A new study by scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography finds that the Arctic sea may go ice free in the summer faster than previous models had projected. Somehow climate deniers took this to mean something completely different.
Climate science deniers, such as those at the website “Daily Caller,” are touting this study because they think it says the Arctic will soon reverse its death spiral. As I’ll explain below, that’s not what the study says. The study’s actual authors confirmed to me, “In short, what you write here regarding our study is correct, and the Daily Caller article that you link to is incorrect.”
The Daily Caller writes, “But new research from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography says that predictions of an ice-free Arctic are based on ‘oversimplified’ theories.” That isn’t what the study says at all, as noted above. In fact, the very first line of the study says, “Arctic sea ice is undergoing a striking, closely monitored, and highly publicized decline.”
While I was accessing the Daily Caller story, “‘Irreversible’ Arctic Ice Loss Seems To Be Reversing Itself,” I got a pop-up:
Yes, it is true the Daily Caller’s version “doesn’t fit the liberal media’s narrative,” mostly because the “liberal media” tries to get the story right.
That the deniers are wrong is no surprise, but why are they so confused? Well, the Scripps news release is not written very clearly, especially the headlines. So if you don’t read the whole release, and if you don’t actually read the study or talk to the authors — and if you are prone to getting things wrong in general — well, you’ll definitely mess up this kind of story about climate science.
The most important part of the release — in fact the only part of the release that is actually both clear and important — is the final paragraph, which quotes the lead author, Dr. Till Wagner:
“Our results show that the basis for a sea ice tipping point doesn’t hold up when these additional processes are considered,” said Wagner. “In other words, no tipping point is likely to devour what’s left of the Arctic summer sea ice. So if global warming does soon melt all the Arctic sea ice, at least we can expect to get it back if we somehow manage to cool the planet back down again.”
The interesting conclusion from the study from the scientists’ viewpoint (and Scripps’) was that a more sophisticated model of the Arctic found that contrary to previous models, the ice loss is not, technically, irreversible. If you could somehow reverse temperatures on the earth, the ice would come back. But in practice it is all but impossible to get temperatures back down again.
Heck, we’ve got another 1° Fahrenheit baked in just because it takes a while for the climate system to come into equilibrium. And unless we cut global greenhouse gas emissions to zero by mid-century, we can’t avoid another 1°F after that. And, unless we stop listening to climate science deniers like those at the Daily Caller, we will add another 5°F or more after that. Bye bye summer ice and possibly virtually all the ice year-round!
The scientific literature is quite clear that warming-driven temperature rise is irreversible on a time scale of centuries. As the world’s top scientists explained in November in their final IPCC synthesis report summarizing the scientific literature: “Surface temperatures will remain approximately constant at elevated levels for many centuries after a complete cessation of net anthropogenic CO2 emissions”!
In spite of that reality, the Scripps headline is “Research Highlight: Arctic Sea Ice Loss Likely To Be Reversible.” The sub-hed is “Scenarios of a sea ice tipping point leading to a permanently ice-free Arctic Ocean were based on oversimplified arguments.”
Bad and worse.
A more accurate headline would be “Arctic Sea Ice Loss Reversible — But Only In Theory.” Not a great headline but at least it avoids the impression that Arctic sea ice loss is likely to be reversed when it isn’t.
The sub-hed is simply so torturously written as to be unfixable. Most people might think that a “tipping point” is the point beyond which — in the real world — the Arctic death spiral is unstoppable. In the real world, we are at or very close to that point. For the authors and Scripps, “tipping point” is a technical term meaning the point beyond which a change is theoretically irreversible. In that sense, again, the Arctic sea isn’t “permanently” ice free since we could — in theory — cool the planet back down to the temperatures of last century and the ice would come back. But as the IPCC literature summary makes clear, it would take super-aggressive climate action starting ASAP — precisely what the deniers oppose — to even have a shot at stabilizing sea ice near current levels.
One final note: Comprehensive global climate models (GCMs) had projected the complete loss of summer ice to occur at 4°C of annual warming in the northern hemisphere. The Scripps scientists model of Arctic ice loss found, “The model becomes seasonally ice-free at 2°C of warming.” The authors explained to me “Our model is pretty idealized, so a factor of 2 in the sensitivity is expected to be well within the uncertainty.” In theory, then, the Arctic might not become ice free until warming hits 4°C. Then again, it could become ice free before warming hits 2°C. Given that we have warmed under 1°C, and we’ve already lost the overwhelming majority of Arctic sea ice volume at the summer minimum, it seems increasingly likely sensitivity is actually below 2°C.
This post has been updated.