Is misreporting really necessary to get the global warming message across to the masses?

Or is the claimed fate of the Wilkins Ice Shelf simply a case of too good a photo opportunity to pass up, or in this case, pass off, as caused by anthropogenic climate change?

The news stories are making it sound like the snapping of the last ice bridge between one part of the crumbling shelf and its main body is a portent of doom for a warming planet.

Only a small part of the Wilkins Ice Shelf is affected by this event. It is also located in the Antarctic Peninsula, which is milder and subject to higher snowfall than the main mass of the continent.

The mass of ice involved is dwarfed by many larger ice shelf breakouts studied in great detail over the last 60 years in Antarctica.

It is embarrassing to see scientists and newspapers prostitute themselves in this manner. Are they that desperate to seek inclusion in the politically correct but unscientifically sound association of anything and everything with the truly serious matter of climate change?

Ice shelves are dynamic. Just as dynamic as they have been for millions of years, during glacials and interglacials.

For eons before our species industrialised and inadvertently set in train the massive liberation of fossilized carbon that has changed the composition and dynamics of the atmosphere, the oceans and the land, the ice shelves were doing precisely what the Wilkins is doing today, accumulating and shedding ice.

The same mechanics drive the growth and decay of ice shelves in a range of polar and sub polar environments, some of them verging on temperate maritime climates like that experienced by the Antarctic Peninsula and others in truly brutally cold regimes like those found closer to the poles.

Ice shelves are extrusions of dense ice formed where glacial flows overrun a coastline.

When the outflow exceeds the rate at which the glacier can directly fragment into icebergs the glacial mass remains coherent and the surplus pushes outwards into the seas or oceans.

The natural cycle of an ice shelf is to thicken, broaden and fan outwards, until the stresses of thermal erosion by the sea below, the atmosphere above, the subtle but persistent buckling moment of tidal rising and falling, all combine to fracture and break it into thousands of ice bergs, with the largest known to persist for five or more years while drifting for thousands of kilometres.

Somewhere in the southern ocean, the bodies of Robert Falcon Scott and his men rest on such a fragment of the Ross Ice Shelf, awaiting the sea burial which was always their lot after dying there in March 1912 on their return from the South Pole, when their last camp was well away from its outermost edge.

There is no doubting the reality of global warming, nor the ways in which it may affect the rate at which ice shelves form and discharge by increasing or decreasing the accumulation of snow that feeds the vast glacial deltas that flow out into the ice shelves.

But the Wilkins break up displays the same spectacular process of ice shelf growth and disintegration that has been observed throughout polar exploration.

Plus a new effect, let’s call it the linear oversimplification of the global warming message regardless of the actual science.

The sharp fault lines in the Wilkins break up are break points, not melt points. They would have fractured that way regardless of whether the Wilkins environment has warmed (or even cooled) by the few degrees that have been claimed for it.

There is nothing new either about massive outbreaks of icebergs from ice shelf collapses. In November and early December 2006, for only the second time in 75 years, icebergs were visible on the ocean horizon from high hills near Dunedin, New Zealand.

The early voyages to Australia reported icebergs in similar latitudes to Tasmania and as far north as close to the Cape of Good Hope, while in 1868, one ship reported a sighting off Cape Leeuwin in Western Australia. In 1894 an iceberg was sighted in the western southern Atlantic in Brazilian latitudes.

The real science of climate change is very complex but also convincing. Could it be that the seriousness of these issues is being undermined by an unscientific determination in some quarters to convert almost anything that happens in the natural world into an unnatural opportunity to preach a doctrine rather than a science to the general population?

Tragically for the planet, the Wilkins media event serves to deflect attention from the Rudd Government’s determination to do nothing to diminish the mining of coal which results in the liberation of copious quantities of fossilized carbon which constitutes the overwhelmingly largest cause of the greenhouse gas effect in the lower atmosphere.

The circus of photo opportunity, glib sanctimonious platitudes and compliant media reporting rolls on.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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