What Arctic Warming?


Published October 13, 2005


The New York Times appeared to try a new tactic in its campaign to convince the public that global warming is real. But don’t let the Times’ Oct. 10 report on the economic upside of Arctic melting confuse you -- there still isn’t any evidence that human activity is melting the polar regions.

In its article entitled, “As Polar Ice Turns to Water, Dreams of Treasure Abound,” the Times reported that a shrinking summer time Arctic ice cap is spurring “nothing less than a great rush for virgin territory and natural resources worth hundreds of billions of dollars.”

The Times spotlighted, for example, a Denver entrepreneur who purchased a “derelict Hudson Bay port from the Canadian government in 1997” for $7. The entrepreneur, who estimates the port could bring in as much as $100 million per year, “is no more to blame than anyone else for a meltdown at the top of the world that threatens Arctic mammals and ancient traditions and lends credibility to dark visions about global warming,” reported the Times.

“It’s the positive side of global warming, if there is a positive side,” the transportation minister of Manitoba told the Times.

Now, I’m not sure what the Times’ shift in thinking is with the article -- and after more than a decade of consistent gloom-and-doom reporting and editorializing on global warming, I would imagine that the Green-leaning newspaper does not intend to rethink its position on the scare -- but it’s going to take more than the mere economic exploitation of a shrinking polar ice cap to establish human activity as the cause of the melting.

At JunkScience.com, we analyzed surface temperature data collected by NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies and prepared temperature graphs to underscore this point.

If you look at the temperature trends for the Arctic region since 1880, it appears that the Arctic generally warmed somewhat until about 1938. From 1938 until about 1966, the Arctic cooled to about its 1918 temperature level. Then, between 1966 and 2003, the Arctic warmed up to just shy of its 1938 temperature. But in 2004, the Arctic temperature again spiked downward.

Now if the 1880-1938 warming trend had continued up until this day, there certainly would be some significant warming in the Arctic region to talk about. From 1918 to 1938, alone, the Arctic warmed by 2.5 degrees Centigrade. But the actual temperature trend is much different, showing that there’s been hardly any overall temperature change in the Arctic since 1938.

Not only does the temperature data contradict the claim that global warming is overtaking the Arctic, but data on greenhouse gas concentrations ought to drive a spike through the heart of the claim.

During the warming period from 1880 to 1938, it’s estimated that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide – the bugbear of greenhouse gases to global warming worriers – increased by an estimated 20 parts per million. But from 1938 to 2003 – a period of essentially no increase in Arctic warming – the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide increased another 60 parts per million. It doesn’t seem plausible, then, that Arctic temperatures are significantly influenced by atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases.

And even when the Arctic re-warmed between 1966 and 2003, the warming occurred much less aggressively (about 50 percent less) than the 1918-1938 warming and at about the same rate as the period 1880-1938, despite much higher greenhouse gas levels in the 1966-2003 time frame.

Global warming worriers can take no comfort from South Pole data either.

Over the last 30 years, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide increased by about 15 percent, from about 328 parts per million to about 372 parts per million. But the Antarctic temperature trend for that period indicates a slight cooling. This observation contrasts sharply with the relatively steep Antarctic warming observed from 1949 to 1974, which was accompanied by a much more modest increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.

The hypothesis of global warming alarmism posits that increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide should lead to increasing temperatures, particularly with respect to Antarctica’s super-cold, super-dry air mass. But the data seem to indicate just the opposite.

Getting back to the New York Times article, so why is the Arctic ice cap shrinking if air temperatures aren’t really warming in any significant way? Oregon State Climatologist George Taylor wrote that “Arctic sea ice has undergone significant changes in the last 1,000 years, even before the mid-20th century ‘greenhouse enhancement.’ Current conditions appear to be well within historical variability.”

No doubt many of the Times’ readers do have “dark visions” of global warming, but that seems to be due more to the newspaper’s consistent skewing and omission of facts over the last decade rather than the facts themselves.

The U.S. Geological Survey says that 25 percent of the world oil and gas resources are in the Arctic region. We need those resources desperately and if a little melting helps us get at them more easily – particularly since Mother Nature seems to be at the controls – we should embrace whatever natural cycles make possible.

Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and CSRwatch.com, is adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and is the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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