Heller cartoon

Coincidence is always fun to note, particularly for me when it involves words.

This morning I found it coincidental to find the uncommon word bellwether used in two of the news stories I read. A La Crosse Tribune columnist used it (actually, she wrote bell weather, but she meant bellwether) to describe how we treat the young, the sick and the elderly as bellwether or indicator of “our evolution as a compassionate society.”

But the use of bellwether that really caught my attention was in the story about the risk to our native brook trout population from gill lice, which are flourishing in warming waters of our trout streams. The story in “The Daily Climate” quoted Henry Koltz, the state chair of Wisconsin’s Trout Unlimited: “Brook trout are revered because they are the trout that belong in our streams, and also a bellwether concerning stream health.”

I was drawn to the story because I love trout fishing and revere our cold water streams and because I’ve been collecting bellwethers of climate change and its effects on our lives, now and in the future.

For example, there is this from a recent Newswise release: “As daily temperatures increase, so does the number of patients seeking treatment for kidney stones. A research team found a link between hot days and kidney stones in 60,000 patients in several U.S. cities with varying climates.”

Study leader Gregory E. Tasian, a pediatric urologist and epidemiologist at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia said, “These findings point to potential public health effects associated with global climate change. ... However, although 11 percent of the U.S. population has had kidney stones, most people have not. It is likely that higher temperatures increase the risk of kidney stones in those people predisposed to stone formation.”

Higher temperatures contribute to dehydration, which leads to a higher concentration of calcium and other minerals in the urine that promote the growth of kidney stones. How’s that for a painful bellwether?

And here’s a bellwether taken from an extensive listing of potential human health issues related to climate change in the Journal of the American Medical Association: Fifty-five percent of the U.S. population tests positive for allergens, and more than 34 million have asthma. Climate shifts alter abundance and seasonality of air-borne allergens. Data along a 1,600-mile north-south sampling of monitoring stations through mid–North America indicate that the ragweed season has been lengthening by as much as 13 to 27 days north of the 44th parallel since 1995.

Achoo!

Bellwether is a term taken from the ancient practice of hanging a bell around the neck of a wether (a castrated ram) in a flock of sheep. The sheep follow the wether, thus indicating to the shepherd the location and direction of movement of the flock.

Given the growing evidence that climate change is a real and growing threat to the world, one would think that the climate-deniers, particularly those in leadership positions in Congress, would feel, pardon the expression, sheepish about obstructing progress on climate change solutions.

Enactment of a tax on carbon or some other measure to cut carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, would be a bellwether – an indicator that the congressional sheep are following the wether to greener pastures.

Without that, the health of our Wisconsin trout waters, the health of the world’s environment, the health of all of us is at risk. And, as one biologist noted in a conversation recently, our iconic brook trout will be history.

Dave Skoloda is an award-winning journalist and former owner and editor of the Onalaska Community Life and Holmen Courier. He also formerly edited Sheep! magazine.

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Randy Erickson, formerly the editor of the Onalaska Holmen Courier-Life and Coulee News, covers arts and entertainment and county government for the La Crosse Tribune. Contact him at 608-791-8219 or randy.erickson@lee.net.

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