Greenland ice: Are the Times a-changing?

Map composite The Times Atlas map (left); a map it may have been based on showing only the thickness of the central portion of the ice sheet (centre); ice extent seen from space (right)

The part of News Corporation that makes Times Atlases is currently taking the same kind of kicking from scientists that some of its newspapers took from the general public over phone-hacking.

What it's being kicked for is for claiming, in the edition that came out last week, that the Greenland ice sheet has shrunk by 15% over 12 years, necessitating the re-drawing of its boundaries.

Few books receive as much publicity as the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World.

OK, a new JK Rowling or an undiscovered Wilde might get more - but still, the atlas put up an impressive showing last week, with articles in a lot of major newspapers and executives interviewed on rolling news channels.

And top of the agenda in all of the output I saw was the 15% claim.

The problem is, it's not true; and glaciologists have been queuing up to say why not.

'Killer mistake'

"In the aftermath of 'Himalayagate', we glaciologists are hypersensitive to egregious errors in supposedly authoritative sources," said Graham Cogley from Trent University in Canada.

"Climate change is real, and Greenland ice cover is shrinking. But the claims here are simply not backed up by science; this pig can't fly."

As Professor Cogley was the scientist who raised the alarm over "Himalayagate" - the erroneous Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) contention that Himalayan glaciers could largely melt away by 2035 - he is well placed to make the comparison.

Jeffrey Kargel from the University of Arizona, principal scientist on the GLIMS project that's trying to improve mapping of ice and glaciers from space, was even more scathing.

A fishing boat sails by an iceberg Greenland's ice is melting, but not at the rate suggested by the Times Atlas

"These new maps are ridiculously off base, way exaggerated relative to the reality of rapid change in Greenland," he fumed.

"I don't know how exactly the Times Atlas produced their results, but they are NOT scientific results.

"Just like IPCC's '2035', a number like 15% ice loss used for advertising the book is simply a killer mistake that cannot be winked away."

All this is in addition to the letter from the Scott Polar Research Institute, which I reported on Monday, that concluded: "There is to our knowledge no support for this [15%] claim in the published scientific literature."

Precisely how the Times Atlas team reached its conclusion is not entirely clear.

In a statement issued on Monday, and in a phone call thereafter to Sheena Barclay, MD of the HarperCollins imprint Collins Geo which publishes the atlas, it emerged that the map-makers somehow got the figure from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

This Colorado-based institute is one of the world's most respected in terms of polar science.

But how did the NSIDC's data add up to 15%?

True values

I called up Ted Scambos, one of the researchers there with whom I've talked regularly down the years, and found that the Times figures were something of a mystery to him and his colleagues.

At the time of writing (Monday evening UK time, early afternoon in Colorado), their prevailing theory was that the figure may have been derived from a map published in the Atlas of the Cryosphere, an online resource that NSIDC maintains.

Himalayan glaciers The IPCC eventually backed down on its claims

If this was the source, it was a big mistake, according to Dr Scambos.

"This was intended to be a map of the thickness of the central portion of the ice sheet - not the peripheral glaciers and... not intended as a definitive outline of the ice sheet," he told me.

"The Atlas of the Cryosphere is intended to be a public resource, a quick-look resource, and not a definitive statement."

When I asked whether a phone call to NSIDC could have cleared up any confusion, he said: "There are probably 1,000 people they could have called that would have been able to steer them clear of the 15% number... anybody working in glaciology, any graduate students working in glaciology, could have steered them clear."

The real proportion of ice sheet area lost over the last 12 years is more like 0.05%, he said.

The Times Atlas may have intended to highlight dramatic changes to the world taking place as a result of warming. But Ted Scambos (and he is not alone) is rather concerned that this episode could have the opposite effect.

"I'm worried that the importance of the changes that are going on will be lost on the public, because the true value of what the ice sheet has lost compared to this 15% number sounds very small.

"Yet if you look at the coastline, if you make measurements along some of these outlet glaciers, you see stunning levels of change - they're losing elevation very rapidly, on the scale of tens of metres, some of them."

Hence all the fears about sea level rise measured in metres as a result of the sheet melting - not next week, not next year, not in the next decade; but possibly irreversible once a threshold of warming has been exceeded.

'Melted away'

Whether a mis-interpretation of the NSIDC map is exactly what happened will presumably be clarified at some point; in the meanwhile, the Daily Mail's Michael Hanlon has blogged an account of a longer conversation he had with Collins Geo's Ms Barclay, which sheds a bit more light on the matter.

We should also see the company clarify at some point where it intends to go next. It took the IPCC several weeks to own up to the Himalayan error; but own up it eventually did, and embarked on the process of formally amending its report.

Will HarperCollins do likewise?

It has already - for what reason, I do not speculate - issued a claim about its original claim that does not stand up to scrutiny.

"While global warming has played a role in this [15%] reduction, it is also as a result of the much more accurate data and in-depth research that is now available," the company said on Monday - adding: "Read as a whole, both the press release and the 13th edition of the Atlas make this clear".

Here, I have to admit that I have not read every word on every one of the atlas's pages, so I might have missed something.

But press releases are intended, partially, to condense what's in the thing they're publicising - and often, owing to time pressures, they are all journalists will read.

For the record, here are the glossy document's opening words:

"For the first time, the new edition of The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World, published on 15 September, has had to erase 15% of Greenland's once permanent ice cover - turning an area the size of the United Kingdom and Ireland 'green' and ice-free.

"This is concrete evidence of how climate change is altering the face of the planet forever - and doing so at an alarming rate.

"Cartographers of the atlas have sourced the latest evidence and referred to detailed maps and records to confirm that in the last 12 years, 15% of the permanent ice cover (around 300,000 sq km) of Greenland, the world's largest island, has melted away."

No mention there of the 15% figure being partially "a result of the much more accurate data and in-depth research that is now available".

Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    Check-out the latest post at ClimateAudit. The Atlas and the green Greenland was endorsed by no less than Brian Hoskins, review editor for the Phil Jones and Kevin Trenberth chapter of IPCC AR4 and supporter of the Oxburgh 'inquiry'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    It's great to see scientists rallying round with the facts in the face of blatant sensationalism.

    I hope that this demonstrates that most scientists do not take sides (which was suggested in the 'Climategate' "scandal"), but endeavour to provide facts based on peer reviewed research.

    Well done Richard on a great article.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    #94 Brunnen
    - Cause is irrelevant.
    'Irrelevant? Are you crazy? ... -this is- ...'the most important question in this whole debate.'

    To me the most important question by far is what happens in the future. Even at its current level climate instability could kill 3 to 5 billion people in the next 100 years and if we're not careful could easily drive our whole society to the wall.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    The collective indignation by scientists is not matched by CRU's Climategate and they all kept their jobs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    Quote as follows from report of Satellite falling back to earth:-
    'Experts say that a recent expansion in the Earth's atmosphere due to heating by ultraviolet radiation has been causing UARS to fall to Earth faster than expected.'Surprise,surprise - stand up anyone who hasn't been blamed for something which is naturally fluctuating all the time!

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Scientists using climate models in the 80s predicted the recent warming. Noone else did.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    @93 - I'm not sure what you think I'm failing at, and I get a strong sense that any logical debate with you is pointless, but, once again, to believe mankind is not changing the climate you have to believe that every scientific organisation that has expressed a view is motivated sufficiently by profit to lie. Or inept.

    It's a cold and frightening world you live in. I'm glad I don't share it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    " 'Correlation is NOT causation.' - Cause is irrelevant"

    Irrelevant? Are you crazy? Whether or not the recent warm years were the result of natural phenomena or caused by human activity is the most important question in this whole debate.

    And yes, climate models evolve, they just haven't evolved into anything useful or accurate yet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    "There's no proven science that adding measurably increasing insulation in a closed system will increase the temperature within. Of course not."

    And that is why you fail. We are NOT in a closed system. What in the world would make you think we were?

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    Wow, look at the level of conspiracy some of you are willing to believe, presumably from some self-serving agenda.

    There's no proven science that adding measurably increasing insulation in a closed system will increase the temperature within. Of course not.

    No, every scientific body on the planet is ruled by the profit motive and corrupt.


    Forgive the sarcasm.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    In keeping with warmest hysteria the Times Atlas has erased some Pacific Islands [which still exist!] in keeping with 'proof' that sea levels are rising [which they are not]. This Al Gore blatant 'economy with the truth' way of scaring the general public has got to stop.
    Polar ice levels are always changing and these areas have been uncovered many times. Cyclic not Disruptive changes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    #85. Wow. LOL.

    I guess all those ridiculous and false reports about polar bears, disappearing islands, no more snow, more hurricanes, and all that were also part of the wicked plot to discredit the AGW project too.

    Al Gore and Richard must both be secretly working for Murdoch and Big Oil.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    #88. Too bad so few scientists had the courage or the brains to speak out against the bogus Consensus and all the junk science and lies they told. Like good Germans they stayed silent and rode the gravy train.

    I admire those who did have the courage to stand up despite the shunning and career retardation they got from the cult.

    Blame these gutless sheep, not their critics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    As a scientist I know what a destructive thing scientific consensus can be- and the difficulties that come in going against it - especially when the stakes are very high.
    But also when scientists are constantly forced on the defensive it can do a lot of damage to real research and its surprisingly easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater. - As happening with climate sci & its future planning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    #82 Brunnen

    1. 'Correlation is NOT causation.' - Cause is irrelevant

    2. 'Climate change models have never produced an accurate prediction.' - Models evolve and their accuracy increases with each generation - but they will only ever be predictions.

    3. 'Distrust any scientist who produces science to the theme of a grant.' - Half agree but it isn't trust its lack of courage thats the real problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    "Murdoch is a climate denialist. Could it be that they deliberately overstated the percentage in order to try to discredit legitimate climate science?"

    The correct term is AGW sceptic. I know you lot have a desperate need to demonise all of us who question the consensus, but realy, there are far, FAR better reasons to demonise Murdoch. There's no need for name calling.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    From the companion article:
    "The Times Atlas is not owned by The Times newspaper. It is published by Times Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, which is in turn owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation."

    Murdoch is a climate denialist. Could it be that they deliberately overstated the percentage in order to try to discredit legitimate climate science?

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    "I'm not a scientist, but I know several, and they don't seem disproportionately unprincipled to me. And they're quite clever."

    Clever enough to know not to bite the hand to feeds. The difference between funding available for re-inforcing the AGW argument and the funding available to sceptics is VAST. How many governments are funding research that questions AGW?

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    @82 - You're entitled to your view. As long as you're aware it necessarily involves a belief that every single scientific body of national or international standing that has published a stance on the matter is corrupt, or not as bright as you, or both.

    I don't.

    I'm not a scientist, but I know several, and they don't seem disproportionately unprincipled to me. And they're quite clever.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    As do I. And desputing the science is easy.

    1. Correlation is NOT causation.

    2. The climate change models, computer games used as the basis for government policy, have never produced an accurate preditiction. You've had almost 30 years to work with and still, nothing.

    3. Distrust any scientist who produces science to the theme of a grant.


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