Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The 9th International Carbon Dioxide Conference - Beijing

Firstly, apologies for my long absence.

Not so long ago I was fortunate enough to attend the 9th International Carbon Dioxide Conference, hosted in Beijing by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. It was truly my first big international conference, and an opportunity to present the first set of results I had obtained. Well of course that’s what I said I was going to do ... It seemed that almost as soon as I submitted my abstract and it was accepted for a poster presentation (I was at first a bit disappointed, until I saw the author list of those presenting orals and realised that perhaps just listening would be a good thing this time round) that things started to delay my ambitions of having all my results wrapped up by the time of the conference. But through many late nights and many more antacids later, I was able to assemble something with which I was rather pleased. This in part played a role in my disappearance from the carbon science blogging scene.

When I finished off my poster, I thought I was being terribly clever when I put the link to the @CapeCarbon twitter account at the end of the poster. I then discovered that Twitter is not accessible in China – which was a bit of a buzz kill. So much for that grand idea.

The conference was an eye opening experience and a carbon science nerd’s dream! I can honestly say that almost my entire PhD reference list was walking about the conference. And if someone wasn't there themselves, then their students were there presenting collaborative work. I very often had to restrain myself from asking for autographs and taking pictures with famous (in my mind) scientists whose work I had poured over for hours and hours, resulting in severely dog-eared papers with plenty of my own scribbles as I’d tried to mould it into something I could understand and grasp.

Two such scientists based at the LSCE in Paris (Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement - are Philippe Ciais and Philippe Peylin. Their work features heavily in my literature review, and at one stage I had one of them standing on my left and the other on my right while they were having a discussion with my supervisor. I found myself searching the crowd for my South African colleague so that I could telepathically communicate to him to please take a picture!

A picture of Ralph Keeling who features in an earlier post
That was the other great opportunity presented to me by the conference – I got to meet up with my Australian supervisor, Dr. Peter Rayner from the University of Melbourne, and have an entire week to discuss, in person, the technical issues I’d been wrestling with over the past weeks leading up to the conference, as well as to meet in person a fellow collaborator with whom I’d had many an email conversation. For those people starting a PhD, I can only hope for you that you have a supervisor like Dr. Rayner. He has a unique grasp of the science behind atmospheric transport as well as the statistics of inverse modelling, which he is able to elucidate to another person in such a way that you can actually see the light bulb blinking on as a once complicated and hostile battlefield of detail and facts is turned into a tangible, achievable process. Preceding the conference, I had gone through a bit of the “PhD blues”, and had avoided discussing my concerns with any of my supervisors. This was a terrible mistake, and once I’d had my first conversation with Dr. Rayner in the weeks before the conference (a marathon two hour Skype meeting), I felt the glumness lift off of me, and I was given direction once again and able to forge on ahead. A PhD is not for the weak, let me tell you. If you thought you were emotionally unhinged before, just try one of these on for size.

Anyway! What did I take away from the conference? Well many of the presentations were on trends in carbon dioxide levels – and yes, carbon dioxide concentrations are going up. We are definitely not doing enough yet to prevent a more than two degree average temperature increment into the future. It may level off now and then, but now that we are starting to have the first really long term carbon dioxide time series datasets, it’s clear that levels are rising. And from these kinks in the carbon dioxide trend we also know that we are not doing such a great job yet in predicting the complicated interaction between the climate and the carbon cycle, particularly the component related to the land surface. That means that we need more measurements and we need better models. I also learnt that carbon scientists lean a little bit towards the cynical side – you need to in order to survive the carbon science/climate science game.

A rather thought provoking cartoon posted by one of the presenters on the last day of the conference

When I wasn't gawking at famous scientists or straining to take in every bit of information I could sponge from the presentations, the conference organisers were doing a great job of keeping us busy on tours around Beijing. I even managed, along with my South African colleague, to venture the streets of Beijing and discover a bit of the history and culture of the city. 
At The Summer Palace - Residence of The Dragon Lady
The Great Wall of China

The Forgotten City
More to follow soon!

Another article on the breaching of the 400ppm carbon dioxide level in the New York Times:

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