How Soon is now?

Willie Soon is a name that pops up every so often in climate ‘debate’. He was the lead author on the Soon and Baliunas (2003) paper (the only paper that has ever led to the resignation of 6 editors in protest at the failure of peer-review that led to its publication). He was a recent speaker (from 37.20) at the 2011 Heartland Institute conference, and can be counted on to produce a contrarian take on any particular issue that anyone might care about – ranging from climate, to mercury in fish and polar bear population dynamics.

Recently, there has been a renewed focus on how much money Willie Soon has taken from fossil fuel companies for his ‘research’ (over a $1 million dollars). While that is impressive, the real issue is not how he gets paid, but the quality of his science. The discussion last week about his finances did lead people to notice his publically accessible website where he has posted papers, emails, calculations and reviews going back to 2003 (Update: since this piece was posted, many items have been blocked. We have switched the links to saved versions). There is quite a lot of interesting stuff there, including a few curious tidbits.

Figure: Distinct populations of polar bears across the Arctic. WH = Western Hudson Bay, nr. Churchill, Manitoba.

One particularly amusing find is evidence of some outrageous cherry-picking in what ended up as the Dyck, Soon, Baydack, Legates, Baliunas, Ball and Hancock (2007) paper. This paper attempted to cast doubt on the sensitivity of polar bears in Western Hudson Bay to climate change, a basis of the eventual US Fish and Wildlife listing of the polar bear as ‘threatened’. Earlier work by Andy Derocher, Ian Stirling and others had documented the clear reduction in sea ice in Hudson Bay and the subsequent reduction in the period available for hunting seals, and the impacts on the population.

Note that as a “viewpoint” paper, the Dyck et al submission was not peer-reviewed. Instead, it was accepted (March 2 2007) only 1 day after it was received (March 1 2007). Soon’s website indicates that a very similar paper had been submitted as a normal paper at least once before (in 2003, with only Dyck and Soon as authors). The reviews for that paper (or one very similar), are also available (dated June 2003).

The paper itself (both versions) is a collection of standard arguments for why everything is uncertain and nothing can be concluded, but did actually include a little analysis. Specifically, the claim was made that temperatures in Churchill, Manitoba (close to the center of the Western Hudson Bay population of bears) had not risen, and that instead, any multidecadal variations in temperatures affecting the bears were related to the Arctic Oscillation (AO), a mode of natural variability. Of course, temperatures in the Churchill region have risen, and the ice extent in Hudson Bay is melting earlier and forming later (by about a month in each case) than 30 years ago. But the interesting aspect is the impact of the AO which certainly affects short term temperatures in the Arctic.

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