Impressions from the European Geophysical Union conference 2008

Vienna Last week, the European Geophysical Union held its annual general assembly, with thousands of geophysicists converging on the city of Vienna, Austria. It was time to take the pulse of the geophysical community.

When registering at the conference, we got a packet called ‘Planet Earth; Directions for Use’. As far as I know, this is a new feature apparently offered by the EGU. The box says ‘EGU cares…’ and it contains 4 sheets: Biosphere, Hydrosphere, Litho- and Pedosphere, and the Atmosphere. The Biosphere sheet is concerned about the biodiversity, the hydropshere discusses water shortage and loss of marshland issues, the litho- & pedosphere mentions the fact that fossil fuels are finite and soil erosion, and the atmosphere discusses AGW.

Of course this is a gimmick, and perhaps it is even aimed at the wrong target group. These issues are more or less taken as given by the majority of the EGU community by now, it seems. It’s more pressing, however, that the rest of the world population understand the problems.

Actually, it was refreshing arriving at the harbor of sanity in the EGU meeting, after the the insane climate-change debate circus in Norway at the moment – lead by a number of academics who start to look more and more like crack pots, and a right-wing populist political party taking after Inhofe.

Vienna conference centerWhat were the highlights? It’s impossible to cover everything, and I only sampled some talks which are most relevant to my own work. But one important talk was about setting the global climate models’ initial state (ocean) to describe the current climate. The intention was to capture subsequent slow natural variations (decadal variation) associated with the thermohaline circulation (THC, not to be confused with other meanings according to a recent article in Eos: VOLUME 89 NUMBER 11 11 March 2008).

Apparently, if the global climate model is initialized with the current state, then the global mean temperature may not rise much over the next decade or so, and then suddenly bounce up and converge with the current scenarios. But some critiques argue that forcing models to have a prescribed state, will trow them off balance, and that the model will try to recover its balance for the next few model years.

Another presentation discussed the possibility for slow climatic variations to be predicted 10 years in advance (potential decadal predictability), and concluded that there is a potential for over the North Atlantic regions – associated with the THC. But an increasing AGW may destroy this possibility, as the predictability reduces when the world gets warmer.

There are some interesting and newish data coming of age: radio occultation. This involves measuring the bending of GPS signal through the atmospheric limb, as measured between different satellites. The atmospheric temperature and humidity affect radio signals refractive index. But there is only short data series (~10 years), but so far the temperature trends are consistent with the models for similar intervals. But these are independent to the satellite MSU data, and do not suffer in the same way from differences between satellite instruments, etc.

My personal favourite this time was a talk on ‘recurrence based transition analysis’. The presentation was subtly slick and so nicely executed that it can only be done on a Mac. The talk was very clear, no excess number of words, and to the point.

There were many good talks, but some common mistakes. Well, at least I’m a bit slow when having attended a few dozen presentations, so presenters speaking fast or too crowded Powerpoint slides risk losing me. There is supposed to be a golden rule called ‘Seven by seven’: no more than seven bullet points, consisting of no more than 7 words! And one should speak slowly and repeat the important points.

So what did people talk about? What was ‘The buzz-word’? There was no obvious paradigm shift, and I didn’t catch one single theme that was the vogue of the day, but there were some issues that kept popping up: decadal predictability, cryosphere and the polar regions, model ensembles and probabilities, regional modelling and extremes.

What I find striking with such monster conferences is the sheer scale of diversity in terms of geo-subjects that people study. There were rows upon rows of posters in several large rooms, in addition to the talks.

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