Rising incredulity at the Spectator’s use of dubious sea level claims
- 02 Dec 2011, 11:15
- Verity Payne
When the Spectator does climate change, it does it prominently -
often on the front cover - and it promotes views that don't reflect
the broad scientific agreement on climate change.
issue is no exception, with a front page article by climate
skeptic and retired scientist Nils-Axel Mörner, in which he
dismisses projections of rising sea level as "nonsense".
However, we can reveal that his claims are based on highly
contested evidence and the body he claims to speak for no longer
exists. What's more, his former colleagues are scrambling to
distance themselves from his views.
In the piece, Mörner talks at length about the Maldives, the
"best-known 'victim' of rising sea levels". Relative sea level in
the Maldives has
risen over the last few decades, leading some to question
whether the Maldives might become submerged as projected sea level
rise plays out.
But according to Mörner's lengthy piece in the Spectator, the
"truth about sea levels" is that "they're always fluctuating", and
there's no need for concern:
"As someone with some expertise in the
field, I can assure the low-lying countries that this is a false
alarm... I have conducted six field trips to the Maldives."
Apart from having visited the country, Mörner has two claims to
be an expert on this subject - he has published material on sea
level rise (and in particular the Maldives) in peer-reviewed
journals, and he is a former president of a body called "the INQUA
commission on Sea Level Changes and Coastal Evolution," where, he
says, "the world's true experts on sea level are to be found".
More on INQUA in a moment.
Mörner's scientific papers on the subject include a 2004
paper in the journal Global and Planetary Change which
makes the bold claim:
"...There seems no longer to be any
reasons to condemn the Maldives to become flooded in the near
This conclusion appears to be based on some rather sparse
- the shape of islands in the Maldives,
- the position of a woman's skeleton found close to the islands,
- anecdotal evidence that some sailing routes have become more
shallow over recent decades
Mörner suggests that these features indicate that sea levels
were higher in the past and have fallen as recently as the 1970s,
and argues that since the Maldives were populated at the time, and
the population had survived, the risk of flooding in the Maldives
from rising sea levels must be overstated.
another of his papers he goes further:
"...Satellite altimetry does not record
any significant rise in global sea level in the last decades."
These are striking claims that jar with the generally accepted
scientific view that sea levels are rising due to climate change,
and that this will affect low lying countries.
As a result, Mörner's work has been subjected to close
examination by other scientists working on sea level change in the
Maldives, including papers from Professor Colin Woodroffe at the
University of Wollongong, Professor Philip Woodworth of the
Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory, and a group of Australia
scientists led by Dr. John Church at the Centre for Australian
Weather and Climate Research.
They all criticise Mörner's approach and conclusions - Woodworth
Mörner's claims from "meteorological and oceanographic
perspectives" and found them "implausible". Woodroffe
described Mörner's claims as "questionable" pointing out his
methodologies do not stand up to scrutiny, and that his conclusions
lack supporting evidence. The group of Australian scientists
found "no evidence for the fall in sea level at the Maldives as
postulated by Mörner."
Futhermore, Mörner's claims about satellite altimetry are in
error - the technique shows that sea levels
rose by around 3 mm per year between 1993 and 2006.
This brings us to INQUA, the International Union for Quaternary
Reseach, a professional association of scientists from over 50
countries who study long-term climate change. Mörner claims to be
articulating INQUA's collective view, but based on our inquiries
with the organisation this appears to be a very bare
To the extent that INQUA have a collective view on this issue,
it seems diametrically opposed to that of Mörner's. Professor
Roland Gehrels of the University of Plymouth is the current
president of the INQUA commission on Coastal and Marine Processes -
the part of INQUA that now considers sea level change.
He described Mörner as a "very good field scientist" and an
"entertaining speaker". But, he says, it is misleading for Mörner
to describe 'INQUA's research' as showing that sea levels are not
Mörner states in the Spectator piece, of INQUA:
"Our research is what the climate lobby
might call an 'inconvenient truth': it shows that sea levels have
been oscillating close to the present level for the last three
centuries. This is not due to melting glaciers: sea levels are
affected by a great many factors, such as the speed at which the
When we put this quote to Gehrels, he responded:
"He shouldn't say 'our research', he
should say 'my research'. I would say that 99% of INQUA scientists
don't subscribe to this view, and I wouldn't be surprised if he is
the only one who believes this."
The INQUA commission on Sea Level Changes and Coastal Evolution
which Mörner cites no longer exists. According to Professor Gehrels
it was disbanded in 2003 when Mörner's term as president ended.
INQUA are writing a formal response to send to the Spectator. It
won't be the first time. John J. Clague, a former
President of INQUA (2003-2007), has previously had to
distance the organisation from Mörner - in a 2004
letter to the President of the Russian Academy of Sciences,
Clague made it clear that Mörner's views are not representative of
"Dr. Mörner currently has no formal
position in INQUA, and I am distressed that he continues to
represent himself in his former capacity. Further, INQUA, which is
an umbrella organization for hundreds of researchers knowledgeable
about past climate, does not subscribe to Mörner's position on
climate change. Nearly all of these researchers agree that humans
are modifying Earth's climate, a position diametrically opposed to
Dr. Mörner's point of view."
Woodworth notes in his 2005 paper that:
"Most parts of the scientific community
regard climate and sea level change as a serious issue which could
have major consequences for nations such as the Maldives, and
recognise that it is important for all parts of the community to
work together. That point of view is certainly held by INQUA.
However, [Mörner] has conducted a vigorous campaign against the
work of climate modellers associated with the IPCC, both via
web sites... and in journals."
None of this was particularly difficult to find out - indeed, it
only required a basic review of the scientific literature, talking
to a couple of sea level scientists, and a quick call to the
relevant person at INQUA. Either the Spectator was incapable of
this level of fact checking and analysis - which seems unlikely -
or they didn't regard it as important.
Either way, the end result is an article which demonstrates
exactly the kind of credulity that it claims to expose.