Thursday, July 30, 2015

James Taylor gets polar ice wrong—as usual

James Taylor of the Heartland Institute had a piece on Forbes back in May that escaped my attention when it first came out.  Titled "Updated NASA Data: Global Warming Not Causing Any Polar Ice Retreat", it focused on the single premise that since 2012, total polar sea ice was above the average since 1979.  Taylor then jumped to the erroneous conclusions that a) polar sea ice was not retreating and b) global warming will be entirely beneficial to humans.  His arguments are familiar, as I dealt with them before when a Newsmax article featured them back in 2014.  He's recycling old talking points, so this post is going to echo the one I wrote a year ago.

As you would expect from a lawyer trying to make a case, Taylor isn't telling the full story, especially those inconvenient bits that refute his central premise.  First, he's combining Arctic and Antarctic sea ice.  This is important because the two polar regions have very different dynamics.  The Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents, the Antarctic is a continent surrounded by ocean.  Sea ice is all the ice the Arctic has. Up until the 1970s, most of that sea ice was multi-year ice.  The Antarctic, in contrast, has around 30 million cubic kilometers of land ice to go with a mostly temporary coating of sea ice.

Each system of sea ice has a pronounced seasonal cycle, peaking in the polar winter and bottoming out in the polar summer.  If anyone remembers geography, they also remember that the seasons at the poles are reversed. When the North Pole is experiencing summer, the South Pole is in the grip of winter and vice versa.  This is one reason why merely adding just Arctic and Antarctic sea ice extent is wrong. Doing so basically pretends that temporary Antarctic sea ice formed in the dead of a polar winter (read: little to no sunlight) which melts in the Antarctic spring is the equivalent to multiyear Arctic sea ice in the middle of an Arctic summer (land of the midnight sun, anyone?).  As far as the energy balance of the planet, there is no way the two are the same.  Yet that is precisely what Taylor pretends they are.

If Taylor were being completely honest, he would at least attempt to align the seasons between the poles before adding them together.

Of course, admitting that overall sea ice has declined, with a trend that, despite an increase since 2012, is still below its starting point won't fit Taylor's narrative.  And he most definitely won't show what is happening with multiyear sea ice (the ice that survives each yearly melt cycle).

The other reason merely adding Arctic and Antarctic sea ice is wrong?  The two regions have opposite trends.

As you can clearly see, Arctic sea ice has declined since 1979 whereas Antarctic sea ice has increased.  Taylor's little trick of adding Arctic and Antarctic hides the decline in the Arctic.  If you're curious as to why Antarctic sea ice has increased, part of the answer is meltwater from the 159 billion metric tons per year of land ice lost from the Antarctic continent is making the surface of the ocean less salty (Bintanja et al. 2013, McMillan et al. 2014).  That meltwater is also leading to thermal stratification of the ocean around Antarctica, which insulates any sea ice from warm currents below the ice (Zhang 2007). A third piece of the puzzle appears to be stronger circumpolar winds which have opened up more gaps in the floating sea ice (i.e. Turner et al. 2009).  But you won't hear any of that from Taylor.  All he cares about are those facts he can spin to make his argument.

Beyond the tired arguments made by omitting most of the facts, there is little else to Taylor's piece—and nothing that is truly new. It's the real "hide the decline" trick with a different author's byline under the title.  (Ambler last year, Taylor this year—second verse, same as the first).  As with Ambler, it's a nice try—but he won't fool anyone who has a modicum of knowledge about the polar regions and statistics.


  1. "Sea ice is all the ice the Arctic has."

    I understand your intended point, but it overlooks the more than 80% of Greenland lying north of the Arctic circle as well as numerous smaller ice caps and glaciers on Svalbard and Canadian and Russian Arctic islands.

  2. andreas dobbertinJuly 30, 2015 at 6:54 PM

    The number of 71 billion tons loss annually in Antarctica is obsolete. According to Cryosat 2 measurements, the annual loss jumped up to 159 billion tons, bound to accelerate even more.
    See the ESA website here :

  3. Great blog, just ran across it. Maybe Tom Steyer would give you a grant to hire somebody to send these messages to climate deniers, organizations, professors, writers, Bishops, et al.

    My own mania is population. I did a paper on the Kaya Identity arguing that without ending population growth (1.2% 2000-2010) and economic growth (per capita income 2.5% p.a. 2000-2010) getting emissions down would be impossible. So ending growth is an argument for, not against, a carbon tax. Email and I'll send you a copy of the paper for your comments. Thanks.