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who goes there? [part one]

deep thoughts
although i came to it late, i'm a huge fan of arrested development. i can thank dom for introducing me to the series a couple of years after its untimely demise, and we've since watched it together so many times that we can quote almost every episode from memory. [and we still occasionally find little things that we hadn't noticed before].

one of the things that i wish had been given more attention, though was buster bluth's history as a scholar. with his oddly specific disconnected interests, it's apparent from the beginning that he's meandered through a number of specialties without ever becoming much of an expert in any of them. although the bluth family's ignominious tumble from financial grace forces him to withdraw from his eternal cycle of grad school programs, we see that he's learned archaeology, eighteenth century agrarian business, native american studies and dance [having taken a class at the university of mexico city]. i have to say that i have some sympathy with him on that front, being prone to sudden-onset obsessions with subjects that are of interest only to me.

the first subject we're told that buster is studying [just before the financial collapse] is cartography, the mapping of the world. this is meant to be silly, because, as his older, smarter brother michael points out, it's kind of all been done before by "magellan... and nasa". buster unconvincingly tries to tell him that they think there might be some places that those people have missed. however, if buster had paid attention in his classes, he might have pointed out that there are most definitely some places that steadfastly resist human efforts to record and catalogue them.

i'd originally planned to cover a whole bunch in one blog post, but then it became obvious that i'd taken on more than i could handle in a single sitting. so i've split it up, and this part will deal with only the two most obvious regions that remain vastly unknown to us: the oceans and antarctica.

there have been exactly two manned trips to the ocean's deepest point- the mariana trench- both done in cooperation with the national geographic society. the first was in 1960, when don walsh and jacques picard touched bottom for twenty minutes and took some basic measurements. the dive was considered a huge success, however, the diving vessel did crack under pressure as it approached the bottom. the buckling panel turned out to be no big deal [although it could have prevented them from resurfacing], but there wasn't exactly a rush to get back down there and look around.

oh those are just our giant sea volcanoes, no big deal
no second attempt was made until 2012, when director james cameron [that's right, the terminator, titanic and avatar guy] made a solo trip. appropriately enough, cameron was the first person to be able to capture detailed video of the depths of the trench and his discoveries have provided by far the best information we've yet had about it. [and, lest you think this was an egotistical publicity stunt, cameron is dead serious about science and anthropology. he's an explorer-in-residence with national geographic and helped design the vessel he took to the bottom of the sea himself.]

and that's just the mariana trench. far larger and potentially more interesting is the mid-atlantic ridge, the longest mountain range in the world, running from just south of the north pole to just north of antarctica. it's also one of the most volcanically active places on earth, the implications of which we're still trying to understand. let me repeat: there's a giant ridge of mountains the length of the globe that's constantly exploding, and we hardly know anything about it. [other than iceland, which is its best-known above-ground bit.]

we know more about the surface of mars and venus than we do about the oceans that make up the majority of our planet. the standard claim is that we've explored less than 5% of the oceans and mapped only one one-hundredth of that. that's not exactly accurate, as we have mapped the entire ocean floor through satellites, but only to a resolution of five kilometres. so anything that's smaller than five kilometres is invisible to us. by comparison, 98% of the surface of venus has been mapped to a resolution of 100m, as has the entire surface of mars. only a little more than a tenth of the ocean floor has been mapped at that resolution. [oh, and mapping of mars at 20m resolution is over 60% complete.] so i'm in no way joking when i say we know less about what's lapping at our shores than we do about planets most of us will never get to visit. [sad face.]

sure, go towards the blue light, what could go wrong?
what we know at this point is that we know perilously little. we've gone through millennia thinking that, due to the crushing pressure and darkness, few species of animals would exist in the deepest parts of the ocean. turns out that what's uninhabitable for us is a cosy home for a lot of others, because there's huge biodiversity just waiting to eat us in the dark, some of which is freakin' huge. it's like we don't even know enough to know how to ask the right questions, which is why we have scientists researching things like "can the ocean sink boats when it farts?" [it can, at least in theory.]

and then there's antarctica. while most of us might picture a giant ice sheet whose perimeter is inhabited by adorable penguins, there's a lot more to the place than that. unsurprisingly, antarctica is the coldest place on earth. [i believe montreal in january is second.] from its discovery until quite recently, people assumed that this was because it was just a giant, thick block of ice, kind of like the one we have in the north. but the fact is that the massive ice sheet was just slapped on top of a whole bunch of other stuff when the last ice age caught everyone by surprise.

around the centre of the continent, there is a mountain range with peaks the size of the alps. they were mapped out by radar only a few years ago, because they're under a sheet of ice. [they have above-ice mountains too!] and one of the reasons why a lot of the surface of antarctica looks like a desert made of ice is because that's exactly what it is. the antarctic desert is the largest in the world- about 14.2 million square km. the sahara desert, in second place, is less than two-thirds that size.

it's also home to the sixth largest lake in the world, lake vostok, discovered in 2007 and comparable to lake ontario. the lake is buried under 4km of ice in the place that holds the record for the coldest temperature ever recorded [-89.2 celsius], but is still home to about 3,500 microbial lifeforms. after an attempt to penetrate the ice quite literally blew up in their faces, an enterprising group of russian scientists managed to bore a hole all the way down, so they can extract samples for testing and find out what's down there. [because, when you're dealing with thousands of microbes that have never seen the surface of the earth before, what's most important is to get them to the surface, where humans can be exposed to them.]

the real mountains of madness
and just this year, on another part of the continent, one that's unexplored even by antarctic standards, researchers discovered that there's a giant canyon under the ice, longer and deeper than the much more famous and visible grand canyon, that may or may not lead to another heretofore unknown subglacial lake.

oh, and it's apparently catnip for meteors; antarctica has sustained more meteor hits than any other place on earth. [but yes, by all means, bring the outer space microbes up to the surface so we can all look at them.]

all of those thing make antarctica a pretty wild and exciting place, but here's the thing: we know fuck all about it. it's too cold for people to live there regularly, and it's hard to find evidence of anything on the surface, so nasa and others keep flying overhead, pinging the surface to scan what's beneath it and occasionally hitting subglacial paydirt. i mean, on a surface level [yuk yuk], we know what's there. it's been mapped for more than forty years. but pretty much since the moment cartographers put down their pencils and said "mission accomplished", we've been finding out that the mission is just starting.

so that's it for part one. now, the thing is that there are good reasons we haven't been able to explore these things, even though they're huge. what might surprise you more is that there's stuff we've been sticking on maps for years that remains pretty unknown.

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