Monthly Archives: September 2013

Attribution certainty differences between AR4 and AR5

One of the conclusions from the AR5 Summary for Policymakers is the higher degree of certainty of the human attribution on the average temperature increase since the 1950s. It was said it went from 90% certainty in 2007 to 95% in the current report. Journalists took this on face value and creatively put this in their articles. It makes me wonder if they even have read the summary report. It makes me wonder even more if they read the previous report and took the time to compare the two statements.

So what did the IPCC stated in those two reports?

AR4 (SPM p. 10)
Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations.

AR5 (SPM p. 12)
It is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together.

Indeed we see the word very likely (according to AR4 this is 90%) and extremely likely (according to AR4 this is 95%). But there seems to be several subtle rewordings. It is interesting to see the difference between the two:


Which temperatures Global average temperatures Global average surface temperature
Period of attribution Since the mid-20th century From 1951 to 2010
Cause Due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations Caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together
Attribution Most More than half
Which temperatures
In AR5 they specified global average surface temperature. Does this mean they exclude the satellite record? As far as I know satellites don’t record surface temperatures, only the temperature of the different layers of the atmosphere. Does it mean they only rely for the conclusion of attribution on surface measurement series like Giss or HadCrut?
Period of attribution
This surprised me a bit. Why suddenly use a specific endpoint (2010) when in previous report it was just till the year of the report was created? Maybe they just wanted to have whole decades? But to me it looks a bit strange why they didn’t/couldn’t state this for the last three years. Did something changed in the last 3 years so they couldn’t state this anymore?
The cause
AR4 only talked about anthropogenic greenhouse gases. AR5 includes also other anthropogenic forcings. It would be interesting to read more about that in the final report. For whatever reason the observed is omitted. Is this attribution made by something else than observations/measurements? Maybe partly by models?

Both are not sharply defined quantifications. At first glance if you look at them in a pure logical way, they are equivalent. “More than half” is from the first unit of one half (51% or 50,1% or …), so in theory it could span to the last unit before 100 (99% or 99.9% or…). The same with “Most”. It is definitely higher than 50% and definitely smaller than 100%.

What bothers me is this: obviously someone had the bright idea to change the wording. Why change one vaguely defined quantification into another vaguely defined quantification?

If one looks at it from a pure logical standpoint, “More than half” and “Most” are identical. But does everybody looks at it in a logical way? I recognized the discussion. A couple weeks ago I had this discussion about the difference between “Most” and “More than half”. Intuitively I would place “More than half” somewhat above 50% and “Most” more to the end of the spectrum. If I would have to use them both, than “More than half” would be lower than “Most”.

In my search on the difference between the two, I found this was actually a field of study for linguists and psychologists. They study for example how those words are used in our daily language. In On measurement and quantification: The case of most and more than half I found a graph that shows the occurrence of the two terms where also a quantifier is used in Corpus Of Contemporary American English (COCA).

Occurrence of the two terms where also a quantifier was used

Occurrence of “Most” and “More than half” where also a quantifier was used Source: gwz-berlin

It shows that “More than half” is mostly used in cases of 50-60%, and a low occurrence in the range 60-75%. “Most” is used in the full range, but the highest occurrence are in the range of 80-95%. Personally, as a simple member of the public, I would use “More than half” as 50-60% and “Most” as “70-90%”. In that sense, to me it feels like they are more sure about a lower occurrence of human attribution, or put differently: that they are more sure that there is less attribution than previously stated. That looks like a step back, cleverly disguised as a step forward. The press probably didn’t look at the differences in both reports and some of them even gave it a personal interpretation!

I do not know what the IPCC really intended with the changed quantification, but jumping from one vague quantifier to another could well come to haunt them in the long run. This is a report for policymakers, they won’t necessarily look at it in a pure logical way and some of them might want to compare both reports.

There seem to be a lot of subtle changes between the two reports, which doesn’t make it easy to compare both. Maybe even make it impossible. It is not the same period they talk about, not the same temperatures, not the same cause and not the same quantification. This makes them not directly comparable.


Whipping up the AR5 Summary for Policy Makers

Journalism is obviously not an exact science. Journalists are not necessarily scientifically savvy. Yet they are the connection between (climate) science and the public. The understanding of the issue of the public depends on the ability of the media to correctly translates the science. Some journalists solve this by just printing what the scientists put in their mouth, without investigate it further. This is not difficult to understand. Journalists have to work with a deadline and that doesn’t facilitate investigative work on the issue, especially when the work was already done by “experts” in the field.

There are also journalists who put their own twist to their article based on what they know of the story. That doesn’t always fare well. See the ecosystems that were spiraling out of control. The AR5 Summary for Policy Makers release was a high profile subject. That message was bound to getting exaggerated.

In previous post I mentioned already the VRT news of September 27, 2013 about the press release of the AR5 Summary for Policy Makers. Beside the conclusions stated by Thomas Stocker in the press release, the journalist cranked the volume button up. Here are some extracts (Translated from Dutch):

[News anchor]
Our earth continues to heat up faster and faster as a result of greenhouse gas emissions by humans so. That is the conclusion of the five-yearly report by the UN’s about the climate. Because of that warming the polar ice will melt faster. Also, the water level of seas and oceans will rise.

That’s not true. It gives the impression that the temperatures went increasingly up, adding even more speed now. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. There is a pause in temperatures in the last decade/decade and a half, some even say a slight decrease.

I can imagine where the misconception comes from. Somewhat later in the news, there is the IPCC co chair that said the following:

[Thomas Stocker, co chair IPCC]
It is just not one decade that it is warmer. But a succession of multiple decades that provides us with a robust signal of a change in climate.

Although this is technically true, it is quite misleading. Yes, it is not just one decade (the temperature increase started somewhere in the 1980s and lasted until the end of the 1990s/start of 2000s), but the last decade the temperatures were completely flat. Of course, these decades followed each other (1980s increase, 1990s increase, 2000s flat). The misleading part of it is that the different decades didn’t have a steady increase. But that is what one would expect when hearing such a statement. There is a difference between “warm” and “getting warmer” that escaped attention. It fooled the VRT journalists, it certainly will fool many others too.

The polar ice was a clever diversion from the flat temperatures. Now the word was out that there was a standstill in temperatures, something else threatening had to be found:

[Thomas Stocker, co chair IPCC]
We are tasked to look at all aspects of climate change. Not only the warming, which is so evident to everybody, but more importantly changes in the water cycle and changes in sea level.

This put the focus away from temperatures and giving the impression that it is even worse than before. What temperature increase are we talking about in the long run?

(Translated from Dutch):

According to the most conservative predictions, the end of this century will be on average 1.5 degrees warmer than 100 years ago. In the worst case the temperature rises by 2 degrees Celsius. And this has consequences.

That’s less than the minimum 2.0 °C that was projected in the previous report! So 1.5 °C is a step BACK, cleverly disguised as a step forward… This was brought as something significant. When the journalist would have compared the conclusions of this report with the previous one(s), he/she would find it a retreat from the previous position, not an advance.

Some images were recycled from the vicious circle story. We got the same images of someone working in dusty, dry soil and the shot of the two legs on a cracked soil. A pity they didn’t read the report, because they would have found out that not much is told about drought and with low confidence globally (likely in some regions), while it was implied as a fully-fledged part.

Then they switched to the Arctic ice, some scare stories could be found there (Translated from Dutch):

For example, if we look at the surface Arctic ice in September, then the oldest predictions (in gray), have been overtaken by reality (the blue line). According to the latest forecasts (in light blue), there will be no ice in the summer by the end of this century. The last reports were sometimes criticized. Undeserved, says the IPCC. Our conclusions are confirmed.

Arctic Sea Ice extent

Arctic Sea Ice extent projection – AR4

Arctic Sea Ice extent - difference AR4 - AR5

Arctic Sea Ice extent projection – difference AR4 – AR5

First, look at the date of the minimum: 2012. They forgot that the minimum extent in September 2013 is already passed and it was considerably higher than 2012. It clocked at 5.1 million km2. That would make it about in the range of the minimum value. Now it is at 5.4 km2.

It is true that the Arctic ice is decreasing, but why only focus on the Arctic? Global sea ice doesn’t fluctuate that much because of the seesaw effect. What if the Arctic/Antarctic extent are cyclical events? Then the fall of Arctic sea ice would not be unusual, considering the seesaw effect together with the Antarctic ice extent.

Beside the last minimum date, the graphs that were shown are misleading. The predictions (they translated it that way in the graph) are in the gray area. But in reality there are many models that project ice extent. The original graph would have a maximum value, a minimum value and a median (probably this the representation of the gray area). The lowest value was below the minimum value, but not that much. By only giving a median value, the observations look much lower than when the maximum and minimum value were also drawn.

Plus, this is made on the assumption that the climate models of the Arctic area are correct.

I don’t know what they mean with the last reports are sometimes criticized and our conclusions are confirmed. Did they mean the Glaciergate blunder? They were indeed criticized for it and rightfully so. The IPCC stated in their previous report that the Himalayan glaciers would have melted by 2035. This was inserted into the report by a non scientific source (2 interviews). The sole purpose of insertion was putting political pressure on India.

Or does the journalist mean the conclusion: that Man is responsible for the warming? If so, it looks like it, but they chose to ignore the pause, the discrepancy between models/observations and climate cycles. Would their conclusion still stand when these issues were addressed head on? At least they would have to adjust their certainty DOWN in stead of up.

The IPCC obviously don’t want to give attention to the discrepancy between models and observations. That is not hard to understand. That would question the projections made in the report. Also a lot of climate policies start from the assumptions that the models are right, as well as financial and business schemes. They exactly knew there are issues that are not addressed in this report, but chose to ignore it.

From this, the journalists that didn’t check the story, brew something which made the message even stronger, even more convincing for the public, policy makers, entrepreneurs and activists alike. These are professionals that know how to bring a story and how to stir the emotions so the message will stick. In this case this was done by dramatic shots of calving ice, a farmer desperately preparing his dusty field, many fuming chimneys and the tailpipe of a car. The combination and succession of this all implied that “we are the culprit”.

There is a lot of momentum build into the system. We think this is all about a rational message, while it is in fact an emotional message that is being spread.

Keep that alarm going

It has been an interesting year. The pause keeps on pausing, not foreseen by the climate scientists. The climate models seem to exaggerate warming and went consistently higher than the observations, with sevaral scientists doubting the skill of those climate models. Antarctic had the highest ice extent in the recorded history, Arctic ice had the lowest in recorded history last year, but a sudden, unexpected, increase this year. Scientists found that CO2 sensitivity was stated much too high. The last years winters, that were said to get shorter and warmer, were longer and colder. Hurricanes are decreasing and only got the attention because the media pumped them up considerably. All this in a world with record concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere! In the last year lots of things were remarked that are still going unexplained.

In that light I was very curious about the (now just released) IPCC report AR5 Summary for Policy Makers. Would they mention some doubt this time? In the last days we heard about politicians that wanted to be informed about this unexpected hiatus. That made me even more hopeful. But then there were also politicians that didn’t want it to be acknowledged in order to keep the fear going.

With much interest I saw the evening VRT news. They have the habit of pumping up the volume on climate news. They surely didn’t disappoint on that (probably more in a later post). After the view of calving ice, the alarming tone of Thomas Stocker, co chair of the IPCC:

A very simple statement: one of the 18 key messages that the 110 governments that were present in this room for four days have adopted in consensus: human influence on the climate system is clear.

Other media said about the same. No shred of doubt in their message.

Skimming though the AR5 Summary for Policy Makers torpedoed my ever shrinking hope of finding some acknowledgement. Only the usual depressing and one sided statements.

So, in spite of a bunch of unexplained things, in spite of the observations not developing like the models said it would and in spite of the new found facts that contradicts the previous assumptions, they now basically let the world know that they are even more certain than ever! ¿Qué?

More, how can one be more certain that we are the cause of increasing temperatures when there is a pause of a decade/decade and a half?

If one needs evidence of the IPCC being a political organization, then this would be it. It is clear they are not interested in explaining the truth,the whole truth and nothing but the truth. They just want to keep the alarm going.

The right to free speech isn’t the right to destroy

Although I am green at heart, I had always difficulty in understanding the activist mind. This became again clear while following the “Potato trial”. For those who are not familiar with it, this is what is was about: on May 29, 2011 the activist group Field Liberation Movement (FLM) protested against genetically modified plants. Target was a field with genetically modified potatoes from the University of Ghent in Wetteren. These potatoes were planted within the framework of the investigation of resistance of potatoes against the fungus disease Phytophtora infestans. The demonstration culminated in the activists given themselves access to the field, overpowering the police and swapping some genetically modified potatoes with their organic counterparts. Eleven activists were arrested. The activists got a fine of €550 each, had to pay a compensation of €20,000 and a conditional sentence of 3 to 6 months.

When reading the pro and contra I learned that the activists consistently claimed the demonstration was peaceful and non violent. This was the most euphemistic statement I saw in that regard (translated from Dutch):

“We have replaced genetically modified potatoes by organic potatoes. That was announced long beforehand and known by the police. It was done in clear daylight and without much resistance by the police. It was a symbolic action against a small field that in the end had primarily publicity purposes, actually the marketing of genetic manipulated organisms”, according to Anton.

How much more euphemistic could you get? They “replaced” the genetic modified potatoes from the experiment with organic potatoes. Hey, this means (part of) the experiment will be disrupted. I can image an activist consider this a minor thing, maybe even seeing it as replacing a “bad” genetically modified potato by a “better” organic one. But for the investigators it is a potential disaster. The police was indeed informed, looking at their combat armor. They obviously didn’t trust the demonstration and expected the worse.

Not much resistance by the police? Looking at the news footage it paints a different story. There was a fence around the field. So if they wanted to “replace” those potatoes with their organic counterparts, they had to forced entry to the field. That is called trespassing. Also policemen were injured during that “peaceful” demonstration, that much for “not much resistance” from the police. Some witnesses called it a battle field. I don’t know what they view as peaceful protest, but this was definitely not it.

Police on the ground - peaceful protest according to FLM. Source: vtm

Officer on the ground – peaceful protest according to FLM. Source: vtm


Not much resistance from the police – according FLM Source: hbvl

The judge convicted them symbolically for ganging, assault & injuries and destruction (translated from Dutch):

Mieke Van den Broeck, lawyer of the activists: “The imposed penalty is symbolic, but in this case criminal law is used to fight a protest movement. That is a dangerous development.”

Van Dyck: “It is a dangerous precedent that anti-GMO activists are silenced in this way. GMOs are an important political issue, but the possibilities to start a public debate are further limited with this statement.”

“That debate must take place, because GMOs are unnecessarily risky and there is an ever growing counter movement that disagrees with for example the new European seed legislation, which only makes it easier for the seeds multinationals to develop and spread GMOs.”

Beside the compensation of €20,000 (if you break it, you pay for it), the penalties were symbolic in nature. What they forgot to tell: this was not a coffee klatch, nor a peaceful demonstration. Although the demonstration was discussed beforehand with the police and announced as a peaceful protest, the activists didn’t keep to the agreement, overpowered the police and forced entry to the field, destroying (part of) the experiment by swapping some of the genetically modified potatoes by organic potatoes, showing disregard for the property of others.

What if I deeply believe that exotic plants are a no-no, would it okay for me to force entry into my neighbor’s garden and chopping down his palm tree? Is wanting to start the debate reason enough to break the law? Even activists are subjected to the laws in our society.

This is according to them the result of the verdict (translated from Dutch):

In a press release FLM describes the verdict as “a very dangerous precedent that can hit all forms of social action”. According to the movement “the Belgian court in that way fundamentally undermines the freedom of expression”. According to the FLM the struggle for sustainable agriculture is being “criminalized”.

But free speech had nothing to do with it. Everybody in Belgium can have an opinion, express it openly and can actively pursue it within the limits of the law. The problem with this action was not the demonstration itself, but the culmination of the events into trespassing, causing injuries and the disruption of the field (however minor they considered this was). If other pressure groups stay within the boundaries of the law, this verdict would not have any implication for their action.

Look at it the other way. Suppose the activists were cleared by the judge, wouldn’t that be a license for other activists that would allow them to damage the property of others who don’t agree with them? As the lawyer of the investigators stated: “the right to free speech isn’t the right to destroy”.

In technology we trust

On September 18, 2013 the Federal Planning Bureau of Belgium published a study on the influence of the complete conversion to renewables on job creation. Their conclusion: 21,000 till 65,000 full time jobs will be created by 2030. The condition is conversion to a completely renewable energy system by 2050 (not only electricity, but also heating, warm water, light, industrial steam and transport on green energy). Would it cost more? Well yes, about 20% more than when we would use fossil fuel in 2050.

My thought when reading it was: “No way”! How could this even be remotely possible with the intermittent nature of the wind and solar (which are the main building blocks of their solution)? How believable is it that only with a slightly higher price one could create a completely new and sustainable system on basis of a sharply fluctuating output?

Their starting point is that it would be possible to reach 100% renewable energy, even with todays technology. It is based on an earlier report Towards 100% renewable energy in Belgium by 2050. Conclusion of this report was that this goal is possible, but under some strict conditions. Reading the study remind me about the proposals of Mark Jacobson (Stanford University). His conclusions are rather similar to those made in this study.

To be fair: this is quite a piece of work (156 pages). If one’s task it is to find a way to do it solely with renewables of today, that would be an excellent try. Although I also would like that our energy could be supplied 100% by renewable energy sources, there are a lot of ifs and buts in the reasoning. Maybe all logical, but not always very realistic. The proposed solution doesn’t seem to depend on technology, but on a radical social change and (maybe even forced) cooperation of (most of) the public. Plus also a radical transformation of almost all sectors in the economy!

If we have to adapt to the quirks of a technology, how ready is this technology? Declaring that a radical change in our society is needed to support the technology, means to me that the current technology is NOT ready to take over from fossil fuels. They don’t rely on technology, but on the public. All 11 million of us. To me it seems that the social change solution is proposed to try to dodge the fact that the technology can not compete with fossil fuels yet.

Selectively putting it in context

The last four posts were all about the Northwest Passage and basically about the attempts of two teams that tried to cross (a part of) the Passage. Both failed because of wind and early blocking ice. I found it fascinating how the Mainstream Last First team were spinning their message around, even after the aborted attempt. On their website there was a new post about the Arctic ice titled “How much ice is really out there this year?”, about their encounter with Eric Solomon (Vancouver Aquarium’s Director of Arctic Programs):

“It’s about putting it all in context, really.” He states, “For example, this year’s sea ice extent is still 1.41 million square kilometers below the 1981-2010 average, and is the 6th lowest sea ice extent in the satellite record. The ice that (you) guys encountered says more about where the ice was over the last 2 months than how much ice there has been over-all. There is, for example, a big hole in the ice near the North Pole right now. Meanwhile, the winds have been blowing a lot of ice down into the Archipelago and into the region where (you) guys have been rowing.”

How unlucky can one be. They were exactly were the ice was.;-) Indeed, the Western part of the passage saw more ice, so they encountered it on their trip, but for whatever reason it was not much seen in the pictures of their trip.

A big hole near the North Pole? I want to know more about. According to NSIDC there were “holes” in the Arctic, one imaginary and one real:

Earlier this summer, there was considerable interest in seeing liquid water in the North Pole Environmental Observatory (NPEO) web cam. As explained in our August 7 post, that region was simply a shallow melt pond of water atop the ice and not an actual opening in the ice. Nevertheless, our August 19 post described an extensive region of low ice concentration located fairly close to the pole.

Now, a large hole (roughly 150 square kilometers or 58 square miles) of near-zero ice concentration appears to have opened up at about 87 degrees North latitude. Small areas of open water are common within the ice pack, even at the North Pole, as the ice pack shifts in response to winds and currents, resulting in cracks (called leads) in the ice. The current opening seen in our satellite imagery is much larger. In 2006, a larger polynya appeared in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, but it was much farther south.

I heard about the false alarm in August (it was not a hole, not even a lake, it was not even near the actual North Pole). But in September there was indeed an area with low ice concentration near the Pole. These things are indeed called polynyas and, as mentioned, are not really uncommon in the Arctic region. There are whole ecosystems dependent on it and it even can mean ice growth (wind blows over the water and pushes it to the edges). They are not formed by global warming, but by wind displacement or water upwelling.

That’s real alarmist poetry here. Starting with the explanation that polynyas are common even in the Arctic. Then closing with the mention that the holes are larger and a larger polynya was spotted, but then more south… implying maybe, just maybe, we could have something to do with it.

Back to the Mainstream Last First team:

“Here’s a good example: Last year we saw the lowest amount of sea ice in the Arctic on record-by far. Yet, I was in two different Arctic communities (Iqaluit and Pangnirtung) that were blocked by ice much of the summer. They could not get their food shipments in, they could not get out to hunt and fish. It was a real mess. Elders in Iqaluit were saying it had been at least 50 years since they last saw this happen. How does that happen during the lowest ice extent on record? Wind. The wind blew the ice into the fiords and bays. It was stuck there until the wind changed direction and literally overnight, the bays were cleared. As long as there’s any ice it all, it will blow around. In fact, we can expect to see more winds blowing from different directions than they used to as the climate changes.”

There are the stories from the locals again. The above story was to explain that also with not that much ice communities can be trapped by the ice. They hadn’t seen it in at least 50 years. But the locals told them a lot and it was not all consistent. If it suits the team they say that there is less ice than ever before or “have not seen this type ice conditions” or “ice, ice, ice”.

Mr. Solomon’s words echo what the elders told us and what we intuitively understood. The fact that this year’s summer ice will be 1.41 million square kilometers less than the 1981-2010 average is sobering. To put in in perspective the area of British Columbia and Alberta combined is 1.6 million square kilometers. Climate change is happening and is being evidenced even during a cold year like we just experienced.


They added a graph with the ice extent of September 6, 2013. True, the current extent is still below the average, but the rebound of this year was phenomenal, despite 2013 being touted as the year of the “ice free Arctic”. When one looks at the rebound, it is more than 1.7 million km2. To put that “in context”: that is the same as the area of, ahem, British Columbia and Alberta more ice than there was last year. With even 100,000 km2 to spare. That much ice is hard to avoid.

We couldn’t demonstrate it, but we keep on saying it anyway

We, Belgians, are not a seafaring nation. Our Northern neighbors, the Dutch, have a longer track record and are much better in it. Yet we had a polar explorer in our ranks. His name was Adrien de Gerlache and he lead the expedition of 1897-1899 to the Antarctic in his ship “Belgica”. On board also volunteer first mate Roald Amundsen (Norway) and physician Frederick Cook (USA). Amundsen became much more famous for his later expeditions than De Gerlache.

In a nutshell: De Gerlache and his crew left the port of Antwerp ill prepared, got stuck in the Antarctic ice (in the at that time not charted Bellingshausen sea), desperately trying to dig out the wooden vessel, surviving a harsh winter with limited food and only after 13 months they finally succeeded to find open water (probably more despite him than because of him). Although the mission failed miserably and was incredibly close to disaster, they were celebrated as heroes when they sailed back into the harbor of Antwerp two years later.

I couldn’t help thinking about this when I heard of the adventures of the Mainstream Last First team. They couldn’t complete their mission and had to abort their adventure because of blocking sea ice ahead. Now they are celebrated as if they had proven their case. Not only at their own website, but also for example at Global News. There was a video titled: “Modern day explorers traverse the Arctic for climate change”. In fact, this was not really the case. They didn’t traversed the Arctic at all. They wanted to row a part of the Northwest Passage, but they got stuck half way their mission. And yes, they tried to row for awareness for climate change, but had to stop just because climate change was absent this year (the Arctic didn’t melt as much in summer, leaving more pack ice intact and in other places freezing it earlier).

The title “Modern day explorers traverse the Arctic for climate change” is misleading to say the least. Someone who only reads the title will have a different understanding of the case than the one that actually saw the video to the end. Those who only read the title will think that this “modern day explorers” did succeed in traversing it and that the cause (climate change) is still alive and kicking. It takes to actually look at the video to know that the message of title is NOT true.

There all back home in Vancouver, after a failed attempt to become the first to navigate the Northwest Passage under human power alone. They already accomplished a lot, said Kevin in the middle, who just three years ago set the world record to fastest, unsponsored land track to the South Pole. Now he turns his attention to the other side of the planet.

[Kevin Vallely, Antarctic World Record Holder]
There is far less ice in the Northwest Passage now than there has be over decades past. And we thought that by traversing it in a single season on human power we really would make a really strong statement about the changes that are happening in the Arctic.


They repeat their message about the crossing being a strong statement. Now they weren’t able to traverse that part of the Northwest Passage (which according to their theme should be open for non ice-breaker ships because of the melting of the ice), how strong is that statement still?

They basically blamed it on the wind. While that is perfectly plausible (if the wind is drifting them out of course they will be delays and missing the opportunity of that window where the passage is open), they forget to tell us that the passage closed much earlier than last year. From another Arctic rower we got to hear that last year the Passage closed mid-October.


Pinned by ice or being blown of course meant delay after delay and by late August time and daylight was running out to the point where the decision had to be made. The crew had rowed almost 1,900 km where it should have been 1,500 km.

They did encounter ice and wind and had to divert it which added more kilometers. The wind blew ice into their direction. Ice that shouldn’t be there. Ice that should have melted because of climate change and result in an ice free passage suitable for crossing by a unstrengthened row boat. Can we also conclude that they were ill prepared (of very unlucky) and/or that their boat was no match against the ice? So much for the cocksure “only possible now due to the melting ice in the Arctic”-statement from when they started. They encountered already multi-year ice in Franklin Bay and pack ice in Darnley Bay. That was early in their trip.

[Denis Barnett, NW Passage Rower]
Essentially, the Arctic is as we say the Canary in the coal mine for the rest of the world. If all these changes has been magnified right up there, you know, then there must be something going on, you know?

The canary in a coal mine is a nice way to put it, but it seems a strange statement to make after the canary suddenly started to whistle even stronger than before.

If their theme was that the trip would be a really strong statement for Climate Change, then failing to do so must mean that it is not that strong statement after all. While it doesn’t stand anymore, they still make this statement as if they already traversed it and demonstrated their case.

Arctic witness

On September 9, Charles Hedrich (the Arctic rower who was on his way to cross the Northwest Passage solo in a rowboat) made the decision to abort his attempt and to stop at Tuktoyaktuk where he will spend the winter. He rowed 1,700 km, not yet half way his goal. He plans to continue for the second part in the summer of 2014.

It was something that was expected after his message on September 6 and his focusing on past failed attempts to cross the Northwest Passage back in the 1845 and the 1900s.

Although I deeply respect his achievement of rowing solo for 1,700 km, I find the unavoidable mention of climate change strangely funny. This text at the end of the post caught my attention (translated from French):

The Arctic, a particular area, is often seen as a direct witness of changes to our planet. A field testimony to share and distribute via the association “Respectons La Terre” inviting to know and observe the earth through sportive adventurers who live their passions around the world.

The first sentence seems a bit comical after being stopped by ice only expected a month later and after several statements that “climate change is absent this year”. Or did something happen to that sensitivity or to climate change? Yeah, I know that one year doesn’t prove anything. But it indicates how little is known about the Arctic: this wasn’t expected. Not so long ago scientists and the media projected an ice free Arctic in the summer of 2013. As they also projected it for 2000, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016, 2030, 2050,… take your pick. It would be interesting to see what happens next. Will the melting kick in again? Or will there be a slow increase of ice? There are certainly interesting times ahead.

I have to agree that these references to climate change are very, very mild compared to what for example the Mainstream Last First team is spewing to the public. Their theme is totally immersed in the “climate change is transforming the Arctic” and even when they experienced it differently they frantically kept on beating this drum. More on that in following post.

Missing In Action: Climate Change


Not only the Mainstream Last First project was rowing the Northwest Passage. Another rower, Charles Hedrich, also started rowing from July 1, 2013. Unlike the Mainstream Last First project, he is trying to row the complete Northwest Passage from Bering Strait to the Davis Strait. The Last First project aborted their mission on August 30, 2013. Until now Charles Hedrich is still in the running. But according to his website he also seems to encounter problems. His website is in French and although I speak the language somewhat, it is not a language that I am very comfortable with. So I give the translation for what it is worth (I think it is better than the one of Google Translate, which is a bit funny to say the least):

First narrowing of the Northwest Passage, the ice is located between Sachs Harbor and Cape Bathurst. Will he pass or not?

The cold already arrived, the night lasts 7 hours now and the temperature becomes negative. Gales follow one another with a steady pace.

Passing the blockade seems possible but the row trip is at great risk. The blocks of ice, icebergs or growlers may literally crush the rower. Anyway the passage is already closed between Cambridge Bay and Resolute. As Charles said before leaving “it is dead”. Global warming is missing. In 2012 the passage is closed around October 20, in one month and a half … But that’s Adventure. Theories are abandoned and practice prevails. React to the situation at hand, decide, avoid catastrophe.

I couldn’t really place the “it is dead” statement. What does this refers to? The trip? Climate change? He has quite a poetic language use. That the reason for the funny translations of Google Translate.
Then I found the context of this saying (translated from French):

I need to arrive at the end of September the latest, after this it is dead.

The “it is dead” part refers to the trip, meaning it will be the end. If he doesn’t arrive before the end of September he will have to abort the trip this year. Why the end of September? As he said in the first quote, last year the Passage was open until October 20. But apparently Climate Change forgot to visit the Arctic. The melt season was shorter and the Passage is already closing 1.5 months before the time of closure last year. Resulting in a couple aborted attempts in crossing the “Northwest Passage” or crossing the Arctic. Both Mainstream Last First and Hedrich seemed to count heavily on the effects of Global Warming to get trough the Passage. The Mainstream Last First had misplaced confidence in this effect and it seems to be the same for the Hedrich attempt.

What caught my eye in the Hedrich article was that after the explanation of the difficulties ahead he also wrote about the previous explorations, titled: “The Northwest Passage: a dangerous quest”. Surprisingly, he repeated about the same stuff as the Mainstream Last First FAQ, just a bit less. He only wrote about the fatal attempt of the Franklin Expedition and the first successful expedition of Roald Amundsen with the Gjøa, excluding all the other successful expeditions. I can imagine why. By only mentioning the failed crossing and difficulties and length of the first successful crossing, it will sooth the prospect of the possible failure.

Luckily he also gives his source: the entry of the Northwest Passage in the The Canadian Encyclopedia. This article seemed familiar. Also here only the failed attempts culminating in the Franklin Expedition, the first crossing of Amundsen, the first crossing by the St. Roch and its first one season crossing. In the following text some mention that the crossing was only possible by means of an ice-breaker. No mention about the other 180+ crossings. At the end a large chunk of Climate Change stuff. It seems they both took this as inspiration for their communication to the world.

Don’t get me wrong here. I have no problem with neither attempts of crossing the Northwest Passage by human power alone. This is an incredibly feat and I highly respect that. Rowing for 5,700 km or even 3,000 km or even 1,500 km is quite an achievement, certainly in an unforgiving environment as the Arctic. But I do have a problem with the one-sidedness of the communication about the project. It is not that pronounced with the Hedrich project, but it is the pivot stone in the Mainstream Last First project: this row is only possible because of climate change and the melting ice. But what if the project doesn’t succeed? Will Climate Change still be named, not as a culprit, but as a phenomenon that seemingly was not there this year?

Does crossing (a part of) the Northwest Passage demonstrates the dramatic effect of climate change?


With interest I followed the (failed) attempt of the Mainstream Last First Expedition to row across the Northwest passage. They didn’t really stranded in the ice as I was expecting, but aborted their mission about half way their intended route. They ended in beauty before the ice stopped them in their tracks.

Flashback a couple months. This is how they heroically introduced themselves in the media titled “Four adventurers set off this summer to row the Northwest Passage”:

On July 1, 2013 four modern-day explorers from Vancouver will attempt a world first by rowing the 3,000 km Northwest Passage in a specially commissioned boat by human power alone in a single season-a feat only possible now due to the melting ice in the Arctic.

I don’t want to minimize the difficulty and effort needed to row 3,000 km, but technically the Northwest Passage is 5,600 km long from the Davis Strait to the Bering Strait. Sailing from Univuk to Pond Inlet is like climbing from base camp I to base camp II and calling it having conquered Mount Everest.

[…] This area once represented a closed door for mariners who attempted to navigate the sea route, without success due to impassable sea ice. This passage has only become semi-navigable for about three months a year in the summer months when the ice of the Arctic Ocean breaks up and melts before refreezing for the winter. The four men will take advantage of that short window to row the ice-strewn passage.

“It wasn’t long ago that the Northwest Passage was the sole domain of steel-hulled ice-breakers but things have changed,” said Kevin Vallely, lead rower.

As far as I know there were 180+ successful crossings and the earliest were even made with wooden vessels. Things have changed indeed, but things can change rapidly as they experienced themselves.

A question that caught my attention in the FAQ:

When was the last time an Arctic / NW Passage expedition such as this was conducted and by whom?
Franklin and his crew died trying in the 1845-7. Many others died too. Roald Amundsen succeeded at the first traverse between 1903-06, taking three years to do it. The Canadian Ice Breaker the St. Roche, housed at the Vancouver Maritime Museum, made the second successful crossing of the passage between 1940-42. A handful of people have sailed it in recent years (mostly under motor) and a handful of people have kayaked it over several seasons. No one has traversed it solely under human power in one season. No one has come close.

True, but a very odd selection of the facts. It gives the false impression that only ice-breakers can do the trip and just barely. The first successful crossing was done with a strengthened wooden vessel, the Gjøa. How did that vessel even got through that “closed door” and that “impassable sea ice”?

They also give only three examples: first one that didn’t make it, the second example was the first actual (multi-season) crossing and the third example the second (multi-year) crossing. He conveniently forgot to mention anything after 1942 (that are 180+ crossings). Those examples seemed to be picked for impact and give the false impression that the previous crossing were all multi year attempts. It is true that the first attempts were all multi-season crossing, but they were not just sailing trough, they were still looking for a route. They were explorers mapping the area. At the end he vaguely mentioned a handful of people in a kayak which didn’t make it in one season. According his story there was nothing in between and now the passage becomes open they will give it a try…

The first one-season crossing was in 1944 by the same St. Roch (a sail/diesel engined reinforced wooden ship). According to only 19 of 185 transits (with 138 different vessels) took more than one season to complete the passage. 5 even did a return in the same season.

But I can agree there were no Northwest Passage crossing by hand power alone. With the remark that even if they would succeed rowing this route, they wouldn’t technically rowed the Northwest Passage either.

Now back to reality. On August 30, 2013 they aborted their attempt because of … too much ice ahead. The ice that shouldn’t be there because of climate change. They said that their trip would only made possible because of the lack of ice. They ended their journey about halfway the intended route, which was already half of the official Northwest passage.

[…] At many Eastern places of NWP locals have not seen this type ice conditions. Residents of Resolute say 20 years have not seen anything like. Its, ice, ice and more ice. Larsen, Peel, Bellot, Regent and Barrow Strait are all choked. That is the only route to East. Already West Lancaster received -2C temperature expecting -7C on Tuesday with the snow. […]

[…] This has been the coldest season with the most ice since we started Arctic Watch in 2000. Almost no whales. The NWPassage is still blocked with ice. Some of the bays still have not melted! […]

[…] The expedition challenged us in ways we couldn’t have imagined and we dodged a number bullets along the way. The bullets came in the form of a pan of multi-year ice intent on running us over in Franklin Bay, in the form of wind, storm and current wanting us to experience the grinding pack ice of Darnley Bay all close-up and personal, in the form of a southerly wind so strong we’re powerless as it pushes us out into the Amundsen Gulf. […]

The reality seem to be ice, ice and more ice, different straits that are being choked, low temperatures, coldest season with the most ice since 2000, some bays haven’t even melted, multi year ice threatening running them over and pack ice driven by the wind. Apparently not what they were expecting. How did they validate their belief in the opening of the Northwest-passage after their “first-hand experience”? Apparently they did not such a thing:

Our message remains unaffected though, bringing awareness to the pressing issues of climate change in the arctic.

The expedition has opened our eyes to the issues like we never imagined. We’ve experienced the arctic in a truly unique way and have had the privilege to speak with the people that live here and to hear their stories on climate change. And they’ve told us lots.

What? Suddenly that first-hand information thingy isn’t important anymore. One would expect him to be humbled in the face of reality and at least reassess the premise with this new information. In stead his information source suddenly changes from the icefree passage to the stories of the locals. The same locals that told him that climate change is happening, but also that there is ice, ice, ice. Apparently the locals told him whatever he wanted to hear.

From their presentation I had the impression they thought climate change would open the Northwest passage and they would easily get trough. It did not happen. But he was not deterred by it and went on and, surprise, surprise, claiming climate change is still alive and kicking, a belief strengthened by the new found information source.

That’s strange. Let’s look back to their original core statement in the heroic message to the press:

“Climate change is transforming the Arctic and the world. By traversing the Northwest Passage completely under human power in a rowboat, without sail or motor, the Mainstream Last First team will be able to demonstrate first-hand the dramatic effects climate change is having on our planet. Something like this has never been done before. It is only now possible due to the increase in seasonal sea ice melt and deterioration due to climate changes.”

In retrospect that seemed to be a really dangerous statement to make upfront: if the premise shows to be not true (if the passage is not navigable in this short time frame after all) could this dramatic effect still being demonstrated by this attempt? Indeed, let’s turn it around: if one states that the crossing shows the dramatic effects of climate change, the failure to do so because of blocking ice must mean the effects of climate change are less dramatic than expected, at least this year. But that is not what they are telling us now.