Category Archives: Science

Headline of the day II: Gettin’ ready to rumble?


From the Los Angeles Times:

San Andreas fault ‘locked, loaded and ready to roll’ with big earthquake, expert says

Southern California’s section of the San Andreas fault is “locked, loaded and ready to roll,” a leading earthquake scientist said Wednesday at the National Earthquake Conference in Long Beach.

Killers in white coats: Medical errors’ deadly toll


While the American healthcare system saves millions of lives every year, it also kills quite a few.

So many, in fact, that medical errors may be the nation’s third largest killer.

From the Johns Hopkins Health System:

Analyzing medical death rate data over an eight-year period, Johns Hopkins patient safety experts have calculated that more than 250,000 deaths per year are due to medical error in the U.S. Their figure, published May 3 in The BMJ, surpasses the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) third leading cause of death — respiratory disease, which kills close to 150,000 people per year.

The Johns Hopkins team says the CDC’s way of collecting national health statistics fails to classify medical errors separately on the death certificate. The researchers are advocating for updated criteria for classifying deaths on death certificates.

“Incidence rates for deaths directly attributable to medical care gone awry haven’t been recognized in any standardized method for collecting national statistics,” says Martin Makary, M.D., M.P.H., professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and an authority on health reform. “The medical coding system was designed to maximize billing for physician services, not to collect national health statistics, as it is currently being used.”

In 1949, Makary says, the U.S. adopted an international form that used International Classification of Diseases (ICD) billing codes to tally causes of death.

“At that time, it was under-recognized that diagnostic errors, medical mistakes and the absence of safety nets could result in someone’s death, and because of that, medical errors were unintentionally excluded from national health statistics,” says Makary.

The researchers say that since that time, national mortality statistics have been tabulated using billing codes, which don’t have a built-in way to recognize incidence rates of mortality due to medical care gone wrong.

In their study, the researchers examined four separate studies that analyzed medical death rate data from 2000 to 2008, including one by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Then, using hospital admission rates from 2013, they extrapolated that based on a total of 35,416,020 hospitalizations, 251,454 deaths stemmed from a medical error, which the researchers say now translates to 9.5 percent of all deaths each year in the U.S.

According to the CDC, in 2013, 611,105 people died of heart disease, 584,881 died of cancer and 149,205 died of chronic respiratory disease — the top three causes of death in the U.S. The newly calculated figure for medical errors puts this cause of death behind cancer but ahead of respiratory disease.

“Top-ranked causes of death as reported by the CDC inform our country’s research funding and public health priorities,” says Makary. “Right now, cancer and heart disease get a ton of attention, but since medical errors don’t appear on the list, the problem doesn’t get the funding and attention it deserves.”

The researchers caution that most of medical errors aren’t due to inherently bad doctors, and that reporting these errors shouldn’t be addressed by punishment or legal action. Rather, they say, most errors represent systemic problems, including poorly coordinated care, fragmented insurance networks, the absence or underuse of safety nets, and other protocols, in addition to unwarranted variation in physician practice patterns that lack accountability.

“Unwarranted variation is endemic in health care. Developing consensus protocols that streamline the delivery of medicine and reduce variability can improve quality and lower costs in health care. More research on preventing medical errors from occurring is needed to address the problem,” says Makary.

Michael Daniel of Johns Hopkins is a co-author on the study.

Map of the day II: Where April was especially hot


Following up on our previous post, a map of where things were really, reaaly hot in April:

BLOG April Asia

From NASA’s Earth Observatory:

April in Southeast Asia is usually a hot month, following the cool, dry season and preceding the monsoon season. But April 2016 was not your typical April. Throughout the month, ground-based measurements of air temperatures soared above average; one location in Thailand even broke the national record.

Satellite observations show a similarly hot picture. The map above shows land surface temperatures from April 2016 compared to the 2000–2012 average for the same month. Red areas were hotter than the long-term average by as much as 12 degrees Celsius (22 degrees Fahrenheit) in some places; blue areas were below average. White pixels had normal temperatures, and gray pixels did not have enough data, most likely due to excessive cloud cover.

This temperature anomaly map is based on data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite. Observed by satellites uniformly around the world, land surface temperatures (LSTs) are not the same as air temperatures. Instead, they reflect the heating of the land surface by sunlight, and they can sometimes be significantly hotter or cooler than air temperatures. (To learn more about LSTs and air temperatures, read: Where is the Hottest Place on Earth?)

According to news reports, at least 50 towns and cities matched or broke their daily air temperature records. On April 28, the temperature in Mae Hong Son was the highest ever recorded in Thailand, reaching 44.6 degrees Celsius (112.4 degrees Fahrenheit).

Southeast Asia was not the only area that endured intense heat in April. In India, ground-based measurements recorded temperatures 4-5 degrees Celsius (8–10 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal. At least 300 people are reported to have died from heat-related complications during the month. A year earlier, more than 2,500 people died during India’s 2015 heat wave—one of the five deadliest on record.

Map of the Day: April was another scorcher


April was the fourth hottest month ever recorded by weather satellites, according to the University of Alabama Huntsville [via Newswise]:

BLOG April

April 2016 was the fourth warmest month in the satellite temperature record, but only the second warmest April (just behind April 1998 at +0.73 C, although the difference is within the error range of +/- 0.1 C), when compared to seasonal norms, according to Dr. John Christy, director of the Earth System Science Center at The University of Alabama in Huntsville. April and March 2016 anomalies were similar, with some hint that the El Niño Pacific Ocean warming event’s warming of the atmosphere might have passed its peak.

The ten warmest months in the satellite record (compared to seasonal norms) are now all from either the 1998 El Niño or the ongoing 2016 El Niño.

Compared to seasonal norms, the warmest average temperature anomaly on Earth in April remained over central Greenland. The warmest anomaly was over south central Greenland in March. April temperatures over central Greenland averaged 5.42 C (about 9.76 degrees F) warmer than seasonal norms. Compared to seasonal norms, the coolest average temperature on Earth in April was over west central Quebec, outside the town of Sakami, where the average April 2016 temperature was 3.62 C (about 6.52 degrees F) cooler than normal for April.

The complete version 6 beta lower troposphere dataset is available here:

http://www.vortex.nsstc.uah.edu/data/msu/v6.0beta/tlt/uahncdc_lt_6.0beta5.txt

Ocean acidification is killing Florida coral reefs


Carysfort 2016 – The extensive thickets of staghorn corals are gone today replaced by a structure-less bottom littered with the decaying skeletons of staghorn coral. Credit: Chris Langdon, Ph.D.

Carysfort 2016 – The extensive thickets of staghorn corals are gone today replaced by a structure-less bottom littered with the decaying skeletons of staghorn coral. Credit: Chris Langdon, Ph.D.

Add carbon dioxide to water and you get carbonic acid, the same stuff the gives the tartness to carbonated soft drinks, and when rains pass through air overladen with COs, a dilute form of carbonic acid is created.

Coral reefs and the shellfish are especially susceptible to the corrosive effects of carbonic acid, so when we pour CO2, we’re acidifying the world’s oceans and turning them into a medium inimical to many of the creatures populating them.

Coral reefs are critical to the ocean ecology, and provide shelter for many of the fish on which much of humanity depends for their protein, particularly in Asia, where rice, the main grain staple, lacks the protein content of wheat.

Anyway, that’s one of the main reasons we’re concerned about ocean acidification, and now its corrosive effects are being felt along the shorelines of the U.S.

From the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science:

In a new study, University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science researchers found that the limestone that forms the foundation of coral reefs along the Florida Reef Tract is dissolving during the fall and winter months on many reefs in the Florida Keys. The research showed that the upper Florida Keys were the most impacted by the annual loss of reef.

Each year the oceans absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and become more acidic, a process called ocean acidification. Projections, based largely on laboratory studies, led scientists to predict that ocean pH would not fall low enough to cause reefs to start dissolving until 2050-2060.

For two years, the researchers collected water samples along the 200-kilometer (124-mile) stretch of the Florida Reef Tract north of Biscayne National Park to the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary. The data provide a snapshot on the health of the reefs, and establish a baseline from which future changes can be judged.

The results showed that reef dissolution is a significant problem on reefs in the upper Keys with the loss of limestone exceeding the amount the corals are able to produce on an annual basis. As a result these reefs are expected to begin wasting away leaving less habitat for commercial and recreationally important fish species. Florida Keys’ reefs have an estimated asset value of $2.8 billion.

In the natural scheme of things in the spring and summer months, environmental conditions in the ocean, such as water temperature, light and seagrass growth, are favorable for the growth of coral limestone. While, during the fall and winter, low light and temperature conditions along with the annual decomposition of seagrass, result in a slowing, or small-scale loss of reef growth.

However, as atmospheric CO2 is absorbed by seawater, ocean pH declines. The result is that the natural summer growth cycle of coral is no longer large enough to offset the effects of dissolution from ocean acidification.

“We don’t have as much time as we previously thought,” said Chris Langdon, UM Rosenstiel School professor of marine biology and ecology, and a senior author of the study. “The reefs are beginning to dissolve away.”

“This is one more reason why we need to get serious about reducing carbon dioxide emission sooner rather than later,” said Langdon.

The data for the study were collected in 2009-2010. The researchers suggest that a more recent analysis should be conducted to see how the reefs are faring today.

“The worst bleaching years on record in the Florida Keys were 2014-2015, so there’s a chance the reefs could be worse now,” said Langdon.

The study, titled “Dynamics of carbonate chemistry, production and calcification of the Florida Reef Tract (2009-2010): evidence for seasonal dissolution”  [$38 to read and print — esnl] was published in the May 2 issue of the journal Global Biogeochemical Cycles. The co-authors include Langdon, UM Rosenstiel School alumnae Nancy Muehllehner and Alyson Venti, and David Kadko, now at Florida International University. National Science Foundation funded the study.

For infants, cleanliness leads to unhealthiness


Years ago, our maternal grandmother once declared, “Mothers worry too much about keeping their kinds clean these days. It’s downright unhealthy.”

Turns out she was right.

At least that’s what the latest researcher about the development of children’s immune systems seems to prove.

From Finland’s Aalto University:

Exposure to pathogens early in life is beneficial to the education and development of the human immune system.

Over the past few decades, the healthcare community has observed an intriguing phenomenon: diseases related to the immune system – type 1 diabetes, and other autoimmune diseases, allergies, and the like – have taken hold in countries that have thriving, modern economies, while barely making a mark in the developing world. One of the best-supported theories to explain this peculiar public health pattern has been dubbed the hygiene hypothesis. The theory is based on the premise that exposure to pathogens early in life is actually beneficial to the education and development of the human immune system.

  • Exposure to bacteria may play a pivotal role in the immune system, and that we might be able to understand what that role is by studying the human microbiome, says Aleksandar Kostic, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Ramnik Xavier at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

The work is the product of an extensive collaboration involving researchers at Aalto University, Broad Institute, University of Helsinki, the Novartis Institute of Biomedical Research, and other organizations across the globe working together as part of the DIABIMMUNE Study Group. By looking at the gut microbiomes of infants from three different countries, the team uncovered evidence that not only supports the hygiene hypothesis, but also points to interactions among bacterial species that may account, at least in part, for the spike in immune disorders seen in western societies.

Silent microbiomes

The DIABIMMUNE Study Group recruited and began collecting monthly stool samples from infants in each of the three countries: Finland, Estonia and Russian Karelia. Along with the samples, from which they would identify and quantify the bacteria that made up the infants’ gut microbiomes, they also collected lab tests and questionnaires about such topics as breastfeeding, diet, allergies, infections, and family history. They evaluated all of this data, which was collected from birth to age three from over 200 infants, to see whether connections might exist between disease incidence and what they found in the microbiome.

There’s more, after the jump. . . Continue reading

Oceans losing oxygen; West Coast affected early


Deoxygenation due to climate change is already detectable in some parts of the ocean. New research finds that it will likely become widespread between 2030 and 2040. Other parts of the ocean, shown in gray, will not have detectable loss of oxygen due to climate change even by 2100.

Deoxygenation due to climate change is already detectable in some parts of the ocean. New research finds that it will likely become widespread between 2030 and 2040. Other parts of the ocean, shown in gray, will not have detectable loss of oxygen due to climate change even by 2100.

The oceans are losing oxygen, and climate change is the culprit.

Areas earliest hit are the western coasts of North America and Africa and the northeastern coast of South America.

The result will be major shifts in marine life, including the development of major dead zones.

And given that much of the world depend son ocean fish for protein, the changes could portend serious human and political crises.

From the American Geophysical Union:

A drop in the amount of oxygen dissolved in the oceans due to climate change is already discernible in some parts of the world and should be evident across large parts of the ocean between 2030 and 2040, according to a new study.

Scientists know that a warming climate can be expected to gradually sap oceans of oxygen, leaving fish, crabs, squid, sea stars, and other marine life struggling to breathe. But it’s been difficult to determine whether this anticipated oxygen drain is already having a noticeable impact.

“Loss of oxygen in the ocean is one of the serious side effects of a warming atmosphere, and a major threat to marine life,” said Matthew Long, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and lead author of the study. “Since oxygen concentrations in the ocean naturally vary depending on variations in winds and temperature at the surface, it’s been challenging to attribute any deoxygenation to climate change. This new study tells us when we can expect the impact from climate change to overwhelm the natural variability.”

The study [$6 read-only, $38 to print — esnl] is published in Global Biogeochemical Cycles, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

Cutting through the natural variability

The entire ocean—from the depths to the shallows—gets its oxygen supply from the surface, either directly from the atmosphere or from phytoplankton, which release oxygen into the water through photosynthesis.

Warming surface waters, however, absorb less oxygen. And in a double whammy, the oxygen that is absorbed has a more difficult time traveling deeper into the ocean. That’s because as water heats up, it expands, becoming lighter than the water below it and less likely to sink.

Thanks to natural warming and cooling, oxygen concentrations at the sea surface are constantly changing—and those changes can linger for years or even decades deeper in the ocean.

For example, an exceptionally cold winter in the North Pacific would allow the ocean surface to soak up a large amount of oxygen. Thanks to the natural circulation pattern, that oxygen would then be carried deeper into the ocean interior, where it might still be detectable years later as it travels along its flow path. On the flip side, unusually hot weather could lead to natural “dead zones” in the ocean, where fish and other marine life cannot survive.

To cut through this natural variability and investigate the impact of climate change, the research team relied on the NCAR-based Community Earth System Model.

The scientists used output from a project that ran the model more than two dozen times for the years 1920 to 2100. Each individual run was started with miniscule variations in air temperature. As the model runs progressed, those tiny differences grew and expanded, producing a set of climate simulations useful for studying questions about variability and change.

Using the simulations to study dissolved oxygen gave the researchers guidance on how much concentrations may have varied naturally in the past. With this information, they could determine when ocean deoxygenation due to climate change is likely to become more severe than at any point in the modeled historic range.

The research team found that deoxygenation caused by climate change could already be detected in the southern Indian Ocean and parts of the eastern tropical Pacific and Atlantic basins. They also determined that more widespread detection of deoxygenation caused by climate change would be possible between 2030 and 2040. However, in some parts of the ocean, including areas off the east coasts of Africa, Australia, and Southeast Asia, deoxygenation caused by climate change was not evident even by 2100.

Picking out a global pattern

The researchers also created a visual way to distinguish between deoxygenation caused by natural processes and deoxygenation caused by climate change.

Using the same model dataset, the scientists created maps of oxygen levels in the ocean, showing which waters were oxygen-rich at the same time that others were oxygen-poor. They found they could distinguish between oxygenation patterns caused by natural weather phenomena and the pattern caused by climate change.

The pattern caused by climate change also became evident in the model runs around 2030, adding confidence to the conclusion that widespread deoxygenation due to climate change will become detectable around that time.

The maps could also be useful resources for deciding where to place instruments to monitor ocean oxygen levels in the future to get the best picture of climate change impacts. Currently ocean oxygen measurements are relatively sparse.

“We need comprehensive and sustained observations of what’s going on in the ocean to compare with what we’re learning from our models and to understand the full impact of a changing climate,” Long said.