The media missed the real story about the so-called "climategate" scandal.
After thousands of emails were mysteriously stolen from the University of East Anglia and distributed just before the climate conference in Copenhagen, many news outlets seemed content to report the story as it was presented to them rather than bothering to read the emails in the context they were written.
A closer look at these candid messages reveals a very different problem than the supposed scientific conspiracy theory that's been in high rotation in the media. This previously unreported story also shows why launching the long-mothballed Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) is more urgent now than ever.
An email ripe for misreading
Let's start with perhaps the most widely distributed and misunderstood of the stolen emails, of October 12, 2009 from Dr. Keith Trenberth to Michael Mann, which reads:
"The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't."
Out of more than a thousand emails dating back 13 years, this single sentence was seized on by some commentators as evidence that decades of climate research by hundreds of scientists is instead a global conspiracy.
If you are going to put that much weight on a single email, you may as well finish reading it. Here's what Trenberth says in the following sentence:
"The CERES data published in the August BAMS 09 supplement on 2008 shows there should be even more warming: but the data are surely wrong. Our observing system is inadequate."
Allow me to translate this dense jargon into English. CERES stands for Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System -- a five-satellite network launched by NASA dating back to 1997 to monitor heat flow in the upper atmosphere.
The story you haven't heard is that scientists can't get the numbers to add up using existing climate satellites. After billions of research dollars spent and over a decade of trying, the energy budget of planet as measured by CERES and other low-Earth orbit satellite systems is out of whack by about six watts per square meter.
That stubborn error in the satellite data is about six times larger than what is scientifically possible, and several times larger than the effect scientists are trying to see, namely planetary warming caused by continued massive emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
While this is a very big deal, it does NOT remotely suggest that climate change is a hoax. For evidence of that, you don't need a satellite, you can look out your kitchen window.
Sea ice is disappearing from the arctic so fast it could be gone forever in as little as 30 years. The Met Office predicts 2010 may be the hottest year on record and that this decade was the hottest ever "by far". Australia is currently enduring the hottest six months since record keeping began in the 1800s.
What Trenberth is saying in this now infamous email is that it is a "travesty" that scientists cannot accurately measure from space what is plainly obvious here on Earth. More than that, he is lamenting that our "observing system" is inadequate to be able to accurately balance the planet's energy budget.
An ideal device for studying climate shift
Dr. Trenberth is one of the world's most respected climate researchers. To hear him directly explain this problem himself, have a look at this video. If you happen to have a PhD in atmospheric physics (or just have trouble sleeping) you may also want to read his thorough research paper on the topic.
It's not that the CERES experiment is a bad project or staffed by incompetent people. But the fact of the matter is that our satellite systems have failed to provide coherent data to explain the defining issue of the 21st century. This important but esoteric problem is largely unknown to the public, but widely acknowledged within the scientific community.
So what's the problem with the data? In science, such unexplained phenomena are not a "problem" -- they are the most interesting things to look at. They reveal clues about things we don't yet fully understand, or hint that long-accepted methods of measurement need to be reassessed.
Which brings us back to the limitations of CERES and other low Earth orbit instruments. These satellites are traveling at more than seven kilometers a second and see our planet in thin strips as narrow as ten kilometers wide. Most take about 24 hours to get back where they started.
From this vantage it is like trying to map an elephant using a microscope. By the time you look at the same spot twice, the Earth (and the elephant) is doing something else. There are far better instruments for observing elephants: Binoculars.
The long-mothballed DSCOVR spacecraft, still languishing in clean storage here on Earth, is just such an instrument. Rather than seeing the planet from hundreds of kilometers away, DSCOVR was designed to track our orbit around the Sun from 1.5 million kilometers away.
From a unique gravitational dimple called "L1", the spacecraft would continuously monitor the entire sunlit disc of our planet, providing an entirely new way of collecting data on the Earth's energy budget. This coincident data would compliment and calibrate more detailed measurements from CERES and other satellites that observe the Earth from much closer.
A galaxy of excuses
Yet of the $160 billion given to NASA from the U.S. taxpayer since DSCOVR was built in 2000, they have stubbornly maintained that launching this already fully completed spacecraft is either too expensive or simply not important.
For the record, the most inflated estimate to launch and operate DSCOVR of $250 million would represent 0.15 per cent of that public largesse. In fact, the true cost to NASA to operate DSCOVR for seven years is likely less than $50 million due to cost sharing opportunities with other agencies, and use of cheaper launch vehicles such as a SpaceX rocket.
The reasons for NASA's apparent resistance to exploring new methods of Earth observation probably have more to do with internal bureaucratic inertia than anything else. As they say, old dogs have a hard time learning new tricks and NASA has being doing low Earth orbit for more than forty years.
They recently committed a further $1 billion on a low Earth orbit replacement to CERES called CLARREO that won't be launched until at least 2016. Whether or not this experiment will finally make the numbers add up remains to be seen, and the results will not be known for another six years at the earliest.
In the meantime, climate change proceeds apace, "skeptics" make specious arguments using glaring errors in the satellite data, and DSCOVR dozes in its storage box here on Earth waiting for 1/20th of the money required for a re-do the failed CERES experiment.
If there is a bright side to the sinister theft of thousands of emails just before the Copenhagen Conference, it is that we can now start to have a more intelligent conversation on the glaring discrepancies in our Earth observation instruments.
NASA's wrong trajectory
And let's not be too hard on NASA. After eight years of George Bush in the White House and billions diverted from worthwhile science towards inter-planetary photo ops like the manned mission to Mars, the space agency is understandably just now picking up the pieces.
These outside political pressures forced NASA to drop so many Earth-observing missions that by 2006 leading scientists were warning our climate monitoring system was "at risk of collapse". Four years later, the public was granted a rare glimpse of the frustration within the scientific community in Trenberth's now famously misinterpreted message.
Afraid of answers?
What about the stolen emails and global conspiracy theories? I suggest a more plausible alternative: The next time the media encounters such an obvious stick being thrown for them, maybe they should instead chase the mysterious person doing the throwing.
As for DSCOVR, it is interesting that an experiment that could help resolve glaring uncertainties abound this century's defining issue has somehow never been launched.
For some powerful interests far beyond NASA, continued uncertainty can be a very valuable commodity. To quote a notorious leaked strategy document from Big Tobacco when they were seeking to delay costly regulation of their dangerous industry in the 1960’s: "doubt is our product."