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The Silent Landscape

Chapter Twelve. Dreams of Big Science
Yokahama, Japan, June 16, 1875, 35o28'N, 139o 38'E to Portsmouth, Great Britain, 50o48'N, 1o 05'W

From Japan, Challenger headed east into the immensity of the North Pacific. The dredging hauls were poor, because the seafloor in that region was rocky and barren. For those on board this leg of the voyage was as dreary as their voyage from the Admiralty Islands to Japan. Many had had their fill of the voyage and none felt this way more keenly than Herbert Swire: “For nearly one mortal month we have been at sea without one sight of land and only once chancing across a ship. I am sick of it...

At 3:00 p.m. on July 27, 1875, Challenger anchored outside the reef at Honolulu before moving on to Hilo and the Big Island. There they prepared to climb the volcano Mauna Loa.

Campbell and Moseley set out at two o'clock in the afternoon of the day they arrived in Hilo but did not arrive at the hotel on the rim of Kilauea until 1:30 in the morning. But the view during the final phases of their ascent was worth it. “Presently a red glow appears among the clouds on our right, increases and then the clouds which before had covered it melt away and Mauna Loa reveals its long, low lying summit from the center of which a great column of lurid light and smoke is flaring…”

The next morning the rest of the party joined them. The hotel was of a surprisingly high quality despite its location right on the edge of an active volcano. The plumbing arrangements, however, perplexed the travelers. A grass hut had been erected some distance from the hotel over a crack in the lava through which steam issued. The steam condensed in the grass and, together with any rain that might have fallen into the grass roof, ran back into the hut, where it was collected and stored in tanks. Over the tanks was a hand pump to pump the warm whiskey-colored water into a bathing tub.

Farther down the hill was an even more dangerous bathing contraption, a sulfur-vapor bath...

...As the sun disappeared behind the rim of the crater they found themselves standing on the edge of a low cliff, watching as the dominant colors shifted from black, gray, and white until a dim crimson glow suffused the drifting clouds of smoke. Beneath them they saw delicate traceries of red and realized that only inches below their feet the molten lava of Hawaii ran in its broken arteries.

They had arrived at a completely different type of volcano than they had encountered in the Ring of Fire, for this was the visible remnant of a 'hotspot'...

Hot Spot

In the 1960s the new priesthood of the plate tectonic revolution had to deal with rather an embarrassing problem. They had explained how new crust is formed at the mid-ocean ridges and also how it is consumed at subduction zones But how could they explain the volcanic activity in the middle of the tectonic plates, far from the regions where crust was created or destroyed? Nowhere is this process more active than in the Hawaiian Archipelago and nowhere is the problem more obvious, because Hawaii is more than 3,200 kilometers from the nearest plate boundary. Where do its conspicuous volcanoes come from...?

...J. Tuzo Wilson reasoned that volcanic islands far from spreading centers or subduction zones could form only if there was a localized region where molten magma from the earth's interior welled up from the center of the earth and heated the underside of tectonic plates forming localized “hot spots”. These hot spots would take the form of volcanoes on the surface. The idea was so radical that when Wilson put it forward it was rejected by all the major scientific journals and was eventually published in the relatively obscure Canadian Journal of Physics.

But Wilson's idea of hot spots elegantly explained the linear path of the Hawaiian Island chain from Kauai in the northwest to Hawaii in the southeast and also presented a testable hypothesis, always a sign of good science. The most northerly of the Hawaiian Islands, Kauai, should be both the oldest and the most heavily eroded, while Hawaii itself should be the youngest and least eroded. Radiometric dating of the rocks, as well as the observed degree of erosion on the islands, agreed with Wilson's hypothesis, so the scientific community had no choice but to accept that he was right.

Further research has shown that the Hawaiian Island chain is but the most recent spoor left by the passage of the Pacific plate over this mid-Pacific hot spot. Examination of Heezen and Tharp's map of the northern Pacific shows clearly a submerged line of extinct volcanoes marching northwestward through Midway and beyond. Strangely though, at a latitude of approximately 32oN and a longitude of 171oW, the line of volcanoes kinks abruptly and heads almost due north in the form of the Emperor Seamount chain. This suggests that the Pacific plate changed direction abruptly about 43 million years ago.

Pacific Exeat

On August 19, 1874, Challenger weighed anchor and left Hilo, heading south for Tahiti and the Society Islands

It was also on this leg of the voyage that tragedy struck the Scientifics. Von Willemoes Suhm, the young man whom Wyville Thomson recruited in Edinburgh by and whose membership in the Scientifics was endorsed by Thomas Henry Huxley, died suddenly of erysipelas, a bacterial infection of the skin. He was only 28. Moseley was devastated.

On November 15, 1875, they said farewell to Juan Fernandez and set sail for Valparaiso, 360 miles distant. That day Captain Thomson issued wine to all hands to commemorate the third anniversary of their commission. They arrived in Valparaiso on December 7th and found it a marked contrast to the beauty of Tahiti.

Challenger left Valparaiso on December 11th, steaming out of the harbor at daybreak, and then pausing to calibrate the compass. She spent the last days of 1875 and the first days of 1876 surveying in the narrow coves and fjords of South America around the peninsula of Tres Montes, then further south in the Messier and Sarmiento channels before steaming down the Strait of Magellan to avoid the notoriously bad weather of the west Patagonian coast. All around them rose the Andes, the southernmost tip of the Ring of Fire that they had first encountered so long ago on the other side of that titanic ocean.

From Montevideo Challenger headed north for Ascension Island, and then the Cape Verde Islands, where they arrived on April 16, 1876. They were following the line of the mid-Atlantic Ridge, first discovered by them four years before, and by mid-May were passing to the west of the Azores homeward bound. They were not far from a place that would, a hundred years later, see spectacular confirmation of Challenger's discovery.

Black Ops and Cold War Rocks

The further exploration of Challenger's first great discovery—the mid-Atlantic Ridge—reached an important milestone when humans eventually visited that dreadful region to see it for themselves during the FAMOUS expedition, but we should remember that there was an additional impetus for that effort. This came from another science program, another dream of “big science,” that also had its origins in the plate tectonic revolution. It was a scientific program that is arguably even more important, if possibly less glamorous, than Project FAMOUS; a scientific program that had the most mysterious of origins in the paranoia of the Cold War, the space race, and the missile gap...

(The drilling vessels GLOMAR Challenger and JOIDES Resolution, HMS Challenger's spiritual and scientific succesors)


The weather after the Azores was poor, “with strong and adverse winds,” as William Spry put it. It was decided that Challenger would put into Vigo (Portugal) to coal and this they did on May 20. They did not linger, because the lure of home was too strong. Early the next day they were again at sea. “The weather was still squally and unpleasant,” wrote Spry, “yet we managed to get round Cape Finisterre; and now with the wind somewhat fairer, a capital run was made across the dreaded Bay of Biscay.” On the evening of the 23rd they saw the light on Cape Ushant and the next morning gazed through welcome haze and fog at the soft green lines of Old England. “Onward we go, sighting the old familiar headland and landmarks—the Eddystone, the Start, the white cliffs at Portland and St. Alban's head—until at last the Needles are in sight…”

They were home.



Richard Corfield 2003 in association with pedalo.co.uk