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16 Depressing AF Science And Health Stories From 2016

Rising temps, medical failures, harassers, deniers...plus those poor giraffes. :(

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1. The Earth got even warmer.

Peter Aldhous for BuzzFeed News / Via NOAA

2016 is slated to be the warmest year ever recorded, according to NOAA, beating the previous record set...last year. This GIF shows how each year's temperature has differed from the 20th-century average.

Our changing climate, driven in large part by carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, will make extreme flooding, storms, and wildfires more likely in the future.

2. The North Pole got above the freezing point.

NOAA

The Arctic Ocean's sea ice levels are down 28% below average, the lowest ever recorded, and the North Pole has hit temperatures of about 40 degrees higher than normal — above the freezing point.

These changes are especially alarming, scientists say, because the Arctic is in its "polar night" season, when darkness lasts more than 24 hours.

3. Meanwhile, Trump chose administration leaders who deny climate change exists, want to dismantle certain science agencies, and/or support the fossil fuel industry.

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

President-elect Donald Trump has never been much of a science fan. In 2012, he tweeted that global warming was invented by the Chinese. In 2014 he wrote that vaccines cause autism. And now, it seems that several people he's chosen to lead his administration are skeptical or even openly hostile of government research:

Rick Perry, former Texas governor and Trump's pick to head the Department of Energy, said at the 2011 presidential debate that he'd get rid of the agency. The $30 billion DOE maintains the country's nuclear arsenal and is its largest funder of physics research.

Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma's attorney general and Trump's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, has proposed dismantling that agency and has sued it over its Clean Power Plan. He's also a climate skeptic, writing in May that "scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.”

—Two people on Trump's EPA transition team, Christopher Horner and David Schnare, have led coal-funded organizations that have sued the EPA over its Clean Power Plan and have tried to sue universities to acquire emails of climate scientists. (Horner also denies that the Earth is getting hotter, once writing that “the atmosphere inarguably shows no appreciable warming.")

Rex Tillerson, Trump's choice for secretary of state, is the CEO of Exxon Mobil, the country's largest oil company and thus one of the prime contributors to global warming. (Under Tillerson's leadership, though, the company acknowledged for the first time that climate change is real.)

4. Scientists scrambled to copy scientific data from government servers, worried that Trump's team would erase it.

NOAA

Scientists at NASA collect a whole lot of data on the Earth's climate, to the tune of $2 billion a year. But Bob Walker, one of Trump's NASA advisers, told the Guardian that the agency didn't need to do this "politically correct environmental monitoring" and should focus on space instead.

These comments, as well as Trump's cabinet nominations, sent scientists into a panic over what might happen to scientific data stored on .gov websites. In mid-December, for example, researchers at the University of Toronto held a "guerrilla archiving event" to preserve EPA data.

It's not just environmental data that researchers are worried about: They're also scrambling to download data on how people use Obamacare, which Trump has vowed to repeal.

5. (Yet more) scientists were exposed for sexual harassment.

BuzzFeed News / NASA / Via buzzfeed.com

In 2015, sexual harassment in science made big headlines when a Title IX investigation prompted famous astronomer Geoff Marcy to resign from his professorship at Berkeley. For anyone who thought Marcy was an anomaly, 2016 sadly proved otherwise:

Christian Ott, an astrophysics professor at Caltech, fell in love with his graduate student and then fired her because of it. He's on leave from the school until August 2017.

Jason Lieb, a molecular biologist at the University of Chicago, resigned after an investigation found he had made "unwelcome sexual advances" to graduate students and "engaged in sexual activity" with a drunk student, according to the New York Times.

Michael Katze, who ran one of the country's biggest virus labs at the University of Washington, was found to have sexually harassed two lab employees. He hired one of them on the condition that she be his girlfriend, and asked the other one to do chores for him, including buying drugs and emailing escorts.

Brian Richmond, the curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History, was accused of sexual misconduct multiple times, according to Science. One woman, for example, claimed that Richmond sexually assaulted her in his hotel room after they had been drinking heavily at a scientific meeting in Italy. Richmond resigned this month, but still maintains that the encounters were consensual and denies any wrongdoing.

Miguel Pinto, a visiting researcher at the National Museum of Natural History, groped a student at a museum happy hour, according to The Verge. The student complained to museum administrators, but to her surprise, they never issued an official report.

6. Opioids killed Prince, and some 30,000 other Americans.

Kevin Winter / Getty Images

In April, Prince died of an overdose of painkillers that were labeled as hydrocodone but actually contained fentanyl, an opioid 50 times more potent than heroin.

Fentanyl overdoses swept the country this year, contributing to the 30,000 annual deaths due to opioids. According to a CDC report released in August, the death rate from fentanyl increased by 174% between 2013 and 2014 in eight "high-burden" states: Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Ohio, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, and North Carolina. In many cities, including Baltimore, public health officials are responding to the epidemic by passing out naloxone, a drug that can reverse overdoses.

Many addicts seek help in South Florida, the rehab capital of America. Sadly, at some of these centers addicts are bought, sold, and stolen for their insurance policies.

7. Zika was declared a global health emergency and spread from Brazil to many other countries.

Mario Tama / Getty Images

2016 was the year of Zika. In January, the World Health Organization announced that the birth defects — notably "microcephaly," an abnormally small head and brain — linked to the mosquito-borne virus warranted a global health emergency.

In Brazil, the center of the epidemic, pregnant women were terrified of catching a tainted bite. While Brazil fought the epidemic with basic public health measures as well as genetically engineered mosquitoes, the virus spread quickly to many other parts of the Americas, notably Puerto Rico and Colombia, but mysteriously, microcephaly has not yet been a big problem outside of Brazil. By summer, the virus hit Florida and Texas, though so far it has not spread widely in the US, partly because of the onset of winter.

In November, with 28 countries reporting cases of Zika and microcephaly, the WHO decided that the disease was no longer an international emergency. Still, experts expect that the virus will continue to spread, and there are still many open questions about how it damages the nervous system.

8. The government spied on us from above.

Peter Aldhous / BuzzFeed News / Via buzzfeed.com

In cities all across America, planes and helicopters operated by the federal government are secretly circling above. As Peter Aldhous and Charles Seife reported in April:

"Piloted by agents of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, the planes are fitted with high-resolution video cameras, often working with 'augmented reality' software that can superimpose onto the video images everything from street and business names to the owners of individual homes. At least a few planes have carried devices that can track the cell phones of people below. Most of the aircraft are small, flying a mile or so above ground, and many use exhaust mufflers to mute their engines — making them hard to detect by the people they’re spying on."

9. Scientists realized that giraffe numbers are dangerously low.

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The number of giraffes has dropped 40% over the last 30 years, thanks in large part to hunting and habitat loss, scientists revealed this month. There are now fewer than 100,000 giraffes in Africa. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has deemed the giraffe in danger of extinction, placing it on its "Red List."

10. Native Americans sued the government for not providing the free health care that it promised decades ago.

Kristina Barker for BuzzFeed News

Many decades ago, in exchange for ending a violent war, US President Andrew Johnson promised all Native Americans free health care. That promise became the Indian Health Service, which runs 117 clinics and hospitals for Native people across the country. But these clinics are woefully underfunded, and the care provided is often subpar: At least six government investigations have recorded health violations, staff shortages, and overall incompetence.

This year the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota decided to sue the government for the way it has run these hospitals, which one senator characterized as “horrifying and unacceptable.” In response, the government is claiming that it actually has no legal obligation to provide health care. The question at the heart of the dispute is, as reporter Nidhi Subbaraman put it: "What weight do decades-old treaty agreements between the US and tribal governments carry in the modern day?"

11. Brexit rocked European science.

Irene Aspalter

When citizens of the UK voted in June to leave the European Union, the "Brexit" sent a shock wave through the science community in Europe and elsewhere.

With uncertainty about future funding, young researchers in the UK (including Irene Aspalter, pictured above) considered jobs elsewhere. Several major drug companies in Britain were also reeling, partly because Brexit means that the Europe's drug regulation agency will need to leave London. This month, Cambridge University told Parliament that it expects its EU students to drop by two-thirds.

Every year, the UK has received about £1 billion in grants from European Union programs, which could largely disappear post-Brexit. In November, possibly to mitigate this loss, Britain's government promised scientists an extra £2 billion in funding for research and development by 2020.

12. One of the most promising experimental treatments for Alzheimer's failed in a big way.

When this happens, think of what it means for volunteers in clinical trials of new Alzheimer's drugs… https://t.co/uv00Q5AoVi

In November, pharma giant Eli Lilly announced that its experimental drug for Alzheimer's, solanezumab, did not improve symptoms in a study of 2,100 patients with mild dementia. The company's stock price plummeted after the news.

The drug targeted "amyloid plaques," proteins that build up in the brains of people with Alzheimer's. Its failure undermines the amyloid strategy — which is at the heart of several other experimental drugs as well.

13. America's largest chain of psychiatric hospitals was exposed for allegedly locking patients in the psych ward for insurance money.

Laura Buckman for BuzzFeed News

“Your job is to get patients. And you get them however you get them.” That's what one former hospital employee told reporter Rosalind Adams about their employer, Universal Health Services, America's largest psychiatric hospital chain.

In a shocking investigation, employees from more than 10 UHS hospitals told Adams that they were pressured "to fill beds by almost any method — which sometimes meant exaggerating people’s symptoms or twisting their words to make them seem suicidal — and to hold them until their insurance payments ran out."

14. The first US uterus transplant failed two weeks later.

Cleveland Clinic

In February, surgeons at the Cleveland Clinic performed the first US uterus transplant on a 26-year-old woman who had been born without one. But two weeks later, they removed the organ after the woman experienced serious (undisclosed) complications.

The disappointing outcome underscores the difficulty of the $300,000 procedure, which has been done only about a dozen times in Europe.

15. A super-scary, drug-resistant strain of E. coli hit the US.

NIAID / Via Flickr: niaid

The latest big development in the ongoing antibiotics crisis happened in May, when a bug resistant to colistin, a last-resort antibiotic, showed up in the US.

The dreaded superbug, a form of E. coli, was discovered in a 49-year-old woman in Pennsylvania with an urinary tract infection. This particular strain carries a gene called MCR, which protects it from even the strongest drugs in our antibiotic arsenal. Scientists described MCR for the first time in November 2015, reporting several cases in China.

16. Scientists discovered that human leprosy from the Middle Ages is still around — hiding in squirrels.

Karen van der Zijden

For thousands of years, the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae routinely infected people, causing leprosy. The disease largely disappeared from the human population of Britain several hundred years ago. But in November, scientists reported that red squirrels in the British Isles harbor the same strain of bacteria, causing "warty growths on the faces and extremities."

There's no evidence yet that the disease has passed from the squirrels to people. But the finding suggests that the bacteria could be hiding out in other "animal reservoirs," which could help explain why the disease still persists in India and Brazil.

For some happier Best of 2016 content, click here!

Virginia Hughes is the science editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Virginia Hughes at virginia.hughes@buzzfeed.com.

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