Slightly OT but fun.A greener Greenland? Times Atlas 'error' overstates global warming
The publishers of the world’s most prestigious atlas have been caught out by Cambridge scientists exaggerating the effects of climate change.
In its latest edition, the £150 Times Atlas of the World has changed a huge coastal area of Greenland from white to green, suggesting an alarming acceleration of the melting of the northern ice cap.
Accompanying publicity material declared the change reflected ‘concrete evidence’ that 15 per cent of the ice sheet around the island – an area the size of the United Kingdom – had melted since 1999.
But last night the atlas’s publishers admitted that the ‘ice-free’ areas could in fact still be covered by sheets of more than a quarter of a mile thick.
Dr Jeffrey Kargel, a hydrologist at the University of Arizona, said it was ‘a killer mistake that cannot be winked away’.
The Times Atlas, which claims to be the ‘most authoritative’, first came out in 1895. It is not owned by The Times newspaper but is published by HarperCollins, which is owned by News Corporation.
A spokesman for HarperCollins yesterday admitted the land shown as green and described as ‘ice-free’ could be up to 500m – more than a quarter of a mile – thick.
She said: ‘I can see why you could see that as misleading.’
‘Was it a mistake? I can only speculate that the people promoting the map were thinking differently from the cartographers.
"HA HA!" — Nelson Muntz
Oh, and the pain for true believers... Atlasgate: New map exaggerates climate change
Will they never learn? Has the penny not yet dropped?
If you want the public to be informed and concerned about climate change never, ever exaggerate.
Otherwise the sceptics will have a field day saying the whole thing is a load of scare-mongering conspiratorial nonsense.
Which, as I will say again and again, it isn’t.
So far we’ve had ‘emailgate’ (in which a series of emails from the University of East Anglia were leaked, some of which showed a degree of laxness about how data had been used and conveyed to journals), and ‘glaciergate’, in which the rate of melting of some Himalayan glaciers was ludicrously exaggerated in a United Nations report.
Now we’ve got what will, with weary inevitably, be known as Atlasgate.
Yesterday, a copy of the new, 13th Edition of the Times Atlas of the World thundered onto my desk
The £150 tome is huge, heavy and very impressive, with hundreds of finely detailed maps printed on expensive paper showing the remotest jungles and wildest mountain peaks.
It is a thing of beauty. It projects huge authority.
It is also wrong.
And not just randomly wrong, but politically wrong.
At the top of its press release, the publisher claims that the cartographers have had to completely redraw the map of Greenland, turning formerly white, ice-covered ground into ‘ ‘green’ and ice-free’ land. (hold on to that phrase, it is important).
For the first time, the publishers’ blurb says, they have had to ‘erase 15% of Greenland’s once-permanent ice-cover’, an area the size of the United Kingdom.
A great story.
The world’s most comprehensive atlas, bearing the imprimatur of the self-proclaimed paper of record, showing dramatic, rapid and terrifying climate change in action.
The trouble is, the map – and especially the claims made by Collins Bartholomew in its press release about the map – seems to be a work of fiction.
This afternoon scientists have been queuing up to pour scorn on the claims, using words like ‘ridiculous’, ‘egregious’ and ‘misleading’.
Although Greenland’s ice IS melting (yes, it really is), glaciologists say it is doing so at nothing like the rate the atlas implies.
Professor Graham Cogley, a glacier expert at the University of Toronto in Canada says that since Himalayagate ‘we glaciologists are hypersensitive to egregious errors in supposedly authoritative sources. Climate change is real and the ice cover is shrinking. But the claims here are simply not backed up by science. This pig can’t fly'.
Dr Poul Christoffersen, a glaciologist at the Scott Polar Rresearch Institute in Cambridge added that he and his colleagues are 'extremely puzzled' by the Times Atlas claims.
They looked at recent satellite images and the new map and found that there are in fact still numerous glaciers and permanent ice-cover where the Times atlas shows ice-free conditions and the emergence of new lands.
It seems that the mapmakers have exaggerated, by a factor of at least 10, and maybe as much as 70, the rate of ice-melt in Greenland, reinforcing the popular misconception that the whole slab of frozen water is about to slide off into the Atlantic.
Jeffrey Kargel, of the University of Arizona weighed in emailing, 'these new maps are ridiculously off base, way exaggerated relative to the reality of rapid change in Greenland. I don't know how exactly the Times Atlas produced their results, but they are NOT [his caps] scientific results.'
I spoke to Sheena Barclay, MD of Collins Bartholomew, the Atlas’s publisher.
She defended the map, saying that the 15% shrinkage in ice-cover is real and refers to a comparison between the map shown in the current edition and that in the last edition, published in 1999.
The first problem is those words ‘green’ and ‘ice free’. According to Ms Barclay, ‘ice free’ refers to ground covered with less than 500 metres thick.
So ‘green, ice-free land’ could refer to land covered with nearly third of a mile thickness of ice – thicker than the Empire State Building is high! I put it to Ms Barclay that this isn’t what most people would think of as ‘ice free’.
'Yes, I can see why you would see that as misleading' she admitted, after a very long pause.
And ‘green’? To me (and I would guess everyone else) I think of bleak Greenlandic hillsides covered with grass or at least moss, perhaps a few grazing sheep.
It turns out ‘green’ refers just to the printing colour chosen by the cartographers to indicate low-altitude land, and not its colour at all. Which is, er, white.
How did this happen? According to Ms Barclay at the scale of the Greenland map (1:12,500,000) only ice thicker than 500 metres is shown.
But this is patently not the case. On the same spread in the Atlas, at the same scale, small ice caps in both Iceland and British Columbia are also shown in white.
I asked the scientists at the SPRI to confirm that these ice caps were much thinner than 500 metres and they were able to do so.
It gets worse. The Greenlandic ice cap is marked with a series of contours at 500-metre intervals.
But nowhere on the map, or in the Key at the beginning of the Atlas, is it made clear what these contours refer to.
It cannot be altitude as many intersect with another set of contours which clearly DO show height above sea level.
These contours seem to be ice-thickness contours, produced from radar data.
Fair enough, but this needs to be explained, which it is not, and it also needs to be explained why other ice-covered areas (including Antarctica, Iceland, Canada etc) are marked with elevation-contours not ice-thickness contours.
Worst of all, according to the SPRI, the publishers did not, as they are claiming, use the same method in 1999 – when even quite small mountain glaciers in Greenland were shown, properly, as ‘ice covered’.
Apologies for the technicalities, but cartography is a technical business and this is important.
What seems to have happened – and I am happy to be corrected if wrong – is that a decision has been made to single out Greenland, as the poster-child of global warming, for special and unique cartographic treatment which has massively and deliberately exaggerated the extent of ice-cover loss.
This makes a good story which will, they hoped, give the Atlas some publicity.
But it has backfired, badly. Scientists who believe in climate change - and that means nearly all of them – are dismayed by what has happened.
They know that the sceptics will have a field day with this. And they are right.
Cartography is not only technical it is hugely political.
Map-makers have always exaggerated and emasculated, straightened out bent rivers, bent straight ones and redrawn boundaries at the behest of their political masters.
The earliest European maps put Rome or Athens literally at the centre of the Earth.
The Chinese world was centred on Peking, and London ruled well into the 20th century.
The Mercator projection, which used to be on every schoolroom wall in Britain, massively exaggerates the area of the temperate and polar latitudes at the expense of equatorial lands.
The Mercator has now fallen out of favour, to be replaced by ‘equal area’ projections that give places like Africa far more prominence.
Neither projection is ‘wrong’, they just present the same information in different ways.
It is ironic that Greenland is at the centre of this particular cartographic storm because it was this frigid island that was the focus of a very early piece of politically correct geographical propaganda.
A millennium ago the Viking chieftain and exile Erik the Red named the place thus, hoping that the pleasant name would attract settlers.
It worked, and the Viking settlement limped on until a series of bitter summers in the 14th Century made farming impossible and the Norsemen starved.
Greenland wasn’t green then (as Erik knew perfectly well), and it isn’t green now.
It might be one day, but not, probably, for centuries.
Erik’s subterfuge took a long time to be rumbled but in the days of the Internet, Google Maps and satellite photos available in a second, it took no time at all for the Times Atlas to be caught out.
They have been very, very silly.