I’m Going Down, Down, Down

This morning, Jaquandor points us toward a fascinating graphic illustrating the contrast between the highest and lowest points of our globe — and where British Petroleum’s busted oil well lies in relation to those extremes.

As you scroll downward, you’ll see lots of fascinating trivia, such as the fact that Mount Everest and its companion peak K2 stand well above those wispy, feathery cirrus clouds you see on dry summer afternoons… that Tibet is higher than the puffy cumulus clouds that roll across the sky like bolls of cotton, and that the Saturn V rocket that sent men to the Moon is about the same height as the Statue of Liberty. But notice in particular Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America at a height of 20,320 feet, and the city of Denver at an elevation of 5,280 feet. Keep those figures in mind as we plunge below the waves and follow the “riser,” the pipe that connected the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig to the well on the ocean floor before the accident.

The riser quickly descends past the limits of human divers (the “atmospheric diving suit,” or ADS, is essentially a wearable submarine that lets a person descend safely to about 2,000 feet). At 3,000 feet, there is no longer any sunlight penetrating from the surface, but the riser keeps going down. It passes the level of the deepest-diving combat submarines, which is roughly 3,500 feet, and keeps going… down to the failed blowout preventer at 5,000 feet below the surface. The leaking wellhead is as far down as the city of Denver is high. The pressure at those depths is 150 times greater than the atmosphere at sea level. Not that I feel the slightest amount of sympathy for BP — I am heartsick and outraged by what we stupid humans have done to the Gulf of Mexico, and if there’s any justice in the world, BP will go bankrupt cleaning it up — but this graphic provides some invaluable perspective on why they’ve had such a difficult time stopping the leak. Imagine trying to do anything by remote control, in the endless dark and unimaginable pressure. I almost think building a space station is an easier task.

But the amazing thing is that the well itself, the hole drilled by the Deepwater Horizon, goes much, much deeper yet. Deeper than the Grand Canyon, deeper than the range of the deepest-diving whale, deeper than the wreck of RMS Titanic, almost as deep into the crust of the planet as Mount McKinley rises above it. I don’t know about you, but my mind completely boggles at the thought. And there is a part of me — the same part that marvels at the Moon shots and Hoover Dam, the machine-loving part of my DNA — that finds it really unbelievably cool that we silly apes can do something like this, something so gobsmackingly big. If only the risks weren’t so equally gobsmacking, as we’ve now learned…