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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: 153270

Reported Deaths: 3807
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto10332104
Hinds10190199
Harrison7244111
Jackson6521124
Rankin5805103
Lee523695
Madison4964107
Forrest388286
Jones367788
Lauderdale3575147
Lafayette334952
Washington3241108
Lamar296650
Oktibbeha251362
Lowndes243864
Bolivar242984
Panola229653
Neshoba2241118
Marshall221250
Leflore207791
Monroe203978
Pontotoc202929
Lincoln194865
Sunflower192555
Warren178757
Tate177051
Union171026
Copiah167040
Pike164758
Yazoo158840
Scott157930
Itawamba156135
Alcorn154828
Pearl River154168
Coahoma151943
Simpson151953
Prentiss149531
Adams144451
Grenada142845
Leake139444
Holmes132361
Tippah128030
Covington127939
George126425
Winston124526
Hancock123640
Wayne120623
Marion118646
Attala117534
Tishomingo110842
Chickasaw109032
Newton108029
Tallahatchie97727
Clay93427
Clarke93053
Jasper84822
Stone80015
Calhoun78113
Walthall77229
Montgomery75825
Carroll74015
Lawrence73414
Smith72816
Noxubee72517
Yalobusha72328
Perry68126
Tunica62319
Greene61222
Claiborne58916
Jefferson Davis58817
Amite55814
Humphreys54719
Benton49918
Quitman4977
Webster46414
Kemper44718
Wilkinson40422
Jefferson36411
Franklin3535
Choctaw3507
Sharkey32317
Issaquena1204
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 249524

Reported Deaths: 3578
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson33064500
Mobile19951362
Madison13596148
Tuscaloosa13246154
Montgomery12435236
Shelby1061677
Baldwin889098
Lee781466
Morgan686150
Etowah643966
Calhoun6430121
Marshall635355
Houston537738
DeKalb492236
Cullman451542
Limestone433345
St. Clair432555
Lauderdale422354
Elmore412964
Walker3710111
Talladega359354
Jackson329823
Colbert329642
Blount299740
Autauga278042
Franklin256434
Coffee248315
Dale236254
Chilton227438
Dallas226832
Russell22383
Covington220434
Escambia198931
Tallapoosa184391
Chambers177950
Pike159914
Clarke159819
Marion143636
Winston135123
Lawrence131636
Pickens125718
Geneva12438
Marengo123124
Bibb119617
Barbour117811
Butler117842
Randolph104921
Cherokee103424
Hale97831
Fayette92516
Washington92219
Clay92024
Henry8756
Lowndes80229
Monroe79011
Cleburne77814
Macon74522
Crenshaw72030
Bullock70219
Perry6906
Lamar6898
Conecuh68814
Wilcox64218
Sumter58622
Greene42818
Choctaw42713
Coosa3544
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