Tempest brews in weather think tank
Scientists: Climate data squelched
New Jersey Star-Ledger Oct. 1, 2006
Scientists at a world-renowned climate research lab in New Jersey say their discoveries are being hidden from public view because their conclusions on global warming differ from those in the Bush administration.
The scientists, part of the research staff of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, say a spate of press releases as well as a position paper reviewing various studies on the risk of global warming have been quashed by officials at the Commerce Department.
The researchers work at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Plainsboro, a small branch of NOAA and the birthplace of the technique that uses computer models to forecast climate.
They say the press releases and the position paper detailed reports linking intensified hurricanes to global warming. The reports also predict spells of intense weather like droughts and floods, and paint some warming as
irreversible, the scientists say.
"What can I tell you? I was telling them something they didn't want to hear," said Richard Wetherald, a career scientist at the federally funded center. "But the public is not being informed when these things are zapped."
Wetherald, 70, a registered Republican, said the Commerce Department has quashed three press releases written to trumpet major findings stemming from his research at the lab near Princeton.
Wetherald's colleague, Thomas Knutson, one of the world's experts on the relationship between changing climates and extreme weather events, says he has been barred from participating in two television interviews for national broadcasts to discuss hurricanes and climate change.
"My feeling was that it was not right," Knutson said.
Neither NOAA nor the White House responded to several requests for an interview. President Bush's science adviser, John Marbuger, was not available for this article.
Tensions between the lab and officials in Washington first came to light last week when the journal Nature quoted Ants Leetmaa, the director of the Plainsboro center, as saying the Bush administration has squelched a public
statement on hurricanes and climate change prepared last spring. The paper was the work of a panel of scientists Leetmaa headed.
NOAA administrator Conrad Lautenbacher, who is based in Silver Spring, Md.,told Nature that the scientists' paper was merely an exercise in expression and that the agency could not release such a statement on a field that is
changing so quickly.
In response to Knutson's assertion that he was not allowed to do TV interviews, Lautenbacher told Nature his agency would never condone limiting the speech of its researchers.
While most scientists agree with the notion that humankind's use of fossil fuels is warming the climate, how to counter it is a matter of intense political debate in Washington.
President Bush concedes the Earth has warmed somewhat over the past century or so; he disputes the idea that the changes are due to human activity or the use of petroleum products. And he believes that actions taken to limit
emissions will hurt the economy.
The lab was formed in 1955 as the research branch of the U.S. Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C., and grew out of landmark weather prediction experiments carried out in the late 1940s and early 1950s at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
A member of the research team, Joseph Smagorinsky, became the lab's first director. He expanded the early efforts to encompass global simulations of the atmosphere and oceans and moved the lab to Princeton's Forrestal campus in 1968.
The small black granite NOAA facility just off Route 1 in Plainsboro, with world-class supercomputers anchored in its basement, is regarded as one of the world's leading environmental research laboratories.
Jerry Mahlman, who led the lab from 1962 until he retired in 2000, thinks his colleagues there have been "shackled" since shortly after he left. He said restrictions from Washington have grown as the scientific data
buttressing the case for global warming has ballooned.
"Global warming is almost a no-brainer at this point," said Mahlman, who lives now on a mountain in Colorado. "You really can't find intelligent, quantitative arguments to make it go away."
Over the past five years, Wetherald, the researcher, has written several grim papers on climate change that appeared in prestigious journals. One report demonstrates the inevitability of a runaway effect known as "committed warming." Others point to more frequent bouts of extreme weather in the future.
"I was trying to get an estimate as to how much trouble we are really in," said Wetherald. It never occurred to him that anyone would try to muzzle him. "The facts are the facts, aren't they?"
The problem started in 2001, he said, after Congress rejected the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to restrict the amount of fossil fuel emissions. Shortly after Congress acted, he wrote a press release, he says,
with the help of the NOAA press office, on a paper to be published in the prestigious Geophysical Research Letters.
Within days, Jana Goldman, a NOAA press officer, said the press release had been rejected. The journal was sending out its own press release, she told him. NOAA did not want to duplicate efforts.
Wetherald didn't buy the argument. The journal's press release would be written in scientific jargon. A NOAA press release would be understandable to the public.
Two other press releases were rejected in 2002 and 2004 on two other global warming papers written by Wetherald. In those cases, he says, press officer
Goldman did not give him a reason but merely said "officials" at Commerce rejected them.
Wetherald says Goldman never told him who did the rejecting.
Goldman did not return several calls to her direct line.
"Obviously, the papers had a message, and it was not what they wanted it to be," Wetherald said. "A decision was made at a high level not to let it out."
Knutson said he, too, ran into difficulty when he tried to convey the implications of his research to a broader audience. He said he was not permitted to be interviewed on CNBC last October when the discussion was
expected to center on post-Katrina analyses of the federal government's responsibilities and whether global warming is creating more category-5 hurricanes like Katrina.
Knutson said he was also barred from appearing on a national talk show hosted by Ron Reagan Jr. to speak about the same subject.
E-mails obtained by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, and placed on his Web site last week
confirm Knutson's account, according to Waxman's spokesperson, Karen Lightfoot.
An Oct. 19, 2005, e-mail from Goldman to Chuck Fuqua, a press representative at Commerce, relays the interview request from CNBC.
In a separate e-mail, Fuqua seeks to gauge Knutson's scientific position, responding by asking: "What is Knutson's position on global warming vs. decadal cycles? Is he consistent with Bell and Landsea?"
Gerry Bell, NOAA's chief hurricane forecast scientist, said at a press briefing held in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that the intensity of the storm was not related to global warming. Chris Landsea is a research meteorologist with the hurricane research division of the Atlantic
Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami who questions the connection between global warming and intensified hurricanes.
In contrast, Knutson's research concludes that global warming may lead to an increasing risk of highly destructive category-5 storms.
In response, Kent Laborde, a NOAA press officer, in an e-mail to Fuqua described Knutson as a "'different animal" and said he projected a "'very small increase in hurricane intensity" due to global warming. Fuqua wrote
back, "'why can't we have one of the other guys then?"
NOAA's daily media tracking log, also obtained by Waxman, shows that the matter ended there. "Request was denied," the log states.
In this regard, the public lost out, Knutson said. "I am one of the leading experts in the area, and I should be allowed to speak about my work," he noted.
Waxman has appealed to Carlos Gutierrez, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, for more information about the incident.
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Article Contends Officials Blocked Hurricane Report
Link to global warming cited, Nature says
The Associated Press, Sept. 27, 2006
The Bush administration blocked release of a report that suggests global warming is contributing to the frequency and strength of hurricanes, the journal Nature said Tuesday.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration disputed the Nature article, saying there was not a report but a two-page fact sheet about the topic. The information was to be included in a press kit to be distributed in May as the annual hurricane season approached but wasn't ready.
"The document wasn't done in time for the rollout," NOAA spokesman Jordan St. John said in responding to the Nature article. "The White House never saw it, so they didn't block it."
The possibility that warming conditions may cause storms to become stronger has generated debate among climate and weather analysts, particularly after the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
In the new case, Nature said weather experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- part of the Commerce Department -- in February set up a seven-member panel to prepare a consensus report on the views of agency scientists about global warming and hurricanes.
According to Nature, a draft of the statement said that warming may be having an effect.
In May, when the report was expected to be released, panel chair Ants Leetmaa received an e-mail from a Commerce official saying the report needed to be made less technical and was not to be released, Nature said.
NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher is out of the country, but Nature quoted him as saying the report was an internal document and could not be released because the agency could not take an official position on the issue.
The journal said in its online report that the study was a discussion of the current state of hurricane science and did not contain any policy or position statements.