Climate Changing Up the Narrative

Photo by Martin Biuw

As witnessed this past spring when the ultra-viral message of the #Kony2012 video campaign metamorphosed within days of its launch, sometimes a story released into the news cycles changes mid-stream, and mutates to become an entirely different narrative. (See “Kids React to Kony 2012“)

Two weeks ago, a team of oceanographers published a scientific paper on the melting rate of one particular Antarctic ice shelf. The research caught media attention because it involved an “interspecies collaboration” with elephant seals fitted with temporary radio sensors,

who gathered data on the Antarctic currents as they went about their daily routine. A sensor attached to seal’s forehead records temperature and salinity during its dives, and transmits the data by satellite back to the lab.

According to one member of the team, Oceanographer Jonathan Lilly the report, entitled “Two years of oceanic observations below the Fimbul Ice Shelf, Antarctica”, concluded

… the past decade has seen the catastrophic breakup of a number of ice shelves, some as large as small states. This has prompted climate scientists to examine in more detail the interactions between the ocean and the ice. Our results suggest that the rate at which *some* ice shelves are melting is less than previously thought. We did not question the overall conclusion that the Antarctic ice sheet as a whole is currently losing mass, which has consistently been concluded from several different methods.

Fair enough.

Yet within days of its publication, the study morphed into a different narrative in the U.K.’s Register complete with the jaw-dropping headline: “Antarctic ice shelves not melting at all, new field data show”.

According to Dr. Lilly,

This is the equivalent of turning the statement “the cancer is not as bad as we thought” into “you don’t have cancer.” The severely distorted version of our study’s conclusions then spread rapidly across the internet. It is a pattern that climate researchers have unfortunately observed many times, part of a widening gulf of misinformation between scientists and society.

The research group issued a retaliation to this viral misinformation, described in The Carbon Brief, which elicited echo-chatter support. This is not the first time the Register has been accused of distorting climate science.

The question remains: with social media so viral-ready, how can some messages be slowed to allow for thoughtful, factual consumption, and to avert the “Truthy” spin machine, or if necessary, re-spun to restore the true narrative?

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