Record-Breaking Drought and Wildfires Plaque Southeast
By Bob Henson
The atmospheric spigots have been turned off across most of the U.S. over the last several weeks. According to the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor report from Nov. 10, more than 27 percent of the contiguous U.S. has been enveloped by at least moderate drought (categories D1 through D4). This is the largest percentage value in more than a year, since late October 2015.
The upward trend of the last month is worrisome given the outlook for the coming winter: Drier-than-average conditions are projected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration across the southern half of the contiguous U.S., a frequent outcome during La Niña winters.
Figure 1. U.S. Drought Monitor released on Nov. 10, valid for the week ending Nov. 8. National Drought Mitigation Center
Where's the Western Snow?
It's common for parts of the mountainous U.S. West to take until late autumn or early winter to build up a proper snowpack, but such a delay seldom extends to the entire region. This month, nearly all of the high country of the Western U.S. is running far below the seasonal average for the amount of water held in snowpack. Ski areas are feeling the pain, especially since temperatures have rarely been cold enough this autumn for snowmaking to supplement nature. Several of Colorado's major resorts have already postponed their opening dates, including Keystone, Breckenridge and Copper Mountain.
The paltry snowpack is especially striking in the Pacific Northwest, which just experienced its wettest October on record. Most of that precipitation came in the form of rain, leaving all but the highest mountains snow-free. "Still early in winter but snowpack is terrible," tweeted Brad Udall, senior water and climate scientist at the Colorado Water Institute. Outside the Pacific Northwest, precipitation has been scanty and temperatures have been consistently warmer than average.
Figure 2. The amount of water held in western U.S. snowpack (snow water equivalent) as of Nov. 13, shown as a percentage of average for this date relative to the 1981-2010 median. Values are well below 50 percent over most areas.USDA / NCRS National Water and Climate Center
Figure 3. Temperatures are running well above average over nearly all the U.S. for the first 12 days of November 2016. Shown here are the departures from average (anomalies) in degrees Fahrenheit. NOAA / NWS Climate Prediction Center
East of the mountains, the Plains and Midwest have been especially mild this month (see Figure 3 above). The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport has yet to see a temperature below freezing, breaking the city's all-time latest-freeze record of Nov. 7, 1900. La Crosse, Wisconsin and Peoria, Illinois, have also broken their latest-first-freeze records as they wait to dip to 32 F. All three locations should finally get a freeze this weekend in the wake of a potent storm system swinging across the central U.S. The storm will bring high winds and widespread snow to the northern Great Plains and Upper Midwest—perhaps a foot or more in parts of the Dakotas. The Central Plains could see an inch or so of rain, but prospects for rain further to the south and east are looking dim.
Weeks on End Without a Big Southeast Rain
It's been more than a month since parts of the Southeast have seen a drop of measurable rain. Birmingham, Alabama, is on a record dry streak: 56 consecutive days without measurable rain as of Sunday, beating the previous record of 52 days set in 1924.
"Nine minutes of sprinkles Nov. 4 and another bout of sprinkles on Oct. 16 has been the entirety of Birmingham's rainfall so far this fall," observed Jon Erdman in a Weather.com roundup on Sunday. The most widespread rain since Hurricane Matthew in early October fell from eastern Georgia across northern South Carolina and southern North Carolina on Sunday, with widespread 0.5" - 1.0" amounts (Wilmington, North Carolina, picked up 1.77"). However, nearly all of the significant rain fell east of the drought-stricken areas. Assuming no major rainmakers arrive over the next couple of weeks—and none are on the horizon right now—large parts of the Southeast have a shot at their driest autumn on record (September-November).
In a region where rain is usually plentiful and frequent, a drought this prolonged has major consequences. In northwest Georgia, "our dirt is like talcum powder," ranger Denise Croker (Georgia Forestry Commission) told Insurance Journal last week. Smoke from wildfires across the southern and central Appalachians has poured across the Southeast, especially where inversions have kept the smoke confined near the surface, as explained by Marshall Shepherd (University of Georgia) in Forbes.
Figure 4. Streamers of smoke can be seen blowing northwestward from wildfires across the southern and central Appalachians on Nov. 7.NASA Earth Observatory
Figure 5. Enhanced infrared satellite image of Tropical Storm Tina at 1430Z (9:30 a.m. EST) Monday, Nov. 14, just before Tina was downgraded to a tropical depression.NOAA / NESDIS
Tropical Storm Tina Pops Up and Fades Out in the East Pacific
A cluster of showers and thunderstorms gained just enough organization over warm waters (above 30 C) off Mexico's Pacific coast to become Tropical Storm Tina on Sunday night. Tina was the 21st named storm of this year's busy East Pacific hurricane season. Located about 200 miles west of Manzanillo, Mexico, Tina didn't last long as a tropical storm. Christened at 11 p.m. EST Sunday with top sustained winds of just 40 mph, Tina was downgraded to a tropical depression at 10 a.m. EST Monday. High wind shear will continue to degrade Tina's circulation as it decays into a remnant low by Tuesday, remaining well west of the Mexican coast.
Potential Late-Season Tropical Cyclone in the Caribbean
Long-range computer models have suggested for several days that a broad circulation over the far southwest Caribbean east of Nicaragua might evolve into a tropical cyclone over the next week or two. Sea surface temperature remain very warm in the region: around 29 - 30 C, about 1 C above average for this time of year. In its latest Tropical Weather Outlook, issued at 7:00 a.m. EST Monday, the National Hurricane Center gives a near-zero chance of a tropical depression forming in this area by Wednesday morning, but a 60 percent chance by Saturday. Ensemble model runs from 00Z Monday provide support for the idea of very gradual development, with low odds of formation on any particular day but higher collective odds over a multi-day period. About a third of members of the ECMWF ensemble produce a tropical cyclone in the 3-5 day period (Wednesday to Friday night) and about half do so in the 6-10 day period. The GFS is more bullish, with nearly all of its ensemble members developing at least a tropical depression by the coming weekend. Steering currents will be extremely weak for some time, so any tropical cyclone that does develop could pose a threat for heavy rain if it lingers near the east coast of Central America.
Figure 6. Enhanced infrared satellite image of an area of disturbed weather in the southwest Caribbean Sea at 1515Z (10:15 a.m. EST) Monday, Nov. 14.NASA / MSFC Earth Science Office.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Weather Underground.
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By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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