CBC hypes – again: Of models, memes and mythical melts

The CBC, Canada’s so-called “national” (i.e. taxpayer-funded) broadcaster is not exactly known for impartial and/or honest reporting on the climate front.

I noticed an article, yesterday, in which the text is somewhat at odds with that of the University of British Columbia (UBC)’s Media Release, on which the article was supposedly (well, at least partially) based.

Both have similar (alarming, of course!) headlines:

Western Canada to lose 70 per cent of glaciers by 2100 [UBC]

How Western Canada glaciers will melt away
B.C., Alberta glaciers will shrink 70% by 2100 [CBC]

UBC PR people really should know better, particularly in light of the actual content of their Media Release. There are some key qualifiers in the latter which don’t seem to have made it into CBC’s hype. For example, consider the choice of pics at the top, as well as the introductory paragraphs:

From UBC Media Release

From UBC Media Release

Seventy per cent of glacier ice in British Columbia and Alberta could disappear by the end of the 21st century, creating major problems for local ecosystems, power supplies, and water quality, according to a new study by UBC researchers.

The study found that while warming temperatures are threatening glaciers in Western Canada, not all glaciers are retreating at the same rate. The Rocky Mountains, in the drier interior, could lose up to 90 per cent of its glaciers. The wetter coastal mountains in northwestern B.C. are only expected to lose about half of their glacier volume.

“Most of our ice holdouts at the end of the century will be in the northwest corner of the province,” said Garry Clarke, professor emeritus in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences. “Soon our mountains could look like those in Colorado or California and you don’t see much ice in those landscapes.”

For the study, researchers used observational data, computer models and climate simulations to forecast the fate of individual glaciers.

[This UBC Media Release concludes]:

Researchers predicted changes in the area and volume of glaciers in western Canada under a range of greenhouse gas emission scenarios used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their most recent assessment of the state of the climate system. Increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, released from fossil fuel combustion, is the primary factor that will cause increases in surface air temperatures in the decades ahead.

Researchers say the impact of climate change on glacier health may not be evident at first sight. While the surface area covered by the glacier may not be changing, the glaciers are thinning at a rate of about one metre per year.

“Most glaciers are only 100 or so metres thick,” said Clarke. “They’re losing volume but this loss we’re seeing right now is a bit hidden.” [my bold -hro]

By comparison, here’s the pic and intro from the CBC:

Note the hyper-alarmism in caption: "already melting rapidly due to human caused climate change"

Note the hyper-alarmism in caption: “already melting rapidly, largely due to human-caused climate change”

Wonder what your favourite glacier to ski or hike will look like in 20 or 40 years? A new study makes detailed predictions about how the glaciers in B.C. and Alberta will melt and shrink between now and 2100.

Glaciers are melting rapidly around the world, including in Canada, and human-caused climate change is now considered to be the main driver.


The new model shows that by 2100, under a best-case scenario where the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere peaks at just 490 parts per million (it’s currently close to 400 ppm), the icefield will be reduced to multiple small patches. But if CO2 emissions grow to 1,370 ppm, it will have shrunk to almost nothing by 2100.

Clarke hopes the value in the study isn’t just directly practical, but will also help people better understand the consequences of climate change and motivate them to take action against a problem he describes as urgent and “dead serious.1

“If you look and say, ‘Here’s a glacier that you ski on right now and here’s what it will look like 20, 30, 50 years in the future’ and they can see the consequences, I think it’s a stronger message. It works a little bit more viscerally for people that are not scientists.”

One is tempted to ask: “Will the real Garry Clarke2 please sign in”! Then, again, perhaps Clarke, who is evidently a “Geophysicist” could benefit from a little chat with real Physicist, Freeman Dyson, who does not seem to share Clarke’s (and/or the CBC’s) faith in the predictive value of the models:

These climate models are excellent tools for understanding climate, but that they are very bad tools for predicting climate. The reason is that they are models that have very few of the factors that may be important, so you can vary one thing at a time ……. to see what happens. But there is a whole lot of things that they leave out. ….. The real world is far more complicated than the models. [my bold and h/t Kevin Marshall, via Bishop Hill for this transcript excerpt]


1Notwithstanding Clarke’s enthusiasm, there is a linked (dropbox Caption Text) bearing the title: “Projected deglaciation of western Canada in the twenty-first Century”. This document also notes that:

In the Canadian Rocky Mountains, the Columbia Icefield represents an important source of snow and ice melt for the Athabasca, Saskatchewan and Columbia river basins. The Icefield is vital for the tourism industry that operates in Jasper and Banff national parks. Millions of people visit the icefield each year. Shown are the changes in predicted ice extent for a low (peaking at 490 ppmof atmospheric CO2-equivalent; Fig. 1A) versus high (greater than 1370 ppm of atmospheric CO2-equivalent; Fig. 1B) emission scenario by the end of the century. The emission scenarios are respectively referred to as RCP2.6 and RCP8.5 in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report.

NOTE: Figures to which Clarke refers above can be found in this dropbox file.

2 It is also worth noting that Clarke is a member of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) which claims to be yet another organization dedicated to:

[creating] knowledge that will transform our world. The Institute brings together outstanding researchers to work in global networks that address some of the most important questions our world faces today. Our research is focused on improving human health, transforming technology, building strong societies and sustaining the Earth. Our networks help support the growth of research leaders and are catalysts for change in business, government and society. [my bold -hro]

Quelle surprise, eh?! What in Gaia’s name would we do without all these “knowledge creators” … “transforming technology” … and “sustaining the Earth” … beating their drums as “catalysts for change”?!


3 thoughts on “CBC hypes – again: Of models, memes and mythical melts

  1. Hilary –
    I share your doubts about the predictive ability of climate models. Precipitation projections are even more uncertain than temperature, and precipitation obviously has a direct effect on changes in glacier size. However, deviating from your main point, I want to mention that the article is sloppy reporting.

    First, the article has “The new model shows that by 2100, under a best-case scenario where the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere peaks at just 490 parts per million (it’s currently close to 400 ppm)…” The caption text is clear that the figures are CO2 equivalent — that is, the equivalent proportion of CO2 which gives the same forcing as the total of all greenhouse gases. Hence, the current value is not 400 ppm (the actual concentration of CO2) which the article gives, but actually a value somewhere around 480 ppm CO2eq. In the very next sentence, the article has “But if CO2 emissions grow to 1,370 ppm…” — the author really should know the difference between CO2 concentration and emissions.

    When articles are written by people who don’t distinguish between CO2 and CO2 equivalent, or between emissions and concentration, what hope is there for any critical view of university press releases (which are notorious for overstatement)?

    On the plus side, it’s commendable that the article, unlike many others elsewhere, provides a link to the paper. On the minus side, the link goes to a paper concerning the ages of two multi-million-year-old skeletons. This may be Nature‘s problem (not the CBC’s), as the link to the paper on Nature‘s index page currently goes to an “invalid DOI” page.

  2. Pingback: Freeman Dyson on Climate Models | ManicBeancounter

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