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This page created 31 Jul 2005.
Last modified 26 Dec 2007.


Sumatra 2005:  A Journal of My Trip


The following is a journal (or blog) I kept on my trip to Sumatra in May and June of 2005.  I had originally intended to e-mail it out on a regular basis to anyone I thought would be interested, but logistical problems prevented that plan from becoming a reality.  Nonetheless, I kept writing, and below are all of my entries, together.  The date and time of each entry appears directly above each entry.  The rest should be self explanatory, so without further ado, here's my journal!  Enjoy, and feel free to let me know what you think!



14 May 2005
19 May 2005
20 May 2005
27 May 2005
08 June 2005
21 June 2005
27 June 2005

Printable Version

Sumatra Photos
Sumatra Main Page



Saturday, 14 May 2005, 14:00 Jakarta time (+0700).

Hi Everyone,

Greetings from Padang, West Sumatra, Indonesia, at latitude 1 degree South!

First off, to start a blog that I'm going to try to keep over the next month or two, let me assure you that we are all okay following today's M 6.9 earthquake off the west coast of Sumatra.

In effect, the earthquake was our welcome to Sumatra.

After a week of logistical adventures going from L.A. to Hong Kong to Jakarta to Singapore, and finally back to Jakarta, we left Jakarta, on the island of Java, this morning on a flight to Padang, on the island of Sumatra.  After a wonderful flight with an incredible view of the Great Sumatran fault and some of the volcanoes in southern Sumatra, we landed at Padang just before noon.  We got off the plane, walked into the terminal to get our checked bags, and after about 5 minutes, the room started shaking, and we knew it was an earthquake.  I felt the shaking for about 25 seconds, but I'm sure that had I been standing still the whole time, I would have felt a longer portion of it.  The shaking wasn't very strong, but strong enough to get about half of the 200 or so people in the room to run for the nearest exit -- abandoning their luggage where it was.  After a minute, though, people returned, and things went back to normal.  And on the other hand, some people who were moving about didn't feel it at all.  (Dave, please feel free to turn this into a CIIM report; I don't have a fast enough connection to fill out the form myself.)

It turns out that today's earthquake had a magnitude of 6.9, making this the biggest aftershock so far of the 28 March M 8.7.  We were quite a distance from the epicenter, though, so other towns farther north undoubtedly felt today's quake much more strongly.  We expect that there will have been some damage from this earthquake, though hopefully not any serious injuries.  There would have been no tsunami, as this earthquake would have been too small, but it's difficult to be certain of the magnitude (and whether the earthquake was tsunamigenic) as you are sitting in your home deciding whether to run for higher ground.  A good rule of thumb that we'll be following is: if the shaking lasts a minute or more, RUN!

As we drove into town, there was a strange traffic jam, in a place where there are not usually any traffic problems, according to our Indonesian colleague Imam, who had picked us up at the airport.  We soon realized that everyone was trying to turn onto one particular street that led up a hill to higher ground.  Although the drivers weren't abandoning their cars and no one appeared to be panicking, many passengers were getting out of the cars and walking hurriedly towards higher ground.  People are very much on edge here, which is good -- their jumpiness and instinct to run for higher ground following strong shaking will undoubtedly save many of them when the next big one comes.  But it's a difficult way to live, always on edge like that.

Right now, I'm sitting on the patio in front of our hotel room in Padang.  We avoided staying at the really nice hotel in town, which is mulit-story and only few hundred meters from the beach, to opt instead for a single-story hotel just over 1 km inland.  Still, Padang is built on a nearly flat, low-lying floodplain, so later this afternoon John is going to show me the sturdy tree he has picked out, about a block away, to climb up if necessary.  We'll all be safe.

One thing about the tropics is that the weather is very predictable and almost always the same.  In Padang in May and June, it's partly cloudy in the morning, with scattered intense thundershowers in the afternoon.  While I was composing this commentary, with no warning at all, an intense downpour started, and for about 10 minutes, it was the most intense rain I've been in.  But then again, I grew up in southern California, so admittedly I haven't seen much.  And now, about 10 minutes later, the sun is out again and it's getting all steamy.  But it's way nicer here than in Jakarta -- Jakarta is so polluted, that the air is just gross.  Here, though, I could get used to the humidity ... I think ... and it really is beautiful.  Let's see if I'm still that optimistic in a few weeks.

Anyway, for those of you who hadn't heard, the first week here involved dealing with some logistical problems associated with our visas.  Rich and I ended up needing to go to Singapore for a couple days to get the visas straightened out -- which gave us a unique opportunity to do some sightseeing and shopping there -- but things eventually came together, and we're looking forward to finally getting in the field.  We'll be here in Padang until Wednesday, and then we'll be getting on the boat, which will become our home for the next 4-5 weeks.

I hope you are all well, and feel free to pass this on.  I'll be able to check e-mail twice a day through Tuesday, but after that it will be pretty sporadic.

Till next time,
Selamat Tinggal,



Thursday, 19 May 2005, 15:00 Jakarta time (+0700).

Hi again Everyone,

It's been a while since I last wrote (five days, to be exact), but I haven't written mostly because there hasn't been much to write about.  This was expected, though -- we knew we'd have a few days to kill in Padang while our Indonesian colleagues finalized the arrangements with the boats and helicopter.  For Rich and I, it was a chance to test all of our equipment and get ourselves more familiarized with it, to shop for supplies, and to explore Padang and its culture.

Walking and riding through the town has been an interesting but not unexpected experience for me.  I guess it's human to relate any new experience to those one has had in the past, and for me, this was no exception.  It was remarkable to me how much the scene in Padang reminded me of the towns I visited nearly five years ago in Turkey.  The restaurants have a similar look, the streets and store fronts and signage are reminiscent, and the way so many people see us and call "Hello, Meester!" also brings back memories.  I've pondered what it is that the people are interested in.  Clearly, we're Westerners, and everybody knows it.  Most people call us in English, although we're also had a bit of French thrown in our direction.  Quite a few people have specifically asked us whether we're from America or France.  (I'm not sure whether that's where most of their visitors come from, or whether we just look the part.  A large number of their tourists are surfers from Australia, but I guess we don't look that part.)  In any case, for the shopkeepers, they seem to be most interested in trying to sell us something; they are calling everyone who walks by, not just us.  But I think for some people, they're genuinely curious to meet outsiders, and we've had some interesting conversations with some of the locals who speak better English.  (I need to learn Indonesian, but that's going to take patience!)  The first day we walked through town, my guard was up, and I tried to ignore all the people who were calling us; but I've since let my guard down, and I've realized that no one will be upset if I simply say hello and give them a big smile back.

Contrary to what I'd been told to expect and to my experience the first day in Padang, it hasn't rained since then -- this makes five consecutive sunny, rainless days.  A lack of rain will definitely help us in our surveying, as it means we'll have more time to work, but it also generally means that the temperatures will be even higher, and we'll have fewer breaks from the sweltering heat.  At least while we're on the boat and it's moving, we'll have a nice breeze, so I'll take comfort in that.

Monday night, we all went on a boat ride out to Sikuai Island, off the coast from Padang, where we fixed some problems with the GPS station and installed a new seismometer.  We rode the boat out at sunset, made the changes and installation by headlamp and flashlight, and rode back to Padang by moonlight.  From what I could tell by moonlight, Sikuai was a beautiful tropical island, and maybe one day I'll get back there in daylight.  But then again, I'll be visiting so many beautiful idyllic tropical islands in the next month -- many of them much more isolated than Sikuai -- that Sikuai may seem much less exotic and appealing by the time I'm done.

In any case, my first impression was that the entire coastline was beautiful, especially at sunset.  The coastal waters are populated by special fishing boats that operate at night, that have bright fluorescent lights all around them to attract squid and other creatures.  They look pretty strange -- almost like a brightly lit carnival ride -- and I took a few photos of them.  It was really nice riding on the open ocean at sunset and later at night like that, and it was also really nice to be doing all that work at night, when it was relatively cool and comfortable. 

Last night (Wednesday night), we finally boarded the boat that will be our home for the next 5 weeks.  We have two boats, actually: a passenger boat, which sleeps 8 plus the crew, and a cargo boat that sleeps another 2 (?) plus its crew.  The passenger boat is really nice -- it's spacious, comfortable, and the sleeping quarters (for the 8 of us) are air conditioned.  The crew consists of a captain and couple of co-captains (I'm not sure exactly what their respective titles are, but so far I've seen three out of the six of them piloting the ship), a cook, and two deck hands.  One of the deck hands is also the fisherman, and so far he's caught two sizable Mahi Mahi.  We've saved most of it for dinner for tonight (and perhaps lunch tomorrow), but the cook cut some of it up and we had some delicious sashimi with our lunch today.

Anyway, our two boats have now split up: our boat is heading to the island of Bais, part of the Batu island group, where we will install another seismometer, while the cargo boat (which is carrying all of the helicopter fuel) is going directly to Tello, to meet up with Kerry and John and the helicopter.  After we're done in Bais, we'll be heading on to Tello ourselves, and from then on, the two boats should stay together most of the time.

Since leaving Padang around midnight last night, we've been heading on a northwesterly coarse, and we should get to our site in a couple hours.  The site itself is 3 km (2 miles) south of the equator, so this will be the closest we've been to the equator so far.  It's actually been fun looking at our GPS receivers and seeing "00" in the degree column for the latitude.  But perhaps that's something only an earth scientist would get a kick out of?

I'm going to sign off now to go outside and look at some scenery (after 8 hours of only the bluest water in the world to stare at, we've been obliquely approaching an island for the past hour or so), but I'll return to write more later.



Friday, 20 May 2005, 12:00 Jakarta time (+0700).

I'm back, here to report on our adventures of last night and so far this morning.

Late yesterday afternoon we arrived at the village on the northwestern side of Bais island (Pulau Bais; pulau means "island" in Indonesian).  Because of the extensive shallow reefs surrounding almost every island in this region, our boat cannot land in many locations, and we have a motorized 6-passenger dinghy for that purpose.  Before we had a chance to board the dinghy to come ashore, some local fishermen came up to our boat, chatted with us (in Indonesian, of course, which prevented me from understanding the conversations) and came on board.  Pretty soon, we were surrounded by fishing boats, and quite a few people boarded our larger ship, including a couple of really cute kids, about 6 or 7 years old.  We have a GPS station on this small island, and I soon realized that we are celebrities here -- especially since John had been here since the March earthquake and had explained to the villagers why the earthquake had happened.

We finally boarded the landing boat, joined by the two kids, who were "leading the way."  When we got to shore a few minutes later, we were met by a much larger group of kids, along with a few adults.  Everyone seemed excited to see us; we were the big event of the day, if not the month.  While those from our group who spoke Indonesian met with the head of the village to say hello and to explain that we were going to install a seismometer next to the GPS station, I started taking videos (with my digital camera) of the group of children that had crowded around us.  At first, they were expecting me to take photos of them (it is and looks like a still camera, after all), so they became puzzled at why my camera wasn't "clicking."  After a minute, though, I motioned them over, and I played back the video I had just taken.  The kids were all so excited, they kept posing for me, and for more than 10 minutes, I'd take a video of them and then play it back for them to see, and then they'd urge me to take another.  A few of them were shy, but most were eager to be on camera, and some were trying to jump into the picture every chance they got; their heads keep popping up into the videos, and then they suddenly get an innocent look on their faces as if to say, "It's not obvious that I intentionally stepped in front of the camera, is it?  I just happened to be walking in that direction!"  It's funny, I think I must have done just that in every home video I was in as a child.  Most of the kids were between 3 and 9 or so, and it amazed me how kids everywhere, regardless of culture, are the same, especially at that age.  And they were so adorable!

We eventually left the village and rode our dinghy to the GPS site at the north tip of the island.  We got there just after sunset, and the sky was still brilliantly lit; I took some of my best photos ever as we got off the boat, and I'll certainly have to put them online once I get a fast enough connection.

We then spent the next few hours installing the seismometer, trying to connect it to the power supply, and troubleshooting why it wouldn't work.  We eventually got everything working, but we had to bypass the circuit breaker to do so.  John, who built and knows the GPS circuitry the best, was not with us (he was with Kerry in Tello), and he'll have to fix the power connection the next time he goes back, probably in a few months.  We checked with Felix this morning in Jakarta, and he said that all the GPS data are coming in normally, so our temporary fix should be good for the time being; we just have to hope that there are no power surges in the circuit.

By the time we got back to the dinghy from the GPS monument, the tide had dropped, and the water depth above the reef was half a meter or less in many locations -- too shallow to operate the motor.  We had to wade out quite a ways, then we used a large stick to push us along the shallow reef.  We got back to the boat too late at night to leave for Tello, so we had to wait until morning.

This morning, I awoke before sunrise to the sound of the motor starting, as we continued on our journey.  I took some more beautiful photos, this time of sunrise, and I'm getting the feeling that I will end up with gigabytes (if not tens of gigabytes) of sunrise and sunset photos before this trip is over.  My camera has 5 megapixel resolution, so these will be print quality (and perhaps even marketable), though I'm really just taking them for my own personal pleasure.

We arrived at Tello village on Pulau Tello at around 9 am, after crossing the Equator twice, and met up with Kerry, John, and the helicopter.  We got to see a little bit of the town, but not much, as we were in a rush to get going.  Kerry and Rich went on the helicopter to Teluk Dalam on the southern tip of Pulau Nias to start surveying uplifted corals, and Danny Natawidjaja joined them to speak to the locals -- this area was devastated in the March earthquake, so it is imperative that they have with them an Indonesian speaker.  Unfortunately, the helicopter holds only the pilot and three passengers, so I could not join them on the first day of surveying.  But we have a long month ahead of us, so I can definitely be patient for one more day.  The rest of us are riding up to Teluk Dalam by boat, and we'll meet up tonight.  For Kerry, Rich, and Danny, the trip to Teluk Dalam will take 40 minutes; for the rest of us, it will take 6 hours.  It'll be nice when I get up in the helicopter, to be able to get around faster, and to see things from a different perspective.  By the way, we just crossed the equator for a third time, and if things go according to plan, we'll be in the northern hemisphere from now until the first week in June.

I'm going to go enjoy some more scenery (all that incredibly blue water, and a delicious breeze) and start organizing my gear for a long day tomorrow.  I'll try to write again some time in the next few days.




Friday, 27 May 2005, 18:00 Jakarta time (+0700).

It's hard to believe it's been a week since I last had a chance to sit down and write, and what an intense week it has been!

As planned, last Saturday was my first day of this trip traveling by helicopter, and the day was quite eventful.  We started from Teluk Dalam and made our way clockwise around the southern and then southwestern coast of Nias.  We visited several villages and a handful coastal locations, and in that way I began a month long journey through towns that have been utterly devastated by earthquake and tsunami, and through a land that has witnessed spectacular geologic changes.

Teluk Dalam lies on the southeastern tip of Nias, which subsided (moved downward) during the earthquake.  Areas that were never under water in the lifetime of anyone living there today are now slightly submerged, although we did not see any evidence of large amounts of subsidence there -- they seemed to fare a little better than areas farther up the southeastern coast of Nias.

As we made our way west, we crossed the pivot line into the region that was uplifted during the earthquake.  Coral reefs that had been under water, even at the lowest of low tides, were now out of water at low tide -- although they were still within the intertidal range.  As we continued northward, the amount of uplift at each site we stopped at was progressively greater.  Before the earthquake, the last study site of the day we visited had been a small sandbar off the coast of Nias with three baby palm trees, surrounded by an immense, beautiful, living coral reef, entirely below the water surface at low tide; during the earthquake, the site was uplifted, the entire coral reef was now out of water even at high tide, and the tiny sandbar had become a sizable island, about a kilometer in diameter, and at least 10 times its original size.  It was beautiful -- it was just like scuba diving to see a beautiful living underwater coral reef, except it was dead and out of water.  But it was preserved and pristine.  It reminded me of Pompei in Italy: as the reef moved up in the earthquake, the entire ecosystem was left exactly in place, exactly as it was: branching corals, platy corals, coral microatolls, sea urchins, shellfish and crabs that had been sitting there dead previously or that couldn't make it back to water, and an occasional unlucky fish.  After carefully studying the corals and their positions on this new island, we determined that the tiny sandbar had moved upward 2.4 meters, or about 8 feet.  But this will be just one of many such data points that we collect all over the region over the next month.

In the morning, we visited the village of Sorake, on Lagundri Bay, which is famed as a world-class surfing destination.  The village had been devastated by the tsunami in December and the earthquake in March.  The people there are scared about more earthquakes and tsunamis, and they also want to try to rebuild and move on with their lives, but they don't have the money or support or infrastructure to do so easily.  Unfortunately, they appear to be close to the pivot line (and thus to the edge of the March rupture), so we really could not assure them that they wouldn't experience a similar earthquake in their lifetimes; all we could do is explain why the earthquake happened and assure them that they'd never experience anything larger than what they felt in March.  But this community has so far received nothing from the outside world, and they were clearly grateful for the little bit of knowledge we could offer.  They helped us determine the amount of uplift that had occurred in their village in the March earthquake, and it was clear that they were eager to help us in any way they could.  These villagers had been through an incredible ordeal, but perhaps telling their stories to outsiders who wanted to listen (especially in the hopes that their information might help us better understand earthquakes) may have made their ordeals easier to bear, even if the effect was only slight.

Saturday, it turns out, we had a major communication snafu.  There were two field crews of three each, and we were leapfrogging our way up the coast by way of the helicopter.  The boats were supposed to meet up with the helicopter and the two field crews at the end of the day.  But we didn't do a good job of making sure everyone knew where to meet.  The two boats ended up in the Hinako Islands, off the coast of Nias, whereas the helicopter and field crews ended up at Sirombu, on the mainland Nias coast, near our uplifted not-so-little-anymore sandbar.  There's absolutely no cell phone coverage anywhere near these areas, and although the field crews had a satellite phone as did each boat, we realized that we didn't have the boats' phone numbers, and likewise, they lacked ours.  By 9 pm, by calling the few numbers we knew, we finally got one boat's number and made contact, but it was too late and the boats were too far away to make the journey by night.  This was especially the case because (as the other field crew had determined) Sirombu also went up 2.4 meters, which meant that any offshore uncharted reefs were now dangerously close to the surface (if not out of water), making nighttime boat travel a game of Russian roulette with very poor odds.

In the mean time, even before we arrived at Sirombu, the other field crew had landed there to do surveying (that was their final site of the day).  As they arrived, as has been the case in every village we've landed near, dozens of people, including many children, flocked to see who these people were and why a helicopter was landing at their village.  (No doubt they were also hoping it meant aid was finally coming their way.)  The other field crew had talked with them, explained what we are doing, and asked them about their experiences.  By the time we landed there, the villagers had become very friendly with the first field crew, and they immediately befriended us as well.  When it became clear that the boats were not going to arrive when they were supposed to arrive, the villagers started making plans to feed us (which we happily paid for; it was dirt cheap for us, but we knew our money would go a long way to help them recover) and to give us a place to spend the night.

As we arrived, we started chatting with the villagers.  It's amazing -- despite everything they've been through, their spirits are high, and they were much more hospitable than I'd expect people to be in a comparable setting back at home in the U.S.  As an aside, that's the same experience I had five years ago in Turkey.  Perhaps I'm somewhat cynical about Americans in general, and perhaps my experiences are biased because I'm an earthquake geologist going into areas recently devastated by earthquakes (so many look to us and respect us for knowledge and understanding and wisdom), but my experience working overseas has been uniquely that people are selfless and giving -- an experience that I've rarely had working in the U.S.

As the light faded on Saturday evening and we made our way into the village, I realized that all the lights were coming from gas lanterns, all the cooking was being done over firepits, and not a single house in the village has electricity.  Later, when I took one family up on their offer to use their shower, I also realized that the village lacks indoor plumbing; the shower consists of a room surrounding a well and a few buckets for drawing water.  Still, dinner was very tasty, the smoke from the firepits kept the mosquitos away, the cool shower couldn't have felt better after a hard day's work in heat and humidity, and there was absolutely nothing to complain about.  We spent a very enjoyable evening conversing with the families that had welcomed us into their homes, and something remarkable occurred to me about the children in this community: they have no computers, no TVs, no plumbing, nothing fancy or luxurious that so many American kids take for granted (although it did seem that many of the older kids had motorcycles for getting around), yet they are happier with life than most kids their age in the U.S.  We slept the night on the concrete front porch of one of the families (the houses themselves were of wooden construction and had survived the earthquakes just fine) and awoke to a pair of magnitude 5 earthquakes that must have been nearly under us.

By daylight, we could clearly see what we had seen in the fading light upon our arrival: Sirombu went up, and it went up a lot.  We saw the old sea wall, which is now high and dry even at the highest tides, and a pier that is now way too high up out of the water to be of use to any boats (not that any boat larger than a dinghy can get to the pier anyway now, because the reefs surrounding the pier are either out of water or almost at water level).  In fact, the entire harbor was rendered useless by the March earthquake, because larger boats can no longer navigate the now-shallow water all along the coast.  Sirombu was hit hard by the tsunami in December, but even though they are much closer to the source region of the March earthquake, the March tsunami was not bad there because the uplifted reefs acted as a barrier and because, quite simply, the town was higher up.  It seems the worst problem they face is the fact that their harbor is now useless; previously, they had relied on visitors as a source of income for the village, but it's not clear how they will adjust to the new reality.  At least we had some good news for them: because they are now higher up and protected by reefs, none of the people living there today will witness another tsunami as big as the one in December, and because they are well within the rupture patch of the March earthquake, they will not again experience an earthquake as large as the one in March (which was the worse of the two for them).  There may, of course, be smaller (magnitude 6 or 7) earthquakes locally that can be damaging, but no more magnitude 8 or 9 events for them in their lifetimes.  It will probably take a century or two for the reefs to slowly subside back to their pre-March 28 elevations, and it will probably also take at least a century for enough strain to build up to cause a repeat of the March earthquake.

The boats finally arrived around 7:30 on Sunday morning, and we boarded, freshened up, and went on our way.  But I, for one, took with me memories of that night and of the people of that village that will last my lifetime.  The rest of the day on Sunday was spent working on the Hikano Islands off the west coast of Nias, and on Monday and Tuesday, we completed our circuit of Pulau Nias. 

On Monday afternoon, on the north coast of Nias, where the elevation change was less than a meter but still up, part of the reef was above water, and part was still below, so it was finally time to take out my snorkel and mask and put them to use.  After yet another long, hard, sweaty day of work, we had to go snorkeling around some beautiful coral reefs to complete our measurements.  I'll admit, I often think about how lucky I am to get to do what I do for a living, and sometimes I'm amazed that I get paid to do it.  But all these measurements will be critical for understanding what happened in the two giant earthquakes in December and March, and the puzzle we're piecing together is telling an exciting story for us geologists.

On Tuesday morning, near the northeastern tip of Nias, we crossed back over the pivot line back into the region of subsidence.  Instead of seeing reef after reef out of the water, we were now beach after beach under water, and sometimes a coastal village as well.  One site we went to was Onolimbu village, between Gunungsitoli and Teluk Dalam on the southeast coast of Nias.  Every building in the village had been damaged from the shaking, and the floor of every building was now under water at high tide.  We talked to the villagers, who told us that the water level had risen 3 meters (10 feet) after the earthquake (we explained that in actuality, the land had dropped, not the other way around).  According to their stories, there were some houses that we could not see at the time of our visit that were completely under water -- even the roofs.  They also told stories about huge cracks opening up during the earthquake, and they showed us the fissures.  We soon realized that what had happened at this village was not simple tectonic subsidence; the village was built on a soft-sediment river delta, and the entire delta compacted and slumped during the shaking.  Huge blocks of land, some carrying several houses, had slid as blocks out into the ocean.  Some tectonic subsidence had clearly occurred in addition to the slumping, but the slumping prevented us from measuring the actual amount of subsidence at this site.  Based on measurements at nearby sites, however, we believe that the subsidence was a small fraction of the total apparent elevation change.

On Tuesday evening, we returned to Gunungsitoli (the capital and largest city of Nias) and landed at the airport.  We had to drive through the city to get to the harbor where the boats were docked, and it is amazing how extensive the damage is.  In the flatter areas (which are probably built on softer sediments), nearly two-thirds of the homes are either completely destroyed or are missing walls; about one-third of the people are now living in tents in front of their former houses.  In the hillier areas (built on or closer to limestone bedrock) there was very little damage from shaking, but we saw quite a few rockslides, and quite a few recently-moved large boulders are scattered about the town.  People were trying to make money any way they could.  We bought 40 mangos and about 30 bananas from two families who had grown them in their back yards.  The fruit cost us a grand total of only $3, but the two families were very appreciative to get the money, and we knew it would go a long way.

Wednesday was a down day with no field work to give the helicopter pilot some rest, to catch up on data processing, and to plan the next week's worth of field work.  We spent the entire day in the harbor at Gunungsitoli annotating, plotting, and interpreting data, and although I had planned to work on this blog that evening, I ended up staying up late finishing the work.  But in the end, it was really good to have everyone's data pooled, so that we all had a better sense of what we've discovered so far, and so that we all had a better sense of what needed to be done next.

Yesterday (Thursday), we went to the Banyak Islands (Kepulauan Banyak) between Nias and Simeulue and made more measurements of uplift and subsidence there.  The boats anchored in the main harbor of Tuangku Island, and after dinner, we went into the town (Haloban) to meet with the villagers over tea and to hear their stories.  The town had subsided a little, and some of the houses right on the waterfront were now uninhabitable.  These islands are particularly remote, and they get very few visitors, but they welcomed us with at least as much hospitality as we'd received anywhere else.  The houses and the village were beautiful, and the people were very sociable.  We sat outside a restaurant drinking tea with a bunch of locals and enjoyed the evening.  Kerry brought his laptop and showed the villagers some of the impressive photos he has taken so far this trip; quite a large crowd gathered around to watch.  I was actually more amused by the television in the restaurant: the restaurant had a satellite antenna (the only way to get any reception there), and on the set was some funny show in Indonesian with very bad acting (it was funny because the acting was so bad).  The night grew long, though, and eventually we retired back to the boats.

In the morning, we returned to the town on our way to the helicopter, which had landed in a soccer field next to the town.  We arrived at high tide -- being a day or so after the full moon, the highest tide since the March earthquake had occurred 24 hours earlier, and this morning's high tide was only a few centimeters below that mark.  We rode into and through part of the town on our dinghy (!) as some of the streets were now under half a meter (20 inches) of water.  About a quarter of the town looked like Venice, Italy, with water lapping up against the doorsteps of many homes, and flowing into some of the lowest-lying structures.  The townspeople have already started clearing some higher ground and building on it, and the people in the uninhabitable houses will eventually move there.  But like everywhere else, they are all in good spirits, and as I had really liked this quaint town, I hope I get to return here in the coming months and years and watch their progress.

Today we went to Babi and Lasia Islands to the west of the Banyaks, and eventually on to Simeulue.  We're anchored in Sinabang harbor tonight, and we'll be studying this island for the next five days or so.  John just informed me that it's time to check e-mail (if we can get the satellite connection to work tonight), so I'll end this note here and bid you all farewell until next time.

I hope all is well with all of you, and I'll try to write again as soon as I get a chance.

Until next time,
Selamat tinggal (goodbye),



Wednesday, 8 June 2005, 20:00 Jakarta time (+0700).

It's now been a week and a half since my last entry, and the time of late has been pretty intense.  The most significant logistical events of the past week and a half took place on June 4th and the morning of June 5th.  Kerry, the helicopter, and the helicopter's pilot and mechanic left on the morning of June 5th to return to Padang (and eventually Jakarta), and in preparation for that, our cargo boat, the Mentawai Indah ("Beautiful Mentawais" -- the Mentawai Islands are a group of islands south of our current field area, a place Kerry and some of his former students have spent a lot of time) left on the night of June 4th.  The main purpose of having the cargo boat was to carry the necessary helicopter fuel (which is impossible to find almost everywhere in Sumatra) and to carry some of our science crew, which would not all fit on the chartered passenger boat.  Without a helicopter now and with a smaller science crew (we went from nine, when John was still here, down to four now), we need only the passenger boat -- hence the mass departure.

I think the four of us remaining (Rich, Imam, Nug, and me) would all agree that the general feeling of this whole adventure changed on the night of June 4th and morning of June 5th.  Before that we had two groups working simultaneously every day; helicopter mobility generally meant that each group got to more sites each day, got more work done each day, and had more data to process each night; and pretty much Kerry called the shots and set the schedule, albeit with considerable input from the rest of us; overall, every day was exciting but long and intense, and in the end, planning decisions were not up to us.  The last four days have been a bit different.  We've still been getting great data and making exciting finds each day, but the long, slow boat ride between sites forces us to take a couple breaks in the middle of the day, and the pace is a bit more relaxed.  Getting to fewer sites each day means less new data to process each night, and we've been gradually catching up on the backlog of data from the previous two weeks.  Another big change is that each day's plans are completely up to us.  We don't have nearly enough time to get to all the sites we'd like to, so we need to prioritize and strategize: we need to figure out the key stretches of coast where we most need to acquire data, we need to anticipate which sites will be most useful and provide the highest quality data, and we need to manage time to make sure that we get good data coverage over the entire rupture area, not just part of it.  It's a responsibility for us to be calling our own shots, but that's just yet another exciting aspect of cutting edge science.

The past week and a half also saw us joined by two separate film crews.  Beginning on May 30th, a National Geographic film crew joined us for three days, and on June 3rd, a Discovery Channel crew joined us for two days.  Both were interested in the work we're doing, and they paid for a significant part of our helicopter time in exchange for us taking time to show them what we're doing.  It was a good deal for us, and it's also good PR for our work.  Both crews filmed us measuring uplift, slabbing corals for later detailed analysis, and talking with villagers about the future earthquake and tsunami hazard for them.  In addition, both crews filmed Kerry at one of our GPS monuments (at Lasikin), talking about how they work, what we're measuring, and how that ties in with the rest of our work.  As expected, most of the footage was of Kerry, but the National Geographic crew also got a bit of me, and I'm in a few shots of the Discovery Channel's footage as well.  We'll see how much of me gets cut on the editing room floor, and whether I make it into either final product, both of which should be done some time this fall.

On June 2nd, we had another adventure being stranded in a remote village, this time on Simeulue.  The helicopter dropped Kerry, Nug, and me off at our third site of the day and then left to pick up the other group (Rich, Danny, and Dudi) and drop them off at their third site.  After dropping off the other group, the helicopter was going to go to Teluk Gusong, where the boats were supposed to be waiting, to refuel; the helicopter was then supposed to return to our site, move us to our final site of the day, do the same for the other group, and eventually bring us all to Teluk Gusong, where the boats were to anchor for the night.  Apparently, while Rich, Danny, and Dudi were in the air scouting out their third site, the pilot determined the helicopter was too low in fuel to do anything but go directly to Teluk Gusong, so that's what they did.  When they arrived there, they found the passenger boat there waiting, but the cargo boat, with the fuel, was nowhere to be found.  By that point, the helicopter did not have enough fuel to take off and look for the cargo boat, and it took several hours to contact the cargo boat (which had gone one bay too far -- I really don't understand how that happened), to wait for the cargo boat to return, and then to refuel the helicopter.  By the time there was fuel in the helicopter, it was past sunset, and the helicopter could not fly until morning.

Meanwhile, Kerry, Nug, and I spent the time chatting with the villagers, and as it grew late, the villagers told us that someone in the village owned a vehicle and could drive us to Teluk Gusong -- a distance of only 60 km (35 miles), but a trip that would take three hours on a rough, tsunami-damaged road.  After waiting until dark and concerned about the helicopter (we had no idea what had happened, and the nearest phone was a two-hour drive away), we eventually took them up on their offer and gave them some money as compensation.

The vehicle turned out to be a pickup truck, and as we rode in the bed of the truck, looking at the stars, I was amazed at how dark it was.  It was the second time on this trip I had been in a place so dark (the fact that the moon wasn't up also played a role), and I can't think of a place I've been before this trip that was so dark.  Even in the mountains or the middle of the desert back home, there's usually some light from a distant city showing up on the horizon.  As we rode, we could see that most of the bridges had been damaged or destroyed in the December tsunami, and in each case, either the bridge had a temporary fix on it now, or a new makeshift bridge circumvented the older one entirely.  I also noticed power lines running along side the road, even though not a single village we passed had electricity, and the only light was coming from gas lanterns.  I began to suspect that the power lines had been damaged and rendered unusable by one of the earthquakes or tsunamis, and my suspicions were confirmed when I saw places where the power poles had been ripped from the ground and the power lines were hovering precariously close to the ground.  I asked the driver's companion (who had come along with us) about it, and he said that the power had been out since the December earthquake.  Except for the main city of Sinabang and a few villages large enough to have their own generator, power has been out over the entire island since the first earthquake -- more than five months now.  I realized, also, that the village in which we had been stranded on Nias (Sirombu -- I wrote about that in a previous entry) also normally had power, but they had been without it since the tsunami in December.  More generally, the reality that there is still no electric power outside of the main city on Simeulue reflects the Indonesian government's response in a larger sense: the larger cities are getting aid, but the smaller villages, which cover most of the area, are getting next to nothing.

As an aside, one thing that has struck me the past couple weeks as I've watched the sun set and the sky grow dark each night is how rapidly it gets dark here at the Equator after the sun sets.  In southern California, I'm used to twilight lasting a certain amount of time.  When I'm camping, I know that after the sun sets, I have a certain amount of time before I need to turn on the flashlights.  It doesn't matter what season it is, that time interval is always about the same.  When I've been in Alaska, I've noticed that it stays light for much longer after the sun sets, regardless of the season (even in winter, the day is very short, but after the sun sets, twilight still lasts a couple hours); this is because the sun always rises and sets at a very low angle to the horizon at high latitudes.  Here, at the Equator, the effect is the opposite: because the sun always sets nearly vertically, twilight is very short, and it gets very dark very fast.  In California, when the sun sets, I know I need to start finishing up field work and start packing soon; here, if I'm not already packed by the time the sun sets, we might need our flashlights to finish a 10-minute walk back to the dinghy.

The last two days have been quite sensational.  We've been working on some small islands, perhaps a few hundred meters to a kilometer (half mile) across, off the southeastern coast of Nias.  Although the water off the entire east coast of Nias is pretty muddy due to deforestation, these islands are far enough offshore that the water is crystal clear.  Even a clean swimming pool doesn't have water this clear, it seems.  We can see clearly perhaps 20 m (65 feet) down, and the reefs are simply stunning.  I had been planning to make some note in this blog about how I had spend June 4th, my birthday, swimming around the most beautiful reef I had ever seen -- which is true, it was the most beautiful reef I had seen up to that point -- but the reefs of the past two days have been in another league.  Yesterday, at Pulau Onolimbu, we saw what I can only describe as the most spectacular sight I've seen in my life: vivid colors, stunning beauty, so much variety of life, but there had been extensive, catastrophic ground failure here, and huge, 10-m wide slabs of the reef had slumped into the depths below.  Enormous 6-m diameter coral heads were overturned or lying on their sides, and blocks of reef platform were randomly arranged at every possible angle.  (We were careful to ensure that the corals we used for our measurements were well away from any slumping.)  The slumping had every sign of being fresh, and we're convinced it occurred in the March earthquake.  But the corals at this site fared much better than their counterparts on the uplifted reefs on the west side of Nias: the uplifted reefs died, but these corals were still vibrantly alive, even if anchored to upside-down blocks of rock.

At today's most spectacular site, Pulau Sumabawa, I could swear that the water was even clearer, the species were even more diverse, the colors more vibrant, and the reef in tact.  This reef was orders of magnitude more beautiful than what Nick and I saw on Australia's Great Barrier Reef in December, and this rivals or bests any reefs I've seen in published photography.  And to think I'm doing all this in the name of science!

Other than the specifics I've mentioned above, we've just been traveling from site to site, swimming around coral reefs or basking on sunny beaches under palm trees, collecting high-quality data, and enjoying life.  Right now, I'm taking a break from data processing, writing up this blog, and listening to music off my iPod (thank you, Nick) which we've got hooked up to the boat's sound system.  Checking the clock, it's pretty late (I've been writing well over two hours) so I'll sign off and head to bed.

Till next time,



Tuesday, 21 June 2005, 20:00 Jakarta time (+0700).

Hello again!

It's hard to believe it's been nearly two weeks since I have taken the time to add to this blog of mine.  Things are still well and life is still very much enjoyable here in Sumatra, but logistical issues have thwarted some of our best intentions since my last entry.  The big turning point in the trip seems to have been June 12th.

From June 8th (my last entry) to June 12th, we continued collecting data -- high in quantity and high in quality.  We finished our work on eastern Nias, hit some very small islands between Nias and the mainland Sumatra coast, and headed back to the Banyak Islands.  Despite weather that was starting to look bad, we had one and a half good days in the Banyaks, then on the afternoon of the 12th, between Tuangku and Bankaru Islands in the Banyaks, we encountered a super-high swell (at least 3 m, or 10 feet, high) accompanied by a strong wind, which came up suddenly, that was creating high waves at about a 90-degree angle to the swell.  The seas were rougher than anything I've encoutered in my life, and the rest of the afternoon was spent trying to make it back to safe harbor, avoiding being hit by flying furniture and other large objects being tossed around in the boat, and in my case, revisiting my lunch.  (At least it was the only time that happened on this trip!)

Over the next few days we were hit by a series of scattered storms that were fairly intense and periodically created rather choppy seas, but it seemed to Rich and me that nothing over those few days approached the roughness of the sea that we experienced on the 12th.  Nonetheless, the experience on the 12th seems to have spooked the boat's Indonesian crew, and from then on, they didn't want to do anything but sit anchored in a calm harbor killing time until the end of the mission.  (Superstition, it seems, was also working against us: according to the boat crew, there are always five days of storms after the new moon, and you never want to go sailing after the new moon.  Or something like that, which was equally inane.)  So for three more days in the Banyaks, we spent time negotiating with the crew, waiting out almost every slight breeze, and occasionally doing science.  Somehow, we ended up getting a fairly good data set in the Banyak Islands, but the data were spatially much sparser than we had originally hoped, and we were missing a few critical areas.  (Hopefully we'll be able to make up for some of our losses by using satellite imagery once we're back at Caltech, but there's really nothing like getting to a point in the field: our satellite imagery technique is just not as precise.)

By the end of the day on June 14th, it was clear to Rich and me that inertia had taken ahold of the ship, and not even clear skies at that point could quicken the pace of the boat.  Rich and I decided to bargain with the ship's crew at that point: we gave the crew a list of the most critical remaining sites that we wanted to target, and as long as we got to all those sites, we wouldn't ask for more, and the boat could then set sail for Padang, even if it meant returning to port several days earlier than we had rented the boat until.  Perhaps I'm a little cynical, but astonishingly, the boat's pace then quickened, we hit our remaining sites, and we got back to Padang on June 19th, a bit earlier than planned.

Since then, we have all been waiting in Padang, planning our next move.  Rich may try to find another boat and head back to Nias to collect more data, and I may join Charlie Rubin and Rob Witter (who will be arriving from Jakarta tomorrow) in looking for tsunami deposits on the coast of Sumatra Barat (West Sumatra).  We'll have to see how things work out.  Rich and I will also have to figure out when we'll fly back home.  We should know in the next day or two.

In the mean time, today we took the day off and drove to the resort mountain village of Bukittinggi, near the Sumatran fault and at the base of a large volcano.  We walked around the town, had lunch, and then drove up to the rim of the volcano, where there is a nice resort hotel overlooking a beautiful lake that fills the volcanic caldera (like Crater Lake in Oregon, expect think tropical).  We then drove down to the lake in the caldera, and on the way down, we must have seen more than 50 monkeys along the side of the road.  Whenever we'd slow down so I could take a picture, they'd come up to the car and beg for food -- It was pretty amazing to watch -- but when they'd see me taking their photograph, it seemed like they'd shy away from the camera.  All in all, it amazes me how human they seemed.

In the last few days Rich and I have had more opportunities to explore Padang than we had a month ago.  For a Westerner, it's a real experience.  Driving (or riding in a car) is in itself an experience.  Red lights seem to be more like suggestions than rules, lanes are little more than white lines painted on the street (no one seems to hesitate to drive on the wrong side of the street if no car is coming in the opposite direction), and intersections can be described by particle motion.  The buses are fantastic, too: they each blast American music with a fast beat, they're really colorful, and each one has something different painted in huge letters in English on the side -- anything from "Harry Potter" to "Ferrari" to "Boom-bastic" (whatever that means, but it sounds cool).  A visitor really gets the sense that each bus is trying to compete for "coolest bus" -- but it's just another unexpected side of life here in Padang.

Anyway, that's about it for now.  I'll try to write again before the trip is up.

- Aron



Monday, 27 June 2005, 22:00 Jakarta time (+0700).

Hello one more time!

This will be my last entry in this blog: I leave early tomorrow morning to return to L.A.  This entry will also be a bit curt: I want to finish it and send it tonight, so that I can get it out before I'm back in L.A.  This entry will not do justice as a conclusion to the blog that I have been keeping for the past month and a half, but I hope you will understand and enjoy what is here.

To make several long stories short, Rich and I split up on June 23rd to accomplish different tasks.  We actually met up again last night in Padang, but Rich is now on a boat with Ben Hickey and Imam, and they are on their way back to Nias to collect more data there.  In the mean time, from June 23rd to 26th, I joined Charlie Rubin, Rob Witter, and Charlie's student Grant in looking at paleotsunami deposits (from earthquakes prior to December 26th) to try to figure out how often tsunamis occur and how high they have been in the past.  On the 23rd, we drove south from Padang to Mukomuko -- a very slow, windy, pothole-ridden 200-km (120-mile) drive that took eight hours -- and then gradually worked our way back north over the following three days.

It was definitely a learning experience for all of us (no one has ever looked at tsunami deposits on the mainland Sumatra coast, so no one had any good ideas of where best to look), but by the end of the three days, we were starting to figure things out.  Charlie et al. are now north of Padang continuing their efforts, although I am packing and preparing to return home to L.A.  Spending a few days looking at tsunami deposits was especially interesting for me, as, prior to the December 26th earthquake, the plan for my thesis was to start working this summer on paleotsunami deposits in Sumatra.  (Yes, I was planning to be in Sumatra this summer even before the earthquakes, but the December and March earthquakes brought me here a slight bit earlier and completely changed the project I was to work on and the questions I was to address.)  Although the paleotsunami project is no longer my project (my plate is way too full to take on something else), it was a fun and rewarding experience (and I learned so much) in just the few days in which I got to join Charlie and the Central Washington crew.

Tonight, I spent the evening walking around Padang with my friend Madi (Madi, who is 26 years old, works at the Hotel Padang and is studying English and tourism), and Madi introduced me to some of his friends and fellow students.  Madi lives about 15 km from the center of town, goes to school in town during the day, and then works here at the hotel at night,  Sometimes, he told me, between classes and work, he goes to the homes of some of his friends (which are near his school and the hotel) to sleep for a few hours, because the trip back to his own home would take too long.

Madi introduced me to the families of two of his friends, and one of the families insisted that we stay for dinner.  It was a simple meal ("mpeh mpeh" -- I'm not really sure what was in it) on the floor of the only room of the house, but it was tasty, and I will never forget the unique experience, the warm hospitality, and the friendliness of that family and of everyone else I met today, and of everyone else I have met in Sumatra, for that matter.

I embarked on this trip on May 8th fully anticipating that, by the very nature of my work, I would be touching many people's lives here in Sumatra and on the islands.  But what was unexpected is that so many people on this trip have touched my life in so many surprising and wonderful ways.  There are so many aspects of this trip that I will never forget and that I will treasure in my memory for the rest of my life.  I look forward to many future visits to Sumatra, and I look forward to seeing once again all the friends I have made in the past two months.

As for you, I hope you are all well, and I look forward to communicating with each of you on a more personal level once I have settled back into my normal routine ... whatever that is.  I am finally finishing reading through the five weeks of e-mail that piled up while I was on the boat (the connection here is soooo slow and I keep getting kicked off), and I will try to start writing some replies on the long plane rides back to L.A.

Until then, I bid you all the best.

Doa-doa saya untuk Sumatra
(Best wishes from Sumatra),