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USGS Hydrologic Investigation of West Africa's Congo River (part two)

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Detailed Description

USGS South Carolina Water Science Center Data Chief, John Shelton in a special hydrologic expedition down West Africa's Congo River. In part two of this three part episode John describes the trials and tribulations of data collection on the Congo River.




Public Domain.


The following podcast is a product of the USGS Eastern Region Office of Communications and the South Carolina Water Science Center.

[Intro]: Audio mix–from audio diary of John Shelton: "The Congo River is incredible, it's like no other river you could ever imagine. Unknown depths and species of fish that have never been identified, some which are quite shocking. At times we could hardly see our laptop screen from the vast quantity of insects. At one point our kayak team was ambushed by a group of armed militants. It was just unbelievable what they had to go through. There was a communication barrier the militants couldn't understand the kayakers, the kayakers couldn't understand the militants. Our kayakers were forced to lay on the ground, they had guns pointed at them, all of their belongings were rifled though and pretty much the guards wanted to take them up into the woods to some unknown location. At that point our kayakers said you know what this is not going to work. They didn't really know if they were going to make it to the next morning. We really didn't know what we were in for."

That's John Shelton USGS Data Chief for the South Carolina Water Science Center. Join us as today as we chronicle the triumphs and tribulations of a USGS investigation of the Congo River. I'm Ray Douglas, and you are tuned to Water Science for a changing world.

Douglas: John thanks for joining us again today. With the boat driver back in the perog and the kayaker team headed up river I understand that you and Ned had a little work to do of your own.

Shelton: That's correct the kayak team we left in Kinshasa they were going to come down from Kinsuka, and Ned and I, and the rest of the team, we drove down for about a day. Plan A was to drive down and get in the river and head back up river and meet the kayak team at a central point. So Ned and I were out and that is where we made our first physical discharge measurement on the Congo River. That's where we first saw the data coming in. (audio diary background)

Douglas: And how did that first run go?

Shelton: Just awesome, we measured over one point three million cubic feet per second. It was unbelievable the data we were able to collect.

Douglas: O.K. the kayakers are up at Kinshasa, where are you and Ned at this point, and what are your headings? (audio diary background)

Shelton: Around Luozi and then worked upstream towards the kayakers and that's when we started runninginto more boils and whirlpools and were able to measure those with the acoustic-doppler-current-profiler.

Douglas: Ah! the secret weapon and how did it perform?

Shelton: It was amazing, it was producing the kind of data that we were absolutely hoping to be able to collect, and to actually see the physical structure that composes those upwellings and downwellings and to see those in 3-D on screen it was just awesome.

Douglas: O.K. well while you were waiting for the kayakers to make it down stream, what were the other teams doing and any other happenings. (audio diary background)

Shelton: The biologists were collecting fish samples and we were collecting discharge and velocity distribution data. One catfish species that we ran across and when the fishermen tried to net this particular fish they were shocked, and physically shocked and dropped the net and had quite the pain in their hands I believe. (audio diary background) At one point we were processing data at night and there was some kind of insect hatching or I am not sure what was going on but they were just everywhere. The air was thick with these mayfly like creatures, covered your laptop, covered your keyboard, it was an ugly, ugly night.

Douglas: So, John when did he kayak team, the data collection team, when did they actually arrive?

Shelton: The kayak team showed up one morning, they were actually about a day early I believe. Ned and I had been out in the boat collecting data and we saw the team actually coming over a little waterfall into our camp. So we motored back across to meet the team, it was, kind of a great homecoming, they had only been gone for three or four days, but it was great reunion everybody was happy to see them. They had made this major accomplishment by navigating an eighty mile reach that had never been successfully navigated. But we could also tell there was some degree of hesitation or, almost fear you could sense from the kayakers so we asked what was going on? and thats when they shared their story. They had been coming down river from Kinshasa, they had been collecting water quality samples for us at several of the tributaries that were coming into the river, and they were also collecting a single line echo-trace or a bathemetry trace down the middle of the river. And on the, I believe it was on the second night that they had camped and when they woke up on that morning they had been surrounded by a group of armed militants who were not very friendly they were laid out on their backs and the militants put guns to them and rifled through their belongings. Communication was a huge barrier they couldn't understand each other, it was getting pretty heated. Our kayak team did show them their official paperwork which didn't seem to detur these folks very much. They lost some of their personal belongings, the militants took that when they were going through their gear. At one point they actually wanted to take our team, march them into the woods, they weren't sure where. At that point they decided that was probably not a good idea, they made a positive refusal and turned around and headed back to their boats just praying that everything was going to be O.K. (gun shots) They were able to get back into their boats and paddle downstream. They actually showed up early because they were not about to stop on the banks of the river again. They headed all the way to us.

Douglas: Well after that I guess the waves were no longer a concern. What happened next?

Shelton: After they had shared their story we were all really excited. We wanted to see what kind of data they had collected. They had been on this great eighty mile trek through a previously unnavigated reach, so we wanted to see what kind of depths they had collected in this reach of the river. So, we pulled all of the memory cards from the equipment. One by one we put them in the laptop to process them, and one by one we found that every single data card was blank. We had collected absolutely no data. They had made the eighty mile reach and had not collected the first bit of depth data down that reach of the Congo. (audio diary)

Douglas: Um, What were you thinking at that moment?

Shelton: It was, pretty, disheartening actually. I had worked pretty hard at putting this instrumentation together and getting these boats rigged up and had been really excited and then from all of the excitement those feelings just came crashing down when we realized we had failed. I was not sure what to do next. We had taken a lot of equipment with us had a lot of extra and backup equipment. I was kind of at a loss. But,Ned and his infinite wisdom was aware that we had extra equipment that we could piece together and make it work. And, suggested that to the kayakers, and Trip Jennings and his team without hesitation said, well you know we did it once, we learned a lot, let's do it again, we only come to the Congo once and while we are here we ought to take advantage of every opportunity that we have.

Douglas: What a team! even with the ambush, they were willing to go back, that's quite a commitment.

Shelton: I was awestruck. From everything that they had been through, they were exhausted they had been through a lot, they had just paddled over eighty miles down one of the worlds biggest rivers, and to have the energy and excitement and willingness to do it again was unbelievable and to be commended.

Douglas: O.K. John you had traveled over six thousand miles for this project, the data did not come in. What's your confidence level like at this point?

Shelton: We were still, bound and determined that we were going to be able to, map these things so we did the best we could with the Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler. Ned and I decided to keep on collecting, we had a lot of work to do, and just waited for the kayak team to return the second time.

Douglas: John, thanks for stopping by to talk with us today.

Shelton: Sure!

Douglas: By the way what was the name of the student that experienced the electric catfish.

Shelton: Our student was Raul. Raul was actually a grad student at the University of Kinshasa.(audio diary background) Raul realized on that particular day to respect the Congo's electric catfish. We never saw Raul try to pick up another electric catfish for the remainder of the trip.

Douglas: You have been listening to part two of a special USGS investigation of the Congo River in West Africa. Be sure to join us next time as this investigation continues on Water Science for a changing world.

[Close] Water Science for a changing world is a product of the U.S. Geological Survey's Eastern Region Office of Communications and the South Carolina Water Science Center. Thank you for listening.

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