Washington State Climatologist Fired for speaking the truth

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24 Mar 07



Washington State Climatologist 
Fired for speaking the Truth

15 Mar 07 - The snowpack in the Cascades, it was said, shrank by 50 percent in the last half-century. It's been presented as glaring evidence of the cost exacted by global warming — the drying up of a vital water source.

That statistic has been repeated in a government report, on environmental-advocacy Web sites and in media coverage. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels recently mentioned it in a guest column in The Seattle Times.

Here's the problem: The number is dead wrong.

The debate in Seattle started with Mark Albright, a part-time UW meteorologist and, until this week, the associate state climatologist.

After reading Nickels' February essay in The Times, Albright sent an e-mail to colleagues saying he didn't see evidence that snowpack was steadily shrinking, much less by 50 percent.

A back-and-forth ensued, involving Albright, co-worker and meteorologist Cliff Mass, and several scientists with the UW's Climate Impacts Group, a federally funded team of researchers that plays a prominent role analyzing climate change in the Northwest.

All quickly agreed that the 50 percent number was wrong. "No one believes in this 50 percent number anymore," Mass said.

Mass, who is working with Albright, said they see only a small downward trend in Cascade Mountain snowpacks, perhaps 10 to 15 percent since the 1940s. The measurement can be exaggerated by starting during a time of high snowfall, in 1950, and ending at a time of low snowfall in the mid-1990s, Mass said. But snowfall has increased again in recent years, and there is little overall change in snowpack in the past 30 years, Mass said.

In late February, professor Dennis Hartmann, chair of the UW Atmospheric Sciences Department, stepped in to referee. After a meeting with the researchers, Hartmann issued a statement saying that snowpack appears to have dropped 30 percent, and that warming in the future will likely affect snowpack, particularly at lower elevations.

"Gag-order approach"?

Since then, the debate has gotten more heated.

On Monday, University of Washington researcher and State Climatologist Philip Mote stripped Albright of his title as associate state climatologist, triggering concerns that scientific dissent is being quashed.

Mote questioned the methods Albright and Mass are using to analyze data, mostly gathered from weather stations in the mountains that track snowfall. (Seems like a logical source of information.) Mote, a member of the Climate Impacts Group who rose to prominence partly due to his work documenting shrinking snowpack around the West, said the decline is more like 35 percent. (Where does Mote get his figures, if not from the weather stations that track snowfall?)

Mote, upset that Albright was broadly distributing e-mails about the issue, last week told Albright that he would have to let Mote preview any e-mails before sending them out, if he was tying his work to the state climatologist's office.

When Albright refused Mote's ultimatum, Mote barred him from associating himself with the state climatologist's office.

"I'm not trying to squelch debate by any means," Mote said. (Uh huh.)

But Mass said Albright was doing nothing wrong — simply airing his analysis and seeking feedback as he researched further.

"In all my years of doing science, I've never seen this sort of gag-order approach to doing science," he said.

Todd Myers, a critic of Nickels' global-warming strategy and director of the local free-market policy group the Center for Environmental Policy, said this shows the danger of science getting distorted for political goals.





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