In the last week, there have been a blaze of articles about how the North Pole may be free of ice this summer. A quick tour through the first few pages of a Google search for “north pole ice history” (sans quotes) turned up these gems:

“The North Pole may be free of ice for the first time in history,” said Canadian climate scientist David Barber to Canwest News Service.

There’s a 50-50 chance that the North Pole will be ice-free this summer, which would be a first in recorded history, a leading ice scientist says.

It seems unthinkable, but for the first time in human history, ice is on course to disappear entirely from the North Pole this year.

For the first time in modern history, the North Pole may be iceless this summer.

Certainly the blanket claim that this will be a first ice-free season at the North Pole in all of Earth’s 4.5 billion year history is absolute rubbish. The climate has varied so much that this claim doesn’t even warrant comment.

According to Wikipedia, “studies of molecular biology give evidence that the approximate time of divergence from the common ancestor of all modern human populations was 200,000 years ago.” I would certainly not bet on this being the first season the North Pole has been free of ice in 200,000 years because we really have no idea what the weather was like up there with enough detail to be able to say there has been ice every single year for the last 2000 centuries.

How about recorded history? The first try at navigating the Northwest passage was made by John Cabot in 1497, though he wasn’t even sure there was such a route. The first time such an attempt was successful was 1906 when Roald Amundsen took three seasons to complete the journey. Further attempts were made through the next century, to find better routes, I’m guessing.

But do the attempts of a few dozen explorers through northern Canada count for a systematic and dependable record of what’s going on across the arctic ocean? The Northwest passage is nearly 2000 km south of the North Pole so I have difficulty in accepting an iced passage as definite proof of an iced pole. Certainly likely, but not certainly.

Now that we enjoy the convenience of orbital satellites, studies of the surface of the Earth at levels of details unimaginable to scientists from centuries ago is taken for granted. But how long have we used these new tools to study the North Pole?

The Wikipedia says, “On September 14, 2007, the European Space Agency announced that ice loss had opened up the passage ‘for the first time since records began in 1978’.” I didn’t look very hard for other organizations claiming continuous study starting at an earlier date, but with the first permanent artificial satellites being launched into orbit in the 1960s, complete and continuous studies of the pole cannot tell us what’s really been going on up there for more than the last 40 years, at most.

Hardly all of history, human history, or even recorded history. Shame on the news outlets for repeating this inaccuracy. They do themselves no favours with such headline-friendly sensationalism.

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