I shouldn't complain. It's kind of nice being the only Brit among the handful of journalists at this vast story compendium. A nicely arranged schedule of press conferences delivers people with interesting things to say to the press room on a regular basis, where I can ask them about whatever I wish and get in as many questions as I care to. Beyond the press room doors there are twenty or more talks going on at any given time within a few minutes walk, often about interesting and newsworthy subjects. What are the lessons from the Bam earthquake, say, or how big are the risks of the North Atlantic Conveyor slowing down; how useful are eighteenth century ship's logs in making sense of the global climate, or where can you find the biggest bacteria in the world? (I'll answer the last of those in a later post).
But while part of me likes having a target-rich environment to myself, another part finds it sort of irritating. Part of this is loneliness (I like my fellow hacks) and frustration (if they were here then they'd go to some of the sessions I had to miss and I could catch up with more of the conference's riches over the truly excellent coffee in the press room). But part of the irritation is at least vaguely principled. The state of the planet is a big issue, one that people both care about and should care about. And here in Nice are thousands of people committed to trying to understand the state of the planet. Yet the way that the media are set up means that no-one comes to report on it.
The British broadsheets regularly send people to the annual meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and they're events which can be a lot of fun. But they suffer from the disadvantage of being much more about the public face of science than about the coalface of science; they're not working meetings, they're showcases. My memory of covering a fair few of them was that if you found stuff there which was both important and new to you, there was a fair chance you hadn't been covering your beat too terribly well. At this meeting, on the other hand, there are things going on that really could be news, just a cheap airfare away from London. (Yes, I'm aware that someone rabitting on about the importance of the environment while taking advantage of a plane ticket barely more expensive than the taxi to the airport is in a dubious position. No, I'm not going to get into it.)
A case in point: the EPICA Dome C ice core. On Monday, before I got here and while, after arriving, I was getting up to speed on matters martian, there was a special session devoted to the latest results from the new ice core drilled by a European team at Dome C in the middle of Antarctica. This core provides a climate record complete with atmospheric samples trapped in tiny bubbles that goes back almost three quarters of a million years. It reaches almost twice as far back in time as the Vostok core, until now the most impressive record we have had of greenhouse gas and temperature change over the past few glacial/interglacial cycles. The Vostok data are pretty much the closest thing we have to an ECG for the earth's climate system. The Dome C data already provide four more glacial/interglacial cycles to study, which is what the presentations in Nice were about. When the project is finished the EPICA team expects to have almost a million years of data showing how atmospheric gases, dust and temperature vary over time.
In a few weeks some of the findings discussed in Nice will be published in Nature. The gist of the paper or papers in which this is done will be reported in some of the broadsheets in the UK. Eric Wolff of the British Antarctic Survey may well show up on Radio 4's Today program. A take-home message will be taken home. And so you might argue that not much is lost if no one reports the papers presented in Nice; the news will out in the fullness of time. But I think something is lost. On a personal note, the current situation means that there's really important and interesting stuff that's known about the world out there that I don't know and can't find out about, and I don't like that. More importantly, reporting based on the paper or papers in Nature will find it very hard to match the insights into the work's context that would be available to a reporter here on the ground. In and around that session there would have been dozens of eager experts quite happy to take some time explaining what they thought important in the data, or indeed where they thought the results had been dull or unsurprising or flat out wrong.
There's a big new hole in the ice in Antarctica that can tell us a lot about our planet, and that's good news. Unfortunately there's a hole in the way we report such news which means such wonders don't get the treatment they deserve.