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Some like it hot


Note: Due to my naïveté, I inadvertently linked a previous version of this post to a prohibited website (something to do with advertising, I think – I was just after a pretty picture). This was unintentional, but… well, I’ve deleted the original post, and am re-posting a new version, only using links that I hope are trustworthy. This is rather a shame, since one of the few comments I’ve had will have disappeared with it, so, my apologies to, who kindly pointed out that I’d reversed polarity half way through the discussion (the reason why one might easily do this inadvertently are now made a lot clearer in the post, by the way).


A little while ago, a friend of mine (with whom I have since agreed to differ on certain subjects) brought my attention to an article. He didn’t provide a link to the original article (I wonder why not?) but several versions can be found on the web.

It starts:

Antarctic Sea Ice for November 2009 Higher Than 1979

Contrary to media reports Antarctic sea ice continues to expand. Ice totals for November 2009 are significantly higher than 1979 when measurements began. The main stream media concentrates on a couple of small areas of the Antarctic in order to scare you in to believing that Antarctica is melting, when in fact its gaining ice.

From the National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado

Since measurements began in 1979 antarctic sea ice has continued to expand, contrary to what the news media would have you believe. We bring this information to you month after month and still there is no sign of the main stream media picking up on the story. They continue to discuss the relatively small areas of the Western Antarctic Peninsula that are melting due to changes in ocean currents.

The article goes on to lambast the “main stream media” (sic), Al Gore and “certain segments” of the scientific community for perpetrating a hoax on the public. It bases what it says on a reputable source – the National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado (NSIDC). I thought perhaps I should check whether they agreed with the version of events described above.

Looking at their website, however, revealed a rather different take on the matter. This is a complex subject, and the evidence is open to various interpretations – nevertheless, after reading what the NSIDC had to say, it became clear that the author of the original article had highlighted a few facts that appeared to support his viewpoint, and ignored a huge mass that didn’t (which is a bit ironic, considering that he was discussing icebergs… 🙂 )

Here, as briefly as I can make them, are a few quotes from the NSIDC that summarise their views. (I start with the Arctic rather than the Antarctic, for reasons that will become clear shortly).

Is Arctic sea ice really declining?

Yes, the data show that Arctic sea ice really is in a state of ongoing decline. The reason we know this is because satellites offer us a long-term record. As of September 2007, the September rate of sea ice decline since 1979 was approximately -10 percent per decade, or 72,000 square kilometers (28,000 square miles) per year.

Why don’t I hear much about Antarctic sea ice?

Unlike Arctic sea ice, Antarctic sea ice disappears almost completely during the summer, and has since scientists have studied it. In other words, Antarctic sea ice has very little multiyear ice, and few areas are covered with sea ice year-round. This means that total ice extent tends to be more variable. In contrast, satellite records and pre-satellite records indicate that the Arctic has not been free of summertime sea ice for at least 5,500 years and possibly for 125,000 years.

Moreover, Antarctic sea ice extent is less confined by land masses, and is more easily affected by storms and winds (i.e., spread out or compacted). This also leads to more variability in sea ice extent. While most months of the year show a weak trend towards ice increase over the satellite monitoring period, the variability between years is high. For example the extent for the month of March, when the minimum typically occurs, has swings of -20 to +30 percent in recent years relative to the long-term mean. The satellite-record lowest minimum year was 2006; the highest minimum was 2008; and in 2006 the record winter maximum, up to that time, was also observed.

The one regional exception is the area just west of the Antarctic Peninsula, the Bellingshausen and Amundsen Sea. Here a gradual climate trend towards increasing northwesterly winds and warmer temperatures has led to a significant loss of sea ice cover (approximately 20 percent) over the past 30 years. Major ice shelf retreats on both sides of the Peninsula have occurred in recent decades along with the loss of sea ice.

Climate model projections of Antarctic sea ice extent are in reasonable agreement with the observations to date. The dominant change in the climate pattern of Antarctica has been a gradual increase in the westerly circumpolar winds. Models suggest that both the loss of ozone (the ozone hole that occurs in September/October every year) and increases in greenhouse gases lead to an increase in this climate pattern.

Scientists monitor both Arctic and Antarctic sea ice, but Arctic sea ice is more significant to understanding global climate because much more Arctic ice remains through the summer months, reflecting sunlight and cooling the planet. Sea ice near the Antarctic Peninsula, south of the tip of South America, has recently experienced a significant decline. The rest of Antarctica has experienced a small increase in Antarctic sea ice.

Antarctica and the Arctic are reacting differently to climate change partly because of geographical differences. Antarctica is a continent surrounded by water, while the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by land. Wind and ocean currents around Antarctica isolate the continent from global weather patterns, keeping it cold. In contrast, the Arctic Ocean is intimately linked with the climate systems around it, making it more sensitive to changes in climate.

My added emphasis. For more information, see All About Sea Ice: Arctic vs. Antarctic and the State of the Cryosphere: Sea Ice. To see data on Antarctic sea ice, see the Sea Ice Index.

Although this is clearly a complicated subject with many ifs, buts and uncertainties, the overall message from the NSIDC is fairly clear:

  • Arctic sea ice is declining
  • Antarctic sea ice isn’t, on the whole, either declining or increasing
  • Due to geographical differences, Arctic sea ice is a far more important indicator of climate change than Antarctic sea ice.

Or, to summarise the summary: the NSIDC has plenty of evidence that climate change is happening, and the original article deliberately misrepresented the facts on the NSIDC website to support its own agenda.

What really intrigues me is what on Earth anyone hopes to gain by taking facts like these and distorting them to show that something that almost certainly is happening, isn’t – especially when you consider that this is such a serious matter that ignoring it could lead to global devastation and death on an unthinkable scale? Do they have some cunning, Bond-villain type plan? Are they, perhaps, intending to be the only people left alive in their underground lair once the sea has risen 70 metres and the atmosphere is a combustible mix of methane and oxygen? Or do they think climate change may not get too bad in their lifetime, and just not care about anybody else (including their children, if they have any) – so they aren’t going to put themselves out to make any preparations for it, and resent anyone else doing so? Do they hate the fact that their lives may be affected by forces outside their control, or resent the fact that scientists know more than they do? Or is it simply a belief that somehow, if we all keep our heads down and don’t tempt fate by discussing Things Mankind Was Not Meant to Tamper With, everything will miraculously turn out for the best?

What is really surprising is that the people with a vested interest in the status quo aren’t doing more to maintain it. The evidence has been in for a while: we’re quite clearly heading for a resource crunch and an environmental crisis. If I wanted to make sure that my 7 mansions weren’t about to be besieged by rampaging mobs and that my Lear jet could be kept fuelled for a quick getaway, I’d be doing my best to find a solution now, while we still have a chance.

What’s the alternative – live on another planet, or underground? As I may have already mentioned, the UK government recently put together a bank rescue package totalling some £500 billion – however the banks are going to be of no use whatsoever if society breaks down, because you can’t eat money. So a far better use for at least some of that money might have been urgent research into carbon sequestration, alternative power sources, and how to restructure society so that we will have some chance of coping with what Mother Nature has in store for us.

After all, if we screw up now, the chances of another civilisation rising to our current heights is unlikely: future societies won’t have readily available resources to give them a kick-start, since we are in the process of squandering them. We have one chance at becoming a type one civilisation on the Kardashev scale, of continuing the technological ascent that began when our ancestors learned to chip flints and to keep fires alight through the Ice Age winters. If we fail, we’ll almost certainly never have the chance again; our descendants will return to lives of superstition, slavery, subsistence and violence, in which gods bestride the skies and demons haunt the darkness. But this time, with no possibility of a second Industrial Revolution, it will last forever – or at least until some catastrophe renders our descendants extinct.

Which seems rather a high price to pay for keeping some rich folk in champagne for a few more years, and allowing our fates to be determined by a few people who are unable to bear too much reality.

One Comment
  1. llllllll permalink

    What I really like about this blog is it’s optimistic outlook 😉

    “What really intrigues me is what on Earth anyone hopes to gain by taking facts like these and distorting them to show that something that almost certainly is happening, isn’t”

    They’re trying to convince themselves, so they can go on driving their 4x4s without feeling guilty. It’s the modern version of burying your head in the sand.

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