The never knowingly authentic BBC has been at it again as it releases another news bulletin reporting upon the state of our environment. Except that this time it appears to be good news as they gleefully announce that sharks, seals and seahorses are amongst a number of species that are now to be found living in the River Thames. In fact, according to the first State of the Thames Report, issued by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), there have been a number of changes since the river was declared “biologically dead” in 1957, including an increase in its range of birds, marine mammals and natural habitats since the 1990s. This is surely a good news story that bucks the trend; a fine example of what can be achieved when mankind puts its manmind to tackling pollution.
But hold on a minute, what’s this? On closer inspection, I notice that the report appears under the tagline, ‘Climate Change’. That must surely indicate that we are about to have the rug pulled from under our feet with an alarming message of imminent catastrophe. It surely can’t be a good news story after all. Yep, here it is in paragraph four:
“However, a number of fish species found in the tidal areas of the Thames have showed a slight decline, experts found.”
Oh my God, a slight decline for certain fish! What could be responsible for this calamity? Well, according to the article, the answer is to be found in the ZSL study, which the BBC credits as saying:
“Climate change has increased the temperature of London’s waterway by 0.2C a year”
Well that would certainly do the trick. In fact, an increase of 0.2C a year would have rendered most fish species tender and flakey long before they had time to escape north. The average summer temperature in the River Thames nowadays is still only a little over 12C, so climate change has obviously transformed the London landscape dramatically since the swinging sixties, with its Carnaby Street fashions and permanently frozen Thames.
The problem here, of course, is that such a dramatic local increase in temperature cannot be that long term and it certainly cannot be attributed to climate change because – well, for one thing, the numbers just don’t accord with the IPCC’s declaration of a relatively modest average 0.41C sea temperature increase within the 1950-2009 period. Something here does not add up, so we need to do what the BBC journalists obviously couldn’t be bothered with, and that is to take a good close look at what the ZSL report actually said.
Always read the study
The first thing to be noted after consulting the report is that the temperature monitoring study was divided into two areas: Upper Tidal Thames and Middle Tidal Thames. This is what the data said regarding the Middle Tidal Thames:
“While linear models fitted to the data in the Middle Tidal Thames show a gradual temperature increase over time in both winter and summer water temperatures (Figures 4.3 and 4.4), these trends were not statistically significant in either the long or short term.”
I don’t know why I bothered with the highlighting here; the statement leaps out of the page without any help from me. Nevertheless, it clearly didn’t attract the attention of the BBC. This, however, did:
“Summer and winter temperatures in the Upper Tidal Thames (Figures 4.1 and 4.2) both saw a statistically significant long-term increasing trend (summer: p-value = 0.0008, winter: p-value = 0.04). In addition, summer temperatures displayed a statistically significant increasing short-term trend (p-value = 0.03). On average, summer temperatures in the Upper Tidal Thames have been increasing by 0.19°C per year.”
Hooray, we have our story. We shall quietly overlook that this is clearly a highly localised effect that contrasts markedly with the absence of warming in the lower Thames, an absence which is:
“…likely due to deeper waters and more ocean exchange… causing greater variability in temperature and no trend.”
Also, let us also overlook the likely reasons for the localised warming in the Upper Tidal Thames, where:
“… tidal influence causes natural fluctuations in water temperature, while inputs of cooling water from industry lining the estuary cause localised warming.”
Also, we must ignore the following:
“Another example of an anthropogenic impact on temperature is the treated wastewater that is released into the Tidal Thames, which has a higher temperature than receiving waters to encourage bacterial activity that helps break down sewage.”
Yes, let us ignore all of this and simply focus upon:
“Since an increase in water temperature is associated with degradation to aquatic ecosystems, this indicator is identified as deteriorating in both the long and short term.”
Did someone say ‘deteriorating’? Oh good. Let’s go with that. Let’s talk about the slight decrease in the numbers of some fish.
It’s just such a shame for the BBC that warming is only happening in the Upper Tidal Thames and so cannot be said of the tidal Thames as a whole. It is of a scale that is totally out of step with any that could be attributed to global warming, and there are plenty of other factors that could fully explain it. Yet, despite this, and despite having just painted a scene of ecological success that could have come straight out of Finding Nemo, the BBC article states:
“But the real concern is the effects of climate change. Sea levels are increasing by 4mm a year and the temperature of the Thames is increasing by 0.2C a year.”
God give me strength. There seems to be no limit to the amount of relevant evidence that the BBC is prepared to ignore in order to unearth the scoop. And is there no limit to how far they are prepared to go to find a climate change angle worthy of pooping a party?
I picked this story up on BBC radio news yesterday or the day before, probably on Radio 5 Live. As far as I remember it was presented, quite rightly, wholly as a good news story. And of course a surprising one but in a good way! Sharks in the Thames? Who would have thunk it, even a few decades ago? (The Thames was pronounced dead on my arrival in 1957 as it happens. I like to think it’s only a few decades.)
This is where ‘serious science’ does so much damage, bringing gloom to what would otherwise be delight. All for filthe lucre.
Sorry about that last bit . But that’s what I think about what they think.
Thanks for taking a look in the watery depths John.
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>”Thanks for taking a look in the watery depths John.”
Well, this is the thing: some may call it scepticism whilst others call it denial, but the reality is that it is nothing more than the old QA habit of wanting to verify by checking the original source. For that, I did not really have to plumb any watery depths; no scuba equipment or bathysphere was required. All I needed was an interest in seeing whether the BBC was up to its old tricks again and spinning a story from the flimsiest of thread – that and an ability to read for myself.
“Always read the study”.
Indeed! When I was a law student at university, my tutors constantly reiterated the importance of not relying simply on what was stated in the textbooks, but instead of reading the original source materials – statutes, statutory instruments, and of course law reports, in full. The law was what they said, not what a textbook writer – however good – said they said.
The same is true of BBC news stories. To be generous to the BBC and its journalists, writing a short snappy piece to capture the public interest will inevitably cut a few corners, and it is difficult to acquire the skill to summarise a complex story without truncating things a bit.
To be less generous to them, getting the story across clearly and accurately is (or should be) what journalists are paid to do and, in the case of the BBC especially, they should be striving to ensure that their articles contain no misleading narratives and tell the story in all its complexity so that readers can make their own minds up about the implications.
Sadly, the BBC now has an overriding narrative where climate change is concerned, and everything it produces seems to me to be twisted to comply with the narrative. I expect that from the Guardian, but the BBC should do better. Assuming they provided the link to the original study, so that interested readers can find out more for themselves, then I do give them limited credit for that, but only limited credit – my money would be on at least 99 readers out of 100 swallowing the BBC line without question, and not 1 in 100 digging deeper. I suspect that the BBC knows this, and doesn’t care.
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Thanks for post John – the BEEB are ducking & diving again 😦
found this bit odd “But the real concern is the effects of climate change. Sea levels are increasing by 4mm a year”
when you read the ZSL report –
The results show that sea levels have been increasing on average
since monitoring began in 1911 at all gauging sites in the Tidal
Thames (Figure 4.5). Comparing linear trends over the full
monitoring period (1911 to 2018) with linear trends in recent
years (1990 to 2018), every gauging site showed there has been
an increase in the average rate of mean sea level rise per year
since monitoring began. While Tilbury had the highest average
rate of increase from 1911 to 2018 at 2.68 mm/year (+/-0.09),
Silvertown surpassed this from 1990 to 2018 with an average
rate of change of 4.26 mm/year (+/-0.62)”
when you look at the map provided Silvertown is far up river, wonder if something has changed there ?
using the links given – https://check-for-flooding.service.gov.uk/station/7388?direction=u
and from there – https://check-for-flooding.service.gov.uk/how-we-measure-river-sea-groundwater-levels#river-levels
I find –
“How we forecast river levels
River level forecasts on the service come directly from a computer model.
Unlike the forecasts in our flood warnings, these are not refined by a flood forecaster.
Always check for flood warnings if you’re concerned about a river level forecast.
The models combine real time rainfall and river level observations, along with rainfall and tidal forecasts. The models can be affected by the accuracy of these factors.
Smaller catchments are more sensitive to small variations in rainfall intensity. This can also affect the accuracy of the modelled forecast.
The nature of computer modelling also means that sometimes it does not represent the current state of the catchment well enough without being adjusted by a flood forecaster.”
so as usual I’m none the wiser apart from thinking a storm/sea surge up the Thames may be the cause ?
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To be fair to the BBC, they are not the only ones who are selling this as a climate catastrophe story that is trying to hide behind good news (see Sky News, the Guardian, etc.). Nor is it a simple matter of them having failed to consult the study. The ZSL are actually the ones who are spinning this yarn. Under the heading of ‘Climate Change’, the report presents data that fails to confirm that climate change is responsible for warming in the tidal Thames. Any climate change signal would be masked by too many non-climate related factors and the very place were one would expect the signal to come through the strongest (i.e. in the Middle Tidal Thames) the signal is absent. And yet, they say in their executive summary:
“In addition, the influences of climate change are clearly impacting the Tidal Thames, as both water temperature and sea levels continue to rise above historic baselines.”
This is a familiar pattern in which journalists take in good faith an executive statement made by a respected scientific organisation and fail to notice that the body of the report does not support the statement. That’s what I had meant by journalists failing to ‘take a good close look’. For them, the principle that science is honest and objective is overruling the one that says that everyone is finding what they are looking for.
I am aware that my article fails to address the subject of sea level rise, and so I am thankful for your comments on this subject. I don’t have a great deal to add to your speculations, other than to say that I would imagine that drawing conclusions from local, tidal gauges would be every bit as problematic as drawing conclusions from thermometer readings taken on a stretch of water populated by industry and sewerage plants.