Politics & Policy

Alarm on Front Page, Recant on Back

The New York Times backtracks.

Santa and his elves don’t have to panic after all, according to today’s New York Times. This is a switch from two Saturdays ago, when the Times breathlessly warned readers on its front page that the North Pole was ice-free for the first time in 50 million years. Even as late as yesterday, a Times lead editorial cited its own alarmist story about finding a “patch of open ocean at the North Pole where the ice would normally be six to nine feet deep” to justify favoring Al Gore’s “more assertive approach” to global warming.

Well, the end is not quite so nigh, according to a much more temperate article in today’s “Science Times” section (discreetly high-lighted in the corrections box, too). “There’s nothing to be necessarily alarmed about,” says climatologist Mark Serreze of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, in the Times. “There’s been open water at the pole before. We have no evidence at this point that this is related to global climate change.” Santa’s had the chance to go swimming before, apparently.

Harvard climatologist and U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change honcho James McCarthy, who sparked the front-page horror story, now says, according to the Times, that “he would not argue with critics who said that open water at the pole was not unprecedented.” Indeed.

What does appear to be true is that polar ice is thinning somewhat and that the coldest air masses in the northern hemisphere, specifically in Siberia and Alaska during the winter, have warmed by 11 degrees in recent years. Please keep in mind that winter temperatures in these regions are typically 40 and 30 degrees below 0 centigrade. Summer Arctic temperatures are at about the level that they were in the 1930s. Also remember that the 1970s were rife with claims from climatologists that the polar ice pack was expanding and threatening shipping lanes. The then-expanding ice pack was thought to be a prelude to a new ice age.

The North-Pole-is-melting story is an all-too-typical example of environmental-alarmist reporting in the Times and other papers. The infamous Limits to Growth report, the Fenton Communications-generated Alar scare, the stories that the Ozone Hole is allegedly ready to open up over Kennebunkport — all were reported on the front page, while more sober assessments based on real scientific data appear later, on the back pages where readers tend to overlook or discount it.

It’s no wonder that this continuing credulous imbalance in reporting on environmental issues has got the public spooked. But then again, one can’t help wondering sometimes if maybe that’s the point.

Ronald BaileyRonald Bailey is science correspondent for Reason magazine and the author of Liberation Biology: The Moral and Scientific Case for the Biotech Revolution.


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