Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Aquifer Underneath My House

... is very prolific.

The photo above taken in March 2012 is of an excavation for a building about half a kilometer away from my home in Pune, India. The developer struck water at around 30 feet below the surface. Water began gushing out of sheet cracks in the basalt rock. Within a couple of days the water level had risen to just a few feet below the surface and then stabilized.

The water level you see in the picture is not the water table but the potentiometric surface. The developer had punctured a confined aquifer. Water in this type of aquifer is under hydrostatic pressure. The puncture or hole is this case creates a pressure gradient and water flowed from the aquifer (high pressure) into the hole (low pressure). It rose until the water pressure at the bottom of the hole equaled the water pressure in the aquifer at which point water stopped flowing out of the aquifer and hence stopped rising in the well /excavation.

In the picture below the red arrows point to the sheet cracks from which groundwater is seeping out.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Indian Rationalist Narendra Dabholkar Shot Dead In Pune

Crushingly sad news from Pune, India. Yesterday morning two unidentified gunmen shot dead Dr. Narendra Dabholkar (pictured on left) who for many years had been the public voice of reason, fighting against the superstition and pseudo-science that permeates Indian society. The murder followed a persistent campaign by Dr. Dabholkar to get the Maharashtra state government to pass an anti-superstition bill.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union has a short article  on Dr. Dabholkar and his work.

I often hear people say that differences in belief systems and ideology must be debated peacefully and not result in violent outcomes. I think that really underestimates the power belief systems like religion have over human behavior. Much violence throughout human history has been because people hold what they see as nonnegotiable belief systems which then piggyback and amplify an inherent human tendency to divide people into an "us versus the other". Letting go of such strongly held beliefs becomes a question of self-preservation.

Besides, there is an economic angle to this too. Godmen and clairvoyants in India rake in enormous amounts of money channeled to them by an adoring gullible public. They have dedicated television channels where long distance blessings can be purchased. " Our daughter has been sick for the last 8 months" - "Make sure to  sew buttons of the same color on your husband's shirt.. Your daughter will be cured" is the kind of profound advice I have heard being given and which the believers willingly lap up.

Dr. Dabholkar's work threatened to put the brakes on this lucrative business.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Science Writing In India - 3 Media Coverage Of Climate Change

In the Special Focus section in Current Science, Archita Bhatta gives us a rare glimpse on the evolution of the Indian media coverage on climate change.

There is the predictable push and pull from editors with varying levels of confidence in running stories about global warming. There is the problem of making a case for a phenomenon which is expressed in terms of uncertainties and probabilities. And the Indian media obsession with big occasions like global conferences on climate change with coverage turning a tad jingoistic and self-congratulatory about India's heroic "stand" against the western big emitters.

Nearly missing according to Archita Bhatta is coverage of local stories of changing climate and its consequent impact on ecology and people's livelihoods. This lacunae makes it difficult for the public at large to make the necessary connection between global warming and their own lives.

From the article:

This again takes me back to 2011. Just back from a research on how apple orchards were shifting uphill in Himachal Pradesh because of increase in temperatures, I scanned the papers for the coverage of this in the media. None was found, except for one article in the science and environment magazine called Down to Earth. These local stories of vegetation shifts, reduction in flows in the rivers, loss of crops, drought, etc. might appear as disparate and disconnected, but there lies the failing of the Indian media: it does not grasp the complex connections between these micro-level changes with the larger global changes.

The result is that climate change reportage is viewed by the public as a ‘mere policy issue for 'intellectuals’, remote and unconnected to their lives. 

This has to change

So the situation remains the same as when I travelled across central India to report on how extreme rainfall and drought there had affected people’s lives. Farmers affected by unexpected rainfall in groundnut-growing areas of Andhra Pradesh, did not understand ‘climate change’ as the professor spoke of.

This has to change

The rapidly decreasing rainfall in Chhattisgarh did not make sense to the farmers there; connecting this to the fast burgeoning vehicular population, or the consumptive lifestyle of their middle-class urbane brethren. It is most likely they still do not understand, because we in the media have ourselves not seen the real connection and are comfortable chasing policy diatribes and quoting big politicians.

This is what has to change ..towards building a strong bench of climate change journalists who understand the complex subject and connect it to the lives of the common people, the community that will finally make the difference in climate change scenario happen.

Do read.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Is It Possible To Predict The Past

.. is the name of an article published in Lithosphere (open access) by Chris Paola of the University of Minnesota. It begins like this:

On p. 343–354 of this issue Engelder and Pelletier (2013) argue that relatively long-term autogenic variation in the degree of channelization of gravel-transporting fluvial systems can result in cycles of aggradation and incision that can reduce the slopes needed for gravel transport and hence allow for unexpectedly long distances of gravel runout.

In case your eyes have already glazed over I request a little patience and suggest you read the entire article, for at the heart of it is a thoughtful defense of uniformitarianism , one of most fundamental concepts in geology.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Science Writing In India - 2 Writing In Hindi

In the Special Focus section on Science writing in India in Current Science Sopan Joshi writes about the difficulties of writing about science in Hindi:

The world of science has developed a great bias towards English. The research comes from the English-speaking world,so the idiom is culturally English. The Hindi readership is not familiar with this idiom. For example, imagine the words required to explain plate tectonics in Hindi. For most scientific terms, there are translations in Hindi. But those translations mean nothing to the average reader. In fact, they mean very little to even the students of science. Because they are never used outside the classroom.

Each writer has to negotiate this problem on his terms, given his limitations. In my experience, using the metaphor of labour is useful. So, in a Hindi article on the world of computers, I have used the metaphor of carpentry to explain the nuance of a graphical user interface. To talk about the relationship between an operating system and computing software, I have found myself using the image of railway tracks and trains running on them. To talk about climate change and its impact on the monsoon, I have drawn from Hindu customs and mythology.

While this makes the material more accessible to a wider readership, it also dumbs down the narrative. One gets the feeling that there is no room for the beauty of complexity. Since there is very little written on science in the Hindi media, one also regrets the absence of a peer group. When you are  struggling with a choice of words, because you cannot think of words and phrases that can convey the meaning accurately and interestingly, you need peers to bounce off ideas, get feedback.

Since almost all post-high school science education in India is in English these problems do apply to other Indian languages as well.  Sopan Joshi should take heart that the Science Bloggers Association of India has put together a Hindi language science writing ecosystem which could provide him a sounding board for his ideas.

The world of science has recently developed a bias towards English, but don't forget there is a vast research literature in Russian, French, German, Chinese and Japanese, countries that unlike India have been using native languages for post high school science education.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Some Interesting Papers On Himalayan Sedimentary Record By Indian Academics

A long time ago I mused that my perception was that in the context of Indian geology research, papers in top international sedimentary journals featured more Bengali geologists based in Universities in Bengal and eastern parts of India than from any other ethnic or linguistic region in India. That was fun lazy speculation on my part but perhaps not entirely wrong.

So, it is very refreshing to see a flurry of papers in recent issues of Sedimentary Geology from non Bengali research groups from other parts of the country as well!

1) Early Oligocene paleosols of the Dagshai Formation, India: A record of the oldest tropical weathering in the Himalayan foreland - Pankaj Srivastava, Subhra Patel, Nandita Singh, Toshienla Jamir, Nandan Kumar, Manini Aruche, Ramesh C. Patel

As the Indian collision with Asia progressed, the sea of Tethys shrank. Marine environments gave way to terrestrial basins. This work uses ancient soils that formed on these early terrestrial sediments during breaks in sedimentation to infer paleoclimate. The conclusion is that the climate was tropical with monsoonal conditions.

2)  Late Miocene–Early Pliocene reactivation of the Main Boundary Thrust: Evidence from the seismites in southeastern Kumaun Himalaya, India - Anurag Mishra, Deepak C. Srivastava, Jyoti Shah

The Himalayan terrain is broken up by several major thrust faults. Out of these, the Main Boundary Thrust brings into contact the Proterozoic Lesser Himalayas over the Cenozoic foreland basin sediments. The nature and reactivation history of the Main Boundary Thrust is not completely understood. A study of soft sediment deformation in foreland basin sediments in the vicinity of the Main Boundary Thrust documents sedimentation contemporaneous with seismic events.  Magnetostratigraphy indicate a Late Miocene-Early Pliocene reactivation of this major thrust fault.

3)  Exploring the temporal change in provenance encoded in the late Quaternary deposits of the Ganga Plain - Shailesh Agrawala, Prasanta Sanyal, Srinivasan Balakrishnan, Jitendra K. Dash

The rivers in the Ganges plains receive a lot of sediments from the Himalayas. But that is not their only source of sediment. Rivers like the Chambal, draining the Indian craton composed mainly of Precambrian granites and meta-sedimentary and meta-igneous rocks and the Late Cretaceous -Earliest Cenozoic Deccan Basalts contributes prodigious amounts of sediment especially to the Yamuna. A geochemical analysis of cored sediments from the Yamuna finds important contribution through the Pleistocene from both Himalayan and cratonic sources. Interestingly, there is a climatic control on the relative proportions of sediments received from the two sources. Himalayan sediments dominate during interglacial phases while cratonic sediments dominate during glacial phases. Expansion of mountain glaciers during cold intervals would have reduced supply of sediments from the Himalayas.