A Melting Arctic and the Sowers of Doubt

NASA image of research in the Arctic.

NASA image of research in the Arctic—scientists sampling melt-water ponds.

Mr. X mentioned to me the other day that part of our problems with environmental policy stem from the fact that thinkers of the far-right seem to truly believe that climate change isn’t happening, or that it doesn’t matter. I’m not so sure, but I admit that I could be underestimating the anti-science worldview that seems relatively prevalent in some of these groups. But whether or not those purported skeptics “at the top” truly believe in their positions, it is quite clear that they are able to use money to manipulate public opinion further down the chain.

This issue came up with me last week, when three things happened, all in a row, and all related to Arctic ice. First, I happened upon an article in Forbes magazine from March, entitled “Updated NASA Data: Global Warming not Causing any Polar Ice Retreat“. Written by James Taylor, and linked to a graph of satellite data, it claims that any melting of polar ice caps is quite slight, and no cause for alarm (I did some research on this article; I’ll come back to that in a minute). Then, a few days later I happened to be talking to, well, let’s just say a “close relative”, who in the last decade seems to have come increasingly under the sway of far-right media. To my amazement, when the conversation turned to climate change, he began listing off point after point from the Forbes article, though without mentioning it by name. Then, thing #3—an in-depth report in the newest issue of National Geographic, on, drum roll… melting in the Arctic.

So, let’s take a quick look at how these three things intersect.

Composite image of Arctic sea-ice minimum in 2012, the lowest on record. The nine smallest areas on record have been in the last nine years.

Composite image from NASA of the Arctic sea-ice minimum in 2012, the lowest on record. The yellow line shows the average minimum extent over the last thirty years. The nine smallest areas on record have been in the last nine years. The smallest maximum extent on record was this year, in March of 2015.

First, the Forbes article. Well, even before that—Forbes magazine itself, described by one reviewer as “a conservative magazine for old-money types“. I would agree, the publication seems to be a bastion for climate deniers and right-wing market-worshipers. From experience, when I see articles published there, I immediately view them with suspicion; the magazine as a whole seems to have an agenda, similar to that of The Wall Street Journal.

Needless to say, the article by James Taylor bears out this pattern. Taylor works for a group called The Heartland Institute, and The Heartland Institute is in turn funded by, more drum rolls… Exxon-Mobil, the Koch brothers, and a host of other right-wing groups. This “think tank” spends its money trying to deny climate change, repeal legislation supporting renewable energy, advance hydraulic fracturing, and fight tobacco regulation. According to Greenpeace, Exxon-Mobil gave The Heartland Institute nearly $800,000 in recent years.

And, the article bears out this bias. By cherry-picking data and telling half-truths, Taylor’s article isn’t even close to objective journalism. He cleverly uses “global sea ice data” instead of Arctic data, (the Antarctic is melting, too, losing 100 billion tons of ice a year), but for a variety of reasons the area of ice is changing more slowly there). Then, he disregards data about the volume and age of ice at the poles, choosing to focus on area alone (I’ll come back to this in a minute). He links to data from the University of Illinois Polar Research Group, but that group has refuted his conclusions (a more-complete analysis of Taylor’s article here).

Note, 24 Dec 2015— Here’s actual data for Northern Hemisphere ice extent, from the same University of Illinois site that Taylor references. Zoom in and scroll across the graph– you don’t need to be a PhD climatologist to interpret this. Note that there isn’t a single data point above the 1979-2008 average since 2004, and that the 2012 minimum was nearly 3 million sq. km below the average.

Note #2– I’m continuing to look into the graph Taylor chose, of global sea ice extent. Arctic ice losses on that graph are masked by increases in Antarctic sea ice. A variety of mechanism have been put forth to explain the increase in Antarctic sea ice, and none are related to it being colder there—both sea temperatures and air temperatures are rising around the South Pole. More importantly, Antarctic is losing land ice faster than it is gaining it. (Link to in-depth data for all this.) I can see now why others have referred to Taylor as “cherry-picking” data. Of the twenty or more graphs on the site that clearly show a warming planet, Taylor chose the one graph that, because it involves two separate things that partially cancel each other out, appears to show that no changes have occurred.

So you can look into it yourself if you’d like, but it’s clear to me that we have a slanted, purposefully-biased article here, written to support an agenda in service of the very rich, of fossil-fuel companies, and of those who profit from the status-quo. And guess what? It’s been viewed nearly a million times. My guess is that the article (and others like it) have been picked up by far-right media outlets, where they have been disseminated as unvarnished truth (I can imagine Rush Limbaugh’s voice now, discussing the piece).  Eventually such coverage reaches the likes of my “close relative”, and has its intended effect, likely contributing to his decision to actively oppose the wind power industry.

So what is a more clear-headed, rational, objective take on what’s happening with global ice? Well, it’s melting; there aren’t many other ways to put it. Arctic sea ice is melting, Antarctic land ice is melting,  Greenland’s ice is melting, and glaciers worldwide are melting. I won’t try to recap the entire National Geographic article about the Arctic (the link again—“Extreme Research Shows how Arctic Ice is Dwindling“—well-worth reading), but some quick highlights here—since 1979 (when satellite measurement began) Arctic ice has lost half its volume, ecosystems for everything from polar bears to tiny shrimp are being impacted, and much of the ice that is now there in winter is “new ice”, only a few feet thick, whereas much of it in years past was  twelve or more feet thick and many years old. That, and the fact that open sea absorbs 93% of sunlight that hits it, compared to 15% for ice, which virtually assures at this point that melting will continue. The Arctic could be ice-free in the summer by the year 2040, if current trends continue.

Rivers of meltwater in Greenland, transporting water to the sea. 2015 NASA photo.

Rivers of meltwater in Greenland, transporting water to the sea. 2015 NASA photo. According to NASA, Greenland’s ice sheets are melting at an increasing rate in recent years.

In the end, I’m not sure what the lessons are here. Perhaps, more than anything, is to remain aware that there are groups out there who have worked, and continue to work, to undermine the scientific consensus, in order to advance their own agendas. That, and a reminder that virtually all information, (including this non-profit blog), reflects somebody’s point of view. Read a lot, think a lot, and use your critical-thinking abilities to gauge which sources are likely to be trusted, and which are likely to be slanted. And if there’s any good news here at all, it could be my feeling that reason and rationality nearly always win out in the long-term. Keep thinking out there.

Top image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, “Sampling Melting Ponds”, Flickr Creative Commons. Image has been cropped.
2012 graphic: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, “Arctic Sea Ice Hits Smallest Extent in Satellite Era”, Flickr Creative Commons.
Greenland: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, “greenland_summer_campaign_3”, 2015, Flickr Creative Commons.