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October 02, 2007

The Ice-Free Arctic – Excellent Coverage in the NY Times

Kudos to New York Times reporter Andrew C. Revkin for today’s article Arctic Melt Unnerves the Experts: Revkin clearly explains how this may be evidence of global warming - or not, may be evidence of anthropogenic causes for global warming – or not. More of this type of reporting would certainly reduce the heat and increase the light of the global warming debate.

Note that by the second paragraph the facts in the first paragraph are put in perspective:

“The Arctic ice cap shrank so much this summer that waves briefly lapped along two long-imagined Arctic shipping routes, the Northwest Passage over Canada and the Northern Sea Route over Russia.

“Over all, the floating ice dwindled to an extent unparalleled in a century or more, by several estimates.”

In other words: this is a big deal with lots of implications – some of them positive like easier shipping – but the conditions are a repeat of what may well have happened relatively recently and BEFORE anthropogenic global warming could have been a factor. This doesn’t prove, of course, that increased CO2 concentrations had nothing to do with this warming episode – it just makes clear that there could be other causes.

Another very good paragraph:

“The pace of change has far exceeded what had been estimated by almost all the simulations used to envision how the Arctic will respond to rising concentrations of greenhouse gases linked to global warming. But that disconnect can cut two ways. Are the models overly conservative? Or are they missing natural influences that can cause wide swings in ice and temperature, thereby dwarfing the slow background warming?”

Much faith has been put in the many models which predict dramatic future warming based on the last few years and some assumptions and correlations between CO2 levels and average global temperature. But are they connecting the wrong dots? The test of a model is not how well it fits the past; it’s how well it predicts the future. If the model-driven estimates of ice melt are badly off in either direction, it suggests that the models are broken. If we really want to be alarmed, let’s think about the possibility that the earth is getting warmer faster than we think it is for reasons that have nothing to do with our activities. Could be that we’re not in control at all.

Interestingly the Arctic ice deficit may not be directly temperature related at all. The article also gives lots of space to alternative or contributing causes including wind patterns which have been pushing ice out of the Northwest Passage into the open ocean. Sound bites will leave alternative possibilities out, of course.

Some more balance:

“Proponents of cuts in greenhouse gases cited the meltdown as proof that human activities are propelling a slide toward climate calamity.

“Arctic experts say things are not that simple. More than a dozen experts said in interviews that the extreme summer ice retreat had revealed at least as much about what remains unknown in the Arctic as what is clear. Still, many of those scientists said they were becoming convinced that the system is heading toward a new, more watery state, and that human-caused global warming is playing a significant role.”

Evidence is important. What happens in the Arctic is evidence. The best use of evidence is to try to DISPROVE existing theories (more on that in a future post). The Times article gives sufficient space to using the evidence as challenge rather than confirmation.

The closing quote from Dr. Hajo Eicken, a geophysicist at the University of Alaska, suggests a lack of imagination (although it may be out of context): “The Arctic may have another ace up her sleeve to help the ice grow back. But from all we can tell right now, the means for that are quite limited.”

Seems it would be a very good idea to study both why the ice melted a century or so ago and how it happened to grow back. Maybe the conditions from then apply now, maybe they don’t. But the last warming (and cooling) is certainly relevant.

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