How centre of the earth got a little off kilter

Just how the Middle of the World wound up being not quite at the middle of the world is unclear
Last Updated 28 September 2012, 16:28 IST

Those who visit the Middle of the World, a government-owned park that pays tribute to the equator, are not drawn by the trinket shops or cafes offering roasted guinea pig. They want to stand on a yellow line painted on the ground here that is said to be precisely at Earth’s midpoint – 0 degrees latitude, 0 minutes, 0 seconds.Except that it is not.

The equator is hundreds of feet to the north.For tourists reveling in the notion of being, for once, at the very centre of things, the truth can be a bit of a letdown.

“It doesn’t mean the same if it’s not accurate,” said Danny Murphy, 29, of Chicago, on a recent blustery afternoon. He had just posed for a picture, seemingly astride the hemispheres, one foot planted on each side of the line, his hands raised in triumph.

“There’s got to be some place along this line they could have put it in the right spot,” said Murphy, who works for the Peace Corps.

Just how the Middle of the World wound up being not quite at the middle of the world is unclear.Luis Pulgar, an administrator at the park, which is just outside Quito, the capital, said the nearby land where the equator runs is traversed by a ravine and that the ground there was not suitable to hold a monument, so the builders chose a different location.

The current monument, built in 1979, is almost 100 feet high, topped by a globe 5 feet across. Raquel Aldaz, the park’s museums chief, said the site first contained a smaller monument, erected in 1936.

The builders, she said, believed they were placing the monument in the correct spot, except that measuring techniques at the time were not as accurate as they are today, so they were off by a few hundred feet.

Ramiro Ponton, head administrator of the park, which is owned by the government of Pichincha province, said that different GPS systems can result in conflicting measurements, but that according to one of the most commonly used GPS systems, the monument is about 800 feet, or more than two football fields, south of the equator.

The original monument was built to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the arrival, in what is now Ecuador, of the French Geodesic Mission, an 18th-century scientific expedition intended to help determine whether the earth’s circumference was greater at the equator or around the poles.

A recent book about the mission, Measure of the Earth, by Larrie D. Ferreiro, said the scientists helped prove that the earth bulged at the middle and calculated the length of a degree of latitude at the equator within 150 feet of where geographers place it today.

While the geodesic mission worked in the mountains near Quito, Aldaz said there is no indication that its members visited the spot where the monument is. The park also contains an exhibition dedicated to the geodesic expedition and large stone busts of its members.

Pulgar said that about half a million people visit the Middle of the World each year, more than half of them foreigners.

Bad joke

“Every tourist must come to the Middle of the World and stand in both hemispheres at once,” said Luisa Gomez Soto, 32, a Colombian business administrator, who was doing just that. Told of the equatorial snafu, she called it “a bad joke on thousands of tourists.”
A tourist from Quito, Richard Flores, 39, who was aware of the discrepancy, said there should be signs making it clear that the yellow line painted on the ground is not where people think it is. The park does not do that, he said, because it does not want to lose tourists.

But just a two-minute drive from the Middle of the World, at a small, privately owned site called Inti-nan, there is a sign on a gate saying that its location is “calculated with GPS” to be exactly at 0 latitude.

Carolina Vera, a guide, explained that GPS readings varied depending on how devices were calibrated. That, she said, was why, on this occasion, a visitor’s GPS held over the line of bricks that Inti-nan uses to mark its claim to equatorial exactitude showed that it was still several yards to the south of where it ought to be. Vera said that highly accurate GPS devices had been used to verify Inti-nan’s location.

Vera walked visitors through a series of attractions. It is easier to balance an egg at the equator, she said, demonstrating by placing one on the head of a nail. Paradoxically, she said, it is harder for a person to maintain his balance. She had a visitor close his eyes and walk heel to toe, arms extended. Sure enough, he wobbled.

Back at the Middle of the World, the local government has plans to set things right in a big way. It has asked the New York architect Rafael Vinoly to come up with a plan for a new monument that would stand exactly astride the equator.

Vinoly’s proposal, unveiled in February, calls for a tapered tower of latticed metal that, at nearly 5,000 feet, would be the tallest man-made structure in the world. The cost, according to a display here, is estimated at $250 million, a vast sum for a poor country like Ecuador. There are no plans to begin the work yet.

Still, not all visitors to the Middle of the World were put out by being almost, but not quite, at the centre of the globe.

Erika Voogd, 54, from West Chicago, Ill., gave a good-natured laugh at the news. “It’s very exciting to be this close to the equator,” she said.

(Published 28 September 2012, 16:28 IST)

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