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Mosquitoes are increasing with climate change
More than an annoying pest, mosquitoes are a public health threat that should have you itching to combat climate change.
The insect you may liken to the swamps of Florida (no, not Matt Gaetz) has become more numerous as their environment heats up (no, not the US House of Representatives). We’re talking about the mosquito. You’re not going crazy - there are more mosquitoes around this year than usual, and it’s due to the unprecedented heat we’re experiencing.
Climate change is allowing mosquitoes to thrive in new areas of the world - increasing the chances of catching Malaria, West Nile, and other diseases in places like Chicago, Portland, and Albuquerque. A certain recipe of increased temperatures, standing water, and humidity enables days in which mosquitoes breed more, and those ‘mosquito days’ have been increasing since at least the 1970s. This phenomenon is driven by a climate that continues to warm - and is expected to get warmer.
An increase in mosquitoes is one of the many complex effects of a changing climate - and it’s the topic of today’s post.
Why are mosquitoes so numerous this year?
In short, there are more mosquitoes this year due to a combination of increased moisture in the spring and hotter temperatures year round. Mosquitoes love standing water and warmer temperatures - which basically describes the Albuquerque Bosque over the last five months. Mosquitoes have been noticeably plentiful in Albuquerque this year, which turns out to be part of a larger trend that’s driven by a changing climate.
Since the 1970s, the amount of ‘mosquito days’ has increased with temperatures. Many cities have experienced a decrease in mosquito days, but many more are seeing an intense increase. Albuquerque, New Mexico is among the cities with the largest gain of mosquito days per year:
The blue dots represent cities that are losing mosquito days while the brown dots represent cities that are gaining them - and the geographical separation of blues and browns makes sense. Mosquitoes thrive in temperatures between 50 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit - when temperatures go outside of that window, they are less likely to breed successfully. Texas is losing mosquito days because they are having more days above 95 degrees - making it too hot and dry. Oregon and New Mexico are gaining mosquito days as temperatures stay above 50 for longer stretches of the year.
Before you start envying Texas, a low mosquito population isn’t necessarily a good thing. Mosquitoes contribute to the biomass of an area and are a vital part of local ecosystems. Fish, turtles, birds, spiders, and plenty of other creatures eat mosquitoes - and thousands of animals (including humans) eat those creatures. Mosquitoes are, unfortunately, a necessary evil that helps the world go round.
Now, having too many mosquitoes can also cause issues. Not only are they annoying, but certain species of mosquitoes carry diseases that are life-threatening to humans.
Malaria, Zika, West Nile, and Dengue are examples of mosquito-driven diseases that increase with mosquito populations. Malaria and West Nile, in particular, seem to be making quite the comeback. A new urban mosquito nicknamed ‘Steve’ is wreaking havoc in African cities. Steve can breed with less water and warmer temperatures, which makes her more effective at spreading Malaria.
As climate change increases mosquito breeding areas around the world, will there be new variations, like Steve, popping up everywhere?
Per reporting by the Valley Courier, Colorado is seeing high mosquito and West Nile numbers:
"The trends we are seeing in our West Nile virus tracking data are unprecedented," said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, state epidemiologist, CDPHE in a statement last month. "The number of West Nile virus-infected mosquitoes we've detected this season is the highest we've seen in years.” Herlihy added that August and September are when human cases peak in Colorado.
Being along the Rio Grande, places like Alamosa and Albuquerque have always had lots of mosquitoes, and they have local government divisions that monitor and control mosquito populations. These government entities will probably respond to the number of mosquitoes as the climate warms with increased spraying and other mitigation techniques - which are getting more sophisticated.
Scientists have started to fight mosquito populations with their own genetically engineered mosquitoes, and it appears to be working. But, like the coronavirus, mosquitos have the ability to mutate and find new ways to succeed - meaning we will need to continuously adapt to avoid Malaria crises like Africa’s. We have yet to see all of the interesting ways humans can innovate their way out of climate messes… but remember, there’s no better treatment than prevention.
On a global level, researchers are predicting mosquito habitats to move drastically over the next 60 years. NPR reports:
…another group of researchers published their prediction of where these two species [of disease-carrying mosquitoes (Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus)] might move in the next 30 years, taking into account climate change, urbanization and migration patterns… they found the mosquitoes moving north, thriving as far as Chicago and Shanghai by 2050, but dying out in parts of the Southern U.S. that could become too dry.
The visual below paints a picture of how far the mosquito’s habitat is projected to spread:
Mosquitoes aren’t the only critters that are increasing in numbers due to climate change. According to the US Geological Survey:
Warming temperatures are helping invasive animal species thrive and expand their habitats in the United States… And in turn, more invasive species in more regions around the country have increased threats to native wildlife and their ecosystems.
Five non-native animals – the Burmese python, feral swine, spotted lanternfly, hammerhead worm and Japanese beetle – prefer warmer climates and could spread.
The thought of pythons spreading throughout the US is enough to keep me up at night - as if climate change wasn’t scary enough. The likelihood of a python venturing into New Mexico is slim to none, but it’s a good reminder that climate change is going to present itself in unexpected ways. The expansion of non-native insects and animals can impact everything from soil quality and wine production to malaria outbreaks in new areas of the world.
Many of the surprising effects of climate change are still unknown, which means I’m not going to run out of things to write about anytime soon (is that a silver lining?).
Luckily, temperatures are starting to drop in Albuquerque, and mosquito numbers will start to dwindle. That being said, our current El Niño weather patterns will result in a warmer and wetter winter than usual, and next year’s mosquito season could be just as bad or worse. In the meantime, you can use this mosquito forecast to decide if you need to pick up some more ‘Off’ before mosquito season is over.
And after that, tell your elected reps that you’re itching for some climate action.