Scientists follow clues in Alaska to illnesses moving from animals to humans

By Samantha Yadron
Medill Reports

Medill News Service journalist Samantha Yadron is an embedded journalist with scientists from the University of Anchorage, Alaska, reporting on the dangers of micro-plastics to wildlife consuming it. In this blog, she follows scientists with the One Health initiative on a multinational research tour gathering clues about the  transfer of illnesses from animals to humans .

Portage Valley, Alaska, Thursday, May 24—It’s around 10:30 am and the sunny, warm day near Anchorage feels far away from the Arctic research at the Begich Boggs Visitor Center,  an intricate but severe -looking building erected with windowed tunnels and walls  to display the view of Portage Lake and Valley. The heavy rain typical of this valley seems to be falling sideways.

the Begich Boggs Visitor Center, an intricate but severe -looking building erected with windowed tunnels and walls to display the view of Portage Lake and Valley. (Samantha Yadron/Medill)

A large, white tour bus sits in the parking lot. It’s passengers, more than 10 ecologists, veterinarians, biologists, public health specialists, and state representatives from Canada, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and the United States—six of the eight countries on the Arctic Council—have de-boarded and now stand atop a small hill looking at the few icebergs speckling the water. They take  pictures with their phones.

The scientists have spent the last seven days traveling across Minnesota and Alaska, attending meetings with government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, talking with other scientists, and visiting what some call “the real Alaska,” near Denali and Fairbanks., This refers to the more rural, more indigenous, subsistence-based communities compared to  heavily-populated Anchorage.

Brought to the U.S. through a State Department initiative called the International Visitor Leadership Program, these current and emerging foreign leaders from multiple disciplines  came to collaborate on a concept called One Health, a way of looking at public health through human, animal, and environmental lenses.

In Anchorage, they were guided by Thomas Hennessey, director of Arctic Investigations Program at the CDC, in the Anchorage Division of Preparedness and Emerging Infections. They are researching the potential threats of disease transfer between animals and people, a threat that increases with the warming temperatures of climate change. Doug Causey, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and who does fieldwork in this valley, had the idea to bring them to Portage Glacier Valley and this center.

Located just under 55 miles southeast of Anchorage, the center resides within Chugach National Forest, the second largest forest within the U.S. Forest Service.  At 6 million acres, it is roughly the size of New Hampshire. The center, when built in 1986, offered visitors the rare opportunity to see a glacier in-person, even while standing where Thursday’s visitors stood. Now, to see the shrinking glacier, visitors need to take a cruise on Portage Lake.

A photo of Portage Lake, filled with icebergs and the glacier in the mid-1980s, on a PowerPoint for one of Doug Causey’s classes.
The Portage Valley Glacier is rapidly melting. This May 24 photograph shows it has receded a half-mile since the image above was photographed in the mid-1980s. (Samantha Yadron/Medill)

“People get really excited about seeing a glacier,” says Tim Charnon, having gathered the group indoors around a large, circular, topographical map of the forest. Containing the largest ice field in Alaska, Chugach is really “on the frontlines of Arctic studies,” says Charnon, which becomes evident when you consider the glacier’s history.

In just over 20 years, the glacier has receded a half mile. “It’s around the corner, but it’s a long way around the corner,” Charnon says. In another 20 years, Charnon says the glacier will transform into a “hanging glacier,” which, according the National Snow and Ice Data Center, happens when former glaciers recede to the point that all that’s left are smaller, tributary glaciers high above the surface.

Even the icebergs in the lake have diminished. It’s unusual now to see any icebergs in the lake, when, in the 1980s, the lake would be filled with them. “You’re all lucky,” Charnon says. “There will be a few years remaining where you’ll see icebergs in the lake. But the calving events will get less common.”

Working through healthcare practitioners and veterinarians, One Health strategizes on global public health issues through interdisciplinary means as part of organizations such as the CDC. As an officially adopted concept, it dates back to 2008, when 120 countries and 26 international and regional organizations recognized it as a way to combat Avian Influenza. But the CDC’s timeline for One Health as an idea shows its origins as early as 1821, with Dr. Rudolph Virchow, who coined the term “zoonosis” to describe diseases that can be passed between humans and animals.

“It’s an approach that makes you take a step back and look at the broader picture of your study system,” says Emily Jenkins, a member of the group and an Associate Professor in the Department of Veterinary Microbiology, with a joint appointment in the School of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan.

But the Portage Glacier isn’t the whole story of this valley, says Charnon; another part has to do with wildlife. “People like Doug Causey at the University of Alaska and his students are our boots on the ground to do some biology work.”

Doug Causey shows the group where he discovered bats are sleeping in the Portage Valley, which is in those globs of moss attached to the tree branches. (Samantha Yadron/Medill)

The visitors left the center and followed Causey in their tour bus to two of his field sites, just a short drive back North up the road.

Along a stream that, because of the way the water runs down from the glacier, stays warm enough to run year-round, a perennial ecosystem that includes otters, fish, birds, bugs, and bat thrives. As the group gathered around, Causey explained that where they all stood was the northernmost part of the temperate rainforest.

The inhabitance of bats in this valley, according to Causey, serves as one of his most interesting (and most recent) discoveries there. “Five years ago, no one knew Alaska even had bats,” Causey said. “There are no caves here,” says Causey. So where do the bats sleep?

By setting up microphones that record bats’ supersonic sound, Causey gradually moved the microphones closer and closer to where he heard them. Pointing to green balls of moss that form around the tree branches, Causey showed the group that he discovered this is where they rest during the day. “It took us four years to find this place,” Causey said.

Bats are important to One Health advocates because of the many pathogens they can carry, including the  Ebola virus. One-Health places emphasis on emergent zoonotic diseases. “Emergent disease is, ‘oh my god people are falling over dead with something we’ve never known before. We’d like to know about the disease before people are dead. That’s where One Health comes in,” says Causey.

Vigdis Tryggvadottir, group member and a veterinary officer of Zoonoses at Icelandic Food and Safety, agrees. “You realize quickly that we need to be talking. For example, the AMR issue, it’s not a human issue or a veterinary issue; it’s our issue. We need to be working together,” Tryggvadottir says, referring to the problem of antimicrobial resistance, which means bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi becoming resistant to treatments like antibiotics.

One Health might seem like an intuitive idea, and, according to Jenkins, to First Nations, Inuit, and Indigenous peoples, it is. To them, “One Health is absolutely no big news. They get it that human and animal and environmental health is linked. It is not a surprise to them.” And yet, she says scientists “tend to get a little fixated on our pet parasites or pet species or pet locations. One Health makes you take a step back.”

After Causey finished showing the representatives his field sites, the international group re-boarded their bus for the next stop: Seward, Alaska, where they will visit the Alaska Sealife Center to study how veterinarians treat marine wildlife, a central theme of the One health mission.

Samantha Yadron