Exploring the Mariana Trench

Spaghetti and Elephants – Measurements Explained

SOI/ Linda Tatreau
Nov. 20 2014
Imagining the depths of the Mariana Trench is difficult, no matter what measument you use.
Imagining the depths of the Mariana Trench is difficult, no matter what measument you use.SOI/ Leighton Rolley

So the sun rises on another day of science. Science itself doesn’t sleep and throughout the night the ship has been slowly mapping over our next deployment site some 9km below us.

This brings me to my first observation of the day. One of our scientists asked me what the depth was below the ship and I said, “9 kilometres.” The follow up question was, “What’s that in meters?” At first I thought that was a silly question– “kilo“means thousand, which would easily convert to 9,000 meters.

Confusing Measurement Systems

However, onboard the Falkor we are truly an international team of scientists and crew, with some 20 nationalities represented. It is easy to forget not all the world uses metric or imperial (standard). Chuckling to myself, I radioed one of the officers to ask how far we were from the next deployment site and they responded, “5 cables.” I have no idea what a cable is in either metric or imperial (standard) and I’m too embarrassed to ask.

Despite measurement differences, the crew and scientists work together to collect important samples.
Despite measurement differences, the crew and scientists work together to collect important samples.SOI/ Linda Tatreau

This communication has a serious side; working as part of an international team can be an interesting experience in how different nations and people think about things – distance being one of them. If I said that the Mariana Trench was 10,994 meters deep, people from nations using the imperial measurement system may struggle to visualize that depth. However, if I said it was 36,070 feet., the height an average commercial airliner flies, then it would be easier for them to visualize.

 

 

Ok, Spaghetti

I decided to put this problem to the scientists to devise a method of bridging the metric, imperial, and pirate nautical language divide and standardize the unit of measurement we use to quantify distance. Within their group they selected spaghetti as the unit of measurement, something everyone is familiar with that has an average length of 25 centimeters (10 inches). So the new fact of the day is that the Mariana Trench is some 42,976 spaghetti lengths deep.

Scientists on board work with fish samples from the deep. At least there are rulers to standardize the measurements taken.
Scientists on board work with fish samples from the deep. At least there are rulers to standardize the measurements taken.SOI/ Linda Tatreau

Explaining the challenge of working in the ocean’s deepest point has always been a struggle. Naturally, it is hard to think about large numbers. Whatever measurement system we use it all points to one thing…..the Mariana trench is deep, very deep. It takes around three hours for our equipment traveling at two spaghetti lengths a second, or 120 spaghetti lengths a minute, to reach the seabed.

Once we solved the distance measurements, next came pressure measurements – how do we explain the harsh environment that our equipment must not only survive but also function and conduct experiments in.

Now Elephants

Not an elephant, but a booby finds its way onto Falkor during the expedition.
Not an elephant, but a booby finds its way onto Falkor during the expedition.SOI/ Paul Yancey

Pressure at the bottom of the Mariana Trench is 1,086 bars or 15,750 pounds per square inch. Once again we ran into the metric/imperial conundrum and the general perception of such large values. We could explain it as over 1,000 times the atmospheric pressure at the surface, but does anyone truly understand what that means? Certainly no one alive has experienced this!

We needed a unit that made sense – that’s where elephants can help. In the deepest ocean the pressure is equivalent to having a couple of elephants standing on your big toe. That is a lot of force, but easy to imagine.

So there you have it – The Mariana Trench explained in spaghetti and elephants.

***
One of the scientists onboard has just come into the control room and told me the temperature has “hit 100 on deck,” which is truly scary if you don’t want to boil alive or burst into flames, unless you are using Fahrenheit not Celsius…..I better go and check.


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