Friday, July 27, 2012

Welcome To Weirdsville: Things That Shouldn't – But Still Do – Go Boom!

In further celebration of the release of Welcome to Weirdsville - a compendium of strange, bizarre, and - yes - outright weird stuff that's all around us, here's a nice one about things that shouldn't, but still do, explode:


There are rules about such things ... or so we think. After all, apples don't fall up, lions don't have feathers, and lakes don't explode.

Sure enough, Macintoshes don't fall skyward, and panthera leo doesn't have beautiful plumage.

But if you happened to be living in Cameroon you'd know all too well that lakes can, and do, explode.

Take for example the Lake Nyos in the Northwest Province of Cameroon. Part of the inactive Oku volcano chain, it's a extremely deep, extremely high and, most importantly, very calm, very still, lake.

But it hasn't always been so calm or still. In 1986 something very weird happened to Lake Nyos, a weirdness that unfortunately killed 3,500 head of livestock ... and 1,700 people.

No jokes this time. No clumsy 50's horror movie metaphors. What happened to the people in the three villages near that lake isn't funny. Most of them luckily died in the sleep, but the 4,000 others who escaped the region suffered from sores, repertory problems and even paralysis.

All because Lake Nyos exploded.

Before the why, here's some more: what happened to the villages of Cha, Nyos, and Subum that time isn't unique. The same thing happened to lake Monoun, also in Cameroon, in 1984. That time 37 people died, again not very pleasantly. What does sound like a scene from some only horror flick is the story of a truck that had been driving near the scene. Mysteriously, the truck's engine died, and then so did the ten people who got out: suffocating within minutes of stepping down. Only two people of the dozen survived, all because they happened to be sitting on top of the truck.

The technical term for what happened to Lake Nyos and Monoun is a limnic eruption. To get one you need a few basic elements: one, a very deep volcanic lake; two, said lake has to be over a slow source of volcanic gas; and three, it has to be very, very still.

What happens is that volcanic gas, mostly carbon dioxide but nasty carbon monoxide as well, super saturates the lake. A clumsy way of thinking about it is a can of soda: shake it up like crazy and the fluid in the can, held back by pressure, doesn't do anything.

But pull the top, or in the case of Nyos and Monoun, a small landslide or low magnitude earthquake, and all that trapped gas rushes out in an immense explosion. That's bad enough, as there are even some theories suggesting that the subsequent lake-tsunami from the gassy blast has wiped out still more villages, but what's worse is that those gasses trapped in the lake water are absolutely deadly.

Heavier than air, the carbon dioxide flows down from the mountain lake, suffocating anything and anyone in it's path – which explains how those two lucky passengers managed to escape: they were simply above the toxic cloud.

Fortunately scientists and engineers are working on ways to stop limnic blasts. Controlled taping of the gasses, bubbling pipes to keep the water from becoming super saturated, it's beginning to look like they might be able to keep what happened to the 1700 people of Nyos from happening again.

But what keeps other scientists awake at night is that there are more than likely lots of other lakes ready to explode, the question being ... when?

Okay, so lakes can explode. But fruit doesn't drop to the sky and feline African predators aren't born with fluffy down, and frogs don't pop ... right?

Not if you happened to live in Germany a few years ago: for awhile there toads were doing just that. And we're not talking a few here and there. Over 1,000 frogs were found burst and blasted in a lake that was soon stuck with the pleasant name "the death pool."

Theories flew like parts of an exploding frog: a virus? A crazy who had a thing for dynamite and toads? A detonating mass suicide? What the hell (bang) was going (boom) on (kablam)?

The cops checked out the area and the local nut-houses but there wasn't anyone with that very weird and very specific MO. Scientists check out the exploded remains but found no suspicious viruses, parasites, or bacteria.

They one veterinarian came up with the most likely answer: crows.

As anyone who has ever watched a crow knows they do not fit the label bird brain. Extremely clever and resourceful, crows are not only fast learners but they study, and learn from, other crows. What Frank Mutschmann, one clever vet, hypothesized was that it was happening was the meeting of smart crows and a frog's natural defenses – plus the allure of livers.

Wanting that tasty part of the toads, the crows had learned how to neatly extract it from their prey with a quick stab of their very sharp bills. In response, the toads did what they always go: puff themselves up. The problem – for the amphibians that is – is that because they now had a hole where their livers were that defense then became an explosive problem. Weasels might not literally go pop in that old kid's song but that seems to be just what was happening to that lake of German toads in 2005.

But that still doesn't change that Pipins don't fall up, and lions don't have tails like a peacock's, right? And what about ants? They don't explode, do they?

But they do. Ladies and Gentlemen allow me to present camponotus saundersi. Native to Malaysia, this average looking ant has a unique structure giving it an even more unique behavior when threatened.

Running the length of its little body are two mandibular glands full of toxins. That's bad enough, as any critter that decides to try a bite will get a mouthful of foul-tasting, maybe even deadly, venom, but what sets this ant aside from others is what happens when it gets pushed into a corner.

By clamping down on a special set of muscles these ants can commit violent and, yes, explosive suicide: taking out any nearby threat with a hail of nasty poisons. It's certainly a dramatic way to go but you can bet anything threatening it's colony will get a shock it won't soon forget.

Sure apples do not fall up and lions don't have feathers – but what with exploding lakes, bursting toads, and suicide-bombing ants it you might want to check that your grandmother's homemade pie doesn't float away or that lions aren't about to swoop down from the sky and carry you off.

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