Monday, May 5, 2014

Not-So Final Frontier

One thing that's always disappointed me about science-fiction is the tendency to give alien planets a single environmental theme with little to no variation. Everywhere you go it's always "desert planet" this or "jungle planet" that. What's the likelihood of an entire world being dominated by a single geological feature?

Imagine being on the first starship to explore the cosmos. Now imagine the disappointment you'll feel once you realize every world you visit is either entirely covered in ice or populated by nothing but giant mushrooms. Sure, if you're filming a T.V. series you have more important things to worry about like budgetary constraints. And I'm sure you don't want the writing staff spending all their time working on realistic geological models or weather patterns for a planet the cast is going to spend a single episode exploring. So what's the next best compromise? Just tell the audience that it's an ocean planet or a giant insect planet and move on.

It's similar to the problem of giving aliens a single, all-encompassing culture with no variation. You can choose to explore an entire species, all their cultures, their sub-cultures, their history, myths and religions. Or you can save a lot of time and say "This is a warrior culture!", "These are telepaths!", "These are homicidal saltshakers!".

And sure, that might save you time and it might get you through the season on a reasonable schedule. But on the other hand, what really is the likelihood of an entire planet being populated by nothing but gangsters?

As is obvious to everyone (except T.V. executives), our own little Earth is an amazingly varied place, with all manner of hot springs, salt flats, hoodoos, shopping malls, mesas and swamps to explore. If alien planets are anything like what books say, why bother going to them? Why bother going to the desert planet or the ocean planet when you can stay right here on Earth and enjoy either of those features in the span of a single day, no expensive spaceship necessary?

Or better yet, go visit some features right here on Earth that are many times stranger than what most fictional planets have to offer. Places like...


Meaning "cotton castle" in Turkish, Pamukkale is a hot spring found in southwestern Turkey. A prime tourist destination for the past thousand years, the hot springs are dominated by snowy white terraces of travertine, a kind of limestone formed from calcium deposits in the water. These terraces reach down the hillside like steps on an enormous staircase. All the while mineral-rich water bubbles up to the surface, heated to anywhere from 35 °C to 100 °C.

This water brings calcium carbonate up to the surface as a thick jelly. Carbon dioxide is released as a gas, which results in deposits of calcium carbonate forming around the rims of the pools. This hardens, creating travertine which goes on to make even more pools as it spills over the side. As time goes by the result is an otherworldly landscape that looks eerily man-made.

Natural terraces like these are surprisingly common all over the world, with formations found anywhere from Iran, New Zealand, Italy or Yellowstone in Wyoming. Any hot spring that forms limestone deposits stands a chance of creating them.

Rio Tinto

A river in southwestern Spain, the Rio Tinto has the good fortune of flowing through a region rich in precious metals. Along the Rio Tinto lies a panoply of valuable minerals like copper, gold and silver. Since 3,000 BC the region has been mined by everyone from the Phoenicians to the Greeks and Romans, spilling untold thousands and thousands of gallons of acid mine drainage into the water. This wildly irresponsible dumping of toxic waste has continued to our current day as the region is still being mined for precious minerals.

As a result, the river is full of skin-searing acid and dissolved iron that gives it a deep blood-red color.

While it would be easy to assume the acid disintegrates anything it comes in contact with, the Rio Tinto isn't completely uninhabited. Extremophilic bacteria swarm in it's water and feed on the iron and sulfide minerals trapped in it's riverbed. What's interesting is that it's been speculated that these bacteria might actually contribute to much of the acidic content in the water, meaning they actively sterilize the Rio Tinto of any lifeforms that might oppose them.

That's hot.

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is the largest salt flat in the world. About the size of Manhattan Island, it is a desolate, eerie landscape; completely flat and devoid of life. The parched, cracked surface extends into the horizon in every direction. Nothing grows here. Nothing lives here.

However, the salt flat is home to small "islands" of rocky land, the remains of ancient volcanoes peeking out of the briny crust. These rare few islands are the only places where life clings to, well, life in the salt flat. Some are large enough to host a semi-permanent population, such as Isla Incahuasi.

Large cacti dot the islands of the Salar and small rabbit-like rodents called Viscacha can be found hiding in the rocks. But besides these few rocky outcrops the salt flat is virtually devoid of life. Except the cacti, practically no plant can call this place home, resulting in a pristine void of life where nothing can live, like the background of a Salvador Dali painting.

The fact that the Salar is a lifeless wasteland hasn't stopped it from becoming a tourist destination of course. Numerous hotels have sprung up on it's islands and along it's outer rim. And what are these hotels made of in the absence of wood or stone building materials? Salt of course.

Enterprising hotel owners dig up bricks of solid salt, stack them together and call it a hotel, complete with salt furniture, tables, chairs and beds. All made of salt.

What I love the most about the Salar is how utterly lifeless it is. I don't mean that sarcastically either. I would love to just wander around this barren, sterile landscape. Imagine walking across the salt flat and not seeing another living thing for miles and miles, totally alone in this surreal world of never-ending sand and blue sky.

Finally, despite it's arid appearance, the Salar has surprisingly mild weather. The average temperature is anywhere from 21 °C to 13 °C depending on the time of year. That's anywhere from 70 to 55 °F. So in review,  it's completely lifeless, almost devoid of people and so featureless it could count as a giant sensory deprivation tank and it has nice weather.

Guys, I think I finally found a place to build my dream house.

Spotted Lake

Nestled in the wilderness of British Columbia is the Spotted Lake, a body of water so salty it could only have been created by dumping a truck load of ramen flavor packets into a hole and filling it with water.

It's described as a saline endorheic alkaline lake, which means the Spotted Lake is a drainage basin that doesn't open to any other bodies of water, has a pH of 7 or more and is very very salty. It's extreme salinity and soupy texture are what causes the spots, which represent enormous quantities of minerals like magnesium sulfate and calcium floating on the surface like giant glass beads.

In fact, the Spotted Lake has some of the highest quantities of such minerals not just in Canada, nor North America, but the entire world. This is especially true in the summer months when most of the water evaporates, leaving huge pancakes of encrusted mineral deposits behind.

Of course, the lake's status as the world's largest salt bath hasn't gone unnoticed. In addition to using the mineral deposits to manufacture ammunition in World War I there were plans to build a spa at the site and exploit the water's therapeutic properties. As far as I can tell it hasn't been built yet, which might be for the best. I get the feeling the water would have the consistency of Pepto-Bismol.

Eisriesenwelt Ice Caves

German for "World of the Ice Giants", Eisriesenwelt can be found in the Alps along the Austrian border. Snaking over forty-two kilometers into the mountain, it is the largest limestone ice cave in the world.

Limestone is a kind of sedimentary rock made of crystals of calcite and carbonate which, because of it's composition, can easily be eroded by water. As water flows over the years it sculpts the limestone into beautiful, otherworldly structures known as karsts. These become features like sinkholes and caves, forming some of the most iconic geological structures in the world like the Carlsbad Caverns, Sarawak Chamber and of course Eisriesenwelt.

The ice is cooled year round, either from cold air blowing in during the winter or blowing out during the summer. As new water enters the cave it freezes, conforming to the smooth shape of the limestone, taking on breathtaking, swooping forms, some of them reaching several meters high or flowing down from the ceiling like giant frozen chandeliers. The ice and rippling limestone walls give the cave an appearance like giant sheets of flowing silk or a lava lamp that's been frozen in place.

Sadly, there's almost no pictures to prove this, since flash photography is verboten in the cave. You'll just have to take my word for it.

Seriously you guys, even though I've seen almost no pictures of it I'm pretty sure it's gorgeous.