Thursday, June 7, 2012

Cherrypicking & Misleading

I am frequently disappointed when I read articles or editorials claiming that human-caused warming of the planet is not happening or that climate science is wrong.  Such disappointment occurred recently as I read an editorial from Investor’s Business Daily (IBD).

The national newspaper covers international business, finance, and the global economy.  Its editorials are by its own admission conservative.  I use the paper for the detailed information on companies and have used it for over two decades.  It is a good source for financial information, but a poor source for science information.

An online editorial entitled “Facts Get In The Way-Again-Of A Good Global Warming Story” can be viewed here.  The editorial is meant to criticize a recent trip by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  The editorial begins “Hillary Clinton made a well-publicized trip last week to the Arctic to see for herself the impact of global warming. Less well known, however, are two reports that contradict the climate-change alarmists.”

Image Credit: NASA Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio.
“First, polar ice is now the heaviest "in more than a decade," reports the Los Angeles Times.” Later it refers to another report “Second, photos taken in the 1930s by Danish explorers "show glaciers in Greenland retreating faster than they are today, according to researchers," tech publication The Register reported.

I long ago learned to be highly skeptical of any claim by IBD.  The first red flag is that they are quoting other media sources and not the science research itself.  Fortunately I was able to track down both reports.  It turns out that the information is cherrypicked and misleading.

The Los Angeles Times article here is referring to the ice pack along the north coast of Alaska.  Indeed Alaska just experienced one of its coldest winters on record and there was an above normal amount of ice due to the cold winter and winds piling the ice along the coast.  However, we are talking about ice that it one to two years old, not the very old ice normally referred to as multi-year ice.  This ice may take a week or two longer to melt this year.

Image Credit: NSIDC,
Furthermore, the editorial implies that the situation on the north coast of Alaska is like that throughout the Arctic and that is not the case.  In fact the National Snow and Ice Data Center just released the ice extent for May.  It shows that the extent is more than last year, but less than in 2010 and 2009.  This is hardly the heaviest in more than a decade.

Now ice extent is not the same as ice volume and maybe that is the reference.  The Polar Science Center tracks the ice volume in the Arctic and the polar ice volume was at a record low last year.  It continues to decline and is currently lower than at the same time in 2011.  The data indicates that this year could be another record low in ice volume for the Arctic.

Click on the image for a larger view.  Image Credit: PIOMAS.

The second report refers to photos taken in the 1930s by Danish explorers.  Instead of quoting from the actual science research, IBD referenced a British technology news and opinion website.  The editorial writes: "It now appears that the glaciers were retreating even faster 80 years ago" when man's carbon output was far less than today's, "but nobody worried about it, and the ice subsequently came back again."

There are two problems with the above statement.  First it implies that the glacial retreat is not tied to an increase in increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Secondly, it states that the ice came back in the intervening period.

The actual science article was published two weeks ago in the prestigious journal Nature Geoscience.  Here is the abstract from that article:

Widespread retreat of glaciers has been observed along the southeastern margin of Greenland. This retreat has been associated with increased air and ocean temperatures. However, most observations are from the satellite era; presatellite observations of Greenlandic glaciers are rare. Here we present a unique record that documents the frontal positions for 132 southeast Greenlandic glaciers from rediscovered historical aerial imagery beginning in the early 1930s. We combine the historical aerial images with both early and modern satellite imagery to extract frontal variations of marine- and land-terminating outlet glaciers, as well as local glaciers and ice caps, over the past 80 years. The images reveal a regional response to external forcing regardless of glacier type, terminal environment and size. Furthermore, the recent retreat was matched in its vigour during a period of warming in the 1930s with comparable increases in air temperature. We show that many land-terminating glaciers underwent a more rapid retreat in the 1930s than in the 2000s, whereas marine-terminating glaciers retreated more rapidly during the recent warming.

What the scientists found was that there was a comparable increase in the region temperatures during the 1930s matching the most recent time.  Both periods produced substantial glacial retreats.  However, it is NOT true that the ice subsequently came back again.  In fact during the cooling period from the 1950s to 1970s only 60% of the glaciers advanced, but did not return to their former positions.  Furthermore, the marine-terminating glaciers are the ones directly impacting sea-level rise and they are retreating faster now than in the 1930s.

It is important to realize that there has been a general warming of the planet since the beginning of the Industrial Age.  However, this can be divided into two periods from about the 1840s to 1940s and from the late 1970s to the current time.  The intervening period was marked by a slight cooling.  The first warming period was closely tied to solar activity.  However, the most recent warming period is not from solar activity, but from the rapid increase in greenhouse gases.

Click on the image for a larger view.  Image Credit: Skeptical Science.
If IBD wants to criticize Hillary Clinton, I’m sure she can handle it.  They say “We prefer to deal in facts…” however, to grossly distort the science to fit their point of view is shameful.  If they want to use science to make a point, they have to do it correctly.  Cherrypicking and misleading are not the correct way.