Monday, July 9, 2012

If you're 100, better odds you were born in the fall

In what seems like a bizarre bit of trivia, new research indicates that people born from September to November have the best chance of living to 100 or older.

At least that’s the case for people who are now very old. It may not be as much the case for folks born more recently than the mid-1950s or so. 

And it may not be a useful predictor very long after birth. A lot of the mortality that leads to the preference for fall-born kids may occur among the very young—perhaps within the first few months of life.

It may be useful to look at the numbers backward: Kids born in early summer—May, June and July, are far less likely than average to be represented among centenarians.

This data comes from researchers who have previously done Hawai`i work, although this particular research is not Hawai`i-specific. They are Leonid A. Gavrilov and Natalia S. Gavrilova, of the University of Chicago’s Center on Economics and Demography of Aging. 

The Gavrilovs conclude that “earlylife environmental conditions may have long-lasting effects on human aging and longevity.”

Their paper, Season of Birth and Exceptional Longevity: Comparative Study of American Centenarians, Their Siblings, and Spouses, was published in the Journal of Aging Research. They looked not only at U.S. data, but found similar patterns in Europe, where the required birth and life data are available. The paper is available here

Aging is of interest to Hawai`i in part because Hawai`i folks live longer than most:  Island residents can expect to live to 81.5 years, more than in any other state. Our previous post on the Gavrilov’s research is here

The new research suggests a number of reasons for the seeming anomaly favoring fall-born elders. 

The authors suggest it could be associated with maternal nutrition (summer-born kids were in utero during the harsh winter deprivations.) Temperature (avoiding extremely high summer temperatures or extremely low deep winter temperatures  in the first month of life.)  The “deadline hypothesis” (fall-born kids were older and therefore more advanced at the start of school, gaining an education advantage on their peers that rolls into better lifelong nutrition and opportunity and a healthier life.)

And it may also be that certain infectious diseases affecting the very young are more likely to hit summer-born kids. A powerful data point is that kids born in the fall don’t die of infections disease at as high a rate as their siblings.

“According to the USA statistics, mortality below age one month in 1940 was the lowest in September–November suggesting lower infectious load during this period of the year, because most infant deaths in the past were caused by infections,” the authors wrote.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2012

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Plastics killing seabirds all over Pacific

Laysan albatross on their Hawaiian nesting islands are the signature species for the devastating impacts of plastics in the marine environment, but increasingly, the dead albatross are not alone.
The haunting image of the problem is dead albatross chicks, their burst bellies jammed full of plastic lighters, bottle caps, discarded toothbrushes and other multicolored debris.

(Image: A northern fulmar, this one photographed in 2008 in Scotland. Credit: Dick Daniels,

But new studies on a Pacific seabird that comes ashore in the Pacific Northwest is also showing dramatically high plastic contents. Some northern fulmars have as much as 5 percent of their body weight in plastic in their bellies. 

These birds, known to science as Fulmarus glacialis, don’t feed exactly the same way albatross do, but there’s plenty of plastic to go around. In fulmars, researchers found twine, candy wrappers and styrofoam.

Let’s digress a little about the scope of the problem.

The albatross chicks die so full of plastic that they can’t take in nutrition, but it’s not just mechanical fullness that kills sealife. Also entanglement—turtles and seals trapped by abandoned nets and coils of rope—and the chemicals released by the plastics they eat.

“Microplastics are both abundant and widespread within the marine environment, found in their highest concentrations along coastlines and within mid-ocean gyres. Ingestion of microplastics has been demonstrated in a range of marine organisms, a process which may facilitate the transfer of chemical additives or hydrophobic waterborne pollutants to biota,” says a report in Marine Pollution Bulletin, by  Matthew Cole and Pennie Lindequeof Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Claudia Halsband of the High North Research Centre for Climate and the Environment in Norway, and Tamara Galloway of the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. 

If the plastic is big enough it can trap and snare them, if it’s smaller it can choke them, and even when it’s microscopic, it’s not gone.

“Unlike inorganic fines present in sea water, microplastics concentrate persistent organic pollutants (POPs) by partition. The relevant distribution coefficients for common POPs are several orders of magnitude in favour of the plastic medium,” writes Anthony Andrady in the August 2011 issue of thesame journal

Back to the northern fulmars, also called Arctic fulmars. We don’t see them in Hawai`i since they cling to higher latitudes and colder climates. But they are in the same family as the Hawaiian shearwaters and petrels: 

Researchers in the North Sea have used stomach contents of fulmars to document high levels of plastics in that environment. We have long known that the Pacific is also a dumping ground—even before last year’s Japan tsunami scoured island coastlines and dumped their debris into the sea. Now research on northern fulmars in the Pacific is confirming what we already knew from albatross chicks—the plastic problem is massive.

“We quantified the stomach contents of 67 fulmars from beaches in the eastern North Pacific in 2009–2010 and found that 92.5% of fulmars had ingested an average of 36.8 pieces, or 0.385 g of plastic. Plastic ingestion in these fulmars is among the highest recorded globally,” says the paper's abstract.

"Despite the close proximity of the 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch,' an area of concentrated plastic pollution in the middle of the North Pacific gyre, plastic pollution has not been considered an issue of concern off our coast. But we've found similar amounts and incident rates of plastic in beached northern fulmars here as those in the North Sea,” says author Stephanie Avery-Gomm , a zoologist at the University of British Columbia.

Oh, the euphemism "beached?" It generally means "washed up dead."

Here’s the journal reference for that article: Stephanie Avery-Gomm, Patrick D. O’Hara, Lydia Kleine, Victoria Bowes, Laurie K. Wilson, Karen L. Barry. Northern fulmars as biological monitors of trends of plastic pollution in the eastern North Pacific. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2012; DOI: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2012.04.017

© Jan TenBruggencate 2012

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Visited a missing beach lately?

Visited a missing Hawaiian beach lately? 

Get used to it.

With the lack of aggressive action on climate change over the past decades, continued sea level rise is now essentially baked in, ocean and climate scientists are saying. 

A study in the journal “Nature – Climate Change,”a new study argues that there’s little we can do now to prevent dramatic sea level rise. 

Even with an aggressive program of controlling greenhouse gas emissions, sea levels will continue to rise based on our past misdeeds, write researchers Michiel Schaeffer, William Hare, Stefan Rahmstorf and Martin Vermeer. Schaeffer is from the Netherlands, much of which is below sea level, where accurate modeling of sea conditions is taken seriously. He works with the Environmental Systems Analysis Group of Wageningen University and Research Centre in Holland. His co-authors are climate researchers from Germany and Finland.

Their message: A 50% chance that sea levels will be a couple of feet (75-80 centimeters) higher than 2000 levels by 2100, if we can hold warming below 2 degrees Centigrade. And it will keep rising, they argue, to more than 8 feet by 2300.

We would not even recognize the coastlines of our great-great-grandkids . The islands would be significantly smaller as the ocean washes much higher on their shoulders.

“Halting (sea level rise) within a few centuries is likely to be achieved only with the large-scale deployment of CO2 removal efforts, for example, combining large-scale bioenergy systems with carbon capture and storage,” write Schaeffer and his team. 

The globe needs to not only stop rising CO2 levels, but to drive CO2 production to negative levels, if sea level rise is to be slowed. Without that level of effort, imagine even larger rise.

The authors concede that the science of sea level change is still evolving and that there are many uncertainties—but they point out that current estimates are more likely to be low than high—thus, it could be worse than they now estimate.

“Physics-based models attempting to predict the combined contributions from thermal expansion, glaciers and ice sheets are not yet mature and underestimate the (sea level rise) observed in past decades,” they write.

There’s a fair amount of other alarming science out there. One piece is that sea level rise isn’t uniform across the oceans, and one group of researchers suggests that the northern Atlantic coast of the North America will see higher rise than other areas. It attributes this to salinity, currents, changing gravity and the Earth’s rotation.

“(Sea Level Rise) rate increases in this northeast hotspot were ~3-4 times higher than the global average,” write the authors of a paper, “Hotspotof accelerated sea-lkevel rise on the Atlantic Coast of North America.” 

Add storm surge, and they predict serious vulnerability for harbors and coastal cities.

It doesn’t help that the popular media are screwing up the story. One big component of global sea level predictions is whether and how quickly the Greenland glaciers melt. Two recent pieces on the same day, May 3, 2012, had these contradictory headlines. 

If you only read the headlines, you’d think those stories were contradictory. They’re not. The first one just says the glaciers are melting scary fast, but just not at breakneck speed. It says they’re not melting fast enough for 6 feet of sea level rise in the next 88 years—just 3 feet.

Well, three feet is enough to erase virtually every beach we now know in Hawai`i, to put much of coastal Honolulu underwater, to push Hilo and Hanalei Bays deep inland, to have significant impacts on coastal Kihei. 

Have you visited a missing beach in Hawai`i? 

If you visit the shore at all, you know the scenario. Where there used to be sand, there are rocks. Where there used to be palm trees and heliotropes, there’s water. Where kids used to build sand castles, there’s ancient sandstone washed by waves.

And that's just what's happening now.

Here is University of Hawai`i coastal geologist Chip Fletcher's famous progression of what happens to Waikiki under three feet of sea level rise--think street surfing.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2012