While preparing another episode in the Agnostic’s Guide to Global Warming I came across a post in Anthony Watts’s WUWT (‘Watts Up With That?’ — the most-visited sceptical blog about global warming) about what is happening in the Arctic Ocean. It is such a good example of the intrinsic problems in making sense of almost any aspect of climate that it is the subject of today’s post.

First, you need to know that it is argued that whatever warming is occurring through the human addition to greenhouse gases should be most apparent in the polar regions, and the North Pole, which is situated, so to speak, in the middle of the ocean, therefore attracts a lot of attention. Each year there is intense inspection of the summer warming of the Arctic Ocean. How much of the ocean is ice-free? In 2007 a new record was set for the largest ice-free area, and in 2012 there is some anticipation of that 2007 record’s being broken — indeed, that the Arctic Ocean might be ice-free by September 22nd.

For initiates in this arcane stuff, some of the ice melts in summer and then re-freezes from about September. A clear sea at the North Pole can occur, and there is a photo of a US submarine at the surface there in 1958. It is said that the ‘old’ ice, which has been laid down for centuries, is gone, and that all we have is new ice. Oh, and since most people live in the Northern Hemisphere, and the Arctic is close to them, and the Arctic is a sea, and the satellites photograph it all the time — most attention focusses on the Arctic. You need to know that there is no significant loss of sea ice around the Antarctic, and that the land-mass of the Antarctic seems to be getting colder, not warmer, as the predictive models say should be the case.

OK, back to our action-packed saga.  The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado recently released a news story suggesting that the melting had set a new record, of 4.1 million square kilometres compared to the winter high of around 14 million square kilometres. ‘This is it! This is it!’ came the chorus of those who are arguing that AGW is real, and the humans are causing it.

Since I know that there is evidence to suggest that there is nothing unusual in this event — like the sub photo and fact of an ice-free Northwest Passage in the same decade, as well as in the 1920s and 1930s — I was tempted just to shrug and to move on. But Anthony Watts was intrigued by what is a classic measurement problem. Because there are other measurements.

One is by MASIE (the Multisensor Analyzed Sea Extent), which is also produced by NSIDC. It suggests that the ice extent is 4.7 million square kilometres, which is no sort of record. Yet another measurement is that of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), whose National Ice Center Interactive Multisensor Snow and Ice Mapping System (IMS), puts it at 5.1 million square kilometres.

There’s yet another one, too, and it (NATICE) says 6.2 square kilometres. NATICE means the National Ice Center, and it is a section of NOAA. (How are you going with these acronyms?)

So there are four separate and different measurements, and they all come from satellites, and they all have some kind of official imprimatur. Which should we take most seriously? Any of them? I don’t know. Watts says that measuring sea ice by satellite comes with its own problems, one of them the sensor technology itself. Another is the fact that the sea-ice is a mixture of floating ice islands of varying sizes and water, and is much affected by storms (there has been a recent powerful storm in the Arctic Sea, and it may have contributed to the apparent reduction in size of the ice).

He also points out that although the NOAA (a US Government agency) has a connection with all four measurements, only one message came out, and that was about the lowest, the scariest — if you’re in the mood to be scared. Why weren’t the others mentioned at all? Because, I guess, the scary message helps to attract attention, and then, at least in prospect, more funding.

I have come to the view that one should suspect the bona fides of all statements about global warming that are released at the time of an international or national meeting on the environment. That applies in particular to statements from the executives of learned academies, which have become akin to government agencies — quangos, perhaps.

In the same fashion, bodies like the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and Vinnies, which do exemplary work in the community, have become agencies of the Commonwealth Government through applying government funding (as transfers) to the needy. Yes, they are closest to the needs that are being addressed, and yes, it is cheaper to do it this way. But they are no longer independent.

The same is true of learned bodies that receive government funding to carry out tasks that the government wants done. Yes, they become wealthier and more important. But they lose their independence.

And when what is at stake is the meaning and accuracy of scientific measurements, we are all the poorer.



Join the discussion 9 Comments

  • Tim Curtin says:

    I have tried and failed to find a user friendly raw data source for Arctic Sea Ice, the guardians at NSIDC are adept at keeping us lesser mortals away from their work, which makes me suspect that they mostly produce artefacts like Hansen’s GISStemp.

  • madankerr says:

    Good lord! You’re a smart man and your writing style is restrained. So I read this post in good faith, all the while wondering why you are treating WUWT seriously. Then my eye strayed to your blogroll and all became clear. You hang out in the climate change denier echo chamber.

    How odd. I had thought at a true agnostic would have a more varied blogroll. But no. There’s no SkepticalScience, no RealClimate, no actual climate scientists.

    Sorry, GA, I can’t take you seriously. You’re not agnostic at all. Do you read *any* of the mainstream science? Or are you in thrall to the bizarre consipiracy theories of the contrarian/denier fringe?

    What was that about listening to various perspectives? You’re not doing it. You’re playing a one-note trumpet here. And that’s not a bad thing. But please, stop pretending you’re agnostic. Go on, be proud, hang out the shingle — “Climate science denier at home.”

    • donaitkin says:


      I think you missed RealClimate, where I have posted (successfully). I do go to John Cook’s site, and read what our local Climate Commissioners say. I’ve debated David Karoly and Andrew Glikson. My Blogroll is out of date, but I have yet to explore all the aspects of running a website. So it will change before long.I read the mainstream science as it is published, and go back to it when people point out a paper I should have noticed. There are thousands of them, so I don’t claim at all to have read everything.

      Watts wrong with Watts? He always directs you to what has been written and where you can find it. He doesn’t censor people, and his list of data sources is exemplary. Why wouldn’t I treat it seriously? Why don’t you?

      The trumpet I play is my own. When I play it badly I say so. There is a real debate out there, and in my judgment the agnostic side is poorly represented and very poorly reported. Your language (‘bizarre consipiracy [that’s a good coinage!]theories of the contrarian/denier fringe’) suggests to me that you have made your own mind up.

      Mine is still open.And I don’t live in any ‘climate denier echo chamber’, whatever that is.

    • Kayn says:

      By your terminology you demonstrate that you too are not agnostic but as biased a warmer as you are accusing Don of being as a rationalist. I’m not really sure what a climate change denier is. I really don’t think anyone denies the climate is changing. It is sad when people are ‘committed’ on one side or the other and are therefore not able to listen to or participate in rational argument thus resorting to name calling. Why not check out some of the information Don gives on the different ice reading from NOAA etc and argue from a scientific, evidenced perspective?

      • madankerr says:

        True, I’m not agnostic. I don’t claim to be. I claim to be a realist who accepts mainstream science. Don claims to be agnostic, but he’s far from it. He’s deeply embedded in the climate change denier echo chamber. And I guess that most of his blog followers are too.

        I’m happily committed to mainstream science. In medicine accept the science for vaccinations; in physics I accept nanoparticles; in chemistry I accept the periodic table; in astronomy I accept black holes; in biology I accept evolution; in climate science I accept the views supported by EVERY national science institute on the planet.

        You ask me to look at the phoney ‘information’ that circulates in the deniersphere. I’ve been there and I’m not going back. You should ask Don why he doesn’t include any real climate science websites in his blogroll. How rational is that?

        You should ask him why a handful of ill-qualified backyard dabblers like Anthony Watts have him so mesmerised that he dismisses the evidence of thousands upon thousands of credentialed scientists who work in the field. People like the 2,500+ scientists who signed the Consensus Statement on Climate Change and Coral Reefs earlier this year.

        • Don Aitkin says:


          My post tomorrow has a discussion about climate websites, and I have adapted my blogroll to be more balanced. I do go to many of them, but on the day when my website was to be up and running I only put in the ones I had been to in the last few days, saying to my designer — “I’ll add more later!’

          I accept nanoparticles and black holes, too, but it doesn’t matter much if I don’t. In climate science (a) there is a lot of equivocal stuff — findings that can be read either way, or many ways and (b) it does matter a lot if the apparent consensus is wrong. That is why I pursue the matter.

          Actually, you accept what the executives of the learned bodies say. No fellowship has, to the best of my knowledge, ever been asked for its views or participated in any kind of vote on the issue. Does that worry you at all? It worries me. I am a member of two such learned academies, and neither of them could, according to its Constitution, make the sort of political statements the AAS or the RS have made.

          • madankerr says:

            Hi Don, It’s reassuring to see your blogroll is a bit more balanced, and that your reading is not entirely confined to the denier-fringe.

            I disagree that climate science has a lot of “equivocal stuff”. The broad picture of warming, human contribution and consequential extreme weather events is not contested by peer reviewed science. It is mainstream.

            I agree with you that climate science matters. That’s why I wish you would pay more attention to the actual science and less to the flakey fringe like WUWT and Jo Nova who have been debunked more times than I’ve had hot dinners. Their flagrant lies and distortions make them a laughing stock among credible scientists.

            Professional scientific academies represent their members and also represent the findings of peer-reviewed science. I’m not a mathematician and I refuse to pretend my back of envelope scribblings are as valid as the work of PhDs in mathematics. I prefer to rely on scientific organisations like CSIRO, BOM, Postdam Institute, NASA, Met Office, etc, etc, as well as national science institutes. Will any of these feature in your prospective blog post about climate websites? I suggest that you should include CSIRO and BOM, as they are Australian sites with reputations for excellence. As is Skeptical Science.

            I wish you well on your journey to explore the field. I have confidence that wide reading of credible scientists will help you sort the wheat from the chaff.

          • Don Aitkin says:


            I think it is my turn to suggest that you read more widely. Don’t you realise that to say that warming is ‘consistent with’ AGW is equivocal? The warming that has occurred is consistent with a recovery from the Little Ice Age, too. We still lack an unequivocal link between human activity and warming. Consistent, yes. How much? We don’t really know, but there are lots of estimates. Climate sensitivity? Well it could be positive and strong, positive and weak, neutral and negative. There are lots of papers.

            CSIRO and BoM. I don’t link to them, because (i) they are not blogs and my post is about blogs, and (ii) anything that they report is discussed at once on the blogs, and I can go to the original paper and make my own mind up. To see that I do use them, go to my paper ‘A Cool Look at Global Warming’ in Writings, where I use BoM data to show that the second half of the 20th century was actually wetter, in the Murray Darling basin, than the first half (the droughts we have experienced have had even more powerful counterparts a long time ago). Some of the recent CSIRO reports on climate are very thin on evidence.

            Skeptical Science I mention in my post. It is energetic, but really one-eyed. A balanced review would take both sides of any issue into account. We shouldn’t have to go somewhere else to see what the alternative is. I could say the same about the AR4 WG1 report, which I have read , and re-read (in parts) several times. Look at Table 1-11 where the level of uncertainty is given. Uncertainty should run through the whole report, but it never gets to the conclusions. WG1 does not give a balanced account, but a kind of jury report with all the workings concealed.

            Enough. I wish you well too, and hope that you can eventually come to drop phrases like ‘denier fringe’ from your writing. It tells the reader at once that you have made your mind up, and that there is really no point in conversing with you.

  • Christine Storry says:

    Hi Don,
    Yes measurement is one of the central difficulties in the young discipline of climate science. Bridgeman’s theories are important here in understanding the consequences of different modes of measurement and the fact that over time the instruments of measurement improve, improving our ability to observe and interpret data. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percy_Williams_Bridgman
    The inaccessibility of scientific language to the average person is also an added barrier. For example the scale of probability often used 70% likely, 90% certain etc:
    “A retired journalist for The New York Times, William K. Stevens wrote: “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the likelihood was 90 percent to 99 percent that emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, spewed from tailpipes and smokestacks, were the dominant cause of the observed warming of the last 50 years. In the panel’s parlance, this level of certainty is labeled ‘very likely’. Only rarely does scientific odds-making provide a more definite answer than that, at least in this branch of science, and it describes the endpoint, so far, of a progression.”

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