What Does Climate Change and Deforestation Mean For Lyme Disease in the 21st Century?
By Laura Jensen
In the spring of 2014, the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC), declared that global climate change and deforestation are posing a dire and imminent threat to global security. By the second half of this century, researchers foresee warmer temperatures leading to rising sea levels, breakdowns of food supplies triggering an increase of poverty worldwide and serious threats to public health as a result of the emergence and spread of infectious diseases. Climate change and deforestation will increase the impact of infectious diseases not only for humans but for wildlife as well. Rates of Lyme disease in New York State are expected to increase as a direct result of climate change and deforestation.
Across the state of New York, people have pushed their homes and businesses into once-forested areas, increasing contact between people and wildlife. The fact that motor vehicles killed over 65,000 deer in rural areas of New York state in 2013, as reported by the New York State Department of Transportation , is testament to how deeply humans have encroached upon wildlife territory. Deer, white footed mice, foxes, rabbits and other animals abound in many residents’ backyards.
But while deforestation and development pose threats to wildlife, they also “pose grave risks to public health,” said SUNY New Paltz sociologist Dr. Irwin Sperber. Animals such as white-footed mice, for example, are reservoirs of the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, which causes Lyme disease.
The kind of suburban development common in New York’s Ulster and Dutchess counties are “perfect habitat for deer ticks because they are a mix of forest and limited open space like backyards,” said SUNY New Paltz geographer Lawrence McGlinn. “The deer and the rodents that carry the ticks love the boundaries between forest and open land, and suburbs are full of that kind of habitat.”
Experts say climate change will intensify the problem. According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, climate change is expected to result in more extreme heat, more intense summer droughts, decreased air quality and more powerful storms in New York state. By the end of this century, New York is expected to experience a temperature rise of 8 to 12 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and 6 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, the Natural Resources Defense Council reports.
Along with increasing the risk of waterborne illness and water shortages, the temperature increase may provide more amenable conditions for ticks and other disease-carrying pests. Ticks carrying Lyme disease may be able to move into new regions such as the southern Adirondacks, experts say.
Adirondack Park lies in Warren County in the southern Adirondacks, a cold and remote region of the state, which usually experiences bitter winter temperatures, with a mean January temperature of 19 degrees Fahrenheit as reported by the New York State Economic Development Corporation. Residents speculate that these low temperatures kill the ticks that transmit Lyme disease. According to the New York State Department of Health , ticks are not active when the temperature of the ground falls below 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
These cold and remote regions have already started reporting increasing numbers of Lyme infections. In 2013, in the southern Adirondack region, physicians reported 100 confirmed cases of Lyme disease to the Centers for Disease Control, said Patricia Belden of the Communicable Disease Control of Warren County. “Within five years,” New York state biologist Ed Reed added, “we are expecting an increase with Lyme disease in the Adirondack Park due to climate change and the rate of global warming.”
Worldwide, diseases that cross from wildlife into people as well as those that are transmitted by insects and other vectors are on the rise, thanks to similar processes of development and climate change, The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports.
“In 5 to 10 years from now,” Sperber said, “the Hudson Valley region will be ground zero of Lyme disease due to ecological and policy changes regarding deforestation.”
Environmentalists are striving to fertilize the land of New York State, taking it back to its roots long before suburbanization took place within in New York State. “With so much urban growth over the past 100 years you would think that we would have less forest than we did then, but cities, even New York, are small in area compared to the acreage that was given over to farming and logging in the past,” said Professor Lawrence McGlinn of the Geography Department at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
Ecological diseases such as Lyme disease sprout out of the wild and into the human population. As our wildlife lose their homes due to deforestation, they move into concentrated suburban areas, spreading infectious diseases. Climate change worsens these effects. As a society we have to recognize our impact on the environment and wildlife habitat to prevent any further damage.
“The central message behind all of this,” says Dr. Sperber, “is the need to enact laws to protect the environment not only of its intrinsic beauty and wonder but also because we want to protect our health to reverse the course of an epidemic [Lyme Disease] that has been out of control for far too long.”