“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
I’ve been getting a lot of inquiries lately from people who know that I follow global warming and climate change closely because a new study that was just published in the Journal of Glaciology is suggesting that Antarctica is gaining ice. How could that be happening if our planet is warming?
As is usually the case with something as complex as our planet’s climate, the truth is much more complicated than simply stating that Antarctica is gaining ice. Two reasons this study doesn’t contradict global warming: a) it only addresses parts of Antarctica rather than the whole continent, and b) the data used for analysis only went up to 2008, and Earth has warmed substantially since then.
The study used satellites to accurately measure how much snow had accumulated over time. The researchers found that enough snow had fallen over some parts of the southern continent that more than offset any ice that was lost from melting; that is, Antarctica appeared to be gaining ice. But even the authors themselves acknowledged that the rate of accumulation was constant but the rate of ice loss was increasing during their time of analysis. They even mention in their own conclusion that gain in some parts won’t be enough to keep up with loss. They projected that within 20 years they would balance out, and after that there would be more loss than gain.
And of course those conclusions are based on data that stopped seven years ago. Since then melting ice in Antarctica has accelerated substantially, enough that it has often received its own media attention. It turns out that every year Antarctica loses about 6 billion more tons of ice than it did the year before. In the last 20 years alone, the rate of loss has doubled.
But these facts notwithstanding, it should come as no surprise that a headline like “Antarctica is gaining ice” is enough to get everyone who denies global warming or hopes it’s not really happening are all over this study without having even read it. It’s easy to cherry-pick data and ignore contradictory evidence if it supports your biased ideology.
Truth be told, I think a lot of us would love these conclusions to be true. I don’t think it would mean the planet isn’t warming—there are too many pieces of evidence to the contrary—but perhaps it might at least provide some sort of hope that the process might move slower, that this might offer some sort of buffer.
But it’s time for a reality check: our planet is warming, it is losing ice, sea levels are rising, and oceans are acidifying. The last thing we need is for people to ignore these facts because one tiny misunderstood nugget of information can mislead them into thinking these things aren’t really happening.