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What Is the Difference Between a Crevice and a Crevasse?

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The difference between a crevice and a crevasse is more than just a few letters. It’s the difference between geology and glaciology. While both terms come from the Anglo-French word crevace, to break, they mean two different things. Crevices are cracks or splits caused by a fracture of a rock, while a crevasse is a deep fracture in a glacier or ice sheet.

Crevasses in a glacier. Image Credit: G310ScottS via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

 
Crevasses form in the top layers of a moving glacier, usually because some parts of the massive body are moving at a different pace than the rest. If a glacier is moving over varied terrain (over mountains and down valleys), for instance, the glacier can stretch and fracture. The part of the glacier moving over a mountain will move more slowly, while the part that’s flowing down through the adjacent valley will gain speed. As the ice pulls apart at the stress points between those two portions of the ice, cracks form. Crevasses can also form when the glacier turns a corner, since the ice on the outside moves faster than the ice on the inside as it goes around a bend, or in open areas where ice begins to spread out horizontally (as it often does at its front end).

Often covered by snow, crevasses pose a great threat to mountaineers as they traverse the surface of a glacier: That snow can give way, leading to a steep fall. While the intense pressure at the bottom of a glacier typically squeezes a crevasse closed long before the crack reaches bedrock, the opening between the two parts of the ice can still reach as far as 100 feet down. As a safety precaution, climbers undergo crevasse rescue training in which they learn how to attach themselves to each other using a rope; should one of them fall into a crevasse, the other can pull them to safety on the ice.

A glacier may have more than one crevasse, and when they come together, they form a kind of free-floating column of glacial ice separate from the rest of the glacier. Called seracs, these pose yet another risk to climbers, because they can topple easily.

One big crevice (and many smaller ones). Image Credit: upyernoz via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

 
Meanwhile, a crevice doesn’t always pose a threat. These are formed when brittle rocks crack under stress, and the two sides begin to pull apart (rather than sliding past each other). While you wouldn’t want to fall down a large one, they’re not always dangerous—they can be as small as a crack you’d see in the sidewalk or as deep as a canyon. These rock formations are not typically a threat to hikers because they're typically easy to see; in fact, they can often be a great help to rock climbers. The small ones are great for hand-holds or to attach bolts to, and larger crevices can be scaled. They’re also habitats: In western North America, there are dozens of bat species that use crevices as roosts [PDF].

If you're wondering in the middle of a conversation whether to use "crevice" or "crevasse," it's probably safer to go with crevice—unless you spend a lot of time talking about glaciers. While it's technically a geological term, the word crevice is used much more generally to describe cracks and gaps, whether in rock or in other materials. For instance, engineers use the word to describe the gap between two joined metals. Weeds might grow in the crevices of a sidewalk or between bricks. Colloquially, you could describe the gaps in your couch cushions where all your change accumulates as crevices.

In short, if it's not ice and you aren't making a glacier metaphor, it's a crevice.

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
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In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
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This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

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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What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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