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CHAPTER 95 Warming and Sweating
California and even parts of Canada and Alaska are burning while other parts of the world are getting extraordinary amounts of rain. A few weeks ago one town here in New Jersey got 8 inches of rain in only a few hours. The 30 to 40 inches of rain in parts of Hawaii from the hurricane is hard to comprehend. On the other hand, unusually severe droughts have contributed to some of the unrest and hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing countries in the Mideast. Disease-carrying insects are expanding their ranges out of their normal tropical habitats. Sea levels are rising and our oceans are becoming more acidic due to carbon dioxide in the waters, the acid making life difficult for sea life dependent on forming shells, which dissolve in acid. Meanwhile, the self-proclaimed genius who leads our country dismisses climate change, abandoning treaties and regulations aimed at trying to clean up our environment and slow down global warming. (I will call it global warming even though the less threatening term "climate change" is the norm today.)
Donald Trump is just one of many who will share the blame when hundreds of thousands of people die in ensuing decades as ocean levels rise and more severe droughts and flooding become all too common. I have just finished reading the entire August 6 issue of The New York Times Magazine section, which devoted the whole issue to one very long article by Nathaniel Rich titled "Losing Earth: The decade we almost stopped climate change. A tragedy in two acts". The first act covers the period from 1979 to 1982, the second act from 1983 to 1989. The superbly researched and written article describes in excruciating detail the unsuccessful efforts to meaningfully address the global warming problem at a time when acknowledgement of the problem by the public and politicians was at a relatively high level.
Unfortunately, many politicians played an important role in blocking action that could have started meaningful efforts to stem the warming. One was John Sununu, President George W. W. Bush's chief of staff. When the senior Bush was inaugurated in 1989 the need for action on global warming was widely acknowledged and Bush's Secretary of State James Baker's first speech in that office stressed the need for quick action without waiting for uncertainties about climate change to be resolved. Sununu, who had a PhD in mechanical engineering, considered all the fuss about climate change to be poppycock and told Baker to leave the science to scientists and Baker never said any more about the subject. Sununu continued to block any meaningful efforts to address the climate problem.
And scientists themselves, even some who strongly supported efforts to minimize global warming, shared some of the blame for inaction. For example, there were conflicts over how aggressively to word proposals for measures to address the problem. Examples were should they say that warming was "likely" to occur in this century, or was it "definitely" going to happen. In their arguments over such matters, the message that warming is a very serious threat to our planet was diluted or delayed.
One influential scientist, William Nierenberg, deserves mention. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter commissioned a study by the National Academy of Sciences to prepare a comprehensive analysis of the carbon dioxide problem. In 1983 the commission announced its findings in a report, "Changing Climate.", which included all the speculations about warming leading to political revolutions and the other familiar major consequences. Nierenberg was chairman of the commission and the report concluded that action had to be taken immediately, before all the details were certain. If not, it might be too late. So, what did Nierenberg say in press interviews after publication of the report? Just the opposite! He counseled caution, not panic. Future generations would be better equipped to deal with the problem when it would be better understood! The news media naturally picked up on the interviews and the momentum towards immediate action was lost. A good dose of panic was and still is needed.
Here is the last page of Rich's article: "Thirty years ago, we almost saved the planet. Today a global transformation is underway. Since 1981, Arctic sea ice has decreased by an average of 1.3 percent per year. Since 1989, the global mean temperature has increased by one degree Fahrenheit. By 2030, the number of people worldwide affected by floods is expected to triple. Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause the deaths of roughly 250,000 people each year. By 2050, the Arctic Ocean is expected to be largely ice-free in the summer. By that same year, a million species will face extinction. By 2080, the frequency of heat waves in the New York metropolitan area is projected to triple. By the turn of the next century, global sea levels will have risen by one to four feet, potentially turning hundreds of millions of people into refugees."
This has been a disturbing and sad tale of how we as a human race have failed to deal with a problem that threatens the existence of huge numbers of species, including possibly our own. Let's turn to something of a lighter nature related to warm weather, specifically, the hippopotamus, the subject of an article "Sweating Blood" by Sam Kean in an emailed version of Distillations magazine I received from the Science History Institute. OK, the hippo isn't the lightest of creatures but the article starts with a quote by Ogden Nash: "Behold the hippopotamus! We laugh at how he looks to us? Yet in moments dank and grim, I wonder how we look to him." Just before I started to write this paragraph I heard on a TV program my wife was watching that hippos may appear cute to us but more people are killed by hippos than are killed by lions. Here, however, apropos of a warming climate, let's talk about sweat. One thing we humans share with hippos is a fragile skin and a copious tendency to sweat.
Hippo sweat is quite different from ours. A big difference is in the color of the perspiration. Hippo sweat is red! This difference in color has been known for millennia, notably by ancient Egyptian doctors, who mistook the sweat for blood.. They observed hippos in the Nile River region and decided that when a hippo didn't feel well it would pierce itself with reeds and emerge looking healthier. Those Egyptian doctors extrapolated that belief to human patients, thus beginning the totally useless practice of bloodletting which was passed along to European practitioners who prescribed the treatment to patients into the 1800s.
Fast forward to the 21st century and work by Kimiko Hashimoto and his team of coworkers at the Kyoto Pharmaceutical University in Japan with cooperative hippos named Satsuki and Jiro at a zoo in Tokyo. The Japanese workers used gauze swabs to collect sweat from the faces and backs of the hippos, which would be a very dangerous undertaking on hippos in the wild. The workers published their analyses of the fluid they collected in the journal Nature in 2004 and it turns out it is more than just "sweat". It consists of two pigments, one red and one orange, which they named hipposudoric acid and norhipposudoric acid. (The Distillations article commented on the workers "delightfully" naming the compounds, which led me to my dictionary. I found "sudorific -causing or increasing sweating".) They also found that not only would the "sweat" serve as a sunscreen that protected the hippos from ultraviolet rays but it also had antibacterial properties protect against certain bacteria. In the wild, the hippos not only spend a lot of time in the sun but they also fight with other hippos, leaving them with scars and prone to infection. Neither of the compounds is very stable but the hippos can retain their reddish hue for several hours. Also, the sweat is clear to begin with but the compounds react to form the reddish appearance rather quickly. Hippos spend a lot of time in the sun and hot weather and the development of this self production of an effective sunscreen lotion suggests that perhaps we humans could figure out a way to evolve the capacity to self generate a similar form of "sweat".
Finally, I mentioned how disturbing it was for me to read the article by Rich on the global warming problem and the missed opportunities to take some meaningful actions to remedy the situation. Equally disturbing to me is the featured article in the September issue of National Geographic that I have not finished reading yet and do not plan to write about except to mention it here. The article follows in great detail the course of the world's 40th face transplant, which took place at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. The article contains brutally graphic pictures of the patient before and after surgery details the myriad of problems and wrenching decisions that the surgeons and parents had to face. ((I may have been taken with this story since our own first child was born in Cleveland with a congenital problem that required immediate surgery and a later surgery performed at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.) If you're up to looking at some very disturbing pictures, I highly recommend this article to get a true appreciation of the technical and emotional challenges for doctors, relatives and patients involved in the most complex of surgeries.
Finally, farewell John McCain. Your choreographing of your exit from this life provided a beautiful example of what can be accomplished when people of differing views and convictions come together in common cause. And how proud you must have been of your wonderful family, headed by your 106-year-old mother. Rest in peace.
Next column, hopefully, October 1
Allen F. Bortrum