Confessions of a Political Animal

January 9, 2009

Ice cold logic

Filed under: Environment,Media — Political Animal @ 1:34 pm
Tags: , , , ,
London, yesterday.

London, yesterday.

Been a bit parky this week, hasn’t it? Obviously, my lack of posting has been entirely due to the need to defrost my fingers, rather than general post-festive season malaise.

The cold weather has not, of course, gone unnoticed by the media: there can be little that will gladden a churnalist’s heart than a story which a) literally bites them the moment they get out of bed, b) can be accompanied with a good old whinge about the failure of Britain’s public service to cope with exceptional weather conditions and c) allows the phrase ‘so what happened to global warming, then?’ to be smugly bandied about.

So it should have come as no great surprise that Wednesday’s Evening Standard led with the banner headline:

Minus 10 – it’s colder than the Antarctic

Last night, I suddenly felt rather shamed by the fact it had taken me the best part of 36 hours to realise what was wrong with that headline. And then, like some kind of vision sent by the Lord (Lord Rothermere, perhaps?) I had a sudden recollection of a photograph in The Child’s Wonder Picture Book of World Wonders (recollection of book title may not be 100% accurate) of people in Santa costumes cavorting on a sunny Australian beach. Hemispheres. That’s the problem. In Antarctica, it’s summer.

OK, so ‘summer’ is something of a questionable term when applied to the most southerly continent, but this is a bit of standard Standard (sorry!) hyperbole that invites a bit of dissection. Now I know that the Arctic and the Antarctic aren’t directly comparable climactically (thanks to differing currents and the meteorological effects of a landmass rather than just a lot of floating ice), but they are latitudinaly comparable. When the Animal travelled to Spitsbergen, 800 miles north of the Arctic Circle, during the northern hemisphere’s summer last year, I experienced temperatures of up to +13°c.

Given that portions of the Antarctic continent actually fall north of the Antarctic Circle, then even with the effect of a colder ocean (no Gulf Stream to warm the Antarctic), I would not be at all surprised to find summer temperatures in excess of 0°c on the continent’s fringes.

So what is the Standard‘s evidence for its exciting claim?

Regions of the Antarctic were warmer than London and the South-East, with the Casey Station in the Australian section of the continent recording temperatures of -0.7C.

It’s not entirely clear where this figure comes from: the data available here for the three hourly temperature measurements at Casey Station suggests that -0.7ºc was not actually recorded during the night of 5th-6th January, although the significantly higher -0.1ºc was reached. However, I see the Standard‘s Casey and raise them Esperanza Station. Granted, it’s the best part of three degrees further north and is outside the Antarctic Circle, but the Argentinian base is firmly ‘in Antractica’. Over the night of 5th-6th January, its temperature hovered between +0.1ºc and +0.4°c. And that was quite a cold night:  the following night, the lowest recorded temperature was a balmy +1.2°c.

By handpicking which Antarctic base you use, you are likely to be able to claim that on any half-way cold winter night in the UK that ‘it is colder than Antarctica’. Whilst picking Casey is not as ridiculous as choosing Esperanza (it’s only just outside the Antarctic circle and is in the main landmass of the continent rather than on the climactically favoured Antarctic Peninsula), a quick look at the second graph on this page from the Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology demonstrates just how warm Casey can be at this time of the year, with January temperatures ranging between +9°c and -9°c.

And we are supposed to be surprised that the UK, in the middle of winter, sometimes falls below the temperatures recorded at this base at the height of summer? There will almost certainly not be a year that goes by where that does not occur at least once. Now if we were talking about the UK besting Amundsen-Scott Base at the South Pole, where the highest temperature recorded on the 6th January was -24.1ºc, then that would be worth a headline.

No matter: for most people, the words ‘Antarctica’ and ‘South Pole’ are effectively synonymous – few realise that the Antarctic is a huge continent with vast climactic variations within it. The latest entrant to the pantheon of pseudo-scientific ‘facts’ is that 2008-09 was the winter where Britian was colder than the Antarctic. Just today we have seen the damage that these sort of ‘facts’ do, with the unprecedented rise in measles cases in England being linked directly to tabloid scares over the safety of the MMR vaccine.

The ‘Antarctic winter fact’ could be, in its own way, just as dangerous. I have thought for some time that 2009 would be the year when the backlash against action on climate change would gather pace. The factors that would aid such a backlash are already in place: environmental issues being pushed down the political and personal agenda by the economy, the inevitable outcry from the oil industry and other vested interests if and when President Obama makes good on his pledges for a more committed and multilateral approach to US climate change policy and, in the UK,  increased restlessness of the anti-environment right of the Tory party if polls continue to flatline around hung parliament level.

The January cold-snap, which appears to be over already, will just be used as a further piece of ammunition by those who can’t or won’t accept that climate is based on long term trends, rather than freak incidents. And we can safely assume that the Associated Newspapers stable will be cheering on the backlash. This won’t be the last we hear of the out-of-context ‘Britain colder than Antarctica’ claim. Not by a long shot. Happy New Year.

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4 Comments »

  1. Hmm.

    Surely, if Antarctica really were warmer than the UK we’d all be basically screwed, given the amount of meltwater coming our way as the entire continent’s ice sheet melted.

    Comment by Tom — January 9, 2009 @ 1:37 pm | Reply

    • Well, yes, if it was permenantly warmer that would be the case. The point is rather that it isn’t massively surprising that the UK occasionally dips below some of the warmer bits of the Antarctic during their summer. In places such as Casey Station and the Antarctic Peninsula there is quite a lot of snow melt in the summer – if you do a Google Image search for Casey Station, you’ll see what I mean.

      Comment by Political Animal — January 9, 2009 @ 2:28 pm | Reply

  2. I think it is the Children’s Book of Amnazing Wonders of the World published circa 1960 – are you the wold’s oldest guinea pig by any chance ? Anyway it’s been-13C in Wales and the penguins have packed up and gone home.

    Comment by Jilly — January 22, 2009 @ 8:47 pm | Reply

  3. ps perhaps the new Russian owner of the illustrious ES will take a more sanguine view of weather that must seem like Bondi Beach compared to the Gulag ?

    Comment by Jilly — January 22, 2009 @ 8:48 pm | Reply


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