Fox's Flagship News Show Performs 5-year Dance Around Greenland Ice Loss

NASA greenland imageOn September 20 Fox News' nightly news program, Special Report, covered an error made by the British Times Atlas of the World which overstated Greenland ice loss. The mistake was quickly pointed out by scientists, and the publisher of the atlas eventually apologized. It was the first time Special Report mentioned Greenland in three years.

One of the key questions in climate change science is how much of Greenland's ice will end up in the ocean and how quickly. Located in the Arctic -- where temperatures are rising faster than anywhere else -- the massive Greenland ice sheet contains enough water to raise sea levels by 20 feet. A shift that size would take centuries to unfold, but smaller changes in the ice can also have significant consequences for our coastal communities.

Summer ice sheet melt in Greenland “has increased 30 percent over the past 30 years,” according to a National Research Council report, and 2010 was a record breaking year for surface melt. NOAA's Arctic Report Card, released in October 2010, states that “there is now clear evidence that the ice area loss rate of the past decade (averaging 120 km2/year) is greater than loss rates pre-2000.”

The ice sheet is losing about 200 cubic kilometers of ice annually and adding 0.6 mm per year to global sea level rise, according to Cambridge University's Scott Polar Research Institute. A NASA study also reported earlier this year that “the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are losing mass at an accelerating pace” and “are overtaking ice loss from Earth's mountain glaciers and ice caps to become the dominant contributor to global sea level rise, much sooner than model forecasts have predicted.”

But none of these developments made it onto Fox News' Special Report. In fact, a Nexis search indicates that for each of the 4 times the program reported on climate change in Greenland over the past 5 years, Fox selected stories that downplayed the dangers of global warming while ignoring all of the research documenting rapid changes in the ice.

The story of Greenland's shrinking ice went unmentioned by Special Report in 2009 and 2010. The only time the show discussed Greenland ice in 2008 was to misrepresent a paper in the journal Science, which Fox claimed “revealed that Greenland is melting at a slower pace than previously thought” and “at its current rate, Greenland's melting ice will take thousands of years to have any effect on sea levels.”

In fact, the study did not measure the rate of melting, but whether flowing meltwater speeds up the movement of the ice sheet toward the sea. The authors concluded that this feedback effect “contributes little to rising sea levels” over the long term. The paper did not question that Greenland ice was adding to sea level rise. After Fox and others misrepresented the findings, the author of the paper wrote a note addressing the “rumors” surrounding his research.

The only other times the Fox News show reported on Greenland's climate changes in the past 5 years occurred in the summer of 2007. On June 7 of that year, Special Report's then-anchor Brit Hume touted a Washington Post article reporting that some of Greenland's residents are optimistic about the opportunities a warmer climate might bring.

And on July 9, 2007, Hume claimed that a study showed Greenland's “ice did not melt during what is called earth's last interglacial period, when average temperatures were 9 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they are now,” and contrasted the findings against the claims “of global warming proponents.” In fact, the authors of the study said that much but not all of the ice melted and contributed up to 2 meters (over 6 feet) of global sea level rise, with the rest coming from other sources such as Antarctica.

Including last month's report on the Times atlas error, those 4 stories were the extent of the program's reporting on climate change in Greenland over the past 5 years. Special Report only covered the issue when it could be spun to minimize concerns about global warming.

Special Report host Bret Baier recently told the Washington Post that “We go into the morning meeting every morning and determine what's news - what's getting attention and what's not getting attention and should,” adding, “We really try to be balanced.” The Post reported that Fox's “story choice” is “among its points of pride” -- “Fox deliberately focuses on angles that differ from what competitors are pursuing.” In this case, the result of their purportedly “balanced” approach is a skewed and inaccurate picture of the scientific knowledge of climate change in Greenland.