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Monday, 21 December 2009

River Deep, Mountain High

The Gamburtsevs
; the phrase rolls off the tongue. The Gamburtsev Mountains in, or more accurately under, Antarctica are named after an obscure Russian geophysicist. The mountains were discovered in the 1950s and are under kilometres of ice and snow laid down over the past 20 million years.

These mountains have now been mapped in detail to reveal an Alpine landscape of high peaks and deep valleys. It’s conjectured that from the Gamburtsevs the glaciations of Antarctica began all those eons ago. The puzzle is how they were formed, a range larger than the Alps and surrounded by under ice lakes. Imagine, if you were able to peel off the ice sheet you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Val de Zare, with goat herds and bells and all that sort of stuff except…..Anyway, it got me thinking.

If you stripped away the North Sea you’d reveal a landscape rather similar to the ancient East Coast of England. Forests, marshes, rivers meandering and human settlements. This existed before the end of the last Ice Age, when much of the earth’s water was trapped in huge glaciers covering whole countries. At the same time where there is now the Black Sea a large lake existed surrounded by plains supporting, it’s reckoned 100,000 people. When a massive lake in Northern Canada undermined the huge ice cap trillions of cubic metres of water rushed across the Atlantic, into the Mediterranean. The waters breached the land bar across the Bosphorus submerging the land beneath the waves and the Black Sea as we know it was born.

850 to 630 million years ago the Earth was gripped by its most severe Ice Age “Snow Ball Earth”, when glaciations extended as far as the equator. At that time the average temperature would have been -50C, pretty inhospitable to life, but it appears to have clung on. When the ice began to melt some believe this triggered one of the greatest periods of evolutionary diversity in the earth’s history.

Cold it might have been. But sweltering when compared with the outer reaches of our solar system. And yet, many hold out a realistic hope that on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, under the ice, an ocean exists which may harbour life.

It's a long way from that to the much hyped but poorly received TV series “Defying Gravity”. Initially, each 40 minute episode was shown on Monday evening, but as the audience numbers plummeted, this inappropriately titled show was bounced around the schedules. It now lingers on, in the dark reaches of the late night schedules, slowly fading as its audience dwindles. It as if the stars are going out on “Defying Gravity” as one by one its audience switches off their TVs.

It’s pretty fine rubbish, and I love it. A deep space mission visiting the planets and carrying an alien life form. In the 1950’s, during America’s collective paranoia the only alien was a mad, bad, ugly sort – or else so advanced that the earth was in awe of it. We live in softer times, alien speaking. "ET", "Close Encounters", smiling, sparkling little creatures infused with love and wisdom. The alien in “Defying Gravity” doesn’t do much, other than glow a Lucozade orange and reduce the ship’s crew to gawping idiots. But something must happen in the remaining episodes. Except the series did so badly in the States that it was pulled after one season. So maybe I won’t find out what it all means.

But the real adventure, the real science and the astounding stories are happening all around us. In the cold of Antarctica, in the deeps of our oceans and the skies above us. It all makes the petty horse trading and point scoring at Copenhagen recently seem rather pointless. But then that’s what we’re like we humans and we’ve been shaped by the same forces that have moved through the enormity of space and time – to this small point of blue and white moving round a yellow star.

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