When Wisconsin plunged into a deep freeze during last week’s
polar vortex, I built a roaring fire in my fireplace and settled into my
armchair with a thick blanket and a video game controller. Except for the
twenty minutes I spent driving to and from the office, I stayed warm and
Birds, however, don’t have it quite as easy. To survive freezing temperatures, non-migratory birds have developed many interesting adaptations. Many species grow extra down layers and huddle together for wind protection. Others, like the black-capped chickadee, use a process called regulated hypothermia to drop their resting body temperature by as much as 22°F to conserve energy. I’m particularly fascinated by the process of regional hypothermia—many species of ducks and gulls use a countercurrent heat exchange system to keep vital organs warm while letting temperatures fall in extremities.
Birds that aren’t accustomed to cold weather don’t have
these adaptations, though. When a bird—or any animal—ends up far outside of its
natural habitat, the consequences can be deadly.
Continue reading “Goodbye to the Most Famous Bird in Maine”
For those living in the sunny bright climes of the southern U.S., winter driving for the holidays may not be a consideration.
On the other hand, Houston Texas had 3-4” of snow on Dec. 3, turning area roads into what one reporter called a “bumper car festival” .
Winter driving used to be a big part of my Christmas holiday, making a trip home to Brookings, South Dakota. Initially I made the trip from St. Paul, MN, and later, Madison, WI, both drives of several hundred miles in length.
Continue reading “Winter Driving: Another Kind of Memorable Trip”
People who know me well have, at some point, heard me hold forth on the subject of Antarctica. It’s a passion of mine, though I’ve never been there. The forgotten continent is like the Sirens, pulling those who dare to trespass upon the ice back to one of the bleakest places on Earth.
I have consumed many accounts of life there, and have configured my internet services to deliver me news reports that deliver little crumbs of information. Anything that mentions Antarctica crosses my screen.
My fascination derives from boyhood dreams of space. Young visions of piloting starships and traversing Martian landscapes – visions of adventure, glory, and alien encounters – shattered in daylight on a January day in 1986 as I sat cross-legged on an elementary school gymnasium floor. It would be years before I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, but watching the Challenger disintegrate into a fiery end, I immediately understood one of its central lessons: space is not glamorous, glorious, or any more alien than many of the places on our planet. Space is cold, unemotional, and unforgiving. It is intolerant of error, and it is lonely. And despite these things, it is where any future humans can hope to have must lie.
I will never go into orbit, but Antarctica, that’s the next best thing. Cold. Unforgiving. Intolerant of error. Nearly devoid of life except that which we import and resupply, it is where we troubleshoot the logistical problems of sustaining remote and isolated human colonies. Having spread across six other continents, it is our last terrestrial frontier.
No, I will never float among celestial bodies and listen to the low murmur of the universe rippling deep in the dark silence of space. But there is another place where we pursue science, a place closer to home, where I can be cold and alone and maybe catch a stray shard of a broken childhood dream.