Monday, 12 November 2007

From the mouth of babes

Mr Eugenides presents us with yet another example of someone abandoning simple common sense in his haste to push his own agenda. Honestly, you think people would have the wit to check their facts first, wouldn't you? "[...]the entire Western Antarctica is now floating", forsooth. Good thing we have Mr E to point out that: "I could have told you that when I was in primary school."

Except, of course, he couldn't. Geography mavens will be aware that Antarctica is a continent; it is land. The majority of Antarctic ice is land-bound. The Western Ice Sheet was in 2006 resting on the sea-bed. Towards the edges of the continent, to which it inexorably slides under its own weight, the ice-sheet forms tongues which reach into the sea. These do indeed float, and occasionally calve icebergs or, recently and spectacularly, break off altogether. Astonishingly enough, this is a bad thing. The glaciers' march to the sea is restrained by the large belts of ice around the continent, but less so when it breaks away from the land altogether. The quicker the land-bound glaciers are reaching the sea, the faster sea-levels are going to rise. (Antarctica gets ice back, you'll be glad to hear, through snowfall - but not enough to replace it all, so up go the seas.) When Mr Eugenides was in primary school (unless he's very precocious) there was a nice safe belt round the Antarctic. Nowadays, not so much. For those of you keeping score:

Guy who visited research station and spoke to leading experts currently studying the phenomenon in question: 1

Guy who sat at home and cried "Bollocks" based on nothing more than something he learnt while wearing shorts: 0

This shouldn't be a surprise. This is a very complex subject. It may have seemed obvious to Mr E (so obvious he tagged it "Dept of the Fucking Obvious", in fact) but that was not because he is a man of such remarkable perspicacity that observations made in the happy innocence of childhood have given the him the wherewithal to instantly see the flaw in those poor deluded boffins' thinking. It's because he knows nothing. He knows nothing about Antarctic ice formation and yet he is being asked to have an opinion on it. Ban Ki Moon didn't fly to Antarctica just for a chat. He wanted to draw attention to problem of rapidly melting ice shelves, partly in order to persuade Mr E to do something about it. To change his lifestyle, and possibly even to change his vote.

Now that's a lot to ask of any of us. And if we're responsible, we won't just go along blindly. We'll try to question this claim, and test it against what we do know. Good for us. But there are some issues where we struggle. We don't know which questions to ask. We don't have the time, any of us, to take a quick degree in climatology and find out for ourselves why ice shelves melt. But luckily, other people already have. And maybe, just maybe, when they speak on their subject we should at least be prepared to consider that they might be right.

(The Western Antarctic Ice Sheet has a volume of approx. 2.2 million cubic kilometres. In true popular science style: if you carved it into ice-cubes, the current population of the UK could have a nicely cooled G&T every second of every day for the next 3 million years. It honestly is a lot of ice.)

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