Earthquakes!

Although there were (very) minor earthquakes while I lived in Toronto, I cannot say I ever felt one. My experience in Taiwan, however, was a completely different story. Located near the ring of fire, earthquakes are very common there. In fact, it only took about a month to experience one! I was so excited, I even took a screen shot of the reporting online (the two events marked “new” in the image below):

The first two earthquakes I ever felt!

The first two earthquakes I ever felt!

Although a very minor event, I still remember it clearly. I was at home, on the 8th floor of an apartment building. The sensation was something akin to being on a very big boat, and the TV wobbled dramatically on its swivel stand. I must admit that I had not considered the proper actions to take in the event of an earthquake before the event, and I was quite relieved when the shaking eased off. I decided I should do some reading on earthquake preparedness for next time, when a second event occurred only a little more than 10 minutes later! Interestingly, Mike, who was out on a scooter at the time, felt nothing.

Although common events, the vast majority of the earthquakes we experienced were magnified by the elevation of our apartment and would have been difficult to detect at ground level. We also discovered that they are much easier to detect lying down than standing up, and it is quite difficult to discern a tremor from rough pavement when driving. Still, we experienced two events that were easily felt on the ground-floor in Hualien, a very seismically active area. This was a much different experience than being elevated – it was much rougher, and felt more like the Earth was cracking apart, rather than a gentle sway.

I am thankful for my easy earthquake experiences in Taiwan – thrilling and consequence free. According to the Central Weather Bureau, Taiwan experiences 2200 earthquakes a year on average, about 200 of which are felt on the ground.  And occasionally they are devastating.  Case in point, an earthquake registering 7.6 on the Richter Scale, that occurred on September 21, 1999, now known as the 921 Earthquake. The 921 Earthquake occurred along the Chelongpu Fault in Nantou County.  More than 2300 people were killed, and thousands of others were injured.  Thousands of buildings were damaged, and a 7 m waterfall was created by movement on the Chelongpu Fault. A high school lying on the fault line has been converted into the 921 Earthquake Museum where tourists can learn about earthquakes and disaster preparedness, and see some of the damage of the 921 Earthquake first hand.  We never made it out there, but I would try to go the next time I’m in Taiwan.

Bonus:

Want to follow seismic activity in Taiwan? Check out the Central Weather Bureau’s Earthquake page.

The Effects of Altitude

Taiwan’s mountains are huge! Seeing the peaks poke through the clouds flying in and out of Taipei gives you a little taste of their size, but even more impressive is their highest mountain pass. The highest mountain in Taiwan is Yushan (玉山) at 3952 m, and the highest mountain pass crosses Hehuanshan (合歡山) at 3275 m. In contrast, while Mt. Logan, the highest mountain in Canada, tops out at 5959 m, the highest mountain pass (Highwood) is at a measly 2206 m.

Mike and I enjoy a good hike up a mountain, and tackle them whenever we can.  Sadly, we were too early in the season to attempt Mt. Fuji, but we did summit Hallasan on Jeju Island, South Korea. Check out the graphic to compare some of the peaks we’ve summited, and the highest peaks in Canada and Taiwan.

Comparing the heights of various mountains we've summitted, and the highest peaks in Taiwan and Canada.

Comparing the heights of various mountains we've summitted, and the highest peaks in Taiwan and Canada.

As part of our time resting and exploring Hualien, we rented scooters and drove up to Wuling and the Hehuashan pass. The drive from Hualien to the top is about 100 km of engaging driving and stunning scenery. The marble canyons and gushing river at the foot of the mountains give way to precarious and seemingly never ending winding roads and tunnels further up. Finally, the forest gives way, and scrub takes over. The last 10 km of driving or so looks like it could be Wales or somewhere in Newfoundland.  It is interesting to note that despite the altitude, the peaks are not perennially snow-capped.  Still, anyone curious about the white fluffy stuff can visit in the winter months and hope for a heavy snow fall.

At such a high elevation, the reduced amount of oxygen in the air noticeably affects the performance of your scooter. So much so that you nearly have to push it up some of the inclines! I didn’t notice the effects on my breathing while I was driving, but I felt light headed and winded the moment I parked and started walking. At the mountain top resorts, there were plenty of signs indicating medication for acute altitude sickness was available, and I can see why. Altitude effects are quite common over 3000 m, and Mike felt it too. I still can’t believe Mike cycled to the summit the very next day – a physical challenge even without the thin air!

Our time on Hehuanshan is the only time I have ever felt the effects of altitude, and it stands out as an amazing experience in Taiwan.  I certainly have a newfound respect for mountaineers!

Rainy Days, the Monsoon and Taiwan

The word ‘monsoon’ may conujure up images of warm tropical rains, however the term monsoon refers to a seasonal wind that reverses direction during the year. The summer monsoon is typically a rainy season, whereas the the winter monsoon is typically dry. This is because during the summer, the Asian landmass gets heated by the Sun. This creates a low pressure zone over the land that draws in wet oceanic air which results in heavy rainfall and potential flooding. In the winter, the system reverses itself. As the land cool down, a high pressure system develops and cold dry air is pushed out toward the ocean.

Seasonal changes in the East Asian monsoon area, from Yi, 2011

Seasonal changes in the East Asian monsoon area, from Yi, 2011

In Taiwan, this story is complicated by the Central and Xueshan mountain ranges. The winter monsoon is blocked by these mountains, resulting in cloudy weather and orographic precipitation over northern Taiwan during the winter months, while southern Taiwan stays dry. The summer monsoon is rainy throughought Taiwan, and can be divided into three components. First, there is a rainy period in May called 梅雨 (Meiyu = Plum Rain). This is followed by a break in the rain, and then another rainy period that extends from July to September.

The winds were a big player in our decision to travel clockwise around the island when we went on our cycling trip – depending on the season, it can be better to go one way or the other. The rains that come with the summer monsoon were also pretty neat. Every afternoon you could count on a downpour (better keep a poncho in the scooter boot)! Hsinchu is in the north, so we also experienced winter monsoon rains. These were a little less enjoyable since getting wet in the 10 degree weather would sometimes get a little chilly. I worked out early on that flip-flops were a great alternative to dealing with wet running shoes during the winter rains. Here’s a chart showing average monthly precipitation in Hsinchu, prepared using data from 1992-2010 from the Central Weather Bureau:

Average Monthly Precipitation for Hsinchu from 1992-2010.  Data from the Central Weather Bureau.

Average Monthly Precipitation for Hsinchu from 1992-2010. Data from the Central Weather Bureau.

Extra reading: some neat papers about precipitation in Taiwan

Rain, wind and waves… Typhoons!

Typhoon Soulik (image credit: NOAA)

Typhoon Soulik dwarfs Taiwan (false colour, image credit: NOAA)

Typhoons are the the Northwestern Pacific’s equivalent to the hurricanes that occur in the Northeastern Pacific and Atlantic. They are formed when a number of factors (including a warm ocean and an existing weather disturbance) come together. When a typhoon makes landfall, it can bring high winds, torrential rain, huge waves and flooding.

Heavy rains and the occasional windy weekend were all the effects of hurricanes I ever experienced in Ontario, but I did experience Hurricane Igor in St. John’s, Newfoundland. While the storms themselves are similar to what Igor was, the frequency with which they arrive is amazing. There have only been 13 hurricanes that made landfall in Newfoundland since 1775, but Taiwan experiences about 2 or 3 a year! This, of course, means that there is much infrastructure put in place to deal with such storms, such as huge floodways and bridges that seem to be taller than one might think they need to be.

We experienced a few typhoons, the most serious of which was Soulik, which caused 4 fatalities, and among other things, the largest offset ever recorded at the mass damper in Taipei 101. For us, the winds seemed similar or less severe than those we experienced during Igor, but the amount of rainfall was absolutely astounding.

Comparing Igor and Soulik:

Igor
St. John’s Airport
Soulik
Hsinchu
Total Rainfall (mm) 120 823 (Bailan Township)
Peak Wind Gusts (km/h) 137 104

You can track typhoons near Taiwan through the Central Weather Bureau Typhoon Advisory page.

Check out excellent photographer (and my soccer teammate) Colin Peddle’s photojournal capturing the destruction of Hurricane Igor and a BBC summary of Typhoon Soulik (plus video).

A Song From the Space Station

It seems that I am still catching up a little with what was going on around the world while we were on vacation. And in this case, I literally mean around the world. In early February, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield performed the song I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing) with the Barenaked Ladies (BNL) and the Wexford Gleeks, a show choir from Scarborough. The coolest part? Hadfield is currently in space, and he will become the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station this month!

Hadfield and Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies cowrote the song – a commission for the celebration of this year’s Music Monday. Music Monday is a day to celebrate music education, and this year (on May 6 at 1 pm Eastern time), I.S.S. will be performed by students across Canada. But enough from me. If you haven’t heard it already, you really should!

The Lyrics for I.S.S. Is Somebody Singing

Lessons Learned from My Master’s, Part 3: Writing

When I started my master’s degree I had envisioned 3 experiments, each taking up a chapter. My plan was to write up the results of the first experiment while performing the second and so on until I had the bulk of my thesis written. It seemed easy, but it did not turn out that way! The combination of the traveling required to do some of my analyses, and a rocky start to a few of my first experiments resulted in the axing of my seemingly straightforward writing plan before I could begin. Rather than my nicely timed data flow, I ended up having a massive data set that came in all at once, which left me with lots of writing all piled up at the end of my time as a student.

Although it did not go as planned, I still learned a lot about managing a huge writing task. I figured out some things that kept me writing even when I had no data yet, and also discovered some strategies later on that I wish I had enacted right from the beginning. So without further ado, here are some ways to keep on top of things, even when it doesn’t end up going as planned!

Continue reading

Manuscript Accepted!

I am pleased to announce that Chapter 2 of my master’s thesis has been accepted for publication in Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta. It will be published in a special issue dedicated to the application of hydrogen isotopes as environmental recorders sometime soon! The title of the paper is Variable δD Values Among Major Biochemicals in Plants: Implications for Environmental Studies. I will post a link to the special issue once it is available.

Lessons Learned from My Master’s, Part 2: Good Weekly Habits

Last installment, I touched on 3 ways to improve data organization. Today’s theme is “good weekly habits”.

I always found my weeks filled up quickly in graduate school. There were always experiments to set up and execute, results to analyze, and don’t forget your coursework! However, there are a few things you can do that demand less immediate attention, but have big pay offs in the long run. Attending seminars and other departmental gatherings, keeping up on the literature, and making sure you’re on track are all things that are easy to put off, but you shouldn’t let them fall by the wayside.

Continue reading

Lessons Learned from My Master’s, Part 1: Organizing Big Research Projects

One of the big reasons I wanted to complete a Master’s program rather than embarking on a Ph.D. immediately after my undergraduate studies was to get a handle on managing big projects. Everything in an undergraduate program is necessarily limited in scope to either one or two terms, and you don’t have to be particularly organized to get through that amount of time.

Continue Reading