When modeling future climate trends, scientists must now consider the full suite of variables, he explained in an interview — from atmospheric and environmental conditions to greenhouse gases — which all have the potential to offset each other in complicated ways.
Concern Over Climate Skeptics
As excited as Kay said she is about her team's two findings — both the long-term prediction that sea ice will be gone by 2060, and the finding that humans and natural fluctuations are equally to blame for warming — she also expressed concern that skeptics of climate science will misuse some of their conclusions on the short-term trends.
She is particularly worried that they will seize upon the potential sea ice expansion prediction as evidence against a warming world.
Already, several media outlets have incorrectly reported that the study says sea ice will expand or stabilize in the near future, without mentioning the scientists' warnings that short-term trends are highly unreliable. This may partly be because of a misleading press release by NCAR that failed to mention the uncertainty, said Kay, which was laid out explicitly in the full article.
For instance, one headline from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer read, "Be prepared for more Arctic sea ice in the next decade." Another article on the Discovery Channel's online news site reports that "the model replicated the events of the past well enough to suggest that its forecasts of possible futures are realistic." CNN.com acknowledged that the sea ice may expand, but didn't mention the scientists' key conclusion that short-term trends are too unreliable to be used in climate forecasting.
"I would really hate for someone to say, 'If we had a 10-year increase in sea ice, that must mean greenhouse gases aren't affecting the ice anymore,'" said Kay. "That's not the case at all."
Corrections (Aug. 17): An earlier version of this article incorrectly suggested that the NCAR study showed that Arctic sea will completely disappear by the year 2060. In an email to SolveClimate News, David Hosansky, head of media relations for NCAR, said: "The authors ran a number of model scenarios that indicated the ice could disappear in 2060, or any of a number of other years, indicating that no one year could be pinpointed." Changes in the article and headline were made to make this clear.
The article also incorrectly implied in one early reference that sea ice will expand several times only before 2020. In fact, sea ice has a 50-50 chance of expansion until it completely vanishes, which was correctly reported later in the article.