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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the AGU Fall Meeting

Posted on 26 December 2010 by Andy Skuce

"Space," it says, "is big. Really big."
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

If the AGU Fall Meeting had to be summed up in one word, that word would surely have to be big. There were over 19,000 people attending and many thousands of talks and poster presentations. The Scientific Program guide is 560 pages long with each page listing about thirty presentation titles. I doubt that anyone (except maybe some hapless AGU proof-reader) has been able to read this mostly verb-free text from beginning to end. Fortunately, the AGU provides an online scheduling tool that allows you to search the program for keywords and set up a personalized itinerary; but the process of presentation selection remains rather random. Everyone experiences a different meeting.

Photo: AGU

The American Geophysical Union is far from exclusively American and is not limited to a branch of physics, nor even to studies of the planet Earth. (I am reminded of Voltaire’s quote about the Holy Roman Empire, being neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.) Study of the Earth’s climate demands a multi-disciplinary approach and the AGU is probably the world's best scientific organization able to tackle the subject. The AGU Fall meeting, held in December every year in San Francisco, is also probably the world’s most comprehensive single meeting on climate science. (Anyone can join the AGU as an associate member for $20 per year. Members receive the weekly newspaper Eos and can order “multichoice” access to pdf’s of AGU scientific articles for about the price of iTunes song. A bargain!)

I’m a regular member of AGU and have a professional interest in exploration geophysics and structural geology. But like many of the readers of Skeptical Science, I’m also an amateur climate buff and in this article I’d like to share my experiences at the AGU meeting. However, I won’t be writing much about my scientific impressions since I’m not qualified to do so. When I’m attending talks within my own narrow speciality, I’m able to confidently sort the gold from the dross, but when it comes to climate science, I’m a semi-informed dilettante, albeit better informed now than I was before the meeting.

The Venue.

The Moscone Center in San Francisco is a huge convention center which is easily able to host the conference. The only drawback is that there are two buildings and it takes ten minutes to go from one to the other, meaning missed talks if you want to switch between sessions.

Photo: Moscone West from jules'pics

The Featured Lectures

These talks are about an hour long and are now available to be viewed as webcasts. The ones I would recommend are Ellen Mosley-Thompson’s talk on her ice-core research and Julia Slingo’s lecture on natural hazards. Not recommended is President Obama’s science advisor John Holdren’s talk, which was very tedious. I can’t imagine why he thought that an audience of international scientists would be interested in hearing him drone on about the structure of the White House science bureaucracy. Let’s hope the presentations he makes to his boss have more content than this.

The Outreach Sessions

These sessions featured prominent speakers from both within and outside the climate science community concerning education and communication to the general public. One such session featured talks given by authors of best-selling books. Steve Easterbrook has good write-ups on this and other sessions on his blog. The session was marred by Greg Craven’s performance--for that’s what it was--both in his talk and in the following panel discussion. For once, I tend to agree with Steve Mosher’s assessment. I note that Greg has since posted an open letter.

Robert Simmon showed some remarkable images from NASA’s Earth Observatory site, as well as describing NASA's approach to public communication. He mentioned Skeptical Science as one of the best places to get reliable information on the science of climate. Richard Alley delivered a characteristically lively talk entitled “Toilets and the Smart Grid: A role for history and art in communicating assessed science for Earth—The Operators’ Manual”. He drew an analogy between our current climate change problems and the cholera outbreak in London in the nineteenth century. There was some resistance to the ideas of John Snow, who correctly realised that the disease was water-borne and that the solution to the epidemic was an expensive refit of urban sanitation infrastructure. Today, we also face an invisible, scientifically-diagnosed threat, the reality of which is similarly questioned by those who think we can’t afford the costs of changing our energy infrastructure.

I arrived early at these sessions, thinking that they would be packed but they were surprisingly (to me) poorly attended. I counted about 200 present at talks given by stars like James Hansen or Naomi Oreskes, which means that 99% of the delegates at the AGU meeting had more pressing things to do, focussing on their scientific work or sampling the distractions of San Francisco, perhaps.

The Technical Oral Sessions

Definitely the main course on the menu. The talks are often only 15-20 minutes long, which once the applause and throat-clearing time has been subtracted, leaves precious little for the delivery of information and usually none at all for questions. Most of the talks were very well planned and delivered, with good slides. The best talks were often the “invited” talks, frequently these talks were given by established researchers and had more of an introductory or review aspect than the more focussed lectures.

It’s difficult to pick a highlight but one talk that I particularly enjoyed was by Jemma Wadham and nine co-authors on Large methane reserves beneath Antarctica? Apparently, there may be huge accumulations of methane hydrates in porous rocks below the Antarctic Ice Sheet. These hydrates are likely in a sensitive equilibrium that could be disrupted by small changes in pressure, caused by variations in the thickness of the overlying ice sheets. Release of hydrates below retreating ice sheets could therefore act as a hitherto neglected positive feedback during warming episodes.

The Poster Sessions

Posters are often consolation prizes awarded to researchers who don’t get their talks accepted for the oral sessions. They can also be outsized boarding passes to allow students and others to get the travel funding needed to attend the AGU meeting as presenters rather than, well, hitchhikers like me. There really are too many posters to take in and it’s often hard to figure out at a quick glance whether the work is significant or not. Still, there is the opportunity to have a face-to-face discussion with the presenters and I know, from having given my own presentations that, as an author you get more and better feedback from giving a poster than a talk. The AGU serves free beer at around 3PM, which is a good time to start a bull session with a poster presenter.

There were at least a couple of posters that challenged the consensus view. One was The World’s Largest Experiment Manipulating Solar Energy Input To Earth Resumed In 2003 by PL Ward, who claims that gasses other than CO2, especially SO2, play the crucial role in global warming. Credit is due to him for sticking his neck out and to the people who stopped by his poster and patiently explained to him why they thought he was wrong. Unfortunately, I missed a poster with a great title: “Jerks as Guiding Influences on the Global Environment: Effects on the Solid Earth, Its Angular Momentum and Lithospheric Plate Motions, the Atmosphere, Weather, and Climate” by JM Quinn and BA Leybourne. It seems that Skeptical Science has some more rebuttal work to do!

Is it worth it?

The registration fee for the five-day AGU Meeting is $350. Frugal accommodation choices could keep the total cost under $1000, not including travel expenses. For independent climate enthusiasts in North America with sufficient free time and funds, attending the meeting is good value. For those further afield in other continents, the financial commitment will obviously be much more. It would be great if AGU could post even more talks to their webcasts next year, to allow more people to see the highlights and, by reducing travel, maybe even reduce some carbon emissions. I attended the all-you-can-eat climate buffet for five days and I never lost my appetite for more. I'll likely be back next year.

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Comments 1 to 12:

  1. This is a great source of information on climate issues. Feel like joining AGW and attend next meeting.
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  2. Skeptical blogs have been getting a little bit hot about other AGU sessions. It's not just about challenging the consensus view but highlighting the fact that the science is still far from settled. UHI and solar spectrum variability come to mind as examples.
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  3. I thought we killed UHI pretty conclusively at
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  4. Next year we should have a Skeptical Science fans evening out!
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    Response: [John Cook] Sounds like a great idea. Hoping I can make it (getting to the 2011 AGU somehow is now an ambition of mine).
  5. @HR: do you know what the AGU's official position on AGW is?
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  6. AGU's position statement on climate change can be found here:
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  7. Mr Cook, I think you are a bit harsh on Greg Craven. From what I gather from the transcription of his talk, his self-assessment is correct: it’s a bit over the top – but not more than that (and frankly, some other talks I watched were rather boring, in spite of the importance of the subject matter. So maybe a “performance” was a welcome change). However let us look past the presentation, at his message. Greg Craven raises an important point: should scientists speak up more in the climate change debate? There are no easy answers, but judging by the deluge of misinformation, and especially the appalling quality of most newspaper reporting on climate change (the notorious “balanced reporting”), I would tend to answer “Yes”. On the other hand, it may be argued that scientists lose authority by engaging in debate. But then again: what good does that authority do us if warnings are not heeded anyway? The way I see it, we are still continuing with business-as-usaul, which is the certain road to disaster (just look around at what is already happening). The sole fact that there was no ice on Greenland the last time CO2-concentration was at 280 ppm should be enough for a radical policy change (yes, I am living in the Netherlands). But nothing is happening. So maybe it is time for more screaming and less polite discourse.
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  8. Dick Veldkamp @ 7 First, I should make it clear that all the comments in the post were mine alone and are not necessarily shared by John Cook. Second, there was a wide range of reactions to Greg's speech and the ensuing panel session. I felt so uncomfortable during the panel session that I had to leave the room (as did James Annan) but other people present at the session did not feel the same way, for example, Steve Easterbrook, felt that Greg's talk was an "effective and challenging counterpoint". Third, this whole affair is not such a big deal, it was just one guy trying to make his pitch on an issue that he obviously cares about but, I think, choosing to set the volume control too high. Last, to use this incident, as some have done, to attack the AGU and its policy of education and public outreach is ridiculous. Let's hope the AGU continues to engage the public, which means that concerned non-scientists should both listen and be listened to.
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  9. Andy S @ 8 Thanks very much for your clarifying post. I completely agree with your points 3 and 4.
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  10. Andy, Volume too loud--agreed wholeheartedly. Attacks on AGU: That's what prompted me to post a hasty and again-too-high-volume "open letter" the Friday night after, trying to get in front of the story trying to prevent the echo chamber (seeded by Steven Mosher, reposted several other blogs) from painting the AGU as activist, using the brush of my personal actions. Having listened to my speech again since then (don't know if you heard, but I had exactly 11 hours to prepare it due to a HD crash at 1 am), I think it doesn't justify the mega-ness of my mia culpa. I was desperate to avoid being used against AGU, hadn't listened to the speech since I gave it, and couldn't remember the text beyond the first wild-eyed paragraph. Having since transcribed it (available at, I stand by the message. My only regret is that it was so strongly given that I'm sure it turned off many of the people who most needed to hear the message. I was indeed intending to shock--and even risk pissing off--but ended up pretty much slapping people in the face. Like a face slap to a roomful of absorbed, focused people in a burning building, it pisses off most of them, but a few of them say "thank you for waking me up to the larger threat" and get moving. That's my hope, anyway. Staring at the text finished just minutes before I went on stage, I was faced with the choice of giving it, or just winging it, which I could have ably done (I do it regularly when my lessons plans are rendered moot by some occurrence at the tardy bell). I made a conscious decision about which regret I'd rather risk: regretting that I'd gone too far, or regretting that I had my one chance to speak to the people that are our last realistic hope, wishing I had said more. I chose the former, and don't regret it. Especially since it seems the contrarian attempt to damage the AGU using me seems to have not gotten any traction. Hope this helps. And I'd humbly suggest that before making such a strong yet simplified assessment--especially when agreeing with an attack article that deliberately distorts and manipulates ("the face of the new AGU," "the first step to violent action," leaving his own misstatements about what I said--even when notified--rather than actually quoting the speaker)--that you closely read the posting you are agreeing with. If you've already done that and still think that telling your readers you agree with Steven Mosher (comprising 30% of your assessment of the session) is what you really intend to convey, then perhaps you might want to consider whether is the place that is the best match for your opinions. It's one thing to say I was a shameful spectacle, and quite another to agree with the contents and tone of Mosher's article, which you link to. I'd suggest that your readers perhaps deserve better. Respectfully, Greg Craven
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  11. Re: Greg While I wasn't there to hear it directly and indeed have only heard about it anecdotally, I applaud you for the courage of your convictions. That is a rare thing in this world we live in. If only more had the stones to do so... I'm minded of the words of Martin Niemöller:
    "They came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up."
    Let us go and do likewise. Else the end result be the same. The Yooper
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  12. Greg @ 10 I owe you a reply and I apologize for the delay in making it. When composing the article, I chose not to write a lengthy description of the session you were involved in but instead opted to link to Steve Easterbrook's and Steve Mosher's very different accounts. (I also added links to your website and to your open letter). My subjective impressions your contribution to the meeting tend to be closer to Mosher's than Easterbrook's and I felt obligated to say so, bluntly. (Normally, I agree with everything Easterbrook writes and almost nothing coming from Mosher.) I should have made it clear that I don't agree with everything Mosher wrote in his article and I'm sorry that I didn't do that. As you correctly pointed out in your talk, those of us who are alarmed about climate change, professional scientists and amateurs alike, have so far been ineffective in communicating the urgency of the problem to the general public. Of course, many of us who participate at Skeptical Science do so precisely because we want to improve public communication and understanding. Occasionally, that means criticizing those among us who overstate the case--thereby making it vulnerable to attack--as well as those who invite rebuke by indulging in rhetorical excess, as I think you did. This must have been a tough experience for you and I hope that you are not too discouraged by the brickbats. Articulate advocates, like you, who care enough to stand up and speak out are needed and rare. Sincerely, Andy
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