A Wrinkle In Ice (or Not)

By Carl Zimmer | February 22, 2009 11:53 am

[Correction appended]

There’s been a wrinkle in the global warming fact-checking saga I’ve been following this week.

Just to recap–George Will wrote a column claiming that global warming’s a lot of hype. He made a number of misleading statements, including one that was rejected by the very scientists he claimed as his source.

Will stated, “According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.”

A statement was then posted on the research center’s web site of the Polar Research Group:

We do not know where George Will is getting his information, but our data shows that on February 15, 1979, global sea ice area was 16.79 million sq. km and on February 15, 2009, global sea ice area was 15.45 million sq. km. Therefore, global sea ice levels are 1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979. This decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined.

A number of bloggers laid out the problems with the column and sought a response from the Washington Post. The Post announced that they had fact-checked Will’s column, and that it was just fine. I explained why that looks like some mighty poor fact-checking.

Last night in the comment thread, Doug drew my attention to an article on the ice record maintained by the US National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado (a different research center). On February 18 (three days after Will’s column appeared), the NSIDC announced that there was a glitch in the satellite sensors measuring ice in the Arctic, and so their record was gradually drifting off. The drift started in January, and gradually increased until they caught it in mid-February. The scientists now say that the latest estimates were off by 500,000 kilometers. They’re working now to compensate for the drift and correct the measurements. Here’s a graph from their web site.

The blue line marks the ice measurements taken by SSMI, the satellite NSIDC uses for the 30-year record of ice extent. The dashed red line is data from AMSR-E, a new  satellite that has also been measuring the ice and has remained accurate. The reason the scientists don’t switch over to the new AMSR-E satellite is that jumping from one data set to another can create the illusion of change that isn’t really there. But AMSR-E is still useful to the researchers, because they can compare its measurements to the ones they get using SSMI satellite to see if everything’s okay.

Some commenters wondered whether this development would cause me to take back my criticism. Let’s just set aside the fact that this news came out after Will had published his column, and thus could not have any real bearing on whether he or the Post bothered to contact the scientists that they cited as their source.

After looking at some of the web sites involved, I thought I ought to get in touch with the scientists who run the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center–the center at the Polar Research Group–the scientists on whom Will depended for his claim, and which rejected that claim.

I got a prompt response from Bill Chapman, a University of Illinois climate scientist:

“It’s refreshing to have someone ask about the data before they write about it.”

Just pause to consider that. After all this kerfuffule–involving a nationally syndicated columnist, the assistants to that columnist, the editors at the columnist’s syndication service, the editors at the Washington Post editorial page, and the Post’s ombudsman–Chapman was refreshed that someone bothered to contact him about his research before writing about it. What a concept. For me, this whole affair has been about the value of fact-checking science, and Chapman’s reply shows just how little checking was carried out by the Post and company.

In his reply to me, Chapman explained that the two research centers, NSIDC and ACRC, both use the SSMI satellite readings, but they have different methods for building their time series. Chapman and his colleagues at ACRC use a composite of three sequential days for their ice cover readings. If a swath of data is missing on one particular day, they can go back to the previous day’s concentrations. If there are still missing regions, they go one more day back.

“Missing regions or swaths of data have always occurred from time to time in the SSMI record, which is why we set it up this way,” Champan explained.

Despite the recent trouble with the SSMI satellite, Chapman said the three-day-composites have still been meaningful. “As one check, we have been comparing our time series with those from the independent data source AMSR-E. They are just about identical so we are comfortable that our time series remain solid. Our time series and therefore the statement are unaffected by the recent satellite problems. If the sensor degrades a lot more, our numbers will be affected, but to date, they are not.”

I then asked what he thought about the Washington Post’s support of Will’s claim about ice. (To recap again, their support was decidedly roundabout. A January 1 post on a blog called Daily Tech claimed that global ice cover in late 2008 were unchanged from 1979. In response to that blog post, the Center posted a pdf on their web site explaining that “observed global sea ice area, defined here as a sum of N. Hemisphere and S. Hemisphere sea ice areas, is near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979.” But then the scientists also explained that climate models predict a decline in Arctic ice, but are less certain about Antarctica, with some even suggesting an increase–making measurements of global sea ice not terribly relevant to the question of climate change. The Post ignored that part.)

Here’s Chapman’s reply:

Since their statements were based on the end of the previous year, and more importantly the end of 1979, the statement ‘global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979’ just didn’t make sense any more. We have received 80-100 emails from confused people who had read George’s column and looked up the graphs on the Cryosphere Today [one of the center’s web pages] and said they came to a different conclusion, or, could we point them to the report that said that Feb 1979 and Feb 2009 sea ice area was nearly the same. We had to post the current and corresponding 1979 values to avoid the inconsistency that readers were noting. After doing some googling, it appears that Daily Tech article got repeated on a lot of blogs, so it’s not surprising George Will came across it at some point. Still it was sloppy for them to not double check with the original source and it really points out the danger of making any conclusions on climate change based on any two days in history. I really wish they would have contacted us at some point to avoid this.

Our goal is to present the data in as concise and useful format as possible for interested users. Whether the Washington Post decides to publish a correction is up to them.


Finally, just to illustrate what Chapman’s talking about when he refers to the danger of picking out just two days in history, I thought I’d also include two graphs from Cryosphere Today. The top one shows the extent of Arctic sea ice, as compared to the 1978 to 2000 average. The bottom one is from Antarctica. A number of researchers have found a downward trend in the Arctic ice in recent decades, while there’s a small upward trend in the ice around Antarctica.artic600.jpgantarctic600.jpg

Correction: I erroneously called the University of Illinois Polar Research Group the University of Illinois Arctic Climate Research Center. The latter, used by George Will, is a fabrication. Details here.


Comments (66)

  1. ” I really wish they would have contacted us at some point to avoid this.”
    So, of all of the (did they ever reveal exactly how many fact checkers there were involved in that article?) fact checkers etc, not one contacted Chapman et al. from the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center?


  2. Boy, I really wish I could have read something like this correcting the factual errors in the critically acclaimed documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” But I guess there would be no point in fact-checking something with which a scientist agrees on faith, right? And even if they did, they would say that there weren’t errors, just disagreements of degree. But what should that matter, when the art of forecasting has been so accurate for so many years.

  3. Dan

    Okay, I’ll bite. What disagreements, specifically?

  4. Hank Roberts

    What a shame “John” didn’t bother to look for an answer.

    He would have found the documentary was thoroughly checked, and after it came out checked further, and some questions raised and evaluated. It wasn’t perfect, there were places more information would have made it clearer. That’s the worst anyone found.

    If you checked it now against what we know now, it’d have more things wrong — science changes. That isn’t good news for the “can’t-be-happening” crowd though. The film understated problems, we know now.

    It’s history now. Those like John who don’t know how to find the history are bound to keep repeating the same mistakes.

    John, go to a library. Find the “Reference Desk” and ask the person behind it, the “Librarian” — who will be able to get you started.

    As the bumper sticker says, “if you thought education was expensive, try ignorance.”

  5. Dan

    That was my recollection of An Inconvenient Truth as well. For myself, I’d recommend that John just go read through the IPCC reports. It’s a LOT of reading, but not that difficult for a science-literate individual to wade through.

  6. This is great. Thanks for doing the work!

    I think John has a point. Too much about climate change — on both sides — has been accepted in a partisan way. The controversy is shameful where it’s gotten disrespectful, but there’s a lesson in it too: time for more fact-checking and context, on all of it. I’ve begun doing a little of that on my own blog as well, for both personal and professional reasons.

    Then again, I’m hesitant to delve into the science too far because I think it steals thunder from the goal we should all be working toward: lifestyles that are less consumptive, and more respectful of the planet. Even Christians who believe God would protect us from the folly of global warming (http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2007/12/29/125741/46) seem to agree, increasingly, that it’s good to honor God’s creation.

    At a recent panel about the media and climate change (as reported at http://www.amnhblogs.org/), New York Times’ Andrew Revkin said of the controversy, “But this masked the underlying story,” said Revkin, describing it as “energy, energy, energy. Climate is a symptom of this much larger problem,” he continued. “Current energy choices do not remotely match what the world will need in 2050 to give nine billion people reasonable lives—and there’s nothing on the table.”

    So — yes, critical analysis is good. But the way to move forward is cleaner energy, humbler material ambitions and a better sense of what’s healthy for people, other animals and the environment. To work toward a goal like that, it doesn’t really matter whether you believe in Creation or evolution, global warming or global cooling, or whether you prefer Obama or Bush — does it?

  7. It’s always the scientists with the minority viewpoints that are the loudest and most obnoxious! Gives us science writers a headache.

    The editor of the Washington Post spoke to a group of us journalist at USC Annenberg Thursday and he said he now has to be doubly sure get his facts straight; he definitely feels the pressure from us bloggers who often function as citizen journalist fact checkers. I think the lesson in this whole debocle is it’s a safe assumption that dwidling resources at newspapers are spreading journalists thinner and thinner in the newsroom. The Washington Post slipped up because they hardly have the financial and human resources they once did.

    Few people realize what trouble these traditional news outlet are in–we sure do take good journalism for granted.

  8. onymous

    Whether the Washington Post decides to publish a correction is up to them.

    Well, to some extent, but surely we can help by exerting more pressure. Did Chapman himself complain to the Post? I sent an email to their ombudsman, Andy Alexander, under my real name with appropriate scientific credentials listed, saying something along the lines of “as a scientist, I’m deeply disturbed that the Post hasn’t issued a correction even after the very scientists Will was citing have denied that their data support his conclusion”. Of course I have received no response (and didn’t expect to after the ridiculous WP responses that appeared on Thinkprogress), but I would hope that sheer number of complaints and complaints from people perceived as important might help. If the scientists who did these studies specifically complain to the Post that their work is being abused, I think that could be the most useful pressure of all.

  9. chip

    “It’s always the scientists with the minority viewpoints that are the loudest and most obnoxious! Gives us science writers a headache.”

    If this is your view of dissenting opinions in science I suggest you change your beat to one that requires more conformity, like religion.

    Here, on the other hand, is some good advice on climate change, and science in general from a USGS paper in 2007:

    “The atmosphere, ocean, and sea ice comprise a nonlinear chaotic system with a high level of natural variability unrelated to external climate forcing. Even if climate models contained a perfect representation of all climate system physics and dynamics, inherent unpredictability would prevent us from issuing detailed forecasts of climate change beyond about a decade.”

  10. Martin Bento

    How about a bunch of prominent scientists, including hopefully some Nobel types, take out an ad in the Post on this? They can’t very well refuse a paid refutation, can they? And if they did, from such a source, it would be news in itself.

  11. TheMadKing

    I don’t know why everyone calls Global Warming a science when in actuality it is a theory based on the relatively nascent field of climatology. Having been a Navy met and oceanographic tech for five years (mostly in the Western Pacific) I have my own opinions, as everyone does.

    By AGW is a THEORY, not a science. Whether it be a day, a week, a year or a million from today, the copper atom will always have 32 electrons. What will the weather be in any part of the world next week? Next month? Next year? They can’t even predict hurricane seasons accurately!

    Oh, and before you call me a paid lackey of Big Oil (as opposed to a paid lackey of the UN or a federal government grant, for example) I believe we do need to protect the environment and conserve energy, but not at the cost of the progress of civilization to date. I have no desire to return to the Stone Agebe taxed to death or have to call some government bureaucrat to turn my thermostat up (don’t laugh, they tried to pass that bill in CA) because all our Chicken Littles are out of control.

    Call me a heretic if you like. You be the Catholic Church and I’ll be Galileo. Besides, anybody so certain of their ‘science’ has the confidence of truth. Only fanatics demonize their opponents, so sure are they in their facts.

    Lastly, I hope you all enjoy your next embarrasingly snowed-in AGW conference, which we all know is caused by man, right? If it’s cold, it’s GW. If it’s warm, it’s GW. If it’s snowy, it’s GW. If it rains, it’s GW. If it’s a drought, it’s GW. If there’s a hurricane, it’s GW. If there isn’t, it’s GW. Like none of those things have ever happened naturally.

    Nothing like a constant State of Fear to motivate people to hand over trillions and give up in-home privacy rights to the state, huh? It’s Stalin Lite!

    Not to mention carbon trading, which Ponzi would have drooled over. It’s EnRon without the assets. Oh, and by the caps, even more companies can overpollute than do now. Miss that little fact, did ya?

    Go ahead. Buy some smoke. You know where it’s going.

    BTW I have a new name for you all. Weather Troofers. How do you like it?

    You can let me know The Day After Tomorrow :)

  12. jcq

    Let me take a bet that chip hasn’t read the relevant paper and in particular the abstract which concludes:

    “The proposed selection criterion selects models with less than 20% error in their simulations of present-day September sea ice extent, where extent is defined as the area of the Arctic with at least 50% ice cover. Of the 10 models satisfying this criterion, all lose at least 30% of their September ice extent, and 4 lose over 80% of their September ice by the middle of the 21st Century (years 2045 to 2055). By the end of the 21st Century (years 2090 to 2099), seven of the models are essentially ice free in September.”

    In all probability, chip has picked up his “facts” from the bubble that is the Republican infosphere. As a result, he is actually more stupid and ignorant than he would be if he didn’t use a computer, or have any contact with radio or TV.

  13. Michael Heath

    MadKing – your comments show an almost perfect ignorance of scientific methodology. In fact, we teach our school children at the elementary school level what a theory is and you can’t even get that right, not to mention your incorrectly conflating daily weather events with climate. It’s a miracle the spoon reaches the mouth.

    All – Re Andy Alexander’s responses or lack thereof (the WaPo’s ombudsman): I did receive an email last night from him based on a column I wrote in a newspaper that runs Will’s column’s; where I was critical of Will’s dishonesty: http://www.record-eagle.com/opinion/local_story_052094540.html.

    Here’s the money quote from the ombudsman (who is new to the job by the way):

    When I’ve received e-mails from readers demanding corrections to George Will’s column, I’ve passed them along to the editorial page. I will do that with your e-mail today. The editors of those pages decide whether corrections are warranted. Last week I sought clarification from the editorial page on the editing process for Mr. Will’s column, and I passed that along to a number of readers. But I have not rendered a judgment on the issue. It’s something I’m still weighing.

    It would be interesting knowing what issues he’s struggling with that’s caused him to delay passing judgment.

  14. Michael Heath
  15. Ken

    GFW’s conclusion is right for the wrong reasons. You will have a hard time finding anyone who claims there is a long-term trend in global sea ice extent. However, the evidence for that is not dependent on the fact that (out of pure chance) someone created a graph who’s beginning and end points were decades apart but showed the same value. That’s not how trend analysis works. So, what should a correction say? They got it right by accident? I think that may weigh into the ombudsman’s (and the editors’) quandary.

  16. roy

    And no one seems to be considering, even in a chaotic system or whatever, that we’re discussing risk, not mathematical proof. If insurance companies only raised your rates after you had an accident, not basing your rates on your driving record, we’d all have low initial rates but the system wouldn’t be able to pay claims.

  17. Trey

    To George Will’s credit I’ve seen his claim by the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center on countless other articles.


    I went to Yahoo and typed in “1979 sea ice levels” and it brought up a lot of articles stating the same thing George Will reported.

    Not sure why, but before you sacrifice George Will for his error it would be interesting to see why so many others reported the same thing.

    It’s also interesting that the Post is standing by their story. There’s more to this story than a waked out conservative who’s lying to make trouble.

  18. pough


    Only fanatics demonize their opponents, so sure are they in their facts.

    You owe me a new irony meter!

  19. Arguing about “global warming” is like arguing about how to pronounce words you’d like on your tombstone. Human forced global weather peturbations are a symptom, not a cause.

    The root problem is unsustainably polluting cultural norms. If we are going to use the amount of energy we are currently using, we need energy sources that are less polluting, and we need to stop clogging our ecosphere with toxic wastes, and we need to teach the children an aesthetic that condemns waste (like the one most Americans had before World War One).

  20. Gwenny

    According to some of the same scientists who are on the global warming bandwagon, California is experiencing the worst drought in recorded history.

  21. William Richardson

    Just to throw another confusing fact / non fact, I noticed the graph you published here. If you look at 2005, that appears to be about the time the drop in artic ice began. Is it possible that the sunami of 2005 in Sumatra affected world wide ocean currents to the point of moving warmer waters to the poles? Just a thought.

  22. For all those Jumping on John about an inconvient truth, how about the hockey stick graph? Granted, Hansen has come back and edited the data sets removing data points so his theory looks better, but the hockey stick graph was bunk. Proved bunk. Still bunk and is the entire basis of the IPCC report.

  23. W. Hoffman

    Michael Heath said <>

    I find such rhetoric frequently used by AGW supporters. Argumentum ad hominem does not simply mean calling names, rather, demeaning and humiliating assertions are within that class. I am biased to reject anyone’s other claims when that is a major component, as in the case of Michael Heath’s first post. He also uses argumentum ad verecundiam, appeal to authority, when no one here knows whether Michael Heath is any kind of an expert.

    Moreover, Heath’s challenge to MadKing is off topic, aside from being gratuitously rude. MadKing speaks of AGW as a theory in a descriptive sense, and does not define “theory” and Heath mocks him for not knowing “scientific methodology”, which MadKing’s post does not even address. Heath then says “we teach…theory…” while it’s not at all clear who “we” are (does Heath home-school?) and whether the teaching is actually effective.

    Such stylistic intimidation ought to be reconsidered. It does not contribute to understanding of issues, and in my experience more reveals a closed mind than a discerning one.

  24. W. Hoffman

    My apologies for a double post. With the moderator’s permission, the quote I inadvertently left between GT and LT symbols should have been “MadKing – your comments show an almost perfect ignorance of scientific methodology. In fact, we teach our school children at the elementary school level what a theory is and you can’t even get that right, not to mention your incorrectly conflating daily weather events with climate. It’s a miracle the spoon reaches the mouth.” It is this quote by Michael Heath to which I was referring.

  25. W. Hoffman

    Specifically germane to the issues and the graphs is that Antarctica is a land mass covered with snow and ice, surrounded by sea ice, while the Arctic is essentially sea ice. The land mass is many times larger than the graphic’s portrayal – fair enough, it’s clearly labeled “sea ice anomaly” – and the overall effect may readily be that the total ice in the South and the North is about the same (79-09), even when the “sea ice” graph doesn’t show it.

    In addition, the picture at the top shows the Antarctic, which as already pointed out, is a combined land-ice and sea-ice structure, while the text right next to it speaks of “the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center”.

    Then again, the graphic with the blue and red lines is partially explained by a “glitch” with various time-honored work-arounds, but it’s also clear that in a one-week period as in early December 2008, the gain in sea ice was ~10% while in the period from about 16-22 Jan 09, there was no gain at all. With such single season variability, some latitude in approximation may be allowed, imo, since merely having the 0-gain period show the average weekly gain would have put the total nearer to “the same” in 79-09.

    So while Will’s statement is undoubtedly incorrect (unless he’s got other sources than shown here) the “Texas, California and Oklahoma combined” gee-whiz statement should be reframed as a less than 10% error in an area that is larger than the US including Alaska, plus India http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_area_(graphical) and perhaps such high dudgeon is a bit much.

    As to the implication that the Arctic ice decrease is evidence of “global warming” from any source, I point out that the world-scale graphic of “anomalies” shows a recently persistent hot spot over the Arctic as a result of the random distribution of large scale isotherms around the planet. Cold spots, eg, over the South Atlantic, cool huge areas of ocean without much notice b/c there’s nothing picturesque there.

  26. TheMadKing

    Michael Heath, I stand by my words. Use your scientific ‘methodology’ to predict the weather and precipitation (or lack thereof) for Des Moines, Iowa on May 23rd, please. I’ll even give you a couple of degrees give or take, but you have to get sunny, cloudy or rainy right. If you can do that, then AGW graduates from theory to science for me.

    IronyKing, ya got me! Doesn’t change anything, though. Not even the weather.

    BTW in 1945 the continents of Europe and Asia were in flames and ruins, and the smoke of war clogged the skies. AND Two nukes went off in air blasts over Japan. Yet in 1945 the world experienced an abrupt cooling period.

    Could somebody explain that to me, in the context of the massive amounts of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere by war, why the earth cooled? Do that in a scientific and factual manner and you might just convince me.

    See, I do not profess to have all the answers. It is those who do with the disposition, hostility and righteous indignation of the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada that turn my stomach and convince me it’s a fraud.

    Call me skeptical, but I have yet to hear anyone explain to me Global Warming with the same solid scientific certainty of nuclear fission or the Table of Elements. I’m not close-minded. Just sick of being portrayed as a bad guy who wants everyone in 3000 sunblock and fry the earth just because I am not a True Believer.

    Any of you heard the story of Chicken Little, BTW? They teach that one in elementary school too, Mike.

  27. Gabe

    You just couldn’t let Chris Norris out do you, could you?

  28. Mike P

    I’ve seen all the relevant sites and Mr. Chapman is being extremely dishonest with the quote on his website. Look at the data at the website and not the quote. And make sure to look at the total ice area graph.

    Saying that the low of 2008 was lower than the low in 1979 is not the same as saying that 2008 levels did not reach 1979 levels. Because in fact by November they did reach 1979 levels. And I guess were higher at the end of December. However there’s a big decline into December so that’s not really the best place to measure.

    How can Mr. Chapman correctly state that a single day is not the measure of the extent of the ice area for the year and at the same time have an extremely misleading quote based on a single day. He’s implying there is no data to support Mr. Will’s assertion, when in fact the data can be interpreted that way judging by the highs for the years.

    Note that using the criteria that the low for the year determines whether levels reached prior years, 2008 was higher than many years in the 1980’s including 1981. So would it be correct to state that 2008 reached 1981 levels? Or would another single day be singled out to put a misleading quote on the website?

  29. Hank


    We can’t possibly be as confident about future climate conditions and their causes as the modelers proclaim. The models are gross approximations filled with assumptions about mechanisms that are poorly understood (solar activity, precipitation systems, decadal and multidecadal oceanic circulation).

    The time scales chosen for maximum effect are vanishingly small by geologic standards, and the best data is much to recent to be very instructive (what did the satellites show about sea ice levels in the 1930s, or the 1400s for that matter?).

    We could use a lot more humility — and honesty — from the purveyors of these dire predictions.

  30. Garacka

    # Medievalist Says:
    February 23rd, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    “The root problem is unsustainably polluting cultural norms. If we are going to use the amount of energy we are currently using, we need energy sources that are less polluting, and we need to stop clogging our ecosphere with toxic wastes, and we need to teach the children an aesthetic that condemns waste (like the one most Americans had before World War One).”

    I certainly agree with you that unsustainable practices and pollution are problems, but if you are suggesting that CO2 is a pollutant or that it has any more then a miniscule Anthropogenic Global Warming (now “Climate Change”) impact than you need to be corrected. Calling CO2 a pollutant is as close to a lie as can be told. (I recall that plant production in the biosphere has increased 20% over last 40 years or so as CO2 levels increased)

    The frustration for many Environmentalist like myself is that it is not because of AGW that we need to reduce pollution, it is because of the general and specific damages that it can cause. But, on the same hand, we must be pragmatic in reducing pollutants and we’ve already come such a long way so that pollution in the developed world is now greatly reduced over the last 50 years. That’s a major success story of Clean Air and Water legislation.

    The immediate attention of Environmmetal protection should be on the developing world. I suggest that perhaps the #1 quick fix priority would be to get China to put good scrubbers on their coal stacks.

  31. Garacka

    The biggest problem with the satellite data is that it is only available since 1979 which was at the end of the 30 year cooling that had started in about 1940.

    That means the curves start at the last place I would expect the ice maximum to have been. The 30 year Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which shifted from cold to warm phase right at the beginning the the satellite data and shifted again to a cold phase a couple of years ago, suggests that the sea ice is now entering a 30 year period where it will probably grow.

    This several decade oscillation is supported by historical accounts of ice retractions (was it Amundsen in the 1920’s (??) who almost made it through the arctic as the ice opened up?

  32. pough

    It is those who do with the disposition, hostility and righteous indignation of the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada that turn my stomach and convince me it’s a fraud.

    Again with the irony meter breaking!

  33. pough

    Use your scientific ‘methodology’ to predict the weather and precipitation (or lack thereof) for Des Moines, Iowa on May 23rd, please.

    How about if I were to predict that the summer in Iowa will be warmer than the winter? Will that do? It is, after all closer to climate than the weather you’re insisting on. Climate != weather. If you don’t get that incredibly important point, you should be starting off with asking for directions to the basics and not simply spouting ridiculously ironic assertions that, in essence, thousand of nerds worldwide have banded together to avoid figuring things out so they can put forward an obvious lie in the dim hopes of using environmental causes to extract grant money out of governments, something no other branch of science needs to do.

  34. Brook

    The bottom line here is what Main St. common sense Americans believe, and all the media King’s horses haven’t convinced us. A new poll shows 47% of Americans DO NOT believe in man-made global warming. After 2 consecutive cold winters that is to be expected. I might add that “the experts” predicted in Oct this winter would be unseasonably warm. Oops!

    Man-made warming defies logic, it defies the ice core sample data, and it defies astronomical data from other planets like Mars that have clearly been warming at the same time as the Earth, yet none of these genius scientists want to talk about any possible correlation. I’ve yet to meet a single global warmer that could actually last 5 minutes in a serious debate on the scientific data. They all repeat the Gore mantra that the debate is over, etc….

  35. Chuck ty

    1980 Southern Hemisphere = 4.7 million sq km
    1980 Northern Hemisphere = 15.0 million sq km
    Total = 19.7 million sq km
    2009 Southern Hemisphere = 5.8 million sq km
    2009 Northern Hemisphere = 14.1 million sq km
    Total = 19.9 million sq km

    We have MORE sea ice in 2009 than 1980!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I cancelled my 8 year subscription to Discover Mag. after realizing that they are not science based in their articles, they are propaganda based. Never has a former Science Mag. turned so far to printing authors articles that do not even use basic rules in collection and processing of data. The response letter from the editor of Discover Mag. read, ‘we feel that data collection and processing is a researcher matter and rely upon them to police themselves. I personally support AGW theory and the magazine reflects my point of view’

    Discover Mag is not about science anymore.

  36. David in NY

    People must be being paid to oppose global warming. Probably accounts for the high price of gas.

  37. Craig Gosling

    Am I missing something? Doesn’t the thickness of the ice play a role here instead of just its surface extent? How about how early it forms and how late it stays in relation to its thickness and coverage? How much of the ice is residual, how much is new, do different kinds of ice melt and form at different rates? What about the temperature of the water in relation to the ice extent, thickness, etc.? At some point in the future it will take a fraction of a degree to send the artic and antartic into chaos, and the ocean currents and continental climate with it. Don’t worry about it though, George Will has got it covered. He probably thinks climate has not changed since the continants separated and drifted to where they are now.

  38. Roy

    The NSIDC just “found” an area of ice bigger than the state of CA, due to satellite sensor degradation.
    We are now in the second year of a larger and more quickly forming Arctic ice pack than in 07. I haven’t looked for thickness data yet, so I can’t assume that the larger area left last summer will be thickening this winter to levels above the ’07 extents. But common sense says that if it’s forming faster, it’s colder there than in 07, so the “old ice” is getting thicker this year. We’ll have to watch to see if the recovery trend continues.
    Anybody got data comparisons of “old” Arctic ice thickness in the last 40 or so years??

  39. David Becker, Ph.D.

    The difference between 1979 and 2009 is roughly 10%. The uncertainty in this data must be very much larger than this. It is really improper to report such data to the public without clearly stating the limits of error or to draw any inferences from the numbers without knowledge of those limits. In addition, the “anomalies” from 1979 to 2009 are really meaningless in some sense. These are for a figurative instant in time. Can anyone doubt that when the Vikings settled in Greenland, named it, and developed agriculture there, that there was considerably less Arctic Sea Ice than we now have. This is a tempest in a teapot.

  40. YouRang

    For the individual who wants GW explained in a clear concise fashion: Strictly speaking what needs to be explained is Global Cooling. GW is a fact by two criteria–(1)it was predicted in 1900 (rather than being data looking in search of an explanation); (2)it has the control system modelling characteristic of having infinite gain (changing the control parameters rather than the set point). Therefore, the only questions are: How much compensatory cooling is there: and how much unrelated (although possibly correlated) cooling (such as smog reflection) is there?

  41. Bernard Leikind

    Dr. Becker’s remarks are misleading and confuse errors with natural fluctuation. The error, the difference between the actual ice cover and the measured value, is likely much less than 10%. No doubt in the original paper the authors tell us their guess for this.

    In the graphs themselves we can easily the natural fluctuations. It looks to me as if we can see seasonal variations, monthly variations, and comparing comparable seasons or months in different years, we can see annual variations.

    Dr. Becker is correct to note that these apparent seasonal, monthly, and annual variations are a significant fraction of the long term trend that our eyes clearly show, for the arctic data. The data from the antarctic, however, shows that any trend is within the ranges of the seasonal, monthly, and annual variations.

    Everyone agrees that over long periods of time the earth’s climate has changed, and that at times in the distant past it has been both warmer and colder than it is today. These variations, which forced the life at that time to adapt or die out (as happened to Dr. Becker’s Greenland settlements), were due entirely to natural causes. Today knowledgeable researchers are reporting to us that the average global temperature appears to be increasing by a small but significant amount. These researchers also note that unlike past natural variations, which are undoubtedly still present, we have pumped into the atmosphere an additional warming force.

    Opponents of human-caused global warming have not and probably cannot explain why this significant additional warming force has no effect, according to them.

    We are certainly going to have to adjust to the effects of human-caused global warming in future decades. One possible adaptation would be to reduce how much of the warming force we create.

  42. Bryson Brown

    Iron King– you just don’t get it, do you? Weather is extremely variable, and very hard to predict. Climate is an average of weather– much easier to predict. I can predict– with high precision and reliability– the average number of wins by NFL football teams next season without breaking a sweat: it will be very close to 8 (if there are no ties it will be exactly 8). Average monthly temperatures are far more stable than temperatures at a single day and time. Climate models (and ensembles of models) do very well at capturing these averages, while including a lot of the physics that makes the system go; perturbing successful ensembles by increasing CO2 levels shows that GW is what we should expect as a result. Measurements and isotope tests show that fossil CO2 (released from burning fossil fuels) is increasing in the atmosphere, driving up total CO2. There is a lot of good science being done here, even if you don’t like or want to hear what it has to tell us. You really need to educate yourself and get beyond parroting GW denialist nonsense on blog comment threads.

  43. Sundevil

    I think AGW Theory is bunk, but it’s going to take another 3-4 years for nature to really spelll it out. This short-term reversal in sea ice levels seems statistically insignificant, but could turn into a trend if they continue for 3+ years.

    The most upsetting thing for me from the pro-AGW crowd is that their computer models are dismal failures. Models that weigh CO2 less tend to be more accurate. It would seem they have started with a conclusion and are driving the science to fit the conclusion – similar to second hand smoke theory which may have some truth to it (confined areas, etc.), but fails in the larger sense. You can get 90% confidence on almost anything with small sample sizes and so far, we don’t really have much accurate climate data to look at. Proxies introduce massive amounts of inaccuracy to the point where the error range matches the signal.

    Additionally, no one wants to subject their models for replication and criticism. This screams tainted science. Wouldn’t you think these things should be made open so we can get a true understanding of what is supposed to be the greatest threat to humanity ever? I guess personal pride trumps the survival of humanity for some.

  44. Gene

    I have spent a few years studying the claim of global warming and writing about it. I am upset with myself that I was attempting to have a logical discussion with religious zealots.

    Those who “believe” my car will kill the world never recognize the import of a counter argument, They merely move off to another topic or insult the opponent.

    I have learned many true believers are good people who are very smart at what they do. In matters or religion, or emotion, logic changes into a way to design a clever argument, not obtain insight. They do not lie, only redesign the selected facts they absorb.

    Science, an interesting concept, has people doing work, making observations, and compiling data. The rest of us grab whatever bit fits our view and file it under our paradigm, a silly endeavor. We love poor scientists who take the stage for personal reasons, like Mr. Hanson at NASA, and provide support for our position. The craziest thing is taking votes of unnamed “scientists” and using the result as “science.”

    The one thing that is clear is that an entire segment of society is using a theory and bits of facts to justify the absorbing of billions and the controlling of people’s lives and minds. I recall in Canada there was a $3 Billion CD budget that was put in place to fight global warming. The money was used in its entirety for advertising, also known as propaganda.

    Whatever side one finds oneself, keep this in mind – the manipulators are in your pocket, in your home. A Canadian member of Parliament said, a few years ago, “If global warming did not exist we would have to invent it” (Using my memory here) Her point was it was a great tool for social engineering.

    The US federal government recently directed we MUST buy the dangerous flourescent lights. It is very easy to let this pass, as they are sensible, but realize what is going on. The FEDERAL government just took control of another part of your life. They can do this since no one reads the Constitution. For those truly ignorant, start with looking up enumerated powers.

    I know it is frustrating to listen to nutty ideas, like Mr. Gore saying the Aral Sea is dry because of global warming. Still, it doesn’t really help to mock or attack a person for his beliefs. It is better to address why they think that way and provide a little Socratic questioning. Of course, the brain-washing going on it another story. That is what radicalizes many. So, if you are adamant, on either side, if you want to become irrelevant, just mock an opponent.

    You will find group think in full battle dress, though. The emotional assume that their unexamined position in also everyone else’s and they turn pale when you don’t agree and ask a question. At that point, they move away, but you have made your point. So, ask questions. All you have to do with most people is ask them, with a smile, to explain their babble.

    Of relevance, our “scientists” are suddenly becoming aware of the SUN! It it hard to believe the warming models used to create hysteria did not factor in sunspots. This explains why Mars was warming, but Mann and friends didn’t bother to notice. I assume they blamed my car. Scientists also ignore undersea volcanoes or, for that matter, above seal level eruptions.

    Global warming and cooling have not been proven and trying to disprove a negative is a waste of time. This “crisis” will pass eventually, but it will be expensive and screw up our schools, as our teachers are not exactly thoughtful and will put up posters of the Aral Sea for decades.

    Having snappy comments and rarefied data is just a way to pass time. I advise you to go out and vote (throw all the bums out) and ask questions.

  45. Hank Roberts

    >Hank Says:
    >February 24th, 2009 at 10:28 am

    That, titled “Hubris” — appropriately enough — posts some beliefs about how uncertainty is handled in scientific work that come right out of the PR sites.

    Not from me, to be clear.

    To that “Hank” — please, compare the beliefs you posted with what’s published in the science journals about uncertainty. You’re copypasting stuff from PR sites intended to confuse people. You can look this stuff up. Your library — any library — will have this:

    Nature 445, 580-581 (8 February 2007) | doi:10.1038/445580a
    Climate change 2007: What we don’t know about climate change

    And read this: http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=%22sound+science%22

  46. Torgeir Hansson

    I have a question:

    Why do we go from comparing December 2008/1979, to February 2009/1979?

    We should be comparing February 2009 to February 1980, right?

    What do the data show then? Just curious.

  47. Torgeir Hansson

    Just to clarify:

    If we want the February 2009 comparison to bear on the December 2008 measurement, that is what we need to do, right?

  48. Charlie


    Scientists did not recently discover the SUN. The effect of the varying output of the sun has been studied and found to be a minor contributor to climate change.

    Read the IPCC 4th assessment report found here;


    You will also find data and analysis on atmospheric temperatures, sea
    surface temps, CO2 and other GHG concentration histories, aerosols (which contribute to cooling), ice masses, reflectance, etc, etc.

  49. Howling Winds

    Pough said:

    “How about if I were to predict that the summer in Iowa will be warmer than the winter? Will that do?”

    Nope. That will not do. What we are asking for is precision on your part. Give us the temp within 1.5 degrees, because the Global Warming Crowd is saying the temp will rise this much at a point in the future. If you can’t predict the correct temp of an Iowa summer then neither can you predict the temp of the earth with any precision decades into the future. I’m glad you aren’t a doctor because you wouldn’t have any patients left


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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