National Geographic : 1956 Mar
Men Who Measure the Earth 335 Surveyors from 18 New World Nations Invade Trackless Jungles and Climb Snow Peaks to Map Latin America BY ROBERT LESLIE CONLY National Geographic Magazine Staff With Illustrations by National Geographic PhotographerJohn E. Fletcher ON a windy mountain 15,590 feet up in the Peruvian Andes, I huddled next to a campfire and waited for the sun to set. As the shadows stretched longer, the air turned bitter cold. The few drops of water in my canteen cup froze solid; my feet felt as if they were going to do the same thing. To the east a bank of gray clouds mounted ominously, but to my relief they stayed high, so they would not interfere with the opera tion I was about to observe. Within an hour numb-fingered engineers on the mountain where I sat-and on four surrounding snow caps-would begin a series of scientific ob servations to measure the earth. Perhaps you thought, as I once did, that geographers already knew the earth's shape and dimensions. And so they do, in a general way. They know it is more or less round a spheroid, or near-sphere-and flattened at the poles, with a middle-age bulge around the Equator. But precisely how flattened, how big a bulge, and how nearly spherical-even the experts don't know. They are eager to find out. In this age of guided missiles, the exact distance from, say, Tallahassee to Timbuktu may suddenly be come crucially important. And as of now there is no way to calculate this distance except to know the size and shape of the earth's surface between the two cities. Night Lights on Snowy Peaks Presently NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC photogra pher Jack Fletcher, barely recognizable in a bright wool chullo, an Indian mountain hat, joined me at the fire's edge. With cold-clumsy fingers he worked to insert film in his camera. "I just made a bad mistake," he said. "What was that?" I asked. "I moved." Even mild exercise is exhausting three miles up. After six hours of it, we were both feel ing symptoms of soroche, mountain sickness, caused by too little oxygen in the air. My head and jaws ached alarmingly, and my neck was so stiff I could not look over my shoulder. The mere thought of eating was nauseating. As we sat by the fire and swapped symp toms, a shout rang out behind us. "Here come the lights!" The sun had finally set, and the brown mountains turned purple and black. Sud denly, on top of a snow peak six miles west and 2,000 feet above us, a pinprick of light glowed like a fallen star. Behind me, to the east, another light blinked on; then a third and a fourth. A Girdle for the Earth This was what we had come to see. These specks of light, actually powerful battery-run signal lights shining incongruously from peak to peak in a mountain wasteland, were instru ments to map a still largely uncharted con tinent and, in the process, to fit a new girdle to the planet earth (page 336). The hard work in making maps is not done at a drawing board. It is done by geodetic surveyors-specially trained engineers who cross and recross the country through deserts, mountains, and jungles. As they go, they establish thousands of control points at which latitudes, longi tudes, and elevations are determined. The word "geodetic" means that measurements are adjusted to allow for the curved shape of the earth, which geographers call the geoid. Fletcher and I were here to report and picture one of the biggest geodetic and map ping programs ever undertaken anywhere, the first attempt in history to map a continent as a whole rather than piecemeal. It is an all-American project, being carried forward jointly by the United States and 17 Latin American nations.* Coordinating the work is * Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Venezuela, working according to specifications adopted by the Pan American Institute of Geography and History.