Chris Fitch explores some of the world’s most mysterious spaces in this extract from his latest book
In 1691, a young geophysicist with shoulder-length hair made a presentation to the Royal Society of London that was, even by the standards of 17th-century breakthroughs, fairly astounding. The scientific community had been flummoxed by the unpredictability of Earth’s magnetic field, by the way the planet’s poles consistently shift over time. To Edmond Halley – he of the famous comet – the solution to this conundrum was simple: inside the planet must be a series of concentric inner worlds, each separated by gravity. The ground on which we stand is therefore simply the 500-mile-thick outermost layer and it’s the movement of these internal worlds that keeps throwing off the magnetic readings. Furthermore, he predicted that these worlds are inhabited by life forms and lit by an unknown subterranean light that also explains the existence of the aurora borealis, the Northern Lights.
Halley wasn’t simply plucking these theories from thin air. Instead, he leant heavily on millennia of speculation about what lay beneath our feet. From ancient mythology through religious notions of a punishing afterlife, humanity has repeatedly theorised about fantastical underworlds, often as a counterweight to the glorious heavens above. But the credentials of a great man of science such as Halley gave the theory of underground worlds real empirical weight. Halley was so committed to this theory that in his final portrait – in 1736, aged 80 – he’s shown clutching a parchment that clearly depicts a diagram of these inner layers.
Sadly for Halley, the scientific community had little time for what has since become known as the ‘hollow Earth’ hypothesis. Subsequent experimentation established there to be significant density to the planet’s interior, as illustrated by measurements of seismic waves passing through the upper and lower mantles that are now widely accepted to exist beneath the continental crust upon which we walk. A series of layers, yes, but ones comprised of liquid magma and a solid-iron inner core, instead of prehistoric animals inhabiting their own mini-worlds.
And yet. No human has ever set eyes upon the core, or seen beyond the merest glimpse of a mantle. The deepest hole in the world – the Kola Superdeep Borehole in Russia – has penetrated only 12 kilometres into the ground, a fraction of the roughly 6,350-kilometre radius of the Earth. So it’s hardly surprising that vivid imaginations have continued to dream up their own realities, spawning endless theories and tall tales about deep and mysterious subterranean worlds. Many a fiction writer has found their imagination stirred creatively by the prospect of new worlds below our own.
With a surface world that has been explored, surveyed, measured, mapped, photographed and Instagrammed to the point of sterility, perhaps the subterranean realm is where Earth’s remaining mysteries – natural and anthropogenic – are yet to be found. It’s certainly worth acknowledging the limitations of the horizontal plane in which most of our lives take place. We do in fact live in a world of (at least) three dimensions and while our instinct is often to look up, sometimes the best stories can be found by looking down. If you were to peel back the Earth’s surface like the skin of an orange and then take a sly peek underneath, what remarkable things would you see?
The ancient Mayan civilisation lasted for at least 3,000 years. The Mayans built more than 40 large-scale cities across Mesoamerica – encompassing much of modern Mexico, Guatemala and Belize – and had a peak population of about two million people.
They used sophisticated agricultural methods such as irrigation, invented advanced architectural techniques and successfully manufactured resources such as chocolate, rubber and paper. Yet much of their environment was arid and harsh. The survival of Mayan society, relatively developed as it may have been, hinged on a vast underground world of water, accessible through thousands of gaping holes in the ground.
These cenotes, as they are called, can still be seen today, primarily on the Yucatán peninsula of southeast Mexico. Two such holes are located next to perhaps Mexico’s most famous ancient Mayan landmark, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Chichén Itzá. The name itself tells a rich story about the cenotes, bringing together chi (meaning ‘mouth’), chen (‘wells’) and Itzá, the name of the specific tribe that settled there. ‘Wells’ gives a clear indication of why cenotes were so vital to the people living here, as these natural wells were their sole source of drinking water. Without cenotes, Mayan civilisation would likely have ground to a halt before ever getting started.
But these holes in the ground, pits across a pockmarked surface, also had a more sinister use. Traditionally, they were where the Maya made sacrifices to the god of rain, Chac (also sometimes spelt Chaac or Chaahk) – often depicted in statues with large fangs and sometimes a snout. Precious offerings would be thrown into the cenotes in the hope he would respond by bringing the vital seasonal rains necessary to make crops grow. These gifts included everything from jade and gold to incense
These gifts included everything from jade and gold to incense and even, disturbingly, small children
and even, disturbingly, small children. It’s from these offerings that the ‘mouth’ part of the name arises.
We now know that cenotes are essentially a specific, isolated form of sinkhole, formed when the limestone surface level collapsed, exposing a vast cavity underneath. However, a deeper theory explaining their creation takes us back to the end of the age of dinosaurs. In northern Yucatán, the town of Chicxulub sits right where an estimated 15-kilometre-wide asteroid smashed into the planet 66 million years ago, causing a super-tsunami that swept the globe. Up to 80 per cent of life on Earth was wiped out. Once the clouds of sulphate aerosols had eventually cleared, a huge crater was revealed, up to 180 kilometres in diameter. Half of it is buried offshore under 600 metres of sediment, but the other half, now on land, was later covered by a layer of limestone. It’s that layer that has been eaten away over time, creating the cenotes we know today.
More recent discoveries in the cenotes have been of the modern variety, principally rubbish and human waste. Yucatán’s Secretariat of Sustainable Development has estimated that 60 per cent of the state’s 2,241 registered cenotes have problems with pollution. In recent years, teams of local divers have been organised to leap into selectively chosen cenotes and retrieve hundreds of tonnes of waste, including car tyres, glass bottles and old bicycles.
The landscape of Cappadocia in central Turkey has a bewildering quality, where the dividing line between natural and human creation blurs into obscurity.
Here in Central Anatolia, north of the Taurus Mountains, lies seemingly alien scenery. Created through millions of years of volcanic eruptions coating an old lake with layer upon layer of ash, the land eventually cooled into a soft, porous rock hundreds of feet deep known as tuff, itself covered by lava that cooled into a hard topping of basalt. So-called fairy chimneys, pillars of tuff left behind when the land around them eroded away to the point of collapse, now protrude from the landscape like nails jutting haphazardly from an old piece of wood. Some are 40 metres tall; each has its own little mushroom-style basalt hat on top.
Such uniquely remarkable geology is part of why Cappadocia is now part of Göreme National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985. But that’s just the surface view. Below ground, things get far more bizarre. Cappadocia contains an astounding 250 subterranean towns and cities, carved by human hands from the soft tuff terrain that the volcanoes left behind. The largest of these cities is Derinkuyu, supposedly not discovered until 1965, when one above-ground resident knocked down a wall in his home and found an entrance to an immense maze below (Derinkuyu literally translates as ‘deep well’). Once excavated, Derinkuyu was revealed to comprise dense tunnels like ant farms that stretched as deep as 85 metres below the surface – around the height of Big Ben or the Statue of Liberty – and contained more than 18 levels. These included vast storage spaces, schools, churches and even fully equipped underground wineries and breweries fed by water from deep subterranean rivers running below. Living in a region of the world prone to waves of attack from foreign invaders passing between Europe and the Middle East (and vice versa), like a small boat caught in rough waters, the arrival of undesired foes was a regular concern for the residents of Cappadocia. The founders of Derinkuyu and neighbouring cities may have belonged to the Hittite Empire, premodern people who dominated the region between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago. It’s believed they dug out the first, somewhat rustic upper levels as crude defences against aspiring invaders such as the Phrygians. In time, the Hittites faded from history, leaving Cappadocia to be annexed by the Assyrians, the Persians and so on, each civilisation digging deeper than the last. The Byzantines took control of the region in around the sixth century and vastly expanded Derinkuyu’s tunnels, digging ever deeper and creating the smooth, more professionally rectangular lower levels. The Byzantines well and truly dug in their heels to ensure their continued presence in the face of centuries of Arab invasion, devising a series of medieval tricks, traps and barricades to dissuade potential interlopers.
In 2013, construction workers carrying out demolitions in the nearby region of Nevşehir discovered unknown tunnels leading deep underground, where a new subterranean city was uncovered. The mysteries of Cappadocia continue to reveal their secrets.
More than 100 years ago, on a scorching-hot summer day, a 14-yearold boy was walking through the red dust of a seemingly desolate Australian desert when he spotted a sparkling rock among the detritus of the terrain. Willie Hutchison and his father had travelled to the spot by camel while on the hunt for gold – which this rock certainly wasn’t. But its iridescence caught Willie’s attention, nevertheless. It was an astute observation. The young Hutchison had stumbled across an opal, another valuable mineral that would utterly transform this remote corner of central South Australia.
As word of Willie’s discovery spread, aspiring miners rushed to the location, an 850-kilometre journey inland from the coastal state capital, Adelaide.
Within five years, the influx had resulted in the founding of a functioning settlement named Coober Pedy (a corruption of the local Aboriginal phrase kupa piti – ‘white man’s hole’). The economic downturn of the 1930s came close to killing off the endeavour, but a fresh discovery of gems in the mid1940s reignited opal fever.
By the ’60s, Coober Pedy had been recognised as an official town and consequently obtained both a local government council and a memorable reputation: the ‘opal capital of the world’. As much as 70 per cent of the world’s total opal production is mined from the earth here (up to 85 per cent if you include the produce from various smaller neighbouring towns). For this, residents can thank the oceanic waters that flooded this land 150 million years ago. When the sea eventually receded, it left behind residues of hydrated silica hidden in small cracks and fissures in the earth that, over time, hardened into the valuable stones present today.
There’s just one problem with attempting to build a life in the town of Coober Pedy: the extreme temperatures that ravage the region in summer, causing the mercury to surge above
40°C for up to three or four months at a time, even sometimes creeping towards 50°C. At such extremes, heat exhaustion and even heat stroke are not unlikely outcomes. The residents of Coober Pedy came up with an ingenious solution: they headed underground. Not just when mining, but for almost the whole of their lives. Many of the original opal prospectors were Australian veterans of trench-style conflict in France and Turkey during the First World War, so they were experienced in constructing underground bunkers. Thousands of people became subterranean, constructing homes, churches and other necessities in domed caves inside the sandstone rock – often including fake windows to give the illusion of being above ground. An entire town was constructed, visible from the surface as little more than a scattering of holes that resemble giant anthills.
The contemporary burrows of
Coober Pedy, presently home to up to 3,000 people, now include a number of underground hotels, apartments, B&Bs and even underground campsites. Museums, a casino, a pub and a gift shop complete the tourist experience. While the modern luxury of air conditioning has enabled people to withstand the worst of the summer heatwaves more conventionally, allowing the construction of several above-ground structures (as well as the obligatory grassless golf course), at least half the population – many of whom continue the vocation passed down by their forebears, taking to the mines in search of ghostly rainbow opals – maintain a traditional bunker lifestyle, living up to 15 metres below the surface. Nevertheless, life in such a precarious part of the world is never easy. Concerns have been raised in recent years about the prospect of oil and gas mining in the Arckaringa Basin (to the east of the town) which could contaminate the Great Artesian Basin, a vast aquifer, and thereby potentially threaten
Coober Pedy’s water supply. Humanity’s desire to strip the Earth of its natural resources may have been responsible for Coober Pedy’s birth, but it may also be responsible for its demise.
In 1958, Typhoon Kanogawa smashed its way through downtown Tokyo,
Japan. Wind speeds approaching
125 mph unleashed heavy rain that triggered hundreds of landslides and flooded half a million homes. More than 200 people lost their lives in the city, with more than 1,200 people perishing across the entire country.
But this wasn’t a one-off incident. Instead, it was just one chapter in a brutal century of flooding for Tokyo, starting with the heavy rains that inundated the city in 1910, leaving nearly 200,000 homes flooded and hundreds of people missing. In 1917, it happened again – high tides taking the lives of more than 1,000 people – followed by a succession of powerful and destructive typhoons that swept through during the late 1940s. Various protective measures such as tide barriers and water gates were installed after the devastating events of 1958, yet the latter half of the century saw the city continue to be tormented by seasonal downpours that had nowhere to flow except into the streets and people’s homes, including one major typhoon in 1966 and another in 1979, when Japan was battered by Typhoon Tip, possibly the strongest storm ever recorded.
By the end of the 1980s, a decade in which Tokyo had again been subjected to a series of almost annual flooding events – in part due to an ever-growing population living in an urban environment that was spreading outwards, paving over the surrounding marshlands and rice paddy fields – Japanese authorities decided to take significant action. A plan was hatched, fully commissioned in 1992, to begin construction of what was dubbed the ‘world’s largest drain’ – a long-term infrastructure project that would be capable of managing any future flooding events that threatened the safety and prosperity of the city’s tens of millions of residents.
When it was finally completed, in the late 2000s, the final product – the Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel, fondly nicknamed the ‘G-Cans’ project – was something truly colossal. Buried beneath the city streets lies the world’s largest floodwaterdiversion facility, a pressurised system capable of redirecting excess water with ease. The cavernous interior of the main water tank, 22 metres below ground, is intimidatingly vast. Fiftynine pillars, which appear even larger than their 18-metre height, separate the floor from the ceiling, leaving anyone walking around the base resembling ants milling around the hull of an empty ship. At 177 metres long and 78 metres across, the facility stretches almost out of sight. With majestic infrastructure on such an enormous scale, it’s no wonder the facility has been compared to a coliseum, or even a cathedral.
Five huge cisterns – each big enough to accommodate a space shuttle – have the pumping power necessary to remove an Olympic swimming pool of water from the storage facility in a matter of seconds. Firing the water through a tunnel network that’s more than six kilometres in length, they ultimately dump the unwanted floodwater into the large Edo River, which then carries it to the ocean.
At present, such a process is required to take place an average of seven times per year. But the future is somewhat more uncertain. As the city grows, the rains increase and the seas rise, many people in Tokyo are vocally worrying about whether their underground pumping system is large enough to cope with the impact of a more unpredictable climate. The livelihoods of millions and the lives of thousands, are at stake. Authorities are now being forced to confront the uncomfortable possibility that even this enormous facility might not be sufficient to contend with future flooding events. Tokyo’s 21st century might yet be as tumultuous as its last.
‘End of the world!’ shouted tabloid headlines. It was September 2008 and journalists had just uncovered a decadelong plot by scientists in Switzerland to build a super-powerful machine capable of undertaking what was quickly dubbed the ‘Big Bang experiment’. This experiment, they explained, would involve accelerating subatomic particles to close to the speed of light and then smashing them into each other in the hope of simulating the conditions that were present immediately after the creation of the universe.
In the worst-case scenario, these prophets of doom assured their readers, we would witness the formation of small black holes that would quickly expand to consume the Earth and everyone on it. Legal action was even taken to try to prevent the machine being switched on, so great was the hysteria. The reality was somewhat less apocalyptic, although just as newsworthy. What had actually happened was that the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, the Geneva-based European atomic physics laboratory more commonly known as CERN, had spent years upgrading its Large Electron-Positron Collider (LEP). The LEP, a gigantic machine commissioned back in May 1981, was constructed for the purpose of intentionally colliding electrons with their antimatter counterparts, positrons, to further the study of bosons – subatomic particles that carry the forces that determine how atoms interact with each other. This required the construction of a 27-kilometre circular tunnel below Geneva. It took three tunnel-boring machines three years to excavate the area, making it Europe’s largest civil engineering project at the time. The tunnel was finally completed in February 1988; the LEP became active the following summer.
The new, ambitious upgrade – installing the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator within the existing infrastructure of the LEP’s tunnel – began as far back as 1984. It promised a leap forward in research, but concerns were raised about whether such a machine was really necessary, especially given the USA’s interest in building its own Superconducting
Super Collider in an 87-kilometre tunnel – longer than the entire Panama Canal – in Waxahachie, Texas. Despite objections, proposals for the European project were pushed ahead, a decision that was justified in 1993 when the US government voted to cancel its project due to rising costs just two years after construction had begun.
A year later, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was officially approved for construction. The goal: to create a machine capable of smashing together high-energy beams of protons travelling at close to the speed of light in order to unlock some of the mysteries about the nature of quarks and other particles emitted during the mini ‘fireball’ that momentarily ignites in the aftermath of collisions at such immense speeds. When the LHC power switch was finally flicked on, things didn’t go entirely to plan. The world didn’t end, but the initial experiments certainly did, when a fault caused cooling fluid to leak into the tunnel. Thirty-seven magnets needed to be replaced before the LHC was eventually up and running properly. But the scientists’ perseverance was rewarded a few years later, when the fabled Higgs boson was successfully identified in
July 2012. The existence of the so-called ‘God particle’ had first been predicted by British physicist Peter Higgs nearly half a century earlier and the year after its discovery, he and Francois Englert of Belgium, who had also predicted its existence, were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.
The LHC’s tunnel sits 100 metres beneath the French–Swiss border, with the mundane car parks and office blocks visible on the outskirts of Geneva giving little clue to the bizarre experimentation taking place below ground. Yet even this contraption is something of a minnow compared to plans released by CERN for a new particle accelerator. If constructed, the ‘Future Circular Collider’ will be six times as powerful as the LHC and housed in a new tunnel 100 kilometres or more long. The subterranean world beneath Geneva may just be beginning its scientific adventure.
It took three tunnel-boring machines three years to excavate the area
Chris Fitch is a journalist, geographer and former staff writer at
His latest book,
is out now
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Suytun, one of the many cenotes on the Yucatán peninsula
Cappadocia is home to numerous ‘fairy chimneys’, the product of millions of years of volcanic eruptions and erosion
The mighty floodwater discharge facilities beneath Tokyo have been compared to a cathedral
The tunnel containing the Large Hadron Collider is as devoid of atmosphere as the moon and cooled to almost absolute zero