January 4, 2005

In with the new, out with the old?

We had hoped that in the New Year scientists would stop hyping global warming to reporters such as the Washington Post’s new global warming specialist Juliet Eilperin. Our hopes were dashed on January 3.

The headline in the January 3, 2005 Science Notebook section of the Washington Post read “New Theory of Antarctic Ice Cap.” It began, “A sharp drop in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide 34 million years ago helped form the mile-thick ice sheet now covering Antarctica.” The article, penned by Post science writer Juliet Eilperin, referred to a recently published paper by a research team led by Purdue University’s Matthew Huber.

Amazing. Huber’s article was not about carbon dioxide and Antarctic climate. Rather, it discusses whether a shift in oceanic circulation patterns brought about by the separation of Antarctica from Australia some 35 million years ago (a consequence of continental drift), led to a subsequent cooling of Antarctica and ice sheet growth.

That’s the current myth (perhaps more appropriately, “a” current myth) in climate science. Huber et al. found contrary evidence. They compared aquatic fossil assemblages contained in sediment cores extracted from around Tasmania with expectations of what these assemblages should have looked like under the current theory. What they found, was that the theory and observations did not match up well. They also tried to reproduce the theoretical behavior with a climate model that they had tweaked to represent conditions 35 million years ago. Again, they found that the modeled climate patterns did not match the theoretical ones.

They thus concluded that the climate of Antarctica, and its apparent change from warm (there is fossil evidence of above-freezing temperatures in the winter in the middle of Antarctica some 50 million years ago) conditions to cold ones, was not strongly related to the direct effects of the spreading of the continents and the gradual opening of the oceanic passage between Tasmania and Antarctica.

In a speculative paragraph in the “Conclusion” section of the paper, Huber et al. suggest that an alternative explanation for the cooling of Antarctica 35 million years ago—a drop in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. They go little further than to speculate on that. In fact, they are so unsure of this possibility that the final sentence to their paper warns: “We believe that the fundamental processes that led to Arctic glaciation…are complex and remain unknown, and therefore we do not have a firm basis to understand its subsequent evolution and its future behavior.”

Why Huber told Juliet Eilperin something completely different is a mystery. She writes “Huber said the discovery…was ‘very disturbing,’ because it meant the ice sheet could disappear, since carbon dioxide levels are expected to rise rapidly over the next 200 years. ‘You just play the movie in reverse. You in due time would end up melting back the Antarctic ice sheet,’ Huber said.’”

There was no “discovery” about carbon dioxide. It was a mere conjecture because the model indicated that continental drift was inconsistent with climate observations.

Huber (or Eilperin) left out certain facts: 1) playing his movie in reverse would take several hundred thousand years; 2) Huber’s paper didn’t investigate this theory at all; 3) the average high temperature at the South Pole during the warmest month is about -15ºF (i.e., it’s going to take a lot of warming to raise the temperature enough to melt ice there); 4) on the whole, Antarctica has been cooling slightly during the past 40 years. The list goes on and on.

That scientists tell one thing to the eager press and write another for review by their colleagues is discouraging, but not unusual. We often detail such inconsistencies in these pages, and a compilation of such stories is the basis for the new book Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media by World Climate Alert chief editor Patrick Michaels.

This is just another sad example showing that when hype meets fact, hype usually wins out.


Huber, M., et al., 2004. Eocene circulation of the Southern Ocean: Was Antarctica kept warm by subtropical waters? Paleoceanography, 19, PA4026, doi:10.1029/2004PA001014.

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