The month’s issue of AQUILA magazine is on the theme of Winter Wild! To get us thoroughly warmed up, let’s break the ice with some BRRRRilliant wintry facts.
Are you the sort of person who needs an extra cardigan the minute it drops below ‘balmy’? How do you think you’d deal with a weekend break at Vostok Station, in Antarctica? The coldest day on record was 21 July 1983, when temperatures there got down to -89.4 °C. It’s often said that humans can survive in any temperature, as long as they have the right clothes on. But you’re going to need a very spenny pair of earmuffs to survive this kind of freeze.
Not all animals are as susceptible to cold as us humans. The Arctic ground squirrel (Urocitellus parryii) has a very special way of dealing with chilly times. These creatures live in Alaska, Canada, and Siberia, where it can get very cold indeed. Temperatures in Siberia can reach -40 °C on a regular basis. In wintertime, when the moment comes for them to hibernate, these little legends burrow to about a metre below the surface. Then they curl up into a furry little ball and go to sleep. Their lungs and hearts slow right down. Their blood remains liquid through a process called supercooling. Ultimately, their core temperature drops to below the freezing temperature of water (that DOES sound supercool! Ed). I know, right? The neurons in the Arctic ground squirrel’s brain also shrink, and the connections between neurons die off. And yet, when spring comes, they’re STILL able to wake up and return to their lives almost as if nothing happened. Amazing! And here’s another supercool fact. Mother ground squirrels are able to do this for the longest period of time. They’ll typically spend a month longer in this deepfreeze state compared with males and younger females.
Lurking just above the ground squirrel’s cosy little burrow is the Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus). These guys might look super cute, with their shock of white fur and perky little black noses, but they’re actually expert predators. Arctic foxes eat a lot of small rodents called lemmings. But, like the Arctic ground squirrel, lemmings tend to spend a lot of time in complicated tunnel systems under the ground. (Trust me, with these guys tracking your every move, you would too.) So, what does an Arctic fox do to catch its pesky subterranean prey? They use their incredible listening skills to track the lemming underground, that’s what. Then, when they’ve worked out exactly where the lemming is, they leap high into the air, dive nose-first into the snow, and strike. It’s a numbers game. The fox will almost always come up empty handed, unless (and this is weird) they happen to be facing north. It’s true! Scientists think that these magnificent predators can use the planet’s electromagnetic field in order to plot their trajectory more precisely!
Subscribe now to read all about the Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), another cute-but-ultimately-savage winter predator, in this month’s issue of AQUILA magazine.
Another thing that interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field is the magnificent aurora – the northern and southern lights. The oldest known record of the northern lights comes from the Bamboo Annals – ancient Chinese records that were written on bamboo slips, around the year 10,000 BCE. These bamboo records were discovered hidden in a tomb back in 279 CE. When experts finally got around to studying a specific part of the text, they found a description detailing a five-coloured light in the sky.
Hang on though, central China isn’t far north enough to see the aurora, how could they have spotted them 12,000 years ago? Ed
An excellent question with a VERY interesting answer. Way back in the 10th century BCE, the Earth’s magnetic poles weren’t in quite the same place as they are today. In fact, the precise locations of the magnetic poles are always shifting depending on changes that happen inside the Earth’s core. Back then, the magnetic north pole was 15 degrees closer to central China, and that meant that the aurora would occasionally have been visible there! We still don’t know for sure that our ancient Chinese friends definitely saw and wrote about the aurora – there isn’t enough hard evidence to confirm – but it does seem likely.
Talking about uncorroborated sightings of strange atmospheric phenomena, check this out! During a snowstorm in 1887, residents of Fort Keogh, Montana, USA, claimed to have seen milk-pan sized snowflakes falling from the sky. That would make them about 38 cm in diameter, and that would make them, like, HUMONGOUS! The biggest snowflakes ever spotted, to be precise. Too bad they were never officially documented because some idiot decided to catch them all in his mouth cameras weren’t widely available yet.
Did you know that the snowiest city on Earth is NOT actually Fort Keogh, USA but Aomori City, in northern Japan? This place gets an average of 8 metres of snow per year. That’s enough to submerge a two-storey building! Why is there so much snow here? Well, Aomori city just happens to be squidged in between the Hakkoda Mountains and the waters of Matsu Bay. Separate winds come off the mountains, and in from the Pacific Ocean. When they collide, clouds quickly form and instead of rain, these clouds produce snow. Lots and lots and lots of snow. With all that white stuff to contend with, you might assume that Aomori city would close down during the off-season, but the opposite is true. The town actually becomes a hot (well… cold) spot for eager tourists who come to enjoy the Japanese hot springs and a bowl of Nokke-don – rice topped with the finest seafood available, including scallops, sea urchin and octopus.
Written by Freya Hardy