Thursday, July 24, 2008

Arctic Melting

My Dad and I were discussing whether the North Pole would be ice-free this year. Both of us felt pretty certain of our position, but the farther I looked into it, the more complex the issue became. Dad thought he might have actually seen photos or news footage of an already clear pole. For totally different reasons, I had just looked at satellite photos of the pole.

National Geographic ran this photo in June, alongside a story about an ice-free pole:



This is not the North Pole, it is Spitsbergen (at 78N latitude, it is arctic. But not the pole.) Worse, the photo is listed as undated. It isn't necessarily deliberately misleading, but I was misled by it. And the original story did not have a caption on this photo. So it looked like the "North Pole" was already ice-free.

A NOAA satellite photo from earlier in July shows that there is ice:


The ice is there, but it is thinning, and there are apparently credible predictions that there might be an ice-free pole by 2011-2013 for "the first time in history" (Really? Who was looking until recently?)

These are, however, projections. I do not mean to deride projections, but they do need to be properly discounted. Earlier this year, there were predictions that this year would see less arctic sea ice than last year, if the prevailing trend continued. However, it did not:


On the one hand, the extent of ice is below the 20 year average line. On the other, what is so special about those 20 years, and in any case, the claim that will be falsified or vindicated is whether this year will be a)ice-free and/or b) of lesser extent than last year. I am not nit-picking, but I do want to keep our eyes on the prize. It is great when one can get a clear answer, and all too uncommon, so however things turn out, it is cause for excitement.

Am I 'cherry-picking' data to 'disprove' global warming? No, a thousand times! I just am not going to pretend that every piece of data lines up perfectly, or that this is the first time anyone ever thought of such a horrible thing as an ice-free pole. I think it is inexcusable to tell less than the whole truth when so much is at stake, both environmentally and socially.

Take a look at this New York Times page:


I'm sorry it isn't more legible, but you can see that there was at least some worry about an ice-free North Pole in this story from 1969.

The current concerns, nor those in the mid-60's, are not the only times there was worry about global warming. In the 1930's, just before the Dust Bowl, there was concern, and that concern seemed to be borne out by the drought. Later there was cooling, and while there was no where near the scientific activity or 'consensus', by the 1970's there were worries of an ice age.

Climate is complex. Some of the most touted models of catastrophic warming are derived from tree-ring data which is notoriously bad as temperature proxies. Notorious for being affected by things other than temperature (e.g rainfall, condition of bark). Notorious for being incomplete and poorly archived, and notorious for not being kept up to date. Some dendrochronologists are becoming notorious for not revealing their data or methods properly, which is, and should be, alarming, whether it is nefarious or merely contrary.

The science is being done, and generally by good and competent scientists, I believe. But do not listen to the refrain that "The science is settled". The science is never settled. Newton's laws ruled for centuries before being revised by Einstein. Why should climatology be above reproach?

2 Comments:

At Sunday, July 27, 2008, Blogger Cicero Sings said...

Farley Mowat wrote a book called "The Farfarers" ... set back in Viking times. An interesting read. He theorizes that there was a warming trend ... that warmed up Greenland and Iceland enough for people to settle and farm it ... but then a cooling trend return and life became harsh again. I enjoyed the read and you might too. F.Mowat is a Canadian writer ... but hopefully you should be able to get a copy at your library.

 
At Sunday, July 27, 2008, Blogger David Eaton said...

Thanks for the comment, and the suggestion. As I mentioned in my comments on your site, your photography is just marvelous. I hope the other 3 people who read my blog check yours out :)

I remember reading selections from Mowat in college, but I forget the context. Our libraries here in West Michigan have a good cooperative going, so "The Farfarers" is on its way to my local branch.

 

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