December 10, 2008
By Susan Benson,CNHM Director of Education
If the color black absorbs heat, why is a polar bear white? This is a question a student asked me this week when I was teaching science and outdoor education in an area school. It turns out that dark or black fur isn’t always the warmest fur to have. Energy does come to animals when the sun is shining. This solar radiation penetrates into the fur, some of which is absorbed at the surface, and some all the way to the skin.
Because our winters have less sun, we have less incoming solar radiation, called insolation. Animals living in our region and latitude are exposed to a lower amount of insolation. Black fur absorbs solar radiation well, but even then, much of the energy is redirected back into the environment again, keeping the sun’s heat from reaching the animal’s skin. A contrast to this is white fur, which reflects some sunlight outward, but also reflects the sun down into the fur layer down to the skin. Add to this the thickness of the fur and how those fur pieces lay over each other, this white fur can more successfully warm the skin. Animals that have dark skin with white fur (as do polar bears) increase their ability to absorb heat. How interesting that white fur is not just about camouflage!
How do humans deal with constant exposure to cold? Can we, who live in the northwoods, ever get “used to the cold”? Evidence does show that humans can acclimatize themselves to colder environments, but usually only with prolonged exposures to that cold. Several groups of people have developed very specific adaptations to cold. Inuits, Norwegian fisherman, and Tibetan and Indian yogis have increased circulation and skin temperature in their extremities. Finnish outdoorsmen can have brown fat in strategic locations. Mailmen of Quebec City have lowered blood pressure and heart rates. Antarctic workers have a higher core temperature. Those with yoga training can exhibit a higher cold tolerance.
Sign me up for the next yoga class! And the next time I feel bad about the extra layers of fat around my body, I’ll just think of it as strategically located cold insulators. Whatever it takes, being outdoors, even in the cold, is worth making some adaptations!
Nature Watch is brought to you by the Cable Natural History Museum. For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 13470 County Highway M or on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about exhibits and programs.