Tuesday, January 05, 2010

"C.I.A. Is Sharing Data With Climate Scientists"


From the New York Times:

The nation’s top scientists and spies are collaborating on an effort to use the federal government’s intelligence assets — including spy satellites and other classified sensors — to assess the hidden complexities of environmental change. They seek insights from natural phenomena like clouds and glaciers, deserts and tropical forests.

The collaboration restarts an effort the Bush administration shut down and has the strong backing of the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. In the last year, as part of the effort, the collaborators have scrutinized images of Arctic sea ice from reconnaissance satellites in an effort to distinguish things like summer melts from climate trends, and they have had images of the ice pack declassified to speed the scientific analysis.

The trove of images is “really useful,” said Norbert Untersteiner, a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in polar ice and is a member of the team of spies and scientists behind the effort.

Scientists, Dr. Untersteiner said, “have no way to send out 500 people” across the top of the world to match the intelligence gains, adding that the new understandings might one day result in ice forecasts...

Secrecy cloaks the monitoring effort, as well as the nation’s intelligence work, because the United States wants to keep foes and potential enemies in the dark about the abilities of its spy satellites and other sensors. The images that the scientific group has had declassified, for instance, have had their sharpness reduced to hide the abilities of the reconnaissance satellites...

About 60 scientists — mainly from academia but including some from industry and federal agencies — run the effort’s scientific side. All have secret clearances. They obtain guidance from the National Academy of Sciences, an elite body that advises the federal government.

Dr. Cicerone said the monitoring effort offered an opportunity to gather environmental data that would otherwise be impossible to obtain, and to do so with the kind of regularity that can reveal the dynamics of environmental change...

The program resurrects a scientific group that from 1992 to 2001 advised the federal government on environmental surveillance. Known as Medea, for Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis, the group sought to discover if intelligence archives and assets could shed light on issues of environmental stewardship.

It is unclear why Medea died in the early days of the Bush administration, but President George W. Bush developed a reputation for opposing many kinds of environmental initiatives. Officials said the new body was taking on the same mandate and activities, as well as the name...

In July, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences released a report that praised the monitoring.

“There are no other data available that show the melting and freezing processes,” the report said. “Their release will have a major impact on understanding effects of climate change.”...

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