1500 feet above the ground surface is where our suite of instruments normally operates, but for this flight we are taking them up higher, much higher, in fact over 20 times our normal range to 33,000 feet. Our flight plan is to repeat lines surveyed in a previous years by NASA’s Land, Vegetation Ice Sensor (LVIS) a scanning laser altimeter. LVIS has collected data as part of the IceBridge instrument suite in the past, but it was flown separately at high altitude on its own plane, in order to map large areas of both land and sea ice. This flight will refly some of LVIS’s work but using a subset of the instruments on our plane, narrow swath-scanning lidar, the digital mapping camera system, the gravimeter, and our depth radar.
At our higher elevation we will fly faster and can cover a lot of ground. The landscape of Antarctica can be hard to get ones head around – a glacier catchment is usually too big to fit into one field of view, so we see it bit by bit, and try to build up a physical picture in the same way we build up our understanding of the system – piece by piece. We have flown several missions into the Amundsen Sea region on the west Antarctic coast in the past, but this was the first time where we could really see the context of all of these different glaciers – flowing into the same embayment, forming ice shelves, calving ice bergs, and drifting northwards through the sea ice.
The flight offers views of some of the most noteworthy features in Antarctica. Pine Island Glacier, one of world’s fastest streaming glaciers, developed an 18 mile crack along its face in the fall of 2011 which spread further over the last few months. The crack will inevitably lead to breakage, dropping an iceberg which scientists have estimated will be close to 300 pound in size.
Bordering the glacier is one of two shield volcanoes we passed over during our flight. Pushing up through the Antarctic white mask, Mount Murphy diverts the ice streaming along the glacier. A steeply sloped massive 8 million year old peak, Mount Murphy pulls my thoughts back New York as it was named for an Antarctic bird expert from the American Museum of Natural History.
From Mount Murphy we continue to the second shield volcano, Mount Takahe. Ash from 7900 years ago found in an ice core from the neighboring Siple Dome has been attributed to an eruption from this volcano. This massive potentially active volcano is about 780 cubic kms in size. The volcano was named by a science team participating in the International Geophysical Year (1957-8) after the nickname of the plane providing their air support …an unusual name for a plane as its origin is that of a plump indigenous Māori bird from New Zealand which happens to be flightless! Regardless the rather round Mount Takahe soars high above the glacier as we move overtop.
From there we fly over the tongue of Thwaites Glacier as it calves icebergs into the Amundsen Sea. To read more about Thwaites check out my first blog of the season: http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2012/10/18/launching-the-season-with-a-key-mission-icebridge-antarctica-2012/
For more on the IceBridge project visit:
Named after Edith Ronne, the first American woman to set foot on this southern continent, the Ronne Ice Shelf is tucked just to the East of the Antarctic Peninsula on the backside of the Transantarctic Mountains. With an area measured at 422,000 square kms, this is the second largest ice shelf in Antarctica. This vast icy expanse stretches into an indentation in the Antarctic coastline called the Weddell Sea, and gained some attention this past spring when scientists identified a mechanism that will force warming ocean water up against Ronne, which over time will cause it to thin and weaken (Hellmer, H. H. et al., 2012). Ice shelves are important barriers slowing the flux of ice moving off the land into the surrounding ocean. Any weakening in the tight connection of this ice to the land, either at the bottom where the shelf freezes to the ground below or where at the edges where it is tightly fused to the continent, can have major impacts on the speed and volume (flux) of ice moving off the land and into the oceans.
The current mission is being flown to measure the flux of ice currently coming into the Ronne Ice Shelf from the surrounding Antarctic landmass. To determine this we focus on the ‘grounding line’, the area where the ice changes from being frozen solid to the land below to floating as part of the ice shelf. To understand how much ice is moving over the grounding line, we have to understand how much ice is at the grounding line, and to do this we have to fly along the grounding line (or slightly inshore of it).
In many areas of Antarctica, even knowing where the grounding line is takes a lot of work. Much of that work is done using satellite data through a process called “interferometry”. This process compares the returning radar signal from different satellite passes to determine where the ice begins to move under the influence of the ocean tides. In this scale, ice that is responding to the rise and fall of the tides is floating ice, and from this we can mark the grounding line. While technique identifies the grounding line, it does not show how much ice is moving across it; to determine that we need to collect ice thickness measurements. For today’s flight we moved just inland of the grounding line for about half of the Ronne Ice Shelf collecting ice thickness and other supporting data that will begin to fill in this important information.
Reference: Hellmer, H. H. et al. Nature, 2012. DOI:10.1038/nature11064.
For more on the IceBridge project visit:
By Ana Camila Gonzalez
“But can’t you see the rings already?” I ask, wondering why I’ve been asked to sand a sample- it sounds to me like one would damage a sample by subjecting it to the mechanical screech of a sander.
“Yes, but under the microscope they look foggy if you don’t sand them. Also, you’re looking at a black oak sample. You wouldn’t see any rings before sanding if you were looking at a Maple, for example.” Jackie responds. She shows me a maple core sample that she explains has been hand-sanded down to a 1200 grit. It’s smooth and shiny as can be; yet I can barely see what seem to be hairlines.
“Oh. That makes sense.” I secretly hope I won’t have look at another maple sample for a while.
I approach the machine. I look like a character from BioShock or a WWII soldier in the trenches, as I am wearing a respiration mask, goggles and ear muffs. Seemed a little excessive to me at first- once I turned the machine on and I saw the mushroom cloud of sawdust come off the banshee-screeching sander, however, I realized I’d be better off looking like a biohazard worker than having to bring an inhaler and hearing aid to work.
I place my first sample down on the sander, but it flies off and hits the wall… I guess I can hold it tighter and push it down a little harder. I try again but this time my sample stops the belt from spinning. Definitely too hard. Eventually I get just the right amount of pressure, and I realize I can tell because my sample looks clearer every time I take it off the belt. I start humming to myself, singing something along the lines of I can see clearly now, the rings are there… As I go to higher and higher grits and my sample starts developing a cloudless luster, I realize I enjoy this a little too much.
To me, sanding is a process full of Zen. It’s a process I can focus on while still letting my mind wander, and my thoughts usually get pretty philosophical- I have this foggy, unclear sample and slowly I take off its layers and layers of disparities. What results is a core in its purest form ready to tell the story of its life, and after a few hours of sanding I’m ready to listen.
Ana Camila Gonzalez is a first-year environmental science and creative writing student at Columbia University at the Tree Ring Laboratory of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She will be blogging on the process of tree-ring analysis, from field work to scientific presentations.
One piece of our IceBridge mission focuses on sea ice here in the south. Sea ice in the northern regions has been reducing at dramatic rates over the last decade, setting a new record just this year, but the story in the south is not so clear. In fact, there has been a buzz that Antarctic sea ice extent may just be increasing while the Arctic ice is decreasing. The issue is a complex one and involves not just sea ice extent (how much surface area the ice covers) but sea ice thickness (total volume of ice). While the extent of Antarctic sea ice is increasing, we also need to understand how the thickness is varying.
One of the trickier items in measuring sea ice is making the raw measurements of thicker and thinner ice. With only satellite measurements it is hard to get the true thickness of the ice, since the surface of the ice is often covered with snow that needs to be accounted for in our calculations. Using the snow radar on the IceBridge mission we can work out how much of what the satellite is measuring is actually snow.
The Bellinghausen Sea sits just to the west of the Antarctic peninsula and in the southern winter months is generally covered with sea ice. We have flown two Bellinghausen sea missions this season – one to map out to the furthest edges and another to looks at the gradient of sea ice change as you move away from the coast or shoreline. The second Bellinghausen mission was important because in running profiles in and out from the coast it allowed us to measure how ice thickness patterns vary with distance from the shore. We need to understand these patterns of ice thickness in the southern end of the planet, how they may be changing and what connection they have to the climate system.
There has been much less study done on southern sea ice than northern sea ice because we get very few opportunities to make the measurements we need. We have two high priority flights to the Weddell Sea (on the eastern side of the Antarctic peninsula), but so far it has not been possible to fly them because of the weather. Hopefully before the end of this season we will be able to fly both these flights and fill in more pieces in the sea ice story.
For more on the IceBridge project visit:
Last year IceBridge had its first flights into East Antarctica when it flew some missions into the Recovery Glacier area. Recovery is a section of Antarctic ice that lies east of the peninsular arm of West Antarctica, tucked behind the Transantarctic Mountains, a dividing line that separates west from east. We know from Satellite data that Recovery and its tributaries have a deep reach, stretching well inland to capture ice and move it out into the Filchner Ice Shelf draining a large section of the East Antarctic ice sheet. But there is a lot we don’t know about Recovery because the remoteness of the area has limited the number of surveys.
Several recent works have showed us that this area is important. Satellite measurements of the ice surface show small patches along the trunk of the glacier that are changing elevation more than their surroundings. These patches have been interpreted as lakes that lie under the ice sheet, coined the Recovery Subglacial Lakes. The lakes appear to drain and refill over time as the surface elevation over the lakes changes. To learn more about them and what they might tell us about the behavior of the glacier, we need to look under the ice.
But there is more we need to understand about this remote area, including simply needing to know the size and shape of the channel that delivers this ice out to the ice shelf and towards the Weddell Sea. Last year’s mission gave us some data points to outline the channel, but this year will help us provide a more complete imaging of what lies below this East Antarctic ice conveyor belt.
We will fly cross sections along the lines of the retired ICESat satellite tracks, allowing us to compare the laser measurements we make of ice surface elevation to those made during the satellite mission. We will end the day flying along the Recovery channel to get another look at one of the interpreted lakes. Combining last years’ data, ICESat data and this year’s data will give us a better picture of the area that has been carved beneath the Recovery glacier, the amount of ice that can be moved through the glacier and its tributaries, and how the lakes under the ice might fit into the larger story.
After waking up in the Rupsa River in Khulna, we watched as the Vanderbilt University group studying sedimentation around Polder 32 arrived on Bachchu’s boat. They pulled up alongside and we spent some time catching up with each other’s trips before it was time to hit the road. Our last site is nearly at the northernmost tip of Bangladesh. This one is for tectonics. The 2-km high uplift block of Shillong, is roughly coincident with the Indian state of Meghalaya (Abode of the Cloud). It was the site of a M8.1 earthquake in 1897, although the exact fault that ruptured is uncertain. Our existing GPS indicate that it is moving south at ~7mm/y, but there is a suggestion that it is rotating clockwise, meaning the western end would be moving slower. Our GPS is going in Bangladesh just to the west of Shillong. However, the Brahmaputra River has eroded away the western margin and buried the remnants under sediments. We have to be far enough north to be on the Shillong-Assam block and away from the several faults on its southern side. We settled on the town of Bharungamari. It is literally the end of the road, only a few miles from the Indian border.
So we set off on a 400 km drive. Along the way, we stopped at Kushtia and visited Humayun’s childhood home and met his sister-in-law and nephew. Then lunch and across the Ganges River. At our first flat tire, we has tea in a small shop – Humayun had them pour boiling water on the glasses for us. At the second it was green cocoanuts. The driver switched to the spare tire while Sarah attracted a large crowd of locals. When we finally got to the hotel it was almost 10pm, about 12 1/2 hours after we left the Kokilmoni. At least it is one of the nicer hotels that I have stayed at in Bangladesh.
The next morning was a more leisurely 8am departure. For breakfast, we were joined by Atiqulla, one of Humayun’s fourth year students who is from Bhurungamari. He scouted the site and would lead us there, the local hospital. We squeezed the extra person into the van and headed north. We got there late morning, scouted out the roof and located a site for the antenna and for the receiver. Getting there meant walking through a hallway with beds containing patients at the hospital. It seems we have had two modes during this trip, either start very early and then have breakfast at noon, or have breakfast first and then have lunch after 4pm. This was the latter. You could tell we were getting worn out. We were having more trouble keeping track of some of the small screws and tools we needed. We started running out of anchors for attaching cables to the wall. Still, we got it done, although it is not our prettiest site.. However, Humayun did a great job with the grounding rod, having a channel cut in the concrete apron around the building, running the wire through a conduit and then recementing over it.
By the time we were done, it was 3:30 and the hospital administrator and some of the staff came to see the site. By the time Humayun finished explaining th purpose of the GPS, we were more than ready to get some lunch. What I didn’t know was that we were invited to Atiqulla house for lunch. We went to the house of his extended family, parents, siblings and nieces and nephews where we were served a feast. The five of us ate while the family and a large group of neighbors looked on and chatted with us. We had chicken, squab and beef along with boiled and pilao rice, paratha (bread), vegetables, dal (lentils), and cucumbers. A veritable feast and a good ending for the last GPS installation.
We stuffed our selves and headed back to Dhaka, staying overnight at Bogra, 4 hours away. Along the way we passed celebrations of Durga Puja, the largest Hindu festival in Bangladesh, and lots of cattle and other animals being transported for Eid ul-Azha, the feast of the sacrifice, to be celebrated this weekend. After arriving in Bogra, we celebrated with a beer at the first bar I’ve ever seen in Bangladesh.
Every year, when the height of the dry season comes to northern Thailand, the air gets foul. The extent of the problem is dependent upon, among many factors, the weather and more specifically the temperature profile of the air. When a temperature inversion sets in, warm air aloft “caps” the cooler air that has descended into the valleys and prevents circulation (the normal state of the atmosphere is a lapse rate of decreasing temperature with altitude). As a result of an inversion, air pollution from cars, buses, burning, cooking, construction, etc., gets trapped in the valleys and basins and develops into an increasingly toxic brew. This doesn’t occur to extreme levels every year, but I have experienced it several times in Chiang Mai over the past decade, and this past season was pretty bad (see Thailand: pollution puts Chiang Mai off the tourist trail).
Photos of Chiangmai air pollution this past season: All pictures were taken at midday, no clouds, just smog.
The levels of fine particulates became very high, and this causes major respiratory problems for many people, the very young and very old in particular. But clearly it doesn’t do anybody any good. Because I am prone to bronchial infections, when the air got bad this year I suffered for weeks with a severe hacking cough that may have led to my herniated disk injury. In a wonderful twist of irony, I traveled to Bangkok, Saigon and Taipei to get cleaner air to help me overcome my illness. It worked too, but when I returned to Chiang Mai before my return home I began to deteriorate once again. (See my blog post, That Thousandth Cut, for the backstory.)
The costs of this problem are very high, due to major health problems for a large and poor population, and flight delays in the region due to poor visibility. Since it is a very specific set of conditions that leads to these inversion events, it would be important to explore the effects of regional temperature projections and how this might effect the occurrence and duration of future events. More importantly, are there ways to mitigate the effects of these inversions? Obviously, producing less fine particulates and reducing the primary pollution sources is paramount, but for that there needs to be the will at the highest of levels, and since the overall problem knows no borders, there isn’t the will. Much of the blame each year goes to the hill tribes who burn the surrounding mountainsides, but it seems that much of the source is more localized than that, and much of it is regional pollution that sits over the entire region. Whatever the source, however, something needs to be done. The problem is that when the rains come the awful air is cleared out, and with it any sense of urgency to act. It is then forgotten about until the next inversion comes a year later. This short-term memory does not help.
This from a Chiang Mai based website on the problem:
Air Pollution: Key facts from the World Health Organization
- Air pollution is a major environmental risk to health and is estimated to cause approximately 2 million premature deaths worldwide per year
- Exposure to air pollutants is largely beyond the control of individuals and requires action by public authorities at the national, regional and even international levels.
- The WHO Air quality guidelines represent the most widely agreed and up-to-date assessment of health effects of air pollution, recommending targets for air quality at which the health risks are significantly reduced.
- By reducing particulate matter (PM10) pollution from 70 to 20 micrograms per cubic metre, we can cut air quality related deaths by around 15%.
- By reducing air pollution levels, we can help countries reduce the global burden of disease from respiratory infections, heart disease, and lung cancer.
- The WHO guidelines provide interim targets for countries that still have very high levels of air pollution to encourage the gradual cutting down of emissions. These interim targets are: a maximum of three days a year with up to 150 micrograms of PM10 per cubic metre (for short term peaks of air pollution), and 70 micrograms per cubic metre for long term exposures to PM10.
More than half of the burden from air pollution on human health is borne by people in developing countries. In many cities, the average annual levels of PM10 (the main source of which is the burning of fossil fuels) exceed 70 micrograms per cubic metre. The guidelines say that, to prevent ill health, those levels should be lower than 20 micrograms per cubic metre.
Chiang Mai isn’t the only place that suffers from temperature inversions that create health hazards, and in fact it is a common problem for much of the basin and range country in the western USA. My colleagues at Utah State University suffer through an annual period of very poor air that gets trapped along the Wasatch Range every winter (see NOAA, National Weather Service Forecast Office, Salt Lake City, UT). Therefore I plan to avoid going to Logan in the dead of winter. Therefore I plan to avoid going to Logan in the dead of winter.
As bad as the problem is in Chiang Mai, it is even worse in other parts of Thailand, and across much of Southeast Asia. The link between anthropogenic pollution — inclusive of greenhouse gases — and a plethora of health issues ought to be at least as compelling a reason for us to cut emissions than the far more difficult to understand link to AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming.)
As I have alluded to earlier, if people can see how these issues can impact them in more immediately pressing ways they are more likely to care about action. I always thought the AGW debate was too esoteric and too complicated to explain to a general population that is bombarded with too much information on a daily basis. Whereas the “hey, this stuff can kill you” message is one that just might get through. As for me, I plan to avoid these areas when the air gets like this, so my forays into Southeast Asia will try to avoid the February-March season, and for good measure April too because it is so bloody hot! I am lucky enough to have the freedom to choose my residence times. For most of Chiang Mai’s population they don’t have that luxury, and they just have to endure the best they can. In the meantime, if you travel to northern Thailand, Laos or Myanmar in February, you might want to bring your gas mask.
PALISADES, NEW YORK — My hands floated above my head, rotating in all directions, swaying weakly like reeds rustling in a gentle breeze. At least that was the image I held in my head, clouded as it was by the anesthesia. Between my hands I saw Orawan at the foot of the bed, staring at me with great relief in her face.
“Hey baby, how are you?” I asked almost a little too cheerfully, as I dropped my arms to the bed. ”Come here, give me a hug.” I was seriously groggy, and it was difficult to stay awake. I have memories of an alarm going off next to my head and a nurse urging me to breathe, happening more than once. I am not sure if that really happened or if it was imagined, but my memories from those few hours are hazy.
“Hey, go easy there.” Orawan chided as she took my hand. ”Try not to move too much.” I could sense the massive relief she was feeling, after waiting nearly 4 hours to see me after I left her standing in the hallway as they wheeled me into the theater.
The surgery was a success, or so I was informed. At least I could still move my arms, and I didn’t see a respirator anywhere in sight. I quickly checked for a colostomy bag and was relieved not to find one. I was still dopey enough that I couldn’t feel any pain yet (that would come in time), and the intense pain I had lived with for the past five weeks appeared to be gone, as the bits of ruptured disk had been removed from my spine, relieving the pressure on my C7 nerve head.
So, what happened? The week before I returned from Asia, on March 12, I awoke with a burning agony running down my left arm that would not desist. I didn’t know the extent of my injury until I had gotten home to New York and had an MRI, after a week of unrelenting pain in my left arm and under my scapula. It was a very uncomfortable flight across the Pacific back to New York, made tolerable only because of a class upgrade and lots and lots of drugs.
The MRI showed that I had clearly ruptured the disk between my C6 and C7 vertebrae, and surgery was pretty much the only option. Though I don’t remember it, I had told Dr. Quest that I loved him, emphasizing that it was not in any manner that should elicit his alarm, but love just the same. He took care of me as promised, and now that it was over I felt a massive sense of relief. Now, six weeks after surgery I am mostly recovered, with only minor pains and numbness as reminders of those terrible 5 weeks.
So what has this to do with climate change? Well it is the reason for my absence from this blog, since I couldn’t sit at my desk for more than 20 minutes at a time, and the reason for me barely accomplishing any work for more than a month. And now that I am recovering, I face a mountain of work the likes of which I have never seen, but never have I been so thankful for being able to work.
It had surely been a run of bad luck since my last entry, starting with the infection in my scalp from hitting that doorjamb in Chiang Mai, an infection that was not even cured when I developed a terrible bronchitis from the smoke and haze of Chiang Mai’s annual February foul air festival (a phenomenon that is related to climate change). After my return from Yunnan I went to Taipei for a week of lectures and meetings, and Taipei’s far cleaner air began healing my lungs, but I was still with a very deep cough that would often wrench me from sleep. I then went to Vietnam for a week for the opening of the International Center for Tropical Highlands Ecosystems Research, with even cleaner air in Dalat, and that just about finished off the bronchitis. But scarcely two days back in Chiang Mai, back in the horrible air, and I began to cough once again. It was then, on Monday the 12th of March that I awoke in such pain. The doctors believe that it may have been the pressure from coughing that served as the final straw in rupturing my disk, but in truth the injury was probably the result of a lifetime of accumulated injuries and strains, football, hockey, basketball, coring trees and carrying a backpack. It could have been any and all of those things.
So, I am back now, ready to catch up on a few entries I have wanted to write. I apologize to Lori for the long delay and I hope she can forgive me, and welcome me back. The way I see it things can only go up from here, now that Dr. Quest delivered that thousandth cut.
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.