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NYT editors confused about Arctic warming

By Joe Romm on September 8, 2008 at 12:16 pm

"NYT editors confused about Arctic warming"

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Here’s the absurd headline for the online version of Revkin’s NY Times story about how “a ring of navigable waters has opened all around the fringes of the cap of sea ice drifting on the warming Arctic Ocean”:

Arctic Ice Hints at Warming, Specialists Say

Hints?! How about “shouts from the rafters.” After seeing that, I thought “here we go again” (see “Note to media: Enough with the multiple hedges on climate science!“). Then I saw the print headline:

Warmth Opens Arctic Routes, Experts Say

Now that is a good headline — accurate and no punches pulled, not misleading and wishy-washy. The story itself, however, is still too wishy-washy on the issue of warming:

Global warming from the continuing buildup of human-generated greenhouse gases is almost certainly contributing to the ice retreats, many Arctic specialists now agree, although they hold a variety of views on how much of the recent big ice retreats is due to human activity.

That is only a little better than the multiple hedges in Revkin’s last story:

Even with the increasing summer retreats of sea ice, which many polar scientists say probably are being driven in part by global warming caused by humans…

But it isn’t even as good as the statement Revkin posted on the comments section from a 2007 article with an even punchier headline, “Arctic Melt Unnerves the Experts“:

More than a dozen experts said in interviews that the extreme summer ice retreat had revealed at least as much about what remains unknown in the Arctic as what is clear. Still, many of those scientists said they were becoming convinced that the system is heading toward a new, more watery state, and that human-caused global warming is playing a significant role.

Still a lot of hedges — “many” and “becoming convinced” — but the key phrase here is “significant role.” That obviously beats the heck out of “Arctic Ice Hints at Warming” or “almost certainly contributing” or “probably are being driven in part.” After all, they could all mean a 1% contribution or a 1% part.

Again, virtually all climate scientists I know think human-caused global warming is playing a significant, if not the dominant, role in the steadily increasing summer ice retreat of the last quarter century. It would be nice if the paper of record — and its online editor — would make that clearer to the American public.

Penultimate note: I am using the phrase “the steadily increasing summer ice retreat of the last quarter century,” since that is the key climate trend. Revkin uses the phrase “recent big ice retreats,” but those retreats are simply part of — and made possible by — the long-term trend, which again the vast majority of climate scientists believe is largely driven by human-caused global warming.

Final note: Why did I write that the recent big ice retreats were “made possible by” the long-term human-caused warming trend? Because that is what the scientific literature says (see “What drove the dramatic retreat of arctic sea ice during summer 2007?“). Let me quote from the Geophysical Research Letters (subs. req’d) analysis by four scientists from the Polar Science Center, Applied Physics Laboratory, College of Ocean and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle:

A model study has been conducted of the unprecedented retreat of arctic sea ice in the summer of 2007. It is found that preconditioning, anomalous winds, and ice-albedo feedback are mainly responsible for the retreat. Arctic sea ice in 2007 was preconditioned to radical changes after years of shrinking and thinning in a warm climate.The Arctic Ocean lost additional (sic) 10% of its total ice mass in which 70% is due directly to the amplified melting and 30% to the unusual ice advection, causing the unprecedented ice retreat. Arctic sea ice has entered a state of being particularly vulnerable to anomalous atmospheric forcing.

I’d recommend any reporter who is writing on the subject to omit their multiply-hedged version and just say something like this:

As a June 2008 analysis by four polar scientists concluded, Arctic sea ice has become “preconditioned to radical changes after years of shrinking and thinning in a warm climate.

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3 Responses to NYT editors confused about Arctic warming

  1. mauri pelto says:

    The term preconditioning is a term that you are seeing quite often. The Larsen Ice Sheet was preconditioned for retreat by thinning (Scambos and Glasser), the Wilkins Ice Shelf was preconditioned by thinning (Humbert and Braun). The marine terminating outlet glaciers Jakobshavns and Helheim among others have been preconditioned by thinning (many including Howat, Joughin, Sole, Bamber, Pelto, Thomas etc.). The breakup of the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf and Markham Ice Shelf has been preconditioned for breakup by warming. Each paper documents thinning due to warming of some glacier. The final step is the condition. The disappearance of the Boulder, Lyall, Spider, Whitechuck Glaciers etc. was due to warmer conditions (Fagre and Pelto).

  2. Rod Adams says:

    Joe:

    It is my humble opinion that some of the warming that would have occurred during the past 20 years has been “mitigated” by the fact that China and India (along with a few other smaller contributors) have largely built their growing economies on burning coal in power stations without any bag houses to capture fly ash or scrubbers to remove sulfur oxides.

    Both fly ash and SOx essentially result in a dirty greenhouse that is not quite as effective in heating as one with the same amount of CO2 but less of the dirt. We all saw the photos of what many parts of China look like on normal days, but friends who have spend time on the Pacific have told me that they see that kind of smokey haze routinely heading east.

    Much is made in the denier literature of steady or even slightly lowering temperature trends during certain carefully selected periods. Similar pauses in global warming can be roughly correlated to other periods of industrialization where the most common form of increasing power consumption was a dirty fuel with few controls. The temperatures start climbing rapidly once the pollution advances to the point where it hurts (think London in the 1930s-60s, Pittsburgh in the 1940s-60s, and now Beijing) and controls are put into place.

    Once China and India start cleaning up their coal emissions, I worry about how rapidly the warming will occur since it is still happening even with the shade produced by the particles and ash.

  3. David Lewis says:

    When you posted on Dot Earth telling Andy Revkin you viewed his “quadruple hedged climate impact attribution” as unacceptable, and “four hedges is at least two too many”, he responded by naming six “leading scientists in this field who would NOT say there is sufficient evidence to conclude that human-caused global warming IS the main cause” and saying he would post their responses.

    I had found his original hedged statement incredible as well but I had not responded before you posted. So I monitored the blog for weeks, periodically posting reminding Andy he had yet to come up with any responses from his stable of scientists. As far as I know he never did.

    I made an argument based on the WMO definition of climate, i.e. 30 years of records, selected a record set consisting of every year since industrial civilization began, I stated there were no records before this century of a navigable NorthWest Passage, therefore I concluded there was proof that climate had changed. Then, I referred him to Hansen, who I said laughs at the caveats the IPCC comes up with when they explain what is causing the warming they’ve stated is unequivocal.

    He did write differently about the Arctic ice the next time I observed him writing about it. I believe he used the words “almost certainly”.

    I have concluded, perhaps unfairly, that there is editorial direction imposed on the reporting on climate in the NY Times.