Given the news media's obsession with global warming lately, it's amazing that not one bloody word was written in a single American newspaper about Dr. Simon J. Holgate's latest study on rising sea levels.
Had it gotten even half the coverage of the United Nations' latest global warming report, Americans would be so confused by now that they would have tuned the whole thing out.
The bottom line is that if ice doesn't melt and sea levels don't rise at increasing rates, human-induced global warming theory begins to fall apart.
That's why it's significant that in January, Holgate, a scientist with the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory in Liverpool, published a paper in an American Geophysical Union journal that concluded that 1. Sea level rose slightly faster in the first half of the last century than the second half, and 2. What initially appeared to scientists to be a faster rate of increase in sea level between 1993 and 2003 is actually average when compared to a century's worth of data.
Neither of these findings was included in the United Nations' global warming report, though they should have been, because this data isn't new. Holgate's study was merely the latest in a string of recent studies that arrived at similar conclusions using different methods.
If he's read this far into this column, Holgate is probably somewhere between gritting his teeth and coming unglued. When I contacted him recently, Holgate was clearly concerned that I would use his work to try to convince you that global warming is a bunch of bunk.
"Some people think/hope that my work 'disproves' 'global warming'," Holgate wrote in an e-mail. "I don't think it actually proves anything. It's just a contribution."
But Holgate didn't defend global warming, either.
Holgate is a world-class scientist, credited with several firsts in his field and one among a few dozen in the world who are truly pioneering the study of sea level. I didn't expect an answer to the e-mail I sent him, since his valuable time is probably better spent on something else. Instead, he sent answers that went on for screen after screen.
I initially contacted Holgate because the record shows he's a stickler for accuracy, a real scientific buzz kill. He's the guy a reporter doesn't want to call, because odds are pretty good he'll punch holes in the science, no matter if the writer wants to prove global warming or disprove it.
What Holgate wanted me to tell you is just how much he and his peers don't know.
"For all the claims that are made about these things, there is relatively little data with which to reconstruct the time series of global sea level," Holgate wrote. "We do our best, but there are significant error bars around the data."
This is the part of the global warming story you never hear from either side of the debate.
Holgate says scientists generally agree that sea level has been steadily rising for at least 3,000 years as part of an ongoing adjustment to the last ice age. The few reconstructions from tide gauges that extend back to the 1880s suggest an overall acceleration of the rate of sea-level rise since then, but that's not definite because the tide gauges scientists have to study are concentrated in northern Europe and the eastern United States. Since sea level at any given time varies wildly around the world, it's hard to draw concrete global conclusions.
Meanwhile, over the last century, there have been decades with higher rates of sea-level rise (around 1939 and 1980) and lower sea-level rise (around 1964 and 1987). There's little debate among scientists that sea level has definitely been rising over the last few decades, he says. But is the rate of sea-level rise increasing due to man-made factors — or at all — in the way Al Gore and others would like us to think it is?
"There is no doubt that sea level is rising, but acceleration is hard to prove against the 'noise' of the variability in the climate system," says Holgate.
And that's what struck me when I took the time to read Holgate's work and that of others — what they don't know. I'd assumed that sea-level science was far more advanced than it actually is, but in many ways, it appears to still be in its infancy. Most of the studies by Holgate and his peers are still focused on learning to read and interpret complex and spotty sea-level data, then verifying those readings.
Read those studies, and even a lay person can begin to see how fudged the United Nations' report is, how it cherry-picks series of decades and draws conclusions, how it skirts the issue of whether there was an increased rate of sea-level rise between 1993 and 2003, calling it "unclear" when recent studies suggest otherwise.
This is perhaps why the U.N. report uses the word "likely," italicized for extra emphasis, 66 times in just 13 pages. None of the statistics in the report had citations indicating which studies they came from.
In all the pages he wrote to me, Holgate was willing to make only one prediction. Science and technology are advancing, and every year, we have a new set of satellite data and a greater knowledge of how the sea and the atmosphere work.
"I have no doubt it will be clear within our lifetimes what is actually happening," Holgate says.
Tara Servatius is a columnist for Creative Loafing's sister paper in Charlotte, NC.