Sunday’s Canberra Times ran a story from the Guardian with the above headline. It sounded even worse when you read the story: ‘Almost the entire surface layer of ice over Greenland melted in the space of four days this month … deepening fears about the pace and future consequences of climate change.’ It was an event, said the Guardian, that had ‘stunned and alarmed NASA scientists’, who had first reported the incident. As so often, what we read in the press has been reported already on the Internet, so I knew the story. But I hadn’t read it in the Guardian, and the Canberra Times simply reprinted that version without comment.
This is the kind of scary end-of-the-world story that is partly responsible for the gloom and doom of today’s mood. What actually occurred is not frightening at all. While the original NASA story headline referred to an ‘Unprecedented Greenland Ice Sheet Surface Melt’, its own account later mentioned that such ‘unprecedented’ events occur on average every 150 years, the last one happening in 1889.
So what did happen? It seems that in mid July a large pool of warm air remained over Greenland for a few days. During the daylight hours the surface melted, and refroze during the night. But what was unusual was that the warm air covered virtually the whole of Greenland, so that 97 per cent of the surface was affected. Since in the centre of Greenland the ice is 3000 metres thick the effect there was trivial, but in lower altitudes some of the water ran off and finished in the seas.
Is this a threat to humanity? Will the seas rise? Should our fears deepen? Well, I would say no. Ice-core records do suggest that this Greenland warming is a cyclical event: it has happened before and will happen again, for reasons which we do not presently understand. The two warmest decades for Greenland, again according to ice-core data, seem to have been the 1870s and the 1930s.
In writing any news story, you put the punch in the headline and the first par, and the Guardian followed the rule. The qualifications come at the end, if there are any. So the Guardian story waits to the end to tell us that according to a NASA glaciologist Lora Koenig we have to wait for another 150 years to see the next such melt. Oh, and that scientists attribute one fifth of the annual 3mm sea-level rise to Greenland ice melting. Actually, there are competing claims for the extent of global sea-level rise, which is one of the truly difficult phenomena to measure, if you think about it. And 3mm is a high estimate. But if you accept it, and extrapolate to 2100, you get a sea-level rise of rather less than 300mm, which humanity can deal with, as it has done in the past.
The same story showed two pictures of the calving of the Petermann glacier in Greenland, which gave to the sea a chunk of ice ‘the size of Manhattan’. Put in the context of the July ‘melting’ the size of the new iceberg sounded ominous. But this is just what glaciers that extend to the seas do: the bottom bits break off in summer. Indeed, tourists go every year to see this happen in Alaska, from the comfort of their ship. Even the photograph in the Canberra Times shows other large chunks further out to sea, bits of the glacier that broke off the glacier earlier.
I don’t blame the Canberra Times for reprinting the Guardian story. It pays to reprint, and is short of money, as we know, and no longer has an environmental reporter. I don’t even blame the Guardian, because I know it is the British mouthpiece for global warming hyperbole. I don’t know whom to blame, really. We live in an age where NASA scientists are said to be stunned and alarmed by a phenomenon that was last seen 150 years ago, disappeared in a day or two, but could presage the end of the world as we know it. Why do we fall for such rubbish?