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

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Wikimedia Commons

"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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environment
Great Britain's Last Snow Patch Is About to Disappear Completely for the First Time in a Decade

Until recently, it was easy to find snow in Great Britain at any time of the year—you just had to know where to look. In previous Septembers, the island has been home to as many as 678 snow patches, residual pockets of snow and ice whose climates and topographies keep them frozen through the summer. This year, though, only two of Britain's snow patches have survived the summer. And the island is now on track to be completely snowless by the end of the season, Atlas Obscura reports.

Snow patches vary in size and durability, with some melting completely by late summer and others remaining a permanent fixture of the landscape. Garbh Choire Mor—a steep glacial depression on top of Scotland's third-highest mountain, Braeriach—contains two of the oldest snow patches in Britain, known as the Pinnacles and the Sphinx. The Pinnacles snow patch dissolved into a puddle earlier this month, and the Sphinx snow patch, the last surviving snow patch in Great Britain, is expected to do the same in the next few days.

Scotland experienced uncharacteristically hot weather this summer, with temperatures creeping into the low 90s as early as May. But more significant than the sweltering summer was the dry winter that preceded it. Below-average snowfall last year meant this year's snow patches were already smaller than usual when temperatures started heating up. If the Sphinx snow patch does vanish before winter arrives, it will mark the first time in over a decade and just the sixth time in the last 300 years that England, Scotland, and Wales are without a single patch of snow.

The Sphinx snow patch, though currently a measly version of its previous self, is still visible for now. But Iain Cameron, a veteran "snow patcher" who writes an annual report on snow for the UK's Royal Meteorological Society, says it could be gone as soon as Wednesday, September 20.

He's currently camped out on Garbh Choire Mor, waiting to document the patch's final moments. You can follow his updates on Twitter.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Matt Tillett, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
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Animals
‘Harvey the Hurricane Hawk’ Returns to the Wild
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Matt Tillett, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Among the devastating news that came out of Houston during the last weekend in August, there was one video that warmed the hearts of those following Hurricane Harvey. A Cooper's hawk startled Texas cab driver William Bruso after climbing into his car and hunkering down before the storm. Now, after receiving care from both Bruso and local wildlife experts, the Associated Press reports that "Harvey the Hurricane Hawk" has been released.

As the video below shows, Bruso assumed that the bird sensed the severe weather approaching and sought refuge in his cab. "He seems to be scared," he said. "He doesn’t know what’s going on. Hurricane Harvey is getting ready to barrel down through over here, and he doesn’t want to leave."

Veterinarians at the Texas Wildlife Rehabilitation Coalition Wildlife Center later learned that the hawk—which is actually female—had suffered head trauma, likely by flying into something, and this had left her unable to fly. After she refused to leave his side, Bruso took her into his home, fed her chicken hearts, and let her spend the night. Liz Compton of the rehabilitation center came to pick her up the next day.

Following a week and a half of medical care, Harvey the hawk has returned to the skies. According to TWRC, the animal likely wouldn't have survived the storm if she hadn't been given shelter. Texans hoping to catch a glimpse of the viral celebrity may be able to spot her above Oak Point Park in Plano, Texas, where she was released on September 13.

[h/t AP]

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