Climate Change: Is There Really a Connection Between Hurricanes and Climate Change?

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Hurricanes, as we have seen in the past few decades, have the potential to cause a lot of damage – which is why it is particularly concerning when scientists suggest that climate change could actually exacerbate these storms.  Why is this?

First, we have to look into how hurricanes are formed.  Hurricanes are always formed in warm, tropical regions, because they use heat.  The warm water from the topical regions of the ocean evaporates, turning into warm water vapor, which rises and creates a cloud, and more warm water vapor rises to replace it.

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The above picture shows the water vapor as it rises, starts to cool and condense into clouds, and then fall as more warm air replaces it.  This creates a spinning of the winds which is the main identifiable characteristic of hurricanes.

The more heat is in the water, the more water can rise, the bigger these clouds get, and the faster the winds spin – therefore, the stronger the hurricane gets.

There has been conclusive scientific evidence suggesting that climate change could greatly exacerbate tropical storms, monsoons, and hurricanes.  We have actually seen storms increase in magnitude over the last few decades.  However, the next question is – would it cause more of these storms?  Logically, it would make sense, because if the oceans are warmer all the time, then the storms should form more often.  However, the winds have to be directed a certain way and other factors are at play, so currently there is not a consensus of evidence suggesting that climate change could cause more storms – but scientists are still looking into it and still uncovering evidence.

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Animal Appreciation I: Giant Pacific Octopus

The Giant Pacific Octopus is the largest octopus, reaching around nine meters across.  Here’s a few reasons why the Giant Pacific Octopus (and all octopuses in general) are super cool:

1. They are great mothers.  While I usually have issues with anthropomorphizing creatures, these animals are extremely dedicated to their young.  An octopus can have hundreds of offspring, and a female will lay the eggs and wait with the eggs until they hatch to ensure that they stay safe from predators.  Of course, this means that the octopus cannot go and eat for herself, so she usually dies after these months of fasting.  However, they ensure that at least some of their offspring survive.

2. They are incredibly intelligent.  We usually refer to intelligence solely to mammals (humans, other primates, dolphins, etc.) but octopuses are very smart.  They have been given mazes and puzzles to solve and they consistently find innovative solutions to these problems.

3. They have no bones.  Like most cephalopods, they have no bones (in fact, the only hard part of their body is the beak in the middle of their tentacles that they use to eat).  Therefore, any hole that the beak can fit through, they can fit through too – they have been shown to fit through holes no bigger than a quarter (and these are big animals).

4. They are fierce predators.  Apparently at an aquarium, some workers decided to move the octopus into a tank with sharks, hoping that the sharks wouldn’t hurt the octopus because the octopus could hide well.  Of course, mysteriously the sharks started disappearing from the tank.  Here’s the crazy video of an octopus eating a shark:

5. Camouflage.  I saved the best for last; this is incredible.  Octopuses have amazing abilities to camouflage and blend into their surroundings; they change both the color and the texture of their skin.  How does this work?  These creatures have cells called chromatophores that change size by muscle contraction.  When these cells change size, they can change the way light interacts with the skin, changing the color of the skin at the animal’s control.  Here’s an absolutely amazing video of an octopus camouflaging:

That video is taken from an equally amazing TED lecture about ocean astonishments:

Side Note: Octopi is actually not the correct plural form of octopus.  The word octopus is derived from the Greek derivative, not the Latin derivative, and therefore the correct plural is actually octopodes.  However, since the word is in English, octopuses is correct too.

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New Series of Posts: Animal Appreciation

It’s easy to appreciate some animals; mammals are  furry and make cute noises, some fish are beautiful and brightly colored, birds chirp and (some of them) sing complex songs.  However, there are far more animals that many people consider “gross” or “unpleasant to look at” that are in fact incredible creatures.  However, sometimes it’s hard to notice or realize how amazing they are.  Therefore, I am starting a series of posts dedicated to the creatures that are sometimes misunderstood.

First up – Giant Pacific Octopus!

How Bad is High-Fructose Corn Syrup?

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Sugar; found at:; photo by Lauri Andler.

High-fructose corn syrup is in everything nowadays; it’s used as a sweetener and an alternative to just table sugar in most foods.  Many people are very concerned with the health of high-fructose corn syrup, especially because it is most often found in high levels in processed foods.  However, is it really as bad as some people think?

The Basics

Sucrose is the sugar that most people interact with; it’s table sugar, but it is also in maple syrup, cane sugar, and beet sugar, the most common sweeteners besides high fructose corn syrup.  Sucrose is made up of a molecule of glucose bound to a molecule of fructose (both of which are individual sugar units).  When this sugar is ingested, it is subsequently broken down into the individual units of fructose and glucose to be taken up in fat storage or used as energy.

While fructose and glucose are both sugar units, they are used by the body in different ways.  Glucose is broken down by the body in many different ways, including generating ATP, the energy of the body.  However, fructose is only broken down in the liver.  Therefore, when the liver receives more fructose than it needs, it automatically stores that all into fat, and a buildup of too much fat can be bad for you.  There also has been some research done into how the body determines when it has to much fat; it turns out that fructose, unlike glucose, does not stimulate the parts of the body that tells you when you have had too much sugar or too little sugar.  This makes it far easier to eat too much.  So, it is definitely true that too much fructose can be bad for you.

High Fructose Corn Syrup – Any Different From Other Sweeteners?

However, it is not true that high fructose corn syrup is pure fructose.

Common table sugar (sucrose) is 50% fructose and 50% glucose.  high fructose corn syrup varies in its concentration of fructose – HFCS 42 is 42% fructose and HFCS 55 is 55% fructose, neither of which are extremely different from regular sucrose.  And, even though HCFS 55 contains more fructose than table sugar does, since it is far sweeter than table sugar, manufacturers use less.  In fact, this was the motivation for developing high fructose corn syrup in the first place; sweeter sugar means they can use less of it and save money.  It is not clear whether they use little enough sugar to offset the extra fructose, but at best it would be a minimal difference if you ingest the same amount of high fructose corn syrup and table sugar.


Table of sweetness; Found at:

Are natural sweeteners better?

Many people have started using honey or agave nectar as better alternatives to regular sugar.  Honey actually has 50% fructose and cooked agave (according to the USDA) is 87% fructose (although this is disputed, some claim it is 70%).  Fruit juices are also high in fructose, with the sugar in pears being 64% fructose and the sugar in apples being 57% fructose.  Now, this is not to say that fruit or natural sweeteners are bad for you – fruit has a lot of good nutrients and fiber and in moderation it is extremely good for you.  However, it isn’t necessarily true that these alternatives are “healthier” than regular table sugar in their levels of fructose and glucose.

So why are people concerned about high fructose corn syrup?

Because it is in everything, even things that don’t necessarily need a lot of sugar, like bread.  This has more to do with society’s extreme sweet tooth than high fructose corn syrup itself, but it is important to watch how much sugar (be it table sugar, honey, or high fructose corn syrup) you intake to make sure you don’t have too much.  However, high fructose corn syrup itself is not much worse for you than any other “natural” sweetener, in moderation.

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With All This Talk of Ebola, What’s Happening with Lassa?

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Given the most recent outbreak of Ebola, there have been a lot of people calling to increase medical attention in the affected parts of Africa and dedicate more vaccine research towards Ebola.  But why don’t outbreaks of Lassa cause the same concern?

The Lassa virus is another pathogen that causes hemorrhagic fever, with very similar symptoms to Ebola (symptoms that strike fear in all our hearts), including serious loss of blood, and can kill its host in about two weeks.  While Lassa only shows these severe symptoms in about 20% of the patients, it kills about 5,000 people per year, more people than Ebola has killed since 1976, with about 100,000 to 300,000 cases per year (all data according to the Center for Disease Control).  And, although Lassa certainly has not in the past been quite as deadly as Ebola, which can kill up to 90% of infected individuals, the number of cases and number of affected people clearly dwarf Ebola.

But, as with Ebola, there is currently no vaccine and no cure, which is even more surprising because we have characterized the virus and know the vector (or the animals from which the disease is transmitted), a rat called Mastomys natalensis.

While it is very understandable that people are concerned with Ebola at the moment, because this outbreak is so out of the ordinary, it does bring up questions as to why Lassa outbreaks (or any other viruses that cause hemorrhagic fevers) do not get similar media attention.

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