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The Plague Is More Likely Now Thanks to Climate Change

The Plague Is More Likely Now Thanks to Climate Change

A new study examines how rising temperatures in the western U.S. have influenced plague outbreaks. Yes, that plague.

The risk of the plague spilling over from humans to animals in the western U.S. has increased since 1950 thanks to climate change, a new study has found. Importantly, the research gives valuable insights into how this deadly disease has historically moved and developed in the U.S., which can help us understand more about its future.

“We want to understand where plague (yes, ‘The Plague,’ which is still a common wildlife disease) can exist in the United States, how where it can exist has changed over the last century, and why plague can exist in those places it does, and not say 20 miles further down the road,” study coauthor Boris Schmid said in an email.

Yersinia pestis is the bacteria that causes plague—including that plague, the medieval Black Death, which killed around 25 million people over the course of four years in the 1300s. The bacteria is spread to humans from animals, most infamously rats, which carry plague-infested fleas on them. Scientists have theorized that the plague, like many other infectious diseases, will probably increase its spread to humans as the planet warms and people come into increasingly closer contact with wild animals.

But there’s not a lot of research out there on what historically are the best conditions for the plague to develop and get out of control. As a result, there are still a lot of big questions about the plague—like why it hasn’t spread to certain geographic areas, or why human cases don’t always overlap with where animals are carrying the disease—that remain unanswered.

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