No matter how many times I’ve floated over the Atlantic Ocean at inhuman speeds, in order to be ferried from Madrid to New York, and we are talking dozens of trips at this point in my life, the flight from continental Europe to the northeast corridor of the United States never ceases to bring me to the brink over either slipping into an irreversible bout of depression or doing something juvenile but nonetheless satisfactory like stick my foot out in the aisle as a young child walked by. And, what is worse, the flight crew simply don’t offer enough wine to ameliorate the situation.
It’s not just that extra hour-and-a-half difference in the duration of the crossing. That’s a lie. It pretty much has everything to do with the extra hour and a half. Sometimes it’s two. The increased time is a result of the direction of the wind, in this case it pushes against the nose of the plane with such force it literally prevents it from advancing easily; but a surprisingly large number of people believe that it is the turning of the earth that causes this difference.
On a very superficial level, this sounds as if it could make sense, but simple observation rather quickly dismantles this theory for a couple of reasons. One, and this is a big reason, is that objects that become airborne don’t separate from the earth’s rotation because the air in which they are sailing is rotating at the same time. If not, something as harmless as, say, a grain of rice, might suddenly become a potentially lethal projectile as it hurdles at no less that 1,040 kph against a wall or, what is worse, someone’s chest. And let’s not even try to imagine the effects of tossing pizza dough.
That doesn’t happen, obviously, and we can thank the troposphere for it. That is the name of the lowest layer of the earth’s atmosphere and it’s this concentration of mixed gases that, in addition to keeping our bodies from bludgeoned by simple beach ball, provides other universally accepted benefits such as the oxygen we breathe and or the protection needed to prevent our skin from falling off.
Most objects stick within the realms of the troposphere, even planes, though they often reach the upper edge that joins with the next level up, known as the stratosphere. Somewhere in the 10,000 to 11,000 meter range.
I mention this, of course, fully aware that if there is one thing that isn’t easy to determine, it’s the actual width of the troposphere. A quick googling for an image of the word evokes scores of charts that map out the different sections of the atmosphere, most of which also indicate their size in kilometers. At first glance, my impression was that the jury was still out on the matter. Experts knew just about everything on this matter except for what I had figured would be as standard as establishing the temperature at which water freezes. I mean, given the nature of the information I was looking for and the technology available at this stage, you’d think some kind of reliable consensus would be met, if only for the sake of pride in scientific accuracy, but apparently that was wishful thinking. A brief look at the numbers clearly illustrates this point:
Chart 1 – 11km
Chart 2 – 7 to 16km
Chart 3 – 20 km
Chart 4 – 10 km
Chart 5 – 12 km
Chart 6 – 11 km
Chart 7 – 7 km
Chart 8 – 10 km
Chart 9 – 9.5 km
So, according to this data, that means something in the neighborhood of a 65% variation in size, which personally seems a little unprofessional. It’s as if I told someone the distance between Madrid and Segovia is about 80 to 130 kilometers away. It’s actually 95.
Further investigation cleared up this disparity. It turns out there isn’t a fixed width of the troposphere, but rather it varies depending on, among other things, it’s position over the planet. It is svelter at the poles and more bulgy where the girth is widest…the equator. The makers of the charts just threw out a few figures, some more random than others.
I didn’t know this as we departed Spanish air space. All I was considering was whether or not I should watch my first episode of the Walking Dead or not on the tiny screen lodged in the back of the seat in front of me.
An entire ocean stretched out ahead of us. An eternity of time. It was like a massive River Styx whose banks had been pushed 3,000 miles apart. On the other side, in a small struggling New England costal city called New Haven, saved almost solely by the fact it was the home to Yale University, my father lay in a hospital bed in the intensive care unit and was hooked up to every possible machine that would keep him alive.
He had suffered a stroke two days before and had just three more to live.