6 September 2009

Oh dear, more scientific hyperbole about climate change and natural disasters

Posted by Dave Petley

My Alma Mater, University College London, is this week hosting an interesting colloquium on the theme of “Climate Forcing of Geological and Geomorphological Hazards“. This is a really interesting topic and the organisers should be applauded for attracting some really interesting talks. If it wasn’t for the fact that I am heading out to Asia on Wednesday I would attend for sure. However, the Observer, which is the Sunday version of the UK broadsheet newspaper The Guardian, has today run a two page story about the conference. Again, this is not unwelcome – it is important that articles are run about the multi-faceted implications of climate change – but unfortunately the tone of the headline and lead material is an example of scientific hyperbole has left me speechless:

Climate change: melting ice will trigger wave of natural disasters
Scientists at a London conference next week will warn of earthquakes, avalanches and volcanic eruptions as the atmosphere heats up and geology is altered. Even Britain could face being struck by tsunamis.

Scientists are to outline dramatic evidence that global warming threatens the planet in a new and unexpected way – by triggering earthquakes, tsunamis, avalanches and volcanic eruptions.

Reports by international groups of researchers – to be presented at a London conference next week – will show that climate change, caused by rising outputs of carbon dioxide from vehicles, factories and power stations, will not only affect the atmosphere and the sea but will alter the geology of the Earth.

Melting glaciers will set off avalanches, floods and mud flows in the Alps and other mountain ranges; torrential rainfall in the UK is likely to cause widespread erosion; while disappearing Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets threaten to let loose underwater landslides, triggering tsunamis that could even strike the seas around Britain.

At the same time the disappearance of ice caps will change the pressures acting on the Earth’s crust and set off volcanic eruptions across the globe. Life on Earth faces a warm future – and a fiery one.

Now, there is little doubt that there is a possible link between climate change and geophysical hazards, and that this is a topic that requires study. But to present the topic in this way is ridiculous given our current state of knowledge. Some elements of the quote above are probably untrue (melting glaciers will set of avalanches for example), and some of the remainder is speculative at best (e.g. widespread erosion in the UK, underwater landslides from the loss of ice sheets). Much of the rest has sensationalised climate impacts by presenting end member (i.e. large but unlikely) events as having a far great likelihood than is the reality – e.g. the UK being affected by tsunamis generated by underwater landslides caused by Arctic melting. This is possible, but is very, very unlikely, and there is little if any evidence that such events have occurred in the past.

But, unfortunately it gets worse. Bill McGuire, the Director of the Benfield Hazards Research Centre at UCL, is quoted as saying the following:

‘”Not only are the oceans and atmosphere conspiring against us, bringing baking temperatures, more powerful storms and floods, but the crust beneath our feet seems likely to join in too,” said Professor Bill McGuire, director of the Benfield Hazard Research Centre, at University College London (UCL).”Maybe the Earth is trying to tell us something,”‘.

Now I like and admire Bill, I consider to be a friend, and I think that he has done a lot of good stuff. But this type of quote is really unhelpful. In my view there is no place for scientists to state things sthat the the oceans and atmosphere are “conspiring against us” – they are responding to the forcing that we are causing. And what can one say about a scientist stating that “Maybe the Earth is trying to tell us something”?

The remainder of the article is rather more measured, with some not unreasonable quotes from some good scientists. However, the damage is done in the first part of the article, and of course in the headline.

Take a look at the comments on the Guardian web page. Unsurprisingly, the denialist community has jumped on this to undermine the research that is being undertaken on climate change. This is a great shame – anthropogenic climate change is a huge issue based on good science. Unfortunately, articles like this, based on speculation and exaggeration, are really unhelpful to those trying to do good science and to persuade society of the importance of this issue. If there is one thing that I have learnt in the last couple of years is that as scientists we need to be measured and realistic about what we write and say. The organisers of this conference would be wise to remember this.