ROCKS & STARS: DIGGING DEEP AT THE AMERICAN GEOPHYSICAL UNION FALL MEETING

Published  January 2018

If any of you noticed a sudden influx in mid-December of outdoorsy-looking out-of-towners with Patagonia backpacks and tubes of posters, here’s why: Approximately 23,000 geologists flooded New Orleans for the fall American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting. The largest Earth and space science meeting in the world, AGU usually takes place in the more seismically active San Francisco, but was temporarily relocated to New Orleans. From the conversations I overheard, the attendees this year were disappointed with this change (“This convention center is the worst layout imaginable.” “Why would you have a building right on the river with NO VIEW of the river?”), but at least they were offered the opportunity to talk about climate change, flooding, subsidence, and the future of the planet before drinking daiquiris and getting their palms read in the Quarter.

As someone who got a degree in geology and somehow landed in a city of swamps and pseudoscience, I was thrilled—no, over the moon—to be representing ANTIGRAVITY for the week. How refreshing, to spend a week learning about Big Picture things, with people who 100% agree that climate change is real and terrifying. I was also proud to receive some curious side-glances and puzzled expressions from the scientists who noticed the ANTIGRAVITY note on my badge. Some of them looked scared. Mostly the ones from Harvard.

Throughout the week there were over 20,000 presentations on every scientific topic imaginable, from the dust on top of Alaskan glaciers to the tectonic rifts at the bottom of the ocean. So at first, I focused simply on talks and lectures related to flooding, hurricanes, and the Louisiana coastline, to learn just how dire our situation is.

Turns out—it’s dire! Despite the nuggets of optimism bordering on propaganda, it is clear that we humans, especially us swamp-dwellers, are in a serious bind. The current scientific consensus reflects what you probably already know: due to human activities, global temperatures are rising, melting the ice, and raising the seas, which in turn is fueling horrendous things like the extreme fires and floods of 2017. Harvey was as bad as it was—i.e. produced the largest rainfall of any U.S. hurricane on record—because of climate change. And the hurricanes, floods, and droughts will only become more extreme over time.

Here in coastal Louisiana, we’re experiencing a whopping four times the average global sea level rise—only possible, of course, because our land is sinking as the ocean is rising (thank you, subsidence). Since the mid-1930s we’ve lost about 2,000 square miles of land (an area roughly the size of Delaware), and by 2050 projections show that much of our delta and coastline will be underwater, including places like Barataria Preserve and Fontainebleau State Park. If you haven’t already, check out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sea level rise viewer on their website (at coast.noaa.gov/digitalcoast). With the exception of the sliver of land that hugs the Mississippi River and New Orleans proper, vast regions of our delta are shown as submerged within the next 30 years.

We’re not alone in our vulnerability, of course. Forty percent of the U.S. population lives in coastal counties, and by 2050, 25% of the world’s population will live in flood-prone areas. New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are a part of an already-developed country, with (relatively) more resources and funds. The river deltas that truly face a troubled future include the rivers like the Ganges, the Indus, the Yangtze, and the Paraná, putting cities like Shanghai, Bangkok, and Dhaka at even greater risk than New Orleans.

After three days straight of such sobering discussions I needed a bit of levity. Fortunately AGU has this fun thing called the Poster Hall, featuring thousands of scientific papers decorating hundreds of rows under dozens of unfamiliar categories such as “Geodesy,” “Solar and Heliospheric Physics,” Aeronomy,” and “Cryosphere.” Thousands of conference-goers would gather every day amidst the posters and passionately discuss their research while drinking Abita Ambers and such. (Did I mention the kegs were tapped every day at this convention at 3 p.m.? Geologists. Love. Beer.)

The poster titles alone are fantastically obscure. “Linking crustal deformation at multiple temporal and spatial scales in the Himalayan-Tibetan collisional orogen.” “Limnology, paleolimnology, limnogeology: A celebration of lakes.” “Characteristics of seismic noises excited from three typhoons in the western Pacific.” I had almost forgotten how geology terms can bring to mind bodily functions and emotions. Stress. Pressure. Fault. Repressions. Wettability. Methane fluxes. Fluid pulses. Shallow megathrust ruptures. The list goes on.

In the end, I decided to employ the very (not) scientific method of interviewing ten scientists at random (i.e. the loneliest and nicest-looking ones) in the hall, to learn something about how the world works, and what sparked their curiosity to research their niche topics. One of the first scientists I approached was in the section “Magnetospheric Physics.” Dr. Aaron Breneman of the University of Minnesota was holding a pint of porter and presenting his poster, “Observations directly linking relativistic electron microbursts to whistler mode chorus: Van Allen Probes and FIREBIRD II.”

What is a whistler mode chorus?
Dr. Aaron Breneman: We’re talking about the Earth’s radiation belts. A chorus is a radiation surrounding the Earth where you have trapped energetic particles. Certain processes happen on the sun, like a solar flare or coronal mass ejection. Solar wind flows out, and some of it flows past the Earth. It interacts with the Earth in such a way that particles that are contained within the radiation belts are energized to really high energies. This is important because you maybe heard about astronauts going through there, and it can be dangerous radiation doses. Well it turns out, unless you’re stuck there for a long time you’re fine, but high radiation doses can cause damages to satellites, and we have billions of dollars [of satellites] up there, so it’s nice to predict space weather. If you wanted to say what we do in our field overall, it’s space weather.

Dr. Breneman went on to explain the aurora, which is a slow “particle drizzle,” unlike the microbursts he studies, which happen so quickly we don’t see them. His research concludes that the “chorus” in fact causes these microbursts, something scientists have been trying to prove for years.

When I asked Dr. Breneman what drew him to this field of study, what about the cosmos sparked his curiosity and imagination, he fumbled. It was a bit of a fluke, he said. In grad school he intended to enter the astronomy department, but none of the professors had openings for students, so he went to the space physics department, where in fact, there was a space.

His response became a theme. I asked one young Italian geologist how she got into studying edge-driven convection and its implications on tectonic inversions of rifting structures. She didn’t really have an answer except laughter, and that it was kind of an accident—a very challenging accident at that. I asked a Spanish hydrologist about why he wanted to study water resources in the Guadalquivir river basin; he said hydrology was not his “only joy,” and likes a lot of other things (including the French Quarter: “I am fascinated with the musicians in the street!” he said. “And the spirit, the energy, you can feel it here.”). I asked a scientist from UNC Chapel Hill what propelled him to study the effect of cannabis on Colorado’s air quality. He responded pragmatically, “I’m interested in urban air quality. I try to find what causes high concentration of air pollutants.” Turns out, the high quantity of cannabis plants in greenhouses emit biogenic volatile compounds that react with the emissions on local highways and pollute the air.

To be fair, these scientists were in Full Science Mode, expecting to discuss their research down to the nittiest, grittiest, most bone-dry detail. And life unravels in strange ways for us all. Still, I was determined to find a certain spirit or spark of curiosity behind the data. Finally, near the end, I found it with Amanda Pascali, a 19-year-old geology student at the University of Houston, coincidentally the one person who said, “ANTIGRAVITY? That sounds cool!” I talked with her about her presentation, “A search for controls on the distribution of natural, submarine oil seeps in the Gulf of Mexico.”

What drew you to studying oil seeps?
Amanda Pascali: I actually didn’t choose oil seeps; I fell into it in the same way I fell into geology and geoscience as a whole. As a little girl I loved looking at maps. And I had this dream of going on expeditions, and being at sea, and going to the poles, and talking to people and encouraging people to go into science, and the fusion of science and art. I didn’t really know what geology was. I knew what I liked, but I didn’t know that mountains and oceans and expeditions and discovery is geology.

Pascali stumbled into the field, but at least she did so passionately. Turns out, she’s also a musician—she even played at the Neutral Ground Coffeehouse while she was here for AGU. The flier for the event read “Amanda Pascali, folk singer & aspiring geoscientist.”

I asked her how geology and music connected for her. “They’re connected because I’m the same person when I play music and when I give a presentation on my research,” Pascali said. “They’re connected in myself. Science is about truth and understanding, the same thing that all good art is made about. If the goal is to make science accessible, then art is the perfect medium. In the end, science is art, geology is art.”

There was one other instance I experienced this collision of worlds, in a panel discussion on “Using music to advance geoscience research.” This talk proved to be the highlight of my week. Instead of intimidating graphs and baffling jargon, the scientists presented slides with things like clips from Woody Guthrie songs (and how the “Dust Bowl Ballads” reflected the atmospheric and agricultural conditions of the time), classical and pop music portraying thunderstorms, and even musical compositions constructed from the sounds of glaciers creaking and melting in Alaska.

“I’ve been getting a bit frustrated recently with how the science I do is not really moving people, not connecting with people emotionally,” said Dr. Paul Williams of the University of Reading at the beginning of the conference. “And that’s kind of surprising because science is meant to be a description of nature, and nature does move people.” He is a professor of atmospheric sciences (and an avid pianist) whose primary research focuses on how climate change is causing more turbulence on airplane rides, but in his free time—due to lack of funding for this kind of research—studies how weather is reflected in musical compositions.

I had almost forgotten how geology terms can bring to mind bodily functions and emotions. Stress. Pressure. Fault. Repressions. Wettability. Methane fluxes. Fluid pulses. Shallow megathrust ruptures. The list goes on.

He brought up Einstein, who turned to his violin when stuck in a scientific problem, and probably would have been a musician had he not been a scientist. “I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music,” Einstein is quoted to have said. Einstein believed music and science are related because they have a common aim of expressing the unknown, and is claimed to have said that the greatest scientists are artists as well. Dr. Williams said New Orleans is the perfect place to host this kind of panel.

The purpose of this annual meeting, of course, is not to present the profound connections between science and art, but rather to “gather the best and brightest minds from around the globe in the pursuit of high quality science, knowledge, and a more sustainable future,” as stated on the AGU website. There were even a couple of small features that bridged these disciplines, such as a display of photos and paintings of things like calving glaciers, and a giant whiteboard that prompted scientists to draw artistic impressions of their research (which mostly ended in doodles of beer volcanoes and rainbows of banded iron formations).

Still, there is something humorous and disturbing about the lack of emotional and spiritual elements in the modern scientific world, and about the contrast between discussing sea level rise by day and frolicking on Frenchmen street by night. And equivalently, there is something dark about the way many of us New Orleanians focus on building and creating for the next five years, as opposed to the next 50. I can’t help but feel like the divide that exists between the artistic and scientific world, and the social and cultural disconnect between these realities, lies at some of the root of our problems when it comes to climate change and long-term sustainability.

Either way, we are due for a merging of these two ways of thinking, these two “types” of people—the geologist and the New Orleanian, the science and the spirit, the things we can quantify and the things we can’t. We’re due for bringing together the people who study aerosols in the atmosphere and the people who play music in the streets, capturing something unseen in the air.

For more info on the American Geophysical Union, go to sites.agu.org.


Cover photo courtesy of Amanda Pascali

Leave a Reply

Featured Articles

New Orleans Alternative Music and Culture
FacebookInstagramTwitter