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Open Sea at North Pole No Cause for Panic

(Submitted to New York Times 23 August 2000 -- not published)

The North Pole surrounded by open sea provides a dramatic photograph (NYT Aug 19) and subsequent op ed  (NYT 23 Aug) claiming that, for the first time in 50 million years, we now have an open polar sea. There is, however, much less in the photograph than meets the eye. 

 One cannot travel far over Arctic Ocean sea ice without encountering areas of open water. These are caused by currents and winds breaking up the ice. The open water tends to then freeze, forming thin ice that is likely to be covered by snow. This poses risks to explorers. To minimize these risks, polar expeditions using human and animal power aim to arrive at the pole in mid-winter, even though this requires traveling for months in extreme cold and darkness. 

 When I visited the North Pole in July 1996* (on board the Yamal, , the same icebreaker from which the photograph of the pole surrounded by open sea was taken), the captain had to sail six miles away from the pole to find ice thick enough to permit safe disembarkation. Small areas of open water were clearly visible at the pole, with larger areas nearby. It is to be expected that on some occasions, by chance, a large area of open sea will surround the pole. This has likely occurred a vast number of times over the millennia, even if it was photographed for the first time this year. 

 The first surface vessel to reach the pole was the Soviet nuclear-powered icebreaker Arktika, on August 17, 1977 (US and Soviet submarines have made many visits, but details are classified). The North Pole has been observed close-up on only twelve of the years between 1977 and 2000. Little is known for other years, because earth-orbiting satellites do not cover the poles. The fact that open sea surrounded the pole for one out of twelve years is hardly dramatic evidence of global warming. If it is, then the unusually cold summer we experienced in the mid-West is evidence of global cooling.

 The only thing we know with certainty about global climate change is that it occurs. While planet earth has an atmosphere, climate change has always occurred and always will occur. It is certain that in ten years the average temperature of the earth will be either warmer or cooler than it is today (no change, while possible, has zero probability). This obvious but rarely understood certainty leads to three questions, none of which can be answered with much confidence. First, is the earth warming or cooling? Second, what are the main causes of whatever climate changes are occurring? Third, will the human race gain or lose from the climate changes?

 Current evidence suggests it is more likely that the earth is warming than cooling. However, the evidence is far from overwhelming. Better data or analysis, or a major volcanic eruption, could change everything. The evidence for warming falls well short of that necessary to convict a well-represented defendant in a US criminal law court. Such evidence does not justify using the term "global warming" as if it were a fact. 

 If warming is occurring, there is little evidence that human activity is a major cause. Frederick Seitz, a past president of the National Academy of Sciences, has circulated a petition stating "There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gasses is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate."  Almost 17,000 American scientists have signed it, including more than 100 specialists in climate. Richard S. Lindzen, a leading expert on the physical processes of the atmosphere, and the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is skeptical about whether human activity has had any effect on the earth’s temperature. All these technical people may be wrong -- it has happened before. However, the strident claims of non-technical advocates that they definitely are all wrong should not be taken seriously.  If the earth becomes warmer, there will be gainers and losers. Likewise, if it becomes cooler. In the aggregate, the human race will suffer a net loss or enjoy a net gain from any change in global temperature -- intuition offers no guide as to which. It is absurd to claim that the earth is currently at some sort of optimum  temperature, with any change in either direction being necessarily detrimental.

Dr. Leonard Evans 
Bloomfield Hills 

The writer is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, has a doctorate in physics from Oxford University, England, and has authored over 100 scientific articles on a wide range of subjects.

* Click here for photographs of our trip to the North Pole