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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 07/20/2009

University Release Misleads Media on Climate

By Andrew Freedman

* Moisture Moves Back Into Town: Full Forecast | NatCast *

"Global warming: our best guess is likely wrong," declared the headline of a press release from Rice University in Texas last week. The release, concerning a study on an abrupt climate event that occurred about 55.5 million years ago, stated further, "Unknown processes account for much of warming in ancient hot spell."

The attention-grabbing headline strongly implied that the consensus view of climate scientists -- that increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are the main culprit for the planet's warming trend -- is wrong. In fact, the study says no such thing. Rather, it reaches opposite and narrower conclusions: that greenhouse-gas emissions could lead to other climate feedbacks that may warm the climate more significantly than previously thought.

Not surprisingly, the press release led to numerous misinterpretations of the study by climate change skeptics and the mainstream media alike. Overall, the episode offers a case study of how not to publicize a climate change study.

Keep reading for more on the misleading nature of Rice University's press release...

First, let's consider what the study in question actually found.

The PETM - not your typical heat wave

The study -- appearing in the journal Nature Geoscience and by researchers from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the University of California at Santa Cruz and Rice University -- examined the mechanisms behind the so-called "Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum," also known as the "PETM." The PETM was an approximately 10,000-year period of rapid and significant warming, during which the climate warmed by up to 13 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sediment cores, similar to the one pictured here, contain information about ancient climate. Courtesy NASA.

The authors of the study used records of ancient climate contained in ocean sediment cores, as well as a computer model of the carbon cycle to determine how much of the ancient warming may have been caused by increased amounts of carbon dioxide, which is the main greenhouse gas scientists are concerned with today, and how much was due to other, largely unknown factors.

What they found was surprising: increases in carbon dioxide alone could only have caused less than half of the ancient warming that is thought to have taken place during the PETM, a conclusion which the researchers called "an enigma." This could mean that other positive climate feedbacks kicked in to further boost temperatures. "The origin of the additional warming is unknown at present," the study states.

The authors speculated, as other researchers have before them, that the increase in carbon dioxide levels and related warming temperatures set in motion other warming mechanisms in the climate system. Methane, a more potent but less abundant greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, is the chief suspect in this hypothesis. Large amounts of methane are stored in solid deposits in the deep ocean as well as in Arctic permafrost.

As David J. Beerling of the University of Sheffield in the U.K. wrote in a commentary accompanying the study, "The upshot of the study... is that forecasts of future warming could be severely underestimating the extent of the problem that lies in store for humanity as greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere."

The study itself concluded, "... our results imply a fundamental gap in our understanding of the amplitude of global warming associated with large and abrupt climate perturbations," and that "this gap needs to be filled to confidently predict future climate change."

The involvement of unknown positive feedbacks during ancient times and their potential role in modern warming was absent from Rice University's press release and several related media reports. Instead, the stories focused on the notion that climate models don't accurately represent the links between carbon dioxide and warming temperatures. This angle, which is not supported by the study itself, played right into the hands of climate change skeptics.

Skeptics, media get spun

Marc Morano of the climate skeptic site characterized the study with a blaring headline: "Study shakes foundation of climate theory! Reveals UN models 'fundamentally wrong' - Blames 'Unknown Processes' -- not CO2 for ancient global warming." Apparently, Morano read only the press release and not the study and its related commentary. He quoted Rice's release about seven times in his story.

USA Today also ran a story that was a regurgitation of the press release, and failed to note the study's implication that future warming could be worse than currently projected because other climate feedbacks, which are not yet well understood, could kick in. USA Today weather editor Doyle Rice wrote, "Could the best climate models -- the ones used to predict global warming -- all be wrong? Maybe so, says a new study published online today in the journal Nature Geoscience."

Reuters, however, provided a more complete account of the study and its implications, quoting co-author Richard Zeebe of the University of Hawaii as saying, "If this additional warming which we do not really understand, was caused as a response to the CO2 warming, then there is a chance that also a future warming could be more intense than people anticipate right now." Zeebe stated that human emissions of carbon dioxide could exceed the swift pace of the PETM event.

The nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists published a short analysis on its Web site to counter what it saw as misinformation spread by the press release, skeptic Web sites and the media. The study "provides evidence that current climate models are underestimating the amount of warming that an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide can cause. In other words, the potential consequences of global warming are likely worse than what scientists are predicting," UCS stated.

It is doubtful that Rice purposely intended for the media to miss a key implication of the study's results, and for the study to be featured on climate skeptic Web sites as evidence of why climate change fears are unfounded. Nevertheless, the release wound up doing a disservice to the university's own researcher, whose quotes in the media clearly indicated that the study showed more reason for concern about a changing climate, not less.

By Andrew Freedman  | July 20, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman, News & Notes  
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Quite possibly, a good-sized COMET smacked into the Earth just before the PETM, loading the upper atmosphere with water vapor and causing the huge rise in temperatures. The noctilucent cloud displays must have been truly awesome!

A while ago I posted that the Tunguska Event of 1908 was likely to have been due to a chunk of what might have been part of Encke's comet slamming into our atmosphere over Siberia. Water vapor at high atmospheric levels is a more efficient greenhouse gas than all others combined, and comet impacts [as well as space shuttle takeoffs!] put water into the right layer of the atmosphere. A number of climate records show that the current global warming event began in 1908.[Source: Science Daily]

Posted by: Bombo47jea | July 20, 2009 12:38 PM | Report abuse

Joe Romm at ClimateProgress had a post on this on July 17, which went after climate change "deniers" for misrepresenting the study.

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | July 20, 2009 12:46 PM | Report abuse

The increase in carbon at the PETM may also have been due to a cometary impact!

Back in 1910, spectroscopic analysis indicated the presence of cyanogen [C2N2] in the tail of then-approaching Comet Halley. Since the Earth was projected to pass directly through the comet's tail, this created a huge scare during which it was said that all life on Earth would be extinguished.

In reality the tail of the comet was so diffuse that we passed easily through the tail with no ill effects whatsoever. No one on earth died of cyanide poisoning, though several million died in the next ten years from the combined effects of the Great War [World War I] and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19.

Again, the carbon spike associated with the PETM was no doubt a combination of carbon from the impacting comet augmented by carbon added to the atmosphere by conflagrations in the wake of the cometary impact. Since comets are chiefly aggregations of water, carbon dioxide, and organic-compound [e.g. cyanogen] ices, with a good dose of "stardust" thrown in for good measure, they tend to explode in the upper atmosphere without leaving a massive impact crater on the Earth's surface, unlike asteroids or "space rocks", which DO leave impact craters. It's possible that much of the water in our present oceans was added by cometary impacts over the ages, with some coming from the interior of the Earth due to volcanic eruptions.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | July 20, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Question: Is there any historical data to suggest our cooler than normal (yet so beautiful) summer might lead to a colder winter for the D.C. area? Thoughts?

Posted by: gbferrara | July 20, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

There's not even a very good correlation between fall and winter.

Posted by: CapitalClimate | July 20, 2009 3:26 PM | Report abuse

Or even December vs. January, for that matter.

Posted by: CapitalClimate | July 20, 2009 3:48 PM | Report abuse

There is a difference, though, between those who deny climate change at all, and those who accept the idea that climate can change over time but that is is not necessarily due to "greenhouse" warming by human activity. Climate change, in one form or another, has been going on since the earth's creation. Climate change is real; human control over it is simply a myth that has not, and cannot, be proven.
There are far more powerful and important things that affect climate change than simply the amount of CO2 that human activity can produce. To think that we, as humans, can actually change the earth's climate on a large scale is not only a delusion, but an insult to our own (and Divine) intelligence. Of course, small-scale changes ARE possible, as witness the Urban Heat Island effects in and around large cities.

Posted by: MMCarhelp | July 20, 2009 5:42 PM | Report abuse

MMCarhelp: It's interesting that you bring up the Urban Heat Island effect as an example of a small-scale human influence on climate. On a conceptual level, man made climate change is the urban heat island effect writ large. They both involve human activities that prevent heat from radiating back into space. Of course, the details are different, but I find it interesting that you accept that humans influence local climate but reject that larger scale effects are possible too. Why is that?

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | July 20, 2009 10:15 PM | Report abuse

If, God forbid, the human species was wiped out tomorrow, what would the temperature of the Earth be in the year 2100? Will it be less than today? If not, why not?

Mr. Andrew Freedman wrote, "... headline strongly implied that the consensus view of climate scientists -- that increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are the main culprit for the planet's warming trend -- ...". Can you prove that is the consensus? If not, why do you continue to assert that it is?

From my cheap seat in the audience, the consensus appears to be against AGW. It fascinates and amuses me how a columnist can make any assertion that he or she wishes without being required to provide any sort of proof of the validity of said statement. Can you prove that your assertion is true? Do you care?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | July 21, 2009 12:41 AM | Report abuse

I have given you the benefit of the doubt for a very long time. You continue to assert that the "consensus" among scientists is that man is responsible for "global warming". I have repeatedly challenged you on that assertion. You have failed to prove that your assertion is true, and yet you continue to assert it.

Are you concerned that your credibility will take a hit when you continue to assert something without proving its validity when its validity has been called into question?

From my cheap seat, your continued unproven assertion comes across as more zealot than serious, thoughtful columnist. Are you concerned at all that you come across as a zealot?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | July 21, 2009 1:03 AM | Report abuse

The point of the research report headline is that our climate models can't be depended upon to accurately predict climate changes. So if we base our actions on the long-term predictions of these models, we're likely to be disappointed.

Posted by: gballey | July 21, 2009 9:17 AM | Report abuse

Mr Q.: PEW/AAAS poll: 84% of scientists agree that earth is warming because of human activity. EOS paper: 82% of U.S. Earth scientists, significantly higher among climatologists. The G8+5 National Academies statement was pretty strong, as has been the statements from most relevant scientific societies.

When 6% of people believe that we never landed on the moon, getting >80% (>90% from people working in the field, almost 100% of official scientific society statements) agreement on a complex topic is about as "consensus" as you're going to get. And trust me, if you go to an AGU, ACS, or active scientific society meeting, agreement is pretty widespread.

Posted by: marcusmarcus | July 21, 2009 11:46 AM | Report abuse

Gballey: That's an assertion that I think most climate scientists would agree with in the sense that climate models are not designed to make specific predictions of climate conditions for a specific location at a particular point in time. They are not the same as weather prediction models.

However, I don't think most climate scientists would agree that climate models fail to capture the general trends in climate both in the historical record and into the future. In short, it depends on your definition of "prediction" as well as "climate changes." Are you trying to find out what the average high temperature in D.C. will be like in 2100? Or are you trying to ascertain a range of temperature and precipitation changes that are likely to occur by that point in time, depending on emissions trends and other factors?

Furthermore, the study described in the Rice University press release did not find that computer models fail to predict climate change. If that had been the case, then the press release headline and the media stories that followed would have been accurate. Instead, the researchers found that according to a model of the carbon cycle (which is different from the models scientists are using to project climate conditions for the next century and beyond), carbon dioxide could only have been responsible for a small portion of the warming that was likely to have occurred about 55.5 million years ago.

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | July 21, 2009 12:06 PM | Report abuse

Andrew: To answer your question, with the Urban Heat Island effect, it is not a CO2 build-up that keeps the city warm, but concete and asphalt, which absorbs sunlight more than open ground or water does. That, as I illustrated, is climate change on a very small scale. But, the entire planet is not covered in concrete and asphalt, and is not heating up because of the spread of cities OR human activities. Cities only affect climate in a very local, not global, basis. Mankind, at today's level of activity/technology, despite the rantings of Al Gore and other doomsday-alarmists, is simply not capable of altering world climate, short of maybe a worldwide nuclear war and fallout. In fact, one large volcano eruption has FAR more effect than all of the CO2 emitted throughtout history.

Posted by: MMCarhelp | July 22, 2009 5:56 PM | Report abuse

I came across a story today in a Hawaiian newspaper, which quotes Richard Zeebe (who works at U. Hawaii), who was an author of this paper, as saying: "We're not saying carbon dioxide is not important," he emphasized. "It is very important. Current and future warming is almost entirely due to carbon emissions. There is no doubt about this."

I found this interesting, considering the press release and related stories that questioned CO2's role.

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | July 27, 2009 4:48 PM | Report abuse

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