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New York Times runs absurdly misleading headline on Revkin’s sea level rise (non)story

By Joe Romm  

"New York Times runs absurdly misleading headline on Revkin’s sea level rise (non)story"

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Study Halves Prediction of Rising Seas

You have got to be kidding me. Just for the record, the study doesn’t actually alter the “prediction of rising seas” in your lifetime — or your grandchildren’s lifetimes — one inch.

UPDATE:  Someone read me the print headline, which is equally dreadful (if not worse):  “Study projects seas rising by half of earlier forecasts.“  Not!

More accurate would be Reuters, “West Antarctic ice threat revised down; still dire.“  It’s a good headline because it is specific and focuses on what matters to readers.

Time‘s headline — Sea Level Rise Overestimated, But Things Still Look Grim — is not as good as Reuter’s because it drops the specificity about Antarctica (and thus creates ambiguity), but it is better than the NYT‘s, since it again focuses on the bottom line to readers.

This study is not about a projection of “sea level rise” or “rising seas” as most people understand those terms and as those terms have been widely used, which is to say, a projection of sea level rise in a time frame people care about — namely the rest of this century.  More important, most every recent study that does make such projections has sharply increased expected SLR this century compared to the 2007 IPCC “consensus” forecast, as I discuss below.

Let’s simply assert that what my father taught me — and what legions of editors know — is true:  A large fraction of people never get beyond the headline.  And even fewer get past the first paragraph.

Now if you read the Reuters lede, you’d learn something:

A meltdown of West Antarctica’s ice sheet would raise sea levels by half as much as previously expected, but the impact would still be catastrophic, especially for U.S. coastal cities, a study showed.

Yes.

Here’s what you “learn” from Revkin’s lede:

A new analysis halves longstanding projections of how much sea levels could rise if Antarctica’s massive western ice sheets fully disintegrated as a result of global warming.

Given the terrible headline, it’s just not acceptable to have to wait to the second paragraph to learn:

The flow of ice into the sea would probably raise sea levels about 10 feet rather than 20 feet, according to the analysis, published in the May 15 issue of the journal Science.

Frankly, this whole study is so irrelevant to anyone living today or their grandchildren that I wasn’t even going to blog on it.

Buried in the story, Revkin finally tells you what actually matters most of all:

It [the study] did not assess the pace or the likelihood of a rise in seas.

Doh!  Talk about burying the lede.

The headline for Revkin’s blog is much better, “A New View of Antarctic Melting,” but not terribly sexy.

Although you wouldn’t know it from Revkin’s story, we actually have a lot of recent (i.e. post-IPCC) studies that did “assess the pace or the likelihood of a rise in seas”:

The reason the misleading NYT headline is so journalistically bad is that the real news story of the past two years justifies a headline like this:

Multiple studies more than double prediction of rising seas this century

Just for the record, in that first study, “Kinematic Constraints on Glacier Contributions to 21st-Century Sea-Level Rise” — which may be the most thorough recent projection (though it is also an underestimate, as I’ll blog later) — in the catastrophic case of 2.0 meters SLR by 2100, only 0.62 meters of sea level rise comes from all of Antarctica!

That’s right,  utterly catastrophic sea level rise could occur this century — indeed almost certainly will on our business as usual emissions path — with exceedingly little contribution from Antarctica.  So what the frig does it matter whether the disintegration of just the West Antarctic ice sheet might only raise sea levels 10 feet, as opposed to 20?

The entire study is barely news — if by news we are talking amount stuff that might matter to anybody living (or their grandchildren). But then to turn it into a major news story in the paper of record with a grossly distorted headline that will mislead the many readers who go no further or who stop at the first paragraph is just shameful.  I mean, it’s not like the NYT is overflowing with stories day after day on climate.  Global warming coverage in any major newspaper is a scarce commodity.

Oh, and if you read the whole Revkin story, you’ll learn this:

Robert Bindschadler, a specialist in polar ice at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said the study provided only a low estimate of Antarctica’s possible long-term contribution to rising seas because it did not deal with other mechanisms that could add water to the ocean.

So the study might be wrong, anyway.

And finally, the most important points of all are left to the very end:

The prime question, he said, remains what will happen in the next 100 years or so, and other recent work implies that a lot of ice can be shed within that time.

“Even in Bamber’s world,” he said, referring to the study’s lead author, “there is more than enough ice to cause serious harm to the world’s coastlines.”

For those who are truly interested in this mostly irrelevant study, here is the link to it, “Reassessment of the Potential Sea-Level Rise from a Collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet” (subs. req’d), and here’s the abstract:

Theory has suggested that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet may be inherently unstable. Recent observations lend weight to this hypothesis. We reassess the potential contribution to eustatic and regional sea level from a rapid collapse of the ice sheet and find that previous assessments have substantially overestimated its likely primary contribution. We obtain a value for the global, eustatic sea-level rise contribution of about 3.3 meters, with important regional variations. The maximum increase is concentrated along the Pacific and Atlantic seaboard of the United States, where the value is about 25% greater than the global mean, even for the case of a partial collapse.

My main goal in this blog is to save you time by focusing on what is important to know about climate science (and climate solutions and politics).  This study wasn’t.  The miscoverage is the only story here.

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20 Responses to New York Times runs absurdly misleading headline on Revkin’s sea level rise (non)story

  1. oxnardprof says:

    Thanks for blogging on this. I saw the article as well, and my reaction wsa pretty much the same as yours. I wondered about ‘only’ 10 feet of sea level rise due to Antartic ice.

    It seems that the reporting is published study by published study. I think it is irresponsible not to tie studies together; how does the most recent scientific study tie in with the body of literature.

    This is the source of the whiplash the general public must feel from much of mainstream media reporting on scientific literature.

  2. Martin Hedberg says:

    Why don’t we spend some more time talking about time-frame of interest? It really makes sense when we discuss changes like sea-level rise, acidification, civilisations etc.

    In the paper by Lenton et. al. about tipping elements (http://www.pnas.org/content/105/6/1786.full). they talk about “political time horizon” as well as “ethical time horizon”. They argue for 100 years as a relevant time horizon (but/and noticing that 1000 years would be relevant due to the lifetime of civilisations).

    The number is not so interesting as the arguments for that number.

    I think we have good reasons to believe that the West Antarctic will collapse. Are we to feel any responsibility if it happens 2099, but not if it happens 2101 or 2200? Maybe it will happen the year 2500, can we care?

    Or put it another way: What is the timeframe of our responsibility, given what we know today?

    PS. We made it happen (continuing doing what we do today will make it happen or it is already a latent change caused by what we already did). Does it matter WHEN it unfolds? DS.

  3. Mark Shapiro says:

    Joe,

    There’s more misreporting of yesterday’s non-story about the OMB memo to the EPA about its CO2 finding. (Apologies if you’ve covered this article.)

    John Broder, in NYT’s greeninc blog starts:

    “The Environmental Protection Agency ignored major economic and scientific questions in its April proposal to regulate carbon dioxide and other climate-altering gases, according to an internal government critique.”

    greeninc.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/12/epas-greenhouse-gas-proposal-critiqued/

    Worse yet was the behavior of Sen. Barrasso (R-WY) hounding Lisa Jackson about the memo, calling it a “smoking gun”. Joe McCarthy couldn’t have been slimier. Barrasso is atrocious.

  4. lizardo says:

    (Friday am): NPR is doing a story on west antarctic ice sheet collapse and “swamping of coastal cities” during the 6 am news hour portion (possibly repeat during 8-9 am. We’ll see how that goes….

  5. This problem isn’t just limited to climate change–most science, technology and business reporters fail to understand the core of their job: to accurately synthesize highly specialized information for the non-specialist. Credit default swaps and similar nonsense never would have happened if anyone understood them.

    I believe that crises are always opportunities, and if you think the climate is in trouble… look at the current economic model for journalism! Perhaps the collapse of papers offers a new way of looking at journalism that is much more responsive to our increasingly complex set of problems.

  6. Leland Palmer says:

    We use a lot of words to describe our press, such as shameful and pitiful.

    But many of us are reluctant to come to the final conclusion that we are dealing with a deliberately deceptive controlled press.

    This is not just “bad” press coverage.

    This is a controlled press.

    Anybody think that this sort of “bad” coverage by the NYT is just accidental?

  7. Anne says:

    More really crappy / controlled press, with lede saved for last.

    Bloomberg

    http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601124&sid=aybKq5T2Ek2o&refer=home

    West Antarctic’s Sea-Level Rise May Be Overstated, Study Shows

    By Alex Morales

    May 15 (Bloomberg) — The collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would contribute 3.3 meters (11 feet) to the rise in sea levels over hundreds of years, about half as much as previous estimates, a U.K.-led team of researchers found.

    Disintegration of the floating ice shelves surrounding the sheet, which is grounded, would open the way to melting, the researchers, led by Jonathan Bamber, a glaciologist at the University of Bristol, said today in the journal Science. That melting would lead to a rise in sea levels that’s much less than scientists estimated, Bamber said.

    “There’s a vast body of research that’s looked at the likelihood of a West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapse and what implications such a catastrophic event would have for the globe,” Bamber said in a statement. “All of these studies have assumed a 5-meter to 6-meter contribution to sea-level rise. Our calculations show those estimates are much too large.”

    Bamber’s team said that while tracts of ice grounded below sea level would float upwards and break up if the ice shelves holding them disintegrated, portions of ice attached to land above sea level will stay frozen, contrary to earlier estimates.

    Antarctica is divided into two main ice sheets: east and west. The continent as a whole holds enough ice to raise sea levels by 57 meters, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says. While the larger eastern sheet is largely stable, glaciers on the western sheet have accelerated their flow in recent years amid global warming and ice shelves surrounding it have broken up.

    The western ice sheet’s contribution to sea-level rise won’t be uniform across the globe, Bamber’s team also found, noting that because of gravitational effects, the Indian Ocean and the U.S. Pacific and Atlantic coasts would have more sea- level rise than the rest of the world.

    “The pattern of sea-level rise is independent of how fast or how much of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapses,” Bamber said. “Even if the WAIS contributed only a meter of sea level rise over many years, sea levels along North America’s shorelines would still increase 25 percent more than the global average.”

    To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Morales in London at amorales2@bloomberg.net.
    Last Updated: May 15, 2009 07:38 EDT

  8. ecostew says:

    In the same issue of “Science”

    Perspectives
    “Ocean Science: Ice Sheet Stability and Sea Level by Erik Ivins”

    “The good news is that the predicted globally uniform sea-level rise of 3.2 m is roughly half the predicted value quoted for the past 30 years. But the bad news is that some regions, including North America and the southern Indian Ocean, will experience enhanced inundation (by as much as ~0.4 m with respect to the global mean) due to changes in the gravity field and moments of inertia of Earth compared to present-day values.”

    “The observed accelerations of ice outflux into the Amundsen Sea Embayment in Antarctica are potentially more ominous (18). Should the ice sheet grounding line migrate farther inland, ice resting on bedrock well below sea level could become unstable (see the figure). The time scale of the fully manifested instability cannot currently be predicted.”

  9. The NPR piece, by Bob Harris, was really really excellent. It gave it all the right context, timelines, etc.–a model of good reporting

  10. Andy says:

    There are lots of problems with these news stories. I guess it will all come out in the next year or so.

    What this new study is discussing is the amount of the WAIS that is grounded below sea level versus that which is grounded above sea level. Basically they documented that half of it is grounded above sea level and therefore; these researchers assume, it is not subject to catastrophic failure. Bindschadler isn’t so sure. Glacial ice can move pretty darn fast. Therefore it is a little premature to state that only half of the WAIS is subject to quick melting (within several hundred years).

    Also, the 25% additional rise along North America is misleading in that it will take thousands of years to realize this. This additional rise will occur as the earth’s semi-liquid mantle, and the continents that float on top of it, respond to the loss of weight over Antarctica. A very slow process.

    I’m starting to think that universities and research institutes shouldn’t put out news releases with every new research publication. Rather a meeting once a year (a committee within the AGU?) could produce a yearly report on new stuff, tempored by the many different voices of the research community.

  11. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi ecostew-

    The time scale of the fully manifested instability cannot currently be predicted.

    Most scientists will tell you that trying to predict stuff like this is essentially impossible. Intensive and correct computer modeling gives you a range of possibilities, not any sort of certainty.

    It’s the only biosphere we’ve got. Caution is indicated, not commercially or geopolitically motivated recklessness.

    I’m convinced that powerful elites inside the U.S. actually want the Arctic ice to melt so that we can drill for oil and gas under our current polar icecap. I’m convinced that those same elites hope to limit Antarctic melting to acceptable levels. This is hubris of the highest order, IMO. I don’t thing we can go after these Arctic “resources” without destroying our biosphere.

    From the Council on Foreign Relations website, from an op-ed article in the New York Times by Scott Borgerson:

    An Ice Cold War

    http://www.cfr.org/publication/14007/icecold_war.html

    Russia isn’t alone in the great Arctic race. Thawing of the Arctic ice cap has opened access to billions of tons of oil and gas, valuable minerals like gold and platinum and untapped fishing stocks, and all the countries bordering the Arctic are staking a claim. Denmark has spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars to prove that the Arctic once was attached to Greenland, its possession. Finland, Norway and Iceland also have their eyes on the Arctic. And Canada is spending $7 billion to build a fleet of armed Arctic patrol vessels.

    Mr. Borgerson, claiming to be acting as a private citizen and in his capacity as a visiting fellow at the CFR, has written a series of such articles in Foreign Affairs and the NYT, touting exploitation of Arctic resources, and has in fact testified before Congress, before the House Foreign Relations Committee.

    His message is always the same- the Arctic is melting, it doesn’t matter why, and we need to compete for Arctic resources with Russia. And he keeps hinting we need a fleet of nuclear powered ice breaker ships (costing a billion dollars each) to “compete” with Russia over Arctic resources.

    The Council on Foreign Relations has been dominated by David Rockefeller and his father J.D. Rockefeller Jr. for several decades. The CFR is immensely influential, and it’s journal Foreign Affairs is often considered to be the voice of our Financial Establishment. The Rockefeller family still has sufficient control over ExxonMobil to recently arrange the firing of its CEO, Lee Raymond.

    I read Mr. Borgerson’s articles as essentially the voice of the half trillion dollar corporation ExxonMobil, and of the 2.5 trillion dollar JPMorgan/Chase. And finally, completing the circle, the New York Times, which has been the flagship paper of the Eastern financial establishment for decades.

    Now, it turns out that the NYT is actively engaging in deceptive reporting on this issue. How could that be? How could the paper that was so wrong for so long on WMD and the Iraq issue, and that led the charge into Iraq, and that led the deceptive reporting on our “financial crisis” be guilty of deceptive reporting in this case, too?

    Could it be that the official line of the paper is influenced by the 90 billion barrels of oil, worth maybe 10 trillion dollars, that our financial elites think are available under the Arctic icecap?

  12. Jim Beacon says:

    I feel part of this is the desire in the mass media to “publish some good news about climate change projections”. There has been so much bad news that editors are probably actively seeking ways to put a positive spin on anything even remotely like good news. That this will only confuse the issue in the public mind is probably irrelevant as far as meeting their daily publication needs goes.

    I think we are also seeing a kind of study flood from climate scientists as a result of the “publish or perish” mechanism. Seems there’s a new sea level rise study out every month or so, each with a different estimate. The only consensus is that it is going to be bad, so what’s the point of tossing around a new set of numbers all the time? That helps the deniers with their wishful thinking logic that “since scientists and their computer models don’t agree with each other, why should we believe any of them?”

    I understand “publish or perish” is an integal part of the funding process for scientific research, but for the mass media to report on every single new study that comes out is probably counter productive. Even so, there’s obviously nothing to be done about that other than what Joe has been doing all along: Point out the errors and misstatements in their reporting when they make them.

    But it’s a hell of a way to run an information super highway, if you ask me…

  13. paulm says:

    I guess the Waxman climate bill can be watered down some more now.

  14. Ditto paulm.

    The Times’ headline was entirely accurate and totally deceptive at the same time. I wonder how many people will form a judgement based solely on the headline and never read far enough down in the piece to realize their initial impression was wrong. (Or they might lack the context to understand it in the first place.)

    So, say that’s 50% of the people who saw the piece. Or even a third. Then, on its face, it failed as a piece of journalism.

    I’m sure it will play well among denialists and delayers.

  15. cougar_w says:

    “I’m sure it will play well among denialists and delayers.”

    Indeed. I’m relatively confident that close to 100% of my neighbors (upper middle class neighborhood, San Jose, CA) are denialists and delayers of one stripe or another (many are techno-utopians) primarily because they intend to defend their current lifestyles to the very end.

    The amount of cognitive dissonance at work across all strata of society is quite alarming. I see very little discussion of this in the media, I suspect because they are relying on that disconnect to keep their presses turning. One does not bite the lie that feeds you.

  16. Dorothy says:

    On time frames, we humans don’t understand big numbers very well. Just ask anyone if they would be willing to count to a trillion seconds and listen to the answers you’ll get. Most will say, “no … because it will take me the rest of my life.” (It would take about 31,700 years, actually)

    What humans do grasp is their own life span. When they think of their children’s and grandchildren’s, it starts to get fuzzy.

    They feel good about buying “Seventh Generation” toilet paper, without having a clue if there will even be seven more generation of humans. The company might consider playing it safe and changing its name to “Third Generation.” This might help as a wake-up call.

    Thank you to Joe for voicing the outrage so many of us feel.

  17. Mark Shapiro says:

    What cougar_w says:

    “One does not bite the lie that feeds you.”

  18. Phil Eisner says:

    The U.S. mass media has an almost impossible job when they attempt to report on scientific topics. Even if their own reporters are competent, almost all of their readers are not! Most people in the U.S., even if they have graduated college, have never taken a science course after high school. They have a tough time reading several paragraphs explaining a complex scientific topic such as those that have developed around global warming.

    Hopefully, U.S. senators and representatives have staff members and/or advisors that can help them understand the science behind climate change and global warming. Otherwise………. !??

  19. David B. Benson says:

    From “Melting Threat From West Antarctic Ice Sheet May Be Less Than Expected; But U.S. Coastal Cities At Risk”:
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090514153032.htm
    I conclude their estimate is too small. They have assumed that ice bedded on land sloping upwards inland, even if below sea level, is not a risk of break up. Seems improbable, but I dunno.