AGU Fall Meeting: Comic Con for Space and Earth Scientists

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A view looking down on the poster hall at the 2014 AGU Fall Meeting at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. The poster sessions run in four-hour blocks (morning and afternoon) all week. Each section has its own allocated space and the posters are accepted and displayed based on a given topic for the session.

The world’s largest annual gathering of space and Earth scientists just occurred. What? That wasn’t on your calendar? Really? Well okay then, lucky for you, some of the Aurorasaurus team members attended! Here’s a quick recap some of the latest space weather news unleashed at this Comic Con for space and Earth scientists. (Spoiler alert: No one wore costumes. No worries, I’m already working on fixing that problem for next year.)

The 47th annual Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) took place in San Francisco December 15-19th. With over 24,000 attendees, the conference creates a stimulating but exhausting week. I barely had time to stop by the NASA exhibit booth to grab a 2015 NASA calendar— always a hot item at AGU!

I attended the conference to present a talk entitled, “Investigation of sounding rocket observations of field-aligned currents and electron temperature” on Thursday evening. By now I’m a seasoned AGU veteran (this is my fifth Fall Meeting as a student), but one can never really prepare for the Fall Meeting experience. Every year I say I’ll do a better job of optimizing my meeting efficiency and make it to more talks, but by the time Tuesday rolls around, I’m usually wiped out. And I still have three more days.

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Photo credit: Cartoon by Miles Traer, PhD, multimedia producer for the School of Earth Sciences and all around nerd.  This project is done in collaboration with the Public Information Office of the American Geophysical Union. Special thanks to Larry O’Hanlon and Mary Catherine Adams at AGU for their enthusiasm and support.

So what does a day at the AGU Fall Meeting entail? Well with over 23,000 individual presentations, you can imagine that the schedule is pretty full. From 8am-6pm, scientists and students present their research findings through posters and oral sessions. The poster hall spans a huge room where row upon row of posters hang with presenters waiting to engage and discuss with viewers who pass by—kind of like an adult version of a science fair except instead of showing off a paper mache volcano, you’re showing your latest analysis of data from a billion dollar satellite. Prominent scientists and policymakers present keynote speeches, public lectures and press conferences and usually unveil new and fascinating results. In fact, it was at the Fall Meeting last week that NASA announced that the Mars Curiosity rover has discovered methane on the Red Planet.

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Photo credit: Cartoon by Miles Traer, PhD, multimedia producer for the School of Earth Sciences and all around nerd.  This project is done in collaboration with the Public Information Office of the American Geophysical Union. Special thanks to Larry O’Hanlon and Mary Catherine Adams at AGU for their enthusiasm and support.

To give some background information, the Fall Meeting is sponsored by the AGU. The AGU is the preeminent scientific organization for Earth and space scientists, with over 60,000 members from all over the world, including professors, graduate and undergraduate students, government and industry researchers, citizen scientists, and members of the general public. Founded in 1919, it was (as the name implies) originally intended to cater to “pure” geophysics, but in the ensuing century it has expanded to include many fields related to geophysics and space science. Today, the AGU has twenty-three different sections that address topics ranging from the study of the Earth’s deep interior to the science of other planets.

Auroral physics falls under the purview of the Space Physics and Aeronomy (SPA) Section. In fact, the three subsections of the SPA cover the phenomena of aurora from beginning to end. The Solar and Heliophysics subsection focuses on the Sun, which can significantly affect the aurora with its activity. The Magnetospheric Physics subsection includes the study of the Earth’s magnetic field that responds to the activity of the Sun and can accelerate particles into the Earth’s atmosphere to create the aurora. And lastly, the Aeronomy subsection targets the uppermost layers of the atmosphere of the Earth and other planets, where the aurora occurs.

This year, I really enjoyed a particular session that highlighted the new data coming from the European Space Agency’s Swarm mission. Swarm is comprised of three separate satellites that are taking very precise measurements of the magnetic and electric fields around Earth. I also enjoyed a couple of talks that highlighted new high resolution “redline” auroral cameras that are being developed by the Auroral Imaging Group at the University of Calgary. These should help add another level of understanding to the physics behind the aurora. Finally, I heard an interesting update by an officer in the U.S. Air Force (something fairly rare for AGU), who spoke about how scientific research on space weather helps the military improve their ability to protect the nation. There is so much science and learning happening at AGU that it’s hard not to geek out.

Yet undoubtedly the most important aspect of any scientific meeting is collaborating with other scientists: talking about potential future collaborations, discussing the details of new discoveries or just socializing and getting to know your colleagues. In fact, the AGU Fall Meeting is known for the afternoon beer breaks! Nothing says, “laid back, collaborative environment” like enjoying a beer with a professor or peer. And maybe next year, there will be costumes.

If you want to find out more about the 2014 AGU Fall Meeting, you can check out the highlights or peruse theAGU Facebook page, which covered the week in detail and features blog posts by other scientists. You can even search the full scientific program by author, topic, or keyword to get an idea of the science that was covered at the meeting.

Ian Cohen is obtaining his PhD in Physics from the University of New Hampshire. He analyzes data from sounding rockets to study auroras as part of the UNH Space Science Center. He also enjoys baseball and a great story.

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