The COVID-19 Pandemic has brought worldwide exposure and interest to the field of public health over the past two years. From a December expedition to Antarctica, Paul Erwin, M.D., DrPH,  dean of the UAB School of Public Health, reminds us that while the study of infectious diseases and epidemiology have proven extremely valuable and relevant to the public lately, we must not forget that public health encompasses all of human health, including an ecological perspective to our understanding of climate change. Dr. Erwin joined James McClintock, Ph.D., Endowed Professor of Polar and Marine Biology in UAB’s College of Arts and Sciences on his 31st excursion to the western Antarctic Peninsula, including 15 research expeditions and 16 Abercrombie & Kent Climate Change cruises. Below is an interview between Maria White, Communications Director of the UAB School of Public Health, and Dr.’s Erwin and McClintock about their recent experience.

Maria White: Dr. McClintock, I understand this was your 17th year as Expedition staff with Abercrombie & Kent. What an incredible opportunity! Please share about your role in these excursions, and how the discussions for Dean Erwin’s attendance on this year’s voyage came about. 

Dr. McClintock: Yes, I was invited 17 years ago by Abercrombie & Kent to lecture about climate change on one of their annual Antarctic expedition cruises to the western Antarctic Peninsula. I was so impressed with the way the company managed the cruise with an emphasis on education, environmental stewardship, and safety that I have returned each year to lead a thematic cruise with a focus on Antarctic climate change. Each year with funds provided by all the cruise guests I purchase a piece of equipment for climate change research being carried out at the U.S. Palmer Station. In most years, we visit the station during the cruise and I lead a ceremony on the ship to present the gift of equipment to Palmer scientists who then share how the equipment will further their climate change research. I have the wonderful opportunity to give the cruise guests a tour of Palmer Station where my own collaborative NSF research program has been active for two decades. I asked Dean Paul Erwin to accompany me on my most recent cruise because we share a passion for addressing the impacts of global climate change, myself from the perspective of marine biology, and Dr. Erwin from the context of human health. I knew that by experiencing Antarctica, Dr. Erwin would see firsthand the ‘canary in the coal mine’ when it comes to environmental and biotic impacts of a warming planet. I believe this experience enriched his capacity to make the strongest case possible for establishing a timely and strategic UAB SOPH focus on research, education, and public policy in global climate change and its direct and indirect impacts on human health.  

Maria White: Can you tell us about your 30+ years of research in Antarctica, describing how your research has evolved concurrent with our understanding of climate change? Perhaps give one or two very clear examples of how a changing environment impacts a particular marine organism, which, because of these impacts, then subsequently impacts another organism. 

Dr. McClintock: I began my research at the French subantarctic island of Kerguelen in 1982 as a graduate student with a focus on studying the reproductive biology of echinoderms, including sea stars, sea urchins, etc. These studies continued until the late 1980s and in to the late 1990s at McMurdo Station, the largest of the American stations, located on the Ross Sea. In the mid 1990s, I became interested in the chemical ecology of marine invertebrates more generally and whether the chemicals produced for defending themselves from predators might also have activity to fight human diseases. This collaborative research continues until today. When I moved from McMurdo to Palmer Station in the 1990s I began to study how climate change was impacting the marine invertebrates on the Antarctic Peninsula, a very rapidly warming region. One clear example of impact in the region is the 90% loss of Adelie penguins nesting near our station. Marine invertebrate impacts are more subtle but certainly happening. For example, our research team (this includes Dr. Chuck Amsler and his wife Maggie Amsler (UAB Biology) and Dr. Julie Schram one of our former graduate students (University of SW Alaska) found that some species of crustaceans (amphipods) do not survive exposure to near future conditions of ocean acidification, a critical negative impact of anthropogenic atmospheric carbon dioxide being absorbed by the world’s oceans. Amphipods are abundant and key organisms in the Antarctic marine ecosystem, and their loss could result in a significant alteration of how the community is structured. 

Maria White: How has a warming climate impacted weather patterns in Antarctica? Dean Erwin mentioned the warming climate is impacting weather by holding more moisture, and therefore now we see more snowfall in Antarctica with snows arriving during egg-laying time of certain penguins. He says “we see or think Antarctica and we envision it’s all white from snow and ice, when it is actually one of the driest places on earth. Historically, it rarely snows in Antarctica, but the snow rarely melts, so you have a little amount each year accumulating over thousands and thousands of years.”

Dr. McClintock: This is an important question and there is now no doubt that climate change is impacting weather, particularly along the Antarctic Peninsula, but certainly elsewhere as well. The warming weather along the western Antarctic Peninsula is raising levels of moisture in the atmosphere. This is resulting in rainfall when coupled with temperatures that are now reaching new above-freezing temperatures. Even when temperatures are below freezing there are issues with moister air resulting in greater and seasonally later snowfall. Late snow storms are burying the eggs of Adelie penguins and ‘drown’ the eggs in melt water as temperatures warm.  Other weather patterns are also changing. Towards the northern tip of the Peninsula it is cloudier and windier, the latter is churning up the surface of the ocean and pushing phytoplankton deeper where low sunlight is reducing their populations. As krill, the key shrimp-like animal that forms the base of Antarctic food webs, feed on phytoplankton they are being challenged. Unlike the Peninsula, up on the polar plateau of the continent the air remains dry and cold, and essentially we still find a desert in terms of a few millimeters of snowfall annually. This may change as the air warms, but unlike Greenland where the ice that covers the land is melting, the melting in Antarctica is focused mainly along the coast lines where the warming Antarctic Circumpolar Current is eroding glaciers and facilitating the breakup of ice shelves with big implications for ice sheets and global sea level. Interested readers should check out the recent news about the Thwaits Glacier for a truly stunning example of climate warming impact. 

Maria White: While we know that the marine ecosystems you study in Antarctica have influenced important lessons for human health, has your work and research led to any other areas of discovery? 

Dr. McClintock: Yes, my colleagues and I have most recently been involved in the work of drug discovery. There is a protein in an Antarctic red alga that is active against certain strains of the influenza virus, and Palmerolide, isolated from an Antarctic tunicate (an invertebrate marine organism), which “displays potent and selective cytotoxicity toward melanoma.” As I write in my book, Lost Antarctica, “in many respects, the marine communities of Antarctica are a natural laboratory for the evolution of chemical diversity,” said McClintock. “To squander such chemical biodiversity is reason alone to consider strategies to mitigate the impacts of rapid climate change on Antarctic marine ecosystems.”

Maria White: Dean Erwin, tell us why you, the Dean of the School of Public Health, recently traveled to Antarctica alongside Dr. McClintock to learn about climate change? How are these two areas of study connected? 

Dean Erwin: First and foremost, I attended this expedition to travel with one of the world’s leading authorities on Antarctica, and to gain the systems, or ecological perspectives, that Dr. McClintock has established over a lifetime of research. The most important aspect for me in the ecological perspective is how life is so deeply interconnected across the wide varieties of marine organisms. Humans are also a part of the larger ecosystem, and we impact and are impacted by other organisms within our ecosystem. We are at the same time of our ecosystem and the one species more than any other who can intentionally choose to alter the environments within which these ecosystems exist. We often don’t see ourselves in this light, rather, we too often see ourselves as outside or external to any ecosystem. 

Maria White: How does the ecological perspective of Antarctica impact our understanding of human health?

Dean Erwin: The French American microbiologist and humanist, Rene’ Dubos, was writing about this perspective in the late 1950’s in his book Mirage of Health. In considering disease causation, Dubos wrote, “Disease, when it occurs, is due to a change in the conditions under which the ecological equilibrium had evolved…in man, the provocative cause of microbial disease may be a disturbance in any of the factors of his external or internal environment – be it weather conditions, availability of food, working habits, economic status, or emotional health.” Dubos continues, “Thus, any factor that upsets the equilibrium of either one of these two ecological systems, the internal and external environments, can become a determinant of disease. All components of both systems are interrelated, any disturbance in either of them, even though minor and not damaging in itself, can set in motion secondary effects which become destructive to the organism.” So, Dubos was writing about a systems approach to understanding disease. Dr. McClintock takes that same systems approach to understanding how the Antarctic marine ecosystem is changing, and that same systems approach is one we must use to understand the impacts of climate change on human health.

Maria White: What can we in Birmingham, Alabama, learn about human health from what’s happening in Antarctica?  

Dean Erwin: Gaining the ecological perspective on human health from what’s happening in Antarctica will help us better understand, respond and adapt to, and mitigate the impacts of climate change on human health. Consider two examples: one a direct effect, one more indirect. More extreme heat events will require better protective and adaptive responses from those in occupations where such exposure comes with the job, for example, power line crews. The stress on the cardiovascular system from extreme heat is made all the worse in individuals with underlying health risks, just as it has with COVID-19, including those who are obese and who use tobacco. This causes us to ask ourselves, “what are the requisite changes in clothing and work schedules that will need to be adopted?” As another example, in a warming climate, disease vectors including ticks and mosquitoes can over-winter at higher and higher latitudes, expanding the range of vector-borne diseases such as dengue fever, chikungunya, rocky-mountain spotted fever, and Lyme disease. This can impact outdoor activities such as hunting as well as occupations in forestry, farming, and landscaping. How do we apply the same methods we used in modeling the spread of COVID-19 to modeling the spread of certain tick-borne diseases, in the context of climate change?

Maria White: What is the UAB School of Public Health doing in the ways of climate change research? Is there a reason you felt compelled to attend Dr. McClintock’s voyage this year? 

Dean Erwin: Yes, in the School of Public Health, we have initiated a cluster hire of several new faculty focusing on the human health impacts of climate change. Dr. Jeff Wickliffe, Chair of our Department of Environmental Health Sciences, chairs a large school-level search committee, and Dr. McClintock is serving on this committee. I feel that there was no better way to connect and leverage the work that Dr. McClintock has been doing in Antarctica than with the establishment of a new multi/inter-disciplinary portfolio of research and academic pursuits on climate change and human health at UAB. 

What I hope that our current and future public health practitioners can learn from this research is the importance of an ecological perspective to our understanding of human health, and how, in a changing climate, we humans both impact and are impacted by other organisms within our ecosystem. Although the COVID-19 pandemic is raging right now, the greatest long-term threat to human health is climate change. It is far more complicated than just thinking about extreme weather events and their toll on human health.

Those interested in the UAB School of Public Health’s Climate Change recruitment efforts can learn more about the school’s Strategic Initiatives here.

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