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Record-Breaking Drought and Wildfires Plaque Southeast

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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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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.

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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.

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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.


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By Jake Johnson

Unity Task Forces formed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled sweeping party platform recommendations Wednesday that—while falling short of progressive ambitions in a number of areas, from climate to healthcare—were applauded as important steps toward a bold and just policy agenda that matches the severity of the moment.

"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.