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Media Mania Over Purported Greenland Meltdown:
Fueled by Fear of Frying

Volume 3, Number 15: 26 July 2000

The headline of the story in our local newspaper sounded serious: "Greenland's ice sheet is melting."  Its subtitle was also ominous: "Thaw contributes to sea level rise."  The story's first sentence, however, was the clincher: "A warming climate is melting more than 50 billion tons of water a year from the Greenland ice sheet, adding to a 9-inch global rise in sea level over the last century and increasing the risk of coastal flooding around the world."

Later that night, we heard pretty much the same story on national television; and it was reported on various internet websites in similar language.  Was it the beginning of the end for life as we know it?  Or was it just another case of over-zealous reporting of less-than-ironclad facts?  You could probably guess the answer right now and save yourself some eye-strain by not reading further.  But for those who appreciate the difference between fact and fancy, we provide our perspective on the issue in our lead Journal Review - Much Ado About Practically Nothing: Mass Balance of the Greenland Ice Sheet - where we indicate that the "melting" of the ice sheet was not a directly-measured quantity, but an estimate derived from an interpolation based upon a calculation of an admittedly hypothetical thinning of the ice sheet.

Many things about the media frenzy surrounding the announcement of this newest scientific finding are worrisome, in addition to the dubious basis of the study itself, i.e., primary data several times removed from the final result.  For starters, there's the magnitude of the calculated sea level rise.  As reported by Paul Recer of the Associated Press, the rise was said to amount to 0.005 inch per year.  This value is only half an inch per century; and it is to be compared to the global ocean's normal rate-of-rise of fully nine inches per century.  Put another way, to produce as great a rise in sea level as that produced by all other contributory processes on earth acting over a single century, the purported melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet would have to continue for nigh unto two millennia.

Then there is the "increasing risk of coastal flooding around the world."  How this consequence was deduced from the NASA press release on the subject is anyone's guess, since the senior author of the study stated explicitly therein that "this amount of sea level rise does not threaten coastal regions."

Perhaps most disturbing of all is Recer's claim that a "warming climate" is responsible for melting the ice.  Not all blame should be laid on him or any other journalist who may have jumped to this tempting conclusion, however; for the very first sentence of the NASA press release states that "scientists who want to monitor the state of our global climate may have to look no farther than the coastal ice that surrounds the earth's largest island," which, they say in the very next sentence, "is rapidly thinning."

So what's a person to think?  Does ice "rapidly thin" when it's cooling?  Not usually; and by default, therefore, global warming is the presumed culprit.  As we have indicated in our last three editorials, however, the earth is not experiencing global warming.  Indeed, the planet is probably no warmer now that it was seventy years ago.  And what is really sad is the fact that the study in question - Krabill et al. (2000) - states explicitly that "Greenland temperature records from 1900-95 show highest summer temperatures in the 1930s," and that "the 1980s and early 1990s were about half a degree cooler than the 96-year mean."

In view of these actual measurements of real-world temperatures, it is clear that the hypothetical (yes, that's the authors' own terminology) thinning rate of the coastal ice of Greenland is definitely not due to any warming anywhere.  Fueled by the fear that anthropogenic CO2 emissions may be enhancing earth's natural greenhouse effect and frying the planet, however, the public is fed a never-ending diet of gloom and doom, based almost solely on estimates, interpolations and calculations of hypothetical phenomena.  If it's big, scary, and someone says it could happen, it's reported; and it's typically reported as fact.

To inject a more substantial element of reason and bring a higher level of respect for reality into this sad state of reportorial affairs, we have decided to update our website on a weekly basis, which will allow us to post editorial comments, as well as new journal reviews, every seven days.  This higher frequency of publication will enable us to deal editorially with over twice as many topics as we have in the past; and it will enable us to do it in a more timely fashion.  From this time forth, therefore, we will post new materials every Wednesday (actually, late Tuesday afternoon, U.S. Mountain Standard Time), as we attempt to bring an expanded measure of sanity to the largely exploitive public dialogue over potential global change.

Dr. Craig D. Idso
Dr. Keith E. Idso
Vice President

Krabill, W., Abdalati, W., Frederick, E., Manizade, S., Martin, C., Sonntag, J., Swift, R., Thomas, R., Wright, W. and Yungel, J.  2000.  Greenland ice sheet: High-elevation balance and peripheral thinning.  Science 289: 428-430.