Evicted by Climate Change in San Francisco


Photo Credit: nipplerings72 via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: nipplerings72 via Compfight cc

The Bay Area is a hard place to live. Ocean fog makes the summers notoriously frigid, you may be attacked by rogue circus acrobats at any moment, and for some reason there is just poop everywhere. Everywhere.

To make matters worse, housing costs have sky-rocketed to the point where mega-wealthy renters paying $10,000/month are being evicted to make room for the uber-wealthy, who are happy to pay twice or three times that. The city has turned from the site of the Summer of Love into a dystopia where there’s no middle-class, or upper-middle class, or even rich people. There’s the 0.01% and there’s everyone else, and it’s making people a little irate.

While the urban landscape is changing in response to the economic climate (it’s hot!), the ocean landscape right off the coast in SF Bay will be changing soon too, because of climate change.

This is especially problematic for the rare and endangered species that have already had to contend with human encroachment into their habitats. Often these encroachments require people to do something called “assisted colonization” where they actually move the plants, with the hopes that they will happily colonize new protected areas. But just like people being forced out of their homes by a changing economy, plants don’t always move willfully and they don’t always happily thrive after having been displaced. Basically, plants can be picky, like people can be picky: we want to live where we want to live.

Sea level rise from climate change adds a whole new layer to the challenge of protecting rare and endangered plants. If the sea level rises into unique coastal habitats, making them more like open-ocean, where will those coastal plants go? Can they move further inland, where new marshes will presumably develop? Is there even room for them to do so, or has human development reduced their ability to disperse?

Take for example the rare hemi-parasite (meaning it gets some of its nutrition from parasitism and some on its own gumption – think mistletoe) Chloropyron molle A. Heller subsp. Molle aka the rare plant called “soft bird’s beak”. This endangered plant lives in the salt marshes just north of the SF Bay. It’s a big fan of open areas, but is a little picky about sprouting, making it highly variable in numbers from year to year. Due to human encroachment (development, dyking and changing the hydrological regime, yeah we do that too) its habitat has been reduced by 50%. It’s also getting crowded out by invasive species and, oh yeah, apparently it’s popular with the feral pigs.

So, it’s awesome to be a rare plant!

With the prospect of sea level rise, there’s a whole new issue at hand. A key to any plant’s success is its ability to disperse, i.e. have its seeds move to new areas. And the “soft bird’s beak” plant doesn’t have a lot of dispersal options, because of the human encroachment and changing of hydrological regimes… and oh yeah, there are plants that already live there! It’s kind of like having to move to the East Bay for the cheap rents – there are already people living there and maybe they don’t want you crowding them out with your fancy rare plant vibe.

So what’s the answer? It gets really tricky; you could advocate for a “managed retreat”, demanding that people manage all components of an uphill ecosystem (from tidal flows to plant establishment) to create a new home for these rare plants. You could throw up your arms and say that these plants weren’t really long for this world. Or you could take some action now to reduce the risk of sea level rise in the future, nullifying the arguments and years it would take to legislate this sort of action.

My vote goes towards trying to act now to make sure the sea level doesn’t rise to keep these rare plants where they are. But in San Francisco keeping residents in their native habitats isn’t the most popular sentiment.  It turns out that my opinions on this topic might make me the rare plant here. Think I’ll survive?

Further Reading:

(1) Sea change under climate change: case studies in rare plant conservation from the dynamic San Francisco Estuary

Judge, jury and wine executioner…I mean enthusiast.

I received a desperate e-mail earlier this week — why was I no longer blogging? Had I fallen in a ditch? Turned to climate change denial? Dropped out of science writing and joined a convent?

No, nothing so dramatic. I just had jury duty. Actually, I still have jury duty. For weeks. And there is nothing that drains all of your creative juices as much as being sequestered into a stuffy courtroom listening to a case on…well, I can’t say what the case is on. I’m not allowed to talk about the case or where it is or who is involved or anything interesting. But I can tell you that jury duty can often involve a lot of waiting while lawyers and judges hash out information that the jury is not allowed to hear.

This leaves you, the juror, with a lot of extra time on your hands. You could start that new novel you’ve been planning, try to do some work, plan world domination. But the bailiff might return at any moment, in five minutes, in ten minutes, or three hours. You just don’t know. So what do you do for hours on end of continuously interrupted waiting? Puzzles! Large puzzles. 1,000 piece puzzles of things like clowns or flowers or puppies.

In my case it was a puzzle of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s house. So I had a lot of time to stare of TJ’s lovely estate — its brick facade, the gardens, the lush green yards. And as I pieced together the small windows on the second story of his manor, I contemplated not the house itself, but his vineyards or really the lack thereof.

There is much lore about good old Thomas Jefferson, but my favorite is his many failed attempts to grow wine grapes in the new world. As the story goes, he was supposedly never able to grow European stocks of wine grapes because they were susceptible to Phylloxera, a sapsucking insect that infiltrates the roots of grapevines in the US. American grapes are resistant to Phylloxera having had to contend with them for many years, but this was a new ailment to the alien European vines and they severely suffered.

You are probably thinking that this is all a little ridiculous; if we had American grape varieties, why bring over European varieties at all? Why not make wine from those well-adapted American grapes? What were early Americans, total snobs or something?

It turns out that American grapes are just fine for eating, but they make a foxy wine – and I don’t mean this kind, I mean a foxy flavor. What is a foxy flavor? I have no idea, but apparently it’s a thing with wines, and American grapes make wines that are much like American women…foxy as hell!

Finally grape growers in America figured out that you could just graft the European vines onto American rootstock and avoid the Phylloxera trap all together. In fact, American fruit growers in general have done a pretty valiant job of identifying pests and using all sorts of tools to manage these little critters. From grafting to planting cover crops to conventional pesticide-use to integrated-pest-management to organics to GMOs to crop rotation; there isn’t anything farmers won’t try to manage the many pests that can come in and mangle their crops.

Independent of your opinion on how they do it, they have certainly done an amazing job of keeping those pests at bay given the sheer amount of produce available to us in grocery stores across the US. All of this could be greatly disrupted though by climate change as the temperature heats up (1), but probably not necessarily in the way that you think.

When most of us think about warmer temperature, we think about summer heat and wildfires and droughts. Sometimes we also talk about snow and lack thereof, or sometimes an overabundance of snow, because that is related as well. But we don’t really talk about winter weather in terms of its usefulness in killing insects, and keeping their populations down.

Winter, though, really icy, terribly bitter cold winters, are an important part of insect control, and there is nothing some insects love more than a nice, cozy unseasonably warm winter that they can just snooze right through. One excellent example for wine-grapes is the bitterly-hated glassy winged-sharpshooter (I didn’t make that name up, I promise). The sharpshooter is a vector that carries this gnarly bacteria to the vines resulting in something called Pierce’s disease(2).

Not only will the sharp-shooter enjoy a warmer winter, because hey, who doesn’t love a warm and mild winter? But, as temperature increases, the ability to pass on the disease from the sharpshooter goes up (3). So higher temperature means more disease transmission. Bad news for the vines, great news for the pathogen.

Can you imagine if warmer weather meant higher disease transmission for people? Well…sometimes it does…on Spring break, I guess….but that’s sort of different….

So as the climate continues to change, there will be a whole new host of challenges that growers will have to contend with. Just as farmers had started to figure out all the intricacies of protecting their crops from insects, people had to go and make things climatically interesting, and a little extra challenging for the farmers. Who knows, maybe in 100 years the terrain that farmers are dealing with will be as foreign to them due to climate change as the Phylloxera-infested land that Thomas Jefferson had to deal with.

Will we be as crafty then as we’ve been since Jefferson planted his first vineyard at Monticello? Maybe it will be for someone 100 years from now to contemplate as they sit in a court house waiting to be called in for jury duty. When it comes to climate change though, time, not people, will be the judge.

Further Reading

(1) A review of the potential climate change impacton insect populations – general and agricultural aspects
(2) Climate change associated effects on grape and wine quality and production
(3) Temperature mediates vector transmission efficiency: inoculum supply and plant infection dynamics

The hungry little caterpillar will destroy us all: climate change and importance of timing.

My first year of graduate school, I set out to complete an independent field project in the hill country of Western Massachusetts. In all my clever, pre-doctoral planning, I did not account for an unexpected outbreak of the hungry, hungry tent-caterpillar that summer.

These caterpillars completely took over the forests of the Berkshires, consuming any greenery they could get their little munchy mouths on. They covered everything from top to bottom, leaving tacky streams of silk between trees. I learned not to touch anything, sit anywhere or walk with my mouth open (seriously). There were so many of them that the sound of their chewing and the pitter patter of their scat hitting the forest floor became a deafening echo. Gross.

A few weeks before the caterpillars made their cocoons, friendly flies arrived (no really, the common name is “friendly fly”). These flies are known for laying their eggs in caterpillar cocoons, using them as incubators for their little babies. When the larvae hatch, they eat their way through the caterpillars, leaving the shell of caterpillar corpses lining trees. If you happen to trip and grab a tree for support after the flies have made their way through, you’ll end up with a handful of mushy orange caterpillar squish. The thought still makes me sick. You’re welcome.

The lesson of this story though is not to gross you out, but really to demonstrate the importance of timing between species in ecological systems. The timing of the flies’ arrival was extremely important. Can you imagine if they had arrived after the caterpillars had pupated and started to mate? What would the effect have been the next year? Could the forest survive multiple years of caterpillar invasions? What would all that caterpillar poop do to the soil?

This is the sort of thing that ecologists get totally worked up about (poop included). The timing of life cycle events (when trees flower, when caterpillars pupate) is actually fundamental to ecological systems. Since these organisms don’t have calendars, watches or Siri to direct their activities, many use temperature as an indicator of when to start growing, migrating, hatching, laying etc. This has been observed in all sorts of organisms, from plants to butterflies to birds to newts (1, 2, 4).

‘Great’, you might think, ‘Spring is coming earlier, so what is the problem?’

Well, if all the plants and animals in the forest are shifting their life cycle events earlier, you will be a sore loser in the game of life if you are the one species who can’t keep up. This inability to shift your life-cycle events when all the other organisms are doing it is called an ecological mismatch.

Basically in the natural world, keeping up with the Joneses (or the caterpillars, the flowers, the other birds) is exceptionally important. Imagine if you will, a teenage yellow-bellied marmot whining to its mom, “everyone else is doing it…” but instead of responding with the typical “if everyone jumped off the bridge, would you too?” the marmot mom would say, “oh yeah? Get your bungee cords honey, because we got to get jumping!” Not jumping in this case means not eating and this could definitely impact your survival. In the case of the marmot, they have not only jumped the bridge, but swam the river, made it to shore, completed a 10K and caught the new Borne movie (i.e. climate change has done them well). Too far-fetched an analogy?

How about a more straightforward example—researchers found that between 1988 and 2005, caterpillar and insectivorous bird (i.e. birds that eat caterpillars) hatching dates have advanced, but the big-ass sparrow hawks that eat the insectivorous birds have not advanced their hatching dates (“hatching dates” are when the baby birds hatch, you dig?). This means that the little insectivorous birds are happily readjusting when they are having babies to match when there are the most caterpillars, but the big, scary carnivorous sparrow hawks are not (5). Sucks to be the sparrow hawk.

In the case of some animals, adapting to a changing climate and “getting there early” is greatly to their advantage. This is the case for frog-loving newts (no, not frog “loving”, it’s newts who eat frog eggs). These newts have started entering ponds earlier than before (due to increases in temperature) and have a buffet of frog eggs (who have not shifted their laying or hatching behavior) to munch on. This is great for the newts, but pretty terrible for the frogs (1,3). And since frogs eat bugs that annoy me when I’m hiking, I’m sort of sad about this.

So it turns out your freaky yoga teacher was right. Timing is a central part of living systems and many organisms are dependent on this for their survival. Not all of them will be able to adapt to the temperature changes that come with climate change, and this puts them at great risk.

Being Humvee-driving, frog-baseball-playing, marmot-loving homo sapiens, this might not bother us too much. But since you now know that all of these systems are connected, one little frog out of sync or one bird species down could have major impacts for the organisms themselves and us in the end.

The future is looking very mismatched, and that is not going to be good for any of us. Having survived one epic caterpillar invasion in the forests of western Massachusetts, I just don’t think I can handle the next. And after hearing my description, could you?

Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is a science writer in the Bay area. In addition to the caterpillar apocalypse during her first field season, she also had to contend with mice in her sleeping bag, a disgruntled field assistant, chewing-gum sized mice babies in her cabin, 16-hour work days, ticks in unexpected places (behind the ear?!?! Really?!?!) and head lice (thanks mice!) The next time someone calls ecologists a bunch of lazy hippies, she encourages you to accidentally punch them in the nose.

Further Reading:
(1) Ecological responses to recent climate change
(2) Warmer springs lead to mistimed reproduction in great tits (Parus major) (It’s a bird, your pervert.)
(3) Amphibian breeding and climate change
(4) Climate warming, ecological mismatch at arrival and population decline in migratory birds
(5) Climate change and unequal phenological changes across four trophic levels: constraints or adaptations?

Give me chocolate or give me death! The effect of climate change of cocoa.

There are few things people take more seriously in their personal lives than chocolate. I realize you think I am being facetious, but think about your childhood, think about Christmas, think about your pregnancy or your wife’s pregnancy or getting dumped or getting promoted or your birthdays or retirement parties. Think about them and then think of a flavor.

If you say vanilla, you might as well just throw yourself off a bridge right now – what are you, a maniac?? Of course, it is chocolate you must be thinking of.

Chocolate, the flavor of all rewards. One of the few all-ages legal narcotics that is reportedly good for you. The only food that I would ever go into battle for. Chocolate is amazing. Chocolate is wonderful. And I am certainly not the only one to think so.

When the very American cheese company Kraft, attempted a hostile takeover of the very British chocolate company, Cadbury, the heiress and great-granddaughter of the company’s creator was heard to exclaim in horror “I can’t accept that Cadbury has gone to America. To a plastic cheese company!!!”

Though I feel (and others agree) that Cadbury’s is not real chocolate, but rather a variety of pond scum, I appreciate Cadbury junior’s sentiment — Give me Hershey’s or give me death!!

Chocolate is regional. Chocolate is beloved. And I absolutely support her decision to sell her 30 million pound home to launch her own British chocolate franchise. I would certainly sell my home, car and grapefruit tree (I do live in California after all) to preserve a beloved chocolate company.

Of course, that is if chocolate were to stay as wonderful in the future as it is today. Now you have no doubt already heard a million times that chocolate yield, like other food items, is at risk from the extreme weather events—drought and giant storms—that can come with climate change (3, 5). This is of course bad for chocolate consumers, chocolate makers and cocoa growers (probably the worst for cocoa growers, really). But being a picky chocolate consumer means not just being interested in how much chocolate you can shove down your throat (usually a gallon a day is my limit), but rather the quality of that chocolate.

When thinking about quality, you need to think about two chemical components: polyphenolics (poly=lots, phenol=carbon-dominated rings) and alkaloids (nitrogen containing compound) (2, 4). In cocoa, polyphenolics and alkaloids are considered flavor precursors – i.e. necessary to create the chocolate flavors during the fermentation process (yes, they ferment chocolate – awesome!) (1).

You’ve heard me talk about the importance of phenolics and alkaloids before in my blogs about wine, tea, cocaine and tobacco. These compounds are used by the plant to ward off predators, but fortunately for us they also create amazing flavors – what kills the grasshopper, delights the Minda.

Even though these compounds are important to flavor, there is little information on the effect of climate on them. So this leaves us to play the scientist and start generating hypotheses (putting on nerd glasses). We know from my tea blog that temperature can influence the level of phenolic compounds in plants, but it depends on the plant, the phenolic and the temperature level. Well, that doesn’t help….what about alkaloids?

We know from my tobacco blog that increased carbon dioxide reduces the concentration of nicotine (an alkaloid) in tobacco plants, and alkaloids in general are reduced in cocaine-makin’ coca plants (that’s coca, not cocoa) by increased temperature. So could we hypothesize that alkaloid concentrations will go down in a warmer and more carbon-rich environment resulting in a less bitter chocolate?

Perhaps, but perhaps not! We know from my blog on hallucinogens that alkaloid content in datura plants varies with age, temperature and carbon dioxide. So it sounds like plants actually differ quite a bit from each other, and making vast generalizations from one species to another may not give us the answers we are looking for.

It seems that if we want to ensure that our grandchildren enjoy Hershey’s kisses as much as we do, far more research will need to be done. When does Nestle start handing out grants?

Though we don’t know what effect climate change will have on chocolate flavors, we do know that extreme weather events will negatively impact the amount of cocoa on the market place. This fact alone has me planning a chocolate bunker in my basement as I write this.

Now I’d never ask you to sell your own home to save chocolate as the heiress to the Cadbury fortune did, but could I convince you to sell your SUV to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions? Every little bit helps, and when it comes to chocolate, isn’t it worth it?

Minda has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is a science writer in the Bay area. She was fascinated to learn about the different “odor qualities” experts associate with cocoa. In addition to the expected earthy, buttery and biscuit-like, there is also sweaty, grassy, cooked-meat, potato-chip, mothball and rancid. Who’s hungry?

(1) Flavor Formation and Character in Cocoa and Chocolate: A Critical Review
(2) Cocoa has more phenolic phytochemicals and a higher antioxidant capacity than teas and red wine
(3) Response of cocoa trees (Theobroma cacao) to a 13-month desiccation period in Sulawesi, Indonesia
(4) Chocolate and red wine – A comparison between flavonoids content
(5) Effect of climate change on cocoa yield: a case of cocoa research Institute (crin) farm, oluyole local government ibadan oyo state

Saving the planet, one fart at a time

Recently, Mark Bittman, minimalist chef-turned-novice-food-advocate published an opinion piece in the New York Times regarding his personal challenges digesting milk. In his article he attempted to dissuade Americans from consuming milk, because according to him it’s not so good for us and we haven’t evolved to drink it. For all his citations and quotes, it turns out that his reasoning isn’t exactly based in peer-reviewed literature (aka Science!).

Rather interestingly, milk isn’t tragically bad for us (1) and the ability to digest the milk sugar lactose is one of the cooler examples of convergent evolution (2). (For a fuller response, see my sweetie Will Fertman’s article Mark Bittman: Don’t be a weasel).

Most disappointingly though, in all of Mr. Bittman’s griping, he gave very short shrift to a better reason to reduce milk intake. It’s not our own poor digestion we should be concerned about when drinking milk, but rather the poor little cow’s digestion when they are making it, as this digestion is a significant contributor to climate change (3, 4).

So I know you all saw an Inconvenient Truth, but it’s been a couple years so here is a quick refresher: People/animals release greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane etc.) into the atmosphere, these gases trap heat, the heat warms the planet, the more gases there are the more heat gets trapped. Gases have different heat trapping potential and methane is particularly good at this (go methane!).

The flatus and eructation (aka farts and burps, well really mostly the burps) coming from ruminants (sheep, cows…camels) are one of the largest sources of anthropogenic methane emissions (ie what doesn’t come from a wetland comes from cow burps). It turns out though, that we may have more control over these “end pipe emissions” than we ever would like to think in polite society (oh my!).

Ruminants have specialized stomachs that allow them to eat grass and other cellulose rich foods. This stomach is filled with bacteria which actually ferment the grass in the cow bellies and it’s this fermentation process that releases methane. In fact, if you work on a farm then you know if a sheep really likes you, she will complement you by sidling up next to you and giving out an enormous smelly burp (uh, thanks sicko sheep).

Aside from smelly sheep burps, this is actually when it gets sort of cool, because you can control the amount of methane being produced by controlling the diet being fed to the ruminant (or really the ruminant’s bacteria).

Since cows are big money makers (and big burpers too), a lot of research has gone into studying this ruminant and its bacterial family. So what do the cows (I mean bacteria) like? Well the bacteria in the cow’s belly tend to emit less methane with a higher quality diet. For example, fancy bourgeoisie cows/bacteria grazing on mixed-alfalfa emit less methane than those proletariat cows/bacteria grazing on grass (snobs) (5). Though not yet cited, I imagine it would be the same for your burpy sheep friend as well.

Bacteria also are pretty picky about the pH they live in. This may seem like a strange thing to consider, but would you be happier bathing in orange juice (acidic), water (neutral) or lye (basic)? Reducing the pH of this pre-stomach environment can slow down the methane creating bacteria and/or alter the bacterial community to favor other types of bacteria, reducing the amount of methane being produced in the end (ha!) (6).

As a result, it has been suggested that if we could manipulate the wee creatures living in the cow rumen than we could reduce methane emissions (7). Many different ideas have been floated, from vaccines or probiotics that alter the microbial community to killing off the community altogether (which could kill the cow….which would sort of take care of the problem). Or you could, you know, consume fewer cow products (am I agreeing with Mark Bittman? Gasp!) (8).

If you are a farmer though, your bottom line (pun intended) usually has more to do with liquid cow emissions (milk, you pervert) than the gaseous stuff. Until stronger policy measures or consumer pressure pushes farmers to consider how cow diets affect greenhouse gases, I may have to agree with Mr. Bittman about reducing my milk intake even though I doubt we could ever agree on the reason why – burp!

Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is a science blogger in the Bay area. She was delighted to learn while researching this article the many scatological words people use in polite society to refer to farting and burping. These include flatulence, belching, eructation, expulsion, projection, flatus, emissions, end of pipe (Ha! Ha!!!), passing gas, and breaking wind. Thank you.

Further Reading:
(1) The Consumption of Milk and Dairy Foods and the Incidenceof Vascular Disease and Diabetes: An Overview of the Evidence
(2) Convergent adaptation of human lactase persistence in Africa and Europe
(3) EPA: Methane
(4) Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis: Methane
(5) Enteric fermentation and ruminant eructation: the role (and control?) of methane in the climate change debate
(6) The role of pH in regulating ruminal methane and ammonia production
(7) Methane production by ruminants: its contribution to global warming
(8) Climate benefits of changing diet

Ye Older Bio Warefare: The effects of climate change on hallucinogens (Part 2)

Last week I talked about the effect of climate change on hallucinogens in the Solanacea family and their link to American colonial history. In the post, I commented on how living in New England, American colonial history is everywhere you walk, sit and breathe, and for some living in the area, it can end up rather old hat.

For those living on the East Coast, who may have tired of colonial American history (how many times can you fight traffic to see where the Pilgrims landed?) there is an even more enticing history to engage yourself with: the Renaissance. Now one might imagine that a novice historian might want to make a trip to Italy to surround themselves in Renaissance history –visit the estates, see the fine works, take up playing the lute. But why waste the money when there is a far better way to engage in this history in one afternoon: the King Richard’s Faire.

Every Fall, King Richard’s Faire descends on Carver Massachusetts. The consumption-focused, creative anachronism that is the King Richard’s faire has become a staple for New Englanders in the Fall, much like haunted hay rides and apple picking. LARPers, lonely computer programmers and local families alike show up to joust, speak in old English (or so they seem to think), show off their abundant bosoms and eat large turkey legs (a New World food).

Never willing to miss an opportunity to eat fried dough (another New World delight) or challenge my Navy-trained sharpshooter friend to an axe-throwing competition (P.S. she won), I set out to tackle this historic travesty.

Let’s be honest though. King Richard’s Faire is hardly how it would have been back in the Renaissance, when a measly hangnail could render you gangrenous (ok, I’m being a little hyperbolic). Most of the caped participants in the faire had all their teeth, limbs and presumably were not afflicted by any common ailments that would have killed and maimed us 400+ years ago: smallpox, leprosy, cholera.

But let’s say you were recreating the Renaissance. You’ve spent the day working in the fields, trying to make gold out of lead, or painting a picture of some naked lady or fruit or something. You come home from a hard day and your busty (but toothless) wife/servant has baked you an elegant loaf of bread and maybe a mutton chop. Both delicious, no doubt, but within a few hours your stomach doesn’t feel very good. Great, you think, my busty wife/servant undercooked the beef again. But then you start to twitch, convulse, get hot all over and enter into a phase of mania and psychosis. If you keep eating your wife’s cooking (you idiot), gangrene will take your fingers and toes and a couple days later you will probably die (3).

I’m rather surprised they don’t include this creative element in King Richard’s Faire – though it may be challenging to throw axes while in a thumbless delirium.

It turns out, your little convulsive, gangrenous self is suffering from St. Anthony’s Fire (aka Ergotism), caused by an alkaloid secondary compound (aka nitrogen-containing defensive compound) produced by the Ergot fungus. Ain’t the old days great?

The Ergot fungus grows on rye and other grains and uses these alkaloids to keep animals from eating it (i.e. insects, cows and you, dummy).

This fungus has been harassing people since long before the Renaissance, but it is most popularly known now for introducing a Swiss chemist to lysergic acid diethylamide (aka LSD), a derivative of the fungus, which he accidentally synthesized and then ingested in the early 1940’s, leading to the crazy ‘60’s and the reason why we can never really have a reasonable conversation with our parents.

But how does climate impact this fungus? Ergot fungi in particular love humidity (think swimming-in-the-air levels) and are sensitive to changes in the climate (5).

In 2001, several reports of gangrene in the Arsi Zone of Ethiopia resulted in researchers discovering an outbreak of the Ergot fungus there. Locals described unusually moist and cloudy weather over the previous 3 years that investigators think helped perpetuate the fungus in this region. As locals were not familiar with this disease, they did not recognize it and consumed the infected grains (8), yuck.

Livestock when fed grains contaminated with this fungus have similar responses as people do (7) – though I’m not sure about the hallucinations, I think their ears just fall off. They are not nearly as good at expressing when they’ve been exposed as people (no writhing, no hollering), as most commonly they tend to get overheated and then sometimes die.

So, is climate change going to render us fingerless rubes with teatless cows?

Don’t panic yet though. In regions where this gnarly fungus is more common, grain cleaning technologies, a better understanding of its lifecycle and simple identification has reduced the impact on people and animals (1).

For livestock, farmers just need to pay attention. Cutting off the seed-heads of contaminated grains or diluting the feed with outside protein sources is enough to keep the cattle’s ears, tails and teats all intact (2). Waiting a month after harvesting can also help reduce the toxicity of the alkaloids (6).

Even in bad climate conditions, these are things that we have control over. But what are the anticipated effects of climate change on the Ergot fungus?

That is still not entirely clear. If a changing climate shifts the areas affected by this fungus, then regions not familiar with Ergot may not be prepared to identify and manage outbreaks (i.e. what happened in Ethiopia). For this reason, researchers have called for greater investigation into these fungi, how they will change with climate change and what regions will be most effected (4).

Personally, I’m all for more research. As much as I mock the historical inaccuracies of Renaissance fairs, I prefer my turkey legs and fried dough to the realities of lost limbs and hallucinatory biscuits.

Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is a science blogger in the Bay area. She will not tell you about all the disgusting things she learned about Ergot fungi while researching this article, like how long it takes to lose your toes, the explosive diarrhea it can cause or how much is considered an allowable limit in our diet.

Further Reading:
(1) Ergot of Small Grain Cereals and Grasses
(2) BOARD-INVITED REVIEW: St. Anthony’s Fire in livestock: Causes, mechanisms, and potential solutions
(3) Toxic effects of mycotoxins in humans
(4) Further mycotoxin effects from climate change
(5) Relationship between sorghum ergot, sowing dates, and climatic variables in Morelos, Mexico
(6) Ergot Alkaloid Concentrations in Tall Fescue Hay during Production and Storage
(7) St. Anthony’s Fire in livestock: Causes, mechanisms, and potential solutions Table 1
(8) Laboratory studies on the outbreak of Gangrenous Ergotism associated with consumption of contaminated barley in Arsi, Ethiopia

Ye Olde Biowarfare: how climate change is affecting hallucinogens (Part 1)

Growing up in New England, you are living, breathing and eating American history.

The place where you picnicked with your grandparents as a kid? That was the birthplace of the American Revolution. That graveyard you snuck into as a teenager on Halloween? That’s where Mother Goose is buried. That naked sex beach you “stumbled upon” last year? That was the location of two of the most useless civil war forts in American history.

And if you’re a disaffected teenager living on the East Coast, there are any number of rebellions to keep you intrigued. There was the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania, fought over…whiskey. The Boston Tea Party in Massachusetts fought over…tea. Then there was Bacon’s rebellion, which interestingly was not fought over the delectable treat, but rather was led by a fellow named Bacon against the English-supported Governor of Virginia, William Berkeley. Once perceived as the first rumblings of American separatism, scholars now see the rebellion as more of a power play between rivals resulting in the indiscriminate murder of Native Americans. Let’s just say, not our proudest moment as future Americans.

Beyond the monstrous behavior stemming from this rebellion, Bacon’s rebellion is notable for one other reason: it was the first (only?) recorded use of drugs as a bioweapon in the American fight against the British.

It all centered on a weed that grew in Jamestown, called the Jamestown Weed (now called Jimson Weed), which was known for its hallucinatory effects. The colonists, irate with the British government, cooked the young weed into a boiled salad (yes, they boiled salads back then, weirdos) and served it to several British soldiers who were sent to Jamestown to quell the uprising.

Robert Beverly reported in The History and Present State of Virginia, that the soldiers “turn’d natural Fools upon it for several Days: One would blow up a Feather in the Air; another wou’d dart Straws at it with much Fury; and another stark naked was sitting up in a Corner, like a Monkey, grinning and making Mows at them; a Fourth would fondly kiss, and paw his Companions, and snear in their Faces, with a Countenance more antick, than any in a Dutch Droll.” (1)

After a little over a week, the soldiers returned to their normal state, remembering nothing. Though this might sound like an amusing escapade for those of you who enjoy chemical alterations to your reality, you should be warned that the Jimson Weed then was most likely nothing like the Jimson Weed growing wild now. And this has everything to do with climate change.

To understand the effect of climate change on Jimson Weed, you need to know about two alkaloid compounds: atropine and scopolamine. Both of these compounds have hallucinatory effects and they are extremely poisonous when taken in pretty low doses (so please don’t try this at home). Atropine is more widely used in medicine today, while scopolamine was used historically to induce twilight sleep (aka amnesia) in birthing mothers, and later as an unsuccessful truth serum (it’s hard to extract a confession from someone who is screaming in terror because their body is being devoured by voracious insects – a popular hallucination).

It turns out that higher carbon dioxide in the atmosphere makes Jimson Weed plants grow much larger (2), and increases scopolamine concentration in their tissues, while leaving atropine stagnant. Meanwhile, increasing temperature has the opposite effect (atropine goes up, scopolamine stays the same). If we combine carbon dioxide levels, temperature and even the age of the plant, it becomes even more complex, as sometimes atropine concentration goes down (older plants under lower temperature and higher carbon dioxide levels) and sometimes scopolamine concentration goes up (younger plants under higher temperatures and higher carbon dioxide levels) (3). Yikes!

Is it possible that other plants that create similar noxious and hallucinatory chemicals will be changed in a similar fashion with climate change?

Perhaps. A study on the related (and equally toxic) Belladonna in the 1950’s suggested that the percent of alkaloids in the dried plant increased with the age of the plant and had an ideal temperature (with the greatest percentage of alkaloids) at 73 degrees Fahrenheit, with reduced percent alkaloids at higher and lower temperatures (4).

Sadly though research in the 1950’s was seemingly a little more casual, as they never state which alkaloids they measured (Atropine? Scopalamine? Hyoscyamine?) and they state in their methods that they analyzed their data “mathematically”. Studies these days actually require you to publish what “math” you used. Oh to be a scientist in 1956….

So, is it possible that the Jimson Weed fed to those poor British soldiers was a less noxious form of the one found today?

Given that the colonists picked the plant while it was young, in an environment that had lower carbon dioxide and lower temperature than today, it might have been. Which may explain why when unruly teenagers attempt to reenact this aspect of the revolutionary war today, they end up like this. Much like all good things, they just don’t make Jimson Weed like they used to. Now, sadly, it’s deadly.

Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is a science blogger in the Bay area. She wants to remind the readers that Jimson Weed, Belladonna and many other related plants are poisonous and will kill you, so please do not eat them. She realizes that readers may have hoped for an article on more popularly consumed Biological hallucinogens such as peyote or mushrooms. She encourages you to stay tuned for future blog posts in which she will address the effect of climate change on the Ergot fungus (required for LSD). Turns out climate change is going to mess with all biological organisms, but especially your stoner neighbor next door. Poor guy.

Further Reading:
(1) The History and Present State of Virginia, In Four Parts.
(2) The Effects of Elevated CO2 on Plants: Flower, Fruit and Seed Production
(3) Alterations in the production and concentration of selected alkaloids as a function of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide and air temperature: implications for

(4) Influence of the temperature on growth and alkaloid content of first-year Atropa belladonna L.

Smokin’ hot: the effect of climate change on tobacco

Last week in the blog, I wrote about the effect of climate change on coca plants. In it, I related a story of a high elevation trip to Peru which had my friend passing out in a hotel lobby and me barely able to walk up the front steps due to altitude sickness – both of us requiring the medicinal powers of coca tea.

What I didn’t tell you about this story, was that when my friend was set up with an oxygen tank to help relieve her altitude sickness, I plunked down right next to her and lit up a cigarette. Now I know you are probably thinking, smoking right next to an oxygen tank is up there with other wise decisions 20-somethings make like starting literary magazines and wearing tiny hats. I’d like to pretend it was my own altitude ailments that were clouding my judgment, but unfortunately it was something far more nefarious – nicotine addiction. Like every good smoker, I adored nicotine, and not even a thin-aired, potentially explosive environment was going to keep me from lighting up.

Now living in California, smoking cigarettes is about as popular as eating conventionally grown vegetables (you horrible monster!!!), so the smoking has ended. But it doesn’t change me from wanting to know how climate change will effect tobacco, specifically nicotine. Fortunately tobacco as a model agricultural organism (and until recently, major cash crop) has ample research associated with it.

As I mentioned last week, increased atmospheric carbon dioxide is going to increase the growth of tobacco plants (smokers say “yeah!”) while decreasing nicotine concentration (smokers say “boo!”). Meanwhile increasing temperature will have no effect on nicotine levels (1). Ok, so all the smokers are now wondering “WTF?”, because in the future there will be both higher carbon dioxide and temperatures – so, will they just cancel each other out? Sorry smokers, but the combination of the two will still decrease nicotine concentrations. This would make your cigarettes less potent if you were just smoking straight tobacco, but fortunately(?) it has been suggested that tobacco companies closely monitor and adjust nicotine levels in cigarettes, so you may not notice the difference (Phillip Morris, please don’t sue me for mentioning this!).

Though people have taken on nicotine as a beloved alkaloid, it isn’t really meant for us. Nicotine is a defensive compound plants use against insects. When insects munch on a tobacco plant stocked with nicotine, they either flat out die or grow slower and smaller (2). Let’s just say that even insects that are well-equipped to handle nicotine, are not well-treated by the stuff (3)—much like humans. So if a plant is larger, juicier and has less nicotine, it is going to be more pleasant for the insects to munch on, requiring greater amounts of pesticides to combat the herbivory.

But nicotine isn’t all about defense, it’s also used to promote reproduction. Wild tobacco plants actually use nicotine (and it’s gnarly, bitter taste) to get hummingbird pollinators to hop from flower to flower (“ew, this one tastes gross”; “oh, this one tastes slightly better!”) (4). The researchers on this study seemed to think that the hummingbirds weren’t addicted to the nicotine, so they must have been slow learners because who keeps going back to food that tastes terrible. In any case, there does not seem to be any studies on how climate change will influence nicotine in tobacco flowers, but if it follows a similar pattern as the leaves, then there will also be a reduction in nicotine. This could reduce cross-pollination as there wouldn’t be as many gnarly tasting flowers keeping the hummingbirds moving.

So suddenly the effect of climate change on tobacco has less and less to do with smokers and industry (and how I gave myself asthma), and everything to do with the birds and the bees (or at least the tobacco hornworms)! With all things climate related, it isn’t just about us people, it turns out that when it comes to having a love affair with tobacco, other animals may be just as dumb.

Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is a science blogger in the Bay area. Though she had a brief love affair with nicotine, she is now happily married to sunshine, lollypops and other healthy California addictions (plastic surgery??). She would like to note that the relationship between tobacco and climate change goes beyond nicotine levels. An excellent Union of Concerned Scientists report found that the same “scientists” and “researchers” who promoted the safety of cigarettes in the 1990’s are now disputing climate change. Check it out, it will disturb you.

For your reading enjoyment:
(1) Alterations in the production and concentration of selected alkaloids as a function of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide and air temperature: implications for ethno-pharmacology
(2) Effects of dietary nicotine on the development of an insect herbivore, its parasitoid and secondary hyperparasitoid over four trophic levels
(3) Nicotine Keeps Leaf-Loving Herbivores at Bay
(4) Unpredictability of nectar nicotine promotes outcrossing by hummingbirds in Nicotiana attenuata

Hotter and Higher? Coca plants in a Changing Climate

When I was in my mid-20’s I traveled to Peru to visit my roommate from college who was working in Lima. She insisted that we travel into the Andes mountains to see one of the greatest works of mankind, Machu Picchu. To get there under 30 hours, we had to take a plane to Cuzco from Lima (just over an hour!) and then travel to the monument from there, but there is one hitch: Lima is at sea level and Cuzco is at 11,000 feet.

When the plane landed in Cuzco and they opened the cabin doors to the outside, we could literally feel the oxygen being sucked out of the cabin. The air was thin and quite frankly we didn’t last very long. By the time we had made it to the hotel, my friend had passed out and my head was throbbing in pain. I was so dizzy that when a 5.0 earthquake hit the city, I spent a good five minutes arguing with my friend as to whether it was really an earthquake or just the altitude sickness. By the time we made it outside, the earthquake was long past and people just stared at us wondering “Where the hell were you??” We had the altitude sickness and there was no cure. Or was there?

In Cuzco, as in many other high elevation locales in South America, there was one recommended treatment for altitude sickness: coca tea. And there is no question that it worked. Really well. A few sips relieved the stress in my head, allowed me to walk in a straight line and gave me the strength to lift my oxygen-deprived legs high enough to climb the stairs to our hotel room. It worked so well, that on my most recent trip to high elevation in India (complete with throbbing headaches and shallow breathing), I was deeply missing the tea.

So of course, when I returned, my mind turned to the science. How will coca plants adapt to climate change? In the years to come, will poor climbers like me have anything as reliable to give them relief from the dreaded altitude? And what about all the modern-day party kids reliving the highlights of the Go-Go 80’s – will they have to stick to reminiscing about Z cavariccis and un-ironic mullets, or will they be able to relive the less classy moments of Bright Lights, Big City?

The active ingredient in coca is an alkaloid (i.e. nitrogen containing compound) called benzoylmethylecgonine (say that 10 times fast – or just once, good luck!) Alkaloids are extremely common in plants, used as defensive compounds against insects, and they often have the added benefit of getting people buzzed (that cigarette you just smoked would have killed an aphid). You are no doubt familiar with the more legal (and even more beloved) varieties of alkaloids: nicotine, caffeine, morphine and codeine.

Published literature at the turn of the last century indicated that though the coca plants prosper in a variety of temperatures, alkaloid content is actually reduced by higher temperatures (1). Unfortunately, it was not clear in the literature what temperatures would induce the reduction or even what temperatures coca plants prefer – I think you need to be a Peruvian herbalist or drug lord to know these things for sure. From my literature search, it seems like the turn of century (before coca became a favored party drug) was the last time researchers looked into the alkaloid content of coca.

Fortunately hypotheses in science can be built on conjecture from similar organisms. So how is climate change going to affect alkaloid content in other plants? Well that is where it gets a little tricky – because it depends on the plant and it depends on the alkaloid. For example, though the beloved tobacco plant will grow larger in a high carbon dioxide environment (smokers everywhere cheer!), it will decrease its nicotine concentration – so dear smokers you may need to light up twice as much to get nearly the same buzz (2). Meanwhile the ever faithful poppy plant will increase both morphine and codeine in a higher carbon dioxide environment (3) – good news if you plan to get your wisdom teeth pulled in the next 100 years.

So what does this all mean? It means that not all plants or alkaloids are made equal, even if they are all nitrogen-containing compounds that people love to get buzzed on. If journeymen (and journey-ladies like me) want to know whether we’ll be able to seek relief in coca tea while hiking in high altitude in the future when the air is thick with carbon dioxide and a couple degrees warmer, we’ll just have to return to Machu Pichu in 100 years to see.

Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is a science blogger in the Bay area. As a former smoker, a caffeine junky, a lover of unblemished fruit and having had *all four* wisdom teeth taken out in one day, she is enamored with all of the joys and delights that alkaloids can bring to people’s lives. She plans to devote the next couple of blog posts to these excellent chemicals and climate change.

For your reading enjoyment:
(1) Peru: History of Coca
(2) Alterations in the production and concentration of selected alkaloids as a function of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide and air temperature: implications for ethno-pharmacology
(3) Recent and projected increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide and the potential impacts on growth and alkaloid production in wild poppy (Papaver setigerum DC.)

Frosty glaciers keeping the world cozy warm

Here is the reason not to go to India: Eat, Pray, Love. These are not my words. These are the words of the three delightful embassy workers I had dinner with on my second night in New Delhi. When I asked them what the most common problem Americans had when coming to India (I thought lost passports would be up there), in unison they all responded, “Eat, Pray, Love.” It seems that the book (and then later the movie) inspired many Americans (young and old, male and female) to travel to India to “find themselves”, where they then visited extremely remote ashrams, took lots of drugs (the Tantras are apparently very big with this) and then landed themselves in jail. The ladies asked that I kindly not try to find myself in India, and if I absolutely must, that I do so without the aid of an insane amount of drugs. I told them, no problem. I live in Berkeley where within a two block radius of my house I could easily find both.

Here is the reason to go to India: Glaciers. Now I know you are probably thinking that with several thousand years of complex religious and political history, bustling markets with everything from fabulously bejeweled Saris to nausea-inducing butcheries (check out backside of the Crawford market in Mumbai) and the most breath-taking man-made structure in the world – the Taj Mahal – that I would have to be crazy to overlook them for something as boring as a glacier. But let me tell you, having now seen glaciers in Northern India; glaciers are huge, they are important and when you go see them, they will literary knock your socks off.

As a scientist with an interest in both soils and climate change (and a former New England resident who was never able to grow a straight carrot due to rocky soils derived from glacial till), seeing a glacier is like coming home for the very first time. (When we got to the first glacier, I jumped up and down and shouted “This is how soil is made!! This is how soil is made!!”) But you probably already know that glaciers build soil, are large repositories of fresh water and their melting will increase sea levels globally. So I won’t bore you with the basics.

Ironically, among the many global impacts glaciers have on water availability and climate, it’s actually their current chilly existence that is keeping places like Europe so mild and toasty warm.

A prime example are the the glaciers in Greenland that everyone is always griping about. If these glaciers melt, icy fresh water will enter the Atlantic ocean and disrupt the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). AMOC is an ocean conveyor belt that moves warm water from the equator to Northern regions and brings cold water from the North back down to the equator (click here for a cool video).

This movement of heat through the oceans actually helps warm Europe, making it the lovely, temperate place that made me curse the Spanish every winter when they were toasty warm and I was a frosty little ice cube living at the same latitude in Boston (snooty Europeans with their awesome weather, grrr). Turns out latitude isn’t everything, the AMOC is important too. And if the AMOC slows down, Europe could become a little frosty too (1).

This cooling of Europe from a slowing of the AMOC has been seen before, a loooong time ago in an era known as the Younger Dryas or the Big Freeze which occurred about 12,000 years ago (dramatized more hilariously in the movie The Day After Tomorrow). This led to a massive cool down of the North, with a summer temperature in central Europe of about 50 degrees F (2). Suckers.

For those of you who just purchased a summer bungalow in southern Spain anticipating a toasty warm retirement, never fear! Most experts in the field believe that we will be faced with a slowdown of the AMOC, rather than a complete shutdown (3). Moreover, NASA has predicted that the 5 degree cooling Europe might see from the slowing of the AMOC will be more than offset by global warming predicted for the same region (4) – thank God for global warming? So just rev up your SUVs, keep burning coal, maybe even plan a trip to see some glaciers yourself in India…. just plan to buy a retirement home a little more inland – who knows, it might be lovely beach front property by 2100.

For your reading enjoyment:
(1) Potential climatic transitions with profound impact on Europe
(2) Mean July Temperatures during the Younger Dryas in Northwestern and Central Europe as Inferred from Climate Indicator Plant Species
(3) Expert judgements on the response of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation to climate change
(4) Ocean Motion and Surface Currents

Minda Berbeco just hiked the Himalayas in Northern India, evading certain death twice. While there she traversed ice flows, drank tea in mountain huts, hunted pika and was chased by several toddlers seeking Kit Kat bars (who would’ve guessed they’d be so popular there??).