Chris Mooney's Chartsmanship in the Service of Alarmism

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

I came across this beautiful example of chartsmanship today in a Chris Mooney post of raw, pure, visceral alarmism, it’s a gem. It’s from the Mother Jones website and comes with the lovely headline “Humans Have Already Set in Motion 69 Feet of Sea Level Rise”. I do love the claims that something is “set in motion”, it’s scientific cowardice to make that claim, it’s totally impossible to falsify. I could claim that Vladimir Putin has “already set in motion” the next financial meltdown … could you falsify my claim? In any case, Mooney’s post shows the terribly worrying loss of ice from Greenland, from a study by Jason Box

Jason Box ChartFigure 1. Cumulative loss of ice area in Greenland. As you can see, Greenland is toast … it’s losing well over a hundred square kilometres of ice per year, and the chart shows it heading to the cellar, looks like a total meltdown coming up.

So … what actually is happening with Greenland? To figure that out, we need another chart, the real chart—the chart of the post 2000 ice loss, and what might happen over say the next century if it continues losing over a hundred cubic kilometres of ice per year.

To do that, we have to start by finding out the area of the ice sheet that covers Greenland. As usual, there are various estimates. The Physics Hypertextbook is great for this kind of thing because it gives a variety of estimates from various authors. They range from a low end of 1.7 million square kilometres to a high of 2.2 million square km. I’ll take an average of 1.9 million square km.

So … here is the effect on the Greenland ice cap that a continued loss of -131.5 km2 per year every year until 2100 would have:

effect of massive ice loss on greenland

Figure 2. Effect of -131.5 km2/yr ice loss on the ≈ two million square kilometres of the Greenland ice cap.

Pretty scary, huh? By the year 2100, if it continues losing ice at the rate Jason Box claims above, -131.5 km2 per year, the total ice area of Greenland will have gone from 1.90 million square km all the way down to … well, to two decimals of accuracy, by the year 2100 the ice will be down to 1.90 million square kilometres …

Gotta love those charts … in any case, let us consider the headline, “Humans Have Already Set in Motion 69 Feet of Sea Level Rise”. I suppose it is true IF we are the cause and IF the decline continues, both of which seem doubtful. Assuming all that were true, at the current rate of -131.5 km2 of ice loss per year, Greenland will be ice-free fairly soon, in only … well … 1,900,000 km2 ice area / 131.5 km2 per year annual loss ≈ 14,500 years from now …

Rats … I guess it’s a bit early to be looking for a nice piece of land for my Greenland vineyard …

w.

[UPDATE] Well, it is inevitably true that what I think is clear actually isn’t … no surprise there. From the comments:

Kasuha says:

February 7, 2013 at 8:28 am

Um, you know… “Greenland marine-terminating glacier area changes” and “cumulative loss of ice area in Greenland” are two a bit different things. Or rather, very different things.

Maybe you should take one more look at what exactly are you doing here.

I completely agree with the conclusion that the alarmism is unsubstantiated in this case. But the way you used to get there is not valid.

I agree with you, Kasuha, that “Greenland marine-terminating glacier area changes” and “cumulative loss of ice area in Greenland” are two very different things. That’s the problem. Mooney is using a chart of the changes in the area of the discharge of the Greenland ice into the ocean as the screaming visual for a claim that we’ve set in motion a 69 foot sea level rise … and the two have absolutely nothing to do with each other.

I didn’t know how to best discuss that kind of lunacy, so I took the path of saying well, suppose Boxes’ results were correct and it actually made a difference regarding the ice area, what difference would it make? I was not attempting to model the entire ice loss of Greenland, as I’ve been through that question in some detail already …

Perhaps there are better ways to get the point across, as you point out … that’s the one I picked.

Thanks,

w.

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John W. Garrett

Thank you, w.
The great CAGW scare has made me a firm believer that the world can be divided into two types of individuals: the numerate and the innumerate.

Ah, you’re forgetting Hansen’s boiling oceans, which happens when his alarmist personality is in charge, as opposed to his conservative personality which estimates a climate sensitivity around 2.5.

Tom Stone

But, but, but, 131 sq km is 1.5 Manhattan islands! (Greenland is 24,898 Manhattan islands)

You’re accepting the premise of ice AREA as the relevant metric. The remaining ice area may well be getting thicker and/or denser, producing an INCREASE in ice MASS.

James Caffey

I see the Willis BS detector is on full power as usual. You always manage to distill alarmist crap into something we can all savour. Love your work.

Peter Laux

In 1942 a USAF P-38 crash landed on the Greeland Ice Sheet.
They dug her up 50 years later under 268 feet of ice.
So much for Greenlands ice melt.
To look it up, just type in “Glacier Girl” on your search engine.

Richard111

Rats squared. My home is 17 metres above sea level so will be some time before I can advertise the property as sea front location.

hans rast

Chart annotation “total ice AREA” but cubic km in the y axis. Must be a typo,should be km2.
[Thanks, fixed. -w.]

Buy early, sell high!

Pamela Gray

If sea level rises, we could very well see a rebound in abundant life return to estuaries. We could also see more precipitation, bringing rivers back to levels they once were. Notice the words “return” and “once were”.

I don’t understand the labeling on the y axis of figure 2. Isn’t km “3” a volume measurement rahter than a square? Should this really be a “2”?

There seems to be a mixture of squared – area, and cubed – volume, in your write up Willis ?

Marc

In the first video on the MJ article there is an extra caption on Box’s chart that it is the area loss of the 40 widest glaciers in Greenland, not the total area loss. But I don’t know how they came up with the 69 ft estimate or over just what time frame. I would rate the Mooney’s JM article as vague and unconvincing, but not self contradictory. The music is scary however.

wte9

Isn’t the real question how much ice loss will cause sixty-nine feet of sea level rise? The post illustrates the absurdity of this type of alarmism—especially the idea that Greenland’s ice is vanishing—but I don’t know if it’s entirely on point.

Edwin Crockford

Haven’t read many alarmist blogs before as the first few I looked at seemed light on detail and heavy on ranting, so no surprise there. Just by way of an experiment I went and and read this post. Just as expected little detail but a lot of alarm. However the comments posted were even more revealing of the alarmist mindset. Same old clinging to the much treasured idea that everything that has ever happened in the world is bad and the fault of mankind and certainly no attempt to actual look beneath the half truths and unbelieveable extrapolations peddled in the post. Anyone saying otherwise quite obviously in the pay of someone extremely rich (most of who I have little knowledge of). I even hear that the East Coast is about to be wiped off the face of the earth by a another super storm. (Didn’t believe that either.)
If this is the standard of knoweledge and debate on alarmist sites I can see why they are failing to make their case. Long may it last and we can get back to sanity and some questioning science.

Crispin in Waterloo

@John W. Garrett
>The great CAGW scare has made me a firm believer that the world can be divided into two types of individuals: the numerate and the innumerate.
I heard it differently from an inverate alarmist buddy of mine:
“When it comes to the impending doom caused by man’s foolish burning of fossil fuels, the world can be divided are three kinds of people: those who can calculate our impact from the real data and those who can’t even count.”
/sarc

jorgekafkazar

Looks like Moon-Man has been reading Huff’s “How to Lie with Statistics.” Classic.

I love that word, “chartmanship.” I’m totally stealing that.

Gary

Not Putin, but the Federal Reserve and the Executive/Legislative/Judicial branches that have set in motion the next financial meltdown … but that’s a rant for another blog.

Thanks, Willis. I enjoyed that.

Willis, great stuff. Thanks!

john robertson

Cue up Tiny Tim, somehow, that “performance art”, fits right in with the cause.
Mooney probably obsesses over the incoming tide, at this rate of rise, we will all be drown by Tuesday.
Whats a sane retort? Water wet?
Some times I think a sign with an arrow pointing down and a message of, This Way Up, sums up the virtual wisdom of the easily alarmed.

chris y

Willis, great post.
Several years ago I pointed out at Dot Earth that the mass ice loss in Greenland was a few parts per million per year. Revkin commented that this was an interesting way to look at the ice loss. Apparently even the best-of-the-best environmental reporters at the Newspaper-of-Record had not considered just how small the annual losses were, let alone the error bars associated with the reported losses.
Regarding the propagandists like Mooney, Romm, McKibben, algore, I think a line from the movie The President is apt-
“People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.”
This is yet another reason why WUWT continues to be such a vital source of information for the general public, bobbing along in an ocean of internet noise.

Nerd

The comments on MJ are pretty silly…

Jason Box’s paper on the Greenland Ice Sheet is easy to find at http://www.arctic.noaa.gov/reportcard/greenland_ice_sheet.html
The chart shown above is “Fig. 5.20. Cumulative net annual area change at the 40 widest marine-terminating glaciers of the Greenland”
More interesting is the previous graph “Fig. 5.19. Monthly smoothed (purple) and unsmoothed (blue) values of the total mass (in Gigatons, Gt), of the Greenland ice sheet from GRACE March 2002-September 2012.”
This chart shows an estimated annual ice loss of 367 Gigatons per year at present and a cumulative loss of over 2750 Gt since 2002, contributing an estimated 8.0 mm to globally-averaged sea level rise since 2002.

>In 1942 a USAF P-38 crash landed on the Greeland Ice Sheet.
They dug her up 50 years later under 268 feet of ice.
So much for Greenlands ice melt.
To look it up, just type in “Glacier Girl” on your search engine.
————————-
Not only that. In the 1990’s they left some equipment on the ice and came back a few yrs later and had to dig down through 20 ft of new ice to retrieve it.

lurker, passing through laughing

Mooney, Lewandowsky, Gleick, and the other quakademics are best represented by this worthy AGW spokesman:

Mark Hladik

Shades of the “low-information voter”.
Mark H.

RHS

Am I mistaken or is he confusing surface area with volume?

Dan Evans

This reminded me of Mark Twain’s observations on the Mississippi delta:
In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
– Life on the Mississippi

Gary Hladik

Thanks for starting my day with a smile, Willis.

Willis posted:
> Rats … I guess it’s a bit early to be looking for a nice piece of land for my Greenland vineyard
Oh no, go right ahead. you ought to be able to get a a great deal on some newly exposed land today, and then you can add some 100km^2 each year for 14,000 years. Dare to be Great! And if it gets cold again, switch to Ice Wine. 🙂

MarkW

Peter Laux says:
February 7, 2013 at 7:02 am

If you believe that the fact that “Glacier Girl” was found under 268 feet of ice means that the glaciers are 268 feet higher than they were 50 years ago, then you need to study up on how glaciers work. To grossly simplify it, snow falls at the top of the glacier. As more snow falls, it the weight compresses it to ice. As more snow falls, the weight forces the ice to start flowing downhill. Every bit of ice at the bottom of the glacier was, at one point in time, higher up in the glacier, some of it at the top.

MarkW

Hasn’t the rise in sea levels been slowing recently?

Kasuha

Um, you know… “Greenland marine-terminating glacier area changes” and “cumulative loss of ice area in Greenland” are two a bit different things. Or rather, very different things.
Maybe you should take one more look at what exactly are you doing here.
I completely agree with the conclusion that the alarmism is unsubstantiated in this case. But the way you used to get there is not valid.

Thanks, Willis.
It seems like Greenland is not going green!

tommoriarty

Anytime you see “X cubic kilometers of ice melting” and allusions to sea level rise, please keep the following in mind…
Conversion factors for ice and water mass and volume:
http://climatesanity.wordpress.com/conversion-factors-for-ice-and-water-mass-and-volume/
For example: 1 cubic kilometer of water added to the oceans raises them by about 2.8 microns.

b. johnston

Good article. BTW, may I quote you on the “Putin has already set in motion the next financial meltdown”.
I think I see an opportunity here.

NoAstronomer

@wte9 “Isn’t the real question how much ice loss will cause sixty-nine feet of sea level rise?”
According to wikipedia if the *entire* Greenland ice sheet melted the rise would be ~24 feet. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenland_ice_sheet].
Mike.

Wanda Light

The idea that humans are cause of everything (especially perceived “bad things”) is so egotistical.

The chart from Box is actually marine terminating glacial area.
So, it looks as though Box is calculating the change in area of those glaciers that terminate in the water. You know, places where ice melts and adds to sea level.
Willis, is looking at the total area. So you have a classic apples and tire irons comparison.
So, one guy is looking at the periphery of the ice and noting the loss of ice area. That relates to rising sea levels. Smaller area than the whole of Greenland. And the other guy is looking at the total area of greenland. Apples and Tire irons.
I suppose one should go back to Box’s article and actually check his data and methods before saying much more. On the surface it looks like folks are talking about two different things

John

“Figure 1. Cumulative loss of ice area in Greenland.”
That figure says it’s the area change of the marine terminating glaciers. So for your chart to make any sense you’d either need to find a source of the actual cumulative loss of ice area in Greenland or only consider the area of the marine terminating glaciers.

(Source: IPCC 2001 WG1, via Wikipedia)
The total area of Greenland is 2,166,086 km2 (836,330 sq mi) (including other offshore minor islands), of which the Greenland ice sheet covers [in area] 1,755,637 km2 (677,855 sq mi) (81%) and has a volume of approximately 2,850,000 km3 (680,000 cu mi). [38 IPCC]

DrDag

2000km3 of melted ice (2000-2012) into 3,6*10e8km2 ocean gives 0,005mm(!) sealevel rise (0,0002inch) or 0,0004mm/year or 0,04mm/century.
Now, I’m worried (NOT 🙂

Evolving Mooney
2007 :The broad point Yoffe is trying to make is that we shouldn’t be “terrified” all the time about global warming — and that those who are trying to terrify us (Gore, allegedly) are probably shooting themselves in the foot.
As a general statement, there’s some truth to this. I myself have been making this argument, along with a colleague, in a public talk on science communication that (among other things) tries to dissuade environmentalists from framing global warming as a “Pandora’s box” all the time.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-mooney/if-attacking-al-gore-was-_b_53747.html

Jenn Oates

I guess the Vikings better cancel the caterer for their resettlement party, alas!

Curious George

Just a chartmanship technicality .. in Figure 2, the vertical axis should be in units of km2, not km3.

John West

“Greenland will be ice-free fairly soon, in only … well … 1,900,000 km2 ice area / 131.5 km2 per year annual loss ≈14,500 years from now”
Assuming we’re not well into a Grim Global Glaciation (GGG) by then.

BillD

You’re right that the current rate ice melt is low, but Mooney’s graph certainly shows a strong trend. One would expect that the rate of melt will increase as the temperature increases. So, the idea that a linear rate of ice loss can be extrapolated ove many decades seems highly unlikely. What will happen if the warming continues?
Crispin and John above. The really surprising conclusion that we can draw from your comment is that scientists, especially those who publish their results in peer-reviewed journals, seem to be exceptionally innumerate.
For my part, I will expect that blog posts will often be misleading, whether for or against climate change, while journal articles will provide the best visual and verbal presentation of data.

Just for “fun”, what would the graph look like is one “assumed” a doubling of the ice loss every 10 years?