New study suggests broadsheet reporting of sea-level rise is pretty good

  • 14 Jan 2011, 13:21
  • Christian


Annual averages of global mean sea level from tide gauges (blue) and satellite altimetry (black). The light blue shading shows 90% confidence intervals for the measurements. (IPCC, 2007, via NOAA)

There's a new analysis out from academics at the University of Colorado, including media analyst Maxwell Boykoff and blogger Roger Pielke Jr, examining how scientific predictions of sea level rise to 2100 have been represented in the press, which concludes that, for the papers they consider at least, they generally do a pretty good job of it.

The analysis looks at both the UK and US - the UK papers are the FT, the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Times. It shows that over the past 20 years these papers have generally reported the sea level projections provided by the IPCC and discussed in the scientific literature pretty accurately. (See the chart below.)


The report confirms that the IPCC is seen as the most reputable source for scientific information. When journalists talk about sea level rise, they have generally focused on the IPCC's most recent top-line projections, rather than delving into individual scientific papers.

The IPCC's projections of sea level rise have stayed fairly constant over the course of four assessment reports, and the range of uncertainty in their projections has fallen as climate modelling has become more sophisticated. However, in the Fourth Assessment Report the IPCC acknowledged that because of limited understanding of how ice sheets might melt as the planet warms, sea level rise by 2100 could end up being higher than their projections.

The Unversity of Colorado report notes:

… many in the scientific community believe the most recent [IPCC] report underestimates sea level rise projections to 2100. If the effect of ice dynamics were included in climate models, the projections would likely be higher but with a greater uncertainty.

This is likely to be a key issue in the work that the IPCC are now doing on the Fifth Assessment Report. According to the Colorado study, this uncertainty has also changed the nature of how sea level rise gets reported since the Fourth Assessment Report, with more stories about the uncertainties involved in ice sheet behaviour.

It's impossible to know from this kind of analysis - which looks at what numbers are quoted with respect to sea level rise - how clearly issues like uncertainty and shifting projections are coming across to readers. And while it's good to see that for the most part the press are getting it right, when articles do get things wrong - for example, incorrectly claiming the IPCC said there'd be two metres of sea level rise by 2100, and on that basis writing the headline ' Alarmist doomsday warning of rising seas 'was wrong'' - they're seized upon by sceptics and enthusiastically repeated around the internet as evidence of scientists being 'alarmist' or 'backtracking', which probably doesn't help general understanding of the issue either.

Typing that same headline - first published in the Daily Mail on 6th December - into Google now gives thousands of results.


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