Amazongate fraud

Commentary by Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
June 21, 2010

The Sunday Times over the weekend retracted a column that accused the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of making a "bogus rainforest claim" when it cited a report warning that up to 40 percent of the Amazon could be "drastically" affected by climate change.

The "Amazongate" column, authored by Jonathan Leake, Science & Environment Editor of the Sunday Times, was immediately seized upon by climate skeptics as further evidence to discredit the IPCC just two weeks after it was found to be using shoddy glacier data in its 2007 climate assessment.

According to the Woods Hole Research Institute, the group that conducted the original research cited in the IPPC report, the above map is "a product of our ongoing drought monitoring effort from Oct. 2005, the worst month we have in our record going back to 1995. It shows moisture stored in the soil which is available for use by plants, what we call 'Plant-Available Water' or 'PAW', expressed as a percentage of the total water-holding capacity of the top 10m of soil at any given point; %PAW is one of the strongest indicators we have of severity of drought and of forest susceptibility to fire. Courtesy of Woods Hole Research Institute.
Leake's criticism was that the IPCC cited a report published in 2000 by WWF, an environmental lobby group, rather than a scientific study. He noted the report was authored by "two green activists" who presumably had an incentive to overstate the impacts of climate change on the planet's biggest rainforest.

But now the Sunday Times has removed Leake's column from its web site and issued on apology, admitting that the Amazon claim was indeed supported by scientific research. The Sunday Times also acknowledged misconduct in the way one of the story's sources—Simon Lewis of the University of Leeds in Britain—was quoted.
    A version of our article that had been checked with Dr Lewis underwent significant late editing and so did not give a fair or accurate account of his views on these points. We apologise for this.
The column also may have breached the Editors' Code of Practice which requires editors to allow "a fair opportunity for reply." Andrew Rowell, the lead author of the WWF report who was criticized by Leake, was never contacted by the Sunday Times.

Leake was made aware of his oversight prior to publication of his column. Daniel Nepstad, the scientist who conducted the original drought research in the Amazon, provided mongabay.com in early February with a copy of the message he sent Leake after the Sunday Times editor contacted him for background information on the effect of drought on tree mortality in the Amazon rainforest. Nepstad explained to Leake that his rainfall exclusion experiments in the Amazon showed trees began dying suddenly after three years of well-below average rainfall. The research estimated that "approximately half of the forests of the Brazilian Amazon were periodically exposed to severe drought and soil moisture depletion" and 31 percent reached a "critical level of drought." Subsequent studies, published after the now-controversial WWF report, have linked drought in the Amazon to warming sea temperatures in the tropical Atlantic. Previously it was thought that el Niñe was the primary driver of drought in the region, but the Amazon's worst dry spell—which ran from 2005 through 2006—did not sync with el Niño.

The full text of the apology by the Sunday Times:
    The Sunday Times and the IPCC: Correction

    The article "UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim" (News, Jan 31) stated that the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report had included an "unsubstantiated claim" that up to 40% of the Amazon rainforest could be sensitive to future changes in rainfall. The IPCC had referenced the claim to a report prepared for WWF by Andrew Rowell and Peter Moore, whom the article described as "green campaigners" with "little scientific expertise." The article also stated that the authors' research had been based on a scientific paper that dealt with the impact of human activity rather than climate change.

    In fact, the IPCC's Amazon statement is supported by peer-reviewed scientific evidence. In the case of the WWF report, the figure had, in error, not been referenced, but was based on research by the respected Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) which did relate to the impact of climate change. We also understand and accept that Mr Rowell is an experienced environmental journalist and that Dr Moore is an expert in forest management, and apologise for any suggestion to the contrary.

    The article also quoted criticism of the IPCC's use of the WWF report by Dr Simon Lewis, a Royal Society research fellow at the University of Leeds and leading specialist in tropical forest ecology. We accept that, in his quoted remarks, Dr Lewis was making the general point that both the IPCC and WWF should have cited the appropriate peer-reviewed scientific research literature. As he made clear to us at the time, including by sending us some of the research literature, Dr Lewis does not dispute the scientific basis for both the IPCC and the WWF reports' statements on the potential vulnerability of the Amazon rainforest to droughts caused by climate change.

    In addition, the article stated that Dr Lewis' concern at the IPCC's use of reports by environmental campaign groups related to the prospect of those reports being biased in their conclusions. We accept that Dr Lewis holds no such view - rather, he was concerned that the use of non-peer-reviewed sources risks creating the perception of bias and unnecessary controversy, which is unhelpful in advancing the public's understanding of the science of climate change. A version of our article that had been checked with Dr Lewis underwent significant late editing and so did not give a fair or accurate account of his views on these points. We apologise for this.

Earlier reporting on this story

The Amazongate fiasco February 03, 2010
A claim published in the Sunday Times over the veracity of a statement published in an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report may land the British newspaper in hot water.

Commentary by Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com (June 21, 2010).

Amazongate fraud.