00. Energy in Bouvet Island during 1950 to present
AUG. 4, 2022
Ryan reveals the world's most remote and quite possibly most mysterious islands - Bouvet. Discover how it all began, who lives and visits the island today, and the mysteries of a lifeboat from nowhere, and the nuclear explosion that may never have happened.
Frigid temperatures, oceanic cliffs and deadly isolation characterise the few square miles of uninhabited volcanic basalt under several hundred feet of glacier that is Bouvet Island!
Bouvet Island can be found, if you’re really determined, in the South Atlantic, somewhere midway between the tip of south America and Africa.
Because despite being 13,000km away Bouvet Island is a Norwegian territory, administered by the Polar Department of the Ministry of Justice and Police in Oslo.
With the nearest land being the coast of Antarctica over 1000 miles away, Bouvet Island is the most remote location in the world. In fact, you can to draw a circle on a map with a radius of one thousand miles and not find any other land whatsoever.
Standing on Bouvet means you are closer to Astronauts on the International Space Station than anyone on Earth.
Bouvet measures just 58 Sq Km (19 sq miles) and is a volcanic island rising sharply from the sea with steep cliffs on all sides.
93% of the surface of the island is covered in thick glacial ice several hundred feet deep and the average annual temp on Bouvet is -1 C (31.4 F).
To add to its appeal, the island is almost always entirely shrouded in dense fog all year round, which is part of the reason it is entirely uninhabited, hosting only one research station that is not permanently manned
Bouvet Island is the location for the 2004 movie: Alien vs. Predator which follows a group of archaeologists assembled by a billionaire for an expedition which uncovers an ancient alien pyramid. But, perhaps because of the fog already mentioned, it wasn’t actually filmed there.
500,000 years ago, the island is formed, which is a bit odd because volcano islands tend to form in a chain and there aint nothing like that around, so it was a bit special. For 500,000 years, as far as we know, nothing happened and then in 1739 – a couple of French exploration vessels head out on an exploratory mission in the south Atlantic Under the command of Jean-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier.
Through dense fog, Bouvet spots land, but he doesn’t stop, just writes down the position with a view to coming back later. Unfortunately, he wrote the position down wrong and couldn’t find it again.
So the island effectively disappears for a long while, despite several expeditions trying to locate it, including James Cook’s second voyage in 1772.
In 1808 that is James Lindsay, captain of the whaling ship Swan, stumbled upon it accidentally, rediscovering it. He records the position - correctly this time and leaves.
Then in 1825, George Norris, master of the Sprightly, finds the island as well, even managing to land - the first person to step onto the island. Norris names it Liverpool Island and claims it for the British.
At this time, Norris also spots a second island, which he names Thompson Island, which he charts at about 72 kilometres (45 mi) away. Later expeditions also spot Thompson island, even putting it on maps until as late as 1943 – but since then the island hasn’t been found by anyone else. Just another Bouvet mystery.
In 1926 – Harald Horntvedt, a whaler, set out from Norway on an expedition to chart unknown territories and on 1st December, he too found Bouvet Island.
He landed and plants the Norwegian flag in the name of King Haakon VII, naming the island Bouvetøya. His claim for Norway was contested by the British who had been there first after all. However, after some uncertainty over whether they’d planted the Union Jack on the mysterious Thompson Island instead, Britain decided to bow out gracefully and “gifted” the island to Norway, diplomatically.
In 1929, aerial photos are taken of the island - the first Antarctic expedition to use aircraft.
Later, in 1934, a British naval vessel, the HMS Milford set up an onboard post office issuing Norwegian stamps with ‘BOUVET’ written across them. Cape Town postal services accepted the stamps, but Posten Norge rejected them in the end, so that was a lot of postcards home that didn’t make it.
In total, between 1926-1945, nine expeditions were sent to Bouvet Island, four on a vessel called ‘Norvega’ – and since then, all future expeditions and even the permanent research station based there today has been called ‘Norvega’
In 1964 another mystery emerged! The British naval ship HMS Protector arrived and a helicopter landed with a small survey team for a brief visit. In a small lagoon, they discovered an abandoned lifeboat
“What drama, we wondered, was attached to this strange discovery. There were no markings to identify its origin or nationality. On the rocks a hundred yards away was a forty-four gallon drum and a pair of oars, with pieces of wood and a copper flotation or buoyancy tank opened out flat for some purpose. Thinking castaways might have landed, we made a brief search but found no human remains.”
After a short search, they had to leave as the weather turned bad, and the identity of the lifeboat remained a mystery
In 1971 Norway designated the island and it’s surrounding waters a nature reserve and in 1977 an unstaffed automatic weather station is established, followed a year later by a staffed research station – which only operated for a couple of months while the weather was good, presumably leaving an out of office saying ‘the weather is bad’ the rest of the time.
1996 – the Norwegian Polar Institute sets up a research station on the island using an old shipping container - but a combination of an earthquake, a winter storm and an avalanche tossed the container out to sea. In response, a permanent building is established in 2014.
Named Norvegia the station is located on the northwest corner of the island and is where the Norwegian Polar Institute visits for a couple of months every year to study and monitor seals, penguins, and other sea birds.
As there has been a universe, there’s been energy!
It’s found in many different forms, heat, light, motion, electrical, chemical, mechanical, elastic, magnetic, gravitational. And it all amounts to the same thing: The ability to do work.
Energy exists in everything all around us, because all the bonds between all of the atoms in every molecule that makes up a thing contain energy.
Each atom has a nucleus which is made up of protons and neutrons – and the energy which binds them together is some of the most powerful sources of energy in the universe
Split an atom apart and rip it’s protons and neutrons apart – and you would release all of that energy.
So while there are many types of energy, they can all be used to do work. And energy never goes away, it can never be destroyed and it can never be created – it can only be transferred from one form to another.
So, now we’ve established this podcast is about everything everywhere, we can continue.
Energy on Bouvet island
The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is the longest mountain chain on Earth. It runs underwater along the Atlantic Ocean floor for 10,000 miles (16,000km) from North America to beyond the southern tip of Africa, where Bouvet Island is at the junction of the African, South American, and Antarctic plates.
Beneath the mid-Atlantic ridge is a huge amount of volcanic activity. Magma oozes through cracks in the seafloor and the lava forms a new layer of crust.
Sometimes the volcanic activity reaches the surface and forms deep-ocean islands – just like Bouvet.
Interestingly, unlike the high cone shape normally associated with a volcano, Bouvet Island is different. Bouvet was formed from a series of fluid lava flows which travelled farther horizontally, and which created a steady accumulation of thin sheets of lava, building up a dome-shape which is called a shield volcano.
A number of large eruptions have occurred on Bouvet – with the last one occurring about 2,000 years ago - the crater being visible today as a large circular depression on the western side of the island. Sometime after 1955 a small eruption took place, with lava venting into the sea on the north-westernmost part of the island creating a low-lying lava plateau measuring about 360 metres long by 150 metres wide, but apart from this it is considered largely dormant.
In 1978 a survey was taken on Bouvet Island and the underground temperature at just 30cm was measured to be 25°C (77 °F) which, unfortunately for Bouvet, is about half the temperature required to effectively use geothermal energy.
Bouvet also has wind energy. Scientists that visit Bouvet call it “impressive, beautiful and scary as hell to work with” mostly because the weather is so dangerously variable.
Bouvet lies within a belt of winds that hurtle around the earth from west to east, called the Westerlies.
The winds are so strong that for any scientists working on the surface of Bouvet Island can only be there for a matter of hours before clouds start to descend and freezing winds howl in Storms raging at 50 knots (90 km/h; 57mph), creating 10 metre high waves.
A remote unmanned weather station is based on the island and it uses electricity generated by the power of these winds there to keep its cameras and meteorological sensors continually transmitting data via satellite to provide year-round scientific data
Energy off Bouvet island
Norway has a large oil industry that has been generating most of the state’s revenues since the 1970s making the country one of the world’s wealthiest states. While the Arctic is the principle mining area for Norway, in 2015 the Norwegian government published a strategy for securing access to natural resources in the southern ocean too.
The Southern Ocean as a region contains just 4% of the world’s total discovered oil reserves and only 2.4% of the world’s total gas reserves
So there’s lots of oil and gas there still to be found and the Bouvet territory covers a large area.
Will the Norwegians start to drill in Bouvet? When contacted for comment, Ola Anders Skauby, Director of Communication, public affairs and emergency response at the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate, said:
The Bouvet Island territory was declared a nature reserve in 1971 and is not opened for commercial exploration. No permits for petroleum exploration has ever been given for this territory. But the NPD do from time to time give permit to scientific research expeditions.
But oil is not the only resource.
Along the mid-Atlantic ridge are hydrothermal vents known as “Black smokers”, tall chimneys on the sea-floor which release magma into the cool seawater. Within the magma are dissolved metals like copper, zinc, cobalt, gold, silver and importantly - lithium which is a highly prized mineral used in the production of electrical batteries).
These minerals in the magma harden in the sweater and drift down to the seabed where they settle. So it is quite possible that Norway’s plan is to dig along the seabed and retrieve these metals, although mining the seabed presents enormous environmental challenges.
In fact, Greenpeace have already called for a permanent ban on such exploration, saying that industrial-scale deep-sea mining ‘might have a more substantial impact on the seabed habitat than oil and gas extraction combined’.
The energy of Krill
Despite being a wildly remote and desolate place, Bouvet Island is an important are for wildlife, notably as a breeding ground for seabirds.
An estimated 117,000 penguins breed on the island every year and seabirds like the Cape petrel, Antarctic prion, Wilson's storm petrel, black-bellied storm petrel, subantarctic skua, southern giant petrel, snow petrel, slender-billed prion and Antarctic tern all live and breed there.
And it’s not just birds The southern elephant seal and the Antarctic fur seal both breed there with an estimated 13,000 fur seal pups being bred there every season.
In the surrounding waters you can find the Southern right whale, the humpback whale, the fin whale, the southern right whale dolphin, the hourglass dolphin, and killer whales.
And almost all of these animals come here to obtain energy from one single food source.. the Krill - which according to surveys conducted in 2000 showed high concentrations around Bouvet Island.
Krill is the common name for any member of the crustacean order Euphausiacea - crabs, lobsters, crayfish, shrimp and woodlice. To date, 82 species of krill have been identified around the world, just one of which, Euphausia superba, is estimated to total 379,000,000 tonnes – the largest biolandmass on the planet.
Individually, Krill can grow up to about 6cm in length and can live for up to 5 years, living in the open sea, congregating in dense swarms of more than 10,000 per cubic meter of water.
Because of their vast numbers, they form a major diet for a huge number of marine animals, essentially supporting the Antarctic ecosystem on their own, offering a protein-rich primary food source for penguins, whales, and all sorts of fish species that live on and around Bouvet Island.
One of the major reasons why they feed so many creatures is because they travel to the ocean surface during the day to feed on plankton and then go back down into the depths at night – which means both surface and deeper-sea predators can eat them. In fact, the name itself comes from the old Norse ‘Krill’, meaning Whale food.
Nuclear energy? The Vela Incident
In the 1960s, the American military launched a group of twelve satellites into space, known as Project Vela.
Each satellites was equipped with X-ray, neutron and gamma-ray detectors and silicon photodiode sensors to collect scientific data on natural sources of space radiation, and detect nuclear detonations on earth.
This was an effort by the USA to ensure that the Soviet Union were complying with a treaty they’d both signed not to test nuclear weapons and the satellites could identify the unique signature a nuclear explosion and determine its location to within about 3,000 miles.
A decade later, on 22 September 1979, despite being officially ‘retired’, the still operating Vela satellite 5b detected a signature ‘double-flash’ over Bouvet Island.
Alarmed, the Americans conducted a study to identify the cause of the flash, but couldn’t find any direct evidence to indicate a nuclear explosion. Innocent explanations were considered, including a meteoroid strike on the satellite, or a magnetospheric event (like a solar flare) which might have affected the instruments. But ultimately, US President Carter felt convinced enough that he made a public statement saying that an atmospheric nuclear explosion had occured likely as a result of a joint Israeli - South African test.
In 2018, a new study supported Carter’s assumption, confirming that it was ‘highly likely to have been a nuclear test conducted by Israel’.
Either way, the origins of this double flash remain to this day officially unknown, and have become known as the Vela Incident.
Ultimately, it’s yet another mystery from the isolated Bouvet Island.