Monday, December 17, 2012

Preparing for Fieldwork!

Welcome to my fieldwork blog! I'm a grad student at Columbia University, and I get to spend Tuesdays with the 8th graders at the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School. I will use this blog to keep in touch with these all-star students while I'm in the field.

Bangladesh is the most densely populated country in the world, and there's a fault along the northern border that may have produced huge earthquakes in the past. By collecting data and observations about this fault, we can improve our understanding of how it deforms, how long it has been active and what sort of destruction it can cause.

On January 3rd I depart for five weeks of fieldwork in Bangladesh and India.
I hope you'll follow along as I explore the geology of Bangladesh and eastern India!

Please add your questions in the comment section to help inspire my future blog posts!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Secrets in Rocks

The highlands of Meghalaya, India have been treating us well. The people are very friendly and helpful. A couple days ago, some men and boys led us down to the river from their village, which is called "Sohbar." The hike took about an hour, so we tried to pay them for their help. They wouldn't accept our money and were embarrassed by the offer because we were their guests!

This has been Dhiman’s first experience working with hard rock because Bangladesh only has loose, young sedimentary rocks. In Meghalaya, India we find extremely old metamorphic rocks - rocks that have been altered under high heat and pressure. We also find igneous rock called basalt that formed from molten rock (magma and lava), and sedimentary rocks such as sandstone and limestone. The sandstone here had millions of years to get compacted and cemented, and it’s so strong that it forms cliffs and giant waterfalls. Limestone is made of shells that have turned into rock.

What secrets can we learn from these rocks?

You remember one: we can learn how the Earth has folded using our compasses to measure the strike and dip! Once we put all our measurements on a map we can learn about the 3-D shape.

Antje’s also been collecting lots of samples of basalt (igneous rock), and she’ll process them in a paleomagnetics laboratory in order to learn about how the rocks have moved (remember that the Earth’s crust is made of plates that move around!). If you’ve ever used a compass, you probably know that Earth has a magnetic field. Magnetic minerals in rocks align with the magnetic field when they form, kind of like little compass needles. Since the Earth’s magnetic field doesn’t vary that much, we can figure out how the rock has moved and rotated since it formed by determining where the magnetic minerals point.

I’ve been collecting samples of sand from the rivers because I’m trying to determine how fast these mountains are eroding. I measure low levels of the element Berilium, which is produced in rocks when they’re exposed to radiation from space.
Sand grains gain Beryllium at a known rate when they’re at the surface, so by measuring the Beryllium I can determine how long the sand grains sat at the surface before they ended up in the river. I assume that my bag of sand is an average from the whole area upstream and that way I can estimate an average erosion rate for the river.field doesn’t vary that much, we can figure out how the rock has moved and rotated since it formed by determining where the magnetic minerals point.

Unlike Bangladesh, Meghalaya has plenty of rocks exposed at the surface. The problem here is that the jungle makes them hard to find! We find the best outcrops along new roads and rivers. We have spent many days hiking through the canyons, climbing our way over huge boulders and getting our feet wet in search of outcrops. The rivers are at the bottom of deep canyons, so we often have to hike many thousands of steps to reach the water.

Crossing the rivers where there isn’t a bridge is very challenging because the rocks are so slippery! A couple days ago we hiked a river where the Khasi people have built living root bridges. There’s a special kind of Indian rubber tree that puts out long roots and can grow on top of huge boulders. Over about 200 years, they have trained these roots to cross the river, and woven them into beautiful, strong bridges without using any wire or rope. I got to walk across the longest living root bridge in the world!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Welcome to "the Scotland of the East"

You might have noticed that the Dauki Fault we're studying (in red) goes right along the northern border of Bangladesh. This border separates the highlands of Meghalaya from the low-lands of Bangladesh. Meghalaya is a state in northeastern India, and the name Meghalaya literally means "abode of the clouds", and more rain falls here than anywhere else on Earth. The British called these highlands the "Scotland of the East."

We bid farewell to Cecilia and Khaled at the border, and after two hours of immigration and customs paperwork we started our drive from near sea-level to 6000ft. The drive to our hotel took almost 5 hours because we geologists can't resist stopping when we see a good outcrop!

A few interesting cultural notes before I tell you more about our work. The Khasi and Jaintia tribes of Meghalaya are matrilineal, so the youngest daughter inherits the family property and takes care of her aging parents and unmarried siblings. The women here work very, very hard. About 70% of the people here are Christian, and are more likely to speak English as their second language than Bengali or Hindi. Their native language (Khasi) does not have a written alphabet, so they write their language in Bengali or (usually) Latin letters.

This border between Bangladesh and India adds another challenge to our work. We often meet border security guards who do not want us to go close to the border. This can be very frustrating if we see a good outcrop that we cannot access. We can see Bangladesh from our hotel, although it's often covered in clouds (see photo). This border also makes building in Bangladesh difficult because almost all the hard rock is on the Indian side of the border, and must be transported across the border by truck, unloaded and reloaded onto a Bangladeshi truck -- all by hand!

Right now we're studying the central portion of the Dauki Fault, focusing on the area just south of the letter n in Shillong Plateau on the map above. Measuring strike and dip using our compasses, we can make a map to to understand the shape of this really large fold in the Earth's crust. The fold is cored by very old rocks from more than 2.5 billion years ago - that's almost half the age of the Earth! Along the southern margin we have progressively younger rocks that were deposited before the rivers brought sand and mud to build up Bangladesh. At the time of the Dinosaurs, this was a beach! On top of that we have limestone with lots of fossils including sea urchins and shells. By understanding the relationships between these rocks and mapping the faults we find, we hope to learn more about how the crust is deforming.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


A guest post from Dhiman Mondal of Dhaka University:

The Sundarbans is the world’s largest mangrove forest. Literally, Sundarban means “beautifull forest”. The name is believed to be derived from a kind of tree which is said to be the main tree of this forest. Some believe that the name the name might come from “Somundor Bon” which is in English “Sea forest” because it lies beside the sea.

I have spent 50 days and nights in Sundarbans, and still I love to go there. Though I have traveled through the all main channels within this 6000 area, I certainly not gathered 100% knowledge about this forest. I mean, it’s kind of impossible. There are many things to study; Ecology, Geology, Hydrogeology, Zoology, Archeology etc. This is the dream land for all scientists related to the Earth and Environmental Science.
So, what do people want to know about Sundarbans?

First of all, this is the land of the Royal Bengal Tiger. When we work in the forest, we usually do not want to meet a tiger though we have three forest guards with us. You probably know why. We are used to seeing the footprints and the skulls and bones of deer because tigers love deer for dinner. When they catch any deer they eat some meat, and then keep the deer in a secret place to be rotten, which is their favorite. As deer are available in the Bangladesh part of the forest, most of the 300 remaining tigers live in this part. About 60% of the total 10,000 of forest lies in Bangladesh, and the other 40% lies in India.

Besides the tigers and deer this forest is the sweet home for 42 species of mammals, 270 species of birds, 150 species of commercially important fish, 35 reptiles and 8 amphibians. The tiger is happy with these wide ranges of foods. But sometimes people become the dinner of the tiger. When a tiger cannot find any food it comes into the nearest village and hunts cows, goats and even man. Every year tiger hunt 150 to 200 people. You can say if there are numerous deer and many species of mammals, fishes; why do tigers come to the village to eat man rather than eating something from the forest? Firstly, tigers are carnivorous and they like meat very much. The second reason is pretty funny -- sometimes they are not able to hunt anything in the forest because of monkeys. Monkey are said to be the enemy of the tiger and friend of the deer. When they see a tiger, they give warning to the deer, and then the hungry tiger comes into village and hunt people instead.

So, one question for you, “Do you want to see a Royal Bengal Tiger?” Write me why and why not.

Dhiman Ranjan Mondal

Senior Research Scientist

Dhaka University Earth Observatory

Department of Geology

University of Dhaka

Dhaka, Bangladesh

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Tearing Down the Mountains

Bangladesh is an extremely fertile land –the sediment from the Himalayas and the rain from the summer monsoon make food abundant. They can grow two crops of rice a year and grow vegetables like potatoes, beans, carrots, cabbage and squash during the winter. The rivers and ponds provide lots and lots of fish! The population of Bangladesh is growing rapidly and the Bangladeshi way of life is changing. People are leaving the rice paddies and fishing boats of their native villages behind and becoming business men, shopkeepers and cycle-rickshaw wallahs (see photo) in the city. These are hard-working people trying to find a better life for their families – a sentiment near and dear to our hearts in the USA!

What Bangladesh lacks is rock! The bedrock is many miles below the city so the buildings lack a firm foundation. Bangladeshi houses used to be made from straw and mud – which wouldn’t hurt you in an earthquake – but now they’re made of brick and concrete, which can crush you in an earthquake if they’re not reinforced enough!

Bricks are made from sand and mud (Bangladesh has plenty!) but need to be cooked. They burn coal to cook the bricks, but Bangladesh must import this coal from India. Limestone is a key ingredient for cement, and Bangladesh must also import this from India. The photo shows girls walking to school near a cement factory. This is leading to destruction of the environment in the highlands of Meghalaya, India and the rivers that carry rocks into Bangladesh. The beautiful landscape is being torn apart to provide limestone, coal and hard rock for construction in Bangladesh. This provides jobs for people, but they require back-breaking labor for very little pay. A man working in a quarry told us that hundreds of people have been killed by falling rock. We’ve seen many children doing work like hauling rocks on their heads and shoveling coal into trucks when they should be in school.

The photos above show a lime kiln where they cook the limestone before making cement; a boy who works all day shoveling coal; trucks transporting coal from India to Bangladesh.

There is no easy solution to these environmental and social issues, but birth control would help. Some families have 10 or more children, and it becomes impossible for the mother and father to feed them all with only one or two incomes. Planned urban development would make construction safer and improve city services like garbage collection. The cities are not equipped to deal with the garbage produced by the now-massive population. People throw rubbish in the street and it makes the cities very dirty. Industries like tourism can provide jobs without so much damage to the environment, but few people will want to visit the country if they can’t get the garbage under control!

Can you think of any other solutions to these problems?

More questions from students!

1. Did you get to see the sunrise & sunset? -Mikasi
Yes, and next time I will be sure to take a picture!

2. Will you get a chance to get to the wilder areas to see animals like tigers? -Dilenia
We won’t be traveling to the Sundarbans on this trip (mangrove national forest, where the Bengal tiger still lives in the wild), but we’ll visit parts of Meghalaya,
India that have a variety of wildlife. I’ll keep an eye out and let you know if I see any animals! Dhiman has worked a lot in the Sundarbans, maybe he will write a guest blog post about his experiences there. I’ll ask him. By the way, I don’t want to run into a tiger while I’m working in the field – it might eat me! I saw this little guy in the village of Jaintiapur today, that’s cat enough for me!

3. Have you been to the capital and will you share your experience from there? -Cesar

We flew into Dhaka (the capital of Bangladesh) and drove through the city but didn’t stay there this time. I spent a few days there last year. It’s the 9th largest city in the world, with more than 16 million people. It’s also the fastest growing city in the world, with people from the countryside flocking to the city for work. There is no urban planning and no earthquake construction regulations, so we are very worried that an earthquake will be absolutely catastrophic (and you remember that Bangladesh sits between two big plate boundaries where major earthquakes happen!). Dhaka is very crowded and the traffic is unbelievably bad! This picture shows a pretty normal looking bus in Dhaka – all beaten up because nobody obeys any lane markings.

Drivers negotiate their way down the road using their horn and shouting out the window. Policemen sometimes direct traffic by banging on cars with a stick. The air is thick with fumes from all the cars and a symphony of car horns and shouting. Some people wear masks because of the pollution. Dhiman told me that many government
employees in Dhaka try very hard to be transferred to the city of Sylhet or Khulna because Dhaka does not have a good quality of life. Imagine Manhattan without the subway, without the grid layout, without Central Park, without street sweepers, and without strict building regulations. It makes for a very chaotic experience. The rest of Bangladesh is much more pleasant than Dhaka!

4. Please send more photos of what you've been doing, -Kenneth
Here are some photos Cecilia took of me working on two different outcrops on the Sylhet Anticline. In the first photo I'm measuring strike and dip using my compass and in the 2nd photo I'm scraping the grime off the outcrop to reveal all the sedimentary features.

5. Do you like Bangladesh? –Floridalia
I like Bangladesh very much! The people are very friendly and welcoming, the countryside is beautiful and the food is delicious! I like listening to the call to prayer from the mosque loud-speaker, even at 5:30 in the morning – it’s better than an alarm clock! It is fascinating how people interact with the environment here – there is extensive flooding during the monsoon, so people build their villages on the river levees, which stick out of the water (most of the time). They plant trees to help prevent erosion and protect their homes. The flat floodplain areas around the rivers are cultivated as rice paddies. When the rivers shift their course, people move onto the new land that is left behind. The tea plantations on the hills near Sylhet are very beautiful. We also saw a waterfall!

What don’t I like about Bangladesh? Well, I found that Dhaka made me feel very stressed because it was so crowded, but once I got into the countryside I felt much better. Our hotel had only cold water, but I guess that builds character! We have to be very careful to drink only bottled water so we don't get sick. Antje was sick yesterday, but she's feeling much better today!

6. How's the temperature over there? -Belissa

Very pleasant, 50-70 degrees. At night it’s comfortable with a light blanket and the ceiling fan on low. It rained one day which made us a little soggy, but it cleared the dust from the air!

7. Do you get homesick or miss the life back here in NYC? –Joanna

Since I went away to boarding school when I was 14, I had to learn how to cope with homesickness. I immerse myself in the moment and do not give myself time to dwell on sad or lonely thoughts. I do miss my boyfriend and our cats!

8. Where are you finding internet connection? –Bielka

We have a wireless modem that connects to the cell towers. It's not very speedy, but it gets the job done!

9. Do you bring food with you in the field or is it provided? –Saratt

We usually eat a big breakfast and have some snacks in the afternoon. Sometimes we sit down for lunch at a small restaurant if we’re feeling hungry, but that takes time so we try to keep working! For breakfast we eat a type of flat bread called “Roti”, eggs made into a ‘momlette (as they call it in Bangladesh), and mixed vegetable curry. It is very, very tasty!

4- How long before your research is complete? –James

Well, this fieldwork will be done on the Jan 31st. I hope to be done with my PhD in 4 years. I have a lot more work to do in the field and in the lab, as well as writing papers and my dissertation.

5- How will your research change the scientific community? –Randy

Studying the Shillong Plateau will improve our understanding of how the Dauki fault deforms the earth and what sort of earthquakes it can generate. It will also add to our knowledge about how rock folds at shallow depths where it’s not very hot. I really hope my research can help raise awareness about the earthquake hazards facing Bangladesh.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Tiger stripes!

One of the biggest challenges facing us in Bangladesh is that outcrops are few and far between. Bangladesh is very flat and close to sea-level. Here the mighty rivers that drain the Himalayan Mountains reach the sea and drop tons of sand and mud, forming one of the biggest river deltas in the world. We don't find hard rock at the surface in very many places because the rivers have piled many miles of mud and sand on top. Faults (fractures where rocks move, bend and break) bring the rock to the surface in some places. We’ve spent our first week working in an area where sandstone and mudstone (rocks made from compressed sand and mud) have been folded upward and stick out of the surrounding new sand and mud that hasn’t been squished enough to become rock yet. You might remember from our activity that an anticline is curved upward like a rainbow. We’re taking lots of measurements and samples from an anticline so we can understand when and how it formed.

On Sunday while Nano, Antje and I were collecting some samples of grey mudstone, Cecilia and Khaled went to explore around the other side of the hill. They found a wall of crumbly sandstone that had been cut to make room for a driveway. Khaled scraped away some of the grime covering the surface and what he found was amazing: bright orange sandstone with mudstone layers – it looked like tiger stripes!

But even more exciting was a diagonal band with broken up pieces of the mudstone that cuts straight through the flat layers – this might have been caused by violent shaking in an ancient earthquake!

We took lots of measurements, collected samples and took many, many photos so we can try to understand how an earthquake causes this kind of damage. Cecilia and Khaled will be heading to southern Bangladesh tomorrow to continue looking for damage caused by ancient earthquakes. We’ll miss them, but can’t wait to hear about what they find!

Later in the day on Sunday, we found some good rock outcrops near the Cricket stadium, and we climbed up to the top to get a good view. We found that the rocks lay flat, so we knew were standing on top of the middle of the anticline.

There were some little boys playing outside and they saw us way up on top of the hill and came to investigate. You can probably imagine how much we stand out – such strange foreign girls, dressed like men! We rarely see people here with closed shoes, let alone boots! As we continued working, more and more young children kept coming up the hill to join their friends.

About an hour later, school had just gotten out (here the weekend is Friday & Saturday), and some middle schoolers came up to see what their little brothers and sisters were looking at. By the time we were finished our work, we had drawn a crowd of almost 30 people! Even an elderly woman climbed up the hill to see what all the fuss was about!

Can't wait to read your questions and comments! Let me know if I mention something you don't understand or want to know more about. Is there anything in particular you'd like to see a picture of?

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention we saw an elephant! (not wild, though.)

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Welcome to Bangladesh

After more than 38 hours of travel, we arrived in Sylhet, Bangladesh on Thursday night. We flew from Newark, NJ to Mumbai, India and then to Dhaka, Bangladesh. Then we piled into our van and drove all day to reach Sylhet in northeastern Bangladesh. In case you've forgotten where Bangladesh is located, the map shows the route we traveled to get here.

We have now recovered from our exhaustion and jet lag (there's an 11 hour time difference) and we're about to start our 3rd day of fieldwork! For the first week I'm working with in a team of 6. This photo shows Nano Seeber (Columbia U.), Khaled Chowdhury (Dhaka University, Bangladesh), Dhiman Mondal (Dhaka U.), Antje Lenhart (Bremen U. in Germany), and Cecilia McHugh (Queens College, NY).
Our intrepid driver Rokon is also a crucial part of our team and keeps us safe on the chaotic roads of Bangladesh.

We are collecting data (using our compasses, just like you did in class with the cardboard "outcrops"!) and rock samples to address many different scientific questions, such as:
- Where are there faults (that might generate earthquakes)? What kind of faults are there and in what ways do they deform the land?
- When and where have earthquakes happened in the past? What evidence do they leave in sediment
- How has the land rotated and moved?

This map shows the major faults (fractures where rocks move, bend and break). I'm focusing on the fault in red, which is called the Dauki Fault.

A lot of you forget to record observations during your 8th grade science labs, but detailed observations are absolutely crucial in scientific research. We all keep very detailed notes, because months from now when we're working with our data there might be some key detail that didn't seem so important at the time. Photos are also really important because they allow us to illustrate our observations!

I look forward to reading your questions! Feel free to ask about anything - the science, the cultural differences, the logistical challenges, etc.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Questions from Students

My flight leaves at 8:20pm today!
Here are the answers to some of your questions:

From Elijah: Do you see or have you encountered any wild animals in Bangladesh during your work? - Nope, I didn't see any wild animals last time I was there. Most of the country is very densely populated. I saw an elephant in a market once, water buffalo and some dogs. Someday I would love to visit the Sundarbans Mangrove Forests in southwestern Bangladesh, where there are still tigers and other wild animals!

From Belissa: Where do you sleep? Where do you take a shower? What do you eat? How's the temperature over there? -- We will stay in a government resthouse in Bangladesh and a hotel in India. Our rooms will be basic but we'll have beds and a bathroom with a shower and an eastern style toilet. Our hotel in India will actually have western style toilets. We usually eat eggs ('momlette in Bengali) for breakfast, and curry (meat, veggies, lentils or fish with lots of spices) and flat bread called paratha or roti for lunch and dinner. We drink lots of tea (chai). We have to be very careful to drink only bottled or boiled water so we don't get sick. The temperature in Bangladesh will be mid-50s at night to mid-70s during the day. In India we will be at higher elevation so the temperatures will range from 40°F at night to 60°F during the day. Much warmer than NYC!

A few of you asked about how this trip is financed: The research is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, which pays for our transportation and accommodations. In the US, pursuing a PhD in the natural sciences (like I am) is paid for by grants -- I get paid to go to school and do research, how cool is that?!

I look forward to continuing this conversation while I'm in Bangladesh and India!