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SciShow News shares the latest insights into two powerful natural forces: El Nino and barfing.

Hosted by: Hank Green
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For many of us, the end of August is back to school time. And if you have kids in school, you know what that means --

-- It means you can expect your entire family to be sick for the next six months.

And you’d think by now that there wouldn’t be a whole lot of guesswork involved when it comes to how certain diseases are transmitted, either by kids or adults, in close quarters.

But this week, researchers said they’d figured out the transmission secret to what’s probably everyone’s least favorite fall and winter sickness: gastroenteritis.

You might know it as the stomach flu -- even though it has nothing to do with the influenza virus; it’s actually caused by a few different species, including one group of viruses known as norovirus.

But whatever you call this sickness, the results are the same: copious vomiting and diarrhea.

Norovirus infects 20 million people in the United States every year, I was one of them last year and it was unpleasant. But in the very young and very old, it can be fatal.

It’s also notoriously difficult to get rid of: The virus can live on surfaces like countertops for two weeks, and studies have found that it’s is still alive and kickin' in dried-up vomit even after six weeks! So don’t eat any dried up vomit!

So, a team of experts in food-borne viruses -- known as food virologists -- teamed up recently to study how norovirus gets around so well. And its secret, they found, is in the act of vomiting itself.

How'd they figure that out?

Well, by inventing a vomiting machine, of course!

Researchers from North Carolina State and Wake Forest University created a device that imitates a miniature mouth, esophagus, and stomach with an adjustable pump attached. They put it in a sealed Plexiglas container, so they could safely and cleanly simulate the act of human emesis -- aka barfing.

They filled the pump with so-called “artificial vomitus,” a solution infused with a harmless virus known as MS2.

And then finally, they made the machine throw up -- a lot -- experimenting with various pressures, and volumes, and even viscosities -- or how thick the fake puke was -- and taking measurements inside the container to see where the virus could be detected.

Their results showed that the process of vomiting actually caused some of the virus to aerosolize, or form a fine suspension in the air, which would allow it to travel airborne. 

The amount of virus measured in the aerosol was small -- about 0.02 percent of the total virus load that was spewed -- but the researchers said that even that small amount can contain thousands of individual viruses.

This helps explain how norovirus can be spread so easily, and why it can be found, say, even outside the bathroom that a sick pukey-person has recently been… in.

So in this Disgusting Science Quote of the WeekTM, one researcher concluded, and I quote: “When one person vomits, the aerosolized virus particles can get into another person's mouth and, if swallowed, can lead to infection."

Now, let’s get that nasty taste out of our mouths with a li'l climate science, shall we?

Last week, NOAA -- the United States' official weather and climate bureau -- announced that we’re in the grip of the weather phenomenon known as El Niño, and it may prove to be one of the strongest yet recorded.

So, who is this Niño kid and why should I care?

El Niño is a change in tropical wind patterns in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of South America. And if you live on a continent that borders the Pacific, you should care, because it could mean that your town could have a very different winter than you’re used to.

An El Niño pattern this strong hasn’t shown up since 1997 and 1998, when droughts struck the usually damp climate of Indonesia, while Los Angeles got a year’s worth of rain in one month.

So, if you weren’t around then -- or if the ‘90s are just kind of a blur to you -- here’s what’s happening:

Normally, the winds along the equatorial Pacific blow east to west, carrying warm air and water from the coast of South America to Southeast Asia, causing warm, wet weather there.

But El Niño starts when, for reasons that aren’t totally understood, those winds die down. And instead, the warm water heads east toward the Americas.

For meteorologists, El Niño is only official when the sea surface temperatures in the Pacific have been higher than average by half a degree Celsius, for three months in a row, which they were as of March.

By July, though, the waters were 2 degrees warmer, so scientists have changed their forecasts. Now NOAA scientists are saying that there’s a 90 percent chance that this pattern will stay in place through the winter, and an 85 percent chance that it’ll still be around come spring.

So what does mean? Well, models predict that Southeast Asia and Eastern Australia will have a dry winter, while drought-stricken California and the Southwest may get a lot of rain and snow here in the US.

But! No two of these phenomena are the same. The winter of 1998 caused deadly mudslides in California and catastrophic flooding in Peru; but a milder El Niño in 2010 just meant that the snow machines had to work extra hard at the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

So at least now you have a better sense of a couple things you can expect in the coming months -- an unusual winter, and possibly swallowing a tiny bit of someone else's barf.

Thanks for watching SciShow News, hope it was interesting, and thank you especially to all of our patrons on Patreon who make this show possible. If you would like to help us keep making videos like this, you can go to where also, there’s some cool stuff that you might get. All right. Bye.