Friday, 28 November 2014

Pacific Trash Vortex

It is truly a shame that I must write the following article. This article shows the massive lack of respect that humans have for Earth. It highlights their careless behavior and disregard for mother nature, and the beautiful animals we share this planet with. This post ties alongside my previous article 'Anthropogenically Influenced Extinction', which if you have not yet read, then I would fully recommend. I sincerely hope that this article will open your eyes, alter your mindset and act as a catalyst for change.   

The great Pacific garbage patch, aka the Pacific trash vortex is a towering accumulation of debris, waste and garbage that sits trapped within a gigantic gyre within the northern Pacific ocean. The patch is characterised via its abundance of waste plastic and chemical sludge, which are kept circulating in place due to the strong rotating ocean currents. It is shameful that in 1988 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted the emergence of this trash vortex, yet nothing was done to counter its creation. This is a situation that many can relate to, as it is echoed throughout climate change today.  

The Pacific trash vortex formed gradually throughout the 1980's until it was discovered by Charles J. Moore in 1999, upon returning from an open ocean sailing race. This trash vortex occupies a remote area within the northern Pacific ocean known as the 'horse latitudes'; where the waters that skim the coasts of North America and coastal Japan are pulled inwards due to the ocean currents. It is this movement of the ocean which has effectively collected the waste from the countries shores, and compiled it all in one single location. It has been estimated that 80% of all the trash contained within the vortex originated from land, whereas the other 20% has been generated via ocean going vessels. Within the patch you will find fishing nets, plastic bottles and manufacturer packaging, to name a few.  The trash that originates from North America - of which most is believed to have done so - takes roughly six-years to travel from the coastline to the vortex. This means that whatever we see today, will continue to grow, and grow, and grow until change is adopted. 

Due to the constant movement of the ocean and the relentless addition of more waste, the exact size of the trash vortex is unknown. However, the estimated size is calculated to be somewhere between 700,000 - 15,000,000 sq km (270,000 - 5,800,000 sq miles), or 0.41% - 8.1% of the entire Pacific ocean. 


Due to the effects of photodegradation, the plastics contained within the vortex are being broken down until they are small enough to be ingested by the surrounding fish. Terrifyingly, this means that plastic is slowly making its way into the food chain. Once the plastic has been ingested by the fish, these fish are then being caught by trawlers, sold, cooked, and served to you. This means that plastics and their toxicity is also making its way into your diet. As for the longer lasting plastic that is more resilient to photodegradation; this is being eaten by marine birds, mammals and other ocean dwelling animals such as sea turtles, as well as their young. This results in hundreds of thousands, if not millions of unnecessary and pre-mature deaths each year.

Some clean-up attempts are being made, but as the waste is taken out of the ocean, more is being swept up and added. It appears to be an endless cycle of adding and removing trash, waste and chemical sludge. 

The location of the Pacific trash vortex.

Debris and chemical sludge as seen from a low-flying aircraft.


- Until the next Butterfly...

Monday, 24 November 2014

Circumstellar Habitat Zones

The circumstellar habitat zone is the region around a star - in our case, the sun - within which a planet must circulate in order to be able to support liquid water on its surface. This zone is more commonly referred to as the Goldilocks zone (GZ). Dependent upon the size of the star and the amount of energy it emits, the position of the GZ will vary. The more energy a star emits, the further away the GZ will be positioned; and vice versa. There are many other contributing factors to this GZ equation, but for the simplicity of this article and to avoid detraction from its main point, the above stated facts are entirely sufficient.   

The earth is 4.54 billion years old; it has a diameter of 7,891 miles; and circles the sun once a year. The average diameter of the earth's orbit around the sun is 186,411,358 miles. This means that usually - due to the earth's orbit of the sun not being entirely circular - that the earth is a distance of 93,000,000 miles from the sun. This distance is also known as an Astronomical unit (AU). Due to earth's positioning within the solar system's GZ, it is able to support liquid water on its surface, and maintain life. Therefore, this poses a rather large question: How many planets in the universe could potentially harness life? How many planets - just like earth - could be sitting within the GZ of their local star, hosting liquid water allowing life to thrive? 

Take a seat.

Let's start small. First of all there are planets and stars. Planets and stars are situated within a solar system - effectively a star and its orbiting planets -, just like earth is positioned alongside its fellow planets circulating around the sun. Next, solar systems are located within a galaxy - just as our solar system is positioned within the Milky Way. And last but not least, galaxies are contained within the universe - which as far as we know at this current point in time, there is only one. Our galaxy - the Milky Way - is estimated to contain 200 - 400 billion stars, and be 100,000 light years across. Light travels at roughly 300,000,000 meters per second - or 186,411 miles per second. In order to make these figures more manageable it may be easier to envisage that light travels around the earth roughly 8 times per second. Therefore, if light can travel around the earth 8 times per second, relentlessly, for every second of existence, it would be reasonable to conclude that if it takes 100,000 years to span the Milky Way, then the Milky Way is very large indeed. Although it is by no means the largest of the universe's galaxies.

The observable universe is 28,000 megaparsecs across (1 megaparsec is the equivalent of 3.26 million light years). However, the actual size of the entire universe is unknown. Therefore, for the sake of the remainder of this article we will assume that the universe is the size of the current observable universe - 28,000 megaparsecs. 

There are an estimated 200 billion galaxies - varying in sizes - within the known universe. One of which is the Milky Way, within which there are an estimated 300 billion stars. Therefore, if on average each galaxy contained the same number of stars as the Milky Way - 300 billion -, then the number of stars within the universe would be a cool 60,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (60 sextillion). On top of this, it is estimated that there are 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (1 septillion) planets within the universe, of which 40,000,000,000 (40 billion) are thought to be circulating a living star. However, of the 40 billion planets circulating living stars, only 11 billion of those planets are believed to be positioned within the GZ. If this is the case, then there are 11 billion planets within the known universe that could potentially be harnessing life. This is a massively significant number, as with statistics like this, the search for extraterrestrial life seems to be a genuinely worthwhile endeavor. Furthermore, if the entire universe were to be twice the size of the observable universe - which it would not be far fetched to hypothesise -, then there would be roughly 22 billion planets capable of hosting life, and so on. These numbers are phenomenal, and breathtaking. However, no matter how amazing they seem to be, they should be taken within a rather large pinch of salt.

The problem is, this whole topic of planet numbers, star numbers and the chances of extra-terrestrial life within the universe is a gargantuan can of worms. This article has provided an incredibly simplified overview of the entire issue. The complexities, theories, statistics and proposed equations that surround this matter could easily fill hundreds if not thousands of volumes. There is simply too much to write within one single article. If you wish to know more, then my personal recommendation for a mind-bending and suitable starting point would be the Fermi paradox.

I feel at this point as the article draws to a close, it would be quite apt to quote Arthur C. Clarke, for he sums up the entire situation perfectly, "Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying".

An unimaginably simplified model of the known universe. 

Earth positioned exactly 1 AU from the sun, sitting within this solar system's GZ.

A very basic depiction of earth's orbit around the sun. 

The milky way is 100,000 light years across, and is the galaxy we call home.

- Until the next Butterfly...

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Ice Giant World

In the 1940's and 1950's the sport of caving received a huge popularity boost. Today, the sport is just as popular, if not more popular than ever. The reason for this is that the caving networks of earth are one of the last remaining frontiers of exploration. It is estimated - although it is not possible to know for sure, due to the exact number of caves in existence being unknown - that only 50% of the world's caves have been explored. But there is one particular type of cave that calls out to the extreme adventurers in the world; a form of cave that is both deadly and beautiful. These caves can be found within the frozen terrain and wastelands of earth. They are the ice caves.

An ice cave can be any type of natural cave from a glacier cave, to fracture and talus caves, that contain a significant amount of ice. It has been calculated that in order for a cave to be cold enough to form the required amount of ice to be classified as an ice cave, there must be a significant section of the cave that remains at or below zero Celsius all year round. However, not only does the cave have to maintain a low temperature all year, there also has to be a significant amount of surface water within the local proximity, which can then access the cave and freeze along the walls, roof and ground. Once the water has frozen, the cave sparkles under the light like a giant diamond. Contained within these caves are stalactites, stalagmites, flowstones, giant icicles, ice draperies and frozen lakes, all of varying shapes and sizes dependent upon the cave in which you are stood. Also, if there is a considerable amount of water vapor within the cave, then hexagonal ice crystals may form on the ceiling. Each hexagon is usually perfectly forged, as if it were part of a giant geometrical carving. It would be entirely fair to say that no two ice caves are alike. 

The largest explored ice caves in the world are located in Austria. They are high above the village of Werfen, within the Tennen mountains of central Austria. Roughly 60 km (37 miles) south of Salzburg, or 350km (217 miles) west of Vienna; and are nick-named the 'ice giant world'. These caves run for 48 km (30 miles) and offer amazing frozen sculptures and natural fluid architecture that is unlike anywhere else on earth. The natural scientist Anton Posselt was responsible for the discovery of these caves in 1879; yet he only explored the first 200 meters due to rumours from the locals that this 'ice giant' caving system was physically the entrance to hell. As an obviously religious and god-fearing man, he deemed it wise to cut his quest short and leave it to somebody less concerned. It wasn't until the non-hell-fearing Alexander von Mork appeared on the scene in 1912 that the caves were fully explored - and the good news is that no doors to hell, tridents or rams horns were discovered. Tours of these caves are offered between the months of May and October, and as you would expect, the advice is to dress warmly.   

Other such ice caves can be found in Switzerland, Russia, Slovakia, Iceland, USA, Canada and undoubtedly many more countries. However, the cave that is deemed the most beautiful yet discovered is the Skaftafell ice cave in southern Iceland. The ice of this cave is reportedly a strong blue colour which can be best witnessed after a strong downpour of rain. It is also said that when the glacier that contains this cave moves as little as one-millimetre due to the progressively defrosting surroundings, the entire cave resounds a loud unnerving creek.

Due to the nature of ice caves and the annual rotation of the seasons, certain sections of these caves sometimes melt during the Summer and then begin to re-freeze again in the Autumn. This means that year after year the size and shape of these ice caves differs. Therefore, if you visited the same cave for five consecutive years, you would see a different ice cave each and every time.

An ice caver exploring the shallow underground tunnels of a glowing ice cave.

The largest explored ice cave in the world, known in English as the 'ice giant world'. This cave was originally believed to have been the entrance to hell.

Skaftafell ice cave in Iceland. This cave is considered to be the most beautiful ice cave yet discovered.

A close-up photograph of a perfectly formed, protruding hexagonal ice crystal. 

- Until the next Butterfly...

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Dirty Thunderstorms

Dirty thunderstorms - also known as volcanic lightning - are a breathtaking natural phenomenon where powerful forks of lightening are formed within the plume of a volcanic eruption. As the hot ash that forms the eruption column is forced toward the sky these dramatic bolts of lighting strike downwards. They look as if they have been forged within the inner circles of hell. Dirty thunderstorms are a fiercely visual reminder that no matter how powerful the human race believes itself to be, mother nature is still in-charge.

As a volcano erupts, lava and hot ash spill out of the crater causing mass havoc and destruction to the surrounding area. On rare occasions within a volcanic plume, electrical charges are formed which in turn create a dirty thunderstorm. However, for these electrical charges to be formed, the volcanic eruption has to be somewhat significant. The reason these lightning strikes within the hot ash cloud materialise, is due to the simple fact that opposites attract. A large negative charge within the volcanic ash cloud effectively searches for a connection with a large positive charge - which is usually contained within the earth below. This is why lightning strikes downwards and not upwards. Once these charges have located each other, the electrons that connect the two explode emitting a mass radiation of heat. This explosion of the connecting electrons is so violent that it causes a gigantic flash, also known as lightning. This lightning is approximately 2-5 cm wide and can reach a temperature of 30,000 kelvins (29,726 Celsius), which believe it or not, is roughly five times the temperature of the surface of the sun. The intense heat and dramatic flash that this dirty thunderstorm lightning creates lasts around 1-2 microseconds; and the large crack of thunder that it emits will be 120 db, on average. This is roughly the same volume that you would experience if you sat directly in-front the speakers at a rock concert.

Although this phenomenon is relatively widespread, the most famous cases have been documented within Chile above the Chaiten volcano - which last erupted in 2008 -; in Alaska above the Mt Augustine volcano - which covers an area of 84 sq km (32 sq miles) -; and in Iceland above the easy to pronounce Eyjafjallajokull volcano - which is famous for the 2010 eruption that caused mass havoc across Europe, causing many flights to be cancelled and many holidays to be postponed.

Much is still to be discovered about dirty thunderstorms, due to the inability of scientists to encroach upon them without potentially encountering an electrifying or molten lava induced death. However, one things is known for sure: they have undoubtedly captured our imagination.

Lightning strikes can reach a temperature that is five times hotter than the surface of the sun.

Eyjafjallajokull volcano, Iceland. This volcano was responsible for the 2010 air traffic disturbances in Europe.

A terrifying looking dirty thunderstorm. 

- Until the next Butterfly...

Friday, 14 November 2014

The Waves of Vaadhoo Island

The Maldives consists of 1,190 islands, all of which sit in the midst of the Indian ocean-Arabian sea. It is one of the world's most geographically dispersed countries, sprawling over an area of 90,000 sq km (35,000 sq miles); and by means of both population and land area, the Maldives is the smallest country in Asia. This cluster of islands literally teeters above the ocean with an elevation of 1.5 meters. It is the lowest lying country in the world, and therefore, one of the most susceptible to the effects of global warming. One of the islands contained within this spectacular country is Vaadhoo island, and it is on this island where the ocean sparkles unlike anywhere else on earth. Unlike anything you have ever seen before. 

Vaadhoo island is a member of the Raa Atoll, which is one of the 26 Atolls that combine to construct the Maldives. The population of this island was last counted in 2007, where it was discovered that 500 incredibly fortunate people were classed as permanent inhabitants. Many people travel to this island each year to gaze upon the ocean once the sun has set. The reason for this is because the waters that surround Vaadhoo island literally sparkle due to the huge presence of bioluminescent phytoplankton. This has lead to the waters that surround the island being christened the 'sea of stars'. In ancient Chinese poetry these strange glowing specks of light that filled the ocean were thought to have been underwater fireflies. They believed that these fireflies would leave the ocean to create fire on land, which in turn created the entirely illogical belief that all fires originated from the oceans. In Japan, bioluminescence was also thought to have been produced by underwater fireflies. However, in Japanese mythology these fireflies were thought to have been the tears of a beautiful moon princess, who was banished to the moon on her twentieth birthday. It wasn't until the Greek philosopher Aristotle came along in the fourth century B.C.E., and wrote, "some things, though they are not in their nature fire, nor any species of fire, yet seem to produce light." that bioluminescence was officially documented. 

Various species of phytoplankton are known to be bioluminescent, meaning that this amazing natural sight can be viewed in various locations ranging from: Cairns, Australia; Manasquan beach, New Jersey, USA; Trelawny, Jamaica; Mosquito bay, Puerto Rico; Toyama bay, Japan; Zeebrugge, Belgium; and Bali, Indonesia. It is, however, particularly strong at Vaadhoo island. The majority of bioluminescence is caused by the phytoplankton known as, dinoflagellates. These dinoflagellates glow when disturbed; so as the wind and tide play with the ocean and its contents, the dinoflagellates emit a brilliant blue 'micro flash' which causes the waters to sparkle like glitter. Many people have been known to walk along the shoreline and watch the dinoflagellates light up as they stand on them. This must be something of a truly surreal experience. The best time to view the sea of stars is from late summer through to new year, although it is visible all year round. However, the level of bioluminescence does differ from time to time, yet no method of calculation has ever been established. It appears to be entirely random. 

Random, yet beautiful.

The glowing waters of Vadhoo island are known as the 'sea of stars'. It's easy to see why.

Shapes can be drawn in the wet sand by simply disturbing the bioluminescent phytoplankton.

Left: A glowing shoreline.
Right top: Footprints in the wet sand.
Right bottom: The sea of stars in full flow.

- Until the next Butterfly...

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Door to Hell

Forty-three years ago in 1971, when China was the newest admittance to the United Nations; India and Pakistan were at war over territory in east Pakistan - now Bangladesh -; decimalisation occurred in the UK making way for the new penny and pound currency; and an 85 meter tsunami hit Ryukyu in Japan; scientists were stood in a field in Turkmenistan. Due to a simple mistake these scientists lit a hole in the centre of a natural gas field, purely by accident. Now, 43 years later it is still burning, and has been affectionately named, The door to hell. 

The door to hell can be found within a natural gas field in Derweze - literally translating as 'gate' -, Turkmenistan. Derweze is located in the middle of the Karakum desert, 160 miles (260 km) north of Ashgabat, the country's capital. It was nothing more than mere irony that this accidentally lit hole sat in the middle of one of the largest gas fields in the world. The hole is 70 meter (230 ft) wide and is filled with powerful orange flames that lick the surrounding air, and boiling mud that bubbles ferociously. Rumours have been told that local spiders are drawn to the pit, tempted by the glowing orange flames that light up the night. These spiders then lower themselves to their deaths on a single strand of silk. It is these qualities that influenced the locals to don the name 'the door to hell' upon this burning pit. The pit is approximately 25 m (81 ft) deep and should be treated with caution at all times. Falling into a 25 meter deep burning hole that has been nick-named 'the door to hell' would be enough to ruin anybody's Saturday.      

Only one person on earth has ever set foot and climbed to the bottom of the door to hell, and that was the Canadian explorer and storm-chaser, George Kourounis. More people have set foot on the Moon. George donned a highly reflective Kevlar suite and abseiled into the depths of the pit, whilst looking like a giant piece of tinfoil. The attempt was highly treacherous due to the excessive heat emitted from the pit, and the abundance of methane - which displaces oxygen - meaning that a professional Hollywood stunt coordinator was recruited to oversee the descent. The soil that George collected from the base of the pit was analysed, and it was found that there were forms of bacteria living comfortably in the hole. It was also discovered that these bacteria are found nowhere else within the surrounding environment. Therefore, the Soviet petroleum engineers that accidentally lit the door to hell 43 years ago, unwittingly created an entirely unique mirco-ecosystem. An ecosystem so unique that it is believed to resemble the conditions found on other planets outside of our solar system. Effectively these engineers created a 'new planet', right here on earth.   

The door to hell.
This pit in Turkmenistan has been burning continuously since 1971.

George Kourounis in his reflective Kevlar suit, lowering himself into the door to hell.  

The door to hell is located in Derweze, Turkmenistan. 

- Until the next Butterfly...

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Anthropogenically Influenced Extinction

Calculating the effect that humans have on species extinction rates is an incredibly complicated and arduous process. The most common method is to attempt to calculate the rate at which species were becoming extinct before humans became a primary contributor to extinction. This is known as the 'background extinction rate'. Once a rough background extinction rate has been calculated, the current level of extinction rates are measured and then the two are compared. However, even this simple comparison poses many complications. One such complication is that from both past and present, it is not known how many species there are on earth. Therefore, it can be very complicated to ascertain an accurate calculation. It is also important to not only measure extinction rates, but to measure non-extinction rates; which as previously stated, can be complicated due to uncertain species numbers. However, with all efforts made to calculate and control the highlighted variables, how much of an impact are humans having on current species extinction? What is the modern day anthropogenically influenced extinction rate? 

The low estimated figure of species on earth is approximately 2 million. The maximum anticipated figure of species on earth is approximately 100 million. This leaves a huge gap for negotiation. To be more exact, it leaves the existence of a possible 98 million species to be negotiated. This however, is slightly beside the point. Regardless of the number of species alive on the planet today, it has been calculated that current day, human influenced species extinction rates, are between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the background extinction rate. The background extinction rate is anticipated to have been 0.1 extinction per million species per year. This means that if modern day extinction rates are calculated using the lower extinction estimate of 1,000 times more than the background extinction rate, then there are now 100 extinctions per million species per year. 

The statistics become incredibly daunting when the number of species per year going extinct are highlighted. For example, if the lower estimate of 2 million species on earth is accurate, then it is calculated that between 200 and 2,000 species extinctions occur each year. This means the earth looses roughly 2.7 species each day. Even more daunting is when the higher species estimate of 100 million is used in the equation. If there are 100 million species alive on earth then it is calculated that between 10,000 and 100,000 species extinctions occur each year. This means the earth looses between 1 and 11 species per hour, with the average being 1 species lost every 10 minutes. 

Daunting is not the word.

This massive human influenced extinction has been nick-named the 6th great extinction event of our planet; and it has been estimated that 99% of all extinctions that occur today, are somehow linked to human behaviour. Not all of the news is bad though. Due to advancements in technology and the wonderful and highly tenacious people that undertake conservation projects across the globe, some species are being saved and slowly revived. However, these efforts need to be maintained and improved if we are to be in with any chance of reducing this massive environmental crisis. 

A list of 100 animals you will never see, due to already being extinct. 

These 5 animals are currently endangered. If human behaviour remains constant your children may never seen these animals. 

A collage of currently endangered animals.

A daunting graph which shows the drastic increase in species extinction rates.

- Until the next Butterfly...

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Tamu Massif

The word 'volcano' stems from the Roman god of fire, Vulcan. Volcanoes can usually be found within the meeting points of tectonic plates, where the cracks in the earth's surface allow boiling hot ash, gas and magma to spill out into the atmosphere like steam from a giant kettle, and sometimes, cause mass havoc and destruction. Considering the power and potential for chaos that these volcanoes possess, it would be an apt question to ask: what is the world's largest volcano, and where can it be found?

75% of the earth's volcanoes can be found within a place known as the 'ring of fire'. This ring of fire is a 40,000 km (25,000 mile) horseshoe shape that engulfs the Pacific ocean, and in total, it contains 452 volcanoes. Contained within this ring of fire is the ex-largest volcano known to earth: Mauna Loa. Mauna Loa (literally translating as 'Long Mountain') is one of the five volcanoes that form the islands of Hawaii. It is so large that it has a whopping volume of 18,000 cubic miles, and if measured from base to top (considering that Mauna Loa starts deep under the ocean) it is actually taller than Mt. Everest. This is one considerably large volcano. However, as previously mentioned Mauna Loa is no longer the world's largest volcano. As terrifying at this may seem, there is a phenomenally larger volcano to be found under the ocean's surface, lurking in the deep like a giant sea-monster. This volcano has been sat patiently waiting for 145 million years, minding its own business, until on Thursday 5th September 2013 it was discovered.

Tamu Massif - pronounced (Ta-moo Ma-seef) - like most other volcanoes sits within the ring of fire, and can be found 1,600 km east of Japan. The previously stated Mauna Loa has an area of 5,000 sq km (1,900 sq miles), whereas Tamu Massif fills an area of 310,000 sq km (119,000 sq miles) - 63 times larger than Mauna Loa, and therefore roughly 64 times the size of Mt. Everest. The volcano is so vast that its size is estimated to be half to three-quarters that (dependent upon the source) of Olympus Mons - the largest volcano in the solar system, situated on Mars. To write it simply: Tamu Massif dwarfs Mauna Loa. Tamu Massif lies 2 km below the ocean's surface in the dark, mysterious waters of the deep open ocean. The roots of the volcano dig 18 miles into the earth's crust, like spindly fingers feeling for magma. It would be sensible to say that we hope the fingers of Tamu Massif never find a substantial amount of magma, otherwise there could be trouble for us all.

The recent discovery of Tamu Massif is also a poignant reminder of how little we actually know about earth; especially what lies within the oceans. Considering less than 10% of the oceans have been explored and mapped, this leaves the hugely daunting and equally exciting question, what else have we yet to discover?     

Tamu Massif sits 1,600 km off the east coast of Japan.

The 'ring of fire' in which 75% of the worlds volcanoes can be found. Including Tamu Massif and Mauna Loa.

Olympus Mons protruding from the surface of Mars. Olympus Mons is the largest known volcano in the entire solar system, and is roughly double the size of Tamu Massif.  

- Until the next Butterfly...