What To Expect From Hurricane Season
We’re approaching the peak of hurricane season, which is usually around mid-September. It’s that time of year when it feels like there’s a new storm every week, and we blow through the alphabet trying to name them. This week, Hurricane Idalia made landfall around Florida’s Big Bend as a Category 3 storm, which caused a few fatalities, left hundreds of thousands of people without power, and some without homes. So what do we know about Idalia, and what can we expect from the rest of the hurricane season?
Ira talks with Rachel Feltman, editor at large at Popular Science, about hurricane season and other science news of the week. They chat about what we’re learning from India’s lunar rover, a three-inch roundworm pulled out of someone’s brain, a new study about public health and air pollution, heavy metals in marijuana products, what an ancient Egyptian mummy smells like, and a turtle named Tally, who is far from home.
Rachel Feltman is author of Been There, Done That: A Rousing History of Sex, and is an editor at large at Popular Science in New York, New York.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, a conversation with US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy about what’s been dubbed the silent epidemic, loneliness. And later, we’re talking ticks and how you can help scientists study them.
But first, we are approaching the peak of the hurricane season when it feels like there’s a new storm every week and we blow through the alphabet in naming them. Well, this week, hurricane Idalia made landfall in Florida as a category 3 storm. It left hundreds of thousands of people without power, some without homes.
So what do we know about this hurricane and what can we expect from the rest of the hurricane season? Joining me to discuss this story and other science news of the week is Rachel Feltman, editor-at-large at Popular Science based in New York. Welcome back, Rachel.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Thanks for having me, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. OK, you know, speaking of the hurricane, it seems thankfully, it was not as bad as predicted, right?
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. That’s true, though it’s all relative. I mean, this is a situation where first of all, the forecasting was extremely accurate. So kudos to NOAA. Basically, people were able to plan and there were really good evacuation protocols, again, because just the track of this hurricane was really well-forecasted.
And then there are a few things that really came down to chance. It happened to hit at low tide. So where there was about nine feet of storm surge in where it made landfall in Florida could have had an additional three feet if it had hit at high tide. And obviously, there’s just no predicting that. So it’s really good that we were prepared for what could have been 12 feet of storm surge.
The storm also weakened from a cat 4 to a cat 3. And, of course, while these days, storm surge tends to be more of a concern than the wind speed itself, obviously, a storm with lower wind speeds is always going to be less dangerous, all other things being equal.
IRA FLATOW: Right.
RACHEL FELTMAN: And then it also happened to hit the least populated area of Florida. So while, of course, there have been some really serious property damage, and it sounds like a couple of fatalities, things could have been much, much worse if just a few things about the storm that we have no control over had turned out differently.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah.
RACHEL FELTMAN: So great reminder to always be prepared for the worst of those forecasts.
IRA FLATOW: Speaking about being prepared, what can we expect? What are they expecting for the rest of the hurricane season?
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. Well, what’s interesting about that, Ira, is that we are entering an El Nino climate pattern, which usually means much less hurricane activity in the Atlantic basin. But between the fact that those atmospheric conditions that tend to kill off hurricanes, basically, with wind shear, those are being slow to develop. And meanwhile, we have this record-breaking warm water year that is fuel for hurricanes.
So forecasters are saying that we really are not out of the woods yet in terms of this hurricane season. It officially goes until November. And we probably will have at least a few more named hurricanes in that time.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, absolutely. Now, let’s move on to something– well, how do I describe this? It’s a little weird and it’s a bit scary.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: You know where I’m going with this, right? Well, take over. Go ahead.
RACHEL FELTMAN: So neurosurgeons in Australia put out a case report about pulling a live three-inch-long worm out of the brain of a patient in 2022. They say she’s doing very well and being a real champ about being the first person in the world to ever have this particular parasite in her brain. So she’s a stronger woman than I am.
IRA FLATOW: How did it get there?
RACHEL FELTMAN: So the best guess is that– this parasite, at first, doctors were like, what is this roundworm? Like, we don’t recognize it. They couldn’t find anything in the medical literature about a roundworm that looked like this being in the human body, let alone the human brain.
And they were able to identify it as a known parasite that infects pythons. And this patient, who is a woman in her 60s in Australia, she forages for local grasses to use in cooking, is my understanding. And so their best guess is that as she was foraging in her local area where pythons that carry this parasite are prevalent, that through their feces, got into contact with her food or eating utensils.
And so this is just a case of zoonotic crossover or spillover, where this parasite that is not supposed to want to live in humans decided, sure. Why not? Luckily, it was found, and it sounds like the patient is doing well. Great reminder, though, that you could always become the first human carrier of something.
IRA FLATOW: Be careful out there.
RACHEL FELTMAN: So be diligent.
IRA FLATOW: Exactly. I know the news is full of health stories. And there’s another one about air pollution and life span that’s also not so good.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. So the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute put out their big report on air quality. And unfortunately, they say that lowered air quality and air pollution is responsible for reducing average life expectancy by 2.3 years worldwide. So it goes without saying that that’s skewed towards some countries.
There are four countries in South Asia– India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan– that account for more than half of the total years of life lost globally due to pollution. But it’s still something that is a global problem. And air pollution is not good for you, even if you’re in a country with better air quality than the ones I listed. And I think especially with the issues we’ve had this past summer, this is something that a lot of people are going to care about.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, yeah. Is there any good news from this report?
RACHEL FELTMAN: There is some good news. So China, which was long, like, a poster child for having smog-filled skies, according to this report, they have improved their air quality by more than 40% since 2013, which is when the government undertook, like, a multi-billion-dollar war against pollution.
So basically, they put in clean air policies tougher than ever before. They put in air monitoring stations. They shut down coal mines and coal plants. And that has paid off. It looks like residents have gained a couple of years of life span back.
Of course, they don’t have great air quality. There’s a lot of room for improvement. But it’s great proof that when a government has the money and the desire to really combat air pollution, you can make a big difference.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that really is good news. If you want to do it, you can do it.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yep.
IRA FLATOW: Speaking of smoking, and in a different terminology, there’s a new study that suggests some troubling information about marijuana.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. So this new study looked at a few thousand adults. And it found that people who had reported using marijuana in the last 30 days were found to have 27% higher blood lead levels than people who didn’t use either marijuana or tobacco.
That part’s important because smoking tobacco is still known to be the biggest source of lead for people in the US. But it looks like marijuana is maybe catching up, which we don’t want to hear. There were also high levels of cadmium, but lead is really the substance that’s like, there’s no safe level of exposure to that. So we really don’t want to hear that.
IRA FLATOW: Where does it come from?
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. What’s interesting is that we already know that plants are really good at taking up heavy metals from the soil. And basically, any product that involves distilling the plant or condensing it, you’re going to have that high quantity of heavy metals. And you’re going to have to work to take that out. It’s actually a known issue with vegan protein powders as well, so it’s not at all exclusive to marijuana.
IRA FLATOW: Well, I would think that as it becomes more commercialized, there’ll be a better standard of health for the plants, right?
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, yeah. So definitely, it’s something that, again, in the vegan protein industry, as people became more aware of it, there’s been more standardization. And what the researchers of this study said is that you really want to make sure that, first of all, you’re actually buying your products from a legal dispensary.
And states do have guidelines in place about how much heavy metal is allowed in a product. So you want to look up what your state’s policies are. Make sure that they’re good. And then make sure that the products you’re using follow them.
And there are a couple other things to consider. The researchers did say that this study didn’t differentiate between gummies and smoking. But generally speaking, inhaling lead is always worse. So that’s something to keep in mind.
And they also pointed out there are no federal testing rules for hemp-derived products that have CBD as opposed to THC. So even if you don’t think of yourself as being a marijuana user, if you tend to vape CBD oil, you should definitely be paying attention to studies like these.
IRA FLATOW: Good stuff. And now, for something totally different, I mean, what mummies smell like. This is not something you wake up in the morning and start wondering about.
RACHEL FELTMAN: I mean, speak for yourself.
But yeah, apparently, these researchers do. They decided to find out what a 3,500 year old Egyptian noblewoman named Senetnay smelled like. And they say she smelled like beeswax, plant oil, and tree resin, and maybe a little bit of a smoky note as well, so pretty good.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. Can this tell us anything about the mummification process?
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. So this is one of the more complex mummification balms that they’ve found. But what they’re more excited about is where all this stuff came from. Because the tree resins seem to come from they think larch trees, or pistachio trees, or a few other trees that aren’t naturally found in Egypt.
But some of them show up in the northern Mediterranean and some come from Southeast Asian forests. So they think this might be an indication that there was a way farther-reaching trade at earlier dates than they previously thought.
IRA FLATOW: That’s cool. I want to end this news roundup on some good news, and that’s about a turtle, a turtle far from home. Tell us about that.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. Tally the turtle, she’s a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle. So they’re the smallest, and therefore cutest, and also most endangered species of sea turtles in the world. And they’re found in the Gulf of Mexico, but they can get caught on the Gulf Stream. And Tally showed up 4,000 miles away from home on a beach in Wales in 2021.
IRA FLATOW: No.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: Wow, wow.
RACHEL FELTMAN: And, usually that’s bad news. The cold water will just kill baby sea turtles that get caught and pulled out that far. But a dog walker on the beach saw her, thought she was dead but still, like, called to report her to the authorities, which is exactly what you should do.
And sure enough, when some local marine researchers got there, they found she was alive. She was in very rough shape, but they spent the next few months nursing her back to health. And now, she’s being flown home. It was a big undertaking– a lot of people involved.
IRA FLATOW: Wow.
RACHEL FELTMAN: But once the Houston Zoo gives her the all-clear, they’ll be releasing her near Galveston, Texas.
IRA FLATOW: Well, we wish safe travels to tally. The turtle and–
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes.
IRA FLATOW: –to you, too, Rachel. Have a good and safe holiday weekend.
IRA FLATOW: Thank you. You, too, Ira.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Rachel Feltman, editor-at-large at Popular Science based in New York. And we wish all of our listeners a safe and happy holiday.