It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Classic Bad Headline

"Arctic Ocean has become less salty, more unstable: scientists" says the Montreal Gazette (h/t Brad Johnson).

No, no, no, no.

Increasing fresh water may indeed affect the climate of the entire world, but that is because the water column is becoming more stably stratified as the salinity decreases, suppressing overturning. Somehow the deep circulation has to respond to this. In my opinion no ocean model and no oceanographic theory is really strong enough to predict how, or what effects that will have on climate.

But that qualitative uncertainty, which colloquially may be considered "unstable", traces back to an increase in the stability of ocean stratification in the Arctic.

Get it? Less salty at the surface = more stably stratified. The word "stable" does not appear in the article in any sense. It's just another bad copy editor headline.

Does this matter? To the editor, to most of the readers, no. Probably nobody will bother trying to get a letter published about this.

To those interested in science, yes. It makes things hard to understand when a word is used to mean the opposite of its technical meaning. To the press, yes as well, because the scientists interviewed will come away with a bad experience and lots of unnecessary explaining to do, adding to their reluctance to talk to the press.


Aaron said...

Please, Professor, tell me again how the enthalpy of the system declines as the fresh water gets fresher and the salt water gets saltier?

(The problem is that all that fresh water on the surface disrupts deep water formation. If there is no deep water formation, what will keep our clathrates cold? Decomposing clathrates could overturn and mix the whole system.)

Antiquated Tory said...

See also the March 31 Dilbert.