My AGU 2023 Highlights

If you are interested in the Earth Sciences, you should consider attending the annual American Geophysical Union annual meeting. It is massive, with over 50,000 attendees, and thousands of scientific presentations, posters, lectures, and films. This can also make it feel overwhelming. Here are some highlights of the December 2023 conference in San Francisco from my point of view.

A former professor of mine, Rich Vogel from Tufts University, gave the Langbein Lecture. Being invited to give a named lectures is a big deal, equivalent to a lifetime achievement award. Even though he retired several years ago, he still publishes tons of papers and hasn’t lost any of his pep. It was a lot of fun.

I have really mixed feelings about poster sessions. On the one hand, it can be fun to get a quick view of a huge amount of research, and to meet researchers in person and talk to them about their work. On the other hand, it can be hard to learn much given the format. The Better Poster movement seems to have made very little impact. A good 95% of the posers are inscrutable walls of text.

One of the fun things about AGU is expanding your mind, and exploring beyond your narrow subdiscipline. I always try to meander and check out new things. The problem is, most of the posters are just totally incomprehensible unless you are already a specialist in a very narrow domain. For many posters, I could not even understand some of the words in the title. But some of them have pretty pictures. Especially in heliophysics and auroras (aurorae?).

I have found that younger scientists really like to talk about their methods. The thing is, that is probably the least interesting aspect of a research project. Unless I am in the same field, I don’t really care about your methods. I want to know about why your findings are important. What is the significance? Tell me why I should care, don’t make me guess. If it takes me more than 15 seconds to figure it out, that is too long.

When you talk to young scientists, a surprising number of them can’t explain the importance or broader significance of their work. I mean, I asked several young people directly, “so what is the importance of your research?” and they could not answer. That’s not just unfortunate, it’s tragic.

One of the most courageous and provocative talks was titled: “Upper Mekong Dams Cause the Highest Dry Season Discharges in 270 Years.” The presenter showed that upstream dams recently constructed in China are releasing so much water during winter months that swamps are being flooded during a season when they should normally be dry. This is causing plants and trees to die, because their roots need to dry out at that time of the year. This is having an impact on ecosystems and local indigenous people. However, the speaker did not give any numbers (in terms of how many hectares of wetlands flooded, or number of people affected), so it’s hard to gauge how serious a problem this is. River flow data from China is a state secret, so the authors had to use models to estimate river flows.

A professor from the University of California at Merced claimed that the only way to prevent Sierra Nevada mountain forests from become a carbon source, rather than a carbon sink, is for them to be logged in perpetuity. This strikes me as an extremely bold claim. And as the saying goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The only evidence for his claim was a modeling study, so rather flimsy in my opinion. I found this conclusion — logging forests slows climate change — to be shocking and counterintuitive. Like the Vietnam Ware era, “we have to burn down the village in order to save it.” I can’t help but wonder where Merced’s funding and ties to the logging industry.

There was lots and lots of machine learning, neural networks, random forests, and artificial intelligence. Definitely a hot topic. Not all scientists are happy about this. Yes, we can get very good predictions, but do these black box models give us any insights into the phenomena we’re studying?

I attended one session purely because the title intrigued me: “Advancing Environmental Justice Initiatives in Historically Underserved Communities and Making Sustainability Accessible to All via the Punk Rock Ethos.” It turns out the speaker attached an empty tin can to a tree to collect cigarette butts. But… wait for it… she did not ask anyone’s permission first (!).

Another speaker in the same session ended by saying we need to abolish all police, militaries, prisons, and the state of Israel. OK, now we’re getting more edgy. (What, pray tell, shall we do with murderers and rapists without prisons?) I’m not sure how credible you are after saying things like that. But it was definitely more punk.

In 2023, everyone had their pronouns on their name badge. I saw a smattering of “they/them”s. There were signs all over about meeting norms and inclusivity. I think that’s pretty cool if it helps make the conference open and comfortable for more people.

AGU got rid of the free beer during the evening poster sessions. I understand that it has led to some unsavory behavior in the past. But I kind of miss it because what student can say no to free beer. Plus it was Sierra Nevada, one of the OG craft beers.

During the “oral” sessions (live presentations), the majority of the audience is glued to their devices the whole time — phones, laptops, and tablets. It’s depressing. But I can’t blame them. Many of the presentations are awful. I admit to consulting my phone more than once when the presentations got dull. Scientists really need a lot more training or guidance on how to deliver an effective presentation. In my talk, I tried to get the audience’s attention by sharing a few self-effacing anecdotes in between talking about science. People always perk up when you complain about dumb comments from a peer reviewer, or arguments you had with your advisor. AGU did sponsor some speaker training led by which I attended, and found rather good. The materials are only available to registered speakers at the conference, but I encourage you to check out the trainer Melissa Marshall’s other materials at

There is no avoiding the fact that the conference is expensive. I heard several people chattering about the salaries of AGU staff. Let’s do a bit of Googling, shall we? OK, wow, the CEO makes $870K. Maybe I’m in the wrong business.

The most famous person online when you google AGU is Rose Abramoff, a scientist who did a 15-second stunt in 2022 when she and others unfurled a banner onstage during a talk, urging scientists to go out and protest against climate change. There was a brief burst of news coverage about how she got kicked out of the conference and then fired from her federal job at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. This year, however, she seems to have been invited back into the fold, as she was a session chair, and she seems to have landed another federal job at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. I wish her well and hope that she continues to sound the alarm about the climate crisis.

Of course a big part of the Earth Sciences has always been driven by oil and gas exploration. It seems I am not the only one that experiences the cognitive dissonance that this brings on. In one hall, you have talks about the havoc and destruction brought on by climate change, while in another they are discussing how to find more fossil fuels.

All in all, the AGU conference is exhausting and exhilarating experience. If you’re in the Earth Sciences, you’re sure to leave with some new ideas and inspiration.