If Snow be Black

After last week’s monster storm that left Eastern USA snow white, the snowbanks slowly melted into pools and streams. But what if snow were black? The Bard liked nature the way he saw it, but he loved to mock our conventional sense of color.Sonnet #130, ver#2

Casting back to Physics 101, I remember learning how experience tidily lines up alongside theory. Dark surfaces feel hotter than light ones as they don’t release energy so efficiently, and dark roofs and asphalt are heat sinks making urban centers several degrees warmer than outlying countryside. There is little advantage in a black roof for absorbing heat when it is snow-covered, but a white roof in summer can significantly reduce AC bills by reflecting the sun’s rays.

Standard white paint reflects 80% of solar radiation, whereas standard black has only 5% reflectivity. The thermal emissivity of asphalt and snow are similar, but the solar reflectance index from combining reflectivity and emissivity is theoretically 100 for white versus 0 for black. Some difference!

Snow be black
Snow be black

Instead of sprinkling salt to lower the freezing point of your icy path, test whether powdered black carbon (soot) melts ice faster by absorbing heat than leaving it untreated. Almost unnoticeable traces of black carbon can have noticeable effects. Consider the melting of glaciers, which started accelerating in the Alps in the second half of the 19th Century. This was originally blamed on climate change (temperature and precipitation), but a recent model from measuring ice cores predicts a better fit to the fallout of black carbon in the Industrial Age. The Alps are encircled by cities that industrialized early and depended on burning dirty coal.

Weathermen who speak of ‘black ice’ know that it is, strictly speaking, science fiction. It’s very hard to imagine how atomic bonds would be bent to abolish the reflective properties of ice, at least in the universe we know. But who knows? Nature looks stranger every day we look closer. Black holes look black because gravity captures light from escaping. Both black coal and transparent diamonds are from carbon, not paradoxical but a discovery that would have humored Shakespeare.

If snow was not white, our world would be hotter, have higher sea levels, different fauna and flora, and no snowmen on Christmas cards. According to that incurable optimist, Dr. Pangloss, “It is demonstrable that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end (Trans. Candide). But Tom Torrance, a theologian famous for embracing Carl Barth and Niels Bohr, once reminded me that we live a contingent universe, and ought to be thankful for this one and not to be born somewhere much stranger in the multiverse. Yes, let snow be white.

Next Post: Dees Bones Gonna Walka Round

Are Bats So Scary?

Some animals have few human friends, like bats. We had a little brown bat tucked inside folded wings, like dead leaves, hanging over a rocker in our porch. It was a welcome guest. But ask the public about the most despised animals and bats come near the top of the list, whether in myth or fact—they give people creeps at Halloween, they hang out with witches, they are revenants haunting graveyards, they drink blood, and the latest accusation is they gave us the Ebola virus. So this week I’m defending bats but mostly writing about zoonoses (What?). I’ll try to explain…bat

There’s no smoking gun that would convict bats in a fair court of law. It’s true that maps for bat density and infectious diseases are closely matched, and fruit bats can be found roasting on charcoal fires in Guinea where the first cases of Ebola were reported. Circumstantial evidence is usually sufficient for prejudice when a creature is ugly, loathsome, and gets tangled in your hair (sic)! It matters not that “nice” animals like antelopes and chimpanzees harbor the same virus, and likely many other mammals too when the research is done. At one time, rabies was believed to be confined to canids, but we now know that every mammal can transmit the virus. It seems that every species that was crowded onto the Ark is a potential vector for a zoonosis that Noah’s family might have caught. Yes, there’s a microbial zoo in furry animals, the ones we think are cute and the others we loathe. All this said, I admit we can’t let bats off the hook, but we should agree the culprit for Ebola is still unknown.

Bats carry a menagerie of over thirty viruses, probably not a record load and certainly not all harmful to us, but alien to human hosts. Bats tolerate most of them without harm to themselves (they succumb to rabies) because microbes have piggy-backed their hosts for eons, time enough for host and pathogen to adapt through mutation and natural selection for virulence to taper off. This biology is a brilliant challenge for evolution deniers to deny. It’s not in the interest of a piggy-backer to break the back of the one carrying them, because when that one dies so does the other. And that is why new host-pathogen associations are so much more dangerous than old ones.

There are historical precedents where the introduction of a pathogen to an immunologically naïve population was devastating. Take the story of measles and smallpox brought by Europeans to the Americas, or Americans building the Panama Canal in the jungle who brought yellow fever home, or when raccoons deliberately moved across state lines in the 1970s transferred rabies to local wildlife. The history of HIV crossing to humans is still unsettled, although the retrovirus evidently has progenitors in healthy chimpanzees today. I published a speculation that it jumped species in the 1920s during human surgery involving grafted organs from chimpanzees, although that theory is dangling. The likelihood of hosting a foreign microbe is much greater between closely related species like mammals and to a lesser extent birds, than, say, reptiles or amphibians. Certainly, the reservoir of potential pathogens in animals will never run dry, but their abundance is not as alarming as the opportunities for exposure.

Some two decades ago, Laurie Garrett wrote The Coming Plague as a reaction to the complacent belief that infectious diseases had been largely overcome (smallpox, etc.), and the redirection of research endeavor to degenerative diseases. She was running with the tide because while drafting her book the HIV-AIDS epidemic kicked in, TB became resurgent, Legionnaire’s disease grabbed headlines, Lyme was discovered, and Ebola, etc. Tellingly, she chose as her subtitle, Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance.

There was a time when our distant ancestors were “in balance with nature” in the sense that their relationship with nature hardly changed over eons, except for the strains of climate. When microbes jumped on hunter-gatherers from another species (perhaps their prey food), the infection probably fizzled out without triggering an epidemic, either because their immune system quenched the invaders or the microbes slew them. The new diseases were unlikely to be transmitted between the small bands of thinly dispersed people, and large parts of the world were uninhabited until recent millennia. How different today! Our species has grown enormously in number and now extends its reach into every corner of the world, except the depths of the ocean which are much safer from pathogens. We are climbing a gradient of risk as rural populations move into crowded cities, as tropical rainforest destruction brings new exposures, as climate changes encourage migration of tropical diseases, as air circulating in airplanes efficiently spreads airborne infections, and in so many other ways. A perfect storm.

Well over 300 new infectious diseases have been recorded in my lifetime—SARS, HIV-AIDS, West Nile, MRSA, Ebola, Nipah, Hanta, and you name them—as well as countless others that are not yet attributed to a specific pathogen or go unnoticed in rural obscurity or poverty stricken regions.

Optimists look forward to the conquest of heart disease and cancer, but the tide of infectious diseases will continue to run over the feet of scientific Canutes for ages to come. They will wash up on the shores of human communities so long as we share habitats and have farm animals. To adapt a famous quotation, the price of biosecurity is eternal vigilance. New infections need to be nipped in the bud before they become runaway epidemics. As new diseases steal up on us, it is hard for public health bodies like the WHO and CDC to prepare for new threats, and to strike a tolerable balance between public risk and individual liberty. I have a personal example of how overreaction follows a feeble response to a threat.

Courtesy of HSE, UK
Courtesy of HSE, UK

In the 1990s, a few dozen unlucky people in the UK and one in France received the awful news that they had contracted “mad cow disease,” which is caused by a prion protein. This new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease was introduced to the human food chain when up to a million cows were fed rendered products of dead cows. I remember when the then Minister of Agriculture, John Gummer, declared on TV, “There is nothing wrong with British beef!” between nibbles of hamburger with his daughter. What a bummer! The burger didn’t kill him, but public ridicule destroyed his political career. The lesson learned, American authorities were far more cautious, as I discovered after moving to the States. I had lived in the UK in the years when egregious farm practices still existed. In consequence, I am officially deemed to be an unsafe blood donor, which is a pity for someone with the universal donor blood group. I am still waiting for my mad cow diagnosis.

I find cycles of public anxiety about Ebola rather ironic while our attitudes towards the otherwise beneficial and marvelous bat family are consistently grim. Rather, they should be reversed. We ought to worry whenever we hear news of a bat species in trouble, and be constantly alert for ill news of a new zoonosis of whatever origin. New pathogens are far more threatening to national security than terrorism which is currently gripping the public imagination, or at least until a sophisticated bioterrorist has the know-how to manipulate a pathogen for causing a pandemic. Perhaps then the word zoonosis will emerge from its obscurity at the back of the dictionary.

Mastodon in Our Town

Not Mastodon the heavy metal band from Atlanta, but a heavy, leathery mastodon from Virginia. It is the first found east of the Blue Ridge. A local bricklayer was hunting on private land one day in 1983 when he found a strange object near a muddy creek. As he couldn’t identify it, he asked the geologist Jerre Johnson who realized it was the tooth of an elephant. An elephant in America—had Barnum & Bailey’s Circus been in town? But this animal was quite different to African and Indian elephants today, from a line that became extinct about 11,000 years ago. They are related species, but mastodons split early from a common Proboscidea ancestor, presumably trekking across a land bridge between Asia and Alaska ahead of mammoths that came later.

The private owners of the land forbad excavation, but when they sold it the new owners gave permission for excavation by Dr. Johnson, now Emeritus Professor at the College of William & Mary. He led a dig involving dozens of volunteers, including archeologists, Eagle Scouts, and many members of our chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalist program. It became a triumph for citizen science.

A breakthrough came after ten days of fruitless digging when the dirt started to yield its fossil treasure, including more teeth, ribs, limb bones, and broken tusks seven feet long and six inches wide at the base. The beast was old judging by its molars which were worn down by a rough diet. This was not a grazing species like modern elephants, but a browser of tree branches and leaves.

Mastodon fossil
A tusk in protective plaster

Fossils in the coastal plain are not living matter turned to rock, they are the real thing. In eroded outcrops of this region, you can find strata of mussel shells inches thick. They look as fresh as if they were washed up from the rivers or Chesapeake Bay by recent storms, but may be a few million years old. Likewise, we had real mammoth bones, not rocks, although they no longer had the gleaming white freshness of shells. Dr. Johnson distributed them for his volunteers to wash and dry, and I was given a hefty chunk of what I guessed was the head of a humerus. The tusks were coated in plaster to protect them on their journey for display at the Virginia Living Museum (humorists take note), but unfortunately not enough of them were preserved for assembling a skeleton.

Mastodon tooth
See the nipples on the molar

I was curious how mastodons got their name. Was it from the huge muscles needed for mastication? When the first fossils were discovered two centuries ago they mystified geologists who called the new species, ‘Incognitum.’ It was the French geologist George Cuvier who coined the name mastodon, although this was later dropped by taxonomists for the more ponderous, Mammut americanum. I previously blogged about the curious names chosen for new animals to science, sometimes they are more whimsical than biologically meaningful. Cuvier chose mastodon, which means ‘milk tooth,’ because the crowns of the molar teeth looked like nipples. You can see on this picture why he chose a quirky name. The teeth don’t resemble those of any other kind of elephant, extant or extinct, which is why they can tell a mastodon from a mammoth.

The discovery was so unusual that it interested the Smithsonian Institution and the Washington Post. One day soon, carbon dating will reveal the fossil’s age, and perhaps museum conservators will deduce whether score marks on the ribs were made by the claws of a saber-toothed cat or a dire wolf.

We know that mastodons died out at the end of the last Ice Age with other megafauna, but was their extinction caused by climate change or Clovis hunters? I guess it was an irresistible convergence of the two, which are the same threats facing elephants today and so many other species of animals and plants. Central Africa has lost 100,000 (64%) to poachers and habitat loss in the past decade alone. I missed live mastodons in our town by a whisker of geological time, and dearly hope that future generations will have more than elephant bones to marvel at.

Next Post: Why bats  scare us