And the sea never rests

Svante Björck from the Geology Department, Lund University in Sweden is currently also visiting Chulalongkorn University. His lecture on Quaternary Sea Level Changes – A Complex Story was well attended. About 70-80 students and many staff members quickly filled the lecture room and followed Svante’s lecture with great interest.

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One may think that Thai students are a bit shy to ask questions. But these students were definitely not shy, and asked many questions and wanted to be completely sure that they had understood everything correctly. Living in a country where ice sheets were never present (at least during the last 2.6 million years), it must sound strange to hear about the large ice sheet that covered Sweden 20,000 years ago and how it still affects land uplift in Sweden.

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Researchers from the Department of Marine Sciences also attended Svante’s lectures, which provided a nice opportunity to meet scientists working with marine sediments from the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. New connections to follow up!

For those of you interested in Svante’s lecture, here is the abstract:

Quaternary Sea Level Changes – A Complex Story

The presentation will focus on the processes that determine sea level changes in a world with waxing and waning continental ice sheets, a typical feature for the Quaternary period (the last 2.6 million years). Apart from storing huge amounts of water on land, and thereby lowering sea levels, the loading and unloading of ice sheets have a great impact on the elastic lithosphere and the rheology of Earth´s mantle. While the former has a direct effect in glaciated regions, the latter influences the horizontal flow of the highly viscous asthenosphere (upper mantle). In addition, the glacial-interglacial sea level changes cause vertical motions of the ocean bottoms, the glacio-hydro isostatic effect. This means that the build-up and melting of the North American and Eurasian ice sheets have had a global impact, both in terms of eustatic and isostatic processes. I will give examples on how these processes influence different parts of the world: glaciated regions; regions situated peripherally to the ice sheets; and regions far away from any glaciation. I will also present different ways of establishing sea level changes, during glacial, deglacial and interglacial conditions. Finally I will show some examples of ongoing sea level changes, of which some are not connected to the cryosphere (Earth´s ice covered surfaces).

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Dress code

All students at Chulalongkorn University need to dress properly and wear a special, but simple uniform: dark trousers and white shirts for boys and dark skirts and white blouses for girls. And proper shoes of course, no sandals or flip flops. The only thing that differs between students from different faculties and departments is the belt they wear and the small ornament on the belt. Geology students moreover often wear a short little greenish-brown shirt, especially when they are working in the laboratory or are out in the field.

Dress code at Chulalongkorn University

Chulalongkorn University Campus

The other day I had a long chat with the head of the Department of Geology, Assistant Professor Dr. Thasinee Charoentitirat, on how we could create a better student exchange between our two departments. Many courses here are given in English, and the Department seems to be pretty strong in Petroleum Geology. I will meet again with Thasinee in a few weeks to learn more about the courses that are offered, their requirements, and their schedules, so that I can provide potential students from Stockholm University with better information.

Outreach is very important here too and many students are engaged in informing the public about geology. In the coming days, the geology students will welcome school kids from different schools and will teach them what geology is and how important the subject is for society.

Department of Geology

Department of Geology

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Lakes and wetlands tell an important story

A few days ago, I gave a lecture to undergraduate students in geology at Chulalongkorn University. I chose the title ‘Lakes and wetlands tell an important story’ since the focus of our Asian monsoon project is on lakes and wetlands in Thailand, and on using sediments to reconstruct past climatic and environmental changes.

I was surprised to see so many students attending the lecture, and was even more surprised by all the clever questions I got after the lecture.

Having worked pretty much with our latest Lake Kumphawapi manuscript (thanks to my sabbatical, which finally gives me time to read and write!), I was able to show the most recent results and interpretations we now have regarding the lake’s development and its response to moisture availability.

Last week we were also notified that the manuscript on Lake Pa Kho’s 2000 year long history is finally accepted and online in Quaternary Science Reviews. Pa Kho’s record provides us with the very first, detailed reconstruction of moisture availability and as such summer monsoon intensity changes, and shows several distinct shifts between drier and wetter conditions.

Below is the abstract of the lecture at Chulalongkorn University

Lakes and wetlands are important geological archives because they preserve a detailed sedimentary record of past climatic and environmental changes. By analyzing different biological, physical and chemical proxies in these sediments it is possible to reconstruct how the lake/wetland and its catchment evolved and changed over time. These changes may be linked to shifts in climate, to human activities, or to a combination of both. As such lake and wetland sedimentary records can inform us about natural climate variability, about the way lakes/wetlands responded to dramatic changes in temperature and/or moisture availability in the past and also reflect how humans modified and impacted these ecosystems.

Few natural lakes/wetlands with intact sediments remain in Thailand since many have been altered to provide fishing and agricultural resources. Within the frame of a joint research project between Stockholm and Chulalongkorn University we have investigated a number of lake/wetland sedimentary records in different parts of Thailand during the past seven years. These records show in detail how lakes/wetlands responded to changes in the strength of the Asian summer monsoon and inform us about the climatic and environmental history of the past 50,000 years.

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Another week in Bangkok

It is almost three weeks now since I arrived here in Bangkok, and almost two weeks since I moved into the apartment at House by the Pond. Time passes by really quick!

Inside House by the Pond
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View from a roof top over Bangkok
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My daily walks to and from subway station have become a routine as I am passing the same people each morning and evening. The walk to the subway is however not very easy since few places exist where pedestrians can actually walk safely. Mostly I have to share the small street with motorbikes and cars, which makes the short walk a bit of a challenge. My other option would be to get on a motorbike taxi. This is what most people do to avoid walking along the busy street, but I am not really sure what the best option actually is: walking 5 minutes and being afraid of being overrun by a car or motorbike, or taking a motorbike taxi and being afraid of crashing.

Walking from the subway to Chulalongkorn University is however much easier. There are walkways for pedestrians and there are fewer cars. The university campus is also generally very pleasant for walking given the many trees that provide shade, the low buildings and much less traffic.

During some days there is a market on campus, where people sell food and many other things. Buying a lunch at the market is a nice change from eating in the university restaurant or in nearby restaurants.

Food market on campus
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Chulalongkorn University restaurant
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Countryside weekend

To escape the Bangkok chaos, pollution, and heat, I moved out into the countryside for the weekend, more specifically to The Thai House in Nonthaburi, which is some 22 km northwest of Bangkok. It takes about one hour to drive here if the traffic is not too heavy, but it took almost two hours because of the continuous traffic jams.

The Thai House is a beautiful teak wood building made in the traditional Thai style on stilts. There are eight rooms for visitors on the upper level, and a large eating room, kitchen and garden on the ground floor. The rooms have teak wood floors and walls and are furnished with old-style teak furniture. The windows have only mosquito nets and no glass so that the air can freely circulate. A terracotta-tiled terrace with large plants joins the rooms together. It is a very nice and cozy place and it is surprising that not more people have found there way to the Thai House!

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Pip and her big family really make one welcome here. She explains everything in excellent English, knows a lot about all kinds of plants and how to use them for different purposes, and is easy to talk to. She has seen the area changing from only rice fields and a few houses to what is now a busy village. There were no roads when she grew up and the only way of transport was by boat on the maze of small canals. It is actually possible to get by boat from here into Bangkok in about two hours! People still use the canals for transport, and to get to the market, but most of them now go by car.

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During the big flood a few years ago, the whole area was flooded and the water reached about 1-1.5 m above the present level. People had to resort to their boats again for being able to move around. The flooding was really bad and destroyed many buildings, gardens and orchards. Some people are still repairing the damages, and even in Pip’s garden one can still see how the flooding destroyed the trees, although the vegetation is recovering.

To bless the new restored garden and to commemorate the death of Pip’s parents, the family organized a big blessing today with monks chanting and loads of good food. Relatives, staff and neighbors had prepared a lot of food for the monks and for all the people joining the celebration. It was really nice that they asked me to come along and experience this important family day. I just wished I could speak Thai so that I could more easily talk to the children and to the people who don’t speak English!

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Making choices

What always strikes me when traveling abroad is that there are so many different ways of looking at things. Nothing is black and white, but everything comes in numerous shades of grey and depends on what kind of baseline one has and what the circumstances are.

In Sweden for example no one could drive or sit on a motorbike without wearing a helmet. Here in Bangkok, while most of the motorbike taxi drivers have helmets, their passengers don’t because there are no spare helmets for them. Motorbike taxis are very frequent here and everyone uses them, because it is so much easier to get from one point to another as compared to using cars, especially in the complicated labyrinth of the small lanes (sois) that stretch out from the main roads. From the place where I am staying now it is a ten minutes walk to the next subway station. It is not a very pleasant walk because of all the cars and no real walk way, but it is ok in the mornings, when traffic is still not too heavy. However in the evening walking would mean passing through some dark lanes, where car drivers might not even see me, and which seem not entirely safe either. So what is my choice to get back ‘home’? Walking in the dark? Searching for a taxi, which would need to make many turns to find the right soi? Taking a motorbike taxi without a helmet? Although neither of these options was a good one, my choice fell on the motorbike. I just did what all the other people did, who got off the subway at the same stop, I took a motorbike taxi and got back all right and within less than 5 minutes.

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Studying abroad

It is almost a week now since I arrived in busy Bangkok. The culture shock has subsided and I am adjusting, although it is still difficult to get used to the heat, the traffic and above all – the heavy pollution. But most of my days are anyway spent inside, in the air conditioned office at Chulalongkorn University’s Geology Department. Here it is cool and quiet, except for the constant noise of the air condition.

Chulalongkorn University has an exchange agreement with Stockholm University, meaning that Swedish students can take courses here, and that Thai students can enroll at Stockholm University, without paying tuition fees, and that course credits can be transferred. It also means that teachers/researchers from both universities can visit each other and spend time at the respective partner university for research and/or teaching. However so far the exchange has not been very extensive. Only few students and researchers from Stockholm University have spent some time here, and few Thai students have visited Stockholm University.

Given the large number of international students at Chulalongkorn University from all over Asia, the USA and many European countries (I have heard French, German, Dutch and Italian speaking students), maybe also more students from Stockholm University will start studying here a term or two?

Part of my visit to Chulalongkorn University is aimed at creating closer ties with the Department of Geology, so that it will become easier in the future to welcome Swedish and Thai students, respectively.

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