The Science of the Equator

Science is more fun when you see it in action. Some things I already knew, like that the boiling temperature of water is lower at higher altitudes. And of course I’ve seen pictures of the wildlife on the Galápagos Islands, but I had to see some it for myself.

Currents

You are probably familiar with the idea that water swirling down a sink will rotate counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere. This is called the Coriolis effect. The same is true for the motion of hurricane, tornados, and the like.

But what happens at the equator? The water goes straight down. It can’t swirl, unless acted upon by some other force. Although this is logical and basic science when you think about it, it’s quite awesome to see in person. If you visit the Intiñan Museum just north of Quito, you can see live demonstrations of this outcome. You can also try some yourself.

For example, can you balance an egg on its end where you live? Nope, but at the equator you can! And, fun fact, you also weigh less at the equator because of the centrifugal force cancelling out gravity.

Temperatures

For someone who spends as much time in nature as I do, I’m fairly naïve about a lot of things. I know Colorado very well and have a hard time breaking out of that experience. So when I planned to come to Quito in December, my thinking went like this: December is end of spring/beginning of summer, the city sits at 9,100 ft, therefore, all the surrounding peaks will still be covered in snow. This is because in Silverton, Colorado, which sits at the same elevation, this is true. The snow won’t fully melt off until mid- to late summer, and then it will start snowing again a few weeks later.

Quilotoa Lagoon

Except here’s the thing, there’s never snow here because there are no seasons because…Ecuador is at the equator. There can’t be any snow to melt off if there’s no winter. I didn’t believe my AirBnB host when he told me there would be no snow at the top of Pichincha, but in fact, there I was on December 12 at 15,400 feet with barely the slightly wisps of snow on the ground. If you look at an average temperature chart for Quito, it’s basically a high of 66 and a low of 48 at all times. So a 15,000 foot peak might get a dusting here or there since temperature drops about 5 degrees for every 1,000 feet gain, but there’s no 8 month long period of below-freezing temps.

Also because of the consistent temperatures, homes and apartments here don’t have HVAC systems. Not even large, modern condo buildings have them. If it gets a touch warmer than average, open the windows. If it gets a touch cooler, put on a sweater. They simply don’t get the temperature extremes that occur further from the equator, so there’s no need for heating and cooling.

Tons of agriculture on the indigenous-owned land above 12,000 feet – potatoes, beans, broccoli, and more.

As someone who hates winter with a passion but wants easy access to epic mountains and hiking, these climate conditions are a dream!

Galápagos

These famous islands straddle the equator and you’d better believe a trip to Ecuador was going to include a stop here. I was surprised by the different microclimates, from the arid nothingness of Baltra to the tropical highlands on Santa Cruz and Isabela to the lunar landscapes of the volcanos. I was enchanted snorkeling through underwater canals and among the giant sea turtles. I was mesmerized by the historical record left by recent flows and collapses in the lava tunnels. In fact, the Wolf Volcano on Isabela had a massive eruption only a few days after I left, so the island is already different from the one I visited.

And obviously, I was in love with all the animals: several different species of iguanas and giant tortoises, blue footed boobies, Galápagos penguins, manta rays, eagle rays, Darwin finches, Galápagos mockingbirds, pelicans, frigates, Sally Lightfoot crabs, feral horses, feral cats, sea lions, flamingos, whitetip sharks, and so many brightly colored fish and amazing bright purple sea stars.

I only did a land-based tour so I didn’t get out to some of the more remote islands, but I saw enough to make me ecstatic that this place exists.

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