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UWMadScience by Kelly April Tyrrell - 4d ago

Today is Mandela Day. It is a worldwide event to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela, a once-political prisoner in South Africa who went on to become the president of that nation and help it cast aside its system of racial oppression called apartheid. Mandela passed away in 2013 but today would have been his 100th birthday. Mandela lived a life devoted to improving the world, and to improving individual lives.

Last year, as part of a storytelling project that brought us to South Africa – Origins – UW–Madison photographer Jeff Miller and I visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa. We wanted to better understand apartheid, what led to its rise in the late 1940s, and to honor the actions of those who stood firmly against it. Apartheid was dismantled beginning in 1991 thanks to people like Nelson Mandela.

What follows is a visual journey of our experience. It was moving and profound and deeply influenced the stories that we shared.

Apartheid Museum 2017

A graphic celebrating July 18 as Nelson Mandela Day is displayed at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 22, 2017. The photograph is part of a series of stories highlighting the work of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers in South Africa as they explore the origins of the universe, the first evidence of life on Earth as preserved in the geological record and the evolution of humankind. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

Randomly-distributed entrance tickets assign visitors the status of non-white or white as they enter the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 22, 2017. The photograph is part of a series of stories highlighting the work of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers in South Africa as they explore the origins of the universe, the first evidence of life on Earth as preserved in the geological record and the evolution of humankind. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

Randomly-distributed entrance tickets assign visitors the status of non-white or white as they enter the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 22, 2017. The photograph is part of a series of stories highlighting the work of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers in South Africa as they explore the origins of the universe, the first evidence of life on Earth as preserved in the geological record and the evolution of humankind. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

A graphic highlighting the life of Nelson Mandela is displayed at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 22, 2017. The photograph is part of a series of stories highlighting the work of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers in South Africa as they explore the origins of the universe, the first evidence of life on Earth as preserved in the geological record and the evolution of humankind. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

Science writer Kelly Tyrrell signs a guest book while visiting the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 22, 2017. The photograph is part of a series of stories highlighting the work of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers in South Africa as they explore the origins of the universe, the first evidence of life on Earth as preserved in the geological record and the evolution of humankind. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

Translucent panels and artwork of people are pictured at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 22, 2017. The photograph is part of a series of stories highlighting the work of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers in South Africa as they explore the origins of the universe, the first evidence of life on Earth as preserved in the geological record and the evolution of humankind. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

Translucent panels and artwork reflect an image of photographer Jeff Miller at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 22, 2017. The photograph is part of a series of stories highlighting the work of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers in South Africa as they explore the origins of the universe, the first evidence of life on Earth as preserved in the geological record and the evolution of humankind. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

A statement, "Humanity was born in Africa. All people, ultimately, are African" is pictured at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 22, 2017. The photograph is part of a series of stories highlighting the work of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers in South Africa as they explore the origins of the universe, the first evidence of life on Earth as preserved in the geological record and the evolution of humankind. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

A graphic highlighting the life of Nelson Mandela is displayed at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 22, 2017. The photograph is part of a series of stories highlighting the work of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers in South Africa as they explore the origins of the universe, the first evidence of life on Earth as preserved in the geological record and the evolution of humankind. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

A guestbook comment made by science writer Kelly Tyrrell is pictured during a visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 22, 2017. The photograph is part of a series of stories highlighting the work of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers in South Africa as they explore the origins of the universe, the first evidence of life on Earth as preserved in the geological record and the evolution of humankind. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

Science writer Kelly Tyrrell takes notes while visiting the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 22, 2017. The photograph is part of a series of stories highlighting the work of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers in South Africa as they explore the origins of the universe, the first evidence of life on Earth as preserved in the geological record and the evolution of humankind. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

Historical signs of segregation are pictured at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 22, 2017. The photograph is part of a series of stories highlighting the work of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers in South Africa as they explore the origins of the universe, the first evidence of life on Earth as preserved in the geological record and the evolution of humankind. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

A graphic highlighting the life of Nelson Mandela is displayed at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 22, 2017. The photograph is part of a series of stories highlighting the work of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers in South Africa as they explore the origins of the universe, the first evidence of life on Earth as preserved in the geological record and the evolution of humankind. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

A list of legal acts and room of hanging nooses are pictured at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 22, 2017. The photograph is part of a series of stories highlighting the work of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers in South Africa as they explore the origins of the universe, the first evidence of life on Earth as preserved in the geological record and the evolution of humankind. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

Commonly seen in South African townships during Apartheid protests in the 1980s, an armored-security vehicle is pictured at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 22, 2017. The photograph is part of a series of stories highlighting the work of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers in South Africa as they explore the origins of the universe, the first evidence of life on Earth as preserved in the geological record and the evolution of humankind. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

A row of solitary confinement, prison cells are displayed at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 22, 2017. The photograph is part of a series of stories highlighting the work of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers in South Africa as they explore the origins of the universe, the first evidence of life on Earth as preserved in the geological record and the evolution of humankind. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

Visitors walk amid the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 22, 2017. The photograph is part of a series of stories highlighting the work of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers in South Africa as they explore the origins of the universe, the first evidence of life on Earth as preserved in the geological record and the evolution of humankind. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

Read more about our trip to South Africa here, here and here.

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On June 7, the summer’s first blue-green algae bloom turned much of Lake Mendota a thick, putrid green color. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Center for Limnology concluded that several factors — including run-off from local farms, multiple days with hot temperatures, and low winds — created near-perfect conditions for an algae bloom to occur.

Captured at a deep-water buoy on Lake Mendota, the algae bloom could be seen spanning the entire lake. Photo by undergraduate researcher Anna Schmidt.

But there was a new suspect too: invasive zebra mussels, first found in Lake Mendota in 2015, are the latest blow to a lake buffeted by stresses.

“The invasion of zebra mussels into Lake Mendota and the downstream lakes is a game changer for these ecosystems. How the lakes respond to stressors will be fundamentally different than before,” says Jake Vander Zanden.

Vander Zanden is Director of the Center for Limnology and has been studying invasive species for two decades.

“I’m concerned that zebra mussels could be making blue-green algae blooms worse,” he says.

Zebra mussels are filter feeders that consume microscopic free-floating algae in the water. They attach to hard surfaces in lakes and reproduce extremely quickly.

“If you pull anything solid out of Lake Mendota, it’s going to be covered in mussels,” says Adam Hinterthuer, an outreach specialist for the Center for Limnology.

A bicycle pulled from the lake near Alumni Park. The bike is coated wheel-to-wheel in mussels. Photo by Mason Muerhoff.

Because they process and filter so much water — each mussel can filter one liter of water per day — a temporary benefit of the mussels is that they can cause lakes to appear much clearer. However, they prefer not eat the blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria , that make up potentially-toxic blooms in the summer.

With zebra mussels essentially clearing the water for cyanobacteria, conditions were perfect for their population to explode overnight in early June. The spring’s above-average rainfall carried phosphorus from nearby farms into Lake Mendota, feeding the algae. Then a spike in temperatures ignited the situation like a match.

“If anything wants to grow here, it’s got plenty of nutrients,” says Hinterthuer.

Lake Mendota is considered a eutrophic lake, meaning that it has an excess of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, which allows for an overabundance of aquatic life. Zebra mussels were found in Lake Mendota much later than in other nearby lakes, but researchers knew it was only a matter of time before the invasive species found its way into one of the most studied lakes in the world.

“It’s boaters,” says Hinterthuer.  “The closer a lake is to a major road and the number of boat launches in it, greatly increases the likelihood that it gets infested.”

The Center for Limnology echoes the “Clean Drain Dry” mantra of education campaign Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! when using boats of any kind on lakes to limit the spread of invasive species that hitch a ride on boat trailers, bilge water or live wells.

“It is critically important to stop these species from spreading to our lakes in the first place,” says Vander Zanden.

Once established, zebra mussels are some of the hardest invasive species to control. Their microscopic larva, called veligers, can float in water for several weeks before finding a hard surface, making it easy for them to hide until boats are launched again in a new lake.

Other species can spread even without water. The spiny water flea is another invasive species first found in Mendota in 2009. Their eggs can survive in lake mud as long as it remains wet, so cleaning things like muddy anchors is also crucial to preventing species invasion.

Hinterthuer also cautioned that several species often closely follow zebra mussel invasions. Round gobies, which are predators of zebra mussels, have yet to be found in Mendota but are already in the Great Lakes and have moved into several Wisconsin streams. Gobies can compete with native fish for food sources and are voracious predators of fish eggs of other species.

Quagga mussels are another mollusk that have followed the invasion of zebra mussels.  And while zebra mussels’ spread is often limited by the number of hard surfaces in lakes, quagga mussels are much hardier and could adapt more easily to the soft bottom of Mendota.

While not yet found in Mendota, researchers are examining if  we’ll see these mussels in local lakes soon. They haven’t been found in inland Wisconsin lakes but are prevalent in Lake Michigan.

“They can grow on each other, and they’ve carpeted almost the entire bottom of Lake Michigan,” says Hinterthuer.

Studying lakes can be a difficult and unpredictable task, Hinterthuer says: “Imagine if everything we knew about the forest, we knew because we had stood at the edge and tossed a trap in it and dragged it out.”

Yet despite these challenges, Lake Mendota remains one of the most studied lakes in the world, and work persists to better understand what’s next for the lake’s inhabitants.

Header image courtesy of Jeff Miller/UW-Madison. 

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(Video below)

One night, Pete Pokrandt, was out walking his dog when he witnessed a meteor streaking through the sky over west Madison. It broke through the atmosphere in a stunning flash of light.

When he returned home, he realized there was probably video footage of the event – and he had access to it. Pokrandt is the computer systems administrator for the University of Wisconsin–Madison department that boasts one of the tallest buildings in Madison – Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences – and he manages a series of cameras on the building’s roof.

Situated atop the building on Dayton Street, the cameras point in every cardinal direction and record daily weather above the isthmus for 16 hours a day.When Pokrandt got into work the next day, he checked the feed. Sure enough, the cameras recorded the meteor as it blazed across the sky above Camp Randall Stadium, followed by a brief flash of light.

He wanted to share it, so he stitched the footage into a timelapse video that he posted to YouTube. The next day, he spent hours fielding calls from reporters asking permission to use the footage in their own stories about the meteor. The clip was even featured by the Washington Post.

Pokrandt’s love for weather began when he was in the second grade. The meteorologists from Milwaukee’s TMJ4 came to his school and showed his class satellite photos of weather events and played games with the class.

After nearly four decades, including some adventures storm chasing across the Great Plains, Pokrandt still gets excited about weather. “Every day there is something interesting to see outside,” he says.

He also enjoys helping other people get excited about weather, too, which is why he now makes it a point to share all kinds of footage from the rooftop cameras on the 15-story AOSS building, which also houses satellite dishes and instruments that record temperature, moisture, pressure, precipitation and solar radiation.

The cameras record still photographs of the sky every ten seconds and when Pokrandt sees or hears about an interesting cloud formation, storm front, or water spout, he records the time, reviews the footage and stitches the still photos together into a timelapse. He then posts those timelapses to his department’s YouTube page. There is also an archive of all the footage, available to the public.

“It’s interesting to be able to see something in the data and watch what happened as that change went by, or vice versa,” Pokrandt said. “There’s some property of the atmosphere that caused that to happen, and having those collocated observations and cameras let’s you see that.”

The results are a moving tapestry of the changes that occur above our heads every day.

Oh the skies, they are a changin' - YouTube

Pokrandt also sees the timelapse videos as a vehicle for public education about weather.

“When I do post videos to the YouTube channel, I try to give some indication of what it is that you’re looking at and some of the meteorology behind it,” he says.“I do try to make it educational in that sense, too, where there’s some description of what you’re seeing rather than just ‘Wow, this is a pretty cool loop!’”

The rooftop cameras are a joint effort between the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and  the Space Science and Engineering Center, which contributes funding and technical assistance.

Video produced by Craig Wild, University Communications

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As the executive officer of an ice breaking vessel on the Great Lakes for two years, Collin Tuttle learned that he really loved ice. His ship, a 140-foot U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, kept federal waterways open for shipping and transportation throughout the winter months by keeping routes clear of ice.

Today, he researches ice. As a graduate student in the University of Wisconsin–Madison Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, Tuttle has spent the last two years investigating how climate change is affecting known sea shipping routes through the Arctic, and whether or not the ice is responding to the changes in a way that makes travel through it more viable.

“Shipping companies stand to save a lot of money by shipping through the Arctic versus traditional routes through the Suez canal or the Panama canal,” Tuttle says. “So with the loss of sea ice, there’s really a lot for them to gain by being able to utilize these Arctic sea routes.”

To time shipments across Arctic routes, companies must be able to accurately predict ice thickness and ice concentration. Both of these can hamper vessel traffic and pose risks to ships.

Some vessels, like the nearly 400-foot polar ice breakers that the Coast Guard uses, have no trouble breaking thicker ice. But smaller vessels can run into a lot of trouble if they run into thick ice.

Photo from Michigan Radio

To make a judgement about whether or not to proceed through a certain area, the crew of a vessel must determine the Ice Numeral, a calculation that takes into account the thickness and concentration of ice, the type of ice present in the waters, and the type or class of ship wishing to travel through a given route.

The Numeral is less of a scientific quantity and more of a practical tool for navigators, Tuttle says. Navigators take into account the ice concentration around them, ice thickness, and how capable their vessel is.

“And then they would just calculate it right there on the bridge of their ship,” Tuttle says.

The output from the calculation is always one number, either positive or negative. A positive value means the vessel can proceed. A negative value means that the shipping route is too dangerous for the vessel to travel through.

Calculating the Ice Numeral becomes more complicated when trying to predict conditions into the future. In order to do this, Tuttle uses a fully-coupled climate model, a computer program in which, “the atmosphere, the ocean, the land and sea ice are all interacting with each other,” Tuttle says.

“If you’re trying to represent the entire Earth system, you want a fully coupled model,” Tuttle says.

Using this model’s outputs for ice thickness and concentration, Tuttle can plug his Ice Numeral calculations into around 40 different climate change scenarios, for any specific vessel, up to the year 2100.

Sea ice thickness and concentration are typically at their lowest in the month of September, and Tuttle has found that this trend doesn’t change much from scenario to scenario. This could be good news for companies trying to determine when they can plan shipments through Arctic routes.

The model also shows that, into the future, Arctic ice is expected to be thinner than it is today. But this isn’t necessarily good news for shippers.

“Our big takeaway from that is that even though, on average, routes are becoming more accessible, we are getting into this period where ice variability between each year is increasing, which kind of contrasts with the opening of the routes.” Tuttle says. “You can have one year where there’s very little ice, but don’t get your hopes up, because next year might be very different.”

Tuttle is an active duty U.S. Coast Guard officer, and the Guard sponsors his research.

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The Kilauea volcano, situated 4,000 feet above sea level on Hawaii’s Big Island, emerged from the ocean around 100,000 years ago. Now, the volcano is currently experiencing its first explosive eruption since 1924.

Although the volcano has been actively erupting on a smaller scale for three decades, earlier this May, fissures began to open up in the ground around the residential neighborhood of Leilani Estates along the island’s southeast coast, spewing molten lava across yards and into sleepy vacation homes, forcing the evacuation of 2,000 residents.

Preceded by several small earthquakes, the early stages of the latest eruption caused more than 15 fissures to break open in the volcano’s Eastern Rift Zone, which sits underneath the Estates. According to Hawaii Public Radio, the lava covered 100 acres of land and destroyed 30 homes.

On May 16, a small ash cloud appeared from the Halemaumau crater on Kilauea, prompting the USGS to warn airplanes in the area that routes above the volcano are now too dangerous for air traffic. An “ash fallout” warning went into effect, to urge residents in the path of the ash cloud to take shelter.

And today, May 17, an explosion from the Halemaumau crater before dawn sent an ash cloud into the air, reaching as high as the cruise altitude of a passenger jet, about 30,000 feet. The volcano also began ejecting “ballistic rocks,” some the size of microwaves. On May 9, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory reported that eruptions could send rocks up to the size of automobiles flying into the air around the volcano.

Photo of the ash cloud from the Halemaumau crater. Photo from USGS.

All of these signs point to a much larger eruption event on the horizon.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had anything like this,” says Shane Hubbard, a researcher with the Space Science and Engineering Center at the University of Wisconsin Madison, who has 15 years of experience working during disasters and evacuating residents, like the flooding in Iowa in 2008. His research focuses on spatial decision making during and after disasters.

“There aren’t any preventative measures to keep the hazard out,“ Hubbard says of the lava that is bulldozing the southeast areas of the Island. “You know hurricanes, wind, all these things you can come up with measures. You can put shutters on your windows, you can put a sandbag wall up.”

“For this, you can’t,” Hubbard says. “You can’t put a wall up to keep lava away.”

Local officials are currently weighing road closures, transportation diversions and evacuations. Keeping people safe, says Hubbard, is the priority.

A lava flow oozing from a fissure in Leilani Estates. Photo from USGS.

But the physical structure of the volcano complicates the risk management strategies. Kilauea is what is known as a “shield volcano,” elongated and more gently sloping than the conically shaped volcanoes that exist in subduction zones, where two tectonic plates are colliding and thrusting the Earth upwards.

Kilauea is situated within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a 505-square mile area ranging from sea shores to the summit of Mauna Loa, another active volcano on the island, whose summit rises to 13,000 feet above sea level.

The elongated shape of it causes the flanks of the volcano to be more brittle, creating rift zones like the one resting underneath Leilani Estates. In these areas, the ground gets pulled apart and magma finds its  way to the surface, instead of traveling to one exit point.

The fissures have also been leaking sulfur dioxide alongside the lava, a colorless gas that is harmful to humans and can cause acid rain. Residents can smell a slight stench of rotten eggs, indicative of the sulfuric gas in the air.

According to Michael Pavolonis, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies in Madison: “The gas emissions could increase in response to the opening of new fissures.”

Pavolonis says that the situation is currently being monitored using ground-based and satellite instruments.

The unstable rift zones have been the focus thus far in the eruption, which began 12 days ago. But at the Halemaumau crater atop the Kilauea Volcano, the “lava lake” has been dropping down into the ventilation shaft underneath it, potentially causing a blockage that would cause pressure to build, leading to a more violent release than we have yet seen. Activity like this may have caused today’s early morning explosion.

The USGS warns that at any time, activity at the volcano may become more explosive, increasing the intensity of ash emissions and ballistic projectiles from vents.

Sulfur dioxide plumes rising from a volcanic fissure. Photo from USGS.

“The question is, what is going to disrupt what’s happening and cause it to either stop, or get worse?” says UW-Madison seismology professor Cliff Thurber, who first studied Kilauea in 1983. His research began on the same day that the current 35-year stretch of eruptions at Kilauea began.

The current eruption is one of the few from Kilauea that has affected areas this far away from the summit, Thurber says, and for unknown reasons. That is why these series of eruptions have been more destructive, because they have made their way into neighborhoods and residential areas, whereas others have stayed away from populated areas.

There have been no deaths or injuries reported during the eruptions thus far.

On a lot of residents’ minds are the lava flows crawling across the landscape onto their properties. But, unfortunately, for those that now have lava on their doorstep, cleanup is out of the question.

“You can’t clean up (the lava),” says Thurber. “When we’re talking about meters of fresh, sharp lava. You can’t build on it, you can’t do anything with it until hundreds of years pass by and nature restores itself.”

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It’s finally spring – rain is falling, flowers are blooming, and trees are budding. At least, that’s what’s on the mind of someone without seasonal allergies.

On the other hand, those with allergies know that the buds and blossoms actually signal the forthcoming itching, sneezing, coughing, runny noses and puffiness — an annual event throwing some into a sniffly despair, while others remain blissfully unaware.

It’s full-blown allergy season now, so let’s break down the science behind it.

What are allergies?

Allergies are one of the most common diseases – one in five people have them – and they occur when the body overreacts to a substance. People are allergic to all kinds of stuff, like pet hair, pollen, dust, insect stings, certain foods like shellfish and nuts, and even drugs, such as penicillin.

Those substances, called allergens, cause your body’s immune system to try to expel the particles from your body through an allergic reaction. Those coughing and sneezing fits we all know and love are your body’s way of trying to get rid of or neutralize something that it thinks is damaging.

What makes an allergen an allergen is not the substance itself, but the presence of an allergy to that substance. Allergens are usually harmless – pollen rubbed under the nose of someone who is not allergic to pollen does nothing.

Pollen only becomes an allergen when your body’s immune system misidentifies the substance as an invader. Lymphocytes, or white blood cells, are the ones that do the identifying. It is their mistake that makes you suffer.

The misidentification happens when a B-cell, one of two types of lymphocyte, finds an allergen in the body and begins to produce the appropriate antibodies to fight it. That way the second time that allergen is contacted, the body has a store of antibodies ready to deploy against it.

Antibodies, called immunoglobulins, come in five different subsets. But only immunoglobulin-E, or IgE, is involved in allergic reactions.

During an allergic reaction, IgE antibodies that are attached to mast cells and basophils – cells containing allergy mediating chemicals like histamine – find and attach themselves to an allergen. That attachment creates a cascading effect that ultimately destroys the cell, leading to their release of histamine, ultimately causing itching and swelling.

A severe allergic reaction, which involves the whole body and results in the dilation of your blood vessels, is called anaphylaxis. This is dangerous because when your blood vessel dilate there is a corresponding drop in blood pressure and sometimes difficulty breathing, which in serious cases can be deadly.

But why does spring suck so much?

Fair question. Spring allergies, sometimes called hay fever, are most commonly caused by pollen, coming from flowers, trees or even grass when they bloom in the springtime. And yes, there are some poor souls out there that are allergic to grass.

The wind whips up the pollen grains and carries them on the breeze, transporting all those pesky allergens near and far. Pollen counts are conducted to tell you how much pollen is in the air on any given day. In the springtime, those with flower pollen or tree pollen allergies will have it the worst.

After the spring allergy season dies down in mid summer, the ragweed plants start to produce their allergens, continuing the allergy season into the fall. Those with grass allergies and ragweed allergies tend to find the mid to late summer season the worst.

What can we do?

Unfortunately, there isn’t really a cure for allergies. Medications exist to help quell your symptoms, and epinephrine can help stop an allergic reaction, but nothing can take away your body’s response to allergens it sees as harmful.

Allergy shots, an injection of a concentration of allergens specific to you, can increase your tolerance to those allergens and lessen your symptoms. They are administered once every three to five years, and some say even after stopping the shot treatment their symptoms never return. Some must keep taking the shots to suppress their reactions.

But if you have allergies, you know that you would do almost anything to fix them. For some, that really means anything – including ingesting hookworms, a small parasite that can suppress the immune system, and by doing so, your allergy symptoms.

The worms live in your stomach and latch onto your small intestine where they suck out a drop of blood a day. With their saliva, they shut down their host’s immune system in order to protect themselves, but doing so can also prevent the body from having immune system reactions to allergens.

The worms don’t live inside you forever. You can kill them whenever you want by taking certain medications. According to NPR, one man who tried it out said that his hay fever went away completely, but only for a time.

Why me?

Yes, cruel fate has bestowed upon us the burden or itching and sneezing. Why not someone else, you may wonder. That question is a little harder to answer.

Scientists have been studying allergies for a long time, but are still discovering why exactly some people’s immune systems treat harmless pollen and ragweed as a dangerous invader. Some people even develop allergies later in life, after years of exposure to similar materials to the allergen that finally broke the camel’s back.

Genetics are probably part of it. Families often contain members with similar allergies. Others say they’re caused by living in such a clean, sterile environment. That lack of exposure to everyday dust and dirt can lead to the development of allergies.

So the bottom line is until we have definitive solutions, for now you’re just unlucky.

Sources

https://www.uwhealth.org/health/topic/special/allergic-rhinitis/hw33436.html#hw33438

https://acaai.org/allergies/types

http://www.aafa.org/page/pollen-allergy.aspx

https://health.howstuffworks.com/diseases-conditions/allergies/allergy-basics/allergy1.htm

http://www.berkeleywellness.com/self-care/preventive-care/article/allergies-and-allergy-tests

https://www.everydayhealth.com/allergy/allergies-and-your-genes.aspx

https://www.vox.com/2014/6/25/5837892/is-being-too-clean-making-us-sick

https://www.emlab.com/resources/education/environmental-reporter/seasonal-pollen/

http://healthland.time.com/2012/04/18/doctor-infects-himself-with-parasites-for-health-experiment/

https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/allergy-shots/about/pac-20392876

Photos courtesy of Flickr and Wikimedia Commons

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Between 2004 and 2016, the number of people who acquired diseases from mosquitoes, ticks and flea bites tripled in the United States. These include diseases like Lyme disease, West Nile virus and dengue fever. Nine new diseases spread by mosquitoes and ticks, including Zika virus, were discovered or appeared here during that time.

These statistics were issued May 1, 2018 in a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in an effort to bring attention to the threat these diseases present to people across the country. The agency also reported that, as a nation, we are ill-prepared to address these challenges. Fewer than 20 percent of state and local organizations are equipped to adequately address prevention and spread of diseases by mosquitoes, ticks and other insect vectors.

However, we are fortunate here to have the CDC-funded Midwest Center of Excellence for Vector Borne Disease, led by UW–Madison medical entomologists Susan Paskewitz and Lyric Bartholomay. The Center, one of five consortia funded by the CDC to combat infectious diseases transmitted by ticks and mosquitoes, pulls together expertise from across Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota.

“We are working together with universities, public health agencies, and mosquito control districts across a five-state region to improve public health associated with vector-borne disease,” says Paskewitz, a professor in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. “These groups combine expertise to train the next generation, identify and validate innovative control methods, provide a stronger evidence base for currently available pest management tactics, and respond quickly to emergent issues.”

She further explains that the task is to respond to: 1. the invasion of exotic diseases and new vectors; 2. periodic and epidemic emergences of known viruses, like West Nile; and 3. the increase and expansion of tick-borne illnesses, like Lyme Disease.

Wisconsin is, in fact, a hotspot for Lyme Disease and other tick-borne pathogens, ranking in the top 20 percent of Lyme Disease cases in the U.S., according to the new CDC report. More than 33,000 cases of Lyme Disease were reported in the state between 2004 and 2016, and the number of actual cases (unreported) is likely to be higher.

Disease cases from ticks (2004-2016, reported), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Map shows case counts, not disease risk.

“Every state is vulnerable to vector-borne disease,” says Bartholomay,” but as Wisconsinites we are very much aware of vector-borne diseases like Lyme disease, West Nile fever and LaCrosse encephalitis.”

The CDC report found that while the U.S. overall is not yet doing enough to address control of mosquitoes and ticks, or to protect Americans from the diseases they carry, the agency also remains optimistic. In a call it hosted with reporters and public health experts across the country on May 1, CDC Director Robert Redfield called local agencies the “first line of defense” and called for greater investment in their ability to control and prevent vector-borne illness.

To do so, the agency recommends:

  • Building and sustaining public health programs that test and track germs (pathogens) and the mosquitoes and ticks that spread them.
  • Training vector-control staff to conduct prevention and control activities, which includes five so-called core competencies: 1. Routine mosquito surveillance using standardized trapping methods and species identification; 2. Making treatment decisions using surveillance data; 3. Using approved chemicals to control ticks and mosquitoes at various stages of their life cycles; 4. Performing routine vector control activities, like eliminating sources of breeding habitat; and 5. Testing for pesticide resistance.
  • Working with the public to provide education for preventing mosquito, tick and flea bites and control the germs they spread.

This is indeed what the Midwest Center of Excellence is focused on achieving across the upper Midwest. “We are tackling the growing threat of vector-borne disease by finding new ways to control ticks in backyards, by expanding the ways that we look for vectors and diseases they transmit, by critically testing methods for mosquito control, and by training students to be able to collect, recognize and control mosquitoes and ticks,” says Bartholomay, a professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine and the Global Health Institute.

A mosquito feeds on UW–Madison entomology professor Susan Paskewitz’s hand. She was collecting live mosquitoes and checking mosquito traps while conducting field research near the UW Arboretum. Photo by: Jeff Miller

Continuing to fund the Midwest Center of Excellence promises to advance progress when it comes to improving our ability to prevent and respond to diseases.

“The Centers of Excellence are a new strategy for organizing and enhancing efforts from the national to local level,” says Paskewitz. “However, boom and bust cycles of funding have hindered our ability to respond to emerging and persistent vector-borne disease. We geared up when West Nile Virus came along, and then lost that expertise by the time Zika entered the scene. We know dengue and chikungunya as well as new tick-borne infections will occur and we must retain readiness.”

Read more about the Midwest Center of Excellence for Vector Borne Disease:

Award announcement – https://news.wisc.edu/cdc-awards-10-million-for-insect-borne-disease-center/ 

Efforts to combat mosquitoes after Hurricane Harvey on 2017 – https://news.wisc.edu/uw-madison-students-in-houston-to-aid-post-harvey-mosquito-control/

Illnesses on the Rise from Mosquito, Tick, and Flea Bites, May 2018, Vital Signs - YouTube

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A rare bird species, the Kirtland’s warbler, has experienced variability in its population in recent decades. But now, the small yellow-breasted songbirds are branching out into new terrain, with historic success.

Sitting comfortably at about 4,000 individuals, the Kirtland’s warblers have started leaving the now-saturated real estate in their native Michigan jack pine forests in search of new homes.

In 2007, eight male Kirtland’s Warblers were documented breeding on a red pine-dominated timber plantation in central Wisconsin. And just two years ago, the birds were spotted breeding in northwest and northeast Wisconsin, too.

The question now is why, and how, they have able able to expand into Wisconsin with such success.

A male Kirtland’s Warbler. Photo by Ashley Hannah.

Ashley Hannah, a University of Wisconsin–Madison graduate research assistant in the SILVIS Lab in Forest and Wildlife Ecology, has been studying Kirtland’s warblers since 2014. She wants to know what it is about these spaces in Wisconsin that are fostering the rare bird’s successful relocation.

Each male Kirtland’s warbler has a distinctive song, which Hannah uses to track the elusive birds.

“The males sing very loudly from the tops of pine trees,” Hannah says. “We would also try to locate females but they don’t sing and are very secretive.”

In 2016 Hannah began monitoring the birds by following the musical males to their nests and identifying individuals by their unique leg band combinations. She also tagged chicks in those nests with leg bands and radio tagged some individuals to investigate their movements after leaving the nest.

She also spent time at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, studying Kirtland’s warblers habitat use patterns in their wintering grounds in the Bahamas.

“When I was assisting with that project we actually found a bird that had been banded as a nestling in Wisconsin the previous summer,” Hannah says. “So it was really exciting to see one of the chicks I had watched as a nest monitor on the wintering grounds.”

Through thousands of hours of camera footage recorded at nesting sites back in Wisconsin, Hannah wants to find out how predation plays into parental activity at the nests. That work is ongoing.

Understanding more about the songbird fledgling period, Hannah says, will be critical for deciphering how populations of the Kirtland’s warblers change.

The older they get, the farther they travel from their nests. In general, warbler fledglings prefer areas with denser, higher foliage and more tree cover, likely to reduce predation, Hannah says. But their nesting period is still the most vulnerable time for the birds.

The Kirtland’s warblers have historically resided in the northern jack pine forests of lower Michigan. By 1971, their population had shrunk from around 1000 birds down to about 400. Their decrease in numbers was partially due to habitat loss caused by human development, road construction and deforestation. But warblers were also preyed upon by the bizarre parasitism of the the brown-headed cowbird.

Cowbirds evolved as nomadic birds, eating the insects that followed herds of ungulates, like bison, across the plains of North America. Because they had to follow the herds for food, they could not stay in one place.

A male Kirtland’s warbler feeding Cowbird chick that it raised. Photo by Ashley Hannah.

So the cowbirds would lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. They intimidate the host mothers into raising the cowbird chicks, at the risk of the deaths of their own chicks. If a cowbird chick is in the nest, it is rare for any of the Kirtland’s warblers’ chicks to survive.

Cowbirds still affect some central Wisconsin warbler nests every year, Hannah says. But there are no cowbirds in the northern Wisconsin habitats where the trees are thicker and there is less agriculture providing the open spaces cowbirds prefer.

“As long as habitat is available and parasitism of nests is low, and there is little risk of inbreeding depression or other… events wiping out the entire (Kirtland’s warbler) population,” Hannah says, then the populations will be self–sustaining.

“However, without enough available habitat and cowbird trapping, the population will not be sustainable,” Hannah says. “Kirtland’s warblers will always be conservation reliant.”

Red pines at Ashley Hannah’s study site. Photo by Ashley Hannah.

Kirtland’s warblers have very specific tastes in real estate and only roost in dense jack pine stands that are about five to 20 years old. which Since jack pines only regrow following a wildfire, wildfire suppression reduces viable habitat for Kirtland’s warblers.

But the warblers have curiously branched out from this strict habitat into the red-pine dominated landscapes around Wisconsin. Hannah hypothesizes that the tree stands occupied by Kirtland’s warblers in Wisconsin are similar enough to Michigan’s warbler-inhabited stands in terms of density and ratio of red pine to jack pine to support Kirtland’s warbler populations.

Warblers also prefer stands that have vegetation closer to the ground, shorter shrubs, and contain taller trees with low level live branches. They also choose environments that have sandy soils. A ground nesting-species, Kirtland’s warblers rely on the sandy soil around the pines to act as a drainage system so that their nests do not become soggy.

Her research, Hannah hopes, will be useful to managers who oversee the land on which the warblers have decided to settle.

“Without human intervention — habitat creation, maintenance, and cowbird trapping — the population will start to decline because the historical conditions that the species thrived in are no longer possible,” Hannah says.

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UWMadScience by Eric Hamilton - 3M ago

Memes are hot spicy right now. The Wisconsin State Journal recently wrote about all the memes floating around the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. The Memes for Milk-Chugging Teens Facebook group creates dozens every week. UW–Madison might even have originated the meme — 98 years ago.

You’re looking at what could be the first ever meme, created by the Wisconsin Octopus student satirical magazine.

Meme On, Wisconsin! https://t.co/9UVaYGCflI pic.twitter.com/7IhcK2Hg7S

— UW-Madison (@UWMadison) April 16, 2018

So where did they come from?

The internet meme goes back to, well, the beginning of the internet. It turns out that when you connect millions of strangers to one another through instant communication, most of their time is spent sharing ridiculous pictures.

But the idea of the meme — something shareable, some idea that can change over time — has a very specific origin. In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” to describe the cultural equivalent of the gene. If the gene was the fundamental element of biological evolution, as Dawkins (somewhat controversially) argued, then the meme was the fundamental element of cultural evolution.

A gene is passed down from generation to generation, spreading through replication if it is successful or winnowing to oblivion if it is not. Evolution through genes is slow. The generation time of the organism carrying those genes might be long, and the mutations necessary to innovate on existing genes are relatively rare. Plus genes can only spread from parents to offspring; they increase in the population only as some parents have more children than others.

By comparison, evolution through memes is blazing fast. An idea can spread not just through reproduction — though certainly parents pass on ideas to their children — but on the merits or stickiness of the idea itself. And in the gigantic game of telephone that is human culture and language, memes can quickly get distorted and altered, providing the raw material of innovation that helps culture evolve.

But when they’re not trollface or doge, what does a meme look like? Let’s ask Dawkins:

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.

Dawkins goes on to not-so-subtly dig at the memes behind religion, deriding belief in hell and coldly dismantling the notion of god. (Dawkins is an avowed atheist, and routinely criticized for his contempt for the religious.) But he also uses the chapter to reinforce the point he makes about genes in the rest of the book: Memes, like genes, do not exist to benefit their owners, but only themselves. While both genes and memes will flourish if the people possessing those genes or advancing those memes do well, that is not their goal. Memes evolve to be successful memes, not to help the humans who spread them. Same with genes.

That might seem uncontroversial, or even trivial. But it’s not. Scientists and philosophers have long wondered about what advantage cultural traits like religion, ritual, tradition, literature, song, dance, poetry and art provide to society. We devote so much time and energy to these pursuits, the thinking went, it must be useful in some way. Some have argued that they are impressive mating displays. Others that they band together large numbers of people toward a common goal.

Dawkins’ point that memes serve themselves to is to say that, while The Odyssey might have bound the Greeks together, it spread far and wide only because it had the elements that made it shareable. Culture doesn’t have to be helpful to humans to exist.

Perhaps the most famous meme is language itself. Language is passed from mother to daughter, but can spread to others on the strength of its cultural influence. Language subtly changes with use, to the point that a word like “meme” can be invented and take off. And it keeps changing. Once a convenient notion for scientific theories about human cultural evolution, the word meme has morphed, quickly, into something else altogether — a funny picture, an in-joke. The word meme has become both a meme itself and a demonstration of memes’ ability to worm themselves into our heads and spread for their own sake.

Do internet memes benefit us? Do they help groups bond? Relieve stress? Maybe. But it doesn’t matter. Memes exist because they’re good at existing — and spreading.

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The following story comes from Adityarup “Rup” Chakravorty, science writer at the UW–Madison Waisman Center:

There’s a saying in the autism community: If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism.

That’s because “as the name implies, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) exists on a spectrum with a wide range of symptoms, skills and levels of severity with which it impacts a person’s daily life,” says Eric Rubenstein, a postdoc and Morse scholar at the UW-Madison Waisman Center.

In other words, no two people with autism share exactly the same traits.

This wide range of severity, however, has made it difficult for researchers to unearth connections between the different causes of ASD and how it manifests in different individuals. But in a new study published in the journal Autism, Rubenstein and his colleagues report making progress in the search for genetic clues that could explain mechanisms that underlie the disorder and help researchers better understand the risk factors for ASD.

Using data from the national Study to Explore Early Development, or SEED, Rubenstein was able to categorize children participating in SEED into four distinct groups based on their autism characteristics, or phenotypes. SEED is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and has collected data on children 3-to-5 years of age with and without developmental disabilities from six sites in the US, including the Waisman Center.

Eric Rubenstein describes a new study in which he and colleagues characterize traits in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder that may help identify genetic clues underlying the condition. Image courtesy of the University of Wisconsin–Madison Waisman Center.

“One advantage of SEED is that it collected a lot of data on children’s autism presentations, including information on diagnostic features of ASD, co-occurring medical conditions, and features like feeding and sleep issues that are common in kids with ASD,” says Rubenstein.

He and his colleagues then surveyed for autism-like traits in the parents of these children. Previous research had shown that parents who do not have a clinical diagnosis of autism but who show autism-like traits are more likely to have a child with ASD. These parents are said to exhibit broader autism phenotypes or BAP. Rubenstein found that autistic children who have at least one parent with BAP tended to cluster into one of the four groups they identified. Children in this group had mild language and motor delays, and conditions like anxiety, depression, increased aggression and attention problems. This was true of both boys and girls with ASD.

“This finding strongly points to a hereditary link for ASD in these families,” says Rubenstein.

This is important, he says, because it enables future researchers to focus on this subset of parents with BAP and their children with ASD and look for genetic clues to help explain certain ASD traits seen in both. It’s also relatively common for parents of children with ASD to help their children build social and adaptive skills though something known as parent-mediated intervention, where “the parent acts as the child’s therapist,” explains Rubenstein. “Knowing more about how ASD traits present in families can help us better tailor these interventions to help parents be the best therapists for their child’s needs.”

Rubenstein is not the first to examine the association between parents with BAP and their children with autism, but other studies have looked only at single traits at a time. He was able to compare BAP against 27 different ASD characteristics using a statistical technique called latent class analysis, which also enabled the research team to identify the four phenotypic groups.

“We were able to use 27 different indicators to create a more global look at autism subtypes,” he says. “We currently are working to expand this method to look at other traits, such as maternal anxiety and depression.”

Rubenstein says future research may also involve individuals with ASD who have children: “Studies like this are slowly taking us in that direction.”

Funding for this study was provided by Autism Speaks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Colorado Department of Public Health, the Kaiser Foundation Research Institute, the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Michigan State University.

**Watch Eric Rubenstein’s video abstract about the study: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LPB55g1DNIM&feature=youtu.be

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