Reflections on the Severe Storms Conference

The 23rd SLS Conference is over, the posters packed away, the speakers and attendees back home again, the hotel again devoid of meteorology chatter. After several days to catch up on things since returning, and to reflect on the meeting, I must say it was a success, largely to the credit of those listed way down below. I posted some “insider” thoughts a few weeks before the conference, but now, I can look back on it with a sense of shared accomplishment (see credits below) and aims pretty much achieved. The conference basically ran itself, with no major logistical glitches or on-site mishaps, which was a prime goal in planning this gig from day one.

A little luck helps too, because while foresight and preparation prevents mistakes that are the responsibility of the conference organizers, a dollop of good luck still helps to avoid nasty problems imposed from without. It takes just one or two really crappy experiences to ruin the conference for a lot of folks, and we seem to have avoided such a fate. For example, the weather in the Midwest in November can be cold, icy and blustery, but wasn’t. Only a little mist and light rain occurred on the first couple of days, and actually made for some curious and photogenic scenery (above). A bunch of people could have gotten sick from bad food, but didn’t. An attendee could have been mugged, robbed and shot in the most dangerous city in America, casting a pall of tragedy, fear and menace over the affair, but it didn’t happen. Yes, luck — for which nobody can claim any credit — does matter.

Another prime goal was to get lots of students and young scientists there — not just attending, but involved. I think that worked too. We had nearly 50 student presenters, and several of us who were there all week still are in the process of collectively evaluating their poster and oral presentations for “best of” cash awards for each category. We had several young scientists as first time session chairs and many others as first time presenters also.

I didn’t poll for age, but a subjective guess is that the average age of this conference was way down from any previous ones. These young people are the future bedrock of our science, and it is so important to get them integrated and active in exchanging ideas with each other as well as with their senior colleagues. As I indicated in the welcome message, from this conference’s roster will emerge some individuals who, 30 years from now, will be looked upon by yet another generation of young scientists as their “giants” of severe storms meteorology, much as my own generation does now when looking back on preprint volumes from the 70s and 80s containing the early work of Alberty, Brown, Burgess, Davies-Jones, Doswell, Johns, Klemp, Lemon, Rotunno, Weisman, and others.

As for the quality of the science itself, I can only speak for my own impression: It was pretty damn good for an SLS conference. The roster of presenters did their part overall to make this a scientifically robust meeting, with lots of promising projects and concepts now in their infancy, many of which will come to fruition and land in formal journals in coming years.

Sure, there were a few of the usual single-event radar case studies or rehashing of old data that basically serve little more than to punch somebody’s ticket. Sure, there were some of the usual “we really have no results yet” submissions and projects which cover nothing particularly useful. However, it seems that such content was much smaller in proportion to the “good stuff” than in some prior conferences. I appreciated the lack of superficial fluff, and deeply thank the authors for taking their work and their presence there seriously.

Could this be, in part, because we decided to hold the conference in what one prominent, boycotting researcher derisively called a “boring Midwestern city,” instead of in some posh or exotic resort locale, meaning that a higher proportion of those who showed up would be there for the right reason (the science)? I suspect so. Scientists who like to treat conferences as expense-paid vacation junkets wouldn’t get too stoked about St. Louis in November. My response: Great! Properly motivated folks always make any meeting a much more pleasant and educational endeavor. One thing that was not lacking among the many attendees I spoke with was enthusiasm and a genuine desire to be there and to share their findings and insights, and to learn from each other. That, truly, is what scientific conferences are about. To that end…mission accomplished.

I do wish more folks had submitted manuscripts, though. “Extended abstract” submissions were down for this conference, which was a disappointment to me and several others. Plain and simple: If a project isn’t worth taking the effort to write a preprint paper for, it isn’t worth presenting at a conference! To that end, I will support a small but growing movement within the AMS to restrict presentations to those who actually bother to submit a conference preprint paper. And if an independent severe storms conference ever gets organized, I’ll support the same stipulation for it as well.

Attendance was down in absolute numbers compared to previous SLS conferences, but one must remember that those were jointly held with other conferences which boosted the total presence. Normalize for that factor, and our attendance actually was comparably robust — despite intense budgetary restrictions imposed on the NOAA contingent for travel to such things under a federal continuing resolution.

The conference banquet was absolutely fantastic! Instead of the usual “AMS chicken” and boring speaker, we had tons of table conversation amongst friends and colleagues over some great food and drink. [“AMS chicken,” for the uninitiated, is a recurring and bland little item most closely resembling compacted sawdust. I didn’t miss it.] There was veal, halibut and more, catered by a fine St. Louis restaurant (Kemoll’s), all served 43 stories aloft at “Top of the Met,” with a fabulous view of downtown and the Arch. I’ve gotten all sorts of great feedback on this, and all the credit goes to Alan Shapiro for finding that venue and setting it up under AMS budgetary limits. He volunteered early, eagerly and “out of the blue” to handle this aspect of the conference planning, and I’m so glad we took him up on his generous offer. Great job Alan! That set a standard for conference dinners that will be damn near impossible to exceed.

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So, in summary, there were some minor disappointments, but they paled — by far — next to the successes. The conference worked, and seemed to work well. When anyone goes through as much effort as is needed to organize such a thing, such results are about as good as one can hope for.

The co-chairmen for the next conference, whose preliminary time frame is around Feb. 2009, will be Matt Parker and David Dowell. Those guys have the difficult task of assembling a functional and enthusiastic conference committee, followed by working on and with that committee to locate and organize the conference. Though I am not particularly confident in the AMS to allow them good options for the purposes of holding registration costs steady, I am confident that Matt, David and crew will do the best they can given the logistic and economic constraints imposed on them by AMS. Any ideas and suggestions should be directed to either of those guys.

Last but not least I need to publicly thank some more people who helped this conference succeed: the rest of the conference committee, which included Matt and David, as well as Dave Blanchard, Lon Curtis, Paul Markowski, and Yvette Richardson; Cara Campbell from AMS, who helped to set it up from that end and who put up with my bullheadedness and pestering; Chuck Graves for his moving tribute to the late, great Jim Moore; Chuck’s recruited SLU student volunteers, who helped run the computers and freed up session chairs to proctor the sessions without having to do timekeeping; Jenni Teittinen from Finland for her keynote talk on European severe weather; Greg Stumpf, Jim LaDue and Dave for organizing the video and slide presentations; and most of all, everybody who did show up. This was your conference. All I did was direct a little traffic.

Those who missed the conference: You missed a good one.



Comments

3 Responses to “Reflections on the Severe Storms Conference”

  1. Gilbert Sebenste on November 16th, 2006 5:17 pm

    Dang straight it was great, and the only three valid excuses I’d accept for not making it is cost, illness, and maybe death. Maybe.

    The fun I had, the new things I’ve learned which will go straight into my job, are priceless. The only problem I saw was with the projector during video night #1…cured by downrezzing the laptop which was set monstrously high, and the projector couldn’t handle it. That was a 15 minute interruption of an otherwise stellar conference.

    I am truly afraid that Roger and his band of comrades might have caused a problem where this WILL be the standard of conferences for many years to come. Quality of presenters, quality of papers/posters, quality of the venue and hotel, food, the AMS banquet (my gosh, how is anyone going to top THAT?), quality of the food in the hotel restaurant (and surrounding areas), and if I wasn’t learning, I was laughing and/or enjoying myself tremendously. I can laugh at the power failures with the streetlights in downtown due to a junction box that decided to burst into flames a block down from the hotel, coming from a manhole cover…but seeing the arch in a foggy hue and walking around downtown was a pleasure. 5 star hotel service,and on and on…

    PLEASE give my kudos to all involved, Roger. I just have a few minor suggestions: make all poster sessions have copies you could take home or miniatures thereof, or a place where you could download it; I’d like to see more papers on where models and forecasts failed as opposed to where they succeeded (post-event analysis); and talks about safety, and to that end, I’ll work on getting one in for the next one.

    I feel bad for those in the profession who needed to be there and couldn’t be, by choice or otherwise. I give this conference a 9 out of 10 rating overall, and very few I have gone to get that high, and nobody gets a perfect 10. 🙂

    Bravo, Roger and everyone, bravissimo! (Stands up and claps for thunderous applause!)

  2. Rob Dale on November 24th, 2006 11:02 am

    Some of the conference archives on the AMS page also have the audio/video presentations linked – any idea if that will happen here too?

  3. ===== Roger ===== on December 5th, 2006 11:26 pm

    It’s supposed to. When I get back from this trip, assuming the presentation links haven’t been posted yet, I’ll ask the AMS meetings coordinator about this and report back to this BLOG.

    ===== Roger =====

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