Antarctica + climate change + green = media storm

Ok, maybe a storm is taking it a smidge too far, but it was at least a strong breeze!

In May, we published a paper in Current Biology that showed how Antarctic Peninsula moss banks have responded to recent climate warming, with increased growth rates and microbial productivity, amongst other things, occurring since about 1950 in concert with rapid regional climate warming. At the very end of the paper, we likened this process to a greening of the region, similar to well-documented changes in the Arctic. Under future warming scenarios, mosses are likely to grow faster and colonise new areas of ice-free land.

The journal selected the paper for the press release treatment and the University of Exeter press office also did a sterling job putting something together. Both press releases were, well, released, under embargo before the paper came out.

The first inkling that something strange might be happening was when I turned up in work on the Monday morning of the week when the paper was due out at 5pm UK time on the Thursday. In my inbox sat a request to be interviewed for German radio. (FYI, that is not a normal occurrence for me.) That was duly arranged and undertaken on Skype. One or two other requests for information and discussions came in on Monday, but nothing too much.

Over Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, the attention and requests for interviews ramped up. In the end I spoke to 10 different journalists from Australia, Austria, the US and the UK and fielded emails from many other places around the world. At one point there was a chance we might have got onto Swedish TV, but that never happened… Without fail, everyone I spoke to was positive and polite about our work, interested to find out more and after some quotes they could use in their articles that weren’t just the generic ones from the press releases.

It was a very different couple of weeks at work for me, but an experience that I’m glad to have gone through, though by the end, I was fairly exhausted by it all. I came out of our meeting room after what I thought was my final interview late on Thursday relieved and happy that it was over. At which point my next-door desk neighbour piped up “Oh, The Independent just called and want to speak to you…”. Back into the meeting room I went…

By luck or judgment, I don’t work on Fridays so passed the press mantle over to Tom. I’d imagined that since the article would be out by then, journalists might have moved on to the next deadline and that Friday would be a quiet day. How wrong it is possible to be! Highlights included National Geographic, BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat and a live appearance on the BBC World Service (skip to 16:25 to hear “scientist and straight-talker” Dan Charman)! Oh, and the good people of Colombia (skip to 1:40) and Seattle, USA, also heard about our work on their TV news!

Actually, the latter piece is worth a further mention. Travis (who we’d been in touch with) and his co-host were mightily enthusiastic about our work, but that did at times involve some, let’s say, slightly over-interpreted claims about the reversal of geologic time, forests and Antarctica loosing all it’s ice, which we definitely didn’t mention in the paper! However, on the whole they were spot on and in some ways the press coverage generally was almost like a game of Chinese Whispers, so some mis-reporting around the edges is probably to be expected.

All the while, the Altmetric score of the paper was creeping up and up – this is a metric used in the academic world to gauge how much press coverage individual journal papers get. It quickly shot past the score of 129, which was the highest any previous articles I’d been involved with had reached. And it never really stopped. By the end of Friday it was over 500, by the end of the weekend is was pushing 700, and then on Monday morning, once the Altmetric system had clearly locked into a lot more online coverage, it had jumped to 1467! For context, at the time, this was 605th of all 7.7 million articles ranked using that system. Not bad. Over the next month or so, it slowly crept up to just over 2175, where it has more or less stopped as the (at time of writing) 249th best Altmetric score of 8.2 million articles!

Of course, not all the attention has been positive. I found a couple of skeptic websites attempting to debunk our research in a few easy sentences, and even received a personal email with a link to one such article referring to our work as “just another bit of slippery Warmist propaganda”… which was nice (!)

Lessons learned?

A hook is clearly important to get the media interested and the combination of Antarctica, climate change and greening was the perfect storm! (There seemed to be some sort of critical mass reached at some point, whereby enough media outlets were covering the story that everyone then felt they should.)

There will always be people out there who don’t agree and are willing to shout fairly loud about why not.

Talking in a really enthusiastic voice about the same thing over and over to many different people can get a bit tiring.

Clicking refresh on an increasing Altmetric score is weirdly compulsive (and hugely distracting).

Oh, and of course, having the day off after the biggest paper of your career is released is not always the best idea!

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