Media Cherrypicking of the Areal Coverage of Arctic Sea Ice

There was a news report on September 16, 2005 in the online edition of “The Independent” which highlighted that “Global warming (is) ‘past the point of no return” (payment required to view the entire article). The article used sea ice coverage to make their point, and referred to Mark Serreze as the basis for their claim. However, the article was erroneous and illustrates the clear intent to bias a news release to support a particular perspective.

With Mark Serreze’s approval, I have copied below his response, dated September 19, 2005, with respect to The Independent news article. This response was sent to a mail group that questioned the article (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/climatesceptics).

“Folks:

I need to bring your attention to several key points regarding the article. Mr. Connor, who wrote the Article in the “Independent” has jumped the gun. My quotes stemmed from interviews back in mid-late August. They arose from an EOS article that I co-authored with Jonathan Overpeck and others. Mr. Connor’s article indicates that there will be a press release on September 20. There is no such release planned for that date. Apparently, he misconstrued statements from one of my colleagues. We are assembling a series of “talking points” regarding 2005 sea ice conditions, but this will only be released when all the facts are in.

John: According to our calculations, sea ice was still declining as of last Friday (see http://www.nsidc.org/data/seaice_index/). This is based on AMSR data. I think the Univ. IL information is based on SSM/I, but I’m not sure.

Will 2005 be a record? I don’t know. I know it will be close one way or the other. We’ll know in a couple of weeks. And as part of this investigation, we need to address discrepancies with the Univ. IL data.

Mr. Connor seems to have taken a wild guess that we will have a new record minimum. Maybe he will be right. The numbers that he quotes were apparently taken from the web site listed above, but they are based on incomplete information. We are tracking sea ice conditions closely, but as stated, we don’t yet know how 2005 will stand in comparison to other years. If it is a record, we will certainly let this be known.

In conclusion, Mr. Connor has “jumped the gun.” I am firmly convinced that at least part of what we are seeing in the Arctic is due to human influences. However, sensationalist articles like Mr. Connor’s only serve to further polarize what is already a very polarized issue. As I have reported in a number of peer reviewed articles, climate change is a complicated issue. As my colleague Dr. Polyakov has frequently pointed out, the Arctic is home to large natural fluctuations in climate.

I feel “ambushed” by Mr. Connor’s article.

I will make no further responses on this issue until the final numbers are in. And I will certainly not be talking with Mr. Connor.

Cordially,

Mark C. Serreze”

To clarify the actual current status of Arctic sea ice areal coverage, one source, can be found at the University of Illinois, including the Northern Hemisphere anomaly analysis as we have discussed in previous blogs. A second source of Arctic (and Antarctic) sea ice coverage is available from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The NSIDC website shows a more-or-less steady decline in the August sea ice coverage, with 2005 being the lowest in the period of record (1979-present). September data is not yet posted on that website, but according to Mark Serreze, September sea ice coverage continued to decline at least through the Friday before his e-mail. The largest contraction of the August sea ice is in the eastern Hemisphere (http://www.nsidc.org/data/seaice_index/n_extn.html).

However, the University of Illinois presents a somewhat different analysis. The current distribution of Northern Hemisphere Arctic sea ice (and snow cover), as viewed looking down on the North Pole, is presented in http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/IMAGES/arctic.shade.jpg, with the anomalies plotted in http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/IMAGES/current.365.jpg. The very low coverage in July and August is evident, but the melt for the remainder of the period was generally slower than average, such that at the current time the areal coverage is only slightly below the 1979-2000 average.

There clearly is a need to reconcile these two sets of analyses. However, it is clear that the news article was another example of media cherrypicking in order to advocate a particular perspective on climate change. More appropriately, we need to recognize that the assessment of Arctic sea ice coverage, and its variability and change over time, as it is affected by human-caused and natural climate forcings and feedbacks, is a complex scientific issue. The diversity of perspectives on these issues needs to be accurately presented in the media, which clearly was not the case with The Independent news article.

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