Tag Archives: Percepção do risco

Watchers of the earth (AEON)

Indigenous peoples around the world tell myths which contain warning signs for natural disasters. Scientists are now listening.

Watchers of the earth | Aeon

Native knowledge. A Moken woman stares out to sea. Photo by Taylor Weidman/LightRocket/Getty

Carrie Arnold is a freelance science writer, whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Scientific American and Slate, among others. Her latest book is Decoding Anorexia (2012). She lives in Virginia.

Edited by Pam Weintraub

Shortly before 8am on 26 December 2004, the cicadas fell silent and the ground shook in dismay. The Moken, an isolated tribe on the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, knew that the Laboon, the ‘wave that eats people’, had stirred from his ocean lair. The Moken also knew what was next: a towering wall of water washing over their island, cleansing it of all that was evil and impure. To heed the Laboon’s warning signs, elders told their children, run to high ground.

The tiny Andaman and Nicobar Islands were directly in the path of the tsunami generated by the magnitude 9.1 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra. Final totals put the islands’ death toll at 1,879, with another 5,600 people missing. When relief workers finally came ashore, however, they realised that the death toll was skewed. The islanders who had heard the stories about the Laboon or similar mythological figures survived the tsunami essentially unscathed. Most of the casualties occurred in the southern Nicobar Islands. Part of the reason was the area’s geography, which generated a higher wave. But also at the root was the lack of a legacy; many residents in the city of Port Blair were outsiders, leaving them with no indigenous tsunami warning system to guide them to higher ground.

Humanity has always courted disaster. We have lived, died and even thrived alongside vengeful volcanoes and merciless waves. Some disasters arrive without warning, leaving survival to luck. Often, however, there is a small window of time giving people a chance to escape. Learning how to crack open this window can be difficult when a given catastrophe strikes once every few generations. So humans passed down stories through the ages that helped cultures to cope when disaster inevitably struck. These stories were fodder for anthropologists and social scientists, but in the past decade, geologists have begun to pay more attention to how indigenous peoples understood, and prepared for, disaster. These stories, which couched myth in metaphor, could ultimately help scientists prepare for cataclysms to come.

Anyone who has spent time around small children gets used to the question ‘why?’ Why is the sky blue? Why do birds fly? Why does thunder make such a loud noise? A friend’s mother told us that thunder was God going bowling in the sky. Nature need not be scary and unpredictable, even if it was controlled by forces we could neither see nor understand.

The human penchant for stories and meaning is nothing new. Myths and legends provide entertainment, but they also transmit knowledge of how to behave and how the world works. Breaking the code of these stories, however, takes skill. Tales of gods gone bowling during summer downpours seems nonsensical on the surface, but know a little about the sudden thunderclaps and the clatter of bowling pins as they’re struck by a ball, and the story makes sense.

In 1968, Dorothy Vitaliano, a geologist at Indiana University, pioneered the study of cultural myths that told of real geological events. Ancient Sanskrit tales told of entire cities that sunk beneath the waves with all the hallmarks of a tsunami. Plato’s story of the utopian Atlantis, destroyed by the gods in a wreckage of fire, might have referred to a volcano that partially destroyed the Greek island of Thera more than 3,500 years ago.

this story wasn’t simply a saga of angry gods but a geological record of an ancient eruption

Vitaliano published her work in a folklore journal, not a scientific one. It would take another geologist, Patrick Nunn of the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, to bring the field more fully into the physical sciences. Nunn’s work in the paradisiacal South Pacific gave him the opportunity to immerse himself in the islands’ traditional cultures. A group on Fiji regaled him with a story of Tanovo, the ancient chief of the Fijian island of Ono. One day, Tanovo ran across his main rival, the chief of the volcano Nabukelevu. To intimidate Tanovo, the volcano chief made Nabukelevu rise up and belch gas and burning rock into the air. Tanovo responded by weaving massive baskets to remove the mountain, dropping the debris in the ocean to create new islands. To Nunn, this story wasn’t simply a saga of angry gods but a geological record of an ancient eruption. Pressure from magma can make a volcano expand in size before the release of gas and ash. Geologists knew that small islands around Fiji were the result of volcanic rubble, but Nunn was the first geologist to hear these stories and read between the lines.

The problem was that the best geological evidence Nunn could find dated the last eruption of Nabukelevu to 50,000 years in the past, long before any humans inhabited Fiji. Nunn wrote off the tale as merely a fanciful story, and it would have remained that way if not for a new road being built near the volcano. When construction workers dug out the roadbed, they discovered pottery fragments mixed in a three-foot layer of ash. Further analysis revealed that the fragments were 3,000 years old, dating to 1,000 years after humans first arrived on Fiji.

These stories, in synch with archaeological finds, provided evidence of ‘geological events we don’t have access to any other way. There are not many examples of wholly invented myths – ancient humans were not like modern fiction writers. The point of these stories was to pass knowledge along,’ Nunn explained.

Brian McAdoo, a tsunami scientist at Yale-NUS in Singapore, began his career plumbing the depths of the ocean in high-tech submersibles to understand the earthquakes that triggered tsunamis. In 1998, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck off the northern coast of Papua New Guinea, triggering a tsunami estimated to have killed more than 2,000 on the island. The quake was comparatively gentle for such a deadly tsunami, which led McAdoo to begin looking at the social and cultural factors that made some geological disasters deadlier than others. His research introduced him to local tribes who told him traditional stories about earthquakes and tsunamis from the past.

‘A lot of the people we talked to said that their grandmothers would tell these stories about how their grandmothers survived a tsunami,’ McAdoo said.

As McAdoo was delving into the mysteries of Fijian stories in the southwestern Pacific, other scientists were using a similar strategy to study seismic events in the Pacific Northwest. Brian Atwater, an employee of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in the 1970s and ’80s, was tasked with mapping the earthquake risks across Northern California, Oregon, and Washington. To do that, Atwater needed information about previous earthquakes that had struck the area. Written records dated back only about 200 years, so Atwater, now at the University of Washington in Seattle, initially relied on information that he could glean from the soil and rocks.

His work sent him into areas where native peoples had lived for thousands of years, and they told the government scientist their own myths about gods who walked the earth, stomping their feet and making the ground shake, as well as giant waves that swept over the land shortly thereafter.

In 2007, Atwater identified a massive earthquake that spawned an equally massive tsunami, decimating villages and forever altering the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. When his team dated the debris from the earthquake, he discovered it had occurred around the year 1700.

‘It was a horrible thing – the burial of a house and no doubt its occupants. It’s a really sobering experience to sift through those artefacts’

When Japanese seismologists heard of this date, they immediately contacted Atwater about a rogue tsunami that no one could explain. The Japanese, of course, were long familiar with tsunamis, having coined the word. They knew that the wall of water always followed an earthquake, and people living along the coast had learned to seek higher ground when they felt the ground start to shake. Yet in the 12th year of the Genroku era, or 1700 CE, a tsunami had hurtled itself into Japan’s eastern shore, but without an accompanying earthquake.

Modern seismologists guessed that the tsunami must have been spawned by an earthquake on the other side of the Pacific, but they couldn’t be any more specific. Atwater’s work gave them the missing information: in the Cascades, the Juan de Fuca plate dives beneath the North American plate, but it doesn’t move smoothly. The rocks get stuck, and tension builds. When the stress becomes too high, the fault ruptures and the plates move – a process that humans describe as an earthquake. Based on the precise recordings of the Japanese tsunami, the researchers provided a much more precise date for the earthquake that devastated the Pacific Northwest. Sometime around 9pm on Tuesday, 26 January 1700, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit as the plates violently released the stress pent up in the rocks.

‘It was a horrible thing to contemplate – the burial of a house and no doubt its occupants, as well as so many other parts of their lives. It’s a really sobering experience to sift through those artefacts,’ Atwater said.

Linking traditional Native American stories to historic records of a Japanese tsunami was considered an exception, not the start of a fruitful geological collaboration. It seemed that McAdoo, Nunn and Atwater’s explorations would be confined to the fringes of geology.

Then the 2004 tsunami struck.

A century before, a tsunami had slammed into the Indonesian island of Simeulue, killing hundreds and leaving even more homeless. The event was seared into the memory of those who survived, determined to pass their hard-earned wisdom along to their children. Their instructions were devastatingly simple: if the water recedes after an earthquake, run immediately to high ground. They didn’t invoke gods or the supernatural, but these types of warnings likely formed the kernel of later myths and traditional stories, Nunn says. During the tsunami of 2004, their efficacy was clear. On Simeulue, with a population of more than 80,000, only seven people died. Before the roar of the waves drowned out human voices, the island was filled with shouts of ‘Smong! Smong! Smong!’, the local word for a tsunami.

Such stories regularly cropped up in the weeks and months following the tsunami. Residents of remote villages knew exactly what to do and survived with relatively few casualties. As the stories gained in popularity, the idea that they had valid geological merit began to grow.

‘The 2004 tsunami completely changed how science looked at disasters. There were more conversations between social scientists, natural scientists, and engineers, which led to more insights on how and why these disasters happened,’ McAdoo said.

Most recently, a paper in Science published in August 2016 revealed geological evidence for a massive ancient flood in China that had long been rumoured to have spurred the formation of the country’s first imperial dynasty. Around 4,000 years ago, the stories go, an ‘Emperor Yu’ rose to power based on his ability to drain lowlands of flood. No one knew whether Emperor Yu was a real person or whether the floodwaters he tamed actually existed.

Yet studying the landslides in the Jishi Gorge that dammed the Yellow River high in the Tibetan plateau, a team of Chinese scientists gathered archaeological and geological evidence to demonstrate that the dams failed right around the time that China’s first dynasty emerged. The failure rerouted the Yellow River, a dynamic that could lead to persistent flooding downstream. The researchers also found evidence of large-scale drainage projects in the Yellow River delta that popped up not long after the Jishi Gorge landslides.

My personal suburban legends left me intimately familiar with what to do if I ever saw a funnel cloud

The destructive power of natural disasters hasn’t diminished in the thousands of years during which these stories were told and retold. And humanity now faces an even greater catastrophe in the form of climate change. Unlike floods, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes, the devastation from global warming isn’t sudden and violent. It has been creeping up on us for decades, but that doesn’t mean it will be any less deadly. To fight these changes, humanity needs a new set of tales.

On Fiji, 25-year-old Betty Barkha is traversing her homeland to gather stories of how locals are responding to increased cyclones and flooding caused by our changing climate. These stories might not have the nail-biting drama of oral epics filled with supernatural forces, but they can connect with readers and listeners in ways that dry data from government agencies can’t.

Most humans don’t spend their evenings swapping stories around a campfire, but we haven’t lost our penchant for myth. The same summer storms caused by gods gone bowling could also generate tornadoes. As a child in the Midwest, I knew all the signs: a sky that looked like pea soup, wind that had the angry roar of an oncoming train, and the plaintive wail of a warning siren. A few years before I was born, a tornado had ripped through my town, leaving a path of debris less than a quarter mile from my home. Decades later, stories are still told of how a gas station was levelled on one side of the street but a building diagonally across was untouched. My personal suburban legends left me intimately familiar with what to do if I ever saw a funnel cloud.

Whether the disaster is earthquake, volcano or ocean wave, modern responses will likely involve cutting-edge science, but chances are we’ll also be spinning stories for aeons to come.

13 April 2017

Pew’s new global survey of climate change attitudes finds promising trends but deep divides (The Conversation)

theconversation.com

September 14, 2021 10.00am EDT

By Kate T. Luong (Postdoctoral Research Fellow, George Mason University), Ed Maibach (Director of Center for Climate Communication, George Mason University), and John Kotcher (Assistant Professor of Communications, George Mason University)


People’s views about climate change, from how worried they are about it affecting them to how willing they are to do something about it, have shifted in developed countries around the world in recent years, a new survey by the Pew Research Center finds.

The study polled more than 16,000 adults in 17 countries considered to be advanced economies. Many of these countries have been large contributors to climate change and will be expected to lead the way in fixing it.

In general, the survey found that a majority of people are concerned about global climate change and are willing to make lifestyle changes to reduce its effects.

However, underneath this broad pattern lie more complicated trends, such as doubt that the international community can effectively reduce climate change and deep ideological divides that can hinder the transition to cleaner energy and a climate-friendly world. The survey also reveals an important disconnect between people’s attitudes and the enormity of the challenge climate change poses.

Here’s what stood out to us as professionals who study the public’s response to climate change.

Strong concern and willingness to take action

In all the countries surveyed in early 2021 except Sweden, between 60% and 90% of the citizens reported feeling somewhat or very concerned about the harm they would personally face from climate change. While there was a clear increase in concern in several countries between 2015, when Pew conducted the same survey, and 2021, this number did not change significantly in the U.S.

Chart of responses to question on concern about climate change harming the people surveyed personally
CC BY-ND

Similarly, in all countries except Japan, at least 7 out of 10 people said they are willing to make some or a lot of changes in how they live and work to help address global climate change.

Across most countries, young people were much more likely than older generations to report higher levels of both concern about climate change and willingness to change their behaviors.

Perceptions about government responses

Clearly, on a global level, people are highly concerned about this existential threat and are willing to change their everyday behaviors to mitigate its impacts. However, focusing on changing individual behaviors alone will not stop global warming.

In the U.S., for example, about 74% of greenhouse gas emissions are from fossil fuel combustion. People can switch to driving electric vehicles or taking electric buses and trains, but those still need power. To pressure utilities to shift to renewable energy requires policy-level changes, both domestically and internationally.

When we look at people’s attitudes regarding how their own country is handling climate change and how effective international actions would be, the results painted a more complex picture.

On average, most people evaluated their own government’s handling of climate change as “somewhat good,” with the highest approval numbers in Sweden, the United Kingdom, Singapore and New Zealand. However, data shows that such positive evaluations are not actually warranted. The 2020 U.N. Emissions Gap Report found that greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise. Many countries, including the U.S., are projected to miss their target commitments to reduce emissions by 2030; and even if all countries achieve their targets, annual emissions need to be reduced much further to reach the goals set by the Paris climate agreement.

When it comes to confidence in international actions to address climate change, the survey respondents were more skeptical overall. Although the majority of people in Germany, the Netherlands, South Korea and Singapore felt confident that the international community can significantly reduce climate change, most respondents in the rest of the countries surveyed did not. France and Sweden had the lowest levels of confidence with more than 6 in 10 people being unconvinced.

Together, these results suggest that people generally believe climate change to be a problem that can be solved by individual people and governments. Most people say they are willing to change their lifestyles, but they may not have an accurate perception of the scale of actions needed to effectively address global climate change. Overall, people may be overly optimistic about their own country’s capability and commitment to reduce emissions and fight climate change, and at the same time, underestimate the value and effectiveness of international actions.

These perceptions may reflect the fact that the conversation surrounding climate change so far has been dominated by calls to change individual behaviors instead of emphasizing the necessity of collective and policy-level actions. Addressing these gaps is an important goal for people who are working in climate communication and trying to increase public support for stronger domestic policies and international collaborations.

Deep ideological divide in climate attitudes

As with most surveys about climate change attitudes, the new Pew report reveals a deep ideological divide in several countries.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the U.S. leads in ideological differences for all but one question. In the U.S., 87% of liberals are somewhat or very concerned about the personal harms from climate change, compared to only 28% of conservatives – a stark 59-point difference. This difference persists for willingness to change one’s lifestyle (49-point difference), evaluation of government’s handling of climate change (41-point difference), and perceived economic impacts of international actions (41-point difference).

And the U.S. is not alone; large ideological differences were also found in Canada, Australia and the Netherlands. In fact, only Australians were more divided than Americans on how their government is handling the climate crisis.

This ideological divide is not new, but the size of the gap between people on the two ends of the ideological spectrum is astounding. The differences lie not only in how to handle the issue or who should be responsible but also in the scope and severity of climate change in the first place. Such massive, entrenched differences in public understanding and acceptance of the scientific facts regarding climate change will present significant challenges in enacting much-needed policy changes.

Better understanding of the cultural, political and media dynamics that shape those differences might reveal helpful insights that could ease the path toward progress in slowing climate change.

‘No One is Safe’: How The Heatwave Has Battered the Wealthy World (New York Times)

nytimes.com

Somini Sengupta


A firefighter battled the Sugar Fire in Doyle, Calif., this month.
C A firefighter battled the Sugar Fire in Doyle, Calif., this month. Credit: Noah Berger/Associated Press
Floods swept Germany, fires ravaged the American West and another heat wave loomed, driving home the reality that the world’s richest nations remain unprepared for the intensifying consequences of climate change.

July 17, 2021

Some of Europe’s richest countries lay in disarray this weekend, as raging rivers burst through their banks in Germany and Belgium, submerging towns, slamming parked cars against trees and leaving Europeans shellshocked at the intensity of the destruction.

Only days before in the Northwestern United States, a region famed for its cool, foggy weather, hundreds had died of heat. In Canada, wildfire had burned a village off the map. Moscow reeled from record temperatures. And this weekend the northern Rocky Mountains were bracing for yet another heat wave, as wildfires spread across 12 states in the American West.

The extreme weather disasters across Europe and North America have driven home two essential facts of science and history: The world as a whole is neither prepared to slow down climate change, nor live with it. The week’s events have now ravaged some of the world’s wealthiest nations, whose affluence has been enabled by more than a century of burning coal, oil and gas — activities that pumped the greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that are warming the world.

“I say this as a German: The idea that you could possibly die from weather is completely alien,” said Friederike Otto, a physicist at Oxford University who studies the links between extreme weather and climate change. “There’s not even a realization that adaptation is something we have to do right now. We have to save people’s lives.”

The floods in Europe have killed at least 165 people, most of them in Germany, Europe’s most powerful economy. Across Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, hundreds have been reported as missing, which suggests the death toll could rise. Questions are now being raised about whether the authorities adequately warned the public about risks.

Flood damage in Erftstadt, Germany, on Friday.
Credit: Sebastien Bozon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A dry Hensley Lake in Madera, Calif., on Wednesday.
Credit: David Swanson/Reuters

The bigger question is whether the mounting disasters in the developed world will have a bearing on what the world’s most influential countries and companies will do to reduce their own emissions of planet-warming gases. They come a few months ahead of United Nations-led climate negotiations in Glasgow in November, effectively a moment of reckoning for whether the nations of the world will be able to agree on ways to rein in emissions enough to avert the worst effects of climate change.

Disasters magnified by global warming have left a long trail of death and loss across much of the developing world, after all, wiping out crops in Bangladesh, leveling villages in Honduras, and threatening the very existence of small island nations. Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines in the run-up to climate talks in 2013, which prompted developing-country representatives to press for funding to deal with loss and damage they face over time for climate induced disasters that they weren’t responsible for. That was rejected by richer countries, including the United States and Europe.

“Extreme weather events in developing countries often cause great death and destruction — but these are seen as our responsibility, not something made worse by more than a hundred years of greenhouse gases emitted by industrialized countries,” said Ulka Kelkar, climate director at the India office of the World Resources Institute. These intensifying disasters now striking richer countries, she said, show that developing countries seeking the world’s help to fight climate change “have not been crying wolf.”

Indeed, even since the 2015 Paris Agreement was negotiated with the goal of averting the worst effects of climate change, global emissions have kept increasing. China is the world’s biggest emitter today. Emissions have been steadily declining in both the United States and Europe, but not at the pace required to limit global temperature rise.

A reminder of the shared costs came from Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the Maldives, an island nation at acute risk from sea level rise.

“While not all are affected equally, this tragic event is a reminder that, in the climate emergency, no one is safe, whether they live on a small island nation like mine or a developed Western European state,” Mr. Nasheed said in a statement on behalf of a group of countries that call themselves the Climate Vulnerable Forum.

Municipal vehicles sprayed water in central Moscow on July 7 to fight midday heat.
Credit: Alexander Nemenov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon this week.
Credit: John Hendricks/Oregon Office of State Fire Marshal, via Associated Press

The ferocity of these disasters is as notable as their timing, coming ahead of the global talks in Glasgow to try to reach agreement on fighting climate change. The world has a poor track record on cooperation so far, and, this month, new diplomatic tensions emerged.

Among major economies, the European Commission last week introduced the most ambitious road map for change. It proposed laws to ban the sale of gas and diesel cars by 2035, require most industries to pay for the emissions they produce, and most significantly, impose a tax on imports from countries with less stringent climate policies.

But those proposals are widely expected to meet vigorous objections both from within Europe and from other countries whose businesses could be threatened by the proposed carbon border tax, potentially further complicating the prospects for global cooperation in Glasgow.

The events of this summer come after decades of neglect of science. Climate models have warned of the ruinous impact of rising temperatures. An exhaustive scientific assessment in 2018 warned that a failure to keep the average global temperature from rising past 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to the start of the industrial age, could usher in catastrophic results, from the inundation of coastal cities to crop failures in various parts of the world.

The report offered world leaders a practical, albeit narrow path out of chaos. It required the world as a whole to halve emissions by 2030. Since then, however, global emissions have continued rising, so much so that global average temperature has increased by more than 1 degree Celsius (about 2 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1880, narrowing the path to keep the increase below the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold.

As the average temperature has risen, it has heightened the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events in general. In recent years, scientific advances have pinpointed the degree to which climate change is responsible for specific events.

For instance, Dr. Otto and a team of international researchers concluded that the extraordinary heat wave in the Northwestern United States in late June would almost certainly not have occurred without global warming.

A firefighting helicopter in Siberia in June.
Credit: Maksim Slutsky/Associated Press
Lytton, British Columbia, devastated by wildfires last month.
Credit: Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

And even though it will take extensive scientific analysis to link climate change to last week’s cataclysmic floods in Europe, a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture and is already causing heavier rainfall in many storms around the world. There is little doubt that extreme weather events will continue to be more frequent and more intense as a consequence of global warming. A paper published Friday projected a significant increase in slow-moving but intense rainstorms across Europe by the end of this century because of climate change.

“We’ve got to adapt to the change we’ve already baked into the system and also avoid further change by reducing our emissions, by reducing our influence on the climate,” said Richard Betts, a climate scientist at the Met Office in Britain and a professor at the University of Exeter.

That message clearly hasn’t sunk in among policymakers, and perhaps the public as well, particularly in the developed world, which has maintained a sense of invulnerability.

The result is a lack of preparation, even in countries with resources. In the United States, flooding has killed more than 1,000 people since 2010 alone, according to federal data. In the Southwest, heat deaths have spiked in recent years.

Sometimes that is because governments have scrambled to respond to disasters they haven’t experienced before, like the heat wave in Western Canada last month, according to Jean Slick, head of the disaster and emergency management program at Royal Roads University in British Columbia. “You can have a plan, but you don’t know that it will work,” Ms. Slick said.

Other times, it’s because there aren’t political incentives to spend money on adaptation.

“By the time they build new flood infrastructure in their community, they’re probably not going to be in office anymore,” said Samantha Montano, a professor of emergency management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. “But they are going to have to justify millions, billions of dollars being spent.”

Christopher Flavelle contributed reporting.

Has the Era of Overzealous Cleaning Finally Come to an End? (New York Times)

nytimes.com

Emily Anthes, April 8, 2021


This week, the C.D.C. acknowledged what scientists have been saying for months: The risk of catching the coronavirus from surfaces is low.
A hotel room in Long Beach, Wash., being fogged with sanitizer. “There’s really no evidence that anyone has ever gotten Covid-19 by touching a contaminated surface,” one researcher noted.
Credit: Celeste Noche for The New York Times

April 8, 2021

When the coronavirus began to spread in the United States last spring, many experts warned of the danger posed by surfaces. Researchers reported that the virus could survive for days on plastic or stainless steel, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised that if someone touched one of these contaminated surfaces — and then touched their eyes, nose or mouth — they could become infected.

Americans responded in kind, wiping down groceries, quarantining mail and clearing drugstore shelves of Clorox wipes. Facebook closed two of its offices for a “deep cleaning.” New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority began disinfecting subway cars every night.

But the era of “hygiene theater” may have come to an unofficial end this week, when the C.D.C. updated its surface cleaning guidelines and noted that the risk of contracting the virus from touching a contaminated surface was less than 1 in 10,000.

“People can be affected with the virus that causes Covid-19 through contact with contaminated surfaces and objects,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the C.D.C., said at a White House briefing on Monday. “However, evidence has demonstrated that the risk by this route of infection of transmission is actually low.”

The admission is long overdue, scientists say.

“Finally,” said Linsey Marr, an expert on airborne viruses at Virginia Tech. “We’ve known this for a long time and yet people are still focusing so much on surface cleaning.” She added, “There’s really no evidence that anyone has ever gotten Covid-19 by touching a contaminated surface.”

During the early days of the pandemic, many experts believed that the virus spread primarily through large respiratory droplets. These droplets are too heavy to travel long distances through the air but can fall onto objects and surfaces.

In this context, a focus on scrubbing down every surface seemed to make sense. “Surface cleaning is more familiar,” Dr. Marr said. “We know how to do it. You can see people doing it, you see the clean surface. And so I think it makes people feel safer.”

A “sanitization specialist” at an Applebee’s Grill and Bar in Westbury, N.Y., wiping down a used pen last year. Restaurants and other businesses have highlighted extra cleaning in their marketing since the pandemic began.
Credit: Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

But over the last year, it has become increasingly clear that the virus spreads primarily through the air — in both large and small droplets, which can remain aloft longer — and that scouring door handles and subway seats does little to keep people safe.

“The scientific basis for all this concern about surfaces is very slim — slim to none,” said Emanuel Goldman, a microbiologist at Rutgers University, who wrote last summer that the risk of surface transmission had been overblown. “This is a virus you get by breathing. It’s not a virus you get by touching.”

The C.D.C. has previously acknowledged that surfaces are not the primary way that the virus spreads. But the agency’s statements this week went further.

“The most important part of this update is that they’re clearly communicating to the public the correct, low risk from surfaces, which is not a message that has been clearly communicated for the past year,” said Joseph Allen, a building safety expert at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Catching the virus from surfaces remains theoretically possible, he noted. But it requires many things to go wrong: a lot of fresh, infectious viral particles to be deposited on a surface, and then for a relatively large quantity of them to be quickly transferred to someone’s hand and then to their face. “Presence on a surface does not equal risk,” Dr. Allen said.

In most cases, cleaning with simple soap and water — in addition to hand-washing and mask-wearing — is enough to keep the odds of surface transmission low, the C.D.C.’s updated cleaning guidelines say. In most everyday scenarios and environments, people do not need to use chemical disinfectants, the agency notes.

“What this does very usefully, I think, is tell us what we don’t need to do,” said Donald Milton, an aerosol scientist at the University of Maryland. “Doing a lot of spraying and misting of chemicals isn’t helpful.”

Still, the guidelines do suggest that if someone who has Covid-19 has been in a particular space within the last day, the area should be both cleaned and disinfected.

“Disinfection is only recommended in indoor settings — schools and homes — where there has been a suspected or confirmed case of Covid-19 within the last 24 hours,” Dr. Walensky said during the White House briefing. “Also, in most cases, fogging, fumigation and wide-area or electrostatic spraying is not recommended as a primary method of disinfection and has several safety risks to consider.”

And the new cleaning guidelines do not apply to health care facilities, which may require more intensive cleaning and disinfection.

Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist at George Mason University, said that she was happy to see the new guidance, which “reflects our evolving data on transmission throughout the pandemic.”

But she noted that it remained important to continue doing some regular cleaning — and maintaining good hand-washing practices — to reduce the risk of contracting not just the coronavirus but any other pathogens that might be lingering on a particular surface.

Dr. Allen said that the school and business officials he has spoken with this week expressed relief over the updated guidelines, which will allow them to pull back on some of their intensive cleaning regimens. “This frees up a lot of organizations to spend that money better,” he said.

Schools, businesses and other institutions that want to keep people safe should shift their attention from surfaces to air quality, he said, and invest in improved ventilation and filtration.

“This should be the end of deep cleaning,” Dr. Allen said, noting that the misplaced focus on surfaces has had real costs. “It has led to closed playgrounds, it has led to taking nets off basketball courts, it has led to quarantining books in the library. It has led to entire missed school days for deep cleaning. It has led to not being able to share a pencil. So that’s all that hygiene theater, and it’s a direct result of not properly classifying surface transmission as low risk.”

Roni Caryn Rabin contributed reporting.

Natural disasters must be unusual or deadly to prompt local climate policy change (Science Daily)

Date: August 28, 2020

Source: Oregon State University

Summary: Natural disasters alone are not enough to motivate local communities to engage in climate change mitigation or adaptation, a new study has found. Rather, policy change in response to extreme weather events appears to depend on a combination of factors, including fatalities, sustained media coverage, the unusualness of the event and the political makeup of the community.

Natural disasters alone are not enough to motivate local communities to engage in climate change mitigation or adaptation, a new study from Oregon State University found.

Rather, policy change in response to extreme weather events appears to depend on a combination of factors, including fatalities, sustained media coverage, the unusualness of the event and the political makeup of the community.

Climate scientists predict that the frequency and severity of extreme weather events will only continue to increase in coming decades. OSU researchers wanted to understand how local communities are reacting.

“There’s obviously national and state-level climate change policy, but we’re really interested in what goes on at the local level to adapt to these changes,” said lead author Leanne Giordono, a post-doctoral researcher in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “Local communities are typically the first to respond to extreme events and disasters. How are they making themselves more resilient — for example, how are they adapting to more frequent flooding or intense heat?”

For the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, Giordono and co-authors Hilary Boudet of OSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Alexander Gard-Murray at Harvard University examined 15 extreme weather events that occurred around the U.S. between March 2012 and June 2017, and any subsequent local climate policy change.

These events included flooding, winter weather, extreme heat, tornadoes, wildfires and a landslide.

The study, published recently in the journal Policy Sciences, found there were two “recipes” for local policy change after an extreme weather event.

“For both recipes, experiencing a high-impact event — one with many deaths or a presidential disaster declaration — is a necessary condition for future-oriented policy adoption,” Giordono said.

In addition to a high death toll, the first recipe consisted of Democrat-leaning communities where there was focused media coverage of the weather event. These communities moved forward with adopting policies aimed at adapting in response to future climate change, such as building emergency preparedness and risk management capacity.

The second recipe consisted of Republican-leaning communities with past experiences of other uncommon weather events. In these locales, residents often didn’t engage directly in conversation about climate change but still worked on policies meant to prepare their communities for future disasters.

In both recipes, policy changes were fairly modest and reactive, such as building fire breaks, levees or community tornado shelters. Giordono referred to these as “instrumental” policy changes.

“As opposed to being driven by ideology or a shift in thought process, it’s more a means to an end,” she said. “‘We don’t want anyone else to die from tornadoes, so we build a shelter.’ It’s not typically a systemic response to global climate change.”

In their sample, the researchers didn’t find any evidence of mitigation-focused policy response, such as communities passing laws to limit carbon emissions or require a shift to solar power. And some communities did not make any policy changes at all in the wake of extreme weather.

The researchers suggest that in communities that are ideologically resistant to talking about climate change, it may be more effective to frame these policy conversations in other ways, such as people’s commitment to their community or the community’s long-term viability.

Without specifically examining communities that have not experienced extreme weather events, the researchers cannot speak to the status of their policy change, but Giordono said it is a question for future study.

“In some ways, it’s not surprising that you see communities that have these really devastating events responding to them,” Giordono said. “What about the vast majority of communities that don’t experience a high-impact event — is there a way to also spark interest in those communities?”

“We don’t want people to have to experience these types of disasters to make changes.”


Story Source:

Materials provided by Oregon State University. Original written by Molly Rosbach. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Leanne Giordono, Hilary Boudet, Alexander Gard-Murray. Local adaptation policy responses to extreme weather events. Policy Sciences, 2020; DOI: 10.1007/s11077-020-09401-3

Acute stress may slow down the spread of fears (Science Daily)

Date: May 12, 2020

Source: University of Konstanz

Summary: Psychologists find that we are less likely to amplify fears in social exchange if we are stressed.

New psychology research from the University of Konstanz reveals that stress changes the way we deal with risky information — results that shed light on how stressful events, such as a global crisis, can influence how information and misinformation about health risks spreads in social networks.

“The global coronavirus crisis, and the pandemic of misinformation that has spread in its wake, underscores the importance of understanding how people process and share information about health risks under stressful times,” says Professor Wolfgang Gaissmaier, Professor in Social Psychology at the University of Konstanz, and senior author on the study. “Our results uncovered a complex web in which various strands of endocrine stress, subjective stress, risk perception, and the sharing of information are interwoven.”

The study, which appears in the journal Scientific Reports, brings together psychologists from the DFG Cluster of Excellence “Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour” at the University of Konstanz: Gaissmaier, an expert in risk dynamics, and Professor Jens Pruessner, who studies the effects of stress on the brain. The study also includes Nathalie Popovic, first author on the study and a former graduate student at the University of Konstanz, Ulrike Bentele, also a Konstanz graduate student, and Mehdi Moussaïd from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

In our hyper-connected world, information flows rapidly from person to person. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how risk information — such as about dangers to our health — can spread through social networks and influence people’s perception of the threat, with severe repercussions on public health efforts. However, whether or not stress influences this has never been studied.

“Since we are often under acute stress even in normal times and particularly so during the current health pandemic, it seems highly relevant not only to understand how sober minds process this kind of information and share it in their social networks, but also how stressed minds do,” says Pruessner, a Professor in Clinical Neuropsychology working at the Reichenau Centre of Psychiatry, which is also an academic teaching hospital of the University of Konstanz.

To do this, researchers had participants read articles about a controversial chemical substance, then report their risk perception of the substance before and after reading the articles, and say what information they would pass on to others. Just prior to this task, half of the group was exposed to acute social stress, which involved public speaking and mental arithmetic in front of an audience, while the other half completed a control task.

The results showed that experiencing a stressful event drastically changes how we process and share risk information. Stressed participants were less influenced by the articles and chose to share concerning information to a significantly smaller degree. Notably, this dampened amplification of risk was a direct function of elevated cortisol levels indicative of an endocrine-level stress response. In contrast, participants who reported subjective feelings of stress did show higher concern and more alarming risk communication.

“On the one hand, the endocrine stress reaction may thus contribute to underestimating risks when risk information is exchanged in social contexts, whereas feeling stressed may contribute to overestimating risks, and both effects can be harmful,” says Popovic. “Underestimating risks can increase incautious actions such as risky driving or practising unsafe sex. Overestimating risks can lead to unnecessary anxieties and dangerous behaviours, such as not getting vaccinated.”

By revealing the differential effects of stress on the social dynamics of risk perception, the Konstanz study shines light on the relevance of such work not only from an individual, but also from a policy perspective. “Coming back to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it highlights that we do not only need to understand its virology and epidemiology, but also the psychological mechanisms that determine how we feel and think about the virus, and how we spread those feelings and thoughts in our social networks,” says Gaissmaier.