Extraordinary, unprecedented – but still not newsworthy?

Earlier this month, something quite extraordinary and unprecedented occurred in Greenland. The satellite image on the left above shows (in red) the area of Greenland which was experiencing summer melt on July 8th. It amounts to around 40% of the island, fairly typical for the summer melt season. Just four days later (July 12th), updated satellite imagery (right) indicated that the melt had extended to blanket some 97% of Greenland.

NASA scientists were incredulous, indeed sceptical. Son Nghiem of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., was analyzing radar data from the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Oceansat-2 satellite when he noticed that most of Greenland appeared to have undergone surface melting on July 12. Nghiem said, “This was so extraordinary that at first I questioned the result: was this real or was it due to a data error?”

According to NASA, this extreme melt event coincided with an unusually strong ridge of warm air, or a heat dome, over Greenland. The ridge was one of a series of such ridges, of ever-increasing strength, that has dominated Greenland’s weather since the end of May. This latest heat dome started to move over Greenland on July 8, and then parked itself over the ice sheet about three days later.

Even the area around Summit Station in central Greenland, which at 2 miles above sea level is near the highest point of the ice sheet, showed signs of melting. Such pronounced melting at Summit and across the ice sheet has not occurred since 1889, according to ice core analysis. A NOAA weather station at Summit confirmed air temperatures hovered above or within a degree of freezing for several hours on July 11-12. These are the temperatures being recorded on top of a two mile high glacier.

NASA, ever wary of being set upon by Tea Party fanatics and right wing Flat Earthers in the US, has been unusually equivocal about what this extraordinary incident may be telling us about the massive Greenland ice shelf. What we do know is that more than two thousand billion tons of land ice in Greenland, Antarctica and Alaska have melted  between 2003-2008, according to NASA satellite data, which scientists say is unequivocal evidence that global warming is accelerating. We also know that, at just 1.6C of overall global warming, the entire Greenland ice sheet is committed to destruction, and no force on Earth can reverse that juggernaut once it’s rolling. And for the uninitiated, 1.6C is just down the road…

Greenland has locked up sufficient ice to raise global sea levels over time by an unimaginable seven meters, and in the process completely redraw the map of the world. When an ice shelf of this colossal magnitude begins to exhibit dramatic and unprecedented melting, that’s news. Big news. Well, apparently not. The story surfaced on the Irish Times’ website on Wednesday, but failed to make it into the newspaper either that day or today, Thursday, despite a whole ‘Science Today’ page being available.

Likewise, I waited in vain to see RTE pick up the story (which had been running all day on Sky) on its evening bulletins. The comatose state of science reporting – specifically if it has anything to do with climate change – in both the Paper of Record and the national broadcaster is bewildering. The story has quite literally disappeared – almost as fast as the Arctic sea ice cover, in fact. Sea ice in the Arctic has melted faster in 2012 than ever recorded before, according to the US government’s National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC). Figures for June 2012 showed 318,000 square miles less sea ice than the same period in 2007, which had been the year of the most dramatic Arctic ice loss ever.

Understanding how all these events are connected, and then connecting the ever-changing complexities of our weather systems against the backdrop of climate change is a task that even MET Eireann seems to have thrown in the towel on. Dr Gerry Fleming was interviewed last week ahead of the RTE documentary on weather forecasting, and was at pains to dismiss any possible connection between the string of extreme weather events that have battered Ireland in recent years, from record floods and freezes to monsoon-like rainfall and even mini tornados and the driving force of climate change.

Heavens no, what could this possibly have to do with the fact that the global climate system is unravelling? I can only assume that Gerry likes the quiet life, and knows he won’t draw the ire of RTE’s 60-something Angry White Men by suggesting that, whisper it, human forcings (aka dumping 30 billion tonnes of CO2 into a closed atmospheric system annually) may have a teensy tiny little something to do with our weather going haywire.

No no, proper forecasters don’t engage in such idle speculation about, you know, climate science and how it interacts with meteorology, and how the surplus heat accumulating in our atmosphere must inevitably come home to roost somewhere. Not our speciality, sorry. Have you tried Derek Mooney, maybe he’s got a funny angle on the whole thing?

 

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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  • Klem

    “..more than two thousand billion tons of land ice in Greenland, Antarctica and Alaska have melted between 2003-2008, according to NASA satellite data, which scientists say is unequivocal evidence that global warming is accelerating.”

    Wow that sounds like a lot of melted ice over  five year period.

    Since a billion tons of ice is just one cubic km of ice, that means 2 thousand cubic km of ice melted over 5 years, or about 400 cubic km of melted ice a year.

    Greenland, Antarctica and Alaska contain about 33 million cubic kms of ice combined, and NASA says that 400 cubic km of melted ice a year is unequivocal evidence that global warming is acclelerating? 

    Only 400 out of 33 million cubic km is a tiny amount. It is insignificant, I’d bet $50 that NASA cannot measure such a small amount with reasonable accuracy. 

    Get a grip greenboy.

  • http://www.saveplanet1.com/ Thomas O Donovan

    We have the solutions but unfortunately we don’t have politicians,corporations or mainstream media to try to implement them.Tom.   www.saveplanet1.com 

  • Aedh

    There is a difference in wording in some scientific articles relating to Greenland melting. The more accurate term is “surface melting”, which was mentioned only once in the article. A few inches of surface melting took place which, as noted, was unprecedented although it will still take hundreds of years, even at the present rate, to fully melt the vast amount of ice in Greenland. Still, this is indicative of what is taking place all over the world, especially noteworthy in marginal areas such as the southwest of the U.S. where even one degree rise of temperature can precipitate drought conditions. It does not take much to cause a “tipping point” for areas such as Texas & parts of Africa. For instance the immediate result last year was that 1 million head of cattle in Texas had to be shipped north since there was not enough precipitation to grow the hay & corn to feed the cattle. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/coilin.maclochlainn Coilin MacLochlainn

    John, – I agree. It’s extremely worrying that the public
    service broadcaster, RTÉ, and the paper of record, The Irish Times, are
    avoiding the topic of climate change, no matter how serious the latest
    findings, while at the same time they report a Providence oil find in a way
    that implies it is good news. It is not.

     

    As climate scientist Bill McKibben wrote in Rolling Stone
    magazine on 19th July (http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719),
    if more than one-fifth of the Earth’s known remaining oil and gas reserves are
    exploited, then it’s curtains for the living planet. Which means we need a
    global agreement to leave four-fifths of it in the ground, untouched,
    indefinitely (that’s for thousands of years) and to stop prospecting for more
    of the stuff.

     

    This fact was not put to Gavin O’Reilly of Providence when he
    told RTÉ this week how pleased he was their oil find off the south coast was
    bigger than previously thought. Media-friendly Pat Rabbitte, the energy
    minister, said he thought it would be years before the oil could be brought
    ashore. But that’s not the same as saying ‘Look, we have to decarbonise the
    economy completely or it’s all over. Could Providence not try to make their money
    some other way, from renewables, say? Ireland’s future is in solar, wind and
    geothermal, not hydrocarbons. The oil has to be left in the ground if we and
    everything else is to survive this global warming crisis. The O’Reillys have a
    moral responsibility to do the right thing, no matter how small their find. We
    are at the mercy of the oil companies. The movie “Terminator: Rise of The
    Machines” needs a sequel: “Terminator: Rise of Big Oil.”

     

    Well, that’s what I hoped he would say; I don’t think it’s
    what he actually said.

     

    Or as Bill McKibben puts it in Rolling Stone: “We know how much we can burn, and we know
    who’s planning to burn more. Climate change operates on a geological scale and
    time frame, but it’s not an impersonal force of nature; the more carefully you
    do the math, the more thoroughly you realize that this is, at bottom, a moral
    issue; we have met the enemy and they is Shell.”

     

    RTÉ and The Irish Times may be self-censoring for fear that
    reporting the truth about global warming could threaten the economic system
    that sustains them. Because tackling the problem and reducing carbon emissions
    would affect economic growth.

     

    Of course, without changing the status quo, we will remain on
    course for the apocalyse that we’re headed for anyway. So doing nothing is not
    an option (and yes, that is a dreadful cliché). We have to change, and whatever
    changes we make, if they don’t end carbon emissions, they won’t work. Nice
    people like Mary Robinson can talk all day long about climate justice, but at
    the end of the day their core message is the same: “If we don’t end those greenhous
    gas emissions, well…” Yes, we know the rest. There isn’t a horror movie
    that comes close. And forget Avatar: it doesn’t even mention climate change.

     

    Even with the limited global warming so far, America is in
    the throes of a drought worse than that which caused the Dust Bowl in the 1930s;
    and the Greenland ice-sheet is melting at an altitude of two miles, as you report.
    And here in Ireland we got summer in March and rain thereafter.

     

    About that unusually hot March: I waited and waited for
    Evelyn Cusack, now the most senior weather forecaster on RTÉ as well as perhaps
    the most trusted and respected, to explain that extraordinary and scary four
    weeks. But there was no explanation forthcoming, or from the other forecasters.
    Now, whatever about RTÉ and The Irish Times avoiding the issue, surely it is
    incumbent on Met Éireann to be totally honest with us about the weather and what
    is happening to our climate? And about the reasons for it?

     

    At first I could not believe that Cusack was deliberately
    avoiding the question, but she was interviewed by Brendan O’Connor on RTÉ and
    still managed to say nothing. And you quite rightly point out that Gerry
    Fleming, who is head of forecasting in Met Éireann, also dodged the question in
    a recent RTÉ interview with Miriam O’Callaghan, though she didn’t actually
    press him on it.

     

    This is really very serious, because it has to start with Met
    Éireann; these are the go-to people for an explanation of the problem. And
    until the country accepts the problem and the reasons for it, there will never
    be any political will to take appropriate action. So what is  Met Éireann up to? Why are they not
    joining the dots for us? Why are they not being responsible? I cannot look at
    those smiles when they say it will be rainy for… well, a very long time…
    without feeling anger at their dishonesty, their treating the public like
    idiots. It is up to them to set the goalposts for government action.

     

    Their mission statement “implies that we, as the
    National Meteorological Service, will contribute effectively to national
    prosperity… and contribute to the effective monitoring and good management of
    the natural environment.” I picked out those two phrases as they were the
    only ones that could be said to be relevant here. But the word
    “implies” is a get-out-of-jail-free card: they are only
    “implying” that they have a mission or that they will take it
    seriously.

     

    It would be helpful, John, if you sought an interview with
    Gerry Fleming or whoever runs Met Éireann and filmed it for showing on this
    site. I think it’s time they explained themselves.

     

  • Denisk

    Dear John,
    there can be no plan of action on global warming when people place more interest in huge meaningless sporting events in which they try knock fractions of seconds of winning times rather than considering the gigantic implications of the millions of tons of CO2 given off by such ridiculous and highly wasteful enterprises. A very sad reflection on our priorities.
    Denisk

  • Denisk

    @Coilin, your heart is in the right place, however, there is no such thing as renewable energy. The devices themselves are built using our modern industrial infrastructure and are therefore very high in energy inputs. Renewables are notoriously unreliable and to function at all must be backed up by the use of fossil fuel. Renewables can therefore never replace fossil fuel supplied energy. Apart from that it would be impossible to scale up any form of renewable energy to provide even a small fraction of the electricity that is now being provided by our fossil fuel power stations as the energy input into such an enterprise would be absolutely enormous. It gets much worse than that though. As only 40% of the energy we use is in the form of electricity, 40% is in liquid transportation fuels and 20% is used in our industrial factories providing feedstocks and chemicals. Our only hope is for affordable nuclear power, probably based on thorium and a much lower expectation of energy use. And this I’m afraid is a very uncertain exercise. The world will never lock up any of its fossil fuels, they will all be used. If not in peaceful uses, then certainly in war. I’m afraid we are on the doorstep of a very brave new world.
    Denisk

     

  • Michelle

    You are so right – a scandal and a disgrace that our one quality broadsheet and our publicly-funded national television station are ignoring what is the most pressing and critical issue of our times.  Thank god for people like you.  I emailed IT Environment Editor re the bewildering lack of any kind of coverage on the environment in their, er, Environment section on their website.  It is an utter joke and an embarrassment.  WTF is going on?

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    Thanks for thoughtful post Coilin. Rarely a day goes by that my bewilderment at the media’s no-show on the climate change story doesn’t deepen. This summer’s droughts, floods, more droughts, record temperatures and more floods would surely penetrate the consciousness of our news editors and their bosses at publisher and editor level, right? Well, wrong. They’ve pushed it into the ‘weather’ story box and no one seems prepared to call them out on this. As for MET Eireann, they’re a decent bunch, but they know which way the editorial wind is blowing and, I suspect, have decided to keep their collective heads down. Understandable, yes. Acceptable? I don’t think so. As for interviewing Gerry Fleming, it’s a thought…

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    Michelle, wish I knew. This is collective madness in action. Or should that read: ‘inaction’. It’s a collective failure of will, of ethical obligation and of simple backbone we’ve possibly ever witnessed from our media, our political, business and economic elites, not to mention our commentariat and other societal thought leaders. When the shit hits the fan, they will be falling over themselves to say they really knew all along, were working quietly in the background, etc. etc. but it won’t matter a damn by then. No one will be listening, as chaos descends and the great scramble to simply get from one day to the next becomes the only thing that actually matters any more….

  • environs

    Denis, you have made this point about renewables many times before; however, George Monbiot has addressed it and found it doesn’t stack up. I haven’t looked into it but I would accept Monbiot’s informed view. I am not against nuclear power, it is going to be vital, but it does not appear to be worth considering for Ireland given the start-up costs and the years it takes to come onstream. The solutions have to be found quicker than we can set up nuclear. However, if small, affordable and easy-to-set-up nuclear technologies become commercial soon, it could be a different story.
    Coilin MacLochlainn

  • environs

    Denis, – I’m not singling out your messages for comment, it just so happens that you brought up things I wanted to comment on. Like the Olympics. I watched the opening ceremony on Friday, all three and a half hours of it and more, and I don’t think I have ever been as moved by a show. As the bipolar patient said, “I laughed, I cried.” Silly joke, but it was actually true for me. This was a televisual spectacle of enormous impact, a pageant carrying a powerful emotional punch, it touched so many chords. I won’t try to explain it, my words wouldn’t do it justice, but even the 204 teams parading in, in supposedly national costumes, waving their flags, it took them about an hour to file past; even that parade I found enchanting, particularly the smallest teams from the tiniest nations, and those from war-torn nations, and the famine-stricken… to see the hope and expectations of even the worst-off nations, temporarily lifted from their appalling gloom to join the Olympic family for a few weeks. I think it is worth every penny they spent on it. If London can do this for £27 million, bringing all the nations together in joyful harmony, imagine what is possible… for the UN, UNEP, the IPCCC, and so on.

    Coilin MacLochlainn

  • Denisk

     Coilin, I am an engineer, George Monbiot is not. Unfortunately I’m right and he is wrong. Also, if we wish to reduce our CO2 output 90% the threat of global warming will have to take precedence over energy intensive art.
    Denisk.

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    Klem
    While taking a break from UFO spotting and 911 conspiracy blogging, try the below:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2012/jul/27/climate-sceptics-conspiracy-theorists
    And if you’re still missing anything, try this:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning–Kruger_effect
    And finally, here’s what happens when a hard-chaw ‘sceptical scientist’ encounters overwhelming evidence that runs contrary to his preconceived notions: can you believe it,he CHANGES his mind:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/jul/29/climate-change-sceptics-change-mind?CMP=twt_gu
    Enjoy!

  • http://twitter.com/bogmanjoe joseph

    Hey John how are ya keepin ? Haven’t spoke to ya since we where on Colman at Large.
    Whats the story with that Ger Fleming lad paying homage to the sun all of a sudden.
    Maybe someone taught him a few lessons on VB tonight two years ago.
    I wonder who it was ?

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    Hey Joe, yea, Coleman’s show was good light entertainment. Must be heartening to know that he is pretty typical of media types – libertarian, slave to the altar of the Free Market, and prepared to entertain any crapload of nonsense that chimes with these core values, or at least doesn’t challenge them. 
    You say you have few friends in the media, don’t despair, you have loads! Keep pedalling the bullshit, Joe, there are no shortage of buyers. There’s another round of similar NewsTalk silliness coming up very soon – stay tuned!

    Finally, you might be interested in this recent study that explores the close links between people who express climate scepticism/denialism and the likelihood that they are full-blown conspiracy theorists as well – moon landing was faked, the CIA shot Kennedy, 911 was organised by the White House, the Illuminati/UN/Smurfs are planning global domination, etc. etc. Essentially, once you detach from objective, measurable facts and peer-reviewed science, there is no amount of ‘alternative’ garbage you are amenable to swallowing – such as homeopathic vaccines!

  • http://twitter.com/bogmanjoe joseph

     I see in your article you mention the fact that this melting took place in 1889.  Not many cars around then and only 1.5 billion of us.
    What’s coming up on Newstalk ? Anything good?

  • environs

    John – I was just reading this in Joe Romm’s Climate Progress, from two or three days ago (I have paraphrased a bit): 

    The aim of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a treaty signed in 1992, was to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” This was defined in the Copenhagen Accord (2009) as limiting the overall global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius. There are three reasons why that goal is now unobtainable. First, even if greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere could be held steady at 2005 levels, scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography have calculated that global temperature would rise by 2.4 degrees Celsius, if not for the air pollution that is masking the warming by blocking some of the sun’s rays. So, if we somehow removed all the soot from the atmosphere, the increase in global average temperatures of 0.75 degrees Celsius that we are experiencing now would be higher: it would be 2.4 degrees Celsius. Second, as a 2011 paper by British climate researchers explains, emissions reductions that are constrained to levels thought to be compatible with economic growth are not sufficient to stay below 2 degrees Celsius. Only a period of planned austerity and an intensive effort to build a carbon-free energy system could now achieve the goal of avoiding dangerous climate change. Finally, the International Energy Agency has estimated that the carbon-emitting energy infrastructure (including coal-fired power stations) that will push global temperature rise beyond 2 degrees Celsius is already 80 per cent complete, and will be fully installed by 2017. This will lock in future emissions unless capital equipment is retired earlier than anticipated. The best we can now hope for is to avoid catastrophic global warming in excess of 4 degrees Celsius, which will require an agressive response by governments around the world. Given the problems we’re already having with just 0.75 degrees warming, four degrees will be hell, and it is unlikely to stop there, because if it reaches four, tipping points will have been passed and we’ll be locked into irreversible runaway global heating. Obama wanted us to believe that “Yes, we can,” but so far in his campaign for re-election he hasn’t mentioned climate change. It now looks more like “No, we can’t,” and even “No, he won’t.” Without America showing leadership on this, we are heading for hell and high water.  

  • Klem

    Ha! When members of the church of climastrology like yourself respond with links like those, it means I’ve hit a nerve, there is a bit of discomfort happening there, I’ve gotten under your skin.

    In short, it means I’ve won. Lol!

    Cheers greenboy.

  • Klem

    “..four degrees will be hell, and it is unlikely to stop there, because if it reaches four, tipping points will have been passed and we’ll be locked into irreversible runaway global heating.”

    We can only hope.

      Ban Ki-Moon

  • Klem

    “Renewables are notoriously unreliable and to function at all must be backed up by the use of fossil fuel. Renewables can therefore never replace fossil fuel supplied energy. ”

    Denisk, you speak blaspheme. A true believer in the faith of climate catastrophism would never utter such impiety. You shall wear the scarlet letter “H” for heretic. Be gone.

  • Klem

    “A few inches of surface melting took place which,..”

    Which resulted in about a cup of meltwater.

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    Klem, what’s the climate equivalent of Godwin’s Law? i.e. how long into a discussion thread before our neocon friends start accusing people interested in scientific reasoning and fact-based discussion as belonging to a Church/Cult? 

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    Ding dong, more Church/Cult generalised slander. Wow Klem, how original.

  • Econroy

    Well done John on a huge issue and to Coilin for his heartfelt frustrations about media reporting on climate change. I agree you should interview Gerald Fleming on the subject. Its amazing that we hear no reference to climate change by the weather forecasters given the extraordinary weather we have experienced in recent times.

    On the issue of our wet summers and the recent snowy winters, is this clear evidence that the warming of the North Atlantic by the higher global warming conditions in the Artic is turning off the Gulf Stream, and we will get colder while the rest of world warms?

    Eric.

  • Coilin MacLochlainn

    @ Eric, – That’s not
    my understanding of it. The snowy winters and sodden summers are related to the
    changed behaviour of the jet stream, a strong high-altitude wind circling the northern
    hemisphere at roughly our latitude; it gives rise to the prevailing westerlies
    crossing the Atlantic.

     

    Global warming has
    diminished the high contrast between the cold of the Arctic and the heat of the
    tropics. The jet stream is on the interface between the two, but because of the
    reduced heat contrast it now circles the northern hemisphere in a more looping
    path. Loops can get stuck in one place, as happened in recent cold winters
    when, unluckily for us, a loop in the jet stream fed cold Arctic air over us
    for days and weeks on end. The Arctic may be warming, but compared to what
    we’re used to, it’s still bloody freezing.

     

    This summer, the
    path of the jet stream has remained south of Ireland most of the time, so that
    the low pressure systems which are spawned in the Arctic cold have dominated,
    bringing us rain. If the jet stream moved north of Ireland, ushering in the
    Azores high pressure system (which is baking southern Europe and east to Iran at
    the moment) we would get summer. (You will have gathered by now that I’m not a
    meteorologist but am just trying to get a handle on things, like you and
    everyone else, given that Met Éireann will explain nothing.)

     

    North America has
    been south of the jet stream all summer, and is suffering extreme drought and
    wildfires. Whether this is because of a stuck loop and that we’re on the
    opposite side of that loop, I don’t know. It could hardly be that simple.

     

    The Gulf Stream has
    not switched off, but yes, there is a danger that the melting of the Greenland
    ice-cap will flood the North Atlantic with cold freshwater and push the Gulf
    Stream south of Ireland in due course. The climate of Ireland would become much
    cooler in that event, but because the globe will become much hotter, Ireland
    will not get a new ice age.

     

     

     

     

     

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    Eric, appreciate that. I guess MET Eireann are sticking to forecasting and steering clear of what they most likely perceive as the problematic area of actually explaining the wider climatic forces that shape our weather. It’s understandable on one level (quiet life, stay friends with 60-something broadcasters, etc.) but on another, it’s hard to be happy about this cop-out.

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    Apologies, Environs, that the only response was from our new knuckle-dragging correspondent. Hell and high water is one way of looking at it, and frankly, I believe it’s on the cards. Not only is there no sign of the kind of massive, urgent global response occurring, to the contrary, it has fallen clean off both the media and political agenda to such an extent that even those members of the public who think there is a crisis must be coming to believe they are over-reacting, given that no one else seems to be bothered. The word tragedy is much overused, but in this case, an entire sentient, technologically advanced species hell-bent on its own extinction is, in the truest sense of the word, tragic.

  • Econroy

     Coilin, Thanks for a very good meteorogical explanation for what may be happening in the Atlantic in reply to my post. It’s certainly food for thought. You should take Gerald Fleming’s place in Met Eireann!

    Regards, Eric.

  • Klem

    Hmm, sounds like it should be named Klems Law.  I like the sound of that. wahoo!