his students discovered the secret to making these tree-dwelling animals feel at home: “Lemurs like to be off the ground,” Hare said. “We figured out that if we just let them solve problems on tables, they’re happy to participate.”

Studies have since shown that multiple lemur species are able to follow the gaze of other lemurs. “Lemurs have gone from ignored to adored in cognitive research,” Hare said.

 

Ring-tailed lemurs are among several species of lemurs known to follow the gaze of other lemurs. The ability to look where others are looking is considered a key step towards understanding what others see, know, or might do. Photo by David Haring, Duke Lemur Center.

Ring-tailed lemurs are among several lemur species known to follow the gaze of other lemurs. The ability to look where others are looking is considered a key step towards understanding what others see, know, or might do. Photo by David Haring, Duke Lemur Center.

Robin SmithPost by Robin A. Smith