The end of March saw two major headlines coming out of Antarctica: the massive heat wave that started around the week of March 13th, and the Conger Ice Shelf collapse on March 15th. The heat wave centered mostly over the eastern Antarctic ice sheet and drove temperatures as high as 50 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. This put average temperatures closer to 0-10 degrees Fahrenheit, instead of the typical minus 50-60 degrees. Many Antarctic climatologists were shocked by the temperature change — the more so because of its timing. March typically marks the beginning of autumn in Antarctica, with decreasing hours of daylight and correspondingly lower temperatures. Additionally, the heatwave is believed to have led to the collapse of the Conger Ice Shelf, an ice shelf the size of Rome.
While all of this is concerning, scientists discussing the heat wave stressed that the melting it caused won’t affect the stability of glaciers in the area and that it is still unknown whether it was a freak occurrence, or something that will be happening more frequently in the years to come. Similar discussion accompanied the Conger Ice Shelf collapse. One scientist pointed out that the ice shelf was already compromised before the heat wave, and that the collapse is not necessarily cause for alarm. Other scientists hesitate to attribute the collapse to climate change without further study.
This leads to one big question: How can ordinary people, lacking a PhD in climatology, discern which natural phenomena are related to climate change? My own personal inclination upon reading headlines about both of these events was to jump to the conclusion that these were unequivocally connected to climate change.
The reporting on both these events quoted scientists insisting that people shouldn’t be alarmed and that more information was needed. But, with headlines like “Antarctica Heat Wave Brings Alarming Temperature Jump”, it is not surprising that media consumers react with alarm — especially since the scientists’ quotes and commentary usually fall to the end of the article, if the reader even gets that far.
Headlines are designed to catch the eye, enticing the consumer to read on. Many, however, won’t read past the attention-grabbing headline and get to the facts and arguments. According to a 2016 study by Columbia University, only 59% of people who share articles have read beyond the headline. Climate change is a topic that many people find overwhelming. It is important to acknowledge the need for fair and balanced presentation of climate news stories to avoid sowing panicky and distorted reactions, and to present important information with simple clarity.