A massive melting problem in Antarctica!

Summary:  Today we have yet another example of climate science reported like game of telephone, with the last and least accurate version being the most sensational and getting the most attention. It need not be like this. Finding accurate reporting of the source material takes only a little work and rewards us with more reliable information. It will get better only if we stop rewarding those that mislead us.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Truth in science
Graphic designed by IdeaTree Company.

(1)  Start with the science

Here is an new study on an important frontier of climate science, one consistent with and expanding on previous research: “Accelerated West Antarctic ice mass loss continues to outpace East Antarctic gains“, Christopher Harig and Frederik J. Simons, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 1 April 2015 — From the abstract…

We determine the geographic pattern of ice mass change in Antarctica between January 2003 and June 2014 … Applying those to the latest time series of monthly GRACE solutions we map Antarctica’s mass loss in space and time as well as can be recovered from satellite gravity alone. Ignoring GIA model uncertainty, over the period 2003–2014 … {we} estimate the overall mass losses from Antarctica since January 2003 at −92±10 Gt/yr.

The total rate of Antarctica melting increased by 6 gigatons per year per year during the 11-year period examined, with the west losing ice while the east gained. Antarctica has a total mass of aprox 26.5 million gigatons. Still it is a worrisome trend for the long-term, especially if part of the ice sheet destabilizes. Note that most of it is firmly anchored and cannot slide into the ocean. Also, if sustained this acceleration would melt the ice sheet over hundreds of thousands of years.

This study uses data from the Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment (the GRACE satellite) launched in March 2002, which gave the first data on Antarctic ice mass. A decade tells little about normal fluctuations, but will eventually provide a valuable new perspective on these key dynamics of the global climate.

Princeton's Logo
“Under the Protection of God She Flourishes.”

(2) Princeton’s PR staff touches up a story

The Princeton Press release says: “Gravity data show that Antarctic ice sheet is melting increasingly faster”. These are not written by scientists, and often not vetted by them.

Typically this gives hard information but makes little effort to put it in a context useful for the general public. They describe the ice loss in lurid but almost meaningless terms: “If stacked on the island of Manhattan, that amount of ice would be more than a mile high — more than five times the height of the Empire State Building.”

More useful would be comparing this to the thickness of the Antarctic ice sheet (i.e., would be a fraction of a centimeter if stacked on Antarctica), or how long would the ice cap melt at this rate of acceleration. Large numbers like gigatons sound big to laypeople but are small change on a global story. Note this is the same tactic the Right uses to arouse fear about the Federal deficit and debt.

Popular Science logo

(3)  Popular Science goes for clicks

Popular Science goes for the clicks by exaggerating and misleading, saying “Gravity Data Confirms: Antarctica Is Melting Faster Than Ever Before” — “A massive melting problem”. The study says neither. We have no data on Antarctica mass data before GRACE launched in 2002; there is no reliable area on ice area before the satellite data began in 1979. The current rate of melting is too small to be a “massive problem”, although it might become one in the future.

Business Insider reprints the PS article with an even more lurid headline: “Antarctica is melting faster than ever before — and the result will be devastating“.  This is the version that has flown across the Internet (e.g., featured at Naked Capitalism).

It’s these stories — so far removed from the actual science — that have decreased the public’s confidence in the news media and climate activists.

For More Information

To learn more about the state of climate change see The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change by Roger Pielke Jr. (Prof of Environmental Studies at U of CO-Boulder, and Director of their Center for Science and Technology Policy Research).

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See these Reference Pages for other posts about climate on the FM sites: the keys to understanding climate change and my posts about climate change. Also see these posts about Information & disinformation in the new media & old, and especially these investigating misinformation in the media:

9 thoughts on “A massive melting problem in Antarctica!

  1. Disgusting.
    Is this an ethical issue when such Things occur?
    Or is it just the Way things are in the world?
    Is this example meaningful or just for clicks on this Blog?

    Breton

  2. When I read the abstract, it states -92 +/- 10 Gt/year. That means, to me, the net loss is estimated to be greater than or equal to 82 Gt/year and less than or equal to 102 Gt/year. I don’t know how you concluded 0 to 184 Gt/yr.

    Your point about context is accurate though. Why not -92 +/- 10 Petagrams/year? With no context, the number is anywhere from cataclysmic to insignificant.

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