Returning To Civilisation

All good things must come to an end, and for me, my desert adventure is sadly over, and my flight will be departing in a few hours.  It’s been a brilliant experience, and very surreal in places, but it’s been fantastic overall.  So, I think this final desert based post ought to be dedicated to the things I shall and shan’t miss about living here.  So, without further ado, let’s take a look!

Things that I’ll miss about living in the desert:

1.  The scenery  

Yes of course this had to feature.  Admittedly it’s not quite as verdant as the Surrey Hills, but there’s nothing like waking up each morning, looking out of the window at a massive volcano, blue skies, and sand everywhere.  Very different, but beautiful too.

2.  The sense of adventure  

I mean, my office is literally a desert (at least when I’m not writing up rock analyses on Excel).  What do I do at work?  I go out and collect samples.  I work outdoors, and what could be more exciting than exploring?  Life is all about exploring, whether it’s who you are as a person, or the world, or ideally both.  I admit that living in pretty inhospitable conditions might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for me personally, working in such a place as the Atacama Desert is a brilliant adventure.  Also, it’s quite a “manly” job I guess (an attribute that those of you who know me personally know I most certainly lack), and people have said I must therefore be “very macho”, and “like Indiana Jones” (although Indiana Jones didn’t benefit from a Toyota Hilux carrying him around everywhere).

3.  The ease of the commute

Everyone hates having to travel to work, but for me, all I have to do is get out of bed, and I’m there.  Couldn’t be easier!

4.  The unpredictability

For most people, going to work is pretty similar day in, day out. Something along the lines of: Get up, travel to office, work, return home, eat and sleep.  Repeat Monday to Friday.  After my experience in the desert, one thing I must admit is that you can never tell what’ll happen next.  While I’ve been here, my bedroom/office has been hit by an earthquake in the middle of the night, and I got snowed in for two days when a random snowstorm decided to make an appearance.

5.  The dark skies

Coming from the UK (and near London to boot), the difference between the night sky there and here in the Atacama is astonishing. There is no light pollution at night (aside from a couple of lights in the camp, but you can go behind the containers to eliminate their light). No town exists within 100 miles, and the high altitude, and cold temperatures only add to the clarity of the skies.  It really is stunning.

So that’s the list of five things I’ll miss about the Atacama, but what about the things that I won’t be missing?  Well, here we go!

Things that I’ll not miss about living in the desert:

1.  The lack of constant running water

We all take access to running water for granted, but up here in the desert, it’s not so constant.  Only available during the day, at night you’re on your own.  Not got a bottle of water to hand, but need to clean your teeth/shave/wash your hands/flush the loo?  Tough luck sonny, you’ll have to wait until morning.

2.  The lack of any humidity whatsoever

While out in both the Far East, and the United States, I knew what high temperatures and humidity meant, namely hot, sticky, sweaty, clammy yuckness!  As a result, I’m not a fan of high humidity. However, very low humidity is pretty horrendous too.  Not got a chap stick?  Sucks to be you then!  Without that, you’ll have a rather unpleasant and painful time.  After my first few days, my lips were completely ruined (but luckily with a chap stick I managed to salvage the situation a bit).  I was tempted to take a photo, but it would have meant me having to pull a “duckface” in order to illustrate my point (hahaha, like that was ever going to happen)!

3.  The cold

I’ve probably already mentioned this, but at night it gets extremely cold.  Getting up in the morning is really really difficult, and when you want to take a swig of water, but find your water bottle frozen, it illustrates the point rather nicely.  By looking at my computer’s internal temperature sensors, it appeared that my room was a rather delightful -5°C when I woke up.

4.  The fact that you can’t use the loo properly

Sort of related to the first thing I won’t be missing.  Essentially, when you use the loo, you cannot put loo roll down it (as it apparently buggers the system up).  Instead, the loo roll has to go in an adjacent bin.  And yes readers, that does unfortunately include after you’ve had a dump…

5.  The altitude

To be honest, I won’t really not miss the altitude, as (aside from the first couple of days) it’s been pretty kind to me.  However, the first few days (with the headache, constant dehydration, and very bizarre dreams with interrupted sleep) were not ideal.  The main issue I have with the altitude is that physical work can be pretty tiring.  Seeing that walking up hills carrying rocks probably counts as “physical work”, it can be a little exhausting (although let’s be honest, it’s probably more to do with my general lack of fitness instead).  On the upside, I had no Acute Mountain Sickness, or a Pulmonary/Cerebral Œdema, so I can’t really complain!

Shake Shake Shake

As you are no doubt aware, I’ve not been sleeping too well lately, owing to the altitude.  Last night, I had the best night sleep since I’ve got to the desert, or rather, I would have, had I not been rudely surprised at half past four this morning.  I’d woken at 4 am, just randomly, and was just about to go back to sleep around half an hour later, when it happened.  My bed started to move of its own accord. Evidently, there was only one explanation, namely that there’d been an earthquake.

Obviously as a geologist, I HAD to know more about it, and so, in spite of only having about 4 hours of sleep this point, I went immediately to my USGS earthquake application on my phone to get the details (and decided to ignore the requirement for sleep).

Screenshot of the USGS earthquake Android application.  Data from the USGS

Screenshot of the USGS earthquake Android application. Image data: USGS

After a quick look at Google Earth later on in the morning, it turned out that the epicentre was 48 miles from the camp, which explained why it was easily felt, and was quite deep, showing that it is associated with the subduction of the Nazca Plate under South America.  Anyway, it’s another thing on my to do list that I can tick off.  The past 24 hours seems to have been quite good for getting those sorted, what with the astronomy last night, and now the earthquake this morning!

If you want more information about this earthquake, then there is a lot of information available from the United States Geological Survey website (including fault plane solutions).  The link is here.

Shaken, Not Stirred

Time for some geological news.  On Friday morning, there was quite a large earthquake of the western coast of Kamchatka (in the Sea of Okhotsk), with a magnitude of 8.3. Luckily there have been no reports of damage or injuries.  Anyway, we are all accustomed to hearing about earthquakes with a magnitude of x, but what does this actually mean?  In essence, it can be considered as a measure of the energy released during an earthquake.

Modern earthquakes are not really measured by the Richter scale any more, as there are various issues it has with recording earthquakes with large magnitudes.  Instead, a different scale is used, which is called the moment magnitude scale (which does not have these problems).

The magnitude of the seismic moment is what is often reported in the news, but where does this number come from, and what does it mean? Essentially it is defined by the logarithm of the “seismic moment” (what this is will be explained later), with a few constants thrown in (so it is similar to the Richter scale, as that is what people are used to).  For those of you who are interested, the magnitude (Mw) is defined as being:

Mw

The seismic moment (M0) is defined by the following equation:

M0

“A” represents the area of the fault that slipped in the earthquake, with “d” being the distance it moved.  “μ” is the “rigidity modulus”, which, for an earthquake, describes how the rock changes shape when one of its faces is subjected to a shear force, while the other is subjected to frictional resistance.  You can see this for yourself.  Put your hand on a wooden table, and try to slide it forwards.  You’ll be able to feel your skin resist the movement, and see it change shape slightly (look at the tips of your fingers).  It is this resistance and shape changing that the rigidity modulus describes.

Plugging in the numbers for this particular event, the seismic moment comes out as being around 3 billion trillion Newton metres. (3×10^21 Nm).  Put another way, the amount of energy this represents is enough to provide electricity for the whole of the United Kingdom for the next 250 years (or, enough energy to make about 30,000 trillion cups of tea).  For comparison, the largest earthquake ever recorded on Earth had a magnitude of 9.5, which took place in Chile in 1960, and is equivalent to releasing 15 times as much energy as the magnitude 8.3 earthquake yesterday in Kamchatka.