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How environmental conditions like cold and wet weather can affect pandemics, and what that means for COVID-19

Numerous scientists have studied how the 1918 flu spread to become the deadliest pandemic in history and which interventions worked, research that is becomin...

Posted: Sep 28, 2020 5:06 PM
Updated: Sep 28, 2020 5:06 PM

Numerous scientists have studied how the 1918 flu spread to become the deadliest pandemic in history and which interventions worked, research that is becoming increasingly relevant during the current coronavirus crisis.

But little research has been done on how environmental conditions affected the 1918 pandemic -- until now.

The 1918 flu coincided with the final years of the World War I, and it's been well documented that heavy rain and cold temperatures impacted many battles. Now, a new study reveals that the cold, rainy weather was part of a once-in-a-century climate anomaly that occurred from 1914 to 1919 and added to the severity of the 1918 pandemic.

"We knew before, of course, from photos and eyewitness testimonies that the battlefields of Europe were really muddy and rainy and soldiers died of all sorts of exposure, even drowning in the mud and the trenches sometimes. What is news is that in fact it was a six-year anomaly and not just one or two instances," said lead researcher Alexander More, a research associate at Harvard University's history department and an assistant professor at the University of Maine's Climate Change Institute.

A team of more than a dozen scientists collected and analyzed an Alpine ice core to reconstruct the environmental conditions of Europe during the World War I. The process involves using a laser that melts a tiny bit from the ice surface and analyzing the chemicals released from each layer of water vapor. It's so precise they can pinpoint exact seasons from each layer of ice.

Researchers then compared that ice core data to historical records of deaths during that time period and records of precipitation and temperatures from each month.

The researchers discovered that lingering cold, wet weather during the winters of 1915, 1916 and 1918 was caused by abnormally high rushes of marine air from the North Atlantic. Deaths in Europe peaked three times during World War I and all the spikes occurred during or soon after heavy rain and cold weather, according to the study.

"The rain basically matches how many people died. There's a double peak in the fall of 1918, which is when the second wave and the most lethal wave of the Spanish flu occurred," said More, also an associate professor of public health at Long Island University. "So of course as we're looking at the second wave of Covid right now and what will happen ... this is a warning of what may come."

The study also shows that this six-year atmospheric anomaly may have disrupted the migratory patterns of several bird species during the war years, including mallard ducks, which are the main animal hosts of H1N1 flu viruses.

That meant more Mallard ducks remained in Europe, where they could continue to transmit the flu to humans through water contaminated with bird droppings.

"It's interesting to think that very heavy rainfall may have accelerated the spread of the virus," said Philip Landrigan, director of the Global Public Health Program at Boston College, who is unaffiliated with the new study. "One of the things we've learned in the Covid pandemic is that viruses seem to stay viable for longer in humid air than in dry air. So it makes sense that if the air in Europe was full of humidity during those years of World War I, that the transmission of the virus might have been accelerated."

Climate change and Covid-19

The research on 1918 has eerie similarities to the current crisis, as many parts of the world appear to be entering a second wave of Covid-19, or remain in a prolonged first wave of the virus.

Not only are many parts of the Northern Hemisphere starting to see less warm and sunny weather in the transition to fall, but climate change continues to have adverse effects across the globe. For example, the Atlantic is experiencing one of its busiest hurricane seasons on record.

"It is really the convergence of our two major crises -- man-made climate change and infectious disease," More said. "Absolutely, climate is going to affect the likelihood of infectious disease outbreaks. It has in the past and it will in the future."

According to More, the same patterns created by climate anomalies that affected the severity and spread of the 1918 flu pandemic are happening right now. And Covid-19 is not the only infectious disease impacted by climate change.

"Many other ongoing epidemics are affected by climate and especially man-made climate change. For example, zika and dengue fever are transmitted by mosquitoes, and now those mosquitoes are reaching places that they never reached before," he said. "The same can be said about other bacteria and diseases throughout the world."

In an unprecedented year that seems to bring one crisis after another, climate scientists say that it's important to look at the connections between them, and how climate-related issues such as extreme weather, storm surges, wildfires, and homelessness created in the wake of natural disasters can create adverse conditions that allow infectious diseases to spread more easily.

"There's no question that they are connected," More said, adding that more interdisciplinary research is needed to better understand the links between climate change and pandemics.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 293542

Reported Deaths: 6638
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto19601229
Hinds18712386
Harrison16569277
Rankin12637263
Jackson12483219
Lee9671160
Madison9420196
Jones7914146
Forrest7159136
Lauderdale6798226
Lowndes6014137
Lamar585880
Lafayette5716113
Washington5182129
Bolivar4599121
Oktibbeha440391
Panola428392
Pearl River4138128
Warren4122113
Pontotoc408068
Marshall400392
Monroe3981126
Union393673
Neshoba3777167
Lincoln3491100
Hancock341674
Leflore3363118
Sunflower317385
Tate301574
Pike299193
Scott292868
Alcorn290760
Itawamba289072
Yazoo284962
Coahoma276367
Tippah276165
Copiah276057
Simpson272778
Prentiss268858
Leake252171
Marion251578
Wayne251541
Covington248278
Grenada246277
Adams233377
George231145
Newton226352
Winston221375
Jasper212744
Tishomingo211965
Attala206369
Chickasaw200851
Holmes181770
Clay178250
Stone171829
Tallahatchie170039
Clarke168971
Calhoun157128
Smith152431
Yalobusha143536
Greene127233
Walthall123640
Noxubee122829
Perry121434
Montgomery121338
Lawrence119521
Carroll117923
Amite110932
Webster110030
Jefferson Davis101231
Tunica98823
Claiborne97929
Benton93324
Humphreys92427
Kemper89623
Quitman77114
Franklin75619
Choctaw69516
Wilkinson62226
Jefferson61927
Sharkey48817
Issaquena1676
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 491849

Reported Deaths: 9869
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson707641366
Mobile35937724
Madison32307450
Tuscaloosa24024410
Montgomery22502499
Shelby21848214
Baldwin19698277
Lee14926151
Morgan13624251
Calhoun13202285
Etowah13154319
Marshall11243208
Houston10058259
Limestone9348134
Elmore9345182
Cullman8879179
St. Clair8799221
Lauderdale8588210
DeKalb8436174
Talladega7500163
Walker6509251
Jackson6483102
Autauga622890
Blount6084125
Colbert6004118
Coffee5235102
Dale4627106
Russell402930
Franklin398876
Covington3949106
Chilton386298
Escambia377472
Tallapoosa3572141
Clarke343149
Chambers3399108
Dallas3397141
Pike292972
Lawrence282284
Marion281295
Winston246266
Bibb244560
Geneva238870
Marengo233755
Pickens223954
Barbour210651
Hale209068
Fayette199956
Butler195265
Henry182041
Cherokee176438
Monroe166038
Randolph163140
Washington156334
Crenshaw144054
Clay143454
Macon141643
Cleburne137139
Lamar132432
Lowndes130749
Wilcox121425
Bullock116336
Conecuh106523
Perry105427
Sumter98331
Coosa88623
Greene87132
Choctaw54923
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