NUS’ “Historical Maps of Singapore” portal

I was glad when SLA-NHB introduced One Historical Map in 2015 which now allows users to compare six street maps between 1966 and 2017. We first had that facility first via iRemember in 2009 but it disappeared, and so I was glad to see it return. And the site is easy to use – after an alumni reunion, we could validate our observation of how crowded the Faulty of Science in NUS had become! 

Topographical maps were not available as yet and so it was with great excitement that the community greeted NUS Libraries announcement that they had mounted a “Historical Maps of Singapore” portal, consisting of topographical maps from between 1846 – 2018, which had been digitised with great effort, by a team from the Department of Geography.

You may view the maps online or stream them on Google Earth or other WMS (web map service) viewer. This is a treasure trove for teaching, research and an exploration of our landscape, and the changes it has experienced over time. A good place to start is your very own neighbourhood! Review the introductory guide by NUS Libraries here

For example, in the Sungei Mandai Mangrove cleanup project, we will invite the volunteer Site Captains to trace the rivers from the mouth to their origins at the foothills. These topographical maps before the relentless pace of urbanisation in the 1960’s and 1970’s will prove to be an eye opener for us all,. I love how it’s available for close examination on our desktops – it will sure make for some exciting tabletop exploration by the LSM2251 Ecology class! 

Sungei Mandai Mangrove 1966

Bukit Mandai


Sat 4th Feb 2017 – World Wetlands Day coastal cleanup at Lim Chu Kang beach and mangrove

The International Coastal Cleaup Singapore team is celebrating the Year of the Fire Rooster with a Chinese New Year / World Wetlands Day coastal cleanup at Lim Chu Kang beach and mangrove on Saturday 4th Feb 2017: 7.45am – 11.00am. Join us as we extend some tender loving care for one of our precious fragments of mangrove in Singapore.

Please sign up by Wed 1st Feb 2017. Transport provided from Kranji MRT. For details and registration, please head over to the Eventbrite Page.

Yup, we want to tackle this mess:

Join me in celebrating National Day with a coastal cleanup @ Lim Chu Kang beach and mangrove!

In 2008, I was dismayed to see the amount of plastic and other trash that had accumulated on the lovely patch of mangroves at Lim Chu Kang – this was one of the first mangroves I had mapped as an undergraduate with Paddy Murphy and a site I spent many days and nights at.


2014-08-09 09.07.23-ndcc[kpinto]

I decided I could not wait for the annual International Coastal Cleanup Singapore (ICCS) in September so initiated a cleanup. The next year, I shifted the cleanup to early August in celebration of National Day where it also heralded in the start of the academic year and an extremely hectic semester at the National University of Singapore. We usually remove more than half a tonne to a tonne of trash.

This 9th year of the cleanup, we will be working on Saturday 6th Aug 2016: 8.00am – 10.30am. To join us, sign up here by 1st August 2016! Transport will be provided from Kranji MRT to the cleanup site @ Lim Chu Kang beach and mangrove. Details on the ICCS blog.

2014-08-09 10.08.05-ndcc[kpinto]

Fixing colour plates in Murphy’s mangrove insect herbivory paper (1990)

In 2003 and 2004, Wong Yueat Tin was hired by the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research (now LKCNHM) to help me with a project – the web publication of old volumes of the Raffles Bulletin of Zoology (1928 – 2003). She did an excellent job, protecting the old bound volumes whilst xeroxing them gingerly. She then fed the black and white pages to a scanner which had a document feeder.

We worked very fast and had the papers up on the web quickly. The pdfs were not of the very high quality we are used to now, but the xerox pages provided excellent black and white contrast. I was happy with the screen-readable and laserprint-readable pdfs.

So in 2003, we published a free collection of past and current scientific papers for scientists, naturalists and students, with a bibliography and a table of contents. The museum was nimble – we were amongst the first in the world to provide this. I gleefully announced this to major academic libraries and taxonomists around the world. They were delighted! For subsequent volumes of the journal, good quality pdfs were provided by the printers.

Readable text in pdfs made with a cheap scanner in 2003!
Screenshot 07

However, the colour plates in volume 38(2) of the Raffles Bulletin of Zoology were an awful black blur which I had either not realised or forgotten about. This special volume had colours plates provided by a fund from NUS’ Faculty of Science 40th anniversary celebrations. And it included Murphy’s insect herbivory paper. A decade later, I examined the paper online minutes before making a presentation about his work at the Mandai Mangrove and Mudflat Workshop. To my horror I realised we had never fixed it!

I waited until we had Toddycats interns last year and had them scan paired pages of this volume. However the scans were not great due to the binding, and we never did figure out a good adjustments for contrast. They never improved it and in the fury of activity last year, this pdf was never submitted for replacement.

The colour scans may not be excellent, but are
a great improvement to the old black and whites!


I chanced upon the file languishing in my archives just now, and the colour scans are certainly a great improvement to the existing plates which look like a black sheen. So I extracted the colour plates and stitched those into the existing black and white pdf, and here it is: Murphy, D. H., 1990. The natural history of insect herbivory on mangrove trees in and near Singapore. Raffles Bulletin of Zoology, 38(2): 119-204 [link (14mb)].

I’ve sent this to the museum so they can replace the file. I do hope to have the scans improved, though. We are about to hire another Toddycats intern and Peter Ng thinks he has an extra print copy of the RBZ38(2) volume in the lab. We can carefully separate out the 18 colour plates for scanning and after adjustments for contrast and appearance, we can finally provide a great version of the paper.

About time, too!

How (the haze and) I killed Singapore’s International Coastal Cleanup 2015

Since mid-August, I had been monitoring the conditions of the transboundary haze pollution in Singapore. I wanted to provide appropriate advise to the more than 60 Organisers I coordinate, who lead some 3,500 coastalcleanup volunteers. In addition, there are some 650 undergraduate students and TAs heading out to the field for modules at NUS which I coordinate.

The International Coastal Cleanup is a global annual exercise conducted every September. In Singapore, some 3,500 volunteers would work along our shores, engaged in marine trash cleanup work for up to two hours. This can be strenuous, especially to our urban citizens unfamiliar with manual labour!

First I informed Organisers that they should look out for poor conditions in the days leading to the event. At the worst, we would have to cancel everyone’s long-scheduled cleanup – despite the fact preparations had begun early in the year.

I reiterated that the ICC movement prioritises health of volunteers and any Organiser, who is primarily responsible at a site, should be comfortable about cancelling their event in the event of declining air quality. I also highlighted the need to identify vulnerable individuals and to take care to attend to those first.

[“ICCS Haze Advisory for Organisers: At air quality readings above 100psi, please consider cancelling your event!“]

That advisory, in addition to prevailing conditions of poorer air quality, was enough for half the groups to pull out. The others decided to wait for the morning of the 19th of September 2015, before making a decision.

The MOM guidelines that we had been referring to decide if an outdoor event was to go ahead were based on 24-hour PSI values – the previous 24-hours! These values do not reflect the actual conditions on the ground which can change dramatically in hours. I had been comparing readings with actual ground conditions and realised the more reflective guide were the 1-hr PM2.5(µg/m3) concentrations, which NEA had begun publishing from 2014.

So I issued a second advisory. This time the suggested upper limit for field work was a 1-hr PM2.5 value of 55.5 (µg/m3). This as based on US EPA guidelines which are based on 24-hour values, so were highly conservative. But I decided to err on the side of caution.

I also explained why I had not suggested donning N95 masks and working – unfamiliar individuals who rarely use masks would find these impeded breathing, and in any case, are often not properly worn. With safety of highest concern and with large groups of varying familiarity with health and safety issues, adopting a conservative guideline was a better strategy.

[“Haze Advisory to Organisers, update: Only hourly PM2.5 concentrations are suitable for a rapid response (and values > 55µg/m3 are unhealthy)“]

Finally the day of the cleanup arrived. And the 1-hr PM2.5 pre-dawn values had persisted above 100µg/m3 all morning. There were still Organisers working in the early morning to her volunteers up buses – they had persisted until the end in the hope of improved conditions. To them I issued my third email about the haze and took an additional step: I announced that ICCS could not accept cleanup data from that morning, to safeguard volunteers’ health. This was to safeguard against an enthusiastic organiser who who might abandon safety guidelines. Marine trash would just have to be tackled another day.

[“Cancelled – all cleanups on morning of Sat 19 Sep 2015: haze at unhealthy levels“]

In 2015, I had been organising coastal cleanups int he hope of protecting marine ecosystems for 18 years. I had begun coordinating ICCS in 2000. There was only one year in which Organisers had called off the event along beaches due to severe storms with my full support.

This time the cancellation was complete across all sites, on mangroves and beaches around the island. I cancelled practicals too, so the long-awaited LSM1103 Biodiversity practical to Changi Beach was cancelled, as were all independent research projects by the LSM2251 Ecology and the Environment class.

When it came down to it, though, the cancellation was easily done, in the interest of a coordinator’s primary responsibility – volunteer and student safety. Our thwarted hopes were simply victim to another of man’s impact on the planet, the 2015 Southeast Asian haze.

We will battle on!