Origami dinosaur.

The difference between dino science and climate science gets to the roots of our lifestyle. (Archivaldo/via wikimedia)

By Adam Frank

"It's changing so fast" he said, "Their habitat is disappearing right before your eyes".

I was having beers with my old friend Bruce. He is a marine biologist who studies seal populations off the Alaskan coast. For years he has been traveling to the planets' austerely beautiful extremes to study seal migration and foraging behavior (when he was a younger man he was a seal "mugger" sneaking up and catching critters to attach satellite transmitting devices onto their backs). At the edges of the Earth, where climate sensitivity rests on a razors edge rather than the broadly sloping hill we have down south, Bruce has seen the planetary shift become glaringly apparent.

The ice is disappearing in the arctic. In other areas like the Bering Sea it's also changing just as rapidly. Marine mammals that depend on sea ice for feeding and mating now find that habitat much more variable, or completely absent. After decades of studying marine mammal behavior in northern latitudes my friend Bruce finds the rate of change mind-boggling. "Some of these animals like walrus and ice seals are trying to figure out how to breed on coastal beaches or commute the long distances to productive foraging areas." He said staring into the beer bubbles. "But that's not what they evolved to do over all those millennia living on drifting pack ice. A lot of them may not survive what seems like evolution in fast forward mode."

While this is all happening on the ground climate science has, amazingly, been forced into a defensive posture. In the wake of the hacked emails from the Climate Research Unit of the U.K.'s University of East Anglia and the recognition of a few errors in the last IPCC report, the momentum of public opinion (in the US at least) appears to have stalled. There are lots of good places to find point-by-point responses to what are the non-issues of climategate (and I hope to write more them myself later) however, today I want to raise a simple point.

If the scientific issue at hand where not climate but something less politically charged then the debate would have been over a long time ago.

Imagine for a moment the debate centered not on temperature patterns in the Earth's atmosphere but on the predatory habits and running speed of T-Rex. Now imagine that thousands of researchers working across five decades, gathering petabytes worth of data from an armada of high tech platforms, reached some conclusion about the thunder lizard's nasty ways with the same level of confidence, and the same level of consensus, that exists in the climate science community. What would happen next?

The story would be over. That is what would happen.

If dino science had reached the same level of confidence about T-Rex's running speed as climate science has about climate change that chapter of paleontological progress would be over and the research community would move on. There would still be a few skeptics who worked at the edges of the field doggedly pushing alternative views. The skeptics would serve an essential role ensuring that every stone is over-turned and every angle is explored. If the skeptics failed to produce contrary evidence that could withstand critical examination then the consensus would strengthen becoming "knowledge". Then, in time, researchers would begin using the overwhelming consensus on tyrannosaurs running habits as a foundation to attack other unresolved questions. This is how science works. Unfortunately this is not how climate science has been allowed to work.

Because the science of climate touches the politics of energy economies (and just about everything else human beings do) the whole process has been distorted. When my friend related his story of disappearing ice and lost seal habitat I was struck once again by how many interconnected, interwoven strands of evidence comprise the web of climate change science. It's not just someone sticking a thermometer out the window every year. Its ocean and atmospheric measurements, its glacier and sea ice data, its rainfall and hydrology studies, its patterns of habitat creation and destruction. All of it - studied intensively for decades by an army of researchers who make their living tearing each other's results apart - points to the undeniable fact that we have altered the many planetary systems which, together, define its climate.

As a textbook study in the progress of a research field, Climate Science has followed the textbook. If it were dino science we would all be reading about the stunning progress of the field in Discover and Scientific American. We would be watching cool animations of imaginary races between hungry Tyrannosaurs and hapless humans on NOVA and the Discovery Channel.

But this isn't Dino science, it's climate science, a field that has unexpectedly hit us where we live. There is no textbook for this. In fact we are the ongoing experiment. We are a species that only recently built a lifestyle based on science and technology. The question that is, right now, being answered is how we respond when science itself questions the very roots of that lifestyle.

1:07 - March 3, 2010