The Australian's War on Science 34

The collapse of the Wilkins Ice Shelf has prompted the Australian to launch yet another attack on scientists -- it seems they are "tabloid media ambulance-chasing" and the ice shelf collapse was entirely natural.

every natural phenomenon, such as the ice shelf split this week, is interpreted as a disaster and all who do not agree are denounced as an enemy of the planet. And so it is easier for people in public life to acquiesce rather than address the evidence - as Mr Garrett's Lateline performance proves. The result is the intellectual equivalent of tabloid media ambulance-chasing. We are at the disgraceful state where some scientists do not seem keen to let all the evidence get in the way of a good story, especially if there is a supposedly scary photograph proving the end is near.

So what evidence does the Australian offer that the collapse was a natural phenomenon? Just this:

There is no denying part of the Wilkins ice shelf has separated from Antarctica and will sooner or later melt, as icebergs always do. But this does not prove anything other than part of an enormous iceshelf, one among many, has fractured along a fault line. This is neither unique nor in itself alarming, and to argue otherwise assumes Antarctica started to change only when humanity began generating coal-fired electricity and driving petroleum-powered cars. While there is a strong case that the world is warming, the extent to which humans are responsible is not clear. Nor is it obvious what the process means for people. Global warming may mean the oceans rise by 6m in 90 years but there are equally credible claims the rise may be much more modest. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that polar melts may increase sea levels by a 10th of this new number by 2100. And while an ice shelf has separated from the coast of Antarctica, according to the IPCC increased precipitation will actually lead to a thickening of the Antarctic ice sheet.

But ice shelves are just the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet. The IPCC is not saying that ice shelves will get thicker, but rather that ice shelf collapse could result in Antarctica losing mass:

Current global model studies project that the Antarctic
Ice Sheet will remain too cold for widespread surface
melting and is expected to gain in mass due to increased
snowfall. However, net loss of ice mass could occur if
dynamical ice discharge dominates the ice sheet mass

They don't say anything specifically about Wilkins, but when the breakup started, the scientists at the British Antarctic Survey did:

Professor Vaughan, who in 1993 predicted that the northern part of Wilkins Ice Shelf was likely to be lost within 30 years if climate warming on the Peninsula were to continue at the same rate, says,

"Wilkins is the largest ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula yet to be threatened. I didn't expect to see things happen this quickly. The ice shelf is hanging by a thread - we'll know in the next few days or weeks what its fate will be. ...

"Climate warming in the Antarctic Peninsula has pushed the limit of viability for ice shelves further south - setting some of them that used to be stable on a course of retreat and eventual loss. The Wilkins breakout won't have any effect on sea-level because it is floating already, but it is another indication of the impact that climate change is having on the region."

And from the National Snow and Ice Data Center:

The Wilkins is following a pattern of instability and rapid collapse that many Antarctic Peninsula ice shelves have experienced in recent years. Scientists think that the dramatic loss of these ice shelves, which have existed for hundreds to thousands of years, is an important sign of climate change in the Southern Hemisphere.

Mind you, there is the alternative theory advanced by Jennifer Marohasy undersea volcanic activity. Marohasy helpfully links to a map showing that there are volcanoes within 2000 km of Wilkins.

Anyway, back to the Australian's editorial:

While serious scientists are obliged to report what their research shows, whoever it offends, claims of climate change have become a racket. Last year, the Government of the Maldives warned that rising sea levels would swamp the country and the entire population needed a new home. The global-warming faithful immediately announced it was all the fault of rich countries, which had to help. The stunt was spoiled by Swedish scientists, who had the data to demonstrate that the sea level around the Maldives was the same now as 4000 years ago and showed no signs of change. Certainly the Maldives have a problem but a major cause is much more mundane - mining coral for building material has removed reefs that provide a barrier against the ocean.

This is just repeating bogus claims from a column published in the Australian. The "Swedish scientist", far from being a serious scientist is a dowser and his claims about the Maldives have been refuted by subsequent research. Serious scientists analysed satellite data and tide gauges and found large rates of sea-level rise in the Maldives.

This information isn't exactly a secret, but you'll never see it in an editorial in the Australian. That's because the writers there are not going to let evidence get in the way of their AGW denial.

More like this

The greenmarxenvironazis + greedy scientists + people who hate rich countries are working in cahoots in a Worldwide Conspiracy To Destroy Civilization, and the only way to stop them is to have unnamed anonymice to dish out unsourced talking points to Expose The Global Warming Scam!

Got it.

"There is no denying part of the Wilkins ice shelf has separated from Antarctica and will sooner or later melt, as icebergs always do."

They left out the word 'Unfortunately' at the start of the sentence.

Hmm 'There is no denying' seems a bit defeatist. What are they trying to say? The debate is over? The science is settled? I am sure a newspaper with the resourcefulness of The Australian could find a way to deny the Wilkins ice shelf is collapsing. Perhaps they just need to think about it a bit longer. Couldn't they argue that
"Ice shelves do not fit into the framework of Feymann Diagrams"
"The concept of an 'Ice Shelf' is itself meaningless, what you have are individual particles of ice. It makes no sense to treat a number of these particles as a single entity"
"By 2030 the Wilkins ice shelf will be in the ocean, not because of alledged 'warming', but because over the last 3 decades devious scientists have been shifting the boundary of the shelf on maps ever northwards"

"Global warming may mean the oceans rise by 6m in 90 years but there are equally credible claims the rise may be much more modest."

Heads you drown, tails you get wet. Everything's fine!

Lank, what's your point?

Nowhere in this News Ltd. offering is there an honest account of the mechanics and timeline of this shelf retreat. How completely unsurprising.

I am sure a newspaper with the resourcefulness of The Australian could find a way to deny the Wilkins ice shelf is collapsing.

Couldn't agree more Fred. In fact rather than 'separated' the Wilkins Ice Shelf just needed a bit of time to itself.

The ice shelf breaks and over the next few years shatters and spreads out. Increasing the surface area for winter ice formation.
The removal of the ice shelf removes hundreds of meters of ice cover. The thicker the ice the less thermal energy being taken from the sea beneath.Remove the ice self and you increase thermal lose from the Antarctic sea.
What is going on with the Wilkin's ice shelf is more about sea currents than an increase in CO2 levels. Ice is forming all around Antarctica except the the western side of the Archipelago The eastern side is huge. It looks like what happens when you put out a snow fence. Drifting snow crystals build up on the downwind side while the side facing the wind has little build up. If the lack of build up was about air temp then more of the eastern side would suffer some of the same effects the eastern side of the Archipelago is showing us.
The truth about the Ice shelf breakoff is that compared to the annual Antarctic sea ice melt it is nothing.Add in the fact it won't melt in one year and you end up with much less.
This is a non issue trying hard to be one.

kent (#8) "What is going on with the Wilkin's ice shelf is more about sea currents than an increase in CO2 levels."

How about going into a bit more detail on that - maybe citing a reference or two?

How and why have currents changed enough to cause multiple collapses (as predicted 30 years ago) of ice shelves that have been stable, apparently for thousands of years?

Mörner isn't just a dowser. I've spoken to people with more experience of him, and apparently he is the creative kind of guy who have lots of ideas, some of which actually are good. In most fields those persons can be quite useful since other scientists soon learn to filter out the junk, you just shouldn't rely on them as authorities.

Mörner is also an opponent to nuclear power in Sweden since he has the idea that Sweden occasionally is hit by much larger earthquakes than generally believed and that storage of the waste is thus risky. Somehow the people who love to quote him on sea level rarely seem to trust him on that subject :-)

Global warming may mean the oceans rise by 6m in 90 years but there are equally credible claims the rise may be much more modest. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that polar melts may increase sea levels by a 10th of this new number by 2100.

Correct me if I am wrong here (I am an historian, a liberal arts major, so . . . .), but are global warming denialists cherry-picking specific parts of reports? The melting of that ice sheet may produce a .9 metre rise in global see levels, or the meliting of these sheets may result in a rise of x. Are the denialists refusing to understand (or just plain being dishonest) about the idea that we are looking at the totality, not just individual instances? "Polar melts" does not include Greenland, does it? So for a writer to make the above claim would be (to me, at least) an instance of comparing a localized phenomenon to a global one, and claiming that they are the same thing.


the 6 m over 90 years comes from nowhere... it is something denialists claim Al Gore to have said, which isn't true (surprise!). What Gore did say, and is true, is that if the Greenland ice sheet were to melt, the result would be some 6 m global mean sea level rise.

West Antarctica, if melting, would produce a similar amount. (All of Antarctica melting would produce a lot more, but the Eastern ice sheet is very stable, extremely cold and isolated from the rest of the world, so that won't be happening any time soon.)

The Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC ( prognosticated a sub-metre sea level rise by 2100, but with the caveat that that did not include "nonlinear ice sheet processes", as those were not well understood. They are still not well understood, and scientists are frantically working to do something about that; now we know that both the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets are coming apart at the seams much faster than was earlier thought, mostly due to the effect of warmer sea currents under the edges of the shelves. Note that the shelves "buttress" the glaciers behind them; if they go, also the glaciers start moving faster to the ocean, changing the mass balance.

Independently there have been statistical studies (Rahmstorf 2007) on the temperature - sea level relationship, also suggestive of recent acceleration in sea level rise. All this work points to sea level rise by 2100 of 1-1.5 m, but very likely not over 2 m.

...and of course shelf ice melt does not raise sea level nearly at all... it's just a symptom.

Writing on my handheld over the Easter holiday, forgive me for not including references.

By Gavin's Pussycat (not verified) on 12 Apr 2009 #permalink

Don't worry!
Why worry?

The Wilkins ice shelf will grow back again in a few months.
It's all a big fuss about nothing.

I mean those other Antarctic ice shelves that melted, are back aren't they?

I saw some video recently with Polar bears on them.

Paul, Paul, Paul... don't ever do that again. Coffee doesn't taste the same coming out through the nose...

By Gavin's Pussycat (not verified) on 12 Apr 2009 #permalink

There is new book, [downloadable from the web](, Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air by David MacKay, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Cambridge University.

He writes in the synopsis:

We have an addiction to fossil fuels, and itâs not sustainable. The developed
world gets 80% of its energy from fossil fuels; Britain, 90%. And
this is unsustainable for three reasons. First, easily-accessible fossil fuels
will at some point run out, so weâll eventually have to get our energy
from someplace else. Second, burning fossil fuels is having a measurable
and very-probably dangerous effect on the climate. Avoiding dangerous
climate change motivates an immediate change from our current use of
fossil fuels. Third, even if we donât care about climate change, a drastic
reduction in Britainâs fossil fuel consumption would seem a wise move if
we care about security of supply: continued rapid use of the North Sea
oil and gas reserves will otherwise soon force fossil-addicted Britain to depend
on imports from untrustworthy foreigners. (I hope you can hear my
tongue in my cheek.)
How can we get off our fossil fuel addiction?

What is especially distinctive is that he does the numbers. The UK has huge potential for wind power. Right. But how much is "huge" and how does it compare with existing huge appetite for fossil fuels (answer: small).

MacKay systematically works through the major uses of fossil fuel quantifying each one, then the major sources of sustainable energy with similar quantification. Is renewable energy viable to maintain the British way of life?


Read the book and see.

In clearer and more lucid prose that you could ever imagine coming out of a university physics department, MacKay demands no more than that his readers put aside preconceptions, and that they know how to add, subtract, multiply and divide. (There is plenty of technical stuff and reference data to back up his arguments but it is kept to chapters at the back of the book.)

Absolutely recommended.


Has anyone seen/glanced at Ian Plimer's new book? The somewhat sycophantic write up from Paul Shehan in today's SMH made it sound like the usual garbage, but I'd be interested to hear from someone who has seen it about whether there is anything new worth taking a look at.

Mike M:
>British way of life

What is that exactly?

I mean i cut my energy consumption by 37% this winter.
My life hasn't changed a lot, the main thing that has changed is the way i use the energy.

IMO the British way of life doesn't include pointlessly wasting energy, when the same 'way of life' can be achieved with a massive reduction in energy use.

I read through Prof MacKay's book. The lack of any form of demand management or allowance for increased energy efficiency made it rather suspect, I thought. So did the idea (IIRC) that every single person in the UK needs their own car, which was a big part of his calculation of demand.

By James Haughton (not verified) on 13 Apr 2009 #permalink

Just wondering if you have read the latest attack on science from 'The Australian' called "Passion for global warming cools in the face of evidence"?

His conclusion "a reminder to respect informed dissent and beware of ideology subverting evidence" should be perhaps better read as a reminder to respect (his ideologically) informed dissent of global warming evidence and to beware of scientific evidence getting in the way of a 'good' denial story.

His passion for 'facts' cooled in the face of reading Ian Plimer's book entitled Heaven and Earth. Geez, with Paul's limited understanding of science (and its underlying philosophy) and scientific 'facts', it is no suprise that he makes this simple mistake. Will a better understanding of science itself help? Most people will hold onto their beliefs and assumptions if they don't believe or trust the messenger. Perhaps science needs to do a lot more to build the level of public trust (Public participation would be a great start). Just think about the different levels of trust (if the person involved was a politician, scientist, religious minister, friend, family or someone from the UN telling you something? What if it was a news-story from The Australian?

Link here:,25197,25329958-20261,…

p.s. Maybe you would like my blog (Random Man on Planet Earth)?

ChrisC @ 19, I got some promotional material about it via the Skeptics SA branch.

All you need to know is that Vaclav Klaus, Lord Lawson and Geoffrey Blainey have praised it. I think that says it all.

By David Irving (… (not verified) on 14 Apr 2009 #permalink

"I read through Prof MacKay's book. The lack of any form of demand management or allowance for increased energy efficiency made it rather suspect, I thought."

You clearly did NOT read the book. MacKay says: "some people assert that I don't pay sufficient attention to efficiency measures. I thought that the 50% reductions in primary energy consumption sketched in my book's zero-carbon Britain plans would count as fairly ambitious efficiencies! Oh well."

How about reading the booking properly next time before posting ill-informed, vacuous remarks??!