When you say out of hand: Point Nemo myth and reality of the remotest point of the globe
This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)
If the news of the Vendée Globe at some point got us caught up, a few months ago, we have learned that in that moment the competing yachts were sailing to transit the point on the earth globe closer to the orbiting space station than any mainland on earth.
Well, said like that sounds a bit strange and certainly picturesque however it is the reality: Point Nemo is situated in a point of the South Pacific Ocean, officially named as “oceanic pole of inaccessibility”.
Well, if the daily routine stress makes us look for the remotest point on Earth, and we have a good sea foot, the solution to our dilemma is nothing but Point Nemo.
Since the official title was a little too pompous (and not excessively friendly, as a matter of fact) it has been nicknamed Point Nemo, after Jules Verne anti-hero, Captain Nemo. The name means “nobody” in Latin, which fits such a little frequented place.
Point Nemo is located more than 1,600 km equidistant from the coasts of three islands. Ducie Island (one of the Pitcairn isles) is located at north, Motu Nui (of the Easter Island archipelago) is at northeast and the Maher Island (off the coast of Antarctica) is at south. It is a quite particular place.
In the past, the experts have long discussed about the geographic enigma of finding the centre of the ocean, but to provide a complete solution they needed modern technology. The survey engineer Hvroje Lukatela officially discovered the oceanic pole of inaccessibility only in 1992.
Instead of launching an expedition, Lukatela stayed comfortably seated in his lab on mainland and calculated the position of the point using a specialized computer software. Instead of putting only one pin in a flat projection of the Earth, the software incorporated the ellipsoidal shape of the planet for maximum precision.
Seems like the experts will not question the primacy of this singular place in the next few years, since they believe it unlikely that the point may move significantly in the next future.
The position of three equilateral points is rather unique and there are no other points on the earth’s surface that could plausibly replace any of these; it is possible that better measurements, or coastal erosion, could move the Point Nemo position, but – as expected – only in the order of meters. I therefore do not think it is appropriate to be fussy.
Point Nemo is so far from mainland that the closest human beings are often are astronauts. The International Space Station orbits around the Earth at a maximum of 258 miles; meanwhile the nearest inhabited continental mass to Point Nemo is over 1,670 miles away.
In fact, space agencies know very well the entire region around Point Nemo. Space agencies officially know the area, because it is the point on the planet with the least number of human inhabitants and the least trafficked shipping routes.
People think that a hundred abandoned spacecraft occupy now this “spacecraft graveyard”, from satellites to the dead space station MIR. They usually are not entire wrecks but parts or, more often, fragments scattered on the bottom of the ocean. Spacecraft, indeed, don’t survive re-entry into the atmosphere, most of them burn. The most common components to survive are the fuel tanks and the pressure circuits, which are part of the power system. The latter are generally made of titanium or stainless steel, often enclosed in complex fibre boxes made of carbon, heat-resistant.
As in all shipwrecks, also these wrecks create habitats that anything living in that depths will colonize; and unless there is residual fuel escaping, it shouldn’t be any danger for aquatic life.
However, what could live at Point Nemo?
Although he wrote 66 years before its discovery, the dark fantasy author Howard Philips Lovecraft chose a site strangely close to the oceanic pole of inaccessibility for R’lyeh, home of his legendary sprawling-faced creature Cthulhu.
In 1997, oceanographers recorded a mysterious noise less than 2,000 km east of Point Nemo. This led to great excitement and quite a bit of trepidation. The sound, named “The Bloop”, was stronger than even a blue whale, also leading to the hypothesis that an unknown sea monster produced it. However, later USA National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed that the Bloop is the sound of ice when big icebergs break and crack, producing powerful sounds at ultra-low frequency. Later recordings of some earthquakes showed similarities to the Bloop. So, if Point Nemo is not the home of a dragon-man-octopus, what lives there exactly? According to oceanographers not much.
This is because the oceanic point of inaccessibility is located within the South Pacific Gyre, a massive rotating oceanic current, bounded to the east and west by the continents of South America and Australia, north from the equator and south from the strong Antarctic circumpolar current. The waters inside the vortex are stable; at Point Nemo, according to NASA, the surface temperature settles to 5,8 C; the rotating current prevents fresher and rich in nutrients water from getting in. In addition to that, since the region is so isolated from the landmasses, the wind does not carry much organic matter.
Consequently, there is little to eat and probably nobody to feed. Without material falling from above like “sea snow”, even the seabed is lifeless; and experts describe the area as “the least biologically active region of the world ocean”.
Nonetheless, there are few exceptional points in which unique creatures might survive. Point Nemo is close to the southern end of the East Pacific Rise, a submarine line of volcanic activity that extends to the Gulf of California. Marks the boundary of the Pacific and Nazca tectonic plates, which are gradually moving away. Magma flows into the space between the plates, creating hydrothermal air intakes that emit hot and mineral water
It is an extreme environment but bacteria thrive, drawing their energy from the chemicals released by the eruptions. In turn, the bacteria maintain bigger creatures. These include the “hoff crab”, which was first observed in 2005 and so named for its hairy appearance.
There is still a lot to discover in these depths, but its remoteness makes Point Nemo an expensive and challenging destination for research. Many of us would not even hear about it if it weren’t for the Vendee Globe and tourists are pretty much absent. This means that we need a lot of imagination.
Poor descriptions talk about a surface of the sea light cornflower blue, with a purple tone due to scarcity of particulate matter and living material. Or it would be, if it weren’t for the trash.
A study published in 2013 confirmed that there is a trash zone in the South Pacific Gyre. The largest accumulation of waste occurred at the centre of the affected area, about 1,550 miles (2.500 km) northeast of Point Nemo.
The trash is mainly plastic trash such as such as polystyrene, films, fishing lines, fragments and pellets from vessels and coasts. The rotating current traps the trash, breaking it down into small pieces and grouping it into a sort of “floating islands”. Biologists think that the trash could unbalance the ecosystem and on this topic, it is that again: even in the remotest point of the planet, it looks like we can’t escape the bad habits of civilized humanity.
Fair wind everybody, see you at Point Nem…ah no, see you at sea.
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