Warming Trends: A Possible Link Between Miscarriages and Heat, Trash-Eating Polar Bears and a More Hopeful Work of Speculative Climate Fiction

A column highlighting climate-related studies, innovations, books, cultural events and other developments from the global warming frontier.

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A polar bear mom and cub wander near the quarry on the outskirts of the town of Churchill. Credit: Madison Stevens/Polar Bears International
A polar bear mom and cub wander near the quarry on the outskirts of the town of Churchill. Credit: Madison Stevens/Polar Bears International

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Heat Linked to Stillbirth, Premature Birth and Possibly Miscarriage

Miscarriage is a common end to pregnacy, yet little is known about what causes it. A new study has found that miscarriages may be more prevalent in the summer months, opening researchers to new hypotheses about how hot weather or other seasonal factors may affect pregnancy.

An analysis of more than 6,000 pregnancies in the U.S. found that 20 percent of them ended in miscarriage. Researchers from the Boston University School of Public Health saw that miscarriages peaked in late August, especially in the South and Midwest, and hit a low point in the winter, based on data from a cohort of couples that had been monitored prior to conception and throughout their pregnancies. 

“Miscarriage is so common. It’s a really severe physical and psychological outcome for couples who are trying to get pregnant, or not,” said study lead Amelia Wesselink, an epidemiology researcher at Boston University. “We really just don’t know very much about what causes it. And so the motivation behind looking at seasonal patterns of miscarriage is that if you see a higher risk at certain times of the year, that can give you hints as to what the underlying cause of that might be.”

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The seasonal correlation offers some indication that meteorological factors may contribute, Wesselink said, and she wants to look at whether these miscarriages were correlated with heat waves. Heat has been linked to other bad outcomes in pregnancy, she added, such as stillbirth and premature birth.

“Certainly, if heat is what is driving this association, that is problematic going forward,” Wesselink said, “because we are seeing warmer summers across the board and particularly warmer summers in parts of the world that aren’t used to warmer summers.”


As More Homes Use Electricity for Heat, Utilities May Grapple With Demand Spikes in Winter as Well as Summer

Each morning, when people wake up and turn on lights, microwaves, coffee pots, computers and TVs, utilities see a spike in power demand for a few hours.

But as climate change drives us to switch from gas-powered furnaces to electric heat pumps, that spike will shoot even higher when people turn on the heat on winter mornings. And in fact, many people won’t even have to manually turn their heat on—they will have internet-connected smart thermostats that heat their homes before they even wake up. That will lead to not only increased use in the morning hours, but could lead to a spike in demand simultaneously across a utilities’ customer base, a new study finds, leading to a big challenge for satisfying the appetite for electricity. 

Researchers from Cornell University examined anonymous data from 2,200 homes in New York that have a smart thermostat. They found that most residents of these homes kept the default settings on their smart thermostat, which keeps heat low during nighttime hours when people are asleep, and ramps it up beginning at 6 a.m. so the house is warm by the time people wake up. 

If most utility customers are using electric heat pumps to warm their homes, this could lead to synchronized demand for electricity over a short period of time. That would be a big challenge for utility companies that need to come up with enough energy to meet this demand, especially if they rely on clean energy like solar power, which is likely not going to be available in cold-weather regions at 6 a.m. when the sun has not yet come up, said Max Zhang, co-author of the study and a professor at Cornell.

Currently, utilities are set up to expect a peak demand for electricity in the summer, like right now, when heat waves drive customers to run their air conditioners. But Zhang said utilities must begin preparing for a winter peak as well when more customers are using electricity to heat their homes. 

“We have to meet the winter peak with clean electricity. That challenge is already there to begin with as we decarbonize the grid,” Zhang said. “And with smart thermostats, you know, the default setting just exacerbates that.”

Some solutions include educating smart thermostat owners on how to set their thermostat to kick on the heat at a time that’s right for them. It’s also important to improve energy efficiency through insulating buildings, Zhang said, so that the energy being delivered to buildings is not wasted. 

“There’s a tremendous opportunity to utilize those smart devices for better energy management, for example, providing services to support the grid and better coordination,” Zhang said. “There’s a lot of things we can do, a lot of potential benefits we can extract from that. So, I really love those devices. But we have to be careful.”


A New ‘Anti-Dystopian’ Novel Imagines What the World Would Be Like if We Staved Off Climate Change

A new work of climate fiction takes readers to the year 2052. But instead of full-blown climate change leaving the world in tatters, author Jon Raymond instead takes an “anti-dystopian” approach, showcasing a future where humanity is better off. The world has come together to prevent the worst effects of climate change by halting fossil fuel use and holding corporate polluters accountable during a series of trials similar to Nuremberg.

But one pipeline executive got away, and the main character, a journalist named Jack Henry, finds him hiding out in Mexico. Henry initially hopes to expose him in a career-saving article, but instead befriends the executive, leaving him with a difficult choice.

Inside Climate News recently discussed the novel, called “Denial,” with Raymond. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

How do you balance fact and fiction in your book? 

I was informed by facts, or at least by reality, in a sort of ambient way. I was writing it in the first half of 2020 during the [Black Lives Matter] uprisings and during the initial pandemic, and a lot of those kinds of experiences were were being metabolized in some way in the writing, like not in a way that’s like fact-based but in a way that was, I guess you would call inspiring. I was able to think about massive upheaval and social change in a pretty direct way during that time. And then, you know, as far as the fallout of a war criminal trial, that stuff definitely has historical precedents and that that is informed by actual Nazi hunting stories and stuff like that after Nuremberg. 

But as far as the technological stuff, the climatological stuff. I mean, I’m not a scientist in any way. And part of the fantasy of this book, I guess, was just closing my eyes and imagining the idea of human and plant life continuing to survive and even thrive in the future without a whole lot of cause and effect. I wish I could understand how that could happen, but that’s the magical thinking at the core of this book, is that we will find some sort of way to do it. I wish that I had the, like, mechanisms to explain how that could happen.

How does your book look back on the time period we’re in now? What newfound perspective does time give your next generation characters and how did you approach imagining that?

Within this sort of post-apocalyptic book or anti-dystopian book, it really ends up being a kind of noir book. I ended up using a lot of the kind of patterns and palettes of noir, detective fiction, I guess. And so the sort of emotional tenor is this is rueful and hard bitten in a certain way. I think that there’s a sense of disappointment and compromise that permeates the world in a way, which to me is kind of a realistic after sort of hangover feeling from a massive, world-changing event. I think there’s a line in there that is something about you know, “Every revolution becomes a bureaucracy,” and I think that they’re sort of at that phase.

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What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope that it is a step toward imagining a future for people. I hope it creates at least the sort of space for the possibility of imagining something as far away as 30 years in people’s minds. I mean, to me, that’s been sort of the trauma of the last five to 10 years. It’s the way that the horizon line of the future is just so radically foreshortened. I would like to give people the latitude to think ahead, at least far enough ahead to function. So if it gives people that sort of glimmer, I guess I’d be happy.


Instead of Seals, Polar Bears Are Now Eating Garbage 

As climate change reduces sea ice extent and forces polar bears to spend more time on land near human settlements, hungry bears are finding their way into dumps, eating food discarded by people. That is leading to more human-polar bear conflict and can leave bears in poorer health from eating nutrient-poor foods and ingesting plastics and metals along with it.

That’s according to a new report written by experts in polar bears and human-wildlife conflict, published this week in the journal Oryx. The experts outline several documented case studies of polar bears consuming human food. In a small town with a military base and research station near Hudson Bay in Canada, polar bears became accustomed to food availability and caused property damage and injuries to residents while seeking food in the town. In 2019, on the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya in Russia, local authorities had to declare a state of emergency after dozens of hungry bears attempted to break into homes and buildings seeking food during a low sea-ice year. And in the Inupiat community of Kaktovik in Alaska, residents leave butchered whale carcasses out for the polar bears to eat, giving tourists an opportunity to see polar bears, but risking public safety and exposing polar bears to potentially being killed if they threaten people. 

Much of this issue is driven by climate change reducing polar bears’ habitat and ability to hunt, the authors write in the report. As far as solutions to this issue, coauthor and National Park Service human-wildlife conflict specialist Rachel Mazur said that climate change is already happening to polar bears. “To avoid that, well, we kind of missed that boat. Now, what kind of mess have we created because of that?”

The recommendations she and other experts outline in the report include documenting cases of polar bears seeking food, studying whether the same individuals are returning to seek food and implementing polar bear-proof methods to store food waste. 

Some of those methods can be costly, Mazur said. “Closing up or bear-proofing dumps is no small feat. But it’s really what has to be done.”

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