Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Pulse of the Blue Vein (Southwest Iran)


Tom looking for streamgages. This turned out to be a filthy latrine.

There were few things we enjoyed more in Iran than simply driving and looking out the window. Every valley is different from the previous one and the craggy mountains are capped with snow. The folds and buckles in the landscape are a roadside geologist’s dream. There is the occasional verdant irrigated field, but otherwise the rock and soil look bleached white from the punishing sun. In Shiraz we met our translator (and Animal Sciences student Fazel Almasi) and driver (Saeed Shariati) before the four of us started the eight hour journey towards Ahwaz.


Strange ridges in the hillsides


More geologic oddities

We took dozens of photos and several time-lapse videos from the windows as we drove through. Too often one of us would be adjusting the camera settings in the viewfinder when suddenly we were whizzing past a vast military complex with lookout towers, barbed wire and anti-aircraft guns. By the time we knew what was happening, we were exchanging astonished and confused glances with military guards.


Typical mountain pass. That might be a police stop in the background, it might not.

Nobody stopped us, but it was exactly the kind of thing that could have gotten us in trouble because a few of these were the contested nuclear research sites. It looks all the more suspicious for us because the Iranians themselves rarely take pictures of just landscapes while they’re on vacation. Instead, someone is usually posing or there’s some activity for the camera. 


We watched an earthmover (on the left) drive across a river because it was too heavy for the bridge

As beautiful as the mountains of Iran are, nearly all the buildings seem under construction, under destruction or, more often, both at the same time. The first floor of a building might be occupied by a store that looked like it had been there for years. The second story would have three walls complete and a neat stack of fresh bricks on the floor. The top story would look like it had received artillery fire, the ceiling partially missing with twisted rebar exposed.

Southeast of Basht, along highway 86, the finely angled mountains start closing in and meet at a towering gap. The aqua blue vein of a river runs alongside the road and the two squeeze together to make it through the pass. We craned our necks while rounding a bend and crossing the high bridge. Kitty then yelled “streamgage, we have streamgage!” while I exclaimed “Raingage, evaporation pan, stop stop!”, no doubt startling our driver.


We pulled to the side and crossed back over the river on a second bridge parallel to the first. Along the banks were the remains of a third (and possibly fourth?) cobblestone bridge. We could only imagine how ancient the ruins were (100 years old? 2000 years?) but it was clear something cataclysmic had happened there in the past.


Bridge remnants

The brilliant blue streamgage was at the bottom of a spiral staircase and at the end of a long concrete platform extending out into the river. The platform was like a doctor’s finger, stretched across the river’s wrist, measuring the pulse of the blue vein.


Walking out to the stilling well


The view upstream from the gage

360 panorama from gage
The site didn’t look new, but it seemed like it had aged well. It was well-maintained and clean as if it had never been vandalized (which is rare for things that are typically so accessible and exposed). The cableway and its cable car (for manual measurements) looked like what you might find in the dictionary entry for cable car; it was a museum-quality specimen. Nothing seemed overbuilt or underbuilt, it was just right, integrated with and complementing the landscape like a Frank Lloyd Wright building. We giddily posed for pictures as a nearby goat was unsure if it was going up or down the steep hill.

On the opposite bank was a climate station. Sensor-wise, this place was loaded for bear. There were was (at least) a wind vane (for speed and direction) and temperature, humidity and radiation (i.e. sunshine). There was a raised white box with shutters (a “Cotton Shelter”) that probably contained thermometers, barometers and things for humidity. Again, it was laid out to design specs.


The vast majority of weather stations across the globe have just a raingage and a thermometer; it is exceedingly rare to find this many sensors in one site, never mind redundant versions of the same thing. For example, I counted three raingages and two (!) evaporation pans. This doesn’t even include the streamgage across the way (which itself had both automated and manual ways of measuring the flow). 


Dueling evaporation pans

I climbed up the fence (and tore my pants) to get a better photo of the climate station. Kitty scolded me, saying that we were going to get in trouble with the authorities for taking pictures of sensitive water infrastructure. Just two months ago I was rousted by the police in the US for doing this kind of thing.

I asked our guide if he thought the police would mind us taking photos. He shrugged, “It could be. But we are nowhere. When was last time you saw police?”

Satisfied, we walked back to the car only to notice we had parked by a police trailer. A traffic cop dozed in a plastic chair by the side of the road.

As we drove from Basht and Ahwaz, the landscape became less like Eden and more like Mad Max. The mountains gave way to hills that turned into numbing plains. The trees gave way to shrubs that turned into bare dirt. As the sun dropped, the haze thickened and the smell worsened. We passed labyrinthine refineries. By nightfall, we could see silhouettes of churning oil wells, metal monsters groaning in the darkness.

We had entered the dirtiest city in the world, Ahwaz.


Gas flares near Ahwaz

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