The Top Ten Reasons why I think Catlin Arctic Ice Survey data can’t be trusted

This is somewhat important, because they are using this questionable data to create talking points and thus policy.


First, I loathe having to write another story about Pen Hadow and his Catlin Arctic Ice expedition, which I consider the scientific joke of 2009. But these opportunistic explorers are once again getting some press over the “science” data, and of course it is being used to make the usual alarmist pronouncements such as this badly written story in the BBC:

Click for a larger imageClick for a larger image

WUWT followed the entire activist affair disguised as a science expedition from the start. You can see all of the coverage here. It’s not pretty. When I say this expedition was the “scientific joke of 2009″, I mean it.

On to the Top Ten List.

Top Ten Reasons why the Catlin Arctic Ice Survey data can’t be trusted


High profile news and PR from the beginning, plus an unrealistic vision of self importance related to the mission. The entire venture was publicized well in advance of the actual expedition, and the mission was “too important to fail” according to the January 23rd interview with The Guardian Catlin team leader Pen Hadow said:

“During this mammoth expedition we will gather the essential data that scientists need to more accurately determine when the permanent floating sea ice will disappear altogether. We cannot afford to fail on this mission – there is too much at stake.”

With pronouncements like that, you also can’t afford not to bring home  a result consistent with the theme of the expedition.


Reality Show Science as reported here, “The trio will be sending in regular diary entries, videos and photographs to BBC News throughout their expedition.” When you tie science too closely to the media from the beginning, it predetermines some outcomes. That pressure is always there to produce the story rather than focus on the task. This is why most proper science is done well away from the media and the results are reported afterwards.


Hadow, by his own admission, has an unrealistic and biased warmer view of the Arctic that doesn’t match the current data. In his Curriculum Vitae posted here, he writes:

“Twenty years ago, you could walk to the North Pole – now you have to swim part of the way there.”

Only problem is, the satellite data showed a completely different picture of solid ice, and Hadow’s expedition encountered temperatures of -44F (-42C) along the way, and the vast majority of the trip was below 32F (0C). He didn’t encounter vast leads of water along the way, and in fact encountered ice conditions far worse than he expected. This shows his bias for a warmer trip from the start.


The Catlin team’s scientific advisor at the beginning of the trip seemed to already have a predetermined outcome for the Arctic. In this BBC article and  interview they write of Professor Wieslaw Maslowski, a science advisor to the survey:

“Ultimately, Professor Maslowski hopes to finesse his forecast for when the first ice-free summer might arrive.

Currently, he has it down for 2013 – but with an uncertainty range between 2010 and 2016.”

So if they already had this figured out from the beginning, why make the trip at all? Is it so the BBC could recycle the headline again today saying Arctic to be ‘ice-free in summer’? Why do “science” at great personal risk when you already are sure of the end game? There’s also another nugget of predisposition wisdom by Catlin’s science advisor Professor Maslowski. Read on.


They failed to advise of major equipment failure in a timely manner, inviting suspicion. The ice radar sounding equipment that was designed to do the thickness survey failed miserably, almost from day one, yet even though they were “sending in regular diary entries, videos and photographs to BBC News throughout their expedition,” the world didn’t learn of that failure until day 44 of the 73 day expedition. When Apollo 13 had a problem, the world knew about it almost immediately. When Catlin had a problem, it was covered up for well over a month, yet that didn’t stop the BBC from paraphrasing Apollo 13’s famous words for a headline ‘London, we have a problem’ as if there was some parallel in integrity and timeliness here.


Hadow and his scientific advisor erroneously believed that their expedition was the only way ice thickness measurements could be done, and they seemed oblivious to other efforts and systems.

From this BBC article and  interview:

“No other information on ice thickness like this is expected to be made available to the scientific community in 2009,” explained Arctic ice modeller Professor Wieslaw Maslowski, a science advisor to the survey.

While this was obviously a selling point to sponsors and an ego boost for the team, it was flat wrong. For example, there’s a bouy network that provides ice thickness data,. Then there’s ICEsat which provides mass and balance measurements, as well as ice thickness maps, shown below:

This sequence shows Arctic sea ice thickness derived from fall campaigns from the ICESat satellite. While the sea ice extent might look similar from year to year this thickness data shows dramatic thinning especially near the North Pole (shown in dark blue). This image was generated with data acquired between Oct 4 - Oct 19, 2008.

ICESat data for Fall 2008, source NASA Scientific Visualization Studio

As reported on WUWT, another data source of Arctic Ice thickness in 2009 came in the form of an aerial survey with a towed radar array from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research. They didn’t have to risk lives, create drama, or bleat constant headlines to the BBC while doing the science. They simply flew the plane over the ice a few times.

Here’s some excerpts of what was reported on WUWT in the story Inconvenient Eisdicken – “surprising results” from the Arctic

At the North Pole ice sheet is thicker than expected

Das Forschungsflugzeug "Polar 5" in Bremerhaven [Quelle: AWI]

The “Polar 5″ in Bremerhaven

The research aircraft Polar 5 “ended today in Canada’s recent Arctic expedition.  During the flight, researchers have measured the current Eisstärke measured at the North Pole, and in areas that have never before been overflown. Result: The sea-ice in the surveyed areas is apparently thicker than the researchers had suspected.

Normally, ice is newly formed after two years, over two meters thick. “Here were Eisdicken up to four meters,” said a spokesman of Bremerhaven’s Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research. For scientists, this result is still in contradiction to the warming of the seawater.

Gosh. Where’s the polar death defying drama in that?


Due to the extreme cold conditions they were not fully prepared for, they completed less than half of the planned trip. Originally it was to be a 1000 kilometer trip to the North Pole which according to early interviews given by Hadow was easily done, yet they failed. The original start point was to be at 81N 130W but they actually started closer to the pole by about 100 kilometers.

Click here to explore the Catlin Arctic Survey in Google Earth (right click and save as)

According to the Google Earth KML file provided by Catlin, they started at  81.7N 129.7W and ended at 85.5N 125.6W for a total distance of approximately 435 kilometers over 73 days. Hardly a broad survey of the Arctic Ice when put into perspective on the Google Earth and ICEsat maps shown below:

Catlin Route Map from GPS data with planned and actual start/end pointsCatlin Route Map from GPS data with planned and actual start/end points

Here’s the Catlin Arctic Ice Survey Route overlaid on the ICEsat map. You can see just how little of the ice was actually surveyed.

Catlin Arctic Survey Path over ICEsat mapCatlin Arctic Survey Path over ICEsat map – click for larger image

Note that the ICEsat image is from Fall 2008, while the Catlin trip was in the Spring of 2009. Since we all know sea ice moves, often connected to the Beaufort Gyre, it is likely that the path depicted does not represent the ice Catlin actually traveled over. The sea ice may have moved so that the Catlin path traversed some of the thinner ice to the west, though some thickening of the ice would also be expected during the winter of 2009. The point of this map was to put the route in perspective.


There’s very little actual data return for 73 days on the ice, only 39 datapoints. See the dataset they provide in the Excel file here:

Ice Report CAS Snow Ice Measurements – Final 2009
Final surveying results from the 2009 expedition.

The actual number of holes drilled and measured for ice thickness by Pen Hadow is said to be in the hundreds, and what we see in the Excel file is the average of those many holes at each drilling session. While I commend them for providing the raw hole data, problems with potential measurement bias don’t appear to be well addressed in the methodology paper they provide here (PDF) while it is mentioned in the preliminary June report:

“One further consideration, when interpreting the ice thickness measurements made by the Catlin Arctic Survey team, may be navigational bias. Typically, the surface of First Year Ice floes are flatterthan that of multi‐year ice floes and because the team systematically seeks out flatter ice which is easier to travel over and camp on, there is a risk that the ice surveyed will not be representative.”

Since they make no mention of the potential measurement bias in the final report, it appears that there wasn’t anything but lip service consideration given to it in the early report, possibly to appease critics.


One of the most prominent sea ice researchers in the world, Dr. Walt Meier of NSIDC said he would not use the Catlin data saying in a post here on WUWT:

“I don’t anticipate using the Catlin data.”

That begs the question then, beyond the use of the data for generating news stories like we’ve seen in the BBC and other media outlets, who will? Even the media outlets have ignored the actual data Catlin made available, preferring sound bites over data bytes.


The Catlin Arctic Ice Survey knowingly presented false data to the public and to the media in their web presentation.

As many WUWT readers recall, it was here that it was discovered that Catlin’s website had bogus telemetry data on it, giving the impression of “live data from the ice” when in fact the data repeated in an endless loop from a short period.

Here’s the story from WUWT

Catlin Arctic Survey website recycles biotelemetry data?

Something quite odd is going on at the Catlin Arctic Survey website at:

It appears that they are presenting recycled data from the biotelemetry sensors on the team. The “live from the ice” biotelemetry data for each team member is presented here:

Here is a screencap of what the biotelemetry section of that webpage looks like:

click for full sized imageclick for full sized image

A WUWT commenter posted this:

karl heuer (07:40:46) :

The “Live from the Ice” biotelemetry is definitely not live:

When the data loads,

Pen Hadow core temp starts at 33.25 C every time the page loads, then increments up to 33.57, 33.64, 33.7, 33.75

every time, I have refreshed, cleared temp files and rebooted — still the same

WUWT commenter “hotrod” did his own check:

I just tried it looking at Pen Haddow’s pulse rate — Hmmm what are the odds that 32 consecutive pulse rate measurements would be identical?

Yes looks like the bio metric data is just white was to make their site look nifty, and has absolutely no value at all — perhaps they already have all their ice measurements in the can too?

When called out on the bogus telemetry data issue, the Catlin support team, rather than addressing the issue head on and with transparency, simply changed the web page for “live” telemetry to read “demonstrational”, and it remains that way today.

This is what it originally showed:


Now it says:


Of course they could just end the farce and remove it. Because, well,  who needs demonstrational biotelemetry anyway?

They also posted this at the bottom of the main page:

An apology

We’d like to apologise to anybody who felt misled by our recent biometric data. The data was initially displayed in error in a way that gave the impression that it was live. The intended qualification and explanation that it was, in fact, delayed information, was at first missing. We have subsequently corrected this with specific information concerning the above data. We apologise for the errors and to anyone who may have found the data misleading.

The real question is: how long would they have let that “live” impression go on had WUWT not called them on it? Originally the URL for the “biotelemetry” was

Now that URL if typed in your browser is automatically redirected to:

So with the words “telemetry” and “live_from_the_ice.aspx” it is clear what the original intent was. The apology is about saving face, nothing else.

So the question to readers and media is: with these sorts of issues listed above, do you really want to trust the data from a group of people that perform and present “science” in this way? If you do, it would seem to me that you are putting form over substance. Even if we didn’t have these trust issues, are 39 datapoints over a short section of the Arctic really that useful given the other tools shown to be at the disposal of real science?

The Catlin Arctic Ice Survey is in my opinion, nothing more than a badly executed public relations stunt covered with the thinnest veneer of attempted science.

Update: On the morning of 10/15 I fixed about a half dozen typographical and grammatical errors in the essay. h/t to Harold Ambler and others for the tips on these. This included changing the description to “opportunistic explorers” in the first paragraph as in retrospect I felt my original description of was too harsh, since despite the shortcomings, omissions, and PR fluff, these people did a physical feat that few could do. My conclusion above remains unchanged by that fact though. – Anthony


2 Responses

  1. […] 16, 2009 by pinroot This basically comes from the faulty data which is pretty well refuted here. And if nothing goes wrong, I should be around in ten years to just laugh and laugh at how wrong […]

  2. Did you guys know thta iwlight eclipse has leaked…
    see here

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