Study Halves Prediction of Rising Seas

You have got to be kidding me. Just for the record, the study doesn’t actually alter the “prediction of rising seas” in your lifetime — or your grandchildren’s lifetimes — one inch.

More accurate would be Reuters, “West Antarctic ice threat revised down; still dire.“  It’s a good headline because it is specific and focuses on what matters to readers.

Time’s headline — Sea Level Rise Overestimated, But Things Still Look Grim — is not as good as Reuter’s because it drops the specificity about Antarctica (and thus creates ambiguity), but it is better than the NYT’s, since it again focuses on the bottom line to readers.

This study is not about a projection of “sea level rise” or “rising seas” as most people understand those terms and as those terms have been widely used, which is to say, a projection of sea level rise in a time frame people care about — namely the rest of this century.  More important, most ever recent study that does make such projections has sharply increased expected SLR this century compared to the 2007 IPCC “consensus” forecast, as I discuss below.

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Let’s simply assert that what my father taught me — and what legions of editors know — is true:  A large fraction of people never get beyond the headline.  And even fewer get past the first paragraph.

[Please someone tell me that the print edition of the NYT has a better headline.]

Now if you read the Reuters lede, you’d learn something:

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A meltdown of West Antarctica’s ice sheet would raise sea levels by half as much as previously expected, but the impact would still be catastrophic, especially for U.S. coastal cities, a study showed.

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Here’s what you “learn” from Revkin’s lede:

A new analysis halves longstanding projections of how much sea levels could rise if Antarctica’s massive western ice sheets fully disintegrated as a result of global warming.

Given the terrible headline, it’s just not acceptable to have to wait to the second paragraph to learn:

The flow of ice into the sea would probably raise sea levels about 10 feet rather than 20 feet, according to the analysis, published in the May 15 issue of the journal Science.

Frankly, this whole study is so irrelevant to anyone living today or their grandchildren that I wasn’t even going to blog on it.

Buried in the story, Revkin finally tells you what actually matters most of all:

It [the study] did not assess the pace or the likelihood of a rise in seas.

Doh!  Talk about burying the lede.

The headline for Revkin’s blog is much better, “A New View of Antarctic Melting,” but not terribly sexy.

Although you wouldn’t know it from Revkin’s story, we actually have a lot of recent (i.e. post-IPCC) studies that did “assess the pace or the likelihood of a rise in seas”:

The reason the misleading NYT headline is so journalistically bad is that the real news story of the past two years justifies a headline like this:

Multiple studies more than double prediction of rising seas this century

Just for the record, in that first study, “Kinematic Constraints on Glacier Contributions to 21st-Century Sea-Level Rise” — which may be the most thorough recent projection (though it is also an underestimate, as I’ll blog later) — in the catastrophic case of 2.0 meters SLR by 2100, only 0.62 meters of sea level rise comes from all of Antarctica!

That’s right,  utterly catastrophic sea level rise could occur this century — indeed almost certainly will on our business as usual emissions path — with exceedingly little contribution from Antarctica.  So what the frig does it matter whether the disintegration of just the West Antarctic ice sheet might only raise sea levels 10 feet, as opposed to 20?

The entire study is barely news — if by news we are talking amount stuff that might matter to anybody living (or their grandchildren). But then to turn it into a major news story in the paper of record with a grossly distorted headline that will mislead the many readers who go no further or who stop at the first paragraph is just shameful.  I mean, it’s not like the NYT is overflowing with stories day after day on climate.  Global warming coverage in any major newspaper is a scarce commodity.

Oh, and if you read the whole Revkin story, you’ll learn this:

Robert Bindschadler, a specialist in polar ice at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said the study provided only a low estimate of Antarctica’s possible long-term contribution to rising seas because it did not deal with other mechanisms that could add water to the ocean.

So the study might be wrong, anyway.

And finally, the most important points of all are left to the very end:

The prime question, he said, remains what will happen in the next 100 years or so, and other recent work implies that a lot of ice can be shed within that time.

“Even in Bamber’s world,” he said, referring to the study’s lead author, “there is more than enough ice to cause serious harm to the world’s coastlines.”

For those who are truly interested in this mostly irrelevant study, here is the link to it, “Reassessment of the Potential Sea-Level Rise from a Collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet” (subs. req’d), and here’s the abstract:

Theory has suggested that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet may be inherently unstable. Recent observations lend weight to this hypothesis. We reassess the potential contribution to eustatic and regional sea level from a rapid collapse of the ice sheet and find that previous assessments have substantially overestimated its likely primary contribution. We obtain a value for the global, eustatic sea-level rise contribution of about 3.3 meters, with important regional variations. The maximum increase is concentrated along the Pacific and Atlantic seaboard of the United States, where the value is about 25% greater than the global mean, even for the case of a partial collapse.

My main goal in this blog is to save you time by focusing on what is important to know about climate science (and climate solutions and politics).  This study wasn’t.  The miscoverage is the only story here.