I have an article up on Spiked today about the melting Greenland ice cover story from a few weeks back.
‘Satellites see Unprecedented Greenland Ice Sheet Melt’, announced a press release on 24 July from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institution of Technology. Satellites that constantly scan environmental conditions on the planet’s surface had revealed that from 8 July to 12 July, 97 per cent of the surface of the ice sheet contained water rather than ice, whereas typically just 45 per cent of the surface area melts at this time of year. The extent of this melt is not in itself significant – just millimetres on top of an ice sheet that is 3.5 kilometres thick at its deepest point, most of which soon refreezes.
In spite of the headline, the press release itself went on to explain how the ‘unprecedented’ extent of surface ice melt wasn’t, in fact, unprecedented. ‘Ice cores from Summit [a central Greenland station] show that melting events of this type occur about once every 150 years on average. With the last one happening in 1889, this event is right on time’, said Lora Koenig, a NASA researcher involved in the analysis of the satellite data.
I had long and interesting chat with sea ice researcher at the Open University, Mark Brandon before writing the article. Mark and I probably disagree about a number of things, but on the expectations of science, we did seem to find some common ground. What emerged most strongly for me was that, in the current atmosphere of the climate debate, the possibilities of doing ‘value free’ research are greatly reduced: any scientific development which paints a picture of things being better or ‘worse than we thought’ has immediate implications for the debate.
Coincidentally, just before the article was published, the Today Programme on BBC R4 had a feature on some ongoing scientific research:
Preliminary results from a European Space Agency satellite measuring the thickness of Arctic ice suggests it is melting faster than previously thought.
Seymour Laxon of the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling said the thickness of the ice could now be measured to an accuracy of 10cm (3.5in).
He said there has been a “very strong decline” in the thickness of the ice, and if the current trend continues, the Arctic could be ice-free on a summer’s day by the end of the decade.
Any suggestion that Arctic ice — summer sea ice, to be precise — is ‘melting faster than previously thought’ should raise the question ‘how fast did you think it was melting?’ As I discussed in the article, according to ‘scientists’, the Arctic would be ice-free next year.
Although it is good to see scientists engaging critically with climate alarmism, such corrections seem to have limited potential. Although climate activists and politicians have emphasised the scientific consensus on climate change, their alarmism has found its expression in the public sphere after press releases announcing scientific claims. These press-released stories often turn out not be based on research but on opinion or guesswork. For instance, in 2007, when Arctic sea ice reached its lowest extent since 1979, a rash of speculation followed about when the ice might disappear altogether. In 2008, the Observer happily reported that 2013 would be the date of the ice cap’s demise, according to just one researcher’s claim.
But this turned out to be mere guesswork, as did other estimates of the future of Arctic sea ice, which put the date of disappearance much further into the future. The fact of this speculation was lost by journalists emphasising the scientific credentials of those doing the guessing; it was guesswork, but it was scientists’ guesswork.
And so it was, once again, that the narrative of doom preceded the science. ‘Preliminary results’ should not be interesting to any news desk. ‘Preliminary results’ are not results. And the interview proceeded, to abandon any attempt to reflect on the story critically, or to ask what the significance of the story really is. Ditto, the following headline from the Observer
Rate of Arctic summer sea ice loss is 50% higher than predicted
New satellite images show polar ice coverage dwindling in extent and thickness
The BBC’s Roger Harrabin tweeted,
Potentially alarming analysis of Arctic ice from UCL. Seymour Laxon interview on Today Prog. The experiment continues. http://bbc.in/SdI6D7
Only ‘potentially alarming’… But being used to alarm, nonetheless.
What seems to be beyond the capacities of BBC and Guardian/Observer journalists is to ask questions about how and when the measurements of Arctic ice took place.
As the website for the Cryosat-2 programme — the satellite that produced the ‘potentially alarming results’ — says,
CryoSat was launched in 2010 to measure sea-ice thickness in the Arctic, but data from the Earth-observing satellite have also been exploited for other studies. High-resolution mapping of the topography of the ocean floor is now being added to the ice mission’s repertoire.
So the data from which the ‘potentially alarming’ result was produced consists of a series that began in April 2010, and has thus only had the chance to record Arctic conditions over two summers and two winters.
Some results from Cryosat-2 were announced in April this year.
After nearly a year and a half of operations, CryoSat has yielded its first seasonal variation map of Arctic sea-ice thickness. Results from ESA’s ice mission were presented today at the Royal Society in London.
In June 2011, the first map of Arctic sea-ice thickness was unveiled, using CryoSat data acquired between January and February of that year.
Now, the complete 2010–11 winter season data have been processed to produce a seasonal variation map of sea-ice thickness.
This is the first map of its kind generated using data from a radar altimeter and at such a high resolution compared to previous satellite measurements.
If these really are the first data relating to the volume of ice available to science, then it really is far too early for researchers to be claiming to be able to put a date on the demise of summer Arctic sea ice. Moreover, and never mind the failure of journalists to subject scientists’ claims to scrutiny, what was Seymour Laxon of the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling doing, going on a mainstream news programme — perhaps the most listened-to news programme of the entire country — to explain that science was able to put a date on the terminal point of Arctic sea ice? The only thing he should have been able to say is that ‘it’s too early to say’.
Anything else is, frankly, a lie. The variation in sea ice volume detected by Cryosat-2 may well have been no more than weather. In order to make the predictions that Laxon made, he would have to assume that any variation can only be accounted for by anthropogenic climate change, and that the trend it detected would continue.
This is as clear a case of environmental politics preceding the science as any other alarmist story. I have no idea whether or not Laxon consciously allowed himself to speak prematurely on the decline of sea ice, and I do not care. The alarmist story is allowed to proceed in spite of facts, and without scrutiny or criticism.
Paul Matthews let me know by twitter that I was wrong to say the measurements were based just on Cryosat2. In the interview, he explains that the data were produced by using Cryosat2 and NASA’s Icestat satellite. Either way, however, the data he refers are measurements still only taken since 2010, which I still believe is far too short a time series to say anything about trends, let alone safely projecting them.
Andrew Orlowski has an interesting article about Laxon’s claims over at the Register.
Laxon has generated a torrent of headlines in the media. It’s the silly season, of course, so this is to be expected. But what most surprises me is that I can’t track down any evidence of the ‘research’ this is supposed to be from, nor even a press release. All this headline-making seems to have happened just on the basis of one man’s opinion. This opinion, from one man, gets turned into science, produced by ‘scientists’.