A widely publicised paper in Science last week discussed the recovery ancient DNA from the base of the Dye-3 ice core (in southern Greenland). This was an impressive technical feat and the DNA recovered may well be the oldest pure DNA ever, dating back maybe half a million years. However much of the press coverage of this paper dwelt not on the positive aspects of the study but on its supposed implications for the stability of the Greenland ice sheet and future sea level rise, something that was not greatly discussed in the paper at all. So why was this?
As we have seen before, the frame for most media reports are set by the press release, and in this case, the press release from the Wellcome Trust (jointly issued by NERC) entitled “Greenland’s ancient forests shed light on stability of ice sheet”. This contained the quote “… this means that the southern Greenland ice cap is more stable than previously thought.” from the lead author Professor Willerslev which ended up being the peg for many of the stories. This quote did not appear in simultaneous releases from AAAS, University of York or the University of Alberta, which were much closer to the text of the paper.
The context for these statements is the uncertainty associated with the history of the Greenland ice sheet – particularly what happened during the last interglacial period (also sometimes called the Eemian) around 125,000 years ago – a time when the orbital configuration lead to Northern Hemisphere summer temperatures being perhaps 1 or 2 deg C warmer than today (and 3 to 5 degrees warmer around Greenland). It is uncontroversial that sea level was then about 4 to 6m higher than present but exactly which ice sheets (Greenland vs. Antarctica) provided this extra water and in what proportion is unclear. The last word on the subject was probably from two papers in Science last year, which suggested that it was roughly half/half with 2m or so from Greenland, and the rest presumably from Antarctica.
Those studies had used as a data point the fact that the Dye 3 core did not appear to have any Eemian ice (unlike ice cores further north), and the minimum Greenland contribution came from a calculation of the minimum amount of ice Greenland would have to lose in order to deglaciate Dye 3. The new data in this weeks paper implies that at least some ice there appears to predate the Eemian (although the dating is uncertain enough so that it can’t be absolutely ruled out), thus the maximum Greenland contribution is likely slightly less than the numbers reported earlier. (Note that all of these estimates are based on ice sheet models, that as we have noted previously, do not fully incorporate all the physics thought to be important).
The University of Copenhagen also issued a release which expanded on the ‘stability’ issue. One of the sections is entitled “Climate theories overturned” and apparently refers to the theory that the whole Greenland ice sheet will melt as a result of global warming. This is a very odd statement indeed and doesn’t accord with any serious discussion of the issue. The authors of the press release must have received some feedback along those lines themselves, because there is an addenda added at the end that gives a bit more context:
The scientists do not want to put into question the rise in sea level during a global warming. During the last interglacial period 125.000 years ago, temperatures in Greenland were 5 degrees higher and global sea level was 4-5 meters higher than it is today. However, since the new scientific results show that the ice sheet also covered southern Greenland, the melting of the Greenlandic ice cap can only have caused a sea level rise of about 2 meters. Therefore some of the ice contributing to the sea level rise must have come from other sources, for instance the Antarctic. Furthermore, thermal warming of the oceans will cause expansion of the sea water and result in a sea level rise of half a meter, and the melting of small glaciers around the globe will result in an additional half meter rise.
This is very similar to the discussion of Eemian sea levels seen in the IPCC report, and so it is very unclear to what extent these new results ‘overturn climate theories’. And of course, the central finding – that southern Greenland was indeed deglaciated at some point in the last half million years – implies that Greenland is indeed unstable – though with a sensitivity that is still uncertain.
So we have, yet again, good science giving rise to bad press coverage, and yet again, it is unfortunately the scientists themselves that appear to have engendered the confusion.