Letter: The global bathtub

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The Independent Culture
Sir: Roger Harrabin's article "Plumbing the depths in the search for sleaze" (Review, 23 March) partially reflects my experience of press coverage of environmental issues. I direct the international co-ordinating offices for two projects of the World Climate Research Programme - an international effort to understand the earth's physical climate system. It is improving our understanding of global warming, of the predictability and impacts of el Nino events and of the crucial roles played in climate by polar regions and oceans.

This research is arguably among the most important for mankind, since ability to make predictions of sea-level rise, of storms and floods in a fundamentally changed climate will have enormous socio-economic impact.

Media interest in this research is hard to foster since it does not have the visual impact of the launch of the international space station or the emotive appeal of a new breakthrough in cancer treatment. In fact the greatest interest in the WCRP project on the role of ocean circulation in climate was triggered by two events - the loss in mid-Pacific of a container loaded with plastic bath toys (could we predict where they would wash ashore?) and the recent story of a message in a bottle taking six months from Ipswich to Australia (how did it get there?).

There are two conclusions. Stories with striking visual impact or human interest (however trivial) will almost always receive coverage and scientists really have to work hard and imaginatively to inform the public about their research.


Southampton Oceanography Centre