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Racing With the Typhoon: Storm Strands Scientists on Taiwan Mountain

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Issue: 
Spring 2005

- Christine Reilley, Peter Arzberger, Tim Kratz, and Fang-Pang Lin (NTL)

Set high in the mountains of northern Taiwan, Yuan Yang Lake (YYL) has been capturing the attention of scientists for more than 60 years. The subtropical lake, nearly untouched by humans, experiences typhoons each year and is surrounded by ancient cypress forest—fertile ground on which limnologists, botanists, and climatologists can conduct long-term studies of its rich environments and ecosystems.

For this reason, scientists from the North Temperate Lakes (NTL) Long-Term Ecological Research project and the University of California San Diego (UCSD) have been traveling thousands of miles during the past year to study YYL. In collaboration with their Taiwanese counterparts at the Academia Sinica Institute of Botany, the Taiwan Forestry Research Institute (TFRI), and the Taiwan National Center for High-Performance Computing (NCHC), they spent the past year constructing the first-of-its-kind global lake monitoring network by establishing wireless connections to sensors in YYL and several lakes in northern Wisconsin. YYL is particularly attractive to limnologists, because a single typhoon can drop more than a meter of precipitation on the 4.5-m–deep lake, causing rapid flushing. This contrasts with the Wisconsin lakes, which have much longer water retention times.

This trip to YYL required one mission: to deposit wireless sensors in YYL that will gather long-term data about dissolved oxygen at various depths and augment existing sensors for barometric pressure, wind speed, and temperature at various lake depths. The sensors transmit data to databases at NCHC that can be accessed via a web interface from anywhere in the world, allowing scientists to access frequent data about YYL from their desktop. Just a few months earlier, sensors acquired data during a typhoon, recording phenomenon not observed in the temperate lakes of Wisconsin. During this visit, the researchers were looking to continue their collection of exciting data.

The challenge, however, lay in reaching the remote YYL before a typhoon hit I-Lan county, where the lake is located. Storm trackers showed the typhoon was combining with a monsoon and was expected to reach YYL Monday, October 25—the day they were planning to visit.

“It was a race with the typhoon. Considering the kind of damage typhoons cause and that Yuan Yang Lake is in the mountains, the roads leading to the lake may not have been passable if we waited until after the storm,” said team member Tim Kratz, lake ecologist and director of the University of Wisconsin Trout Lake Station, a field site for the NTL Research Station in Wisconsin.

Concerns about the typhoon, however, hardly diminished their desire to venture to YYL. “What’s a little rain?” said Kratz. Colleague Fang-Pang Lin, Grid Group lead at the NCHC, agreed. “We must try, try to get as close to the sensors as we possibly can. If we succeed, all the better.”

Kratz and Lin would be joined by three associates on the expedition: Tim Meinke, aquatic botanist and buoy technician at the Center for Limnology's Trout Lake Station, Dave Balsiger, NTL information management specialist, and Peter Arzberger, director of the UCSD life sciences initiative.

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 24, 2004

The team started the day in the southern Taiwan town of Kenting, where they held a press conference the previous day about a related EcoGrid project on coral reefs. They began their cross-country trek to I-Lan, first catching a plane to Taipei, then driving in the steady rain of the typhoon. After checking into the Hotel Fukun, known for its hot springs, the crew procured microwavable food, wine, and flashlights from the local 7-11 and life vests from Lin’s concerned relatives, who met them near the hotel. Their 90-minute journey took them through winding mountain roads to YYL, their van stalling three times as it passed through deep pools of rising run-off waters. By the time they arrived at YYL, it was 7:00 p.m., and they were ready to set out onto the lake to deposit sensors in the downpour of the typhoon.

Arzberger remained onshore, as their boat could carry no more than four people. Through the blackness and rain, he could only see illuminated flashlights as evidence of his colleagues’ activity on the lake. “Many times I saw the lights drift…much farther than would seem possible. I was worried that they were drifting,” Arzberger said.

The entire procedure lasted more than two hours. As the minutes passed, the temperature dropped, the wind picked up speed, and the waters rose. “It was time to go back to the hotel,” Arzberger said.

After reaching shore, the researchers waded through knee-deep—and, at times, waist-deep—water to return to their van. In the darkness, some wondered if they were on the right path. Kratz, quick to allay any fears, reminded his colleagues of the worst-case scenario: “Hey, you could only get washed into the lake…which is still very calm,” he said.

Fortunately, they were on the right path and reached the van without being swept into the lake. On their drive down the mountain, the crew members—soaking wet and freezing cold—talked about how they were looking forward to taking a dip in the hotel’s hot springs. But when they encountered fallen trees and a landslide blocking the narrow, muddy road, they realized they would not be reaching their hotel any time soon.

Mindful of the precipitous drop-off to one side, the driver, Wen Chung Chang, carefully turned the van around and drove to the field station, which was on the mountain not far from YYL. While en route, YYL park supervisor Chin-Lung Lin called Fang-Pang Lin on his cell phone with good news: a forester living on the mountain offered to let the crew spend the evening at his home. With heat, food, and a cell phone connection, the small cottage made an excellent place to spend the night.

Before settling in at 3 a.m., they uncorked the wine purchased earlier. Although they were marooned on the mountain, they found two major successes to toast: depositing the equipment into the lake and safely escaping YYL.

MONDAY, OCTOBER 25

The crew members awoke at 10 a.m.; for some it was the longest they had slept while in Taiwan, which Arzberger attributed to weak cell phone batteries and the absence of internet connectivity. Upon awakening, they learned of the destruction the typhoon had caused throughout the night. Two major roads leading from the mountain were blocked by fallen trees, mud, and debris; a bulldozer dispatched to clear one of the road blockages had fallen off the side of the road and down a ravine. The driver suffered only minor injuries. The ground beneath another road crumbled in a landslide, leaving just a curb along the hillside for pedestrians to pass in single file. Several other landslides were reported across the county.

It was obvious they would not be able to leave the mountain anytime soon. It also became clear the sensors they had deposited were not functioning. Colleague Hsiu Mei Chou called Tim Meinke on Fang-Pang Lin's cell phone to inform him that tests she ran from her laboratory showed the equipment was not working. The group traveled back to the field station to try to run diagnostics, but the storm had prevented any sustainable connection. The remainder of the day was spent handling other mishaps, with Chang fixing the van's flat tire and borrowing gas for the van from the field station.

Despite their trials, the crew was able to appreciate the day's positive moments. The cell phone connection was strong, so they were able to speak with friends and relatives concerned about their safety. During one conversation they learned The Taipei Times ran an article about Saturday's press conference. Others asked if they had enough food, which was hardly a concern. Chang, who doubled as a gourmet chef, created delicious fare with few ingredients. After a hearty dinner, the crew made their plans for the following day and settled in for the evening.

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 26

The alarm on Kratz’s watch beeped at 5 a.m., and the crew members awoke, determined to resolve their technical problems on the lake and their travel troubles on the road. Fueled by little more than instant coffee, they jumped into their van and set off to YYL, which was still impacted by the effect of the typhoon. While on the lake, this time shrouded in mist instead of darkness, the team discovered a wet serial data interface (SDI) buss was the source of the technical difficulties. After spending two hours on the lake repairing sensors and collecting water samples through the “glug glug” method, the crew began their circuitous trek down the mountain. They hitched a ride on a Mitsubishi flatbed, which took them as far as it could go—to a portion of road completely blocked by a downed tree. They continued their hike on foot, crossing another obstruction of fallen trees. After walking about 3 km, the group was greeted by two motorists, one riding a Sym motor bike and another driving a 1984 Honda Civic. TFRI director Hen-biau King, who had been instrumental in securing accommodations at the forester’s cottage, had called on the motorists for help and arranged the team’s transportation.

Fang-Pang Lin, with life jackets in tow, jumped on the back of the motor bike, while his colleagues rode down the mountain in the Honda. Foggy conditions, along with the Honda’s broken defroster, made for a slow, difficult drive. During the entire ride, the driver steered with his right hand and toweled off the left side of the windshield with his left, while Arzberger, in the passenger’s seat, toweled off the right side.

“The passengers got a bit nervous when the driver answered his cell phone while driving and cleaning. The drop off the mountain was still quite severe,” Kratz said.

The Honda and the Sym brought them to another landslide of mud and tall trees. After skirting this barrier on foot, the group climbed into another van and drove to what would be their final obstacle—the road that collapsed in a landslide. The group walked across a remaining strip of asphalt and emerged to find yet another van from the Fushan Botanical Gardens to take them back to their hotel. From there, they traveled to Academia Sinica, where their colleagues eagerly awaited their return.

Arzberger was not only grateful for those who provided accommodations and transportation, he also acknowledged his colleagues in Taipei and Hsinchu. Whey Fone Tsai, Cheyenne Chen, Julian Yu-Chung Chen, Grace Hong of NCHC, and King acted as a “human lifeline” to the outside world, Arzberger added.

The team effort, Arzberger said, resulted in a successful mission. The data are now flowing from the sensors for all to see at lakemetabolism.org, and the water samples are being analyzed at Academia Sinica.

Said Fang-Pang Lin, “The memories and lessons learned live on. Next time, we will bring some SDI busses, cell phone chargers, and dry clothes.”

PHOTOS AND CAPTIONS

Yuan Yang Lake

Yuan Yang Lake, pictured during milder weather in 2003, is a sub-tropical lake in the mountains of northeastern Taiwan that experiences typhoons each summer.

A buoy with the team’s sensors in the middle of Yuan Yang Lake

A buoy with the team’s sensors in the middle of Yuan Yang Lake, collecting data about dissolved oxygen, barometric pressure, wind speed, and temperature at various lake depths.

Tim Kratz, Tim Meinke, and Dave Balsiger

Tim Kratz, Tim Meinke, and Dave Balsiger (left to right) stand in a thicket of cypress trees leading to YuanYang Lake

team members had to hitch a ride on a flatbed...

To leave the mountain, team members had to hitch a ride on a flatbed...

...ride on the back of a motor bike...

...ride on the back of a motor bike...

...and walk along remnants of a road that crumbled in a landslide.

...and walk along remnants of a road that crumbled in a landslide.