A new age of discovery

by on January 4, 2016 at 12:51 am in Current Affairs, Science, Travel | Permalink

Caving offers explorers opportunities to test themselves that until recently were not even known to exist. Speleology “has changed massively” in the past two decades, says Andy Eavis, widely considered the world’s foremost caver. The Krubera cave in Georgia, near the Black Sea, down which a Ukrainian team descended in 2004, is twice as deep, at more than 2,000 metres, as the Pierre St Martin cave in the French Pyrenees, which had been reckoned the deepest when Mr Eavis plumbed it in 1971. A new technique of laser scanning can measure such “chambers” far more accurately than before. Mr Eavis still marvels at the great chambers still being found in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. In 1981 he was the first to explore a cave there that is still the largest by area in the world—it could enclose the Hollywood Bowl. Now South China, among other places, is offering new opportunities for cavers. Its Miao Room, penetrated in 1989, is 852 metres long, and the largest by volume.

Access to forest canopies is also being transformed by technology. Towers, balloons, inflatable rafts, light aerial walkways, drones and even giant cranes that have been helicoptered into place allow scientists to see what is going on under once-inaccessible foliage. A new remote-sensing technology known as lidar can illuminate objects high up under the canopy and analyse them through reflected light.

Not as good as jetpacks, but in the meantime it will have to do.  The ocean depths remain mostly unexplored, although a variety of attempts are underway, as discussed in the article.

It is also suggested, contrary to what I had thought, that there are still a variety of undiscovered peoples in the Amazon.

That article is from this week’s Economist.

1 Mark Thorson January 4, 2016 at 12:58 am

If I want to take my life in my hands trying something daring, it won’t be more than a mile underground in a cold dark cave. It’ll be trying a new food, like this guy.

http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2016/01/04/2003636402

I’ll be at home, nice and warm, with Internet.

2 Steve Sailer January 4, 2016 at 3:54 am

Yes, there are definitely more amazing caves known to spelunkers today than when I was briefly interested in the subject 40 or so years ago. In contrast, mountaineering has expanded its bucket list of famous mountains only modestly since the 1970s (although mountains wholly in Red China were inaccessible to Westerners until about 1980, but the biggest ones had been recorded before WWII).

The reasons for the contrast are not mysterious: mountains are easier to see than holes in the ground.

3 mkt42 January 4, 2016 at 3:55 am

A pretty good book about spelunkers vying to find the deepest cave, including Krubera, is _Blind Descent_ by Tabor. You definitely learn something about their personalities and techniques (being willing to scuba dive in excruciatingly dangerous conditions is mandatory). They stay in the caves for so long that it begins to feel like _Journey to the Center of the Earth_, including mixed gender teams.

Two downsides of the book. Tabor keeps breathlessly talking about finding the deepest cave in the world when it is clear from the start that all that anyone can do is find the deepest cave in the world *until now*. Eventually someone will find a deeper cave (unlike Everest, where no one will find a taller mountain).

The other downside is that although this is real and interesting exploration, there’s more than a little Into Thin Air-style thrill-seeking about these spelunkers. Do I really want to learn so much, up close and personal, about these spelunkers and their adrenalin-junkie personality quirks? Not really.

4 Axa January 4, 2016 at 5:37 am

Not all spelunkers are the same, at least these guys bring scientists along while exploring. If you can spare a few bucks, it’s a great photo coffee book + interesting cave facts http://www.laventa.it/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=68&Itemid=68&lang=en

5 So Much For Subtlety January 4, 2016 at 6:12 am

This seems an odd attitude. Usain Bolt is the fastest man in the world today. At least over 100 meters and barring some interesting chemical-related discovery. Are you suggesting he should give it up because one day someone will run faster?

The only way to find the deepest cave in existence is to find the deepest cave known to mankind today.

Maybe no one will remember the man who found the deepest cave before the last one. It is still worth trying to find out. Whoever does discover it will be standing on the shoulders (lying under the feet?) of giants.

Although who was the fastest man in the world before Bolt? Probably the only sprinters anyone remembers are Ben Johnson and Jesse Owens.

6 mkt42 January 4, 2016 at 2:45 pm

I should’ve clarified; I am not criticizing the efforts of the explorers; by all means, people should continue to explore. (And sprinters should continue to sprint.)

What I’m criticizing is Tabor’s claim that these explorers have found the deepest cave in the world, and his implication that that’s the end of the story (I do not recall him ever in his book addressing the likelihood that this is merely a temporary record).

It also remains true that, personality-wise, there are a number of people in the book who (at least if we believe Tabor’s portrayal) are thrill-seeking egoists. I acknowledge Axa’s point that not all spelunkers are the same (indeed even in the book we see a range of personalities), but still I have a limited interest in reading about such people. A better read for me might’ve been a long article about the technology, methods, and experiences involved in finding the deepest caves rather than a full length book.

7 JR January 4, 2016 at 10:39 am

In the caving community, the term “spelunker” is a derogative term for inexperienced and often unprepared casual cavers. An experienced caving enthusiast usually prefers to be referred to as a “caver”.

http://thecaver.blogspot.com/2009/03/caving-vs-spelunking.html?m=1

8 Steve Sailer January 4, 2016 at 4:01 am

I read about a man who doesn’t climb mountains or explore caves, his thing is traveling around the world to plumb the deepest canyons. He loads up a heavy pack of delicious food, descends to the nice warm river at the bottom, goes for a swim, and then eats his big dinner. The next day he lugs his empty pack back up to his rental car.

9 Jeff R. January 4, 2016 at 5:29 am

Bobos gonna Bobo.

10 Axa January 4, 2016 at 5:50 am

Perhaps a good part of spelunkers are banal, but once they explore scientists come. Caves or karst are important for petroleum science:

“Why should petroleum geologists be interested? A) Yates #30A flowed 204,672 BOPD from San Andres Fm. paleokarst (1930) B) Yates Field contains 1556 documented caves,
intersected by 582 wells. Stafford et al. (2008) C) The most productive well in history (Cerro Azul-4) flowed 260,000 BOPD from a paleokarst zone in the Golden Lane trend, Veracruz, Mexico (1916) – Viniegra and Castillo-Tejero (1970)”

http://www.searchanddiscovery.com/pdfz/documents/2010/50252feazel/ndx_feazel.pdf.html

I don’t know any specific example but people exploring the bottom of the ocean should collaborate with scientists too.

11 rayward January 4, 2016 at 7:00 am

I suppose claustrophobia is mental; after all, what is a “confined” space? Certainly not something as large as the Hollywood Bowl. My young friend spent the summer interning in China, and his description of a typical day gave me claustrophobia: most of his time was spent inside, in self-contained structures where he worked, ate, slept, and relaxed, but even when he occasionally went outside, the mass of humanity with whom he shared space was even more “confined” than when he was inside. I’m reminded of that Twilight Zone episode where a man, alone in a room, could hear voices and other sounds beyond the walls of the room. The room, it turned out, was the only place on earth where someone could be alone, earth having become so crowded that people stood shoulder to shoulder. Will those caves and the cavers who explore them be the last places and people on earth not to be “confined”?

12 JWatts January 4, 2016 at 11:51 am

I didn’t think I was claustrophobic until I got into a space where I had to exhale to move forward. During every partial inhale, my chest expanded and trapped me in place. The feeling of not being able to fully breath magnified the claustrophobic feelings. I was young, stupid and following someone much thinner and stupider than myself.

13 rayward January 4, 2016 at 2:29 pm

I don’t like confined spaces, I don’t like heights, and I don’t like large knives. Elevators in high rises have at least two and maybe three of things I don’t like. As for caving, the worst has to be cave diving, popular with thrill seekers in my state (which has lots of submerged caverns down in the aquifer). Crazy people.

14 MattJ January 4, 2016 at 5:20 pm

Many of the largest caverns I’ve ever been in required squeezing though very tight spaces to get to them. Actual exploration of many caves requires taking someone smaller than me to push passage that I, at 6’1″ & 225 lbs, cannot fit into.

Any caver will tell you that they have had to exhale to move past a squeeze, or travel through passage where the ‘ceiling’ is lower than 12 inches, or where the distance between the ceiling and the water level is in the single digits of inches.

Claustrophobia, like any fear, is more often than not relative.

15 dearieme January 4, 2016 at 7:14 am

A few new Lascauxs would be nice.

16 mahmet January 4, 2016 at 8:22 am

Jetpacks exist but the range is still too short to be useful for any significant exploration.

This one gets up to 10 minutes in the air and can go 100 mph and 10,000 feet high:
http://time.com/4108970/worlds-only-jetpack-circles-statue-of-liberty/

17 Gochujang January 4, 2016 at 8:50 am

Autonomous drones will explore at nonhuman scale, from inscectile to deep ocean whale. You’ll see the highlights in VR.

18 ibaien January 4, 2016 at 8:58 am

how many new species of sightless crustaceans actually add to our understanding of the world around us? this is just so much masturbatory adventuring by dilettante adrenaline junkies.

19 anon January 4, 2016 at 10:47 am

One of those sightless crustaceans might hold the compound that cures cancer.

20 Psmith January 4, 2016 at 11:48 am

“this is just so much masturbatory adventuring by dilettante adrenaline junkies.”

You say that like it’s a bad thing.

21 The Original D January 4, 2016 at 2:53 pm

The payoff for basic research is generally unknowable.

Consider how important the horseshoe crab is to public health: http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/how-horseshoe-crab-blood-saves-millions-lives

22 The Original D January 4, 2016 at 2:53 pm

Should’ve said “unknowable in advance.”

23 Keith January 4, 2016 at 1:39 pm

Not mentioned is the exploration of the Mammoth cave system in Kentucky. They keep finding many miles of additional passageways every year. It is the longest cave system in the world and keeps building its lead.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mammoth_Cave_National_Park

24 ohwilleke January 4, 2016 at 3:15 pm

Why do we not have jetpacks?

“Turns out people are huge wimps about crashing.” – http://xkcd.com/1623/

25 P January 5, 2016 at 4:08 am

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