Report from American Geophysical Union

Last week I attended the American Geophysical Union ‘s (AGU’s) meeting in San Francisco. The following is my rough draft of a report prepared for the Mountain news. It’s long, so read it in shifts.

On Monday I got a much better idea of what I’m dealing with at this meeting.

Probably foremost was a better idea of what my disability means, although I haven’t yet resolved what to do about it.  The meetings are spred out over three widely spaced buildings, The Moscone center in San Francisco.  I can handle it in my walker, but that is a very slow means of getting around, so I may have to miss a lot.  An alternative would be to rely on press conferences and/or stay mainly in one or two rooms for listening to talks.  This option as appeal largely because my main interest, reports related to the benefits of melding space technology with earth observation, are mostly in rooms near the press room.  An alternative is to use a wheel chair and ask people to push me about.  Main benefit there would be speed and the opportunity to meet more people.

Another important realization is the special treatment members of the press get here.  Registration is free, with many percs, including access to a lot of events that are extra fees for regular attendees, not to mention a lot of access to experts above and beyond what most attendees see.  I wish I had realized al this years ago.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, I’m getting a better idea who, exactly, is apt to be a member of The American Geophysical Union (AGU).  Short version is anyone who’s research centers on Earth or Space.   I know that sounds pretty vague, but it is meant to be.  This is a very large subset of the scientific community.

Besides contributors like Jim Hansen and David Grinspoon, who first drew my attention to this conference, particpants range fro people studing everything from earthquakes to tornados to geography to weather to biology to ice to planets to environmental changes of all sorts to oceans to the sun to mineralogy to magnetism to education in all these areas-and that’s just from looking at the Tuesday morning line-up.

How is it I didn’t know more about these guys?

At any rate, Monday’s keynote speaker was Olympia Snowe, former Senator from Maine, who, like any number of her ex-colleagues, decided not to run for re-election because of the increased intensity of partisanship in Washington.  Makes  me worry about whether we will survive as the country I grew p in.  It seems we are growing more and more divided.

One of her main points was how much topics such as climate change have become politically labeled, when they ought not be.  She appealed to the scientists present (virtually everyone there) to make themselves heard  in politics, for what they do must not be seen as political.

Which leads me to the another important thing in evidence at this meeting, which is not new to me, but which I think is critical for the general public to develop a better understanding of.  How  scientists work.  Scientists are people who argue.  They literally love it.

My brother once doubted very much that a consensus amongst scientists meant little beyond a proof that they came out of the liberal education establishments that trained them.   I was dumbfounded, as it shows so little of an understanding of how it works.

For one thing, it’s virtually impossible–perhaps literally–to reach consensus in scientific circles.  Generally, when scientists use that term, what they mean is an overwhelming degree of agreement.  So, for example, they might–in fact, do–say that there’s consensus that global warming is real and the result of human activity.  But by saying that, they don’t mean that absolutely everyone agrees.  Just that almost everyone who studies the question agrees.  That’s probably  something like a 1000 to 1 ratio.  Only in a group of scientists would anyone have trouble calling that consensus.   But virtually all scientists have the difficulty, for they love to argue and an argument calls for at least two sides.

See my point?

But there is another thing.  It wasn’t really brought to my attention until Friday, but it may be at the very heart of the difference, and the misunderstanding, that the general public has with this group.

While scientists love an argument, they deeply dislike the concept of “noise.”  While most commentators on scientific topics seem to think the intensity of their own belief is a good reason to believe themselves, scientists, in general, do not.  This, in the usual public discussion, leads to debates highly depending upon the shocking, the extreme or bizarre examples, the sensational, and clever but hostile exchanges.  In other words, lots of shouting at one another.  It is very typical of public debate that one party or the other simply gives in to the opponent because he or she gets out shouted.

In scientific circles, shouting, in any of its numerous forms, is not allowed.  Or, if it does occur, is viewed as an admission of defeat by the shouter.

Partly as a consequence, the debates in scientific circles tend to go on for much, much longer.  But, we like to think, the conclusions reached at the end are much better founded than those reached in a shouting match.   Instead of raising our voices, we listen intently to the opponent’s arguments, and attempt to respond directly to his or her points.

Our arguments are, in a word, boring.  I’m not sure the general public would even recognize them as arguments.  But that’s what they are, and those who have the best arguments are the ones who are, for the most part, presenting at this meeting.  This is the place of the final argument; where the light of full public exposure (in the scientific community) is turned directly onto the debate.

So, anyway, what’s going on here is scientists who feel their studies prove something, whether it be to do with the cause of certain kinds of water flow on Mars or the absence of ozone in the stratosphere on Earth, present their  reasons for believing it.  What the general  public doesn’t get is that, by presenting it, every scientist here knows he is inviting argument with his interpretation or his methods.

It’s just a part of the process.  A process that ends up in a few things clearly not being understood, but a few very well understood.

Tuesday

Started today’s activities with a decision: rather than run the risk of a new means of getting around interfering with my ability to get to Hansen’s talk on time, I would stick with the walker today and just leave a lot of time between starting toward an objective and my expected arrival time.

The first meting was the ipcc (International Panel on Climate Change) press conference on the future of assessments.  So far as I could see, this was largely a misnomer, since this was mainly a report about the current status of this U.N. group’s assessment of climate change, not a projection of anything.

Perhaps most important was their iteration that global warming is real and human caused, and there stress that adaptation was essential.  This was a common theme throughout the conference.  There was literal amazement that the climate change issue was still being debated in large subsets of the general public.   This group, the largest conglomeration of scientific minds I have ever seen, had no doubt about the issue.

One of the presenters, Dennis Harcourt, spoke to sea ice trends, another Philppe something, to CO2’s longevity in the atmosphere, and a third, Olivee Something Else, spoke to aerosols and the effect of cloud cover.  Between them, they spoke of a slowing/regional  reversal of Arctic water warming and how this was notproblematic because of fluctuation in solar radiation, about extreme weather, increased humidity in the tropics,and the fact 40% of new atmospheric carbon dioxide remains aloft for centuries, that there is 20 to 30 gigtaons [check] added each day, and that  models  sem to be better at describing ice melt in the Arcic than in the Antrctic.

Solutions involving geoengineering are very much being looked into, but the risk of any such solution are extreme, and everone at this meting ksery woried  bout going down t path.

The next talk I attended advocated development of new methods for disaster warnings.  Yehuda Bock, Mark Jackson, and Angela Something talked about a  program which is currently restricted to the Los Angeles area and integrates GPS technology with seismology and weather science to give meaningful lead times in warning about flash flooding and earthquakes.  The breakthrough in earthquakes apparently has to do with the ability to measure the severity of an earthquake accurately from reading differences in the characteristics of P and S waves when first detected.  Obviously of no value at the source of the detection, and of little value to the public in even a fairly large radius around the epicenter, still this information might be invaluable in dealing with the effects of much larger consequences, such as tsunamis.  The example they gave was the recent disaster in japan, which might have had considerably bertter predictions of the height of the wave and warnings up to thirty minutes ahead of it’s striking land. I wonder if the disaster at Fukashima might have been averted with this degree of advance3d notice.

As regards to weather, the interesting bit of new knowledge from GPS technology to me was that, if the GPS receptor is known to be stable, you can read weather related data such as humidity, from the satellite’s beaming onto it.  That’s how such tools get use in flash flood warnings.

To the next talk, I arrived too late to get a seat.  By the time I got to the room in which a live simulcast was being offered, after trying to get it on my own computer, too much had already gone down for me to follow it, so I will attempt to access the lecture later, as it is one of a great many that will be available after the meeting.

It was time to leave if I wasn’t to be late for the Hansen talk.  When I got there, the hall was filled to the brim, but the doorman got me a seat in the back row.  I assume he asked someone to give it up.  I didn’t ask him to do it, but I was glad of both his gesture and the holder of the seat’s sacrifice.

I don’t often refuse help, these days.  Sometimes I even wish I was less hesitant to ask for it.  It’s a very strange, this being handicapped.  On the one hand, most people go way out of their way to be of assistance  On the other, there are incredibly irritating obstacles to the most mundane of tasks.  Nothing, literally nothing, can be expected to take less than twice as long as it would have taken to do only a year or two ago.  To be reasonably safe, I try to allow for three times as long.

If you see someone in a wheelchair, even if they seem to be doing fine, ask if you can be of assistence.  Going downhill can be harder than going uphill, since death can be the price of a mistake.  And who is it that thinks a little ridge between levels of an entrance and the main sidewalk is really okay?  When you’re pushing yourself along in a chair, it doesn’t take much to make a route impassable.  Luckily I can still walk enough to push my chair ahead of me over carpet, but even the nap of a rug can make one route pretty difficult without a push.  So, please, offer your help.  If  the offeree is less than appreciative, that’s his or her problem.  Most of us will be glad you at least asked.

Anyway, bottom line on Hansen was that he didn’t show.  No call, no show.  The president of the AGU, Carol _____, had no idea what had become of him, nor, she said in a private discussion later, if he was even in San Francisco.  The weather on the East Coast was iffy at best, so his flight might have been cancelled.  All she said in announcing his absence was that he was “indisposed.”

People flooded out of the hall, many of them clearly angry.  But Hansen is no flake.  He’s best known, probably, for being a very early warning voice in the 1980’s for testifying before Congress, as head of NASA’s Godard Space Center, against the wishes of the administration about climate change.  He was the main focus of the GW Bush administration meddling in science reporting when Cheney famously monitored everything the government’s scientists were allowed to say.  Sso I assumed he  was legitimately constrained in some way.

I doubt I was alone in being there mostly to hear his talk.  I quizzed quite a few people from outside the AGU fold as to whether they knew  who he was or not.  It’s probably not very surprising that fewer than 1/4 of those I asked who weren’t in the AGU knew the name.  But in both the AGU community and amongst long term environmentalists he is legendary.

My conspiratorial side immediately went to worst case scenarios.  The worst case my imagination conjured up was the story of Steven Schneider, probably an even better known, in the AGU circles, advocate for climate change than Hansen, who died of a heart attack on a flight from Europe only recently.  He was much  younger than Hansen and I’ve always thought the circumstances of his death highly deserving of investigation.  What if the powers that be were as  evil as I’ve always suspected they might be?

Fortunately, the next day was to prove my fears totally unjustified, and I mention them here mainly to sow seeds.   If climate change advocates are to gain attention in the face of  deniers steady drumbeat against science,  I think they will have to recognize that the people they come up against aren’t always rational, and sometimes may be unscrupulous, to say he least.

So there you have it.  I’m both paranoid and over imaginative.  So sue me.

Wednesday

Used the wheelchair for the first time today.  It is quicker than the walker, although it takes me a long time to get into or out of, so I tend to try to make it through in whichever mode I’m already in when I encounter a problem.  Interestingly I’ve found backing over an obstacle, like a doorsill, lip, may sometimes be a method which works when confronting  a doorsill or something, but I remain hesitant about it because it seems that turning the chair over backwards  looks like a real hazard.

The first thing I noticed today was the rescheduling of Hansen for 12:30 today.  Dealing with the wheel chair is just something I’ll have to adjust to.  I will have to go from Moscone West, where the press room with its free breakfast is, to Moscone South, were Hansen is scheduled to speak.

Before leaving though, I learned; that, although we are in a definite low radiation phase of the sun, the  sun’s contribution to global warming is rather marginal, and should not  overwhelm the rest of the factors involved in global warming.    In fact, the continued buildup of greenhouse gases will all kick in when the sun returns to full radiance and hit us full force or harder at that time, which is expected to be in about eleven years; the ozone hole’s recovery since CFC’s were banned worldwide, some twenty-five years ago, is still uncertain, although it hasn’t gotten worse.  The scientists are thinking it may be shrinking, but expect it may not be a certainty until as late as 2070; and there is a distinct difference between scientific knowledge that should be considered “actionable” and that which is “mature.”  Mature scientific knowledge is that which will probably not be changed by gaining more data, such as the existence of climate change and its human origin.   But actionable means not only that the science is pretty well known, but that the consequences of inaction, given the science, are potentially severe.

Arriving early at the room for Hansen’s talk, I was able to use the disabled pass to get in early and find a good seat in the front row near the microphone that would be used for questions.  This was a coop!

After I was  all set up and about to take a nap, though, one of the staff approached me and asked me to wait outside so that Hansen could practice his presentation.  She agreed, though, to let me wait at the side entrance and to reserve the seat I was in.  More than fair, I thought.

The chap at the entrance, Kevan, was a good conversationalist, so I found the time well spent.  Amongst other things, I started the survey of non-AGU people and their knowledge of Hansen with him,who was the first to indicate he’d never heard  of Hansen.  Shortly a man came up and walked through the door Kevan was  assigned the task of preventing people from using (except specifically me).  Kevan disappeared into the room after him.  In a few moments they both reemerged, Kevan fired up about “dising” terminology the man had used about the guard and the role played by staff in general.  Apparently he had called them all “action figures” and thought them well below his own status as an audio-visual tech working for AGU.  After rather heated exchanges, Kevan brought in his supervisor and, after containing his anger admirably for some time, requested relief of his duties so he wouldn’t have to deal with the public while also ealing with adrenaline.

I was reminded of a former friend who was dentist and seemed to have a similar personality trait to the one demonstrated so clearly by the guy who thought his position somehow entitled him a superiority not unlike that so often assumed by royalty.  He apparently changed personality whenever he thought the person with whom he was dealing was from a “lower class.”  He instantly mutated into an asshole whenever dealing with a waiter or a waitress.  How un-American is that?

Anyway, being who I am, I immediately joined the new guy in banter.  Most importantly in that conversation was the revelation  that the AGU conference was being attended by 24,000 people.  No wonder this thing filled the entire Moscone center.  Only a few years ago the number was only in the 5000 range.

Hansen’s lecture started with an apology for missing yesterday.  My concern’s regarding  conspiracies had apparently reached him, for he assured us he was going to be around for a long time.  His excuse was nothing more than confusion on his part about scheduling,  As you’ll see later, I suspect that may have been accurate.  That my concerns had gotten to him is not something I’d anticipated.  I’m not used to the whole phenomenon of speaking directly to the president of an organization as large as the AGU.  This press pass thing is really great, but maybe  I’m going to have to adjust my mouth a little bit.

The talk was meant to address the topic of minimizing those effects of global warming which are already irreversable.  At the start he listed a few of those: ice sheet loss, elimination of species, extremes in weather, and sea level rise.

The last time temperature was on the average two degrees celsius higher, which is now unavoidable, was 15 to 20 million years ago, and it took geologic time to  reach those levels.  The most significant factor in the increase this time is mankind’s injection of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere, which has taken place in only the last two centuries.  But we can expect that Carbon dioxide to be there for a very long time since its normal residency in the atmosphere is very high, with twenty percent still there as long as 800 years later.  There are no comparable examples from the  Earth record.  Migrating and adaption are not possible for most species.

Monitoring global phenomena is made much easier by satellite observations.   For example, we  see that coral reefs are dimensioning by about 2% every year,and   can track ice sheets much more accurately than in the past.

Rising sea levels mean a very long period of instability of the shoreline.  I take that to mean repeated flooding events persisting for years.

The bottom line is that we can’t use all the remaining fossil fuels if we hope to  retain an Earfth resembling the one we have aways had.  But that much has been known since at least 1981.  Right now, fossil fuels seem very cheap because they are subsidized by government and pay nothing toward mitigating their negative impacts, but until that is changed, it will be very difficult to avoid this scenario.  For example, Kyoto didn’t even decrease rate of increase in emissions.  In addition, something will have to be done to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Hansen’s take on the best way to move beyond the current path toward total destruction is to institute a carbon tax on fossil fuels at the source.  He also advocates for the proceeds to go largely toward dividends payable directly to the people.

Hansen is very worried about the advent of Syngas, or synthetically created gas.  He also is dismissive of those who think non-renewables can solve our problems without our having to turn to nuclear energy.  He does not see any reason to think renewable energy can match France’s nuclear model: they now have 70% of their total energy budget provided  by nuclear energy, and this was achieved in around a decade.

He frankly cannot understand how vigorous the opposition to nuclear energy is, comparing “anti-nuke” to a religion.  He urged his audience to bring science to the debate.  By way of illustration, he told a story of how, in the 1950’s, China gave away coal in one of its provinces.  Later tests indicated life expectation had been reduced by 5%, yielding many millions of early deaths, something totally unmatched by the nuclear record. (I don’t know whether the post Fukashima disaster is included in this assessment.)  According to Hansen, the Argonne National Laboratory answered all safety objections years ago.  But people remain frightened.

One very active current endeavor in which he is engaged is a series of lawsuits he and the groups ourchildrenstrust.org and citzensclimatelobby.org have entered into trying to get court action against the  administration for not having exercised regulatory oversight of the oil and coal industries.  Rather than be involved directly in a number of legal issues, he deferred questions on these matters to a news conference after the talk, where the lawyer, Julia Olson, participating on the behalf of those trying to get court intervention would be present.

His only allusion to population came in the form of a quote whose exact words  I didn’t get down.  It went something like this:  Our parents did not know the danger of having children.  We can only pretend.

But he was going to hold a press conference!  I am acting as a member of the press!  Sweet!

Knowing it would be over by the time I got there if I awaited him responding to questions from the audience, I left as soon as the talk was over.

At the press conference, Hansen shared his concern that a change in ocean currents could be very dangerous.  In particular, he was concerned that the disintegration of the ice shelves in Antarctica might disrupt the normal course of the gulf stream, possibly leading to a chilling of the North Atlantic.  That might shut the gulf stream down entirely.

A controversial topic throughout the AGU meeting was whether scientists should become advocates.  Historically, scientists eschew what they call normative statements, as they fear destruction of their own objectivity.  But many now regard the evils of climate change so pressing that they must speak out, which is clearly advocation.

Hansen has long been in this camp.  He finds it onerous when government thinks of the scientists working in governmentally funded agencies as spokesmen/women for the administration, as opposed to “for the facts.”  The opinion of scientists ought to be impervious to political influence.

If anything, Canada, New Zealand, and Austalia, are worse,even, than the U.S. Considerably so, in fact.

When pressed on my favorite themes, namely that Climate Change might prove much worse than currently acknowledged, Hansen noted that hope was at least as important to keep elevated as is raising awareness of possible disaster.

The lady from the lawsuits was, I thought, too optimistic re. judicial relief.  I leave you to follow the resuls at their websites, given above.

Tired, I went back to the hotel and collapsed into bed, but not before missing an offramp and wandering around South S.F. for about an hour.

[Thursday]

Today I learned to appreciate this organization’s technological expertise and some of the privilege of having a press credential.  Several agencies coompete for hour-long slots to give press conferences.  Generally these are shorter presentations of the usual, but less high profiled, standard sessions.  Held right across he hall from the press room where we got breakfast for free Monday through Wednesday, these had a certain panache.

I attended two this morning.

The first was hosted by the IPCC, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, winner, along with Al Gore, a few years ago of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The first speaker, Thomas something, emphasized, as was common at this meeting, that there is no doubt that climate change is real and human caused. He further mentioned that our adaptation to it is now essential.

The next, a Dr. (they were all Ph.D.s at this meeting) Dennis Harcourt, spoke to
sea ice trends.   Loss is fastest in the Arctic.  The apparent hiatus in global warming that some observations seem to indicate, can easily be attributed to a reduction in the forcing due to the sun’s current minimal irradiance.

Extremes in weather are very complicated and difficult to anticipate or even enumerate.  The tropics have become more humid–but the implications of that are unclear.

Next a man with a heavy accent, Filipe or something, talked about CO2 persistence in the atmosphere and the implications of that.  Carbon Dioxide introduced to the air today will likely still be there in 2030 or later.

Next was another guy who was also difficult to follow because his English bore a heavy burden of non-native roots.  His name was something derived from Olive, but it ended with a upbeat “a” sound.  Anyway, he talked about aerosols and their dampening effect, which is apparently greater than expected, on climate change.

Clouds, on the other hand, are more complicated.  Low clouds, in particular, sometimes seem to contribute to Global Warming, and sometimes just the opposite.

Modeling, a widely used technique in modern climate change prediction, is more reliable when applied to the Arctic than the Antarctic

Geoengineering, the idea of trying to purposely change the global environment in ways that counter the effects of Climate Change, is being carefully looked into.  While the risks of such attempts are large, the inevitability of probably several degrees centigrade increase in global ambient temperature demands some kind of response.

In the next press conference, a team lead by Dr. Yehuda Bock spoke to new methods for disaster warnings being developed and tested in the Los Angeles area. Using GPS information, coordinated with meterological data, predictive information can be produced for flash fooding and, to some extent, earthquakes.

By using a little known fact that, under proper conditions, humidity can be gotten by GPS readings in real time in specific locales, the potential of flash flooding can be pretty reliably forecast.

In addition, through new GPS techniques, the strength of an earthquake can accurately be determined the instant a properly equipped seismic station detects the shaking.  That can give a short warning to sensitive facilities located at a greater distance from the epicenter and significant lead time to warn areas that might be affected by potential tsunami action.  This technology already existed when the tsunami engulfed Fukashima, but had not been adopted yet by seismologists.

For the next scheduled presentation, the room was already closed when I arrived due to over-crowding, so I attempted to get the live simulcast.  I failed, but moved to a room where it was being broadcast to see the end.  Since the session will be available on line I will view it in its entirety at my leisure and have a better report on it later.  The title of that talk was __________.

Thereupon I returned to pick up the Europa press conference.  As usual, this was a presentation of a team.  Europa is a moon of Jupiter. It is quite large–almost moon sized–and its surface is covered with cracks caused by large tidal forces from the influence of the mother planet.  It has no noticeable atmosphere.  There are very few craters, which would seem to indicate some form of global resurfacing goes on.  Current analysis seems to indicate there is an ocean of liquid water under the crust, which would mean more liquid water resides on Europa than on Earth.  Obviously, speculation abounds about the possibility of life being there too.

Analysis from the Earth based Hubble Telescope shows there may be columns reaching 200 km. of water vapor above the surface near the South Pole.  Water appears to be ejected in a form of geyser.  Some twenty minutes later the water falls back to the surface.  Unfortunately, there have only been 11 flybys, so our present knowledge is quite limited.

Clipper is the next likely mission that may show meaningful insight into the story of Europa, but it is an expensive project pending approval and, thus, a very speculative venture at this point and in this political climate.  The decision making process could certainly be improved upon.

Following this news conference, which ran longer than I  had anticipated, I hurried over to catch the end of a talk by Dr. David Grinspoon.  Grinspoon is someone I first noticed via an interview he gave at “Generation Anthropocene,” a podcast out of Stanford I highly recommend.  His talk was on “Terre Sapiens,” a term he proposes for the future reference to what he hopes will be the view back on what humans are becoming.  It means something akin to “wise Earthlings,” and is meant to suggest that the Anthropocene will be the start of a new epoch in which the planet itself may become the start of a new form of pseudo-immortal life form with mankind as a kind of brain.

Heady stuff, that.  Or maybe just science fiction.  Still, it’s thought provoking that these are all serious scientists that are going here.  Anyway, I managed to arrange a follow-up interview with him which is now in process via the magic of e-mail.

On Friday, the coffee didn’t even come out until around 11:00.  And the press room, together with its coat racks, closed down at 2:00.  Events continued until 6:00, but simulcasts were ended, with all broadcasts being only available on demand twenty-four hours after the presentations.  There is probably method to this madness, but I’ve yet to make sense of it.

I’ve been hearing a good deal about the poster sessions, so when another reporter offered to wheel me over to the hall in which they were displayed, I jumped at the chance.

The hall in which the posters were displayed was probably about the size of three football fields, maybe more.  What poster sessions are is a place where people summarize some research project they’ve been engaged in via a poster.

During a specified time the author is present to discuss the work with anyone who has an interest.  Every day the posters are changed and a new  group comes in to fill the  space.  Apparently, each poster is also given space in the “on demand” video channels following the conference.  Typical titles from the small arenas I looked at were:________

I expect to follow-up on these after the conference and be back to you with more information in future posts.

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