Communication Breakdown: Greenland Is Melting

Is Greenland melting? Has the ice cap suddenly disappeared from this frosty island?

That’s the conclusion I drew after skimming DCist this morning, which had the headline:

Nearly All of Greenland Melted in Span of Four Days, NASA Finds

And then below was this alarming graphic:

And here’s the lede:

This is kind of scary. According to a NASA analysis of recent satellite readings, it took just four days for nearly all of Greenland’s surface ice to melt amid an oppressive heat wave a couple weeks ago.

Reading this, I thought, “The ice cap has disappeared from Greenland.” All of Greenland’s surface ice has melted away over four days.

But the reporter got it wrong. If you read the comments from the smart readers of DCist, you discovered the truth. The chart above only indicates what’s melting on Greenland. Everything right now is melting on Greenland but it’s still covered in plenty of ice and snow. It’s like an ice cube that’s sweating but is still plenty big.

How could this information be communicated better? Should reporters receive more training in interpreting scientific information? Is this graphic from NASA confusing and easy to misinterpret? Should public affairs officers “dumb things down” even more?

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Timothy Herzog

A quick Google search suggests that lots of more credible media sources, such as the Guardian, Politico and NBC, got this story right. Not to knock on DCist, but I don’t think they have the same journalistic standards as those other sources. Could NASA have communicated this in a way that would have precluded careless “reporting?” I doubt it.

Joe Flood

Timothy – DCist certainly doesn’t have the same journalistic standards as Politico (though they too get things wrong) but the site has been named the best blog in DC and gets 1.8 million page views a month. It’s a big part of the local scene. Also editors from the site have gone on to mainstream publications.

Given the speedy blog news cycle, and the lack of science experience among reporters, that NASA graphic was bound to be misinterpreted. If you have a graphic that shows a white spot that disappears, people are going to assume that it means that the ice has disappeared. There has to be a better way to show that the ice is melting but is still there.

Timothy Herzog


I understand your point, but when I read the original NASA story, I think they provided plenty of information for a responsible journalist to report this story accurately. The fact that DCist got it wrong (while many other organizations got it right) says more about DCist than NASA.

I’m trying to imagine what NASA could have done differently, and the only thing I can come up with is a different color scheme on the map. Perhaps if the “No Melting” “Melt” and “Probable Melt” strata were shades of blue instead of red and white? Is that less prone to misinterpretation? Would DCist have reported the story at all in that case? Would Guardian and the other traditional media sites have ran the story?