Kevin O’Neill, I accept your challenge

July 15, 2010

A frequent commenter on this blog has challenged me to a wager. In a comment on one of my previous posts Kevin O’Neill writes…

Now, you and I both know what ice free means in regards to the Arctic. You changed ice free to open water and claimed victory. BUT even if we accept your pointilist definition, then you have no proof the North Pole was ever ice free. Every picture of the North Pole has ice in it. And not one of those pictures shows the North Pole as being in one of the areas of open water. If the pole is a point – then point it out in the pictures. Otherwise you have no proof.

You’ve played bait and switch with the terminology, taking Barber’s terminology and replacing it with your own. It’s an attempt to win the argument through semantics, but it fails even on that level.

The North Pole has never been ice-free; not once in the history of the earth.

… and I can prove it. I’ll wager you $100 to be given to the other’s favorite charity. I suggest we use NSIDC’s 15% as the threshold for ice-free. Do you accept?

Yes, I accept, with some definitions and clarifications.

Definition of Terms

Ice.  This is normal water ice, floating on the surface of the water or grounded on land.  It does not include hydrates, such as methane hydrate.  It is what any ordinary observer would in common parlance call “ice.”

History.  Mr. O’Neill said “the history of the [E]arth.”  This is geologic history, not human history. And certainly not satellite era history.

North Pole.  This means the area at which the axis of rotation exits the current Northern Hemisphere.  It is not the magnetic pole.  The North Pole, for the purposes of this wager, does not change with a magnetic reversal.  The North Pole is not required to include the entire Arctic Ocean or the entire Arctic Basin (features that have not  even existed through the whole “history of the [E]arth”). 

The goal of these definitions is simplicity and clarity, and to avoid word parsing that may be aimed at making the statement “The North Pole has never been ice-free; not once in the history of the earth. ” into something other than as it would be interpreted by a reasonable person.


You will present your proof in written form as a comment on this blog.  I will include your proof in another post with my criticisms.  You will then have an opportunity to address my criticisms, and I will again present your statements on this blog.

Burden of proof.

Mr. O’Neill said

“The North Pole has never been ice-free; not once in the history of the earth. …and I can prove it.” 

 The burden of proof is on him.  If I present criticisms of his proof that show that the North Pole was, in fact, ice-free at some point in geological history, it is his responsibility to prove my sources wrong.

Determination of Winner

This is difficult.  An unbiased judge or panel must be found and agree to make the final call.  I am open to suggestions.  I could arrange an opinion poll on this site.


Charities must be agreed upon before the wager is initiated, so that neither side can be forced to contribute to a cause that he may find objectionable.  Objections to proposed charities must be accompanied by an explanation of the objection.  My Choice is Save the Children.

Origin of Dispute

Mr O’Neill has taken exception to several statements I have made in my blog posts and in comments to my blog posts.  You can see his comments in these locations…

Entire Arctic Ocean melted as early as August 8th, this year

Arctic Sea ice gone by 2015? A challenge to David Barber

DMI Arctic temperature data does show increasing temperature trend

While Mr. O’Neill does make some good arguments, he is as obsessive as he is wrong about several points.  He is particularly obsessive about the following paragraphs (from here), which I wrote on December 10th, 2008, concerning David Barber’s projection, made earlier in 2008, that “this year that the North Pole may be free of ice for the first time [in history]” during the summer melt of 2008…

“We’re actually projecting this year that the North Pole may be free of ice for the first time [in history],” David Barber, of the University of Manitoba, told National Geographic News aboard the C.C.G.S. Amundsen, a Canadian research icebreaker.”

Those who like to parse words will note that National Geographic piece did not quote Barber as saying the “Arctic Basin” or the “Arctic Ocean” would be ice-free during the summer of 2008.  They will correctly point out that he said “the North Pole.”  My answer to that is “So what.”  The North Pole has certainly seen open water in modern times, as attested to by the following images: [followed by images of submarines in open water at the North Pole}

The Arctic sea ice concentration reached its minimum around September 15th this year. Figure 2, below, from the Polar Research Group at the University of Illinois, shows the distribution of ice in the Arctic on that day. As you can see, the North Pole was not even close to being ice-free. Figure 3 shows the Arctic Basin sea ice area for the last 365 days. Note that in mid-September the sea ice area anomaly for the Arctic Basin was about negative 0.75 million square kilometers, but there were still 2.5 million square kilometers of ice yet to melt. Again, not even close to zero.

Comment Moderation

I will place all of  Mr. O’Neill’s comments from this point on in the moderation queue until he gives me a simple response to this post, accepting the wager and my conditions and definitions.  I will read his comments for reasonable modifications of terms.  But I am not interested in torrents artful obfuscation.    I reserve the right to release his comments from the moderation queue as I deem appropriate.


Update (7/16/10, 11:15 pm): Kevin O’Neill has submitted his “semi-formal proof” to me.  However, I need clarification of two of his terms.  Kevin, it is not at all clear to me what “Li” and “Lt” are .  Please submit another comment with these terms defined.

Update (7/18/10, 10:15 pm):  Mr. O’Neill has submitted his “semi-formal proof,” and I have published it.   I will publish my criticisms at a later time.  All of his other comments are remaining in the moderation queue and will likely be published at a future time.

Update (7/22/10, 8:23 pm): I published my criticisms of Mr. O’Neill’s “proof” last night.  You can see them here.


  1. Tom,

    Here’s a semi-formal proof. I don’t think you should need more than this – it’s pretty straight-forward.

    A) The North Pole is a point
    B) A location is ‘ice-free’ if it is covered by < 15% ice.

    The North Pole has never been ice-free; not once in the history of the earth.

    Let location L = the North Pole

    Assume L is ice-free

    To satisfy the definition of ‘ice-free’ Li / Lt must be < .15

    Where Li is L’s ice-covered area and Lt is L’s total area

    But L is a point and a point has no area

    Therefor Li / Lt is undefined and can never satisfy the equation for ‘ice-free’


    The North Pole has never been ice-free; not once in the history of the earth.

  2. As a military veteran, but aware of how many charitable scams are out there, The Fisher House has a very good reputation and would take a check for $100 and put it to good use.

  3. Tom,

    ‘i’ and ‘t’ were supposed to be subscripts. WordPress didn’t accept the ‘sub’ and ‘/sub’ HTML tags I tried to use. L sub i is the area covered in ice and L sub t is the total area. If L sub i divided by L sub t is less than .15 (15%) then NSIDC and Arctic ROOS consider the location to be ice-free.

  4. Tom,

    This is as formal a proof as I can make without asking a H.S. math teacher for a refresher course. I really didn’t think it was very difficult to understand, but I’ve tried to clarify it anyway.

    This is a screenshot of what it looks like in my version of MS Word.

  5. [IMG]http://i256.photobucket.com/albums/hh197/ktonine/Climate/pointproof.jpg[/IMG]

  6. THe North Pole was Ice Free prior to the Azolla Event.

    • Sergeant Major – That is my understanding of what science can prove today. Or at least that’s true if one accepts the colloquial definition of ‘North Pole’ and does not insist that the North Pole is a ‘point’.

  7. I argued with a math teacher at school, regarding a problem about the velocity of a vehicle after n seconds given a known initial speed and acceleration.

    I claimed that at a specific point in time, a vehicle has no speed, as speed requires duration and a point in time has no duration.

    I failed.

  8. steveta – that’s a pretty famous paradox … Zeno’s Paradox on the impossibility of motion 🙂

  9. Kevin,

    I’m surprised you haven’t left a link in these comments to your latest entry over at DailyKos.

    You told your readers about your bet with climatesanity and posted your proof. But the comments weren’t exactly to your liking, were they?

    For the most part, your own Daily Kos readers said you are wrong.

    justalittlebitcrazy said of your proof…

    “That’s such a lame proof since it uses a cheap trick. Sorry.

    Besides, if you go far enough I’m sure the North Pole has been ice-free. Earth began as hot mass of rock with barely any atmosphere or water.”

    Duncan Idaho said
    “The North Pole was almost certainly ice-free during parts of the Mesozoic Era, when dinosaurs lived well north of the Arctic Circle. And CO2 levels were even higher than today.”

    JMMcDonald, who seems to understand some physics and math said
    “When trying to define a value that doesn’t make sense on a point, the usual trick is to define the value on successively smaller intervals around that point, then show that the sequence of values converges as the intervals shrink.

    In many cases, the values don’t converge, or converge to different values depending how you shrink the intervals.

    But physical properties such as ice-coverage tend to be continuous and well-behaved, leading to an unambiguous answer.

    On the whole, I’d say you lose, since there is a standard way (as I allude to above) to assign an unambiguous “ice-coverage” percentage to each point, and when the Earth was covered with magma that value was zero everywhere, but the devil would be in the details of the bet.”

    pragprogess said of your proof that
    “You can’t win an honest bet with a weasel argument like that, can you?

    Isn’t it also true that there were no glaciers on Earth at all for most of its existence (4/5ths)?”

    Ray in TX said
    “Your use of the word “point” as a geometrical term in Step 5 is inconsistent with its use in the Assumption, where it is a geographical term.

    Therefore, your proof falls apart at that point.

    ba-dum BUM”

    Ariseatex said
    ” Sorry man

    You can’t make an outlandish statement like “The North Pole has never been ice-free; not once in the history of the earth” and be able to prove it. All the other side needs to prove it is one instance, and the full statement is wrong.

    The Earth was in a highly-convectively-active, molten state for a billion years following its formation. The North Pole wasn’t frozen then. Tom Moriarty may be a denialist, but he’s not a creationist; he knows this. He accepted the bet because he wanted to trap you.”

    Heres one of my favotites, from a guy who says he is predisposed against “denialists.”
    “Science is the world of Applied Mathematics; utilizing mathematical knowledge to report on the state of the universe. Proofs such as you’re proposing are Theoretical Mathematics; you can stay in the realm of semantics all you want, but the bridge to concrete science takes a physical definition, not a semantic definition.

    (Full disclosure: Atmospheric Scientist; I can’t stand denialists but there’s no use trying to refute them with bad science either.)”

    Jethrock said
    “The North Pole is not a point… without getting into plate tectonics there is a phenomenon called “true polar wander” where the poles actually change.

    Also there were periods where there was no land at the North Pole… and it is believed that there were periods where there were no extensive ice caps… if any ice at all in the Triassic and Jurassic. When there is with no evidence of glaciation.

    I don’t even need to go back as far as a molten Earth.

    So if you are talking about a limited period of time or “recorded history”… that’s one thing… if you are talking “the history of the Earth” like your bet implies. Well… that’s a dumb bet.”

    There were 34 comments, most of them by you, trying to defend yourself aqainst DailyKos people who recognise our weasel words for what they were.

    For some odd reason, you cut of the comments to your post after only five hours. Why is that?


  10. For some odd reason, you cut of the comments to your post after only five hours. Why is that?

    I don’t even have the ability to cut-off comments 🙂

    And I think the proof is in the pudding. The only substantive argument was the one Tom tried using – L’Hopital’s Rule. Unfortunately for Tom, a point does not have an area equal to zero. If it were so easy to disprove he would have managed to do so by now 🙂

    What you seem to be forgetting is that I’m NOT the one that wants to define the North Pole as a point. In fact, I’ve said that was silly — precisely for this reason. It’s only by misreading Professor Barber’s use of the term “North Pole” that Tom can claim “open water” means the same thing as “free of ice” or “ice-free.”

    Of course when we’re measuring sea-ice extent or area we’re dealing with resolutions in the tens of kilometers – not a point or a dot on a map. I’ve gone through the whole genesis of the argument and showed what a true reading of Professor Barber’s statement should look like – that comment has been waiting approval for something like 10 days now.

    • Kevin,

      I have two of your comments in the moderation queue. One of them is a bunch of psychobabble analysing my supposed personal character flaws, and the other is a whining diatribe of complaining that I have somehow treated you unfairly. Both of these comments are awaiting special treatment by me and will eventually be released in their entirety.

      The only substantive argument was the one Tom tried using – L’Hopital’s Rule. Unfortunately for Tom, a point does not have an area equal to zero. If it were so easy to disprove he would have managed to do so by now

      I promised you an opportunity to respond to my criticisms of your “proof.” I have been waiting for something a little more substantive than what I have seen so far. You have submitted a few short comments after my refutation. Shall I take these comments as your response to my refutation? If so, then I am ready to proceed.


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