FROM THE FIELD
2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference

Real Scientists Are Climate Skeptics

by |December 8, 2009

This is the ninth of a continuing series of essays and interviews from Earth Institute scientists on the prospects for a global climate-change treaty. Check with us daily for news and perspectives, and to make comments, as events unfold throughout the Copenhagen meetings.

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Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/nattu/3945439186/

The emails stolen from climate researchers at East Anglia University and released online—“Climategate,” as it has come to be known to some–may say a lot about some of the scientists involved. But they also reveal much about the dangerous political atmosphere into which the messages have emerged, coincidental with the Copenhagen climate summit. Scientists need to take a long, hard look at the implications.

Some messages seem to suggest unethical behavior on the part of correspondents, including plans to delete information requested under freedom of information laws. Others seem fuzzier. One describes an author’s decision to omit plotting some data inconsistent with the overarching theory of manmade global warming; depending on your viewpoint, he was simply eliminating a distracting and irrelevant detail–or attempting to hide a fatal flaw. Whichever way you look at it, some of the seeming skullduggery can be ascribed to hubris. But much of it appears motivated by a desire to persuade, rather than advise, the public and policy makers.

Persuasion is becoming increasingly difficult. Last week, a New York Times reporter wrote, “the scientific consensus [is] more or less settled that human activity … is contributing to a warmer and less hospitable planet.” Shortly before that, a Wall Street Journal columnist wrote that “corruption [renders] the global-warming consensus … fraudulent.” It seems that even the most basic scientific data on CO2 and climate are now matters of opinion, viewed through a left- or right-leaning prism. This is a frightening development.

To be sure, some of the polarization results from discord over the policy that should result from climate science, rather than the science itself. Most proposals to avoid or offset CO2 emissions in the United States involve government intervention, including taxes and incentives, plus unprecedented international treaties. This engenders instant opposition from some conservatives—and, no doubt, some support from people with anti-business agendas. If anyone has a good, libertarian idea about how to significantly reduce CO2 emissions, now is the time to come forward. Meanwhile, the science community will be most effective if it focuses on delineating possible outcomes, rather than advocating specific solutions. Above all, this requires credibility.

How much do the stolen emails undermine the hypothesis of human-induced global warming? A Dec. 3 editorial in the journal Nature stated that “the scientific case that global warming is real [and] that human activities are almost certainly the cause … is supported by multiple, robust lines of evidence, including several that are completely independent of the climate reconstructions debated in the e-mails.” Scientists widely share this sentiment, with caveats. However, they need to do more than quarantine a few alleged miscreants and then move ahead as though nothing has happened.

peter_kelemen_readFor example, unfortunately, the Nature editorial repeatedly refers to critics of the human-induced global warming hypothesis as “denialists.” Similarly, groups on both sides of the debate use the term “skeptic” to refer solely to those who doubt that humans are influencing climate in any way. Such a bunker mentality leads to the impression that skepticism and climate science are incompatible. Somehow, some people have come to believe that if a single study suggesting human-induced climate change is incorrect, the entire scientific basis for the hypothesis is invalidated. A corollary, implicitly adopted by some “believers” and “skeptics” alike, is that predictions of warming due to human CO2 emissions must be almost certain in order to justify major efforts to reduce CO2 output.

If the East Anglia scientists and their correspondents had never existed, there would still be plenty of evidence from other scientists suggesting a significant role for human-induced increases in atmospheric CO2 and temperature over the past century. Nevertheless, everyone involved needs to embrace the idea that all scientists are skeptics; that all scientific theories are open to doubt; and in particular that future projections of climate change are subject to considerable uncertainty. Furthermore, the economic and environmental impacts of warming are also uncertain, as are the costs of CO2 mitigation. When scientists hide these uncertainties, or simply don’t discuss them, they lose credibility. Climate scientists are clearly unable to “save the world” alone. But they are stewards of key data that are essential to shape wise policy. Their credibility is much more important than their political opinions.

Does this mean that no political action should be taken until scientific uncertainties are resolved? Of course not. Regardless of divisive tactics among negotiators or malfeasance among some scientists, atmospheric CO2 concentration continues to rise, more rapidly and to higher values than recorded in gas trapped in glacial ice over the past 500,000 years. This is mainly due to use of fossil fuels, and it is pushing us further and further into uncharted territory. Though there are many other factors that influence global climate, there is no doubt that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. And, in addition to the threat of climate change, there are ample reasons to conserve energy and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. The longer we delay, the higher will be the cost of limiting CO2 in the atmosphere. The cost may be high now, but it will only get higher in the future.

Little was expected from Copenhagen even before the emails clouded the issues. They surely didn’t help, and may lower the bar even further. Next spring, the U.S. Senate will consider legislation to limit U.S. emissions. The emails will undoubtedly come up again; and it seems likely that the Senate will once again shrink from doing anything. Many politicians will then breathe a sigh of relief. But that will be premature, to put it mildly, because this is bigger than politics. For scientists, it is time to admit we’re uncertain, explain the danger of inaction, and transcend irrelevant political categories. And everyone needs to get serious about dealing with the CO2 problem. It is not going to go away.


Peter Kelemen is a professor of geochemistry at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. In addition to studying volcanoes and earthquakes, he is investigating geological capture and storage of CO2.

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This article also appeared on the Huffington Post. Read more comments: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-kelemen/all-real-scientists-are-c_b_384571.html#comments

Mark Buehner
Guest
Mark Buehner

“If anyone has a good, libertarian idea about how to significantly reduce CO2 emissions, now is the time to come forward.”

Nuclear power.

You’re welcome.

Les Nessman
Guest
Les Nessman

“How much do the stolen emails undermine the hypothesis of human-induced global warming? ”

Stolen, or released by a whistleblower on the inside? I don’t think that has been proven one way or the other.

I don’t know if that affects the debate over ‘climategate’ or the overall debate of AGW, but it can affect how essays like this are presented or perceived.

Marc
Guest
Marc

Talk about begging the question. It is far from clear that
(1) CO2 from any source is a problem, specifically due to causing changes in climate
(2) If so, CO2 generated from human activity is a truly significant factor in (1)
(3) If 1&2, that universal human reduction in CO2 output is the best solution (vs sequestering, mitigation, etc)

One reason the emails are so important is that there is not true agreement even on temperature histories, never mind the rest of it

Andrei
Guest
Andrei

” If the East Anglia scientists and their correspondents had never existed, there would still be plenty of evidence from other scientists suggesting a significant role for human-induced increases in atmospheric CO2 and temperature over the past century. ” Well what is that evidence? That just seems like more hand waving to me. In truth we have been told ad infinitum that we are undergoing an era of “unprecedented” warming for many years now but in truth there is little change discernible to the naked eye, measured on scales of a human lifetime. Indeed the term “unprecedented” relies entirely upon… Read more »

Alan S. Blue
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Alan S. Blue

“The cost may be high now, but it will only get higher in the future.” This statement is excessive. Focus on just one plausible solution: Solar. The price per Watt of solar power has been plummeting with the massive influx of research of the last decade. And that’s just the actual physical cell prices. The research is exceedingly wide ranging at the moment, with quite a few areas hinting at crucial game-changing breakthroughs. (Not promises, but hints.) Cost of complete-switch-to-solar -today- is quite probably substantially higher than complete-switch-to-solar ten years from now. No, neither is likely to actually happen. But… Read more »

Jane G
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Jane G

Let’s put aside the question of warming and its cause. Instead let’s get consensus on actions we can take to mitigate the harmful effects that warming is expected to cause. (Potable water, coastal flooding, etc.)
We need to be rich in order to afford to undertake those actions.
By making us less rich, serious carbon restrictions will undermine our ability to mitigate the problems.
This mitigation approach should be the direction our policy makers take. It has the benefit of being useful even if the planet is not undergoing disastrous warming.

Jeff
Guest
Jeff

Nice strawman sir …

The emails … The emails … The emails …

pay no attention to the Harry readme file or the source code …

or the FACT that the raw data has been gone for 20 years … (according to the CRU folks)

nothing to see here but those emails …

CO2 may be at its highest point in 500,000 years but temperatures have been much higher before … so please explain again how CO2 drives temperatures ?

Swen Swenson
Guest
Swen Swenson

Professor, you seem suitably skeptical of everything except the conclusion that CO2 is driving the global warming that’s been observed over the last 50-odd years. You might want to take a look at this data from the Greenland and Antarctic ice cores, which shows that temperatures have generally been warmer than today for most of the last ten thousand years, even though CO2 levels were lower. Then, of course, there’s the wee problem that global temperatures appear to have leveled off or even dropped a little over the last ten years, even though CO2 concentrations continue to increase, a phenomenon… Read more »

Kirk Armantescam
Guest

While it is certainly fair and wise to explore (as opposed to “explain” which implies certainty) the consequences of inaction, is it not also fair and wise to explore the consequences of the actions proposed, much less to test the validity of the assumptions that have prompted the proposed actions? While even the most hard core conservative would like to see his kids grow up in a world with dolphins and streams and a blue sky, it only makes sense to ask basic questions. Seems like the scientists have fallen down on the job here, bought off by the lure… Read more »

Charlie
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Charlie

Why even the concern about CO2? Carbon dioxide is a very efficient greenhouse gas that traps heat (photons in the infrared range) in three narrow bandwidths.

According to satellite monitoring, 99%+ of these photons are trapped within 100 meters of the earth’s surface. What that means is that, double, treble, quadruple the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, there’s no more heat to be trapped in the bandwidths at which CO2 operates.

This can be easily viewed in this chart: http://www.globalwarmingart.com/images/7/7c/Atmospheric_Transmission.png

peterike
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peterike

“If anyone has a good, libertarian idea about how to significantly reduce CO2 emissions, now is the time to come forward.” Good lord. It’s called “nuclear power.” It’s been around for a while now. “If the East Anglia scientists and their correspondents had never existed, there would still be plenty of evidence from other scientists suggesting a significant role for human-induced increases in atmospheric CO2 and temperature over the past century.” No. In fact, there isn’t. The vast majority of this work has been self-referential, going back to specific sets of Ur-data that now are known to be fraudulent, the… Read more »

Bart
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Bart

“This is mainly due to use of fossil fuels, and it is pushing us further and further into uncharted territory.”

Actually, that is just a hypothesis, which is reasonably presented as the consensus view, but it is not proven. There are reasonable objections to it, but the skeptics do not want to tackle it, because they see other “lower hanging fruit” to oppose.

Greg Q
Guest

If anyone has a good, libertarian idea about how to significantly reduce CO2 emissions, now is the time to come forward.

I’ll bite:
Significantly cut back the regulatory hassles impeding the creation and use of nuclear power plants.

If it’s cheaper to build and operate nuclear power plants than it is to build and operate coal fired power plants, we’ll get more (carbon neutral) nuclear power.

The fact that the AGW crowd doesn’t shot this from the rooftops is one of the reasons I don’t believe anything else they say.

Douglas Leach
Guest
Douglas Leach

You say: “atmospheric CO2 concentration continues to rise, more rapidly and to higher values than recorded in gas trapped in glacial ice over the past 500,000 years.” Are you so sure of your facts? Most data and graphs I’ve seen show higher CO2 levels at multiple times during the ice core record. Are you also familar with the ice core records which show that CO2 does not lead fluctuations of temperature throughout the historical record, but that CO2 FOLLOWS temperature changes? In other words, temperature goes up, and then eventually does CO2. Temperature peaks and starts back down, and EVENTUALLY… Read more »

David Beatty
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David Beatty

… and yet, Professor, you fall right into the “Precutionary Principle” trap in that you imply it would be a good idea to reduce CO2 emissions, even as you admit no one really knows the economic or environmental costs.

Ditto the points Marc makes in post #3. Also, no one knows the effects of water vapor, which is a much more prevalent greenhouse gas than CO2.

bbeeman
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bbeeman

There is a lot we don’t know about how the climate works, and as we have seen over the last decade, atmospheric CO2 concentration has skyrocketed while terrestrial temperatures have declined. This means CO2 is not the primary driver of climate that older studies attempted to show. There are recent studies (Ga. Tech) that show that a great deal of the human induced warming in the 20th century was NOT due to CO2, but to man ‘s ability to change the surface conditions of the earth. With all the new knowledge today, it is foolhardy to keep believing the old… Read more »

Tom Perkins
Guest
Tom Perkins

“Such a bunker mentality leads to the impression that skepticism and climate science are incompatible.”

Not at all, I think. It leads to the conclusion that people who are convinced humanity is responsible for some provable degree of average global temperature increase have stopped being scientists.

VegasGuy
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VegasGuy

AGW is a theory, not a fact and certainly not an incontrovertible fact. The underlying data for the IPCC reports are either inherently flawed, overly manipulated and/or missing. The model(s) are a travesty. The publications have been subverted and the peer review process distorted. Global climate is a huge, complex system in which the proportional causes of warming (or cooling), including the contribution CO2, are not well-understood. Thus the fractional human contribution to CO2 levels is not necessarily even climate-significant in the long term. In addition, global climate study is a nascent “science” with no widely accepted foundation of related… Read more »

Phillip G
Guest
Phillip G

“the scientific case that global warming is real [and] that human activities are almost certainly the cause … is supported by multiple, robust lines of evidence, including several that are completely independent of the climate reconstructions debated in the e-mails.” This is most certainly false. The circular referencing of each other’s studies by Briffa, Mann, Jones, etc. has had the effect of creating mountains of paper from molehills of evidence. For the AGW Fraud “Deniers” out there, look up the Darwin Station temperature anomaly in Australia and Briffa’s cherry picked Yarmal tree ring which is solely responsible for his hockey… Read more »

Jls
Guest
Jls

Mark Buehner says: Nuclear power.

I second the motion.

Dana H.
Guest
Dana H.

“For scientists, it is time to admit we’re uncertain, explain the danger of inaction…” AND the danger of costly action, such as draconian reductions in CO2 emissions that would hamstring industrial civilization. “And everyone needs to get serious about dealing with the CO2 problem. It is not going to go away.” How do you know? If the temperature continues to flatline or decline for another 10 years (in addition to the past 10 where it has been flat to down), I’d say that’s pretty good evidence that the CO2 problem has gone away. More precisely, it’s pretty good evidence that… Read more »

stan
Guest
stan

How about we ask climate scientists to follow the scientific method? I know that would be truly revolutionary, but I really think it might help clear up some of the current problems that have been caused by gross incompetence, amateurish dalliances in software and statistics, and the underhanded tactics revealed by the e-mails and other CRU docs. It would be nice for climate scientists to inspect and calibrate their instruments. Scientists in other disciplines understand the need for accurate measurements. Is it asking too much of climate science? Audits and replication would be good. They were described as part of… Read more »

Tom S.
Guest
Tom S.

“For scientists, it is time to admit we’re uncertain, … And everyone needs to get serious about dealing with the CO2 problem.” Yes, we’re uncertain—but we need to act. Yes, let’s act on uncertainty. How ridiculous! We are uncertain of the cause, don’t fully understand how earth’s climate works, have very thin understanding of the consequences of warming, but still, we must spend $trillions for effects that are probably unachievable, but will nonetheless negatively effect the economic well-being of the entire population of the planet. Sorry, but what we really MUST do is make public all data (both raw and… Read more »

Andrew M
Guest
Andrew M

“Similarly, groups on both sides of the debate use the term “skeptic” to refer solely to those who doubt that humans are influencing climate in any way.”

Some prominent “skeptics” accept that there has been a (modest) rise in global temperatures over the past century, and accept also that this rise has been due mainly to human activity. What they dispute is the magnitude of such rises in the future.

This is the challenge that the non-skeptics need to be address.

CraigZ
Guest
CraigZ

“If anyone has a good, libertarian idea about how to significantly reduce CO2 emissions, now is the time to come forward.’

Nuclear.
By the way, it’s not just the emails, it’s the data sets. Also the text files like ‘Harry Read Me’

Pablo
Guest
Pablo

Real Scientists SHOULD be skeptics is what I think you were trying to say. Not much evidence that enough of them are.

Copernicus is up there smiling down on all the “deniers”.

AGWHeretic
Guest
AGWHeretic

“If anyone has a good, libertarian idea about how to significantly reduce CO2 emissions, now is the time to come forward.” +1 Greg Q and Mark B. Although, airborne water vapor is a much more significant contributor to the greenhouse effect than CO2. Once exhaling is sufficiently curtailed and the climate continues to change without consulting us (heaven forbid), the next obvious move will be to ban dihydrogen-monoxide (i.e.-H20). Those evil cooling towers will just have to go… BTW- How about applying some of that $787B of borrowed money to STIMULATE research in alternative energy instead of burning it and… Read more »

william
Guest
william

The only thing more incalculable than the earth’s climate is the damage done to the trust of science itself by what is known as “Climategate.” It is clear from the emails that science is now so polluted by politics and agendas that society soon won’t distinguish scientists from lawyers and that for a price, you can find one to say anything. This is the real legacy here and it is an absolutely tragedy.

newscaper
Guest
newscaper

Greg is 100% right. Fast breeder reactor technology is here, vastly extends the supply of usable fuel and simultaneouslt results in muchless radioactive waste Modern designs are also passively safe, yet the US greens under CLinton managed to kill off a prototype of an ultra modern design (IFR, ITR?). Plus thorium technology is taking off, which is also much more common than uranium, and not a prolifertion risk. The enviros should be pushing nukes — fission now and fusion* later — space-based solar (no 50% downtime in orbit), and practical things like *more* use of paper and wood in conjunction… Read more »

James Williams
Guest
James Williams

When the accepted record of global average temperature anomaly for the past million years, it has been hotter than it is now for brief intervals, and it has been a lot colder for extended periods. CO2 level has been over 4000 ppmv when the earth decended into an ice age. Based on that record, there seems to be no reason apply the precautionary principle and take draconian action at this time. Looking at the record it would appear that an ice age is more likely than runaway higher temperature. And, an ice age would be far more harmful to humankind… Read more »

li
Guest
li

the real problem lies in motivation
we are so cleaver
yet our genius does such great harm

why have we not cleaned up our toxic factories
and our cars because they spew waste
that causes clear harm to all living things
great and small, near and far

so now we must may homage to a world
catastrophe so the rich are richer and the
poor are poorer?

when will we learn that the profit
of care and compassion are harmony
health and peace?

and that the culprit is greed not
human versus sun versus earth
where all upon this earth lose

R.C.
Guest
R.C.

I don’t understand why the larger picture isn’t more often discussed in certain areas: (1.) How our current increase puts us well shy of the warming of the Medieval Warm Period, when Greenland was actually green, and may reflect little more than a rebound to the norm after the low-point of the Little Ice Age which ended a very short while (by climate standards) before the Industrial Revolution; (2.) How the variability of climate has allowed us a blessedly warm period in the last few thousand years, but that interglacial periods tend to last no more than 10,000 years, and… Read more »

Jkelly
Guest
Jkelly

So the solution is: a fossil fuel tax on Western Economies, with politicians spending the hoard on less effecient, yet well lobbied clean projects. Landscapes dotted with bird grinding wind turbines, miles covered with sun soaking panels, and mountains of radioactive waste. Not to mention tripled utility bills and lower standards of living. For what? A half degree farenheit one hundred years from now? Not one of you genius’s can tell us we’ll be better for the sacrifice.

Andrew_M_Garland
Guest

The Climategate emails have revealed that the IPCC is a biased, unscientific organization. It is not just that the work of “some” scientists is tainted to present politically correct results. — Climate scientists have not been examining and correcting the work of their colleagues. — Climate scientists have not voluntarily released their source data, methods, and program codes. Much of this information still remains hidden. Scientific review is impossible under these conditions. It is not science. By scientific review, I don’t mean peer review for publication, which is a minimal standard, subject to the standards or politics of each journal.… Read more »

John D
Guest

I have asked in many places and have yet to receive an answer.

Where is the study (or studies) that established the causal link between human produced CO2 and Global Warming?

The IPCC report, as near as I can see, shows only that there is a coincidence, not a causation.

I seem to remember some old saw about that.

David Becker, Ph.D.
Guest
David Becker, Ph.D.

“…. there would still be plenty of evidence from other scientists suggesting a significant role for human-induced increases in atmospheric CO2 and temperature over the past century.” This statement conveys a misunderstanding of the scientific method. As I always tell my students, a thousand experiments in support of a theory makes the theory more accepted, but one nullification and the theory is wrong. The last 10-12 years of global cooling (using actual, uncorrupted, data) is a glaring nullification of AGW via CO2. Based on this, and many other factors that point to significant flaws in the AGW theory, I have… Read more »

Frank S
Guest
Frank S

You say there is a CO2 problem, but you don’t say why. You say we must get serious about, but give no evidence. All the data suggest that CO2 is of very minor importance in determining climate fluctuations – it mostly seems to respond to increases in vegetation (they go hand in hand with more CO2) and to rising temperature (the oceans release CO2 if they get warmer). So your piece is like a theological note to the faithful – ‘our beliefs are under attack, but don’t fret, we can still believe if we choose to’. Not science. Not by… Read more »

BDeux
Guest
BDeux

li’s post is what is this is really all about. it isnt about the science, whether or not the world is warming “unnaturally” and whether or not that is “catastrophic”. It is the self-loathing of liberal idealouges that somehow progress is bad and harmful and wouldnt it be nice if we could just go back to the days of polio and famine and starvation and death during childbirth and life expectancies of 40 years and a life that one philosopher once described as “nasty, brutish and short” because capitalism, they beleive, breeds income inequality and unseemily waste material. What do… Read more »

Sarah Ferguson
Guest
Sarah Ferguson

John D There is no link between warming and CO2. CO2 changes lag warming by some 800 years. There is no tropospheric hot spot, polar bears are thriving and carbon dioxide is good for you. Global temperatures are falling – and have been for the past 8 to 10 years – but carbon dioxide is still rising. Furthermore all the IPCC models are predicated on a positive feedback – AR4, chapter 8,- but Lindzen and Choi have demonstrated that the real world data give a negative feedback. Their estimate of a temperature rise for a doubling of carbon dioxide is… Read more »

Sarah Ferguson
Guest
Sarah Ferguson

John D

PS I don’t know where the good pr4ofessor gets his ideas on CO2 levels being higher than they have ever been. Ice cores from Vostok and Greeenland totaslly disprove his statement.

What a pity he doesn’t look at the evidence rather than parroting what people like that famous scientist Al Gore say.

And sea levels are not rising.

Basically it is not the carbon dioxide – it is the pollution we need to deal with – and that will cost a great deal less than cap and trade.

Uwe Ohlendorff
Guest
Uwe Ohlendorff

John D Your scepticism is absolutely entitled and needs another deepening of the subject. Of course the statements of the IPCC- scientists are not to be looked as a Bible. And of course there is guaranteed at many places of the report a certain correction demand. I have pointed at other place to the danger which could originate from excessive scaremongering. As one of the primary results I see, for example, a reinforced lobbyism in the politics. Is it on the basis of existential fears or on account of conservative position; the pressure generated by the “alarmists” will generate counterpressure.… Read more »

Derek Wall
Guest

The sceptics are rarely asked to justify their views and disagree with each other. My analysis that they resemble addicts looking for excuses is here http://another-green-world.blogspot.com/2009/12/climate-sceptics-are-like-alcoholics.html

I hope some of them look at it and tell me why I am wrong in their view.

In previous decades sceptics told us that there was no firm link between tobacco and cancer, those sceptics must have killed millions of people, the climate sceptics seem to lack caution and compassion, a bit like addicts.

RAVEENDRAN NARAYANAN
Guest

HOW CLIMATE CHANGING ? Massive Arctic ice island drifting toward shipping lanes The biggest Arctic “ice island” to form in nearly 50 years — a 250-square-kilometer behemoth described as four times the size of Manhattan — has been discovered after a Canadian scientist scanning satellite images of northwest Greenland spotted a giant break in the famed Petermann Glacier.Canada.com – Aug 07 10:16am In another research, using Autosub, an autonomous underwater vehicle, researchers led by the British Antarctic Survey have captured ocean and sea-floor measurements, which revealed a 300 meter high ridge on the sea floor. Pine Island Glacier was once… Read more »