EGU 2022 

Charlie Suitters – c.c.suitters@pgr.reading.ac.uk 

Isabel Smith – i.h.smith@pgr.reading.ac.uk 

Brian Lo – brian.lo@pgr.reading.ac.uk 

What is EGU22? 

With more events resuming as in-person, the European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2022 (EGU22) was no exception. The European Geoscience Union General Assembly is one of the big annual conferences for Earth sciences. For some of us, EGU22 was our first in-person conference overseas, which made it both an exciting and eye-opening experience! This year, 12,332 abstracts were presented with the participation of 7,315 colleagues from 89 countries on-site in Vienna, accompanied by 7,002 virtual attendees from 116 countries. 

Venue of EGU22 – Vienna International Centre

With 791 sessions running throughout the week, working out our personal schedule was a challenge. Luckily, EGU had an online tool we used to add talks to a personal programme, without having to distribute printed programmes. Due to COVID restrictions, all presentations at EGU22 had the same format as short orals. These presentations were delivered and viewed both in-person and online in a hybrid format. Most talks were limited to 5 minutes, which meant it was not the easiest to summarise our work and also deliver effective science to the audience. 

Isabel Smith giving her 5-minute talk at the High-resolution weather and climate simulation session

What is a typical day like at EGU22? 

If you planned to attend an 8.30am session in the morning, then you would have had to take the U-Bahn to the conference centre, crossing your fingers there would be no breakdowns. Most sessions lasted for one and a half hours, consisting of between 15 and 20 presentations with some time for questions and discussion. There were coffee breaks between sessions, where we could recharge with a free flow of coffee and tea.  

A variety of short courses were also on offer, such as “Writing the IPCC AR6 Report: Behind the Scenes” or “Thermodynamics and energetics of the oceans, atmosphere and climate” co-convened by Remi Tailleux from our department. If you are likely to attend this conference in the future, sign up to the EGU newsletter, here you could see further details about the short courses and the EGU staff’s top sessions of the day.  

There was also a large exhibition hall featuring publishing companies and geoscience companies, some of which offered freebies like pens and notebooks. Outside the main exhibition halls, there were picnic benches, usually filled with conference attendees enjoying lunch or an afternoon beer after a full day of conferencing. 

What did we do other than the conference? 

Although there was an impressive showcase of presentations and networking at the 5-day long EGU, we also went sightseeing in and around Vienna. Some of us would take the opportunity of having an extended lunch break to take the U-Bahn to the centre of the city, or an afternoon off to explore a museum, or visit the Donauturm (Danube Tower) for an amazing if windy view of the city. 

We also enjoyed the dinners after long conference days, especially on the night when we filled ourselves with schnitzel larger than the size of our face and had late-night gelato after a few drinks. A few of us stayed over the weekend and visited the outskirts of the city, such as the Schönbrunn Palace and a free panoramic view of Vienna at the top of Leopoldsberg! 

Having met many familiar faces and networked with others in our field, EGU22 was a “Wunderbar” experience we would definitely recommend, especially in person! It is also a great excuse to practise your GCSE German. Just remember the phrase “Können wir die/der Rechnung/Kassenzettel haben, bitte?” if you want to claim back your meals and other expenses from the trip! 

Dinner gathering of past and present members of the University of Reading at EGU22

MeteoXchange 

Supporting International Collaboration for Early Career Researchers 

James Fallon – j.fallon@pgr.reading.ac.uk 
 

What is it? 

Due to lockdowns and travel restrictions since 2020, networking opportunities in science have been transformed. We can expect to see a mix of virtual and hybrid elements persist into the future, offering both cost-saving and carbon-saving benefits. 

The MeteoXchange project aims to become a new platform for young atmospheric scientists from all over the world, providing networking opportunities and platforms for collaboration. The project is an initiative of German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, and research society Deutsche Forschungsgesellschaft. Events are conducted in English, and open to young scientists anywhere. 

ECS Conference 

This year marked the first ever MeteoXchange conference, which took place online in March 2022. The ECS (early career scientists) conference took place over two days, on gather.town. An optional pre-conference event gave the opportunity for new presenters to work on presentation skills and receive feedback at the end of the main conference. 

Figure 1: Conference Schedule, including a keynote on Machine Learning and Earth System Modelling, movie night, and presenter sessions. 

Five presenter sessions were split over two days, with young scientists sharing their research to a conference hall on the virtual platform gather.town. Topics ranged from lidar sensing and reanalysis datasets, to cloud micro-physics and UV radiation health impacts. I really enjoyed talks on the attribution of ‘fire weather’ to climate change, and machine learning techniques for thunderstorm forecasting! The first evening concluded with a screening of documentary Picture a Scientist

During the poster session on the second day, I presented my research poster to different scientists walking by my virtual poster board. Posters were designed to mimic the large A2 printouts seen at in-person events. Two posters that really stood out were a quantification of SO2 emissions from Kilauea volcano in Hawaii, and an evaluation of air quality in Cuba’s Mariel Bay using meteorological diagnostic models combined with air dispersion modelling. 

Anticipating that it might be hard to communicate on the day, I added a lot of text to my poster. However, I needn’t have worried as the virtual platform worked flawlessly for conducting poster Q&A – the next time I present on a similar platform I will try to avoid using as much text and instead focus on a more traditional layout! 

Figure 2: During the poster session, I presented my research on Reserve-Power systems – energy-volume requirements and surplus capacity set by weather events. 

By the conference end, I got the impression that everyone had really enjoyed the event! Awards were given for the winners of the best posters and talks. The ECS conference was fantastically well organised by Carola Detring (DWD) and Philipp Joppe (JGU Mainz), and a wonderful opportunity to meet researchers from around the world. 

MeteoMeets 

Since July 2021, MeteoXchange have held monthly meetups, predominantly featuring lecturers and professors who introduce research at their institute for early career scientists in search of opportunities! 

The opportunities shared at MeteoMeets are complemented by joblists and by the MeteoMap: https://www.meteoxchange.de/meteomap. The MeteoMap lists PhD and postdoc positions across Germany, neatly displayed with different markers depending on the type of institute. This resource is currently still under construction. 

Figure 3: The MeteoMap features research opportunities in Germany, available for early career researchers from across the world. 

Travel Grants 

One of the most exciting aspects of the MeteoXchange project is the opportunity for international collaboration with travel grants! 

The travel funds offered by MeteoXchange are for two or more early career scientists in the field of atmospheric sciences. Students must propose a collaborative project, which aims to spark future work and networking between their own institutions. If the application is successful, students have the opportunity to access 2,500€ for travel funds.  

Over the last two weeks of April, I will be collaborating with KIT student Fabian Mockert  on “Dunkelflauten” (periods of low-renewable energy production, or “dark wind lulls”). Dunkelflauten, especially cold ones, result in high electricity load on national transmission networks, leading to high costs and potentially cause a failure of a fully renewable power system doi.org/10.1038/nclimate3338. We are collaborating to use power system modelling to better understand how this stress manifests itself. Fabian will spend two weeks visiting the University of Reading campus, meeting with students and researchers from across the department. 

Get Involved 

The 2022 travel grant deadline has already closed; however, it is hoped that MeteoXchange will receive funding to continue this project into future years, supporting young researchers in collaboration and idea-exchange. 

To get involved with the MeteoMeets, and stay up to date on MeteoXchange related opportunities, signup to the mailing list

COP Climate Action Studio 2021 and a visit to the Green Zone, Glasgow  

Helen Hooker h.hooker@pgr.reading.ac.uk 

Introduction 

SCENARIO DTP and the Walker Academy offered PhD students the opportunity to take part in the annual COP Climate Action Studio (COPCAS) 2021. COPCAS began with workshops on the background of COP, communication and interviewing skills and an understanding of the COP26 themes and the (massive!) schedule. James Fallon and Kerry Smith were ‘on the ground’ in the Blue Zone, Glasgow in week 1 of COP26, followed by Gwyn Matthews and Jo Herschan during week 2. Interviews were arranged between COP26 observers, and COPCAS participants back in Reading who were following COP26 events in small groups through livestream. Students summarised the varied and interesting findings by writing blog posts and engaging with social media.

Figure 1: COPCAS in action.   

Motivation, training and week 1 

Personally, I wanted to learn more about the COP process and to understand climate policy implementation and action (or lack thereof). I was also interested to learn more about anticipatory action and forecast based financing, which relate to my research. After spending 18 months working remotely in my kitchen, I wanted to meet other students and improve formulating and asking questions! I found the initial training reassuring in many ways, especially finding out that so many people have dedicated themselves to drive change and find solutions. During the first week of COP26 we heard about so many positive efforts to combat the climate crisis from personal actions to community schemes, and even country wide ambitious projects such as reforestation in Costa Rica. A momentum seemed to be building with pledges to stop deforestation and to reduce methane emissions.

Green Zone visit 

Figure 2: Green Zone visit included a weekend full of exhibitors, talks, films and panel discussions plus a giant inflatable extracting COvia bouncing!

During the middle weekend of COP26, some of us visited the Green Zone in Glasgow. This was a mini version of the Blue Zone open to the public and offered a wide variety of talks and panel discussions. Stand out moments for me: a photograph of indigenous children wearing bamboo raincoats, measuring the length of Judy Dench’s tree, the emotive youth speakers from Act4Food Act4Change and the climate research documentary Arctic Drift where hundreds of scientists onboard a ship carried out research whilst locked into the polar winter ice-flow.  

COPCAS Blog 

During COPCAS I wrote blogs about: a Green Zone event from Space4climate, an interview by Kerry Smith with SEAChange (a community-based project in Aberdeenshire aiming to decarbonise old stone buildings) and Sports for climate action. I also carried out an interview arranged by Jo with WWF on a food systems approach to tackling climate change.

Ultimately though, the elephant in the large COP26 Blue Zone room had been there all along…

Interview with Anne Olhoff, Emissions Gap Report (EGR) 2021 Chief scientific editor and Head of Strategy, Climate Planning and Policy, UNEP DTU Partnership.

Figure 3: Source: UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2021 updated midway through week two of COP26 accounting for new pledges. 

Time is running out, midway through the second week of COP26, the United Nations Environmental Partnership (UNEP) presented its assessment on the change to global temperature projections based on the updated pledges so far agreed in Glasgow.  

Pledges made prior to COP26 via Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) put the world on track to reach a temperature increase of 2.7C by the end of the century. To keep the Paris Agreement of keeping warming below 1.5C this century, global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 55% in the next eight years. At this point in COP26, updated pledges now account for just an 8% reduction – this is 7 times too small to keep to 1.5C and 4 times too small to keep to 2C. Updated projections based on COP26 so far now estimate a temperature rise of 2.4C by 2100. Net-zero pledges could reduce this by a further 0.5C, however plans are sketchy and not included in NDCs. So far just five of the G20 countries are on a pathway to net-zero.

Anne’s response regarding policy implementation in law: 

“Countries pledge targets for example for 2030 under the UN framework for climate change and there’s no international law to enforce them, at least not yet. Some countries have put net-zero policies into law, which has a much bigger impact as the government can be held accountable for the implementation of their pledges.” 

Following my own shock at the size of the emissions gap, I asked Anne if she feels there has been any positive changes in recent years: 

“I do think we have seen a lot of change, actually…the thing is, things are not moving as fast as they should. We have seen change in terms of the commitment of countries and the policy development and development in new technology needed to achieve the goals, these are all positive developments and here now, changing the whole narrative, just 2 years ago no one would have thought we’d have 70 countries setting net-zero emission targets…we are also seeing greater divergence between countries, between those making the effort to assist the green transition such as the UK, EU and others, and those further behind the curve such as China, Brazil and India. It’s important to help these countries transition very soon, peaking emissions and rapidly declining after that.”   

I asked Anne how countries on track can support others: 

“A lot of the great things here (at COP) is to strengthen that international collaboration and sharing of experiences, it’s an important function of the COP meeting, but we need to have the political will and leadership in the countries to drive this forward.” 

Summary 

The momentum that was apparent during the first week of COP26 seemed to have stalled with this update. Despite the monumental effort of so many scientists, NGOs, individuals and those seeking solutions from every conceivable angle, the pledges made on fossil fuel reduction are still so far from what is needed. And at the final hour (plus a day), the ambition to ‘phaseout’ burning coal was changed to ‘phasedown’ and the financial contributions from developed nations pledged to cover loss and damage to countries not responsible for, but impacted now by climate change, have not been realised. I think this is the first time I have really felt the true meaning of ‘climate justice’. Perhaps we do need a planet law, as it seems our political leaders, do not have the will.

Overall, the COPCAS experience has been enjoyable, slightly overwhelming and emotional! It has been great to work together and to share the experiences of those in the Blue zone. It was also an amazing learning experience; I think I have barely touched the surface of the entire COP process and I would still like to understand more.

The EGU Experience 2021: a PhD student perspective

Max Coleman – m.r.coleman@pgr.reading.ac.uk

Chloe Brimicombe – c.r.brimicombe@pgr.reading.ac.uk

The European Geoscience Union General Assembly is one of the big annual conferences for atmospheric science (and Earth sciences more generally). The two of us were fortunate to have the opportunity to attend and present our research at this year’s vEGU21 conference. As has been done in previous years like in 2019 we’re here to give you an account of our EGU experience 😀 (so you can compare our virtual experience with the previous posts if you like 😉) 

Entrance hall to virtual EGU (Source: Linda Speight) 

What was vEGU21? 

EGUv21 was the general assembly for 2021 online. It took place from the 19th to the 30th April EGU. Through an impressive virtual conference center and mostly Zoom. 

What was your presentation on? 

Chloe –  I presented borderless heat stress in the extreme heat events session, which is based on a paper currently under review at Earth’s Future, where we show that heat stress is growing in the area during the month of August. The invited speaker to the session was Laura Suarez-Gutierrez and it was a great presentation on the dynamics of increasing heat extremes with climate change across Europe. I really enjoyed learning about the latest research in the extreme heat area. 

Max – I presented on my work using model nudging to study aerosol radiative adjustments. I presented in the session ‘Chemistry, Aerosols and Radiative Forcing in CMIP6-era models’, which was convened and hosted by Reading’s very own Bill Collins. There were many interesting presentations in this session, including presentations on the balance between climate and air quality benefits by Robert Allen and Steve Turnock; a summary of the Aerosol Chemistry Model Intercomparison Project (AerChemMIP) findings by UoR’s Gill Thornhill; and a personal favourite concerned the impacts of different emissions pathways in Africa on local and global climate, and local air pollution effects on mortality, presented by Chris Wells. 

Chloe presenting: would win an award for most interesting screenshot. (Source: Maureen Wanzala) 

What were your favourite aspects of the conference? 

Chloe – Apart from my session one of my favorite’s was on climate services. This focused on the application of meteorological and hydrology data to services for example health heat impacts and growing grapes and olives. I also enjoyed the panel on the climate and ecological emergency in light of COVID-19 including Katherine Hayhoe and the session on equality, diversity and inclusion; it was interesting how ‘listening’ to those impacted was an overlapping theme in these. The weirdest, loveliest experience was my main supervisor sending me a colouring page of her face

Max – As with any conference it was a great opportunity to learn about the latest research in my specific field, as well as learning about exciting developments in other fields, from machine learning applications in earth science to observational studies of methane emissions. Particularly, it’s a nice change from just reading about them in papers.Having conversations with presenters gives you the opportunity to really dive in and find out what motivated their research initially and discuss future applications. For example, one conversation I had went from discussing their application of unsupervised machine learning in classifying profiles of earth system model output, to learning about it’s potential for use in model intercomparisons.  

Katherine Hayhoe in the session Climate and Ecological Emergency: can a pandemic help save us? (Source: Chloe Brimicombe) 

What was your least favourite aspect? 

Chloe – I did manage to do a little networking. But I’d love to experience an in person conference where I present. I have never presented my research in real life at a conference or research group/department seminar 😱. We also miss out on a lot of free food and pens not going to any in life conferences, which is what research is about 😉. Also, I find it difficult to stay focused on the conference when it’s online.  

Max – For me the structure of two minute summaries followed by breakout Zoom rooms for each speaker had some definite drawbacks. For topics outside one’s own field, I found it difficult to really learn much from many of the summaries – it’s not easy to fit something interesting for experts and non-experts into two minutes! In theory you can go speak to presenters in their breakout rooms, but there’s something awkward about entering a zoom breakout room with just you and the presenter, particularly when you aren’t sure exactly how well you understood their two minute summary.  

In light of your vEGU21 experience, what are your thoughts on remote vs traditional conferencing? 

Max – Overall I think virtual conferencing has a way to go before it can match up to the in person experience. There were the classic technical issues of anything hosted remotely: the ‘I think you’re on mute’ experience, other microphone issues, and even the conference website crashing on the first day of scientific sessions (though the organisers did a swift job getting the conference back up and running). But there’s also the less obvious, such as it feeling actually quite a lonely experience. I’ve only been to a couple of in-person conferences, but there were always some people I knew and could meet up with. But it’s challenging to recreate this online, especially for early career researchers who don’t have as many established connections, and particularly at a big conference like the EGU general assembly. Perhaps a big social media presence can somewhat replace this, but not everyone (including myself!) is a big social media user. .  

On the other hand, it’s great that we can still have conferences during a global pandemic, and no doubt is better than an absence of them entirely. Above all else, it’s also much greener and more accessible to those with less available funding for conference travel (though new challenges of accessibility, such as internet quality and access, undoubtedly arise). Plus, the facility to upload various display materials and people to look back at them whenever they like, regardless of time zones, is handy.  

Chloe – I’d just add, as great as Twitter is and can be for promoting your research, it’s not the same as going for a good old cup of tea (or cocktail) with someone. Also, you can have the biggest brightest social media, but actually be terrible at conveying your research in person. 

Summary 

Overall it was interesting to take part in vEGU21, and we were both glad we went. It didn’t quite live up to the in person experience – and there is definitely room for improvements for virtual conferencing – but it’s great we can still have these experiences, albeit online.  

Extra conference funding: how to apply and where to look

Shannon Jones – s.jones2@pgr.reading.ac.uk

The current PhD travel budget of £2000 doesn’t go far, especially if you have your eye on attending the AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco. If the world ever goes back to normal (and fingers crossed it will – though hopefully with more greener travel options, and remote participation in shorter conferences?) you might wonder how you are ever going to afford the conferences your supervisors suggest. Luckily, there are many ways you can supplement your budget. Receiving travel grants not only means more conferences (and more travel!), but it also looks great on your CV. In this blog post I share what I have learnt about applying for conference grants and list the main places to apply.

Sources of funding include…

Graduate School Travel Support Scheme

  • Open to 2nd and 3rd year PhD students at the university (or equivalent year if part-time) 
  • 1 payment per student of up to £200 
  • Usually 3 deadlines throughout the year 

There are two schemes open to all PhD students who are members of the IOP (any PhD student who has a degree in physics or a related subject can apply to become a member)

Research Student Conference Fund

  • Unlimited payments until you have received £300 in total
  • 4 deadlines throughout the year: 1st March, 1st June, 1st September and 1st December 
  • Note: you apply for funding from an IOP group, and the conference must be relevant to the group. For example, most meteorology PhD students would apply for conference funding from the Environmental Physics group. You get to choose which groups to join when you become an IOP member. 

CR Barber Trust

  • 1 payment per student of £100-£300 for an international conference depending on the conference location 
  • Apply anytime as long as there is more than a month before the proposed conference 

Legacies Fund

Conference/Meeting Travel Subsistence

From the conference organiser

  • Finally, many conferences offer their own student support, so it’s always worth checking the conference website to see 
  • Both EGU and AGU offer grants to attend their meetings each year 

Application Tips

Apply early!!!

Many of these schemes take months to let you know whether you have been successful. Becoming a member can also take a while, especially when societies only approve new members at certain times of the year. So, it’s good to talk to your supervisor and make a conference plan early on in your PhD, so you know when to apply. 

Writing your application

Generally, these organisations are keen to give away their funds, you just have to write a good enough application. Keep it simple and short: remember the person reading the application is very unlikely to be an expert in your research. It can be helpful to ask someone who isn’t a scientist (or doesn’t know your work well) to read it and highlight anything that doesn’t make sense to them. 

Estimating your conference expenses

You are usually expected to provide a breakdown of the conference costs with every application. The main costs to account for are: 

  • Accommodation: for non-UK stays must apply for a quote through the university travel agent 
  • Travel: UK train tickets over £100 and all international travel must be booked by university too 
  • Subsistence: i.e. food! University rules used to say this could be a maximum of £30 per day – check current guidelines 
  • Conference Fees: the conference website will usually list this 

The total cost will depend on where the conference is. You are generally expected to choose cheaper options, but there is some flexibility. As a rough guide: a 4-day conference within the UK cost me around £400 (in 2019) and a 5-night stay in San Francisco to attend AGU cost me around £2200 (in 2019).  

Reading PhD students at Union Square, San Francisco for AGU! 

Good luck! Feel free to drop me an email at s.jones2@pgr.reading.ac.uk if you have any questions 😊 

Organising a virtual conference

Gwyneth Matthews – g.r.matthews@pgr.reading.ac.uk

A Doctoral Training Programme (DTP) provides funding, training, and opportunities for many PhD students in our department. Every year three environmentally focused DTPs: the SCENARIO NERC DTP, the London NERC DTP, and the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet (SSCP) DTP, combine forces to hold a conference bringing together hundreds of PhD students to present their work and to network. As for many conferences in 2020, COVID19 disrupted our plans for the Joint DTP conference.  Usually the conference is hosted at one of the universities involved with a DTP however, this year it was held virtually using a mixture of Zoom and Slack. 

The decision to go virtual was difficult. We had to decide early in the pandemic when we didn’t know how long the lockdown would last nor what restrictions would be in place in September. If possible, we wanted to keep the conference in-person so that attendees got the full experience as it’s often the first time the new cohort meet and one of the few chances for the DTPs to mingle. However, as meeting and mingling was, and is, very much discouraged, making the decision to go virtual early on meant we had time to re-organise.  

Figure 1 – It was initially planned to hold the conference at the University of Surrey campus, which is located in Guildford, Surrey and hosts some students from the SCENARIO NERC DTP. The conference was instead held on Slack, an online communication platform that allows content to be divided into channels, and presentation sessions were hosted on Zoom.

When we thought we were organising a conference to be held at the University of Surrey, the main theme was “Engaging Sustainability” with the aim of making the conference as sustainable as possible. Since one of the often-made criticisms of conferences, especially those within the environmental fields, is the impact of large numbers of people travelling to one place, a virtual conference has obvious environmental benefits. An additional benefit was that we could invite guest speakers, such as Mya-Rose Craig (aka Bird Girl @birdgirluk), who may not have been able to attend if the event was held in person. It was also easier for some participants who had other commitments, such as childcare, to attend, although poor internet connection was an issue for others. 

The pandemic exposed, and often enhanced, many issues within academia and society in general. A questionnaire sent out before the event showed that most attendees were finding working from home and all other pandemic induced changes exhausting and mentally challenging. The recent Black Lives Matter protests around the world and the disproportionate impact of COVID on ethnic minority communities highlighted both the overt and systemic racism that is still prevalent in society. The UK Research and Innovation COVID funding controversy, and an increased focus on the challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ researchers emphasised the inequalities and poor representation specifically experienced in academia. Scientists working at the forefront of the pandemic response faced the challenge of providing clear information to enable people and policy makers to take life-disrupting actions before they are directly impacted; a challenge familiar to climate and environmental scientists. These issues gave us our topics for the external sessions which focused on wellbeing, inclusivity and diversity in academia, and communicating research.  

Barring technical difficulties, oral presentations are easy to replicate online, however, virtual conferences held earlier this year often had issues with recreating the poster sessions. Attempting to learn from these snags, instead of replicating an in-person poster session and possibly producing a poor-quality knock-off, participants were asked to create an animated “Twitter poster”. These were required to describe the key points of their research in a simple format that could be shared on social media and that was accessible to a non-expert. The posters were available for comments and questions throughout the two days in one easy-to-find location. Many of the participants shared their posters on Twitter after the conference using the conference hashtag #JointDTPCon.  

Another issue we faced was how to run a social and networking event. We kept the social event simple. A quiz. A pandemic classic with a fantastic double act as hosts. Randomly assigned teams meant that new connections could be made. However, the quiz was held online and after a full day of video calls most people didn’t want to spend their evenings also starring at a screen.  

Fig 2 – Jo Herschan and Lucinda King, members of the SCENARIO DTP and on the conference organising committee, hosted an entertaining quiz on the first night of the conference. An ethical objects photo round linked the quiz to the conference’s main theme.

With everyone having stayed at home and everything being conducted virtually for a few months by the time of our conference, Zoom fatigue was an issue we were aware could occur and tried to counter as much as possible during the day without losing any of the exciting new research being presented. In the weeks running up to the conference we had several discussions about how to encourage people to move throughout the two days without missing any of the sessions they wanted to attend. We decided on two ideas: a yoga session and a walking challenge. The yoga session was a success and not only gave participants an opportunity to stretch in the middle of the day but also linked strongly to our theme of researcher wellbeing. The walking challenge was not as successful. The aim was that collectively the conference participants would walk the distance from Land’s End to John O’Groats. We did not make it that far; but we did make it out of Cornwall. 

Fig 3 – Using World Walking to track the distance, we intended to collectively walk the 1576km (or 2,299,172 steps) from Land’s End to John O’Groats. This may have been an optimistic endeavour as we only achieved 235km (343, 311 steps).  

Helping to organise a virtual conference as part of an enthusiastic committee was a lot of fun and attending the conference and learning about the research being undertaken (from fungi in Kew Gardens to tigers in North Korea) was even more fun. There is still enormous room for improvement in virtual conferences, but since they aren’t as well established as traditional in-person conferences there’s also a lot of flexibility for each conference to be designed differently. Once we’re through the pandemic and in-person conferences return it’d be nice for some of these benefits to be maintained as hybrid conferences are designed.   

The philosophy of climate science

Email: m.prosser@pgr.reading.ac.uk

On the recommendation of my supervisor, I along with Javier Amezcua, Vicky Lucas and Benedict Hyland represented Reading Meteorology at the Institute of Physics (IOP) “Studying the Climate: A Challenge of Complexity” conference on February 6th, 2020. The programme and speaker list can be viewed here. It was a fantastic set of speakers delivering many a killer point in front of an engaged audience.

While some may consider the philosophy of science a complicating distraction, I think I ignore it at my peril. Certainly climate science is not without its philosophical issues; one might even say it is riddled with them…

David Stainforth (LSE), the keynote speaker stated it thus:
“The study of anthropogenic climate change presents a range of fundamental challenges for scientific and wider academic inquiry. The essential nature of these challenges are often not well appreciated.”

So how does climate science compare with other natural sciences? Opinions abounded, but here are just some I can recall:
1 – We can’t really conduct controlled experiments in the way that other natural scientists can, as we have just the one Earth and can’t turn back time (we have to beware of post-hoc explanations, and some of our predictions may never be verifiable/falsifiable).
2 – We therefore rely heavily on numerical models.
3 – We’re also doing our science while the climate is changing around us, and thus there is a strong sense of urgency.
4 – There is therefore a pressure to be multidisciplinary.

On a more practical side, David’s talk left me with a novel way of thinking about ‘climate’. Thinking about a climate metric, such as temperature, I would have thought hitherto of simply a mean and a standard deviation (a very Gaussian way of looking at it!). But David argued that climate is often best conceived of as a more generalised distribution. While a bell curve is symmetric, unimodal, a distribution need not be (and this can be true in the climate system). Studying and predicting a stable climate distribution may already be difficult but studying and predicting a changing one is even harder!

A visualisation of global sea surface temperatures. (Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory)

Now for a bit of a whirlwind tour of other arguments/points. There was Reading’s own Ted Shepherd arguing that in climate science we often over focus on avoiding false positives (type I errors) at the expense of incurring false negatives (type II). In other words, we get reliability at the price of informativeness, especially at the regional level where policy makers are somewhat eager to be informed.

Then there was Geoff Vallis (University of Exeter) who posed the question “If models were perfect, would we care how they worked?”. Perhaps a pertinent question, as there appears to be a trade-off, an inverse correlation between complexity of models and our ability to understand them. If the models became so complex that they were beyond the abilities of any human past or future to comprehend, what would we do then? If they become as complicated as the Earth system itself, surely we would have long since lost any grasp on them? Indeed, models already appear to be predicting phenomena without us understanding why. Complexity is not necessarily accuracy (How do we assess accuracy in climate science?) and Erica Thompson (LSE) highlighted the importance of ‘getting out of model land’, and staying with the real world, something some of us may need occasional reminding of.

What even are models? Two expressions given were ‘book-keeping devices’ (Wendy Parker) and ‘Prosthesis of your brain (Erica Thompson). No doubt there were others.

Marina Baldissera Pacchetti (University of Leeds) talked about her work on climate information for adaptation that gives us: “guidelines on when quantitative statements about future climate are warranted and potentially decision-relevant, when these statements would be more valuable taking other forms (for example, qualitative statements), and when statements about future climate are not warranted at all.”

In the afternoon, there were breakout ‘lightning’ discussions. We could choose to join 1 of the following 8 groups:

1. Should we aim to estimate the mean/expectation behaviour of the climate or focus on the worst-case?
2. Is the way we go about climate science now the only way of doing it?
3. If our computers were infinitely fast, what science would we do with them?
4. If our models were infinitely good, what science would be left to do?
5. What fact, if only we knew it, would have the biggest impact on climate change?
6. How should climate science approach the question of geoengineering?
7. What is the benefit to society of general circulation models?
8. What is the public needing to know, and are we working enough on these questions?

My group was 3, but we ended up accidentally merging with 4 and made for a very interesting and varied discussion!

Which group would you have been most pulled towards had you been there? What philosophical thoughts on climate science have you had? What do you think is the most under-appreciated? I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

Many thanks to the event organiser Goodwin Gibbins (Imperial) and all involved for a thoroughly enjoyable and stimulating day.

If anyone would like to get more into the Philosophy of Science, I would recommend this thoroughly engaging 10-hour course of lecture by the Uni of Toronto on YouTube, the trailer of which can be viewed here.

The 27th General Assembly of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG) in Montréal, Canada

Earlier this month (9th – 17th July, 2019), Elena Saggioro and I from the Mathematics of Planet Earth Centre of Doctoral Training (MPE CDT) were in Montréal for the General Assembly of the IUGG, a quadrennial gathering of nearly 4000 geoscientists from all over the world sharing their latest scientific advances.

At the conference centre.

The IUGG, which celebrates its centenary this year, is an international organisation ‘dedicated to advancing, promoting, and communicating knowledge of the Earth system, its space environment, and the dynamical processes causing change’ (from the Mission Statement on its website).  The IUGG consists of eight constituent associations, among which the International Association of Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences (IAMAS) and the International Association for the Physical Sciences of the Oceans (IAPSO) are of the most relevance to meteorology students here in Reading.  Other fields under the IUGG umbrella include hydrology, cryospheric sciences, seismology, volcanology, geodesy and geomagnetism.

In the General Assembly I presented a poster on my own PhD research, revisiting and proposing a new argument for the finite-time barrier of weather predictability. The poster turned out to be popular, with a good number of scientists visiting and discussing in depth. It is great to know these people, especially those who work in the relatively small field of predictability. Earlier that day, Elena gave an interesting talk on studying southern-hemisphere stratosphere-troposphere coupling using casual network. A member in the audience came to her after the talk for a follow-up chat which lasted for hours! In addition, our supervisor Ted Shepherd gave a solicited talk advocating his storylines approach to the construction of regional climate-change information.

Elena Saggioro’s oral presentation.
With my poster.

For the variety of subjects covered, the General Assembly was also an excellent opportunity for us to interact with geoscientists of other fields and to get an idea of their research. I did this primarily through the poster sessions, as there’s already so much going on in the oral-presentation sessions of the IAMAS symposia (just a matter of fact: the IAMAS, at 21%, was by far the association with the most attendees), and because it’s easier for a beginner to learn through interacting with a poster presenter than listening to short talks that usually presume some background knowledge in the field. The outcome of visiting posters in such an international conference could be somewhat unexpected. This time, I gave a little more focus on posters from remote parts of the world and learnt how research is being done in these places. To give an example, I saw how hydrologists in French Polynesia use analogue techniques to forecast rainfall and flood on the island of Tahiti which has a complex geography of drainage basins (poster by Lydie Sichoix, University of French Polynesia). This is a very challenging problem, and I think their commitment to protecting the public’s safety during floods is clear, yet there’s only so much they can do as they don’t have the money to buy even a single RADAR instrument for nowcasting. The situation in underprivileged places like this definitely deserves more attention.

Aside from the scientific programme, Elena and I spent some time as a tourist in Montréal. We are delighted to learn how committed Montréal is to sustainability and climate-change adaptation. The Biosphère Museum of the Environment nicely outlines the resilient city’s master plan 50 years ahead: new space reserved for nature in the city centre, green alleyways throughout the city, and harvesting storm and rain water are just a few examples in their long-term plan.

The Biosphère Museum.

Montréal is also rich in history, culture and diversity. Churches and museums are everywhere. There were also a multi-cultural festival and a series of fireworks depicting different national themes during our stay, and we went to some of them. Situated along St Lawrence’s River, the city is also home to a range of water sports, including white-water rafting which was a fun experience. Before coming home, Elena and I went up to Mount Royal for an exhilarating view of Montréal, a city that we much enjoyed!

A panoramic view from the Mount Royal Lookout.