Faking it

Every so often contrarians post old newspaper quotes with the implication that nothing being talked about now is unprecedented or even unusual. And frankly, there are lots of old articles that get things wrong, are sensationalist or made predictions without a solid basis. And those are just the articles about the economy.

However, there are plenty of science articles that are just interesting, reporting events and explorations in the Arctic and elsewhere that give a fascinating view into how early scientists were coming to an understanding about climate change and processes. In particular, in the Atlantic sector of the Arctic the summer of 1922 was (for the time) quite warm, and there were a number of reports that discussed some unprecedented (again, for the time) observations of open water. The most detailed report was in the Monthly Weather Review:

The same report was picked up by the Associated Press and short summary articles appeared in the Washington Post and L.A. Times on Nov 2nd (right). As you can read, the basic story is that open water was seen up to 81ยบ 29’N near Spitzbergen (now referred to as Svalbard), and that this was accompanied by a shift in ecosystems and some land ice melting. It seems that the writers were more concerned with fishing than climate change though.

This clip started showing up around Aug 2007 (this is the earliest mention I can find). The main point in bringing it up was (I imagine) to have a bit of fun by noting the similarity of the headline “Arctic Ocean Getting Warm” and contemporaneous headlines discussing the very low sea ice amounts in 2007. Of course, this doesn’t imply that the situation was the same back in 1922 compared to 2007 (see below).

The text of Washington Post piece soon started popping up on blogs and forums. Sometime in late 2009, probably as part of a mass-forwarded email (remember those?), the text started appearing with the following addition (with small variations, e.g. compare this and this):

I apologize, I neglected to mention that this report was from November 2, 1922. As reported by the AP and published in The Washington Post

However, the text was still pretty much what was in the Washington Post article (some versions had typos of “Consulafft” instead of “Consul Ifft” (the actual consul’s name) and a few missing words). Snopes looked into it and they agreed that this was basically accurate – and they correctly concluded that the relevance to present-day ice conditions was limited.

But sometime in January 2010 (the earliest version I can find is from 08/Jan/2010), a version of the email started circulating with an extra line added:

“Within a few years it is predicted that due to the ice melt the sea will rise and make most coastal cities uninhabitable.”

This is odd on multiple levels. First of all, the rest of the piece is just about observations, not predictions of any sort. Nor is there any source given for these mysterious predictions (statistics? soothsaying? folk wisdom?). Indeed, since ice melt large enough to ‘make most coastal cities uninhabitable’ would be a big deal, you’d think that the Consul and AP would have been a little more concerned about the level of the sea instead of the level of the seals. In any case, the line is completely made up, a fiction, an untruth, a lie.

But now, instead of just an observation that sounds like observations being made today, the fake quote is supposed to demonstrate that people (implicitly scientists) have been making alarmist and unsupported claims for decades with obvious implications. This is pretty low by any standards.

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