At this time of year when the snow and cold have (finally!) settled around us, it doesn’t take long for cabin fever to set in. This is when many people plan vacations to far off (and hopefully politically stable) places that are warm and offer interesting things to see.
If I had the time and money to travel, there are any number of places I would like to see. The Hawaiian Islands, Great Britain, perhaps Italy. Rather than visit the usual tourist haunts, I might check out some off-the-beaten-path places where you don’t have to jostle with crowds of people.
Then there are the places where there are truly weird and wonderful things to see. However for various reasons, they are off limits or inaccessible due to distance, war, or extreme environments.
One of the odder places I might like to see is in Tanzania. It’s a very weird volcano called Ol Doinyo Langai volcano.
This curious creation of some rather bizarre geologic processes is associated with the East African Rift, an area that is slowly being torn in two by plate tectonics. Rather than erupting the silicate type of lavas we are familiar with, it spouts a natrocarbonatite lava, a gumbo of carbonate minerals, that makes for a very runny lava. National Geographic ran a story on this volcano an number of years ago and showed pictures of a bizarre landscape of carbonatite lava that makes intricate formations that quickly deteriorate and crumble away, once exposed to the air. Why go see this? Well, it’s one of a kind. Conventional volcanoes are a dime a dozen. This rare beast stands apart from them all and would definitely be worth a look.
Another weird place I’d like to see is a little harder to get to. It’s located deep underground in Mexico and is called Cave of the Crystals.
The crystals are made of gypsum and were deposited as the result of chemical action between ground water and water saturated with sulfide ions. Cooked over a long period of time by a magma chamber underneath, these enormous crystals, some nearly forty feet in length, are over 900 feet underground and were discovered by a Mexican mining company. As the temperatures in the cavern average a toasty 130 degrees Fahrenheit with over 90 percent humidity not surprisingly it remains largely unexplored. With my hot flashes this is definitely a deal breaker in terms of paying a visit, but still fascinating to think about all the same.
A little more tolerable is a place located in southern Libya. I happened to spot it on Google Earth when doing some arm chair exploring. A strange anomalous dark spot in the middle of an orange desert caught my eye and zooming in on it I discovered, much to my astonishment, a volcanic caldera. It is known by the charming name of Waw an Naumus which in English translates as the Oasis of the mosquitoes.
While it may look strangely anomalous, in fact it is part of the Haruj, a large field of ancient volcanoes that erupted periodically over the eons leaving a generous sprinkling of calderas and lava flows.
Though the caldera of Waw an Naumus looks very fresh, it is not known to have erupted in recorded history and is considered extinct. It has certainly been quiet long enough for water to collect in small lakes and vegetation grow undisturbed along their banks. It has been a stop for caravans going through the desert and its voracious mosquito population (however did they get there?) earned it its distinctive name. If Libya ever stabilizes, it certainly would be an interesting place to visit as long as you bring along a generous supply of insect repellant.
If ever there was a place with an ‘Earth monkeys keep out’ sign, it’s this distant little globe. Scientists have been salivating over this moon and what may lie under its icy crust, since Voyager and later Galileo sent back pictures. Current evidence suggests there is an enormous liquid ocean possibly as much as 60 miles deep beneath an icy covering ranging from 6 to 19 miles in thickness. Since life here on Earth got its start in the oceans, it’s not difficult to surmise that conditions suitable for life may very well exist in the mammoth depths of Europa’s ocean.
However a number of things stand in the way of scientists (and myself) satisfying their curiosity about this place. One is the sheer distance of Europa from Earth. It’s hard to convey to the average person the enormous scale of outer space as there is nothing in our mundane existence that would give us any meaningful context to grasp it (though Bill Nye gives it a pretty good try).
Conditions on Europa’s surface are not very congenial either. It’s a toss-up over whether you will be frozen or zapped to death. Temperatures are around -260 degrees Fahrenheit, not exactly on the balmy side. Unless you were really well insulated, you would likely freeze solid in seconds and become another chunk of the frigid landscape. Not only that, the radiation emitted by Jupiter is a lethal 540 rem per day (100 rem is usually fatal for most humans).
Europa may be an interesting place to visit but you wouldn’t really want to live there. Robot proxies are the only way we will get to see the surface of Europa. There’s an argument currently going on as to whether the crust is thin or thick. I don’t think it really matters. Given that ice at these low temperatures is as hard as iron, the proposal to try to drill into Europa to see what’s underneath is very likely undoable as well as prohibitively expensive.
However we humans are an incurably nosy lot, so I suppose eventually a multi-billion dollar lander may make its way to the surface of Europa to send back breath-taking vistas of this strange place. Sadly we will have to satisfy ourselves with staring longingly at photos and exercising our under-used imaginations to visualize what lies beneath.