The NSF Corrects an “Error” in Error.

The NSF, after receiving an email from a concerned citizen, recently made a correction to a statement that had been on their website for several years. Unfortunately, the NSF ought to know better than to allow a web site administrator to overrule the findings of qualified scientists on the say so of a lay commentator.

At issue is a comment on an NSF page titled “The Importance of Sea Ice”. The page discusses the findings of two expeditions relating to changes in arctic conditions over a forty year period. Originally, the page contained the following paragraph(1):

“One unexpected finding concerned the salinity of the water. When the scientists first arrived at the Arctic ice pack in October 1997, they discovered that the water was much fresher than it had been when the same area was analyzed 20 years earlier. They concluded that the melting of the ice pack during the summer of 1997 caused the water to be proportionally less salty. Such a change can have serious consequences for marine life as well as for how ocean water circulates and interacts with the atmosphere. In addition to altering salinity, melting sea ice also raises worldwide sea levels, with potentially significant effects for coastal cities and towns.”

Of course, as any diligent fifth grader knows, Archimedes Principle states that an object immersed in a fluid is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid it displaces. This implies that floating ice displaces a volume of water equal to the melted volume of the ice itself. Citizen Dave Burton noticed the discrepancy(2) and sent the NSF a message:

“Since the error was on your site for over 6.5 years, misleading readers into believing that melting sea ice contributes to coastal sea level rise, I think it is important that you identify the error on your site, with a footnote which explains what was wrong with it.”

And belying the usual claims of an unresponsive government controlled by a global conspiracy to distort science in order to bolster some hidden political agenda, the NSF did exactly as Mr. Burton asked, removing the last sentence, and adding the following note in its place:

“[Editor’s note: An inaccurate statement about sea ice and rising sea levels has been deleted. We regret the error.]”

A victory for common sense and democracy in action!

Only one problem. Mr. Burton was flat WRONG, and the NSF should not have listened to him. Sea ice is mostly fresh water because the salt quickly leaches out of it once it forms. Persistent sea ice, ice that has been frozen for thousands of years—the bulk of the global ice pack and the very ice the scientists are worried about–is entirely fresh. Salt water is denser than fresh water, so the volume of sea water needed to buoy a block of freshwater ice is slightly less than the volume of fresh water in the ice.

A layman like Mr Burton cannot be expected to know this, or to know that calculations show that, in fact, melting pack ice will increase the volume of the ocean by enough to raise sea levels by 4 centimeters(3) all by itself. But the scientists who did the field work know it, and the website administrator at the NSF should have consulted them before taking the word of a lay “armchair quarterback” over theirs.In fairness, the original NSF wording does overstate the risk from pack ice. But, if pack ice melts, it means the hundreds of thousands of years of accumulated snow sitting on the antarctic landmass and in Siberia are melting as well and THAT could raise sea levels by enough to flood the ground I am standing on, here in a suburb of Houston.

Those who think they have the simple solution usually don’t understand the problem. Those who think their devotion to radio talk shows and a subscription to Popular Science make them wiser than the best minds of an entire field of credentialed science are invariably wrong.

1 – http://www.nsf.gov/about/history/nsf0050/arctic/seaice.htm

2 – http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/10/10/nsf-just-now-figures-out-archimedes-buoyancy-principle/#more-48978

3 – Peter D. Noerdlinger, Kay R. Brower “The Melting of Floating Ice will Raise the Ocean Level”, Geophysical Journal International, 2005

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