Why the administration buried a NOAA scientists’ statement on hurricanes and climate


Officials at the Department of Commerce have been blocking the release of a new statement by federal climate scientists at NOAA on Atlantic hurricanes and climate. On September 27 a leaked copy of the statement was posted on the web (see “Details” for the text). We believe they decided to bury the statement because, albeit in a low-profile way, it acknowledges that global warming can increase hurricane intensity, and also the possibility that, because of global warming, the current active hurricane period could persist. That is a linkage the administration has taken pains to keep the public from making, for reasons having to do with the political fallout from Hurricane Katrina and the administration’s desire to fend off public pressure for a stronger global warming mitigation policy.

The administration’s politicization of science communication on the hurricanes-warming issue is a case example of how holding public officials accountable for the use and misuse of science is essential to integrity in policymaking.

To briefly re-cap recent developments:
On September 26 the science journal Nature (by subscription, copyright 2006), in an on-line article—“Is US hurricane report being quashed? NOAA scientists say political appointees blocked climate change message”—reported that “a statement on the science behind the politically sensitive issue of hurricane activity and climate change has been blocked from release by officials at the US Department of Commerce.”  (NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is an agency under the Commerce Department and is headed by officials who hold sub-cabinet political appointments at Commerce.)

The story was picked up by the Associated Press and received wide circulation on September 27. (Archived)

NOAA officials and some NOAA scientists have been criticized for putting out misleading and one-sided information about the state of scientific research on the connection between global warming and increased hurricane intensity. A number of leading climate scientists believe that NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher and selectively-chosen NOAA representatives have inappropriately discounted—in Congressional testimony, press statements, and on the agency’s website—a growing body of research indicating the possibility, or likelihood, that global warming is causing an increase in hurricane intensity, and is projected to cause a greater increase in the future. It also has been documented that NOAA has interfered with media access to alternative viewpoints within NOAA. 

We have raised this issue in earlier posts, including those dated July 6 (Hurricanes and global warming: A credibility challenge for the Climate Change Science Program), June 4 (NOAA, global warming, and hurricanes: CSW director interview), May 31 (Two new studies link increased hurricane intensity to global warming), May 31 again (NOAA’s misleading internal Congressional briefing points on hurricanes and global warming), March 29 (NOAA hiding truth about hurricanes, scientists say), and February 16 (Jim Hansen: NOAA ‘by fiat’ put out ‘biased information’ on hurricanes).

NOAA scientists reportedly began work in February on a new statement summarizing the state of scientific understanding of the connections between hurricanes and climate, in the wake of the controversy over the agency’s official statements. Climate Science Watch has been told that the work was commissioned by then-NOAA deputy administrator Jim Mahoney, that the lead author was Ants Leetmaa, director of NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at Princeton, and that contributing NOAA scientists included Chris Landsea, Gerry Bell, Tom Knutson, Tom Karl, and others.  Nature reports:

…e-mails obtained by Greenpeace under the Freedom of Information Act show that several NOAA scientists told their seniors that the agency was not properly representing hurricane science. The scientists’ complaints prompted the creation of an internal seven-member panel charged with preparing a consensus statement on the views of NOAA researchers on hurricane science. The document was finalized by the panel in mid-May and was due to be released to the public and the media in time for the start of this year’s hurricane season in June.

But the statement was not released. Nature reports:

When asked about the document, NOAA administrator Conrad Lautenbacher told Nature that it was simply an internal exercise designed to get researchers to respect each other’s points of view. He said it could not be released because the agency cannot take an official position on a field of science that is changing so rapidly. But panel members contacted by Nature, including Leetmaa, disagree strongly with this interpretation. Internal NOAA and commerce-department e-mails also discuss the timetable for the document being “cleared” for “distribution”. The draft states that it refers to the “current state of the science” and does not contain “any statements of policy or positions of NOAA”.

[We will discuss the FOIA’d NOAA internal e-mails pertaining to scientific integrity and media policy in forthcoming posts.]

We don’t believe Lautenbacher’s rationalizations for a moment, and we think he doesn’t believe them either. They are political cover. The statement appears to have been held at Commerce Department headquarters for months now without being given “clearance”, i.e., final approval for release.  From our experience with the approvals process for government documents of this sort, we expect that NOAA probably cleared the statement internally and sent it on to Commerce. The hold-up at Commerce can reasonably be inferred to be politically motivated, not a matter of scientific accuracy or integrity. There is something in the statement, or about the statement—either specific language, or just the prospect of having a new statement out, inviting public scrutiny and media attention and questioning of NOAA scientists about this issue at this time (during the election season?)—that led to more of the political censorship to which we have become accustomed.

The Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University Colorado obtained the document and posted in on their “Prometheus” blog.  We take the liberty of re-posting it below.

Is there anything new or surprising in it that could give NOAA or DOC officials pause about releasing it?  One could argue, as does Roger Pielke Jr. on Prometheus, that “There is absolutely nothing new or surprising in the fact sheet. Why NOAA or DOC officials would not want this released is beyond me.” Well, we expect there is nothing in the document that is new to the hurricane climatology research community or to those who follow research developments in this area.

But it does include statements—quietly, but there—that differ from the message that NOAA officials have been spinning out for some time. Acknowledged by an official release, these could invite questions, directed at administration officials and NOAA scientists (and not just Lautenbacher’s usual selected few), about the state of science on the implications of global warming for hurricane activity—the sort of thing that Commerce/NOAA officials have gone to great lengths to avoid telling a straight story about. Commerce/NOAA politicals appear to regard this issue as so sensitive, so unamenable to straight talk and scientific openness, that they can’t abide having even a carefully-worded, straightforward two-page fact sheet by their own experts routinely put into the public domain.

NOAA Fact Sheet: Atlantic Hurricanes and Climate

What has been Atlantic hurricane activity during the 20th Century?

—Atlantic hurricane seasons since 1995 have been significantly more active, e.g. more hurricanes and more intense hurricanes, that the previous two decades (figure 1)
—Earlier periods, such as from 1945 to 1970 (and perhaps earlier), were apparently as active as the most recent decade.
—The past decade has seen increased U.S. landfalls, however periods of even higher landfalls occurred early in the century (figure 2)
—Strong natural decadal variations, as well as changes in data quality, density, sources, and methodologies for estimating hurricane strengths, lie at the heart of arguments whether or not a global warming contribution to a trend in tropical cyclone intensities can be detected.

How have ocean temperatures varied?

—Over the 20th Century, global ocean temperatures and sea surface temperatures in the main development region (MDR) for hurricanes in the tropical Atlantic, (and Gulf of Mexico) have warmed at similar rates, indicating a role for global warming in these regions. (Figure 3)
—Anomalous MDR, tropical Atlantic temperatures were significantly warmer than the global average from about 1930 to 1970 and after 2000. This warming is attributed to the Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation (AMO)

What factors influence seasonal to multi-decadal hurricane activity

—Hurricanes respond to a variety of environmental factors besides local ocean temperatures.
—The tropical multi-decadal phenomenon and the El Nino/La Nina cycle are important factors in determining the conditions for seasonal to multi-decadal extremes in hurricane activity.
—Research indicates that global warming can also increase hurricane intensities; there is less evidence for impacts on frequency.

How long will the current active period last?

—Scientists disagree as to whether currently a sound basis exists for making projections on how long the current active period will last. The viewpoints are:

o Limited understanding of natural decadal variability, combined with its irregular temporal behavior, preclude definitive statements about how long the active period will last. (NOAA)
o One might expect ongoing high levels of hurricane activity and U.S. landfalls for the next decade and beyond since the previous active period (1945-1970) lasted at least 25 years. (NOAA)
o Because of global warming the active period could persist

Programs of improvements to data sets, diagnostic studies for improved understanding, and systematic numerical experimentation studies will help to reveal the underlying causes for the recent active period and to predict how long the period of increased activity will last. NOAA is actively engaged in each of these activities.

Key Problems NOAA is working on

—Understanding the dynamics of the AMO, its links to the larger-scale tropical climate variability, and developing an ocean monitoring and decadal prediction capability
—Improving the quality and scope of hurricane relevant data sets
—Numerically simulating and ultimately understanding seasonal to decadal hurricane variability
—Understanding whether or not and to what degree anthropogenic forcing is having an influence on hurricanes
—Developing a predictive understanding of global climate variability and trends and the impacts of these on extreme events
—Making improvements to short range hurricane track and intensity forecasts through improved models and development of additional capabilities for hurricanes.

NOAA Resources for Additional Information

—NWS/NCEP/CPC intraseasonal to multi-season climate forecasts; seasonal hurricane forecasts; diagnostic studies of major climate anomalies; real time monitoring of climate.
—NWS/NCEP/TPC/NHC issue daily and seasonal (in conjunction with CPC and HRD) operational hurricane forecasts; maintain and update the official Atlantic and Northeast Pacific hurricane databases from which observational climate studies are conducted
—NESDIS/NCDC official archive for climate data sets; development of global tropical cyclone databases, analysis of historical frequency and strength of Atlantic Basin hurricanes to support engineering design and levee rebuilding in New Orleans, analyses of climate trends, monitoring and historical perspective on current seasons.
—OAR/AOML/HRD & PHoD physical understanding of hurricane dynamics through use of research aircraft and field studies; improvements to hurricane track and intensity forecasts; monitoring of Atlantic ocean circulations; studies of Atlantic climate
—OAR/GFDL studies of climate variability and change; development and use of the required climate models; development of models used for operational hurricane forecasts by NOAA and the NAVY; numerical studies of climate impacts on hurricanes and their decadal variability
—OAR/ESRL diagnostic studies of climate variability and changes; impacts of climate on extreme events.
—NOAA Climate Office intramural and extramural support for development of a predictive understanding of the climate system, the required observational capabilities, delivery of climate services.

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