What we learned from the freak storm that “melted the North Pole” on December 30

Summary: Let’s compare the news about weather with data and scientists’ analysis. Sad see how ideology plus desperation for readers has brought talented journalists to write clickbait. No wonder their credibility has collapsed. Worse, after 26 years of this exaggerated reporting the public rates climate change near or at the bottom of their policy priorities.

“As to the permanent interest of individuals in the aggregate interests of the community, and in the proverbial maxim, that honesty is the best policy, present temptation is often found to be an overmatch for those considerations.”
— James Madison’s Speech in the Virginia Constitutional Convention, 2 December 1829.

Polar Ice Caps are melting


  1. Journalists warm up the story
  2. Stories after the storm
  3. Weather Porn
  4. Did the North Pole melt?
  5. Conclusions
  6. Other posts in this series
  7. For More Information

(1)  Journalists warm up the story

It’s time for another round of extreme weather hysteria, this time about the “melting North Pole.” It’s the kind of reporting that has made newspapers and TV news among the least-trusted institutions in America. Let’s start with an example of professionally done journalism to show how far the rot has spread: excerpts from “Freak storm in North Atlantic to lash UK, may push temperatures over 50 degrees above normal at North Pole” by Jason Samenow (editor and meteorologist) at WaPo, 28 December.

“Big Icelandic storms are common in winter, but this one may rank among the strongest and will draw northward an incredible surge of warmth pushing temperatures at the North Pole over 50° above normal.  This is mind-boggling.

… Ahead of the storm, the surge of warm air making a beeline towards the North Pole is astonishing. In the animation {computer model forecast} below, watch the warm temperature departures from normal, portrayed by red shades, explode towards the Pole between Monday and Wednesday.

“It’s as if a bomb went off. And, in fact, it did.”

Samenow demonstrates how weather reporting has become misleading. Forecasts are “mindboggling” and “astonishing”, and their results are described in tabloid-like terms (“a bomb went off”). He makes no comparisons with history to show that this storm looks unusual (see the some actual data below). Predictions create both fear and clicks in modern journalism.

That’s not the oddest aspect of the story. America has thousands of meteorologists and climate scientists, but journalists increasingly turn for lurid copy to climate activists lacking any professional qualifications. Preferencing the analysis of a fiction writer with actual climate scientists is low-grade propaganda, not journalism. But the WaPo does so…

“Environmental blogger Robert Scribbler notes this storm will be linked within a “daisy chain” of two other powerful North Atlantic low pressure systems forming a “truly extreme storm system.” He adds: “The Icelandic coast and near off-shore regions are expected to see heavy precipitation hurled over the island by 90 to 100 mile per hour or stronger winds raging out of 35-40 foot seas. Meanwhile, the UK will find itself in the grips of an extraordinarily strong southerly gale running over the backs of 30 foot swells.”

… Scribbler says such an anomaly “reeks of a human-forced warming of the Earth’s climate”, although some climate scientists aren’t convinced global warming is meaningfully impacting these types of storms.”

(2)  Stories after the storm

The WaPo does the follow-up article in a similar manner: “Freak storm pushes North Pole 50 degrees above normal to melting point” by Angela Fritz (atmospheric scientist and editor) at WaPo, 30 December. The very headline is misleading. A range of temperatures can be considered “normal” (i.e., one or two standard deviations); the average is not the “normal” (i.e., deviations from it are not inherently abnormal). Let’s look at other oddities n the story.

“NOAA’s Ocean Prediction Center said the storm’s minimum pressure dropped to 928 millibars around 1 a.m. Eastern time, which likely places it in the top five strongest storms on record in this region.

“… Data from the International Arctic Buoy Programme confirms that temperatures very close to the North Pole surpassed the melting point on Wednesday. A buoy (WMO ID Buoy 6400476) at a latitude of 87.45° North hit a high temperature of 0.7° Celsius — or 33° Fahrenheit.”

Both of these points are misleading. First, the link for the barometric pressure reveals that the reading was from Iceland — almost 1,800 miles from the North Pole. Then the WaPo goes to the main event…

“On Wednesday morning, temperatures over a vast area around North Pole were somewhere between 30 and 35°F, and for at least a brief moment, surpassed the 32° threshold at exactly 90°N, according to data from the GFS forecast model.”

That’s misleading. Due to the few instruments measuring temperatures in the Arctic, meteorologists input the satellite and surface data into models to generate these estimates. Ryan Maue of WeatherBELL Analytics gives estimates for the peak temperature on Dec 30 at for 90°N from 3 models (here and here). The WaPo of course mentions only the warmest result.

The link in that paragraph goes to data from one buoy close to the Pole that gave a warm reading for two hours and so becomes a clickbait extravaganza (this buoy was a star on the Internet for several days)! The 3 closest buoys recorded below-freezing temperatures (source).

Buoy locations on 30 December 2015

(3)  Weather Porn

The essence of weather porn — clickbait — is giving scary numbers with little or no historical context, while describing them with vivid adjectives. The world is large and there are many ways to measure weather (e.g., temperature, precipitation, winds, barometric pressure) — records are brief for most metrics across most of the globe — so records are set frequently.

But the info is available, as in this from Ryan Maue of Weatherbell: 6-hourly GFS data for the North Pole: mean, maximum, and minimum temperatures for Decembers (i.e., satellite and available surface data input to model reanalysis). The December 30 temperatures were at the top of the range for 1979-now (a brief period as weather records go), but not extraordinary. The 1999 spike was almost identical (the uncertainty in these estimates is several tenths of a degree C).

December Temperature at the North Pole

Steven Cavallo (Asst Prof Meteorology, U OK) used NCEP CFSR (CFS reanalysis) data for North Pole during 1948-2014 to show a wider perspective (source). This dataset shows temperatures above freezing on 4-5 Dec 1959, 25 Dec 1990, and 1 Dec 2014.

North Pole - 1948-2014

Joe of Bastardi of WeatherBELL Analytics points to the Danish Meteorological Institute, who tracks the temperature of the Arctic area north of the 80th northern parallel back to 1958. They show that December had warmer spikes in 1984, 1985, 2000, and 2002.

(4)  Did the North Pole melt?

Less responsible journalists than the WaPo’s take this story to mad extremes. Such as this “Storm ‘Unfreezes’ North Pole” (Avianne Tan, ABC, 30 December), and this far more successful clickbait by Robinson Meyer on 29 December…

The Atlantic: the melting North Pole

Also see “One of the most powerful N. Atlantic storms on record builds 55-ft waves and brings winter melting to North Pole” by Tom Yulsman at Discover Magazine, 30 December. He provides no evidence for either of the claims in the title (most powerful storm & winter melting) — at the end he backs down on the storm claim. He uses “unthinkable” in the opening paragraph; it doesn’t mean what he thinks it does (since it has happened before):

“A monstrously powerful North Atlantic storm has done the unthinkable: By drawing warm air up from the south into the Arctic, it likely pushed up temperatures at the North Pole today to just above the melting point. The North Pole unfreezing — in winter? That’s seems like a fitting way to end a year that will go down as the warmest on record, by far.

“… Powerful North Atlantic storms that bring warm air north are certainly not unheard of. But this one was particularly powerful…”

Also see Yulsman’s comment below and my response.

(5)  Conclusions

Why do journalists produce this sloppy and biased reporting? The major climate agencies and universities make information about these events easily available, and can provide experts to explain what’s happening. . Let’s more journalists follow tje example of Emily Russell sy KNOM – Alaska Public Media who consulted climate scientist Walt Meier for the bottom line about this story.

“’I’ve seen stories on that {about polar melting} and they’re kind of misleading. What they’re basically saying, there’s a really strong low pressure over Iceland and what that’s doing, that’s funneling warm air around the low and up into the Arctic and into the North Pole and the air temperatures are slightly above freezing.

… When you have temperatures like that, you would have some surface melt, but you know, it’s still ice covered,” he said. “You still have probably a good couple meters or more, you know, six to eight feet of ice out there at least.’”

(6)  Other posts comparing weather porn with with science

If we mock them, journalists might dial down on the weather porn stories.

  1. Mother Jones sounds the alarm about global warming! This time about the North Pole.
  2. Alaska’s climate scientists tell us the rest of the news, what Obama forgot to mention.
  3. 90% of the biggest Yosemite glacier has melted. Did we do it?
  4. Are we “choking the ocean with plastic”?Spoiler: no.
  5. The New Yorker’s “The Siege of Miami” reveals a serious problem.

(7)  For More Information

Here’s the scoop about a similar episode of hysteria in 2013 — gullibly accepted by many on the Left, who ignored the rebuttals by scientists.  James D. Agresti shows the long history of mis-reporting melting at the North Pole (follow the links). Also see The North Pole is now a lake! Are you afraid yet?

Please like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter. See the important things to know about global warming. For more information see all posts about the arctic area and polar sea ice, and especially these …

5 thoughts on “What we learned from the freak storm that “melted the North Pole” on December 30”

  1. Pingback: Weekly Climate and Energy News Roundup #208 | Watts Up With That?

  2. Pingback: What we learned from the freak storm that “melted the North Pole” on December 30 | Fabius Maximus website – sanandamelchizedek

  3. I’m just catching up to this critique of stories written by journalists, including myself, on the storm that contributed to a surge of warm temperatures in the high Arctic. I’m Tom Yulsman, and I wrote the last piece you linked to: “One of the most powerful N. Atlantic storms on record builds 55-ft waves and brings winter melting to North Pole.”

    I agree with you that I need to be more careful about word choice My language was overwrought. That’s a fair critique.

    But you also said this: “He provides no evidence for either of the claims in the title.” Respectfully, that is simply not true. I provided evidence for both.

    The information accompanying the animation I link to at the very top of my post, which comes from the NWS Ocean Prediction Center), states the following:

    “A very strong low pressure system developed over the past couple of days in the N Atlantic. It deepened to a very intense central pressure of 928 mb at 0600 UTC 12/30/15, and is one of the strongest systems to have impacted the Atlantic in recorded history.”

    I did not make up that it was “one of the strongest systems…” I don’t do that. Nor did I fail to provide the evidence. I can be faulted for not highlighting the evidence more prominently. And for that, I accept the criticism.

    I also did not fail to provide evidence for the storm pushing up 55-foot waves. Here is the Tweet from the NWS Ocean Prediction Center that I embedded toward the end of the story: https://twitter.com/NWSOPC/status/682212289672572928/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw You’ll note that it says this: “Jason-2 altimeter data returns significant wave heights in excess of 55FT (≈17m) east of Iceland #SatWave ”

    Perhaps you didn’t read the entire story because you were put off by what you felt to be overwrought writing. If so, I understand. And I will try to improve. I would ask in return that you be fairer in your critiques – and that you avoid criticizing people for things they did not do.

    1. Tom,

      Thank you for your reply. You raise two important points. Let’s examine them.

      (1) “I did not make up that it was ‘one of the strongest systems…’”

      Correct, but then you didn’t say that, either. You title said “One of the most powerful N. Atlantic storms on record builds 55-ft waves and brings winter melting to North Pole”. The NOAA quote said “A very strong low pressure system developed … and is one of the strongest systems to have impacted the Atlantic in recorded history.” Bold added.

      A “low pressure system” is not the same as a “storm.” Nor is air pressure the usual measure of storm intensity. Wind speed is the most common metric (e.g., Saffir-Simpson rating system). NOAA uses Integrated Kinetic Energy — roughly wind speed times air mass.

      (2) “I also did not fail to provide evidence for the storm pushing up 55-foot waves.”

      When I said you didn’t prove “either” claim in your title, I wasn’t including that (which was sloppy of me; I considered it a simple fact). The other claim I referred to was “brings winter melting to the Arctic”, which was the core subject of this post. I will add a note to the text making this clear. I apologize for the confusion.

      (3) “My language was overwrought. That’s a fair critique.”

      You have my respect for your integrity as a journalist. In my experience such admissions are almost as rare as hens teeth. Thank you again for your comment!

  4. Pingback: How fast is the world warming? Is it burning? | Watts Up With That?

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