Lost in the translation: The ozone-climate connection

Kate at Climate Sight remind us this week of just how challenging it can be for a mainstream media outlet to accurately report on climatology. Even when the reporter gets it right, a headline-writing editor can inject just enough obsfucation to leave readers puzzled or misinformed.

ResearchBlogging.orgThis particular piece of evidence attesting to the need for all journalists to possess more than just a passing knowledge of the field in question involves a new paper in Nature, "Unprecedented Arctic ozone loss in 2011." The implication of the authors' finding is that the Arctic's UV-radiation-blocking ozone layer is vulnerable to depletion at lower temperatures than previously thought.

Unusually long-lasting cold conditions in the Arctic lower stratosphere led to persistent enhancement in ozone-destroying forms of chlorine and to unprecedented ozone loss, which exceeded 80 per cent over 18-20 kilometres altitude. Our results show that Arctic ozone holes are possible even with temperatures much milder than those in the Antarctic. We cannot at present predict when such severe Arctic ozone depletion may be matched or exceeded.

By itself, it's an interesting paper, and worth the consideration of policy-makers charged with translating the science of climate change into legislation and regulations. But it is pretty much inside baseball as far as the public debate on the issue goes, and this is why it hasn't attracted too much attention so far.

But an editor at the Winnipeg Free Press decided a Canadian Press story on the paper warranted a little more than a one-paragraph summary. A copy editor then slapped this on the top:

Record Ozone loss over the Arctic caused by extremely cold weather: scientists

Which is true. Technically. While I doubt that the copy editor responsible for the headline knew it, the Nature paper introduction begins with this paragraph (emphasis mine):

Since the emergence of the Antarctic 'ozone hole' in the 1980s1 and elucidation of the chemical mechanisms and meteorological conditions involved in its formation, the likelihood of extreme ozone depletion over the Arctic has been debated. Similar processes are at work in the polar lower stratosphere in both hemispheres, but differences in the evolution of the winter polar vortex and associated polar temperatures have in the past led to vastly disparate degrees of springtime ozone destruction in the Arctic and Antarctic. We show that chemical ozone loss in spring 2011 far exceeded any previously observed over the Arctic. For the first time, sufficient loss occurred to reasonably be described as an Arctic ozone hole.

Meteorological is jargon for weather, so it would seem the editor is correct, no?

No, argues Kate. Not once, but thrice:

No, no, no. Weather happens in the troposphere, not the stratosphere. While the stratosphere was extremely cold, the troposphere certainly was not. It appears that the reporters assumed the word "stratosphere" in the paper's abstract was completely unimportant. In fact, it changes the meaning of the story entirely.

And she points out that the comments section on the Free Press site are already filled with ignorant extrapolations from the headline.

So with global warming our winters are colder?

First it's global warming that is destroying Earth, now it's being too cold?! I'm starting to think these guys know as much about this as weather guys know about forecasting the weather!

Al gore the biggest con man since the beginning of mankind!! This guys holdings leave a bigger carbon footprint than most small countries!!

I'm confused. I thought the north was getting warmer and that's why the polar bears are roaming around Churchill looking for food. There isn't ice for them to go fishing.

Yup. You could see that coming. But I am not sure that it's just the headline that's the problem, as Kate contends. Whether what happens in the stratosphere is or isn't "weather" is an abstract semantic argument. Wikipedia does make the distinction, but not definitively ("Most weather phenomena occur in the troposphere, just below the stratosphere.") Can we really expect every headline writer to know the difference? And again, the paper does talk about meteorological conditions, although the context is broader because the paper deals with the interaction between the troposphere and stratosphere.

The CP reporter did write about the paper accurately. The lead:

Scientists say an unprecedented ozone "hole" opened up above the Arctic last year, caused by an unusually prolonged period of extremely low temperatures in the stratosphere.

But one suspects that any attempt to tackle this story without confusing a good many readers is doomed to failure. Perhaps if the CP story had included a line to the effect that the "greenhouse effect" reflects heat back to the earth instead of letting it leak up to the stratosphere (which the version in the Free Press doesn't), fewer readers would have been confused. But I am skeptical that any amount of explication, context, or qualification would have been entirely successful. The history of public polling on climate change awareness is full of example of respondents who confuse the causes and effects of ozone depletion and global warming.

So, yes, the headline probably shouldn't have used the word "weather." Maybe something like "Record Ozone loss over the Arctic caused by global warming: scientists." And the story should have included a passage explaining how it is that anthropogenic climate change can make the air near the ground warmer, but the air high up colder.

But all this would mean the the entire editorial chain at the paper would have to have some level of understanding of the basics behind climatology. Is that too much to ask? Probably. But given that we expect most journalists to have a fairly good grasp of geography, history and politics -- it's impossible to be a good copy editor if you don't know that stuff -- I think it reasonable to conclude that they all should also be aware of the fundamentals of the most important public policy challenge of our times. For a reasonable fee, I could write a 1,000-word primer for them if they don't have time to wander through such excellent online references as www.skepticalscience.com.
Manney, G., Santee, M., Rex, M., Livesey, N., Pitts, M., Veefkind, P., Nash, E., Wohltmann, I., Lehmann, R., Froidevaux, L., Poole, L., Schoeberl, M., Haffner, D., Davies, J., Dorokhov, V., Gernandt, H., Johnson, B., Kivi, R., Kyrö, E., Larsen, N., Levelt, P., Makshtas, A., McElroy, C., Nakajima, H., Parrondo, M., Tarasick, D., von der Gathen, P., Walker, K., & Zinoviev, N. (2011). Unprecedented Arctic ozone loss in 2011 Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature10556


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The Winnipeg Free Press is not exactly on the ball when it comes to science. A couple of years ago their 'science' correspondent wrote several articles praising two high schooll students who were trying to make a perpetual motion machine for their science fair project. I wrote polite letters both to the paper and to the school, but had no response from either.

By Richard Simons (not verified) on 04 Oct 2011 #permalink

Sigh. I Know. Same in germany.
I have spent at least a whole day to post corrections and rebuttals of dumb conclusions on errounous articles - the news agency, most online newspapers relied on in Germany, mentioned the stratosphere only in connection with the effect of ozone.
Some outlets had the story of the Sea-Ice-Minimum side by side with the headline "Unprecendated Cold in the Arctic", of course setting all the denier-loonies loose.
One of these even answered me something like: "Troposhere / Stratosphere - the alarmists will always find a minor factoid to cover their scam." Sigh again.