Posted on behalf of Wendee Holtcamp, blogging for Nature aboard the research vessel Thomas G. Thompson
After spending 27 days in the sometimes rough, sometimes glassy, and almost always foggy Bering Sea, the RV Thompson docked in Dutch Harbor on July 13th – a half-day earlier than expected. Most of us watched the Unalaska Island shoreline drawing closer, its volcanic hills distinctly more verdant than when we left. Land ho! It’s a precious sight after being on a vessel for so long. Most of the equipment is boxed up and tied down, and the Thompson will take it to Seattle, where most scientists are meeting the boat to offload. Some items, like Alexei Pinchuk’s krill babies, get packed in ice and shipped home on a cargo plane.
During the last couple of days I asked the principal investigators on board what they thought of “Climategate,” in which emails between researchers at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia were leaked. Although an independent review committee found there was no breach of scientific integrity, the emails caused much consternation from all directions, and their publication had its intended effect of causing the public to further mistrust climate change data. Although the folks on board are oceanographers not climate scientists, an explicitly stated goal of the Bering Sea Project is to address how climate change will impact the Bering Sea ecosystem. What did they think of Climategate?
“I think everyone made a whole lot out of nothing,” says Nancy Kachel, who works at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. “The scientists were imprudent, and they used the kind of language that others could misinterpret – like ‘clever trick’ – but it had nothing to do with deception. It’s pretty irrefutable that humans are impacting our environment unfavorably, including the climate.” Her husband Dave Kachel, also a NOAA oceanographer, agrees, “They were making so much of those emails, when the scientists were just joking around.”
Alexei Pinchuk, a biological oceanographer at University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Seward campus, told me he thought scientists at CRU may have acted carelessly with their words: “As a scientist, my reputation is the most important thing I have.”
Certainly those who leaked the CRU emails knew that as well. The public’s acceptance of climate change is steadily declining while politically oriented attacks on science increase. It leaves me wondering: Why does the public seem to trust those who engage in illegal behavior more than scientists, who are accused but vindicated?
David Shull, professor at Western Washington University, says that although he didn’t read the emails, he is familiar with the situation. “There’s no cover up. These guys have been hounded for years by people attacking them, people that were just looking for some big scandal. My understanding is that they’ve been attempting to hack into many different climate groups.” CRU happened to have something they could use. “There are some people who take a certain view of the world, and use that to cherry pick data that supports their view. But science doesn’t work like that.”
In one of Shull’s classes, someone placed ‘Climate Fraud’ flyers on student chairs. He didn’t waste the opportunity. “I used critical thinking to pick apart the flyer’s argument. To someone who doesn’t know how CO2 is measured, it sounded perfectly legit. But when you know how CO2 is measured, the argument fell apart.”
Was Shull aware that one of the graduate students on board, a conservative from Chicago doesn’t agree that the earth is warming, and prefers to talk about his research in terms of changing sea-ice conditions or inter-annual variability? Data collected for the project do address year to year changes, but the Bering Sea Project most certainly attempts to understand how a warming climate could ultimately impact the region. Shull said that was a pretty typical Midwestern perspective; which is to say, people are influenced by those around them. “Good for him,” he added. “It’s great to have different perspectives. That’s what science is all about. He is at the outset of his career, and his views will most likely change as he continues in graduate school, if he looks at the data and chooses the best explanation.”
Today most of the scientists are in Seattle offloading the equipment from the Thompson, before they head back to their respective homes. I am back in Houston, getting ready to write an article for the print version of Nature on the science happening in the Bering Sea Project, and the Oscillating Control Hypothesis, specifically, that is helping the fisheries industry understand what to expect – and how to respond – as the polar regions warm.
Correction: In an earlier version of this blog post we said “those who hacked the CRU computers knew that as well”. The investigation is ongoing and it’s not currently known how the emails got into the public domain. The post has been changed to reflect this.