Scientists at the Centennial Plenary AGU Fall Meeting 2018
Scientists representing a wide range of disciplines on stage for the Centennial plenary at AGU’s Fall Meeting 2018. Credit: Event Photography of North America Corporation for AGU

AGU’s Fall Meeting 2018 brought together over 28,000 participants from every branch of the geosciences in Washington, D. C., to connect and collaborate. The meeting was also a chance to celebrate: It marked the official start of AGU’s Centennial, commemorating the anniversary of the organization’s founding.

In honor of this milestone, a special plenary session brought together scientists from diverse disciplines to highlight the major scientific breakthroughs of the past century. In his opening remarks, outgoing AGU president Eric Davidson underscored the importance of recognizing a century of achievement: “Everyone in this room has built on the science and research that have come before.”

Twelve speakers from four major research areas shared their perspectives on the past, present, and future of AGU science and how it has made an impact on society. Here we’ve gathered highlights from the panel, highlighting past discoveries but also giving us an idea of the grand challenges that still remain. Together, our shared foundation of scientific knowledge can be used to help humanity adapt, overcome, and thrive in a changing world.

Deep Earth

  • Ross Stein explained how the 1906 San Francisco earthquake helped geologists spot the San Andreas Fault, planting the seed for the theory of plate tectonics.
  • Louise Kellogg led the audience on a journey to the center of the Earth, highlighting how openly shared seismology data have helped us to understand the inner structure of our planet.
  • How do we measure plate motion? Kristine Larson explained how the field of geodesy has benefited from a technological revolution that allows scientists to spot plate motion from space. Satellite monitoring also lets us track snow depth and tides—we can all work together to measure the health of our planet on different temporal and spatial scales.

Earth Covering: Earth, Wind, and Fire

  • Jay Famiglietti painted a dire picture: increased flooding and drought and global aquifers pushed to the brink. But he left the audience with a call to action: “Embrace your roles as science communicators. If people don’t understand the work we do and its implications…our global water future will be extremely difficult to change.”
  • Hurricanes are getting more frequent and more intense, but in the developed world the death toll from hurricanes has plummeted. Why? Richard Alley outlined incredible advancements in hurricane track forecasting and how better models, better data collection, and better data assimilation all help us make better choices to mitigate disasters. “Science, well used, improves our well-being.”
  • Katharine Hayhoe, who recently gave a TED talk on the subject, showed how humans have impacted our world, from deforestation in 14th century England to nuclear testing to anthropogenic climate change. But she ended with a message of hope: “Our planet rests in our own hands.”

Beyond Earth

  • “Lightning is everywhere,” said Scott Rudlosky. That means it can be studied everywhere, from Earth’s surface to the upper atmosphere. Understanding lightning helps us understand Earth’s magnetic field and weather hazards—and even spot meteors coming through the atmosphere.
  • Nicola Fox described the threat of solar emissions to satellites, communication systems, and electrical grids. The biggest advancement of the century? According to Fox, it’s the Parker Solar Probe, “the coolest, hottest mission under the Sun,” which has been successfully flying through our Sun’s 3-million-degree Fahrenheit corona.
  • Are we alone in the universe? That’s the question Jonathan Lunine tackled. Over the past century, we’ve gone from thinking that lines on the surface of Mars were canals to landing a rover on the planet’s surface and even spotting oceans on other worlds. Over the next 50 years, we may find life on one of these worlds, likely challenging our ideas of what life looks like.

Science Nexus

  • In the field of geohealth, John Balbus says, technology can help us better monitor threats like harmful air pollution. The watchful eyes of satellites can spot aerosols from space, helping us detect and predict threats and protect public health.
  • How do we study the geosphere and the biosphere throughout our planet’s history? Peter Fox says big data are the answer, rescuing data from the literature and helping researchers aggregate and use visual analytics to wrap their heads around big, multidisciplinary questions.
  • Daniel Schertzer brought these big questions home. Cities make up only a small part of Earth’s surface but are home to most people, as well as the greatest source of climate-impacting emissions. Collaborative geoscience studies will help us understand how a changing climate will affect those of us who call cities home.

Watch the full session below. From Earth’s core to the edges of our solar system, we have the scientific tools to build from the past, adapt in the present, and build a better future for our planet. Here’s to the next century of AGU science.

—Lily Strelich (; @lilystrelich), Freelance Writer


Strelich, L. (2019), How did we get here? A panel of scientists answers, Eos, 100, Published on 10 January 2019.

Text © 2019. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.