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Hurricane Sandy's Aftermath: Will Rats Take Over Manhattan?


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"The 8-million-strong human population of New York City is matched, if not exceeded, by the city's number of rodent dwellers," says Lynne Peeples at The Huffington Post. And lots more rats lost their homes — subway tunnels and sewers — to flooding from Hurricane Sandy than people did. What has become of those disease-carrying vermin?

"Rats are incredibly good swimmers," says Rick Ostfeld of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, ominously. "And they can climb." If Sandy did indeed flood them out and upset their social structure, "rats could start infesting areas they never did before," and the result could be a public health mess, with potential outbreaks of leptospirosis, typhus, salmonella, even the plague. In other words, "a rat disturbance is something we should be concerned about."

Well, so far at least, the "ratpocalypse that threatened to destroy humanity (at least in New York)" hasn't materializedsays Dan Amira at New York. There's been no notably increased above-ground presence of the rodents, and "in fact, the flood may end up as a net positive, as far as we people are concerned." Why? Flooding kills young rats, so the overall rat population may well decrease.

Unfortunately, it's not that simple, says Adam Clark Estes at Vice. Many, if not most, rats will drown, but "those that make it out of the flooding will be treated to a veritable feast of garbage and debris that washed into the tunnels during the hurricane," and they'll be able to gorge and reproduce freely in the deserted subway stations. And if the flooding killed the submissive rats that scavenge for food in the daytime, leaving the dominant, nocturnal rats alive, "New York's rat population may have just gotten stronger."

This fixation on a great rat invasion makes sense after a calamity like Sandy, says Robert Sullivan at The New Republic. "We find rats terrifying, a measure of the breakdown of everything we think of when we think of civilization." But it's important to remember that "rats rarely live up to headline writers' fantasies." Let's start by debunking the myths: First, there aren't 8 million rats in New York; there are more like 250,000. Second, "hordes of Norway rats, North America's predominant rat species, do not live deep in the subway tunnels," they live where the food/garbage is — on the subway platform and in parks:

After September 11, rat populations increased in Lower Manhattan precisely because the area was cut off to people. Restaurants near the old World Trade Center that were abandoned were suddenly akin to rat farms... The Lower Manhattan rat population increased dramatically, and, as a result, the city Department of Health built a ring of poison-filled bait stations around the abandoned areas, eventually beating down the population explosion. This week's flooding just means... Keep your food secure and be vigilant.... And we know that after a flood event, the water itself — contaminated with raw sewage, as well as petroleum products and all the not-as-terrifying pollutants that normally cover our streets — is potentially more of an issue in terms of spreading pathogens than rats.

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Art
The Getty Center, Surrounded By Wildfires, Will Leave Its Art Where It Is
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The wildfires sweeping through California have left countless homeowners and businesses scrambling as the blazes continue to grow out of control in various locations throughout the state. While art lovers worried when they heard that Los Angeles's Getty Center would be closing its doors this week, as the fires closed part of the 405 Freeway, there was a bit of good news. According to museum officials, the priceless works housed inside the famed Getty Center are said to be perfectly secure and won't need to be evacuated from the facility.

“The safest place for the art is right here at the Getty,” Ron Hartwig, the Getty’s vice president of communications, told the Los Angeles Times. According to its website, the museum was closed on December 5 and December 6 “to protect the collections from smoke from fires in the region,” but as of now, the art inside is staying put.

Though every museum has its own way of protecting the priceless works inside it, the Los Angeles Times notes that the Getty Center was constructed in such a way as to protect its contents from the very kind of emergency it's currently facing. The air throughout the gallery is filtered by a system that forces it out, rather than a filtration method which would bring air in. This system will keep the smoke and air pollutants from getting into the facility, and by closing the museum this week, the Getty is preventing the harmful air from entering the building through any open doors.

There is also a water tank at the facility that holds 1 million gallons in reserve for just such an occasion, and any brush on the property is routinely cleared away to prevent the likelihood of a fire spreading. The Getty Villa, a separate campus located in the Pacific Palisades off the Pacific Coast Highway, was also closed out of concern for air quality this week.

The museum is currently working with the police and fire departments in the area to determine the need for future closures and the evacuation of any personnel. So far, the fires have claimed more than 83,000 acres of land, leading to the evacuation of thousands of people and the temporary closure of I-405, which runs right alongside the Getty near Los Angeles’s Bel-Air neighborhood.

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Big Questions
Can It Ever Be Too Cold to Snow?
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by Kenny Hemphill

We all know someone who, when asked if they think it might snow on a particularly chilly day, sucks air in through his or her teeth and declares that "it's probably too cold for snow today."

Too cold for snow? It sounds like nonsense because it is nonsense. According to the National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC), "while it can be too warm to snow, it cannot be too cold to snow. Snow can occur even at incredibly low temperatures as long as there is some source of moisture and some way to lift or cool the air."

There's one sliver of truth in the myth, however, in that very cold temperatures are often associated with dry air, in which you won't get snow. It's the dry air that prevents the snow, however, not the temperature.

"Most heavy snowfalls occur when there is relatively warm air near the ground—typically -9°C (15°F) or warmer," the NSIDC explains on its website, "since warmer air can hold more water vapor."

That, of course, isn't the only common misconception about the weather.

Take, for example, that old adage that lightning doesn't strike twice. In fact, the opposite is true. Lightning can and does strike twice: The Empire State Building, for example, gets hit about 100 times a year. There are some people who have been struck twice. Former Shenandoah National Park ranger (a.k.a. "Spark Ranger") Roy Sullivan, who died in 1983 (from a gunshot wound), was struck by lightning seven times. If the conditions that make lightning more likely to strike in a particular location persist, it's likely to strike there again.

For more common weather misconceptions, check out our video below.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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