Monday, September 26, 2011

Typhoon Nesat in Manila

It's not every day that you wake up and the weather forecast is for "broken trees".

We arrived in Manila, Philippines last night to horizontal blowing rain. On the ride to the hotel, some of the streets were flooded. A Typhoon is bearing down on the northern Philippines. The headline of the newspaper was "100,000 People Evacuated" as it made landfall this morning. This is happening on the two year anniversary of another Typhoon that killed more than 500 people and put 80% of Manila under water. It must feel strange to be unveiling memorial statues in stormy weather.
Satellite image from 20 minutes ago (9 am local time) from PAGASA
Here, the winds aren't terribly strong (the trees are bending a bit less than in the icon above), but the rain continued all last night. Against the background of the skyscrapers, the white bands of rain look like a sheer curtain blowing in an open window. The lights have been flickering on and off.

The sense of anticipation is palpable. School was cancelled and government workers stayed home today. I've been hitting refresh on the government's forecast website (PAGASA) every couple minutes (the last update was due at 9 am... another version). Their facebook and twitter feeds have been fairly active. There agency also has some good background information on how flood forecasts are prepared.

Of course, it'll take some time before the rain causes the rivers to rise. How high will the rivers get? It seems we'll find out soon enough...

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Hydrologic oddities: The foul creek from the Black Cave (Gomantong Caves, Malaysia)

Imagine that you are a psychologist designing an immersion exercise for someone with a set of phobias. Maybe the patient is afraid of nasty things, dark spaces, bugs, bats, and so on. It needs to be a dank, foul place, where the walls are alive; creepy-crawlies can drop off the ceiling anytime... Let’s run a small creek through it, just for good measure. 

Welcome to the Gomantong Caves in northeast Borneo! 

The view of cave entrance, looking out

When you hear about "Bird's nest soup", this is where the nests come from. Birds (swiftlets) make nests out of spit on the roof and the sides of the cave. People climb hours, 90 meters high with ropes and bamboo ladders (Health and Safety would seriously disapprove). This is the “Black Cave” (Simud Hitam) named because its nests are not as clean as the more valuable nests from the harder to access but larger "White Cave" (Simud Putih). 

Honestly, I have to wonder who was the first person to climb to the top of a cave to harvest a spit-nest and put it in soup. What are all the other things they experimented with along the way but gave up on? It's a bit like Fugu ovaries... They're the most poisonous part of a fish that can kill you on eating it. However, someone figured out that you can ferment the ovaries for 3 years and then there is a chance you might not die. 

Really, who is the unfortunate person who waited only 1 year to figure out that was not long enough? Worse yet, who were his friends who decided to wait longer and give it another go?  
On the way to the cave there is the typical wild-monkey-in-a-tree (Presbytis rubicunda)
So, in the cave are also bats... literally millions of bats. The birds and their bats do their business and poop on the floor. Untold centuries of poop forms the spongy bed of the creek that snakes its way through the cave. The smell is like a punch in the nose.

I tell you, it's really hard to photograph in a cave. Note, bat poo (foreground, background).
Excrement is full of nutrients and so you would imagine someone would be taking advantage of this incredible biological opportunity. Shine a light on the wall or the floor and you'll see...

... wriggling centipedes and an unfathomable mass of cockroaches. The boardwalk is steep and slippery so be sure to hold on to the handrail...

The handrail. Seriously. Grab on and potentially touch a roach or risk falling into a catastrophic failure. 
To give you a sense of how rank it is, the cave's creek (right) fouls the normal river (left) as they join.

The Gomantong Caves happen because limestone is easily dissolved by the water flowing through it. When a landscape has much limestone, it is called Karst. It's why some streams disappear in a hole only to pop out of a cave somewhere else.

Imagine how the center of a log rots out before the bark, leaving it with random little holes, tunnels, and other hollows. The cross section of, say, a live pine tree is pretty simple and easy to describe, but who knows what it looks like inside a rotten log. Similarly, "holey" limestone is one of the most difficult landscapes to model in hydrology. On our search for "hydrologic monsters", we'll likely spend a lot of time near Karst.

By the way, the birds nests are so valuable that the cave is heavily guarded by the government. In the back of the cave there is a place for the guards to sleep. It's a terrible job, poisonous snakes and centipedes have been known to bite them and cockroaches eat at their skin when they sleep. At least there's a cave cat (the glowing eyes in the center right of the below picture) that keeps them company (while feasting on birds). 

I think this counts as a zero-star accommodations

Thursday, September 22, 2011

In the Shadow of the East Floodway

Closer in to Jakarta, the rivers take on an ominous color. The water is black, bubbling, filled with trash and liquid horrors, the smell is overpowering. Although the main channel is usually black, the occasional backwater canal will bloom with algae. One lake we saw had floating islands of cornflower-blue colored scum.

There were places where the river went beyond black and developed white patches. Quite literally this was "white discharge", the same phrase you would use for a wound that has taken a turn for the worse and is weeping pus.

I imagine that this is what the Rivers of Hell look like. Know that my father was a Roman Catholic minister and I thought of Hell much more than any 10-year old probably should have. So, Hell is not a term I toss around lightly. If you are not religious, imagine The Bog of Infernal Stench or something from Lord of the Rings. 

As a hydrologist (but not a water quality specialist I will admit), what is all the more disturbing is that poisoned water does not necessarily look or smell bad. This mostly looks bad because of the human waste, but who knows what the industrial rivers look like. 

We visited the head of the East Flood Canal, a recently completed $500 million works project to prevent Jakarta from flooding. The canal is a protective quarter-ring around the southeast of the city, intercepting rivers and diverting floods out to to the ocean. 

As we stepped out of the van on the side of the canal opposite the College of Transportation (STMT Trisakti) someone asked "Is that a person down there?" 

Indeed, one of the trash pickers was swimming in the river, putting trash on a raft. For the interested, here is a good interview with one of these "river janitors".

The white foaming is likely from household detergents. Below is a closer picture of the cleanup along the trash racks. The rake is the cage of a fan, tied to a bamboo pole. 

For reference, "river janitors" like these make about $650 per year, compared to about $2000 per year for river gate operators (Indonesian median income is about $3000).

A small village of tin sheds now sits where the canal meets the old river flowing down its natural channel. Here is a house put up against a gate under construction. Eventually this will have to go away when the gate is completed. 

When we arrived, a group of boys were splashing and playing in the river within sight of a latrine.

The arrival of visitors caused a stir and all the kids came out to meet us and play games. All the girls had pink somewhere in their outfits...

And the boys liked climbing in trees and playing with toy guns. 

We found an old woman that had lived in the village for 30 years. She said the last time they were flooded was 2007.

Why did she come back if there was flood danger? She said that rent around here was $11-$30 per month, the cheapest in the city, and she could not afford to live elsewhere. They made money harvesting the recycling from the river and selling food and such. As we talked, she stroked her hand on a stain along the edge of her doorway... the patina of the stain probably came from decades of doorway conversations.

(click to enlarge)
One of the good things about the village was that they had a well that provided clean water. The pump was held together with wire and ribbons: 

Next to the pump was the community toilet, a tent of blankets on a platform extending out over the river.

Others adults had started to gather around and listen to our conversation. We asked a young couple about if they were worried for their health, living so close to the river. Not really... If they got sick, they went to the government doctors and got care. 

(click to enlarge)

Are you happy people? Optimistic? The translator laughed and offered that this was a personal question, but he'll try. --Sure we're happy. We're at home here.

What was the best day you had this year? By this time practically all the ladies from the village had come out and were listening. One woman strolling through offered her thoughts and evoked a laughing "oh you're a rascal!"-type response from the crowd. 

The rough translation was "They are happy when the flood occurs. Of course they were sad because they couldn't go to their homes, but the flood is the only time anyone cares about them and tries to help them

By this time, the call to prayer had begun and we had to move on to the site where a collapsed dam recently cut of part off the city's water for days.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Manggarai Gate: Garbage (part 2/2)

[There is another post with our interviews of people living along this river]

When I started searching the web for "strange rivers", I'd frequently find photos of the "dirtiest river in the world" in Jakarta, Indonesia, like such:

Honestly, there's a river underneath all that (source)
I imagined that something like that could only happen if a flooding river eroded the banks and carried away part of a garbage dump (I have seen it happen in Arizona, but that was not nearly as bad as the above).  When I asked what "the dirtiest place" on "the dirtiest river" was, a common item on peoples' lists seemed to be Manggarai.

When we walked over a bridge at another site earlier in the day we started to get a feel for what goes into the river. A girder below the bridge had various bits of trash on it. This was above the high water mark, so it either arrived on a stiff breeze or was tossed there by a passerby. At a places like this you have to shout to be heard over the cars and motorbikes.

Any of the pictures in this post you can click to get a closer look
Most of the trash is either plastic bags, styrofoam food containers or just unrecognizable yuck. Occasionally something catches the eye and makes the imagination reel. For example, I must wonder who is passing over a bridge (with no sidewalk) and decides to jettison three cooked sets of ramen noodles over the edge? And with such outward force that it lands on the girder 4 meters away?

Here's a close up of the trash racks at the Manggarai gate, itself

In this view are: A refrigerator without its metal shell (surprisingly many of these around... I don't know where the shells go), yogurt cups, shoes (...every lost shoe has a story...), DVDs, cups, soccer balls, coconuts...

If it weren't so awful, it could be art. 

I was inclined to believe that anything brown and floating was feces. I was not quite sure how all the individual poops were able to find eachother and form a floating mat. The water itself was dark gray. It smelled as bad as it looks. Part barnyard, part burning plastic.. like disease on the wind. Despite all this, the occasional catfish came gulping to the surface.

There are several ways that trash gets out of the river. Every couple days, a private company's crane sloshes through the water and scoops things to up on shore. There is a crane operator on-call by SMS in case the garbage builds up too quickly. Apparently it was pretty tame the day we were there because it is easier to keep up with the cleaning during the dry season. 

The crane (back right in below) drops the trash on the bank, and it is sorted through and/or hauled away. The water draining out the bottom of this pile is a foul broth.

The other way to pull something out of the river is for people to pull it onto bamboo rafts and ferry it to shore. There are many of these elsewhere along the rivers. Here's an example: 

If you look close in the below, you can see an inflatable Spongebob Squarepants (...every lost inflatable Spongebob Squarepants has a story...)

There's the occasional Rocking Horse...

Our guides said that some of the below wood was from flooded homes. It was recovered and would be resold for firewood for those too poor to afford cooking gas or kerosene.

There were mattresses pulled from the river:

We had some discussion about if they, too, would be resold. The guides thought that likely yes for things like shoes, but probably no for mattresses. I was haunted by the idea of someone (perhaps unknowingly?) buying a mattress pulled from the dirtiest river in the world... but some googling confirms that the company operating the crane considers mattresses non-recyclable.

We climbed to the top of a nearby second gate and looked upstream at the river houses. Actually these are more like apartment complexes than individual houses...

At the back of most houses there is a platform that serves as a toilet that deposits directly into the river. Over the course of a couple minute conversation we saw several people use the latrines (indeed, at one point both latrines in view were seeing action simultaneously).

One of the local people with us suggested that there is a culture of throwing trash out the back of houses in Indonesia. No one sees the river from the street, so it is out of sight, out of mind. Maybe we should turn the houses around and put the road by the river instead. As he said this, a lady came out on the platform and threw a plastic bag full of garbage over the railing and into the water. A plastic tub floated by.

Every lost plastic tub has a story...

The Manggarai Gate: Operations and data (part 1/2)

Behold! The Manggarai gate, the valve to the heart of Jakarta: 

Human on the right, for scale
How open or closed it is determines if the Presidential Palace is flooded. It is also one of the dirtiest places in the city, where trash is fished out of the river by the crane-full daily.

25 km upstream of the Manggarai gate is Depok and 25 km upstream of that is Bogor. Just outside Bogor is the Observer at Katulampa Dam, discussed in previous posts. Floods passing by Katulampa arrive at Manggarai half a day later and it is the observer's job to warn the people of Jakarta.

Having only 2 million people makes Depok something of a suburb to Jakarta's 10 million. To drive between Depok and Jakarta takes somewhere between a half hour to 28 days, depending on Jakarta's legendary traffic. No doubt, with 1 million people, Bogor is nothing to sniff at either... Bogor's population density is the second highest in the world, nine times as dense as San Francisco. Only Manila is greater as cities go.

Like Katulampa, Manggarai has been around for many years, built by the Dutch before the 1920s. On the wall of the office is a picture of the river from the 1930s:

We got a briefing of the emergency procedures that were triggered by various flow levels, similar to (and indeed related to the operations of) Katulampa Dam.

The site saw action in 2007 when the river rose out of its banks to flood part of the control house and the surrounding neighborhood. The high water level left a black stain on some of the buildings and poles around the site and these were labeled (on February 4, 2007, the water level was 1090 centimeters above the reference level, reading "+1090 4-02-07").

Every 15 minutes the employees check the river level and adjust the gate if necessary. During floods, the CB radio and phone ring off the hook. The operator that guided us around, Dian Nur Cahyono, said that one of the tougher parts of his jobs is when local people call or come to the site to argue about how the gate is being operated, sacrificing their neighborhoods to save some others... especially when that "some others" includes the Presidential Palace and relatively upscale neighborhoods. There is no point arguing with the operator, however, it is all Standard Operating Procedure that is ultimately controlled (and can be overridden) by the Governor.

Dian Nur Cahyono in the upstairs control room
When we asked the operator how he ended up here, he said that he was working in air conditioning and that the local government advertised a job for an expert electrical technician. Before getting the job, he did not fully know what it was about, but now that he works there, he felt pride in doing a public service.

Outside was a rain gauge belonging to BMKG, something like the Indonesian National Weather Service. A palm frond had grown over the gauge likely causing a steady drift in the quality of the measurements.

The operators half-joked that they were afraid to maintain the site; a sign warned that entering the enclosure was a crime endangering the public safety that carried a penalty of 12 years imprisonment. Figuring that I was leaving the country soon, I broke the law by doing some pruning. We'll see if I get extradited.

Sticking it to The Man, climate-data-quality-style. 
I pity the researcher that is going to discover a sudden shift in the time series record (on 9 September 2011, in case you're reading this, researcher from the future). 

Manual raingage in foreground, automatic gauge inside the fence.
At this site, floods only happen a couple times in one's career, but trash is a daily problem. The trash at Manggarai deserves its own post, so that's just what we'll do (tomorrow!).

Friday, September 16, 2011

Guest post: Tom Perkins about Dallas Reigle

While I was a forecaster at the Natural Resources Conservation Service I was trained by Tom Perkins. He was a forecaster when I met him, then he became head forecaster and is now leader of the branch. Earlier this month I wrote some stories about Dallas Reigle, the first forecaster I ever met. Tom worked with Dallas for many years and I asked if he had any other stories about him. Tom Perkins wrote:

"I met Dallas in 1984, just after I transferred to the SCS (Soil Conservation Service) Snow Survey Program from the NWRFC (Northwest River Forecast Center), where I was also a forecaster (seasonal and flood)...Dallas was then a junior forecaster, just like me. Dallas is one of those guys that, when you first meet him, becomes the brother you never had. What a great guy! And a great hydrologist. He invited me to his home on almost every one of my visits to Phoenix. He also arranged several Salt River Project helicopter flights over the Salt, Verde, and Tonto watersheds.

Most years, Dallas and I would coordinate [discuss and agree on] our forecasts and see how low we could go. Dallas would say, "This is the desert...forecast dry, Perkins!". Then there were the major floods of 1993. Dallas and I were forecasting 600% of median for the Salt and Verde rivers in January; twice that for Tonto Creek! We were pointing in the right direction, but we did not go far enough! I think the Salt ran 16,000% of median that year (Jan-May), or some other eye-popping number [Ed: The Tonto River January flow was 4,500% of normal median flow]. Cars, washing machine, refrigerators, all kinds of junk were bobbing in the Salt River as it ran into, through, and out of Phoenix. I'm sure that many of those appliances ended up in Painted Rock Reservoir, near Gila Bend (90 miles/150 km away). That was a year to remember, just like 2011 will be a year to remember for the Missouri...but, that's another story.

Dallas with a snowed-in snotel site. The brown box is an instrument shelter buried in snow.  The shelter is probably about 9 feet/3 meters tall. 
Dallas liked to smoke cigars. They were big, fat stogies, like coach Red Auerbach used to light up when the Boston Celtics basketball team were winning. The day that I took the pic at Snowslide Canyon was the last time I saw Dallas. He contracted Lou Gehrig's disease soon after and I never got back to Phoenix before he passed away. 

Red Auerbach on a winning streak (source)

We communicated via email until almost the very last. He started to lose his functions, but was able to send messages, using a special computer that he could command from his wheelchair. Dallas was both bright and witty. I remember sending him an email one day, asking him what his favorite cigars were. I told him that I would send him a box. He emailed back, telling me not to send any; the doctor told him that they were bad for his health. I laughed. I laughed a lot when I was around Dallas. I miss our conversations.

I have met many "personalities" like Dallas, during my 37+ years with the Federal government. A lot of people associated with the Snow Survey Program were born about 100 years too late. Many of them would have made great mountain men! Most of them loved being out in the mountains and the snow, and would put in many more hours than they were paid for. Randy Julander (Utah Snow Survey Supervisor) once remarked about snow survey work "...And we get paid for this?"

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The observer at the Ciliwung gate (part 2/2)

He offered a tour of the dam. By this time, the laundry had been removed from the raingage. On closer inspection, it turns out there’s three raingages practically within arm’s reach of eachother. Two agencies transmit their own automated measurements. It’s easier to have two different gages than to try and get the two agencies to share the same data. There’s also a non-automated gage that is read manually.

“How different are the measurements?” Surprisingly different.

“Which one is the best, most accurate?” The manual one, of course.

The streamgage upstream of the dam had manual and automated sensors too. The largest lizard I’ve seen on this trip so far skittled out of the electronics box at the streamgage. Nearby, someone had built a personal levee out into the channel and they were digging out smooth river stones for sale.

Inside the streamgage shelter
By this time we started to catch the attention of the local kids (streamgage in background)

The kids later showed off by diving off the dam
We stopped to talk with two old men who lived on the waterfront and asked their experience with the river. I expected him to show where the river came up to his knees during the flood but instead he pointed to marks on the ceiling. He made a point to say that the closing of the irrigation canal during the flood caused water to back up into his house, making things worse for him, even if it helped those downstream.

Splash marks on the ceiling
Even though the old man's house had been flooded repeatedly, he was appreciative of the information and warning he got from Mr Andi. Even though it's easy to view government representatives as the foe, the dam and its observer seemed like a community pillar. 

For being an "observer", he seemed to play the game on his toes and not his heels. He said there were volunteer cleanups of the river by the community. People came out of their homes to greet us. Someone on a motorbike (literally) high-fived Mr Andi as he passed. As we were saying goodbyes, there was mention of how he recently got an award for his service. 

Here's to hoping that he gets to do more observing than operating in the future