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USGS science at AGU
Tsunamis, climate change, Hawaiian volcanoes, planetary science, water, minerals, and more
Released: 12/2/2011 11:00:00 AM

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SAN FRANCISCO — From nearly 900 abstracts by USGS presenters at this year’s American Geophysical Union conference, we’ve selected some of the newest, most exciting topics that USGS scientists will explore at AGU. Tips are presented in topic areas, chronologically with room numbers, session numbers and a summary. The AGU conference is held Dec. 5-9 at the Moscone (West and South) Convention Center in San Francisco.

"The annual AGU fall meeting is a preferred venue for showcasing USGS science across all of our areas of emphasis: Climate and Land Use Change, Ecosystems, Energy and Minerals, Environmental Health, Geospatial Information, Hazards, and Water" said USGS director Marcia McNutt. "We save up some of our most exciting results knowing that we can reach a large audience of students and professionals eager to be up to date with the latest information."

News media representatives are invited to visit the USGS booth in the AGU Exhibit Hall. This is an easy place to connect with USGS and the staff working at the booth will have data, publications, and information.

Climate Change and Western Dust

Monday, 12/5, 10:50 a.m., MW 2018

Ecohydrology across scales in drylands: Implications for water availability and society

USGS Scientist: Belnap

H12F-03/Oral presentation 

Climate and land use in dryland regions are leaving soils vulnerable to wind erosion. Dust produced is deposited on snowpack, increasing melt rates, and decreasing overall water inputs into major rivers. As dust-producing activities occur in the Upper Basin, with water shortages mostly experienced in the Lower Basin, societal implications are studied.

Monday, 12/5, 1:45 p.m., MS 104

Effects of atmospheric dust on environments and people

USGS Scientist: Reynolds

U13B-01/Oral presentation

Atmospheric dust particles can affect human health, cause visibility issues, influence atmospheric temperatures, and accelerate melting of snow and ice. This session discusses new scientific findings in this area and the scientific challenges ahead.

Thursday, 12/8, 1:40 p.m. MS Halls A-C

Increasing vulnerability to drought and climate change on the Navajo Nation

USGS Scientist: Hiza Redsteer

GC43B-0928/Poster presentation

Lifelong observations of 73 Native elders yield a record of changes in plants and animals, water availability, weather, and sand/dust storms that complements the scant long-term meteorological records. A long-term drying trend and decreasing snowpack, superimposed on regional drought cycles, is magnifying the cultural and literal erosion and desertification of Navajo lands, leaving the Navajo Nation increasingly vulnerable to climate extremes.

Debris Flows

Monday, 12/5, 8:00 a.m., MW 3010

Rainfall thresholds for post-fire debris-flow emergency-response planning

USGS Scientist: Cannon

NH11B-01/Oral presentation

Wildfires often contribute to severe flooding and debris flows during winter storms. USGS scientists have developed a four-class system that identifies the severity of these events, and these four classes are linked with information on the rainfall conditions that trigger them.


Monday, 12/5, 8:00 a.m., MS Halls A-C

Seismic imaging of fault zones: Methods and examples from the San Andreas Fault

USGS Scientist: Catchings


To seismically retrofit the Hetch Hetchy water delivery system, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission relies on the USGS to provide detailed fault information. USGS uses a seismic imaging technique that combines seismic P-wave and S-wave reflection, refraction, and guided-wave data.

Monday, 12/5, 10:20 a.m., MW 2007

Identifying the hazard before the earthquake: How far have we come, how well have we done?

USGS Scientist: Schwartz

S12A-01/Oral presentation

The field of paleoseismology, looking at past earthquakes to determine the likelihood of a major one in the future, has become increasingly sophisticated over the past 50 years. Recent advances in technology allow scientists to look at previously undatable earthquakes, but anticipating hazards is still difficult.

Monday, 12/5, 4:30 p.m., MW 2009

Intensity distribution of the 2011 Mw5.8 Mineral, Va., earthquake

USGS Scientist: Hough

S14B-03/Oral presentation

More than 133,000 citizen responses were submitted to the USGS “Did You Feel It?” web site the week after the magnitude 5.8 Mineral, Va., earthquake. These data show that earthquake waves traveled especially efficiently toward the northeast, and explores the data in a historical context to show that it is the largest earthquake felt in the state of Virginia.

Monday, 12/5, 3:25 p.m., MW 2007

USGS National Seismic Hazard Map 2014 update

USGS Scientist: Petersen

S13B-08/Oral presentation

The USGS is updating its U.S. National Seismic Hazard Maps, which are used in building codes, risk analyses and public policies. Improvements will include updating earthquake models for active earthquake sources (e.g., New Madrid, San Andreas, Cascadia faults), adding new ground motion models that incorporate data from recent earthquakes (e.g., Tohoku and Virginia earthquakes), and supplementing and improving the earthquake catalog.

Monday, 12/5, 4:45 p.m., MW 2007

Aftershocks can kill

USGS Scientist: Stein

S14A-04/Oral presentation 

While aftershock frequency decays as time passes, aftershock magnitude does not. This means large, late aftershocks—particularly if they strike population centers—can be as deadly as their mainshocks. Despite several examples of this, aftershocks are generally ignored in seismic hazard assessment. This presentation argues that one can do a much better job anticipating aftershock hazard than mainshock hazard, and so one should do so.

Tuesday, 12/6, 4:15 p.m., MS 302

Microsoft Kinect™ technology game play to mimic seismic sensor deployment

Scientist: Kilb, USGS Scientist: Cochran

ED24B-02/Oral presentation

Using Microsoft’s Kinect™ technology, USGS scientists have helped to create educational software that uses motion-sensing technology to simulate placing seismological sensors after a major earthquake. The game’s player faces problems such as unexpected aftershocks and equipment failure while trying to place sensors correctly and efficiently.

Friday, 12/9, 8 a.m., MS Halls A-C

Modernization of the Southern California Seismic Network – ARRA and beyond

USGS Scientist: Thomas


Hear how federal economic stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act were spent to upgrade 178 of the Southern California Seismic Network stations, making them more homogenous, less expensive to maintain, and able to transmit higher-quality waveform data.

Agriculture and Food Security

Monday, 12/5, 1:40 p.m., MS Halls A-C

New and improved tools for famine early warning

USGS Scientist: Budde


USGS presents new and improved data products and more targeted analysis tools for global food security monitoring. 

Mineral and Energy Resources

Monday, 12/5, 10:20 a.m., MW 2022-2024

Geological, technological and political-economic constraints on future supplies of critical elements

USGS Scientist: Long

V12A-01/Oral presentation

Minerals such as rare earth elements are in considerable demand due to the many technologies that require them. Many challenges exist to bring these minerals to market.

Monday, 12/5, 11:14 a.m., MW 2022-2024

Marine ferromanganese deposits as a source of rare metals for high- and green-tech applications: Comparison with land-based deposits

USGS Scientist: Hein

V12A-04/Oral presentation 

Deep-ocean deposits of rare earth minerals may offer a potential solution to global demand.

Thursday, 12/8, 4:45 p.m., MW 2009

Can earthquakes due to fluid injection be controlled?

USGS Scientists: McGarr; Williams; Hickman; Oppenheimer

S44B-04/Oral presentation

Injecting fluids into the earth, such as done in during enhanced geothermal development, can cause earthquakes. Case histories give some clues, but much is unresolved.


Wednesday, 12/7, 1:40 p.m., MS Halls A-C

Changes in continental water storage caused by groundwater depletion since 1900

USGS Scientist: Konikow       


As groundwater continues to be an important part of global agriculture and industry, its supply levels are slowly decreasing. The process of groundwater being used and flowing to the oceans has been found to contribute to sea-level rise.

Monday, 12/5, 1:40 p.m., MS Halls A-C

Fens as whole-ecosystem gauges of climate change

USGS Scientist: Drexler


Groundwater-fed peatlands, called fens, have the potential to be used as whole-ecosystem gauges of climate change because of their high sensitivity to changes in hydrology through time.  

Thursday, 12/8, 4:00 p.m., MW 3010

Assessment of the effects of conservation practices on water quality

USGS Scientist: Garcia

H44A-01/Oral presentation

Using a semi-empirical model used to simulate stream water quality called SPARROW, scientists found that agricultural conservation practices can significantly reduce phosphorus pollution.

Hawaiian Volcanoes

Wednesday, 12/7, 1:40 p.m., MW 2018

The changing role of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory in its first 100 years

USGS Scientist: Kauahikaua

V33E-01/Oral presentation

Owing to frequent eruptions, ease of access, and continuous record of activity since 1912, Kilauea Volcano has been the focus for volcanological study by government, academic, and international investigators. Come hear how 100 years of monitoring and research at HVO has changed the way volcanoes are understood today.

Thursday, 12/8, 4:00 p.m., MW 2020

The Vog Measurement and Prediction Project

USGS Scientist: Sutton

V44C-05/Oral presentation 

Real-time modeling and forecast systems aim to study and to warn the public of SO2 pollution from Kilauea volcano, which poses significant health and environmental risks.


Monday, 12/5, 1:40 p.m., MS Halls A-C

Estimating the likelihood of extreme seismogenic tsunamis

USGS Scientist: Geist


Because the likelihood of tsunamis caused by earthquakes is directly linked to the size of the generating earthquakes, we can determine the likelihood of a tsunami occurring in a certain location by looking at earthquake data. Because of complicated wave evolution near shore, estimates for extreme tsunamis are site-specific.

Monday, 12/5, 3:10 p.m., MW 3010

Field observations of tsunami characteristics after 2011 Japanese tsunami

USGS Scientist: Richmond

NH13G-07 /Oral presentation

Characteristics of the Tohoku tsunami deposits reveal information on the geologic processes of the destructive waves as well as criteria to identify paleotsunami deposits in the geologic record. The international team observed height and direction of tsunami flow, mapped erosion features and assessed and sampled sediment deposition in shallow trenches. 

Tuesday, 12/6, 1:45 p.m., MW 3010

Tsunami population-vulnerability index based on pedestrian-evacuation modeling

USGS Scientist: Wood

NH23B-01/Oral presentation

Previous estimates of losses due to tsunamis have only looked at the number of people in hazard zones. This study takes into account factors such as distance to safety, types of land cover, slope, and travel speeds.

Wednesday, 12/7, 11:50 a.m., MW 3010

Assessing tsunami hazard from the geologic record

USGS Scientist: Jaffe

NH32A-07/Oral presentation

Hazard assessments have begun to incorporate tsunami deposits into the few available historical records of tsunamis, a technique that is growing more accurate as scientists are able to distinguish storm deposits from tsunami deposits. However, studies of the 2011 Japan tsunami suggest that deposits may not be an accurate measurement of inundation distance, and that other proxies such as geochemical signatures and approaches such as sediment transport modeling are needed.

Planetary Science 

Wednesday, 12/7, 10:50 a.m., MS 307

The surface composition of Titan

USGS Scientist: Clark

P32C-03/ Oral presentation

Measuring the 0.35 to 5-micron spectral reflectance of compounds relevant to Saturn’s moon Titan, scientists have identified possible matches including cytosine, uracil, guanine, and adenine, the four nucleobases in the nucleic acid of RNA. If these compounds can be confirmed to be on Titan, it could have implications for the formation of life.

Thursday, 12/8, 8:00 a.m. Halls A-C

Global controlled mosaic of Mercury from MESSENGER orbital images 

USGS Scientist: Becker


The USGS is constructing a highly accurate map of Mercury's surface from MESSENGER orbital 
images acquired since entering orbit March 18, 2011. Registration errors are corrected. From this work, 
USGS has derived a preliminary digital elevation model that will be used to improve the map.

Friday, 12/9, 8 a.m., MS Halls A-C

A microbial base for possible Martian life

USGS Scientist: Miller


Some microorganisms can oxidize methane by using an available supply of oxygen. This study is working with organisms that reduce perchlorate to chloride and in the process make O2 that could then be used for energy by a methane oxidizer. This pathway could be in use anywhere there is perchlorate and methane, even in an environment without oxygen.


Monday, 12/5, 5:40 a.m., MW 2002

Wetland plants and carbon sequestration in restored peatland of California

USGS Scientist: Windham-Myers

B14C-07 /Oral presentation

Peat soils serve as the greatest long-term carbon sink on land, containing more than a quarter of the world’s stored carbon. This study looks into the exact rates and sensitivities of plant photosynthesis and respiration in a temperate freshwater wetland in comparison with estimates of microbial respiration to explain the high rates of carbon capture documented in this managed restored wetland.

Tuesday, 12/6, 9:30 a.m., MW 2006

Sulfur and methylmercury in the Florida Everglades – the biogeochemical connection

USGS Scientist: Orem

B21L-07/Oral presentation

Fish in the Everglades have some of the highest mercury levels in the United States, posing problems to both fish-eating animals and humans. USGS studies show that among other factors, high levels of sulfur in surface water causes bacteria to produce methyl mercury. Current restoration plans for the park may cause more sulfur to be added to the southern waters; a change in the restoration strategy, taking into account sulfur levels, is needed.

Bird Behavior

Friday, 12/9, 10:20 a.m., MS 309

Do homing pigeons use acoustic signals for navigation?

USGS Scientist: Hagstrum

B52A-01/Oral presentation

This study proposes that atmospheric and topographic effects on the transmission of acoustic signals can affect avian navigation.

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