Geohazards in Bangladesh
Earthquakes, floods, sea-level rise and sudden shifts in river courses threaten many of the 150 million Bangladeshis living in the low-lying Brahmaputra River delta. Scientists from Lamont-Doherty, Dhaka University and other institutions have begun a five-year project to understand the hazards and the possible hidden links among them. Lamont seismologist Michael Steckler keeps us up to date on the work.
It was time to pack up and leave. Shofiq, who is from Sylhet, was dropped off near his home and the fellowship of the rocks was broken. We settled in for another long drive. We made an impromptu stop at one of the numerous brick factories scattered across Bangladesh. Here, the workers immediately started snapping pictures of us with their phones. We walked past the rows of drying unfired bricks to the massive kiln built from the bricks themselves. We saw them feeding coal into the hot, actively firing part and unloading bricks from the completed quadrant. This would be followed by loading of raw bricks for the 12-hour firing. This factory makes around 9,000,000 bricks in the six-month season. Although it was their lunch break, they demonstrated the mixing of the mud with a little sand and let me carry a half-full wheelbarrow load to where the bricks were
shaped. I spilled a full load when I tried to move it. The experienced brickmakers took about 30-seconds per brick.
We stopped for lunch at the same roadside restaurant, then went to find Wari-Betashwar. Getting to the archeological site was not easy, but a mixture of my hand-held GPS with a Landsat image and a Bangladeshi phone with completely inaccurate Google maps eventually got us there a little after 4 p.m. We toured the site with the chief archeologist, but all the excavations had been filled in to protect them during the off-season. As we walked around the 600m by 600m protective wall, Prof. Rahman explained the history of the site. This urban
center was founded around 500 BC on land slightly uplifted by one of the anticlines. The slight extra elevation protected the land from flooding. The site was by the side of an old path of the Brahmaputra River and was thus a major trading center. Artifacts from as far as Greece and Rome were found here. After a gap in the record, the city flourished again in the 7th century AD, before being abandoned. The rise and fall of the center may be tied to avulsions, or switches in position of the Brahmaputra, making the site an interesting confluence of tectonics, rivers and people.
Continuing on, the students got a taste of Dhaka traffic as we approached our hotel near the airport. Now came the real
splitting up of the group. The foreigners would stay overnight to begin our return home, while the Bangladeshis would fight the traffic to return to Dhaka University and their homes. Many of us spent most of the time until our 2:30 a.m. departure talking. Twenty-three of us and our luggage and equipment managed to squeeze into a 21-seat bus and made it to the airport. Now, once again problems with our tickets arose. While most of us were fine, almost half only got boarding passes as far as Abu Dhabi, or none at all. Eventually they fixed the problem for most of them, and all of us were able to board the delayed aircraft. The delays here and in the flight to New York and Chicago will mean that the vast majority will miss connections. At least my nightmare scenario of missed flights and connections was happening on the way back. Not the smoothest ending, but it has been a great trip and a very successful field school. Several of the students are trying to figure out how to get back to Bangladesh, and a lot of lasting friendships and connections have been made.
The drive from Tangail to Sylhet turned out to be grueling. We took a longer route that skirted Dhaka to avoid the traffic jams that people hit earlier in the week. Unfortunately, with the slower buses that route took 13 hours. We didn’t hit our lunch stop until 4:30 p.m., where Badrul and Ashraf had been waiting to join us for five hours. It was dark by the time we drove past the first anticlines, and we didn’t get to the resort until 11 p.m. We picked our roommates, got our rooms and had a very late dinner. Most field trips have a “death march” hiking a long way through forest, swamps, hills or deserts to get to a remote outcrop. We have a “death bus ride” instead.
The new resort where we were staying was tucked away in a corner of Bangladesh along the Shari River about a kilometer from the Indian border. With a cold pool and only slightly warmer not-hot tub, views of the woods and hills, this is by far the nicest place I’ve stayed in Bangladesh. Given the late arrival, we delayed the start of the classroom day by an hour. The classroom was in a separate building closer to the river The first classroom day covered the stratigraphy and structure of the sediments and rocks we would see the next day. With lots of questions, the day ran late.
We started early and argued over an outcrop on the driveway of the resort. We continued down to the Shari River, where I had previously visited the geology by boat. Numerous
country boats were mining and transporting sand from the river. We worked along the shore, climbing over and visiting outcrops. The beds dipped steeply into the ground, folded by the tectonics, but also provided evidence that a large braided river used to flow here. One possibility is that it was the Brahmaputra from a time before the uplift of the 2 km-high Shillong block pushed it 200 miles to the west. Eventually, we could not go farther along the river. We took an inland path farther north, but when we rejoined the shore, we were blocked again. A short time later, after a conversation with the Bangladeshi border guards stationed here, they flagged us a passing boat. It ferried us across the river, but not before
several on our party practiced their cliff jumping technique.
After spending some time on an outcrop where we were filmed last year, we took an inland path. Along the way we met Johnny the elephant, and a few groups of students got elephant rides. We continued past tea gardens and rice paddies and finally emerged to a large outcrop of shallow marine sediments along the river. At this earlier time, the coastline was north of us, and the delta was prograding to the south as a result of all the sediments eroding from the Himalayas. The younger river sediments we had seen earlier had been deposited after the coast had pushed past here. We stopped for lunch, looking across the river at the India-Bangladesh border and a pile of watermelons waiting for a
boat to take them downstream. Two students swam across and purchased two for dessert. Then Badrul flagged down a large boat to taxi us downstream back to where we started.
After a few geology stops along the way, we reached Jaflong. At this site, there is a mixture of mining of sands and gravels from the river, and tourists looking to view the massive Shillong uplift in India. We stopped at an overlook near our GPS and seismology stations. Then a group of us descended to some outcrops and the chance to join the tourists at the international border. The river had shifted a little since I last was here, and now the best viewing site was officially in India. The Indian and Bangladeshi border guard let us and everyone else cross the
border to the little spit of land for a better view. Many photos later, we walked back to the buses and returned to the resort. Dinner was delayed and about half of us took the opportunity for a dip in the freezing pool to rinse off the sweat and grime.
Our final classroom day conversation included multiple aspects of the interaction of the rivers and the tectonics that our project focuses on. We ended with several students presenting their research from places across the globe. The last item was a group photo close to the Shari River. The last field day took us farther southwest to Sylhet City itself. The Cricket Stadium is surrounded by outcrops that we walked around, passing a pet monkey as well. After lunch at the stadium and a peek inside, we had to make a decision. There was not enough time for
both the outcrops at the airport and shopping in Sylhet. The group split, and each bus went to one of the sites. I chose the outcrop. The river sediments at the airport were clearly different from the stadium and showed that the sediments were deposited while the 80m-high Sylhet anticline was growing. They were muddier where the anticline was tilting the land northwards, and sandier with gravels on the other side of the anticline where the southward tilting had steepened the river. We headed back, stopping to at least buy some tea from the region. However, we got back too late to hold the bus vs. bus cricket match. Just some practice would have to do, until the BBQ that evening.
It has been an incredibly busy week. We have had between 42 and 48 people here for the field school, including 35 students and 12 instructors (seven to 10 at a time). The first day was very light for the jet-lagged students, just a short introduction to the field school and some background, and then introductions all around as we started to get to know each other. The final group of nine students finally arrived around 9 p.m. They were the most worn-out, bedraggled bunch of travelers I have ever seen.
After a good night’s sleep we started on the first classroom day. Our full five days near the Brahmaputra River would focus on the river processes and the stratigraphy they produce. We stopped the lectures at 4 and all piled into the bus
to see the embankment built to protect the city of Sirajganj from the westward migrating river. As is often the case in the dry season, they were repairing the embankments from last summer’s collapses. We rented two country boats and sailed along the embankment and walked back to the buses on the top of it. It is an impressive structure, but in need of continual repair to keep up with the river.
The next two days were spent on the river and its mobile islands, called chars. Setting up the equipment for the river surveying was hampered by a lack of power for drilling holes. A Bangladeshi drill and bow solved the problem, but not before rearranging the schedule. On the first day we all visited the char near the 5 km
Bangabandu Bridge over the river. We spent the day viewing sedimentary structures and seeing the villages on this island that is almost entirely underwater during the monsoon. For the second day, we had to split the group. One contingent joined Jim Best as we surveyed the river with an ADCP, which measures water velocities from the top to the bottom of the river, and a sidescan that provides images of the bottom on either side of the boat using sound. The other, yielding to student requests, went to Tangail, the nearest city, for shopping. When everyone returned, we held a cricket match, with most Americans learning the rules on the fly. We finished the five overs per side as darkness fell.
We went back to the classroom the next day for more lectures on remote sensing of changes on the delta, stratigraphy,
subsidence and arsenic contamination. The hands-on experience was analysis of two sets of well samples that had been drilled the days before. Everyone had a chance to describe the samples, measure magnetic susceptibility and use a portable XRF machine to measure chemistry. We have found that magnetic susceptibility and strontium content are a good way to characterize whether sediments have come from the Brahmaputra River or not.
Finally, our last field day here was doing a resistivity imaging survey over the two bore holes and across the boundary between the Brahmaputra floodplain and the upland strata of the Madhupur tract. Generations have debated whether the transition is a fault contact or not. We would collect some data to try to answer the question. The students also got
to visit another tube well being drilled. Tube wells, drilled primarily for drinking water, is a local drilling method whereby a team of a handful of people can drill a 100m well in a day by hand. After everyone helped set up the 750m long resistivity line, most of the American students went to see the tube well drilling. The Bangladeshis, who have all seen tube well drilling, stayed with me to help run the resistivity line. As it turns out, Liz Chamberlain was pulled into a local villager’s home to have her hands tattooed with henna by a woman and her daughters. She missed the tube well drilling, but gained an exciting personal experience. It was also the first time the students were in a Bangladeshi village. We were the center of attention and many photos were snapped by both sides. We gathered up the resistivity equipment and then had informal student
presentations before the final night barbeque. We had successfully completed the first half of the course, and all the students (and instructors) were bonding.
Feb. 21 is Language Day in Bangladesh. It is a holiday, now adopted by the UN as International Mother Language Day. It commemorates a day in 1952 when a crowd of Bengali students protesting Pakistan’s adoption of “Urdu and only Urdu as the official language of Pakistan” were fired upon by the police. It marks the beginning of the move towards the independence of East Pakistan, the future Bangladesh, from Pakistan. It is a time of plays, book fairs and poetry reading celebrating the Bengali/Bangla language. There are also laying of flower wreaths at the Shahid Minar, the monument where the killings occurred near Dhaka University, and many smaller copies throughout the country.
For us, it was a travel day. A long eight-hour drive from Khulna in SW Bangladesh across the Ganges River and the Jamuna River, as this section of the Brahmaputra is known, to our home for the next week. The eight of us in our
party left the Bawali in two vans, stopped to pickup equipment, and settled in for a long uneventful drive, or as uneventful as driving in Bangladesh can be.
The next day my group went to Mawlana Bhashani Science and Technology University to try to install a new GPS. After various meetings and cups of tea, we explored the rooftops looking for the perfect site for the antenna. Unfortunately, the building we were in was not quite finished. It was a good site, except the columns on the roof were still a mass of rebar and the concrete was yet to be poured. More meetings, coffee, sweet desserts, and we checked out other roofs. Many buildings at the relatively new university are unfinished. The older finished ones are lower and the clear view of the sky we need is blocked by trees. The
first roof was the best choice, but would not be ready for three months. The best we could do was to set up the GPS box and leave all the equipment there. Humayun will come and finish the job in May. Without the installation work, we continued to meet people and have tea, lunch and more tea. We finally left around 4. Time to go back to the Elenga Resort, where we were staying, and prepare for the arrival of students for the Field School.
Our NSF grant from the PIRE (Partnerships for International Research and Education) has a large emphasis on providing American students with international research experience. One of the things we proposed was a two-week Field School in Bangladesh. We have 15 U.S. students, 15
Bangladeshi, a few other invitees (France, Singapore, India) plus the scientists and students from our project and our advisory board. Most were scheduled to arrive on Sunday. During the day, I started receiving messages about delayed and cancelled flights. My nightmare scenario was arrivals scattered over several days with no way to know where or when. Most of the delays were absorbed by the long layovers at JFK and O’Hare, where experienced Bangladesh hands would lead them to the promised Field School. Our travel agent shifted one of the cancellations to another flight.Then I learned that Steve Goodbred, leader of the JFK troop, had his flight cancelled and would fly a day later. Mike Howe, a grad student with one trip to Bangladesh, was in charge. Worse, the flight was delayed and could miss its connection in
Abu Dhabi. One student was MIA. I stayed up late to follow the flight and, yes, it missed the connection. I went to bed thinking that most of the U.S. students would be a day late.
I awoke early to find that they had been rebooked through Delhi and would arrive late afternoon. Better still, I learned that the missing student had been rebooked to the Chicago route. Then Humayun called and asked if I was meeting the on-time group for breakfast. I rushed out and Babu drove Chris and myself to the Parjatan restaurant across from the Martyr’s memorial. We got there just after they did. We had breakfast and then dodged traffic to cross the street to the memorial. While there, the Dhaka University contingent arrived for breakfast and we joined them. The Field School was on. Three-quarters of the people had arrived; most of the rest would be here by dinner. Only Steve and Ryan would be a day late.
When we got cell phone signal back, we found things did not go according to plan. Scott’s flight had a medical emergency that required a stop in London, so he missed his connection. So did the GPS box, so they both arrived the morning of the 18th. He was not in Khulna already working. He wasn’t working on the compaction site. Between the flight delays and the ship delays, we had lost a day.
Since I couldn’t meet Scott, it was best for me to go to Polder 32 to check on the GPS there. However, not knowing the situation, we had sailed up the wrong channel. We wouldn’t get to the Polder 32 site until the afternoon. Polder is a Dutch term for an embankment. They have been built around much of the land in coastal Bangladesh to protect it from flooding from the brackish water and
improve farming. An unexpected side effect is that the protected land inside the polder, with no flooding or sediments, has sunk by over a meter. It is lower than the land outside the wall and lower than high tide. When Cyclone Aila hit the area in 2009, it breached the polder and the island was flooded for almost two years. We are studying both the physical environment and the human impact. My part is measuring the subsidence with GPS. The receiver here has a modem so the data can be collected by phone, but it hasn’t worked since Jan. 1. We went to the school that houses it, and I managed to correct the problem.
Now it was time to join Scott. I left the boat for a bumpy 2.5-hour drive to Khulna and the hotel. We had allotted two days for servicing and installing GPS in Khulna, but we also wanted to visit a 400-year-old temple in the Sundarbans. It is being looked at to measure subsidence since it was built. We could only visit the temple if we could do the GPS work in one day. We started a 7 a.m., picking up Hafizur and heading to his family’s house, where the compaction meter is. We hoped to finish it quickly, but there were problems with the GPS. The solar panel controller was bad and had to be replaced. Then I found the settings of the GPS were bad; I couldn’t communicate with it. After a struggle, I managed. The system went bad last June and had recorded no data since then. Scott collected data from the compaction meter and surveyed the monuments, while
I got the GPS going again. When it was time to leave, we found that the Islamic family had prepared a huge lunch for us, and we had to stay and eat: sweet rice appetizer, two kinds of fish, chicken, vegetable, rice and a rice pastry in palm juice for dessert.
When we left to go to Khulna University (KU), our chance for the temple looked bleak. We met Professor Rakib Uddin, who did not get our sense of urgency. The GPS at KU hadn’t been working for years. Set up in the Urban Planning Department, the 20-year-old receiver needed constant care to keep going. We had installed these obsolete instruments when we first started working in Bangladesh and had almost no funding. We would be reestablishing the site, replacing everything.
Then we would install a new receiver in Rakib’s office in Environmental Sciences. As long as we had some overlap of the two receivers, we could combine the measurements for a longer record. After various formalities, we went to the office. We would need to buy some extra equipment, but the professor had to leave. We called everyone to say we could not do the temple. Then Rakib got the professor to leave the key so we could keep working. It was now a maybe. We arranged for the forest permits not knowing if we could use them. Allan and Towfique went shopping while Scott and I did what we could. By the time they got back and we finished, with multiple time-stealing problems along the way, it was dark. Rakib stayed late and Scott and I rushed to install the new GPS. The new ones are easier to work with, but
everything takes time. By the time we finished it was almost 9 p.m.
We rushed to the hotel and packed overnight bags. Bachchu’s other boat, the Mowali, would take us to the Bawali. We left at 10 p.m. after less than 24 hours in Khulna. It took 4 hours to reach the Bawali west of Polder 32. It was 2 a.m., but we made it. No dinner, but a chance to see the only Hindu Temple in the Sundarban. With two armed guards for tigers and a local guide, we sailed to a small channel south of the temple and took the launch to go into the forest. The channel got smaller, with branches occasionally sweeping across the boat. We got stuck, but the tide was rising. Then we had a long hike through the muddy forest, across a log bridge and more mud.
Finally we got there. After examining the temple, we decided more work was needed before we accepted the low subsidence rate estimated for the site. We also visited the rubble of the home for the local community and their protective wall. They were sent here to protect the region from Arakan and Portuguese pirates. They were the ones who built the Shakher temple. We could head back down the channel and return to Khulna on the Bawali. Despite all the problems, we had accomplished all of our goals for this part of the trip.
In Bangladesh we find that nothing ever goes according to plan, but we have always been able to accomplish our goals. So far on this trip, we have had to adjust from before we even got on the plane. The snowstorm on Feb. 13 cancelled Scott and his student Allan’s flights to New York from Wilmington, N.C. It looked like they would be delayed by a day, but then it worked out for them to drive to South Carolina to catch a flight. I was then able to pick them up on my way to take them to the airport for our flights to Bangladesh. There were seven of us going there together, but only six made it onto the plane. There were problems with his ticket, probably from the attempts to get to New York, and he couldn’t get it fixed in time to make the flight. Allan’s ticket was OK, though.
Not having Scott meant rearranging our plans. Plan B. We switched the order of things. Allan and I would go to Hiron Point in the Sundarbans mangrove forest first, since I could service the GPS there alone, but needed him for most of the other work. The silver lining was one of my equipment boxes didn’t arrive. It would not arrive until the next day when Scott could pick it up. I didn’t have to delay leaving Dhaka. After stopping by Dhaka University, I headed to Khulna to join Chris Small and others on the M/V Bawali. Chris was able to rearrange his work so we could sail to Hiron Point first. We got to the ship around 4 p.m. after a day of driving and a two-hour ferry ride across the Padma River, as the combined Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers is known. We waited for Kushal and his students from Khulna University to arrive, then started the trip to Hiron Point near the coast.
We made good time and got to Hiron Point in the morning. We installed a GPS at the forest ranger station near a tide gauge. The tide gauge measures the water level relative to land, a mixture of sea level rise and subsiding of the land. Our GPS measures just the subsidence of the land, accurate to 8 mm each day. The combination of rising sea level and sinking land puts Bangladesh at greater risk of inundation. Thus the sediment deposited by the rivers is critical for maintaining the land and the mangrove forest. So far, it looks like sediment is keeping pace in the natural environment, but there are problems where man has made changes. We installed the GPS in October 2012. While we put in communication equipment, the site is so remote that there was no cell phone signal to download the data. Hence, our visit to collect it manually.
Everything looked fine, but when I tried to connect to the GPS, I couldn’t. The set-up for the communication equipment meant the settings were different and locked. After a frustrating hour of attempts, including a hard boot to reset the system, I finally found the right settings to talk to the device. The trip wasn’t in vain. Downloading the data, I found something had gone wrong last July. We had good data until July 19, then one giant file with a date in 2025. I hope that it actually contains good data, but I won’t know until I get back and can get it to someone to look at it. Even better, my hard reboot cleared out the problem, and the GPS started recording data properly again. Even if we have a data gap, we will still be able to see the data trend for the subsidence rate. Taking two days to come down here was worthwhile.
The next problem was that the Bawali couldn’t get out of the small channel by the ranger station until the next high tide. We were stuck for eight hours. We used the time to explore the channels, but we would not be able to get to our next stop on schedule. Time for another change in plans. We are up to Plan C. We decided to go back so I could get off the boat and join Scott, who has hopefully arrived. We will do our on-land work and then rejoin the Bawali in a day and a half, if all goes according to plan. Not a sure bet on this trip.
Prior to the late 1700s, the Brahmaputra River flowed farther east by up to 100 km. It then switched, or avulsed, into a straight north-south route, possibly triggered by an earthquake in 1787. The small river whose course it usurped was called the Jamuna River. Now, below the avulsion point where what is now the Old Brahmaputra deviates from the present course, the Brahmaputra is called the Jamuna. The last two days were upstream of that location. Now we are downstream of it and thus on the Jamuna River. Our first stop was Sirajganj. This town is protected by a stone embankment. The river has been migrating to the west, threatening the town. As a result, the embankment now protrudes into the river. When I was here in 2011 I saw several collapses along the embankment and my class
saw them repairing it in 2012. They now have a lot more riprap at the base to protect it.
We drove along the embankment, a nice promenade, to the ghat and got a fast boat. Chris had picked out an area with a lot of diversity, so we could efficiently do our sampling. We checked our notes and found the char that had joined to the very large stable island was not the one we visited in 2005. That char was now a thin sliver. We stopped at the head of Katanga Char, only 2 years old, where the high ground was stabilized by grasses and people were growing peanuts and rice on the flanks. We then crossed a channel to the tail of the next char to the north. Here, what had been a grass-covered highland had been
ravaged by the river. Tufts of grass that had help on were surrounded by large scours over a meter deep. The little remnants had the same teardrop shape as the larger chars. Here and on another small char, we were able to collect all the samples we needed. We headed for the ghat and our hotel with an outside chance of taking their boat to the char I visited with my students last year. However, before arriving, we finally found green coconuts for sale. We had been searching for days for green coconuts. The seller cuts off the top with a machete, inserts a straw and you drink the refreshing coconut water. Afterwards, he splits it and you can eat the coconut jelly, not yet matured into the coconut meat. To add to our enjoyment,
Chris also found a shop selling the wasabi potato chips he had been searching for. With the extra stop and the slow check-in process, we abandoned visiting the char, but it was still early, so we went into Tangail for some shopping, although we found most shops closed as it was Friday.
For our last stop in the field, we continued south to the confluence, where the Jamuna meets the Ganges to form the Padma River. There are ghats for crossing the Padma and for crossing the Jamuna. We went to the later, which is smaller now that there is a bridge over the Jamuna. As the chars shift, so does the ghat. We had to walk for the last ½ km to the rental boats as Babu’s van could not go. We started at the southern end of Shivayala Char, a large char at least 30-40 years
old. However, the southern end had been eroded and then grew back. Where we were was only few years old. From there we went to the next, newer char for examining and sampling as it showed a lot of variety on the satellite imagery. That done, our next stop was a piece of fluviotourism, the confluence or actual meeting point of the Brahmaputra and Ganges Rivers. We stopped upstream and walked down the long narrow char. There were huge scour pits from the turbulence of the two rivers meeting during the monsoon. The point where the tow rivers met wasn’t as clearly defined as in 2005, but we waded around and found it our final group photo. Our work was done and it was time to return to Dhaka for some final meetings and a last hartal, and then home. As usual here, many things did
not go as planned, but with some adjustments, everything we planned got done.
We left the pleasant house in Kushtia to resume our nomadic existence. We spent a full day driving to northern Bangladesh. We will now work our way downstream stopping at multiple places along the Brahmaputra River. Finding little traffic, we drove past Rangpur, where we will be staying to the Tista River, a tributary of the Brahmaputra. While it is a large river during the summer monsoon, today it was a shallow stream with exposed sandbanks and people growing crops in the middle of the channel. Chris decided the hour we had before sunset was enough time, so we climbed down the embankment and hired a boat to cross the river. It was shallow enough that we saw children wading across and Chris got out and walked the rest of the way, followed by the chidren. Water diversion projects upstream means
there is little water here in the winter. Some exploration, some sampling, some photos and we were done.
We were up early for the long drive to the Brahmaputra. We hadn’t planned on coming this far north, so we didn’t have maps of this years arrangement of the river. I found two possible places for boat hires and ended up choosing Chilmari as the place easiest to get a boat. When we got the to river agound 11am, we found a cliff. Apparently ~1 mile of the coast had eroded here. An old woman chastised us that we should either prevent the bank erosion or give them money so they could move. We learned the boats were a few hundred meters upstream where you could walk down to the water’s edge. Along the way we
passed a group digging up the topsoil along the cliff to sell before it toppled into the river. We could see the cracks where the next pieces of land would be lost.
We bought some snacks for lunch and hired a boat. The fist char (sandy island) was unnamed, but 5 families from Bazradiarkhata Char had settled the north end and started farming, growing squash, wheat and dal. The char was only 5-6 years old. The families still returned to the larger char in the summer and New Bazradiarkhata Char, as we called it, was chest deep in water during the summer. We continued north to Kachkol Char. This char was 8-10 years old. However, it was now attached to Bazradiarkhata Char. The corn, wheat, dal, etc. growing was being farmed by
people from Bazradiarkhata Char. The village we visited were people who only moved there 6 months ago when their village and land on a char was claimed by the river. They were working a paid laborers and did not have their own land to farm. They were concerned that Meredith be careful of the sun so she wouldn’t get burned. They also suggested that if she moved to the char, she could get dark like them. We then went downstream to Bazradiarkhata Char itself. This char was formed during the major 1988 flood when 2/3 of Bangladesh was submerged. Now, 25 years later it had lots of trees homes, crops, an elementary school and an adult education center. We were surrounded by children, particularly Meredith. She could get the girls to pose for her,
but I could not. On the side of the village, there were great sedimentary features and Meredith and I measured a channel for some flow calculations. At all of there sites Chris sampled and documented the sediments and vegetation cover. By now it was getting late, so we left and circled the downstream end of New Bazradiarkhata Char. Newer and still unpopulated, the cut banks showed amazing patterns of crossbedding from the migration of the sand waves that built the char during high water. We explored this end of the char as the sun set over the right bank of the Brahmaputra.
Today, February 21st, is Language Day commemorating the 1952 martyrdom of students protesting Pakistan’s law making “Urdu and only
Urdu the language of Pakistan” when the Pakistan army opened fire. The ultimately successful language movement in the 1950s marked the beginning of the path toward independence. On our drive to Gaibanda, we saw numerous troups of school children heading to their local Shahid Minar, language day memorial, to pay their respects and drop off flowers. In Dhaka people laid numerous fantastic decorations made of flowers.
Gaibanda was the opposite of Chilamari. Here the coastline has grown outward and we had to walk out to the docks. We later discovered that the new land filled in what was the channel we crossed to reach Rosulpur Char in 2005. It is now attached to the mainland. The embayment by the coast is all that is left of the channel. Humayun again hired
a boat and we went south to an area where Chris could see numerous color variations on the satellite image. We found the land has changed substantially from the image of early January. The channel we wanted was too shallow for the boat, so we had a very long walk. A new Landsat image to be acquired tomorrow should be close to what we saw. Where we stopped was Manikkor Char, only 6 years old. The tree covered area to the north was Kashkhali Char, which is 13 years old. We walked towards it and met a farmer. He told us that there was a town and bazaar here 30-40 years ago, but it was lost to the river. When it returned he received land because his grandfather had owned land here. Such is life on the ephemeral chars. We continued walking towards Kashkhali, but wanted to cross to another area. Only Chris
and I walked through the muddy shallow waters of the embayment. In this area, which we called New Kashkhali Char, we met another farmer, but had no translator. Still, he helped us sample.
After finishing sampling, we went north to Rosulpur char that we visited in 2005. We showed the people photos on my iPad, but found that most of our photos were of people who resided there only temporarily due to their land being lost. They now lived across the channel to the east. Still we were welcomed and follow by lots of children and a few people remembered us from 2005. The teacher remembered Chris, but wasn’t sure about me. Overall, the village seems to be doing well with lots of corn growing on the char. We ended early, but then had a long drive to Bogra for our hotel.
We got to Khulna about 5 pm and met up with Chris Small, who was brought from the boat with all the Vanderbilt University people by Bachchu. This is the last segment of my trip. The next day, we went to an area near the compaction site. Chris had analyzed 10 years of MODIS satellite images and just west of the compaction site was an area that stood out for having increasing vegetation over that time. We drove to the site and then continued on the small dirt road that followed the small creek. We went around a bend and followed the road as far as we could with Chris snapping photos the whole way. We talked to locals at two places and the second one had the answer. Most of the rice fields were still fallow, but one area had a pump watering some fields. We walked over and immediately
became a center of conversation. This area had previously been converted to shrimp farming. About 15 years ago the BWDB built and embankment, which was the road we were on. This stopped the tidal flooding of the land inside the embankment. The shrimp company pulled out and as the land was cleared of its salt by successive monsoons, everyone switched to rice farming. That started about 8 years ago and the land has become more productive with time. This is what caused the long-term trend.
On our way out, we stopped at the compaction site. The Scotts had done everything but download the GPS data. Only the mother and youngest son were home. We were welcomed warmly and served cookies and pakan-pitha, a
pastry filled with a dal paste. Then I downloaded the data and visited the wells. We were invited for lunch and told that Mr. Islam would be upset if he knew we left without lunch, but we were already behind schedule. We had to go on to Kushtia near the Ganges. During the long drive, we found out that there was a hartal called for Monday. We had to rework our plans since we had a lot of driving to do that day. It was dark when we got to Kushtia, Humayun’s hometown. We were surprised to find we were staying in his aunt’s house. Only the caretaker was there and we split the 3 bedrooms. Staying in a home reinforced the plan we had come up with. We would need to stay here three nights. An added plus is we’re close enough to hear the protesters singing every night.
For our new plan, we went to the Ganges downstream of Rajshahi and back so we can go locally at Kushtia during the hartal. During the long drive it started raining. We also had trouble finding a ghat (dock) to rent a boat. We ended up driving to the river and then walking out on a semi-attached char (sandy island). The mud was incredibly slippery in the rain, but I only fell once. Chris sampled along the riverbank and then the two of us waded over to the char to sample some more. Chris will measure the spectra of these samples back home to calibrate his satellite analysis. He will be able to distinguish the percentage of different sediment types for each pixel of the satellite image, which we will then use to better understand the changes in the rivers. The chars move around, appear and disappear
every year during the monsoon. Meanwhile, we were getting soaked and called it quits. Good thing we didn’t go out on a boat for hours.
Today, is another hartal (general strike), however, we were able to walk to the Gorai River here in Kushtia. We went to a park where a lot of boats come to take people on rides, but none were here this early. Still, we managed to flag one down and hire it for the day. We went up the Gorai into the Ganges and headed upstream to Ranakor Char. We spent the day visiting three chars (sandy islands), stopping at multiple sites on each. The cold overcast day brightened as it went on. We did sampling and a lot of walking around examining the bedforms and varied sediment deposits. We could see 5 different scales of bedforms from the
chars themselves to the tiny ripples in the lows of larger waves. This area by Kushtia now has numerous chars and they are much more accessible than the ones we tried and failed to visit yesterday. When we returned in the late afternoon the empty park was filled with people.
After the resistivity, I was supposed to go to Khulna to join Scott and Scott on repairing the compaction meters. We have two places with sets of wells where we installed optical fibers. A local person uses a device to measure the length of the fibers each week by shining a laser through the fiber. Unfortunately several on the fibers have broken since we installed them. The Scotts will be repairing them, as well as the usual yearly measurements and data collecting. They went to the northern site first – we saw them heading north while the conclave group was heading south. I was going to join them for the southern site, but their work went so much faster than expected that they finished while I was doing resistivity. Thus there was no need for me to go to Khulna before meeting Chris Small for the river work. I spent the two extra days in Dhaka. I had plenty of people to look up that I didn’t expect to have time to meet.
On the first day, Humayun and I went to the US Embassy to meet with people who couldn’t make it to the conclave due to the hartal. Even the US Ambassador was going to meet us when he took guests to a resort in Sylhet. As Humayun and I passed through several layers of security, we ran into the Ambassador on his way out. We chatted for a few minutes and then went on to our meeting. After making it back to the university for lunch, we went to the Geological Survey of Bangladesh, where my main contact has been promoted to Director General. I showed him our results and we discussed collaborations, particularly on GPS. All around the university women were dressed on yellow, orange and red
saris for the first day of Bangla spring. Finally back to the Ambala Inn where I met up with the Scotts and Doug and all of us went to dinner with Chowdhury, my collaborator from the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB). He has gotten us a huge dataset on the water levels in the rivers and in groundwater wells. Well over a million individual measurement. Water is so central to life in Bangladesh that there is an excellent monitoring system in place that we use to determine the amount of water impounded in Bangladesh during the monsoon. It is over 100 billion tons of water.
The next day, we went to BITWA to try to obtain more detailed information about the tide gauges for examining sea level changes. Tide gauges measure the height of the water relative to the land, but here the land is sinking. We put 2 GPS
to monitor the land subsidence next to tide gauges. That will let us separate the sea level rise from the subsidence. The combined effect has Bangladesh worried about land loss and water salinification. We went meet with the wrong person twice before we finally found the correct person, a woman whose sister had been a student of Humayun’s. It will now be straightforward to get the detailed data. The afternoon was spent working with one of the students from the resistivity training. Sojon wanted to go through everything in detail so he knows how to run the system. Fayaz would have joined us, but he was out filming archeological sites with Doug. The two of them have taken the initiative to be leaders among the group. The 10-minute ride back to the Ambala Inn took an hour. An area just north of the
university has been blocked off because of the peaceful protests against the razakers, the groups that collaborated with the Pakistani army during the revolution and helped them in their killings. The Islamist party’s hartals for the release of their leader has lead to a larger movement wanting the death sentence for him and others. It is Occupy Dhaka. It was very strange to see women dressing in colorful clothing yesterday with headbands calling for death for the razakers. Finally, I arrived and waited for Meredith, the last of our party to arrive from NY for the river work. The bad traffic meant she arrived very late. Doug and I had a last dinner together at 11 pm in a local packed restaurant.
Today I am finally on my way to Khulna with Meredith and Humayun, with Babu as our driver, of
course. I am stuck waiting to get on the ferry across the Padma River, formed by the merger of the Ganges and Brahmaputra. Once across, we will be in the more leisurely and relaxing south to meet up with Chris in Khulna.
After returning from Sylhet, I left Dhaka the next morning for Comilla for 4 days to train a group of Dhaka University students and graduates on operating our resistivity imaging system. Many of the conclave people headed out to the Padma River, formed by the joining of the Ganges and Brahmaputra to do sampling for a remote sensing study of the rivers. I will be doing this later in the trip, but had other plans now. The transects of wells that we are drilling provide detailed vertical records of the sediments, but how do we connect the dots when the wells are 3-4 km apart? It turns out we can do it with electricity. Clay and mud has much lower electrical resistivity (or higher conductivity) than sands. The basic technique it to pound two pairs of electrodes (stainless steel rods) into the ground. We then use a car battery to
send a current between one pair and measure the voltage at another pair. The voltage depends on the rock type between the 4 electrodes. For our system, we have 84 electrodes that can be spaced up to 9 m apart and a long cable in 12 sections to connect them. A sophisticated resistivity device then sends current to one pair and measures the voltage at up to 8 other pairs at a time. The device is programed to do measurements with thousands of different combinations. The result is similar to doing and electrical catscan of the earth showing the distribution of sand and mud.
I came to Comilla with 6 trainees, Fayaz, Sojon, Jia, Rabi, Fuad and Paval. During the 4 days, they will work with me to learn to use the system
well enough to be able to carry out these surveys on their own. For the training site, we came to Comilla where to work around the Lamai anticline. It is the westernmost hill sticking up out of the floodplain. To help interpret the structure creating the anticlines, we need to know the dip, or slope, of the folded beds. This has been roughly done from topography, but the exposed topography is partly eroded. We want to image the boundary between the older Pleistocene sediments of the anticline and the younger Holocene sediments that cover them. Both sediments are similar, but the surface exposed during the last glacial period when sea level was 120 m lower has been altered to clay. This should show up as a dipping layer of low resistivity. We will do 4 lines, two on each side of the anticline to image the dipping beds.
Our first day was short because of the time it took to get here. We laid out a short line with 56 electrodes a short distance south of one of the wells that was drilled on the east side of the anticline. The car batteries we took along were not fully charged, so we hooked up Babu’s van to provide more power. That worked well and decided to use the car to run the equipmet the rest of the days. However, that meant the lines had to be where a car could go. Humayun did not join us because his wife has been ill. That meant we didn’t have a GPS to record positions or track where we were. We managed to use the GPS in my camera to get the positions of the line. We moved to our home for the next few days, the Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development or BARD.
The next day we shifted to the west side the next day. Google Earth became our tool for finding sites. With a USB modem we had slow, but continuous internet. We found a set of fields close to the one of our drill sites. We navigated to it by recognizing buildings, mostly gas stations from Google Earth. The fields were fallow, so we could cut across them. Everything was going smoothly. We finished early and I was able to spend the late afternoon teaching the students. That evening we processed the data for both lines. The first one showed the boundary we were looking for to be very shallow. A river had eroded part of the anticline. Thus we were on top of it and not on the flank. Good data, but it didn’t provide us with a slope. The other line had noise problems from a power line, but clearly showed the layer we wanted dipping ~3° to the west. The system was providing hard data.
We still needed a line on the east. We tried our first site, but Babu’s van could not drive to the line location. On to plan B, a country road on the west side. We drove our electrodes into the fields at the base of the road being careful not to disturb the growing vegetables. The data was marred by some power lines, but showed our layer for part of the line. It lined up well with the previous day’s results. For our final day, we need a good line on the east. I picked several candidates on Google Earth. The first was inaccessible, but I quickly found another road and we did it there. Because they were planting rice, the side of the elevated road was not useable. The top turned to not be that good a place. The data was much worse quality than any of the other sites. Still, it gave reasonable results. Humayun and Doug came out, so we interspersed working on the resistivity line with filming. That line competed our work here and the training and we all headed back to Dhaka. The students were trained and we learned how to select good sites.
Now that the hartal was over, we were free to travel as we wished. We also switched film crews. Doug and Diane from Earth Images are independent filmmakers that make PBS specials. They arrived in Dhaka on the morning of Feb 6 during the hartal, so could not travel here. Humayun arranged for them to be picked up by an ambulance, exempt from the hartal, and taken to the Ambala Inn to wait out the strike. That meant they were able to spend the day walking around getting footage of Dhaka without cars, a rarity. Colorful bicycle rickshaws ruled the road. They left Dhaka in the afternoon when the hartal was dying down and arrived at the Shuktara around 11 pm.
The geology that we saw over the hartal changed our drilling plans. Steve Goodbred was excited enough by what he saw to change the day’s well from the flat floodplain to the back of the anticline. He and the Vanderbilt team went there early in the morning with the AMNH film team to get their last shots before heading to Dhaka. That meant the rest of us had to stay away. Most of the group went to the Sylhet anticline outcrops near the cricket stadium and airport. I later learned that they found clear evidence of rivers cutting through the anticline while it was growing. It caused mud deposits from the ponding on one side and gravels from the steeper slope on the other. I was recruited by Doug for an interview and to take him up to the Jaflong area by the Shillong Plateau so he could film that. Nafisa and Mosher stayed with us. After they watched my interview from behind a
wall, our group headed north. At the site where Nano gave us an overview, I repeated his story with a 3D camera rolling. Nafisa, Mosher and I held conversations about the geology while Doug filmed us over and over. We then went over to the Rangapani River where border guards stopped us and informed us that foreigners were not allowed to film there. After some explanation from Nafisa, they call their superiors and we were OKed. The pits we had seen a few days before were now deeper and the miners had uncovered a large tree trunk and exposed boulders up to 6 ft across. We continued our conversations for the camera until the border guards told us it was time for us to go. Doug still tried to get more footage, including outcrops out of site of the guards until they followed and saw us still going. We left peaceably.
All the filming and multiple takes meant there was no time for Jaflong itself. We rushed back to the Sylhet Anticline in time to catch the drilling before it got dark. Since we only had a short ride back to the hotel instead of a 1-2 hr drive, a car full headed to Sylht City for shopping. As it was the last night of the conclave, we had a barbeque on the deck on the roof of one of the bungalows. They barbequed fish and tandoori chicken along with a host of other dishes and a procured bottle of vodka. An excellent end to the meeting.
The next day it was time to head back to Dhaka, stopping at a few of the anticlines from southern Sylhet on the way. As usual, getting everyone out and the cars loaded up took longer than expected. Nano and Ellie decided to stay another day in Sylhet and then go straight to the airport rather than have a day in Dhaka. Our group was shrinking. Jenn and Sanzida had already left early
because of ill relatives. A few people had canceled because of illness. We were down to about a dozen people heading to Dhaka. However, the defections and splitting of the groups the last few days made the field stops less unwieldy and more efficient. On the way south, we had a quick stop at Sreemongal, where a group from Singapore we are collaborating with put in a GPS. Then we saw tea gardens, a sure sign of an anticline. Tea needs well-drained soils and cannot be grown on the floodplains. However, the first tea plants were on flat land. The rising anticline had uplifted some of the floodplain on its flank, another useful observation. Then we entered the Rashidpur anticline proper. Several stops revealed that the dips of the beds were not preserved, limiting the value of the outcrops. We stopped for lunch in a tea garden and continued on to our GPS station and seismometer at a school in Chunarughat. In
2007 when we installed the site, we found the building we originally selected was unsuitable. It was brick made to look like reinforced concrete. We found this site by driving down the main street of the town on a Friday night. We found this school and contacted the headmistress, visiting her at her home on the weekend evening. The next morning we installed the site. Now on this visit, Humayun and I were again pressed into service for filming, along with a Nafisa, Mosher and Fayaz. By the time it was finished, we had to head straight back to Dhaka. Some quick stops at the next anticline revealed it too had poor outcrop. We then hit some of the worst traffic I had ever seen. The highway into Dhaka, never very fast, was at a standstill. Babu, our driver, turned around and led
us through back streets to alternative routes until we found one that was moving. It was almost 10 pm by the time we reached our hotel and officially ended the conclave and part one of my trip. Still it was extremely successful, pulling together the different groups and changing the direction of our research.
Our experience in in Bangladesh in nothing will go as planned, but somehow we are able to get everything done. Living in this ever changing land beset by numerous natural disasters has made Bangladeshis incredibly resilient and adaptable. This was tested over the last few days – and may continue to be over the next weeks – by a hartal. A hartal is a strike in which transportation is shut down. The party calling it sets up roadblocks and attacks cars and buses on the streets. Bicycle rickshaws and the green baby taxis are OK. This one was called by Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamic party. The reason was that their leader was sentenced to life imprisonment for war crimes during the 1971 Independence War. The religious
parties supported remaining part of Pakistan and are accused of helping the Pakistani Army in killings. Estimates are that 3 million people were killed in the war for independence with Hindus and intellectuals particularly targeted. The leader on trial was specifically accused of killing 12 and assisting in the killing of 369 others. The problem is that the Jamaat-e-Islami is part of the opposition coalition and many believe the trials are politically motivated to take down part of the opposition before the elections later this year.
On Feb 5, there was a hartal called that ran from 6am-6pm. Driving around in our vans was our of the question. Luckily, it was the day to visit outcrops on the Sylhet anticline, where our hotel is. The sites at the airport and cricket stadium
were out of the question. We found out later that there were bombs thrown in Sylhet, although, thankfully, no one was hurt by them. The third area of outcrops we planned to visit were right by our hotel. We walked to the sites situated by the tea gardens and tea factory to see them. They were not the greatest outcrops, but still provided valuable new data and discussions. We returned to the hotel for a late biryani lunch, a step up from the cold packet lunches we’re been having. For the rest of the afternoon, we held discussions around our large poster-sized maps, or relaxed. The Bangladeshi students took advantage of the early night to go into town after the hartal ended. This was also the day that the AMNH team was doing interviews, so we were able to have people walk back and forth to their makeshift studio in one of their rooms.
More serious was when a second day of hartal was called for Feb. 6. The visit of the U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh to our group was cancelled. But what were we to do now? We were to visit outcrops to the north and one of our drilling sites. After exploring several options, Humayun rented a very small pickup truck. This type of vehicle should be exempt from the hartal. To play it safe, we started our work by continuing along the same small road over the anticline that we walked on the day before. There are no roadblocks on a small country road. We continued the geologic work over the anticline. These young weathered sediments were hard to interpret confidently. However, we did see the dips of the strata switch from towards the south to towards the north
as we went over the crest of the anticline. We crossed where the floodplain sediments lap up against the folded strata. Our excitement about the interactions we are having in the field continues to grow. After completing this part of the drive, we came to a decision point. Would we continue to the main road and risk facing a possible roadblock? Did we want to travel that far on the back of a pickup? In the end, our group split up. The film crew rented a baby taxi and went off to get footage of the countryside. A second group walked back to the road over the anticline to visit more outcrop and pick potential drilling sites. Steve Goodbred was excited enough by what we saw to change tomorrow’s drilling site from the floodplain to the anticline. The interaction
at the conclave was now altering our project plans. It is working. The last group, including myself, continued as planned with the pickup. Not only was there no roadblock, but it was a pleasure to drive through Bangladesh with so few cars on the road and so little traffic. We got to the well site as they reached the maximum depth they could drill. Gas in the sediments impeded the drillers ability to lift the sediments out of the hole. We could see the gas bubbling up. We continued on to Jaintiapur and took a pleasant hike through a new set of outcrops and beautiful views. I personally found the evidence of a long gap in sedimentation 20-30 million years ago puzzling. As darkness fell, we had to leave the solution for another day. But at least the 2-day hartal was over.
Up to now, each group in our Bangladesh project has worked individually on fieldwork in their subject of expertise. Now that our project is now in it’s third year, we decided it was time to get together in the field to integrate our results. A major focus of the project is the interaction of tectonic forces and sedimentary processes. This week, is our opportunity to have experts on each interpreting the same outcops together. We have gathered a group of 9 Americans and 7 Bangladeshis in Sylhet in NE Bangladesh to what we have termed the “conclave”. I guess we have to send up a puff of white smoke if we all agree. Sylhet is an area where the large basement block of the Shillong Plateau and the Dauki Fault that bounds it meets the fold belt of the Burma Arc with its tea garden covered anticlines. It is also has a rapidly subsiding basin being filled with sediments in which the level of the rivers go up and down with sea level. Lots to see through different prisms. On top of the excitement of the conclave, we have a film crew from the American Museum of Natural History with us for the first 6 days to make a video to be shown in the AMNH and other museums about our project and the science we have been working on. After they finish, will we have another film crew from a company that makes PBS documentaries following us.
Everyone is doing their individual fieldwork before or after the conclave. Several of us arrived in Bangladesh just before the conclave, while others drove over from their fieldwork in western Bangladesh and two crossed the border from studying the Shillong Plateau in India. We all arrived and filled all of the rooms in the Shuktara Nature Retreat. For our first day, we headed to the Patheria Anticline with the Madhabkundu Waterfall. While the waterfall was spectacular, if took most of the day to get there. Pulling out maps after breakfast, we spent time discussing the region, slowed by the filming. Then the drivers took a wrong turn that took us and hour out of our water plus another ½ hour to double back via a faster road. It was 2:30 by the time we got there and almost 3:00 when we finally reached the falls. While there were great outcrops, we only had a hour there before having to start back. It was too late to visit our second stop and quite late before our cranky group got back to the resort for dinner. Overall, a disastrous first day.
Having gotten our bad day out of the way early, we had nowhere to go but up. And it did. We headed north toward the border with India and the Shillong Plateau. At the first stop we got an overview and our first view of the 2000 m high mountain and the geology while standing on one of the folds that mark the frontal area of the Dauki thrust fault. Then we went on to the Rangapani River where the large boulders are washed down from the plateau. There is a huge industry in Bangladesh mining rocks and gravel from the rivers along the border. Bangladesh has a shortage of rock that can be used in construction, particularly making concrete. The Indian border is clearly marked by the presence of rocks. On the Bangladeshi side they have all been stripped away and they are digging
pits to mine the rocks from the older river sediments. This results in beautiful exposure of the sediment layers and we scrabbled around in a pit while the workers mined the rocks around us. After a brief stop at the border crossing where trucks bearing rocks enter Bangladesh, we went to Jaflong, where the mining industry is even larger. The amazing thing about Jaflong is that besides being an industrial site with rock mining and noisy rock crushers, it is also a tourist site where people come to see the mountain. There are tourist kiosks, snack stands and guides mixed in with the industry. For us, there were also outcrops of the older strata from before the uplift of the Plateau. Our final stop was a visit to our GPS and seismometer station at Jalfong. Humayun and I were filmed explaining our work there while the others visited the geology exposed on the side of the hill we were on.
Day 3 was an exciting trip up the Shari River. We rented three wooden country boats and sailed up the river, crossing through exposures of sediments of various ages. The originally horizontal layers of strata have been deformed from the tectonics. The dip of the sediments started at 38° then increased to nearly vertical before decreasing back to ~45°. This folding is due to the sediments riding over structures beneath, possibly a fault. We also saw that the oldest sediments were marine and the seceding layers went to estuarine and then fluvial (rivers) due to the increasing amount of sediments coming from the Himalaya. Our boats traveled together and occasionally leap frogged from outcrop to outcrop. Chris Paola, our river specialist, also noted changes in the shape of the river indicating active tectonics. Our group of specialists is coalescing into a team. Meanwhile, we passed other teams of people dredging the sand and gravel from the river bottom using buckets into their boats.