ice cap melting?
by S. Fred Singer (Wall Street Journal August 28, 2000)
It is fashionable these days to blame most everything on manmade global warming. So it comes as no great surprise to read in the NY Times (Aug 19) that "leads" of open water in ice fields near the North Pole filled cruise passengers on a Russian icebreaker with a "sense of alarm" about impending climate disasters. Two scientist-lecturers aboard, a Harvard zoologist and an American Museum paleontologist (experts on animals and fossils but not on meteorology) were "shocked," so ABC News reports, to find "Santa's workshop underwater." What a gruesome image for frightening little kids!
I am a veteran of two Arctic expeditions with the US Navy, and I can testify that icebreakers always search for leads to make their way through the ice. After a long summer of 24-hour days it is not unusual to find open leads all over the place, especially after strong winds break up the winter ice. In the Dutch Winkler Prins Atlas of 1969 the following passage appears: - "the Northern Ice Sea is never completely frozen; 3-30 meter- thick ice floes continue moving slowly around the pole. At the North Pole the winter temperature is never lower than -35°C. Summer temperatures can rise to 10-12°C" (which is well above freezing).
But all this proves little about climate change -- or about enhanced greenhouse warming. For this purpose we use instruments: thermometers at weather stations, radiosondes carried into the atmosphere by weather balloons twice daily, and of course Earth-circling weather satellites, which sense atmospheric temperatures remotely. And all of these agree that the polar regions have not warmed appreciably in recent decades.
Climate models do call for a warming trend as levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide rise because of the burning of fossil fuels. Hence the dilemma: Whom should we believe: theoretical models of the atmosphere or the atmosphere itself? I prefer to believe in the atmosphere and the actual observations that show no current warming. If this clashes with the accepted popular wisdom and media hype, so be it. I go with published data.
The Earth did warm between about 1900 and 1940, with the climate recovering from a previous cold period that climate experts refer to as the "Little Ice Age." As a result of these changes, which have nothing to do with human influences, it is warmer now than 100 years ago. But it does have an influence on polar ice, which has been slowly thinning, as it melts from beneath. And it will continue to thin for some time to come even though the climate is no longer warming.
Weather satellites tell us that polar ice cover is shrinking --- likely a delayed
effect of the pre-1940 warming. The Northeast Passage has opened up, allowing
ships to sail from London to Japan along the coast of Siberia. It's all part
of a natural climate cycle and need not cause concern. Recall that 1000 years
ago the climate was so warm that Vikings settled Greenland and grew crops there
for a few centuries. Just imagine: Santa's reindeers would have had to swim
to get here from the North Pole.
PS No one from the National Ice Center in Suitland MD has been quoted in the press. Why? Because they would have told that it is normal to see open water in the Arctic Ocean. The features are called polynyas and are common to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the season, have been mapped now for more than ten years, and published by the Ice Center in a product called FLaP, which stands for Fractures Leads and Polynyas. [Information from a retired NOAA employee who served for several years as Leading Ice Analyst and Forecaster. For a recent research paper on polynyas in the Siberian Laptev Sea, see Eos (Transactions of Amer. Geophys. Union) 81, Aug. 8, 2000]
Atmospheric physicist S Fred Singer is emeritus professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia. He earlier served as the director of the US Weather Satellite Service and as the chief scientist of the US Department of Transportation.