Climate Scientist Proposes “Red Teams” to Challenge Established Global Warming Science

Is it good science in practice or just a smokescreen? 


Al Gore. An Inconvenient Truth.
Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth. Getty Images.

97% of climate scientists agree that the radical changes in the Earth’s climate, over the past century, are caused by human industry. So what about the remaining three percent? One of them recently approached a Congressional committee with a proposal. He wants to create “red teams,” which Congress would fund, to investigate what natural phenomenon could be warming the planet, rivaling the claim that human activity is the main driver. The goal would be to produce evidence to counter the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), among other prominent institutions. The IPCC is considered one of the world’s most respected authorities on global warming.

The idea was proposed at a hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. It’s currently majority Republican. The hearing was entitled, “Climate Science: Assumptions, Policy Implications, and the Scientific Method.” Several such hearings have taken place recently in House science-related committees, questioning whether climate change exists and if so, how impactful it actually is. This particular hearing focused on the scientific method and how it’s applied to climate change.

During the opening statement, Committee Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), said that more needed to be known about the methodology employed by climate scientists. He said he believed the climate was warming and that human activity plays a role. But how large a role seemed to be in question, according to Smith. He went on to say that some climate science has been proposed by researchers who “operate outside of the principles of the scientific method.” As a consequence, their “alarmist findings are therefore reported as facts.”

He also claimed that many climate experiments lack reproducibility. In addition, he alleges that scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and at East Anglia University, had, in instances past, altered facts to fit the commonly accepted narrative. Rep. Smith claimed that NOAA scientists omitted information that weakened the case for catastrophic climate change, and that the researchers at East Anglia, who had their emails hacked back in 2009, had done the same.  

Most Republican lawmakers now say human activity is contributing to climate change. How much remains in debate. Getty Images.

Some witnesses called before the committee questioned the findings of the IPCC. They called the panel’s view “biased,” and not representative to the wider scientific community. John Christy is an atmospheric scientist at the University of Alabama, Huntsville. During his witness testimony, he said the IPCC starts with a political assumption, then selects those scientists who agree with them. The “red team” idea was his. Christy told the Washington Post that he had proposed it before, at other committee meetings.

Christy’s proposal is timely, as President Trump has vowed to pull the US out of the Paris climate accords, and appointed Scott Pruitt as his EPA chief, who has sued the agency on multiple occasions in the past. Climate change activists argue that Pruitt’s mission is to dismantle the agency, though he has made statements vowing to protect the climate in a common sense way, while also allowing for job creation and economic growth.

The Trump administration has also expressed interest in slashing funding for climate research. This seems at odds with lots of other branches of government, including the Pentagon, which has called global warming a significant and growing threat, and is making preparations against its effects.  

Christy proposed the creation of “credible red teams” that could “look at issues such as natural variability, the failure of climate models and the huge benefits to society from affordable energy, carbon-based and otherwise.” He also said, “I would expect such a team would offer to Congress some very different conclusions regarding the human impacts on climate.”

Scott Pruitt. New head of the EPA. Getty Images.

At least one scientist hailed the move, Dr. Judith Curry, Professor Emeritus at the Georgia Institute of Technology. After all she said, part of science is to play “devil’s advocate,” and try to evaluate one’s own biases, and how they might taint the work. What would it hurt to bring together a group of scientists with varying opinions? This approach could even help improve the climate science we have.

The use of red teams in simulations, to try to discover the weaknesses in one’s defenses, is a method employed by the Department of Defense and the CIA, in both the virtual and real world. One example is employing hackers to test a new cybersecurity system.

Other scientists question whether the point of a “red team” in this arena is to merely obfuscate the issue. Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, considers it a smoke screen. He called the move, “a completely ridiculous proposition.” The National Academy of Sciences already offers Congress an unvarnished view on climate change, he said, and their findings have been unwavering.

Frumhoff told the Washington Post that climate science has been conducted using airtight methods. He said, “The notion that we would need to create an entirely different new approach, in particular for the specific question around global warming is unfounded and ridiculous and simply intended to promote the notion of a lack of consensus about the core findings, which in fact is a false notion.”

Dr. Jane Goodall recently spoke out against the Trump administration’s stance on climate. Getty Images.

While the vast majority of climate scientists believe that fossil fuels are the main driver of global warming, Curry and Christy still question how much it actually contributes. Climate scientist Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University, called the idea of IPCC bias, “hogwash.” He said politicians were cherry-picking scientists already aligned with their views. Since scientific research in several branches is being slashed from proposed federal budgets, such “red teams,” may never come into being.

Ask world renowned primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall whether such red teams would be a smokescreen or good scientific practice, and she would probably say the argument is moot. She talked to reporters the day before the hearing, after giving a speech at American University in Washington.

Dr. Goodall called the Trump administration’s climate agenda “immensely depressing,” but said that the public has “woken up,” to the catastrophic damage being done to their environment. People are extremely motivated to save the planet, she said, not just for themselves, but for future generations.

To learn what Bill Nye might say on the subject, click here: 

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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