A Story of Shifting Claims • Watts Up With That?

The narrative surrounding climate change often rides the crest of sensationalism. The latest twist in this saga emerges from the high-Arctic in Greenland. A recent report published in Current Biology reveals that prior assumptions about the region’s advancing spring season have now been effectively erased. It seems that the zealousness to attribute everything to climate change has reached an icy impasse.

About a decade and a half ago, scientists claimed that the Arctic spring was coming sooner than ever before – supposedly at some of the fastest rates of change globally. It is instructive to note that despite the passionate rhetoric around these claims, later research seems to have frozen them in their tracks. The alleged ‘earlier and earlier’ arrival of spring has now been supplanted by what the researchers term “extreme year-to-year variation”. Despite these stark differences from the original claims, the climate change narrative somehow still clings on.

Niels Martin Schmidt of Aarhus University in Denmark sums up this curious paradox,

“We looked at previously reported extreme rates of phenological advancements in the Arctic and found that directional advancement is no longer the prevailing pattern. Actually, the previously observed trend has disappeared completely and has been replaced by extreme year-to-year variation in the onset of spring.”


The climatic change phenomenon, that was originally painted in bold, irrefutable strokes, seems to have taken a surprising U-turn.

Supposedly, climate changes are expected to occur faster in the Arctic than lower latitudes. An ecosystem-wide monitoring program launched in 1996 at Zackenberg in Northeast Greenland aimed to track these changes. Early findings, based on the first 10 years of data, indicated a clear pattern of advancement across plants and animals. However, the analysis of the entire data set, now spanning 25 years, reveals an entirely different story.

Analyzing the data from 1996–2020, the researchers report,

“little evidence of directional change in the timing of events even as climate change continues.”


A seemingly embarrassing retraction. However, they were quick to blame this shift on

“a high degree of climate variability from year to year.”


The classic fallback argument, that despite the lack of conclusive evidence, climate change still must be at play. Apparently, the consistent shift from directional change to extreme variability across organisms and the ecosystem’s apparent subjection to varying climatic conditions was indeed surprising. It’s clear that earlier predictions were not as solid as they were initially presented to be.

“Some years have almost no snow in spring, whereas others have snow on the ground way into the summer season,” he says. “This leaves us with a generally warmer but much more unpredictable spring climate—and this is where the second contributor to the observed phenological shift kicks in. Some species appear unable to take advantage of the warmer conditions in spring and appear to have reached the limits of their phenological plasticity.”


The story gets even more fascinating when Schmidt describes the current pattern as being “a lot messier.” Rising temperatures have seemingly stalled, while snow cover varies wildly from year to year. It appears that our understanding of these ecosystems, and how they respond to changing environmental factors, is much less comprehensive than we thought.

In conclusion, this tale of retracting findings and shapeshifting patterns highlights the precariousness of drawing definitive conclusions from limited data sets. The authors here blame climate change for phenomena that their own work indicates have no clear pattern. Perhaps we should focus less on hurriedly attributing every environmental change to climate change and more on understanding these ecosystems’ inherent complexities. After all, nature has a way of surprising us, and the Arctic spring seems to be no exception.

The full paper: https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(23)00823-0?_returnURL=https%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS0960982223008230%3Fshowall%3Dtrue

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