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...

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...

Thursday, 30 October 2014

A Snowflake in the Center of the Sun

Life is like a single snowflake surviving in the centre of the sun: tenacious, persistent and determined. Yet on the contrary, life is like a single snowflake surviving in the centre of the sun: delicate, fragile and vulnerable. The chances of being alive are 1 in 10 2,685,000 - that's 10 followed by 2,685,000 zeros. Basically zero. Similar statistical improbabilities also apply to each and every animal that has either lived, or is currently living on this planet. However, for the sake of simplicity, we will focus solely on you.

Let's start at the beginning. 

What are the probabilities of your Dad meeting your Mum? Well, 20-30 years ago the world had a smaller population than it does today, so your Dad could have met approximately 200 million women (go Dad!). But during the period that your Dad was searching for a mate, he probably met roughly 10,000 women. So the chances of your parents meeting? 1 in 20,000. Now comes the complicated part: love. Your parents do not only have to endure numerous dates and arguments, they also have to stay together long enough to have children. Essentially, they have to decide to give life to you. The chances of this? 1 in 2,000. 

So far, the chances of you being alive are 1 in 40,000,000.

Now we must deal with the virtually insurmountable numbers that appear when people are dealing with sperm and eggs. In your Mum's lifetime she will have approximately 100,000 eggs; whereas your father will create about 4 trillion sperm. What are the odds that one egg meets one sperm? 1 in 400,000,000,000,000,000 (1 in 400 quadrillion) - This is approximately the volume of the Atlantic Ocean in cubic meters.  

In all seriousness though, we are only just getting started here.

In order for any of the above to occur, each and every ancestor of yours over the past 4 billion years, has to have lived to reproduction age. They have to have survived disease, warfare and prey, and everything else in-between (They needed to have been both an incredibly lucky, and tough little bunch!). This raises the question: what are the possibilities of your lineage remaining unbroken for the entire of human history (roughly 150,000 generations)? 1 in 10 45,000 (That's 10 with 45,000 zeros behind it). 

We're not quite there yet though. 

Each and every correct sperm from your male ancestors, had to meet the correct egg from your female ancestors for 4 billion years. The chances of this? 1 in 10 2,640,000

Now it's time to do a little maths to show what your chances are of being alive:

10 2,640,000 x 10 45,000 x 2000 x 20,000 = 1 in 10 2,685,000 (10 followed by 2,685,000 zeros) 

Let's compare this number to give it context:

The number of atoms contained within the average 80 kg male: 10 27
The number of atoms that make up earth: 10 50
The number of atoms that make up the known universe: 10 80

Or perhaps you could think of it like this:

It is the probability of 2 million people (roughly the population of San Diego) getting together to play a game of dice, with a trillion-sided-dice. Each person rolls the dice and comes up with the exact same number. That is the chance of you being alive today. Basically zero.

This post is dedicated to my dog, Barney. Today (30/10/2014) Barney passed away. Even though he used to piss in the kitchen and vomit on the carpet, he was a true friend like few I have ever had. What are the chances of both Barney and I being alive? Basically zero. Yet somehow we both came to be, and crossed paths. Even though he was only part of my life I understand that I was everything in his. It was a pleasure to call him my friend, my mate and my furry little brother. 

Life is like a single snowflake surviving in the centre of the sun: tenacious, persistent and determined. Yet on the contrary, life is like a single snowflake surviving in the centre of the sun: delicate, fragile and vulnerable.

Here's to life against the odds.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The Auroras

The Auroras are a meteorological phenomenon that can be seen predominantly in the earth's high altitudes (Arctic and Antarctic). It is only possible to see the Auroras in the cold dark nights of winter, where the skies are clear and the moon is dull, creating the perfect conditions for these captivating light shows. The Auroras of the Arctic are known as the Aurora Borealis, literally meaning 'The northerly goddess of dawn'; whereas the Auroras of the Antarctic are known as the Aurora Australis, or 'The goddess of the south lands'. 

During the times of Medieval Europe the Auroras were considered to be a sign of God. In Norse mythology they were a sign of the Valkyrior (female figures of the sky who had the power to choose who may live and who may die during battle). It was believed that as the Valkyrior rode across the sky mounted proudly upon steeds, their armor shed an unusual flickering light that flashed gracefully upon the norther skies. The Cree (one of the largest tribes that inhabited North America and Canada) believed that the lights were caused by the dancing of spirits who inhabited the outer realms of earth. Ancient inhabitants of Greenland thought the lights were caused by either vast fires that filled the ocean, or by glaciers, which were emitting the energy they had stored from the sun during the day. You may not be surprised to find that none of these hypotheses were correct, and as per usual, there is a more scientific explanation.

The Auroras occur within what is know as the 'Aurora zone'. This zone is an area that sits over the magnetic poles of earth, with a radius of 2,500 km (approximately the distance from London to Namibia, Africa). In very basic terms, the beginnings of the Auroras start within the sun. As the sun burns with a surface temperature of 5,600 Celsius (10,000 Fahrenheit) explosions known as solar flares occur, releasing the equivalent energy of 160,000,000,000 megatons of TNT. These flares release electrons, protons, ions and atoms into space which travel as 'solar wind' towards earth for one or two days before making contact with the earth's magnetic field. Once the electrons and protons hit the magnetic field of earth, these charged particles then collide with the earth's more gaseous particles. Due to the power and number of collisions a large light source is created, and dependent upon the location of this light source it is named either the Aurora Borealis or the Aurora Australis.

The Auroras are usually seen as a pale yellowish-green, but on rare occasions they can also be seen in red, pink, blue or purple. The colour of the lights is dependent upon how high above the earth the lights are formed. Green signifies that the lights have been formed closer to earth (roughly 60 miles high), whereas red signifies that the lights have been formed high above the earth (roughly 200 miles high). Either way, no matter what the colour, no matter where the location, the Auroras truly are a natural wonder of the world.

An artist's impression of a solar flare exploding from the sun. This flare releases the same power as approximately 160,000,000,000 megatons of TNT.

An ancient depiction of the Valkyrior. In Norse mythology, these female goddesses were the cause of the Aurora Borealis.

The Auroras in action. The greenish colour of these lights suggests that they are formed close to the earth - roughly 60 miles away.

The Auroras as seen from space. This is a still-frame shot from a video recorded by the International Space Station.

- Until the next Butterfly...