Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hunting for the Oldest Raingauge in Nepal

[We're going to take a few days off from preaching about "The Forecaster's Way" to catch up with a backlog of stories about some of my travel experiences in Nepal]

During my visit to Kathmandu, I had chance to meet Keshav Sharma, the Director General of the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology. Note that Nepal is the only instance I can think of where hydrology comes before meteorology in a national weather service's name. Nearly always it is the other way around, if hydrology is mentioned at all. Regardless, he was extremely gracious and generous with his time. I'm not just saying that. Here is a photo of him coming to meet me for an interview on the morning of Tihar (Diwali), the most important Hindu festival of the year. It is the crescendo of a month of holidays in Nepal. In the US, it would be the equivalent of NWS head Jack Hayes coming to meet you on New Year's morning. 
Keshav Sharma (head of Nepal weather service) and I on the Hindu holiday Tihar
Dr Sharma gave me a copy of his latest book "Climate Change Trends and Instances of Socio-Economic Effects in Nepal" which is similar to a PDF online "Climate Change Trends and Impacts on Livelihood of People". It contained this passage about precipitation measurements in Nepal:

Precipitation recording in Kathmandu was started on a regular basis in 1921 in the premises of the Indian Embassy at Lainchaur.... The station was gradually upgraded into a climate monitoring station through the years. The lone station of Lainchaur got a network character in the Kathmandu valley with two additional precipitation stations in Sundarijal established in 1940.

When I was coming back from meeting Anup Phaiju from Practical Action, a charitable organization that helps with flood early warning systems in Nepal, I realized that I would be walking by the above mentioned Indian Embassy in Kathmandu. Wouldn't that be great material for the blog, to get a photo of a 90 year old raingauge, the oldest in Nepal?   

Well, lets just say, "One does not simply walk into Mordor". In retrospect, I'm not quite sure I knew what I was thinking. There's no peeking over the fence here. The embassy grounds are expansive and are ringed by 30 foot tall walls, barbed wire, floodlights and so on. On the other side I pictured there were guard dogs.... or bees. Or guard dogs that barked bees. 
The outer wall of the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu
It was not a total loss. While walking around the edges I did stumble upon a Maoist rally, which was a first for me. There were many classic red hammer and sickle flags, but they also had some with crossed forks and spoons instead. Politics aside, I think the dinner theme resonates more with the common man than industrial tools do. But I digress...

I gave up the hunt until a few weeks later when we were turned away from a flight because we hadn't secured the proper visas to travel through India. Not travel to India, but travel through on a layover flight to Sri Lanka. They sent us off to the embassy to get a transit visa. 

Unluckily for us, we got there on a Friday as they were closing and there would be no hope* until Monday to get a visa and there was some rumor that Monday was a holiday ("again?!?"). With little left to lose, I decided to press my luck to see if I could find that famous measurement station. 

*And by "no hope" I mean that a travel agent (standing on the street listening to us get rejected by the embassy) offered to get us an "after-hours" visa for obscenely large sum of money. "No problem, what do you want?" he said, "They call me the problem killer". 
Hello? We were wondering if you had any raingages? 
I was able to pass Dr Sharma's book through the gate to the guards to see if they could help. Their English was not very strong (as was my Nepalese) and the incident was escalated up through several layers of security. Kitty sat at a nearby cafe and was surprised to watch me eventually pass through the small blue metal door in the gate. She thought it would be the last time we would see each other and started working out her own Plan B. Actually, this was only the outer gate. I'm not sure if I'm allowed to say, but there is another guard station inside, including more gates, cameras, metal detectors, etc.. No bees, are far as I could tell, however.

It was difficult to "explain the nature of my request" but eventually I met the director of security (a tall well dressed man in a suit) who told me that the Indian Embassy didn't exist in 1921 because India was not yet a country. The Indians inherited the embassy from the British in 1954 and he said I might have better luck asking at the British embassy, where they would have the records. "Where's that?" "Across the street". Sure enough, literally across the street was the UK embassy. It has its own signs saying that it didn't accept visitors, that visa inquiries should go to another office across town. The heavy metal "klong" of the gate behind me suggested we were done for the day.

Sadly, I now know that the Indian Embassy gauge is long gone, last recording in the 1970s. However, it does appear that there are records even earlier than 1921. Researchers at Columbia University tried to create a long record of temperature and precipitation in Nepal by blending tree ring data with station measurements. From their 2003 journal article,

To do this, we located the original published data sources to obtain all of the monthly climate data. These sources included the ‘Climatological Records of Nepal’ (DIHM, 1977) for 1921–75 data, the ‘India Meteorological Memoirs’ (Eliot, 1902) for 1851–1900 data, and the Annual Summaries of the Monthly Weather Reviews for 1901–20. The first two sources provided the identical monthly data that was previously [available], still with the 1901–20 data gap. The last data source, found in the British Meteorological Office Hadley Centre Library, contained the missing 20 years of data.

They thought some of the data was lost. From the researcher's webpage "Dr. Jones, searching through a unique archive of the late-British colonial period (1901-1920), found a rare copy of the Kathmandu Meteorological records". It is a good thing he did, if you look at the original data and their extended reconstructions, that previously lost period contained some of the driest years on record.

Data rescue deserves its own discussion, but I will say that if you're still looking for ideas for holiday gifts, consider giving the gift of data at the International Environmental Data Rescue Organization.

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