A Tumbleweed Storm Trapped Cars on a Highway in Washington

Jason Finn, iStock via Getty Images
Jason Finn, iStock via Getty Images

An unusual road hazard disrupted travel for several drivers in Washington state on New Year's Eve. As CBS News reports, five cars and one semi-truck were trapped by a storm of tumbleweeds that swamped a portion of State Route 240 on Tuesday night, with the stacks reaching as high as 30 feet in some spots.

Though they're normally associated with the Southwest, tumbleweeds are a common sight in some parts of Washington. Motorists driving down that particular highway often have to deal with winds tossing the shrubs into the road, but this invasion was unprecedented.

Around 6:30 p.m. on December 31, the Washington State Patrol announced that State Route 240 was closed near Richland due to the tumbleweed flood. The stretch of road buried beneath the thistles was equivalent to three football fields. According to The New York Times, local authorities had never seen tumbleweed accumulation of such proportions.

After the area was cleared with snowplows, the stranded vehicles were freed and the highway reopened at 4:30 a.m. on January 1. Such tumbleweeds storms may be unusual for Washington state, but similar events have occurred in other parts of the country. Last year, tumbleweeds in California piled high enough to trap residents in their homes.

[h/t CBS News]

Fat Bats Might Be Resistant to Deadly White-Nose Syndrome

Penn State, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Penn State, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Good news for flying mammals: chubby little brown bats might be genetically resistant to white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that’s killed more than 5.5 million bats since it was first documented in 2006 [PDF]. A new study in the journal Scientific Reports describes three genetic adaptations in the bats that could protect them from the pathogen.

Little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus), common in Canada and the eastern United States, are especially susceptible to white-nose syndrome. According to lead author Giorgia G. Auteri, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, white-nose syndrome kills bats by disrupting their hibernation cycles.

“When they’re in hibernation in the winter, they’re not meant to be waking up. They’re supposed to be asleep,” Auteri tells Mental Floss. “But this fungus grows on them, and it causes the bats to keep waking up during hibernation. And because they’re waking up when they shouldn’t be, they’re running out of fat reserves too early.”

But while white-nose syndrome has devastated bat populations in North America, not all infected bats die from the disease—some recover. Auteri wanted to find out what made the survivors so special.

Auteri and her team compared the genetic makeup of nine surviving and 29 non-surviving little brown bats from northern Michigan. They discovered that survivors share three important genetic distinctions. “One is involved with fat metabolism,” she says. “And another is involved with regulating when the bats wake up from hibernation. And the third gene is involved in their echolocation ability, in their sonar for hunting insects.”

The results make sense, Auteri says. Because white-nose syndrome interrupts bats’ hibernation schedules, bats with genes that relate to more optimal fat storage (i.e., they’re fatter) and better hibernation regulation (i.e., they sleep longer) are more likely to survive the disease.

Auteri’s research could help scientists and conservationists find ways to preserve little brown bat populations. Besides being adorable, little brown bats also play an important ecological role as predators of insects like mosquitoes, moths, and other pests that are destructive to crops and forests.

Watch: Rare ‘Ice Volcanoes’ Are Erupting on a Michigan Beach

ehrlif, iStock via Getty Images
ehrlif, iStock via Getty Images

Winter weather leads to all sorts of strange phenomena, from thundersnow to ice tsunamis. But these "ice volcanoes" recently documented on the shores of Lake Michigan are spectacular enough to impress even lifelong veterans of Great Lakes winters.

As News 18 reports, the Grand Rapids, Michigan, department of the National Weather Service shared images of the icy eruptions to its Facebook and Twitter pages on Sunday, February 16. They show geysers of water bursting forth from the tops of snowy mounds on Oval Beach. The scene looks like a bizarre version of a volcano spewing lava, but it's actually the natural result of the lake's tides.

CW50 Detroit reports no one is completely sure how these ice volcanoes form. But Live Science says ice shelves along the coast stop the waves of Lake Michigan from reaching the shore. As the tides move under the ice sheet, pressure builds, and with nowhere else to go, water breaks the ice and spurts through the opening. The water from each eruption freezes when it settles on the ice above the surface, and the ice layers build upon each other to form a cone shape. This is similar to how real volcanoes form, only instead of layers of water freezing into ice, it's molten lava hardening into rock.

There's no seismic activity going on when these ice volcanoes erupt: It's simply the lake's natural tide persisting in spite of freezing temperatures. But, like real volcanoes, they can be dangerous. The ice mounds are hollow and more fragile than the surrounding ice, so onlookers should appreciate them from afar. You can view the phenomenon from the safety of your home by watching the video below.

[h/t News 18]

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