The Australian’s climate correction

On Tuesday The Australian published a front page story that claimed a study found sea level rise was not linked to warming. Today the newspaper issued a correction.

Branded in red as an ‘exclusive’, a front page headline on The Australian on Tuesday turned more than a few heads with the assertion that sea level rise was ‘not linked to warming’. It now appears the story was rather optimistic in its reading of an abstract of a scientific paper.

Pointing to a study in the Journal of Climate from November last year, the article said:

“The latest science on sea level rise has found no link to global warming and no increase in the rate of glacier melt over the past 100 years.”

In the report it was noted that “Australia’s pre-eminent sea level scientist, John Church, contributed to the paper”, although he, nor any other contributors to the study, were quoted. Hours later, however, he was heavily quoted around the nation after telling journalists:

“Sea level clearly is linked to climate change, it clearly is linked to greenhouse gases and that was in the paper quoted by The Australian…

"Sea level has already increased the rate of rise from the 18th and 19th century. The instrumental record would indicate an acceleration during the 20th century and the projections will indicate a further acceleration during the 21st century."

Sea level rise is a major talking point when it comes to climate change with the greatest near-term risk seen to low-lying island nations like Kiribati and the Maldives. The issue was heavily discussed last year in light of a record ice melt in the Arctic and the effects of Hurricane Sandy on New York (likely exacerbated by higher sea levels).

While most climate scientists believe sea level rise is accelerating, The Australian article claimed “one of the great uncertainties in climate change research” is whether ocean levels will rise more swiftly in the years ahead.

The article has now completely disappeared online – replaced by a “page not found” 404 error message – with a correction today issued in print:

“A report in The Australian on Tuesday… said a paper by JM Gregory, with a contribution from John Church, had “found no link to global warming and no increase in the rate of glacier melt over the past 100 years”. In fact, the paper found the effect of anthropogenic global warming on the rate of sea-level rise would have been greater in the 20th century but for volcanic activity. It found that in the past two decades, the rate of sea-level rise had been larger than in the 20th century.”

There is one problem with the correction: it is buried in a small paragraph on the side of the second page. The initial story, in contrast, was considered front page material. In other words an inaccurate story had a prime spot, but the accurate revision was comparatively hidden.

Awkward timing

The study has now received considerable attention from media outlets and on blogs, but one thing has been missed: the timing of the article.

A number of climate sceptic blogs commented about the abstract of the study in December, with the study itself published in November. It then appeared as an exclusive in The Australian on Tuesday January 15, the same day that some of the world’s leading scientists were meeting in Hobart. One hopes that was mere coincidence.

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