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Overstrand beach looking toward Cromer on the North Norfolk coastline, England UK
Overstrand beach, Norfolk coastline, UK. Credit: bazza1960/iStock/Getty Images.
6 December 2016 16:00

Factcheck: Littlejohn’s ‘inaccurate’ climate claim in Daily Mail about tsunamis

Leo Hickman

Leo Hickman

Leo Hickman

Leo Hickman

06.12.2016 | 4:00pm
FactchecksFactcheck: Littlejohn’s ‘inaccurate’ climate claim in Daily Mail about tsunamis

In today’s edition of the Daily Mail, the prominent commentator Richard Littlejohn makes an erroneous claim at the very end of his fullpage weekly column. He argues that persons unspecified – who he labels “alarmists” – are warning that, because of climate change, the UK could “soon” be hit by giant tsunamis.

Carbon Brief has assessed the claim and found no evidence to support it. As a result of Carbon Brief’s enquiries, the Daily Mail has now partly corrected the article.

This is what Littlejohn wrote in today’s Mail:


Littlejohn’s opening premise that climate change is “non-existent”, “complete fiction” and a “great scam” is rebutted by the canon of climate science published in peer-reviewed journals over the past century and periodically synthesised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Carbon Brief’s extensive, in-depth coverage of climate science, including the IPCC, can be read online.

Regarding the specific claim about climate change and tsunamis, it seems highly likely that Littlejohn saw an article in the latest edition of the Sunday Times, headlined: “Undersea landslides threaten Britain with tsunamis”. Or that he saw one of the subsequent articles published by, among others, Reuters, the Express or the Mirror.

The story centres on how Prof Peter Talling, a Durham University marine geologist, has recommended that tsunamis be added to the National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies. As the Sunday Times states: “The register, held by the Cabinet Office, sets out government plans for rare but devastating disasters such as volcanic eruptions in Iceland, flu epidemics and floods.” The example of the “Storegga slide” is given, which struck the UK 8,200 years ago after a massive seafloor slide off the Norwegian coast caused waves up to 20 metres tall to strike Shetland.

However, none of the media articles mention anything about climate change. Carbon Brief asked Prof Talling if there is any evidence of a link between climate change and tsunamis. He said the evidence is both thin and largely speculative, at present, pointing to the conclusions of a 2014 paper he co-authored in Oceanography journal. He also highlights an interview he gave on this topic in 2013 to Nature Climate Change. In it, he stated:

Landslide tsunamis are rare events, but we need to know whether their frequency is set to change significantly with the climate. It has been proposed that climate changes could increase slide frequency in two ways. The first is methane hydrate dissociation — the release of methane gas from a previously stable state in the sediment — which could cause structural weakness and initiate a slip. The second is crustal rebound, where loss of an ice sheet releases pressure from the Earth’s crust allowing it to ‘spring back’ to a new equilibrium position…

These ideas remain poorly tested. Enigmatically, the timing of the Storegga Slide coincides closely with the last major abrupt change in global climate, the so-called 8.2 kyr bp [thousand years before present] climatic event seen in the Greenland ice cores.

Carbon Brief asked Prof Talling for his views on the Littlejohn article:

The evidence we have wouldn’t suggest a particularly strong link with climate and there are lots of caveats there that we might not have the right data yet. I’m not sure anyone is saying that they will get more frequent under climate change. I’m curious where [Littlejohn] got that from…

My worry [about the article] is we’ve not proposed any link with climate change and, secondly, these events are very infrequent. This certainly does not come across in the Richard Littlejohn article. They’re not likely to happen in the next few years. The odds are very low…It’s alarmist.

There isn’t anything out there to suggest a strong link to climate change and that there’s an imminent threat in the way that he’s described. I have no idea where he got the ‘imminent threat to climate change’ from. It’s just not in the recent [Sunday Times] article. It’s not at all clear why he’s conflated two very different things and brought climate change into it. He seems to have an agenda, I guess…

Carbon Brief also asked the Daily Mail for comment. It responded by saying it would correct the article accordingly.

As shown below (use the slider to compare versions), the newspaper has now removed mention of “because of non-existent climate change”. It has also removed that tsunamis are expected to hit the UK “soon”. But it has left the inaccurate premise of the first half of sentence untouched, thereby still making a connection – albeit less explicitly.

It remains to be seen if the Daily Mail also publishes a correction in its print edition. Carbon Brief will update this article, if this happens.

Sharelines from this story
  • Factcheck: Littlejohn's ‘inaccurate’ climate claim about tsunamis in Daily Mail


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