Climate Contrarians and Glacier Retreat

Have you ever met people who just love to disagree? These contrarians revel in discord, and over at the ‘technology news’ website  The Register, they have a pile of them.

I wouldn’t normally care about this, but in addition to its regular news and views about the computer industry, The Register frequently comments on issues related to Climate Change. They don’t have a well-defined editorial view that I can discern, they just disagree with things.

One pernicious technique they use for spreading confusion is to report current scientific papers as ‘news’ items. This is fair enough in itself,  but they select only papers reporting apparently ‘odd’ results. By missing out the broader context of the work, the articles imply that this particular paper changes views radically, something which is rarely true. In fact, the reporting is the journalistic equivalent of gleefully poking sticks into the spokes of a bicycle wheel.

Let me give you a couple of examples of this stick-pokery. The first concerns glacial retreat and the second (in a following article) concerns estimates of pre-historic global temperature in the era before the Arctic developed its current ice sheet. Researching these articles has taken hours and has felt like the tedious equivalent of mending a bicycle wheel into which someone has poked a stick.

Global Glacial Retreat Large
Global Glacial Retreat. This chart shows records of the numbers of glaciers which advance (BLUE) or retreat (RED) in different parts of the world. Notice the different scales on each chart. The bottom chart is the sum of the all the previous charts. Note also that the data are not exhaustive and glaciers which are stable are not counted. Click for a much larger version of this graph.

As I mentioned in a previous article, and as the figure above makes clear, we are living in an era of near global retreat of glaciers. However, this retreat cannot be blamed directly on global warming, anthropogenic or otherwise – because it began in the nineteenth century, before global temperatures rose substantially. So why are the glaciers retreating?

The best efforts at understanding this consider that the retreat in each region is due to different factors, but that global warming and changes in global climate are probably a contributory factor in explaining why the same ‘regional factors’ are causing a near universal, simultaneous and accelerating retreat.

Into this situation The Register chooses to highlight a paper which has unearthed aerial photographs of glaciers in Greenland from the 1930s. Now I didn’t actually read the paper concerned: so taking The Register‘s reporting as correct, the pictures show glacial retreat at an even faster rate than today. As the figure above shows, this is not news.

Looking at the admittedly scant early Arctic data, we see that this datum is not anomalous in any way. The paper simply adds one more point to the 30,420 points we already have. However, by highlighting the paper The Register  implies that it somehow punctures arguments that carbon dioxide is associated with global warming.

“It now appears that the glaciers were retreating even faster eighty years ago: but nobody worried about it, and the ice subsequently came back again.

The implication is that global glacial retreat is just ‘a natural phenomenon’ and that anthropogenic influence is incidental.

So they have taken a perfectly innocent paper and spun its contents to make it look like the science behind our understanding of climate is in disarray. Which it isn’t.

Click here to find out The Register’s views on the effect of carbon dioxide in Miocene Era around 10 million years ago.

The data for the figure came from Chapter 5 (pdf) of a report to the United Nations Environmental Program, but you can also find data at the World Glacier Monitoring Service:

Previous articles on Climate Sceptics can be found here, here, here and here.

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2 Responses to “Climate Contrarians and Glacier Retreat”

  1. klem Says:

    “this retreat cannot be blamed directly on global warming, anthropogenic or otherwise – because it began in the nineteenth century, before global temperatures rose substantially. ”

    Exactly, every glacier has its own climate. Every glacier needs precipitation to exist (snow), and that source of humidity must come from somewhere. You will note that many glaciers end over a source of humidity, like a lake or the ocean. If that lake’s inflow stream is cut off by agriculture for example, that glacier and perhaps many glaciers in the surrounding region might just suddenly stop growing. They might start retreating because their source of snow is gone. It has nothing to do with global warming, it has everything to do with farming 100 miles away. Every glacier has its own climate and we don’t have a clue how to understand it all.

    But it is easy to scare the public by saying the glaciers are retreating.

  2. protonsforbreakfast Says:

    I don’t think farming can be blamed for the worldwide phenomenon of glacial retreat, even in very remote places. I didn’t mention it but I believe that soot may have played an early role initiating melting in European glaciers, but I don’t think that explains everything.

    I think it is very important not to frighten people, but the probability is that Global Warming is one of the factors at play.

    Thanks for your comment


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