To commemorate the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination–and inspired by my recent vacation to Florida–I contributed a feature to Smithsonianmag.com about the little-known legacy of Samuel Mudd. The infamous surgeon who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg was sentenced to life and condemned to the notorious army prison at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, a remote island in the Gulf of Mexico. He only served four years, partly due to his heroic action during a yellow fever epidemic at the fort. The story was published on April 14, 2015, exactly 150 years after Lincoln’s death. Read all about it here (and check out my photos, too)!
The medieval epidemic of bubonic plague, known as the Black Death, wiped out 40 to 60 percent of the population in Europe, Africa and Asia. Now a Rutgers University researcher says that the rapid and lethal spread of plague in the 14th century gives us clues to the current escalation of the Ebola outbreak. And yes, climate change might play a significant part.
Nukhet Varlik, an assistant professor of history, examined evidence of the Black Death’s spread and saw similarities in our relationship to nature in the Middle Ages and today, suggesting that Ebola may be helped along by socioeconomic and climate factors.
“For example, we are learning now that the earth’s climate apparently changed prior to the Black Death,” says Varlik. “In that case it was a period of global cooling. It is possible that rainfall then increased and made vegetation more available, which in turn added to the rodent population, and rodents spread plague. Evidence is increasing that each time before a large pandemic, something has happened in the environment.”
Varlik looked at historical accounts of the plague in the Ottoman region, where she found the disease’s spread just as rampant as it was in Europe. She also examined genetic and physical evidence, only recently available through DNA forensics. She concluded that humans’ close proximity to rodents was a primary factor in outbreaks of plague in the Middle Ages as well as infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS, Ebola and flu in modern times.
The other main factor is a shift in average climate. According to Varlik,
“even a fluctuation in average temperature by one degree can cause some species to flee a region while others remain, changing ecosystems and potentially spreading disease in unpredictable ways. Other man-made changes such as destruction of rain forests may also tip an unknown balance, she says, putting humans and pathogens into close proximity as our ancestors and plague-carrying rodents once were.”
For more on the connections between the Black Death, climate change and today, check out my conversation with William Rosen, author of The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century, for the World Science Festival.
Scientists at Cornell University have discovered that meltwater from the surface of an ice cap can seep downward and become trapped beneath it, adding heat to the bottom of the cap. It’s the first time that researchers have seen the potential for atmospheric warming to affect glaciers from above and below.
The Cornell team, led by Earth and Atmospheric Sciences researcher Michael Willis, said that the warmer water could make the ice sheet slide faster over ground and change how the ice responds to the changing climate. They conducted the study in Greenland and published the results Jan. 21 in the journal Nature.
The Greenland ice sheet makes up 80 percent of the island’s land mass, and previous studies have shown that the ice sheet is melting at a faster fate. Willis said his study was sparked in 2012, when he noticed a 70-meter-deep hole in Greenland’s ice cap, a remnant of a rare subglacial lake.
“Between 2012 and 2014, Willis watched as summer meltwater on the surface of the ice made its way down cracks around the hole and refilled the empty lake basin at the base of the ice cap. When water was flowing on the surface, the subglacial lake filled. When water stopped flowing on the surface, the subglacial lake stopped refilling.
“Each summer scientists see bright blue streams form on the surface of Greenland as warm air melts the ice sheet. What happens to this water when it disappears into cracks in the ice has remained a mystery.
‘This discovery that water can be stored in lakes beneath the ice shows how the plumbing on the surface is linked to the plumbing at the base,’ said co-author Robin Bell.”
The refilling tells scientists that the ice cap’s resilience has reached a tipping point.
“‘We can actually see the meltwater pour down into these holes and then watch these subglacial lakes drain out and fill up again in real time. With melting like that, even the deep interior of the ice sheet is going to change. If enough water is pouring down into the Greenland Ice Sheet for us to see the same subglacial lake empty and refill itself over and over, then there must be so much latent heat being released under the ice that we’d have to expect it to change the large-scale behavior of the ice sheet,’ said study co-author Michael Bevis.”
The study was conducted at the Flade Isblink ice cap in northeastern Greenland. I’m told that another place in Greenland where glacial change is obvious is Ittoqqortoormiit, formerly Scoresbysund. William Scoresby named the area in 1822, when he charted more than 400 miles of the eastern coast of Greenland. Ittoqqortoormiit is a hotspot for earth scientists who say that glaciers appear to be sliding toward the sea at faster rates, a result of atmospheric warming.
Hot off the griddle, I wrote a fun feature about the food traditions–old and new–on display at the sixth annual Latke Festival in New York City. I think my favorite iteration was the simple potato pancake with homemade applesauce from The Commons, a new American restaurant in Chelsea. A crispy fried shell encased the creamy croquette, buttery and starchy like it should be, and the sweet applesauce had just a hint of tartness to knit the flavors together. The West Side Spirit ran the piece just in time for Hanukkah. Check it out here!