May 2, 2015

Ice? Ice! (Maybe.)

"Ice burns, and it is hard [for] the warm-skinned to
distinguish one sensation, fire, from the other, frost."  --A.J. Byatt

"He who cannot put his thoughts on ice
 should not enter into the heat of dispute."    --Friedrich Nietzsche

commentary by killre

Herr Freddie's admonition aside, I have been given cause to wade waist-deep and gasping into the chunky melt-water of the global-warming debate, feverish of brow and decidedly chilly of loin.

Actually, global warming itself has become a far less, um, polarizing issue in today's socio-political, uh, climate. Relatively few in our society continue to deny the simple findings of thousands of people the world over whose job it is to look at the thermometer and tell the rest of us what it says. True, there are some steadfast outliers. Rumor has it there are still Japanese soldiers defending remote Pacific atolls, too, and that there is to this day a small percentage of the population of this wide, round world who insist this world is not wide and round, but flat. That's discouraging if true.

Also discouraging if true is the dire forecast most climate scientists offer regarding the likelihood of continued world baking, as well as the predicted consequences for those of us who would like to keep living on this mottled blue marble.

While few these days will outright deny that the heat is indeed on, the heat of the debate is hardly on the abate. The war over warming has instead shifted into skirmishes over more narrowly defined issues, such as whether or not it is caused by human activity, how bad it really is, and whether or not something should be done about it.

It is through this newly focused lens that Michael Bastasch recently projected an article onto the page of The Daily Caller, questioning the severity of Arctic polar ice-melt. It was cleverly titled "'Irreversible' Arctic Ice Loss Seems To Be Reversing Itself." I know: seldom has a more viscerally exciting sentence been composed. As I intend to show, the title's connection with the abstract and increasingly outdated concept known as accuracy is a tenuous one. (The key word, for instance, is "Seems.") Latter-day climate deniers of various stripes, eager to agree with just about anything sounding remotely like what they have been telling themselves, seized upon the article as proof of the veracity of their position. As usual, they were a bit too quick to crow.

I will be slicing and dicing quotations from Bastasch's article. I tell myself I do this for clarity, rather than to alter context. Should you wish to police that claim, or read the entire article to inform your own context, or you just still get a thrill from the mild hyperspace-jumping sensation of flitting hither and thither on the internet, you can do so by clicking here.

It is something of a schizophrenic (or --dare I say it?-- bipolar) article, owing in large part --certainly not entirely-- to its reliance on two climate scientists whose opinions on polar ice-melt seem to swing and sway like Sammy Kaye. Their names are Ian Eisenman and Till Wagner, and they are affiliated with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. They have recently published a study in which they try to argue that polar ice-melt is not as bad as has been feared; or, even if it is that bad, it is still not, you know, that bad, or something. As I said, there are times when they --particularly Wagner, who is the lead author of the study-- seem to be arguing against themselves.

Eisenman comes across as the more climate-denier-friendly of the two, perhaps owing to fewer words being ascribed to him. Despite being the study's junior partner, he is quoted first. This is Bastasch cynically applying the logistics of reader tendencies, placing the statements and/or information which support his agenda in the first third and last sixth of the column, while including opposing information in locations that are more likely to be scanned quickly, if read at all, and where even many diligent readers often suffer a dial-down in focus.

You should wake up now, by the way.

Eisenman said in an interview, "[T]wo key physical processes ... often overlooked in previous process models, [are] actually essential for accurately describing whether sea ice loss is reversible."

The translation, in mathematical terms, is this: All prior formulas were incomplete.

Note also the use of "describing," rather than assessing: at this point, Wagner and Eisenman's formula is theoretical, too.

Wagner's initial comments seem to back Eisenman's: "[T]he basis for a sea ice tipping point doesn't hold up when these additional processes are considered."

(About now, you may be wondering what these "two key physical processes" are. Bastasch never reveals them directly. Maybe he thinks they're too esoteric. Maybe he thinks they are a secret... or maybe he just wants them to be a secret for reasons of his own. Following a second cyberspace jump, I found a slightly more direct reference to them. I'm saving it for later. You are free to label that decision a cynical application of logistical et cetera; I prefer to call it a sense of drama. To each his own.) 

Wagner's use of the words "tipping point" alludes to the idea of a point of no return for the melting of the icecap. Imagine a person standing on a precipice, slowly leaning ever-outward over a chasm. A moment will come when the person cannot maintain their balance on the precipice, and they will inevitably fall. Carrying the metaphor through, physics tells us that from the instant the person begins to fall, the speed of their trajectory will continually increase until the instant they crash into the bottom of the chasm.

That notion of acceleration is echoed by Bastasch. He at one point includes several quotes from Joe Romm, a climate scientist and editor at ThinkProgress, a site Bastasch cannot help but describe as a "liberal blog." Romm is concerned over the thickness of the Arctic icecap. Satellite images show only the area --square mileage-- over which the ice cap spreads. To get a true idea of the volume --how much ice there really is-- thickness must be factored in. According to Romm, the news is not good: between 1975 and 2012, the Arctic icecap suffered a 65% reduction in thickness. Bastasch's translation of one of Romm's statements is, "[I]t's melting a lot faster."

My own take: We are all figuratively walking on literally thin ice.

In fact, much of Bastasch's article --though relegated largely to that subtle reader's-lull region between the opening paragraphs and the big finish-- is an admission that the ice has indeed been melting, quickly. His own statements --presented as facts, mind you, not the alarmist bleating of others-- include:
"[T]he Arctic hit its lowest maximum sea ice extent on record during February [2015, less than three months ago]; Scientists ... have already predicted [2015]'s Arctic summer sea ice extent will be the lowest on record...; Arctic sea ice has been declining ... since 1979."

Even Wagner seems unsure. Consider the next two statements, made back-to-back. "[N]o tipping point is likely to devour what's left of the Arctic summer sea ice." (Translation: Not all of the ice will melt.) "[I]f global warming does soon melt all the Arctic sea ice..." (Translation: All of the ice might melt.)

Wait, what?

Wagner, continued: "[I]f global warming does soon melt all the Arctic sea ice, at least we can get it back if we somehow manage to cool the planet..."

Ah, yes... IF we cool the planet, there will be more ice. This is news that will surely reverberate beneath every rock and throughout every cave. The use of the word "somehow" is somewhat disturbing, as it seems to indicate Wagner has no idea how that might be accomplished, and/or is skeptical of any plan. There is good reason for skepticism. Wagner is sidestepping the chicken-and-egg nature of the problem, here. The importance of a polar icecap is that it is the most efficient mechanism in the known universe for dampening temperatures throughout a hemisphere. In short, regeneration of a polar cap requires the existence of a polar cap.

I mentioned earlier that Bastasch's article had a big finish. Having given dire and doom their due column inches, he tries to end the essay by saying, in effect, 'Don't worry, though, the reality is hunky-dory.' He uses some slipshod math to do it.

One example is when he says, "NSIDC [the National Snow and Ice Data Center] and European satellite data show that multi-year sea ice made a big comeback in 2013 and 2014." He goes on to say the images reveal an increase in ice coverage from 2.25 million square kilometers to 3.17 million square kilometers. Indeed, that is a growth of nearly 41%.

Let us put aside the insidious technicality that two years (2013-2014) constitute "multi-year" data. Important as it is, let us also put aside that this two-year uptick was immediately followed by a drastic plunge to the aforementioned "lowest maximum sea ice extent on record" this past February. Let us instead note that the apparent growth is expressed in square kilometers, a yardstick meter-stick which describes area, rather than volume. To calculate volume, we must remember that the Arctic icecap has undergone, according to Romm, a 65% reduction in thickness since the Gerald R. Ford Administration. I am admittedly employing thumbnail math, here, but bear with me: a 41% increase in area multiplied by a 65% decrease in depth equals a net decrease of nearly 51% in total volumeIf I were to say, "There is roughly half as much ice sitting atop the globe now as there was the day Saigon fell," it would be in the ballpark.

In fact, it would actually undersell the point. There is not half as much ice sitting atop the globe as there was in 1975; there is half as much ice as there was in 1995-- a year that had already seen nearly two decades of dissipation.

That brings us to a second example of Bastasch trying to convince his readers that life is skittles and life is beer: "NSIDC data shows Arctic sea ice extent is currently within normal range based on the 1981 to 2010 average..." Lest this statement begins to slow your breathing and soothe your jangled nerves, remember one of his earlier ones: "Arctic sea ice has been declining ... since 1979." Everything after that date is below normal. Consequently, the average of everything after that date is also below normal. Bastasch is basically saying, "Below normal is the new normal-- and that's okay." This is like a school administration confronted by a long trend of low test scores; rather than trying to improve their teaching techniques, they simply lower the graduation requirements, pat each student reassuringly on the back, and say, "Good luck out there, kid."

Okay, so I promised you processes. They can be found buried near the bottom of this, a statement released by Scripps Institution of Oceanography representative Robert Monroe. His job title (Press secretary? Departmental director? Suzerain of the Sacred Society of Scupper Scrapers?) is not given. What is given is a quote from Till Wagner, vaguely touching upon those "two key physical processes" that are supposed to be game-changers for the future of polar-related climate science. You might want to sit down for this: "One relates to how heat moves from the tropics to the poles and the other is associated with the seasonal cycle."

I am a layman. The closest I have ever come to being a climate scientist is letting a climate-dynamics documentary roll in the background while I played video games. Still, even I can confidently file this one under "Well... duh," with the sub-heading "Previous designers of icecap-melt models are [f-bomb] idiots for failing to factor this in."

Almost lost in all this rigamarole is a snippet of sentence written by Monroe in the middle of his post's introductory section. It reads: "[S]ea ice loss ... is actually reversible when greenhouse levels are reduced."

THAT'S the big news? THAT'S what's going to change everything? Oh, stop the presses, everybody! Someone just discovered that a reduction of greenhouse gas levels would probably have a positive effect on the climate, of all things! Huzzah! Let the freakin' champagne flow!

I don't know about you, but I have chills. Good luck out there.

Found on Mars this week: An oscillating fan.


I. Eisenman said...

As one of the authors of the study in question, I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading your entertaining discussion of the misinformed dailycaller piece that was written about what our university's "Suzerain of the Sacred Society of Scupper Scrapers" wrote about our study. I laughed out loud at your witty eloquence and word plays.

I should mention, though, that this game of telephone appears to have caused some confusion about our actual study. If you're interested, I responded to some of the blog comments about this study at . The "Featured Comment" at the top of the Comments section, in particular, summarizes our results and how they have been misunderstood by some. Don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions about this (google will readily give you my UCSD contact info, which I'll suppress here in case it would lead to more spam emails and robocalls).

Killre said...

Dear sir:
First, thank you for your response, and I apologize for any perceived delay you may have experiences either in its posting or the posting of this response.

Second, thank you for your apparent good-natured forbearance in the face of criticism and what I've had an ever-growing suspicion was either misinformation or misunderstood information. Your game-of-telephone analogy is apt. As you pegged, I am more blogger than journalist, more writer than blogger-- and arguably more wordsmith than writer when it comes right down to it. In my haste to hit the "Publish" button, in my drive to be entertaining at least as much as informative, and suffering somewhat from my own case of "reader's lull" in research, I did indeed fail to run down details of the actual study which prompted the statement which prompted the article which prompted my post. To borrow from old adage, while I'd like to think you could've caught this fly (me) with vinegar and a link and an invitation, I am heartened that you chose honey and a link and an invitation.

Third, on that subject, thank you very much for the link and the invite. I intend to definitely pursue the former and possibly pursue the latter.

Thank you again for the comment. I hope you truly were as entertained, at least in spots, as you say.