[Illustrations, full text, footnotes and references available in PDF version]
The scare: Jonathan Leake, in The Times of London on 26 October 2008, says:
1. The Arctic icecap is “shrinking at record rates” even in the winter;
2. “The period in which the ice renews itself has become much shorter”;
3. The “even more alarming” cause of the thinner ice is warmer seas rather than warmer air;
4. “The Arctic is likely to melt much faster than had been thought”;
5. “The summer icecap could vanish within a decade”, according to unnamed “experts”;
6. The Northwest Passage was open in the summer of 2008 for the first time in 30 years;
7. Arctic sea ice is half of its 1976 thickness;
8. “Now the ice is just collapsing”. as shown by “satellite-based observations”;
9. In September 2007 the Arctic icecap had “lost an extra 1.1 million square miles;
10. The icecap was “43% smaller than it was in 1979, when satellite observations began”;
11. Less ice means less sunlight reflected harmlessly back to space and so more warming;
12. “The process accelerates until there is no more ice to melt”; and
13. A scientist has said: “This is one of the most serious problems the world has ever faced”.
The truth: This article, like so many on “global warming”, is rooted in the naïve fallacy that the fact of warming tells us that the cause is anthropogenic rather than natural. We begin this Scarewatch, therefore, with a few truths about how much warmer the climate was before humankind could possibly have affected it significantly (or at all).
Today’s temperatures are below normal
In the Cambrian era, 550 million years ago, global temperatures were usually 7 degrees C (12.5 F) warmer than the present. The natural state of the planet for most of past half billion years has been entirely ice-free. Humankind cannot have been to blame. We were not there.
In each of the past half dozen ice ages over the past half million years, Antarctic (and by implication global) surface temperatures were up to 5 degrees C (9 F) warmer than the present. We were still not there. In the interglacial period about 850,000 years ago, the entire Greenland ice sheet melted away. It is inconceivable that there could have been any Arctic icecap then. We were not to blame. There were very, very few SUVs or coal-fired power stations at that time.
What about more recent history? For 6,500 of the 10,000 years since the end of the last ice age, temperatures have been warmer than the present. Today’s temperatures, therefore, are not unprecedentedly high. They are below normal.
In the Bronze Age, Roman, and mediaeval warm periods, temperatures were warmer than the present. The largest mediaeval Viking settlement in Greenland, at Hvalsey in the south-west, prospered in the warm weather that allowed Eric the Red to dub Greenland Greenland.
Today, the Viking graveyard at Hvalsey is under permafrost. The Vikings could not bury their dead in permafrost. So the permafrost was not there during the mediaeval warm period.
What about more recent history still? As recently as the 1930s to early 1940s, the Arctic was warmer than the present. Yet humankind at that date was less numerous and less industrially active than today.
Now that we have established that today’s temperatures are not exceptional, it follows that we cannot attribute any temperature changes in the Arctic exclusively or even primarily to humankind. What, then, are the natural influences on the Arctic climate?
Natural influences on the Arctic climate
The Sun: The first and most important of the natural influences on climate is the Sun. Soon (2004) has demonstrated a remarkably close correlation between solar activity and Arctic temperature changes. Scafetta and West (2008) say that the influence of the Sun on the climate is far greater than the IPCC finds it expedient to imagine: they calculate that more than two-thirds of the warming that ceased in 1998 worldwide was caused by solar activity, and they conclude that the influence of increasing carbon dioxide concentrations on temperature is many times less than the IPCC would like us to think.
The sea: Next, the great ocean currents sometimes direct vast bodies of tropical warm water up towards the Arctic, causing a considerable warming of the Arctic ocean and a consequent melting of ice. A paper by NASA in 2007 found that anthropogenic “global warming” had very little impact on the Arctic in comparison with the effect of global changes in patterns of currents such as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, which has recently been moving unusually large volumes of tropical water into the Arctic, assisted by the wind.
Seabed volcanoes: Finally, researchers have recently discovered that subsea volcanic activity in the Arctic region has increased. Early in 2008 a paper was published explaining that in the Greenland-Iceland Gap the ocean bottom had reached temperatures as high as 573 degrees F.
Taking factors such as these into account, it is simply not scientifically credible to attribute the current temperatures in the Arctic to anthropogenic “global warming”. Interestingly, the Sunday Times article is noteworthy for not mentioning humankind as a culprit at all.
The alarmism on which newspapers thrive is present: but it is clear that a very much more cautious approach to “global warming” has been taken. To this extent, and to this extent only, the Sunday Times article begins to reflect the truth.
With this background, we turn to the individual scares itemized in our summary of Mr. Leake’s rather hysterical article –
1: The Actic icecap is “shrinking at record rates” even in the winter
At the Science and Public Policy Institute we do not proselytize. We make the scientific facts and data available and allow readers to draw their own conclusions. The image below shows the extent of Arctic sea-ice cover on 25 October 1979, the first year of the satellite record (no image for the 26th is available), compared with 26 October 2008, the date of the Sunday Times article –
2: “The period in which the ice renews itself has become much shorter”
Once again, we shall provide real data rather than hollow debating points. The graph below shows the past year’s sea-ice area compared with the mean for 1979-2000 –
It is self-evident from this graph that the “period in which the ice renews itself” will be considerably longer this year than it was last year, when the anomalous natural conditions described in NASA’s paper about the influence of ocean currents had occurred.
3. The “even more alarming” cause of the thinner ice is warmer seas, not warmer air
Here, Mr. Leake confirms what NASA had found: that ocean currents and winds taking warmer water from the tropics to the Arctic have made the Arctic Ocean warmer. So has the subsea volcanic activity in the Greenland-Iceland Gap. There is nothing “alarming” about this. It is an entirely natural phenomenon, over which humankind has no influence and no control.
We know that, overall, the oceans have not in fact been warming. See, for instance, Lyman et al., 2006, whose study of ocean temperatures is one of the most detailed of its kind; or Gouretski and Koltermann (2007). Just as the air temperatures have shown no appreciable increase in the past decade, worldwide sea temperatures have shown no increase either. In short, there has been no “global warming” going on. That is a very powerful reason why it is imprudent to attribute the recent warming of the Arctic waters to anthropogenic “global warming”. It is instead attributable to natural, local warming against a background of prolonged and intense global cooling.
4. “The Arctic is likely to melt much faster than had been thought”
In April 2007, the UK Met Office issued its long-range forecast for the British summer. It said the summer would be the hottest, driest, most drought-prone summer on record because of “global warming” (and, if we’ve scared you enough, please can we have a smart new computer at taxpayers’ expense?). Just six weeks later, in June 2007, the coldest, wettest, most flood-prone summer since records began came in – and was of course blamed on “global warming”.
If our forecasters cannot get a general forecast correct six weeks in advance, on what rational scientific basis can they claim that “The Arctic is likely to melt faster than had been thought”? We were told earlier this summer that it might be possible to reach the North Pole by kayak for the first time since recent records began: but a lavishly-funded expedition had travelled only two days northward from its starting-point in Svalbard before being halted by impenetrable ice and intense cold.
The launching of the expedition was heavily reported in The Times and other news media, especially because the organizers fatuously said they were kayaking to the North Pole “to raise awareness of global warming” (presumably this was the only way to do it in the absence of any actual warming compared with 28 years ago). Gordon Brown, the UK Prime Minister, bizarrely telephoned the kayakers after they had become ice-bound, to congratulate them on their achievement. What achievement? They claimed they had kayaked further north than anyone had ever done before. Like most claims to do with “global warming”, this was false: an expedition half a century previously had done considerably better.
In short, there is no scientific basis for the article’s declaration that “the Arctic is likely to melt much faster than had been thought”. Currently the Arctic is freezing much faster than had been thought – which is why the kayakers and their stunt became icebound after just two miserably cold days.
5. “The summer icecap could vanish within a decade”, according to “experts”
There is no more scientific basis for this assertion than for the previous assertion. It would be very much more scientifically credible to say, “the summer icecap could increase by 30% within a year” – which is exactly what it had done by late October 2008 compared with late October 2007.
However, the proprietor of the Sunday Times – not noted for his scientific expertise – has declared that henceforth all his newspapers shall act as though “global warming” were the worst problem faced by humankind, when in fact it is not a problem at all. How could it be a problem, when global temperatures are no greater than they were 28 years ago?
6. The Northwest Passage was open in the summer of 2008 for the first time in 30 years
Here again Mr. Leake allows a small nugget of truth to escape into the page. He admits that the Northwest Passage was free of ice a third of a century ago. He might also have added that it was free of ice in 1903, when a sailing vessel under Amundsen sailed right through it. It had been free of ice on many previous occasions.
A letter from a Nuncio to the Pope in the late middle ages implies that the Northwest Passage may have been free of ice during the mediaeval warm period too. In short, it is open from time to time, and there is nothing new or unprecedented about it: certainly it should not be prayed in aid, as here, in an attempt to panic people into thinking that “global warming” will destroy the Arctic forever.
7. Arctic sea ice is half of its 1976 thickness
Since the 1950s nuclear submarines have been reporting a progressive thinning of the sea ice in the Arctic. Before then, no one had any idea how thick the sea ice of the Arctic was. However, temperatures in the Arctic were 1 or 2 degrees C (2-3 F) warmer than the present as recently as the 1930s and 1940s: but no one was worried about “global warming” then. Nor should anyone be worried now. Even if the Arctic icecap were to disappear altogether, it has disappeared before, as a recent scientific paper has reported. This, too, is nothing new and nothing to worry about.
8. “Now the ice is just collapsing”, as shown by “satellite-based observations”
We have already seen the satellite images of sea ice extent in 2008 compared with 1979. There was remarkably little difference between the two, just as one would expect given that there was very little difference between the global mean surface temperatures in those two years.
Let us now compare the sea ice extent for 26 October 2008 with that for 26 October 2007, to see whether it is right to say that, right now, “the ice is just collapsing” –
9. In September 2007 the Arctic icecap had “lost an extra 1.1 million square miles
So it had. Fluctuations of this sort happen from time to time in any mathematically-chaotic object such as the climate, and there is nothing unusual or frightening in the fact. These sudden and often temporary departures from apparent linearity are known to mathematicians as “phase transitions”. It is an essential characteristic of phase transitions in a chaotic object that their onset, magnitude, duration and even sign cannot be predicted unless the initial state of the object be known to a precision that, with the climate, is long proven to be unattainable.
The presence of phase transitions such as the sudden reduction in Arctic sea-ice extent in the late summer of 2007 cannot be predicted. Nor can it be credibly used to predict any longer-term trend. No true scientist would attempt to make a prediction on the basis of a single summer’s short-run ice-melt, particularly when the following summer’s sea-ice extent had returned closer to the long-run mean (though, unaccountably, the Sunday Times article somehow failed to make much of that fact).
10. The icecap was “43% smaller than in 1979, when satellite observations began”
And, though the Sunday Times somehow failed to say so, the pre-existing sea-ice extent had been restored by the late summer of 2008.
11. Less ice means less sunlight reflected back to space and so more warming
If there were sea-ice in the tropics, there might be something in this point. However, the angle at which sunlight reaches the Poles is so small that remarkably little additional warming would occur even if the entire Arctic icecap were to disappear, as it has done before and will do again.
12. “The process accelerates until there is no more ice to melt”
Once again, a cold, hard look at the cold, hard data shows what nonsense this contention is. Since the extent of sea ice in 2008 is near-identical to the extent of sea-ice in 1979, there is no credible scientific basis for it. For just as much sunlight is reflected back into space now as in 1979. In fact, rather more sunlight is reflected today than in 1979, because it is not just ice cover that efficiently reflects sunlight back into space. Snow cover does exactly the same, and with identical efficiency (for nearly all icy surfaces are covered with snow).
And the extent of northern-hemisphere snow cover has shown no trend – no upward or downward long-run movement at all – since satellite records began in 1979. However, a new maximum for northern-hemisphere snow cover was recorded in 2001, and that maximum was easily surpassed in the winter of 2007. If, therefore, we were to use the same half-baked, scientifically-illiterate analysis as poor Mr. Leake, but having some regard to the data, we should be entitled to claim that the snow cover might grow and grow in extent, with more and more sunlight reflected off into space, until the entire planet was frozen over. And that is exactly what will happen when the next Ice Age comes along. But, unlike Mr. Leake, we do not claim to be able to predict the future behavior of the mathematically-chaotic object that is the climate.
13. A scientist has said, “This is one of the worst problems the world has ever faced”
It would be, if it were a problem at all, and if it were a bad one, and if a little extra warm weather – even if it were to happen – were at all likely to cause even a minuscule fraction of the damage imagined by Mr. Leake and other extremists with no scientific knowledge and not even the most basic acquaintance with readily-available data.
However, “global warming” cannot be said to be a problem in the face of well over a quarter of a century in which there has been no net warming, in which sea-ice extent is much as it was at the outset, in which sea level continues to rise at one-fifth the mean centennial rate over the past 10,000 years, in which record cold temperatures are currently being recorded in many US cities (but not reported in The Times). The polar bears survived the last interglacial period, during which Arctic temperatures were probably at least 5 degrees C (9 F) higher than today and the Arctic icecap probably did not exist. They will survive, quite comfortably, if the Arctic icecap disappears in a few years’ time (which it may or, more likely, may not do). End of scare.
“Global warming” propaganda is now failing to convince
Outright propaganda of the character exemplified in Mr. Leake’s article, in which no attempt at a mature, balanced presentation of the facts is made, is now proving effective only in children’s classrooms. Adults are no longer willing to believe anything they hear that is prefaced by the words “Scientists/Experts say”. As proof, here are the first few comments on the online version of Mr. Leake’s Sunday Times story.
Oct 28, 2008: in Vostok, Antartica, the temperature is –72 degrees F (by the way, it is springtime there), and in Umiat, Alaska, it is 12 degrees F (on the Arctic coast: by the way it is Fall there). If this is global warming you’re crazy. A polar bear was shot 250 miles inland! They’re just fine. – Orsone, Lacey, USA
I have read that there are an ever growing number of experts in the study of global warming saying there is no such thing today. Nothing that differs from the cyclic patterns studied and recorded over millions of years. Take the time to look at the lack of evidence to support global warming. It once again makes this story hogwash. – Fred, Vail.
This type of propaganda is why the NY Times is losing readers and going under. I live up here and work in the Arctic. Almost every story about environmental damage and wildlife decline that I read in the liberal media is untrue. Moose and bear still roam our city. Hey NY, how many still roam yours? – M. Denton, Anchorage.
We’ve been hearing about rising sea levels for ages now. Odd then that when I look at photos of UK coastal towns from decades ago, and compare recent ones of exactly the same place, there’s no discernible difference in sea level between then and now. Just when does the sea level actually begin to rise? – Hillary Shaw, Newport, Shropshire.
The US mainland temperature is currently falling to record levels. Scientists also said the bumble bee cannot fly. We should ignore this so called expert opinion just like the bumble bee. – Roger, Epping,
The area of arctic sea ice is increasing this year more rapidly than normal, indeed it may be back to the 1979-2000 average shortly after the end of this month and greater thereafter. Surely in the long term increased area will lead to increased volume. – Paul Dover, Nottingham.
“Arctic ice is melting even in winter”. The temperature is –21 C in Alert, Nunavut, today. Doublethink is the act of simultaneously accepting as correct two mutually contradictory beliefs. 1984 was meant to be a warning, not a manual. – Ken, Canada.
Funny too, because a well-circulated report last spring revealed the oceans have been cooling for the last 3 years. Seems like the odd one out is this study. – Greg, Toronto, Canada.
No wonder we are all being flushed down the toilet of history! With ‘scientists’ like this and ‘economists’ like Darling we may as well just give up! – Stephanie King, Larnaca, Cyprus.
Remember why Greenland is named Greenland. It is because it was once green. England at one time had vineyards all over. It was once warmer. Also they have found proof of palm trees in the far north. Everything is cyclical and has been for millions of years. We cannot control Mother Nature. – Lyndie, Winnipeg,
According to NASA, it’s the wind. But what does science have to do with anything? – Stan, Saskatoon, Canada.