The Mysterious, Ice-Cold Canning Of A Prominent Polar Bear Researcher

Charles Monnet is responsible for you being concerned about polar bears drowning in ice-less Arctic waters. But did his support for wildlife get him suspended from his government post?

Earlier this year, prominent members in the House of Representatives announced that we would soon see "investigations" of climate scientists. Now, the government has moved on to investigating the work of wildlife researchers, and the scientific community is aghast. This is the story of Charles Monnet. You don't know him, but you know his work. And now he is suspended from his job for mysterious reasons.

Charles Monnett is a wildlife researcher with the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, (BOEMRE), the government agency charged with extracting energy from underwater coastal land. Monnet wrote the initial paper that has been the basis of the oft-repeated horror stories that polar bears are drowning because there isn't enough ice for them to rest on. On July 18, he was placed on administrative leave pending an inspector general's investigation. But BOEMRE has not explained what the investigation is actually about—not even to Monnett. (Update: The Guardian reports today that on August 9 Monnett will meet with government authorities to discuss "his compliance with government contracting regulations as well as his relationship with the lead researcher, a reputed polar bear scientist, Andrew Derocher.") 

According to BOEMRE spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz, "The agency placed Mr. Monnett on administrative leave for reasons having nothing to do with scientific integrity, his 2006 journal article, or issues related to permitting, as has been alleged. Any suggestions or speculation to the contrary are wrong."

On its website, BOEMRE states that it has "undertaken an aggressive overhaul of the offshore oil and natural gas regulatory process." Many environmentalists and scientists suspect that this kind of "aggressive" house-cleaning includes silencing voices from within that may hinder fossil fuel exploitation in the Arctic.

How might this biologist threaten an agency that hands out oil and gas drilling permits? Back in 2004, on an official whale survey cruise aimed at identifying possible effects of future oil development, Monnett and colleagues encountered four dead polar bears floating in the open waters of the Arctic Ocean. Although these animals are strong enough swimmers to count as honorary amphibians, a recent storm kept them in the water for too long and the rough seas may also have made it difficult for them to breathe.

Another key factor, however, was the great distance from the nearest floating ice, where a bear could crawl out and get some rest. More and more summer ice is being lost from the northern sea, due at least in part to climate change driven by the burning of fossil fuels. Could it be that Monnett's peer-reviewed report of this event in the journal Polar Biology works against his bureau's efforts to promote offshore oil and gas drilling in Alaska? This possibility is difficult to confirm thanks to a gag order on Monnett and reticence on the part of BOEMRE.

It makes sense, though. Al Gore used that 2006 report as the basis of the heart-breaking polar bear scene in his movie An Inconvenient Truth. Drowning bears have become an iconic symbol of climate change, and BOEMRE's job is to promote the very things that are causing Arctic ice to retreat.

The media is making hay with this story, treating it like a subscription-boosting sequel to the "Climategate" scandal that demonized climate scientist Michael Mann, the author of global temperature data that were also featured in Gore's film. But, as with Mann, Monnett's professional reputation among his scientific peers is impeccable; one polar bear expert told me that Monnett is known as "a stickler for the truth and applying science to management." It seems unlikely that his research is seriously flawed.

You can find out for yourself if you like, because his 2006 paper is posted online (PDF). I see no unsubstantiated information or ideological hype in it. Monnett and his coauthor even say that the 2004 deaths were more likely due to the storm than to global warming. And when they quite reasonably conclude that further sea ice retreat could increase the risk of drowning for bears in the future, they properly couch their propositions amid modifiers such as "may" "we suggest," and "likely."

On the other hand, the closing paragraph might hold a clue to the problem. It begins with "Polar bears swimming offshore risk contact with oil if spilled, and strikes from ships," and then says that these observations "should be considered by analysts and managers relative to marine transportation, ice-breaking, oil and gas development, and other potential activities in open water." Perhaps some managers at BOEMRE don't consider their bear guy to be a team player.

But why did it take the organization five years to respond in this manner? Could it have anything to do with recent pressure from the Obama administration to exploit Arctic fossil fuels? We can't tell until the unseemly shroud of secrecy is pulled back.

Maybe BOEMRE just moves slowly. The organization's website also includes a news flash about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which states, "The Bureau is working with the U.S. Coast Guard and the operator of the drilling rig in securing the well and protecting the environment." The well was actually capped more than a year ago.

[Image: Wikipedia]

Curt Stager is an ecologist, paleoclimatologist, and science journalist with a Ph.D. in biology and geology from Duke University. His new book is DEEP FUTURE: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth (St. Martin's Press, March 2011).

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  • J. Heinl

    You know Andrew, the issue is not with the report, but in the physical fact that the sea ice extent and volume is declining.  Of course the polar bear is going to be impacted by this.  Less ice, more open water.  Greater swimming distances in cold water leads to a decline in population. Unless you think the polar bear likes to swim in open water, in miserable conditions, to find food that is getting harder to come by, your point is groundless. It will take a lot more then one scientist's report to refute physical facts.  Besides, the piece clearly indicates that the scientist's report was not in question, but rather the its administration.

    No matter what the denialist's say, it is not grounded in physical reality.  The poles are melting and people want to exploit it.  The melting is caused by global warming and any further exploitation of its resources will further compound the warming.  Bye bye polar bear.

  • Andrew Krause

    This is not mysterious nor is it all that hard to figure out. Monnet fudged the figures he used in published reports. Notably (but not the only figure), he cited a 75% mortality rate among polar bears in the aforementioned 2006 report. Monnet admits that this and other figures are without basis. Take this excerpt from a complaint filed on Monnet's behalf by PEER:

    ERIC MAY [Investigator]: Well, calculations, for, for example, the 25 percent survival rate.CHARLES MONNETT: Oh, well, that’s just a mindless thing. That’s in the discussion. Um, that is not a statistic. Um, that’s a ratio estimator. It’s a, it’s a fifth grade procedure. Do you have kids?

    Incidentally, if you read the transcript you find that Monnet made gross assumptions which no credible scientist should use as the basis of a statement, even outside of a published paper. Three or four actual observed polar bears falls far short of a usable sample size (which most statisticians will say you need at least 30 data points just to get usable estimates out of statistics).

    That being said... this whole thing is TOTALLY overblown. The guy should get some kind of administrative coaching. His superiors who approved his work should get suspended, since they're the ones who failed to properly review his work and apply rigor to the output prior to letting it be published. Monnet is no Michael Mann - there are 180 degrees of separation between the deliberate manipulation of data to support a faulty conclusion, and simply speaking off the cuff like Monnet did.

  • Dave Leaton

    Andrew, how do you define "fudging"?  I would say that he made an estimate based on limited data, and because of the lack of precedence for such a find (four dead polar bears in 11% of the research area was unprecedented), he--and others--thought that it should be reported.  You don't report such a thing by writing a letter to the editor ("Hey, I saw four dead polar bears last week!  Could be important!").  I seriously doubt if other readers of Polar Biology suspected Monnett of sensationalism.  Al Gore is another matter, and Monnett had no idea, when he published, that Gore would use the report.  Monnett was reporting the data in the only way he knew how.

    As far as "no basis" is concerned, I think four dead polar bears provide a basis--unless you think Monnett and the other team members were lying.  The bears were observed.  That is the basis.

    Now, it's funny you should bring up baseless claims when you're the one who calls Michael Mann a deliberate manipulator.  Let's see some evidence, and maybe you could actually explain your position yourself rather than repeating what others have told you?  Michael Mann has explained the misinterpretation ad nauseum.  Upon what basis do you take someone else's word over his?  And, yes, you must have taken someone else's word, because had you done the research yourself, you'd understand what Mann was talking about.  I'm wondering if you're capable of summarizing what Mann had to say about the text in question.