09/21/2011 12:04 pm ET | Updated Nov 21, 2011

Climate Change: Dead Polar Bears and Political Storms

Longtime polar bear researcher Dr. Charles Monnett may be back at work after being sidelined earlier this year, but his life at a federal offshore oil agency isn't the same.

The man who in 2006 gained overnight notoriety for co-authoring a brief article about drowned polar bears in the Arctic Ocean is now focusing his attention on how many ships are passing through the Bering Strait and the traffic's potential impact on marine life and traditional hunting.

Monnett, who works for the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Regulatory Enforcement, has lost oversight of his prior projects as a result of an investigation by the federal Office of the Inspector General into allegations that he committed scientific misconduct. The inquiry has simultaneously raised questions about the quality of Monnett's work and the motives behind it -- as well as the appropriateness of the inquiry itself, which made national news this summer.

Monnett's attorneys believe the investigation is no less than an attempt to squash scientific freedom and choke the credibility of government scientists whose findings might obstruct oil development.

At issue has been whether Monnett ever fudged his data or improperly abused his position overseeing contracts in order to influence how other scientists rated his work.

But the investigation and repeated questioning of Monnett have so far failed to back up those allegations, said Jeff Ruch, executive director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility -- a nonprofit that aims to protect government employees who work in environmental agencies, which is providing legal assistance to Monnett.

Fuzzy images

On Wednesday, after combing through items returned to Monnett that had been seized by investigators in February, Ruch made an interesting discovery: raw interview notes from September 2004 survey flights, including images of a dead bear, thought drowned, that would later become the basis for an article that posited to the world that receding ice, brought on by climate change, was the culprit.

With less ice to climb onto for a rest or to use as a sort of conveyor belt along hunting grounds in the Arctic Ocean, the bears have been forced to make longer swims. Longer swims can mean greater exhaustion and risk of death. This is in part why polar bears were listed as a threatened species in 2008.

A white object on the water

In a 2007 interview, Monnett described resuming the 2004 survey flights after being delayed by a storm and coming across "a white object in the water that looked weird," then realizing "it was a drowned bear."

Photos were taken but were "unrecognizable," he recalled in the 2007 interview.

One of the bears was so bloated that it could be seen for miles. ...

Read the complete story and see photos of the dead bears only at Alaska Dispatch.