Earth & Space Science cartoons from AGU

This week is the annual American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting, the largest gathering of Earth and space scientists in the world. And, as I’ve done several times before, I will be drawing cartoons inspired by the incredible talks, posters, and conversations. This post will continue to update through Friday, 16 December 2016. You can also follow along on twitter (@Geo_Miles). Enjoy!


The first session I attended today was an ambitious one, called “Planetary Intelligence: Managing Earth’s Future.” The driving thread of the panel discussion was how are we going to do this?!? As the panel continued, I sensed a common emotional journey for the audience.

Some of my favorite people in the world have fun with the titles of their presentations at AGU. While searching the poster hall, I came across “The Death of Darkness: Artificial Brightness in the Anthropocene.” To me, there was something strangely poetic about this title, and I couldn’t help but wonder what if one William Shakespeare had written about Anthropocene science?

Science communication and civil scientific debate has been a theme of many of the sessions I’ve attended today. Everyone seems to agree that sharing science is a good idea (and I agree). But does that mean that aggressively sharing science is… better?

Near the end of the day, I found a presentation that asked an intriguing question: What did the Romans ever do for us? I admit… my interest was piqued. I had always thought they gave us a lot. Turns out, they may have also given us the ability to better manage our water resources.


When thinking about climate change, many scientists are trying to figure out how to stop releasing so much carbon dioxide into the air. But others are busy trying to figure out how to pull the CO2 that’s already there out of the atmosphere. When we start talking about this, the numbers get pretty big (and incomprehensible) pretty fast. So I tried to make a little sense of this process, known as carbon draw-down and/or carbon sequestration.

A big part of AGU is honoring the awesome scholars who came before us. Their legacy is important, even (and especially) if they aren’t particularly well known. So, following the inspiring Lin-Manuel Miranda, I have adapted the lyrics to “Alexander Hamilton” to suit one of my favorite scientists ever who, like Hamilton, was revolutionary. (it might help to click the image to make it larger so the lyrics are easier to read)

While wandering the poster hall, I overheard a scientist using a coffee metaphor to help explain his research on lightning. Turns out, there are a LOT of questions left to answer about lightning, such as how turbulence affects the frequency and size of lightning strikes. Naturally, I took this metaphor to its illogical end…


There is a ton of evidence that water once flowed across the surface of Mars. There are structures that look a lot like river beds, and chemical and morphological evidence from our rovers show evidence of water. But there’s still a big question about all of this: How did Mars manage to maintain a warm enough atmosphere for liquid water early in its existence? Scientists have investigated a number of possibilities, and I’ll relay their findings as personified by Abbott and Costello:

One of the biggest questions in the field of astrobiology is surprisingly simple: where did life start on Earth? NASA scientists have tried to recreate early-Earth conditions in a lab to identify what conditions might have led to the creation of molecules similar to RNA and DNA. Many of these experiments explore similar conditions to those found at deep-sea hydrothermal vents. And as the scientists study, they accidentally created something adorable.

Special guest post from the amazing JoAnna Wendel: Scientists can use information from bat… droppings… ok, fine: poop, to learn about a whole bunch of cool things, even ancient climate conditions. You can also read about it here.


Well, today I’m trying to take advantage of all the great sessions that relate to my research. And this got me thinking: When I draw cartoons, I’m definitely guilty of simplifying the science. And I think most scientists struggle with this idea when presenting their research to the public. That internal dialogue is a constant battle.

There was a great session dealing with seafloor systems (this is mostly what I study). One of the focus points of the session was “turbidity currents,” a phenomenon in Earth’s oceans that I’ve spent years investigating. Upon hearing the presenters, I think that my¬† comments might come off differently than I intend when I introduce this idea to people.

I just attended a session all about magma chambers. I love volcanologists, mostly because they use a lot of food metaphors to describe various parts of a volcanic system.


For my final cartoon of the meeting, I thought I would attempt to explain tsunami science in simple language. How does this work? I’m only using the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language, inspired by the brilliant Randall Munroe of xkcd. So here it is. The hard ideas (science) of big fast waves (tsunamis):

That’s it for this year at AGU! More cartoons, podcasts, and science musings will continue to show up on this website, though. So check them out!

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