Monday, 9 March 2015

Thank you Roger

All it takes is seven ingredients, warm sea surface temperatures, atmospheric instability, high humidity within the mid to lower levels of the troposphere, sufficient Coriolis force to form a low pressure center, a pre-existing low level disturbance and a low vertical wind shear. If we take these ingredients, mix them together and shake, the results will be a tropical depression. If we continue to shake and add extra doses of the stated ingredients, we will eventually create a tropical storm. Again, let's continue to add our ingredients until we form a severe tropical storm. But we're not there yet. Let's keep going until we've created a typhoon. No, in-fact we need to add more. Lots more. Lots, lots more. We shall keep adding ingredients and shaking until we have created the largest storm on earth. The most gigantic typhoon ever witnessed in human history. The most forceful, dangerous and panic inducing monster that we can. A storm so large that simply comprehending its size teeters on the edge of impossibility. Well, this is exactly what happened on Thursday 4th October 1979. The largest storm in the recorded history of earth materialised within the south-west Pacific ocean, and climbed in a north-westerly direction for twenty days until is dispersed without a trace on Wednesday 24th October.

This is the story of super typhoon Tip.      

Typhoon Tip is the largest tropical cyclone ever recorded, and is conveniently also one of the most documented storms in history. On the 4th October 1979 at the beginnings of Typhoon Tip, the aforementioned ingredients were set in motion and began to mix gradually until they formed a tropical depression a few hundred miles east of the coast of Indonesia. As more ingredients were added, this tropical depression grew into a tropical storm, known as Tip. A tropic storm with such potential that it was already under the watchful eye of most of eastern Asia and Australasia. Luckily for these countries, however, another superbly named storm known as tropical storm Roger occupied similar territory to Tip, and temporarily raged strongly enough to hinder Tip's attempts to gain additional power and momentum. As one could imagine, this was welcomed news, as Tip was already coined to be beyond magnificent. The problem was, however, nobody knew just how magnificent Tip would become.

After 24 hours of Tip circulating under Roger's command; on the 5th October 1979 tropical storm Roger relinquished control of Tip and drifted away to the south-east. This left Tip alone within the south-western Pacific to climb slowly in a north-westerly direction and gain additional power. Undisturbed, Tip was able to gain speed and size as more and more ingredients were added to the storm. Just as before, international governments and meteorological bodies watched patiently; unable to control or influence the gradually ascending momentum of Tip. As soon a tropical storm Roger left Tip alone, the Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC) issued a stark alert of a closed low-level circulation that was quickly generating significant momentum within the western Pacific ocean. Something big was coming, and they knew it.

As Tip continued to swing north-west, it once again encountered Roger. However, this time Tip was the superior of the two. Tropical storm Roger who a few days ago was able to control Tip, and dictate its speed, movement and development, now stood vulnerable to Tip's superiority. It is the classic tale of the student defeating the master. Tip simply sucked Roger into its mass, and absorbed every last ounce of Roger's power. Tip was now a gigantic tropical storm, relentlessly digesting its environment of energy. Now, alone in the ocean once again, Tip continued to circulate and build until the next day, on the 9th October 1979 it was officially, and no doubt reluctantly, upgraded to Typhoon status. But this was no ordinary typhoon; as due to a series of rapidly favourable and convenient conditions Tip thrived in its surroundings, already breaking the current record for the world's largest storm. But Tip wasn't finished yet. It didn't take long for Tip to climb into super typhoon status, which it achieved effortlessly, two days later, on the 11th October. At this point, the USA, Indonesia, Australia, USSR, Japan, China, New Zealand and South Pacific Islands watched nervously onward as the largest ever documented super typhoon climbed northward towards the coast of Japan. The 11th October passed and much to the disappointment - for lack of a better word - of the Japanese, Tip grew larger still. It wasn't until 12th October 1979 that Tip reached its maximum size.

At its peak, Tip boasted a diameter of 1,380 miles (2,220 km). If we place this into context to give it more of a visual representation; Tip occupied an area equal to half that of the continental United States, or an area twenty times greater than the United Kingdom. Basically, if we were to take super typhoon Tip, create 100 of them and place them side by side, we would cover the entire surface of earth. It is fortunate, however, that the majority of super typhoon Tip's life was lived out on the ocean. Away from civilisation, cities and residential areas. It is thanks to this that although Tip is the largest storm ever recorded on earth, it was by no means the most destructive.          

Overall, super typhoon Tip attained a maximum wind speed of 190 mph (305 km/h) and caused damage and death within Guam, Japan and the Soviet Union. In total it killed 99 people, formed 600 mudslides, flooded 22,000 homes, broke 70 river banks, destroyed 27 bridges, demolished 105 dikes, left 11,000 people homeless and disrupted 160 flights.

The outcome could easily have been much worse for most of eastern Asia and Australasia. Who knows, if it were not for tropical storm Roger and his multiple interventions, Tip may have taken an entirely different path all together, and killed millions upon millions of people in the process.

Thank you Roger.

The path taken by Typhoon Tip.

Typhoon Tip when compared to the USA.

- Until the next Butterfly

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Far Far Away

On the 12th April 1961 Yuri Gagarin left earth on the spacecraft Vostok 3KA-3, to become the first ever human in space. Once he left orbit and looked back on the planet we call home, he was gazing upon the fifth largest planet in our solar system. Earth has a rough equator length of 24,902 miles (40,750 km); weights in at 5.9 sextillion tons; is covered by 29% land and 71% water - making the name 'earth' appear somewhat ironic. Yuri ventured further from the lands and seas of earth than any human had in history - an astronomical achievement (no pun intended). However, given the fact that most of us are either incapable or do not have access to space travel, the question arises: how far could we venture from land or sea without ever leaving the planet?

Let's start with land.

The point on earth furthest from any sea or ocean - basically the furthest inland - is officially known as the 'continental pole of inaccessibility'. If you wished to move further from the sea or ocean than this point, you would have to follow in Yuri Gugarin's footsteps and leave for outer space. This point lies within north-west China close to the Kazakhstan border, 200 miles (320 km) north of the city Urumqi in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China, in the Dzoosotoyn Elisen Desert; and is approximately 1,644 miles (2,645 km) from the nearest coastline. It's a pretty dire place to live if you enjoy spending your days off at the beach. The city of Urumqi - literally translating as 'beautiful pasture' - is a wet patch in the midst of the desert. Surrounding the city lies dry, barren land that is quick to distinguish life, yet Urumqi itself is fed by a series of rivers and rain clouds that provide much needed water to the city's 3 million residents. However, given the unique location of the city - the most inland city on earth -, it is sad to note that Urumqi is one of the ten most air polluted cities on the planet, which is possibly due to China's current industrialisation process. The city is so air polluted that a thick hazy smog regularly covers the city during winter, which can be so dense and polluting, that it frequently affects the city's air traffic.

In order to make the distance to the coastline more real, more comprehensible. Let's imagine that we wanted to walk from the continental pole of inaccessibility to the shore. Given the average walking speed is 3.1 mph, if you walked for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, it would take 44 days of walking to reach the coastline. An epic undertaking if all you wanted to do was go fishing.

Now to the ocean.

The oceanic pole of inaccessibility - nicknamed 'Nemo Point', with reference to Jules Verne's Captain Nemo from the novel 20,000 leagues under the sea - unsurprisingly lies within the south Pacific Ocean, the largest ocean on earth. This remote, distant, inhospitable point lies 1,670 miles (2,688 km) from the nearest land of Ducie island. This island is literally a speck in the middle of a very large ocean. Ducie island has a total area of 1.5 sq miles, which includes an interior lagoon, some sparse vegetation and a selection of birds. The lagoon which sits in the middle of the tiny island like a private swimming pool is home to a variety of fish, including the Galapagos shark. This shark grows to 3 meters, hangs around in groups and tends to have a bad attitude. Sort of like a teenager. However, given the pristine waters, the thriving life and the enchanting mysticism that encompasses the island, very few people take the time and effort to visit. This, I imagine, is most probably due to its extreme remoteness, because as we know, it is one of the most remote places on earth.

Once again, to place this humongous distance into context. The oceanic pole of inaccessibility lies roughly 60% of the way between New Zealand and South America. And if you were to swim from Nemo Point to Ducie Island, it would be the equivalent of swimming 53,760 lengths of an Olympic size swimming pool.

The continental pole of inaccessibility lies 1,644 miles from the nearest coastline. 

The Chinese city of Urumqi has such levels of air pollution that a smog frequently covers the city.

The oceanic pole of inaccessibility, AKA. Nemo Point. 

A lonely looking Ducie Island.

- Until the next Butterfly

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Mother Goddess of the Universe

The earth's atmosphere is roughly 480 kilometers (300 miles) thick and has no definite ending point. Effectively, the atmosphere becomes thinner and thinner the further into space you travel, until it merges with outer space. However, roughly 80% of the earth's atmosphere lies within 16 kilometers (10 miles) of the earth's surface, and this is the point we are interested in today. The reason being is because the world's highest mountain, Mt Everest, towers 9 kilometers into the air, like a dominating fortress. The sheer colossal size of Mt Everest means that not only is it the highest mountain in the world, but it climbs 56% of the way to the earth's atmosphere. Basically, if you stood atop Mt Everest, you would be closer to entering the atmosphere than to walking along the beach. A rather exhilarating thought, indeed.

Mt Everest, also known as Sagarmatha in Nepal or Chomolungma in Tibet - meaning 'mother goddess of the universe' - is a monstrously high mountain, so high in-fact, that it is nearly impossible to stand at its peak and survive without the aid of breathing apparatus due to there being 66% less oxygen in each breath taken. The air at this height is as thin as a Victoria's Secret model. The mountain gained its western name from Sir Andrew Scott Waugh, who named the mountain in honor of the Welsh geographer and Royal Geographical Society member Sir George Everest (1790 - 1866). During his life Sir George Everest owned a house in Mussoorie, India, which still stands today. However, due to the Indian tourism department - the current owners - neglecting the house, it is now filled with bricks, stones and cow dung and when it snows or rains, the local cows and goats use it as a safe haven. Almost literally, each time it rains in Indian there is a goat stood in Sir George Everest's kitchen.

The mountain's official height is 8,848 meters (29,029 ft) above sea level; yet due to the earth's non-perfectly circular circumference, although it is the highest mountain on our planet, it is only the fifth furthest summit from the center of the earth at 6,382 km (3,966 miles). The peak that sits the furthest from the centre of the earth belongs to Chimborazo in Ecuador, which lies 6,384 km (3,967 miles) away. A mere 2 kilometers further away than that of the peak of Everest.

As one could imagine, climbing Everest is no small feat. There are many complications, obstacles and dangers that one could encounter along the way. In fact, an Everest summit attempt is so preposterously dangerous that simply by attempting to climb Everest you are subjecting yourself to a 1/60 chance of death. This statistic climbs the older you become, with climbers over 50 subjecting themselves to an average death rate of 1/4. The deadliest day ever recorded on Everest was 10th May 1996, where the mountain claimed eight lives in a 24 hour period - or one death every 3 hours.

Everest truly is a bizarre place. The summit of Everest marks the international borderline between China and Nepal, meaning that once you summit the mountain, you can quickly nip between the two countries. Due to the movement and grinding of the Indian and Asia tectonic plates, Everest grows roughly 0.25 inches each year, meaning that the later you leave the accent, the higher you will be. The wind at the summit has been clocked at over 200 mph; temperatures of -62c have been measured; and once a height of over 8,000 meters is reached an area known affectionately as the death zone is entered. The death zone - as you have undoubtedly already guessed - is synonymous with death. Of all the areas of Everest, it is the descents within the death zone that claim the most lives. Just like climbing a tree, it is not the climb up that proves most dangerous, but the climb down. Additionally, the death zone is so dangerous that if you die in this area, your body is left to freeze. You become known as one of the many that never left the mountain; one of the many bodies and souls that Everest has claimed as her own. Attempting to move a body at such an altitude is deemed suicide due to the highly inhospitable surroundings, and each climber knows and accepts these risks before they climb.  

Given the almost endless list of dangers: frightfully cold weather, powerful wind, death zone, physical stress, mental hardship, 1/60 or 1/4 chance of death and the forever upward spiraling cost, many people still choose to battle Everest each year. Although due to the costs incurred by a summit attempt, Everest has been nicknamed as the rich man's playground. For example:

- Climbing permit: $USD 11,000
- Insurance: $USD 15,000
- Guided expedition (if needed): $USD 30 - $100,000

Note that these are simply the basic climbing costs and do not include training, food, logistics, flights, accommodation, equipment etc. Yet given each of these obstacles and hoops that must be conquered and jumped through before any attempt is made; a summit attempt is deemed worthwhile for two reasons alone: the feeling of literally being on top of the world and the view.

The body of Hannelore Schmatz frozen in place. Hannelore died on Everest in 1979 aged 39.

The view from the top of the world.

Mt Everest, the highest mountain on our planet.

- Until the next Butterfly...