Reflections on Thermo 2014 in Chamonix

I know that meetings are different from vacations. Meetings are busy, and even when they are in fantastic places, you rarely see more than the convention center and a few restaurants within walking distance. In addition, you usually don’t get to travel with your significant other, and sometimes share a hotel room with way too many people.

The bi-annual thermochronology meetings have always stood out for me though. I’ve been to 3 now, Anchorage in 2008, Glasgow in 2010, and now Chamonix in 2014 (China 2012 happened when I was fresh off 2 years of adjunct wages and had no funding). While I still share crowded hotel rooms and can’t bring my wife, I have had a chance to actually explore the host locales. In part this is because I’ve managed to go on the pre-meeting field trips for all three of these conferences, and in part because the conference itself includes a field trip day in the middle. But the meetings are also just unique, very different in feel from a big GSA or an enormous AGU. Also, the locations themselves have been in fantastic places.

So Chamonix was superb, the science, the location, and the organization. I thought I’d write up a few reflections and intersperse them with a random collection of pictures. Why not?


Panoramic view from the pre-meeting field trip in the French Alps.

The meeting structure was slightly different this year, and I thought it was excellent. Basically the organizers reduced the number of talks, increased the number of posters, and actually gave us time to see the posters. In addition, there were a series of panel discussions in the afternoons that covered a whole host of topics, the types of things the community needs to discuss, but for which you’d never find time to talk about at an AGU. In some cases this is airing dirty laundry, in others it was attempts to organize the community, but all of them were informative. And, because of the scheduling, I was able to attend and still have time to see the posters.


The terrible no-good rotten view I had to endure from the balcony of my hotel room. To add insult to injury, there was a rushing river just below my window so I had to put up with relaxing nature sounds. If you are in Chamonix, I recommend the Hotel Alpine, surprisingly affordable.

Most of the talks were excellent, and since there weren’t too many of them, I never slipped into that “holy shit I can’t believe there are 4 more talks until a break I should have sat closer to the door” haze, and I never had talks that I considered skipping. So what were some of the things I learned? Good question.


The meeting room inside the Chamonix-Mont Black Congress Center. The only downside of this set up is that when you are talking you can’t see your slides, and if you turned to look at your slides you moved too far away from the microphone for people to hear.

John Garver gave a talk about some of the work he’s been doing on zircon fission-track and (U-Th)/He dating. He’s been working on Alaskan tectonics for years, and has amassed an enormous data set from some of the rocks that record the approach and collision of different terranes. What piqued my interest though was his discussion of radiation damage in zircon. We know it effects He retentivity, and he’s started using a Raman spectrometer to quantify damage. I’ll let you read his papers to see his conclusion, but he made a very important point that has stuck with me. Annealing radiation damage in zircons requires amphibolite facies conditions. This kind of blew my mind. Although we have good experimentally determined models for radiation damage annealing in apatite, zircon appears to be a slightly different beast.


Lunch stop in the French Alps on our way to Italy.

Rod Brown discussed some of his group’s recent work looking at the effects of apatite grain fragmentation on He dates. He and his colleagues have two papers out on the subject, but he went through the numerical experiments in detail and demonstrated how proper characterization of fragmented grains can actually be seen as a feature of He dating in a way analogous to radiation damage, recording meaningful geologic information. While discussing this he introduced my new favorite term for He data sets with a spread in dates, beautifully dispersed.


Gran Paradiso national park in Italy.

This meeting was the first time that I felt like I started to understand the numerical models people have started devising to simulate He diffusion through crystal lattices. These are supercomputer-scale simulations meant to explore different controls on He diffusivity without inferring properties from in-vacuo diffusion experiments. Both Laurent Tasson-got and Cécile Gautheron talked about some of their models, and discussed why these models tend not to agree with laboratory based diffusion experiments. I felt like I at least now can revisit their papers and understand them a bit better.


Glacier and associated debris on the south side of the Mont Blanc massif, just before we drove through a long-ass tunnel back into France.

Rich Ketcham, senior member of the secret high council of super-thermochronologists, is organizing an inter-laboratory He collaboration. This is awesome, I am participating, and I hope I am not the outlier.


View of Chamonix from Aiguille du Midi after a terrifying 20 minute cable car ride during which I successfully managed to not crap my pants. The triangle shadow on the left is from mont Blanc, and conference center is one of the big white buildings.

I think my favorite talk of the conference was by Ryan McKeon. It had become apparent to me that most people at the conference trust their techniques more than anyone else’s. The fission-track people, for example, tend to be fairly suspicious of (U-Th)/He data (especially when it conflicts with fission-track data). What Ryan McKeon did is actually make sense of an exceedingly complicated data set, and for me showed that we understand  the controls of He diffusivity rather well, we just can’t characterize our samples in enough detail. He did, he spent a ton of time (a serious boatload) characterizing the apatites in this difficult data set and was actually able to explain his data using existing models of radiation damage and He diffusivity. This was heartening for me, it requires a ton of work but suggests that we understand things better than we can routinely characterize them.


A group of alpinists who took the cable car up Aiguille du Midi wait to head down a western ridge and explore the high alps. The cable car ride is interesting in part because half of the passengers are wearing crampons and carrying ice axes.

One thing I learned, coffee in France isn’t that great. They are obsessed with these automatic Keurig-style machines that specialize in overpriced mediocrity. I honestly don’t think I saw a coffee grinder the whole time I was in France. We did stop in Italy for coffee where a super efficient barista ground and pulled a few dozen espressos for the group within a shockingly short period of time. But not in France. Weird, for a people so into cuisine the coffee was disappointing. This did allow me to develop a new back-up plan of opening a high-end coffee shop in Chamonix. The baked goods and cheese were excellent as expected, as was the chocolate.


View from the cable car south to the intermediate station and down to Chamonix. You can see why I am impressed that I managed to not crap my pants.

There were also tons of excellent posters that used thermochronology to address geologic questions. Too many to list, and my notes are crappy enough that I wouldn’t properly identify the authors, but needless to say the future thermochronologists of the world are an impressive bunch.


The cable car leaving the midway station and heading up to the peak.

There was a general agreement that experimentalists need to do more experiments, but of course it is easy for people like me to tell other people they need to do more work. I am actually quite good at that.


What is left of Mer de Glace, a glacier north of Chamonix. The trim line was filled with ice in the early part of the century.

Hopefully I’ll be heading to the next Thermo meeting in Brazil (2016). After that we are in Germany (2018), and then back in the U.S. somewhere in 2020. They are easily my favorite meetings, much more of a positive experience than the big ones, so now I just need to do some science so I have something to present! I can also hope that the Germany meeting lines up with the Bundesliga season, that would be excellent.


Hiking down to Mer de Glace they have these signs posted showing where the ice was at different recent time periods. Here we are at when I started high school in 1990. Yup, all that melting in just a few decades.

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