12 December 2012

AGU 2012 Days 4-6

Posted by Jessica Ball

As always, I’m behind on my AGU updates (possibly because I didn’t have a chance to breathe until Wednesday!) There’s so much to do, and Tuesday was the first day that the exhibits were open, which is always a time sink:

Wednesday was really the first day that I had a chance to get into the science side of things and listen to some talks and visit posters. I find talks are interesting but somewhat unsatisfying in that you don’t necessarily get much time to ask questions or discuss the topic. Posters, on the other hand, pretty much guarantee that you’ll have a chance to chat about the work with the PI. I spent Wednesday morning roaming among the poster session that accompanied the Social Media 101 oral session I co-chaired, and I’m continually impressed by the fantastic work that everyone is doing to promote Earth science with social media! (We even had a poster with built-in iPads displaying content, which was really cool but probably way beyond the budget of most of us!) Because I spent so much time running around, I did more tweeting than note-taking, so here are a couple of tweets about that session:



I perused some more volcanology posters and then made my way into the oral sessions, where there was a marathon about volcano monitoring (particularly new techniques for making it easier). Before this meeting I never would have believed that you can build an SO2 sensor out of a regular camera, or use a Kinect sensor (yes, the one from the video game system) for lidar-like imaging, but it turns out you can!



On Wednesday night I joined a crowd of William & Mary Alumni at Buca di Beppo for our annual alumni dinner. We consumed enough Italian fare for a group two times our size and laughed at the over-the-top decorations (seriously, go see the Pope Room), and it was great to catch up with all my year-mates and see where our research has taken us. In some cases, this has been as far as Nepal and New Zealand and (in my case) Guatemala. I took Thursday morning off to do some sight-seeing with a UB grad who’s now working on the Mars rover, and it was a lovely day for it – sunny and warm! I find that I have to do this for at least a little while during every AGU meeting, or I get so run down that I’m bound to be sick by the end of the week. And really, who could resist riding on the cable cars? Naturally, on the way back, we got into a discussion with an aerospace engineer who works on satellite launches, and another AGU member who happened to be on the car joined in while we got stuck waiting for a stalled car on the trolley line. On Thursday afternoon, I went back for some more posters, including one by Brent Garry, another volcanologist who also attended William & Mary and Buffalo and now works for NASA:

Thursday afternoon I reserved for the last-minute addition of a panel discussion about the L’Aquila earthquake and verdicts of the related trials. The panelists included Thomas H. Jordan of the Southern California Earthquake Center, Max Wyss of the World Agency for Planetary Monitoring and Earthquake Risk Reduction, Stephen Sparks of the University of Bristol (a well-known volcanologist with years of experience in volcanic hazard management), and John Bates of NOAA. The panel took the time to try and summarize the very complicated situation associated with the L’Aquila verdict, and then went on to compare the handling of the situation to the way natural hazards are dealt with elsewhere (particularly in the case of volcano hazards – Dr. Sparks presented contrasting success/failure stories from Montserrat and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean).

(This was in reference to a miscommunication between the scientists and civil authorities, who somehow got the impression that the initial smaller earthquakes in the region would prevent a larger one.)

There was a bit of question-and-answer afterward, with one Italian scientist taking great pains to clarify details of the case and a legal expert offering his take on the limits of scientific responsiblity. The ultimate message that I took away from the session was that seismology seems to be a bit behind hazards areas like volcanology in developing protocols to handle hazard mitigation (at least in some places; earthquake-prone areas in the US like California and the Pacific Northwest are actually a bit ahead of the game). In a well-managed volcanic eruption, the scientists are there to inform decision-makers and provide them with the information they need to make evacuation/safety calls, but they are not there to make those decisions themselves, because they may lack the relevant social/civil/emergency training necessary. This clear chain of command was lacking in Italy, and certainly contributed to the mess that the L’Aquila scientists are in now. Although the discussion was interesting, there were only tentative calls to action involved, and we certainly have a long way to go when it comes to working out how to handle disaster mitigation situations. AGU has been fairly forward in releasing statements regarding the case, but it will be interesting to see if any initiatives come out of the discussion. On Friday I spent most of my morning in talks on pyroclastic products and processes, including several by my colleagues at UB:

And then, as is traditional for me at AGU, I took one last turn through the poster hall before succumbing to utter exhaustion and going back to the hotel to collapse on the bed.

The (as usual) massive selection of posters available to peruse. As you can guess, I stuck to the VGP section most of the time!

Fortunately, this year my bed was on the 17th floor of a very nice hotel with a fantastic view of the city:

I took a quick turn through the Union Square shopping (quick because being a grad student doesn’t leave you much to spend, especially after a conference!) and then took myself off for a quiet dinner. And then on Saturday I flew back to Buffalo, in what has been one of the least-stressful AGU return flights ever (compared to past years, when there has been icky weather and sleeping on airport floors). I didn’t even have to stand in line that long! The upshot is that I somehow managed to make it back without developing a case of AGU plague, although I’m sure one or another of my students will remedy that before too long.

And that’s a wrap! To everyone I saw at AGU, thanks for talking and participating in my session and reading my Tweets – it was a blast! I don’t know if I’ll be there next year, but not because I didn’t have a great time.