...the earth is flat.
[sorry, just watched the evening news, couldn't help myself.]
Stevenage: for readers outside of the UK it may not ring much of a bell, and indeed, with no disrespect to Stevenagians, for most UK readers it is not one of our most famous and glamorous metropolitan areas. Located around 50 km north of London, Stevenage has Roman and Saxon roots and has been a market town for more than a millennium. Its name may originate from the Old English for ‘place of the strong oak’, but exactly why its coat of arms depicts a sword thrust through the heart of the oak remains something of a mystery to me.
But Stevenage has one claim to fame that originated close to a century ago and continues today: what is sometimes referred to as a military-industrial complex. The English Electric Company established a facility for making aircraft parts and engines there in 1918, and continued to do through the Second World War. Furthermore, according to the Royal Aeronautical Society, “it is also thought that… there was a secret explosive weapons establishment which designed and created sabotage devices.” In the 1950s and 60s Britain’s very own intercontinental ballistic missile, Blue Streak, was assembled at Stevenage and shipped to Australian desert where the requirements for its testing (along with nuclear devices) emptied the land of its native inhabitants and changed the outback forever. The remains of the first missile launched from Woomera on June 5th, 1964, were discovered not far from Giles Meteorological Station in Western Australia in 1980 and are on display there (after a hardly intercontinental journey of perhaps a thousand kilometers):
For more of the story of the British militarisation of the Australian desert, I recommend my next book, but enough advertising and back to Stevenage. The aerospace facilities there continue to thrive and are now the location for Airbus Defence and Space and Paradigm Secure Communications, housing “Airbus Defence and Space’s spacecraft design and build facility and the headquarters of Paradigm Secure Communications.” They are also now the location for the very large sand pit that is affectionately referred to as ‘Mars Yard’. As the European Space Agency reported recently:
A state-of-the-art ‘Mars yard’ is now ready to put the ExoMars rover through its paces before the vehicle is launched to the Red Planet in 2018.
ESA, the UK Space Agency and Airbus Defence and Space opened the renovated test area in Stevenage, UK, today.
ExoMars is a joint endeavour between ESA and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency. Comprising two missions for launch to Mars in 2016 and 2018, ExoMars will address the outstanding scientific question of whether life has ever existed on the planet, by investigating the atmosphere and drilling into the surface to collect and analyse samples.
Extended Mars Yard opening
The programme will also demonstrate key technologies for entry, descent, landing, drilling and roving.
Filled with 300 tonnes of sand, the 30 x 13 m Mars yard at the Stevenage site of Airbus Defence and Space mimics the appearance of the martian [sic] landscape. Its walls, doors and all interior surfaces are painted a reddish-brown colour to ensure the rover’s navigation cameras are confronted by as realistic a scenario as possible. … The yard will also be available after the rover has landed on Mars in 2019, to help overcome any challenging situations that might be encountered on the Red Planet.
The sand pit was honoured by a visit by a leading politician, the Secretary of State for Business – how often does a political photo-op feature suits in the sand?
The ExoMars rover represents the best of British high-value manufacturing… The technologies developed as part of the programme, such as autonomous navigation systems, new welding materials and techniques, will also have real impacts on other sectors, helping them stay on the cutting edge.
Not only is it hugely exciting that Europe’s next mission to Mars will be British-built, but it is incredibly rewarding to see the benefits of our investment in the European Space Agency creating jobs here in the UK.
Bravo for the sand pit!
Being still in the throes of editing and correcting the proofs for the new book (with the exception of compiling the index, the least enjoyable part of the whole process), I am particularly paranoid about fact-checking. I have one important (and, I'm sure, obvious) piece of advice: never believe anything you read or see in the press or on the web, without at least a triple-fact-check.
I intend, in tandem with the new book, to evolve this blog naturally into looking at topics arid as well as arenaceous, and, as I have been doing for the last few years, I keep an eye on the news. I just came across a wonderful illustration of the fact that there remains an awful lot new under the sun still to be discovered – on every scale. As I emphasise in the book, while our awareness of the complexity, diversity and value of the ecosystems of arid lands is a long way behind that of temperate and tropical environments, we are, nevertheless, redressing that imbalance on a daily basis. Take, for example, the just-announced discovery of a new species of desert mammal, the weird and wonderful Macroscelides micus:
Scientists from the California Academy of Sciences have discovered a new species of round-eared sengi, or elephant-shrew, in the remote deserts of southwestern Africa. This is the third new species of sengi to be discovered in the wild in the past decade. It is also the smallest known member of the 19 sengis in the order Macroscelidea. The team’s discovery and description of the Etendeka round-eared sengi (Macroscelides micus) is published this week in the Journal of Mammalogy.
Sengis are otherwise known as elephant-shrews because they have a snout that resembles an elephant’s trunk, but they are not shrews – indeed, remarkably, they are more closely related to elephants. But the fact is that they are in a class of their own. Again from the California Academy of Sciences:
Few mammals have had a more colorful history of misunderstood ancestry than the elephant-shrews, or sengis. Most species were first described by Western scientists in the mid to late 19th century, when they were considered closely related to true shrews, hedgehogs, and moles in the order Insectivora. Since then, there has been an increasing realization that they are not closely related to any other group of living mammals, resulting in biologists mistakenly associating them with ungulates, primates, and rabbits. The recent use of molecular techniques to study evolutionary relationships, in addition to the more traditional morphological methods, has confirmed that elephant-shrews represent an ancient monophyletic African radiation. Most biologists currently include the elephant-shrews in a new supercohort, the Afrotheria, which encompasses several other distinctive African groups or clades. These include elephants, sea cows, and hyraxes (the Paenungulata); the aardvark and elephant-shrews, and the golden-moles and tenrecs.
The newly-discovered round-eared sengi is a charming little critter (image by John P. Dumbacher, the lead author of the paper):
Macroscelides micus is a true xerocole, an animal cleverly adapted to living – indeed, thriving – in arid conditions. This sengi lives on and around the Etendeka Plateau, a large area of volcanic rocks formed 130 million years ago as the South Atlantic was beginning to form – they were originally connected to the vast landscapes of the Paraná volcanics of Brazil.
This image from the California Academy of Sciences paper shows this stark and remote terrain (together with an example of the bizarre and unique xerophyte, welwitschia – but that’s another story):
Which brings me back to the beginning of this post and a slight rant about fact-checking. Like, I am sure, most of us, when a topic like this comes up, one of the first questions is where exactly is the Etendeka Plateau? Look at the two maps at the head of this post. On the left is the map reproduced in an article on the discovery in one of our illustrious British newspapers (and yes, given the recent news, I’m being sarcastic). Accompanied by the words “Mapped: Found in a remote area of Namibia, on the inland edge of the Namib Desert (mapped) at the base of the Etendeka Plateau”, it places the poor sengis right in the midst of the dunes of the Namib sand sea. Xerocoles they may be, but that’s pushing things a bit too far. The correct location – some 500 kms north – is shown on the right-hand map and is clearly illustrated in detail in the original paper if anyone had cared to check.
I find this time and time again. Google maps can’t even get my home location in London right, so why believe a map of an obscure and remote location reproduced in a newspaper? The answer is simply for no reason at all. It’s a sobering thought – if, on so many occasions, a simple fact-check on something you are particularly interested in reveals sloppiness and error, what about all the other stuff we don’t bother to fact-check?
More than fifty years ago, my parents particularly enjoyed the production that opened the newly constructed Mermaid Theatre in London (now sadly, and controversially, converted to a ‘Conference and Events Centre’). The play was a musical, based on an 18th century comedy by Henry Fielding, and included the satirical song It must be true. I remember, for years after, my father periodically singing to himself the opening line: “It must be true, for I read it in the papers, didn’t you?”
Wise man, my Dad.
Back in the very early days of this blog, one of the great and rewarding pieces of serendipity was getting to know Larry Deemer, sand aficionado and photographer extraordinaire. I first published a selection of his stunning images back in April 2009, and there have been subsequent collaborations on ice, horseshoe crabs, and scale. And in the meantime, he has published a glorious book of his sand pattern images. Most importantly, also in the meantime, we have become good friends and it’s a great pleasure to post a selection of his latest photos of the creative conspiracy between waves, foam, and sand.
But there’s a backstory, and a dramatic one. In that first post I wrote that Larry is “lucky enough to live in Breezy Point, a coastal neighbourhood in Queens, the borough of New York City,” and indeed my wife and I were lucky enough to visit Larry, Lou, and Buck and enjoy their company, their home, and their beach. But then, in October of last year, Hurricane Sandy rolled the dice and the luck of the residents of Breezy Point changed – catastrophically. They were hit not only by damage from the storm (which would have been relatively manageable), but by a devastating fire that raged out of control and destroyed over a hundred homes. Over 200 more were terminally damaged and have been bulldozed. Larry was, in this sense, lucky: the water damage to their house was reparable and they have been back home since the middle of January, feeling, as Larry has commented, “like pioneers.” But not home as it used to be – houses around them are no longer there, and the process of rebuilding is stalled by the absurdities of bureaucracy. We use the term “community” somewhat loosely these days, but Breezy Point was – and is – a real community; just read some of the stories on the web to appreciate what the word really means.
But nature continues her activities, oblivious to human hardship, and the beach, although “the 6’ dunes are now 2’ dunes',” continues to be an inspiration. Thanks, Larry.
[Soon after writing this post, I heard from Susanne Rieth who runs a blog called Rockaway Rises - Rockaway is right next to Breezy Point. The blog is well worth a look, described thus: "Rockaway Rises is a community for sharing and enjoying the positive aspects of life on our fair peninsula. We welcome submissions of photography, art work and uplifting stories that remind us why we love it here, and why we will continue to thrive here in spite of Hurricane Sandy. No devastation and destruction. Only gratitude for what we still have, the ocean and our community."]
There is something of a mystery, an historical debate, about who exactly caused the burning of the great Library at Alexandria. There is, however, no mystery about who torched the library in Timbuktu.
Some years back, while researching the Sand book, I became fascinated by the stories of the manuscripts of Timbuktu, many of them dating back to the thirteenth century:
It is not only the dryness of the climate that preserves ancient manuscripts—the desiccating properties of sand can do the same directly… Timbuktu holds dramatic illustrations of this. From around a.d. 1300 to 1500, the fabled city was a great seat of learning, with students and scholars coming from far away to study, learn, and debate. But after its fall, many of its archives became dispersed or lost. However, in recent years, following more peaceful times in Mali, literally thousands of manuscripts have been recovered from where they had been hidden, in caves or directly in the desert sand.
“More peaceful times in Mali” – how times do change. Back then, Mauritania, Mali, the Festival of the Desert, were high on my bucket list of destinations, a fine illustration of the foolishness of procrastination. And when I read in the news this morning that the manuscript collections had been burned by the fleeing “rebels,” I was ready to weep. I reached in vain for words that would properly describe this act and the individuals who committed it, until I settled on “obscene” and “evil,” words that apply to essentially all of the actions of these people.
As the culmination of decades of work, largely stimulated by UNESCO, and with the collaboration of the Malian and South African Governments, the support of the Ford Foundation, funding from Kuwait, and the expertise of the University of Capetown, the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research opened the doors of its new building in 2009. It housed collections of literally priceless manuscripts and the facilities and staff to finally document and preserve them. On Monday came the news that it had been destroyed.
However, at the time of writing, there is a glimmer of hope – not, perhaps, for the facility but for the manuscripts. Time magazine reports that, in anticipation of exactly what happened, a significant number of them had been quietly removed and hidden; history repeating itself, ironically:
In interviews with TIME on Monday, preservationists said that in a large-scale rescue operation early last year, shortly before the militants seized control of Timbuktu, thousands of manuscripts were hauled out of the Ahmed Baba Institute to a safe house elsewhere. Realizing that the documents might be prime targets for pillaging or vindictive attacks from Islamic extremists, staff left behind just a small portion of them, perhaps out of haste, but also to conceal the fact that the center had been deliberately emptied.
Let us hope that this is true.
Update 2 February: grounds for optimism - it seems likely that the majority of the manuscripts were indeed removed and hidden safely.
In the aftermath of the real super-storm (or hurricane) Sandy, there has been, not surprisingly, a super-storm of reporting, opinionating, blogging, and twittering. This is good – there is, in certain quarters at least, some kind of debate going on. However, I have a problem, and so, to wrap up the current sequence of the ongoing theme, I will add my two cents to the maelstrom.
The cover, above, from a recent issue of Bloomberg Business Week illustrates my problem quite well. Putting aside my resentment at being addressed as stupid (I’m sure it wasn’t meant personally), I should say that the cover article is good in many respects. It begins, perhaps a little petulantly, “Yes, yes, it’s unsophisticated to blame any given storm on climate change” and goes on to declare that “Clarity, however, is not beyond reach. Hurricane Sandy demands it…” Then, in my opinion, it fails in its own quest for clarity by confounding two vital issues, two problems, both of which need to be urgently addressed – although these problems are related, the paths to successfully addressing them are distinct, and this distinction is lost in the furore. And Bloomberg are not alone.
The challenge of managing our coasts is not
the same as the challenge of “managing” climate change. We urgently need a
rigorous, evidence-based, approach to developing policy on both – but with
the recognition that the solutions are distinct. Coastal management policy
should be informed by analysis of the changing climate but should not
be dependent on it. Successfully addressing global warming is neither a pre-requisite nor the solution for coastal management.
Here’s a simple summary of my argument (not that I claim any intellectual property rights whatsoever – I am simply following the logic of the experts):
So when a video report included in the Bloomberg piece tells me that “our cover story this week may generate controversy, but only among the stupid,” I have to take exception. It’s not that they don’t hit many of the components – insurance costs and so on - and their message that “We have to pay attention” is, of course, correct. Their concluding statement is absolutely correct: “The U.S. can’t afford regular Sandy-size disruptions in economic activity. To limit the costs of climate-related disasters, both politicians and the public need to accept how much they’re helping to cause them.” But, at the same time, there’s my problem – Sandy was a “climate-related disaster” independent of climate change; and yes, “politicians and the public need to accept how much they’re helping to cause them,” but the immediate cause of the scale of the disaster is not inactivity on climate change.
I really don’t mean for this to be tirade against the Bloomberg article – after all, it succeeded in its intention to be controversial, and that’s a good thing; it’s simply symptomatic of what I feel is a muddying of the waters. But let’s clarify what we should be arguing about. Bill Hooke at Living on the Real World hit the proverbial nail on the head in “Hurricane Sandy’s Real Lesson…will we learn it?”:
America needs a comparable national effort and accompanying long-term investment in reducing the need for emergency response on such a grand scale.
The need for emergency response will never go away. But we shouldn’t resign ourselves to the idea that emergencies will necessarily continue to grow in scope, number and impact, just because our society is growing in numbers, in property exposure, and in economic activity. We can grow our society’s resilience to such events. We can reduce the geographical extent and the population adversely affected by future events.
Exactly (except that it’s not just about America). The issue is resilience – and adaptation, and sustainability.
And some further words of wisdom from Rob Young, often quoted in this blog, from a New York Times piece, “As Coasts Rebuild and U.S. Pays, Repeatedly, the Critics Ask Why”:
“The best thing that could possibly come out of Sandy is if the political establishment was willing to say, ‘Let’s have a conversation about how we do this differently the next time,’ ” said Dr. Young, a coastal geologist who directs the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University. “We need to identify those areas — in advance — that it no longer makes sense to rebuild.”
That’s one urgent issue. Climate change is another one.
From Judith Kildow (who directs the National Ocean Economics Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies), and Jason Scorse, an associate professor of economics at the institute, in a New York Times opinion piece a couple of days ago:
IT’S no surprise that it can be very expensive to live near the ocean. But it may come as a surprise to American taxpayers that they are on the hook for at least $527 billion of vulnerable assets in the nation’s coastal flood plains. Those homes and businesses are insured by the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program.
You read that right: $527 billion, which is just a portion of the program’s overall liability of $1.25 trillion, second only to Social Security in the liabilities on the government’s ledgers last year, according to government data.
…The bottom line is that the flood insurance program is a fiscal time bomb for the government.
We should phase out the program, begin thinking strategically about how to shift populations away from the most risky coastal areas, and use the best available science to update the woefully out-of-date coastal-zone risk profiles that government agencies currently rely on to determine danger. We also need to encourage more stringent building codes that take into account the full range of climate risks.
Which is also precisely what Michael Gerrard, director of the Columbia Center for Climate Change Law emphasised in his recent piece “What Hurricane Sandy was not.” Herewith, his conclusion – which, you will be relieved to know, I shall use as mine:
The prospect of future storms like Sandy is not something where our best future course of action at all plain and obvious. The magnitude of public investments that has been discussed is immense, and these projects must compete against a great many other compelling priorities. The land use decisions we face are heartbreaking — we seem to be left with a choice between rebuilding communities in places that will continue to be vulnerable to storms like Sandy, or not rebuilding them and requiring their residents and the rest of us to lose an immense amount of what we value. Perhaps a small fraction of the tens of billions of dollars we’re talking about for sea walls and flood gates should go to offering to buy out the homeowners in the extremely vulnerable areas — that should probably be on the table. After the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Chile in 2010, serious land use restrictions were imposed on coastal areas that continue to be vulnerable to such events. That, too, should be on the table. Some really tough decisions lie ahead — and failure to make a decision is itself a decision, but often the worst one.
It was tempting to make the subject of this entire post the egregious activities of the outstanding American buffoon, Donald Trump (plea to trans-Atlantic readers: if you can’t do anything else about him, could you please keep him away from our shores?). As documented in the recent film, You’ve Been Trumped (which I haven’t yet seen, but perhaps look forward to), an entire stretch of the natural Scottish coastal dune system has been destroyed by Trump’s typically megalomaniacal golf course development (aided and abetted, it has to be said, by the Scottish Government). It is, of course, ironic, that it was the topography of dune ridges that first brought the game to Scotland – as I described in Sand:
The Old English word for ridges is hlincas, from which the term links is derived, and it was in this terrain that small leather balls stuffed with goose feathers were first whacked about and the revered game of golf—or gouff, or goffe—originated. Many of the world’s finest golf courses, including the Old Course at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St. Andrews on the east coast of Scotland, owe their location to coastal dune systems.
A second irony (a word that hardly seems adequate) is that “The Donald” has the gall to Trumpet his scheme as environmentally beneficial. This, from an NYT interview with Anthony Baxter, the film’s director:
Q. Mr. Trump is on the record as saying that his development would be “environmentally perfect ” and that the area would in fact be better off environmentally after the golf course was built. Were there any major environmental groups that supported the project?
A. There was not one credible environmental group that supported this development. Friends of the Earth Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Ramblers Association of Scotland — all of these groups were dead set against this development.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds actually issued a press release when Mr. Trump was given the go-ahead saying that Scotland’s green policy had been sold down the river by this decision. Not a single expert was standing up and saying that it made sense to tamper with this very unique sand dunes system.
But the management of Britain’s coastal dunes raises questions far beyond the tragic activities of one aggressive clown.
Coastal dune systems are, by nature, dynamic. On the front line of the power struggle between land and sea, pounded by winds and storms, they are almost always on the move. However, unlike their desert counterparts, the intervening quiet periods allow specialised – and hardy – vegetation to take root; there’s a remarkably diverse ecosystem of plants that enjoy a substrate of shifting sand. If the vegetative cover comes to dominate, then the dunes become stabilised, resistant to the day-to-day attacks of wind and waves, if not to powerful storms. And, because the mobility of coastal dune systems is inconvenient to the human inhabitants of those environments, who wish to bask in vistas that are static and benign, conscious attempts to stabilise with vegetation (if not completely remove) coastal dunes are common. This activity, combined with the reduction in free-range grazing of animal herds, and a fluctuating climate, have caused a wholesale change in the UK’s natural coastal dune systems.
I’m not someone who routinely consults the horticultural experts in the media, but I was struck by a piece in Friday’s Guardian newspaper that began:
What has happened to Britain's sand dunes? My childhood recollections are of wild and windy places; of a fine spindrift of sandy particles streaming from the dune ridges; of marram grass etching precise circles in dry sand with the tips of their leaves; of wavering films of sand flowing across rippled sands. Fast forward 50 years, and … the golden sand has been replaced by a thick thatch of matted grass, burgeoning stands of bracken and scrub, and increasing groves of willow and birch. And as bare sand has become something of a rarity, so many beautiful sand dune species have declined to near-oblivion today. Many of our rarer plants and animals have spent millennia evolving to cope with shifting sands. Like carrot seedlings in an allotment, they need bare ground into which to seed, and simply can't compete with choking blankets of coarse vegetation.
Written by Andy Byfield, one of the founders of the wild plant charity Plantlife, the piece argues that “Drastic action is needed to save the native plants that thrive on our sand dunes.”
It’s understandable to assume that flowering plants that thrive in sand must reflect desiccation and struggle in their appearance. But the opposite is often the case – for example, from my recent Australian desert trip:
And this is as true of the British coast as it is of Australia’s red centre. The image at the head of this post is of the spectacular Sea Holly, Eryngium maritimum, that Byfield justifiably dubs the “king of the dunes”:
an architectural beauty of the sandy beaches and sand dunes around our shores. The plant's central cone of flowers is reminiscent of members of the daisy family, such as echinacea or rudbeckia, but sea holly is a relative of the carrot. The ruff of petals is actually a ring of spiny bracts that encircle and protect the flowers like the plates of a Stegosaurus or the frills of a Triceratops. The whole plant is a metallic blue-green, seemingly verdigrised like a bronze garden statue in miniature.
He goes on to describe the sea holly as typical of the plants that need open, moving sand and are being extinguished by the overly (and coarsely) vegetated character of their favourite environment today:
Sea holly is supremely adapted to growing in mobile sand. Its deep-seated rootstock penetrates the substrate to a depth of 1m or more, and the plant takes a masochistic delight in being buried by an avalanche of sand…
Fortunately, as a species of the exposed foredunes (those next to the beach), sea holly is not faring as badly as some: indeed many other dune plants are faring badly. Take the fen orchid, an elusive green orchid of the South Welsh dunes: known to be locally abundant just a few decades ago, the species has declined from hundreds of thousands of plants at 10 sites to just a few hundred plants at one location today.
A typical stretch of South Welsh dunes is along the coast at Kenfig, the namesake settlement of which also figured in Sand:
Kenfig was established in the twelfth century as a small port and farming community on a river sheltered by the coastal dunes. It survived the attacks of marauding Welsh tribes, but not the forces of nature, provoked by grazing and the ensuing destabilization of the sand. These factors, probably combined with climate change as the cold period often referred to as “the Little Ice Age” approached, meant that the dunes were on the move. By the fourteenth century, large parts of the town and its fields were covered, and by the middle of the seventeenth century, it was completely abandoned.
But these days the dunes are no longer on the move and have become, possibly also as a result of the nutritious nature of polluted rain, vegetated and stable – hence the struggles of the fen orchid and the sea holly. And so a radical experiment has just been launched – the dunes are being bulldozed, not in the interests of a megalomaniac, but in order to restore the original biodiversity. The project is led by Byfield, who is Plantlife’s Landscape Conservation Manager, and involves removing all vegetation from ten acres of sand. The following is from the project website:
- Only 2% of the dune system at Kenfig now comprises bare sand, down from around 40% in the mid 1940s. Early plant colonists including sea rocket, sea holly and yellow horned-poppy need bare sand to colonise – and these suffer if a dune system becomes too stable.
- Regular ground disturbance and open patches of sand will reduce the dominance of vigorous plant species and allow rarer, less vigorous species to return. As well as fen orchid, other declining species which will benefit include round leaved-wintergreen, marsh helleborine and early marsh orchid.
- Plantlife will be introducing trial management work aimed at encouraging fen orchid and allowing better conditions for many other species including the rare dune bryums and petalwort to develop.
This will be a fascinating experiment in reversing natural and human-induced environmental change.
And, while I am discussing Eryngium maritimum, I must report some interesting commentary that I came across with respect to its truly extraordinary and diverse medicinal applications. It (particularly its root) is variously described as curing and stimulating flatulence, as an aphrodisiac, a diuretic, a potent inflammation modulator, and an inducer of extreme perspiration. The name of the genus Eryngium is supposedly derived from the Greek for eructation, and, furthermore, Plutarch is reported as telling the story that
'They report of the Sea Holly, if one goat taketh it into her mouth, it causeth her first to stand still and afterwards the whole flock, until such time as the shepherd takes it from her.'
Perhaps someone could brew up some sea holly roots for The Donald?
[Photos of Sea Holly: Karen Davies and the National Education Network, Clive Hurford and the Guardian.]
Countless words have been written – appropriately – over the last couple of weeks, in the blogosphere and the international press, about Curiosity. I have little to add, except for a personal note of awe and gratitude.
The landing was scheduled for about an hour before my flight landed in Singapore, and the first thing I did after disembarking was to hook up to Google News – and there it was, incredibly, awe-inspiringly, it had worked, and Curiosity was flexing its muscles on the surface of Mars. I will readily admit that I haven’t the faintest clue how this whole, mind-bogglingly complex, mission was planned and executed; I watched and relished the infectious celebrations in the control room with only a partial sense of the true emotions of every individual there.
And then – a picture is truly worth a thousand words – the images started coming in.
When I looked at that image, and understood that the hills in the distance were not on Curiosity’s fieldwork itinerary, my immediate reaction was “Well, why don’t I wander over there and have a look at that winding valley system, while you go off and do your stuff. We’ll meet back here this afternoon.” Curiosity feels, intimately, like a fellow field-geologist – because, of course, that’s exactly what the rover is. I now check out the mission site routinely to see what my friend has been up to, and to continue to celebrate this incredible achievement.
And, for me, the other cause for celebration is simply that, faced daily with the stories of the depravity, greed, and ignorance of our bizarre species, this provides a strong antidote, grounds for cautious, if perhaps fleeting, optimism. Thank you, NASA, JPL, Caltech, and everyone involved.
[All images courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS]
Here’s part of the original report from NOAA:
NOAA, BOEM: Historic, 19th century shipwreck discovered in northern Gulf of Mexico
May 16, 2012
While most of the ship's wood has long since disintegrated, copper that sheathed the hull beneath the waterline as a protection against marine-boring organisms remains, leaving a copper shell retaining the form of the ship. The copper has turned green due to oxidation and chemical processes over more than a century on the seafloor. Oxidized copper sheathing and possible draft marks are visible on the bow of the ship.(Credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program.)
During a recent Gulf of Mexico expedition, NOAA, BOEM and partners discovered an historic wooden-hulled vessel which is believed to have sunk as long as 200 years ago. Scientists on board the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer used underwater robots with lights and high definition cameras to view remnants of the ship laden with anchors, navigational instruments, glass bottles, ceramic plates, cannons, and boxes of muskets.
Equipped with telepresence technology, Okeanos Explorer reached audiences around the world who participated in the expedition through live streaming Internet video. As members of the public ashore watched live video from the ocean bottom, they became “citizen explorers,” sharing in the discovery with maritime archaeologists, scientists and resource managers from a variety of federal, academic, and private organizations.
The NOAA-funded 56-day expedition that ended April 29 was exploring poorly known regions of the Gulf, mapping and imaging unknown or little-known features and habitats, developing and testing a method to measure the rate that gas rises from naturally-occurring seeps on the seafloor, and investigating potential shipwreck sites.
The shipwreck site was originally identified as an unknown sonar contact during a 2011 oil and gas survey for Shell Oil Company. The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) requested this and other potential shipwreck sites be investigated during NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico expedition. Surveys and archaeological assessments are required by BOEM to aid in its decision-making prior to issuing permits for bottom-disturbing activities related to oil and gas exploration and development.
“Artifacts in and around the wreck and the hull’s copper sheathing may date the vessel to the early to mid-19th century,” said Jack Irion, Ph.D., a maritime archaeologist with BOEM. “Some of the more datable objects include what appears to be a type of ceramic plate that was popular between 1800 and 1830, and a wide variety of glass bottles. A rare ship’s stove on the site is one of only a handful of surviving examples in the world and the second one found on a shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Significant historical events occurring in the regions around the Gulf of Mexico during this time include the War of 1812, events leading to the Texas Revolution, and the Mexican-American War, he said.
“Shipwrecks help to fill in some of the unwritten pages of history,” said Frank Cantelas, a maritime archaeologist with NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research. “We explored four shipwrecks during this expedition and I believe this wreck was by far the most interesting and historic. The site is nearly 200 miles off the Gulf coast in over 4,000 feet of water in a relatively unexplored area.”
The news has been reported widely, these extracts being from CBS News and the Associated Press:
"When we saw it we were all just astonished because it was beautifully preserved, and by that I mean for a 200-year-old shipwreck," said Jack Irion, maritime archaeologist with the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in New Orleans… Among the wreckage were "a rather astonishing number of bottles," particularly square gin bottles known as case bottles, as well as wine bottles, Irion said. There were many ceramic cups, plates and bowls that didn't appear to be cargo. Some were green shell-edged pearl ware, a British import popular in the United States between 1800 and 1830. The ship's kitchen stove was found intact. "Very few shipwrecks have been found that still have the stove intact," Irion said. "You can very clearly see the features of the stove. It's in rather good shape." Also discovered were an anchor, cannons and muskets. Irion said researchers have not yet determined whether it was a merchant, military or pirate ship… The wreckage can also give insight to the lives of the crew, where they had been, where they were going and their role in the economy and world history. "It's as if we get a glimpse into what their lives were like, like a time capsule," Irion said.
All kinds of fascinating stuff, but I can’t understand why no mention of the sandglasses lying in the sand…
A story that appeared all over the news recently caught my eye for a number of reasons - here’s an example of the headlines: “Frozen in the sands of time: Eerie Second World War RAF fighter plane discovered in the Sahara... 70 years after it crashed in the desert.”
The Western Desert of Egypt and Libya is strewn with well preserved wreckage from WW II, but this is an extraordinary example. This is the BBC description:
A World War II RAF fighter, which crash-landed in a remote part of the Egyptian desert in 1942, has been discovered almost intact. There was no trace of the pilot, Flt Sgt Dennis Copping, but the British embassy says it is planning to mount a search for his remains.
The RAF Museum in Hendon, north London, says it is hoping to recover the plane as soon as possible.There are fears souvenir hunters will start stripping it.
The 24-year-old pilot, the son of a dentist from Southend in Essex, went missing over the Western Desert in June 1942, flying an American-made P40 Kittyhawk single-engine fighter. Two-and-a-half months ago an aircraft believed to be his was discovered near a remote place called Wadi al-Jadid by a Polish oil worker, Jakub Perka. His photographs show the plane is in remarkably good condition, though the engine and propeller have separated from the fuselage. The original paintwork and RAF insignia are said to be clearly visible, almost perfectly preserved in the dry desert air.
But of the pilot there is no sign. He appears to have executed a near-perfect emergency landing, perhaps after becoming lost and running out of fuel, and to have survived the crash. He rigged a parachute as an awning and removed the aircraft's radio and batteries but then apparently walked off into the desert in search of help. Almost 100 miles from the nearest settlement, he stood virtually no chance.
David Keen, an aviation historian at the RAF Museum, says the pilot broke the first rule of survival in the desert, which is to stay with your plane or vehicle. But the very same conditions which made the pilot's prospects so bleak have helped preserve the plane. Mr Keen says of the many thousands of aircraft which were shot down or crashed during the Second World War, very few survive in anything like this condition.
He said: "Nearly all the crashes in the Second World War, and there were tens of thousands of them, resulted on impact with the aircraft breaking up, so the only bits that are recovered are fragments, often scattered over a wide area. "What makes this particular aircraft so special is that it looks complete, and it survived on the surface of the desert all these years. It's like a timewarp."
The RAF Museum has a P40 Kittyhawk on display, but it has been put together from parts of many different aircraft.
Recovering Flt Sgt Copping's plane will not be easy. It is in a part of the desert which is not only remote but also dangerous, because it is close to a smuggling route between Libya and Egypt. The defence attache at the British Embassy in Cairo, Paul Collins, says he is hoping to travel to the area in the near future, but is waiting for permission from the Egyptian army.
He told the BBC: "I have to go down there. This is a serviceman who was killed, albeit 70 years ago. We have a responsibility to go and find out whether it's his plane, though not necessarily to work out what happened. He went missing in action. We can only assume he got out and walked somewhere, so we have to do a search of the area for any remains, although it could be a wide area. But we have to go soon as all the souvenir hunters will be down there."
He said the British authorities are trying to find out whether Flt Sgt Copping has any surviving close relatives, because if his remains are found a decision will need to be made about what to do with them.
A compelling story. And, of course, being a geologist and having spent some time in the Western Desert, I was curious – where, exactly, was the plane found? The location mentioned, Wadi al-Jadid, is a very large area south and west of the village of Mut, part of the sprawling oasis of Dakhla – through which I had passed, travelling to the southwest on my way to the Gilf Kebir several years ago. Geologists have a strange tendency to look at the rocks in a photo or in a movie (and, unnervingly for passengers, out of the car window while driving), and an examination of the photos above reveals a couple of things. First, all the gumph in the press reports about “buried in the sands of time” is exactly that – this is an area of sand-blasted limestone outcrops across which the blasting grains would bounce, swirl, and keep going: no dunes deep enough to have buried the plane could accumulate there. Second, the reports variously describe the location as being one hundred or “more than 200” miles from the nearest town, which is, perhaps, Mut. Vast areas to the south and west of Mut are covered by dunes sweeping across seemingly endless gravel plains – few outcrops,none of them limestone. Only after around 150 miles did we enter the distinctive blasted limestone landscapes. I would suggest that this image from my trip is evocative of the general environment shown in the photos of the plane:
I have no intention of providing a guide to bounty-hunters – the area shown on the Google Earth images below is still huge (and, anyway, I may be wrong - I am, see comment discussion below after this was posted):
Incidentally, the comment in the BBC piece that the area is “also dangerous, because it is close to a smuggling route between Libya and Egypt” I believe is somewhat misleading. Those photos come from the desert west of the Gilf Kebir and it is there, along the Libyan border, that certainly the main people smuggling routes run – I know (and wish that I didn’t), because we saw some of the trucks in the distance.
The CNN report describes how “The young pilot, according to [British military historian] Saunders apparently became disoriented during the flight and headed in the wrong direction. Another RAF pilot flying nearby ‘tried all sorts of things’ to get his attention, but Copping ‘bizarrely’ ignored a series of warnings.” So where should the pilot have been trying to get to? The Imperial War Museum website proves to be yet another wonderful internet resource. Here are two images from their online archives of the North African Campaign:
Left, “A Curtiss Kittyhawk Mark I of No. 112 Squadron RAF taxies through the sand at a landing ground in the Western Desert. A mechanic sitting on the wing is guiding the pilot, whose forward view is obscured by the aircraft's nose.” Right, “Trolleys loaded with 250-lb GP bombs are drawn up in front of a line of Curtiss Kittyhawk Mark IIIs of No. 260 Squadron RAF at Marble Arch landing ground, Libya, prior to a bombing sortie.” (Reproduced courtesy of the IWM Non-Commercial Licence).
These landing grounds were scattered across the Western Desert, but, appropriately, close to the Mediterranean coast; the Google Earth image above shows one of the British-American joint bases, RAF Gambut, from which the Kittyhawks flew. The pilot of this one was certainly, tragically, a long way from home.