Monday, March 14, 2016

Media often misses Climate Change in Great Lakes ice coverage

Starting around 1970 Great Lakes ice coverage began decreasing because of Climate Change. Then ice coverage spiked upwards in the winters of 2013/2014 and 2014/2015. There has been less ice coverage this winter, harking back to the overall trend towards less ice on the Great Lakes. You wouldn’t know this if you only paid attention to some local news whose weather myopia blinds their readers to the big picture.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

Great Lakes ice cover: See the dramatic difference a year makes What a difference a year can make when it comes to weather on the Great Lakes. That also means ice cover can vary greatly. There is a vast difference in the amount of ice on the Great Lakes now compared to this time last year. Currently, the Great Lakes in total are covered with only 9.7 percent ice. This time last year the Great Lakes were 83.2 percent covered with ice. This means there was 70,300 square miles more ice at this time last year. (March 8, 2016) Michigan Live

While it is true that “ice cover can vary greatly,” this article is very misleading because the article only focuses on last winter and this winter.

Here’s another example of short-sighted ice coverage by the media; this time back in 2014 when ice cover shifted dramatically upwards. The article obsesses about the almost record high but doesn’t put this anomaly in perspective.

Freeze pushes Great Lakes ice cover toward '79 record The Great Lakes are on the cusp of a record for ice cover - but if the record does stand another winter we can blame Lake Ontario.” “The ice cover on other lakes, including Lake Superior, Huron and Michigan, though, has increased from 79.7% to 88.4% just in the past week, putting the region close to the record of almost 95% set in February 1979, according to data compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor.” (February 14, 2014 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle)

Not all media get it wrong. This article appeared before the 2013/2014 hard winter. 

Shrinking ice worries Great Lakes scientists Winter ice cover has decreased 70% since 1970s. Why? Great Lakes ice is shrinking. Ice cover has decreased nearly 70% on the five Great Lakes since the early 1970s, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The five Great Lakes hold 20% of the world's fresh water and have more than 11,000 miles of shoreline. Every one of the lakes has endured the winter meltdown: Lake Ontario saw the most dramatic decrease with an 88% drop in ice coverage. Lake Superior lost 76% of its ice. Lake Michigan saw a decrease of 77%. Lake Huron's ice has decreased 62%. Lake Erie, the shallowest of the lakes and therefore the first to freeze every year, lost half of its ice cover. Scientists blame global warming. Hotter days mean warmer water. (March 7, 2013) USA Today)

Information from the experts on Great Lakes ice coverage is not misleading at all. It’s very clear where the trend is going. But the general public doesn’t read climate experts’ data, they attend to the mass media. Here’s the information about Great Lakes ice coverage from just one expert group:  

Great Lakes Ice Coverage From 1973 to 2010, annual average ice coverage on the Great Lakes declined by 71%. From 1975 through 2004, the number of days with land snow cover decreased by 15 days, and the average snow depth decreased by 2 inches (5.1 cm). Snow and ice levels on the Great Lakes and on land will likely continue to decrease. Reduced lake freezing will result in more exposed water that could increase lake-effect precipitation. Ice coverage declined by 71% overall on all five Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair since from 1973-2010. Total losses of annual lake ice coverage varied from lake to lake, ranging from 37% in Lake St. Clair and 50% in Lake Erie to 88% in Lake Ontario. Though the long-term trend has been downward, high ice winters, such as 2013-2014 and 2014-2015, can still occur and illustrate the complexity of this system. (The Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments Program (GLISA))

Great Lakes ice coverage presents the media with an excellent opportunity to educate the public about the seemingly confusing yearly weather trends against the backdrop of Climate Change. A melting Arctic, which often pushes jet streams into our region, can make it appear as if our winter temperatures and ice cover are bouncing all over the place. A step back in perspective clearly shows that the trend in our weather is matching the predictions of Climate Change. A media that properly characterizes what’s going on with our wacky weather will better inform the public (and businesses) so they can make better choices in a warming world. 

When our media fails to adequately present the new normal of Climate Change and falls back into shifting baseline syndrome  (a sort of environmental amnesia), the public will think Climate Change is true every time it gets warm and false every time it gets cold.


Climate Change is a complicated issue and one that needs public knowledge and support for any real actions to address this worldwide crisis. Our media is the way our public understands the world around them and only an accurate portrayal of reality will do. 

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