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2020 Starts With the Plain Prospect of Rising Heat

Climate
chuchart duangdaw / Moment / Getty Images

By Tim Radford

The year is less than four weeks old, but scientists already know that carbon dioxide emissions will continue to head upwards — as they have every year since measurements began leading to a continuation of the Earth's rising heat.


And they warn that the rise will be steeper than usual, partly because of the devastating bush fires in Australia.

The warning is a reminder that global heating and climate change create their own positive feedbacks: more numerous and calamitous forest fires surrender more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, which helps raise temperatures, accentuate droughts and heat extremes, and create conditions for even more catastrophic forest fires.

The news is that the proportion of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere will peak at 417 parts per million (ppm) in the next 11 months, but settle to an average of just over 414 ppm. This represents a predicted 10 percent increase on the previous year's rise, and a fifth of that can be pinned on blazing eucalypts in New South Wales.

Atmospheric scientists began keeping meticulous records of CO2 levels in the atmosphere in 1958. The average for most of human history — until the Industrial Revolution and the mass exploitation of coal, oil and gas — was no higher than 285 ppm.

The warning, from the British Met Office, comes hard on the heels of an address by America's President Trump — who has previously claimed that climate change is a hoax — at Davos in Switzerland. He told the World Economic Forum (WEF) to disregard those he dismissed as "prophets of doom."

In fact he was addressing an organization that had only recently issued its own warning that "severe threats to our climate" accounted for all the identified top long-term risks that face the modern world.

The WEF Global Risks Report warned of extreme weather events with major damage to property, infrastructure and loss of human life. It also pointed to other hazards: among them the failure of attempts to mitigate or adapt to climate change by governments and industry; human-induced environmental damage; and to biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, all of which are inseparable from the climate crisis.

Even the fifth set of global risks was environmental: these included earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and geomagnetic storms.

And, the WEF said, time to address these threats was running out. "The political landscape is polarised, sea levels are rising and climate fires are burning. This is the year when world leaders must work with all sectors of society to repair and invigorate our systems of co-operation, not just for short-term benefit, but for tackling our deep-rooted risks," said Borge Brende, president of the WEF.

And as the WEF issued its own doom-laden warnings, scientists at two great U.S. research agencies confirmed those fears. The space agency NASA and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration examined their separate datasets to pronounce 2019 the second warmest year since global records began, and to confirm that the decade just ended was also the warmest since records began.

Relentless Increase

"Every decade since the 1960s has been warmer than the one before," said Gavin Schmidt of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

The British Met Office — working from yet another set of data — agreed that 2019 had been 1.05°C above the average for most of human history, and that the last five years were the warmest since records began in 1850.

And only days beforehand, Chinese scientists had taken the temperature of the world's oceans to find them warmer than at any time in recorded history. The past 10 years had been the warmest decade for ocean temperatures worldwide.

In 2019, they write in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences, a partnership of 14 researchers from 11 institutes around the world had measured from the surface to a depth of 2000 meters to find that the global ocean — and 70 percent of the planet is covered in blue water — is now 0.075°C warmer on average than it was between 1981 and 2010.

Measured in the basic units of heat-energy, this means that the seas have soaked up 228,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 joules of heat.

100 Seconds to Midnight

"That's a lot of zeros indeed. To make it easier to understand, I did a calculation," said Lijing Cheng, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who led the study.

"The amount of heat we have put into the world's oceans in the last 25 years equals to 3.6 billion Hiroshima atomic bomb explosions. This measured ocean warming is irrefutable and is further proof of global warming. There are no reasonable alternatives aside from the human emissions of heat-trapping gases to explain this heating."

On Jan. 23 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that it had moved the hands of its symbolic Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds from midnight the closest they have ever been to the time chosen to represent apocalypse.

The reason? "Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers nuclear war and climate change that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society's ability to respond," said the scientists.

"World leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode."

Reposted with permission from Climate News Network.

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Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Niq Steele / Getty Images

By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.

We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.