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...