A (poorly thought through) prediction about the Larsen B ice shelf

WARNING: See edit below.

So, NASA is now predicting that the remnants of the Larsen B ice shelf will be gone by the end of the decade.

I’m going to make my own prediction, just so I’m on the record: It’ll happen faster than that. This coming summer (the Antarctic summer, so Winter 2015-2016 here) or the summer after.

No, I have no access to climate data that NASA doesn’t have. And I don’t read the data better than climate scientists do, or at all. But I’m still pretty confident.

That’s because, in a weird way, the right wing is correct: Climate scientists are always wrong.

They’re wrong because they start from the assumption that nothing will change. Then they look at the data and report upcoming changes that they can prove. The researchers have no real choice in this; anything less rigorous would leave them open to a slew of well-funded attacks from deniers.

So, for instance, nobody knows what the impact of methane release from melting permafrost will be. Climate models therefore don’t take it into account, because any value they gave it would be a guess. But giving it a value of zero is also a guess, and almost certainly a worse guess than any positive value they would have given it.

And so again and again, what scientists can prove at any given time is overtaken by events soon after.

So if climate scientists say the Larsen B shelf will be gone in five years, I’m pretty sure it’ll be quicker than that.

Let’s hope I’m wrong.

EDIT: Reader Fabius Maximus has pointed me to several cases in which reality has not been as bad as climate scientists have predicted. I’m not sure why I hadn’t come across these–it may have been my personal bad-news bias, or the fact that “problems worse than scientists predicted” makes a better headline than “problems in the low end of the predicted range.”  So, my bad.

The lesson here, kids, is don’t listen to nonscientists about the freaking climate.

1 comment to A (poorly thought through) prediction about the Larsen B ice shelf

  • Okay, sure, but there are also times that climate scientists have underestimated the severity of what would happen. Take An Inconvenient Truth. I’ve seen a lot of evidence that that film, which went fairly conservative in it projections, ended up being wrong by a large margin. So I think it does cut both ways, and that sort of indicates how hard this is… and why we should be being WAY more conservative than we have ever been, because if it’s one of the times that some factor is cyclical rather than counter-cyclical in a way we didn’t expect, really bad things happen.

    It’s just like risk in economics: We try to measure risk, which we can’t do well, but once we have, we go, “Okay, let’s go right to the tip of this risk to seek profits [knowing we can get bailed out as a safety net], instead of giving ourselves some leeway in case of a stress that we didn’t expect”.

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