Skip to Main Content U.S. Department of Energy

Look here for a daily summary of AGU16, as seen through the lens of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory...

Daily Summary

December 12, 2016

Day One of AGU16

Day One Image
PNNL post-doc Eric Bottos warms up a listener to his permafrost study.

Do the math: One city of 800,000 (San Francisco), plus a small town of scientists from around the world (24,000), and you get the Dec. 12-16 fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). The planet's largest gathering of Earth and space researchers, starting today, is a temporary five-day world, a United Nations of the big-brained with big ideas.

What is called AGU16 this year started over the weekend, at airports all over the globe, as scientists waited to board their flights to the city of cable cars, Coit Tower, and curvy Lombard Street. That was true in even modestly scaled Pasco, Wash., where on Sunday afternoon (Dec. 11) researchers from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in nearby Richland hobnobbed in the compact departure lounge. One of them, a post-doc, was still working on her presentation. (Last-minute effort is another AGU16 truism.) "Several of us enjoyed a rare connection-free flight out of Pasco, straight to San Francisco," said PNNL science writer Tom Rickey, who boarded with a half dozen soil and climate science experts. "They traded tips on how best to work the conference."

Part of that work is personal - as in meeting old friends and collaborators, a universal joy in professional conferences. At the Moscone Center the next morning (Monday Dec. 12), Rickey ran into science writer Sarah Yang of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

And part of that work is... work. AGU16, after all, is a five-day fire hose of 20,000 official talks and posters.

Luckily that fire hose is at the world's foremost gathering of Earth and space scientists. And they had plenty to say, starting at 8 a.m. There were morning talks on submarine hazards, turbidites (deep-ocean geological deposits), urban runoff, green infrastructure, the effect of climate change on animals, and microbial carbon use in climate-critical peatlands – a tweet-earning late-morning talk by the University of Minnesota's Jessica Gutknecht.

There was a joint NASA-Los Alamos National Laboratory press conference on zapping Earth-bound asteroids, a poster on bringing SETI to AGU, new maps of melting glaciers, and a talk by Cody Sheik of the University of Minnesota, Duluth, which called for more studies of sediments in very large freshwater lakes. (He used Lake Superior, the largest lake in the world by surface area, as an example.)

"We know very little about the composition and function of the microbiomes" there, tweeted James Stegen, a PNNL ecologist.

Stegen, who leads a permafrost study group at PNNL, was also struck by a talk by Matt Sullivan of Ohio State University on soil viruses and their impact on terrestrial biogeochemistry. Sullivan led off the talk with permafrost, which contains roughly 50 percent of global soil carbon, and is melting rapidly.

Despite science talks flying around like meteorites, there emerged a sense of longing for more. "I want ALL the data!" tweeted computational soil scientist Katherine Todd-Brown, who is a Linus Pauling Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellow in the microbiology group at PNNL. "So many data streams here that will likely go stale. Want to save them all. Future proposal?"

The Art of Scheduling Science

Veteran conference-goers, while longing for more, have ways of making big events small: a list, for instance, or the AGU scheduling app. "No better way to kick off #AGU16," tweeted environmental biologist Kirsten Hofmockel, "than a talk by @jaytlennon," that is, Jay T. Lennon of Indiana University. At 8 a.m. she was in the audience to hear his 15 minutes on how the sum of all dormant microbes in soils - microbial "seed banks" - are important for predicting ecosystem processes. (Hofmockel is lead scientist for integrative research at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, or EMSL. a U.S. Department of Energy national science user facility located on the PNNL campus.)

EMSL came up again very soon. Just 15 minutes after Lennon's talk came one by the laboratory's Nancy Hess, who was first in line in a week of oral presentations by scientists from the PNNL campus. She directs the development of terrestrial and subsurface science within EMSL. It turns out, her 15-minute presentation explained, that our current conceptual model of microbial enzymatic activity may be overly simplistic. Hess and her team started their study with a humble extraction of dissolved organic matter using water from peat soil. "Sometimes even the simplest of experiments," she said earlier, "leads to unexpected results and new understanding."

There were 150 scientists there, said Rickey, all of them eager to hear Hess about teasing out the molecular signals in soil, especially those related to carbon cycling.

She also related the unique capabilities at EMSL that allowed her and her colleagues to separate out more than 10,000 chemical signals in a soil sample from northern Minnesota, and then explore the connections between them. Part of that, said Hess, were the "soft extraction techniques that allow us to liberate organic molecules from the soil," explaining how the team used high-res mass spectrometry to separate out those 10,000-plus compounds.

In her talk she deployed data visualization - a strength at PNNL, both at EMSL and the wider lab - in order to to make sense of the data, and to explore the chemical connections between compounds. She showed the audience several different visualizations, each of which gave a different clue to what is actually occurring in a teaspoonful of soil from the upper Midwest. "The visualization techniques we used," said Hess, "are a great way of revealing the chemical connectivity between the compounds we measured."

Rooms Full of People

And then there were the sessions. After the blockbuster early morning forum on the future of America's water and just before the mid-day Presidential Forum with remarks by H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco (the future of the Earth is at stake, he said of the conference’s science), there was a two-part session on advances in high-resolution climate modeling. One of the conveners was Phil Rasch, chief scientist for climate science at PNNL. "The meeting room is full of people!" wrote Kai Zhang, a PNNL expert in aerosol and cloud microphysics. "The audience is excited about the new findings presented in the plenary talk and the most recent progress made by various global modeling groups."

The session's first half alone, from 8 to 10 a.m., featured eight papers, including AGU-fresh looks at convective storms, the modeling complications of complex terrain, and future climates over Western Europe. (Hint: Bet your Euros on heavier severe rains and more frequent flash flooding.)

PNNL climate scientist Steve Ghan noted that the event drew a standing-room-only crowd.

Talks and sessions aside, AGU offers hour-long events it calls "town halls." The first of the conference introduced and celebrated the uniquely instrumented EMSL. Hess, who is science theme lead there, directed the town hall. Joining her in the event were five top-gun EMSL scientists: Hofmockel, Mary Lipton, Ljiljana Paša-Tolić, Timothy Scheibe, and John Shilling.

Testimonials rolled in. To get intriguing results, offered Georgia Institute of Technology atmospheric scientist Athanasios Nenes, "All we had to do was send the soil samples to EMSL." The experts there, he said, "do these measurements better than anyone else in the world."

Jennifer Pett-Ridge of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who is an EMSL user, said "the folks at EMSL are very much part of our team. We have incorporated them into our experimental design." She has two projects going now that lean on the facility: one is an investigation of "how carbon gets stuck in soil" at the microbial and mineral scale, said Pett-Ridge. And another is looking at carbon cycling in tropical soils, a study that will leverage EMSL’s strong proteomics experience, which centers on Lipton, EMSL’s mass spectrometry lead.

"If people come to EMSL thinking about its capabilities, they’re missing more than half of what EMSL has to offer, which is all about expertise," said John Bargar of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. "EMSL partnerships have transformed our planned research."

Closing the town hall, EMSL scientist Tim Scheibe told the crowd, "We want to work with you early in the process, to help make your science as successful as possible." He directs EMSL's multi-scale modeling and high performance computing capabilities.

Tom Rickey, the PNNL science writer, was at the EMSL town hall, and was impressed at the turnout (50) at an event that went head to head with two big noontime draws: the Prince of Monaco and lunch.

Another town hall caught the attention of PNNL scientists and many others: a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) look at the terrestrial-aquatic interface within the challenges of a changing climate. The TAI, as experts call it, has a big impact on climate by virtue of the scale of its biogeochemical cycling; yet the TAI is a system of climate-relevant feedbacks that are little-known and inadequately modeled.

Todd-Brown, who models carbon cycling in soils, was at the session and on the edge of her seat. During the question-and-answer period she was struck by a couple of remarks: that the DOE, in studying TAI, should stress both the climate and environmental impact of the interface, and not just "climate change," she tweeted. And Todd-Brown said a similar constraining sentiment came up - that the focus should be on river and coastal transport, and not on groundwater.

A Day of Posters Too

The first day at AGU16 was not just a time of big sessions and pointed talks. It was also a day of posters, a science-conference art form that got full play. Take, for example, today’s posters (morning and afternoon) from PNNL researchers, a microcosm of the hard-fought science that has to be wrestled onto poster boards 4 feet high and 6 feet wide.

Starting at 8 a.m., Hansi Alice Singh, a Linus Pauling Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellow at PNNL, stood by her (invited) poster on how a modeled polar hydroclimate responds to carbon dioxide-induced warming. She studies how the oceans and the atmosphere drive polar climate sensitivity, part of a wider research effort to unravel unparalleled climatic changes underway in the Arctic.

"Stopped by," related Rickey. "She is a remarkable communicator. She was discussing, with two very interested students from Oregon State University, the changes in moisture in the polar regions in a warming climate."

He took a look at the poster of Heng Dai, a post-doc at PNNL working with Scheibe and others on the interaction of groundwater and river water flow. His work was very interesting to an official from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. He had sought out Dai's poster to discuss the relevance of the work to understanding the groundwater dynamics around nuclear power plants.

During the afternoon poster session, PNNL scientist Chun Zhao took questions on his ambitious poster about trans-Pacific dust that settled on the western United States from 2010 to 2015, borne by “atmospheric rivers” of air. Zhao's modeling scheme, anticipated in an earlier study, shows how such dust (affecting clouds and precipitation) was distributed, and where it came from - including faraway East and Central Asia, and Africa. His work, as they say in the 21st century, got a lot of "Twitter love" along the way.

Later in the afternoon, Rickey observed that a poster by Kenton Rod was very popular. "Constant activity for three hours," he wrote. "Finally, he got a break to get a refreshment." Spelling Rod for talking sessions in front of the poster was co-author Wooyong Um. (Both men work in the Energy and Environment Directorate at PNNL.) All the fuss was about permeability in fractured wellbore cement, which is relevant to boreholes being considered for carbon sequestration. Kenton and Um consider how to model these fractures, and how to predict their behavior.

Other Monday, Dec. 12 posters by PNNL researchers were swarmed, Rickey observed. “Non-stop interest,” he said of one being explained by lead author Evgueni Kassianov, a PNNL climate scientist. It was about the fate (and climate effect) of atmospheric super-micron particles that are typically generated by wind-blown dust and by the action of breaking oceans waves.

The data was from the DOE’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Climate Research Facility, which has a heavy science footprint at AGU16. It required intensive aircraft observations off the coast of Cape Cod, summer and winter, from June 2012 to June 2013. The results were so surprising, Kassianov told Rickey, that he was presenting them at AGU to get feedback from other researchers in the field.

Meanwhile, another Monday afternoon hit: a poster presented Monday by Eric Bottos, a PNNL post-doc in the microbiology group who was so busy that Rickey could not break in with a question. Granted, Bottos, who was speaking for five co-authors, had a highly sexy topic in hand: how warming will affect stored carbon in the microbiome of permafrost. It was a laboratory project, but the young researcher walked the walk too, joining a team of peers to harvest permafrost cores in Alaska. Their September foray, the most recent, was captured in a clever film by PNNL post-doc Samuel Harding.

Other PNNL Monday posters touched on groundwater transport modeling, enhancing science with social media, "nudged simulations" in climate models, global sediment modeling in river networks, and improvements in land surface modeling. In short, these and others proved again what is known: Science advances by increments.