Bye-bye, Antarctica?

Another big chunk of ice starts to crumble way down south. But is the continent as a whole warming or cooling?

By Andrew Leonard
Published March 26, 2008 7:05PM (EDT)

There's nothing like pictures and videos of a collapsing ice shelf in Antarctica for focusing the mind on climate change. But in a fit of perversity, I seized upon the news about the crumbling Wilkins shelf, a 5,000-square-mile chunk of ice that is part of the Antarctic Peninsula, as an opportunity to find out how the skeptics were spinning the news.

It didn't take long. At the forthrightly named Greenie Watch blog maintained by John Ray, of Brisbane, Australia, I read the following:

Let's put this in perspective. The account may be misinterpreted by some as the ice cap or a significant (vast) portion is collapsing. In reality it and all the former shelves that collapsed are small and most near the Antarctic peninsula which sticks well out from Antarctica into the currents and winds of the South Atlantic and lies in a tectonically active region with surface and subsurface active volcanic activity. The vast continent has actually cooled since 1979.

And there you go -- if the continent as a whole is cooling then how you can say that the disintegrating Wilkins ice shelf is a result of global warming?

One sensible response to this would be to not pay too much attention to a blog that describes its mandate thus: "This site is in favour of things that ARE good for the environment. Most Greenie causes are, however, at best red-herrings and are more motivated by a hatred of people than anything else."

Fair enough. But it does appear to be true that taken as a whole, Antarctica has cooled over the past 30 years. So how do believers in global warming explain that?

RealClimate, a blog perhaps best described as the most rigorous clearinghouse for scientific commentary supporting the thesis of anthropogenic climate change, posted an article in February acknowledging that Antarctica was cooling, but claimed that such a phenomenon was exactly what most models of climate change had long predicted! The explanation is that the greater volume of water in the oceans surrounding the South Pole absorbs more of the heat trapped by greenhouse gases than do the land masses of the north.

My personal leaning is to trust RealClimate, but I'm prepared to acknowledge that there is a built-in bias among the commentators there to interpret data in a way favorable to the models of climate change that have received the imprimatur of the International Panel on Climate Change. And I'm a little surprised at how the mainstream news coverage of the Wilkins collapse doesn't mention that, outside of the Antarctic peninsula, temperatures are not rising at the South Pole.

But my attempt to maintain a skeptical stance melted away faster than a Greenland glacier when I took a closer look at the source of Greenie Watch's contrarian take, a Web site called ICECAP run by a retired meteorologist named Joseph D'Aleo.

ICECAP is an acronym for International Climate and Environmental Change Assessment Project, and it is as festering a hotbed for notorious climate change denialists as I have seen outside of JunkScience. On its home page, ICECAP prominently features articles by Christopher Monckton and D'Aleo, both of whom are closely associated with the Science and Public Policy Institute (SPPI). SPPI, in turn, is an offshoot of the right-wing Frontiers of Freedom think tank. According to Wikipedia, SPPI was formerly named the Center for Science and Public Policy and was originally created with the help of a $100,000 donation from ExxonMobil.

It's amazing, really. Pick a random datapoint of climate skepticism floating through the infosphere, and you can almost invariably connect the dots back to Exxon.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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