Walt Meier

‘Tis the season of resurrections. And right on cue, science PR is working overtime to bring the polar-ice soap opera back from the dead.

Following a disappointing summer of 2008, in which the ‘worst ever’ Arctic ice scenarios prophesied at the start of the year failed to materialise, there was the danger that viewers would start channel-hopping. Something had to be done.

To get things rolling, the scriptwriters at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) have introduced a couple of new characters for the 2009 season – winter maximum sea ice extent and ice thickness, both of which made an appearance in the first episode aired this week by the BBC:

The Arctic sea-ice reached its maximum extent this year on 28 February, slightly earlier than usual, and remained roughly constant through March.

Averaged over March, the sea-ice covered 15.16 million sq km (5.85 million sq miles).

By comparison, this was 590,000 sq km (228,000 sq miles) below the average for the years 1979 to 2000, and 730,000 sq km (282,000 sq miles) above the record low of 2006.

and

“Thickness is important, especially in the winter, because it is the best overall indicator of the health of the ice cover,” said NSIDC scientist Walt Meier.

“As the ice cover in the Arctic grows thinner, it grows more vulnerable to melting in the summer.”

In the 1980s, thick multi-year ice made up 30-40% of the cover, the scientists say.

The summer minimum area is changing much faster than the winter maxima, shrinking by about 0.7% per year. Last year UK researchers showed that the ice has also markedly thinned in recent years.

The BBC story followed a series of press releases that the NSIDC started pumping out to journalists just as soon as the melt season had begun. This is what has popped up in our inbox this month so far:

April 1, 2009
Sea ice cover over the Arctic Ocean typically reaches its maximum geographic extent and thickness just as spring begins in the Northern Hemisphere. However, the winter maximum extent has been lower during the last six winters than at any other time during thirty years of satellite records. Scientists have also observed that ice thickness and age are changing. They will present their analyses of Arctic ice cover for the 2008 to 2009 winter season at the briefing.

6 April 2009
MEDIA ADVISORY: Update on Arctic Sea Ice Conditions
In conjunction with a NASA/NSIDC media teleconference today, NSIDC has issued an update to Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis describing winter sea ice conditions in the Arctic Ocean. To read the full analysis from NSIDC scientists, see http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/2009/040609.html
Supporting information for the media briefing is available on the NASA Web site at: http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/seaice_status09.html. Audio of the teleconference will be streamed live on the NASA Web site at http://www.nasa.gov/newsaudio.

April 8, 2009
Media Advisory: Ice Bridge Supporting Wilkins Ice Shelf Collapses
An ice bridge connecting the Wilkins Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula to Charcot Island has disintegrated. The event continues a series of breakups that began in March 2008 on the ice shelf, and highlights the effect that climate change is having on the region… [etc]

The press, of course, lap up these plot twists like there’s no tomorrow, using them to pack out column inches with stories about how there’s no tomorrow. Take the opening paragraph of the BBC piece:

Arctic ice reached a larger maximum area this winter than in the last few years, scientists say, but the long-term trend still shows it declining.

This is such an utter non-story – amounting to no more than ‘NSIDC have another year’s worth of winter Arctic ice data’ – that the only reason we can see for the BBC giving it the time of day is to guard against the possibility that people start filling their pretty heads with silly notions that the extent of summer Arctic sea ice varies from year to year, and that while it seems to have been reducing a bit over the last few decades, it hardly follows that it spells the end of the world as we know it.

We mentioned recently that climatological natural variation comes in two varieties. To repeat ourselves, there is the type that is ignored by ‘deniers’ asking awkward questions about recent temperature plateaus. And there’s the type that is to be disregarded for the sake of alarmist stories about single, aberrant weather events.

Both scientists and journalists are guilty of these double standards. And in the BBC piece, we have another prime example. While bending over backwards to stress that, due to natural variation, a single data point that is not as ominous as it could have been in an ideal world does not mean there’s nothing to worry about, the BBC is entirely reliant on ignoring that very same natural variation in order write something – anything – about the latest installment from the NSIDC. It regurgitates NSIDC graphs, complete with lines of best fit that reveal the underlying downward trend towards inevitable oblivion, without wondering why scientific predictions from the NSIDC and elsewhere about the future of Arctic ice are spread across a whole continent of ball parks each the size of Wales. (Estimates for the date of an ice-free Arctic summer – an arbitrary milestone that has nonetheless come to be understood as the signal hailing the Horsemen (Norsemen?) of the Arctic Apocalypse – range from 2008 to 2013, through 2030 to 2100 to some time in the next century, or some time after that.)

This NSIDC graph used by the BBC shows winter maximum sea ice extent:

Ignore natural variation, and what remains is a shallow downward trend that looks vaguely scary only because of the scale of the y axis. We’re just surprised that no one has thought to extrapolate it to come up with a date for when there’ll be no Arctic sea ice even in winter. (2320, by our reckoning. That’s got be worth a press release.)

Meanwhile, the x-axis comprises 30 years of satellite data, a period of time that barely even qualifies as a timescale over which changes in climate can be assessed with confidence. According to the UK Met Office:

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) requires the calculation of averages for consecutive periods of 30 years, with the latest covering the 1961-1990 period. However, many WMO members, including the UK, update their averages at the completion of each decade. Thirty years was chosen as a period long enough to eliminate year-to-year variations.

The NSIDC, like the BBC, has its own love-hate relationship with natural variation. Last year, we quoted from a classic NSIDC presser in which, in a single short paragraph comprising three sentences, they managed to both sex up 2008 as a potential record-breaker and warn us off getting over-excited by a single year’s data:

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.

The NSIDC is happy to provide a running commentary on the monthly ebbs and floes (ho ho) of ice behaviour, while simultaneously maintaining that only the long-term trend is important. It even goes as far as to provide daily pictorial updates of the state of the ice. As the link on the NSIDC homepage puts it:

Read year-round scientific analysis and see daily image updates of Arctic sea ice

We can certainly appreciate that updating the data set regularly is a great service for working scientists, but it is far less obvious how the pictures help anything. It’s a cheap exercise in outreach. Effectively, it just serves to turn esoteric research data into the subject of a salacious rolling news channel. It’s not as if NSIDC are not conscious of the problems involved in disseminating complex science to non-specialist audiences. When, last year, we asked the NSIDC’s Walt Meier why the center chose to present data showing only one of the two measures of Arctic ice cover that they collect (respectively known as ‘extent’ and ‘area’), when the presentation of both would perhaps reflect more realistically the complexity involved in taking such measurements (let alone using them to make predictions,), he told us:

When you’re talking to the public and the press and so forth […] adding ‘area’ into 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.

We wonder what could muddy the water of 30-year trends more than making a pictorial feature of daily installments of ice behaviour.

To an extent, the NSIDC’s hand has been forced. The Arctic has proved such fertile ground for alarmist opportunists (especially when terrestrial and orbiting thermometers are failing to provide headlines) that the NSIDC’s little blue lines on graphs are no longer the only game in town. Last year, self-proclaimed Arctic ambassador Lewis Pugh hit the headlines when he set off to canoe to the North Pole to raise awareness of the shrinking summer ice, although he went rather quiet – as did the media – after he failed miserably in his mission, having been blocked by summer ice. The NSIDC is also facing hot competition from the British Catlin Arctic Survey, which employs good old-fashioned Arctic explorers to do, we are told, what satellites cannot, which is to measure the thickness of Arctic sea ice. That’s the same thickness of Arctic sea ice that NSIDC tells us, without qualification, that satellites tell us is declining. No doubt the current state of knowledge regarding ice thickness lies somewhere between the two contrasting pictures painted by NSIDC and Catlin. But that these organisations are prepared to paint such simplistic pictures to raise awareness of their respective missions should itself set alarm bells ringing.

Who knows what twists and turns the NSIDC’s little blue line(s) will take this year? But it will be well worth tuning in to find out. It’s set to be good viewing. And don’t forget the Antarctic, which is now starting to feature in NSIDC press releases again having waited patiently in the wings for several seasons. The Wilkins ice shelf in particular is showing signs of restlesseness, a sub-plot that will no doubt feature more prominently should the Arctic not come up with the goods again.

Finally, as in all the best soap operas, the BBC leaves us with a cliff-hanger, courtesy of NSIDC’s Walt Meier:

NSIDC researchers believe that a warm summer could see a major melt.
“We’re not set up well for summertime,” said Dr Meier. “We’re in a very precarious situation.”

Precarious situation indeed. And not only for the reasons that Meier had in mind. It’s not just Arctic sea ice that’s on the line, but the reputation of a scientific discipline that has got distracted by the need to save us all from our sins. Tune in for the next episode. There might be a crucifixion.

Last July, we reported that Fat People Are Killing the Polar Bears.

In November we reported that Fat Swedish Men Are Killing the Polar Bears.

In April we reported that Fat Polar Bears are Killing the Penguins.

In May we reported that Fat People are Killing the Butterflies and the polar bears again.

According to CNN:

Polar bears resort to cannibalism as Arctic ice shrinks

The article isn’t about polar bears at all, but about 2008’s Arctic sea ice extent – which failed to be worse than last year’s. But who gives a toss about ice cubes when there are charismatic mega fauna to write news bulletins about?

“The Arctic sea ice melt is a disaster for the polar bears,” according to Kassie Siegel, staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “They are dependent on the Arctic sea ice for all of their essential behaviors, and as the ice melts and global warming transforms the Arctic, polar bears are starving, drowning, even resorting to cannibalism because they don’t have access to their usual food sources.”

Scientists have noticed increasing reports of starving Arctic polar bears attacking and feeding on one another in recent years. In one documented 2004 incident in northern Alaska, a male bear broke into a female’s den and killed her.

This is Disney for grown-ups. Evil fat people in SUVs force cuddly, friendly, vegetarian, and not at all vicious, nasty creature to perform a sadistic act of murder, just for dinner.

It’s telling that a story about Arctic ice extent has to feature fluffy bears. It’s a sure sign that the storyteller doesn’t credit the audience with the brains to be able to work out that it’s a bad thing for themselves. If you don’t care about finer points of cryospheric crisis, won’t you please, please, please think of the cutesy animals?

More animal-related madness….

What is the future for Arctic sea ice? Some scientists believe that in just five years, the Arctic may be ice-free during the summer.

“The Arctic is kind of the early warning system of the climate,” Meier said. “It is the canary in the coal mine, and the canary is definitely in trouble.”

Meier isn’t one of the scientists who believe that Arctic summer ice will be gone in just five years, as we revealed earlier this month. However, he doesn’t seem to be doing much to correct such transparently ridiculous reporting. And as we said last week, when everything… penguins, migratory birds, the Antarctic, the Arctic, Tuvalu, sea turtles, Kenyan pastoralists, islands, polar bears, Australian ski resorts, US ski resorts, Australian vineyards, Napa Valley vineyards, Canada’s Inuit, Alaska, mountain ecosystems, tropical ice-caps, Greenland, pika, naturists, the Bering Sea, intertidal zones, coral reefs, to name but a few… are all cited as ‘canaries’, then the whole wide world becomes a cage.

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.

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