Health and Science

Comer Conference scientists show global impacts of climate change

By Chris McConaghey
Medill Reports

The glaciers are melting faster, accelerating sea level rise. Ocean currents are changing, altering weather and rainfall that millions of people rely on. And wind patterns are shifting as the climate heats up. These are among the global climate challenges deliberated at the annual Comer Climate Conference in southwestern Wisconsin this fall.

Veteran researchers with some of the most decorated backgrounds in climate science as well as the next generation of researchers gathered to present their findings from Nepal, the North Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and the glacial mountains of Uganda, Mongolia and Europe. They came to present findings that can help tackle the troublesome state of our planet with the urgent need to address climate change.

Continue reading

Northwestern University researchers offer innovative solutions for Chicago’s growing climate challenge

By Selah Holland
Medill Reports

The American Lung Association declared Chicago the 18th most polluted U.S. city, with an ‘F’ rating for ozone pollution on the organization’s annual “State of the Air” report this year. Ozone levels rise with the heat index in summer and Chicago, like many cities, is seeing more heat waves.

This is one indicator that Chicago is facing serious climate change implications, said Northwestern University environmental researchers who are determined to do something about it.

Northwestern’s Climate Change Research Group (CCRG) leader  Daniel Horton and researcher Irene Crisologo presented a climate action plan — Systems Approaches for Vulnerable Evaluation and Urban Resilience (SAVEUR) — to area residents in Evanston recently. An audience of more than 75 people learned about their plan and why it’s critically urgent. Continue reading

Meet ‘Big G’s’ Spicy Pizza Pioneer Jaime Gamez

By Harrison Liao
Medill Reports

Picture your dream pizza.

Whether it’s monstrous Chicago deep dish or a bright, red Naples style pie, you can envision a few common savory traits — cheese stretching at the seams with the physics-defying grace of an Olympic gymnast, steam rolling off of shimmering tomato sauce and crust decorated with deeply blackened blisters.

But one feature that might not come to mind for most pizza lovers? Sizzling spiciness.

That’s one thing Jaime Gamez, 38, hangs his hat on at his Chicago pizzeria, Big G’s in Wrigleyville at 3716 N Clark St.

Gamez believes, “without a doubt,” that he has the spiciest pizza in Chicago. He calls it the “Dance with El Diablo.”

Continue reading

How athletes manage the mental toll of injury

By Krystina Iordanou
Medill Reports

The physical health of your favorite athlete can determine the season’s success of their your favorite team. Sprains, fractures, concussions and other injuries can take a player off the field for several weeks or more.

Physical injury is a recurring aspect of sports that can’t always be avoided, but its the mental hurdles that accompany recovery that can be underestimated. We took a deeper dive into this topic and talked with Joanna Boyles, a professional soccer player for the Orlando Pride, as well as, professionals in the wellness and sports psychology field.

Photo at top: Joanna Boyles has overcome two anterior cruciate ligament injuries and is a current player for the Orlando Pride in the National Women’s Soccer League.(Mark Thor/ Orlando Pride)

Khumbu Glacier in Nepal offers clues to rapid glacial retreat

By Anne Snabes
Medill Reports

University of Maine research suggests that the Khumbu Glacier in the Himalayas retreated rapidly in the past, offering clues to how the glacier will behave in the future.

Laura Mattas, a master’s student at the University of Maine, conducted field research this summer on the Khumbu Glacier in Nepal. She presented her research this fall at the Comer Climate Conference, an annual meeting in Wisconsin of climate scientists from across the country.

According to the National Snow & Ice Data Center, glaciers globally are retreating at “unprecedented rates.” A glacier can retreat by shortening in length or by thinning. In the Khumbu Valley, Mattas and her colleagues found moraines, which are rock and other sediment that were inside, on top of or below a glacier and that were altered by the glacier. The location of the moraines indicated that the glacier retreated quickly at some point since the last ice age. Mattas said that the glacier is able to undergo a “large and rapid change,” which means that it may also change rapidly in the future.

“If that’s the case, that’s a lot of meltwater that’s flowing down valley,,” she said. “Who knows if there’s the infrastructure to deal with” the surge. Continue reading

Scott Travis: On call for farm, foundation and science

By Chris McConaghey
Medill Reports

Scott Travis didn’t know what to expect when he put in an application to work for Lands’ End clothing company in 1987. He was 32 years old then and got the position.

During that time, he had several opportunities to meet and talk with the late Gary Comer – founder and owner of Lands’ Ends – and was promoted from the sales and packaging department to eventually becoming a safety manager of the plant in Dodgeville, Wisconsin.

Comer never forgot those conversations. Six years later, Travis got a call from the boss asking if he wanted to help build and manage a new corporate retreat to host meetings and conferences for business leaders across the globe in southwestern Wisconsin.

Continue reading

Greenland ‘ice tongue’ at risk of melting away — again

By Zack Fishman
Medill Reports

A 30-mile-long strip of sea ice in northwest Greenland, once thought to be a permanent structure, didn’t exist until 2,000 years ago, according to newly published research from researchers at Oregon State University. The findings suggest that some of the Arctic may melt more quickly in today’s warming climate than previously expected.

The sea ice, known as the Petermann ice tongue, stretches across a narrow valley where the large Petermann Glacier meets the Arctic Ocean. The ice tongue captured media attention in 2010 and 2012 when enormous icebergs, each many times larger than Manhattan Island, broke off into the ocean. New fractures spotted this year threaten to shrink the ice tongue to its smallest size in modern history. Continue reading

Rat-eating monkeys hold promise for sustainable agriculture

By Elena Bruess
Medill Reports

A macaque sits patiently on the forest floor, waiting by an oil palm tree.

There’s a rustling and a thump as two more macaques gripping a nearby trunk remove some of the tree’s leafy base. A large rat falls from its hiding place. It attempts to run, but the macaque is faster. A scuffle, a jump, a chomp. The pest hangs limp from the macaque’s mouth, a tasty snack. The monkeys move on to the next tree.

On the oil palm plantations of Malaysia, the southern pig-tailed macaque – a primate primarily found in Southeast Asia – loves to feast on rats. In a recent study, researchers spent three years following two groups of these monkeys around forests and plantations, monitoring their daily activities. The findings showed that, not only do macaques go out of their way to eat an outstanding number of rats, but their eating preference also a proved to be a great benefit to the oil palm plantations by ridding the workers of their greatest pest. According to the research, the rat-eating monkeys are astonishing and make a pretty good case for wildlife preservation and reconnection.

“There is a perception that the macaques are crop raiders and they eat a lot of the oil palm fruit,” said Anna Holzner, the leading author of the study. Holzner is a Ph.D. student in primate behavioral ecology at the University of Leipzig in Germany and researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. She worked along with behavioral ecologist Anja Widdig, also of the university and the Max Planck Institute, and partnered with Nadine Ruppert out of Universiti Sains Malaysia to conduct the study.

“We looked at the amount of fruit the macaques actually eat, and it is really low compared to what the main pest – the rats – eat. It’s less than 1% per macaque group, compared to 10% of damage by the rats.”

Macaques will frequent oil palm plantations, sometimes in search of rats. These primates were studied to eat less oil palm fruit than previously understood. (Courtesy of Nadine Ruppert)

The researchers were able to determine, through trapping rats and behavioral surveillance of the two different macaque groups, that the monkeys ate about 3,135 rats per group. Holzner and the others then equated these numbers with the amount of oil palm fruit consumed by each macaque study group. The result dropped the rate of crop damage to just under 3%. Regular visits of the pig-tailed macaques could actually benefit the plantation owners, the study concluded.

Yet, Malaysian oil palm farmers try to keep the macaques away.

Along with the misconception that these primates eat most of the fruit, it is also the misidentification of primate species that causes alarm on the plantations and other orchards. Some monkeys, such as the long-tailed macaque that are often found in agricultural lands as well, can give the beneficial rat-eating monkeys a bad reputation with nuisance behavior. The farmers will often not distinguish between the various kinds of monkeys and actively scare them away with loud fire crackers or gun shots, or in rare cases trap or kill any monkey they see.

Oil palm plantations are a primary source of income for millions and an incredibly important cash crop for Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Borneo. This dependence has often fueled conflict between the natural wildlife and humans – such as what is also seen between macaques and farmers.

This is in part due to the fragmentation within these areas.

“The forest area, which is the macaques’ main habitat and quite crucial for them to live, is often surrounded by oil palm plantations and urban settlements. In our study site, they are living on a forest island more or less,” said Ruppert, the head of Macaca Nemestrina Project, a program that tackles these issues with relation to macaques. “What is happening everywhere when forests and habitats are being fragmented, is that animals try to cross areas and they come in contact with humans. Many farmers don’t know how to exactly manage these encounters. We need to reconnect wildlife habitats and use forests corridors to effectively enhance connectivity, so populations can disperse and the diversity can be preserved.”

Macaques stalking though a Malaysian oil palm plantation. (Courtesy of Anna Holzner)

Oil palm plantations in Southeastern Asia have been facing sustainability challenges for years as Malaysia and Indonesia make up for 85% of the world’s oil palm production. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, the cultivation and production of palm oil has potential to cause serious environmental issues such as deforestation to build the plantations, land degradation, major human/wildlife conflicts as well as air and water pollution.

One pollutant comes from Warfarin – an anti-coagulant in a poisonous form of a poison most conventional plantations use to kill the rats and other pests. The rat must ingest the poison more than once to die. According to Ruppert, this poses a great danger to other nontarget species too.

“[The poison] accumulates in the body and will cause the rats to internally bleed,” said Ruppert. “They will have it in their system for a while before they die and this can cause a lot of secondary poisoning when other animals go for the bait or for the rat that ingested the bait as well.”

Macaques are an umbrella species, so keeping their habitat alive and healthy could positively impact the rest of the forest-dwellers as well. If farmers worked alongside the primates, it could be a win/win for both sides of the conflict. A kind of “you scratch my back and keep my habitat intact, and I’ll eat your rats.” Or a biological pest-control to highlight of the benefit of biodiversity. This does not mean moving macaques to plantations, but more so pursuing a valued relationship between the two.

A group of macaques finding some fruit on the plantation. (Courtesy of Viola Eckerle)

One way this could work, as the study suggested, is investing in wildlife corridors in and around plantations, green hallways between fragmented forest areas. According to the researchers, these corridors could give space for animals to walk along the plantations or safely through them. A benefit to both the animals and the farmers. Experiments in this variation of oil palm sustainability are currently being attempted with elephants due to human/elephant conflicts on plantations, even as recent as last month in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. The wildlife corridor pilot is the first of its kind, and depending how this program works out, it could give way to other corridors throughout the country.

Big oil palm sustainable change in Malaysia could be difficult, but according to Widdig, studies like this one could push the country in the right direction.

“First we produce the results, then we try to get the politicians doing something about it,” said Widdig. “This is not in our hands right now. It’s important that things change in these plantations to become more biodiverse. The macaques are just one example of how we can make these places more sustainable.”

Photo at top: A Southern pig-tailed macaque finishing up an oil palm plantation rat, one of Malaysian farmers greatest pests. (Courtesy of Liu Kunpeng)

When science needs a little art

By Elena Bruess
Medill Reports

Imagine you broke a bone in your left toe while paragliding.

It was intense. And now you can’t walk, so you hobble to the doctor’s office and await an x-ray. When you finally learn what exactly is broken, the doctor pulls out a brightly illustrated and tightly labeled drawing of a left foot. She points. “It’s right here.”

The drawing is practically made for you. It’s not very complicated and it makes so much sense. You are really starting to understand your left toe.

And that’s because the drawing is made for you. Continue reading

Meet Chicago’s latest teen climate leader

By Zack Fishman
Medill Reports

“The oceans are rising, and so are we!” chanted a group of more than 50 teenagers marching toward Chicago City Hall. Clad in black, the high school protesters took over sidewalks on Oct. 7, walking the half-mile from Trump Tower to Daley Plaza as they demanded the city declare a climate emergency. Many held up their palms to display written-in-marker messages, like “Our future is in your hands” and “Save us.”

At the group’s front and center was Isabella Johnson, a 17-year-old senior at Benet Academy from Naperville, Illinois. As one of three students holding the main banner — which read, “Climate change strikes hard, we strike harder” — she guided the march’s path and led chants echoed by its members. That evening, she brandished a megaphone on her waist and a pin above her heart. It read, “There is no planet B.”

Continue reading