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The Amazongate fiasco

Amazongate may land Sunday Times in hot water

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.

On Sunday, Jonathan Leake, Science & Environment Editor of the Sunday Times, accused the 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. Climate change skeptics immediately seized on “Amazongate” 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.

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.

According to the WHRC, 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 WHRC.

But Leake either overlooked or failed to comprehend the research upon which the WWF report is based. That data clearly supports both the WWF report and the IPCC report. Leake was actually warned of this oversight, before publishing his column, by the scientist who conducted the original drought research in the Amazon: Daniel Nepstad, now of the Woods Hole Research Institute.

Nepstad provided 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.”

Three-dimensional sketch of the drought (rainfall-exclusion) experiment conducted by Nepstad and colleagues at the Woods Hole Research Institute and the Amazon Institute of Environmental Research (IPAM). By Kemel Kalif, IPAM

So how does drought in the Amazon related to climate change? 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 Ni˜e 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 Ni˜o.

But Leake’s apparent dismissal of Nepstad’s data isn’t what may get him into trouble. Instead it’s his breach of 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.

Still Leake has a point in criticizing the IPCC for citing a NGO report—generally a summary of existing research—rather than a peer-reviewed scientific paper.

“The IPCC could have picked a better citation than the WWF report, but the data were there, published in a few places to support their statement,” Nepstad told “The latest attack on the IPCC is bizarre and unfounded.”

Leake did not respond the request for comment.

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