Mapmakers and scientists are at odds over the redrawing of Greenland's coastline. Image: Flickr / stignygaard / CC-BY

Mapmaking is a difficult and, at times, politically charged task. Publishers of the Times Atlas have found themselves in hot water after printing Greenland much smaller than it is and then issuing a press release to that effect.

The Greenland problem

Greenland’s total ice mass is a difficult number to accurately calculate. The ice mass in Greenland fluctuates seasonally, and the total mass of ice as compared to total volume also fluctuates regularly. The Times Atlas, published by HarperCollins, published a change to its world atlas that showed a 15 percent reduction in total ice mass on the island nation. The difference was between the 10th and 13th editions of the atlas, which usually has very small changes from edition to edition.

The HarperCollins press release

Upon the publishing of the 13th edition of the HarperCollins World Atlas, the publisher put out a press release that stated that between 1999 and 2011, Greenland lost 15 percent of its ice cover. The press release was widely reported on around the world.

Tricky numbers

The problem with the claim that Greenland has lost 15 percent of its ice mass is that it’s simply not true. Losing that much ice mass would mean that the sea level around Greenland would rise by between three and five feet. The actual retreat of ice between 1999 and 2011 is close to about 0.1 percent. HarperCollins claims to be “urgently reviewing” its Greenland data, stating:

“We use data supplied by the U.S. Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. Our data shows that it has reduced by 15 percent. That’s categorical.”

Trying to identify icemelt

The job of identifying and mapping the melting of glaciers and ice sheets is difficult at best. Climate change models predict icemelt at a particular rate that is based on changing water temperature, air temperature and other seasonal changes. Such a huge loss of ice would mean that all generally accepted climate change models would need to be re-drawn to account for the speed at which the ice is retreating. Identifying the icemelt speed is important for creating models of the climate and temperature changes.


The Takeaway:
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New York Times:

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