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Correction to climate change study highlights flaws in peer-review process

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“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Scientists and journalists alike were reminded of that oft-quoted phrase by famed cosmologist Carl Sagan when authors of a study published in Nature admitted this week that they needed to issue a correction. The study was widely covered by outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, BBC and Scientific American.

While the correction, which has yet to appear, may provide fodder for climate change skeptics, many in the scientific community are praising the authors for their quick action after recognizing their error. And some believe this is a reminder that there are inherent flaws in journal publication.

The study was led by Ralph Keeling, a professor in the geosciences research division at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Using a novel method that measures oxygen and carbon dioxide in the air from around the world, the researchers concluded Earth’s oceans are absorbing 60 per cent more heat than estimates by the UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

I accept responsibility for these oversights.– Ralph Keeling, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Soon after it was published on Nov. 1, independent researcher Nic Lewis wrote there was a “major problem” with the study. While Lewis acknowledged that its method was novel and “certainly worthy of publication,” he found errors in the calculations that, he concluded, underestimated the uncertainty of the findings.

Three days later, the authors acknowledged the error, said they were redoing the calculations and preparing a correction to be published in Nature. The new calculations are expected to bring the oceans’ heat absorption rate more in line with IPCC estimates. 

“These problems do not invalidate the methodology or the new insights into ocean biogeochemistry on which it is based, but they do influence the mean rate of warming we infer, and more importantly, the uncertainties of that calculation,” Keeling said in a response published on the website Real Climate.

“I accept responsibility for these oversights, because it was my role to ensure that details of the measurements were correctly understood and taken up by co-authors.”

Nature says it’s looking into the matter “carefully.”

We take all concerns related to papers we have published very seriously and will issue an update once further information is available,” the weekly journal said in a statement to CBC News. 

Imperfect system

Ivan Oransky, a health journalism professor at New York University and co-founder of Retraction Watch, a website that tracks errors in science journals, believes that, while the error was unfortunate for the authors, part of the issue lies in the amount of faith the public — and journalists — put in the peer-review process.

“Science is done by human beings,” said Oransky. “When we start to think about peer review as a magical process that, somehow you put in something that may have some issues, but somehow the peer reviewers find all the problems, and then we should trust everything that’s peer reviewed, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.”

He still believes in the process, but says it’s not the catch-all that scientists and journalists believe it is.

“We need to stop thinking… that just because something is peer-reviewed means that it’s a Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” Oransky said.

Ivan Oransky, a health journalism professor at New York University says the public and journalists put too much faith in the peer-review process. (CBC)

An important thing to consider, says Keeling, is that peer reviewers aren’t necessarily equipped to carefully pore over calculations. They may not even be experts in that field, particularly if the paper spans different disciplines, as was the case with this one. 

“It didn’t get seen by every audience that should have seen it, so perhaps we should have sent it to some of these other audiences for review,” Keeling told CBC News.

“That would perhaps be a lesson that I take from this: that particularly in a paper like this, it should have been circulated among other colleagues even informally. That would’ve been helpful.”

With division running deep between climatologists and those who believe they are simply being alarmist, there’s the danger that other studies will be dismissed as a result of this or any other study where an error has been made.

But Oransky says that it’s hot-button topics — like climate change, vaccines or GMOs — that are usually scrutinized far more closely than other topics. This, he says, could be a good thing, but if errors are present, it doesn’t invalidate the research or the issue.

“What happens now is, ‘See? The climate change researchers made a mistake.’ So you have this logical fallacy that everything that they’ve ever done is flawed and we can’t trust any of it,” Oransky said.

“Well, that’s not true either. We don’t live in a binary world, and we do ourselves a disservice when we act like it.”  

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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M

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Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study

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The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”

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DFO tries to allay fishermen’s fears that protected area would impact livelihood

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The two-lane highway along Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore is dotted with dozens of signs declaring “No Marine Protected Area Here!”

It’s a sign, literally, of organized opposition to a proposed 2,000-square-kilometre marine protected area.

The Eastern Shore Islands area is the first coastal candidate in Canada with an active inshore commercial fishery, albeit a small one with just 150 lobster fishermen. Still, they are a mainstay of the local economy and leading the opposition.

The fishermen fear a marine protected area, or MPA, would automatically lead to so-called no-take zones, barring industrial activities like harvesting.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is moving to put those fears at rest.

“We will not be making a recommendation for there to be a zone of high protection within the MPA,” said Wendy Williams, director of DFO Maritimes Oceans Management.

A “No Marine Protected Area Here!” sign is seen along Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. (Robert Short/CBC)

Last week, the department presented the results of a draft risk assessment to an advisory committee established to recommend what should or should not be allowed inside Eastern Shore Islands.

The committee was created after the department declared the unspoiled archipelago of hundreds of islands an area of interest. It is the first step on the road to designation as a marine protected area under the federal Oceans Act.

The risk assessment concluded the lobster fishery would not harm the kelp beds, eel grass and cod nursery the federal government wants to protect.

“The predominant activity that takes place there is the lobster fishery. It’s a low-impact fishery. It only operates two months a year, so we feel it’s not necessary to have a no-take,” Williams said in an interview.

“We talked to the advisory committee about that and what we heard and unanimously around the table is that they felt the same way. So in our design going forward we will not be incorporating a no-take zone.”

Fishermen seek assurances

But fisherman Peter Connors is not declaring victory.

“You have to remember this is deathbed conversion,” he said.

As president of the Eastern Shore Fishermen’s Protective Association, Connors represents the 150 active lobster fishermen in the area.

He does not trust DFO and is seeking some sort of legally binding commitment from federal Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson honouring Williams’s promise.

As president of the Eastern Shore Fishermen’s Protective Association, Peter Connors represents the 150 active lobster fishermen in the area. (Robert Short/CBC)

“I want to know the mechanism that he’s going to use and just how he intends to secure that for future generations,” said Connors. “I don’t want a trust me proposition and I don’t want a temporary reprieve … just because they are facing a lot of opposition now.”

Connors acknowledged a marine protected area on the Eastern Shore could help “Canada’s brand” from a marketing perspective. The country has committed to protecting 10 per cent of its ocean by 2020.

‘Give and take’

Environmentalists have watched in frustration as opposition to Eastern Shore Islands galvanized over the prospect of no-take zones.

Susanna Fuller, senior projects manager for conservation organization Oceans North, urged DFO to eliminate no-take zones from the discussion last year.

“Since it has been such an issue of contention, we are hoping that this gives the community and the fishermen a sense that they are being heard,” said Fuller.

“For this process to go forward there needs to be some give and take.”

While DFO has decided to allow unrestricted lobster fishing inside Eastern Shore Islands, Williams said no precedent has been set.

“Every MPA is different. If people have their expectations raised in any particular way because of what we’re looking at now for this MPA, they really shouldn’t. Everything is unique and we need to look at it that way,” she said.

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