The Earth is warming! It's cooling! No wait . . .

November 8, 2010

The cycles of warming and cooling have gone on as usual through the past century but have never failed to catch the media off guard.

Warnings of global warming have been with us now for two decades, courtesy of the news media. And surely these respected and long-lived newspapers, magazines and television networks can be trusted to tell us what the current state of the climate is and what it will do?

A least one would think so.

Interestingly, the history of climate reporting is not unlike the reporting of so many other doomsday scenarios, from the "population bomb" which should have caused the death of two billion people by the 1980s, to AIDS which should have infected the majority of Americans by 2000, to the Y2K disaster that never came to be.

A careful look back at the history of climate stories in the media presents the re-occurrence of a remarkably consistent theme. It borders on a comedy routine, had it not had such a massive public impact during the last few years. All of the recent media reports of unrelenting global warming and its dire consequences are in fact old news, a mere regurgitation of decades old stories. As the global temperature has cycled over the last 115 years from cold to warm to cold to warm again, the media has simply been following in almost lockstep with it. In fact, media cycles of climate doom, which mirror the climate cycles themselves, have roughly a 10-to 15-year time lag. It seems whenever the world warms up, the number of global warming stories increases to match the trend; conversely when the climate cools down, the media pull up on their long johns and warn of the next ice age.

The first climate story was written on February 24, 1895. The New York Times reported "Geologists think the world may be frozen up again." The story wondered "whether recent and long continued observations do not point to the advent of a second glacial period."

In 1912, shortly after the sinking of the Titanic by an iceberg, the Times quoted a professor from Cornell University, Professor Nathaniel Schmidt, as warning "of an encroaching ice age." On the very same day the Los Angeles Times wrote "Fifth ice age is on the way."

At this point, one might look at the basis of what was being reported. A look at the temperature records from the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in England is helpful. According to the temperature history, the Earth was cooling from about 1875 to 1910, about 35 years of downward temperature trends. The subsequent media stories were based upon what scientists of the day were observing: It was indeed getting colder. From there, the media outlets drew their own conclusions as to what this would bring to the future of climate and humanity. Invariably, it meant catastrophe.

On July 3, 1923 the Christian Science Monitor reported "Captain Mac-Millan left Wiscasset Maine announcing that one of the purposes of his cruise was to determine whether there was the beginning of another ice age as the advance of glaciers in the last 70 years would seem to indicate." A year later, on Sept. 18, 1924 the New York Times declared the threat was real, saying "Mac-Millan reports signs of new ice age." Earlier that year, on April 6, the L.A. Times reported that Swedish scientist Rutger Sernander claimed there was "scientific grounds for believing" that "when all winds will bring snow, the sun cannot prevail against the clouds and three winters will come in one, with no summer between."

But unknown to anyone during that time was the fact that the Pacific Ocean had actually begun to warm around 1910, beginning a warming trend that would continue until the mid 1940s. The oceans of the world store more than one thousand times more heat than the atmosphere. When the oceans warm so does the atmosphere; when they cool, global temperatures follow suit. The impacts of such a warming, however, are not always readily apparent, taking years for glaciers and sea ice to react to the gradual ocean warming. Such was the case in the 1910s and into the 1920s.

As the ocean temperature began to rise, so did the temperature of the Earth as well. Concurrently the ice age stories began to fade from the headlines, until, on March 11, 1929, the L.A. Times stunned its readers: "Most geologists think the world is growing warmer and that it will continue to get warmer." On March 27, 1933 the New York Times headline read "The next ice age, if it is coming ... is still a long way off." In the same year meteorologist J.B. Kincer of the United States Weather Bureau published in the September Monthly Weather Review: "Wide-spread and persistent tendency toward warmer weather." He noted out of 21 winters from 1912 to 1933 in Washington D.C., 18 were warmer than normal and all of the past 13 were mild."

During the early 1920s the Atlantic Ocean began its cyclic 25 to 30 year warming trend. This warmer water combined with the warmer Pacific pumped up world temperature to the point where everyone began to take notice. By November 6, 1939 the Chicago Tribune published a story entitled "Experts puzzle over 20-year mercury rise." They knew it was warming but not why. On August 2, 1952 the New York Times reported that Eskimos were eating cod, a fish not previously in their diet.

The stories of a warming world continued into the late 1950s as the media inertia plowed forward. On February 15, 1959 the New York Times reported "Arctic findings in particular support theory of rising global temperatures." But by this time, the Earth's temperature was not warming, it was actually falling. The massive and dominant Pacific had begun to cool during the mid-1940s and would continue to do so into the mid-1970s. Around 1960, the Atlantic began to cool again. Now both oceans were in their cooler phase.

On November 15, 1969, Science News quoted meteorologist Dr. J. Murray Mitchell Jr. "How long the current cooling trend continues is one of the most important problems of our civilizations." Where have we heard that before? Mitchell continued: "If the cooling continues for another 200 to 300 years the earth could be plunged into an ice age." On January 11, 1970, the Washington Post ran the headline "Colder Winters Held Dawn of New Ice Age," The story read "Better get a good grip on your long johns cold weather haters, the worst may be yet to come." Fortune magazine reported in February of 1974 "It is the root cause of a lot of that unpleasant weather around the world and they warn that it carries the potential for human disasters of unprecedented magnitude." Sound familiar? In its June 24, 1970 edition Time magazine wrote "Climatological Cassandras are becoming increasingly apprehensive, for the weather aberrations they are studying may be the harbinger of another ice age." Newsweek, on April 28, 1975, wrote that "The Earth's climate seems to be cooling down."

So it looked like we were on the precipice of a new ice age with cataclysmic consequences for the world. Then, stealthily to all, the Pacific Ocean began to warm again and so did the Earth's temperature. All the stories of the next ice age, the dramatic drop in food production and all the hardships to come disappeared fast ... again.

The warming Pacific Ocean began to nudge the global temperature up in the late 1970s. This warming continued through the 1980s and the ice age stories were gone. By 1993, this story came from U.S. News and World Reports: "Global climate change may alter temperature and rainfall patterns, many scientists fear, with uncertain consequences for agriculture." Time magazine wrote on November 13, 2000: "27 European climatologists have become worried that the warming trend may be irreversible, at least over most of the coming century." Newsweek joined the fray with this story in its August 8, 2005 edition "extremely dry weather of recent months has spawned swarms of locusts." Was global warming the cause?

On April 3, 2006 Time magazine's cover story, with a picture of a lonely polar bear on a small piece of ice, read "Be Worried, be VERY WORRIED. Climate change isn't some vague future problem -- it's already damaging the planet at an alarming pace." It also stated on the cover in bold type "Earth at the tipping point. How it threatens your health. How China and India can help save the world, or destroy it."

So what can we learn from 115 years of media reporting on climate change?

  • The media are going to publish whatever sells. If someone publishes a story about the world getting colder and people buy it up you can be sure there will be many more stories touting the same headline.
  • There is a long lag time between what nature is doing and what the media will report. The lag seems to be anywhere from 10 to 15 years after the climate changes. This is caused by the large amount of climate story inertia that make stories about the past trends continue even though the climate trends have changed either to colder or warmer. The media are slow to react to climate changes even though the evidence is clear.
  • There will always be scientists, willing to sell themselves for research funds or just to bask in the media limelight to lend credence to the alarmism of the day.
  • When all the news stories are about warming or cooling, it is certain the media got it wrong and are at least 15 years behind times. By then, the climate trends are actually in the other direction.