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Meteors in your Gutter, Pollinating Crops with Drones, and more science news – Week of March 12, 2017

This week, let’s try something novel…science news, sans politics.  It seems that politicians in this country have decided we can live without science, so for one week, I’ll try a “news” post where science avoids politics.

Long-horned Bee - Melissodes

A Long-horned Bee, doing what bees do best…collecting nectar and in the process, distributing pollen. If one Japanese researcher has his way, we could soon be using drones to augment nature’s pollinators. A personal comment…let’s hope this never comes to pass.

Who Needs Honeybees when we have Drones? — A first…TWO drone-related stories in one week! While the story above about using drones to acoustically sample birds may seem practical, I admit I don’t see much of a future for this application!  Eijiro Miyako, a chemist in Tsukuba, Japan, was trying to make an electricity-conducting gel in 2007, an endeavor that wasn’t working. His concoction was stored, until 8 years later when he dropped the jar while cleaning out a drawer. Miyako certainly thinks differently than I do, because upon cleaning up the sticky substance, he wondered, “could this be used to pollinate plants”? The decline of honeybees and other pollinators is well-noted, something of potentially devastating consequences to not only natural ecosystems, but to our very survival, given the need to pollinate crops.  Miyako started working with methodologies to pollinate crops, starting out by coating ants with his sticky gel to see if their movements would attract and distribute pollen. It kind of worked, but didn’t seem practical, so he eventually started working with drones.  The drones have a fuzzy material that collects pollen and can redistribute it when the drone brushes up against another plant.  His eventually plan? Build a fleet of 100 or so drones, use GPS and artificial intelligence, and set them loose in a field to pollinate the crops. Well…I guess we all need dreamers, and given how science works, who knows what practical application may come of Miyako’s work?  But hey, how about instead of developing drone pollinators, we instead focus on preserving the natural pollinators we have now?

Norwegian Gutters Clogged with Meteors!! — Jon Larsen, a Norwegian jazz musician, has an interesting hobby.  He’s devoted much of his free time in recent years to looking through material in gutters, downspouts, and drains, searching for extraterrestrial visitors.  Tons of material from outer space enters Earth’s atmosphere every day, much of it microscopic. Larsen has searched through debris in urban settings in search of these microscopic visitors.  His passion has been published in the journal Geology, with a paper that discusses the identification of over 500 “large micrometeorites” from rooftops and other urban settings. Larsen has learned the typical characteristics of micrometeorites, stating “Once I knew what to look for, I found them everywhere”.  Next time you’re up on the roof, cleaning leaves out of those gutters, do it with a smile and a sense of wonder, because it’s extremely likely that you’re cleaning up cosmic debris along with those leaves.

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index - Great Britain

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) for Great Britain, showing relative “greenness” of vegetation at the time. Researchers are studying linkages between NDVI, tree ring width, and volcanic activity to see if vegetation is responding to pre-eruption conditions. Potentially, such changes could be used to help predict an eruption.

Predicting Volcano Eruptions from…the greenness of trees? — I believe this is a poorly written article, but the premise behind it is VERY cool for a scientist like myself who works with satellite imagery.  The title of the story is very poor and somewhat misleading, stating “Can tree rings predict volcanic eruptions”? The story focuses on the work of scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape Research. In 1973, scientists noted an anomaly on satellite images along Mount Etna’s flank, a streak of trees that were greener than normal.  With satellite imagery, we can measure a “Normalized Vegetation Difference Index”, a measure of live green vegetation.  NDVI measurements in 1973 satellite observations were high along a streak on the volcanos flank, and less than a year later, a flank eruption occurred right along that very streak.  These scientists hypothesized that measuring tree rings from 1973 would also show an anomaly, and thus the title of this story that tree rings could “predict volcanic eruptions”.  However, the actual results showed no difference in tree ring width during that time frame. Given the relationship between tree ring width and how “good” a year a tree has had, I can see why continued research is warranted to try to find relationships between increased NDVI greenness, and tree ring width, and see if other areas have experienced changes prior to a volcanic eruption.  As it is, there’s not much in this initial research that proves a strong linkage.

Spying on Birds with Drones — On-site surveys of birds is a time-intensive and potentially expensive endeavor if trying to systematically survey birds across broad regions. Researchers at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania investigated the use of drones for conducting acoustical surveys of birds. They tried flying a drone and extracting acoustical information from a recorder on the drone, and found that the method was able to sample bird presence for about as large a region as a human observer performing a survey.  They have some kinks to work out, primarily related to the noise of the drone masking some of the low-frequency bird noises (think cooing of a Mourning Dove), but they believe technological innovation will soon make drones quieter and more efficient at sampling bird acoustics. I admit I do kind of roll my eyes when I hear people talking about trying to use drones for photography, and for science applications, because in many cases it seems like a stunt more than an actual practical application.  Gettysburg College may be proving me wrong, as this actually does sound like an interesting use of drone technology.

American Chestnut - Wild Survivor

One of the VERY few wild, mature American Chestnut trees left in the wild. Trees such as this may be resistant to blight, and are being used in efforts to develop a blight-resistant stock for eventual transplantation in the wild. Genetic modification is also being done to introduce Chestnut Blight resistant genes in tree stocks.

American Chestnut, Returning to a Forest Near You? — I often wonder what it would be like to travel back in time, to visit locations before they were touched by man. In the United States, the entire eastern half of the country was once dominated by forest land. While forest cutting started in earnest in the 1800s and even earlier in some locations, remaining deciduous forests by 1900 were still populated by 3 to 4 billion American Chestnut trees. It is estimated that one-quarter of trees in the Appalachians were American Chestnuts.  The American Chestnut was a prolific nut producer, with mast from the trees supporting deer, turkeys, bears, and other wildlife, including the now extinct Passenger Pigeon.  In 1904 a fungal blight was discovered, a disease that eventually wiped out nearly every wild American Chestnut. Asiatic Chestnut trees were imported into the country, but with them came an Asian bark fungus that was lethal to American Chestnuts. The disease spread rapidly, killing every American Chestnut tree in its path.  It is now estimated that fewer than 100 trees of any size are left in their former range. Root systems of surviving trees still send up shoots, but the blight infects the trees as they mature, resulting in practically no American Chestnut stems over 10-years old in the wild.  This story is focused on efforts to genetically modify the American Chestnut to include resistance to the blight. 30 years of research has resulted in the introduction of a gene from wheat that makes the trees able to withstand the blight. They hope to gain approval to publicly distribute the trees within 5 years.However, it will still be a long process to repopulate Eastern forests with American Chestnut. The researchers want to cross-pollinate the blight resistant trees with native wild tree stock. Half of the offspring will be blight resistant, and genetic diversity will be much improved over the current research tree stock.  We’re at the start of a VERY long process to restore the tree to the wild, but hopefully our great-great grandchildren will be able to enjoy the same Eastern forest trees that existed prior to 1900.

10 years until “Snowball Earth” — I admit my scientist side geeks out when I read a story like this, as it’s just so cool to think of the physical changes that have, can, and will again happen to our Earth.  Of course the absolutely catastrophic consequences for mankind put a bit of a damper on that excitement!  Harvard scientists have pinpointed the circumstances that led to “Snowball Earth”, a period about 717 million years ago where the Earth was covered in ice from pole-to-pole.  Models suggest that the climate destabilization that plunged the Earth into polar hell could have happened in a blink of an eye in geologic time. Massive volcanic eruptions back then could have ejected enough aerosols into the atmosphere in just a 10-year period to initiate the rapid freeze.  Don’t worry, it’s not a single volcanic eruption that’s capable of such a long-term change, but instead the kind of massive eruptions that mankind hasn’t experienced in our history. 717 million years ago, it was a string of volcanic eruptions across what’s now Canada and Greenland that set off the freeze.  As I said, from a scientific standpoint, fascinating to think what could happen, but it also points out the fragile balance of our climate system.  “Snowball Earth” happened because of runaway cooling and feedbacks that amplified and accelerated the cooling, primarily with increased ice increasing reflectance of solar radiation in a self-reinforcing feedback loop.  Right now we’re playing a game of “chicken” with our climate system, doing the exact opposite, and removing that ice in a self-reinforcing feedback loop that’s amplifying warming.

Snowy Bison

The Bison, invasive species that forever changed North America! Well, if we were around about 150,000 years ago, they would have been considered an invasive species, one that transformed grassland ecosystems of North America.

Bison Contributing to Mammoth Decline?  — OK, my chosen title here doesn’t reflect the purpose of this research, but after reading the story it did make me curious…did Bison contribute to the decline and eventual extinction of the Mammoth? The story used DNA analysis to establish that the ancestors of North American Bison first arrived between 130,000 and 190,000 years ago.  As the story notes, in this case, Bison were the invasive species, rapidly colonizing North America and forever changing the grassland ecosystems of the continent.  It does make me wonder…if not for the establishment of the Bison as a primary grazer in North America, would the Mammoth and other North American megafauna have been better positioned to withstand climate change and the establishment of man? Interesting story, and a story that shows that not all “invasive species” are those that are introduced by mankind.

Managing Diabetes with your Sweat — Especially as a family that deals with the consequences of Juvenile Diabetes, we’re quite familiar with the frequent finger prick to check glucose levels in blood. Researchers in South Korea have developed a prototype glucose sensing and insulin delivery device that looks like an arm cuff.  Instead of measuring blood glucose, it measures glucose in sweat. It’s not just these guys, there are also other researchers who are looking at measuring glucose levels in tears. There certainly have been many technological advances and devices for testing and treating diabetics, innovations that are certainly welcome! I just wish there were some real advances on actually treating the disease, and not just the symptoms.
 

Killing Government Science and more — Science, Nature, and Other News

Some news and views from over the last week.  For anyone interested in science, and the huge role that government plays in science in America…it’s been one damned depressing week,as details of the first Trump budget come trickling out. Overall, it’s an absolutely devastating picture for science and environmental funding. A few stories on federal science and environmental funding, followed by some other more cheery stories.

Trump's 4 Horsemen of the Environmental Apocalypse

Seen this week rampaging through the hallways of Federal science agencies were the 4 Horsemen of the Environmental Apocalypse, led by Trump, Steve Bannon, Scott Pruitt at EPA, and, well…one of the original 4 horsemen. I have to include an actual Horseman of the Apocalpyse, as clearly this administration has struck a deal with the devil himself, choosing short term greed and selfishness over the very welfare of the planet.

Trump Budget Kills NOAA Climate Science — Who needs satellites to study weather? And who needs scientists to actually do the science?  Evidently not the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  The proposed Trump budget that has trickled out this week proposes drastic cuts to NOAA, with a 17% cut overall for the program.  For programs that deal with climate change, it’s even more ominous, such as a 26% cut to the Oceanic and Atmospheric Research branch.  Observing what’s happening to our earth’s weather systems? The budget proposes a 22% cut to the satellite data division.  This is a pretty common theme across all of the Federal science agencies, with science evidently something the Nation can afford to sacrifice, so we can build more missiles that are too expensive to actually use, or build outrageously expensive planes that are $164 BILLION over budget and are lacking key functionalities. Government science in aggregate is only 3.4% of the entire budget…yet to pay for a ridiculous $54 billion increase in defense spending (with the U.S. already spending nearly 40% of ALL global military expenditures), science takes a disproportionate hit compared to many other programs.

EPA Budget set for 25% cut — It’s not just NOAA taking a hit.  The Environmental Protection Agency, LONG in the cross-hairs of conservatives who don’t appreciate trivial things like environmental regulation getting in the way of making money, is currently slated to be slashed by 25% in the Trump budget.  The budget proposes cutting 20% of EPA employees, and eliminating or sharply scaling back some major environmental programs. Great Lakes cleanup funds are proposed for a ridiculous 97% cut. Funding for restoring ecosystems in the Puget Sound would be slashed by 93%.  Environmental justice programs would be cut by 79%.  A program to help cut emissions of greenhouse gases such as methane has a proposed 70% cut. I have friends and acquaintances who work for EPA.  The mood there is nothing short of apocalyptic. Wall Street is loving it, given the salivating leaders of corporate America who envision a world without regulation, where they’re free to pollute and destroy the environment, all to squeak out a little bit more in short-term profit.  I’ve said it before…I honestly wonder if any of these people have children, and for those that do, how they can so COMPLETELY ignore their future health, safety, and well-being, all because of short-term selfishness and greed.

Ryan Zinke - Secretary of the Interior

Ryan Zinke, newly confirmed Secretary of the Interior riding his horse to work on this first day. He’s said some of the “right” things in his first few days. He said during his confirmation hearings that he believes in climate change, and that we’re causing it. He’s said he believes science should drive policy, not the other way around. Given a 4% lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters, we will see if this is just rhetoric meant to placate those who would potentially criticize the direction environmental conservation is going under the Trump administration. Hopefully Zinke realizes the massive responsibility he has for managing our Nation’s lands, and is being honest when he states how important DOI’s scientific research is for supporting sustainable use of those lands.

Department of Interior head “not happy” —  If (just theoretically speaking of course) a scientist was a part of the Department of Interior, things may seem apocalyptic right now as well, but perhaps with just 2 or 3 horsemen of the apocalypse roaming Department halls instead of the full-out 4 horsemen that are set to rampage through some of the other Federal science agencies.  The new DOI secretary is Ryan Zinke, who was confirmed this week, and promptly decided to ride a horse to work for his first day. Rumor has it that Mr. Zinke also has a penchant for proudly proclaiming he’s an ex Navy SEAL, which of course as we all know has direct relevance to managing our Nation’s lands, and the science behind it.  To be fair, Zinke has SAID the right things. As this article points out, he’s “not happy” with the Trump’s proposed 11% cut to Interior.  Few details have emerged so far, but what has become apparent is the disparity in how that cut would be applied across DOI.  Fish and Wildlife is set to take a massive cut compared to other DOI components, primarily because of their role in providing the science that supports the Endangered Species Act.  You can’t enforce the ESA if you don’t have the science behind it, and evidently the strategy of the Trump administration is to simply eliminate the science!  Problem solved, just as eliminating climate science “solves” the climate change issue!  Zinke is a fisherman and hunter, and DOES value the outdoors.  That helps.  Zinke also has a 5% lifetime score form the League of Conservation Voters.  That’s what’s sad, is that someone who has been very environmentally hostile in the past is viewed as a BRIGHT spot in the Trump administration. Here’s hoping that his early rhetoric is actually translated into meaningful action to protect the function of Department of Interior science.  Here’s hoping Zinke means what he says, and he isn’t just saying what’s politically or personally convenient.

Yes, it CAN get too hot for life on Earth — Past theory was that despite the potential for massive global warming to occur, temperatures in the tropics were somehow regulated by an “internal thermostat”, feedback mechanisms that prevented tropical areas from experiencing the same kind of temperature increases found elsewhere in the globe. It was an important theory, because the implication was that the Earth could warm significantly, yet the tropics would be somewhat shielded from that warmth increase, and would still support life. New research demonstrates that this likely isn’t true. The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum occurred 56 million years ago, a time of the highest global temperatures of the last 100 million years.  Evidence shows that tropical areas did indeed experience drastic temperature increases, increases that resulted in widespread die-off of tropical biomes that couldn’t handle the increased temperatures.  The most drastic temperature increases we’re currently seeing are in Arctic regions, with temperature increasing over two times as fast as the planet on average.  However, as this study shows, there’s no place on Earth that’s immune from the effects of climate change. As this study shows, it IS quite feasible for temperatures to warm up so much that some parts of the earth become inhospitable for life.

Ten million lives saved – Vaccine effectiveness — Certain Trump administration officials, including Trump himself, have expressed skepticism about vaccines, with some even perpetuating the myths about vaccines causing autism and other harmful effects. Here’s one of the BRILLIANT tweets from Trump, showering the world with his “wisdom” about vaccines:

I’m not against vaccinations for your children, I’m against them in 1 massive dose. Spread them out over a period of time & autism will drop!

There you have it, straight from “Doctor” Trump’s mouth. I’m sure he’s done a lot of research on linkages between autism, and the timing of vaccinations. He has some other gems as well regarding vaccines, and there have been some suggestions that he’s partnering with well-known vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to assess the “dangers’ of vaccines. Although there shouldn’t be any need to provide more empirical evidence to shut the anti-vaxxers up, new research from the University of Illinois-Chicago has gone to the trouble of quantifying just how many lives have been saved due to the widespread use of vaccines. It was the early 1960s when vaccines against these diseases became widespread, thanks to the development of new human cell strain that allowed for safe and rapid production of vaccines.  According to the research, from 1963 to 2015, over 200 MILLION cases of polio, measles, mumps, hepatitis A, rabies, and varicella were prevented in the United States ALONE. Over 450,000 deaths were prevented by vaccine use. Globally the numbers are staggering, with over 4.5 billion individual infections prevented, and over 10,000,000 lives saved.

Climate change…vaccination use…evolution…the science behind all of these is quite clear. I find it hard to see how any rational human being can deny actual empirical evidence such as that provided in the study above.

The cost of Volkswagen’s deception – 1,200 shorter lives — When Volkswagen installed “defeat” devices on their vehicles from 2008 to 2015 to fool pollutant measurements, it did more than increase air pollution.  A new study shows that due to the lower air quality induced by Volkswagens sold in Europe during that time, that around 1,200 people will have substantially shorter life spans, by around a decade. Volkswagens were emitting 4 times as much nitrous oxide as allowed by European law, contributing to the estimates of premature death for hundreds of Europeans. Retrofitting all remaining Volkswagens on the road is necessary to avoid 29,000 “life-years lost”, and over 4 BILLION Euros in increased health care costs. THIS is the type of world being currently pushed by the Trump administration, where regulation is greatly reduced, and companies like Volkswagen can worry more about profit and less about the health and well-being of people.

Panda "AnAn"

A panda munching on a cookie. Hmmm. According to research released this week, the black ears help “convey a sense of ferocity” to potential predators. I’m not quite seeing the ferocity.

Why Pandas are Black and White — Well, screw the esoteric research many scientists devote their lives to.  Here’s a basic “research “question people can relate to…why are pandas black-and-white?  I’m not exactly sure of the value of the research (I’m sure other scientists might say the same about my research), but they looked at the black and white patterns on pandas and tried to relate to other carnivore species to see if there were survival or adaptation advantages to the black-and-white pattern.  Doesn’t sound like much of a surprise in terms of results. They are largely white because it helps them hide in snowy areas. The black?  The body markings help them blend in areas of dappled light and shade, while markings on their head are thought to help them differentiate among each other and communicate with other pandas. Another supposed finding is that things like the black ears will deter predators by providing a “sense of ferocity”.  OK, it may be pretty basic research, but at least they had me interested until that last point.  I have a very hard time looking at a panda bear and having any “sense of ferocity” conveyed my way.

Seven Earth-like planets a potential hotspot for life — Trappist-1, about 39-million light-years from Earth, is very unlike our sun. It’s an “ultracool dwarf star”, with a temperature much cooler than our sun. However, scientists recently found that 7 rocky, earth-like planets orbit the star, with three of them potentially in the “Goldilocks” zone where temperatures are just right for life. They’re very different than our earth. Given that they’re much closer to their sun, they make complete orbits in as little as 1 1/2 earth-days for the innermost planet, to around 20 days for the planet furthest from Trappist-1.  They also are likely gravitationally locked, with the same side of each planet always facing the sun. The next step will be to try to take measurements of the atmospheric composition of each planet, which will give clues to the potential for each to host some form of life.

Refugee scientists on the run, scared — From Nature.org, a fascinating story of “refugee scientists”, scientist from regions of conflict like Syria who have had to adapt to keep their research alive. Not to mention their very lives. Obviously scientists are only one small segment of the populations that are affected by these conflicts, but stories like this really help put a human face on things. The article provides the stories of four different researchers and the lengths they’ve had to go to to escape their home countries and rebuild their lives.

Women feel more pain then men? — According to new research from scientists at Georgia State University, women feel more pain on average than men because cells in their brains that process pain signals are more active than those in men.  Guys, I hate to say it, but this REALLY makes us look like wimps. During cold and flu season such as right now, there are plenty of stories of men being incapacitated for days by a virus, while the women in their lives soldier on and struggle through it without stopping their normal lives. I guess I had always held out hope there was some biological driving force behind the general wimpiness of men, but no, evidently even biology favors more pain-free lives for men.  We have no more excuses guys…we truly ARE wimps.

 

My first ever endorsement of, well…anything

Scleral Contact Lens

A cross-section that demonstrates the idea of a scleral contact lens. The edge of the lens rests on the sclera, the white of your eye, while the lens “vaults” over the cornea and maintains a thin liquid bath against your cornea. For a dry eye sufferer? It’s heaven-sent.

I had a visit to my ophthalmologist this morning…not exactly earth-shattering news for most people.  Even for me it’s been almost a year since I last visited the eye doctor. The reason today’s visit was notable is because of the contrast of where I was one year ago compared to today.  With Sjogren’s Syndrome, I have incredibly dry eyes.  It goes well beyond simple irritation and the need to periodically use eye drops.  The discomfort is often unbearable, but even worse, the dryness impacts my vision. I have about half an hour after waking in the morning before I start to see double.  I can’t see well enough to participate in my hobbies of photography and drawing, but even worse, I can’t read or work on a computer.  Sjogren’s Syndrome and my dry eyes were strongly impacting my ability to do my job, or participate in what makes life “fun” for me.

A little over a year ago, I started working with a local ophthalmologist. My experience is documented in this very long blog post from last October, and I won’t repeat the entire story here. My eye doctor fit me with scleral contact lenses, a special class of “hard”, gas permeable contact lenses.  They are larger than normal contacts, “vaulting” over the cornea with the edges resting on the whites of your eye.  That vault is designed to provide a tiny gap between your cornea and the lens itself.  When you put the scleral contact lenses in, you look straight down into a mirror, hold the contacts upside down, and fill the bowl of the contact with saline solution.  When the lens is placed in your eye, it effectively seals around the white of your eye, leaving a thin cushion of fluid between your eye and the lens.

As the October post details, it was a long process getting the lenses to fit. Given the extreme astigmatism I have and the odd shape of my eyes, my ophthalmologist said there’s little doubt I’ve been he’s most challenging case (in terms of fitting scleral lenses).  And that’s aside from my Sjogren’s! Checking in a year later, it’s made me realize how much I’ve come to take the scleral lenses for granted.  Perhaps it was just the passage of time and going back to the place I spent so much time a year ago. Perhaps it was having my scleral lenses out for an hour this morning while I was poked and prodded and tested (I am miserable without them).  No matter the reason, today I’m feeling incredibly grateful that at the very moment my happiness and well-being depended upon a solution to my dry eyes, a company just happened to be introducing a new product that was a perfect solution for my difficult case.

I’ve never mentioned the company or the product itself on any social media. Given how it’s changed my life, and given the possibility that other people could potentially be helped, I do want give a shout out to company and product.  The company itself is called “Art Optical“.  They’ve been around since 1931, and have focused exclusively on contact lenses for the past 30 years.  The product that I use is called “Ampleye“.  It’s a product that allows for a lot of specialization…perfect for a guy like me with screwball, weirdly shaped eyes. A few tries with more traditional scleral lenses didn’t go well, while Ampleye was able to provide a good fit.  I wore glasses for 43 years prior to trying scleral lenses, and was worried about comfort. However, once we obtained a proper fit, the contacts were so comfortable that I simply am not aware of their presence.  Given how miserable I am without them, I wear them from dawn to dusk, with little issue.  They do start to get a film on them over the course of the day, and sometimes in the late afternoon or early evening, I’ll take them out and give them a quick cleaning.  Other than that, maintenance is simple, with traditional cleaning and storage as is done with other gas permeable lenses.

Other than the dry eye, my other major concern was my vision.  With such extreme astigmatism, I’m functionally blind without correction.  About 15 years ago, I tried traditional contact lenses, but they wouldn’t work.  It was impossible to keep them in the correct rotation, and with such extreme astigmatism, a rotation of just a few degrees meant that my astigmatism wasn’t properly corrected, and I couldn’t see.  With the Ampleye lenses, they fit “like a pringle chip” (my wonderful eye doctor’s term!).  Because of their shape, they REALLY lock into position, and after I put them in in the morning, they don’t budge all day long.  My horrible vision corrects to BETTER than 20/20, and I’m seeing with a sharpness I never got in wearing glasses for 43 years.

Why am I pushing this out on my blog?  Ever since I started down this path, I’ve come across other people with Sjogren’s Syndrome, and people with dry eyes.  Many have struggled to find relief. Eye drops, protective glasses, prescriptions to stimulate tear production…nothing has worked.  I want to let people know that there IS a potential solution to their dry eyes. If they can find a solution for my dry, screwy eyes, they can help anyone!

One other issue that’s come up with people I’ve talked to is cost.  First of all, note that I was VERY pleasantly surprised at the total cost.  For me, given how many times I had to revisit to get a correct fit, the price was an incredible bargain. Secondly, don’t give up on insurance potentially covering some or all of the cost!  For someone like me, Sjogren’s Syndrome is a disease, a disease with a systematic impact on the health of my eyes.  Dry eye in general is a health issue.  An issue of eye disease.  As my ophthalmologist this morning stated, insurance companies are increasingly recognizing the benefits of scleral lenses and are covering costs.  DON’T let a balky insurance company discourage you!  Fight it!!  And even should an insurance option fail, costs are quite reasonable for what I’ve found to be a incredibly durable, stable product.  As weird as my eyes are and as expensive as it is for me to get regular glasses, the Ampleye costs weren’t substantially higher.

After one year, my ophthalmologist said I didn’t really even need new scleral lenses today. My prescription hasn’t changed, my eye health is good (thanks to these lenses), and other than a couple of tiny scratches that are imperceptible to me, my year-old lenses are rock solid and good to go for quite a while longer!  Today however I did go ahead and order another pair, not because of durability, but because 1) I’m completely sold on the product, and 2) I’m so dependent upon these lenses that I want 2 pairs on hand for “back up”.

Any dry eye sufferers out there who’d like more information, feel free to drop me a line!  I’m NOT being paid or anything to endorse this product!  There’s absolutely nothing I’m personally benefiting from by writing this blog post. I truly just want to share my story, let people know about this product, and let people know that help may be out there for you.

In The News – Week of November 13th

A return to normality, at least as much normality as I can summon up in a post-apocalyptic, Orange-Hitler-as-President kind of world.  Some news stories of interest from over the past week:

Deer Mouse

A Deer Mouse…cute little suckers, but not when they try to enter your home! New research reveals they have the same genes that control speech in humans, so perhaps when one tries to get into the house, he’s just looking for a little camaraderie and conversation.

Other animals have genes for speech — I, of course, love birds.  I love attracting birds to my yard, with a small feeder complex outside of our sun room, and trees and bushes to attract birds.  Unfortunately, the feeders also attract other critters.  Some…Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels…are cute and I don’t mind.  Others…Deer Mice…are not wanted guests, particularly if they try to occasionally get into your home!  We’ve taken measures to get rid of them, but after reading this study, perhaps I overlooked one method…a simple conversation!  According to this research, many mammal species have been found to have the same kind of genes that regulate speech in humans.  This includes mice, the focus of this study.  Next time a wayward Deer Mouse decides he wants to investigate our house, perhaps a stern discussion will be all that’s needed to convince him to head back outside where he belongs.

Scientists react to election — From Nature, a summary of opinions from a number of scientists on what Trump’s election means for science in the U.S.  Some pretty high-minded statements about what Trump should consider as the government science agenda likely becomes realigned.  To the ten or so scientists offering their opinions and advice?  You’re giving the Trump administration FAR too much credit if you think there’s this much thought that’s going to be placed into their science agenda.  Look for far simpler motives (corporate profit, political motivations) than what these experts have outlined.

2016 set to break climate records — 2015 was the hottest year on record.  2016 is almost certainly going to break that record.  Perhaps this is why climate change doesn’t get anywhere close to the amount of attention it should be getting?  Is it pure boredom?  The same old same old story?  Indeed, at this stage you can take the title of this paragraph, leave the “2016” blank, and just fill in the current year from her on out, and there’s a good chance you’ll be correct.  Despite the lack of “novelty” in stories like this, perhaps the media should focus on how frighteningly commonplace such headlines have now become and what that means for our future.

Beer Pong

Science, used to explain the sanitary filth that occurs when playing beer pong.

Beer Pong Bacteria — I wasn’t ever a huge drinker in college. Perhaps I was just being smart.  In what has to rank as one of the most “fun” science experiments ever, scientists studied what happens from a sanitary standpoint when people play beer pong. It’s not pretty!  As you can imagine, if you bounce a ping-pong ball on a table, it hits the floor on occasion, it’s bouncing from cup to cup after people have been drinking from them…the biodiversity that starts to build up in the cups gets to be a little disgusting.  Perhaps that morning-after feeling isn’t all just from the alcohol…

Zika, Dengue, and Chikungunya all in one bite — Our vacation in 2015 was to the U.S. Virgin Islands. We’d never been in the Caribbean, and had a lovely cottage that we rented, with our own private beach and ocean access.  It was wonderful, and we really enjoyed the privacy, the snorkeling, and the beautiful weather.  One thing that was NOT enjoyed…the mosquitoes.  OH MY GOD, the mosquitoes.  Upon arriving, the Virgin Islands were in a very bad drought, to the point they were shipping in fresh water.  We were told that because of the drought, mosquito populations were very low.  Somebody forgot to tell the mosquitoes that!  I’ve never had so many mosquito bites in my life. In one way we were fortunate…”Chikungunya” disease had swept through the Caribbean the previous year, a new mosquito-borne virus that infected a very high percent of inhabitants across the region. It had largely burned itself out by our vacation, and despite the dozens of bites, none of us were ill.  As this story notes, scientists have now found that mosquitoes in North America have the ability to carry THREE tropical viruses…Zika, Dengue Fever, and Chikungunya.  For you lucky folks in the southern U.S., central America, or the Caribbean, you could strike the lottery and get sick from all three illnesses, all from a single mosquito bite.

The Onion

Facebook and Google are joining forces to reduce the influence of “fake” news online. I just hope they implement the new rules judiciously, and recognize the brilliant satire of The Onion! We NEED this kind of humor right now!

Facebook and Google cutting revenue to “fake” news sites — For anyone on Facebook, it can be rather annoying to see sensationalist “news” stories, often which include propaganda and other material that is anything BUT “news”.  During the campaign and after the election, stories were coming out that revealed a shockingly high proportion of the American Public relies on social media as their primary news source.  Given the preponderance of fake news (aka, “bullshit”) on Facebook, this week both Google and Facebook have cracked down on fake news sites, greatly reducing advertising revenue to sites that attempt to titillate or serve as click-bait for fake news.  Fake news didn’t decide the election (no, I’ll blame an ignorant, hateful electorate), but this is a nice move on the part of both Facebook and Google.  Both entities have such a massive influence over the distribution of information…it’s good to see them recognize the harm that can come from misleading information.

Skim Scum Stops Sickness — Is it possible we are just TOO focused on cleanliness, and that it is making us sick? Our skin is home to a bacteria-filled mini-ecosystem, one that we simply do not understand very well.  This research highlights the beneficial role one kind of bacteria plays in protecting the skin from diseases such as psoriasis, dermatitis, or even skin cancer.  With allergies and other select other diseases exploding over the last several decades, scientists are finding several similar situations, where our very cleanliness and focus on sanitation may have a negative impact on immune response and the progression of disease.

Eastern Fox Squirrel

Cute? Cuddly? How about EVIL SLAYER OF HUMANITY!?!?! Scientists have unexpectedly found that squirrels in Great Britain are serving as a host population for the same strains of leprosy that devastated Europe in the Middle Ages.

Gun Control Laws Work, Says Science — Americans seem hell-bent on ignoring fact and logic, despite the best efforts of scientists and other “truth-based” occupations.  While I’m sure this will be ignored by the vast majority of gun-loving, weapon-toting Americans, here’s yet another study that shows how incredibly effective gun control laws are at preventing violent crime. Americans, this is now your cue to 1) start screaming about the 2nd amendment, 2) start screaming at the people behind this study as liberal nincompoop, and 3) go out and purchase more guns and ammo for your in-home arsenal.

Leper Squirrels Invading Great Britain!! — There’s nothing to immediately panic about, my British friends.  Not yet, anyway.  But alas…those cute, cuddly Red Squirrels running around your yard could very well be infected with the same leprosy bacteria that caused such misery for humans in past centuries.  Leprosy dramatically declined in Europe after the Middle Ages, and is almost completely absent in today’s world.  However, scientists unexpectedly found that two different strains of leprosy bacteria have been found in Red Squirrels, strains that are remarkably similar to centuries-old versions that caused disease in humans.  Scientists are now working to understand how the bacteria has survived for so long in another host, and whether squirrels or other mammals may serve as a reservoir of the bacteria that could someday re-emerge and start infecting human beings again.

 

Living with Sjogren’s – Scleral Contact Lenses

Scleral Contacts for Dry Eye

One of the pictures a local news station took for a piece they did on my story of dealing with Sjogren’s Syndrome, and dry eye. The reason I’m writing this blog post…to let others who are suffering from extreme dry eye that THERE IS HOPE.

Off topic, and a probably the longest blog post I’ve ever done, but in a way it is directly related to the goals of my blog.  It’s science related!  It’s also directly related to my birding! But more than that, I want to tell my story, in the hopes that it can help other people who have gone through what I’ve gone through over the last few years.

There’s definitely a reason I stepped back from photography, working on my website, and blogging for almost a year.  In short…turning older sucks (I recently turned 50).  It sucks more when you get hit with a health issue.  I was diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome about 3 years ago now.  It’s not fun!  It’s an autoimmune disease that has variable symptoms, but it generally includes fatigue, joint pain, and most annoyingly for many, autoimmune attacks on the moisture glands in your eyes and mouth.  The latter were my first symptoms.  It may sound minor, but it can have a huge impact on your quality of life.  I’d learned to adapt to the dry mouth that developed soon after diagnosis, because for me, chewing gum provides great relief.  I even go to bed every night with gum in my mouth! If my mouth drys out at night, it will often wake me up, but a few semi-conscious chews on the gum and I get relief.

The eyes have been a much more difficult issue to deal with.  For 2 years, the dry eyes (my first Sjogren’s symptom) were annoying, but something I was living with.  That changed in late summer 2015, where it began to affect my vision.  I’d wake up with normal vision, but after a variable amount of time, every day, my vision would get very blurry due to extremely dry eyes.  I honestly don’t know where I’d be right now without the solution that I found.  I had no desire, or ability, to do bird photography or some of my other hobbies, and it was starting to affect my work in that there were days where I just couldn’t see well enough to work.

Starting last fall, I started working with a (wonderful!!) eye doctor in Sioux Falls, Dr. Hill, who wanted to try fitting a new kind of “scleral” contact lens. I have had glasses since I was 7, with extreme astigmatism, and although I’d tried contacts once before, many years ago, I never found contacts that would stay in the right position and allow me to see well.  Dr. Hill was hopeful that scleral contact lenses could both allow me to see without glasses for the first time in over 40 years, but also would also give me relief for my dry eyes.

Scleral contacts are larger than “normal” contact lenses.  They extend out into the whites of your eyes, with a ring of contact around the edge, but with a slight “dome” over your entire pupil and iris.  Before you put them in, you hold them horizontally with a little suction cup, fill them up with a saline solution, and then put them in your eyes while you’re looking down into a mirror. The idea?  That they will cover most of your eye, correct your vision like a normal contact, but also maintain a thin, domed layer of liquid that stays against your eye all day and relieves your dry eye symptoms.  I was skeptical at first, to say the least!  I was miserable though, was having a very hard time at work, and was willing to try anything.  Given my last experience with contact lenses, I wasn’t expecting much!

The whole experience started out rough.  Not only do I have bad astigmatism, but one of my eyes in particular was shaped very oddly.  It was very difficult to get a scleral contact lens that “fit” the contours of my eyes.  As a result, the first scleral contacts I tried would sometimes rotate spontaneously in my eye. Also, because of the poor fit, what’s supposed to be a sealed “ring” around your eye was anything BUT sealed, leading to that domed liquid layer either draining out, or being contaminated with debris from the eye itself.  My vision was NOT very good at first, as they didn’t fit right, and would become cloudy with debris finding its way underneath. They also weren’t very comfortable, and after a few hours, I always wanted to take them out.  It was discouraging, and my initial skepticism seemed well founded.

I went in for fittings and adjustments at least once a week, starting in October 2015.  By the New Year, I was still quite reliant on glasses, and was only wearing my scleral contacts sporadically. Towards the end of December, Dr. Hill told me there just wasn’t much more he could do with the kinds of scleral contacts available at the time…but, he said a new product was coming out in January that he thought just might solve my extraordinarily difficult case.

Again, I was skeptical, but tried to remain optimistic that the forthcoming new scleral contact line would work.  January came…and went, without the company releasing the new contact product.  Finally, by mid-February, the company launched the new line, a bigger scleral contact that covered more of the eye, was capable of compensating for extreme astigmatism, and provided a firmer fit that basically eliminated the possibility of the rotation issues I was encountering. Dr. Hill set up a fitting for the new line, and a few days later, I was called in to try them out. I was excited that this FINALLY might be “it”, might be the pair that fit my eyes, allowed me to see, and helped the dry eye issue.

I came in for a fitting, tried the contact, and…was immediately disappointed.  Once again, as soon as I put the contact in, I couldn’t see at all.  Dr.  Hill was puzzled, but it became apparent that the contact was rotated in an unexpected way, and thus the astigmatism correction wasn’t properly placed over the eye.  I left dejected as he took more measurements and said they’d try again. The next week, I went back for another try.

The day I went in for that refitting is a day that changed my life.  I had been quite miserable for several months by then, and had been into Dr. Hill’s office every week for several months.  I knew the routine…go in for another fitting, put in the new contact, and then have the disappointment set in as I’d immediately know it wasn’t “right”.  I went into that appt. in early March with the same mindset.  I went into what had become “my” exam room (I’d been there so often!!), sat down, and tried the new pair.

I COULD SEE!!  Right away I knew something was different, in that not only could I see EXTREMELY well, but they were comfortable.  Even during the times when the previous versions were “behaving” and I could see fairly well (which wasn’t often), they just weren’t comfortable, and I’d often have to take them out.  I sat there and waited for Dr. Hill to come back in the room…excited…hopeful…but still pessimistic that with my next blink, they’d rotate out of position just like every other version I’d tried.  But to my surprise, they didn’t budge.  Not in the least.

Dr. Hill came in, and could tell how excited I was.  He’d been used to coming in to a face filled with disappointment, but when he came in this time, I had a big smile on my face.  He started examining my eyes, sat back…and a big smile crossed his face as well.  Dr. Hill had been working extremely hard with me for several months, and it was quite obvious that I was a big challenge for him, a challenge that he was in many ways relishing!!  On that day, I think he was just about as excited as I was!  To be able to help someone with eyes as challenging as mine was certainly a big accomplishment for him, and I will always be grateful for the vast amount of time he spent trying to help.

I was the first person in the entire country to try this new line of contact lenses.  The contact lens company themselves became VERY familiar with my case, using my countless visits to help guide the fitting of other patients.  I will always be grateful not only for Dr. Hill, but for this company and new line of contacts that became available just when my need was at its highest.

I actually went HOME that day with a pair of contact lenses that worked pretty damn well!  It wasn’t perfect, as in one eye, the fit was still a bit off.  There were still 4 or 5 more visits back to the eye doctor to tweak the fit, to ensure they were snug against the eye, but not too snug, and were able to “seal” the dome of moisture inside that protected my eyes.  By early April, I was done!  We had a “final” pair of scleral contact lenses that were comfortable, that I could literally wear all day, and that PROTECTED MY EYES!  It wasn’t an easy path!  In the 6 months since I started, I had gone into the eye doctor almost 30 times for measurements and refitting attempts.  Many of those visits were 1 to 1 1/2 hours each, as they’d try a new contact, wait to see how it settled down on the eye, and then take new measurements to try again.

My eyes themselves are still incredibly dry without the contacts.  I wear the contacts from dawn to dusk, taking them out only when I go to bed.  After I wake up in the morning, I have maybe 1 “good” hour where I can see with my glasses, but soon, the dryness takes over and my eyes start to get very blurry.  But the MOMENT I put in the contacts, my vision is extremely clear, so clear, in fact, that I must say I can now see better than I ever had seen during my 40+ years of wearing glasses.  Ever since trying the newest line of scleral contacts, my eye tests showed my corrected vision was BETTER than 20/20!! I often have to refresh the liquid underneath the contacts once a day, taking the contacts out, cleaning them a bit, and refilling them with fresh saline, but that’s an extremely minor inconvenience, as in return, that little moisture dome bathes my eyes in liquid all day and makes my eyes feel (dare I say?) almost NORMAL.

With the Sjogren’s, my eyes are going to be a challenge for the rest of my life, but the scleral contacts have (literally?) saved my life.  Without them I was losing my ability to work, to play, to ENJOY life.  With them, I’m able to cope with one of the horrible impacts of Sjogren’s.  Avera and a local news station, KSFY, actually did a “medical minute” piece on my story, talking about the challenges of dry eye and telling the story of not only myself, but of Dr. Hill’s attempts to solve my difficult case.  It was quite the journey, but WELL worth it, and I hope my story gives hope to anyone else out there who might be struggling with Sjogren’s, or with other dry eye issues.

Climate change and bird species extinction

Lesser 'akioloa

The Lesser ‘akioloa, a Hawaiian honeycreeper species that went extinct around 1940. Two thirds of all Hawaiian honeycreeper species have gone extinct, and climate change is pushing some of the last remaining species towards extinction.

Islands are fascinating areas for studying wildlife.  Ever since the voyage of the HMS Beagle,its visits to the Galapagos islands, and Darwin’s initial conjecture about the stability and origin of species, islands have been real-world laboratories for the study of evolution  Island biogeography became a field of study in the 1960s, with a key premise that isolation of species leads to unique evolutionary paths. As a result, in isolated island environments, you often find unique species found nowhere else.

The Hawaiian Islands certainly have more than their fair share of unique wildlife, particularly bird species.  More than 50 honeycreeper species were once found throughout Hawaii, with some unique to specific islands.  Today, only 18 species survive.  You can definitely blame humanity for the loss of all these unique island bird species.  When humans spread, they inevitably also bring uninvited guests. Mosquitoes were unknown in the Hawaiian Islands, until the early 1800s.  With the introduction of mosquitoes came mosquito-carried diseases that native wildlife in Hawaii had never had to deal with.  Rats, cats, feral pigs, and goats have all also had devastating consequences for native wildlife in the Hawaiian Islands, as have many introduced bird species that compete with native birds.

Despite what the arrival of human travelers unleashed in the Hawaiian Islands, some of the unique bird species survived. Until now.  On top of all the “local” effects that come with the arrival of humans comes the cumulative impacts that affect all parts of the globe.  Some of the unique bird species in the Hawaiian Islands were able to survive is colder pockets at higher elevations, where temperatures were too cold for mosquitoes to thrive.  Climate change is having a very measurable impact on the Hawaiian Islands, however, and as a result, the elevation at which mosquitoes are found has been steady moving upward.  As a result, the isolated pockets of mosquito-free honeycreeper populations are now being infiltrated with mosquitoes for he first time.

A new study out in the past week suggests that many of these honeycreeper species could be extinct in as little as 10-years, thanks to the combined impacts of climate change, mosquitoes, and other human-driven factors.

It still boggles my mind that there are people that don’t believe that climate change exists, but as this and countless other real-world impacts show, it not only exists, but is having a devastating impact on ecosystems around the world.

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