Sunday, November 25, 2012

follow the food, o ye cities

The front page of the New York Times featured an image of the Statue of Liberty under water, accompanying an opinion piece about rising sea level keyed to several policy measures:  build seawalls, reduce global warming, move inland.  One example was to imagine the Manhattan skyscrapers rebuilt in Scarsdale.

That image of a successful adaptation by moving a few miles inland is an unchallenging Sunday message to numerous New Yorkers who could easily imagine a commute to Scarsdale without giving up their current homes and lifestyle. No problem!

That is a mistake. Moving NYC to Scarsdale is only about shorelines.
For a hypothetical example, a next-century hub for east coast international shipping could be Quebec City, instead of NYC, given the lower fuel use for water transport via Great Lakes and St Lawrence, and probable shift to crops grown further north, along with manufacturing in cooler climes.  

Beware the dangerously limited imagination that comes from extrapolating only one climate change factor, coastal sea level rise, while forgetting all the others.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Updated: ALS, Alzheimer's and climate change, who knows? who knew?

Alzheimer's and ALS brains contain BMAA toxin.
The BMAA toxin is among a class of chemicals that bind to glutamate receptors.
There are many of those,  and some are are essential to cell function while others are toxic.
BMAA is a "mixed glutamate receptor agonist."
In nature, BMAA toxin is made by cyanobacteria.
Cyanobacteria are part of the food chains for fish and mollusks.
Cyanobacteria multiply in warm water.
The warm water could be the warming ocean, or in the intestines of an individual.

That's the basic version.

Actually, it's more complicated, and more interesting. In recent reports on the brain chemistry, it turns out there is another chemotoxin, methylazoxymethanol (MAM) or cycasin, also implicated in some neurodegenerative disease. Research on MAM reveals a pattern that could explicate more about Alzheimer's, ALS Parkinson's, and also several cancers 

I continue to eat wild-caught fish from very cold water, such as Canadian herring, Icelandic cod, Alaskan salmon.
These fish tissues seem unlikely to have high BMAA loads, but I don't actually know that for sure, do I?

I don't have a family history of Alzheimer's, so following Pablo et al's premise,  the presence of the toxin in my diet might not by itself trigger the onset of disease.

Note the frequent updates are due to continuing exploration of recent literature on the subject. Of note is Brenner's proposition that the toxin-producing bacteria can be among the micro-flora of an individual's intestines. That is neither fish-diet nor a genetic component.  If correct, that opens up research into what could change gut flora composition in the high-risk parts of our population.

Meanwhile the burst of recently published research includes some of the 'how' on a biochemical level -  BMAA acts as a glutamate agonist, interfering with neural firing.

Some cites with links:

Acta Neurol Scand. 2009 Oct;120(4):216-25. Epub 2009 Feb 26.
Cyanobacterial neurotoxin BMAA in ALS and Alzheimer's disease.

Pablo J, Banack SA, Cox PA, Johnson TE, Papapetropoulos S, Bradley WG, Buck A, Mash DC.

The occurrence of BMAA in North American ALS and AD patients suggests the possibility of a gene/environment interaction, with BMAA triggering neurodegeneration in vulnerable individuals.


Are Toxins in Seafood Causing ALS, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's?

"Constituting the foundation of the aquatic food chain, cyanobacteria are a favorite meal of fish and mollusks, which are in turn eaten by us."

Foods That May Help Prevent Alzheimer's Disease

First, they found that foods rich in vitamin E were associated with a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. Those foods include oil-based salad dressings, fortified cereals, green leafy vegetables, cantaloupe, seeds and nuts.

They also found that people who eat fish at least once a week were 60 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease than those who rarely or never ate fish. The key ingredient, the Rush team believes, is the n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in fish.

From these data, the team made an association between high intakes of saturated and trans-unsaturated fats and Alzheimer's disease. That means it's better to limit fatty meats, full-fat dairy products like butter and milk and vegetable shortening, which is often found in crackers and cookies.

Med Hypotheses. 2012 Nov 9. pii: S0306-9877(12)00461-6. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2012.10.010. [Epub ahead of print]

Blue-green algae or cyanobacteria in the intestinal micro-flora may produce neurotoxins such as Beta-N-Methylamino-l-Alanine (BMAA) which may be related to development of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson-Dementia-Complex in humans and Equine Motor Neuron Disease in Horses.


Dept. of Neurology and Psychiatry, Saint Louis University School of Medicine, Montelone Hall, 1438 South Grand Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63104, USA. Electronic address:

Comp Biochem Physiol C Toxicol Pharmacol. 2012 Nov;156(3-4):171-7. doi: 10.1016/j.cbpc.2012.07.004. Epub 2012 Jul 25.

The physiological effect of ingested β-N-methylamino-L-alanine on a glutamatergic synapse in an in vivo preparation.


Department of Chemistry, California State University, Fresno, 2555 East San Ramon Ave., MS SB 70, Fresno, CA 93740, USA.


The neurotoxin, BMAA (β-N-methylamino-L-alanine), may be a risk factor for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson's (PD) and Alzheimer's (AD) disease. In vivo experiments have demonstrated that BMAA can cause a number of motor dysfunctions if ingested or injected, and in vitro experiments show that this toxin binds to glutamate receptors with deleterious results. Also, BMAA exists in the human food chain worldwide, and has been detected in the brains of ALS and AD patients. This paper offers the first demonstration by intracellular recording of the effect of ingested BMAA on the postsynaptic response of an identified glutamatergic cell in a living, undissected organism (Drosophila melanogaster), and correlates these observations with the specific motor dysfunctions that result from ingestion. The results suggest that BMAA acts as a glutamate agonist, causing NMDA receptor channels to remain open for prolonged periods of time, thereby damaging the cell by excitotoxicity. The effect on the postsynaptic response became apparent days before the function of the postsynaptic cell (wing beat) became affected. Severely depolarized cells were able to fully recover with the removal of BMAA from the food source, suggesting that blocking BMAA binding in the brain might be a good treatment strategy.
Copyright © 2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
[PubMed - in process]


Joan Savage 2012 Updated December 11

I sneeze at a viral video with the itchy word "have"

As a climate change hawk I'm probably supposed to puff Al Gore's new sorta-music video, but instead I am going to pan it. It is in that wiry-metallic synthetic faux music created by autotune software.

The autotune makes phrases more catchy through imposed rhythm and repetition, but the scientific knowledge imparted is minimal.  "As CO2 increases, it increases temperature.." is science. That's about it for the science.

"..only earth we will ever have" is partly fact, partly value-laden. 
 Acting as if we "have" the earth got us into this rotten mess.
and "We have to care about" is not science, it is an asserted value, one not shared by all.

It might be slightly more factual to say the earth has us.  We are part of a transient thin layer on its surface.

Thin layer.
We don't "have" a planet, we are part of one.
If we cooperate carefully with planetary conditions,
we might survive as a species for more generations.
No guarantee.
Get over it.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Midas revisited

 Too much money buys King Midas' dismay,  inedible and lonely.
Politicians corrupted with love of money have altered our food and water and community.
We are left with something worse than useless.

A Midas' touch is regrettable.

a hedge fund manager's message to scientists

Jeremy Grantham's op-ed in Nature is entitled, "Be persuasive. Be brave. Be arrested (if necessary)," with the subtitle,  "A resource crisis exacerbated by global warming is looming, argues financier Jeremy Grantham. More scientists must speak out."

Core values statement:

Scientists are understandably protective of the dignity of science and are horrified by publicity and overstatement. These fears, unfortunately, are not shared by their opponents, which makes for a rather painful one-sided battle. Overstatement may generally be dangerous in science (it certainly is for careers) but for climate change, uniquely, understatement is even riskier and therefore, arguably, unethical.

Last paragraph:

It is crucial that scientists take more career risks and sound a more realistic, more desperate, note on the global-warming problem. Younger scientists are obsessed by thoughts of tenure, so it is probably up to older, senior and retired scientists to do the heavy lifting. Be arrested if necessary. This is not only the crisis of your lives — it is also the crisis of our species’ existence. I implore you to be brave.
Paper cite:
Nature 491, 303 ()  doi:10.1038/491303a

Friday, November 16, 2012

looking back at a rapid transition, horse collars and assembly lines

I'm intrigued by a question about the economic consequences of a rapid transition.  The question is framed with concern about an economy-wide shift away from fossil fuel.

Although I'm not an economist myself, I come from a family that has included genuine experts.  Versions of the transition question are familiar.  The family had well-honed anecdotes used to kick off a classroom lecture or a Sunday afternoon conversation at home on the subject. My favorite is about horse collars.

In the early 20th century the transition from horse-drawn to motor vehicles was rather abrupt, and not particularly due to a government policy. Some esteemed companies that served horse transportation went through rocky times. One Philadelphia horse collar maker experienced very lean years, and nearly closed its doors. As horse collar sales declined, the owners were in awkward positions with their leather suppliers and their skilled employees. The owners reinvented the company as a manufacturer of leather assembly line belts, a new product at the time, though using the same sources of leather supplies and skilled laborers. It was a difficult period in the company history as the company had to break into the new market of manufacturers that used assembly lines.
The joke ran about the leather factory, They had to tighten their belts so as to tighten their belts.

One of the impetuses to move to cars was that horses were smelly and high-maintenance; as cities became more crowded there were no nearby hayfields left to feed the horses. Similarly cooks initially liked the shift from wood to coal, a fuel that burned hotter and longer than a load of wood, but they hated the coal dust and ashes, and often had little choice as the cost of wood had increased.  How ironic is it that we now realize that cars and coal have nasty downsides, and we yearn for something better still.  The limitations of mining rare-earths for car batteries are in the next round of noticing down-sides.

The social consequences of a rapid shift in energy source were huge in the horse-to-motor phase. Fewer farmers, more factory workers; more public transportation to common destinations like work places or amusement parks, more generic food supplies.  It allowed a deeper socioeconomic ghettoization as the prosperous no longer needed to have staff living nearby in the pattern of rich street and alley. Gone was the need for a stable with a groom living upstairs from the horse; and the cook and maid could come to work by trolley instead of living in the attic.

So in looking ahead, planting ahead, what might occur in a shift away from fossil fuel?

Updated November 19, 2012 Joan Savage

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Resilient Readiness - will we ever get it right?

Resiliency is a word that shows up in conversations about improvement in emergency management, and more generally, adaptation to climate change conditions.   I've read 'resilience' often enough to know that the word is usually policy-speak for, "We want to be ready the next time, but we are vague about what that will be."

I'm frustrated by the columns on resiliency that don't yield a single example of success.

We've gotten some categories that are starting points. Revkin's column on resiliency quotes extensively from William S Hooke, who wants three measures: the equivalent of an NTSB review of emergencies, Environmental Impact Statements on any large project private or public, and public-private conversations on business continuity and insurability.

I look at this and say yes, of course let's not make the same mistake twice (NTSB), let's avoid ventures that endanger others (EIS),  and let's not subsidize foolish investment in high risk locations like a beach (no insurance).   Okay.

But that is a list of prudent decisions within a known system of risks. It doesn't reach the far more ambitious goal of resilience.

What are historic examples of resilient readiness?

That's a trick question.
Selection pressures are not all foreseeable;  neither castles nor antibiotics are infallible.What may seem like perfect readiness can still be side-swiped by a novel factor. Indeed we already know the dangerous dance between microbes and medicine that pushes microbes to evolve into drug-tolerant or drug-resistant organisms; our very efforts at readiness can kick back at us many-fold.

As I wrote earlier natural systems do provide some clues.
However (suspense, drum roll) although some readers are probably expecting an example of individual resilience, or some kind of  flexible infrastructure, resilience in nature shows up on other scales.

Some keywords to explore further:
Redundancy (the best natural kind you can find).

Planting ahead..

Updated 11-4-2012
Joan Savage

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Hurricane Sandy versus Hurricane Hazel

I apologize if this is a bit rough.

Hurricane Sandy, late October, 2012: late season storm, picks up energy from widespread warm ocean surface temperature (SST), achieves areal extent across hundreds of miles, blocked from staying out at sea by a Greenland high, and drawn inland by a low. After doing a lot of damage with storm surge, wind, and flooding, smacked into an Arctic cold front and dropped several feet of snow in the Appalachians and westward.

Hurricane Hazel, mid-October 1954: late season storm, turns landward as a Category III hurricane striking North Carolina, and moved northward through mid-Atlantic states until it too smacked into an Arctic cold front, in that case over Toronto, Ontario.

Hurricane Hazel appeared part way through a period of drought in the mid-continental US, as did Sandy, so that should be scrutinized. What were the Atlantic SSTs in 1954?

What is most obviously different between them is that Sandy covered more surface area than Hazel, with more wind and more suspended moisture.  This is like the oft-repeated metaphor for climate change, the baseball player on steroids, who is doing something bigger-oftener because of the push.

A similarity is that the two storms were both nudged northward and inland by other weather patterns. However, even that should be double checked. The research of Dr Jennifer Francis's team at Rutgers has found a relationship between the melting Arctic and the development of more persistent blocking patterns.

Hurricane Irene turned inland, but earlier in the hurricane season, so the combo of Irene and Sandy may be a sign of things to come.

Instead of a gap of 57 years between 1954 and 2011-2012, we may have more frequent occurrences of late season hurricanes making landfall in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states. 

Planting ahead..
Joan Savage, 11-3-2012