All gone by the year 2020: what does it matter anyway?

This is part 7 in the series on the prediction that glaciers in Glacier National Park will be gone by 2020. You might want to see to part 1, part2, part 3, part 4, part 5 and part 6 if you haven’t already.

The last six posts were about the prediction that the glaciers in Glacier National Park would be gone by 2020. I also delved deeper in the relation of this prediction with a similar prediction that the glaciers would be gone by 2030, making the case that the 2020 prediction was an update of the 2030 prediction (contrary to how it is reported in most media).

Now you could object that this looks like nit-picking. Glaciers are shrinking anyway, that is also clear from previous post, so what does it matter whether someone made a wrong prediction of how long the remaining glaciers would last. The discussion whether the glaciers in Glacier National Park would be gone by 2020 or 2030 seems small change compared to the big picture that they will be gone in the future.

I could somewhat understand such objection, but I think there is much more to it than that.

Remember, the 2020 prediction was broadly communicated in the media in 2009 as the latest science, based on current observations, therefor as more reliable than the science that preceded it. It was used as a confirmation that it was much worse than was thought at the time, see the Thinkprogress article from the first post in this series. One of the media articles even went so far as to insinuate that we should search for a new name of the Glacier National Park…

In the end, the prediction failed, so that confirmation based the latest science was not a confirmation at all. The glacier ultimately melted less than expected, despite the observations that were the basis of this prediction.

The same story is playing in the Saint Mary visitor center that had a diorama sign warning the visitors that, according to computer models, the glaciers would be gone by 2020. This claim was then in 2019 replaced by:

When they will completely disappear, however, depends on how and when we act.

What I didn’t notice in the first post in this series was that, beside the “gone by 2020” message, also this sentence was removed from the sign:

Glacier National Park was named for the sculpting actions of the Pleistocene glaciers that covered this landscape 12,000 to 130,000 years ago.

So there is no need whatsoever to rename the park, even after the glaciers would be gone. The name of the park was not inspired by the current glaciers, but by what prehistoric glaciers carved out in the landscape over a period of roughly 100,000 years. That as an aside.

What both stories have in common is that currently the public is unaware of the failed prediction, unless they saw and remembered the original failed prediction. The visitors of Glacier National Park because the signs were removed without any notice that there was such a prediction and why it failed and, as far as I know, the readers of Thinkprogress didn’t get that memo either.

The last mention at Thinkprogress of Glacier National Park is the article titled National parks are warming faster than the rest of the country, per new study. This is the relevant part:

“It is important to note that even if we really do a strong mitigation of greenhouse gases, the national park system is still expected to see a 2 degree temperature change,” John Williams, a professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a statement.

“At this point,” he continued, “it is likely that the glaciers in Glacier National Park will ultimately disappear, and what is Glacier National Park if it doesn’t have glaciers anymore?”

That is also the brunt of the subtitle of the article: “What is Glacier National Park if it doesn’t have glaciers anymore?”, apparently without realizing that these glaciers were supposed to be gone around this time despite the prediction based on the same observation.

It went from “worse than thought” in 2009 to “worse than the rest of the country” in 2019. The visitors of Glacier National Park went from “gone by 2020” to “we are the ones that determine how long the glaciers will last”.

As far as I could find, there was no Thinkprogress article detailing the 2020 prediction fail, so readers only got the doom stories and not that the 2020 prediction didn’t hold water. The same with the visitors of Glacier National Park who got only one side of the story (the worst side), without any mention of the failed prediction or any explanation why it failed.

The bad news was perpetuated in both cases, although it was clear that it was not worse than thought. If that was really the case, then the glaciers would now virtually be gone.

Both audiences are withheld information about the many uncertainties involved. The current estimate that the glaciers would be gone is 2030. This is however the lower threshold. The upper threshold is, according to the US Geographical Survey website, currently 2080. They rely for this date on a 2010 paper (Brown et al., 2010). Strangely, this paper was already available shortly after the 2020 prediction was made, but only appeared on their website at the end of 2016/beginning of 2017. Strangely because until 2016 that page stated that it would be 2030 or maybe even earlier, despite that paper already being available at that time.

From 2020 to 2080, that is a huge stretch. It is going from something that would supposed to occur around this time to something that unlikely will happen in my time. That means that there are many uncertainties involved, untold to the public.

When a science involving high levels of uncertainties is brought with certainty and it doesn’t work out as expected, then it might backfire. Climate science communications centers around the trust that the scientists have figured it all out and that we, mere mortals, have to believe those scientists on face value. When an uncertain science is brought with high certainty and the prediction fails, then it will decrease public trust.

So, that failed prediction does matter. It shows that the science that it was based on, is highly uncertain, notwithstanding its communication was stripped of all these uncertainties.

It further shows that the media, but also the National Park Service and the US Geographical Survey, are biased in their communication to the public. It was already clear in 2010 that the end date of the glaciers could well be 2080, but in 2010-2014 the public only heard about the 2020 end date. Later the end date was reverted to 2030 and only in 2016 the 2080 end date was mentioned (six years after its publication). That is disappointing coming from two organizations that are supposed to be trustworthy, yet seemed to have other priorities. Trust is key here and those who look at the sequence of events will have their trust lowered by this…

This post closes the (longer than I initially expected) series on the “gone by 2020” prediction. But keep the element of trust in mind, it will come back in the next post.

Go to Part 1 | Part 2 | part 3 | Part 4 | part 5 | part6 | part 7

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