Forecasting ticks like the weather

Imagine: you’re planning a hike for this weekend. You might be driving up to Acadia National Park in Maine. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been checking the forecasts for the past week: temperature, precipitation, and… ticks?

That’s what Dr. Nick Record, of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, and Dr. Chuck Lubelczyk, of the Maine Medical Center Research Institute, are trying to do.

Dr. Nick Record, computational ocean ecologist, NOT The Gorton’s fisherman, we are told. Credit: Twitter.

Dr. Nick Record, computational ocean ecologist, NOT The Gorton’s fisherman, we are told. Credit: Twitter.

Record provided us with a tick-human interaction forecast for Maine for the next two days:

Likelihood of humans encountering ticks in the state of Maine for April 7-8, 2017. Credit: Dr. Nick Record.

Likelihood of humans encountering ticks in the state of Maine for April 7-8, 2017. Credit: Dr. Nick Record.

“Deer ticks are the primary vector for Lyme and other diseases,” Record said in an email. “Forecasts of deer tick encounters can map the likelihood of a human-tick interaction on a daily time scale. The examples shown here are for April 7-8, 2017, and are based on historical encounters, weather, and climate conditions. The goal of the forecasts is to help reduce tick encounters and tick-borne diseases.”

These tick-borne diseases are becoming more and more prevalent as climate change creates warmer environments in which ticks flourish. Mosquitos might be the biggest disease carriers, or vectors, in the world, but in the United States that notorious honor goes solidly to ticks. Lyme disease, for example, has been exploding across the nation in recent years:

Incidences of Lyme disease are spreading out from the Northeast. Blue=2012, Red=2015. Credit: image by author using CDC data.

Incidences of Lyme disease are spreading out from the Northeast. Blue=2012, Red=2015. Credit: image by author using CDC data.

This spread of Lyme disease could have been prevented. There was a vaccine available in the 1990s, with the cute name of Lymerix, but it got swept up in the anti-vax pseudoscience paranoia. Anti-vaxxers claimed that the vaccine caused chronic arthritis in some patients and, probably because demand for a Lyme vaccine was low at the time, the producers pulled it off the market voluntarily. This story is covered very well by Chelsea Whyte in this week’s New Scientist.

Lyme disease is carried by blacklegged ticks, but it is difficult to figure out how to bring down their exploding population. For more, watch Miles reporting on this for the PBS NewsHour this week:

Forecasting tick-human interactions could be another way to bring awareness to the issue, but it’s no easy feat. “Putting the weather, climate, and sightings information together is basically a math problem,” a complex tangled web of ecosystem interactions for which Record has to develop a mathematical model. “I also use machine learning, which is a kind of AI--or at least sort of like AI.”

Record is also working on other useful ecosystem components: “The idea is to deliver ecosystem forecasts the same way we have weather forecasts. We've also done forecasts for jellyfish, whales, marine debris, and lobster, and there's more on the horizon.”

Record used to put up some of his work on his Seascape Modeling website, but he hopes transitioning everything to the Bigelow site soon. In the meantime, we’ll be waiting to see his tick forecasts on the evening news!

 

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Banner image credit: CDC