Scientists' Quick Actions Avert P.R. Problems

Part I: Anatomy of a Times Atlas Screw-Up: Lessons for Scientists, Media

Quick actions by key scientists reacting to a Times Atlas Greenland blunder reflect sensitivities and lessons-learned from earlier climate science data snafus. First of a special two-part day-by-day review of a public relations calamity avoided.

There are some practical lessons to-be-learned from September’s blow-up over the 13th edition of The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World, published with great fanfare and greater controversy after climate scientists around the globe pounced on a glaring error — namely, that Greenland has lost 15 percent of its ice cover since 1999. (It’s actually closer to 0.1 percent, researchers estimate.)

Impression #1: Climate scientists, sensitive to anything that could damage their credibility in the wake of the 2009 uproar over stolen University of East Anglia e-mails and the IPCC Fourth Assessment’s exaggerated projections of melting glaciers in the Himalaya, wasted no time in vigorously challenging the error.

Impression #2: Their rapid response — through the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) at Cambridge University in the U.K., the Danish Meteorological Society in Copenhagen, the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado, and at other scientific institutions — pretty much pre-empted outrage from “skeptics” that The Times Atlas error was just another example of climate change alarmism, exaggeration, and manipulation.

Impression #3: The mammoth 554-page atlas, published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., a subsidiary of News Corporation, has enjoyed a stellar reputation as “the world’s most prestigious and authoritative atlas.” But over the second half of September, HarperCollins and its imprint that produces the atlas, Collins Geo, were savaged in print and online for the Greenland error. Representatives from HarperCollins and Collins Geo did themselves no favors by issuing confusing clarifications. After sticking by the 15 percent claim in the first days after the atlas was published, they backed away on September 20 from the press release that highlighted it. Yet, they stood by the atlas’s map of Greenland that scientists argued grossly misrepresents the reality of ice cover there. Then, on September 22, the publishers announced that they were consulting with climate scientists to produce a new map, and that an insert would be created for the 13th edition atlas.

Let’s re-trace how this story developed and how it was covered — day-by-day. The following recap does not address every news story about the episode. But it outlines how this story began, how scientists mobilized, how major news outlets covered the controversy, and what various voices — both from champions of climate science and from skeptics — chimed in along the way.

The voices in these news stories, blogs, and columns are frustrating and infuriating, laudable and inspiring, even humorous and ridiculous. See for yourself:

Thursday, September 15

  • HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. in London publishes the 13th edition of The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World through its imprint, Collins Geo, announcing in press materials (as reported later by BBC News in a September 19 story) that “for the first time, the new edition of the (atlas) has had to erase 15 percent of Greenland’s once permanent ice cover — turning an area the size of the United Kingdom and Ireland ‘green’ and ice-free. This is concrete evidence of how climate change is altering the face of the planet forever — and doing so at an alarming and accelerating rate.”
  • Among the news outlets that report on the Greenland claim at face value on September 15 is The Scotsman in Edinburgh, which reports that “cartographers have had to erase 15 percent of the ice on the world’s largest island in the 13th edition of the atlas, reflecting the retreat of Greenland’s glaciers over the past 12 years in face of a warming climate.” The Scotsman also quotes Jethro Lennox, editor of The Times Atlas, as saying: “With each new map, we can see and plot environmental changes as they happen, and are increasingly concerned that in the near future important geographical features will disappear forever.”
  • The Guardian in London, quotes Lennox as saying: “We are increasingly concerned that in the near future important geographical features will disappear forever. Greenland could reach a tipping point in about 30 years.” The Guardian will amend this article on September 20 after HarperCollins issues a statement on the mistake.
  • The website Climate Central posts a column by OnEarth Magazine (published by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy organization) writer Ben Jervey, who writes: “While it’s no news flash that these changes are occuring, it still feels somehow important and potentially persuasive when a prestigious tome like the Times Atlas — widely leafed through and perused by folks from across the political spectrum — puts them down on big old sheets of paper.”
  • Jeffrey S. Kargel of the University of Arizona Department of Hydrology and Water Resources and principal investigator on the Global Land Ice Measurements from Space, or GLIMS, project writes on the e-mail distribution list, Cryolist, that “a number like 15 percent ice loss used for advertising the book is simply a killer mistake that cannot be winked away. Worse for science, this is not a science error, but it can be perceived as a science error once it is corrected, unless scientists make clear that this is errant and not of science origin, right from the outset.

‘A Killer Mistake … Worse for Science, not a Science Error’

Friday, September 16

  • The Danish Meteorological Institute in Copenhagen issues a statement (translated here) contesting the 15 percent claim. “There is no scientific evidence that the area of the Greenland ice sheet since 1999 has shrunk by 15 percent, as the latest edition of the ‘Times Atlas’ shows,” DMI climate researcher Ruth Mottram says. The DMI statement continues: “The significant difference between the two Times Atlas-map[s] of Greenland for 1999 and 2011 is that the coastline especially on the eastern side is no longer covered by ice. The true picture is however different.”
  • Scientists from the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) at Cambridge University send a letter to HarperCollins on Friday evening, as reported by ScienceInsider on September 19. “A sizable portion of the area mapped as ice-free in the Atlas is clearly still ice-covered,” ScienceInsider quotes the SPRI researchers. “There is to our knowledge no support for this claim in the published scientific literature.”

Saturday, September 17

  • American climate skeptic Anthony Watts writes on his blog “Watts Up With That?” about the DMI statement and asks: “Atlasgate anyone?”

Sunday, September 18

  • The green blog, PlanetSave, publicizes the atlas, reports on the 15 percent claim.

Monday, September 19

  • The brunt of the media storm begins, mostly in the U.K. Cambridge University issues a statement that summarizes the Friday letter from SPRI. The scientists call the 15 percent claim “both incorrect and misleading.” The Cambridge statement goes on to say that SPRI researchers, after examining the atlas, speculate that the new map of Greenland discounts any ice cover that is less than 500 meters thick and instead treats it as ice-free land. “If so, it is obviously an incorrect and flawed procedure,” the researchers say.”The volume of ice contained in the Greenland Ice Sheet is approximately 2.9 million cubic kilometers and the current rate at which ice is lost is roughly 200 cubic kilometers per year,” the scientists continue. “This is on the order of 0.1 percent by volume over 12 years.”"It is regrettable that the claimed drastic reduction in the extent of ice in Greenland has created headline news around the world. There is to our knowledge no support for this claim in the published scientific literature,” SPRI scientist Poul Christoffersen says.
  • The Daily Telegraph in London publishes a letter from SPRI scientists that describes their complaint.
  • BBC News, in a story with the headline “Times Atlas ‘wrong’ on Greenland ice,” reports among the first statements from HarperCollins. A spokesperson for the publisher says that its new map is based on information provided by the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Colorado. “While global warming has played a role in this reduction, it is also as a result of the much more accurate data and in-depth research that is now available,” the HarperCollins spokeswoman tells BBC News. “Read as a whole, both the press release and the 13th edition of the Atlas make this clear.” HarperCollins will later distance itself from this statement.

Tough It Out? ‘That Pig Won’t Fly’

  • The International Business Times posts two stories on the SPRI challenge and comments from the publisher (see here and here).
  • ScienceInsider publishes its story on the SPRI letter to HarperCollins. Sporting a clever-sounding headline that nevertheless misuses a cultural reference (“Atlas Shrugged: ‘Outraged’ Glaciologists Say Mappers Misrepresented Greenland Ice Melt”), ScienceInsider captures Graham Cogley at Trent University in Canada taking issue with HarperCollins’ initial comments to the BBC News that the map is the result of much more accurate data. “They might be about to make the mistake IPCC didn’t … and tough it out” rather than publishing a retraction …. “That pig won’t fly.” In an update to the ScienceInsider story, published two hours later, Ted Scambos of the NSIDC says no one associated with The Times Atlas ever contacted researchers at the center to discuss how they were going to use its data. “Folks here respond quickly; not only could NSIDC have helped, but any number of groups could instantly have known” that something was wrong, Scambos tells ScienceInsider. Sheena Barclay, managing director of Collins Geo, the HarperCollins imprint that produces the atlas, tells ScienceInsider that it would be “unlike us not to speak to (the scientists at NSIDC) and corroborate” the findings.
  • The Guardian follows its September 15 story with news of the controversy, interviewing several scientists critical of The Times Atlas, reporting that several researchers suspect that the atlas simply ignores ice less than 500 meters thick, and quoting “a spokeswoman for Times Atlas” who says: “We have compared the extent of the ice surface in 1999 with that of 2011. Our data shows that it has reduced by 15 percent. That’s categorical.”
  • The Mail Online in London publishes a column by Michael Hanlon that reviews the developing story and makes this observation: “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 skeptics will have a field day with this. And they are right.”
  • New Scientist in London jumps on the story, quoting Ted Scambos of the NSIDC, who says: “Graduate students would not have made a mistake like this. If what The Times [Atlas] has said were true, something like a meter of sea level rise would have occurred in the past decade.” The New Scientist story also quotes NSIDC researcher Mark Serreze. “Clearly whoever did this analysis made their own interpretation of the data,” he says. “At NSIDC we made no statement of a 15 percent ice loss. We do not know where that number has come from. There has been some kind of error, or some kind of mis-assessment of the data. We’re not sure. We’re trying to track it down.”

Tuesday, September 20

  • Newstrack India picks up the story.
  • The journal Nature posts a story that quotes several researchers from around the world. Among them are Ian Willis from SPRI, who says: “The scientific community wants to stop this story spreading and then being retracted and scientists being blamed.” Jeffrey Kargel from the University of Arizona is quoted from a post on Cryolist, where he writes: “THIS IS NOT WHAT IS HAPPENING. THIS IS NOT SCIENCE. THIS IS NOT WHAT SCIENTISTS ARE SAYING.” Volker Rath, a geophysicist at the Complutense University in Madrid, says that climate scientists have learned from the public reaction to the IPCC mistake about Himalayan glaciers, and that “even small errors will be enlarged by the public, so you have to jump on it early and as openly as possible.”
  • BBC News checks in again with a story that reviews the details but also raises an emerging worry by scientists around the world, which is also being reported elsewhere. “I’m worried that the importance of the changes that are going on will be lost on the public, because the true value of what the ice sheet has lost compared to this 15 percent number sounds very small,” says the NSIDC’s Ted Scambos. “Yet if you look at the coastline, if you make measurements along some of these outlet glaciers, you see stunning levels of change — they’re losing elevation very rapidly, on the scale of tens of meters, some of them.”
  • The Mail Online posts a news story that quotes a spokesperson from HarperCollins who admits that land shown as green and described as ice-free could be up to 500 meters, or a quarter-mile, thick. “I can see why you could see that as misleading,” she says. Scambos tells the Daily Mail that it appears Collins Geo used a map from the NSIDC that shows ice thickness, not the extent of the ice edge. “That map would not be appropriate and there are many small glaciers and ice domes around the perimeter of Greenland that should have been included in the permanent ice sheet,” he says. The atlas’s cartographers never contacted anyone at the NSIDC.”
  • The Independent in London reports that HarperCollins has admitted that the 15 percent figure is incorrect, but it is standing by the accuracy of the new maps in the 13th edition.
  • “Scoop” Independent News in New Zealand picks up the story.
  • The Toronto Star reports that on Monday, September 19 a spokeswoman for the publisher was saying that The Times Atlas was “the best there is. Our data show it has reduced by 15 percent. That’s categorical.” But on Tuesday, September 20, the publishers have pulled its “how-we-do-it” video from YouTube and issued a clarification that the media release was wrong, but the maps remain accurate. “Atlas editors had compared the 1999 edition and the current edition ‘without consulting the scientific community,’” the Star reports HarperCollins as saying in its clarification.
  • The Guardian also reports on HarperCollins’ September 20 clarification (which can no longer be found on the publisher’s website). It reads, according to The Guardian: “For the launch of the latest edition of the atlas we issued a press release which unfortunately has been misleading with regard to the Greenland statistics. We came to these statistics by comparing the extent of the ice cap between the 10th and 13th editions of the atlas. The conclusion that was drawn from this, that 15 percent of Greenland’s once permanent ice cover has had to be erased, was highlighted in the press release not in the atlas itself. This was done without consulting the scientific community and was incorrect. We apologize for this and will seek the advice of scientists on any future public statements.” The Guardian further reports: “The publishers’ statement was not enough to settle the controversy, as the company puzzled scientists by continuing to insist the maps were correct, even though they show as clear of ice some areas of land around the edges of Greenland that glaciologists say retain ice cover. HarperCollins said: ‘We stand by the accuracy of the maps in this and all other editions of The Times Atlas.’”

Atlas Reputation Melting Faster than Glaciers

Wednesday, September 21

  • SPRI profiles The Times Atlas controversy on its Web page, and includes a briefing on the latest science regarding Greenland’s ice sheet. SPRI scientists reiterate their challenge of the Greenland map. “Scientists still contend that the latest map of Greenland is highly misleading and is not a proper map of the ice extent and topography,” they say in a statement. “The map shows only the extent of ice greater than 500m thick (furthermore, it appears to show contours of Ice Thickness rather than Surface Elevation). All permanent ice cover less than 500m thick has simply been erased.”
  • The Mail Online reports on some of the harshest critiques yet. Jeffrey Kargel from the University of Arizona says, “They made a big mistake and what they should do is pull that edition and reprint it. Do they really want people to have an atlas for the next 12 years that has an inaccurate map of Greenland? This is not just any atlas, it has built its reputation on being the most accurate in the world, and while I am pleased they partially acknowledge this error, it needs to be corrected now or the damage will just continue.” Ian Willis of SPRI says that “if I was a primary school teacher giving out a project on Greenland I would refer my students to Google Earth rather than the latest Times Atlas because it is wrong. We think they should just come clean and make a bold statement that they have got this wrong. They are doing a disservice to the art of cartography, to the reputation of their atlas, to scientists who are actually researching the real changes that are occurring in Greenland, and to the general public who need to know the truth about how climate change is impacting our ice masses worldwide.”
  • In a blog post in the Daily Telegraph with the headline, “Atlas’s reputation melts faster than Greenland ice,” Geoffrey Lean calls HarperCollins’ initial reaction when confronted by the error “bombastic” and “self-defeating.” He goes on to write: “Interestingly, just as in the case of the Himalayan glaciers, the error was spotted and publicized, not by climate skeptics, but by scientists who themselves are convinced that global warming is taking place. And indeed the Arctic is melting.”
  • The Australian picks up the story.
  • The Guardian posts a reflective column by SPRI’s Poul Christoffersen with the headline, “Times Atlas error was a lesson in how scientists should mobilize.” Christoffersen writes that scientists are flabbergasted by the error, adding that a 15 percent loss in Greenland ice would raise sea levels by one meter. Skepticism over the 15 percent claim by the publishers of The Times Atlas was immediate, Christoffersen writes. “What happened next is something new. Scientists from around the world quickly expressed their frustration with the questionable claim,” he writes, continuing next with a review of his colleagues’ many comments on the error, as well as a review of why rapid melting of Greenland ice — while not at the rate of 15 percent over 12 years — is still of concern. “In the aftermath of what is often referred to as ‘Himalayagate,’ scientists are well aware that one big error can cloud a thousand truths,” Christoffersen concludes. “This is why the science community tackled the Times Atlas mistake swiftly and effectively.”
  • Real Climate.org chimes in — not on The Times Atlas story but on the latest surface melt figures from scientists. “After a record-breaking 2010 in terms of surface melt area in Greenland, numbers from 2011 have been eagerly awaited …. This is unrelated to other Greenland meltdown this week that occurred at the launch of the new Times Atlas,” the authors write. The rate of melting did not surpass 2010 figures in 2011, Real Climate reports, but 2011 was either the third or sixth year in the rankings.
Editor’s Note:  When quoting from British news organizations in this series, spellings are edited to reflect American spellings. Examples: “sceptics” to “skeptics,” “apologise” to “apologize,”  ”per cent” to “percent.” 

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman is a freelance writer covering science and environmental topics. He has more than 20 years experience in the news business. (E-mail: bruce@yaleclimatemediaforum.org, Twitter: @brucelieberman1)
Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.