“The men, now known as the Freshwater Five, were not typical multimillion-pound drug smugglers. They had no previous convictions relating to drugs or dishonesty, no forensic evidence linked them to the cocaine, and a Proceeds of Crime Act inquiry assessed their gains from criminality at zero.”
Related underwater reading: Gene and Sandy Ralston use specialized sonar on their boat to locate bodies under water.
As Matthew Braga reports at The Verge, we’re flithy rich with land maps, ones that show us “how the planet has changed, and how we’ve changed the planet,” over time, but that’s not the case where land is covered by water. The treasure trove of information to be gleaned from mapping the world’s oceans could help scientists understand climate change. Enter BEN, an automated map-making boat Braga met while it plotted Lake Huron. According to Braga, “we’ve mapped just 9 percent of the world’s oceans to modern standards,” which is “why BEN and vehicles like it hold so much promise.” (Note, the fantastic illustrations in this piece were done by the incomparable Zoë van Dijk. Check out some of her illustrations for Longreads.)
It was just past midnight when the Ironton punched a 200-square-foot hole in the side of the Ohio. It was dark, the waters were rough, and the Ohio, a wooden bulk freighter loaded with flour and feed, was no match for the Ironton, a schooner heavy with coal. The Ohio sank within half an hour, and the Ironton soon followed, taking five of its crew down too.
Their ghostly hulls have sat largely undisturbed at the bottom of Lake Huron since colliding in late September 1894 — just two of the many wrecks that lie in a treacherous stretch of water called Thunder Bay off Michigan’s northeastern coast. Some are so well preserved by the lake’s frigid freshwater that their unbroken masts point definitely towards the surface, rigging still intact. Others have dishes in the cupboards, a century late for dinner. A few years ago, local media reported that divers found a 1927 Chevrolet Coupe amid the wreckage of a steamship, covered with algae and barnacles, but nonetheless pristine. You can thank the rocky shoals, frequent fog, and sudden gales of Thunder Bay for turning what was once the bustling marine interstate of America’s early industrial age into a modern-day museum of Great Lakes maritime history. Locals called it “Shipwreck Alley.”
Divers flock from all over the world to see the wrecks for themselves each year — and last spring, they were joined by an unusual interloper: an autonomous boat named BEN. BEN is a self-driving boat that’s been tasked with making maps, and it was brought to Thunder Bay to help lay bare the long-lost secrets of the lakebed.
Sixty-six million years ago, an asteroid impact seems to have nearly eliminated 99.9 percent of life on Earth, but scientists still have questions about the conditions leading up to this mass extinction. A dark layer of ash and debris known as the KT boundary marks the dividing line: above it is the Tertiary Period, below it is the Cretaceous period, or the time of dinosaurs. Until 2013, scientists had found very few dinosaur remains in the nine feet of material immediately below the boundary, and there was no agreement about the dinosaurs’ decline leading up to the asteroid impact. Then a paleontology student named Robert DePalma made a monumental discovery in North Dakota.
For The New Yorker, Douglas Preston tells DePalma’s and the asteroid’s story, as he spends time with him at the secretive site of what might be the greatest scientific discovery of the century. As DePalma is not yet a known entity and his discovery is just coming to light, some people in the scientific community find him unreliable and doubt his interpretation of the fossil evidence.
The following day, DePalma noticed a small disturbance preserved in the sediment. About three inches in diameter, it appeared to be a crater formed by an object that had fallen from the sky and plunked down in mud. Similar formations, caused by hailstones hitting a muddy surface, had been found before in the fossil record. As DePalma shaved back the layers to make a cross-section of the crater, he found the thing itself—not a hailstone but a small white sphere—at the bottom of the crater. It was a tektite, about three millimetres in diameter—the fallout from an ancient asteroid impact. As he continued excavating, he found another crater with a tektite at the bottom, and another, and another. Glass turns to clay over millions of years, and these tektites were now clay, but some still had glassy cores. The microtektites he had found earlier might have been carried there by water, but these had been trapped where they fell—on what, DePalma believed, must have been the very day of the disaster.
“When I saw that, I knew this wasn’t just any flood deposit,” DePalma said. “We weren’t just near the KT boundary—this whole site is the KT boundary!” From surveying and mapping the layers, DePalma hypothesized that a massive inland surge of water flooded a river valley and filled the low-lying area where we now stood, perhaps as a result of the KT-impact tsunami, which had roared across the proto-Gulf and up the Western Interior Seaway. As the water slowed and became slack, it deposited everything that had been caught up in its travels—the heaviest material first, up to whatever was floating on the surface. All of it was quickly entombed and preserved in the muck: dying and dead creatures, both marine and freshwater; plants, seeds, tree trunks, roots, cones, pine needles, flowers, and pollen; shells, bones, teeth, and eggs; tektites, shocked minerals, tiny diamonds, iridium-laden dust, ash, charcoal, and amber-smeared wood. As the sediments settled, blobs of glass rained into the mud, the largest first, then finer and finer bits, until grains sifted down like snow.
The space race killed the sparrow.
Of course, there were other factors.
There was the decision in ’46 by the Brevard Mosquito Control District to slather the Merritt Island salt marshes in DDT dropped aerially from a No. 2 diesel–fuel carrier.
Then, because the mosquitoes grew resistant to DDT, there was the application of BHC and Dieldrin and Malathion.
Katy Kelleher | Longreads | March 2019 | 16 minutes (4,107 words)
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“There was once upon a time a very old woman, who lived with her flock of geese in a waste place among the mountains, and there had a little house,” begins The Goose Girl at the Well. Published by the Brothers Grimm, this strange little story describes a princess who comes to live with a poor crone in that wretched waste place after she fails her father’s Lear-like test to profess her love and devotion. The girl is lovely, as befits a fairy-tale princess — “white as snow, as rosy as apple-blossom, and her hair as radiant as sun-beams” — but there is one detail that always snags in my mind: “When she cried, not tears fell from her eyes, but pearls and jewels only.”
The rest of the story is a bit boring, I’m sorry to say. The girl returns home, the king learns his folly, and the old woman disappears into thin air, taking only the precious stones that fell from the girl’s magical tear ducts. But it ends on a funny note:
This much is certain, that the old woman was no witch, as people thought, but a wise woman who meant well. Very likely it was she who, at the princess’s birth, gave her the gift of weeping pearls instead of tears. That does not happen now-a-days, or else the poor would soon become rich.
I wish Grimm’s narrator had lived to see our world, one where pearls are so inexpensive that almost anyone can own a pearl necklace or a set of earrings. These gemstones are no longer precious, and they come neither from red-rimmed eyes nor from secret caverns in the ocean, but from underwater baskets strung together on sprawling sea-farms. Pearls were once mystical objects, believed by some to be the tears of Eve, by others to be the tears of Aphrodite. There are stories of pearls falling out of women’s mouths when they utter sweet words, and pearls appearing from the spray of sea foam as a goddess is born. Now we know better: pearls are made from some of the basic and common building blocks of nature — calcium, carbon, oxygen, arranged into calcium carbonate particles, bund together by organic proteins. They are created out of animal pain, which has been sublimated into something iridescent and smooth, layered and lovely. Born of irritation, these gemstones can be mass-produced and purchased with the click of a button. These gems, like so many things, have lost some of their luster thanks to the everyday degradation of value that comes with globalization and 24/7 access to consumer goods. Thanks to Amazon, you no longer need to plumb the depths of a river or visit a jeweler to purchase a set of freshwater pearl drops. With one-click ordering, you can have a pair of dangling ivory orbs delivered to your house within days — in some places, hours..
And yet: imagine opening an oyster and seeing that slimy amorphous lump of muscle, and nestled among it, a single pearl. The fact that such iridescent, shape-shifting beauty can come from a mucus-y mollusk remains something of a miracle, primal evidence that the world orients itself toward beauty. Or so I want to believe.
Highway BR-262 cuts through Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest freshwater wetland. After studying the road for two decades, biologist Wagner Fischer can say with certainty that it’s one of the world’s deadliest roads for wildlife. “Ecologists are very worried,” Fischer said. “The authorities pretend to be worried.”
Living next to North Carolina Naval Base Camp Lejeune, Lori Lou Freshwater grew up drinking and bathing in water contaminated at levels 240 to 3400 times the safety standard. Now a Superfund site and a candidate for “the worst water contamination case in U.S. history,” the area’s carcinogens caused her mother to lose two sons, one born with an open spine, the other with no cranium, and to develop two kinds of leukemia. As a stopover base for military personnel, up to a million others could be affected.
Living next to North Carolina Naval Base Camp Lejeune, Lori Lou Freshwater grew up drinking and bathing in water contaminated at levels 240 to 3400 times the safety standard. A candidate for “the worst water contamination case in U.S. history,” the area’s carcinogens caused her mother to lose two sons, one born with an open spine, the other with no cranium, and to develop two kinds of leukemia. The toxic dumping lasted from the ’50s through the ’80s, and as a stopover base for military personnel, up to a million others could be affected. With her harrowingly ironic last name, Freshwater returns to her hometown for Pacific Standard to report on the Superfund-status location’s history of negligence and pollution.
Camp Lejeune has been characterized as a candidate for the worst water contamination case in U.S. history—and I am one of up to a million people who were poisoned. The tragedy, though, is hardly all in the past.
In other areas on the base, waste was generated and discarded into empty lots, forests, roads, waterways, and makeshift dumps. That toxic waste was then taken by the Carolina rains and summer thunderstorms down toward sea level, into water wells, and into the barracks, houses, trailers, offices, and schools—and finally into the bodies of thousands of Marines and their families: into our cells, into our bones.
The EPA has established a maximum contaminant level goal of zero parts per billionfor benzene in public drinking water systems. In 1980, Naval Facilities Engineering Command testing showed that one of the wells at Camp Lejeune measured 380 parts per billion.
Through this work, I’ve learned more about the military’s cover-up of the water contamination, and how the culture that says “Stay Marine” also ensures that some problems remain entombed in secrecy.
“Tank’s empty,” said the attendant at the island’s only gas station, who I found dozing in a hammock strung up between the pumps. It wasn’t a problem, he assured me — any cargo ship leaving San Andres for Providence knew to bring gas. One would be arriving the following day — probably. I used the little fuel I had left to scooter back to Town for something to eat. I found nothing open bar a white-tiled, fluorescent-lit box opposite the mayor’s office, where I bought a hot dog bursting with salty, molten fat and topped with broken crisps. There were a few more options for the handful of Colombian tourists staying in the chalets at Freshwater Bay, but they weren’t cheap.
The following morning I headed to what looked to be the most popular of the three little supermarkets in Town for a look around. The wooden shelves were laden with tins of spaghetti and meatballs from Ohio, pork and beans from Medellin, tomatoes from Nebraska, and Spam from Brazil. In the vegetable aisle were some pitifully shriveled onions, garlic, and red peppers, which had been flown in from Costa Rica, and some Chilean apples. The only things that hadn’t been imported were the shelves, which had been coated in thick layers of gloss paint to keep the termites at bay. Read more…