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Academics

John Brock and students to study health impacts of climate change

Christian Diaz, Staff Writer (cdiaz@wwc)

Acting division chair of environmental science and chemistry professor John Brock, Ph.D, has received a federal grant from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to study the health impacts of climate change in southern Appalachia.

John Brock will conduct research during his sabbatical leave at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) in downtown Asheville, where global weather data is collected and stored.

“We’re lucky to have a national climactic data center here in Asheville,” Brock said. “They have some of the best minds in climate change, including David Easterling who wrote the assessment report which was cited for the Nobel Prize [which was shared with Al Gore in 2007].”

There are two components to Brock’s research. The first will focus on health effects directly connected to climate change such as heat strokes. Brock will also look at greenhouse gasses emanating out of fields, forests and farms and measure them. With this information Brock can develop models which would help figure out what would happen if the way land is used in southern Appalachia changed.

Warren Wilson College students will assist with his research. Four students are already assisting with research. Their research is focused on various aspects of climate change. Sean Pulsfort, senior, is currently measuring greenhouse gasses coming from the Warren Wilson farm. Pulsfort is preparing this research for his NSS presentation next semester.

“I am not sure how John is going to apply human health, southern Appalachians and climate change but John talked about starting a research program revolving around greenhouse gasses and climate change here so a couple of students and I are starting that and getting it going,” Pulsfort said.

“It is really fun starting this project up. Hopefully we will get some good results that have some validity and can actually be used in the scientific community to support or oppose a specific type of agriculture,” Pulsfort added.

John Brock chose to conduct his sabbatical research in southern Appalachia because he is determined to include Warren Wilson students in his research. Faculty can recruit students for research through a class on research design.

“Students here tend to be focused more locally and on environmental issues so my research fits well here. The goal is to bring back this research and continue it here at this site,” Brock said.

There are several facets of health that are affected by climate change, although research in this topic is relatively new.

“I’ve just begun digging into it. Climate change is here. It’s pretty easy to start documenting human health impacts of climate change. The ones that people had studied before were heat stroke in the elderly. Studies also show increases in heart attacks and increases in asthma. Those are sort of the big three,” Brock explained.

An increase in the number of local drowning has also been tied to climate change, which has surprised Brock. The Appalachian area has experienced one of the hottest summers ever recorded. As people seek relief from hot weather they are more vulnerable to drowning.

“It makes sense when you think about it,” said Brock. “There are these odd connections that are beginning to form that you wouldn’t have expected.”

Brock expressed that disappointment in the federal government’s response to climate change has driven him to conduct this research.

“Climate change is here and the major governments around the world aren’t doing anything. The United States is especially not doing anything. The only time I’ve ever seen the United States take good action around the environment is when you can connect it to people. If we can connect the dots between climate change and the United States and people then we may actually start to get some real movement,” Brock said.

“I hope my research contributes [to this movement]. I’m not arrogant enough to believe that my research is that important but I’m certainly willing to try. All we get to do in life is choose what problems we want to work on and I think this is important,” Brock said.

Brock previously ran a research lab facility for the CDC for ten years focusing on toxicology, the study of poisons and epidemiology, the study of disease.

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