Interior gets new deputy secretary, NOAA gets new director

New leaders are on board at two of America’s natural resources policy agencies.

The U.S. Senate, after a nearly seven-month delay, has confirmed Michael L. Connor as deputy secretary of the interior.

Connor, who previously served as commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, counsel to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, director of the Department of Interior’s Indian Water Rights Office, and staff lawyer for the cabinet department, was approved for the post by a 97-0 vote on Feb. 27.

Connor will be number two at Interior to secretary Sally Jewell, overseeing a team of more than 70,000 employees and an annual budget of around $18 billion.

His nomination had been in limbo since Obama nominated him for the post in July 2013.

Lowell Pimley, an engineer who has been an employee of the Bureau of Reclamation since 1980, will serve as interim director of that agency until the Senate confirms Connor’s replacement in the job.

On March 10 Obama nominated Estevan Lopez, the director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, to lead Reclamation.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is also welcoming a new leader.

Kathryn Sullivan, a retired U.S. Navy Reserve officer, astronaut, oceanographer, and former NOAA chief scientist, was confirmed March 6 as the tenth director of the agency and undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere.

NOAA: 2012 was hottest year in U.S. history

The last year was a hot one.

The hottest on record, in fact, according to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, and that’s not all. The year 2012 was also characterized by weather significantly more extreme than usual.

In a report published today, NOAA said that the average temperature across the nation was 55.3 degrees Fahrenheit, a full degree higher than the previous record year of 1998 and 3.2 degrees above the 20th century average.

Spring was the biggest driver of the year’s heat, with temperatures during that season setting a record. The summer was the second-hottest on record, the winter was fourth-warmest in known history, and the fall was warmer than average.

It was so hot in the United States last year that every state in the contiguous part of the nation set a temperature record. Moreover, 19 states had a year that set a warmth record.

All that heat took a toll on snow, too. The nation experienced its third-smallest snowpack ever, while the central and southern Rocky Mountain region received less than half of its historic average snowfall.

As for total precipitation, there was less than usual. The year was the 15th driest on record for the United States as the country received, on average, 26.57 inches through the course of 2012. It was the driest year since 1988.

The weather was crazy in 2012, too. NOAA also announced that there were 19 named tropical storms in the north Atlantic during the year, which included ten hurricanes. That made 2012 the third-most active year for tropical storms in history.

Landlubbers fared little better. By July, fully 61 percent of the nation was in drought condition and more than 9 million acres burned.

Tornadoes, however, were less frequent than average during the past year, with the number the lowest since 2002.

The report is here.

Graphic of selected climate extremes courtesy NOAA.

Graphic of significant U.S. weather and climate events courtesy NOAA.

U.S. Commerce Dep’t IG clears NOAA scientists of Inhofe fraud claims

A federal government investigator has rejected a powerful U.S. senator’s claim that National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration scientists may have fabricated data to support the agency’s case that climate change is ongoing.

Inhofe’s allegation arose from his interpretation of email sent to and from scientists at East Anglia University‘s Climatic Research Unit. Many skeptics of the scientific consensus that human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases are causing Earth’s atmosphere to warm have raised a similar charge.

“In our review of the CRU emails, we did not find any evidence that NOAA inappropriately manipulated data comprising the GHCN-M dataset or failed to adhere to appropriate peer review procedures,” U.S. Department of Commerce inspector general Todd J. Zinser wrote in a Feb. 18 letter to Inhofe that was released to the public Thursday.

Zinser was referring to the Global Historical Climatology Network-Monthly dataset, which is maintained by NOAA’s National Climactic Data Center.

He also concluded that NOAA adhered to appropriate peer review procedures before releasing the historical climate change data about which Inhofe expressed concern.

The e-mails Zinser investigated were among 1,073 stolen and leaked to the public in Nov. 2009. Zinser and his team of investigators examined all of those emails but focused their attention on 289 that involved NOAA in some manner.

The inspector general’s staff conducted a more detailed investigation of eight particular e-mails that were the principal source of Inhofe’s expression of concern.

One of those eight e-mails, which was sent by CRU’s deputy director, asked colleagues not to “let [the Co-Chair of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report Working Group 1] (or [a researcher at Pennsylvania State University]) push you (us) beyond where we know is right.” The sender was referring to “conclusions beyond what we can securely justify.”

The sender told Zinser’s investigators that the purpose of this email was to encourage scientists working on the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report were assuring a clear statement about the factual support for the conclusions they provided in that report they wrote.

Another involving a 2007 exchange between a group of scientists not employed by NOAA that mentioned values on a climate data curve being “shifted” was found by Zinser to reflect the scientists’ adherence to a long-established procedure used to compensate for missing data.

The third, which related to a controversy relating to the extent of urban heat islands in China, had involved the NCDC director. Zinser concluded that he had not contributed the Chinese climate data at the center of the dispute, had not analyzed that data despite being a contributor to a 1990 academic article that critics thought had reached an erroneous conclusion about the impacts of climate change on Chinese metropolitan areas, and had, in a manner consistent with general practice in scientific fields of inquiry, worked only on his section of that paper.

The fourth email to which Inhofe pointed as possible evidence of fraud by NOAA scientists was sent by the CRU deputy director to a researcher at Pennsylvania State University. That email, which was sent Apr. 29, 2007, said that the writer was “particularly unhappy” that he could not get a “statement” relating to reinforcement of results obtained during the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report into the Summary for Policymakers section of the Fourth Assessment Report.

The CRU deputy director said he had done his “best” to get the information included in the Fourth Assessment Report, but had been “basically railroaded” by the co-chair of Working Group 1.

Zinser concluded that the information that the CRU deputy director wanted to have included in the Fourth Assessment Report was not included because the co-chair of Working Group 1 decided that the report would have greater clarity about the “similarities and differences” between the Third Assessment Report and the Fourth Assessment Report. Since the Third Assessment Report’s publication some research had indicated that there was a greater than anticipated historical variability in Northern Hemisphere temperatures.

Inhofe had also pointed to a fifth email, written by a university researcher to an NOAA scientist, asking that earlier emails showing that researcher’s participation in the development of the Fourth Assessment Report be deleted.

Zinser found that the emails referenced in the researcher’s message were deleted by the NOAA scientist, but that the NOAA scientist had received the request before he commenced government service and, therefore, no agency records retention policies had been violated.

A sixth email at issue related to a Freedom of Information Act request for NOAA data used to compile a temperature trend report contained in a 2008 academic article. NOAA had informed the requester that it did not have the information sought, but in fact CRU researchers may have had such data.

Zinser concluded that the particular data the requester had sought was never in the hands of any NOAA scientists and that the data that the CRU researchers in fact had was not the data that had been requested.

A seventh email referred to “quality control procedures” applied by NOAA on temperature data after it is collected by GHCN, instead of at the time the data is reported to the agency.

Zinser found that this method is justified as a means for the NOAA to take account of new information contained in late reports and that, in any event, it will be less essential after the agency deploys improvements to GHCN-M.

Finally, Zinser’s investigators found that an Oct. 6, 2009 email referring to “data gaps” in NCDC’s database, as compared to those maintained by CRU and NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, referred to the separate collection of land and sea temperature data by NCDC or the omission of non-public data pursuant to NOAA policy. GISS researchers interpolate ocean data into a land temperature database, and vice versa, and both that agency and CRU may not have policies requiring the exclusion of proprietary data from their databases.

The report by the Commerce Department’s inspector general is at least the sixth to conclude that the scientists who sent or received the 1,073 leaked emails did not engage in any improper behavior. There have been three inquiries in Britain and two in the United States, by the National Research Council and Pennsylvania State University.

Zinser’s review and further investigation of two other emails did prompt some mild criticism of NOAA on grounds having nothing to do with adherence to proper research techniques or scientific methodology.

His report to Inhofe indicated that NOAA had improperly handled four requests for information under FOIA by failing to assure that individual scientists working for the agency were made aware of them. One other scientist who had been aware of the FOIA requests incorrectly concluded that the information they sought was the property of the IPCC.

Zinser suggested that NOAA review the CRU’s compliance with the terms of two contracts awarded in 2002 and 2003 to conduct training on the impacts of the periodic La Nina and El Nino events. The total value of those contracts was $66,240.

The inspector general also criticized one e-mail message, sent by a senior NCDC scientist to a CRU colleague, that contained an “inappropriate image.”

The image was a caricature of Inhofe, created by another NCDC scientist, in which the Oklahoma Republican was shown, along with several other famous climate change skeptics, atop an ice floe in the Arctic ocean. The second scientist created the cartoon on his government-issued computer during work hours.

Zinser reported that NOAA has disciplined the two scientists.

NOAA: Jan- Oct. period in 2010 warmest across world in recorded history

The ten-month period from Jan. 1 through Oct. 31 experienced the highest average air temperatures for that time of the year, as measured by the combined land and ocean surface technique, since records were started in 1880.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in its monthly State of the Climate report, issued earlier this month, that the average combined land and ocean surface temperature worldwide during that portion of this year was the same as it was in 1998.

The agency also explained that both the average worldwide land surface temperature and the average worldwide ocean surface temperature were the second highest on record for the Jan. 1-Oct. 31 period.

For the month of October itself, the combined average worldwide land and ocean surface temperature was 0.54 degrees Celsius above the historic average and was the eighth-warmest since record-keeping began.

Large areas of the planet were substantially warmer than the norm, including western Alaska, Canada, northeastern Africa, the Middle East, Kazakhstan, and large portions of Russia.

Cooler-than-average locations included most of Europe, a large portion of Australia, and Mongolia.

Precipitation was highly variable around the planet.

The wettest areas during October were Canada’s southwestern coast, most of Central America, northern South America, northern Scandinavia, certain areas along Africa’s west coast, most of southern and southeastern Asia, southern Japan, parts of Micronesia and the Philippines, and southeastern Australia.

The driest areas were Canada’s northwest coast, parts of the southern United States, northern Mexico, Colombia, eastern Peru, and parts of southern India.

In the United States, this October was the eleventh-warmest on record.

The month’s average nationwide temperature of 56.9 degrees Fahrenheit was 2.1 degrees higher than the average for October during the years 1901-2000. None of the country’s nine climate regions had an average monthly temperature below the norm.

Average precipitation across the country was 0.26 inches lower than the average for the month for the years 1901-2000. However, significant swaths of the nation experienced more dryness than usual, including the Great Plains, Ohio River valley, and the South.

Fishers march on D.C., demand lenient catch limits

Fishers and their supporters staged a march on the Capitol Wednesday, demanding less stringent catch limits.

The caps, authorized by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, can be imposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in an effort to meet the law’s goal of ending over-fishing.

The regulatory power to limit fishing was added to the nation’s primary fishery conservation law in Jan. 2007, when former President George W. Bush signed a bill enacted by a Republican-led Congress.

NOAA, through regional fishery management councils, must establish the science-based “annual catch limits” for species subject to over-harvesting this year.

NOAA recently closed several recreational fisheries under the terms of the law, including the black sea bass fishery in New England and the mid-Atlantic region.

Many participants in the “United We Fish” rally complained that their ability to earn a living on the sea will be unnecessarily restricted, with some arguing that fish populations subject to quotas are plentiful and able to withstand higher take levels.

In addition to expressing opposition to catch limits and fishery closures, protesters also urged enactment of an amendment to the Magnuson-Stevens Act that would ease the 10-year deadline for NOAA to rebuild over-fished stocks.

The current law allows NOAA to extend the deadline in particular cases for biological and other reasons.

NOAA’s chief fishery administrator defended the agency’s recent actions and the country’s principal fishery conservation law, arguing that a continued focus on rebuilding depleted fisheries will enhance fishing opportunities and strengthen local fishery-based economies.

“Ending overfishing is the first step to allowing a fish stock population to rebuild to a level where the stock can be fished sustainably for the long term,” Eric Schwaab said in a statement.

NOAA scientists recommend protection of coastlines from oil and gas drilling

The federal government’s chief oceanographers are recommending that the Obama administration preclude oil and gas drilling along much of the country’s coastline.

The suggestion, which is not binding, was made last month by officials of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration today.

It says that the Department of Interior should decline to approve permits that would allow drilling along much of the coast off Alaska, the Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico.

NOAA also recommends caution in allowing oil and gas extraction activity in protected waters off California.

The Bush administration had indicated a willingness to allow drilling in all of those areas.

The Los Angeles Times has a detailed story.