A Digital Map of Ocean Traffic, Mined from Centuries-old Ship's Logs
Does it reveal the location of the doldrums?
From a young age, Frank was fascinated by maps and atlases, and the stories they contained. Finding his birthplace on the map in the endpapers of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings only increased his interest in the mystery and message of maps.
While pursuing a career in journalism, Frank started a blog called Strange Maps, as a repository for the weird and wonderful cartography he found hidden in books, posing as everyday objects and (of course) floating around the Internet.
"Each map tells a story, but the stories told by your standard atlas for school or reference are limited and literal: they show only the most practical side of the world, its geography and its political divisions. Strange Maps aims to collect and comment on maps that do everything but that - maps that show the world from a different angle".
A remit that wide allows for a steady, varied diet of maps: Frank has been writing about strange maps since 2006, published a book on the subject in 2009 and joined Big Think in 2010. Readers send in new material daily, and he keeps bumping in to cartography that is delightfully obscure, amazingly beautiful, shockingly partisan, and more.
Take a vast collection of 18th- and 19th-century ship’s logs (1), digitise their contents and geolocate each entry. Stick those millions of data points, on a blank map of the world, and this extraordinary image emerges.
Strictly speaking, this map does not show any land mass, yet we can clearly discern the contours of the continents – the cumulative effect of centuries of coast-hugging voyages, dutifully recorded in ship’s logs, generating enough data points to reveal the length and breadth of the land.
But some contours are notably absent: the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the eastern half of the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the northern shores of Siberia, Canada and Australia. Too few ships (or at least too few ships with log books) plied those waters back then.
The most striking feature of the map, however, are the broad bands of traffic moving across the high seas. Their sheer volume reflects the economic importance of each transoceanic flow (2). At a single glance, we see how commerce binds the world together - and which parts of the world more closely than others.
The centre of gravity for global maritime commerce clearly is the east coast of North America (3). Three thick bundles of traffic, each composed of countless individual ocean crossings, converge on the continent’s eastern seaboard. The northernmost one traverses the North Atlantic to reach the busy ports of Britain. The southernmost one aims straight for Brazil’s eastern cape (4). The middle one, an apparently somewhat less focused bundle, is directed at northwest Africa before changing its mind halfway across the ocean, and bending south.
The latter two flows merge off the coast of Brazil, but that broad band separates again into three streams of traffic: one rounding Cape Horn on the southern tip of South America, the other two shooting past South Africa in the general direction of China. Maritime traffic across the Pacific is more spread out, but still some hubs are easily spotted: San Francisco and Hawaii, most notably.
But there’s also something else going on in the Pacific. Something weird. Three sets of horizontal markings off South America’s equatorial bulge look a bit like the creases you get from folding a map too much. But that obviously isn’t how these latitudinal objects came to be. They must have been made by ships, going back and forth along an east-west axis. But why? There are no obvious destinations on either end of these mysterious lines.
Satyam, a reader from Buenos Aires, suggests a solution: “These are the doldrums, the point where the trade winds rarely blow. The sail ships of the age simply got stuck in that region until a random weather condition comes up and throws some gust of wind that can take the ship out of there”.
The word ‘doldrums’, of uncertain origin, arose in the 18th century, when sailing across equatorial regions became a regular occurrence. These days, the term is used mainly in its figurative sense, to express a state of apathy, boredom or malaise. But back when wind was the main source of naval propulsion, the doldrums were a very real trap for sailing ships, which could be stuck for weeks on end.
In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes the Pacific doldrums - i.e. the horizontal markings on this map - thus: “All in a hot and copper sky, / The bloody Sun, at noon, / Right up above the mast did stand, / No bigger than the Moon. / Day after day, day after day, / We stuck, no breath no motion, / As idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean”.
Situated near the equator, in what is also called, less poetically, the Intertropical Convergence Zone (or ITCZ), the doldrums are an area of low pressure, and thus slight wind. The hot, equatorial air rises up into the atmosphere, from where it travels north or south, descending again at the so-called horse latitudes (5) (between 30 and 35 degrees north and south of the equator), and returning as the trade winds. The ITCZ is not only subject to long periods of calm, but also to violent thunderstorms and hurricanes.
But there is one additional horizontal line, much further to the south and thus not affected nor explained by the doldrums. This line is off the Chilean coast, around the Juan Fernández Islands (6). Satyam: “Though in those days determination of the longitude by using the chronometer was already well established, ships coming out of Cape Horn into the Pacific often got their equipment damaged and resorted to the old ways, sometimes bad weather remained with them preventing them to have a good observation. Latitude was easy to fix in absolute terms, there was no need to keep Greenwich time over such a long distance. Thus, ships went north until they reached the latitude of the Juan Fernandez and then tried to guess which way the islands might lay and if not found, go back and forth”.
Many thanks to Satyam for sending in this map, found here on Sapping Attention, a blog subtitled Digital Humanities: Using tools from the 1990s to answer questions from the 1960s about 19th century America.
Strange Maps #636
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
(2) Although we must keep in mind that much of the traffic shown here consists of whaling voyages, where the sea itself is the destination.
(3) A result that is perhaps not surprising, and a little bit biased, since this map is compiled from American data.
(4) Cabo Branco (the White Cape), not far from João Pessoa, the state capital of Paraíba. The cape itself is not the easternmost point of the Americas, which is a few miles distant at Ponta do Seixas (Mushroom Tip).
(5) The name probably derives from the “flogging a dead horse” ritual, performed by seamen when crossing these latitudes. Sailors would parade an effigy of a horse around the ship’s deck and then chuck it overboard to mark the end of ‘dead horse time’, a period of about two months in which they worked off their debt to the ship’s paymaster, incurred because they had spent their advance pay on wine, women and song. Another explanation holds that ships stuck at this latitude suffered from such shortage of water that they had to throw their horses overboard. This version inspired Jim Morrison to write Horse Latitudes, a short spoken word piece on Strange Days, the second album by The Doors.
(6) A Chilean archipelago consisting of three main islands, most famous for being the place where the British sailor Alexander Selkirk was marooned. Selkirk's real-life adventures were the model for world literature's most famous shipwrecked sailor, Robinson Crusoe. In their honours, the islands formerly known as Más a Tierra and Más Afuera have been renamed Isla Robinson Crusoe and Isla Alejandro Selkirk.
It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.
- The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
- You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
- This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.
Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.
Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.
The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.
Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv
Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.
The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.
While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.
One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.
"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"
Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.
The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.
Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
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