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.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

 

S01|E01: Let's Take This Outside

How do you define wilderness? Why are humans drawn to summits? Will the cold-hardy kiwi save a struggling local economy, or will it destroy a native eco-system? What is nutria, and why does it taste so good? Meet Outside/In. A brand new radio show and podcast that takes a look at the natural world and how we use it.

Listen to the full episode:


Champagne on the Rocks

This past summer, Scott Jurek set a new record for running the 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail. But on his triumphant day atop the last mountain in Northern Maine, his 21st century campaign for the trail's record ran afoul of a park founded on ideas about wilderness from a decidedly earlier time.


Why We Summit

Mariagrazia Portera's post-doctoral research focuses on evolutionary aesthetics, specifically Darwin's aesthetics. Essentially--using anthropology, philosophy, literature, biology,  genetics--she tries to understand why humans appreciate certain things that are not key to our survival. Things like going to the opera, admiring paintings, reading fictional stories, and climbing mountains. We asked her why humans feel compelled to summit mountains.


10x10: Vernal Pools

A little introduction to 10x10: Occasionally, we're going to be looking very closely at certain really cool spots. We're calling these types of segments 10x10, because--hey--we've got to draw the line somewhere. But it could be a 10x10 plot anywhere: in the woods, on a mountain, in the water, in the air. And really, it could be 10 anything by 10 anything: feet, inches, miles, FATHOMS...we're not big on making any hard and fast rules. 

For this first foray out into the woods, we're checking out something called vernal pools. Vernal, meaning springtime, and pools as in...pools. These are little (and sometimes not so little!) pools that form when spring rains combine with winter snow-melt to make some really wet spots. These puddles might look a little gross, especially after they've been sitting there for a few weeks--and are full of all sorts of sliminess--but they are absolutely essential to all sorts of bizarre critters.

Trust us, you'll never listen to the spring peepers the same way again.


The Cold Hardy Kiwi

Iago Hale has a vision: it’s one where the economy of the North Country is revitalized by local farmers selling delicious, cold hardy kiwi berries to the masses. Meanwhile, Tom Lautzenheiser has been battling a hardy kiwi infestation in Massachusetts for years, and is afraid that this fight will soon be coming to the rest of New England.

Should we worry about the cold hardy kiwi and what does the quest to bring it to market tell us about what an invasive species is?


Eat the Invaders!

So, like everything, there’s a lot of grey area in the definition of what’s “invasive”. But there are also plenty of things that are just straight up a problem. 

The American Chestnut--which was a super valuable tree for both lumber and food--was wiped out by an imported blight.

Rabbits introduced to Australia were so prolific that the Aussies were killing 2 million a year without putting a dent in the population.

And, Burmese pythons are currently in the process of feasting on the endangered birds and small mammals of the Florida Everglades.

Which is why we are going to be doing our part, here at Outside in, by eating some invasive species.

We ate Nutria Stew and Periwinkle Fritters and lived to tell the tale. Watch the videos of us making some culinary magic in the kitchen.

If you'd like to try out an invasive dish for your next party, here are the recipes we used.

Plus a couple hot tips: When you order your nutria meat, make sure it's actually boneless and if you're making Periwinkle Fritters for a crowd, ask the crowd to come early to help you pick out the periwinkles. 

You can find many more invasive species recipes at: Eat The Invaders. Happy eating!

 
 

Outside/In was produced this week by: 

Sam Evans-Brown

With help from: Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Logan Shannon, Molly Donahue, and Megan Tan.

Photos of Sam are by Greta Rybus unless otherwise noted.

Episode 2: Puddles in the Woods

....or, why you should always be careful where you step when you're traipsing through the woods in the springtime.

But first, what is 10x10?

Occasionally, we're going to be looking really, really closely at certain really cool spots. We're calling these types of segments 10x10, because--hey--we've got to draw the line somewhere. But it could be a 10x10 plot anywhere: in the woods, on a mountain, in the water, in the air. And really it could be 10 anything by 10 anything: feet, inches, miles, FATHOMS...we're not big on making any hard and fast rules. 

 

credit: sara plourde

credit: sara plourde

For this first foray out into the woods, we're checking out something called vernal pools. Vernal, meaning springtime, and pools as in... pools. These are little (and sometimes not so little!) pools that form when spring rains combine with winter snow-melt to make some really wet spots. These puddles might look a little gross, especially after they have been sitting there for a few weeks--and are full of all sorts of sliminess--but they are absolutely essential to all sorts of bizarre critters.

You'll never listen to the spring peepers the same way again.

Listen to the episode:

A video of frogs, uh...doin' their thing

As promised, here's a video of a Frog Orgy. We're not entirely sure what's going on here, but watching it made Maureen and Logan very uncomfortable.

Photos from the field