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.


  1. The 'model' does nothing more than illustrate the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Drift, something I expect we still teach in middle-school geography. Overhyped is right. We paid for this?

  2. That is quite a disclaimer, isn't it? Some people shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a computer.

  3. Even if the circulation model is correct- the all important context is missing. Oil begins to weather from the moment it is released. The volatile fraction would be gone well before the oil left the Gulf (generally 30 to 40% and the most toxic fraction). The remaining fractions would be continuously degraded by bacteria, fungi etc. And one would expect that as the oil moved up the Gulf Stream that little more than the more refractory ashplaltenes would remain (tar balls). What the East Coast may experience from the spill will be entirely different than what the Gulf coast is experiencing.
    One could model the storm track of a Cat 4 hurricane in the Gulf making land fall in LA exiting back to sea in the mid Atlantic states with continuing northward movement. However shortly after making land we could no longer call it a hurricane.

  4. Roger:

    Did NCAR update the video and press release since the criticisms arose? If not, I don't see the problem. The disclaimer at the front of the video is clear and the press release discusses the potential envelope.