In a Time magazine issue dated September 23, 2013, the “Briefing” section that quotes Russell Brand, Michele Bachmann, and John Kerry also briefly mentions global warming. But using less than two dozen words, it gets it very, very wrong.
The blurb, right in the front of the magazine, suggested that a one-year jump in Arctic sea ice extent could mean “global cooling”:
60%: Increase in ice-covered ocean water since last year, leading some scientists to believe that the planet is actually undergoing “global cooling”
It even has a graphic of a chilly-looking penguin wearing a scarf and a hat with a pom-pom. Blurbs like this make even the most casual reader perk up and ask some questions.
Do penguins live in the Arctic?
No. Not at all.
Is there really “global cooling”?
But what about this 60 percent number?
The 60 percent number likely came from a misleading piece in the British tabloid, The Daily Mail.
Who are “some scientists”?
If Time talked to actual climate scientists, or read their own coverage of the issue, they would have heard about the long-term trend of less and less sea ice. Climate scientist Michael Mann said on Twitter that it is “truly sad” that Time was engaged in “meme laundering” about global cooling:
Discover Magazine ran a piece in response to the Daily Mail 60 percent claim called, “With Climate Journalism Like This, Who Needs Fiction?”
IPCC reviewer John Abraham and environmental scientist Dana Nuccitelli describe the Mail’s article as “shoddy climate reporting” that cherry-picks short-term data while ignoring long-term data.
Okay, so is there more ice in the Arctic than there was in 2012?
2012 was the record low for how little sea ice covered the Arctic Ocean, by far. That year broke the lowest-ice-levels-on-record by a lot, so it is not surprising that the next year is closer to the steady downward trend line — it’s called “regression to the mean.” 2012 also saw powerful storms that broke up the ice more than normal.
But there’s more ice — isn’t that good news?
2013’s ice is still well below normal and fits with the alarming downward trend of a shrinking Arctic polar ice cap. This graph shows where things have stood at the end of every August for which we have a satellite record:
So that’s where things stood in August, but the ice is still shrinking. The average 1979–2000 September sea ice extent is 7 million square kilometers. 2013’s average extent in August 2013 was 6.09 million square kilometers, and in September, so far that has dropped another half a million.
But this year things are better at least, right?
Not only is the sea ice extent trend line pointing downward, the ice itself is getting thinner. On that front, this year’s ice volume is on track with previous years, and well below average.
In July, the internet freaked out over photos that showed the North Pole inundated by a meltwater lake about 2 feet deep. It lasted a little over a week but was another sign of how precarious Arctic sea ice volume is. This photo shows how the North Pole usually looks on the left, compared to the meltwater lake that developed in July on the right.
So one year of still-below-average sea ice data doesn’t mean that the world stopped losing sea ice?
Looking at just one year’s worth of data is like blinking and assuming it’s dark outside.
Science needs more than just a few years of information because of natural variations that sometimes hide long-term trends. Put ten years in a row where the ice steadily grows and then Time and the Daily Mail might have something interesting to talk about. But that isn’t likely to happen.
Of course, Skeptical Science illustrates this with one of the most straightforward and yet sarcastic gifs on Arctic sea ice you’ll ever see:
NSIDC September Arctic sea ice extent (blue diamonds) with “recovery” years highlighted in red, vs. the long-term sea ice decline fit with a second order polynomial, also in red.
The 2013 data point will, in all likelihood, just be another “recovery?” red line.