Monday, October 07, 2002

West Nile Virus: Tip of the Global Heating Iceberg?

It's perhaps an intemperate metaphor-and one tending toward the wrong end of the thermometer-to suggest that the West Nile virus outbreak throughout North America is the tip of the iceberg. But so far, few seem to realize why this might be so.

Media attention has focused on the geographical progress of the virus which has infected hundreds and killed at least 45 by mid September, and whether the blood supply is contaminated. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont suggests it could be a bioterrorism plot. While there are many factors potentially involved, one is conspicuously unmentioned in most reports: global heating.

But even though the dots are all there, nobody is connecting them.
The September 14 San Francisco Chronicle reported the first confirmed case of West Nile virus in California. The front page of the same edition proclaimed "Hottest summer since 1930s" and "2002 drought worst since Dust Bowl."

Why press reports aren't making the connection is suggested in another pair of story in the next day's Chronicle: one story reports that the West Nile virus is killing more than 110 species of birds, including red-tailed hawks and great horned owls "by the thousands," and naturalists are worried about the endangered California condor. On the very next page, there's a story headlined "EPA report ignores global warming, with White House OK" by Andrew C. Revkin, reprinted from New York Times. It begins "Nearly every mention of global warming has been stricken from the annual federal report on air pollution..." quotes an EPA official "There's a complete paranoia [in the White House]about anything on climate...and everything has to be reviewed widely."

But at least one observer close to the ground at least alluded to the connection. When press attention was focused on the outbreak in Louisiana earlier this summer, a state health official commented, "As long as the warm weather lasts, we're going to have a problem."

As global heating continues, we're going to be having the problem for a long time. West Nile virus is only one of a number of diseases carried by mosquitoes and other bugs that are flourishing because of global heating. In many places in North America, the summers are not just hotter, they're longer. The winters are also warmer in places like Pennsylvania, so the usual diebacks in wood ticks, for instance, during the cold months isn't happening as much. Ticks can carry and infect humans with Lyme Disease, among other health hazards.

The drought in California is driving animals from their usual niches and into suburban and even city neighborhoods. Rats are drinking from the swimming pools in Beverly Hills.

The West Nile virus is in the news now, but the problem of mosquito-borne diseases has been quietly growing. Locally transmitted malaria outbreaks were recorded from Texas and Florida to New Jersey and New York, and as far north as Toronto in the 1990s, which was the hottest decade in 600 years. In September of 2002, malaria-carrying mosquitoes were found in Leesburg, Virginia, near the homes of two teenagers infected with the disease.

Malaria has also been found in southern Europe and parts of Asia and South Africa. Globally, the areas on mountain tops where it remains below freezing all year have shrunk; now mosquitoes are mountain climbing. Insect-borne diseases have reached the highlands of South and Central America, Asia and areas of Africa. There were cases of dengue fever in Mexico a mile from sea level.

The connection between global heating and the spread of these diseases has been made by scientists but hasn't yet reached the press or public. But if global heating ever becomes a major emotional issue in the U.S., it will likely be because of disease epidemics. Chunks of Alaska could sink into the vanishing permafrost without bothering anybody in Manhattan (NY or Kansas) but an epidemic of Lyme Disease in the Hamptons or malaria in Los Angeles might break the ice.

Note: This essay is also a kind of prologue to a longer piece, "Empire of the Ants," which enlists H.G. Wells and the 1950s sci-fi classic "Them!" to discuss the cultural evolution of human self-extinction. You can find it over at

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