Published: 06th March 2021
Women's Day: Swapnamita Vaideswaran is a geologist specialising in the Himalayas and Northeast. This is her story!
From understanding the behaviour of the Shillong Plateau to determining the rate of depletion of Himalayan glaciers and its impact, Swapnamita Vaideswaran has studied the mountains like never before
Growing up in the Northeast, Swapnamita Vaideswaran would always accompany her father and uncles in their expedition through the forests and hills. Fascinated by rocks and mountains from a very early age, she says it was perhaps her curiosity to know more about how her surroundings came into existence that drew her to pursue Geology. “I would sit beside a river as a child and look at the rocks and wonder how they were formed, how the river came down from the mountains. I wasn’t aware that a subject like Geology existed at that time,” says Swapnamita. While her parents wanted her to pursue Engineering or Medicine, Swapnamita decided to carve her own path. “I was always given the freedom to make my own choices and decided to become a geologist,” she adds. After completing her graduation and masters' from Gauhati University, Swapnamita moved out of her house and moved to IIT Roorkee to pursue her PhD in Geological Sciences.
Shortly after completing her PhD in 2006, Swapnamita joined the Disaster Management and Mitigation Centre, a body that advises the government during disasters, under the Government of Uttarakhand as a Junior Executive. “But I realised that I didn't want an administrative role and would like to pursue a more research-oriented career path. I also love to teach and so I joined the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIHG), Dehradun in 2007,” says Swapnamita. Her first research project was on reservoir-induced seismicity and ground subsidence, where she particularly focused on the Tehri Dam reservoir and the impact it had on the surrounding areas, whether it could cause earthquakes.
Indeed, it is seismic activity where Swapnamita has dabbled the most. “I have worked in Iran and the Hindukush area on precursory studies on earthquakes. Through that research, my team and I were able to identify that the temperature of the land surface increases considerably before an earthquake and slowly decreases as the earthquake takes place. This groundbreaking find, which could be determined through satellite data, can warn us about earthquakes beforehand,” recalls Swapnamita. While it was initially not accepted, physicists from NASA and a Chinese laboratory then came out to support the claim. “Precursory studies are now a mandatory part of earthquake detection and it is also part of the courses at WIHG,” says the 45-year-old.
Swapnamita has also been part of some groundbreaking research work in the Shillong Plateau. “The plateau has always fascinated me and I wanted to understand its role in the formation of the Himalayas. While working in the Shillong Plateau, I began to work in Geoarchaeology. I was able to discover prehistoric signatures in the plateau, which were completely unreported,” says Swapnamita. She was not only able to study the findings, like stone tools, but also determine the kind of landforms, climate and environment that was there in the past. “I also researched the elevation of the Shillong Plateau,” says Swapnamita.
An expert in remote sensing and satellite data, Swapnamita has also researched glaciers in the Himalayan region. “Most of the glaciers in the Eastern Himalayan region are beyond the border, in China. In India, most of the glaciers are in Uttarakhand and the surrounding areas. Through the research, we were able to determine the number of glaciers on each side, which ones are receding and the rate at which they are receding,” says Swapnamita. Desiring to know more about her homeland, she decided to delve into further research and this time into paleo-seismology. “Through this research, we were trying to determine the damage caused by prehistoric earthquakes,” explains Swapnamita.