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The Bering Sea Project: Thoughts on Climategate

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.

Previous posts:

The Bering Sea Project: Benthic Nirvana, marine snow, and the end of the voyage

The importance of zooplankton, alien-like and otherwise

Phytoplankton, micropoop, and the bottom of the food chain

The Pribilof Islands

What is happening to pollock?

Wild Weather, Damaged Equipment & the Oscillating Control Hypothesis

Water, mud and critters

Setting sail for climate change research

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.

Comments

  1. Schiller Thurkettle said:

    It is disturbing to see Nature associated with commentary like this.

    For instance, it is still not known how the emails were released. Hacking is only one of a number of possibilities.

    What is more, someone who has not read the “hacked” emails can scarcely be considered “familiar with the situation”, nor worthy of being quoted on a Nature web page.

    Nature’s standards should be higher than this.

  2. SteveR said:

    This is an interesting survey of opinion if only in that it confirms my suspicions that climategate hasn’t really changed anyones opinion, on either side. Reading between the lines these scientists seem not to have exactly immersed themselves in the details of what went on and are hoping that it will all just go away. They seem to have the dismissive litany off pat.

    I was fascinated to read that there is a “conservative from Chicago” on board. Although I wonder how we are meant to interpret the implied correlation of his conservatism with his unusual scientific beliefs. Is this how science works now?

  3. Dr Phillip Bratby said:

    So it’s official from Nature is it that the CRU computer was illegally hacked into?

    Has Nature told the Norfolk Police investigating the issue that it has the vital evidence that the CRU computer was hacked?

  4. Per said:

    “David Shull… although he didn’t read the emails, he is familiar with the situation”

    “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.”

    Hmmm. Looks like he got it right!

  5. Ananyo said:

    Dr Phillip Bratby makes a fair point. At one point this blog post assumed that the computers at CRU had been hacked – though elsewhere we state that the emails ‘leaked’. The investigation is ongoing and what happened at CRU has not been established. We’ve corrected the story to reflect this. However, we’ve not changed what the scientists quoted say, as this is their opinion on the case.

  6. Roddy Campbell said:

    “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?”

    He doesn’t use that kind of language, surely? And a conservative too.

    Ananyo Bhattacharya, you wouldn’t possibly be displaying unconscious bias, would you?

    And what did you mean when you asked “Was Shull aware….”? That the graduate student needed re-education?

    Shull’s answer was good: ““Good for him,” he added. “It’s great to have different perspectives. That’s what science is all about.”

  7. Ananyo said:

    Apologies again. I see that I missed the byline off this blog post when I posted it. It’s part of Wendee Holtcamp’s series on the Bering Sea Project. Her name and links to the previous posts have been added.

    Roddy Campbell – From conversations with Wendee I’m confident that’s a fair reflection of how the student talked about his work. He’s an oceanographer after all. But yes, it’s not a direct quote so there’s been some paraphrasing. ‘Inter-annual variability’ and such terms are part of the oceanographer’s lexicon I would think.

  8. JimR said:

    “David Shull, professor at Western Washington University, says that although he didn’t read the emails,”

    I have heard this so many times since last November. And like Professor Shull those who didn’t read the E-mails seem to have all the facts wrong and plenty to say about it. The scandal was created by repeated refusals by UEA/CRU to release data, first to simple requests and later to requests under the UK FOIA/EIR. The UK Information Commissioners Office is the only agency to rule against UEA/CRU for these violations. They were under attack for scientific data, both courteously requested and later legally requested under Freemon of Information laws and refused at every turn. I believe most of the committees that have reviewed this case in one way or another have supported better transparency and access to data, something that may have prevented the Climategate incident from happening.

  9. SimonH said:

    “Why does the public seem to trust those who engage in illegal behavior more than scientists, who are accused but vindicated?”

    Two things to note:

    Firstly, in the UK, if the “hack” was in fact a “leak”, it was not illegal. There is rigid protection in law in the UK for what is termed a “whistleblower”, if it transpires that the source of the leak is internal to the UEA/CRU – as is at least somewhat implicit in Norfolk Police’s 8-month-long failure to establish that a crime has been committed, despite full-time resources committed to the effort.

    Secondly, though the reports do indeed appear to broadly vindicate the scientists implicated by “Climategate”, anyone can read a 5-page report from a “Science Appraisal Panel” that very clearly made no effort to appraise the science implicated in “Climategate”.

    So yes, one might wonder why the public doesn’t seem to trust those who celebrate these reports as vindication of the science, instead placing trust in those who highlight their shortfalls. But surely not more than fleetingly?

  10. MikeJ said:

    In woeful articles like this it’s always comforting to see the comments put things straight!

  11. SimonM said:

    I am fed up with scientists prononuncing on this subject when they haven’t even read the e-mails.

    The Institute of Physics submitted evidence to the Parliamentary Inquiry which begins:

    The Institute is concerned that, unless the disclosed e-mails are proved to be forgeries or adaptations, worrying implications arise for the integrity of scientific research in this field and for the credibility of the scientific method as practised in this context.

    The Information Commissioner stated:

    The prima facie evidence from the published emails indicate an attempt to defeat disclosure by deleting information. It is hard to imagine more cogent prima facie evidence.

    Whatever you think of the outcome of the inquries – and I am very unhappy at their failure to ask some very basic questions – surely the opinion of someone who hasn’t even read any of the e-mails is not very worth having.

  12. Kramer said:

    “I think everyone made a whole lot out of nothing,”

    So, it’s “nothing” to request that your colleagues delete emails per a FOI request and then say that you did?

    Even worse, this deleting of emails issue was pretty much ignored by those ‘independent’ inquiries.

    Scientists should be trusted??? Yeah right.

  13. Roddy Campbell said:

    Whoops, I see an irony-free zone here. Ananyo, thanks, I assumed you were the writer.

    The article is very very funny, wholly unconsciously. The sentence “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?” is still making me laugh.

    Wendee – just why did you mention his politics? How is that relevant? And what could conceivably be odd, or indeed interesting, about an oceanographer talking about his work in terms of ‘changing sea-ice conditions or inter-annual variability’?

  14. Ananyo said:

    Roddy – sorry. Irony welcome. Simply in a hurry dealing with the comments. Now amused.

  15. Dominic said:

    What a load of propaganda. He didn’t read the emails but is “familiar with the situation”. This sums up the whole problem. Would you please look at the data before you open your mouth. Then you might be able to say something which has some basis in fact. What a joke article.

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  16. Jeremy Poynton said:

    Hmmm. Not the conclusion that New Scientist came to, which was extremely critical both of the CRU and the “reviews”.

    Regardless, the cat is out of the bag, in that many people no longer believe in the integrity of those involved in the promoting of AGW. The language of AGW proponents does not help.

    Time to take a rain check guys. I wouldn’t be so smug were I in your position.

  17. Luis Dias said:

    It’s nice to know that we have scientists dealing with what is known as the gravest ecological problem of the 21st century that are able to pass judgements even before having seen any kind of evidence for themselves.

    It would be one thing if they were laymen, but supposedly, these are skeptical thinkers by profession. And here they are, pretty much handwaving everything, perhaps because they inherited George Bush’s “Gut feeling”, and they just “know” the truth.

    This is alarming. I mean, everytime some climatologist goes on TV or journals, etc., will they be talking out of their darkest regions, or will they be talking evidenced facts? How much of “gut feeling” science are we really looking at, after all?

  18. Al Lusn said:

    Dearest Ananyo,

    It is well beyond the time to try and keep promoting the “AGW scare”. “We the people” have read the emails, saw the whitewash inquiries and are wise to the whole scam. We are NOT stupid! Please go back to to the old fashioned real science, and stop being a political tool of the left.

    You can see by the comments that it ain’t working.

    Thank you in advance for taking my advise.

    Al in West Bloomfield

  19. Ananyo said:

    Wendee is currently in transit. But as the editor that commissioned this post, I’m going to clarify that this is a blog post and not a news story. Blog posts can be opinionated and may reflect the writer’s point of view. I commissioned this as I felt it would be interesting for many readers to know what some scientists (note – these researchers are not climate scientists but oceanographers) think about the ‘climategate’ emails. Wendee’s trip was a rare opportunity to get that. Personally, I think it makes very interesting reading.

    This post is not an attempt to force the readers of this post to think one way or the other about what the scientists are saying. I imagined that you would make up your own minds based on what’s here. As indeed you have.

  20. SimonM said:

    I’m worried by the attempt made by sections of the Climate Science community to portray AGW skepticism as some sort of right-wing plot, and skeptics as crazed bigots.

    Personally I’m left-wing. But I’m opposed to spending vast sums of money if the basic science turns out to be shaky. This is really important: money spent this way is not available for other urgent causes.

    It was reported on BBC Radio 4 today that some school children in the UK are so malnourished that they show signs of scurvy. Are you so sure of the science that you would rather spend money combating AGW?

  21. Chuck Norcutt said:

    It is truly distressing to see comments by those who are supposed to live by the scientific method quoted as: “although he didn’t read the emails, he is familiar with the situation”. Obviously, David Shull’s (and others quoted here) knowledge of the Climategate emails is limited to ignorant hearsay or deliberate misinformation.

    If you consider that science involves the study of real data you owe it to yourself to wade through as much of this stuff as you can stomach. When you’ve read it for yourself there will no longer be any doubt about why the skeptical have become even more so and why Climategate will continue to resonate for years.

    You can find a condensed and annotated version of the emails prepared by Australian physicist John Costa at his web site: assassinationscience dot com slash climategate. Links on the main page will take you to the full text of the related emails and also to every single file (including computer code) that was released. Much of it is rather boring day-to-day jabber. But some of it will make you ill. If you can’t accept this invitation to read the real stuff then please be kind enough not to pontificate on the subject.

  22. Wendee Holtcamp said:

    I tried to post this from the road but apparently it didn’t go through. I’m traveling along the Gulf Coast to report on the oil spill. At any rate, I wanted to make 2 quick points. One, the irony with the student is that he’s funded by a $52-million NSF (and NPRB) funded Bering Sea Project with an overarching goal to study the impact of a warming climate on the ecosystem there. Although his individual project (and really most of the scientists’ individual research projects other than the modelers) look at more of the interannual variability, the overarching goal is to try to understand what will happen when/if the climate continues to warm, and how that will affect pollock, birds, marine mammals, as well as the lower bricks of the food web and nutrient cycling. Second, David Shull is very familiar with the data on warming climate – the science itself – and ultimately that is what matters. His comment/opinions on the “Climategate”

    emails as well as on the student’s views was an informed one in terms of understanding the science of climate change. He also told me that he personally knew “one of the people who works with the scientists involved” and had spoken with him about the situation firsthand, but because David is presently traveling and unreachable I was not able to confirm the details of this situation or who it was he knew, I therefore did not include it in the post. When I can find out, I will be happy to post that information here if anyone is interested. It is still hearsay, but to paint him as uninformed is simply inaccurate and certainly not my intention at all. I was impressed that he did not dismiss the student but welcomed various views. I didn’t even mention AGW (accelerated Global Warming, right?) except it was somewhat implicit in Nancy’s quote. Thorugh her work at NOAA/PMEL and elsewhere she is also intimately familiar with data on climate change. Last point – as Ananyo mentioned this is a blog post, and has a bit more room for editorializing. It was interesting to hear the scientists’ perspectives and it was made clear in the piece that these were their opinions, and that they were oceanographers studying climate change. They’re not atmospheric scientists, but they are certainly well informed.

  23. JimR said:

    Ananyo, thanks for the idea of the blog post on Climatgate from a ship of scientists. From the comments the idea definitely sparked interest.

    I think the idea that appalled many of us is that these scientists seem totally unaware of any of the facts of the Climategate incident. They feel free to talk about it with phrases such as “just joking around” to the Professor Shull’s wild conspiracy theories, but with literally millions of educated people around the globe having knowledge of what transpired such fabrications simply upset people.

    I had hoped that the facts of Climategate would have made it through the scientific community by now with the simple message: archive your data publicly and make code available upon publication. The whole Climategate issue started out about replication and it really did get out of hand. This was due to a small group of highly respected and well known scientists who wouldn’t let principle or law lead them to making data available.

  24. Roddy Campbell said:

    Ananyo – good answer. Of course it’s a blog post, not news, and the ‘AGW is a scam’ posters are quite dull. I liked the irony in your last sentence very much!

    Wendee is quite clear – the Project accepts warming in the polar region, and is researching subject to that background. The individual blogs are very good, I just read the pollock one.

    It was her AMAZEMENT that any student in the field might not accept AGW and its impacts as laid down by the IPCC on tablets of stone that interested me. I guess it is amazing, but Shull’s answer was very good – scepticism is good, he’ll find his way from evidence as scientists should.

  25. Slowjoe said:

    So, we find that Oceanographers feel it is ok to take a strong view on a controversial subject without looking at any of the primary evidence.

    And that a Nature reporter feels the need to tell senior professors about possible groupthink security risks. In the light of the “Journolist” controversy, can I ask if anyone on the Nature payroll was a member of the “Journolist” listserv?

  26. Dr Liam Nagle said:

    As a scientist interested in climate change I read a large number of the “Climategate” e-mails when they were first leaked. I’d really have to do a lot of intellectual jumping through hoops and wishful thinking to see nothing worrying about their content. They seem to show a clique collaborating to control the debate rather than allow challenges and criticism. Far from objective science.

  27. Chuck Norcutt said:

    Wendee, if you are going to write on this subject you should first educate yourself. It was me who charged your oceanographers with being uninformed. But I made that charge with respect to Climategate, not about their general level of knowledge on climate change science. The two are vastly different things. Climategate very specifically undercuts the paleoclimate data of the CRU at EAU by undercutting the scientists themselves… with their own words. Neither you nor Shull can know that without having read it. Asking the accused if they’re guilty is not generally the way to get to the truth. One examines the evidence which is there for all to see.

    ps: AGW is Anthropogenic Global Warming (ie, caused by humans) not “accelerated” Global Warming.

  28. Tom Scharf said:

    Wendee,

    I totally accept this an opinion piece and that the point was simply to show opinions of some scientists indirectly involved in the field, and does a good job.

    The seemingly irrelevant comments on conservatives and “are you aware” was regrettable. I suspect this was unintentional and innocent, but feeds the perception that climate science is so politically tainted, that many scientists have lost their objective viewpoint, and peer pressure to stick to an AGW theology is real and a bunker mentality is in effect. Us against them.

    If this science is open to all inquiries (as demonstrated by one scientist in this post) why would one researcher holding a counter opinion not want to discuss it with others? What does he fear?

  29. Steven Sullivan said:

    Wow, look at all the angry AGW ‘contrarians’ descending. ‘Bishop Hill’s’ tribe, I’m guessing?

    Anyway good for these oceanographers for treating ‘Climategate’ with the contempt it deserved. Now for balance let’s see some hackers grab McIntyre’s and Watts’s emails from the last few years, and publicize the most impolite ones.

  30. Wendee Holtcamp said:

    Just wanted to add a couple quick thoughts. I was not “AMAZED” in capital letters even that a student would be skeptical of global warming. There is a scientific consensus that the polar regions (and the global mean temp) is rising. The student seemed uneducated about this fact. I had more than one conversation with him. He was not one of Dr Shull’s students, so in our conversation I simply asked him if he knew. I also asked him other questions but there wasn’t space to cover the entire conversation. Yes, the blog post is clearly scientist’s opinions on the Climategate issue. They’re not involved so there’s really not an urgent need, in my opinion, for them to be intimately familiar with the emails. I was on assignment to ask them their opinions, and they offered them. I am certain that if there was a pressing need to familiarize themselves with it, they would have. I certainly agree openness is vital to science. There are also cases where scientists or organizations are under contract by private companies to study something and those data are not necessarily publicly available. I was told by a source that was the case in this situation but again, because I did not have time to thoroughly fact-check that issue (it was a blog post, at the end of a long trip) I did not include it. Scientist’s opinions on Climategate are certainly interesting but personally I’m more interested in the science, and of course in the ethical practice of science – which is what most are concerned about here. Another scientist on board also said to me that even if these CRU folks were completely guilty of fraud, that would still not make the fact of a warming climate untrue. One group of fraudulent scientists (and I’m NOT saying they were) would not undermine the clear facts. In one of my Bering Sea Project blog posts, I cited Leonid Polyak’s review paper on the history of sea ice in the Arctic, in which he looked at sediment coring and other data. He is not associated with the Bering Sea Project. His review of Arctic polar history is intriguing. Thanks for reading the blogs.

  31. JimR said:

    Wendee,

    Thanks for your response, but many are still going to have problems with it.

    “Second, David Shull is very familiar with the data on warming climate – the science itself – and ultimately that is what matters. His comment/opinions on the “Climategate” emails as well as on the student’s views was an informed one in terms of understanding the science of climate change."

    But similar to a jurist being an expert on law without knowing any of the facts of a particular case, David Shull or the students familiarity with climate science in no way qualifies them to speak on the Climategate incident. Shull’s own words betray him as they simply don’t reflect the facts as known. Claiming they’ve been attacked for years and “my understanding is that they’ve been attempting to hack into many different climate groups”? Seriously? At this point the UK police haven’t even determined if this was a hack or leak and with the FOI violations that the UK ICO has ruled on there was certainly motivation for a whistle-blower. Since you have been in transit are you aware that earlier this month the UK Information Commissioners Office ruled UEA/CRU did in fact violate UK FOI/EIR? And they are still investigating other violations.

  32. Oliver said:

    Jim,

    I am not sure how familiar you are with science in general. But scientists not actually fulfilling their obligations to share material IS while regrettable no big deal because it happens in every field, day in, day out. The only reason this IS made to be a big deal is because it concerns climate change. I don’t see you making such a broohaha on the issue that a German stem cell scientist is unwilling/unable to provide the cells he published on.

    It might well be that they violated FOI/EIR. But the only reason they were filed to begin with is that it is a topic where some believe in a global mass conspiracy of the scientific community. If it was any other topic, people would mutter angry comments into their real or imaginary beards and get on with life, restricting themselves to publishing a harsh letter to the editor and maybe having an angry discussion or two at the next congress.

  33. Jim Lad said:

    Climategate has served its purpose.

    Granted, those who want to push the whole AGW theory are pushing as hard as ever but with loud rhetoric rather than “Peer Reviewed Science”.

    The money has dried up and with it, the only incentive to keep the story running.

    Most governments are quietly looking for the exits and breathing a collective sigh of relief.

    It shouldn’t bother anyone that all of the investigations have been internal, their results, even more predictable than the changing seasons.

    It’s over and that’s all that really matters.

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