Go to Manhattan. Not large famous Manhattan but small, unknown Manhattan in Kansas. It is the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the wind erosion research unit of the United States department of agriculture, and we are going to the celebration conference at Kansas State University.
The department established the unit at Kansas in the excellent tradition of placing important governmental research groups deep in the structure of universities - an idea we should have adopted here long ago. The conference is at Throckmorton Hall and we are to stay at Ford Hall. Going west, we have a long day and cram in three flights: Birmingham to Chicago, on to Kansas City, and on again to Manhattan. This last stage is accomplished in a 19-seat Beechcraft operated by US Air. The airline manages to lose our baggage. So we arrive at Ford Hall rather tired and dispirited, and not very well equipped. We cause a problem because my wife and I represent one person of each sex and the rooms, corridors and washing facilities cannot cope. We get a room in the women's section but I have to trek over to the men's zone for ablutions etc.
Breakfast begins at 6.45am and registration opens at 7.30am. The department likes a prompt start. The day starts well because the baggage has appeared. I unearth the 100 copies of Loess Letter (loess is soil deposited by the wind) which I am carrying and get them to the registration area. At the morning break the conference photo is taken and I observe that ordinary and electronic cameras are used. Our group picture can appear on the unit's Website before lunch - it is a strange new world.
The morning session deals with international matters and we hear about soil erosion in New Zealand. There is a surprising amount of soil blown away By wind there, not what you would expect in such a wet country. The Australian review also throws up a few surprises. The most revolutionary being the idea that the driest and saltiest of the continental land masses contains significant, but hitherto unrecognised, loess soil systems.
The afternoon is given over to the discussion of erosion processes. In the early evening there is a reception in the union. The union is like a five-star hotel (not at all like a United Kingdom union) and after sampling the non-alcoholic punch we move into the ballroom for the banquet. At most conference banquets the level of conversation noise rises steadily as more and more wine is consumed. At this banquet we drink iced tea and the chatter remains subdued and discreet. An ancient professor offers his reminiscences of the dustbowl, the huge area of the American midwest destroyed by the wind sweeping soil away, following ill-advised changes in farming practice. We all think for a while about the greed and ignorance and mismanagement that caused the catastrophe. The great soils of west Kansas seem fairly secure now but soil is still blowing away in many other parts of the world.
It is a popular conference so we need concurrent sessions. I am a moderator for the "physics of processes" session. We talk about impact energies and particle entrainment and transferred momentum. The science of wind erosion has lagged rather. There has been more action in other associated fields.
In the afternoon there is a discussion of the new computerised wind erosion prediction system, and then we all go off on a trip to the prairie. The preserved Konza prairie is quite near the KSU campus and there are some interesting experiments monitoring carbon dioxide going on there which could have significance in the study of global climate change.
We also get to see the buffalo herd and then the rather insensitive among us consume some deceased members at the buffalo barbecue while the rest of us stay with the vegetarian selection.
A session on modelling in the morning but the real business is in the afternoon in the workshop/planning sessions. The delegates are divided into four groups and we have to come up with strategy, rationale, vision, goals and procedure/tasks/activities for our respective projects. We also have to choose a chair, facilitator, recorder and rapporteur. Being an "international" person at this very American conference I get to be a member of the international network for information exchange working group. We do, in fact, have some useful discussions. We also make some wild suggestions: we propose to increase the information overload problem By introducing the International Journal of Wind Erosion and Aeolian Processes and to start a plethora of Websites.
The Kansas conference ends and we set off for phase two of this year's North American operation. The department's van picks us up at Ford Hall and takes us to Manhattan airport and our 19-seater heads for Kansas City and points east.
Ian Smalley Visiting professor of soil engineering at Nottingham Trent University.