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AGU 2015: Takeaways from the largest earth and space meeting in the world.

Between December 14th-18th this year nearly 24,000 people descended on downtown San Francisco for the largest earth and space sciences meeting in the world. The American Geophysical Sciences annual meeting takes place every December in the Moscone Center, which provides nearly 2 million square feet of exhibit halls and meeting rooms to host this onslaught of scientists.

These nearly 35 football fields of floor space provide ample opportunity for scientists to present their work on everything from deep earth dynamics to deep space and everything in between. As ecologists the Biogeosciences, and Global Environmental Change sections are a big draw. Still, many biology and ecology themed posters and presentations are to be found in Ocean Science, Atmospheric Science and even Planetary Sciences, with presentations on astrobiology. Taking it all in is a challenge!

This year at AGU was highlighted by the announcement of a deep sea exploration XPrize. Dr. Peter H. Deamantis, CEO of the XPrize foundation, announced that the $7 million dollar prize will be used to spur mapping and exploration of the deepest ocean, with a $1 million dollar bonus provided by NOAA for teams capable of tracking a biological or chemical signal to it’s source. This last piece is particularly of interest to ecologists, as the ecology of the deep sea is not well understood.

Unfortunately, this biochemical “sniffing” is not likely to be in the form of eDNA or other technologies focused on discovery of individual taxa in the deep ocean, according to Richard Spinrad, the Xprize NOAA representative. Instead, the important ecological uses of this prize will likely focus on determining important nutrient sources in the deep sea such as whale falls or vent communities.

In step with this announcement there were teams presenting work on already completed autonomous robots able to explore the deep ocean. One is the Icefin group from Georgia Tech. This modular, autonomous robot was built to explore the biology under ocean ice sheets, with an eye on exploring for extra-terrestrial life on Europa. While not build with the XPrize in mind, Matt Meister who helped design and test Icefin as an undergraduate project, says the vehicle already contains many of the functions necessary for the Xprize initial requirements, with its unique ability to perform underwater exploration usually dedicated to much larger, manned, vehicles.

Another major announcement from AGU 2015 was the annual Arctic Report Card, a peer reviewed announcement from over 70 worldwide scientists on the state of the artic. Jeff Atkins covered the Arctic Report Card for this blog when it was announced at AGU. This years report card highlighted rising temperature and decreasing sea ice, affects to walrus populations due to these changes, and continuing melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, had a much-publicized chat with AGU president Margaret Leinen during the President’s Forum which filled the hall to capacity and drove many would-be attendees to watch the live-stream in the exhibit hall instead.

Throughout the week though, the focus was on science. Posters and presentations related to ecology abounded and we did our best to live-tweet interesting forums and poster results. These included interesting microbial shifts in “rotten” sea ice, fast melting ice that is more prevelant in warmer arctic waters,

as well as interesting school projects from high school students looking at methane production from animal waste,

and the visually stunning presentations at the NASA booth in the exhibit hall.

Some symposium were more introspective, including the well attended “Reticent Researchers: Are we failing humanity!” This symposium and town hall style discussion brought together multiple science researchers with multiple views of how best to communicate science, and especially climate science, to the public.

The panel included Dr. Naomi Oreskas who implored researchers not to be shy in getting the word out about climate change in their subject areas.

Dr. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, who has worked with the Catholic Church on climate change, cited the extreme gap between energy-poor and energy-rich populations and the need to have climate change and it’s moral implications discussed in churches, mosques, synagogues and temples worldwide, an interesting point that is rarely made in scientific meetings. Our recent post on religious attitudes to climate change fit well with his points

In what was perhaps the most controversial moment of AGU the town hall was brought to stunned silence, followed by a large round of applause, when a Harvard student asked how such intense discussion of the moral obligation to report climate change could coexist with the fact that AGU maintains Exxon as a major sponsor.

And, as with all scientific meetings, it wasn’t all serious and scientific. AGU attendees were given the chance to see a pre-screening of the new Star Wars movie a day ahead of the public and R2-D2, the lovable droid from the movies, was also seen patrolling the exhibit hall and interacting with attendees in bleeps and bloops.

AGU 2015 was a torrent of new scientific information. It is both one of the most interesting and overwhelming conferences around. Although it takes a day or two after the conference has ended to process all the information, I would recommend any ecologist to attend or present. This is true especially if climate change or large-scale ecological trends are something that interest you. I’m looking forward to AGU 2016.


The featured image for this post is courtesy of sikeri from Wikimedia Commons.

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