He probably meant Arctic sea ice, but that too is an exaggeration
If the polar ice caps were to melt, this is what the map of the world would eventually look like
Editor’s note: please see updated information at the end
I really do want to give former Vice President Al Gore the benefit of the doubt when it comes to global warming, since he has accomplished so much to raise awareness on the issue. But he just seems to be hard-wired to exaggerate — to his own detriment, as well as to the cause of reining in climate change.
And in this case, the failure of a journalist to challenge Gore’s assertion that all polar ice will be gone in a few years just makes the problem worse.
In an interview with the Guardian yesterday, the Nobel prize winner said business leaders are realizing that action is required on climate change because they are “seeing the writing on every wall they look at. They’re seeing the complete disappearance of the polar ice caps right before their eyes in just a few years.”
Gore obviously meant to say something about Arctic sea ice. But even here, his statement is an exaggeration, since scientists who study the cryosphere are predicting that the Arctic Ocean could be ice free in 20 years. (Some scientists predict sooner.) This would be ominous enough, since it could theoretically push the climate system across a tipping point, leading to dramatic, sudden changes.
But complete melting of the polar ice caps — the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica — would be many orders of magnitude worse, accompanied by 70 meters, or 230 feet, of sea level rise, according to Konrad Steffen, the director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. Just look at the map above to see how the contours of the continents would change if that happened. (By contrast, complete melting of Arctic sea ice, which floats on the water, would not raise sea level one millimeter for the same reason that melting ice cubes do not raise the level of liquid in a glass.)
Sea level most definitely is rising faster than expected, and that too is reason enough for great concern. But Steffen, who conducts research on the response of the Greenland ice sheet to climate change, recently predicted based on current trends that we might expect a meter of sea level rise by the year 2100. That would be bad enough, causing monumental problems for low-lying regions that are home to 600 million people.
But complete melting of the polar ice caps in a few years? Perhaps that’s possible, but I don’t know of any scientist who has predicted anything like that. I know Gore is trying to spur people to action on the most all-encompassing issue of our time. Unfortunately, his zeal gets the better of him sometimes, and it doesn’t do the cause for action on climate change any good.
Actually, I fault the Guardian even more than Gore here. The reporter, Leo Hickman, should have picked up on this mistake and asked Gore whether he really meant to say that, and his editors should have caught the mistake before it went into print. Gore surely would have corrected himself, and this gross exaggeration would not have been disseminated to the world. Unfortunately, it’s now part of the record, and it may help to further erode public understanding of science — which Elizabeth Kolbert decries as a cause of inaction on climate change. I’m also sure the mistake will be used against Gore by those who deny the reality of climate change to make the case that he, and all people who are working hard to do something about climate change, are “global warming alarmists” who can’t be trusted.
Lastly, I thought quite hard about whether to post this, because I know people are going to attack me for undermining the cause of action on climate change. So let me clear: My intent is exactly the opposite. I fervently believe that we must take action both to reduce carbon emissions and to adapt to climate changes that are inevitable no matter what we do. And that’s why I published this. Because rallying support for action will depend on whether people can trust what they read in the press about climate change, and what public leaders on this issue are saying.
Update, Sunday 3/15/09:
Evidently, Gore has misspoken about polar ice melting before. See this Youtube video in which he says the entire north polar ice cap may be gone in five years:
Well, even that is a probably an exaggeration:
The embargo has just been lifted on a paper in Nature Geoscience (subscription probably needed for full text) about the projected pace of Arctic sea ice melting. Julian Boé of UCLA and his colleagues project that September sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean will vanish by 2100 could vanish by 2065. In my original post above, I say that some scientists believe Arctic sea ice could disappear in just 20 years, and there is even some research suggesting it could happen even sooner. Clearly, there is much scientific uncertainty — as Boé et al point out:
“However, it is still theoretically possible that some crucial processes are missing in all the models and that the relationship is not reliable: for example, as the representation of sea-ice processes in climate models is still generally rather crude, one could imagine that missing processes might lead either to a rapid nonlinear reduction in sea-ice or stabilize sea-ice cover.”
The extent of Arctic sea ice in September (at the end of summer, when it generally reaches its lowest point) has decreased by almost 25 percent between 1979 and 2006. “Unfortunately, most current climate models underestimate significantly the observed trend in Arctic sea-ice decline, leading to doubts regarding their projections for the timing of ice-free conditions,” Boé and his colleagues write. Their Nature Geoscience paper was an an effort to do better.
In any case, an ice free Arctic in September by the year 2100 — 90 years from now — the year 2065, or even as soon as 5 years from now for that matter, is a far cry from complete deglaciation of the polar ice caps within a few years., or even just the ice being gone in the Arctic ocean within five years.