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Carbon Brief Staff

Carbon Brief Staff

10.09.2013 | 3:00pm
ScienceThe Mail on Sunday’s topsy-turvy view of climate change continues
SCIENCE | September 10. 2013. 15:00
The Mail on Sunday’s topsy-turvy view of climate change continues

Reading the Mail on Sunday this weekend, you’d be forgiven for thinking scientists and governments are planning emergency meetings to reconsider the fundamentals of climate science, following claims in the media that Arctic sea ice is rebounding.

The article in question, by climate skeptic journalist David Rose, was echoed by a similar piece in the Sunday Telegraph. “…It’s global COOLING!”, the headline declares, before arguing that Arctic sea ice is “rebounding” contrary to predictions.

Here are five claims the article makes, and why they will leave you with a topsy-turvy view of what’s actually going on.

1. The Arctic ice cap grew “by 60% in a year”

As we approach the annual minimum point for Arctic sea ice, when the ice cap has melted to its smallest point, it’s clear that there’s more ice now than there was this time last year.

Data from the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) shows that in August 2013, the average area of ocean covered in sea ice was 2.35 million square miles – 919,000 square miles bigger than the same period last year.

Scientists believe that Arctic sea ice will effectively disappear in summer at some point this century. So does the fact that there’s more ice this year mean they are wrong?

Context is important. Last year saw the lowest Arctic sea ice levels on record – a result of a warming Arctic, thinned ice and ideal weather conditions for melting.

Dr Ed Hawkins, a climate scientist from the University of Reading says in the Times:

“Last year was a very extreme low – the lowest on record in the satellite era. This year the ice bounced back. [But it] is still going to be the sixth or seventh smallest year since 1979. It will be smaller than any year before 2006.”

This time last year, some ice experts were predicting there would be more sea ice this year. Natural fluctuations in the climate mean sea ice cover can jump around from one year to the next while still being in long term decline. Ironically, when ice sheets shrink, climate skeptics are keen to blame natural variations in the climate. When they grow, year-to-year natural variation is ignored.

As this graph from NSIDC shows, despite the increase on last year, this year’s sea ice extent remains well below the long term average, and the pattern of sea ice decline continues:

Arctic Sea Ice Anomaly


Climate blog Skeptical Science has animated the past thirty years of sea ice data – showing how focusing on one year of data to claim a “record return” for sea ice can be misleading:

Sk Sci Graph

2. “The BBC reported global warming would leave the Arctic ice-free in summer by 2013”

For the Mail, climate alarmism and the BBC go hand in hand. So the paper makes sure to point out that the BBC reported comments made by one scientist in 2007 that the Arctic could be ice free as soon as 2013, or earlier, under the headline “Arctic summers “ice free” by 2013″.

This prediction has turned out to be wrong. Many experts would probably have seen it as unlikely.

In this case it doesn’t demonstrate a deeper problem with scientific understanding of climate change. Although the comments have been widely cited, they didn’t become mainstream thinking among scientists.

As we’ve noted in the past, predicting when the Arctic will be ice free isn’t easy. There are a range of different methods, used in hundreds of different studies, which suggest it could happen anytime between now and the middle of the century. And as the sea ice continues to decline, we will continue to see natural variation from year to year.

The focus on the BBC seems strange. The BBC was not the only news outlet to report the story back in 2007, when record Arctic sea ice loss caught people by surprise and made the Arctic a big news story. Here, for example, under the headline “Arctic ice ‘could melt in five years’ as climate change accelerates” is a story fromâ?¦ the Daily Mail.

3. “Eminent scientists” believe the world is heading for “global cooling”

After putting the boot into the BBC, the article changes tack to cite the work of Professor Anastasios Tsonis. According to Rose, Tsonis is one of several scientists who say the world is on course for a period of global cooling.

Tsonis co-authored a paper in 2009 investigating natural climate cycles in the ocean and atmosphere. It found that these could combine to cause spikes and pauses of a few decades in the long term trend temperature rise. He tells us:

“The global temperature record is characterized by regimes of positive trends and negative trends superimposed on a low frequency (long term) signal, which some attribute to greenhouse emissions â?¦ This natural cycle of positive/negative trends is about 60 years, hence our suggestion that this recent cooling trend may last another 10-15 years.”

A co-author of the 2009 paper, Dr Kyle Swanson, has said their research suggested “a pause in warming”, and concluded – (his caps):

“What do our results have to do with Global Warming, i.e., the century-scale response to greenhouse gas emissions? VERY LITTLE, contrary to claims that others have made on our behalf.”

Other scientists we have spoken with don’t believe the world is heading for global cooling. Dr Peter Stott, a climate scientist at the Met Office, told us:

“We wouldn’t expect cooling over the next two decades given that greenhouse gases continue to increase and warm the atmosphere unless something unpredictable happens, such as a major volcanic eruption [which could limit the amount of sunlight reaching earth’s surface]”.

While Dr Ruth Mottram, an expert on the Arctic and Greenland from the Danish Meteorological Institute, added:

“The vast majority of scientists agree that we are more likely to see rising than falling global average temperatures in the future.”

These days, climate skeptics are keen to point out that they don’t dispute that human activity is causing the planet to warm. So, even by skeptic standards, the Mail is somewhat out on a limb here.

4. The IPCC has been forced into a “crisis meeting”

One of the more entertaining claims made in the article is that the Mail on Sunday’s climate “revelations” have forced the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to hold a “crisis meeting”.

Rose writes:

“The continuing furore caused by The Mail on Sunday’s revelations – which will now be amplified by the return of the Arctic ice sheet – has forced the UN’s climate change body to hold a crisis meeting.”

In addition to his current expose on the Arctic, Rose is presumably referring to two other articles he wrote, one titled ‘Global warming stopped 16 years ago’, and another where he claimed to have proof “global warming forecasts that are costing you billions were WRONG all along”. We’ve discussed the former and the latter before, so we won’t go there again.

What evidence is there a crisis meeting has been arranged? None that we can find. A meeting of international climate scientists is due to happen at the end of this month. But this is a normal part of the IPCC’s review process that’s been planned for years. Dr Ed Hawkins, who is quoted in the article, says he even told Rose that this is the case.

Rose countered on Twitter that the fact that governments had requested over 1500 changes to the report is reason enough to label the meeting a ‘crisis’ response.

Yet it’s worth putting those changes into context. The IPCC normally takes comments from experts and government officials a number of times as part of the process of reviewing its climate science reports. Dr Peter Stott, one of the lead authors of the upcoming report, explains:

“The latest draft of Summary for Policy Makers, attracted 1855 written comments, part of a grand total of 54,677 written comments from experts and governments during the multiple stages of the rigorous review of the report. This is all part of the agreed and well laid out procedure which ensures the final report is as robust and comprehensive as possible.”

It does seem the Mail has just got the wrong end of the stick here. Further evidence, if it were required, is that the subheading to the article claims: “Publication of UN climate change report suggesting global warming caused by humans pushed back to later this month”. And yet the planned publication date for the report remains the 26th September – i.e. the end of the month.

5. It’s “hotly contested” that scientists are 95 per cent confident climate change is manmade

Finally, the piece claims there is division among scientists about the causes of climate change.

In fact, the forthcoming IPCC report will suggest stronger confidence that humans are largely to blame – a leaked draft suggests “it is at least 95 percent likely that human activities are the main cause of warming since the 1950s”. This is a more confident statement than was contained in the last IPCC report, in 2007.

Rose cites Professor Judith Curry from Georgia University, who says uncertainties in climate science are getting bigger, meaning there may not be “any basis for the IPCC increasing its confidence level”.

That’s presumably not the view of the scientists working on the IPCC report. Dr Peter Stott said the report will “represent the consensus view of the 209 lead authors who took part in writing it assisted by 600 contributing authors”, and Dr. Ruth Mottram told us very few scientists dispute that climate change is at least partly caused by human emissions. The 95 per cent confidence level is based on “hundreds of peer reviewed articles by many different scientists in different fields”, she said.


The Mail on Sunday has a readership of 4.7 million people.


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