Live from the American Geophysical Union’s 2014 Fall Meeting

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Live coverage of the AGU Fall meeting

Golden Gate Bridge. Image Credit: Chris Wood, Wikimedia Commons

Golden Gate Bridge. Image Credit: Chris Wood, Wikimedia Commons

For those of you who are not familiar with the AGU Fall Meeting, it’s something of a maelstrom of scientific information. So rather than trying to cover all the important sessions and events happening, I’ll instead offer 1-3 snapshots a day that are representative of some of the broader conversations occurring at AGU this year.
Night image of San Francisco

San Francisco at night. Image Credit: Earthzine, 2014.

Day 5: Friday, Dec. 19–Reflections on the flight home

I was not present for the final day of the AGU Fall Meeting, so on the final day, here is a look back at some highlights and cross-cutting themes:

  • Improved data collection/analysis

Many examples were presented of improved methods or technologies. One exciting set of new data presented at AGU were NASA’s first global maps of carbon dioxide mixing in the atmosphere, generated from observations made by the OCO-2 Satellite.

Maps of carbon

Global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

  • Partnerships

At the Frontiers of Geophysics Lecture, invited speaker Jeffery Sachs described the importance of flexibility in planning and expressed a desire for greater social, political, and environmental partnerships.

  • Resilience Building

The Thriving Earth Exchange presented several workshops and presentations at AGU 2014 this year, offering ideas for community building activities.

Workshop on community building

Building “Resilient City” at AGU. Image Credit: Earthzine, 2014.

  • Communication Skills

Susan Hassol of the National Climate Assessment, Jeff Masters of Weather Underground and others offered talks that provided tips and tricks for ways to succeed in communication actions with the public. Another exploration of communication skills included navigating social media, a topic covered in a Wednesday’s Social Media Forum.

While each of these constitutes an individual topic, covered by different presentations and workshops, several of them overlap or share cross-cutting themes. Throughout the conference this year, there was an positive energy and a desire for to promote actionable science. I look forward to seeing how these projects develop and grow by next year’s meeting.


Day 4: Thursday, Dec. 18–Many Meetings

AGU is about many things. It’s about opportunities for sharing recent research. It’s about attending sessions within and beyond your arena of expertise. And not least, it is about the people you meet. I’m not referring to the networking for funding or even finding an answer to a research question that has been niggling on the back of your mind. The interactions that make even a large meeting like AGU ultimately feel fun are the conversations you have that send you home feeling as though you’ve made a new friend.
This is why mixers and dinners and side-events are one of the most critical components of a large conference like this. One of the key themes that has turned up time and again at AGU this year is that scientists need to improve their efficacy in communicating with the public. The flip side of this statement is the pervasive stereotype (in the fictional media as well as the real world) that many scientists are poor communicators or un-relatable for non-scientists.
Tonight as one research scientist from the forest service waxed lyrical about the peace she found hiking on a trail. Later a microbiologist got a solid round of laughs as he related the time he got his knee stuck in the gate of the Golden Gate Bridge. Scientists are like any other group of people some are terse, some are wordy, and some are born story-tellers. But when it comes to communication, succeeding may simply boil down to creating opportunities for casual interaction. The interactions that bubbled out tonight are not the sort of conversations that would naturally occur in the busy poster hall or just after a serious session on natural disasters. They were a reminder of the many emotional ties common among people from different backgrounds, different fields of work, and even different countries.  Maybe part of the campaign of science communication should simply involve inviting people to dinner.

Thoughts from first year participants:

Student Tyler Weinglein

Tyler of Virginia Tech with his poster on soil GHG emissions. Image Credit: Earthzine, 20


Mary of Stanford University with her poster on using strontium calcium in corals. Image Credit: Earthzine.

Ali with his poster on GCM's

Ali of University of Portland with his poster on downscaling temperature GCMs. Image Credit: Earthzine, 2014.

Krystal, Student Volunteer at AGU

Volunteer Krystal. Image Credit: Earthzine, 2014.

 I really like Earth science. I had a NASA internship and just fell in love. [At AGU] there’s all this knowledge and all these amazing things that are here.
It’s been really eye-opening seeing all the work people are doing in this field. It’s also really humbling, realizing how little I know.
It’s so big it’s hard to find people, even my friends, but I’ve been to several great talks. It’s really nice to be here.
It’s really big!

 The Day in Pictures: Thursday, Dec. 18

people sitting by window

A seat with a view at AGU 2014. Image Credit: Earthzine, 2014

People on computers

Always more work to do at AGU 2014. Image Credit: Earthzine, 2014.


People on the escalator between sessions. AGU 2014

Migrating between sessions at AGU 2014. Image Credit: Earthzine, 2014.

Day 3: Wednesday, Dec. 17–

Avoiding the “Hydro-Illogical” Cycle

With is a steady stream of data available, why is there a drought of action? This is a topic that keeps resurfacing at AGU this year.
In the presentation “The Lifecycles of Drought: Informing Responses Across Timescales,” Roger Pulwarty of NOAA described what he referred to as the “hydro-illogical cycle.” In this cycle responses to disasters like droughts occur after the onset of the event, to a degree where implementation of response measures may only begin at a point when the drought is near ending and when response options are limited. The reason for this, Pulwarty suggested, is that there is still a need for greater understanding of what existing limits to action really are. Without this knowledge, even accurate forecasts cannot be put to practical use.
Pulwarty had several suggestions for improving decision making around drought. First, perceptions matter. Everyone in the room–the decision makers as well as the scientists– needs to have a clear understanding the interaction of factors that contribute to drought and of what does and does not constitute an ecological rebound. For example, a single year of average rain is not enough to counter the effects of a long term drought that it broke.
Second, pathways to decision making matter. Consideration of potential barriers to action need to be integrated throughout the process of developing information systems, not simply incorporated at the end.
Similar themes were explored in greater depth by the keynote speaker of the day, Katheryn Sullivan, Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator. Sullivan’s topic was “Building Resilient Communities.” Her presentation on resilience to coastal disasters echoed two key themes from earlier in the day. Sullivan underlined the importance of interweaving community knowledge and social science with physical science data and also stressed that responses to disasters can be most effective when social science is incorporated throughout the process, including early steps like determining research priorities.
“Predictive capacity and accuracy don’t matter if they cannot be translated into action.”

The Day in Pictures: Wednesday, Dec. 17

AGU participants relaxing on the steps in Moscone South.

Conversations on the steps at AGU 2014. Image Credit: Earthzine, 2014.

Presentation from NASA.

NASA presentation on exploration of Mars and more. Image Credit: Earthzine, 2014.

Exhibition Hall demo plane

AGU 2014 Exhibition Hall. Image Credit: Earthzine, 2014.


sunrise in San Francisco

Sunrise in San Francisco. Image Credit: ECO, 2014.

Day 2: Tuesday, Dec. 16–It’s All About Image

The theme that ran throughout the sessions and interactions I encountered today was the need for creativity in turning science into action. The desire to get research out of the databooks and into the hands of public and policy users is a clearly a popular topic. The afternoon session on effective use of the media to communicate climate issues was packed to standing room only, and by the end of the session very little of even that remained!
Many examples of creative actions already underway turned up over the course of the day. National Climate Assessment lead author Susan Hassol gave an excellent morning presentation on ways that the latest National Climate Assessment succeeded in creating a media-accessible message. One of these techniques included using professional photographs that told compelling human stories. Another technique was to train all authors to hone down their key messages for quick and clear communication with interviewers.
In the Exhibit Hall, the power of compelling visual information was on display in another way. Brian Sullivan of Google was giving a demo of a powerful new mapping tool being developed by his company: Global Fishing Watch, a prototype of a tool that uses AIS data to create an interactive map of commercial fishing boats across the world’s oceans. The prototype is a collaborative effort between Google, Oceana and SkyTruth, and it is hoped that a publicly available version will be released next year.
“This is an area where big data can really make a big difference in the world,” says Sullivan.

Brian Sullivan of the Global Fishing Watch

Brian Sullivan demos Google’s Global Fishing Watch map. Image Credit: Earthzine, 2014.

A final example of creativity  in the Exhibit Hall was Blueprint Earth. This non-profit is using kick-starter style campaign to raise the funds to support their project of mapping different ecosystems of the Earth so that they can be later replicated or restored.

The Day in Pictures (Tuesday, Dec. 16)

Moscone South

Moscone South in the sun. Image Credit: Earthzine, 2014

The author pretends to do fieldwork.

“Scientist Selfie” of the author at the Blueprint Earth booth. Image Credit: Earthzine, 2014


Welcome Sign at AGU

AGU 2015 Fall Meeting Begins. Image Credit: Earthzine, 2014.

Day 1: Monday, Dec. 15–

A $75 Glass of Lemonade

Today’s key topic for me was water. Between a growing population, expanding per capita water consumption and the potential for widespread precipitation regime changes associated with climate change, water availability is a concern close to the hearts of many people here at AGU.
Out in the arid West they used to have a saying, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting.” But that attitude may be due for a change. One of today’s panel sessions, “Global Freshwater Use,” explored barriers and opportunities for future availability of clean water security. The panel featured Michael Carlin of San Francisco Water, Power, and Sewer; Daniel Hansey of San Francisco Neighborhood Resilience; James Syvitski of Univeristy of Colorado, Boulder; and Lex Van Geen of the Lamot Doherty Earth Observatory.
The barriers facing availability of freshwater resources in the future outlined by the panel are intertwined. On one hand, demand for water is swelling as individual water use increases and the global population continues to grow. On the other hand, distribution of available freshwater may be shifting as a consequence of climate change: precipitation may alter in intensity or frequency of events and sea-level rise could threaten infrastructure of water treatment and sewage plants in coastal cities. In the Western United States, these challenges are compounded by the regulatory limitations of rigid and often outdated water laws that do not take into account variability of precipitation.

Photo of Daniel Homsey

Daniel Homsey at AGU 2014 Fall Meeting. Image Credit: Earthzine, 2014.

There’s a rainbow that comes with the storm, however. As was discussed during this panel session, water is a daily necessity and, as such, has the power to capture public attention and create an impetus for climate mitigation and resiliency building. The means of harnessing this potential is education at all levels, from K-12 to adult. For the latter to happen, scientists will need to find creative ways to engage the general public directly, not just segments of the public such as policy-makers or businesses. Panelist Daniel Homsey had a few unusual ideas of his own for what this might look like. One method he suggested was setting up a neighborhood lemonade stand run where the advertised price is $75/cup. The stand could also have graphs about water use and precipitation modeling and would act as a conversation-starter on the value of water as a resource and its limited availability.
After the session Daniel Homsey, Director of Neighborhood Resilience for San Francisco, took a few moments to share some more details about his philosophy of addressing climate associated risks at a community level. The purpose of the Neighborhood Resilience program is to bring together community members in a collaborative way to harness their existing knowledge of vulnerabilities and resources within their own neighborhoods. This type of activity creates a feeling of ownership over the issue and participation in the solution. According to Homsey, this type of empowerment is necessary to motivate communities to make the changes necessary in address the impacts of climate change in the water sector and elsewhere:
“As access [to freshwater] increasingly differentiates, the only way to move forward is if we are acting in a culture rich in trust and reciprocity. There needs to be trust in negotiations. If not, no one wins.”
Because water is a limited resource and one that crosses political and social jurisdictions, negotiation will be necessary to achieve equitable distribution, particularly as demand for this resource increases. Harnessing the knowledge of communities not only offers a useful set of background information, it also allows individuals to feel that they have control over this necessity of life and that their opinions are heard and valued: two qualities that go a long way toward building trust in those making decisions at a broader scale.
So maybe in the future, the West’s axiom will change. Instead of “water is for fighting,” it will be “water is for talking.” Whiskey, of course, will always be for drinking.

Discovery of the Day

The uptake of CO2 by the oceans is a widely discussed topic in the carbon cycle, but less widely discussed is the relationship between CO2 and lakes. During today’s poster session, I learned something new from University of Uppsala PhD student Blaize Denfeld: lakes are a source of CO2 to the atmosphere! Check out her AGU poster here.

Blaize Denfeld by her poster

Blaize Denfeld at her poster on CO2 patterns in lakes. Image Credit, Earthzine, 2014.

The Day in Pictures (Monday, Dec. 15)

The Moscone Center in the morning.

A rainy morning at AGU. Image Credit: Earthzine, 2014.

Moscone West lobby.

Inside Moscone West. Image Credit: Earthzine.

The poster hall

Looking down the poster hall. Image Credit: Earthzine, 2014.


 Live Blog from AGU 2014

Scientists from across the globe will congregate in San Francisco for the week-long 47th Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) starting Dec. 15. Based on the positive response to Earthzine’s coverage of GEO XI from Osha Gray Davidson, we’ll be blogging from AGU as well.
Coverage will be provided by Elise Mulder Osenga. Last year, Elise offered advice and an overview of the event from a first-timer’s perspective. This time, she’ll be joining the meeting as an AGU veteran and reporting live from the maelstrom of science. Check back here for updates throughout the week.
About AGU
The American Geophysical Union (AGU) is a member organization committed to the advancement of Earth and space science for the benefit of society. The Fall Meeting held by AGU is the organization’s largest annual event, and the largest Earth science meeting in the world, drawing an estimated 24,000 participants this year.
Over the course of the week, AGU will feature 1,700 sessions, 250 exhibitors, and more than 20,000 poster and oral presentations. Keynote speakers include Secretary of Department of the Interior Sally Jewell, U.N. advisor Jeffery D. Sachs, entrepreneur Robin Chase, and Schmidt Foundation President Wendy Schmidt.
For more, see AGU’s 2014 Fall Meeting site.