Explorer Lewis Pugh, self-proclaimed ‘Voice of the Arctic’ took a break from cold-water swimming to try to become the first person to kayak to the North Pole to raise awareness of himself the shrinking Arctic ice mass:
There is one side of me that really hopes I can get there, that I can kayak all the way from Europe to the North Pole. Because if I’m able to do that, I hope I’m able to show world leaders just how much the Arctic has melted, and just how much it’s going to affect each and every one of us. But then there’s the other side of me which says I really hope I don’t get there – I hope I fail, I hope I don’t succeed. Because if I am successful, then it’s a very worrying situation, because it shouldn’t be possible to kayak right across what used to be a frozen ocean.
It would certainly be an impressive feat of paddling. But Pugh should not kid himself that he is raising awareness; he is simply riding a mighty bow wave of awareness that has already been raised by the mainstream media, environmental activists and scientists.
The progress of the Arctic ice melt has been this year’s big climate story. Following an unusual winter, with record snows in China, Baghdad, and across the world, climate alarmists were unable to supply the media feeding-trough with upwardly-record-breaking statistics. After dismal 2007 and 2008 summers, and unusually heavy and late wintry storms, the public wouldn’t buy the idea that the UK was being ravaged by global warming. And as we all know, the Antarctic isn’t warming. Consequently, all eyes pointed north, which has caused much rumination over the significance of the level of ice at the end of the 2008 Northern Hemisphere’s summer. The Arctic has become less the subject of scientific investigation, and more the arena for a battle.
Just as environmental policies are based on the precautionary principle, global warming alarmists exploit the unknowable territory of the future. It is not knowledge which drives environmentalism, but the unquantified possibility of catastrophe. Quantified risk spoils the story, because quantified risks allow the possibility of solutions. So alarmism seeks refuge in the furthest reaches of the world’s most inhospitable locations, where it cannot be challenged. It is no accident that the harsh landscapes of the developing world and the polar regions are where the bulk of arguments about global warming rest, it is hard to get there, and it is almost as hard to get people from these places to tell you what it’s really like, and what they really want. Thus, environmentalists speak for distant people, and far off lands… and polar bears. In much the same way, quantum physics is frequently used to ‘explain’ parapsychology and quackery; telepathy and precognition, ghosts, and homeopathic medicine. The harder it is to penetrate the science, the better a home it makes for ideas that owe more to wishful than rational thinking.
In order to achieve leverage in the political arena, environmentalists have had to construct story-lines to keep the idea of climate change alive in people’s consciences. These double-up as morality plays, in which ‘climate criminals’ are responsible for the plight of species such as the polar bear, and poor people throughout the world. Unfortunately for environmentalists, science cannot produce data and research fast enough for them, and to a sufficient level of certainty. Therefore, the stories come and go. If there’s a hot summer, we are told to expect them to get hotter, and more frequent. If there are floods, we are told that they too will get more frequent and intense. And so on. The abstract results of climate research do not connect with the public as well as images of catastrophes and starving animals, nor with people’s direct experience of the weather.
For example, take the words of George Monbiot in 1999:
Climate change is perhaps the gravest calamity our species has ever encountered. Its impact dwarfs that of any war, any plague, any famine we have confronted so far. It makes genocide and ethnic cleansing look like sideshows at the circus of human suffering. A car is now more dangerous than a gun; flying across the Atlantic is as unacceptable, in terms of its impact on human well-being, as child abuse. The rich are at play in the world’s killing fields.
The problem George has is in convincing people that any of this is true is that it defies all their senses. There is no visible climate chaos, such as he describes. Sure, there are occasional floods, heavy rain, and heatwaves, and so on. But there always has been. For those affected, life eventually returns to normal, and for the vast majority of people who remain untouched by these events, life carries on. Where people are less fortunate, such as in the developing world, George attributes their misfortune to climate change, whereas a much more compelling argument is that their predicament is explained by their poverty. He wants to say “IT’S HAPPENING NOW”. But alas, it is not.
Back to the ice.
We all know what ice is. It is fairly evident when it is there. It is not some unusual social or scientific construct. So if you divide the amount of ice there is today, by the amount of ice there was yesterday less the amount of ice there is today, then you should know for certain how many days we have left until the end of life on Earth. Or, at least, that is the depth of thinking behind the current round of alarm emerging from the polar melt debacle.
A lot of the heat has been generated by a graphic issued by the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC), showing sea ice extent over the summer months. The question is whether the blue line representing 2008 will match the dotted green line representing the record-breaking 2007.
Well, that’s supposed to be the question. The reality is that the progress of the curves represents a real-time unfolding narrative, rather like a soap opera, which gives gravity to the background and humdrum story-lines of who-is-in-bed-with-who, villainous schemes, and blood-feuds. Will the deniers finally be exposed as ruthless and back-stabbing murderers, or will they once again foil the valiant efforts of the greens? Tune in, for the next exciting episode. Except that, just like a soap opera, it never ends. The turn of the curve provides the tension of the moment, but it never fuly resolves. A new story line emerges as the old one fizzles out, with the plot left slightly hanging, so that its protagonists can return at a later date (ie, when the writing team have run out of ideas).
Speaking of running out of ideas, Oliver Tickell, son of miserablist Malthusian Sir Crispin (just like Dynasty, it’s often the children of rich and powerful men who get to continue the story), wrote on commentisfree, citing the decline in summer ice, that:
We need to get prepared for four degrees of global warming, Bob Watson told the Guardian last week. At first sight this looks like wise counsel from the climate science adviser to Defra. But the idea that we could adapt to a 4C rise is absurd and dangerous. Global warming on this scale would be a catastrophe that would mean, in the immortal words that Chief Seattle probably never spoke, “the end of living and the beginning of survival” for humankind. Or perhaps thebeginning of our extinction.
See how the narratives stack up? At the top, global warming provides the situation. Beneath, sub-plots such as the ice extent story provide battle grounds for the constant war. At the bottom layer, the groupings and affiliations of goodies and baddies give rise to the politics. And in the sludge, the turbulent challenges that the heroes face. How can Tickell Jr. keep on side those who are losing faith in the good fight, and who appear to be making concessions to the enemy?
By linking to other story lines, of course. Such as Observer ‘science’ editor Robin McKie’s, who writes the episode called, “Meltdown in the Arctic is Speeding Up”:
Ice at the North Pole melted at an unprecedented rate last week, with leading scientists warning that the Arctic could be ice-free in summer by 2013.
In that week’s installment, the blue line had nudged slightly closer to the green dotted one. Everybody held their breath. Who would be vindicated: the deniers, or the warmers?
Steven Goddard broke the silence on The Register, after noticing that the NSIDC graphs showing this year’s ice retreat didn’t match the graphics published by the University of Illinois.
More importantly, the data did not support the panic that the Pole might be free of ice this summer, as had been reported by various news outlets, and attributed to David Barber of the University of Manitoba. This was upped by Dr. Olav Orheim head of the Norwegian International Polar Year Secretariat, who claimed that the entire polar cap might disappear. Others were more circumspect, yet still predicted that this year’s melt would be worse than last year’s. Yet the NSIDC data failed to show this. It looked like the deniers would be vindicated.
A National Geographic article captured the confusion which the characters of the soap opera were caught up in. It was written in June, just before the little blue line stopped following the trajectory set by the progress of ice last year. As has been mentioned, David Barber raised the possibility of an ice-free 2008 Arctic summer. Next up in the article, Sheldon Drobot, at the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research lowered the stakes, saying that some ice might survive, but it might melt at the pole. But then the magazine announced that models suggest an ice-free Arctic is not likely until 2013. Spoiling the party, Ron Lindsay, of the University of Washington, Seattle’s Polar Science Center tells NG that, “Nobody knows for sure.” Finally, the article concludes that, whatever the differences between the predictions, “Almost all models have the Arctic completely ice free in the summer by 2100.” We might have to wait nearly a whole century for this plot line to terminate. Over the course of just 700 words, Aalok Mehta, the article’s author, had taken the viewers from a frenzy of expectation about a sensational conclusion, headlined “North Pole May be Ice Free for First Time This Summer”, down to the disappointing perpetual cliff-hanger.
The suspense was killing us. We had to find out more. Like fans possessed, we sought the contact details of the actors in the drama. What was the truth? What would the next turn of the plot be? Would ice disappear this summer? Or would it be 2013, as had been predicted by a model created by Professor Wieslaw Maslowski of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Or would we have to wait a century to find out?
NSIDC senior scientist Mark Serreze was on hand to help put us straight. The Observer and National Geographic articles were simply ‘tabloid’ journalism.
MS: Our empirical data would suggest that 2013 is too aggressive […] What we’ve been on record as saying, and for quite some time now – and I’ll go on record saying it again – that, in our view, going to an ice-free Arctic Ocean in summer – going to a seasonally ice-free Arctic ocean – could be as early as 2030
For fans of the drama, it is a disappointment. But it was an improvement on the 100 years given by the NG, and 50-100 years given by IPCC’s AR4. Serreze says that the IPCC’s predictions are conservative, and that new data has come to light since AR4. The melt had proceeded faster than expected. But what about the sub-plot – the 2008 melting versus the year before?
Serreze’s colleague, Walt Meier, had contacted The Register to tell them that Goddard was mistaken. There are two different ways of measuring arctic ice, and they shouldn’t be compared.
The absolute numbers differ between the UI and NSIDC plots because UI is calculating ice area, while NSIDC is calculating ice extent, two different but related indicators of the state of the ice cover. However, both yield a consistent change between Aug. 12, 2007 and Aug. 11, 2008 – about a 10% increase.
As Meier reveals, it turns out that counting ice is not quite as straightforward as one might think. The ice thins, but the plot thickens. The NSIDC produce two measures of ice – extent and area. Area is beset by the satellite hardware’s inability to make a distinction between melt water on top of ice, and ice-free open water, and an upgrade in 1987 meant that the area covered introduces an upward error into the data. Extent is calculated by analysing the same source data, but measuring each pixel, and counting the number of 25x25km ‘pixels’ where the coverage of ice is greater than 15%. In other words, it’s not actually counting ice. As the NISDC website informs us:
The extent values are useful in a temporal series, but caution should be used citing the numbers apart from the time series or comparing with values derived from other studies. Ice concentrations are sensitive to the algorithm used, and resulting numbers for extent depend not only on algorithms but on other processing steps as well. The extent values have uncertain significance when taken individually. For example, the 15% concentration cutoff for extent is somewhat arbitrary. Using a 20% or 30% cutoff will give different numbers, although similar trends, for extent (for examples, see Parkinson et al. 1999).
For a moment, it looked like the deniers had seized the day. But Meier stole the plot back for the warmers, to accuse Goddard for an article which “consists almost entirely of misleading, irrelevant, or erroneous information about Arctic sea ice that add nothing to the understanding of the significant long-term decline that is being observed”.
Oh? Goddard’s error was in thinking that an absolute index of ice existed – for which he apologised. But what about the claims that 2008 would be worse than 2007? And the claims that the North Pole and even the entire ice cap may be ice-free this year? Was it misleading to ask questions about those? Were they not themselves misleading? Is it misleading to point out that 2008 was not turning out to be ice-free? The ball was no longer in anyone’s court. The blue line carried on.
On the 26th August, the NSIDC announced on their website that “Arctic sea ice now second-lowest on record”. The actors in the drama were now fully engaged in writing it, and commentating on it. When we spoke to Serreze earlier in the month, he told us that the 2007 ice extent was not the result of global warming, but because…
… essentially we had a perfect atmospheric storm, in which we had a pattern of winds that brought warm air to the Arctic and helped melt the ice.
Like El Nino is largely responsible for the high global temperatures in 1998, we ask. Exactly, replies Serreze.
But Serreze is apparently reticent to offer information on the complexities of ice melt unless asked specifically. Otherwise, he is happy to feed the narrative with sensational plot twists of his own that owe little to NSIDC data. As he told Der Spiegel on 28 August:
“An Arctic Ocean that is ice-free in summer is inevitable,” he said. Any recovery made by the ice sheet, he said, wouldn’t last “more than a couple of years in the best case scenario.” By the summer of 2030, he says, the Arctic will be completely ice free for a few weeks at a time.
And yet when we spoke to him, Serreze told us just how much of a guesstimate the 2030 figure actually is:
CR: So what sort of confidence intervals do you have around the 2030 figure then?
MS: Well, just that it’s an educated guess based on where we’re going. If you look at what the climate models have been saying – this is from those that were in the latest round of the IPCC, OK? – they’re saying that, depending on the model you select as the truth, you could be going to an ice-free Arctic Ocean anywhere from say 2050 to anywhere out beyond 2100. That’s what the latest round was saying, OK? About a year ago now, we had a paper led by my colleague Julienne Stroeve, which was showing that the current rate of decline is faster than any of these climate models are telling us. In other words, we are sort of faster than forecast […] when we say 2030, as the number that we throw out there, it’s based on the recognition that the models are too slow. And it’s based on just looking at what the observed behaviour of the system has been. So that 2030, you know, you wish I could put error bars around it – plus or minus seven years, right?
And when he’s not selling tentative extrapolations as inevitabilities, Serreze is drawing on catstrophe-lingo du jour to over-egg his pudding. As he told the BBC for an article that starts ‘Arctic sea ice has shrunk to the second smallest extent since satellite records began, US scientists have revealed’ (which is a remarkably underwhelming observation given how recently satellites have been used to record anything at all):
We could very well be in that quick slide downwards in terms of passing a tipping point
Serreze neither explains what this tipping point might be, nor why his NSIDC data suggests we might be passing it. In this sense, ‘tipping point’ is used simply as a sciencey-sounding synonym for ‘something terrible might happen’. And reporters don’t even think to ask him what on Earth he is talking about.
We don’t want to be too hard on Serreze and his fellow scientists. They have a big job to do. And in a world that attaches such importance to the path of a little blue line, much is expected of them. But it is to disparage the way in which such complex research and tentative conclusions are transmuted into unassailable facts for the purpose of gaining influence in the political arena. Here’s a correlation for you: the extent of Arctic sea ice is negatively proportional to the desperation with which politicians and the media will cling to it, like starving polar bears, in the absence of any political straws to clutch at. But Serreze and his colleagues should not be exempt from criticism – they are playing their own important role in the soap opera. The articles in Der Spiegel and the BBC were in response to press releases issued by NSIDC a couple of days previously. First, they whetted our appetites with this:
Sea ice extent has fallen below the 2005 minimum, previously the second-lowest extent recorded since the dawn of the satellite era. We will know if the 2008 record will also fall in the next several weeks, when the melt season comes to a close. The bottom line, however, is that the strong negative trend in summertime ice extent characterizing the past decade continues.
Then followed it up the next day with the money shot:
Update to yesterday’s advisory
Numbers are now available concerning current Arctic sea ice extent compared to the previous second-lowest year, 2005. Visit http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/ for more details.
You can hardly blame NSIDC for getting excited and wanting to tell the world about it. They’ve been slaving away for years gathering physical data from an obscure backwater of planet Earth, and suddenly they now find that data – and themselves – the focus of the media’s gaze. Their research is suddenly ‘relevant’. It doesn’t get much better than that when the accumulation of knowledge is increasingly hard to justify to the powers that be. Understandably, they want to make the most of it. And that means pumping out easily digestible, simplistic information. In fact, according to Walt Meier, the NSIDC scientist who complained to the Register, keeping it simple is a high priority for NSIDC. We were interested in why NSIDC seem to pay little attention to their area data, when it might be expected to provide additional information, in that it takes into account a measure of ice cover (from 0-100%) within each pixel. He told us that not only was the area data more problematic than extent, but that it’s important not to confuse people by making things complicated:
When you’re talking to the public and the press and so forth […] adding areainto the discussion can cause confusion. So we’ve kept to extent to keep things consistent in how we’re reporting things and reporting one parameter instead of two […] We’ve chosen to not include the area [data], even though there are interesting things to say about it, just because, for a lot of people, it does tend to muddy the water.
The irony is that the simplistic messages they put out are far more confusing than the state of knowledge in its full complex glory – as witnessed by the confusion generated by a year’s-worth of simplistic predictions and press releases.
Keeping things simple for the press and public has other implications. The NSIDC’s raison d’etre is to provide the data, which can then be used by scientists to describe and predict ice behaviour. Scientists obtain that data through the same website used by the press and public. And unlike the extent data, the area data is very hard to find. Try it. Could it be that the area data has not been scrutinised like the extent data simply because it is buried so deep within the website? If so, we have a strange situation in which the PR strategy of the NSIDC directly influences the nature of scientific investigation.
If the importance attached to NSIDC blue line is strange, then so is the fascination with the arbitrary ‘ice-free summer’ landmark. Like frogs spawning earlier or butterflies flying later, ice-free Arctic summers are, in themselves, neither evidence for global warming, nor a harbinger of doom – and yet that is exactly how it is used in the media. All are consequences of climate change. If global temperatures have been a bit higher than usual recently, it’s the most natural thing in the world that species adjust their life-cycles accordingly and that ice melts that bit faster. We should be far more worried if frogs did not make the most of an early spring, or if ice didn’t melt when it got hotter.
The twists and turns of little blue lines excite the audience, and provide superficially important news fodder. It fuels debates, but with wild speculation and utterly meaningless and inconsequential factoids that will be forgotten by the time the next climate record is set. Repeat ad nauseam. These artificial dramas are elevated to ludicrous heights by claims that our entire futures depend on them. Consequently, life imitates this art. The drama extends into our real lives. It becomes politics, ethics, laws. The more we look to little blue lines, the less we realise that whatever little blue lines do only determines what our existences will consist of if we believe that the direction of the little blue line is instructive. It isn’t. As we have argued before, environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy, because environmental determinism – upon which environmentalism is founded – posits that human history is the product of environmental conditions. If ethics, politics, and society is formed according to the twists and turns of blue lines because we decide that it ought to be, then sure enough, history will be determined by little blue lines. We will make ourselves vulnerable to climate in order to prevent climate change catastrophe. The fact is that human history occurred in spite of the direction of blue lines.
By the time we finished this post, Lewis Pugh had already failed in his mission to paddle to the North Pole. He got as far as 81 degrees north before becoming trapped in the ice. (Even last year – with its record low ice cover – he managed to reach 82 degrees north.) Strange then, given Pugh’s declaration that “I hope I fail, I hope I don’t succeed. Because if I am successful, then it’s a very worrying situation”, that he seems to have decided not to shout about how pleased he is that the world isn’t coming to an end just yet. Far from it. As he writes on his blog:
Although the expedition is over, in many ways the real work is still to come – my job now is to act as an ambassador for the Arctic, to convey to policy makers the changes that are taking place here. This starts immediately – I am going to Washington DC soon to speak to the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. I spoke with Congressman Edward Markey (D-MA) and his team in May, and it was a wonderful conversation – one I look forward to continuing. Smart people working hard to push these important environmental issues forward.