Let’s get geophysical

As soon as I exited BART at the Powell Street stop, I remembered what else San Francisco is famous for: aggressive panhandling. In the two blocks to my hotel, I was hit up eight times. The hotel’s close, but my room is five floors above the edge of the street. All night I can hear horns beep, wheels squeal, drunken conversations and garbage trucks emptying dumpsters.

I sat through at least twenty presentations today. One of the things that makes this especially challenging for me is that I have no specific training in any of these fields. In fact, I’m here mostly to get a sense for what people do and the kinds of problems they have that my product might be able to help with… and to seriously science geek out.

First up were a pair presenting theories behind the mechanics of the water-rich plume on Enceladus‘ south pole. Initially, it was thought this indicated a liquid ocean beneath the surface. However, the lack of minerals in the plumes suggests the water is not in liquid form. (Water flowing over/through rocks should pick up enough minerals to be detected. And lookie at Mars!)

I spent the next hour and a half in the exhibit hall wandering through a mile (literally) of posters. As Kiri explained to me Sunday evening, they are set up for the day, but the presenters will usually specify a time period where they’ll be around to answer questions. Many had miniaturized handouts of their work, which saves me having to transcribe my awkwardly-written notes.

It will take me a few days to process the ones I saw this morning. The atmospheric studies of east Asian pollution distribution were kind of scary, especially after seeing Laurel’s trip photos last week.

Back over to Moscone South to sit in on hydrology sessions (multiphase flow through fractured rock masses — w00t!). Two of the presenters discovered, to their horror, that their centrally-uploaded PowerPoint decks had not been deposited onto the display machine. The session chair juggled the order as best as he could while the speakers ran down to resolve the “technical difficulties.” (Officially, the conference requests the presentations well in advance, or at least 24 hours. I suspect they may have been making changes — as would I in a similar situation — and perhaps didn’t have enough buffer. ) The speaker whose work I was most interested in seeing that session still hadn’t gotten the kinks worked out, so I ventured next door.

The next five hydrology presentations were invited talks, and each showed polish. The common theme was the US’ contribution to international hydrology research. One presenter gave a history of NASA satellites and instrumentation provided to support gathering data. With each, he emphasized the US has not only made a tremendous investment in satellites, data archiving, and field measurements, it also supports open access to data. As an example, he Googled MODIS papers, showing nearly 1800, almost half authored outside the US.

Then came the NPOESS, which he described “is a disaster,” both in the declining array of instruments and that it’s being managed by an under-funded NOAA. He also implored international agencies to pick up the slack and share their data more.

Following him was a speaker discussing the priorities for research:

  • Global Precipitation Management — provides diurnal estimates of precipitation over land and sea
  • Soil moisture (Soil Moisture Active/Passive [SMAP] — estimates over most of the globe
  • Surface Water/Ocean Topography [SWOT] — observations of variability of water stored in lakes, reservoirs, wetlands and river channels
  • Snow and Cold Land Process [SCLP] — measure snow packs in mountainous regions (snow packs melt, supplying water; this was described as a huge gap)

Many of these missions would provide coverage in higher latitudes and beyond the US and Western Europe. Like the previous speaker, he hoped for help — and open data exchange — with international partners.

One other noteworthy presentation in this cluster was one that worked to forecast flooding of the Brahmaputra and Ganges Delta of Bangladesh. I found this one especially interesting for its practical application.  Bangladesh is a very poor region, with large populations of subsistence farmers on areas most prone to flooding. Prior to the work, river forecasts were made out to only two days, leaving no warning for people to evacuate. They were able to work up forecasts of up to ten days with a 70% accuracy rate. This is fantastic when you consider the dearth of sampling data available to them. [US forecast accuracy is in the high 80th percentile.]

After lunch and catching up on the morning’s work email, I sat in on a couple of the extreme weather sessions. [I think I came away with a similar conclusion as the one when I was boning up on weather reading a few years ago: people remember bad forecasts and bad weather much better than they do good forecasts or good weather.]

I went back to the poster hall to meet with a few of the posterers whose work I wanted to know more about, then hung out in a comfy chair until the solar magnetosphere sessions began. These very much blew me away with the vernacular and abundance of Greek notation on slides. I cut bait and went to the planetary sciences next door.

Three of the four were great, especially Peter Jenniskens’ follow-up to the Aurigid meteor shower. (I mentioned these a couple of months ago.) They had commissioned a Google Plane for observations that night. He reported seeing up to 130/h. Also interesting was the background on the comet Kiess. It’s an “intermediate long-period” (200 – 10,000 year) comet that’s believed to have passed by between 19BC and 4AD.

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