Glaciologists ride to the rescue: Greenland mistake corrected in peer-reviewed paper

  • 08 May 2012, 14:13
  • Verity Payne

Remember last year's furore over the mistake by the Times World Atlas which suggested that Greenland had lost 15 per cent of its ice in little over a decade?

Now the group of the scientists who first called the Atlas out on their dodgy calculations have just published a peer-reviewed scientific paper which offers a more realistic assessment of the rate of Greenland ice loss.

In case you've forgotten what all the fuss was about, here's a quick re-cap:

HarperCollins put out a press release in September last year for the 2011 edition of the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World stating that since 1999 "15% of the permanent ice cover (around 300,000 sq km) of Greenland, the world's largest island, has melted away".

The 15 per cent figure, reportedly calculated by comparing the Times Atlas maps of Greenland from 1999 and 2011, was fairly widely covered in the media until polar scientists pointed out that the figure was wildly at odds with in-situ and satellite measurements of Greenland ice cover. The Times Atlas maps also showed areas of Greenland as ice-free when they are in reality covered by ice.

As Poul Christoffersen of the University of Cambridge Scott Polar Research Institute wrote at the time;

"...[S]cientists are well aware that one big error can cloud a thousand truths."

And indeed journalist Christopher Booker was quick to try to use the episode to further his own dubious narrative about man-made climate change, as we reported at the time.

HarperCollins eventually retracted the 15 per cent claim, but quibbled over whether their maps were accurate. The scientists kept up pressure, and ultimately HarperCollins worked with polar scientists to correct the Times Atlas map of Greenland.

Last week a peer-reviewed assessment of the matter was published in new open access journal 'The Cryosphere'. The paper sums up current scientific knowledge of Greenland ice shrinkage and specifically references the Atlas affair, with the authors finding that:

"Greenland has not lost 15 % of its ice area since 1999 [as claimed by the Times Atlas], but it has exhibited net ice loss."

They find that Greenland glaciers of all types are losing ice overall, and that ice loss from many glaciers is accelerating. The ice loss is not steady, however, as there is year on year variability in glacier shrinkage. For the whole of Greenland, they estimate that glaciers are shrinking at a rate:

"[O]ne or more orders of magnitude less than in the Times Atlas."

The polar scientists also find that an area of eastern Greenland shown as ice-free by the original Times Atlas maps actually contains some 50,000 square kilometres of ice, and is shrinking at a rate of roughly 0.019 per cent per year.

The publication of this paper provides a considered peer-reviewed response to a very public error. It also highlights just how important it is that scientists immediately protest obvious scientific inaccuracy in the public realm.

Solely relying on a response via peer-reviewed paper would have been inadequate in this case, because of how long the peer-review process takes - the paper was submitted in October last year and only published last week.

Thankfully, the scientists' swift reaction at the time enabled the mistake to be rectified straight away, before the erroneous figure could spread too far.

Repeated rescues

This isn't the first time that this group of glaciologists have come forward to correct unsubstantiated claims about glaciers. In December 2009 the new paper's lead author Jeffrey Kargel, University of Arizona, and co-author Graham Cogley, Trent University, were instrumental in correcting the inaccurate claim that Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035 in the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

And more recently, co-author Jonathan Bamber, University of Bristol, pointed out that new studies finding that some high Asian glaciers are not losing as much ice as thought, or are even gaining ice, do not mean that the rest of the world's glaciers have stopped shrinking - contrary to some sensationalist and confusing headlines.

The 'Climategate' episode dealt a big blow to public trust in climate scientists, so it is encouraging that this group of glaciologists show such willingness to stand up for accurate reporting of their science, regardless of the source of any error. They point out just how valuable such a response can be, saying:

"The publisher corrected the mistake quickly because the scientific community reacted immediately to the incorrect description of climate-related change in public media. We hope that as a result public trust in science is strengthened."

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