American Geophysical Union 2001 Fall Meeting

The regular AGU Meetings are the largest of all Earth science bun fights, some 8500 souls attending the latest In San Francisco from 10-14 December 2001.  Without attending or browsing the abstracts, the rest of us might wait months if not years for ideas presented at such conferences to emerge as papers, and many presentations never reach the press.  Summaries of conference proceedings shortly after the event are a useful, although rare notice of “what’s up” to the rest of us.  Surely it is in the interest of organisers to arrange postscripts, perhaps through a general website – conferences cost an arm and a leg to attend, let alone organise, and paying someone to write them up would have a minuscule cost. But there has always been a cachet to being one of the “in crowd”, and no one satirised that better than David Lodge, in his 1980 novel Small World (Penguin Press).  In the case of the AGU and GSA Meetings the crowd is around that at a Nationwide League Division 1 match at 3 pm on a winter Saturday, but is somewhat less focussed.

So a summary of AGU 2001 Fall was a welcome sight in Science (Kerr, R.  2002.  Of ocean weather and volcanoes.  Science, v. 295, p. 260-261), even though it covered only some of the themes in the poster sessions.  A sizeable number of AGU attendees do sea time, and they must have been delighted to learn that the US Naval Research Laboratory  now provides 30-day “sea forecasts” on-line (www.73320.nrlssc.navy.mil/global_nlom/).  An outcome of work from the Ocean Drilling Program along the Hawaii-Emperor sea-mount chain is clear palaeomagnetic evidence that the Hawaiian hot spot has not always been fixed relative to moving lithospheric plates.  From late-Cretaceous to early-Oligocene times it was shifting southwards relative to the north magnetic pole at a rate comparable with that of sea-floor spreading, thereby helping to explain the 60° bend in the chain, and perhaps that less well seen in other Pacific hot-spot tracks.  As well as demanding an explanation for lateral dynamics in the deep mantle, hot spots that move challenge some basics of plate tectonics.  The current mood among plate tectonicians seems somewhat similar to that of a zoologist colleague in the 1960s.  He had ended up on a psychiatrist’s couch when he stoutly maintained that a red blemish on his torso moved, but only when it was he who was examining it.  That turned out to be a giraffe parasite, picked up during field work in the Serengeti.  More immediately worrying for the US public was news in spring 2001 that a sizeable bulge was growing in Oregon, close to dormant volcanoes.  Pushing 30 mm a year, the carbuncle’s growth rate suggested that 0.02 cubic kilometres of magma were on the move – that is a lot of potential volcano.  USGS volcanologists have been on a bulge watch for 2 decades, and were the first to announce a far larger manifestation beneath a northern Californian caldera.  At the AGU, worries were damped down by reassurances that neither seemed likely to amount to a can of beans (but see Is volcanic eruption predictable? below).

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