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New Article in Climatic Change November 2, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track.
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B_SPR390_CLIM_00009.inddI am pleased to say that my article, “Research Agendas in Climate Studies: The Case of West Antarctic Ice Sheet Research,” has appeared in its Online First edition in the journal Climatic Change. It is behind a paywall, but Springer’s rules do allow me to post a prior submitted version* of the article, accompanied by the statement: “The final publication is available at http://link.springer.com.”  Click here to access the prior version.

This was a secondary project for me that I have long wanted to turn into a more sustained research program.  The West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) has a special interest for climate scientists because it rests on bedrock that is below sea level, and may well therefore be unstable.  It could disintegrate even though the ambient temperature is—and will continue to be—continually below freezing.  (Thus, WAIS is a rather different beast from the Greenland Ice Sheet, which sits on bedrock that is above sea level, but is prone to melting.)  If WAIS were to disintegrate it would raise sea levels by at least 3 meters.  The trouble is that the long-term glaciological behavior of such “marine” ice sheets is not especially well understood.  So nobody knows for certain how stable WAIS really is, or how long it would take to disintegrate. It could be only a few centuries, or it could be millenia.


It was important to me that I try to reach scientific audiences with this paper. However, I was not really interested in conveying a particular “humanities” approach—I wanted to try and develop a historical picture that would have a more natural appeal to scientific audiences by engaging with the intellectual substance of their work.  Thus, I used history here to illuminate some of the contours, or “agendas,” of research that have shaped scientists’ understanding of WAIS.  Scientists are generally aware of the existence of such contours.  But those contours seem to inhabit an intellectual space above the level of the individual scientific paper, and yet they are not typically captured in review articles.  Thus they are ill-articulated, and play an ill-defined role in scientific work.  This then seemed to me an ideal place for the history of science to play a role.

I do not, of course, know if anything will come of this paper.  My instinct is to suppose not, since I am very used to the sleepy intellectual world of the history journal, but I would love to be surprised.  Climatic Change is an interdisciplinary journal, and the editors and reviewers—at least one of whom, I’m pretty sure, was a historian—supported increasing the prominence of historical approaches.  In fact, I originally wrote the paper more in the tone of a scientific review article, and was asked to make the actors seem more human, to provide more political context, and to make the narrative less teleological.  (I always thought the last criticism was off-base.  Given space limitations, I thought I gave quite a bit of space to some of the less fruitful turns in WAIS research history.)


The origins of this paper trace to when I was finishing my PhD in 2007. Naomi Oreskes (then at UCSD) and Michael Oppenheimer (a scholar of climate science and policy at Princeton’s Wilson School) were looking for a one-year post-doc to work on the history of scientific assessments of the WAIS issue, particularly the IPCC.  Because of the incompleteness of glaciological knowledge, WAIS has always been a challenge to integrate into climate assessments.

I applied, and we all got along well, but then I got my three-year job at the American Institute of Physics.  I thought their project was really interesting, though.  And, since Spencer Weart, who has a strong interest in climate change history, was still the director of AIP’s Center for History of Physics, we all agreed to informally collaborate.

My interest in WAIS pretty quickly turned away from assessments, and toward the longer history of WAIS research  In 2008-09, I conducted a set of oral history interviews with some of the principal scientists, and one of the things that became clear was that, while they all felt the assessment process was important, a majority of them, especially those who had been with the subject the longest, were not centrally motivated by the assessment problem in developing and conducting their work.

To ask these scientists about the history of their views on the WAIS issue was, in essence, to ask them about the history of their opinion of something they hadn’t traditionally felt obligated to have a concrete opinion about. You could do it, of course, since most everyone has had some sort of opinion, some more deeply held than others, but because scientists’ perspectives are so different, comparing their responses would not have been especially revealing.

(I think this point, by the way, shows the importance of having some sort of explicit assessment process, rather than, say, a more informal advisory panel, because it forces the community to work out together what they need to know to answer particular questions.)

Thus, my research began to emphasize the need to articulate what these scientists have been centrally interested in.

Taking this perspective on things, even using the WAIS problem as a central vantage point began increasingly to seem an artificial way of approaching the historical record.  Some scientists who have worked on WAIS have been at least as interested in glaciological processes taking place on the Greenland Ice Sheet, or they have regarded it as one part of a more global reconstruction of the paleoclimate, etc.

So, my subsequent attempts to expand on this work have emphasized the need to undertake a more general survey of the various contours of research in the climate and ice sciences.  In 2009 I applied for and got an NSF grant to do a one-year, full-time follow-on study.  But, once again, another three-year opportunity—this time, my Junior Research Fellowship in London—intervened. I had to decline the grant, and, unfortunately, I was later unable to get another research proposal past the review process.

In 2011-12, having put the project aside for a couple of years in favor of work on my book and my JRF project and my HSNS particle physics paper, I decided I needed to finally publish my work on WAIS research.  I consulted with Oppenheimer, since he has considerable experience in that world.  He suggested it might have a chance in one of the high-profile journals. Otherwise, he suggested a few other journals.  He is one of the editors of Climatic Change, and mentioned it as one among other possibilities, but didn’t push it in particular.  

After going to Science with a briefer version—and being rejected within a couple of days**—I decided to expand the paper and go to Climatic Change because it is a long-established journal, with a history of publishing social science papers, as well as a few historical papers, such as Paul Edwards’s 1996 essay, “Global Comprehensive Models in Politics and Policymaking”.

Now, by the time I got to Imperial, I should say I was no longer actively coordinating with Oppenheimer and Oreskes.  Although we were working on the same subject, they were clearly concentrating on the assessment process, which only incidentally impacted my history.  Understanding how assessments have been developed is important, but the nitty-gritty of the formulation of official statements has never really appealed to me on the level of my personal research style.

For their part, in 2008-09, Oreskes and Oppenheimer ended up hiring two post-docs, Jessica O’Reilly and Keynyn Brysse, to work on the history of assessments of WAIS and ozone depletion respectively.  We presented together at HSS and 4S in 2009.  They went on to publish a few papers, among them:

O’Reilly, Brysse, Oppenheimer, and Oreskes, “Characterizing Uncertainty in Expert Assessments: Ozone Depletion and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet,” (pdf) WIREs Climate Change 2 (2011): 728-743.


O’Reilly, Oreskes, and Oppenheimer, “The Rapid Disintegration of Projections: The West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” Social Studies of Science 42 (2012): 709-731.

Oppenheimer and Oreskes, with Dale Jamieson, subsequently got a three-year NSF grant called “Assessing Assessments: Historical and Philosophical Study of Scientific Assessments for Environmental Policy in the Late 20th Century”. That project is just wrapping up now.

Personally, I would love to return to climate studies, glaciology, and related subjects, but, unfortunately, it’s not on the docket at the moment.

*Climatic Change has authors submit LaTeX-formatted drafts, which is why the prior version looks semi-formal.

**Swift rejection is a very good thing.  It allows you to test how high up the ladder you can go with a contribution without unduly bogging your work down.  I submitted a paper to Isis once, and their (as I recall) six-month rejection process discouraged me from submitting there again.

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