Archive for October, 2021

Lost Nuclear Bombs and Warheads

October 29, 2021

The middle of the 20th century was a very scary time. Most of my dad’s relatives were rounded up by Nazis and carried away to concentration camps where they perished. Millions of young men who should have been safe at home enjoying wet dreams were forced to join armies engaged in massive wars with high casualty rates. WWII was followed by the Cold War, a decades-long nightmare of anxiety caused by the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. People hoped the possibility of nuclear suicide would prevent egomaniacal leaders from starting WWIII. Nuclear weapons have great destructive power, and one would think the U.S. military has strict control over them. So it is shocking to realize the U.S. military has lost at least 12 nuclear bombs and probably 13. Here is the list:

1950–A B-36 bomber flying over the Pacific Ocean experienced engine trouble. The pilots jettisoned the nuclear bomb and bailed out over British Columbia. The conventional explosive detonated, and the Plutonium core sank.

1956–A B-97 carrying 2 nuclear bombs disappeared over the Mediterranean Sea never to be seen again.

1957–Crew members of a C-124 jettisoned 2 nuclear bombs into the Atlantic Ocean. They were never found.

1958–During war games a B-52 bomber collided with an interceptor. The nuclear bomb fell into Wassaw Sound off the coast of Georgia. The military claims the bomb was not armed, but they extensively searched for it to no avail.

1959–A U.S. Navy P5M crashed into Puget Sound and lost a nuclear depth charge.

1961–A B-52 carrying 2 nuclear bombs crashed into a North Carolina swamp. 1 bomb was found hanging from a tree by a parachute. The other bomb sank into the mud and was never found. That bomb was in the armed position but luckily did not detonate. The U.S. government bought the land around the lost bomb and does not allow trespassers.

1965-An A-4E Skyhawk with a nuclear bomb fell off an aircraft carrier into the Pacific Ocean and sank into 16,000 feet of water.

1968–A submarine carrying 2 nuclear warheads sank off the Azores Island killing all 99 crew members.

1968–A B-52 carrying 4 nuclear bombs collided with an air oil tanker over Greenland. 3 of the bombs broke apart, but the 4th stayed intact and sank into a glacier.

The old U.S.S.R. military was even more incompetent than the U.S. military. They probably lost more nuclear bombs than we will ever know about. However, 1 incident that we do know about occurred during 1986 when a submarine sank off the coast of Bermuda losing between 24-36 nuclear warheads. (Soviet missiles each carried 2 or 3 nuclear warheads.) With this 1 incident, the old Soviet Union far surpassed the number of nuclear weapons lost by the United States.

The U.S. military has lost at least 12 nuclear bombs.
Nuclear bombs can incinerate whole cities, and the nuclear fallout can cause radiation sickness for people living nearby, depending upon which way the wind blows following the blast.

Nuclear weapons are terrifying. They can incinerate whole cities, and the nuclear fallout can cause radiation sickness for many miles outside the blast zone. Radiation sickness can cause bleeding beneath the skin, brain seizures, cancer, and weakened immune systems. If all humans suffered from radiation sickness, our species would become extinct. In my favorite Planet of the Apes movie, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, from 1970, humans exposed to radiation following nuclear wars mutated to become telepathic cult worshippers of nuclear missiles. This is less likely than total extinction. Happy Halloween everyone.

This is a scene from Beneath the Planet of the Apes–my favorite in the series. Telepaths mutated by radiation worship a nuclear missile.
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The Greeneway Trail in North Augusta, South Carolina

October 22, 2021

My fantasy of living in a primeval wilderness is not realistic, but many suburban communities are taking action to preserve green space that would otherwise be transmogrified into cement and asphalt. The Greeneway Trail is an example of protected green space that improves the quality of life for local residents. The trail follows an abandoned railroad right of way and leads to a series of ponds created from pits dug for clay used in the nearby manufacture of brick. The trail is shaded by tall trees, and in some places it bisects steep hills. During construction of the rail line, probably shortly before or after the Civil War, railroad workers dug through the hills to make the rail line flat. This makes for a nice flat trail enjoyed by hikers and bikers. The trail is paved, and I was able to push my wife’s wheelchair on it with little effort. The brick factories closed during the Great Depression, and the area became abandoned until the 1990’s when Mayor Tom Greene led the repurposing of the railroad right of way and abandoned brick factories into a green space everybody could enjoy. State funds were used to pay for construction and maintenance of the trail.

The Greeneway Trail in North Augusta, South Carolina is named after the mayor behind the development of this really nice park.
The paved tree-shaded lanes follow what used to be railroad right of ways.
The trail is completely flat because the construction crews building the railways dug through hills to make the track flat for trains. Some parts of the road have steep hills on both sides, making it even shadier. Here are the exposed roots of an old water oak.
Species of trees found along the Greeneway Trail are typical of river bottomland forests. Another common environment on the original river bottomlands were pure stands of bamboo cane known as canebrakes. They formerly were found in pure stands that covered hundreds of square miles. I found a small stand of bamboo cane along the trail.
Brick pond. Until the Great Depression there were brick factories in North Augusta. Workers dug pits for the clay which they used to make bricks. The pits filled with water and became ponds.
A yellow bellied cooter on Brick Pond.

The common species of trees along the Greeneway Trail are those typically found in river bottom land forests including sweetgum, sycamore, water oak, red maple, basswood, river birch, shortleaf pine, and non-native evergreen Carolina cherry (a species native to the coast). Cypress and weeping willow were planted as ornamentals. There are small stands of bamboo cane, and grape vines are abundant on the trees. Pickerel weed grows in the ponds. This area was abandoned during the 1930’s, and most of the mature trees are probably about 90 years old.

The Trail runs parallel to the Savannah River, and during certain times of they year birdwatching must be productive. I saw 6 species in an hour–crows, blue jays, bluebirds, cardinals, mockingbirds, and an unidentified species of warbler. I thought I’d gotten a photo of the warbler, but it was not in the picture when I examined the image on my computer. Small birds don’t cooperate with photographers. On a log in the pond I saw a yellow bellied slider. Reportedly, alligators occur in the ponds. Photos of deer on the Greeneway Trail have been posted on the Friends of the Greeneway Trail Facebook Page.

While we were at Brick Pond, a worker was using a leaf blower to clear the leaves from a picnic area, ruining the quiet natural atmosphere. Leafblowers are 1 of the dumbest contraptions ever invented by mankind. They perform the same function as a rake or broom, but leaf blowers are more expensive, horribly noisy, and belch noxious fumes. Shmucks who use them are polluting the air with noise and poisonous exhaust. Moreover, small engines often break down, so the jerks who use them waste money on the dumb machine itself, fuel, and repairs…all because they are too lazy to use a rake. Rakes never break down. I’m sure my rant against leaf blowers will fall on deaf ears because the assholes that use them must be deaf from the noise they endured from the stupid machines.

Riverview Park is part of the Greeneway, and it is a really nice facility. The park offers a gym, beach volleyball, frisbee golf, real golf, tennis, and a dog park in addition to the trail for hikers and bikers. A boat ramp accesses the Savannah River. The Greeneway is also within walking distance of Antonio’s (a classic Italian restaurant on a corner), a traditional British style pub, Gary’s Hamburgers, and a Waffle House. I’d enjoy living in a neighborhood near the Greeneway.

Beach volleyball anyone?

How Long did it Take Humans to Wipe Out American Megafauna?

October 15, 2021

20 years ago, a computer simulation determined low levels of human hunting could cause the extinction of Pleistocene megafauna within a 1,640 year time frame. This simulation has held up well since the results were first published. A recent study of sedimentary data from Lake Llaviucu, Ecuador determined most of the megafauna in this region became extirpated 1,800 years after humans first entered the area. 1,800 years is remarkably close to 1,640 years. Another study, this one of a site in Patagonia, determined megafauna were extirpated in that region between 1000-2000 years after first human contact–also remarkably close to the computer simulation.

Locations of the data obtained for the below referenced study. Scientists dredged cores of sediment from beneath Lakes Llaviucu and Palicacocha in Ecuador. They used pollen composition, charcoal abundance, and dung fungus spore concentrations to determine the presence of humans, not environmental change, caused the extirpation of megafauna in this region. Image from the below referenced study by Raczka et. al.
Graph showing pollen composition, charcoal abundance, and dung fungus (sporomiella) concentrations. Dung fungus abundance is a proxy for the presence of megafauna; charcoal concentrations are a proxy for human presence because people set fires. People were present, but the environment did not change. It was a paramo grassland before people entered the region, and it still was a paramo grassland when megafauna became extinct in this region. Image also from the below referenced study by Raczka et. al.
Lake Llaviucu in Ecuador along with a llama. A glacial moraine dams a stream, thus creating this lake. Photo from Travel Ecuador.
A paramo grassland. Photo from the Missouri Botanical Garden. This region has been a paramo grassland for 16,000 years. Megafauna became extinct here about 12,800 years ago…1800 years after humans colonized the region. There was no change in the environment.

Scientists analyzed the pollen composition, charcoal concentration, and dung fungus spore concentration from a sedimentary core taken at Lake Llaviucu. The pollen composition provides information about the local environment. The area was under a glacier until ~18,000 years ago. After the glacier receded it was replaced by paramo grassland, an environment dominated by tussock grasses, rosette plants, and evergreen shrubs. Tropical cloud forests occur at lower elevations and plants from this environment contribute to the pollen rain. Charcoal concentrations are used as a proxy for human presence. Lightning strikes, a natural cause of fires, are extremely rare at this locality, so charcoal most likely came from human-set fires. Charcoal became common at this site about 14,600 years ago. Dung fungus spore abundance is a proxy for megafauna populations. Dung fungus declined in abundance 12,800 years ago. This is when populations of stegomastodons, horses, and ground sloths likely disappeared from the region. The core taken from this lake was 36 feet long and radiocarbon dates ranged from 16,200 years BP at the lowest part of the core to 9,000 years BP at the highest. The finding is consistent with similar studies at other sites in the Americas.

Lake Llaviucu is located in El Cajas National Park. Though most of the megafauna is gone, there are still some species of large mammals left here including llamas, mountain tapir, deer, spectacled bear, and cougar. The park is also home to 157 species of birds, and it is the Andean condor’s last stand. I’d love to visit the paramo grasslands and tropical cloud forests, but alas it is too far away.

Reference:

Alroy, John

“A Multi-Species Overkill Simulation of the End Pleistocene Megafaunal Extinction”

Science 292 (5523) 2001

Raczka, M. et. al.

“A Human Role in Andean Megafaunal Extinction?”

Quaternary Science Review 205 2019

Grayson’s and Meltzer’s Case Against Overkill would get Thrown out of a Court of Law for Perjury

I was listening to National Public Radio the other day, and they were interviewing a paleontologist who was excavating the bones of extinct Pleistocene megafauna. I didn’t catch his name or the name of the fossil site, but he was certain overhunting by humans caused the extinctions. For balance they also interviewed Meltzer, an archaeologists from SMU, who believes environmental change, not humans, caused the extinctions. About 20 years ago, he co-authored a series of illogical papers with Donald Grayson, an anthropologist, in an attempt to debunk the theory that man caused the extinction of Pleistocene megafauna. They are both a couple of dishonest shmucks. They are not paleo-ecologists. They are an archaeologist and an anthropologist. They know nothing about paleo-ecology. On the radio Meltzer simply repeated the same illogical arguments he made 20 years ago, and he ignored the overwhelming number studies that have since been published in support of an human role for the extinctions. A few years ago, Grayson published a book with a chapter about extinctions. He deliberately misrepresented the findings of a paper that ruled out environmental change as a cause of megafaunal extinctions. He suggested the results were the opposite of what the authors of the study concluded. (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2017/01/23/donald-graysons-disingenous-case-against-overkill/ ) In a court of law a judge will throw out a case, if a witness perjures himself. Grayson’s and Meltzer’s case against overkill would get thrown out for perjury. Incidentally, I informed Grayson of the above linked article. He refused to respond.

Wet Climate Phases during the Pleistocene Probably Supported Higher Megafauna Populations in Southeastern North America

October 8, 2021

I love the fungus that grows on manure. I know that sounds weird, but the dung fungus spore concentration in sediment samples is the best evidence paleo-ecologists have of determining past megafauna populations. It is the perfect proxy because if dung fungus spores are high in a sample, megafauna populations must have been high during that time period. There is no hiding all the defecation that was occurring then. Low dung fungus spore concentrations are evidence of low megafauna populations. The latest dung fungus spore study was from a core of sediment taken beneath Lake Peten-Itza in Guatemala. The core was over 120 feet long and included radio-carbon dated time periods from 42,000 years BP-4,000 years BP. The dung fungus concentrations were compared with the pollen composition within each time period to determine what types of environments existed when megafauna populations were high or low. The types of environments fluctuated with known climate phases, alternating between oak and myrtle-dominated woodlands, pine-dominated woodlands, dry acacia-grassland scrub, and seasonal rain forest (the predominating present day environment). Oak-dominated woodlands prevailed during wet interstadials; acacia scrub grasslands prevailed during dry stadials. Megafauna populations were highest in this region during phases of climate that favored oak-dominated woodlands. I also noticed on the chart below that grass pollen was higher during this phase as well, suggesting wildlife had abundant grass and acorns to eat. Nearby fossil sites show horse, llama, mammoth, gompothere, and glyptodont occurred in this region during these time periods. Megafauna populations were lowest during dry stadials.

Location of the study site. Image from the below referenced study. Scientists took the core from 1 of the deepest parts of the lake that never dried out during dry climate phases.
Chart showing abundance of dung fungus (sporomiella) with pollen composition from a >120 foot core taken from sediment beneath Lake Peten-Itza. Megafauna populations were most abundant during wetter climate phases. Chart from the below reference.
Lake Peten-Itza today. It is surrounded by a seasonal rain forest, but during different climatic phases of the Pleistocene the surrounding environment varied between oak-dominated woodlands, pine-dominated woodlands, poor quality scrub grasslands, and seasonal rain forests. This lake is old and over 500 feet deep in some places.
Lucky Oak Woodland in Indiana. Much of central Georgia probably looked like this during wet interstadials of the Pleistocene.
Oak woodland in Ellijay, Georgia. Over 10,000 years ago this was prime habitat for Jefferson’s ground sloths, long-nosed peccaries, and tapirs. At least deer still occur here.

Other regions of the world weren’t the same. The mammoth steppe, a grassland and forb-dominated environment, located from northern Europe across Asia to Beringia, supported higher megafauna populations during cold stadials than other climate phases that favored forests and woodlands. The arid acacia scrub grasslands that occurred in Central America during stadials may have been nutrient poor and just did not support high populations of megafauna. Much of the region may have been bare soil.

I hypothesize populations of megafauna in the piedmont region of southeastern North America were also higher during interstadials. Pollen evidence indicates oak trees increased in abundance during these climate phases. Wetlands expanded and more grass, herbaceous plant growth, and acorns were available with increased precipitation; thus providing more potential food for wildlife. I think megafauna were likely limited to oasis-like habitats in this region during cold dry stadials. These habitats probably occurred in river valleys where stream flow was much reduced, and instead of meandering continuous rivers like those of today, the waterway was more like a chain of pools clogged with sand bars.

Many folks imagine Pleistocene-environments to resemble the modern day Serengeti, but this was not always the case. During cold dry climatic phases large areas may have hosted scarce wildlife populations restricted to shrinking water holes. Wildlife populations rebounded whenever climate phases shifted to more moist conditions. I’m sure wildlife populations fluctuated in parts of North America just like they did in Guatemala.

Reference:

Rozas-Davila, A.; A. Correa-Metreo, N. McMichael, M. Bush

“When the Grass wasn’t Green: Megafaunal Ecology and Paleodroughts”

Quaternary Science Review 266 August 2021

Hog-Nose Snakes–The Toad-eaters

October 1, 2021

My research on toads led me to the fascinating Heterodon genus of snakes. They specialize in preying upon toads, creatures most other predators avoid eating because the poison glands on their skin make them distasteful and even toxic. The Heterodon genus includes 3 species of hog nose snake–eastern southern, and western. They are easy to distinguish from other snakes because their nose resembles a pig’s snout. The eastern hog nose snake (Heterodon platyrhinus) occupies the largest range which partially overlaps with that of the western hog nose snake (H. nasicus) and fully overlaps the more limited range of the southern hog nose snake (H. simus).

Eastern Hog-nose snake. I’ve seen this species with this color variation in my neighborhood.
Southern hog-nose snake. They are smaller and less widespread than Eastern hog-nose snakes.
Hog-nose snake playing dead.

The eastern hog nose snake varies greatly in color. I looked for photos of this species on google images and found at least 18 different color variations. The variation of this snake in my neighborhood most closely resembles the top photo above. This species grows to almost 4 feet long and inhabits sandy soils in open woodlands. In some regions frogs and toads make up 100% of their diet, but in other regions they also prey on mice, birds, lizards, and other snakes. When threatened they feign aggression. If this doesn’t deter a predator, they play dead. Fossil evidence of this species dating to the Pleistocene and/or Pliocene have been found at Ladds in Georgia, as well as sites in Kansas, Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, and West Virginia. The Heterodon genus is at least 5 million years old.

The southern hog nose snake grows smaller than the eastern, reaching lengths of less than 2 feet. Biologists believe the population of this species is in decline, while those of the eastern are stable. Southern hog nose snakes also prefer sandy soils in open woodlands. They too feign aggression and play dead, but these actions are less pronounced than those of the eastern. Fossil specimens of this species have been found at 2 sites in Florida.

Hog nose snakes rarely bite people. An exception occurred when a man who had just handled toads picked up an hog nose snake. The snake likely scented the toad and got confused. They do have venom injected by rear fangs, but it is dangerous for amphibians, not people. Frogs and toads swell up to prevent snakes from swallowing them, however, the rear fangs of a hog nose snake puncture the frog, deflating it, and the venom stops the frog from struggling–another example of evolutionary measure and countermeasure between predator and prey.