1918 Flu

The death toll from the Spanish flu was somewhere between 20 million and 100 million worldwide, after the end of WWI. It was partly so high because  so many of the countries infected had been decimated by war, but it is hard to determine how many people really died due to a lack of documentation. If such  a disease emerged again today, it would kill more people in a year than heart disease, cancer, stroke, lung disease, AIDs and Alzheimer’s disease combined.

Spanish flu has largely been forgetting due to occurring so soon after the upheaval of the deaths of 9 million soldiers and a further 9 million civilians during WWI.

The name itself is deceptive- it did not origin in Spain, nor was it most devastating to Spain. However, Spain immediately started reporting about the disease. It is unknown where the virus originated from, but it may well be from the Far East, and it was spread by the active troops across Europe.

In 2005, scientists from the USofA processed the genetic code of the 1918 flu virus; the sample was taken by extraction from a female patient buried in Alaskan permafrost. The pandemic was found to have been caused by gradual genetic changes from a flu virus that had originated in birds.

Flu most frequently effects humans, birds and pigs. Interspecies infections can quite easily lead to deaths, even in otherwise mild strains.


Typical Spanish flu symptoms included:

  • Spots over cheek bones within hours of admission to wards
  • Cyanosis (skin turning blue) extending across he face from the ears
  • Starting to struggle for breath within hours
  • Sudden collapse
  • Infection of the lungs by other diseases in addition

The collapses were especially common. In South America, a mine operator collapsed at control of a lift and sent at least 20 miners plummeting back down the mine shaft to their deaths.

Spanish Flu death-causing symptoms included:

  • Bleeding from the nose and ears
  • Swollen hearts
  • Solidified lungs weighing up to 6x their normal weight
  • Accumulation of fluid in delicate tissues such as the lungs

Clogged up lungs from the disease would have offered little ability for gas exchange across the lung surface by the volume of water. Thus the patient would have drowned; it was called  “Drowning death”.

It was common for those who survived the initial infection to then be infected by another disease, such as pneumonia, which would then kill them.

Causes of symptoms: 

The influenza virus weakens respiratory epithelia and cilia (a type of cell that wafts dirt out of the lungs), and immune cell dysfunction, leaving them weakened to other infections.

Distinguishing features

Most influenza break outs focus upon the young and old, and have the greatest death toll upon these age groups, due to having a weaker immune system. The Spanish flu also specifically targeted young healthy adults.

One theory for this was “cytokine storming”. Cytokines are small chemicals used to signal between various white blood cell types to co-ordinate fighting infections. Cytokines work a lot like hormones, and travel through the blood. They encourage inflammation, swelling, increasing vasopermeability (ability for chemicals to move through blood vessels) and attract other white blood cells. This fights infection, but sometimes damages organ tissue. It can lead, eventually, to internal scarring and organ failure.

Cytokine storms are thus when the cytokines overreact to a pathogen and this can lead to deaths.


All strains of flu are viruses, and belong to the family orthomyxovirus. Influenza A is the worst sort of the virus group. Its genome includes genes for the coding of only 10 proteins. 2 of these- haemoggluttin and neuraminidase are the most important, and flu strains tend to be named after these. The Spanish flu and 2009’s swine flu were both H1N1. H2N3, H5N1 (Bird flu) and H7N7 are all common strains.

Haemoggluttin binds receptors on the outside of the virus with the membrane of the target cell. Neuraminidase lets new viruses formed within the cell leave and move out to attack further cells.

Viruses have to integrate their genetic material into a host cell. They themselves have RNA, rather than DNA, so have to have specialised enzymes to convert their RNA into DNA. The host cell then incorporates this DNA into its own nucleus- much the same way that a computer will absorb the coding to produce certain types of virus itself. When the host produces its own proteins, it also produces copies of the virus proteins, which eventually combine to form more viruses- this continues until the host cell has used up all its contents in the worst case scenario. Typically, viruses will be released gradually from the host cell over time.


The viruses of Haemoggluttin and Neurominidase can be extracted. Each year this is done to produce a new flu vaccination. The body can then produce antibodies specific to those proteins, and learn how to tackle the virus more effectively if it should enter the body. However, the viruses always mutate over the year, so new jabs have to be developed frequently.

They are also individually targeted by other jabs. TamiFlu is an example of this. The UK government spent £500 million on TamiFlu during the swine flu outbreak of 2009- but in practice, for many, this does little more than just paracetamol to relieve symptoms.

Finding one set treatment is hard, as mutations in the virus genome mean an antibody that works one year may well not by the start of the next. The body has to constantly adapt to every new strain.


Alaska- Conflicts and Pressures


The USofA has high demands for oil and a desire to not be dependent on the supply given by other, typically less stable countries.

Oppositions to the exploitation of Alaskan oil were largely based on the fragile tundra ecosystem of the state.

  • Only a few cm of top soil thaw in the summer, so productivity is low in plant life
  • Below the arctic circle, the tundra makes way for taiga forest which has a variety of coniferous tree types
  • Supported by these environments are a wide variety of other species such as caribou, moose, bears, wolves and wolverines.

The US Government’s National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 meant that all companies had to consider the environment and recognise the rights of indigenous peoples.

  • To prevent permafrost melting, oil installations at well-heads are raised on mattresses
  • Dalton Highway (open since 1994) provides a supply route from the South to Prudhoe Bay in the North. It is built 2 m off the tundra surface on a bed of gravel and sand.
  • Workers at oil fields who do 2 week shifts through the year are flown in by Air Alaska from Anchorage (in the South) and lie in Deadhorse in raised, heated cabins
  • The Trans-Alaskan Pipeline, carrying oil 1,300 km from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez started being constructed in 1974 and was completed in 1977 at a cost of US$8 x 10^9. 5 pumping stations control oil flow. The pipeline is insulated and for most of its length is raised- both for access and to minimise environmental damage. The pipeline is built with a “zigzag” path to allow space for expansion of the pipeline in summer without the pipe breaking and leaking oil onto the tundra.
  • BP became the sole oil extractor at Prudhoe Bay in 2,000 but had to abandon parts of the oil field in 2009 as 900,000 litres of oil leaked from corroded pipes
  • In 1978 the Government increased areas of conservation in Alaska by 23 million hectare and by another 42 million in 1980

The oil is shipped out from Valdez by companies such as Exxon to refineries elsewhere in the USofA. Valdez is also dependent on commercial fishing.


  • The Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 damaged large sections of the coastline
  • Since 2006 some double-hull oil tankers, offering more protection against potential obstacles, have been operating in Alaskan waters.

The area also has a threat of earthquakes and tsunamis due to being on a destructive plate boundary.

Geological activity

On 27th March 1964 an earthquake measuring 9.2 on the Richter scale, epicentre 112 km East of Anchorage occurred resulting in land beside Prince William Sound sinking around 2 m. Tsunami over 30m high have hit Valdez before- Valdez has had to be relocated to a higher, safer site because of this.


Tourism in Alaska is mainly concentrated in June, July and August, and in the South. Many visitors come in cruise ships.

  • Tourists are bused between National Parks to admire wildlife and scenery
  • Many anglers from around the world visit Alaska
  • Many ferries and tourist vehicles also carry rangers who identify wildlife and geographical features


32% of Alaska is covered in forest. There are 4.8 million hectares of commercial forest

  • In 2004, 272 fires were caused by lightning and 424 by people One by Dalton Highway destroyed 195,576 hectares of forest

Ash from fire can release minerals which help plant growth and also leaves areas of the forest floor exposed to sunlight so more plants can grow there.


In 2,000 Alaska had 626,932 residents, and now has 736,732 in 2016.

  • To safeguard subsistence lifestyles, a government act in 1980 gave the rural people priority in hunting and fishing on federal lands. There have been subsequent disputes between rural and urban Alaskans, due to claims of being discriminated against. It is difficult for wardens to enforce this.
  • Alaskan residents have benefited from oil revenue. In 1976 the Alaska Permanent Fund was established. At least 25% of all money earned from minerals goes into this fund. By 1980 oil revenues had allowed Alaska to abolish income taxes. Alaska is now the 4th richest US state.


The Arctic may have up to 25% of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves. In 2007, Russia put claims to the Arctic which has created tensions with other Arctic nations and territories, including Denmark (Greenland), Norway and Canada, as well as the USofA


(Image Sources: http://www.d.umn.edu/~hoef0049/pbpipeline.html http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/pipeline/map/ http://nws.noaa.gov/com/weatherreadynation/news/140319_alaska.html)

Exxon Valdez oil spill

Exxon – company involved

Valdez – ship involved

The Valdez departed from the Trans Alaskan Pipeline’s end. On March 24th 1989, it struck Bligh reef.


  • Lack of proper navigation, possibly from alcohol
  • Failure of Exxon to supervise and provide a rested and sufficient crew
  • Failure of coastguard to provide effective vessel traffic systems
  • Captain told a pilot to avoid ice bergs and go back into shipping lanes at a certain point, leading to confusion.

11 million gallons of oil were spilled.


  • More than 35,000 birds killed
  • 1,000 otters found covered in oil (or dead)

Most animals will sink when they die, so only a small proportion have been found. Estimates are that:

  • 250,000 birds died
  • 800 harbour seals died
  • 250 bald eagles died
  • 22 whales died
  • and 1 x10^9 fish eggs were wiped out

59% of tourism businesses received cancellations, Visitors to the area decreased by 39% compared to the previous summer.

The captain was fined US$50,000 and did 1,000 hours of community service.

20 acres are still contaminated; US$580 has been lost on fishing and US$2.8 x 10^9 worth of damage was caused. It took 4 summers of clean-up before they had given up, and some beaches were still oily. The clean up was finally complete in 1992, with a total coast of £2 x10^9 being spent on clean up.

10,000 workers, 1,000 boats, and 100 helicopters and other aircraft were needed for the clean up.Winter storms do more for the clean up than the workers, but mean that the oil is back in the sea. The spill was actually good for hotels as visitors came to help with the cleaning.

Exxon themselves spent US$2.1 x10^9 on clean up operations.

In 1998, the Alaskan SeaLife Centre opened in Seward, funded mostly by money from the Exxon Valdez fine. As well as a visitors’ centre it performs research on cold-water fish, seabirds and marine mammals, and rehabilitates injured marine wildlife.

Alaskan proposals to extract oil to negate the effects of extracting oil

According to Bill Walker, governor of Alaska, searching for oil in Alaska is necessary to pay for the damage caused by climate change.

Climate change is having a huge effect on Alaska. 90% of the population lives in just the two largest cities, both of which are coastal. Villages are having to be moved because of rising sea levels. Erosion is threatening native communities along the coast.  The governor said coping with these changes is very expensive-true. However, he thinks that having to “urgently” drill in protected land within the Arctic National Wilderness Refuge is a good idea.

Alaska is the only state without sales or income tax, and 90% of it’s expenditure comes from levies on oil and gas. The price drops in oil have costed the Alaskan economy, only exacerbated by Shell pulling out of an oil deal on the north coast. This would have boosted the income from the Trans Alaskan Pipeline, that traverses 1300km from the north coast to Valdez on the south coast. It is currently carrying 25% of capacity.

“We are in a significant fiscal challenge. We have villages that are washing away because of changes in the climate.

“I don’t see anyone putting together contribution funds to help move Kivalina [A small coastal village facing rising seas]; that is out obligation, we stand by that- we need to figure out how to do that. But those are very expensive- we have about 12 villages in that situation.

This isn’t something we can put off for 10-20 years… We have to begin now- it’s an absolute urgency for Alaska. – Bill Walker

President Obama tried to increase protection for the Reserve only to be halted by congress- as all his good ideas are.

One of the main concerns (after how cyclical and therefore bad this idea looks to anyone) is that of the native people in the area. Caribou calve near where Bill Walker proposed developing. The Gwich’in people in the region depend on caribou for food and clothing, as well as their cultural importance.


(Source: BBC News, author; Matt McGrath)