Warm reception to Antarctic warming story

What determines how much coverage a climate study gets?

It probably goes without saying that it isn’t strongly related to the quality of the actual science, nor to the clarity of the writing. Appearing in one of the top journals does help (Nature, Science, PNAS and occasionally GRL), though that in itself is no guarantee. Instead, it most often depends on the ‘news’ value of the bottom line. Journalists and editors like stories that surprise, that give something ‘new’ to the subject and are therefore likely to be interesting enough to readers to make them read past the headline. It particularly helps if a new study runs counter to some generally perceived notion (whether that is rooted in fact or not). In such cases, the ‘news peg’ is clear.

And so it was for the Steig et al “Antarctic warming” study that appeared last week. Mainstream media coverage was widespread and generally did a good job of covering the essentials. The most prevalent peg was the fact that the study appeared to reverse the “Antarctic cooling” meme that has been a staple of disinformation efforts for a while now.

It’s worth remembering where that idea actually came from. Back in 2001, Peter Doran and colleagues wrote a paper about the Dry Valleys long term ecosystem responses to climate change, in which they had a section discussing temperature trends over the previous couple of decades (not the 50 years time scale being discussed this week). The “Antarctic cooling” was in their title and (unsurprisingly) dominated the media coverage of their paper as a counterpoint to “global warming”. (By the way, this is a great example to indicate that the biggest bias in the media is towards news, not any particular side of a story). Subsequent work indicated that the polar ozone hole (starting in the early 80s) was having an effect on polar winds and temperature patterns (Thompson and Solomon, 2002; Shindell and Schmidt, 2004), showing clearly that regional climate changes can sometimes be decoupled from the global picture. However, even then both the extent of any cooling and the longer term picture were more difficult to discern due to the sparse nature of the observations in the continental interior. In fact we discussed this way back in one of the first posts on RealClimate back in 2004.

This ambiguity was of course a gift to the propagandists. Thus for years the Doran et al study was trotted out whenever global warming was being questioned. It was of course a classic ‘cherry pick’ – find a region or time period when there is a cooling trend and imply that this contradicts warming trends on global scales over longer time periods. Given a complex dynamic system, such periods and regions will always be found, and so as a tactic it can always be relied on. However, judging from the take-no-prisoners response to the Steig et al paper from the contrarians, this important fact seems to have been forgotten (hey guys, don’t worry you’ll come up with something new soon!).

Actually, some of the pushback has been hilarious. It’s been a great example for showing how incoherent and opportunistic the ‘antis’ really are. Exhibit A is an email (and blog post) sent out by Senator Inhofe’s press staff (i.e. Marc Morano). Within this single email there are misrepresentations, untruths, unashamedly contradictory claims and a couple of absolutely classic quotes. Some highlights:

Dr. John Christy of the University of Alabama in Huntsville slams new Antarctic study for using [the] “best estimate of the continent’s temperature”

Perhaps he’d prefer it if they used the worst estimate? ;)

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