Battleships, 1900-1922

Today's selection -- from Fifty Ships that Changed the Course of History by Ian Graham.The brief technological supremacy of Britain’s Dreadnought battleship:

“Battleship design underwent a revolution in the early 1900s. Torpedoes had become a serious danger to warships. They were more than capable of hitting ships, and sinking them, over their typical battle separation of about 3,000 yards (2.7 km). All the largest navies were thinking about fighting over longer ranges with bigger guns, but the first person to air the idea publicly was an Italian naval engineer, Vittorio Cuniberti. He wrote an article in 1903 proposing an ‘all-big-gun’ battleship. Just one size of gun was needed, because fighting at long range rendered most of the smaller guns carried by existing battleships unnecessary. Cuniberri's ideal future battleship would be armed only with the biggest guns available. The usual procedure was to design a ship first and then fill it with guns. From now on, the selection of the guns would come first and then the ship would be designed around them.

“The first all-big-gun battleship to be launched was the British Royal Navy's Dreadnought. She was armed with 10 12-inch (305-mm) guns in five twin-gun turrets. Each of these giant guns could hurl a shell weighing 8 50 pounds (390 kg) a distance of more than 10 miles (16 km). Dreadnought was also the first battleship to be powered by steam-turbine engines, giving the massive vessel a top speed of 21 knots (24 mph or 40 km/h) — faster than any other battleship afloat.

“HMS Dreadnought was intended to act as a deterrent to any nation thinking of attacking Britain. She was such a fast and powerful fighting vessel that she immediately rendered every other battleship obsolete. But other navies had been thinking along the same lines and soon built their own dreadnoughts. Japan had actually started building its first dreadnought, the Satsuma, before Britain, but Dreadnought was launched first. America's first dreadnought, USS Michigan, followed in 1908. The United States had been prompted to embark on a new warship construction program by the emergence of Japan as a serious naval power in the Pacific. Meanwhile in Europe, Britain was increasingly alarmed by the number of warships being built by Germany; they represented the first serious challenge to Britain's naval supremacy since Nelson's time. The result was a worldwide explosion in battleship construction, with each major naval power watching what the others did and then marching or surpassing it.

“HMS Dreadnought's technological lead did not last long. The first dreadnoughts were followed by even bigger and more heavily armed ships known as superdreadnoughts. The British were first again, with their Orion-class ships, but other nations quickly followed. They mounted bigger and bigger guns, ultimately 15-inch (380-mm) weapons. During this time there was also a change of fuel, from coal to oil. Oil packed more energy into a smaller volume, so oil-fired boilers could be smaller.

Dreadnought at sea in 1906

“Although she had been built for combat with other surface ships, the only action HMS Dreadnought saw during World War I was with a submarine.The German submarine U-29 surfaced in front of her in the Pentland Firth, north of Scotland, on March 18, 1915. Dreadnought rammed the submarine and sank it with all hands.

“Dreadnought battleships met in combat only once, at the Battle of Jutland during World War I. Ironically, HMS Dreadnought herself did not take part. The battle was fought between the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet, commanded by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, and the German Navy's High Seas Fleet, commanded by Admiral Reinhard Scheer. The Royal Navy was blockading the North Sea to starve Germany of essential supplies and also to prevent the German navy from breaking out into the Atlantic where it could attack British merchant shipping. At the end of May 1916, a group of German battlecruisers ventured out into the North Sea to lure British ships out where the German fleet would be waiting for them. The German navy expected to be fighting only a small number of British ships. However, the British had learned that 40 German warships had left port and so they mobilized the entire Grand Fleet.

“On the afternoon of May 31, a British force of 151 ships including 28 battleships met a German force of 99 ships with 16 battleships.

“The German ships scored first, sinking three British ships. The British had more success in the engagements that followed. 1he fighting went on into the night until, under cover of darkness, the German ships returned to port. The Royal Navy had lost 14 ships and more than 6,000 dead. Germany lost 11 ships and more than 2,500 dead. Both sides claimed victory. The British had lost more ships and suffered higher casualties, but they retained control of the North Sea and stopped the German fleet from breaking out.

“After World War I, Germany was prevented from building new warships by the Treaty of Versailles. Britain, impoverished by the war, could not afford a new warship construction program and looked likely to be overtaken by other countries. However, none of the other major naval powers relished the vast expense of building new fleets. Consequently, the Washington Naval Treaty, signed in 1922 by the United States, Britain, Japan, France and Italy, limited the numbers, types and sizes of warships that could be built. In addition, the treaty required most of the old dreadnought-type ships to be scrapped. HMS Dreadnought herself had already been sold for scrap the previous year.”

Fifty Ships that Changed the Course of History
author: Ian Graham  
title: Fifty Ships that Changed the Course of History  
publisher: Firefly Books  
page(s): 130-133

Delanceyplace: Why Sharks Matter

Today's encore selection -- from Why Sharks Matter by David Shiffman. Shark biodiversity and biogeography:
"According to the latest edition of the field guide Sharks of the World, there are 536 recognized species of sharks. They range in size from the dwarf lanternshark, which could fit in your hand, to the school bus­-sized whale shark. Many -- like the sandbar shark (#BestShark) -- have the particularly sharky shape you're familiar with from movies or from visiting your local aquarium, but some, like the angel shark, are flat and capable of burying themselves in the sand to wait for prey. Some deep­-sea weirdos like the frilled shark are almost snake-like in appearance and movement. Many are gray or brown in color; some are blue; some, like the goblin shark, can be bubblegum pink. Some sharks have beautifully elaborate patterns of stripes or spots. Some are sleek, like the shortfin mako shark, which is among the fastest animals in the world. Others, like the angular roughshark, have just about the least hydrodynamic shape I can imagine: they look like the ocean's overinflated footballs.

"Recognizable sharks have been swimming in the ocean for more than 400 million years. This means that the first shark was on Earth not only well before dinosaurs trod the land but before trees existed. Though we've lost many species over the eons, sharks as a group have survived every mass extinction event in Earth's history -- which makes the conservation challenges they've faced in the past 50 years all the more heartbreaking. While we're talking about ancient sharks, let me assure you that, no, the giant and ancient megalodon is not still alive. It is definitely super-duper extinct. People claiming otherwise are lying to you, for reasons that remain unclear to me despite a decade of refuting this really strange folk legend. I've received death threats from people who believe I am part of a global conspiracy to hide the truth about megalodon. Once I even interacted with someone online who emphat­ically made the bizarre and obviously false claim that she had seen the US government rounding up and killing megalodons -- and that she had barely escaped with her life once the shark-killing soldiers spotted her.

"Sharks' habitats are as diverse as the animals themselves. Some sharks are found on coral reefs, while others, like the Greenland shark, are found under Arctic ice. (Fun fact about Greenland sharks: they have been found with digested polar bear and reindeer meat in their stomachs. These are probably the remains of scavenging animals that drowned, but I enjoy imagining a polar bear getting slurped from below as it swims between ice floes.) Some sharks live in the open ocean, where they'll never see a hard surface their entire lives. Some sharks live in the deep sea, where it's so dark that sunlight never reaches. The megamouth shark, a deep-sea animal with the world's coolest scientific name -- Megachasma pelagios, which means 'the giant mouth of the deep' -- has bioluminescent gums that entice prey to swim right into its mouth.

"US Navy Seals jokingly say that you can test whether there are sharks nearby by dipping your finger in the water and tasting it -- if it's salty, there are probably sharks around. While technically accurate -- there are sharks just about everywhere there's ocean -- the implication is incom­plete, because there are also sharks that live in fresh water. No, I'm not just referring to the bull shark, which Discovery's Shark Week program­ming wrongly claims year after year is the only shark that can enter fresh water. I'm also talking about Glyphis sharks, sometimes known as river sharks, which live almost their entire lives in fresh water. Unfor­tunately, river sharks are some of the most critically endangered sharks in the world, in no small part because they live closer co humans than ocean-dwelling sharks do.

Speartooth shark (Glyphis glyphis) at the Melbourne Aquarium

"What we already know about shark biodiversity is amazing, but it's what we don't know yet that many attendees at my public talks find shocking. We are still discovering new species all the time. A new species of chondrichthyan fish is discovered about every two weeks. Some of them get tons of media attention, like a new species of 'walking shark,' so called because they can crawl on their fins out of water for shore peri­ods of time, or a new species of dogfish named after shark science legend Genie Clark (Genie's dogfish, Squalus clarkae). Others are little known outside of science nerd circles. There's plenty left to discover. (But no, that doesn't mean that megalodon is still hiding out there.)

"Unfortunately, the threats these species face are as diverse as their habitats and color patterns, which means that there's no one-size-fits-all solution. For instance, creating no-fishing zones is less helpful to a spe­cies that moves around a lot and spends limited time in protected areas. Nor is a ban on selling shark fins especially useful for the many species killed for reasons having nothing to do with their fins. Generally speak­ing, any solution to a complex worldwide conservation problem simple enough to fit on a bumper sticker is perhaps too simple to be helpful."

Why Sharks Matter: A Deep Dive with the World's Most Misunderstood Predator
author: David Shiffman  
title: Why Sharks Matter: A Deep Dive with the World's Most Misunderstood Predator  
publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press  
date: 2022 Johns Hopkins University Press  
page(s): 15-17

The Second Deepest Place On Earth

Today's selection -- from The Underworld by Susan Casey. The Tonga Trench:

“[If the island of] Tonga lacks in terrestrial heft, its surrounding waters are magisterial. To sail 180 miles south from the capital city of Nuku'alofa, on Tongatapu, is to find yourself floating atop thirty-five thousand feet of unquiet ocean above a seabed laceration known as the Horizon Deep. It's the deepest point in the 850-mile-long Tonga Trench, and the world's second-deepest spot, period—just a whisper shy of the Mariana Trench's Challenger Deep. You won't read about it in tourist brochures, but Tonga's ultradeep realm is one of the wonders of the underworld.

“In a contest of extremes, the Tonga Trench and the Mariana Trench are well matched. They're the inverted summits of Hades—a regal pair of forbidding destinations, as implacable as interstellar space. Like all hadal trenches they were created by subduction: as one tectonic plate dives beneath another, that collision bends the downgoing plate, forming a deep, V-shaped trench. There are approximately twenty-seven hadal trenches in the ocean, twenty-three of

which are located on the Ring of Fire, the belt of subduction zones around the Pacific margin. Only four of these trenches plunge below ten thousand meters (32,800 feet)—the Mariana, Tonga, Kermadec, and Philippine—and though they're well hidden from us, these titans are among the earth's most dramatic features.

The Tonga Trench constitutes the northern half of the Tonga-Kermadec subduction system, which extends 2,550 km (1,580 mi) between New Zealand and Tonga.

“The Mariana Trench has starred in undersea horror movies, but the Tonga Trench is scarier, and that's before you factor in the eight pounds of plutonium in its depths, jettisoned during the aborted Apollo 13 mission. It's steeper, more severe, more seismically volatile-busier. At the Tonga Trench's north end, the Pacific plate is subducting beneath the Australian plate at the startling rate of nine inches per year. Nowhere else is a tectonic plate being gobbled with such relish, seamounts and volcanoes ingested like dinner rolls. It's a buffet of geological havoc.

“Every so often the Tonga Trench gets indigestion and belches out an earthquake from way down in the mantle: a majority of the world's deepest quakes originate there, rumbling hundreds of miles beneath the seabed. In 2009, a slab of the Pacific plate cracked as it was being subducted, and the Tonga Trench roared. A magnitude 8.1 earthquake triggered two magnitude 7.8 earthquakes, and all three earthquakes shook simultaneously, generating tsunami waves that ravaged Tonga and Samoa.

“As an encore, one of Tonga's seafloor volcanoes burped up a new island, more than two miles long and a half mile wide, now known as Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai. (In January 2022, this same volcano would be historical in its fury, unleashing an eruption that blasted steam and ash thirty-six miles up into the mesosphere, created a two-hundred-and-ninety-foot tsunami at its epicenter, and sent shock waves around the globe.) In 2019, another Tongan island called Lateiki disappeared into the depths during a submarine eruption, only to pop up again in a slightly different location."

The Underworld: Journeys to the Depths of the Ocean
author: Susan Casey  
title: The Underworld: Journeys to the Depths of the Ocean  
publisher: Doubleday  
page(s): 117-119