- Bird Flu
- Countryside access
- Dark Skies
- Eco labels
- EU Environmental
- European Union
- Farming & CAP
- Global Warming
- Green Taxes
- Internet Access
- Irish NGO's
- Natural Resources
- Non-Irish Stories
- Parks & Designations
- Science & animals
- Views & Opinons
- World Summit
// Can spotting dead polar bears add up to misconduct?
IMAGES of polar bears drifting on isolated chunks of ice made the species a poster child for the perils of climate change. Now the US-government scientist who raised the alarm about the animals' plight has been suspended from his post and is accused of scientific misconduct.
The news set competing narratives loose in the blogosphere. Environmentalists claim that Charles Monnett of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) is the victim of a "witch hunt" aimed at opening up more of Alaska to oil and gas drilling. Meanwhile, climate sceptics have dubbed the affair "polarbeargate" and claim Monnett's work is discredited.
In 2004, during an aerial survey of bowhead whales in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska, Monnett and his colleague Jeffrey Gleason observed four dead polar bears. In 2006, they noted in Polar Biology that these were the first drowned bears seen since the survey began in 1987 - and speculated that such drownings may increase as pack ice retreats (DOI: 10.1007/s00300-005-0105-2).
Monnett was suspended on 18 July this year. By that time, he had been under investigation by the Office of Inspector General for the US Department of the Interior for several months. The specific allegations are unknown, but a transcript of an interview with investigators in February (available at bit.ly/qa0fsX) suggests that he is accused of "potential scientific misconduct" relating to the 2006 paper.
Monnett oversees projects studying Arctic wildlife that could be affected by oil exploration. His suspension comes as BOEMRE is considering permits to expand drilling in Alaska. "If someone wanted to remove him from the scene in a way that left no fingerprints, this would be the way to do it," says Jeff Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which is defending Monnett.
BOEMRE denies any connection to oil exploration. In an email to staff in Alaska on 29 July, agency director Michael Bromwich said that Monnett's suspension is not related to his 2006 paper but is "the result of new information on a separate subject".
This seems to relate to another BOEMRE project, in which researchers at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, are radio-tracking polar bears. On 13 July, Monnett was removed from the project's management via a memo which questioned his ability to act objectively. The University of Alberta was instructed to cease work on the project. Andrew Derocher, who leads the research team, could not be reached for comment.
Scientific colleagues defend Monnett. "I have never had the slightest indication that he has any bias of any kind," says Phillip Clapham of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, which collaborated on the bowhead whale survey. The 2006 paper "did not overstate anything", adds Ian Stirling at the University of Alberta.
Debate over the fate of polar bears rages on. Climate sceptics point to increased sightings by indigenous Canadian communities, though that could be due to declines in sea ice driving the animals ashore. In 2009, the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature reported that eight polar bear subpopulations are declining, three are stable and one is increasing. Seven others could not be assessed due to a lack of data.
Update: The University of Alberta says that the "stop work" notice received on 13 July in relation to US government funding for a polar bear research project was lifted on 1 August.