Does NASA’s recent Antarctic study disprove climate change?

Recent findings from NASA have shown that the Antarctic ice sheet is gaining more mass than it is losing each year1. While this might sound like cause for celebration, this fact alone changes precious little; masses of ice worldwide are still responding negatively to a changing climate.

Refrozen glacial meltwater at Canada Glacier in AntarcticaMélange of Ice

(Left) Refrozen glacial meltwater at Canada Glacier in Antarctica. (Right) Ice Mélange in Greenland.
Left – public domain image by Joe Mastroianni, National Science Foundation. Right – image by NASA Earth Observatory, used under a cc-by-2.0 licence from Wikimedia.

But there’s more to the story than just the science of how the ice caps are responding – the study revealed a crucial problem in the chain of information from scientific studies to their coverage in the media. Media coverage of NASA’s findings has led to a renewed wave of climate change denial in the readership of popular news outlets, largely due to reporting inaccuracies and preconceived ideas about an issue that is central to our future. Global problems like sea level rise, coastal population displacement and increasing weather extremes like drought and severe flooding affect all of us, regardless of our views on climate change.

Let’s take a simple glacier system as an initial example. The mass of the glacier can be worked out to determine whether it is losing or gaining ice over time. The ‘mass balance’ of a glacier is essentially the difference between what it gains (accumulation) and what is lost (ablation), showing us the effect of the surrounding climate on the glacier itself.

Glacier system model

Glacier system model.
Image by Quizlet

This is effectively what the recent NASA study, published in Journal of Glaciology by Jay Zwally and colleagues, is concerned with, except on an Antarctic-wide basis. The authors used satellite data to determine the mass balance of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, measuring differences in surface height by making use of radar altimeters on two European Space Agency satellites.

Although the scientists confirmed increases in ice loss from the Antarctic Peninsula and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, where glaciers like Pine Island Glacier and Thwaites are losing mass at ever-accelerating speeds, they found that an increase in snowfall has actually led to thickening of the larger East Antarctic Ice Sheet. Snow accumulation data studied in Antarctic ice cores suggests that these changes were a response to long-term climatic patterns. Snowfall has doubled since the last ice age 10,000 years ago, due to warmer and moister masses of air across the continent.

The paper’s main finding is no more than an ancient artefact of past increases in snowfall across Antarctica, and the authors stress that modern snowfall cannot offset the large-scale ice shelf collapse and glacier retreat currently underway on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Map of Antartica https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transantarctic_Mountains#/media/File:Antarctica_major_geographical_features.jpg

Map of Antartica.
Public domain image by NASA

The global response to these findings has been fairly mixed. Firstly, Mainstream newspapers by and large included qualifying statements taken directly from the study and its press release; “losses of Antarctic Peninsula and parts of West Antarctica will catch up with the long-term gain in East Antarctica” in the case of the Daily Mail’s summary. Headings varied in quality and accuracy, from the succinct NASA title which simply states “NASA Study: Mass Gains of Antarctic Ice Sheet Greater than Losses” to the misleading Express title, “What global warming? Antarctic ice is INCREASING by 135billion tonnes a year, says NASA”.

The Telegraph’s approach was to present the study alongside a video detailing environmental responses to climate change currently underway, misleadingly framing the topic as a ‘debate’ with large amounts of uncertainty on both sides. The authors’ press release very carefully highlighted the difference between the 10,000 year snowfall trend causing mass gain, and the reversal of that trend which could happen in a mere 20 years; but this crucial qualifying statement was not included in either the Telegraph’s or the Express’ reporting.

Secondly, the media’s failed communication was clear in the comments of readers; a common misunderstanding was that Arctic sea ice losses were being somehow ‘accounted for’ by gain at the opposite pole. Sea ice around Antarctica has indeed increased marginally in its extent, but this is likely a result of increasing ice loss from West Antarctica’s rapidly thinning glaciers, which are melting far too fast for any polar balancing act.

Distrust in the scientific community was another prevalent theme, with commenters pointing out that without climate change many researchers would be out of a job, and that “billions have been made by the scammers and their shrills” according to one individual on the Express website. Interestingly, those advocating immediate and effective change in response to global warming were often termed ‘alarmists’, with many commenters feeling that this group was causing unnecessary angst and panic amongst politicians and the general population.

Newspapers are the medium through which the vast majority of people experience scientific discourse. Britain is currently the only G7 country increasing its subsidies to fossil fuel companies, whilst decreasing support for wind and solar power. In the light of this, accurate representation of polar evidence in the media may prove to be central to maintaining the pace, and increasing the intensity of public pressure on the government to adapt to a changing climate.

References

1. Zwally et al (2015) Mass gains of the Antarctic ice sheet exceed losses. Journal of Glaciology

Further Reading

Media Matters (2015) NASA scientist warned deniers would distort his Antarctic ice study – that’s exactly what they did.

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