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Making sense of the science: Times Atlas

Greenland ice sheet showing area experiencing at least one melt day at present (red)
You've seen the headlines besetting another News Corp publication? The Guardian feed covers the essentials: The new Times Atlas was ushered in with a press release that 15% of Greenland's ice sheet had disappeared in the past decade. John Vidal notes the publisher launching the atlas, saying "This is concrete evidence of how climate change is altering the face of the planet forever – and doing so at an alarming and accelerating rate", reiterated by a spokeswoman on Monday.

You've seen the headlines besetting another News Corp publication? The Guardian feed covers the essentials: The new Times Atlas was ushered in with a press release that 15% of Greenland's ice sheet had disappeared in the past decade. John Vidal notes the publisher launching the atlas, saying "This is concrete evidence of how climate change is altering the face of the planet forever – and doing so at an alarming and accelerating rate", reiterated by a spokeswoman on Monday.

The astonishing thing is that no one checked the numbers. Evidently, a 15% loss of an ice sheet that is 2.9 cubic kilometers would correspond to a dramatic rise in sea level. The publishers didn't check their sources.
Perhaps equally astonishing is that the scientists have become more aggressive in defending their science. Only a few years ago, climate folk were on the run from persistent attacks from naysayers. Now they seem to have learned a lessons: make sure the public has access to good science. The irony is that the melting of Greenland is not disputed, that climate change is the only plausible cause and that a 15% loss is quite likely in decades to come. (How many decades it will take to reach what may be a critical threshold is hotly disputed among the scientists.) So the guardians that monitor our environment are objecting to a public atlas that rather overstates the cause for concern that they share. Good.

One of the lessons Kirstin Down and I learned in producing the Atlas of Climate Change is extreme attention to data, sources, details and interpretations. We chose two graphics on the issue of Greenland, both well anchored in observed data. The map above combines three elements that will be significant in different ways: melting Greenland, an ice-free Arctic and new trade routes. To capture the time series of area of the Greenland ice sheet that melts each year, we show a well-validated time series (below). The time series shows that the area that melts is increasing, and quite alarmingly. However, melting is only the summer part of the annual cycle: it doesn't all translate into sea level rise or retreat of the extent of the ice sheet. But alarming nonetheless.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Greenland-chart-300x206.pngWe have found pulling together the wealth of material into a reliable body of evidence, and then distilling that in terms that are accessible to the majority is a challenge. That is what the Atlas seeks to do. We call it evidence-based. Our environmentalist friends (and sometimes they are the publishers) want us to go further, to raise awareness, motivate action. We prefer to let the science speak for itself: across the whole story, it is a powerful voice.


Don't take my word for it. The Third Edition should be available in October.

Tom Downing
Oxford
The Oxford Adaptation Academy 2014; a unique exper...
2011 Adaptation Academy Foundation Course

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