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A Flesh-Eating Bacterium Is Creeping North as Oceans Warm

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V. vulnificus is only active at a temperature that’s above 13 degrees Celsius, and then it becomes more prevalent up until the temperature reaches 30 degrees Celsius, which is 86 Fahrenheit,” says Karen Knee, who is an associate professor and water-quality expert at American University and an open-water swimmer accustomed to ocean conditions. “I was looking at the sea surface temperature maps, and everywhere south of Cape Cod is getting into territory that’s above 20 degrees Celsius, which is when [Vibrio] really starts to become more infectious. And that’s most of the swimming waters on the East Coast.”

There’s more going on than just temperature shifts. Geoffrey Scott, the chair of environmental sciences at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health who leads a research consortium on oceans and climate change, says changes in water quality are whomping up Vibrio’s ability to cause severe illness. Those changes are driven by people relocating to coasts, which increases nutrient flows into the ocean via wastewater.

Vibrio used to be a…

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