Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The Bottom of the Earth

As is clearly evident, throughout history the human race has constantly battled with a relentlessly indistinguishable thirst for exploration. As well as this drive for exploration, as a species, we have also been completely absorbed with the perennial pushing of the human body's boundaries and capabilities. One such endeavour that has enthralled the human race over the years, is the ability to dive as deeply as possible within the world's seas and oceans. The two main methods of diving as deeply as possible, with nothing but your body and minimal equipment, are Freediving and SCUBA diving. Freediving - literally, holding you breath and diving - has allowed the human body - with the assistance of fins and weights - to achieve a maximum dive depth of 214 meters, on a single breath. This world record is currently held by Herbert Nitsch; it was set in Greece on June 14th 2007 via a method of Freediving known as No-Limits diving; and is nothing short of astounding. As for SCUBA diving, the deepest recorded dive in history is 332 meters and was set by Ahmed Gabr, a 41 year old Egyptian. However, for the sake of this article we must surpass both of these phenomenal athletes to even deeper depths. To the coldest, darkest waters possible. How deep? I hear you ask. Well, to the deepest point on earth.

The Mariana Trench is the deepest point on earth. It is located within the largest ocean on our planet, the Pacific ocean, and sits east of the astoundingly beautiful Mariana islands from which it derives its name. The trench itself is 1,580 miles (2,542 km) long, 43 miles (69 km) wide, and dives 6.8 miles (10.994 km) deep until it hits a remote, hostile and undisturbed grounding point that marks the bottom of the earth. The depth of the trench is so vast that if you were to place Mt. Everest at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, it would still be submerged by more than a mile. The final stage of the Mariana Trench is known as the Challenger Deep, which gained its name from the British Royal Navy ship the HMS Challenger that discovered this valley during an expedition made between 1872-1876. This final section is a one-mile wide, slot shaped valley within the Mariana Trench's floor situated at the trench's southern end. The waters at the base of Challenger Deep sit comfortably between 1-4 degrees Celsius. Conversely, they exert 15,750 psi of pressure (1,000 times the standard atmospheric pressure that you are experiencing right now), or 8 tons per square inch, on anything that dares to enter its chamber. Without suitable protection, your body would be squashed into oblivion in an instant. If this level of pressure was placed upon you instantaneously, you would be squashed immediately, and be entirely unaware that you were dead.

Throughout history only four successful descents have been made to the bottom of the Challenger Deep. The first in 1960 by Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh; the second in 1996 by the Japanese built Kaiko; the third in 2009 by the unmanned, USA owned Nereus; and finally the fourth in the Deepsea Challenger on 26th March 2012 by, of all people, the film director James Cameron. Additionally, through the use of the latest technology it is possible to undertake a descent to the base of the Challenger Deep in reasonable safety, within 90 - 140 minutes. Literally, the time is takes to watch a film or drive to work when the traffic is bad.

Although it may be hard to believe, there are numerous animals that call the base of the Challenger Deep home. Predominantly they are tiny organisms, yet some megafauna is still present. Amphipods, which are shrimp-like crustaceans have been witnessed swimming joyfully at the bottom of the trench. Usually amphipods only grow to the size of the last section of your thumb. However, down within this deep, hostile trench they have been seen to reach 30 cm in length, a colossal size for this species. Sea cucumbers were also found enjoying life 7 miles under the water in the abysmally dark, cold, hostile, lonely, claustrophobia-inducing, highly-pressured, unknown depths of the ocean. Each to their own I suppose.

Unfortunately, as with most areas of the earth, the human race does not treat the Challenger Deep with the respect it deserves. Proposals have been made to use the Challenger Deep as a nuclear waste disposal site. The belief that simply dropping our nuclear waste into the deepest part of the ocean will solve our polluting problems, and in turn, will produce no substantial side-effects seems highly unlikely. However, fortunately for us the dumping of nuclear waste within the ocean is currently illegal under international law.

Let's hope it stays that way.

The Deepsea Challenger, which took James Cameron to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in March 2012.

The depth of the Challenger Deep placed into perspective.

The location of the Mariana Trench.

 - Until the next Butterfly...


Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Circles Circles Everywhere

Undoubtedly you have gazed upon a globe at some-point within you lifetime. Whether this be in a school class, a university lecture theater or before deciding where in the world you wish to visit on your next adventure overseas. In most cases, you will recognise the shapes of some of the countries and oceans, and maybe even acclaim a few facts or points of interest. But how many times have you looked at the lines that horizontally circle the globe, such as the Tropic of Capricorn or the Tropic of Cancer, and questioned exactly what these lines mean. If somebody were to ask you now, what does the Tropic of Capricorn represent, would you be able to answer? If so, then I congratulate you. However, most would not, and it is to this majority that this article is aimed.

So without further ado, let's begin.

The Circles of Latitude described in the most simple of terms, are the lines that horizontally circle the earth. There are five major circles of latitude, which when defined from north to south, are as follows:

1. Arctic Circle
2. Tropic of Cancer
3. Equator
4. Tropic of Capricorn
5. Antarctic Circle

The aim of these circles is to separate the earth into five geographical zones, known as the following:

1. The North Frigid Zone (north of the Arctic Circle)
2. The North Temperate Zone (between the Arctic Circle and the Tropic of Cancer)
3. The Torrid Zone (between the Tropical Circles)
4. The South Temperate Zone (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle)
5. The South Frigid Zone (south of the Antarctic Circle)

As is clearly evident, the zones stated above are separated due to their prospective conditions of climate. This enables us to study the planet with additional precision, with regards to the climate and its effect on earth. Studies have found that each of these zones host a startling variety of biodiversity, all of which is entirely dependent upon that zone's climate conditions. This is one of many influencing factors as to why certain species of plants and animals are only found in certain areas. However, it is all well and good understanding what the five major lines of latitude represent, but this knowledge poses an additional question. How are the lines of latitude measured? In other words, how did we calculate where the lines belonged in the first place?

For the sake of simplicity, we shall follow the pattern stipulated above and investigate each of the lines of latitude from north to south.

1. Arctic Circle:

The Arctic circle represents the southern most point in the northern hemisphere where the sun can remain either above or below the horizon for a full 24 hour period. Effectively, anywhere above this line will experience either perpetual day or perpetual night, each year, dependent upon the season. In addition, due to the effects of the tide and moon the Arctic Circle is currently drifting north at a rate of roughly 15 meters per year.

2. Tropic of Cancer

The Tropic of Cancer represents the northern most point at which the sun can be seen directly overhead during the June solstice. This line, like each of the others in not permanently fixed in position, and has been calculated to drift south very slowly year on year.

3. Equator

The Equator represents the point on earth that is equidistant from both the north and south poles. Any point above the Equator is within the northern hemisphere; and anywhere below the Equator is within the southern hemisphere. Of all the lines of latitude, the Equator is the longest at 24,902 miles. Additionally, the earth rotates at roughly 1,000 miles per hour, therefore, taking approximately 24 hours to undertake an entire rotation. Hence the length of a day. However, the earth's rotation speed reduces the further you travel from the equator due to a reduction in circumference. Consequently, the further you live from the equator, the slower you are travelling.

4. Tropic of Capricorn

The Tropic of Capricorn is the literal opposite of the Tropic of Cancer. The Tropic of Capricorn represents the southern most point on earth at which the sun can be seen directly overhead during the December solstice. This line has been monitored and is calculated to be moving north at a rate of 15 meters per year.

5. Antarctic Circle

The Antarctic Circle represents the northern most latitude contained within the southern hemisphere where the sun can remain either above or below the horizon for a full 24 hour period. At present the Antarctic Circle covers an area of roughly 7,700,000 sq miles (4% of the earth's surface), but is drifting further south each year.

As can be seen from above, the earth contains a variety of geographical zones, each integral to our climate and well-being. However, with the Tropic of Cancer drifting south and the Tropic of Capricorn drifting north, the gap between the two is reducing year on year as they both slowly encroach upon the Equator. Additionally, as the Arctic Circle drifts further north and the Antarctic Circle slides further south, the areas that we consider to be the poles of earth are also shrinking. This, however, is an entirely natural occurrence and is due to slight alterations within the earth's plane of orbit around the sun, and its fluctuation of axis.

A series of photographs taken at 2 hour intervals, which show a full 24 hours of perpetual day in Antarctica. It can clearly be seen that at no point does the sun drop below the horizon.  

A basic depiction of each of the earth's lines of latitude.

A representation of earth's tilt.

- Until the next Butterfly...

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Wagga Wagga & Pakistan

Eastern Australia is a relatively dry place. In-fact, within eastern Australia there are frequent water shortages and water usage limitations. On the whole it is a dry and arid place, which regularly screams out for water like a thirsty child on a hot day. Yet a few years ago an unexpected rainfall materialised. The skies opened and the water started to pour from the clouds; a torrent of rain gushed from above, relentlessly. This rain fell for a week, and the flood waters it created from the Murrumbidgee river in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, forced 13,000 people from their homes and caused approximately $530 million AUD in damage. However, this torrential rain did not only displace thousands of humans, it forced an insurmountable number of ground-dwelling spiders to vacate their homes and search for drier, safer, higher ground. Ground, which had previously been - and still is - occupied by humans. Now, Wagga Wagga is a haven for Entomologists, and nothing short of a real life nightmare for Arachnophobes.

The number of spiders that rapidly vacated their homes in the search for higher ground in Wagga Wagga is unknown. However, one local named Mr Lane has estimated the number to be within the millions. For the sake of creeping out the arachnophobes amongst us; if one million spiders hastily left their homes in the search for higher ground when the flood waters appeared, this means that within Wagga Wagga, there are approximately 8 million spider legs trotting around, and roughly 8 million eyeballs gazing upon the surroundings. The webs these spiders have cast are to be found alongside Horse Shoe road - roughly ten minutes drive from the town centre -, and are so abundant, they literally cover the ground like snow. The millions of individual strands of silk that have been cast, sit over bushes, plants and grass like mammoth sticky blankets. They have literally covered anything and everything they can - so don't stand still for too long if you visit. However, some of the spiders have returned to the water's edge, and simply use this gigantic silk trampoline that they have cast as an arachnid motorway, which enables them to move quickly across difficult terrain, should the rain waters return.

The two main species of spider considered to be calling this giant Wagga Wagga spiderweb their home, are sheet-web spiders and wolf spiders. There are various species of sheet-web spiders, some of which are very small: 4mm (0.2 inches) in size; and some of which are very large: 15cm (6 inches) across. As for wolf spiders, we are much more familiar with these in the UK. Wolf spiders are the horrid, hairy 'big' spiders that we find in our UK households. However, within Australia wolf spiders can grow up to 8cm (3.1 inches) across, and as the name suggests, they have a wolf-like appearance. The good news for the Wagga Wagga residents, however, is that these spiders are considered to be 'probably not' dangerous to people, and the majority of the ones that occupy Wagga Wagga, are small. Finally, one last time, to shine some additional light on the situation, we shall refer to the wise words of Mr Lane and his official opinion on the matter, '[The spiders] are harmless. They're not funnel webs. I think they're harmless anyway, I hope they're harmless - they were heading up my way.'

It would be comforting to think that this is an isolated incident. However, I am afraid to advise you that it is not. A similar situation arose in Sindh, south-east Pakistan, where the rain waters and flooding caused the resident spiders to run for the trees. Now, the trees are cocooned in silk, like giant balloons sitting along a river bank. Although this is a rather creepy sight, a lot of good has come from the situation. Due to the new elevated position of the spiderwebs, and the abundant thriving spider numbers, the mosquito population has dropped considerably. It has been proposed that this sudden drop in mosquito population is due to the spiders eating them all. Consequently, a large reduction in mosquitoes has directly influenced the malaria infection rate. Meaning the number of diagnosed malaria sufferers has dropped significantly, and therefore, life expectancy in this area has risen.

Oh, and one last thing...

What's that running up your leg?

A sheet-web spider. This is the most common spider within the Wagga Wagga spiderwebs. However, most are much smaller than this example.

The spiderweb cocooned trees of Sindh, Pakistan.

A Wagga Wagga, spiderweb covered field. There are so many spiderwebs, it looks as if the field is covered in snow.

A close-up shot of a bush in Wagga Wagga.

- Until the next Butterfly...

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Hang Son Doong

Hang Son Doong - in English, 'Mountain River Cave' - is the largest known cave on the planet. It is situated alongside the Laos-Vietnam border in south-east Asia, and contains a large, majestic free flowing river which rips along the cave floor like a giant Snake. In order to gain access to the cave one must abseil down a long and shaky rope into its dimly lit, damp, dark depths. An act that is sure to raise your heart rate, get the adrenaline flowing, and make you question your choice of underwear. Yet once your feet touch the ground, it will be worth every last effort.

Hang Son Doong is situated within Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, in the Bo Trach District, in the Quang Binh Province of Vietnam - try telling that to the taxi driver after a few beers. This gigantic cave was discovered by a man named Ho Khanh in 1991, who apparently kept the cave a secret, as it was only realised by the outside world that this cave existed in 2009 when a British caving team lead by Howard Limbert stumbled upon it. However, due to the team being ill-equipped to tackle such a humongous cave, they were stumbled close to the entrance by a 60 meter (200 ft) wall that they were unable to transcend. This wall later became known as The Great Wall of Vietnam. It wasn't until 2010 that this wall was conquered, and behind it was found a collection of Cave Pearls the size of baseballs - If you intended to make some additional cash alongside your day job, cave pearls of this size have been known to fetch up to £200 each. However, please be warned that the sale of cave pearls can be a contentious issue.

The cave was created between 2 - 5 million years ago through the constant erosion of the resident limestone from a local river, which relentlessly beat the stone until the cave ceiling collapsed upon itself. Once the cave ceiling collapsed, Hang Son Doong was born. Hang Son Doong is thought to be five times larger than the last 'largest cave in Vietnam', the Phong Nha cave, and significantly larger than the last 'largest cave on earth', the Deer Cave in Malaysia. It measures 200 meters (600 ft) in height, 150 meters (450 ft) in width, and is more than 3 miles (5 km) long. The river that sits at the base of the cave is nothing more than a few ponds during the region's dry season, but when the rains start to fall during the wet season - May to September -, the river can rise as much as 90 meters (300 ft) and literally submerge the bottom of the cave. Also, I should not forget to mention that this caving system is so large, so vast, so monstrous, that it contains its own fully functioning jungle. However, one of the main features of Hang Son Doong is what is considered to be the world's largest stalagmite, which reaches 70m (230 ft) into the air like a giant flag pole.

If you were to visit Vietnam and wished to enter the Hang Son Doong caving system, you would be well advised to contact the tour providers in advance. Very few excursions have been run into this mammoth caving system, for reasons that escape me. However, a place on one of these day trips comes with a rather hefty price tag. The usual cost per person for such a trip is $3,000 USD.

A lonely caver gazing upon the Hang Son Doong caving system.

Hang Son Doong is roughly 3 miles long and in some parts, 200 meters high.

A caver abseiling into the caving systems jungle.

The location of Hnag Son Doong.

- Until the next Butterfly...

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The Lake of Stone and Death

Lake Natron is an incredibly potent alkaline lake - also known as a soda lake - situated within the Arusha region of Tanzania, Africa. This lake sits closely to the Kenyan boarder, and reasonably close to the southern tip of Somalia. Two countries that have unfortunately become synonymous with illegal Pirating activity over the past years. Lake Natron is such an interesting and unique place, it has been officially recognised by the Ramsar Convention (formally the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, Especially as Waterfowl Habitat) as an area of significant importance - it is quite easy to see why they changed their name. However, the question is, why is this lake so spectacular? The answer, because it has the power to turn animals to 'stone'.

Lake Natron is fed by the southwestern Ewaso Ng'iro river, which originates from over the international borderline in central Kenya. However, once the water from the Ewaso Ng'iro river has entered the lake it is trapped in place, with its only means of escape being via evaporation. As with all lakes around the world, the water level can vary dependent upon the amount of rainfall the area is receiving. Which as you can imagine within eastern Africa, is both irregular and seasonal. However, on average the lake is 3 meters (9 ft) deep, has a maximum length of 35 miles (57 km), and is 14 miles (22 km) wide. Many of the Tanzanian and Kenyan locals have wondered for years how the lake formed the ability to convert animals to 'stone'. It is believed that many myths would have surrounded the lake and its 'mysterious powers', yet none of these myths have stood the test of time and few if any can be recalled. However, as one would expect, science has shown that there are numerous contributing factors that assist with the lake's unusual qualities, ranging from: high surrounding temperatures - usually above 40 Celsius; the alkaline and sodium potent bedrock that surrounds the lake, which was formed within the Pleistocene period, which occurred between 2,588,000 - 11,700 years ago; and the residual lava within the local proximity that contains significant levels of carbonate, yet very low calcium and magnesium. Each of these elements combined by the right amount, allows the lake to perform this amazing natural feat. Even the colour of the lake is unusual. The deeper waters toward the centre of the lake are a strong red, whereas the shallower waters around the lake's edges are a paler orange. The lake also has a crusty pink layer of salt that sits on the surface, which lies in the sun like a giant bright blanket. The alkaline levels of the lake can reach a PH level of 12, which is the same level as ammonia - the root of the horrible smell that you often get within public toilets -, or just one-point short of bleach. However, this extremely high PH level only usually occurs during the dry season when more water has been evaporated and there is less discrepancy between the chemical to water ratio.

It is these qualities that enable the lake to calcify any living creature that dares to enter its waters. Apart from a few select microorganisms and two rather tenacious species of fish, nothing much else can survive. As an animal becomes cloaked within the strong alkaline, carbonate, hot waters of the lake, they are literally frozen in time. They become a life-size statue in the water. A memorial of their own life. These birds and animals looks as if they have been touched by the hand of death. The dark morbid colour of the saline encasing that covers them creates an eerie look of stone. They sit perfectly still, like a gargoyle perched on top of a church. It is literally something straight out of the pages of a horror novel.

No one truly knows how these calcified animals die. Some believe that they die upon entering the water, due to the harshness of the lake. Others say that the lake doesn't kill the animals, but if they happen to die within its waters then they are calcified. Both could be true; neither could be true. All that is known is that most animals offer lake Natron a wide birth, due to its highly inhospitable nature. And the animals that do decide to grace its waters, often dice with death.

A seriously tough fish that calls lake Natron home.

A calcified Bat that looks like something from a real life horror film.

A majestic and proud looking calcified Eagle.

Lake Natron.

- Until the next Butterfly...