The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the AGU Fall Meeting

"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.

Posted by Andy Skuce on Sunday, 26 December, 2010

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