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American Geophysical Union

December 6, 2005 By Alexandra Witze This article courtesy of Nature News.

The ground is practically shaking in San Francisco as roughly 12,000 earth scientists gather for the annual earthfest of the American Geophysical Union's fall meeting. Alexandra Witze reports.

Something to be thankful for at AGU

Beer in the exhibit halls. Starting at 4 p.m.

Suited and booted

Andrew Castaldi looked out of place before he even took the podium in the Moscone convention center. "As you can probably tell by the way I dress, I'm not a scientist," he cracked, wearing an immaculate dark suit. Jeans-clad geophysicists broke out into self-deprecating applause.

Castaldi's jokes were quickly tempered by the enormity of his message. He works for the reinsurance giant Swiss Re, and he was here to talk about the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. He flashed picture after picture of the US Gulf coast. There were floating casinos that had been picked up by the storm surge and smashed into fixed buildings. Oil platforms that had flipped upside-down, probably after being struck by a barge. A condominium building whose upper stories were perfectly fine, but whose bottom three floors had been washed away.

The saddest thing, according to Castaldi, was that scientists and insurers had said, time and again, that such a catastrophe was coming. Yet no one is willing to accept that risk - either by paying for insurance premiums or simply listening to warnings to evacuate. "People refuse to believe anything unless they've seen it already," he said.

Santa Claus is coming to town

Day two of the AGU meeting, and it’s time for some serious shopping. In between the scientific publishers and hawkers of geophysical equipment, the exhibit halls here also feature mineral dealers. Fossil trilobites compete for space with amber bracelets, rhodochrosite specimens, and amethyst earrings. It’s not quite the annual blowout of the Tucson gem and mineral show, but it’s enough of a selection that many scientists show up each year bearing Christmas gift lists.

Exhibitor Jim Walker, who runs a California mineral company called Ikon, says the AGU is one of his best meetings of the year. He takes his wares to other scientific conventions – the Geological Society of America, the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists – but says that AGU is one of his most lucrative gigs.

So how do geophysicists stack up against geologists when it comes to shopping, I ask. “These guys here are much more well-heeled,” Walker says. AGU attendees don’t just buy cheap polished gemstones; they pony up for rare meteorites and other high-end material.

As Walker and I talk, journalist Rich Monastersky sheepishly slides a package of plastic-wrapped minerals across the counter, ready for purchase. Asked if they are for him or for his children, Monastersky declines comment.

“We function as bribe providers,” Walker explains. “When you get home and come through the door, you’d better have something in your hands for your family.”

Suitably chastened, I purchase three pairs of earrings for Christmas gifts.

Comic capers

It can be hard getting kids excited about the ionosphere. In fact, it's hard for me, your dedicated science correspondent, to get excited about the ionosphere. That's why I stopped at an intriguing poster this morning, which promised the unlikely spectacle of a comic book about the upper layers of the atmosphere.

It's probably safe to say this is the world's only comic book - ahem, I mean, graphic novel - featuring the ionosphere. "CINDI In Space" is based on the Coupled Ion Neutral Dynamic Investigation instrument, which scientists hope will soar into space sometime next spring to study both charged and neutral particles up there.

Student artist Erik Levold has transformed CINDI the instrument into Cindi the android spacegirl, complete with anime-big eyes and perky orange hair. Cindi and her form-fitting jumpsuit spend pages tracking down errant "space dogs", some of which are positively charged and energetic, while others are listless, neutral pooches. Rounding up the space dogs provides a back-door lesson about the various particles in the ionosphere.

Marc Hairston and Mary Urquhart of the University of Texas at Dallas, who created the comic, hope it will get kids more interested in science. And it may very well work: technical-looking diagrams about ion drift meters are sneaked in between action shots of Cindi scooping up those energetic space dogs.

Now, if only the hydrologists could come up with a comic book to make stream gauges more interesting. Then we'd really have something.

For more on the CINDI comic book, check out .

San Francisco is a great city - and a great place not to live.

In 1906, a huge earthquake and the resulting fires leveled the city. More than half of San Francisco's 400,000 residents were left homeless. At least 3,000 were killed.

Researchers at the US Geological Survey have exhaustively surveyed the damage from that magnitude 7.9 earthquake, and tried their hardest to predict what might happen if it struck today. San Francisco now has 770,000 residents, many of whom live in homes constructed before strict earthquake building comes came into force in the 1970s.

A busload of reporters took a tour today of key sites affiliated with the great 1906 quake. As we drove from stop to stop, we gawked at the architectural marvels of the City by the Bay, including beautifully painted row homes precariously balanced atop ground-floor garages. During the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, houses such as these crashed down, the garages pancaking beneath the living quarters.

In the Marina district, we toured new buildings constructed to replace those that had slid into the liquefying sands. South of San Francisco, we traced the outline of the storied San Andreas fault right through a housing development.

I've lived in earthquake country before; I've been jolted out of bed at 5 a.m. by a magnitude-6.2 tremor nearly underfoot. I know that quakes are part of the cost of living in such a gorgeous landscape. But today, after seeing all those garages just waiting to be flattened, I couldn't help but be glad I live in a stable tectonic backwater: Maryland.


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