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Harper Collins to "urgently review" maps following more criticism from scientists

  • 22 Sep 2011, 11:00
  • Robin Webster

Earlier this week the team at Harper Collins admitted they had made a mistake in a "misleading" press release which indicated that Greenland had lost 15% of its permanent ice cover. Their apology said "This was done without consulting the scientific community and was incorrect" but added

"We stand by the accuracy of the maps in this and all other editions of The Times Atlas"

Since then, however, the pressure has ramped up - from the media, but more crucially from the scientific community -  to admit that the maps themselves were wrong. In a press release yesterday, scientists from the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) at the University of Cambridge put it unambiguously:

"...scientists remain troubled by the final statement in the latest press release from HarperCollins, "We stand by the accuracy of the maps in this and all other editions of The Times Atlas". Scientists still contend that the latest map of Greenland is highly misleading and is not a proper map of the ice extent and topography. The map shows only the extent of ice greater than 500m thick (furthermore, it appears to show contours of Ice Thickness rather than Surface Elevation). All permanent ice cover less than 500m thick has simply been erased.

As far as the UK scientists are aware, Greenland is the only map that does not show the topography and extent of ice correctly. The maps of Antarctica, Iceland and European Alps all appear to look sensible. If HarperCollins had applied their "greater than 500m ice thickness rule" to other areas of the globe, there would be virtually no glaciers mapped in Iceland or the Alps.

The scientists urge HarperCollins to acknowledge that their mapping of Greenland's ice is incomplete and misleading. We would encourage them to issue a corrected map for Greenland which shows the full ice extent and the true surface topography. The current map is in marked contrast to the overall quality and authoritative nature of the rest of the Atlas."

This morning Harper Collins have issued a response - or ' clarification'  - that admits that

"On reflection and in discussion with the scientific community, the current map does not make the explanation of this topic as clear as it should be."

It continues:

"We are now urgently reviewing the depiction of ice in the Atlas against all the current research and data available, and will work with the scientific community to produce a map of Greenland which reflects all the latest data.   We will then create an insert for the current atlas showing this map and also give an explanation of the situation and how we have mapped it.  Any material generated as a result of this activity will also be made available online and incorporated into the Atlas."

Several media commentators yesterday pointed to the role of the scientific community in recognising and highlighting this error, with a Dr Poul Christoffersen from SPRI laying out how the scientists were able to "rally, mobilise and respond to a massively incorrect press statement by HarperCollins" in the Guardian. Mark Lynas labelled it " a victory for science" and in the Telegraph, Geoffrey Lean compared it to the "bombastic, self-defeating" initial reaction of HarperCollins.

Harper Collins continue

"The one thing that is very apparent is that there is no clarity in the scientific and cartographic community on this issue but we have been consulting widely over the last week with experts in the field and have received a good response and support with new sources and data."

This is something of an ambiguous statement and it will be interesting to see how the scientific community react to it. Scientists certainly seem to have been pretty clear that 15% was wrong - with Julienne Stroeve from the National Snow and Ice Data Center for example commenting that "Even a graduate student would have caught the mistake they made." There is also a mass of evidence that melt of the Greeland ice-sheet is happening, and is having an impact on sea-level rise. But of course that is not the same as wide agreement on what a map looks like.

HarperCollins concludes somewhat optimistically

"This most up-to-date information from all the latest sources would be a positive outcome.  If the controversy about the Times Atlas encourages scientists to come together and clarify some of the confusion about our climate and how it is changing, the outcome will help the general public, and indeed all of us, better understand this complex issue."

Whether this media story has really done anything to "clarify some of the confusion about our climate and how it is changing" for the general public is somewhat questionable. As well as praise for the scientific community, the mistake by HarperCollins has also predictably attracted media coverage that implies that all climate science is exaggerated - including a a full-page article in the Daily Mail yesterday by Christopher Booker entitled "Global warming and the twisting of our children's minds".

As a Senior Research Scientist at the University of Arizona has put it

"The Times Atlas maps have been publicised in the media far and wide.  But make no mistake: this is not what is happening, this is not science, and this is not what scientists are saying.  Greenland specialists have documented what is actually happening in Greenland, and it involves some incredibly rapid changes, mainly increasing melting, thinning, and retreat; and slight thickening in some sectors, but overall Greenland is a story of massive, rapid retreat."

The melting of the Greenland ice-sheet (which we have looked into more detail here) remains an enormously important scientific issue that deserves to be discussed - accurately - in the mainstream media.

There is also more about Greenland ice melt in 2011 here.

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