Home > Antarctica, Earth changes > Walking on thin ice

Walking on thin ice

June 1, 2011


Icebergs break away as the melting Antarctica landscape yields to glabal warming.Antarctica

Icebergs break away as the melting Antarctica landscape yields to glabal warming. Photo: Angela Wylie

Every now and then the magnificent, mute marble coast of Antarctica will suddenly find a voice and let out a shattering exclamation – like a gunshot. The noise travels far and wide, thundering uninterrupted across crystal space until sheer distance exhausts it.

It is the sound of an ice cliff collapsing into the ocean. Or maybe of a new iceberg cleaving itself away from the continent and setting sail. It is part of the natural soundtrack of planet history, though it is only rarely, and recently – in geological timescales – heard by humans.

In little remote scientific communities like the Australian Antarctic Division’s Casey Station, on the East Antarctic coast, a roar from the ice might briefly interrupt the labour or conversation of the scientists and tradesfolk who are resident there, working on some aspect of deciphering the climate story. For those lucky enough to be among them, to hear it, it sends a shiver of humility through your bones. You are, after all, at the mercy of this grumbling giant. The cryosphere speaks rarely but emphatically.

By definition, the cryosphere is that part of the planet which is covered in white – the ice sheets of the poles, the fields of pack ice, the glaciers, the frozen lakes and snowfields. Scientists will also tell you that it is the most confounding player in the climate puzzle.

Glaciologists and climate modellers are in a race to penetrate the secrets of the dazzling ice, to anticipate what warming will do to the hidden dynamics of the great ice sheets of the Arctic and the Antarctic. The largest unknown in the myriad projections of sea-level rise over the next century is the potential for rapid collapse of ice sheets.

In East Antarctica over the past three summers, a team of Australian, American, British and French glaciologists have flown thousands of kilometres surveying the continent aboard an aircraft fitted with specialist radar instruments capable of seeing deep inside and beneath the ancient ice. They are trying to map the shape and contours of the underlying bedrock. This information is critical to figuring out how warming will impact on the speed and flow of glaciers.

It is one narrative amongst dozens of similar stories of field science, chapters in the great, imperative news issue of our era. This is a story which would seem to have all the ingredients of an electrifying piece of journalism – adventure, adrenaline, adversity, great pictures, and the stakes could not be higher.

Antarctica and Greenland hold enough ice to raise global sea levels by some 70 metres, and the deep time geological record tells us that collapses of the ice sheets in history – in response to natural climatic triggers like volcanic eruptions or shifts in the Earth’s orbit – have caused sea level shifts of up to 20 metres over periods as brief as half a century. How they might respond to the trigger of human-induced greenhouse warming will now determine high tide on every coast of every nation.

The information collected from the ICECAP (Investigating the Cryospheric Evolution of the Central Antarctic Plate) survey flights is one piece of the puzzle. It will then be considered alongside the reams of analysis of the latest satellite data. All this is crunched through the merciless process of peer review before finding its way into publication in a scientific journal, after which it is exposed to broader debate and interrogation.

In the journal pages research teams state their arguments and expose their methodology in the amphitheatre of the scientific literature, the archive of 350 years of investigative endeavour, and wait to see what happens next. Time and the next study might validate them; it might over-rule them. This is not the ping-pong of obscure matters, it is the most important conversation on the planet. And yet much of it is invisible.

If you rely on traditional mass media for your news – the morning paper, the evening news, the midday headlines – you will likely have little sense of the dimensions of the cryosphere story or any of the other critical narratives within the climate science discussion, like the vanishing of biodiversity, or the change in the chemistry of the oceans known as “the other CO2 problem”, ocean acidification. (If you are motivated and invested enough to use the internet and new media to follow the science you have the opportunity to be better informed, although human inclination will likely sequester you in the tent which supports your beliefs.)

A headline here or there might suddenly emerge, inspired by some new piece of research. It might catch your eye by declaring something alarming. But read on, and will likely be answered within 500 words of newsprint, or a 30-second broadcast grab, by a contrary voice attached to vague but reassuringly scientific credentials insinuating that it’s really nothing to worry about.

At every level, as in so many areas of evolving climate science, shifts in the ice mass balance, in the speed of the flow of glaciers, represent a deeply complex story. It is a live, dynamic frontier of scientific argument. It is steeped in caveats and questions, every statement accompanied by carefully calculated equations of probability and possibility.

There is little scope for such equivocation within the news agenda; little room to accommodate all those baffling qualifiers within the shrinking editorial space of newspapers particularly. Editors, and readers, insist on certainty, on brevity. They are also inclined to controversy, confrontation, provocation and entertainment. Science which does not meet these criteria, for all its rigour and merit, misses out.

Add to this the wild, unscientific prevailing winds which determine the news agenda of any particular day. Whether a big science story makes the cut or not might be determined by the outcome of a particularly exciting football match, the whims and inclinations of gatekeeper duty editors; on who died that day, who got married, who was in court and on what charges.

An important scientific discovery may be obscured because it emerges on a day when other events dominate the headlines. A less significant piece of work will make the front page because it lands on a slow news day, because it supports broader political agendas, or simply because it is assessed as having more value because it swims against the prevailing tide of grim news and might make us all feel a little safer.

The late Professor Stephen Schneider – a leading American climatologist and veteran scientific street-fighter – called these paradigms “mediarology”. The science of journalism, he and his peers lamented, tends to create strange distortions in climate science, with orthodox research losing much in translation.

Scientists, he argued, are not like opponents in a court room or a parliament – they don’t assemble to vigorously fight two polar opposite ends of an argument. When questioned, they will more likely seek to canvass “a spectrum of potential outcomes, which are often accompanied by a history of scientific assessment of the relative credibility of each possibility”. Try selling that to an editor, in 500 words or less.

Journalists are reared in a culture which instructs them to get “both sides” of a story – a fine model where two sides of equal weight and gravitas are pitched at one another. But the task becomes a formidable juggling act where an issue is multi-faceted or heavily skewed. For instance, where 97 out of 100 scientists hold one position, and three say something else – proportions which reflect the positions of active, publishing climate scientists on the question of human-induced warming – is a 50-50 balance of views fair play, or is it a distortion?

Schneider argued journalists needed to replace knee-jerk models of balance with a more accurate, fairer doctrine of perspective, one which communicated not only the range of opinion, but the relative credibility of each opinion within the scientific community.

Journalists, scientists and the public are in a period of transition, one where the implications for our lifestyles and our economy means we need – as a matter of urgency – to learn to reflect on how we communicate and hear one another. One where we need to apply more sophisticated tests of rigour to the information which is brought to us. One where we all learn to speak and understand the language of science – of credibility and caveats, the plus and minus of uncertainty and probability.

In going into the field to join scientists and research the stories within my book, Feeling The Heat, my objective was to try to contribute to shifting the conversation on climate to a new paradigm. I set out to employ long-form narrative journalism to take people inside the scientific story, to feel the conditions and meet the people at the front line, to have them explain their processes, their theories, their insights, even their fears. I wanted to populate the climate narrative with real humans, as it is the most deeply challenging of human stories.

The climate discussion – in parliaments, in policy, in pubs, schools, shops, street corners and in the Twitterverse – has barely begun. It will be a deeply wearisome, exhausting, exasperating conversation if it remains mired in tired, contrived news structures; round and round we will go, condemned to the eternal groundhog day argument – “is it real?”.

It is cold comfort to reflect that if the cryosphere indeed has something powerfully contradictory to say, ultimately it will make itself heard.

  1. June 1, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    Very beautiful blog post here- thank you for the telling photo, and for the intriguing and compelling text. Keep up the great work and I look forward to further posts! -Brook at http://www.drowningislands.com.

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