Hot and Bothered

by Howard Fienberg
June 21, 2002

In Alaska, "the average temperature has risen about seven degrees over the last 30 years," according to the June 16th New York Times. Discussing the seemingly severe effects of climate change in Alaska, the newspaper of record observed that "rising temperatures... are not a topic of debate or distraction. Mean temperatures have risen by 5 F in summer and 10 F in winter since the 1970's, federal officials say." Unfortunately, this big climb in temperature reported by The Times does not synch with any available data.


The paper quoted oral testimony to the effects of climate change in Alaska. While it also mentioned the recent Climate Action Report from the Environmental Protection Agency in passing, The Times did not appear to have consulted the actual text of the EPA report to check its alarming temperature readings. The report states that "warming in interior Alaska was as much as 1.6 C (about 3 F)" over the last 100 years.


The Times' assertions baffled professor Gerd Wendler and his staff at the Alaska Climate Research Center. In response, Wendler posted to the Internet data analysis of mean annual temperatures at four widely dispersed weather stations in Alaska from 1971 to 2000. The mean temperature increase for Anchorage was 2.26 F and for Nome was 2.28 F. The two other locations were Barrow and Fairbanks. The Times had noted the appearance of mosquitoes in Barrow "where they once were nonexistent" and the rescue of "hunters trapped on breakaway ice at a time of year when such things were once unheard of." Yet while Wendler's data show that Barrow had the highest mean temperature change, it was still well below The Times' estimate, at 4.16 F. The Times had illustrated Fairbanks' warming trends by noting the need for hydraulic jacks to keep houses from falling because the permafrost beneath their foundations "is no longer permanent." Wendler's analysis, however, shows a minimal mean increase of 1.07 F in Fairbanks.


When it comes to climate change, The New York Times is no stranger to getting ahead of the facts. Consider a particularly scorching incident on the front page on August 19, 2000. The paper declared -- complete with color photograph -- that "The North Pole is melting." Tourists on a Russian ice-breaker had seen open water in the middle of the polar ice, clicked the shutter, and rushed right to The Times with "evidence that global warming may be real and already affecting climate." It was a sight "presumably never before seen by humans... the last time scientists can be certain the pole was awash in water was more than 50 million years ago."


The paper quoted Malcom C. McKenna, who said he didn't "know if anybody in history ever got to 90 degrees north to be greeted by water, not ice." Fellow passenger James J. McCarthy observed that "it was totally unexpected." But water in the Arctic circle was not much of a surprise to experts in Arctic climate, which the tourists were definitely not: McKenna was a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History and McCarthy an oceanographer at Harvard University. The Times started taking some serious heat. On August 29, ten days later, it issued a correction and a lengthy piece in its "Science Times" section clarifying the issue.


It turns out that what the tourists saw was quite typical. The Arctic ice cover is normally riddled with cracks and holes. Ninety percent of the high Arctic region is covered in ice during the summer, but at least ten percent is open water. Experts told the newspaper that "this has probably been true for centuries," caused by wind and ocean currents moving the ice sheet. Climatologist Mark Serreze explained to The Times that "there's nothing to be necessarily alarmed about" and that there was no reason to suspect this was "related to global climate change."


The plural of anecdote is not data. It is all too easy to remember the unusual and forget the typical. That is why interesting stories require justification with scientific data. Twice now in the last two years, The New York Times has failed to adequately verify catastrophic stories of warming in the Northern reaches. This is beginning to look like more than mere carelessness. To ring the false alarm once is unfortunate; to do so twice looks stupid.

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