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September 03, 2002

Ice, Ice, Baby The NYT


Ice, Ice, Baby

The NYT is still peddling Alaska as an example of global warming, even after getting burned the last time she attempted this.

Perhaps because of the previous conflagration, the paper of record continues to back down the ladder from its claim of a 7 degree rise in the average Alaskan temperature over the last 30 years, knocking off another .4 degrees. At this rate, in a year or so the correct figures will finally grace her pages. This time the threat to the world is sea level change due to melting glaciers

From climate models, as well as years of field work, Dr. Echelmeyer had expected a general thinning of the glaciers that would be consistent with Alaska's summer temperature increase averaging 5 degrees over the past three decades. Instead, the researchers found that since the mid-1990's, Alaskan and Yukon glaciers had been dumping enough water into the ocean to raise sea level by 0.2 millimeters a year.

Minuscule though that sounds, it is nearly twice the amount released during the same period by the massive Greenland Ice Sheet. Besides, as Dr. Echelmeyer pointed out, to coastal communities, a one-inch sea-level rise can mean a 500-inch incursion across a nearly flat beach.

"Boy, to find two- or three-times faster thinning," Dr. Echelmeyer said, "that's a huge amount. The contribution of Alaskan glaciers to sea-level change is important, and big."

But why are some Alaskan glaciers growing, while most are shrinking? Much about glacial movement remains mysterious. But in simplest terms, glaciers are a varied lot, each marching to its own geophysical rhythm. Most of Alaska's glaciers, numbering more than 2,000, are valley glaciers, which snake downhill between mountain ridges and are particularly sensitive to climate. "These glaciers can't thin without climate change," Dr. Echelmeyer said.

Note the "mysterious". The fact that some glaciers are growing is "mysterious" to the Time because that data point doesn't fit into the pre-conceived world view that birthed the article. The glaciers that are melting? That's not mysterious at all! "That's Global Warming!" Mysterious my ass. That's a word you use when you don't feel like explaining something to the proles. People have studied glaciers for hundreds of years, and we know a lot about them, not that the Times is going to tell you that.

First off, the types of glaciers. As the article points out, most glaciers in Alaska are warm-based valley glaciers, a type of glacier that not only is well known for the amount of water it produces, but a type that has been in retreat in Alaska since the 1800's. Pointing that out would hardly help the case for human-induced global warming, however. Pointing out that comparisons between valley glaciers and the Greenland Ice sheet are scientifically unsound, as they are totally different types of glaciers, would also not help the case, so the Times goes ahead and makes the comparison. The glaciers that are expanding are polar, cold-based glaciers, like the Hubbard, and conjecturing about why they might be growing is apparently not something the Times considers to be in its purview. After all, wild conjecture is only appropriate if it helps to sell the story. Because I am not the Times, I will tell you why they are growing. Polar glaciers are expanding becuase more snow is falling on them. Alaska may or may not be getting colder, but it is getting more precipitation.

The article also stresses the .2 millimeter rise in sea level, supposedly due to the torrent of glacial meltwater in Alaska. I haven't been able to figure out exactly how much water this is, but I did find a page at the USGS that calculates the total sea rise from all the valley glaciers in the world as contributing less than one-half of one percent of the total expected global warming sea rise. The statement that "The contribution of Alaskan glaciers to sea-level change is important, and big." is at best wildly inaccurate. At worst, it's a bald faced lie. I should point out that Dr. Echelmeyer is a professor of geology and geophysics, not a glaciologist, so presumably he's at least somewhat out of his field.

However, even Dr. Echelmeyer wasn't firebrand enough for the Times, so they turned to Dr. William Harrison, an emeritus (meaning old and retired, with his best work years behind him) physics professor.

Dr. Harrison said that 50 years was a "good back-of-the-envelope number" for the time a valley glacier took to adjust to climate change.

Well, excellent. That means that the warming trend the valley glaciers are reacting to started in the early in the 1800's, right at the end of the Little Ice Age. Dr. Harrison's not done yet, though.

These glaciers in Alaska are changing very fast, and probably at an accelerated rate," Dr. Harrison said. "But `why' is the real issue. `Why is it warm?' It's a societal question. But my own opinion is that at a time when we're dumping all this crud into the atmosphere, and changing the surface of the earth, it seems like too big a coincidence to me for us to be innocent — that just when we're getting industrially active, it's the warmest it's been in the last 5,000 years."

"probably at an accelerated rate" means "we don't have enough data to validate my preconceived notions yet." It's the spiritual twin of "Boy, to find two- or three-times faster thinning." Two or three times faster than, not previous studies, but rather the expectations of Dr. Echelmeyer. There's absolutely no evidence that the meltwater volume has increased. What evidence there is seems to bolster the hypothesis that Dr. Echelmeyer is pretty bad at guessing.

The actual story, minus the sermon, is pretty interesting. The Hubbard glacier damns up a fiord, turning it into a lake, with spectacular consequences once the dam breaks. That's the only part of this story on glaciers where the author actually talks to a glaciologist. Said scientist's opinion on global warming? He doesn't express one.

Posted by Bigwig at September 3, 2002 08:26 PM | TrackBack
Postscript:
First time visitor to House Hraka? Wondering if everything we produce could possibly be as brilliant/stupid/evil/pedantic/insipid/inspired as the post you just read? Check out the Hraka Essentials, the (mostly) reader-selected guide to Hraka's best posts, and decide for yourself.
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