MEDIA: Cracks in the Ice

Don't let its bland title fool you: "Escalating Ice Loss Found In Antarctica," an article appearing on the front page of yesterday's Washington Post, is far more dramatic than it sounds. Written by Marc Kaufman, a science writer for the Post, the story describes the accelerating break-up of the ice sheets that make up much of western Antarctica.

More than that, though, it's yet another blow to one of the more pernicious canards of the global warming "skepticism" movement: The assertion that because the Antarctic ice sheet is thickening in places, climate change is nothing to worry about.

First, the facts: There's been scientific evidence for some time now that parts of the ice were getting thicker. Our understanding of the currents and weather patterns around the South Pole is far from complete, but scientists suspect that the "bulge" of new ice building up near the center of the continent is due to increased precipitation caused by the warming climate. Rather than refuting global warming research, the increasing Antarctic ice is very likely just another consequence of it.

What's more, while the ice sheet is growing in some places, it is indisputably retreating elsewhere in Antarctica. In 2002, the Larsen B ice sheet, a chunk of ice the size of Rhode Island hanging off the Antarctic Peninsula, offered a dramatic warning when it took just over a month to break apart into the ocean. What the Washington Post article points out is that any increase in ice is being more than balanced out by the melting occurring along the continent's rim. Antarctica is melting, and it’s doing so faster every year.

Predictably, these distinctions are all too easy for distorters to roll right over. Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma senator who has taken it as his mission in office to stymie progress on global warming measures, has cited the ice as evidence supporting his point of view. Appearing on CNN in October 2006, he told Miles O'Brien, "I have science on my side. On the Antarctic, for example, that it's actually gaining ice and it’s getting cooler. That comes from the National Snow and Ice Data Center."

The always reliable Rush Limbaugh has made largely the same point: "The Antarctica ice is actually increasing…. This hysteric global warming is unsupportable by facts." And the Competitive Enterprise Institute mentioned the ice growth in its pro-CO2 ad campaign ("They call it pollution – we call it life") in order to imply that global warming wasn't an urgent problem.

While the Post story makes no explicit reference to the comments of Inhofe et al, it effectively undermines their apparent belief that southern ice can freeze global warming science in its tracks. If I were an optimist, I might even think this story could finally help put that tired old talking point to bed.


The fact remains, the vast majority of the continent has cooled since humans started monitoring temperatures. Check NOAA numbers on this subject.