Explorers

On Monday evening, a Canadian research helicopter in northwest Nunavut crashed into the Arctic Ocean. Three men from the CGCS Amundsen research vessel were on board, examining the sea ice from above to determine the best route for the ship to take. All three were killed in the crash: climate scientist Klaus Hochheim, commanding officer Marc Thibault, and pilot Daniel Dubé.

The Amundsen recovered the bodies, which will be entrusted to the RCMP as soon as the ship reaches land. The helicopter remains at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean (~400 m deep); until it can be retrieved, the cause of the crash will remain unknown.

Klaus Hochheim

During my first two years of university, I worked on and off in the same lab as Klaus. He was often in the field, and I was often rushing off to class, so we only spoke a few times. He was very friendly and energetic, and I regret not getting to know him better. My thoughts are with the families, friends, and close colleagues of these three men, who have far more to mourn than I do.

Perhaps some solace can be found in the thought that they died doing what they loved best. All of the Arctic scientists I know are incredibly passionate about their field work: bring them down south for too long, and they start itching to get back on the ship. In the modern day, field scientists are perhaps the closest thing we have to explorers. Such a demanding job comes with immense personal and societal rewards, but also with risks.

These events remind me of another team of explorers that died while pursuing their calling, at the opposite pole and over a hundred years ago: the Antarctic expedition of 1912 led by Robert Falcon Scott. While I was travelling in New Zealand, I visited the Scott Memorial in the Queenstown public gardens. Carved into a stone tablet and set into the side of a boulder is an excerpt from Scott’s last diary entry. I thought the words were relevant to Monday night’s tragedy, so I have reproduced them below.

click to enlarge

We arrived within eleven miles of our old One Ton camp with fuel for one hot meal and food for two days. For four days we have been unable to leave the tent, the gale is howling about us. We are weak, writing is difficult, but, for my own sake, I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past.

We took risks; we knew we took them. Things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of providence, determined still to do our best to the last.

Had we lived I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman.

These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.

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The Pitfalls of General Reporting: A Case Study

Today’s edition of Nature included an alarming paper, indicating record ozone loss in the Arctic due to an unusually long period of cold temperatures in the lower stratosphere.

On the same day, coverage of the story by the Canadian Press included a fundamental error that is already contributing to public confusion about the reality of climate change.

Counter-intuitively, while global warming causes temperatures in the troposphere (the lowest layer of the atmosphere) to rise, it causes temperatures in the stratosphere (the next layer up), as well as every layer above that, to fall. The exact mechanics are complex, but the pattern of a warming troposphere and a cooling stratosphere has been both predicted and observed.

This pattern was observed in the Arctic this year. As the Nature paper mentions, the stratosphere was unusually cold in early 2011. The surface temperatures, however, were unusually warm, as data from NASA shows:

Mar-May 2011

Dec-Feb 2011

While we can’t know for sure whether or not the unusual stratospheric conditions were caused by climate change, this chain of cause and effect is entirely consistent with what we can expect in a warming world.

However, if all you read was an article by the Canadian Press, you could be forgiven for thinking differently.

The article states that the ozone loss was “caused by an unusually prolonged period of extremely low temperatures.” I’m going to assume that means surface temperatures, because nothing else is specified – and virtually every member of the public would assume that too. As we saw from the NASA maps, though, cold surface temperatures couldn’t be further from the truth.

The headline, which was probably written by the Winnipeg Free Press, rather than the Canadian Press, tops off the glaring misconception nicely:

Record Ozone loss over the Arctic caused by extremely cold weather: scientists

No, no, no. Weather happens in the troposphere, not the stratosphere. While the stratosphere was extremely cold, the troposphere certainly was not. It appears that the reporters assumed the word “stratosphere” in the paper’s abstract was completely unimportant. In fact, it changes the meaning of the story entirely.

The reaction to this article, as seen in the comments section, is predictable:

So with global warming our winters are colder?

First it’s global warming that is destroying Earth, now it’s being too cold?! I’m starting to think these guys know as much about this as weather guys know about forecasting the weather!

Al gore the biggest con man since the beginning of mankind!! This guys holdings leave a bigger carbon footprint than most small countries!!

I’m confused. I thought the north was getting warmer and that’s why the polar bears are roaming around Churchill looking for food. There isn’t ice for them to go fishing.

People are already confused, and deniers are already using this journalistic error as evidence that global warming is fake. All because a major science story was written by a general reporter who didn’t understand the study they were covering.

In Manitoba, high school students learn about the different layers of the atmosphere in the mandatory grade 10 science course. Now, reporters who can’t recall this information are writing science stories for the Canadian Press.