Earth Faces A Global Heat Wave
Temperatures are higher than normal for much of the planet this week—and while the heat wave in Europe has had much of the attention, over 100 million Americans in 28 states were under extreme heat advisories this week.
Yasmin Tayag, a freelance science editor and writer based in New York, joins Ira to talk about the global heat wave and other stories from the week in science—including the president’s COVID diagnosis, an uptick in drug-resistant infections, and the question of whether previously uninfected people are “sitting ducks” when it comes to new COVID variants.
Invest in quality science journalism by making a donation to Science Friday.
Yasmin Tayag is a freelance science editor and writer based in New York, New York.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, we’ll talk about how high temperatures weaken the immune system of plants and what genetics is telling us about when the first peoples arrived in the Americas. But first, unless you happen to be listening to this in Australia, you’re probably a little bit warmer than usual right now, right? Temperatures are higher than normal for much of the planet, and while the heat wave in Europe has garnered much attention, over 100 million Americans were under extreme heat advisories this week.
Joining me now to talk about that and other selected subjects in science is Yasmin Tayag She’s a freelance science editor and writer based in New York. Welcome back to Science Friday.
YASMIN TAYAG: Thank you, Ira it’s good to be back.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about this heat. Just how hot is it?
YASMIN TAYAG: Oh, it’s hot.
IRA FLATOW: It’s hot.
YASMIN TAYAG: Not in a good way.
IRA FLATOW: Is there anywhere that’s colder than usual, I guess, is what I’m looking for?
YASMIN TAYAG: Well, in Australia, it’s winter, and they’re experiencing some record cold.
IRA FLATOW: Really?
YASMIN TAYAG: Yeah, they– in Melbourne, they have experienced near-freezing temperatures.
IRA FLATOW: And that’s unusual for them? They don’t usually have that?
YASMIN TAYAG: Not this cold. It’s been unusual for them, and I think it’s all part of this pattern of extreme weather everywhere.
IRA FLATOW: And this is not just the weather story. It’s a story about health and infrastructure because they’re all being impacted by the weather.
YASMIN TAYAG: Absolutely. The health impacts of the heat especially have been really terrible, especially in Europe where societies are just not really built for this kind of heat. In the UK, those houses are built to retain heat, not to let it out. And the health issues are really being seen here at home, especially for people who don’t have access to air conditioning, even refrigeration in some cases. This kind of heat can be deadly.
IRA FLATOW: And last week, some legislation aimed at targeting climate issues was torpedoed in the Senate, in the US Senate, but what is Europe doing?
YASMIN TAYAG: Well, Europe has a European Green Deal, where they’re aiming to be climate neutral by 2050, and recently, they launched an additional effort to cut emissions by 55% by 2030, which is a huge goal and that is very soon, but being put to the test right now because, with all of this heat, the demand for energy is much higher. And at the same time, there are sanctions on importing Russian energy.
And the question now is, will Europe make the choice to double down on clean energy? Or will it just look to get gas and oil from elsewhere?
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because they have been world leaders, in Europe, in making the commitment to go green.
YASMIN TAYAG: Yeah, I really hope that they take this opportunity to make the right choice, and I hope that will set an example for the rest of the world.
IRA FLATOW: Now, let’s move on to some other issues, and one in particular is that COVID is not going away no matter whether we want it and wish it to do that. And this week, even President Biden has tested positive for the virus with mild symptoms, thank goodness. But there’s a story about another impact of the pandemic in other drug-resistant infections. Tell us about that.
YASMIN TAYAG: Yeah, the CDC reported this week that, during the pandemic, there was a huge spike in drug-resistant infections, and that they think was caused by the use of drugs like antibiotics early in the pandemic to treat patients. Doctors and nurses at that time didn’t really know what they were dealing with, and so they reached for these drugs, which ended up not working.
But what they did do was increase the chances for resistance because these patients were in hospitals for so long, days, weeks at a time, where they were being exposed to all these common hospital bugs. And that’s one of the reasons why infections seem to spike.
IRA FLATOW: Because they was in the hospital so long and exposed to these. That makes sense. So in this case, maybe the problem was too much care or health care applied in the wrong way.
YASMIN TAYAG: Yeah, I would say it’s closer to the latter, but I really don’t want to blame doctors and nurses. They were just trying to do their jobs. And March 2020, nobody knew what was going on. We were just–
IRA FLATOW: Yeah.
YASMIN TAYAG: –in a panic.
IRA FLATOW: And with all the new variants, including some that appeared to be more transmissible, we are seeing upticks in the infection numbers, and you have a piece out this week in the Atlantic asking whether people who haven’t been infected yet are more at risk.
YASMIN TAYAG: Yeah, the question that I posed to myself is, are people who haven’t had COVID yet sitting ducks? And I think of these people as COVID virgins. My fiancee is one, so it’s a very personal issue, and–
IRA FLATOW: It’s personal to me because I’m one of those also. I wanted to hear the answer.
YASMIN TAYAG: Well, hopefully, this will be somewhat encouraging news. The data suggest that people who haven’t COVID yet are quite vulnerable right now because so many of the infections happening right now are first infections. However, none of the experts I spoke to would say outright that people who are COVID virgins are more at risk, and that’s because everyone right now is at risk. There are a lot of reinfections happening now, which suggests that natural immunity isn’t holding up against these new variants. As a result, people who have had COVID before may not actually be more protected than people who have never had COVID.
So the guidance that experts gave applies to everybody, and it’s the same stuff we’ve always known. Get vaccinated. Get boosted. Get your second booster if you can. I think Biden just had his, which I think is setting a good example for everyone, especially people in his age group. And if you’re vulnerable or elderly, avoid crowded environments, and wear a mask.
IRA FLATOW: As one of these virgins that you talk about, I’m almost tempted to say, hey, let me get the virus now while my immunity is up because I’m double boosted and I’m still in the middle of my high-boost period because, if I wait until October when maybe my booster runs out and then get infected, it will be worse for me then if there’s not the third booster around.
YASMIN TAYAG: It’s tempting, right? It’s tempting to be fatalistic right now, especially because we’re all just so tired and fed up with all of these behaviors that we’re told to do. But there are still so many good reasons to try to not get COVID. Chief of them is that I think people forget how bad illness can be even if you are vaccinated and boosted. Sure, you’re not going to end up in the hospital, but it can still put you out for a couple of days.
And I think the other major thing people need to be thinking about is the specter of long COVID. It’s still so poorly understood, and it can get anyone, even if you have a mild or asymptomatic infection. And lastly, again, we don’t know how protective natural immunity is against these new variants. So even if you get sick now, you might still get reinfected later this year.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that’s what’s keeping my vigilance up, all those reasons. Let’s move on to something a bit lighter, a story about elephant trunks– how can you get lighter than this– elephant trunks and how they move.
YASMIN TAYAG: Yeah, it’s a delightful study, and I’m so happy that someone out there is studying this. So you think of elephant trunks as just this long, muscular thing that can pick up branches and leaves. But what the scientists found is that it’s not just muscle that helps it do what it does but also its skin. And so this might be surprising because you think of elephant skin as just wrinkly and uniform, but in reality, it’s not. The skin on an elephant’s trunk depends on where it is.
The skin on the top of the trunk, for example, is different and more flexible than the skin on the bottom. And this all feeds into a greater understanding of how the trunk itself moves. So instead of stretching uniformly like a tongue, the trunk moves more like a telescope, so the tip will always move first in order to reach something followed by the adjacent segment. And the last part to move is the part closest to the face.
The scientists hypothesize that this happens because elephants are lazy. And the part closest to the face has a lot of muscle, so moving it takes a ton of effort. And so in order to reach something, they would much rather use the tip of their trunk, which has fewer muscles and is a lot easier to move.
IRA FLATOW: I get it. If I were the size of an elephant, probably I’d do that also. Finally, genetic research and how penguins became able to live in the cold. I love penguins, and I want to hear the answer. How did they adapt to the cold?
YASMIN TAYAG: Yeah, the genetic analysis pinpointed these genes that are responsible for some very key features for living in extreme cold, but I want to back up and mention what I found to be the most interesting part of this research, which is that penguins were not always cold adapted. They used to live around the equator, which was news to me. I can’t even imagine seeing a warm-weather penguin.
When they lost their ability to fly about 60 million years ago, they just kind of became land animals, and fossils have been found all along the equator. And over time, they gained all these new mutations that allowed them to adapt to cold climates, so some interesting ones were genes that control the amount of fat that a can store or genes that helped turn their non-functional little wings into flippers that were way more functional for the water. But the one I found most interesting was the fact that their taste buds are– they can only taste salty and sour, which the scientists say is really helpful if all you eat is fish.
IRA FLATOW: With climate change and the melting of all the ice in Antarctica, you hope that the penguins are going to make it just like you worry about the polar bears in the North Pole.
YASMIN TAYAG: Yeah I think what the study really shows is that penguins have shown an amazing ability to evolve and adapt and what they really need is time, just like all the animals just need time to evolve and they will. What I hope that we can do is give them that time.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, let’s hope that time is on their side. Thank you, Yasmin.
YASMIN TAYAG: Thank you, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Yasmin Tayag, freelance science editor and writer based in New York. We’re going to take a break and, when we come back, how genetics are filling in gaps in the story of when people first came to the Americas and why that arrival keeps looking earlier and earlier. Stay with us.