On Thursday, a group of scientists, including three working for the U.S. Geological Survey, published a paper that highlighted the link between sea-level rise and global climate change, arguing that previously studies may have underestimated the risk flooding poses to coastal communities.
However, three of the study’s authors say the Department of Interior, under which USGS is housed, deleted a line from the news release on the study that discussed the role climate change played in raising Earth’s oceans.
“While we were approving the news release, they had an issue with one or two of the lines,” said Sean Vitousek, a research assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It had to do with climate change and sea-level rise.”
“We did end up removing a line,” he added.
Vitousek and five co-authors wrote the study, which was published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. Three of the authors worked for USGS and the other three worked for universities.
That deleted line, they said, read: “Global climate change drives sea-level rise, increasing the frequency of coastal flooding.”
Instead, the USGS news release leaves the cause unmentioned. It begins: “The frequency and severity of coastal flooding throughout the world will increase rapidly and eventually double in frequency over the coming decades even with only moderate amounts of sea level rise.”
“It’s a crime against the American people,” Neil Frazer, a geophysics professor at University of Hawaii at Manoa and one of the study’s co-authors, said of the line’s removal and of other efforts to limit scientific communication from federal agencies. “Because scientists have known for at least 50 years that anthropogenic climate change is a reality.”
He added: “The suppression of this information is a scandal.”
The paper’s authors acknowledge the deletion did not make the news release wrong. But, they say, it made it incomplete.
“It did not cause any direct inaccuracy, but it did eliminate an important connection to be made by the reader — that global warming is causing sea-level rise,” Chip Fletcher, a University of Hawaii professor and study co-author, said. “I disagree with the decision from the upper administration to delete it, not with the scientists who deleted it at the administration’s request.”
A.D. Wade, top press officer for USGS, said that the deleted line “didn’t add anything to the overall findings.” She explained that because climate change causes sea levels to rise is not a new finding, it did not warrant inclusion in the news release.
Wade also noted that the line appeared in the very top of the academic paper.
“It is business as usual for USGS science,” she said.
Normally, USGS has one political appointment, its director, though the White House has yet to fill that position. The decision to change the news release came from officials at the Interior Department itself.
Since President Trump, who has said he is not a “not a big believer in man-made climate change,” took office, the federal government has curtailed some of its communication on climate change to the public.
During the first days of the Trump administration, federal agencies halted scientists from publishing news releases and doing other communication with the public. Later, the Environmental Protection Agency and Departments of Interior and Energy scrubbed portions of their websites that discussed the science and risks of climate change.
There is scientific consensus among climate scientists that sea levels will rise over the next century due to the heat-trapping effect of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases released from the burning of fossil fuels.
Those gasses will have a one-two punch: The additional heat in Earth’s atmosphere melts glaciers, which adds water to the oceans, and heats the oceans themselves, causing them to expand and rise.
In their study, Vitousek and his team wrote that previous research on the risks of coastal flooding from sea-level rises ignored another factor: the effect waves played in amplifying sea-level rise and causing floods.
The study found that only 10 to 20 centimeters of sea-level rise will double the risk of coastal flooding in the Tropics, which Vitousek said is the “the most vulnerable area” for coastal flooding.
The only mention of the climate system that appeared in the news release came at the very bottom — and only through a quote from one of the non-USGS authors of the study.
The news release quotes Fletcher, a study co-author, as saying: “These important findings will inform our climate adaptation efforts at all levels of government in Hawaii and other U.S. affiliated Pacific islands.”