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Bangladesh, Crunching Continents, and a Really Big River

February 21, 2012Joanne RichardsonProgram & AnnouncementsComments Off on Bangladesh, Crunching Continents, and a Really Big River

I’ve always maintained that geologists are storytellers.  Years of training, and hard-won knowledge enable geologists  to look at a stone, a river, or a hill, and tell its story.  Where did it come from?  Where is it going?  Why is it here?

Two weeks ago I had the extraordinary good luck to go to Sip of Science, at the Aster Cafe where Dr. Andrew Petter told us the story of Bangladesh, covering in turn “Rivers, Plate Tectonics, and People: Life on the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta.

Dr. Petter started with the story of the people, why we should we care about these geological forces.  Why is it important to the people who live there, and consequently, why would it be important to us, who live so far away?  This dynamic landscape holds many clues for adaptation to such varied stressors as sea-level rise, climate change, and rapid urban densification.

Let’s back up a bit.  Why would anybody study Bangladesh and it’s rivers?  Bangladesh, if you’ll remember from any number of recent news stories, is subject to dramatic yearly flooding.  Its major river, the Ganges-Bramaputra, comes rocketing out of the Himalayas a bit like a firehose, carrying billions of tons of sediment that build up an impressive floodplain, an extraordinary series of coastal mangrove forests, and jets out into the sea.  People live in this floodplain in traditionally resilient and adaptive rural communities, and in increasingly less resilient and fracture-critical urban areas, which are built quickly and are at great risk of catastrophic failure in the event of earthquakes.

Why would I mention earthquakes?  Well, this impressive river valley and floodplain flows over the margin of two tectonic plates which are sliding together with such impressive power that they built the Himalayas, the tallest mountains on Earth.  Push two tectonic plates together, and they will bend, and buckle, and fracture.  The fracturing causes earthquakes.  We also have the added complication that the plates are not meeting each other straight on, but there’s a little sideways movement in there too, rumpling up the plates and causing the classic dip and heave of rolling mountain ranges, all happening at sea-level, under billions of tons of yearly sediment deposition, under a very active river and floodplain, and home to one of the most densely populated countries on Earth.

Dr. Petter and his colleagues are studying all of this in earnest, trying to understand what has happened in this incredibly active area, so they may understand what is happening today, and what will happen, and most importantly, why.

As far as river stories go, this is a pretty exciting one with some pretty amazing players.  At the risk of getting pithy, we don’t know how it will turn out, but we’ve got a great team trying to figure it out.  For more information, visit Sip of Science, and join us next time if you can!

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