While preparing for a scheduled radio address from his vacation home in California, President Ronald Reagan announced, [clip]. It didn’t go out over the air, but someone had it on tape and slipped it out to the world. Even in the pre-Internet days, the Soviet Union heard it… and they responded.
We’re staying slightly off-format again this week. I’m still dealing with some health issues, though the recent surgery went textbook, apparently. We’re not sure if it will fix my breathing problems and then, because I was having a good day, I overdid it in the yard and reinjured my back. So rather than doing one long deep dive into a single topic, I’ve broken my workload up into a few smaller topics. Presenting what may or may not be the first in a sporadic series: Mishmash Mash-up. And it is mish-mosh, because it’s Yiddish, my favorite. Like Groucho Marx sternly told a Congressman on the campaign trail when he was a guest on Groucho’s show You Bet Your Life, “You’ll never get the vote in the Bronx if you go on saying things like mish mash.” I had to whip out my copy of The Joy of Yiddish to verify that, because I’d been googling it as Brooklyn by mistake.
So let’s start this mental appetizer platter with Great Moments in Forgetting Your Mic Was On. Arguably the best example is Reagan’s joking threat against our heavily-armed Cold War adversaries. He was making a joke during a sound-check, so the engineers could check the levels on his mic. None of the sources I looked at identified the leaker, but five will get you ten it was one of those guys. The clip took about two months to make its way around the world. A coded message was sent out from the eastern Russian city of Vladivostok, saying in part, “We now embark on military action against the US forces.” A special command unit in Ucerisk went on high alert. US and Japanese intelligence intercepted and cracked the message almost immediately and Japanese forces raised their readiness status. Russian naval vessels that received the order were understandable confused and tried to confirm with Vladivostok. US intelligence urgently looked for signs of a Soviet attack. Thankfully, they found none. The Soviet alert was cancelled just thirty minutes after it was issued. The official report from the NSA later was that one individual in the eastern Soviet command went rogue, as it were, alerting his countrymen that they were now officially at war with the US, without having been ordered to do so. Still, it was a tense half-hour… for those who knew about it.
Many a politician should listen to my mother, retired radio personality Jo Christie, who taught her daughters, “the mic is always on.” Don’t say anything within ten feet of a microphone that you wouldn’t want going out to the whole world. By the way, because launching Science with Savannah Age 7 this past week and having my super-secret project to do, I’m going to be helping my mom make a podcast about her career and all the famous people and events that crossed with it. Look for Rock History with Jo Christie this summer. After a campaign rally in 2000, George W Bush took some heat for leaning over to Dick Cheney and saying “There’s Adam Clymer, major-league A-hole from The New York Times.” Cheney, also unaware the microphones were turned on, agreed, saying, “Oh yeah, he is, big time.” When pressed for an answer about it later, Bush replied “I regret that a private comment I made to the vice-presidential candidate made it into the public airwaves,” which was not an apology, but it was honest. Let’s face it, if you think someone is an A-hole, you think they’re an A-hole.
When you think of faux pas by Jesse Jackson, you have a few to choose from. In 2008, he made a comment about Barack Obama he would describe in his official apology as “crude and hurtful” that “Barack…he’s talking down to black people…telling n—s how to behave” and that he wanted to cut Obama’s nuts off for it. It was apparently such a low-class statement that even Fox News refused to run the clip. Or you might think back to 1984, when Jackson told a reporter, which is like a microphone with limbs, that NYC was hymietown, “hymie” being an Anti-Semitic slur. A storm of protest erupted. Jackson denied the remarks, then doubled-down and accused Jews of conspiring to defeat him. A Jackson ally, Nation of Islam’s leader Louis Farrakhan, an aggressive anti-Semite, made the situation worse by threatening the reporter on the radio and issuing a public threat to Jews if Jackson ever came to any kind of harm. Finally, Jackson was able to smother the fires by making an emotional apology at a synagogue.
President Obama himself raised a few eyebrows with an off-record comment. Prior to taping an interview with CNBC in 2009, the president and reporter engaged in a bit of chit-chat, including Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift at the recent MTV Video Music Awards. When someone asked, “Why would he do that?” Obama frankly responded, “He’s a jackass” to a room full of laughter. Obama followed his comment with the universal “cut” gesture across his throat to imply that what he was saying was off the record. Three ABC news employees, listening on a shared fiber optic line, tweeted out Obama’s comment, which took off like mad. ABC News later apologized for the breach. This didn’t really result in a scandal, possibly because of the vast swaths of people that agreed that Kanye West is demonstrably a jackass.
You barely need to say anything at all if what you say contains salty language. The list of politicians dropping F-bombs on the mic includes but is not limited to Beto O’Rourke, Linsay Graham, Joe Biden, John Kerry, Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Eliot Spitzer, and Lyndon Johnson. While not a hot-mic story, there is an amazing recorded phone message Johnson left for the Haggar pants company, asking to him pants made to his exact specification for the crotch area.
Leaving the states, while France and Great Britain awaited the decision on which country would host the 2012 Olympics in 2005, France’s President Jacques Chirac thought he was having a private chat with Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder. “The only thing that they have ever done for European agriculture is mad cow disease,” Chirac was heard to say said. “You cannot trust people who have such bad cuisine.” In the end, London had the last laugh. No word on if his comments played a role in the decision. There was also a lot of coverage of Queen Elizabeth calling a Chinese delegation rude, which seems super mild after the rest of this list, but what’s interesting is the reason the mic even picked up her sotto voce comment was because she was holding a plastic umbrella. It bounced the sound to the mic. If it had been the regular fabric kind of umbrella, it wouldn’t have been recorded
Superfan and Patreon supporter Michael K. sent us some lovely feedback about the first episode of Science with Savannah Age 7 and we quickly got from talking about my cute little cohost to TV tropes involving siblings, principly what is known in scholarly circles as Chuck Cunningham Syndrome. The Cunningham family on Happy Days originally had three children, Marion, Richie, and Chuck. That was apparently two many children for the writers to make good use of. He had few lines and almost no character development. This only got worse as The Fonz character became the focus of the show. Then, one day, Chuck took his basketball upstairs and was never seen again. The other characters said he went to college, which sounds a lot like saying your elderly dog went to live on a farm. A similar fate befell the youngest child on Family Matters. In the show’s fourth season, the Winslow’s daughter Judy is seen walking upstairs … but never comes down. She was never even mentioned again throughout the remaining seasons. Cause of death: Steve Urkel, that emblem of the 90’s, was only supposed to appear in one episode, but soon became the main character of the show. Bonus fact: Both Happy Days and Family Matters were spin-offs, of Love American Style and Perfect Strangers respectively. In the fifth episode of That 70’s Show, Donna’s sister Tina is introduced… and then promptly vanishes from the face of the earth. Later in the series Donna is referred to as being an only child. Tina’s disappearance is addressed at the end of a season two episode, when an overly dramatic narrator announces a bunch of questions, such as “Will Donna and Eric ever consummate their relationship?” The final question is “And whatever happened to Midge’s other daughter, Tina? Find out next time on That 70s Show!” However, this is the last time Tina is ever mentioned. This approach is called lampshading, when writer’s acknowledge something’s gone pear-shaped then promptly move on, their way of saying “yeah, we just realized that too, but whatchagonnado.”
Speaking of the 70’s, a character on MASH was removed for spreading the comedy too thin, an African-American neurosurgeon called, I kid you not, Dr. Oliver “Spearchucker” Jones. Though he appeared in the original novel and the movie, Jones was only in the first six episodes before simply disappearing, though his empty cot was left in the tent affectionately known as The Swamp for some time afterwards. Fan theorized his removal could also have been caused by the network slowly realizing that having a character with a racial slur as a nickname, even if he likes it and has backstory for it, might have been a bad idea. Another theory is that producers found out that the US Army had no African-American surgeons in the Korean Conflict, at least not in MASH units. This was corroborated in the mid 90’s when producer/writer Larry Gelbart took questions in the alt.tv.mash newsgroup. Ah, newsgroups, when you finally graduated beyond your local BBS. Some of you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about and I accept that. Anywho, Gelbart said, “Extensive research indiated (sic) there were no black surgeons in MASH units in Korea. We were not interested in empty tokenism. We also had to cut down on the number of characters in the series for budgetary reasons.” As it turns out, the producers were mistaken, but it took a long time for the facts to emerge. Research in recent years have shown that there were at least two black surgeons in MASH units during the Korean War. For additional context, the Korean War started two years after the army was racially integrated by order of president Harry S Truman. I could give you bonus facts about MASH for the rest of this episode without once having to go to Google, but I will do one. MASH ran for 11 years, but the active part of the Korean war only ran for 3. I say “active part” because the armistice only paused the conflict.
That was a windy little rabbit hole, wasn’t it? Characters disappearing from tv shows, whether they tell the audience why or not, is an *extensive list, so I’ll include a link in the show notes. If I forget or if your listening app doesn’t support html, hit me up on social medias. While most apps let you share right from the app itself, if you’re listening on Castbox, you can actually share a clip from the episode. Telling friends about a podcast is still the single best way to support the shows you like.
On the flipside from Chuck Cunningham, we have Cousin Oliver, a character added to a failing show to try to get the audience back. Sometimes it works, like in the case of Castiel on Supernatural or Amy and Bernadette on Big Bang Theory. Other times, not so much. The eponymous Oliver was added to The Brady Bunch in a desperate last gasp attempt to keep the show going. Kids must be easier to work into the script because they’re an absolute crutch for failing shows. Family Matters, who had gotten rid of an actual young person in season two, brought on a cute orphan boy named 3J in season seven because the children on cast had all gotten older. If one kid is a draw, two must be even better, reckoned the people behind Full House, who tried to reclaim that Michelle magic by giving Uncle Jesse and Aunt Becky twins. The Cosby Show added kids like they bought them on sale. When youngest daughter Rudy hit puberty, the writers had daughter Denise get married offscreen and come back with stepdaughter Olivia. Bonus fact: Bill Cosby axed the actress playing Denis, Lisa Bonet, after she did a nude scene in a movie. She would go on to marry Jason Mamoa, so on the balance… Olivia wasn’t enough, so eldest Cosby kid Sondra gave birth to twins, Winnie and Nelson. They even tried adding a teenager in the form of cousin Pam, who I had no independant memory of. Growing Pains had two: Chrissy, the youngest Seaver child, and then later Leonardo Dicaprio’s homeless-kid character. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air got a desperate cuteness injection in season 5 with Will’s cousin Nicky. All of these were too little, too late. Not having learned from the Brady Bunch’s mistake, Married With Children added an abandoned boy named Seven. Not only did it not help the show, fans hated him so much that he was written out with even less explanation than he was written in.
If we were giving out awards here, top honors would have to go to the TGIF era Brady Bunch knock-off Step by Step. They had two Chuck Cunninghams: Brendan, the youngest son of the husband, who was used less and less in each episode and forgotten entirely when they show changed networks, and Cody, the goofball cousin who lived in his van, was written out after the actor playing him was arrested for domestic assault. He was later cleared of all charges and made a guest appearance on one episode. Then the show pulled a Cousin Oliver with the addition of baby Lilly, but they put their own special twist on it by having her age five years between seasons five and six. This is known as SORAS, soap opera aging syndrome, where you just make the character whatever age you need them to be, sometimes by sending them offscreen for a while, but always while ignoring reality and not talking about it.
The ridiculous ideas that were conceived and even attempted to fight the Nazis in WWII. Graffiti is a common form of artistic expression and visual protest, arguably going back to cave paintings 10,000 years ago. It’s usually quick to accomplish, making it ideal for speaking out against the government and then beating a hasting retreat. With that in mind, Allied intelligence airdropped insulting stencils and paint behind enemy lines. There was at least one flaw in the plan. Paint is rarely truly permanent. The Germans simply removed the graffiti wherever they found it. So the British channeled huge resources into developing a substance/method that would be impossible to remove, using an ammonium-based paint that would *etch glass. They disguised it as tubes of toothpaste and smuggled them into occupied Europe, where it was particularly popular for writing insults on the windshields of German officer’s cars. Things were going swimmingly until a shipment was accidentally sent to North Africa, where no one knew about the project and people mistook it for real toothpaste with a “devastating effect on both teeth and morale.
It’s a staple of comic book ad pages, along with sea monkey and X-ray specs, but who would actually trying to use itching powder as a weapon of war? British Special Operations Executive, as it turns out. The BSOE mass-produced a powder which had a powerful irritant effect on exposed skin and smuggled it into occupied Europe disguised as talcum powder. There it was distributed to resistance members at laundries and clothing factories, where it could be secretly sprinkled over German uniforms. This wasn’t a small-scale operation: In October 1943, the BSOE reported that 25,000 U-boat crew uniforms had been contaminated with itching powder. Apparently this was successful in getting at least one U-boat to return to port, as the crew had become convinced they were suffering from some virulent disease. Not content to stop there, their Stockholm office began filling envelopes with itching powder and sending them into the German postal system. The resistance in Norway members started putting the powder into condoms intended for German troops. The contaminated condoms were shipped mainly to the Trondheim area, where the local hospital soon filled up with soldiers complaining of “painful irritation.”
There are few more classic or juvenile pranks than a stink bomb. The British also spent large sums developing a stink bomb called “the S-capsule” which could be broken onto clothing, like overcoats, to create a horrible stench. The smell clung even after multiple cleanings, and since winter clothing was in short supply in the German army, the poor soldier would either have to freeze or walk around reeking like a garbage fire full of dead rats and roquefort cheese. Not to be outdone, the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) launched the hilariously-named “Who Me?” program. This eventually produced a spray bottle that could be used on a German officer to produce a strong fecal smell that would “humiliate” him in the eyes of his men, depleting morale. Unfortunately it turned out to be so strong that it tended to cling to everyone in the area, including the poor guy trying to surreptitiously spray it.
Proving that the military is not dissimilar enough from Mean Girls, fake party invitations were another weapon of choice for the SOE. In 1944, the German embassy in Stockholm had arranged for the famous actor and comedian George Alexander to give a gala, one-night-only performance of his new comic play, with tickets available only to an exclusive few. The play would be a hilarious farce, but not in the way the embassy had hoped. The SOE produced over 3,000 fake invitations to the play and the swanky reception to be held afterward, were then sent to known Nazi sympathizers around the country. On the night of the gala, thousands of Nazi-loving Swedes turned up in black tie only to be told that the tickets they were proudly clutching were fake and that they would not be allowed in. The performance was delayed for *hours by the angry mob outside. The foolish fascists became a laughingstock across Sweden.
I take back what I said about stink bombs being the OG prank. That honor has to go to laxatives. The Atlantic coast of Norway was a desolate area with an economy based largely on fishing. So when Norway’s Nazi-controlled government announced that it was requisitioning the entire sardine catch, people were understandably miffed. The resistance had a mole in local Nazi headquarters who revealed that the sardines were going to be used to feed German troops, with the best of the catch to be canned and supplied to U-boat crews. They sent an urgent message to their contacts in British Intelligence requesting a strong laxative that would be undetectable in vegetable oil. The British sent back croton oil, an extremely powerful purgative. The Norwegians snuck it into the canning factories, where it was added to the vegetable oil sardines are packed in. The sardines were then sent off to U-boat bases across the continent. Now painful diarrhea is bad at the best of times, but imagine having it while packed onto a tiny submarine with a bunch of guys all suffering the same problem. There are a finite number of toilets and no fresh air if you’re submerged. British Intelligence was impressed enough by this success to start their own laxative-based campaign, using a substance called Carbachol, which supposedly caused “diarrhea of epic proportions among 200 people” with as little as one gram. As luck would have it, the war ended before this could be put into action.
Speaking of the toilet, when the OSS office in Rome realized that the enemy was experiencing a severe toilet paper shortage, they jumped all over it. The department began producing anti-Nazi toilet paper, which would then be dropped into Germany or placed in the bathroom of trains traveling from neutral Switzerland. Some of the rolls were printed with anti-Nazi text and others just had a picture of Hitler’s face and the words “This side up!“
Continuing with the apparent “let’s annoy Hitler into surrendering” strategy, the OSS came up with a plan that was deranged even by their standards. They knew taking Hitler out would strike a devastating blow to the Nazis, but killing him ran the risk of turning him into a martyr. So instead they just decided to drive him crazy. With porn. The agency’s crack team of psychologists concluded that Hitler was pathologically prudish about sex. They argued that if Hitler was suddenly exposed to a huge quantity of hardcore pornography, he would be driven to a nervous breakdown. So the OSS R&D division, nicknames the Choirboys, assembled a veritable mountain of German pornography. At this point, it’s probably worth remembering that there was an actual war raging across the globe, with guns and bombs, while these guys were collecting and assessing Bavarian erotica. Believe it or not, the plan fell apart almost as soon as the OSS tried to put it into action. They had decided that the best way to get the porn to Hitler was to have a bomber drop it on his bunker, the thinking being that when the air raid alert ended, the Fuhrer would wander outside, see the nudie mags littering the landscape, and instantly be driven to madness of puritanical Lovecraftian proportions. When the plan was explained to the Air Force colonel who was to be in charge of it, he was not onboard. In fact, the colonel apparently left shouting that the entire agency was a bunch of maniacs and that the Air Force wouldn’t risk the life of a single pilot on the scheme.
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Proper preparation prevent poor performance. You’ve got a first aid kit in your car, a little box of tornado supplies in the closet, canned goods in the pantry, a few thousand rubber bullets. You don’t have that one? The London Metropolitan police service does. After the 2011 riots, the Met, as it’s called, upgraded its inventory of rubber bullets from 700 to 10,000. If there’s an item that people need, you’d better believe somebody is holding a strategic reserve of it.
Welcome to part two of Butter in the Bank. In the first installment, which was back in episode #20, though that was before I started putting episode numbers in the title field. Last time we talked about Canadian maple syrup, Chinese pork, Indian cotton, European butter, and American raisins. Most of those stockpiles are intended to guard against price fluctuations. Today will trend more toward survival necessities, but if you’ve ever done any kind of research, you know that start off thinking you’re going down one road and wind up goodness knows where. Let’s start with medicine, because if you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.
We like to talk about how we would handle the zombie apocalypse, but we should probably focus on slightly more likely to happen, like a natural disaster, terrorist attack, or non-T-virus disease outbreak. That’s where the Strategic National Stockpile comes in. Managed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), can provide lifesaving medicines, vaccines, antidotes for chemical and biological attacks, and more. The Strategic National Stockpile is not a first responder, but if a state or national agency requests help, the Strategic National Stockpile can provide critical medical supplies. The Strategic National Stockpile spreads its inventory between warehouses scattered across the US, that way it can respond to an emergency within hours, no matter where it happens. The locations of the warehouses and their exact contents are kept close to the vest.
If the threat isn’t well defined, like a cluster of unusual deaths, the Strategic National Stockpile sends “push packages,” that contain a broad spectrum of medications and other medical supplies. CDC advisers take the supplies at the scene of the emergency and hand responsibility over to the local authorities. Health care workers then distribute these supplies to those who need them. The medicine and supplies are provided free to the patients, which shouldn’t be surprising and refreshing, but is.
The Strategic National Stockpile program has responded to areas affected by the 9/11 attacks, dispensed Cipro for the anthrax attacks in late 2001, provided anti-viral drugs, as well as gloves and masks, during the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the CDC realized that they also needed to provide supplies for chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart conditions, and high blood pressure, to treat those patients in long-term disaster areas who would otherwise not be able to get their meds.
This is where I’ll put a clever segue about rubber gloves and maybe a glove slap to start a duel. Rubber stockpiles were once so important to Western nations, specifically on their ability to wage war that secret missions were planned to steal the stockpiles of their enemies. Next to steel, rubber was the most important commodity in the war effort against Germany and Japan. When World War II began, Japan seized Burma, Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies. This cut the Allies off from 90% of the supply of natural rubber. The lack of rubber for vehicles, aircraft, clothing, gas masks, etc, could actually have cost the Allies the war. In the US, this sparked a prickly political battle between those who favored natural rubber and those who wanted synthetic rubber. Some politicians worried that a synthetic rubber program could lead to dangerous policies of isolationism after the war. In The New York Times Magazine, one asked, “Will the rubber policies we adopt now lead to World War III later on?” Synthetic rubber of the time was also inferior to natural rubber. In June 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Rubber Reserve Company to stockpile rubber. When it was created the Rubber Reserve Company had about 1 million lbs/454,000kg of rubber. That seems like a lot, but the military at that time was using about 600,000 lbs/272,000 kg a year, and if production increased, so would the need for rubber. Under the umbrella of the Rubber Reserve Company, several private corporations, including Firestone, Goodrich, and Goodyear, signed a patent and information sharing agreement to produce better synthetic rubber. The Allies also launched Operation Mickleham in the early 1940s, which was supposed to smuggle rubber from Japanese-occupied areas, but it failed to secure even an ounce of rubber. It also didn’t make much of an impact on historians either, apparently, because I couldn’t find much on it. In 2012, the US decided to sell its rubber stockpile. As of 2015, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia are part of a consortium that produces about two-thirds of the world’s natural rubber. They had tried to control prices, OPEC-style, but oversupply and sinking demand put the kibosh on that.
Do you remember how, after like the third time Futurama got cancelled, they did a quartet of movies, which went back and forth in quality like the Star Trek films. The one, Into the Wild Green Yonder, featured a creature called the Encyclopod, who preserved the DNA of all endangered species. It’s not news that animal species are disappearing at an increasing rate, with a quarter of all known mammals and a tenth of all birds facing possible extinction within the next generation. Global biodiversity is declining at an overwhelming speed. With each species that disappears, vast amounts of information about their biology, ecology and evolutionary history is irreplaceably lost. In 2004, three British organizations decided to join forces and combat the issue. The Natural History Museum, the Zoological Society of London, and Nottingham University joined forces, like highly-educated Planeteers, to create the Frozen Ark Project.
To do this, they gathered and preserved DNA and living tissue samples from all the endangered species they could get their hands on (literally), so that future generations can study the genetic material far into the future. No, not like Jurassic Park. I think it’s been established that that’s a bad idea. So far, the Frozen Ark has over 700 samples stored at the University of Nottingham in England and participating consortium members in the U.S., Germany, Australia,India, South Africa, Norway, and others. DNA donations come from museums, university laboratories, and zoos. Their mission has four component: to coordinating global efforts in animal biobanking; to share expertise; to help to organisations and governments set up biobanks in their own countries; and to provide the physical and informatics infrastructure that will allow conservationists and researchers to search for, locate, and use this material wherever possible without having to resample from wild populations.
The Frozen Ark Project was founded in 2004 by Professor Bryan Clarke, a geneticist at the University of Nottingham, his wife Dr Ann Clarke, an immunologist with experience in reproductive biology, and their friend Dame Anne McLaren, a leading figure in developmental biology. Starting in the 1960’s, Clarke carried out comprehensive studies on land snails of the genus Partula, which are endemic to the volcanic islands of French Polynesia. Almost all Partula species disappeared within just 15 years, because of a governmental biological control plan that went horribly wrong. In the late ’60s, the giant African land snail, a mollusk the size of a puppy, was introduced to the islands as a delicacy, but soon turned into a serious agricultural pest, because, as seems to happen 100% of the time humans think they know better, the giant snail had no natural predators. To control the African land snails, the carnivorous Florida rosy wolfsnail was introduced in the ’70s, but it annihilated the native snails instead. As a last resort, Clarke’s team managed to collect live specimens of the remaining 12 Partula species and bring them back to Britain. Tissue samples were frozen to preserve their DNA and an international captive breeding program was established. Currently, there are Partula species, including some that later became extinct in the wild, in a dozen zoos and a there few been a few promising reintroductions.
The extinction story of the Partula snails resonated with the Clarkes, who realised that systematic collection and preservation of tissue, DNA, and viable cells of endangered species should become standard practice, ultimately inspiring the birth of Frozen Ark. The Frozen Ark Project operates as a federated model, building partnerships with organisations worldwide that share the same vision and goals. The Frozen Ark consortium has grown steadily since the project’s launch, with new national and international organisations joining every year. There are now 27 partners, distributed across five continents. Biological samples like tissue or blood from animals in zoos and aquariums can be taken from live animals during routine veterinary work or from dead animals. Bonus fact: more of a nitpick, the post-mortem examination of an animal is a necropsy. Autopsy means examining the self. The biobanks can provide a safe storage for many types of biological material, particularly the highly valuable germ cells (sperm and eggs).
Their work isn’t merely theoretical for some distant day in the future. One success story of the Frozen Ark, which illustrates the benefits of combining cryobanked material, effective management, and a captive breeding program, is the alarmingly adorable black-footed ferret. The species was listed as “extinct in the wild” in 1996, but has since been reintroduced back to its habitat and is now gradually recovering. More recently, researchers were able to improve the genetic diversity to the wild population by using 20-year-old cryopreserved sperm and artificial insemination.
After hydrogen, helium, the stuff that makes balloon fly and gives you a chipmunk voice, is the second most plentiful gas in the universe. So why does the US government have a federal stockpile of the stuff? Short answer: war. Long anwer: the US created the Federal Helium Reserve in 1921 as a way to store helium for blimps, which were the next great weapon of war at the time. Though the blimps didn’t pan out as hoped, the helium stockpile not only remained, but grew. The reserve, stored near Amarillo, Texas, was about 11 billion cubic feet as of 2013. It provides 42% of America’s helium and 35% of the world’s supply. That location makes sense when you learn that helium is not extracted from the atmosphere, but is a byproduct of natural gas production.
However, now it’s more about the government providing a critical product that private enterprise doesn’t want to sell as long as the market is controlled.Helium has unique qualities that put it in high demand. It’s an excellent coolant that stays liquid down to a temperature of absolute zero. Although it’s exceptionally light, helium doesn’t explode like hydrogen. The largest commercial use of helium is as a coolant for superconducting magnets necessary to build magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines. It also has properties that make it useful in arc welding, computer drives, fiber optic cables, aerospace telescopes, and scientific research. The Large Hadron Collider, needs about 130 tons of helium to operate.
Mot of those technologies were not what they are now back in the ‘90s, when the U.S. government decided to get rid of the reserve, passing the Helium Privatization Act of 1996 and gradually selling the helium stockpile off to private buyers. But as helium was being used more and more, the prices were being kept artificially low, which led to massive waste. Worryingly, at current rates of usage, known global supplies of helium are estimated to be entirely depleted in 20 to 30 years. Even though it appears to be a common element, accounting for up to 24% of total universal mass, helium is actually rare on Earth in a *usable form. The House of Representatives stepped in with the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 and voted to extend the life of the Federal Helium Reserve. These days, the U.S. is reducing its helium stores to 3 billion cubic feet. New mining endeavors are expected to create a helium surplus by 2018, so it sounds like we’re in good shape (for now).
The Protecting Ice Memory project aims to preserve the rich information contained in our planet’s swiftly disappearing ice. To those that can read them, mountain glaciers are incredible repositories of data points on long-term changes in temperature, as well as concentrations of gases and pollutants. But as they melt, their histories go with them, so researchers are taking enormous, cylindrical samples called ice cores from as many glaciers as possible. While tree rings and ocean sediment cores can help scientists create a detailed record of what the Earth’s climate was like in the past, showing, for example, if a summer was hot or dry, ice cores provide a direct link. “As snow falls, it pulls stuff out of the atmosphere and it is subsequently buried, and so you can go back and see what was in the atmosphere at a specific time. That’s what makes them really valuable,” said Mark Twickler, the science director of the ice core facility.
Most ice cores come from Greenland and Antarctica, as these locations provide the longest records. Scientists use either mechanical or thermal drills, which can drill up cores up to 20ft/6m long, and 5in/12cm thick. The oldest ice core that has been unearthed has a record that extends back *800, 000 years, although scientists are on the hunt to go back even further. A group of researchers from University of Washington and University of Maine have recently submitted a proposal to drill in a spot in Antarctica that might produce a record back to 1 million years. After drilling, researchers must transport these ice cores by ship thousands of miles to the ICF without them melting. This is done by moving them in a freezer inside another freezer and a refrigeration specialist to accompany the ice cores, just in case. Luckily, according to Twickler, it’s been 20 years since a core was lost.
Sealed in steel tubes and stacked in a vast room, the cylinder of ice have come a long way. Each of them has been carefully drilled and carved, delicately treated in freezing rooms, and shipped in thousand-dollar refrigeration units. Their first stop is the National Science Foundation’s Ice Core Facility outside of Denver. There they will be kept as solidly frozen as they were in their glacier. Why do they have to be so careful with giant ice cubes? These ice cores are like safe deposit boxes of invaluable scientific data. They are the only resources on the planet that, at one point in time, had direct contact with the atmosphere hundreds and even thousands of years ago *and preserved traces of it. By learning more about these atmospheric changes in the past, scientists can better project what the Earth’s climate may look like in an increasingly warming future.
The ICF stores over 17,000 meters of ice cores from Greenland, Antarctica and parts of North America in a large freezer meticulously kept at negative 32° Fahrenheit/-35C°. Bonus fact: The Celsius and Fahrenheit scales only line up at -40deg°. The freezer is housed in a large, nondescript building located in the Denver Federal Center compound. It can be accessed only after donning heavy coveralls, snow boots, gloves and a warm hat. In the freezer, pens can’t write, batteries fade, and computers have to be housed in special warm boxes.
Attached to the archive freezer is an exam room, set to -10°F, where, groups of up to 20 scientists dissect the ice cores using precise tools. Samples then whiz to universities far and wide, where their chemistry, gases, nitrogen, sulfur isotopes and other properties, are analyzed. Tiny pieces of pollution trapped in the ice can tell of a volcanic eruption or radioactive fallout. The ratio of oxygen-16 to oxygen-18 can tell the temperature of the Earth when an ice layer formed, as well as the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It was with ice cores that scientists observe the link between carbon dioxide levels and the global temperature in the last million years.
Needless to say, time is of the essence to preserve these samples. As temperatures rise, they have begun their retreat, melting back slowly over the years. Even before these glaciers are lost, they have started melting at the top surface layers — and as the water trickles down through the glacier, it can destroy the chemical composition of the deeper layers, distorting the signals in the ice.
And that’s where we run out of idea, at least for today. There was one item I spent more than an hour researching, only to have to take it back out, and that’s the strategic steam locomotive reserve. Supposedly, during the Cold War, countries like Russia, the UK, and even Sweden and Finland, kept steam trains in working condition in case the electrical infrastructure or oil supply lines were ever disrupted after an attack. The “evidence” for this seems to be train graveyards, just places where vehicles go when they’re obsolete. The fact that ever picture has more rust than the floor pan of my old Chevy pickup leads me to believe that no major world power is planning to use them again. Thanks….