Commentary

Polar Disasters: More Predictable Distortions of Science

November has been quite a month for climate disaster stories! First, Nature magazine reports that the Antarctic food chain is all out of whack, with krill populations crashing around the South Orkney Islands because of global warming. Then a new, federally funded “Arctic Climate Impact Assessment” (ACIA) comes along, predicting the upcoming extinction of polar bears and the death of Inuit culture.

But you can breathe a sigh of relief because both of those disaster stories are critically flawed. In fact, the only real disaster they demonstrate is the disheartening decay of the peer-review process in science.

The krill story should be especially disturbing to anyone who places faith in the refereed scientific literature, which once could reliably be cited as the canon of current truth. Krill, if you don’t know, are small, shrimp-like animals that basically are manna to whales and other sea life. The authors of the Nature report that the krill population around South Orkney Island in the South Atlantic Ocean varies directly with the amount of sea ice that forms each winter. Because that area has warmed in recent decades, and because the krill population has declined rapidly from the 1970s to today, the authors conclude that global warming is killing the krill.

But the very same data that show a relationship between the amount of ice and the krill also show that there has been absolutely no change in the amount of ice around South Orkney Island since 1975. That’s right; the factor that the authors claim is controlling the krill population hasn’t changed a lick.

The sea ice data were published in the journal Environmental Conservation in 2002. It is inconceivable that the authors of the Nature paper did not know about it, because they used it to “prove” the relationship between ice and krill.

Why wasn’t this caught in the peer review process? It’s in the magazine’s best interest for embarrassments like this to get spotted before they appear in print. Anyone sent this paper for commentary would (should?) have asked whether the ice was in fact in decline.

Lax review is also evident in the Arctic Assessment, which probably received more press than any climate story in recent years.

One of the big headlines that it generated was that polar bears are going to go extinct because of climate change. the Washington Post quoted Lara Hansen of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), who expressed serious concern that populations will stop reproducing as climate warms.

In 2002, the WWF published a huge report on polar bears and global warming, called “Polar Bears at Risk.” The organization found 22,000 polar bears scattered in 20 somewhat distinct populations around the Arctic. According to the WWF, 46 percent of the populations were stable, 17 percent were in decline, 14 percent were increasing, and the status of 23 percent was unknown.

Red flags waving on bad math! Any number divided by 20 yields a multiple of 5 — 5, 10, 15, etc… An accompanying map only showed 19 populations, but no whole number divided by 19 yields 46, 17, 14, or 23.

The WWF did not map out the regions where the polar bear populations were changing. They left that to enviro-curmudgeons like me. And what I found was this: Where the polar bear populations are in decline — around Baffin Bay (the region between Canada and Greenland), temperatures are also going down, big time. And the area where temperatures are rising the most — in the Pacific region bordering on Alaska and Siberia, polar bear populations are increasing.

That fact did not make it into the ACIA report, but the doomsday WWF claim did. Again, the simplest check of an hypothesis was not made.

How many stories are out there like this on global warming? Plenty. These two are just the most recent and two of the more egregious. Why does this happen? Washington has handed out nearly $20 billion in global warming research money in recent years. That is ample money to do good research. There is absolutely no incentive to tell the truth, if the truth will make one poor.

Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and author of Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media (2004).