Every December, geoscientists descend on San Francisco for the American Geophysical Union annual meeting. It's the time for announcements big and small over a daunting diversity of topics. Summarizing the breadth of research is an exercise in futility, so instead, here's a tiny taste of what was shared.

Seismometers are being used to monitor the structural integrity of aesthetically pleasing but geologically delicate erosion features in national parks.


With upwards of 25,000 geoscientists in attendance the AGU Fall Meeting is epic in the breadth of research crammed into just five days. The timing is also hilariously awful: squeezed between final exams and the holiday season, it's the perfect place for fascinating discoveries and works-in-progress to slip between the cracks. The scientific program this year included 1,700 sessions, each with stories to explore. This is by no means a summary of everything presented, or even the most notable discoveries, but instead is a near-random sample of the types of research discussed in 2014:

Although we knew thunderstorms produce gamma rays, the newest ground-based data is picking up far more than anticipated from previous space-based measurements.

Aerial photos over Antarctica from the 1940s and 1950s are being painstakingly aligned and located to measure volume and mass-balance changes in the glaciers.

Moider Glacier ice loss (red) and gain (green) between 1957 and 2013.

Although the research is still in-progress, initial findings are that as the glaciers retreat with thin-to-disappearing toes, the glacier head actually thickens.


CrowdMag wants to crowdsource magnetic data collection using digital magnetometers in smartphones. Their hope is to map noise sources and watch real-time change, if only they can overcome low instrument sensitivity and high transient environmental noise while convincing people to use the self-surveillance technology of smartphones for science.

Shellfish are excellent at filtering and clarifying water, but new research looks to also use them to monitor water quality.

Sensors track both heart rate and opening times of this mussel. Image credit: Lee Hauser

By hooking sensors up to track the heart rate of mussels, researchers are hoping to use the creatures at biological sensors tracking nitrogen levels.

We have a new record-breaking animal: a fish native to the Mariana Trench now holds the record as the deepest fish, a fish living at depths we only expected to find shellfish and crustaceans.


Multimedia producer for Stanford's School of Earth Sciences Miles Traer went cruising the meeting with sketchbook in-hand, taking cartoon-notes on recent discoveries. He came to the realization that Philae wasn't just the first robot to land on a comet:

Philae: comet-lander and interplanetary sauna robot. Image credit: Miles Traer

Of course, Rosetta and Philea were everywhere at the conference, with an overflow room to the actual room. Unfortunately, quite a few of the images are still restricted, even from scientists working with other instruments on the robots. When Philae landed, it knocked a piece of large, fluffy dust off the comet, and Rosetta caught it.

Initial data from MIDAS, the dust-catcher on Rosetta. Image credit: ESA/Mark Bentley


Exemplifying the constant upside/downside of geoengineering to mitigate climate change, modifying ship engines to produce smaller, brighter bubbles would reflect more sunlight, but may also increase localized rainfall.

The mission scientists from MAVEN, the newest NASA satellite around Mars, were presenting their initial findings on characterizing atmosphere loss from the red planet.

Researchers from the Mars Reconnoissance Orbiter were also attending to present new results from their not-so-new satellite.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Instead of rolling boulders or flowing water, the current model for how these beautiful Martian gullies form is that they're cut by tumbling, sublimating dry ice that later evaporates.


Now the meeting is over and both scientists and journalists are staggering home, we can expect more news to seep out of what the cutting edge of Earth and planetary science looks like this year. At least, as soon as they get over jetlag, decipher their notes, and survive the holiday season.

Were you attending or following along with the livestreams from a distance? What research caught your eye?