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People navigate boat through icebergs.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Palmer Station personnel navigate a Zodiac through the nearby islands and icebergs around the Antarctic Peninsula, which is one of the fastest warming regions on the planet. Most scientists believe humans are to blame for climate changes here and elsewhere.

Winter of discontent

USAP researchers frustrated by backlash against climate science

It hasn’t been a good year for climate scientists.

It started in November 2009 with the illegal release of thousands of e-mails and other documents from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit External Non-U.S. government site that climate-change critics seized upon as proof that global warming was a conspiracy.

Subsequent investigations cleared all of the scientists — and reiterated that the research was sound — but the damage had been done in the public arena.

The controversy, dubbed “Climategate,” threw a shadow over the next month’s U. N. Climate Change Conference External Non-U.S. government site in Copenhagen. Deadlock dominated the meeting and the non-legally binding Copenhagen Accord did not live up to most expectations.

Even the weather got into the act. The winter of 2010 was unusually severe, offering further proof to climate-change skeptics that global warming wasn’t real.

For researchers involved in the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) External U.S. government site, the recent backlash against science can be summed up in one word: frustrating.

Penguins
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Adélie penguin colonies along the northern Antarctic Peninsula are shrinking due to global warming.

“It’s very frustrating. We don’t know quite what to do with it,” said Richard Alley External Non-U.S. government site, a professor of geosciences at The Pennsylvania State University External Non-U.S. government site who has testified before Congress on several occasions on climate-change issues.

Forget, for a moment, all you’ve heard about sunspots, ice cores, and the various correlations between carbon dioxide (the primary greenhouse gas) and temperature. Global warming is a matter of physics — one known to science for more than a century, Alley said. [See related article: It's just physics.]

“The fact that important people in Washington don’t know that is our failure,” he said. “This is not policy prescriptive, saying there is a greenhouse effect and we’re increasing it. It’s in no way a political statement. Saying there is not a greenhouse effect is a political statement because there’s no scientific basis for it.”

Penn State was one of the institutions caught up in the Climategate controversy, as among the stolen e-mails were those by Michael Mann External Non-U.S. government site, director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center External Non-U.S. government site. An investigation by the university exonerated Mann earlier this summer.

Alley noted that the Associated Press published an article about a month after the e-mail maelstrom erupted, saying that Climategate didn’t show an attempt to fake global warming.

“Any time in the past, up until the last few years, I believe that would have ended the story,” Alley said.

But it hasn’t. One state attorney general is still attempting to pursue the stolen e-mail case against the University of Virginia, while some candidates for public office have indicated they will launch investigations into climate science if elected.

It’s enough to make physical oceanographer Douglas Martinson External Non-U.S. government site reach for a bottle of Maalox.

“It just drives me crazy,” said an exasperated Martinson, a researcher with Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University External Non-U.S. government site. Martinson is a member of the Palmer Long Term Ecological Research (PAL LTER) program External Non-U.S. government site. For nearly two decades the PAL LTER program has studied the northwestern region around the Antarctic Peninsula, one of the fastest warming places on the planet.

Instrument dangles over water from cable.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek 
Palmer LTER scientists use a variety of instruments to measure the current state of the Southern Ocean ecosystem.

“It is so frustrating. We have known for decades — no question — that global warming was started by anthropogenic increases of CO2,” Martinson said, adding that the evidence is overwhelming. “The straws that broke the camel’s back are so thick now you can’t even see the camel.”

Collecting the data and making the observations needed to understand climate change in the polar regions isn’t always easy.

Don Voigt External Non-U.S. government site has made 14 trips down to Antarctica in as many years. Most of his time is spent in the continent’s most inhospitable spots, on crevassed glaciers, making measurements that will tell him and his colleagues more about how ice flows.

It’s vital information if researchers are to understand how the world’s great ice sheets will respond to climate change.

The Penn State geologist finds himself speaking less about his work these days given the current climate.

“We’re just making observations here and trying to tell people what’s going on. Being attacked for an observation is kind of strange — it’s beyond comprehension in a lot of ways,” Voigt said. “At some point you keep doing what you’re doing because you know it’s the right thing to do.”

Like Voigt, Leigh Stearns External Non-U.S. government site has traveled across thousands of kilometers of desolate Antarctica to learn more about the icy continent. She worked several seasons on the International Trans-Antarctic Scientific Expedition External Non-U.S. government site, which traveled by tractor train to remote areas to collect climate data through ice cores and measure the ice sheet using instruments like radar and GPS.

More recently, the assistant professor at University of Kansas’ Department of Geology External Non-U.S. government site has worked in Greenland, where glaciers are making an unprecedented rush toward the ocean, adding to sea-level rise. Arctic sea ice this summer reached its 2010 minimum extent of 4.6 million square kilometers in September — the third lowest in the satellite record.

“It’s such a pervasive change, in the Arctic in particular, and parts of the Antarctic. We need to be better activists of our science. We need to get the word out in a more succinct matter,” Stearns said.

“It’s not political. It’s our environment,” she added.

An expert in paleoclimatology, Alley has done more than many in his field to make the issue transparent to policymakers and the public. Ten years ago he wrote a popular science book, “The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future,” about the effort and research that went into an ice core extracted from the Greenland Ice Sheet, and its relevance to the climate changes under way today.

He’s currently funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) External U.S. government site for a public outreach project called Earth: The Operators’ Manual. The thrust of the multimedia program is to provide a sort of “manual” for people on how to more wisely use the present and projected energy resources of the planet and the relationship to climate change.

Icebergs
Photo Credit: Galen Dossin/Antarctic Photo Library
Icebergs from Pine Island Glacier Ice Shelf in the Amundsen Sea.

Alley admits to some frustration with the media, which traditionally gives two sides to an argument equal weight. Yet the two sides hardly seem equal.

A poll performed by Peter Doran External Non-U.S. government site and Maggie Kendall Zimmerman at Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago External Non-U.S. government site last year found that 90 percent of 3,146 respondents agreed that temperatures have risen compared to pre-1800 levels, and 82 percent agreed that humans significantly influence the global temperature.

More recently, in a 2010 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors reviewed publication and citation data for 1,372 climate researchers. They found that nearly 98 percent of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of anthropogenic-caused climate change. 

Part of the problem, Alley noted, is that scientific expertise in the media is lacking. “A lot of the mainstream media have gotten rid of their science writers,” he said. In December 2008, for example, CNN cut its entire science, technology and environment team.

Today, any talking head on TV can espouse a scientific belief with little or no training, Martinson noted.

“People’s opinions being dictated by talk show hosts — it’s just not right,” he said. “Get your information from a scientist, not a talk show host.”  

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs