An intrepid bird called the red knot migrates from the southern tip of South America to the Arctic and back every year. But changes in climate along its route are putting this ultramarathoner at risk.
The federal government has proposed to list the red knot as threatened on the endangered species list, because of the risk of extinction the bird faces over its 9,300-mile journey, largely because of climate change.
"You know, this bird is facing any conceivable difficulty from Terra del Fuego [Argentina] all the way to the Arctic," says Kevin Kalasz, a biologist who manages the shorebird project for the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife. Kalasz has studied red knots for more than a decade.
Other animals, from polar bears to butterflies, increasingly face analogous threats as climate change alters their habitat; saving these various species may take more effort — even sacrifices — from humans, according to scientists.
Rendezvous With Spawning Crabs Crucial For Red Knot Survival
For weeks during the late spring, Kalasz and a group of biologists and volunteers set up a field camp on the Delaware Bay to monitor an exquisitely timed act of nature: Tens of thousands of red knots stop to refuel in the Delaware Bay just as the world's largest concentration of horseshoe crabs arrives on the same beaches to lay eggs.
When Kalasz sees that enough of the rare birds have wandered into his trap, he gives the order: "Three, two, one ... fire!"
Explosives launch a huge net, which falls across hundreds of birds.
About a dozen people pop out of hiding places in a marsh bordering the beach, and dash to collect the birds.
"Does anyone have a knot box?" shouts one scientist.
"Yep, yep hang on," responds a volunteer.
It's a frenetic scene as the volunteers and scientists grab the birds and put them in boxes. The red knots make a noise that sounds something like the cry of a child or a kitten.
"They're moaning," says Sally O'Byrne, who has volunteered with the team for about 10 years. "That meow — they sound so pitiful."
They're catching the birds to monitor their health. Red knot numbers are down by 75 percent since the1980s.
By the time the birds get to Delaware's shore they've been flying for five days straight — and they're starving. Kalasz holds a robin-sized bird with a long bill and cinnamon-colored breast.
"So, this red knot — very skinny," Kalasz says. "I can feel almost its entire breast bone. There's no meat." The birds come here because this is where the strange, prehistoric-looking horseshoe crab comes to lay its eggs.
"There isn't anything better for these birds to eat," says Kalasz. "These little tiny horseshoe crab eggs are just packed full of fat," he adds, holding a cluster of thousands of tiny greenish balls.
At high tide, thousands of these crabs, each the size of a salad bowl, cluster along the water's edge. The gentle surf is foamy with the males' sperm. As many as ten male crabs compete to fertilize each female's eggs.
The superabundance of this nutritious food is essential for the red knots, which double their body weight in about 10 days of gorging, before heading north.
Global Warming Puts Crucial Red Knot Refueling At Risk
Biologists worry a changing climate could throw this critical rendezvous out of sync. The crabs and the birds have to arrive at the same time if the birds are going to make it to the Arctic to nest, and warming water temperatures could prompt the crabs to lay eggs before the birds arrive.
Meanwhile, rising seas and bigger storms are washing away the beaches, which make one of the biggest weight gains in animal kingdom possible, according to Kalasz.
"In a number of years, we could lose this very special place," he says. "And if that were to occur, I'd feel a tremendous sense of loss."
The changing climate is creating other risks for the red knot along its migration path, including in the Arctic where it nests.
"Warming in the Arctic, we know, is proceeding faster than other parts of the globe," says Wendy Walsh, a senior biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That's changing the landscape where red knots nest from barren tundra to a place with larger plants and even trees. The shift in habitat is sure to alter the behavior of predators, like foxes and falcons that eat chicks and eggs — but scientists do not yet know how, Walsh says.
Some Coastal Communities Oppose Listing Red Knots As 'Threatened'
The Fish and Wildlife Service can't do much about the changing habitat in the Arctic. What it can do is try to better protect the bird along the East Coast.
In places such as North Carolina's Outer Banks, a strip of low-lying islands where some of the birds stop or even stay for the winter.
But the local governments there and elsewhere along the bird's path are nervous about the implications for people.
To protect other rare shore birds, stretches of beach already are closed during tourist season. Those closures mean that wonderful places to surf, fish and swim aren't available for tourists, says Warren Judge, who chairs the Dare County Board of Commissioners in the Outer Banks.
"The red knot is just another bird that can land someplace and create another closure," says Judge. "Our tourism is based upon [using] the beach. It's very hard on the economy."
Walsh, of the Fish and Wildlife Service, says it's true: If the red knot goes on the endangered species list, some beaches could be closed briefly every year.
And that's not all. Her agency could discourage communities from doing things such as building sea walls to protect themselves from rising seas and the big storm surges linked to climate change. Hard structures destroy beaches.
"This is totally understandable why humans would do this when they have valuable infrastructure and property and lives at stake behind the walls," Walsh says, "but that is a threat to the red knot going forward."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expects to make its final decision in late September. That's also when the birds will be making their fall migration from the top of the globe back to the bottom.
Medical tests are rarely a pleasant experience, especially if you're worried that something could be seriously wrong. That's true even though we know that regular screenings and tests often help doctors catch issues early.
But of course, humans don't always behave rationally. Sometimes people will go to great lengths to avoid hearing bad news. Social scientists call this sort of behavior information aversion, or the ostrich effect (based on the old myth that ostriches bury their heads in the sand when they're scared). And it can have important implications for our health, researchers say.
In order to gauge how information aversion affects health care, one group of researchers decided to look at how college students react to being tested for a sexually transmitted disease.
That's a subject a lot of students worry about, according to Josh Tasoff, an economist at Claremont Graduate University who led the study along with Ananda Ganguly, an associate professor of accounting at Claremont McKenna College.
The students were told they could get tested for the herpes simplex virus. It's a common disease that spreads via contact. And it has two forms: HSV1 and HSV2.
The type 1 herpes virus produces cold sores. It's unpleasant, but not as unpleasant as type 2, which targets the genitals. Ganguly says the college students were given information — graphic information — that made it clear which kind of HSV was worse.
"There were pictures of male and female genitalia with HSV2, guaranteed to kind of make them really not want to have the disease," Ganguly says.
Once the students understood what herpes does, they were told a blood test could find out if they had either form of the virus.
Now, in previous studies on information aversion it wasn't always clear why people declined information. So Tasoff and Ganguly designed the experiment to eliminate every extraneous reason someone might decline to get information.
First, they wanted to make sure that students weren't declining the test because they didn't want to have their blood drawn. Ganguly came up with a way to fix that: All of the students would have to get their blood drawn. If a student chose not to get tested, "we would draw 10 cc of their blood and in front of them have them pour it down the sink," Ganguly says.
The researchers also assured the students that if they elected to get the blood tested for HSV1 and HSV2, they would receive the results confidentially.
And to make triply sure that volunteers who said they didn't want the test were declining it to avoid the information, the researchers added one final catch. Those who didn't want to know if they had a sexually transmitted disease had to pay $10 to not have their blood tested.
So what did the students choose? Quite a few declined a test.
And while only 5 percent avoided the HSV1 test, three times as many avoided testing for the nastier form of herpes.
For those who didn't want to know, the most common explanation was that they felt the results might cause them unnecessary stress or anxiety.
The researchers say that this study — and the growing body of evidence on information avoidance — has important implications.
Many health screening messages urge people to get tested by reminding them how awful diseases can be. But these scare tactics might be a mistake, Ganguly says.
"Scaring people more about the implications may scare them away from getting tested," he says.
That lines up with previous research. In a 2009 study that looked at adolescents in a high school and at a juvenile detention center, scare tactics about sexually transmitted diseases proved to be unnecessary for teenagers who were receptive to health messages. And they were ineffective for teenagers who were indifferent to such messages.
There's a second approach to consider, Tasoff says. The ostrich effect is produced by anxiety. One way to keep anxieties at bay is to draw as little attention to tests as possible, to make them routine.
Of course, these ideas need more testing. Keeping people in the dark about their health doesn't square with our notions of patient choice and autonomy. And if you don't tell people how bad a disease can be, that can affect the incentive to get tested at all.
But one thing seems clear. If we want people to pay attention to their health, it doesn't make sense to stick our heads in the sand about the ostrich effect.
Standing outside her sixth-floor apartment in the Bronx, Lissette Encarnacion says she sometimes forgets the place belongs to her.
"I'm thinking I'm at somebody else's [house]," she says. "I'm ringing my own doorbell."
Encarnacion used to have a career in banking, and lived in a real home with her son and husband. Then one night everything changed, she says, when her husband came home drunk and angry and threw her off a balcony.
"He came home, pulled me from the hair, and just started beating the hell out of me," she says.
Encarnacion suffered traumatic brain injury and was never the same. She and her sons moved in with her sister, but Encarnacion often wandered off.
Eventually she became homeless, she tells NPR affiliate WNYC, and remained that way for a decade. She suffered from epileptic seizures, and was frequently picked up by paramedics and taken to emergency rooms.
Then two years ago, she moved into The Brook, an apartment complex that provides supportive housing to its residents — more than half of whom are formerly homeless.
Now Encarnacion lives in a studio apartment, which she has decorated with stuffed animals and Christmas lights. And though the place is small, she likes to think of it as her "penthouse" apartment.
Brenda Rosen, the director of Common Ground, the organization that manages the building, says The Brook offers a full range of services to keep its residents healthy: social workers, security, a doctor and even an event planner.
And while these services don't come without a cost — an apartment at The Brook runs at about $24,000 a year — Rosen says they are cheaper than the estimated $56,000 per year that the city spends on the emergency room visits, and stays at shelters and jails, where many people with severe mental illness end up.
"You know, we as a society are paying for somebody to be on the streets," says Rosen.
Few people would dispute that Lissette Encarnacion is better off in her studio apartment than she was when she was living under the bridge. And it's far cheaper if she has a doctor downstairs than if she has to show up regularly in the ER.
The question is, who pays for this kind of housing?
New York now has about 47,000 supportive housing units, and the state intends to invest $260 million Medicaid dollars over the next two years. But the federal government won't match it.
At the crux of this debate is the question of whether housing qualifies as health care.
This past December, the outgoing New York State Commissioner of Health argued in an article in The New England Journal of Medicine that housing is health care. Providing housing to the chronically homeless saves health care money, he argues, so Medicaid should help pay capital costs.
New York State Medicaid Director Jason Helgerson went further — he argued that federal Medicaid money already pays for housing, through long stays in nursing homes and hospitals.
But Bruce Vladeck, who formerly administered Medicaid and Medicare in the Clinton administration, says federal Medicaid dollars can't and shouldn't be used to pay for housing — it's not cost-effective.
"Medicaid is supposed to be health insurance, and not every problem somebody has is a health care problem," says Vladeck.
Instead, Vladeck argues that housing programs should be paid by housing agencies.
"As a society, both in the private sector and the public sector, we are really cheap and niggling and resentful about paying for social services, and we are much more generous when it comes to paying for health services," he says.
At the moment there is not enough housing money to go around for all the people who need it — people like Encarnacion, who are done living on the streets but still need support. For her, The Brook offers a place in between.
"I stuck it out, and it's good," she says. "And God's been real good to me. And the people that work here have been very good to me — and patient, because I am not easy. I am not easy."
To hear and read more about The Brook and other innovative initiatives in health care reform in New York, check out WNYC's series, Prescription for the Bronx.
There are a couple moments in "Where Mountains Pierce the Sky" — after nine minutes of acoustic guitar, fiddle and Native American flute, what could conceivably be called a black metal riff with a pop-punk bounce and flurry of twin lead guitars — that clue you into Roads to the North's M.O. (As if the first nine minutes weren't enough.) First, the key-change climax, which may not seem like much, but this tectonic shift is the sound of a mountain piercing the damn sky. Then there's the chugga-chugga breakdown, the enemy of all that is grim. Those lines blur more often these days, but late '90s-style hardcore (think Earth Crisis, Shai Hulud) and black metal are still infrequent bedfellows, so to have a pulling-up-change move come out of a blast beat is a trip.
Panopticon's sole member, Austin Lunn, always works best from his own life experience: loss (On the Subject of Mortality), the social justice system (Social Disservices), and unions (Kentucky), to sum up these very different LPs all too briefly. With Roads to the North, Lunn has a lot to celebrate: the birth of a child, and a career-making sojourn through Norway that begat a move from Kentucky to Minnesota to make — wait for it — craft beer.
Those triumphs inform Roads, but not without hardship. It's difficult to discern without a lyric sheet, but the three-part "Long Road" feels the like heart of the record, starting with a bittersweet farewell to Kentucky bluegrass-style ("One Last Fire"), raging through crusty black metal-cum-prog ("Capricious Miles") and ending with the appropriately titled "The Sigh of Summer," its Rodan-like cadence sounding like a nod to his time in Louisville. There's a weight and texture given to this triptych, building on melodies that feel lived in, desperate for more. It doesn't hurt that Colin Marston (Krallice, Dysrythmia) engineered and produced, ever with an ear for tuneful arranging and making unexpected sounds come alive.
Members of When Bitter Spring Sleeps, Waldgeflüster, Altar of Plagues and Obsequiae all make important contributions here, but Road to the North — as all Panopticon albums — lies solely in the realm of Austin Lunn. This is a triumphant, ebullient metal record that steps outside Panopticon's curveball mixture of American folk and metal (black- and melodic death-metal, in particular) but also makes a space to rein everything in.
To music obsessives of a certain age, the current generation of listeners sometimes appears as lightweight grazers at the Internet smorgasbord who seem unwilling (possibly unable) to focus attention at depth on a single piece of music. The summary dismissal: The kids today, they can't handle all of what somebody like a Frank Zappa (or a band like King Crimson) throws at them.
It's a reckless, ageist generalization. But as often happens, it carries a shred of truth. Zappa exists now as a ghost, a figure on the margins of music discourse whose significant contributions are savored by an elite few. That's perhaps because his intricate, idea-crammed compositions require a bit of patience and listening skill to fully appreciate. And let's face it, those skills are in short supply — listeners want the "Happy" hook that arrives right on schedule. Even indie-rock snobs have a soft spot for the instant eureka moment payoff.
This does not augur well for the commercial prospects of Adult Jazz, a four-piece from Leeds whose debut, Gist Is, is filled with intricate, idea-crammed, expectation-defying compositions. It's a dizzying work that, like jazz itself, doesn't always charm instantly; it takes a bit of work to warm up to it.
The album begins with an instrumental drone and three full minutes of somber, highly processed vocalizing from frontman and lyricist Harry Burgess. The drone sets an odd scene, transporting listeners away from the chatter of the moment and into an abandoned place of worship where Gregorian chant once rattled from the rafters. Burgess' fluttery voice and strange groupings of words extend the sense of mystery, and when the drums finally kick in, with a fitful pulse that doesn't immediately sync up into something as obvious as a 4/4 beat, the message is clear: It's time to abandon hope for the ear-candy refrain that will snap things into focus. The governing structure of "Hum" is not your typical verse-chorus pathway, but rather a swervy series of stream-of-consciousness melodic inventions, some more accessible than others. When the sassy marching band trombones arrive, at 5:57, the listener has had plenty of warning. You have to be ready for anything, be it liturgical song or a nasty New Orleans groove.
Adult Jazz doesn't sound like Zappa. (Or, for that matter, much like a band that is often mentioned as kindred, Dirty Projectors.) But its endeavor shares Zappa's subversive irreverence and his belief that disparate and severely mismatched musical elements can, if linked together properly, open up new sonic landscapes. Even before track two starts, the casual listener can sense there's a cagey, astute musical sophistication at work on the structural level.
Motifs and narrative ideas move fast in the Adult Jazz maelstrom; riffs erupt, take center stage for a minute and then just as quickly disappear. It's as though the four-piece, which writes the music collectively and in live performance is prone to switching instruments mid-song, is chasing super-concentrated bursts of bliss — fleeting episodes rather than extended explorations. It just so happens that when they're strung together like pearls, some of those episodes gather into music that's epic, both in length and scope.
The rivetingly filmic "Spook" lasts nearly 10 minutes, and throughout the excursion, there isn't much in the way of recurring melodies. "Idiot Mantra" situates lovely ethereal vocal riffs ("my heart, it is spinning all over the ground") against a purposefully pounded tribal drum pulse. As the piece unfolds, Burgess goes from singing in measured cadence to riffing like a jazz cat through polyrhythms that rachet up the tension.
The ecstasy-glimpsing "Donne Tongue" unfolds its sideways homage to the metaphysical poet and cleric John Donne in just under six minutes, but it feels longer. What begins as a spry shuffle grows darker as electric guitars galumph and grind into the forefront. As happens elsewhere, Burgess' vocals reflect and reinforce each new musical wrinkle — even if you don't like all the abrupt gearshifts, his array of personas and emotional nuances is impressive and captivating.
In interviews, Burgess has said that there are unifying themes running through the lyrics of these nine densely packed songs — among them, the challenges of communication, empathy, morality and the search for meaning in life. At first these lofty notions didn't register with me; only after listening several times, and actively tracking the trippy wordplay, did this narrative thread become apparent. Which is to say there are layers in these songs, and strange juxtapositions of images within the verses, and then big "meta" contrasts between text and musical accompaniment. It's trippy to encounter a song that talks about what constitutes a right way to live propelled by music that breaks the rules with such delighted giddiness.
Thing is, even as it makes a kind of weirdness Zappa could dig, Adult Jazz does not serve it up by the pound. This band deploys its quirkiest quirks with surgical precision. What sounds, at first, like circus-sideshow novelty music acquires dimension over time, often becoming disarming and profound on subsequent listens. There's so much going on, in fact, it can be hard to fix any given song's center. So take the album title as one more bit of flimflammery. This music rambles and sprawls in ways that mock the notion of a well-defined and neatly encapsulated "gist."
Maybe Adult Jazz is saying that we lose something important by cutting to the chase all the time. Maybe our perpetually time-strapped mode of discourse prevents us from fully engaging the wonder and illumination that surrounds us. Then again, maybe it's all a slipstream. Maybe there is no gist.