07 June 2010

Sexing Up the Spill

The Financial Times very gently upbraids the National Center for Atmospheric Research for issuing a highly misleading press release (which includes the video above), which states in alarming fashion:
A detailed computer modeling study released today indicates that oil from the massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico might soon extend along thousands of miles of the Atlantic coast and open ocean as early as this summer. . .

“I’ve had a lot of people ask me, ‘Will the oil reach Florida?’” says NCAR scientist Synte Peacock, who worked on the study. “Actually, our best knowledge says the scope of this environmental disaster is likely to reach far beyond Florida, with impacts that have yet to be understood.”

The computer simulations indicate that, once the oil in the uppermost ocean has become entrained in the Gulf of Mexico’s fast-moving Loop Current, it is likely to reach Florida's Atlantic coast within weeks.
NCAR tries to explain that the press release is not making a forecast, nor is it actually talking about oil, but a virtual dye in a computer model. NCAR sure had me fooled.

Ryan Meyer is not so gentle in his criticism:
Models of ocean circulation seem like a potentially useful tool for informing various parts of the response. But I don’t see how feeding the media frenzy with misleading YouTube animations and overconfident quotations is related to that role. Apparently, for UCAR being part of the solution is not enough; they need to be in the spotlight too.
For a community under fire for sexing up its climate research, using a computer model to generate an over-hyped prediction (while simultaneously disclaiming that they are predictions, of course, wink wink) is probably not going to help restore trust.