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Ice age! How the Daily Express use inverted commas to mangle science

  • 10 Oct 2011, 12:10
  • Christian Hunt

When a scientific paper is published discussing the sun's influence on climate, we are likely to see one of two stories in certain parts of the UK press. We may be told that the research shows that it's the sun which is responsible for observed climate change - the 'it was the sun wot done it' story. These stories are getting rarer as the more extreme claims of certain climate skeptics are discounted, but it does still happen.

More frequently, we are told that changes in the amount of the sun's energy are about to plunge us into a new 'little ice age', or sometimes just a 'new ice age' for brevity.)

True to form, a short paper in the journal Nature which looks at the role of the Sun on seasonal weather patterns has sparked an example of the second story. Yesterday, the Sunday Times published an article titled " Arctic winter menaces Britain" [£] which discussed warnings from government that we may see a repeat of last winter's record cold temperatures in Britain this winter, due to the natural weather pattern La Niña. The article, by their Environment Editor Jonathan Leake, also discussed the Nature paper, which was co-authored by scientists from the Met Office:

The warning coincides with research from the Met Office suggesting Europe could be facing a return of the "little ice age" that gripped Britain 300 years ago, causing decades of bitter winters. The prediction, to be published in Nature, is based on observations showing a slight fall in the sun's emissions of ultraviolet radiation, which over a long period may trigger mini ice ages in Europe.

This is incorrect. The paper says nothing about little ice ages, and makes no 'predictions' about long term trends in either European or global climate. Rather, it discusses how changes in the 11-year cycle of the sun's power may have an effect on winter temperatures in North Europe and the US.

A quick definitional note on ice ages: An example of a short ice age lasts around 40 million years. The natural cycling between 'glacial' and 'interglacial' periods (we are currently in a warmer 'interglacial') takes place over at least tens of thousands of years. The 'little ice age',  according to the IPCC, was a three hundred year long 'modest cooling of the Northern Hemisphere'. The last few UK winters have been quite cold.

These are all very different things, and the Nature paper makes it pretty clear that its findings are limited to discussing cold winters, concluding (my emphasis):

If the updated measurements of solar ultraviolet irradiance are correct, low solar activity, as observed during recent years, drives cold winters in northern Europe and the United States, and mild winters over southern Europe and Canada, with little direct change in globally averaged temperature.

In other words, the paper discusses whether the past few cold winters have been related to the behaviour of a solar cycle that (roughly) resets and repeats about every 11 years.

The Sunday Times write of the drop in UV levels that "over a long period [they] may trigger mini ice ages in Europe." But the paper is not saying that there is a long-term drop in the sun's activity.

Had the story stopped there, it would have been a minor blip - a poorly chosen or badly worded line by the Sunday Times.

express-ice-age-oct-2011 But anything with the words 'sun' and 'little ice age' in it was going to be enthusiastically spun by climate skeptics in think tanks and the media. Yesterday, skeptic lobbyists the Global Warming Policy Foundation re-posted the Sunday Times article yesterday under their own headline: Met Office U-Turn: Europe May be facing the return of 'Little Ice Age'. (Presumably because there is nothing in the Nature paper itself which discusses ice ages of any sort, this headline has now been adjusted to Sunday Times: Europe May be Facing Return Of 'Little Ice Age'.)

Today's front-page headline in the Express (average circulation 625,152) is Britain Faces a Mini 'Ice Age' - either inspired by the GWPF's framing, or independently arriving at the same angle. The headline is not only incorrect, it's also a rather confusing use of inverted commas.

The article itself follows a familiar pattern for poor climate reporting. The first few paragraphs on the front page are the most obviously inaccurate in their claims about imminent ice ages. The rest of the article is less sensationalist, reasonably accurate although confusing - and on page 7.

It begins:

"This winter will see start of DECADES of big freezes

Britain is set to suffer a mini ice age that could last for decades and bring with it a series of bitterly cold winters. And it could all begin within weeks



Scientists say the anticipated cold blast will be due to the return of a disruptive weather pattern called La Nina…"

Here, the Express are not discussing the Nature paper, but rather the return of the La Niña weather pattern, which may (an important caveat, here ignored) be linked to cold winters in Europe. But an average La Niña event might last for a couple of years - not the decades the Express cite.

Equally, describing the few years of cold winters discussed in the Nature paper as 'a mini ice age that could last for decades' is plainly wrong. In the label on an info-graphic, they write:

"Scientists have blamed last year's big freeze - the coldest winter in more than three decades - on La Nina. Forecasters fear Europe is facing a repeat of the "little ice age" that gripped Britain 300 years ago"

It's not clear who these 'forecasters' are. Based on the Nature paper it's clearly not the Met Office, although you might be led to believe that from the GWPF's original headline: 'Met Office U-Turn: Europe May be facing the return of 'Little Ice Age''.

Finally, a couple of points about how these stories are treated by climate skeptics. First, the Nature paper is based on computer modeling. Skeptics like to claim that computer models can't tell us anything useful about the climate, but it's worth noting that this rejection of computer modelling is applied very selectively by many skeptics - as it appears to have been in this case.

It's also reasonably instructive that climate skeptic lobbyists like to label others as ' climate alarmists' - yet here we see an example of a skeptic think tank spinning a paper about cold winters and 11-year solar cycles into a warning about an impending 'little ice age', and a newspaper article that warns of a 'decade long' 'mini ice age' starting 'within weeks'... Pretty accomplished alarmism, surely?

Our current understanding of climate science is that although energy from the sun provides almost all of the energy to power the Earth's climate system, it is  not the dominant climate forcing causing recent warming. A number of independent studies have  shown that over the last 35 years solar activity has waned, yet global average temperature has continued to rise.

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