Unchecked Ice: A Saga in Five Chapters

By Carl Zimmer | February 27, 2009 3:49 am

[Correction appended]

I guess I don’t understand editorial pages. The laws of physics must be different there.

Chapter 1: A Correction

On February 15, George Will wrote a column for the Washington Post, in which he scoffed at dire warnings about the effects of global warming. He claimed that environmental pessimists are always warning about catastrophes that never come. And he offered a series of claims about the climate that added up to a larger claim about the lack of evidence of global warming. For example:

As global levels of sea ice declined last year, many experts said this was evidence of man-made global warming. Since September, however, the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began. According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.

These are statements about facts–both the grainy little facts of data, and the larger facts they add up to about how the world works. Are these facts correct?

As I wrote on Monday, that question would have been answered if Will was writing for a science magazine like Discover (or the New Yorker, or many others). A good fact-checker would burrow into the column and demand confirmation of everything in there–typically by reading over all the relevant material and calling up the sources.

I’ve long wondered if opinion pieces are fact-checked at all, especially ones that deal with science. Over the years I’ve read some real howlers. And so it was very striking to read, via Talking Points memo, that the Arctic Climate Research Center, the very place Will invoked as his source of information, posted this statement on their web site:

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.

I later contacted Bill Chapman, who runs the center, to ask about the statement. He explained that he and his colleagues got somewhere between 80 and 100 from people coming to the center’s web site to see for themselves how the ice was the same, and finding that there was a lot less ice than George Will had said. Of course, they probably assumed that by “now,” Will had mean “now,” as opposed to “two months ago.” Silly readers.

Chapter 2: A Multi-Layered Editorial Process

The ice was not the only subject of errors in Will’s piece. Brad Johnson of Wonk Room, among others, has come up with a list of other items–a lot for a column just a few hundred words long. But that sharp reply from the Arctic Climate Research Center made the ice the focus of many complaints that came to the Washington Post.

The ombudsman at the Post gave a response on Tuesday. He had asked around and had been informed that

the Post has a multi-layer editing process and checks facts to the fullest extent possible. In this instance, George Will’s column was checked by people he personally employs, as well as two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will; our op-ed page editor; and two copy editors.

How had this information about the ice slipped through the dense fact-checking mesh? The ombudsman did not cite a call to anyone at the research center. As I later discovered, nobody–not Will, not his employees, not the two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, not the op-ed page editor, not the two copy editors–actually got in touch with the scientists at the center. Instead, they relied on a statement that had been posted on the center’s web site in January.

Chapter 3: Global Warming, Global Ice

That January statement has a backstory of its own.

On January 1, a blog ran a post that claimed that global ice cover at the end of 2008 was the same as at the end of December 31, 1979. The implication being, “Hey, what’s all this global warming people are screaming about? There’s just as much ice as ever.”

In the research center’s January statement, the scientists wrote 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.”

So–on the level of grain-sized facts, Will could have said, with accuracy, that on one day in December 2008, the global ice area was near or slightly lower than it was on that day in December 1979. He did not. I leave readers to ponder why he didn’t.

But as you reflect, consider how this rewrite would have sounded: “According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice is 1.34 million sq. km less now 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.”

It doesn’t quite have the same ring as the original.

Of course, the big difference between February 2009 and February 1979 does not, on its own, mean that the world’s ice is on a fast track to oblivion, no more than picking a single day in December means there has been no change. Climate change happens over years and over decades, with noisy jumps at smaller scales. And to understand how climate change is affecting the ice, climate scientists actually consider what the latest climate models predict about how that ice will change.

In his column, Will claims that many experts were warning in 2008 that the drop in global ice areas was evidence of man-made warming. He doesn’t tell us who those experts are. And, in fact, the research center scientists wrote in their January statement that global ice area may not be relevant as an indication of climate change.

Why? Because almost climate change models project shrinking Arctic ice, but not necessarily Antarctic ice. In fact, some recent models show extra evaporation due to warming leading to snow falling on the sea ice around Antarctica.

And if you look at the ice at each pole, the ice in the Arctic has been on a shrinking trend. The ice around the Antarctic has had a reverse trend as is actually covering a bigger area this year than in 1979. This is consistent with the climate models.

All of this was in that January statement. It’s one page long. If the Washington Post’s batallion of fact-checkers actually used this to approve Will’s statement about the area of ice, they had to have seen this additional information. But they did not bother to raise an objection.

Chapter 4: George Will Should Read This Blog

All the attention Will has been getting–or at least an article that discusses his column in the New York Times–seems to have gotten under his skin. In his column today for the Washington Post, he has returned to global warming, and to his own previous column on the subject.

“The column contained many factual assertions but only one has been challenged,” he claimed. “The challenge is mistaken.”

The challenge he’s referring to is about the ice. Will does not mention the many other challenges that have been laid out. But let’s leave them aside. Life is short. What does Will have to say now about the ice?

He now says his previous column was “citing data from the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, as interpreted on Jan. 1 by Daily Tech, a technology and science news blog.”

Citing data as interpreted by a blog…That’s some fine reporting. Neither George Will nor his employees did any more research than look at a blog. Now, blogs can be wonderful, but would it have been really so hard for Will and Co. to drop a note to the scientists themselves to do their own research? Pick up the phone? Apparently not.

Will then uses that same January statement from the scientists in response to that blog post as evidence that he was right.

But on Feb. 15, the Sunday the column appeared, the center, then receiving many e-mail inquiries, issued a statement saying ‘we do not know where George Will is getting his information.’ The answer was: From the center, via Daily Tech. Consult the center’s Web site where, on Jan. 12, the center posted the confirmation of the data (http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/global.sea.ice.area.pdf) that this column subsequently reported accurately.

See anything missing here? How about the fact that by the time Will published his column, there was a lot less ice than there was 30 years ago? How about the point made in that same statement Will prizes so greatly that global ice is a red herring?

But Will can’t leave it at that.

The scientists at the Illinois center offer their statistics with responsible caveats germane to margins of error in measurements and precise seasonal comparisons of year-on-year estimates of global sea ice. Nowadays, however, scientists often find themselves enveloped in furies triggered by any expression of skepticism about the global warming consensus (which will prevail until a diametrically different consensus comes along; see the 1970s) in the media-environmental complex. Concerning which:

On Feb. 18 the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that from early January until the middle of this month, a defective performance by satellite monitors that measure sea ice caused an underestimation of the extent of Arctic sea ice by 193,000 square miles, which is approximately the size of California.

Will ends his column by complaining that the New York Times isn’t reporting on that story. But Will hasn’t told the story accurately.

First of all, the trouble with the satellite has not affected the information coming from the Arctic Climate Research Center. As I wrote earlier this week, the scientists there use their own methods to calculate sea ice area that are different from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. And by cross-checking with other satellite measurements, they found that their estimates were still good.

Meanwhile, the National Snow and Ice Data Center scientists began to look at the readings from another sensor on the same satellite. They recalculated the ice area for the past few months. And on February 26, they were back in business, publishing their corrected measurements, which include the period when they had been underestimating the ice.

And in their news update on all this, the National Snow and Ice Data Center scientists had this to say:

The temporary error in the near-real-time data does not change the conclusion that Arctic sea ice extent has been declining for the past three decades.

In trying to justify an old error, Will can’t help making new ones. But at this point, I’m not expecting any corrections.

Chapter 5: Post-Modern Fact-Checking

What has kept me hooked on this saga is not George Will’s errors. Errors are as common as grass. Some are made out of ignorance, some carefully constructed to give a misleading impression. What has kept me agog is the way the editors at the Washington Post have actually given their stamp of approval on Will’s columns, even claiming to have fact-checked them and seeing no need for a single correction.

The climax to this part of the story came yesterday, when the Columbia Journalism Review was finally able to get Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor at the Post, to speak directly about the ice affair:

It may well be that he is drawing inferences from data that most scientists reject–so, you know, fine, I welcome anyone to make that point. But don’t make it by suggesting that George Will shouldn’t be allowed to make the contrary point…I think it’s kind of healthy, given how, in so many areas–not just climatology, but medicine, and everything else–there is a tendency on the part of the lay public at times to ascribe certainty to things which are uncertain.

I’ve heard that line before…the one about how people can look at the same scientific data and make different inferences.

I’ve heard it from creationists. They look at the Grand Canyon, at all the data amassed by geologists over the years, and they end up with an inference very different from what you’ll hear from those geologists.

Would Hiatt be pleased to have them writing opinion pieces, too? There is indeed some debate in the scientific community about exactly how old the Grand Canyon is–with some arguing it’s 55 million years old and others arguing for 15 million. Would Hiatt consider it healthy to publish a piece from someone who thinks the Grand Canyon is just a few thousand years old, with just a perfunctory inspection of the information in it?

At this point, it’s hard for me to see how the answer could be no.

[Correction, 4/7/09: Bill Chapman is a member of the Polar Research Group at the University of Illinois. Despite George Will's claims in his column, there is no such thing as the Arctic Climate Research Center at the University of Illinois. I regret not noticing this error sooner. Details here.]

Comments (73)

Links to this Post

  1. George Will and Washington Post redouble attacks on own credibility « The Way Things Break | February 27, 2009
  2. Waiting for WaPo « The Way Things Break | February 27, 2009
  3. Blog.amhill » An Open Letter to Andrew Alexander, Ombudsman at the Washington Post | February 27, 2009
  4. WashPost Embraces Will-Ful Deceit | February 27, 2009
  5. Experts: Big Flaw in Will’s Ice Assertions - Dot Earth Blog - NYTimes.com | February 27, 2009
  6. Ice, Ice Baby: When Fact-Checking Is Not Fact-Checking | The Loom | Discover Magazine | February 28, 2009
  7. George Will and “The Swindle” tell you all you need to know « Greenfyre’s | February 28, 2009
  8. Celebrity Paycut - Encouraging celebrities all over the world to save us from global warming by taking a paycut. | February 28, 2009
  9. What George Will should have written | Eco Friendly Mag | February 28, 2009
  10. Zev Mo Bloggin’ » Blog Archive » Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt Defines George Will’s Lies As ‘Inferences’ | March 1, 2009
  11. The War on Science Goes On… « Migrations | March 1, 2009
  12. George F. Will goes platinum « Greenfyre’s | March 5, 2009
  13. Lorne Gunter, “National” Idiot (part 1) « Deep Climate | March 5, 2009
  14. Ice Never Sleeps: George Will, Jr. | The Loom | Discover Magazine | March 9, 2009
  15. Climate Progress » Blog Archive » In a blunder reminiscent of Janet Cooke scandal, the Washington Post lets George Will reassert all his climate falsehoods plus some new ones | April 3, 2009
  16. George Will and the Sea-Ice Controversy: Was He More Correct Than Thought? — MasterResource | April 13, 2009
  17. Multi-Layered Fact-Checking Process, Activate! | The Loom | Discover Magazine | December 8, 2009
  18. Multi-Layered Fact-Checking Process, Activate! | The Loom | U Reader | Your daily news stop station ... | December 9, 2009
  19. George Will: Time For Some Significant Fact-Checking | The Loom | Discover Magazine | February 22, 2010
  20. Pundits puzzled by physics « News Hub Today | October 9, 2011
  1. SLC

    It would seem elementary to me that Mr. Zimmer should demand that the Washington Post publish on their editorial page a column from himself (or Chris Mooney for that matter) taking issue with Mr. Wills’ claims. Clearly, Mr. Zimmer and Mr. Mooney, being professional science writers, unlike Mr. Will who is a political reporter, are more qualified to comment on climate issues then he is.

  2. I agree with SLC. And, the Ombudsman needs to stop telling us how good he is, and step in and do something.

  3. An open letter to Andrew Alexander, Ombudsman at the Washington Post:

    http://blog.amhill.net/2009/02/27/an-open-letter-to-andrew-alexander-ombudsman-at-the-washington-post/

    If we make enough noise, do you think they’ll finally say something about it?

  4. QUASAR

    It won’t be long before the arctic will be ice free, will it? We’ve already passed the tipping point, correct? A point where we can no longer correct the damage done to the environment! Just how many species are disappearing every day? Looks like an environmental catastrophe is inevitable!

  5. “Post-modern” is the word for it. The thrust of the argument in Will’s column today is not to make any particular assertions about global climate change, but to undermine confidence in scientists, in science, perhaps even in *facts* themselves.

    Isn’t it ironic that opinion-peddlers like Will seldom if ever challenge the “facts” asserted by powerful, secretive elites in the areas of politics, finance, or religion — only those discoverable via the most transparent, objective, and readily accessible epistemological process yet developed — the scientific method?

  6. wial

    Clearly it is extremely important to George Will and his ilk to risk near-complete global extinction by flying in the face of known and easily discernible facts. One must in charity surmise they fear some even more pressing cataclysm that would be brought about by attention and resources being diverted to this outright emergency. What could trump planetary survival? Maintenance of the white picket fence lifestyle as an emblem of how life should be for everybody were they only virtuous enough? Continued iron-fist oppression of ex-colonized people of differing colors and religions because any wavering would bring about “le deluge”? The charming conviviality of round table panel discussions on Sunday morning talk shows? A recognition denial is the only card we have left in the face of an inevitable decline? Some kind of unholy deal with the Chinese, in which he protects their right to pollute while they leapfrog us with brilliant new sustainable energy technologies?

    Maybe that’s it. It’s got to be something.

  7. Majorajam

    The only good thing about losing all the newspapers would be if they take the Post with them, to say nothing of one George Will. And speaking of, if you think his understanding of science is diabolical, you should see him slice and dice economics! He puts ginsu knive wielding crack addicts to shame.

  8. Great post!

    Not to nitpick, but I’d really like to see more pushback on the ’70s global cooling consensus’ canard. Will claimed it as fact twice in his new column and it only takes a single hyperlink to illustrate what a preposterous liar he is. Do you think you can add that to this post? It’s a great standalone otherwise.

  9. thingsbreak: I sympathize. As I mentioned, the question of the ice was but one of many errors in Will’s piece, including his account of cooling. There have been a number of good fact-checks on this one. Most recently here: http://tinyurl.com/bkeyzs

  10. Fair enough. :) I’d say you’ve done more than your fair share of work on it as it is.

    (Microcosm is next on my “To Read” list, BTW. Congrats on the recent review by Neidhardt!)

  11. itsbarneysfault

    It is arrogant to believe that humans can cause the earth to warm. The sun has more influence than an SUV. As I sit here, it is another record-breaking cold day. Shall I blame it on all the “fixes” we have began to require our people to endure? Have all our plastic-bag saving efforts already worked? Oh, wait, it’s all part of “climate change”. Any unusual weather is caused by cows farting.

    You are all just in it for the grants. Period.

  12. Wayne Whig

    Mr. Zimmer – a few notes in response:

    I must say, it is rather odd that you would put down Will’s use of a blog as a research tool – given the fact this is indeed, a blog, one that I would expect that people would take seriously and use as a… research tool.

    Second, your statments about the extent of sea-ice are as misleading – the more so – than Will’s wrt to the Arctic ice-cap being `substantially’ the same as in 1979.

    The fact is, the Arctic ice field IS substantially the same today as it was in 1979. Your statements to the effect that it is apparently smaller, by the extent of `California, Texas and something else’ combined, misleads to the extent that, indeed, this does represent a very small area of the entire Arctic ice sheet.

    Will statement came in response to many other statements – from St. Gore and many others – that the `ice sheet would disappear in a few years.’

    Obviously, an Arctic ice sheet that is 97% as large as it was in 1979 (by your implicit admission), is not in any danger of `disappearing.’

    [From Carl: Here is a graph of Artic Ice cover over 30 years. Note the trend. ]

  13. Reed

    I haven’t been following this too closely, but there’s another thing issue with Will’s conclusion I haven’t seen mentioned.

    He is claiming that the sea ice area is the same as 1979. However, from what I understand not all sea ice is equal. A cold year can produce lots of thin annual ice, but that doesn’t make up for the old ice we are indisputably losing in the arctic and some parts of the antarctic. Even if his statement about the sea ice extent being equal were correct, that wouldn’t by itself support his conclusion.

  14. Trialdog

    Ok, ice cover fluctuates. So what? Don’t you guys get tired of this? Look, here’s what is going on. Politicians want a reason to justify massive tax increases. That’s what cap and trade schemes are. The concept is not new. So, the politicians know their tax plans won’t go over well unless they can sell us on the idea the tax is necessary to save the world. Then, political front men promote and fund end of the world “science” known as global warming; now known as climate change. Some people don’t care that global warming “science” is politicized and others know it is, that it’s dubious, but favor the proposed political schemes so don’t say anything or look the other way. Will isn’t a scientist but he’s been around politicians long enough to know a scam when he sees it. So he ventures into an area where he’s subject to attack. The attacks are silly, when viewed in the larger context. Real scientists and real intellectuals will never stop questioning or testing global warming theories because real people simply want to know the truth and do what is right. Warmists want to stop debate or try to intimidate away anyone who doesn’t accept their theories. Warmists are not scientists, by definition, because their minds are closed. And, finally, their theories are bunk and their proposed “solutions” destructive. Unfortunately, they will get their way in the new few years, and we’ll all have to pay for it. Somehow though, I think the politicians will come out of it ok. Maybe even richer.

  15. Roberto

    The chart you show shows arctic trending up the last few years.

    If you are so confident of the longer term trend, why not show some projections so that in 10 years we can see how good the science is?

    The fact is many scientists predicted the ice melting would be far worse than it is and in fact missed the recent up trend.

    You lose all credibility comparing those who draw different comparisons from the data as the same as “creationists”. Give me a break. Evolution is real. It has been proven time and time again. The science on global warming is new and weak. Comparing the two just shows me that you are as agenda driven as creationists are.

  16. Roberto

    thingsbreak,

    For those of us in college in the 70s, the theory of global cooling and icebergs in Nebraska and Iowa by the year 2000 was a very real and popular theory among scientists. The consensus today is forced by politics, not science.

  17. Carl,

    Maybe I’m being too blase about this, but I really think all the attention on Will is unwarranted. See my argument for this here: http://www.collide-a-scape.com/2009/02/27/climate-furies/

  18. Jeff

    George Will should feel honored to have received such a huge amount of critical acclaim over this one opinion piece. The AGW establishment is strangely silent when B/S pours from the mouths of Warmers on a daily basis. Apparently, it’s an honor for Warmers to take pot shots at a national figure…they’re lined up waiting totake their turn.

  19. DaMav

    from your article:
    First of all, the trouble with the satellite has not affected the information coming from the Arctic Climate Research Center. As I wrote earlier this week, the scientists there use their own methods to calculate sea ice area that are different from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. And by cross-checking with other satellite measurements, they found that their estimates were still good.

    Interesting that all this cross checking with satellite measurements you claim didn’t send up red flags that there was a huge chunk of ice missing. Ooops. How exactly did they find that their estimates were still good when there was a defective sensor? Obviously Discover isn’t beyond shoveling its own BS onto its readers.

    And I love your contention that “scientists” think that in considering GLOBAL warming, GLOBAL

  20. DaMav

    I love your contention that “scientists” think that in considering GLOBAL warming, GLOBAL sea ice isn’t that important, compared to looking at the Arctic, since ice is shrinking there, but not the Antarctic where it is growing.

    Only in AGW and apparently Discover Magazine do we find “scientists” advocating that data points inconvenient to a pet theory be ignored.

    I really had hoped to see more objectivity and rationality at this blog, but it seems you are just another part of the AGW Religion which has about as much to do with real science as Creationism.

  21. DaMav

    Final point: Funny how the AGW crowd gets its panties in a wad because its critics aren’t “scientists” while swooning without a word of opprobrium when Al Gore runs arounds pushing their theory. I am not a scientist as my profession but I guarantee you I have had far more training and experience in hard science than Gore ever imagined.

    Again Discover, I urge you to be more skeptical in your thinking and not a shill for the Religion of AGW.

  22. SLC

    It’s really amazing how Mr. Zimmer has attracted the attention of the global warming denier nutcases. Much as Tara Smith attracts the attention of the HIV/AIDS deniers, David Gorski (aka Orac) attracts the attention of the antivaxers, and Jason Rosenhouse attracts the attention of the evolution deniers.

  23. AreYouKidding

    “From Carl: Here is a graph of Artic Ice cover over 30 years. Note the trend.”

    Hey, I bet if you extend that trend back 10,000 years or so you’d find the ice pack extends south to about, say, New York City.

    Imagine that. SUVs caused an ice age to end only 10,000 years ago. Whoda thunk.

  24. AreYouKidding

    How many of the computer models that are used to conclude “the earth is warming” included the following ocean currents:

    http://archives.starbulletin.com/2008/04/21/news/story05.html

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/04/080430141200.htm

    http://www.whoi.edu/sbl/liteSite.do?litesiteid=6894&articleId=10746

    How can computer models “prove” global warming when we’re still finding entire ocean currents and patterns of movement in the entire oceans that weren’t accounted for when those computer models were programmed?

    Funny, I was always taught that science is based on skepticism and religion based on faith. What’s being exhibited on this page?

  25. The laws of physics over there at discover magazine seem to be similar to those at the Washington Post editorial page.

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

    The U of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center *.pdf cited by Will ““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.”

    The document goes on to report point estimates “However, observed N. Hemisphere sea ice area is almost one million sq. km below values seen in late 1979 and S. Hemisphere sea ice area is about 0.5 million sq. km above that seen in late 1979, partly offsetting the N.Hemisphere reduction.”

    The Post claims that -500,000 = 0. They have staked their reputation on this claim. They have also claimed that one half is equal to one. The ratio of the changes reported for the N and S Hemispheres is -2 which is not about -1.

    I don’t understand why no one mentions this rock solid fact.

    Now “near or slightly below” is poorly phrased. If something is slightly below then it is near so the felicitous phrasing would be either “slightly below” if one is sure that it isn’t slightly above or “near” if one isn’t. Given the unfortunate phrasing, it is possible that a reader might think that the Arctic Climate Research Center agreed that global sea ice levels might be equal. However, the numbers 1 million and 0.5 million which were in the same one page document, make it clear to anyone that the claim that the levels were the same is inconsistent with the cited pdf file.

    Will can argue that the the Arctic Climate Research Center was wrong and that they implicitly overstated the accuracy of their measurements by not giving a confidence interval. Given the plain meanings of words and numbers, he can’t argue that the claim he made in his original op-ed is true.

    Will and Hiatt are asking me who am I going to believe, them or my lying eyes.

    For some reason I have the impression that almost all critics of Will are claiming that the issue isn’t so cut and dried, but it is. I mean the pdf is right there on the web. It’s one page long. Its text is absolutely totally 100% inconsistent with Will’s claim about its text.

    http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/global.sea.ice.area.pdf

    As to my first line, notice I said similar not the same. I’m sure that momentum and mass-energy are conserved at both places. The subtle undetectable difference between your brain and the brains of Hiatt and Will cause you to have respect for the truth.

  26. to be briefer, Will claims that the pdf confirms his claim. It does not. one million is not equal to 0.5 million as asserted by Will.

    Hiatt claims that the debate is about the interpretation of data. It is not. It is about the rawest data published by the research center in the document cited by Will.

  27. chip

    “It’s really amazing how Mr. Zimmer has attracted the attention of the global warming denier nutcases. Much as Tara Smith attracts the attention of the HIV/AIDS deniers, David Gorski (aka Orac) attracts the attention of the antivaxers, and Jason Rosenhouse attracts the attention of the evolution deniers.”

    No, what’s amazing is how people attempt to reduce a very complicated debate over climate to such a sophomoric anecdote. Just to cite a recent story, Japan’s leading scientific advisory body on climate change has reversed their position on the issue and said the theory of AGW is akin to astrology.

    One of the facts they cited is that the computer modelers didn’t predict the flattening and them slight cooling of the last 10 years. You see, for theories to become facts they need to be tested and tried empirically, not just modeled on a computer. And so far, not by any measure, has AGW been proved in the real world.

  28. Jud

    chip writes: Just to cite a recent story, Japan’s leading scientific advisory body on climate change has reversed their position on the issue and said the theory of AGW is akin to astrology.

    Funny, one of the authors of the report you cite disagrees with you:

    “Thus, it is not correct if one thinks that the discussion represents the opinion of the journal’s editors or of the society JSER.” (That is, the article skeptical of AGW, says one of the co-authors, represents neither the opinion of “Japan’s leading scientific advisory body,” nor of the editors of the journal put out on behalf of that body.) The co-author goes on to identify one of his other co-authors as an “aurora physicist,” which certainly convinces me that he knows more than climatologists.

  29. SLC

    Re chip

    Would Mr. chip like to give a link to the alleged statement by Japans’ leading advisory body. Just like the relationship between HIV and AIDs is akin to astrology according to Peter Duesberg. Just like the link between ciganette smoking and lung cancer is akin to astrology according to Fed Singer (who is also a global warning denier and a CFC/ozone depletion denier). Just like the claim that vaccines don’t cause cause autism is akin to astrology according to Dr. Andrew Wakefield. Just like the theory of evolution is akin to astrology according to William Dembski. I strongly suspect that in the unlikely event that Mr. Chip supplies a link, it will be to a global warming denier site that will have quote mined the Japanese report.

  30. Arnold Mousetrouser (Australia)

    Very interesting stuff! To add a bit of weight, the British Guardian Weekly has a couple of interesting pieces, based on recent long-range research, on pages 30-31 of their February 27th issue. One is headed “Melt ponds explain high rate of Arctic ice loss”, the other is headed “Warming seas push species to the poles”. These pieces are at a slight angle to what’s being discussed but relevant and worth checking for a broader view:

    To get to the Guardian Weekly on the web try and feel your way around.

    And the chronic nitpicker in me suggests ‘the Washington Post’s “batallion” of fact-checkers’ in Carl’s piece should be ‘the Washington Post’s “battalion” of fact-checkers’, shouldn’t it? Can’t be too careful when picking on others, as my Granny used to say! Arnold Mousetrouser (Australia)

  31. Arnold Mousetrouser (Australia)

    The Guardian Weekly address dropped out of my message (above) it is http://www.guardianweekly.co.uk

  32. Estarcatus

    Just so we are all clear, then, SLC: AGW is as established, in scientific terms, as evolution? Really?

  33. SLC

    Re Estarcatus

    Just so we are all clear, then, SLC: AGW is as established, in scientific terms, as evolution?

    No, but global warming deniers arguments sound much like the arguments of the Dishonesty Institute about evolution. By the way, the folks at the Dishonesty Institute include global warming deniers, HIV/AIDS deniers, and, in the presence of John West, Holocaust deniers.

  34. Jeff Lang

    Considering there is no publicly available data anywhere that goes back to 1979 (a good fact checker would check that) …

    … Nobody can actually check whether George Will is right or wrong.

    The sea ice data was mysteriously changed in early June 2007 and 750,000 km^2 of 2007 ice area disappeared while the 1979 data went up. Why don’t you check with William Chapman how that happened and how the math works for changes such as this.

    http://img401.imageshack.us/img401/2918/anomalykm3.gif

  35. David B. Benson

    Here ae two attempts to present the essense of climatology.

    Barton Paul Levenson:
    1. CO2 is a greenhouse gas (Tyndall 1859).
    2. CO2 is rising (Keeling et al. 1958).
    3. The new CO2 is mainly from burning fossil fuels (Suess 1955).
    4. Temperature is rising (NASA GISS, Hadley CRU, UAH, RSS, etc.).
    5. The increase in temperature correlates with the increase in CO2 (76% for temp. anomaly and ln CO2 for 1880-2007).

    Jim Galasyn:
    Fundamentally, climate science is based on well-understood principles of thermodynamics. Before humans burned the sequestered carbon (fossil fuels) and released CO2, Earth was in radiative near-equilibrium with space. Humans introduced a sudden, 500-gigaton excursion in the global carbon budget. Because CO2 is a “heat-trapping gas,” Earth is now in disequilibrium with space. To return to equilibrium, the atmosphere must warm.
    The rest is details. Interesting details, to be sure, but the basic thermodynamics have been understood since Svante Arrhenius published in 1896.

  36. Steve Horstmeyer

    What is missing from all this is the word “thickness”. Indeed the AREA covered by sea ice could increase but the amount decrease if the thickness is decreasing. It is all about ice volume not area, though the latter is importnat

  37. Arnold Mousetrouser (Australia)

    Spot on, Steve Horstmeyer. That’s why I suggested (in my comment, seven up above this) people should have a look at the pieces in Britain’s Guardian Weekly of February 27th pages 30-31, especially the piece “Melt ponds explain high rate of Arctic ice loss”. Ice volume, not area. But not so much in the Antarctic, as they describe and elucidate. AM
    Guardian Weekly online to be found at http://www.guardianweekly.co.uk

  38. Robin

    As you point out, the WAPO editorial response reminds me of nothing so much as the Creationist memes in various iterations. While an overwhelming majority of scientists have a broad consensus on the fact of evolution and comment descent and climate change, a few outliers (with clearly ideological and not scientific motives) somehow treated as worthy of equal time in the debate. They cannot get it in peer reviewed journals, so they are left with George and Rush to carry their water.

  39. mr burns

    dear global warming assertion nutcases,

    Since you cannot see an obvious scam for higher taxes (and more grants) we shall try substitution rather than reason.
    Worry about the earth being hit by a large asteroid. It has happened before and the result could well be another ice age. We need orbital cannon NOW !
    Alternatively you could worry about radioactive giant lizards emerging from Tokyo harbor and running amok. There is actual footage.

  40. Hank Roberts

    > chip
    > Japan’s leading scientific advisory body on climate change …

    Say what? Chip who?
    What led you to believe that nonsense? Look it up.

    “… this article in The Register, which has been splashed all over the septic end of the bogusphere …. The “report” is simply the collation of one of these popular-but-pointless sceptic-vs-scientist debates, and has no official status. … Emori (江守), who was the only climate scientist involved in the event … tried to present the scientific case but was obviously rather outnumbered…. the other 4 participants in the farce have no background in climate science, and instead a history of scepticism…. Fundamentally it’s just a bit of random non-scientific quackery from the local sceptics …. The Register seems puzzled that it’s been ignored, but this is surely the kindest fate. I hope they didn’t waste too much money on the translation.”

    –excerpt from James Annan’s blog. You know how to find it.

  41. TX

    Have a look at these 4 icecover maps from the folks at NSIDC:

    ftp://sidads.colorado.edu/DATASETS/NOAA/G02135/Dec/S_197912_extn.png

    ftp://sidads.colorado.edu/DATASETS/NOAA/G02135/Dec/N_197912_extn.png

    ftp://sidads.colorado.edu/DATASETS/NOAA/G02135/Dec/S_200812_extn.png

    ftp://sidads.colorado.edu/DATASETS/NOAA/G02135/Dec/N_200812_extn.png

    According to those maps:

    Total Sea-ice area NH+SH Dec 1979 = 23.9 million sq km

    Totai Sea-ice area NH+SH Dec 2008 = 24.7 million sq km

    Increase 1979-2008 = 0.8 million sq km

    Seems George Will was right after all.

    Carl: TX, George Will did not use the time series from NSIDC. He made claims about the time series from the Arctic Climate Research Center. So you need to look at their data. Also, Will referred to ice “now”–ie, February 2009, not December 2008 when you are drawing your slides. And finally, George Will made this claim about ice to bolster his assertion that global warming is having no effect. But in my post, I explained why he is wrong to use global ice area, rather than looking at the trends at each pole.

  42. Dean

    There are two aspects to this ice debate to add. Measuring ice globally at a particular date is difficult to put a value because the two poles are in different seasons at any particular date.

    Secondly, midwinter ice at either of the poles is not a measure of great value because even with significant warming, it is still way below freezing when the sun is gone for months, and the entire area at or near the pole is going to freeze. It is summer and late summer ice extent and/or thickness that is most enlightening to the process of climate change. Anybody care to compare Sept ice extent in 1979 vs 2008?

    So arguing about December vs February really obscures the point, but obscuration (!) is the tool that folks like G. Will need to use since the trend in late-summer ice in the Arctic (where there is an ocean on the pole) is so clear.

  43. “Summer Ice condition in this province are extremely varible. The location of the pack boundry ranges from nearshore to onshore to 200 nautical miles off shore.” Page nice, second paragraph from the botton.
    http://nsidc.org/pubs/gd/GD-2_web.pdf

    So even in 1979 we knew the ice was a very rough measure and changed a lot.

    Is Will a tool? Probably. Is the NSIDC a democrat tool, falsifying data, misrepresenting data as it sees fit to forward its agenda, absolutely.

  44. Dean

    PS – A good but brief discussion of arctic ice extent from NOAA can be found at http://www.arctic.noaa.gov/reportcard/seaice.html. It demonstrates quite well the difference between winter and summer ice. Winter ice has declined 2.8% per decade while summer ice has declined 11.1% per decade, since 1979. In fact 2008 summer ice was slightly more than 2007, but both were far less than previous years. There are some good graphs on those pages. A picture is worth a thousand words.

    I know that this is simply not acceptable for those who find it ideologically challenging to follow the science where ever it leads.

    Another interesting factoid: January, 2009 was warmer than average in the United States. (See http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/research/2009/jan/jan09.html).

    For December:
    “The average December 2008 temperature of 32.5 degrees F was 0.9 degree below the 20th Century average.

    December temperatures were much below average across the Upper Midwest and cooler than average across much of the West, Northwest and Midwest. Warmer-than- average temperatures were experienced in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic States.”
    http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/research/2008/dec/dec08.html

    And November, 2008, was above average. (http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/research/2008/nov/nov08.html)

  45. Jeff

    Don’t believe the hype!
    Look into the 1400′s, It was so warm that the Viking’s started colonizing Greenland. It was so warm and the vegitaion was so lush, they named their new home GREENLAND. Shortly after the Chinese circumnavigated Greenland, because it was so warm, that there was no ice around it making it possible to sail around the whole country.
    The earth goes through warm and cold spells, haven’t you noticed how cold and snowy it’s been this winter, winter did come early this year.
    Yes, take care of the planet, but don’t get all hyped up and worried about bullshit.
    Global warming is a scam designed to scare you , the more scared you are the easier it is to control you, it’s called ” Shock doctine ” look it up.

  46. Dean

    Remember that the era that warmed Greenland also depopulated significant civilizations in the southwest and possibly the Maya as well.

    Greenland will likely be a bit more hospitable to live in with global warming. How much consolation that offers to the drying southwest and plains, coastal cities underwater, salt intrusion to coastal farming, etc, etc, is the question. How many hundreds of millions will move to Greenland and other northern climes that are much too sandy to grow much food in?

    While the human species is very adaptable, human civilizations and societies are much less so. Many have collapsed as a result of climate change, whether caused by natural causes or human (deforestation can cause local climatic changes).

  47. Lonnie kempf

    Well, I’m no expert but I have to agree with ‘Trialdog’. It’s interesting to me that debates such as the one Mr. Will has precipitated center around details and mechanics. As long as this subterfuge takes place the conundrum will continue.
    The focal issue of AGW is ‘cap and trade’ and energy credits; politics, and already a billion dollar affair as Trialdog mentions. Yes, CO2 is increasing, yes we can anticipate temp increases up to the midieval climate optimum in a century or so: as we recover from the little ice age.
    Sea ice is irrelevant, we report it as we watch it happen and are powerless to stop it. It’s a natural process: welcome to life on an actively dynamic living planet.
    Civilizations may collapse? So what, do you see any close by that are so precious, so geared toward the betterment of their respective populace and mankind as a whole? That is just life, maybe this will change that. Well, perhaps some aboriginal tribes that we haven’t polluted yet would be worth saving. Hell, they’ll probably survive with more grace and dignity than we would.
    This process of warming started well before the industrial revolution and does not correlate with carbon use by humans. That is a simple, verified fact, and pretty darn close to indisputable as you can get.
    So lets stop sweating the ‘little stuff’, adapt to our ever changing environment while striving to be better stewards of it and confront the socio-political airheads that want to make a buck off it…and us.
    Check out http://www.petitionproject.org
    It kinda sucks actually if this GW thing doesn’t pan out: maybe there is an asteroid or giant green lizard (I saw the footage) coming for us. At this point I’m thinking that only something of this magnitude might change our course to a more humane planet.

  48. neo-anti-luddite

    “It kinda sucks actually if this GW thing doesn’t pan out: maybe there is an asteroid or giant green lizard (I saw the footage) coming for us.”

    Well there is a rather large asteroid coming for us in 2029, but fortunately it’ll just miss us this time; when it comes back around in 2036, though, we might not be so lucky. The “orbital cannon” mr burns suggests is as firmly rooted in pop culture as the giant lizard he mentions (as do you; funny how you both use the same images…almost like you both read it somewhere…or perhaps you’re just plagarizing his inane posting?), and both are equally idiotic in terms of scientific accuracy. An orbital cannon would be both inefficient and ineffective (instead of getting hit with one million-ton asteroid, we get hit with a milion tons of large chunks of asteroid! Yay!); far better (and more elegant) is the suggestion that we put a small satelite close to the asteroid (and have it adjust it’s orbit whenever it gets to close) then let the gravitational attraction between the two correct the problem over the next few years.

    Despite your ignorant snark, near-Earth objects, especially asteroids, are a very real and potentially imminent threat. Of course, the obvious solution is to fund increased observation of objects that cross our orbit, not some moronic “space gun.” But then, to someone who thinks global warming is some kind of conspiracy, I suppose the planetary equivalent of a tin-foil hat probably looks pretty good.

  49. Injector

    Three posters, Reed, Steve Horstmeyer and Dean, have noted some of the relevant measurements regarding Arctic sea ice. The skeptics have not responded to their comments.

    George Will apparently did not know that he was talking about irrelevant winter sea ice cover measurements. While he is one smart fella, he should stick to stuff he knows, like baseball.

    What is relevant is the summer minimum year round ice cover, average ice thickness in the year round cover, and the volumetric winter season recovery. For these, there appear to have been a substantial change. The trends are for permanent summer ice to be less in area, for the permanent ice to be thinner, and for single year recovery ice to be more in area but relatively thin. The latter is important in that there is more rapid melt in the summer (peak loss being in early September). And all of this leads to more heating of the Arctic waters in summer.

  50. Estarcatus

    RE: SLC

    Thank you, SLC, for answering. The answer is much as I expected: no. I think any honest appraisal of the available science would lead most to the same conclusion. A couple of follow up questions, if I might, for your attention.

    First, as you have indicated that the science behind AGW is not as established as, say, evolution, is it fair then to classify everyone and anyone who might question the validity of the AGW theory as a nut case, on par with creationists and those who deny the link between HIV and AIDS? Or, rather, perhaps I should ask the question in a different way. Is there no room for rational dissent from the prevailing AGW wisdom? Is there no room for skepticism? Or, are all skeptics, who may question the linkage between rising temperatures and human activities, simply either irrational or disingenuous?

    Second, I am wondering what might cause you, or any AGW proponent, to question the validity of the AGW theory. In other words, were I to set out to prove or disprove the linkage between rising temperatures and human activities (namely, the release of “greenhouse gasses” into the atmosphere), what findings might cause me to conclude that there *is* no linkage. For instance, over a period of time, if I observe, perhaps, that temperatures are falling, ice cover is increasing over the poles and/or that sea levels either remain static or drop. These are just some ideas, and I would be curious to hear exactly what would cause you to conclude that the theory of AGW, as we both, I believe, understand it, is invalid.

    Thank you!

  51. Pleistocene/Holocene climate change.

    In an attempt to understand what is happening to the earth without trying to politicize it. I have a few questions. Just to show my bias I spent most of the last thirty years as a computer programer and DBA. I can write a program the will predict that we are going to be as warm as it was at the Permian Triassic boundary or we are going to enter a new ice age next week. Just give me the money and let me know what outcome you want. For two examples the cigaret companies never funded any research showing a link between cancer and tobacco. Peta has never funded any research showing any benefit of drug research on animals.

    The problem is the weather bureau has trouble predicting what the weather is going to be next week with degree of accuracy. Back in the dark ages when I was taking aviation weather(1968). My instructor said if you want to predict weather more that 48 hours in advance just say it is going to be the same as to day and you will be just as accurate.

    It is my understanding that there have some 20 periods of Glaciation and interglacials during the Pleistocene/Holocene. See new time frame for Pleistocene.
    http://johnhawks.net/weblog/topics/geology/timescale/pleistocene-quaternary-redefinition-2009.html
    We are now in an interglacial. A period of global climate change with increasing temperatures.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Atmospheric_CO2_with_glaciers_cycles.gif

    The climate had been growing warner for the last ten thousand years with periods of cooling interspersed (little ice age) the followed The Medieval Warm Period. The warmest period was some 8000 years ago. The cooling period before the little ice age seems to coincide with the fall of the Roman Empire. The warmest period during the interglacial was from 8000 to 2500 years ago.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interglacial#Interglacial_optimum
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:2000_Year_Temperature_Comparison.png
    http://www.climatechange.umaine.edu/Research/Contrib/html/02.html
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Holocene_Temperature_Variations.png

    The Eemian 130,000 years ago was warmer than it is today.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eemian_Stage
    Cenozoic climate
    Paleocene, Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene
    Cooler Warmer, Cooler Cooler Cooler

    My question is why is everyone upset about changes that do not appear at all unusual? Yes the climate may be growing warmer but it is very unlikely to be as warm as it was in the Miocene much less the Eocene. The big danger mankind faces is what happens at the end of the interglacial.

    What makes this (global warming) so much different that all the others?

    How do we resolve the evidence of global warming on Mars?

    It is my understanding that CO2 tracks changes in global temperature very closely but seems to lag by about 800 years.

    The most common green house gas is not CO2 it is H2O what are we proposing to do about this problem of water vapor?

    This by the way does not mean that I think that we should not take care of the planet. I just think that we are jumping a very small fluctuations and crying the sky is falling.

  52. Mark

    “The most common green house gas is not CO2 it is H2O what are we proposing to do about this problem of water vapor?”

    H2O falls out itself.

    It’s called “rain.

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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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