ground- water, geo- statistics, environmental- engineering, earth- science

Reflections on EGU 2014

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Here are some reflections on EGU 2014 that I started to write down on its final day, but haven’t had time to post until now.

There are only two things that stand out from the talks and the posters (Hazel Gibson collected a few extraordinary posters here).

  • the best scientific talks are the ones that explain one thing well and then show a few results. I find that much more is not possible in 13 minutes. Particularly, I remember E? Foufoula, who had a beautiful slide that explained how she thinks about similarity and dis-similarity in time-series.
  • in the posters I had great fun wondering around all kinds of topics. I found out how wind-turbine engineers try to place turbines optimally in a wind-turbine field. I learned about surface run-off. I had a great chat with Anna Sciani on infiltration processes at a hillslope, and about the worth and work related to the combination and cycling of and between field-experiments and associated modelling.

Besides the talks and the posters, I was particularly impressed by this year’s medal lectures that I attended.

Medal Lectures

Among the three, personally, I was moved and inspired greatly by Upmanu Lall’s talk. Bruno Merz said in his laudatio that he appreciates that Upmanu Lall can think outside the box. I remember that I thought during the laudatio that this seems like a weird thing to say in a laudatio. Now I think this was the best thing to say.

Here is the list of the three medal lectures I attended. Interestingly, Hoshin Gupta and Upmanu Lall are also co-author of recent discussion papers that appeared in Water Resources Research that are also linked. The papers contain at least some aspects of the talks.

Scientific Debates

at the beginning of the conference I was intrigued by the concept of a “scientific debate”. I attended the one on geo-engineering (also because there were no particularly seemingly interesting topics for sessions in the program — a rare occasion). The mindsets of the panelists were not very diverging, hence the debate was fairly calm. Here are my take-home messages:

  • in an ideal world, if we had a crop that has the same nutritous properties, needs less water, is somehow generally better for the environment than existing crops, and leads to more yield, then yes, we would all be for that, and we could call that geo-(bio-)-engineering. And partly, this is happening.
  • win-win situations are rare, and the big question seems to be how to “properly” “treat” the non-winners. Related to that, another big question is at what point in time and under what circumstances would we accept some large scale engineering project, with associated large, partly unknown, and uncertain consequences (“tipping point”)
  • large scale vs. small scale: the discussion was largely focussed on larger-scale engineering works. At the end was some discussion if small scale or bottom-up approaches would not be better. But then, it was not clear how to know which small approach would have large consequences, and how it could be adopted to improve the consequences.
  • the panelists, scientists, seemed more concerned about geo-politics than about geo-engieneering. Everybody agreed, that solutions in harmony between all parts of society, i.e. scientists, engineers, lawyers, economists, social scientists, medical experts need to be found.

Here is a good document by the Royal Society on geoengineering (via Jim McQuaid)


At the google booth I was re-introduced to their GIS-related computing capabilities, called “earthengine“. It seems like anybody can cooperate with them for smart, computing intensive remote sensing type calculations and analysis. On their website they have some pretty impresive videos. This one here is about the growth of irrigation in Saudi Arabia, as evident from an explosion of pivot-irrigated plots.

Written by Claus

June 22nd, 2014 at 4:47 pm

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