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GeoTalk: Meet the EGU’s president, Alberto Montanari

GeoTalk: Meet the EGU’s president, Alberto Montanari

GeoTalk interviews usually feature the work of early career researchers, but this month we deviate from the standard format to speak to Alberto Montanari, president of the EGU. Alberto has a long-standing involvement with the Union, stretching back more than 15 years. Following a year as vice-president, Alberto was appointed president at this year’s General Assembly in Vienna. Here we talk to him about his plans for the Union and how the science community can get involved, European integration for the benefit of scientific research, and placing value on scientific initiatives that are hard to measure.

In case some of our readers don’t know who you are, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little about your career path so far and your involvement with the EGU over the years?

I have been a professor of water engineering and hydrology at the University of Bologna since 2001. My background is civil engineering. After finishing my master’s degree my thesis advisor suggested that I attend a PhD program. He pushed me to pursue an international vision in my research activity, something that was not frequent in Italy in the early nineties. At the time I could not communicate in English, even reading papers was a challenge for me. In 1994 I attended my first General Assembly of the European Geophysical Society (which later merged into EGU). It was love at the first glance! I was so excited by my first experience that I did not miss any EGS/EGU General Assemblies since then. Once I got a permanent position as a professor, I felt motivated to contribute to the development of EGU, to give back what I received. I served as president of the Hydrological Sciences Division, chair of the Awards Committee and now I am serving as the Union president. Let me say that EGU is great, and I am thankful to those brilliant scientists who created it! If you asked me what has been the most difficult challenge in my career so far, I would say that it was (and still is!!) to communicate in the English language 🙂

At this year’s General Assembly, you were appointed Union president (after serving as vice-president for a year). What are the main things you hope to achieve during your two-year term?

I identified a few keywords to summarize my wishes for the future of EGU:

  1. diversity and equality of opportunities,
  2. visibility of Earth, space and planetary sciences,
  3. European integration, and
  4. early career scientists.

With regard to 1, I would like to encourage diversity in the widest sense. A diverse community and diversity of opinions are vital for promoting science. As for 2, I would like to involve excellent communicators as EGU ambassadors by giving dedicated recognitions. Issue 3 is essential for promoting European and global research. At the EGU General Assembly 2019 we organized an excellent conversation on European integration with Former Italian Parliamentarian Ilaria Capua and Former Italian Prime Minister and European Commissioner Mario Monti. The amazing attendance at that event was a clear sign that many researchers were interested in the topic and that we need to follow up with more events. Finally, with regards to 4, let me say that early career scientists are the lifeblood of the Union. I am motivated to promote their efforts and amplify their voice more and more, with dedicated initiatives.

Why these in particular?

During my service with EGU I tried to listen to people as much as possible. I collected an uncountable set of opinions and views. After speaking with colleagues – and early career scientists in particular – the above keywords clearly came forward. I am happy to say that I meet an impressive number of interesting people involved with EGU and during the EGU meetings. I am motivated to further increase my efforts to speak with the community. I encourage colleagues to contact me!

EGU President, stand along side Amanda Maycock, recipient of the 2019 Arne Richter Award for Outstanding Early Career Scientists. Credit: EGU/Pflugel

Last month, the EGU Council issued a declaration supporting a united Europe for the benefit of global scientific research and condemning “fake news”, biased reporting, social media bots and malicious state actors which threaten European integration. Why are these forces so troubling and, in your opinion, what can Union members do to address the challenges that a united Europe and scientific research face?

As I said, I firmly believe in European integration. A strong EU is beneficial to scientific research and societal development. However, such benefits are not so evident to people. I think one of the reasons is the complexity of modern society. It is a challenge for the public to understand how economy and politics work. Therefore, people hardly agree with forward looking political decisions and are tempted to support short-term strategies.

The same happens in science. Sometimes scientists speak in a language that cannot be easily understood, and therefore people are not supportive of inconvenient truths that may look obscure. In such situations fake news stories easily proliferate because they easily address people’s skepticism and concern. Such stories offer an apparently easy solution, but actually they mislead people and threaten scientific integrity and democracy. Politicians and scientists are partly responsible for this situation: sometimes they seek immediate consensus instead of looking forward and promoting transparency.

What can we do to be more constructive? At the EGU General Assembly 2019 Mario Monti replied to a question by former EGU President Günter Blöschl by suggesting, “Be yourself and tell surrounding people who you are and how the EU relates to you. And what aspects in your activity would not be there, or not be there so productively, if the EU was not there [or] if the EU was undermined”. I cannot agree more. I would additionally suggest to make it simple. Let’s use an accessible language to summarise the positive feedbacks that a strong EU and collaborative science can deliver to Europeans. Last but not least, we have to welcome diversity with a constructive attitude. Diversity – including diversity of opinions – makes science more transparent and more convincing.

On a similar note, At the EGU General Assembly 2019, you also convened a session on rewards and recognition in science for contributions that cannot be easily measured, such as engaging with the public and policy makers. In your opinion, how can the science community properly credit such contributions that are sometimes less tangible than publications, citations and grants?

I believe that the current system for academic recognition suffers from many shortcomings. Citations and bibliometric indexes give a far incomplete picture of the value of one’s contribution. We need to devise efficient methods for measuring the value of other activities, like teaching and participatory work in the community. Finally, let me quote Demetris Koutsoyiannis, a professor at the Technical University of Athens, who, in the conclusions of his talk during the above session, pointed out that “Metrics can serve as thresholds and shortlisting criteria. They are not sufficient to support final decisions, which should move away from the ‘audit culture’”.

The EGU is a bottom-up organization run primarily by its members. We’ve discussed what the Union hopes to do for its members, so I’d now like to ask how the EGU membership can take a more active role in the Union’s activities?

EGU is like a family; everyone has a role. EGU would not exist without each individual contribution. Any single person attending EGU activities is important. It is easy to get involved in EGU: just contact the relevant division president or myself. EGU is very open, and any member is welcome to test this openness; just send an email to propose your own ideas!

Interview by Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer

April GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from the 2019 General Assembly

April GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from the 2019 General Assembly

The EGU General Assembly 2019 took place in Vienna last month, drawing more than 16,000 participants from 113 countries. This month’s GeoRoundUp will focus on some of the unique and interesting stories that came out of research presented at the Assembly!

Major Stories

Glacial disappearing act in the European Alps

New research from a team of scientists estimated the future of all glaciers within the European Alps, and the results aren’t that hopeful. After running new simulations and analysing observational data, the researchers predict that, if we limit global warming below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, by 2100 glacier volume in the Alps would be roughly two-thirds less than levels seen today.

Furthermore, according to the new research, if we fail to put global warming in check, more than 90 percent of Europe’s glacier volume in the Alps will disappear by the end of the century. “In this pessimistic case, the Alps will be mostly ice free by 2100, with only isolated ice patches remaining at high elevation, representing 5 percent or less of the present-day ice volume,” says Matthias Huss, a researcher at ETH Zurich and co-author of the study.

Evolution of total glacier volume in the European Alps between 2003 and 2100. Credit: Zekollari et al., 2019, The Cryosphere.

The data also suggests that from now until 2050, about 50 percent of the present glacier volume will melt, regardless of how much greenhouse gas emissions we produce in the coming years. This is because glaciers are slow to respond to changes in climate conditions, and still reflect colder climates from the past. In addition to presenting their research at the EGU General Assembly, the team also published the results in The Cryosphere.

The search for the oldest ice announces their drill site

Ice-core extraction near Concordia station (Credit: Thibaut Vergoz, French Polar Institute, CNRS)

After three years of careful consideration, a collection of European ice and climate researchers have pinpointed the spot where they would most likely uncover the oldest ice core possible, one that dates back to 1.5 million years from today.

The consortium of researchers, also known as the Beyond-EPICA project, hopes to pull out a sample of ice containing a seamless record of Earth’s climate history. Such ice samples contain trapped air bubbles, some sealed off thousands to millions of years ago, thus providing undisturbed snapshots into Earth’s ancient atmospheres. Using this climate data, researchers can make predictions on how Earth’s will warm in the future.

At the General Assembly, the scientists formally announced that the drilling operation will be conducted 40 kilometres southwest from the Dome Concordia Station, which is run jointly by France and Italy. The team plans to collect a three km-long ice core from the site, nicknamed ‘Little Dome C,’ over the course of five years, then will spend at least an additional year examining the ice.

Map of Antarctica showing the areas surveyed by BE-OI and the selected drill site (Credit: British Antarctic Survey (BAS))

 

What you might have missed

Predicting the largest quakes on Earth

Scientists have long discussed how intense quakes can be on Earth, with some studies suggesting that Earth’s tectonic features cannot generate earthquakes larger than magnitude 10. However, new research conducted by Álvaro González Center from Mathematical Research in Barcelona, Spain estimates that subduction zones, regions where one tectonic plate is pushed under another, subsequently sinking into the mantle, have the potential to release 10.4 magnitude earthquakes. González’ analysis suggests that such events happen on average every 2,000 years.

“Such events would produce especially large tsunamis and long lasting shaking which would effect distant locations,” Gonzalez said to the Agence France-Presse.

His findings also propose that large asteroid impacts, such as the dinosaur-killing Chicxulub event 66 million years ago, may trigger even larger magnitude shaking. According to data analysis, shaking events reaching magnitude 10.5 or more likely happen on average once every 10 million years.

Where deadly heat will hit the hardest

Heatwaves and heat-related hazards are expected to be more prevalent and more severe as the Earth warms, and a team of researchers looked into which regions of the world will be the most vulnerable.

The scientists specifically analysed human exposure to ‘deadly heat,’ where temperatures as so high that humans aren’t able to cool down anymore. By examining data projections for future population growth and annual days of deadly heat, the researchers assessed which areas will be hit the hardest. They found that, if global warming isn’t limited to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, there will be a few ‘hots spots,’ where large populations are predicted to experience frequent days of deadly heat annually.

Dhaka, Bangladesh, is expected to experience significant exposure to deadly heat in the future, according to research presented at the EGU 2019 meeting. Credit: mariusz kluzniak via Flickr

The research results suggest that future deadly heat will most significantly impact the entire South Asia and South-East Asia region, Western Africa and the Caribbean. Sub-Saharan Africa in particular will experience big increases in deadly heat exposure, due to climate change and population growth.

The researchers also found that a minority of large cities in very poor countries will be the most affected by future heat conditions. “There is a big inequality of who takes the toll of deadly heat,” said Steffen Lohrey, a PhD student at the Technical University Berlin who presented the findings at the EGU meeting.

Europe and the Mediterranean at risk of malaria due to climate change

While malaria was eradicated in Europe and the Mediterranean in the 20th century, there have been an increasing number of new cases in this region of the world, primarily due to international travel and immigration. New research presented at the General Assembly by Elke Hertig, a professor at the University of Augsburg, Germany, suggests that Europe’s future climate may further increase the risk of local malaria recurrence and expansion.

Malaria is transmitted to humans by Anopheles mosquitos and these disease-carrying insects are very sensitive to temperature and precipitation conditions. In particular, these mosquitos thrive in areas with warm spring temperatures and high precipitation in the summer and autumn.

Using climate models, Hertig found that the malaria-carrying mosquito population will likely spread northward as Europe’s climate changes, reaching much of northern Europe by the end of the century. Alternatively, her models suggest that mosquito populations will decline in the Mediterranean regions, mainly due to decreases in summer and autumn rainfall.

A statistical analysis also revealed that, by the end of the century, disease transmission from mosquitoes will be the most effective in southern and south-eastern European regions, including parts of Spain, southern France, Italy, Greece, and the Balkan countries.

Other noteworthy stories

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