Some days now it’s hard to avoid wondering if I’m a fool for believing anything printed in the New York Times.
Old habits die hard, and most journalists who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s came to consider the “old gray lady” the standard-bearer for journalism.
Over the years since, if you are a thinking journalist paying attention, it has unfortunately become clear the Times’ standards are slipping. Where once the newspaper had reporters with knowledge writing about subjects they knew, it increasingly has reporters writing about subjects they clearly do not know.
In that, the Times is like a lot of other news organizations in a business where knowledge has slowly but steadily given way to the sound bite. Now, it’s almost painful to read NYT stories on subjects about which you are knowledgable.
Last summer, it was the Times suggesting climate change was harming Alaska salmon runs at a time when the North Pacific Ocean contains the greatest number of salmon in recorded history, according to the scientists.
Of the fact that the Times has a climate-change agenda, there is no doubt, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Over the years, some good has been done by newspapers with agendas, but the agenda should never be allowed to get in the way of the facts.
An agenda intellectually or scientifically justified – say, for instance, the vaccination of children to save lives – can easily sabotage itself if it becomes more important than the truth. The climate-change/global warming discussion already has enough problems without newspapers throwing their credibility overboard to push the agenda.
Global warming is something about which it is fundamentally easy to be skeptical. When it starts snowing in Los Angeles, common sense would tell you that global warming must be junk science.
Common sense, unfortunately, is regularly wrong even if Alaska polebrity pundit Sarah Palin believes it the answer to all the world’s problems. It isn’t. Common sense once held that if you sailed too far to sea you’d fall off the edge of the earth.
Hell, maybe it was common sense that led NYT editors to conclude that the way to get people to pay attention to the climate issue was to take a page from Palin playbook and go all “death panels” on the subject.
Against this backdrop, you’d think a man would have the sense to refuse the bait when an old, science-journalism colleague emails a link to a NYT story with the warning, “First sit down, take deep breath.”
And you’d think that upon reading the words “iditarod-climate-change-warming” in URL of that link, the sensible reaction would be to simply hit the delete key. But cats aren’t the only animals that can be led afoul by their curiosity.
The story was titled “The Mush in the Iditarod May Soon Be Melted Snow.” It was a climate-change story piggybacking off the Saturday start of the The Last Great Race. The first four paragraphs of the story were as accurate as they were predictable. They can be summarized in four words.
Alaska’s glaciers are melting.
Indeed they are, and they have been melting for a long time. In the late 1970s, I piloted a sailboat well off the charts into Muir Inlet in Glacier Bay. The glacier showing on the chart had melted far back.
In 1750, glaciers filled the bay and extended into aptly named Icy Strait in the northern part of the Alaska Panhandle. By 1880, when John Muir visited, the glaciers had retreated 40 miles back into the bay. They’ve retreated another 25 miles since, according to the National Park Service.
And they continue to retreat.
Muir Glacier was still at tidewater when we sailed up the Inlet. That is no longer the case.
“Muir Glacier flowed at about 6,000 feet per year, or about 16 feet per day as late as 1979,” the Park Service says. “The continual retreat of the glacier from the mouth of Muir Inlet produced the transition of the glacier from one that was tidewater with a submarine grounding line to one that became terrestrial in 1993.”
Glacial retreat and the northward advance of the boreal forest are well-established facts in the 49th state. They are also undeniable evidence of a state that has been slowly getting warmer for tens of decades.
The fifth paragraph of the story, putting Alaska dog mushers on the “front line of climate change, perhaps more so than any other type of athlete” was a bit of a stretch. There are orders of magnitude more skiers in the world than dog mushers, but that turned to nothing next to the following claim:
“Rivers and creeks, used as frozen highways for sleds, are not reliably freezing as expected. Brush grows where it never used to, clogging old routes. Freakish storms, including midwinter rain, and sea-ice breakups increasingly wreak havoc on their sport and livelihood.”
Where does one even begin to sort out the fiction from the fact in that paragraph?
Over the past century, freeze-up on Alaska’s major rivers has slowly shifted to later in the year, but it has never been “reliable.” A 1914 U.S. government report from Eagle records the Yukon freezing anytime from Oct. 9 to Nov. 22 back in the early 1900s.
That’s a span of almost six weeks. Suffice to say there is more variability than reliability in freeze-up.
As for the brush “clogging old routes?” That’s been a problem ever since man started building trails in Alaska wider than a foot path. Why? Because alders, the bane of Alaska hikers, are a pioneering species that quickly colonize disturbed soils in most of the state.
In the Chugach National Forest just south of Anchorage, you can in places above treeline identify the old roads of gold-mining days from 100 years ago by their alder growths. The brush is growing there not because of climate change, but for the same reason grain is growing in North Dakota: man provided a seed bed.
As for midwinter rain, much of Alaska has been getting midwinter rain forever. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says the climate record for Anchorage shows a January thaw, often with rain, for 90 percent of winters dating back to when weather records first started.
And no mushers train on the sea ice so just ditch that as a havoc wreaker.
The NYT’s observation of things that aren’t was bad. The conclusion based on those faulty observations was worse:
“What used to be a given in Alaska — enough snow and ice to run the Iditarod and a slew of other sled dog races without much worry — is now fraught with perennial uncertainty.”
Really? More uncertainty than before?
The Anchorage Fur Rendezvous World Championship Sled Dog Race, a big event before the Iditarod began, was canceled due to weather in 1986, 1996, 2001, 2003 and 2006. It has actually been run more consistently this decade than in the previous decade.
“The cosmic question is how long races like the Iditarod in places like Alaska can keep finding long, continuous threads of snow and ice in a region warming more quickly than most places on the planet,” wrote reporter NYT John Branch.
And the answer, according to climatologists, is for quite a while. University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) climate predictions have average Interior temperatures through 2050 as near zero in January, below 10 degrees in February, and near 20 degrees in March. By 2100, February punches above 10 and March approaches the mid-20s, but it’s doubtful many reading this will be around by then.
Predictions for the Kenai Peninsula are warmer, but even there the average barely climbs to freezing by 2041-2050 and then increases only slight after 2091.
So actual science says (if the scientific predictions are right – and even scientists have had a difficult time predicting the future) Alaska might need to build a road to the confluence of the Susitna and Yentna rivers 50 years from now and start the Iditarod there.
Temperatures at the Su-Yentna confluence are significantly colder than near the coast. They dropped past 20 degrees below zero earlier this week as Iditarod Trail Invitation cyclists and runners were heading up the trail. Some suffered frostbite.
Cold is not always such a great thing. While temperatures on the river were dropping into the tissue freezing category, it never got colder than 4 degrees in Anchorage where temperatures are moderated by the waters of Cook Inlet.
Crazily enough, there is even a possibility global warming could help the Iditarod. Yes, that’s right. Help the Iditarod.
The race’s big problem in this decade has been lack of a snow in the Alaska Range. A 2017 study published in Scientific Reports concluded global warming is likely to bring more snow to the Alaska Range.
When science fails to support the story a reporter wants to tell, there is always that trusted fall back, the anecdote. I once had an editor who clamored for human reaction in weather stories. I’d always ask, “Which reaction do you want? It was always colder; it was always warmer; it always rained more; it always rained less; the snow was always deeper; there was always less snow.”
The reality is that any halfway decent reporter can always find someone to tell him (or her) what he (or she) wants to hear. Or twist observations to suit the story’s agenda.
“In 2008, the Iditarod’s official start moved 40 miles, from Wasilla to Willow, because of concerns over climate change and urban sprawl,” Branch wrote.
“The race attempts to alternate annually between ‘southern’ and ‘northern’ routes, referring to a midrace section of about 300 miles between Ophir and Kaltag — one route a crescent to the south, the other to the north. Twice since 2015, conditions have not let the race use the scheduled southern route.”
Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? The “southern route” is already suffering.
The problem is the Iditarod doesn’t break into northern and southern routes until north of the ghost town of Ophir deep in the frozen Interior of the state more than 350 miles from the race start. The two races canceled on the southern route – 2015 and 2017 – had nothing to do with the one route being more to the south than the other.
The routes split about 40-miles north of McGrath with one route going north to Ruby on the Yukon River and the other going west to Anvik on the Yukon. Temperatures in McGrath during Iditarod race week in 2017 ranged from highs of 23 degrees to lows of 13 degrees below zero. It was only colder in 2015 with temperatures from 3 degrees to 30 degree below zero.
The race-changing trail problem wasn’t global warming. It was lack of snow almost 200 miles back along the trail in Rainy Pass. Global warming could help with that if the scientists are right about more snow.
In both years, the race could have been run on the standard route, but mushers – afraid of getting beat up on a bare and thus rough trail – objected. Mother Nature paid them back in spades for the move in 2017; the race started in the cold in Fairbanks before temperatures plunged to a fuel-gelling, 55-degrees-below zero along the Yukon River.
Through the past decade, the Iditarod has had more problems with cold – temperatures dropping to 40- or 50-degrees-below zero leaving both dogs and people frostbitten – than with warmth. Four-time champ Lance Mackey suffered significant frostbite in 2015.
Real manmade problems
The move north to Willow, meanwhile, was about urban sprawl, plain and simple. Forget the rest of it. The race used to run on the bike trail from Wasilla along Knik Road to Knik Lake and off into the woods. The trail was such that even if snow was lacking, the Iditarod could have trucked it in and let the teams run to the old port the way they run on the trucked-in snow on the streets in Anchorage.
Unfortunately, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough never thought about the Iditarod as residential development was booming in the area. As a result, there are about a gazillion roads crossing the bike path between Wasilla and Knik.
A small army of crossing guards was needed to control those intersections, and even then there was the danger of a car or truck running into a dog team. Always under fire from animal rights activists, about the last thing the Iditarod needed was a whole team hit by a motor vehicle because of poor trail monitoring and/or poor trail design.
Thus the move to Willow.
Branch can be probably be excused for not knowing any of this. He was parachuted into Anchorage to write a story about how climate change is threatening the Iditarod and was unlikely to have had the time to dig down into the minutiae.
Someone involved with Iditarod – there are a few folks there who think it is a game to fool reporters – might even have told him “teams will find plenty of climate-caused detours and wrinkles. Twenty temporary bridges, more than usual, were built in and around the Dalzell Gorge, where open water is a rising concern.”
First off, there are no bridges around the Gorge. They are all down in it. But open water on Dalzell Creek is not a rising concern. It has always been a concern.
I’ve been through the Dalzell at 50 degrees below zero, and there was open water there and on the Tatina River downstream from the Dalzell at the rapid that is always open. There are places the water flows at such a rate it simply will not freeze.
Colder weather can sometimes actually create more problems than warmer weather. Cold helps build ice shelves along the banks of the creek, and the danger of falling down into the ditch between them and getting stuck increases.
The number of bridges in the Dalzell has steadily increased over the years – I hardly remember any in the early 1980s – because Iditarod mushers have grown wimpier and wimpier.
Everywhere, Iditarod has made the trail easier. The steps to the Happy River are now nicely groomed. The Dalzell Gorge is bridged anywhere it looks like anyone might have a problem. The Buffalo Tunnels have been cut but to where they are no longer tunnels. The trail has been rerouted around the fabled “glacier” (actually a big pile of overflow ice) before the old Farewell Burn, and the burn itself has regrown enough that the snow no longer blows away.
The top competitive mushers wanted it this way. They are in a speed race. They don’t want to have to deal with an obstacle course, or risk a snow-short trail that could cause a broken sled that takes them out of contention.
As Peter Basigner, a fat-tired cyclist who five times won the Iditarod Trail Invitational race to McGrath and has ridden his bike to Nome, observed after coming off the trail this year, “overall, the trail has gotten way better.”
When he did his first Iditarod almost two decades ago, it was sometimes hard just to find parts of the trail. No more.
“Nobody gets lost anymore,” Basinger said. “There are signs everywhere.”
The Iditarod has undergone big, manmade changes, but they are not about climate. At least not yet. Climate change might someday threaten the Iditarod, but it’s a lot farther away than anyone can accurately predict.
Decades ago, Chris Batin, an Alaska outdoor writer, wrote a column for “Outdoors Unlimited,” the official magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA), suggesting a need for the world of journalism to accept “news fiction.”
Sometimes, he argued, a writer needs to bring to a news story information that he assumes to be true but cannot document, and that can make a story better.
Batin seemed to be channeling his inner Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway, who labeled his reporting as journalism and his much-better storytelling as fiction, once observed that the events detailed in the latter could sometimes be “truer than if they had really happened…..”
Needless to say, Batin’s idea was not well accepted by the working journalists who belonged to the OWAA at the time although there were some freelance writers who seemed willing to embrace it.
As it turned out, however, Batin was probably just ahead of his time.
News fiction seems to be everywhere now. It is especially entertaining to see it put in play by the publications that accuse President Donald Trump of making things up, which he does with regularity.
Why wouldn’t he? Facts have been devalued. We are in an age where what you want to believe is truly what matters.
As that old journalism colleague observed, “the problem, as always, isn’t that they’re wrong about the existence of climate change. It’s this inane struggle to find simplistic, cartoon evidence in the current week’s weather that proves the premise.”
The biggest news organization in the country, having clearly decided it was going to write a story about global warming threatening the Iditarod, flew a reporter to Anchorage to gather the cartoon evidence.
That just about perfectly sums up where too much journalism is today.