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