RealClimate logo

AGU Hangover

Filed under: — gavin @ 24 December 2006

It turns out that there were almost 14,000 attendees at AGU last week, which apparently makes it the largest Earth Science meeting ever held. To be sure, not all of that is climate related – there was lots of seismology, planetary and more theoretical/small-scale stuff, but a lot of it was. At most times there were at least half a dozen sessions that I would have been interested to attend – and they were often discussing overlapping themes.

It used to be that one could go to a meeting like this and get a wide overview of the work being done much more efficiently (and speedily) than reading the journals. However, that is clearly no longer true. And of course, we can’t keep up with all the relevant journal articies in the wider field either, and so how do scientists manage?

Basically, it’s tough! Everyone in the field generally decides that there are some technical areas that aren’t worth (for them) getting too deep into, and so they tend to ignore the technical literature on that topic. For myself, I draw the line at carbon isotope studies and anything older than the last glacial period in paleoclimate (with a couple of exceptions). Review papers and high profile articles are useful and read more often, but even they can be too technical if they’re not right in your field. But, given how multi-disciplinary climate science is, there are always going to be technical issues outside your field that you are going to need to know more about.

To deal with that, most sucessful scientists develop networks of ‘trusted’ sources – people you know and get along with, but who are specialists in different areas (dynamics, radiation, land surfaces, aerosols, deep time paleo etc.) and who you can just call up and ask for the bottom line. They can point you directly to the key paper related to your question or give you the unofficial ‘buzz’ about some new high profile paper. You don’t expect to agree with them all the time – we scientists are quite naturally contrarian (in a good way!) – but this is generally an efficient short cut to understanding what the most serious/interesting issues are.

It is, of course, at meetings like AGU that these networks become established and are nutured, and which is why, despite the difficulties, people come back year after year (though personally, I only go every few years). At this year’s meeting we got a lot of feedback about RealClimate, and a surprisingly common theme was the extent to which we are becoming part of these networks. That is both gratifying and slightly worrying – such responsibility!

However, there are dangers in having everyone tuned in to the same ‘network’ – it can lead to a certain rigidity in what is being thought important. As an illustration, when going between meetings in Europe and the US, you tend to see that ‘issues’ and ‘buzz’ are often completely distinct on either side of the Atlantic – a function of mostly non-intersecting networks. Fortunately, there are frequent contacts across the divide which leads to substantial cross-fertilization of ideas. This is something we’d like to do more to reflect and guest contributions are a big help there. So if there are any issues you scientist types want to get off your chests, feel free to send your pieces and ideas along. Thanks for all the support.

27 Responses to “AGU Hangover”

  1. 1
    meher engineer says:

    I agree with it being tough. Just think though, it will get tougher now that Realclimate is thought “responsible!” So congratulations also to its organisers and major contributors for getting it there. But that means trying harder to keep from being yet another self absorbed sect, and therefore not scientific. Finally, isn’t the multi disciplinary nature of climate science its chief attraction, apart form the solidly real world aspect of it. It certainly looks that way to this physicist.

  2. 2
    Royce Fontenot says:

    I totally agree it is getting harder and harder to keep up with all that is going on with new research. I tend to read mostly abstracts these days in my areas of interest (operational met/hydromet & ag/hydro climate), then pick and choose accordingly which papers to spend time on. For the rest of the climate field, I pretty much use RealClimate as sort of a “current interest” digest. Working operational weather and with everything that goes with it (shiftwork, training, other assigned duties)…I find my time is very limited and I am finding it very easy to fall behind.

    It would almost be worth having a “Reader’s Digest” type bi-monthly journal that gave extended abstracts of recent papers and such (one or two paragraphs). There are some out there for other fields but one more climate-centric would be nice, divided up by sub-specialty. Oh well…I’ll just keep skimming the abstracts!

    Keep up the good work RC!

  3. 3

    Don’t the journals Science and Nature serve all these functions? Am I wrong, or do nearly all scientists keep up with what these journals publish? By choosing to publish certain papers, the editors emphasize the papers’ importance. And through their “news” and “comments” sections they can bring in expert discussion of these papers, and also draw attention to significant papers published in other journals. Thus the editorial policies of these two journals, whether appropriate or (as some critics have claimed) biased, will surely have an effect on the many scientists who lack connection with the network relevant to a particular topic, as well as science journalists. If so, then RealClimate is just adding one more voice.

    [Response: Hi Spencer, Ideally this would be the case, but the kinds of papers Science and Nature carry (lots of paleo, very little dynamics), their very concise formats, and their need for ‘broad interest’ in a paper means that they can’t serve this function broadly enough. And if you listen closely to the ‘buzz’, it is often very critical of choices made by the two magazines. It is the ‘post-peer review’ peer review if you like. Nature is talking about instituting a more formal way of post-publication comment and it will be interesting to see how that works out. My guess is it won’t do very well – because it is one thing to express your gut instinct about a paper over a beer at AGU, it’s quite another to put those thoughts down in writing for perpituity. I think RC is serving as a halfway step – not quite as visceral as a bar conversation, but still much more informal than other channels. There is a greater need for that I think. – gavin]

  4. 4
    Rod B. says:

    It strikes me that multi-discipline, a strong attraction as meher engineer states (#1), also feeds the extreme complexity of climate science and therefore, prima facie, uncertainty and less than perfect modeling. I think the organizers and most contributors, while showing some sectarian bias, do a very responsible job in searching for and describing the truth in science — this essay being a good example of informative insightful reporting. And I am a skeptic of the current global warming postulate. [btw, I accept ‘skeptic’ but totally reject the current favored ad hominem for guys like me — deniers or the more pedantic denialists; but, oh! woe! I probably have to accept Gore’s stupid ad hominem — outliers, only because I’m not “in the system.”]

    “Science” and “Nature” are outstanding journals, but there are no gurus, let alone nirvanic gurus. Relying on them solely to get around the difficult networking problem would be myopic in the extreme.

  5. 5
    Pat Neuman says:

    Speaking of responsibility in talking about climate science,

    Dr. Heidi Cullen of The Weather Channel made a good point in her recent blog entry, that: “meteorologists have a responsibility to truly educate themselves on the science of global warming.”

    I seeded the link to and included additional commentary on responsibilities of public servants, at:

    Excerpt from The Weather Channel article on
    “Junk Controversy NOT Junk Science…”

    … ” If a meteorologist has an AMS Seal of Approval, which is used to
    confer legitimacy to TV meteorologists, then meteorologists have a
    responsibility to truly educate themselves on the science of global
    warming. (One good resource if you don’t have a lot of time is the Pew
    Center’s Climate Change 101.)

    Meteorologists are among the few people trained in the sciences who
    are permitted regular access to our living rooms. And in that sense,
    they owe it to their audience to distinguish between solid,
    peer-reviewed science and junk political controversy. If a
    meteorologist can’t speak to the fundamental science of climate
    change, then maybe the AMS shouldn’t give them a Seal of Approval.
    Clearly, the AMS doesn’t agree that global warming can be blamed on
    cyclical weather patterns. It’s like allowing a meteorologist to go
    on-air and say that hurricanes rotate clockwise and tsunamis are
    caused by the weather. It’s not a political statement…it’s just an
    incorrect statement.

    I agree with every meteorologist who says the topic of global warming
    has gotten too political. But that’s why talking about the science is
    so important!”

  6. 6
    Chuck Booth says:

    Re #3,#4

    I find the “news” articles in Science (e.g, Perspectives; News of the Week) to be useful in gaining an overview of topics outside my field of expertise. But, the research articles (Reviews; Reports) are often so technical (and tersely written) that it is nearly impossible for someone outside the field to read them, let alone gain much insight or critically evaluate them(this is especially true of articles on molecular biology, which tend to dominate most issues, and I’m a biologist with some knowledge of molecular biology!). A few years ago, Science published a letter-to-the-editor criticizing the journal for publishing too many articles that are intelligible only to specialists, but I don’t see that anything has changed. If the reviewers and editors just paid more attention to the quality of writing, it would be an improvement.

  7. 7
    Lance Olsen says:

    My own first inclination is to say “Viva la difficulty” and “Hail to the technical specialists.”

    Reality has always been a difficult thing to grasp. William James pegged it fairly well when he said that the search for reality is a series of successive approximations. More recently, Spencer Weart described this process very well in his analysis of rapid climate change.

    And I’d be lost without the specialists who delve into realities where my own competence is zip. I came to species-atmosphere relations from psychology, which has its own array of specialists and lexicons, and in which my interests turned toward the two-way street of interactions between natural systems and human behavior. Then, one day in the 1970s a colleague sent me a copy o f A.P.Krueger’s Science article on the biomedical impact of atmospheric ionization, which grabbed our attention because that process affects serotonin, a potent neurotransmitter.

    If not for specialists like Al Krueger, and a sharp-eyed colleague who rec ognized something worth pondering, I’d have been ignorant about an intriguing influence on the human brain and nervous system. And I may never have had my attention turned to the atmospheric sciences as decisively as it got turned back then.

    Back then, my ignorance was rushed to the fore because I’m certainly no physicist, and physics is essential to grasping the dynamics of the small air particles. Now, some three decades later, I’m still ignorant. Only now my ignorance has expanded to include much more of reality than just the ionization of small air particles.

    As time has gone by, I’ve grown accustomed to my perpetual ignorance, the constant need to stretch m y thinking as far into related specialties as I can stretch it on any given day, and the constant looming of uncertainty. Yup, darn right, keeping up is ha rd. Viva la difficulty. l

  8. 8
    Mitch Golden says:

    Once upon a time I was a theoretical physicist. I was always jealous of scientists in “smaller” fields, such as climate science, who could keep track of most things going on in their discipline. That was once possible in the “golden age” of physics. Every living physicist would give his or her left arm to simply be *at* the famous Solvay conference of 1927. These people were all working on different things, but they all knew what each other was doing.

    It is interesting to note that the numbers of papers published in the Physical Review (just to name one journal) exploded after WWII. It split from one journal (Phys. Rev.) to 5 (Phys. Rev. A – Phys. Rev E).

    Climate Science is growing up I guess, but as you say, it might lose some intimacy as well.

  9. 9
    Alan says:

    The more you learn the less you know and it’s not confined to scientists, it’s simply an artifact of a curious mind. Science as a method is the best thing we have for mitigating the groupthink problem, ie: it’s the toughest standard known to man.

  10. 10

    Spencer should count the number of specialist editors on the Nature Masthead. Like Science, it long ago passed beyond the limit of universal intellegibility – individual papers are perfectly clear to post docs in the areas they address, but there are scarcely hours enough in a week for any individual- including Nature’s
    editors themselve , to apply themselves to seriously reading each issue of both cover to cover.

    The abstracts are ,de facto, the sort of Reader’s Digest Gavin longs for , but proposing that science be more compactly expressed is not the same as endowing authors with the necessary powers of concision. It would be great if everyone could write abstracts to flagship journal standards , but then it would be nice if the average TV viewer could fill Ted Koppell’s shoes.

  11. 11
    truffula says:

    Just to bring it back to AGU, my strategy of late has been to use the meeting as a big social event. It used to be that my discipline lasted a day and a half, which was just about right at AGU’s breakneck pace. I can’t absorb a full week’s worth of science launched out at me like buckshot. These days, it’s the conversations I have in the hallways, in the chance meetings on street corners outside the convention center, and over meals that mean the most to me.

    Also, I have started picking a few sessions on topics about which I know very little and attending them instead of sessions in my own discipline. This is a gamble, sometimes the technical jargon overwhelms me but sometimes I learn a lot.

    For real learning from my peers, I go to smaller meetings.

  12. 12
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    It’s important that geologists of all specialties get together. I was also thinking it might be good if there were specifically climate change conferences where scientists (and perhaps humanities scholars) from all different fields, including the physical and social sciences could get together. Even economists would be welcome, as long as some “green” economists (who go beyond neoclassical theory) would also come.

    Lovelock made an important point in REVENGE OF GAIA regarding how specialization has a big down side (the right hand knows nothing about the left hand), and how we also need synthesis or a holistic view.

  13. 13
    Warren Wiscombe says:

    How would you change the AGU meeting, if you could play God with it? This is the question I, as President of the AGU Atmospheric Sciences Section, and my ExecComm are wrestling with right now. We have every shade of opinion from “leave it alone” to “apply limits to growth”. Right now, the meeting has purposely adopted the character of a flea market, where anyone can come and set up their stall. In AGU terms, this means no abstract is refused. Oral presentation may be refused, but that’s all. This led to strong growth in AGU’s earlier years, which was a Good Thing. Is it still a Good Thing, or do we need at least gentle limits to growth? Let me know directly as I spend little time reading blogs (just never got into it, there was always so much other unread stuff).

  14. 14
    Paul Jackson says:

    Sequestration of CO2 in mines and in strata should allow for the two way transfer of CO2 to and from storage. This allows a mechanism for controlling ice ages. CO2 sequestration carries the risk that too much of our precious oxygen may go into the earth along with it. Some method of regulating O2 should also be used.The O2/CO2 balance and effects on life through the ages is discussed in “In Thin Air” by Peter D. Ward. His theory is that 4 of the 5 mass extinctions (excluding the Creatateous extinction) were caused by H2S burps from the sea when aerobic bacteria disappeared from the surface layers due to decreased oxygen soluability with high sea temperatures. The anerobic bacteria populated the sea up to the surface, permitting the H2S to be released. This may be a topic you have previously discussed. I would appreciate some feedback.

  15. 15
    Sean Davis says:

    There are some interesting points about AGU here. As an aspiring atmospheric scientist myself, I would reiterate some of the previous comments that AGU meetings are as much a(n important) social event as they are a place to learn the “fresh off the press” and as-yet-unpublished results. Complimentary to this, AGU serves as a great networking tool for young scientists to associate faces with names, and forge new networks of potential collaborators (and employers!).
    As with others, I share a general sense that AGU is a little too overwhelming at times. …But in response to Warren’s comment (13), I am at a loss for constructive suggestions. I admire AGU’s desire to have an open access policy to the meeting, but also recognize that this results in a bit of ‘bloat’ at the meeting. One thing that I have wondered in the past is if AGU has ever considered having just an Atmospheric Sciences section meeting or somehow breaking up the AGU fall meeting into different disciplines that meet in totally different cities or at different times? I can see obvious problems of where to make that demarcation, as well as losing the broadness and opportunity to expand ones horizons. …So I guess I don’t really have any great suggestions, but wonder what others think about ths possibility of more focused meetings (like an AGU atmospheric science meeting), or whether or not that would still be too overwhelming. What if AGU had a big fall meeting every year, and then each section had a meeting in the spring/summer that was totally separate from one another?

  16. 16
    Gavin says:

    The big underlying problem is the ‘to those that have shall be given’ syndrome. By that I mean that Spring AGU is usually undersubscribed (though the Nice, Montreal and forthcoming Acapulco meetings were/will be exceptions), while Fall is increasingly over-subscribed. But everyone wants to go to the meeting where the interesting stuff will be presented and the interesting people will be, so less people go to Baltimore and more go to San Francisco, making the imbalance worse.

    I don’t have any obvious solutions either. You could split off the non-climate bits to make the meeting a little more manageable (Atmos Sci on it’s own would be too restrictive), but then there would still be huge numbers of overlapping sessions. You could extend the meeting by a couple of days, but everyone’s exhausted after 3 days in any case. You could restrict the number of allowed sessions – organisers don’t like be forced to merge, but there was a lot of overlap that could have been usefully consolidated. That implies a greater percentage of posters and that might reduce submissions, though hopefully not attendance. Having similar sessions in both MCS and MCW was not a good idea though – transit time was too long….

  17. 17
    Jamie Cate says:

    International meetings present a dilemma to scientists who want to stay at the forefront of their respective fields. These meetings are great for catching up with colleagues, but meetings fly in nearly everyone who attends. We all know that flying is an extremely efficient means for emitting greenhouse gases. So, what do we do? Quit flying to so many meetings? Do a better job with videoconferencing? It’s hard to stay networked if one just stays at home.

    It’d be interesting to know how many flights the average science professor makes per year to attend meetings or university lectures. What would it take to reduce this average by a significant amount (80%?), without destroying our ability to meet with colleagues and further our science? Big meetings could be a part of the solution, if one could find ways to make them less impersonal.

  18. 18
    Pat Neuman says:

    Better to eliminate the face to face meetings between scientists than to add to the global warming problem. Scientists, teachers and everyone involved in government should be leaders in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

  19. 19
    Joseph O'Sullivan says:

    For me, a nonscientist who is interested in the science, one of RealClimate’s great values is that it allows access to the network of scientists. It’s more accessible than scientific journals, but its much more informative than the popular press. Realclimate provides good information and does it without the spin of political advocacy sites.

    As for the overwhelming amount of papers coming out it would be great to see a news service that followed the scientific press and posted on line short descriptions of relevant papers. Something like the Environmental News Service which does this for popular press articles about environmental stories.

    This would allow someone to quickly overview recently published papers and zero in on ones that seemed interesting. But just keeping up with the scientific press would probably be a full time job!

    I will second Gavin’s call for scientist types to contribute. Maybe an ecologist type can submit a post on the ecological effects of AGW.

  20. 20
    Curt Schroeder says:

    A partial solution to conference “overload” would be to video record each presentation and then post the video online, to be viewed later at their leisure by those who were unable to attend the face-to-face session. In addition, by tagging these videos with appropriate metatags, a scientist could do a search for relevant videos (presentations) to view. This process is totally within current technical and economic capabilities and can be used by those who choose to use it. Just another tool, but a powerful one. – Curt

  21. 21
    Adrianne M says:

    Re #18: or providers of information about the climate change issue. I am trying to encourrage people to read about the issue, so we won’t be in the situation where a few people care about climate change and the others don’t even mind the problem and consider it is some sort of a cycle that the climate is going through. I am more and more convinced that we are the ones to blame for the current global warming and, actually, for the climate changes in the past 150. To see more on what I mean, I invite you to read on parts of the ‘Booklet on Naval War changes Climate’, recenlty written by dr. Arnd Bernaerts.

  22. 22
    Dan J says:

    Re: 20 Comment by Curt Schroeder, put AGU videos on-line./
    That would be great! Even just the powerpoint and summaries would be helpful, but some video would get a lot of use. Not everyone can attend, and (need I bring it up here) should everyone attend, given the carbon costs of 14,000 + people flying or driving in?

  23. 23
    Hank Roberts says:

    Has anyone compared oil spill volume with natural petroleum seeps? Locally spills are far more extreme — but averaged globally, have oil spills multiplied the effect of natural seeps as Bernaerts seems to assume? I’d like to see numbers to support his claims (there at his site, not here, please).

  24. 24
    Adrianne M says:

    For the lost of 4â??221 tankers over 1600 tons between December 1941 and May 1944, see Bernaertsâ?? book: Climate Change & Naval War, Trafford/Canada, 2005, p. 220 (available: ) with the reference: Slader, John; â??The Fourth Serviceâ?? â?? Merchantmen at war 1939-45â??, Dorset, 1995, p. 317.

  25. 25
    Hank Roberts says:

    OK, here are some very rough (order of magnitude) estimates if you want to compare (from a quick Google search) if you want to do the math. Looks like the total volume of oil lost during WW-II was relatively small. You may find better estimates if you look.

    Abstract Recent global estimates of crude-oil seepage rates suggest that about 47% of crude oil currently entering the marine environment is from natural seeps, whereas 53% results from leaks and spills during the extraction, transportation, refining, storage, and utilization of petroleum. The amount of natural crude-oil seepage is currently estimated to be 600,000 metric tons per year, with a range of uncertainty of 200,000 to 2,000,000 metric tons per year. Thus, natural oil seeps may be the single most important source of oil that enters the ocean, exceeding each of the various sources of crude oil that enters the ocean through its exploitation by humankind.

    You may want to look for a paper not coauthored by someone at Chevron, for comparisons.

  26. 26
    Sean Davis says:

    Curt, #20. Great idea! Even on the days that I was trying really hard, it was impossible not to miss some talks I wanted to see at AGU!!! (And agreed with Gavin that splitting between MCS and MCW was a BAD idea!) To extend that even further, how cool would it be if we could have access to pdf’s of people’s posters from the meeting!?!

    Actually, this brings up some interesting points about protection of intellectual property and sharing of academic information that I’ve struggled with. There are some obvious issues about posting posters/talks that would come up related to the fact that people often present new info that has yet to be published. …If others had access to that, I could see problems arising, or presenters “holding back” interesting results. …This is also an issue I have struggled with on my blog. …I have wanted to post new results that I am working on, but despite my desire for academic openness and sharing, I have felt somewhat gaurded in doing so. …The question for us scientists is, how do we balance such issues, whether it is presentations at a meeting or thoughts/works in progress that we might share via the internet or email?

  27. 27
    JOhn says:

    Surely, one can’t read through the entire research. Having said that the amount of research that is being produced these days is enormouse in almost every field of natural, social and mathematical sciences. And to get your eyes on the write paper, the least you can do is to read the abstract carefully and it becomes no longer tough to know what actually has been addressed in the entire research.