Breaking Exclusive: Polar Bears Still Screwed by Global Warming

OK, technically, the exclusive I have is an internal email from the head of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement that was sent to his entire staff on Friday about the actions being taken against polar bear researcher Charles Monnett. I will repost that below, but the bottom line is that the decision to place him on administrative leave “had nothing to do with his scientific work , or anything relating to a five-year old journal article” on polar bears.

This whole story is Kafkaesque. Let’s take it from the beginning. Here’s the lede from NYT blogger Andy Revkin:

There’s been a rush to all manner of judgments over the strange case of Charles Monnett, the biologist for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement who provided a powerful talking point for climate campaigners, including former Vice President Al Gore, with his description of several drowned polar bears spotted during an aerial marine-mammals survey in 2004 — an observation enshrined in a short paper published in Polar Biology in 2006.

Hmm, I guess that isn’t really the beginning, since Monnett’s work didn’t provide a talking point, powerful or otherwise, for Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth.


The fact is that the scientific community had already come to the conclusion that the polar bear would not survive an ice-free arctic. The 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, by leading scientists from the eight Arctic nations, including the United States, summarized the state of scientific understanding:

Changes in the extent and type of sea ice affect the distribution and foraging success of polar bears (Ferguson et al., 2000a,b; Mauritzen et al., 2001; Stirling et al., 1993). The earliest impacts of warming will occur at their southern limits of distribution, such as at James and Hudson Bays; and this has already been documented by Stirling et al. (1999)….

The survival of polar bears as a species is difficult to envisage under conditions of zero summer sea-ice cover.

In short, there was a broad scientific understanding by the leading experts on the Arctic that unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases would be catastrophic if not fatal to polar bears — back in 2004.

You can read the 1999 paper, Stirling et al., “Long-term Trends in the Population Ecology of Polar Bears in Western Hudson Bay in Relation to Climatic Changem” here. It concluded:

From 1981 through 1998, the condition of adult male and female polar bears has declined significantly in western Hudson Bay, as have natality and the proportion of yearling cubs caught during the open water period that were independent at the time of capture. Over this same period, the breakup of the sea ice on western Hudson Bay has been occurring earlier. There was a significant positive relationship between the time of breakup and the condition of adult females (i.e., the earlier the breakup, the poorer the condition of the bears). The trend toward earlier breakup was also correlated with rising spring air temperatures over the study area from 1950 to 1990. We suggest that the proximate cause of the decline in physical and reproductive parameters of polar bears in western Hudson Bay over the last 19 years has been a trend toward earlier breakup, which has caused the bears to come ashore in progressively poorer condition. The ultimate factor responsible for the earlier breakup in western Hudson Bay appears to be a long-term warming trend in April–June atmospheric temperatures.

In short, warming leads to earlier breakup of sea ice, and that is bad news for polar bears.

What Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, said about the subject is:

Right now, the Arctic ice cap acts like a giant mirror, all the sun’s rays bounce off, more than 90%. It keeps the Earth cooler, but as it melts, and the open ocean receives that sun’s energy instead, more than 90% is absorbed, so there is a faster buildup of heat here, at the North Pole, in the Arctic Ocean, and the Arctic generally than anywhere else on the planet.

That’s not good for creatures like polar bears, who depend on the ice. They’re now, actually, looking for other ecological niches. It is sad what’s going on in the Arctic eco-system. But what does it mean to us to look at a vast expanse of open water at the top of our world, that used to be covered by ice. We ought to care a lot, because it has planetary effects.

Hard to argue with that.

Now I was told Monnett’s work was mentioned in Gore’s book. I missed it the first time I looked for it, but here it is:

The melting of the ice represents bad news for creatures like polar bears. A new scientific study shows that, for the first time, polar bears have been drowning in significant numbers. Such deaths have been rare in the past. But now, these bears find they have to swim much longer distances from floe to floe. In some places, the edge of the ice is 30 to 40 miles from the shore.

Okay, 3 sentences in a massive book. I’m sure it moved millions dozens of people to call their Congressmen and demand a climate bill. But I digress.


Now it bears mentioning that Monnett’s work hasn’t actually been challenged by anyone. But, in any case, the notion that this one paper was driving the public debate or integral to the climate debate is without basis in fact.

Back to our story, via Revkin:

What’s clear is that Monnett has been under investigation since at least last February by the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Interior, and that he was placed on administrative leave with pay on July 18.

The investigation, according to documents posted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group defending whistleblowers, appears to center at least partly on his work on drowning polar bears. With the help of the group, he’s filed a complaint with the Interior Department.

Given the climate focus, the case has quickly been spun via the Instanet in various directions, with professional and amateur climate contrarians gloating about bad science even as Monnett’s defenders charge that he’s the victim of a “witch hunt” by an agency unhappy with research that could impede Arctic energy extraction.

So here is where it gets doubly Kafkaesque.

First, Monnett was not placed on leave because of anything to do with his scientific work on polar bears. I was forwarded an internal email from Michael Bromwich, the head of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement to his staff on Friday. His office confirmed to me its authenticity. Here are the two, relevant opening paragraphs

From: Bromwich, Michael R

Sent: Friday, July 29, 2011 10:07 AMTo: OMM AK/StaffSubject:

Dear Colleagues,

I wanted to send you a brief note of explanation and support. I regret very much the negative publicity over the past 24 hours that has resulted from one of your colleagues being placed on administrative leave in connection with an investigation by the Office of Inspector General.

We are limited in what we can say about a pending investigation, but I can assure you that the decision had nothing to do with his scientific work, or anything relating to a five-year old journal article, as advocacy groups and the news media have incorrectly speculated. Nor is this a “witch hunt” to suppress the work of our many scientists and discourage them from speaking the truth. Quite the contrary. In this case, it was the result of new information on a separate subject brought to our attention very recently.

Now there is a certain coyness here, in that Bromwich is only talking about the administrative leave and not the IG investigation. Revkin cites a statement by Melissa Schwartz, BOEMRE’s deputy chief of staff and communications director, “The agency placed Mr. Monnett on administrative leave for reasons having nothing to do with scientific integrity, his 2006 journal article, or issues related to permitting, as has been alleged. Any suggestions or speculation to the contrary are wrong.” Revkin writes:

Her statement doesn’t mesh well with the transcript of one of the investigative interviews conducted with Monnett in February — which goes through page after page of questioning on swimming and dead polar bears and statistics.

But it is so definitive that it clearly indicates to me that any interpretations of what’s going on here are premature.

I would agree with that. It is hard to interpret what is going on, which is why I waited a day to post on this, to confirm the email and talk to some leading experts.


Still, if the BOERE director had any reason to believe that Bromwich had done something actionably wrong in his scientific work, he presumably would have acted long before this month.

As for the IG investigation, two points. First, it appears the investigation is indeed Kafkaesque. Here is NRDC’s Senior Scientist, Sylvia Fallon, in her Friday post, “Polar bears don’t drown when there’s ice all over the place”:

I was reading over the transcript of the Interior Department’s Inspector General interrogating arctic scientist, Dr. Charles Monnett, over allegations of ‘scientific misconduct.’ The Inspector General has not said who filed the allegations or even what the allegations are, but Dr. Monnett and his colleague are the ones that first published a report [in 2006] of sighting four drowned polar bears in 2004….Part of the interrogation focused on how Dr. Monnett could have known that no polar bears had been seen dead during the systematic surveys that had been conducted from 1987–2003 prior to his published observation in 2004 when he reported seeing 4 dead polar bears floating in the ocean. First of all, the survey observers recorded sightings of any marine mammals seen and the lead project manager for that time period informed Dr. Monnett that no one had ever recorded a dead polar bear. Additionally, Dr. Monnett had another line of evidence to support the likelihood that no polar bears had been observed dead in that area — at least in the early years. Ice. “There was a lot of ice out there.” He says, “You know, bears don’t drown when there’s ice all over the place.” I can already hear the makings of another song.

Much of the rest of the interrogation centered around whether Dr. Monnett and his colleagues had observed 3 or 4 dead bears. Seriously. This took about an entire hour of a two hour interrogation. Dr. Monnett explained in every way he could possibly think of to the Inspector General that they had observed 4 dead bears, but that only 3 of those bears were in their study area. That’s why there is mention of 4 bears, but when he does the calculations in the paper he uses the number 3. Did you get that? Me too. But it took the IG and his assistant an entire hour to comprehend that information.

After almost two hours of this type of questioning including a part where Dr. Monnett literally has to give the IG a lesson on fifth grade math (anyone remember cross multiplication?), Dr. Monnett’s council interrupts to ask, “Are we going to get to the allegations of scientific misconduct? Or, uh, have — is that what we’ve been doing?” Indeed, the IG’s line of questioning was the basis for the investigation to which Dr. Monnett responds, “(S)cientific misconduct, uh, suggests that we did something deliberately to deceive or to, to change (the information). Um, I sure don’t see any indication of that in what you’re asking me about.” To which the IG says, “No, no, no further comment on my part….Like I said, we receive allegations, we investigate.”

Oh, great. Well, that explains why Dr. Monnett has been placed on leave and had all of his computers and notebooks confiscated. By the way, there is a new study out that confirms the findings that polar bears are swimming longer distances and surviving less due to the loss of sea ice from different federal scientists in another agency. I presume the IG will be on his way over to investigate them too.

The transcript itself is indeed that bizarre. It’s very hard to know what the IG is doing.

Finally, NASA’s Gavin Schmidt e-mailed me his thoughts:

Regardless of the still-mysterious reasons for these actions, there does not appear to have been a proper due process applied. Criminal investigations and (potentially) retaliatory actions are just not appropriate ways for dealing with scientific disagreements.

However this turns out, the polar bears remains in as much trouble as ever.

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