Episode 31: Ask Sam | Snow Fleas, Wind, Mount Mitchell

Every so often, we take some time out from telling stories to answer questions from you, our friends and listeners. These questions have been piling up, and so we thought we’d dig through them and bring you some of the more interesting ones.

If you want us to answer your question, you should give us a call! The number is 603-223-2448. If you’re technologically inclined, record your question on a voice-memo and send it to outsidein@nhpr.org.

Enough preamble, the the questions!

Question 1. Eric: I’m standing in the middle of Blue Job State Forest in Strafford, and it just snowed, and there are all these tiny little black bugs crawling around the snow. They look like snow fleas? I don’t know what they are. But there’s probably, oh there’s got to be billions of them, because they’re everywhere. And I was just wondering, what are they and where on earth did they come from?

A local caller! If you’re an out-of-state listener, Blue Job is a a little knob with very nice views in southeastern New Hampshire, but this particular type of tiny beasty is found all over the globe. Snow fleas are a type of springtail (cue link to a Wikipedia page!) which are one of the most abundant types of creatures on earth. They are literally everywhere there is dirt.

If you cast your memory back to our episode about all of the hidden biodiversity in a routine traffic circle, you might remember that we talked about microarthropods — which is science speak for itsy-bitsy bugs — as being the largest critter in the soil food web. Springtails are one of the creatures we were talking about. The munching that they do is one of the mechanisms that serves to decompose organic matter that falls onto the ground. Up here in New England, we call them snow fleas (and not dirt fleas) because, even though they live in the dirt, we only tend to notice them when they come out onto the snow, thanks to the contrast between their tiny black bodies and the white surface.

There’s an incredible variety in the number of species of springtails, and much we don’t know about the lifecycles of all the individual species, but there is a lot of interest in them because of their ability to survive and even be active in extremely cold temperatures.

One additional fun-fact. Springtails are useful to folks who care for insects in cages, like Gwen Pearson who manages Purdue Universities Insect Zoo. Because springtails eat mold and fungus spores, they can be used to keep the sultry enclosures of tropical creatures free of gunk. In fact, you can buy them in bulk on Amazon for just this purpose.

Question 2, Aubrey: I wanted to ask Sam about wind, because anecdotally I feel like there’s a lot more wind recently, than there was in the past. I’m just wondering if there’s any correlation between increased wind events and our global warming situation. It seems like intuitively, if there’s more energy in the atmosphere, there should be more wind, but maybe I’m just imagining it.

Full disclosure, Aubrey is my lovely wife (and as I often joke — as a powerhouse middle school science teacher —  the source of all of my knowledge). We have talked about this question for a long time, and she finally got fed up with me stalling and called it into the hotline so that I’d be forced to answer it.

There’s also a fairly easy answer, Ian Young of the University of Melbourne has been working on the surprisingly tricky task of teasing out global trends in wind speed. As you might imagine, its a big world and there are a lot of places that wind isn’t getting measured second-by-second, and satellite wind data can be a little noisy. But despite the challenges, he has an estimate, largely derived from wind speeds over the oceans.

“What our observations show is that for an area like the northeast coast of the United States we’ve seen wind-speeds increase, on average, by about seven percent,” Young told me when we managed to connect over the phone (at 11 PM his time, and 7 AM ours).

The tricky business for professor Young has been determining whether that increase is due to a general increase in background windiness, or a rise in the power of extreme wind events… stronger storms. He says they aren’t yet sure, but he leans towards stronger storms.

This discussion also yielded a fascinating revelation from executive producer Maureen McMurray: she hates wind chimes, and equates hanging up a wind chime within ear-shot of your neighbors to blasting Steely Dan’s Black Cow from your back porch all-day, every-day.

PSA: Take in your wind-chimes, people.

Question 3. Alex: I was just in North Carolina and went up to Mount Mitchell, which had a sign very proudly proclaiming it to be the highest peak east of the Mississippi, but we all know that’s false because the highest peak east of the Mississippi is Barbeau Peak, up on Ellesmere Island. So, I’m wondering how the state parks system can get away with such a catastrophic lie to the public?

Credit: mitchell adams via flickr cc, https://flic.kr/p/zXuvyh

Credit: mitchell adams via flickr cc, https://flic.kr/p/zXuvyh

Wow, Alex. Tell us how you really feel? He is correct, ladies and gentlemen, anyone with access to a search engine can indeed discover for themselves that Barbeau Peak is taller than Mount Mitchell. (Although it looks somehow… sadder.)

This is clearly a question of semantics. I think we can all agree that since if you go far enough east you’ll eventually circumnavigate the entire globe and find yourself back at Mount Mitchell, this sign is missing some sort of important qualifier. Is it the highest peak east of the Mississippi in America? In North America? WEST OF THE PRIME MERIDIAN?! MY GOD WHICH IS IT?

Leaving aside how exactly this “lie” is “catastrophic,” we at Outside/In do believe that accuracy is paramount. As such, in collaboration with Alex, we have come up with a proposed solution. If any listener happens to hike Mount Mitchell in the near future, try to figure out a way to make the sign more accurate. Using a method that does not deface the sign, please! Add a note using a sticky note, perhaps. Or stand in front of the sign without your own hand-fashioned placard which adds an appropriate geographical caveat afterward.

Once you’re done, send us a picture, and maybe the internet will make it go all viral. (Ok, I confess, I probably don’t know how viral things on the internet work.)

Question 4. Maureen: In the last few weeks we have had very cold weather and then a warm up and then it gets cold again.  As the snow has melted and I’ve been out walking, I’ve noticed what looks like rocks that have sunk into the ground.  My guess is that the rocks stay colder and heavier longer and the soil warms and expands, or loosens and the cold heavy rock sinks, then the ground refreezes over it.  Can you explain this phenomenon?

This one came in over email. And you know what that means: exclusive web only content!

I’ve been observing this phenomenon in my own back yard, Maureen, and what you’re witnessing (or at least what I’m witnessing and assuming is the same at your house) is the formation and later melting away of needle ice.

Basically, what happens is that when the soil is above freezing but the air is above freezing, moisture in the soil is drawn towards the surface (through capillary action, the same process that plants use to send water from the roots to the leaves) and as it rises it freezes in a column. As it rises it brings the mud or sand around it up as well. If the ice then melts (as it has done numerous times this winter in New England… *sigh*), you’re left with disturbed, aerated, slightly taller soil. So what you’re actually seeing is the dirt around the rocks rising up, not the rocks sinking down. Oh, those tricksy rocks!

Indeed, any gardener from New Hampshire will tell you that far from sinking because of their density, rocks in New England soil have a tendency to “heave” their way towards the surface as they undergo freeze-thaw cycles. This occurs for the same reason that you always find all the brazil nuts at the top of a can of mixed nuts.

As a fun bonus, needle ice can also be incredibly beautiful, if you’re willing to get down on your belly and look.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown with help from Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

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