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Story Tools

Date of Issue: January 05, 2006

Sandscript

Cold weather stories to read around the fireplace

With winter officially here and the temperatures dropping into the 40s - OK, 48 isn't all that chilly for places like North Dakota, but it's pretty cold for Anna Maria Island - here are some cold-weather stories. One is wacky, one is useful, and one is just plain weird.

He's gotta be nuts

According to the journal Nature, "British swimmer Lewis Pugh this week broke two world records, for the most southerly swim ever undertaken in the ocean, and the longest-duration polar swim ever completed."

It seems that he swam a kilometer in the ocean off the Antarctic Peninsula where, thanks to be water being extra-salty, the temperatures get colder than freezing. It took him a little more than 18 minutes - probably the longest 18 minutes in his life.

A couple days later it took him more than 30 minutes to swim a mile to set a record for the longest time spent in frigid water. As one scientist who accompanied him on the swim, in a boat, of course, put it, "I did not believe it possible to swim for 30 and a half minutes in 2-3 degrees Celsius water in just Speedo trunks."

"Normal people" tend to freak out when they get into cold water. We start to hyperventilate, which believe it or not tends to constrict the lungs. Heart rate goes through the roof, and the icy feeling is more akin to a burning on extremities. Even Pugh the Superman admitted he felt "screaming pain" as soon as he got in the water.

His trick to survive? Practice, and going low and slow, believe it or not.

"In the weeks leading up to his swim," according to the Nature article, "Pugh took frequent cold showers as well as training in icy water. Of course, preventing the body from shutting down is just half the battle - Pugh and his support team also had to ensure that his body temperature remained above 35 degrees Celsius, which is generally regarded as the cut-off point for hypothermia."

There is also something called "anticipatory thermogenesis" that Pugh had going for him. "Just the sight of icy water is enough to send his body temperature ratcheting up to 38 degrees Celsius, giving him a head start against the ravages to come," according to the article. In short, his body heat jumped up just before he jumped in the water, giving him a few more degrees of heat to work with.

He also swam pretty hard, steadily, to maintain his body's heat.

And although there's no mention of it in the article, it would appear that he's kind of a bulky guy.

Women, believe it or not, are generally better at long-distance swimming in cold water than men because they've got a different fat-to-muscle ratio. More fat over muscles means more heat retention and less of a chill factor. In fact, the previous record holder was Lynne Cox, who "has attributed her success in part to her 36-percent body fat." Most women have a percentage in the 20s.

Keep the growing going

Our friend Jane Morse has offered a few more plant tips to help us as we wind through the winter season. She's a University of Florida/IFAS Manatee County extension agent. She advises the following for keeping your plants warm and happy during the winter months.

First, as she puts it, "Proper plant selection and placement are the most important steps toward having a healthy landscape. Cold-sensitive plants should be placed in the warmest sites on your property, usually a south-facing area protected by walls, fences or evergreen plantings. Poorly drained sites result in weak, shallow-rooted plants that are more likely to suffer from cold damage. Best choice - choose plants that will easily tolerate the temperatures you are likely to receive.

"Fertilize, if needed, at the right time. Plants in south central Florida can be fertilized in February, May, August and November. In the fall decrease the amount of fertilizer to half the standard rate because plants are not actively growing and use less water and plant nutrients. Always use slow-release fertilizers because they provide nutrients over a longer period of time and decrease the likelihood of nitrogen getting into our water supply.

"Plants in shady areas go dormant earlier and remain dormant later in the spring. Tree canopies also provide protection from ‘radiation' freezes, which occurs on cold, clear, still nights because heat ‘radiates' from objects into the air. Mulches help to protect the roots, and coverings such as cloth or plastic protect more from frost than from extreme cold. Covers need to be raised above the plant and go all the way to the ground. Cardboard boxes large enough to cover the entire plant work great."

Morse added that "Watering landscape plants before a freeze can help protect plants, but avoid having the soil saturated for a prolonged time." A little goes a long way, in other words.

She and the rest of the gang at the extension service offer really valuable resources to place next to your shovel or watering can, and you can tap into them - free - with a phone call at 722-4524.

Extraordinary weather forecasts - from a tusk

Narwhals are one of the weirdest critters in the seas. They're small, gray-colored whales that are found in the Arctic Ocean. Males, and a few females, have an ivory tusk spouting from their foreheads that can grow to 9 feet in length. The tusks grow in a counterclockwise spirals as the whale sees it and the tooth looks like the world's largest corkscrew.

Ancient sailors thought the tusks were used for battle, kind of like a sword. There were reports that narwhals used the tusk to ram sailing ships, and they were even handed off as unicorn horns up through the 17th century. There were also stories of the tusks being used to punch through the ice so the whales could breathe.

Recent studies have revealed something truly amazing about the tusks, though, that apparently has shocked the scientific community. Like something from a sci-fi story, the tusks appear to be alive.

According to a report in The New York Times, the tusk "forms a sensory organ of exceptional size and sensitivity, making the living appendage one of the planet's most remarkable, and one that in some ways outdoes its own mythology."

Apparently a bunch of researchers captured a narwhal and cranked up an electron microscope on it. They found that instead of a tooth, albeit a very, very large tooth, the tusk actually had more than 10 million nerve endings that linked with the nerve than runs inside its length.

"The scientists say the nerves can detect subtle changes of temperature, pressure, particle gradients and probably much more, giving the animal unique insights," the Times said.

As one researcher put it, "This whale is intent on understanding its environment. The tusk is not about some guys duking it out with sticks and swords."

Another team of researchers captured a narwhal and changed the water salinity near its tusk. Brain wave activity was monitored and changes were noted. The speculation was that the whales can detect changes in the water and help provide data for when the ice may solidify or help offer insights into where the cod and other fish the whales eat may be going.

And get this: Narwhals often stick the tusks out of the water as they're moving around in the Arctic. Think weather probe, and you've got the same idea that the scientists are working on.

There is speculation that "the long teeth might sometimes serve as sophisticated weather stations, letting the animals sense changes in temperature and barometric pressure that could tell of the arrival of cold fronts and the likelihood that open ice channels might soon freeze up."

More studies, of course, are planned.

Sandscript factoid

Narwhal tusks have been found in history since about 1000 A.D., when they were sold as unicorn horns. That myth was debunked 600 years later, but the tusks were still highly prized. Queen Elizabeth received one in the 16th century that was valued then at 10,000 pounds - about the cost of a castle.

Even Jules Verne ran across narwhals in his adventures, writing in 1870 that the whale's tusk "could pierce ships clean through as easily as a drill pierces a barrel."

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