02.Earth: Places

Every day your skin changes.  You lose between 30,000 to 40,000 skin cells a day.  Your skin gets renewed constantly.  The same principle applies to the entire surface of the planet.  Mountains, valleys, caves, and other geological features are basically cooled lava, which is a mixture of various elements that creates the ‘skin’ of Earth, which we refer to as its crust.  When large chunks of this crust collide, driven by the molten lava beneath, it creates tall (for us) bulges of matter that we call mountains.

Compared to the billions of years it has taken to bring about Earth’s current crust formation, our human lifespan is so minute that we rarely recognize any significant changes.  We live on a very dynamic layer, yet it appears still to us.  Mountains can grow several cm a year.  Desert sand moves similar to waves, and rivers are no more than tiny ‘leaks’ on the surface of the Earth that come and go.  Imagine all those millions of years in the making.  If we were to observe the planet’s surface ice from space, over millions of years, it would almost look like a pumping heart.

To better grasp the structures on Earth’s skin-surface, we have to get it water-naked.  If we could temporarily remove all the water from the planet, this is what Earth would look like: – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-H6vmLgJHOk

Mountains and valleys, caves and rivers, now seem quite different, and are able to provide a different context from how we normally view them.

All of these tall mountains, deep oceans and caves, all of the creatures, winds, rains, all of the vast rivers and endless deserts, all of them are on and within this ‘skin’, a layer that is no thicker than 50 miles (80 km).  If Earth was an apple, the entire world we know and live in would be the apple’s skin.  The rest is either molten lava, or deep freezing space.  It is hard to comprehend that beneath our feet is a very thin sheet of rock that protects us from a gigantic molten and radioactive core.

Now, to make it even more exact, if we were to calculate the highest point on this crust and the lowest one, this is even thinner.

The best way to figure out what is the highest and lowest point on Earth, is to relate it to the Earth’s core.  You see, this planet is not a perfect sphere, its ‘belt’ is more bulgy (the equator), thus if it was complete flat on its surface, without any mountains and holes, the ‘belt’ region of the Earth would be the highest one.

That being said, the famed Mount Everest is not the highest point on the planet, as many would think.  The highest point is actually a peak on the biggest land-based mountain chain, the Andes, which happens to reside on the planet’s ‘belt’.  The lowest point is somewhere at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, much closer to one of the planet’s poles.  These points are measured relative to the Earth’s core.  Thus, the difference between lowest to highest points on the surface of the planet is only around 8.6 miles (14 km).(source)

With all of these features on Earth’s surface (mountain chains, heals, valleys, caverns, etc), if we were to shrink the planet down to the size of a bowling ball, Earth would be smoother than the bowling ball!  Mull that thought over for a minute.  This also means that if we were to reverse that and make a bowling ball (we all know how smooth they seem) as big as the planet, we would discover huge ‘mountains’ and deep ‘valleys’, much bigger than what we see now on Earth.(source)  That’s quite a thing to ponder!

So, Earth’s crust is no thicker than an apple’s skin compared to an apple, the crust’s features (mountains and holes) are smoother than a bowling ball’s surface if we shrink Earth to that size, and everything we’re aware of (the grand canyon, the vast oceans, lions and zebras, insects and fish, clouds and storms, caves and rivers) is part of a meager 8.6 mile (14 km) layer.

That should put some things in perspective.

Unique to this thin layer, there are many amazing places full of complex ecosystems.  Here are a few of these interesting places that you can find on Earth:

Looking similar to cakes, these mountains are revealing different layers of rock deposited over the course of 24 million years.  You can actually ‘read time’ by looking through the colorful layers.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zhangye_Danxia_National_Geological_Park

Mountains can also look like this.  Or like this.  Or something like this.  These mountains are considered one of the oldest geological formations on Earth, dating around 2 billion years.

Some places look like they were human-made, like these piles of rocks that show how, given enough time, Earth’s crust can come up with amazing sculptures.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_places_with_columnar_jointed_volcanics#mediaviewer/File:BasaltColumns_PortoSanto.JPG

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basalt#Columnar_basalt

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant%27s_Causeway

Beneath the surface, there are some places that look like they might have been drawn by a computer.  This cave is the largest one in the world, with some parts measuring 656 feet (200 meters) high and 492 feet (150 meters) wide.  You could easily fit 6 Boeing 747 airplanes inside that space.

Ice caves are temporary holes created inside big chunks of ice.  They are mostly created by lava that once flowed through the ice, leaving a tunnel along its path.

The huge crystals inside this cave took almost a half million years to form.  The cave is relatively unexplored because the temperatures are too hot for people to withstand for more than 10 minutes at a time.

This cave is so deep you could easily fit 7 Eiffel Towers on on top of the other.  Some caves are filled with water and, because there are no currents and the water is so clear, scuba diving there is a unique experience, like floating in an invisible liquid.
https://www.google.com/search?q=Enchanted+Well+at+Chapada&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=ZbF6VIOoG4nxaO3cgdgC&ved=0CAgQ_AUoAQ&biw=1303&bih=657

These holes can be inside different types of rocks or ice and, when they are underwater or filled with water, their exploration and environment changes a lot.  Exploring these holes give us a better understanding of ecosystems that lack sunlight, are exposed to less oxygen or a greater quantity of methane or other gases, lacking in nutrients, or continuous high humidity; overall environments that are very unique and quite challenging to map, analyze or even observe.  Because of that, and perhaps due to monetary constraints, only a small fraction of known cave systems are explored.

This is not a huge mirror, it is naturally formed salty water on a plane that is so leveled that it is used by satellites to calibrate their altitude.

These two ‘pools’ are formed by hot water, a mixture of minerals and tiny life forms (bacteria).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Prismatic_Spring

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pamukkale

This ‘pool’s’ color is also made by tiny organisms. The color is permanent, and does not alter when some of the water is collected in a container.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Hillier

This forest may look normal, but the trees here are over 370 feet (112 m) in height (not counting roots) and up to 26 feet (7.9 m) in diameter.  Humans look like ants next to them.  Forests can also be made of rock, or grow under water.

There are also places on Earth that have been long-isolated from the rest, where unique plants and other life forms have evolved.  These ‘strange’ plants are an example of how ‘alien’ such places can become when environmental forces are even a bit different.

Next time you see oceanic islands, think about the fact that the vast majority of them are ‘3D printed’ by volcanoes (molten lava surfacing and cooling).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gal%C3%A1pagos_Islands

And if one force creates, another one destroys.  This is a huge meteor crater, a reminder of the dangers we face from the vastness of space.

Remember the ‘naked Earth’ description at the beginning of the article?  Just how much water did we temporarily remove for that?  Well, this much – http://water.usgs.gov/edu/earthhowmuch.html

Although the surface of the Earth is 71% covered in water, if we were to take all of that water, plus all of the water within Earth’s crust and in the atmosphere, it would create just a tiny sphere compared to the size of Earth.  Actually, Earth has less water than Titan or Europa (moon sizes are relative to Earth’s size)
http://sploid.gizmodo.com/surprising-graphic-comparison-water-on-earth-vs-jupite-1538901662

We are very tiny, however, so this relatively small amount of water forms huge oceans back on Earth, so huge that, with all of our technology, we have only explored 5% of it.  The remaining 95% is completely unexplored.

All of these places are only a tiny sampling of a highly complex layer of places.  All of them conceal secrets that we continuously strive to uncover.  These discoveries not only improve our knowledge about ourselves and our place on the planet and in the universe, this collective knowledge also allows us to develop better technologies and methodologies to uplift our societies.  Unfortunately, in today’s world, very few enjoy all of these amazing places, and even fewer explore them.

I once watched a movie called Avatar (very popular back in 2009) about this ‘majestic’ planet somewhere far, far away from Earth.  The places that the movie makers invented were inspired by real places on planet Earth, but they were far less complex than the real ones.

But there is something else that I want to highlight here: Imagine yourself planning a visit to this ‘amazing’ planet, where blue people already live, and your curiosity made you learn a bit about their planet before your visit.  You were delighted to learn that they have plenty of amazing places on their planet that hide extraordinary complexity but, when you arrive there, you realize that most of the blue people (almost all) have never visited those places.  They live there, and you may have envied them for that ‘advantage’ before arriving, but now you realize that the fact that they live there provides no significant benefit to them.  You then realize that what stops them is that they need to surrender a number of ‘purple leafs’ before others will let them visit those places.  Strange right?

I am sure that you, as a guest on that planet, will start to feel a bit uncomfortable and perhaps ask what is this amazing ‘marble’ planet, where some inhabitants seem to be artificially restricting others’ access to certain areas for some odd reason.  How is it possible that the ‘lucky’ inhabitants of this amazing place in the universe don’t get to enjoy and explore it?

If any extraterrestrial species would ever see/hear about our own ‘blue marble’ and the amazing places there are here on Earth, and then decide to visit our world, what would they think when they realize that most of us (almost all) do not get the chance, in our short flash-like existence, to see these places, to explore them even more?  We have a ‘blue marble’ that can be enjoyed and explored only with ‘green paper’?  How ridiculous is that?

For a plethora of documentaries about Earth, its places, creatures and events, check out VideoNeat – Nature.

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