Has National Geographic Sullied Its Reputation?

Prior to forty or so years ago, the National Geographic magazine was a respected publication.

As a student, I used to refer to the National Geographic for accurate information on historic events, people and geography.

Today, it is becoming just another political rag, with some good stories, but too many sensational stories about climate change.

Sensational Cover Showing Statue Of Liberty Being Submerged by the Sea
Sensational Cover Showing Statue Of Liberty Being Submerged by the Sea

This month, the National Geographic featured the horrifying consequences of sea level rise, supposedly caused by climate change. It used Super Storm Sandy to frame the story.

Even the cover was sensational.

Of course, it ignored the 1938 hurricane that hit Long Island and washed entire communities away, killing many more people than did Sandy. If the center of the 1938 hurricane had hit around 60 miles to the west, it would have inflicted as much, or more, damage on New York City than did Sandy. Even so, it flooded a Consolidated Edison plant on Manhattan. And this was before climate change became a headline grabber.

The story in this month’s National Geographic magazine made claims based on questionable assumptions. For example, it said sea levels were rising over the past few years by 1/8 inch per year, and that sea level rise was accelerating.

First, 1/8 inch per year over the next 87 years, with 2100 being the bench mark used throughout the story would result in sea level rise of 9 inches, not too far removed from the recent past where sea level rise has been approximately 7.5 inches per century … especially when subsidence (see below) is taken into consideration.

AND, they said the rise was accelerating, which created a sense of pending doom. The claim that sea rise is accelerating is tenuous at best, because it’s based on the short, twenty-year time frame during which satellite measurements have been available.

The article also didn’t mention that the land mass around New York City is sinking, by 1 to 2 mm per year, or at least 4 inches per century: This would account for the difference between 7.5 inches per century, i.e., historic rise in sea level, and the apparent rise relative to New York City1. This is the same phenomenon that’s occurring with Venice Italy, where the city is sinking into the Adriatic.

While the article tried to achieve a sense of objectivity, the extremes were highlighted.  Their chart on page 41 clearly accented the 6.6 foot rise, with the added comment that seas would continue to rise after 2100.

Their insert titled, “If All the Ice Melted,” was a map showing all of Florida underwater.

It can only be assumed that the purpose of the graph and insert were to create fear … or to be sensational. The remainder of the article, with pictures showing New York partially flooded, wasn’t much better.

This isn’t the first time the National Geographic has published over-the-top articles about climate change.

On two previous occasions, it has published articles on how climate change was causing the water levels in the Great Lakes to recede.

Fortunately, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) maintain water level records for the Great Lakes. As they point out, “Great Lakes water levels constitute one of the longest high quality hydro meteorological data sets in North America with reference gauge records beginning about 1860 with sporadic records back to the early 1800s.  These levels are collected and archived by NOAA’s National Ocean Service.”

NOAA has replaced the static charts on its web site with new interactive charts, allowing anyone to research water levels on each of the lakes back to 18602.

NOAA Chart of Great Lake Water Levels
NOAA Chart of Great Lake Water Levels

Currently, the lakes, except Michigan-Huron, are above their historic, 1918 to the present, average. Today, Michigan-Huron are slightly below their average level.

The interactive scale is a useful tool. It shows that the lowest levels occurred earlier in the last century.

Lake Superior, for example, had its lowest water level in 1926.

Lakes Michigan-Huron had their lowest water levels in 1964.

Lake Erie had its lowest water levels between 1934 and 1936.

Lake Ontario had its lowest water level in 1965.

When all the lakes are viewed together, it’s clear that levels have risen and fallen for various reasons since 1860 … not because of global warming, i.e., climate change.

Yet, the National Geographic made it a point to claim that climate change was causing the Great Lake levels to drop.

It would be unfortunate if the National Geographic allowed extremist articles about global warming, i.e. climate change, to sully its reputation.


  1. Watts Up With That at http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/09/19/from-the-scientific-urban-legend-department-agw-sea-level-rise-made-sandy-more-destructive
  2. Go to http://www.glerl.noaa.gov/data/now/wlevels/dbd  for these charts. The interactive charts are a resource that high school students and others should use.

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