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I think everyone agrees that we had some very inspiring presentations yesterday at the Earth’s future panel. Here’s what I retained:

Dr Bill Chameides said that, as a “lobbyist” for the environment, explaining complex issues about climate changes to elected peoples in positions of power is good, but that explaining simple issues to a lot of voters is even better. He joked that his “impact factor” was surely higher when he appeared on a cooking TV show to explain the meaning of “carbon footprint” than when he was publishing scientific papers. He warned that people from outside science, when they listen to scientists, are all too often left with the impression that while scientists are very intelligent, people can’t understand what they are talking about. Tackling climate change is all about communication, he said, and a scientist that takes a position on an environmental issue is not necessarily losing his or her credibility. His motto: Education, Communication, Multidisciplinary. I met him randomly today and he asked me put up a link to his blog.

Dr Veerabhadran Ramanathan warned about removing pollutant sulfur dioxide from the atmosphere without removing twelve times more CO2 at the same time. The calculation is simple: sulfur dioxide has a cooling effect on the earth climate twelve times more powerful than the warming effect of CO2. Along the same lines, he explained that emissions of other gases and particles that have greater warming effects that CO2, such as black carbon, should also be reduced. He said that global warming is about to reach thresholds that will bring iconic changes to the Earth surface. Here is the list in order of manifestation: i) the ice age oscillation switches off (this threshold is already reached; we will have no more ice ages), ii) the melting of the arctic ice cap, iii) Greenland melts, iv) the Amazon rain forest disappears, v) El Nino southern oscillation stops, vi) thermo-haline circulation shuts down, vii) the Antarctic ice cap starts to melt and viii) the Antarctic fully opens.

Dr Janet Hering also referred to three important events:

Galileo stated that the earth revolves around the sun (1610)
Darwin wrote that humans descend from apes (1859)
The term anthropocene was coined by Nobel prize winner Paul Crutzen, meaning that humankind has entered a new geological era (2000 – see his paper in Nature).

What are her solutions? We need to participate in local efforts on the community scale and focus on education, outreach and the empowerment of women.

I refer to Julia’s post for comments on Sir David King’s speech

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• Many scientists spend their entire careers focusing on one portion of the Earth System and the majority probably retire not grasping it as well as they would have liked. A smaller portion of scientist worry about larger reservoirs; be it the oceans, the climate, mantle heterogeneities or core formation and it I think most would agree there is not a lot of consensus on processes that may have formed or modified those systems. Those who are truly, some might say out of their minds, or just have an imagination that allows them to go even on step farther ponder questions regarding the processes that formed our Solar System and planets, subsequently. With limited samples, a small amount of analyses on those samples and definitely no agreement on any single process has not slowed down researchers such as Fred Ciesla who seems to be making great strides in this area of research. I attended his Keynote talk today entitled “Reconciling Models of the Solar Nebula with the Chondritic Record” in which he attempted to do just that. Again, with a simple yet stellar (no he was not modeling stellar evolution) modeling this presentation definitely left a mark with the audience. In his model he showed the migration of large CAI-like objects that tend to be found in CV chondrites from time zero to a few million years after formation of the Solar System. With much of the debri being sucked into the young sun, he showed that the largest and oldest objects in our Solar System would be the most likely to survive and arrive in our inner Solar System quick enough to be incorporated into the CV chondrites. It will be really fascinated to see if this model can accurately predict the CAI size distribution, modal abundances and ages of other chondrites. If this is a new subject to a reader, Fred Ciesla and his work is what I would reference you to.

Today’s lecture on the Ocean Anoxic Events (OAE’s) and the geochemistry of extinction begged the question: who controls the Earth?  Are the combined anoxic events and associated C13 events imply that geology – for example, magmatism – is a driver of primary production, or are the events evidence of the evolution of key characteristics in phytoplankton and other organisms?

This is an important question for my work on the Proterozoic, especially the Neoproterozoic.  During the Paleoproterozoic and Neoproterozoic, large d13C isotope excursions are seen in both the organic carbon and carbonate records.  But do these reflect novel characteristics of organisms – for example, increased sinking of organic matter in the form of feces, or the rise of oxygenic phototrophs – or are the organisms being driven by forces outside their control?

Generally, I support the idea that the biology of Earth is at the mercy of Earth’s geology – that major events in the evolution of life and the chemistry of the oceans was driven not by new characteristics in the constituent organims, but by things such as magmatism and climate.  However, this is obviously a heuristic argument – climate, for example, is driven not only by the release of CO2 and methane from hydrothermal vents, but also by the amount of CO2 sequestered by organisms dying, sinking and being buried in the ocean.

So I’m leaving this question open to others: who is the real strongman of Earth?  Biology or geology?

I spent my morning in session 15i on Geogenic Chemicals in Groundwaters and Soils.  I was going to blog about the content…but I was the last presenter in the morning session, and spent much of the morning just getting nervous.  So it passed in a bit of a blur.  I can’t even remember much about my own presentation.

Instead, I will do a bit of a summary of what I have been doing away from the presentations.  The week has been packed full of things… Before coming I looked at the schedule, and thought I would have some empty time.  But it hasn’t really worked out that way J. As usual, I still had a fair bit of work to do on my presentation this week.  So any snatched moments were spent on this, and it is a relief that I have now presented.  In addition, the research network that funds me has been using Goldschmidt as a network meeting event.  So I have had meetings with the fellow researchers, and with the management committee.  This has kept me fairly busy.  But it has also provided a strong social element as we all get on well and have been enjoying catching up over dinner in the evening.  Like many, I also went along to the conference dinner last night.  The food was great, and it was good to chat to a range of people, including professors that I haven’t run in to since my undergraduate days.

The social element is really important at conferences.  Its nice to be able to relax after a long day of presentations.  But sometimes some very constructive work conversations take place unexpectedly after a beer or two…

I had the luck of attending two of Ken Nealson’s talks “back to back.” First, in the last talk of session 16e on Wednesday, he discussed the survival and growth of microorganisms in ultrabasic environments. There is an exposed peridotite north of San Francisco, and the calcium in the peridotite causes the formation of calcium hydroxide. This leads to soil pHs around 10.5; subsurface, anaerobic waters have pH closer to 11.5. Despite this inhospitable environment, in the absence of any good electron acceptor besides magnetite (Fe3O4), with essentially no sulfate or monovalent cations, bacteria find a way to eek out an existence. Their identification is difficult, and Nealson’s group is on the cutting edge, using single-cell genomics as an identifying tool. His keynote talk this morning, in session 17j: The Genomics of Geochemistry, revealed many of the problems in using genetic data to predict both the types and functions of microorganisms. Within a single species (Nealson is well-known for his work with Pseudomonas shewanella), separate strains of the same species vary genomically by at least 35% from each other. As an example, he mentioned that some strains reduce metals, where others do not…and this is the exact same species! So, using a broad-brush approach of saying, “I have this species in my sample, therefore it will do X.” is a bad approach. He also emphasized a huge problem in identifying single species accurately in natural consortia of microorganisms. The approach used here, metagenomics, can effectively assemble the genomes of 2 or 3 bacteria in the same sample, so it will work for some of these extreme environments where only a few species are present. However, in most natural systems, there exists a complex mixture of microorganisms, and metagenomics is essentially hopeless, at least at present. This single-cell approach he discussed may be a solution, because the more reference genomes we have for different species, the better chance we can model more complex mixtures.

Yesterday afternoon I really enjoyed the Earth’s Future plenary.  The group of speakers provided a highly thought-provoking, and well presented series of talks.  We heard about the challenges of presenting science to policy makers, as well as the challenges presented to scientists in order to secure the Earth’s future.  So overall, the theme was on the research we need to do, who we need to present it to, and how.  I felt a lot more on home ground during this plenary as environmental policy is my area of research.  I am excited that the topic was brought into this conference programme.  In only mentioning the talks of Sir David King and Bill Chameides I do not want to detract from Veerabhadran Ramanathan and Janet Hering.  Their talks were captivating.  But I want to blog about the thoughts of King and Chameides on presenting science to policy makers.

They made eloquent arguments about how we must learn to package research to policy makers in order that it can be considered in decision making.  This is a whole area of research in itself, and I personally have enjoyed the work of Baumgartner and Jones, and Sabatier on this topic.

I was disappointed not to have the opportunity to ask the question I wanted to ask, as it builds on this base.  So, I will ask it here:  The panel talks of getting science onto the policy agenda.  However, my own research (and that of many others), shows that effective management of the environment is also about ensuring implementation of this policy.  There are many political, historical and social barriers to ensuring implementation.  I would argue that this creates a role for social science and physical science to work together on this issue.  Does the panel agree?  And if so, how do they think we can foster such multi-disciplinarity?

Taking to the Hills

The Alpine slopes above Davos filled up with geochemists this afternoon, as many chose to spend the flexible afternoon discussing science while getting views of Davos from above, and meeting the locals.

Davos from Jakobshorn

Davos from Jakobshorn

local inhabitants

local inhabitants