5.09.2012

AGU Science Policy Recap


Last week I had the pleasure of attending the first AGU Science Policy Conference in DC. One of the things I like the most about AGU events is the wide variety of academic fields from which attendees are drawn, and even given the comparatively narrow focus of this conference (there were only about twenty sessions, compared to the AGU annual meetings's thousands) the number of interesting ideas and novel concepts afloat was overwhelming. Below the fold are selected highlights, notes, and interesting errata from the two days I was there...



  • Vice Mayor Kristin Jacobs of Broward County Commission in southern Florida reported that local sea level rise has made tidal flooding events noticeably more common in her district at 2-3 times per year. Even worse are the Florida Keys, where flooding is so common that Ford reportedly no longer honors the warranties on police cars due to excess salt water damage. She also reported that saline infiltration of aquifers has progressed to such an extent that houses are now being sold where the deeds have built-in water utility shut off dates 15-20 years in the future, after which point residents must rely on privately trucked in water. 
  • Marcia McNutt, the director of USGS, pointed us to a 2012 paper by Malamud and Turcotte in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics showing, among other things, that there was a 16% increase  between 1981 and 2010 in the number of days each year that the US experienced a severe tornado. She also discussed the USGS' emerging fast monitoring and warning system for earthquakes and the wide interest it garners among civil planners, even when warnings lead local quake arrival times by only a few seconds (ex: shutting down fast moving trains).
  • USDA grants are available for researchers working on a wider variety of topics than you might suspect...
  • Professor Daniel Aldrich in Purdue's Political Science department spoke at length about one of Sol's and my favorite topics, the aftermath of disasters, and specifically about his ongoing work documenting that disaster resilience and recovery seems to be best predicted by levels of social capital. Since "social capital" is one of those topics that's difficult to nail down (Prof. Aldrich referred to at least three subcategorizations) you might want to take a look at his new book on the subject to learn more.
  • Carl G. Hedde of Munich Re America presented some compelling photos of tests from the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety's new wind tunnel. The tunnel can produce 120mph+ winds and can fit at least two homes, allowing insurance companies to model how and at what point storm winds start seriously damaging houses. That last picture shows that $3000 of minor modifications (most notably ring shank nails and outward-facing doors) can make a major difference in houses' propensity to be blown away. Note that this is a small-n study...
  • AGU has its own journal dedicated to space weather. (what's space weather?)
  • John Deere / NavCom's Ron Hatch's presence in the space weather session seemed a bit odd on the program but turned out to be fascinating: industrialized agriculture relies heavily on very precise GPS measurements for steering tractors (Deere cleans and corrects for orbital eccentricities and lags in the satellites to get horiztonal accuracy down to a few centimeters' worth of error). Solar activity can cause these systems to err due to scintillation, and areas where that effect is magnified (over the poles an equator, e.g., Brazil) can apparently lose upwards of 4 hours a day of work time during a bad storm. I basically just sat through this talk with my jaw on the floor.
  • NASA's Dr. Jim Klimchuck presented an overview of space weather in general for those of us with minimal background. Highlights included this video of a coronal mass ejection (CME) and its effects on the Earth's magnetosphere, the observation that CMEs can cause binary values on satellites' hard drives to switch between 1 and 0 (when they don't destroy them, that is), these coronagraph videos, and that there's actually a substantial lag between arrival times for the three major types of solar weather ranging from 8 minutes for effects which travel at light speed to 1-2 days for geomagnetic storms.
  • Apparently the potentially catastrophic impact a major solar storm could have on power grid infrastructure is due to the fact that industrial-scale transformers take a very, very long time to construct. That weakness suggests we may be in want of a supply-side subsidy given that estimates by Pete Riley (in AGU space weather) suggest that our odds of experiencing a Carrington-scale event by 2020 are about 1 in 8. (Obama allegedly asks for personal briefings from NASA after / during every major solar event.)
  • Francis and Vavrus have an article in the March Geophysical Research Letters suggesting that the increasing prevalence of  mid-latitude extreme weather events is being driven by slower Rossby wave propagation at upper levels, which they in turn attribute to a decrease in the poleward temperature gradient (or, "Arctic warming affects us remotely," as I believe it was discussed in the session).
  • NASA Grace (previously) helped show that the 2011 drop in global sea level was partly due to the la Niña but mostly due to increased precip over south America and Australia, i.e., water had moved from the ocean to the land.
  • Over the past few decades the National Weather Service's lead time on tornado warnings has gone from an average of 4 minutes to over 14.
  • Charles Chesnutt of the US Army Corps of Engineers noted that the leading cause of death from hurricanes in the United States used to be storm surge, but with new and improved warning systems that title is now held by inland flooding.
  • Professor Margaret Caldwell of Stanford gave a very interesting and engaging talk on local ocean acidification wherein she argued that the presence of shellfish fisheries (15% by weight of US fisheries but 50% by value) in coastal waters means that existing US environmental legal frameworks should allow policy makers to address the issue. How local is ocean acidification you might ask? Apparently 10-50% of the variation in pH can be explained due to local influences such as SOX, NOX, and agricultural runoff.
  • EarthNetworks (apparently in partnership with UCSD's Scripps) has started producing very nice visualizations of GHG concentrations over hourly time scales

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