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The American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting is the largest gathering of Earth scientists in the world.

This article is part of the October-December 2016 issue of the Sound Waves newsletter.

A man, dressed warmly in jacket, hat ,and gloves, talks and points to the yacht harbor behind him, snowy cliffs in background.
Peter Haeussler, research geologist, Alaska Science Center.

USGS scientists are preparing for the 2016 American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting—the largest gathering of Earth scientists in the world. Researchers from the USGS plan to give more than 400 presentations to 24,000 colleagues over five long days in San Francisco. Here are excerpts from interviews with USGS coastal and marine scientists at last year's meeting.

Why do you go to AGU?

Peter Haeussler, research geologist, Alaska Science Center:  
Going to AGU gives us a venue to share what we’ve learned with other scientists around the world. 

Bruce Richmond, research geologist, Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center
[I’m always saying] “Wow, that’s something that I didn’t know about,” or “That’s something that would be useful.” 

Photo looking up at a man wearing safety gear and cold weather clothing holding a big drill with puffy white clouds in the sky.
Bruce Richmond, research geologist, Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center.

Janet Watt, research geophysicist, Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center
I like to go to sessions in areas where I’m not an expert. It gives me a different perspective on the areas where I’m working. At AGU, you can get feedback from anyone who walks by, especially for a poster. It’s another way of getting peer review, but from a much broader audience. 

A woman crouches near equipment on a field with low grasses and shrubs.
Janet Watt, research geophysicist, Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center.

Rob Witter, research geologist, Alaska Science Center: 
AGU provides an incredible opportunity to meet with so many different people at the same place over a series of days. It’s a huge cost savings. [I also evaluate] student presentations. It keeps me up-to-date on the latest science that's happening at universities. 

Describe a typical day at AGU.

Rob Witter
I had breakfast by myself because I wanted to see the first presentation [at my 8:00 session]. I sat through that entire session until my presentation and I enjoyed the session thoroughly. Then I met with two colleagues to discuss ongoing collaboration related to work along the Aleutian Islands, and paleotsunami and paleoseismology research. I [attended] a couple of more talks, then went to the poster session and had several nice encounters.

That evening we had dinner at a nearby restaurant. I got seven people together talking about a new project on the Fairweather fault in southeast Alaska. Some of the people on my team had never met before. It was also a chance for everyone to meet [retired USGS geologist] George Plafker. There was an opportunity to transfer knowledge from someone who’s been working on [Alaskan faults] for decades.

Rob Witter on a beach with driftwood and a large buoy from Japan
Rob Witter, research geologist, Alaska Science Center.

Describe some of the other meetings you have at AGU.

Janet Watt
I have lunches and dinners booked for business, trying to set up new collaborations. 

Bruce Richmond
One of the great things about AGU, it’s the same time and same place every year. We’ve got dinner plans for 18 to 20 people, an international group that we worked with on a number of [tsunami] sites. 

With so many online collaboration tools, why meet face-to-face?

Janet Watt
I think people are more likely to share data and work on collaborations when they can meet face-to-face and connect on a human level. You can get a better feel for people and whether it would be good to collaborate with them. 

Rob Witter:
Face-to-face meetings, so much more gets done, and relationships get built. The challenge is fitting it all in. I was just inviting people for yet another lunch meeting, and my buddy Peter Haeussler said, “Monday works, it’s actually the only lunch I have left.” 

The leading experts in the field were there presenting their work. This stuff hasn’t really seen the light of day yet. I could read a bunch of papers, but I wouldn’t be able to ask authors right in front of me, ask simple questions because I’m not familiar with the method.

What have you learned from previous meetings?

Janet Watt:
I always come out of AGU with more ideas for new projects, or connections with folks outside the USGS. I’ll go into a session and find out something that blows my mind. 

Image: AGU Fall Meeting Poster Hall
One small part of the AGU Fall Meeting’s 6-acre (2.4 hectare) poster hall. Photo credit: Rex Sanders, USGS.

Rob Witter:
In 2012, I presented new findings where we found this amazing record of large tsunamis from a site near Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Right there was another colleague, Rhett Butler [from the University of Hawaiʻi], who had written a paper about this. He came at it from a tsunami-modeling angle, and said “What if there was a big earthquake in the eastern Aleutians? Where would it have to be to really have high impact on Hawaiʻi?” He pointed to this area in the region of Dutch Harbor. That was where they generated an earthquake scenario that would produce a tsunami, which they felt had a great threat to Hawaiʻi. Since then, Hawaiʻi has taken steps to increase their tsunami evacuation zones. It’s exciting. 

Any last thoughts?

Rob Witter:
[The AGU Fall Meeting has] allowed me to maintain my relationships with other scientists that I value greatly. I feel really privileged to be able to go to that meeting. It’s a valuable way continue to learn.

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