Apocalypse when? UK media reporting on the possibility of North Atlantic Thermohaline Circulation collapse

by Robin de la Motte

In November 2010 The Financial reported a study of 12 countries’ newspaper coverage of the UN’s 2009 Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen. The study found all countries under-reported the climate change science, with articles focussing on the science representing less than 10% of the sample. In addition, nearly 80% of the sample articles gave less than 10% of their coverage to the science.

Similarly, a 2010 article by Neil Jennings and Mike Hulme found that climate change science in their area of interest was poorly covered in UK newspapers. UK newspaper articles (studied for the period 1987 to 2006) on the possibility of abrupt climate change typically gave no indication of the probability of such an event, or else contradictory probabilities. Many reports involved sensationalist headlines around the issue of the possibility of a collapse in the North Atlantic Thermohaline Circulation (THC), and represented the event as causing a new “Ice Age”. In fact the scientific consensus has been that whilst there is substantial uncertainty around the likelihood of a THC collapse, it is extremely unlikely this century, and possible cooling of the North Atlantic by 3 to 5 degrees in a decade would be a regional effect, not global (as an Ice Age is).

Jennings and Hulme note that “the scientific uncertainty surrounding the possibility of a collapse enabled journalists to emphasise the high-consequence dimension of the risk while downplaying, or failing to mention, the low probability of occurrence [in the 21st century].” In addition, they noted that the North Atlantic THC was often erroneously represented as the “Gulf Stream”, which is a surface current driven by wind and the Earth’s rotation, while the THC is a deepwater current driven by differences in temperature and salinity. The two currents are linked, but only the latter is considered at any risk from climate change, primarily from changes in salinity due to increases in freshwater entering the sea from permafrost melt and increased precipitation.

Marked differences between countries in reporting of climate change, says study

The Financial, 15 November 2010, “Marked differences between countries in reporting of climate change, says study”

View the Jennings and Hulme (2010) article here

Jennings, Neil and Hulme, Mike (2010), “UK newspaper (mis)representations of the potential for a collapse of the Thermohaline Circulation”, Area, Volume 42, Issue 4, pages 444-456

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