It is the middle of the night and I am wide awake thinking about the ocean, specifically the bottom of the ocean. Is it rocky? Jumbled? Smooth? I am wondering this because I want to take samples of the seafloor to study. Rocky is bad. Jumbled is bad. Smooth is good.
In one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons a woman says, “I don’t know why I don’t care about the bottom of the ocean, but I don’t.” Well, for the next four weeks our research group will care a lot about the bottom of the ocean. We are sailing to the middle of the Pacific Ocean where we hope to collect sediment to study how climate has changed in the past. Our destination is a group of atolls and seamounts collectively known as the Line Islands. They include Kingman Reef (U.S.A.), Palmyra Atoll (U.S.A.) and part of the island nation of Kiribati.
The ocean around the Line Islands is over two and a half miles deep (4 km)—too deep to preserve the climate changes we want to study. So, we are going to take sediment cores on the flanks of the islands where the sediments are better preserved. The flanks are also where a lot can happen to the sediments. Slumps can break off huge chunks of sediment, ocean currents can erode the sediment and slumps from higher up the flank can deposit thick layers of sediment. All of these happenings alter or erase the regular ordering of the sediment (the stratigraphy in geologists terms) and make them unusable for our research. So, I am thinking about the bottom of the ocean.
Our group is sailing on the research vessel (R/V) Marcus G. Langseth, an oceanographic research vessel operated by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (where I work). The ship is a floating scientific laboratory, with the ability to study and take samples of the ocean water and sediments wherever we go. The scientists on board include seventeen researchers from nine institutions. In addition, there are 34 technicians and sailors who make sure the ship and scientific instruments are functioning properly so we can collect the data we need. The moment we leave the dock in Hawaii will be the culmination of almost a year of planning, a lot of hard work by the crew of the Langseth, and financial support from the U.S. National Science Foundation.
Our goal for this cruise is to collect cores of deep ocean sediment that we can use to study the past behavior of El Niño as well as the climate of the tropical Pacific Ocean. Although our studies focus on the Pacific Ocean, the results could tell us about many different areas of the globe. El Niño weather affects regions as far apart as Indonesia and New York State. In fact, El Niño events are responsible for the largest year-to-year changes in global weather. Our goal is to learn how El Niño has varied in the past so that we can develop better forecasts for the future of El Niño into the 21st century and beyond.
Over the next four weeks I will be writing a series of articles about our cruise. Topics will include El Niño, life aboard the ship and how we actually collect water and sediment samples from the ocean. Stay tuned!
In the meantime you can track where we are online.
The charge is simple – Operation Ice Bridge will fly all 200 Greenland outlet glaciers with an end dimension of over 2 km. The reason? These outlet glaciers (fast moving ice bounded by mountains) are the major mechanism carrying ice off this mega-island and into the surrounding ocean. Greenland is surrounded by a ring of high mountains that work like fingers encircling the ice to hold it in place. Between these mountain ‘fingers’ ice slips through in streaming rivers transporting its frozen cargo to the sea. Ice sliding from the land into the surrounding waters results in a major human impact – Sea Level Rise.
Measuring the ice thickness (ATM, RaDAR), the shape and opening size of the land beneath the ice (RaDAR, gravity), and the type of geology (magnetics) will help with determining how much ice is on this northern land and to calculate how quickly it might move from land into the ocean. These 200 outlet glaciers are key to this calculation. Each flight mission covers a different group of glaciers, some repeating flights from earlier years to measure any change in ice elevation, and some new flights over glaciers never before measured in order to collect baseline data. In addition to flying the outlet glaciers each mission involves transit lines. Careful planning goes into laying out these lines in order to build a comprehensive ‘blueprint’ of Greenland’s land mass. Hidden under several kilometers of ice the land is slowly being pieced together with each line of data collected.
Each instrument on the plane collects valuable information for the project, but with four types of RaDAR being collected this season most of the flights include at least one of these as a ‘priority instrument’. RaDAR, an acronym for radio detection and ranging, has been a part of our vocabulary and has enhanced our understanding of the world since the Second World War. Sending out radio waves and capturing their return has provided us information on ships, aircraft, missiles, weather formations, speeding motor vehicles and – the focus of this project – the terrain. Each of the RaDAR used in Ice Bridge has been designed by CReSIS (Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets) with a unique frequency and penetration for a specific use, yet all have overlap or redundancy.
For detecting the very freshest snow the Ku band is important. Ku uses the highest frequency, 12-18 GHz, providing high-resolution information on the top 15 meters of snow cover, and has been used this season to separate the snow layer thickness on top of the sea ice when trying to determine overall ice thickness. The Snow RaDAR operates at 2-8 GHz and focuses on the top 30 meters of snow cover, often an area of unconsolidated ice (the firn layer), and an interim stage between snow and glacially compressed ice. Accumulation RaDAR operates at a lower resolution of 600-900 Mhz penetrating down a full km into the ice providing data on the internal layers of ice as they collect and move over the landforms. Lastly, the MCoRDS RaDAR is the priority for information on the bed shape beneath the ice sheet. MCoRDS uses a low frequency or 180-210 Mhz to penetrate down to 4 km beneath the ice surface giving us the depth and shape of land below, and any constrictions to ice flow.
The RaDAR can provide information on the shape of the land surface but not on the geology, and if there is water it can’t image through to see what lies below. This is where Lamont’s gravity and magnetics teams work to fill in the missing information. Matching the bed shape to the gravity/magnetics information on the ‘bed’ material is important in developing our understanding of how the glacier may move in the future.
Measuring Greenland’s ice sheet and the land that holds it in check is a first step in a long walk that will take us to predicting the future of that ice sheet and its impacts on sea level rise. Every line of Ice Bridge data collected fills a blank that moves us closer.
Special thanks to Aqsa Patel & Kevin Player for their willingness to answer all my questions on the CReSIS radar systems, and Beth Burton and Kirsty Tinto on the magnetics and gravity systems.
For more blogs on this project: http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/tag/greenland-ice-sheet/
For more on this project at LDEO: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/icebridge
For more about NASA Ice Bridge: http://www.nasa.gov/icebridge/
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To Norse mythology Midgard is a place that is impassable, surrounded by a world of ocean. Thor, the hammer-wielding warrior god often traveled across to Midgard, and one imagines evidence of his fiery power remains in the highly charged rocks that are left behind. Magnetized rocks containing Thor’s energy and the fiery touch of his lightning bolts.
We are soaring today 1500 ft. over the surface of the twisting branches of the Midgard glaciers. Patches of low lying clouds drape around the tops of the mountains, like smoke from Thor’s lightning singes, but as the sky opens we see row upon row of majestic peaks. It is hard to balance the icy cold of the Greenland exterior with the molten heat of Thor’s lightning. Midgard, is cold and impassable, yet it is evident why Thor was attracted to this land.
Greenland’s geology is diverse. Some of the oldest rocks on Earth are found in southwestern Greenland in the Isua Greenstone Belt, an Archean belt between 3.7 and 3.8 billion years of age. Today, however, we are flying over the opposite side of the country.
The Midgard glaciers hug the southeast of Greenland where the main rock is Archean gneiss, later reworked and cut through with a mafic, or iron rich, intrusion. Perhaps this occurred when Thor was traveling these peaks. We see the changes as spikes in our magnetic data, and visual features that appear as well.
Magnetic measurements are some of the many measurements being collected by Operation Ice Bridge. Rocks have different magnetic properties, so collecting magnetic data can tell us something about the type of rocks that are under the ice, assisting in refining our understanding of how the overlying ice will interact with what is below.
Measuring the magnetic field can be challenging from a metal plane, however the P3 is designed for magnetic surveys so the data requires only a minimal ~10nT (nanoTeslas) adjustment to remove the interference. Originally used by the Navy for locating submarines the P3 has a tail stinger or boom designed to hold the instrument while minimizing magnetic interference from the plane. The Ice Bridge P3 holds two magnetometers. One measures the total magnetic field, the other is a flux gate, with three orthogonal sensors to record plane directional maneuvers, information that is needed for later data corrections.
The Earth’s magnetic field is not constant so collecting data at a magnetic ground station is important in order to gather daily background levels. The magnetic anomaly that we report is the change from this background or anticipated levels. This means that a series of corrections must be applied to all the data collected including removing the Earth’s total magnetic field, daily diurnal fluctuations, and small spikes from the plane radio. What remains is the anomaly, any representation of a magnetic signal from the geology in the area.
Magnetic surveys normally begin with an assessment or compensation flight in a magnetically quiet area, at a high elevation to minimize the effects of high magnetic gradients caused by the geology. This provides the reference points needed for final corrections and processing of the data. This season Ice Bridge has had the opportunity to fly almost continuous missions so the compensation flight has been put on temporary hold. Once that flight is completed, the data will receive a final adjustment.
Today our screens are busy with magnetic shifts tracking on the screen. Seeing the data jump onto the screen is always exciting. The instruments take a reading approximately every meter as we fly above at a rate of close to120 meters a second. The data appears as a wrapping stream of plotted points. When a line travels from one side of the left hand column to the other it shows that the magnetic field has changed by 100 nT. The second column shows greater detail in the measured field with one line showing a change of 10 nT. Peak values of magnetic anomalies appear as a mid-column direction change on the wrapping plot. When the magnetic gradients are high, indicating a distinct geologic boundary, it can appear as a dark block.
What we see on the screen tells us about what happened in the geologic formation of this country millions of years ago. Understanding how the changing rock types affect the flow of ice can help us to predict what might happen in the future.
For more on this project at LDEO: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/icebridge
For more about NASA Ice Bridge: http://www.nasa.gov/icebridge/
Even in idyllic Greenland some days start to feel like the movie “Groundhog Day”, however the turn of events today broke that thread. Over our two weeks in Kangerlussuaq we have ended our evenings with a science and weather report, and the hope of flying the program over both coasts. Each morning we wake up, head to the plane and look to see what the weather has dealt us. So far with incredible consistency clouds have dictated a series of flights on the east coast of Greenland. Today started exactly the same with clouds on the west coast driving a plan to fly the centerlines of several large southeast glaciers – Helheim, Kangerdlugssuaq, and Midgard.
But today would not be like every other. We lifted into the air and immediately loud rattling emerged from under the plane. The belly of the P3 has been outfitted for science equipment and directly in the line of the rattle lie a series of elevation survey instruments – two Airborne Topographic Mapper (ATM) lasers, that send and receive a steady series of laser pulses, and two Digital Mapping System (DMS) cameras, that take high resolution surface images every 1.2 seconds. Both of these instruments are used to develop elevation maps of the area surveyed.
Three floor plates were quickly removed and a member of the aircrew is tethered for safety and dropped below. Looking down I could see straight through to the land and a surface dotted with small melt ponds. It seems you could put your hand straight through the bottom of the plane, but there is a surface – clear glass in two portholes and clear acrylic in the third. Each morning I have watched the ATM and DMS teams carefully clean these lenses to the outside world.
After a quick review of the situation the decision is to return to the airstrip and attempt a repair, but first we must lighten the plane. Physics tells us that a fully fueled plane ready for a day of science work is not safe to land. Working with the air tower a place is selected to drop some fuel, we rise in elevation to minimize the impact of the drop, and then we are ready to cycle back to the base for a quick check.
The windows below the ATM and DMS are checked. They must be perfectly clear and there is spatter to be wiped away. A safety inspection and refueling puts us back on the runway taxiing in just over an hour. A warning light appears as we taxi and we aborted again. This time it is a quick fix and we are off and flying within thirty minutes – all in all a 2.5 hour delay which requires an amended mission. Helheim-Kangerdlugssuaq-The Sequel!
We will fly over water and glacial ice today giving both ATMs a work out. The primary system has a wider swath (700-800 ft.) working best over glacial ice. The secondary system has a narrower swath width with a smaller angle of incidence, the preferred system for sea ice. Sea ice has a mix of open water leads and thin sheets of ice making it difficult for the primary system to collect wide-angle measurements over both the ice and open water leads.
As we begin the flight the secondary ATM needs adjustment. The laser pulse is sent out through a series of mirrors and collected back through a telescope that needs to be able to ‘see’ the laser return to measure the surface elevation. Once again the floor panel comes up, but the adjustment is a quick fix. The cold weather can be one cause of this drifting.
As we reach the coastline it becomes apparent there is sea fog and wispy clouds laying low over the glacier and waterfront. The trouble with clouds or fog is they will block out both lasers unless we can get under them. In some places we can fly beneath the clouds, but in other areas it is not possible so we will lose some of the ATM data. It can’t be helped. Sea fog is extremely difficult to pick up on the synoptic charts used to assess the weather each day. We are lucky, however, and at the end of the day the ATM team reports 40 gigabytes of data collected. Little was lost to the clouds and fog.
Tomorrow we will need to wait and see if the cycle is broken, sending us to the west coast.
I had been warned of Geikie. “If they fly to Geikie get on that flight” I had been told, but nothing more. At the science briefing last night I knew it was a possibility, but daily science missions are not decided in the confines of a meeting room. Missions are decided by weather, and its weather that drives the transit today forcing us up over the clouds. A snowy air mass has descended upon Kangarlussuaq extending back over the icecap, leaving an opened window over the Geikie Peninsula.
The transit will be high putting many of the instruments out of their range. The Laser altimeter, visual camera and gravity all become a casualty at higher elevation, yet the magnetics and radar continue to collect data during the commute. But the story today is not in the transit, it is in the small jut of rugged cut coastline in Southeast Greenland called the Geikie Peninsula. An elongated ice plateau at more than 6500 ft. of elevation, Geikie is the northern end of a section of steep flood basalts that flowed out like the upward sweep of a hook.
Geikie is both a challenging target, and a bit of an enigma to the science team. Geikie is a hard area to study because of its location. It is the furthest target from any air bases in Greenland and in Iceland, and it is located just at the lip of the weather systems moving in from the Icelandic Low. A notorious herald of foul weather, the Icelandic Low dominates this section of the Southeast Greenland coastline. Pulling warm water from the oceans into the atmosphere between the two ice blocks of Iceland and Greenland, the Icelandic Low contributes to nearly constant bad flight weather in this part of Greenland. Along with being a difficult target the small glaciers we will fly today are surging or dynamic glaciers. Surging glaciers are difficult to fully understand and account for in models. We hope to collect data that will help define the bed beneath the ice in these dynamic glaciers. In order to do this we will fly right down the trunks of eight of Geikie’s glaciers.
When the peaks of Geikie appeared from the snow I was captivated. Line after line, row after row pyramid like peaks rose with a certain regal proudness through the ice sheet. Chiseled points with finely leveled layers stood 1500 ft. and higher through the ice, surrounding the plane, while below us the radar showed the ice thickness to be 1.5 miles. These are towering features. Buried millions of years ago by the ice sheet this truly must be Greenland’s hidden treasure. Sheared edges formed perfect pyramids where competing ice flows had crossed, working in opposition to carve away the rock. Regal gateways of perfectly opposing pedestals of rock showed the promise of rock formation after rock formation through the opening. Large crouching shapes appeared trailing down to rounded blocks of rock emerging like the toes of an Egyptian sphinx standing guard over this magnificent treasure for all these years.
We collect measurement after measurement, image after image as we soared by the guardians of Greenland. While we collected almost two terabytes of data we did not disturb their slumber. We left Geikie as we found it, frozen, vast and arresting. If they fly to Geikie, get on that flight!
Over 100,000 years of Arctic climate data has been linked in the last two days of Ice Bridge missions. When you see the names DYE2, EGIG, GRIP, Ice Bridge and MABEL you view the elite list of Arctic science projects that deliver(ed) groundbreaking climate information through the last 50 years, and if all goes as planned, will do so into the future. Each project has a unique history and provides a puzzle piece in the full climate picture, but the trick is placing them together so that they form a richer image. Our flight route the past two days has overflown and linked us with each of these puzzle parts in order to capture overlapping data which will help us piece together the full image – an understanding of the past and the present to prepare for climate in the future.
So how do they all tie together?
EGIG (Expedition Glaciology International of Greenland) was a French traverse along a West Greenland ice flow line operated close to 50 years ago (1958/59 and 1967/68). Collecting snow and ice data the scientists were able to determine annual snow accumulation rates in a series of locations along the traverse. By overflying these same locations EGIG’s snow accumulation rates can be used as a baseline for comparing our current data.
DYE2 dates back to the mid 50s, a relic of the cold war. Home to one of the Distance Early Warning (DEW) line radar stations it housed military teams monitoring the skies with radar for Russian bombers in the 1950s. The site transitioned to a science station and in the 1970s a series of short 50-100 meter ice cores were drilled. Each core holds ice bubbles, small time capsules frozen in place, holding a record of the Earth’s past atmosphere, or as we know it, climate. Data from the DYE2 cores allows us to map past climate to Arctic glacier extent.
GRIP (Greenland Ice Core Project) takes us back in time over 100,000 years. The GRIP ice core was drilled in Central Greenland two decades ago. Located at 12,000 feet in elevation by the Summit Camp the core measures over 3000 meters long. Stretched down to Greenland’s bedrock, this core provides us with the longest record of Greenland’s climate history.
Operation Ice Bridge is a current mission collecting a wide range of information on the changes occurring in ice in the polar-regions. The spring project is focused on measuring the rate of change in Arctic ice – both land and sea ice. This information will rely on measurements over a period of years, and draws on past studies and data collections. Several of the Ice Bridge partners have been collecting Arctic ice data for a number of years. Between the IceSat satellite that collected ice surface elevation from 2003-2009, and an annual ATM (Airborne Topographic Mapper) survey that operated over three decades, large reaches of the ice sheet have been measured establishing a history of precise ice surface elevations for a baseline comparison.
Mabel (Multiple Altimeter Beam Experiment Lidar) is the future. Flying at 62,000 ft. elevation on an ER-2 aircraft Mabel is designed to take us back into space. Mabel is the mock design of the next ice measuring satellite, IceSat-2, scheduled to launch in 2016. Ice Bridge has linked with Mabel to fly transits in Greenland for some cross calibration of the measurements collected.
It is apparent that the past, the present and the future are all coming together by design, determined to piece together the climate picture of tomorrow.
I have been very fortunate lately. In the last 6 months I visited forests I have longed dreamed about and visited forests I had never dreamed of before. I have been so fortunate that it is hard to believe. And, it is only going to get better in the next two weeks.
Early in my education I ran across a book on the world’s five main temperate rainforests. It was around the time of the spotted owl and logging of the great old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest region of North America. Besides learning more about the rainforest in the Pacific Northwest, I recall imagining the great Valdivian Forest of Chile, the rainforests in Japan and New Zealand, and the one that stuck out in my mind the most, the rainforest off the Black Sea in Turkey. Yes, Turkey. The Turkey currently taking in refugees from Syria. It was explained there was a strong sea effect from the Black Sea that produces high rainfall amounts. Growing up firmly in Lake Ontario’s lake effect belt, I understood the phenomenon immediately. Having no money at the time, I scraped up what I had and set out for Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. I mean, it was during the rise of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and grunge. That combined with massively impressive trees, there was no place else to go.
Luckily, no pictures from that trip have made it to the digital era; my former mullet is still a myth. This recent picture from the redwoods of northern California will have to suffice.
Tonight I leave for Turkey. Yes, that Turkey. The Turkey with the temperate rainforest. This temperate rainforest is broadleaf-dominated. I am a lucky dog. Posts on this trip will arrive sometime in the future. In the mean time, here is a very brief overview of the broadleaf forests I have visited in the last 180 days.
I was invited to give a talk in northeastern China in early October to discuss some of my work. My host and former visitor to our lab, Zhen-ju Chen, of the Institute of Applied Ecology in Shenyang, at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, was beginning research in the broadleaf forests of northeastern China and wanted me to visit these forests. How lucky is that? I had known that the forests of northeastern China were like the forests of the northeastern U.S. I would now get to see firsthand how similar these forests were to one another.
First, I got to visit the forests in the Changbai Shan national nature preserve. The upper forests were primarily stunted birch. This patch of wild, scraggily birch was my favorite in the upper part of the preserve.
My favorite forest in Changbai had to be the Dell Forest. Its mix of larch, maple, birch, spruce, ash, etc., strongly recalled the forests of the northeastern U.S. Just as important, the trees looked 300 years or more. It was a delight.
But, speaking of fortunate, I got to see the crater lake that borders North Korea on top of Changbai Shan. It is a rare day when one gets this view:
After Changbai, we moved on to lower elevations and visited the Changbai Shan Museum Institute permanent plot. Like the Harvard Forest, this is a heavily-instrumented experimental forest. And, most stunning to me, with a forest composed of basswood, Korean pine, Mongolian oak, birch, it looked like the Harvard Forest.
Seedlings of the Korean pine could almost fool the experts of eastern North America’s eastern white pine.
My final stop in northeastern China was the Qing Yuan Experimental Secondary Forest. This forest was further south and a bit lower in elevation. Its species mix – maple, oak, birch, elm, etc, however, could have been almost anywhere in southern New England. The Japanese maple would be a good clue that you weren’t in North America. There were other clues, too. But, the similarities to northeastern North America were striking.
Perhaps only the Asian architecture and pond of brightly colored carp hint to the continent you are on?
While there is much tree ring activity happening in China, not a tree was cored in the making of this trip. Sadly, I had to leave and was left to wonder how old and what stories the broadleaf-dominated forests contained.
Luckily, I immediately flew from Shenyang to Bhutan, Land of the Thunder Dragon (and temperate broadleaf forests!).
Under the direction of our lab director, Dr. Ed Cook, and long-time technician/MacGyver, Paul Krusic (now of the Bert Bolin Centre for Climate Research), the Lamont Tree Ring Laboratory has had a strong and productive collaboration with various institutions in Bhutan. Our trip in October 2011 re-invigorated this collaboration and centered around a fieldweek, a climate conference, high altitude lake research, and an investigation into the broadleaf forests of western Bhutan.
Cook and Krusic have done a fabulous job finding old trees in high elevation forests and drought-sensitive sites to assist in reconstructing the Asian Monsoon. Yet, few studies have been conducted in Bhutan’s broadleaf forest, which comprises more than half of its forested area. My short time there was an exploratory visit to determine the feasibility of conducting tree ring research in the many large old-growth forests in western Bhutan.
I will leave the details of this trip for another post. In the mean time, I will close with a pictorial highlight of some of the forests and trees visited in Bhutan. Wish us luck in Turkey. The cold winter in eastern Europe was felt in Turkey. The normal high winter precipitation in northeastern Turkey and colder temperatures have led to the possibility of limited fieldwork: There might be too much snow in mid-April at 41 degrees north latitude.
Lest I forget: one of the world’s coolest broadleaf forests is in Lamont’s backyard. The scenes below might look like Appalachia, but they are not. They are ~20 mi as the bald eagle flies from Manhattan.
Time takes on a new meaning in the field. Every moment is compressed in order to gain maximum yield. Applying human accounting, field time is limited by available resources, personnel, and funds, while using nature’s accounting the limits shift to windows of weather, and seasonality for ice phenomena. In the field both human and nature can conspire for or against you. A seasoned field crew learns to take advantage of every break from the planned work schedule to rethink, refine and reprogram their instruments and data collection.
After four days of intense commitment on the part of the flight crew, and the NASA and Wallops teams, the plane has traversed over 4450 miles round trip, spent two days under repair and will arrive back within hours. While the instrument teams await the return of the P-3 they work through data, check on equipment and ensure that all systems remain ready to begin as soon as IceBridge flights resume.
Lamont’s teams are responsible for the gravity and magnetics equipment. Gravity and magnetics are windows to the geology beneath the ice. The gravity measures density telling us of changes in structure or material beneath the ice sheet which result in a change in gravitational attraction or pull. Gravity is useful for locating changes but magnetics helps us ‘see’ more of what is under the ice, distinguishing between the low magnetic strength of soft mounds of sediment, to high magnetic strength of volcanic basalts. Understanding the Earth below is important in predicting future glacial movement and speed.
The magnetics base station has been visited to be sure it is intact, solar panels cleared of snow, and is recording data on the background magnetics from the Earth’s magnetic field. Collecting this data is essential since the plane magnetometer measures not only the geology beneath the plane as it flies, but the total magnetic field which includes changes in the Earthʼs field through the day. Collecting the background field allows us to back this out of the final readings to better understand the true signature of the geology beneath.
The gravity team also has a base station. They use this station, as well as a series of values that have been taken around Kangerlussuaq, as tie points for their data. Today is an opportunity to tie the readings to an absolute gravity reading by the Danish Geodynamics Department National Survey & Cadastre. A portable instrument will be used to collect readings at both the absolute survey point and the base station location. Gravity instruments are temperature sensitive so each is heated to an optimal temperature and must be kept at this range. The portable instrument has an internal heater and after several attempts it is clear the heater is not functioning correctly and will not allow the team to collect the tie in. The attempt will have to be revisited at some point in the future. For the immediate future, however, we hope to be back in the air flying tomorrow!
April 6th 2012 – it is tempting to look back and compare any undertaking in this region of the globe to this same date in 1909 when Robert E. Peary and Matthew A. Henson became the first men to reach the North Pole. How can we compare the intrepid spirit that drove the exploration by Peary and Henson to the carefully planned science missions in the polar regions today?
Perhaps the most natural connection is through the hand of fate and the crush of nature. Carefully planned and painstakingly executed missions can be quickly altered or shut down by either of these variables. Peary and Henson focused on being the first to attain geographic locations and develop an understanding of the northern regions of the planet. They made several attempts to attain the pole and were shut out by fate and nature in each earlier attempt. IceBridge has laid the same careful plans with backup missions and alternative flight scenarios but this all comes to a crashing halt when the hand of fate intervenes and knocks out an engine — #3 is down.
A downed engine flying in icy conditions is not to be taken lightly. It requires a return to the “mothership,” or Wallops flight facility in Virginia, to swap out the engine. Sounds simple, but as fate would have it we are simultaneously faced with the “crush of nature.” Storms moving through in series. Small breaks of weather here in Greenland would be enough to gamble on with a fully operational plane, but losing an engine reduces the payload by 40,000 lbs. 40,000 lbs. is a fair amount of fuel and will require a stop in Goose Bay Labrador for refueling. This means the weather must also be clear and ice free for a landing and take off when the plane arrives there. The flight time will be extended as the plane will travel at a reduced speed and lower elevation to reduce fuel consumption and overall strain on the plane.
Over the last two days all of the required conditions occurred in one 45-minute window, and the crew was prepared to slide through that narrow gap. We await news to hear of their arrival in Wallops, the assessment of the repair, and the possible date of return. Some days we think that things have changed a lot in the last 100 years, other days we realize that some things will never change.
The Greenland spring 2012 Ice Bridge mission is mid-season, which means a shift in focus from monitoring sea ice in the Arctic Circle to assessing land ice along the Greenland perimeter and interior. The mission is to measure the impact of a changing climate in one of the most remote places on Earth – ironically, a place that seems poised to lose that remoteness.
Tri-State: On my way to Copenhagen, the first leg of my journey, the climate irony of taking off over the tri-state area is not lost on me. Below a sinewy dragon of light sparkles brilliant amber in the evening dusk, evidence of the density of population in this region, and a flickering reminder of the human appetite for energy. Light and energy, the pulsing arteries that drive our businesses and our homes. Looking down one can almost track the watts as they move. I wonder how watts translate to degrees in Farenheit or Celcius. Traveling from such developed density it is hard to imagine there is a connection between here and Greenland, and yet the connection is measurable in the steady changes occurring in the icy reaches of our poles.
Copenhagen: Hours later circling over Copenhagen I look down at a waterfront dotted with windmills. Clean, white, spinning briskly bringing wind energy… I wonder if windmills are more accepted here than back on the U.S. coastlines. Perhaps acceptance comes with being faced first hand with the impacts. Will they slow the impacts already being felt in these northern climes?
Greenland: The last leg to Greenland is aboard Air Greenland, a plane painted an eye-catching red and white. The same red and white that graces the Erfalasorput, the name of the Greenlandic flag designed to symbolize the sun, the fjords, the sea and the ice. The transit places a magazine in my hands that boasts “Greenland a key player in global growth”. Fully 48 pages of stories and vignettes on companies and people who are making connections, developing skills, offering opportunity and making a difference for Greenland. Everything from oil exploration to mining strategic ‘rare Earths’, that small group of elements of critical importance to world industrial production, to building corporate social responsibility, to handling logistics and promoting responsible tourism can be found in this color spread. With the warming of the climate the resources of Greenland appear to have expanded in value. This is a Greenland poised to lose its remoteness.
One remarkable piece in this Greenland story catches my eye. “Future Geenland” a curated exhibition of how the explosion of opportunity facing Greenland may affect its future society and culture. What is so remarkable is the careful planning being considered in order to transition this once isolated country with its unique character and culture into the future…and the head curator is the Greenlandic geologist Minik Rosing. An odd choice one might imagine, yet Rosing spent his early youth on a caribou farm in a small southwestern fjord and has never separated from those roots. His research interests focus on how the geologic development of the Earth has been affected by the emergence of life. With a focus on the connection between resources and cultural development perhaps this is just a more modern, and more local rendition. All evidence points to Greenland’s vulnerable position between its cultural history and its future. Who better to assist than one who connects his spirit to both this ancient culture and these ancient rocks with the resources they hold.
Charismatic megaflora? What kind of a tree might that be? As with many things, one person’s charismatic megaflora is another person’s tree. For myself, a tree that would draw and hold my attention as a younger person/student is very different than my current definition of a charismatic tree. My earlier self was typically drawn to the large eastern white pines that inhabit the Pack Forest in the southeastern Adirondacks or the massive eastern white pines at Cranberry Lake, N.Y. When I was getting introduced to the world according to dendrophiles, these trees triggered emotions similar to those in a Sierra Club calendar where they literally towered over any nearby object. In the northeastern U.S., these large white pines are about as good as they get. They are big. They are stupendous. They make us look up. They make us wonder about times long ago. They convey a sense of great age.
You know, like this scene:
I do not have pictures of those eastern white pine, but this white oak has a similar kind of charisma for eastern trees:
Now, however, after searching many forests for the oldest trees to obtain the longest possible, tree-ring based records of environmental history, my definition of charismatic megaflora has changed. Significantly (p < 0.0001). Ah, these large trees are beauts, but if you want to truly wonder about time, don’t miss the old tree hiding right in front of your eyes.
What do old trees look like?
When I was cutting my teeth in tree-ring analysis, I was mostly involved in projects studying conifers. Notably, I was able to core the old’ish, large loblolly pines of the Congaree National Park in South Carolina. Soon after, I had a job in the wonderful longleaf pine ecosystems of the Deep South. At the time, there were few guides to what old trees looked like, though two papers were published on the subject prior to my time among the longleaf pines – here and here [be sure to check out the beautiful line drawings of old trees by Richard Guyette in that second link]. So, my first intuition was a natural one: seek out the large trees to find the oldest trees. Prior to Hurricane Hugo, the Congaree had 22 state champion trees and 7 national champion trees. It is a kind of heaven. However, most of the trees that have been cored in the Congaree [as far as I know] top out at 250-300 years. That is old for a person. But, for a tree being sought out by a dendrochronologist, honestly, that is kind of middling.
Soon after settling into the longleaf pine forest, I started paying closer attention to what old trees really looked like. I studied the papers linked above and got advice from seasoned foresters, like Leon Neel, and my supervisors. Thus began my study of old trees. Sometimes we found them. Sometimes we were stumped.
The main characteristics for old conifers are discussed in this report on ponderosa pine by Laurie Huckaby. The image on page 17 in Huckaby’s paper pretty much sums up what you are looking for: a spiked top, a flattened crown (or loss of apical dominance), smooth bark (balding is a potential sign of age in trees, too!), and a small living crown. A few, large, twisting branches in the canopy (as opposed to a crown with many smaller branches), a characteristic related to a small living crown, can be added as a useful characteristic. You can also add lower stem taper as an important characteristic. In this case, if the diameter at the base of the stem is not too much larger than at the base of the live crown, you likely have an old conifer, except when you do not.
I’ll never forget the time a buddy and I had a couple of free hours to cruise a 22,000 acre landscape of longleaf pine. We decided to try to find the oldest tree in the landscape. Suddenly, we spotted Ye Olde Longleaf Pine. It was flat-topped, had a spiked crown, was of decent diameter, and, most excitedly for us, was perched on a sandy ridge. We had learned by then that trees growing in poor-quality sites can be slow growing and thus older than expected if of decent diameter. We sprinted to that tree! We rapidly cored that tree!! We hit the pith of that tree!!! It was 55 years old….wha? The marker ring for southwest Georgia, a thin latewood band in 1954, was only a few rings from the pith (the center of the tree). Oh yeah, we were stunned. It wouldn’t be the last time I would be fooled. Trees are cunning.
Since that time I have focused more on broadleaf or hardwood species like oak, tulip-poplar, hickory, and Magnolia. I applied many of the characteristics above when looking for old broadleaf trees. For the most part, it works. Balding bark is an important characteristic, although you have to know your species. Do not get fooled by the natural balding of cucumbertree (cucumber Magnolia). They can have bald patches at young ages. In fact, it is one of the better identifying characteristics of this species. Also, balding on the side of a tree next to a hiking trail can also be a false sign of age (you know, they can bald from the loving they get from those two-legged mammals with tendencies toward dendrophilia). Narrow stem taper in broadleaf species generally works: It can take a long time to get a good amount of wood 50-80 feet above the ground. A small amount of live crown, especially when combined with a decent-sized diameter, indicates an older hardwood tree. A few large, heavy, twisty branches are good characteristics, too.
One somewhat common characteristic of old broadleaf trees that I have run into, not in the papers above, is a sinuous trunk. Others have discussed a spiral grain as an important characteristic of older trees. It works well for post oak. But this trait, the sinuous stem, is an important clue of age in dense forests, no matter if they have been cut or are uncut. Sinuous trees remind me of the first time I saw a rat snake climbing a tree in the Congaree: While rigid, its body is twisted from side-to-side. In case you haven’t had been lucky enough to see a snake climb a large tree, I just found a video of a black rat snake climbing a tulip-poplar:
At any rate, here is an example of a particularly sinuous tree:
I’ve not investigated why this trait seems to be somewhat common to old hardwood trees (there are papers on sinuosity). I like to think (hypothesize) that each twist is a record of decadal-scale phototropism. Individual plants track or move with the sun as it moves through the sky. Sunflowers are a classic example, though cartoon broccoli are apparently capable of the same thing. In dense forests like the Eastern Deciduous Forest, one of the most important elements that seedlings and saplings need for survival is sunlight. To go with this, the most dominant natural disturbance regime in dense forests like the Eastern Deciduous Forest is gap dynamics. Gap dynamics can be generalized by the mortality of 1-2% of the forest (a handful of trees) in a given area each year. Thus, if you are a seedling or sapling sitting below towering trees during a relatively stable period of time, you would yearn for some light. And, if a neighbor tree died, you would run to the sunlight streaming to your level of the forest like we ran to that 55-year-old longleaf pine.
Except, you are a tree. You cannot run. While trees are awesome, one drawback to their life strategy is that they are a bit sedentary. When Trouble comes to your neighborhood, there is little hiding. Thus, one reason trees are so awesome is how they persist despite it all.
So, what do you do if you are an understory tree and a small gap has created a fleck of light in your general vicinity? You reach for it, almost literally. Your solar panels “detect” the higher light levels, intercept more light, and grow in that general direction. If you are successful in that pursuit, you then gain more energy and stretch more in that direction. This becomes a positive feedback loop: As you gain more energy, you can grow more. As you grow more in that direction, your mass will “move” in that direction. And, in opposition, “trailing” or more heavily-shaded branches and leaves might lose out as you “move” toward the more resource-rich area of the forest.
There are many quotes used above because this is not moving in the same way or at the same time scales as animals move. So, as you imagine that, think of something moving slower than molasses in January 1777 (not January-March 2012).
And, here is another problem for you: At the time scale of forests, most gaps created annually are small and ephemeral. So, as you spend 2-3 years or so moving toward the light, your towering neighbors, with greater resources as acquired through a larger canopy and root system, will fill these gaps with their lateral branches. You are blocked again. So, you must wait again for another pocket of light. Perhaps it is in another direction? Perhaps you have to grow in another direction? If so, then one could imagine how these sinuous stems are found in older trees in dense forests. Mind you, this a rather simple hypothesis. There are other factors that likely play a role in the sinuous architecture of trees. It is a place to start. However, I certainly saw potential examples of this in an old-growth forest in Manchuria. Check out this ash:
Or, how about this black walnut in Mammoth Caves National Park:
One more thought on what old trees look like: Size does not always imply age. If I didn’t hint about it enough above, let’s be clear: Big broadleaf trees can be old, but they might not be old. Some of the oldest trees I’ve cored in the eastern U.S. are of middling size. Most folks might walk by them while hunting for large trees. Not me. For me, they are the charismatic megaflora in dense forests. There are more details in the paper here. Contact me if you would like a copy.
So, as you go out to enjoy the current “heat wave” in eastern North America, have a little different look at the forest. Can you find my definition of a charistmatic megaflora? Can you spot the old trees hiding in front of your eyes?
After finally reaching the Mongla and our boat, we settled into our new home. It is a similar design, but much larger than the one we used in September. As we ate dinner and explored the ship, it started the overnight journey to the southeastern part of the Sundarbans where the wildlife is most plentiful. The Sundarbans is the world’s largest mangrove forest and home of the Bengal tiger. Thus, along the way we picked up two armed guards at the forest station. In the morning, we took a hike along the edge of the forest to Katka beach, with a guard at the front and back. We saw some spotted deer (chital) and arrived at the beach, where untold numbers of tiny crabs made beautiful geometric patterns in the sand with the sediment dug out of their burrows. Much of the group joined in a pickup soccer game where the Bangla Tigers beat the Columbia Lions 4-2. We cooled off with a dip in the sea until it was time to walk back.
In the late afternoon, we had another walk – this time through the mangrove forest itself. First through the more open forest, slipping on mud and avoiding the areal roots of the mangroves. We saw more deer, monkeys and wild boar rushing across the forest. Then we went into denser forest, crossing sites where Bengalis would hide their salt production from the British. Then into the densest part of the forest in single file, close together. If not for the trail, the forest would be impassable. We emerged into a more open forest by a river and a large beautiful tree we climbed over for a group photo. On the way back, we passed some tiger tracks. Since the entire forest is flooded at spring tide, the tracks could not have been older than a week.
Overnight, we shifted to Tiger Point, where most of us arose for an early morning bird and animal watching expedition. We transferred to a small wooden boat, which cut is engine and switched to an oar for the near-silent ride. We saw a multitude of birds including eagles, kites and woodpeckers, but also more deer, wild boar, an otter, a snake and a monitor lizard. Along the waterline at one stretch of the creek were a set of tiger tracks paralleling the river. These had to have been made since the last high tide.
Our final excursion was to two islands that are forming offshore – Bird Island and Egg Island. They first appeared about 20 years ago. Landing on a new part of the island, we walked across it for several hours, starting from a sandy beach devoid of vegetation (but with lots of crabs). We walked across patches where the first grasses were taking root to a more open meadow, following deer tracks for our route. Now we were above the area inundated by the tides. As we continued, the first mangrove trees appeared singly or in small clumps. They were still small, perhaps only 2-3 years old. Finally we ended at the edge of a full-fledged mangrove forest, the oldest part of the island. Then came time for a decision. We could continue working to the very edge of the Sundarbans, but if we turned back immediately, we could reach Chandpai in time to visit some shrimp farms before dark. We choose the latter, skipped the game with the soccer ball that accompanied us, and headed back to the boat. A six-hour trip upriver and our Sundarbans leg would be over.
On Monday, we used the boats of the resort to go visit one of chars (islands) in the Brahmaputra. This char was right beneath the Jamuna Bridge. It was only a small sandy, unpopulated char when the bridge was built. However, the changes in currents due to the bridge helped the island to grow. Five to seven years ago people started moving to the island. Now there are a number of communities on the char. The newest one is in the eastern part of the island where it is growing. The char is moving, eroding on its western side and growing on the east. The “flooding” group immediately started interviewing the residents with the help of the Dhaka students, gathering information on their history of migration and their life on the char. All of them, were very
open and forthcoming. One of them apologizing that she was too poor to offer anything to our large group, but then her husband cut two papaya from the tree next to their house. We tried to refuse, but the next thing we knew, a platter of papaya was being passed around. One of their neighbors proudly insisted on showing me his 6’ x 12’ thatched home.
After the islands, during some free time, a group of students went into nearby Tangail to go shopping, returning with lungis and saris. We all wore then to the evening’s festivities. Under a tent, we feasted on BBQ fish, chicken and lamb while a musical group played both traditional Bengali music and contemporary pop. A strange setting to see everyone dancing to Lady Gaga.
The next morning, we hit the road again. Driving across multiple regions of Bangladesh, crossing the Ganges River and ending in Mongla at the edge of the Sundarbans. Traffic was light in the morning, but a stretch of bad road, a flat tire and traffic took its toll in the afternoon. We lost hours and finally reached Khulna to pick up the waiting Scott Nooner. More trouble with the tires led to us not getting to Mongla until after dark, without any time for visiting shrimp farms or the compaction site. We will have to do it all after the Sundarbans. A lesson in life in Bangladesh, always be prepared to adjust your schedule. Nothing ever going completely as you planned, but somehow it works out fine in the end. A land of improvisation and resiliency.
This semester I am doing something new – teaching a class. The course is in the Sustainable Development program and about the multitude of natural and human-induced hazards of Bangladesh. To help them truly understand what “Life on a Tectonically Active Delta” is like, I have brought them here for Spring Break. Now they will get to see for themselves the geology, environment and people of Bangladesh that they have been hearing about in class. This is a new experience for me, bringing 13 undergraduates and my TA for 10-day trip to the other side of the world, both literally and figuratively. Shepherding them around and being responsible for so many students, rather than a few colleagues and graduate students is a daunting task, and made possible only by the support of Dhaka University. With them, we will see Dhaka, including museums and Old Dhaka, the Brahmaputra River and its ever-changing islands, and the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest.
We left on Thursday March 8. I have taken advantage of the large group to transport equipment to Bangladesh. Meeting up a JFK, Scott Nooner and I presented each of them with a box of equipment for Bangladesh and soon the 16 of us with 32 pieces of luggage were on our way. Arriving in Dhaka some 20 hours later at 4 AM on Saturday, our tired group headed to the new Hotel 71 (a tribute to Bangladeshi independence in 1971), stopping for a few sites along the way. After a break for breakfast and showers, we headed off to the Independence War museum where they saw graphic evidence of the events leading up to the bloody break from Pakistan at the cost of 3,000,000 lives. On a lighter note, we were met there by the 9 Dhaka University geology students who will be traveling with us. Then, we all went to the Dhaka University Geology department, my home base in Bangladesh. However, by the time we completed the introductions, and meetings and a visit to the Shahid Minar, we had no time for lunch. We had to get to the dock for our Buriganga river cruise through Dhaka traffic. We would have to settle for snacks on the way. To compensate, we moved up dinner earlier and our hungry group dived into their first Bangladeshi dinner while sailing down river into the wide Meghna River while watching the industrial development and endless brick factories slide by. A relaxing cruise was a great way to start introducing them to Bangladesh after an exhausting journey.
Today, we headed out of Dhaka for the Brahmaputra River, a good thing as a major opposition demonstration is planned for Monday. The 27 of us stopped along the way for the impressive 150 ft. tall National Memorial. Then continued on to lunch at the place we will be staying. There, we were joined by Chris Small, who had arrived earlier, and Hafiz Rahaman, the Khulna University student who works on the compaction meter we installed next to his parent’s home last year. Then across the Jamuna Bridge to Sirajganj, a town threatened by the westward migration of the Jamuna River, as the Brahmaputra is called here. On the spur of the moment, we hired a boat to take us along the embankment, where we could see the ongoing repairs of the collapses from last summer’s floods. Then we walked back, stopping for pictures of the mobs of kids, spontaneous dancing, and a little cricket as we became the highlight of the day. Overall, a great start with many new friendships blossoming between the CU and DU students.
CHIANG MAI, THAILAND — The expression “death by a thousand cuts” refers to the practice in imperial China of killing someone by slicing them repeatedly, never very deep, until they die from their multiple, tiny wounds. I thought of this on Friday night when I hit my head on a door jam, cutting my scalp on the rock-solid, wooden edge. This happens to me frequently over here, since I am about 188 cm tall and the bathroom doors are always about 185 cm maximum. Just low enough that if I walk through upright I get a nice laceration on the top of my increasingly sparsely covered pate. I am pretty used to this by now, so aside from a momentary barrage of cursing, I didn’t think much more about it for the rest of the evening. However, the next morning, I awoke with a pain behind both ears and a bizarrely misshapen, triple-horned crest on the top of my head that was hot to the touch. Infection had occurred in about 5 hours. I went to Suan Dok Hospital the next day and the doctor said, “Yep, you have an abscess on your scalp, and the pain behind your ears is the swollen lymph nodes that drain the scalp.” He prescribed antibiotics and some wound dressings and told me to come see him next Saturday. After 3 days of medicine the infection is gone, and the swelling is down.
I have always heard how one needs to keep one’s wounds thoroughly cleansed in the tropics to stave off infection and sepsis, but I spend so much time here that I have gotten careless. I am reckless and clumsy, and I have had multiple wounds from a variety of things, and none has gotten infected to this stage. And it happened so rapidly that I was taken by surprise. Death by a thousand cuts.
I leave for Xishuangbanna in southern China on Sunday. I am going there to lecture at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanic Garden hosted by my colleague Dr. Fan Zexin. Fan was one of the participants at the PAGES Asia2k workshop we just held in Chiang Mai, having been a contributor of tree ring data from the upper reaches of the Mekong River in Yunnan province. We are planning a collaborative project on studying the rare and endangered conifer Taiwania cryptomerioides that can still be found in some isolated stands. These trees are quite huge and can attain great age, but have been seldom studied for tree ring analyses and have the potential for great value in the upper Mekong. They are also being cut at an alarming rate everywhere they are found, so we are on somewhat of a salvage mission. If we are to get into the areas of Yunnan where the trees are found, it might have to be in late August after the winter cold and the worst of the monsoon rains.
One thing about developing tree ring reconstructions of streamflow, it has been shown that temperature from the upper headwaters regions can be as important a factor as rainfall for predicting baseline streamflow because of the importance of meltwater in keeping up base flow (i.e., flow in the dry season in the case of the Mekong, rather than the sizeable contribution of the annual monsoon rainfall that contributes to peak flow). This work is part of the overall goals of my Greater Mekong Basin project, and will give us the very important record of how the Mekong streamflow may have varied back in key periods of the past millennia. I will send an update from Xishuangbanna when I am there, and try to include some good pictures of the place. I have never been there so I don’t know what to expect.
It has been pointed out to me more than once that I have a tendency to talk about food a lot in my blogs. With this in mind, I will be sure to report on the great meals I am bound to have in Yunnan, and send some pictures as well.
CHIANG MAI, THAILAND — There was one table available, just being vacated, and Orawan and I hurried to grab it. The place was filled with foreign visitors — Australians, Israelis, Americans and Dutch — and they were talking loudly, drinking beer and wine, clinking forks and spoons noisily on plates filled with hummus, tabouleh and falafel. We fought our way through the tight crowd and made it to the table before the previous diners plates had been cleared. Andrew and Piyawit were both running late. This was it, the very end of the PAGES Asia2k workshop for us, and Andrew was the last participant to leave Chiang Mai. It was an exhausting week for us, and now it was over, the dust beginning to settle on a meeting whose objectives were not entirely met. In the midst of the noise and confusion a hand touched my shoulder and I turned to see the owner of Jerusalem Falafel, Zahavit, with a perplexed look on her face.
“What are you trying to do to me?” she said, looking serious. I realized I was smiling at her, in anticipation of our usually warm greeting, so I quickly sobered my expression to match hers.
“Im sorry?” I said. I had no idea what she was talking about. I watched as Orawan secured our table and then I turned to face Zahavit and give her my full attention.
“Why did you bring an Afghani into my restaurant the other night?” she was clearly distraught. “Didn’t you read the news this week? In Bangkok they arrested Al Qaeda members sneaking explosives into Thailand and some of them got away. I nearly had a heart attack when I saw him, but then I realized he was with you.”
“Oh, you mean Usama!” I blurted out, and quickly realized that saying his name likely didn’t help matters. “He’s not Afghan, he’s Pakistani.”I offered, perhaps helping even less. “He’s a great kid, a PhD student from Karachi studying with a colleague of mine. Really, he is a very sweet young man, and very bright.”
“I know now he is okay.” She said, more relaxed. “But at the time I nearly fainted. You should have told me you were bringing him when you made the reservation!” She scolded, and slapped my shoulder lightly to emphasize her concern.
The truth is, it never occurred to me that Zahavit, an Israeli expat living in Thailand, married to a local Chiang Mai man, and running this hugely popular restaurant since 1991, might be alarmed at my bringing Usama to her restaurant. I hadn’t seen any news all week, as I had been too busy with the workshop, but I also hadn’t planned to invite people to dinner here until the end of the day, choosing to come here primarily because we had three vegetarians in tow, and the food has never disappointed us. Zahavit and her husband, Chiang, are very friendly and most gracious, their food is excellent and it is one of my very favorite restaurants in Chiang Mai. Funny enough, when I asked Usama to join us, it occurred to me to ask if it bothered him that the place was Israeli. He looked at me, puzzled, and replied, “If the food is good and it is vegetarian, why would I mind?” Fair enough, I thought, and that was the end of it. But I can only imagine the alarm felt by Zahavit, at the sight of a young Pakistani man, decked out in full local garb and sporting the thickest black beard I have ever seen, walk into her restaurant and take a seat. It has apparently never happened before.
“Usama Zafer Muhammed” I read his name out loud from the workshop participant list. He had joined me on the long teakwood bench outside of the conference room at the Ecole Francaise D’Extreme Orient, the beautiful location along the banks of the River Ping that was hosting our workshop (EFEO). It was during a coffee break, and Usama and I had been discussing the software I had just demonstrated that allows us to create point-by-point regression (PPR) reconstructions of climate from tree rings (while the folks who developed it were busy in another room attempting to reconstruct temperature over Asia — more on that in a minute), or other proxy sources that can be calibrated with climate data.
“Well, your name will almost surely cause you to be delayed at U.S. customs, but other than that I don’t believe you would have any problems”. Usama had asked me, with real concern on his face, if he would be in danger if he came to visit the U.S. The question really threw me, because as Americans we don’t think of our country as being unsafe to others, but it goes without saying that we all think of Pakistan as being a certain death for us to visit. Usama is a devout Muslim, and several times during the workshop he would go into a separate room to pray before returning to our group. He had told me earlier, when talking about sampling in the remote mountains of his country, that even he wasn’t safe in some areas because his religious and political views were far too moderate. However, he added, that if I were to travel with him to some of the areas where he is known, that I too would be safe, and in these other areas, we would both be in danger. I thought about it and realized that there are places in America that I don’t feel safe either, and places where I am pretty certain he might be hassled for being a Muslim. We surely have our share of violence and bigotry in America, though it is a very small minority that would engage in such behavior. Usama was making the point that it was the same in Pakistan, though the constant war and instability in that region, coupled with poverty and lack of real education for many, certainly exacerbate things.
In 2007 I had cancelled my trip to visit Usamas research institute in Karachi due to an attack at the airport in the hour before my plane was to leave Bangkok. Just as we were queuing at the gate, an announcement was made that the flight had been cancelled and they were putting us up at the Novotel for the night. In the ensuing confusion and while we all milled around at the gate the story came out that it was an act of terrorism in Karachi that was responsible for our cancellation. Early reports told of more than 40 people killed, and that the Karachi airport was unsafe. They would put us up for the night and see how things looked in the morning. Among the people on this flight were several Pakistanis, a few Australians, and one American marine on the security team at the Consulate in Karachi, and I had time to talk with many of them. The Pakistanis were all very sad to hear the news of the flight cancellation, and seemed distraught that I was now leaning toward not going. They seemed intent on convincing me that it was not as unsafe as I was hearing and that I should really go. I was headed there at the request of my colleague, Dr. Moinuddin Ahmed, to help him conduct a dendrochronology symposium and training session that was going to introduce tree ring analyses into their University system for the first time. It seemed quite exciting at the time I agreed, but now it seemed a little too exciting. I called Orawan from the airport and as soon as I told her what was happening she said, “I really don’t think you should go. Is it really worth the risk? I would feel better if you came back to Chiang Mai.” As far as I was concerned that was the last word, but I still was tempted to go until the marine took me aside, out of earshot of the others.
“How important is it for you to be in Karachi for this meeting?” he asked.
“Well, I promised my colleague that I would be there, I really ought to try.”
“Listen, you should know that the U.S. considers Karachi to be the most dangerous city for Americans in Asia, less safe even than Kabul and Baghdad. Dude, there is no green zone there and the Consulate is far from the airport. There’s nothing we can do for you if you get into trouble, so unless you absolutely have to go, I wouldn’t.” That was all he said, and that was all I needed to hear. The next morning they had resumed the flight to Karachi as the situation had stabilized, but I was on the first plane to Chiang Mai, to the great relief of my wife.
Usama presented his tree ring records from the high mountains of Pakistan, collected and processed over the past several years with Dr. Ahmed and other colleagues (see 500 years of Indus River flow modeling with tree rings), and he was here in Chiang Mai because he was among several other Asian researchers who were contributing their data to the overall PAGES Asia2k initiative that is charged with developing temperature reconstructions from Asia that ideally will cover the past 2 thousand years (hence, Asia2k). There are 2k initiatives for North and South America, Europe, Africa, Australia and even the Oceans. In all cases there are challenges of many kinds in producing the desired product (i.e., annual temperature — which will be used for the next AR5 model runs for the next IPCC assessment), but for Africa and Asia there are certainly greater obstacles than for other regions. Many of these difficulties are related to the fact that multiple, and often unstable, political entities comprise these continents, while many others are related to the culture of science in many of these countries where data sharing is simply not the norm. But one of the biggest obstacles is really that the proxy data are mostly precipitation sensitive more than they are temperature sensitive. As I have said previously, I believe that temperature (i.e., AGW related temperature) is only important because of its effects on the distribution of water on the planet, and it seems far more important to me that we understand the variability in precipitation around the globe, and to figure out how this might change in the future.
The director of my laboratory, Dr. Edward Cook, and I are both on the Asia2k committee, and at a meeting in Nagoya 2 years ago we worried how far behind our group was compared to others from the Americas, Australia and Europe, with regard to getting the necessary data from the research community. It was then that we hatched the idea (mainly it was Dr. Olga Solominas idea, and a great idea at that) to entice folks to submit their data in exchange for training in analyses that might speed up the process for some non-native English speakers to get their results published in top-tier international journals. The idea was to hold the meeting somewhere in Asia that was convenient for all participants, and not too expensive since our budget was quite limited. Since I was residing in Chiang Mai for several months each year, I offered to be a one-man local organizing committee (really two, to be fair, because of how much assistance I got from Orawan), and arranged to hold the meeting at the EFEO Chiang Mai center, just outside of Chiang Mais inner city wall and along the banks of the River Ping.
The meeting was three days long, and our primary objective was to use the newly contributed data (mostly tree rings, but some historical documentation-derived indices from Japan and China, some ice core data, and some lake sediment data as well) to produce a new temperature reconstruction from the Asian continent. Without going into too much detail here (stay tuned for that), we were not able to get a fully calibrated and verified reconstruction in the short time we had, and with the data set we ended up with, but we are a work in progress. There are a lot of difficulties associated with doing these kinds of reconstructions, not least of which is data quality control. At the end of the day, we are going to have about a 500-year temperature reconstruction for Asia, a far cry from the 2,000-year target, but better than a kebab skewer in the eye.
Usama grinned broadly and extended his hand to me and I shook it. He was genuinely grateful for the hospitality he was shown while in Chiang Mai, and his presence was one of the pleasant surprises for me. He and our Nepali participant, Narayan Gaire, were leaving the guesthouse together in a red sawng taew (the two-benched pickup trucks that are used in Chiang Mai as public transportation) to go to the airport. They had become good friends over the past few years having met at several regional workshops. These are fledgling dendrochronology programs in both of these countries, and it is remarkable to see the enthusiasm with which these two young men embrace learning this field of study. It will be because of the efforts of people like this that we are to have any chance of improving living standards across the globe, through education and engagement in the work the rest of us are doing — as equals and not perpetually as aid projects.
I was most impressed with these two fine young men, and I wished them both well on their journeys home. It saddens me terribly that our world is so unstable, and that we have the kinds of hatred that leads us to war with peoples in far flung lands, who have so little in material wealth, and yet strive to have the kind of enriched life that we take for granted. It is for that reason that I will think fondly of our little workshop, flawed as it was, and on my dinner with Usama, as a reminder of what is truly important.