Public health takeaways from historic extreme weather events

by Natalie VanderNoot, BS in Biology and undergraduate Research Scholar at George Mason University and participant in the 2021 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program-Public & Global Health Track

Global warming comic by Matteo Farinella/Nexus Mediaxz

Discussing climate change at the end of his talk for the Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program – Public and Global Health Track, Professor Michael Wysession, PhD, warned, “We know better and we’re not taking the actions we should.” Dr. Wysession is a former high school physics teacher who now works in the department of earth and planetary sciences and has retained a significant interest in designing curriculum plans to teach about earth and space science, including climate change, in K-12 schools across the United States. He has authored a national report about climate change education as well as textbook chapters in chemistry and earth sciences.

The association between extreme weather events and pandemics is not always clear, as a weather event can start processes in motion leading to a public health emergency a hundred years later. Dr. Wysession described how a rapid climate change event like an earthquake, typhoon, or cyclone leads to a subsequent agricultural failure due to the damage to natural resources and food supply. In response to the failed agriculture, people become malnourished and will migrate to other areas or increase trade in their location. The impact on health through a lack of proper nutrition combined with the increased travel makes a population more susceptible to a pandemic.

The first example of this process in action was the beginning of a cholera epidemic in 1817. Originally endemic to the Ganges River Delta, the region experienced extreme flooding from 1817-1822, and as people fled the region, cholera began to spread into Indonesia during a time of increased slave trade. The second cholera epidemic occurred between 1826 and 1851, when an epidemic broke out across Europe and the Americas following a summer drop in temperature from a volcanic eruption in 1816. The “year without a summer” pushed people west, and the continued westward expansion over the following decade set up a pathway for cholera to spread through the region, following people west and south into Central and Southern America.

Dr. Wysession also described examples of weather events preceding other infectious disease epidemics. El Niño southern oscillations (ENSO) cause changes in the atmosphere and bird migrations that have been associated with influenza epidemics. Each influenza epidemic over the last approximately 110 years has been preceded by an El Niño event. This transitioned the talk into a discussion of climate change and how changing global temperatures will impact extreme weather events, possibly setting up additional chains of events leading to pandemics. He encouraged students to look at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report,  report summary, to learn more about climate change data from a reliable source. He explained that while there is a long history of temperature fluctuations and extreme weather events on Earth, global warming is still a concern because of the increasingly severe nature and frequency of extreme weather events.

Weather disasters are a key component of public health planning and management. Natural disasters can lead to the breakdown of infrastructure, food supply, and mass migrations and homelessness. An understanding of the connection between weather events and public health is crucial for anyone considering a career in public health emergency management. Additionally, Dr. Wysession’s work on curriculum development is crucial to public health because of the importance of education in helping children and young adults to understand health and science concepts and preparing them to combat the health effects of climate change as they age.