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'High level' White House meeting on melting Arctic a fiction?

Jill Burke
According to recent news reports, a prediction for ice-free summers on the Arctic Ocean as soon as two years from now supposedly received urgent attention from the Obama White House. But don't bet on it. Loren Holmes photo

A flurry of reports emerged in the international press this past week about “an extraordinary meeting of the brightest minds” to be held at the White House, where the U.S. officials would be warned about an “imminent Arctic ice death spiral.”

The hubbub started in response to a recent analysis by West Australian scientist Carlos Duarte, who warned that software models used to predict climate change and melting in the Arctic couldn't keep up with how fast the melt was actually occurring. Duarte suggested the Arctic could be ice-free much earlier than prior forecasts. Look no further than 2015 -- a mere two years away -- for ice-free northern seas, he warned.

The story, first picked up by The West Australian, was soon followed by other media outlets, including The Guardian, which then generated even more stories.

It now appears those articles may have overblown the White House's sense of urgency or interest in the state of the Arctic -- at least as it relates to the so-called meeting of the minds.

In an email to Alaska Dispatch, Duarte clarified that while he was in Washington, D.C., recently and did attend a regular research meeting, it didn't involve “government, high-level U.S. government officers or any sort of alarming news.”

That's strikingly different from his home country paper, The West Australian, which reported an upcoming meeting at the White House had been organized “by a US brains trust on the Arctic that includes NASA's chief scientist, the director of the US National Science Foundation, representatives from the US Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon.”

Duarte, according to The West Australian, was among the scientific experts expected to be on hand to assist with the briefing. “At the White House meeting, he and other scientists have been asked to come up with scenarios that will inform research program on changes in the Arctic and the impacts on Arctic ecosystems,” the paper reported.

The buzz about White House excitement surrounding rapid melting in the Arctic didn't stop there.

A few days later, The Guardian published its own version of the story, stating a White House meeting would be taking place sometime during the week of April 30, calling it “the latest indication that US officials are increasingly concerned about the international and domestic security implications of climate change.”

The Guardian article noted several reasons for the U.S. and its national defense teams to pay close attention to the state of the Arctic: Extreme weather, interrupted food production, hunger, mass migration, political instability, increased shipping, tourism and energy exploration. It also broached the possibility of new access for criminals and enemy agents to foreign borders that make climate change in the Arctic a critical issue for the U.S. and its Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

Yet for all of the wisdom it would appear there is in ramping up readiness to respond to a rapidly changing Arctic, there's no evidence any such meeting ever occurred. It may have. But if it did, the White House won't say.

When asked for more information about the supposed meeting, a spokesperson within the White House's division of National Security and Defense provided only this brief reply from a senior administration official: “We have no information to provide you.” A subsequent inquiry about whether such a meeting even occurred wasn't immediately responded to.

What do we know? In addition to Duarte's account that no U.S. government officials were a part of his Washington research meeting, Dr. Gale Allen, acting chief scientist for NASA, said neither he nor anyone from NASA attended any meeting like the one described by The West Australian or The Guardian.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com