Battle of the headlines: clash over climate

Stop the press: Two conflicting interpretations of the latest climate change studies.

This week, two newspapers told radically different stories about Antarctica’s melting glaciers and the effect on rising sea levels. How could they disagree so strongly?

The ice in Antarctica is melting, said the Guardian this week, and the effect is ‘unstoppable’: sea levels could rise by three metres. But the Times said something very different: expanding ice in Antarctica will ‘ease’ the threat from melting glaciers, and could even offset its effects entirely.

How can two of Britain’s most respected newspapers report something so different about the same subject on the same day?

The Guardian’s news story focused on a new study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, which looked at the long-term effects of the rapidly melting glaciers in the Amundsen Sea of West Antarctica. Several scientific studies have confirmed that they are melting faster than first predicted, and could trigger the melting of the entire ice sheet. The effects of this are ‘unavoidable’ — sea levels would rise by three metres over the coming centuries. Such an event would have a devastating effect on coastlines all around the world, flooding towns and cities, destroying wildlife habitats, and displacing millions of people.

But The Times focused on a new Nasa report which found that snow had been accumulating in the East Antarctic and the interior of West Antarctic for 10,000 years. This, said the study’s author Dr Zwally, ‘exceeds the losses in the other areas’. He compared Antarctica to a bucket which was leaking water from a hole, but with a hose replenishing it from the top.

The conflicting studies are a perfect example of the difficulties of climate science. Climate crosses over many different specialities, and is famously unpredictable — computer models are not yet advanced enough to make accurate predictions, and Earth is a complex planet. Its climate reacts to many different influences, from carbon dioxide emissions to fluctuating radiation from the sun.

The science is undeniably complicated, but in this case it is also an opportunity to think more broadly about how we read the media. Journalists and scientists both seek the ‘truth’ — but this is often more complex than we realise.

On thin ice

So what is the truth? Most scientists appear to be coming out in favour of the Potsdam Institute’s study, which is based on simulating 60 years of melting at the presently observed rate. It makes broad, long-term predictions of the effects of climate change in Antarctica, and many argue that it should be a wake-up call for those who remain unsure about climate change policy.

But that doesn’t mean that Dr Zwally’s study is wrong — it just has a different focus. Its data is taken from the period between 1992 and 2008, and it looks at the short-term effects that an increased snowfall could have on Antarctica over the next few years.

You Decide

  1. Will either of the latest news stories about Antarctica change how ‘green’ your own behaviour is?
  2. Should climate change reporters try to tell more positive news stories?

Activities

  1. In less than a month, world leaders will meet in Paris to discuss climate change. As a class, suggest a list of policies you would like them to agree on by the end of the week and choose the top five.
  2. Write your own news story about the latest research on Antarctica, paying careful attention to your intended readers and how you want them to react.

Some People Say...

“We know less than we think.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So they are both sort of right — why does this matter then?
Remaining aware of climate change is incredibly important — its details may be disputed, but few still deny that global warming is taking place, and the youngest generations will naturally be the ones who see its effects most clearly. It’s also good to think critically about the headlines that we read, and the wider picture which may lurk behind them.
Do the newspapers have an agenda?
This year, the Guardian pledged to put its climate change reporting ‘front and centre’, hoping to galvanise the environmental movement before a crucial UN summit in December. Climate change will be the defining news story of this century, they argued, and journalists have a responsibility to highlight its potentially devastating effects.

Word Watch

Antarctica
The southern continent is 14 million sq km and most of its land is covered in ice — in fact, it makes up 90% of all the ice in the world. If all of this ice eventually melted, sea levels would rise by 61 metres.
Amundsen Sea
This is just a small fraction of West Antarctia, but it is particularly vulnerable to melting as it is ‘grounded’ to a bed below sea level, meaning it is easier for warmer water to melt the ice. There are also few obstructions — such as islands — to slow down the process.
Coastlines
New York City, Hong Kong and the island of Fiji could all find themselves flooded by rising sea levels.
Accumulating
Between 1992-2001, the ice sheets gained 112 billion tonnes of ice every year. Between 2003-2008, the gain was 82 billion tonnes.
Radiation
The sun goes through a roughly 11-year cycle, with changing radiation levels. These can directly affect the planet’s heat, as well as its ozone levels and even cloud formations.

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