Antarctic Ice Melt Scare Lacks Scientific Support

Published April 1, 2008

The Washington Post recently ran a shocking above-the-fold article warning us of “Escalating Ice Loss Found in Antarctica.” A new paper by Eric Rignot of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory shows a net loss of ice where most scientists thought the opposite would occur, the story noted.

The Post went full-bore with this one, spreading the article on to an entire interior page. The piece ends by noting that Rajenda Pachauri, head of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is so concerned that he is personally going down to inspect the situation.

Record Sea Ice

He should. Before he even gets to Antarctica, Pachauri is going to see something even more surprising than Rignot’s finding. Despite a warming Southern Ocean, the amount of ice surrounding Antarctica is now at the highest level ever measured for this time of the year, since satellites first began to monitor it almost 30 years ago. This represents a continuation of the record set last winter (our summer).

Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, we can also look at the departure from the average for ice mass in a given month. At present, the coverage of ice surrounding Antarctica is almost exactly two million square miles above where it is historically supposed to be at this time of year. It’s farther above normal than it has ever been for any month in climatologic records.

Around now, because it’s summer down there and the ice is headed toward its annual low point, there should be about seven million square miles of it. That means, as data in University of Illinois’ Web publication Cryosphere Today shows, there is nearly 30 percent more ice down in Antarctica than usual for this time of the year.

IPCC Predicts Growing Ice

All of the IPCC’s models of Antarctica in the twenty-first century forecast a gain in ice, as a warmer surrounding ocean evaporates more water, which subsequently falls in the form of snow when it hits the continent. It’s simply too cold for rain in Antarctica, and it’ll stay that way for a very long time.

Concerning Antarctica as a whole, the IPCC’s new climate compendium notes “the lack of warming reflected in atmospheric temperatures averaged across the region.” Other studies, such as Peter Doran’s in Nature in 2003, show actual cooling in recent decades. (There is a small area of significant warming in the peninsula that points towards South America, but this is less than 2 percent of Antarctica’s total land mass.)

There’s brand new evidence, just published in mid-January in Geophysical Research Letters, of a striking increase in snowfall over that peninsula. The few snowfall records that are available elsewhere in Antarctica show considerable variation from decade to decade, so discriminating the “signal” of increased snowfall caused by global warming from all the rest of the “noise” may be very difficult indeed.

We see the same problem with hurricanes and global warming. Their strength and numbers vary considerably from year to year. The year 2005 was the most active ever measured in the Atlantic Basin, while 2007 was one of the weakest in history. How do you find the fingerprint of global warming amid such variation?

Putting Facts in Context

So it’s not warming up, and the snowfall data are equivocal, yet the continent is experiencing a net loss of ice. How can this be, and is it even important? The current hypothesis is that warmer waters beneath the surface are somehow loosening the ice. That’s plausible, but again, there’s precious little proof of it.

And further, the bottom line is that there is more ice than ever surrounding Antarctica.

One of the tired tropes that reverberate throughout global warming reporting is that inconvenient facts get left out. In this case, it’s blatant. Midway through the Post‘s page-long article comes a statement that “these new findings come as the Arctic is losing ice at a dramatic rate.” Wouldn’t that have been an appropriate place to note that, despite a small recent loss of ice from the Antarctic landmass, the ice field surrounding Antarctica is now larger than ever measured?

Patrick J. Michaels ([email protected]) is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and author of Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media. This article first appeared in the American Spectator on February 5, 2008.