Climate Modelers on the Lam

06/08/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hounded by the graying yet still sporadically feisty Washington Post, climate modelers have fled to Sicily, where they have taken refuge among geologists. Little did they reckon on the dogged pursuit of a lone HuffPo blogger. The fleeing modelers, led by Robert DeConto of U. Mass.-Amherst, were still reeling from the WaPo drubbing:

Warren Meyer, a mechanical and aerospace engineer by training who blogs at, said that climate models are highly flawed. He said the scientists who build them don't know enough about solar cycles, ocean temperatures and other things that can nudge the earth's temperature up or down. ... "The hubris that can be associated with a model is amazing, because suddenly you take this sketchy understanding of a process, and you embody it in a model," and it appears more trustworthy, Meyer said. "It's almost like money laundering."

If true, this money-laundering charge would make "Climate-Gate" moot. Oddly, though, the Washington Post, once celebrated for its tireless pursuit of Watergate, did not follow up on the allegation.

I did. I asked the tough questions Americans want answered about climate modeling. What's more, I got the answers on camera. (The audio may be grainy, but the content is way gritty.)

DeConto and his fellow modeling mafiosi are unrepentant. Disguised only in dark glasses, they wander freely along the cobbled streets of Erice, an ancient town perched on a Sicilian mountain overlooking the sea. Being academics, they blend easily into the gaggle of ANDRILL geologists meeting here to pore over research results from a nearly mile-deep core they extracted from Antarctica's Southern McMurdo Sound.

What the geologists are finding may well bring greater realism to polar climate modeling. But will DeConto et pals make a model more to our liking? Not freakin' likely.

If anything, they seem bent on doubling down. DeConto allows that his sojourn among the ANDRILL geologists has readied him for a more, ahem, "sensitive" climate model. But sensitive to the wishes of the public? Hardly.

On viewing the geologists' results, he shrugs, Sicilian style, and says, "Our models may be dramatically underestimating how much worse it's going to get." I just know DeConto was smiling on the inside.

His enabler, the ANDRILL project, is an international collaboration among scientists from Germany, Italy, New Zealand, and the United States. It has so far extracted two virtually complete cores from a critical region of Antarctica. With careful analysis, ANDRILL scientists have been able to infer much of the behavior of Antarctica's mammoth ice sheets over the past 20 million years from numerous clues in the cores.

Once DeConto and his collaborator, David Pollard of Penn State University, figure out how to plug the new data in their software, look out! You can bet they will be presenting us with even scarier scenarios for what happens if we keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Like what? Like this: The U.S. Geological Survey recently published research showing that an Anarctic ice sheet meltdown would raise world sea level by enough to soak the Statue of Liberty up to her bustline. (Sea level would rise as much as 240 feet. The top of Lady Liberty's torch stands 305 feet above water -- for now.)

Patriotic Americans don't want to picture such an undignified scenario. They want a blue-sky future, not a deep-water one. So why is Big Science supporting doomsayers like DeConto? I put the question directly to ANDRILL co-chief scientist David Harwood.

Make no mistake, climate modelers may have gone to the mattresses in Sicily for now, but they will be back. And, armed with ANDRILL data, they will be more dangerous (to deniers) than ever.

Full Disclosure: My basic travel expenses are being covered by the ANDRILL project to enable me to cover this conference.