Conservatives Can't Quit Tabloid Science
Limbaugh, Others Butcher Science To Claim Arctic Isn't Melting
Blog ››› ››› MAX GREENBERG
Conservatives are still turning to British tabloids for their climate science, most recently treating a single year's Arctic sea ice -- which is still far below previous and long-term averages -- to claim that the region is not melting.
The latest instance of tabloid-reviewed science began when the The Mail on Sunday -- a sister newspaper to serial climate misinformer the Daily Mail* -- published an article titled "And now it's global COOLING!" suggesting that an increase in Arctic sea ice cover between September 2012 and August 2013 is among "mounting evidence that Arctic ice levels are cyclical." The story was summarily picked up by other British tabloids and a variety of conservative outlets, all to cast doubt on climate change. Notably, Rush Limbaugh used the report to claim "the Arctic ice sheet is at a record size for this time of year. They told us the ice was melting in the Arctic Ice Sheet. It's not."
Actually, Arctic sea ice is nowhere near "a record size." A graph from the National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC) illustrates that 2013 Arctic sea ice extent minimum (beige line), while not as low as last year's record (dotted line), is still tracking well below the 1979-2000 average (as have the minimum extents of every year since 1997). It is on track to be the sixth-lowest in satellite annals:
As 2012 was a record low, it is not terribly surprising that 2013 looks like it will be higher. This is due to a phenomenon known as regression to the mean, eloquently illustrated by this Skeptical Science graphic:
The Mail on Sunday*, as well as many subsequent accounts, also cited the remarks of a meteorologist, Anastasios Tsonis, about a "cooling trend" as evidence that scientists are "forecast[ing] an imminent ice age." But in emails to Media Matters, Tsonis said that he had "never made a statement that the long-term warming has stopped" and that some media claims "differ[ed] greatly" from his statements (typos edited for clarity):
The media print titles from statements that differ greatly from the statements. My statement was that the warming of the 80s and 90s has stopped and it is likely according to our research that the planet will be cooling for the next 10-15 years. This is far from going to ice ages!!!
He added that he feels climate change is "an important issue for now and the future but we need to understand it better."
Additionally, The Mail on Sunday's* report was overly reliant on a 2007 BBC account of one scientist's prediction that the Arctic would be clear of ice during the summer of 2013, suggesting that this was representative of scientific predictions at-large. But as the BBC pointed out at the time, other teams of researchers say the Arctic won't experience an ice-free summer until sometime between 2040 and 2100. In fact, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which periodically reviews and summarizes scientists' studies of climate change, has generally underestimated Arctic sea ice loss, just one example of how, in some cases, that group appears to be "bending over backward to be scientifically conservative," in the words of The New York Times.
UPDATE (9/11/13): On Tuesday's edition of The Five, Fox News reported that "global warming ... is finally dead" based on Arctic sea ice gains, falsely attributing the information to "a new study":
UPDATE (9/18/13): The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and and the Environment has reported that The Mail on Sunday's claim that Arctic sea ice had increased by 60 percent was based on a "typographical error" on the National Snow and Ice Data Center web site, later corrected. Arctic sea ice extent only increased by about half that much between September 2012 and August 2013. Regardless of this error, though, the Mail's article was misleading:
[E]ven allowing for his unfortunate blunder in using a typographic error as the main source for his story, it was completely misleading for [reporter David] Rose to create the impression that the Arctic sea ice extent is at a record high, rather than close to record low levels.
*Language has been updated for clarity.