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.