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.
A new film takes viewers from the eastern highlands of India to the booming lowland metropolis of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh–and explores an ever-more detailed picture of catastrophic earthquake threat that scientists are discovering under the region.
Scientists from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the University of Dhaka and other institutions have been working for more than a decade to understand deeply buried geologic structures that could produce earthquakes here, one of the most densely populated places on earth. No one can predict when the next quake will strike, or how big it will be–but clearly there is potential for a very large one. “Some of this have long suspected this hazard, but we didn’t have the data and a model,” says Lamont-Doherty geophysicist Michael Steckler, leader of a recently published study outlining the threat.
Under Bangladesh, India and neighboring Myanmar, the scientists have found signs of a megathrust–the meeting of two gigantic moving tectonic plates, with one diving under the other. But the plates don’t seem to be moving right now; they are locked, and strain is building. The researchers say that when–not if–the plates do slip, destruction and casualties could be massive. Some 140 million people might be affected.
The hazard has been hard to assess up to now, because most of the region’s underlying geology is covered by the world’s largest river delta–miles-deep layers of sediment carried down from the Himalayas and built up over millennia. The team has deployed seismometers, GPS instruments, satellite imagery and other technology to draw up a picture of what is going on down below.
The region is unprepared. Not only are many people too poor to build earthquake-resistant structures. “From history, there’s been a lot of destructive earthquakes in this area, but there hasn’t been one in recent years, so people tend to forget,” said Lamont-Doherty geologist Leonardo Seeber. Geologist Humayun Akhter of the University of Dhaka, said, “Our cities are not built in a planned way, and this cannot be changed in a few years. So we have to work within this system, and teach our people how to cope.”
The movie was made by filmmakers Douglas Prose and Diane LaMacchia with support from the U.S. National Science Foundation. The NSF also funded the research.
The weather is miserable, but there is no let up in the forecast. However, we seem to be in a local area of less rain, and more importantly no lightning. The worst weather is in northern Louisiana. They are getting 15-20”. While waiting for a break in the weather, we assembled some of the wooden planks into walkway sections. As the rain let up a little, we finally decided to go for it and head to the site. We loaded up the mudboat and Don and Keith took a load over to lay down the walkway. Don is the technician
for the fiber optic system and Keith is a UNAVCO GPS engineer. Tim is a professor specializing in geodetics, while I have experience with subsidence on a variety of scales, including our GPS and compaction meters in Bangladesh. When they returned, we followed with more of the supplies. The wooden walkway allowed us to only sink up to our ankles instead of our knees in the mud. Carrying the supplies out, we started construction
on the structure that will hold most of the equipment – solar panels, GPS receivers, batteries, modem. Sinking the six 4×4 columns into the mud was tough, but less so than we envisioned. After that, we managed to get most of the structure built while Don worked on the compaction meters. We were completely soaked, but got a satisfying amount done. Returning to camp, we spent the rest of the day planning, buying more supplies, and dinner. Our biggest question mark is how to attach a GPS antenna to the reference rod that goes
down 37 meters to the bottom of hole 1. The size of the rod and the standard thread size for GPS equipment do not match. Adapters are not readily available. Tim and I wanted to install GPS antennas on both the reference rod and the upper casing, but it is not clear whether the two antennas will interfere. We decided against putting two on the same well, but may add it later if feasible.
The next day, the weather remains lousy, but we are still in a pocket of less rainfall
than much of Louisiana. We started out soon after sunrise. All the rain meant that the planks sank farther into the loose mud than the day before. By now, walking in thigh high muddy water all the time is usual. We split into different tasks. Tim and I mounted the solar panels, Keith set up the GPS antenna mounts and Don redid the compaction meter electronics. Later Keith and I set up the receivers and batteries while Tim and Don redid the conduit connecting the compaction meters to our control platform. Tor Tornqvist and a John, a
graduate student from Tulane University, visited us in the morning and went back to the camp via a pirogue, a small Cajun boat. As time went on, the rain lessened. Best weather we’ve had. We are working well together. Hardship makes for good bonding. By 2pm, we had finished all we could do today and called for Mark to take us back.
We decided we needed a machine shop to make the adapter, which needs to be stainless steel. That is not possible until Monday morning. The rest of our needs we could get at a hardware store. After
lots of discussion about the plans, Tim delayed his flight home. Don will decide at 10 am tomorrow morning if he needs to delay his flight. The aim is for everything but the reference rod to be done by midday tomorrow. If so, Don can leave. Keith will stay to the end, to set up he reference rod. Since so little is left that needs manpower, now that the major construction is done, I will leave as scheduled tomorrow morning. We are approaching completion of the site. While I hate leaving before it is completed, I have other commitments and this group can easily do the work without me. We will shortly have two extremely sensitive compaction meters and three GPS receivers to monitor ground subsidence and sediment compaction. If we can get more funding we will install another optical fiber in the middle depth hole and another GPS. Meanwhile we have the world’s best compaction meter in one of the world’s worst sites for fieldwork and solid ground.
P.S. Don delayed his flight and Sunday and Monday the group finished everything. A machine shop built the missing parts on Monday and Keith, as the only one remaining, will install it Tuesday. Success, despite the weather.
This summer I am visiting a different delta. I am in the Mississippi Delta in Louisiana rather than the Ganges-Brahmaputa Delta in Bangladesh. We are installing several GPS as part of a system of instruments to measure sediment compaction. In Bangladesh, we have installed two sets of wells drilled from 20-300 meters deep with stretched optical fiber strainmeters. We measure the length of the fiber every week and have been watching as they shorten when the sediments compact. Now, a group of us has been able to get
funding to put an improved system in the Mississippi Delta near where land subsidence and deposition is already being measured.The effort started a few years ago at a meeting on coastal subsidence in New Orleans, which worsens the problems of sea level rise. A group of us combined to propose a “supersite” where we could apply multiple methods to measure subsidence and compaction. Mean Allison and Tor Tornqvist were finally able
to raise enough money from the Army Core of Engineers to drill 3 wells and install new generation optical fiber strainmeters in them. These provide continuous measurements accurate to better than a millionth of a meter. The wells were drilled in January and are 37, 90 and 128 feet deep. Mark Zumberge’s team installed strainmeters in the shallowest and deepest wells in July. Now I am here in Myrtle Grove, Louisiana with Tim Dixon, Don Elliott and Keith Williams to install 3 GPS receivers at the site, two
attached to the casing and the tops of wells and on a rod that goes all the way to the bottom of the deepest well. These will give us the absolute elevations of the tops and, in one case, the bottom of the wells. We will also build a new platform to host the receivers, batteries, solar panels, and all the electronics, including the modem to transmit the data. Then all the gear will be separate from the wells.
After arriving and meeting up over dinner, we drove to the “camp”, house we are renting at the Myrtle Grove Marina near the site. It is usually used as a vacation home and for duck hunting. The site itself is only accessible by boat. It is only a 10 minute ride by mud boat, a flat bottomed skill that
can travel over almost no water. An air conditioning breakdown upstairs left us all sleeping downstairs on the couches and the floor. More importantly, the weather has been rain and thunderstorms for days. In the morning it was still raining pretty hard, but no lightning. After a lot of discussion on possible ways to do the installation, we were able to take advantage of a break, or at least lessening of the weather, to visit the site. Mark Brockhoeft took us out on a mudboat into the marsh. After working there with rain from above and mud and water below, we sailed back with a plan of how to proceed. Mark leant me better gear for working in the rain and mud, which were much worse than I expected. Later in the day, Don and Keith got the supplies we need and we started preparing to head out tomorrow to start construction, weather permitting.
We finished our work at the river transect. Now we had one more sample to collect. It was to the north where the abandoned valley is still flooded at the site of the tube well that started this idea. It is well BNGB013 along one of the transects that was done for the BanglaPIRE project. It was done along the side of a major “highway”, so will be accessible and it not far out of our way home. Alamgir had a contact in a nearby village and arranged, and rearranged a driller. We were glad to be heading back
to Dhaka. The hotel we stayed in was the best in Brahmanbaria, but it had bedbugs. In this moderate sized town, the choice of restaurants was limited.
The drillers arrived at our meeting place late. There was a fight between two villages the night before and some people were stabbed. They own a plot of land along the main road in the other village. Those villagers wanted them to swap it for land perpendicular to the road, but they refused. The land along the road is valuable for shops. The result was a fight until the police broke it up, but several people ended up injured. They came without their equipment so
they could sneak quickly through the other town. They got what they needed at the store where we met about 2 km west of the well site. I went ahead and located the exact place we wanted to sample.
Since the well had already been logged and sampled, we only needed to drill down to the sands, making sure the stratigraphy agreed. Relooking at the logs of the well, I realized that we barely had enough extension rods to make it to the sampling depth. Luckily we hit the sands with a couple of feet to spare. We
got our sample and headed for Dhaka. Of course, we hit terrible traffic and were late to dinner with other scientists from our project that just arrived from the U.S. Over dinner I learned that Kazi Matin Ahmed, one of the Dhaka University professors we work with was from a town right near our sampling. He said that growing up he would go to school by boat during the monsoon. The next day was packing up at the university and making copies of everything. We also had to pack up a number of GPS and seismic recorders that need to be returned to the U.S. for repairs. Unsalvageable was one from Madhupur that was destroyed in a fire. This trip was very successful; we achieved all our goals, although as usual, there were a lot of changes of plans on the fly. In Bangladesh, nothing goes as planned, but we always get everything
done. Bangladesh is a country of resilient people who know how to get things done.
We planned to drill four or five tube wells across the abandoned channel and pick one for OSL dating samples. With the success of yesterday’s tube well drilling, we were optimistic that we could actually do the sampling. We met the drillers in the morning and headed to the next site. Since only two or three people are needed for logging the well, we left Céline and Basu and the rest of us headed off to do a short resistivity line near the first drill site. We scouted it during the drilling of the first well. On the way to the resistivity
site, we selected locations for three more wells. Depending on time, we will either drill two and then the sampling well or just three stratigraphic wells. Since it will be only 2 meter spacing between the electrodes, it will be quicker to set up despite less people. We are only trying to image the channel, so we don’t need a larger spacing. The site was also drier than the first two resistivity lines. We laid it out and started collecting data. My only concern was that the route was used as a path for local farmers collecting hay. I didn’t want them to knock off the electrode connections or to have them
shocked by the pulses of electricity we sent through the electrodes.
Once the line was running, I headed back to the drill site. They once again found a think mud layer over sand. They continued drilling deeper and found the silt clay that marks the boundary between the Holocene and Pleistocene, when sea level rose following the end of the last ice age. This was a bonus and confirmed that we were on line with the Lalmai anticline farther south. We shifted to the next line, a more difficult location next to a pond, but they managed. I headed back to the resistivity line and found them starting to pack up the equipment. When I went to take a look at the instrument, I found it hadn’t finished. It had run out of memory for recording line and stopped. We quickly reinstalled the electrodes that had been
pulled that we still needed. I deleted some older files that had already been downloaded and restarted acquisition. We had only lost four of 584 command lines.
By the time the second well and the resistivity line were done, it was questionable as to whether we could do the sampling well, which will take longer. The drillers going off for a lunch break settled it. We would do a third tube well today. During the drilling, the skies that had been threatening all day opened up.
The drillers and loggers got completely soaked, but kept going and we completed our five-well transect of the river valley. In the evening we compiled all the logs and discussed a sampling plan. Rather than take four samples in one well, we decided to take two, one above and one below the sand-mud transition in two different wells.
The OSL sample is over 2” wide and the wells we drilled were 1.5” wide. The driller decided it was best to drill a 1.5” well to the depth of the first sample, a few feet above the transition, and then overcore it to 3.5”. Then 3” wide PVC pipe
was lowered to keep the well from collapsing. Finally, we put the sampler on the auger rods and lowered it to the bottom of the well. We, actually people younger and stronger than me, pounded the sampler 30 cm into the bottom. Then we all had to pull up on it to get it out. The next step was to extrude the sample in its liner into a thick PVC pipe casing. The sample must be kept in the dark, so this was done inside a black plastic bag. Then the entire sample is wrapped in the black plastic bag and taped securely. The ends and outside of the sample will be discarded and only the core of the sample will be used for dating. Later, sample preparation will all have to be done in a darkroom. I helped sample on my last trip, but the was the first time I was in charge of the procedure. It went well. After the first sample, the drillers drilled to 1 ft. past the contact, overcored to the same depth, added the PVC liner and we sampled again. We
repeated everything for the second well and we had four OSL samples. We celebrated with green coconuts.
The next day we went out again for resistivity and augering. Céline picked out two alternative sites that might be drier. We drove through the abandoned valley to the site. We took the direct route and found the local road to be in a terrible state of disrepair. The vans could barely make it through. Then we hit a spot where slumping off each side of the road narrowed it too much. The villagers helped make a temporary road with bricks and wood, but it was still too narrow. Then they filled a sandbag and together with the bricks, wood and other
handy items we got across. It turned out that since the Upazila (county) voted for the opposition party, they have not had their roads repaired for over a decade. This level of politicization of everything in Bangladesh really hurts the country. When we reached the location of the line, we found that ponds between the road and the fields limited our access. We walked around and found a site next to a brick factory. The line was along an irrigation ditch. Fine to walk on either side, but submerged to mid-shin if you
stepped in the middle. The data looked very good after processing. We may have found the top of the Pleistocene as relatively shallow depths consistent with the site being the top of a buried anticline (folded hill).
The delays from the bad road, site searching, and a longer distance to lug the equipment meant that we couldn’t do augering. We came to the conclusion that we have to alternate days of resistivity and drilling. Not enough time in a day to do both properly. That meant
the next day was for augering. We went back to the soccer field site, officially BNGTi1, and started augering with all six of us. We hurried past the section we had already described. To minimize hole collapse, we switched between two augers and tried to work quickly on the descriptions. It took all of us all morning to make it to 4.8 meters. The mud was too hard. We needed to go to plan B. We would drill tube wells and sample inside the wells. Alamgir and Basu went off to the village to find a driller. The rest of us
cleaned off the equipment and ourselves at a nearby pond and well and had lunch. After several attempts, they found a driller, but he couldn’t come until 3 p.m. I like to use all the available time I have here, but we now had a few hours break.
The three-person drill team arrived right at 3, unusual in this part of the world. I have seen the drilling technique before, but never the initial set up. In 20 minutes they set two vertical bamboo poles in the ground, tied on the cross piece to make a large H, attached a lever arm and the drill pipe, dug a mud pit for water and a
channel to the actual well location. Then they started drilling. It was so much faster and easier than augering! In 10-20 minutes they were past the depth we reached. We don’t get continuous samples described every 10 cm (4 in.), but the lithology averaged every 5 ft. Muds come up as solid cylinders that we collect, sands as a slurry that we decant. We subdivide the 5 ft. sections if there is a lithology change. The driller caught on quickly to what we wanted and kept us informed of all changes in sediment type, which he could easily feel. Céline and Basu, an experienced logger of tube wells, did most of the sediment work,
with some help from the rest of us. As expected, the section was primarily mud with some silt. We reached the sands from the abandoned channel at 42 ft., a little deeper than I expected but reasonable. It was still early enough for us to do another. Alamgir and I scouted a second location as they finished and packed up the equipment. We completed that one, with the sands at only 20 ft. North of our transect looks like there was an island splitting the channel in two. Here would have been downstream of the island, so we
expected it to be shallow. Finally, things were going well. Using tubewells, we should have plenty of time to drill several stratigraphic wells and then pick one for sampling. We celebrated with dinner at the local Chinese restaurant.
Six of us headed out on Oct. 8 for Brahmanbaria, northeast of Dhaka. Our target is a large winding abandoned river valley that we believe used to be the course of the Meghna River. Currently, the much smaller Titas River flows northward in the channel. Why would a river in the world’s largest delta flow the wrong way? We think that an earthquake uplifted the Comilla District area to the south. That caused the Meghna River to shift westward to its present channel and the Titas to flow up the old channel. A well drilled in the channel in 2012 shows a layer of muds overlying coarser sands.
We think the sands represent sediments from the old Meghna and the muds are sediments filling up the channel. We will be using resistivity to image the channel and an auger to first sample and describe the sediments and then to collect samples for dating.
Finding organic matter to date by carbon 14 is rare, so we plan to use a technique called OSL dating. OSL stands for Optically Stimulated Luminescence. Electrons from the radioactivity of all rocks get trapped in defects in quartz grains. However, they
are so weakly trapped that sunlight can release them. When traveling down the river, the electrons are released and then start accumulating when they are buried. By measuring the light released by the sample when optically stimulated, we can calculate the time since the sample last was exposed to light. By sampling the top of the sands and the bottom of the muds, we can date the time the river switches, or avulsed. The details of the procedure to get an OSL age are pretty complicated, but if this works, we
will date the earthquake that caused the river avulsion.
This technique is new to me. I helped with some sampling the last time I was here, but I have not been in charge of doing it. I am also more comfortable with the quantitative data from the resistivity than the qualitative geologic descriptions we will make of the sediments. Luckily I have a good team with me, Céline, my postdoc, Matt, my former teaching assistant, and Alamgir, Atik and Basu from Dhaka University. I have spent time in the field with Alamgir and
Atik before. Alamgir has conducted his own resistivity surveys. Basu was recommended to me as someone with a lot of experience in describing sediments.
We set out early in the morning for the four-hour drive. However, when we reached the river valley, we found it was almost completely flooded. We walked out on an elevated road and there was pani—the Bangla word for water—everywhere. The abandoned valley is still slightly lower in elevation than the surrounding land. Even that land has the rice fields flooded with shallow water, although the
boundaries between the fields are above water. But our main target is submerged! In the winter this will be dry land, but we are a month and a half too early. A number of scheduling issues required me to come now, although I knew it was too soon after the monsoon, but I didn’t expect so much of the land to still be flooded. Time to come up with an alternative plan.
For the resistivity, we need long straight stretches of dry land. We decided to
do it west of the valley to try to image the thickness of the entire Holocene (last 10,000 years) section. It should vary because of the folding of the strata from the tectonics. Mapping the thickness will help us to map the position of the buried fold. For augering, we only need a small patch of land to stand on. To find it we headed south towards where the valley was uplifted more and might be drier. Not as ideal as the original location, but possible. The next morning we headed farther south and crossed the river valley. It was drier and we noted some potential augering sites. We continued to a location for resistivity. The six of us set up the >350 m long resistivity line, then Céline, Basu and I headed back to try augering while the resistivity data was collected. The augering proved very difficult. We were very slow describing the core that the auger brought up, and while we were doing it the hole would start to collapse. The muddy sediment was very stiff, and we had to hammer the auger in. We only got to 2.7 m when we stopped, nowhere near the depth we needed. Things were pretty discouraging.
I am heading back to Bangladesh, but this time I am stopping in New Delhi before heading to Bengal (West Bengal and Bangladesh). It is the first time that I will be in a part of India that is not adjacent to Bangladesh. Several of us are meeting there to plan for a new project that will span Bangladesh to India to Myanmar. I arrived a few hours before Nano Seeber and Paul Betka and used the time to get a new Indian SIM for my phone. After meeting up, we headed to the guesthouse of the Ministry of Earth Sciences, where we will be staying. If only the U.S. had a cabinet level department for earth sciences. It was difficult to find at night without a Hindi speaker, but we managed.
Over the next few days we had meetings about the project, but also some time for sightseeing, while
discussing the project in the car. Most of our meals were vegetarian, and Gandhi’s birthday, which occurred while we were there, is celebrated by eating vegetarian. When two more scientists arrived from Singapore, we started the day by visiting the Qutub Minar, dating back to the 1200s and the arrival of the Muslim Delhi Sultanate, followed by the Mughal Empire in the 1500s. In the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque, there is the famous Iron Pillar originally erected by Chandragupta in the 4th century, probably at Patna, and brought here much later. Near the beginning of the inscription it says: “in battle with the Vanga countries, he kneaded (and turned) back with (his) breast the enemies who, uniting together came against (him).” Vanga is Bengal, now split into West Bengal in India and Bangladesh.
After mostly finishing discussions, the others decided to take a day trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. I was able to change my flight to Kolkata to the following morning and joined them, continuing to talk science on the 4-hour drive. We had to buy the expensive tickets at 750 rupees rather than the 10 rupees the Indians were paying. However, the premium ticket lets us bypass the long lines. The Taj Mahal is the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal,
the beloved wife of Shah Jahan, the Mughal Emperor. It was built over 17 years from 1631-1648. She died in childbirth of her 14th child. He was buried there as well when he died in 1668, after being overthrown by his son. I have seen many pictures but was not expecting how enormous the structure is. The entire place is beautiful and enormous with flanking buildings, gardens and gateways. I kept wondering about the cost of building it and how many man-years of India’s peasants financed it. Perhaps this excess was why this was the peak of the Mughal Empire. Within a 100 years, the British were
taking over. Afterwards we went to Agra Fort, which is similarly gigantic, and another seat of the Mughals. There are palaces and a throne inside the red fort with views of the Taj. There are 30 buildings left, the rest having been leveled by the British to erect barracks for their troops. We didn’t get back to our hotel until 11.
I left early the next morning for Kolkata, the British Indian capital until 1911, when they moved it to Delhi. It was done to punish the Bengalis for opposing the
splitting of the Bengal Presidency into more manageable size, which would have cut Bengal in two. I spent the day at Calcutta University then headed back to the airport to fly to Dhaka. At my usual hotel, I met up with Jenn Pickering, a student at Vanderbilt University, and Céline Grall, my postdoc. They were teaching a short course at Dhaka University. I spent the next few days in multiple meetings and making arrangements for a week of fieldwork. It will be good to get out into the countryside.
We had a smooth trip to Kolkata with our two taxis amazingly staying together through the traffic. After checking in and freshing up, we went out for dinner and found a great Bengali Restaurant filled mostly with Bangladeshis around the corner. Our hotel turned out to be next to an area where Bangladeshis frequently stay, including Humayun previously. In the morning, he and I went for an early morning walk through the park and saw the Queen Victoria Memorial. Circling back past all the cricket players, we passed Fort William, the original British fort here, and joined Doug and Diane for breakfast. Our car arrived and before heading to the Sundarbans, we drove around to get shots of the Hooghly River. Before the 1600s, this was the main course of the Ganges, but since
then it shifted to it present course into Bangladesh. We got some shots from the new bridge before being chased off. Then we headed to the Strand to get close to the river. While we were filming, a funeral procession arrived to scatter ashes of the deceased into the river. Once the Holy Ganges, always the Holy Ganges. We couldn’t have planned it better.
Then, off to the Sundarbans. Where we were going was a lot farther than implied. This is because of a difference in naming. In Bangladesh, the Sundarbans is the National Mangrove Forest. The cultivated areas that previously were forest are not considered the Sundarbans. In India, they are. Thus we entered the Sundarbans after 2.5 hrs, but still had that long to go to meet our boat.
Admittedly, some of the cultivated areas in India still maintain mangroves outside of the embankments, which is not the case in Bangladesh. Continuing on, we reached literally the end of the road and carried our luggage (including a 50 lb. bag of rock samples) down to a ferry that took us to Gosaba. There, we first got a hand rickshaw to get the luggage across the town, then got two motorized rickshaw trucks to cross to the other side of the island. Finally, we were met by a boat that took us across the river to the eco-lodge where we would stay. After a late (4 pm) lunch we went on a sunset boat ride through some tidal channels. The saw and heard lots of bird and at times the channel became so narrow that we had to push branches away to fit through. The
trees here overhang the channels more than in Bangladesh. We would see further differences tomorrow. After finally showering off, we met other people staying at the eco-lodge, started by 4 cousins including Ajoy, who is leading our trip. The lodge is solar powered, so electricity is limited,but the water was refreshingly cool, not cold. We all heard a performance of Bengali Baul music, recognizing some songs from similar experiences across the border. After dinner, we all went for some local rice wine and then a boat ride to see bioluminescent plankton in a small channel. If you wave your hand in the water dots of light flash.
In the morning, we started at 6 am to have enough time before I had to head for the airport. We picked
up food and a cook and permits and a guide and finally were ready to enter the forest. In India, no one is allowed off the boat to step on the forest, nor to stay overnight in the forest, even on a boat. Thus many hotels and lodges have sprung up outside the forest for tourists. Many come simply to party and drink. We are very glad to be using an eco-lodge that is more respectful of the land and the local population.
At 8, we finally entered the national forest. Among the differences from the Bangladesh side we noted were the shorter height of the trees in the more saline water, the lack of sediment in the water, and the extent of bank erosion. Where the eastern Sundarbans is fresher with ample sediment carried by the tides due to its proximity to the Ganges-
Brahmaputra-Meghna River mouth, the western, Indian Sundarbans is more saline and lacks new sediment. Between subsidence and sea level, it is loosing ground. More land is being lost than gained. With the higher salinity, there is also less wildlife. However, there was a tiger sighting this morning. We sailed to the spot, but it was too late, we missed it. Still, we spent 4 hours sailing through tidal channels of different size, eating, and filming. Doug captured the beauty of the Sundarbans and I was interviewed with a great backdrop.
After completing our work, we briefly visited an observation post, we took a short cut through an interior channel in Gosaba Island, dropped off our guide, and crossed the channel to our car. Three hours later, I arrived here at the airport to start my journey home. It was an intense, yet calm 48 hours in West Bengal, the third leg of three very different pieces of this trip.
Humayun Akhter, my main collaborator in Bangladesh, joined me at the airport and we flew together to Kolkata. We spent the night at a nondescript hotel near the airport. The next morning, we met up with film makers Doug Prose and Diane LaMacchia in the airport and all flew together to Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram state in NE India. Doug and Diane have funding from NSF to expand the 5-min YouTube video they made about our project two years ago (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WTETuqJPygs) to a ½ hour TV special. Their previous films have been shown on PBS.
The Sumatra subduction zone, source of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami, continues to the north where it encounters the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta. The 15-20 kilometer thick delta sediments are folded and faulted as they enter the subduction zone. Because of the huge amounts of sediments, this is the only subduction zone whose front is subaerial – entirely exposed on land. In Bangladesh we can see the beginning of this process. Here in Mizoram, farther east, the former delta sediments are folded up into a very hilly terrain. The steep slopes are subject to frequent landslides. One that started last October has moved again and blocks the main road from the airport to the city of Aizawl. As a result, we had to take a longer, slower, bumpier and dustier road to get to the city.
We met up with Nano Seeber and Paul Betka from Lamont at breakfast. They have been doing geologic mapping the region and returned to Aizawl late the night before. We spent the day circling the city and visiting outcrops, many ones I had seen my last time here. We had several interesting discussions on differences of interpretation of the strata. I had visited most of these outcrops before, but it was the first time for Humayun. At the end of the day we were joined by
Vineet Gahalaut from the mainland, as the rest of India is considered here. The people here look Asian and the Mizo language is a tonal language in the Tibeto-Burmese family. Plus, almost all Mizo are Christian. Mizoram is part of India, but also distinct, like many of the other states in NE India. Part of the sense of separation is that the 7 NE states are only connected to the rest of India by the narrow 23 km (14 mi.) Siliguri Corridor between Bangladesh and Nepal – the chicken neck. We spent the evening talking with Vineet about future joint projects in this region.
The next day we were joined by Victor Ralte, our partner from Mizoram University, who became a proud father of a fourth daughter last week. We all headed north, visiting geological sites and filming
beautiful vistas, dropping Vineet off at the airport and continuing on to Kolasib, a small town about 70 km north as the crow flies, but probably twice that on the windy roads of Mizoram. We stayed in Hotel Cloud 9. I had been told since I was a child that I was always off on Cloud 9 and now I was actually here. However, the electricity wasn’t for the first few hours, so showers were cold, but the dinner was hot.
The next day we headed still farther north to see some complex faulting associated with the growth of the anticlines – the hills of folded strata. As we examined each outcrop, it was also clear that we were passing through several kilometers of rocks in which the environment that were deposited in shallowed from the inner continental shelf (10s of
meters water depth) to the tidal zone to estuaries like the present Sundarbans to fully fluvial (river). This represents the ancient Brahmaputra Delta passing across this area as it grew southwards. That several kilometers of sediments were deposited while the environment only shallowed by 10s of meters indicates that there was a lot of subsidence to make space for the sediments. I will have to model this when I return.
Stopping for a beautiful sunset over the hills, we finished heading back to Aizawl for a last dinner together. In my room as it turned out since the restaurant closed for some repairs. The six of us ate a mixture of American, Indian, Chinese and Mizo food with plates dishes and ourselves filling all available surfaces. Today, a quick stop at Mizoram University and then back to Kolkata for my last leg before home.
For our last morning, we did a dawn silent boat ride up a tidal channel. Since the students did one the day before, a few sat out. The ones that remained stayed silent to increase our chance of sighting animals. We saw many birds: kingfishers, kites, egrets and others. There were numerous mud skippers – fish that come out of the water to avoid predators – and a wild boar. The highlight was sets of fresh tiger tracks. The first set came down one bank and up the other. Tanjil, our guide, estimated that they were 5-6 hours old. After returning to the ship, we headed north through the Sundarbans towards Dhaka, a day and a half journey.
Along the way, we had a quick stop at a small village along the Baleshwari River. Chris Small had noticed that the width of the villages in this area had doubled between 1989 and 2010. We wanted to find out why. A small party went ashore to talk to the villagers. Unlike Polder 32, the water here is fresh and it shows. Lots of trees and a more prosperous and happier population. Boys jumping
into the creek from the top of the sluice gate. The trees included betel nut, papaya and other fruit trees and well as trees for wood. The local policy is that for every tree they cut down, they plan 4 new ones. This accounts for the increased size of the villages, a net switch from rice field to trees. After only a ½ hour, we had to return to the boat, drop off Carol and Saddam where a car would take them back to Khulna, and continue on our way.
We decided not to stop for visiting Barisal or swimming and thus were able to get to Dhaka the next afternoon rather than at night. Instead of spending the night on the Kokilmoni on the polluted, smelly, Shitalakshya River, we went into Dhaka and back to the Ambala Inn. More importantly for the students, we arrived with time to
shop. After checking in, we formed groups of 2 US and 1 Bangladeshi and sent them off by foot and rickshaw to New Market for shopping. The lack of shopping opportunities was the main complaint about the trip. They made up for it with clothes for themselves and presents for friends and family. That accomplished, we gathered for a final dinner in Bangladesh at Voot, one of our favorite restaurants. The slow service with cooking for 22 allowed plenty of time for socializing and picture taking. The students showed off their new Bangladeshi togs and a good time was had by all.
The next morning was our chance to see Dhaka. We met our counterparts the university and headed to Old Dhaka. We stopped at the 800-year old Dhaleshwari Temple where a child was getting
her first solid food in a Hindu ceremony. Then on to the Lalbag Fort built by the Mughals in 1676, or so we thought. Sunday is its day to be closed. We decided to go to the Ahsan Manzil, known as the Pink Palace. As we drove through the narrow streets, traffic got slower and slower. Finally, we stopped and decided to walk the last quarter mile. Now we all got a true taste of Old Dhaka, dodging rickshaws, hand trucks, pedestrians, and workers balancing parcels on their head. We managed to get all of us there and toured the grounds overlooking the Buriganga River then the massive palace built by the Nawab of Dhaka in 1872.
After the chaotic walk back to the vehicles, we spent an hour going the few kilometers back to Dhaka University. When we finally got back, we
had to abandon our plans for visiting the National Museum. We went to lunch at a very Bangladesh restaurant, picked up our luggage at our hotel and headed to Aarong. It is an upscale shop that sells all Bangladeshi clothes, crafts and products. The students got their last fill of shopping. Satisfied with their gifts, we headed to the airport. They went home, while I started my next leg in Kolkata and Aizawl, India.
We left Hiron Point with the high tide and sailed through small channels of the Sundarbans Mangrove Forest. As a tidal marsh, the Sundarbans is crisscrossed by channels with sizes that range from 10 km across to less than a foot. The tides rise and fall periodically inundating all of the land. Mangroves are trees that are adapted to living in brackish water. Different tree species are found in different parts of the Sundarbans, adapted to different levels of saltiness.
We arrived at Kotka in the afternoon. Most of the group went on a forest walk with Tanzeel, our guide. A smaller group of us split off to visit thee remains of 300-year old salt kilns. We passed Chital deer and a wild boar on the way. A stag was silhouetted at the coast before it ran off. The
people that built the kilns used to allow seawater to flow into evaporation pans at Spring high tide. Before the next Spring tide they would bake the concentrated brine in clay pots to produce salt. The kilns are surrounded by innumerable potsherds, and quite a few intact clay pots. It is thought that the operation was suddenly destroyed, abandoned and buried, perhaps by a 1699 cyclone that killed 50,000 people. Recent erosion, include the destruction by Cyclone Sidr in 2007 have unearthed them.
Since the age of the kilns is known, it is a good site for Liz to use OSL dating to determine the sedimentation rate. We drilled several auger hole to determine the stratigraphy, the deepest one was 5.8 meters. Liz drilled assisted by two crew from
the Kokilmoni while I took notes and photos. The kiln site is now in the intertidal zone – exposed at low tide and covered at high tide. This means that they have subsided since they were last used. The rate is estimated as 4.1 mm/yr by a German group that worked here. We completed 3 holes, but ran out of daylight before we could take the OSL samples. We returned to the ship, walking past buildings destroyed by Sidr with our larger group who ended their forest walk at the kiln site.
We returned at dawn the next morning – with a guard to protect against tigers – while the remainder of the group went on a silent ride up a tidal creek. We collected 3 OSL samples from different depths, the last one completed as the rising tide reached over our knees. Whenever the
sampler was removed from the hole, one of us had to keep our hand in the hole, usually Matt, so we could find it again. Happy with our successful sampling, we returned to the ship for breakfast.
Back with the others, we set out for a forest walk to Kotka Beach. Climbing an observation tower, we got an overview of the region. There are old shoreline deposits here that are above the high water level. These sediments provide evidence of the seaward progradation of delta. As a result there is a meadow and many non-mangrove species as the area doesn’t regularly flood. This attracts a lot of deer and, as a result, tigers. However, we only deer. We also walked through the muddy mangrove forest and finally emerged at Kotka Beach where we went swimming in the Bay
of Bengal. We continued along the beach for a few kilometers passing hordes of scurrying crabs. Finally, we rejoined the Kokilmoni for a late lunch.
In this area, plans always have to be adjusted according to the tides and weather. As a result, we switched our visit to Bird and Egg Islands to later in the afternoon instead of the following morning. These two islands emerged from the sea about 20-25 years ago and have grown and merged. In answer to the age old question, the Egg came first. While a few people skipped the walk after the morning’s trek, most of us went along. It is a great place to see the biological succession that develops on a new island. The coast is bare sand with the high water mark littered with plant debris. Beyond the wind-blown coastal dunes, grasses
have taken hold. Then tall grasses and a scattering of shrubs and then trees in a muddy salt marsh. Finally in the distance is a full-fledged mangrove forest. We saw tracks and spoor of deer and monkeys, but as of yet there are no tigers on the island.
An unsuspected bonus was a tidal channel near the beach. Here at small scale, we could see all the features of river systems that we discussed in class: cut banks and point bars, meanders and avulsions, small deltas and chars. All at a scale that brought the geology to life for the students far better than any lecture or photos. It was a long and very successful day in the Sundarbans.
We sailed downstream to join the M/V Bawali with the Vanderbilt-Dhaka-Khulna group working on Bangladesh late at night and awoke to greet old friend and meet new ones. After breakfast, we all headed to Polder 32. Polder 32 is one of the islands that had embankments constructed around them to prevent flooding and improve agriculture. They use the Dutch term polder for the embankments. Polder 32 was one in which the polders failed during Cyclone Aila in 2009. As it turned out, while the polders improved agriculture as planned, it also led to subsidence of the island. It is now over 4 feet lower than land outside the island. This led to widespread flooding of the island after the cyclone that lasted for almost 2 years. We have been studying the causes and impact for the last few years. The subsidence inside the polders put everyone at risk as an unintended consequence of keeping out the natural flooding and sedimentation to improve agriculture. How to manage this system now is a difficult problem.
We also learned about the water problems at Polder 32. The groundwater is saline and not usable for either drinking or irrigation. They can only grow one crop a year, so the fields are all fallow except for some vegetable gardens by the homes. In other parts of Bangladesh 2 and even 3 crops a year are possible. We saw the abandoned tube wells installed by a wealthy donor after Cyclone Aila. They are all saline. Kazi Matin showed us his MAR site – managed aquifer recharge. They are attempting to create a pool of fresh groundwater over the heavier salt water providing a source of sweet water. Nearby, the Vanderbilt team is
installing equipment to measure water levels and flow at different depths, trying to better understand the groundwater system.
While the students fanned out to discuss agriculture with the farmers and test what few tube wells they could find, a small group of us took a speed boat to a large industrial shrimp farm on Polder 33. We found the site to be surrounded by a barbed wire fence. We found out later that it is to protect the site from tigers as it is on a peninsula surrounded on 3 sides by the Sundarbans. There was a rumor that the shrimp farm had closed and could be used to calibrate remote sensing data, but it was fully running. They grow 2 crops of jumbo shrimp a year over 9 months and spend the
remaining 3 months cleaning the ponds and preparing for the next season’s crop. They were one of the first large-scale shrimp operations in Bangladesh.
We sped back to the ship to find that the others had all returned and were having a swim break. I barely managed to change into my swimsuit and jump in before we all had to return to the ship to sail to Hiron Point. The strong tides in southern Bangladesh set our schedule as we try to catch tides going our way and avoid sailing against the tide. We sailed down channel between Polder 32 and the Sundarbans to the Shibsa River. At the end we passed Kalibogi. It is a peninsula at the end of Polder 32 that has had about a kilometer of erosion. It is now very narrow and the
embankment has been moved north of the peninsula, abandoning it. The shrimp farms that were once here are gone. There are only homes poorly protected from the elements and fishing is their only livelihood.
We sailed down the Shibsa to the Pusur River and overnighted in a narrow channel across from Hiron Point. In the morning we crossed. This stop is manly for me to service our GPS installation. We are using the precise measurements to determine the subsidence rate of this part of the delta. There is a tide gauge here that monitors the relative level between the sea and the land. While intended for navigation, over time it records the combined effect of land subsidence and sea level rise. With the GPS, we will be able to separate the two rates.
We all took the small wooden launch into the channel to the Forest Station. The Kokilmoni stayed outside lest it get trapped behind the mouth bar when the tide goes out. Hasnat and I, with Sabrina filming went to service the GPS while Liz demonstrated how to auger to get stratigraphy and sample for OSL dating. Small groups also took turns going up the observation tower. I discovered that I did not have my internet adapter – Apple have eliminated them from the newest Mac. I was stuck. Hasnat rushed back to the ship with the launch to get his computer. I could only wander around. I was shown the small spring with natural gas bubbling up. It could even be lit on fire. Finally Hasnat returned and we were able to download all the data since my last visit and upgrade the firmware of the receiver. We finished right at high time and rushed back to the ship to sail to our next stop. Thanks to Hasnat, we were able to accomplish our goals here.
The shortest route to where we are headed has silted up and is no longer passable. Farmers have moved in and started shrimp farming there. As a result, we and others have to take a longer route through the Sundarbans Mangrove Forest. Our first tantalizing sight of the forest we will return to later. Will lots of ship traffic on this route, the inevitable happened. Last December a ship collision resulted in an oil spill. With initial inaction by the government not wanting to face it, the local people went in and cleaned up the oil themselves by hand. Without any protective gear from the toxic oil, they saved the situation. Now only a slight oily film is visible at low tide. We started at 2 am to travel through the passage with the rising tide.
By 10 am we had passed through the Sundarbans to the Pusur River and stopped to pick up Carol Wilson and Saddam Hosain. They will join us for a few days from another boat that a Vanderbilt-Dhaka University team is using for research work at Polder 32. We continued up to Khulna ghat (dock). We had lunch and transferred to land by launch. In three vans we drove for and hour to asite where we installed instruments to measure the compaction and subsidence of the sediments. In 2011 we drilled 6 wells with depths from 20 to 300 meters installed optical fiber strainmeters. The fibers are stretched like a rubber band and every week one of the sons from the Islam family uses a device to measure its length, watching to see the change as the sediments compact.
While I service the equipment, my students spread out in several groups. Four of my students, each with a Bangladeshi partner spread out over the area with Chris Small to interview farmers about their farming practices, what crops they grow and changes through time. The information the agriculture team collects will help calibrate remote sensing observations. The other 6 students work with Kazi Matin Ahmed of Dhaka University form 5 teams to measure arsenic levels in the wells that provide drinking water. Finally, Liz Chamberlain and Carol use an augur to drill into the sediments. They will look at the stratigraphy and collect a sample for dating. The river that flows through the area used to me 300 meters (1000 ft) wide, now it is only a few meters. The silting in banks have been occupied by squatters using the new land for shrimp farming. The Islam family moved here in 2002.
When we arrive, it is hard to recognize the site. The government is excavating the river, widening it so boats can use it again. There are large piles of mud everywhere. Finally we find the right place and are relieved to find that they went around our instruments. In the afternoon, I met the engineer doing the work and he reassured us that our instruments will be untouched. Only time will tell if the measurements will be affected.
I was the least successful of the groups. We collected the data from the 6 compaction meters and surveyed between the GPS and wells to look at changes in the surface elevation. However, the cap of the well collecting water level data was rusted shut. When we really tugged on it, the pipe started to bend. We will have to return with WD-40.
Even worse the GPS was dead. Some problem with the solar panel system, but with the tool kit back in the states, I couldn’t diagnose it. I will take the receiver back to Dhaka to download the data, but Humayun will have to come to repair the power system. At least the students had a more successful time talking to farmers and measuring arsenic. It was their first time talking to rural Bangladeshis and spending time in the countryside. They thoroughly enjoyed it.
I am once again teaching a Sustainable Development course on hazard in Bangladesh. The highlight of the course is that the 10 students, the teaching assistant and I are all traveling to Bangladesh over Spring Break. However, our plans have been disrupted by the continuing political unrest in Bangladesh. The opposition BNP party is calling for new fair elections by calling for a continuous blockade of travel and periodic hartals – general transportation strikes. They have been trying to enforce it by tossing Molotov cocktails at vehicles that defy it. Over 120 people have been killed so far. The ruling Awami League refuses to give into violence and neither the UN, EU or US
have been able to make a dent in the situation. The two parties and their women leaders hate each other. Neither side will back down on the unrest that started with the Jan 5 anniversary of the election. While more and more people are defying the blockade, after 2 months people have to make a living, the risk is too high to take a bus load of undergraduate students around the country.
Our solution, Plan B, is to stay off the roads and travel the country by boat. Dhaka, the capital is quiet, so we are visiting there at the beginning and end of the trip. The boat we were planning to use to visit the Sundarbans Mangrove Forest came up to Dhaka to meet us after we had a difficult trip. The 14 of us (Chris Small of Lamont and Liz Chamberlain of Tulane University are also joining us) made it to JFK skirting traffic
only to find a 4-hour delay on our flight. The airline nicely rebooted us for the next connection to Dhaka and escorted us through the airport to catch it. However 4 bags missed the connection. By the time we got to our hotel it was midnight and we still hadn’t had dinner. It was two AM by the time we go to bed. My TA, Matt, had to go back to the airport in the morning with Sukhen, but only 3 of the bags arrived. The missing one was Matt’s, but having lived in Dhaka, he had clothes in storage there.
The rest of us went to Dhaka University to meet our Bangladeshi counterparts, 8 students and 2 professors that are traveling with us. After a quick tour of a few spots around Dhaka, we headed to meet the Kokilmoni. I have sailed on her twice before. With Plan B, we will have to skip some areas, like the Brahmaputra River, that we cannot get to by boat in our limited time. However, we will get more time at other spots of interest and see what will be new parts of the country for me from a different vantage point. We started on a the Shitalakhya River east of Dhaka and sailed south in larger rivers finally passing the confluence of the Padma (combined Ganges and Brahmaputra) with the Meghna River before tying up at Chandpur for the night.
A boat is a much more pleasant way to travel than a bus with more places to hang out and rest from jet lag. The food is good and plentiful. The cabins are tiny and hot, while the showers are cold. The main thing the students missed is any opportunity to buy Bangladeshi clothes. Along the way we made two quick stops, one above and one below the confluence, for Liz to take samples for OSL analysis, a dating technique that uses electrons trapping in quartz to determine the last time the sediments were exposed to sunlight. The samples, collected by hammering a tube into the outcrop, must not be exposed to sunlight. Otherwise, these first days are quiet as it will take us until tomorrow afternoon to reach our first extended field stop. Boats are a comfortable, but slow way to travel.