5 things you wouldn’t expect to find at a geology conference

One of the things that I realised whilst at EGU last week was how broad the subject of geology actually is and how we don’t always appreciate the breadth of our subject. Some of this obviously come from the influence of interdisciplinary studies like my own, but some it comes from the unique and innovative ways that geoscientists are attempting to broaden our understanding of the planet. To highlight this I have picked out 5 things you wouldn’t expect to see at a geology conference – some more than others.

1- Astronaut photographs

Automatic Georeferencing of Astronaut Auroral Photography: Providing a New Dataset for Space Physics‘ from Multi-scale Plasma Processes in the Earth’s Environment session (ST2.2) – using data from recent space missions to advance our understanding of space physics.

Recently, the work of astronaut Commander Hadfield brought the activities of the people who get strapped to a rocket and propelled beyond our atmosphere to learn more about our planet back into the public eye. But although the images they produce are beautiful, inspiring and humbling all at the same time, they are often not very useful because there is no way for scientists to tell the scale of the image or where exactly it was taken. The work of Reichart, Walsh and Taylor addresses this problem by using ‘starfield recognition software‘ to calculate the height and location of the images. Now I don’t know about you, but there is something so romantic sounding about starfield recognition software. It makes me think that the software we so often associate with catching criminals can actually be used for something uplifting and will, once fully developed, improve our understanding of how the Auroras (both Australis and Borealis) work.

2- Willow tree root growth patterns

Root Growth Studies of Willow Cuttings using Rhisoboxes‘ from How Vegetation Influences Soil Erosion and Slope Stability: Monitoring and Modelling Eco-hydrological and Geo-mechanical Factors session (SSS2.10/BG9.7/GM4.8/HS8.3.9/NH3.9) – the relationship between vegetation and how soil behaves, especially focussing on land restoration projects and management plans.

When you think of geology, willow is probably not the first thing that springs to mind. However, when you think about landslides – which are most definitely geological – the presence, absence or behaviour of plants is very important. In Central Asia (amongst other places) willow is vital in facilitating the colonisation of other tree species in forests that help protect the soil from erosion. This study, although it seems like it belongs in a botany (or at least biology) conference is actually examining the material necessary to mitigate the effects of erosion, which can lead to lots of other geological problems.

3- Fluid dynamics of cars

A Preliminary Numerical Model on the Incipient Motion Conditions of Flooded Vehicles‘ from Flood Risk and Uncertainty session (NH1.6) – predicting current and future flood risk using state of the art flood risk assessment methodologies.

This had to be one of my favourite posters – mostly due to the obvious/unexpected dichotomy of the contents. If you picture a flood, what do you see? Rushing muddy brown water tearing away at the countryside, carrying the odd tree? Perhaps. But more and more often nowadays floods are affecting our urban areas, and the thing the floodwater is likely to be dragging is a car not a tree. This work by Arrighi, Castelli and Oumeraci takes a closer look at how vehicles are affected by flood water and how they affect the flow themselves. It’s also a sobering look at how easy it is to loose control of a vehicle in a flood and explains why most studies identify the greatest cause of deaths from drowning in a flood to be a car.

4- Coffee residue

Biochar from Coffee Residues: A New Promising Sorbent‘ from Novel Sorbent Materials for Environmental Remediation session (SSS9.8) – the use of sorbent materials (a material that can collect molecules of another substance) for environmental applications.

If the conference last week was attended by over 12,000 delegates, how many cups of coffee were drunk do you think (added to the fact that it was nigh on impossible to get a good cup of tea)? Now imagine you could take the dregs of all that coffee and do something useful with it! Well that is precisely what Fotopoulou, Karapanagioti and Manariotis were exploring- how to use coffee residues to make biochar. Biochar is a carbon-rich substance that is added to soils in order to sequester carbon, improve the quality (fertility) of the soil and assist in environmental remediation. Who knew an old cup of coffee could be so useful?!

5- Wind patterns in the Pacific

Origin of Wind Events in the Equatorial Pacific‘ from ENSO: Dynamics, Predictability and Modelling session (NP2.1) – ENSO stands for the El Niño Southern Oscillation and includes all studies of El Niño and La Niña.

So wind may not be that disconnected from geology – but wind patterns? Over water? Yes at a geology conference a geoscientist’s awareness of the processes that shape our planet extends even to the climate. Which is not all that surprising really when you consider that one of the biggest issues and areas of study that geologists deal with nowadays is climate change.

These are only the posters that I came across and thought interesting during the conference – I’m sure there were many many more! Did you see any examples of a poster or a presentation that you wouldn’t expect to see at a geology conference?!

EGU 2014 Day 2 – when moderators go wild, policy and earthquakes

Today was a loooooooooong day! You know that feeling when you are sat in a presentation and the speaker is on slide 14 of 27 and ran out of time 5 minutes ago? Well image how much worse it is when the person rambling, prevaricating and generally being annoying is the one who is supposed to be keeping order?! This was my experience today – of a moderator gone wild!! It was really frustrating!!!!

Anyway, I arrived in the morning for my first session, which was supposed to start at 8.30am, but the first talk was cancelled so it actually got going at 8.45 (oh the luxury!).

This was the session on Geoethics and Geoeducation (EOS1) and included presentations on Fukushima, nano technology and Antarctic lake exploration. The presenters weren’t pulling their punches about the failings of those in and associated with the geoscience community in terms of ethical behaviour, but by far the most outspoken present was Tokio Oshka from Japan. He implied that the accident at Fukushima, was actually caused by a lack of corporate responsibility on the part of the company, which didn’t have any capacity for negative feedback, in order to improve safety at the site and that the government was complicit because it held shares in the company. The presentation was conducted with great passion and it certainly made me think more about the ethical implications of a government apparently being so (financially) closely linked to a company.


But Tokio Oshka was not the only vociferous speaker – the moderator for the session at one point launched into an accusation that the Ethics, education and communication sides of EGU were ‘discriminated against’ mostly because the partner poster session to this mornings ovals was at the same time, so many people who would have normally gone to both, could not. And I can kind of see his point – this year the Education and Outreach symposia has a much higher profile than the subject in previous years, but it is still very much at the edges of the conference. Perhaps it is because ethics, education and communication does not have a ‘division’ within EGU to protect its’s interests in the same way as the other groups do, though the team of staff who organised the Symposium are just as talented and dedicated as those in the divisions.


The second session I attended was EG1 The Role of Geoscientists in Public Policy – a panel discussion about the state of geoscience policy in Europe and the world. The Panel consisted of:

Lydia Harriss, Scientific Advisor in the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST)
Pascale Ehrenfreund, Research Professor of Space Policy and International Affairs, The George Washington University, Washinton D.C. and President of the Austrian Science Fund
Gunter Bloschl, President of the European Geosciences Union
Reinhard Huttl, Scientific Director of the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, Potsdam
Luca Demicheli, Secretary General of EuroGeoSurveys – the Geological Surveys of Europe
Iain Stewart, Professor of Geoscience Communication at Plymouth and my supervisor (very important that!)

The panel discussed a wide range of ideas relating to policy, including; science-politics dialogue, the differences in different countries, interdisciplinarity, permanence of geoscience in the public realm (not just after a disaster), open access, training future generations and why scientists are reluctant to make statememts. Two particularly interesting questions to me were, are we overlooking local and regional government in favour of national and international, and how does scientific thinking affect our ability to communicate? To be honest I felt that both questions were rather dismissed – the first by saying that national and international governance informs local and regional decisions, but I think that is simplifying local political concerns. In my recent work I have been interviewing village residents in the south west and I have found that local politics is far more important to most people I have spoken to than national. The second question was approached as being a good idea, and the value of interdisciplinarity was raised (again), but the panellist seemed to quickly return to the bastion of old science.

Still it was an interesting session.


My afternoon was a bit spotty – I sat in on a couple of presentations about Thermal and Mechanical Processes and Energy Storage in Porous and Fractured Aquifers (HS 8.2.5), but ran away when the equations started to fill the whole screen, though I did learn that the amount of shearing in marbles does appear to improve their thermal conductivity. I also attended Biochar and Organic Waste in Soils (SSS6.5) on the recommendation of @EuroGeosciences and listened to a talk on the Economic feasibility of biochar to soils in temperate climate regions by Gerhard Soja. This was interesting because I didn’t really know anything about biochar before – so just as was suggested at the beginning of the conference, I tried something new!


I also attended the Citizen Empowered Science and Crowdsourcing in Geosciences session (ESSI1/EOS6) and spoke to Luca D’Auria about his poster on Real-time mapping of earthquake perception areas of the Italian region from Twitter streams analysis. Basically, the research used people’s comments on twitter that were geolocated to identify areas of increased perception of the earthquakes. I was interested to learn how they dealt with retweets and quoted or modified tweets. Dr D’Auria said that in order to take this into consideration they didn’t include any retweets in the dataset and they also collected background data in order to normalise the responses and counter any false positives that may be collected. What this normalised data showed was that although there was strong trend towards the cities without calculation, after the data was normalised the trend in the cities disappeared and the only identified highlight was in the east of Italy, around the area where the epicentre had been recorded. This research is interesting as it could be used to asses perception of strength and a better way to interpret earthquake risk to people in seismically active areas.


I ended the day at the ‘Scientists Must Film‘ workshop, a very entertaining and informative workshop presented by a pair of filmmakers who could have had their own double act!

Great fun and a great end to the day!

I also had a conference selfie moment with #EGUlegend Gunter Bloschl and Rachel Hay (@geogrhay)!!