Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Mosquitoes, monuments, & rice farms

The other day, I was leaning over my laptop, stuck in a rabbit hole of news — the Arkansas executions, the removal of confederate monuments, the tax reductions, the potential dismantling of the Antiquities Act — when my dog started pouncing along the wall, trying to catch a bug. I wasn’t quick enough to distract him, but I did catch a glimpse of what it was before he ate it: a huge mosquito.

It was the first mosquito I’ve seen in Kentucky this year. The season started earlier than usual, since much of the region experienced high temperatures during winter and spring. Soon, with that dead mosquito on my mind, I started down another rabbit hole, this one about Zika and other diseases intensified by climate change —admittedly, a topic I haven’t thought about in quite some time. As with many international disease outbreaks, our collective memory is short.

Zika, a virus transmitted primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, dominated the news in 2015 and 2016 when it spread across Central and South America and into U.S. states like Florida and Texas. When pregnant women contracted the virus, their babies were often born with microcephaly. The outbreak was so overwhelming that last fall, Congress — after a holdup over funding for Planned Parenthood — approved $1.1 billion to fund the fight against Zika, including about $400 million to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But by the time winter rolled around, most of this had faded from public consciousness.

Meanwhile, scientists continued to research the disease and started to grasp the gravity of it: according to a CDC study released this month, one out of 10 pregnant women with the virus gave birth to a child with serious birth defects. The federal funding played an important role in understanding Zika, which is crucial because unlike diseases such as Ebola or bird flu, Zika will return year after year, and it will worsen. Symptoms of climate change, like rainfalls and warmer temperatures, provide ideal conditions for mosquitoes to thrive and breed, and a Florida scientist recently found a second species of mosquito can also carry the virus.

But just as state health departments and mosquito abatement districts started to ramp up prevention efforts, they hit a wall. President Trump’s proposed budget would slash funding to the CDC and other public health institutions. According to a Frontline investigation, last week at a CDC meeting in Atlanta, “federal officials told state health departments that Zika funding initially envisioned to last five years will likely run out this summer instead, according to representatives of six states that attended the meetings.” To make up for the funding cuts, a Senate panel recently approved $100 million to fight Zika, but it’s unclear how or when that will move forward.

States with tropical climates, like Florida and Louisiana, have no choice but to work on prevention despite the costs. Some districts have already started spraying and warning residents; others are finding more innovative options. In hopes to control the population, 20,000 male mosquitoes infected with bacteria were released last week in the Florida Keys. When the male mosquitoes breed with wild female ones, their offspring won’t survive.

Trying to prevent and treat Zika is a daunting task. But unlike many other issues this year — the executive orders, the federal budget, the grassroots movements — we at least know what to expect and how to begin to address it. According to researchers, this virus is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to climate change-related diseases. And yet, it will fly under the radar. Until it doesn’t.

Stories worth your time

This is a must-read: Patterns of mortality in the South today, particularly in Black Belt states — where more than 80 percent of rural black Americans live — echo a map from 1860. FiveThirtyEight analyzed this data, which shows that even though mortality is declining, large disparities in outcomes still exist in this region.

You’ve probably heard about the dismantling of four Confederate monuments in New Orleans this week. This NPR story takes a deep dive into the history of one Jim Crow-era monument that had to be removed in the middle of the night because the contractors received death threats.

PBS visited West Virginia to talk to coal miners who will lose their healthcare this weekend if the federal budget isn’t approved. As the coal industry declined, fewer miners paid into the union that funded their healthcare costs. In the 1990s, coal companies used bankruptcy filings to stop paying their portion, leaving it to Congress to make up the difference. Now, 22,000 retired miners — many with chronic lung diseases — and their widows will lose coverage if Congress doesn’t act.

For 100 Days In Appalachia, Mason Adams reports on the growing interest in outdoor recreation tourism for coal mining and steel mill towns, and the complications that arise as they try to change their image.

Livestock operations that hold 176 million turkeys, chicken, and cows line the banks of the Shenandoah River, which is used heavily in the summer for swimming, rafting, boating, and other recreational activities. Those operations leak about “410,000 pounds of poultry litter and a billion pounds of liquid manure each year in the section of the Shenandoah Valley,” according to the Washington Post.

News flying under the radar

Georgia Power says it needs two new reactors at its nuclear power plant, Plant Vogtle, just south of Augusta, but construction plans keep getting delayed. A cloud of uncertainty hangs over the community, which could lose thousands of jobs if construction stops.

Rice farmers in Arkansas are testing techniques to save water, use less fertilizer, and produce less methane. Instead of keeping the field under four inches of water all season, they let it drop to around two inches before adding more. Rainwater helps keep the fields moist so farmers don’t have to rely on irrigation.

Since 2012, loggers have cut 6,000 acres of forest in South Carolina to make room for row-crop farms. Residents say it’s causing problems with water quality, as well as sediment and erosion control.

Lawmakers in Louisiana recently introduced a bill to speed up coastal restoration projects, but anglers are arguing that it “would allow more public resources to be used on private lands without any assurances anglers will have access to the waters that run through these lands.”