Providence Journal: “NOAA hiding truth about hurricanes, scientists say”

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The Providence [R.I.] Journal looked into charges that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration leadership has misled the public by putting forward a one-sided view on the current scientific debate about the relationship between hurricane intensity and global warming, and by misrepresenting the current state of scientific understanding.  They found a NOAA climate scientist who couldn’t talk without a political pre-clearance from NOAA management, and a public affairs officer who steers the press to a scientist who voices what appears to be the agency’s party line.     

NOAA hiding truth about hurricanes, scientists say
The national agency is accused of fudging data and censoring top scientists who link hurricane intensity with global warming.

Providence Journal
Sunday, March 26, 2006
(copyright 2006)

BY PETER B. LORD
Environment Writer

The article leads with a charge made by Prof. Kerry Emanuel of MIT:

Hurricanes are getting worse because of global warming.

Kerry Emanuel, a veteran climate researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made that assertion to a roomful of University of Rhode Island scientists a few months ago. He also charged the federal government’s top science agency with ignoring the growing research making that link.

Instead of telling the public the truth, he said, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration officials are insisting that hurricanes are worse because of a natural cycle.

Emanuel’s comments made little impact at the time. But during the last three months, his comments and those of other scientists have become like hurricanes—more frequent and more severe. Finally, they are reaching the public.

The article reports the following experience with seeking to discus hurricanes and warming with NOAA scientists:

Soon after Emanuel’s appearance at URI to discuss his research and his new book, Divine Wind: The History of Science and Hurricanes, The Providence Journal sought to test his conclusions.

The first call was to Isaac Held, a senior research scientist at the NOAA’s prestigious Geophysical Fluids Laboratory, in Princeton, N.J. It was there, last fall, that Emanuel said he first heard about NOAA censorship. Held said he hadn’t been affected, but he advised calling Thomas Knutson, a NOAA scientist whose research showed a link between climate change and hurricane intensity….

Knutson wouldn’t talk.

“When we’re contacted by reporters, we have to have clearance before we can speak about issues. This is NOAA’s media policy,” Knutson said….

Calls to NOAA’s public-affairs office led to Kent Laborde, who was described as the public-affairs person who focuses on climate-change issues.

Laborde made it clear that the NOAA has discounted the research tying global warming to worsening hurricanes.

“What we’ve found is, if you look at a couple segments of science, observational or modeling, there is no illustrated link between climate change and hurricane intensity,” Laborde said. “We actually have periods of intensity followed by periods of lower intensity. We have evidence of periods going back to the 1930s. It follows a clear pattern.”

Laborde was asked if he would approve an interview with Knutson.

What is the topic? he asked.

Emanuel’s theories linking climate change to worsening hurricanes.

“Chris Landsea would be better. He’s an observational scientist,” Laborde said.

Landsea is a top meteorologist at the NOAA, often called upon for expert testimony to Congress or to speak at news conferences. He also very publicly quit an international climate-change panel last year, because one of its leaders had publicly linked global warming to hurricane severity.

At Laborde’s request, Landsea cheerfully discounted Emanuel’s theories in an interview with The Journal….

Landsea insisted that, although he represents the NOAA, there is no official NOAA stance on the impact of global warming on hurricanes.

The article reports on NOAA’s belated fine print footnote acknowledging scientific debate on hurrricanes and warming, and Emanuel’s comment:

Last week, Emanuel said he had noticed one change at the NOAA since he made his complaints public, but it’s a small one, and it appears only in a footnote in tiny print at the end of the page. It is, he said, “a little disingenuous.”

NOAA Magazine, an online publication, had carried a story at the end of November that wrapped up the terrible 2005 hurricane season. Its headline; “NOAA Attributes Recent Increase in Hurricane Activity to Naturally Occurring Multi-Decadal Climate Variability.”

Last month, in small print at the end of the 12-page report, this editor’s note had been added: “The consensus in this on-line magazine story represents the views of some NOAA hurricane researchers and forecasters, but does not necessarily represent the views of all NOAA scientists. It was not the intention of this article to discount the presence of a human-induced global warming element or to attempt to claim that such an element is not present. There is a robust, on-going discussion on hurricanes and climate change with NOAA and the scientific community.”

The note says the headline should have read: “Agreement Among Some NOAA Hurricane Researchers and Forecasters.”

Climate Science Watch director Rick Piltz talked with the reporter:

Piltz said he is well aware that NOAA policies “require political preapproval on all science contacts with the media.”….

“[W]e’ve got science and politics co-mingled here,” Piltz said. “What happens when the world of science collides with the world of politics? I know that world.”

The NOAA’s actions are often subtle, he said, “but they reflect a pervasive pattern of deflecting the public’s attention and manipulating the way science is presented to the public.”

“Federal scientists should be able to communicate with the public,” Piltz said.

 

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