March 31, 2008

“Warming Island”—Another Global Warming Myth Exposed

Filed under: Arctic, Polar

In our continuing theme of exposing ill-founded global warming alarmist stories (see here and here for our most recent debunkings), we’ll examine the much touted discovery of “Warming Island”—a small piece of land that has been “long thought to be part of Greenland’s mainland”—but that turns out to have been known to be an island back in the early 1950s.

Another good story out the window.

As was the case of the previous two scare stories we examined that turned out to be untrue (global warming leading to amphibian decline in Central and South America, and the Inuit language lacking a word for ‘robin’), the story of “Warming Island” was also prominently featured in the New York Times. On January 17, 2007, The Times dedicated an article to “The Warming of Greenland” and described the recent “discovery” of islands that were exposed as such when the ice connecting them to the mainland melted away.

Times writer John Collins Rudolf set the scene:

LIVERPOOL LAND, Greenland — Flying over snow-capped peaks and into a thick fog, the helicopter set down on a barren strip of rocks between two glaciers. A dozen bags of supplies, a rifle and a can of cooking gas were tossed out onto the cold ground. Then, with engines whining, the helicopter lifted off, snow and fog swirling in the rotor wash.

When it had disappeared over the horizon, no sound remained but the howling of the Arctic wind.

“It feels a little like the days of the old explorers, doesn’t it?” Dennis Schmitt said.

Mr. Schmitt, a 60-year-old explorer from Berkeley, Calif., had just landed on a newly revealed island 400 miles north of the Arctic Circle in eastern Greenland. It was a moment of triumph: he had discovered the island on an ocean voyage in September 2005. Now, a year later, he and a small expedition team had returned to spend a week climbing peaks, crossing treacherous glaciers and documenting animal and plant life.

Despite its remote location, the island would almost certainly have been discovered, named and mapped almost a century ago when explorers like Jean-Baptiste Charcot and Philippe, Duke of Orléans, charted these coastlines. Would have been discovered had it not been bound to the coast by glacial ice.

Maps of the region show a mountainous peninsula covered with glaciers. The island’s distinct shape — like a hand with three bony fingers pointing north — looks like the end of the peninsula.

Now, where the maps showed only ice, a band of fast-flowing seawater ran between a newly exposed shoreline and the aquamarine-blue walls of a retreating ice shelf. The water was littered with dozens of icebergs, some as large as half an acre; every hour or so, several more tons of ice fractured off the shelf with a thunderous crack and an earth-shaking rumble.

…Such ominous implications are not lost on Mr. Schmitt, who says he hopes that the island he discovered in Greenland in September will become an international symbol of the effects of climate change. Mr. Schmitt, who speaks Inuit, has provisionally named it Uunartoq Qeqertoq: the warming island.

The remainder of the article was filled with other tales of the evidence of warming across Greenland and splashed with pictures and maps of the newly freed “Warming Island.” On the map below, note the characteristic three-fingered shape of “Warming Island,” situated at the northern tend of Liverpool Land at the mouth Carlsberg Fjord.

Figure 1. Map of the location of “Warming Island” lying along the eastern coast of Greenland at the northern end of Liverpool Land. Note the characteristic three-finger shape of “Warming Island” (source: New York Times).

Shortly after the announcement of the “discovery” “Warming Island,” the U. S. Geological Survey released these satellite photos of the region showing the evolution of the ice bridge that once connected the island to the mainland (Figure 2). “Warming Island” is again easily recognizable by its three-fingered shape.

Figure 2. A series of Landsat photos released by the U.S. Geological Survey shows that the ice bridge that once connected “Warming Island” to the mainland has given way to a narrow passage of open water (for a higher resolution images, see here)

In the intervening year since the announcement of the discovery of the island by the Times, a website has been set up to tell the tale of warming island, documentary filmmakers have mobilized, and you can even book ecotours to go see for yourself “perhaps the greatest visual evidence of global warming.” And, who is giving such tours a lot of press coverage? You guess it, the New York Times .

Since it is a well scientifically-documented fact that temperatures around Greenland were about as warm as they are currently for a multi-decadal period in the early 20th century, one might naturally wonder whether or not “Warming Island” was an island in the not too distant past, rather than “for unknown centuries” thought to be part of the mainland.

Figure 3. “Warming Island” and its relation to annual temperatures at Angmagssalik, Greenland, one of the nearest long-term temperature recording sites. Since “Warming Island” was exposed as an island during the warm period preceding 2005, and seemed to be a peninsula connected to the mainland by a glacial tongue during the cold period in the early 1980s, we wondered what the situation by have been in the early 1950s, near the end of the prolonged warm period extending from the mid-1920s to the early 1960s.

So we decided to see what we could find out ourselves.

Many research expeditions were undertaken in the first half of the 20th century by the Danish government to explore and map the geography and geology of Eastern Greenland. The maps that were produced from these many projects were generally of too coarse a resolution or did not quite include the area where “Warming Island” is located. The ones that did cover the region indeed showed “Warming Island” connected to the mainland. However, most of these maps were produced in the early part of the 20th century—a cold time prior to the period when the big warm-up of Greenland had either started, or had gotten much of a foothold. The mostly likely period for “Warming Island” to have shown itself as being an island prior to its “discovery” in 2005, was probably some time in the late 1940s through the early 1960s, after a period of 3-4 decades of temperatures near current levels.

This led us to the Dr. Lauge Koch expeditions of the late 1940s and early 1950s and a book published by the official aerial photographer of the mission, Ernst Hofer, titled Arctic Riviera. Hofer spent four summers in the early 1950s in eastern Greenland serving as an aerial photographer to support ground-based geologic research and mapping efforts. Hofer spent many hours flying over the vicinity of “warming island” as it was located near the mouth of the fjord in which his camp was located. His favorite photos were reproduced in Arctic Riviera.

Figure 4. Arctic Riviera, published by Ernst Hofer in 1957.

Surely, among the thousands of photographs Hofer took during his time in Eastern Greenland must be photographs of “Warming Island” but unfortunately none are reproduced in Arctic Riviera. If they do exist, they likely remain in a collection of the research results from the Koch expeditions, stored somewhere in Denmark.

But, Hofer did provide us with a map of region over which he so often flew, so as to place his pictures and stories in context. We reproduce his map in Figure 5, and provide a blow-up of our region of interest.

Lo and behold, right before your very eyes, is three-fingered “Warming Island” shown as an island by probably the person with more first-hand knowledge of the region than anyone alive at the time. Surely if Hofer did not believe it to be an island, he would not have depicted it as such.

Figure 5. The map from the Preface of Hofer’s Arctic Riviera, zooming in to show the existence of “Warming Island” and its characteristic three-fingered shape (source: Arctic Riviera).

So, there is has been all along. And shown to be an island, rather than a peninsula attached to the mainland, by a least one man, and all the readers of his book, since 1957.

Rather than the New York Times announcing the “discovery” of “Warming Island,” in actuality, it seems that what they were really reporting on was the rediscovery of an island that had been shown to have been such 50 years prior. Funny how Hofer didn’t issue a big press release about the Island’s existence—oh yeah, back then the warm up was being described as “a climate improvement” by one of the most prominent Arctic researchers of the day (Ahlmann, 1953). My how times have changed!

Certainly, this fact—that “Warming Island” has been shown to have been an island as recently as the 1950s—had it been known the Times, would have tempered its enthusiasm for the story, for the claims made by Denis Schmitt that he had discovery it, and all of the hype that it ushered forth.

Or at least we can only hope.

Silly claims like “Warming Island,” no Inuit word for ‘robin,’ and global warming killing frogs—claims which with a bit of due diligence are exposed as being inaccurate, but which are held up as poster children for global warming—only serve to hurt the alarmist cause rather than enhancing it.

Our advice—stick to the facts, let science tell its own story, and then let the people decide if and how they may want to respond. Of course, if everyone took our advice, we’d be out of material. So on second thought, keep the hype machine in full gear, we’re more than happy to spend our time exposing these, and other, silly global warming myths.


Ahlmann, H. W., 1953. “Glacier Variations and Climatic Fluctuations”. Series Three, Bowman Lecture Series, The American Geographical Society, George Grady Press, New York, available here.

Hofer, E., 1957. Arctic Riviera, Kümmerly & Frey Berne Geographical Publishers, Berne, Switzerland, Distributed in the U.S. by Rand McNally & Co., Chicago, pp. 125.

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