Analysis

Factcheck: Will climate change lead to giant, man-eating snakes, tiny horses and shrunken goats?

  • 22 Oct 2014, 14:01
  • Robert McSweeney

The film 'Anaconda'. Time

Rising temperatures have caused mountain goats in the Alps to 'shrink' by up to 25 per cent, according to new research . The news follows on from recent stories of how climate change could bring us huge spiders, tiny horses and giant snakes.

Despite the slightly ridiculous headlines such research prompts, there is actually some science behind it all.

Behavioural change

So, first things first; rising temperatures haven't actually caused any goats to shrink per se. Rather the research, published in the journal Frontiers in Zoology, finds that young goats aren't as big as they were 30 years ago.

Scientists analysed records of the Alpine Chamois goat in the Italian Alps and found they were as much as 25 per cent smaller than goats of the same age in the 1980s.

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Climate change and the extinction of the Aldabran banded snail

  • 13 Oct 2014, 11:45
  • Professor Georgina Mace

Aldabra banded snail | Wikicommons

On September 20th 2014, The Times published  an article, "Snail 'wiped out by climate change' is alive and well."

It reported the rediscovery of the Aldabran banded snail (Rhachistia aldabrae), which was declared extinct in 2009 by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), after repeated searches in its known habitat found no sign of the snail for over a decade.

In 2007,  a scientific paper had pieced together the recent history of the snail population and the climate, and concluded that the snails extinction could be explained by the increasing frequency of dry years, leading to lower survival and reproduction.

But an expedition in August 2014 rediscovered the species in dense mixed scrub of a little-visited part of Aldabra.  Conservationists celebrated the rediscovery, while also noting that the species is still extremely rare and its persistence by no means assured.

The Times article developed the story in a completely different direction, using it to challenge the basis for conclusions that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published earlier this year on species extinctions under climate change.

The Times claims that the Aldabran banded snail was cited in another paper (which I infer to be  Cahill et al. 2013), a review of existing evidence, as "the clearest example of man-made climate change causing an extinction". It states that this was a major strand of evidence in the IPCC's conclusions on future extinction risks, which were summarised as: "A large fraction of both terrestrial and freshwater species faces increased extinction risk under projected climate change during and beyond the 21st century".

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Your questions on climate sensitivity answered

  • 26 Sep 2014, 16:00
  • Roz Pidcock

How sensitive is the earth to carbon dioxide? It's a question that's at the heart of climate science.

It's also complicated, and scientists have been grappling with pinning down the exact number for a while now.

But while the exact value of climate sensitivity presents a fascinating and important scientific question, it has little relevance for climate policy while greenhouse emissions stay as high as they are.

Nevertheless, each time a new research paper comes out suggesting climate sensitivity might be low it's misused by parts of the media to argue cutting emissions aren't so urgent after all.

The latest example comes in an  article in today's Times, which claims a new low climate sensitivity estimate means "Climate change could be slower than forecast".

So what is climate sensitivity? What does and doesn't it tell us about future warming?

               Times Climate Sensitivity

Source:  The Times, 26th September 2014

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Climate snails study shows peer review continues to function as expected

  • 22 Sep 2014, 15:10
  • Roz Pidcock

Something is amiss in the world of scientific publishing, claimed The Times this weekend. And not for the first time. This is the latest in a  series  of articles suggesting research downplaying the seriousness of climate change impacts is being suppressed by top scientific journals.

Last time, scientists dismissed the Times' story as a case of peer review in action. It's difficult to see what the difference is this time.

"False alarm"

Seven years ago, a conservation scientist in the Seychelles published a paper in one of the Royal Society's journals, Biological Letters. It concluded the only known population of a type of snail was now thought to be extinct, after declining rapidly in the late 20th century.

In Saturday's Times article, journalist Ben Webster said:

"[The research] was presented as shocking evidence of the damage being done by climate change: a species driven to extinction because of a decline in rainfall in its only habitat."

In its recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned the fast pace of climate change could have consequences for many species. It concluded:

"A large fraction of both terrestrial and freshwater species faces increased extinction risk under projected climate change during and beyond the 21st century."

Well, the snail has apparently been rediscovered on a remote island. The Times suggests this "prompts questions" over the Royal Society "raising false alarm" about climate change.

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Factcheck: Telegraph wrongly accuses BBC of “blatantly untrue” climate reporting

  • 15 Sep 2014, 15:25
  • Roz Pidcock

In yesterday's Telegraph, climate skeptic commentator Christopher Booker argues a recent BBC News piece makes claims about rising carbon dioxide that are "blatantly untrue".

He also accuses the broadcaster of repeating theories about ocean warming that scientists have "ridiculed as make-believe". But a quick look shows his accusations don't stand up.

Carbon rising

In an article  criticising the broadcaster for its climate science coverage, Booker cites a BBC radio news article on a recent World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) report.

The report looked in detail at carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, and how they're changing. It found greenhouse gases reached a record high of 396 parts per million (ppm) in 2013 - that's 42 per cent higher than pre-industrial levels.

Global carbon dioxide concentrations rose by nearly 3 ppm from 2012 to 2013 - the largest annual increase since 1984, the report also found.

WMO_CO2_growth

Global growth in atmospheric carbon dioxide from 1984 to 2013 (shaded columns are annual averages). Source: WMO annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin for 2013

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Why undersea fracking is unlikely to give Scotland a £600 billion windfall

  • 05 Sep 2014, 13:30
  • Mat Hope

Scotland flag waving | Shutterstock

As Scotland prepares to decide whether to vote 'yes' for independence, the North Sea oil and gas industry's economic prospects have become something of a political football.

Today, a new report backed by the 'Yes' campaign claims the industry's taxes could be worth over £600 billion. But other experts have been quick to cast doubt on the findings.

Geologists think there's still plenty of oil and gas under the North Sea. The problem is that companies have extracted most of the easy-to-reach resources. Uncertainty around the fate of the remaining oil and gas has created space for speculation over how much the industry is worth.

That's where today's  report from consultancy N-56, founded by  a Yes campaign board member, fits in. It claims there could be around 45 billion barrels of oil and gas remaining - almost double previous estimates - worth £665 billion in tax receipts.

Conventional oil and gas

The North Sea's oil and gas reserves are becoming depleted, with companies extracting fewer and fewer barrels each year. Experts believe the industry could persist for  a few more decades, but only if companies are willing to explore hard to reach spots.

Whether they will - or even can - access such resources is very open to debate, however.

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Factcheck: Is climate change linked to recent UK flooding?

  • 20 Aug 2014, 14:15
  • Roz Pidcock

This morning's  Times claims new research says the increase in flooding in Britain in recent times is due to urban expansion and population growth, rather than climate change.

According to the piece, this "does not agree" with warnings from scientists that climate change can be linked to recent flooding. But a quick look at the science shows a combination of land use and climate change is upping the risk of flooding in the UK.

"Misquote"

The Times story is based on a new study from the University of Southampton. The number of reported flooding events in the UK grew between 1884 to 2013, according to the research.

But although the number of reported floods went up, it's mainly down to more people being exposed, the authors tell us. During that time, the population grew from 38.2 to 59.1 million.

If you remove the effect of population rise, there's no longer a clear increase in the number of reported flooding events, the report suggests. This is presumably where the Times draws its conclusion that the new research "rules out a link between last year's winter flooding and climate change".

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Christopher Booker's curiously distorted views on wind power

  • 04 Aug 2014, 14:45
  • Simon Evans

Climate sceptic columnist Christopher Booker has launched his latest attack on wind power, but the picture he presents of the technology is curiously distorted.

In an  article for the Daily Mail he says the UK is suffering "a bout of collective insanity over renewable energy, for which it is hard to think of any historical parallel".

We've gone through Booker's piece, and noted some things you probably wouldn't know after reading it.

1) UK windfarms produce more power than Drax

Booker's dislike of windfarms seems to verge on the evangelical. But in his latest piece he sticks to the numbers in explaining his "crucial objection" to the technology. Unfortunately, the numbers are inaccurate or misleading.

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Scientists lambast The Australian for misleading article on deep ocean cooling

  • 28 Jul 2014, 13:50
  • Roz Pidcock

An article in Friday's  The Australian suggested brand new research by two eminent oceanographers casts doubt on scientific understanding of global warming. But the authors of the research have taken the newspaper to task for its coverage of their work.

The research by Carl Wunsch from Harvard University and Patrick Heimbach from MIT found temperatures seem to be falling in parts of the very deep ocean, known as 'the abyss'.

In a piece headline headlined "Puzzle of deep ocean cooling", journalist Graham Lloyd of the Australian interpreted the new research for readers:

"The deep oceans have been cooling for the past two decades and [so] it is not possible to say whether changes in ocean heat adequately explain the "pause" in global warming".

But the authors think Lloyd's article is misleading. In an  letter to the editor in today's edition of the Australian, they say:

"The article by Graham Lloyd will likely leave a mis-impression with many of your readers concerning the substance of our paper."

Wunsch tells us Lloyd's article "cherrypicks" statements from their paper and "misses some key points".

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Climate scientists tell us why it’s “utterly, utterly normal” to have a paper rejected

  • 09 Jul 2014, 13:30
  • Roz Pidcock

TimesdissentAn  article in yesterday's Times featured claims that a climate scientist's work was "censored" because it "questioned the accuracy of computer models used to predict global warming".

Rather less excitingly, what actually happened was an "utterly, utterly normal" example of peer review in action, scientists tell us.

The scientist involved agrees that the journal's comments were correct, and his paper was subsequently published - it's available here.

So what's the story?

Accusations of censorship

The Times  article - entitled 'Voices of dissent drowned out by climate change scientists' discusses research German climate scientist Vladimir Semenov submitted to the Journal of Climate in 2009.

Ben Webster, an experienced environment correspondent, suggests parts of Semenov's paper were "deleted" before publication because they represented a "voice of dissent". Webster says:

"The paper suggested that the computer models used by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were flawed, resulting in human influence on the climate being exaggerated and the impact of natural variability being underplayed."

Semenov is quoted as suggesting the journal's intervention amounted to "some kind of censorship". Had the paper not been revised, it could have had "profound implications", the Times claims.

 

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