Geology & Geophysics News

Afghanistan’s Blob Hunters

How a first-of-its-kind team of Afghan scientists and engineers helped make a monolithic discovery.

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No one thought it could be done. After all, Afghanistan remains, more than 17 years after the U.S.-led invasion, a country at war.

The idea of sending scientists to do fieldwork there was, to the agencies from which University of Montana geophysicist Rebecca Bendick tried to secure research funding, ludicrous.

“People said, ‘If you go there, you’re gonna get killed, and therefore, you won’t have any data.’”

But the mysteries swirling around Afghanistan’s geology are great, partly because of how hard it is to work there, and the pull of one of those mysteries—what’s behind the seemingly inexplicable earthquakes that rattle the Hindu Kush mountains in the northeast of the country—was strong enough that Bendick and her colleague Peter Molnar of the University of Colorado Boulder had to find out what was going on.

But how to do fieldwork in a war zone?

The answer: Enlist the help of Najibullah “Najib” Kakar, a civil engineer, and his crack team of fellow Afghan scientists.

In 2015, Bendick, using a small amount of the prize money Molnar got when he won the Crafoord Prize, sent her then master’s student, field geologist Dylan Schmeelk, to Afghanistan to train Kakar and his team on how to set up field GPS stations. Bendick and Molnar, as part of their mission to unravel the mystery of the Hindu Kush quakes, needed data on how the crust in that part of the world is moving around.

“Gave Dylan about a thousand bucks in hundred-dollar bills and said, ‘Good luck, here’s a sat phone, call me if you’re in trouble,’” Bendick said.

“I was pretty darn nervous,” said Schmeelk, who explained that he almost did not board the plane to Afghanistan.

But Schmeelk made it to Kabul and met Kakar, and the two flew to Fayzabad, a city in northeast Afghanistan that sits on the Hindu Kush. It was there that he trained Kakar and his team, and on a hill above the city, they installed Afghanistan’s first GPS station that can monitor the crust’s motion.

Man starts a fire in a rocky landscape.
Saifurrahman Saaid, one of the blob hunters, waited for a couple days for a remote GPS station to record data. Credit: M. Yatim Zaryab

The Blob Emerges

In May, Eos reported on the discovery, made by Molnar and Bendick, of a giant blob of continental lithosphere that is dripping into the mantle, just beneath the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan.

The duo knew that there was something strange about the earthquakes that rattle those mountains. At first glance, it looks like the driver behind the earthquakes is the ongoing tectonic collision between the Indian subcontinent and Eurasia.

There are, however, no faults in the area that suggest this is the case, and the GPS data that Kakar and his team gathered for Bendick and Molnar confirmed that the crust’s motion is not what it should be if subduction of the Indian subcontinent is triggering the Hindu Kush quakes.

Without Kakar and his team’s GPS data, the discovery of the blob beneath the Hindu Kush would not have been possible, Bendick explained.

And getting those data was a bit trickier than pushing some buttons and downloading information from a satellite. “The instrument has to be fixed to the ground,” Bendick said.

The Blob Hunters

Northeast Afghanistan is rife with war, in which the United States has participated since 2001. To reach the places where the team needed to install GPS units on the Hindu Kush, they either had to drive on main roads (about an hour to the field sites, Kakar explained), which combatants are more likely to traffic, or had to take back roads (5 to 10 hours to the field sites), which are mostly unpaved and filled with holes.

One problem with carting around GPS units, according to Kakar, is that if combatants pull you over, they might mistake your GPS units for homing beacons that Hellfire missile–equipped U.S. drones might use to bomb them.

“We cannot go with the cars from the office,” Kakar said. “Usually, we have to rent local cars, not to be identified by the opposition groups.”

To avoid trouble, the team would take the back roads. “I remember it was 2017 when our car slipped off a cliff and it was stuck for 3 days,” Kakar said. “Luckily, our colleagues all were fine, but the equipment was damaged.”

A 4Runner stuck at the bottom of a steep, rocky river canyon
At one point, the team’s 4Runner went off a backcountry road, down into a valley. Credit: Mir Ahmad Shah

Before his stint as a blob hunter, Kakar was, and remains, a civil engineer with the Norwegian Afghanistan Committee. One of his goals is to mitigate damage that natural hazards like earthquakes pose to Afghanistan’s budding infrastructure projects, even though the country’s ability to monitor things like seismic activity is very limited. There are, for instance, only two seismic monitoring stations in Afghanistan, and they are both in Kabul—thousands of kilometers away from the northeastern reaches of the country where a 1998 earthquake around the city of Rostaq killed thousands.

“Estimating seismic hazard strongly hinges on the availability of data,” Kakar said. “When you don’t have the scientific data, it’s hard for engineers to make decisions.”

This need for data is why Kakar wants to establish what he calls the Afghanistan Seismic Monitoring and Research Centre (ASEM). ASEM, he explains, will centralize activities like seismic monitoring into one office, and it will deploy seismic and GPS stations around the country.

This information will help scientists assess the hazards posed by faults that are close to infrastructure projects, like the Shah wa Arus Dam near Kabul, which Kakar explained has cracks that may be due to seismic activity along the nearby Paghman Fault. But there is pretty much zero funding for researchers to investigate what is truly behind the damage, which is why Kakar hopes that after helping discover the blob and thereby showing that his team can do successful geophysical work in Afghanistan, the country’s government will provide the funds he needs to launch ASEM.

“This is the first time ever such equipment or such studies are being done inside Afghanistan,” Kakar said. “We are making history. We are opening the doors for the future scientists in Afghanistan.”

—Lucas Joel, Freelance Journalist

4 June 2019: This article has been updated to correct the university affiliation of Rebecca Bendick.

Citation: Joel, L. (2019), Afghanistan’s blob hunters, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO125575. Published on 03 June 2019.
Text © 2019. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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