Outside Online Archives

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1995

By Patrick Clinton

As a kid growing up in South America, I'd capture ants and put them to my ear. I could hear them screaming! Was I hallucinating?
Carlos Dell Acqua, Los Angeles, California

Don't worry, you heard something. And you don't have to go all the way back to South America to hear it again. The renowned evolutionary biologist and ant authority Edward O. Wilson calls it "the interesting music of the ants." It's a form of stridulation, a sound created by rubbing two body parts together--the same kind of thing crickets do. Many ants, including the leaf-cutter ants that are so abundant in South America, have a washboard affair on their rear end. They scrape the washboard with a "plectrum," producing an audible squeak that serves to warn of danger or to recruit new grunts in their various public works projects. In your neck of the woods, Wilson suggests listening to red harvester ants, which are common in the western and southern United States and make nests that look like little craters surrounded by pebbles. But be careful when you pick them up: Their bite is worse than their squeak.

Why do old tents smell like barf?
C. Brown, New York, New York

People will tell you it's mildew, but they're wrong. Tents do suffer from mildew, of course, but that's another problem and another smell. The real culprit here is cellulose acetate butyrate, which is commonly added to the polyurethane coatings used on tents. When CAB breaks down over time, one of its many by-products is butyric acid, which gives off a distinctly puky odor. (Butyric comes from the Latin word for butter; butyric acid is the substance that gives rancid butter its endearing fragrance.) According to Kris Krishnan, technical director of Raffi & Swanson, a manufacturer of polyurethane coatings, the odor is "not normal--it's an abused condition." You can avoid CAB breakdown by taking a few simple precautions: Keep your tent out of excessive sunlight. Don't store it wet. And don't leave it cooking in your car trunk for weeks at a time.

"Red sky by night, sailor's delight. Red sky by morning, sailor take warning." Is it true?
Paul Johnican, Des Moines, Iowa

Variations of this ancient saying turn up in Shakespeare and even in the Gospel of Matthew. Some meteorologists have estimated that the "night" part of the proverb can be as much as 70 percent accurate in forecasting rain--not bad, as folk wisdom goes, but not good enough to drive the Weather Channel off the air.

There's no consensus on why it works as well as it does, but here's the basic concept: Sunlight comes to us through more miles of the atmosphere at dawn and dusk than at other times of day. When the sky is clear, the atmosphere scatters the light at the blue end of the spectrum, leaving mostly red. But if the light passes through larger particles, such as water droplets, you tend to get paler light. A ruddy sky at sunset, then, can indicate that there is little moisture in the upper atmosphere west of you, where tomorrow's weather generally comes from--and thus sunny skies are in the forecast. It may also be a situation, say some meteorologists, in which the setting sun is simply reflecting off the underside of clouds on the eastern horizon, which suggests that rainy weather has already moved beyond you.

The second part of the proverb is the subject of endless speculation among professional meteorologists. More important, it isn't the least bit reliable. So when morning comes, sailor, don't even bother looking for red in the sky: You'd do just as well to flip a coin.

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