EGU 2022 – the future of water, and a bit of nostalgia?

It must have been 17 years ago that I attended the annual EGU meeting in Vienna – in a previous life as a postdoctoral researcher in planetary geophysics. But the geosciences are a very broad topic (as is my present specialization, hydroinformatics). And as it turns out, the conference also covers water resources management and hydroinformatics. But in addition to this, the main cause of challenges for water managers in the coming decades, climate change, is well represented here. We need to understand what may be ahead of us in order to introduce more resilience against the stresses that a changing climate will put on our water (supply) systems.

That was sufficient reason for me to attend the conference and my first post-lockdown one. However, covid-19 still puts its mark on the event: a lot fewer people than I remember, facemasks, many presenters participating online rather than in person, and a new format of short 5-7 minute presentations.

The sessions that I attended were a mix of the topics I mentioned above: water management, climate, hydroinformatics, and some odd extras, such as the use of stable isotopes to study the uptake and evapotranspiration of water by plants. As always, these sessions were good to see what people are working on (for hydroinformatics), to learn more about relevant topics that I am not specialized in (such as climate science), and to get inspired. A few stood out for me because of their originality and/or relevance to the drinking water sector.

The first is a presentation by Becker et al. which discussed a study of the change and rebound of water consumption behaviour in the period of 2002-2020 due to covid-19 restrictions, or in the words of the presenter “this research contributes behavioural insights on urban water consumption under non-stationary hydroclimate and socio-economic scenarios”. This is very relevant work, as we need to prepare for new disruptions of our “normal” way of life, be it from potential new pandemics or from the effects of progressing climate change and its complex interplay of consequences.

Machine learning has become a valuable tool for all kinds of system predictions. In my opinion, there is too little attention to the challenge of predicting outside the range of (often mostly historical) data that are used to train such models. This opinion was reinforced by a presentation by Hasan et al. dealing with the non-stationarity of the water cycle, caused by anthropogenic climate change. In their words: “Under nonstationary conditions, extreme weather and climate events became frequent. Their magnitudes, durations, and frequencies are outside the historically observed ranges. A nonstationary system displays a volatile memory that hinders any reliable future projections.” Extreme events like droughts and excessive precipitation directly impact the availability of water for human use. Interesting approaches to understanding and to some degree coming up with predictions for these extremes (as far as this layman can judge) were presented by Gessner et al. and Wood.

As far as the meeting and presentation format is concerned, my feelings are mixed. For some work, 5-7 minutes is enough to bring across the essence and read or discuss more afterwards. In other cases, the short presentation leaves you with an immediate desire for more details. With half (my estimate) of the presenters presenting online rather than being present physically, and with hydroinformatics being a small topic at this conference, there was, for me, significantly less interaction outside the presentations than previously. It was, however, good to get out of the office and its circus of meetings and be able to concentrate on presentations for two days.

Even though the organizers of EGU made a good attempt, the current mix of physical and online presence does not provide the same level of interactiveness and therefore value as conferences used to do. However, having an entire scientific community fly to a single location is not a scenario I think we should get back to in view of the impending climate crisis, the extreme emissions associated with flying and the lack of a convincing perspective on doing so sustainably. I am certainly not flying to conferences anymore, and limit my participation to those that can be reached by train. The fully online meetings of the past two years have also not provided every aspect that we think we need. This leaves me nostalgic not for the past, but for the future. I am eager to find out whether virtual conferences in a fully immersive environment (in the “metaverse” using VR) provide a good alternative. Our first headsets have just arrived and we will start testing soon…