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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.

This week's 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 future."

This conclusion appears to be based on some rather sparse evidence, including:

  • the shape of islands in the Maldives,
  • the position of a woman's skeleton found close to the islands, and
  • 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.

In 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 examined 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 misrepresentation.

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 rising.

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 earth rotates."

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 INQUA:

"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.

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