Arctic sea ice is declining much faster than scientists expected, which has important implications for the rate and impacts of climate change. But the major TV news outlets have largely ignored the record sea ice loss this summer, while making ample time to cover Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's physical fitness.
What's Hotter: Global Warming Or Paul Ryan's Abs?
TV News Covered Paul Ryan's Workout Over Three Times More Than Arctic Sea Ice Loss. Since June, the major TV news outlets have devoted seven full segments to Paul Ryan's physical fitness and P90X workout routine, and only one to Arctic sea ice loss. ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC have each covered Paul Ryan's workout routine as much or more than Arctic sea ice loss. In total, TV outlets have discussed Ryan's fitness 66 times -- more than three times as much as Arctic sea ice.
Cable Outlets Covered Ryan's Workout Over Six Times More Than Arctic Sea Ice Loss. The three major cable news outlets mentioned Arctic sea ice only eight times in four months. Three of these mentions were in the context of how ice impacts drilling expeditions in the Arctic, and the one mention on Fox News dismissed the problem entirely. Meanwhile, the cable outlets have discussed Ryan's workouts 53 times:
Fox Mentioned Arctic Sea Ice Loss Once, Only To Deny The Problem. The only time Fox News mentioned Arctic sea ice, Bret Baier downplayed “concern[s] over shrinking ice caps” because Shell had to halt drilling due to the “heaviest Arctic ice in more than a decade.” But The Los Angeles Times reported that while the “summer ice melt-off in the Arctic has often reached record levels over the last few years,” regional phenomena led to unusual amounts of ice off the coast of Alaska where Shell was drilling. [Fox News, Special Report, 6/1/12] [Los Angeles Times, 5/25/12]
NBC And MSNBC Were The Only Outlets To Mention The Impact Of Manmade Climate Change. Half of TV segments on Arctic sea ice loss mentioned the impact of climate change on the region, but only 15% explained that humans are contributing to the problem. NBC and MSNBC were the only TV outlets that noted the link between changes in the Arctic and human activity.
Why Record Arctic Sea Ice Loss Matters
This Year's Arctic Sea Ice Extent Shattered Previous Record Low. Climate Central reported that this year's minimum Arctic sea ice extent “shatter[ed]” the previous record set in 2007 -- the difference between the two records is about the size of Texas. It added that Arctic sea ice is melting “faster than any model projected it would”:
Studies show that the decline in Arctic sea ice is largely a consequence of rising amounts of manmade greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide. Projections show that, assuming little action is taken to slow global warming, the Arctic Ocean may be essentially free of summer sea ice in as little as a decade from now, although other scientists maintain that won't occur until the 2040s or 2050s.
“We are now in uncharted territory,” said NSIDC Director Mark Serreze in the NSIDC press release. “While we've long known that as the planet warms up, changes would be seen first and be most pronounced in the Arctic, few of us were prepared for how rapidly the changes would actually occur.”
This year's minimum, the NSIDC said, is nearly 50 percent lower than the average minimum for the years 1979-2000 -- an almost shocking development, since as Stroeve pointed out, the melting is proceeding faster than any model projected it would.
The following image from NASA compares the average minimum sea ice extent over the past 30 years (the yellow line) to the new record low (illustrated in white):
[Climate Central, 9/19/12]
Study: Arctic Warming “May Lead To An Increased Probability Of Extreme Weather Events” Such As Drought. A 2012 study published in the Geophysical Research Letters found that increased Arctic warming, which is amplified by the loss of Arctic sea ice, “may lead to an increased probability of extreme weather events that result from prolonged conditions, such as drought, flooding, cold spells, and heat waves.” Co-author Jennifer Francis explained why in a recent guest post at The Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang blog:
The National Snow and Ice Data Center announced Wednesday that the sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean has smashed the previous record minimum extent set in 2007 by a staggering 18 percent. The impacts of rising temperatures and melting ice extend beyond the far north to us in the United States, as we are poised to feel the weather-related backlash.
Since the fossil-fuel revolution after World War II, Arctic temperatures have increased at twice the global rate, illustrating a phenomenon called Arctic amplification. Thus, sea ice has melted at an unprecedented rate and is now caught in a vicious cycle known as the ice-albedo feedback: as sea ice retreats, sunshine that would have been reflected into space by the bright white ice is instead absorbed by the ocean, causing waters to warm and melt even more ice.
The difference in temperature between the Arctic and areas to the south is what drives the jet stream, a fast-moving river of air that encircles the northern hemisphere. As the Arctic warms faster, this temperature difference weakens, as does the west-to-east wind of the jet stream. Just as a river of water tends to meander when it reaches the gentle slopes of coastal plains, a weaker jet stream tends to have steeper north-south waves. Arctic amplification also stretches the northern tips of the waves farther northward, which favors further meandering. Meteorologists know that steeper waves are slower to shift westward.
The weather we experience at mid-latitudes is largely dictated by these waves in the jet stream. The slower the waves move, the longer the weather associated with them will persist. Essentially, “hot,” “dry,” “cold,” and “rainy” are all terms to describe very normal weather conditions. It's only when those conditions persist in one area for too long that they are dubbed with the names of their extreme alter egos: heat waves, drought, cold spells, and floods. And these kinds of extreme events are precisely what we've seen more of in recent years. [The Washington Post, 9/21/12] [Geophysical Research Letters, 3/17/12]
Arctic Ice Melt Amplifies Warming, Which Could Cause Massive Sea Level Rise. The Washington Post's Brad Plumer reported:
Melting Arctic sea ice won't, by itself, raise global ocean levels. But a warmer Arctic will cause Greenland's ice sheet to melt -- and that matters. Ice that's floating in the ocean can't raise sea levels when it melts, because the ice was already displacing its own volume. But as the exposed ocean absorbs more sunlight, the region will keep heating up. And that's important when it comes to the vast ice sheet covering Greenland.
Greenland's ice sheet is 1.9 miles thick and contains enough ice to raise global sea levels by about 25 feet (7.5 meters) all told. Back in 2007, the IPCC consensus was that Greenland's ice sheet would remain fairly stable this century and wouldn't contribute much to sea level rise. But more recent evidence suggests that this prediction is out of date. The melting of Greenland's ice sheet appears to be accelerating of late, losing aboutfour times as much mass last year as it did a decade ago. That's partly due to warmer air. And it's partly driven by rising ocean temperatures, as warmer water chews away at the edges of the ice sheet.
As a result, a recent study by the U.S. Jet Propulsion Laboratory predicted that sea levels are on pace to rise at least a foot by 2050, and possibly three feet by century's end. (Longer-term forecasts depend on how rapidly Antarctica's own massive ice sheets deteriorate.) [The Washington Post, 8/28/12]
Ice Melt Impacts People And Wildlife In The Arctic. The Guardian reported that the sea ice melt impacts Inuits' infrastructure and wildlife, including polar bears:
“Every one of the 56,000 Inuits in Greenland have had to adapt to the retreat of the ice,” said Carl-Christian Olsen, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council in Nuuk, Greenland. “The permafrost is melting and this is jeopardising roads and buildings. The coastline is changing, there is more erosion and storms, and there are fewer mammals like polar bears. It means there can be more mining, which is good for the economy, but it will have unpredictable effects on social change”. [The Guardian, 8/23/12]
Caitlyn Baikie, an Inuit student from Newfoundland wrote at SkepticalScience about the impact of Arctic sea ice loss on her community:
The elders have also noted an increased number of polar bear sightings further south. This is very unusual, and likely attributable to the lack of floe ice during the summer months, leaving polar bears no other option than to move to the land where people live. Unusual ice conditions have also brought tragedy to our communities. We have lost lives because of less predictability in ice and snow cover. A few years ago, two experienced Inuit hunters lost their lives while traveling a route that was known to them.
Inuit, collectively, do not greatly contribute to factors that lead to climate change, but we are surely amongst the greatest impacted. [SkepticalScience, 9/27/12, emphasis added]
Our results are based on a search of Nexis and internal TV databases between June 1, 2012 and September 25, 2012. Our analysis includes any mention of Arctic sea ice or Paul Ryan's fitness on the major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) and the major cable news outlets (CNN, MSNBC and Fox). To measure coverage of arctic sea ice, we searched Nexis for “arctic and (ice or melt).” We did not include segments about the Greenland ice sheet or other related, but separate, topics. To measure coverage of Paul Ryan's fitness, we searched "(paul ryan) w/50 (p90x or workout or gym or abs or muscle or body fat or fitness or personal train!)."
Media Matters intern Brian Rabitz contributed to this analysis. Graphics for this report were created by Drew Gardner.