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A New Ice Age? No, Bad Journalism Run Amok

Jul. 20, 2015 by | Comments (26)
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A few weeks ago, the internet was abuzz with claims that scientists were predicting a “new Ice Age” around 2030. Many media outlets ran misleading pictures of people walking through frozen wastelands, and other wintry scenes. Naturally, the climate deniers immediately jumped on this as proof that global warming wasn’t going to happen, or that scientists can’t get their stories straight. My email and Facebook were flooded with questions from people asking me whether it was true, and what did it all mean?

This story is a classic case of bad journalism run amok. The original source was just a re-published press release of a talk not yet given by one solar scientist, Dr. Valentina Zharkova. She works on solar magnetism, but has absolutely no training in atmospheres or climate science. It is just an initial report of a new mathematical model for the magnetic field behavior of the sun. It is not a peer-reviewed study, nor is it even published yet, so it hasn’t had the slightest scientific scrutiny. Contrary to all the breathless reporting, it shows no actual data for how much solar radiation will be emerging in 2030—just that the magnetic activity of the sun would be different. Magnetic activity of the sun does not translate into a simple prediction of how much radiation reaches the earth. And nowhere in this unreviewed press release does the scientist make the actual claim that there will be a new ice age in 2030. That was entirely made up by the media which completely misinterpreted and misreported the minimal information in the study.

As “Bad Astronomer” and blogger Phil Plait says:

This has only a marginal effect on the Sun’s light/heat output. Also, if you listen to an interview with her on Radio New Zealand, you’ll hear some unusual claims, like the climates on other planets are changing due to the Sun—a red herring when it comes to climate change on Earth. She also admits at the end she doesn’t do atmospheric research, so the claim that lowered magnetic activity of the Sun can cause an ice age here on Earth is in my opinion shaky at best.

The only connection the study makes is that this type of solar activity was similar to that known from the well-studied “Maunder Minimum” that began in 1645. But that slight decrease in solar activity did not cause an ice age, but just added a bit to the cooling of the naturally-caused “Little Ice Age” which was only a few degrees of local cooling in the North Atlantic region (not a global cooling event). The Little Ice Age began well before the Maunder Minimum, and the current scientific consensus is that it was largely due to volcanic cooling, orbital variation, and oceanic/atmospheric feedback loops, with little or no effect from any slight difference in solar radiation. As a recent Nature Communications paper on this topic emphasized from the outset, “Any reduction in global mean near-surface temperature due to a future decline in solar activity is likely to be a small fraction of projected anthropogenic warming.”

Even if the study is correct and solar radiation would resemble the Maunder Minimum, its effect is minuscule compared to the orders-of-magnitude larger effect of greenhouse gases. As Phil Plait puts it:

Let me be very clear: no. I’ll repeat: NO. The overwhelming majority of scientists do not think this can happen. While changes in the Sun’s activity have a very marginal effect on global warming and/or cooling, human contributions to carbon dioxide in our atmosphere completely overwhelm the Sun’s influence. It’s like tapping on your brakes as your car plunges headlong into a brick wall at 100 kilometers per hour.

So any responsible journalist, confronted with an outrageous claim from an non-peer-reviewed abstract for a talk not yet even given would take a “wait and see” attitude on these claims—or contact reputable qualified scientists for a second opinion before running with their own spin on the story. But we no longer live in an age of responsible, informed science journalism. Instead, we have hack, tabloid journalism, where writers with no science qualifications spot a few words in an unpublished, unreviewed abstract, and fabricate a complete web of lies that bears no resemblance to anything the scientist really claimed, or anything that other scientists would agree with.

And that’s how rumors and lies about science and climate get spread far and wide…

Donald Prothero

Dr. Donald Prothero taught college geology and paleontology for 35 years, at Caltech, Columbia, and Occidental, Knox, Vassar, Glendale, Mt. San Antonio, and Pierce Colleges. He earned his B.A. in geology and biology (highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa, College Award) from University of California Riverside in 1976, and his M.A. (1978), M.Phil. (1979), and Ph.D. (1982) in geological sciences from Columbia University. He is the author of over 35 books. Read Donald’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

26 responses to “A New Ice Age? No, Bad Journalism Run Amok”

  1. Giacomo says:

    “Naturally, the climate deniers immediately jumped on this…” A skeptic is not a denier. Are atheists “God deniers”?

  2. Robert says:

    I don’t think anyone needs to worry about the Sun triggering an Ice Age when we are technically still in one(Polar caps and or glaciers on the planet). What most people think was our last Ice Age was actually a Glaciation Period.

  3. James says:

    Don’t put me in the denier category, but there is a theory (proposal?) that the melting ice in the northern latitudes could overwhelm the warmth of the Carribbean currents, leading to a cool Earth. Seems to me that the key indicator of warming would be the carbon (sink) saturation of the oceans. I never see any of the “deniers” stating that Summer heat waves show that there is warming; but Winter snows always do show there is not.

  4. N2liberty says:

    When I look at the data provided by those claiming global warming is due to human activity one glaring fact stands out warming precedes increases in atmospheric co2. Basic physics says for something to force something else it must occur first. I have never seen any logical explanation of why global warming does not follow this rule. I have heard this dismissed as unimportant but never explained. Until it is explained I will doubt that mans activities are primarily to blame for global warming.

  5. DanielWainfleet says:

    once again, everybody thinks they are climate scientists…. and of course the ones who have their results published in peer-reviewed journals are frauds, fools, and cultists….. how to be a scientist : read a few things, stare at the ceiling, and then deliver a diatribe of strong opinions… directed at comments #1,5,6.

  6. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    I know a number of scientists – climate scientists among them – who have taken great strides in reducing carbon footprints. A number of them have electric cars, many are fortunate enough to live within bicycling distance from their labs or universities. Plus, there are many other ways to reduce energy consumption and carbon footprint for those who do not have a realistic choice of giving up ICE vehicles.

    If you are interested in studying examples of humans making great sacrifices so their descendants may have a better life you might be interested in looking into the history of immigration (not just immigration to the United States – but the many other countries which have been the destinations for those looking for better opportunities for their families.) It is interesting to note that it usually takes considerable resources for a family to immigrate to a new country… the parents very often experience a drop in their standard of living. Of course, this is not always the case – but it has been the case often enough to merit attention.

    • MBG says:

      Point taken Bad Boy Scientist. I didn’t mean to sound totally pessimistic although that is pretty much my position, and of course I did hedge my position by saying we all might be wrong. We humans are not exempt from the mandates of evolution and we are subject to the same unforgiving forces that extinguished 99.9% of all Earths species. Nature unhesitatingly devours that which it creates and then does it again, and again. We are nature. As Goethe said: “The spectacle of nature is always new, for she is always renewing the spectators.”

  7. Travis Vinson says:

    So much information. That’s what I got. INFO. OVERLOAD! I’m gonna put my head in the sand and hope for the best…

  8. MBG says:

    Fascinating article with some very useful insights, some of which were in the comment section which runs the gamut from insightful to strangely confused with some boilerplate red-baiting thrown in for good measure. I thought mememine69 touched on the elephant in the room when he suggested that the real deniers are those that ignore the fact that we’ve “never even come close to achieving the targets science said we needed to save the planet 25 years ago.”

    For me this begs the question: what product of Earths evolution has ever voluntarily foregone advantage so future generations might gain some yet unknown benefit?

    Evolution has always worked on the principle of a body in motion remains so until acted on by a greater force and since I’ve yet to hear of any climate scientist turning off his lights and stop driving his car in hopes of a better future I think we are destined to play out this entire scenario as evolution always has. The price must be paid which I suspect will not be nearly as bad or as painless as most of us think – but of course we all might be wrong.

    • John Scanlon says:

      MBG: “I’ve yet to hear of any climate scientist turning off his lights and stop driving his car in hopes of a better future…” – Strawman much? People turn off lights when they don’t need them on, especially if the cost of keeping them on is perceived to be too high: not being able to see the stars is a huge cost, and so is pointlessly adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, so of course many people (not just scientists) act accordingly. There are millions of people who could afford to fly round the world for holidays or run a second car, but don’t for reasons including awareness of the huge waste (of money, resources and the biosphere) involved in doing those things. Turning a light off or not going on an unnecessary trip are not newsworthy; they’re just a matter of decency. Do you assume _everyone_ else is less decent than you?

  9. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    Dr Prothero makes some very very good points. I’d like to underscore two: the connection between the maunder minimum and the little ice age is tenuous at best – the fact that the little ice age started before the maunder minimum should make anyone skeptical of the connection.

    Also, Dr Zharkova’s work has not yet been peer reviewed and may not ‘pass muster’ (although now it would be hard for it to get an objective review) the prediction of solar cycles always has elements of ‘numerology’ and her implementation of two dynamos with cycles that ‘beat’ against each other smacks of this. Without good observational evidence to support the existence of both dynamos _with the purported periodicities_ this is pretty weak.

    Finally, I wish to point out one minor error of Dr Prothero and Dr Phil Plait: the variability of bolometric (total) solar irradiance is not the issue – it varies by a fraction of a percent from solar minimum to solar maximum. The issue is the variability of ionizing radiation from the Sun (mainly UV & Xray) which varies by orders of magnitude. During solar maximum flares and other magnetic phenomena release a lot of Xray & UV ebergy which is absorbed by various layers of our atmosphere (BTW: this is why terrestrial life is not eradicated every solar maximum). Although I am not an atmospheric scientist, I have heard them state that changing the amount of ionizing radiation absorbed by our atmosphere can affect things such as cloud formation and thus affect the climate. This has a small effect than the anthropogenic effects, but we should clear up as much confusion as possible.

  10. John Bales says:

    Donald, please stay out of politics and stick to fossils. You liberals think that changing from capitalism to Marxism will defund rich old men and make you richer but it will never happen so give it a rest.

  11. xxxxxxx says:

    The earth has so many climates that any talk of a single global climate is nonsense.

    Humans have so many inputs into the atmosphere that any talk of any single input being much more important than all the others put together is nonsense.

    BOTH sides in the climate change debate are wrong. There certainly ARE man-made changes in the long-term averages of weather going on, but it is not possible to tell how much of the changes are due to one factor and how much to others. And since nothing can be done about it in any case, it is not important. There are man-made climate changes underway,m but they cannot be halted by anything that realisticly can be done, so let’s relegate the whole topic to the realm of armchair after dinner talk and get on to other things that aqre more important in the public arena.

  12. Bill Thomas says:

    Just curious. How does a Climate Tax stop Global Warming? A Climate Tax just generates more revenue for the Government. The Government can then spend that money on anything it wants to. We know that the gax tax gets spent on other things than highways. The Social Security tax gets spent on other things than SS benefits. How can you trust the Government to use the Climate Tax to stop Global Warming? 80% of Americans do not trust the Government to do the right thing.

    • Randy Grein says:

      Pretty simple, Bill. The concept of a carbon tax is designed to charge for the unintended and uncompensated damage done to a common resource (air, or in this case, a stable climate). By making the cost of burning fossil fuels higher demand is reduced and people are more likely to save energy and turn to renewable resources when they can.

      As for the ‘80% do not trust the government’, where do you get this statistic and under what conditions? I suspect a bit of a disconnect with reality there, do 80% of us mistrust the fire department? How about septic inspectors? If we distrust our government so much why have we done nothing about it?

      Carbon taxes may not be the best, or only solution but they do make some sense, in that we have lived with cheap fossil energy for a very long time. Making it more expensive will reduce demand. Also, the consequences will be borne by governments – that is, all of us. It would be better if we charged appropriate fees for mining and drilling rights instead of giving them away, but that seems to not be on the table. We will simply have to be disciplined about how that money is used to mitigate the damage.

  13. Northern free thinker says:

    Book seems terrible. But that aside, global anthropogenic warming, with its variety of different impacts around the planet, considering massively increased snow fall in North American winters… could… lead to the next glacial beginning, or in other words, GLOBAL warming can lead to localised cooling, which in turn can lead to glaciation. Global warming is not constant across bioregions. Once snow stays on the ground longer, a new cycle of cooling begins. We NEED a cold cycle like crazy.
    So may the snow fall even more than in the previous years’ patterns in north and central North America, as well as Scandinavia and UK. Global anthropogenic warming may hold many localised surprises for us.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Did you even READ any of this post? What you wrote misses the point entirely! As I said, NOTHING in the original study indicates that there will be global cooling. The only possibility for it now would be if the freshwater from the melting Greenland ice sheet shuts down the global thermohaline circulation, and triggers a cooling event like the Younger Dryas–but that’s not what this post was about!

  14. Tim C says:

    Thanks for posting thoughts about this – very useful info…I’ll stop investing in down feather products

  15. mememine69 says:

    How do call yourselves skeptics” and still DENY the last 34 years of climate action failure and global disbelief and we never even came close to achieving the targets science said we needed to save the planet 25 years ago.
    Only unstoppable denial and climate action failure is certain for another 34 years.
    Deny that.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Indeed! that’s why we don’t call climate deniers “skeptics”. They refuse to look at evidence. A true skeptic withholds judgment until the evidence is in, but if the evidence demands it, they accept the reality.

      • Mark Scurry says:

        In my view (which could be wrong), the disconnect between the reality, and denier-purchased and media-driven doubt simply comes down to one thing; money. I’d be very surprised if you found a climate denier who wasn’t directly funded by the fossil fuel industry, or at least made money off them in some way. The mental gyrations they go to all have the same end result – “we must not stop using coal or oil”.

        I’ll be honest, it’s extremely tempting at times to invoke an inner George Carlin and just have pure contempt for our species. Hopefully the next and soon to be current generation can be a lot more educated, enlightened and conscientious.

        • Canman says:

          From Matt Ridley’s Angus Millar Lecture:

          By contrast scientists and most mainstream journalists risk their careers if they take a skeptical line, so dogmatic is the consensus view. It is left to the blogosphere to keep the flame of heresy alive and do the investigative reporting the media has forgotten how to do. In America*, Anthony Watts who crowd-sourced the errors in the siting of thermometers and runs;

          In Canada*, Steve McIntyre, the mathematician who bit by bit exposed the shocking story of the hockey stick and runs

          Here in Britain,* Andrew Montford, who dissected the shenanigans behind the climategate whitewash enquiries and runs

          In Australia*, Joanne Nova, the former television science presenter who has pieced together the enormous sums of money that go to support vested interests in alarm, and runs

          The remarkable thing about the heretics I have mentioned is that every single one is doing this in his or her spare time. They work for themselves, they earn a pittance from this work. There is no great fossil-fuel slush fund for sceptics.

        • JW says:

          Interestingly enough, each of the people mentioned seem to have an entry on DeSmogBlog and/or RationalWiki detailing things such as speaking engagements with the Heartland Institute, funding for websites, services rendered for the GWPF, and so on. Hard to say what the total net figure is, though, although at least some of the activities mentioned do appear to have dollar values attached to them.

          In no particular order:

          Joanne Nova

          Andrew Montford

          Anthony Watts

          Matt Ridley

          Steven McIntyre

        • Canman says:

          Nobody planned for or groomed these people to become leading advocates. They got where they are through their own interest, passion and sense of mission. When people reach their level, they have value as speakers at events or associates in organizations. It’s also true for people on the other side, such as Bill McKibben and Naomi Oreskes.

          On climate, Rational Wiki looks like a place for frustrated activists to make childish rants.

        • JW says:

          Basically, you couldn’t come up with a valid argument against anything on RationalWiki, so you resorted to calling it childish? Okay, then.

          Speaking of childishness, did you hear about Anthony Watt’s recent absurd attempt to fabricate some fake controversy about “identity theft” going on in the (private) SkS forums? The guy needs to read a dictionary, at the minimum.

          “Some of you might have seen an article at WUWT earlier today (archived here) in which Anthony Watts accuses John Cook, of Skeptical Science, of identity theft. Which is ironic, since Anthony himself relies on the theft of private conversations in material stolen from a hacked private forum to support his fanciful claim.”

          I’ll re-quote John Cook’s statement on the subject. He summarizes the matter fairly well, although you always can read more about Motl and his penchant for wishing people dead in the HotWhopper article.

          A number of peer-reviewed studies have observed a link between climate science denial and conspiratorial thinking. The most prominent examples are the conspiracy theories extrapolated from quote-mined excerpts of stolen private correspondance of climate scientists, in the episode known as climategate. A similar conspiratorial episode spun from quote-mined stolen private correspondance was published by Lubos Motl this week, and has been uncritically propagated by other online commenters.

          The stolen private correspondance from 2011 involved Skeptical Science team members developing comment threads (both supporting and rejecting climate science) for use in a psychology experiment. In the private forum (only), I posted a few comments under the pseudonym Lubos_Motl (to signify that the comments were taking a contrarian stance). The username was changed to an anonymous name for the experiment. In other words, it was not used in the experiment and was never used outside of the private Skeptical Science forum.

          Consequently, Motl’s accusations of identity theft are demonstrably false. Further, I find it extraordinary that Motl publicly posts comments about me being hanged, and allows public comments on his blog that approve of torturing and murdering me. I find it equally extraordinary that such misleading and venomous posts are uncritically endorsed by third parties such as Richard Tol, Anthony Watts and Roger Pielke Jr.

          Not sure why you would put much stock in what’s written on WUWT, Canman. They seem prone to this sort of thing.

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