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 5 – The big presentation, widening participation and communicating global risk

So here we are. The final day at EGU and I’m about to present in my first international conference. To add to all that I actually have a pretty busy day as I have to be in Lyme Regis in Dorset this evening – so packing, catching the flight and driving for 3 hours back to Lyme were all also in my schedule today. Nevertheless I appeared all ready for my talk at 8am this morning – and was welcomed by my name on the board!


The session I was presenting in was called ‘Geoscience Education for Sustainable Development and Widening Participation‘ (EOS7) and was a mix of talks looking at geoscience communication and understanding from how to communicate your science, to using serious games to increase understanding about CO2 storage, to using place-based learning to help students engage with geology. Now I know I’m biased, but I thought the session was great – lots of interesting ideas and new concepts. My talk went pretty well I think – I always worry about speaking to an academic audience, especially when I’m an interdisciplinary. How many terms from cognitive science can I use without it being jargon? This is a highly educated audience after all! So I retreated into my preferred method of assuming some knowledge, but embroidering any terms with an accompanying image or explanation. I hope it worked!! In any case, after the initial terror faded I actually really enjoyed it (despite having to present after the dynamic and accessible presenting style of Sam Illingworth – gulp!). Hooray!


The orals were followed by the poster session of the same name, and I went along to have a look at the posters presented. Again there was a huge variety, but one of my favourites was about ‘A New Protocol in La Spezia for Elementary and Secondary School Students for Monitoring Perception Towards Science and Performance in School Classrooms‘. I had a long talk with Mascha Stroobant and Silvia Merlino about their research and during this talk I couldn’t help thinking how it was really difficult to know what was happening in science perception studies in other countries as all our research is at such an early stage. There seemed to be no advanced or established research in science perception at EGU (that I could find, but I will kick myself if there was and I missed it), which makes it difficult to know what mistakes have been made before, how to avoid those pitfalls and the best methods for ensuring we have valid data.

My final session of Friday (and of EGU) was ‘Global and Continental Scale Risk Assessment for Natural Hazards: Methods and Practice‘ (NH9.13). I could only go to half of this session and I wanted to go to support a friend who was presenting there – the brilliant Joel Gill, PhD student at Kings College London and founder/director of Geology for Global Development. He was presenting his work on ‘Reviewing and Visualising Relationships Between Anthropic Processes and Natural Hazards within a Multi-Hazard Framework‘. The brilliant thing about his research is that he presents risk within a continuum of natural and anthropic causes of hazard, not just in terms of vulnerability.


Unfortunately after Joel’s talk I had to dash off to catch the coach and so that was the end of my first EGU experience. I learned that geoscience is a much broader subject than I ever thought it was, and that people like myself in all varieties of interdisciplinary research are attempting to expand our understanding of the planet to new fronteirs. I learned that communication and public understanding of geology isn’t just important to industry, but to ALL geoscientists and even those working in narrow fields see the value of speaking about their research. I learned that I am part of a vibrant, enthusiastic and welcoming community, and all those things that I think I am alone in worrying about (because they are about interviews, psychology and data representation) are shared in different forms by many other reseracheres. I also learned that there is so much more to learn – and EGU just got me even more fired up to go back into the field and get back into my office – BRING ON THE DATA!!


EGU 2014 Day 4 – Global catastrophes, uncertainty and can you ever know your audience?

Day four in the big geology house…. Today started well, I took a little time in the morning to work on my presentation for tomorrow, but because I forgot to reset the clock on my computer I missed the workshop on applying for funding that I was aiming to attend. Nevertheless I made it to my first session of the day ‘Volcanism, Impacts, Mass Extinctions and Global Environmental Change‘ (SSP1.2/GMPV41) which is a session that has to win the prize for BEST NAME OF A SESSION EVER. I bumped into a lecturer from my University there, who seemed a little surprised to see me – he asked why I was there and I said ‘Global catastrophes? Of course I’m coming to this one!’ and he replied that he was there for the isotopes. Strangely the organisers seemed to underestimate the interest factor of such an epic session title, and had put the session in a really small room. People were crammed in all over the place, sat on the floor, standing by the walls, and every seat was full. You just can’t deny the pulling power of massive disasters.


The talks themselves were great, a series of presentations on Tunguska and the Siberian trap flood basalts and their associated infrastructure. There were questions of whether magamatism could trigger a mass extinction, and if the dates of massive flood basalt eruptions did actually precede the extinctions? Seth Burgess did actually present data that suggested the main body of the eruptions did actually commence AFTER the extinction, but also recognised the problem of sampling bias – a common problem in the geological sciences – that you can’t always get the data you want because, oh, a mountain is on top of it. So you have to predict as best you can based on incomplete data. From the data that Seth Burgess had, he suggested that there was more than one phase of the eruption and that the lavas that couldn’t be sampled may actually contain sills that predate the extinction.


Later on the session, the extinction moved from the end-Permian to the Cretaceous. Now if you are unfamiliar with that name – think dinosaurs. It’s the one where the famous film should really have been called Cretaceous Park instead (and why it wasn’t I really don’t know!). The thing with the end-Cretaceous extinction was that it happened not only at the same time as a massive flood basalt, but at the same time as a massive (and famous) meteorite impact called Chixulub. Mark Richards from the University of California, Berkeley, told us that there was a 1 in 5 chance of all of these events being a coincidence, which isn’t really that bad. But when you include the size of the Deccan eruptions, the chance becomes 1 in 50, so it is hard to dismiss this as a coincidence. He suggested that another reason for the correlation, was that the impact could have triggered massive worldwide magmatic activity – in the same way that seismic triggers have been shown to induce magmatic activity on a much smaller scale. A question was asked however, if there was any evidenced for this systemic increased activity and although at the moment there is not, Professor Richards thinks that geochemical data could be available to support this hypothesis.

So from volcanoes and massive meteorite impacts I thought I would move on to uncertainty and the ‘Communication of Uncertainty about Information in Earth Sciences‘ (SSS11.1/ESSI3.6), convened by R Murray Lark from the BGS. This session was all about how we, as geoscientists, represent unceratinty. This is a really big deal, especially when you relate it to what I was saying above about sampling bias – a large amount of geological information is interpreted on, what the researchers would see as, less than perfect data sets. Now a lot of uncertainty work is based on how to represent a statistical analysis of the uncertainty to other geologists, but there is a growing interest in how we represent uncertainty to the public. Robert Kirby talked about how using ensemble data (think hurricane tracks) can help people to understand different types of data simultaneously, but by using means and standard deviation statistical analysis you can extract more meaningful data (which may be harder to understand). What was interesting to me, was the suggestion that non-experts would have a better understanding of the value of ensemble data that statistically analysed data, but this hadn’t been tested yet. In fact a lot of the work on public understanding of uncertainty seemed to be based upon assumptions – so perhaps these were initial results of studies that were ongoing.


The day ended with the Townhall meeting ‘You don’t know your audience! A ClimateSnack debate‘ (TM8). This meeting drew together a number of science communications experts from a variety of backgrounds to discuss ‘knowing your audience’ a central concept in sci comm and one that is often under debate. The panel consisted of:

Dr Sam Illingworth, a lecturer in Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University (read more about him here)
Christina Reed, an independant science journalist
Liz Kalaugher, from environmentalresearchweb
Prof David Shultz, a lecturer in Synoptic Meteorology at Manchester University and the author of Eloquent Science
Mathew Reeve, co-founder of ClimateSnack (the moderator)

The discussion covered a wide range of subjects relating to audience – can you ever know your audience, how do you know what your audience wants, where is ‘the room’ in a digital age? We even discussed the seemingly opposing views of should we even be attempting to communicate all forms of science (as some parts are genuinely too difficult to understand without four years of university education) and do we seek to maintain the ‘aura of mystery’ to preserve our academic importance? What was interesting here was the idea that as science communicators we all WANT to communicate every aspect of our science, but that is just unrealistic – and most people genuinely wouldnt care. What we have to do is make our science AVAILABLE instead.


Finally I asked about training our undergraduates in science communication and Prof Schultz raised an interesting point – that our undergraduates often have a hard enough time writing scientifically first and that writing for a general audience from a scientific perspective – especially as a scientists – often means you need to understand scientific writing before you can communicate it back to the public. Also, he said, in his experience students already think they can communicate with non-scientists without training!

This session finished at 8, so I trundled myself back to the hostel to prepare for my oral presentation tomorrow at 9.15am (eek!).


EGU 2014 Day 3 – Science is for everyone!, the value of an open mind and when is a debate not a debate

Day three, one of the quieter days on my schedule meant I could a) relax a little and b) go looking for sessions I never would have thought of attending.


I started the day in Citizen Empowered Science and Crowdsourcing in the Geosciences (EESI1.8/EOS6) the second half of the session I attended yesterday. There were a couple of interesting presentations, including a plan for a citizen controlled platform for communicating climate science, but I often feel like the geoscience community is teetering on the edge of just accepting Citizen Science as a valid method of data collection, but right now they are still a bit unsure. As such the presentations today came across as enthusiastic but uncertain. I really liked Simone Frigerios presentation of ‘MAppERS: a peer produced community for emergency support’, partly because he said that we need to stop seeing communities at risk as victims, but instead as resource for disaster prevention and mitigation. Another project that I liked was Nuria Castell’s initiative ‘Building and Evaluating Sensor-based Citizens’ Observatories for Improving Quality of Life in Cities’. The project has set up citizen observatories (called CITI-SENSE) all across three target cities, Oslo, Ljubljana and Vienna. The great thing about these observatories (just sensors really) is that most of them do more than just one thing. They record air pollution (levels of O2, CO etc), wind data, UV and noise. There is also a link to an app that allows people to record how they feel in a place so the project results in a much more representative picture of the quality of life in these cities.


I also attended the session on Long-term Storage of CO2 and the Petrophysics of Unconventional Hydrocarbons: Results from Laboratory Studies (ERE2.2), which covered topics like carbonate dissolution and how to prevent CO2 leakage from a well and listened to a talk on ‘An Experimental Study of Basaltic Glass-H2O-CO2 Interaction at 22 and 55 degrees C’ and saw an extraordinary outburst from one of the audience, who at the end of the session said that the timescales were not big enough to make the results relevant and called it ‘trivial research’. Now this seems to have arisen from the fact that this researcher was a computational modeller and the young scientist presenting was a physical or experimental modeller, so instead of running a computer simulation that approximated 1000’s of years, she had actually done the experiment in a lab over a period of months instead. It highlighted to me how some scientists get so buried in their own method they resist any other method. Even though the moderator came to the defence of the young scientist by highlighting that computer models could not be run without the data from shorter term experimental models, the questioner appeared to remain firm in her dismissal of the work. Which just made me feel a little sorry for her, that she was so closed minded that she couldn’t see the value in other people’s work.


Towards the end of the day I attended an event that I had been looking forward to all week – the Great Debate on ‘Metals in our Backyard: to Mine or not to Mine‘. This session was proposed as a debate on the moral and social implications of mining in Europe. The panellists were:

Lluis Fontbote from the University of Geneva,
Roland Oberhansli from the Univerisity of Potsdam,
Alina Stadniskaia from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Reasearch (Royal NIOZ),
Joshua Brien from the Economic and Legal Section of the Commonwealth Secreatriat,
Gillian Davidson from the World Economic Forum.

Now although the panellists were great and the subject was right up my street, because no one was really against mining in Europe it was pretty much impossible to get any kind of debate going. What I didn’t understand is why no-one from the environmental community was willing to engage in the debate? If they really want to affect how mining is done, surely the way to do it is to go at it from the inside (how can we change our minds when we don’t even know what they think)? So much so that, apart from some interesting slides that I have included below, it was really a debate that wasn’t a debate.

We are not going to run out of metals – says Lluis Fontbote

Stone and mineral resources are fundamental to our society – says Roland Oberhansli

The future is in subocean mining – says Alina Stadniskaia

We need a roadmap – says Gillian Davidson

So, all in all a quiet day.

For a closing image – check out the world’s creepiest tube train signs!


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)!!