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Faking it

Filed under: — gavin @ 30 April 2014

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 81º 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.

The article with the fake quote has done the rounds of most of the major contrarian sites – including the GWPF, right-wing leaning local papers (Provo, UT), magazines (Quadrant in Australia, Canada Free Press) and blogs (eg. Small dead animals). The only pseudo-sceptic blog that doesn’t appear to have used it is WUWT! (though it has come up in comments). This is all despite some people noting that the last line was fake (at least as early as April 2011). Some of the mentions even link to the Snopes article (which doesn’t mention the fake last line) as proof that their version (with the fake quote) is authentic.

Last week it was used again by Richard Rahn in the Washington Times, and the fake quote was extracted and tweeted by CFACT, which is where I saw it.

So we have a situation where something real and actually interesting is found in the archives, it gets misrepresented as a ‘gotcha’ talking point, but someone thinks it can be made ‘better’ and so adds a fake last line to sex it up. Now with twitter, with its short quotes, some contrarians only quote the fakery. And thus a completely false talking point is created out of the whole cloth.

Unfortunately, this is not unusual.

Comparing 1922 and now

To understand why the original story is actually interesting, we need a little context. Estimates of Arctic sea ice go back to the 19th Century from fishing vessels and explorers though obviously they have got better in recent decades because of the satellite coverage. The IPCC AR5 report (Figure 4.3) shows a compilation of sea ice extent from HadISST1 (which is being updated as we speak), but it is clear enough for our purposes:

I have annotated the summer of 1922, which did see quite a large negative excursion Arctic-wide compared to previous years, though the excursion is perhaps not that unusual for the period. A clearer view can be seen in the Danish ice charts for August 1921 and 1922 (via the Icelandic Met Office):

The latitude for open-water in the 1922 figure is around 81ºN, as reported by the Consul. Browsing other images in the series indicates that Spitzbergen almost always remained ice-bound even in August, so the novelty of the 1922 observation is clear.

But what of now? We can look at the August 2013 operational ice charts (that manually combine satellite and in situ observations) from the Norwegian Met Office, and focus on the area of Svalbard/Spitzbergen. Note that 2013 was the widely touted year that Arctic sea ice ‘recovered’:

The open-water easily extends to past 84ºN – many hundreds of kilometers further north than the ‘unprecedented’ situation in 1922. Data from the last 4 years shows some variability of course, but by late August there is consistently open-water further north than 81ºN 30′. The Consul’s observation, far from being novel, is now commonplace.

This implies that this article – when seen in context – is actually strongly confirming of a considerable decline in Arctic sea ice over the last 90 years. Not that CFACT is going to tweet that.

21 Responses to “Faking it”

  1. 1
    Paul Williams says:

    The historical reconstruction of sea ice extent before 1950 cannot be accurate for the sea ice minimum.

    Sea ice minimum around 11 million km2?

    That is what the ice is like now at the end of May. No open water on the north side of Alaska, the Beaufort Sea or in the NorthWest Passage.

    Why did the Inuit invent whaling boats and kayaks if there was no open water even at the sea ice minimum. How did the last wave of Inuit migrate over from north-western Siberia in whaling boats 1,000 years ago when there was no open water.

    It does not match history. Drop the numbers down 2 or 3 million km2 at the minimum.

    [Response: This is sea ice ‘extent’, not area. Extent includes areas of potential open water within the ~15% concentration contour which is what can be gleaned from pre-satellite observations. Annals of early explorers (see Breton’s Arctic Grail) demonstrate that there was seasonal open-water in the Archipelago (though much less than today), even with extents much greater. In any case, these data are based on ice charts, and so if you want to question the numbers look at those. Just declaring they’re wrong ‘because Inuits’ isn’t going to cut it. – gavin]

  2. 2
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Thanks for digging into this. While the way certain sources operate is not news, the back story of the item is fascinating.

  3. 3
    Hank Roberts says:

    Paul Williams: look at the 1921-1922 charts. See the words

    “St of ice unkn” in several areas, on both charts?

    “State of ice unknown” seems a reasonable meaning for that caption.
    Unknown to the chart makers — likely known to the Inuit.

    See the edge of the ice marked with little red circles and straight red lines in several places. I’d guess that marks areas in the extent of the ice where the state of the ice had been identified — probably partly open water — by the navigators.

  4. 4
    Hank Roberts says:

    Red marks are identified on the full size charts linked in the original post.
    Red lines are “land floe” — landfast
    Open red circles are “open ice”
    Solid red circles are “tight pack ice”

  5. 5
    michael sweet says:


    I was reading about shipwrecks near Barrow and in 1876 on September 12 a number of ships were sunk when the fast ice broke loose and the ships were carried to the pack ice several miles offshore. There was essentially no open water north of Barrow at the very end of the melt season. This was the typical summer, just enough space to get to Barrow. Perhaps you should read up on historical sea ice before you make your next comment.

  6. 6
    Russell says:

    “Nothing new ?”

    New species of obscurantism are being discovered all the time

  7. 7

    Thanks, the back story is indeed interesting. I’ve had some online discussions with folks who fell for this one hook line and sinker–so to speak! Referred them to Chapman et al for a reconstruction, and also the Danish charts. But I didn’t know about that ‘codicil.’

  8. 8
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Svalbard is far out of the ice right now, and the melt season has barely begun.

  9. 9
    Michael Hauber says:

    There was still a large amount of open water north of Spitzbergen in mid March this year at sea ice maximum. Although winds turned around late in March and this area has been ice bound again since.

  10. 10
    Eli Rabett says:

    Yeah, it was pretty open even late into the winter, but if the winds are blowing the ice down to Svalbaard, then that would imply a pretty low minimum this year.

  11. 11
    Kevin O'Neill says:

    I shouldn’t even mention his name, but Steve Goddard loves to repost these old newspaper stories over and over again to ‘prove’ today’s sea ice retreat is nothing new.

    As discussed here nearly every story is interesting when viewed in context — and similar to the article discussed here, when they mention a latitude it’s always a region where open water is commonplace today, but was *news* back then.

    Similarly they’ll point to historical expeditions from the 19th or early 20th century that traversed the Northwest Passage or Northeast Passage as ‘proof’ again that sea ice was just as low. Forgetting of course that it took these early expeditions 2, 3, or 4 years to make the trip. Many times their ships were frozen in the ice and they simply drifted along with the ice pack.

  12. 12

    #11–Yes, or–OT alert!–even the romantic but almost certainly false story of the Octavius, sometimes presented as if factual (see link above.) It echoes the true story of the Resolute, timbers from which are found in the White House today (also linked above–my tablet gets fussy about pasting links.)

  13. 13
    Tom Scharf says:

    Error bars?

  14. 14
    Sou says:

    Thanks for this debunking. I’ve dug up a few interesting articles from Australian newspapers. (Even annoying “Steve Goddard” in a series of “my cuttings are better than yours” tweets:D)

    I’ve listed my favourites if anyone likes newspaper trivia, including a cutting from 1884, which was the earliest mention of CO2 warming that I’ve found so far in Australian newspapers. From the Border Watch (Mount Gambier, South Australia) that talks of “A few hundredths of carbonic acid gas in the atmosphere…the surface…would become like a vast orchid house”

  15. 15
    patrick says:

    Comment #6 is a plain monkey wrench, even though it’s dressed up with an insipid trope and enormous self-regard.

  16. 16
    Hank Roberts says:

    Russell’s #6 about the price of blue pigment in art history? Worth knowing, when using painted skies as a proxy for aerosols.

    “… one hypothetical alternative to cosmic rays: paint more clouds …” is, I think, an ironic aside on contemporary geoengineering proposals to put more clouds into our real sky.

  17. 17
    Susan Anderson says:

    re currently 6: OK, my fools rush in take:

    im-very-ho, Russell gets on a roll from time to time, and this is one of those times. His hyperliteracy, extravagance, and snarky tones are a feature, not a bug.

    The current front page is piceless: a mashup of Singer, Inhofe, Morano and Pielke and gets them all right.

    RS, please forgive the presumption.

  18. 18
    Mal Adapted says:

    Susan Anderson:

    im-very-ho, Russell gets on a roll from time to time, and this is one of those times. His hyperliteracy, extravagance, and snarky tones are a feature, not a bug.

    Everybunny knows I don’t always agree with Russell, but his latest is pretty damn clever. Is it possible that Patrick is missing the joke in the name of Russell’s site?

  19. 19
    patrick says:

    #18–I am not confused. But thanks for checking. Really.

  20. 20

    Paul Williams, historically Inuit people and ancestors imprinted their existence largely where there was seasonal or summer time open water. Note :

    Therefore their ancestors literally have shown the rest of us that the far North never had as much open water as now a summers.. This goes back 5000 years.

  21. 21
    Charles says:

    thanks for the link to VVatsup, I needed a good laugh

    Gigantopithecus reminds me of Homo Oklapithicus, an ape that grew to be nine feet tall and certainly was the 2000 lb monkey on everybody else’s back but it went extinct anyway (it was probably a vegetarian). Hope springs eternal.

  22. 22
    Alexis Crawford says:

    I love history as much as science, so it’s always interesting to see the ties between the two. It’s even more fascinating to explore how they determined things like climate change before all the modern technologies like instruments and models.