Polar Ice from Satellite view
According to the New York Times, data sharing between the C.I.A. and leading scientists has resumed.
The nation’s top scientists and spies are collaborating on an effort to use the federal government’s intelligence assets — including spy satellites and other classified sensors — to assess the hidden complexities of environmental change. They seek insights from natural phenomena like clouds and glaciers, deserts and tropical forests.
Basically speaking, US top scientists are receiving top security clearances to have access to C.I.A. reconnaisance material. This program was shut down by the Bush administration. It has the strong approval of the director of the C.I.A. and of leading scientists.
In the last year, as part of the effort, the collaborators have scrutinized images of Arctic sea ice from reconnaissance satellites in an effort to distinguish things like summer melts from climate trends, and they have had images of the ice pack declassified to speed the scientific analysis.
The trove of images is “really useful,” said Norbert Untersteiner, a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in polar ice and is a member of the team of spies and scientists behind the effort.
Scientists, Dr. Untersteiner said, “have no way to send out 500 people” across the top of the world to match the intelligence gains, adding that the new understandings might one day result in ice forecasts.
“That will be very important economically and logistically,” Dr. Untersteiner said, arguing that Arctic thaws will open new fisheries and sea lanes for shipping and spur the hunt for undersea oil and gas worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
The monitoring program has little impact on regular intelligence gathering–the work of spies. The reason it requires top security is that the C.I.A. doesn’t want its enemies to know the capabilities of its spy equipment and what kinds of information it is gathering. The information that the scientists use can almost be likened to a by-product. The program is not without critics, however:
Controversy has often dogged the use of federal intelligence gear for environmental monitoring. In October, days after the C.I.A. opened a small unit to assess the security implications of climate change, Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, said the agency should be fighting terrorists, “not spying on sea lions.”
Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences and a member of the monitoring team, said the program was “basically free.”
“People who don’t know details are the ones who are complaining,” Dr. Cicerone said.
About 60 scientists — mainly from academia but including some from industry and federal agencies — run the effort’s scientific side. All have secret clearances. They obtain guidance from the National Academy of Sciences, an elite body that advises the federal government.
Dr. Cicerone said the monitoring effort offered an opportunity to gather environmental data that would otherwise be impossible to obtain, and to do so with the kind of regularity that can reveal the dynamics of environmental change.
It is unclear why the Bush administration cut off this information sharing program. Most people just believe it was because of different priorities. Scientists contend that this data is the only information of its kind to measure melting and freezing in the polar areas, which are considered highly sensitive to global warming.
Some critics feel the C.I.A. needs to stick to spy work and counter-terrorism. Others feel that to discard surplus information that can be used by top security holders in the scientific community is wasteful and that the information should be used. The real questions seem to be: Is our security being compromised? If the answer is no, then this sharing of resources from intelligence gathering seems like a great idea. The more we discover about climate change, the better we can plan for the future, whether the change is man-made or naturally occurring. If we can make discoveries without additional cost, so much the better.