Maine scientists are decrying the assertion by a senior adviser to President-elect Donald Trump that the new administration will eliminate or dramatically scale back NASA’s climate research.
The scientists say the elimination of the agency’s earth science programs would be catastrophic for climate science research in Maine, impairing their ability to detect and analyze effects on fisheries, forests and agriculture. Maine is a hub of climate research – especially as it relates to the oceans – and the work relies on data collected by NASA satellites and processed by the agency’s experts.
“If we lose these data sets and capabilities, that will be a major loss to us being able to monitor and track changes here in Maine and in other areas that impact us,” said Andrew Thomas, a professor of oceanography at the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences, which receives more than one-sixth of its research funds from NASA. “Basically, you’re chopping off one of your arms and saying, ‘Carry on.’ ” The school’s Satellite Data Lab is using NASA data to analyze effects of melting ice in the Gulf of Alaska and to monitor marine algae production in the California Current.
Bob Walker, a former Pennsylvania congressman who serves as Trump’s space policy adviser, said in interviews last week that the administration would realign NASA’s budget, prioritizing exploration of “deep space” over space-based observations of Earth, which he has previously characterized as “politically correct environmental monitoring.” Earth observations would instead be made by the National Science Foundation or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, two much smaller agencies with little experience or expertise in space-based climate monitoring.
CONGRESS LIKELY TO GO ALONG
Trump himself has previously described climate change as a hoax “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” although he more recently conceded there was “some connectivity” between human actions and the climate. With Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, Trump will likely have a free hand to halt NASA climate research, which has expanded substantially under President Obama.
Walker, who was a candidate to lead NASA under President George W. Bush, said last week that he “would like to be in the position of backing sound science, not politicized science.” He claimed, erroneously, that there was widespread disagreement among climate scientists as to whether climate change was linked to human activity.
Andrew Pershing, chief science officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, took issue with Walker’s characterization of climate-related research as “politicized.”
“That’s just not true,” said Pershing, whose research revealed that the Gulf of Maine has been warming faster than any other part of the world oceans since 2004, except for a section of ocean current north of Japan. “Climate science is just science. The approach that’s led to our understanding of how carbon dioxide works on our planet is the same approach that led to the DNA revolution, cellphones and all the other stuff we have in our daily lives.”
Pershing’s colleagues at GMRI are building models of how fish move in response to changing ocean conditions. “Satellites really give us the ability to look at what is going on and how the fish, animals and plants in the ocean are responding,” he said. “The world needs good science to provide the evidence we need to figure out what we are going to do over the next century.”
A sharp reduction in NASA research would have economic effects as well, said Thomas, at the University of Maine. Climate science is an area in which Maine researchers have worldwide reputations, he said, with dozens of them employed at UMaine, GMRI and the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay.
“We’re talking people losing jobs and grad students who can’t show up because there isn’t funding to take them on,” Thomas said. “There are millions of dollars that go into the local economy that won’t happen.”
NASA EXPERTISE INVALUABLE
Barney Balch, a Bigelow biological oceanographer who has led long-term NASA-funded monitoring of the tiny plants at the base of the Gulf of Maine’s food chain, said such cuts would be comparable to “taking the stethoscope away from the doctor.” (Disclosure: This reporter is a Bigelow trustee.)
“The key measurements we use to discern change in organisms in the oceans – sea surface temperature, salinity, ocean color – they all pretty much exclusively fall under NASA,” Balch said. “Other countries use NASA’s expertise in these areas because they are so good at it.”
The proposed changes wouldn’t directly affect one of the most pressing climate-related issues for Maine – the increasing acidification of Gulf of Maine seawater. The rising acidity in near-shore waters has wreaked havoc on baby oysters’ ability to build their shells and is thought to have similar effects on mussels, clams and possibly even lobsters.
Potential research and monitoring of this issue falls under NOAA, said Rep. Mick Devin, D-Newcastle, who co-chaired a legislative commission that studied the issue, meaning it would not be disrupted by potential changes at NASA.