The Calm (And The Weirdness) At The Middle Of The World

It’ll be a pretty nice day as you climb the steps to the equator.

But then, it’s always pretty nice in Quito. Maybe a little cooler than the rest of Ecuador (that’ll be the altitude – the city is 2.8km above sea level, making flying into Quito one of the world’s most spectacular arrivals at a destination by air). The altitude lifts it above Ecuador’s generally muggy tropical conditions – and generally speaking, temperatures will remain between 10 and 20 degrees Celsius (50 to 68 Fahrenheit) all year round, with little variation. It’s usually not too hot, usually not too cold – and the chances of you encountering a really bad storm or a scorching heatwave here are vanishingly low. Not a bad life, I’d say.

If you actually wouldn’t mind a bit of that hot weather and you’re there with Wheel and Anchor next year, just wait until you get to your next destination, Galapagos, with its famous blue skies. But you’re bang on the equator here in Quito, ascending the steps to the city’s monument to it – so you have an extra level of meteorological security. 

Bartolomé Island in the Galapagos
Bartolomé Island in the Galapagos

It seems no observed tropical storm has ever crossed the equator. In theory, one of them certainly could, if it grew big enough to overcome whatever is stopping such storms from crossing this boundary. Atmospheric scientists seem to still be chewing this over (the Coriolis Effect might be a big factor – more about that in a minute.) But the upshot seems to be that on the equator, and within about 5 degrees of latitude from it in either direction, you’re safe from the worst. (If you suffer from lilapsophobia – that’s a fear of hurricanes and tornadoes – then moving to somewhere smack on the equator and never straying 5 degrees of latitude in either direction might be worth a try? Here are some countries you can pick from.)

If you can get a good view of the horizon (not easy in Quito, as it’s surrounded by mountains) you’ll also be impressed at how quickly the sun rises and sets – just two minutes is enough time for the whole of the disc of the sun to become visible. This will mark the start of almost exactly 12 hours of daylight followed by twelve hours of darkness – each perhaps beginning at slightly different times throughout the year, but with an unchanging 12-hours-each rhythm, at the other end of the scale to the polar weirdness of the midnight sun, as I wrote about here.  

(If you’re from decidedly non-equatorial latitudes, this might eventually do odd things to your brain. I spent 2017 in Costa Rica after having spent the rest of my life in the upper Northern Hemisphere, just 10 degrees northwards, and I never quite grew accustomed to how all the seasons stubbornly remained as similarly light and dark as each other all year round.)

Middle of the World Monument at Quito
Middle of the World Monument at Quito

The museum and planetarium at Quito’s Mitad Del Mundo (“half/middle of the world”) monument will set you straight about the facts, which is why it’s a stop on day 3 of our tour. However, beware of something between a harmless trick and a shameless scam which tourists often encounter at equator-straddling tourist spots around the globe, expertly skewered by scientist Thomas Humphrey at Scientific American:

“There is an African country near the equator where entrepreneurs have set up two toilets, one just north of the equator, the other just south of it. For a fee, they will allegedly demonstrate that the toilets flush in opposite directions. It is only for show, however; there is no real effect. Yes, there is such a thing as the Coriolis effect, but it is not enough to dominate the flushing of a toilet–and the effect is weakest at the equator.

The telling comparison is between the magnitude of the Coriolis effect and the initial amount of angular momentum in the water–that is, how much is it spinning anyway, regardless of the earth’s rotation. Coriolis acceleration at mid-latitudes is about one ten-millionth the acceleration of gravity. Because it is a very small acceleration, it needs a very long distance for it to produce an appreciable curvature–and hence directionality–to the motion. A toilet or sink is just not large enough. The Coriolis effect influences because wind velocities may be hundreds of times greater than the motions in a sink and because the distances involved are far larger than the tiny draining diameter in a sink or toilet.”

But take heart: modern reality can be far stranger than the most fevered imaginings of tourist-fleecing tricksters. Take the point where the Equator runs into the Prime Meridian, the line denoting zero degrees longitude. This crossroads is in the sea off Africa, and there’s nothing there – except, because of the way our digital devices process geospatial data, there actually is. What washes up on this imaginary landmark (nicknamed “Null Island”) is all our lost data:

The imaginary (but useful) mark on the globe
The imaginary (but useful) mark on the globe

““…if you dig into web maps and geographic databases, you’ll get the impression that there’s a lot happening at coordinates (0,0). Among other things: people running and cycling, cyberattacks, and a lot of Covid cases. Welcome to “Null Island.” It doesn’t actually exist. But it shows up on countless maps as a default home for data that couldn’t be properly geocoded…

“There is this concept in geography that’s called liminal places; it means ‘between places,’” [geomatics researcher] Juhasz said. “If you go to an airport, it’s not a destination. It doesn’t really mean anything to you that you are at the airport, but still, it’s a physical place. Null Island is similar to that because it connects the imaginary to the real. Because in a sense it’s real: It’s in databases. And it can be mapped.”

It’s a fun reminder of the layer of virtual travel data we’ve overlaid upon our real world, and the often bizarre ways that the two can interact. (Learn more about Null Island here.) But the strangeness of the real-world Equator is certainly enough for anyone – and if you’re a traveller passing over it by land, count yourself lucky that it’s not by sea, where things can get very weird indeed… 

Wheel and Anchor will be passing through Quito on the way to the stunning Galapagos – a place like nowhere else on Earth – in April next year. Get the details and secure your place here.

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