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9Sep 2013

J-School prof takes apart Daily Mail "Global Cooling" report that Arctic sea ice is on the way back

Nat'l Snow and Ice Data Center plot

   Reporters at the UK's Daily Mail every once in a while turn out a good environmental or science story. But when that happens it is a great big and welcome surprise. Their employer's money maker is to exaggerate, sensationalize, and shock. That, and to spotlight celebrities up to nothing good or wearing next to nothing. But most of the time it's hardly worth taking down any of its stories. It's the Mail, for goodness sake, and if it and its amusing ilk didn't exist a lot of us would miss them to tell the truth. It is mostly unserious journalism good for a chuckle. Oh, but wait. It is also, seriously, the place to go for the best selection of photos and other illus on widely-reported science news.

    But when one of its cherry picking, context flouting exercises triggers a wider pick-up of its version of events? That is more serious. Today University of Colorado assoc. professor of journalism Tom Yulsman - also he is co-director of the school's Center for Environmental Journalism - shared the gist of a lecture he prepared for his students:

The Mail story that got his motors running is:

  Yulsman's primary point is iron-clad. The Mail's story cherry picked two years - the most recent two - and infers a massive trend. That immense 60 percent jump in ice-covered Arctic ocean (Note to Mail headline writers - which is an ice pack, not an ice cap) is true. But last year saw a ridiculous plummet under previous records for recorded, summertime low ice up there. This year is merely right in line with the levels of the last five years or so which, in turn, are well more than a standard deviation from how the ice has run for the last few decades.

    Yulsman makes another unassailable point on his way to trashing this piece. That is that Mr. Rose reports nothing about the volume of sea ice. Most of it lately has been thin ice, accumulated in one and sometimes two years. Used to be there was scads of old ice many years and many meters thick. And the plunge in volume shows no sign of reversal, even in the so-short-it's-meaningless run.

   Other parts of Mr. Rose's story may bear some weight. One wonders whether a call to one of ancillary sources cited in the story, a mathematical physicist and meteorology-trained professor at the University of Wisconsin, would bear fruit. He is quoted this way: "We are already in a cooling trend, which I think will continue for the next 15 years at least. There is no doubt the warming of the 1980s and 1990s has stopped." That'd be good if true, although odds that this one fellow knows the truth better than the general ranks of climatology has to be low. Even contrarians, one adds, generally say we've hit a plateau, not a cooling trend. 2010 was the hottest year EVER recorded, you know. Nonetheless, it's a half quote that may leave important things out. If this fellow thinks, for instance, that the ocean will keep hauling cold water from depth to the surface and soaking up heat from the air for awhile (as La Niña has in the Pacific), that just means that we still have global warming and eventually the atmosphere will catch up. That seems a plausibly respectable hypothesis. But does its author think this means global warming is no problem and drill baby drill, or that it's hiding out, treading water in one place, so it will inevitably roar back and well within our children's lifetime?

   Yulsman has done a service taking this story down.

   Other pickup, some but notably not all have little further reporting from what the Mail ran:

Grist for the Mill: Nat'l Snow and Ice Data Center


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