In The Field

EGU: The great parade

I am a bit at loss now, standing here between the tall concrete buldings that surround the Vienna Conference Center in the Kaisermühlen district of the Austrian capital. Kaisermühlen-Blues, it occurrs to me, was the name of a succesful 1990s TV series that ran on Austrian television.

It is the opening day of the EGU’s general assembly, the grand parade of European Geosciences. The problem is I can’t get in. The guys at the registration desk can’t find the badge with my name on it. Well, that can happen. Do I have a press ID? Uhm, no. Would my Nature business card be ok perhaps? No, it would not.

I’m told I have to apply to the press office somewhere inside the conference centre. That’s fair enough I guess, so I walk over. It’s only when I realize that without the damn badge the security blokes won’t let me pass that the Kaisermühlen-Blues comes to mind. It’s a dilemma, sort of.

Now, I am a reporter. So I hang around the main entrance, inconspicuously waiting for a moment when both guards will be distracted by some other trouble-makers. Sure enough, after a short while I manage to sneak in unnoticed. Fifteen minutes later I have got my badge and everything else I need to do my job here.

The Vienna Conference Centre is an impressive piece of modern architecture. Unfortunately it is also a rather convoluted affair. The lecture rooms are cunningly hidden in unlikely nooks and corners on different levels of this Byzantine maze. Confusingly, the centre seems to constantly alter its layout, so that you never seem to be able to find again the spot where you’ve been just five minutes ago. Drones of scientists meander between the countless cafeterias and exhibition stands, in search of cryptically signposted lecture rooms. Some pretend to know where their heading for, but I’m sure they’re just as clueless as me.

Now that’s what big meetings are like, right? Surprisingly, the lecture rooms are actually filled with plenty of listeners, and most sessions begin sharply punctual. Eventually even I manage to find room 16 (L) on the blue level, where a talk abut predictions of extreme hurricane intensities was supposed to be held. Alas, they moved it to a slot two hours later. Too bad.

Instead, I decide to listen in to the session in the neighboring room. Impact of Saharan dust on radiation and climate, interesting one. I take home the message that dust rising from the Saharan-Sahel corridor affects the thermodynamics of the atmosphere, and that it also alters the microphysics of clouds. The effect is as yet largely unquantified, and hence poorly represented in climate models. I learn that a place in Chad, the Boudélé Depression, is the world’s most intense dust source. Hasn’t my colleague Jim Giles written an award-winning feature about this? Anyway, must be lovely there.

On my personal meeting programme is now, fittingly, a Mars session. I have a little trouble finding the lecture room (turns out it is next door), which is why I miss the first two presentations. Kindly enough, Gerhart Neukum, the principal investigator with the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on board Mars Express, update me during the coffee break.

Two experiments – the German-built HRSC and Omega, a French infrared spectrometry experiment – have in recent months resolved a long-standing scientific controversy, he says. Mars seems to have dried and cooled, and its atmosphere to have thinned, much earlier than previously assumed. Deposits of clay minerals and sulphates in the Mawrth Vallis region, and the absence of carbonates there, suggest that the drying must have occurred very early in Mars’ geological history, at least 3 billion years ago. Episodic volcanic releases of water may have still ocurred thereafter, and possibly until this day, but any liquid water would immediately evaporate in the low-pressure atmosphere. Oceans can only have existed in Mars’ infancy, when the planet’s climate was much warmer and its atmosphere much thicker.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that life never had a chance to evolve on Mars. But if it did, it must have evolved very quickly, or else gone underground early on.

A quick lunch then. The afternoon brings a very interesting session about an old warhorse of ocean sciences, the Atlanic overturning circulation. Watch out on for more on this. It also brings more of the familiar feeling of missing hundreds of other interesting things. But that’s what big meetings are like, am I right?

Oh, and did I mention at all how charming a city Vienna is?

Kaisermühlen-Blues, by the way, was a terrific programme. If you do understand some German (the Vienna version, that is) you should really try to find a DVD.

posted by Quirin Schiermeier


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