Food For Thought: Brain-Eating Parasites Thrive As Global Warming Heats Up U.S. Lakes

It’s a myth there are no winners from climate change. “Global Warming is Doubling Bark Beetle Mating, Boosting Tree Attacks Up To 60-Fold.” The decline in creatures with shells “could trigger an explosion in jellyfish populations” and “Climate change helps spread dengue fever in 28 states,” and of course “climate change will make invasive plants even more dominant in the landscape.” And let’s not forget ratsnakes.

Another apparent winner is Naegleria fowleri aka N. fowleri . The bad news:

It’s a fatal infection without an effective treatment, and one that strikes in a decidedly gruesome manner: An amoebic organism lurking in water is inadvertently inhaled during a swim on a hot summer’s day. From there, it travels through the nasal passage and into the brain, where it multiplies, devours one’s cerebral fluid and gray matter, and almost invariably causes death.

The good news is that it is, or has been, an exceedingly rare disease — “between 2002 and 2011, there were only 32 infections in the US.” But as far back as 2007, Michael Beach, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expert in recreational waterborne illnesses, warned:

“This is a heat-loving amoeba. As water temperatures go up, it does better. In future decades, as temperatures rise, we’d expect to see more cases.”

The CDC notes that this (thermophilic) amoeba is “able to grow and survive at higher temperatures, such as those found in hot springs and in the human body, even under fever temperatures.”

And indeed, as The Verge reported in June:

In recent years, N. fowleri has popped up in unexpected locations, which some experts suggest is a sign that warmer waters — caused by brutal summer heat waves and rising temperatures across the country — are catalyzing their spread.

“The climate is changing, and let me tell you, so is this,” says Travis Heggie, an associate professor at Bowling Green State University who’s tracked the amoebas for several years. “If warm weather keeps up, I think we’ll see N. fowleri popping up farther and farther north.”

How far north?

In Minnesota, public health officials were stunned to see two fatalities caused by N. fowleri — both young children — in 2010 and 2012. The cases are the only in state history, and occurred about 550 miles farther north than any previous reported … fatality in the US.

The point isn’t that N. fowleri is the most destructive of the animals, insects and organisms that benefit from climate change — the voracious bark beetle probably wins that category (so far). The point is that invasive species almost by definition want to see the climate change.


So the next time someone says that there will be winners and losers from global warming, remember that many of those winners will help make Homo sapiens one of the biggest losers.