In the Guardian yesterday, the paper’s US Environmental correspondent, Suzanne Goldenberg writes:
The world’s ocean surfaces had their warmest summer temperatures on record, the US national climatic data centre said today.
Climate change has been steadily raising the earth’s average temperature in recent decades, but climatologists expected additional warming this year and next due to the influence of El Niño.
However, as Bob Tisdale and Anthony Watts point out at the latter’s blog, there are many reasons to be cautious about taking the claim at face value. It is the product of one dataset, and is not supported with data from satellites. Indeed, according to the UAH satellite record, the average temperature of the world in August was just 0.23°C above the average.
But that’s not what really piqued our interest. Goldenburg’s story finishes,
The report also noted the continuing retreat in Arctic sea ice over the summer. Sea ice covered an average of 6.3m sq kilometres (2.42m sq miles) during August, according to the national snow and ice data centre. That was 18.4% the 1979-2000 average.
The press release from which Goldenburg lifts her story says
According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), Arctic sea ice covered an average of 2.42 million square miles during August. This is 18.4 percent below the 1979-2000 average extent, and is generally consistent with a decline of August sea ice extent since 1979.
The difference between ’18.4 percent’, and ’18.4 percent below’ is 63.2 percent. But of course, it may well just be a typo than a reflection of Goldenberg’s misunderstanding of the science. But notice another interpretation. The original quote speaks of the 2009 ice extent representing the continuation of a general trend, ‘consistent with a decline of August sea ice extent since 1979′, ie, not as much ice as there was, once. But this is transformed in Goldenberg’s copy, and becomes ‘the continuing retreat in Arctic sea ice over the summer’, which is palpably not true.
Perhaps you think we’re nit-picking by pulling Goldenberg up for what might well be the result of an honest misunderstanding married to a slack rewording of the press release. But what is strange is her apparent complete lack of surprise at the notion that summer ice has declined by a factor of five in such a short time. And that’s after two years of recovery.
The minimum extent of Arctic sea ice in 2007 was 4.13 million Km2. in 2008 it was 4.67 million Km2. This year, it looks as though it is 5.25 million Km2. This represents an increase of 13% between 2007 and 2008, and an increase of 12% for 2008 to 2009, or an increase of 27% between 2007 and 2009. This is a substantial increase, yet Goldenberg puts emphasis on the loss, in spite of the rather more significant gain. As we have written previously, this is owed to the tendency of those who put much store in the progress of Arctic ice, hoping that it will add power to their alarmist narratives. When the ice doesn’t behave, the miserable story has to be told by a mathematical sleight of hand. Perhaps we should just be grateful that Goldenberg did not extrapolate back from her own made-up figure to discover that summer Arctic ice actually disappeared two years ago.
It’s not entirely Goldenberg’s fault. She has been primed by years of press releases from the likes of NOAA and NSIDC to believe that the ice is retreating on an almost daily basis. As we have noted before, in their attempts to maintain the excitement, these agencies are caught between the temptation to overplay the importance of new datapoints that reinforce the idea of a downward trend, and the need to downplay those that don’t fit easily with the catastrophe narrative. Regardless of where a new datapoint falls on the graph, it’s a portent of doom.
At its most ludicrous, this can result in statements about single datapoints that serve as a warning of both imminent disaster and the dangers of relying on single datapoints. For example:
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.
But in bending over backwards to make sure that no one gets the silly idea, on the evidence of a single datapoint, that global warming has stopped, they open the door to alarmist nonsense every time they update their graphs.
This is not the first time Goldenberg has tried to lick an iceberg and got herself stuck. In July, she teamed up with Damian Carrington for a story in the Observer:
‘Revealed: the secret evidence of global warming Bush tried to hide’.
The writers tell us that images taken from a US spy satellite ‘reveal the devastating impact of global warming in the Arctic‘. The images, now declassified, were ‘kept secret by Washington during the presidency of George W Bush’. The saintly Obama, by contrast, ‘is currently trying to galvanise Congress and the American public to take action to halt catastrophic climate change’. What separates Bush, the evil denier, from Obama, the saintly prophet, is their treatment of a cold, hostile, uninhabited, tract of frozen sea.
Instead of being something which causes immediate concern in its own right, the real importance of images of open sea where there was once ice is that it gives seemingly geological scale to environmentalists’ claims about our influence over the planet and its likely consequences. Where scientific opinions and catastrophic story lines have failed to mobilise popular support for environmentalism, various greens appeal to our ability to register the difference between what once happened and what seems to be happening now. Accordingly, Goldenberg and Carrington present us with the before and after pictures.
This picture is, according to the article, part of a series that are ‘the first graphic images of how the polar ice sheets are retreating in the summer’. This is sheer nonsense. Archived and near real-time Images of polar ice have been available to the public via the internet for years. The Polar Research Group at the University of Illinois have, since 2004, run a website called The Cryosphere Today, which allows users to compare the ice cover of the Arctic on any two dates. Here, for example, is an image depicting the same information as the recently declassified spy-satellite pictures.
So keen are the ice researchers at the University of Illinois, there is even an application that can be run on web-enabled mobile phones. The iPod generation now have no excuse for being ignorant of the state of almost entirely uninhabited, entirely hostile, and least interesting regions of Earth.
The US National Snow and Ice Data Center provide a similar means to staying in touch with the latest developments at the frozen North. (And who wouldn’t want to?) Using the Google Earth application, NSIDC aim to ‘help people better understand the cryosphere—where the world is frozen—by making our data more visible and interactive. What is available at the NSIDC is a vast array of images and data, none of which has been classified, all of which has been available for years. If you felt so inclined, you could even compare sea ice extent in July 2007 and 2008, to show just how remarkably quickly the Arctic recovered from its historic low.
Or if you prefer, you could just go to the NSIDC homepage for ‘daily image updates of Arctic sea ice’.
None of this is secret information. The only difference with the declassified images is the level of detail. Images in the public domain were only available at resolutions of 15 meters (each ‘dot’ in the picture represents an area of 15 meters square), whereas spy satellites create images at a resolution of one meter. Unless you are a climate specialist this makes no difference whatsoever. Prior to the release of these images, no researcher with an interest in the cryosphere would have been ignorant of the extent of sea ice off the coast of Alaska in 2007 as it stood in contrast to the previous year’s ice.
So what’s the big secret, and why all the fuss? On the 15th of July, the US National Research Council released a report called ‘Scientific Value of Arctic Sea Ice Imagery Derived Products’. According to a NASA press release, the authors of the report believe that the higher resolution images would significantly extend scientific understanding of the processes driving the annual cycle of melting and freezing. There already exists a relationship between science and the military in which images produced by surveillance hardware is shared. Declassified images have, for a number of years, been put into the public domain through a program called Literal Imagery Derived Products (LIDPs). The satellites that have produced these new images have, at the request of the same scientific community in 1999, been recording images from locations within the Arctic region since 2005. The report made an argument for the release of the images. Just a few hours later, the Interior Department declassified them.
Goldenberg and Carrington present the release of the images as, pardon the pun, a sea change in the attitude of the US government. But the satellites began recording the regions in 2005 – while Bush was president. If there had been no intention to make these images available to the scientists who requested them, why generate them in the first place? Moreover, the two writers seemingly make the case that an executive decision was made, by Bush in the first instance and Obama in the second, to respectively conceal, and reveal the images. Yet there is no evidence in the article, or on the web, that either president made any such decisions. It is only in the imaginations of bored journalists that the timing of the declassification of the images represents the termination of a conspiracy to deceive the public instigated by Bush. The facts are plain: nothing that wasn’t already widely known has been revealed by these images; the images are not useful to any political ends, either to inform the public, or to demonstrate the fact of global warming; there is no evidence presented that there was an attempt to conceal these images; there would have been no reason to keep the images secret; it was under Bush’s administration that spy satellites began recording images from the locations in question. There was no story.
There is, however, the story in the heads of Goldenberg and Carrington. Routinely in this kind of narrative, the plight of polar bears, summer sea ice melt, global warming, and anthropogenic CO2 are conflated as the one and same thing, as each other’s cause and effect, rather than treated as phenomena that have distinct and complex causes. In this story, polar bears are killed by increased ice melting, which is caused by global warming, both of which will continue to increase, and all of which is caused by anthropogenic CO2, which is caused by us. These causal relationships are presented as unassailable scientific facts with no questions of complexity, nuance, or degree permitted. To argue that the progress of Arctic ice melt may well have a cause that is independent of the Earth’s warming is to deny both. To argue that polar bear populations may be increasing, or may be suffering for reasons other than ice melt is to deny global warming. Because ultimately, at the end of this chain of reasoning is an argument that owes nothing whatsoever to science: George Bush tried to hide all of this from you.
All of which is to say that the story about the progress of ice escapes its scientific context to illustrate the political narrative that the likes of Goldenberg impose over it. It is the vehicle through which she can submit Bush-bashing copy, months after the end of his presidency, allowing her to stand Bush in ecological contrast to Obama. That Goldenberg gets the scientific facts wrong, and struggles to interpret them correctly, and fails to subject her own stark misapprehension to scrutiny, is only half the story – she then uses her own confusion to create a picture of political conspiracies against scientific truth. In no small way this demonstrates the extent to which the political story exists prior to the science, and needs it. If the ice wasn’t melting, Goldenberg would have to make it up… Oh…