climate change
The Thwaites Glacier (Image: NASA/James Yungel CC BY 2.0)

The Antarctic is melting! The Antarctic is melting! The latest climate emergency story hit the prints this week, swinging away from Arctic melting the week before.

The Arctic will melt entirely within 20 years, leaving the northern seas open. That is concerning enough, but the Antarctic is a whole other matter. Its above-sea-level set of interleaving ice sheets are 1-3km thick and up to 4.5km at the deepest points. The continent holds around 90% of the world’s ice. But is it melting now?

Not quite.

The study which inspired a rush of newspaper reports is based on running a series of variable models about how intersecting ice sheets might melt as the global temperature rises. The study is not questioning that melting will occur; it is simply a question of how. The complexities of this process are beyond certain calculation even with available supercomputers (now up to 100 quadrillion calculations per second). The paper notes an “irreducible uncertainty”, but that is to how it will occur, not if.

The study focuses on the Thwaites Glacier, a large water-contact glacier in West Antarctica. The Thwaites is unstable. In a worst-case scenario, the paper suggests that global warming — even if arrested relatively early — would cause uncontrollable glacial melting, raising the global ocean levels 40-80cm. 

But here’s where the complexities begin. On the one hand, this is a projection over 150 years. That fact is buried in the middle of most downstream articles, which give the impression that the ice-sheet collapse is imminent.

On the other hand most articles appear to suggest that the total sea rise from Antarctic ice-sheet melting is 40-80cm. But my reading of the piece — and actually it’s far from clear — is that this rise is the contribution of Thwaites Glacier melting alone. Total ice sheet melting would be of another order entirely.

“Would be?” Will be. But not tomorrow. Or next year. The glacier is only on “the brink” of collapse in an ice-science time frame.

But wait, it gets worse.

Such melting is presented in the downstream articles — as it is in the root article — as “a worst-case scenario”. Yet the downstream articles fail to mention that the root article is specifically a statistical study, designed to sort between the probability of best- and worst-case scenarios. It concludes that, related to some geological features, the worst-case scenarios are far more likely than the best-case scenarios.

The obvious point here is that the necessary structure of media — even the pro-science media — militates against a communication of the real risk. On the one hand, it is vastly worse than conveyed: the study itself wasn’t examining a single glacier per se, it was simply using it as a way of calibrating the probability of best- and worst-case scenarios. On the other hand, it is out of any sort of immediate time frame — and the inherent structure of “news” as it has existed for hundreds of years is to mimic the form of “at-hand” information, upon which one could immediately act.

“Glacial system to collapse in 150 years” is, in that sort of cultural framing, self-parodic. What needs to be communicated about the study is that it has confirmed and strengthened the expectation that the effects of global warming will be non-linear; or that we will most likely proceed through a series of threshold events, with sudden and comparitively rapid changes occurring.

The problem is less and less the climate change deniers — The Australian is reduced to running barely coherent drivel, so hard is it now to find scientist-denialists to keep the pot, and the planet, cooking. The challenge now is for media outlets to find new ways to convey important scientific information beyond the now counter-reaction techniques of traditional mainstreaming science journalism: the age-old search for the exceptional, the shocking and the pseudo-imminent, as a way to harvest clicks and eyeballs, while projecting an aura of seriousness.

Time for some old habits to be broken up, before the glaciers do.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey