Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
I stumbled across a lovely article about the Saharan silver ant over at phys.org. These ants have special hairs that reflect strongly in the visual and radiate strongly in the infrared. They show a photo of the ant hairs under a couple different amounts of magnification:
The article says:
Saharan silver ants (Cataglyphis bombycina) forage in the Saharan Desert in the full midday sun when surface temperatures reach up to 70°C (158°F), and they must keep their body temperature below their critical thermal maximum of 53.6°C (128.48°F) most of the time. In their wide-ranging foraging journeys, the ants search for corpses of insects and other arthropods that have succumbed to the thermally harsh desert conditions, which they are able to endure more successfully. Being most active during the hottest moment of the day also allows these ants to avoid predatory desert lizards. Researchers have long wondered how these tiny insects (about 10 mm, or 3/8″ long) can survive under such thermally extreme and stressful conditions.
Using electron microscopy and ion beam milling, Yu’s group discovered that the ants are covered on the top and sides of their bodies with a coating of uniquely shaped hairs with triangular cross-sections that keep them cool in two ways. These hairs are highly reflective under the visible and near-infrared light, i.e., in the region of maximal solar radiation (the ants run at a speed of up to 0.7 meters per second and look like droplets of mercury on the desert surface). The hairs are also highly emissive in the mid-infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, where they serve as an antireflection layer that enhances the ants’ ability to offload excess heat via thermal radiation, which is emitted from the hot body of the ants to the cold sky. This passive cooling effect works under the full sun whenever the insects are exposed to the clear sky.
They describe how the hairs “keep [the ants] cool in two ways”—by reflecting the visible light, and by strongly emitting in the thermal infrared.
Curiously, however, nowhere do they mention the importance of a third cooling method that I noticed as soon as I looked at their photograph—the shape of the hairs ensures that more energy is radiated upwards than is radiated downwards. I had never considered that such a thing might be possible. The silver ants have a layer of hairs above their skin which selectively radiate more thermal energy away from the skin than towards the skin. Amazing.
The hairs can do this because, as shown in the right half of Figure 1 and as described in their caption to Figure 1,
a) the hairs have a roughly triangular shape in cross-section and
b) the flat side of the triangular cross-section of the hairs is towards the skin and
c) the two upper sides of the hair are “corrugated”, increasing the surface area facing skywards.
The net result of all of these acting together is to minimize the surface area of the side of the hair facing the skin, and to maximize the surface area of the sides facing the sky. Energy will be radiated from the hair surfaces at some rate per square unit of surface area (e.g. watts/square metre). So the larger the proportion of the hairs’ surface area facing the sky, the greater the proportion of energy radiated skywards versus back towards the ant.
How large is the imbalance in radiation likely to be? Well, the triangular cross-section of the hairs in the picture are about equilateral (three sides the same length). This would mean twice the area pointing skywards as is pointing towards the ant’s skin.
However, there would still be some loss back to the ant’s skin from some portion of the radiation from the tilted upper surfaces of the hairs. Some of that sideways/downwards radiation would be absorbed by the adjacent hairs, however. And some of that back-radiation would be offset by the increased skyward-facing surface area resulting from the corrugation of the upper surfaces of the hairs.
So overall those lesser effects might cancel out in whole or in part, and thus it seems like the layer of ant hairs will emit something like up to twice as much radiation out towards the sky as it does towards the ant’s skin. As is often the case, nature shows the way … what an ingenious cooling method.
And what, you might ask, do Saharan silver ants have to do with climate science?
Well, looking at the cross-sections of the hairs making up the layer shown in the right half of Figure 1, I was reminded of the shape of a cross-section through a layer of tropical cumulus clouds. In particular, I realized that:
a) tropical cumulus clouds have a roughly triangular shape in cross-section and
b) the flat side of the roughly triangular cross-section of the clouds is towards the surface and
c) the upper sides of the clouds are “corrugated”, increasing the surface area facing skywards.
Just sayin’ … it’s something I wouldn’t have guessed was possible, that an absorptive atmospheric layer of clouds could radiate perhaps up to twice as much thermal radiation upwards as it radiates downwards.
I do so enjoy climate science, there are so many amazing things for me to learn about.
PS: My usual request—if you disagree with someone, please quote their exact words that you disagree with. That way, we can all understand exactly what you object to.