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Snow Trucked in for Iditarod, Ski Resorts Remain Closed as February Experienced Most Extreme Weather in History

Climate
Snow Trucked in for Iditarod, Ski Resorts Remain Closed as February Experienced Most Extreme Weather in History

A new report this week from the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory finds that the rate of climate change, which has increased in recent decades, will increase even more in the 2020s. And Alaska, along with the rest of the Arctic, has been warming even faster with six degrees of winter warming as the loss of snow and ice cover triggers a feedback loop of further warming, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Alaska's rapid warming is very evident. It wasn't enough that they moved the start of the Iditarod 300 miles further north this year to Fairbanks from the traditional start of Anchorage, which has had record low snowfall. They had to reroute the course again when the Chena river, a part of the new course, failed to freeze sufficiently.

The ceremonial start of the race was still held in Anchorage, which as of March 9 received less than one-third of its average snowfall, according to Slate. So, the city had to truck in snow for the event. Sen. Lisa Murkowski tweeted about it with the hashtag "we make it work." I think the planet begs to differ. In a Senate hearing last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders brilliantly grilled Alaskan leaders for not only failing to address climate change but advocating for increased production of fossil fuels, despite leading scientists saying we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground to prevent catastrophic climate change.

A ski area outside of Juneau had to close temporarily due to lack of snow. They are still way below average, but they opened back up for the rest of the season. Boston received more snow in a single storm than Anchorage has seen all winter. 

Whistler Blackcomb ski resort in Canada is way below their average snowfall for the winter. This photo was taken March 1. Photo credit: Randy Goodman

And it's not just Alaska. As we all know, the drought-stricken West is having another exceptionally warm winter. Last month, the West cooked while the East froze. Ski resorts in California, Oregon and Canada closed due to lack of snow. One Southern Californian told me he had to use his air conditioning a few times this winter, while those of us in the East have had record snow and sub-freezing temperatures.

This past February marked the first time that one-third of the U.S. experienced exceptional cold while another third experienced exceptional warmth in the same month. Photo credit: NOAA

This past February was the most extreme on record, marking the first time that one-third of the U.S. experienced exceptional cold while another third experienced exceptional warmth in the same month, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "All-time records were set for the coldest month in dozens of Eastern cities, with Boston racking up more snow than the peaks of California’s Sierra Nevada," said Slate's Eric Holthaus. Meteorologists have even come up with a nickname for the phenomenon, "Ridiculously Resilient Ridge."

Meteorologists are calling the polar jet stream's abnormal pattern the "Ridiculously Resilient Ridge." Photo credit: NASA

“It’s the weather-controlling polar jet stream—a fast river of wind in the upper atmosphere—that has been locked in an extreme pattern for the past few years," explained Climatologist Bill Patzert of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "Rather than circling in a relatively straight path, the jet stream has meandered in great north-south waves. In the west, it’s been bulging northward, arguably for the past two winters. Over frigid northern Canada, the jet takes a hard right turn and plunges into the upper Midwest and East Coast, plummeting temperatures and creating punishing ice and snow storms.”

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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