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The Problem With Snapshots

Last week several local newspapers in Wisconsin and Minnesota carried news stories about the National Weather Service report that the extent of ice on Lake Superior this month is greater than at any time since January 1989. In fact, this winter has seen the second fastest build up of ice in the Great Lakes since they started keeping track in 1978.

How could the ice cover be increasing if the climate is warming?

Project: Ice, a new documentary film about the changing climate of the Great Lakes, tells a different story. “This is the first winter in a long time that we’ve seen ice forming on Lake Michigan in December,” Co-producer Kevin Kusina explained during the Q&A session after a screening of the film. While working on the film he said he found the lack of ice in recent years depressing.

Weather nut that I am, I remember the Great Lakes ice of the past as well. While I was student at the University of Michigan (1967-1971), I vividly recall reports of the annual battles ice breakers had to keep the shipping lanes open in winter.

The recent stories of this year’s increased ice build-up leave the impression that belies recent climate history. The real story is not that there is so much ice, but that there has been much less ice for so long. In other words, the Great Lakes are more ice-choked this year, but prior to 1978 this would not have been so unusual.

I doubt the newspapers are intentionally deceiving their readers. In this sound bite age, with the accompanying erosion of in-depth reportage, a quick-hit three paragraph “snapshot” that reports on a current happening is the standard. The reporters may have had no knowledge of the diminishing ice coverage of the Great Lakes since the 1960’s, and anyone reading this story who is under 40 will be too young to remember.

Those who do not dig more deeply can become easy targets for the climate change denier propaganda machine of the fossil fuel companies. After all, global warming is real bad news, and it is only natural for people to deny such news when they hear it. The snapshot reporting that most people see, hear or read is bound to leave false impressions about the nature, extent and even existence of climate change.

This presents a real challenge for those of us organizing to combat global warming. We don’t have the financial resources to refute the multi-million dollar advertising campaigns of the fossil fuel companies. However, we can, with a letter to the editor or an in-person conversation, reach out to people who may become confused by what they have read in the paper. We need to look beyond the snapshot, be sufficiently educated to understand the complexities, and we must work at crafting answers that take them into account without descending into jargon or burying people in detail. Finally, we should take heart that, since the vast majority of people can see the frightening changes for themselves, our audience is becoming more receptive.  Read More 
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